Sunday Herald

May 31, 2009

This is an essay by Harry Reid, one of Scotland’s most senior journalists.  Harry has been an observer of the Church of Scotland for many years.  He’s not always right; but he’s not always wrong either!

A split church? Good

Essay of the week by Harry Reid

BRING ON the schism! I believe that is the only logical response to the Church of Scotland’s procrastination at the recent General Assembly. Having endorsed the individual gay minister Scott Rennie, the Kirk then refused to endorse the general principle of gay ministry, preferring to set up a commission to deliberate on the matter for two years.

This means that gay ministers – with the lonely exception of Mr Rennie – are in effect banned for at least two years. It also means that the hard decision on whether the Kirk is to accept gay ministers is postponed. Meanwhile, the sores will fester. Although taken for the best of motives – an overarching desire for unity – this was a timorous decision that has three immediate consequences.

First, it renders the position of Scott Rennie, and his congregation at Queen’s Cross, Aberdeen, very difficult. Rennie is now in effect isolated in the Kirk: on the one hand he is accepted by the Assembly, on the other he is being made an exception of because of the refusal to accept any other gay ministers for the time being. It is as if Rennie has been welcomed in and then, before his new ministry in Aberdeen has even started, told: “No, hang on a minute; we’re not quite certain about the general principle. Maybe endorsing you was an aberration. OK, we have backed you personally but we cannot regard that decision as any kind of precedent.” Thus the present position of the Kirk appears to be: Rennie is to be the minister at Queen’s Cross, but perhaps we’ve made a mistake.

Secondly, the current divisions will not be healed by a two-year commission. On the contrary, attitudes will harden in the interim. Ministers and church members who are wrestling with this issue through their conscience, their understanding of scripture, and their commitment to a Christian life, are being given zero guidance. They are being told: “Just hang on for a couple of years, folks, and we may be able to give you a lead then. Or maybe not.”

So the Kirk is leaving its membership to their own devices and I’m sure some of them will see that as tantamount to an abdication of responsibility. A church that cannot make up its mind but prefers to defer a hard choice is a church that invites and encourages division.

Thirdly, the procrastination means that people who are contemplating a split, however reluctantly, are being given plenty of time to work on their tactics. If the commission proposes a general acceptance of gay ministers, and the assembly backs this, you can be sure that several presbyteries – and quite a few individual ministers – will object and fight on; and, crucially, they will have had time to work out exactly how they intend to fight on.

I hated writing the above sentences. For a start, I know that those who proposed the two-year commission were acting in good faith and doing their best to hold together, not to divide. Further, for years I have believed that any schism would be a disaster for our national church. Apart from anything else, I have taken the view that in its present parlous financial state – the ministry remains seriously under-resourced, both in terms of personnel and money – it cannot afford to lose the services of any dedicated and experienced ministers.

I have also deprecated the tendency for the Presbyterian churches in Scotland to split and split again, although, as I shall explain, later divisions are embedded in the collective soul of Protestantism. I was aware of the tenacious and protracted efforts that led to the partial re-uniting of the church in 1929, after the grievous split of 1843. (Mind you, the Disruption of 1843 was just one of many. There were two serious secessions in the previous century. Various ministers withdrew from the Kirk and formed the so-called Associate Presbytery. This new body duly tore itself apart and broke into four separate groupings. There was also a significant breakaway in 1752 when the new Relief Church was founded. The truth is that, if you take the long view, splits and secession have been the norm, not the exception.) For all that, surely the Kirk would not want, and can ill afford, to go through such a wretched process yet again? For that reason, I thought that any breakaway would be an unmitigated catastrophe.

Suddenly, I am much less sure. In the context of individual conscience, a spilt now looks both realistic and honest. It might even do the church more good than harm.

During the past few days, I have spoken with three different ministers on the conservative evangelical wing of the church. Each of them was utterly miserable. They felt – though I stress that the word is mine, not theirs – betrayed. The quality of their ministry – their pastoral work, visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved, taking funerals and baptisms, and so on – all of this is bound to suffer.

How can any minister who is desperately, corrosively ill at ease with his or her own church continue indefinitely to undertake onerous duties that are already demanding and sometimes lead to burn-out? When the church itself, which should be a prop, a constant source of support, succour and renewal, becomes instead something not to be trusted, almost as if it is the enemy, then the life of the minister in this aggressively secular society becomes lonelier than ever.

So some ministers may well decide that their agony cannot continue for another two years. They may well walk out, and they may well take the bulk of their congregations with them.

What would this mean for the wider Scotland? Well, it would mean an immediate bonanza for lawyers and builders. There would be inevitable, complex disputes about the ownership of churches and manses. The Disruption of 1843 was followed by a huge, remarkable nationwide programme of building: new churches, new manses.

Nothing on the same scale would happen this time, but even so, a schism would give an unlikely but welcome boost to Scotland’s recession-hit economy. The Kirk is currently seriously over-churched. The secessionists would not necessarily have to build too many new churches; they could rather take over, refit and refurbish some existing redundant churches. They could also rescue some venerable old churches from what might be regarded as profane use.

Some of the evangelicals are already threatening to withdraw donations to the existing church. As they have pointed out – understandably, but with an implicit threat left menacingly in the air – their congregations tend to be particularly generous. Raising money to support schismatic ministers and build new churches and manses might be less of a problem than some imagine.

On the other hand, it could be argued that if the evangelical congregations are going to hold back money from the church to which they still belong, albeit funds they themselves have raised through generous giving, they are guilty of a move that is seriously anti-democratic. It would be sending out the message: we’re half in, half out.

But the national church can ill afford to lose the cash. A former moderator once said: “Thank God for money, so powerful a servant of Jesus Christ.” That particular servant is getting thinner and weaker by the day.

I have not so far said anything about the actual issue that is dividing so many good people. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that a mature modern church should be able to accept frankly gay ministers, as long as – and this is crucial – they are in stable relationships. For me promiscuity – whether it be homosexual or heterosexual – is the sin. But my views on this are hardly pertinent. Where I think I have at least some locus is that I can fairly claim to have seen this coming, and indeed warned the Kirk to the best of my abilities. In my book Outside Verdict – which was commissioned by a distinguished Kirk figure, the Very Reverend Dr Andrew McLellan – I wrote that it was high time for the conservative evangelicals to be listened to more and to be given a voice in an organisation that prided itself on being broad and democratic and inclusive. (The irony being that their critics regard the conservative evangelicals as being exclusive and narrow.) Instead, I wrote, the conservative evangelicals felt they were being ever further marginalised. I concluded: “The danger signals are there and they should not, they must not, be ignored.”

And on the specific issue of gay clergy, I wrote that if a far from negligible minority of ministers in the Kirk believed their concerns were not being taken seriously “then you are, at best, creating a debilitating sense of discontent, and at worst, sowing the seeds of secession”.

I take no pleasure in pointing out that it would have been much better if the two-year commission had been set up in 2002 rather than 2009. At the heart of all this unhappiness is the very essence of Protestantism: the primacy of individual conscience. Because of this emphasis, there has been an unfortunate fissile tendency in Protestantism from the very start. The great Reformation movement started by Martin Luther in 1517 soon became a series of distinctive discrete movements.

Some of the national Reformations – notably the English one – were overtly political. The English embraced the Reformation not because of any spiritual concerns but because of the tedious matrimonial difficulties of their egregious monarch, Henry VIII. As for Luther, hardly had his Reformation started than he was engaged in bitter arguments with other reformers, notably Huldrych Zwingli.

Calvin and Knox, numinous reformers of the next generation, were able to give the young movement shape and substance, but by this time what were in effect a series of national reformations – all very different in character – had already taken place. Protestants evinced a dangerous, chronic propensity to dispute and argue with each other; division became endemic.

At the core of Luther’s revolution was the notion of the priesthood of all believers. He said that all Christians were to be equal and subject to each other. In effect, he made the church – and all priests and ministers – redundant. He later resiled somewhat from this extreme position, but at the core of the movement which he began was the supremacy of individual conscience, based on individual reading and understanding of the Bible.

This being the case, splits and schism, disruption and division, were inevitable, and it has been that way for almost 500 years. One human being interprets scripture in a very different way from the next one. Protestant churches are not hierarchical; they are filled with fallible, struggling folk working things out for themselves. In that context, it maybe doesn’t really matter that our national church is dithering about giving a lead on this contentious issue.

Indeed schism would fit in with the reformed tradition. While in the past I have been appalled by this – I was amazed to find, on a visit to the parish of Gairloch in Scotland’s far northwest, that there were no fewer that five separate Presbyterian denominations operating within the single parish – I now accept that I may have been naive.

I now reckon that it is better to allow differences among the faithful and even relish them, instead of clinging to a false and phoney coalition held together by the fear of division more than any genuine unity.

In no way do I impugn the motives of those who set up the commission, and those who endorsed it. They are genuinely asking for time to try to resolve an almost impossible problem and then have another shot at endorsing the proposed resolution democratically.

But then I think of these wretched ministers, agonising about the church they love but no longer feel truly part of. It won’t be easy for them, but I reckon it’s time for them to quit the Kirk.

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After a few weeks of self-imposed silence I’m getting back to the blog.  I’ll give you my impressions of the General Assembly in the coming days.  For the moment, though, it’s good to get back to normal.  You’ll not be surprised to learn that I have been quite down.  The advice I’d give anyone in my situation is to take your eyes off yourself and focus on someone else.  So on Friday I did some pastoral visits and plan to do more next week.  I need to get back to being a parish minister. 

 Today has been a good day.  We have family staying with us this weekend and in the afternoon we wandered down to the river Nethan and let the kids and their pals splash in the water.  I think it’s great that in the year 2009 kids can still enjoy that kind of simple fun, doing what kids were doing in 1959 and 1909.  Probably the only difference is that nowadays kids are supervised by adults. 

 Last weekend I arranged for a couple of guest preachers to join us this Sunday.  I knew I wouldn’t have the time to prepare properly, and even if I did I wasn’t sure I’d be in a fit state emotionally.  In the morning Terry Mccutcheon preached from Ps.130 “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.”  He was bang on.  v.7 “O Israel, hope in the Lord.  For with the Lord there is steadfast love and with him is plentiful redemption.” 

 In the evening Dr Euan Dodds preached from Daniel 6 – in the lions’ den.  It was a relevant and useful sermon.  One of the things I always try to point out about Daniel is that his ability to stand up to Darius began when he was a boy, refusing to eat the luxurious food supplied by Nebuchadnezzar.  In other words, the battle against compromise begins at school.  If we decide as kids that we are on the Lord’s side come what may, we’ll be more likely to stand up for Jesus as adults. 

 I end with one piece of sad news.  On Saturday we lost Sammy, one of our cats.  She had no road sense whatsoever.  Now we’re down to one cat, her mother, Sandy.  Since coming to Kirkmuirhill we’ve lost Smudge (the move from Caldercruix affected his mental health); Reilly (no road sense); Muffin (absconded to a neighbouring farm and has since fathered half the cats in the district); Smoky (Sandy’s brother—no road sense—buried in the manse garden); Tom (Sammy’s brother—no road sense); and now Sammy.  Sandy herself is luck to be alive—she lost her tail earlier this year.

Dare to be a Daniel

May 26, 2009

The lion's den

I sometimes wonder why I am the way I am.  Part of the answer lies in the songs of my childhood.  Here’s one, which, interestingly, Tony Benn often quotes as his motto.

1. Standing by a purpose true, heeding God’s command

honour them the faithful few, all hail to Daniel’s band.

Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone

Dare to have a purpose true, and dare to make it known.

2. Many mighty men are lost, daring not to stand

who for God had been a host, by joining Daniel’s band.

 3. Hold the gospel banner high, on to victory grand

Satan and his host defy, and shout for Daniel’s band.

I’m posting some of the newspaper comment on last night’s decision at the General Assembly.  To say there is widespread disappointment is putting it mildly.  It could have been worse, but thanks to Jim Stewart, there is, at least, a two year moritorium on ordinations and inductions in situations similar to Scott Rennie.  We’ll just need to see if this is really what happens.

I will do my best to observe the ban on individuals making public comments.  My views are well known anyway.  And the order only “urges” us to keep quiet, it doesn’t “instruct”.

Those of you who were watching the debate will know that at one point I was interupted by the Moderator and then froze.  It was a strange experience.  I’ll say more about it after the Assembly.  I’ve been wondering if I did the right thing.  But now I see that my words have been quoted, particularly in the Scotsman.  So at least the world gets to know what I was saying, especially about giving Presbyteries a proper voice. 

The first article is from the Press and Journal.  Then there are some links to the others.

senior churchmen gaggedfrom talking to press

Kirk bans openly gay ministers – for now

By Cameron Brooks

Published: 26/05/2009

The Church of Scotland last night imposed a two-year ban on the ordination of openly gay ministers – just two days after approving the appointment of a homosexual.

The General Assembly also gagged all members of Kirk courts, councils and committees from speaking to the media on contentious matters about sexuality.

Only influential Kirk committees that advise on government policy will be exempt from the order.

A special commission will now be set up to investigate the induction and ordination of active homosexuals in the ministry.

It will consult presbyteries and kirk sessions across Scotland on the issue and will report back to the General Assembly in 2011.

Commissioners decided that allowing active homosexuals to enter the ministry in the intervening period would “prejudice” the outcome of the study.

Ministers and elders had been set to debate an overture or motion which sought to block the appointment of gay men and women to the ministry, which was put forward by the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye.

It was later withdrawn after plans for the commission were agreed.

The motion approved last night does not affect the controversial decision to allow the Rev Scott Rennie to move from Brechin Cathedral to Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen. Commissioners voted 326 to 267 to sustain his call on Saturday.

The Rev Ian Watson of evangelical group Forward Together, which is opposed to Mr Rennie’s appointment, voiced his dissent to the establishment of the commission which has effectively kicked the issue into the long grass for the next two years.

“We are really tired of this debate,” he said.

“It seems to me that we have the opportunity today to make a decision and not just make a decision ourselves but allow our presbyteries to discuss, debate and then reach a definitive decision.”

The Rev Ivor MacDonald of the Kilmuir and Stenscholl congregation said the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye was happy to withdraw its overture.

“Mention has been made of the impact of Saturday night’s decision and many of us go back as ministers to parishes with a mountain to climb in terms of healing some of the hurt,” he added.

“Within my own congregation there was a mood of mourning as people came to terms with what was thought to be a Rubicon crossed by the church.

feelings

“We trust that the deliberations of the special commission will take into view the feelings that are very real in our presbyteries and other presbyteries.”

The gagging order on the press was recommended by East Kilbride minister the Rev John McPake to stop the church from being brought into further disrepute and help reunify people on both sides of the debate.

“Idle talk costs churches as well as lives and may cost the unity of this church,” claimed Mr McPake.

The Rev Angus Morrison of the Stornoway St Columba congregation agreed that the commission will best serve the “peace and unity” of the church.

“It is comparatively easy to split a church but the challenge of healing the divisions, so-thought, is of an entirely different nature altogether,” he said.

“The notion that these tensions within a church can best be solved by going separate ways is deeply flawed.”

Backing the period of silence, the Rev Michael Goss of the Barry and Carnoustie congregation in Angus, said he did not want to see the continuation of a “media circus which is all too eager to feed on the idea of a church tearing itself apart”.

However, Ayrshire minister the Rev Alec Shuttleworth expressed his opposition and likened the move to MPs “blaming the media for their difficulty over expenses”.

He said: “We are in this difficulty not because of the media. They are not to be the whipping boy. I do not think that is a good idea.”

Blantyre minister the Rev Peter Johnston, a personal friend of Mr Rennie, urged caution about leaving “a complete vacuum for the press”.

The minister added: “It is important for them to have some kind of information to help people understand what is going on.”

The Rev Brian Hilsey from the Presbytery of Edinburgh said: “We all know well intentioned people can cause mayhem and confusion and if the assembly passes this section of motion that is what will happen.

“I am concerned that the church would be further brought into disrepute and give the press a field day with us being hamstrung and unable to respond.”

 http://thescotsman.scotsman.com/scotland/Kirk-orders-ban-on-gay.5300732.jp

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6361618.ece

Thursday on the Mound

May 21, 2009

A couple of interesting things from today’s Assembly.

First, the Assembly Arrangements committee asked if they could consider moving the Garden Party to the Sunday afternoon – just to create more room in the time-table!  Andrew Coghill from Lewis objected to this.  Not only is it the Lord’s Day, we would be requiring people to work in order to serve guests.

I thought his objection would bomb.  But no.  It was clearly carried.  It’s not every commissioner who beats a convenor!

Secondly, Peter Park’s attempt to change the order of proceedings on Saturday night (to hear the Overture first and then the case) was overwhelmingly rejected, despite a good speech from Jeremy Middleton. 

The case against Peter was so strong that hardly anyone was convinced. I’m certainly not drawing any conclusions as to how things will on Saturday night from this.

Two newspaper articles worth reading:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6256668.ece <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article6256668.ece>

The Kirk need not fear a gay minister

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/10/scotland-church-gay-ministers
<http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/10/scotland-church-gay-ministers>

INTRODUCTION

There are very few people who enjoy conflict.  The vast majority of decent people will do almost anything to avoid situations of confrontation.  So, the soup may be cold, the meat tough and the pudding inedible, but when the waiter asks us if we are enjoying our meal we’ll smile and nod.  We don’t want to complain, we don’t want to make a fuss.  We’ll even pay for the privilege. 

This is how bullies succeed.  They realize that no matter how unhappy we are with their behaviour we’re not going to stand up to them, because the last thing we want is a shouting match. 

That was the gamble Hitler took when he marched German troops into the Rhineland in March 1936 in breach of a condition forced on Germany after World War 1.  It was a huge gamble.  If the French army, stationed on the other side of the border, had marched against him, the Germans would have had to retreat and there’s no doubt Hitler’s regime would have collapsed.  But he guessed correctly that the French had no stomach for a fight.  If only they had, then the tragedy of a second World War might have been avoided.

BRIDGE

Sad to say, but the Christian Church has never been a stranger to conflict.  Down through the centuries Christians have debated, argued, and fought over what we ought to believe. 

During the 4th century the Church was divided over who Jesus really is: is he God or is he something less than God.  A man called Arius said of Jesus, “There was a time when he was not”; in other words that Jesus was not God and therefore not eternal.  This made sense to a lot of people. 

But Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, refused to compromise on this.  If Jesus were not divine, how could he be our Saviour?  He stuck to his guns, even though it cost him seventeen years in exile.  And in the end, because he had scripture on his side, he won the argument. 

The next generation had to contend with a British monk called Pelagius, who said that we could live a life without sin if we really put our minds to it.  Jesus didn’t die to save us from our sins but to give us an example to follow. 

It was Augustine who stood up against this.  What Pelagius taught was attractive, for it played to human pride.  But pointing to Paul’s letters, Augustine insisted that we are helpless to save ourselves; we are saved by God’s grace alone.

At the Reformation again the question centred on how we are saved from our sins.  Is it God’s work alone; or can we contribute to our salvation by collecting merits like tokens from a cereal box?  Where would we be if Luther and Calvin and Knox had run away from conflict?

Our Covenanting ancestors stood up to the king himself, insisting that there was only one king over their conscience, King Jesus. 

The fact is, if there had never been conflict, if there never had been people willing to stand up for what they believe in no matter the cost, Christianity would never have survived as an identifiable religion, distinct from all the other faiths that command human allegiance. 

Conflict is the anvil upon which the Christian faith has been hammered out.  It has been hard, it has been painful, it has been divisive, but it has also been necessary.

Jude tells his readers that he would rather be writing to them about the salvation we share.  He wanted to write an uplifting, encouraging, feel-good letter.  But he couldn’t.  The situation wouldn’t let him. It would have been negligent of him.  Instead, he had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 

Jude is urging his readers to fight.  To fight for their very survival as Christians. 

Friends, I hope you realize that this is why I and many other minsters have entered the fray in recent weeks.  None of us enjoys conflict; none of us wants a fight.  Indeed, I believe a case could be made against us that in recent years we have erred too much in avoiding conflict.  We have taken the approach of “see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil.”  We had our suspicions, but we said nothing, not wanting to be labelled trouble-makers.  It turns out that even when sin is dangled in front of our noses, we are still called trouble-makers for opposing it. 

We have not sought this fight; nor have we chosen the battle-ground.  Arguments about sex and an individual’s private life are hardly edifying.  We’d rather the cause was something nobler, like the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, or our Presbyterian form of church government.  There has even been some friendly-fire from certain evangelicals saying that this is not the hill to die on. 

Are we making a mountain of out of mole-hill?  Should we agree to disagree?  Is all this conflict unnecessary? 

Let’s look at the situation Jude was facing and ask ourselves: If he were living today, would he be urging us to live in peace with those we disagree with, or would he be telling us to contend for the faith? 

 TEXT

Last week we saw that the situation Jude was confronting was within the Church.  He wasn’t giving a critique on the immorality of pagan society; he was exposing a problem within the Church. 

He identifies the problem in v.4:

For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you.  They are godless men who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

Certain men…have slipped in among you.  That implies that these men were outsiders who had somehow wormed their way into the fellowship, not just as members, but as teachers.  That’s the problem.  They weren’t there to attend worship; they were there to propagate their version of Christianity. 

The Lord Jesus warned that this would happen.  Mt.7:15:

Watch out for false prophets.  They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them.

Our Lord was aware that just as the Old Testament people of God had been savaged by false prophets, so his Church could easily fall prey to those who would seek to lead people away from the straight and narrow road that leads to life. 

When we examine what it is that the false prophets of the Old Testament did, it’s not that introduced new ideas or beliefs.  They didn’t, for example, question the sacrificial system; they didn’t suggest an alternative method of finding forgiveness of sins. 

Rather, what they did was to tell people what they wanted to hear.  Micah 2:11:

If a liar and deceiver comes and says, I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer, he would be just the prophet for this people.

These prophets were for hire.  Pay them well enough and they’d tell you whatever you wanted to hear—in the name of the Lord.  And, of course, what people wanted to hear most was—Don’t worry, there’s no judgement, you’re ok. And all in the Lord’s name.  

Her leaders judge for a bride, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money.  Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, Is not the Lord among us?  No disaster will come upon us.  (Mic.3:11)

They were false prophets because they lulled their hearers into a false sense of security.  They allowed them to believe that all was well between them and God, when all was not well. 

Now then, what is it that these infiltrators whom Jude so opposed, were teaching? 

They are godless men who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.

They change the grace of God into a licence for immorality.  They were doing the very thing that the Apostle Paul warned against in Rom.6. 

The Apostle has been speaking about the wonderful grace of God brought to us through Christ’s death on the cross.  Adam’s one sin led to condemnation; Christ’s one act of obedience brings life for all men.  Our sins are forgiven, not because of anything we can do or say, but because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

At the beginning of Rom.6 the apostle anticipates an objection:

What shall we say, then?  Shall we on sinning so that grace may increase? 

He anticipates someone arguing that if God is a God of grace, who forgives us without any pre-conditions, without any demand that we reform our ways first, then why not go on sinning so that God can go on forgiving us.  Indeed, why not commit great sins, so that we can show the world just how far God’s grace will stretch.  After all, don’t we sing:

the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives

Not long ago I had a conversation with a Moslem woman who made this very point.  We agreed on so many things—the greatness and majesty of God; the spiritual bankruptcy of our culture; the need to walk humbly before our Maker.  But here’s what she could not comprehend: Jesus being our substitute, Jesus dying for our sins.  The way she saw it, if someone else dies for your sins, there’s no incentive to be good.  Sin all you want, and Jesus will suffer the consequences.

Paul’s critics accused him for encouraging sin.  And it seems they were right.  The men Jude opposed reasoned that God’s grace meant they could sin with impunity.  It was a licence for immorality.  God had given them permission to sin.  And they were teaching others to do the same. 

It’s such an attractive way of thinking.  Here is your eternal “get out of jail free card”.  Christ has died for you and your place in heaven is secure.  So what difference does it make if you sin now and again?  God will forgive—that’s his job. 

How do we answer such an attitude?  Are we going to say that God isn’t really that gracious?  That he isn’t really that merciful?  For in fact, he is. 

Perhaps there is someone in church today who can’t quite grasp this.  You are only too well aware of your sin, how miserable you’ve made life for others, how proud you’ve been, how you’ve hardened your heart against God’s love.  And you’re desperate for peace, desperate to be reconciled to your Heavenly Father.  But you fear you are too far away; that you are beyond God’s reach.  Like the Prodigal Son, you are in a “far country”. 

You hear the gospel message of a free and full pardon simply by trusting in Jesus Christ.  This is what you long for; this is what you yearn for.  But it sounds too good to be true; it sounds too easy. 

Let me assure you: this is the Christian gospel.  All you need to bring to the Lord are your empty hands, open wide, ready to receive his grace.  All he asks is that you believe him when he says he will forgive.  It’s his gift to you and all he wants to hear from you is “thank you” thank you Lord for saving my soul/thank you Lord for making me whole

thank you Lord for giving to me/thy great salvation, so rich, so free.

But having received such a gift: Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

Paul’s answer to that conclusion is (Rom.6:2): By no means.  Or in the Authorized Version, God forbid.  The Bible translator JB Philips is very English in his version: What a ghastly thought!   

That’s right, it is a ghastly thought.  We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?   

A Christian is someone who has died to sin.  Death is the penalty for sin; but Christ has paid the penalty for us.  In v.5 Paul talks about being united to Christ.  All that he did, we have done “in Christ.”  When he died, we died.  When he descended to hell, we descended to hell.  When he rose from the grave, we rose from the grave.

And when a Christian appears before the judgement seat of God, as we all surely will, our Heavenly Father will not see our sins, for they have been blotted out by the blood of the Saviour. 

We died to sin, how can we live it any longer?

It is inconceivable that a Christian would want to sin.  It doesn’t make any sense that a Christian would be attracted to sin.  The very idea of wanting to continue living in such a way that contradicts the will of God should be anathema to us. 

So these men who change the grace of God into a license for immorality cannot be embraced as brothers in Christ.  They probably thought themselves very enlightened, very progressive.  They regarded men like Jude as repressed and thrawn to an out-dated morality.  Christ had freed them from the constraints of the law.  The had no fear of the judgement to come.

Look what Jude says of them.  He says they are godless.  They weren’t atheists in the strict sense of the word, but they might as well have been. 

Worst of all, by their behaviour they were denying Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. 

The Lord Jesus called his disciples to a very high standard of morality.  The Old Testament said “do not murder”; Jesus said, don’t even be angry with your brother.  The law said “do not commit adultery”; Jesus warned against bedding someone in your mind.  Jesus told us to go the extra mile, to turn the other cheek, to pray for our enemies. 

These godless men were contradicting all of that.  They might call themselves Christians, but they weren’t following Christ.  They were following their own lusts. 

Ultimately, that’s what sin is.  When we sin we are denying that Jesus Christ is our only Sovereign and Lord, for we are obeying another sovereign, another lord.

Jude, therefore, must urge his readers to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

He doesn’t say that we are to be contentious, seeking controversy for its own sake.  We don’t go looking for a fight.  But when the faith comes under attack we are to defend it.  The Greek word for “contend” means to struggle.  It implies exertion.  It’s the word that was used to describe wrestlers battling out in the ring. 

And it’s more than just defending the faith; it’s more than not just giving ground.  It’s about going on the offensive too, doing all that we can to promote the advance of the gospel.  Fight the good fight of the faith, says Paul to Timothy (1Tim.6:12). 

And note what it is that we are to contend for: not our rights, not our status, not our money, nor our buildings.  Still less our party, our group, our opinions.  We are to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

Jude is referring to the fact that Christianity is not a religion that evolved over time like the animistic or pagan religions.  Christianity is a religion with a clear set of beliefs which the apostles taught their first converts and expected them to adhere to in perpetuity. 

Paul, for example, in 1Cor.11:2 says:

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings just as I passed them on to you.

The Christian faith is not like clay which can be moulded and shaped to suit the tastes of each new generation.  Sure, there are certain aspects to our church life that are going to change over the years, such as the hymns we sing.  And there are areas of disagreement which Christians have learned to live with—should we have bishops or not, should we baptise our children or not, should we use set prayers or not.  We agree to disagree on these issues because ultimately whatever side of the fence you come down on does not affect your eternal salvation. 

But when it comes to issues such as who Jesus really is, what he did for us on the cross, his resurrection from the grave, and the authority of Scripture, Christians have never regarded these as peripheral.  If you don’t believe that Jesus is the man who was God, if you don’t believe that he died on the cross as our substitute, if you don’t believe he rose from the dead, if you regard the Bible as useful but not authoritative, call yourself whatever you want: just don’t call yourself a Christian.  For you have departed from the faith once for all entrusted to the saints. 

And isn’t it interesting that what Jude is calling on his readers to fight for is not, in a sense, strict doctrine: it’s about the moral implications of the gospel.  For that too is not peripheral. 

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

That’s what the gospel is all about; it’s about changing lives; it’s the power of God to transfer sinful men and women from the realm of darkness to the kingdom of his light; it’s about being freed from the tyranny of sin.  It’s not about giving men and women the licence to sin with impunity. 

The present crisis facing the Church is not about secondary issues.  It goes to the very heart of the faith itself, a faith through which we glorify God by demonstrating to the world around us that we are the new creation, who are called to be holy as God is holy. 

To claim that the homosexual life-style is worthy of a child of God; to demand that a same-sex partnership be recognized as on a footing with marriage; to commend such a life-style to others is to deny that Jesus Christ is our only Sovereign and Lord.  It is to turn the grace of God into a licence for immorality. 

Such people will not inherit the kingdom of God (1Cor.6:10).  And therefore they must be resisted.  The sake of those tempted by same-sex attraction; for the sake of the brother or sister seeking to live in conformity with God’s Word; for the sake of the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints, they must be resisted at all costs.

CONCLUSION

Let me assure you, neither I nor like-minded minsters enjoy conflict.  We long to be getting on with the work of the gospel in our parishes.  It’s a distraction we could do without.

But have we learned nothing from history?  Remember Hitler and the re-taking of the Rhineland.  He got away with it.  No one stopped him.  So next it was Austria, then Czechoslovakia, and then Poland and only then world war.

I can’t help asking myself: if we say nothing, do nothing at this time, what next?  What scriptural truth is next for shaving?  The uniqueness of Christ as our only Saviour?  The nature of God as Holy Trinity?  

What moral standards will we depart from?  Can we expected unmarried couples in our manses?  A line has to be drawn in the sand, or the whole edifice will come tumbling down (now there’s a mixed metaphor for you!)

Let me finish by quoting Bible commentator, John Benton ]from Slandering the Angels, Welwyn Commentary series]

 We must contend for the faith whether the gospel is popular or whether it is not.  We must do this when society believes in God and when it does not.  We must do this when it is intellectually respectable to be a Bible believer and when it is not.  We must do it when the established church hierarchy are good men committed to the truth and when they are heretical liberals who sneer at the old gospel.  We must do it when Christianity is the dominant faith in a country and when it has to jostle in the religious market-place of a pluralistic society.

 The church must do this whether it is in the midst of a rising civilisation or whether its culture is collapsing all around it.  The church must do it in a modern world of science and objectivity and in a post-modern/New Age world dominated by image and subjectivity.  The church must do it when it is in the midst of heaven-sent revival or when it is suffering, dwindling and small. 

 It’s the only way to fight truth decay.