Too little too late

January 8, 2015

The official confirmation for the Church of Scotland that the majority of their presbyteries have backed legislation which will allow the appointment of ministers in a same-sex relationship comes as no surprise. The legislation also makes clear that being in a same-sex relationship is no bar to becoming a candidate for the ministry. While the presbytery head-count of 54.6% to 45.4% may seem rather close, the final affirmation required by the 2015 General Assembly will be far more decisive. Assemblies tend to be more liberal than the church membership at large. We can also expect moves that will allow same-sex weddings in parish churches.

While radicals in the Kirk will be celebrating, what of the evangelicals? I was never one of those who predicted a mass exodus of congregations. Of those who left the Church of Scotland, only a handful have done so en mass. Most such congregations have split. By and large, there have been handfuls of members leaving on their own, disillusioned by the lack of fortitude shown by their minister. Anyone who imagines that a minister leaving the Church of Scotland is taking the easy option needs to think again. As well as losing their home and a job from which they could not be sacked (unless for some gross misdemeanour), there is a massive reduction in salary no matter what other denomination they go to. Those who have demitted their charges have acted with great faith and courage. Those who remain complain that we have left them to continue the fight. Our reply is, What fight? There was no fight to speak of. Rather there was only compromise.

And yet, what if there had been a fight? What if evangelicals had been better organised, more willing to raise the stakes if the radicals got their way? The closeness of the headcount at presbytery level suggests that Albert Bogle’s compromise might not have been necessary. If the Biblical principle for sexual union as being exclusively between one man and one woman had been as well argued throughout presbyteries and congregations as it was on the floor of the Assembly in 2014 there might have been a ground-swell against the radicals. We will never know.

Andrew McGowan has formed the Covenant Fellowship which allows church members to register their dis-satisfaction at the Kirk’s trajectory. Sadly this is fifty years too late. The fact that acting principal clerk George Whyte has welcomed the formation of this new group speaks volumes. They can angrily jump up and down like Rumpelstiltskin but they have surrendered their trump card—that they will never leave the Kirk; and that’s all 121 George Street cares about.


A mixed-up economy

May 21, 2014

Why did the General Assembly decide overwhelmingly to pass legislation that will permit congregations to call a minister who is in a Civil Partnership?  It was not in order to glorify God.  It was not in order to be faithful to scripture.  It was not to keep the evangelicals happy; nor was it to give the revisionists what they want.  The evangelicals opposed the legislation; the revisionist tried to revise it to make calling a minister in a CP easier.  Commissioners passed this legislation because they are persuaded that this is going to put the debate to bed—at least for a few years.

Remember—most members of the Church of Scotland don’t really care one way or the other.  They just want everyone to get along as one big happy family. They are annoyed at Scott Rennie for stirring up a hornets nest in the first place; and they are annoyed at the evangelicals for making such a fuss.  What has been decided is “we are traditional, but you don’t have to be if you don’t want to be”; and to most kirk-folk that’s the perfect solution.  A mixed economy.

Alan Hamilton, Convenor of Legal Questions, is to be congratulated for a masterful performance.  He graciously but effortlessly batted away every ball bowled at him.  Finlay Macdonald (ex-Mod, ex-principal clerk) defeated 351:206.  New Testament scholar, Dr.Paul Middleton, defeated 424:165.  And Jeremy Middleton (no relation) defeated 369:189.

Alan’s committee offered the Church a mixed economy; conceded indeed that there already is a mixed economy in the Church.  He conceded that this brings with it legal risks.  The legislation is a form of discrimination and the only guaranteed way to avoid legal action is not to discriminate at all.  But the law, as it stands, allows Churches some lea-way.  But he could not assure the Assembly that a disappointed minister in a CP who was rejected for a charge might sue the Church successfully.

He was sure that this would not be the last word in the matter; in the future the Church could move in either direction.

During the course of the debate there were the usual plethora of silly faux-legal points and non sequiturs.  Moderator, John Chalmers, dealt with these in his usual patient manner.  One chap cited the recent case in Brazil of three women marrying each other in the one ceremony—had the committee considered how much more mixed the mixed economy might become?

The substantive debate began when Jerry Middleton stood to propose his counter motion which, in summary, sought to return the Church to an undiluted traditional/Biblical position.  I know Jerry, and have heard him speak on several occasions.  He is a formidable debater and clear thinker.  This was Jerry at his best.

He made several excellent points.  He said that we could be setting up candidates in a CP for disappointment: we train them for the ministry but when they seek a charge they could be met with a brick wall.  He feared that the legislation was not legally water-tight.  Fundamentally, it is just plain wrong.  It is illogical to declare one thing (the traditional understanding of human sexuality) and then affirm a practice that runs counter to that understanding.  This is not simply about people having different opinions.  Those who affirm what the Church says is its position (traditional/Biblical) regard as sinful what is being permitted, to be repented of, not a blessing to be celebrated.

There followed a rather good debate in the sense that it was a debate.  I heard Steven Reid and Mark Malcolm speak well in support of Jerry.  I was very sad to hear erstwhile evangelical Neil Dougall (now Convenor of the Ministries Council) oppose Jerry.  I also have to express a certain disappointment in some of what Alan Hamilton said, including that he was quite happy to envisage someone in a CP prayerfully considering God’s calling in their life.  If I had cherished sin within my heart God would not have heard my prayers, comes to mind.  In closing he said that what he and his Committee offered was new ways for new challenges in new times.

The legislation now goes down to the Presbyteries to approve.  If they approve it will come back to next year’s Assembly for final approval.  I am already hearing complaints among evangelicals who have remained within the Kirk that the fact that I and those like me have left will make victory on the floor of Presbyteries harder.  If I thought there was any mileage in winning the debate I would have remained.  It’s because I see no possibility of this legislation being rejected that I decided it was time to go.  Perhaps if those now complaining about our departure had been more vocal and supportive a few years ago we would be in a better place now.

This legislation is simply a way of giving a legal procedure for what is already the reality.  I wonder how long it will be before the revisionists try to liberalise it so that there is no need for Kirk Sessions to follow the complicated procedure.

A mistake

April 7, 2014

Walking back to my car having been rummaging around a couple of charity shops for books (you never know what you might find) I spotted a wayside pulpit.  The verse was Isaiah 53:5 and was in the shape of a cross—that’s why I noticed it.  I felt obliged to read it, just as I feel obliged to take a tract from anyone who hands me one—it’s what I’d want them to do for me if I were in their shoes.  Anyway, in order to encourage the poster I read it.  And was taken aback.  For instead of “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” it read “he was hurt for our mistakes.”  Our mistakes!

Is this dumbing down or is this making scripture more comprehensible to the lay-person, particularly the biblically illiterate lay-person?

You’ll not be surprised to learn that I am not a “dumbing down” sort of person.  I particularly hate this in the re-writing of well-known hymns.  This past Sunday, actually, some of us had a discussion about which version of “And can it be” to use.  For some strange reason the compliers of the Praise hymn book (a hymn book aimed at some of the most theologically literate congregations in the country) chose to re-write some of the lines.

Second verse:

What mystery here, the Immortal dies, who can explore his strange design?

In vain the highest angel tries to sound the depths of love divine?

 What is wrong with, Tis mystery all; and the first born seraph?

Credit where credit is due, though.  We’ve to thank the Praise compliers for scratching the questionable emptied himself of all but love, and allowing us to sing humbled himself in all his love.  But this is a theological decision.  Why Thine be the glory has to be changed to Glory to Jesus, is beyond me.  Schools don’t present their pupils with re-writes of Shakespeare or Burns.  The kids learn the meaning and are the better for it.  Worship leaders (ie the minister) should take a moment to explain an obscure phrase or allusion in a hymn.

 Likewise, preachers are always being told to avoid jargon in our sermons.  “Don’t talk about justification, sanctification, or the parousia.”   Let me confess—I do talk about justification, sanctification and the parousia; and I use the words too.  So I explain them.  I illustrate them.  People aren’t idiots and they like to be treated as intelligent, sentient beings.  And, they are Biblical words; words that any serious student of the Bible is bound to come across.

So back to “he was hurt for mistakes.” I tried to discover which translation this came from.  Obviously, my knee-jerk assumption was the Good News Bible or the Living Bible or even the Message.  I apologise. They are not guilty.

Guilty of what?  Guilty of more than just dumbing down.  Guilty of misleading.  The Hebrew words mean he was wounded or pierced, not just hurt.  You can be hurt with words; a slap on the wrist can hurt you.  Our Lord Jesus was more than hurt.  Sticks were used to beat him; thorns were twisted into a crown and forced upon his head; he was whipped within an inch of his life.  Pierced perfectly describes his crucifixion (nails through wrists and feet) and the soldier thrusting his javelin through our Lord’s side to ensure he was dead.  That’s a more than being hurt.

Our Lord suffered all this for our transgressions.  The root Hebrew word means “rebellion”.  Various translations say “transgressions” (the idea of going beyond a fixed limit), “iniquities” (contravening justice), “sins”, “wrong-doing”, “rebellion”.  All these convey the idea without dumbing down what Isaiah means.  Even the Good News version is good “because of the evil we did.”  I can’t find the translation that says “mistakes”.  I hope that’s because it is an obscure one.

What’s the problem?  The problem is that the idea of a mistake is morally neutral.  One can make a mistake in good faith.  You can’t sin or rebel in good faith.  So, what does the uninformed reader of that way-side pulpit conclude about the death of our Lord Jesus?

Does he conclude that Jesus’ death was a mistake?  An innocent person was executed by mistake?  And somehow I am implicated in that mistake?  How?

Or, because of a well-spent childhood, does he know that Christians believe Jesus died for our sins, and conclude that his sins are simply errors of judgement—he should have known his wife would have found about the affair sooner or later?  The ultimate sin: to be found out.

To err is human.  I made a mistake; so what, I’m only human.

I fear that whoever thought that this translation of Isaiah’s great exposure of human culpability would be helpful was mistaken.  It deprives sin of its core meaning, that it is rebellion against our Sovereign God, our declaration of independence from our Creator.  That sin is a mistake is undoubted.  But that it is only a mistake is to underestimate its seriousness.  After all, it was because of our sins and in order to deal with our sins, that Christ died.


August 20, 2011

1 Corinthians 15:3; John 4:43-54; Leviticus.1:1-9


Last week we entered what I called the last lap of 1 Corinthians.  Having considered such obscure issues as food offered to idols and head-coverings for women; having blushed as we listened to the sexual antics of the Corinthians condemned, and squirmed as our marriages were held up for scrutiny; we at last feel that we are on safer ground.

For in chapter 15 Paul will counter the argument that there is no resurrection of the body.  This is what some of the Corinthians were saying (v.12):But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 

 The super-spiritual Corinthians did not like the idea of a resurrected body.  In the life-to-come, they wanted to be blessed spirits, free from all the constraints that a body inflicts upon a soul.  Paul’s answer is (v.13):

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 

 And if Christ has not been raised then the whole of apostolic Christianity come tumbling down.  v.14:And if Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

 Paul feels the need to take the Corinthians back to basics, back to first principles. So he says to them in v.1: Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you

Denying the resurrection of believers—with its implication of denying Christ’s resurrection too—is not one of those matters over which we can agree to disagree.  It strikes at the heart of our faith. 

There’s never any harm—indeed, there is often a lot of good—in returning to the basics of our faith.  So that’s what we’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  This week we’re going to examine the phrase Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. 


A gospel received

But just before we do so I want to draw your attention to the fact that Paul says to the Corinthians,  For what I received I passed on to you.

 There’s a bit of a fad these days among historians which is to describe the Apostle Paul as the founder of Christianity.  For example, in Simon Segbag Montefiore’s most recent book “Jerusalem: the biography”, he calls the Paul the “creator of Christianity”. 

 It’s a very subtle way of undermining Paul’s theology and any form of Christianity which takes his teaching seriously.  Their point is that it was Paul who transformed the man Jesus of Nazareth into the Son of God.  Because he was more energetic and visionary than the Jerusalem-based apostles; because he was willing to break free from the constraints of Judaism and preach to the Gentiles—Paul’s version of Christianity won the day. 

Without Paul, Christianity would simply have become another Jewish sect, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Essenes. 

 Therefore, Paul, rather than Jesus, is the true founder of Christianity; the implication being that what Paul created was a million miles from anything Jesus had envisaged.  It’s a way of driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul.  It’s purpose, as a I say, is to undermine Paul’s theology, especially his interpretation of Christ’s death. 

 Well, look at what Paul says in v.3 about the content of the gospel he preached to the Corinthians: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance

 For what I received.  Paul is saying that he is not the inventor of the gospel.  For all his original thinking in many aspects of the faith, he does not claim the gospel as his own bright idea.  That Christ died for sins and rose on the third day are truths he himself was taught.

 In v.8 he talks about how the Lord Jesus appeared to him, that is, on the road to Damascus:and last of all he appeared to me as to one abnormally born.

 That encounter with the Lord Jesus convinced Paul that Jesus was none other than the Messiah, the Son of God.  But thereafter it was brave Christians like Ananias and others in the Damascus church who took Paul under their wing.  And later it was Barnabas who persuaded the apostles to accept Paul—their former persecutor—as a brother in Christ. 

 They would have taught Paul the facts about Jesus.  They would have recalled his teaching—the Sermon on the Mount, his parables—and particularly the teaching done in private, such as in the upper room before his arrest.  And he would have heard from them about our Lord’s resurrection appearances, which he lists here in chapter 15. 

 Friends, let me make this one point of application.  Our faith is a received faith. 

Be very suspicious of anyone claiming to have discovered something new about our faith, something that the church has neglected since New Testament times.  On a popular level there are the Da Vinci Code-type conspiracy theories about secret teachings and suppressed Gospels.  But even among academics, there are those who want to make a name for themselves by claiming that we’ve misread the Bible, or even that those who wrote the New Testament misunderstood Jesus. 

When you come across these theories either in books or on the TV, don’t panic.  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Just about every crazy idea has had an airing at some point or another during the last two thousand years. 

Ask yourself—who gains by this?  Is there a book deal behind all this?  A TV series perhaps? 

And more to the point, ask yourself—do I gain by this?  Does this help my faith?  Does this new perspective enrich me spiritually, or does it leave my soul impoverished? 

One of the great comforts of our faith is that despite so many efforts to stamp it out, and despite times when the simple gospel has been suffocated by elaboration and ornamentation, the message of the apostles has been passed down to us so that we too can discover that Christ died for our sins. 

Christ died

Now then, let’s focus on this phrase, which Paul says is of first importance:Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures

 1. Christ died for our sins

The first point we need to note is that there is a connection between Christ’s death and our sins. 

Sin is a problem.  Your sin is a problem.  Your sin is so serious that the Lord Jesus recommends that you cut off your hand or gouge out your eye rather than go to hell with them intact.  (Mt.5:29,30)

Your sin has stirred up the wrath of Almighty God.  Just as we have taken his beautiful creation and trashed it with our polluting gases and chemicals; we have polluted the climax of his creation, ourselves, with our greed and lies and pride and selfishness. 

How did you feel when you saw pictures of those muggers pretending to help that Malaysian student who’d been hurt, while they were actually stealing from him?  Or watching the furniture store going up in flames—a beautiful Victorian building which had been in the family for over a hundred years?  Or listening to Tariq Jahan, father of one of the young men run over and killed as they tried to defend their property? 

Who could remain unmoved?  Who could remain impassive?  Were you not enraged?  Just as we are enraged when we hear of millions starving because of corrupt governments; or of children suffering because of abusive adults; or of the innocent being jailed while the guilty walk free? 

What kind of God, then, would the Living God be, if he remained indifferent to the cruelty that human beings inflict on one another; or the vindictiveness that we spit at one another; or the malice towards others that swirls around our minds?  It makes God angry that we fail to love our neighbour as ourselves.

And it makes God angry that we do not love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Our sin is a personal affront to our Maker. 

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.  (Ps.51:4)

Sin is a problem.  It separates us from God, and will continue to do so through all of eternity unless something is done about it.

The marvellous truth is that something has been done.  The Living God, the one we have offended, has acted in grace and mercy. 

A couple of years ago we did a short series of sermons on the book of Leviticus.  It’s one of the most neglected books in the Bible, regarded as unintelligible and irrelevant.  After all, in the light of the cross isn’t it redundant, with all its rules and regulations about rituals and sacrifices? 

True, it is redundant in the sense that because of Jesus we no longer need to put into practice its stipulations about sacrificing bulls and goats and lambs. 

But if you want to understand the connection between Christ’s death and our sins, it is essential that you get to grips with Leviticus.  For it is in Leviticus that the concept of substitution is explained.  The animal dies as the worshipper’s substitute.  

Leviticus 1 contains the basic rules for making a burnt offering, which was offered in order to obtain forgiveness of sins.  v.3 says that the offering must come from the herd (that is, it must cost the worshipper something, it can’t be road kill) and it must be a male without defect (the most valuable in the herd).  Look at v.4:He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.

By laying his hand upon the animal’s head, the worshipper was doing two things.  First, it was an act of connection.  He was identifying the animal with himself.  He was saying, “This animal is me.  What happens to this animal is done to me.”  Second, he was symbolically transferring his sins to the animal.  It would die as his substitute.  It was dying for his sins. 

He had to slit its throat, collect the blood in a basin, and then the priest would sprinkle the blood on the sides of the altar. 

Paul makes the connection between our Lord’s death and the concept of substitution by using  that little word “for”—Christ died for our sins. 

When you do something for someone you are doing it because they can’t do it for themselves.  A child can’t cut up their food; you do it for them. 

The Apostle Peter does the same in 1Pet. 3:18:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God

The interesting question is, how did the apostles come to make the connection between our Lord’s death and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament?  After all, there was nothing intrinsic in the crucifixion to link Jesus’ death to sacrifice and atonement. 

The only plausible answer is that it was Jesus himself who made the connection.  As he celebrated the Passover with them, Jesus said to his disciples, (Mt.26:28): This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins. 

Christ Jesus gave his life, poured out his blood, so that the “many” (those who trust in him) need not.  He died as their substitute.   The same idea lies behind our Lord’s statement in Mk.10:45 when he says:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

What is a ransom?  It’s money paid so that a prisoner can go free.  The money takes the place of, is the substitute for, the prisoner. 

Theologians refer to this teaching as the doctrine of penal substitution.  Substitution speaks of someone taking someone else’s place.  That’s what happens in sport, when a player is injured or isn’t playing well.  The Lord Jesus Christ is our substitute, he takes our place.  In truth, it should have been me on that cross. 

The word penal refers to the fact that in becoming our substitute our Lord was punished for our sin.  We talk about the penal system, that is, the system by which criminals are punished for their crimes.  Again, in sport, when someone breaks the rules a penalty is awarded.  The Lord Jesus bore, endured, suffered the penalty that we deserve. 

This is what the Bible teaches and this is how the Church has always understood Christ’s death. 

Here is love vast as the ocean, loving-kindness like the flood

When the Prince of life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood.

 2. according to the Scriptures

Let’s move on the second phrase; that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.  Why does Paul feel the need to add that phrase, according to the Scriptures?   We can identify various reasons, but the most important is to demonstrate that Christianity, far from being a new religion, is in direct continuity with Old Testament religion. 

For Christians to say that Jesus was the promised Messiah was ludicrous to Jewish minds.  At first they had wondered.  He seemed to act like the Messiah—giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, even the way he had stormed through the temple.  Hosanna to the Son of David, they cried. 

But then he had categorically proved that he could not be the Messiah—he got himself crucified.  As Paul says in 1Cor.1:23: but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews

Yet the first Christians insisted that this Jesus, this crucified Jesus, was indeed the Messiah.  Again, we have to ask, Where did they get this idea from?  1st century Palestine was a hot-bed of Messianic expectation and there were no shortages of claimants for the title.  But as each pretender was dispatched by the Romans, their followers evaporated.  Not so with Jesus.  Why were his disciples so dogged? 

One answer is his resurrection. 

Another, is the Scriptures.  And it was the Lord Jesus himself who taught them this.  Lets walk behind those two distressed disciples hurrying back to Emmaus, and eavesdrop on their conversation with that stranger who had joined them.  We know it’s Jesus, but they don’t.

He said to them, How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.  Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?  And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning him.  (Lk. 24:25)

I’ve often wondered what specific Scriptures the Lord spoke about.  Let me suggest that he probably talked about how the whole sacrificial system, with its insistence on the shedding of blood, pointed forward to him. 

Then there’s Exodus 12, the Passover story.  The lamb was to be without defect and it’s blood was to be smeared on the lintels of the door-posts.  That lamb died so that the eldest son within the household would live—substitution.  Remember that the Passover was the backdrop to our Lord’s death.  While the bleating lambs were being slaughtered in the temple, the bleeding Lamb of God was dying on the cross.

And surely Isaiah 53.  The language of penal substitution runs through the chapter like a motto through a stick of rock:

            he took up our infirmities

            he carried our sorrows

            he was pierced for our transgressions

            he was crushed for our iniquities

            the punishment that brought us peace was upon him

            and by his wounds we are healed

 For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for transgressions (last sentence)

The cross was not a tragic mistake.  It was the culmination of God’s plan of salvation.  The Apostle Peter leaves us in no doubt when he says in Acts 2:23:

This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross.


If the doctrine of penal substitution demonstrates how a holy God can forgive unholy sinners, how does the individual appropriate Christ’s sacrifice for him/herself?  Does it happen automatically; or is there something we must do?

Lets return to the opening verses of 1Cor.15.   Paul says:

Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 

The Corinthians received this gospel and if they now reject it, they would have believed in vain. 

The benefits of Christ’s death are not applied universally and automatically to everyone.  The gospel is to be received, it is to be believed.  We are to have faith in or on or even into the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Sounds simple, but what exactly do we mean?  Let me refer you to John 4 and the story we read earlier of the royal official who asks the Lord to heal his son.  The man pleads with Jesus (v.49)  Sir, come down before my child dies. 

But Jesus has no intention of going, and in v.50 the Lord tells the official: You may go.  Your son will live. Then John tells us: The man took Jesus at his word and departed.

The man took Jesus at his word and departed.  That is the essence of faith.  He believed that Jesus didn’t need to lay hands on the boy for him to be healed; he believed that when he returned home the boy would be well.  And he demonstrated the reality of his faith the moment he turned away from Jesus and took his first step homeward.

Faith is taking Jesus at his word: that he poured out his life, his blood, for the forgiveness of sins; that he gave his life as a ransom for many; that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep; that he is the bread of life and the living water.  With all the consequent humiliating implications: that we are sinners in need of a saviour. 

Sirs, what must I do to be saved, says the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30,31)

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, is Paul’s answer. 

Christian faith is not faith in faith; that as long as I believe something, anything, I’ll be ok.  Nor is it a passive admiration of Jesus.  It is not about turning over a new leaf.  It is not about undergoing certain initiation rites.  It is about taking Jesus at his word about who he is and what he has done; and staking your life on it. 



Have you taken Jesus at his word?  Do you believe him; believe in him? 

At the close of the service we’ll be singing that magnificent hymn “Man of Sorrows”.  The second verse says:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude/In my place condemned he stood

Can you say that, that Jesus Christ died in your place, as your substitute? 

If you’ve never done it before, do it now, do it today; tell the Lord that you believe this. 

Christ died for our sins…By this gospel you are saved…



 1 Corinthians 15 with Isa.40:6-11


With chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians we arrive at the last major block of teaching in this letter. We are entering, if you like, the last lap, of what has been a bit of a long distance run. 1 Corinthians has forced us to tackle a diverse variety of subjects—unity and division among Christians; church discipline; marriage and singleness; the proper use of our spiritual gifts; the ministry of women; and most recently, the dos and don’ts of public worship.

Sometimes, the subject matter has, at first sight, appeared rather esoteric, irrelevant to our 21st century situation—particularly those sections dealing with food offered to idols. Yet with a little digging, a little probing, we’ve discovered that this letter is God’s word to God’s people today.

It’s a messy book, primarily because it is written to messy people—to people whose lives were as confused and confusing as any today. The fascinating thing for myself as your minister is that during the course of the last year certain pastoral issues have arisen among members of our congregation which are dealt with directly in this letter. Therefore, I am in no doubt of its relevance for the modern church. The Corinthians themselves are not particularly attractive.

From the word go we learn that they have divided themselves into parties: I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas, I follow Christ. As we continue through the letter it goes from bad to worse. There is spiritual snobbery in this church, with those who have certain gifts looking down their noses at those whose gifts are less spectacular. Those who felt strong in their faith made no allowances for those struggling to avoid relapsing into paganism.

There is social snobbery too. The richer believers behaved insensitively in the presence of their less wealthy brothers and sisters. And there is sexual promiscuity, the result of an attitude encapsulated in the slogan “everything is permissible.”

There are times when we just want to slap these people and say to them: don’t you realize that you are supposed to be Christians? Don’t you know what that means?

Well, actually, that’s the problem. They don’t realize what being a Christian really means. That haven’t worked out the full implications of professing faith in Christ. Paul says to them in 6:19: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own, you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.

Do you not know, asks the apostle. It’s a reality check for preachers like myself who sometimes despair at the behaviour and attitudes of some members of our congregations. We imagine that a few years of sitting under our ministry should be enough to form a Christ-like spirit in even the toughest of characters; and we’re shocked and dismayed when we witness veteran believers acting in ways that make us question their salvation. Or expressing an opinion about the faith that makes us wonder if they’ve ever listened to a word we’ve said.

The Corinthians had the apostle Paul as their father in Christ (as he puts in 4:15) and yet in so many areas they were way off-message. That’s why, like the apostle, preachers like myself should never shirk away from the kind of sermon that says: I know you know this already, but I’m going to tell you again. This is how Paul starts chapter 15.


Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you which you received and on which you have taken your stand.

I want to remind you of the gospel, says Paul; I want to take you back to basics. There’s never any harm in being reminded of first principles. This is especially so when it appears that something is going wrong. Many a golfing pro, whose game has gone awry, has had to go back to lesson #1—how to stand when addressing the ball, how to grip the club. I remember a driving instructor telling me that he dreaded teaching people who had already had informal lessons from friends or relatives.

Before he could teach them the basics of driving, he had to unteach them the bad techniques they had picked up. The Corinthians were getting something wrong, and it was because they had forgotten, or had not fully grasped the gospel basics. v.12 reveals to us what they were getting wrong: But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

It appears that some of the Corinthians were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead. Why would they be saying that? The most likely answer is that it is connected to the kind of thinking we uncovered in chapter 7 when we thought about marriage. There we learned that some of them were so super-spiritual that they thought they should avoid marriage—more to the point, the marriage bed. Behind such thinking lay the idea that the soul is good and the body is bad. That’s what the Greek philosophers taught.

These dear believers got it into their heads that they were as spiritual as is humanly possible and they looked forward to an afterlife free of the body, with all its sinful faults and failings. The idea of a resurrected body was not so much ludicrous to them as appalling. Their thinking was all wrong because they hadn’t got the basics right.

Paul has to take them back to first principles and returns to the very kernel of the gospel, to what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity”; the indispensible fundamentals of our faith. Get these wrong and you get everything wrong.

Let me give you a brief summary of the whole chapter. In vv.1-11 he reminds them of the gospel he preached to them and which they received, the gospel which proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection. The main issue revolves around the resurrection of believers so he makes a point of listing those who were witnesses to Christ’s resurrection.

This is because in vv.12-34 he counters those who claim there is no resurrection for believers by arguing (v.13): If there is no resurrection of the dead then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised then the whole of Christianity comes tumbling down.

 It’s like a game of Jenga. Remove this one brick and it all collapses. The apostles are shown to be liars and sins remain unforgiven.

However, v.20: Christ has indeed been raised from the dead and he is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

In other words, just as Jesus rose physically from the dead, so shall we. In the third section, vv.35-58 Paul explains how the dead are raised. That is, in what form are we raised? His answer is that we are raised as bodies, not as incorporeal spirits. It is a body adapted to the new conditions of the new heavens and new earth. Just like Jesus, who after his resurrection was recognizable, who ate and who spoke with the disciples, but who also could appear and disappear, our resurrection bodies will be the same but different from what we have now. v.42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable

And the chapter ends with that rousing battle-cry against death: Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (v.54,55)

These are basic truths, which Paul tells us all the apostles preached (v.11): Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach and this is what you believed.


Let’s home in, now, on the opening verses of this wonderful chapter, which commentator Gordon Fee describes as one of the great theological treasures of the Christian church. We’re going to be in the chapter for a few weeks, so today I’m laying foundations.

vv.1,2: Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

During the course of this letter Paul has dealt with many of the Corinthians’ questions: about marriage, about food offered to idols; about public worship; about spiritual gifts. These issues had not arisen during his ministry there, so we can excuse them for being confused.

But there is no excuse when it comes to the gospel, the core teaching of the Christian faith. This is what Paul preached when he was in Corinth. Back in 1:17 he tells them: For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel

What exactly is “the gospel”? What does the word mean? It gets bandied around these days. People talk about the gospel of socialism, or the gospel of nationalism; the gospel of this diet, or that exercise regime. When people want to assure us that they are not lying to us they’ll say: it’s the gospel truth.

The English word “gospel” translates the Greek word euangelion which means “good news” or “glad tidings.” It’s the word the Romans used when proclaiming the birth of an heir to the throne.

The prophet Isaiah used this word when he declared to the Jewish exiles in Babylon that they would soon return to their homeland. Earlier we read Isa.40:9: You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tiding to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with shout

And we sang from Isa.52:7: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, Your God reigns.

It’s no wonder then, that our Lord Jesus Christ appropriated this word to describe his ministry. In Luke 4:18 we hear our Lord reading from Isa. 60:1: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

“Good news”, “glad tidings”, “gospel” – the phrase, the word that encapsulates the whole story of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and return. So when John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to check out if Jesus is really the promised Messiah, Jesus sends them back with this message: Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. (Lk.7:22)

The gospel—the good news about Jesus. This is what the apostles preached as they travelled through the Roman empire.

Acts 8:25 Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.

Acts 8:40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

And Paul, what about Paul? Acts 16:10 After Paul had seen the vision we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. 1Thes.1:4,5 For we know brothers loved by God that he has chosen you because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. Rom.1:14,15 I am bound both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome.

The gospel is what the apostles preached. And the gospel is what their converts received. Receiving the gospel, believing the gospel is what turned pagans into Christians. What exactly is content of the gospel? What was it that the apostles preached?

Paul tells us in v.3: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve.

That in a nutshell is the gospel—Christ died for our sins, and rose from the dead on the third day, all in fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Now, in future weeks we’re going to consider these statements very carefully. For the moment I want you to note three things.

1. Paul does not simply say that Christ died. He says Christ died for our sins. Jesus Christ died for a reason. He died as a sacrifice, as a substitute. The fact of our sins means that we are alienated from God, separated from him, and liable to be punished by him. Jesus did something for us. He died for our sins. He took our place, our punishment, so that God could forgive us.

2. Paul says that Jesus rose on the third day. Why this insistence on a day, on a time? Because that’s what actually happened. This places Christ’s resurrection firmly in the realm of historical fact. When the apostles preached Christ’s resurrection, they did not mean that he lives on in our hearts; nor that he was now in heaven—that’s not what resurrection means. They meant that on the Sunday after the Friday he was crucified, Jesus physically rose from the dead.

3. All this happened in fulfilment of scripture. In other words, Christ’s death for sins and his triumphant resurrection were at the heart of God’s plan of salvation. Whether it’s the Passover lamb or the sacrificial system detailed in Exodus and Leviticus; or the Suffering Servant of Isa.53 who took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, the Old Testament repeatedly teaches us of our need for a substitute if we are not to suffer the consequences of our own sins. So too with the resurrection of our Lord.

The “third day” has a curious habit of being the key day, the day of salvation, the day of rescue. Jesus himself spoke about the sign of Jonah, for Jonah was in the belly of fish three days and nights. It was on the third day of fasting that Queen Esther plucked up the courage to approach her husband, the king, thus preventing the Jews from extermination.

More directly, there is the Messianic prophecy of Ps.16:9,10, quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost: Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices, my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

How could David, the author of the psalm, be referring to himself, says Peter, when his tomb is right here in Jerusalem? No, says Peter (Acts2:31,32): he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.

This is the content of the gospel, the message which Paul says the Corinthians received and upon which they took their stand. And he continues: By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Let me say a couple of things about this before we finish.

1. This gospel is to be received. It’s not like the sun which shines on all and sundry, warming the wicked as well as the righteous; or like the waves of the sea which wash every shore. It is to be received, believed. Not just an intellectual assent, so that our Christianity goes no further than a box ticked on a census form. When the Corinthians received this gospel their lives were transformed. For all their faults, they were no longer what they once were.

Remember Paul’s list in 6:9 of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God? Idolaters, adulterers, the sexually immoral, thieves, the greedy, slanderers, swindlers and so on.

And then he says: And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

If the good news is to be good news it must be believed. We must act upon it. Like the Corinthians we must take our stand on the gospel. In other words, we become gospel people. It’s our faith in what the gospel tells us about Jesus that distinguishes us from everybody else.

This is why Paul says: By this gospel you are saved. To receive this message, to believe this message is to receive its content. So Paul can say to the Romans (1:16): I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Conversely, he says in 2Thes.1:8 that when Christ returns: He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

 2. So secondly, Paul warns the Corinthians: By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

Paul is making a very serious point, one which we all must heed. By denying the resurrection of believers the Corinthians were denying the resurrection of Christ—if the dead are not raised then Christ was not raised. And to deny the resurrection of Christ is to deny a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith.

Therefore, whatever it is you do believe, you believe it in vain. It’s pointless. It will do you no spiritual good. It’s not the gospel.

The modern church is full of people who do not believe the gospel. They do not believe that Christ died for their sins. They do not believe that they are sinners. As far as they are concerned Jesus died as an example of what this world does to good people. He died as an example of perfect love. But they no notion at all of his death as a sacrifice for sins. God would never send anyone to hell; so why is a sacrifice for sins necessary? Whatever it is they believe, they believe in vain.

And as for Christ rising from the dead, 21st century people can’t be expected to believe such nonsense—as if people in the 1st century didn’t realize that once you’re dead and buried, that’s it. The Athenians gave Paul a polite hearing until he mentioned Christ’s resurrection—then they scoffed at him. The resurrection has never been easy to believe; yet as I hope to show you in coming weeks it’s the most reasonable thing to believe. If you don’t believe that Christ rose from the grave then whatever your faith is, it isn’t Christianity. It isn’t Biblical, apostolic Christianity.


Have you received this gospel? This gospel that tells you that Christ died for your sins and on the third day was raised from the dead? Is this is gospel upon which you have taken your stand; the gospel upon which you rely for your salvation? If your hope is in any other so-called gospel—the gospel of your own morality, your own respectability—then you are believing in vain, for that is no gospel at all. Receive the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is by this gospel that you are saved.

Talking God #9

January 8, 2011


God’s power is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.  Our second big word for the evening is omnipotent.  He is the Lord God Almighty.  God is sovereign over all the universe.  There is no one telling him what he can and cannot do.  This has always been the case and always will be.  He can never become more powerful than he is now. 

Again there are plenty of scriptures to support this doctrine.  When the geriatric Sarah laughs at the stranger’s pronouncement that she will bear a son, the Lord says (Gen.18:14): Is anything too hard for the Lord?

When, in a different spirit, Mary asks Gabriel, how she could become pregnant since she is a virgin, the angel replies: Nothing is impossible with God. (Lk.1:37)

Jeremiah prays: Ah Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you. (Jer.32:17)

Now, when we say that God is omnipotent we do not mean that God can do anything!  There are things that God cannot do.  For a start, God cannot do anything that is contrary to his nature.  So he cannot lie (Heb.6:17,18); he cannot break a promise (2 Corinthians.1:20); he cannot change.  

Secondly, God cannot do the irrational.  He cannot make 2+2=5, he cannot make a boulder too heavy for him to lift; he cannot make a four-sided triangle or a square circle.  These are absurdities. 

Thirdly, God can never exhaust his power.  He could never not do what he wants to do. 

Conversely, there are certain things that he can do that he doesn’t; for example, ridding the world of sin and evil right now.  He has his own reasons for not doing so.  So when we say that God is omnipotent, that he is the Almighty God, we mean that he has the power to do what he wants to do.  There is nothing to hinder him putting his will into effect.  Ps.115:3: Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.

I think there are a lot of misunderstandings about the will of God.  Sometimes we can use the phrase “it’s God’s will” in a rather fatalistic manner.  There’s a helplessness, a hopelessness behind that phrase, a resignation. 

It is true that the Bible teaches us that behind everything that happens is the will of God.  The early church understood this.  Turn to Acts 4:27, which is the prayer of the disciples after they had been arrested for the first time for preaching that Jesus had risen from the dead.  As I read this to you think about every decision, every step that had to be taken by so many people before Jesus could have been crucified: Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in the city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.  They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.

What if Judas had changed his mind?  What if the Sanhedrin had refused to meet at night-time, for to do so was against their rules?  What if Herod had decided not to send Jesus back to Pilate; he would have been doing Pilate a favour? What if Pilate had had the courage to release an innocent man?  What if Barabbas hadn’t been waiting in death row? 

God willed the role played by every actor in the crucifixion drama; just as ultimately everything that happens is as a result of his will. 

Over the centuries Christian theologians have differentiated between God’s revealed will and God’s secret will.  God’s revealed will is what he tells us to do, his commands.  He has revealed that we are to love one another; that we are to honour our parents, that we are not to kill or steal from each other, and so on. 

However, there are stories in the Bible where it is apparent that there is more going on than meets the eye.  Take the story of Joseph, for example.  The revealed will of God told Joseph’s brothers not to harm him, not to make plans to murder him, not to sell him into slavery.  They disobeyed God’s will for them.  God’s revealed will for Potiphar’s wife was that she should be faithful to her husband.  She should not have tried to seduce Joseph; nor should she have lied about him attacking her.  God’s revealed will for Pharaoh’s cupbearer was that he should have remembered his promise to Joseph to mention his plight to Pharaoh. 

 All of these characters acted in breach of God’s revealed will for humanity.Yet at the very end of the story Joseph could say to his brothers—as he could have said to each of the others: Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  (Gen.50:19)

 If the brothers had not sold Joseph into slavery, they, and countless others, would have starved.  If Potiphar’s wife had not lied, Joseph would not have been in prison and would not have met the cupbearer.  If the cupbearer had remember him to Pharaoh when he said he would, Joseph might have been released, and would have been no where to be found when he was needed.

While the revealed will of God was broken time after time, the secret will of God was at work, for the saving of many lives.  He even uses sin to achieve his purposes.  Herman Bavinck uses this illustration: Just as a father forbids his child to touch a sharp knife even though he himself uses it without injury or damage, so God forbids us to sin though he himself is able to use and does use sin as a means to self-glorification.  (Doctrine of God p.240)

So then, when some tragedy befalls us—and we only have to live long enough for that to happen—we can truly say “it’s the will of God” and have the assurance that though we don’t understand why what’s happening is happening, and though it is heart-breaking, and though unbelievers will question our continuing faith, that the God who loves us, the God who works out all things for our good, is active.  He is not impotent.  He is omnipotent. 

 Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds ye so much dread/are big with mercy, and shall break, in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace./ Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;/the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.  (Cowper)

Talking God #8

January 8, 2011


God is infinite, eternal and unchangeable in his wisdom. This means that God always chooses the best goals and the best means for achieving these goals.

We’ve been thinking about the wisdom of God in our morning services as we’ve studied 1 Corinthians 1. The ultimate goal to which God applies his wisdom is his glory. So, we see in his plan of redemption that he chose to save those who believe through Christ crucified. Foolishness to the world; but wisdom to God, because it ensures that no one can boast of their own merits. God’s wisdom is seen in our individual lives.

(Rom.8:28) And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose

And what is the good that the apostle is speaking about? It is, as he says in the next verse, that we should be conformed to the likeness of his Son. God’s purpose for his children is that we should be like Jesus.

Everything that happens to us is geared towards that ultimate conclusion. And that includes those things that we’d rather avoid. 1 Peter. 4:19: So then those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator, and continue to do good.

Within the attribute of God’s wisdom we include God’s knowledge. Last time we spoke about God’s omnipresence—that he is everywhere. Our new big word is omniscience—God knows everything. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and unchangeable.

His knowledge is infinite because there is nothing that God does not know. His knowledge is eternal because he has always known what he knows and always will. His knowledge is unchangeable because there is nothing unknown to him that he is yet to learn. God is at every moment aware of everything that ever was, or is now, or shall be in the future; and that’s the way it always has been.

He knows it all instantaneously and simultaneously. If you were to ask God how many grains of sand there are on the seashore or stars in the heavens he wouldn’t have to count them. He knows.

There is almost no end of scriptures to support this doctrine. One will do for the moment: Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account. (Heb.4:13)

God knows things which we would consider of the least significance. Jesus says (Mt.10:30) that not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s will; and that he knows the number of hairs on our head. He knows what we’re going to say before we say it (Ps.139:2): Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. He knows what is going on in our hearts and minds. Ps.94:11: The Lord knows the thoughts of man, he knows that they are futile. He is a loving heavenly Father who knows what we need, even before we ask. (Mt.6:7,8): And when you pray do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. He knows the future. (Isa.44:7,8): Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people; and what is yet to come—yes, let him foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?

Once again, we assert that what is true about God is true of all three persons of the Holy Trinity. There’s plenty of evidence of Jesus’ omniscience. He knew what his enemies were thinking. He knew that Lazarus had died. He knew that Judas would betray him. He knew that he would be arrested by the chief priests and handed over to the Romans for execution. He also knew that he would rise on the third day.

Question: if God knows everything, if he knows the future, if he knows what I am going to say before I say it, does that not destroy my free will? After all, if God knows exactly what is going to happen then it sounds as if everything is pre-determined and there is no such thing as free will. This is really a question about the sovereignty of God, and, indeed, predestination. And I hope to cover this more fully at some future date. But let’s just think about this for a moment.

Some theologians are so determined to protect the idea of human free will that they are willing to suggest that God, in fact, is not omniscient, not all-knowing. They argue that we ourselves don’t know what we’ll do in any given situation, so how can God? They are happy to believe in a God who learns, who grows, who develops, along with creation. This makes the future as much a mystery to God as it is to us and is clearly contrary to what the Bible teaches. There are others who try to find a middle path. They argue that as human beings we act with complete freedom and independence. But God is never taken by surprise and his plans are never upset, because he has taken into account every possible eventuality, every permutation of human action and has decided how he will act in any given situation. Although he doesn’t know precisely what I’ll do, he has all the options covered, and knows how he will respond no matter what I do.

The problem with this is that it makes God dependant on our decisions, our choices. God is constantly responding to us. In effect, God stops being God. He is no longer sovereign over all. If we are going to be Biblical, if we are going to be consistent, then we have to acknowledge that if God knows all our thoughts, words, and actions, before they occur, then there is a sense in which our choices are not absolutely free. Yes, there seems to be freedom of the will; but somehow that freedom is incorporated within God’s perfect will.