Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Trying it all

A few observations of things that I observe myself and my friends tempted to find satisfaction in. Please note that because a thing is on the list it is not therefore a bad thing but simply an indication of a good thing becoming a substitute for the best thing.

  • Money
  • Popularity
  • Family
  • Computer games
  • Shopping
  • Sleep
  • Sex
  • Significance
  • Travel
  • Excitement
  • Academic achievement
  • Gadgets
  • Orthodoxy
  • Tradition
  • Ease
  • Sport
  • TV
  • Pepsi Max
  • Success

Spurgeon says:

“Behold, all is vanity.”
— Ecclesiastes 1:14

Nothing can satisfy the entire man but the Lord’s love and the Lord’s own self. Saints have tried to anchor in other roadsteads, but they have been driven out of such fatal refuges. Solomon, the wisest of men, was permitted to make experiments for us all, and to do for us what we must not dare to do for ourselves. Here is his testimony in his own words: “So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” What! the whole of it vanity? O favoured monarch, is there nothing in all thy wealth? Nothing in that wide dominion reaching from the river even to the sea? Nothing in Palmyra’s glorious palaces? Nothing in the house of the forest of Lebanon? In all thy music and dancing, and wine and luxury, is there nothing? “Nothing,” he says, “but weariness of spirit.” This was his verdict when he had trodden the whole round of pleasure. To embrace our Lord Jesus, to dwell in his love, and be fully assured of union with him—this is all in all. Dear reader, you need not try other forms of life in order to see whether they are better than the Christian’s: if you roam the world around, you will see no sights like a sight of the Saviour’s face; if you could have all the comforts of life, if you lost your Saviour, you would be wretched; but if you win Christ, then should you rot in a dungeon, you would find it a paradise; should you live in obscurity, or die with famine, you will yet be satisfied with favour and full of the goodness of the Lord.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brooks on courage

Phillips Brooks says:
There is another source of power which I can hardly think of as a separate quality, but rather as the sum and result of all the qualities which I have been naming. I mean Courage. It is the indispensable requisite of any true ministry. The timid minister is as bad as the timid surgeon. Courage is good everywhere, but it is necessary here. If you are afraid of men and a slave to their opinion, go and do something else. Go and make shoes to fit them. Go even and paint pictures which you know are bad but which suit their bad taste. But do not keep on all your life preaching sermons which shall say not what God sent you to declare, but what they hire you to say. Be courageous. Be independent.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Augustine on Faith

Augustine says:
"Faith is to believe what we do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what we believe."

I confess I do want to see. I dont want to rush ahead of all the God has in store but the idea of seeing something so spectacular and so mind blowing the Apostle Paul had to be given some trouble to keep him humble after all he had seen makes me excited to see it.

There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign,
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.

There everlasting spring abides,
And never withering flowers:
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heav’nly land from ours.

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green:
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.

But timorous mortals start and shrink
To cross this narrow sea;
And linger, shivering on the brink,
And fear to launch away.

O could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy thoughts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes!

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore.

 I generally dont draw my theology from Lord of the Rings but it may be worth quoting Gandalf at this point:

Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass... And then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf?... See what?
Gandalf: White shores... and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: [smiling] Well, that isn't so bad.
Gandalf: [softly] No... No it isn't.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Living Simply

While away speaking at David Rushbrooks induction service at the weekend I had 10 hours alone to myself in the car. What a pleasure to find that "Desiring God" by John Piper had been released for free this month and ten hours in the car was an ideal opportunity to hear it.
So many good things came of listening, so many good things to re-think and re-examine. But one of the things that struck me most powerfully was John Piper's comments about money:

Speaking about 2 Timothy 6.

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that  plunge people into ruin and destruction.

Paul adds the second reason not to pursue wealth: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Christians can be and ought to be content with the simple necessities of life.

I’ll mention three reasons why such simplicity is possible and good.
First, when you have God near you and for you, you don’t need extra money or extra things to give you peace and security.

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5–6)

No matter which way the market is moving, God is always better than gold. Therefore, by God’s help we can be, and we should be content, with the simple
necessities of life.

Second, we can be content with simplicity because the deepest, most satisfying delights God gives us through creation are free gifts from nature and from loving relationships with people. After your basic needs are met, accumulated money begins to diminish your capacity for these pleasures rather than increase them.
Buying things contributes absolutely nothing to the heart’s capacity for joy. There is a deep difference between the temporary thrill of a new toy and a homecoming hug from a devoted friend. Who do you think has the deepest, most satisfying joy in life, the man who pays $240 for a fortieth-floor suite downtown and spends his evenings in the half-lit, smoke-filled lounge impressing strange women with ten-dollar cocktails, or the man who chooses the Motel by a vacant lot of sunflowers and spends his evening watching the sunset and writing a love letter to his wife?

Third, we should be content with the simple necessities of life because we could invest the extra we make for what really counts. For example, the “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission 2002” by David Barrett and Todd Johnson reports that there are 1,645,685,000 unevangelized people in the world.1 That means 26.5 percent of the world’s population live in people groups that do not have indigenous evangelizing churches. This does not count the third of the world that does live in evangelized peoples but makes no profession of faith. If the unevangelized are to hear—and Christ commands that they hear—then crosscultural missionaries will have to be sent and paid for.

It's worth thinking about; what do I find my delight in? Is it in the things I buy or in the God who is more satisfying than all those things. And am I satisfied with the free things he gives me which are infinitely more valuable than the things I want to spend my money on.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Keller on Repentance

Probably the best thing I have ever read on repentance as a Christian is Tim Keller's sermon called "All of life is repentance". If you are confused about what repentance for a Christian looks like or whether it is even necessary then do read it.

I hope it will change the way you think about keeping it real.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dont let me lie to myself

Going through Psalm 119 over the last few days has reminded me how much passion the Old Testament song writer has for God's word. He obviously loves is and not simply because he is religious and likes religious ideas but rather because the Word of God comes from God. Much like I keep some of the letters that Claire sent me there is a connection with the person through the words. In that way the word of God becomes not merely a communication of ideas but it connects me with him too; it is relational.

Listen to this bit:

Psalm 119

25  I lie in the dust;
revive me by your word.
 26  I told you my plans, and you answered.
Now teach me your decrees.
 27  Help me understand the meaning of your commandments,
and I will meditate on your wonderful deeds.
 28  I weep with sorrow;
encourage me by your word.
 29  Keep me from lying to myself;
give me the privilege of knowing your instructions.
 30  I have chosen to be faithful;
I have determined to live by your regulations.
 31  I cling to your laws.
Lord, don’t let me be put to shame!
 32  I will pursue your commands,
for you expand my understanding. 

"keep me from lying to myself"
How do I know if I am lying to myself? How can I know if I am self deceived?
Well, I know that good friends can keep me honest, but how do I know if they have got it right?
I only know one person who knows me completely and is wise and brave enough to say it as it is and that's God. He does say some things in his word that are painful and direct but I love respect him all the more for saying them. The capacity my heart has to lie to itself is staggering, what I need is an injection of realism from the word so that I don't let it pull the wool over my eyes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

He is amazing

This may or may not connect with you but I found the words stirred my heart. You might find that thinking about all of these things lifts Jesus from the two dimensional "cardboard" character that so many picture him as. The truth is that he is more amazing that we can get our heads round.

Colossians  1v15-20
 Christ Is Supreme
15  Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,*
 16  for through him God created everything
in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
Everything was created through him and for him.
 17  He existed before anything else,
and he holds all creation together.
 18  Christ is also the head of the church,
which is his body.
He is the beginning,
supreme over all who rise from the dead.*
So he is first in everything.
 19  For God in all his fullness
was pleased to live in Christ,
 20  and through him God reconciled
everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

Spurgeon on knowing Christ

For me the temptation to let the busyness of church become the thing that drives and consumes me is very real. It is difficult to pursue a proper connected relationship with Christ when I am always thinking about the next thing I need to be doing or the next problem that needs addressing. It seems crazy that being a pastor can sometimes get in the way of being a Christian but I know how easily our hearts and minds are distracted to other things, perhaps worthy things, but distracting when not put in their proper place.

A timely word for Spurgeon this morning helps me to think about what it means to know Christ.
"I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord."—Philippians 3:8.
SPIRITUAL knowledge of Christ will be a personal knowledge. I cannot know Jesus through another person's acquaintance with Him. No, I must know Him myself; I must know Him on my own account. It will be an intelligent knowledge—I must know Him, not as the visionary dreams of Him, but as the Word reveals Him. I must know His natures, divine and human. I must know His offices—His attributes—His works—His shame—His glory. I must meditate upon Him until I "comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge." It will be an affectionate knowledge of Him; indeed, if I know Him at all, I must love Him. An ounce of heart knowledge is worth a ton of head learning. Our knowledge of Him will be a satisfying knowledge. When I know my Saviour, my mind will be full to the brim—I shall feel that I have that which my spirit panted after. "This is that bread whereof if a man eat he shall never hunger." At the same time it will be an exciting knowledge; the more I know of my Beloved, the more I shall want to know. The higher I climb the loftier will be the summits which invite my eager footsteps. I shall want the more as I get the more. Like the miser's treasure, my gold will make me covet more. To conclude; this knowledge of Christ Jesus will be a most happy one; in fact, so elevating, that sometimes it will completely bear me up above all trials, and doubts, and sorrows; and it will, while I enjoy it, make me something more than "Man that is born of woman, who is of few days, and full of trouble"; for it will fling about me the immortality of the everliving Saviour, and gird me with the golden girdle of His eternal joy. Come, my soul, sit at Jesus's feet and learn of Him all this day.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Calvin on the heart

Sadly Mike Plant was away this morning so couldn't give the second lecture on Calvin at the Teesocs Plus course. I had the dubious privilege of filling in and came across a great quote from Calvin on the heart that I thought I would share:

"Its like a man who thinks he has made a fox tame, if he lets it alone for even half a day it returns to its kind . Even so it is with us. We are so wild that although it may seem for a time that we are thoroughly brought home to God, and very well reformed; yet in just the turn of a hand it is all forgotten" - J Calvin

I think of friends who have started out following Christ, who have seemed really genuinely changed by the gospel and yet have turned away again and gone back to a lifestyle that denies. It all makes me all too aware of how quickly it can be all turned around. And not only in other people but in my own heart too; how I need Christ to keep control of my heart every moment.

Thoughts of Batman the Dark Knight and "Two-Face" spring to mind. A man who changes from a shining example of bravery and integrity to someone who turns completely the other way. Unlike Two-Face we return to our default position of rebelling against God and going our own way: "wild" in Calvin's words, but like Two-Face the result is horrifying.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Thirsty for something better

Lots of things lately have got me thinking about what I am thirsty for in life. I mean by that what kind of things do I give my time and effort and money to and how far short do they come of what really satisfies. I remember before I became a Christian the feeling of thirst for something that I couldn't quite put my finger on, it was difficult to imagine what could make we feel really full or satisfied. I also remember feeling so completely overwhelmed by what Jesus had done for me and what it meant to know him when I first became a Christian. It really was as if Jesus was filling this massive, insatiable, gaping hole in me.

But funnily enough that feeling doesn't seem to disappear, there are times when we are wandering away from Jesus and we try and fill the hole with anything we can but it just doesn't work. And then we come back and we feel thirsty, starving, even desperate to know him more and better.

The heart is as insatiable as the grave till Jesus enters it, and then it is a cup full to overflowing. There is such a fulness in Christ that he alone is the believer’s all. The true saint is so completely satisfied with the all-sufficiency of Jesus that he thirsts no more—except it be for deeper draughts of the living fountain. In that sweet manner, believer, shalt thou thirst; it shall not be a thirst of pain, but of loving desire; thou wilt find it a sweet thing to be panting after a fuller enjoyment of Jesus’ love. One in days of yore said, “I have been sinking my bucket down into the well full often, but now my thirst after Jesus has become so insatiable, that I long to put the well itself to my lips, and drink right on.” Is this the feeling of thine heart now, believer? Dost thou feel that all thy desires are satisfied in Jesus, and that thou hast no want now, but to know more of him, and to have closer fellowship with him? Then come continually to the fountain, and take of the water of life freely. Jesus will never think you take too much, but will ever welcome you, saying, “Drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.”
- Spurgeon

The language is intimate, perhaps even a little embarrassing but somehow my own heart responds to it and feels the thirst to know Jesus better.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


I find it a difficult thing to know how honest I can be with God when I talk to him. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that I want to tell him lies or try and pull the wool over his eyes (as if I could), but rather I just don't always know how to present my complaints to God. I want to be honest about the things I face and the issues that press in on me but I sometimes feel unsure about how to tell God about it.

Reading Numbers 11 yesterday made me think how blunt Moses is with God:

Numbers 11v10-15
10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. 11 He asked the LORD, "Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, 'Give us meat to eat!' 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin."

It seems like a pretty blunt complaint doesn't it? I have no doubt that Moses didn't say it because he was simply annoyed or hacked off, I guess he comes to God like this because he brings everything to God and so these are the emotions and requests for that moment presented in a real and honest way. I guess that also means that coming to God with some measure of honesty about how we are feeling about a situation is not in itself wrong. I want to be careful not to presume to tell God what to do but I also what to be brave enough to ask for real things rather than offer general wishy-washy prayers that mean very little.

Jesus' encouragement makes my prayers feel too small:

John 16
23In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Are you getting the idea?

Due to our incredible denseness God speaks some things over and over and over again. Sometimes the symphony of sources that speak the same word is deafening but still we are not listening. I hear it and then dismiss it as just coincidence. I even rebel against the words of encouragement as if I don't deserve them. He speaks and then with unbelievable patience speaks again and then a glimmer of light sneaks into my mind as if someone has just drawn back the curtain an inch to let in a sliver of light. Do we dare open the curtain and really let the light in?

Last night's reading from Isaiah:

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; 43v1
Do not be afraid, for I am with you; 43v5
Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, 44v5
Do not tremble, do not be afraid.44v8

Psalm 118 from last night:
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
       his love endures forever.

  Let Israel say:
       "His love endures forever."

  Let the house of Aaron say:
       "His love endures forever."

  Let those who fear the LORD say:
       "His love endures forever."

  In my anguish I cried to the LORD,
       and he answered by setting me free.

  The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid.

Reading with Greg last night:
Philippians 1v20

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 

Philippians 1v27-28
stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A mixed up king

Reading the account of Hezekiah over the last few days made me realise again how mixed he was. He finds himself under siege from the army of Sennacherib and does the thing that seems to natural and so right.

Isaiah 37v14-17

Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the LORD and spread it out before the LORD. 15 And Hezekiah prayed to the LORD : 16 "O LORD Almighty, God of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim, you alone are God over all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. 17 Give ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; listen to all the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God.

For many Christians this has been a great encouragement to bring the things that trouble us and "spread them out before the Lord". In other words I pray and I tell God exactly what it is I am facing and what it is that I need him for. It's not some sort of genie in the lamp moment, but rather the trusting cry for help when everything turns pear shaped. Hezekiah reminds me of me when I am in trouble.

But then at the end of his life he is going to die from some illness and God very kindly extends his life by fifteen years. Another great example of God hearing and answering prayer, but then what does Hezekiah do with it? Well he blows it by putting his trust somewhere other than in God. And then when God confronts him about it and tells him he is going to bring judgement on his descendants he says this:

"The word of the LORD you have spoken is good," Hezekiah replied. For he thought, "There will be peace and security in my lifetime."

I can hardly get my head round it. It seems that Hezekiah is saying "Phew, I'm alright Jack!"
And again that reminds me of me. I pray for help, I ask God for intervention and deliverance and then when I am ok I rejoice no matter what the fallout on other people.
What a mixed up bunch of people we are.

You can read the whole thing here:

Friday, October 02, 2009

Fear Vs Terror

Last night we were asking the kids that come to one of our youth groups what they were afraid of. The answers were interesting: spiders (obviously), darkness, dying, adults shouting and so on and so forth. Interestingly when we got home our reading in Isaiah 33 had two verses that talked about fear but spoke about it in two very different ways.

 5 The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high;
       he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.

 6 He will be the sure foundation for your times,
       a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
       the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.

Fear in that context means reverence, awe, it means understanding God is bigger and stronger and more holy and more amazing than we ever thought. It also in context means living like that rather than just saying it.

But then on just a few verses and we get another word:

14 The sinners in Zion are terrified;
       trembling grips the godless:
       "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?
       Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?" 

The fear there is not reverence but rather it is terror, pure terror that God is coming to hand out justice. I guess all of us know deep down that if God were perfectly fair with us then we would be in deep trouble but the key to knowing Him not as terrifying judge but loving Father is not putting on a front and pretending everything is alright, rather it is honest confession. The people who Jesus seems to be most angry with in the gospels are those who play the religious card and yet are a million miles away from him in their hearts. They do not fear him but they will one day be in terror of him.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

He gets my back up

Thinking yesterday evening about the comments in John 15 from Jesus about why people hate him got me thinking about the type of things that Jesus said that got people annoyed.

John 15v22-23 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well.

Jesus draws a strong link between guilt and hearing his words but rejecting them, and interestingly he makes the point that hating him and his words means that you hate God the Father too. You can't have God without Jesus.

But what was it that made people so angry what didn't they like about his words?
Well looking through Mark's gospel again to try and see what it is that annoyed them so much the primary thing, maybe the only thing that seemed to annoy them was when Jesus made claims about himself and his authority that seemed to undermine their power or influence. The opposition was largely from those in power, either political or religious power. That fits well with what Jesus says in John 15 and 16 about opposition coming from religious people who think they are serving God.

Surely that has a lot to say about the church's role as a voice that speaks out against abuse of power and false leaders but also a challenge to keep Jesus right at the centre of the debate. People don't want to talk about Jesus, they want to talk about issues, the problem with that is that it makes us reactionary; only responding to the agenda the world sets rather than setting Jesus out as the Son of God, the only saviour and the only hope this world has. His claim to absolute authority over our lives is completely offensive to many but it is the issue.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Renewed Attitudes

Reading Isaiah again last night and I found myself challenged by the words that he spoke about a change that would happen with Gods people.

Isaiah 29:23-24 ESV
     23     For when he sees his children,
the work of my hands, in his midst,
they will sanctify my name;
          they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob
and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
     24     And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding,
and those who murmur will accept instruction.”

Two things that particularly struck me;
1. The change from people who reject God and go their own way to people who honour Him is remarkable and it fits in so well with what we were looking at on Sunday morning, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name". The change here for these people is that they gain a profound sense of God's holiness, they hallow his name, they stand in awe of Him. A remarkable turn around from how they were behaving earlier in the chapter. What an encouragement to know that God is still at work even with people who are as messed up today as they were back then.

2. The change from murmuring complaint to humble understanding and teachablity seems to follow a change of perspective on God. Perhaps tackling complainers in churches head-on isn't always the wisest way to deal with it, perhaps what is needed is a radical shift in perspective and renewed attitudes towards God himself first.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I guess that Jude is one of those short letters in the New Testament that gets overlooked all the time. After all what could 25 verses have to say about our situation and our life, particularly when so much of it seems to be to do with obscure Jewish history?

Yesterday John Piper's weekly email dropped into my inbox and I was really challenged by what I read. It was talking about Jude and I though you might find it interesting.

The Value of Learning History: A Lesson from Jude
John Piper
The little letter of Jude teaches us something about the value of learning history. This is not the main point of the letter. But it is striking. In this next-to-last book of the Bible, Jude writes to encourage the saints to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (verse 3).
The letter is a call to vigilance in view of "certain persons [who] have crept in unnoticed... ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (verse 4). Jude describes these folks in vivid terms. They "revile the things which they do not understand" (verse 10). They "are grumblers, finding fault, following after their own lusts; they speak arrogantly, flattering people for the sake of gaining an advantage" (verse 16). They "cause divisions, [and are] worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit" (verse 19).
This is a devastating assessment of people who are not outside the church but have "crept in unnoticed." Jude wants them be spotted for who they really are, so that the church is not deceived and ruined by their false teaching and immoral behavior.
One of his strategies is to compare them to other persons and events in history. For example, he says that "Sodom and Gomorrah . . . since they, in the same way as these, indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire" (verse 7). So Jude compares these people to Sodom and Gomorrah. His point in doing this is to say that Sodom and Gomorrah are "an example" of what will happen when people live like these intruders are living. So, in Jude's mind, knowing the history of Sodom and Gomorrah is very useful in helping detect such error and deflect it from the saints.
Similarly in verse 11, Jude piles up three other references to historical events as comparisons with what is happening in his day among Christians. He says "Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah." This is remarkable. Why refer to three different historical incidents like this that happened thousands of years earlier - Genesis 19 (Sodom), Genesis 3 (Cain), Numbers 22-24 (Balaam), Numbers 16 (Korah)? What's the point?
Here are three points: 1) Jude assumes that the readers know these stories! Is that not amazing! This was the first century! No books in anyone's homes. No Bibles available. No story tapes. Just oral instruction. And he assumed that they would know: What is "the way of Cain" and "the error of Balaam" and "the rebellion of Korah"? Do you know? Isn't this astonishing! He expects them to know. It makes me think that our standards of Bible knowledge in the church today are too low.
2) Jude assumes that knowing this history will illumine the present situation. The Christians will handle the error better today, if they know similar situations from yesterday. In other words, history is valuable for Christian living. To know that Cain was jealous and hated his brother and resented his true spiritual communion with God will alert you to watch for such things even among brothers.

To know that Balaam finally caved in and made the Word of God a means of worldly gain makes you better able to spot that sort of thing. To know that Korah despised legitimate authority and resented Moses' leadership will protect you from factious folk who dislike anyone being seen as their leader.
3) Is it not clear, then, that God ordains that events happen and that they get recorded as history so that we will learn them and become wiser and more insightful about the present for the sake of Christ and his church. Never stop learning history. Gain some knowledge every day. And let us give our children one of the best protections against the folly of the future, namely, a knowledge of the past.
Learning with you, for Christ and his kingdom,
Pastor John

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lloyd-Jones on Seriousness in the Pulpit

The preacher must be a serious man; he must never give the impression that preaching is something light or superficial or trivial….What is happing [in the act of preaching] is that he is speaking to them from God, he is speaking to them about God, he is speaking about their condition, the state of their souls. He is telling them that they are, by nature, under the wrath of God–”the children of wrath even as others”–that the character of the life they’re living is offensive to God and under the judgment of God, and warning them of the dread eternal possibility that lies ahead of them...

Lloyd-Jones on Seriousness in the Pulpit
Reposted from the TGC Blog

Friday, September 25, 2009


Last night we were reading through Isaiah 13 in our read through the Bible in a year plan and I have to say it was a sobering experience. The section is all about God's judgement on Babylon but as with so much of Isaiah it looks forward to a greater fulfilment in our time. What God did to Babylon was awful but what lies ahead for us, if we keep on stubbornly going our own way and doing our own thing, is even worse.

Isaiah 13:6-11

      Scream in terror, for the day of the Lord has arrived—
the time for the Almighty to destroy.
      Every arm is paralyzed with fear.
Every heart melts,
      and people are terrified.
Pangs of anguish grip them,
like those of a woman in labor.
They look helplessly at one another,
their faces aflame with fear.
      For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
and all the sinners destroyed with it.
      The heavens will be black above them;
the stars will give no light.
The sun will be dark when it rises,
and the moon will provide no light.
      “I, the Lord, will punish the world for its evil
and the wicked for their sin.
I will crush the arrogance of the proud
and humble the pride of the mighty.

Doesn't this make the cross even more amazing? Jesus takes our punishment and bears it all so that we can be free. I still can't understand how anyone could think that's a bad deal. I am messed up and deserve punishment and he endures that punishment for me, the gift he offers is forgiveness and freedom from a crushing sense of fear as I look forward - how good is that! 

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Learning to Pray

I have for a long time now found the book "Valley of Vision" a real help in my praying. Its a collection of some of the puritan prayers from 400 years ago. One of the things I love about the prayers is that they are real and honest; the puritans weren't afraid to own up to their sin nor were they too prim to express their profound love of God. I find their prayers challenging and helpful:

Lord Jesus, give me a deeper repentance, a horror of sin, a dread of its approach. 
Help me chastely to flee it and jealously to resolve that my heart shall be Thine alone.
Give me a deeper trust, that I may lose myself to find myself in Thee, the ground of my rest, the spring of my being. 
Give me a deeper knowledge of Thyself as saviour, master, lord, and king. 
Give me deeper power in private prayer, more sweetness in Thy Word, more steadfast grip on its truth. Give me deeper holiness in speech, thought, action, and let me not seek moral virtue apart from Thee.
Plough deep in me, great Lord, heavenly [farmer], that my being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until Thou alone art seen in me, Thy beauty golden like summer harvest, Thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty.
I have no master but Thee, no law but Thy will, no delight but Thyself, no wealth but that Thou givest, no good but that Thou blessest, no peace but that Thou bestowest. 
I am nothing but that Thou makest me. I have nothing but that I receive from Thee. 
I can be nothing but that grace adorns me. 
Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Having spoken on prayer on Sunday I find myself in the middle of the week already struggling to get down to praying properly...again. And as usual it's Satan's well worn trick of telling me that God doesn't love me because I'm too bad. What an encouragement to read Charles Spurgeon this morning talking about Ephesians 1v6. There the Apostle Paul tells us that we are accepted in Jesus, or accepted in the beloved as he puts it. Spurgeon then takes us on a tour of our own stupidity thinking that how we feel makes us more or less accepted by God.

"When their spirit is lively, and their hopes bright, they think God accepts them, for they feel so high, so heavenly-minded, so drawn above the earth! But when their souls cleave to the dust, they are the victims of the fear that they are no longer accepted. If they could but see that all their high joys do not exalt them, and all their low despondencies do not really depress them in their Father's sight, but that they stand accepted in One who never alters, in One who is always the beloved of God, always perfect, always without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, how much happier they would be, and how much more they would honour the Saviour! Rejoice then, believer, in this: thou art accepted "in the beloved." Thou lookest within, and thou sayest, "There is nothing acceptable here!" But look at Christ, and see if there is not everything acceptable there. Thy sins trouble thee; but God has cast thy sins behind His back, and thou art accepted in the Righteous One. Thou hast to fight with corruption, and to wrestle with temptation, but thou art already accepted in Him who has overcome the powers of evil. The devil tempts thee; be of good cheer, he cannot destroy thee, for thou art accepted in Him who has broken Satan's head."

If you have time and want to listen to the sermon then the link is below:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Luther on Music

"Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul; it is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given us." Martin Luther

It's great to sing isn't it? I love it when we sing at church and we really sing from the heart. For me it doesn't matter particularly if it's an old hymn or a new song, the issue is not so much the style but rather the ideas in the song that lift my mind and soul to God. This last Sunday night the singing was wonderful, I don't know why particularly but somehow the songs worked and it felt like we were really singing. Somehow we can sing things and sing them passionately even when the ideas or words are difficult to express in normal speaking.Perhaps Luther is right, perhaps the music when done well helps to lift the words to a new level because music itself is a great gift from God. I just wonder what the music in heaven is going to be like... I bet it will be great!

There is a higher throne
Than all this world has known,
Where faithful ones from ev'ry tongue
Will one day come.
Before the Son we'll stand,
Made faultless through the Lamb;
Believing hearts find promised grace—
Salvation comes.

Hear heaven's voices sing;
Their thund'rous anthem rings
Through em'rald courts and sapphire skies.
Their praises rise.
All glory, wisdom, pow'r,
Strength, thanks, and honor are
To God our King, who reigns on high

And there we'll find our home,
Our life before the throne;
We'll honor Him in perfect song
Where we belong.
He'll wipe each tear-stained eye
As thirst and hunger die.
The Lamb becomes our Shepherd King;
We'll reign with Him.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good news for messed up people

I just had to share this video. I friend had posted it on their facebook account and I was so moved by what the guy had to say I wanted others to have a look too.

The basic premise is that we are messed up and Jesus comes to rescue us when we are messed up not when we are all nice and perfect and think we are ready for him. For most of us that idea of a saviour who rescues us when we are at our lowest is one of the most attractive things about the gospel.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Great to see so many students back for the new Teesocs sessions. How could we have imagined three years ago that God would have been so good to us. Forty three have graduated from the 2007/09 sessions and we now have a whole new set of students sat listening to Philip Tait teaching on Biblical Studies. Mike Plant is currently lecturing the graduate students on John Calvin and I'll be up soon enough to do the Preaching and Teaching lectures. What a great opportunity to teach and encourage and also be encouraged.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I came across this letter on one of the creation websites this morning, it comes from a man who was an atheist and found the logical conclusions of atheism more than he could cope with. I was interested in it because it challenges the view that rejecting God leads to happiness.

Dear CMI,
I cannot express my gratitude in words. 
I became a Christian three years ago after struggling with thoughts of suicide due to my atheistic beliefs.
Your ministry truly saved my life. I was raised in a secular home, and surrounded by atheistic propaganda from an early age, whether it be from school or the media. Unsurprisingly, I became an atheist at the age of 12. 
As the years passed and I truly tried to understand the world around me, I discovered a horrifying truth that had been hidden from me, hidden from everyone. This is the reason I am writing this letter, as even in your excellent articles on atheism, you do not truly reveal the extent to which the atheists deceive everyone, even themselves. As the years passed and I truly tried to understand the world around me, I discovered a horrifying truth that had been hidden from me, hidden from everyone. Atheists often say that they can truly live a happy, fulfilling life. Yet this is a lie, a deception which damns millions of souls to darkness. 

While you revealed much in your articles, you have not destroyed the root. Simply put, atheism destroys the possibility of personal identity, choice, and objective and subjective meaning. Atheism inescapably leads to naturalism, and from naturalism follows atheism’s great skeleton which its followers try to keep hidden; determinism. Determinism is inescapable if one is a naturalist, as all that exists is material and has come about by purely natural processes. This means then, that the mind of man, our greatest treasure, is reducible to material bound by physical laws; namely, our thoughts, feelings, and actions are reducible to reactions of chemicals in the brain. Few people realize, then, that this destroys all that makes us human. Namely; if our thoughts, feelings, and actions are simply chemical reactions in the brain, those reactions are simply the by-products of prior reactions forming an unbreakable chain which leads to the very beginning of the universe. This means then, that whatever we do, we do because we have to. We cannot do anything other than what we do, it simply isn’t possible. All actions are the result of prior actions in an unbreakable chain. We are no different than a cog in a watch or a falling domino. … atheism is utterly horrific! 

Sadly, most atheists are unaware of these things! I believe if they truly understood the consequences of what they believed, they would reconsider their position. There is no difference between the embrace of a loving husband and the violence of a vicious rapist, the actions of a doctor trying to save a life and the mass murderer who kills at whim, the actions of our greatest leaders and the inaction of a lazy sluggard. Both are totally the same in atheism. Objective meaning is non-existent, and subjective meaning is incoherent! Would we say the action of a robot picking up a glass bottle has any meaning, value, or significance? Of course not! It’s simply doing what it has to! It can do nothing else! In what sense can an atheist say that he as a person truly exists? The material which composes our body is recycled every seven years, and our consciousness seems to cease every time we go to bed. So in what sense is the mass of matter that wakes up in the morning the same person as the one who went to bed the night before? 

As you can see, atheism is utterly horrific! Sadly, most atheists are unaware of these things! I believe if they truly understood the consequences of what they believed, they would reconsider their position, 

I know I did, 
God bless. 
Justin S

Now I realise some of you wont like that and will feel offended by it but it is worth asking the question where do my beliefs take me? What do I really believe and why don't I live like that?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Spirit Filled

"The person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that's who loves me. And the person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and make myself plain to him." John 14v21

I was struck last night by how much emphasis Jesus puts on doing what he says. John 14 is the passage about him sending the Spirit to his followers after he leaves them to go to the cross and then to heaven. It's a great passage of encouragement and comfort but also extremely challenging. I think those of us who go to church can be so obsessed with getting it right theologically that we forget that the Lord Jesus expects those who follow him to put into practice what he says. Or sometimes we are so convinced that the Spirit filled life is all about signs or exuberant worship that we forget this strong connection that Jesus makes between Spirit filling and obedience. Of course it's not an either or; we need the Spirit's work to make us obedience and we want to be passionate in our worship and witness but all of that will ring hollow if we don't actually do what he says, and probably worst of all we run the risk of not being one of his people at all, after all it is those who obey him that the Father loves, which is the reverse way round to how we often think about it in the reformed community.
Saved by grace yes, saved to do good works yes, able to live as we like and ignore Jesus' words ... no.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dont be too good...

Claire and I are reading through Ecclesiaties at the moment and last night we came across a verse that made us both laugh out loud.

"Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise--why destroy yourself?" Ecc 7:16 NIV

It seems a bit out of place doesn't it? Is the Bible really saying we shouldn't be serious about being good?
Is this really an argument for moderation in all things even holiness?
Reading up about it this morning there seems to be a variety of opinions from experts about what it means with some suggesting it is someone answering Solomon's complaint that good people seem to suffer and bad people get on fine; so the answer is don't be too good because it gets you nowhere. But perhaps more likely is the idea that Solomon is criticising a sort of religious super-spirituallity that is more holy than God himself. We think we can be so good that God will look us and think "wow - she's good, I must bless her" but that in the end will just lead to disappointment and bitterness. We will think God "owes us one" and so when he doesn't bless because we are being all good and all "spiritual" we will get angry with him.

Living by grace is hard because we are so inclined to think that we can both be saved by our own efforts and also keep in God's good books by our own efforts and yet invitation to his family is a matter of amazing grace and the fact he keeps loving us is still down to his grace.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do not fear...

Occasionally when I am reading through something it seems as if God shouts out loud at me and speaks a word that is so appropriate and so relevant that I am bowled over by it. Over the last few weeks of working up at the church I've been revisiting Spurgeon's Morning and Evening book as a means helping to get my head in gear as I start the day. Today what he had to say was one of the times of extraordinary appropriateness.
Maybe it will be of help to someone else...

"He shall not be afraid of evil tidings."—Psalm 112:7.
HRISTIAN, you ought not to dread the arrival of evil tidings; because if you are distressed by them, what do you more than other men? Other men have not your God to fly to; they have never proved His faithfulness as you have done, and it is no wonder if they are bowed down with alarm and cowed with fear: but you profess to be of another spirit; you have been begotten again unto a lively hope, and your heart lives in heaven and not on earthly things; now, if you are seen to be distracted as other men, what is the value of that grace which you profess to have received? Where is the dignity of that new nature which you claim to possess?
Again, if you should be filled with alarm, as others are, you would, doubtless, be led into the sins so common to others under trying circumstances. The ungodly, when they are overtaken by evil tidings, rebel against God; they murmur, and think that God deals hardly with them. Will you fall into that same sin? Will you provoke the Lord as they do?
Moreover, unconverted men often run to wrong means in order to escape from difficulties, and you will be sure to do the same if your mind yields to the present pressure. Trust in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him. Your wisest course is to do as Moses did at the Red Sea, "Stand still and see the salvation of God." For if you give way to fear when you hear of evil tidings, you will be unable to meet the trouble with that calm composure which nerves for duty, and sustains under adversity. How can you glorify God if you play the coward? Saints have often sung God's high praises in the fires, but will your doubting and desponding, as if you had none to help you, magnify the Most High? Then take courage, and relying in sure confidence upon the faithfulness of your covenant God, "let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Augustine Longing...

"I longed for honours, gains, marriage; and You mocked me. In these desires I underwent the most bitter hardships, You being the more gracious the less You allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. Behold my heart, O Lord, you who want me to recall all this, and confess it to You. Now let my soul cleave to You..." Confessions 6:9

We want so many things and still God is teaching us that having him is the most satisfying thing we can know. Why are we so slow and why is God so amazingly patient with us?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Old Hymn...

As some of you will know I have become a great fan of Red Mountain Music in the last year or so. They have done the excellent thing of setting some of the old hymns to new music and I have to say I just love it.

One hymn that I wasn't familiar with before goes like this:

We travel through a barren land,
With dangers thick on every hand;
But Jesus guides us through the vale;
O, The Christian’s hope can never fail.

Huge sorrows meet us as we go,
And devils aim to overthrow;
But vile infernals can’t prevail;
O, The Christian’s hope shall never fail.

Sometimes we’re tempted to despair,
But Jesus makes us then His care;
Though numerous foes our souls assail;
O, The Christian’s hope can never fail.

We trust upon the sacred word,
The oath and promise of the Lord;
And safely through each tempest sail;
O, the Christian's hope can never fail.

There is so much in those words that encourages me. I sometimes feel surrounded by spiritual enemies (how good is the phrase "vile infernals"!) just wanting me to trip and and fall and yet what an encouragement that Jesus promises to stand with us through all the trials and difficulties and temptations we face.

What good advice from Martin Luther to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus because too much time spent looking inward only leads to depression. And what an encouragement to know "sometimes we're tempted to despair, but Jesus makes us then his care"

I am bowled over by the fact I have a friend in heaven who does love me and will look out for me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

loving the sound of our own voice...

"Bear with me a little, and I will show you, for I have yet something to say on God’s behalf." Job 36v2

When Elihu arrives on the scene at the end of Job it feels to me like such a mixed up thing. He says some things that are right and good and true and yet his tone and his conclusions seem to be arrogant and somewhat off the mark. It got me thinking about the many people I have met over the years who are full of passion and full of "vision" and who want to sort the church out and set everything right. The trouble is that some of what is said is absolutely right and really challenging, but with it come some conclusions that are just weird. "God give me wisdom to work out what is right, to follow what you say and be strong enough to say no to things that are a distraction." I need to keep reminding myself that the Word brings the increase.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Silent Help

"And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great" Job 2:13

I'm sure it's been said before but it struck me how useful it is to actually say nothing sometimes. Job was in terrible agony both physically and emotionally and his three friends just sat and said nothing for a whole week. Sometimes when you're feeling rubbish all you want is some company not advice or platitudes. Perhaps pastors are the worst at this: we speak because we feel obliged to say something useful and spiritual, and yet sometimes just being there is what is necessary. It's good for us to remember that our usefulness is not limited to our eloquence or wisdom in speech.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Job 2:10 … Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?

There is a paradox in this verse; we know that God is good and he loves to give good gifts to his children and yet we also know that because he is sovereign he is the one who controls all things, even the bad. Job is speaking truthfully, he knows that God has the right to do whatever he chooses and yet the words here are words of faith not fatalism. What challenges me is that faith, a faith that loves God and trusts him whatever he sends our way. I want to have faith like that.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Martin Luther

"Grant that I may not pray alone with the mouth; help me that I may pray from the depths of my heart." Martin Luther
It is difficult to pray isn't it?
I often think that I should be much better at it now that ever I was but I wonder if I am worse.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Augustine - A Brief Intro

I was a bit over ambitious at the beginning of the year. I had been reading various things from Aurelius Augustinus of Hippo and I was surprised at how much I connected with what he had to say. I guess I rather stupidly assumed that 1600 years was a long time and that anyone writing during that period would be so different in outlook to me that what they produced would be dry and difficult reading. But from the moment I picked up his book “Confessions” to when I put it down I was captured by Augustine's brutal honesty about his own struggles and the stunningly personal way he connected with and spoke to God. While I am an intellectual pygmy compared to Augustine and while his walk with God was much more pious and full than my own there is still a real sense in which I feel like him. To Augustine everything was about God; all of life was about him and everything in one way or another works to bring God glory. Through the confessions there is a sense of the relentless and irresistible pursuit of God after Augustine, a demonstration of grace and patience and a sovereign ordering of events that puts God right at the heart of everything; that I connect with and feel too.
But… I was over ambitious because in agreeing to write something about Augustine I imagined that I could give a brief overview of his life, make some comments about The Confessions and The City of God, and then finally talk about the main contributions of his thinking to Christian theology.
That is not going to happen. Within a short time of beginning to write it became apparent that there is too much to say about his life, and if I do what I think I should then his theology will come out as we look at his life. You see confessions is marvellous because it isn't just an autobiography; it is the story of God and Augustine. The way he talks about things , his life, his struggles and his thinking all speak volumes about his theology and I guess for many of us that is what makes the book so wonderful. So what follows is the briefest introduction to the life of Augustine of Hippo with some scattered quotes to show you how he thinks.


Augustine as born in the year 354 AD in an African city called Tagaste which is in what we know as Algeria today. In the time that Augustine lived, North Africa was a very different place to the 21st century; it was part of the Roman Empire and good education and relative affluence were part of his experience. Augustine spent the early years of his education at a school in a place called Madaurus and when he was 15 and family money had run out he returned to studies and life at home.
Even early on in his life Augustine was a serious thinking boy, he was obvious academically very able and his parents Monica and Patricius wanted him to pursue a good career in teaching. But all was not well as Augustine tells us that his heart was a long way from God and he was struggling with sin particularly during those years back at home with nothing to do. You know how it goes; you fall in with the wrong crowd and very quickly things go all wrong.
It was during that period, when he was sixteen that we have the famous pear tree incident. Let me read you Augustine’s own account of it.

Theft is punished by Thy law, O Lord, and by the law written in men's hearts, which iniquity itself cannot blot out. For what thief will suffer a thief? Even a rich thief will not suffer him who is driven to it by want. Yet had I a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled neither by hunger, nor poverty through a distaste for well-doing, and a lustiness of iniquity. For I pilfered that of which I had already sufficient, and much better. Nor did I desire to enjoy what I pilfered, but the theft and sin itself. There was a pear-tree close to our vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was tempting neither for its colour nor its flavour. To shake and rob this some of us wanton young fellows went, late one night (having, according to our disgraceful habit, prolonged our games in the streets until then), and carried away great loads, not to eat ourselves, but to fling to the very swine, having only eaten some of them; and to do this pleased us all the more because it was not permitted. Behold my heart, O my God; behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon when in the bottomless pit. Behold, now, let my heart tell Thee what it was seeking there, that I should be gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved to perish. I loved my own error not that for which I erred, but the error itself. Base soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction not seeking aught through the shame but the shame itself 1

Now to me that is typical Augustine, certainly Augustine in the confessions: he takes his mind back to an incident in the past and he examines it carefully from lots of different angles and he does so particularly with reference to how it demonstrated his connection or lack of it with God.
And it is in this deep looking into his own heart and his own wickedness that that he seems to connect with the most force to many of us.
Listen to his analysis of why he took the pears, again from book two of the confessions.

Those pears truly were pleasant to the sight; but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had abundance of better, but those I plucked simply that I might steal. For, having plucked them, I threw them away, my sole gratification in them being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy.2

It is true that we sin sometimes because we get material gain from it. But the disturbing thing to me is that we often sin not because gain anything from it but rather because it is an addiction to the pleasure of doing wrong, being naughty, the love of rebellion itself.
The pears themselves are nothing at one level and yet at another level they reveal perfectly the problem that we have: sin is enslaving and addictive and pulls us in so easily. Augustine’s own comments on this remind me of John Piper’s contention that we are always seeking happiness and pleasure and that seeking in itself is not a bad thing, it is rather a bad thing when we try and find the pleasure in something other than God or in something separate from God as if the things we have don’t come from him.

Thus doth the soul commit fornication when she turns away from Thee, and seeks without Thee what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to Thee.3

That pattern of looking for fulfilment and happiness continues in his life over the next few years.
When he was 17 he was sent to Carthage to continue his studies in rhetoric, this is a little like college and university and there He tells us in his autobiography that he read a book by the Roman Philosopher Cicero called Hontensius, a book that had a profound effect on him and for the first time got him thinking seriously about life and God. But instead of getting involved with the Bible and the church Augustine got involved with the Manicheans. The Manicheans were a Gnostic sect that came out of Persia, mixing bits of Christianity with bits of other religions and taught all sorts of strange ideas about the cosmic struggles between light and darkness, the spiritual world and the material world and essentially were dualistic in their view of how things work (Matter is evil - Spiritual is good). I think Augustine found them attractive because at first their arguments and ideas seemed to tie in with his own experiences of struggling with evil and sin and they had some very able people who carried Augustine along with their passion and devotion to their beliefs. But Augustine became increasingly troubled by inconsistencies in what they taught and when he questioned them he was told that everything would be made plain when a leader in the sect called Faustus (a Manichean bishop) arrived in Carthage.
Now as I say Augustine was not just looking for spiritual answers during this time, he was also trying to find answers by pursing pleasure in many forms. During that time in Carthage Augustine lives what by 21st century western standards would seem a very normal life. He gets a girl friend she ends up pregnant and he becomes the father of Adeodatus and for the next thirteen or more years Augustine and his lover are together, faithful as he says but it is not the same as marriage; there is something missing. He is also involved in the other pursuits that he regrets and repents of later. He is involved with the wreckers or Subverters as they were also known; a group of wasters who loved to cause trouble, bully younger students and boast about their sexual exploits. Augustine was so influenced by them and so keen to be accepted as one of them he even made up stories to tell them of his own actions even though they were complete fables, and he is ashamed as he looks back at all of that. He is ashamed of his complete immersion in the world of the plays. He finds his emotions deeply stirred by things he considers now to be foolish and silly.
Eventually his studies are completed and at 21 he returns to Tagaste to teach rhetoric in his home town. During this time his dear friend, a young man the same age as Augustine became very ill. He was so ill that while he was comatose his family had him baptised because they thought he was going to die. Augustine thought that was rather silly and when the friend recovered briefly Augustine joked with him about it. But his friend rebuked him and told him that if he was going to remain friends he should not talk about the baptism in such dismissive terms. It seems like this friend had either become a Christian or had suddenly had a change of heart about the Christian religion. Augustine was very confused by this but left it alone thinking he would talk to him when he was stronger. But is friend didn’t get stronger: he died.
At this sorrow my heart was utterly darkened, and whatever I looked upon was death. My native country was a torture to me, and my father's house a wondrous unhappiness; and whatsoever I had participated in with him, wanting him, turned into a frightful torture. Mine eyes sought him everywhere, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places because he was not in them;4
He couldn’t bear it any longer so he left for Carthage, his college town and become a teacher of rhetoric there. Just as an aside this understanding of the tools and skills needed to speak and write, the skills of rhetoric obviously put Augustine in a good position to not only understand scripture and the way that the Bible writers form and construct their arguments but also gave him a good skill in constructing and presenting his own arguments and speeches. Interestingly in his book called “On Christian Doctrine” Augustine spends some considerable time discussing the difference between rhetoric and wisdom and without throwing out the need for clear and well constructed speech argues the need for content over form as the key thing in a bible teacher. I guess something we would all agree with. He has a rather neat little illustration about a key. He likens the sermon to a key and the point of the key is to unlock the text, unlock God’s word. In that way it doesn’t matter if it is a beautiful ornate key or a wooden key because the function of unlocking is the important thing. So likewise in preaching the style takes second place to the content or wisdom in the words. Although he does say clear, well put together words aid in that task.
But they are the reflections of an older, wiser Augustine. In the time that he spends at Tagaste and Carthage as teacher in rhetoric he was proud and arrogant and puffed up with his own excellence:

now I was head in the School of Rhetoric, whereat I rejoiced proudly, and became inflated with arrogance5

I mentioned earlier that Augustine was involved with the Manicheans and that wanted more answers that most of them could give him. When Augustine was in his late twenties Faustus finally arrived in Carthage and Augustine immediately set to work talking to him about his problems, quizzing him on the issues he was finding difficult and what he found was that although Faustus was an able speaker and had a natural ability to communicate well he lacked substance and he was even less well read than Augustine himself. This disappointment coupled with his increasing annoyance at the behaviour of the students, messing around, turning up late for lectures and sometimes not even bothering to turn up at all leads to a decision to leave Carthage and in 383 he sails to Rome.
Monica his mother who was a very passionate and devote Christian did not want here son to go. She was worried about his involvement with the Manicheans and was desperate for him to find real answers in the church but Augustine was set on going and in a moment of cowardly deception he leaves his mum praying in Carthage for the night and gets a boat for Rome with his woman and their son, Adeodatus.
But things are no better in Rome. The students may have been better behaved in that they didn’t disrupt the lessons and cause riots but they did stop coming to lessons before the course was out so that they didn’t have to pay their fees. Again this left Augustine disillusioned with things and began to look around for a way to move on.
This opportunity was provided by God when the city of Milan sent a message to Rome that they needed a teacher of Rhetoric and so Augustine was sent. And it’s really here that Augustine starts taking huge strides towards knowing God and being born again. In Milan the bishop or pastor was a man called Ambrose. Ambrose is himself quite remarkable: during his ministry as the pastor of the Church in Milan he refused to allow one of the Roman emperors to take communion, even to enter the church because of a massacre that he had committed and never repented of. Ambrose was apparently a much loved man because of his gentle and calm nature but he also must have had nerves of steel to refuse the emperor entrance to the church.
Augustine begins to meet with Ambrose and he is deeply impressed with him.

[Ambrose] received me like a father, and looked with a benevolent and episcopal kindliness on my change of abode. And I began to love him, not at first, indeed, as a teacher of the truth,which I entirely despaired of in Thy Church,but as a man friendly to myself. And I studiously hearkened to him preaching to the people, not with the motive I should, but, as it were, trying to discover whether his eloquence came up to the fame thereof, or flowed fuller or lower than was asserted; and I hung on his words intently, but of the matter I was but as a careless and contemptuous spectator; and I was delighted with the pleasantness of his speech, more erudite, yet less cheerful and soothing in manner, than that of Faustus.6

I take that as a good challenge to us as minsters to make our hospitality not a secondary and optional extra. It seems to me that we can become so concerned with the busyness of our business that we can forget that sometimes the young people who come through our churches need mentoring and discipling in a way that is not just achieved through pulpit ministry. I don’t say that to denigrate preaching because Ambrose’ preaching has a profound effect on Augustine, but I say it to remind myself that being friendly is part of the job.
Now this brings us to one of Augustine’s big problems with Christianity, namely the way that the Old Testament seemed to say such incomprehensible things about the way the universe has been made and deal with such ordinary flawed and uninspiring people. As Augustine listened to Ambrose, and increasingly listened not only to the form of the sermon but also the content so he was brought face to face with a way of handling the Old Testament that was different: allegorical. Now while we may have a problem with this way of handling the Bible it was used by God to open Augustine’s hard heart to looking at the Bible again. He had previously rejected it as crude and unhelpful but now he began to become much more serious about studying it and finding its deeper meaning. He started reading Paul's letters and he was amazed that the wisdom and truth he had been so desperately searching for ever since reading Hortensius was right there in the New Testament.
Now at this stage in his life so many key things happened quite quickly. He had left Manichaeism behind, he had been reading and exploring Neo-Platonism which to his mind gave a much more satisfactory explanation for the idea of the spiritual than his former sect. He also lefts his lover in order to become engaged which was seen as a much more moral and politically sensible option (although this leaving was extremely painful to him even in later years looking back). His fiancée was only 11 years old so while he waited for her to grow up he took another lover but then after two years left her too.
During this time we have his famous prayer “Give me constancy (purity) – just not yet”
Various conversations and visits from friends happened. He heard about the conversion of a famous Roman Professor and he was moved deeply by it. And then a visit from a Christian and discussion about Saint Anthony of the Desert a man who had renounced all the temptations and trappings of the world to follow Christ by becoming a hermit and how this had affected two others who have given up their careers and lives to follow Jesus hit Augustine like a ton of bricks. There was no turning away from it; he knew he couldn't put it off any longer, he had to either turn to Christ whole heartedly or he was a hypocrite. Augustine and his great friend Alypius were deeply impressed by this radical approach to Christianity and Augustine stumbled out into his garden to get some space to think about what it all meant.
And thus follows his famous conversion in his own words:

I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears; and the floods of mine eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to Thee. And, not indeed in these words, yet to this purpose, spake I much unto Thee: and Thou, O Lord, how long? how long, Lord, wilt Thou be angry for ever? Remember not our former iniquities, for I felt that I was held by them. I sent up these sorrowful words: How long, how long, "to-morrow, and tomorrow?" Why not now? why not is there this hour an end to my uncleanness? So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, "Take up and read; Take up and read. " Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Antony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.7

Augustine was born again. And Adeodatus his son and Alypius his friend also both become believers.
Augustine was then taken ill and he continued working at his post as teacher of literature at Milan until the autumn but then he and Aylypius and his mother and his son and two young students plus two other relatives moved north to a mansion owned by a friend to recuperate. It was an extraordinary time of blessing for them all. They talked and debated and discussed many things during that time and as a result four or five books were written of their conversations and Augustine's reflections.
They returned in the March 387 to Milan and Augustine became a Catechumen in the church, something like confirmation classes or Christianity Explored, a discipleship class that allowed people to explore the teachings of the Bible and prepare for baptism.
April 387 and Augustine, Adeodatus his son and Alypius his greatest friend together were baptised by Ambrose.
In 388 he started his return journey to North Africa and sadly on the journey home his mother Monica died. A heart breaking experience for Augustine and the first section of his Confessions finishes with the most moving prayers from Augustine for his mother and father. It was while he was Ostia with his mother waiting for a boat that they spoke about heaven and Augustine said he had a moment of pure knowledge a sort of vision a moment when things became clear. Six days later she died.
The last four chapters of Confessions are on Memory, Time, Matter and Creation and although some see this as a very odd way to end what is in many way a ground breaking autobiographical work it ties in very well with Augustine’s purpose in writing his most famous book: Augustine is keen to show us the soul’s journey to God. And that all ties in with the means God uses to bring all things to himself: memory and time, the business of spiritual realities and the means of creation are all part of Augustine's theology of redemption.
Upon returning to North Africa Augustine started a sort of monastery in his old Family house so that he and some friends could devote themselves to studying scripture and growing in devotion. Two more tragedies struck: a great friend Nebridius whom Augustine had hoped would join him in Tagaste died and then his own son Adeodatus died at age 17.
Augustine was not really interested in public life and so avoided travelling at this stage but he was called up to Hippo a very old town on the coast to visit someone who wasn't yet a Christian. He attended the church in Hippo on the very Sunday that the then Bishop stated they needed to find a successor. As was not unusual in the day the congregation started chatting Augustine's name and so 391AD he was made a presbyter in the church and then after another five years of preaching and teaching the people of the town he was appointed as Bishop.
For 34 years he worked tirelessly as Bishop in Hippo. He was a powerful speaker, a keen defender of the faith and a proflic writer. He spoke and wrote against the Manicheans, the Donatists and other sects but probably his most famous controversy was was the British Monk Pelegius. Interestingly the two never met but Augustine was so persuaded that Pelegius' ideas were a denial of the gospel that he debated and wrote at great length against him and his followers. In many ways this was the great debate of the fifth century for the North African Church, maybe even the whole church. Pelegius and his disciple Celestius were excommunicated, forgiven and welcomed back and the excommunicated again. The church was struggling to get it's head around what salvation by grace meant and Augustine was God's man for the moment to help God's people think it through and see the issues.
Pelagius taught that we can choose to obey God's commands and that God would not command something it was impossible for us to do. Essentially pelagianism teaches that we can save ourselves because we have free will and can choose God. At root it is salvation by obedience. Augustine was clear: we are fallen in Adam and we by nature are inclined to evil and so what we need is regeneration, transformation. In struggling with his own sin Augustine has a very memorable phrase “Give what you command and command what you will” meaning that in order to obey God's commands we need the work of the Holy Spirit. We are not free until he sets us free and we need him to work in us so we can obey him. There is no salvation by self effort.
Semi-pelaginanism followed this controversy and Augustine opposed that too. They idea of the semi-pelagianists (Arminians as we would call them today) is that while we cannot save ourselves we can cry out for help; “A sick man cant heal himself but he can call for a doctor”. But that for Augustine was again to misunderstand how dead in sin and rebellion we are and even repentance itself is a gift of God.
Augustine died in 430AD just as the Vandals were surrounding the city of Hippo. 80,000 men had crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar and were moving along the top of Africa. Christians were being killed and many pastors were looking to Augustine for advice on what to do. He told them to remain in their positions all the time there were Christians there to serve. It was brave advice and he followed it himself. He had remained firm and faithful during his ministry and God spared him the sight of the city being ransacked.

His Writings

Augustine was a prolific writer. According to lists of his works there are over one hundred separate titles in his writings. You will no doubt of heard of his two most famous: Confessions and The City of God.
Confessions I have already quoted at various points and I would suggest is well worth a read I have read it a number of times now over the last year or so and found it the most helpful of all the things I have read from him.
The City of God is massive, it is long; about four times as long as confessions and I have to say I found it extremely hard going. Chapter after chapter at the beginning about different reasons for suicide and why they are all wrong, and then when he gets to his main material which is a comparison between the Roman Empire: the City of Man, and the Eternal purposes of God: the City of God his basic argument is clear but so long that I long concentration too many times. Now that of course may simply be a reflection on my own ability to follow things but I did find it heavy going.
He also wrote commentaries on Genesis, Psalms and Romans as well as numerous letters and sermons.
His works on Theology most famously include
On the Trinity – which I haven't read yet and
On Christian Doctrine – Which I have. I assumed this would be a type of systematic theology but it's not really. It looks as such interesting topics of how to correctly pronounce and translate the Bible into Latin, how to distinguish between signs and things and what category words themselves fit into.
One thing in “On Christian Doctrine” that I did find tremendously challenging was his comments of preparation for preaching:

And so our Christian orator, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience; and he need and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak. And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute. For, as in regard to every matter of faith and love there are many things that may be said, and many ways of saying them, who knows what it is expedient at a given moment for us to say, or to be heard saying, except God who knows the hearts of all? And who can make us say what we ought, and in the way we ought, except Him in whose hand both we and our speeches are? 8

What a challenge! More will be achieved by piety in prayer than gifts of oratory, isn't that a rebuke to those of use who think we can speak well and an encouragement to those of us who feel weak in speech.
The other work of real interest is “Retractions” which was a review of some of his earlier material and then corrections he makes to ideas and opinions expressed there.

Some Odd Views

Baptismal Regeneration: Confessions 9:3 – Changed by the time we get to City of God "For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of baptism."
Interpretation of Scripture – Very allegorical (Ambrose' influence)
Five husbands – Five Senses
Teeth like sheep – Teeth of the church whyby they tear men away from the world
Neo-Platonic views on time and existence (Bertrand Russell says this changed in later life - Bertrand Russell History of western Philosophy Book II Chapter IV)
“The Virgin Mary “conceived as virgin, gave birth as virgin and stayed virgin forever”
Books to read:
Augustine for Armchair Theologians – Stephen Cooper
The Triumph of Grace – Nick Needham (Grace Publications)
Augustine: A Mother's Son – Dolina MacCuish (CFP)
Augustine: A Brief Introduction – (OUP)

Things worth listening to:

Augustine – Mike Reeves
City of God – Nick Needham

(c) Paul Lintott - Given at the Teeside Minister's Fraternal 2009