Saturday, 18 September 2010

Why I am Not a Roman Catholic

With the visit of Pope Benedict to the UK in full swing many issues that have exercised Christians for years are, for a short season, exercising the minds of a wider audience. Beyond the perennial and seemingly endless scandal of child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, a scandal that goes back a thousand years, questions are being asked about the popularity of this pope,  the relevance of the church and the relationship between Rome and Canterbury.

Religious correspondents and media and newspaper commentators are talking about what divides them and what might bring them closer. As the pope highlights the challenges of militant secularism and urges young people to find fulfilment in the spiritual some are seeing a common cause and asking whether they are now close enough to work together in mission.

Some insist that a bigger threat than any sectarian controversies is modern liberal values against which we should be working alongside Roman Catholics. This makes sense on some levels and there is much to be gained in being co-combatants with Rome against the secularism that is threatening us; but how far down that road might we safely go?

The issues with which the Reformers were concerned were fundamental to biblical faith and we must ask is the gap on these issues now so small as to be unimportant, or are there still significant issues that prevent us embracing across the Lord's Table? For me the issues have always been more fundamental than gay clergy, women priests and church government. It is about the question of whether we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Whether he is our sole and sufficient mediator or whether there need be a priestly class to mediate Christ.

Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone

Christ Alone

The Catholic and Evangelical understandings of Christ's death and what it achieved are profoundly different. Those who seek common ground with Catholicism fail to address this problem. Yet it is the most important aspect of the New Testament message and it is essential to get it right:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 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 the Twelve...” (1 Co.15:3-5)

What we believe about these things is “of first importance”.

To the Catholic Christ died for “sins” and not for “sinners”.

To the Catholic Christ's death earned a "treasury of merit" on which the believer draws time and again by means of the sacraments to gain forgiveness and purification from sins today. This adds works of merit to Christ's work of Atonement.

To the Evangelical Christ's death was a "once for all" act that won complete salvation "for all who believe", i.e. “sinners”. This is the classic "penal substitution" doctrine denied by Rome.

When Paul writes in 1 Co.15 about Christ dying “for our sins” he is not saying that Christ died for sins and not sinners. He means “for the sake of” our sins, or “because of” our sins. In other words, it is because we are sinners that Christ died. Sin in man was the reason for Christ dying. But in dying Christ died for sinners:

To purchase people – Rev.5:9; 14:4

With his blood – Acts 20:28

Bought at a price – 1 Cor.6:20; 7:23

To ransomed many – Mt.20:28

The picture is of one purchasing, buying and redeeming and not one of simply making grace available on condition of a quid pro quo:

“If justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purposes” (Gal.2:21)

Christ’s death won a complete salvation:

“But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Heb.10:12-14)

Faith Alone

The Catholic and Evangelical understanding of how we receive salvation are irreconcilably different.

To the Catholic salvation is gained, first, by continually applying to Christ's store of merit and applying Christ's merit to themselves daily. Secondly, this merit is mediated through a priesthood and ritual activity - the sacraments.

"If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 12).

To the Evangelical salvation is a gift that is received all at once. To deny faith alone is to deny Christ alone. To add to Christ's work is to subscribe to a profoundly different ecclesiology which includes essential rituals and priesthood mediation.

“Unlike the other high priests, [Christ] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” Heb 7:27

Faith alone safeguards the more important Christ alone.

Grace Alone

The Catholic understanding of grace is piecemeal, applied daily in our pilgrimage in order to win a little more salvation each day. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of the believer.

"If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA" (Council of Trent, Canons Concerning Justification, Canon 24).

The Evangelical understanding of grace is that it is God's unmerited favour toward the sinner that cannot be accessed via fallen man's activity but through faith alone in Christ alone. This puts the emphasis on the activity and attitude of God.

Grace is:

A State - Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Ro.5:1-2)

A Companion - But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor.15:10)

Christ’s Work - For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,

training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13)

God’s Gift - Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith (Ro.12:6)

Catholics have conflated justification and sanctification; the gift of life and the course of life.

The Power of “Believing”

"What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered:"The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28-29)

To believe”, of course, does not simply mean to give intellectual assent. In the Bible to believe is to put your full trust in. The believer has put his or her full trust in Jesus for salvation.

In John’s gospel he uses the verb “believe” 98 times (Mt.11; Mk.10; Lk.9). John can teach us something about “believing”. We can believe “that” something happened; believe “what” people say, but John uses the verb with the preposition “into”, as in

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)

Paul writes:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph.2:4-9)

He is saying that our standing before God is such that, in Christ, we are seated in heavenly places. Of course we do have the rest of our lives to go through on this earth. But Christ has paid for our sins and we can now walk in confidence, in him, knowing that we have eternal life, a life that has been won for us by him and that we appropriate by trusting “in” him.

Of course, a gift must be appropriated and this gift is appropriated by believing. The recipient of the gift has put their trust in the giver and the worth of the gift and thereby receives the gift. John 5:24 clearly shows this; Hear, believe and receive eternal life.

Of course works follow, but they follow, they don't lead to salvation. The person whose works have worth is the saved person. The unsaved may work and work but to no avail because they have not trusted. They have refused the gift by the very act of trying to prove worthy of it!

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ro.6:23)

Sin pays wages! Eternal life, on the other hand, is a free gift "in Christ Jesus our Lord" What does that mean, "in Christ Jesus our Lord"? It means that those are in him who have put their trust in him. If you put any trust at all in anything you can do by way of works then you are, by definition, not in him but in yourself; because that is what you have trusted in.

The Australian theologian Leon Morris called the following the most important paragraph in history:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:21-28)

Catholicity has been described as a local community with a world-wide vision; the people of God, gathered around the word of God, ready to do the will of God. Catholic, in this sense, is not a structure, or church order, but a description of God’s people, the universal church. It is not a divide between laity and clergy but a fellowship of all prepared to work the works of God. It is a means of mediation only in that it mediates God’s grace to a fallen world, not insisting it is the way but humbly pointing to the One who is the way so others may come too and know salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

BBC News - Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe


There is no place for God in theories on the creation of the Universe, Professor Stephen Hawking has said.

He had previously argued belief in a creator was not incompatible with science but in a new book, he concludes the Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics.

The Grand Design, part serialised in the Times, says there is no need to invoke God to set the Universe going.

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something," he concluded.

It is interesting that Prof. Hawking’s attitude to religion is highlighted in reports on his new book because he is as convinced that the physical sciences have made philosophy just as redundant. The emphasis on religion reflects perhaps the current rabid drive on the part of the neo-atheists to rid the world of believers. But philosophers?

It depends on how you define philosophy I suppose but if philosophy is thinking about how we think about the world then he has just made a philosophical statement and needs the context of philosophy in which to make it and to give it meaning; ergo, philosophy is not redundant.

With regards God, he has made the familiar mistake of assuming that the more science can discover the less need have we for God to explain this world. This is an argument directed at a particular view of God popular in certain fundamentalist circles but fails completely to address what the Bible has to say. It addresses the infamous “God of the gaps” error but not the God of the Bible.

While it is popularly believed (believed, now there’s a loaded term) that the more we have of science and reason the less our need of God, the biblical view is the more we have of science and reason the more we fulfil the creation mandate. In the creation account man is commanded to have dominion over the earth, to replenish it and fill it (Gen.1:28)

This has been interpreted by some as licence to exploit but this is quite wrong. Man’s dominion was to bring glory to the God who made everything and, acting as steward over God’s creation, he was to care for the world. What we see today as exploitation is the fruit of the fall when man’s “dominion” was diminished and lost but…

Hamlet declared, “What a piece of work is man…in apprehension how like a god!” Never a truer word was spoken. Not that man is, or will become a god, but that man was made with godlike qualities, what Christians call God’s communicable attributes. Those attributes of God that, in his wisdom and grace, he has shared with us, his creatures.

An expression of those attributes, albeit marred by sin, is still seen in mankind’s concern for and curiosity about our world. A steward of God’s world, far from being ignorant of his or her charge and duty, is industrious in learning and growing in knowledge of this world. Hence science, far from making God redundant, is, even unknowingly, obeying a godlike instinct to know, understand and responsibly steward the creation.

A Christian has no need to fear science and should rejoice in the knowledge that, even when some in the scientific community are determined to dismiss God, yet they fulfil God’s purposes and will in the end, like everyone else, see God either as their saving Father or as their judge.

BBC News - Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Giant Islam Sleeps Lightly

The world’s attention is focussed on pastor Terry Jones in Florida who has declared his avowed intent to burn copies of the Koran on this, the anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities in New York. It is sobering to think that a very little man, who leads a small and failing congregation of no more than fifty people - people who may be as small-minded, mean-spirited and contemptible as himself – can command such attention. In the world of the Internet and instant news, however, it seems almost inevitable.

But let’s not run away with the idea that this one man’s actions are as newsworthy as the press and media coverage he is getting might suggest. It is the fear, the very real fear of the reaction of the Islamic world that has brought this petty act to the fore.

There is no substantial support for what this man plans to do; it has been roundly condemned by political and religious leaders around the world; Christian voices, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, have been raised loudly denouncing this pointless act; all my Christian friends condemn him outright, indeed my American Christian friends condemn him. In light of which any reasonable person would mentally place Pastor Jones in the “wacky but what can you do” category and get on with their lives; not so Muslims.

In the Muslim world this act is defined as “A ferocious attack on Islam and Muslims” (al-Jazeera); There is talk of an uncontrollable Muslim response (al-Alam TV, Iran); there has been talk of “bloody wars and reprisals” (al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper); there are calls for the criminal court in the Hague to get involved (Qatari al-Watan newspaper) and the Jakarta Globe declared the American authorities “powerless” to stop the burning of the Muslim Holy Book.

Perhaps this last is an indication that not everyone understands the true nature and cost of democracy, that democracy means even the foolish can walk the streets without let or hindrance. You can read a digest of responses from the Arab world on the BBC US and Canada news site

Hysteria seems to define the character of Muslims brought up in those parts of the world we have come to identify as “Muslim countries”, although it is clear that it is as much underlying cultural influences as it is Islamic teaching that is to blame for such hysteria. Such cultural characteristics are exploited however by religious leaders and people are easily whipped up into a frenzy of vengeful and quite irrational and disproportionate expressions of rage. It sometimes seems like a population of petulant children who would be manageable if they didn’t have access to devastating weaponry that their temperament predisposes them to use without discrimination and on the slightest pretext.

It leads one to ask why, if Islam is such an important and positive cultural influence, so many of its adherents seem incapable of proportionate responses or reasoned reflection. Why they haven’t learned from this “great world religion” those values so characteristic of that other Middle Eastern religion, Christianity. Values so eloquently defined by Paul in his letter to Christians in the province of Galatia:

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, godliness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal.5:22)

It also raises the troubling question of how far the liberal democracies of the West, founded squarely on Christian principles of equity and freedom, can go down the road of appeasement and still keep its citizens safe. It is all well and good to beware we don’t wake the sleeping giant lest we provoke dreadful consequences, but if it takes one insignificant pastor of a church of just fifty people in Florida to evoke such responses as we have seen this week we urgently need a counter-response that declares loud and clear, “thus far and no further.” The truth is the giant Islam sleeps lightly and in that sleep continues to dream of conquest and subjugation.

The much misunderstood and misrepresented crusades of nine-hundred years ago were, contrary to popular belief, not an incursion into “Muslim territory” but an eleventh hour response by the political powers of Europe to a ferocious Muslim incursion that had swept out of the Arabian peninsula, across the Levant and North Africa with devastating effect. It had already arrived in the islands of the Mediterranean and settled in Southern Spain. Surely we can’t allow things to go so far and cost so much again.

But maybe by the time we sit down to count the cost of protecting our freedoms and values, the cost of appeasement, it will be found to be costly beyond our means. Then we will treat for peace and discover that Islam is no more gracious in victory than she is tempered and proportionate in response to slights and meaningless provocations.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The crimewave that shames the world - Robert Fisk, Commentators - The Independent

This is a must-read. The inimitable Robert Fisk, author of Pity the Nation and The Great War for Civilisation, has just ended a ten month investigation into honour killings around the world and today in the Independent Newspaper starts a four part report on his findings.

“It is a tragedy, a horror, a crime against humanity. The details of the murders – of the women beheaded, burned to death, stoned to death, stabbed, electrocuted, strangled and buried alive for the "honour" of their families – are as barbaric as they are shameful. Many women's groups in the Middle East and South-west Asia suspect the victims are at least four times the United Nations' latest world figure of around 5,000 deaths a year. Most of the victims are young, many are teenagers, slaughtered under a vile tradition that goes back hundreds of years but which now spans half the globe.

A 10-month investigation by The Independent in Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank has unearthed terrifying details of murder most foul. Men are also killed for "honour" and, despite its identification by journalists as a largely Muslim practice, Christian and Hindu communities have stooped to the same crimes. Indeed, the "honour" (or ird) of families, communities and tribes transcends religion and human mercy. But voluntary women's groups, human rights organisations, Amnesty International and news archives suggest that the slaughter of the innocent for "dishonouring" their families is increasing by the year.

Iraqi Kurds, Palestinians in Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey appear to be the worst offenders but media freedoms in these countries may over-compensate for the secrecy which surrounds "honour" killings in Egypt – which untruthfully claims there are none – and other Middle East nations in the Gulf and the Levant. But honour crimes long ago spread to Britain, Belgium, Russia and Canada and many other nations. Security authorities and courts across much of the Middle East have connived in reducing or abrogating prison sentences for the family murder of women, often classifying them as suicides to prevent prosecutions.”

The crimewave that shames the world - Robert Fisk, Commentators - The Independent

Friday, 3 September 2010

Homosexual activist speaks at ‘Christian’ festival - - Christian Concern For Our Nation

I know that Peter Tatchell is not every gay person but he is representative of a large tract of gay people, a gay icon and leading spokesman for the gay cause; hence his appearance at the Greenbelt Festival. When are the liberal-minded, naive Christian fellow-travellers of the gay agenda going to learn that this is not simply about a man preferring to have sexual relations with a man instead of with a woman. It is about the liberalising of sexual practices in general, the licensing of perversion, the promotion of promiscuity and the destruction of those standards that have made ours a civilised, Christian and stable society.

“Mr. Tatchell is well known for his view that the age of consent should be lowered to 14 for homosexuals. On his website he states that if children under 14 have consensual sex, and if there is no greater than a three year age differential, there should not be a prosecution.

Mr. Tatchell is also a strong advocate of pornography which he believes is good for people. In his book “Safer Sexy: The Guide to Gay Sex Safely” he writes approvingly of sadomasochism, bondage, infidelity, orgies and public cruising for sex.”

Greenbelt has always been controversial, seen by many as a Christian version of Glastonbury with its alternative agenda, but they now seem to have lost any connection they had with their Christian identity and will disappoint many many of its fans while confirming the worse fears of their critics.

Homosexual activist speaks at ‘Christian’ festival - - Christian Concern For Our Nation