glory in grace, not gifts

Christopher Ash’s Zeal Without Burnout is a small, helpful book that is finish-able in one train journey from home to work (~ 1 hour). In it, Ash gives us 7 keys to serving God and His people without crashing along the way.

The key I will need to reflect on the most is the 7th: Rejoice in grace, not gifts. As prideful humans, we forget that God’s mercy is the basis of all we are, have, and will be, and instead find our purpose and meaning in what we do on our own (or so we think) strength and ability. To this Jesus says, “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Lk 10:20)

Here J. C. Ryle, as quoted by Ash, is piercing:

Men forget that gifts without grace save no one’s soul, and are characteristic of Satan himself. Grace, on the contrary, is an everlasting inheritance, and, lowly and despised as its possessor may be, will land him safe in glory.

Without such marks (that is, of grace) a man may have abundance of gifts and turn out no better than a follower of Judas Iscariot, the false apostle, and go at last to hell. With such marks, a man may be like Lazarus, poor and despised upon earth, and have no gifts at all. But his name is written in heaven, and Christ shall own him as one of his people at the last day.

I am really guilty of this — finding my joy in ministry through my gifts and successes, which, stripped bare, is just another form of works-salvation.

Perhaps this is why I love the last two verses of The Sands of Time are Sinking so much. Constantly I need to be reminded that ‘I stand upon His merit, I know no other stand’, and that ‘the Lamb is all the glory in Immanuel’s land’.

only by His Word

If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendour of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls “unapproachable”, is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it.

Institutes 1.6.6

Ministry can be incredibly frustrating sometimes. I’m not talking about the kiddos themselves with their apathy and eyes-glued-on-screen-ness, but about ministry partners — I don’t understand how a person can not appear for any meetings, not participate in WhatsApp conversations (look, I get it, I hate WhatsApp group convos too, but it’s basic courtesy) about serious matters, not be involved in anything until it affects his precious sub-ministry, but have the energy to complain and whine privately (via WhatsApp — the irony) to the ministry head about problems he sees in the ministry or decisions that we have made . I thought most people outgrew that in primary school, but apparently not.

His main concern was ‘joy’, his euphemism for ‘fun’. I’m not blind to the fact that our sessions can be dry and boring to the typical youth. Or that youths might be drawn to certain kinds of music and being in a band. Or that nobody’s idea of a good time is to sit down and listen to an adult yak for 45 minutes.

But I am a firm believer that what you draw people with is what you draw people to. If you think that guitars and drums and fun and games are what bring people to a church (even though churches seemed to be doing fine before the 20th century), and that’s how you try to attract and keep them, then that’s exactly why they stay, assuming they stay. And let’s be realistic: the church is never going to be more fun, more hip, more happening, have better music, be more up-to-date than the outside world, for the simple reason that that is not its purpose. We do not compete with the world on the world’s terms.

What we do have, is the Word of God. And one thing that the ministry partners have worked really hard to do is to make that the foundation for all that we do. Our application may not be ideal, and we still have have much to learn about making our teaching more relevant and applicable. (I, for one, am guilty of lecturing and delving into obscure theological points). But we do take this ministry seriously, knowing that we oversee a flock bought with Christ’s blood (Acts 20:28), that the command to preach His word all the time (2 Tim 4:2) applies as much to the young as the old, that only God’s word (Heb 4:12), not our actions/activities changes hearts.

Better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it. I stand by that.

Jumping into Calvin

I missed the sign-up date for the next CCEF course that I wanted to take, and the next term they offer it will be in 2017 — so in the meantime, I decided it was time to dust off (literally, it’s been under my bed) the Institutes that I bought a few months ago and dive in!

I’m only 41 pages in, so it’s not my *official* opinion yet, but to summarise — the hype is justified. It’s chock full of insights, references to events/debates, extended thoughts, etc. yet it’s pastoral, warm, and readable. Also, I’m not sure if I should credit Calvin or Battles (translator) or MacNeill (editor), but it’s beautifully written.

An excerpt on knowing God and true religion:-

… it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honour and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good, and that we must seek nothing elsewhere than in him.

This I take to mean that not only does he sustain this universe (as he once founded it) by his boundless might, regulate it by his wisdom, preserve it by his goodness, and especially rule mankind by his righteousness and judgment, bear with it in his mercy, watch over it by his protection; but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.

(…) For until men recognise that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him — they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.

Institutes 1:2:1

I’ve been dwelling for a while on the paragraph above. For one, it’s nearly poetic in its description of God’s goodness. More significantly, though, I had never thought about true knowledge of God that way — not just appreciating His benefits, but seeing that only from God do any and all benefits come. Stunning words that encapsulate glorious truth.

Anyway, I’m reading the Institutes using Anthony Lane’s A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, which helps me to skim through less relevant portions and to not miss out crucial footnotes. I also have J. Mark Beach’s Piety’s Wisdom on Kindle, which I plan to read when I finish the corresponding chapter in the Institutes to revise / see if I missed anything out. As mentioned above, I’m using the MacNeill-Battles version of the Institutes.

I have a long, long way to go, but if this is a foretaste, I’m really excited. May God work in me through His faithful servant’s words (:

on singing about loving God

Verbal expressions of one’s own love for God have no biblical warrant. No one in the First Testament ever tells God, “I love you.” Appeals to love God are common (Deut 6:5), but no authors or characters have the audacity to claim that they measure up to the standard demanded by the word.* In any case, love is demonstrated in actions, and only God may judge whether these actions demonstrate true covenant love. The picture does not change in the New Testament.

(…) Ultimately, we do not praise God by telling him we will praise him anymore than we prove we love God by telling him that we do love him. Apart from actually recounting his glorious acts of creation and providence and his gracious acts of salvation, these are empty promises.

— Daniel Block, ‘For the Glory of God’

 

*(Block explains how Psalm 18:1 and 116:1 are not exceptions — in the former, the psalmist creates an awkward sentence so as to not directly tell God he loves him; in the latter, the psalmist says, “I love… because YHWH”, leaving out an object of his love.)

on the Lord’s Supper

[The Lord’s Supper] is the primary way that Christians remember, receive, and share the meaning of our salvation.

Eugene Peterson

Once upon a time, I thought services were the most dreary event on Sunday. I especially disdained first Sundays of each month, because Holy Communion meant service would drag even longer. Thankfully, that has changed: the surface mundaneness and routine of attending service, sitting under God’s Word,  praying familiar words, and yes, eating and drinking the bread and wine, are often precisely what gives me joy and comfort.

In one of 9Marks’ little books on ministry (either The Gospel by Ortlund or Evangelism by Mack Stiles; I can’t remember), the writer discussed how churches are quick to plan large-scale evangelistic events and direct long-term evangelistic efforts while ignoring the means of grace that God has instituted. Baptism declares the gospel of death and new life, while the Lord’s Supper is about past grace and future grace, expressed and experienced in the very present task of eating and drinking. That was probably the first time I considered the significance and beauty of the sacraments.

Two passages I read recently reminded me again of how I came to the realisation. The first, from James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, touches on how the Eucharist is a microcosm of how the Christian relates to past and future:

In worship, we taste “the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5), which births in us a longing for that kingdom to come, because this taste is also a bit of a teaser: it gives us enough of a sense of what’s coming that we look around at our broken world and see all the ways that the kingdom has not yet arrived. “Come, Lord Jesus!” and “How long, O Lord?!” are prayers of a futural people.

At the same time, the rhythms of Christian worship and the liturgical year stretch us backward. They are practices of remembering —another habit we learn from Israel. We remember with gratitude God’s acts of redemption in the exodus (Ps. 78) and the cross. Lent and Easter invite us backward to remember the power unleashed in the cross and resurrection — a power that continues to break into the present (Phil 3:10-11).

(…) Thus we are constituted as a people who live between times, remembering and hoping at the same time. Each week this between-ness is performed in the Eucharist, which both invites us to “do this in remembrance of me” and by doing so to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

 

And here’s Eugene Peterson, on the significance of Jesus choosing to use a meal — such an earthy, communal activity — as his means of reminding us of his work and word:

The meal does more: it maintains the social shape of salvation… We do not customarily, or if we can help it, eat alone. We come together with others, with family and friends. We demonstrate basic courtesies at the table. It is the place we learn consideration and forgiveness. It is also the place to which we invite strangers, hospitality being the means by which we bridge suspension and loneliness, gathering the outsider into the place of nurture and acceptance. The table incorporates the evangelistic thrust of salvation that Jesus insisted upon: “And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29)

Every time I reflect on the Lord’s Supper, I’m in awe at what it points to. Thankful (:

Song of the Sea

So, it’s the Chinese New Year again, and on the long journey back to Kuantan this year (10 hours this time — absurd!), I finally watched Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea. 11181512_ori

I don’t often watch movies (I go to the cinema once a year on average), and I definitely don’t recommend/review them often. But I absolutely loved Song of the Sea. The hand-drawn animation is stunning: sometimes abstract, always soulful, and most importantly, done in a style with this exact storyline in mind. Looking at screen captures of the film alone evoked the sea, Celtic mythology, and dreams. The soundtrack is gorgeous and also created specially for the film. In fact, when I had trouble hunting down the movie, I listened to the soundtrack on Apple Music first and fell in love. Most of all, it’s a simple story that subtly explores the profoundly human themes of grief and loss without ever falling into preachiness (looking rightatcha, Wall-E) or pointless sentimentality (Hollywood in general). Other plusses: it’s only 1.5 hours long, and a lot of the characters have lovely Irish accents.

It’s always wonderful to come across well-done lesser-known animated films (read: not from Pixar or Japan) especially one so stylistically unique. I can’t recommend it enough (:

 

systheo: chapter #2

 

Intro: This series of blogposts is my self-motivation to stick to my 2016 resolution of finishing a systematic theology this year. The plan is to read, and blog about, one chapter every fortnight.


Chapter Two: The Inspired Nature of Holy Scripture

Scripture is the word of God. That has always seemed to me like the bedrock of the Christian faith, even during my conversion/baptism years. Later, I learnt that being an ‘evangelical’ included believing in the authority of Scripture, and was quite stunned that there were Protestants who weren’t evangelical.

My previous naivete aside, the focus of the chapter is exactly that: Scripture is the word of God. There are plenty of helpful parts, like Reymond quoting Warfield* in response to the common objection that, since the word passes through fallible human beings, it is bound to lose some of its shine:

As light that passes through the coloured glass of a cathedral window, we are told, is light from heaven, but is stained by the tints of the glass through which it passes; so any word of God which is passed through the mind and soul of a man must come out discoloured by the personality through which it is given, and just to that degree ceases to be the pure word of God.

But what if this personality has itself been formed by God into precisely the personality it is, for the express purpose of communicating to the word given through it just the colouring which it gives? What if the colours of the stained-glass window have been designed by the architect for the express purpose of giving to the light that floods the cathedral precisely the tone and quality it receives from them?

What if the Word of God that comes to His people is framed by God into the word of God it is, precisely by means of the qualities of the men formed by Him for the purpose, through which it is given?

He also uses Habakkuk 2:2–3 to understand the nature of biblical prophecy, and has a commonsense response to Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (who argues that we should read Scripture without employing a later passage to interpret or apply it.)

That said, I find myself most appreciative of the text when there are little paragraphs, subtly woven in, explaining how this truth affects us:

Just as God’s breath (his word) created all the host of heaven (Ps 33:6), just as his breath gave physical life to Adam and to all mankind (Gen 2:7; Job 33:4), just as his breath gave spiritual life to Israel, the “valley of dry bones” (Ezek. 37:14), so also his powerful, creative breath, in its word form, is living and active (Heb 4:12), imperishable and abiding (1 Pet 1:23), and through it God’s Spirit imparts new life to the soul.

Why does it matter that the Word is breathed out by God, per 2 Tim 3:16? Because it’s how God gives us new life. Hallelujah! (:

 

systheo: chapter #1

One of the challenges I set for myself in 2016 was to read a book that’s too difficult for me; around the same time, someone asked if I had read a systematic theology before. After some e-crowdsourcing and reading through Kindle samples (Berkhof, Frame and Horton were the finalists), I finally decided on Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. It conveniently has 26 chapters, so my (very possible) goal is to read a chapter every two weeks. Since it also is a little beyond me, I’m hoping to blog about my reading once in a while (to make sure I’m actually absorbing stuff) — summarising, quoting, reflecting. Here’s the first post (:


Chapter One: The Fact of Divine Revelation

Has God revealed Himself in Scripture?

In the first half of the chapter, Reymond traces how God ‘reveals’ Himself in the Old and New Testaments, and provides helpful summaries after long chains of Scripture-referencing. In short, God has revealed Himself to us, either through (as in the OT) verbal communication of truth, especially in the interpretation of historical redemptive acts, or (as in the NT) through the written witness of the apostles, to whom Christ the Incarnate Word had given His authority.

In the second half, Reymond counters objections to the doctrine, namely:-

  1. The Bible is a (flawed) record of God’s revelation to human beings but not the revelation itself; religious truth is always personal or existential truth. (the Neoorthodox objection)
  2. Language is inadequate as a vehicle of personal communication, and especially incapable of expressing literal truth about transcendent realities. (the language philosophy’s objection)
  3. Human language is incapable of expressing literal truth about anything. (the language philosophy’s objection on steroids*)
  4. The messengers could have misunderstood God’s Word and misreported it.
  5. We can misunderstand the Scriptures.

(* I added ‘on steroids’. The author’s expression was ‘radical’.)

Reymond’s responses to the objections are a great way to think about apologetics. He counters the arguments based on the interlocutors’ own terms and assumptions first, showing their position is self-defeating. Where applicable, he then brings in the practical, pastoral side of things, i.e. is it possible to live according to this worldview? And finally, he unashamedly uses Scripture to make a counter-point. Presuppositional apologetics actually works, and his readers get a front-row seat.

My favourite quote is this explanation of why the resurgence of neoorthodoxy (objection 1.) didn’t last too long:

A theological vision that talked much about the mighty acts of God in history but refused to identify any historical event as an act of God, that talked much about the Christ of faith but refused to identify Jesus of Nazareth directly with this Christ at any point, and that talked much about the Word of God to man but refused to identify the Bible or any other book directly with this Word of God could not for long fire the imagination or answer the hard questions of thinking people. And a gospel whose Christ is a “phantom”, whose cross is merely a symbol, and whose resurrection occurs only in “primal history” and not in the actual history where people experience pain and death and long for deliverance simply has no staying power.

Yes. A Christianity (or any spirituality / faith) not grounded in history nor accounting for the physical is of no use in a world where people really have griefs and and hurts and sins done against and by them. I can’t remember where I read or heard before, ‘Even the most devout, enlightened Buddhist monk uses doors and not walls to get from one room to another.’ It’s a flippant (and probably unfair) statement, but it captures a little of why I find gnosticism (and its variants) so unappealing in its explanations for, and responses to, suffering and evil.

He ends his chapter sharply:

For in the “days of his flesh” Jesus Christ taught the multitudes using the known languages of Aramaic and Greek, claiming as he did so that he was imparting eternal truth (see, e.g., John 8:26, 40). Thus every denial of the possibility of a literally true revelation from God to mankind strikes directly at Jesus Christ in his role as Prophet and Teacher, for he claimed to be the deliverer of just such a revelation.

What a great response to those who proclaim a love for Christ the Word made flesh yet refuse to trust in the written Word of God.

missing inefficiencies

Back when the bunch of us at church had a ‘lunch gang’, when our Sunday activities were the same, when we had the same meetings to go to, this was our weekly lunch process: After YF/YA, at the third floor where the rooms were, we would chat and linger and wait for the toilet-goers. Eventually we got moving to the second floor, where we would pause for another ten minutes outside the sanctuary because we seemed to be missing 2 or 3 members. Then someone would nag, and we would stroll down to the first floor, where we hung out at the foyer for a bit, waiting for a different set of missing members or for roaming souls to join us. After that, we chilled at the church gate, this time because we couldn’t decide what to eat: red side, yellow side, claypot side, dimsum side, Macs, KFC. Finally someone hungry or decisive enough would take the lead, ignore any opposing voices, and bring us all somewhere — although there would occasionally be another bout of loitering after the zebra crossing where the members who refused to eat fast food and the members who needed air-con would decide if they wanted to split.

It was so incredibly inefficient.

But it was also so full of love and patience. The willingness to wait, to include, and to ‘waste’ a lot of time talking and laughing with each other while we doing so was, to me, a down-to-earth, common-place way of living out community.

Today, there was a department dinner at work. Some were prepared and snuck off once the clock struck 5.30; everybody else bustled around, shutting down in the middle of a tax comp, making sure they weren’t the last,  all to avoid the awkwardness of taking the boss’ cars, get to the restaurant first, and pick the prime seats. Every man (clique) for him(it)self. As expected, I was one of the last ones to reach.

And at that moment, I thought something I never guessed I would — I miss the inefficiencies.