Sing, Enlarge, Establish

Sing, barren woman, sing
And you who bore no child,
Good News to you I bring
Of sinners reconciled!
God was in Christ,
For us to save,
Whose life He gave
In sacrifice.

Enlarge your dwelling place,
And stretch your curtains wide;
Make room for God’s free grace,
Let Love in you reside:
For God became
As we are, so
That we might grow
As Him the same.

Establish righteousness
As the foundation stone,
Through which you will possess
The nations as your own;
For this our call:
His reign to swell,
His love to tell
On earth to all.

Sing to: Love Unknown

Inspired by St. Aldate’s Church (Oxford) preaching series.

Divine Descent

Down, down to the depths He dropped:
Into His creation came the Creator
Vestured in the form of a slave.
Incarnate God for our salvation sent:
Naked and bare as a newborn babe,
Entered He fully the life He us gave.

Did we miss the child of heaven?
Expected we much more than this,
“Show us your glory!” we cried!
Condescending, He heard our appeal:
Exposed He the wounds of His love,
Naked and bare, on the Cross, He replied
To make us heirs of His divine descent.

Hired or Fired?

Preached at St. Mary the Virgin, Weston on the Green
16th November 2014: 2nd Sunday before Advent
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Is it just me, or does the Gospel reading we’ve just heard sound a bit like an episode of The Apprentice? Perhaps you’ve managed to escape being drawn into the new series on BBC One at the moment. If so, well done! Unfortunately I haven’t. At times it’s like watching a car crash; but nevertheless, I keep tuning in on a Wednesday night at 9 o’clock to see what’s happened anyway. And all this week as I’ve been preparing this sermon I’ve had The Apprentice theme tune stuck in my head—those strong, dark, pulsating tones from Prokofiev’s famous ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Lord Sugar is on the lookout for a new business partner, in whom to invest £250,000 on a joint venture. Twenty budding entrepreneurs are all competing for the prize and each week they’re set challenges to test some aspect of their business acumen. As the weeks go by, Lord Sugar (the self-proclaimed judge, jury and executioner) gnashes his teeth in the boardroom, points his finger and declares to the unlucky candidates, “You’re fired!” At the end, however, the same finger is turned to the winner. This time, though, not to inflict the shame of being sacked, but to confer the glory of being told, “You’re hired!” as he/she is invited into a very special partnership.

Such are the stakes in the parable we’ve just heard, also. A master goes away on a long journey, delegating the running of his estate to his three servants according to their ability. He leaves and expects his servants to conduct his business in his absence. To two of his servants when he eventually returns, he speaks the most beautiful accolade we could ever hope to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” But to the final servant, he gives the rather dubious distinction of being called wicked and slothful. He’s left out in the cold, excluded from the party and afflicted by the torment of knowing he has slighted him who would have given him true joy.

What is the difference between the first two servants who went off and traded successfully with their master’s money, and the third who went off and hid his master’s money in the ground?

Let us first be clear on what the difference isn’t. The difference isn’t about how many talents they each started with. A talent in this instance isn’t a particular skill or ability someone has, it’s a unit of money. A talent in Jesus’ day was worth somewhere in the region of 20 years’ wages for the average labourer. Now to give you a very rough idea of how much that is, the average salary in the UK at the moment is about £26,500. That means that even the servant with the one talent was given in excess of £500,000 (that’s even more than the prize on The Apprentice). No insignificant sum of money! The final servant cannot say he didn’t have the resources to do the job, because he did.

Besides, Jesus tells us, the master entrusted the money to his servants “to each according to his ability.” The servant to whom five talents was given had enormous responsibility placed upon him. Jesus says elsewhere, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48). It is the master’s mercy which leads him not to give his servants more than they can handle. But there’s something else which shows that the master isn’t solely in the bottom line, and it’s this: he commends the servant who brought home four talents in exactly the same way as the servant who brought home ten. What matters to the master is not the quantity of talents, but how they were used. What the master wants to see is a return on his investment.

The real difference, then, between the servants who got hired and the servant who got fired was how they regarded both the giver and the gift. The first two understood the value of what they had been given and immediately put it to work. They recognised their master’s generosity and sought to repay his trust by working in order to please him. The third servant, on the other hand, saw the gift as a burden and the master as a taskmaster. He assumed he was trapped in a zero-sum game, that the gift he had been given could only ever be lost or used up. He therefore took what was a freely given gift and turned it into a jealously guarded possession. What’s more, he accused the master who had shown him so much trust of being greedy, idle and penny pinchingly exacting. If the third servant is slothful because he doesn’t do anything with what he was given; he’s wicked because he imputes false motives to the gracious and generous master.

Jesus tells this parable for people like us—disciples. He is the Master who goes away to return again at a day and hour unknown. He is the Master who invests in His servants and expects them to continue working while He’s out of sight. He is the Master whose face will ultimately turn to each of us with an expression of either incomprehensible delight or inescapable displeasure. The gift the Lord has given all of us is the gift of being called to follow Him and to work with Him in bringing God’s rule to earth as heaven. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes: “[Our work is] as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and to love our enemies.” In other words, our work is learning to imitate Jesus. It is to learn that same excessive, abundant, reckless love which He has invested in us. We each have different responsibilities according to our various abilities and opportunities, but the task of announcing the kingdom is the same.

What that might look like will be different for all of us. It might mean standing up here preaching or it might mean taking the opportunity to befriend a neighbour who we know doesn’t have many friends or visitors. Whatever it is, we have to keep coming back to ask ourselves these two questions: What are the gifts, responsibilities and opportunities Jesus has given us to advance His kingdom? And what am I doing with them? Jesus doesn’t call us to do great things (though it might sometimes involve doing great things); He simply calls us to do the work He has for us to do (and nothing less). The two servants who were hired were those who were found faithful with what they’d been given. That is our task as Christians—to be faithful to Christ.

And so, who we think Christ is, and what we make of His call to follow Him matters. If we think Jesus a hard Master, the fact is we haven’t known Him. If we think His call on our lives a burden, we haven’t properly understood it. We might think the third servant’s punishment awfully harsh, but it isn’t. When those who mistake Lord Jesus for Lord Sugar realise what they’ve missed out on, there can be nothing but mourning and pain as a result. On the contrary, those who know Christ’s reckless grace and the incomparable riches of being called to follow Him, will risk everything in lives aimed at pleasing Him. For ultimately, what this parable reminds us, in the words of C. S. Lewis, is that: “How we think of [God] is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us.”

So there is the challenge: What will the Lord think of us when we stand before Him? When He examines our lives will He see there a potential business partner? Will He see someone ready to share the task of government when His kingdom is swept into power at last? The question, I suppose, is this: Are we ready to enter our Master’s joy? Are we ready to enter the joy of Christ’s own extravagant, courageous and reckless love, knowing that our love shall not be diminished, but only multiplied by use? If such love is not a joy to us now, it’ll be an eternal misery when the kingdom finally comes. Therefore, let us now, at all times and in all things, seek to please the Lord, so we may hear Him speak to us those most glorious of words: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You’re hired!”

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ten Days With Talitha

Lord, thank You! Ten days ago, You made me the proud parent of a beautiful baby girl—Talitha Lou Clare. The time seems to have gone by in a blur and yet I feel like these ten days with Talitha have taught me much already …

1. about Your Parenthood:
I love Tali. When I look at Tali, when I hold her in my arms, my heart is set ablaze with wonder. Just the sight of her fills me with delight. Yet what has she done to deserve that love? Nothing. She may share my genes, but the truth is that I barely know her. I love Tali simply by virtue of her being my daughter. How much greater, then, is Your love for us, for me? It’s hard to fathom that You should delight in me the way I delight in Tali. You love me and delight in me, not for anything I can give You, not for anything I can do, but simply by virtue of being Your child, one made in Your image. Sometimes I forget that. I haven’t yet fully understood that You love me simply because I’m Your son. In the same way, You love Tali simply because she’s Tali. May my love for her mirror Your love for me.

2. about Your love for me:
True love, the love You have for me, is unconditional. Since I first read through the Bible as a teenager, I have always been struck by the verse in Proverbs which says, “What a person desires is unfailing love” (19:22 NIV). It’s so true. It’s what I desire. It’s what I’ve found in You. I was reminded of this verse a few nights ago when I was up with Tali in the wee small hours changing a dirty nappy and got peed on in the process. Somehow that experience seemed to give me a pretty good glimpse of what it means to love unconditionally—the way You love me. In Christ, You came to do something about the filth we’re living in and You got peed on (metaphorically speaking) in the process. Give me love like that, I pray.

3. about what it means to praise You:
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week and a half looking at Tali and remarking on how beautiful she is. I can’t help but adore her. As I gaze on her, I marvel at everything from the colour of her eyes to the softness of her skin to the size of her little feet. I notice things about her and they lead me to praise her. I don’t feel like I’m very good at praising You, Lord. Maybe, though, that’s just because I don’t spend enough time looking at You. How much more would I praise You if only I determined to dwell on You more? As Moses so boldly asked, so do I: “Show me Your glory!” (Ex. 33:18)

4. about the weakness of the flesh:
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). Having a child makes me feel much more empathetic towards Peter and the other disciples when they were asked to keep watch and pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. In days gone by, there have been plenty of evenings when I have tried to stay awake with Angie as she’s been feeding Tali or as I’m trying to rock Tali in my arms and found myself drifting off to sleep. I’m just so tired. The fact is that I’m simply not as strong as I often like to think I am. I am one in need of grace.

5. about my need for grace:
Tali’s arrival has inevitably led to plenty of disruption of a night time, which in turn has left us tired, fuzzy headed and prone to irritation. Sleep deprivation has made me clumsier, more forgetful and less patient. Last night, I was trying to give my son his dinner and dropped his bowl of pasta upside straight onto the placemat. My wife asked me to cut up some bread to go with dinner; thirty seconds later, I’d completely forgotten. The night before that, when my son Jed was having a hard time falling asleep, my forbearance with him was being pushed faster and further even than normal. It’s fair to say, tiredness doesn’t bring out the best in me (or many people, I expect, for that matter). All of which makes me acutely aware of how much grace Angie and I need to give each other, giving each other the leeway and understanding we’d like the other to give us. Knowing my own acute need for grace, Lord, grant that I may learn to be more gracious to others and make greater allowances for human weakness.

6. about my sinfulness:
Lord, I know that I am a sinner. Nothing helps reveal the fundamental disposition of my soul to self-seeking than throwing in an extra person to live with us, especially an extra person who demands so much of my care and attention. Tali’s presence with us helps remind me that the world does not revolve around me, and nor should it. Father, forgive me and heal me of my selfishness.

7. about love being love in action:
Loving Tali involves me in serving Tali’s needs. Over these past ten days, I have seen much more clearly how love has to be love in action. A loving feeling or a loving sentiment is all well and good, but the love Tali needs is the love which will feed her, change her, dress her, hold her, rock her to sleep, and so on. And what’s more, love in action is often quite inconvenient. I’m reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’m sure it wasn’t convenient for the Samaritan to interrupt his journey, pour out his oil and wine, make impromptu bandages from his clothes, give up his comfortable donkey ride, spend a night nursing a badly injured man, and then write a blank cheque for the man’s recovery. Yet such is Your love for me. Teach me more through Tali how to delight in being inconvenienced for the sake of love.

8. about the dignity of all people:
As I write this, Talitha is fast asleep on my shoulder. I hear her delicate snoring. I feel the soft and gentle rise and fall of her chest against mine as she breathes. She is so small (7lb 4oz when she was born). In the scheme of things, her life seems so inconsequential. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the psalmist asked (Ps. 8:4). And yet, I’m reminded of those wonderful words of C. S. Lewis, that there are no ordinary people, only immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. The fact is that as Tali’s slender frame rests on me so blissfully unaware of me writing this, I am conscious that I bear the incomparably weight of an immortal soul on me. Indeed, this little lady is so very precious to you that your Son Jesus died on the Cross for love of her. There is no human life which He did not esteem high enough to redeem at the price of His own blood. Grant me grace, O Lord, to remember that and throughout her life to take Tali as seriously as You take her.

9. about Your knowledge of us:
Talitha Lou Clare Harvey is Yours before she is mine. It is amazing to me that ten days ago, I didn’t know Tali. I knew she was there (she would give her Mommy the occasional kick from the womb which I might feel), but that’s it. I didn’t know she was a she. I didn’t know she was a Tali. After ten days with Tali, there is still so much for me to learn. I feel like she’s growing up too quickly. I have so much more to learn about her. How great it is that as I, her earthly Daddy, struggle to interpret the reasons for her stirrings, You, her heavenly Daddy, understand each and every tiny little cry perfectly. Nothing about her is hidden from You. Her frame was not hidden from You in the womb and it isn’t now. You knew her before we even knew she had been conceived. You watched on as her heart struck its first beat. You counted one by one as each new hair was added to her head. You know Tali through and through. She is Yours. Lord, give me grace to remember that and to teach her that, so that she might know it for herself.

10. about the Incarnation:
When I look at baby Talitha, I see someone so weak, so needy, so defenceless, small and vulnerable. How reckless, how audacious, how daring, therefore, was the Incarnation! The whole enterprise was fraught with danger, with risk, with the very real possibility of failure. Human life is so fragile. How is it then that the One to whom all creation looks for life, should look to one of His creatures to give Him life? How is it that the Source and Spring of all life should imperil that same all-creating Life in the dangers of childbirth? How is it that the only truly independent and self-sustaining Being in the universe should choose to become dependent to such an extent as a baby is dependent on a mother’s sustaining? I am reminded of those ancient words of the Te Deum in the Book of Common Prayer: “When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.” Well You might have done, though. Those wonderful words of Charles Wesley say it all: “Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made man.” The boldness of the Incarnation is truly incomprehensible. That the Lord of all, who wants for nothing, should condescend to cry for milk at a poor mother’s breast in order to rescue us from our sin only goes to show how desperately You love us. Lord, let me humbled anew by the great depths You plumbed in order to redeem unworthy people like me.

Gracious God, thank You for Talitha. You have used her to open my eyes to so much about You already! My prayer for her is that she will know herself now and always Your Talitha—Your darling little girl, Your precious little lamb. I pray that she would hear Your Son’s voice saying, “Talitha cum” and calling her to life in Him. I pray that she would grow up to be a woman in whose life Christ’s death-defying love and power are made manifest for all to see. All this I ask in the name of Him who calls us from death to life, Your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Talitha Lou Clare

Twenty Questions: #20 How Can We Escape If We Neglect So Great A Salvation? (Heb. 2:3)

Over the last four weeks, I have sought to read and reflect on twenty of the most important questions asked in the Bible. God has asked me questions. I have asked God questions. Indeed, I feel like this exercise has been a rather probing experience, challenging me on a whole number of different fronts and pushing me to evaluate what it is I believe and where I stand with God. The journey has taken me across the pages of both the Old and New Testaments and forced me to consider a wide range of topics–from sin and salvation to second birth and sanctification. What’s more, I have encountered a few surprises along the way. As is the way with a good teacher, I feel like God has been using these great questions from the Bible to teach me valuable lessons–lessons about who He is, about who I am, about where I need to grow, about where my passions lie, about what my understanding is, about what I need to explore further. It has been quite a time-consuming project that I set myself, but I hope and I pray that God would use it to encourage a constant prayerful dialogue, in which we are always asking questions of each other. I want to ever be searching after Him, but I also want to be made ever more open to the ways He searches me.

“How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” This final question seems an especially appropriate note on which to finish this series given what I have just said. If I am indeed to grow in my relationship with God, as those able to converse freely with one another, then I will need to become more and more attentive to Him. God has so graciously offered me a way out of my life of sin and into the life He made me for, life with Him. I want to make sure I don’t miss out on that abundant life because I’m not paying attention. A very wise friend of mine said that discipleship simply means spending time with Jesus. Well, that’s what I want to do. And as the author to the letter to the Hebrews points out, spending time with Jesus means spending time with “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” Jesus Christ is the One through whom God has definitively spoken and it is for that reason that we must be very careful not to neglect His message. If God spoke His message of salvation through lesser messengers than Jesus and expected people to take action accordingly, how much more so ought we sit up and take notice when the message of salvation comes straight from the horse’s mouth (so to speak)?

“How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” What hope of rescue do we have from a life of insecurity, fear and alienation from God, if we reject the One who comes to rescue us from all of those things? If you’re drowning and the lifeguard throws you a line, you take it, or else you can’t expect one to come from another source. How often does a free pardon for sin and the offer of new life with God come along? If we turn our backs on it, we have only ourselves to blame. The fact is that there are very real consequences for neglecting the great salvation before us in Jesus Christ. By grace, God allows us make of His Good News what we will, even though He will never stop going after us. The point is, however, that God could not have made His message any clearer than it is now. Jesus is as much of God as we can ever hope to see; He is the ultimate revelation of who God is and what God is about. If we are waiting for something or someone to make the message of God more concrete, we will be waiting a very long time because Jesus is it. The necessity, therefore, of paying attention to Jesus is paramount.

“How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The answer is: we can’t. The word ‘neglect’ implies carelessness, lack of diligence, the simple failure to focus on the task at hand. A garden may look neglected if we don’t spend time and effort outside cultivating it. Are we doing that with our salvation? Are we neglecting the great salvation before us in Christ simply because we’re being careless, because we’re ignoring what’s most important, and because we’re failing to spend time with Jesus who is the Author of our salvation? Salvation is, first and foremost, an encounter with Jesus. Therefore, let us seek to encounter Jesus more and more, and then we may learn first-hand that He is indeed “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.”

Lord Jesus, you know how prone we are to wander from You. Give us grace not to neglect Your Presence in our midst, for You alone are our salvation. Amen.

Twenty Questions: #19 If God Is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us? (Rom. 8:31)

God is on our side. Now the problem with saying that is that we’ve heard it all before. Throughout the centuries, the name of God or some higher principle or being has been corralled for the aid of many a dubious cause. It all sounds a bit medieval, doesn’t it? Two so-called ‘Christian’ countries in Europe wage war against each other and both apparently have God on their side. Even worse, perhaps, we think of the Crusades and the quite horrifying violence done then in the name of the Christian faith. I imagine that to most ears saying, “God is on our side” would instantly set the alarm bells ringing. It sounds like a classic attempt to co-opt the divine in justification of a particular course of what is often, narrow (perhaps, nationalistic) self-interest. This understanding is perhaps best exemplified in the incisive lyrics of Bob Dylan’s 1963 song, ‘With God on Our Side’. Yet, I want to rehabilitate the phrase, for I believe that it is far too rich to be abandoned to desecration by a few fanatics.

God is for us. We ought to take a minute to consider the profundity of that statement. It’s right there in the words of the Nicene Creed, saying of Jesus: “For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven.” God is God pro nobis. God is on our side; that is, on humanity’s side. The God, whom we have insulted, ignored and sought to insulate ourselves from, who by rights ought to be against us, that same God is on our side and acting for our best interests. Let’s be honest, we don’t always think of God like that, do we? We sometimes think of God as if he’s a grumpy old man who takes a perverse kind of pleasure in seeing us struggle as if He were throwing sticks into the spokes of our bicycle as we’re riding it. The truth, however, is quite different. God is not looking for any excuse to put us down; quite the opposite in fact, He’s looking for any excuse to lift us up. How do we know that? Because, as Paul goes on to say in v. 32, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” God has spared no expense to reconcile us to Himself. In the cosmic game of salvation poker, God has gone ‘all-in’ to win us back.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” If God, who by rights ought to want nothing further to do with us, has invested His own Son in our rescue and restoration, we need not doubt God’s love towards us. Romans 5:8 (probably my favourite verse in the entire Bible) says it all: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” If God can love us to such an extent as to give us His only Son while we are at our most unlovable, we really have no reason to question God’s good intentions towards us. God couldn’t be any more obviously on our side; His extravagant love for those wasting their lives in sin makes that fact abundantly clear. We need to remember that, especially when it seems the world is against us. And on those days when it seems that the world is against us, we can know for certain that God isn’t, and that the God who sets up His royal residence in us is greater than the world in any case. If God wanted to curse us or condemn us, He could do so at any time; the fact is, however, that He would not have given His only Son Jesus to die a shameful, excruciating death on our behalf if that was His plan. No. God is on our side.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Today, we are challenged to believe that God really is on our side, that He really does love us and that He really does work for the good of those who love Him. There will be times, for sure, that we will feel like Job, looking around and saying, “North, south, east and west—I can’t see God anywhere!” (Job 23:8-9); nevertheless, it is in those moments that, no matter what the situation is we are facing, we must take the next step forward in the simple faith that God is indeed for us. Our misfortune is not mere sport to God; rather, it is an opportunity for Him to change us, to refine us purer than gold straight from the refiner’s fire (Job 23:10). We must learn to trust that God is on our side. And that’s not easy. In fact, it’s really quite difficult. It’s difficult because if God were like us, we know He wouldn’t love sinners like us. But God is not like us and His love for sinners like us is profligate. The question we are being asked is whether we do sincerely believe that God is for us, and whether we realise how much He has invested in us sinners (for He knows exactly what He has bought, we have not been over-appraised).

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” There is no ‘if’ about it; God is for us. God’s desire is for our salvation rather than our condemnation. I am reminded of the story in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery (see reflection #15 in this series). If Jesus isn’t going to stone us, nobody else will. If, having so offended God with our sin, God reveals Himself so decisively for us in Christ; then surely, there is no one and nothing else we need to fear. Have we, therefore, begun to experience as a reality in our lives the freedom, felicity and fearlessness which comes from the faith that God is indeed on our side? If we have, we will know that it is not so much about us conscripting God to our cause, as it is about knowing that God has stretched out His arms to us in love in order to conscript us to His.

Twenty Questions: #18 Should We Continue In Sin In Order That Grace May Abound? (Rom. 6:1)

What are we saved for? That’s what today’s question is all about. In Romans 5, Paul explains that when the Law came into the world at Mount Sinai, it did not deal with sin—it had no power either to control or to overcome it. On the contrary, he says, when the Law came in, sin increased, showing sin for what it is. However, Paul says, God’s grace is always greater than our mistakes. As sin increased, God’s grace increased with it to the point of Christ coming to put us right with God. Paul knows the possible inference of all this: if God’s grace grows with our sinfulness, surely it makes sense to “sin boldly” (as Martin Luther famously once put it) because that way, God’s grace will be even greater still. This possible misunderstanding of Paul’s point, therefore, gives rise to the question which is the subject of our study today: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”

“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Paul’s answer to the question is so emphatic he employs the rare Greek optative case, which, if you will pardon the expression, roughly translates as, “Hell, no!” in the modern secular vernacular. God is gracious beyond measure, merciful beyond our understanding; but to think that gives us a license to sin is to completely miss the point. John Newton once said, “We serve a gracious Master who knows how to overrule even our mistakes to His glory and our own advantage.” That is completely true—I know it for myself from my own personal experience. But still, surely it would be better not to screw up in the first place, than to screw up and expect God to pick up the pieces. Paul puts it rather more theologically, but as I can understand he is more or less saying that if the problem is sin, we don’t counter it by sinning more.

By being baptised into Christ, we have died to sin. So as Paul says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” The Voice translates it like this: “How can we die to a life where sin ruled over us and then invite sin back into our lives?” Christ saves us not only from the guilt of sin, but also frees us from its grip on us. As Charles Wesley poetically wrote, “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free.” Salvation is about more than our eternal destination. It is easy in churches to get the impression that salvation simply means going to Heaven rather than Hell when we die. Rather, Will Willimon is quite right to assert that salvation is the “invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever.” We are saved for life with God. That necessarily means that how we live now matters.

John Wesley used three words to describe his understanding of Christian salvation: pardon, holiness and heaven. Pardon is salvation begun—receiving forgiveness from God through Christ. Holiness is salvation continued—being renewed in Christ’s own image. Heaven is salvation realised—being made able to stand in the presence of God. Wesley warned strongly, “Let not one link of the golden chain be broken.” In other words, he is saying that we ought not kid ourselves into thinking that we can jump straight from being forgiven to entering the presence of a holy God; we must also be sanctified by the Spirit, made fit and ready for an eternity with God. We must be restored not only to God’s good books, but to God’s good looks. To return, for a moment, to Paul’s language in Romans 6, our death to sin makes a new moral life in God possible. To put it another way, our lives here are to be about our lives there. We are to inhabit in the here and now the life for which we are saved in Jesus Christ, life in union with a holy God.

The vastness of God’s grace is great enough to cover any and every sin, but that by no means suggests that we ought to test its limits. Those who know the seriousness of sin and the costliness of God’s grace to put it right will not quickly or readily welcome sin back into their lives. Through baptism, our old sinful selves have been put to death with Christ; to go back to the body with defibrillators is to miss the point of why we were saved. We are saved to be made perfect in Christ; that is, to be renewed, restored, returned to factory settings. How seriously do we take the claim that in this life we are indeed being made fit for eternity with God? Are we taking advantage of God’s gracious nature and failing to take hold of the life of love in God which is before us even now? Are we going on to perfection? It was a very wise person indeed who once answered that question by saying, “Where else would you have me go?”

“Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Hell, no!