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!

Twenty Questions: #17 What Must I Do To Be Saved? (Acts 16:30)

Today in our journey through some of the biggest questions in the Bible, we move from the most important question God can ask, “Do you love me?” to the most important question we can ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Immediately, I am struck by the urgency of it. It is a desperate question borne out of a very real sense of danger. Somehow, it is a question I imagine people asking of one of the great preachers like George Whitefield, John Wesley or Charles Spurgeon after hearing one of their sermons; to be honest, I struggle to imagine anyone tearing their clothes and asking, “What must I do to be saved?” today (after one of my sermons, for instance—maybe that says more about me and my preaching than anything else). I could well conceive of someone asking, “How can I explore the claims of Jesus further?” or “What do I need to do to become a Christian?” but asking, “What must I do to be saved?”—that just sounds so needy. And heaven forbid we sound like sinners in need of grace!

“What must I do to be saved?” When I was reflecting on this question earlier, I realised what a contrast it is to the question posed by the lawyer and the rich ruler in the first of Luke’s two instalments: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It seems to me like the latter is a question asked by people who think they are in control of their lives; the former, however, being a question asked by people who know that they are not. To ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” seems to me to express a certain level of confidence in our ability to be people worthy of eternal life; whereas, to ask, “What must I do to be saved?” seems to be an admission that we’re in a hopeless mess and we can’t get out of it by ourselves. I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves which is the more accurate reflection of the human condition. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is a question we will only ask if when we have arrived at the point of self-despair. Once we have exhausted all our own resources, then might we cast out further and ask, “What must I do to be saved?”

Paul and Silas are in prison upsetting the Philippian applecart with the Gospel, when all of a sudden a great earthquake strikes. The doors fly loose. The shackles fall off. Unsurprisingly, the jailor suspects the captives to have made a bid for freedom in the chaos. Knowing full well the cost of failure, he decides he is going to jump before he is pushed. He draws his sword and prepares to do the ‘honourable’ thing. But Paul intervenes in the nick of time. “We’re all here!” he cries, “No need to do anything silly.” The jailor calls for lights to verify the facts for himself. Paul’s right. A prison full of inmates with the perfect escape opportunity and they’re all still there. In Acts 12, when Peter walked out of the prison in similar circumstances, the prison guards were sentenced to death; the Philippian jailor knew what was coming and was quite ready to circumvent the inevitable punishment for his failure. Yet, he is saved from certain death and still he asks, “What must I do to be saved?” It appears he already has. Apparently, however, the jailor was aware that there was another salvation necessary. The jailor knows that the even greater peril is to be found in running a life contrary to a God who can open prison doors without a key.

“What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer is simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” I remember as a teenager a very wise youth group leader telling me, “God sets the bar for salvation pretty low.” He pointed me also to Rom. 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” As far as salvations go, we really don’t have to do a lot. To be saved, all we have to do is believe in the Lord Jesus. That’s it. As Ephesians 2:8 puts it, we are saved by faith through grace alone. Christian faith is not faith in a series of doctrinal propositions or creedal formulae; it is faith in the person of Jesus, who is the Lord. To believe in the Lord Jesus means to believe in the Lordship of Jesus. It implies a certain kind of relationship—one of trust, obedience and submission. To believe in the Lord Jesus means to know Jesus as King (and therefore to treat Him as such).

Christian faith is about more than believing the historical existence of Jesus or even about believing in the goodness or rightness of Jesus’ teachings; rather, it is about a personal trust in Jesus as the loving Ruler of all. To believe in the Lord Jesus is not an intellectual exercise; instead, it is an exercise in trust, the investment of our entire confidence in the person of Christ. For me to believe in the Lord Jesus surely means for me to throw my lot in with Jesus; it means to allow myself to become completely identified with Him. To use Paul’s language of baptism in Romans 6, it means to die to sin with Him in order that we might be raised with Him alive to God. Such faith is not only self-involving, it is costly. Think of the Philippian prison guard. By being baptised into Christ, he became thoroughly involved with the One for whom his prisoners Paul and Silas were incarcerated. Faith in the Lord Jesus is dangerous. But despite the risks, we’re told that the jailor rejoiced with his entire household that he had believed in God (v. 34). To believe in the Lord Jesus means taking up our cross and following Him in the joy that His way of self-denial and sacrificial love is the only true way of life.

Eugene Peterson writes: “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace.” Have we, I wonder, got desperate enough to ask, “What must I do to be saved?”

Twenty Questions: #16 Do You Love Me? (Jn. 21:15, 16, 17)

“Do you love me?” It is a question which no lover ever hopes their beloved will ask them. We don’t ever want someone to ask us whether we love them; we want it to be so clear that they need never ask. That the question needs to be posed is an admission that there is sufficient cause to doubt. That was certainly true in the case of Simon Peter. Simon Peter was to be the Rock on which Christ would build His Church. But he had denied his Lord three times, watching at a distance as He was led off to be flogged, mocked and crucified. This from the man who was absolutely adamant of his fidelity to Jesus: “Lord, why can I not follow you?” he protested, “I will lay down my life for you” (13:37). No wonder, then, that Jesus asked him the simple question which He asks also of us: “Do you love me?” And yet, one of things that I love most about this story is that there is no need whatsoever for Peter to ask that question of Jesus. The simple fact that the risen Lord would return to a deadbeat denier of His like Peter is proof enough of where His heart is at.

Of all the questions God asks us in the Bible, this one before us today is surely the most important. Everything hangs on our answer to this one question. And it’s telling that the most important question God can ever ask us is not, “Do you go to Church?” or “Do you tithe?” or “Do you read your Bible?” No. As it says in 1 Sam. 16:7, God doesn’t look at outward appearances; He looks at the heart. God knows full well that anyone can stand and mouth the words of a good worship song if they want to; what He wants to know is if our heart is in it and more to the point, if our heart is in Him. The fact is that we can say all the right words, do all the right things, while our hearts are a million miles from Him (Is. 29:13). As the prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (17:9). God wants to know the state of our heart. Deut. 8:2 tells us that it was for that very reason God led the people of Israel wandering through the wilderness for forty years: to find out what was in their hearts. The basic commandment God gave to His people was this: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The question, therefore, remains the same as it has always been: “Do you love me?”

On the surface of it, this is a pretty straight-forward question. Do we love Jesus or not? The problem is that what Jesus is asking here and what we think that Jesus is asking here are not necessarily the same thing. We hear Jesus ask, “Do you love me?” and we think He’s asking us whether or not we feel a certain way towards Him. He isn’t. In our modern Western culture, we tend to talk about love primarily as an emotion; a warm, fuzzy feeling we get deep inside for another. That isn’t what Jesus meant when He asked Peter whether he loved Him. This is no ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of love; this is something quite different. Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples quite plainly what love means: “If you love me,” He says, “you will keep my commandments” (14:15). This kind of love is love in action. I do not think it is any accident that every profession of love that Simon Peter offers is met with a command: “Feed my lambs … Tend my sheep … Feed my sheep.” Love calls for an integrity of words and deeds. As Paul tells the Galatians, the only thing that matters is “faith working through love” (5:6). Love is the visible expression of faith.

C. S. Lewis is surely right when he says that love is “a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit.” In the Bible, the heart is not only the seat of emotion, but the centre of one’s cognition and volition also. In other words, the heart is the core of one’s personal inner life. The word ‘love’ has a similar depth of meaning in the Bible. In the kind of love Jesus is talking about, feeling, thinking and doing are all linked and interconnected. When He asks us whether or not we love Him, Jesus is not looking for soppy, sentimental professions of undying love and affection; He is looking for a steadfast loyalty and devotion to His will which reveals itself in the way that we live. John Wesley writes that the fruit of one’s love for God “is universal obedience to Him we love.” It is, he goes on, “conformity to His will; obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life: in every temper, and in all manner of conversation.” This kind of love says that the quality of our devotion to Jesus is not proved by singing loudly in Church or by wearing a clerical collar around our necks; rather, it is proved by following Jesus closely, practicing His presence routinely and obeying His commandments faithfully.

“Do you love me?” We don’t like to talk of love and obedience in the same sentence; they seem to us like two completely different concepts. The reality, however, is different. Love requires obedience and without obedience, love will fail. Love, I believe, means being for the benefit of another. In his novel, That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis describes his character Jane coming to this realisation for herself: “The name me … was a person (not the person she had thought), yet also a thing, a made thing, made to please Another and in Him to please all others.” What it means to love God is to live to please God. In the Song of Songs, the woman declares: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3). That is to say, she belongs to him whom she loves, she gives herself over to him and lives for his sake. That is what it means to love. Love empties us of self and wholly consumes us with Another. For many centuries, the Song of Songs has been read as a love song between Christ and His Bride. Christ asks us, “Do you love me?” But can we, I wonder, say that we are our Beloved’s and our Beloved is ours?

Jesus, asks me whether or not I love Him. And with Peter I answer, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” But do I love Him enough? No. Not even close. In the wonderful words of John Newton, “The love I bear Christ is but a faint and feeble spark, but it is an emanation from Himself: He kindled it and He keeps it alive; and because it is His work, I trust many waters shall not quench it.” My love for Christ is certainly not what it ought to be—so weak, so fleeting, so cowardly. Nor is my love for Christ what I want it to be—courageous, fiery and strong—O how far from it! And yet my love for Christ is also not what it once was. There was a time when I did not know Him and did not obey Him in anything; but He, of His own accord, has wakened my drowsy soul with His love and has started in my heart a fire, which, as long as the breath of His Spirit stirs in me, shall be fanned into greater and greater flames.

In closing, I am reminded of these words of invitation to Holy Communion, based on those of John Hunter in 1880:
Come to this table, not because you must but because you may,
not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come,
but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ, for we are his Body.

I do love you, Lord. But I would love you so, so much more.

Twenty Questions: #15 Has No One Condemned You? (Jn. 8:10)

A few months ago, I attended a talk on mission in the Church entitled, ‘Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land’. The speaker used this famous line from Psalm 137 to describe the task of mission in the contemporary British context. We are to sing (i.e. communicate) the Lord’s song (the Gospel) in a foreign land (i.e. a post-Christendom, post-modern culture). At one point in the evening, we were encouraged to reflect on the question: What is ‘the Lord’s song’? The speaker suggested this famous story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 might form part of our answer. Among other things, the Lord’s song, he said, is a song of forgiveness, not judgement. John 3:16 may be the best known verse in the Bible and the most often cited explanation of what Christians mean when they talk about ‘the Gospel’, but we would do well to remember the verse which follows also: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” An essential part of the Gospel we proclaim is that through Jesus we are freed from the death sentence of our sin.

“Has no one condemned you?” I love the fact Jesus’ reputation is such that the scribes and Pharisees lay a trap for Him on the assumption that He will be too merciful, for that is how the story begins. A woman caught with her knickers down in bed with a man who isn’t her husband is dragged before Jesus as a test of how sound His theology is. Any Rabbi worth his salt would tell you that the punishment for adultery decreed in the Law was death. Clearly, the scribes and Pharisees were banking on Jesus contradicting that. They ask Jesus what He would do with her. Jesus says nothing, instead writing something in the ground with His finger; what, we don’t know and it doesn’t really matter. Finally, after they keep pestering Him to give an answer, Jesus says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one does. One by one, they slink off, led by the elders (who presumably were old enough and wise enough to know themselves at least reasonably well). Jesus and the accused woman are left alone, and Jesus asks her the question which is the subject of our reflection today: “Has no one condemned you?”

Earlier in the summer, I spent a few weeks participating in an open door retreat looking at Ignatian spirituality. One of the most profoundly powerful experiences I had during that time was during one particular session when the retreat leaders had set up a display of all different shape, size and colour rocks in the centre of the room with a plain handwritten sign in the midst of them reading: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” After seeing that, I recoiled immediately. My stomach turned. I felt myself withdraw further into my seat. I physically shrank back from the cold, hard stones before me. The thought of even touching one of those rocks repulsed me, let alone holding one of them in my hand to throw at another. In my mind, I did not dare go near them. In truth, I did not even want to look at them. They were a chilling reminder of all that could be hurled at me. In that moment, I saw myself under judgement—naked, vulnerable and exposed like the adulterous woman herself—and I knew that the only thing holding back their flight was the mercy of a God who, like the scribes and Pharisees had feared, is far too lenient with sinners.

“Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” the woman replies. And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.” And with that, she is sent on her way having had the slate wiped clean and been given a fresh chance at life. That is what Jesus does. By His death and resurrection, He frees us from what the General Confession before Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer calls the intolerable burden of our sins, and that so that we may ever hereafter serve and please Him in newness of life. As C. S. Lewis rightly, in my opinion, observes: “There is on each of us a load which, if nothing is done about it, will in fact break us, will send us from this world to whatever happens afterwards, not as souls but as broken souls.” In Christ, we have that weight taken from us. Our guilt, like that of the woman caught in the act of adultery, is irrefutable. The death sentence which hangs over us, like the woman’s own, is also entirely justified; indeed, justice demands it. But God doesn’t take it. Instead, Jesus dies for us, the righteous for the unrighteous, bringing us back to God (1 Pt. 3:18).

“Has no one condemned you?” God doesn’t. That is the Lord’s song. We have all been condemned at some point in our lives, I’m sure; whether by ourselves for some mistake for which we cannot forgive ourselves, or by a school teacher who told us we would never amount to anything, or by judge and jury for some crime we may have committed. Whoever else might condemn us; we can know for sure that God doesn’t. Our sins no longer have to define us; they no longer have to hang around our necks like a noose. As Charles Wesley so beautifully and eloquently puts it in the words of his famous hymn ‘And can it be’: Christ “breaks the power of cancelled sin.” In Christ, God does not condemn us and our sin no longer has any hold over us. We are free to go, free to sin no more. John Newton once wrote that God’s grace teaches our hearts to fear and also relieves the fears of our hearts. The question, then, is this: Do we live lives free from the fear of God’s condemnation? Do we know that in Christ we stand forgiven?

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown through Christ my own.

Have we experienced God’s mercy such that we can sing these words with Charles Wesley and truly own them for ourselves? O for so much greater a view of God’s mercy to embolden me to approach the throne, presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as my spiritual act of worship. “I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart” (Ps. 119:32).

Twenty Questions: #14 How Can A Man Be Born When He Is Old? (Jn. 3:4)

In the mouths of many, the term ‘born again Christian’ is a derogatory term. If you want an example of what I mean, type ‘born again Christian’ into Google, follow to the Urban Dictionary link and read the first entry posted there: “Born again Christians are the sect of Christianity for people who f****d it up the first time around.” Quod erat demonstrandum. (Though, in a sense, they are right—more on that later). Seemingly, in this usage, it refers to people who take their faith a bit too seriously; people who go to Church for more than the fine choral music tradition, the poetic lilt of the Book of Common Prayer in full flow, or a spot of religious hedge-betting on an afterlife they aren’t 100% sure exists. Often, it appears, ‘born again Christian’ is a label applied by detractors to those who reside in the more evangelical wing of the Church (and especially on the more conservative end). The question before us today, therefore, is one which has vexed many, I’m sure: “How can a man be born when he is old?” In other words, “What’s all this ‘born again’ malarkey about?”

I must confess to being quite amused by the entry on Urban Dictionary I cited earlier, because in once sense its very colourful definition of a ‘born again Christian’ is quite accurate. ‘Born again Christians’ are those who (to employ their terminology) “f****d it up the first time around.” We need to be born again because we have messed up; because we are sinners, spiritually dead and cut off from God. The difference between our understandings, however, is a grammatical one. ‘Born again Christian’ is one term, not two. The urban lexicographer in question seems to think that the term refers to people who are onto their second shot at being Christians. In reality, though, it is merely a description of what being a Christian is; to be Christian means to be born again. A similar misunderstanding is demonstrated by another urban lexicographer who writes: “The name born again implies they already f****d up the religion once.” Not quite. If anything, the name ‘born again’ implies that we have already f****d up life once.

I am intrigued by the views of those who hold the spurious supposition that being born again is a requirement only of people who really seem to have gotten their lives into a mess (naming, sex workers, drug addicts and alcoholics as supposed examples). Jesus’ words are quite clear: “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The irony is that Jesus wasn’t speaking those words to a notorious tax collector, or to the woman caught in adultery; He was speaking those words to a prominent Pharisee, “a ruler of the Jews,” (think, a bishop)! If spiritual rebirth is only for those we like to think of as ‘the really bad people’, Jesus here wasn’t merely preaching to the choir, He was preaching to the priest! No. The need for second birth is universal. Contrary to what many people may think, including some in churches on a Sunday, salvation isn’t for ‘good’ people (see reflection #9 in this series). What the necessity of second birth implies is that we need more than just a few lifestyle adjustments here and there to sort us out. Our sin is so serious is requires the birth of an entirely new person.

“How can a man be born again when he is old?” Jesus tells us simply: “Of water and the Spirit.” In other words, by baptism. The baptism of water means repentance; it is to put the old, sinfully self-centred person to death by drowning. The baptism of the Spirit, on the other hand, means regeneration (not in the Dr. Who sense); it is to be made alive to God and brought into union with Him by His Spirit. That is what Jesus means by saying, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Humans give birth to humans. Dogs give birth to dogs. The Spirit gives birth to what is spiritual. Indeed, in Greek to be ‘born again’ can also mean to be ‘born from above’. It is a description of where our new life comes from. Being reborn is a fundamental part of what it means to be Christian. As Paul so straight-forwardly puts it, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Being born again is not an optional extra for a particularly weird or devout branch of Christianity; quite simply, it is Christianity.

“How can a man be born when he is old?” By the Spirit of God, that’s how. To be born again means to be brought by God into a whole new life; it implies a complete overhaul of the self. For us to be “born of water and the Spirit” means for us to undergo a thorough transformation. In his letter to the Romans Paul exhorts us saying, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). That renewing of the mind is precisely what follows from being born again. We enter a new kind of infancy, having to relearn everything in light of our new identity in Christ. We do not quite understand how the Spirit works in us; the ways of the Spirit are mysterious, like the blowing of the wind. Nevertheless, we know that without the Spirit no one can be born again. Whether we are 8 years old or 88 years old, it makes no difference, a person can only be born again through the influence of the third person of the Trinity who the Nicene Creed calls, “The Lord, the giver of life” (for truly, that is what the Spirit does).

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Age makes no difference. We have all f****d up with God. We all need to be reborn and it’s never too late. John Wesley (no doubt drawing on Jesus’ own words in this passage) once remarked that “None can see the kingdom of God above, unless the kingdom of God be in him below.” It begs the question, therefore: Has the kingdom of God been born in us? It doesn’t have to be fully grown, fully mature; but is it there, even in its infancy? Have we, no matter how old we are, been born again, born from above into the life of God?