The dearth of doc­tri­nal preach­ing

The Church of England - - SUNDAY -

Cre­ate in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your pres­ence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Re­store to me the joy of your sal­va­tion, and sus­tain in me a will­ing spirit, Psalm 51:10-12

Lent be­gins next week and pre­sents us with the in­vi­ta­tion to press ‘pause’ and re-think our daily Chris­tian walk. Many themes around Lent are based on with­drawal, echo­ing Je­sus’ 40 days and nights in the desert prior to the be­gin­ning of his min­istr y. Alone in the wilder­ness, Je­sus wres­tled with Satan with Scrip­ture as his only weapon and his re­fusal to take the easy road led him to the cross and to our sal­va­tion.

There are many lessons to draw from this episode in Je­sus’ life but for the next few weeks this col­umn will be fo­cus­ing on the crit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween the in­ner life and the outer for ever y Chris­tian dis­ci­ple.

With­drawal is vi­tal so that we can be still and know that it is God who is leading us. We do not re­treat in or­der to stay put, how­ever, and if it re­ally is God who is leading us we may be sure that he will lead us deeply into the world in all its need. Spir­i­tu­al­ity is not a pri­vate, feel good ex­er­cise, what­ever cur­rent of­fer­ings un­der that head­ing seem to sug­gest.

Lent is a good an­ti­dote to false spir­i­tu­al­ity for it is a sea­son of pen­i­tence. It forces us to look at our­selves, but not in isolation. It con­fronts us with our­selves in the light of Je­sus Christ and so we can have no delu­sions about our­selves, nor when we look, do we need to de­spair.

The verses from Psalm 51 quoted at the be­gin­ning plead with God to cleanse and re­new us from the in­side out. Look at the verbs that form this prayer: cre­ate, put, re­store, sus­tain. Only God can do these things for us. It was God who cre­ated us in the be­gin­ning and gave us our heart, and he will give us a new heart that is rightly di­rected to­wards him (Ezek 36:26). When we are feel­ing jaded, a new spirit speaks to us of fresh new life and so the psalm ad­dresses the deep long­ings of hu­man hearts.

It is not sur­pris­ing that this new­ness is linked with joy, an emo­tion that is both ef­fer­ves­cent and deeply rooted. It too can fade and be­come tired with the daily round and needs the re­newal of God’s Holy Spirit. Gala­tians 5:22-3 re­minds us of the con­nec­tion be­tween the joy of the Lord and the Holy Spirit.

When we have been re­stored in this fash­ion we are rightly re­lated to God on the in­side and as a re­sult we are able to live well outwardly. Je­sus did not need to get right with God, but he was strength­ened for his mis­sion through his time in the wilder­ness. We also need times when we pay at­ten­tion to the in­ner life in or­der to fo­cus more clearly on what God wants for us in the ev­ery­day world. them­selves. Thirdly, people just do not have a grasp of doc­trine, and it is out of doc­trines that ideas are as­sem­bled to meet new sit­u­a­tions, not al­ways cov­ered by the text.

So why the ab­sence of doc­tri­nal teach­ing? One rea­son, as al­ready men­tioned, is that the pul­pit is now seen as the place for some­thing else. An­other, I sus­pect, is that people are sus­pi­cious of ‘doc­trine’. Have we not been told ‘doc­trine di­vides’? Yet in my work on the Church of Eng­land Evan­gel­i­cal Coun­cil, and in other ar­eas, I see evan­gel­i­cals di­vided as never be­fore in my life­time. If ‘doc­trine di­vides’, yet we are not teach­ing doc­tri­nally, what ex­actly is di­vid­ing us?

There is, how­ever, per­haps a third rea­son why doc­tri­nal teach­ing is so out of fash­ion, and that is that our teach­ers (the clergy, first and fore­most) don’t know how to teach it. Take the Trin­ity, for ex­am­ple. Few to­day are sug­gest­ing this doc­trine is op­tional or in­signif­i­cant. Yet how many clergy could give a co­her­ent ac­count of the Trin­ity? And how many laypeo­ple would feel con­fi­dent in as­sert­ing it to the Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses when they call (or to the Mus­lim at work)?

Yet it is my ob­ser­va­tion that doc­trine em­pow­ers! When people learn ba­sic doc­trine and be­gin to un­der­stand why they have been told what they have heard over the years from the pul­pit or the par­son, they feel con­fi­dent and equipped. That is why I am about to start a course in doc­trine for the churches in our dean­ery (not just the evan­gel­i­cal churches— all of them).

I am con­vinced that by the end of it, we will see people with their heads held metaphor­i­cally higher, when they grasp the truths they have re­ceived. And if this does in­deed strengthen the Church it may also help with its growth. 1st Sun­day of Lent - Sun­day 9th March 2014 Gen­e­sis 2:15-3:7 Ro­mans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11 This Sun­day’s read­ings com­pare and con­trast Je­sus Christ with Adam and with Is­rael, to show us that he is our obe­di­ent Saviour and right­eous Lord.

The nar­ra­tive of the Fall in Gen­e­sis demon­strates the cul­pa­bil­ity of Adam and Eve in turn­ing away from God’s good­ness and truth to fol­low the sub­tle cor­rupt­ing lies of the devil. God’s com­mand is clear and kind. His gen­eros­ity is abun­dant and the warn­ing ob­vi­ous. Yet that an­cient, crafty ser­pent opens the con­ver­sa­tion with the in­sin­u­a­tion of dis­be­lief and am­bi­gu­ity, to fa­cil­i­tate Eve’s down­fall. She adds to God’s word by fenc­ing it (adding “you shall not touch it” to what God had said about not eat­ing), though this is not what the sneaky snake latches onto.

His out­right de­nial of the spir­i­tu­ally dan­ger­ous im­pli­ca­tions of eat­ing are fol­lowed up im­me­di­ately by the prom­ise of great ful­fil­ment, and the ac­cu­sa­tion that she is be­ing de­ceived by some­one who only wants to keep her in her place.

Hav­ing ma­nip­u­lated the con­ver­sa­tion thus far, the sa­tanic crea­ture may even (as some con­jec­ture) have eaten the fruit him­self be­fore her; for how else would Eve see that “the tree was good for food”? Ei­ther way, hav­ing dis­obeyed God and lis­tened to the Siren voice of the ser­pent in­stead, she leads Adam into sin, per­suad­ing him in word and deed to join her in seek­ing what looked good, felt right, seemed harm­less, and promised sat­is­fac­tion. He fool­ishly fol­lows, and when the eyes of both are opened, it was too late. No fig leaf could cover the stain of sin; they have fallen from grace and only a bloody death can save and clothe them now (Gen­e­sis 3:15, 21).

Faced by the same ad­ver­sary, Je­sus’ re­sponse is very dif­fer­ent to Adam’s. It is part of our sal­va­tion, and a pat­tern for our sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion. The Spirit leads him in the way he needs to go to ful­fil his des­tiny as the sec­ond Adam. “O wis­est love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail, should strive afresh against the foe, should strive, and should pre­vail.”

The tempter comes to him, not when he has all the lav­ish trees of Eden to pro­vide for him but at a point of weak­ness and hu­man frailty. Af­ter 40 days of fast­ing in the desert, he was fam­ished (per­haps one of the great­est un­der­state­ments in scrip­ture!). Yet when it is im­plied that he can as­sert his iden­tity and sat­isfy his de­sires at the same time (“IF you are the Son of God, com­mand these stones to be­come bread”), he chooses a dif­fer­ent path. Three times he chooses the path that Moses taught the Is­raelites that they should walk in: trust­ing in God alone and the sat­is­fy­ing food of his word. When sul­phuric hermeneu­tics were wheeled out to muddy the wa­ters (verse 6), a trust­ing “it is writ­ten” con­vinced and sus­tained our Lord.

Ro­mans tells us that Adam is a “type” of Christ, and it is a point of con­trast that un­der­girds his teach­ing, as well as a point of sim­i­lar­ity. Sin came into the world through one man, and death, through him, came to all. Adam was clearly a real-time his­tor­i­cal fig­ure for Paul. So the right­eous obe­di­ence of an­other man has brought world­chang­ing im­pli­ca­tions too. Christ’s obe­di­ence has over­come Adam’s sin. But the free gift through Je­sus is not like the tres­pass of Adam, says Paul. His “abun­dance of grace and the free gift of right­eous­ness” bring en­joy­ment of life and free­dom from con­dem­na­tion, much more surely, to those who trust in God. All who be­long to Adam die; but all who be­long to Christ shall live. Lee Gatiss is Di­rec­tor of Church So­ci­ety and Edi­tor of the NIV Procla­ma­tion Bi­ble Praise to the holi­est in the height

And can it be? Awake, our souls; away, our fears From the squalor of a bor­rowed sta­ble

Lord Je­sus, think on me

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