The dearth of doctrinal preaching
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