Comments on BRIE

Subtle Christian Traits and all those comments

Subtle Christian Traits. I joined the group I think when it numbered a few thousand. The posts were witty and funny, and while some memes/posts had a small sting they were ‘loving’ jabs – the wounds of a faithful friend (cf Proverbs 27:6).

But as the group got larger the posts began to stray from the original intent of the group (“Our aim with this group was of course humour, but also embrace our not-so-subtle traits of edifying one another as brothers and sisters in Christ!”). A number of posts appearing with more pointed theological jabs, a couple of heretical posts (!), and a few really unfunny weird flex memes. Is that a bad thing? Well, I’m not the moderator or admin of the group, so I don’t have that strong of an opinion on the evolution of the group. In some ways, it was expected – the larger the group got the wider the umbrella would have to become to accommodate anyone claiming to be ‘Christian’. So this didn’t bother me.

What bothered me more were the comments section. Kevin DeYoung said it best:

Heaps of opinions and debates – and most concerning: heaps of opinions that appeared to be based on faulty foundations.

This is partly why I don’t engage much in comments or debates online anymore – despite the sometimes overwhelming temptation. I’ve personally found Facebook, and the comments section in general, to be such a bad forum for debates. Taking conversations offline, meeting someone in person – face to face, imagine that! – and thrashing out our differences with our Bibles open has been much more fruitful.

This differs from comments on my own personal wall/posts. Those I’ll generally engage with and interact with – you are my friends after all! But in public groups such as Subtle Christian Traits, and on other sites like Relevant of The Gospel Coalition, I personally feel the comments section are a bit of a waste of time.

But I know that some of my readers are often in the comments engaging with others – good on you. It’s not for me, but more power to you. For these friends, I’d like to give some encouragement on how to engage and how to think through why others engage the way they do. (This post is mostly sparked by a comment debate I’ve seen one friend get into with a stranger where I’ve realised my friend just didn’t seem to connect or understand where the stranger – a fellow Christian – was coming from).

So you’re in the comment section, you’re engaging with someone and sharing your thoughts, and they respond in a way that surprises you. You might be wondering why some Christians hold their positions so strongly. I’ve seen some comment debates derail before they even begin – and all for the same reason: Christians leaning on different authorities.

BRIE and Authority

In matters of faith and spirituality, we all lean on an authority to shape and form our opinions. The question is what authority are you leaning on?

Here’s where the acronym, ‘BRIE’ can be a helpful compass to orient where you might be in any given conversation.

BRIE stands for Bible (the Word of God), Reason (logic, arguments, human reasoning), Institutions (such as the Church, traditions, and history), and Experience (our feelings, emotions, and experiences in general).

When it comes to authority in our faith there can be a tendency to elevate one over the others in the position of supreme governing authority – and in turn that shapes how you view your faith and the world around you.

Elevating reason to first place is the tendency of liberal Christianity – where arguments and human reasoning have been used to argue against central doctrines like the resurrection and the trustworthiness of Scripture. The arguments have generally relied on things like science disproving miracles, or arguments of historical reconstructions to explain away parts of the Bible. But the main thing about this is that the Bible is filtered through the lens of reason, and when the two seem to conflict, human reasoning takes precedence.

Elevating institutions to first place is the tendency of Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity – where the traditions and history of the church have been used as the primary filter for interpreting the Bible. Start with a particular tradition or historical view and read the Bible through that lens. One example I’ve read of this is to find support for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory within the parable of the unforgiving servant (cf Matthew 18:34 where the master delivers the unforgiving servant over to the jailers ‘until he should pay all his debt’).

Elevating experience to first place is the tendency of charismatic influenced Christianity – where your experiences are relied upon and given authority, even if scripture says something different. Experiences are used as examples for other Christians to follow. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when experiences are authoritative, and alone form the foundation of wisdom and advice, then we run into problems. Experience becomes the lens by which we filter scripture. To give a somewhat controversial example: some argue that women can be pastors and preach to mixed congregations on the basis that they have experienced fruitful/helpful teaching from women pastors in the past.

By now, it should be clear that I intend to argue that we should elevate scripture to first place. But I want to be clear that in doing so I do not deny the use or truthfulness of reason, institutions, or experience. But I am arguing that whatever use or truth there might be must first be examined in the light of scripture’s governing authority. If my reasoning conflicts with scripture on matters of faith, then I must humbly submit the conflict to scripture and persevere in working it through (as opposed to just rejecting scripture in favour of human reason). If the institution or tradition conflicts with scripture, then I must reform the institution or tradition in the light of scripture. And I must understand my experience in the light of scripture as well – ensuring that the practice of faith is not dependent on an experiential moment alone.

Here are five reasons I think that on matters of faith and spirituality scripture should have supreme authority.

  1. Jesus prioritised the Word in his ministry. When he fended off Satan’s attacks in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), corrected the Pharisees’ misapplication of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-5) and traditions surrounding cleanliness (Mark 7:1-13), or pointed to what framed the purpose of his ministry (e.g. Luke 18:31, 22:37) Jesus put God’s Word front and centre. Scripture drove, shaped, and was the basis of his ministry.
  2. The Apostles prioritised the Word. When Peter explained the meaning of the apostles speaking in tongues, announcing the coming of God’s Kingdom with the death and resurrection of Jesus, his Pentecost sermon was saturated in scripture (Acts 2). When the Apostles later heard of the conversion of the Gentiles and the Holy Spirit descending upon them, they turned to Scripture to inform their understanding of these events (Acts 15:1-18). Scripture was used to filter these experiences.
  3. Paul used scripture to reason for the gospel. In the towering letter of Romans he reasons clearly that our perfect standing before God, our righteousness, is received by faith alone. In order to make this point (cf Romans 4:1-12) he refers to Abraham’s story in Genesis and quotes David from Psalm 32. Paul doesn’t use reasoning alone, but his reasoning is rooted in and shaped by Scripture.
  4. Paul would later declare that because ‘All scripture is God-breathed’ it made it perfect and sufficient for all our spiritual needs (cf 2 Timothy 3:14-16). The scripture being referred to here is the Old Testament, but as the Apostles wrote and affirmed each other’s writings as scripture (cf Peter’s equating of Paul’s writings as scripture in 2 Peter 3:15-16, and Paul’s quoting of Luke in 1 Timothy 5:18), and as the New Testament gospels and letters were affirmed and then canonised, it wasn’t inappropriate for the Church to then affirm Paul’s words in 2 Timothy as referring to all of scripture – the Old and New Testament.
  5. The church, during the Protestant Reformation, returned to prioritising scripture as the ultimate authority. It is a distinctive hallmark of reformed theology that the Bible rises above other forms of authority and is also constantly reforming our faith (in regards to our knowledge and practice), which is why the reformation movements kept returning to the Bible and asking, ‘What does scripture say on this subject?’ in order to work out the biblical fidelity of any doctrine or practice.

That’s five good reasons, I think, why scripture should be our chief authority in matters of faith and conduct. It makes further sense as well given that the other three aspects of authority are prone to change – institutions/traditions are always changing, reason and arguments are ever-evolving, and our experiences wax and wane constantly. In the middle of all that is the Bible – ever constant and unchanging. Yes it’s hard work to get to that unchanging message, but hard work should not stop us from keeping it at the centre and making it the first authority.

So what?

So what does this have to do with Facebook comments?

First, for my friends who engage themselves in online debate – knowing a bit about BRIE might help you work out why someone argues for their position. It helps us reflect and perhaps ask gentle questions about their position in more pointed, and prayerfully helpful ways.

Second, it helps us listen. Knowing which BRIE authority someone is elevating helps us to listen to why they lean on their position. In listening and understanding, can we then engage with what scripture has to say. I don’t think I’ve read or heard any Christian deny the authority of scripture over their lives – but perhaps they haven’t realised how much scripture speaks on a particular issue or train of thought. Perhaps they haven’t realised how much they rely on other sources of authority.

Third, it can help you work out when to call it quits. I had a short-lived debate with someone online once where I quickly discovered that his theological foundation was not only weirdly charismatic (emphasis on weirdly – even my charismatic friends would have found his position on things untenable) but he couldn’t and wouldn’t engage with the scriptural arguments I was putting forth. He began talking past my replies – not engaging with them at all – and at that point I realised it was fruitless to continue. I would have offered to meet up for coffee, but he lived overseas and I figured I didn’t have pastoral responsibility over him. So I pulled the plug.

So there you go. I hope that introduction was helpful. In what ways have you seen BRIE in action? Do you think there are other sources of authority I haven’t considered? Let me know in the comments below.






Ignite Training Conference 2015 [Live Blog]

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I really look forward to this conference each year. Fantastic speakers, great fellowship, mind blowing moments of theological clarity (and helping people come to these moments as well!).

This year’s conference has David Cook (former Principal of SMBC) and Charles Gajus taking us through the Atonement. Live blogging quotes will come over the next few days. So bookmark this post for further updates.


Monday Morning – Talk 1 – David Cook [Galatians 1:1-2:21]

Some gems from this morning’s talk:

On the relevance of Galatians for today…

  • When Luther was asked about the Bible he said that Galatians was his Katie Von Bora (his wife) – it was his favourite book.
  • The people in the book moved from unbelief, to belief, to mis-belief – a tragic movement away from the gospel.
  • Maybe your greatest enemy in your spiritual walk is yourself – slowly, perhaps imperceptibly you begin to believe you add to your salvation, or that the health of your relationship with God is based on your own performance.

On Peter’s rebuke from Paul…

  • the besetting sin of a loving nature is the desire to please everyone… and to offend no one

On Galatians 1-2’s strong stance on ‘the gospel alone’…

  • the cross has changed everything – the sacrificial system, the food laws, the special laws and days in the calendar are redundant. To restore these is to become a law-breaker… Christ’s cross made the law redundant, and to re-institute the necessity of the law (or necessity of obedience to man made rules) is to actually be a transgressor…
  • My relationship with God does not depend on my performance – my status with God on a good day is the same as it is on a bad day – because our relationship with God depends on our standing in Jesus.
  • Anyone who says, ‘I’m a Christian…but not a very good one’ may have no real understanding of the gospel
  • The element of necessity destroys the truth of the gospel


Monday Night – Talk 2 – Charles Gajus [ Mark 7, Psalm 51, Romans 3]

On how the topic of ‘Atonement’ sounds…

  • Is there more to atonement than just ‘Jesus dying for our sins.’? Yes. If you rightly understand the topic as is revealed in scripture, when you dig deep you will find a highly, inexhaustibly, practical doctrine.
  • The atonement provides us the means of right relationship with God, and in the atonement we also have the motivation and model of right relationship with God!
  • God’s love for us by sending Jesus is both the gateway of our faith, the destiny of our future, the basis for our hope and the basis for our love

On Mark 7 and the real problem of humanity…

  • When we think about the world headlines of late – Lindt café, Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram, etc – it’s tempting to think that if we got rid of the evil elements, evil people, then there would be paradise… Jesus makes the point (in Mark 7) that sin is from within – we’re all sinners, we’re all evil. Not only with the potential for evil but also a propensity, an inclination towards sin and rebellion against God – that makes us seek moral perversity. We are, therefore, in great, deep need, of atonement – not rehabilitation, not counselling, not an understanding of neuro science/plasticity, not education… atonement.

On Psalm 51 and the devastation of sin…

  • Sin is serious – not just because of the damage we do to others or ourselves, sin is serious because it is against God
  • Because sin is against God we need no rehabilitation, counselling or education… we need reconciliation, restoration of relationship: we need atonement!

On why God forgives/atones…

  • The fact that David calls upon God’s character for atonement is crucial to understand – the motive and drive for God to show mercy for salvation is not something external of God himself, but from within!
  • It’s not the circumstances that drive God’s forgiveness – it’s from within him, it’s his very character, where he finds the motivation to forgive
  • When God makes atonement through his Son Jesus Christ, yes it is an act of grace and we are recipients of mercy, but it is done in order to behold and see God’s inner character that was there from the very beginning – God has always been love, before the world was formed there was love, before the world began there was a propensity to show mercy

On readjusting our understanding of who is at the center of the Gospel…

  • Atonement doesn’t begin with you or end with you – it begins with God’s grace and mercy, and it ends for his glory, praise God for the salvation we received in between!


Tuesday morning – Talk 3 – David Cook [Galatians 3:1-29]

On the idiocy of the Galatians…

  • ‘O you dear idiots of Galatia’ – JB Philip
  • Sounds harsh – but it’s true – you’ve turned the gospel window which is about looking through to Jesus and his achievements and turned it into a mirror of your own performance and achievement

On the Galatians acting contrary to their experience (cf Gal 3:1-5)…

  • Do you believe that God’s activity in your life is a reward for you because you’ve been good?

On the ‘gospel alone’ for our salvation…

  • God is our heavenly father and we come into the family through faith in the big brother Jesus Christ – with no condition that you must continue being good otherwise you’ll be kicked out

On the implications of Galatians 3…

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek… we are all one in Christ. All usual barriers are gone – ethnic, economic, gender – all irrelevant, all removed. Only category that matters – are you in Christ or not? There is no superior or inferior, no chauvinism – there is diversity of colour, taste, hobby – there is no flat uniformity – there is diversity in Christ!
  • If it somehow depends on ‘me’, that Jesus has done his bit and I need to add my bit – if God takes 999 out of 1000 steps and asks us to take the final one – then we’ve got it wrong. In Biblical Christianity God never relates to me as we relate to others – ie if I do this for you then you do this for me. It is all by grace – we cannot deserve it – I come trusting the merits of Jesus alone.

On what one should do If you come from a church that is strong on ‘doing things’, and assumes or lessens grace…

  • Be respectful, but you can’t be silent. Be prayerful, wait for your time, find and give good literature – and whatever you do bend over backwards to be respectful of the situation.


Tuesday Night – Talk 4 – Charles Gajus

On what happens when we forget the atonement…

  • The atonement must have pride of place in the Christian faith – without highlighting it, without realising where it is we are very likely to replace it with something else
  • When we forget it, we will be tempted to atone for our mistakes on our own
  • Sometimes in our guilt, in our lack of ability to grasp was has been done – we grasp for something else to give us confidence that God accepts us – bible study, being at the right church, going to conferences
  • When we feel as though we are distant from God that is when we feel like we have to do something more
  • This problem gives shape for the solution – and the only solution and shape that will solve the problem for us is the Cross of Christ

On the ritual sacrifices of the Old Testament…

  • Animal sacrifices were God’s visual aids to symbolise the deep penalty for sin (death), and also that something else can die in our place!
  • This repetition [of animal sacrifices] highlights that this was not the solution that can take away our sins – the ritual itself symbolised what it needed


Wednesday Morning – Talk 5 – David Cook [Galatians 4:1-31]

On the arguments so far in Galatians…

  • First argument: there is only one gospel, only one way to salvation – faith in Jesus Christ. This one gospel is a divine gospel, it has not come by discovery or research – but by God himself by revelation to Paul. It is by faith in Christ and not works of the law that we receive the Spirit – not as a trophy for keeping the law.
  • Second argument: God’s covenant is based on promise – cannot be based on anything or conditioned by the keeping of the law. Two contrasting ways – faith in Christ vs works of the Law.
  • Third – all spiritual blessing comes through faith in Jesus Christ – not works of the law, it is never deserved. I am adopted into the family, initiated into Christ, clothed with Christ, Abraham’s seed, heir of the promise – and all because of Jesus.
  • We would love for God to be in our debt – I do this, God owes me – but God always relates to us on the basis of his own glory, on that which will glorify him. It’s based not on my doing, but on his doing – and his alone – and all glory to him.

On the great hymn ‘Rock of Ages’ and the line ‘be for sin the double cure’…

  • Rock of Ages – be for sin ‘the double cure’ – that is, through the cross not only am I forgiven of guilt but I am given the Holy Spirit who empowers me to say no to the sin nature and give myself over to the right master

On the rational argument of 4:1-11…

  • The argument is this: you’re acting as idiots – how can you turn back to the old ways of slavery when you’ve now been set free – how can you do this?! How could a POW yearn to go back to a POW Camp?!?!

On Paul’s pastoral plea and what it’s like to be a pastor…

  • Being a Pastor is like being a pregnant woman but the pregnancy never ends… – a pregnant woman has relief after 9 months, but for a Pastor the relief never ends…
  • V19 – Paul is in anguish for them until the ‘fetus of Christ is formed in them’ – he wants Christ to be reformed/reshaped in them – this is what he stresses and anguishes over them…constantly…
  • V20 – this wonderful note – you are dear idiots, and I wish I was with you so I could really chat to you, change my tone – be tender – it’s hard to write all this

On the tragedy of turning back to bondage through ‘doing good stuff’…

  • There is something strangely appealing in going back to bondage – why do people go on pilgrimages – why do people tick off ‘to do’ lists – it’s all so impressive, but it’s all so rebellious
  • Why is it that people are driven in good things and their motivation is evil in supplementing the work of Christ?
  • How tragic it is for even sincere people to lose their freedom
  • Have I been good enough, have I done enough? No you haven’t, no you have not been good enough.


Wednesday Night – Talk 6 – Charles Gajus

On the persistence of sin in a believer’s life…

  • When we come to Jesus in faith there is usually big changes in your life – perhaps you stopped swearing, sleeping around, deleted all your pirated movies, started going to church, supporting missionaries and giving to the work of the gospel… and as time continues you also see that you continue to obviously sin… but in ‘respectable’ ways
  • The older you get, the more clever you get at sinning

On ‘sinning more so grace increases’…

  • The gospel is not, ‘Now that sin has been paid for we can continue in it!’ You sinning more does not make Jesus’ death and grace greater… in fact you disgrace the gospel.

On Christ’s new life as our life…

  • The good news of the gospel is that Jesus death was satisfactory for our sins, and God raised him back to life because he was satisfied with his death and his life – and God raised him to life and this is a promise that if we put our faith in him and have died with him then we too will be raised with him
  • The certainty of this new life, this perfected life, this life appropriate to be in the presence of God forever, is guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection
  • What kind of people will we be when Christ returns in the future? Be that kind of person now.

On how the above point is motivation for change, but where does change come from?

  • Lots of people who are ‘good’ – good Muslims, generous atheists, former alcoholics… how do they have the power to change and why do we struggle so much?
  • Neuro Science/Plasticity – growing optimism, as long as we understand how the brain functions we can change – use your brains
  • The Christian faith has always recognised the function of the brain (cf Col 3 ‘set your minds’, Rom 6:6 ‘we know’, 6:8 ‘we believe’ Rom 12:2 ‘transformed by the renewal of your mind’)
  • But is this just about positive thinking? The placebo effect? Mind over matter?
  • Knowing the gospel changes and transforms us it removes from us the power of anxiety…
  • The problem: putting confidence in the brain still keeps you a sinner…
  • The power of the gospel: you can look forward to salvation, even when you have doubts and struggle with faith
  • Yes a Christian and non-Christian can look like they live the same life – but the transformation of the gospel is much more vast and profound – it’s a change ultimately in destiny

On what is the power of God to change our lives…

  • 2 Peter 1:33ff – God’s divine power has given us everything we need to gain life and godliness… through the knowledge of him!


Thursday Morning – Talk 7 – David Cook [Galatians 5:1-26]

On two things that always go together…

  • Love and marriage (ie – the Frank Sinatra song), burgers and chips, Chinese Churches and rice

On getting the order of preaching right…

  • The imperative must always follow the indicative – the indicative mood is generally a statement about what God has done, the imperative mood is generally implications and applications
  • David’s concern regarding Chinese preaching generally: ethical exhortation divorced from redemptive environment – too much preaching about what you must do and too little on why you must do it
  • Paul’s thesis in Galatians: the moment a person has been redeemed that will overflow into love and service of others

On the two enemies of the gospel of grace by faith alone…

  • Legalism: self-salvation – that I can save myself or add to my salvation by keeping a code of rules. by obedience, and/or by conformity
  • Two things flow from self-salvation: 1) Christ will be of no value to you at all; and 2) if you come under one part of the law you come under the whole law and are obligated to keep it all, which is impossibly demanding – legalism and salvation by Christ are necessarily contradictory (even if what you are doing are ‘good’ things)
  • License: self-regulation – we are called to be free, but when I regulate myself I end up serving myself and indulging myself, which is why Paul stresses we are free… to serve one another (cf 5:13)

On the work of the Holy Spirit…

  • The Holy Spirit is the shy member of the Trinity – always pointing away from himself and towards Jesus
  • When we look at the ‘Fruit of the Spirit’ (5:22ff) we need to take all 9 as a whole – we do not pick and choose which ones to be strong in and weak in
  • The fruit are achieved not by ‘letting go and letting God’, but by actively slaying the sinful nature and keeping in step with the Spirit (cf 5:24)
  • An active volcano might not always be belching smoke, but it’s still a volcano! Our sinful nature might not always grip us, but it’s still our sinful nature…
  • Our sin nature always tempts with satisfaction, but it NEVER happens because it is a LIAR
  • So you talk to it – Sin nature, you are a liar – I will shut you up and not listen to you
  • In creation we see God over us, in the incarnation we see God with us, and in Pentecost we see God within us – Matthew Henry


Thursday Night – Talk 8 – Charles Gajus

On the Atonement so far…

  • Besides the atonement being the means of salvation, or motivation of new life, or empowering way of achieving this new life, the final way the atonement functions in the life of faith is also that it provides a model for us to follow – as teacher, as trainer, as that which we must imitate

On the death of Jesus to please God first…

  • cf Eph 5:1 – God gives himself up for us, but does it as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God – we think everything is done for us, even in Jesus death, but here in 5:1-2 he loves us such that he would sacrifice himself to please God!
  • We are called to love the unlovable, the irritable – but following Christ means loving others not just for them but to do it for God
  • cf Phil 2 – imitate Christ as he puts the interest of others ahead of our own – but we get this wrong: Jesus didn’t put our interest ahead of his… rather, Jesus takes the form of a servant (to God) humbling himself (before God) – who does Jesus put ahead of his own interests? God the Father.

On the Spirit and the Word functioning together…

  • The Word of God and the Spirit of God go together like a horse and carriage – in creation the Spirit is hovering, then the word speaks and creation is made – we cannot expect the Spirit to grow us and change us and lead us to become those who are kingdom people if you don’t know your bible
  • If you don’t know the bible or Jesus or the Spirit and how they are revealed in the bible then how can we follow and imitate them?
  • Keep in step with the spirit – what are we to do? Open the bible – for there the Spirit is
  • Gal 5:16ff – God’s word gives us the very leading of the Spirit! Gal 6:17ff – the sword of the spirit is the gospel! The indicative and the imperatives are the means by which the Spirit leads.

On the disarming of Satan…

  • As soon as Jesus has come and died in our place he has released people from the grips of sin and fear of death – there is no longer any accusation from the devil that we deserve death – the devil now roams like a lion who has lost his teeth – if you are a Christian who has learned the truth you can laugh at his lies because the truth has been revealed


Friday Morning – Talk 9 – David Cook [Galatians 6:1-18]

On the idea that ‘Where the Spirit is, there is peace…’

  • Where the Spirit is, there is spiritual conflict – the Spirit is in conflict with the sinful nature!
  • cf 6:1 – notice that this is addressed to those who are spiritual – not just elders of the church – if you are spiritual then it’s your general responsibility to make sure that your brother or sister in Christ who is addicted to a sinful pattern is confronted – and restore them (‘restore’ has the idea of medicine restoring health)
  • The restorative person will not just point a finger, but will lift and bear the burden of another– a legalistic person will just point the finger at wrongdoing…

On the idea that ‘Where the Spirit is, the Word is unnecessary…’

  • Where there is the Spirit the Word is crucially necessary
  • The Word is essential – some put a wedge between the Spirit and the Word – but the Spirit breathes these words out so to be a Spirit man is to be a Word man
  • Those who have given up their livelihood for this should be appropriately paid for the job – the job of Pastor/teacher is very stressful, and it’ll be even harder if they are struggling to feed their family as well

On the idea that ‘Where the Spirit is, reality is suspended…’

  • Reality is not suspended within a Spirit-led community
  • There is a very concrete and universal principle that operates in this community – do not be deceived – do not be misled by unreality – do not mock God and his Word – if you do there will be serious consequences, serious reality to face
  • This letter is all about justification by faith – but the bottom line is that doing good is the fruit of faith in Jesus Christ so do not slack off in doing them

On the idea that ‘Where the Spirit is, boasting about ourselves is appropriate…’

  • Paul’s boast – the cross of Jesus, justification by faith in that ALONE
  • It doesn’t mean a thing what sort of race, height, gender…etc… you are – what counts is the new creation! What matters is the new birth, the new creation – if you make this the priority of life then there is peace and mercy
  • cf 2 Cor 11:21ff – I’ll boast of my weakness which shows the greatness of Christ
  • If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him – CT Studd


That’s it from this ‘live blog’ (which wasn’t that live :P). Were you there and did I miss anything? What were some of the nuggets of gold you picked up from the talks? Put them in the comments below.


Solus Christus: Christ Alone

Solus Christus


A couple of months back I began blogging through the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation. I pick it up again with post #3 – Solus Christus: Christ Alone.


A few years ago I was privileged enough to be able to travel around Europe on tour. One site visit will remain etched in my memory – primarily because photography wasn’t allowed at that moment! It was in the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. In the middle of one area, above the altar, was an incredibly ornate mosaic of Christ, seated on his throne. On one side, devils were pulling people into Hell with all its tortures. On the other side, Catholic Saints were pulling people up into heaven.

While in France visiting the Cathedral of Notre Dame, a tour guide showed us some wooden carved reliefs on the inside of the cathedral. She noted that in a time when literacy rates were low, the next best thing the church could do was to give people pictures of gospel scenes in order to educate them about the gospel itself. I noted that in quite a few of these scenes Mary featured quite heavily – even in scenes where she is absent in the biblical text.

When Luther finally protested against the abuse of indulgences, his reforms extended over many other sacrosanct beliefs of the Catholic Church – including the place of the Pope, the Priesthood, and other Saints.

In Catholic theology a priest essentially acts as a mediator between God and the people. And while some may disagree, one only needs to ask the question ‘who may perform the Lord’s Supper’ to realise that unless an official priest performs the role it is not a valid mass.

Going further, the Pope is chief among priests – in fact, there is an inscription at the Cathedral known as ‘Pauls Outside the Walls’ in Rome to John Paul II with the title ‘Pont. Max’, or Pontifex Maximus: Chief High Priest in Latin.




Then we have the Saints who, in Catholic theology, are defined as those who are righteous in life, and have performed verifiable miracles in either life or death. A system of canonisation is required by the church before someone is officially recognised as a Saint. Saints can be prayed to as mediators between God and people.

So this is where the doctrine of ‘Sola Christus’ helps mark out Protestant theology from Catholic theology.



Our salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of the historical Christ alone. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to the Father.


Scriptural backing:

I’d argue that one of the central tenets of the New Testament is that Jesus is not only the Son of God and Christ but only through him do we receive faith and salvation.

Of the most obvious references to this: John 3:36, John 14:6, 1 Timothy 2:5, Romans 5:12-21, Galatians 2:15-16, 1 Corinthians 15:22


What does Sola Christus mean:

  • It means that all our hope, assurance, security, identity are founded upon Christ – and Christ alone
  • It means there is no need for a Pope to act as our earthly mediator, nor for the need to pray to Saints or Mary as heavenly mediators (a role fulfilled by Christ alone)
  • It means that those who reject Jesus will necessarily remain under the just condemnation of death
  • It is denied that the gospel is preached if Christ’s substitutionary work is not declared and faith in Christ and his work is not pleaded for


What does Sola Christus not mean (impossible applications):

  • It does not negate the need to understand who Christ is as revealed in Scripture – the two are inseperable (this objection goes to the false dichotomy that scripture and the Christ of scripture are two separate things – and that focus should be given to Christ rather than scripture)
  • It does not negate the need for elders and bible teachers to teach us the things of Christ
  • It does not negate the need for holiness or perseverance – Christ’s name cannot be invoked in the face of ungodly living


Put simply: Salvation and faith are made possible for man only by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can therefore not add to Christ’s saving work, nor should we try to.



When we see salvation whole, its every single part is found in Christ, And so we must beware lest we derive the smallest drop from somewhere else.” – Sinclair B Ferguson, In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centred Life

Sola Fide: Faith Alone

Sola Fide


This is the second in our series on the Five Solas of the reformation. The first dealt with Sola Gratia: Grace Alone. This post looks at Sola Fide: Faith Alone.

Faith Alone relates to our justification – our status before God as right and acceptable to his sight. So with the help of Theopedia again, here is a definition for Sola Fide:

Justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Our justification does not rest on any merit to be found in us, nor upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, nor that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.

Justification by faith alone stands as the doctrine which split the church during the reformation. Martin Luther reacted to the misuse of indulgences – papal writs which, after the payment of a sizeable fee, would absolve the sinner from punishments and cleansing in purgatory allowing straight access into heaven. To Luther this was not only a misuse of indulgences (reading through his 95 Theses it’s clear that he wasn’t necessarily against them, but was against their abuse and misuse) but, after reading the New Testament, completely at odds with the way in which God allows people to stand upright before him. He would later write:

“I had been captivated with a remarkable ardour for understanding Paul in the epistle to the Romans.  But up until then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single saying in chap. 1, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ that stood in my way.  For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous.  Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience.  I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction.  I did not live, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.  Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God.  Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Finally by the mercy of God, as I meditated day and night, I paid attention to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’  Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.  This, then, is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, viz. the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous one lives by faith.’  Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.  There a totally other face of all Scripture showed itself to me.  And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.  Then I ran through Scripture, as I could from memory, and I found an analogy in other terms, too, such as the work of God, i.e.,, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.” (emphasis mine)

Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings [1545],” in Luther’s Works 34:336-37; WAusg 54.185-86


Scriptural backing:

In some ways this is one of the major doctrines taught by the New Testament generally, and Paul’s letters in particular. Key verses include Romans 1:17, 3:28, 4:5, 5:1, and Galatians 3:24.

While James 2:24 seems to suggest the opposite, contextually James is arguing that a life justified by faith will be revealed in good works, and therefore a life which claims justification by faith but has no works is a life probably not justified in the first place. Paul says something similar, from a different angle, in 2 Corinthians 5:17.

In light of that…


What does Sola Fide mean:

  • The sole foundation of our justification is the righteousness of God imputing the perfect righteousness of His Son to the believer by faith alone
  • It is faith only, not our deeds in any way, that connects us savingly to Jesus Christ
  • Justification must not be confused with sanctification. Justification is a once off, perfect and whole event, applied to the believer perfectly by faith alone. Sanctification is the ongoing process of gradual transformation from brokenness to Christ-likeness. When a Christian confuses the two then justification is seen as a process by which we are made right before God gradually by the carrying out of good works. I’ve seen this most often with Christians who chide themselves and feel guilt for not choosing to do something more ‘godly and productive’ with their time (but also see point 2 below).
  • Coupled with Grace Alone, it is the ultimate root of joy in the Christian life and the ultimate foundation for ongoing Christian living (sanctification)


What does Sola Fide not mean (impossible applications):

  • Justification by faith alone does not mean we are free to sin (cf the argument in Romans 6)
  • Justification by faith alone does not mean we are free to not do good works – as mentioned above, good works are the result of justification not a means to earn it
  • Justification by faith does not mean it is the act of faith which is the justifying righteousness – faith connects us to Christ who becomes your righteousness in God’s sight


Put simply: Faith alone, rooted in Grace alone, demonstrates the great kindness, mercy and sovereign grace of God. Our entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only – and its application by faith alone demonstrates the free and sovereign grace of God in justifying sinners.


Great quotes:

This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. – Martin Luther

Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. – John Calvin

Sola Gratia: Grace Alone

Sola Gratia

So Fred Phelps, infamous Pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, is in the news again. From all the reports online he’s close to death. There have also been many reports that he was excommunicated from his church back in August 2013 – though for reasons as yet unknown. Should Phelps pass away soon it will be the end of a sad chapter in independent Baptist church history.

For someone who claimed to be reformed theologically what he taught and how he lived could not have been further from those truths.

I didn’t intend to start this series of posts on such a low note, but Phelp’s life and ministry bring into sharp contrast what is reformed theology generally. What are its distinctives, and importantly, what are its implications.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be taking a look through the ‘5 Solas’ of the Protestant Reformation. In 1517 a young Catholic priest by the name of Martin Luther came to the conclusion that the Catholic church’s teaching on indulgences and faith was wrong. Initially wanting a more scholarly debate on the issue, a series of events lead Luther’s excommunication. A melting pot of powerful political backers, various social movements, and the invention of the printing press kept Luther’s ministry going and increased his influence and teachings in ways not felt by other previous reformers. Luther’s influence, as well as that of other Reformers who followed, changed Western society as we know it today.

To summarise the Reformer’s basic theological principles, and especially to contrast them to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the ‘5 Solas’ emerged. They are catchy and work well as memorable slogans.

The 5 Solas, Latin for ‘alone’, are as follows (in no particular order):

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Sola Christus – Christ Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God Alone

The format of this series is going to be fairly simple. A brief introduction will be followed by a basic definition, scriptural backing, and its implications.

And as you can see from the above banner, we’re starting with Sola Gratia – Grace Alone.

Here’s a basic definition as provided by Theopedia:

By grace alone is from the Latin Sola gratia, one of the five Solas of the Reformation emphasizing that our justification before God and our resulting salvation are both solely by the sovereign distinguishing grace of God and not dependant on any action or condition provided by man.

Scriptural Backing:

Ephesians 2:1-9; Romans 3:22b-25, 5:15; 2 Timothy 1:9, Titus 3:7, Hebrews 2:9, 1 Peter 1:3-10


What does Sola Gratia mean (implications):

  • It acknowledges that apart from the divine initiative of God alone, salvation is impossible to achieve by human effort or merit
  • It means that we cannot add anything to God’s work of salvation on the Cross – we come with empty hands
  • It means that Christians have total security and assurance of faith, for grace does not rest on the performance of religious duty but on God alone (cf Romans 8)
  • It gives the Christian sure footing in our fight against sin – though we are not yet free from the presence of sin, we are freed from the reign of sin
  • It forms the basis for our ongoing sanctification – Christians are not saved by grace and live by works, but God working in us to save and transform


What does Sola Gratia not mean (impossible implications):

  • It does not mean that we are free to sin more and more that grace might increase (cf Romans 6:15-23)
  • It does not nullify the necessity for faithful perseverance in faith, but grounds all perseverance in the news of underserved security and assurance of faith by grace
  • It does not mean that God’s salvation is cheap – grace is given freely at the truly expensive cost of His Son


Put simply: Grace alone is the only sufficient basis for the start, end, and middle of Christian faith and living. It is without fail, cannot be added to or mixed with anything, allows for no boasting, and ultimately leaves all glory to the Lord. (reworded from here)


QTC Reflections

It’s coming up to Christmas shortly and I got an early present: my results from this semester’s studies. And the results are good, so I finally graduate after what has been, honestly, three of the best years of my life so far. Spending hours and hours each week studying and being trained to think through God’s Word will, I hope, produce a fruitful life of ministry.

Recently I’ve been greatly encouraged by the increasing number of people in my circles who are interested in and seriously considering theological education. While I don’t think study is for everyone, I generally wholeheartedly encourage study for those who are willing, able and available.

After three years here are some of my reflections on my time at College. Some useful, some slightly more trite. Over the coming years I will most likely expand upon these as ministry and theology meet with experience. But the following few points I hope will be an encouragement and food for thought for those considering the jump.

Learn to see that godly people will disagree, and that’s OK.

I’m speaking specifically about non-crucial matters of faith and salvation. Whether in writing or in person, people will disagree. There are some further things to say on this:

  • Take care not to overplay theological dominoes, aka the slippery slope argument – just because you might hold a particular view doesn’t necessarily mean you also believe some of the logical out-workings of that view (ie, holding to an old earth view of creation doesn’t automatically mean you’re an evolutionist).
  • Learn what hills are worth dying on – there are lots of fights to fight in theological studies, but most of them are not fights people fight in church on Sunday – so learn what it is that you’ll fight for, and what it is you’re willing to leave for the sake of relationships and ministry.

Learn to live with tension

A common error in biblical interpretation is to so focus on or emphasise one view that it becomes detrimental to another equally valid view. Quite a number of tensions exist in scripture not because of its ambiguity but because of its clarity, and it appears that scripture is happy to live with these tensions (eg. the debate over the extent of Christ’s atonement). So be careful of overstating your case to the detriment of what scripture actually says.

Another common error in relation to this is presenting arguments in a false dichotomy. It’s annoying when you’re reading through some material and they’ve caricatured a closely held doctrine. So don’t be hasty in your presentation of an argument. Do it honestly and faithfully, that your ‘enemy’ would sit there listening to you and agree with your presentation.

Grow a robust view of scripture

Quite often our reading of scripture is pretty narrow. By this I mean we tend to usually take the literal meaning of a text at face value and move on. My three years at College have taught me that scripture is more robust: it invites us to pause more often to consider how it should be read and applied.

Faithfulness does not necessarily equate to a narrow reading of scripture – artistry and beauty are two lenses which give equally (sometimes more) satisfying explanations of some difficult texts. This takes more time and effort, but is worth it.

Why so serious?

One of the best pieces of advice I heard early at College was from a long-term ministry worker who said he had learnt in his time to ‘harden up theologically, but soften up relationally’. He had learnt that we shouldn’t treat our relationships like we treat theology: calculated, dispassionately and theoretically. So while I would say that you must take theology seriously, you yourself are not ‘theology’ so don’t be so serious!

Along with this, use College Missions not just as an avenue to serve churches, but as an opportunity to build friendships and networks that will last you into ministry. It took me three missions to learn this, don’t waste yours.

Non-College Activity

It surprised me during my final year that many people did not have clear interests or hobbies. I want to argue that it’s good to develop outside interests while at College. Things that can help you unwind and take your mind off ministries, things that can help you relate to others on a different level and things that you might be able to build a creative ministry around. So get into it!

Learn to Read Scripture Pastorally

Essays are at once a challenging and rewarding exercise while at College. You’ll have very few opportunities in ministry life to research and write to the same depth as you do during studies. But it comes at a price as it’s widely reported that most people coming out of College tend to write their sermons like they write their essays.

So while you’re writing your essays keep an eye on your clarity. Take the time during your studies to ensure that you know how to clearly put forward an argument in your essay, and translate that to your teaching generally.

Finally, as you’re reading through your essays take some time out to think through the question pastorally. This may not work for every essay, but for most of them some pastoral reflection will do your heart much good, and it will keep you thinking about how God’s word speaks to yourself and to others.


There are my thoughts. If you’re a recent graduate or have been in ministry a few years, what would you add?

The Cross and the ‘Occupy’ Movement – Part 2

I recently saw this clip:

If the video doesn’t work you can watch it from this blog here.

It reminded me why I agree with some of the issues raised by the ‘Occupy’ movement but won’t participate in the movement itself. Below is the answer I gave to a recent (take-home) exam question for my Theology subject (Doctrines of Christ and God) which I think sums up my thoughts on it.

Which biblical perspective or theme in relation to the atonement is of greatest relevance to the late-modern West? Give reasons for your answer.

Many theories of the atonement have been espoused over the centuries.[1]

The ‘Ransom Theory’, originally suggested by Origen, holds that Christ’s death was paid to Satan as a ransom for all people. Suffice to say that this theory lacks much textual support.

The ‘Moral Influence Theory’ put forward by Abelard suggests that Christ’s death was primarily for the demonstration of God’s love for humanity and his identification with their suffering. The difficulty with this theory is that there are many scriptures which speak of Christ’s death for sin and as a propitiation, it robs from the atonement any sense that God is affected, and does little to deal with the problem of our guilt.

The ‘Example Theory’ advocated by the Socinians argues that Christ’s death is simply provided as an example of how to trust and obey God perfectly, even to the point of death. Many problems exist in this theory: its overstated use of 1 Peter 2:21; its neglect of many passages which speak of Christ’s death for other reasons; and that it can lead followers to believe that salvation is not found in faith but in doing good works and following the example of Christ.

The ‘Governmental Theory’ as first put forward by Grotius states that Christ’s death is not necessarily for the penalty of any sins, but as a reminder that when God’s laws are broken a penalty must be paid. Like the other theories the problem with this theory is that it fails to take into account many scriptures which speak of Christ’s death for sins and for the penalty of sins. Further it removes from the atonement the satisfaction of God’s justice and focuses the attention on Christ’s death as a matter of influencing us to realise that God’s laws must be kept, implying that Christ’s death is not to be relied upon for forgiveness of sin.

Other theories, such as the ‘Mystical Theory'[2] and the ‘Theory of Vicarious Repentance'[3] have also come and gone, and both have been severely criticised for lacking textual support.[4]

When we consider our Western society and culture and how these theories of atonement interact with it, we can see that the theories are all found wanting. All the theories, with the exception of the ‘Moral Influence’ theory, assume some form of Christian worldview which society agrees to live by. This is simply not the case in our world today. The ‘Moral Influence’ theory offers up some form of engagement, but it offers up a rather emasculated God.

Instead, what our world is crying out for is a number of things, all of which are, interestingly, articulated in the global ‘Occupy’ movement. The proclaimed representation of the so-called ‘99%’, despite its fragmented presentation, is essentially looking for trustworthy leadership, justice, and love.

Trustworthy leadership, justice and love. All of which can be found in the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement.[5]

First, in regards to trustworthy leadership, in this theory we find that we can trust that God, the ultimate leader, is being truthful. In bringing about the death of His Son, God maintains the truthfulness of His Word regarding sin and death. The tension is built when we realise that Adam’s sin brought death and corruption into this world. God’s dilemma is that He cannot tolerate death and corruption, yet he warned Adam that should he eat of the fruit then death would follow. The tension is resolved by God reversing the corruption and stain of death without breaking his original word to Adam. Jesus’ substitutionary death maintains God’s Word while reversing the curse.

Second, Penal Substitution reminds us that God’s is concerned for justice. The declaration of sinners made righteous is not done by finding a loophole in God’s law but by fulfilling its demands. The cross and resurrection also remind us that God will one day put an end to ongoing injustice in this world because the crucial battle has been fought and won. It is now only a matter of time. This theory of the atonement also reminds us that restoration of the world cannot be achieved by human effort alone, but requires the trustworthy leadership of God to intervene.

Third, penal substitution is a grander expression of God’s love than the ‘Moral Theory’. The ‘Moral Theory’ is deficient because it lacks any teaching that God is affected by the death of His Son. In contrast to this ‘Penal Substitution’ declares God’s love by reminding us that the cost of demonstrating such love was immense: the death of his perfect and innocent son for his enemies. Only through ‘Penal Substitution’ can we truly appreciate the intensity and beauty of God’s love for man.

Finally, ‘Penal Substitution’ offers one more thing that our ‘Occupy’ world desperately needs: a realistic view of sin. The Cross vividly portrays the inexpressible horror of sin and the curse it has brought upon the world, and at the same time banishes our despair by declaring God’s comprehensive solution. It is the implications of this theory which most applies to our world today.


[1] The following theories are laid out in Grudem, W. Systematic Theology (1994) IVP: England, p581-586.

[2] The ‘Mystical Theory’ argues that Christ’s death acts to influence man and bring about change. It differs from the ‘Moral Influence Theory’ in that it emphasises the mystical inner transformation made possible by the Cross.

[3] The ‘Theory of Vicarious Repentance’ argues that God’s justice would have been satisfied with a perfect repentance, and since man is incapable of such Christ offered it up on behalf of mankind.

[4] See Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology (1984) Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, p389-391

[5] As outlined in Jeffery, S., Ovey, M., Sach, A. Pierced for our Transgressions. Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. (2007) IVP: England, p149-160