Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Death of Common Sense

I just received this by e-mail, from a friend:

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape.

He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as: Knowing when to come in out of the rain; why the early bird gets the worm; Life isn't always fair; and maybe it was my fault. Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place: Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children. It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Elastoplast to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the Ten Commandments became contraband; churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims. Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realise that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death by his parents, Truth and Trust; his wife, Discretion; his daughter, Responsibility; and his son, Reason. He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers; I Know My Rights, I Want It Now, Someone Else Is To Blame, and I'm A Victim. Not many attended his funeral because so few realised he was gone. If you still remember him, pass this on. If not, join the majority and do nothing.

I have removed what originally followed here. If you have read it, you may wish to read this. On a more positive note, we may observe that, whatever the many failings of our elected representatives, the residual grace of generations of gospel exposure may be one cause of the significantly lower levels of political corruption in the UK, compared to, for example, France or Italy.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

You couldn't caricature it

Oh goody, the government is to introduce a "national play strategy" for children.

Am I meant to laugh or cry?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Another Triumph for St John's

I'm delighted to note in my alumni magazine

that a study of noise pollution across Britain has discovered that [Canterbury Quad, at St John's College, Oxford, where I lived from 1998-9] is the quietest place in the country. Sound levels there ... were measured as less than [sic] 50 decibels, as quiet as the hum of a refrigerator.

St John's has also recently installed a new organ, costing about £175,000, built by Bernard Aubertin, the first French (as opposed to imitation-French) organ in an Oxbridge college.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Barth's mixed bag

I'm not an expert, but from what I've read on Karl Barth he said some excellent stuff, and an awful lot of rubbish. He has also been one of the biggest modern influences on evangelical theology.

Though I haven't read it yet, this book will help us all to distinguish the good from the bad. Don't take my word for it, take Doug Wilson's, David Field's, Matthew Mason's, Ros Clarke's, etc.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Sermon on World Poverty

Our aim this morning, from the Bible, is to look at the causes of poverty and what we can do about it.

First, let’s define poverty.

It’s difficult to find a verse or passage in the Bible which does this, but the laws to help the poor in Scripture seem to assume that poverty is “being unable to provide food, shelter and clothing for you and your family.”

Much as modern Britain might consider a television to be a basic essential, not being able to afford a TV doesn’t make you poor.

What, then, are the causes of poverty?

Our Bible reading has given us some of them, though there are a few others.

1. Oppression
Proverbs 28:3, 8.

Oppression is the abuse of power, political, legal, military, financial, social, to the advantage of yourself and the disadvantage of another. It can take all sorts of forms, and consistently in the Bible, the poor are the most vulnerable to it. It is both a cause and a result of poverty. It is a vicious spiral, the more oppressed you are, the poorer you become; the poorer you are, the more open to oppression you are.

2. Theft
Proverbs 28:24

It’s not particularly a theme in this chapter, but theft and dishonest trading (which is, of course, theft) is a cause of poverty. Here it’s doubly shocking that anyone would rob their parents. The repeated criticism in the prophets of those who use false weights and measures would apply here. If you give someone 2 lbs of potatoes (I don’t know what that is in metric – how un-European!), but charge them for 3 ½ that is theft.

3. Greed
Proverbs 28:8, 20, 22

Notice the twist in each of these. It’s not that greed causes poverty in someone else, rather that greed causes poverty in the greedy person. It’s the stingy man seeking riches who is heading for poverty.

And we’ve seen that to be true in our world. Mike Tyson famously earned $300 million from one of the mosrt successful boxing careers in history. So how come 4 years ago he had to file for bankruptcy, being $27 million in debt? How could Michael Jackson, at his peak earning £30 million A YEAR be an estimated £156 million in debt?

4. Laziness
This is rather more controversial. It’s pretty un-PC to say that some people are poor because they’re just lazy.

Proverbs 28:19. And I found at least another 12 verses in Proverbs which say the same thing. Proverbs is full of the theme of the sluggard, the lazy man who will not work and comes to nothing. Or 2 Thess 3:10,

“For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”

Much as people don’t like it, we must say it. This isn’t a one-off verse. If God thinks we need to be warned repeartedly against idleness, we may fairly think that some of the world’s poverty is caused by laziness.

There are other causes of poverty which don’t particularly feature in Proverbs 28 – natural disaster can bring poverty on whole communities and nations; ill health can bring poverty; war brings poverty.

What this shows us is that poverty is very complicated. Some poverty is self-inflicted, some poverty is the result of others’ sin, while still other poverty is simply the result of living in a fallen world.

I think there are two mistaken extremes we can fall into as we look at poverty.

One is to dismiss all the poor as worthless scroungers, bone idle, the undeserving. Get on your bike and look for work! We’ve seen that the Bible expects that much poverty will not be self-inflicted. There are godly, faithful, hard-working people who are in abject poverty. Only the ignorant or the very cruel would dismiss the poor out of hand.

The other mistake is the opposite. It is not right to assume that all of the poor are unfortunate victims, the exploited, the oppressed. Many are, but Proverbs would tell us, some of them are just downright lazy.

Proverbs 28:27 tells us,

“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.”

We must hear this. Poor relief is not optional, for the church as a whole, or for the individual. Close your eyes to the poor, and expect God’s curse to fall on you. We must help the poor. But that does not mean we must help every poor person. 2 Thess 3:6 commands the church “to keep away from every brother who is idle.”

So we must be discerning in the way we help the poor. There are some who are poor who should not be helped, or perhaps should be helped provisionally, on the basis that they will do some work. But there are many still whom we must help.

One way of doing this is supporting Christian agencies and charities who understand this. There are many secular charities, and indeed some who claim to be Christian, who do not believe that man is basically sinful. Without that, you will not believe that some poverty is self-inflicted. Truly Christian charities, who believe that mankind is sinful, will be discerning.

Another way of doing this is trying to give as directly as possible. It’s great that Tearfund, for example, is moving more and more to linking up local churches in the West, with local churches in the developing world. A local church knows its people, its community. It knows local needs and local failings. If we can give money direct to local churches for poverty relief, we can have much more confidence that it will be used carefully, efficiently and with discernment.

Personally, I’d love to be really specific, and give you a checklist of how to discern who should be helped and who not. But it’s really difficult. Every person is different. We will need to decide on a case-by-case basis. Often, it won’t be obvious one way or the other. We will need to pray and consider, and pray again. Experience will help, so the more you help the poor, the more discerning you will become. I personally would not give money to people on the streets. On a few occasions, when I’ve had the time, I’ve taken them to McDonalds, bought them something and listened to their story, but be aware of your personal safety, particularly if you are a woman. The principle is, I think, very clear in Scripture. The practice is very hard.

The causes of poverty: there are many, they are complex, we must help the poor, we must be discerning.

How then can we address poverty?

The first thing to say is that we are not alone in addressing poverty. Someone else has gone before us. 2 Cor 8:9

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

Jesus is the richest person imaginable. He is the king of kings and lord of lords. He created all things and sustains all things. Everything in the whole world belongs to him, fossil fuels, energy resources, barrels of oil, precious gems, all of De Beers’ diamonds, every piece of land, and ocean, and sky. He has landlord’s rights to everything and everywhere. Talk about the Midas touch. Sure, King Midas could turn anything into gold, but there had to be something there first. Jesus makes gold out of nothing. Jesus made us out of nothing.

Yet he gave up his visible majesty, his obvious glory in heaven, his throne, his comfort, and became a man. Not only that, he became poor, truly poor – the only place that could be found for his birth was a feeding trough in a filthy stable. I think that counts as poverty, don’t you? And he did it willingly, for our sakes. And see what else it says. It’s not so that he could empathise or sympathise, so he could stand alongside us in our poverty, and strengthen us (though that is true). No, he became poor so that through his poverty we might be rich.

That is the gospel of our salvation. That is what believe. That is how we were rescued. But more than rescuing me or you, Christ’s poverty, his death and resurrection have also set in train the abolition of poverty. There will be no poverty in the new heavens and the new earth, no lack of food, shelter, clothing. There will be an abundance for all of redeemed humanity. More than that, as the spread of the gospel and the triumph of the church and the renewal of the world progresses, so poverty will shrink and diminish. But, it will not disappear completely until the new heavens and new earth. As Jesus famously said in Matthew 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you.”

As well as being our salvation, Christ is also an example for us. Paul told the Philippians to have Christ’s attitude. So he tells the Corinthians here that Christ is their example in their financial giving. Give freely, willingly, joyfully, to help those who are poor.

So how do we address poverty?

3 principles first, then some specifics.

1. It must be willing.
That’s already come out of 2 Cor 8. Giving to the poor is voluntary, it is willing. That doesn’t mean it’s optional. The Christian should help the poor, but it is an obligation from God, which we obey. So it is not enforced by other agencies, be that the church or the state or a charity. Paul writes further in 2 Cor 9:7,

“Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

Addressing world poverty is a willing, joyful, voluntary task.

2. It must be just.
Leviticus 19:15.

So Robin Hood was wrong then. Robbing from the rich is not justified by the fact you’re going to give it to the poor. Justice is justice, regardless of your bank balance. So we do not favour the rich because they are rich. And, we do not favour the poor, just because they are poor. If we address world poverty unjustly, whether that injustice is to poor or rich, we are doomed to failure. Poverty may be caused by injustice, but it should not be relieved with further injustice. Two wrongs do not make a right.

3. It must be in the right place.
In that story in Matthew 26 where Jesus is anointed with really expensive perfume, and the disciples complain, specifically because it could have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus says they are wrong. The woman has done a beautiful thing to Jesus. Her action has proclaimed something of the gospel, preparing Jesus for his death. This is an example for us that relieving poverty, while important, is not always to be our number one priority. There are other things which may be more important, such as opportunities to proclaim something of the gospel.

As before, the principle is clear, but the practice is very hard. How high up your list of priorities is giving to relieve world poverty? It could depend on your stage of life, your finances, your family situation, the opportunities and situations open around you. By now, you’re getting frustrated with my vagueness in application. So am I! But this is a complicated subject.

Let’s have some specifics then.

Look after your family. I realise that’s not world poverty, but that is one of our highest responsibilities. 1 Tim 5:4-8

Failing to provide for your family, your whole family, but especially your immediate family, if you are able, is worse than being an unbeliever. Look after your aging parents, your destitute sister, your grown-up child who is unable to work through ill health.

Give generously, willingly, joyfully, sacrificially to those in need. In a church I was in previously, one response to the Asian tsunami was to find a Bible-believing church in Aceh in Indonesia, and to give money directly to them to use in their community as they saw fit. Perhaps we should do the same here.

Share the gospel. You’re thinking, how on earth does he get evangelism out of a sermon on world poverty? Well, maybe I’m a pessimist, but as a non-Christian I don’t see why I should help the poor. As a Christian, with the Spirit of God at work in me, with the Bible exhorting me to generosity, with the Lord Jesus as my model, I have many reasons to help the poor. The more Christians there are in the world, the less poverty there will be.

If you’re a Fairtrade buyer, then get your stuff from Mick and Grace Dobney at church, don’t get it from the supermarket. I was shocked this week to discover some statistics about the supermarkets’ abuse of Fairtrade. In one supermarket, of the £1 extra charged for FT bananas over ordinary ones, only 4p goes to the banana producer. In another, the supermarket makes 160% pure profit on FT brands of coffee, which is more than they make on their own non-FT premium brand. Starbucks sell their FT coffee for 10 times the premium the producer gets paid. If you buy your FT goods from Mick and Grace, a lot more of the money will go to the producers.

More controversially, think before you boycott. Let me read you this introduction to an article written a year ago.

In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Labor Research Ben Powell and David Skarbek present the results of a survey of "sweatshops" in eleven Third World countries. In nine of the eleven countries, "sweatshop" wages in foreign factories located there were higher than the average. In Honduras, where almost half the working population lives on $2/day, "sweatshops" pay $13.10/day. "Sweatshop" wages are more than double the national average in Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In the conclusion of the journal article, Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? the authors write, “We find that most sweatshop jobs provide an above average standard of living for their workers.”

Obviously we don’t want to support enforced child labour, or abuses like that, but we must think clearly. Things that we in the West would call sweatshops can be in their local context one of the best jobs available to many people. Wayne Grudem has recently written “The only long-term solution to world poverty is business."

Finally, let me address a couple of political issues. To address world poverty I think we must campaign for the abolition of international trade tariffs and government subsidies, but against the use of government to government aid. Let’s take those two in turn.

Tariffs and subsidies in the West prevent developing economies selling their goods at competitive prices in the West. This means that profits, wages and the standard of living in these countries are artificially held back. It means that Western governments, while claiming to be working to make poverty history, are actually creating and sustaining poverty. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, we should campaign for an end to these tariffs and subsidies.

Having created this poverty by preventing free trade, Western governments then try to address it by giving money to other governments. This is not right. First, it fails two of our principles – it is not willing and therefore it is not just. Tax is money taken by force (legal force – the Bible says we should pay our taxes). But it is compelled, it is not voluntary giving. So it is not just, it does not treat rich and poor the same. It is effectively a Robin Hood solution. To take a crude illustration, if a thief took £100 from you at gunpoint at a cash machine, and then gave £20 of it away to a needy person, he would not be praised for his generous charity. I believe it is no coincidence that the United States, which is criticised for giving the least government aid per head of population, also gives the most voluntary charitable giving per head of population. Second, it is inefficient and wide open to corruption. Recent British and American government estimates are that over half of all aid to Afghanistan has been pocketed by corrupt officials and politicians.

To sum up. Poverty is sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes caused by others’ sin, sometimes a result of living in a fallen world. Christians must help the poor, but with discernment. Jesus has provided the ultimate solution to poverty, and in the meantime we follow his example. Addressing world poverty, while important, will not always be our no. 1 priority. Generous, voluntary, sacrificial giving, free trade and the creation and sharing of wealth through business will all be important parts of relieving world poverty.

When's the referendum?

Extracts from The Week (17 Nov) [with my editorial comment]:

The European Court of Auditors (ECA) has rejected the EU's accounts for the
13th year [you read that correctly] in a row. ... serious errors across the board ... audit failings in nearly 80% of the 106 billion Euro annual budget [don't commercial firms get prosecuted or shut down for things like this?!]. ... The ECA found that cases of deliberate fraud were rare [that's OK then, after all, incompetence isn't so bad
is it?]

'Nuff said!

Shaming our Silence

Yet again the Roman Catholics speak when the Anglicans don't.
Praise God for the grace he has left in Rome.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Who pays whom?

Two stories that leave me with so many questions:

  • The Metropolitan Police are fined £175,000, with £385,000 costs over the "Health and Safety" failings in the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Who pays? The taxpayer.

Who is paid? I haven't found an answer yet. I don't think it's the grieving relatives. In which case it's the government (admittedly a different branch).

Who pays the costs? The taxpayer.

Who is paid the costs? The government (courts, government-employed lawyers, Health & Safety Executive).

Why didn't the government cotton on to this money-making wheeze earlier? What a brilliant way to get money from the taxpayer without having to show any useful return (not that the taxpayer actually expects any real return on their hard-earned cash anyway)! Expect to see lots more of the government fining itself our money.

Where's it going to come from? Cuts in public spending? Not this government; why stop spending when it's not your money! More income tax? Haven't got the guts. More stealth taxes? Nice one. More 'public' borrowing? Of course. I'd borrow money if I knew it wasn't me paying it back.

Something funny going on here. I can't quite put my finger on it.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Global warming con?

Another fantastic article, telling me what I want to hear!

(HT - David Field)

Sermon on Abortion

I wouldn't usually blog sermons (don't like long blog posts) but as a few people have asked, here is yesterday morning's on abortion.

[Biggest shock in my research was to discover Marie Stopes' horrific eugenic tendencies. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.]

Last Saturday, there was a march of 2000 people past Parliament to protest on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 legalisation of abortion in the UK. This week the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee issued two reports. One report, from the majority of the members, argued for the liberalisation of current abortion laws. The other, issued separately by two members of the committee, said the main report was misleading.

The issue of the sanctity of life needs little introduction. Many would say the right to life is the most basic human right. And the more it is discussed, the more issues it affects: abortion, euthanasia, infertility, contraception, murder and the death penalty, and so on.

These are also very emotive issues. This is about life and death. It is deeply affecting. Almost all of us will have been affected by one or more of these issues. What I hope to do this morning is to outline some principles from Psalm 139 with which we can approach these questions, and then to consider abortion, partly because it is the 40th anniversary of legalisation, partly because it is the great guilt of the church in this country that we have been silent for too long.

Inevitably, there will be things said this morning which will be difficult for some of us to hear, indeed which may be painful or make us angry. Please listen carefully, do question me afterwards. If you need to talk to someone, Matthew and I are available, but there are others here at Christ Church who can help, if you’d rather not talk to us. Do ask, and we’ll put you in contact with the right person.

Together, we want to work out what the Bible says is right and wrong. None of us is perfect, all of us, me included, have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. God alone is the Judge of all. And he is also the Saviour who offers forgiveness.

Let’s look at Psalm 139. The important verses for our purposes are 13-16.

First we see that God is the Creator of all life, so all life belongs to Him.

Verse 13 speaks of both spiritual and physical life. The word for inmost being here is literally kidney. But in Hebrew thinking, the kidney, as an organ hidden away in the depths of your being, symbolises your life force, your drive, your instinct and will.

We see that in a newborn baby. There is a will to live – if he is hungry or cold, or too hot, or tired, he cries, as if to say, “somebody, do something about this please.” God doesn’t just create a body, he makes a soul, a person. Elsewhere the Bible also speaks of spiritual life even in the womb. Psalm 51:5 says that a baby in the womb is sinful. More positively, Psalm 22:10 says that a child in the womb can have a relationship with God.

God knits together this child in the womb. This is the language of clothing and covering. God physically forms and produces the baby. That union of flesh and spirit, body and soul, that we call a human being, a person, is made by God. Not just made, but, in v. 14, fearfully and wonderfully made. That is, when you look at a human being, whether a baby or an adult, you see something extraordinary.

The best adverts, on TV or in print, have great punchlines. A few years ago, BUPA, the healthcare company, ran a series of adverts. Each one would feature an element of the human body. For example, the human eye has a definition of 81 megapixels, where the most powerful digital camera on sale today would be just over 11 megapixels. The would come the killer line: “You’re amazing. At BUPA, we want you to stay that way.” The other even simpler one, for the ladies, is L’oreal: “Because you’re worth it.”

The human body is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, very obviously, life is precious, because God is the Creator. The existence of any life is not random or meaningless, as Richard Dawkins and others would have us believe. The existence of any life is God-given, God-planned, God-purposed. We are entirely dependent on God for our own life, and any other lives we desire, whether by ordinary reproduction, or through fertility treatment.

And so we must remember, no human life belongs ultimately to another human being. Yes, husbands and parents and pastors and civil governments all bear responsibility for aspects of others’ lives, but all life belongs to its creator. God is the owner of all human life.

As well as being the creator, God is the Director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

He knows us. He knows every thought and emotion and instinct. That’s in v. 15 – nothing is hidden from God, but also the point of the whole psalm. V. 2, he perceives our thoughts; v. 4, he knows what we will say before we say it; v. 7-12, there is nowhere we can go to escape God, physically or mentally.

But it is more than just a comprehensive knowledge. In v. 16, it is direction and determination as well. In v. 16, we are told, your eyes saw my unformed body. That is a very specific word in Hebrew, the word for embryo. It is an unusual word, different from the word normally used for a child in the womb. It suggests an embryo at the earliest stage of development, when it is unformed, before it displays any recognisably human features. In modern scientific language, we could argue it is a fertilised embryo before it is even implanted in the lining of the womb. And God sees and knows this person. He is the Director of all life.

“All, the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Job 14:5 makes the same point: “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.”

God directs all life. Before we are even born, he has determined how and when we will die. That should be immensely humbling for us. We cannot extend our life by one moment beyond what God has decreed. Equally, it is not up to us to shorten our lives artificially. It is not up to me when I die, whether sooner or later.

God is the creator of all life, so all life belongs to him. God is the director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

There are so many things we could talk about today, but not enough time. If you want to think about contraception, there’s this excellent little pamphlet in the Christ Church lending library called Contraception: a pro-life guide.

I’m not going to talk about different types of fertility treatment. Do ask your doctor about pro-life options, and please talk to someone here.

I’m afraid I won’t talk about euthanasia either. It is agonising to watch a loved one suffer, particularly when there is little prospect of relief, or an end in sight. All I can say now is that ethically, there is a world of difference between withdrawing treatments and allowing someone to die naturally, and intervening actively to bring about death. Do talk to me afterwards, if this is an issue for you.

If you are interested in the death penalty, I have left some copies of a one-page summary of a Christian argument in favour of the death penalty at the back.

With all of these, please do not suffer in silence. Talk to someone you can trust. WE are here to talk and will respect your confidence.

Let us then think about abortion.

Abortion is the deliberate ending of the life of an embryo or foetus in the womb for a variety of reasons.

How should we view abortion?

First, we have seen that life, both physical and spiritual, begins at conception, not at birth, or at some indeterminate point between the two. We have seen already in Psalm 51:5 that David saw himself as a person with spiritual and moral value from the time he was conceived. That life is full human personhood, not a sub-human existence. Abortion is the ending of a human life.

Second, the child is made in the image of God. In Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” The reason no man should kill another is because we are made in the image of God, and that image should not be assaulted. Abortion is an attack onone bearing the image of God.

Third, the child in the womb is not the property ultimately of the parents, or even of the mother. The child belongs to God. So, we must reject the argument of a woman’s right over her own body. It is not simply her own body, it is also the life of a child. Even if we viewed the child simply as part of the mother’s body, God still places limits on the individual’s rights over their own body. We are not to harm ourselves intentionally, except in purposeful self-sacrifice, to save the life or wellbeing of others.

Each of these suggests we should view abortion as nothing less than murder. I realise that is an emotive word, and I have thought long and hard about whether to use it, but it is important. The world around us has long made abortion sound acceptable by using words like termination, clean, clinical, neutral words. We must not collude with this veneer of acceptability. Abortion is murder, and since 1967, in Britain we have murdered 6.7 million children. That is more than the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and yet one is seen as the greatest crime of the 20th Century, while the other is hardly noticed. In the last 40 years, many British doctors have overseen a silent Holocaust. According to recent statistics, one in five pregnancies in England and Wales now ends in abortion.

But let us also remember the good news of Jesus Christ. Many women, and indeed men, carry through their lives unbearable guilt because of abortion. Often, after it has been done, they know it’s wrong, and it is inescapable. Perhaps, some sitting here this morning feel overwhelmed and angry. But listen to the good news of forgiveness in 1 Corinthians 6:9:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

Writing to a church, a group of Christians, forgiven people, the apostle Paul says wicked people will not come into the kingdom of God. But they used to be wicked people, they had been guilty. But Jesus has made them clean, has forgiven them. As with them then, so also for us now. Yes abortion is wrong, yes it is murder, but like every sin, it can be forgiven, our slate can be wiped clean, our guilt taken away, by Jesus Christ. Heaven will be full of people who have had abortions, just as it will be full of liars, murderers, thieves, people who have broken up marriages, bullies, the proud and arrogant, the greedy, those who exploit others. But all of whom have turned away from these things, and turned to Christ. There is nothing that Jesus cannot forgive.

Are there situations, though, in which abortion is morally acceptable? Let’s look at them in turn.

1. What if the child may be handicapped?

First there is the question of certainty. It is rare that doctors can be absolutely sure that a child will be handicapped. Surely we cannot take the life of a child who may end up perfectly healthy?

Second, even if it was certain, what are we saying about disability? Is a handicapped life not worth living? Is a handicapped person not fully human? Of course they are. It seems to me, followed to its logical conclusion, abortion because of possible, or even certain, disability in the child, says some pretty shocking things about our approach to other disabled people. In a culture which so rightly protects and promotes the rights of the disabled, it is astonishing that disability is still given as a reason to proceed with an abortion.

Third, who is to define disability? With recent advances in genetics, and some clinics offering the ability to select hair colour, intelligence, physical build, who is to say that things we do not currently consider disabilities will not be classed as disabilities in 20 years’ time?

Now, I am not denying that the care of physically, and mentally-handicapped children and adults is difficult. It entails physical, emotional and financial costs for parents and other family members. It can put enormous strains on marriages and siblings. It means, above all, sacrifice. As a church, and as individual Christians, we should do all we can to help, financially and in other ways. But abortion is not the answer. In any case, of the 6.7 million British abortions in the last 40 years, only 1.3% were because of possible fetal abnormality.

2. What if the mother’s life is at risk?

This is the most difficult question to answer. First, only 0.4% of those 6.7 million abortions were because of a risk to the mother’s life. This is agonising when it happens, but it is very rare.

Second, it is worth noting that a 13-year study from 1987-2000 found that the number of deaths caused by abortion is almost 3 times higher than the rate of death in childbirth in many developed Western countries. In many cases therefore, if the life of the mother is at risk in childbearing, abortion is unlikely to be a sensible answer.

Third, as with disability, there is the question of certainty. We are weighing up the possible risk to the mother with the certain death of the child. There is no easy answer. To take the most extreme case, an operation to deal with an ectopic pregnancy is technically an abortion – the termination of a fertilised embryo. However, no-one would dispute that this is the correct course of action. Where the child’s death is certain, and the mother’s likely, an abortion must be the only option. As the possibility of life for the child increases, and the possibility of physical harm to the mother decreases, the situation becomes much less clear.

I can only say that I remain uncertain, as do most Christian theologians, about the rightness or wrongness of abortion in these difficult cases. We must proceed with prayer, love, realism about our own motives, and a willingness to be taught anew from Scripture.

3. 98.1% of those abortions have been for what are described as social reasons: it’s not convenient now; we don’t want a baby; we can’t afford it. I hope the answer is obvious. Children are hard work. I know that now. They are also an enormous blessing from God. How can anyone take away a child’s life because it’s not convenient?

All this being said then, what can we as Christians do?

The church in Britain has been rightly criticised on two fronts in my opinion.

One, we have been largely silent. For 40 years, the church has failed to speak out over abortion. Occasionally, a church leader will speak out, from time to time there will be a march. But largely, we have tut-tutted in private, or even just gone along with it. Our brothers and sisters across the pond put us to shame. Abortion has remained a massive issue in American politics and life generally, because the church has spoken out and has not grown cold and tired. Unfortunately, some Americans have sinned terribly in this. Bombing the clinics, homes and cars of abortion practitioners is a disgrace. How can someone claim to defend the sanctity of life by murdering others? We must condemn such folly.

But we must make abortion an issue. We should be lobbying MPs, writing to them, ensuring that abortion will be one of the issues that determines our vote in elections. We should be talking to hospitals. Where I used to live in London, one of the local hospitals refused to carry out any abortions for social reasons, because the local community had spoken out and the hospital had listened. Within the next year, Parliament is likely to vote on a bill changing the abortion law. Are we ready?

Two, we have been criticised for not understanding the needs and pain of those considering abortion, for speaking the truth without any love. I think it is a fair criticism. British churches, on the whole, have not lifted a finger to help those who can see no other way out. We underestimate the difficulties people face. A young woman, whose partner isn’t interested and whose parents would refuse to help. Where can she turn? A poor family with too many mouths to feed, who don’t know where the next pay cheque is coming from. Some turn to abortion, not because they want one, but because there is nowhere else to go, and that is the advice of the clinic or doctor or helath authority.

What will we do about it? Will we offer practical and financial support to women and to couples who need it to go through with a pregnancy? Will we step forward to be foster and adoptive parents to unwanted children? It’s not easy. We have people in this church who could tell you how difficult dealing with social services can be. Will we lobby health authorities and doctors to give people information about the dangers and downsides of abortion, let alone the ethical problems, and to offer people other options?

In short, will we say abortion is wrong, and the welfare state should jolly well do something about it? Or will we say, abortion is wrong, and we’re ready to help you?

God is the Creator of all life, so life belongs to him.
God is the Director of all life, so our lives are in his hands.

Together, as forgiven sinners, let us offer help and hope to those facing this terrible decision.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Pray for our Holiday Club

Tuesday-Friday 10-12:15

5-11 years of age

Joseph in Egypt.

Thank you!

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Why Government should not be involved in Education

I mean any government, not just Stalinists masquerading as 'social democrats'.

This is terrifying. I think it's probably true as well. 2 examples:

1) A friend of mine lectures in Classics at the University of Exeter, which is, according to the government, one of the top classics institutions in the country. He says he has final year students, who will get 2:1s or even Firsts, to whom he would not even give an O-Level pass if it was up to him.

2) I compare my two degree courses. I read History at Oxford, and was awarded an academic scholarship. I also read Theology at Oak Hill Theological College (an associate college of Middlesex University).
If I told you that for one of these degrees I did approximately 18 hours work a week, which I could have done in my sleep, and for the other, I did about 40 hours a week, much of which was mind-bendingly tough, you would probably guess the wrong way round.
Guess which institution has the least government involvement?

Of course it all stands to reason. If 50 years of state education has produced such hopelessly-equipped school leavers, it's not fair to punish them for governments' failings. Obviously, universities must be dumbed down too.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Anyone for Fudge?

That's right. The US House of Bishops has spoken, and what a clever bunch they are.

See here for their statement.

Here for Church Society's response.

Here for more links.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Markan Son Sandwich

Preparing a study on Mark 1:1-13.

Helpful stuff from the Revd Matthew Mason on John's dress and diet.

In vv. 9-13 it looks like we have a sandwich, one of Mark's favourite items of food.

In v. 9, Jesus is baptised. Strange! This is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (v. 4), so Jesus doesn't need that. Perhaps he is identifying with Israel from the off. He is becoming Israel, and in bearing Israel's sin, he needs this baptism.

In v. 12 he is driven out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by Satan. Sounds familiar! Jesus is again Israel, but whereas they succumbed to temptation in 40 years of wilderness, Jesus is faithful in 40 days.

In the middle, the Father announces, "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." A parallel and contrast to Ex 4:22, Israel God's firstborn son, who turns out not to be terribly pleasing.

This goes with the quotes from Mal 3 and Isa 40 in Mark 1:2 to portray Jesus as the faithful Israel restored from exile.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

As requested

As Michael has requested in response to the last post, the best I can do at the moment is to direct you to David Field's various links and posts. Many are deliberately provocative, and I suspect some (including Michael) will not appreciate the tone, but the substance is, I find, persuasive.

Welfare is all part of my forthcoming posts on taxation and the place of the state (after October half-term), though Jam has some useful starters.

Michael, thank you for your patience, as you endure my passing remarks without yet seeing my full rationale.

Monday, 17 September 2007


Yes, just 3 months into ministry and I've got my first letter published in the Church Times!

Sadly you need to be a subscriber to view it online. It was a response to a scurrilous attack by Stephen Bates against Christian Reconstructionism (and lots of other people he doesn't like).

A couple at church yesterday morning mentioned they'd seen my letter "in Jezebel's Trumpet". Nice!

After advice from my esteemed colleagues, here it is:


Having enjoyed William Whyte’s review of The Expansion of Evangelicalism, it was ironic then to read Stephen Bates on the Religious Right. Whyte observes that “Evangelicalism was not homogenous.” Mr. Bates then proceeds to lump together Christian Reconstructionism, tele-evangelists, the Republican Party, unfortunate examples of evangelical hypocrisy, and Evangelicals generally.

To consider just one of these, even within Christian Reconstructionism, there is diversity. There are different attitudes to the legal status of other faiths. There are different applications of Old Testament Law to the judicial system. No Reconstructionist expects this to happen in 20 years, as Mr. Bates seems to suggest. Postmillenial in outlook, Reconstructionists expect this sort of state to be possibly centuries in the making. Further, the growing movement of ecclesial rather than political Reconstructionists expect this will take place as a result of large-scale Christian conversion, within the democratic process, not to be enforced by some coup d’etat.

Finally, Mr. Bates attacks the focus on homosexuality rather than divorce or poverty. If he would read the work of Jordan, Leithart, Wilson, Bahnsen et al., he would find that fidelity in marriage, love for your wife, care for your family, takes up considerably more space than any discussions of homosexuality.

He would also find that the opposition of the Institute for Christian Economics and others to state intervention, welfare and ‘fair’ trade, which he may mistake for unconcern for the poor, is prompted by a thoroughgoing desire to follow biblical (and therefore truly effective) means for the alleviation of poverty.

Yours faithfully,
Neil Jeffers

Thursday, 13 September 2007

So much to read...

How in parish ministry can one keep reading a good range of books, which aren't directly related to sermon study?

One way might be to set myself a ridiculously ambitious target. So here's a list of books I'm aiming to read/re-read in the next, what shall we say, two years (grouped for convenience):

Biblical Studies
J. B. Jordan, Through New Eyes

Covenant Theology
O. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants

H. Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man

T. Bradshaw, The Olive Branch

E. P. Clowney, The Church

P. J. Leithart, The Kingdom and the Power

J. M. Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth

J. J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service

J. Edwards, The Freedom of the Will

R. B. Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption

J. Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied

J. Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ

R. Bewes, Speaking in Public Effectively

S. Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text

J. Hughes, Expository Preaching with Word Pictures

H. W. Robinson, Expository Preaching

G. L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics

W. G. Strickland ed., Five Views on Law and Gospel

O. M. T. O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order

O. M. T. O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations

V. S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses

J. M. Frame, Medical Ethics

D. Wilson, For a Glory and a Covering

R. K. &. B. Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Family

N. Piper, Treasuring God in our Traditions

D. Wilson, Future Men

J. Adams, Competent to Counsel

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

If I hear one more person say...

... that the Jubilee is about political economy and the redistribution of wealth, I shall point them very forcefully to this excellent comment and indeed to everything Ros has ever written to do with the land (or anything else, as Ros's work is always insightful, heart-warming and, of course, carefully distinguished).

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Poetic justice

Preaching on Exodus 12 this Sunday as the first in a series on penal substitution in the OT (contra Steve Chalke et al.).

How beautiful the justice of the Passover is.

In Exodus 1:16, the Egyptians have sought the death of every son born to Israel.

In 4:22, we discover that the Israel Pharaoh has been oppressing is God's "firstborn son". We also have a forewarning of the Passover in 4:23.

In the Passover, every house in Egypt loses its firstborn son, while the firstborn sons of the firstborn son (Israel) are delivered by God's provision of a blood substitute.

Notice the mercy as well. In retribution for 1:16, God could quite fairly have killed every son of Egypt. He chose only to kill the firstborn.

What a just and merciful God we serve!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Pre-Holiday Rant

Off on holiday to take James to the land of his fathers (Ulster).

No posting until September.

So let me just get this off my chest.

John Redwood, in the process of defending his proposals for abolishing inheritance tax (hurrah!) argued that he wants to "tax the rich more as well." What he meant was: free people from silly taxes which disincentivise productivity (like inheritance tax), let them produce more wealth, and then of course they will pay more income tax.

Whatever one thinks of the detail, why the nasty rhetoric. Modern political consensus is that the rich must be bled dry. Why? Do they receive a higher level of service for their greater contribution? No. Do they receive thanks and the plaudits of society for their generous (enforced) giving? No. Do they have a covenantal/familial duty to provide for the rest of the population of their nation-state? No.

Two possibilities:

  1. Christians read 1 Tim 6:18 and wrongly arrogate that to the state. No. If the rich are miserly and trust in their wealth, God will call them to account. Not every sin is a crime.
  2. The politics of envy. You're rich, I'm not. It's not fair (Rubbish. It's not equal - equality and fairness are not the same thing). You must have come by your wealth by some shady means. You must be punished for being rich.

Neither is right. So, politicians, lay off the wealth-producing, job-creating, service-providing, non-welfare-dependent rich for a bit, why don't you?

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Predestination and Human Choice

So many (both opponents and supporters of predestination) struggle to maintain both God's complete sovereignty and man's complete responsibility.

Part of the problem is that it is treated as a zero-sum game. If God's got 100% of the control, then man has nothing left.

J. K. S. Reid, who is by no means infallible (he is worryingly Barthian in many places), makes this devastatingly brilliant observation in his Introduction to his translation of Calvin's Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. Read it frequently and carefully - it is dense and complicated, but brilliant.

Philosophically, when we deal with the relation of a finite magnitude to a greater but also finite magnitude, the independence of the one is conserved only at the expense of the other; when we deal with a really infinite magnitude and its relation to a finite magnitude, this is no longer the case. Theologically, God is not simply the magnification of man, and His qualities are not simply the qualities of man increased to the power of n. If this were true of Him, then predetermination would be merely determination on a greater, grander scale, and there would be even less hope of securing the independence of the finite magnitude which man is. But just because He is really infinite, the Predestination of which He is the author does not rob man of his independence and therefore of his responsibility.

The Unmerciful Servant

I have found Don Carson's EBC Commentary on Matthew to be variable in quality, largely I think due to the limits of the series. However, on the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matt 18, it is full of insight.

  1. Jesus' hyperbole (humour?). The first slave owes 10,000 talents, possibly around 1 billion dollars in contemporary value. Clearly, no master would allow a servant to run up this sort of debt, even if the servant was a "high-ranking imperial civil servant." The story is not meant to be 'realistic.' It demonstrates the incomparable magnitude of man's debt to God.
  2. The second servant owes a significant debt. 100 denarii was probably 100 days' wages for a soldier or labourer. In one sense, the first servant might be rightly angry at not being paid back, if he himself had not just been forgiven a ridiculously sized debt.
  3. The first servant abuses his position. "Even an inexpensive slave sold for five hundred denarii, and it was illegal to sell a man for a sum greater than his debt." Yet this is what happens.
  4. In v. 34, the first servant is handed over not to the jailers (NIV), but to torturers, until he pays back what he owes. We've already seen that he will never be able to do that. Let the reader understand, he is being handed over to be tortured for ever.

Thank you, Don. Now I just have to put it into a sermon!

Thank you Father for such astonishing love; thank you Jesus for accomplishing such forgiveness; thank you Holy Spirit for calling me to receive it.

Monday, 13 August 2007

All off to Heathrow?

NB: I am not a scientist!

As a balanced response to this, take a look at a variety of links, thoughts and articles from David Field.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Is the Church of England hierarchy really anti-evangelical?

Answer: Yes.

To see the disturbing results of the survey conducted by the Association of Ordinands and Candidates of Ministry (AOCM) during my Chairmanship, click and click on the link at the bottom of the page.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Is darkness neutral?

Last week on camp we did Bible studies in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 22.

Following my previous post, let me highlight that this is a tentative suggestion.

For the first time I noticed the disruption in the pattern "And God saw that it was good." Usually, this phrase summarises God's judgement on a whole series of creative acts (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25).

In 1:3, if it anticipated the other instances we might expect, "God called the light 'day', and the darkness he called 'night'. And God saw that it was good." But, the phrase comes earlier. Specifically, we are told that light is good, but we are told nothing evaluative about darkness. What do we make of this?

Is it the case that darkness is bad? Can anything in God's original creation be bad? I doubt we would be comfortable saying this.

Is darkness neutral? Is anything morally neutral? Again, I feel uncomfortable with this.

Is darkness less good? Perhaps. In 1:2, we have darkness and no light. I assume, though we're not told, that creation is good even in its formless and dark state. But the clear message of Genesis 1-2 is that order and form and fullness are better than disorder and emptiness. Just as creation without man is good, but with man, it is very good, perhaps we may say, creation with light is better, more good, than without?

Of course, the new creation has no darkness at all (Rev 22:5).

In biblical theology, darkness (John 3:19) comes to be wicked, through association with sin and contrast with light. Must that mean darkness is bad in the beginning?

Thoughts please?

Disciplines of a Godly Blogger

You may be familiar with Kent and Barbara Hughes' terrifying books:

Disciplines of a Godly Man
Disciplines of a Godly Woman
Disciplines of a Godly Family

They are immensely challenging, and helpfully highlight that true freedom and true discipline are companions rather than opponents.

As I embark on the blog, I thought it would be helpful to me to lay down some blogging disciplines, most of which are plain, Spirit-wrought Christian virtues (in no particular order).

  1. Aim to edify believers and/or evangelise unbelievers with every post.
  2. Assume everyone is reading. Tim Keller says of church services that they should speak to the Christian, assuming that the unbeliever is listening in. So a blog may address a particular audience, but with the awareness that anyone can and may read it.
  3. Avoid personal attacks. If they are justified on rare occasions, don't say what you wouldn't say to someone's face.
  4. Don't criticise someone or something you wouldn't criticise elsewhere.
  5. A blog post is not a journal article or doctoral thesis. Therefore, ideas which are not fully-researched are legitimate. However, speculative, uncertain thoughts should be flagged as such to the reader.

That'll do for now.


An odd name to launch on the blogosphere. Where does it come from?

Dorothy L. Sayers, in her 1947 lecture in Oxford, "The Lost Tools of Learning" comments on the oft-mocked question of how many archangels could dance on the point of a needle:

Scorn in plenty has been poured out upon the mediaeval passion for hair-splitting; but when we look at the shameless abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored [sic] by his education as to be able to cry: "Distinguo."

[HT: David Field]

Distinguo is simply the Latin for "I distinguish." More than anything, my training at Oak Hill taught me that many questions could be answered, many controversies reconciled, and many heresies avoided, if only we approached questions with careful distinctions. This is true of the whole of life, not just theology (though, of course, theology properly understood is the whole of life).

I hope my posts, and readers' comments (yes, all three of you), will always cry "Distinguo."