Sin and Shin–Motivations to Obey

There are several possible motivations for obeying a command, whether a positive command (“do this”) or a negative one (“don’t do that”). First, we might be motivated by fear of punishment. Now clearly we would prefer if someone obeyed the “thou shalt not murder” command for nobler reasons than simply to stay out of jail, but nonetheless, it is both logical and appropriate to fear judgment, especially the judgment of God. Though the believer need not fear final condemnation, there are plenty of New Testament passages reminding us that the fear of the Lord remains just as important in the new covenant era (e.g. 1 Pet 2:17, Acts 9:31).

A second possible motivation is desire for reward. This is the inverse of fear of punishment. A person can be persuaded to obey a command they might otherwise ignore if sufficient incentive is offered. Like fear of punishment, this is hardly the most noble of all motives for obedience. And yet Jesus doesn’t seem to see a problem with holding out rewards as encouragements for us (e.g. Matt 6:4,6,18).

A third possible motivation is a sense of duty. It may be that you do not particularly want to obey a command, but you do so out of a sense of obligation, because of the authority of the one who gave it. But a sense of duty is not a bad thing; and obeying God because it is your duty finds scriptural support (e.g. Luke 17:10). In fact, one of the main ways the New Testament presents the believer’s relationship with Christ is that of a slave and master. We belong to Jesus, and it is our duty to obey him.

So all three of these motivations are in one sense appropriate and biblical. Yet they fall short of being the highest and most noble motivations for obedience. I want to consider two final motivations, both of which crop up in Psalm 119.

The first of these is that we sometimes obey because we are in agreement with the command. If someone commands you to do something you already want to do anyway, or forbids you to do something you don’t want to do, obedience is effortless. In fact, we hardly perceive it as being obedience. If our goals are perfectly aligned with the one we need to submit to, then submission is not a burden, but a delight. The Psalmist expresses this in several places. For example in Ps 119:128 he says “I consider all your precepts right”. In other words, he has become fully convinced of the rightness of God’s commands. He has reached the place where he genuinely wants to do what God commands, not because he is being told to do it, but because he is convinced it is the right thing to do.

However, I would say that the highest and greatest motivation for obedience is love (in fact, I have previously blogged that obedience is one of Jesus’ “love languages”). Ultimately, the Psalmist obeys God because he loves God. It is this love for God that has led him to love God’s commands. He delights in obeying God because he desires to please God. This theme crops up a few times in the delightfully named “Sin and Shin” section of Ps 119, but most notably in verse 167:

I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly.

All five of the motivations I have listed are valid, but it seems to me that love must come right at the top of the list. The believer should be able to agree with all five of the following statements, and not just stop after the first few:

I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who lovingly disciplines me when I disobey
I obey your statutes, for I know you are a God who graciously rewards me when I obey
I obey your statutes, for I know that you are my Master and I am your servant
I obey your statutes, for I am convinced that they are the best and most blessed way to live
I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly, because I love you greatly

Resh–The Word of Salvation

As my series on Psalm 119 draws to a close, I want to return to a theme that crops up repeatedly throughout the Psalm, and that is of salvation. The psalm is filled with petitions for rescue, deliverance, salvation. Here’s a few from the Resh strophe (Ps 119:153-160)

  • “deliver me” (v153)
  • “defend me” (v154)
  • “redeem me” (v154)
  • “preserve my life” (v154, 156, 159)
  • “salvation”(v155)

Holistic Redemption

As I pointed out under the Lamedh section, the salvation he is seeking is a holistic salvation – body and soul. He wants to be rescued from his persecutors and delivered from physical harm, as well as to be saved from God’s final judgment on the wicked.

Chris Wright makes a similar point in his superb book, “The Mission of God”, where he notes that Israel’s “redemption” from Egypt through the exodus was primarily being them delivered from the sins of others, rather than from bondage to their own sins (the return from exile is a better example of that). He goes on to argue that this should inform our understanding of mission – without in any way wanting to minimise the spiritual aspect of salvation (being forgiven from our sins), there are political, economic and social implications to God’s redemption that cannot be overlooked.

The Word of Salvation

As we would expect in a Psalm that never leaves the theme of the Word of God for a moment, the Psalmist forges a strong link between God’s words and his saving activity. Ultimately, of course, the Psalmist is looking to God himself for salvation, but his confidence that God will save him comes as he meditates on the saving God he sees revealed in Scripture.

In fact, we can say that God always saves by means of his Word. It is his Word that contains the message of salvation and the promise of salvation. It is when his Word is preached that we hear the call of salvation that brings about faith (Rom 10:17). But it is deeper than that. God’s word actually effects our salvation. When he says “you are forgiven”, a real change of status takes place – our guilt is removed and we are justified. When he says “you are my beloved son”, we acquire a new status as children of God. When he sees us kicking about in our blood and says “live” (Ez 16:6), new life enters into us and we are born again. God’s words are “declarative speech acts” – when he speaks, things happen.

Reading the Bible with your children

I posted a while back about Don’t Wimp Out of Family Devotions. It can be a struggle to find the time to pray and read the Bible together as a family and we need to keep persevering. But in this post I want to talk about reading the Bible with your children as part of a daily routine.

One of the challenges is knowing what to do with them, and finding things that are appropriate for their age. Here’s a list of some of the things I’ve used:

  • Children’s Bibles – this is perhaps the easiest option. We have several different children’s Bibles that we make use of. Not all of them are of the same quality. The Jesus Storybook Bible stands out as one of the best, but variety is good, and we have some others by Lion, Christian Focus, and Crossway.
  • We made our own children’s edition of the book of Matthew, where I summarised each story in a sentence, and the children drew a picture to represent it.
  • I also started to make a “Girl’s Story Bible” for my daughter Lily which attempted to trace through the story of the gospel through the stories of the women in the Bible. It was great fun, and I really should dig it out and finish it off as I only got as far as Rahab.
  • Good News Bible – quite often I just get my 10 year old to read a chapter of the Good News Bible out loud to me. He gets to choose what he reads. He usually picks either a random Psalm or the next bit of Acts which we are working through, having finished Luke last year.
  • Memorisation – I know I’ve blogged about this before, but I want to underscore that your children are capable of memorising short passages of scripture without too much time commitment. Just get them to repeat the passage out loud every night for a month and they will pick it up.
    • I also tried teaching them Martin Luther’s catechism for children. That one didn’t work out too well.
  • Children’s Bible Reading Notes – We’ve used Pens and Topz from CWR. Sometimes I feel these can be a little over-simplified, but the children really enjoy them.
  • I’ve read a few story books with Christian themes – the Narnia series being the obvious example. I’d like to try some of the Patricia M St.John books on them at some time. Sadly, I don’t know of many up to date examples of Christian authors writing similar books. Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.
    • I also want to get hold of some of the Christian “graphic novels” I have seen advertised recently (e.g. this one on Martin Luther or the Action Bible) as I think my 10 year old will love them. Has anyone given these a go?

Please don’t interpret this as me saying I heroically do some amazing devotional time every night with every child individually without fail. Sometimes it falls by the wayside. Sometimes we do it but it is horribly rushed. Sometimes they pay no attention at all.

But ultimately, I think that, as with family devotions, the important thing is just to ‘do something’ and ‘stick at it’, (as Gary Boal wisely pointed out in the comments last time). Find what works for you, and be on the lookout for creative ideas. When you miss a day (or a week or a month), don’t feel guilty or discouraged, just get going again. And tell me in the comments what you’ve found that works.

Training Women Teachers

Krish Kandiah asked on facebook recently, “what good women teachers do you know?

My answers were:

  • Amy Orr-Ewing, who has a sharp mind, is an excellent communicator, loves God and knows her Bible well – all the ingredients for a great preacher.
  • I also added Karen Jobes. I have no idea how good she is as a speaker, but both the commentaries (on Esther and 1 Peter) I have read by her have been first class.
  • Had I thought of it at the time, I would have included Heidi Baker in that list too, a remarkable woman of faith and courage.

Normally this is a subject I steer well clear of on my blog, since even the mention of the word “complementarian” is guaranteed to generate plenty of comments (unlike the cyber-tumbleweed that greeted my recent 22 part series on Ps 119!). But since I’m planning to study (and possibly blog) my way through the pastorals in the very near future, the challenge of explaining 1 Tim 2:12 will soon be upon me, so I need to start thinking again about this whole debate.

In this post I don’t intend to present any arguments for a complementarian position, but I do want to dispel three myths about what we think concerning women teachers, and consider one of the key challenges faced by complementarian churches. So first, let me briefly make my three points:

1. Being complementarian does not mean you believe women are not capable of being good teachers. I have a friend who thinks that Joyce Meyer is reason enough to accept women preachers. Given my theological differences with her, its fair to say I don’t find that a particularly compelling argument. But my answers to Krish’s question above, and answers provided by several other of my complementarian friends reveal that we are not in denial about the existence of women who are very good at teaching the Bible. And I personally do not have a problem with benefiting from their ministry.

2. Being complementarian does not mean you believe it to be a sin to learn something from a woman. This one keeps on cropping up as a kind of reductio ad absurdum rebuttal of the complementarian position. But there is no logical step from having male only preaching, or male only eldership to the belief that it is wrong to learn from a woman. Whatever it was Paul intended to prohibit, it is abundantly clear that he expected all believers, women included, to participate in the “edification” of the body through the exercise of (spoken) spiritual gifts.

3. There are plenty of good women teachers in complementarian churches. Egalitarians often perpetuate the idea that there are no good women teachers in complementarian circles. I beg to differ. Several of the names given as answers to Krish’s question should suffice as examples. Whilst it may be true that there are not as many as there might be, or that those that exist may not enjoy the prominence they might get elsewhere, it is not fair to deny their existence altogether. Many author books, speak at conferences (and not just at women’s conferences), and use their gift in a wide variety of contexts. Two women who have managed to establish international ministries within a very conservative evangelical context are Joni Tada and Elizabeth Elliot. Within my own group of churches, several women gave excellent seminars at last year’s leadership and youth summer conferences.

So it may be that a woman with a remarkable teaching gift can indeed make use of it in a complementarian context, but I want to move on consider a different question, and that is whether we are doing enough to encourage women to develop such a gift in the first place. Last time I raised this question it generated plenty of discussion in the comments. Let me phrase the question like this:

Do complementarian churches hinder women from reaching their full potential in teaching?

This is criticism from egalitarians deserves careful consideration. In one sense, we would have to honestly admit the answer is yes. Suppose someone desperately wanted to be a pilot, yet had a medical condition that meant they would never be awarded a pilot’s licence. You would probably discourage such a person from spending time and money studying to be a pilot. As much as they might enjoy the training, it would ultimately be an exercise in futility. Likewise some might assume that if a church does not allow women to preach on a Sunday there would be no point in training them to be able to teach.

But it would be a big mistake to think like that about training young women in complementarian churches. In fact, I would say that the basic training given to men who seem to have a potential gift for teaching is completely appropriate also for women, irrespective of whether they will get asked to preach on Sundays or not. Let me illustrate by outlining four ways in which I think potential Bible teachers should be developed in their gifting:

1. Encourage going deep in the Scriptures. If anyone wants to be a teacher of God’s Word, they must first be a student of it. I want to see as many people as possible, male and female, going really deep with God’s Word, studying it in detail, learning the principles of hermeneutics, and allowing it to shape their thinking.

2. Encourage teaching in small group settings. I am not a fan of the “let anyone have a go” approach to preaching in some churches. It is much more appropriate for people to develop their gifting by teaching in small group settings. When you ask someone to teach in a small group it becomes immediately apparent how much effort they have put in to studying the passage they are teaching, and how effective they are at helping the group understand and apply it.

Teaching small groups is also important for developing and detecting humility. Someone who wants to preach merely because they wish to show off their skill, or because they want impose their own opinions on others is not ready to be a preacher. Those God has graced to teach should be those who do not despise ministering to just a few people, or “just” the children, or “just” the women. Instead they should be characterised by a sense of love for those they serve through teaching and count it a privilege to do so.

3. Encourage the spiritual gift of the “word of instruction”. As a card-carrying charismatic, I love the fact that the Holy Spirit is an “equal opportunity empowerer”. If anything, I have always felt that it is Joel 2:28-29, and not Gal 3:28 (whose context seems to me to be to do with salvation not church order) that should be the egalitarian trump card.

The “word of instruction” is 1 Cor 14:6 is only mentioned in passing by Paul, but seems to describe someone bringing a brief contribution that is in effect a teaching or an exhortation. Those desiring to teach should be people who always have something on their heart they are burning to share with others, however briefly. Blogging might be one way of sharing it, but much better to do so in a church gathering (whether in small group or large). And there is no reason to think from 1 Cor 14 that Paul restricts this gift to men only.

4. Create contexts for them to grow in their gifts. Often there can be an unhelpful “all or nothing” approach to using a gift of preaching. I think it is important, particularly in a large church, to be creative about finding contexts where people can develop a teaching gift that is less daunting (and risky) than addressing everyone on a Sunday morning. I have often invited friends round to my house to preach to me and my wife in our living room (highly recommended, it’s great fun to do). I also organized some Saturday morning theology training sessions at my church and asked some friends who I felt had potential to grow in a teaching gift to help me out by taking some of the sessions (and they all did brilliantly). It is often in these smaller contexts that a person’s level of gifting becomes apparent. Not all of us are called and gifted to preach before audiences of thousands.

So in summary, though a complementarian church may, out of a genuine desire to be faithful to Scripture, not use women to preach to the gathered congregation, it does not follow that they should not train women in the skills necessary to teach. In fact, I am convinced that our churches will benefit tremendously if we actively seek to include them in such training. Doubtless there will still be tension concerning those who feel they can only be fulfilled in their gifting through addressing the whole church, but better a church full of people bubbling over to share what they have discovered in the Scriptures with others, than one where only a few have a passion to teach.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve said more than enough to get my head blown off. Fire away in the comments.

Qoph–Day and Night

In the Qoph section of Ps 119 (v145-152) I want to pick out another recurring theme, and that is that the Psalmist focuses his attention on God’s Word all the way through the night (see for example Ps 119:55,62). So for example in verses 147 and 148 he says:

147 I rise before dawn and cry for help;
   I have put my hope in your word.
148 My eyes stay open through the watches of the night,
   that I may meditate on your promises.

Through the night

Both of these verses suggest he is foregoing sleep to meditate on God’s Word. This may be due to his great personal discipline – he is making time to be with God alone by waking in the night. But verse 148 suggests a sleepless night, perhaps because of fear of those who are out to get him. Verse 147 implies that he is in some kind of trouble and is rising early to cry out for help from God at the start of a day he is not eagerly anticipating.

There is something about the night that can make us feel more vulnerable, and fears that we might suppress in the light of day can prey upon our minds when the lights are out. But the Psalmist knows that the word of God is a refuge he can turn to for hope and encouragement. This again highlights the importance of having key promises of God’s Word memorised, in order that we can draw on them to fill us with faith when we are tempted to fear.

All the time

He may also be using the contrast of “early in the morning” and “late at night” as a poetic technique (a “merism”) to simply mean “all the time”. In other words, all day long, from breakfast to bedtime, he wants God’s Word to be filling his thoughts, guiding his actions and inspiring praise:

164 Seven times a day I praise you
   for your righteous laws.

97 Oh, how I love your law!
   I meditate on it all day long.

Again, I don’t see how that is possible unless we are people who know God’s Word really well. In some ways, I think this is why it doesn’t necessarily matter if you felt you “got something” out of your daily Bible reading. It might have seemed quite dry. But the more we simply read the Word of God, the more familiar with its contents we become, and the greater the chances that its teaching will shape the way think, inform our decision making and govern our emotions. It is often pointed out that the Holy Spirit is said to “remind” us of what Jesus said (Jn 14:26), but unless we know what he said in the first place, we are not going to be able to “remember” it. We need to fill up on both the Word and the Spirit in order to maximally benefit from the transformative power of God’s Word.

Tsadhe–Righteousness of the Law

The key word in the Tsadhe section of Ps 119 (verses 137-144) is “righteous”. Twice God is called righteous and three times God’s laws are called right or righteous:

137 You are righteous, LORD,
   and your laws are right.
138 The statutes you have laid down are righteous;
   they are fully trustworthy.

142 Your righteousness is everlasting
   and your law is true.

144 Your statutes are always righteous;
   give me understanding that I may live.

This theme of God’s laws being righteous regularly surfaces throughout the Psalm (see also verses 7, 62, 75, 106, 123, 160, 164, 172). But while it may make sense for us to speak of God being righteous, or of a person being righteous, what does it mean to call God’s law righteous? I’ll consider two possibilities briefly:

Law as the standard of righteousness

First, we could say that the law is righteous in that it defines a standard of righteousness. It reflects the nature and character of the righteous God. This fits in with the general observation that in this Psalm, the writer more or less conflates God with his law – the things he says about God’s law are also true of God. For example, when he says he delights in God’s law, he is also delighting in God. When he says God’s law is righteous, he is saying that every word that proceeds from a righteous God must by nature be righteous.

It poses an interesting question. Is something right because God commands it, or is it commanded because it is right? Similarly, is something wrong because God forbids it, or is it forbidden because it is inherently wrong? The fact that some of the Old Testament laws have been explicitly abrogated under the new covenant suggests the former is the case. God himself is the standard of what is right. If he forbids something, then doing it is not right. If later he permits the same thing (e.g. eating pork), the moral status of that action has changed.

Law as a means of attaining righteousness?

The relationship between the law and righteousness is something that Paul reflects on at length in Romans. If the law is the standard of righteousness, does it not follow logically that law-keeping is a means of attaining righteousness?

In some places Paul seems to suggest that this might be at least a theoretical possibility. For example:

For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (Rom 2:13)

But he goes on to make it abundantly clear that this never happens. In reality, the law simply reveals how far short we have fallen, highlighting our sin, and effectively condemning us.

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20)

We might expect that the gospel would make us righteous by enabling us to keep the law. But that isn’t how Paul explains it. We have a righteousness that is by faith, completely disconnected from our personal success at law-keeping.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rom 3:28)

So though we agree with the Psalmist that the law is righteous, because it is the words of the righteous God, we cannot look to it as our source of righteousness. Simon Ponsonby says that the function of the law is “SOS” – “Shows our sins” and “Shows our Saviour”. And this surely is the most valuable facet of the law of God – it points us to Christ (through the symbols and types of the ceremonial law), an it drives us to Christ (by revealing the full extent of our own shortcomings). In the New Covenant, delighting in God’s law means delighting in Christ.

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom 10:4)

Pe–Streams of Tears

I’ll just focus in on a single verse in the “Pe” section of Ps 119 (verses 129-136), the final one:

136 Streams of tears flow from my eyes,
   for your law is not obeyed.

The reason this verse is important is that it puts all the “hate” verses of the Psalm into a fresh light. The Psalmist has said in v104 and v128 that he hates every wrong path, then in v113 that he hates double-minded people, and later on declares that he hates falsehood. We might be tempted to think that he has a judgemental, bigoted outlook. But his tears tell another story. They reveal a deep love for God and a compassion for both the sinner and those sinned against.

Of course it is Jesus who sets the example for us in how it is possible to love the sinner while hating sin. Ps 45:6-7 (c.f. Heb 1:8-9) prophesies that Jesus will both “love righteousness” and “hate wickedness”. There is nothing wrong when the evil and injustice in the world causes godly anger to rise within us. But if there are no tears, it reveals that the love of God has not taken root in our hearts, and what we attempt to pass off as a passion for righteousness is more likely a symptom of self-righteousness.

Check out a recent post from John Piper applying this verse to a recent gay pride celebration in his city.

Ayin–It is time for God to Act

The verse that grabbed my attention in Ps 119:121-128 is verse 126:

126 It is time for you to act, LORD;
   your law is being broken.

There are many possible reactions we might have to the ungodliness we see in society, ranging from indifference or isolation, to anger and condemnation, to positive campaigning and working for change. But this verse shows that the Psalmist has recognised the heart of the issue – we need God to break in and move if things are really to change.

If God’s laws are being broken the ultimate solution will not be found in stricter rules and more police, but in transformed hearts. As much as I believe the church has a crucial role to play in hands-on social and political action, our first instinct must be to cry out to God to move in revival power. If we don’t, it is likely we are either guilty of self-reliance (attempting to fix society in our own strength), or self-absorption (not being troubled by the evils in society so long as they don’t affect me).

The Old Testament prophets understood this. They didn’t just speak out against evil and call God’s people to action, they called God himself to action:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
   that the mountains would tremble before you! (Isa 64:1)

LORD, I have heard of your fame;
   I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
Repeat them in our day,
   in our time make them known;
   in wrath remember mercy. (Hab 3:2)

You who call on the LORD,
   give yourselves no rest,
and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem
   and makes her the praise of the earth. (Isa 62:7-8)

Come with us and we will do you good

I hope my non-newfrontiers readers will forgive me for a few posts reflecting a little on the group of churches I am part of. Today was the final day of the final Together on a Mission conference, as newfrontiers moves into an exciting new phase.  

I have to confess I am something of a sermonoholic. I must have listened to thousands in my lifetime. I used to have boxes and boxes of sermon tapes in the garage (still have some I can’t bring myself to part with even though I have no cassette player anymore). One of the sermons is dated 2nd May 1981, and is by Terry Virgo, when he came to visit the church I attended (West Street Baptist Church in Dunstable) for an “All Saints Night”. I was five years old at the time, so I can’t say I recall it vividly. The text was Num 10:29, “Come with us, and we will do you good”. It’s a sermon I know he has repeated in several places (including his final talk at TOAM 2006), but I suspect this was one of the first times he brought the message. I’ve uploaded it so you can have a listen below:

[audio:Terry Virgo – Come with us.mp3]

My next run-in with what was to become newfrontiers was a visit to some friends Hove in 1987. We attended their church in the morning (sadly I can’t remember who spoke but I’m pretty sure Dave Fellingham was leading worship), and in the afternoon I was told they were going on a “witness march”. It sounded like the most deathly boring and cringingly embarrassing thing for an 11 year old to do on a Sunday afternoon and I almost opted out of it. But what I experienced that afternoon left a lasting impression on me. It was an early one of Graham Kendrick’s “March for Jesus”. I loved the songs, and held on to the song-sheet for years afterwards (probably still have it somewhere). I still instinctively start playing “The Lord is marching out in splendour” whenever I pick up a guitar. Here’s a photo I took on the day:

Hove 1987

I had very little contact with newfrontiers after that – our church was part of a different apostolic sphere (or under different “covering” as it was called at the time), under the remarkable Ern Baxter. The Bible weeks we attended linked up more with Barney Coombs from Basingstoke and Bryn Jones from Bradford.

It wasn’t until 1999 that I had my next real run-in with newfrontiers. I agreed to go to Stoneleigh Bible week, taking a handful of young people from my church, although I was fairly cynical and suspicious of the charismatic movement at this stage, believing most to have lost their evangelical commitment to the Bible. My prejudice was blown away as men like Dave Holden, John Hosier, John Groves, Greg Haslam, Dave Devenish, Simon Pettit and Terry Virgo himself hit successive home runs with outstanding Biblical exposition. It restored my faith that churches of “Word and Spirit” really could exist (hence the title of my blog).

So when we moved to Southampton in 2001, I wanted to at least give the local newfrontiers church a try. Almost 10 years ago now, we joined KCC, a church actually located in Hedge End, which we fell in love with immediately. It had recently moved into a new auditorium seating 300 and this Sunday will be our first meeting in our new building seating well over 1000 and we are excited to see what God will do with and through us in the coming years.

It struck me as I listened again to Terry’s talk, “Come with us and we will do you good” that that is exactly what has happened for us. I am so grateful to God for linking us up with a group of churches who love the Word and are filled with the Spirit. I love the emphasis on church planting and mission to the ends of the earth that permeates the movement. I am well aware that no local church or group of churches is without fault, but I have to say that even given my tendency towards cynicism, this is a family of churches I feel privileged and proud (in a godly kind of way) to be associated with.

My advice to any Christian who finds themselves looking for a church is to find a group of people who love God and have a big vision for seeing the earth filled with his glory. It will do you good and you won’t regret it.

Samekh–Missional or Monastic?

In several places in the Psalms and Wisdom literature, the godly person is counselled to keep away from the wicked who are corrupting influences. In Psalm 119:113-120 (the ‘Samekh’ strophe), the Psalmist expresses his desire for them to leave him alone.

115 Away from me, you evildoers,
   that I may keep the commands of my God!

There have been many groups throughout church history who have emphasised the wisdom of avoiding close association with the godless. Verses such as 1 Cor 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” or 2 Cor 6:17 “Come out from them and be separate” are often cited as evidence that as Christians, we are to keep our distance from the ungodly.

But there has been a marked shift of emphasis in recent years. Now the desire is to be “missional”, to develop good relationships with those who don’t know God and to be a “friend of sinners” like Jesus was.

Are these two incompatible perspectives? Or can they be integrated in some way?

We need to begin by acknowledging the fact that it is possible for us both to be an influencer of those around us and to be influenced by them. Becoming a Christian does not make us magically invincible to temptation. Jesus touched the unclean leper and it made the leper clean. But if we are honest, we don’t always find the transfer works that way for us.

Going into situations where you regularly succumb to temptation and blend in with those around you is not being missional, it’s being foolish. But completely withdrawing from unbelievers around you is not being spiritual, it’s being disobedient to the great commission.

So how did Jesus do it? I won’t attempt to give a comprehensive answer, but here are a few brief thoughts. He brought the presence of God with him into every situation, shining light into dark places rather than hiding his light away. He loved and accepted others, but he wasn’t a people pleaser; he was willing to confront where necessary. He  chose to mix with sinners in contexts conducive to meaningful conversation, such as shared meals.

We do need to beware being influenced by evil, but the solution is not monasticism. For an example of how to live a holy yet missional life, we need look no further than Jesus.