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Protestant Profiles #13: Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

watson

Born: Yorkshire, England
Role: Pastor; author; presbyterian activist; promoter of Puritan piety
Emphases: the Puritan idea of godliness; need for regeneration; Westminster theology
Protested against: hypocrisy and formal religion; Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic doctrine and worship

Watson is one of the most frequently quoted and republished Puritans, but relatively little is known about his origins or personal life. But with his promotion of godliness; ability to apply theology pastorally and practically; and capacity for warm, vivid and often striking preaching and writing – Watson represents some of the best aspects of the Puritan movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Watson came to prominence in a very unstable time in English history. This is best illustrated by the fact that his first published work was the transcript of a sermon he preached before the nation’s parliament – just after control of it had been seized by partisans aligned with the victors of the first and second English Civil Wars. Not long after this sermon was delivered, this group of politicians and officers executed King Charles I (the loser of the Civil Wars) – an act which shocked Watson and many of his more moderate peers. In this key sermon, Watson criticised many of those in attendance as using religious pretenses to satisfy their greed and ambitions for power and preached sharply against all forms of hypocrisy.

“If there are any here, that when they should have been doing God’s work, have been by stealth hiding the Babylonish garment [see Joshua 7], making themselves rich, feathering their own nests; who, instead of driving in nails into God’s temple to fasten it, have been driving a wedge of gold into their chests – God sees it!”[1]

Many of the winners in the Civil War were religiously affiliated with the Puritan movement in some way, shape or form, but mere outward profession meant very little to Watson. He firmly believed that the theology and principles of the Protestant Reformation necessitated the recovery of a certain kind of spirituality described in the Bible. All outward religious expressions had to be genuine reflections of one’s heart towards God – highlighted by YHWH’s complaint against Israel in the OT that they honoured Him with their lips, but their hearts were far away and Jesus’ contentions with the scribes and Pharisees about their hypocrisy and selective obedience in the NT. Therefore, Watson cared little whether his contemporaries claimed to be “reformed” if their actions betrayed them as insincere.

Much of Watson’s ministry focused on how to live the Christian life appropriately in light of the truths revealed in the Gospel. His work The Godly Man’s Picture was written to present an in-depth picture of what godliness was according to the Puritan understanding of the Bible, at a time when those with Watson’s beliefs were facing persistent religious persecution. The last work he published before his death (Religion our True Interest republished in the 20th Century as The Great Gain of Godliness) returned to this important theme, with a particular focus on how godly Christians should live in the difficult times they found themselves in. His best known work, A Body of Practical Divinity (published by friends a few years after his death) systematically works through the Presbyterian theology formulated by the Westminster Assembly (during the 1640s) and Watson goes to great lengths to apply each doctrine pastorally and practically.

An excellent sample of this comes from his treatment of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s fundamental question, “What is the chief end of man?” “A: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”:

Glorifying God consists in APPRECIATION. To glorify God is to set God highest in our thoughts, and to have a venerable esteem of him. “You, Lord, are most high for evermore!” “You are exalted far above all gods!” There is, in God, all that may draw forth both wonder and delight; there is a constellation of all beauties; he is the original and springhead of being, who sheds a glory upon the creature. We glorify God, when we are God-admirers! Admire his attributes, which are the glistening beams by which the divine nature shines forth! Admire his promises which are the charter of free grace, and the spiritual cabinet where the pearl of price is hid! Admire the noble effects of his power and wisdom in making the world, which is called “the work of his fingers.” To glorify God is to have God-admiring thoughts; to esteem him most excellent, and search for diamonds in this rock alone!

Watson was not afraid to take risks and suffer for his convictions. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and came close to being executed in 1651 for his involvement in a plot to restore the monarchy with Charles I’s son (also Charles and later Charles II) as the king. He saw this as a way of righting the wrongs done by the parliamentarians who executed the king and hoped the new king would bring about a better religious status quo (Charles II had promised to implement Presbyterian government in the Church of England upon his return, which he later reneged on).

In 1660 the monarchy was eventually re-established, but Watson received no favour from the new king for his earlier support. In 1662, he was ejected from his ministry within the national church for his refusal to subscribe to unbiblical religious regulations being imposed upon the clergy by the bishops who returned to power with the king. He carried out the next decade of his ministry as an effective ‘outlaw’ preacher – unable to hold meetings in the usual places, but still determined to exhort local Christians to live godly lives in the midst of great ungodliness.

Watson’s great gift to the church today is his clear presentation of the Puritan vision of godliness and biblical spirituality. There are things that contemporary evangelicals are right to disagree with the Puritans on, when it comes to how we should approach the Christian life, but there is comparatively much more we could learn – and be corrected on – by clear and notable promoters of Puritan piety like Watson.

Today many professedly Reformed Christians could do with the same wake-up call from Watson that those in the English Parliament received three and a half centuries ago – about whether our hearts are sincerely devoted to God. In a time when many are guilty of a kind of cold, over-rationalised orthodoxy that more resembles the Vulcans of the Star Trek universe than the holistic piety practiced by many earlier generations of faithful Christians – Watson could be the remedy that many Protestant Christians and churches are in need of.

“Strive for the reality of godliness. Do not rest in the common workings of God’s Spirit. Do not think that it is enough to be intelligent and discursive. A man may discourse of piety to the admiration of others, yet not feel the sweetness of those things in his own soul.  The lute gives a melodious sound to others, but does not at all feel the sound itself.”[3]

You can read more about Watson’s life, ministry and significance here.

My doctoral research is focused on the significance of Thomas Watson and I can’t recommend highly enough that you read him for yourself! To get a taste for his emphasis on genuine heart piety, start here or here.

References

[1] God’s Anatomy Upon a Man’s Heart (1649)
[2] A Body of Practical Divinity (1692)
[3] The Godly Man’s Picture (1666)

Protestant Profiles #12: John Owen

John Owen (1616-1683)

322px-JohnOwenFrontispiece

Born: Oxfordshire, England
Role: Chaplain; minister; theologian; Puritan/Congregationalist leader, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University
Emphases: regeneration; communion with the Triune God; person and work of Christ; person and work of Holy Spirit; mortification of sin; holiness; limited atonement
Protested Against: Arminianism; unreformed Church of England; Socinianism; Catholic inconsistency of doctrine; mass; purgatory; papacy; Roman Catholic worship

John Owen is one of the most significant figures of all time in English Christianity. He has variously been described as “Prince of Puritans,” the greatest ever English-language theologian,  the “Atlas and Patriarch of Independency” (explained below) and the “Calvin of England.” He came to prominence during a period of major political upheaval in English history – which was also the zenith of the Puritan movement in that country – and would become a notable figure in the religious and political spheres.

Owen was the son of vicar, who went to university at Oxford, with the apparent goal of following his father in the path of clerical ministry. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the first English Civil War and he appears to have had a religious awakening around this time that established him as a practitioner of Puritan piety.

Writing ministry

Owen’s greatest impact in his own lifetime and beyond is undoubtedly his publication of theological and scholarly works. His earliest publication The Display of Arminianism demonstrated his Reformed convictions clearly and earned him some attention amongst English Calvinists. In his early ministry he published an essay “For the Practice of Church Government” and revisited this topic in his later years in his Treatise on Evangelical Churches. How the church should be organised and run was a major issue facing Protestants during the 17th century – particularly in the English context – and Owen’s contributions were important articulations of congregationalism: the independent governance of each local church.

Among Owen’s most notable works are The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (dealing with the doctrine of Christ’s atonement and again contesting the claims of Arminianism); The Mortification of Sin (a practical work on dealing with sin in the believer’s life); Communion with God (how to live the Christian life in relationship with God as Trinity); The Glory of Christ: His Office and His Grace Pneumatologia (an in-depth book on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit) and his Commentary on the Book of Hebrews.

While many readers have found Owen’s writing style to be rather dense, it is his capacity to think deeply about theological issues and treat them thoroughly that his earned him his reputation as a Puritan luminary.

Preacher, chaplain, scholar & church leader

Owen held pastoral positions in Essex in his late twenties and early thirties and began to shift his ministry context from Presbyterian to Congregationalist during this time. He preached before Parliament the day after King Charles I was executed by leading members of the faction that had seized control of England following two civil wars. He became one of the favourites preachers of the new regime and became a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and his forces when they went to subdue Ireland to English rule.

Cromwell’s patronage led to Owen becoming the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (the most prestigious academic post in the country then, as now) from 1651-1657. But in stark contrast to the academic and administrative nature of such a role in today’s universities, Owen not only ran the institution but acted as its spiritual leader – preaching God’s Word to the students in chapel services and seeking to shape the culture of the campus into one of godliness. He also used this position to continue championing the evangelical faith and attack heretical teaching that was gaining ground in the country. He did however display a considerable degree of religious toleration – allowing Anglicans at Oxford to hold their own services, rather than being forced to conform to Puritan worship.

As the leading figure in Independent or Congregationalist Christianity in England, Owen (in partnership with another notable Congregationalist named Thomas Goodwin) was heavily involved in the drafting of the Savoy Declaration: a declaration of faith based on the Westminster Confession but diverging from it on matters of church organisation. Through the denominationalisation of the Independent movement into the Congregationalism of the late 17th century and beyond, the Declaration became one of Owen’s greatest enduring influences on the faith of Christians in subsequent centuries.

The monarchy was restored in England in 1660 and Charles I’s son became King Charles II. Most of the Puritans who had supported regime change after the Civil Wars suffered greatly under the political and religious policies that occurred after the restoration. Owen was not in favour with the political establishment in these years, but he was still well-connected enough to enjoy some influence and protection from serious harassment. The King and others recognised him as a spiritual leader of the Congregationalists and he was able to act as a representative of Puritans on various occasions.

Political involvement

Owen was actually, for a short time, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University and had some involvement in that capacity in the affairs of the state. He was very closely connected with those who put the king to death in 1649, but it is unclear to what extent he himself favoured such an approach.

He suffered politically for his objections to Cromwell establishing himself as monarch – costing him the support of key members of the regime. He may have subsequently had a degree of involvement in the sequence of events that included the overthrow of Cromwell’s son Richard and the re-establishment of parliament, which eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy.

Conclusion

Owen was clearly a remarkable man with enormous personal capacity not only for engaging with ideas on a deep level, but also for advancing the gospel and biblical truths in a program of reform. He was committed to furthering the Reformation and seeing England reformed more fully by God’s Word. I’m fairly certain that no one reading these words will be the John Owen of our times – but we could all have a greater impact on church and society by learning from both his teaching and example.

Owen said that seeing people put to death their sins and Christians everywhere advancing in their personal holiness was the great goal and desire of his life. Everything he did and wrote was done with that purpose in mind. We need men and women, all over the world, in the 21st century to pursue gospel ministry with such aims “to the glory of God, so that the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.”

You can read a fuller treatment of Owen’s life and ministry here.

 

Sources

Trueman, “John Owen” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals 

“John Owen” wikipedia

William Orme, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Religious Connexions of John Owen 

Thoughts on the Arab-Israeli Conflict: on the 50th Anniversary of the Six Day War

Arab-Israeli Conflict

 

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War, when Israel was attacked by a coalition of Arabic armies, including the national militaries of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. This was a significant event in the Arab-Israeli conflict that has characterised the politics of the Middle East for many decades.

As far as global conflicts and geo-political affairs go, this ongoing struggle (which includes the dispute over Israeli and Palestinian statehood) has been unique in its ability to capture the attention of Christians and generate controversy amongst our community.

Over the years I’ve gone from paying very close attention to this conflict to comparatively little. I’ve also swung between hard-line support for Palestinian statehood, to staunch support of Israel – before eventually landing at what I hope is a more thoughtful and moderate position.

I thought the anniversary of the conflict provides an opportunity to collect some of my thoughts on how we should approach the issues involved in the ongoing tension between Israel and its Arab neighbours (especially the Palestinians). I’ve provided these positions in point form and I have little doubt they’ll be met with a mixture of opposition and support from readers. I welcome disputation or calls for clarification on what are contentious points concerning a very vexed situation.

Israel’s right to exist 

-Israel’s right to exist as a peaceful, stable, democratic sovereign state should be an incontestable reality in international politics.

-Israel’s right to take any and all reasonable steps to protect its people, sovereignty and national institutions from hostile nations and terrorist organisations should likewise be indisputable.

-The refusal of the government of any nation to recognise Israel as a nation is a position so closely akin to anti-Semitism that it is difficult to imagine a scenario where a nation or government could adopt such a stance without possessing a deep antipathy for the Jewish people. Such governments ought to be condemned as irresponsible members of the international community.

-The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, 1967 Six Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War are all unjustified expressions of Arab aggression against the Jewish people and their right to a homeland in the vicinity of their ancestral territory.

The problems with Zionism and dispensationalism as Christian positions 

-Despite the above assertions, Zionism is to be rejected insomuch as it promotes Jewish exceptionalism; blind support for the Israeli state, government and/or military irrespective of the morality of their actions; excuses Israeli mistreatment of Arabs under the pretext of defence or security where this is unwarranted; or completely rules out the possibility of a Palestinian State.

-Christian Zionism that has its roots in dispensational theology is an illegitimate and unhelpful stance for believers in Christ to take towards the conflict. The Jews are not God’s people in an unrestricted sense, nor is the Gentile church a parenthetical phase in God’s plan. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of Israel and under the New Covenant, people of every nation, tribe and tongue become God’s people through union with Christ.

-Jews who do not confess Jesus as the Messiah should not be regarded as God’s covenant people in the same way they were before His coming. God is not bound by covenant to fulfill promises concerning the land of Canaan he made to Abraham by granting this territory to his descendants apart from Christ.

-The right of the Jewish people to possess a democratic nation-state in the Palestinian region should instead be grounded in international law and their historic connection to the land, instead of a perceived prophetic necessity.

Towards a two-state solution

-A peaceful, two-state solution which recognises the integrity of Israel’s borders and right to national sovereignty and security, as well as the right of Palestinians to peaceful self-determination and democratic representation within an internationally recognised nation-state – remains a desirable goal, despite the seeming impossibility of its realisation.

-In order for the above to transpire, Israel must be willing to cede sovereignty of some of the territory it captured from Arab aggressors in 1967 to the Palestinian people. The representatives of the Palestinian people must be willing to commit themselves to the national security of Israel by pledging a policy of permanent non-aggression towards the State of Israel, refusing to harbour terrorists or anti-Israeli militia etc;

-Both parties must deal with the realpolitik of the region in coming to a future agreement about territory. There is no innate need for Israel to cede the entirety of its territory captured in 1967 to a Palestinian state, nor should it necessarily cede all of West Bank or Gaza Strip, nor a portion of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. Such details must be worked out in the course of reasonable, good-faith negotiations.

-Israel should permanently cease establishing and expanding any new settlements in contested territory, especially areas that are under de facto Palestinian control or are likely to become part of a future Palestinian state. But again, Israel should not be expected to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians or its other neighbours if there is no guarantee from these parties that they will not use regained territory as strategic positions for military aggression.

-The ultimate fate of the contested Jewish settlements must be decided through mutually agreeable border negotiations between the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority.

-Hamas is a terrorist organisation which refuses to recognise Israel’s existence and holds to a radical form of Islam which includes deep hatred of the Jewish people.

-Israel should never be expected to recognise Hamas as a legitimate political organisation and be forced into negotiations with them as though they were the legitimate government of a sovereign state.

-While the Palestinian Authority and its major component (Fatah/PLO) are guilty of inappropriate behaviour and violent acts at various times during the course of their history, they ought to be regarded as legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people and continue to be viewed by Israel as potential partners in the peace process.

Israel’s faults must be acknowledged

-Observers of the conflict must recognise and condemn Jewish terrorism where it has occurred. This includes historical attacks carried out by the Stern Gang in the years leading up to Israeli independence, as well as recent attacks on Palestinians by extremist Jewish settlers.

-Likewise, instances where Israeli forces have committed atrocities should also be condemned. This includes their participation in the Sabra and Shatila massacre under Ariel Sharon, extra-judicial killings and any operations that do not adequately preserve the safety of civilians.

Further considerations for Christians 

-Christian support for Israelis or Palestinians should be tempered by the reality that our brothers and sisters in Christ constitute a small minority in both ethnic/national groups and as a largely innocent party in the conflict they stand to potentially suffer from any callous actions instigated by Islamic terrorists or the IDF.

-Lasting peace in the region is unlikely until the coming of Christ – however it remains vital for Christians to pray for peace and the advance of the gospel amongst Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Muslims.

-Likewise international governments and organisations should continue to urge Israeli and Palestinian representatives to resume good-will peace negotiations – however unachievable this may seem at times.

 

Protestant Profiles #9: John Bradford

John Bradford (1510-1555) 

BRADFORD-John

Born: Manchester, England
Role: 
English Reformer, preacher, royal chaplain, martyr
Theological Emphases: repentance; holiness of life
Protested against: neglect of true religion and God’s Word; “insatiable covetousness,” “filthy carnality” and “intolerable ambition and pride” of the English court.[1];  papal authority; transubstantiation

John Bradford had a relatively short life and an even shorter ministry as a preacher and reformer. He was converted in 1547, in his mid-late thirties; pursued the ministry a couple of years later and was burned at the stake on heresy charges at the age of 45. But the impact of his life, character and ministry have had a profound impact on English Christians in the centuries since his martyrdom.

Bradford’s name is lesser known today than those of several of his friends, associates and ministry partners. He was the junior of the more famous English Reformer-martyrs Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. He accompanied Martin Bucer (a continental Reformer cum theology professor in the English Reformation and contemporary of Luther and Calvin) to a meeting with Peter Martyr Vermigli (an imminent Italian Reformer and another contemporary of Luther, Calvin et. al) in 1550. And he was a chaplain for a short time to the famous Protestant king Edward VI.

But Bradford himself was known as powerful preacher in his day and was remembered by later Christian generations in his homeland for his great personal piety. Thomas Watson, a Puritan who did most of his own ministry a century after Bradford’s death said: “It is said of holy Bradford, that preaching, reading, and prayer were his whole life.”

In a biographical sketch, John Brentnall adds to this picture of piety:

In all the extant biographies of England’s worthies, we rarely hear of one who was ‘more devout and godly’ than the writer ever knew, who not only led ‘a heavenly life himself’, but also ‘very earnestly and heartily’ laboured ‘to persuade others’ to do the same. Yet such a man was John Bradford – scholar, royal chaplain, itinerant preacher, contender for the true faith and martyr.[2]

What was it about Bradford that made him so esteemed as a model for godliness? Accounts of his life attest to a deep and serious awareness of his own sinfulness and an earnestness in repentance and prayer. Watson again: “It is reported of Bradford, the martyr, that he was of a melting spirit; he seldom sat down to his meal but some tears trickled down his cheeks.” Watson also notes that Bradford would sign off his letters as “The most hard-hearted-sinner.”

His piety was also expressed in his fearless preaching. Brentnall says:

All who heard Bradford, including enemies, agreed on the quality of his preaching and the godliness of his life. His ‘passionate earnestness’ spared the sins of neither rich nor poor, while with bold single-mindedness he rebuked the worldliness of courtiers. Indeed, he was most forthright when attacking the greed and ambition of men in power under Edward VI.[3]

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs confirms this testimony:

Sharply he opened and reproved sin, sweetly he preached Christ crucified, pithily he impugned heresies and errors, earnestly he persuaded to godly life.[4]

Bradford’s unfettered proclaiming of God’s Word was part of what helped the Reformation continue to progress in England. It is also a significant factor that led to his arrest and execution by the authorities shortly after the Catholic Mary’s accession to the throne.

Bradford was arrested on trumped up sedition charges and later accused of heresy as well. He steadfastly refused to recant the Protestant faith or to seek the Queen’s mercy – as he rejected the accusation that he had done anything wrong. He was burned in July 1555, preaching from the stake to the largest crowd ever to gather for such an execution. Among his final exhortations was: “O England, England, repent thee of thy sins, repent thee of thy sins. Beware of idolatry, beware of false antichrists.”

Sometime before he knew he would face death, he wrote about the need for Christians not to fear it, but to be prepared for it:

Let death be premeditated, not only because it comes uncertainly (I mean with respect to the time, for aside from that, death is most certain) but also because it helps much to the contempt of this world (out of which, just as nothing will go with you, so also you can take nothing with you).

Because [premeditating on death] helps with the mortifying of the flesh, which when you feed, you do nothing else but feed worms. Because it helps with the well disposing and due ordering of the things you have in this life. Because it helps to repentance, to bring you to the knowledge of yourself, that you are but earth and ashes, and it brings you to know God better.[5]

Bradford is also notable as one of the possible sources of the famous phrase: “There, but for the grace of God go I.” He is said to have uttered similar words while witnessing the execution of violent criminals.

Here is an example of a man who grasped the innate depravity of the human heart, just as his forebears Calvin, Augustine and Paul had. Here was a reformer who echoed Luther’s powerful emphasis on continual, heartfelt repentance. His personal piety and powerful preaching are Reformation truth on fire and in action.

We need evangelical Protestants like Bradford, who will live and die daily for Christ and perhaps lose their earthly life for the sake of His name – all the while striving to make him known in our nations.

You can read a fuller biography of John Bradford here.
Or you can read his works online here.

Sources

“John Bradford” wikipedia
https://www.crichbaptist.org/articles/john-bradford/
https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2010/john-bradford-1510-1555/
https://www.ccel.org/ccel/bradford/sertract.iv.html
http://www.exclassics.com/foxe/foxe294.htm

Reverend Traitor?

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi – a critical document in the history and law of New Zealand – and February 6 is celebrated as the country’s national day. Like Australia Day here, the choice of date and the event that it commemorates are not without controversy in Kiwi society.

There remains debate as to whether the Treaty was a good or bad deal for the Maori in establishing their legal relationship with the British Crown. And the numerous military skirmishes between Maori tribes and British settlers and soldiers in the subsequent years have contributed indelible dark red, bloody hues to any picture of the relationship between the two peoples which have been incorporated into one modern society and nation.

As part of my commemoration of Waitangi Day, I commend to readers the story of a man who played a key role in the Treaty arrangement in 1840 between the Maori chiefs and the Queen of the Pakeha (i.e. the name for European settlers). Henry Williams was the most significant Christian missionary to the Maori in the early history of New Zealand’s “settlement” by British colonists. He was sent by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in England to teach Maori the gospel and ways of Jesus Christ.

henrywilliams_missionary_1792-1867
Rev. Henry Williams

Williams demonstrated a sincere care for both the spiritual and overall welfare of the Maori people he lived and worked amongst and was put in a very difficult position when he became the translator of the proposed Treaty from English to Maori, and effectively the mediator of dialogue between British Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs he sought to win over. Williams had the unenviable dilemma of ending up something of a negotiator representing the British to the Maori, whilst being an advocate of the Maori to certain British officials. This tension could not last…

Williams was branded a traitor by many in the British military ranks stationed in New Zealand for the way in which he acted in the interests of the Maori he knew and loved, including several who were openly hostile towards the British authorities and their troops. He himself seems to have had some remorse that he was unable to prevent hostilities from escalating and secure better conditions for his Maori friends under British rule.

He suffered unjustly at the hands of both Church and State as both the third Governor George Grey and the first Anglican bishop in NZ, took actions against his interests that made his life very difficult.
He was dismissed from CMS as a result of the political machinations against him, but stayed on to continue living and ministering in the country and was later reinstated as a CMS missionary at the request of the two aforementioned gentlemen who had previously done him wrong.

You can read about his life and ministry at his Wikipedia biography:

Or watch a classic New Zealand miniseries The Governor, the first episode of which “The Reverend Traitor” deals (relatively fairly) with Williams’ role in the Treaty process and the grief later caused to him by hostilities between local Maori and British colonisers and the accusations made against him.

reverend-traitor

In my assessment, Henry Williams was unjustly dubbed “the Reverend Traitor” by elements in the British forces who were unsympathetic to the work of the gospel and who viewed the Maori as enemy savages to be subjugated. They could not tolerate a man who did not blindly comply with imperial interests, but sought the welfare of the native people of the land they were colonising.

He could more justly be seen as a sterling example of a frontier missionary who was forced to struggle with satanic opposition in the form of worldly settlers and colonial powers as he strove to bring the light and love of Christ to a land the gospel had thereunto barely touched.

He ministered in New Zealand during the period it came into being as a modern nation and his role in translating the treaty and working towards the reality of the phrase “He iwi tahi tatou” (which he may have formulated as a means of bridging the gap between Governor Hobson and the Maori chiefs at the Treaty signing) surely make him one of the founding fathers of today’s NZ.

And while it’s Jesus, not me, who gets to make the assessment of whether he was a “good and faithful servant”, I’m inclined to believe he was greeted with those words as he entered into his eternal rest, in place of the aspersions cast on his motives and character by his adversaries in this age.

Death knocked three times…

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Once upon a time, Death knocked three times at the door of my family. It was 2002, I was a teenager, still in high school and hadn’t experienced the death of any close family members thus far in my young life. Then just before Easter that year, I came home to find my family in the throes of grief. My paternal grandmother, “Nanna” as we called her, had succumbed to death as a result of breast cancer. It came as a shock – I’d been aware she had cancer but had no idea her health had been in decline. This first, cruel intrusion of death had a big impact on my family.

A few months later, our beloved family dog Ranger, who we’d owned since I was 3 years old also died. While losing a pet is not the same as losing a grandparent, it was another taste of death, another round of grief and noticeable, daily absence from family life.

Another few months passed and my maternal grandfather, “Granddad” passed away from a coronary episode. I knew him better than my Nanna, as he had lived much closer to us and I’d spent much more time with him growing up. This was in many ways the biggest personal loss of the year – the death of the most important male figure in my life after my father – but by that stage I was well fatigued from all the grief and mourning and found it difficult to express my sorrow with my emotions so drained.

That was when death knocked three times – by far the darkest season of my life with the greatest sense of loss I’d experienced. But unbeknownst to me, death would knock three times in a short space of time once again, many years later.

Towards the end of 2014, I found out simultaneously that I had fathered a child and that the child was in all probability already dead. It was a shocking experience, as I only had limited, rather removed, second-hand knowledge of miscarriages and a child dying long before it was due to be born. There will always be a sense of sadness for the loss of the baby who would have been approaching his or her first birthday around now, had they continued to grow and develop healthily within their mother’s womb.

A year ago today, my maternal grandmother, “Grandma” passed away a few days after her 92nd birthday. Although her death at that age was by no means unexpected, it still had a profound sense of grief attached to it, as she was the grandparent I had the closest attachment to out of all four. She had been part of my life, almost weekly, from the earliest times until well into adulthood and now suddenly she was gone. I wished I had seen the signs more clearly at the time and recognised that she was in fact about to die – but she had come back from poor health so many times before that it was too difficult to discern whether another comeback was around the corner instead of deterioration to death.

Then, just three months ago, my wife’s mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. The way she died and the way we found out about it were both quite traumatic. There remains to this day, things we will probably never know about what led to the circumstances surrounding her death. It has affected me significantly as a son-in-law seeing his mother-in-law lose her life without any warning and as a husband trying to do the best to comfort and support his grieving wife who lost her mother without any warning. Once again, there is a hole in our lives because Death knocked again.

These three deaths differ in detail and are tragic in different kinds of ways. But each one has stained the last three calendar years of my life with the shock and pain of death. Once again, I find myself in a dark period, where my family has been visited too many times by that most unwelcome intruder.

Here are my reflections during this season when death has knocked three times:

1) I hate death

Death is the greatest reminder that there is something profoundly wrong with the world. As a Christian I have to acknowledge that humanity deserves to suffer at the hands of death – because our rejection of God and His goodness is so wicked and ungrateful that we all ought to be left to Death as its playthings. And yet, at the same time, death is bad. I hate what it is and what it does. I long for a world where it no longer exists. You can probably only hate death when it’s come close enough for you to stare into its wretched, ugly face. It has for me and I hate it in truth.

2) We all must face the death of loved ones – and it’s a terrible reality

Sometimes it’s hard to truly appreciate the impact that the death of a loved one has had on someone else when we see it happen to them. We’re sad for our friends, co-workers or acquaintances when we see them mourning, but often we’re sufficiently removed from the situation to not feel the power of the emotional shockwaves they’ve been hit with. But even those reading this who’ve never lost someone who was an important part of their lives will have to experience it personally one day. That’s the terrible truth that faces us when we love people in a world that’s tainted by sin and death. It’s sad because it means that in all likelihood I’ll see many more people go through what I’ve gone through in the last couple of years, before too much time passes.

At certain times it can be quite daunting when I reflect on this truth in light of other relationships in my life. One day I will have to face the death of my last living grandparent. One day my own father and mother will be the ones that die. One day I may have to say goodbye to the most precious companion I have in life – my beloved wife. I may survive a number of my friends and relatives and perhaps even some of my own children. Grimly, the only thing that will prevent me from experiencing the deaths of those I love will be if I myself die first – leaving them to experience bereavement at my passing, instead of me being left to mourn theirs.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of Death knocking several times is the part where it leaves the calling card, promising to visit again at another time.

3) Death can strike at any time (even in a technologically advanced, sanitised, first-world society)

My experiences have been a poignant reminder that death doesn’t follow a predictable schedule, it can come without warning and can strike at any time of life. The death of our unborn child was a confronting taste of Death taking away a life that had barely begun. The shock of learning of death before I even had time to appreciate that there was life, showed me precisely how abrupt Death’s intrusions into life can be. The death of my grandmother demonstrated that even when someone has been blessed with a very long life and you know they can’t go on living forever – Death can still approach like a vicious, stealthy predator – undetected until it’s too late. The death of my mother-in-law was both harrowing and surreal in the way it emerged out of nowhere – to the point where three months on it still doesn’t feel as though it should have happened. And yet it has.

In the 21st century, developed world, we’re pretty good at delaying death and preventing it from punctuating our lives quite as frequently as it did for our ancestors. We’re masters of ignoring it as we go about our lives doing hundreds of things that seem so important, as long as we operate on the assumption that we and everyone we love will still be here tomorrow. Yet Death is the star of the nightly news almost without fail – reminding us that it’s out there and warning us that it could visit our home anytime, just like it did for those poor people all the way out there in a distant land.

4) Caring for the vulnerable

The three deaths I’ve been describing make me want to reinforce the value of caring for the vulnerable – especially those who are particularly vulnerable to death. My child’s unexplained death in the womb helps me appreciate how precious the lives of all unborn children are. We should mourn their deaths and strive to protect these most vulnerable members of the human race.

Grandma’s death from old age tells the story of those who are vulnerable to death at the other end of the human lifespan: the elderly. Older members of our families and communities are precious – that’s why we grieve when they are taken from us. We should care for them and treasure them while they remain among us.

My mother-in-law’s death is still shrouded in uncertainty, but it seems most likely that it came about as a result of the mental illness she was cruelly afflicted with for many years. Those who suffer from different kinds of mental illness are often vulnerable to death in their own way. They are precious and in need of our care and love too. We may not be able to do anything to stop death from taking them from us – as has been the case for us. But we can enrich their lives and they ours, for as long as God permits us to remain in one another’s lives.

5) Jesus knocks death on the head for me (more than three times!)

Perhaps the only real source of comfort when Death knocks multiple times is the fact that Jesus has knocked death on the head for me and will do so again in the future.

Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sin in my life which brings the sentence of death upon me has been dealt with; life has triumphed over death; the fatal blow that will kill Death itself has been inflicted. Even though death still takes lives every day – the age of death is now coming to a close. The coming, Eternal Age of Life has begun to swallow it up.

Because God has kindly allowed me to hear and believe the gospel – I have passed from death to life. I have died with Christ in his death, I live with Him in His resurrection. Through the Holy Spirit’s gracious application of Christ’s work to my soul, Jesus has knocked death on the head for me personally and I’ll never experience the eternal death I deserve.

Because Christ will draw me to Himself when I die, He’ll knock death on the head when it attempts to imprison my soul in darkness without hope to await judgement. Though my body will die, this will simply be the transition that commences my enjoyment of Jesus in a heavenly state that is free of sin, corruption, distraction and misery. Remembering this truth empowers me to face death without fearing its power to deprive me of the things I love in life.

Because Christ will raise my body again and unite it with my soul to live forever at His coming, He will have knocked Death on the head definitively by reversing fully its effects. But this will be the ultimate Death of Death, when the Age of Life is fully ushered in and Death is judged and thrown into the Lake of Fire as a sign of final judgement. Millions will be raised to life. Creation will be renewed. Death will burn forever, while Life reigns.

I know Death will knock again. It will once again be painful to endure when it does. But thanks be to God that Jesus dealt death its own fatal blow and will give it a knock so hard it that it will never come back again.

[1] Delete “Death” (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Star Wars and Hebrews

Around the 20th anniversary of the original Star Wars film (1997), a special edition was released that reinvigorated interest in the franchise. Two years later the prequel trilogy launched with The Phantom Menace – enchanting a new generation of fans and aggravating a legion of purists who loved the originals. With yet another trilogy upon us, I was intrigued by the following excerpt from a John Piper sermon on Hebrews, from around the time of the special edition release:

          Star Wars and Hebrews

I want to make sure as we begin this message that you know the difference between Star Wars and the book of Hebrews. For many today there is no significant difference. That is, both are myths. And a myth is a story (it need not be true in the sense that it really happened), a story that provides symbols for interpreting the world. You don’t need Truth, with a capital T. You only need a symbolic system to help you order your world. Now this may sound like fancy academic talk that comes from a philosophy class or a class in advanced linguistic anthropology. But it’s not. It’s straight out of yesterday’s newspaper about the new release of Star Wars and the meaning it has for kids.

Here’s a key sentence: “For some pre-adolescent boys, Star Wars . . . functions as a kind of religion, giving them spiritual nourishment and opening the door to questions of redemption, forgiveness and morality, sometimes more potently than their formal religious upbringing ever has. They’re finding their myths in an unexpected place” (StarTribune, 2/1/97, p. B5).

Now what interests me in this sentence is not that Star Wars is a kind of religion for some kids. Nor even that for some it seems more exciting than what they learned in Sunday School. (That can easily be accounted for by the difference between computer-enhanced cinematography and flannelgraph.)

Myth or Truth?

What interests me is the assumption of the writer that finding your religion is like choosing among many myths. “They are finding their myths in an unexpected place.” And the question is not one of ultimate Truth, but rather of what story or symbolic system works for you. You can find your myth in the Biblical story of creation by a sovereign God, incarnation of a real personal Son of God, redemption by the real shed blood of Christ and by his resurrection, and faith in this Truth. Or you can find your myth in the story of Star Wars. The issue today, inside the philosophy class and inside the movie theater, is not usually Truth, but rather finding a satisfying myth, a story that helps you interpret the world, to make it livable and, if possible, enjoyable.

So the article quotes one professor who compares not only Star Wars, but TV in general, to religion and says, “It does what religion does: provides a symbolic system through which you interpret the world.” That’s all religion is for many people: “a symbolic system” a cluster of metaphors and narratives and experiences that touch you deeply and help you make some sense of your life. Truth is simply a non-issue.

If that kind of thinking were confined to a few scholarly books or a few advanced classes, I would not bring it in here. But since I know it is simply in the air we breathe, I think you need to put it before you and realize that as you read this text, and as I preach this message, neither the writer of this book [Hebrews]  nor the preacher of this sermon thinks that way. We are not offering you another possible myth you can choose from to help your life go better. The writer of this book and the preacher of this message aim to describe real persons and historical events and divine intentions that really happened in history. And we aim to reveal an unseen heavenly realm above history that is more real than all we see and touch in this life. This story is more real and more exciting and more terrifying and more life-changing than Star Wars will ever be, no matter how many enhancements they make. And I urge you, in the name of God, to hear the strangeness of this text as the strangeness of Reality, not as the strangeness of an unreal truth.

http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/what-christ-did-at-the-end-of-the-age

As “the Force awakens”, Piper’s juxtaposition between a great and engaging epic story like the Star Wars and a biblical testimony about Jesus like Hebrews, is a good reminder that many people need to “wake up” when it comes to the Truth that undergirds our existence and provides us with substantial purpose in our lives.

Star Wars VII will undoubtedly capture the imagination of a new generation, dazzle us with its amazing special effects and add to the mythos of the canonical universe of Star Wars fiction (which, one could be forgiven for thinking, is already of galactic proportions). And apart from a handful of the old school purists who are no doubt waiting with stones-in-hand to pelt the Disney heretics for further corrupting the sacred majesty of the original trilogy, most of us will enjoy it for what it is – a really captivating saga.

But we all need something better than an epic story to base our lives upon. Many people around the world need the wake-up call of the gospel so that they can see God and the universe He made as they really are, through Jesus Christ. And many sleepy Christians need to be awakened by the stunning truths of the gospel we may have begun to yawn at. We have the greatest story ever told – one that you can justly base your entire life upon. Because it’s real and has universal and eternal implications for everyone. And we don’t need a multi-million budget to present it to the world and maybe even see someone stunned and amazed by it’s brilliance. We just need to start with that neighbour, friend or Christian brother or sister who needs to be awoken or reawakened to the glories of Jesus Christ.