Sabbatical Day 29: I’ve almost finished Part 1

The Edwardian Tea Rooms at the Birmingham Art Galley provide a relaxing way to start the last of 5 weeks with my head in theological books.  The tea rooms are in a double-storey room about the size of a tennis court with huge comfy armchairs and sofas and free wifi. There were two or three other customers until about 11:00am, when it began to fill up.  The library opens at 11:00am, so I moved out to find some quiet, but didn’t get it.  Too many people were talking loudly on mobile phones.  It’s a library!

The front door of the Art Gallery overlooks the site of the old library, and its demolition is almost complete. I have watched each day as giant telescopic jaws reach up seven floors to crunch away the 1970s concrete and twist its re-bar, mercilessly pulling down the old library bit by bit.  I’ve got to know some of the characters who hang out around the town hall and conservatoire.  The Big Issue seller, JWs, rough sleepers and the trumpet busker all loiter with intent at this bottleneck between the city centre and Broad Street.  I’m going to miss being part of the daily story of Birmingham when I finish this week.  Every day I have set aside time to speak with someone and to help a rough sleeper.  Today the Lord gave two opportunities for me to speak the gospel with folk.  The blessing of no deadlines!

One other thing I have discovered during my ESL is that Birmingham library has a massive and diverse Christian theological reference section.  I found a Latimer Study Guide today on the Doctrine of Justification in the Church of England which quoted R.C. Lucas at the 1979 Islington Conference!  See my notes below.

Today’s reading for my study guide was on the work of God in preaching.  Why does God use preachers and what does he do when they preach?  I finished Michael Horton’s A Better Way, which built great confidence in what God does every time his word is opened and preached and the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of believers.  So I wrote the answer to the question on preaching in the Study Guide “Why Should I Go to Church”; “How does God make promises and speak to his people.”  I’ll leave the guide to sit now until I get back from Singapore, when I’ll look at it with fresh eyes.  Any helpful comments are most welcome.

Urban HarvestI also started a booked by Roy Joslin, Urban Harvest: Biblical Perspectives on Christian Mission in the inner cities.  I’ll make notes on it this week.

Here’s my notes from today, from Horton and The Latimer Study Guide:

The Doctrine of Justification in the Church of England
Latimer Studies 3
Robin Leaver
Latimer House 1979

The Anglican evangelical in the nineteenth century thought long and hard about the doctrine of justification by faith; he had to because the controversies and debates of the day centred on differing theologies of salvation. In the twentieth century the atmosphere has been somewhat different. The Church of England has been preoccupied with liturgical reform, revision of the canons, synodical government…and questions such as the existence of the Father, the divinity of the Son, and the fruit of the Spirit, rather than with the equally basic question of salvation.

at the 1979 Islington Conference R.C. Lucas felt compelled to express his fear that the doctrine of justification could be eclipsed in evangelical thinking: justification ‘is now said to be part of other truth: but it is the Gospel, the Truth. Justification by faith safeguards the proper place of Christ’s atoning work in preaching and it safeguards the proper place of the gift of the Spirit in experience.’

A Better Way
Rediscovering the Drama of God centred worship
Michael Horton (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 2002)


The problem today, says Berger, is that there is no sense of an overarching authority that would measure deviance. In this environment in which personal choice reigns, heresy—cutting one’s own path apart from everyone else—is now normal. Accepting the authority of someone else, even God, is abnormal. “Modernity creates a new situation in which picking and choosing becomes an imperative.”[4] Everyone has to be eccentric, and every successful enterprise, including the church, must cater to each person’s (or at least generation’s) eccentricities.

Like “truth,” the “self” is a construction of one’s own will and simultaneously, if contradictorily, of culture: It is made, not discovered. Surrounded by a consumer culture of nearly infinite choices, we can be whoever we want to be . . . today—and become someone else tomorrow. Anyone who has shopped at Nordstrom over the last year or so may have noticed their slogan, “Reinvent Yourself.”

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “What is the chief end of man?” is irrelevant to the quest for selfhood and freedom.

So what if people today can’t seem to commit to things or to other people. That is not something we just have to get used to if we want success; it is something that reveals the tremendous need for a real proclamation of God’s Word that can bring selfish sinners like us to the foot of the cross. Isn’t it possible that the church that grows as a result of catering to such market trends (i.e., selfishness) would be a “church” that Jesus would not even recognize on the last day (Matt. 25:31–46)?

These then are the two grand narratives: “in Adam” and “in Christ.” One is a narrative of pointless rebellion against a good God and his creation, leading only to frustration and death; the other is a narrative of redemption and reconciliation, consummated in everlasting life with the Triune God in a restored cosmos. The bad news is that if there is a true self, then it (or rather, he or she) is objectively guilty (hence, the nagging subjective sense of it) and will stand trial.

No longer a spectator to this remarkable drama, suddenly I—Gentile, outsider, “nowhere man living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody”—get written into the elevated story of chosen Israel, of which Jesus Christ is the “chief cornerstone.” Or, to change metaphors, I become a living branch of the life-giving Vine, a vital part of the body whose head is Christ. The outcast gets rescripted as a privileged one. “In Christ,” and with his whole body, I am elect and precious, redeemed, justified, sanctified, bodily raised on the last day, and glorified forever. That is the stable part of my identity, regardless of how I might change over the years. And this identity is covenantal: Christ as the federal head of the covenant of grace, the people of God through the ages as the covenant people, and myself as a living member of that covenant together with Abraham and Sarah. It is why worship is a covenant renewal ceremony, as that divine treaty is not only rehearsed but it’s reality reenacted, re-ratified, and made effectual.

Now we can no longer settle for those sermons in which we were bored or amused with the preacher’s own wit, wisdom, and autobiography. We are no longer impressed by “practical” sermons whose goal seems to be to win us by ignoring the real drama going on in the text, conforming Scripture to the protean flux and plotless vanity that derives from our worldly satisfaction with present arrangements. We cannot be rescripted until we are chained down and are addressed by God. “God is in his holy temple: Let all the earth keep silent.” He comes not to offer banal support to our sagging self-confidence or to fix the unpleasantness of our daily existence—in other words, he doesn’t come to fit in with our already established patterns of thought and life. He comes to dash our silly hopes and to expose our felt needs as trivial, in order to give us new ones that are far greater, and then to satisfy those beyond our wildest dreams.


Why Is Preaching Effective? It is important for us to realize that preaching is effective not because of the minister or the people, the music, the staging and lighting, dramas, or other means that we might consider more effective than “the foolishness of preaching.” It is effective because God has promised to dispense his saving grace then and there by his Spirit, and it grows organically out of the logic of the message itself because it is an announcement of something that has been accomplished by God, rather than an incentive to get sinners to save themselves by sheer force of will or effort. It is good news, not good advice, good production value, or good ideas.

We may not feel God’s presence in every instance, and we may not experience his grace in the same measure each week, but the power is in God’s objective promise, not in our subjective apprehension. As we sit there and are ourselves declared righteous by God in the gospel, we recognize that we are objectively accepted by God even though our experience often seems to tell us otherwise.

God’s Word comes as a two-edged sword: law and gospel. “The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning,” writes Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof, “distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as the means of grace”:

The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus.

By means of this two-edged sword, both death and life proceed. Through the preaching of the law, the Holy Spirit slays us, leaving us utterly destitute and helpless to save ourselves, and through the preaching of the gospel, he raises us up and seats us with Christ in heavenly places.

Think of the substitutes we have devised for the ordinary preaching of the law in our day: Every gimmick, slogan, or event that can possibly shift the focus from the sinner’s peril to some behavioral change. Often, when the very thing a seeker needs is to be brought to the end of his or her rope with no way of escape but Christ and his righteousness, we trade in this harsh reality for gentle encouragement to greater effort in the future.

Get the gospel/law distinction right.

In short, God enters the room, just as he did at Sinai, a room filled with chattering, demanding, pleading, complaining, sovereign selves, and the announcement rings through the hall, “The Lord is in his holy temple! Let all the earth keep silence before him!” He comes to expose us for the scam artists that we are, to reverse the spin that we have put on our lives, and to leave us with absolutely no foundation and no hope apart from the Son with whom he is well pleased, “who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30). Preaching is the Ellis Island of God’s kingdom, the port of entry for “strangers and aliens,” through which we must constantly pass again and again throughout our lives. We come in with our own scripts, our own storied selves, and instead of editing them here and there, God rewrites them entirely in the light of his own plot.


We have already touched on the dramatic encounter with God that occurs through the preaching of the law and the gospel. Here, I want to take a look at an approach to biblical interpretation and preaching that is often nicknamed the “redemptive-historical” model.

Preach Christ as the fulfilment of the OT.


About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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