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Good Sex 3: Sex Should Be Sacrificial

Sorry if you’ve been eagerly anticipating the next instalment of our guide to good sex from a Christian perspective; I’ve been having a bit of a break to recover from illness. Now we’re back and looking at one of the most distinctive elements of a Christian understanding of God’s intention for sex: sex is designed to be sacrificial.

We’re going to look at exactly what this means and why it is such a liberating and challenging idea in a moment. Before I get to that, however, let’s recap on what we’ve argued so far.

The gift of sex is good.

It strengthens and enriches our marriages, renews our species, and provides for our future. It also God’s love for us, enables us to work with him in creation, and demonstrates our destiny with Christ. Each of these goods applies to us all whether we are in sexual relationships or not.

Yet because sex is a gift from God, we should look to God to understand its significance and how it should be used. We do that in two ways:

First, by looking at the physical creation God has made. Men and women are designed to fit together – their physical bodies correspond in a way that makes sex possible and brings with it certain consequences. Yet nature is an uncertain guide because we tend to corrupt it through our selfishness, pride and so on. Our sexual desires are a very bad guide to God’s intention because they so easily become focussed in the wrong place.

Second, and more importantly, we look to Scripture. We examine what God has said about how he made humanity, how sex is good, what its dangers are, how it can be misused and the ultimate end that it points us towards.

Suggested Reading

As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with other texts that expand on it in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 10:2-9) and St Paul (1 Corinthians 7:3-5; Ephesians 5:25-33).

Sex Should Be Sacrificial

The Problem of Selfishness

Human beings are passionate; we desire things. As we discussed in my last post, this is how we are created – it mirrors God’s passion. Yet our desires can easily become distorted and selfish.

This is one of the most basic problems we face.

We take our good desires become focussed on ourselves rather than on the fulfilment of others. We become selfish. As soon as that happens we begin to treat others as a tool to be used for our own gratification rather than as people to be loved and served.

This is how much of our contemporary understanding of sex operates.

Our culture encourages us to focus on fulfilling our own desires, meeting our own needs, rather than viewing sex as an opportunity to serve and love our spouse.

There are countless examples of this. I can give a few illustrations:

  • light-hearted comedies about trying to lose your virginity – they genuinely are funny but the premise is that having sex is basically about me;
  • complaints or even divorce because my partner is not meeting my sexual needs;
  • apps such as Tinder which prioritise and facilitate low-cost sexual encounters, removing sex totally from the idea of relationship; or
  • joking in a changing room about whether you would like to have sex with this person or that – the “phwoar” conversation – which reduces another person, bearing God’s image, to an object to be used.

Each of these phenomena embraces a view of sex which is fundamentally focussed on my pleasure.

The Solution of Sacrifice

By contrast, at its heart the Christian way of life is all about serving others. It prioritises the needs and desires of others ahead of our own. This also applies to sex.

In 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, St Paul says:

The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer.

Because Christians locate sex in the context of a fully committed relationship, and because we know that our significance and meaning, our identity, is not found in having sex, we can give ourselves for the sake of another. In this view sex is selfless, not selfish; it is other-centred, not self-centred.

There is a dignity and joy in this. Paradoxically, if we have the security and the confidence to prioritise our partner ahead of ourselves then we will find ourselves more fulfilled. To use the language of Genesis, if we are united to our partner – giving ourselves to them and for them – then we truly become one flesh. By contrast, when we’re pitting our interests against theirs, when we’re on the look-out for ourselves, we will find that our joy and unity is diminished.

The Love of Jesus

Again, this is a picture of Jesus and the church, of Christ’s love for us. When he came to be united with us he gave himself up for us, he fulfilled what we needed, he made us holy, he cleaned us, he wooed us and drew us, and he unites us with himself.

That is the self-giving love that is shown in Christian sex and it points to the self-giving love of Christ.

This sacrificial love is also pictured in the lives of those who abstain from sex out of love for God, his teaching and his people. When we are willing to forgo the pleasures of sex to follow Christ we demonstrate how much his love and grace are worth. We reflect the heart of a God who was willing to give up everything and come and serve and die at the hands of his creatures. We model the love of a God who sees us not as instruments but as people to be loved and redeemed at any cost.

So sex should passionate, faithful and sacrificial. Next week we’ll look at our final principle: sex should be fruitful.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.
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Good Sex 2: Sex Should Be Faithful

Catch Up (If you’re up to speed, you can skip this bit!)

If you’ve not been to this blog before, or at least not for a while, you might want to know that I’m in the middle of a series of articles setting out a positive and life-enriching Christian understanding of sex. Part of what I’m trying to do in these posts is to describe the Christian understanding of why sex has been given to us, what its significance is, and how it should be used. Throughout these posts I am relying on the idea that because sex is a gift from God, we should look to God to understand it. We do that in two ways:

First, by looking at the physical creation God has made. Men and women are designed to fit together – their physical bodies correspond in a way that makes sex possible and brings with it certain consequences. Yet nature is an uncertain guide because we tend to corrupt it through our selfishness, pride and so on. Our sexual desires are a very bad guide to God’s intention because they so easily become focussed in the wrong place.

Second, and more importantly, we look to Scripture. We examine what God has said about how he made humanity, how sex is good, what its dangers are, how it can be misused and the ultimate end that it points us towards.

Suggested Reading

As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with the use of it by Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:31-33).

Sex Should Be Faithful

Last week week I argued that sex is designed to be passionate and shows the overwhelming nature of God’s love for us.

Passion (whether sexual or not) is wonderful and is part of the way God has designed us. We are created to be passionate – we sense this whether it is in the fervour of the crowd at a football match or the desire of a bridegroom at his wedding. Yet passion can be dangerous. It can lead us to use other people as tools to satisfy our own desires. Passion can be the inspiration for great love, and the root of great evil. It needs to be controlled and channelled well if it is to be enjoyed and used well. The corollary of our belief that sex should be passionate, therefore, is that it should be faithful.

The Power of Sex

Together with the intimacy and passion that sex brings, it also joins people together. The Genesis text which is then later quoted by Jesus and Paul says:

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

This means that sex is not simply something that we can treat casually.

This is an area that our culture is incredibly confused about at the moment.

For fifty years Western culture has pushed harder and harder in the direction of sex as simply a recreation – little different to jogging. This is the vision promoted in films and TV; it is the assumed value many young people operate with. Moreover, because sex has been understood as essentially recreational, little social constraint has been placed on its use save for the requirement of a belief that the other party consents.

Recently, however, a series of scandals in which brave women have been saying that actually they are being harassed and put in positions in which they are doing sexual things and they feel violated or demeaned or badly hurt have called this idea into question. Even those who have embraced the sexual revolution feel an instinctive and correct revulsion at what has happened. In part this is because of the absence of clear consent and the realisation of how poorly that bare requirement protects the vulnerable. But it also reveals a deep conviction that fifty years of trivialisation have not erased that sex is somehow different from everything else.

For example, being sexuallyassaulted is notthe same as being merely assaulted, however unpleasant that may be. Sex is different; sex is powerful. It has the power to bind or to break in a way that other human activities do not.

To use Scriptural language, when we have sex with someone else we join ourselves to them. This is obviously true physically: men and women are designed so that when they have sex they are actually joined together. Yet it is true emotionally and spiritually as well.

It is for this reason that the Bible says God designed sex to be used in the context of a relationship between a man and woman of commitment and love. As Jesus himself said, ‘what God has joined together, people should not try to separate.’

The Goodness of Marriage

For Christians, sex is intrinsically linked to marriage because marriage is a commitment to love and be faithful to another forever. To put it bluntly, if we are not willing vow to be faithful to our partner, to give ourselves to them, to put their interests ahead of our own, and then to live out that vow, we have no business becoming one flesh with them.

The goodness of this principle is rich and deep. But let me point out some of the ways it is good for all of us in society:

  1. It protects the weak. In human life there are all sorts of power dynamics that make human relationships susceptible to abuse. By requiring the strong, particularly men, to commit to their partners we protect those who are weaker whether physically, economically, or socially.
  2. It promotes security and allows vulnerability. When we know that our partner is committed to us, has vowed to love and support us, then we can be vulnerable to them and they can be vulnerable to us. We don’t have to worry about looking out for ourselves but can commit to something new.
  3. It provides stability for families and for society. We’ll come back to this next week.

It also speaks most powerfully of God’s faithful commitment to us. God is not interested in using us to get something and then moving on to someone else. He is totally committed to us. He will never leave us or fail us. Christ’s love for us extended to giving himself for us, bringing us to himself and now will include holding us forever. Listen to these promises from Scripture:

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.[1]

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.[2]

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.[3]

The Christian refusal to remove sex from the context of marriage, whether through singleness or faithfulness to a partner in the face of temptation, witnesses to God’s faithfulness to us.

In the words of the marriage service, God loves us:

to have and to hold (his love keeps us secure)
for better, for worse (he never turns his back on us);
for richer, for poorer (he doesn’t care about how materially successful we are);
in sickness and in health (he loves us in good times and bad);
to love and to cherish (he values and genuinely enjoys us)

until death brings us into his presence forever.

These are some of the reasons Christians believe that sex should be enjoyed and used within the context of marriage. Next week I’m going to look at why Christians believe sex should be sacrificial.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.

[1]Psalm 36:5

[2]Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

[3]Romans 8:38-39

Good Sex 1: Sex Should Be Passionate

Previously on the West Wing…

I’m in the middle of a series of blogs setting out a positive and life-enriching Christian understanding of sex. So far we have considered how sex is God’s gift to us, is not all-important for human flourishing, and is not inherently shameful or sinful.

As part of these articles I have argued that the idea that sex is a part of God’s creation and given to us means that we should look to God to understand how it is intended to be used, what its dangers are, and what good it is intended to bring. We discover that in two ways:

First, by looking at the physical creation God has made. Men and women are designed to fit together – their physical bodies correspond in a way that makes sex possible and brings with it certain consequences. Yet nature is an uncertain guide because we tend to corrupt it through our selfishness, pride and so on. Our sexual desires are a very bad guide to God’s intention because they so easily become focussed in the wrong place.

Second, and more importantly, we look to Scripture. We examine what God has said about how he made humanity, how sex is good, what its dangers are, how it can be misused and the ultimate end that it points us towards.

In my next four posts I am going to argue that in a Christian understanding, sex is good. What I mean by this is that:

  1. it is good for our relationships with each other in society – it strengthens and enriches our marriages, renews our species, and provides for our future; and
  2. that it is good for our relationship with God – it reveals and shows his love for us both when we have sex and when we choose not to have it, it enables us to work with him in creation, and it demonstrates our destiny with Christ.

Each of these goods applies to us all whether we are in sexual relationships or not. The Bible speaks about sex as a depiction of God’s love for us and understanding it therefore enables us to understand that love more.

We’re going to explore this further by looking at four pillars of a Christian understanding of good and God-designed sex.

This week I am arguing that sex is designed to be passionate and it points us to God’s love for us in Christ.

Suggested Reading

As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with the use of it by Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:31-33).

Passionate People

Both Scripture and in nature show us that sex is intended to be passionate.

We need to understand that we are created to be passionate people – to experience desire. This can be a difficult idea for English people to receive. Yet to deny that we are people with passions and desires is to deny something fundamental about who we are created to be. We are created to love things, to desire them.

We are made that way because we are made in God’s image. We are made to love because this is who God is – He is love.[1]There is a passion for union between persons that exists within God and which he extends to us. Jesus talked about this divine love in John 17 when he prays that his disciples may share the love and intimacy that God enjoys in himself:

May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.[2]

Inside every human heart is a desire, even a need, to be united with God and with other people. The idea of a solitary person out of relationship with others and God is alien to Christianity and to human experience. The great poet and preacher John Donne put it like this:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man
is a piece of a continent, a part of a main[3]

We need each other, we long for each other. And this longing is an echo of our desire for God. As St Augustine of Hippo said:

‘Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they can find their rest in you.’[4]

We are passionate people.

The Passion of Sex

This passion and desire is reflected in sex. This isn’t something to be ashamed of. The Bible affirms the desire for sexual union between people as a reflection of God’s love for us. It is reflected in the prophets – Ezekiel uses the picture of God as a King and Israel as his bride commenting on how the King saw and admired her breasts, her hair, and her beauty.[5]

Similarly, Song of Solomon is an extended love poem between a husband and his bride. It is full of passion and joy. For example, the husband says of the wife:

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon
by the gate of Bath Rabbim.[6]

While the wife replies to her husband:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.[7]

I have dwelt here because it is central to our understanding of Jesus’ love for us. Christ’s love for you is overwhelming; it was enough to die for.

My point is that the Biblical understanding is that there is nothing wrong with erotic desire. Sex is passionate. Moreover, the erotic passion that we feel is a picture of God’s desire for us and of our ultimate desire to be united with him. The analogy isn’t exact. But sex is a picture of the rawness of joy and anticipation that God has for the church and we are created to have for him.

Application

I want to suggest some brief applications from this.

For everyone

God’s love for us in Christ Jesus is passionate. The passion people feel about sex, the joy of it, our commitment to it, are just echoes of God’s passionate love for you. If you are a Christian, rejoice and thank him for it. If you struggle with knowing that God loves you then go through the Bible, or look at these notes when they are online and learn the passages about God’s love for you. It isn’t dry and arid and intellectual; it is the love of a husband for his bride on her wedding day.

For Married People

For those who are married, make time to engage passionately with one another; it will take time and effort.

For Unmarried

I want to encourage you to follow the example of Jesus and Paul. Be steadfast and faithful in honouring God’s vision for sex. Your lives, like that of Jesus, are prophetic. You speak to the truth that it is the Giver, not the gift, that is truly the most valuable and enriching part of life. Learn to rejoice in the love and faithfulness of God – you are a testament to it in a way that those who are married will never be able to be.

For those nursing guilt

For those nursing guilt from present or past failures, I want you to hear that God loves you. He cares for you. Jesus came for you to redeem you. You are loved, you bear his image, and you can be his child.

Every one of us has walked away from God in some way. Yet the message of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is that he loves us and wants to make us new.

If you feel guilty, he offers forgiveness; if you feel dirty, he will wash you clean; if you feel shame, he offers wholeness; if you struggle with temptation or addiction, he can give you freedom.

Come to him. Repent, and be baptised and you will receive his cleansing, healing, empowering Spirit making you new again.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.

[1]1 John 4:6

[2]John 17:21-23

[3]‘Meditation XVII’, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

[4]Confessions, 1.1

[5]Ezekiel 16:6-12.

[6]Song 7:3-4

[7]Song 8:6-7.

Sex is not Shameful

Introduction

I am in the middle of a series of blogs setting out a positive and life-enriching Christian understanding of sex. This is the last of my foundational posts before I set out four pillars or characteristics of the Christian view of good and God-designed sex.

This week we are arguing that sex is not shameful.

Suggested Reading

As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with the use of it by Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:25-33).

Sex is Not Shameful

There is nothing shameful about sex itself.

The archetypes we have in the creation accounts are quite clear:

Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

Shame is a consequence of human sinfulness and brokenness. It isn’t a part of God’s plan for sex.

Before sin and brokenness entered the world, Adam and Eve were one flesh, they were naked and they were not ashamed. There is no intrinsic link between sex and shame or sex and sin.

If we’re honest there is much we need to repent of in church history and even our more recent approaches here. Too often we have treated sex itself as something to be ashamed of or which is in some way dirty rather than as God’s good gift to us. We need to repent of this. To take the good gift that God has given us and say that it is something shameful is a sin. Doing so has consequences and is not the Christian or Biblical view.

When we treat sex as shameful it affects how we see God.

God uses sex as a picture of his love for us and of our future being united with him.[1] When we become embarrassed of that picture or treat it as shameful we are saying that there is something shameful about how God sees us or, at very least, that we are not interested in hearing it. God loves us, he desires us, he longs for his church. When we treat sex as a subject that needs to be hidden and treated as an embarrassment we are refusing to receive God’s revelation of himself. In turn that can leave us with a cold and distant view of God.

When we treat sex as shameful it affects how we see the honour and dignity of singleness.

If we refuse to talk about the Biblical understanding of sex we don’t honour those who are so committed to it that they will abstain from any other sexual activity. There is something beautiful about someone refusing something they want for the sake of a greater ideal and we miss that if we treat sex as shameful.

When we treat sex as shameful we make it seem illicit.

This is particularly an issue for those who have responsibility for caring for, raising and shaping young people. If we are not willing to engage with them about sex then their values will be shaped by others either from within their own head (in which case they will be confused), from online pornography, or from a culture that is both confused and hostile to a Christian understanding of commitment and love and fruitfulness. If we are not too embarrassed to talk about sex then others will not look to us for guidance.

When we treat sex as inherently shameful or sinful we make it harder for people to speak about and confront its abuse.

We deprive the culture around us of a view of sex that is more robust in protecting the weak and protective of the joy and intimacy of sex than anything else it has come up with. The Christian understanding of sex is superior to a lot of what passes for contemporary sexual ethics and we should be open about it, not to condemn the world around us. We have surrendered public debate to a wholly anaemic and inadequate sexual culture that is impotent to protect victims.

Moreover, and even more seriously, if people believe that we see sex as shameful they will be unable to speak to us about their experiences, to confront their accusers, to find protection and refuge in the arms of Christ. Worse still we may find that we have created a culture in which abusers can take refuge, confident that they will not be confronted because of our distaste for the subject. The church is not the only institution that has been confronted by sex abuse scandals – almost every institution has. But it is tragic that the church was affected at all and I am convinced that part of the reason abuse was so difficult to talk about was the sense that sex itself was treated as in some sense shameful or dirty. It made victims feel that they were in some sense dirty or used and it meant that men could hide for years within the church when they should have been exposed and punished.

This doesn’t mean that seeing sex as not shameful at all is no protection at all – the Weinstein scandal arose in the most liberal culture in the world. What does offer protection is the good and life-giving understanding that God has given us and which we will be looking at over the following few weeks. But we will only be able to offer that protection if others know that they can talk to us; if our children know that their parents do not consider them stained because they have had a sexual encounter. Our children have to know that they are not dirty or broken if they have been abused.

Pause for Reflection

Next week we will begin looking at how, when it is used as its Creator intended, sex is good. For now I want to suggest some points for reflection.

First, where is our understanding of sex derived from? Is it adapted from TV or movies, is it from your parents, is it from Scripture? We need to reflect on the ideas we have acquired and internalised, to critique where our understanding of our self-worth comes from, and to try to challenge improper shame or idolatry where we find it.

Second, I want to encourage those who are trying to follow the Christian perspective on sex to have confidence in it. It is a good and beautiful view that revolutionised the world, stood for thousands of years, and will more than likely outlast any of the passing values of today.

Third, we should make sure that we treat others who disagree with us with respect and dignity. Where we encounter others who are pursuing lifestyles that show a different understanding from ours – whatever their sexual relationships – we must remember that they are created in God’s image and were made with the potential to become his children irrespective of their sex lives. Don’t dismiss them, don’t ignore them, don’t despise them; love them.

We’re dealing with the goodness of sex more next week. Before that, however, I want to leave you with this.

Sex is about the gospel. It is about the Son of God who came and redeemed for himself a bride. It is about him being united with that bride forever. If you are a Christian, you are a part of that. In that sense, sex is simply a signpost on our journeys back to God.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.

[1] For example, Ephesians 5:29-31

Sex is not God

Introduction

In my last post I argued that Christians understand that sex is God’s good gift to us. Yet whenever we receive a gift there is a danger that we become so focused on it that we make it more important than the one who gave it to us.

To put it another way, Sex is not God.

Suggested Reading

As with each of the posts in this series I recommend reading the archetypal account of God’s intention when creating humanity in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 together with the use of it by Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:31-33).

Sex is Not God

Everyone worships. We can’t help it – we all have a god, whether we think we do or not. As Dylan famously wrote, ‘you’ve got to serve somebody’ (even if that person is, as Lennon replied, yourself).

One way to discover what god we (usually unconsciously) worship is to look for the person or thing around which we orient our life and which we value more highly than anything else. How do we know what a person’s god is? Look for the thing they bow down before, that they would give up other things for.

In our culture, sex is often presented as the highest good, the defining feature of human existence.

And it is not.

This is foundational to a Christian understanding of sex.

It is not the highest good and goal of human life.
It is not the one need around which everything else revolves.
It is not the key to human happiness or fulfilment.
It is not necessary to experience a great, fulfilled and meaningful life now or in the future.
It is not more important than anything else; it probably does not even make the top 10.

Cultural Obsession

The opposite idea saturates our culture. Our age is obsessed with sex. It is in TV shows, in movies, in songs, on billboards, in magazines.

This isn’t the voice of a prophet of prudery; I’m in the middle of defending a good and beautiful understanding of sex.

Yet if we look at our culture’s products, at magazines, or shows or billboards, or even conversation about rights, this is the idea that underpins everything.

Perhaps you doubt that this is really serious. We might be tempted to dismiss it as a bit of fun. There is some truth to that, of course. But there is a serious view behind the jokes and advertising; we are being taught a message and the message is that sexual self-expression is not only the highest human good but vital for living a healthy life.

If you think I am exaggerating, consider the outrage, the sheer incomprehension or ridicule that is often associated with the idea of abstaining from sex with someone to whom you are attracted. To be sexually attracted to someone and to choose not to act upon that desire because of another higher good – whether faithfulness to a marriage promise (even when we don’t feel like it) or a religious teaching is often met with incomprehension or suspicion.

Those who choose to forgo sex for the sake of being faithful to the teachings of Christ are doing something so counter-cultural, so unusual, that I have seen it bring others to following Jesus. The demonstration that there is something so much better than sex, worth so much more than sleeping with someone even if you are attracted to them, that it prompts people to find out more.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Our culture is obsessed with the idea of the essentialness of sex. And that obsession is bunk.

To cite a cliché, the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

First, it isn’t true: sex is not essential to a fulfilled life.

Plenty of people have fulfilled lives without regularly having sex. In fact, David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from Oxford University, recently published a guide to what research actually shows about people’s sex lives and demonstrated that as a whole people are having less and less sex.[1]Spiegelhalter wryly comments:
‘At this rate of decline…a simple, but extremely naïve, extrapolation would predict that by 2040 the average person will not be having sex at all.’
A society that defines sex as essential to human experience is in fact having less and less sex.

We know that it isn’t true. Jesus Christ, by a country-mile the most influential person of either gender in history, did not, as far as we know, have an active sex life. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had; as I discussed before, sex is God’s good gift. But as far as we can tell, he did not.

The view of sex as essential to a fulfilled and meaningful human life is nonsense.

Second, treating sex as the ultimate good – as a god – is not only untrue, it is harmful.

False gods always harm those who worship them.

In this case, when we treat sex as the ultimate end of human life we inevitably diminish the lives of those who whether through choice or circumstance are not in sexual relationships. It portrays those who are not sexually active as living lives that are less fulfilled or meaningful or rich because they are not having sex. They are to be born with until they become sexually active and then they can be treated as real people. Again, just to illustrate the point, think how many films or books or programs treat people as needing to lose their virginity to achieve some sort of status as a true adult or to be leading a satisfied life? The implication is that those who are not doing it are somehow less than this.
Indeed, St Paul (who was celibate when writing 1 Corinthians) makes exactly the opposite point – because he doesn’t have to worry about a partner he can achieve a lot more. He has found in Jesus Christ a satisfaction and joy that dwarfs any sexual relationship.

False gods also break their promises.

By enduing sex with a significance that it can never maintain or fulfil we are inevitably going to disappoint those in sexual relationships.
To treat sex as a god puts a pressure on relationships that they cannot bear.

A particular sexual encounter might be good or mildly disappointing – both are common in every relationship. What it won’t do is fulfil your life or give you meaning. If we believe that we will then we are going to end up frustrated and disappointed. This can lead to pain in relationships or even their break-down because we were not prepared for the moment when sex disappointed us; when our god broke his promises.

It’s time we pointed out the blindingly obvious: sex is a good gift but it isn’t God. Not having sex is not the end of human happiness nor is having it the key to joy. That lies in Jesus Christ.

So sex is God’s gift, and it is not God. Next week we’ll see that in a Christian understanding, sex is not shameful.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.

[1]D.J. Spiegelhalter, Sex By Numbers: What Statistics Can Tell Us about Sexual Behaviour(London: Profile Books, 2015) p.20. For a further discussion as to why this might be see Glynn Harrison, A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing (London: IVP, 2017), p.92-95.

Sex is a Gift

Introduction

A lot of the issues that come up in pastoral work or in people’s questions revolve around sex whether in practice or (so to speak) in theory. It is a big issue for our culture, although one about which we seem terribly confused.

It can be tempting to dive straight in to discussing questions ranging from sexuality to marriage to prostitution to singleness to IVF. Yet the more I have read specific responses dealing with any one of these issues, the more conscious I am that our answers are really determined by what we believe about sex itself.

Moreover, when we address specific questions about sexual ethics without examining what we believe sex is, what we feel it is for, and how we plan to answer any issues it provokes, our answers will inevitably be unsatisfactory or incomplete. Moreover, we can end up seeing only the problems that arise from our abuse of sex and sexuality rather than the beauty of its intended use.

For that reason I want to spend some time today looking at a truly Christian and Biblical understanding of sex, providing a vision for its use and an account of its purpose. It is my conviction that the Christian vision of sex and relationships is beautiful, life-giving, society enriching, soul-nurturing and God-glorifying. Throughout it is undergirded by the firm belief in the grace of God that can redeem anyone irrespective of where we have come from, how broken we may be, or what we may have done.

My first three posts are going to set out some foundations before I argue for four characteristics or pillars of the Christian understanding of good sex.

This week I am going to argue that Christians understand sex to be a gift.

Suggested Reading

A Christian understanding of sex is rooted in the archetypal stories of God’s creation of humanity. These stories are intended to communicate something of what God’s original design and intention for humanity was and would be in a world without selfishness, pride and self-centredness. The texts found in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:4-7, 18-25 are the heart of this and were repeated and reaffirmed by both Jesus (for example in Matthew 19:3-6) and St Paul (for example in Ephesians 5:25-33). These readings are central for everything else I am going to talk about.

Sex is a Gift

A Christian understanding of sex begins with the idea that we are created by God and that sex was given to us by him. So we read in Genesis 1 that:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number;

In other words men and women are designed by God to bear his image. Our bodies are not an accident. This may be difficult to believe but humanity as a whole is designed, body and soul, to be the bearers of the image of God. Our bodies are not incidental carriers for our souls that we are waiting to get rid of, they are gifts to us from God. That gift includes sex.

This contains within it ideas that are profoundly counter-cultural.

The idea that we are designed by someone and that sex is given to us is different from the narrative that Western culture has increasingly subscribed to for at least 50 years and probably longer.

Since at least the 1960s if not earlier the dominant cultural understanding of sex and identity has been that its meaning is created from within each one of us. Within this thought, I give myself meaning. I am responsible for telling both myself and the rest of the world who I am and what meaning my actions have. Sex has the meaning I give to it; it is about me. Very often this view has come to be coupled with the idea that our bodies do not really matter; they are just the physical baggage we received when we came into the world.

For Christians the position is very different.  In a Christian perspective our identity and dignity come not from within ourselves but from the fact that God loves us, has given us this world and has made each one of us to bear his image.

This is an amazing liberating message. If we are loved and have meaning because of the One who made us then we are set free from the crippling anxiety of self-doubt, shame and the fear of failure.

Christians understand that sex as a part of creation is designed by a Creator and has a meaning.  We have discovered that we are creatures designed and made with dignity and purpose by a Creator who has given us a gift. We don’t generate the meaning of sex from within ourselves, rather we discover the meaning it has already been given by God.

For this reason we look God to understand ourselves including the meaning and use of sex. We don’t look  within, we look without to One who is unchangeable, glorious and has loved us from all eternity. We say to him, ‘we were made by you, we bear your image, what do you want intend for us?’

Generally we do this in two ways. We look to the world God has created – how does the physical nature of our bodies suggest they are to be used? This is a guide but a flawed one because creation is not any longer as God created it. Put simply, we mess the world up and nowhere is this more obvious than in our sexual behaviour. You cannot have campaigns such as #metoo or the various scandals we have seen in recent years without something having gone badly wrong with the way that human beings treat one another. This is one of the problems with debates about whether something is ‘natural’ or not. ‘Natural’ is a good category but it is flawed.

As Christians we want to look beyond that – we can see that human beings fit together in certain ways that suggests a design – but then we look to the Bible, to what God has told us about himself. We look to Scripture to tell us ‘what is the intended purpose of this thing?’;  ‘what does it mean?’; and ‘how can it be used?’ In particular we look to Jesus and the Apostles.

This has three big consequences:

  1. It removes from us the burden of constantly generating our identity and significance more broadly, or of sex more specifically, from within ourselves. I don’t have to bear the burden of deciding who I am or of creating a sexual ethic from scratch.
    This is too big a burden for individuals or a culture to bear. We cannot bear the load of being God and when we try our attempts inevitably break down. This explains the confusion in our present culture over issues such as whether bodies really are important or not, whether consent is a sufficient safeguard for women, and whether marriage is so important it should be available for everyone irrespective of the gender of our partner or irrelevant and should be abolished.
    We don’t need to bear this load. Our identity comes not from within ourselves but from being made as an image bearer of God with the potential to become his child.
  2. It releases us from the confusion of everyone having different and competing standards for what is sexually appropriate or permissible.
    Part of not being able to bear the weight of generating our own meaning is that we are pretty bad about it and it leads to us being confused.
    It’s as if we have tried to construct an elaborate piece of furniture without reference to the instructions we have been given. We will get some things right but will be hopelessly confused about others. As Christians we look to the instructions given by the Creator which preserves us from that confusion.
  3. It protects us from the danger of having the sexual desires of the strong imposed upon us.
    Human beings, left to their own devices, tend to prioritise the desires of the strong over the protection of the weak. In our natural state we tend towards chaos and the rule of the mighty. The scandals of the past few years are vivid and terrifying demonstration of the exploitation of the weak by the strong.
    By contrast, the Christian view of sex and marriage protects the weak and constrains the strong.

Instead we can know that we will flourish and prosper, and receive the best from the gift of sex, when we look at how it was intended to be used.

Further Reading

If you want to read further about the ideas we are discussing in this series I recommend these two books:

  • A Better Story by Prof. Glynn Harrison. Professor Harrison is the former Professor of Psychology at Bristol University and has written a fascinating, compassionate and informative account of the changes in how society has viewed sex and sexuality over the last 50 years together with a proposal for how faithfully to live and explain a Christian understanding of sex. It is very easy to read and combines depth with precision and kindness.
  • Sex Talks by Matthew Hosier. Matt is the Pastor of a large church in the New Frontiers church network as well as an interesting and helpful sexual ethicist. This book deals with various issues and questions he has dealt with as part of his work with teenagers and young people. It is rigorous, loving, and brutally honest. It deals with real questions that real young people have wanted to discuss and so some of the topics may make readers feel uncomfortable.

 

What About Judas?

Every so often I get asked questions about how to understand Christianity and read the Bible that I think lots of people are asking. I want to provide a space where some of those questions can be answered. If you have a question you would like me to think about and help with then feel free to email me or send me a message on Facebook. I have a few questions to get to at the moment – I will always answer them if I can but it may take me a bit of time! I will always keep the identity of the questioner anonymous.

I received this question from my friend Jean-Paul’s mum, Jane.[1]

Dear Phil,

When I read my Bible every Easter I am puzzled by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. It seems to have been predicted in the Old Testament and that without it Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the overcoming of death and Satan could not have happened. Was it necessary?

Best wishes,

Jane

Dear Jane,

In my last post I broke your question down into two parts. I argued that once God had decided to save humanity through his Son, it was inevitable that Jesus would be betrayed; that is who we are. Moreover, it was certain that it would happen because God had predicted that it would happen. In this post I will consider whether it was necessary or inevitable that it would be Judas who would betray him.

My own view is that while it was both inevitable and certain that Jesus would be betrayed, it was not (from our perspective) always inevitable that it would be Judas who would be the betrayer. With that said, however, the story of Judas is a serious warning that once we start down the path of rejecting God’s grace, it can be increasingly difficult to turn back.

The Story of Judas

Judas is not identified by name as the betrayer of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Indeed, there was little to suggest that he was inevitably going to betray Christ throughout most of their time together.

Judas was called and chosen by Jesus.[2] He was among those who went proclaiming the love of God, doing miracles, resisting evil, and giving freely of their possessions.[3] He was among those described by Christ as a ‘sheep among the wolves.’[4] Jesus himself prayed that he ‘kept’ and ‘guarded’ Judas, as he did the other disciples.[5]

Yet there was a growing problem in his heart. When Peter announced that the disciples believed that Jesus was the Holy One of God, Jesus, who had already said that some of those following him did not believe, corrected him and said that one of them was the devil or adversary.[6] Judas had begun to give in to unbelief. What is worse, he came to love money even at the expense of stealing from the collection for the poor.[7] This is the road to spiritual ruin.

At no point in this story is Judas named by Jesus as his inevitable betrayer. What we see is that over time Judas is moving further and further away from Christ. He has gone from being a missionary empowered to do good work, to giving in to unbelief and beginning to oppose Christ in his heart, to loving money and stealing from the poor. Finally he negotiates to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.[8]

The Betrayal

In the Gospels Jesus makes several statements about his betrayal. The clearest is recorded in Matthew 26:24-25:[9]

The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He said to him, “You have said so.”

It strikes me that Jesus does not name Judas as the one at that point even though Judas has already negotiated a price for betraying Jesus. Instead Jesus gives as strong a warning as he can that the one planning to betray him should not do so. Then, when Judas asks if he is to be the betrayer, Jesus throws the question back to him. Jesus has warned him but Judas has reached a point where he has to make a choice.

Later in the meal, hours before the betrayal was to take place, Jesus identifies Judas as the betrayer for the first time. We are told in John’s gospel that Jesus takes the bread (from the first communion) and tells Peter that the person to whom he gives it will be the betrayer. When Judas takes the bread Satan enters him and he immediately went out to betray Christ.[10]

At this point it was inevitable that it would be Judas who betrayed Christ. He had hardened his heart to God and opened it to the love of money. There came a point where he could not turn back and his heart was given over to evil rather than good.

A Sober Reflection

The whole story is almost unspeakably sad. The choices Judas makes are so real for us. His life seems so full of potential and hope, he achieves so much good. Yet there is nothing so destructive to our faith, to our families and friends, as unbelief and the love of money. When we stop believing in the love and redeeming work of Christ we open ourselves to selfishness and greed. When we love money we move further from others and from God and open our hearts to evil.

There were moments when Judas could have turned back. Even to the last moment Jesus was offering him a way out of the course he had started to pursue. Yet by that stage it was too late for him to turn back. Not because Christ would not have accepted him; he received any sinner who would come and seek a new life. Rather it was because he had so hardened his heart to the love and grace of the Son of God that he could receive nothing but Satan.

Jane, my friend, as you ponder the story of Judas let this be the message you take from it: do not harden your heart to the love and goodness of Jesus. Do not pursue riches or glory in this world. Once you set off down that path you do you may find it impossible to return until you have destroyed everything that matters to you.

Concluding Thought

God’s purposes and plans cannot be shaken and will not fail. Yet as we experience life we make choices with the grace God gives us. Those choices matter – they shape our hearts and lives, they change the world around us, and under the sovereign hand of God they determine what role we play in the great drama of creation and redemption.

Choose well.

And remember this: Jesus took Judas’ failure, hatred and betrayal and made something beautiful from it. There is nothing, and no one, beyond the love and redeeming power of God. Wherever you are, whatever you have done, there is a way back for you through the work of Jesus.

[1] Not my friend’s real name or the name of his mother. Jean-Paul is the name of Charlie’s rival for Zoe’s affections in season 4 of the West Wing. Jane sounds like Jean so I thought it would be funny. The question is a composite of others I have been asked.

[2] Luke 6:13

[3] Matthew 10:4-8

[4] Matthew 10:16

[5] John 17:12.

[6] John 6:70.

[7] John 12:1-8 see also John Piper’s sermon extract at < https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/loving-money-is-suicide > [accessed 28 March 2018].

[8] Matthew 26:14-15.

[9] Compare, Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22.

[10] John 13:21-30.

The Betrayal of Jesus

Every so often I get asked questions about how to understand Christianity and read the Bible that I think lots of people are asking. I want to provide a space where some of those questions can be answered. If you have a question you would like me to think about and help with then feel free to email me or send me a message on Facebook. I have a few questions to get to at the moment – I will always answer them if I can but it may take me a bit of time! I will always keep the identity of the questioner anonymous.

I received this question from my friend Jean-Paul’s mum, Jane.[1] Part 2 is coming on Good Friday morning.

Dear Phil,

When I read my Bible every Easter I am puzzled by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. It seems to have been predicted in the Old Testament and that without it Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the overcoming of death and Satan could not have happened. Was it necessary?

Best wishes,

Jane

Dear Jane,

I’m thrilled that you’re reading the Bible; this must be where J-P gets his passion from. Keep on with it and you will find it is ‘a lamp for your feet, a light on your path.’[2]

This is a good question to ask at Easter. It seems to me that it raises two issues that are distinct and that I’ll treat separately if I may:

  1. Was it necessary or inevitable that Jesus would be betrayed?
  2. Was it necessary or inevitable that it would be Judas who betrayed him?

Both of these issues touch on questions of time, God’s sovereignty and our freedom (as we perceive it). As I said to J-P in my answers to his last question, these are areas where we have to be careful and humble since we are limited and finite beings and therefore find it impossible to comprehend what it means for and infinite and eternal being (God) to interact with a limited and finite world. Nevertheless, the Bible and Christian thought does have something to say about this.

I’m going to follow the Julie Andrews rule and start at the very beginning (because it’s a very fine place to start).

Was it necessary or inevitable that Jesus would be betrayed?

In short, yes, it was inevitable that once God had decided to rescue humanity, Jesus would be betrayed (although I am not sure that I ever want to say something is ‘necessary’ when talking about God since he is completely free).

God’s Choice to Rescue Us

Once humanity had begun to mess up our relationships with God and other people through pride and selfishness (usually referred to as sin) we needed a Saviour. Put simply, we had opened our hearts to the possibility of evil and become spiritually sick. That sickness would lead again and again to actions that separate us from God’s love and mercy and cut us off from each other.

This left us with a problem:

  • As we are sick we need a healer;
  • As we are captive (in that we just can’t help doing wrong) we need a saviour;
  • As we do wrong we need a redeemer to take our punishment; and
  • As we have become estranged from God we need a way back to him.

Only God himself can provide all of these things and he could only do it from within humanity.

This is the story of the Bible:

  • The Old Testament is of God preparing the way for his Son to come and undo the damage done by, to, and through humanity.
  • The Gospels are the story of how he did it.
  • The rest of the New Testament is the story of what happened next.

At this point we should note that God did not have to rescue us. It was not necessary for him to save us nor was it inevitable (if we mean that he was bound to do it). God came to save the world because of his overflowing, overwhelming love for us.[3]

We Would Inevitably Have Rejected Him

We all have within ourselves a tendency to selfishness, to pride and to desire to be free from any constraint whether in favour of others or God. It is as if there is a glitch in our programming that came about at the beginning, a hereditary illness that affects our souls, a corruption that spreads through our actions. It is what Christian tradition has called sin.

The Bible puts it in this way:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way.[4]

This may be difficult to accept, yet it is basically true. It is the part of us that we try to learn to control and suppress, that leads us to yell at our kids, to take more than we need, to cheat, to judge, to gossip. It is the part of us that we don’t like to admit is there but affects us all.

It was inevitable that, having come into a world capable of good yet still corrupted by selfishness, pride and its rejection of God’s rule, God’s Son would be rejected by us and that that rejection would include those who seemed to be his friends. At some point one of us would have found that we did not like God’s ways of humility, love for all, purity, hope; they conflict with our desire to be in charge.

It is the genius of God’s plan of salvation that he took the inevitable expression of our rejection of him and used it to redeem us. This is the message of Easter.

God Knew This

We can go further than this, however. It was not only inevitable that Jesus would be betrayed by someone, it was also certain.

God knew that his Son would be rejected by us.

In the Old Testament the prophets, inspired by God, predicted that this would be the case in passages like Isaiah 53:1-12, Psalm 22, and Psalm 41:6. God’s predictions do not fail – they are sure to be fulfilled. Jesus was aware that Scripture had predicted that he would be betrayed by one of his friends and therefore he knew it would happen; he was not taken by surprise.[5] It was therefore certain that it would happen.

It is interesting to note that following Jesus’ death and resurrection, St Peter also understood that the consequences of Judas’ betray were predicted in the Psalms.[6]

Again, we can rejoice that God was not ignorant of what would happen to his Son. He knew the full extent of what we are capable of and what we will do. He is not taken by surprise, nor is he powerless to respond. He took the inevitable betrayal of his Son and turned it to achieve the redemption of humanity. This should give us enormous confidence in God’s ability to achieve what he sets out to; there is nothing he cannot anticipate, nothing he cannot use for good.

In summary, once God had decided to save humanity through his Son, it was inevitable that Jesus would be betrayed; that is who we are. Moreover, it was certain that it would happen because God had predicted that it would happen. The fact that God used even the betrayal of his Son to achieve the salvation of humanity should give us confidence that in the end his love will inevitably triumph.

In my next post I will consider whether the betrayal would inevitably have come through Judas.

[1] Not my friend’s real name or the name of his mother. Jean-Paul is the name of Charlie’s rival for Zoe’s affections in season 4 of the West Wing. Jane sounds like Jean so I thought it would be funny. The question is a composite of others I have been asked.

[2] Psalm 119:105

[3] John 3:16.

[4] Isaiah 53:6.

[5] See, for example, Matthew 26:24, Mark 14:21, Luke 22:22.

[6] Acts 1:15-20.

Songs for the Soul

For this week’s poem from C-Dub (as literally no-one calls Charles Wesley), I’ve picked a prayer to the Holy Spirit to come and work in us which seems a great place to start the week. As ever, there’s a short reflection below but the poem’s awesome in its own right.

Spirit of faith, come down,
Reveal the things of God,
And make to us the Godhead known,
And witness with the blood:
‘Tis thine the blood to apply,
And give us eyes to see,
Who did for every sinner die,
Hath surely died for me.

No man can truly say
That Jesus is the Lord,
Unless thou take the veil away,
And breathe the living word;
Then, only then, we feel
Our interest in his blood,
And cry, with joy unspeakable,
“Thou art my Lord, my God!”

O that the world might know
The all-atoning Lamb!
Spirit of faith, descend, and show
The virtue of his name;
The grace which all may find,
The saving power impart;
And testify to all mankind,
And speak in every heart.

Inspire the living faith,
Which whosoe’er receives,
The witness in himself he hath,
And consciously believes;
The faith that conquers all,
And doth the mountain move,
And saves whoe’er on Jesus call,
And perfects them in love.

As with almost everything C-Dub (a term that, even in the time it has taken you to read this, are growing to appreciate) wrote, this poem is almost impossibly theologically and biblically rich. This man packed more into four verses than most (even most good) preachers can pack into four sermons. Here are the highlights for those wanting to get a quick hit to set them on their way:

  • The Holy Spirit can be prayed to – we can have a personal relationship with him. In the words of the Nicene Creed (pretty much the best test of Christian orthodoxy), he is ‘worshipped together with the Father and the Son’.
  • He reveals the things of God to us. He takes the Word made flesh, and the Word recorded in Scripture, and makes them live for us  (sorry Karl, time to take an early Barth, C-Dub was there two centuries earlier).
  • The flip-side is that we need the Spirit to reveal Christ to us; the Wesleys were under no illusions about humanity’s condition without the awakening work of the Holy Spirit – we need him.
  • Yet at the same time Christ died for and loves everyone; to take the words of St John, he is the light which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone. The love of Christ and the grace of God are therefore potentially for everyone and so Charles prays for the Spirit to bring everyone to him. Do you feel away from the grace of God this morning? Then ask the Spirit to make it real for you again!
  • Finally, the Spirit not only reveals what Jesus has done for us (in prevenient grace) and applies it to us (in justifying grace), he works it in us (in sanctifying grace). Charles shared John’s optimism about the potential for the grace of God to truly transform us and perfect us in love. He can therefore pray for it with absolute sincerity.

This is a lesser known hymn but one that should burn in our hearts the truth and the love and the soul-cleansing, heart-restoring, love-filling, God-glorifying grace of God.

Happy Monday!

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