The theolog's survival pack
Ultimate Realities 2: On and up from base camp
- Bob Horn (1933-2005) was General Secretary of UCCF. View all resources by Bob Horn
Every Christian has opportunities and problems. Some give the impression that their lives are one long triumphal procession, a continuous mountain-top experience; others look as though they are always head-down in the valleys. The Bible has light to throw on all this.
They had their problems
All the characters of Old Testament history had their ups and downs, whether through hard circumstances or falling to temptations — think of Abraham and Moses, Samson and David. And the Bible gives us warnings from the sad examples of everyday people - such as the Israelites who experienced the exodus deliverance and then sinned in their desert journey (1 Corinthians 10:6-11).
It was the same in New Testament days. On the one hand, the gospel made terrific advances through the early Christians. On the other hand, they had their problems. Some, for example, could not believe that God had worked for Peter, to deliver him from prison. They could not accept the words of the servant girl, Rhoda, when she told them that God had answered their prayers and released Peter (Acts 12:15). Or think of three typical problems that James mentions in his letter: those who gave preferential treatment to the rich; those who were unbridled in the use of their tongues; and those who started quarrels because of their coveting (James 2:1—4; 3:1—2; 4:1—3).
Even the leaders had problems
Remember how Peter failed to act in line with the truth of the gospel in Antioch and had to be rebuked (Galatians 2:14). Or listen in on the ‘sharp disagreement’ between Paul and Barnabas over what to do about Mark, who had deserted them (Acts 15:39).
Bible characters had their wanderings and wonderings, so it is no surprise that we do too. It is easy to list some of the problems that unsettle believers today: problems of relationships; problems at home and at work; problems of being sure that God has accepted us; problems of guidance; of prosperity or failure; of self-esteem and personal identity; problems about goals; problems of depression and loneliness; of trusting God in an age of doubt; of weaknesses ... the list goes on and on.
Identifying our problems
It is often quite hard to identify what the problem is. And when we have identified the problems, the practical question is: what do we do with them? The danger is that we become preoccupied with ourselves in ways that may simply ape society around us. The ‘feel-good’ factor drives the content of many magazines - how I can feel good about my image, my clothes, my car, my friends, my career. Many try to offer some form of popular therapy. Some put spiritual phrases and a Christian veneer on such approaches. Hence the many books, magazines, videos, seminars and conferences that claim to speak relevantly to these matters. As one writer has said, there are the ‘wow’ books and the ‘how’ books on ways to deal with everything from memories to self-esteem.
This is certainly not all to be dismissed. Much is helpful. We can all think of books or sermons that have come to our rescue on particular issues. And, of course, even a quick reading of the New Testament makes dear that it too was in business to deal with troubles and perplexities. Jesus dealt with a wide variety of problems for many different people, as the Samaritan woman and the rich young man discovered (John 4:1-42; Mark 10:17- 23). Most of the New Testament’s letters devote half their space to practical questions in their readers’ lives and churches. The Bible faces up to such down-to-earth situations.
The New Testament, however leaves us with the growing feeling that its approach is different from ours. It seems to view life from another vantage point, to come to us with a radically different focus. It is not problem-orientated though in a profound sense it is problem-solving. It is not difficulty- dominated, though it enables the disciple to overcome. It is not a ‘how to’ manual merely offering techniques, though it does give ways forward. It does not revolve around our needs like some therapy, though it knows well enough how to handle our true predicament.
The Crucial Difference
What is the difference between the New Testament’s approach and ours? Two illustrations may throw light on this. We are like inexperienced climbers about to set out on the first great expedition. Full of raw enthusiasm, we don’t want to take time tediously surveying the best route to our chosen peak. It is too laborious to set up all the supplies and emergency equipment we might need. We feel that we’ve got what it takes, and anyway, we want to be on our way. We have heard one or two accounts of others who made the ascent and they made it sound possible. We ignore the leader’s instructions to prepare properly and one bright morning we set out ahead of him.
We soon conquer a few foothills and feel we’re making progress. Then the problems start. The mist closes in, our food runs low, we didn’t pack a compass and we brought no charts. Without a base camp, the expedition will come to grief. We were too short-term in our approach, and the long-term prospects suffer.
To use a second illustration, we are like students approaching an exam or a major piece of course work. We’re pressed for time and not on top of the syllabus, still less the whole subject. We become nervous and know that we need help now. So we look for quick solutions. We seek answers to fill-in those gaps of which, in our ignorance we are vaguely aware. We want someone to solve our immediate maths problem. We lock up a few quotations to pad out our literature essay. By these means we may pass, but this tactic will give us no under standing or grasp of the principles of the subject. It will never make us at home in it, because it simply deals with a few random parts. It may answer for today, but will give no basis for next year. It will certainly not help us to get a job or, if we find one, to be able to keep it. It will not give us true knowledge to put into practice.
The other way round
The New Testament puts things the other way round. It begins by surveying the ground and building the base camp. It stocks it with the food and equipment, maps and instructions, means of communication, emergency services and medical supplies which we will need for the ascent. Then it assures us that God himself, as the leader of the expedition, will go with us as we climb.
To take the other illustration, the New Testament starts by taking us through a lively and vital syllabus; it may not all seem relevant right now, but later on it will enable us to face and answer the questions which the examination of life will pose in each successive test. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit then commits himself to teaching and training us day by day, in the company of his people.
How does the Bible do this? Basically by introducing us to the ultimate realities. It cuts through our misconceptions and misunderstandings, brings us face to face with God and shows us how he sees things.
Introducing the ultimate
It presents to us the truth about God, the great overlord of our destiny. It displays his power and majesty. It describes his plans and decrees. It demonstrates that his purposes determine the world’s course and our individual story, that his are the promises that count and that he has the decisive say in all that goes on. It declares, moreover, that this God is for us and that he has chosen us for good - not for any good in us, but to receive good from him.
It tells us that this God has spoken. He is not a silent deity, leaving us to guess his mind and will, but the personal God who reveals himself. He uses language, the gift he gave when he created man and woman, to tell us what he is like and what he seeks from us. His book defines the truth about ourselves. It unmasks what we are actually like, why we are as we are, what we can and cannot do, and what we are responsible for. it gives us the only totally reliable understanding of ourselves, because it sets us before our Maker.
Through the Old Testament and into the New it reveals more and more of the truth about Jesus Christ, telling us the facts about his coming in history and what those facts mean. More centrally, it shows him as the embodiment of God’s unprecedented love for us. He is the one who sacrificed himself in our place, turning away the just judgment and wrath of God by accepting the penalty of our guilt. The Bible portrays him as rescuing sinners of every kind — people of every class and colour, from all over the world, from every one of the hastening centuries. It reveals his eternal purpose to create a people for himself. It guarantees to all who trust in Christ the experience of new life and total pardon from God.
It opens up the truth about how God works in us, how he turns rebels into friends, aliens into children, lovers of self into lovers of God. The New Testament radiates the warming fact that, from the burnt-out ashes of our lives, God can reconstruct a temple in which he is happy to live. It tells how he does this by his Spirit’s gentle welcome and powerful entry into our lives. The Bible tells us that he does all this work in us within the company of his people. It stresses the fact that we walk the pilgrim way and bear our living witness along with all those who call on his name.
It is thoroughly realistic and reassuring. Lest we harbour fears about the future, it offers us a preview of the end. We may have doubts about whether we will make it to the goal of the journey, or wonder what will happen if we fall and disappoint Christ, so the Bible announces that one day the saints will go marching in to their eternal home, bloodied in the battle but unbowed. And it promises that Christ will return.
From, through, to and for
It is in the base camp of such stunning facts and truths that the Bible begins to handle our problems. Everything, as Paul told the Christians in Rome, revolves round God (Romans 11:33— 36). Everything good about our life is from God. He is the origin, the Lord and giver of our existence, the governor of our every breath. He made us, he meets us, he reconciles us, he renews us, he rules us. There is nothing good about us that we have not received from him (1 Corinthians 4:7). We are total debtors; he is the sole donor.
Moreover, everything about our salvation is through him. It is by means of his Son’s life and death that we are pardoned and adopted. It is by the resurrection power of his Spirit that we have life. It is by means of his Word that we know the truth and are set free. It is by his sustaining strength that we keep going. It is by his supernatural dynamic that the gospel advances. It is all through him.
Everything is also to him and for him. He designed us to live to the praise of his glory. He made us to please him and is busy remaking us to display, both now and in the coming ages, the incomparable wealth of his grace (Ephesians 1:6; 2:7). We are here for him, to serve his purposes, do his will and honour his Son each day.
God, from beginning to end
God, from beginning to end - that is the perception the Bible gives ‘from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen’ (Romans 11:36).
This has a practical bearing on our lives, individual and corporate. God’s base camp is stocked with all the ultimate realities — all those supplies that we will need in our tense and testing journey through life. God’s teaching programme has in it all that we shall ever need to know this side of glory. This has two powerful effects.
First, on our approach to what we are to believe. Every age throws up its own fashionable beliefs or doubts. At various times the vogue has been for doubt to be cast on the Bible, on the resurrection, on miracles or judgment, on the deity of Christ, on the exclusive claims of the gospel — or on the existence of absolute, universal truth. This is why we look for and need to find truth in the midst of confusion. The chapters that follow try to open up the meaning and relevance for today of a typical statement of faith, as used for many years by the UCCF and many other Christian bodies. It has been of great value to countless individual churches and organizations providing a brief summary of what they stand for.
Many national churches, student movements and mission agencies around the world now use such a basis, showing that the truths it enshrines transcend local differences of history culture and background. Down the years it has exerted a strong unifying influence, holding together Bible believers from different traditions. It is a summary of ‘base-camp’, essential, core truth - not attempting to cover everything the Bible says, but highlighting those central truths that are at its heart (or were from time to time particularly attacked). It expresses, moreover, the unity in the gospel that brings believers together from various denominational backgrounds. These are the truths which, when held by the mind and heart, inspire Christians to bring Christ to others.
Questions about ourselves
The other effect of this is on our personal lives. You may have questions about yourself. Maybe you’ve never felt that you understood who and what you are. You remain a mystery to yourself. Why do you do the things you do? Why the gulf between where you are and what you want to be? And does your life have any significance anyway? Are you just a faceless statistic in the human crowd, just a back-row member of the congregation? Do you matter to anyone? Do you matter to God?
You may be anxious about assurance, low self-esteem, feeling that you are nobody special and not noticeably gifted. You are conscious of failures and weaknesses, feeling guilty about some past sins, doing your best but sometimes unsure whether you qualify to break the bread and drink the wine at the Lord’s table. You believe that God is love - but is he love to you? You know that Christ died and believe that he has done his part, but are you accepted as righteous in God’s sight? This lack of assurance in turn creates a problem in your witness. If you were more convinced about God for yourself, you would be more courageous about the gospel for others.
These are genuine problems, not in the least exceptional or uncommon. That is one reason why there are so many Bible verses that speak to them. Take two questions as examples. Do you matter? ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). Another translation could be: ‘It matters to God about you.’ Is assurance possible? ‘If God is for us, who can be [successfully] against us? ... I am convinced that [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:31,38—39).
More than isolated verses
Those are great verses, but God gives much more powerful help than isolated texts. Those texts, marvellous in themselves, are infinitely more glorious when seen for what they are: just some of the splendid details of the vast, majestic picture that God has unveiled to us in the Bible. He wants us to stand back for a while and take in the whole canvas he has painted. He wants us to absorb and admire his breathtaking plan of salvation, the grand design of our Saviour-Sovereign. He wants us (to revert to the earlier illustration) to become familiar and thrilled with all the supplies he has laid on for our expedition. We will lose out if we merely run a cursory glance over this tin of food or that compass. Christ wants us to make our own all the resources he has bequeathed to us from his pioneering journey through life and death.
As we scan through our statement of belief in the following chapters, we stand in awe before a panorama of the immense, many-splendoured Bible picture of God and his purposes. Each chapter sets out some of God’s truths which our human minds need, and some of the heavenly resources which our earthly route will require. They are not ‘problem-solving’ chapters, though they will answer lots of questions. They aim to give wide-angle vision. They offer a framework of biblical understanding and that in turn can enable us to see where our questions and problems fit in. They do not answer all the questions about the way, but they do set up the base camp to equip and encourage us to go higher up and further on with God. This is, after all, simply a brief introduction to core Christian beliefs.
Truth’s power to change
The truths outlined in these chapters can change us from being self-centred or problem-centred to being God-centred. They can root out our obsession with short-term cures and set us on the road to long-term spiritual health. They can lift us from the valleys of our own (little?) troubles, to the high ground of loving God and knowing his love poured out into our hearts by his Spirit (Romans 5:5). They can settle doubts and fears and put a new spring of assurance into our step and service.
The truths set out here have been the inheritance and delight of believers down all the centuries. They have been rediscovered in each generation — they have to be, because they get obscured by our sinful minds (which do not like them) and the devil (who hates them). They are not in the least new in themselves, though they are ever new. They have made strong, Christ-centred Christians out of weak, self-centred mortals ever since the days when they were first revealed. By God’s Spirit, they still have that power — and that is exciting for us today.
Excitement about the future
Yes, there is excitement in these pages, though it is not the ‘froth and bubble’ variety that recedes when the tide of events goes out, or disappears when our fun bubbles burst. It is the excitement of being appointed to the expedition, of setting out to climb the heights. It is what Paul felt when he wrote: ‘But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal’ (Philippians 3:13- 14). The future is still future and therefore unknown, though a new part of it arrives every day. None of us has yet climbed the peaks that lie ahead, whatever we have achieved in the past. This is why we may not see at once the relevance to the expedition of everything the leader has said or supplied. We may fail entirely to see the point of this instruction or that truth. Some information may make no sense to us at all right now; we may think we know better. Some maps are too detailed, we think; some directions seem odd. Surely we could work out a better route? But all that he has said and provided will come into its own as we go on. When we finally arrive, we will know that all he gave was absolutely vital to our survival and wellbeing.
The more familiar we are with what God has revealed, the more we shall enjoy the climb and the views. The more we use what the leader has supplied, the more he will be honoured by our progress, the better will we survive and the more strength and exhilaration will we find as we walk in his steps. The more you tread the high places in company with the Son of God, the more you will look back to thank him that he set his affection on you (Deuteronomy 7:7) and that he has met ‘all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).
This book, then, is about the truth of the God who ‘is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:8).
1. What would you say to the argument that doctrine is dry and unrelated to life and that what we need is experience?
2. What is the biblical relationship between God’s revelation and our experience - or between our understanding and our living?
3. As Christians we are pulled between being self-centred (our problems) and God-centred (his will). How does his truth help us to get things right?