Monday, 21 April 2014

When secularists start running leper colonies we should take their attack on Cameron seriously

An assortment of ‘liberal’ journalists, scientists and celebrities have today accused David Cameron of risking causing ‘alienation’ in society by saying Britain is a ‘Christian country’.

The 50 signatories to a letter to the Daily Telegraph say that Britain is largely a ‘non-religious society’ and warn about the ‘negative consequences for politics and society’ that the Prime Minister’s comments engender.

Interestingly, other faith leaders have defended Cameron. Farooq Murad, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, has spoken of the UK’s ‘deep historical and structural links’ to Christianity and Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, said he is ‘very comfortable’ with the PM’s description. Ironically, the Muslims and Hindus appear more tolerant than the ‘liberals’.

On one level the 50 correspondents are correct. The overwhelming majority of people in this country do not hold to core historic teachings of the Christian faith such as those we celebrate at Easter - Jesus’ divinity, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and return in judgement. Biblical teaching on ethics is also increasingly falling out of favour at a practical level – witness Britain’s family breakdown, spiralling rates of abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, epidemics of alcohol misuse, gambling, debt and obsession with celebrity culture, personal peace and material things.

In fact David Cameron has himself described his faith as fading and reappearing ‘like Magic FM in the Chilterns’.  His support of same sex marriage, his weakness on opposing abortion and defending Christian conscience along with his glaring omission of any reference to Christ’s death and resurrection in his Easter address make it highly likely that Jesus and his apostles would not have recognised the PM’s faith as orthodox. He may profess Christianity, but as I have previously argued, actually fails Luther’s test of confession.

But at another level the prime minister is quite correct about Britain being ‘Christian’. After all, 59% of Britons still self-identify as Christians according to the 2011 ONS survey. And there is no doubt that Christian influence on British society has been immense.

In his speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, Cameron said that the Bible had ‘bequeathed a body of language that permeates every aspect of our culture and heritage… from everyday phrases to our greatest works of literature, music and art’.

Our politics too, he said, owed to Christianity everything from ‘human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy’ and ‘from the role of the church in the first forms of welfare provision, to the many modern day faith-led social action projects’. Not only did it place the 'first limits on Royal Power’ but, even more significantly, ‘the knowledge that God created man in his own image was… a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality’.

Cameron correctly echoed Margaret Thatcher who once said, ‘we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible’ and illustrated this with a list of foundational Christian values including ‘responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love…pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities…’

All of which raises the question why these 50 atheists and secular humanists are so incensed by the Prime Minister’s references to the Christian faith. Is there a deeper issue here?

Telegraph blogger Toby Young has rather provocatively suggested that ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ despise Christianity because it poses a challenge to their moral authority. These people constitute ‘a secular priesthood’ , he argues, who see ‘anything that suggests there might be a higher source of authority than them when it comes to matters of right and wrong’ as ‘a direct challenge to their status’.  What greater threat to our moral status than the ‘God-man’ Jesus Christ who asserted that he was both our Saviour and Judge?

But is there, perhaps, also a hint of jealousy? Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), the late journalist and author was a secular humanist for most of his life (before a late Christian conversion), but, like the PM, was honest about Christianity’s social impact. He said, ‘I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa where I found much righteous endeavour undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society, or a humanist leper colony’.

Come to think of it, the secularists haven’t actually been at the forefront of the sort of community-led initiatives the PM has been praising either – where are the secularist food banks, night shelters, street pastors, debt-counsellors and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres?

So my challenge to the 50 secularists is this – bleat as much as you like, but if you really want to be taken as seriously as Christ himself as a life-changing and community-transforming force, then please demonstrate to us how secularism can transform societies and communities for good? Where is the historical legacy? Where is the evidence that secularism is a positive society-transforming power? 

After all, actions speak louder than words. And Jesus said that the real test of a tree was its fruit.   

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Understanding God’s role and ours in evangelism – Get it wrong and you're setting yourself up for unnecessary grief

The prospect of evangelism causes many Christians to break out in a cold sweat.

To maintain our sanity we need to understand clearly who is responsible for what in sharing the Good News.

In particular we need to address the questions, 'What is God's part and what does he expect of me?' 

Get the answers to those questions wrong and you will find that your experience of evangelism is an unhappy one because you have fallen into one of the following traps:

  1. 'If God is in control there is no point in me doing anything.'
  2. 'I feel so guilty that I don't share my faith with everyone I meet.'
  3. 'I must find a better technique to make people come to Christ.'
  4. 'I give up! None of those I talk to has followed Christ.'
So what's the answer?

We need first to see the big picture - it is God who is in control of history and the universe itself. He is its Creator (Gn 1:1-2; Ps 8:3; 2 Pet 3:5), Owner (Ps 24:1; Jb 41:11), Sustainer (Heb 1:3; Ps 147:8-9,15-18), Director (Dn 2:21, 4:17; Is 40:15,22-24) and Redeemer (Rm 8:20-22; 2 Cor 4:16-5:5)

It is he who will bring history to an end (Rev 5:9-6:1). His ultimate plan is a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1; Is 65:17, 66:22) where there will be no more death, crying or pain (Rev 21:4), populated by a people drawn from every nation (Gn 12:3, Rev 7:9) who have been set apart to do his will (Titus 2:11-14; 1 Pet 2:9). He is now in the process of gathering this people (Mt 24:31) before the world as we know it is destroyed (Zeph 1:2-3; 2 Pet 3:7; Rev 21:1). This is achieved through evangelism, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:15-17; Rm 10:14-17).

God's Sovereignty in Evangelism

The proclamation of the Gospel requires human instruments (us), but it is God's work. It is he who:

  • Gives us the Word to proclaim (Rom 1:1,16)
  • Opens doors of opportunity to proclaim it (Acts 14:27; Col 4:3)
  • Gives us the courage to speak (2 Tim 4:17; Acts 4:29; Eph 6:19-20)
  • Enables hearers to understand the message (Acts 16:14)
  • Convicts people of sin (John 16:8)
  • Enables sinners to repent (Acts 5:31,11:18; Eph 2:8)
  • Brings about rebirth (Acts 2:38; Rom 8:9; John 3:3-8)
God does all these things! The fact that God is sovereign in evangelism takes an enormous burden off our shoulders. 

But it doesn't mean that we can sit back and let him do all the work. William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement was told by the hyper-Calvinists of his day that if God wanted to save the lost, he would do it without his help. Carey's refusal to believe this led to the massive spread of the Gospel around the world in the 19th Century. God has chosen to use us. It is certainly his work to open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears, so that people will recognize Jesus as Lord - but it is our work (in his strength) faithfully to proclaim and defend the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is God's means to bring men and women to faith.

What are the Implications for Us?

1. The biggest obstacle to evangelism is not technique but opposition. Our enemy the devil's opposition will take many forms...often our indifference means he hardly need bother doing anything else. But in reality he is a defeated enemy because Christ who lives in us has conquered him (Eph 1:19-21) and we share his victory (Eph 2:4-7; 1 Cor 10:13; 1 Jn 4:4).

2. Our response needs to be spiritual and practical. Paul's response was to pray and encourage others to pray also (Eph 6:18-20). Prayer is central because it is a recognition of our humble dependence on God. If he does not inspire and empower our efforts, our work will be in vain (Ps 127:1). We must pray for opportunities and courage.

3. But it does not stop with prayer. We must also obey. We are commanded to ...'go and make disciples...' (Mt 28:19). We have actively to step out in faith and take the opportunities he gives us.

God is in control of the universe and our own lives. Evangelism, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is his work, but we are his instruments. We need first to pray for opportunities, and the courage to use them to step out in faith.

This article is adapted from CMF’s Confident Christianity course

When ideology drives science – intellectual dishonesty in the ‘abortion/breast cancer’ and ‘change therapy' debates

In July 1949, the New England Journal of Medicine printed an article by Dr Leo Alexander titled 'Medical Science under Dictatorship'.

In it, he explains what happens to science when it 'becomes subordinated to the guiding philosophy' of a political ideology.

'Irrespective of other ideologic trappings', he argues, the 'guiding philosophic principle of recent dictatorships' is to replace 'moral, ethical and religious values' with 'rational utility'.

Alexander eloquently demonstrates how 'medical science in Nazi Germany collaborated with this Hegelian trend' and became the source of 'propaganda' which was 'highly effective in perverting public opinion and public conscience, in a remarkably short time'.

This expressed itself in a rapid decline in standards of professional ethics and led ultimately to the German medical profession's active participation in 'the mass extermination of the chronically sick' and of 'those considered socially disturbing or racially and ideologically unwanted'.

Britain is not Nazi Germany and is a democracy rather than a dictatorship. However, all democracies are also susceptible to influence by well organised minorities and it is very clear, in this post-Christian society, that the corridors of power are increasingly filled by those who do not subscribe to a Christian worldview and values.

In fact, many of those who occupy positions of influence in our 'mountains of culture' – universities, schools, media, judiciary, parliament institutions and entertainment industry – are actively hostile to Christianity and supportive of public policy directions consistent with a secular humanist agenda – eg. pro-choice on abortion, supportive of 'assisted dying', embryo research and same sex marriage.

These issues are of course highly political. But is there any evidence that the 'medical science' marshalled to support them is in any way being influenced or shaped by secular humanist ideology?

Two articles in the latest edition of Triple Helix would say 'yes'. They make the case that financial or ideological vested interests can be used to stifle the truth when medical issues become highly politicised. Both articles question the way that British Royal Colleges have handled scientific evidence in their support for a certain public policy direction.

Donna Harrison, Executive Director and Director of Research and Public Policy at the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (AAPLOG), argues that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has misrepresented available scientific evidence to support its view that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer.

She explains why a link between abortion and breast cancer is entirely biologically plausible and points out how oft-quoted studies which deny such a link 'often resort to errant methodology which obscures the actual scientific question they were purported to answer'. She singles out for particular criticism a frequently cited meta-analysis by Beral et al on which the RCOG leans heavily in formulating its abortion guidance. She then cites a 2014 meta-analysis of 36 studies by Huang et al which looked specifically at the relationship between induced abortion (IA) and breast cancer. It found that IA is significantly associated with an increased risk of breast cancer among Chinese females, and that the risk of breast cancer increases as the number of IAs increases.

Peter May, retired GP from Southampton, takes issue with the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) over their opposition to 'change therapies' for unwanted same sex attraction. He accuses the College of locking itself into a 'born gay' ideology by ignoring the evidence to the contrary. The College's argument that causation is 'biological' has led to the widespread belief that LGB people are being 'true to their nature' in homosexual behaviour. Yet twin studies do not support this view and in 2006, a major Danish study reported, 'population-based, prospective evidence that childhood family experiences are important determinants of heterosexual and homosexual marriage decisions in adulthood.'

The position of the RCOG on the abortion breast cancer link, and the RCPsych on the causation of homosexual orientation, have both been profoundly influential on public policy. In fact the latter has even helped shape policy within the Church of England.

These College positions will remain crucially influential this year with the Department of Health about to issue guidelines on abortion and Parliament about to consider legislation seeking to ban 'change therapies'.

It is part of the role of Triple Helix to highlight issues like this so that our readers can participate in these debates in a fully informed way. They have profound implications, not just for public policy, but also for fully informed consent.

As Peter May concludes, 'We have a mandate to be passionate and honest about truth and to strive to teach it accurately. All truth belongs to God, and all untruths deny him. We must insist that love and truth are essential values in public discourse.'

This editorial initially appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Triple Helix

Thursday, 17 April 2014

David Cameron is right about loving one’s neighbour but has he missed the whole point of Easter?

Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell famously said that the Labour government didn’t ‘do God’ but the Prime Minister’s Easter address to church leaders has him trending on twitter as #CameronJesus. Today he has called for Christians to be ‘unashamedly evangelical’.

David Cameron’s pronouncements have sparked controversy and criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Is the astronomical rise of charity food banks a consequence of the Coalition government’s welfare policy creating a new class urban poor? Is the exodus of traditional Tory voters to UKIP linked to Cameron embracing same sex marriage? What would Jesus, who had a heart for the poor and upheld the principle of ‘one man, one woman for life’, say to Cameron about both these issues?

Would he side with the 40 Anglican bishops and 600 church leaders who wrote a letter this week calling on all political parties to tackle the causes of food poverty? Or with conservative evangelicals who sought to prevent the legal redefinition of marriage? Or both? Or neither?

But others have raised different questions altogether. Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at the Parish Church of St Mary, south London, has criticised Cameron for reducing Christianity to merely ‘a religion of good works’.

The Prime Minister’s praise for the ‘countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ’ and his expounding of Christ’s command to ‘love thy neighbour’ is all well and good Fraser says.  

But it is not, as Cameron would have it, ‘the heart of Christianity’. Easter is about Christ’s death on a Roman cross and his resurrection. And Jesus was not crucified for ‘doing good’ but for what he said. Fraser argues that Cameron has sidestepped ‘full throttle Christianity’ to embrace a diluted faith devoid of doctrine that will be more palatable in a society which is essentially secular and post-Christian.

He laments the fact that what we get from politicians is ‘a pallid imitation of Christianity’, just ‘empty gesture politics’. Real faith, he argues, means ‘taking hard decisions and standing by them’. It is about addressing ‘darkness and struggle’. We have to ‘walk the way of the cross’, to ‘face rejection and humiliation’.

Fraser draws attention to those many places around the world where Christianity remains a criminal offence and asks ‘If Christianity was illegal in this country, would there be enough evidence to convict you of it?’

Cameron and Fraser are both partly right. Jesus did say that loving one’s neighbour summed up the moral teaching of the Old Testament Law and Prophets. And he did call his followers to take up their cross and follow him. He demanded nothing short of utter obedience, complete devotion, with all its consequences. ‘If you love me you will obey my commands’.

St Paul said that what ultimately mattered was ‘faith expressing itself through love’ and that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’. Both service and suffering are part of the package.

But, having said this, Christianity is not primarily about what we do for God. It is rather about what he has done for us. This does not mean that following Christ does not have profound moral implications. It does. But good works are not the way to God, but a response to his grace and mercy.

The two key questions raised by the historical events that we remember this week are not primarily about how we should live – important though that is – but are rather about the person and work of Christ. ‘Who actually was Jesus?’ and ‘Why did he choose to die?

Miss those and we miss the whole point of Easter. And the Gospel accounts leave us in no doubt as to what Christ taught about either. We cannot divorce Jesus’ moral teaching from what he said about his own identity and mission, and our predicament.

Cameron and Fraser each have part of the truth. But before we ask what God would have us do, we need first to know who this man nailed to a wooden gibbet in first century Palestine actually was, and is, and why it was necessary for him to die… and to rise. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

David Cameron presides over largest liberalisation of abortion practice since 1967 Abortion Act

Prime Minister David Cameron has presided over the largest liberalisation of abortion practice since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967.

Under his leadership, former health minister Andrew Lansley (pictured), working closely with abortion providers and senior figures at the Department of Health, has managed to smuggle in what is in effect a nurse-led abortion service without the issue ever being discussed in parliament and without the knowledge of most of his own party colleagues.

This is how he managed it.

When the Abortion Act was passed in 1967 it was intended to allow abortion only in a limited set of circumstances.

Under the Act an abortion could only be performed by a ‘registered medical practitioner’ (ie. a doctor) and only when two registered medical practitioners were of the opinion, ‘formed in good faith’, that certain conditions applied.

About 98% of all abortions are currently performed on grounds ‘that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family’.

The two certifying doctors are required to carry out this balancing of medical risk and it is implicit in the legislation that they would meet with the woman to make an assessment about whether these medical conditions applied. How otherwise could they carry out their statutory duties ‘in good faith’?

The Labour government understood this principle. Their ‘Procedures for the approval of independent sector places for the termination of pregnancy’, issued in 1999, were crystal clear:

‘Under the Abortion Act 1967, pregnancies are terminated to protect health. Other than in an emergency to save a woman’s life, medical practitioners must give their opinions on the reasons under the Act for the termination following consultation with the woman.’ (emphasis mine)

In other words, both doctors were obliged actually to see the woman in making this health assessment.

But Andrew Lansley, who was Shadow Health Secretary at the time, did not like this arrangement. So in May 2008, during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, he advocated abolition of the two doctor rule in his Second reading speech. He later backed off in the face of some adverse publicity and an amendment aimed at dispensing with the two doctors was never debated or voted upon.

However, four years later, as Secretary of State for Health in the Coalition government, he saw the opportunity effectively to dispense with the two doctor requirement by stealth.

So in July 2012, without consultation and without informing parliament, he secretly issued new interim abortion procedures to independent abortion providers which effectively dispensed with the two doctor requirement.

On 9 July 2012, in answer to a parliamentary question, junior health minister Anne Milton hinted at Lansley’s new reading of the Abortion Act: ‘There is no requirement that both doctors must see and examine the woman’, she said.

So under Lansley’s new arrangements, it was no longer necessary for two doctors to see and examine the woman. One apparently would do (that being the natural reading of ‘not both’).

Lansley was replaced as Health Secretary by Jeremy Hunt on 4 September that year. But his ‘Interim procedures’ were not put up on the website until 3 January 2013, almost six months after abortion clinics had been issued with them. 

Again there was no public announcement. In fact the existence of these ‘interim procedures’ was not even mentioned in parliament for another two months, when they were first referred to by health minister Anna Soubry in an oral answer to Fiona Bruce on 5 March.

But the ‘Interim procedures’ reveal how Lansley had even further reinterpreted the law:

‘We consider it good practice that one of the two certifying doctors has seen the woman, though this is not a legal requirement.’

So now it was not even necessary for either doctor to see the patient. It is simply ‘good practice’ for one to do so.

This statement from the interim procedures was repeated word for word in the ‘Revised procedures’ put out for consultation by the Department of Health in November 2013. But in these we also had the following curious additional statement:

‘Members of a multidisciplinary team (MDT) can play a role in seeking information from the woman.’

So under Lansley’s direction, the requirement that two doctors consult with the woman has been dispensed with in a stepwise fashion. Now the whole process can be carried out by nurses or other members of a multidisciplinary team who conceivably might even be clerical figures with no medical or nursing training at all.

The two doctors will still add their signatures (without ever seeing the woman) but their involvement has been reduced to that of a perfunctory nod, effectively ticking a box.

It is perhaps no surprise that we are now seeing such widespread abuse of the Abortion Act in the form of sex selective abortions, illegal pre-signing of forms and over 185,000 abortions a year authorised on spurious mental health grounds. When cabinet ministers, together with civil servants, are allowed to rewrite laws without reference to proper democratic procedures this is exactly what we should expect.

Things had arguably slipped enough with unregulated doctors at the helm. But now that doctors are effectively side-lined we can expect very quickly to see the slide to a publicly funded, nurse-led, private abortion service where ‘willing providers’ like BPAS and MSI cut costs and fight for their market share.

And this is exactly what we are seeing. Private abortion providers furnished with tax payers' money have already grown their market share to 60% of all abortions. The revised procedures are also gunning for nurses to perform abortion procedures and for the second stage of medical (drug induced) abortions to be carried out at home, two further ‘reinterpretations’ of the Act.

So how do women feel about this effective rewriting of statute law by a Conservative cabinet minister?

Actually they overwhelmingly oppose moves to allow doctors to approve abortions without seeing patients face-to-face.

A poll of more than 2,000 people carried out by ComRes and published in the Telegraph on 7 March, found that 89 per cent agreed that ‘a woman requesting an abortion should always be seen in person by a qualified doctor’. While 85 per cent of men polled agreed with the statement, support among women was 92 per cent.

I don’t think I have ever heard of an opinion poll generating a one-sided result of quite this magnitude.

Furthermore, just over three quarters of those polled also thought that women’s health could be put at risk unless doctors signing authorisation forms had seen the patient, with 73 per cent of men agreeing but 78 per cent of women.

Again this is hardly surprising. Abortion is a procedure with contraindications and complications which women seeking fully informed consent have a right to know about – from a doctor.

The consultation around the revised abortion procedures has now closed and the Department of Health is just about to release the new guidance for both private abortion clinics and doctors.

At that point Lansley’s new interpretation of the Abortion Act – that no doctor need see a woman before authorising an abortion – will be set in stone, without parliament ever having debated it and with most government MPs not even being aware that it has happened right under their noses.

David Cameron is already deeply unpopular with many social conservatives, and this rewriting of abortion procedures under his leadership will not endear him further to them. Did Cameron know what Lansley was doing and approve it? Or did Lansley sneak this measure through without his leader’s knowledge? Was Cameron collaborating or being deceived?

These are very serious questions.

I suspect also that there are many other MPs in the Tory party and elsewhere who, whilst not necessarily having socially conservative views on abortion, will nonetheless be deeply concerned that a cabinet minister can effectively rewrite statute law on such a key issue, in such a clandestine, and quite possibly even illegal, way.

I would not be surprised, as the scale of this operation gets out, that we might be seeing MPs buried by bulging parliamentary postbags from angry constituents.

Then I expect that these same MPs will start asking some very pertinent parliamentary questions which even David Cameron might find difficult to answer. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

New government consultation on three parent embryos asks the wrong questions

The Department of Health today has published for consultation draft regulations to allow mitochondrial donation to prevent the transmission of serious mitochondrial disease from mother to child.

The consultation will close on 21 May.

This new government consultation is not asking whether but how these controversial techniques for mitochondrial disease should be implemented. In so doing it sweeps aside genuine ethical and safety concerns in the headlong rush to push the scientific boundaries. 

Rather like the motorist who asked an Irishman for directions and received the answer, ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ the government in this new consultation is actually asking the wrong questions.

Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California has previously argued in an piece titled ‘A slippery slope to germline modification’ that were the United Kingdom to grant a regulatory go-ahead, it would unilaterally cross ‘a legal and ethical line’ observed by the entire international community that ‘genetic-engineering tools’ should not be used ‘to modify gametes or early embryos and so manipulate the characteristics of future children’. This is now happening.

She is not alone in her concerns. Just this week advisors to the US Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have expressed concern that the three-parent embryo procedure could lead to human gene manipulation and have questioned its ethics and whether the research into it is as far advanced as some of its advocates claim.

In short, should we be giving treatments to human beings that have not yet been tested fully in animals?

It is deeply regrettable that the government intends to press on recklessly with this controversial technology in real patients in the face of genuine concerns about safety, effectiveness and ethics which have so far prevented its implementation anywhere else in the world.

In many countries around and the world, and by commentators from both secular and faith based scientific backgrounds, Britain is viewed as a rogue state in this area of research.

The Government gave an assurance in 2009 that regulations to allow treatment would not be made until any proposed techniques were considered to be effective and safe for use in treatment.

It has still to deliver on this undertaking. 

Further background

Christian Medical Fellowship has recently published a paper on ‘three parent embryos for mitochondrial disease’ which was strongly critical of this new technology on both theological and scientific grounds.

This followed submissions that we made on the issue to both the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and the Nuffield Council. We have more recently made similar points to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

We have also argued previously that the techniques involved are unsafe, unethical and unnecessary (see hereherehere and here).

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The greatest gift of a Christian leader to his people is his own personal holiness – a reflection on John Owen

If you have not yet discovered John Piper’s biographies then I heartily recommend them. They can all be downloaded free of charge from the Desiring God website and are great for car or train journeys, walks and runs. 

I’ve just listened again today, during a long run, to John Piper’s biography on John Owen, ‘The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness’.

John Owen (1616 – 1683) was an English Nonconformist church leader, theologian, and academic administrator at the University of Oxford. 

He was also briefly a member of parliament for the University, sitting in the First Protectorate Parliament of 1654 to 1655 under Oliver Cromwell.

He also chaired the committee which in 1658 drew up the Savoy Declaration, the statement of faith that became the foundation document for the Congregational Churches. So Owen takes me right back to my childhood roots.

His influence on subsequent church leaders has been immense and yet most people today—even pastors and theologians—don't know much about him. 

Owen was born in England in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died and four years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England. This is virtually in the middle of the great Puritan century (roughly 1560 to 1660).

Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness. It began in England with William Tyndale the Bible translator, Luther's contemporary, and was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival.

Owen was born in the middle of this movement and became its greatest pastor-theologian as the movement ended almost simultaneously with his death in 1683. He was also responsible for the publication of John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, the best-selling book in history outside the Bible.

Piper’s whole study is worthy of careful study (or listening) but I was particularly struck today by his comments on Owen’s guiding passion, his quest for personal holiness. The following notes are abridged from Piper.

The words of Owen which come closest to giving us the heart and aim of his life are found in the preface to the little book: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers which was based on sermons that he preached to the students and academic community at Oxford:

‘I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart's desire unto God, and the chief design of my life ... are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God, that so the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.’

Even in his political messages—the sermons to Parliament—the theme was repeatedly holiness. He based this on the Old Testament patter— that ‘the people of Israel were at the height of their fortunes when their leaders were godly’. So the key issue for him was that the legislature be made up of holy people.

This humility opened Owen's soul to the greatest visions of Christ in the Scriptures. And he believed with all his heart the truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18 that by contemplating the glory of Christ ‘we may be gradually transformed into the same glory’. And that is nothing other than holiness.

Owen grew in knowledge of God by obeying what he knew already. In other words Owen recognized that holiness was not merely the goal of all true learning; it is also the means of more true learning. 

This elevated holiness even higher in his life: it was the aim of his life and, in large measure, the means of getting there.

Thus Owen kept the streams of the fountain of truth open by making personal obedience the effect of all that he learned, and the means of more. Owen passionately pursued a personal communion with God.

J I Packer says that the Puritans differ from evangelicals today because with them:

‘ ... communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small  thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God.’ 

From Owen’s writings, and from the testimony of others, it seems fair to say that the aim of personal holiness in all of life, and the mortifying of all known sin really was the labour not only of his teaching but of his own personal life.

This was the conviction that controlled him:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us .’