Stephen Kneale

Why Good Doctrine Matters in the Light of Heinous Sin

When stacked against his holiness, Isaiah 64:6 says even our very best deeds are like filthy rags. They are not good enough to do anything to overcome the weigh of our sin. If there were a divine set of scales, on one side would be an infinitely heavy block of sin and on the other the weightless power of our good deeds. The grounds for entering Heaven is not more good than bad, but sinless perfection. That means all of us, by nature, stand to face judgement. Romans 3:10 is clear: there is none righteous, not even one.

I watched the Netflix documentary on Jimmy Savile the other week. The first episode – which dragged a bit for Brits familiar with Savile – was clearly setup for a wider international audience. For most outside of Britain, it would be hard to comprehend how this absolute weirdo managed to get on television in the first place. Not only get onto, but remain on television. And then to get himself into such positions of trust that allowed him to carry out hundreds of acts of sexual abuse. I can see why it was a necessary context setting exercise for most people around the world.
One of the interesting insights into the documentary came from Mark Lawson, the journalist and broadcaster. Lawson – like Savile – had also been raised in Leeds to a Roman Catholic family. He recalls even seeing Savile at mass growing up. But the key insight from him about Savile was this: you cannot understand him without first understanding the Catholicism that drove him.
The fact is, not every one of Savile’s charitable acts were designed to increase his abuse. Clearly many were. But there were some that did not give him that sort of access. Yet his answer in response to why he did so much charitable work remained resolutely the same, and I am inclined to believe it. He insisted that it is not easy for anyone to get in Heaven. He admitted openly that he had done many things wrong (though did not go so far as to acknowledge what we all now know that included). But he claimed that when he gets to Heaven, he’d be alright, because against all the wrongdoing would be his charitable activities which would far outweigh whatever he had done. That was his hope. That his good deeds – to which he was deeply committed – would suffice to overcome the bad.
Outside of a Catholic worldview, of course, that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Most people in the post-Christian UK work more on an honour-shame basis these days. There are certain crimes for which there can be no grace and forgiveness. Though that list may be increasing in length and incorporating considerably less significant things, paedophilia has long been seen as so serious there is no coming back from it. For most post-Christian Brits, the scandal is that Savile might consider there could possibly be any hope of forgiveness for him. There are some crimes so serious, many believe, that nobody may escape righteous retribution.
On a Protestant, particularly an Evangelical, view things are a little different. The possibility of forgiveness – even for the most heinous of sin – exists. Indeed, Evangelicals would argue that though not all sins are equal in their seriousness, we have such a warped understanding of how infinitely offensive our sin is to a holy God that we fail to realise the extreme seriousness of what we would view as the vanilla end of sin. For the Evangelical, if we rightly understand our sin as God sees it, we would have no problem recognising the possibility of forgiveness for the likes of Savile because we would realise the distance between his sin and our own is much less than the distance between our lesser sin and God’s complete holiness.
That, of course, does not mean Evangelicals believe Savile was a forgiven sinner (for the record, I do not believe he was). For forgiveness only comes with repentance and there is no evidence whatsoever that Savile was ever repentant. Not only did he never make any effort to put right what he had done wrong (which, in the case of his crimes, would have minimally involved confessing to the police and bearing the just consequences), he continued to repeatedly indulge his sin over and over. His mocking tombstone – subsequently removed in the dead of night for fear of uproar and vandalism – insisted, ‘it was good while it lasted’. Such an unrepentant attitude, on a Protestant worldview, puts one beyond the bounds of forgiveness.
This is the real scandal of the Catholic worldview into which Savile bought. It is the scandal of the Catholic doctrine he was taught. If all that is required is enough good works stacked up against your bad, if you are committed enough, you may do what you want with impunity. The cleric that insisted, because of these things, that God would “fix it” for Savile to enter Heaven, not only blasphemed against Almighty God in misrepresenting his holiness and forgiveness this way, but left the door open for other heinous crimes to be committed the same way, so long as the perpetrator is committed to stacking up their good deeds to counterbalance them.
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You Can Obey

Our sinful nature is not zapped away when we trust in Christ. But does that mean we cannot obey? No. We have God’s Word and God’s Spirit to guide and empower us to obey. Which means any time we sin as believers it is not because we are unable to do what is right but because we did not yield to the Spirit who dwells within us.

I wonder whether sometimes we give up on holiness before we even get started. We know that we are sinful. We know that this side of glory we will not be sinlessly perfect. We believe in the doctrine of Total Depravity. All stacked together, we can give up before we even get going.
We thank the Father that he sent Jesus to die for us. We are grateful that Jesus lived the perfect sinless life that we couldn’t. We trust in his atoning work on our behalf. We know that we are given the righteousness of Christ and rely upon that to see us made right with God. We believe all of this and know our salvation is secure because of it.
But we just don’t think we can obey. We are sinful, we think. Our old sinful nature remains with us. We thank Jesus that he came, died for us and transferred his perfect life to our account. And then we can think that we won’t be perfect until glory so we kind of give up trying. Sinners gonna sin, innit.
But the fact is, we can obey. Yes, when we were outside of Christ our hearts could only incline towards sin. But being made alive by the Spirit means that we are capable of obedience.
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The Idol of Reputation

There will be those who will insist on their view, or their accusations, irrespective of what the overwhelming majority of the church think. But in the end, we have to let go of our reputations. Ultimately, it is not before every accuser that we stand or fall, it is the judgement of Jesus that really matters. We cannot be in ministry and avoid accusations and, often, we will not find that we are ultimately able to make ourselves fully understood. Sometimes people will think badly of us and we will not be able to do anything about it. 

Everybody wants a good reputation. Nobody enjoys people speaking ill of them. And let’s face it, the Lord Jesus expects elders in his church to be ‘thought well of by outsiders’ (1 Timothy 3:7) and ‘beyond reproach’ (Titus 1:7). Reputation matters.
Of course, that doesn’t mean an elder must be universally liked. As Kevin DeYoung helpfully explains here:
If [outsiders] think my blog is whack, my views are repulsive, and they believe all kinds of nasty things about me (which I hope they don’t, and I think they don’t), that would not mean I have fallen foul of 1 Timothy 3:7. If, however, most of the outsiders who know me from school or from the restaurant or from the pool know me to be rude, untrustworthy, undependable, and hypocritical, then my church should take notice. The key, I think, is that even if a pastor cannot have a good reputation with outsiders everywhere (probably impossible for anyone with more than a handful of Twitter followers), he should be respected (even begrudgingly) by the outsiders who see him up close.
He argues the same is broadly true within the church too:
If the requirement to be “above reproach” focuses on the discernment of the local believers, the qualification to “be well thought of by outsiders” concerns the wider non-believing community. Again, knowing what we do about Jesus’ public ministry, the requirement must not be pressed to mean that the elder must be universally beloved by the unregenerate world. Rather, the issue for us, as it was for Ephesus, is that “the leadership of the church should bring no unnecessary disrepute upon the church through improper and immoral actions” (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 183).
Whenever people make accusations against elders, the reality is that these things need to be weighed and judged by the church. Independency demands that these things are not outsourced to others, but ought to be weighed and judged by the church, within the church itself. Being above reproach and well thought of by outsiders i.e. not a hypocrite is judged by the church itself.
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Let the Fine Words Fall Where They May

Most of us, I think, are genuinely aiming to find some balance in these things. We aren’t looking to speak only about what the world will applaud us for saying. We aren’t spoiling for a fight and looking to always wade into controversial things. We aren’t necessarily seeking to keep our heads down in the hope nobody asks us anything that might get us in trouble either. We should be suspicious of those believers who are always falling into one of these camps.

All of us Christians like to think that everything we do is thoroughly biblical. We all genuinely believe we speak when and where the Bible speaks and we are more measured when and where it doesn’t. But it is telling what we are often willing to speak up about.
Some of us are very happy to speak up on matters that our culture also consider to be problems. We readily call out issues that large sections of society agree with us on – particularly those issues that garner respect for our ‘bravery’ in speaking out – and tend to major on these. I, for example, find that people are generally quite supportive when I speak on issues of mental health or racial inequality. These things can get the likes and clicks from many outside the church.
Others of us are very happy to speak up on things that our culture generally do not consider to be problems. We are quick to call out those things that we perceive our culture will largely not give us any great plaudits for mentioning. We are keen to raise issues such as abortion or sexual ethics that go against the overwhelming consensus. These are the things that tend to receive the ire of the those outside the church.
It is interesting to me when there are folks who only ever seem to be in one or other of those camps. If the former, it feels like they are keen for approval and are desperate to be applauded. If the latter, it feels like they are spoiling for a fight, all of the time and love the controversy. John speaks about the former group when he says:
Many did believe in him even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, so that they would not be banned from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than praise from God.
John 12:42-43
Jesus himself has this to say:
Woe to you when all people speak well of you, because this is the way their ancestors used to treat the false prophets.
Luke 6:26
To the latter group Paul says:
As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Romans 12:18
And similarly:
Reject foolish and ignorant disputes, because you know that they breed quarrels. 24 The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, 25 instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.
These things do not mean, of course, that we can’t speak on issues. Of course we can.
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The Danger is the Good Times

Our opportunities for growth are limited because we have grown comfortable. And in our comfort, we forget the Lord. Obviously we don’t forget him altogether, but we forget what he actually demands of us. Because, in truth, if we hadn’t, we would be doing it. After all, Jesus said, ‘if you love me, you will keep my commandments’ and that includes all those difficult and highly uncomfortable things. We need to take seriously the call of Jesus and make ourselves much more willing to become much less comfortable.

When we read passages of scripture like the parable of the sower, we see four types of people. And three of those four are not saved. One of them doesn’t accept the Word from the off. But the two others appear to believe but later fall away. One of those falls away as a result of suffering and hardship, which seems to be what we expect. The other falls away because they get taken up with the cares of the world and exactly how that works its way out is interpreted slightly differently depending on who you are listening to.
I think many of us instinctively recognise the first two of those. We know there are those who never believed and those who face hardships and fall away. So far, no surprises really. The third group is often interpreted – often thanks to the more old fashioned ‘cares of the world’ translation – as being those who are consumed with worldly troubles and anxieties that drag them away. I’m not so convinced this is necessarily intended to convey cares as anxieties and troubles necessarily, so much as the things of the world. But because of that interpretation, those who fall away are thought to be those experiencing trouble of one kind or another.
It is this, I think, that makes Deuteronomy 8 so jarring to us when we read it. Here is what vv6-18 say:
6 So keep the commands of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and fearing him. 7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat, barley, vines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. 10 When you eat and are full, you will bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
11 “Be careful that you don’t forget the Lord your God by failing to keep his commands, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today. 12 When you eat and are full, and build beautiful houses to live in, 13 and your herds and flocks grow large, and your silver and gold multiply, and everything else you have increases, 14 be careful that your heart doesn’t become proud and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. 15 He led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its poisonous snakes and scorpions, a thirsty land where there was no water. He brought water out of the flint rock for you. 16 He fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your ancestors had not known, in order to humble and test you, so that in the end he might cause you to prosper. 17 You may say to yourself, ‘My power and my own ability have gained this wealth for me,’ 18 but remember that the Lord your God gives you the power to gain wealth, in order to confirm his covenant he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
Though the Israelites were prone to grumbling when things were not going so well, the greater danger for them was when the Lord had provided all of their needs and more besides. They were far more likely to become complacent and care far less about the Lord when everything was going well. In other words, one of the greatest dangers for God’s people was their own comfort.
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The Trinitarian God & the Songs We Sing

I wonder whether we are better in our songs to specifically reference the Father, Son and Spirit more than we talk more generally about God. It’s not that using the word God is wrong. Nor that it would always be inappropriate. But I suspect many of us hear about God and do not naturally think of Father, Son and Spirit. 

I was reflecting with somebody recently about the songs we sing. We can sing songs that reference God, but not much else. It is interesting, when you actually analyse what we have sung, that folks from quite a few other religious backgrounds could come in and sing those songs without any real change in their understanding of God at all. That doesn’t strike me as ideal.
I was re-reading something in Michael Reeve’s The Good God and came across this quote that seemed relevant:
John wrote his gospel, he tells us, so ‘that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20:31). But even that most basic call to believe in the Son of God is an invitation to a Trinitarian faith. Jesus is described as the Son of God. God is his Father. And he is the Christ, the one anointed with the Spirit. When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get.
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Keep Preaching & Expect Different Results

The Bible doesn’t tell us to preach when the Word is in season and to try something different while it isn’t. We are to preach in season and out of season. In fact, we only know what season it is by preaching! We don’t put a finger in the air and check the weather, we preach the Word and the results tell us what season it might be. But whether it appears to be an in season or an out season, we preach the Word. And, yes, we keep doing it, even expecting different results as we keep doing the same thing over and over again.

They say madness is doing the same thing over and over again whilst expecting a different result. Just doing the same old same old and hoping that something different might happen. And yet, as we read the Bible, that does seem to be what we are taught to do.
We are to preach the Word in season and out of season. What doesn’t change is the preaching of the Word. We are to continue preaching in the belief that this is God’s ordained means of reaching the lost, growing his people and building his church.
But it is also true that there are times the Word is in season and times when it is out of season. Sometimes, we will preach faithfully and consistently with little to no results at all. The Word seems totally out of season. It doesn’t seem to make an impact on anyone or in anything we’re doing. Popular wisdom suggests this is the time to stop, pack it in and try something else. Only a madman keeps doing the same thing over and over again and expects anything different.
But as we keep preaching the Word, we find that there are times it is in season. The same Word we preach in the same way suddenly starts to yield apparent results. People begin to respond to it. Some come to faith, others grow. The same preaching of the Word, in pretty much the same way, suddenly starts to produce fruit.
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There Are No Real Unprecedented Times

We ought to be asking, how should Christians live in this time at this cultural moment? And the answer is simple: faithfully, just like other believers who have lived in similar times and similar cultural moments. There is nothing more demanded of us from the Lord than that we seek to live faithful lives to him in whatever time and culture he has placed us. 

I read an article recently that asked the question, how are we to live in what feel like unprecedented times? I like the way that question was framed because of the care that was taken with it. Times may feel unprecedented, but in reality, the Bible is clear enough ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
I am just not so convinced that we do live in unprecedented times. I can concede on one level, as the article suggests, that every period in history is an utterly unique time. In a sense, that is true. This exact set of circumstances, surrounding this exact set of people, has never happened before. But, in an altogether different sense, there really is nothing unique about our times at all.
I am always surprised by the number of Christians who seem to think that this or that politicians, or political position, means that Christian people now face some unprecedented challenge. And, as someone who holds a degree in politics, I know what it can be like to so focus on that area of life and study that it can seem, in the moment, very little else matters quite so much. But perhaps it is also the fact that I hold history, religious studies and theology degrees too that I have come to see how easily we over-focus on the political present and lose perspective.
The truth is, very rarely is any moment properly unprecedented. Believers have faced challenges to their Christianity, and found times of both ease and severe discomfort, ever since they were called Christians. Those who think the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented time in history seem to forget more recent history of the SARS and MERS in East Asia, the Spanish Flu epidemic and smallpox all coming about within the last few hundred years. The plague ran rampant in Europe before all of them. Pandemics and Epidemics are, in one sense, nothing new.
And the church having to navigate civic life and non-believing governments is an issue as old as the church itself.
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He Really was Little, Weak, and Helpless

His divine nature still had all the divine attributes of God that he had before the incarnation. But in his humanity, the expression of those attributes was limited. In his humanity, Jesus took on all that means to be a human. That includes being little, weak and helpless. 

Christmas continues to provide a rich source of blog material at the minute. A couple of days ago, I gave my yearly reminder that what you do at Christmas is not a measure of your spiritual temperature. Off the back of that, yesterday, I wrote about how we can go a bit gnostic at Christmas and how that often affects all sorts of aspects of our lives as believers. Today, I thought I would stick with the ancient heresy theme.
If ever there was a time that heresy slips under the radar in our churches, I think Christmas is it. We either stick it in our carols, or we pick up on lines in carols and then import heresy ourselves by ‘correcting’ what is already perfectly credible, or we just end up preaching it straight up. After all, the trinity and the incarnation are tricky business, are they not? One mere slip of the tongue and we’re in trouble. When the difference between orthodoxy and rank heresy boils down to one letter in a foreign language (ὁμοούσιος, homoousios or ὁμοιούσιος, homoiousios) I can understand how people end up in shtook.
I am reminded of the year that we sang the carol, Once in Royal David’s City. The following lines caught the attention of the person leading the meeting:
For He is our childhood’s pattern,Day by day like us He grew,He was little, weak, and helpless,Tears and smiles like us He knew,And He feeleth for our sadness,And He shareth in our gladness.
Those lines met with the incredulous comment: ‘I take real issue with this. Jesus was NEVER little, weak and helpless. He was the eternal Son of God!’
Except, of course, whilst he was the eternal Son of God incarnate, the eternal Son of God had indeed submitted to all that it meant to be a little human baby, including being little, weak and helpless. Unless we believe that Jesus – much like our Muslim friends – was chatting in full sentences from birth, what else are we supposed to think?
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Why We Celebrate Christmas Regardless

I believe it is really important that we are seen to be celebrating Christmas in our community. Not because Jesus demands that we do it. Not because I think we are more godly if we do it. But because we are free to do it and the message we send if we don’t do it will be particularly terrible. What does it say to our community if, on the day they expect us to be celebrating the birth of Christ, our church is shut, the lights are off and nobody seems to be bothered? For that reason, even if nobody came, we will celebrate Christmas anyway.

If you have followed this blog for a while, you will know our church building is in the middle of an overwhelmingly South Asian Muslim area of Oldham. You will also know that we don’t find Christmas the slam dunk, open goal cultural evangelistic opportunity that a lot of others do. You may also know that, despite that fact, we will still do stuff for Christmas. The obvious question is, why?
The truth is, we don’t expect lots of people to turn up to our Christmas events. Those that do come are more likely to be indigenous Brits looking for their fix of carols, religion and tradition for the year. We sometimes pick up a few of those. The majority who come will really be those who have received an invite from someone in the congregation. They are really coming because they would rather get their bit of Christmas religious tradition with their friend who asked than somewhere else that might be that bit more traditional and Christmassy. The fact is, if you’re mainly bothered about traditional Christmas jazz, you’re probably not going to pick our 70s-built dissenting church for a carol sing-a-long over the parish church, with its lovely building, choir and whatnot. Even the traditions aren’t quite enough to pull people in to us of themselves.
More to the point, whilst we will certainly invite them, we don’t expect to see all that many of our Muslim friends and neighbours. It’s possible we might get one or two who are particularly interested in seeing what Christians do at Christmas, but for the most part, they will no more be flooding through our church doors than we tend to file into the mosque in great numbers at Ramadan. It’s just not a thing for them.
And the truth is, as a hardcore strict Baptist – whilst I love Christmas – it has almost zero religious significance for me.
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