Date 17 April 2020

I still remember learning to swear. It was in my first year at secondary school. I was aged 13. My parents never used bad language—at least, not in front of their children. I did hear my father say “bloody” once, but that was when I brought him my final school report. But in order to impress my peers I had to speak their language and so I did. Not the greatest sin in the book, and the experience of virtually all of us. Not worth remarking on, except for one thing. When, after a while, I tried to rein myself in and stop, I found that I was powerless to do so. It was not the fact of a relatively trivial sin but the power of sin which impressed itself on me. It was as if I had given up my freedom to join a club. When I read the words of Jesus, “Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin,” I understood them at once.

Two years later, now aged 15, I was confronted with Mr Billy Graham telling us the story of Noah, of God’s judgement on sin and of the way of salvation. I already respected the authority of the Bible. What I lacked was any relational encounter with the living God. I turned to Christ in repentance for all my sins and entrusted myself to him as my Saviour and Lord.

This occurred at the height of post-war church going. Since then, as we well know, church attendance has slumped dramatically in most of the Western world, and cultural Christianity is virtually no more. Fewer and fewer people are identifying as Christian. Many who responded at a Billy Graham Crusade or similar event have given up the faith. Well, then, why am I still a Christian, after over 60 years?

It was not through lack of curiosity and willingness to be persuaded. In the bookshops it was impossible to miss Bertrand Russell’s volume, Why I am not a Christian. I was very much aware of Russell’s intellectual reputation and became concerned that I was embracing error. Nervously I purchased a copy of his work, willing to be persuaded out of my confession. All that it did was to confirm my faith, for if this was the best that the best of the unbelievers could do, I found myself unshaken.

A more serious threat to my faith occurred in the theological seminary. The library was, of course, completely uncensored. We were encouraged to read widely and to attend the lectures of great scholars of all persuasions when they came to visit. The lecturers regarded it as their duty to introduce us to what was then modern biblical criticism. Confronted with a view of John’s Gospel in particular which was alien to what I had believed, doubts about the Bible haunted my mind and heart. But no one around me panicked. We worked through the issues. I began to see things which I had not seen before. In the end, my trust in God’s word was restored. I was given a method of living with doubt without capitulating to it; rather, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and to grow.
This was not done in a way which said, the Christian faith must be true, come what may. My teachers said that the faith may not be true; it may be based on a fraud for example, and in which case we must abandon it rather than live a lie. But they also showed me that there was value in holding some things in suspension while we worked on them to put them in the right context, to understand them better, and to grow in maturity.

Obviously, I have had my moments of doubt and dismay since then. I have experienced suffering. I have seen into the lives of professing Christians and sometimes been dismayed and even horrified. I have read the atheists. But I am still a Christian, against the pull of the intellectual and spiritual flow of the times. Why?

When I think of what persuaded me to be a Christian and has kept me a Christian over the decades, the fundamental answer is a person. I am persuaded that Jesus Christ is Lord. There are a number of factors which have helped me yield to that persuasion, but without Jesus I would not believe, and with Jesus I cannot help but believe.

I don’t have to read the gospel accounts of Jesus as the infallible word of God to start with; merely as a credible account of the words and works of this man. Of course, I need to be willing to accept that if there is a sovereign God, he is in principle capable of the signs and wonders which accompanied the life of Jesus, including his resurrection. But the gospels are history, not myth. With those provisos in mind, what do I find?

I find a man of extraordinary insight expressed in extraordinary words. Think of the words and phrases which have entered our language and have shaped it to this day. Here are words which confront us, penetrate us, transform us, inspire us. Words which are remarkably pithy (I preach for 30 minutes on a parable that takes 2 minutes to read; yet the parable on its own is far more telling than my sermon) and just as remarkably vivid.
Judge not that you be not judged
It is easier for a camel pass through the eye of a needle
Go and sin no more
I will make you fishers of men
On this rock I will build my church
You cannot serve God and money
When you pray, go into your room and shut the door
What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder
Do not be anxious about your life
Take up your cross and follow me

The list is almost inexhaustible. Think of the encompassing nature of the Lord’s Prayer and yet its brevity. To this day it is used on public occasions and millions of times a day around the world. And then think of the parables. The Good Samaritan, with its brilliant turn-around (“who then was neighbour to him who fell among thieves?”); or the parable of the Prodigal Son – how many other preachers would have left the end of the story tantalisingly open for the hearer to provide the self-involving conclusion? Or the rich man and Lazarus, with its piercing challenge to the hypocritical scriptural experts? “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” he said, laying the proper foundations for civic life to this day. The Sermon on the Mount is rightly
regarded as one of the great speeches of history. Of course there are others whose words have entered the language and who have spoken with outstanding brilliance and insight. In English,
William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde come to (my!) mind. But the difference here is that the words of Jesus surround and explain his central claim, namely to be the prophet of the kingdom of God, indeed, in the final analysis, to be the king of the kingdom of God. He was moving history, not merely writing about history. Shakespeare’s words fill you with wonder and insight; Wilde’s words make you admire Wilde. The words of Jesus Christ invite you into a relationship with him, invite you to trust him, invite you to entrust yourself to him. They reach out to you. They have changed the world. Ultimately, they created the largest empire in the world, the empire of those who will give up all to follow him.

I cannot picture Jesus. My imagination has so little to work on and there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no evidence about his height or his walk or his face, or his hands, or any other feature. In a dozen incidental ways the gospel narratives make it clear that he was human not angelic. But for all we know he may have been thin and balding, with short sight and bad teeth. I think the absence of a description (which is true of other biblical heroes also) is deliberate: it means that we must focus on his words and his deeds, what he said and what he did.

And what did he do? Well, the events of healing and stilling storms and feeding five thousand and the like are integral to every account of him, even those outside the New Testament. They fit in with an existing pattern of revealing God to be at work here (as in the Exodus, or with Elijah). I don’t think they are intended to act as proofs of God, so much as signs of his activity, intended to fix our attention on this man, and say, “listen to him.” For the coming of Jesus is not a lone and solitary incident. He is not an accident of history. He came to a people carefully prepared; he came to a world made ready. The great legal and prophetic and political systems of the Old Testament explained and pre-figured him. Testing the reality of Jesus and the lofty claims of Jesus about himself involves seeing him in this context and coming to a mind as to whether he is the fulfilment of this history or not. In a way, this is the key test: not was he a lonely spiritual genius, but does he fulfil the promise-laden Old Testament?

Nonetheless, it is what so often accompanied the signs which Jesus did which interests me. They give us the man. When confronted by a leper, from whom he should have drawn back in sanctified horror, he reaches out his hand and actually touches him. When he is questioned by a rich, young ruler, we are told that Jesus, looking on him, loved him. He wept at the tomb of his friend. He saves the life of a woman who commits adultery by confronting the accusers with their own sin. He is fearless in exposing hypocrisy. On the other hand, he stands in majestic silence in front of the monstrous King Herod, perhaps the most terrible judgement of all upon such royalty. When his disciples scruple about the menial task of foot washing, he does it himself. When a woman of dubious morals washes his feet, he understands that her devotion springs from forgiveness and rebukes his hard-hearted host.

I love his culinary habits. He understood, of course, that the significance of food is not its task of fuelling us, but the fellowship of the meal, the friendship, the family, the forgiveness of the meal. That’s why meals are the source of joy but also the source of discord and unhappiness. That is why the self-righteous older brother was outraged when his father killed the fattened calf. More to the point, that is why the Pharisees were so critical when he ate “with tax collectors and sinners.” But the love with which he still invites us into his company, saying “come to me all who labour and are heavy laden,” invited the outcast and the disreputable to share his table, his meals of repentance and forgiveness.

Meals carry another significance also. They are the means by which we remember, as with the Passover. The Duke of Wellington gathered his officers together on the anniversary of Waterloo for many years and they ate together, a fellowship of memory. In due course, the memorial of even so great an event by so great a man lapsed. He was immortalised in stone, not through a resurrection. In all the 2000 year history of the Christian movement there have been references to a special memorial meal, a meal which grounds the last events of Jesus’s life in reality, explains their connection to forgiveness though his death and bears testimony to his continuing presence.

If nothing else would draw me to Jesus as the king of God’s kingdom, as the one who is actually the Lord himself come among us, it is his death. “Father,” he says, of the very ones who have cruelly and unjustly put him to so painful and shameful a death, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Only Jesus could turn the abomination of the cross into the greatest of all human symbols, the very touchstone of reconciliation between God and humanity. No wonder Charles Lamb said words to this effect, “If Shakespeare were to enter the room, we would all rise to meet him; if Jesus Christ entered, we would all kneel at his feet.” As he at first entered my head, he has now captured my heart. He is my Lord and my God.

Read the full editorial and other articles in the latest edition of Churchman, available here.