Review: Salt, Light and Cities on Hills: Evangelism, Social Action and the Church – How do they relate to each other? by Melvin Tinker

‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ is a short and well written book on a complex and often contentious issue.

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Melvin Tinker helpfully approaches the subject from three vantage points in only 110 pages. Initially there is a historical angle taken in the first three chapters (‘All our Yesterdays’, ‘How is history to be read?’ and ‘Reformers and Radicals’). This is supplemented by the theological and biblical direction taken in the next four chapters (‘Tim Keller and Mercy Ministries’, ‘Theological Reflections’, ‘The Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Servant’ and ‘More from Isaiah – Salt, Light and City on a Hill’). Finally, Tinker closes with a practical chapter drawing on his own experience at St John, Newland, Hull (‘Getting Personal and Practical’).

It is unfortunate, however not surprising, that there are limitations with ‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ given its brevity in relation to its subject. The compressing of Tinker’s arguments into this little book inevitably led to some superficial arguments and apparently pedantic distinctions. This was perhaps most notably in the chapter concerning Tim Keller.

While Tinker valiantly attempted to highlight some weakness in Keller’s theological justification for Redeemer Presbyterian’s mercy ministries, in all reality their conclusions were little different. This chapter is concerned primarily with Keller’s reading of the parable of The Good Samaritan. Tinker rightly argues that the main idea of the parable is teaching about Jesus’ costly salvation. However, he concludes “[i]t also stands as a paradigm for the Christian and churches to ‘go and do likewise’” (pg. 62). This is little different from Keller’s conclusion as I understand it.

This weakness was reinforced all the more in the final chapter of the book as Tinker pointed to common church ministries as examples of biblical social action (children’s ministry, English as a Second Language courses, debt counselling, etc). Furthermore, it appeared that Tinker views early church history through rose tinted glasses. This is evident as he argues that in Acts ‘belief and behaviour, declaration and deed were fully integrated’ (pg. 100). Surely, in light of the rest of the New Testament, it is abundantly clear that not all churches were functioning in this way. We need only to read Paul’s letter’s to the Corinthians or the churches in Galatia to see this.

Nevertheless, this book is not without its diamonds in the rough! The book is framed excellently in the introduction (‘Present Concerns’). Here Tinker rightly asserts that the controversy is not whether Christians should engage in social action, but how Christians should engage. This is a valuable distinction to make. Often in this debate caricatures on the other side of the debate are drawn to be dismantled. Thankfully, Tinker is honest in admitting that very few if any Christians deny social action is a result of the Christian life.

Even though we have critiqued the brevity of the book above, it does have its benefits. First among which is that this book is a great introduction to the debate on evangelism and social action. Especially in light of the historical, theological and practical approaches contained in the book.

Throughout the book Tinker consistently defends his position that ‘all social problems are fundamentally spiritual’ (pg. 38). I believe this to be biblical, and so appreciate some of the defences he offers. There is a useful discussion concerning moral distance (i.e. the idea that our ‘neighbour’ is ‘anyone in need with whom we have to do’ pg. 51) and the primacy of evangelism in the Apostle Paul’s life (pg. 53). However, his position is most robustly defended in the best chapter of the book, ‘Theological Reflections’. This chapter brought a lot of clarity to Tinker’s argument and justified many of his assertions; therefore it was thoroughly helpful. I especially appreciated the references to Tim Chester which argued that social action without evangelism is like a signpost pointing nowhere (or worse still, a display of salvation by works). Yet, this was balanced well by the understanding that all of our lives must be impacted by the gospel. Therefore, Tinker summarises ‘[o]ur human work should surround and support our service of the kingdom’ (pg. 72).

Tinker’s exegetical work is also of profit in this book. The rooting of the Sermon on the Mount in the context of Isaiah, while novel to me, was thought-provoking. Indeed, Tinker’s reminder that throughout the Old Testament ‘[i]t is supremely in salvation…that God exhibits his righteousness’ (pg. 80) is a necessary contribution to the discussion. Although I am not completely won over by the argumentation, I have been encouraged to study it further. Above I noted that Tinker’s conclusions are little different from many other people’s thoughts on the subject. Even so, his exegetical work displays the fact that his thought process behind those conclusions is different.

This is exemplified in the final chapter, ‘Getting Personal and Practical’. While the ministries are similar to other churches there are insightful distinctions: focusing on relationships above and beyond the function of the ministry, fostering a community of people, placing people with a passion for evangelism in social ministries and always doing everything in prayer. To top it all of ‘Salt, Light and Cities on Hills’ is written from a UK perspective, something which should not be overlooked.

On the whole Tinker has provided us with a useful book on a divisive issue. I would gladly recommend this as an introduction to the debate on social action and evangelism. It is written in such a way that a young Christian may benefit just as much as a seasoned Christian by reading it. Therefore, our churches will be served through this small book as Tinker leaves us with the challenge that ‘the church community in whatever cultural context it finds itself should demonstrate the effects of the gospel in proclamation and practice’ (pg.117).

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Christmas Meditation #5: Christmas Bells

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet, penned the words that for many of us may be more familiar as the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The poem, Christmas Bells, which appears below, was originally written on Christmas Day (1863). The inspiration for Longfellow’s poem was born out of the recent loss of his wife, Frances, and the impending possibility of losing his eldest son, Charles, who after having ran away to become a Union soldier had been severely wounded in combat.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It is a poem composed in the midst of immense sorrow and suffering but which climaxes on a jubilant note of hope. It is reminiscent of many of the psalms of lament such as Psalm 13 (NIV),

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Both of these poems, Christmas Bells and Psalm 13, remind us in the midst of profound sorrow and suffering that God has not forgotten us, nor does he hide from us, but has in fact been good to us. They encourage us to drown out the voice of despair with words of hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

They remind us that our hope is in God’s unfailing love towards us in Christ. During this Christmas season, which can be replete with sadness as much as it is with joy and food and gifts, let’s rejoice in God’s salvation, singing praise to him, as we celebrate and remember the first Advent of our Lord Jesus and eagerly anticipate his second.

Christmas Meditation #4: Gloria in Excelsis Deo

The song of the angels recorded in Luke 2 makes it into a majority of our Christmas carols. As Luke records it:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (v13-14).

This year as I have sung those words (Glory to God) I have wondered again and again ‘do I really know what they mean?’ I have a vague idea that we are praising God with these words (at least when sung from our hearts as well as our lips). But what does the word ‘glory’ mean?

If you’re anything like me you’ll have found yourself, at some point, sitting listening to a preacher begin his sermon with a dictionary definition of an important word in his text. To be honest this is more than a little boring, and rarely helpful. Unfortunately, it was no different as I turned to Greek dictionaries and other commentaries. Glory means to give honour, ascribe praise, worship and dignity. Although this is what I kind of thought already, it did help clarify it a little in my mind. To sing ‘glory to God’ is to acknowledge we must give him honour, praise, worship and dignity. There was a helpful nuance identified for me however. Namely the Greek word (doxa) derives from a word meaning opinion.

Therefore, to sing ‘glory to God’ is not just to give honour, praise and worship, but to confess this is my opinion of God. This is what the heavenly multitude did that evening near Bethlehem as they appeared to the shepherds. They confessed that their opinion of God was one of honour, praise and dignity. Why? Because the Saviour, Jesus Christ, had been born bring peace to those with whom God is pleased!

This context, Luke 2, is important for us to note because this is what we reflect as we sing these words in Christmas carols. We reflect the wonder, adoration and love which is evoked by the reality that God has come to earth, being born of a virgin and taking on flesh. This is captured well by the commentator David Gooding. He writes

The marvellously rich imagery of the story appeals to some of the profoundest feelings in the human heart…the angel choir breaking into the darkness of earth’s night to herald the long-awaited sunrise

advent-1119784-mHow is this great news heralded? This great news is heralded by the heavenly host as they proclaim their high opinion of God to the shepherds in song.

What are we doing (or should be doing) as we sing ‘glory to God’? We too are (should be) heralding our high opinion of God – to him, to ourselves and to others.

Are you singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo today?

Christmas Meditation #3: When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was.

Christmas is full of drama.advent-1119784-m

I’m not talking about the yearly war over the last Teaser in a box of Celebrations. Or those annual games of charades, as you desperately work-off all that turkey. I’m not even talking about the countless nativity plays. I’m talking about the Christ’s birth.

Jesus didn’t enter the world through the lens of a Victorian Christmas card. He wasn’t born in a hygienic stable; he wasn’t quickly surrounded by well-groomed, well-manicured shepherds. We know that! We’re told that every year. But, how many times have you thought about Joseph? Jesus’s adopted father wasn’t exactly stoic. Joseph didn’t pull a stiff-upper lip. This David-son didn’t simply grin and bear Mary’s pregnancy. Like two people, desperately battling over a Christmas cracker, there’s real tension here. Everything could snap.

See, Mary’s pregnant. Her soon-to-be husband, Joseph; he isn’t the father. Mary’s claiming: “the child’s from the Holy Spirit!”. But Joseph’s not buying it. He’s been raised by fireside tales of Red Sea crossings, Goliath killings, and Exile endings. He looks around his country, and he knows there’s no more prophets. God’s silence is all Joseph’s countrymen know. There’s no chance God would suddenly start speaking again. There’s no chance He’d come down to someone like Mary. There’s no chance this baby could be from the Holy Spirit. There’s only one option for Joseph. The Law’s got to come first. That’s what God would want, right?

So, “Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19).

Six simple words we quickly rush over. But, pause. Because God’s redemptive plan seems to be unravelling.

If Joseph divorces Mary, even quietly, there’s going to be some legal noise. The Law is clear: if Mary’s lying, she’s got to be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). If Joseph refuses to believe Mary, she’ll be left to the mob. A zealous town might resolve to uphold the Law. And then, the eternal Son would die in His mother’s womb. He’d never be a “high priest [able] to sympathise with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15), nor would he have “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). If Joseph divorces Mary, God’s covenant isn’t just broken; it’s powerless. If Mary’s left to the mob, Jesus might never become “the source of eternal salvation” (Hebrews 5:9).

Six little words: “Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly”. These six words usher us into the drama of Christmas. Everything hangs on the edge of a knife. If we miss this, we’ll overlook the amazing glory of the God who intervenes in world history for our good. We’ll ignore the assurance that God’s Word achieves its end. We’ll fail to see how God upholds His covenant promises in Christ’s birth. So, is God’s covenant secure? Is His Word true? Can we trust Him?

The answer resounds: yes! Because God intervenes. “But as Joseph considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife” (Matthew 1:20). Or, as the ancient carol “When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was” puts it: “Then Joseph he to shun the shame/Thought her for to forsake/But then God’s Angel in a dream/His mind did undertake”. God, in His sovereignty, intervenes.

God controls the drama. God shapes the route of history. When everything, to us, appears like it’s unravelling, God shows His magnificent universal Kingship. There’s no doubt: God is absolutely sovereign. The basis for all our trust is the God, who in His sovereignty, intervenes for our good and His glory.

This Christmas, don’t flatten out the story. See it, in all its drama. Because only then will your vision of the glory of God expand and thrive. His covenant is secure. His Word is true. If we can trust God in His provision, and protection, of a Saviour when the fullness of time had arrived; then, we can trust in the unending certainty of our justification, sanctification and glorification through union with the one called “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

Christmas Meditation #2: He Who is Mighty

The beginning of John’s Gospel does not offer the ‘traditional’ Christmas narrative that we have become accustomed to hearing at this time of year. However, this does not mean that the incarnation is missing from John’s prologue. In fact, it is quite the opposite. John is keen to ensure that his readers understand that God has now appeared in flesh. John does this by offering us Christmas in a sentence:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – John 1:14

advent-1119784-mThe Word, as made clear earlier in John 1, is God; the second person of the Godhead. In other words, the Word is Jesus. Flesh speaks of humanity. This is not that God abandoned deity for humanity. It is much more miraculous than that. While remaining fully God, Jesus also became fully human. All of this did not take place in some vacuum either. Jesus dwelt among us, or more literally ‘set up home’.

The implications of this are vast, numerous and really quite spectacular. Therefore we cannot deal with all of them here. But in this short meditation let me draw our attention to three implications to Christmas in a sentence.

1. A Great Sacrifice

Jesus endured a great sacrifice long before he hung on the cross. As we read at the beginning of John 1, Jesus was God, was with God and was with God in the beginning. Jesus eternally existed in perfect relationship within the Godhead. Yet, out of love for his people and through the incarnation, he sacrificed the air of heaven to breathe the dust of earth. This is a great sacrifice because on this earth Jesus then experienced all of the limitations we as humans experience. Limited to one place at one time, he grew hungry, thirsty and tired, he even felt pain, and so on and so forth.

2. A Great Encouragement

The great sacrifice of leaving heaven to walk on this earth then brings a great encouragement to us as his people. The book of Hebrews states this quite explicitly (4:15). Because Jesus walked on earth, as we walk on earth, he is now able to empathise and sympathise with us in every way. We do not and cannot experience anything on earth that Jesus does not know about, firsthand. Jesus has experienced life just as we do.

3. A Great Salvation

All of this culminates in our salvation. The incarnation is for our salvation. However, Jesus will not deal with sin only in the future when he offers himself on the cross as the propitiation for our sin. The reason Jesus took on flesh was so that he could live a life of obedience that we never could. In the great exchange transacted on the cross Jesus then gave us that perfect obedience. And even though Jesus experienced life as we do on earth he experienced it in victory because of his obedience to God. Jesus, while tried and tempted in every way, he was sinless. This is indeed a great salvation.

The chorus of the song below (a song I hope will become a classic Christmas carol) captures all of these thoughts:

He Who is mighty has done a great thing
Taken on flesh, conquered death’s sting
Shattered the darkness and lifted our shame
Holy is His name

In fact the whole song captures these thoughts. Enjoy:

Christmas Meditation #1: Come, thou long expected Jesus

For the past year and a half I have been studying a Masters in Theology at Queen’s University Belfast, through the Irish Baptist College. My subject of choice has been the theme of the LORD’s Anointed in the Old Testament. The term “LORD’s anointed” is often a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah.

To date I have studied kingship in the historical books, and prophecy from the prophets. In the coming months I hope to look at New Testament fulfilment before embarking on a dissertation on Messiah and the Psalms. As I have thought, read and written about this subject I have formed a much more informed picture of the Messianic hope that Old Testament believers held.

What has struck me most forcefully has been the tension between an expectant people and a (apparently) delayed Messiah. This means that the day Jesus was born an incredible pent up hope was realised.

I spoke about this only a couple of weeks ago on the blog (An Emissary to Earth). Thousands of years had passed, with seemingly ever more painful consequences, with their hope going unrealised. That is, until one normal evening when a very normal Jewish girl in a normal Israelite town gave birth to a normal looking baby. But, that event was the realisation of Yahweh’s eternal promise. It was no normal evening – making that normal woman and town very significant.

advent-1119784-mOne of God’s people living prior to this (extra)ordinary event could well have written the hymn referenced in our title: Come, thou long expected Jesus/born to set thy people free. Certainly they could have sung it with equal, if not more, gusto than we. However, it was written by a man living after that (extra)ordinary event – Charles Wesley, in the eighteenth century. This does not render the song meaningless, nor remove the gusto with which we may sing it.

As God’s people we still long for the appearing of the Messiah.

I find this time of year almost ‘magical’ (if I may use such a term) as I consider the realisation of this hope of the people. And this feeling has only been strengthened by a study of Messianic hope in the Old Testament. But I believe it also has something to teach us as Christians living this side of Jesus’ birth.

There is a hope for us; a hope promised by Yahweh; a hope not yet realised; a hope which will one day be realised. That hope is the appearing of Jesus once more. Is there an excitement building inside you as you consider Jesus’ first appearing? Is there a longing to see him walk on earth once more? Is his appearing a deep desire in you?

Are you crying in prayer ‘come, thou long expected Jesus’?