If you want a God conversation, aim for a good conversation


‘DO NOT TRY TO CONVERT ME TO CHRISTIANITY!’ This was my friend’s last message to me – caps-locked! – as we arranged a meet-up the following day.

We’ve known each other for nearly 30 years. For the last 20 of them I’ve been a Christian, something he’s been fine about, as long as I keep it to myself. He is – as you can tell – not open to an evangelistic encounter!

So, what did we talk about the following day? Actually we spoke of the very deepest truths about God, His judgment and His grace. How come? Did he change his mind? Did I blunder through his boundaries and force an intervention? No and no. The truth is: God is good, prayer is powerful and everything is ultimately about Jesus.

Principles first

I’ll tell you how the conversation unfolded, but before that I think we need some principles in place. Firstly, we need to repeat something I’ve said before in this column: the goal is offering Christ not gaining converts. We move out from fullness, not from need. It’s about giving, not getting – good news to share, not good tactics to deploy.

Secondly, if we’re hoping for God conversations, we need to make sure we have good conversations. It rarely works to bridge from trivia to profound gospel truths. I used to think a good evangelist was someone who could turn a pub discussion of the offside rule into a proclamation of ‘Christ, our Last Defender’. But so much of our problem is that we want to bypass ‘good conversations’ in search of ‘God conversations’. But the one leads to the other.

Thirdly, when it comes to converting people, the first person in the queue should be me. I need to repent and believe the gospel before my friend does – and that order is important. If I really believe these truths are ‘lifesavers’ for my friend, there should first be a sense that they have been ‘lifesavers’ for me. If so, discussing the tangible ways the good news has impacted me will inevitably lead to a discussion of the Source of that change. I’ll explain what I mean by describing our conversation.

A proper conversation…

The day after the email, I met my friend on a beach on the south coast. We had bacon sandwiches and flat whites and caught up on each others’ news. We’d both had another child since last we met – ours by adoption. ‘We’ve been thinking about adoption,’ he said, ‘how has it been?’ I told him about the hurdles, the screening process, the bureaucracy, the crying need, the appalling trauma faced by so many little ones. Then we spoke of the unique challenges adoption brings.

… about unconditional love

But I brought it back to this: You’ve got to believe that unconditional love is really how people change and flourish – you’ve got to believe it down to your toenails. My friend said he thought he did believe that. I told him it would be tested sorely and constantly, and that offering unconditional love like this will, at times, feel excruciating. But the alternative is hell – it’s the hell of disconnection, of further distance, mistrust, fear and anger. The only answer is absorbing that hell and – somehow! – answering with grace. It feels excruciating – like getting crucified – but it’s the only way. ‘And look,’ I said, ‘I know you told me not to try to convert you, but I’m not trying to convert you, I’m telling you what I need to hear to convert me! I need to believe this stuff for my own sanity. For Emma and me, it’s our faith that sees us through. We really believe that absorbing the hell and paying back with love is genuinely how the universe operates – it’s what God did. It’s what the cross was all about. And now, with Him, we get to see it at work in our little family. And it does. You know?’

And he really did seem to know. It was the deepest connection we’ve ever had concerning faith. Who knows where it will lead, but that morning, in spite of his forewarnings, we ended up having a ‘God conversation’. Yet we got there because, first, it was a good conversation.

Glen Scrivener

Glen Scrivener is director and evangelist with ‘Speak Life’ in Eastbourne, which trains Christians in personal evangelism, in person, in podcasts and videos.

We don’t graduate from our need to trust and obey


I’m writing just as 2022 has begun. Looking forward to this year in the Church of England it’s not hard to see some significant challenges ahead.

One is exhaustion and weariness in the face of the ongoing pandemic. My impression from Anglican clergy is the challenge of patient endurance in the face of tragedy, hardship and crisis, including in some cases the personal crisis of the minister, taking their toll with the accumulated pressure of these last two years.

Where is the faith, the energy, the hope to come from if personally you feel like you are running on empty or near empty?

In the Church of England this year, that pressure is exacerbated by at least two others. One is the financial crisis affecting some dioceses. This has led to proposed cuts in clergy numbers and generated insecurity about future stipendiary ministry.

In addition, the completion this Spring of the initial consultation of the Living in Love and Faith project – which is intended to help the Church find a way to live with radically different theologies and pastoral experiences around human identity, sexuality and marriage – will stretch many who are already feeling pretty much at full stretch. Put these pressures together and you have a 2022 which is perhaps leading more than one minister or church member into the slough of despond.

This prompts the question posed by the psalmist: ‘From where will my help come?’ (Ps. 121:1). The answer, you know, given by the Holy Spirit through the psalmist to us, is: ‘My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’

Whether it is in the face of tragedy and sickness, whether it is because of financial and organisational challenge, or whether it is because of a fear that the Church of England might embrace an understanding of human identity, sexuality and marriage that is not from the Lord; we need to pray for help.

As I approach 2022 I admit to asking for this help from the Lord. I have found encouragement this Christmas to see how none of the challenges facing the Church of England are new to the people of God. One of the reasons God has caused all Scripture to be written for our learning is to see how this pattern of being overwhelmed by difficulty, insecurity and complexity is present in every generation.

We don’t graduate from our need to trust and obey. Such trust and obedience expresses our love for the Lord. We know that in praying for that trust and obedience we do not stop praying for those who disagree with us and who believe we are profoundly wrong. It is no help if, in holding to the truth, we cease to be held by love, the Lord’s saving love of us.

I’m praying for myself and all the ministers and people I’m encountering that we will not imagine that the future of the Church of England (or any other church) is somehow dependent on us, or that the Lord is somehow unaware of what is going on, or that He will not act in either judgment or mercy according to His sovereign grace, as He takes in the long sweep of history, knowing the end of all things and the promise of the new heaven and earth.

If Covid teaches us anything, it is that we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, never mind next year. And the greatest need in England is for the Church that bears the name of this country to be faithful in living and speaking the gospel of Jesus Christ as God’s good news of His coming, saving and re-creating. His living water, His eternal life flowing from the eternal love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the source of our help; and this life, His life within us, will flow from us, even in 2022 and beyond.

Keith Sinclair is National Director of the Church of England Evangelical Council and was previously Bishop of Birkenhead.

How evangelical churches seem to be faring right now


As I write, the government has just announced the reintroduction of limited Covid rules requiring the wearing of face-coverings in shops and on public transport in England to protect against the Omicron variant.

We pray that these measures will prove temporary, and that the new variant will not undermine the strategy that has thus far enabled an end of lockdown.

Since September I have had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of church leaders, including at the recent FIEC Leaders’ Conferences in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester and London. This has given me an impression of how churches are regathering and rebuilding. It is too early to identify all the long-term impacts, but I have observed the following general trends.

Many evangelical churches have grown 

New people have started attending church regularly. This is largely transfer growth as people have relocated, made the decision to join a more local church rather than commute to one further away, or chosen to move to a church that they believe is more Biblical than the one they were attending before lockdown. Many of these new attendees were able to check their new church extensively online beforehand. Some city centre churches which have a large number of attendees commuting in have seen a reduction in numbers. In contrast, the Covid crisis seems to be precipitating the more rapid decline of non-evangelical churches, some of which have been slower to reopen.

Many evangelical churches have seen conversions 

Whilst there has been widespread transfer growth, it is hugely encouraging that many churches have seen more conversions over this Covid period than in recent years, and Autumn has seen numerous baptisms across the country. Some of these conversions have resulted from online services and evangelistic courses during the lockdown period.

Most evangelical churches have yet to see a return to stable attendance 

Whist many churches have grown, weekly attendance does not always reflect this. Some church members remain cautious about attending in person. Many are less regular, taking more Sundays away to visit family and friends. In effect, they are catching up on lost time. Back in July, I thought it would take until Autumn half-term for attendance patterns to return to normal, but this was an underestimate.

Most evangelical churches have a new fringe 

Many churches have found that they have lost their existing ‘fringe’ attendees, and it has been difficult or impossible to reconnect with them. At the same time, they are attracting a new fringe and making increased efforts to reconnect with their wider community.

Most evangelical churches are experiencing cumulative exhaus-tion 

Whilst the immediate crisis may have ended, the effects are ongoing and many people remain drained. This is true of both church leaders and church members and has made it a challenge to restart ministries. Volunteers may not feel ready to recommit to regular service, making it hard to staff activities. We need to be patient.

Some evangelical churches are closing 

One impact of the Covid crisis is that some smaller churches that needed revitalisation have chosen to close. We know of at least eight FIEC churches that have closed. The effort required to restart is greater than that to continue in maintenance mode. This is not a failure if the result is that people and resources can be redeployed in ways that better advance the kingdom of God.

I hope that these observations will reassure you that what you are experiencing in your church at the moment is ‘normal’ and encourage you that God has been at work through this difficult time to both refine and build His church. I feel confident that we will look back on it as a time of unexpected blessing.

John Stevens

John Stevens is National Director of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC).

Accessible ­apologetic aid


DO MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS WORSHIP
THE SAME GOD?
By 
Andy Bannister
IVP. 188 pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 789 742 299

The title of this book demands an obvious answer: ‘No’! The question needs to be asked, since Muslims claim to worship the God of Abraham.

Bannister, an accomplished apologist and scholar of Islam, answers this by observing that the Biblical God is relational (Chapter 4). He enters His creation in the form of Theophanies to relate to man (p.48). In contrast, Allah is never immanent, and so cannot be relational. Following from that, whilst Yahweh (as Bannister habitually terms Him) can be known, one can only know about Allah (p.57). Yahweh is holy, but Allah is arbitrary (p.61). Crucially, Yahweh is love, reflecting His eternal triune nature (p.62), whereas Allah, being a monad, cannot be so. Yahweh loves sinners, Allah does not – indeed, Bannister observes (p.63) that most Qur’anic references concern those whom Allah does not love!

Somewhat controversially, in the light of historic debates about divine impassibility, Bannister states that Yahweh ‘has suffered’ (p.65), by which he means that Yahweh has experienced grief, etc. Ultimately, of course, this is expressed in the Incarnation and death of Jesus. Allah, however, experiences anger about sin, but there is no ‘hint of sadness or grief’ (p.68). Helpfully, Bannister shows how the differences between the Bible and Qur’an on the nature of humanity impact on the question. The Bible teaches that humanity is made in God’s image, and so has dignity and the ability to reflect God’s love (p.80). The Qur’an, however, simply portrays Man as a ‘ruler’, and one about whom the angels complain will ‘foment corruption’ (p.82). Man is not in the image of Allah. There is an idea of God’s image in the Hadith, but it is that Adam was created 30 metres tall, and humanity has diminished in height thereafter.

Bannister’s book is very accessible and will be an invaluable aid for all Christians encountering Muslims.

Dr Anthony McRoy

Dr Anthony McRoy is a researcher and lecturer in Islamics.

Julian Hardyman: speaking of Jesus as lover, suitor, boyfriend, husband is neither new nor eccentric


en speaks to Julian Hardyman, Senior Pastor at Eden Baptist Church, Cambridge, about his most recent book on the Song of Songs.

en: Julian, tell us about your new book…

Julian: In Scripture we find all sorts of metaphors for how God relates to us in love. Two are borrowed from the closest human relationships – that God is our Father, and that Jesus is our bridegroom-husband. The former – adoption, sonship, etc. – has been very well explored and many Christians find it central to their experience of faith that God has become their Father, and rightly so. The second metaphor is comparatively much less well understood and enjoyed. I wanted to help people enjoy this Biblical teaching about Christ much more fully – that He is like a suitor, a fiancé and a husband for His people, collectively and individually.

I was pleased to find the title in the first line of a well-known hymn (with a couple of modern adaptations too): Jesus, lover of my soul. The key word is probably ‘lover’ which in English means more than ‘someone who loves’; it refers to a romantic and sexual involvement. So the phrase addresses the Lord Jesus as one who is like a lover, a suitor, a boyfriend, a husband, etc., in spiritual relation to each of us. The phrase ‘my soul’ adds to the sense that this is a metaphor, a picture, and a symbol. The fact that the hymn is well known helps us realise this is neither new nor eccentric.

en: What made you want to write about the Song of Songs in the first place?

Julian: I preached a series of sermons on the Song which treated the human and the spiritual dimensions of the Song pretty much evenly. I felt that the spiritual dimension was the least familiar to people and seemed to have been very helpful both to me and others. So it seemed that a book that majored on the spiritual dimension was worth a go, especially as this dimension has been neglected (or treated rather tentatively) in much more recent evangelical preaching and writing.

en: Some people of course emphasise an allegorical interpretation of the book, about Christ and the church, whereas more recently perhaps it has been seen more simply as love poetry. What approach does your book adopt, and why?

Julian: I am convinced that we are intended to read the Song of Songs and draw out both the human and the spiritual dimensions for ourselves. Older Christian writers (going back 1600 years or more) shied away from the raw desire and physicality of the poetry. They tended anyway to be suspicious about human sexuality (even within marriage). They majored on the Song as a picture of Christ and the church, developing rather fanciful allegorical readings of multiple details. More recent writers, including many evangelicals, have reacted to this by insisting that it is primarily or even only a portrayal of human love. (Interestingly, they in turn have often turned odd details in the story into advice about how relationships should be conducted, without it being totally clear that the text is normative at those points).

It feels to me as though an understandable concern about uncontrolled allegorising has led in effect to the loss of the spiritual dimension. A more balanced approach has been to see both dimensions, but to treat them rather unevenly: so the dramatic contours of the relationship in the Song are worked through for couples in relationships or marriage, but the divine dimension is seen in rather static terms. I have tried to see how the dramas of the text – the conversational exchanges, the movements towards and away from each other – show us something of our relationship with Christ.

The basis for the ‘spiritual’ reading is set out pretty fully in the chapter ‘Us – how the Song of Songs is about Jesus and me’. I offer six Biblically-based arguments for this reading and a short account of the history of interpretation. It was fascinating to me that a scholar as senior as Wayne Grudem started the book unconvinced of the tack I was taking but was persuaded by the reasoning I provide. I suggest that there are multiple features of the Song and the broader Biblical context which invite, suggest and actually require that the spiritual dimension be brought out.

en: There are some interesting exegetical questions about whether the couple in the book are married or not, and if so, when. What did you make of these issues?

Julian: Yes! And some! By which I mean that there a number of different suggestions, including whether actually the couple is a trio! Some have resisted any sense of linear progress within the text, simply seeing a series of love poems that are not sequential. Others have seen a tight succession of events. Either could be right in principle because poetry obeys its own rules and it not bound to narrative sequence. My view is that the most natural reading of the text is to chart the overall development of a relationship without wanting to insist on tight sequence. I have been helped by writers who have suggested that some sequences (e.g. 3:1-5) may be dreams, and that others (e.g. 3:6-11) may be extended metaphors. So I see them getting married (the use of King Solomon on his wedding day in 3:10 suggests that) with their sexual union first happening between 4:16 and 5:1. I was unconvinced that Solomon is a third character or even the bridegroom, partly because the early detail about the suitor doesn’t fit with a king and because Solomon is seen pretty negatively in 8:11-12 as one for whom relationships are viewed transactionally).

en: How do you think the Song of Songs can help Christians practically today?

Julian: It gives us a positive view of desire, sexuality and marriage, presented in dramatic form. That has to be good. It also gives us a series of pictures to understand how much Christ loves and desires us and how desirable He is – again in little poetic dramas which show us some of the typical contours and movements of our experience of Christ. It points us beyond the idea that even a very good marriage is the fulfilfment of all our desires, and even beyond the this-life experience of Christ as one who loves us, towards the final fulfilment of our desires in the new creation and the marriage feast of the Lamb.

en: Are Christians still quite embarrassed generally to talk frankly about sex, do you think?

Julian: Yes, probably, though there is some variation and, in line with shifts in our culture generally, each new generation is more at ease talking about personal things, including sex, than the previous one. There are advantages to that as well as some pitfalls. One of the things about the Song of Songs is that it is clearly erotically charged at times, but this is conveyed largely through delicately chosen symbolism. The result is that you could call it some of the least explicit erotic poetry around.

Wisdom: what is it?


The greater part of wisdom, I was once told, consists in the ability to hold complementary truths together.

It’s an observation worthy of reflection: that wisdom is not so much a matter simply of becoming increasingly more familiar with truth or even more adept at applying it, but that wisdom concerns a growing ability to hold together those truths that stand in some kind of tension with one another.

By holy and welcome sinners

Take, as an example, the way a church might seek to be a community that holds unambiguously to Biblical morality and also to be welcoming to sinners. God certainly calls his people to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Jesus Himself told His disciples to ‘be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt.5:48). Yet Jesus also gained a reputation as one who ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them’ (Luke 15:2), and told parables about a God who welcomes prodigals (Luke 15:11-32) and extends mercy to dishonest tax collectors (Luke 18:9-14). How well do our churches exemplify both these things simultaneously?

Mountain ridgeline

It’s a little like staying on the ridgeline of a mountain. Something that is both very important to do and all too easy to get wrong – with disastrous results. For on either side of the ridge are steep slopes down which many have previously tumbled. Some fall off the ridgeline by drifting toward the kind of warm, enthusiastic welcome that embraces everyone without question and has, often without realising it, entirely lost sight of both the holiness of God and the consequent moral demands He makes of His people. Others, meanwhile, have fallen off the opposite side of the ridge. These are churches that have established sharp moral boundaries and uncompromising ethical demands, but done so in such a way that strugglers are alienated and grace is obscured. One becomes a community where Scriptural authority is lost and theological revision is the norm. The other a community where legalism takes root and self-righteousness strangles the gospel of grace.

The elusive middle ground?

So is the solution to be found in some kind of moderation? Must we locate the perfectly ‘balanced’ position that avoids the errors of the extremes? Many believe so and set about energetically pursuing that elusive middle ground. Yet not only are such balanced positions notoriously hard to discover, never mind maintain, they are also so often insipid. Not too much of this and not too much of that soon becomes a rather flavourless theological mush!

Much harder – and yet so much more glorious – is the kind of wisdom that finds a way to hold complementary truth together. Which, in this case, means being utterly committed both to the highest standards of moral excellence and to an extravagant welcoming grace. That may be a hard path to walk – but when a church does stay up on that ridgeline, it will get noticed. Because there is something both wonderfully distinctive and gloriously attractive about a community that succeeds in holding together those truths that others end up pulling apart.

In personal ministry this wisdom will bring a growing ability to say hard things in love. It means the kind of counsellor who will neither soft-soap truth in order to keep a pastoral relationship going, but nor will they simply ‘tell it like it is’ and blame a person’s hard heart for refusing to ‘hear what’s good for them’. Jesus’ personal ministry was never like that. He was indeed ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14, emphasis added). Whether speaking to a much-married woman (John 4:1-26), a rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-31) or an overconfident disciple (Matt. 16:15-28), Jesus found a way to communicate the uncompromising nature of God’s demands as well as the unconditional forgiveness of God’s grace. We should – no we must – endeavour to do likewise. Lord, have mercy and grant us wisdom.

Steve Midgley

More about Biblical Counselling UK is available at www.biblicalcounselling.org.uk or you can contact them at info@biblicalcounselling.org.uk or c/o Christ Church, Christchurch Street, Cambridge CB1 1HT

Online ‘Yorkshire pudding bake-along’ draws students


From Kingston-upon-Thames (photo left) to Strathclyde (photo right), students in Christian Unions across the UK have been active welcoming first-year students.

Dinners, picnics, tables at Freshers’ Fairs laden with cake, even an online ‘Yorkshire pudding bake-along’ – all these sought to create an inclusive space for any students’ first contact with Christians.

Leeds University CU sought to reach international students by hosting a campus café. Through this, one student who had never heard about Jesus before proceeded to attend several CU events, even coming to church. At a campfire event on the theme of Belonging, he shared: ‘It’s hard being away from home, but I can honestly say that because of you guys I’ve not felt lonely.’

CU members at Manchester Metropolitan University welcomed one student who had previously rejected Christianity. He shared that he was open to reconsidering his views, reflecting: ‘Meeting the CU today feels like a sign I need to think about God again.’

Oxford Inter-Collegiate CU saw 35 first-year students attend their Freshers’ Getaway and were encouraged when two girls summed up the vision for CU, saying: ‘We’re excited that the CU is so outward-looking!’

On a different scale, Heriot-Watt Galashiels CU in Scotland were encouraged when an influx of four Christian freshers nearly doubled their size.

More stories of student mission at uccf.org.uk/blog.

Kitty Hardyman

Kitty Hardyman, UCCF Relay Worker in Oxford.

Main photograph: Lisa Baker – Unsplash.

Doubt ­tears and Christian hope


SARAH’S LAUGHTER: 
Doubt, Tears and Christian Hope
By Vinoth Ramachandra
Langham Global Library. 137pages. £9.99
ISBN 978 1 783 688 579

This is a book for those whose faith in God is tested by the evil, pain and grief that surrounds us in our embattled world. For those who ‘are angered not only by horrendous acts of human cruelty and deceit, but also by the callous slaughter of animals and the destruction of habitats’ (p.6).

From his opening analysis of the civil war in his beloved nation of Sri Lanka, Ramachandra, in the five chapters of this sobering yet ultimately hopeful book, covers a vast terrain of pain including his own. He mentions the death of his wife, Karin, only once early on in the book, yet this inevitably influences the text and the book is dedicated to her.

Scripture however also permeates the pages, with large quotations throughout especially as one might expect from the many passages of lament, the subject of the first chapter. The author also quotes Wolterstorff, from his Lament for a Son: ‘My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question’ (p.13). Ramachandra bewails the number of ‘lamentless churches’ which don’t permit such pain to be expressed.

The many unanswered questions in the book of Job are the focus of the next chapter. The author’s central point is that Job’s anguish is not so much about the fact of suffering but, rather, the religious attempts to explain it away. Ramachandra sees in God’s speeches that conclude the book – the gratuitousness of divine love, the sovereignty of divine wisdom, the patience of divine justice, and the particularity of divine engagement – as four sources of hope for Job and for us.

The Tears of God chapter explores the suffering of God over and with his people. Classical theism’s doctrine of the impassibility of God receives a challenge here as Ramachandra suggest its origins lie more in the pagan Plato and Aristotle than in Scripture. ‘God is not a passionless chess master moving pieces around a board or unilaterally directing a drama in accordance with a preordained script’ (p.45), and defends this claim with references ranging from Genesis to the prophets, before strengthening the point in his consideration of the life of Christ. He considers the language at the end of Mark’s Gospel indicates a marked change from the activity of Jesus to His passivity at the hands of those who tried and crucified Him. ‘This passivity, no less than our agency while fit and active, is part and parcel of the human condition’ (p.56). He rightly applies this insight to some of the key issues in bioethics, such as how we view the disabled or those suffering dementia and also how Christ’s example in suffering might help us in living through our own experiences of it.

The author’s longstanding emphasis on the care of the natural world shines through in the following chapter exploring natural evil and disasters. Having demonstrated the importance of all aspects of God’s creation, he ends with the reminder that ‘in the Biblical perspective, it is human sin that is the great evil and from which flow all the other kinds of evil and misery’ (p.105).

The final chapter looks towards our future hope as God’s people, but sees this hope as both a struggle and a sign of our vulnerability this side of its heavenly fulfilment. Yet it is also a prophetic way of life pointing others to the Christ who sustains it. He reminds us that ‘The church, that section of humanity which has glimpsed the dawn in Easter Sunday while sharing the agony of Easter Saturday in fellowship with the rest of humanity, seeks to witness to that dawn’.

Dr Trevor Stammers

Dr Trevor Stammers, Member of ChristChurch, Banstead and retired academic.

Should you write your own covenant for 2022?


A lot of Christians smirk about the making of New Year’s resolutions. They are notorious for their fleeting fragility: no sooner has the new year been rung in than they are forgotten in the pell-mell of life.

But it is important to note that New Year’s resolutions may actually stretch back to a spiritual discipline characteristic of 17th-century Puritan and 18th-century evangelical spirituality, namely the making of either a personal or a church covenant.

The personal written covenants from these two eras of church history generally fall into three categories: (1) those made at the time of a person’s conversion or those made later to mark this birth into spiritual life; (2) those made on the occurrence of natural birthdays or at the start of a new year; and (3) those made upon the occurrence of an event of special significance, such as ordination or entry into a new sphere of ministry.

None of those who drew up written covenants in this period were unaware of the two major dangers that covenant-making can involve: (1) legalism – thinking that it is the drawing up of a covenant that saves, whereas it is Christ alone who is our Saviour; and (2) spiritual complacency – viewing this formal transaction as henceforth ensuring that one’s spiritual life was guaranteed to be healthy and flourishing.

A helpful tool

Moreover, our 17th-century Puritan and 18th-century evangelical forebears well knew that there is no Biblical injunction that a Christian must draw up a written covenant. Yet they regarded written covenants as a helpful tool in reminding them what they had undertaken when they took Christ as their Lord and Saviour. These written documents, which were for their eyes only, could be meditated on at a later point in time and be a spur to spiritual renewal. In the words of Gwyn Davies, they were designed to foster ‘a more serious profession, a more watchful life, a more tender conscience towards God’.

If you are interested in actually writing out a personal covenant or resolutions at the start of this new year, the following covenant drawn up by Matthew Henry (1662–1714), the well-known English Presbyterian Bible commentator, around 1700 may be of interest and help as a model. Henry made a number of such personal covenants through his life. This one was specifically for the start of the new year:

‘This new-year’s day I have solemnly renewed the resignation and surrender of my whole self to God, as my God, deliberately, and upon good considerations. I have renounced the world and the flesh as knowing they cannot make me happy; and have devoted my whole self to the blessed Spirit, to be enlightened, and sanctified, and so recommended to the Son, as qualified for an interest in his mediation, according to the tenor of the gospel. I likewise devote myself, through the Spirit, to the Lord Jesus Christ, as my Advocate with the Father, and my way to him; by him to be recommended to the grace and favour of God the Father, relying upon Christ’s righteousness alone; for, without him, I am less than nothing, worse than nothing. I likewise devote myself, through the Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, as my chief good and highest end; as the author of my being, to whom I am obliged in duty; and the felicity of my being, to whom I am obliged in interest. O Lord, truly I am thy servant. I am thy servant; may I ever be free in thy service, and never desire to be free from it. Nail my ear to the doorposts, and let me serve thee forever’.

Michael Haykin

Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.