Additional Note: What is the Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?


The text for this Sunday (5th November) is Matthew 12.22-50. In time you should be able to pick up the audio recording of the sermon at on the sermons page.

The sermon focuses on verses 38-50, skipping over the section that includes these verses:

And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. (Matthew 12:31 NIV)

These are serious words and it is vital that we understand them rightly. What is Jesus speaking about and what is he saying here?

Jesus is speaking with people who deny that Jesus is the Son of David, come from God, but instead claim he has come from the devil, also called Beelzebub. He calls this blasphemy and it is against the Spirit because His work is to bring people to see who Jesus truly is – the Messiah.

At this point no-one believes that Jesus is the Messiah: the disciples’ first confession of this comes in Chapter 16, and the Pharisees are all opposed to Jesus. Everyone at this point speaks against the Son, Jesus.

Some later repent of that unbelief, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter would deny Jesus, yet he was forgiven and restored. Paul, himself a Pharisee, had persecuted Jesus’ followers, yet when he repented he too was forgiven.

Those who spoke against the Son were forgiven because they turned to the Son for forgiveness:

But other persisted in their unbelief. They continued to reject Jesus, and to deny that he was the Messiah. They refused to believe the testimony of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Messiah and that forgiveness is found only in him. Those who speak against the Spirit will not be forgiven because they rejected the only person who can forgive them.

I think it is Ben Cooper who uses the picture of pushing away the ladder of the fire fighter who has come to take you from a burning house. If you turn away the means of rescue, you cannot be saved. In a similar way, those who turn away Jesus the saviour cannot be saved.

What should you do if you think you are guilty of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Take it to Jesus and he will forgive it. It’s a promise.




What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to speak better?

Speaking is important to a minister because it’s a ministry of the word, and in reformed circles, preaching is a significant activity. Any course that helps me to speak and preach better must be good! So what worked?

Three areas of attention have helped me develop further (biblical languages, exegesis and biblical theology are assumed here)

1. Christ-centred preaching. With the quality of training and models I have been blessed to receive, I should be a much better preacher than I am. Covenant Seminary introduced me to Bryan Chapell’s Christ Centered Preaching. I recommend it for the FCF – Fallen Condition Focus – a way to find the gospel connection to any talk and theme.

2. Pastoral Application is enhanced by knowing people better. And asking good questions opens that door.

3. Clarity flows from logical exposition. Which I learned as I grew in the ability to write.



What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to listen better?

Questions lie at the heart of ministry. It is notable how many times Jesus asks questions in his encounters, and how the replies reveal the other person’s thoughts and attitudes.

The model for the dissertation in this course is qualitative research, which is opposed to quantitative research. The latter aims to be objective, either through measurement, or through exhaustive study of the field. As a scientist by training, I have been deeply schooled in this way of thinking. In qualitative research the key data are the subjects experiences. How subjective is that! It is subjective, and does not give an exhaustive view of a field, but it can allow insight into how those subjects perceive a whole system. I now see more and more value in this approach because I understand that not everyone else is like me. How they see the world affects how they will act, even if it’s not how I see the world and how I would act.

Both types of research depend on questions. Qualitative research needs to ask sufficiently open questions for the subject to speak in their own terms, and reveal their own points of view. Not only is this genuinely interesting for research interviews, it’s essential for pastoral ministry to find out what people really think, and why.

Learning to listen by asking better questions was a surprising take-away from the course. The set-text for qualitative research is by Merriam. I have another book to read soon which may prove useful on asking questions: Vella Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach.




What did I mean when I said that through a recent course of study I had learned to write?

I meant I can write better than before. As with reading, I was already capable of stringing words together to form a sentence. What changed can be summarised as the ability to create longer paragraphs and shorter sentences.

Paragraphs are the building blocks of an argument, and a single paragraph should contain a single idea. No-one ever taught me that, to the evident consternation of the scholar who supervised my first dissertation! For anything under 3,000 words one can usually get away with loose paragraphs, but for anything longer the discipline of building a water-tight argument is essential. Returning to writing longer papers and eventually a dissertation forced me to improve my paragraphs. Curiously I think the real benefit will be seen in my preaching if I can develop thoughts with greater clarity. The two recommended texts are William Zinser On Writing Well and Booth, Colomb and Williams The Craft of Research.

Sentences are the building blocks of paragraphs and they too should have a single thought each. My challenge is that word order has been a mystery for too long. As a scientist by training I am used to decoding formulae – the clue is to begin at the heart of the brackets and work outwards. That is why scientists read slowly and thoroughly (see my post on reading) I also learned foreign languages in which word order is dictated by grammar. For example in German, the verb is either in second position or at the end, and adverbial phrases are ordered by time, manner and place. So the idea that word order could be set by style as well as logic and grammar has been a gradual discovery. The set book, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, did not really help me here. (My other gripe with this book is that successive editions have still not learned that Bridgwater in Somerset does not have a central ‘e’). Strunk and White have an arch-rival, Stanley Fish, whose How to Write a Sentence: And how to read one was a revelation. His point that a sentence consists of words in a logical order helped the penny to drop.

Much remains mysterious about style. But I recommend reading and writing to improve reading and writing.

Abraham Tested – Genesis 22


Sunday’s sermon on Genesis 22 was not recorded because of an equipment malfunction. Here is the text of my sermon (or the script I was preaching from, to be more accurate).

God Tests Abraham (v1-2)

We have walked with Abraham for the past few weeks. We saw that he is a man with faith: Gd told him to get up and go to a new country, and he did; God promised Abraham a blessing, and he gave it; and God promised Abraham and Sarah a son – Isaac – and he was born (eventually). Abraham had faith.

Abraham also had flaws, so that his faith stumbled. He did the whole ‘sister act’ thing of pretending that his wife Sarah was in fact his sister, because he was afraid – for which read that he did not trust God to keep him alive.

Through all this, Abraham’s faith has been maturing, and this is the test that proves the maturity of his faith. We’re told straight away it’s a test:

  Some time later God tested Abraham.  (Genesis 22:1)

This is really important: it tells us that, whatever happens, God does not intend for Isaac to die. Abraham doesn’t know that – but the writer reassures us at the outset.

God tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Others test for destruction. It’s like the difference between the burglar and the householder testing the door. The burglar tests your doors and windows to see if they will fail, so that he can come in and destroy. The householder tests the windows and doors to confirm that they are indeed secure.

God’s test is for Abraham’s good: it is to prove the maturity of Abraham’s faith.

But the test is difficult – as I said, one of the most difficult verses to read in the whole Bible:

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”  (Genesis 22:2)

God knows this is a painful thing he’s asking: that Abraham sacrifice the son he loves. We’re told repeatedly he is the son Abraham loves. Abraham is not made of wood: he loves his son dearly, and this is a huge ask. It asks questions of God’s character (we’ll come back to that in a moment).

Genesis does not hide the anguish: did you notice as we read the passage how the pace slows deliberately to ramp up the dramatic tension: there are preparations, there is a journey, there are questions. It takes an agonising eight verses to get to the point where he is about the slay his son. There’s no hiding the pain.

God’s request is painful for Abraham; and puzzling for us too, because we’ve endured nine long chapters even to get to the birth of Isaac. And Isaac is central to the fulfilment of God’s promises Why give a son and then take him away? It’s a painful and a puzzling command. What do we make of it?

This command puts into question God’s goodness.

I don’t know about you, but it seems frighteningly close to the scenes you see in films. In the Bourne films, Jason Bourne is being inducted as a secret agent, but he must pass his final test. In front of him is a man, bound and sat on a chair. Bourne must take a pistol and shoot the man in cold blood. That is his test. From this point he either moves on with the programme, or he is exited.

There are many variations on this: how is that different from what God asks of Abraham? Here are the ways it is different

God tests for success, not to trap.

When Jason Bourne kills the man, he is trapped. If he wants to exit the programme, he will face a murder charge. This is not a test but a trap, from which there is no way back. God’s test is different: he tests Abraham to prove his maturity. Remember the burglar wants to destroy, the householder wants to prove security. God tests only to confirm that Abraham is trusting him.

God never commands or commends human sacrifice.

God never commands human sacrifice in the Bible. In fact he explicitly forbids it. The only place where a father sacrificing his son is dealt with at all positively is here, and in the case of God the Father with Jesus Christ. God never commands human sacrifice. Whereas the CIA in Jason Bourne or the Mafia in the mobster stories are in the business of killing people. Unlike them, God is good.

God keeps some mystery for himself.

We will see that God tests Abraham, that Abraham trusts God, and that God provides. But this side of eternity, there will be some unanswered questions. But they aren’t about God’s goodness. They are are about God’s methods. We don’t really know, for example, why God chose to test Abraham in this way.

  • It may be that Isaac had become an idol: that Abraham loves God only because he gave him a son? We too may grow idols – God’s good blessings that we prize above God himself. And God may refine our faith by shaking or even taking from us what we hold dear because we’re holding it more dear than God himself. But there are no clues that this is what is happening here. It does not appear to be discipline. It is testing.
  • Isaac is Abraham’s only son as far as the Covenant is concerned. He has another son, Ishmael, who will be blessed: but the covenant promises will go forward through Isaac:

But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy [Ishmael] and your maidservant [Hagar]. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.  (Genesis 21:12)

To give up Isaac also means giving up on the whole means of God fulfilling his purpose.

So it seems to me that the test is not a discipline for holding Isaac more precious than God: it is a test to show up the kind of faith that trusts God to do what he has promised, in his way. That is what God wants to reveal in Abraham. (Remember God tests to confirm what is there not to destroy).

=> That kind of test – even if it is not always as extreme – is part of the disciple’s life. Here are some possible scenarios

A case in point is the Parish Centre. It is central to our work as a church, reaching and serving this area. If it came to it, would you trust God to go forward without a Parish Centre, or would you walk away from God if he asked it of you? As it happens, God is answering our prayers very generously, but the question remains: would you still trust God if he let the Parish Centre fail?

Or on a broader canvas, we face significant challenges to staying both faithful to the Bible and remaining within the Church of England. Our position in the church and in the village are central to the work of reaching and serving the area. But if it came to a choice between the Bible and the Church of England, would we trust God to be good in what his Word teaches, or would we walk away from the Bible to keep the church at all costs?

On a smaller and more personal note: you have a gospel opportunity, maybe a friendship, or a colleague at work with whom you get on well. But if you are to take the next step in sharing your faith, there is a risk. If they reject you, then the friendship on which you depend for evangelism, is spoiled. Will you trust God enough to do what he says in his word even if it puts that relationship in jeopardy, or will you draw back from anything that might put it in question?

The fact is that we grow when our faith is tested. God tests us for our good. The present crunch point we’re facing in the parish centre has been a test of our faith more than a test of our pockets. It’s been good to reach the end of our resources, because that is when we really begin to lean on God’s resources. I hope that this opens a new chapter of greater and more prayerful dependence on the Lord in everything we attempt as a church.

So is God good? Yes. And why does he test? To reveal and confirm faith.

Crises that test faith and obedience to the uttermost are still part of the disciple’s lot (Duguid, 118)

Abraham Trusts God (v3-12)

Abraham’s faith is hinted at in a number of ways.

First (v3) he gets up early the next morning to start preparations. He does not dilly-dally! But neither is it a rash thing (such as you need in order to jump into a cold sea): the journey takes an agonising three days (v4). Then notice how even as he climbs the mountain he trusts God.

Second, he says to the servants:

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5)

He is confident that – somehow – God would bring Isaac back.

Then when Isaac asks that question, “where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”  (Genesis 22:7) Abraham replies:

“God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  (Genesis 22:8)

There is lots that Abraham doesn’t know: but he still trusts God. It’s like Job who suffered much and puzzled and questioned, yet could say of God:

Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; (Job 13:15)

Somehow Abraham trusted God that death would not be the end. Hebrews makes this comment on Abraham and Isaac:

Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.  (Hebrews 11:19)

Faith is trusting God when you can’t see the way forward – but you believe that God can. That is saving faith – a faith that trusts God through even death. James point to Abraham as an example of saving faith:

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  (James 2:21–22)

His faith was ‘made complete’ in the sense that it was confirmed as mature.

The Loneliness of Faith

Faith is that it is something that in the end you and I need to do alone before God. Did you notice how Abraham becomes more and more alone: first he leaves his home, then he leaves his two servants behind, and then Isaac is silent, and only Abraham remains, with his son on the wood and the knife poised.

Abraham’s lonely journey up the mountain symbolises the lonely psychological journey of faith to the place of obedience and sacrifice (Waltke)

He is alone before God.

Faith and obedience are – in the end – decisions that you and I make alone before God. Think of your personal faith in Christ: your parents, or your spouse, or even your children, may have a Christian faith: but the decision to trust Christ with your life and your destiny is yours alone.

Think then of any other crisis you face, be it a test of one kind or another: your church, your family, your Christian friends can stand with you: but the decision to trust or not trust; the decision to give up or retain, is yours and yours alone – before God, of course.

God brings you to the point of crisis and decision because he wants you to trust him. Again if I may use the Parish Centre as an example, I do believe he has brought us to this point where we exhaust our own resources so we must trust him.

One of my favourite jokes and I have told a few times. Two ministers are discussing how best to pray. One thinks this, the other thinks that produces the best faith. The BT repair guy working in the background interrupts. ‘You’re both wrong. The best prayers I ever prayed were when I was hanging upside down from a telegraph pole’.

God tested Abraham so that he would trust God. God tests you and me for the same end: that you and I may trust him. And no-one else can do it for us.

The Lord Provides (v13-24)

Wonderfully, the Lord provides. It’s so dramatic – as Abraham is poised with a knife, the angel of Lord calls from heaven to stop:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”  (Genesis 22:12)

Abraham’s fear is not the abject fear of Jason Bourne or the prospective mobster, trapped into going forwards. This is a faith that recognises God’s goodness and his mystery: ‘Even though he slay me, yet will I hope in him’.

The story is told of Martin Luther reading this chapter with his family at family devotions, and his wife said, “I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that’. The Luther turned to her and said, “But Katie … he did.” (Davis, 141)

This is what I think Jesus had in mind in John when he said:

Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)

Abraham caught a glimpse of how Jesus saves when he saw the ram that God provided as a substitute. Which helps us return to that opening question of whether God is good.

If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  (Romans 8:31–32)

In Abraham’s case, the ‘good things’ were a clear restatement of God’s promise:

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”  (Genesis 22:15–18)

The expression, ‘I will surely bless you’ is an intensive: the previous promise of blessing pales in comparison. When God tests Abraham it is not to trap him, but to lead him into greater blessing.

At the Lord’s Table we recall that Jesus died for sins, in our place. That is God’s way. The Christian faith is not about what you and I DO (that’s what I call religion). The Gospel is about what Jesus has DONE, primarily on the cross, as our substitute. That is how God works, and what we remember in Communion.

Those blessings and that salvation are appropriated by personal trust – that lonely walk or personal decision – to lean on his death alone and entirely. That, incidentally, is why Communion is rightly linked to the public profession of a personal saving faith in Jesus — whether in Confirmation, or Adult Baptism, or something similar. It’s an important stage – a test even – to confirm that yes indeed, you are trusting in Christ alone.

God Tested Abraham (and he will test us for our good too).

Abraham trusted God (and shows us how we trust Christ)

God provides a substitute. And the so the promise goes on.

The Promise goes on

We get a clue in the final verses about how the story will go forward. The question in our minds is, ‘OK so God will give Abraham countless descendants: so far Abraham has one descendant, Isaac. Where are the rest going to come from?

Well here’s the family tree for the extended family: it mentions mothers, and men, and just one daughter – a girl called Rebekah. Maybe we should be looking out for her?

What are British Values?


As I went into school to lead Collective Worship, the head teacher quizzed me: ‘what are British Values?’ It’s a church school but still required under new DfE guidelines to promote British Values. What are they and what do I think as a Christian?

The first point to make is that the name British values is wrong, because it implies that these are unique to Britain and cannot be exported. For example

  • Singing Rule Britannia at the last Night of the Proms
  • Apologising when someone else stands on your foot or takes your seat on a train
  • Cheering when any one of France, New Zealand, Australia or South Africa are defeated at Rugby Union

Much better to speak of ‘Values that Britain Holds Dear’ and which France, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and many others may also hold dear. These values will overlap with the best of the western Democratic Tradition, but do not embrace everything it brings.

A second point is to acknowledge that these values have been strongly influenced by Christianity, yet they are not identical to Christian Values. There is considerable overlap between Values that Britain Holds Dear and Values Christians Hold Dear in public life but they are not identical. We notice the overlap if and when we encounter other cultures whose wellspring is not Christian: by our lights they may be selfish, corrupt, passive. The culture is animated by different values because it was born of a different worldview.

Here then are my Values that Britain Holds (or Should Hold) Dear. Unsurprisingly they overlap with but do not coincide with the Government’s.

1. Public Servants are Accountable. It may be odd to put this one first but it is about Public Service and often forget how radical this vision of Public service is, and how deeply indebted to Christian teaching. In Mark 10.33-45, two of Jesus’ disciples ask for special treatment when he comes into power. He replies by teaching that according to the values of the Kingdom of God, whoever would be great must be the servant of all. There is an echo of this in the motto of the Royal Academy Sandhurst at which all the British Army’s Officers are trained: ‘Serve to Lead’. Public Servants are just what their name implies: servants of the public, and are therefore accountable. we believe this deeply, and take it for granted until we see an abuse.
An implication of this Value, which others consider a Value in itself, is the separation of the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of government, so that they hold one another to account.

2. There are no non-persons That is, every human being is a person. In classical civilisation, slaves were non-persons, called ‘living tools’ by one philosopher, and treated as chattels. In pernicious regimes, opponents are proscribed or classed as non-persons and stripped of their rights, their identity, their property and their freedom. The Nazis called Jews ‘non people’ with horrifying consequences. A Value We Hold Dear is that there are no non-persons and that all have rights. The state may, after careful judicial process, remove some rights such as freedom and (in our case) voting: but this is a judicial and not a political decision.
This Value has a clear biblical root: we are made in the image of God. A friend of mine works in a different culture and trains midwives. the first lesson she teaches is that both men and women are made in the image of God and therefore women also deserve medical treatment: obvious for us but radical in that other culture. We are deeply and rightly indebted to Biblical teaching for this value.
A positive implication is the value of Democracy, with its corollary of shared responsibility. In Christian democratic thought, politics is how we love our neighbour.
Another implication of this Value is that we care even for the rights of criminals. Hence the extraordinary spectacle of a British legal system defending an unpleasantly critical foreign terror suspect against extradition: it’s because we don’t want to lose hold of on Value while we’re fighting to defend another.

3. Church and State are (almost) separate. Britain is not a Theocracy because Church and State are separate. Almost. Again, this model has biblical roots. In the Israelite monarchy, the Word of God came through the prophets but they themselves did not rule: they spoke to the Kings who ruled in God’s stead. The King and the prophet were, in their different fields, serving God. In the New Testament Paul writes that “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.” (Romans 13:4). Thus the British Monarch and those in authority under her are the servants of God to do good to society; and the Church are the servants of God to bear direct witness to his ways and to his word.
Church and State are only almost separate because the Church in England is Established. The arrangement is neither Theocratic (which it would be if the Church ruled the State) nor Erastian (where the State rules the Church). I would say that this relationship allows the Church to speak biblical wisdom to those in authority, not least to remind them that we are all accountable to God who made us; it also preserves freedom of religion for other religions and denominations.

4. You are free both to Choose and to Change your religion.
This value follows on but is important because it distinguishes our approach to multiple cultures from others’. Christianity is a personal and voluntary religion: children may be brought up in the faith and be ‘culturally’ Christian: but profession as a Christian, through Baptism or Confirmation, is with one’s own ‘heart and mouth’. It is this choice which opens the door to a freedom of religion view which allows citizens to hold their own faith, and to change it. The latter is crucial because in other countries one may have the freedom to follow the religion into which one was born, say Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, but not to change it. In those cultures faith is a corporate and cultural identity which the individual is not free to change. That is not the Way that Britain Holds Dear.

5. There is only a limited right to conscientious objection.
The positive value is that everyone is expected to obey the rule of Law. Values 1 and 2 tells us that this reaches from the highest rank in society to the lowest. Christian teaching here is also decisive: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:1–2) The presumption in Christian teaching is that believers should obey the law, unless the law enjoins what God has forbidden or forbids what God has enjoins. Christians from NT times onwards have suffered judicial penalties for placing allegiance to God above even their duty to the human rulers.
In the current context the Government’s British Values includes the Rule of Law, and I am not writing to oppose that. I am pointing out that in the Christian tradition, as in other religious traditions, obedience to the law is a religious duty only until it conflicts with religious law; but because of the separation of Church and state, the religious law rarely has an explicit Civic expression. This is a problem for theocratic religions such as Islam in which religious law might be seen to trump a great deal of Britain’s civil national law. School teachers are rightly expected to teach respect for the Law of the Land; religious leaders may need to prepare their people for the consequences of placing religious observance above national law.
There is a limited right to conscientious objection which respects that different religious traditions will have different rules: however the Law sets the boundaries on what is and is not allowed within this discretion. For example most dietary rules are allowed, but the right to kill religious opponents is not (see Value 2). The likely tricky issue for Christians is same-sex marriage (SSM) which the more conservative Christian traditions hold is incompatible with biblical faith.

The Government’s list of British Values includes:

– Democracy

– living under the rule of law protects individual citizens and is essential for their wellbeing and safety

– separation of power between the executive and judiciary and they can be held to account

– the freedom to choose and hold other faiths is protected by law

– not to be prejudiced or discriminate against people of other faiths

– the importance of identifying and combatting discrimination

Lost in Translation – 1


Last summer I was in the US and on Sunday evening attended a fine Presbyterian church. It is set in an affluent area, the buildings are immaculate, and everything was done to a

high standard. Unsurprisingly, the congregation were mostly what we Brits would call upper middle class – healthy, wealthy, scrubbed up and well dressed. And they were very, very friendly. My companions and I were intercepted several times on the way in and on the way out.


It turns out that Francis Schaeffer pastored this church some time before he moved to l’Abri. (Schaeffer was a foundational thinker whose written works brought life to many reformed Christians). As we stood in the sanctuary chatting to a patrician couple (she had been a lifelong member), he said, “I bet Dr Schaeffer was not wearing his knickers when he preached here!’. I said nothing.*


*Because I’m British. In American English, knickers are walking breeches. In British English they are an item of ladies underwear best not mentioned in church, especially to refined ladies old enough to be my mother. Unfortunately I will remember that remark every time I think of that church. And possibly of Dr Schaeffer.