Author Archives: Peter Mead

About Peter Mead

Delighted by God and passionate about biblical preaching. Mentor in Cor Deo, Bible teacher with OM, programme director for Pillars Training, preaching trainer with Langham Preaching, regular preacher at Ladyfield Evangelical Church. Married with five children.

The Danger of Preaching Flat

Tired2Sometimes we can’t wait to get the Bible open and preach.  Other times it is a battle to get to the preaching moment.  But one of the most dangerous times is when it just feels flat.

I didn’t preach last Sunday and I am not preaching this Sunday.  So perhaps it is a safe time to write about this danger.  On the dashboard of our ministry life we need to have a light that flashes when we are preaching flat.  What causes it?  What should we do?

Here are some possible causes:

1. Physical Fatigue – driven personalities, parents of young children, stressed church leaders . . . all are in danger of not sleeping enough.

2. Physical Lethargy – bad diet, lack of exercise, high stress levels . . . it is easy to be running on empty, but it is not a good idea.

3. Emotional Drain – perhaps there are issues in the family, or tensions within the church, and be especially wary when you have been on the receiving end of criticism or character assassination . . . a drained emotional tank can lead to preaching flat, or preaching angry – both are dangerous.

4. Relational Strain - if you have a broken relationship with a fellow church leader, a prominent church member, an indiviual in your family, etc., then you may well find your motivation for preaching seeps away.  It is like having a crack in your fuel tank – only addressing the crack will enable you to function properly.  (Remember Romans 12:18 though, you can only do what you can, sometimes people simply refuse to reconcile.)

5. Spiritual Dryness – lack of real communication in prayer, Bible reading has become data-gathering instead of encounter, a lively relationship has drifted into mere disciplines, unconfessed sin has become normal and dulled your spirit, there are many reasons for spiritual dryness.  The problem is that it tends to hide the flashing light on your dashboard.  Your flesh doesn’t want to own a spiritual drift, but your ministry requires that you do.

6. Other – there may always be another reason . . . spiritual attack, medical issue, etc.

So what should you do about it?  Be honest with yourself and recognize when you are preaching flat.  Pray about it honestly.  Ask some trusted friends for anything they sense may be an issue in your life.  And don’t settle for flat as your new normal.  The Gospel, your God and the people in your church need a preacher whose inner fire is being stoked by being with God.  The flat version just won’t do.

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Sowing to the Spirit?

Sowing-Spirit-281x300In Galatians Paul makes multiple references to keeping in step with the Spirit, being led by the Spirit, etc.  What does this mean for your listeners?  What does this mean for you?  This post, hosted on Cor Deo, is a short introduction to a vital, yet neglected, subject.  Please click here to go there.

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Ministry Wilderness Temptations

Tumbleweed2

In ministry we face many temptations.  In this post, hosted on the Cor Deo site, I ponder some of the significant temptations facing younger, middle-aged and older ministers.  Click here to go to the post.

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Christocentric, Christiconic, … part 2

img_privilege_3d_02Yesterday I started a list of five alternative labels to ponder for the preacher.  Rather than the Christiconic model espoused in Abraham Kuruvilla’s, Privilege the Text, why not consider these labels for the goal of our preaching?  Are we representing individual facets of Christlike morality in each pericope that we preach, or is something greater going on?  Yesterday we thought about Christotelic and Christodoxological preaching.  Here are three more labels, this time ones I have never heard used elsewhere (you will understand why!)

3. Christopisteuic (Preaching that aims for faith in Christ) – Faith is the gaze of our heart and soul on the provision of God in Christ.  So let’s preach each passage in such a way that the text is honoured, but the listener is not pointed to themselves, their effort, their application, their duty.  Instead point them to Christ that they might believe in Him.  It is a life captivated by Christ that will manifest a self-giving and therefore genuinely Christlike morality that may shock onlookers.  (People are used to seeing self-focused morality that is profoundly unattractive.)

4. Christ0-agapic (even Christofileic) (Aiming for the love of Christ, or brotherly love of Christ) – I am getting closer to the title I really like.  The greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbour.  If anyone does not love Christ, he is accursed (1Cor.16:22).  Let’s make the love of Christ our saviour, our friend, our groom, our brother . . . let’s make that our goal.

5. Trinitari-koinonic  – I think this is my favourite label describing the goal of preaching.  Fellowship with the Trinity.  What an honour!  So as we preach the revelation of God’s heart in the Scriptures, let’s be sure to recognize how each text is revealing God, pointing to his values, recognizing his provision in both Christ and the Spirit, and delighting in his goal to bring us into the embrace of the Godhead by union with the Son through the Spirit.  It is in union with Christ that we discover true life change, because it is only in union with Christ that we can know life itself.  By our union with Christ we can share in the fellowship of the Trinity and thus see radical life transformation.  Anything less, and looking anywhere else, will always disappoint.

Any other suggestions welcome.  Preaching Christ in His Word is such a privilege, and Kuruvilla is right that we have to think carefully how we do that.

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Christocentric, Christiconic, …?

img_privilege_3d_02Abraham Kuruvilla’s book, Privilege the Text, offers a theological hermeneutic for preaching.  I have surveyed the book here and offered some review here.  Today I would like to nudge our thinking in respect to AK’s suggestion that we replace a Christocentric approach with a Christiconic approach.  That is, rather than trying to see Christ in every text of Scripture, we should see a facet of Christ’s perfect morality in every text, and as we present that theologically derived “divine demand,” the hope is that our listeners will be moved to align themselves with it and thus become progressively sanctified into the image of Christ (hence, “christ-iconic”).

What I took too many words to state last time is that I find this goal entirely too restricted.  The goal of preaching is not my individual, nor even our corporate, conformity to a perfect Christlike morality.  I believe Christian preaching should be looking for a greater transformation than I believe will result from the “Christiconic” model.  Let me suggest some five alternative models, with a few comments.  Please note that the morality desired in the “Christiconic” model is surpassed, rather than dismissed, in these suggestions:

1. Christotelic (Seeing Christ as the goal of Scripture) – Perhaps we should be aiming to preach individual texts in such a way that the goal of all Scripture (Christ) is not superimposed on and forced into a text, but is honoured as the goal of the whole?  I know that this can fall foul of some warnings included in Kuruvilla’s book relating to Christocentric models that don’t privilege and honour the preaching text.  I agree that there is a risk of the specifics in a pericope being “swallowed up in the capacious canvas of [Redemptive-Historical] interpretation.” (p240)  Fair point, but again, John 5 should sound sufficient warning at the danger of interpreting a text with a goal of self-improvement, while missing the person of Christ.  Let me push on to more explicit labels for our ponderings.

2. Christodoxological (Preaching that aims at the worship of Christ) – Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess.  Let’s preach Bible texts in such a way that rather than pointing to ourselves and emphasizing our need to apply them, we are pointing to a Christ so captivating and wonderful that he is worshipped.  And what about if it is not obvious how to preach Christ in the text at hand?  Feel free to preach Theodoxologically, showing how the text reveals God.  (And if you make sure you are preaching the “person” rather than just truthful assertions, then in many ways you are “preaching Christ” even while avoiding forcing the text into a mold it did not sign up to be in.)

Tomorrow I’ll offer three more suggestions for our thoughts.

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Review: Privilege the Text by Abraham Kuruvilla – Part 2

img_privilege_3d_02Yesterday I introduced and overviewed Privilege the Text: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla (herein: AK).   Let me offer two quotes to give a sense of the book:

“Application involves discovering the world projected in front of the text and aligning oneself to that world.  Such an alignment restores the relationship between God and his community.  A pericope, by way of its theology, thus contributes to the corporate mission of covenant renewal.  I submit that what God would have is that his people be captivated by the world projected in front of the text, and that they seek to be its inhabitants, aligning themselves to its precepts, priorities, and practices.  This is God’s gracious divine demand.” (p117)

and

“This is the crux of christiconic interpretation: in that he perfectly fulfilled divine demand, every pericope of Scripture implicitly portrays a facet of the image of Christ, the perfect Man.” (p262)

Strengths

AK’s book is clearly written.  While it is far more likely to appeal as a textbook than as an accessible read for the pastor in his study, it is not difficult to dip into the book and get AK’s point.  He also clearly has a longing for preaching to lead to transformed lives, as well as a passion for an increase in morality – all to be commended.

I think his critique of the weaknesses of Christocentric preaching is well worth reading, and concur wholeheartedly that we should think carefully how we handle individual pericopae in order to honour the inspired texts and pursue what the authors were actually doing with the texts they wrote.  While I might not phrase it this way, I do see the richness of individual texts sometimes getting “swallowed up in the capacious canvas of Redemptive-Historical interpretation.” (p240)

AK’s exegesis of Genesis 22 gives a level of engagement with the text that is fascinating to trace through.  It is a shame there were not more worked examples like this one (although the book would end up being prohibitively long).

Weaknesses

There are real strengths here, but I have to highlight some  concerns with the theological assumptions evident in the book.

View of GodThe persistent recurrence of “divine demand” language presented a God who seems pre-eminently concerned with conformity to behavioural standards.  It was not just AK’s choice of label, but the tone and content throughout that reinforced a very limited view of God.  God is presented as a Father, but with the emphasis on our “filial duty of obedience.”  Twice AK stated that his view of preaching is Trinitarian (pp 267, 273), but after studying the book I remain unconvinced that the richness of intra-trinitarian relationality substantively marks this work.

View of Man (our nature, spiritual problem and solution) - At one point, AK states, “Philo was on the right track: ‘The proper end’ of man’s existence is ‘conformation to the likeness of God.’” (p261)  Philo is known for offering a blend of Jewish exegesis and Stoic philosophy.  Similarly, AK offers a blend of decent exegesis with an unquestioned commitment to a Stoic understanding of humanity.  The approach to a so-called “divine demand” in the text supposes an autonomous self-moved moral impulse in humanity.  Even accepting that the book is focused on believers who are “aided” and “empowered” by the Holy Spirit, the onus of their responsibility rests wholly on their own willingness to self-align to God’s preferred future.  If AK’s vision of preaching were fulfilled, my feeling would be that believers would still be essentially distant from God – aligned to his demands, acting like Him, and living spirit-empowered moral lives, but what about union with Christ, what about being “in Christ,” what about the triune intimacy offered in the Gospel?

For instance, AK submits that “what God would have is that his people be captivated by the world projected in front of the text, and that they seek to be its inhabitants, aligning themselves to its precepts, priorities, and practices.” 

I would submit that “what God would have is that his people be captivated by Christ who reveals the Father’s heart, whose love is poured out into our hearts by the Spirit, so that we are progressively transformed from the inside-out by God’s great New Covenant solution to our fallen sinful state – this sin being manifested not only in sinful behaviour, but also in autonomous obedience and religiosity.  God’s goal is not simply to be served by a holy people, but to be in union with His people who are transformed into the true holiness that is the context of His own fellowship within the Trinity.”

Purpose of Old Testament - On page 253, AK quotes and then responds to Dennis Johnson’s assertion that, “the purpose of Old Testament historical narrative is not to teach moral lessons, but to trace the work of God, the Savior of his people, whose redeeming presence among them reaches its climactic expression in Christ’s incarnation.”  

AK’s response is as follows: “If the purpose of the OT is only informational and historical, “to trace the work of God,” is there nothing in it that tells us what God wants of us, how God would have us live, what it means to be Christlike in specific facets of life.”

I feel it is slightly harsh to reduce Johnson’s position to being “only informational and historical” and therefore without any element of moral instruction.  I want to suggest that Bible texts are not merely informational and historical, nor are they primarily moral instruction, rather they are revelatory: divine revelation.  The texts of the Bible reveal God to us, and in that revelation we discover the fullness of life (including, throughout, revelation of God’s values that shape our values and transform our lives into conformity with His holiness).  However, we lose the heart of Christianity when holiness, loosed from a rich and delightful intra-trinitarian fellowship, becomes the primary emphasis.  There are plenty of religions offering demanding gods and moral obligations.  Only Christianity has a profoundly relational holiness defined by the delightful perfection of divine fellowship.

A Strange OmissionI am perplexed at AK’s omission of John 5 in his evaluation of key Christocentric preaching  texts – was Jesus not critiquing the seminarians of his day who looked for instruction, but missed the person being revealed?  That seems like a passage that needs to be engaged in this discussion at some point.

ConclusionI can commend aspects of AK’s book, but the foundational theological assumptions raise many concerns.  I find the implicit portrayal of God  to be very restricted.  I find the presentation of how humans function to be absolutely committed to an “autonomous self-willed” anthropology that resonates with Aristotelian and Stoic commitments, but seems to lack awareness of the full impact of Genesis 3.

Sometimes it is hard to read a book and evaluate the underlying theological assumptions of the author.  Sometimes it is easy to get drawn into the world as defined by the author and therefore find yourself going along with every proposal.  In this case the theological assumptions were clear, and it was at this foundational level that I found myself struggling with the sometimes very helpful content.

Who is God and what is He like?  What is man and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?  What is sin and the extent of the sin problem?  And what is grace, the solution to the sin problem?  These foundational questions should always be stirring us as we engage a book.

Next time I post, I want to offer some alternatives to a Christiconic approach to preaching.

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Review: Privilege the Text by Abraham Kuruvilla – Part 1

img_privilege_3d_02Privilege the Text: A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla

This book was Preaching Magazine’s Book of the Year for 2013 and has some significant endorsers.  Its four chapters span 336 pages, with essentially one (maybe two) “worked example” of Kuruvilla’s proposed approach to handling Old Testament narrative.  Let me begin with an overview of the chapters today, before highlighting some strengths and weaknesses tomorrow.

Chapter 1 introduces the field of hermeneutics.  Abraham Kuruvilla (herein AK) points the reader beyond simply pursuing the meaning of a text, to recognizing that with a “classic” text, there will be a timeless quality wherein the author “does” something with the text.  Specifically, and this will always be true of the Bible, the author is projecting a “world before the text” – a moral ideal that people in vastly different cultures and epochs can still access as the text is preached effectively, leading to life transformation.  AK finishes the chapter with six rules of reading, the last of which is the rule of centrality, which focuses interpretation of texts on the person of Christ.

Chapter 2 focuses on what AK labels “pericopal theology” – that is, pursuing the theology of each pericope, or preaching unit of text.  AK suggests that most contemporary expository preaching actually neglects the preaching text in favour of offering a broad systematic or biblical theological presentation of truth.  (He is clear that both systematic and biblical theologies are important as guardrails for interpretation.)  Instead, he is advocating that we Privilege the Text by pursuing the “pericopal theology” of each text, applying that to listeners so that they can align their lives with the “precepts, priorities, and practices of God’s ideal world,” what AK refers to as the “divine demand” present in every pericope.

Chapter 3 pursues the issue of “divine demand” and the place of obedience.  AK begins by showing that Dispensational, Reformed, Lutheran and New Perspective on Paul theologians all restrict the applicability of Old Testament Law today, but he is advocating that all law is applicable always – by means of the theological sense of each text.  AK states that OT Laws “are not criteria for salvation, but are guidelines for sanctification.” (P153)  God’s gracious provision through the Son and enabling operation of the Spirit mean that this is not merit-seeking legalism, but rather the “obedience of faith” that is the Christian responsibility in our pursuit of being holy like God.  Relationship precedes, but does not preclude, responsibility.

Chapter 4 picks up the question that becomes obvious by the end of chapter 3 –With repeated emphasis on the believer’s filial responsibility to obey (divine demand), how can the “rule of centrality” be brought to bear – i.e. how do we preach Christ?  AK begins with an extended exegesis of Genesis 22.  His intent is to show that the Bible as a whole projects “an image of Christ, with each pericope portraying a facet of this image: what it means to be Christlike.” (p212)  Abraham’s faithful obedience augmented God’s previous promise and became incorporated into it. For AK, this exegesis demonstrates that Christ does not need to be superimposed onto the text based on later revelation, but instead a facet of Christ’s character is seen in the text.  AK looks at the Redemptive-Historical or Christocentric approach to preaching, evaluating and critiquing the arguments put forward, as well as surveying the biblical passages used to support the approach (bizarrely, he does not survey John 5 here).  The alternative?  Christiconic Preaching.  This is where facets of the image of Christ are presented through the theological sense of any pericope, thereby giving listeners the opportunity to align themselves with God’s divine demand that we be holy as He is holy, that is, that we be increasingly conformed to the image of Christ.

Tomorrow I will offer a review by way of some reflections on this book.

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Post-Preaching Stress Disorder

Depressed2Now and then you might preach a sermon and finish on a personal emotional high that lasts for days.  Typically you won’t.  William Willimon wrote that,  “On any Sunday you can give it your all and still know that the Word deserves more.” Typically you may find yourself feeling vulnerable, weak, drained, self-critical and/or regretful.  Post-preaching stress disorder: known by most preachers, not understood by most others.

People in your congregation probably don’t understand PPSD.  They are quite happy to chat with you after you have preached.  They might want to talk about other things (that can be tough – it feels like they ignored you completely).  They might want to talk about your message (that can be tough – you may feel too vulnerable at this stage).  They might want to discuss some detail in your message (that can be tough – your purpose and big idea related to major life change, but their discussion might revolve around some incidental element, or even be a misunderstanding of what you said).

It is not the fault of people in your congregation.  After all, there are probably many jobs and tasks that have emotional fall-out that you do not grasp.  Starting an education program in this area might just seem a little self-serving and self-promotional (look what I go through every week!).  So what to do?  Here are a few quick suggestions for those who struggle with PPSD:

1. Create a small team who do understand.  Your spouse would be a wise place to start.  After all, church requires up to an hour of complex interactions.  Then you go home.  It may not subside for another 36 hours!  Also, bring it into the conversation with your preaching team.  This could be other people who preach, or people who help discuss, plan, pray or feedback on the preaching ministry in the church.  None of us should try to do a preaching ministry alone . . . you need a team and they need to understand PPSD.

2. Let PPSD push you up against God in post-preaching conversation.  The danger is that we go it alone and end up crashing in some way.  Some will struggle with discouragement or depression.  Some will struggle with self-absorption and time-wasting.  Some will struggle with temptation and specific sins.  Some will struggle with a combination of these and more.  Some will struggle sometimes.  Some will struggle every time.  We are not designed to go it alone!  Let the PPSD push you up against God so that you take time to prayerfully reflect after preaching.  Maybe a Sunday afternoon walk.  Maybe a Monday morning prayer and reflection time.  You cannot leave God out until Tuesday and then start the process again.

3. Make notes during PPSD and review later.  It is not the time for massive ministry decisions, or self-critique, etc.  Know that your thinking is cloudy at this point, so make some notes and then look at them later in the week.  Learn, but keep it in context.  Ideally talk it through with others who will be honest with you.  It may be that your perspective is all skewed.  Or it may be bang on.  Either way, you will learn more in the context of a team.

 

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Review – Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vols 1&2

KeenerActsCraig Keener’s Acts: An Exegetical Commentary is a vast and incomplete piece of scholarship.  It is vast because in print form it is over 2100 pages.  It is incomplete because these two volumes only cover up to Acts 14:28.  For the purpose of this review, I am looking at the digital version on my Logos software.  I have not read every page, of course, so this is not a full scholarly review.

Keener is meticulous.  Anyone who has used his previous commentaries on Matthew, John and Revelation will know that.  This can be highly beneficial, or at times, frustrating.  Almost two-thirds of the complete first volume is introductory material covering such issues as genre (zeroing in on Acts as a work of ancient historiography), historical interpretation of Acts, Acts and Paul, the speeches, the author, audience, Luke’s perspective on women and gender, etc.

Once you get into the commentary proper, you start to see the fruit of his socio-historical approach.  The format and layout is relatively straightforward (i.e. no complicated internal structures that require skipping around to find what you need, but at the same time not much in the way of helpful textual layouts as some of the more modern commentaries are offering – such as Schnabel’s on Acts, for instance).  As well as relatively straightforward, it is also long.  Keener appears to have a meticulous tendency that leads to a massive project like this one.  Every detail is engaged and discussed.  Other scholarship is engaged and discussed.  At times it feels like everything is engaged and discussed.

This is where my having the works on Logos makes a difference to me.  Rather than flipping page after page and scanning tons of text, I can find what I want to access very quickly on Logos.  For instance, I can right click on the commentary and then select “search this resource.”  Then I can search in just this commentary with something as simple as “Stephen’s speech” and immediately have access to the 71 occasions Keener refers specifically to Stephen’s speech.

Equally, with a work of this magnitude, I find it helpful to have the table of contents showing on the screen.  Thus I can expand and contract sections to locate the specific section I want to see.  I can also get a sense of how long the section is before I just start reading (very useful in such a long piece of work).

I suggest that if you are preaching through a Bible book, then you should have access to a couple of the better commentaries on that book.  With Acts, I am putting Keener’s work into my top two or three resources to check (alongside Bock and Bruce, which are excellent and shorter!)

If you want to find out more, click here to go to the Logos page for this resource.

(Full disclosure: I am grateful to Logos Bible Software for providing the resource for this review.)

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Amazing Grace

amazing-grace-292x300A few weeks ago I had a very encouraging conversation with a thrilled believer. She had read a book about God’s grace and it was a delight to see her so stirred by what she saw there. She described how amazing it is that even though she was so guilty, the judge has paid the full price of all her sins – every last one of them.

This young lady was obviously in the afterglow of her encounter with a clear presentation of God’s grace and the wonder of forgiveness. I could have celebrated with her and probably lived off her excitement for a few days myself, but I was slightly concerned.

After the amazing miracle of forgiveness, what comes next? Some would say that the new believer needs to be instructed in the code of conduct that comes with their new status – after all, privilege brings responsibility. Others would say that the new believer needs to get used to living in light of their new status. Which way is correct? One? Both? Neither?

The amazing grace of the sacrificially benevolent judge has a profound and life changing impact. But how deep does that impact actually go?

What if the afterglow of the great gift of grace fades? Then the new believer will surely drift back into increasing sin, only now with assurance of sins forgiven. This kind of ‘free ticket’ would be a dangerous situation. A gospel of grace that is purely focused on a change in status is dangerously incomplete.

Consequently, does the new believer need training in a new code of conduct to bolster the status of being forgiven and also to protect them from themselves? I don’t think we have to jump there so quickly.

As I enjoyed her excitement about the judge’s remarkable grace I shared another dimension of the gospel story. I said, “You know, it is even more amazing than that,” she looked at me quizzically, “the judge forgave you, and he also proposed to you.” Her eyes widened. She hadn’t thought about it that way.

We discussed the ongoing wonder of being the bride of Christ, the ongoing impact of having your heart enlivened to the delight of knowing and loving him, the ongoing intimacy of being united to him by the indwelling Spirit, and so on. The gospel gives us lots to ponder!

Let me put this in different words to make the same point. If the New Covenant is merely a status change, then it is not enough. The newly forgiven individual will need some kind of external control mechanism and freedom restriction because their natural inclination to sin will soon break through and take charge.

But if the New Covenant is not only about the legal record, but also about the love relationship, then maybe we have a different situation. What if the New Covenant included provision for transformation of the heart, an inside to out supernatural change? What if the New Covenant included provision for the restored presence of the Spirit forging an intimate marital union between the believer and Christ? If this were included then perhaps the newly forgiven individual should be set free to live life to the full in the responsive joy of their new relationship with Christ.

That is an exciting prospect, but surely there would still be an inclination to sin alongside that new inclination to please God? Indeed the flesh versus Spirit tension is a reality we all experience. That is why our understanding of sanctification is so important.

It is easy to see sanctification as our follow-up work, our responsibility in light of the blessing of salvation. But this shifts the new believer’s gaze right back onto themselves. The message easily becomes ‘trust Christ for salvation and then look to yourself as you strive for your sanctification.’ Paul was no fan of this idea, no matter how well it was couched in biblical language.

Walking in step with the Spirit is about living in the reality of the New Covenant – not only learning to live in light of our new legal status, but also growing in our new relationship. The ongoing mechanism for growth is not self-determination, but response to the Son as the Spirit reveals him to us and stirs our hearts to love.

However we phrase it, the bottom line is this: our understanding of sanctification needs to be as God-centred and Trinitarian as our understanding of salvation.

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