May 2019 – Pastoral Letter – Cookery Book Theology

It was love at first sight. This was the woman of his dreams. He could not take his eyes from her. This was surely the woman to marry.After many sleepless nights he summoned the courage to approach her with his proposal. He met her at the prearranged coffee shop, bearing a carefully and beautifully-wrapped gift. With a smile that lit her face, she took the gift and carefully tore the wrapping, her smile broadening as she revealed a renowned cookery book. She enjoyed cooking, and for her this was the perfect gift.

Our Romeo then explained to her that the book he had just gifted to her was full of rules and instructions on how to be an excellent cook and how to produce excellent meals. He further declared to her that he was very keen for her to be his wife; and so he explained to her that if she kept the rules and instructions in the book and presented him with excellent meals day after day for, say, 40 years then he would give serious consideration to accepting her as his wife. If not, she could go home to her mother.

This is ridiculous, of course, and if she used the cookery book to bash him over the head then he would be getting his ‘just desserts!’

A question: why is his proposal so ridiculous? Because it is insulting to her. It suggests that he is going to wait for years to see how she performs in the kitchen, before accepting her. We would never dream of treating someone like that. It is not how relationships are formed. Yet this is exactly the attitude so many people take towards God. They try to pile up their merits in the hope of one day gaining acceptance. This is nonsense and not how relationships work.

Christianity is a rescue religion. It is about God coming down to us in Jesus, living the perfect life and then taking the consequences of our rejection of God by enduring death as the sinbearer. We are then called to accept that forgiveness and freely enter into a new life and friendship with God, whoever we are and whatever we have done.

‘We must repent of our righteousness’


So said the preacher in church on the Sunday we spent in Cambridge earlier this year. It was a phrase that stuck with me, since the idea of repenting of our righteousness may run counter to our usual thinking.

Let me reinforce the challenge with another quote, this time from another preacher and writer, Timothy Keller:

‘What keeps people from salvation is not so much their sins as their good works.’

The point both preachers have in mind is that if we come to God with all the good things we have done, our good works, convinced of how good we are, and how much we deserve His favour, then we have a very serious problem. Importantly, we must realise that it is a very common problem. Indeed, it is one we all must diligently guard against. It reflects a ‘cookery book theology’ adopted by our Romeo in the story. It is a serious problem because if we come before God confident of our own righteousness, then we cannot accept the righteousness He gives us by grace in Christ.

Let me explore this a little more. Repentance is about turning away from a life lived without God, and beginning a new life FOR God. Repentance is not, however, merely a single action or event in our lives, but is an entire way of life. The life of repentance is one whereby we constantly turn away from that instinct to rebel against God, which often breaks out in the many sins of commission and omission of which we are guilty. In this context we typically think of the bad things we have done: the proud word spoken to put someone down, the selfish act, the lazy refusal to help, the lustful look, and so on. Most of us have a sense of when we have crossed a line, or missed a standard. We perhaps associate these things most with repentance.

We see a very clear example of this in the parable Jesus told which involved the prodigal son, who, after he had shunned his father and made a disaster of life, returned penitently: Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Luke 15:18
Perhaps many of you identify closely with the prodigal in this regard.

The tragedy is that we very quickly and easily begin to become like the older brother in the parable.

We lose sight of the grace of God and begin to smuggle some idea of personal merit into our relationship with God. We are back at the cookery book! Our attitude becomes more like the elder brother who, seeing the welcome given his younger sibling protests:

Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends,  Luke 15:29

As a result, our joy becomes tepid and our enthusiasm wanes, and even our witness becomes dry and formal. We move from being like the younger prodigal son, astonished at the father’s welcome, transformed by the grace of that welcome, to becoming like the older brother, preoccupied by what we think we deserve and what we have done.

That is why it is so important to ‘repent of our righteousness’. Put another way: cast aside cookery book theology.

Your minister