The divine actor

We are in the last times before Jesus returns again writes Evangelical Christian Alex Monro

Evangelical ("good news") Christianity celebrates a God of speech and action who is involved in the world. Evangelicalism puts God at centre-stage in the drama of human history, which it depicts as a story of unrequited love.

This God spoke to humanity through history in a crescendo of revelation that climaxed in the life, words, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Evangelicals believe God's authorship of the universe is already communicated to us in the order, complexity and beauty of the material world. Moreover, he has made himself known through a people he chose, through prophets he appointed and, finally, through Jesus of Nazareth, "the word made flesh". (The biblical God is Trinitarian, father, son and spirit - from the first book of the Old Testament God often uses the first person plural and Genesis 1 verse 2 refers to the spirit of God "hovering over the waters" - but the perfect unity of the three persons means he can only be counted as one God).

God's authorship of all is the essence of evangelical faith. Hebrews 12:2 described Jesus as "the founder and perfecter of our faith". We believe that life, salvation and hope come from him.

Humanity plays its part in this divine drama too, but as Goneril, the ungrateful daughter who takes all her father gives him before turning her back to him. No prayers, pilgrimages, religious observance, social action or costly acts of generosity can mitigate humanity's guilt before this perfectly just God. This is the low point in the history of God's world, and the hallmarks of it are plain - discord, decay and death.

God is far from finished with mankind, however, and chooses Abraham as the first player in a new plan for the fallen creation - Abraham has righteousness "credited to him" by God because of his faith (and, crucially, before he is circumcised). The books of the Old Testament tell the stories of many such men and women of faith, and Hebrews 11 lists a number of them for us - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and others. The writer of Hebrews says they were approved thanks to their faith in God, not to their works or ethnicity - yet even faith is from God, as Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast"

But all these sinners are only a shadow of the climax of God's earthly play, which comes to life with an unprecedented deus ex machina that flies in the face of human religiosity. God the son becomes man, is born in a disreputable town, lives as a refugee among an occupied people in a far corner of the Roman Empire and is unjustly killed as a common criminal, rejected by his followers and his friends. He is the antithesis of a manmade God - earthly political ambition (such as Zionism) is not a feature of truly evangelical Christianity.

This shameful death is Jesus' crowning glory, as he himself pays the blood price for the sins of those who rejected his rule and his plan. He does it for no good reason, except that his justice and his love demand it as the only solution. The result is that Christ takes on human sinfulness so that humanity can take on Christ's purity, and be restored to God. The biblical accounts describe how, at the moment Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain that had divided sinful man from a perfect God is torn in two. The curtain, it says, is torn from above - humanity has done nothing to earn its salvation. The resurrection is the display of God's final victory over sin and over its Siamese twin, death.

The play has reached its penultimate act. Christ has risen and returned to the father and these are "the last times" before he returns again. It is in these last times that Christians are called to take to heart Jesus' final words to his closest followers. "Go and make disciples of all nations", before God calls human history to an end so that justice can finally be done and followers of his "from every nation, tribe, people and language" be brought into his presence forever.

Alex studied French, then Chinese before pursuing a career in journalism. He now works for Trusted Sources, a political and economic risk consultancy, where he is a China analyst
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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University