Thursday, December 24, 2009

Will the Real "Father Christmas" Please Stand Up?

On this Christmas Eve (er, Christ-tide Eve; I'll have none of this "mass" popery ruining my holiday! :-)), I thought you might wish to read about the real "Father Christmases" of the past. Neither the real Saint Nicholas of Asia Minor, nor the recent Santa Claus, Father Christmas was a figure who urged people to be thankful to God for all his gifts and blessings--predominantly that of his favor in Christ--and to give to others in charity, goodwill, and neighborly love. And I thought Christmas was all about getting huge gifts!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas!

My stupendous wife Olivia noticed two days ago that Tuesday's sunset time was 4:56 P.M., one minute later than on Monday. Sure enough, we had hit the winter solstice. This is something I think is so cool about Christmas: Regardless of when Jesus was actually born, I think it's fitting that his coming is celebrated in conjunction with the winter solstice. After all, Jesus is the Light of the world (John 8:12). Even before his birth, prophecies told of him as a sunrise or "dayspring" (KJV) bringing the dawn of God's redemption and light from heaven down to mankind.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79, NRSV)

As the news of Jesus spreads, the darkness is being beaten back; it never could understand or overcome this mysterious little babe born in Bethlehem's shadows (John 1:5; 1 John 2:8). As the days grow longer toward the full summer sun, so one day too will Jesus be the radiance and glory of the world (Revelation 21:22-24).

This Christmas, I hope that even a little flickering candle of God's love, which has come alongside us in Jesus, will grow to give you hope, joy, and peace. Amen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

When the Son Gets in Our Eyes

Carolyn Arends has written a clever but truthful article for Christianity Today about how we can't really see God aright until we see Jesus. It's worth the few minutes it takes to read.

"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Advent Resolutions

Chapters 24 and 25 of the Gospel of Matthew teach us about the second advent of our Lord Jesus Christ and how to prepare for it. As such, throughout the ages these chapters have found themselves as frequent texts for Advent homilies. One parable Jesus employed was that of ten virgins who waited through the night for the bridegroom to come and to leave for the wedding feast (25:1-13). Five were adequately prepared for his coming, with plenty of oil for their lamps. The others, however, were not so wise, and did not bring enough oil. Consequently, when the wedding party arrived, they had to leave to buy more oil and were left to wait behind in the dark. The end result was that the foolish women were shut out from the feast. Jesus' concluding admonition is that we must, like the wise young women, "keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour [of my arrival]."

As I've been studying the Gospel of John, I'm reminded that Christmas isn't exactly always good news. For many, the arrival of the Word-made-flesh revealed their hearts as hateful toward God and his light (see, e.g., John 3:17-21). In fact, Jesus told the whole city of Jerusalem that their doom had been sealed precisely because God had visited them, but they had not recognized him nor received him (Luke 19:44). Elsewhere in the Psalms (2, 72, 110) and Prophets (Isaiah 9) we are reminded that when the Messiah comes, he will destroy all that is opposed to him and life under God's holy reign.

Jesus may, like the bridegroom of his parable, be "a long time in coming," but we need to be prepared for him. So in this vein I wish to repost something I had read and posted about a few years back--our need for "advent resolutions," if you will, rather than New Year's resolutions. (This was written by Michael Jacob, a Roman Catholic theologian.)

. . . what Christians do (or should be doing!) during Advent and leading up to Christmas is a foreshadowing of what they will do during the days of their lives that lead up to the Second Coming; what non-Christians refuse to do during Advent, and put off until after Christmas, is precisely a foreshadowing of what they will experience at the Second Coming.

We Christians are to prepare for the Coming of Christ before He actually comes -- and that Coming is symbolized and recalled at Christmas. Non-Christians miss this season of preparation, and then scramble for six days after the 25th to make their resolutions. By then, however, it's too late -- Christmas has come and gone. Our Lord has already made His visitation to the earth, and he has found them unprepared. This is precisely what will take place at the Second Coming, when those who have put off for their entire lives the necessary preparations will suddenly be scrambling to put their affairs in order. Unfortunately, by then it will have been too late, and there will be no time for repentance. The Second Coming will be less forgiving than the Incarnation. There will be no four-week warning period before the Second Coming, like we get during Advent. There will be no six-day period of grace after the Second Coming during which to make resolutions and self-examination, like the secular world does from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1.

What might such "Advent resolutions" look like? Here are a few Scriptures to mull over.

1) Find ways to actively serve others in love, especially fellow Christians. (Matthew 24:13; 25:31-46; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13; Hebrews 10:24; 1 Peter 1:13, 22).

2) Pray that Christ would be your All, your sole joy and hope, rather than any vacation, year-end bonus, or Christmas gift. (1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19; Hebrews 9:28; 1 Peter 1:3-21)

3) Ask God to reveal unrighteousness in your life and show you ways to repent and to walk in obedience to his will. (Titus 2:11-14; 2 Peter 3:11-13; 1 John 2:28-29)

4) Give generously of your time, money, and abilities, living out your hope that investing in an eternal future is more important than your Roth IRA. (After all, the kingdom of God will never need a federal bailout.) (Matthew 25:14-30; 1 Timothy 6:17-19)

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Veni veni Emanuel!

Christmas is supposed to be a time of peace, tranquility, and joy. And judging by the number of ads on the TV, radio, and newspaper, Christmas--ahem, the Holidays--are already here. But Advent is a time of having to wait in darkness for peace and light to come. In Advent, as the days get shorter and the night lengthens toward the solstice, we are still waiting for our consolation (Luke 2:25) and looking forward to our redemption (2:38). "O come, O come, Emmanuel" is our song; "Joy to the world! The Lord is come!" yet awaits the future. Of course, in our place in history the Christ has come, bringing God's nascent kingdom with him. But the fullness of his peace- and righteousness-dealing awaits a day yet to arrive.

This week I have acutely felt this tension. My wife has been quite ill and had lost her voice; the housing search has proven largely unfruitful and still up in the air; the reality of tough, long, lackluster days at school wears on me; and if we don't move in the next week we may be unable to go back up north to our respective family homes for Christmas. It's not that life feels totally out of control, but there are enough nagging challenges, disappointments, and loose ends to feel rattled and insecure. I feel like I'm growing older and more aware of others' lives. Weird.

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee
. (C. Wesley)

On Saturday night as Olivia and I sat in our darkened living room with no lights on, save for a lone candle and the Christmas tree, I pondered all these things. In the midst of the weight, I strangely felt little worry or panic. I wondered instead--even felt sure of--all the ways we would see God's gracious deliverance, goodness, and faithfulness through it all, his bereket. The refrain of God's Word is "Do not fear, only believe" (Mark 5:36). As my pastor reminded us this weekend, life is never out of control; it's simply out of our control. I know that in the end God always comes through--in his own time and on his own agenda and terms, revealing himself to us along the way, so that we might thank and praise him (Psalm 30:11-12). "Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning" (30:5).

So right now, Lord Jesus, we long for you to come and bring your Throne and the Regeneration. It's hard to know we may have to wait how many years?--fifty? sixty? seventy? Yet even now may this hope of your sovereign power and love be our strength and give us peace as we wait for you.

The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD is enthroned as King forever.
The LORD gives strength to his people;
the LORD blesses his people with peace.
(Psalm 29:10-11)

Veni veni Emanuel!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Gospel Is the Power of God for Sanctification

As Olivia and I have been deciding upon which church congregation to call our family and home here in Richmond, we've been met with a bit of a strange phenomenon as we've worshiped in the Presbyterian churches here (West End, Stony Point, and City Church): Every week's sermon dwells largely on a message of the complete sufficiency of Jesus' death and resurrection to atone for our sins and bring us new life, and the freedom of forgiveness and sonship we find in him. In like fashion we are also called to leave behind our vain idols and our self-made attempts at righteousness to embrace alone this Savior. It's not that in other churches the gospel was merely something that "got you saved," and then you got busy doing other stuff for God. The other churches were really good at helping wandering sheep learn what a sanctified life looks like and how to practically live a life transformed by the Holy Spirit.

At any rate, this apparent dichotomy--or, perhaps more accurately, this change in emphasis--has caused Olivia and me some consternation over how someone really grows as a disciple who learns from Christ and submits his whole life to the Lord's reign. But whatever steps and teaching might be necessary to guide us in putting off the old Adam and putting on the new, and knowledgeably walking in fear-of-the-Lord, the wind in our sails to move us down the path of discipleship is clear. "The gospel," says the apostle Paul, "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). Paul doesn't say this Good News is just the power of God for justification; it's the power for all of salvation--our freedom from God's wrath over sin (justification), our freedom from shame and for sonship (adoption), and our freedom from the reign of sin in our lives so that we become more truly human and alive to God (sanctification).

I mention this because Confessing Evangelical, a British Lutheran blogger, has put up a wonderful post about love for Christ, not the law's demands, being the power to change us. He quotes from a well-worn book among Lutheran pastors, Bo Giertz's The Hammer of God. Please take the time to read it; it's excellent.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Words of Thanks / The World Needs Mentors

With that said (see my previous post), I want to extend a word of heartfelt gratitude to those men who have graciously come alongside me at points in my Christian walk and have shown me, through the examples of their lives, through prayer, through God's Word, through counsel, and through excisive, challenging questions what it looks like to be a man who is also a disciple of Jesus Christ.* So if by chance you're reading this, know that I'm thinking of you with great fondness, thanks, love, and appreciation:

Greg King
Bryan Kulczycki
Lee Cogan
Tom Stark
Steve Van Sloten
Stephen Herwaldt
Men's small group at URC: Scott Lawton, Matt Herwaldt, Jon Ehrlich
Bros on STINT, especially Dan Tietz and Lucas King
Tom Wangler
John Spina
Phil Stowers
Brad Schreiner

Many of these are men older than me who in some way took me under their wing for a time and showed me the ropes of the Christian life. I really think that what young men need throughout their youth, their adolescent years, and into adulthood is the courageous care of older men. We need men who are willing to give their time, counsel, and prayers. We need men who will listen. We need men who will be mentors who bring us alongside them and share their lives. We need men who are bold enough to challenge us in the errors of our ways, yet who are able to do so with tenderness and compassion. We need men who, like Paul, can say, "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Likewise the world needs women who will mentor the younger generations, who will "train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God" (Titus 2:4-5).

Thank you to all the men and women who care enough.
*This is not exhaustive, and if you feel left out, please forgive me!


I remember hearing someone lament a while back that in present-day America, we no longer have any sort of rite by which a boy is declared a man (or, similarly perhaps, by which a girl becomes a woman). Perhaps this lack of affirmation or guidance has led many youth to find "manhood" in sexual exploits or gangs. In others it might be manifested in the continuation of adolescence well into one's twenties: still living at home, watching sports and movies all the time, playing video games, failure to hold a steady job; or wanting your whole life to look like some rapper's exploits on MTV.

A few themes have stuck out to me about what real maturity or adulthood is made of. These are things I've mostly learned myself as I've grown to my nearly twenty-eight years of age. Others I've learned from spending forty hours per week with teenagers who think they're mature and wise but are often far from it. So what makes an adult?

1. The willingness to do whatever is necessary right now, whether you like it or not. Getting up at 5:30 A.M. is not fun. Neither is cleaning the house or foregoing a television show for the sake of being prepared for the next day at school. It also might be inconvenient to have to drop everything and make an important phone call to the bank. But perhaps the biggest thing I've learned about being an adult is that when something's important and needs to get done, you just do it. No one is going to be watching your back, urging you, "Did you pay that bill today?" and no one is going to be there to clean up your messes. This is where the responsibility rubber meets the road.

2. The ability to think and plan long-range instead of seeking immediate gratification. It's common to view teenagers as reckless kids who think they cannot die; and perhaps that's true. But what is pretty evident to me is that many teens have little or no long-range vision for what they wish to do in life and how their decisions today will influence their futures. How many people would honestly pursue casual sexual relationships outside of marriage if they thought about what life would be like with an STD or with a child? How many kids goof off in school only to find that they can't get into college and can't get a job with a salary or benefits? How many would spend hundreds of dollars per month on clothing, food, or hairstyles instead of paying off debts, saving it, or investing it? We live seventy, eighty, or ninety years, and having to struggle for decades because of what seemed like a good idea for a moment is no wise way.

3. Finding internal pleasure and pride from long-term, patient achievement in the face of obstacles. In a culture that encourages immediacy in nearly all things (microwave ovens, high-speed Internet, "in-depth news coverage" that is little more than a headline with a few sound bites) it's nearly impossible for some people to imagine doing something that takes a long time. Television shows have shortened our attention span so that family problems are neatly resolved within the space of 23 minutes of programming. Everything is quick, and it had better be enjoyable right now (#2). This comes back to bite me every day in class when I hear students complain "This reading/writing/whatever is too much work!" or the teacher's worst nightmare, "When am I ever going to need to know this? I'm not going to be a scientist!" I love the challenge of learning. It sucks to feel like a failure or less than perfect in the middle of things--be it writing a paper for a class I'm taking, working out an issue with my wife, training for an 8k race, or figuring out how to improve my teaching--but knowing that I've accomplished something challenging provides a source of satisfaction. Many of my students give up when an assignment poses difficulties for them, or they put forth little effort so that it won't reflect poorly on their self-image when they fail. But not only are they missing out on a chance for pride and joy; they're also failing to develop the persistence and patient endurance that are necessary for the obstacles in life that will inevitably come: relational strains, arguments, poor working conditions or unemployment, financial duress, etc.

4. Acknowledging that you are not the center of the world, and that your well-being really demands that you seek the welfare and interests of others. Jean Piaget and other cognitive psychologists have long noted that greater awareness of other people and elements in the world is a factor that develops as one ages. This is only natural. But there's another type of awareness that demands accountability, respect, compassion, and love. Some people remain totally self-seeking, fixed on their own interests alone and indifferent or even callous toward others; others reach out but remain myopic in their worldview. Neither allows real maturity. The sooner we recognize that we really do depend on and benefit from others for life and happiness--others whom our words and actions can seriously grieve and injure--the sooner we can move on toward a healthy and whole life. I think this is why marriage and children really sober a person and knock him out of any delusion of independence. I've already become keenly aware of how little others factored into my decision making until I began dating Olivia. Now that we're married, that has been amped up several degrees. Everything I do and say affects her; we're "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). I cannot even imagine what this will be like if and when we are blessed with children.

St. Paul said that when he became a man, he left behind his childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11). What else do you think makes for an adult? What are other "childish ways" to grow out of?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Capital Punishment

In just a few minutes, John Allen Muhammad, one of the two "D.C. Snipers" from the 2002 Virginia-Maryland killing spree, will be put to death by lethal injection. His ten-victim murder rampage was the hot topic at lunch today. One of the killing was just fifteen minutes north of Richmond, in Ashland, Virginia; and the killings ran up and down the I-95 corridor. My coworkers recalled how everyone was gripped with fear, refusing even to go out to get gasoline.

It's an eerie, unsettling thing for me to think about actually taking someone's life and what is involved in the whole process. Of course I have to wonder, Is taking Muhammad's life really the best way to make up for his crime? God perplexes me. Would not the One who creates life and upholds it value rather that the criminal live his life in a way that gives life back to those whom he hurt? This is, after all, the ethic of Zaccheus' repentance, and that of Paul as well (Luke 19:8; Ephesians 4:28). But what can a man give in return for ten lives--ten sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers?

Even today I think about what a life really is. This weekend two boys, one of whom was a student at my high school, died from injuries sustained in a house fire. Ashton Black and Aaron Brown were people with names, with histories, with stories. They were people looking for love and who loved others as well. Their loss leaves a real hole. Yesterday I saw it reduce some of the most hard-nosed kids to tears.

Nonetheless, the Lord of Life has apparently decreed that when a life is lost at another's hands, the only fitting recourse is the death of the murderer. When God blessed Noah and his kin and reissued the "creation mandate" after the Flood (in which God himself wiped out men's lives as a consequence for their wickedness), God told Noah this:

"And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man." (Genesis 9:5-6)

God made mankind in his image, and anyone who willfully kills another commits a hate crime against God himself--a crime worthy of death. This was no civil law that was to be embodied for a passing time in the Torah. This was God's establishment of the creation order, of the rules by which man would live in this new post-Fall, post-Flood world. Some say that with this fiat, God established the State--official government--as one of his governing graces in his "left-hand" kingdom. And that seems to hold in the era of the Gospel as well. In Romans 13 Paul says that Christians must submit to all governing authorities, for they have been appointed by God.
"Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:2-4, emphases mine)

So when governing authorities, be they the Commonwealth of Virginia or, more likely, the State of Texas put a convicted killer to death, they're doing exactly what God has appointed them to do. But that's not to say that God condones zealous vigilantism. I can only imagine that the right spirit is a purposeful, tempered, somber and sorrowful one when a government must put a man to death.

Why is this God's choice? I don't know. Something about this makes God difficult for me. If he would at least wipe out all murderers and evildoers this way cart blanche, then perhaps I would then feel a bit more at rest knowing that all murderers and terrors are being snuffed out. But this life isn't that way. The tension of the psalmists' cries is the very tension of our own lives: "O God, why are you waiting so long to set things right? Your people are harrassed and put to death while the wicked get off Scott-free!" But he doesn't. And I know that he desires to uphold, preserve, and promote life in all its wholeness and fullness. I guess that's a tension I can only rest with for now until its secrets will be revealed in Glory.

Then again, maybe God has instituted capital punishment, a life for a life, precisely because he does value life. One life is being put down so that many others will be spared. As not only citizens of heaven but also citizens of the earth, removing a murderer really is a necessary act of love for our neighbors and fellowmen. (I believe this was the logic of the murder attempt on Adolf Hitler linked to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church.) And we all ought to be glad that's the way God works. As Caiaphas prophesied on that fateful day in A.D. 30, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50). Only on the day that criminal was put to death, it wasn't for sins he had committed, nor was it to save him from killing others. When Jesus was sentenced to death and nailed to a tree, he was dying for our sins; it was to save us from killing ourselves in this life and then to save us from being killed by God after that. And because "in our place condemned he stood," we are now free men. Thank God for capital punishment.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gratitude vs. Payback

Halfmom asked me, in response to my post "What Grace is NOT," how I would explain the difference between gratitude to God and paying him back for his grace in our lives. There seems to be a lot of confusion over this, because some people's responses seemed to indicate that I was disavowing that the Christian life is one of reciprocal fellowship or obedience. Of course I am not saying this. What I am saying is that God does not seek "payback" for saving us.

Suppose you're ten years old, and your parents just bought you a shiny, brand new bicycle. You're absolutely in love with this bike; it's super cool, you know, black with some sweet flame decals. Of course you don't have $179 to pay them back. But they never expected that anyway. They also wouldn't say to you, "Hey, kid, we got you that bike you wanted. Now you'd better get busy taking out the trash and cleaning your room for us!" That's ludicrous. (Of course, such a child will often see that his parents love and value him and consequently wish to do his chores more wholeheartedly and willingly than before.)

What, then, do loving parents desire? They want their child to put that bicycle to use and enjoy this awesome gift. The way the child can thank his parents and show appreciation for that bicycle is none other than by riding it and enjoying it to the max. I assume the biggest letdown for parents is when, just two weeks after Christmas or a birthday, their children are tired of their new toys and want to move on to something else. In the same way, God wants us to keep returning to the fountain of his grace (1 John 1:9). He wants us to see and believe the freeness with which we're loved and to enjoy the relief of our total forgiveness. "How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?" asks the psalmist in Psalm 116:3. The answer: "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD." The way to honor God's grace is to depend upon it more and more in our life. And that means repenting of all our own efforts to do things our own way and to receive from him more and more. It's a prideless thing.

Of course, with that gift of the bicycle comes the parent's responsible guidance for how to use the bicycle: Don't ride it in the street, don't ride after dark, stay within ten blocks of home, etc. But even staying in those rules is their wise way of letting us enjoy it more freely and safely. (Think: We can actually enjoy bicycling more if we know we can ride flat-out without being in danger of cars or trucks.) In our own "wisdom" we may doubt or twist those rules. We think we know better, and our curiosity and independence prompts us to push the boundaries to see what would happen if we did, in fact, ride in the street. Would it be a rush, a thrill? So even though we possess a new kind of law, the "law of the Spirit" which actually corresponds to our life of freedom and blessing and enjoyment, we can twist it into sinful responses.

This is hardly an antinomian life. The Heidelberg Catechism, with its guilt-grace-gratitude framework, introduces the Ten Commandments as the way to exemplify a life thankful for God's gracious salvation. And that's how it works, too, in the New Testament; the apostolic imperatives are always founded upon who the believer is on account of what God has already done in making him a new creation. (Yes, the law is for lawbreakers, to silence them and fell their pride, but the law also functions in a new way for those who are redeemed and forgiven in Christ.) But as we trust our Father's goodness, his statutes for our life bring his blessings to us, and we are drawn deeper into our relationship with him. We thus feel more sure of his mercy and more free to come to him in need. Free grace does not undo the law, but rather brings out its real purpose in our lives: drawing men to God, who give glory to their Maker and Savior by honoring, trusting in, and delighting in him.

I hope this clears up what a life of gratitude looks like, one in which reciprocal love is in view but "payback" is not.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spirit of the Reformation

Happy Reformation Day!

As always for me, today is sort of a special day. It's not just that as a child I loved Halloween and all its spookiness. I was raised in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, and October 31 commemorates the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, thereby sparking what would become the Protestant Reformation.

Among the concerns of Luther and other reformers was the issue of justification, that is, on what basis we are set right with God and declared innocent of our sins. Taking St. Paul's testimony in Ephesians 2:8-9 to heart, the reformers' answer was this:

Sola gratia (by grace alone)
Sola fide (through faith alone)
Solus Christus (on the basis of Christ alone)
Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone)

Nearly five centuries later, the debate over justification still continues--only this time within the Protestant churches themselves. Are we justified though faith alone apart from works, or are we justified on account of the works produced by our faith? The latter has always been Rome's position, not Augsburg's or Geneva's. But even that is beginning to change. I think the debate itself is somewhat beneficial for the church, because it always forces us to go back to the God-breathed Scriptures as our ultimate authority for faith and practice, and not any church traditions, confessions, or creeds (sola scriptura). It is times of heresy, heterodoxy, or division which often enable the church to become more pure, more convicted, and more unified in her doctrine as she is forced to reckon with the whole of Scripture and not simple proof-texting. These times also are a proving ground for how well church leaders and laity of differing traditions and convictions can continue to love one another and promote brotherly unity while seeking fidelity to their Head alone, Jesus Christ.

In the end, when the dust settles and heads clear, I think that we'll have a fuller picture of God's covenantal relationships with mankind in history, his saving work in Jesus Christ, the nature of the church, the role of the sacraments, and the relationship between justification and sanctification in our union with Christ. And while the divisiveness is bitter for now, we must pray that God will be glorified by the truth and that the church will be strengthened and unified from it. Just as Jan Hus and Martin Luther and others never sought to split the church, but rather to correct her according to God's Word (while nevertheless standing firm in their convictions even in the face of death), so too must we do so today. That is the true spirit of the Reformation.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Grace Is NOT

Last night as I was waiting for our Bible Study Fellowship meeting to begin, I thumbed through the hymnal sitting on the chair next to me. I landed upon a hymn titled, "I Gave My Life for Thee."

I gave My life for thee, My precious blood I shed,
That thou might ransomed be, and raised up from the dead
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?

So it goes for three more verses.

Honestly, I don't think this hymn does Jesus much honor. God's grace--any grace for that matter--is not a quid pro quo, tit-for-tat transaction. Salvation is not an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" affair. Now it's one thing to say that we ought to live grateful lives in thanks to Christ for his salvation. It's also true that by being transplanted into his kingdom we are called to live as strangers here, citizens of heaven longing for our future dwelling with God. But this hymn has a distinct air of needing to give something back to Christ for his humbling kenosis and death on our behalf.

Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh; after all, even some of the best hymns goof this up: "Oh, to grace how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be!" ("Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing"). When God graciously and freely wipes away our sins, we're not debtors. We're free. Yes, the Bible speaks of our proper response as that of a volitional bondservant, but that doesn't mean an indentured servant. Indentured servants work for a fixed time to pay off a debt owed to their benefactor. But we can never pay back God for the inexhaustible riches of his love. Anyone who thinks he can do so has no idea of this "love that surpasses all understanding" (Ephesians 3:14-21). Such a person doesn't understand this love because he doesn't understand how tremendous was its cost. We're disconnected from the sufferings of God in the cross.*

We can't grasp grace, partly because we don't love this freely in our own lives nor experience it much, and partly because we don't understand (or accept) that God's deliverance was completely unconditional. No one in this created, contingent world makes choices as blatantly free as God. But the fact remains that "when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). God's grace is too radical to be anything other than free. We never put him in our debt to begin with, and we don't live a life in debt, either. God's grace in our lives is free because he simply loves us and chose to do so.

*This was, in part, the problem faced by the Judaizers and the Galatians influenced by them. Despite clearly having had the crucified Christ portrayed to them, they still thought that their salvation, begun by grace, now had to result in some sort of Jewified lifestyle (Galatians 3:1-3).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Christ Decides Our Doubt

Today during Communion we sung an old song by William Cowper called "Decide This Doubt for Me." (Cowper -- pronounced "cooper" -- had a life racked with depression.) The lyrics are about a man who feels lukewarm toward God, wishing to feel great emotion--whether contrition over his sin or joy over God's grace and abiding love--but feels nothing. So he feels confused, perplexed, in pain.

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

I hear but seem to hear in vain;
Insensible as steel,
Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, 'tis only pain
To find I cannot feel,
To find I cannot feel.

. . .

Oh, make this heart rejoice or ache;
Decide this doubt for me.
Decide this doubt for me.
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it if it be,
Oh, heal it if it be.

This week I have been studying the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (Gospel of John, chapter 4). Jesus speaks of the living water he gives, a spring of water that overflows to satisfy our deepest needs and desires. I've read this story so many times it has become cliche. Of course Jesus provides this water, I thought to myself. But I began to feel disturbed inside over this yesterday morning. I knew so little of what Jesus was saying, as if I had never drunk these waters for myself, even though I know I have. But that's the problem--what does it mean for me to taste of his waters today, to drink the "good wine" he makes out of earthly water?

There I sat in my seat with a little plastic cup of wine in my hand and the Cowper hymn entering my ears from the atmosphere. Right as I put the cup to my lips and took in the wine, I heard the prayer: "Decide this doubt for me." And I knew right then that Jesus had indeed done so. Whether or not I had had any recent experience of or thirst for Christ's "living water" didn't matter. I could discount any emotions or feelings, or lack thereof, because in that cup I knew Christ had died for me. As surely as I drank that wine, so surely was my Savior with me, and the blood of his death was present and active for me to give me life by God's sure promise. But I don't mean this in any objective, I-memorized-the-Heidelberg-Catechism-Lord's-Day-28* sort of way. I knew it in my soul. I can't explain it or really put my finger on it, but I felt a deep peace in that moment: a peace that came from resting in the reality and surety of Christ's efficacious, atoning death and the presence of Christ with me and for me at that moment. In the words of the old rites, Communion truly remains a mysterious participation in Christ's blood and a fellowship with our Savior himself (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). I guess I had tasted his "good wine" after all!
*You can read it here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growing Pains

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.a]"

4"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:1-8)

For years I thought Nicodemus simply mistook Jesus for speaking of a literal rebirth. Sure enough, Jesus did say cryptic things like, "You need to eat my flesh and drink my blood." (See John 6:51-56.) How could he not expect people to misunderstand him? But Nicodemus was no idiot; of course he knew no one could climb back in the womb. Jesus knew this too.* Was Nico asking something different? Was he instead acknowledging the great difficulty of a grown man changing his ways? Perhaps this is implied when he asks not, "How can a person be born a second time?" but rather, "How can a [grown] man be born when he is old?"

This made me think: If we're reborn by the Spirit into the new creation** and the kingdom of God, then that means we must, like little babes, relearn how to live. As babies acquire knowledge which shapes their worldview, values, and loves, so too must all who trust in Christ. As Switchfoot sang, there's "a new way to be human" which every Christian must learn. And that's tough, because it means we never really knew how to live in the first place. Being "born of water" means cleansing out the old self, washing away its dirt, even burial in a death-dealing flood. The entire you, at your very core, needs to be killed and reborn. And being born into a life of the Spirit, not of the flesh, means learning wisdom and life and worship according to God's terms, not our own natural ways to which we've grown accustomed. Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit brought about a "new world order" which we must learn to live by.

When I began to get serious about my relationship with Olivia, especially now that we're married, I realized how much of my old ways had to go. I had no idea what measure of independence I lived in until I had to start giving it up to consider her needs as well! Sometimes I don't want to change. Learning new ways is hard. It betrays our comfort and confidence, humbles us when we think we are wise, and crosses the grain of our natural selfishness. Maybe that's why Jesus said we had to receive the kingdom like little children, not like grown adults. And maybe that's why so few, as Nicodemus confessed, give serious attention to following Jesus. I think a lot of professing Christians are like a number of my students. They give little to no effort to their schoolwork because at least that way (in their self-defending logic) when they receive a poor grade, it's because they didn't try, not because they tried and were found wanting. Following Jesus does that to us: it exposes us as failing sinners in need of rescue and grace. (See John 3:19-21.)

But we are not left hopeless. This new birth is "from above" according to God's free will and grace (John 3:8). For those of us willing to admit our need, God's grace toward us in Christ exceeds our sinfulness, and there is mercy to cover every mar (Romans 5:20-21; 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus took the final exam for us and passed with an A+++++. Neither are we left alone. In our baptismal calling to repent and learn a new life we are given Christ's own Spirit, who himself cleanses out our old life and fits us for life in God's kingdom. We have dwelling within us the very power which raised our Lord from the dead, animating and renewing us as well. For us who believe, the power of the old self has already been broken, and we're no longer in slavery to sin (Romans 6:1-14). Will we submit to Christ the Lord and allow that power to work within us to teach us how to live, to teach us true wisdom, and to make us not just washed up, nice people, but entirely new people?


*We see here that this rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a human impossibility. He meant no less. It had to be a work of God. No human conceives himself in the womb, develops himself, or initiates his birth by his own actions and decisions.

**Notice that Jesus water-and-Spirit talk, while predominantly a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27, echoes the creation account in which "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . . . And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:1, 2). Jesus is speaking of a new creation that God's Spirit brings about and in which believers participate.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Big Answer to Prayer

"They will tell of the power of your awesome works,
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They will celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness."
(Psalm 145:6-7)

In this spirit I want to make public a big answer to prayer for which my wife Olivia and I are really thankful.

Since moving to Richmond Olivia had not been able to find a full-time teaching job. She has begun working part-time at a local Christian preschool--a job which she enjoys a lot. But that wasn't elementary school teaching, what she really wants to do. Two months of job searching yielded no real fruit. But then a week ago she had interviewed for and was offered two jobs: (1) The first was a special education aide job for thirty hours per week all year long in Henrico County. The hourly pay wasn't stupendous, and Olivia wouldn't really be teaching per se, but it would be a consistent paycheck all year long. (2) The second was a two-week-long substitute teaching job for a friend of ours in Hanover County. This job was high paying daily and offered the possibility of find more work later in the year, but it was only two weeks' worth of guaranteed work. It would also allow Olivia to actually teach.

For us it seemed like a really difficult choice. Olivia had to make a decision by the next morning (Tuesday, Oct. 6). We were pretty stressed over it, but we knew we really needed to be thanking God for even having a stressful choice between two jobs in the first place! She had gone from total unemployment to a fun part-time job and two viable job offers in just a few weeks.

As we talked and prayed late into the night last Monday, what became increasingly clear to me was not that we should ask God for something to tip the scales in favor of one job over the other. Rather, we needed to pray in the knowledge that no job is a "guarantee," and having a stable budget is not what brings us security (Luke 12:1-34). God our Father is our sovereign provider, not any job or school. We decided to scrap praying for clarity regarding the job choice and rather for greater trust in God to be with us and to uphold us, for faith in and dependence upon him each day and week for our vitality. We asked God also that no matter which job we chose, that Olivia would work wholeheartedly and that I would support her as best as I can.

As we prayed this--which wasn't easy, but it's what we needed and what honored God the most--it also seemed clearer to me that God has given us our work as a vocation to enjoy. I wanted Olivia to have the freedom to do what she thrives at, which in this case we thought would be the long-term sub job. Plus taking this two-week job would both allow and demand that God open more doors for future jobs, rather than leaving us in a "secure" but inflexible position. So in the end this is what we decided upon.

On Tuesday morning Olivia accepted that job and then had another interview for a second long-term sub job in Hanover County: and this time a three-month-long one. She got offered that job, too! This is a huge gift from God, a big boost to our income, and a relieving confirmation to Olivia that she is a good teacher. God met our prayers and honored our desire to put trust in him to lead us through the dark instead of wanting to have all our circumstances organized and clear.

Thanks be to God for his lovingkindness toward us and his bereket in our lives!*

Our fascination with the will of God often betrays our lack of trust in God's promises and provision. We don't just want his word that he will be with us; we want him to show us the end from the beginning and prove to us that he can be trusted.

. . . We must renounce our sinful desire to know the future and be in control. We are not gods. We walk by faith, not by sight. We risk because God does not risk. We walk into the future in God-glorifying confidence, not because the future is known to us but because it is known to God. And that's all we need to know.

~ Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church,
East Lansing, Michigan

*Bereket is one of my favorite words. It's Turkish for "blessing," "fullness," or "abundance."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How To Avoid Jesus

"[T]he way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin."

~ Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood

Monday, October 5, 2009

Faith as a Gift

Some of you may have noticed in my previous post that I said faith itself--God opening our "clenched fist" to receive His gift--is itself a gift from God. This sounds crazy and controversial, because in the Bible we are clearly held accountable for disbelief. Here are a few straightforward examples from the Fourth Gospel.

"Whoever believes in him [Jesus the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:18)

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)

"I [Jesus] told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)

However, there is good evidence to believe that Scripture also teaches that faith itself is a work of God in a person, a gracious gift.

"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" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). What is the antecedent of "this" in verse 8? Well, there is only one noun in the preceding clause: faith. One way of rendering this passage is "and this faith through which you are saved is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

In the immediate context, Paul is teaching the Ephesians (Laodiceans?) how God, because of his great love and mercy, gave them life in Christ when they were spiritually dead toward God. Their salvation was a gracious work of God, not the result of their own efforts. But, as the ESV renders, this whole salvation-through-faith is a gift of God: "and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . ." Those who are spiritually dead and by nature children of wrath (2:3-5) do not exercise trust in God, love for him, and repentance. This salvation-through-faith is a gift of God.

"For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29). Paul says--and takes for granted that the Philippians already knew this--that "it has been granted to you [by God] that . . . you should . . . believe in him." The idea of a grant is that of a gift given to someone. This faith is a gift from God.

"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:" (2 Peter 1:1). "Faith" here is not "the faith," the apostolic doctrinal deposit. It is trust in God's saving work through Jesus the Messiah, and the recipients of this letter, like Peter and the apostles, had also obtained such a faith. Notice that this faith is (a) received from without, not conjured up from within; and (b) it is procured solely through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Faith itself seems to be a gift obtained by Christ for his people through his atoning work on the cross.

"And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Here we see that not only faith, but also repentance is a gift from God. Paul says that Timothy ought to be gentle, and not quarrelsome, with his opponents because God might graciously give ("grant") them repentance and escape from Satan's snares.

"When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, 'So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life' " (Acts 11:18). Here again, repentance is a gift granted by God.

This is the reality of the grace of God, expressed so boldly in the words of John Owen: "To suppose that whatever God requireth of us we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect." Even the faith which God requires of us for justification and life is a gift from his gracious hand. The apostle Paul knew this, that the whole of his salvation was of grace, and not just the offering to him of Christ. Its reality burned in his heart, and it turned his life into a life of gratitude.

"For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7 NIV). Everything we have is a gift received from without, coming down from heaven (James 1:17). On this basis, Paul admonishes the Corinthians, who boasted of their spiritual superiority over others, because even their very own Christian spirituality itself was an undeserved blessing.

Later in this same letter, Paul expresses that only by God's grace is he a faithful apostle: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul knew that he didn't deserve to be a saved sinner who knew and cherished (believed in) Jesus; but he was such "by the grace of God." And this same grace is what turned him into the bold missionary he had become.

I know I haven't addressed how such a God-given faith can be required of us, nor how faith is still our own faith and an act of our own will and volition. These are tricky questions, but I believe the Bible gives an answer to both of them. But I hope you see that the very fact that you ever "made a decision for Christ" or "accepted Jesus as your Savior" or "committed yourself to Jesus as Lord" is itself a work of God's goodness and love in your life when you were dead in sin and alienated from him. It was God's arms reaching out to embrace you long before you ever reached out to embrace him. And because of such--because salvation rests not on the strength of your decisions and commitments but on the grace and saving purposes of God--you can rest secure in his love.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What Wondrous Love Is This?

"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9)

I was listening to this early 19th-century hymn, "What Wondrous Love Is This?" by Alexander Means on my drive home tonight. I must have sung it five times. I love it because it captures the gospel of God so well.

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb, I will sing.
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great “I Am”;
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing;
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

In the arrangement to which I was listening, between the third and fourth stanzas was added this bridge, which is what really gave me the chills:

What wondrous love is this!
Though I raised my clen-ched fist,
He opened up my hand to receive His gift!
And what wondrous love is here!
The God immortal has drawn near
And shed His blood to close the rift.

Now that is real grace! That even though we were hostile toward God and shook our fists at him in defiance and spit on the face of his Son, he still gave his life so that we would be forgiven and reconciled. And if that weren't enough, God even himself granted us the faith he requires of us in order to receive the gift of Christ!

"And you, who were once alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him." (Colossians 1:21-22)

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spurgeon on Faith

"Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him."
-- Charles H. Spurgeon, All of Grace
I find this quote to be very encouraging. So often in moments of doubt or decision I've had to take God's Word--what he has revealed about himself and what he declares he has done and will do for us in the new covenant in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20)--and take it right back to him and hold him to it. And that gives me strength, because God is unshakeable, faithful, and true.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jesus' Baptism and Ours: A Two-Way Act?

As I've continued thinking and studying what the Scriptures say about baptism, an interesting thought occurred to me: Is there a difference between what we do and what God does in this rite? In general, the Reformation churches (i.e., Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran) and some Methodists focus on baptism as an act of God. Conversely, other evangelicals (e.g., Baptists) see baptism as an act in which repentant sinners confess their sin and "appeal to God for a good conscience" (1 Peter 3:21). Consider the oft-neglected story of Jesus' baptism:

"John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. . . .

"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.'" (Mark 1:4-5, 9-11)

On one hand, Baptists would probably point out that in this baptism sinners who wished to repent of their sins and inaugurate a new way of life came to the river and confessed their sins as they underwent baptism (vv. 4-5). On the other hand, Reformed folk (such as I) would point out that when Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Father declares to Jesus the reality of his identity (vv. 9-11). Both realities are present here--and elsewhere in the Bible as well.

Baptism as a human act. Every single reference to baptism in the New Testament is a passive act. That is, converts are called to "be baptized," not to baptize themselves. It is always an act done by someone else upon the baptisand.* (If you can find an exception to this, please do point it out!) For this reason, I find it very difficult to believe that baptism is a symbolic rite in which a new convert signifies his own faith. The Scriptures never say that. What action is present upon the baptisand's part in the NT is this: Acknowledging one's sinfulness and calling on God for mercy in the name of Jesus the Messiah-Savior. (See Matthew 3:13-16; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:3; Acts 2:21, 36-41; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Even in his own baptism, though himself sinless, Jesus identifies with sinful humanity and "repents," in order to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15). He acknowledged his need for cleansing and came to the waters, appealing for mercy.

Baptism as a divine act. If the baptisand is always passive, then who is the real actor? It is no less than all three persons of the Triune God in action. Here we see easily enough that God spoke to Jesus, his Word confirming to Jesus his identity as the beloved Son. He also confirmed to Jesus his calling as the Messiah who would undergo another "baptism" on the cross (John 1:31; Luke 12:50). The Spirit also descends on Jesus--and we often see the Spirit in Scripture active in bringing God's Word in light and power to our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). But above all things, Jesus is the real Baptizer in the Bible. John repeatedly testified that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8 and parallels). So as Jesus has ascended, he (along with the Father) pours out his Spirit into men to give them new birth and to bring God's Word home to their hearts.**

In baptism believers are divinely joined to Jesus' death and raised to newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). They are ingrafted into the church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). They are clothed with Christ and also identified as "sons of God" (Galatians 3:26-27). God confirms to believers in baptism the righteousness that they possess by faith (Romans 4:11) and that he is cleansed and renewed within (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5).

Instead of signifying the convert's faith, we see in baptism the visible Word--the testimony of the Spirit--that the believer who repents and embraces Christ in faith, he is confirmed as a child of God, cleansed and washed from sin within, reborn in righteousness, joined to Jesus' body, and sealed by the Spirit for the kingdom's possession. Or, perhaps more accurately, the New Covenant promises which are "Yes" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20) are not only confirmed by God in general, but their reality for and upon the believer is confirmed in baptism.

The two acts together. If we put the two together, we could see God, in baptism, shaking hands on promises he has made. On one hand, from the human viewpoint baptism is an act in which a repentant believer accepts his judgment-and-cleansing in Christ and submits to live under Christ in his kingdom (Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:19-21). On the other hand, from the divine viewpoint God confirms to him who believes that he truly has a new identity in Christ as "my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." He confirms the believer's rebirth and cleansing by Spiritual union with Christ and his body. And in baptism the believer has a new destiny and calling as well--one of God-exalting, cross-bearing, Spirit-fueled discipleship and pilgrimage on the way toward future glory.

* * *

What do you think? I'm not 100% sure about this yet, but it seems biblically consistent to me right now. I'm continually astounded at the potency of salvation-realities ascribed to the baptized in the NT, which is leading me away from a Reformed covenantal view into this version of credobaptism--or at least a greater measure of ambivalence. (I say "leading away" because I'm not yet fully convinced of it.) I am having an increasingly difficult time figuring out how to apply NT texts concerning baptism's effects to those who are baptized yet don't exhibit the marks of new birth (e.g., some infants as well as those who merely profess faith but do not possess it). Yet at the same time, I'm not willing to embrace the overly subjective idea that baptism is simply a public profession of faith or a mirror of one's conversion experience. To do so would deny the way the NT points to baptism in an admonishing or encouraging manner, since faith is nothing--it's merely the hand that receives Christ and his benefits. And this distorts the point of faith anyway, that is, to look away from oneself and one's own decisions, commitments, and merits to those of Christ alone on our behalf.
*One could argue that Acts 22:16 provides a contradictory example: "And now why do you [Saul] wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name." Saul here is said to wash away his own sins--active on his part. (I'm not sure what to make of this yet or how to reconcile it with the rest of the NT.) But the point is that he is still passively baptized.

**Consider that Luke wrote his Gospel to record what Jesus "began to do and teach, until the day he was taken up" (Acts 1:1-2), implying that Jesus is everywhere active in the book of Acts by his Spirit and church.

Friday, September 18, 2009

No one has ever seen God, but . . .

Yesterday I was pleased to find a timely article in Christianity Today about, of all things, my most recent post's topic--how church architecture can teach about God and guide us into worship. (Well, really, it's about how the mystery of God guides us into a true knowledge of him.)

Westminster Abbey in London is one of the few places in the world that doesn't disappoint. The main part of Westminster is the cathedral: an enormous, basilica-style monastery of Gothic architecture that leaves one with a breathtaking vision of the height and depth of, if not God, at least of the worshipers' concept of God.

With the sheer amount of space between the floor and soaring vaults, from the back of the nave to the altar, as well as the complicated artistry on every wall and window, you find yourself awed by everything that speaks of the unimaginable greatness of God. You have a peculiar sense that God is very present and yet not altogether accessible. This is not an unpleasant experience; on the contrary, you realize that your idea of God has probably been domesticated and confined.

The author goes on to explain how we as Christians live in the tension of God's immanence (that he is present and accessible) and his transcendance (that he is infinitely beyond us). On one hand, God is our Creator; it is we who are finite and within his grasp, not the other way around. He remains a mystery beyond us, and at best we can only learn about him what he has himself, in his lordship over us, deigned to reveal.*

"God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen." (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

"Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?
Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

"Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would any man ask to be swallowed up?
Now no one can look at the sun,
bright as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
Out of the north he comes in golden splendor;
God comes in awesome majesty.
The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
Therefore, men revere him,
for he does not have regard for any who think they are wise."
(Job 37:15-24)

On the other hand, God has in fact revealed himself. He spoke to Moses and the Patriarchs, revealed his Law, and manifested himself in storms and visions. He later spoke through his prophets. But mostly God spoke through his actions; he's known by what he does. And then there's Jesus, God-in-the-flesh.

"No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (John 1:18)

"Jesus answered: 'Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.' " (John 14:9-11)

Beyond that, God has given us his Word and the sacraments, his "visible words" to speak to us and guide us. God isn't always entirely a mystery. But then again, when we think we know his Word, we keep on finding more and more about God and his story there, never to be fully probed.

How do we capture both of these realities in our worship--not only in our church buildings, but even more so in our songs, actions, liturgy, sacraments, preaching, and the like? What would it look like to honor both of these realities and embody them in our corporate worship so that both of these aspects of God are communicated and entered into? I'd appreciate your feedback.

*For an amazing, eye-opening discussion of God's "immanence" and "transcendance" and how it relates to our knowlege of God, see the first chapter of John Frame's book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sacred Space

In his book Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, Eugene Peterson points out that Revelation chapters 4 and 5 give us the "last word on worship." We see here that when the curtain is pulled back, and the saints are seen for who they really are. They aren't just the mundane, a bunch of folks gathered on a Sunday. They're the redeemed of the Lamb, whose real songs are in heaven, whose prayers rise like incense before the very throne of God Most High. The weekly worship services between Pentecost and Advent may be in "Ordinary Time," but they're anything but ordinary.

I am reminded too of how throughout the centuries, Christian worship often begins with a Scripture that proclaims God's majesty and who he is as the saving Triune Creator. He's no mere Deist god. And Jesus ain't our homeboy, either. We're people gathered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--an invocation that lets us know we're called to worship by a God not of our own making. "Thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

When I lived in Istanbul I saw the remnants of Byzantine churches once glorious in splendor. Their yawning domes towered overhead, bedecked in glittering golden mosaics of the exalted, judging, reigning Christ (Christos Pantokrator). Angels fluttered up the walls toward the heavens. Myriad mosaics of Jesus' earthly ministry preached the gospel in many-colored images. Did these tell more of the glory of Constantine, Theodosius, and Justinian than of the splendor of God? Perhaps. But as I stood in their now-silent halls with the sunlight trickling in through their portals, I was reminded that I was in a holy place, and that worship is an otherworldly thing.

I know that the God of the heavens is also the God of the burning bush and of the manger. He comes to meet us in the stuff of our lives, in hiddenness and meekness. He is the God of the cross, found in poverty and suffering and meanness. Maybe Byzantium and Rome after her put the cart before the horse: the kingdom hasn't come yet. But when I found myself in these sacred spaces (which have also at times included the beauty of the forest and stream) I am transported in mystery and awe. I am reminded that there is more to God and his ways than just the brick walls and wooden paneling of my experiences and felt needs and concerns of the moment. There is a clandestine kingdom that is coming in which we worship and for which we long. There is a God whose Word and ways are above my own, and whose delights I have only begun to know (1 Corinthians 13:12). I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realms at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:3, 20-23; 2:4-7).

I love church buildings that seek to evoke God's beauty and God's story in their design for all the reasons listed above. Many evangelical churches have too quickly cast off visual adornments as mere trappings, even idols, the form of religion without its power. How many of the beautiful church buildings are devoid of life, love, and orthodoxy? Yet the beauty is really a good thing only misused in the hands of sinners, not the culprit itself. But I'm still torn. The church is a body, a people, an organism, not an address. Its money would, I believe, more glorify God by feeding the hungry and fighting injustice and and making disciples of those in darkness than by paying for stained glass and incense. But until we recover more of a sense of awe and wonder in our worship, we'll be the ones who remain impoverished, left to feed on Jesus our Homeboy or God our Life Coach rather than on the one who "for us and for our salvation came down from heaven."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Queen of Cities

Those of you who know me know that I fell in love with a city--the city of Istanbul, Turkey, an ages-old gem whose watery beauty and mystical intrigue straddle two continents.

My friend Mark's band, Luna Roslyn, recently finished up an EP called Queen of Cities. It's sort of a musical tribute to Istanbul. You can listen to a few tracks on MySpace or download the whole EP for free at NoiseTrade. Their music is beautiful--a bit reminiscent at points of my favorite band, Anathallo--and bears a heart akin with mine: a desire for Istanbul (once Constantinople) and Turkey to shine not with bright sun on its minarets, but with the glory of God's love in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

As we search for a church, I have actually been quite encouraged by the fact that no church is perfect, and it's okay if I don't fit in or click with people immediately. Real Christian growth in community, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer incisively points out in Life Together, means to acknowledge that I am related to others as brothers and sisters in Christ. It's important to break this down. It's more than just a cliche or terminology.

We are brothers and sisters in Christ, part of the "family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). Just as we may choose our friends but not our family, so too do we not choose with whom we will and will not have fellowship. That's God's choice, not ours. He is our Father, and we don't get a say in family membership. And what family is perfect, without awkwardness or strain? If we want a church or fellowship without these, then what we desire is something other than the church God is building by his Spirit and calling his own.

Second, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that we our family and fellowship exists not because we're in a social club, but because we're members of one body--Jesus's. With his blood he has purchased us for himself and to be one with himself in glory (Acts 20:28; Revelation 5:9-10). Therefore as Christians we mysteriously find our deepest fellowship not at a concert or playing ultimate frisbee, but at the Communion table. If I'm going to find a brother, it will only be as mutual recipients of God's grace and forgiveness. If God has accepted him, who am I to look down my nose at him? The church body exists solely on account of Christ's grace and for his purposes: the glory of God in the salvation of the world. And because living for God's glory in the world, fed and sustained by the gospel, is only done through the Word and prayer, my fellowship in Christ demands that I care more about building up someone in the Word and praying for and with him.

It's easy to seek out fellowship on the basis of shared interests. And it's not bad at all to have friends who like the same music, television shows, careers, etc. But this can lead to superficial relationships, which Satan loves. Being part of the body of Christ means something else, something deeper. The grace of God and the deceit of the the world demand that, in searching for a church and in cultivating new relationships, I need to be about more than just "fitting in" or feeling comfortable. It's even okay if I don't. Because what we need aren't more buddies or pals who never rub us the wrong way, but real brothers and sisters in Christ.

From One Degree of Glory to Another

Today at Redemption Hill, pastor Rob Greene preached used the following quote from Martin Luther in a sermon about the gospel riches of our sanctification, a work of God which he is bringing to completion (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:1-3).
This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.

This made me think of Olivia's and my recent lesson about sanctification (see my earlier post "Puzzled by Sanctifiction?"). Even though it may be slow and piecemeal, it is a progressive work that has both its origin and culmination in the promised word and work of our faithful God.

* * *

No, we haven't decided upon a church yet, in case you were wondering. We know it's unrealistic to expect another University Reformed Church or New Song Church--not because those churches were perfect, but because all churches are different. We've seen both good things as well as caveats in all the churches we've visited, and the task before us is finding which body will allow us best to grow through God's Word as well as allow us to serve and build up others with the gifts we have. We're able to rest knowing that in the end it's not engaging expository preaching nor enthralling worship music which will build us up in Christ, but rather it is the Holy Spirit, who is present and at work in even the less-than-ideal churches.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brothers of the Same Family

This morning as I read Hebrews 2:5-18, I was struck by how Jesus, the Son of God, who is the effulgence of God's own eternal glory, so gladly emptied himself to take up our cause before his Father. In a true familial solidarity far surpassing the utopian ideals imagined by Marx and others, in his incarnation and baptism Jesus bound up himself with sinful, enslaved, derelict mankind, even calling us "brothers," and suffered the agonies of temptation, rejection, shame, and death so that we might be set free from fear, death, deception, and futility and share in his place of glory and love as co-sons and co-regents before the Father.

A beautiful 15th-century Latin hymn, "O Love, How Deep" (author unknown, translated by Benjamin Webb), captures this story well.

O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
It fills the heart with ecstasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

He sent no angel to our race
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame
Himself, and to this lost world came.

For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore,
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.

For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought;
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself, but us.

For us to wicked men betrayed,
Scourged, mocked, in purple robe arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death,
For us gave up His dying breath.

For us He rose from death again;
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here,
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.

To Him Whose boundless love has won
Salvation for us through His Son,
To God the Father, glory be
Both now and through eternity.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Imitating God

Being a high school science teacher demands a lot of patience. I mean a lot. Many students come into my room sometimes two or three years behind in math, have difficulty finding main ideas when reading, and don't know what a complete sentence is. On top of that, they're often raised in households with only one parent, who probably works two jobs and leaves the child-rearing to their teenager. Even if a steady male figure (live-in boyfriend or stepdad) is around, it's not uncommon for anger to be the sole disciplinary tool.

Yet when I ought to have compassion and patience, instead I find myself exasperated by minimal efforts, lack of prior knowledge and skills, and torpid progress. Some of my students are honestly just plain lazy. A few are even, yes, stupid. On top of that, they often want every day in class to be like an episode of CSI, yet my school lacks the funding to obtain much lab equipment which is considered pretty basic. And then--the lack of respect teens have for others and their sense of entitlement can really put me over the top.

But the gospel addresses me to live differently, to bear with my students as God has borne with us in Christ. I immediately thought of my students when I was reading Paul's letter to Titus yesterday.
Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:1-5)

I was reminded that if it weren't for God's merciful re-creation by his Holy Spirit, I too would be in the same mess: foolish, disobedient, and ruled by self-centeredness. God didn't wait until I cleaned up my life and paid respectful attention to him before pouring out his kindness and love.

In the same way, then, I need to live out this gospel with my students. I need to encourage them and build them up instead of belittling them in exasperation. I need to be patient and considerate of their needs instead of giving up, dumbfounded. I need to be gentle and gracious with them when they disappoint me or anger me, persisting to be for them and on their side. After all, it's only when "kindness and love" appear that change happens.

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 4:32 - 5:2).

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cleaning House

Taking my previous post one step further, my wife brought up another sanctification analogy today. We recently moved to a new home in Richmond, Virginia; and though the house is a huge blessing, the kitchen was really dirty. Olivia has spent hours laboriously peeling back layers of film and grime. Yuck.

"As I kept cleaning," she said, "it just seemed like there was still more grime!" She made the connection that, like Christian growth, it's not like our kitchen wasn't getting cleaner; it was just that bad to begin with. As more and more of the dirt and corruption of our sin is uncovered and brought to our attention, it's not necessarily that we aren't getting "cleaner." It's just that we were even more sinful and rotten to begin with than we had ever realized. Like a bad mold, the grime of Adam's rebellion--and ours--goes so deep and fills every corner and crevice of our being--our thoughts, perceptions, attitudes, emotions, desires, words, and actions--that we need much more than just a spring cleaning (see Jesus' teaching in Matthew 12:43-45). We need the whole house to be torn down and built anew.

But thankfully we have a Savior who was a carpenter, and even more than a carpenter. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Puzzled by sanctification?

As Olivia and I were putting together a puzzle last night, we grew frustrated by how much slower and more challenging its completion became once we had moved past putting together the straight edges, corner pieces, and areas of apparent contrast and design. In our puzzle of a beautiful Greek coastal town, large swaths of bone and azure dominated the scene. And while not as immediately striking as the shorelines, church domes, and other brightly colored structures, these areas were vital toward fleshing in the whole picture. As we found and fit in the more obvious pieces, the more obscure and less evident ones became harder and slower.

This seems so much like my own growth and maturation in Christ. God has designed that through faith and the work of the Holy Spirit (which are one and the same), Jesus Christ is to be formed within us (Galatians 4:19), and we are to be conformed to his glorious image (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18). In my life (and in countless others' as well, I'm sure), the basic framework of a godly life developed fairly quickly, within a few years. Just as the frame of a puzzle is the first step and gives place and order to the rest, so did the basic shape of Christlikeness form in me as I put aside my old ways of life and learned to live under the gospel.

Then other pieces of the image started coming together, but this time a little more slowly and deliberately. At first the puzzle was exciting to assemble; we were fresh and eager. But now it was starting to take more work, and even after a few hours of work, instead of seeing how much we had accomplished, we starting seeing just how many pieces still remained. Rather than being glad at how much had been finished, we were instead exasperated.

As I grow in Christ, I seem to see more and more pieces of Christ that still remain on the floor and not in my puzzle. I get more and more frustrated at how slowly they find their way into me. When a whole box full of pieces was there, I rejoiced that I had a framework and didn't care too much about everything else. But now I'm starting to see the pieces that still remain, and I get upset.

The beautiful truth is, though, that I can only see them because so many more of the others have already been cleared away. The formation of Christ in my life is perhaps slower and more piecemeal now, but this is because more of his image has already been formed in me. The image is coming together even if I don't see it, focused on what it still lacks. But of this I can be confident: "that he who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). And just as God rejoices in all his works, we ought also to look at what God has already done within us, and rest and rejoice.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lead On, O Shepherd

"The sheep hear his [the shepherd's] voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." (John 10:3-4)

If you've been around the church long enough, it will come as no surprise to hear that Jesus is our Shepherd. He says he is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (John 10:14; 21:15-19; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4). But what is remarkable is that our shepherd is also himself a lamb (John 1:29: Revelation 5:5), a human who meekly came and bore our low estate. He "wore the robe of human frame / Himself, and to this lost world came."* Jesus came in the flesh, took up our cause, battled against sin, death, and the devil, and triumphed over them all. Having suffered and been vindicated, he is now "the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him" (Hebrews 5:9).

How astounding it is that now this Lamb is our Shepherd! But instead of some restful pastoral scene--as true as this is sometimes--we need to know that we are also enlisted into his army. The biblical imagery of a shepherd referred to a general-king who led his people out to battle and back in to worship and rest. And though our final rest is secured, we aren't there yet. This life is still a "struggle against sin" (Hebrews 12:4). We live between two ages in the tension where we have the Holy Spirit and are justified, yet we still sin (simul justus et peccator).

The two earliest forms of the Anastasis (Resurrection) icons depict this reality and give us good cheer and hope. The first (above) shows Christ, the Victor over death and sin's enslaving powers, drawing Adam (symbolic of all humans) from the grave toward himself. Salvation has been won and is now being offered. But to come to Christ, Adam must first pass under and embrace the Cross. He must trust in Jesus' finished work and have his old life put to death in submission to Jesus' lordship. This portrayal is decidedly baptismal. (I find it of note that even though Adam must embrace the cross is faith, the work in drawing him there belongs entirely to Jesus. Calvinism in the eight century!)

The second form (above) is quite different. Jesus is still holding the Cross and drawing Adam from the grave over the ruins of hell. But here Jesus is walking, even marching, forward. He's leading Adam out of death and into glory in "triumphal procession" (2 Corinthians 2:14).** As the "founder of [our] salvation," Jesus is "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10). This word translated "founder" is archegos, one who leads from the front, a "pioneer" or "captain." Jesus himself lived under sin, died our death, and now has risen in victory into life everlasting as King. He now conscripts us to share in his reign and follow him into all he has secured for us. We live now in tension: Will we endure in faith, or will we succumb to worldly pressures? Will sin ever be put to death within us? Will evil and sickness and malice and selfishness and unlove ever cease within and without?

Yes. Amen and Yes--in and through Jesus Christ alone, the Alpha and the Omega, who holds the keys to Death and Hades (2 Corinthians 1:20; Revelation 1:17-18). Our hope is sure and steadfast, because with Christ as our Shepherd, we're not left to wander aimlessly in the dark. He doesn't sit on the sidelines to cheer us on. He calls us, takes us by the hand, and leads us as he battles at the forefront, taking us where he has already gone. Lead on, O King eternal!

* "O Love, How Deep"; attributed perhaps to Thomas a Kempis.

** The idea of being led in a triumphal procession, however, is not all glory and honor. Roman military generals led their captives in a victory parade toward the Coliseum, where they would be put to death. Only we who have allowed ourselves to be conquered and put to death in Christ in this life will find life now and in the age to come.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead!

"Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!" -- the Troparion of Pascha, an Orthodox hymn chanted at Easter ("Pascha")

As I've been reading the Gospel of John, I see a God who is personally and intimately involved in bringing men and women out of death and into life. This makes me think of the ancient Christian Anastasis (Resurrection) icons, which depict the victorious Christ overcoming death and raising Adam (and sometimes Eve) from Hades. While there are four main thematic variants of the Anastasis, each designed to emphasize different features about the Resurrection, the most famous rendition looks like this:

I love this image because it shows Jesus victorious in splendor, mighty to save: "But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (Acts 2:24). Technically Jesus is enveloped in a dazzling white mandorla, which depicts his deity.

Jesus is standing victorious over Death, having broken down the gates of Hades to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He has "bound the strong man" (usually Hades personified, but also Satan in Western icons) and is now able to plunder the grave (Matthew 12:29; Isaiah 53:12; Jude 1:6). Jesus has loosed the cords of Sheol and rendered its chains asunder, shattering them to bits below (Psalms 18:4, 5; 107:14; 116:3).

Best of all--what most touches my heart--is that a dynamic Jesus is taking Adam and Eve each by the hand and lifting them out of the grave and upward toward himself. He is personally and intimately involved in their salvation. (This particular rendition implies lifting them into the life of the Trinity.) "As recorded in John 5:24-30 Jesus teaches that it is his voice which will call the dead to life. "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live. . . . Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (vv. 25, 28-29). Jesus is teaching that one day in the future, all who are physically dead will be called by him to rise; but today Jesus calls to the spiritually dead, and those who hear his voice and come to him for life are not only quickened spiritually, but also will rise to life everlasting and not be condemned.

"My Father's will," Jesus teaches, "is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:40). There will be no generic resurrection in which the dead simply "rise up." Crossing over from death to life (5:24) is never a merely mechanistic consequence of some predetermined plan of God. Rather, our Savior himself comes today to speak into out hearts his call to life: "Come to me, Andrew, that you may have life!" (5:40; Matthew 11:28). And one day, even as he has done already, so he will complete the work he came for, crying, "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead!" (Ephesians 5:14). He will reach his hand deep into the grave to rescue my body from death, just as he once did for my spirit.

I imagine that when we hear Jesus' voice it will be as the edict of a great and magnanimous king, knighting his valorous, faithful servant and bestowing upon him a crown. "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21). The whole world will be hushed in awe. Perhaps he will have a different call, different words for each one of us: "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" (Mark 5:41; note here that Jesus took her by the hand as he called her back to life). "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43). And for those who rise to be condemned for their self-love, evil deeds, and lack of faith--well, I cannot imagine what terror and shame the King's decree will bequeath upon them.

The King, He comes to claim His own,
To raise His fallen, flesh and bone.
The blood they’ve spilled is not for naught:
His blood their resurrection bought.
--from "The Kingdom Comes" by Ryan Tinetti