Monday, March 30, 2009

A Greater Hope

In less than one short week, my beloved Olivia and I will begin the exciting journey of life together as a married couple. I cannot begin to relay how excited I am! I mean, seriously, she is such a wonderful blessing in my life. For example, only she could make me want to swallow my pride and say "I was wrong."

Someone asked recently if we had a prenuptial agreement, to which I replied: "No, there will be no prenuptial agreement. We actually trust each other and endeavor to follow Jesus Christ in love for one another, which means we'll never divorce. No divorce = no prenup. It's as simple as that. Prenup agreements are an advance warning that you don't trust the other person and/or you don't plan on being faithful to them. But that's not us."

Now, how can I be so sure of that? you might wonder. It's a question I often ask myself. How can I know that my own selfishness and pride will not foster bitterness and divisiveness between us and ultimately lead to a divorce? Current statistics, if they are to be believed, claim that over one third of "born again" Christians' marriages end in separation.

It's because I know that my hope for living in love does not depend solely on myself; my hope is in God's great promises to purify my desires and make me increasingly more loving and selfless:

"They will be my people, and I will be their God.* I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul." (Jeremiah 32:38-41)

"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." (Ezekiel 36:24-27)

"And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

When by faith we have communion with Christ, we have Christ in us, "the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). Yes, our greatest hope, sharing in Jesus' bodily glorification and complete freedom from sin, will not be our possession until after his return. But even now we possess his Spirit and are being renewed. This is no mere wishful thinking, for if it is, then God is a liar. These promises of God have been my courage and my comfort since this past fall concerning a lasting marriage with Olivia. I have brought these promises of God's before his throne in prayer many times, claiming his faithfulness to his word and reminding him that his Name would be defaced if he doesn't hold true to this.

In short, Olivia and I, sinners that we are, can boldly go forth into marriage because God's purposes and grace are more powerful than any evil. It is the Lord Christ who is the Omega; he gets the last word in our lives and in all of history. And it is his promise that his own loving heart and fear of God will be wrought within us, bit by bit, day by day, as by faith we go under those waters of our baptism--letting our old desires and ways be put to death in Christ that a new self might be born within us.**

*I am aware that the passages from Jeremiah and Ezekiel were first spoken to Israel in her exile. But these promises are certainly not for Jews alone; they belong to the "everlasting covenant" of grace into which the entire worldwide church has been engrafted through faith in Christ and his gospel. In a nutshell, the apostolic message of the New Testament is that the promises of deliverance and kingdom given to Israel were now being fulfilled through the Messiah, and they have been opened up to all nations, that they too might share in Messiah's benefits. Hence Paul can call the Gentile Galatian church "the Israel of God" (Galatians 6:15-16; cf. Ephesians 2:12-13; 3:6).

** See Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:11-13.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Colson on Catechesis

Chuck Colson has written an engaging article about the need for re-instructing the church in the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Just this morning I read in my BSF notes about the primacy of knowledge in saving faith, that is, faith in Christ rests in a true understanding of his Person and work. Amen!

I was actually a little surprised to find that such a stalwart of modern American evangelicalism as Colson says that contextualization--culturally packaging Christian doctrine in a way that can more readily be grasped--is "radically different from changing the definitive, concise summary of Christian truth the early church fathers accomplished in their councils." What? The Religious Right upholding the Seven Ecumenical Councils? I'm glad to see it. I think this could be an up-side of many evangelicals' desire for a more "authentic" (read: ancient) faith. Of course, most just want medieval spiritual practices, candles, and "spirituality"; others seeking an authentic faith are stressing "following Jesus" (orthopraxy) over confessing truth about him (orthodoxy). (I specifically think of Emergent movement here.) But if a desire to discover an authentic faith leads to embracing the historical doctrines of Christianity, then that's awesome!

I am also glad to read that Colson says that "personal faith is of course vital, but it is not sufficient." Faith, in itself, is nothing. It's merely, as the reformers put it, the "open hand" that receives Christ and all his benefits. Our faith--our knowledge, assent, and trust--must be in "him who is true" (1 John 5:20).

Friday, March 20, 2009

Is Loss a Gain?

Ha. Life is funny. Or perhaps it's God who's funny, always wanting to keep me on my proverbial toes. You see, on March 5 I had a very positive evaluation by my department chairman and the head principal and they wrote a written recommendation to the school board for my rehire. All was well, right? I felt very grateful to God for knowing that I was filling my role as a teacher with success.

But then came March 12 and another fiat from the school board to cut more employees. (Our district is about $12M in the red.) Guess what? Against his wishes, my principal called me down to tell me the news that I would have to get let go and would not be rehired for next year. For real? I guess the recession isn't just "in the news" anymore.

At first I was pretty upset. But then I realized--with some help from some God-conscious friends--that this may just be God's way of guiding his plan for me. So what if I don't teach in Plainfield again next year? I get to work and/or live somewhere else, and I need to be open to that. The more I thought about it, I realized it wasn't that big of a deal. Maybe it's time to move back to Richmond; Olivia and I are certainly open to the idea of living in the "Promised Land." Maybe something better is in store. Who knows? (God does--and he's always good.)

Armed with that thought, I've been able to be pretty upbeat and hopeful this week. Sure, it'll get tougher after the wedding (April fourth!) and I really get serious about job applications. But right now I am resting in God's care, knowing that with God and with an awesome wife, I can pretty much go anywhere and do anything.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bonhoeffer on "Cheap Grace"

Reflecting further on this passage in Numbers and people's presumption upon God's graciousness, I thought a few words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship would be helpful here.

The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance [at the Cross]; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost [of Christ's death] was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

He also goes on to define this "cheap grace":
[Cheap grace is] the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

I think that viewing justification as God's acceptance of sin instead of the acceptance of the sinner is so insightful. It's so easy for me to think, "Oh, I'm covered by grace; I'm forgiven; I'm set right with God." That's true--I am right before God through faith in Jesus Christ. But my sins never were nor ever will be right. Salvation is eminently personal: I am in fellowship with Christ. But my sins never are. My sins may be expiated, expunged, or propitiated; but they are never justified.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Postponed Grace

In the previous post I wrote about--believe it or not--how God is gracious to hold us to the consequences of our sin. But just because God is gracious and our sins are wiped away in Christ doesn't mean all can be had from God's hand so easily. When Israel refused to enter the Promised Land and God judged them, Moses interceded for them. He pleaded God's grace (Numbers 14:17-19). But many others presumed upon it (14:39-45). They thought that with a glib acknowledgement of their sin, all would be okay. They thought all was immediately amended and that God's favor could be had for nothing. Instead of showing a true, mature faith by humbly accepting the severity of their sin and the necessity of repenting from it, they chose instead to try to conquer their enemies in Canaan. Consequently they were duly routed.

It's not to say that the "promised land" isn't for forgiven, redeemed sinners. It is. But it's precisely that; it's a land that can only be enjoyed by redeemed sinners, those who are freed from sin. Those who still love sin much will love God's gifts least (Numbers 16:13-14). Perhaps God is looking for a certain kind of person to enjoy his gifts, someone who will really be grateful and accept them with gladness, someone who will cherish the things God chooses to give. "Not as the world gives do I give to you," says our Lord (John 14:27). He doesn't give us the same type of crap we can buy off the shelf for pennies but which fails to satisfy--the same junk we crave out of sinful desires. ("Oh, the leeks and onions and garlic we had in Egypt!" Israel moaned.) God gives "good and perfect" blessings (James 1:17), and perhaps for many people he chooses to wait until they will see them as good things. And isn't it all the sweeter to receive a gift if you've had to wait for it?
Do I err in thinking this? For now it's only a thought, a rumination. Am I confusing Law and Gospel? I don't think so. God's gifts are always gracious--free, undeserved favors upon sinners. But he is free also to give or withhold in the way he so pleases.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Can there still be consequences for forgiven sin? That's a question I had to ask myself as I was reading through an account of Israel's greatest national failure, their refusal to occupy the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Because many said they would rather die in the desert than trust the Lord and boldly march into the land to do battle with its occupants, the Lord gave them exactly what they wanted: he condemned them to four decades of trackless wandering in the desert until every adult had finally collapsed in death. Not one of the rebels would inherit the land.

It says in Numbers 14:20 that God did indeed forgive their sin; he didn't wipe them out entirely. Their posterity would still go on inherit the Promised Land. But can there still be consequences for forgiven sin? Or, better yet, can God still hold us to the consequences of sin which he has forgiven and canceled? If they're truly forgiven and atoned for, shouldn't any lingering effects be removed? If God is not unjust, then how can he forgive and yet not relieve sin's effects?

If our sins are forgiven in Christ, is he still punishing us? No. In Hebrews 12:6 (quoting Provers 3:11-12) it says that "the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Those whom he accepts are accepted on account of having been forgiven of their sins through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:12). God's wrath no longer remains upon them (John 3:36). So this punishment cannot be a punitive one; rather, it's disciplinary. A father spanks his child to train his child to obey and choose the right way ahead of time. God often chooses to let the results of sin unfold in his children's lives in order to teach us the death and fruitlessness of violating his created order, that is, his law. In the ensuing pain of sin God is mercifully weening us from our vain idolatries and is forming in us a glorious love for him alone. Hebrews 12:10 says that God "disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness"--and "without holiness no one will see the Lord" (v. 14). God's consequences are part of how he strengthens his children to endure until the end and not set our hearts on evil , by which we would fall short of the kingdom (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).

Furthermore, the painful results of sin can never be punishment--for that would be far too small to offset the grievous nature of our sin. Do we really think that losing a job, rocking a marriage, or bearing some measure of public humiliation for our sin is really enough to make full satisfaction for it before God? Absolutely not! Only there at the Cross is justice and satisfaction and reconciliation all in one. Only in the disfigured Man of Sorrows who cried in the shadows, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is enough punishment for sin. Everything else can only be at best a mild "slap on the wrist" in comparison.

In a strange way, I believe that willing submission to sin's effects shows not little, but great, faith in God's grace, mercy, goodness, and lovingkindness. We don't think, "Dang, God is punishing me for this sin." We know that would mock the Crucified Redeemer and neglect that our reconcilation in him. Humbly submitting to God's rod of discipline is full of faith because it's believing that accounts were in fact settled in full upon Golgotha. God has justified us in Christ and will never condemn us (Romans 8:1, 32-39). So we know what now comes our way must be corrective, not vindictive. It is for our good.

So we ought to rejoice that God our Father is chastising us. It proves us his sons, forms in us "the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:10, 14), and validates our genuine faith so that we will be uplifted in praise and honor (1 Peter 1:6-7).

Maybe the question to ask isn't "Can God justly give temporal consequences for eternally forgiven sin?" The answer is, Yes, he can, and he does. Who am I to question God? But rather we should be glad that he does do so--for he does it as even a merciful act of his favor toward wayward sinners.