Wednesday, May 27, 2009

When were you saved?

"It happened one afternoon in A.D. 34 when Jesus died on the cross."
-- Karl Barth, upon being asked in 1962 exactly when he "got saved"
I think this quote--this mindset, this reality--is wonderful and wonderfully clarifying. It's true that the redemption accomplished by Christ is applied to us in the here and now by the Holy Spirit. But we can never let our first moments of light and faith (if known) overshadow the fact that it is Jesus Christ who is our Savior. It was his self-emptying and curse-bearing death and his glorious, aeon-flipping resurrection which accomplished our salvation, not some moment we "accepted Christ" or "committed my life to Christ" or anything else like that. Jesus' final words? "It is accomplished" (John 19:30).

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Angels in our midst

Reading the Revelation of St. John is always a mind-stretching experience. I used to get really perplexed by it because I thought it mostly had to do with hidden secrets about some far-off "end times." Then I realized two things core to its message: (1) We are now living in the "last times" (Hebrews 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20). (2) It is literally "the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:1). "Revelation" (Greek apokalupsos) means "unveiling" or taking away a covering so that we can see the truth. In this book we do not see Jesus as a dead historical figure, nor the church as an impotent amalgamation of rejects, nor the powers of the world as ultimate. We are given a glimpse behind the veil of our eyes to embrace reality in faith: Christ is a living King, the church is God's dwelling place on Earth, the saints are a victorious, conquering army, and the forces of evil are the real losers.

One thing that struck me is this: Jesus gives a message through St. John to the "angel" of each of the seven churches in Asia Minor (present-day western Turkey). It occurred to me that these angels are not the "heavenly host" as I once thought they were. After all, it would be very strange for the Son of Man to use a mortal human to mediate his words to the heavenly beings who serve him at his throne. The word "angel" can also just as easily be translated "messenger." To whom, then, is Jesus speaking through John? It is the pastors of the local church bodies! The Chief Shepherd is giving counsel to his designated vice-shepherds (see 1 Peter 5:2, 5).

What importance this has for us! As Protestants we toss about the Reformation doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers" as license to seek our own paths to God or, more likely, simply include our pastor's preaching and counsel as simply one course in the spiritual smorgasbord by which we grow in knowledge and faith. But if these are are, as Christ himself reveals through his Spirit, his very angels and messengers, how much more important do these men become! How much more attentively ought we to heed their preaching as the very voice of Christ to us!* How much more authority do these seemingly weak, worldly men actually wield upon the earth!

So easily do I stuff my sermon notes into the back of my journal, leave them on the desk, or toss them out. It's my daily, personal "quiet time" that counts most, I think. That's where God really speaks to me. Personal study of the Scriptures is invalulable, it's true; but Christ promises his presence in the church. "Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." Even in the Revelation of Jesus as exalted and in holy splendor (1:12-20), he is found nowhere other than standing among his churches.

But there is more: "In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword" (Revelation 1:16). Jesus then tells the apostle, "The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches" (v. 20). In his book Reversed Thunder Eugene Peterson points out that to the ancient Greco-Roman world, the constellations and the seven known planets (or "unfixed stars") were of supreme importance. The constellations represented the pantheon, and the movement of the planets among the Zodiac was believed to determine one's destiny.

Yet Christ holds the stars in his hand! It is not mere stars or planets nor some fickle soap opera of deities which rules the outcome of history. Neither is it Rome nor the Third Reich nor the U.S.A. nor any other political power. It is Jesus Christ who is Lord! And it is his stars--his messengers--which influence the world. It is his lampstands--the churches--which bring light and truth. The work of the church and her pastors cannot be unceremoniously scraped into a pile of impotent failures, all apparent realities to the contrary. It is through the church which Jesus acts: He wields his sword, as Peterson points out, not through the mouth of a gun, but though the mouth of his people bearing his Word to the world.

*Romans 10:14 highlights that when the message of Christ is preached, we do not merely hear about Christ; we hear Christ himself. "How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" (NASB).

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Freedom of and for faith

I'm sorry, but this kind of obtuse legalism makes me ill.

It's one thing to forbid dancing, hand-holding, and the like at their own school. But to forbid a student to attend prom at another school is ludicrous; that's no threat to the school. It is upsetting that this MSN writer chose not to provide the Baptist school's explanation for not allowing dancing, etc., and how this student's' perceived moral compromise could spread to his classmates. At least that much should be allowed to be said. But nonetheless, I cannot see at all how any "fundamental," "Bible-believing" Christian can outright forbid our freedom in Christ to follow the Spirit in matters allowed in Christian liberty. Neither dancing, nor hand-holding, nor consumption of alcohol is forbidden in the Bible (see 2 Samuel 6:14-16; Psalm 104:14-15). On the contrary, drinking wine is itself commanded and assumed in the observation of the Lord's Supper, and our Lord himself drank wine (Matthew 26:27-29). Jesus even compared the Christian life to the joy of new wine (Luke 5:33-39).

More than just making Christians look like a bunch of total idiots, I'm afraid that this unbiblical legalism turns people in on themselves and away from Christ and his "alien righteousness." The Pharisees thought the kingdom would come by their own efforts in the Law and thereby failed to learn what mercy is. We need to make room for people to have faith in Christ and his deeds, not their own. Martin Luther counseled thus to all legalists who forget we are justified before God by faith alone and not by adhering to religious rites and customs and laws:
[The Christian] will meet first the unyielding, stubborn ceremonialists who like deaf adders are not willing to hear the truth of Christian liberty [Ps. 58:4] but, having no faith, boast of, prescribe, and insist upon their ceremonies as means of justification. Such were the Jews of old, who were unwilling to learn how to do good. These we must resist, do the very opposite, and offend them boldly lest by their impious views they drag many with them into their error. In the presence of such men it is good to eat meat, break the fasts, and for the sake of the liberty of faith do other things which they regard as the greatest of sins. Of them we must say, "Let them alone; they are blind guides." (On Christian Liberty)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Heirs by grace

Now that I'm wrapping up several months of study in the Pentateuch, I was looking foward to spending some time again reading the Psalms. Well, lo and behold, the first psalm I read this morning, 105, was essentially a retelling of the Pentateuch's story. One interpretive feature of many psalms is that the meat of their content in the middle is framed by "bookends" that provide the main theme. In the case of Psalm 105, a retelling of Israel's deliverance from Egypt and entry into Canaan, the bookends are about God's righteousness in upholding his covenant with Abraham.

7 He is the LORD our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.
8 He remembers his covenant forever,

the word he commanded, for a thousand generations,
9 the covenant he made with Abraham,

the oath he swore to Isaac.
10 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,

to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
11 "To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit." (vv. 7-11)

42 For he remembered his holy promise
given to his servant Abraham.
43 He brought out his people with rejoicing,

his chosen ones with shouts of joy;
44 he gave them the lands of the nations,

and they fell heir to what others had toiled for-
45 that they might keep his precepts

and observe his laws.
Praise the LORD. (vv. 42-45)

We learn here that God's treaty with Abraham is a promise sworn "forever" by God (v. 8) and is an "everlasting covenant" (berith olam, v. 10). But wait a second--wasn't it fulfilled already? Didn't Israel inherit the land? Well, not quite.

Centuries later the priest Zechariah (whose name means "the LORD remembers") extolled the Lord's righteousness at the Messiah's advent (Luke 1:67-79): With the coming of the Messiah has God now remembered "the oath he swore to our father Abraham." What had God done? He had raised up the true Davidic king, Jesus Christ. Psalm 105 points us ahead to the One who would "fulfill all righteousness" on our behalf. Jesus, Abraham's true Seed (Galatians 3:15-22), has now by his own faith and righteousness inherited the true "promised land," the kingdom of heaven. He earned it by his own merit and righteousness, doing his Father's will even unto death. And by another covenant (diatheke) what he earned he now freely gives us by grace (Hebrews 9:15-17). Through no toil or merit of our own, we've "fallen heir to what others [or Another] had toiled for" (Psalm 105:44). We share in Christ the Son's own everlasting inheritance by open-handed faith.*

National Israel may have been given provisional access to a small plot of hotly-contested land. But now we see that in the Messiah God's promise to Abraham means so much more. His descendants--the Israel of faith--are nothing short of all peoples, tongues, and tribes**; his land is nothing short of the entire earth now, and "the new heavens and the new earth" in the age to come.

Not only do I think it's cool to see foreshadows of the gospel in the Old Testament. What is much, much better is our tenaciously faithful and furiously loving Father; our self-emptying Savior who suffered that we might become sons; and the Spirit who breathes the life of faith into us by which we grasp hold of Christ and life in his kingdom.
*See Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 3:26. Being "adopted as sons" in Roman times involved conferring a right to an inheritance.
**According to the Bible, Israel is no longer a plot of land or limited to Jewish people; the entire global church is Israel. "If you belong to Christ, you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29; cf 6:16 and Romans 4).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Freedom under Providence

News flash: Olivia and I are moving back to Richmond, Virginia! Few viable job leads had materialized in Plainfield or anywhere else in nearby Chicagoland, so I contacted my old district in Richmond, Henrico County Public Schools, and within a week I had three interviews lined up. I was eventually offered a biology/chemistry teaching position at Henrico High School, and I was able to negotiate for an extended, higher-paying contract.

As the reality of a move to VA drew near, we trembled at the thought of leaving behind Olivia's home of eleven years. I've become more comfortable living here, too, and yet another major move is certainly less than ideal. But we realized that in the absence of a compelling reason to stay in Illinois, this was clear provision from God in answer to prayers for employment. We knew that neither option--staying in IL or moving to VA--would be sin. We had good, God-fearing motives for each. But we knew we had to quickly make a decision, so we trusted God and went for it, believing that even in a big move such as this, God would be with us.

I felt the freedom to make this decision because I know that "finding God's will" is not about reading a fortune in tea leaves, gazing in a crystal ball for each move, or wanting to see the whole future laid out before we step out in faith. That's condemned as abominable sin, in fact (Deuteronomy 18:9-14). It's easy to get plagued by wanting to know God's secret will for our lives, all the particulars and plans, when those mysteries are never for our knowledge anyway (Deuteronomy 29:29). As servants under God's covenant lordship, all that matters is living by what he has revealed, that is, trusting him and being guided by his law. As we trust and obey his revealed will or "will of command" we can be sure that he will uphold us and carry out his exact plan for our lives, his "hidden will" or "will of decree." My former pastor Kevin DeYoung once preached,
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.*
Here I think only a historic Augustinian/Reformed view of God's sovereignty and providence can give us humans true, meaningful freedom.* In an Arminian/open theistic view, even in "middle knowledge," God does not control all that happens in the future. He merely knows all that is possible, but human choice directs its course. If "God's will for my life" were really some sort of secret string of pearls I must continue to discover--specific choices and actions I may miss or stray from--then unless God controls me like a puppet, I could inadvertantly thwart his will. "Dang, God wanted me to do that, but I guess I missed it and ended up doing this instead. How was I to know? Both seemed like good options at the time. Can I still get back on track with his plan for me?"

In the biblical truth, however, everything is secured by God. I may fail to follow his revealed will--his law--but I cannot thwart his true purposes for me (his "hidden will" or "will of decree"). "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the LORD's purpose that prevails" (Proverbs 19:21; see also 16:9, 33; Ephesians 1:11). I can rest in knowing that when I'm faced with two or more choices, neither of which is sinful, then I'm free to really choose and know that all that follows is in God's hands and is according to his plan. I don't have to fear ruining God's will for my life. Only in this way are my choices truly free. And I can rest assured that even when I fail in sin, the Potter does not throw out rebellious, deformed clay. He rather reshapes it again in patience and grace (Jeremiah 18).

In addition, because God has the sovereign power to actually bring the consequences and fruit of my decisions to pass and to make them stick, only a Reformed view makes my choices truly meaningful, more than just vain hopes thrown cast to the winds of chance. God has the ability to "establish the work of our hands for us" (Psalm 90:17), giving lasting weight to our choices and actions. Otherwise I would have no confidence that my decisions to follow God would not be corrupted by someone else; the world would be ruled by existentialist Angst. But it is not so, for "the earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24:1).
*DeYoung, pastor at University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, MI, has now put his excellent sermon series "Wisdom and the Will of God" into a new book format titled Just Do Something. I'm really looking forward to reading it.
** This is not to say that others outside the Reformed tradition do not hold similar views, but they've largely been influenced by Augustine or the reformers.