Sunday, December 25, 2011

The King in a Manger

"And while they [Mary and Joseph] were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:6-7)

Today as I was preparing to lead the liturgy at church, the quiet wonder of the birth of Jesus dawned upon me. The "firstborn over all creation" through whom all things were created (Colossians 1:15-18) could've arranged to be born in a penthouse at the Hilton. At the very least he could've sent his angels to the Bethlehem Inn ahead of time to make reservations! But no, Jesus laid aside his glory and deigned to be born into a messy stable and placed in a feed trough.

How often my life feels like a messy stable! We've been preparing for our first child's imminent birth, trying to get ready at school for long-term substitutes, cleaning our home, and trying to enjoy our last days together as just "the two of us." On top of that we have the daily struggles against selfishness, unlove, pride, and faithless anxiety and despair. And as we look forward to raising children over the years to come, we know that our desires for peace-through-control will be met with only greater chaos and frustration.

Yet into the middle of our mess, Jesus gladly comes without complaint. The old hymn reminds us, "Pleased as man with men to dwell / Jesus, our Emmanuel." The very nature of Jesus is God-with-us, God-in-our-crap, God-among-sinners, God-beside-imbeciles. It's who he is. Not that he has to be, but his love impels him to be. Christmas, the coming of the King into our mangers, can happen every day of our lives. This gives me a tremendous amount of peace. Jesus is just that loving, that compassionate. Even when my life's at its messiest, he's right at home.

Friday, December 23, 2011


It's said of pregant women that they're "expecting." As Olivia and I have journeyed through our first pregnancy together--now at thirty-eight weeks--most of this season of expectation has seemed distant to me, far off. Maybe it's because those forty weeks seemed like such a long time. Or perhaps it's because I didn't actually have a needy human growing inside me, using me as a punching bag. Either way, judging by my slow pace of preparation, I don't think I was really expecting the baby to really arrive!

But now that Olivia is considered "full term," we realize that labor could begin at any moment. With every one of her body's practice contractions, we wonder, Could this be it? It's both scary and yet exciting.

As Advent wraps up and Christmas draws near, the any-day-now reality of our child's entrance into this world has made me think of the appearing of another son, Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.

At that time the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to another. . . .

No one knows about that day of hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. . . . Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matthew 24:30-31, 36, 42-44)

The imminent arrival of our child has caused me enough trembling; how much more that of the King and Judge of the universe? Do we really expect him to come at any day or hour? Or do we believe it's still something far off, for which we can prepare later?

And yet for those like us who call Jesus King in this life, his coming is good news: "When all these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28). Amen! Come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 9, 2011

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"

Advent is usually a time where we await the first coming of Jesus, the long-awaited Rescuer, to his people to deliver them from darkness. But this ancient hymn (which I rediscovered on an Alex Mejias album) leaves the option open to us that the Advent season is as much now about awaiting Jesus' final bodily return to this earth.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six wing├Ęd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

--"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," from the (Greek) Liturgy of St. James (4th century)

Oh, that we would sing more hymns like this in our churches today! I cannot help but feel the magnitude, the gravity, the splendor of Jesus when we sing of his reign and of his return in glory, his eternal kingdom.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"You shall be the father of a multitude of nations"

I just came across something fascinating today. It's easy to think about Abraham being the father of the Jews, of ethnic Israel. Obviously this the primary reference in passages such as Genesis 15:12-21. But it was always a little more obscure how the New Testament authors could see Abraham as being the "father" of the believing Gentiles.

That is, until, I read Genesis 17 a little more carefully.* "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you" (vv. 4-6). Did you read that? Even in its earliest incarnation, God promised the inclusion of the "nations" into Abraham's blessed offspring.

This is repeated in God's blessing upon Jacob (given through his father Isaac): "God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples" (Gen. 28:3). God likewise later confirms this promise to Jacob, saying, "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body" (35:11; cf. 48:4). This phrase, "a company [qahal] of nations," could also be translated "an assembly of peoples" or "a church of peoples." Qahal was the Hebrew word for the covenant people of God gathered for worship. In the Septuagint ekklesia is used to translate it, rendered in our English Bibles as "church."

This seems important for two immediate reasons. First, the covenant people of God are a unity both before and after Christ's earthly appearance. There is no division between Israel and the Church. Rather, the Church is the fulfillment and expansion of what Israel was always supposed to become.

Secondly, the claim that the promises of the Abrahamic covenant applied only to a temporal, ethnic, national administration are false. By viewing those among the nations as Abraham's offspring, even from the book of Genesis, the promises given to Abraham must always be seen as also--even ultimately--"spiritual" and eschatological promises awaiting something greater than ethnic Israel's life in Canaan.


*I discovered this while skimming Meredith Kline's book Kingdom Prologue this morning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Can Unbelievers and Apostates Belong to the New Covenant?

A question begged by biblical typology (see my previous post)--and several New Testament texts themselves--is the degree to which the church, as the covenant people of God, is analogous to Israel prior to Christ's death and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Listen to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:
I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

Now these things happened as examples [tupoi, "types"] for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . Now these things happened to them as an example [tupos], but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (vv. 1-12)
Note that Paul uses language of the Christian sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper to describe the experience of Israel in the wilderness. He is reading back present-day experiences into the life of ethnic Israel 1400 years earlier, who foreshadowed the global people of God. Despite being delivered from Egypt and sharing in the goodness of God's presence and nourishment, they failed to enter the promised land because they set their hearts on evil desires. Nonetheless, these were those who had been "baptized into Moses in the . . . sea." They were those whom God had saved in the exodus, and they had come under the leadership of Moses and the covenant put into effect through his mediation. Paul seems to be warning the baptized new covenant church, delivered from bondage to sin and under the leadership of Jesus. He warns that if they likewise presume upon their religious privileges and the gifts of God (particularly in worship and sacrament, as chapters 10-11 of 1 Cor. unfold), but do not embody obedient faith and repentance from idols, they will fall under God's judgment (cf. Deut. 29:18-21) and "fall in the desert."

In similar fashion the author of Hebrews issues dire warnings of God's judgment upon those who have experienced Christian teaching, nurture, and worship and have made some profession of faith, and then have fallen away (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 6:4-8; 10:26-31; cf. similar warnings in Num. 15:30-31; Deut. 29:18-21).

The question I have is this: Is this faithless idolater a person who is a member of the new covenant people of God? I think Scripture is clear that all genuine believers are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:21-22), are kept from stumbling by Jesus Christ (Jude 24-25; John 10:28-29), and remain faithful because Christ's death has secured it (Col. 1:21-23). Apostates are not recipients of the promised new covenant blessings of faith and love towards God, the seal of the Spirit, and forgiveness of sins, because they fail to meet its condition (persevering, repentant faith). But nonetheless in Hebrews 10:29 we read that there are those who've trampled Christ underfoot, who have "profaned the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified" (v. 29), and who belong to God's people and will be judged accordingly (v. 30). Such passages appear to indicate that someone can belong to the covenant and thus set apart (sanctified) to God, at least externally, by virtue of an empty profession of faith (Heb. 4:14; 10:23).

Friday, December 2, 2011

Biblical Typology

As I've been studying Hebrews again the past several weeks, I am amazed at the plethora of Old Testament typology. A type (Greek tupos) is a pattern, example, or mold, corresponding to an antitype (antitupos), the substance or reality. A good way to think of this is when someone casts a bronze figure. First they form a mold, which itself is empty, a relief. It sets the pattern for the true figure, but it lacks the substance. This is the type. When the bronze is poured into the mold or cast and solidifies into the statue or figure, this is the antitype, the substance.

In an almost uncountable number of ways, the Bible uses type-antitype relationships to describe the redemption and life of God's people. For example, Paul says of Adam that he was "a type of the one to come" (Rom. 5:14). He was a representative (federal) head over humanity, and his unrighteousness and curse fell upon all mankind (all who are "in Adam"). Likewise, Jesus is the antitype. By the obedience of the one man Jesus, many were made righteous, and blessing has come to all who are "in Christ" (Rom. 5:12-21).

Elsewhere we see that the tabernacle and the ministry of the Aaronic priests was merely a "pattern" or "copy" (tupos) of the "true things" (antitupos), the priestly service of Christ in the heavenly tent (Heb. 8:5; 9:24). The exodus and wandering of Israel in the desert served as "examples" (tupoi) (1 Cor. 10:6, 11). The flood at the time of Noah was symbolic of Christian baptism, which is now the anticipated antitupos (1 Pet. 3:21).

All that is to say, you really ought to read this article, "The Exodus and the People of God" by James T. Dennison, Jr. It is simply fascinating to see the parallels between the Israel of the Old Testament and the Israel of the New Testament. The more I read about these parallels, the more I see what's going on in the mind of the New Testament's authors, and the weight of what is going on sinks in. Soak this stuff in. Immerse yourself in it.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

No Thanksgiving without Grace

Today is Thanksgiving Day, a day where we are officially (in the words of institution by President Lincoln in 1863) to "set apart and observe the last Thursday of November . . . as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" for all his gifts in life. Lincoln rightly recognized that we are to be thankful to God for his grace--his unmerited kindness and favor toward us as sinners: "While dealing with us in anger for our sins, [God] hath nevertheless remembered mercy" (likely an allusion to Habbakuk 3:2).
Without grace, there is no thanksgiving. If our world were governed by an entirely quid pro quo system, tit-for-tat, where all was earned as payment for duty or obligation, we would have no reason to say "thank you" to anyone. All would be our just deserts. It is only when someone does something good for us that we really don't deserve, that we can say "thank you." (See Romans 4.)
At its very core, gratitude is rooted in grace. Our English "gratitude" and the Italian grazi ("thank you") come from the Latin gratias ("grace"). God has been good to preserve a fundamental, if flawed and feeble, recognition of this throughout the world. No matter where you may travel, sinful people are still bearing the image of their Creator, doing good to others and (sometimes) receiving replies of "thank you."
Paul's letter to the Colossian church demonstrates that among the chief Christian virtues is thankfulness. "We always thank God . . . when we pray for you" (1:3). "May you be strengthened with all power . . . , giving thanks to the Father" (1:12). We are to live our lives rooted in Christ Jesus, "abounding in thanksgiving" (2:7). "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. . . . And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, . . . with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (3:13, 15-17).
We are to live "with thankfulness [charis] in our hearts to God." Charis is the Greek word used throughout the New Testament to refer to grace, God's love for sinners on account of Christ. We live with grace in our hearts. And the outflow of this is gratitude. Even the adjective "thankful" in verse 15 is eucharistos. We can be thankful only because we recognize God's grace and favor.
Without the compassionate, forgiving love of God rooted in his Son and poured out through his Spirit (Romans 5:5), we would live in a cold world of duty and wages. And if this were God's core modus operandi, our chief attitude should be one of fear, "for all have sinned," and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But we rather live in a world of a giving and forgiving God. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23).
So don't forget that the food on your table today and the family or friends you're with are gifts. You didn't deserve them, you didn't earn them. The day off of work is a gift--and you should celebrate it with enjoyment and rest. And above all, today should be for looking to Jesus Christ on the cross, the very demonstration of God's goodness and grace toward us in this life and the next.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strive To Enter Rest

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a strange and powerful thing, full of perplexing paradoxes. It declares that the righteous God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). The message that all our sins are forgiven in superabounding grace--past, present, and future--doesn't turn people into licentious sinners, but rather into loving, holy saints (Romans 5:20-6:23; Titus 2:11-14). And it calls us to work hard and exert effort in order to rest (Hebrews 4:11).
"So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [as Israel in the wilderness]" (Hebrews 4:9-11).
Strive to enter that rest. It's so weird. Jesus' saving work is, in one sense, finished (John 19:30). "After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). And if we share in Christ through faith, we too are assured of our final rest in the heavenly Zion (4:3). But the weird paradox is that for precisely this reason, we are to exert continual effort in the Christian life on our homeward pilgrimage.
The book of Hebrews is full of effort language. Christians are constantly encouraged to "hold fast" to Jesus in confident, confessing faith (3:6, 14; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23). We are called to press on to maturity in faith and doctrine (6:1). We are to "show the same earnestness" and "not be sluggish" (6:11-12). We must "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (12:1). We are commanded to "strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (12:14).
Far from creating spiritual and moral laxity, a true apprehension of the glory of God's Son and the "great salvation" he has achieved should stimulate great energy for God and great effort against sin. Yes, it's true that from the first moment we believe the good news about Jesus, we are irrevocably transferred into God's kingdom (Colossians 1:12-13). The promise of our rest is sure because our Savior is sure. But it's also true that saving faith is a working faith. It strives against sin in our hearts that causes us to drift away from the gospel in search of earthly, tangible pleasures and comforts (3:12-13). Someone with real faith endures hardship with patience and prayerful hope (6:11-12). If there were ever anything that is hard work and effort, it must certainly be prayer! (If you don't accept this, I wonder if you've never truly prayed!)
True faith is also a perservering faith. "We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (3:14). "You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised" (10:36). "These all died in faith" (11:13). Every day, as long as it is called "today," dissonant voices are beckoning for our allegiance. God's voice calls to us through the Word of his Son (1:1; 2:1-4; 3:7-4:12). But sin is right there with us to deceive us and call us away from Jesus, like the mythical Sirens. And every day presents opportunities to listen to Satan or listen to God. As long as we are alive, we live in "today." And each and every "today" God speaks to us--a chance to grow closer to him and enter his rest, or a chance to harden our hearts against him. Life's "todays" don't stop until we die. So faith must never stop either.
But if the future were really in question, in doubt, we'd give up. No one has the strength and will to keep up a battle like this for seventy years. But that isn't the picture painted by the author of Hebrews, either. We may be rowing against the tide, but the tide will never sweep us away. Those who belong to God's family have "a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf" (6:19-20a). Jesus is our anchor, and he has bound his brothers together with him, and he is towing us home. Even when our strength is flagging and we feel no faith and want to quit the race, Jesus never stops reeling us in. "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25). The Son never stops praying for us to his Father, and the Father is delighted to give what his Son asks. Yes, we may have to "fight the good fight of faith," but it is Jesus--not us--who is "the author and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). He will surely bring us home to our eternal rest.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Simul Iustus et Peccator

I saw this shirt a while back on Old Lutheran and thought it was awesome. Then this weekend at diaconal training, we were talking about Luther's famous saying, simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time righteous (or justified) and a sinner." It describes the conundrum that while we ourselves are ungodly sinners, God views us as innocent and holy through the atonement of Christ, which we receive by faith.

"God . . . justifies the ungodly." (Romans 4:5)

"Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrouht in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone." (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 70)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Best Hermeneutic

"The Bible is not targeted at experts, yielding its meaning only to priests and scholars. You don't need rows of commentaries to understand it. You don't need to go to a theological college. If you are a Christian, it is for you. Hunger, it has been said, is the best hors d' oeuvre; and spiritual hunger is the best hermeneutic. If we come to the Bible as needy sinners ('poor in spirit,' as Jesus Himself put it) then we'll understand it because we'll find it speaks to our condition."

--Donald Macleod, A Faith to Live By (p. 21)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Let There Be Light

As I was preparing my BSF teaching lesson tonight on Acts 2, the warmth of the early followers of Jesus really struck me. "... And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved" (vv. 46-47).
This joy, gladness, and deep communion is nothing less than the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor. 13:14), that is, the reciprocal participation in one another's lives and in the joy the Spirit gives through the gospel of Jesus Christ. These were all those who had seen their own complicity in the Messiah's death and had received the gospel that in Christ their sins were washed away forever, and they had receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (vv. 36-41).
The image that keeps coming to my head is that of an incandescent lightbulb. When the switch is turned on and the metal connection is restored, the circuit allows electricity to stream from its source through the bulb's tungsten filament, causing it to glow and radiate warmth and light. In the same way, in the life of the repentant sinner who receives Christ and the forgiveness that comes through him, he is restored to connection with the very life of God--his Spirit, his Breath--who is poured out into the believer's soul and acts upon him in such a way that he cannot help but radiate joy, peace, and love over the grace of his God. "On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and cried out, 'If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, "Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." ' Now this he had said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified" (John 7:37-39).
But even though this Spirit and the grace that comes through the message of the cross can be found even by a man alone with the Bible, how often do we rather encounter the life-giving, joy-producing Word through the prayers, consolation, hymns, and encouragement of other Christian brothers and sisters? As we've received, so we freely give to others. And so the church glows brighter, with the result that the Lord will add to her number day by day those who are being saved.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Human Sacrifices and THE Human Sacrifice

No matter how many times I come across examples in the Old Testament, I am continually shocked at the accounts of people sacrificing their children to deities, often by burning them as offerings to the Ammonite god Molech (see Lev. 18:21; 20:2ff.; 2 Kings 16:3; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21). In our age of Western "enlightenment," we all see human sacrifice--whether voluntary or not--as an ignorant, if not brutal, act. So when I read that this is still being practiced in many sites around the world, particularly among African tribal peoples, it shocks me.

But should it?

Human sacrifice has been practiced for thousands of years, from the earliest of human times. Though we modern folk deride and decry it--and Christians rightly hate it for the evil, life-desecrating work of Satan that it is--there are innate truths in human sacrifice that perhaps many of us today have forgotten.

Some people sacrifice themselves or another member of their community as an offering of devotion to please their god(s). They rightly see that the greater powers deserve nothing less than all that we can offer to them, and that a life given in their honor is the supreme gift. Do we even think about the fact that we owe our lives to a higher being?

Other cultures sacrifice those who are thought to bear curses. (Here is a sad story of Ethiopians who kill off children who are mingi, or "cursed," and who thereby endanger their communities--and of how Christians' hope in Jesus and love for their neighbors is redeeming this situation.) Only by removing the accursed person can prosperity be restored to the community. In some situations the sacrifice himself isn't considered cursed, but the community as a whole is, and amends can only be made by placating the deity's anger with sacrifices. Do we today feel any sense of guilt before the Divine for our wrongdoing?

Strangely enough, these motives for sacrifice point us to the Gospel, the message about the one true and final human sacrifice: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He lived an unblemished life and "knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21) and willingly "gave himself up as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2 NIV). He held back none of himself in perfect submission and devotion to God.

But of this same man it is written, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us [i.e., in our place as a substitute]--for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'--so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13-14). Jesus' untarnished dedication to God both motivated him and enabled him to become a worthy, once-for-all-time sacrifice who took upon himself our guilt and accursedness as his very own so that we might be absolved and welcomed into the family of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

So while human sacrifices can point people toward the gospel, by themselves they only lead to despair. Such offerings must continually be repeated because they inevitably fall short of the wholehearted consecration God desires and the extent of sacrifice he justly requires--because these can only be fulfilled in the God-man Jesus. But the wonderful truth is that they have been fulfilled! And everywhere this good news spreads--as it did to the Celts--people will begin to joyfully offer up sacrifices of a different kind: praise and thanks to God in Jesus' name and charity and generosity toward mankind (Heb. 13:15-16).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Hope for a Dad-To-Be

The school year is only two weeks old*, yet with devoting two hours plus each day to cross country, I'm already finding myself falling behind. As such, it's easy for me to get freaked out about the difficulties of becoming a parent amid "real life." (In case you don't know, we're expecting our first child in early January, Lord willing.) But the truth is that there has never been a single parent who didn't live in a messy, pressure-laden, sin-filled world. Everyone has had to work to put bread on the table, to trust that the heavens will rain at the right time, to strain to find the energy to keep going, and to fight the battle (both within and without) to live wisely and nobly. That's true of all God's saints too.

I often think about how much easier it would be amid a tiring schedule to settle for the path of rearing well-groomed kids who are well-behaved yet whose righteousness is only skin deep--"whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" (Matthew 23:27). The vigilance, time, involvement, patience, prayer, instruction, reproof, and encouragement needed to shepherd their hearts and to guide them to the cross will be so great. When Olivia and I are tired, frustrated at our lack of control, or ashamed of our kids' behavior, it would be so much easier to meet their neediness and stubbornness with anger and irritability or cheap rewards--or give up in complacence and defeat--than to press on another day in hope that the Lord will faithfully be at work in their lives.

But God will have none of that! As I've been reading Hosea and Proverbs, God has been showing me how he justly and consistently disciplines his wayward children while continuing to pursue them in tender, consuming compassion. "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?" (Hosea 11:8). Because he has created marriage, in large measure, for the sake of raising godly children (Malachi 2:15), he has delegated his own authority to parents. And because he has given us this authority in his image to rule, lead, teach, and guide our children as he does his own people, he will empower and teach us to be parents like him: sober-minded and watchful, consistent in discipline, faithful in presence, patient in hope, fervent in love, speaking truth and wisdom to transform the heart.

But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him, and his righteousness to [their] children's children. (Psalm 103:17)

"And as for me, this is my covenant with them [those who receive the Redeemer and turn from transgression]," says the LORD: "My Spirit that is upon you, and the words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring," say the LORD, "from this time forth and forevermore." (Isaiah 59:21)
*I actually posted this on September 15. For some reason Blogger tags the date the first time I write anything at all on a post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Can There Be Christian Homosexuals?

Okay, from the get-go, this is not a systematic theology of homosexuality. I don't plan on doing that here. I sort of thought that, being part of a confessional denomination that does not ordain homosexual people, I'd never have to come face-to-face with this issue. But as I daydream about seminaries with good Christian education programs, Calvin Theological Seminary stands out. The problem is this: CTS belongs to the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), a relatively conservative, confessional denomination which, since 2005, allows for the ordination of homosexual clergy. Here's the CRC's official position statement on homosexuality:

Homosexuality is a a condition of disordered sexuality that reflects the brokennes of our sinful world. Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, holy obedience, and the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices [elders and deacons] and the life of the congregation should be afforded to them as to heterosexual Christians.

Homosexualism (that is, explicit homosexual practice), however, is incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness.

Like many church bodies, they get it mostly right. Homosexuality is a "disorder"--not so much in the sense of a disease (though it may have valid biological associations), but in the sense that in "the brokenness of our sinful world," people have cast God and his truth out of the center. (I love John Piper's analogy that just as the planets' orbits are held in line by the massive gravitational field of the sun at it center, so too do our lives only work rightly when the weight of the glory of Christ is at the center.) The CRC is right in affirming that "Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, holy obedience, and the use of their gifts in the kingdom" and that engagement in homosexual practices is against God's will. It's also 100% true that just because someone has struggled with same-sex attraction--perhaps even a lifelong struggle--that they can still be genuine believers and should be welcomed into the fellowship of the church (Gal. 3:28; Isa. 56:3-5).

The real problem is this: The CRC, like many others I'm sure, defines homosexuality as "a condition of personal identity" (see URL above). Though they define a homosexual as "a personal who has erotic attractiosn for members of the same sex and who may or may not engage in homosexualism," the problem exists in the church when people are viewed as "Christian homosexuals" instead of as "homosexual Christians." The issue is one of nature and identity, and it's not just a battle over semantics.

Saint Paul explained to the Galatians that "you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neighter Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26-28). Similarly he proclaimed to the Colossian church, "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all" (Col. 3:11). "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4). It's true that faith in Jesus is what defines and unites believers, not sexual orientation. We're all broken, guilty sinners of one ilk or another, justly deserving God's wrath--but instead receiving his mercy and love through the cross of Christ.

But this is precisely where the CRC's logic breaks down. There is no such thing as a "Christian homosexual." This makes "Christian" and adjective describin the noun "homosexual." Thus being a homosexual is what defines a person; it's who they are. But for all of us baptized into Christ, we must acknowledge that "Christ is all, and in all," and that "Christ ... is your life." Our old identities and defining standards according to the world--even according to our own eyes--are dead and buried. We have died with on the cross, and Christ is now our life, our identity, our core being. Christ is in us and we are in him. "I have been crucified with Christ," Paul testified elsewhere. "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). New creatures in Christ are not homosexuals, and they should not view themselves that way. Yes, our perceptions, how we see ourselves and the world, are very strong. They die hard. But God's Word teaches that they all must go. Paul thus wrote off all he once was and cherished (Phil. 3:3-10). He knew that in fellowship with Jesus, the old way of evaluating ourselves and others from an external, worldly perspective had to be discarded (2 Cor. 5:16-17).

So what this means is that for humans made in the image of God, especially those united to Christ by faith, "homosexual" is an adjective, not an identity. When I was in high school and college, being a cyclist was pretty much my identity. Heck, I even shaved my legs as a badge of my commitment to the sport! (It does feel pretty cool when you slide on a pair of pants.) But I was wrong. Yes, homosexual feelings may be all someone knows, but it's not who he is. In the same way, no Christian is an alcoholic or a sex addict or a compulsive liar or whatever. There are lying Christians, alcoholic Christians, and sexually addicted Christians. But it's not the final word on their lives. If it is, then this is what's true of them: "Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor theives, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10; cf. Rev. 21:8). For such people, their sins are their very identity, something that cannot be given up in a life of discipleship to Jesus in submission to his Spirit's renewing work. But for others, Paul can continue with the good news, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11). God takes sinners, even "the sexually immoral" and "men who practice homosexuality," and gives them a new name, the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom their lives are irreovocably hidden, with grace-abounding glory to come.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Founded on Better Promises

Ah, summer: muggy weather, mosquitoes, sweet tea, grilling, baseball, and . . . weddings. I went to four of 'em this summer in a six-week span, even standing up in one as a groomsman. Not all the couples were disciples of Jesus, and this was evident in one of the ceremonies. The prayer was made to a generic "God," but not in Jesus' name. And rather than being joined to one another in self-giving love, the vows and readings reflected a very self-oriented approach to marriage: "You can have my love, but you can never have my soul, for my soul must remain free." "You must accept me as I am, not expecting or hoping to change me. It is respect for our individuality that unites us and makes marriage possible."

While this deeply saddened me, for "love is not self-seeking" (1 Cor. 13:5), it gave me peace to know that my marriage with Olivia is "founded on better promises" (Heb. 8:6). We have chosen to embrace our own need for change and death to our old selves and personal desires so we can become "one flesh" in glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, forever praised; and we know that we need each other as partners mediating God's Word and grace toward that end. We know that we will never part until death, lest we incur God's strict judgment. And we know that sacrificial, giving love is the greatest blessing of all, for in it Christ abides with us. All this really gives me peace, knowing the wholeness and stability it brings to our lives, the shalom reflected in Psalms 128 and 144. So often it's hard to see the joy and rest of embracing the cross and going against the grain of the world, but I sure realized it that day.

I know our marriage vows aren't so wonderful, though, because we are great promise-keepers. Far from it! Rather, we know we can make such commitments with confidence because our own lives have been founded upon the better promises God has made to us and fulfilled in Christ: the promise to forgive us of all our sins, so that we too can admit our wrongs and forgive one another; the promise that we would see our own brokenness and unloving ways, so that we can embrace change and growth; and the promise to be for our good and carry us always, so that we can ever depend on him for strength to love and bear challenges until death do us part.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Gospel Builds the Church AND Her Pastors

What are the riskiest jobs in America? Firefighter? High-rise construction worker? Street cop in Compton? Believe it or not, being a pastor can be a job fraught with perils, if only spiritual. Mark Galli writes about the dangers of pastoral ministry, namely, that due to the way American churches often function pastors lose sight of their calling as shepherds and personal caretakers as their congregation swells--a sure sign of ministerial "success." Concomitantly, they also succumb to pride in a number of ways.

When a church is edified (numerically, if not also spiritually) by her pastor, it's easy for her members to associate themselves with pastor So-and-So, that it's his church to which they belong. "The inadvertent effect of all this is that pastors have become the heads of personality cults," notes Galli. "Churches become more identified with the pastor . . . than with anything larger. When a pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it's devastating. It feels like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today's relationship between pastor and people."

I know a thing or two of this. From 2004-05 I was a member of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, when Kevin DeYoung first arrived from Iowa as our new senior pastor. Back then he was a lanky, somewhat nerdy, and unknown guy--but one who could preach the Word with clarity and conviction, and who had a deep love for the church and for right doctrine. DeYoung is now known among evangelical circles nationwide, he has published several excellent books, and URC is growing. I recall with fondness my time at URC, mostly for different reasons (the loving people there and the way they taught me godly living), but it's easy for me to think I'm somehow cooler because I belonged to the church over which he was (is) pastor.

In light of this, I think there are a few important truths both pastors and the church need to keep in mind.

1. Christ Jesus alone is the Head of the church, and all good and growth belongs to him. "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor. 3:5-7). The church's Chief Pastor is none other than Jesus (1 Pet. 5:4), who bought the church for himself at the price of his blood (Acts 20:28). Consequently pastors are only undershepherds participating in the work God is doing among his people. All credit, all thanks, always goes to God alone through Jesus Christ.

2. It's the Word that is preached, not the preacher, that builds the church. Scripture tells us that we were called to God and are built up not by a sermon per se, but through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the grace of God proclaimed in that sermon. It is through this message the Spirit kindles faith and nurtures growth (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2, 5; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7). In times of change, when leaders come and go, the thing to trust in isn't that leader himself, but to have hope that the very word of God they taught is still present and available. Success in life and as a church therefore comes not from having a particular pastor, but from living out the same faith that they had--faith in Christ, who never leaves or changes. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (v. 8). In part this is why I favor churches in which multiple elders take turns preaching, so the church knows it owes thanks to the gospel and not to one particular leader.

3. The church is more than a pastor. "From him [Christ] the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4:16 NIV). When you join a local church, you're joining a group of people, a spiritual family. You're not just a spiritual lone ranger, or a solitary knight pledged to his lord and no other. And it's through the loving service, care, and concern of the church family that each individual Christian and the congregation as a whole is strengthened and edified.

4. Pastors are temporal, but the church is eternal. God keeps raising up new men and women to lead his flock in each generation. They don't last forever. But what they're working toward does endure, which is the same as Paul's goal: "I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2). One day our faith will give way to sight (1 Cor. 13:8-13), and the great Wedding will come. The church will no longer need pastors. But the church herself will live on into blissful eternity.

5. We should thank our pastors and pray for them, but not exalt them yet. Paul warned the Corinthian church to regard him and his fellow workers merely "as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1). The Corinthians lauded Paul and Apollos, but Paul knew that any human judgment is irrelevant; it is God's evaluation that matters (1 Cor. 4:1-7). We should be serious about praying for our pastors, and they need our verbal encouragement. They're human, just like us. They need to be thanked and picked up. Pointing out the good in someone isn't sinful; just read Paul's letters. But in doing so, we need to be careful to prevent any boasting in human achievement. Everything good any person has done is simply an undeserved gift received from God (v. 7).

6. Even when pastors sin in pride, lovelessness, or impurity, the gospel is every bit as much for them as for their congregations. In writing a letter to the elders and shepherds of churches in modern-day Turkey, Peter reminded these leaders that God gives grace and bears their burdens, and he encouraged them to stand firm in the grace of God (1 Pet. 5:5-7, 12). This grace isn't just for rank-and-file Christians, after all; it's for pastors too. Jesus' blood and righteousness covers even their sins. His open arms and nail-pierced hands welcome with joyful tears every pastor whose pride has led them to stumble and stray from their Savior. So when we hear of a pastor or priest succumbing to sin, don't wag your finger at them. You're a sinner too. Just as one of the greatest displays of gratitude and love a child can have is to care for his parents when they are old and weak, it's wholly appropriate that we also pray for our spiritual fathers, that they would know the love and forgiveness of God for them, even taking our turn to speak the Word of life to them in their need.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The True Church according to The Belgic Confession

We believe and confess
one single catholic or universal church--
a holy congregation and gathering
of true Christian believers,
awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ
being washed by his blood,
and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

As for those who can belong to the church,
we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians:
namely by faith,
and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness,
once they have received the one and only Savior,
Jesus Christ.
They love the true God and their neighbors,
without turning to the right or left,
and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them,
they fight against it
by the Spirit
all the days of their lives,
appealing constantly
to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus,
in whom they have forgiveness of their sins,
through faith in him.

--from the Belgic Confession, articles 27 & 29

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

An Abundance for Every Good Deed

I've been thinking a lot about fear and provision the past few weeks (see the previous two posts). One consistent lesson I've been learning is that fear reveals our answers to these related questions: Whose kingdom am I living in? Whom am I trying to exalt? Who is calling the shots around here?

I know that might sound weird, but hear me out. When it comes to fear in this life--fear of death and the next life might be something different--aren't we often afraid of the loss of something because we think we need that thing to live a happy, fulfilled life? My latest snags have been a fear of how we could live on a low income, and a fear (or perhaps frustration) that I'll never be good enough at my job to earn some kind of positive recognition and accolades. In other words, what I really want is to have our own home, to be able to pursue graduate school or seminary (to feel knowledgeable and competent?), and to have some tangible affirmation that I'm not just some mediocre teacher and coach good enough to hang onto his job, but someone who excels. If these things don't come my way, or something threatens their arrival, then I start fearing failure and all the question marks of what life is going to look like down the road. What would it be like to rent my whole life long? Will I be ineffective in serving the church without more education?

The real problem, I think, is that I'm viewing my own desires and wants as what I really need. Without knowing it, I confuse "God's will for my life" with my own picture of how I think things should work. Then when my picture of life is threatened or doesn't come about, I'll twist that into believing God isn't really meeting my needs or isn't able or doesn't listen to me, so then I feel like life is out of (my) control. When God is at my beck and call, life is great. But when he's not, that turns into either grumbling or panic.

This is just what the Israelites did in the wilderness. They longed for meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic--their own idea of real provision from God--when they were oblivious to the manna God faithfully sent them every day. "There is nothing but this manna to look at!" (Num. 11:4-6). They wanted "the good life" now when in fact they hadn't yet entered the Promised Land. They wanted rest and prosperity when they were still sojourners and pilgrims. Believing then that the Lord was against them (read: he wasn't their servant), they concluded that God had ditched them to die in the wilderness (14:1-4), when in fact God was giving them all they needed. However, it was according to his own terms, with the purpose of testing their hearts and refining their trust in him (Deut. 8:1-3). This is why the godly men Caleb and Joshua equated fear of failure with rebellion against the Lord (Num. 14:9, 11-12).

Our fear doesn't come because life is actually out of control. It's simply shows that it's out of our control. It's not enough for us to know that whatever we have or don't have, it's because God ordained it to be so. We want to have it our own way, on our terms. So we accuse God of being unjust, or playing favorites, or hiding himself, or whatever. Fear is just God knocking out our throne from under us so that we can rest on the infinitely more expansive and solid foundation of his throne.

The fact is, God will never fail to provide for us what we need to obey him and to do his will. "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Eccles. 12:13). Our fear is transformed to trust only once we recognize that our purpose in life isn't to reign over our own little kingdoms, but to live as servants of our heavenly King. "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed" (2 Cor. 9:8 NASB). Notice that word sufficiency. God gives us what we need. And he gives it abundantly for doing good deeds that result in his praise (vv. 11-15). "God is faithful, and will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you maybe able to endure it" (1 Cor. 10:13). God will provide what we need for doing his will and obeying him in the moment he calls us to do it. But if we have other desires for life on our terms apart from what God says is necessary, why should we expect him to open his wallet and shell out for those? He isn't into funding his rivals' campaigns.

This is why Jesus teaches us to pray first, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Only when we have subordinated our desires to his can we then pray rightly, "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matt. 6:9-10).

So if in the end our finances only allow us to rent, then it's because God wants us to rent, and we'll be able to do whatever he asks us to do from our meager apartment. If I can't afford seminary, then he's simply calling me to be faithful in serving others with the knowledge and skills I already have, and I need to be content with that. If I don't receive accolades at work, then he's not calling me to live in the limelight; he's just calling me to be faithful and do my best and receive my praise from him alone. If our children don't end up being athletic, good-looking, intelligent, and popular, that's fine. Even if they're brace-faced Trekkies on the robotics team, God's calling me to recognize that what matters is their character and their love for him, and that I love these kids with all my heart and not some out-there ideal.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Mammon Cannot Serve You

On Saturday morning I was praying through Psalm 27, asking God to give me confidence in him so that I'd trust him alone when fears and worries arise. What I didn't expect was that God would, during that time, bring me face to face with one of those worries! Someday if/when Olivia and I have children, we'd ideally like to have her stay home to raise the kids. But whenever I think about the extra cost of children on half the income, all I think about is how this is impossible. How difficult it would be to afford appropriate housing, medical care, food, education, and the like! (And I can kiss graduate school goodbye, too, or so my mental logic tells me.)

But as I prayed, it dawned upon me (through the Spirit of God, no doubt) that if I fretted over how difficult it would be to have such provisions due to a lack of money, I wasn't trusting or looking to God to be our provider. I was hoping in Money itself to provide all these things. And money isn't the living God. It's simply a piece of woven fabric and paper, or a nugget of metal, or a series of binary ones and zeroes in an electronic file in cyberspace. Of course I had reason to worry! Since when could a hundred-dollar bill ever hear my prayers or make dinner or otherwise act on my behalf?

Jesus says, "You cannot serve both God and Money [Greek Mammon, a personification of wealth as a deity]" (Matt. 6:24). But it's also true that Mammon cannot serve you, either. It is a worthless, lifeless, vain thing--made by human hands and obtained only through hours of hard labor! "You will always be running scared," warns Ed Welch, "if you worship other gods, because idols can't deliver on their promises" (Running Scared, p. 176).

Even long before this, the prophet Jeremiah explained to the people of Judah the errors of trusting in anything other than God for their provision (Jer. 9:23-10:16).

Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."

Riches or wisdom or power aren't living, active things to trust in for blessing and security. Only knowing the living, almighty God as Father, Shepherd, King, who relates to you in his constant "steadfast love, justice, and righteousness" is a source of rest and boasting. Trusting in anything else is a foolish form of idolatry. Idols (such as money) are simply products of human craft , and as such, they are impotent (Jer. 10:1-5, 8-9, 15). "Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good" (v. 5). Despite what our everyday experiences tell us, money is absolutely powerless on its own to bring us any good. So why worry about how much of it you have?

What matters is whether or not, through faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we have God on our side.

But the LORD is the true God;
he is the living God and the everlasting King.
At his wrath the earth quakes,
and the nations cannot endure his indignation.

It is he who made the earth by his power,
who established the world by his wisdom,
and by his understanding stretched out the heavens. (Jeremiah 10:10, 12)

It is not an inanimate object, but a Person, who secures your future, someone you can know and who relates to you in love and concern. If such a God is your God through faith in Jesus, you have a God who hears your prayers and knows your every need. You have a God who speaks to you (Jer. 10:1). You have a God who is wise enough to order and direct the entire cosmos, your life included. You have a God who can count every star in the sky and every hair on your head. You have a God mighty enough to stretch out the heavens and to also carry your burdens (Isaiah 46:3-4). And you have a God who "practices steadfast love" (Jer. 9:24) on your behalf. This is the great hope of those in Christ.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Seek First His Kingdom

Over the past few years, the Holy Spirit has shown me I'm a fearful person--and that means an idolatrous person too. First it was the fear of moving to Chicago. Then once I got there, I feared that if Olivia and I broke up, I'd be stuck alone in some new place where I didn't know anyone. This year I went through all kinds of unrest over my supervisor's disapproval of me and whether or not I'd have a job next year. So why is that idolatry? Because it means I'm ascribing to something or someone else the power and value in my life that only God Most High deserves.

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. . . . But seek first [your heavenly Father's] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:24-25, 33)

It wasn't until reading Running Scared by Ed Welch that I realized how verses 24 and 33, which frame Jesus' teaching about God's daily provision meeting our worries and anxieties, really fit the whole teaching. Jesus says that the solution to worry is to seek God's kingdom and his righteousness. But what exactly does this mean?

Like the father of the ancient Near East, the king's task was to love, protect, and bless his subjects so that the kingdom--his kingdom--prospered. Subjects of the realm, for their part, acknowledged their allegiance to the king and demonstrated that allegiance by living according to his laws.

In the kingdom of God, the King has made extravagant promises to us--promises of protection, liberation, and peace. We respond with our allegiance, which we typically call faith or trust. The essence of faith is not that we trust without evidence but that we choose sides: In whom do we trust? (p. 120)

This was mind-blowing to me. In essence, if we have fears about financial loss, it's not because our bank account is too small or our employment is unstable. We have anxieties because we've set up Money as a god who can provide peace, security, food, shelter, comfort, health, and the like. Hence Jesus says that Money (Greek Mammon) is a master we often choose to serve opposed to God (v. 24). Because we cannot serve two masters, and should serve God alone, "Therefore, I tell you, do not worry . . . ."

Or perhaps it's not money itself we hope in, but rather it might be the very comfort, peace, friends, or self-image that money can provide for us that have become our gods, the things we value more than God himself. When potential for their loss looms and we grow anxious, that shows we're valuing and hoping for something else more than God. "Worry, therefore, is not simply an emotion that erodes our quality of life or a pain to be alleviated. It is a misdirected love that should be confessed. It is trying to manage our world apart from God. It is making life about our needs, desires, and wants" (p. 163).

Seeking God's kingdom, then, is about acknowledging his reign over your life. It's his purposes and plans that must prevail, not your own. But while this might sound like cringing before some Machiavellian overlord, we need to remember that it is our heavenly Father whom we are serving as King (v. 32). If we doubt God's goodness, Jesus comforts us with this corrective: "If you, then, though you are evil [in comparison to God's pure and generous love], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11). "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32).

God-the-King's faithful, generous, gracious provision and protection is what the Old Testament often means by describing his righteousness. It's his just and good reign over his people, exercising his delivering power in loyal love toward those who've entrusted their welfare to him (see Psalms 4, 5, 96-98). When Jesus encourages us to seek God's kingdom and righteousness above all else, he calls us to acknowledge first God's glad benevolence toward his people and his power to carry out his good intentions for them.

O King, you are mighty to save! Forgive us all the times we've exalted good gifts from you to a place of desire and status above you, the Giver. And forgive us the ways we trust in bosses, paychecks, and the economy for our future, rather than praying for eyes to see your open hands. Help us in our unbelief to know that you have not withheld your only Son, but delivered him up to death for our sake; how will you then withhold any lesser thing that is for our good (Romans 8:32)? In Jesus' name, Amen.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Secondary Causation and the God of Creation

After some time away, you've noticed that I couldn't help but jump back into my seemingly futile quest to get at the truth of the (perceived) Evolution-Intelligent Design debate. (See my previous post.) I've believed for a few years now that if both sides would really listen to each other, the two ideas aren't irreconcilable. Both rely on philosophical assumptions that cannot be empirically tested or proven (namely, whether or not a theistic presence superintends the world). Both lack much in the way of direct observation and rely on inferences instead--which is scientific, mind you. (Otherwise Einstein, Dalton, Kelvin, Schroedinger, Planck, et al. didn't do "science.") Evolution--by which I mean the idea that all living species are descended from earlier, shared ancestral species and have been modified through natural selection--typically functions by relying on positive evidence at hand. ID generally reverses this, saying that when evolution breaks down and there's lack of evidence for it, the only possibe alternative is conscious design. (This is a non-sequitur, a false conclusion.) Thinkers in both camps rely on gross caricatures of each other, and both arrive at hasty hyperboles: "Nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution!" "If evolution is true, then all life is meaningless!" It sort of makes me sick and tired of it all. (Of course if you've been a faithful reader of this blog, then you were probably thinking the same thing of my incessant posts on Calvinism and baptism!) But alas, I'm a biology teacher by trade, so I can't avoid it.

While I'm hardly an expert in paleontology, genetics, or molecular biology, I find a few strands of evidence almost irrefutably tip the scales in favor of evolution: vestiges of common ancestors that show up in leftover traits, atavisms, and pseudogenes. (I'll let you take the time to look these up, if you wish. Jerry Coyne's admittedly biased book Why Evolution Is True is a good place to start.) But I don't think ID and evolution are totally irreconcilable. Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stuart Pullen have done much thoughtful research about the mathematical probablities involved in constructing useful molecular knowledge and complex systems which would seem to have no adaptive vantage apart from near-instantaneus development. This would seem to favor ID.* But given theism, it should be no shock or surprise simply to say that everything that has ever occurred in the universe's history has been by God's design and involvement. Christian theists don't need to argue or look for special evidences of "intelligent design" because the Bible repeatedly affirms God's providential hand in every single event in history, even those which may appear to us as "random" or purposeless.

Wayne Grudem provides a helpful definition of this providence in his Systematic Theology:

God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes. (p. 315)

Let's examine each of these briefly (I'm largely following Grudem here):

(1) God upholds and maintains all that he created. We see this in Scripture in Jesus' active sustaining of the universe (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3), in God's preservation of the cosmos (Neh. 9:6; 2 Pet. 3:7, 10-12), in Paul's speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:28), and in death as a result of God withdrawing his Spirit (Job 34:14-15; Ps. 104:29). Similarly, the properties of the world continue as they do in an act of God's grace upon sinners so that we can live in a reliable, predictable world (e.g., Gen. 8:22; Jer. 31: 35-36; 33:20-26). Consequently, whatever is happening in the natural world today can be assumed to have always been happening. Atoms will always behave as atoms do; erosion keeps eroding; matter always warps space-time; entropy of closed systems always increases; etc.

(2) God cooperates with created things and directs their endowed properties so that they act as they do. Scripture says that God brings about all weather phenomena on Earth and even the movements of heavenly bodies (Job 37:6-13; 38:22-30; Ps. 104:4; 135:7; 148:8; Jer. 31:35; Matt. 5:45). When animals eat, they are said to be fed by God (Job 38:39-41; Ps. 104:27-29; Matt. 6:26). Flowering is caused by God (Matt. 6:28-30). All of these may have "natural" or "scientific" explanations based on properties of matter and energy apart from any reference to God. But Scripture affirms that these properties were endowed by God and are directed by him, so that whatever happens in nature is an "act of God." (I hope insurance companies aren't reading this.) In a similar vein, even "random" events are attributed to God. "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD" (Prov. 16:33).

(3) God works purposefully in providence. Ephesians 1:11-12 says that God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will . . . for the praise of his glory." God's will is that ultimately through the church and through the subjection of all things to his Son Jesus Christ, the Father will be glorified (Eph. 3:10; Phil. 2:10-11).

So perhaps we can summarize the biblical data with Calvin's famous maxim: "The will of God is the necessity of all things." In other words, if anything has happened, it has happened because God wanted it to happen at that time, in that way, for the sake of his wise goals. It didn't happen by itself; it was dependent upon God. It didn't happen haphazardly, randomly, or accidentally (though it may appear so to us); it was purposeful. The unveiling of that purpose might await, however, the final judgment and renewal of all things. It is not necessarily for us to know now (Deut. 29:29).

This view of God's sovereignty is a much higher view, in my opinion, than to say that God only acts or shows up in the "miraculous." In this latter schema, if something is truly an act of God, then it cannot have any human or natural explanation. Rather than exalting God's power, I think this view actually reduces God from being actively, caringly, and judgingly involved with every moment of everything to a semi-deistic God who only intervenes in his world here or there, like the Greco-Roman pantheon. The biblical view of God's action, however, can be seen in passages such as Acts 2:23: "This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge;"--though to the common observer he was handed over by Judas Iscariot and the Sanhedrin--"and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to a cross." Wicked men put Jesus to death, but yet it was also "by God's set purpose" and by Jesus' own will (John 10:17-18). Likewise, later in Acts we read that when the people conspired against Jesus, by their own volitional actions they "did what [God's] power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (4:28). God's planned action (primary causes) works through the agency of his creatures, through the abilities and properties with which they were endowed (secondary causes).

So what does this have to do with evolution? Everything. It means that we don't have to run from evolution when much evidence seems to confirm it (though some phenomena are still incongruent with it). We can instead view evolution and other natural phenomena as a window into the grand design of God. Yes, evolution is God's unfolding design in action. Behe, Dembski, et al., might be right: evolution in many ways may be mathematically impossible. But "all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:27). And even if it's found that such mathematical leaps aren't indeed necessary, then we can still rest in the knowledge that just as rains and seasons and nightfall are both naturally-caused and God-caused, so too is life on planet Earth. Accordingly, then, in opposition to evolutionary atheists, evolution does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, life is incredibly meaningful. We have each been put in our time and place, with the world around us as it is, specifically as the stage for our humanity to be worked out, along with our own participation in the salvation and redemption of the world as we know it.

*As I see it, there is one flaw with these approaches toward calculting the probability of a given gene (and its resultant protein) being assembled. ID folks assume that if there is no known beneficial purpose for protein, then that entire gene could not have been preserved within the genome. Therefore if the protein exists, its gene--all hundreds or thousands of its DNA nucleotides--must have arisen all at once. But that's not necessarily true, and the likelihood of proteins arising stepwise by modifications of preexisting amino acid sequences greatly enhances their probability.

May 21 and the God of the Gaps

May 21, 2011, has come and gone. Which means that Jesus didn't return bodily yet (though he is ever present by his Spirit). I feel bad for the people who staked their hopes, even their faith, in such a misguided interpretation of the Bible. Even Jesus himself said no one will know the date of the End--not even himself (Mark 10:32-37)! I hope these people, however many among them are sincere Christians, have not lost their confidence in Christ and in the Bible simply because their interpretation didn't pan out.

On the other hand, we know there are a lot of people mocking them. Every time someone makes a Doomsday prediction that fails to come true, they're left with egg on their face--a false prophet, if you will. Unfortunately, many will wield a faulty ad hominem argument against everything else they have to say: "They were wrong about X, so they must be misguided about everything."

This is one of the critical dangers of wholeheartedly embracing Intelligent Design. The problem with ID is that it doesn't use positive evidence, but rather relies on looking for holes or gaps in Evolutionary explanations. If a biological phenomenon is judged impossible by means of natural selective pressures favoring certain genetic traits, then it must have been due to a designer! An example of this is "irreducibly complex" features such as the blood clotting cascade, whose parts are so complicated and interdependent that it could not have arisen progressively over time. It must have therefore originated all at once, in an immediate, supernatural creative act.

While it's true that God is the providential Creator and Designer of all life, what happens when those "holes" get filled by further data and new explanations? As the body of scientific knowledge grows and viable explanations expand to fill the gaps so prized by ID, what will happen to claims for theism and for God's action in his world? I'm afraid that, at least in some respects, ID is only as strong as our present ignorance. (It's possible, however, that future gains might actually steer us away from Evolution toward ID, or perhaps toward another explanation altogether.) When legitimate, "natural" explanations arise for phenomena once deemed irreducibly complex or mathematically impossible, then the credible witness of Christianity in the sciences shrinks. We do need to study the Scriptures and stand upon our convictions, for whenever we betray our conscience, it is sin (Rom. 14:23). But we need to also know when to flex and when to give, in order to give God his place as the only Wise and Sovereign, and to give the Gospel more room to be heard in others' lives.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter: Good News, Bad News . . . and More Good News


Today is Easter Sunday, the day on which the Church celebrates the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. What does this historical fact mean?

First, the good news of Easter:

Jesus' resurrection confirms that he is in fact the Son of God, the long-promised Savior of God's people. "His Son . . . was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Romans 1:3-4).

Jesus' resurrection shows that God approved of Jesus' finished work of atonement, his wrath-deflecting death for sinners. He fully bore the punishment due upon sinners, and having completed it, was vindicated (justified) by being raised from the dead. "Jesus our Lord . . . was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification" (Romans 4:25). "By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I [God] will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong" (Isaiah 53:11-12).

Jesus is the living, secure source of sure forgiveness of sins for all who turn to him, now and for eternity. "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:46-47). "For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Romans 5:10). "The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:23-25).

Jesus defeated death, opening up a new future for God's redeemed humanity. For all in Christ, death is not the final word. "God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24). "But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as all in Adam die, so also shall all in Christ be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed [by Christ] is death" (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 26). "Our Savior Christ Jesus . . . abolished death and brought life and immortality to life through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10).

Believers in Christ will one day share new bodies like his. "What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21). "When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4).

Those who belong to Christ already possess new life and victory over sin's guilt, shame, and power by the same Holy Spirit, a foretaste and a down payment confirming the glorious new life to come. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . . . For the death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God" (Romans 6:3-5, 10-11). "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ--by grace you have been saved--and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:4-6; see also Colossians 2:13-15).

Many people, feeling either an internal need for religion or desiring an external show of false piety, only attend worship services on Christmas and Easter. These motives even drive many people to church week after week. Perhaps you are one of them. It is a blessing indeed to hear of the Good News, the gospel of Jesus and his resurrection. But Easter isn't all good news. Here's the rest of the story:

Being raised from the dead and exalted as God's Son, Jesus is also the King who commands our obedience and submission. "The LORD said to me, 'You are my Son; today I have begotten you. As of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.' Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him" (Psalm 2:7-12). "The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:35-36).

As the Living One who holds the keys to death and hell, Jesus will come again to judge all people. "I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades" (Revelation 1:17-18). "The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).

As terrible as the sufferings and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth were (and are) to witness, at least if you only come to church on Good Friday, you are left with only a dead man. If the last word about Jesus was his burial in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, then we are left with a benign Judean rabbi -- a man of love and power, to be sure, but one whose love and power are no longer active for us today. But in fact Jesus has been raised and demands the obedience of faith from all people. We can either be honest with ourselves and God about our wretched condition, our sinfulness, and the failures in trying to live life on our own terms--and the just anger of God due to us because of that. And we can turn to Jesus and embrace him as the Living One, the sure Savior whose death has paid for all our sins and removed God's wrath, and who opens to us eternal, new life in fellowship with him and all his blessings. The same love, forgiveness, power, healing, wisdom, and compassion Jesus embodied and used for good in his earthly life can be yours today if you commit yourself to him and receive him as our Rescuer and Master. The good news of Easter will become your good news. Or you can choose to remain indifferent to this Jesus, perhaps gambling upon the chance at a later day to take him seriously.

Just as Jesus asked his dear friend Martha, so he asks all of us today: "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26). If you do believe this, here is a possible prayer you can use:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, you are alive today, and that gives me great joy and hope! Your death has paid for my sins and secured my forgiveness, and I know you call to me now to receive you and cross over from death to new life. I am a needy sinner, but in unfathomable love and grace you gladly and fully meet all my needs, both now and forever. I turn from my ways and trust you as my Savior and my King. Take me to be yours, and reign in my life--because I have no other hope. You are trustworthy and true, and I know you will do all this for me. Amen!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

"Just watch my servant blossom!

Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!

But he didn't begin that way.

At first everyone was appalled.

He didn't even look human--

a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.

Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,

kings shocked into silence when they see him.

For what was unheard of they'll see with their own eyes,

what was unthinkable they'll have right before them."

Who believes what we've heard and seen?

Who would have thought GOD's saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God--a scrawny seedling,

a scrubby plant in a parched field.

There was nothing attractive about him,

nothing to cause us to take a second look.

He was looked down on and passed over,

a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.

One look at him and people turned away.

We looked down on him, thought he was scum.

But the fact is, it was our pains he carried--

our disfigurement, all the things wrong with us.

We thought he brought it on himself,

that God was punishing him for his own failures.

But it was our sins that did that to him,

that ripped and tore and crushed him--our sins!

He took the punishment, and that made us whole.

Through his bruises we get healed.

We're all like sheep who've wandered off and gotten lost.

We've all done our own thing, gone our own way.

And GOD has piled all our sins, everything we've done wrong,

on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,

but he didn't say a word.

Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered

and like a sheep being sheared,

he took it all in silence.

Justice miscarried, and he was led off--

and did anyone really know what was happening?

He died without a thought for his own welfare,

beaten bloody for the sins of my people.

They buried him with the wicked,

threw him in a grave with a rich man,

Even though he'd never hurt a soul

or said one word that wasn't true.

Still, it's what GOD had in mind all along,

to crush him with pain.

The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin

so that he'd see life come from it--life, life, and more life.

And GOD's plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,

he'll see that it's worth it and be glad he did it.

Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,

will make many "righteous ones,"

as he himself carries the burden of their sins.

Therefore I'll reward him extravagantly--

the best of everything, the highest honors--

Because he looked death in the face and didn't flinch,

because he embraced the company of the lowest.

He took on his own shoulders the sin of many,

he took up the cause of all the black sheep.

--Isaiah 52:1 - 53:12, The Message

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Costly Marriage

Our pastor has been preaching through the Old Testament book of Ruth, a beautifully-spun narrative about how the light of God's active providence and steadfast love dawned upon the darkness of two insignificant widows. In chapter 4, the story comes to a head as the young Moabite widow Ruth finds a husband who is willing to marry her despite the financial burden it will bring upon him in losing part of his inheritance to Ruth's children. (Under Jewish law, a kinsman was to marry his relative's widowed wife and produce children for her. However, the children would be reckoned as belonging to the deceased husband, and they would be required to receive a separate inheritance.) Boaz, Ruth's redeemer and a "man of great wealth" (2:1 NASB), acted out a love that was not only perhaps romantic, but also sought out her good even at his own cost. In binding himself to Ruth all his gain would become hers, her offspring's, and her mother-in-law's--the cure to their poverty--but he would also take on her baggage. He'd lose part of his inheritance. He'd have to deal with the emotional pain of a widowed bride who probably often longed for her previous husband, even if only in memories. As a Moabite, he would have to train her in the faith of Yahweh. He was taking on a lot by binding himself to her and her to himself. Martin Luther reminds us that our Boaz--our redeeming husband--is Jesus Christ, who, "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). At the cost of his own humiliation, scourging, mockery, and agonizing crucifixion he bought us for himself, to make his people, the church, his radiant bride (see Eph. 5:25-32; Rev.19:6-10). (Please bear with this; though lengthy, it's some of Luther's best.)

The . . . incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom [1]. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh [Eph. 5:31-32]. And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage--indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage--it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see the inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ's, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul's; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride's and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?

Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride's. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell [2]. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, "without spot or wrinkle, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word" [cf. Eph. 5:26-27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faithfulness, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hos. 2[:19-20] says.

Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, "If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his," as the bride in the Song of Solomon [2:16] says, "My beloved is mine and I am his." This is what Paul means when he says in 1 Cor. 15[:57], "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," that is, the victory over sin and death, as he also says there, "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law" [1 Cor. 15:56].

-- On Christian Liberty (Augsburg Fortress, 2003), pp. 18-22

____________________ 1. It appears that Luther is using "soul" here as a sort of generic, gender-neutral pronoun. He was no gnostic who saw sin only on a spiritual plane. 2. Notice how Luther relies on the Christus Victor model of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and other church fathers (that by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus' God-life destroyed and overcame all that afflicted mankind, to whom his deity was united). But he employs this model as part of the way Jesus bore our sins to carry out on a vicarious, substitutionary atonement that bore the condeming wrath of God due to sinners. They are not mutually exclusive perspectives on the atonement.

Friday, March 11, 2011

We Do Not See Everything in Subjection to Mankind

In my last post, I aimed to show that a chief goal of the Bible is to expose our sinfulness and our own need of rescue--the rescue that was promised throughout the Old Testament and became a manifested reality in Jesus' incarnation--and thereby turn us in repentance to Christ. But I also want to point to the flip side of this fallen world: Yes, there is sin in me, but there's also sin in others as well. How does that point us to Christ?

Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, 'What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.' Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9, citing Psalm

God's original design was for humanity to be stewards of the earth and co-regents over it. Nothing would be outside of man's dominion--not even tectonic plates that cause earthquakes of 8.9 on the Richter scale. But we don't see that glory and honor yet because of man's fall into sin. Now it seems like everything goes wrong. Instead of bearing God's image in "the righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Eph. 4:24), humans worldwide and historywide suffer from ignorance of God and rejection of his revelation (truth). They lack purity of love in relationships with one another and toward God (holiness). And they fail to exercise wisdom, justice, and creative power in work and government (righteousness).* As a curse on our sin, the world doesn't obey us anymore: there was an earthquake of 8.9 in Japan last night. And instead of using things to worship God and serve others, we use things and eachother to serve ourselves. With the Fall comes a really good chance we're going to get stepped on by others, and our lives will seem more often ruled by chaos and uncertainty than by order and peace.

But the author points also through the fallenness of others and of our world to the good news of Christ: "But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor." In his incarnation, Jesus became the true Man and the new Adam, the Head over God's new creation. Thus through him we are being remade in his image (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and the world is being transformed under his reign. So we are pointed through the Fall to our new Head, Jesus--our deliverer from the woes of this life.

*I owe these categories for "God's image" in mankind to Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim.