What does it mean to be ‘inclusive’ like Jesus?

exclusion and embraceAccording to one telling of the gospel narrative, Jesus came to end exclusion and preach the inclusive kingdom of God.  Certainly that’s part of what he came to do and arguably the feature of his ministry most appealing to our contemporary culture’s moral sensibilities. In Jesus, the outcasts of society have hope. Those long marginalized, kicked to the curb (figuratively and literally) can look up to see Jesus extending a hand, inviting them back into the community of the truly human as objects of dignity and divine affection.

Of course, issues of inclusion and exclusion are at the heart of our society’s most contested social issues. Whether it’s the dynamics underlying much of the racial tensions built up and released in our cities, or the heated theological discourse on sexuality, we need to come to grips with the realities of inclusion and exclusion. Which is why I decided to recently revisit Miroslav Volf’s justly famous meditation on the subject Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. It’s a fascinating theological account of the issues of forgiveness, truth, justice, and, yes, exclusions that gains a particular poignancy set in the context of his wrestling with the exclusionary violence that destroyed his own home in the Balkans.

Nuancing Inclusion. Right off the bat, though, I was struck by his nuancing of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion or, rather, ministry against exclusion. In some accounts of Jesus’ ministry of radical inclusion, his invitation was to all and sundry, with no requirements, no prohibitions except those who sin by way of exclusion. Exclusion is the aboriginal sin and any construction of binaries, ins and outs, wicked or righteous, sinner and virtuous is simply ruled out by the gracious kingdom of God. To follow Jesus is simply rolling back boundaries, deconstructing binaries, and flattening every moral and social hill before the coming of our inclusive God.

According to Volf, though, it’s not that simple. While it’s true that much of Jesus’ work included transgressing “social boundaries that excluded the outcasts, demonstrating that these boundaries themselves were evil, sinful, and outside of God’s will” (72), he goes on to say:

“it would be a mistake…to conclude from Jesus’ compassion toward those who transgressed social boundaries that his mission was merely to demask the mechanisms that created “sinners” by falsely ascribing sinfulness to those who were considered socially unacceptable. He was no prophet of “inclusion”…, for whom the chief virtue was acceptance and the cardinal vice intolerance. Instead, he was a bringer of “grace”, who not only scandalously included “anyone” in the fellowship of “open commensality”, but made the “intolerant” demand of repentance and the “condescending” offer of forgiveness (Mark 1:15; 2:15-17). The mission of Jesus consisted not simply of re-naming the behavior that was falsely labeled “sinful” but also in re-making the people who have actually sinned and suffered distortion. The double strategy of re-naming and re-making, rooted in the commitment to both the outcast and the sinner, to the victim and the perpetrator, is the proper background against which an adequate notion of sin as exclusion can emerge. (72-73)

This duality in Jesus’ method of ending exclusion or practicing inclusion is so important for us to grasp, if we’re going to think clearly about how to follow Jesus and what the call to be an inclusive Church really means. So what does Volf have to say about these two halves of Jesus’ ministry?

Renaming. First, he tackles re-naming. When Jesus declares all foods clean (Mark. 7:14-23), or heals the woman with the flow of blood (Mark. 5:25-34), or points to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God, Jesus ends certain boundaries that divide people into the categories of clean and unclean. As Volf states it, “by the simple act of re-naming Jesus offset the stark binary logic that regulates so much of social life: society is divided into X (superior in-group) and non-X (inferior out-group)” (73). In this, Jesus upsets a false system of exclusion that divided people whom he now set on the same plane and brings into the mutual community of the clean.

The bit that I think is missing from Volf’s analysis here, is the further dual dimension this work of renaming can be split into. Jesus’ ministry of renaming often worked at both the level of correction as well as that of covenantal dispensation. Some of Jesus’ acts of renaming were aimed at correcting distortions within the Rabbinic or Pharisaic halakhah that had slowly emerged over time, and had aggravated the exclusion inherent in the ceremonial law of Torah (which inevitably still happens in nearly every church situation). Others, though, were Jesus’ declaration that because of the New Covenant, that which was ritually unclean before no longer is unclean because these distinctions (between Jew and Greek, Kosher, etc), have served their purpose in pointing to Christ and are now to be dispensed with. Jesus renames the distinction, not as evil, but rather as covenantally-irrelevant (Acts 10:5).

Remaking. But what about re-making? “In addition to removing the label “unclean” placed on the things that were clean, Jesus made clean things out of truly unclean things” (73). Jesus cast out unclean, sinful, tormenting spirits that held people captive and drove them to behaviors that excluded them from community (Mark. 5:1-20). But he also dealt with “people caught in the snares of wrongdoing”:

…people who, like tax-collectors, harm others in order to benefit themselves, people who, like prostitutes, debase themselves in order to prosper or just survive, people who, like most of us, are bend on losing their own souls in order to gain a bit of the world–such people were forgiven and transformed (Mark 2:15-17). (73)

In other words, Jesus ended their exclusion through the kind of grace that acknowledges there is something about the person, a condition, a habit, a disposition and behavior that is self-excluding and needs regeneration and forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is an including act that inherently contains within it an act of condemnation of the reality being forgiven. What’s important to see here, though, is that he doesn’t rename evil as good or indifferent, but instead tackles it head-on, by destroying its root in the human heart.

It’s important, at this point, to note that this is the more fundamental dimension of Jesus’ ministry of inclusion. Many suffer under regimes of unjust exclusion on the basis of gender, socio-economics, race, stigma attached to mental disorder, and so we praise God that Jesus offers hope and gives us a mandate proclaim that the social divisions are relativized in Christ (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 11). But the reality is that not everyone was, or is, in a situation that needs to be renamed. That said, we all have fallen short of the glory of God, excluded ourselves from communion with God, and so stand in need of Jesus’ work of remaking or reconciling us to through the blood of his cross. Everybody, rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, stands in need of Christ’s remaking work in our lives. Indeed, one of the main ways that Jesus, Paul, and the apostles undermine systems of exclusion based on false social categorizations, is on the basis of that shared new name that is the sign of a shared new heart, as we move from being “in Adam” together to being “in Christ” together.

Two Kinds of Inclusion. I took the time to outline this, because I think a failure to appreciate or apply the distinction between renaming and remaking in the Church’s call to practice inclusion is at the heart of so many of our hottest disputes. While I’d like to address, in a future post, issues more closely related to race and diversity in the Church, obviously, this comes up on the sexuality question.

All too often, progressives on the issue set this up as a debate between those who understand Jesus’ radical message of inclusion and those who simply want to hold onto the old, excluding binaries like the Pharisees and the Judaizers; we’re given a choice between those who want to exclude and those who want to include. And how fun is it to play Jesus v. the Pharisees, right? With Volf’s categories in place, we can see that the more appropriate question, though, is which method of inclusion applies in this situation? Where progressives see a situation of renaming akin to the Gentiles, the Church has traditionally seen inclusion requiring a kind of remaking (which, connected to sexuality, needs careful parsing–don’t read certain psychological programs into my use of the term). Still, according to the historic position, to rename, in this case, would be to call evil good.

This is is where the irony comes in. Traditionalists are often accused of being gatekeepers seeking to exclude people from the kingdom of God. But if they’re right here, and treating sexual behavior as another one of those old, sinful categories to be renamed is a mistake, ultimately the danger is that many will not be called to repent from the kinds of behaviors that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets say lead to their self-exclusion from the kingdom of God. It’s precisely out of conservatives’ drive to include, that they’re opposed to the wrong sort of inclusion. It’s precisely because they hate the idea of anybody being excluded from the kingdom of God, that they insist we not offer up inclusion on false premises.

In the end, it’s like two people explaining to a visitor how to get into a building. One says they must enter the main gate while the other tells them to enter through a side-door, which is much closer, because they fear the gate is too far away and difficult to enter. Initially, the second person seems to be making it easier to get in while the first is imposing the harsher standard–that is until you find out there is no side-door. The second person’s efforts at inclusion are well-meaning, but ultimately they function as another way of keeping the visitor out.

 Soli Deo Gloria

The Reassuring Derision of the Lord

mockery of ChristIn the long run, there is nothing about God–no activity or attribute–that cannot be a comfort to the Christian. That might strike some of us as too sunny a view on things. I mean, everything?  Obviously, attributes like his compassion and his mercy are comforting, and his creation and salvation, but what about his jealousy, or his anger? Or how about this one? His derision.

What possible comfort and blessing is there in knowing God holds certain things in contempt and derision? Well, let’s consider a couple of the verses:

The wicked plots against the righteous
and gnashes his teeth at him,
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
(Psalm 37:12-13 ESV)

According the Psalmist, the Lord finds the wicked pretty hilarious. While they’re sitting there plotting against the righteous, thinking of ways to overcome them, the Lord is looking ahead and seeing their end. His day is coming. These plans they set in motion with malicious intent will come to nothing when the Lord comes and judges. An earlier Psalm makes a similar point:

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”
(Psalm 2:1-6 ESV)

The Nations, the wicked kings of the earth, are plotting evil. They want to reject the Anointed of YHWH, rule themselves and enforce their own wills upon the earth. But what is the YHWH’s response? It’s not insecurity. It’s not trembling fear. It’s the laughter, the derision, that comes from a total confidence of untrammeled authority, despite the feeble attempts of his enemies to overturn his rule. Seeing in the Psalm a type of the coming reign of Christ, Calvin comments thus on God’s laughter:

And David ascribes laughter to God on two accounts; first, to teach us that he does not stand in need of great armies to repress the rebellion of wicked men, as if this were an arduous and difficult matter, but, on the contrary, could do this as often as he pleases with the most perfect ease.

In the second place, he would have us to understand that when God permits the reign of his Son to be troubled, he does not cease from interfering because he is employed elsewhere, or unable to afford assistance, or because he is neglectful of the honor of his Son; but he purposely delays the inflictions of his wrath to the proper time, namely, until he has exposed their infatuated rage to general derision. Let us, therefore, assure ourselves that if God does not immediately stretch forth his hand against the ungodly, it is now his time of laughter; and although, in the meantime, we ought to weep, yet let us assuage the bitterness of our grief, yea, and wipe away our tears, with this reflection, that God does not connive at the wickedness of his enemies, as if from indolence or feebleness, but because for the time he would confront their insolence with quiet contempt.

Despite all outward appearances, God is not idly sitting by. He is biding his time, readying himself to judge and expose the tyrants who would assault the peace of his world to open shame. Again, Calvin comments a bit earlier:

The other consolation which follows is, that when the ungodly have mustered their forces, and when, depending on their vast numbers, their riches, and their means of defense, they not only pour forth their proud blasphemies, but furiously assault heaven itself, we may safely laugh them to scorn, relying on this one consideration, that he whom they are assailing is the God who is in heaven. When we see Christ well nigh overwhelmed with the number and strength of his enemies, let us remember that they are making war against God over whom they shall not prevail, and therefore their attempts, whatever they may be, and however increasing, will come to naught, and be utterly ineffectual. Let us learn, farther, that this doctrine runs through the whole gospel; for the prayer of the apostles which I have just quoted, manifestly testifies that it ought not to be restricted to the person of Christ.

While we might look at the world, see wicked rulers, observe what seem to be tidal waves of unconquerable injustice, we can know that eventually all of these threats to the Kingdom of God will fall before the Lord and we will join in his mockery of evil. Even though we weep now, we can laugh with God now in anticipation of the day when the enemies of our God are finally and fully vanquished.

Indeed, we have even better reason to do so than the Psalmist did. Back then, he was prophesying of a coming day when these things would happen; as the Church, you and I are living on the other side of Christ’s death and resurrection, in which he has, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15 ), and made it possible that one day we will cry: “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (1 Cor. 15:54-55).

I can’t help but think that as Christ himself was being mocked, spit on, held in derision by the Nations–the Romans and his own countrymen–in the end, the Lord held them in derision knowing that it was in the midst of their injustice that he was laying the foundation for his own, ultimate victory.

Take comfort, then, even in the derision of the Lord. If you are in Christ, he mocks your enemies–even sin, death, and the powers of Hell. They are nothing to him.

What more shall we fear?

 Soli Deo Gloria

Do We Need Jesus To Be A Lawyer Or A Doctor? Why Not Both?

Judge’s Gavel and stethoscopeJesus, in case you didn’t know, was a doctor. One of the primary things he spent his time doing during his earthly ministry was healing the sick and the lame. Restoring sight to the blind. Making the crippled walk. Indeed, even bringing the dead back to life. But it wasn’t only physical healing that he offered, but spiritual as well. Indeed, it was his mission to make the spiritually diseased whole that brought reproach upon him:

And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:29-31)

Although it seems to be often missed in popular Evangelical preaching, the Bible says Jesus’ saves by healing us. Indeed, the word salvation takes its roots in the concept of wholeness and health. Though some may think otherwise, the older Reformed did not forget this theme. Calvin commonly used the image of Christ as a physician, a doctor who heals us. When speaking of the life of the disciple carrying the cross, he spoke of it God’s medicine, used to heal the soul of its sin (Institutes, 3.8.5). Or again, in speaking of the Lord’s Supper, he referred to it as “medicine for the sick” (ibid, 4.17.42), that nourishes and renews us, because through it we partake of Christ’s benefits, his nature that he assumed, healed, and through which, he gives us life. This is unsurprising as he was a student of the Fathers and the theme of salvation is ubiquitous with them. Simply consult Athanasius, almost at random, and you’ll run across the idea.

This is an immensely important theme that should not be ignored in Christian preaching and teaching. It is a great comfort to know that we will not always be sick with sin, but are being healed by Christ, and will one day stand whole and complete before our Maker.

But once again, we need to be careful not to over-react. The other day I saw a friend share a quote to the effect that what we need is Jesus who is a doctor who can heal us, not a lawyer to defend us, as if admitting the one rules out the other. Or again, some people, allegedly looking to the Church Fathers or the East, think that looking to Jesus for “ontological” healing of our nature, rules out any kind of “forensic” or legal approaches to salvation that characterize “Western” theology. But is that true? Is that what Scripture says? Is that what Jesus says?

Well, as it turns out, no it’s not. In John 14:16, Jesus tells his disciples he “will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever”, and again in 14:26 he speaks of when “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” While the term is often translated “helper”, “comforter”, or “counselor”, A.T. Lincoln has shown that it belongs most properly in the legal setting of John’s Gospel. Jesus speaks of the Spirit as a legal advocate, a lawyer, and calls him “another” one, the implication being that he himself is our first advocate. This is confirmed by Jesus’ teaching about the work of the Spirit who is the other Advocate:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (John 16:8-11)

Sounds like a lawyer to me.

If that wasn’t enough, 1 John 2:1 clearly declares, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” In this case, we clearly see Jesus identified as our advocate before the Father, who as the Righteous One, can plead our case on the basis of his own work, because he is the “propitiation for our sins” (2:2). Through the Cross, Jesus has done away with our guilt, which is precisely why if we “confess our sins” before God “he is faithful and just” to forgive them (1:9). Because we are united with Christ, the Righteous One who stands before the Father as our Advocate, we have a new status as righteous in him. Jesus is our great Lawyer.

Just as we need to cling to all of the names God gives us in order to understand the fullness of his character, let us not fall into the silly trap of denying or denigrating any of  the titles by which the Scripture describes Christ’s multifaceted work on our behalf. In Jesus, we have a mighty doctor who heals us. We also have a powerful advocate, who defends and vindicates us. We need him to be both of these things and more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity Podcast: Beyond the Abortion Wars

This week we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Charles Camosy of Fordham University on the show. He’s written an impressive new book on the subject of abortion Beyond the Abortion Wars, and so we wanted to have him on to engage him on some of the more difficult questions such as exceptions in the case of mortal threat to the mother and so forth. Because why talk about the easy bits? Please give it a listen, and feel free to weigh in over in the comments at MereOrthodoxy.com.

Soli Deo Gloria

Two Tips for Preaching: Manuscript and Practice Out Loud

pulpitThis week saw a damning broadside in The New Republic against famed scholar Cornel West, by his erstwhile friend, mentee, and notable scholar in his own rights Michael Eric Dyson. I’m so far from competent to weight the merits of the case going in either direction, it’s beyond pointless for me to comment. I found the article fascinating, as much for the argument and the drama, as the compelling insights into the nature of writing, the academic life, and, yes, their application to preaching and teaching in the pulpit.

In one section, Dyson goes after West’s apparent drop-off in scholarship. Apparently West hasn’t written anything by himself in years, and much of his work seems to be collections of spoken addresses, interviews, and conversations that have been transcribed and edited. So what’s the problem with this? Dyson explains:

In Brother West, West admitted that he is “more a natural reader than natural writer,” adding that “writing requires a concerted effort and forced discipline,” but that he reads “as easily as I breathe.” I can say with certainty, as a college professor for the last quarter century, that most of my students feel the same way. What’s more, West’s off-the-cuff riffs and rants, spoken into a microphone and later transcribed to page, lack the discipline of the written word. West’s rhetorical genius is undeniable, but there are limits on what speaking can do for someone trying to wrestle angels or battle demons to the page. This is no biased preference for the written word over the spoken; I am far from a champion of a Eurocentric paradigm of literacy. This is about scholar versus talker. Improvisational speaking bears its wonders: the emergence on the spot of turns of thought and pathways of insight one hadn’t planned, and the rapturous discovery, in front of a live audience, of meanings that usually lie buried beneath the rubble of formal restrictions and literary conventions. Yet West’s inability to write is hugely confining. For scholars, there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean—or as clean as one can make it.

The ecstasies of the spoken word, when scholarship is at stake, leave the deep reader and the long listener hungry for more. Writing is an often-painful task that can feel like the death of one’s past. Equally discomfiting is seeing one’s present commitments to truths crumble once one begins to tap away at the keyboard or scar the page with ink. Writing demands a different sort of apprenticeship to ideas than does speaking. It beckons one to revisit over an extended, or at least delayed, period the same material and to revise what one thinks. Revision is reading again and again what one writes so that one can think again and again about what one wants to say and in turn determine if better and deeper things can be said.

West admires the Socratic process of questioning ideas and practices in fruitful dialogue, and while that may elicit thoughts he yearned to express anyhow, he’s at the mercy of his interlocutors. Thus when West inveighs, stampedes, and kvetches, he gets on a roll that might be amplified in conversation but arrested in print. It’s not a matter of skillful editing, either, so that the verbal repetition and set pieces that orators depend on get clipped and swept aside with the redactor’s broom. It’s the conceptual framework that suffers in translating what’s spoken to what’s written, since writing is about contrived naturalness: rigging the system of meaning to turn out the way you want, and making it look normal and inevitable in the process.

While I don’t find myself writing scholarly work every week–on top of my blog, or rather, before it–I’m usually spending a number of hours writing a couple thousand word manuscript on about 10-20 verses in order to preach them to about 20-odd students every Thursday night. On top of that, on Thursday itself, I’ll usually practice something like 4-6 times throughout the day as I prepare, before I ever get up to preach that night. The funny thing is, I’ve noticed that both parts of my sermon preparation are necessary for me. Dyson’s analysis of the different glories of the spoken and the written word speak to why.

Manuscripting of some form is absolutely necessary for me. The first draft is where I figure out the logical order, find most of my major points, craft certain key phrases, and make sure the flow is there. Without the outlining and manuscript process, I would not be forced to wrestle with the fundamental meaning of the text, and establish the bones, so to speak, before I put flesh on it. That said, if you look at my sermon notes and then follow my sermon, odds are that on any given night there’s going to be a major discrepancy between the two. Oh, sure, the sections are likely in the same order, the logic is there, and the paragraphs are mostly in place, but there is still wide variation from my initial draft to my final delivery. The reality is that as I practice throughout the day, I find myself following the text, but rewriting the sections as I go. Indeed, I end up rewriting it in my soul, since by the time I get up there, I’m barely looking at my notes anymore.

I know a lot of preachers hate practicing. The great thing about disciplining yourself to practice live before you go up a few times, is that you can begin to draw out those moments of improvisatory insight before you ever get in front of your people. And most preachers know that those are often your best points, right? By practicing, you take those flashes and work them into the structure of your sermon, dwell on them a bit more systematically, and draw out the implications with greater depth and persuasive power.

But I need both halves of the process. For those preachers who seem to hate preparatory manuscripting, you need to know that the best flashes of improvisatory insight come after you’ve already wrestled with the text for a while, written and rewritten sections, and tried to string it all together as best as you can on the page. Without that foundational work, your riffing will be less likely to be grounded in a fresh engagement with the text and more drawn on the leftovers of more studious days.

So those are my two tips: manuscript, then practice. I know every preacher is different, and plenty do it different, but if you’re young like me, or hitting a bit of a dry patch in your preaching, maybe consider giving it a try.

Soli Deo Gloria

15 Doctrines That Ought to Bring Comfort In Suffering

Pedro_Fernández_-_Christ_Suffering_-_WGA07807One of my fundamental convictions is that theology, while possessing theoretical aspects, is eminently practical. It’s the “doctrine of living unto God” as some of the older theologians used to put it. One of the greatest tests of that “practicality” is understanding the various ways that the doctrines of the Christian faith can serve as a comfort to us in the manifold sufferings and tragedies we encounter in this life this side of Eden and before the Second Coming.

In what follows, I’d like to simply (and briefly) point out some of the many ways the main doctrines of the Christian faith provide a comfort to the believer in times of struggle, suffering, and pain.

  1. Trinity.  Before moving to realities more directly oriented towards God’s actions on our behalf, it’s important to stop and remember the comfort of the fact that before all things, God has eternally been perfectly existent as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This God is holy, perfect, beautiful, righteous, loving, faithful, eternal, unchanging, impassible, all-powerful, all-present, blessed, and supremely good. In the midst of our suffering, it’s often crucial that we remember that there is a reality deeper and truer that grounds, funds, and surpasses the finite and fallen world we encounter. In that sense, God being God without me holds its own comfort for me.
  2. Creation. God created the world and blessed it by declaring it to be “very good.” In a very important sense, the world is something to be taken, received with gratitude, and enjoyed. Each and every breath in our lungs is a gift of the Creator who has provided us with every good thing, every tree in the Garden, so to speak, for our benefit. We are not souls trapped in prisons, alienated from and anxiously awaiting our natural home in the stars, but humans placed in the midst of beautiful habitat with deep purpose by a good God. Every blade of grass, tulip in the field, bright ray of sunshine, speaks of his power and goodness.
  3. Sin. Connected to this is the doctrine of sin. It’s a bit counterintuitive to think of the doctrine of sin as a comfort, but there is deep reassurance in knowing that the unease, the pain, the opposition we encounter in the world is not natural to it. The world is not meant to be this way and it is sin, not divine malevolence or weakness, that has resulted in the brokenness we experience in our bones and our souls. God hates the fractures in his handiwork and stands opposed to them as we do–indeed, even more than we do.
  4. Providence. God is not a hands-off deity who fell asleep at the wheel. Contrary to what we’re tempted to believe in our darkest moments, the world is not governed by a cold and cruel fate.  The doctrine of providence teaches us that the Triune God sovereignly causes, permits, and guides all things for the ultimate good of his creation and his children. Even the dark schemes of the Evil One will be turned on their head and used for the glorious blessing of creation.
  5. Christ. There are multiple comforts to be derived from meditating on the doctrine of Christ. John Owen gave us a few here. Still, at base, in whatever situation we find ourselves in, looking at Jesus we are given deep consolation in remembering that out of his unfathomable love, God has assumed my nature, experienced what I’ve experienced, suffered all that I have suffered, in order to redeem me, bring into proper relationship, and make me like himself.
  6. Cross. Meditating on the Cross yields comforts to carry us through a lifetime. Here are a few: First, God has damned all that opposes him. Evil cannot stand against him. Looking at the Cross reminds me of God’s utter righteous, holiness. Second, that damnation included my sin which has been punished, buried it, sent to hell. Beyond that, Christ has secured the ultimate victory against the Destructor who is ultimately behind all evil. Satan may still prowl about, but he is mortally-wounded and on the run. Because of this, I can look to the Cross and see my Crucified Savior, take up my own cross and follow him in this life.
  7. Resurrection. Christ’s resurrection teaches me many things. First, the truth is eventually vindicated. One of the great torments of life in this world is the falsification of reality, the lies we tell about each others, and God’s truth. The Resurrection is the great demonstration and unveiling of the Truth of the Son, teaching me that everything, every injustice will one day come to light. Second, death is not the end of the story because the Creator who declared the world to be very good decided to be its Redeemer who will not leave it to decay forever. Whatever threat comes against me, the worst it can do is kill me, and God can take care of that. Finally, nothing can separate me from the love of Christ. He’s already been killed once. What else could come against him?
  8. Ascension. The doctrine of the Ascension means that even now Christ on the throne of heaven, interceding for us. We have the king of the World as our advocate and High Priest. The ruler of the Universe knows what it is like to have walked through the dark vale of the world. He rules with compassion and mediates with sympathy, understanding our weakness.
  9. Holy Spirit. In the person of the Holy Spirit, God himself has come to indwell the believer. This is great comfort to us because we can know that wherever we are we are not alone in the world; not in the darkest dungeon of some authoritarian tyrant, nor the darkest recesses of our own despair. God is with us in all that we suffer and will give us whatever strength we need to face the trouble we encounter in the world.
  10. Union. By faith him, through the mysterious activity of the Holy Spirit, we are united to Christ. This means all of his benefits, all of his accomplishments are mine and secure. Every heavenly gift, all of his rights and privileges, are mine because I am his.
  11. Justification by Faith. Because of this union, I am justified entirely by faith. Christ’s death for sin on the Cross was my death, and his vindication through the resurrection as “righteous” is now mine. Because of that, I can know that none of the pain, or suffering I encounter in this life is God’s judgment or wrath against me, because that has been fully satisfied on the Cross and I’m righteous in Christ. I don’t have to fall into a pit of guilt or self-condemnation when pain or misfortune befalls me.
  12. Adoption. Also, we have been adopted in Christ. This means that God is our Father despite our sins, failures, and outward appearances. We have been fully and irrevocably been brought into the kind of relationship with God which allows me the privilege of bursting into the courtroom of the King, calling him “Abba” and making known my deepest needs, hurts, and pains with utter security and freedom.
  13. Sanctification.  Sanctification is comforting in a number of ways. I was listening to John Piper the other day talking about the joy of heaven and the end of earthly frustrations. He pointed out that the thing he’s most sick of in this life is his own sin. Sanctification is comforting in reminding us that we are not forever trapped in the sin that easily the greatest source of the daily suffering most of us face. Beyond that, the doctrine of sanctification teaches me that I have been set apart in such a way that I know that in all that befalls me, God is at work to make me holy, pure, and more like his Son.
  14. Church. The doctrine of the Church is a comfort, in that I don’t have to suffer alone in this life. The reality is that I am now part of a family, a body upon whom I can depend full of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. Many of these have gone before me down this path and stand ready to counsel, support, uphold, encourage, and rescue in times of need.
  15. Last Things.  Finally, of course, there is an ultimate day when God will make himself all in all. He will do this through the Return of Christ who comes to judge the quick and the dead, punishing oppression, ending it, redeeming the world, rewarding the righteous, and ushering in a day of everlasting glory. Upon that day, we will behold our God and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is the blessed hope and a vision to sustain us in the darkest of hours. The light shines just over the ridge, promising a weight of glory that overwhelms these light and momentary afflictions.

I could continue at length with each of these doctrines. Indeed, in the section on the doctrine of God, each of his attributes provides a particular comfort of its own, for those of us willing to stop and meditate on them. For now, there is enough to see that what we need in times of torment, is not bland platitudes handed to us from spiritual gurus, or pinterest memes, but a soul that has marinated the deep truths of God’s Word. I’ll end by simply quoting one of the most comforting paragraphs in the history of theology, Heidelberg Q & A 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Soli Deo Gloria

Bavinck On Inequality: Culture or Sovereignty? Rousseau or Calvin?

Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)In 1913 Herman Bavinck penned a little essay “On Inequality”, in which he directed his attention to the subject of social inequality, especially the tragic sort. The study begins by examining the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in the modern period, was the first person to really broach the question, and do so in such a way that his thought has reverberated throughout revolutions and societies ever since. After giving a sympathetic brief biography and exposition of his thought–especially his basic answer that the wicked development of human culture has corrupted natural human equity–in an arresting passage Bavinck unexpectedly turns his attention to set up a contrast between Rousseau and another intellectual titan of Geneva:

The name “citizen of Geneva,” as Rousseau liked to call himself after his second discourse, makes us think of another man who lived and worked in Geneva two centuries earlier: the powerful Reformed John Calvin. But what a tremendous contrast arises the moment these two names are mentioned together. Calvin, the classically formed humanist, a man distinguished in manners and appearance, with sharp mind and an iron will; over against Rousseau, the restless wanderer, who was often moody, whose thinking lacked logic, whose life was rudderless, who was a dreamer and a fanatic, and the first great romanticist of the eighteenth century! Both experienced a transformation in their lives, but with Calvin it consisted of turning away from the errors of the Roman Catholic Church and an embracing of the truth and the freedom of the gospel, which with Rousseau it was no more than a breaking with all culture and return to the instinctiveness of nature. Calvin had learned to see human nature as culpable and polluted in the light of Scripture, while Rousseau taught that nature, before it was contaminated by culture, was good and beautiful and without any corruption. Calvin sought the cause of all misery in sin, which was a personal act consisting of disobedience of God’s law. Rousseau blamed society and civilization, and he was moved to tears when he thought of his own goodness; no one had ever existed who was as good and compassionate as he! Calvin did not expect anything from nature but expected everything from God’s grace in Christ. In one word, Calvin cast man and all creatures in the dust before the overwhelming majesty of God. Rousseau, on the other hand, put man on the throne, himself first of all, at the expense of God’s holiness and justice.

–“On Inequality” in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (pp. 155-156)

Clearly Bavinck had his preferences. But aside from the excuse to pen a bit of stunning prose, why bring up Calvin? Well, to set up a bit of a paradoxical contrast in their approaches to the issue of inequality.

Calvin, according to Bavinck, was also concerned with inequality, but contrary to the social leveler, Rousseau, it was religious inequality that bothered him most. Why do some respond to the gospel and others turn away in their sin and folly? Calvin, Luther, and others, after examining Scripture and all the other options, could ultimately only acknowledge God’s sovereign good pleasure.

Beyond establishing the certainty of faith, Bavinck says that this insight into the sovereignty of God as the deepest cause of all things gave Calvin foundation from which to build a theology of multiplicity, difference, and yes, even inequality. Nature, culture, and human choice do play their roles, but underlying them all is the sovereign good pleasure of God which sustains nature, culture, and even human choice.

Of course, Bavinck knows this isn’t an immediately palatable thought; only “a strong generation can accept” it. Still, Bavinck thinks it offers a number of blessings. First, it teaches peaceable acceptance, submission, and contentment in times of struggle and hardship. Rousseau stirred up rebellion and resentment in their hearts by blaming society and culture, which set people up for the disappointment that inequality still exists on the other side of the Revolution.

Second, Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty assures believers that no matter how opaque or inscrutable his purposes may be, they are where they are by the will of their loving Father, who cares for them and has provided a gracious salvation in Christ, not blind fate or pitiless nature. These are the comforts of the martyrs, the imprisoned, the simple suffering children of God, which Rousseau’s gospel could never offer.

At this point, Bavinck points up a third and initially surprising contrast between the two philosophies, or rather the two thinkers. Rousseau might have indeed complained, stirred the populace with his fiery writings, and turned people against their monarchs, but at the end of the day, he walked away from them. He ended up retreating to reclusion “without moving a finger to reform society.” Calvin, on the other hand? Well, he got down to business. While some might see predestination and sovereignty as cutting the nerve of social reform, it actually funded it:

If we steadfastly believe that the will of God is the cause of all things, then our reverence for that same will, which has been revealed in Scripture as the rule for our lives, must compel us to promote its dominion everywhere and as far as our influence reaches. If you believe, with Rousseau, that society is the cause of all evil, then you have pronounced its death sentence; you have given man the right to execute people, and you have legitimized the Revolution. But if you believe with Calvin that the will of God, his will of good pleasure, is the cause of all things, then that same will becomes his revealed will and the moving force and rule for our living. The words “Your will be done” encompass and provide not only the strength to acquiesce but also strength to act. (158)

A bit later he goes on to substantiate his point further by pointing out the substantial reforms initiated in Geneva and the admirable commonwealth to be found there. Indeed, in Bavinck’s opinion, Rousseau was proud to be a Genevan largely because of the ripple effect of the Reforms initiated by Calvin’s very different theology of culture, nature, and inequality.

Now, at this point, some of us may question Bavinck’s presentation of Rousseau. I suspect some of us–especially us Americans–might not understand his hostility to the Revolution, or understand the horror with which many Europeans regarded it. Still, it’s a remarkable essay and a paradoxical argument worth considering. A strong appreciation for the sovereignty of God can both keep us from the anxiety that causes us to revile the good gifts of God by identifying them with the source of evil (culture), comfort us in the midst of its difficulties, as well as the moral energy to work for its good.

Soli Deo Gloria