A Trifecta of Joy Commands

joyThere is a delightful little trifecta of commands in the middle of Paul’s laundry list of exhortations towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

In that little burst of admonition, Paul gives us a snapshot of the life of joy that God intends for his children. Not only his children in easy circumstances, but even those like the Thessalonians who were under serious threat of harm, persecution, and loss.

What does it mean to rejoice, though, and how can we do it always? Well, Calvin points out its parallel passage in Philippians 4:

In like manner, in Philippians 4:4, having said,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all. Be not anxious as to anything. The Lord is at hand.

He afterwards points out the means of this—

but in every prayer let your requests be made known to God, with giving of thanks.

In light of this, he says that rejoicing always, or being filled with joy regularly is, “moderation of spirit, when the mind keeps itself in calmness under adversity, and does not give indulgence to grief.” That is not to say that a person never grieves, nor that the person is slap-happy all the time, burying their emotions and plastering a fake smile on their face. He says that the person doesn’t “give indulgence”, doesn’t coddle, doesn’t nurse, doesn’t cultivate grief in the soul in every situation, nor even in those that might tempt us to despair. Instead, Paul “presents as a source of joy a calm and composed mind, that is not unduly disturbed by injuries or adversities.”

How do we do this, though? Well, through prayer. Calvin knows that it is very easy to be “borne down by grief, sorrow, anxiety, and fear”, so he says Paul “bids us repose in the providence of God.” What’s more:

as doubts frequently obtrude themselves as to whether God cares for us, he also prescribes the remedy — that by prayer we disburden our anxieties, as it were, into his bosom, as David commands us to do in Psalm 37:5 and Psalm 55:22; and Peter also, after his example. (1 Peter 5:7.)

Prayer brings us into the gentle presence of our Fatherly God. Prayer reminds us that all things are in the hands of the Lord of History. What’s more, it actually effects change as the prayer moves the God who moves all things. Once we do this, “giving thanks in all circumstances” becomes a thinkable reality. As Calvin expounds it,

For, in the first place, he would have us hold God’s benefits in such esteem, that the recognition of them and meditation upon them shall overcome all sorrow. And, unquestionably, if we consider what Christ has conferred upon us, there will be no bitterness of grief so intense as may not be alleviated, and give way to spiritual joy. For if this joy does not reign in us, the kingdom of God is at the same time banished from us, or we from it. And very ungrateful is that man to God, who does not set so high a value on the righteousness of Christ and the hope of eternal life, as to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As, however, our minds are easily dispirited, until they give way to impatience, we must observe the remedy that he subjoins immediately afterwards. For on being cast down and laid low we are raised up again by prayers, because we lay upon God what burdened us.

Prayer reminds us of our many benefits in Christ, which allows us to consider the joyful, thanks-inducing reality beyond the current circumstances. There is always reason for joy for the Christian and so Paul tells us to constantly be praying, unburdening ourselves, and tapping into the deep reservoir of comfort we have in Christ.

Finally, we need to remember that this is all God’s will towards us in Christ. God’s intention is for us to live a life of constant joy, in all situations, in prayerful communion with him, pouring out thanksgiving for all of his manifold blessings. These are not burdensome commands. These are, as John Piper has put it, the “duty of delight.” This, indeed, is the endgoal of both God’s commands and his promises: our delight in his glory.

So then, today, remember the trifecta of joy commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria

Edwards: Heaven is a World of Triune Love (W/ Some Help From Strobel)

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Cheesy “Heaven” Image, because nobody clicks on pages with Jonathan Edwards.

Recently, I’ve been on something a Jonathan Edwards kick. Though I’d been kind of interested in Edwards before–his The End for Which God Created the World and a collection of his sermons exercised a deep influence on me a few years ago–I hadn’t really dug deeply into his voluminous and wide-ranging works (sermons, treatises, miscellanies), partially because I felt I needed a guide into them. Some might think, “A guide for Edwards? Really?” Yup.

See, generations of U.S. History students have been spoiled for reading Jonathan Edwards simply because they’ve only been exposed to hostile expositions of his classic Great Awakening sermon “Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God” at the age of 15, or so. The unfortunate picture that emerges is of a hell-obsessed, brimstone preacher, with little to no theological imagination except in expositing the tortures of the damned. Push a little beyond that, though, and you come to find out the revival preacher was also a creative theologian, pastor, and philosophical innovator of the highest order. Indeed, according to many intellectual historians, it’s likely he’s the first and most original theologian the Americas ever produced, capable of being ranked among the greatest intellects of his age across the Atlantic.  Theologian Robert Jenson, himself no slouch, has called him “America’s Theologian.”

As it turns out, Edwards was rather metaphysically-sophisticated, and, in some places, kind of a quirky odd-ball in the Reformed tradition, which plays out in places you wouldn’t expect. For that reason, I decided to get my hands on Kyle Strobel’s Jonathan Edwards’ Theology: A Reinterpetation. It’s been an eye-opener. Thing is, this isn’t just a modest field-guide for the novice reader. Strobel’s work comes in the midst of a recent wave of Edwards scholarship in the blossoming field of “Edwards Studies”, with an aim to correct a lot of the discussion that’s gone before, and reset a lot of the conversation surrounding the basic shape of Edwards’ theology. Now, from where I stand as a total non-expert and unqualified observer, I can’t judge how much he does that. What I can say is that’s been a fascinating, helpful read so far.

At the heart of Strobel’s argument–insofar as I’m following it–is that Edwards’ Reformed theology (not philosophy, mind you), is a vision of the Triune God whose fundamental existence is one of “personal beatific delight.” The God from whom are all things and to whom all things are oriented, is the one whose inner life is that of the Father and Son’s mutual gaze in the delight of the Spirit. The Father’s own knowledge is the Son whom he loves and delights in through the love that is the Spirit. But it does not end with the Father’s love of the Son, in the Spirit. As he writes in Heaven is a World of Love:

And the Son of God is not only the infinite object of love, but he is also an infinite subject of it. He is not only the beloved of the Father, but he infinitely loves him. The infinite essential love of God, is, as it were, an infinite and eternal, mutual, holy, energy between the Father and the Son: a pure and holy act, whereby the Deity becomes, as it were, one infinite and unchangeable emotion of love proceeding from both the Father and the Son. This divine love has its seat in the Deity, as it is exercised within the Deity, or in God toward himself.

From this eternally happy and glorious self-knowledge and love, flows God’s purpose in creation and the history of redemption: God’s benevolent self-glorification in the communication of the overflow of that good to creatures. Everything else from Edwards’ quirky take on the attributes of God, his understanding of heaven, earth, and hell, the structure of redemptive history, the nature of union, justification, sanctification, and glorification, and so on, has its ground in Edwards’ irrefragably trinitarian theology.

And yes, thinking these things through with Edwards and Strobel really is as heady, intoxicating, difficult, and rewarding it sounds.

Heaven is a World of Triune Love

One particular section that caught my attention was the way this vision grounds Edwards’ vision of heaven as “a world of love”, which he gets into in a sermon by the same title I have already quoted above. Edwards’ vision of heaven is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of which is his appreciation for its dynamic, historical character. Yes, according to Edwards, even heaven has a history, with different eras ushered in by the different stage of Christ’s historical work of redemption. Heaven and earth and more intimately bound up with each other, in that respect, than many of us typically appreciate.

But what makes heaven a world of love? Well, God, of course:

Here I remark that the God of love himself dwells in heaven. Heaven is the palace or presence-chamber of the high and holy One, whose name is love, and who is both the cause and source of all holy love…And this renders heaven a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens in a clear day, fills the world with light. The apostle tells us that “God is love;” and therefore, seeing he is an infinite being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love.

Like Bavinck, Edwards knows that the best part of Heaven or the New Creation is that it is the dwelling of God himself. God is not secondary or tertiary to the good of heaven, but the central focus of it. God is what makes heaven heavenly.

It’s not enough, though, to talk about God as the fountain of love, as the source of love, or the presence of love. We must press forward and understand that it is because this God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that heaven is a world of love:

There, even in heaven, dwells the God from whom every stream of holy love, yea, every drop that is, or ever was, proceeds. There dwells God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, united as one, in infinitely dear, and incomprehensible, and mutual, and eternal love.

There dwells God the Father, who is the father of mercies, and so the father of love, who so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son to die for it.

There dwells Christ, the Lamb of God, the prince of peace and of love, who so loved the world that he shed his blood, and poured out his soul unto death for men. There dwells the great Mediator, through whom all the divine love is expressed toward men, and by whom the fruits of that love have been purchased, and through whom they are communicated, and through whom love is imparted to the hearts of all God’s people. There dwells Christ in both his natures, the human and the divine, sitting on the same throne with the Father.

And there dwells the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of divine love, in whom the very essence of God, as it were, flows out, and is breathed forth in love, and by whose immediate influence all holy love is shed abroad in the hearts of all the saints on earth and in heaven.

Strobel points out that this vision of heaven is one of “personal beatific delight” in God (106). The God of Heaven is the God given us in the Son, our Mediator in two natures, who reveals the Father who sent him and the Spirit who comes to us as another Advocate to apply the Son’s work in our lives. In other words, the delight is one that believers (and angels as well) receive through the mediating work of Jesus, which continues even in heaven and is effected in us by the Spirit. In this way, Christians participate in a secondary and derived sense, in “God’s own personal beatific delight.”

This delight doesn’t consist only in the believer’s union with God, but, if I’m getting it right, in the greater union believers have with each other. Strobel says, “seeing and knowing God in this manner results in unity among the members” as they jointly grow in their love, knowledge, and worship of the Redeemer to whom they are mutually united (106). The communion of the saints is part of the delight of heaven brought about by, founded on, and participating in the communion of the Triune God.

At the heart of Edwards’ vision of heaven, then, is this:

…infinite fountain of love — this eternal Three in One — is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it, as it flows forever. There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth, in full glory, in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love, in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love!

That is a vision to stir the affections, create a longing in our hearts, and a vision of hope that ought to press us to anticipate our future with God even now.

How?

Well, first by seeking after the glory of the Triune God through prayer. Remember, we have access even now through Jesus and the Spirit, to the throne room of the Father. What’s more, in Scripture, we are presented with a vision of Jesus, our Redeemer, working in the power of the Spirit, in whom we see the perfect Image of the Father.

Soli Deo Gloria

Leveraging the Attributes *for* Salvation (Edwards on the Glory of God in Salvation–Again)

chess 2Yes, this is another post on salvation, the attributes, and Jonathan Edwards in The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way of Salvation. He’s already demonstrated the way that each, or at least a good many, of the attributes are glorified and displayed the work of redemption, as well as the particular persons of the Trinity. But Edwards doesn’t stop there. From another angle, Edwards makes the argument that it is the wisdom of God in salvation to act in such a way that the very attributes which would seem to most make us his enemy, put us in peril of damnation, separation, and the annihilation, are actually the foundation of our redemption and hope. In this way, “God’s greatest dishonor is made an occasion of his greatest glory.”

What do I mean by that? Well, Edwards reminds us of the basic reality of sin: it is a denial of God, a rebellious refusal to give God glory and honor, and set ourselves up as his enemies. We attempt to dethrone the God of the universe in our vanity. In light of this reality, all of God’s attributes seem to demand vindication. His truth demands the public demonstration that he keeps his word to curse disobedience. His holiness demands the eradication of impurity. His justice seems to demand the punishment of sin, lest God be an unjust judge. And yet, “so has God contrived, that those very attributes not only allow of man’s redemption, and are not inconsistent with it, but they are glorified in it.”

Indeed, the Triune one has so arranged the work of salvation such that his attributes now demand the salvation of sinners: “it is so ordered now that the glory of these attributes requires the salvation of those that believe.”

This argument taps into the logic of the apostle, John. John writes to the church in Ephesus that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God is faithful and just to forgive sins? Why is it a matter of justice to forgive sins? Well, because in verses 2:1-2, John continues on: “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

In this section, Edwards explains:

The justice of God that required man’s damnation, and seemed inconsistent with his salvation, now as much requires the salvation of those that believe in Christ, as ever before it required their damnation. Salvation is an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he may in justice demand it, on account of what his surety has done. For Christ has satisfied justice fully for his sin. It is but a piece of justice, that the creditor should release the debtor, when he has fully paid the debt. And again, the believer may demand eternal life, because it has been merited by Christ, by a merit of condignity. So is it contrived, that justice that seemed to require man’s destruction, now requires his salvation.

He then moves on to show how the same movement is at work in God’s attributes of truth and holiness. Where it seemed they demand our total rejection, God orders things so that, upon faith in Christ, these things “require” our acceptance.

Not only that, it’s not just that redemption displays God’s attributes better than any other act. Nor is it only that God wisely arranges things so that his attributes require man’s salvation. In this way, we see God’s attributes more magnificently displayed in a way than we ever could have otherwise. “Those very attributes which seemed to require man’s destruction are more glorious in his salvation than they would have been in his destruction.”

How so? Simply damning sinners for eternity cannot compare to the utter vindication of God’s justice seen in his taking the consequences of sin upon himself in the Son all at once, in public, on the cross. The public trial in history of God’s unchangeable justice reveals God’s willingness to do justice in a way that simply leaving sinners to their fate ever could.

This is one more reason to marvel at the wisdom of God:

Such is the wisdom of salvation, that the more any of the elect have dishonored God, the more is God glorified in this redemption. Such wonders as these are accomplished by the wisdom of this way of salvation.

Not only does this give us reason to praise and glorify God, but it also is the foundation of unspeakable comfort. Many of us might look to God’s goodness, his holiness, his righteous justice, or purity, and only see reasons for guilt, rejection, shame, and despair. Edwards will not have. To think in such a way underestimated the glorious wisdom of God:

So sufficient is this way of salvation, that it is not inconsistent with any of God’s attributes to save the chief of sinners. However great a sinner any one has been, yet God can, if he pleased, save without any injury to the glory of any one attribute. And not only so, but the more sinful any one has been, the more does God glorify himself in his salvation. The more does he glorify his power, that he can redeem one in whom sin so abounds, and of whom Satan has such strong possession. — The greater triumph has Christ over his grand adversary, in redeeming and setting at liberty from his bondage those that were his greatest vassals. The more does the sufficiency of Christ appear, in that it is sufficient for such vile wretches.

This is not an excuse to sin that grace might abound, but an invitation to worship the wise grace of God, the sufficiency of Christ, which alone can give us the love for God that drives out all desire to sin.

Such is the wisdom of God. All things work for his glory and for our ultimate good.

Now think on his works, his attributes, worship, and sin no more.

Soli Deo Gloria

Conquering Our Spiritual Goliath

rubens_david_goliath_grtOne more section in Jonathan Edwards’ work on The Wisdom of God, Displayed in Salvation concerns the way this benefits the holy angels as well as the effects it has upon Satan and his minions. After a surprising amount of applications, Edwards closes with this smashing paragraph that I simply could not help but pass on:

One end why God suffered Satan to do what he did in procuring the fall of man was that his Son might be glorified in conquering that strong, subtle, and proud spirit, and triumphing over him. How glorious does Christ Jesus appear in baffling and triumphing over this proud king of darkness, and all the haughty confederate rulers of hell. How glorious a sight is it to see the meek and patient Lamb of God leading that proud, malicious, and mighty enemy in triumph! What songs does this cause in heaven! It was a glorious sight in Israel, who came out with timbrels and with dances, and sang, “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” But how much more glorious to see the Son of David, the Son of God, carrying the head of the spiritual Goliath, the champion of the armies of hell, in triumph to the heavenly Jerusalem! It is with a principal view to this, that Christ is called, “the Lord of hosts, or armies, and a man of war,” Exo. 15:3. And Psa. 24:8, “Who is this king of glory! The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.” –Jonathan Edwards, The Wisdom of God, Displayed in the Way of Salvation, Sec. IV

All Glory to Our Mighty David, King Jesus!

Soli Deo Gloria

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (TGC Review)

searchingforsunday_229_350_90Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015. 288 pp. $16.99.

Disclaimer: Rachel Held Evans is an “internet friend” of mine, meaning we’ve never met in person but over the last couple of years we’ve laughed online, shared prayer requests, and encouraged each other in difficult moments. We’ve also argued, publicly disagreeing in articles and on Twitter about important issues. So I hope this review is read in that spirit: one of affirmation and critique from a friend.


While her first book (Faith Unraveled, 2010) tackled issues of doubt, science, and faith, and her second (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012) examined problems with, well, “biblical womanhood,” the title of her third entry, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, similarly says it all: Evans shares her story about leaving and finding the church again in a new way. Arranged in seven sections corresponding to the seven Catholic and Orthodox sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage), she chronicles the various glories and pains of growing up in a conservative/fundamentalist evangelical tradition and offers an apologetic of sorts for leaving(?) for the mainline when the incongruities of the former proved too great. It’s a story about death, and yes, resurrection.

Beyond that, Searching for Sunday is purposely presented as an archetypal story (xi). According to the stats, millennials are apparently leaving the church. Evans’s own story of departure and return aims to articulate some of the millennial experience to a confused church: their doubt that won’t be satisfied with easy answers; their fear of exclusion; their burnout from the culture wars and the marriage of evangelicalism with conservative politics; their fatigue once the strobe lights, hip music, and gimmicky youth games didn’t distract them from their burning questions or the pain of their LGBTQ friends. Evans also aims to point the way to a Christianity—a church—with arms open wide enough to draw them back, just as it has drawn her—questions, struggles, and all.

You can read the rest of my review over at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Gentle Heresy-Hunting with Paul

correctopponentsHeresy-hunting gets a bad rap nowadays. If there’s one thing that nobody wants to be, it’s a “heresy-hunter.” And who can blame them? I mean, cruise around the Internet and you’ll find any number of “discernment” ministries dedicated to finding anybody who doesn’t line up with their particular, historically-contingent, possibly cultish understanding of Christianity and placing them on the “list” with a page dedicated to listing their dubious tweets.

Or again, there’s that guy (and it’s almost always a guy) who spends his time listening to local pastors’ sermons just so he can find that damning 2-second analogy he can email you five pages of footnotes about. Nobody wants to be him, so there’s an understandable recoil. And this is on top of our general cultural aversion to being doctrinaire about matters of religion (unless it’s a food religion, in which case we’re simply being “healthy,” and one can do no evil in the name of health).

All the same, one of the interesting fruits of reading G.K. Beale’s New Testament Biblical Theology a while back, was realizing that there’s a proper place for heresy-hunting in the church. In fact, we have a church office whose task is, in large part, to oversee, guide, and prevent against creeping false doctrine in the church: the Elder. According to Beale, Paul’s teaching on the office of elder in the Pastoral Epistles, is connected to the reality of false-teaching in the end times or “latter days” (p. 820).

Of course, in Beale’s telling, “the latter days” is a description of this time between the first and second coming of Christ. In other words, the many exhortations to guard against false teaching are a permanent and essential function of the elder in Christ’s church (Titus 1:5-16; 1 Tim 1:3-7, 19-20; 4:1-7; 2 Tim. 2:14-18; 23-26; 3:1-13). Shepherds keep sheep from wandering astray, and they guard the sheep against wolves who would ravage them with cunning and destructive teachings about Jesus that would rob them of comfort, joy, holiness, and peace.

I go into how to do that wisdom and gentleness like Paul does over in the rest of the article at For the Church. If you haven’t checked them out, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a great new resource site.