The Doctrine Without Which Holy Week Is Not Good News

21733-unionDuring Holy Week, especially the tail-end of Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, we celebrate the climax of the saving events of the Gospel. In this week we see all of Jesus’ work summed up. We Jesus proclaiming and living out the Kingdom in perfect obedience to the Father. We see Jesus lifted up on the cross, bearing the sins of the people, exposing the darkness of satan, and exhausting the curse in his death. We see Jesus, risen to new life again, bringing about the New Age in his own resurrected person.

And yet, the reality is, none of these saving events are of any use if the doctrine of union with Christ is not true. Calvin explains:

First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Ephesians 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Romans 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Romans 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Galatians 3:27]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits. –Institutes, 3.1.1

Unless I am united to Christ, all of his obedience to the covenant, or righteousness, is not mine–I am left to stand on my own false works before the judge of all the earth. Unless I am united with Christ, then his sin-bearing death is not mine, and I am left to give an account for all my wicked sins. Unless I am united with Christ, I am not part of the crop of which Christ is the first-fruits, and I can only reap the death that  sin leads to and have no life through the Spirit. I’ll quote Robert Letham again at length on the logic of union and salvation:

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

–Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

This Holy Week, then, as we contemplate Jesus’ works accomplished on our behalf outside of us, let us glory in the union that makes them ours by faith.

Soli Deo Gloria

Adoption is About Transformation

billingsJ.I. Packer has aptly summarized the Gospel as “Adoption by grace.” In my favorite little intro to the Reformed tradition,  J. Todd Billings explains that God’s adoption of us in Christ, is not only a metaphor about our initial justification, but plays into the way we think of our sanctification:

While the metaphor of adoption begins as a legal act, it does not end there: it ends with membership in the household of God (Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19), with a calling to act into the reality of this new identity. God’s legal act of adopting into the family of God results in a new identity, in an eschatologically conditioned way. Thus, when we are given an identity in Christ, we are called to live into it. For example, the doxological opening of Ephesians 1 says that God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). As the blessings of being in Christ are unfolded in the following verses, Paul returns to the language of adoption and inheritance—that “in Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (1:11–12, emphasis added). This new identity of one belonging to a new family in Christ is sealed by the Spirit in the verses that follow: “In him you also . . . were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory” (1:13–14). The adopted identity in Christ, sealed by the Spirit, leads to living “for the praise of his glory” (1:12), but also provides the ground for numerous ethical exhortations in Ephesians: the call to unity (4:13); to prayer (6:18); to speaking and living the truth in Christ (4:15, 21, 25; 6:14); to living in “love” rather than in anger, malice, and bitterness (4:21–5:1). All of these exhortations are to reflect the behavior of those who have been conferred a new adopted identity in Christ and who seek to live into this inheritance received as children of God in Christ.

In contrast to some theologians who have associated adoption only with justification, Paul’s overall usage of the adoption metaphor describes both the legal dimension of being transferred into God’s family and the transformative dimension of growing in God’s family. By associating adoption only with justification, theologians have sometimes tended to emphasize the legal at the expense of the transformative side of adoption. Trevor Burke has criticized certain Reformed scholastic thinkers, in particular, for making adoption a subset or benefit of justification without recognizing its distinct meaning. While Burke makes a good point, I suspect some of the reason for the confusion comes from the following: Theologians have often spoken about the act of becoming adopted as a forensic act, which is a valid point (as Burke agrees). But the forensic sense of becoming adopted does not exhaust the meaning of Paul’s metaphor, because the result of that act is that one is adopted to be a son or daughter of God, placed in the security of God’s family, and given a new identity to live into in an eschatologically conditioned way. Some theologians have thus been too quick to assume that the meaning of “adoption” is exhausted by the act of becoming adopted. Significantly for this chapter, however, this is not a mistake that John Calvin makes. Calvin uses the image of adoption as a way to describe the double grace of justification and sanctification received in union with Christ. Calvin understood that as an image for salvation, the act of becoming adopted is a legal, forensic action, but it has another dimension as well: as an image for the way Christians are to act as children of the Father who promises “to nourish us throughout the course of our life.” Indeed, the Spirit gives new life, displayed in love of God and neighbor, which “shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us (cf. Romans 8:15).”

–J. Todd Billings (2011-11-01). Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Kindle Locations 457-486). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Unsurprisingly, J.I. Packer has quite a bit to say about the way adoption transforms our identity. Towards the end of his chapter on the subject in his classic Knowing God, Packer summarizes some of the glories of adoption and gives us some questions to ask ourselves in light of this brilliant reality:

Do I, as a Christian, understand myself? Do I know my own real identity? My own real destiny? I am a child of God. God is my Father; heaven is my home; every day is one day nearer. My Savior is my brother; every Christian is my brother too. Say it over and over to yourself first thing in the morning, last thing at night, as you wait for the bus, any time when your mind is free, and ask that you may be enabled to live as one who knows it is all utterly and completely true. For this is the Christian’s secret of—a happy Life?—yes, certainly, but we have something both higher and profounder to say. This is the Christian’s secret of a Christian life, and of a God-honoring life, and these are the aspects of the situation that really matter. May this secret become fully yours, and fully mine. To help us realize more adequately who and what, as children of God, we are and are called to be, here are some questions by which we do well to examine ourselves again and again.

Do I understand my adoption? Do I value it? Do I daily remind myself of my privilege as a child of God?

Have I sought full assurance of my adoption? Do I daily dwell on the love of God to me?

Do I treat God as my Father in heaven, loving, honoring and obeying him, seeking and welcoming his fellowship, and trying in everything to please him, as a human parent would want his child to do?

Do I think of Jesus Christ, my Savior and my Lord, as my brother too, bearing to me not only a divine authority but also a divine-human sympathy? Do I think daily how close he is to me, how completely he understands me, and how much, as my kinsman-redeemer, he cares for me?

Have I learned to hate the things that displease my Father? Am I sensitive to the evil things to which he is sensitive? Do I make a point of avoiding them, lest I grieve him?

Do I look forward daily to that great family occasion when the children of God will finally gather in heaven before the throne of God, their Father, and of the Lamb, their brother and their Lord? Have I felt the thrill of this hope?

Do I love my Christian brothers and sisters with whom I live day by day, in a way that I shall not be ashamed of when in heaven I think back over it? Am I proud of my Father, and of his family, to which by his grace I belong? Does the family likeness appear in me? If not, why not?

God humble us; God instruct us; God make us his own true children.

Knowing God, pp. 258-260

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Reasons Membership in a Local Church Matters

Leeman-Church-MembershipIronically enough, I don’t think I knew what church membership was until I went to a a big mega-church that told people on a regular basis that they didn’t need to become one. I had grown up with parents who functioned as committed members of their churches, but conceptually the idea of formal membership in a local body was foreign to me until a few years ago.

At the risk of over-generalizing, I think that’s about where your average American Christian (evangelical) is nowadays. Insofar as we’ve actually given any thought to the issue, we go to church, maybe plug in to a church, or at most commit to a church. But, formally belong to one? Like on a list? With like a signature and stuff? In our individualistic, consumeristic, anti-authoritarian society, that sounds too rigid, too formal, and just bizarre. The church is a family, a community where I go to get fed and built up in my faith, not some organization or institution I belong to.

For a while now I’ve been getting over that kind of knee-jerk, anti-institutional way of thinking. I mean, I’m at a Presbyterian church for crying out loud. Still, at the suggestion of a friend I finally picked up Jonathan Leeman’s couple of books on church membership and discipline (The Church and the Surprising Offense of the Love of God, Church Membership), and found his arguments challenging and largely persuasive. The issue is a big deal, and membership in the local body is far more central to being a Christian than most of us are used to thinking.

In one little section Leeman helpful summarizes a key section of his argument into 12 reasons membership in a local body matters:

  1. It’s biblical. Jesus established the local church and all the apostles did their ministry through it. The Christian life in the New Testament is church life. Christians today should expect and desire the same.
  2. The church is its members. To be a church in the New Testament is to be one of its members (read through Acts). And you want to be part of the church because that’s who Jesus came to rescue and reconcile to himself.
  3. It’s a prerequisite for the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a meal for the gathered church, that is, for members (see 1 Cor. 11:20-33). And you want to take the Lord’s Supper. It’s the team flag that makes the church team visible to the nations.
  4. It’s how you officially represent Jesus. Membership is the church’s affirmation that you are a citizen of Christ’s kingdom and therefore a pass-port carrying Jesus representative before the nations. And you want your representation to be authorized. Closely related to this…
  5. It’s how you declare your highest allegiance. Your membership on the team, which becomes visible when you wave the flag of the Lord’s Supper, is a public testimony belongs to Jesus. Trials and persecution may come, but your only words are, “I am a Christian.”
  6. It’s how you embody and experience biblical images. It’s within the accountability structures of the local church that Christians live and experience the interconnectivity of the body, the spiritual fullness of his temple, and the safety and intimacy and shared identity of his family.
  7. It’s how you serve other Christians. Membership helps you know which Christians on planet Earth you are specifically responsible to love, serve, warn, and encourage. It enables you to fulfill your biblical responsibilities to Christ’s body (for example, see Eph. 4:11-16; 25-32).
  8. It’s how you follow Christian leaders. Membership helps you know which Christian leaders on planet Earth you are called to obey and follow. Again, it allows you to fulfill your biblical responsibility to them (see Heb. 13:7, 17).
  9. It helps Christian leaders lead. Membership lets Christian leaders know which Christians on planet Earth they will “give an account” for (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2).
  10. It enables church discipline. It gives you the biblically prescribed place to participate in the work of church discipline responsibly, wisely, and lovingly (1 Cor. 5).
  11. It gives structure to your Christian life. It places an individual Christian’s claim to obey and follow Jesus into a real-life setting where authority is actually exercised over us (see John 14:15; 1 John 2:19; 4:20-21). It’s God’s discipling program. 
  12. It builds a witness and invites the nations. Membership puts the alternative rule of Christ on display for the watching universe (see Matt. 5:11; John 12:34-35; Eph. 3:10; 1 Pet. 2:9-12). The very boundaries, which are drawn around the membership of a church, yield a society of people that invites the nations to something better. It’s God’s evangelism program. 

-Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, pg. 79-81

Membership matters then–a whole lot more than most of us are used to acknowledging. The local body is key to mission. It’s key to discipleship. It’s key to actually following Jesus instead of just claiming to.

For the unconvinced, I’d recommend picking up Leeman’s little, and I mean very little book, and examining the biblical arguments for yourself. (If you’re up to it, I highly recommend his bigger book.) Even if you don’t come away convinced of every point, you’ll be challenged to take a deeper view of what it means to be a part of the body, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Gospel According to Kierkegaard

I’ve been reading Kierkegaard for years, but I’ve never read this until today. It is easily my favorite I’ve ever read, in the best sermon of his I’ve ever read, “The High Priest”, which can be found in Discourses at the Communion on Fridays, translated by Sylvia Walsh. The whole collection is fabulous, as is her opening essay. Here, more than any other work I know, you see Kierkegaard applying the Gospel in its clearest form to the broken, hurting, lonely, tempted, and tried:

Gospel According Kierkegaard

For more Kierkegaardian reflections on Jesus’ High priesthood, you can read here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Creation, Covenant, Curse, and the Seed of the Woman (The Story Notes #2)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Last week we talked about Genesis 1 and the picture it gives us of the God who stands at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. If last week was the first act (Creation), we’re going to dive in and look at that act again from another angle, as well as the second act, the Fall and where we fit into things.

the-garden-of-edenGenesis 2-3

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but vacation is good for about a week, maybe two. After that we start to go stir-crazy. Something in us desires to do something with actual meaning and purpose. We need to take something up, a cause, a piece of wood to carve, or an idea to flesh out with pen and paper, but we need to do something. We’re task-oriented beings at core. That’s part of what this text is about. It’s about our purpose, our place here in the cosmos.

But first, to understand the human task, you have to understand the human set-up.

God Sets Us Up in The Garden – Remember last week we said that God created the world and everything in it as his Temple, the place where he would dwell with his people? Well, these first sections describe the Garden of Eden as a Temple. It’s got everything that is needed for the Temple, including gold, onyx, the right kind of wood, water, garden stuff. Actually if you follow the language used of the Temple and the Tabernacle in the Law, if you read it, it all mirrors the language we find here in the Garden. The Temple was supposed to mirror the Garden in that it was the place that God dwelt and the Garden was a sort of proto-temple.

Now, beyond that, it’s a sweet set-up. God gives us EVERYTHING. There is food, there is beauty, there is companionship between the man and the woman. It truly is the definition of paradise (minus the resort hotel.) But…that doesn’t mean God put them there to sit around.

For a Task – We see that God makes man and woman, male and female in his Image in Genesis 1. That means that there is something about humans that distinguishes us from the animals and puts us in a place of authority whereby we are to run the world the way God would as his representatives. Well, the same thing is true here in Genesis 2.  That’s what the naming the animals thing was about. It’s Adam assuming his authority, to rule the creation. In other words, he’s starting his job.

What that means is that central to our identity is work. This is weird for a lot of us.

N.D. Wilson points out that a lot of us think that if we were just born into the garden, life would be easy. We think that work is there only because of the fall and sin. That’s not true. This is Genesis 2. Sin hasn’t happened yet. Life as God intended it is good, but part of the good life, is good work. We are inherently task-oriented beings, called to be God’s priest-kings. It makes sense, though, right? God works, so we work. We are made for relationship, yes,  but we’re also made for a job. Two jobs, in fact.

Priest-Kings - First, we are to spread the Kingdom of God or God’s Garden-Temple and second, we are to keep it free from the serpent. Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate (abad)” and “keep (samar)” it (Gen 2:15). The same two words are translated elsewhere “serve” and “guard”, and when they appear together, they are either referring to Israelites serving or obeying God’s word, or more usually, to the job of the priest in guarding and keeping the Temple. (Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 1 Chron. 23:32) .  In those days, the task was to keep God’s garden ordered, and some theologians (e.g. G.K. Beale) argue, to expand it into the deserted areas, sort of advancing the Kingdom of God as we went. God forms and fills the earth, so we do as well.

Next, we were also born to a fight. We forget that before we fell, we had an enemy. Before we sinned, we had an opponent, the Serpent, or the one the serpent represents, Satan.  See, just as the priests were supposed to keep the Temple precincts clean from pollution Adam’s job was to keep the garden free and clean from the corrupting elements of the Serpent, the Dragon.

This is why our hearts resonate when we see these stories about a task, an adventure, a goal, a fight, a great job to build, or grow, or make beautiful all things. It’s what we were created for. We were made to expand the Garden, to create culture, to fight evil and spread beauty throughout God’s world, just as God does.

The Structure of the Job (Covenant) – Now, there was a structure to the task. See, if we look at the text, it actually shows us that our relationship with God was structured like an ancient covenant treaty. What’s that? Well, it’s kind of an established relationship between a Sovereign King, and a sub-king. The King would protect and bless the sub-king and the sub-king would be loyal and serve the great king. If you compare the text to the ancient copies of these treaties, there is a marked structural similarity:

Now, these are the typical features and how it matches up with what we see in Genesis 2:

  1. Parties Named (the Lord God and the humans)
  2. History of relations (Here’s God giving you everything)
  3. Stipulations (Keep the Garden, Don’t eat from the Tree)
  4. Blesses and Curses for obedience (Tree of Life and eventual immortality, Curse of death)

So, Adam and Eve are the sub-kings promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. The idea is “you will have eternal Sabbath and life if you keep the garden, obey God’s commands and enjoy all that you’ve been given. But, If you disobey and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’re breaking covenant and bringing death on yourself.” Sounds pretty simple right? Good deal? Yeah, it was. Until this happened.

Re-read Chapter 3:1-11

The Lie and the Fall -  We don’t have time to go into all of this, but what was the Serpent’s basic lie? “God is holding out on you. If you’re going to have the life you deserve, the one you need, you’ll have to take it for yourself apart from God’s command.” This is absurd on multiple levels. In light of what we just read, the idea that God is holding out is ridiculous, right? He gave us everything plus the promise of eternal life, right? But we fell for it. We still do. We still believe if life is going to be good, we need to take control and take what we need for ourselves.

That’s kind of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about.  Some think that eventually we would eat from it, when we were ready and had proved faithful, at the time that God appointed. But for now, it remained a test: whether we are going to trust God for our knowledge and life, or if we are going to try and rule our own lives as if we were the great king, instead of just the sub-kings who learn from God what is right and wrong. Will we rule as God would, or will we make up our own rules and take what we think he’s holding out on us?

The Fallout – Now, what could have happened was God could have just killed us right there.  I mean, that’s what he said. That would have been justice. But, but…God is gracious. You might not see it, but what God says next is actually grace.

(Read the curse, Gen. 3:14-24)

Everything is cursed because of them, human relationships, our ability to take delight in our work, and nature itself. In a sense, as they were the King and Queen, like the first link a chain, their fall, their disconnection from God took everything down with them. Now, the grace of this is that, well, again, he didn’t just end it. He let life go on when he could have snuffed it out there.

The second grace is that God frustrates all of our possible attempts of living our lives apart from him. If relationships were perfect, we could make them into gods. If work was perfect, we could make it into a god, that we trust for our happiness and joy. God looks at us and says, ‘I will not let you settle for less. You will try to worship created things, but I will frustrate your efforts to rob yourself of your thirst for a knowledge of me.’ That is grace.

The Hope – Now, looking at things, how do things go forward? God gave them a task, but history has stopped. They believed the lie and fell into sin. They were supposed to keep the garden and defeat the snake, but now they’ve been kicked out of the Garden and been defeated by the snake. God didn’t end it, but on their own, it was still hopeless. On their own, they were out on their luck.

So where does the story go from here? How does it move forward, when Adam stopped it up with sin? With God’s word. That’s how it always works. Creation happened at God’s word and so does the rest of the story.

Curse to the Snake, Promise to the Woman – There is a line here in the pronouncement of God to the snake that is a curse to the snake, but promise to the woman. It says that the ‘seed of the woman’ will crush the Serpent’s head. See, now that’s a weird promise because everywhere else in scripture, ‘seed’, which refers to an heir or progeny, is related to a man. So, it would be ‘Adam’s seed’, or ‘Joseph’s seed.’ But here, it is the seed of the woman who would conquer the Serpent.

Now, back then it could have only been a tantalizing mystery, but for us today, this side of Jesus, we realize that the Seed of the woman refers to Mary’s Son, the great descendant Son of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the who comes to rescue us from the plight we were in.

Jesus is the hope of Adam and Eve and the rest of the world. We’ll continue to see this later on, but Jesus is the new Adam who does right all that Adam did wrong. He is the priest who spreads the presence and kingdom of God throughout the world, like Adam was to do in the Garden. He is the king who defeats Satan the Serpent, and rids the world of his pollution.

And how does he do it? He does it by suffering the curse for us. See, it says that the serpent will bruise his heel.  When Jesus went  to the Cross, the Serpent was going for his heel. But he didn’t know that by going to the Cross Jesus was lifting his heel up to crush his head. The irony is that on the Cross, Jesus suffered the judgment that our sin deserved, the curse that God said would come on Adam. By doing so, he  suffers it in our place and then, passes on the blessings that He actually earned by obeying what Adam was supposed to. This is what we call substitution. Jesus gets what we deserve and we gets what he deserves. In this way, he overcomes the Serpent’s lies and tricks that lead us to death, and gives us life.

This is grace. This is salvation. This is our hope.

Wrap-up – I don’t know where you’re at tonight, but I do know this: you were made for a task. God put you here for a purpose, but like our spiritual parents, you and I have believed the lie that God was holding out on us and have brought death into our lives by trying to get happiness for ourselves. The challenge might be different for all of us tonight:

  1. Stop believing the lie that you need to provide life for yourself and believe that God is good and has given you all you need in Jesus.
  2. Get up and realize that you were made for more than you’ve settled for. You were created for a task, for a fight, for a life that reflects God’s will for the world.
  3. Trust that Jesus has defeated our enemies, taken the curse, and that you’re not disqualified from that calling.

Or again, maybe the challenge is just to worship the great Priest-King, and praise him for his glorious victory over the Serpent, the Dragon. He has conquered through the curse and crushed our enemies’ head!

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Adopts Us in Salvation?

The FatherIt was in seminary that I began to appreciate the significance of adoption as a distinct moment in our salvation. Even greater than our justification, being declared and thereby rendered righteous with God the King, is being received by grace into his family as beloved children. It is as children that we call out ‘Abba, Father’ and approach the throne of grace with full confidence, knowing that the King of Glory delights to hear our prayers.

The question I had in seminary was, “Who exactly am I adopted by? Is it by the Father, or the whole Trinity?” I initially believed it to be the Father as I understood adoption to occur through union with Christ the Son into his relationship with the Father. Upon hearing me express this view, one of my professors quickly corrected me and warned against introducing a split in the Trinity. To him, it is only proper to attribute adoption to the whole Trinity.  Since that time I’ve gone back and forth, but have come to the conclusion that my initial instincts were correct.

Two principles of trinitarian theology have guided me:

  • First, that although the external acts of the Trinity are undivided, the persons are still to be distinguished. In other words, the Trinity acts in a trinitarian fashion. It’s not that the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit does, whatever he does. Instead, the early church fathers would say that more properly the Father creates, redeems, and sanctifies through the Son and the Spirit. In every action, the whole Trinity is involved.
  • Second, the complementary doctrine of appropriations teaches that, although the work of the Trinity is undivided, it is still fitting to attribute certain graces and actions more properly to a particular person. So, for instance, although the Father and the Spirit are involved, only the Son is properly said to become incarnate. Only the Son is born of a virgin, dies, and rises again, and so forth, even though they happen at the command of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

With these two principles in place, we are in a position to appreciate John Murray’s biblical arguments in Redemption Accomplished and Applied for thinking it is the Father who adopts us, although he does this through the Son and the Spirit:

  1. The first and simplest is that the name “Father” belongs to the first person of the Trinity, just as “the Son” is the second, and the “Holy Spirit” is the third. Jesus directed his prayers to the Father, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pg. 137)
  2. In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that he is not yet “ascended to the Father”, clearly referring to the first person, before going on “My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” (pp. 137-138)
  3. In a very similar point, Murray points out that Jesus’ frequent prayer to his “Father in heaven”, or some similar form of address. He also directs his disciples to pray to their Father in heaven, implying that the same divine person is in view. (pg. 138)
  4. In the New Testament, the term “Father” is personal name of the second person of the Trinity. The Father is often called “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). The phrase “God the Father” also must refer to him (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 6:23; Phil. 2:11; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:17; 2 John 3; Jude 1; Rev. 1:6) In almost all of these passages the Father is clearly not referring to the Son or the Spirit. From there Murray says that it is important to observe that “when God is called the Father of believers we have close similarity of expression” to the point where it is an unavoidable conclusion that the same person of the Trinity is being referred to. Again, in places like Romans 1:7 where the phrase “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is used, both persons are mentioned and distinguished, while one is named “our Father.” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3)

For these reasons it seems Biblically-appropriate to understand ourselves to have been adopted through the mediatorial work of the Son and the gift of the Spirit into the Father’s family by grace. This is good news. As Murray writes:

Could anything disclose the marvel of adoption or certify the security of its tenure and privilege more effectively than the fact that the Father himself, on account of whom are all things and through whom are all things, who made the captain of salvation perfect through suffering becomes by deed of grace the Father of the many sons whom he will bring to glory? (pg. 140)

Soli Deo Gloria

Letham on Union with Christ and Salvation

unionRobert Letham briefly summarizes the connection between union with Christ and our justification, sanctification, and resurrection:

Union and Justification

According to Paul in Romans 5:12-21, just as Adam plunged the whole race into sin and death because of their relationship of solidarity with him, so the second Adam brings life and righteousness to all who sustain a relationship of solidarity with him

If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of gracee and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17 ESV)

Here Paul reflects on his previous statement of the one way of salvation from sin by the propitiatory death of Christ, which avails for all who believe (Rom. 3:21ff). Justification is received only by faith and is grounded in what Christ did once for all in his death and resurrection (4:25).  Paul’s point is that we are not addressed merely as discrete individuals; instead, we are a team of which we all were members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death, and condemnation. What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are a part. He did it on our behalf, for us–and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.

Union and Sanctification

In Romans 6:1ff, in answer to charges that his gospel encourages moral indifference, Paul insists that believers, the justified, live to Christ and do not give themselves over to sin.  This is because they died with Christ to sin and rose again to new life in his resurrection. Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it. As Paul says, “Do you not know that as many were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death; we were buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father so we too should live in newness of life” (6:3-4).

Union and Resurrection

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Christ and the future resurrection of his church is one reality (vv. 12-19). Paul argues back and forth from one to the other. If Christ is not raised, there can be no resurrection of believers. If there is no general resurrection, Christ cannot have been raised himself. The two stand together. In fact, Christ has been raised–and so, therefore, will we be. Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of believers at his return (vv. 19-23). Not only is his resurrection first in time, but as firstfruits, it is of the same kind as the full harvest. Hence, it is the guarantee not only that the full harvest will be gathered but that both his resurrection and ours are identical. From this it is clear that the resurrection of believers at the parousia is a resurrection in Christ. The resurrections are effectively the same…Christ resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous, separated by indefinite time, are identical because the later occurs in union with the former.

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, pg. 5-7

Each of those points could be expanded upon at length, but this brief summary gives us a glimpse into the way the biblical record places our union with Christ at the blazing center of our salvation through Christ. There is no Gospel without union.

Soli Delo Gloria

One Reason I Can’t Swim the Tiber

"Swimming the Tiber" is a euphemism for Roman Catholic conversion, as it is the river identified with the Vatican.

“Swimming the Tiber” is a euphemism for Roman Catholic conversion, as it is the river identified with the Vatican.

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.

Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1

Commenting on the pastoral nature of the creeds and catechisms, Carl Trueman highlights a couple of the questions and answers in the Heidelberg Catechism, especially the way Q&A 1 highlights the heart of the Reformation:

Question 1 shows the glorious Reformation Protestant insight into the fact that assurance is to be the normal experience of every Christian believer and not merely the preserve of a few special saints who have been given extra-ordinary insight into their status before God, as was the medieval Catholic position.

This is perhaps one of the great Protestant insights of the Reformation. We live in an age where conversion to Roman Catholicism is not an uncommon thing among those who have been brought up as evangelicals. There are many reasons for this: some speak of being attracted by the beauty of the liturgy in comparison with what is often seen as a casual and irreverent flippancy in evangelical services; others like the idea of historical continuity, of knowing where the church has been throughout history; still others find the authority structure to be attractive in an age of flux and uncertainty. Whatever the reasons, most Protestants would concede that Rome has certain attractions. Nevertheless, the one thing that every Protestant who converts to Rome loses is the assurance of faith. -The Creedal Imperative, pg. 124

Lest people think Trueman is exaggerating, it must be remembered that Cardinal Bellarmine is reported to have written that assurance is the greatest of all Protestant heresies. Indeed, discussing the subject of assurance with one of my brilliant Catholic professors was one of the most challenging conversations I had in my undergaduate degree. She asked me repeatedly–not threateningly, but forcefully, the way a good philosopher should–how could I be so sure that I was going to be saved? It seemed so arrogant and, well, assured. I’m not sure I gave her the best answer I could have at the time–I mean, I was 20. Ironically though, I realized I was more assured of her salvation than she was.

Trueman continues:

The insight of the Reformation on assurance was key, theologically and pastorally. And, given that it is one thing that every convert to Roman Catholicism must lose, it’s worth noting its priority in the Heidelberg Catechism. The answer is beautifully phrased; and yet if one ceases to be a Protestant, one must cease to claim HC 1 as one’s own. That is a very high price to pay. Speaking for myself, all of the liturgical beauty of Rome, all of the tradition, all of the clarity of the authority structure (and the clarity is often, I think, more in the eye of the beholder than the Church itself) cannot compensate for the loss of the knowledge that I know I have been purchased by the precious blood of Christ that conversion to Rome requires. -Ibid, pg. 125

To be clear, I am not saying that my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are not saved, or are not actually united to Christ, or can’t experience the Spirit’s wonderful assurance; I know far too many beautifully Catholic people, including my professor, to make that mistake. I am pointing out that formally-speaking, I couldn’t claim it in the sense that the catechism teaches it.

That’s far too precious a thing for me to risk in those waters.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Theses On Christ’s Priestly Ministry

christ as priestFor every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.  Because of this he is obligated to offer sacrifice for his own sins just as he does for those of the people.  And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:1-4)

 

Reading through Hebrews this morning I was struck by this passage addressing the work of Christ, our great High priest whose ministry supersedes and fulfills that of the OT Levitical priests. In order to do so he outlines various functions of the OT priests in order to compare and contrast the two. I consulted Calvin, as I’ve been wont to do of late, to see what light he could shed on the matter.

Careful reader that he is, Calvin notes at least 5 truths about priests to be noted in the passage:

  1. He first says that the priests were taken from among men; 
  2. secondly, that they did not act a private part but for the whole people;
  3. thirdly, that they were not to come empty to appease God, but furnished with sacrifices;
  4. fourthly, that they were not to be exempt from human infirmities, that they might more readily succor the distressed;
  5. and lastly, that they were not presumptuously to rush into this office, and that then only was the honor legitimate when they were chosen and approved by God.

–John Calvin, Commentary on Hebrews 5:1-4

Building on these observations, he goes on to point out 5 truths this passage teaches us about Christ’s priestly ministry on our behalf:

  1. Christ is a True Man“Taken from among men, etc. This he says of the priests. It hence follows that it was necessary for Christ to be a real man; for as we are very far from God, we stand in a manner before him in the person of our priest, which could not be, were he not one of us. Hence, that the Son of God has a nature in common with us, does not diminish his dignity, but commends it the more to us; for he is fitted to reconcile us to God, because he is man..”
  2. Christ is a Man for Others “For men, etc…the priest was not privately a minister for himself, but was appointed for the common good of the people. But it is of great consequence to notice this, so that we may know that the salvation of us all is connected with and revolves on the priesthood of Christ. The benefit is expressed in these words, ordains those things which pertain to God…what the Apostle had in view is the same, namely, that we have no intercourse with God, except there be a priest; for, as we are unholy, what have we to do with holy things? We are in a word alienated from God and his service until a priest interposes and undertakes our cause.”
  3. Christ is a Man for Others Offering Gifts “That he may offer both gifts, etc. The third thing he mentions respecting a priest is the offering of gifts. There are however here two things, gifts and sacrifices; the first word includes, as I think, various kinds of sacrifices, and is therefore a general term; but the second denotes especially the sacrifices of expiation. Still the meaning is, that the priest without a sacrifice is no peacemaker between God and man, for without a sacrifice sins are not atoned for, nor is the wrath of God pacified. Hence, whenever reconciliation between God and man takes place, this pledge must ever necessarily precede. Thus we see that angels are by no means capable of obtaining for us God’s favor, because they have no sacrifice. The same must be thought of Prophets and Apostles. Christ alone then is he, who having taken away sins by his own sacrifice, can reconcile God to us.”
  4. Christ, Though Free from Sin, is a Man who Can Sympathize Who can, etc….the Apostle before taught us that mankind are united to God in the person of one man…but now he refers to another thing…that the priest ought to be kind and gentle to sinners, because he partakes of their infirmities. The word…simply means one capable of sympathy. All the things which are here said of the Levitical priests do not indeed apply to Christ; for Christ we know was exempt from every contagion of sin; he therefore differed from others in this respect, that he had no necessity of offering a sacrifice for himself. But it is enough for us to know that he bare our infirmities, though free from sin and undefiled. Then, as to the ancient and Levitical priests, the Apostle says, that they were subject to human infirmity, and that they made atonement also for their own sins, that they might not only be kind to others when gone astray, but also condole or sympathize with them…At the same time, though ever free from sin, yet that experience of infirmities before described is alone abundantly sufficient to incline him to help us, to make him merciful and ready to pardon, to render him solicitous for us in our miseries. The sum of what is said is, that Christ is a brother to us, not only on account of unity as to flesh and nature, but also by becoming a partaker of our infirmities, so that he is led, and as it were formed, to show forbearance and kindness… 
  5. Christ is a Man by the Call of God - And no man, etc. There is to be noticed in this verse partly a likeness and partly a difference. What makes an office lawful is the call of God; so that no one can rightly and orderly perform it without being made fit for it by God. Christ and Aaron had this in common, that God called them both; but they differed in this, that Christ succeeded by a new and different way and was made a perpetual priest. It is hence evident that Aaron’s priesthood was temporary, for it was to cease. We see the object of the Apostle; it was to defend the right of Christ’s priesthood; and he did this by showing that God was its author…Christ then is a lawful priest, for he was appointed by God’s authority…”

ibid, Commentary 5:1-4

According to Hebrews then, this is the Christ who is our Priest. He is the truly human one; the one who comes for us, not for himself alone; the one who has offered up a sacrifice for us; the one sympathizes with us in our weaknesses and infirmities; the one who comes by the call of God the Father, in the power of the Spirit. This Christ is indeed worthy of all our praise and worship.

Soli Deo Gloria

C.S. Lewis: “Failure On This Paper Should Mean Failure On The Whole Exam.”

Lewis thinkingDifficult translation sections are included in the ordination exams of various denominations. Candidates are required to show their proficiency in both Greek and Hebrew, in order to demonstrate their competence in handling the texts they are to preach from the Word of God.

C.S. Lewis thought translation sections were a good idea, but recommended a different sort:

In both countries an essential part of the ordination exam ought to be a passage from some recognized theological work set for translation into vulgar English–just like doing Latin prose. Failure on this paper should mean failure on the whole exam. It is absolutely disgraceful that we expect missionaries to the Bantus to learn Bantu but never ask whether our missionaries to the Americans or English can speak American or English. Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it.

– C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) pg. 1515, reprinted in God in the Dockpg. 338

Nearly 60 years ago, before all the talk about contextualization was hip, and Lesslie Newbigin taught everyone that Western Culture was a mission-field too, Lewis was advocating for training in basic cultural literacy on the part of pastors and preachers. He saw the need to learn how to speak “American” and  “English”.

This is one of the two or three keys to understanding his appeal and genius: Lewis was a brilliant translator. It’s only years (and a number of heavy theological treatments of the subject) after reading Lewis’ treatment of the Trinity at the end of Mere Christianity that I can appreciate its disguised brilliance. It’s plainly-stated Athanasian and Nicene orthodoxy for beginners. As an absolute statement, it might be bit of a stretch to say that if it can’t be put in the vernacular, it probably isn’t understood or believed (cf. certain finer points of trinitarian doctrine such as the filioque, etc.). Still, as a general test for how well you actually grasp most of your professed theology, I’ve found it quite helpful. Teaching basic catechetical courses to youth or new believers is often a more challenging proposition than writing a paper for grad-level seminary courses.

Theologically-minded Protestants especially need to take heed of this. It’s fine to celebrate Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and the rest of the Reformers for giving the Bible back to the congregation through their vernacular Bible translations and worship. We need to be careful we don’t take it away from them again in rarified preaching filled with abstract, unexplained theological jargon. I have no problem with doctrinal preaching or using big words like ‘justification’ or even ‘perichoresis’, as long as we use a lot of little words to explain them for those folks without seminary training. To insist that our hearers always come up, unaided, to our theological level is “shameful”, and an implicit denial of the Gospel of a Word who comes among us by taking on our flesh–1st Century Jewish flesh, to be exact.

Pastors, as you prepare to teach and preach to your people, work on your Greek, brush up on your Hebrew, but please, please, for the sake of the Gospel and your people, make it a priority to practice your ‘American.’

Soli Deo Gloria