Jesus, the Resurrected Judge, Lives in Power

paul the judgeThis morning I ran across an unnerving bit of text at at the end of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. He has just spent a number of chapters encouraging their faithfulness, defending his ministry, and now he turns to warning them to put away sin before he arrives to visit:

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you. (2 Cor. 13:1-4)

Though we’re not at Pentecost and the Ascension yet, we have just recently celebrated the resurrection of Christ. Christ is no longer dead, but alive. The Lamb who was slain does not hang on the cross into eternity, though he bears its marks as a risen champion (Rev. 5).

In so many ways, this is good news. Death is defeated. Hope is established. The Spirit is poured out on all flesh. The Church is born. The first-fruits of the New Age have broken in. Christianity is not simply a death-cult memorializing a fallen mortal. We have a living Messiah to commune with through the Spirit. If we are in Christ, we have so much to rejoice in this resurrection season.

While this is true, Peter Leithart points out that Jesus’ resurrection is still mixed news:

Jesus’ resurrection is still the best news and the worst news. It’s the best news for those who share His cross. But for those who set up those crosses, a risen Jesus is something from a horror movie.

But Paul’s words here remind us of another dimension to the mixed news of resurrection: we have a living Lord and Judge who is able to hold his people to account. As he says, though he was crucified in weakness, Jesus is currently alive with divine power. He is at work even now among the Corinthians, and if you look at the context, it is in judging and cleansing sin and unrighteousness among them.

This isn’t a unique theme in this letter. Paul hints at the same thing in 1 Corinthians 11, with judgment over false participation in the Lord’s Supper, there in a more direct fashion. Also in the matter of the man in incest with his mother-in-law, where Paul pronounces judgment in the power of the Lord, the Living Christ is at work through Paul and the congregation (1 Cor. 5:3-4). Peter also hints at this with his warning that judgment will begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). But we see it more powerfully and clearly in the letters of Revelation 1-3.

There, we have a resurrected, glorified Christ, brilliant with the light of righteousness, warning his churches to be faithful, to recover their love, to reject sexual immorality, to care for the poor, and shun false doctrine. And if not? He will come and remove their lampstands, extinguishing their light as churches (Rev. 2:5).

Of course, in the long run, this is still the goodness of God at work. He is alive and powerful among us to discipline as a father does his children (Heb. 12:7). Christ’s holiness means that he loves us enough to not leave us as we are. It is the consuming fire which burns away the dross of impurity and sin in order to leave us shining like stars (Phil. 2:15).

And while this is initially uncomfortable, it is for our good. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness” (12:10). This is glorious since “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (12:14). 

Still, it is healthy to remember, “he is not weak in dealing with you.” The resurrected Christ is alive with divine power and he will not leave you to your sin.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Liberating Judgment of God in the Plagues

The plaguesWe’ve been going through the book of Exodus in church recently, and we just hit the section on the plagues YHWH poured out upon Egypt (sans the 10th plague on the firstborn). After listening to my pastor’s sermon on it, I was spurred to jot down a few quick thoughts on the role the plagues play in the salvation in the Exodus, as well as what it might say about God’s work in salvation today.

Salvation is Liberation. The first point is somewhat obvious, but the plagues are aimed at the liberation of Israel. Whatever else God wanted to do, it is clear that he desired Pharaoh to let his people go (Exod. 9:1). They were enslaved to the Egyptians and in the plagues, God aimed to loosen the Egyptians grip so Israel might be free from their sore labor. The same is true of our salvation today. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1) from the bondage to sin, the law, death, and the devil.

Liberation Comes Through Judgement. Secondly, liberation comes through judgement. This is a longitudinal theme that you can trace throughout all of Scripture, but the plain fact is that God’s judgment and God’s liberation are not ultimately at odds. In the plagues, God is judging Egypt, judging Pharaoh, and if you study it closely, all of the gods they worshipped (Exod. 12:12), and it is in these acts of judgment that God sets Israel free. The God of mercy, the God of liberation, the God of salvation, is one and the same with the God of judgment and acts of violent wrath.

Of course, the chief revelation of this is the cross of Christ, where the merciful judgment of God finds its perfect expression in its duality and unity, where our liberation comes through his judgment.

Liberation Is Multifaceted. I could go more into this, but in The Mission of God Christopher J.H. Wright points out that the liberation of the Exodus is multifaceted. There are spiritual dimensions, economic dimensions, political dimensions, and more in the judgments of the plagues. All at once God is unraveling, de-creating the Egyptian’s idolatrous society that depended on the broken bodies of Israelite slaves to sustain and fund it.

Now, there are differences here between the Old Testament and New Testament.  But eventually, I believe this to be true in the New Testament as well. When a people are liberated spiritually, united with Christ, justified, sanctified, and renewed in their minds, economic and political implications eventually follow.

Yes, there are places where our economic and political activity seem outwardly unchanged, though our hearts have been; we vote and purchase and pursue justice with a view towards the kingdom of God, not or our own. That said, there are others where we do things differently and social upheaval follows. A slave girl is set free from a demon and a business collapses (Acts 16). When the Ephesians turned from idols to the true God, the economy of a city built on idolatry shifted (Acts 19). When Constantine abolished the Games in light of Christian ethics, Roman culture shifted. More examples could be given, and other dimensions adduced, but suffice it to say, the salvation of God does not stay only a “spiritual” affair.

Liberative Judgments Lead to Knowledge of God. This point and the next are tightly intertwined, but the plagues of God are aimed at the knowledge of God: ”Then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod. 6:7). Through the liberative judgments of God, Israel would know God as the faithful, covenant-keeper who delivered his people just as he promises their ancestors.

And not only Israel, but the Egyptians also: “The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the son of Israel from their midst” (Exod. 7:5). God demonstrates many things about his character and power in the plagues. For one thing, he shows up the false gods of the Egyptians—Pharaoh didn’t “know” who God was that he should obey him (Exod. 5:2). By the end of the plagues, he knew exactly who he was: the actual God who controls the Nile, the Sun, the skies, livestock, weather, and everything else the Egyptians depended on.

In much the same way, the Lord’s salvation involves a liberating knowledge that displays both the falsity of all of our idols and the faithful power of God. Only now, it comes through the cross and resurrection of the Son who disarms and exposes the powers for what they truly are (Col. 2:14-15).

Liberation is for Worship. Finally, I’ll simply note that this liberation is aimed at worship. The Lord calls Pharoah to let his people go, “so they might worship me” (Exod. 9:1; 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, etc.). Liberation is not aimed at some radically autonomous freedom to wander out into the desert to simply do whatever we please. The freedom that God delivers to Israel, and the freedom he gives to us, is the freedom of serving and worshipping the Lord whom we have come to know in his mighty acts of liberating judgment. This is why liberation from slavery to idols goes hand in hand with a knowledge of the true God: we were made for the joy of worship.

God is good and all that he does is good–even his mighty acts of judgment are aimed at liberation and worship. Let some of these thoughts frame your meditations this Holy Week as we reflect on the work of our Savior.

Soli Deo Gloria

Pastors, You Are Friends of the Groom (Preach Accordingly)

companyThis last week I had the immense privilege of preaching at my church. Which means I had the joy of prepping a sermon. As I sat there studying the text, trying to analyze it, discern the themes, and figure out where I needed to go with it, I was having a hard time. There was so much to talk about, but I didn’t want to “preach” some winding lecture through text. It needed to be an actual sermon.

In the middle of the struggle, though, as I was wondering “How am I going to preach this text?” that I was struck with the thought, “What else would I preach but this text?” In other words, “What else do you get up there and preach on a Sunday if not the Bible?”

I mean, theoretically, I know it happens all the time. Pastors get up there and give some therapeutic talk about the self, or family, or finances, or what have you, sometimes loosely rooted in a text, or other times without even that pretense. And people show up every week to listen to them.

My question, I suppose, is how do you come up with this stuff? Where do you get your message? And why should anybody care about your message? Who are you anyways, that people should show up every week to hear your thoughts plucked out of the ether?

Or rather, just what do you think you’re doing up there?

I was reminded of this later this week when working my way through Scott Manetsch’s excellent work Calvin’s Company of Pastor’s, a history of the pastoral ministry in Calvin’s Geneva (I highly recommend picking up the new paperback). In one section, he outlines the conception Calvin and his colleagues had of the call of the pastor, and one of the main images they fixated on was that of “friend of the Bridegroom.”

Manetsch calls attention to this instructive quote from Calvin’s commentary on John 3:29:

It is a great and lofty distinction, that men are appointed over the Church, to represent the person of the Son of God. They are, therefore, like the friends whom the bridegroom brings with him, that they may accompany him in celebrating the marriage; but we must attend to the distinction, that ministers, being mindful of their rank, may not appropriate to themselves what belongs exclusively to the bridegroom. The whole amounts to this, that all the eminence which teachers may possess among themselves ought not to hinder Christ from ruling alone in his Church, or from governing it alone by his word.

While Geneva’s pastors had a high sense of their calling, they knew they were supposed to have a derivative place in the hearts of their congregation.  As friends of the Bridegroom, their purpose was to prepare the Bride for the Bridegroom. That means cultivating their love for him, their trust in him, their conformity to a way of life suited to their great Love.

In other words, Jesus calls pastors not so that his Church can fall in love with the pastor, trust the pastor, pray to the pastor, be dependent on the pastor, or allow the pastor to be the center of their spiritual lives.

Most people entering ministry probably know this in their heads, or would affirm it in the main, if asked. But sadly, it’s simply all too common to find pastors (especially the younger ones) who enter the ministry with a strong desire to be the center of the attention. Pastors who strive to be liked, to be loved, to be thought a good pastor for the sake of propping up their self-esteem.

While this can pop up all over your ministry, I think it tends to show up in your preaching in a few ways.

First, you have a tendency to over-insert yourself into your sermons. Stories and illustrations are fine as they help you make a point, or let your hearers connect to the text, but if you’ve got yourself as the main illustration of every other sermon point, or somehow your spiritual struggle is the highlight and resolution of the sermon, you just might be subconsciously trying to steal the Bride for yourself.

Second, think through whether the text you’re preaching (assuming you’re preaching a text) is the obstacle or the means to getting your point across. That’s a clumsy way of putting it, but do you regularly struggle to say what the text is saying, or struggle with getting the text to fit what you’ve decided needs to be said on a given Sunday? It’s rarely that bald of choice in people’s heads, but every preacher has had that moment where you catch yourself wishing Paul had said this instead of that and then having to rewrite your sermon outline to actually fit the Bible. If you never find yourself rearranging your sermon to fit the text, you’re either an amazing biblical preacher, or you may want to start checking your heart.

Finally, and this may be more of a personality or experience thing, if you yourself spending more of your sermon prep time thinking through the embellishments (should I put a joke here?, etc) than the structure or clarity of making the biblical point, your heart is probably more concerned with being liked at that point than is healthy for a preacher. Or, at least, that’s something I notice for myself. But given the preaching I’ve watched over the years, I’m sure there’s more than a few others who struggle with that as well.

I’m sure we can all think of other signs, but they all point to one underlying concern: if you are truly just a friend of the Bridegroom, it his words that you’re worried to communicate to the Bride.

A personal story by way of illustration (possible irony alert!): when my sister got married, I got to be in the wedding as a groomsman. My brother-in-law, Shawn, wrote my sister a series of notes filled with memories from their relationship and had me run them over to her dressing room while they were both preparing for the wedding. The point of the notes was to emphasize their mutual love, his care for her, and the anticipation of their joy. Now, it would have been beyond absurd if I would have taken them, and then getting to the room, insisted on reading them in the most dramatic, attention-grabbing manner possible. Or even worse, merely held them in my hand simply just told her what I figured Shawn would say. No, I was there to deliver the Bridegroom’s mail and then get out of the way.

The same thing is true for us preachers. Your call is to make him look good, not yourself. In which case, your deepest concern is that the Church would understand Jesus’ life and work, Jesus’ promises and commands, and therefore Jesus’ words to the Church given in Scripture. You’re up there to deliver the mail and then get out of the way.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Secret Things Belong to the Lord (Evil, the Will of God, and the Cross)

GrunewaldWhy should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
 Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.

(Psalm 115:2-3)

Believers will always have questions about the will of God.

For instance, can God do whatever he wants?

Well, when reading texts like that posted above, it seems quite obvious that he can: “he does all that he pleases.” Other translations say, “he does whatever he wants.”

Beyond a simple proof-text, though, it seems very apparent in Scripture that God is not hedged in or boxed in at all. The Triune Creator freely brought everything into existence out of nothing by his word and maintains it at every moment (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-3). He is all-powerful—there are no metaphysical limits to stop him.

And he seems to have the right to dispose of all of his works as he sees fit—I mean, doesn’t a potter have the right to do what he wants with his works? (Isaiah 45; Romans 9) He is the Lord of history who directs the courses of nations, which are but a drop in the bucket compared to him (Isaiah 40-55). Certainly the Author has authority over his creation?

Whatever He Wants? Really?

At the same time, there’s a scary edge there, if you’re paying attention. Some people have worried about this kind of talk. I mean, can God really do whatever he wants? Can he make what we currently call evil good and vice versa? Can he break his promises or violate his word just because he feels like it at a given moment?

In other words, when some hear the phrase, “God can do whatever he wants”, they hear “God is arbitrary and capricious—he might do good and he might do evil. He can do whatever he wants.”

Now, this could truly fall into a dark, arbitrary understanding of God’s “sovereignty.” In some of the grizzlier versions of Calvinism and pop-level preaching, you can unfortunately find that. We can call that a caricature if we want, but sadly the caricatures live in real churches. For that reason, some imagine that’s the only or classic version of what that doctrine teaches.

And I get how things can get that way. Reformed theology has typically followed the great Church Father Augustine in affirming that the will of God is the deepest cause of all that exists, and why it exists. Augustine, assuming he was summarizing Scripture (especially the Apostle Paul), taught that nothing precedes God’s will or even causes God’s will to will what he does.

Of course, the hitch is in what sense have people accepted Augustine’s claim here as true?

A Non-Arbitrary God

John Calvin was very clearly (and to some, notoriously) on Augustine’s side in saying that there is no cause beyond God’s will. Quotes to this effect can be found all over his works. But at the same time, it’s often not noticed he also repeatedly condemns “that absolute will of which the Sophists babble, by an impious and profane distinction separating his justice from his power” (Institutes 1.17.2).

In other words, Calvin was critical of a certain ham-fisted view of God’s will. God’s enacting of his power is never divorced from the rest of who he is: loving, just, wise, holy, merciful, gracious, and so forth. God is one and so traditionally it is taught that God is simple (not made up of different, separable parts). So his act of willing is consistent with all of what he is. God won’t will or want something out of the character he has shown himself to be in history and Scripture, so to speak.

A contemporary of Calvin’s, Wolfgang Musculus, similarly said that while we should accept Augustine’s statement in the sense that “there is nothing prior to or greater than the will of God…if we understand it of those things that are not in God” (cited in R. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 3: The Divine Essence and Attributes, p. 437). In other words, God’s will is not forced by things outside of God (creation, other wills, etc). The things that God causes directly, or permits to happen indirectly, and so forth, happen because God has chosen to act this way or allow these things for his own reasons.

Now, God either permits something willingly or unwillingly. If he permits it unwillingly, then it’s not really permission. It’s coercion. And to say that God can be coerced—that there is a power that is greater than God and can force his hand—is repugnant to Scripture and absurd. This is why Musculus says we ought to agree with that God’s will is ultimate over and against anything outside of him.

What’s more, it should be noted that for the Reformed tradition, creation is a free act of God. The only necessary object of God’s will is his own perfect life—the eternal love and delight of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Triune God’s perfect aseity or independence means that God is complete within himself. For that reason, God does not need to create, to initiate history as some sort of self-completion project.

As Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel puts it, “God is all-sufficient in himself, having had no need to create any of his creatures. The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to him” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, 193-194).

But none of this means that God’s will is absolutely arbitrary in the sense that God wills things for no good reason at all or that his will could wander in any direction regardless of God’s character. As Bavinck says, “God’s will is one with his being, his wisdom, his goodness, and all his other perfections” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2: God and Creation,  240).  God’s will is what it is—good—because he is eternally and un-changingly good.

So God can do whatever he wants, but what he wants is not arbitrary.

At this point we run up against a number of issues when we think about things like God’s will for history, his will for humans, his will for good, and the problem of evil.

Are Sinners “Doing” the Will of God?

Let’s get at the question another way. When we look at someone who is committing a sin, can we say that they are fulfilling the will of God in any sense?

When it comes to God’s will for history, Scripture points in some complicated directions worth exploring first.

Let’s start with a modest case. God tells Abraham in Genesis 15:12-16 that his descendants would be taken as slaves in a foreign land for hundreds of years before they inherit the promised lands he will give them. Surely we see that he knows the evil that’s going to happen–the hundreds of years full of generations born into cruel slavery, violence, oppression, and death–and he just as surely could stop it. I mean, given the Exodus, the mighty signs and wonders he works there to set them free, and the dozens of miracles, providential turns that he works later in Scripture, he very obviously could have stopped it. But he very clearly doesn’t. Here we reach at least one sense where the evil that occurs happens only because God willingly allows it. And if he willingly allows it, then there is a clear sense in which it happens “according to his will”—at least in the sense that he doesn’t step in to stop what he could. He wills not to interfere.

Later in Genesis we encounter a far bolder sense of God’s will in relation to evil, when we read of Joseph being sold into slavery by the wickedness, jealousy, evil, and malice of his brothers. Yet when talks to them years later, he doesn’t excuse them or say they didn’t really do evil, but he also says that they did these things according to God’s will. Indeed, he goes further and said that there is a way that God was working good through their evil. Given his position in the kingdom of Egypt, he can say, “you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5), and “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). God did not only work good after the fact–after the brothers did what he couldn’t prevent–no, God sent Joseph ahead.

Now, we could examine any number of similar Old Testament narratives, but this isn’t only an Old Testament thing.

Indeed, we see the same thing in the preaching of the apostles about the death of Jesus. Peter preached that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” to be “crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Or again, in his prayer after being released from being beaten, he states that “in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

On this apostles’ read, the free actions of the evil-doers who crucified Jesus were decreed and predestined by God to take place so that the world might be saved.

In this, the disciples didn’t depart from their master. When he sent them out, Jesus told them “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29). Jesus’ comfort to his disciples is not merely that God sees sparrows fall. The point is that even sparrows are under God’s providence. No evil can befall them without his permission, so they should take heart in God since they are worth more than mere sparrows.

More importantly, in his hour of fear, it was to that same Father that the Beloved Son prayed in the Garden of Gethesemane “not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42)—right before he was led away by the hands of sinful men to be crucified so that Scripture might be fulfilled. Indeed, it was precisely for that hour that he had come (John 12:27). It is quite clear that Christ understands the events to follow—the perversity, rebellion, and blasphemy of the High Priest and Pilate—as in some sense conforming to the will of his Father. Otherwise, “you would have no power over me” (John 19:11).

The Secret Things Belong To the LORD

And with these kinds of testimonies in mind, we come to some helpful dead guy distinctions.

Even though they said that God had only one will (in the sense of “faculty of willing”), and ultimately one will for everything, texts like these pushed the older theologians to distinguish between aspects or dimensions of God’s will. While Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and others carved things up a little differently, the Reformed most typically spoke of God’s “prescriptive will” and God’s “decretal will”, or God’s “revealed will” and his “will of good pleasure.”

The first is God’s revealed “will” consisting in his commands for us and our good like the 10 commandments, the promises we’re supposed to believe, specific commands given to historical figures, and so forth. There is the will of command which we can obey or disobey which verses like Psalm 143:10 talk about (“teach me to do your will”). It is moral will for our conduct that conforms to our nature as his dependent, obedient creatures.

The second is God’s ultimate will for what he will either do or permit to be done “according to his good pleasure” (Eph. 1:5; 5:10; cf. Matt. 11:26; Romans 9:19; Phil. 2:13), as we have been examining in the preceding passages. It is this God’s will of decree which is sure, constant, and unchanging like we read in other verses like Romans 9:19 (“For who has resisted his will?”), or Ephesians 1:11 which speaks of God working out his predestined purposes according to his “eternal counsel” to work out all things.

So then, there are two senses (at least) in which we can talk about humans relating to God’s will.

Many theologians have pointed out that Moses sums this dynamic up well in the covenant renewal ceremony at Sinai. After warning the Israelites of the (likely) judgments they would suffer for their (likely) disobedience, he says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It’s almost as if to say, “The future is in God’s hands, though—for now your only concern is to be obedient to what he has openly commanded us.”

Of course, these sorts of distinctions are not without tensions, but I think you can see that none of this is speculative. It’s not about coming up with some perfect idea of God and then shoving it onto the Scriptures to make the verses fit. These are the kinds of distinctions that arise when you try read the narrative of Scripture, the Gospels, the epistles, and especially the story of Jesus as one grand, singular drama with the Lord of Heaven and Earth as the prime (though not sole) Author and character.

So what’s the answer to our question? How are creatures who are sinning relating to the will of God?

Well, in the sense of God’s will of command, they’re obviously being disobedient. What’s more, there is a clear sense in which God hates and is opposed to those things he forbids us. And yet, it’s also clear (in at least those cases listed above) that they’re conforming to God’s will of decree. God could at any time stop, hinder, influence, etc. any of them to do otherwise and yet he does not, so at least in the minimal sense of permission, they are sinning “according to his will.”

It’s important to note that these “wills” are not ultimately at odds, since in God they are angles on one ultimate act of willing. Nor is it inconsistent for God to forbid the human sins God know he will end up incorporating his ultimate plan for all things. This is where the Creator/creature distinction plays a role in reminding us, as Bavinck puts it, that a father may forbid his child to use a sharp knife, though he himself may use it without any harm.

I should say more here, but God’s infinity needs to play a greater role in our thinking in these areas. Far too much theology operates under the assumption that God is simply a much larger version of ourselves. That God must related to creatures and the creation in the same way that we do. We forget that God’s relationship to creation is sui generis, utterly unique.

Evil, Complex Goods, and God’s Will

All the same, it’s not a wild question to ask how could God will to allow evil? Or even ordain and intend it in the case of Joseph at the hand of his brothers, or Christ at the hand of persecutors?

Well, C.S. Lewis has a very helpful passage here in his classic The Problem of Pain where he delineates varieties of goods and evils. In the first place, there are simple goods, unproblematically considered in themselves to be good (ice cream, love, sunsets). Second, there are simple evils (paper cuts, murder, 3rd degree burns). Third, there are “complex goods”, which are packages of events, states of affairs, etc. that contain “simple evils” within them, but which God uses to produce more complex, redemptive goods. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the prime example of this, but Joseph’s story is as well. And this seems amply demonstrated in Scripture beyond these two.

Now, we must say a few things here.

First, simple evils can be part of complex goods doesn’t mean that—considered in themselves—they don’t remain evil. Cancer, in itself, is evil. Murder, in itself, is evil. Divorce, in itself, is evil. But what these distinctions remind us is that these simple evils take place within a nexus of a broader context that as a total state of affairs cannot be considered unremittingly evil.

Second, the older Reformed theologians were careful to point out that God’s “willing” of simple evils, sins, is not on the same plane, or in the same way as he willed positive goods. Yes, evil only comes about by God’s permission or ordination, but God does not have a “flat” will, so to speak. He only “wills” to permit evil events in a derivative way, as a necessary constituent of complex goods which are the proper object of his good will.

This, incidentally, is why I think it’s a mistake (both theological and pastoral) to speak so straightforwardly or bluntly about God “ordaining” this or that specific instance of evil. Yes, it does have its place somewhere in God’s broader providence because it happened. But very often (indeed, most often) we have absolutely no idea where it fits or why it was included. As such, it is misleading to suggest that God wanted x-event to happen for its own sake. It is wise to remember that “the secret things belong to the Lord.” In any case, we have a great many other doctrines with which to comfort the grieving, so it’s not always pastorally necessary or wise to immediately pull out or doctrine of providence in any given situation. (Though, see Heidelberg Catechism Q& A 26).

Third, some of you may be wondering about my jumping back and forth between the language of “ordination” and “permission.” For many this might seem like impermissible fudging. It might be. But without going into all the distinctions that I probably should, I will simply note that despite Calvin’s criticisms of abuses of the language of “permission”, the majority of the tradition still thought it useful (on this see J. Todd Billings Rejoicing in Lament).  This language of permission helps preserve the different ways that God’s preserving activity and causality are involved in human free acts.

God at every moment preserves and sustains all persons, things, acts in existence. In that sense (at least), he is the primary cause of all secondary causes. He is also the primary, non-competitive cause of free causal agents such as humans and angels. But with this in mind, we also want to say that God is positively involved causally in the good acts of creatures, enabling, encouraging, guiding, and so forth. This is essential (though maybe not exhaustive) for not being a reductionist about human freedom and divine sovereignty–recognizing that divine and human agency operate on different levels of being.

At the same time he is involved only negatively, or by a sort of absence, in not restraining the free, sinful acts of fallen humans who tend towards evil without his sustaining activity. It’s sort of like the difference between the Sun being the “cause” of heat directly (by way of proximity) and indirectly the “cause” of cold (by way of distance or a cloud-cover, etc). As Francis Turretin says, “So although sin necessarily follows the decree, it cannot be said to flow from the decree. The decree does not flow into the thing, nor is it effective of evil, but only permissive and directive” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 4.4.10).

In that sense, we can speak of this permission of evil acts as a form or a part of God’s ordination of history, as long as we think of this as part of the broader work of God in predestining, creating, preserving, and sustaining all things in order that he might sum them up in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

The Horror of Purposeless Evil

Now, admittedly this is not all easy to swallow. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of any number of horrible events and ask, “Are you saying that God ordained this as part of his will? That it’s part of some greater good? What possible good could come from this? No, to say that this was in any way a part of the eternal plan of God is to justify it and make God complicit with evil and this something we cannot do when we look at Christ. God is entirely only opposed to evil and only ever redemptively works after the fact, fixing what we have broken, but not purposing the break which has absolutely no place in God’s eternal purposes.”

I get this line of thought. Honestly, I do. But I think it fails us for a couple of reasons we have already raised.

First, simply consider the absolute horror of what it would mean for God to have no good purposes or reasons whatsoever for allowing all of the evil that he clearly could stop. Every example of every horrible event that you just came up with, would be totally and utterly pointless in every sense, and yet something God is still responsible for because he could have stopped it.

Because—unless you’re working with a tiny, little mythological Zeus-god—the Triune Creator of heaven and earth could stop each and every act of evil should he desire it; again, either God’s permission is willing or coerced. Assuming it’s not coerced, if he doesn’t stop an act of evil, he either has a good enough reason or purpose for it or not.

On this point even the Arminian and the Calvinist is agreed. It’s only that the Arminian typically appeals to a general good reason or purpose (libertarian free will or libertarian-freely chosen love) and that the Calvinist some more meticulous, specific (though probably unknown) providential purposes. So if you appeal to the mystery of free will which is necessary for love, moral choice, etc. (a venerable move), you’re still saying God had a good enough reason for evil. It’s just happens to be a very, very generic one.

At which point, you have to begin to push further back into and beyond the act of creation. Unless you’re an Open Theist or a Process Theist, you still have to face the fact that God freely created this world with a perfect knowledge of every nook and cranny of sin, evil, and the goods connected to them that would unfold. He willed to create this world and derivatively these evils exist as a part of his providential order. I know there are important distinctions to be made there and I’m glancing over them far too quickly, but the point stands. It’s not only the Reformed Calvinist who must reckon with God’s eternal plan or divine reasons, at this point.

Coming back around, let me just put it this way: many will object that sounds awful, cruel, or crass to tell someone who has suffered the loss of child some pious platitude about “God had a reason”, or “it’s all a part of God’s plan.” And done crassly, it is. But consider that it is equally awful, if not more so, to crassly say, “Thank God that was pointless”, or “Isn’t it a comfort to know that preventable evil and your suffering were allowed to come to pass for no reason whatsoever? That God stood there, doing nothing, for no purpose at all.”

Unless you can say that God had purposes for his permission of evil, you’re just left with a black hole of the collateral damage of either divine apathy or incompetence.

The Comfort of a Purposeful Cross

Secondly, the “hands-off” view fails us more clearly because we have already seen in Scripture that God ordained, according to his plan and foreknowledge, the very great and glorious salvation of the the human race through the damnable evil of Christ’s crucifiers. God handed the Son over to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men in order to raise him up, justify him and thereby justify us in him.

This was no purposeless evil, then. Nor was the resurrection a happy result of God’s clever ability to turn a frown upside down—it was the center of God’s eternal plan for redemptive history.

My focus on the God’s handing over a Christ to suffer, be crucified, and then rise again is purposeful. It is important for us to know that this is not an abstract or distant will. Scripture is clear that God planned beforehand to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:11), and that he was “foreknown” for this task “from before the foundations of the earth” (1 Peter 1:20).  But this is only the case as he is also the “Lamb that was slain before the foundations of the earth” (Rev. 13:8) in order to ransom his people from their sin.

Yes, it was an hour that made the soul of the Son of Man “greatly troubled”, that tempted him to ask, “Father, save me from this hour”, but about which eventually resolved, “for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27). In this, the Triune God is not immune from his own sovereignty, so to speak. Rather, we see God’s will to “do whatever he wants” most clearly in his willing to be the Father who sends the Son in the power of the Spirit to become incarnate, live under the conditions of a weakness, suffer brutally, die forsaken, and rise again in glory on our behalf.

At the center of the divine will for the history of the cosmos, then, shines the blinding light of God’s self-giving beauty in the face of Christ.

Post-Script

Of course, there are are probably a dozen or so sub-topics I barely grazed in this discussion and so if you’re far from convinced, especially on the difficult issues of freedom and sovereignty, that’s more than reasonable. This is a limited (if absurdly lengthy) blog post. I think some of the resources I pointed to above are good places to go digging (Herman Bavinck, Richard Muller, and especially Todd Billings).

For instance, some will object that none of this proves his ordination of every matter in history. Yes, but I do think it does show that God has ordained, permitted, or purposed at least some. Therefore he can do so in others. And then from there it’s a matter of seeing whether the categories provided seems to present an overall consistent picture with Scripture.

To cap it off, though, for those who find themselves put off by the whole discussion, or disturbed, I’ll simply point out that Calvin himself warned that the one who tries to pry too deeply into God’s secret counsels “plunges headlong into an immense abyss, involves himself in numberless inextricable snares, and buries himself in the thickest darkness.” (Institutes. III.xxiv.4) Instead, it’s best to simply look to Christ, rest in his grace, trust that “although there were wise and holy reasons” for God’s decrees about history, “nevertheless these reasons, though known to him, are not known to us.”

The secret things belong to the Lord, but Christ crucified and risen is what he has revealed to us.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Fickle Crowd Can’t Stop the Resurrection

donkeyWhen Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it was to the acclaim of the crowds. “Hosanna! Hosanna!” they cried. It must have been an inspiring sight to see for the disciples. “These people get it”, they must have thought. Now, finally, Jesus was getting the right recognition that he deserved. He is the coming King and his people have recognized it.

But that was Sunday. And as we all know, the crowds were screaming for his blood on Friday. How could they turn on him like that? How could it all go to hell so fast? Were they really that fickle? Can they really have changed their minds about him that quickly?

The answer is, “yes”, “no”, and “kinda.” I mean, to be fair, Jesus gets pretty aggressive in the Temple and the courts the next few days in his preaching, teaching, and condemnation of the religious practices of Israel at the time. So there’s some understandable shift in popular consciousness that can be accounted for.

But even with that, you begin to see that it’s not so much a matter of people being simply fickle, or changing their mind about Jesus, but rather coming to understand they hadn’t understood him in the first place.

Many had a Messiah box and had slid Jesus into that, without really checking the fit. They were excited that the liberation, salvation, the good life they had desired for so long was coming because Jesus was bringing it. But then they saw, they heard, they understood–he’s up to something else–he had a different vision. And so they changed their minds about Jesus precisely because they wouldn’t change their minds about the kind of kingdom that really mattered to them.

When they saw what Jesus was really about, they decided it was not in their rational, self-interest to identify with this sort of Messiahship. And so, they handed him over to be crucified by the Gentiles.

All this is fairly standard Palm Sunday sermon material, but as I was reflecting on it this morning, I began to think of our current social situation in the church. It’s easy for those of who care about the health of the Church to get discouraged about the how much the popular imagination of church-goers or self-identified Christians seems match worldly, distorted, fun-house visions of the kingdom, politics, and the good life.

Christians who chant Jesus’ name on Sunday seem to hand Jesus over to be crucified in a million different ways all throughout the week.

But the reality is, for 2,000 years the crowds have been chanting “Hosanna!” one day, and calling for Jesus’ crucifixion just a few days later. But Easter came all those years ago, despite the infidelity of the crowd.

Take heart this, then, this Palm Sunday. No matter the temporary woes of the Church today, the fickleness of the crowds, or the narrowness of their vision, the humble King who came riding on a donkey is even now seated at on the throne in glory, ruling the cosmos, salvation securely in hand. There is always hope, always resurrection life at work in the Church just around the corner.

Soli Deo Gloria