Irenaeus: “God Doesn’t Need Your Obedience–You Do”

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (2nd century C.E. – c. 202) was a stud for many reasons. First off, he was a theological beast. His multi-volume defense of the faith against the Gnostic teachers, Against Heresieswas probably the first real biblical theology in the post-Apostolic period and has deeply influenced Christianity, both East and West, ever since.  Aside from his theological beastliness, he stands out when it comes to faithfulness in ministry, taking up his bishopric right after the last bishop got martyred.

Sometimes I wonder what motivated the faithful obedience of men like Irenaeus–bravely taking up a pastoring job when, basically, the blood of the last guy who took the job was still fresh on the ground. What gave him passion? What gave him courage? What gave him the drive to follow Christ with such radical obedience and faith? It seems like that’s such a harsh demand, something too great for God to ask of anyone. If it were me, I might be tempted to ask, “Why do you need me there anyways? Why are you depending on me? What’s so important to you about my obedience?”

It turns out that Irenaeus probably would’ve rejected the question as confused.He knew something that a lot of us contemporary American Christians don’t: God doesn’t need your obedience–you do. I’ll let him explain:

In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits. For not alone antecedently to Adam, but also before all creation, the Word glorified His Father, remaining in Him; and was Himself glorified by the Father, as He did Himself declare, “Father, glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.”(John 17:5) Nor did He stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves.

For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation, and to follow light is to receive light. But those who are in light do not themselves illumine the light, but are illumined and revealed by it: they do certainly contribute nothing to it, but, receiving the benefit, they are illumined by the light. Thus, also, service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing, nor has God need of human obedience; but He grants to those who follow and serve Him life and incorruption and eternal glory, bestowing benefit upon those who serve [Him], because they do serve Him, and on His followers, because they do follow Him; but does not receive any benefit from them: for He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing. But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service. For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service. -Against Heresies, IV.14.1

He says, God doesn’t need anything. I mean, seriously, think about it–he’s GOD. He’s had everything he needed from all of eternity within his own Triune perfection. He didn’t make Adam in order to serve him because he needed anything, but rather, he made Adam to serve him so that he could reward him with good. He says, “follow me” because following him leads to the life he already has in abundance. He continues on:

Wherefore also did the Lord say to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you;” (John 15:16) indicating that they did not glorify Him when they followed Him; but that, in following the Son of God, they were glorified by Him. And again, “I will, that where I am, there they also may be, that they may behold My glory;” (John 17:24). not vainly boasting because of this, but desiring that His disciples should share in His glory: of whom Isaiah also says, “I will bring thy seed from the east, and will gather thee from the west; and I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth; all, as many as have been called in My name: for in My glory I have prepared, and formed, and made him.” (Isa. 43:5). Inasmuch as then, “wheresoever the carcase is, there shall also the eagles be gathered together,” (Matt. 24:28) we do participate in the glory of the Lord, who has both formed us, and prepared us for this, that, when we are with Him, we may partake of His glory. -ibid.

God wants us to obey him because through obedience, we are conformed more and more to the image of his glorious Son. Jesus is inviting us to glorify God so that we might participate in his own glory. The point is, God doesn’t need our obedience due to some lack in himself (even though he righteously demands it and we owe it to him), but part of why he desires it is so that we might gain from it. He’s like a dad telling you to practice some sport, or some instrument, not because he’s going to personally gain from it so much, but because he knows you will. The glory, the beauty, the greatness that will follow that obedience, that discipline, no matter how difficult, is worth it and it is the aim of our God in his commands to us.

Once again, Ireneaus knew what so many of us don’t: We need our obedience far more than God does.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quit Limping–Choose Jesus

Speaking to the spiritual depthlessness with which his contemporaries lived, Thoreau wrote in Walden of the tragedy that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” They give in, they resign themselves to life as it is, no adventure, no true life–mere amusements only. Despair becomes a fixed underlying atmosphere of the heart.

The unfortunate reality is that Thoreau’s description could easily be applied to contemporary American Christians with little modification. You see, most of them will live the majority of their lives with a limp.

A limp? What do I mean by that?

Can I just say right now how much I love cheesy, bible drawings? Great times.

Theological Dance-off
One of my favorite passages in Scripture is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel found in 1 Kings 18. In the ultimate theological showdown Elijah faces off against the false prophets in the Biblical equivalent of a dance-off, pitting YHWH against the false gods of the Canaanites, the Baals introduced by Queen Jezebel, in a literal trial by fire. Elijah would pray to YHWH and the false prophets would pray to the Baals, and whoever’s deity answered with fire to consume the sacrifice offered was the true God.

Aside from the sheer awesomeness of God administering a raw beat-down of a rival deity, what’s going on in the passage? Why did God feel it necessary to display himself in this way? Why set up a contest with non-existent gods? Why all the fireworks? What does he have to prove? Elijah’s question to the people reveals YHWH’s motive:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:21)

See, the Israelites had a limp. Israel, as it often would in its history, had fallen into the worship of false gods. They were turning away from YHWH, the true God, and had begun to give themselves to gods that weren’t really gods, who hadn’t done anything for them, certainly hadn’t saved them, redeemed them out of slavery from Egypt, and wouldn’t be of any use to them in the future. As Elijah put it, they were “limping between two different opinions.” Elijah’s challenge was a call to make up their minds, make a decision and whole-heartedly give themselves over.

Life with a Limp
When you live your life wavering between two different opinions, you live it with a limp. You can never take a solid step–you’re always teetering, unsteady in your choices. It’s like someone who can’t decide whether or not to commit to a relationship. For every little word or date or occasion there’s tons of analysis as to the implications and so firm action is rarely taken. What’s more, the fruits of a decision are not enjoyed either–you get none of the peace of solidly saying nor, and none of the joy of fully being with someone–this is, in fact, what struck me about the passage.

I remember listening to a Matt Chandler sermon where he pointed out that for a lot of Christians, life is lived between sin and God. They’re Christians but their hearts drawn towards sin and so they never fully chase after God and enjoy the fruit of a full relationship with him. At the same time, they’re too scared to chase after sin and at least enjoy it for a while before it destroys them. They enjoy neither and live basically fruitless lives.

No wonder so many of us wonder whether the Gospel is real. We live our lives half-chasing everything else, never fully giving ourselves over to Christ but never quite chasing what we really want either. Our home is in the muddled middle of spiritual mediocrity. Don’t misunderstand me here–I am not talking about being some super-Christian who out-preaches Billy Graham, out-serves Mother Theresa, and makes Ignatius of Loyola look like a spiritual slouch. I am talking about living each day having turned ourselves over to Christ; waking up with his glory and grace at the forefront of our minds, not that job promotion, or my own wants. I am talking about time in Scripture that’s about knowing and communing with Jesus, not a ritual to secure the blessings of all green lights on the way to work. I am talking about a prayer-life focused on the Kingdom, not simply achieving the American dream. I’m talking about a church-life that is more than just showing up for an hour to “get fed” and roll out, but an active involvement in the community of God because we know that’s where life-change happens–in the worshipping community. I’m talking about all of these things and more.

The Choice
The point is you’ll never chase these things if your heart is caught between God and money, God and sex, God and comfort, God and anything else. You will not run. You will not experience the true freedom God has for his children. You will simply limp through life wishing there was something more and bitterly resenting God because you’re too scared to chase it.

The call now is the same as it was then: Quit limping between the LORD or the Baals–choose Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #6 – Some Things to Do on Election Day

Aside from some silly, live, Facebook commentary on the debates, I haven’t spoken much about the election this year. I had a few reasons for this:

  1. My job makes it so that people automatically connect my personal judgments with an endorsement by my church and I don’t want to do that. I am sick to death of people conflating the Gospel with some particular political program. If I hear one more pastor, or church perverting the good news by making it about some lordship other than Christ’s, I’m going to snap.
  2. I am a recovering political junkie, so I decided to take this election off.  (I am still voting, though. More on that below.)
  3. Let’s be honest, I’m too busy otherwise.

Still, I figured it’d be appropriate to very quickly jot down some things you might try this Tuesday:

1. Calm down and remember that no matter who wins, Christ remains Lord.

Seriously, this is not some cheesy “Oh, God is still in control” shtick that doesn’t acknowledge the real, political implications of these elections. I get it, there are serious issues at stake. Still, at the heart of the Gospel is the acknowledgement that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.”(Rom 1:4) This is what you confess in order to be saved: that Christ is the risen Lord. (Rom 10:9) The good news is that he is risen and reigning over all things in heaven and on earth, even now, no matter who wins. Michael Horton reminds us that, “United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.” So, no matter who wins on Tuesday, keep your head, Christ is Lord.

2. Pray for your leaders like the Bible tells you to.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”(1 Timothy 2:1-4)

Paul instructs Timothy to makes sure the congregation at Ephesus was praying for “kings and all who are in high positions.” If you’re going to claim to take the Bible seriously, then pray for your leaders no matter who they are. Paul was writing this about the Roman Emperors, not godly, Christian kings, but pagans who were persecuting Christians. Peter similarly tells Christians to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.“(1 Peter 2:17)  In the context of great persecution, Peter tells them to “honor the emperor.”

Instead of freaking out and bemoaning the election, or re-election, of “that guy”, pray for him. If you’re really interested in being a witness in our culture, lay off of the conspiracy-theory emails about a take-over of the country by “them”, whatever that group consists of in your mind, and pray that God would give wisdom, grace, and salvation to whomever comes into, or remains, in office. Remember, we are to lead a “peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”, not a panic-stricken and hysterical one.

3. Vote.

I’ve got a buddy who’s got some decent reasons for casting a blank ballot this Tuesday. I hear him and respect a position like his. Still, I do think that part of our responsibilities in being a good neighbor is voting for the common good, seeking the welfare of the city. (Jer. 29:7) We don’t do this to give our allegiance to the candidates because, in the end, our ultimate allegiance is to Christ alone, the living Lord of the universe. We do this in obedience to Christ, for the same reason we pay taxes, in order to live quiet, peaceable lives, giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. (1 Tim 2:2; Mark 12:17; Rom. 13:7)

4. Ask Forgiveness, Repent, and remember the Body of Christ.

Let’s be honest, too much of the American church has jacked up on this election. Far too many of us have been quick to tear apart the unity of the body of Christ for the sake of a political program. Christ made us one in himself. This was his prayer for us (John 17:21), and instead of living out that unity, we’ve been quick to vilify, reject, oppose, and refuse to recognize the Christian identity of those we disagree with politically. Echoing Paul, Brian Zahnd asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Obama crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Romney?” No. Christ is the only one who has done these things. He is the hope of the world. He is the light in the darkness. His kingdom is the one that will never fail and has no end. His reign is the reality on which our lives depend. His life is the one that draws us together, in himself, and made us citizens of a better country. (Heb. 11:16)

So, after you vote, or before, or maybe even today, take some time consider this truth. Stop, ask yourself if, in the heat of the election, you’ve forgotten that, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6)

If so, you need to stop, repent, and ask forgiveness. Remember that in Christ you all are one, no matter how you vote–so ACT LIKE IT. Love each other. Treat each other with respect. You know–act like you believe the Gospel.

Bottom-line is this: don’t forget the Gospel this Tuesday.

Soli Deo Gloria

Happy Reformation Day! Now Repent

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

-Martin Luther, the 95 Theses

Among the many important letters Martin Luther wrote in his storied career, the one he wrote in protest of the sale of indulgences to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz, on October 31, 1517 might have been the most important. The letter itself isn’t the important part, but enclosed within it was a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Now, scholars debate whether or not Luther actually took up a mallet to nail the theses up on Wittenburg’s Castle Church on that same day. Also up for debate is whether or not Luther actually intended to accomplish anything more than invite a scholarly debate between solid, Catholic theologians on an issue of importance. What is not up for debate is the colossal significance these theses had in instigating a theological and socio-political revolution that ripped open Europe, changing the face of Western, indeed global, Christianity to this day: the Protestant Reformation. 

This is what Protestant churches celebrate on Reformation Day. Now, to be clear, we don’t mainly celebrate the politics, although a few good (and many bad) things followed. We certainly don’t sing about the tearing of the visible unity of the church. We don’t rejoice in the centuries of acrimonious disputes that followed. No, in fact, many of these are things we lament–at least we ought to.

What we celebrate is the recovery of an essential insight into the Gospel: the good news that Jesus’ reign and rule are freely available to all, without regard to their present ‘righteousness’, or meritorious works; that we are saved by the grace and good will of our heavenly Father through the work of Jesus Christ; that we are justified, declared righteous because by faith we are united with the Righteous One, King Jesus. As it was later summarized in the 5 Solas: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone.

Celebrate by Repenting

Unfortunately many of us don’t know how to celebrate this Gospel properly. We sing, we praise, we write blogs about Martin Luther and the message of justification by faith, and in general have some nice, warm thoughts about the whole affair. Now this great news is certainly worth singing about; it’s definitely worth a blog or two. For these truths, unfortunately clouded over and muddied up however temporarily in the dominant, late-medieval theology of the day, to be regained and preached loudly and clearly for all to hear is a glorious thing.

Still, if we want to celebrate Reformation Day properly, there is only one truly appropriate response: repentance. See, surprisingly enough for many Protestants, Martin Luther never mentioned the phrase “justification by faith” in the 95 theses. Not by name at least. He certainly spoke of grace and the nature of forgiveness, issues connected to it, but the subject he opened up with was the nature of repentance.

For centuries Jerome’s mistranslation of Matthew 3:2 as “Do penance” instead of “repent”(as well as some other doctrinal developments) had led to a misunderstanding of Jesus’ call to respond to the Kingdom of God. The Greek term metanoia means a deep, internal change of mind–a reconsidering of one’s course of action in light of new realities. Luther saw that when Jesus called for people to repent, he wasn’t calling for a simple change of external actions, or for meritorious acts of penance, and certainly not for people to buy themselves some grace through indulgences. He was calling people to recognize the arrival of God’s reign and rule by turning and submitting themselves to it; it was an invitation to consciously live in the new reality of God’s kingdom made available by grace through Jesus.

The Reformation was, in many ways, an attempt at this kind of repentance not only in the life of the individual Christian, but in the life of the Church as a whole. For those of us claiming the mantle of ‘Protestant’ there can be no question whether the whole of our lives need be one long process of reconsidering everything in light of the Gospel. Repentance is not simply a one-time act but a life-long task. Sin is too deep and Jesus is too good for us to think we ever have it handled–there will always be some sin our heart needs to release and some gift of God’s grace to embrace. God’s liberating reign in Christ is something we’re called to dive into daily.

So, this Reformation Day celebrate the Gospel by repenting–call to mind the goodness of God, the new reality made available in Christ, and live in light of that. Can’t think of anything? Here’s a starter list:

  • Pride – Consider God’s glorious humility in Christ and get over yourself–discover the joy of self-forgetfulness. In fact, try to practice humility by serving someone else without being able to take credit for it.
  • Lust – Look to God’s beauty in Christ and realize He’s the summit of true desire.
  • Gluttony – Take hold of God’s feast provided in the body and blood of Christ and pass the plate to those in need.
  • Greed – Observe of God’s riches, his generosity in Christ and remember that God provides all we could ever want. Give generously to those who do not have.
  • Sloth – See God’s active drawing near in Christ and respond–act–turn to him. Begin (or re-engage) in the spiritual disciplines that draw you to Christ.
  • Wrath – Remember God’s putting away his own righteous wrath toward you in Christ and put away your own unrighteous rage towards others. Instead, be gracious in word and deed towards those around you–especially the aggravating ones.
  • Envy – Recognize God’s gifts toward you in Christ and be grateful for what you have, not bitter what your neighbor has instead.

These ought to keep you busy for a while. Now, start celebrating!

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #5-How to Meet People in Coffee Shops

I meet new people in coffee shops. All. The. Time. (Seriously, 4 people in 2 days last week.) I mostly like this. I’m a decently friendly guy and I enjoy getting to know different, interesting people. On top of that, I’ve got a bit of an evangelistic streak in me. You probably won’t ever hear me roll through the 4 spiritual laws over an espresso, but it’s unsurprising to find me in a conversation with someone I’ve met 20 minutes prior, discussing their church history and views on Jesus. Still, every once in a while I feel like I have “Talk to me” written on my forehead. I’ve tried to think about how I happen to get into these conversations and I’ve come up with some reasons, both serious and silly. So, if you want to meet people in coffee shops you might try some of these methods, especially if you’re looking to be “missional” and relational in your approach to sharing the Gospel.

1. Read interesting books. Seriously, read interesting books, or at least ones with interesting covers. Then, leave them out on your table. Usually every couple of visits to a coffee shop somebody’ll ask me about the book I’m reading and we”ll start talking. Funniest conversation like that was when I was reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion I got to explain that it was social commentary and American religious history, not a biography of the band.

2.  Smile. This is simple, but I generally smile at people when I see them walk in, or we make eye contact. When I’m studying, I look up a lot and almost by reflex find myself smiling at somebody. I might have no intention of talking to them, but somehow, we end up in a conversation because I guess smiling is rare. We live in an increasingly suspicious and cynical culture. In a culture where the biggest cause of depression is loneliness, signs of life and warmth are attractive. Of course, this can easily be misread. Beware the creeper smile. Still, be friendly.

3. Notice People and Ask Questions. If you’re bold and want to be the one to start the conversation, notice people and ask them questions. People are so used to going through their days without anybody taking an active interest in them and their activities that an honest question about something you’ve noticed (again, something not creepy), will usually invite an answer that you can build into a conversation. Noticing books, unique shoes, inquiring about what they’re studying, etc. will usually draw people out of their I-don’t-know-you-keep-the-traditional-3-feet-away shell. Thing is though, you should actually be interested in those things. Don’t ask about something if all you want to do is cut to the chase and get at what you’re really interested in. Be interested in the person. In any case, you probably won’t have anything useful to say to them unless you’ve first paid attention to who they actually are.

4. Commit to Being Somewhere. Place is important. Investing time and committing to going regularly to particular places at particular times, or at least on a regular basis gives you a great opportunity to become familiar with and familiar to regulars as well as randoms. It gives you the opportunity to just start saying hi, and then building out relationships from there. So, pick a place and plant yourself.

5. Have a huge mustache (Men only). Okay, this is a joke, but I seriously get comments on my mustache from random strangers 3-4 times a week. On more than one occasion this has developed into a long conversation about Jesus and inviting them to church. Just sayin’, it’s something you pastor-types might want to try out.

6. Pray. Really, if you want to meet people, engage them about life, truth, and Jesus, then pray before you go anywhere. Pray God will give you opportunities, and wait for God to work. Sometimes you meet nobody, then there are days when you end up talking to a total stranger about their deepest convictions about life, God, and reality. You really don’t know what God will throw your way if you ask him.

Alright, that’s about it. I’m not an evangelism expert, but hopefully some of these tips can help you meet the people that God has placed around you “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.” (Acts 17:27)

Soli Deo Gloria

The Day Reading Your Bible Won’t Matter

I’ve realized for some time now that my MA in Biblical studies has a shelf-life. I’m not just talking about the fact that scholarship moves on and that you constantly have to keep learning if your education is going to mean anything. I’m talking about the fact that eventually, there will come a time when learning about the Bible simply won’t matter.

You heard me. There’s going to come a day when READING YOUR BIBLE WON’T MATTER.

What day am I talking about? Check out this quote by old, dead guy, theologian Abraham Kuyper:

In paradise, before the Fall, there was no Bible, and there will be no Bible in the future paradise of glory. When the transparent light, kindled by nature, addresses us directly, and the inner word of God sounds in our heart in its original clearness, and all human words are sincere, and the function of our inner ear is perfectly performed, why should we need the Bible? What mother loses herself in a treatise upon the “love of our children” the very moment that her own dear ones are playing about her knee, and God allows her to drink in their love with full draughts? –Lectures on Calvinism, pg. 45

At the end of all things we won’t need to read our Bibles because the reality they’ve been pointing us to, teaching us about, will be here, fully available. We won’t just have to read about the glory of God in Jesus Christ, but we’ll be able to see, taste, and touch–we’ll swim in it. When face to face with our beloved, there is no need to read an old letter. In the New Creation, people won’t need Bible experts, teachers, etc. Once again, I’ll be out of a job. You won’t need to read your Bible.

Still, as Kuyper goes on to point out, this is not currently the case:

But, in our present condition, the immediate communion with God by means of nature, and our own heart, is lost. Sin brought separation instead, and the opposition which is manifest nowadays against the authority of the Holy Scriptures is based on nothing else than the false supposition that, our condition being still normal, our religion need not be soteriological. For of course, in that case, the Bible is not wanted, it becomes, indeed, a hindrance, and grates upon our feelings, since it interposes a book between God and your heart. Oral communication excludes writing. When the sun shines on your house, bright and clear, you turn off the electric light, but when the sun disappears below the horizon, you feel the necessitas luminis artificiosi ie., the need of artificial light, and the artificial light kindled in every dwelling. Now this is the case in matters of religion. When there are no mists to hide the majesty of divine light from our eyes, what need is there then for a lamp unto the feet, or a light unto the path? But when history, experience, and consciousness unite in stating the fact that the pure and full light of heaven has disappeared, and that we are groping about in the dark, then, a different, or if you will, an artificial light must be kindled for us–and such a light God has kindled for us in his holy Word.

Lectures on Calvinism, pp. 45-46

One day we won’t need our Bibles, but today is not that day. We’re still in need of light. We don’t see all things clearly. Things can get a little foggy out there. Your hearts can still deceive you, so you need someone to place “a book between God and your heart.” For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor 13:12)

For now, keep your Bibles open and shining light into your heart and let it remind you constantly of the day, when by God’s grace, you won’t need it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Some Stuff on the Holy Spirit and Being Used by God and Stuff

“Can God ever use someone like me?” I’m sure if you’ve been in church for a long enough time, you’ve either heard or wrestled with that question. It’s almost inevitable when thinking about the majesty of God, the weightiness of his kingdom-work and then considering our own weakness and frailty that we’ll doubt that we can ever play a part in it.

The quick answer to that question though, is, yes. Why? “Jesus?” Well, close–the Holy Spirit.

See, all throughout the Scriptures we see this thing happen when God wants to use someone, he sends the Holy Spirit on them. Whether it be prophet (Num. 11), king (1 Sam. 10:6), judge (Judg 3:10), or temple craftsmen (Exod 31:3), if God was going to use you in a spectacular way, he empowered you to do so through his divine breath of life, his ruach, his Spirit. It didn’t matter who you were before the Spirit got a hold of you, if God’s Spirit was with you, his purposes were accomplished through you. Samson, “an arsonist, an informer, and a brawler” was used powerfully by the Spirit of God to liberate God’s people time and again. (Judg 15)

In order to understand and act in light of this, we need to know two things about the Holy Spirit.

Spirit of Life The first thing we need to know is that He is the Spirit of life. See, some of us doubt we can be used because of the handicaps we face. In our view, we’re simply limited. It might be a physical handicap connected to illness or one that we’ve struggled with from birth that hobbles and defeats us. Possibly we struggle financially in ways that make doing something beyond earning a paycheck seem like a nice fairy-tale. Others of us wonder if we’re smart enough, loud enough, or skilled enough. So often it seems to those of us raised in American Christianity that only those fit to be on stage leading the show are the ones doing things for the Lord and we’re just not that kind of person.

We forget that the Spirit of God is the one who was hovering over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2), bringing life and form out of the chaos. He is the Spirit that puts flesh on dry bones and makes them live again. (Ezek 37) He is the Spirit who holds even our fragile life together as we speak. (Job 34:14-15) This Spirit is the one who empowered the earliest Christians, simple fishermen and uneducated tradesmen to testify and work miracles in the name of the Lord. This is why Gideon, the cowardly member of the smallest family of the smallest tribe in Israel was able to overcome the Midianites, when “the Spirit of God clothed him.” (Judg 6:34) Whatever your weakness, whatever your handicap, when you confess Christ you can be assured that you have the Spirit and therefore have been clothed with his strength to accomplish whatever good work God calls you to. (1 Cor 12)

Spirit of Holiness The other thing we often-times forget is that this is the Spirit of holiness we’re dealing with. See, for some of us the road-block is past failures. Maybe we came to Christ later in life, or we racked up some heavy mileage getting there in a short of amount of time and we struggle with shame, wondering if we can ever really be clean enough. Others of us wonder if our current weaknesses would disqualify us. We look at our current spiritual struggles, the anger, insecurity, apathy, shame or lust that fills our hearts and wonder, “Me? Really? Do you know what’s in me?”

When we think of the ‘holy’ in Holy Spirit we usually often focus on the fact that this Spirit is holy and therefore pure; we think of it as a description of the Spirit’s own holiness. That’s mostly a good thing. The problem comes when we forget that it’s also a job description. The Spirit’s job is not only to be holy but to make holy. He is the one who sets us apart and sanctifies us. He is the one who takes what is common and unclean and makes it holy to the Lord, purifying us for use in the Temple of the Lord. (1 Cor 3, 6) He is the one that leads us in the life of righteousness. (Rom 8) The long and the short of it is that yes, despite your past, despite your present, God can use you. If he can take Paul, an ex-murdering, racist and turn him into the greatest missionary and theologian who ever lived, then the Spirit can take you, set you apart, and use you for his kingdom-work as well.

This is a pitifully tiny glimpse into the work of the Holy Spirit, but hopefully it’s enough of an encouragement to know that, yes, you can be used by God. Your weakness, your frailty, your sin are not obstacles too strong for the Spirit of Life to empower you or the Spirit of Holiness to set you apart for God’s good works.

Soli Deo Gloria

Is Jesus Actually Smart?

It’s really a good question and one that I hadn’t considered until encountering Dallas Willard’s masterpiece The Divine Conspiracy in college. I had not thought about it in a while until Dr. Todd Hunter came to guest-teach at our church this Sunday. He was making the basic point that unless we actually consider Jesus to be a competent instructor about life and reality, we will never actually listen to him and follow him. This called to mind one of my favorite passages in The Divine Conspiracy where Willard calls our attention to the simple fact that Jesus is really smart:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one  who knows the truth about our lives and our universe. It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent. We cannot pray for this help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matter we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.

And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart? If he were divine, would he be dumb? Or uninformed? Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?

That is exactly how his earliest apprentices in kingdom living thought of him. He was not regarded as, perhaps, a magician, who only knew “the right words” to get results without understanding or who could effectively manipulate appearances. Rather, he was accepted as the ultimate scientist, craftsman and artist.

The biblical and continuing vision of Jesus was of one who made all of reality and kept it working, literally, “holding together” (Col 1:17). And today we think people are smart who make light bulbs and computer chips and rockets out of “stuff” already provided! He made “the stuff”!

Small wonder, then, that the first Christians thought he held within himself, “all of the treasure of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). This confidence in his intellectual greatness is the basis of the radicalism of Christ-following in relation to the human order. It sees Jesus now living beyond death as “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth…the first and the last, the living One, ” the one who can say “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever more, the master of death and the world of the dead” (Rev. 1:5, 18)…

He is not just nice, he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived. He is now supervising the entire course of world history (Rev 1:5) while simultaneously preparing the rest of the universe for our future role in it (John 14:2). He always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.

The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 94-95

When considering this reality, the fact that Jesus is the all-competent Lord of the universe who holds all things together, it has to strikes us that he must be absolutely, colossally wise, and an excellent guide into the reality of all things. In which case, we have to ask ourselves, why don’t we listen to him more often? Why is it that of all the places to go for an opinion, a point of view, sound advice on any and all questions concerning my relationships, my family, my work-stresses, my finances, I always seem to come to Jesus last? What are the areas that I seem to act like I know more than he does? “Well, Jesus, that’s a nice thought, but you see, my situation is a little different than what you were talking about in your sermons…” Really? Honestly? Jesus is God, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about when it’s your life, because you’re so special? Hmm….

This is where the rubber hits the road. Do I really trust Jesus as Lord or don’t I? If I trust him with my death, I ought to be able to trust him with my life. Even more to the point, if I don’t trust him with my life, am I really trusting him with my death?

Friends, we can trust Jesus. He won’t let us don’t or lead us astray. He knows what he’s talking about–he’s really smart.

Soli Deo Gloria

Talk is Blessed, Talk is Cheap (Or, Holiness is More than a Change in Vocabulary)

I continue to find gem after gem in my travels through Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Both the instructive and lively narrative portrayals of the Christian life (Christian’s rousing battle with Apollyon), and the conversations between the various virtues (Charity, Faithful), vices (Sloth, Pliable), and typical attitudes (Shame, Discontent) are rich in spiritual depth and comfort.

One such exchange comes during a part of the journey when Christian and Faithful run into one claiming to be on the road to the celestial city by the name of Talkative. Faithful is quite glad to have him join them and talk of spiritual things on the journey, which it seems that Talkative is quite eager to do:

TALKATIVE: That’s it that I said; for to talk of such things is most profitable; for by so doing a man may get knowledge of many things; as of the vanity of earthly things, and the benefit of things above. Thus in general; but more particularly, by this a man may learn the necessity of the new birth, the insufficiency of our works, the need of Christ’s righteousness, etc. Besides, by this a man may learn what it is to repent, to believe, to pray, to suffer, or the like: by this, also, a man may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.

FAITHFUL: All this is true; and glad am I to hear these things from you.

TALKATIVE: Alas! the want of this is the cause that so few understand the need of faith, and the necessity of a work of grace in their soul, in order to eternal life; but ignorantly live in the works of the law, by which a man can by no means obtain the kingdom of heaven.

Apparently Talkative knows his stuff. He clearly knows the benefits of wise speech about God. Many of us could profit from an eagerness to discuss and speak about God, theology, the Bible, and our own spiritual lives more often than we do. By it we are “may learn what are the great promises and consolations of the Gospel, to his own comfort. Farther, by this a man may learn to refute false opinions, to vindicate the truth, and also to instruct the ignorant.”

Can we imagine what our general outlook would be, the witness of our lives, or the state of our faith would be if we spent more time discussing God’s goodness and not the mere trivialities to which we devote most of our conversations? How much holier would we be if we were constantly calling to mind God’s faithfulness in the face of daily temptations? Wouldn’t our constant doubts and anxieties begin to shrink in front of our eyes, if we were constantly reminding each other of the magnitude of God’s power and the unshakeable character of his promises?

The benefits to frequent godly conversation are many and deep indeed. When we read on though, we find out that Bunyan is teaching us that along with the benefits of spending our time discussing God and the Gospel, there are dangers as well.

CHRISTIAN: That is, to them that have not a thorough acquaintance with him, for he is best abroad; near home he is ugly enough. Your saying that he is a pretty man, brings to my mind what I have observed in the work of a painter, whose pictures show best at a distance; but very near, more unpleasing.

FAITHFUL: But I am ready to think you do but jest, because you smiled.

CHRISTIAN: God forbid that I should jest (though I smiled) in this matter, or that I should accuse any falsely. I will give you a further discovery of him. This man is for any company, and for any talk; as he talketh now with you, so will he talk when he is on the ale-bench; and the more drink he hath in his crown, the more of these things he hath in his mouth. Religion hath no place in his heart, or house, or conversation; all he hath lieth in his tongue, and his religion is to make a noise therewith.

FAITHFUL: Say you so? Then am I in this man greatly deceived.

CHRISTIAN: Deceived! you may be sure of it. Remember the proverb, “They say, and do not;” but the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. Matt. 23:3; 1 Cor. 4:20. He talketh of prayer, of repentance, of faith, and of the new birth; but he knows but only to talk of them. I have been in his family, and have observed him both at home and abroad; and I know what I say of him is the truth. His house is as empty of religion as the white of an egg is of savor. There is there neither prayer, nor sign of repentance for sin; yea, the brute, in his kind, serves God far better than he. He is the very stain, reproach, and shame of religion to all that know him, Rom. 2:24,25; it can hardly have a good word in all that end of the town where he dwells, through him. Thus say the common people that know him, “A saint abroad, and a devil at home.” His poor family finds it so; he is such a churl, such a railer at, and so unreasonable with his servants, that they neither know how to do for or speak to him. Men that have any dealings with him say, It is better to deal with a Turk than with him, for fairer dealings they shall have at their hands. This Talkative (if it be possible) will go beyond them, defraud, beguile, and overreach them. Besides, he brings up his sons to follow his steps; and if he finds in any of them a foolish timorousness, (for so he calls the first appearance of a tender conscience,) he calls them fools and blockheads, and by no means will employ them is much, or speak to their commendation before others. For my part, I am of opinion that he has, by his wicked life, caused many to stumble and fall; and will be, if God prevents not, the ruin of many more.

FAITHFUL: Well, my brother, I am bound to believe you, not only because you say you know him, but also because, like a Christian, you make your reports of men. For I cannot think that you speak these things of ill-will, but because it is even so as you say.

CHRISTIAN: Had I known him no more than you, I might, perhaps, have thought of him as at the first you did; yea, had I received this report at their hands only that are enemies to religion, I should have thought it had been a slander-a lot that often falls from bad men’s mouths upon good men’s names and professions. But all these things, yea, and a great many more as bad, of my own knowledge, I can prove him guilty of. Besides, good men are ashamed of him; they can neither call him brother nor friend; the very naming of him among them makes them blush, if they know him.

FAITHFUL: Well, I see that saying and doing are two things, and hereafter I shall better observe this distinction.

CHRISTIAN: They are two things indeed, and are as diverse as are the soul and the body; for, as the body without the soul is but a dead carcass, so saying, if it be alone, is but a dead carcass also. The soul of religion is the practical part. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27; see also verses 22-26. This, Talkative is not aware of; he thinks that hearing and saying will make a good Christian; and thus he deceiveth his own soul. Hearing is but as the sowing of the seed; talking is not sufficient to prove that fruit is indeed in the heart and life. And let us assure ourselves, that at the day of doom men shall be judged according to their fruits. Matt. 13:23. It will not be said then, Did you believe? but, Were you doers, or talkers only? and accordingly shall they be judged. The end of the world is compared to our harvest, Matt. 13:30 and you know men at harvest regard nothing but fruit. Not that any thing can be accepted that is not of faith; but I speak this to show you how insignificant the profession of Talkative will be at that day.

This is the danger Bunyan warns us of: apparently Talkative is just that–all talk and no action. In this passage Christian instructs Faithful in the difference between saying and doing. It’s an easy one for us to forget.  It’s easy to feel like having the right answers makes us righteous. It’s easy to feel like being able to distinguish properly between justification and sanctification means that we’ve been justified and sanctified. It’s easy to think that condemning sin with our mouths means we’ve cut it out of our lives. It’s easy to think that because we can discourse about the Trinity, we’re actually engaged in the life of the Triune God.

Bunyan reminds us that while it’s important for pilgrims on the way to discuss the beautiful things of God, we must not be satisfied with mere discussion. The Christian life is one of active participation. We must practice Christianity as well as speak of it. Faith that truly is worth the name, is one that results in a changed life, not merely a different vocabulary.

Talking about God is a great thing as long as it encourages us to talk to God; to move from conversation about the Christian life, to participation in a real Christian life.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ’s Cross and Ours: Some Thoughts on Suffering and the Life of Faith

One of my favorite sections in the Institutes is Calvin’s section on the Christian life. As much as I love his exposition of the creed, or his theological-polemical engagements with Osiander, the “Papists”, and the “Enthusiasts”, Calvin shines when discussing the practical. Beyond Calvin the theologian and biblical scholar, there was Calvin the pastor–the man who was passionately concerned that all of human life be lived before God and in light of the Gospel. This might surprise many readers but the Reformation wasn’t simply a narrow theological debate about justification and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning, but rather a restructuring of Christian life and practice. It was about, as James K.A. Smith puts it, “the sanctification of ordinary life.”  For that reason Calvin was concerned not only with teaching doctrine, but the life of piety that flows from that doctrine.

A Life of Self-Denial and the Cross

Calvin writes, “We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him.” (3.7.1) Therefore, in this life between the first and second comings of Christ, a saint’s life is one of self-denial. In order to be fully devoted to God, love our neighbors in difficulty, and bear up under adversity, we must deny ourselves and look to God alone for our blessedness.

In order to do this well, he encourages his readers to consider to the cross, because the cross of the Christian is the chief part of self-denial:

But it behooves the godly mind to climb still higher, to the height to which Christ calls his disciples: that each must bear his own cross [Matthew 16:24]. For whomever the Lord has adopted and deemed worthy of his fellowship ought to prepare themselves for a hard, toilsome, and unquiet life, crammed with very many and various kinds of evil.” (3.8.1)

To many of us, it is surprising to think that we are called to carry crosses. “I thought Christ had the cross so I wouldn’t have to?” That is true, but only in a certain sense. It is true that because of Christ’s suffering and death, we no longer have to face the penal judgment of God, or worry about the ultimate victory of the powers that he defeated on it. (Col. 2:14-15) Still, the active life of discipline and self-denial, scorn, pain and difficulty that he endured, (“while he dwelt on earth he was not only tried by a perpetual cross but his whole life was nothing but a sort of perpetual cross”), is also a model for those of us who would be made holy as God intends us. As Calvin puts it: “Why should we exempt ourselves, therefore, from the condition to which Christ our Head had to submit, especially since he submitted to it for our sake to show us an example of patience in himself? Therefore, the apostle teaches that God has destined all his children to the end that they be conformed to Christ [Romans 8:29].” (ibid.) The Christian then, should expect difficulty and suffering in this life.

The Benefits of the Cross

While nobody ever accused Calvin of being an optimist, he didn’t think that the Christian should fear submitting to the cross–there is comfort in its shadow. Following Paul, he says taking up our cross allows us to know the beauty of sharing of Christ’s sufferings in a way that enables us to participate in his glory. (Phil. 3:10-11) “How much can it do to soften all the bitterness of the cross, that the more we are afflicted with adversities, the more surely our fellowship with Christ is confirmed! By communion with him the very sufferings themselves not only become blessed to us but also help much in promoting our salvation.” (ibid.)

More specifically, Calvin sees at least six benefits to the cross we are called to bear in this life.

1. The cross leads us to perfect trust in God’s power (3.8.2) We are too quick to give ourselves credit when life goes right or our accomplishments receive praise. We trust in our own awesomeness. We think that our goodness, or wisdom, or strength is the cause of our good life and that we really have this handled. It is only when difficulties and suffering comes our way, when disease hits, markets crash, relationships break, that we are humbled and taught to rely on God’s power and strength in all things. Only the cross kills our arrogance, shows us our inability, and drives us to the perfect source of strength, God’s gracious sustenance.

Believers, warned…by such proofs of their diseases, advance toward humility and so, sloughing off perverse confidence in the flesh, betake themselves to God’s grace. Now when they have betaken themselves there they experience the presence of a divine power in which they have protection enough and to spare.”

2. The cross permits us to see God’s perfect faithfulness and gives us hope for the future (3.8.3). God’s faithfulness matters most when we are in the pit. It is in the tribulations of this life that we find God’s unswerving commitment to his children to be proven to our hearts. When we see him act faithfully in our current travails, we are given hope for God’s future faithfulness. “Hope, moreover, follows victory in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come.”

3. The cross trains us to patience and obedience (3.8.4) Difficulty gives us occasion to practice obedience and patience.  Virtues such as these cannot be exercised when life is going swimmingly. “Obviously, if everything went according to their own liking, they would not know what it is to follow God.” Obedience in the face of difficulty is what forms a golden character, one tested in the furnace of adversity. (1 Peter 1:7) Patience is developed only when we are called to endure situations that are unpleasant. It is in the troubles of this life, not the joys, that we learn to submit fully to God’s good commands and patiently await God’s vindication and comfort in our adversity.

4. The cross is medicine for our sin-sick souls (3.8.5) Calvin sees our fleshly or sinful desires, our ill-will, as a sort of recurring illness or medical condition that, if not kept a close eye on, would grow or deteriorate due to laxity. The crosses that we bear in this life function as a medicine, a sort of chemotherapy, or possibly as physical therapy, for the soul according to the particular conditions we struggle with such as pride, lust, anger, self-centeredness. Through the ministrations of our great physician, our souls are healed and treated according to his wisdom:

Thus, lest in the unmeasured abundance of our riches we go wild; lest, puffed up with honors, we become proud; lest, swollen with other good things—either of the soul or of the body, or of fortune—we grow haughty, the Lord himself, according as he sees it expedient, confronts us and subjects and restrains our unrestrained flesh with the remedy of the cross. And this he does in various ways in accordance with what is healthful for each man. For not all of us suffer in equal degree from the same diseases or, on that account, need the same harsh cure. From this it is to be seen that some are tried by one kind of cross, others by another. But since the heavenly physician treats some more gently but cleanses others by harsher remedies, while he wills to provide for the health of all, he yet leaves no one free and untouched, because he knows that all, to a man, are diseased.

5. The cross is fatherly discipline (3.8.6) If God is a father, then at times he will discipline us according to our misdeeds so that we mature and grow into the kind of children that look like their father. Just as any parent knows to correct a child’s lying or unkindness with a light (or heavy) punishment as the situation calls, so at times our cross is connected to some disobedience we are walking in. This is not judgment, but parental concern that motivates his permission of certain troubles that awaken us to our foolishness.  Calvin quotes Proverbs 3:11-12 here,”My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, or grow weary when he reproves you. For whom God loves, he rebukes, and embraces as a father his son.” As the author of Hebrews says, it is through God’s discipline that we know we are legitimate children whom God cares enough about to displease for a short time. (12:8) God works through the cross to lovingly correct his wayward sons and daughters, demonstrating a love concerned not merely with the happiness of his children, but with the deep joy that comes with goodness.

6. The cross is suffering for righteousness sake (3.8.7) Calvin goes on, “Now, to suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake is a singular comfort. For it ought to occur to us how much honor God bestows upon us in thus furnishing us with the special badge of his soldiery.” To many of us it is a foreign way of thinking, but in the New Testament the apostles’ rejoiced at being thought worthy of the honor or suffering for the sake of Christ. (Acts 5:41) Jesus himself says,”Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:10-12) As Calvin points out, the suffering itself is not good, but because these sufferings are the source of great honor, for God will not fail to reward the faithful believer in the Kingdom to come because of goods lost here. “If, being innocent and of good conscience, we are stripped of our possessions by the wickedness of impious folk, we are indeed reduced to penury among men. But in God’s presence in heaven our true riches are thus increased. If we are cast out of our own house, then we will be the more intimately received into God’s family. If we are vexed and despised, we but take all the firmer root in Christ. If we are branded with disgrace and ignominy, we but have a fuller place in the Kingdom of God. If we are slain, entrance into the blessed life will thus be open to us.”

Conclusion

In these various ways the cross that comes into the life of the believer can be a great comfort and hope. In light of these meditations we can see how Calvin can say,”Hence also in harsh and difficult conditions, regarded as adverse and evil, a great comfort comes to us: we share Christ’s sufferings in order that as he has passed from a labyrinth of all evils into heavenly glory, we may in like manner be led through various tribulations to the same glory.” (3.8.1)

May we also come to consider the goodness of God in the cross.

Soli Deo Gloria