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

Mere Fidelity: Understanding Meritocracy

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Alastair, Andrew, and I discuss a recent article by Helen Andrews on the subject of meritocracy and the way it has replaced (and in some ways replicated) the older Aristocratic order. You should take the time to read it. It’s a fascinating piece. In any case, we take it up and discuss it more broadly and then in relation to the church. Because that’s what we do.

Hope you enjoy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle With Christ

wedding rehearsal.pngThis last week, I had a piece published in The Local Church (a recent sub-branch of Christianity Today). It’s about the Lord’s Supper. I have to say that I loved writing this piece. Kind of a different one for me. This is one of my favorite chunks:

Learning to Walk Down the Aisle

The night before my wedding, I learned that my natural gait isn’t “wedding processional speed.” Over the years, I have developed my own ways of walking. Typically I set a brisk pace and dodge and weave in and out of crowds.

This, apparently, is not the way you walk up the aisle with your bride.

The same holds true about the way you walk forward to receive the bread and the wine. There is a rhythm to feasting with the body. You have to remember, week by week, that you can only walk as quickly as the server is handing out the elements—or as slow your sister in front of you, whether young or old, can make it.

Receiving the bread and wine reminds you that if you’re always used to walking at your own pace, insisting on getting there in your own time and in your own way, you’ll ruin the rhythms of grace.

The Lord’s Supper trains us to step in such a way as to be receptive to the life he desires to give us. It’s one of the ways that God teaches us to “not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4). God’s gifts come to us as he deems it fit to give them—at his own pace, in his own time. We learn this by participating in the Lord’s Supper.

You can read the rest of the article as well as a number of other excellent pieces on the theme of “Feast” by clicking here.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Church Usher’s Vital Priestly Role

usher

Ushers have long occupied a place of solemn glory in the church—and by “usher,” I don’t simply mean “door greeter” (though these men and women are valuable servants as well). I’m talking about the old-school troop of reverend men who show up in suits every Sunday, keep watch at the sanctuary doors, and—in hushed tones and with sure gestures—direct you to your seat in the house of the Lord.

I suppose part of the reason for my sense of awe at ushers is that my dad was one when I was a little kid—head usher, in fact. On Sundays, he and his fellows directed the seating, the offering collection, and the administration of the Lord’s Supper. In his charcoal grey three-piece, he used to diagram the other ushers’ respective territories and movement patterns with a geometer’s precision (he’s an engineer, so naturally he diagrammed everything).

You can finish reading the rest of the piece at The Local Church

Soli Deo Gloria

Leithart’s 6 Criteria For A Successful Atonement Theology (+ 2 Of My Own)

Delivered from the elements cover.jpgWhen you read enough works on the work of Christ, to start to get a feel for the questions involved. What conditions must be met for this to qualify as a proper, full, or adequate explanation of  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Anselm famously thought the root question you had to answer was, “Why did God become man?” You can give all sorts of explanations for what Jesus’ activities meant, but if they didn’t justify the conclusion “for this, God needed to become man”, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Peter Leithart has written a new book about atonement theology. Well, when you look at the title (Delivered From the Elements: Atonement, Justification, and Mission), you realize it’s about a lot more than that, but that’s still the main subject.

In reflecting on it, Leithart has come up with six criteria that he believes must be satisfied if we’re going to get a proper grip on our question:

Historically plausible: Atonement theology is an interpretation of events, not a recital of “bare facts,” which is impossible in any case. But that interpretation must make sense of the historical events, not by transcending phenomena into a noumenal realm of meaning, but by tracing and perhaps extrapolating the logic of the events. Successful atonement theology must, for instance, make sense of Jesus as a figure in the first-century Judaism dominated by Rome. A successful atonement theory has got to show how the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key to human history, which means that atonement theory has to provide and account of human history: It has to be a theory of everything.

Levitical: A successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events.

Evangelical: Successful atonement theology must arise from within the Gospel narratives rather than be an imposition from outside (even a Pauline outside).

Pauline: Atonement theology must make sense of the actual words and sentences and arguments in Paul’s letters.

Inevitable: A successful atonement theology should leave the impression of inevitability: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Lk. 24:26 NASB). Jesus should appear to be the obvious divine response to the human condition. Like the denouement of a well-constructed drama, the cross and the resurrection should emerge as the most fitting climax to the history of Israel among the nations, as the climax of the history of sacrifice.

Fruitful: A successful atonement theology must offer a framework for making sense not only of the history of Jesus but also of the subsequent history of the church and of the world. It must, for instance, not shrink from addressing the apparent failure of the atonement, the palpable fact that the world Jesus is said to have saved is self-evidently not saved. (19-20)

In surveying them, I have to say, I find it hard to disagree with them. Even that last one, which is probably the greatest stretch in terms of having burst the typical bounds of systematic focus on the work of Christ, leaves an impression on the mind after considering it for a while, “Yes, yes, you should be able to draw some line from that point to the present moment if this event really is the cosmos-shattering cataclysm that Christian preaching has always claimed it is.”

I suppose I’ll follow up by adding couple of my own criteria in something of an Anselmian key.

First, comes a Christological criteria. For your atonement theology to be successful, it must be able to say why Jesus had to be God who became a man for our sake. Why did Christ have to have all the attributes and qualities and exalted titles and power that the New Testament accords him in order to accomplish what he did? In other words,  Leithart’s criteria for atonement theology  are, for the most part, explicitly concerned with making sense of the plot. I’m saying, we also need to explicitly call for a careful account of the characters.

Which brings me to the second criteria, and that is the theological one. For a successful atonement theology, you need to be able to give something of a sketch of the kind of God who would and could become man and why. This is true both for sorts of moral attributes you might think are involved (love, justice, holiness, fidelity), as well as the “metaphysical” ones (impassibility, infinity, etc). And, of course, not only the attributes of God, but his personal being: does your atonement theology assume or dispense with God’s trinitarian being? Must atonement be accomplished by Father, Son, & Spirit, or can we get by with a monad or a binity?

Since I have a full review of Leithart’s work coming at another publication, I’ll simply conclude by saying that it’s Leithart’s ability to ask these sorts of penetrating questions that makes Delivered from the Elements such a stimulating and wide-ranging read. Well worth the time of any serious student of atonement theology.

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

 

None Like Him (By Jen Wilkin)

none like him.jpgI have to admit, I have never aspired to become a “God-fearing woman.” I benefited, nonetheless, while reading Jen Wilkin’s new book None Like Him: 10 Ways God is Different From Us (And Why That’s a Good Thing). In it, she issues a winsome, if bracing call for women to become wise, rock-solid, and whole by knowing what it is to “fear the Lord”—to respect, love, and trust their Creator and Maker. But if women are to become truly God-fearers, they must know just who their God is.

But how can they love him who they have not trusted? And how can they trust him who they have not known? How can they know him who they have not studied? Not very well.

So with biblical care, narrative, and a sharp, insightful wit, Wilkin begins the first half of a two part project in studying the “attributes of God.”

The Attributes

Traditionally, theologians have recognized that you can understand God according to two aspects. First, you can study his triune glory, recognizing God as Triune: Father, Son, and Spirit, with their distinctive properties, mutual relations, and saving works in history.

Second, you can study the attributes of the one, shared essence of the three persons—the characteristics and properties that we speak of him on the basis of what he has said and done for us—like God’s power, love, beauty, and wisdom.

Well, these attributes are also often split up into two categories: the incommunicable and communicable. The communicable attributes are those that we say that as image-bearers, we can “share” or imitate. Things like his love, grace, mercy, wisdom, and so forth. And second, the incommunicable attributes are those attributes which belong to God alone as the infinite Creator. These are attributes like his limitless power, his infinite knowledge, or his self-existence.

We Are Not Rivals

Wilkin’s driving insight in this work is that the incommunicable attributes give us our measure in light of the measureless God. We were created as finite, contingent creatures, made to enjoy communion with and the blessings of our infinitely good God. Our call as Image-bearers is not to rival God, but to reflect him in the world. But ever since the Fall, we have constantly been striving to somehow overtake, or compete with God’s limitless life. And that’s exactly when the trouble starts for us.

And when we think about it, how many of us can’t recognize the problem in our own lives? How many of us aren’t trying to live as if we were the only self-sustaining being in the universe? Never flagging, never resting, but simply pushing on from commitment to commitment, without regard for our human limits. How much better would our life be if we could rest in the fact that our self-existent God is the one sustaining our lives in existence? If we could “topple the myth” of our self-sufficiency and lean on the one who never slumbers nor sleeps because he is watching us?

In ten chapters, Wilkin goes down the line of God’s incommunicable attributes “toppling the myth” of our omniscience, sovereignty, knowledge, and so forth, in light of the beauty and glory of the infinite God we see in Scripture.

Reasons to Read The Book (For Everyone)

I have to say, I really loved this little book. For one thing, as I already mentioned, Wilkin is a good writer. She can turn a phrase, tell a story, all the while keeping your attention on the matter at hand: God and his greatness.

Oh, and for those who are worried about time—she also knows how to get to the point. The chapters are about 10 or so pages, but if you do want to go deeper, she’s provided extra Scriptural texts and questions to meditate on. Which actually makes it perfect for a Bible study group too.

Second, this is a fantastic example of what good theology and doctrine looks like applied practically. I am a strong believer in the proposition that theology is important, not just for having your heavenly GPA straight when you get there, but for the actual living we have do down on earth. Wilkin takes the truths of Scripture and some of the best insights of systematic theology and shows in practical, tangible ways, how they should impact our day to day life.

In a lot of ways, it’s like the old-school works of someone like Thomas Watson who would preach a very careful sermon on a doctrine, and then list about 10 “uses” for it in everyday life. Wilkin puts these attributes to work in the everyday world of work, parenting, marriage, and everywhere else we do our living.

For myself, I found this to be a personal benefit reading a chapter a day in the morning before having to go in and try to study German. Day by day I have been reminded of my very, very human limits. But day by day I was encouraged as I remembered that God has no limits and it is he who will sustain me in a thousand different ways during my studies.

Third, I love that Wilkin pitched this at women, because I get the sense that much of the devotional and theological literature that is on offer for ladies in our churches is sub-par (that thankfully seems to be changing). But I have to say, I don’t think this is just a book for women. It’s not “women’s theology” focused on (as Hannah Anderson puts it) the “pink passages.” It’s just good theology for everyone because it’s biblical, and it just happens to have women in view in terms of some of its application.

(For that reason, though, I think it may behoove a good many young, male preachers to pick up the book, simply to learn how to think outside your own experience to be able to apply the Word of God to your whole congregation.)

To conclude, Wilkin’s None Like Him is a great book. You should considering buying and reading it. Take the time this year to focus on resting in the beauty of the fact that God is God and we are not. And that’s just okay.

Soli Deo Gloria