Results tagged “Christ” from Reformation21 Blog

Pastor, Keep Preaching the Gospel!


As I was busy rushing from one place to another, I noticed a man looking at me with a big smile on his face. He had just stepped out of a work van and was doing some sort job nearby. To be honest, I had a lot on my plate to get done that day, and was determined not to be slowed down. The next thing I knew, the man who had been grinning at me was now standing right in front of me.

I do not remember what I was thinking at that moment but, sadly, it was probably something like, "Oh great." 

He said, "You don't remember me. I went to your church 14 years ago when you first arrived in Lexington. You preached the gospel every week, and so did the small group leaders. To be honest, I did not want to hear it and stop attending. I thought I wanted something more practical that would help with my daily life. I found what I was looking for, I was getting my ears tickled, but I could never shake the gospel you preached and 4-years-ago I trusted Christ, and I am now in a great gospel-preaching church where I now live. I just wanted you to know. Thank you! Don't ever stop!"

I am not usually one to cry, but as he walked off, I teared up thinking about the sheer goodness of God and the incredible power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. To think, in my self-preoccupation, I would have preferred to avoid that conversation that day. After all, I thought that had important stuff to get done. Thankfully, God's sweet providence does not acquiesce to my self-referential ordering of what is important: "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps" (Prov 16:9).

My encounter with that man woke me up and reordered my thinking and priorities. I was not depressed or discouraged on that day but I was sinfully distracted. The core activities of pastoring have a relentlessness about them--prayer, study, preparation, planning, pastoral care, visiting, discipling, preaching, counseling--are never-ending. There is never a finished project. There is always more to be done. No pastor worth his salt thinks he ever does enough in any of these areas so consistently possesses a nagging feeling of inadequacy. Most pastors cry out with Paul, "Who is sufficient for these things?" (2 Cor 2:16). On our better days, we answer that cry like Paul does as well, "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor 3:5).

In 1 Corinthians, Paul explained how believers should evaluate ministry: "This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful" (1 Cor 4:1-2). The Corinthians valued the outward gifts that stimulate applause like we so often do as well. Paul rejected this visible success standard for evaluating Christian leaders. The measure, according to Paul, is faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus. Paul goes on to assert that he is free and independent of human evaluation, whether it be the Corinthians' judgment or his own (1 Cor 4:3). After all, he had "decided to know nothing ... except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Nevertheless, it is a battle to remember that success in ministry is gospel faithfulness. It is certainly a difficult truth for pastors to live out.

Pastor, can you echo Paul's assertion of being free and independent of human evaluation because the only thing that matters is to "be found faithful" (1 Cor 4:2)? Paul says, "This is how one should regard us," because so often we do not define success by faithfulness. Too often, pastors evaluate success by applause, size, and immediate outward results. After all, these are the measures often thrust upon pastors by their congregants. There is a frequent accusation in a pastor's conscience that preaching the gospel is not enough. If only they were cooler, younger, smarter, a visionary, kinder, more creative, more charismatic, and fill-in-the-blank. Sadly, many (most?) pastors feel like failures based on these kinds of evaluative standards, ones that God never provided.

When I shared on social media the providential encounter I explained at the beginning of this article I was stunned at the immediate and overwhelming response. The post was shared thousands of times, and I began receiving social media responses, direct messages, emails, and phone calls with people telling me how meaningful and encouraging the anecdote was to them. Several pastors said they were going to print the Tweet out and read it each day as a reminder of how God is at work even when they do not see the immediate results.

If you have an encounter like the one I had with the man who shared with me how God had used the gospel faithfulness of our church to bring him to faith in Christ ten years later--cherish it. But remember that even when you do not experience the kind of peek behind the curtain that God provided me on that day--showing what he is doing when the gospel is preached--please know that is what he is doing. Paul reminds us of this important truth when he exhorts, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth" (1 Cor 3:6-7).

Pastor, be encouraged, keep your head down, keep planting and watering by faithfully preaching the gospel of Jesus, and you can know God is working through it even when you don't know.

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.

The Joy of Justification


Theologians have often considered justification by faith alone to be "the heart of the Gospel" for the simple reason that justification is a legal declaration of pardon and righteousness--a once-for-all judicial act of God toward believers. Justification is judicial not transformative in nature. The justified believer has been acquitted before the divine tribunal and declared righteous "only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33)." Nevertheless, there is a real joy produced in the heart of the believer on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Just as Jesus experienced sorrow on account of the imputation of our sin, believers rejoice in the fact that God has clothed us in the righteousness of another. Hugh Martin, in his book The Shadow of Calvary, explained:

"The believer's own unworthiness ought not to avail to impair His joy, because a true righteousness is imputed to Him, and he has the blessedness of Him to whom the Lord imputes not his sin. The Surety's own unspotted holiness cannot avail to prevent His sorrow, because sin is imputed to Him and He has voluntarily therefore assumed what misery must belong to Him to whom the Lord imputes--not His holiness--to whom the Lord imputes nothing but sin.

The fact that the righteousness which the believer rejoices in is not his
own, not only does not diminish his joy, but on the contrary adds to it an element of wonder, a thrill of unexpected and surprising delight. To be exalted from a relation fraught with guilt and wrath and fear and death, and to be brought at once, on the ground of another's merit, into one of favor and peace and blessedness and eternal life--to have the angry frown of an incensed avenging judge turned away, and all replaced by the sweet smiles of a Father's love--this, the fruit of the imputation of another's righteousness, hiding all my sin, quenching all my fear, wondrously reversing all my fate, this is not only joyful but surprising--wonderful, the doing of the Lord and marvelous in our eyes!

And so, for Jesus to be accounted a sinner by imputation must have added a pang of amazement to the sorrow and humiliation which ensued. In point of fact, this very element in His sorrow is pointed out. He began to be "sore amazed." Not but that He fully expected it. Yet when it came, the change was in its nature "amazing." To pass from a state of unimpeached integrity to one in which He was chargeable with all grievous sins--from a state in which His conscious and unsullied love and practice of all things that are pure and lovely and of good report caused Him to obtain the announcements to his Father's complacency and love-- ("I do always those things that please Him")--to a state in which that love and practice still unimpaired, He nevertheless justified his Father's justice in frowning on Him in displeasure by the very horror and the struggle in which He would, but for His Father's will, have refused to be plunged: this must have struck into the very heart of all His sorrow an element of amazement amounting to absolute agony and horror. If an ecstasy of wonder thrills through the believer's joy in the Lord His righteousness, there must have been a deeply contrasted paralyzing amazement when the Holy One of God realized Himself as worthy, in the sins of others, of condemnation at His Father's tribunal."

A Censorious Spirit


Sinclair Ferguson once lamented the fact that whenever he overheard others discussing some public theologian or individual at a conference, the statements were almost always prefaced with a negative comment such as, "Well, you know, the problem with him is..." Sadly, those sorts of conversations are far from uncommon among those of us who have been in the church for any length of time. We are all almost certainly guilty of making similar statements about brothers and sisters and, we have, no doubt, been the objects of such pejorative statements. So what are the marks of this all too common spiritual deficiency? And, how can we check our spirits so that we rid them of this censoriousness? 

In what is arguably one of the most important books ever written, Charity and Its Fruits, Jonathan Edwards sounded the theological alarm about a censorious spirit being contrary to Christian love. In the course of his sermon on this subject, Edwards set out three ways "wherein a censorious spirit or a disposition uncharitably to judge others consists:

  1. A censorious spirit appears in a forwardness to judge ill of others' states.
  2. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' qualities; to overlook their good qualities, and to think them destitute of them when they are not, or to make very little of them, or to magnify their ill qualities and make more of them than they are, or to charge them with those ill qualities of which they are free.
  3. A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' actions.

First, A censorious spirit appears in a forwardness to judge ill of others' states. When we are not walking in love toward others in the body, we are apt to make a sinful judgment about the spiritual condition of another based on our own faulty assumptions, observations or presuppositions about them. Edwards wrote:

"Persons are guilty of censoriousness in condemning others' [spiritual] state when they,

...condemn others as hypocrites because of God's providential dealings with them, as Job's three friends condemned him as a hypocrite for the uncommon afflictions with which he met...

...condemn them for those failings which they see in them, which are no greater than are often incident to God's children; and it may be no greater, or not so great, as their own, though they think well of their own state...

...condemn others as those who must needs be carnal men for differing from them in opinion in some points which are not fundamental.

...or when persons judge ill of others' state from what they observe in them for want of making due allowances for their natural tempers, and for their manner of education, and other peculiar disadvantages, under which they labor."1

Second, a censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' qualities. When we are not walking in love toward other professing believers, we are often quick to see the worst in others and slow to affrim the best in them. Edwards explained,

"Some men are very apt to charge others with ignorance and folly and other contemptible qualities which in no way deserve to be so esteemed by them.

Some seem to be very apt to entertain a very low and despicable opinion of others, and so to represent them to others, when a charitable spirit would discern many good things in them, and would freely own them to be persons not to be despised.

And some are ready to charge others with those morally ill qualities from which they are free, or at least to charge them with them in a much higher degree than they are really in them. Thus some have such a prejudice against some of their neighbors that they look upon them as much more proud men, or more spiteful and malicious, than they really are." 2

Finally, A censorious spirit appears in a disposition to judge ill of others' words or actions. When we are not walking in love with other believers, we are ready to have evil suspicions about their words and actions, without any justifiable reason or evidence to think evil of them. Edwards noted,

"A suspicious, jealous spirit, whereby persons are apt to be jealous of others, of their being guilty of such and such things when they have no evidence of it, is an uncharitable spirit, and contrary to Christianity. Some persons are very free of passing their censures on others with respect to those things which they suppose they do out of their sight. They judge they commit such and such wickedness in secret and hid from the eyes of men, or that they have done thus, or said thus, among their companions or those who are united with them in the same party or design, though they keep it hid from others who are not in the same interest. These are the "evil surmisings" spoken of and condemned in 1 Tim. 6:4.

...Very commonly persons show a very uncharitable and censorious spirit with respect to others by being forward to take up bad reports of persons. Merely hearing a flying ill report of a person is far from being sufficient evidence against persons that they have been guilty of that which is reported. Yet, it is a very common thing for persons to pass a judgment on others on no other foundation.

...It is very common with men, when prejudiced against others, to put bad constructions on those actions or speeches of others which are seemingly good, and as though they were performed in hypocrisy. And especially in the management of public affairs, or affairs in which others are concerned with them. If anything be said or done wherein there is a show of concern for public good, or for the good of their neighbors, or the honor of God, or the interest of religion, others will be ready to judge that this is all in hypocrisy; that the design really is only to promote their own interest, or to advance themselves, that they are only flattering others, that they have some ill design all the time in their hearts."3

This ought to convict us deeply of how often we have harbored subtle censoriousness in our hearts toward those we ought to have loved the most. Instead of rushing to the worst possible conclusions about others, we ought to consider our own failings and sinfulness. This is such a challenging yet richly rewarding goal for us to pursue. The more we focus on our own hearts and motives, the less we will sinfully judge others in the body of Christ. The more we see our own sinfulness and need for the Savior, the more we will extend the same grace to others we profess a need of for ourselves. The more readily we extend love to others and are committed to thinking the best of them, the more our words and actions toward them will reflect the deep, deep love of Jesus.

1.  Jonathan Edwards, Ethical Writings ed. Paul Ramsey and John E. Smith, vol. 8, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1989), 285.

2. Ibid., 286

3. Ibid., 287

The House of Omri


The Mesha Stele is an ancient slab of basalt stone from the 9th century BC. It was named for Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:4). This stele is actually an ancient document which records the struggles of the Moabite people at the hands of the king of Israel, Omri. After the split of the Jewish monarchy, following Solomon's reign, the northern kingdom of Israel suffered political turmoil and even civil war until Omri established his dynastic line. Most of his immediate predecessors on the throne of Israel had been short-lived. Nadab lasted no more than two years (1 Kings 15:25). Elah, likewise, only lasted two years (1 Kings 16:8). In fact, it is possible that due to the manner in which years were counted, they may have reigned only a few months. Zimri, who followed Elah, lasted a whole 7 days before he flamed out, literally (1 Kings 16:18).

But Omri was different. He reigned for 12 years. He overcame a civil war. He established a new capital in Samaria. He manufactured an important political alliance with the Phoenicians through an arranged marriage between his son Ahab and daughter-in-law Jezebel. His dynasty lasted for another 100 years. In fact, he had so established himself in the northern kingdom that an Assyrian artifact known as the Black Obelisk refers to Israel simply as the "dynasty of Omri."

This seems to be, by most accounts, a hugely successful tenure as a leader. This kind of accomplishment would be like President Ulysses S. Grant taking office after the turmoil of the Civil War and Andrew Johnson's impeachment and immediately moving the capital of the nation from Washington DC to Nashville, then turning Nashville into an impenetrable citadel and a major hub of international trade. Omri was a political, military, commercial, and cultural dynamo.

But you wouldn't get this impression from the biblical account of Omri. Dale Ralph Davis makes this great point in his commentary on 1 Kings. He notes that the writer of 1 Kings sticks to the regular formula for kings: He became king during the x-year of the other king's reign. He ruled for y-years. He did some things. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He died. If you want more information look at the Chronicles of the Kings. He was followed by son. Davis then adds, "The Bible's account is as scintillating as an obituary."[1]

We shouldn't conclude that the writer of Kings was unaware of what Omri had done. He had obviously read about Omri in the Chronicles of the Kings. It wasn't a lack of knowledge, but rather the writer was making an important theological point. It wasn't that those accomplishments didn't happen, it's that they don't ultimately matter. The reason is simple. The writer's adds that Omri was the most evil of all the kings of Israel. (That is, until his son Ahab comes along and basically says, "Hold my beer." But that's another post for another day.) Omri had walked the well-worn paths of Jeroboam. And he exceeded Jeroboam, the yardstick of heterodoxy, by indulging and promoting idol worship. Omri's regency was defined not by what he accomplished in political, commercial, militaristic, or cultural areas but by his failure to make the most important thing primary.

Jesus confronts this failure when he addressed the crowd in Mark 8. After Jesus told them about his suffering, death, and resurrection that was to come, he then tells the people, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." This instruction is challenging. Jesus forces us to immediately begin doing the math. We have to start weighing the cost of faithfulness in the most important areas versus an all-too-compelling sense of self-preservation in earthly areas. It is tempting to see the value of saving our lives, building our kingdoms, and taking care of ourselves. But Jesus cuts through this spiritual calculus by explaining, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:34-36).

By many accounts Omri had gained the world. But he had forfeited his soul. He had missed the treasure in the field. He had missed the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46). He had settled on what was ultimately trivial. Is your life marked by trivial accomplishments? Ralph Davis asks the piercing question, "Do the passions that drive your living and doing only elicit a yawn from heaven?"[2] That is a sobering thought. Our lives will truly count only if we do what is right in the eyes of the LORD. Our lives will elicit the commendation from Christ, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21) when we faithfully invest our lives so as to earn an eternal return. The commendation of the world will eventually fade like an obscure ancient stele. But praise of Christ lasts forever.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, I Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2016), 191.

[2] Davis, 191.

Adoption and the Image of God


When I was in my early 20s, I met a college friend of my parents for the first time. After a short conversation, she smiled and commented, "You're just like your dad!" She wasn't just referring to my appearance, but to my personality, mannerisms, and demeanor. She was talking about what I was like. I took it as a compliment. My dad had passed away several years before, so it was especially gratifying to have someone recognize him in me. I love my dad and am thrilled to reflect something of him. That's one way that love works. There's something built-in and natural where children should be pleased to reflect their parents and where parents delight in passing on their likeness to their children.

Sadly, my wife and I are in a position where we may never enjoy that feeling. We have not been able to have children of our own. I wonder if I'll ever see any of my wife's loveliness or personality in our children. Because we've not been able to conceive on our own, we've begun to wade into the complicated, emotional world that is adoption. We had always intended to pursue adoption at some point, infertility just moved up the clock. This article arises partly out of the realization of how much there is to sort through, both emotionally and spiritually.

One of the early hurdles in the process of educating ourselves about adoption was to reckon with the loss of what is commonly called "genetic children." Before living through it, I had (naïvely) thought it would be as simple as coming to a fork in the road and going left instead of right--the other direction was simply closed. I had even felt a mild reproach towards others who were hung up on the issue. It had seemed like a vanity to fixate upon genetics when the world is full of children who need loving parents. After all, adopted children would be just as much "our" children as genetic children would be. What's the big deal about genetics?

It is unquestionably true that adopted children would be "ours" in the fullest sense of the term. Nevertheless, the thought that losing genetic children would be simple or painless was far from the reality we encountered.

The Reality of the Loss

I have come to realize what many others already know that--real or only perceived--there is an emotional and even spiritual sense of loss when a couple cannot conceive their own children. While we can adopt and intend to, it's a reality that any children my wife and I do adopt won't physically look like us, have that genetic connection, share with us whatever is nature as opposed to nurture. To put it in biblical terms, they will not bear my "image." Genesis 5 describes the birth of Adam's third son, Seth, with that terminology: "[Adam] fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth" (Gen 5:3). The loss of genetic children feels like the loss of image. They won't have my wife's eyes. They won't have my smile.

There is a Christian truth that underlies that sentiment. God created Adam in his image and only then did he declare his creation very good (Gen 1:31). Likewise, Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), is his beloved in whom he is well pleased (Matt 3:17; 17:5; Mark 1:11; 9:7; Luke 3:22; 2 Pet 1:17). God delights in seeing his likeness in the world. There's something of that same inclination in any mother who sincerely loves her husband and delights in seeing his characteristics in her children. We are meant to delight in the likeness of the people we love.

That sense of loss is real. But, I'm writing this article to try to refocus the question and put the loss in a broader context.


While the sense of loss is real, it is important to not misunderstand what is actually lost for what cannot be. Yes, adopted children may not have my smile or physiological characteristics. But, is that the most valuable thing I have to pass on?

I quoted Genesis 5:3 above which describes Adam having a son in his "image" and "likeness." At first we might consider that unremarkable because we tend to take it physiologically. Of course, Adam's son looked like him. But that same language was also used in Genesis chapter 1 of God creating mankind, where God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Gen 1:26). What God imparted to man by making him in his image was not physical at all. He imparted characteristics, but they weren't eyes or a smile. God is spirit. The characteristics he gave were far more valuable. They are the spiritual virtues of true knowledge, righteousness and holiness.1 God made us to reflect his true and perfect thought. He made us to reflect his justice and character. He made us to reflect his sinless perfection. Simply put, he made us to be godly.

Godliness was the very quality that was tarnished in the fall. Mankind stopped reflecting God in his thoughts and behavior. In that light, we can say that God knows what it is like to lose his likeness, far more than I do. In fact, the reason God sent Jesus, his son and image, was so that he could restore it in the people Jesus came to save. Romans 8:29 says, "those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers." God's concern in redemption has nothing to do with preserving physical characteristics of any kind, but with restoring mankind's godliness and glory.


The loss of genetic children is a real loss. But, that loss is only physiological. The most valuable image I have to pass on is not my smile or my wife's eyes, but my likeness to Christ. He is restoring his image in me day by day. Godliness has nothing to do with my genetics and everything to do with my heart. There are many commands in Scripture to train children for godliness (e.g., Prov 22:6), but no clear commands to perpetuate our genetics for their own sake. Would it not be vain of me to inflate the value of my image and diminish the value of God's? Because God has shown me grace, I am in the position to raise children in the knowledge, righteousness, and holiness of God. I can raise them in the Lord and call them to godliness.

I have two images to share. I can narrow the focus to my own genetics or recognize that my reflection of Christ is of vastly greater value than any likeness to myself alone. The privilege of seeing my wife's eyes in my children (as wonderful is that would be!) cannot be compared with the privilege of seeing even a hint of the beauty of Christ in them.

1. Cf. WCF 4-2; WLC 17; WSC 10.

Rev. Dr. David Barry is an Assistant Pastor at Midway Presbyterian Church in Powder Springs, GA and Adjunct Professor of New Testament for Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta.

All the Hell You Shall Ever Have


For the better part of my Christian life, I've had a visceral reaction--driven by internal disapproval--whenever I've heard someone describe the hardships he or she experienced in life in the following ways: "It was like hell on earth," or "I feel like I've been through hell." I am sure that part of this reaction is due, in large part, to the fact I was raised in a home in which the awful reality of eternal destruction was not joked about or diminished (as it ought not be!). Therefore, in my mind, to correlate the miseries of this life with eternal punishment always struck me as a trivializing of the worst kind. Then, I read the following in Thomas Brooks' The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod:

"Consider, that the trials and troubles, the calamities and miseries, the crosses and losses that you meet with in this world, are all the hell that you shall ever have: here you have your hell, hereafter you shall have your heaven; this is the worst of your condition, the best is to come. Lazarus had his hell first, his heaven last; but Dives (the rich man) had his heaven first, and his hell at last (Luke 16:19-31): you have all your pangs, and pains, and throes here that you shall ever have; your ease, and rest, and pleasure is to come: here you have all your bitter, your sweet is to come: here you have your sorrows, your joys are to come: here you have all your winter-nights, your summer-days are to come; here you have your passion-week, your ascension day is to come: here you have your evil things, your good things are to come: death will put a period to all your sins, and to all thy sufferings, and it will be an inlet to those joys, delights, and contents that shall never have an end; and therefore hold thy peace, and be silent before the Lord."1

There is a sense in which it is right and good for us to speak of the miseries of life as a "the only hell" a true Christian will ever have. Consider what the Westminster Shorter Catechism has to say about the miseries Adam brought into the world on account of his disobedience,

"Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? 

A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever."

On one hand, everything we experience in this life, short of hell, is a mercy from God. Since the ultimate misery that we all deserve is "the pains of hell forever," we must conclude that we are the just recipients of every misery we experience, short of hell, in this life. This is not to say that ever trial, pain, hardship or affliction that we experience in this life is due to some particular personal sin. The Scriptures are clear that personal suffering is not necessarily correlated to any personal sin (Job 1; John 9:1-4). Some of the misery that we experience in this life is due to our personal sin (2 Samuel 12:10, 14; Psalm 119:71; James 5:14). However, all of the misery that we experience in this life is due to Adam's sin. Adam brought all men into a state of sin and misery. All mankind receives, by imputation, the guilt and the corruption of Adam's sin, as well as the experience of misery in this fallen world. All of us deserve, by nature, death and judgment because of Adam's sin. The good news for believers is that what Jesus did, as the last Adam, alters even the impact of the misery of Adam's sin for the true believer. 

On the other hand, the Scriptures make clear that the Lord does not deal with believers "according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10). The Psalmist could say this because he prospectively anticipated that the Christ would come and that the Lord would deal with Him according to our sins and punish Him for our iniquities (Isaiah 53). Jesus takes away all of the sin of His people. He clothes us with His righteousness. He breaks the power of sin in the believer's life. He raises us up to newness of life in Him (Rom. 6:1-14). He endures hell on the cross for His people so that we, who are united to Him by faith, have already "passed from death into life and shall not enter into judgment" (John 5:25). There is no hell for believers--no judgment awaiting us on account of our sins since they have been atoned for by the death of Jesus. God' wrath has been fully propitiated when it fell on the Son at Calvary. 

There is even a sense in which many of the sufferings of this life are suspended on account of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. The Psalmist declared, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me...Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:1, 3). This doesn't mean that Jesus purchased complete physical healing for all his people in this life on the cross. The Apostle Paul suffered from irremediable physical pain (Gal. 4:15). Paul then told Timothy drink a little wine for his infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23). What it does mean is that He often heals us of our diseases in this life and will most certainly heal us of all our diseases in the resurrection on the last day. 

All the miseries that believers are called by God to endure in this life are the only hell that they will ever endure because of the saving work of Jesus in his death and resurrection. This is one of the most comforting and soul strengthening thoughts upon which a believer may set his heart or mind in this life. The Lord may severely afflict, Satan may relentlessly attack, believers may  incessantly hurt, the world may violently persecute, but it will all ultimately come to an end when the believer dies or when Christ comes again in glory. Then there will only be peace, rest, consolation, ecstasy and wholeness forever in the presence of the Lamb who was slain for his suffering people. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, whatever fiery trials you are called by God to endure in this life you can be assured that they are "all the hell you shall ever have."

The Unthinkable Sin


One day I had the opportunity to preach with John Barros outside of an abortion mill in Orlando. In the message I preached, I made the point that I am also a murderer because Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire." (Matthew 5:21-22). After I finished, John cautioned me not to use this kind of argument because, though it is true, it can, inadvertently undermine the gravity and seriousness of the sin those heading to the abortion clinic were about to commit. I was, to some extent, downplaying the teaching of Scripture regarding the degrees of the severity of sin.

Most Christians are familiar with the unpardonable sin which Jesus speaks of in the Gospels: "...the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." (Luke 12:10). The fact that an unpardonable sin even exists is evidence that some sins are more evil than others. During Jesus' trail in which He was unjustly condemned, He taught us that there are greater degrees of sin. Jesus said to Pilate: "...he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11).

The Unthinkable Sin That Never Entered God's Mind

There is not only an unpardonable sin in the Bible, there is also an unthinkable sin in the Bible. There is only one kind of sin that is so evil, so wicked, and so unbelievably horrific that the Bible says it never even entered into the mind of God. This is the sin of parents murdering their sons and daughters. The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of this sin three times:

"For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the LORD. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind." (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

"Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind..." (Jeremiah 19:4-5)

"They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin." (Jeremiah 32:35)

This unthinkable sin involved parents sacrificing their own children to false gods. These parents were murdering their own children, and they did so as a part of a religious, idolatrous ritual. God hates and forbids idolatry, but nowhere else in the Bible does He speak this way about idolatry - that it never even entered His mind.

Why might God speak this way? Because this particular form of idolatry was particularly abominable to Him because it involved the shedding of innocent blood (which God particularly hates: "There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood..." (Proverbs 6:16-17)) and it involved the unthinkable act of parents shedding the innocent blood of their own children. God designed parents to be the life-giving protectors of and providers for their children; to love their children; to be God-like authorities in their children's lives who are supposed to lead them to God by teaching them about God and displaying for them what righteous, good, loving authority is supposed to look like. When parents reject this God-given calling and do the exact opposite by murdering their own flesh and blood - this sin is particularly abominable to God - it's even unthinkable to Him. 

God Knows, But He Doesn't Know The Unthinkable

How can something - anything - not even enter God's mind? Doesn't God know all things from all of eternity? Isn't He omniscient? Hasn't He ordained "whatsoever comes to pass?" He absolutely is and He absolutely has! There is nothing that God does not know. He knows all things and no one can teach Him anything. Consider the following teaching of Scripture about God's infinitely and eternal knowledge:

"Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?" (Isaiah 40:13-14)

"...remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose...'" (Isaiah 46:9-10)

"God is greater than our heart, and knows all things." (1 John 3:20)

So if God knows about the evil of His people sacrificing their own children, in what sense does He not know? How does this practice not even enter His mind? He doesn't know it in the sense that this particular sin is so wicked and contrary to His will, that it is unthinkable to Him. Iain Duguid has explained that the phrase "did not enter into My mind" is "an anthropomorphism indicating how contrary it is to the LORD's will for His people."1 Ardel Caneday suggests, "[This is] not an expression of previous ignorance . . . [but] . . . an intensive idiom to express what is unthinkable."2 Michael L. Brown writes, 'This was the last thing on my mind! I never intended this for you, nor did I ever associate you with such vile practices.' The divine 'shock' is genuine, but not because of the 'surprise element' as much as because of the horrific nature of the sins committed."3 And, Charles Feinberg notes, "One of the most debased forms of idolatry involved child sacrifice...By strong anthropopathism, the Lord indicates that the enormities the nation committed in sacrificing children had never been enjoined on them or spoken of and had never even entered into his mind. It was totally alien and opposed to his will."4

It's as if this particular sin is so bad that the all-knowing, omniscient, all-powerful God could not even think of it because it is so contrary to His perfect, holy character.

The Unthinkable Sin Of Abortion

Like in Jeremiah's day, child sacrifice exists today. Abortion is the unthinkable sin of child sacrifice in our day. Abortion is the murder of an unborn child. God's Word makes this abundantly clear. As Nick Batzig has recently written: "It is estimated that under Stalin, 23 million men, women and children were brutally murdered, under Hitler, 17 million were tortured to death; but, under the red, white and blue, close to 60 million helpless, unborn children have been ripped apart in the womb - which, as we all know, is supposed to be the safest place for a child." Abortion truly is the great unthinkable sin of our day.

In his commentary on Jeremiah, Philip Ryken writes:

"Jeremiah's sermon on the Valley of Slaughter suggests important parallels between child sacrifice and abortion on demand...Anyone who has ever seen pictures, videotapes, or ultrasounds of children in the womb knows how early the human heart forms, and how the fetus can respond to pleasure and pain. To know those things is to know instantly and instinctively that abortion is the murder of an unborn child. There is no substantive moral difference between the child sacrifices offered in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and abortion as practiced in America."5

Some may think it a stretch to equate abortion to the pagan rituals of demonic child sacrifice; however, it is actually one and the same in a more demonic form of sophisticated idolatry. Instead of the altar of Molech, many sacrifice their unborn children on the altar of convenience, a college education, reputation, or money. Whenever couples abort their children under the rationale of any of these reasons, they are essentially shedding the blood of their children on the perceived altar of their own personal idol.

Saving Sinners From The Unthinkable Sin: The Son God Sacrificed

There is only one unthinkable sin in the Bible. And there is only one unpardonable sin in the Bible - and praise God that murdering your own children is not that unpardonable sin!

You see, the sacrifice of a Son did enter into God's mind once. God did think the unthinkable - He determined to crush, strike, condemn, and curse His own perfect, beautiful, sinless Son in place of sinners so that they might be saved.

God loves sinners! God loves parents who murder their own children! So in eternity past, God determined to save sinners by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to save sinners by His sacrifice on that cross and by His resurrection from the dead. On that cross Jesus took upon Himself the unthinkable sins of sinners and the wrath of God that son and daughter murderers deserve so that there is therefore now no condemnation for all those who repent and believe in the LORD Jesus Christ!

There is salvation in Jesus, even for the unthinkable sin of abortion. Jesus' grace is greater than all our sin! Whether you've had one, ten, or one million abortions, where your sin abounds, His grace abounds all the more - if you will admit that your abortion is the unthinkable sin, turn from this sin, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, then you shall be saved! "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved!" "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life!" (Acts 16:31; John 3:16).

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God saves the unsaveable and forgives the unthinkable: He washes away the unthinkable sin; He casts it behind His back and remembers it no more; As far as the east is from the west so He removes your sin from you; He casts it into the depths of the ocean floor forever! And God then accepts you and delights in you just as He does in His own Son. I love they way Dr. Russell Moore puts it:

"And what the Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us is that there are probably women in this congregation right now who have had abortions - probably many of you. And you are probably hiding in the secret and in the shame of that abortion, fearing that anyone will ever find out about that secret that you have. What the Gospel of Jesus Christ says is that you are not an enemy in any culture war. If you come out of hiding and embrace the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Scripture says that you are so hidden in Christ that when Satan accuses you and says: 'I know who you are, and I know what you did. I know your secret!' - your response is to say: 'Satan, you are exactly right. You are right when you say that I am deserving of condemnation, but I have already been condemned! You are exactly right when you say that I am worthy of execution, but I have already been executed! Because I am in Christ - so every bit of penalty that belongs to me has already fallen on me! I've been crucified! I've been pulled off of that cross! I've been buried under the curse of God! And you know what? God now has announced what He thinks of me when He opened up that hole in the ground and Jesus Christ - my Head, my New Life, my New Identity - walked out of there. So when God looks at me, He says of me exactly what He says of Jesus Christ: this is my beloved child, and in you I am well pleased!'"6

Hallelujah! What a Savior! He alone forgives the unthinkable sin and all of our sins! After receiving such a great salvation may we go and sin no more, and may what is unthinkable to God become unthinkable to us as well.


1. Iain Duguid, Notes on Jeremiah in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 1480.

2. Ardel Caneday, Beyond The Bounds, Open Theism And The Undermining Of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 194.

3. Michael L. Brown, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Jeremiah, eds. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 115.

4. Charles L. Feinberg, Jeremiah A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 141.

5. Phillip Graham Ryken, Jeremiah and Lamentations (ESV Edition): From Sorrow to Hope (Preaching the Word) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 144-145.

6. I heard Dr. Russell Moore preach this in a sermon delivered on a Sanctity of Life Sunday.

Joseph Randall is the Pastor of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.

A Call for Gospel Centered Preaching


God saved me at a conference at which John Piper was speaking in Atlanta in 2001. Through his public ministry, Dr. Piper has been one of the most influential men in my life. Last month, he wrote a post, Should We 'Make a Beeline to the Cross'? A Caution for Gospel Centered Preaching, in which he raised a caution about "gospel-centered" preaching. I have concerns about how many might misunderstand or misuse this post. It is probable that John Piper agrees with much or most of what will follow, therefore, this should be received as more of an addition to the discussion than a rebuttal.  

Piper's intentions in his post are not altogether clear. The post contains enough qualifiers or nuance to leave me with the following questions: Does John Piper believe it is appropriate to have sermons with no gospel in them or not cross in them? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have the cross in them if the text does not specifically mention the cross? Is he advocating for sermons that do not have Christ in them if the chosen text does not specifically mention Christ?  

Prior to considering what the Scripture teaches about preaching the cross, I want to start with some points of agreement with truths that Piper affirms in his post. 

First, no text of Scripture should be treated quickly or superficially. Second, We should not give a mere nod to any portion of Scripture. Third, all Scripture is God breathed and profitable that the man of God may be complete. Fourth, we must declare the whole counsel of God.

That being said, I believe that every sermon should contain the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ. Central to the gospel is Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sin. Here are 12 arguments in defense of this thesis.

1. Like Piper, I could not find a source for the beeline quote many have attributed to Spurgeon. However, a cursory reading of Spurgeon's sermons reveal his great love for preaching Christ and Him crucified with incessant frequency. Here are a few Spurgeon quotes that make his views plain on the place of Christ and the gospel in preaching: 

In his Sermons to Soul Winners, Spurgeon explained,

"I believe that those sermons which are fullest of Christ are the most likely to be blessed to the conversion of the hearers. Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified. People have often asked me, "What is the secret of your success?" I always answer that I have no other secret but this, that I have preached the gospel,--not about the gospel, but the gospel,--the full, free, glorious gospel of the living Christ who is the incarnation of the good news. Preach Jesus Christ, brethren, always and everywhere; and every time you preach be sure to have much of Jesus Christ in the sermon."

In Spurgeon's Lectures to My Students, we read,

"Brethren, first and above all things, keep to plain evangelical doctrines; whatever else you do or do not preach, be sure incessantly to bring forth the soul-saving truth of Christ and him crucified." And, "Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren, preach CHRIST, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme." And, "O that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God."

2. Every sermon in the book of Acts contains the person of Christ and the gospel of Christ, every sermon includes reference to  the cross of Christ. The apostolic pattern of preaching is still a pattern of preaching for us today.

3. Every epistle written to God's people by Paul, Peter or the author of Hebrews preeminently centers on the person of Christ and the gospel. This is significant insomuch as that is how we discover what the apostles believed about what should be included in the saints' diet of truth.

4. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom 1:16). Central to the gospel is the cross. To not preach the gospel, therefore, assumes that there are no unbelievers present in the congregation, or it assumes it is unnecessary for  unbelievers who may be present to hear to the gospel.

5. Believers need the gospel because the gospel, produces fruit in the believer's life (Col. 1:5-6). Tim Keller writes, "The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom." In his Commentary on Galatians Martin Luther writes, "Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually."

6. Have you ever wondered why Paul was eager to preach the gospel to Christians? Have you ever wondered why every Spirit inspired writing we have from Paul and Peter to God's people contains in it the the gospel.

7. Since we should take seriously Piper's encouragement not to superficially and quickly deal with any text then we should include with these deep treatments a proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified. Here is what I mean by way of example: Let's say that a preacher's given text for the day is 1 Peter 4:7-9 (the Scripture Piper cited), which deals with self control. Dealing deeply with self-control will bring us face to face with our need for the cross. After a careful treatment on self control, the cross would be a cup of cold water to those of us who have failed to have been as self controlled as we ought--which is all of us. In fact, Peter teaches us that the one who lacks self control and other godly characteristics has forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins, which happens at the cross. Peter, therefore, teaches us that we need a reminder of the cleansing provided by Christ crucified (2 Peter 1:4-11).

We are not not arguing for a reductionistic preaching that only speaks about the cross of Christ. Like Paul, we must declare all of God's counsel. However, we can not say we have preached Christ crucified on any given Sunday if we did not preach Christ crucified. Preaching Christ crucified means preaching Christ crucified.  Paul wrote, "we preach Christ" and "we preach Christ crucified" (Col. 1; 1 Cor. 2:2) He used words to preach the person of Christ and cross of Christ.

8. No matter how mature a saint is on this side of eternity he never gets past his need to hear the good news of Jesus who died by being crucified. When John the apostle was an aged, mature saint on the isle of Patmos, he had a vision of Jesus. John was in the Spirit on the Lord's day. What did Jesus deem necessary for the mature Apostle to hear while in the Spirit on the Lord's day? Jesus said, "Fear not...I died (Rev. 1:17-18). The solution to the fear every saint deals with is found in Christ's words-- "I died."

9. God's word inextricably, continually and explicitly connects sanctification or the living of the Christ life to the gospel of the cross. We cannot treat sanctification or the Christian life atomistically apart from the cross. The apostles do not separate out these subjects in their writings. They are inseparably connected in Scripture. Many, many examples can be furnished from the NT. Here are a few.

Romans 6:1-4:

"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life."

Galatians 2:20:

"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Colossians 2:20:

"If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations."

Ephesians 4:32:

"Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."

Ephesians 5:25-26: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her"

10. When we fall short at fulfilling the many imperatives in God's word--as we surely will--we need to hear the good news of the cross.  Preaching that leaves off the gospel of the cross is preaching that can assume that God's people have a good enough grip on the gospel, particularly when it comes to applying the cross the our failures in all the imperative sections of Scripture. As Piper has explained, "the only sin that can be repented of is a forgiven sin." The good news is necessary in repentance, which is a consummate part of the Christian life. A non-superficial treatment of any text will bring all of us face to face with our need for repentance and the gospel of the cross. None of us grasps the gospel like we should. Peter, after being discipled by Jesus, after Pentecost, stood condemned because his conduct was not line with the gospel. If this can happen to Peter, it can happen to any of us. We must not assume the gospel of the cross with even the most mature among us. We must not assume the gospel with anyone. Assuming the gospel leads to the loss of the gospel.

11. I am not arguing for anything less in our preaching and teaching than that for which Piper was arguing. I am arguing for more. We must not treat any text quickly and superficially. and we must take care so that we can say with Paul, "we preach Christ crucified." We must ensure that we can say that our sermon had that in it which is the power of God unto salvation. Let's make sure that we can say that our sermon had the gospel which produces fruit in the life of the believer. The cross is made explicit in the apostolic preaching and writing. Shouldn't we follow the pattern of the apostles in our preaching week in and week out?.

12. God also uses the preaching of the cross to stir up the saints to take the gospel to the lost, to the nations. As Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." May our preaching aim to have the saints hearts full of the gospel so that they live it, share it with the lost around them and work for it to go to the nations.

Why would we leave out of any sermon that which is the song and saying of the throne room of God in heavenly, corporate worship: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation...Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing" (Rev. 5:9; 12)! The cross is not only the means of sanctifying God's people, but the cross is how God glorifies Himself, which is the chief end of all things.

Stephen Burch is the Pastor of Centrality Church in Asheville, NC

The Incarnate Confrontation


We've all given and received gifts this past year, and I imagine the majority of those gifts were probably intended to be used in some way, not just owned or placed on a shelf unopened. But it's likely you've had that awkward experience of giving a gift designed to be used, and somehow finding out that the recipient hasn't used it, and has no intention of using it, other than re-gifting it at next year's White Elephant party. In some cases you just did a bad job of picking out a gift for that person - but in other cases the realization that your gift isn't being used can be discouraging, even hurtful.

So consider this: God the Father has given you the gift of the incarnation of His Son. But He hasn't given this gift merely to be a truth you take out of a Rubbermaid each December, put up on the shelf to look at, and then put back in the Rubbermaid a few weeks later. He's given it so that you might use it, not just one day or one month, but every day of the year. We should use it as the Bible uses it (both explicitly and implicitly), as a spiritual multi-tool to confront the lacks that we so often see in our lives as we follow Jesus: a lack of self-denying love, a lack of sacrificial generosity, a lack of intentionality, a lack of presence, and a lack of assurance.

In Philippians 2:1ff., Paul uses the incarnation to confront our lack of self-denying love. Paul calls a prideful and selfish church to strive for like-mindedness, humility, and self-denying love. He grounds his commands in the self-emptying humiliation of the incarnation, reminding us that Jesus, who from eternity shared all the divinity, glory, dignity, privileges, and prerogatives of God the Father, did not regard equality with God something to be greedily clung to, but willingly and humbly gave up His rights. Without ceasing to be what He was, He became what He was not - a human in a low and servile condition, coming not to be served but to give Himself away. The mind of Christ is to be the mind of Christ's people. The incarnation confronts all our lovelessness and strife, calling us (in the words of Donald Macleod) to put our petty conflict in the light of this massive theology of the eternal Word become flesh, and to love as we have been loved.

In II Corinthians 8:9, Paul uses the incarnation to confront our lack of sacrificial generosity. He grounds his appeal for the Corinthians to participate in his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem by pointing to the grace of Jesus, who though He was rich, became poor for their sake. Mundane stinginess is met head-on with the profound mystery of the pre-existent, wealthy Son of God divesting Himself of his riches in order to make His people rich in good works. The more we meditate upon Jesus' riches-to-rags story, the more we will realize that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions (cf. Luke 12:15; I Timothy 6:17-19), and we will hold our goods with an open palm instead of a clinched fist, willing and ready to make ourselves less rich to enrich others.

The incarnation also confronts our lack of intentionality in ministry. In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul declares that God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, when the fullness of time had come, according to His intentional, purposeful plan. Not only was all of human history sovereignly orchestrated for the entrance of Jesus, but His incarnation fulfilled God's eternal purpose and all the promises revealed to His people. Beginning in Genesis 3:15, God promised a Savior would come on a mission to undo what Adam had done, and to bring redemption through the shedding of His blood. Now connect the dots: if God sent His Son with plan, intentionality, and mission, and if Jesus says in John 17:18 that He has sent us into the world even as the Father sent Him into the world, then it follows that we too have been sent to live our lives on purpose, with design and deliberateness. We are to take the initiative with others, seeking out the lost even as Jesus sought out Zacchaeus. We are not to resemble a leaf floating aimlessly with the current of life, but a downhill skier who proactively picks her line and aims for the bottom of the mountain with all diligence. The incarnation confronts our lack of intentionality with other people, reminding us to embrace our calling as God's witnesses in every sphere He has placed us.

The incarnation also confronts our lack of presence. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). God didn't only send messengers and give us a book of sacred writings; He sent His Son in the flesh, to be with us and to reveal His glory, grace, and truth in human form. His ministry was one of presence with people, spending time with His disciples and with those who were not His disciples. Sometimes His presence was comforting, sometimes it was confrontational, always it was felt. The incarnation confronts us about our lack of "with-ness," our apathy toward dwelling among others for the sake of the gospel, so that we might create and discover opportunities to bring God's word to bear in the ordinary course of everyday life. It also encourages us by reminding us that our Lord understands the finitude of ministry in the body. He was tired and thirsty in John 4. When He spoke to the Samaritan women at the well, He wasn't in Jerusalem speaking to Nicodemus. His human body could only be in one place at time, just like ours. And so the incarnation comforts us by reminding us that we can't be everywhere all at once, and we can't do everything. So be present where you are, when you are there, and make sure in the course of your ministry to rest and spend time with your heavenly Father, even as Jesus did.

Finally, we must use the incarnation to confront our lack of assurance of salvation. The author to the Hebrews beautifully speaks of Jesus being made like His brethren in every respect, sharing in our flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14ff.). He took a human body and a reasonable soul, becoming like us in every way, sin excepted, not merely to be with us, but to die for us. By His death He has made propitiation for our sins. And because God's holy anger has been placated and His law has been fulfilled, Satan has been rendered powerless. By enduring the curse of the law against sin, Jesus has defanged the great serpent so that he can no longer use the law to accuse us. Death no longer holds us in its enslaving chains, but we have been freed from the fear of death. The incarnation confronts and calms our lack of assurance by reminding us that nothing remains to be paid, we are completely freed from our debts and have nothing to fear from God or our enemies because of the finished work of our incarnate Savior, and we have a Savior who can sympathize with our weaknesses and struggles against sin. Augustus Toplady puts it beautifully: "Complete atonement Thou hast made, and to the utmost farthing paid, whate'er Thy people owed. Nor can God's wrath on me take place when sheltered by Thy righteousness and covered by Thy blood. If Thou my pardon hast secured, and freely in my room endured the whole of wrath divine, payment God cannot twice demand, first from my bleeding surety's hand and then again from mine."

So here is your gift - the incarnation of Jesus! Will you use it every day, to spur yourself on to self-denying love, to sacrificial generosity, to intentional ministry, to a faithful presence, and to an assurance of salvation in the face of all your failures this new year?

We've all given and received gifts this past year, and I imagine the majority of those gifts were probably intended to be used in some way, not just owned or placed on a shelf unopened. But it's likely you've had that awkward experience of giving a gift designed to be used, and somehow finding out that the recipient hasn't used it, and has no intention of using it, other than re-gifting it at next year's White Elephant party. In some cases you just did a bad job of picking out a gift for that person - but in other cases the realization that your gift isn't being used can be discouraging, even hurtful.

So consider this: God the Father has given you the gift of the incarnation of His Son. But He hasn't given this gift merely to be a truth you take out of a Rubbermaid each December, put up on the shelf to look at, and then put back in the Rubbermaid a few weeks later. He's given it so that you might use it, not just one day or one month, but every day of the year. We should use it as the Bible uses it (both explicitly and implicitly), as a spiritual multi-tool to confront the lacks that we so often see in our lives as we follow Jesus: a lack of self-denying love, a lack of sacrificial generosity, a lack of intentionality, a lack of presence, and a lack of assurance.

In Philippians 2:1ff., Paul uses the incarnation to confront our lack of self-denying love. Paul calls a prideful and selfish church to strive for like-mindedness, humility, and self-denying love. He grounds his commands in the self-emptying humiliation of the incarnation, reminding us that Jesus, who from eternity shared all the divinity, glory, dignity, privileges, and prerogatives of God the Father, did not regard equality with God something to be greedily clung to, but willingly and humbly gave up His rights. Without ceasing to be what He was, He became what He was not - a human in a low and servile condition, coming not to be served but to give Himself away. The mind of Christ is to be the mind of Christ's people. The incarnation confronts all our lovelessness and strife, calling us (in the words of Donald Macleod) to put our petty conflict in the light of this massive theology of the eternal Word become flesh, and to love as we have been loved.

In II Corinthians 8:9, Paul uses the incarnation to confront our lack of sacrificial generosity. He grounds his appeal for the Corinthians to participate in his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem by pointing to the grace of Jesus, who though He was rich, became poor for their sake. Mundane stinginess is met head-on with the profound mystery of the pre-existent, wealthy Son of God divesting Himself of his riches in order to make His people rich in good works. The more we meditate upon Jesus' riches-to-rags story, the more we will realize that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions (cf. Luke 12:15; I Timothy 6:17-19), and we will hold our goods with an open palm instead of a clinched fist, willing and ready to make ourselves less rich to enrich others.

The incarnation also confronts our lack of intentionality in ministry. In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul declares that God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, when the fullness of time had come, according to His intentional, purposeful plan. Not only was all of human history sovereignly orchestrated for the entrance of Jesus, but His incarnation fulfilled God's eternal purpose and all the promises revealed to His people. Beginning in Genesis 3:15, God promised a Savior would come on a mission to undo what Adam had done, and to bring redemption through the shedding of His blood. Now connect the dots: if God sent His Son with plan, intentionality, and mission, and if Jesus says in John 17:18 that He has sent us into the world even as the Father sent Him into the world, then it follows that we too have been sent to live our lives on purpose, with design and deliberateness. We are to take the initiative with others, seeking out the lost even as Jesus sought out Zacchaeus. We are not to resemble a leaf floating aimlessly with the current of life, but a downhill skier who proactively picks her line and aims for the bottom of the mountain with all diligence. The incarnation confronts our lack of intentionality with other people, reminding us to embrace our calling as God's witnesses in every sphere He has placed us.

The incarnation also confronts our lack of presence. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). God didn't only send messengers and give us a book of sacred writings; He sent His Son in the flesh, to be with us and to reveal His glory, grace, and truth in human form. His ministry was one of presence with people, spending time with His disciples and with those who were not His disciples. Sometimes His presence was comforting, sometimes it was confrontational, always it was felt. The incarnation confronts us about our lack of "with-ness," our apathy toward dwelling among others for the sake of the gospel, so that we might create and discover opportunities to bring God's word to bear in the ordinary course of everyday life. It also encourages us by reminding us that our Lord understands the finitude of ministry in the body. He was tired and thirsty in John 4. When He spoke to the Samaritan women at the well, He wasn't in Jerusalem speaking to Nicodemus. His human body could only be in one place at time, just like ours. And so the incarnation comforts us by reminding us that we can't be everywhere all at once, and we can't do everything. So be present where you are, when you are there, and make sure in the course of your ministry to rest and spend time with your heavenly Father, even as Jesus did.

Finally, we must use the incarnation to confront our lack of assurance of salvation. The author to the Hebrews beautifully speaks of Jesus being made like His brethren in every respect, sharing in our flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14ff.). He took a human body and a reasonable soul, becoming like us in every way, sin excepted, not merely to be with us, but to die for us. By His death He has made propitiation for our sins. And because God's holy anger has been placated and His law has been fulfilled, Satan has been rendered powerless. By enduring the curse of the law against sin, Jesus has defanged the great serpent so that he can no longer use the law to accuse us. Death no longer holds us in its enslaving chains, but we have been freed from the fear of death. The incarnation confronts and calms our lack of assurance by reminding us that nothing remains to be paid, we are completely freed from our debts and have nothing to fear from God or our enemies because of the finished work of our incarnate Savior, and we have a Savior who can sympathize with our weaknesses and struggles against sin. Augustus Toplady puts it beautifully: "Complete atonement Thou hast made, and to the utmost farthing paid, whate'er Thy people owed. Nor can God's wrath on me take place when sheltered by Thy righteousness and covered by Thy blood. If Thou my pardon hast secured, and freely in my room endured the whole of wrath divine, payment God cannot twice demand, first from my bleeding surety's hand and then again from mine."

So here is your gift - the incarnation of Jesus! Will you use it every day, to spur yourself on to self-denying love, to sacrificial generosity, to intentional ministry, to a faithful presence, and to an assurance of salvation in the face of all your failures throughout this new year?

Caleb Cangelosi is the Associate Pastor of Pear Orchard PCA in Ridgeland, MS

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks


Think back on an exciting time in your life when you were overwhelmed with emotion at the sight of something beautiful, a sudden surprise that captured your attention, or a moment of intense grief that seemed to cause your heart to fail within you. Any scenario we might recall of such intense emotional response pales into insignificance when compared to what the little group of shepherds witnessed the night Christ was born in Bethlehem. What the shepherds saw in the starry night skies was unprecedented in human experience. An angel, escorted by a countless multitude of other heavenly messengers, abruptly and unforgettably intervened in the mundane, working-class existence of the shepherds' lives with a proclamation to rival all other proclamations--the long-awaited Christ, the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, had just been born in nearby Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-14).

After the angels departed back to the glories of heaven, the shepherds' response in Luke 2:15 indicates an ongoing kind of discussion among them in which they reiterated again and again their desire to go to Bethlehem and validate what the angels had declared. They were in full agreement that nothing would detour them from immediately going to find the newly arrived Savior: "Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has make known to us" (Luke 2:15). As soon as possible, the shepherds set out on the two-mile journey from the fields up to the ridge upon which the small town of Bethlehem sat to "see this thing that had happened." The Greek term, "thing" literally means "word" or "reality." In other words, this ragged group understood that they had received a direct word from the living God, and the reality of it was that the Messiah had been born that same day. Such a reality would be verifiable because the angel gave them a "sign" to look for, "a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12).

No time wasted, the shepherds set out to verify the angelic message. Luke 2:16 denotes "they came with haste." They didn't just travel with speed, they searched for this child in the manger with inquisitive eagerness and enthusiasm. Scripture does not reveal exactly how the shepherds search for the holy child and his parents, but it's reasonable to assume they enter the city gates of Bethlehem asking questions: "Does anybody know about a baby being born here tonight? Have you seen a pregnant woman about to give birth? Has a crying baby been heard in the town?" Other babies may have been born the same night as the town was swollen with occupants for the census. These men may have knocked on a few doors throughout the town asking many questions. But they were not searching for any ordinary baby boy. They were searching for a baby lying in a feed trough. Finally, they "found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger" (Luke 2:16). At that moment, as they gazed upon this young girl just having given birth, her husband caring for her, and this newborn child wrapped in rags and lying in a manger, this band of shepherds knew within their hearts that every word of the angelic announcement was absolutely true.

It is unclear how long this band of men lingered with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Luke notes that upon leaving that nothing could restrain them from witnessing to others of the glorious truth they had witnessed. Luke says, "Now when they had seen him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this child" (Luke 2:17). At that moment of belief, the shepherds join Zacharias, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary as witnesses to the greatest news mankind will ever know. What was their instant and abrupt response? They conveyed the story. Can you imagine them running throughout the town sharing the story of the angelic hosts, sharing the story of Joseph and Mary, sharing the story of seeing the baby Jesus lying in a manger, and sharing within everyone that they had met that the Savior, the Messiah, the King? It has been said that this small group of shepherds became, in effect, the first New Testament evangelists. They couldn't restrain themselves from sharing the good news of the advent of heavenly joy.

The response of the people at such magnificent news was marvel and astonishment. Luke tells us, "all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds" (Luke 2:18). The clear indication is that the news being reported by the shepherds was created quite a stir among the citizens of this small Judean town. Sadly, like most good news, the people marveled for a few moments and then went on with their lives. How often we tend to do the same. We are held in momentary amazement of the glory and grace of God, only to quickly get on with our lives. Instead of dismissing the angelic visit as an apparition to be questioned, the shepherds embraced this message from God. They were caught up into wonder and amazement as they took into themselves all the sights of heavenly glory, sounds of celestial worship, words of Joseph and Mary, and the sight of God wrapped in flesh. Their mundane, simple, wearied existence would be changed forever.

The shepherds story is analogous to the Christian life--it begins in the depths of sinful despondency, God invades our lives with the revelation of his gospel, we receive his good news by embracing Christ, and having become witnesses to a divine salvific transformation of our lives we immediately proclaim what has happened to us. This Christmas season, may we be held in the same glorious wonder that spurred the shepherds to widely broadcast the good news that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).


Dustin W. Benge (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is editor of Expositor Magazine, a publication of OnePassion Ministries, and lives with his wife, Molli, in Louisville, Kentucky.


The Statement on SJ&G Explained: Article 14, Racism


[Editorial Note: This is the fourteenth post in a series of posts in which we have invited the authors of "The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel" to expound upon the statement's affirmations and denials. We encourage our readers to take the time to read through our prefatory editorial note at the beginning of the first post prior to reading through subsequent posts in the series.]

Article XIV: Racism

We affirm that racism is a sin rooted in pride and malice which must be condemned and renounced by all who would honor the image of God in all people. Such racial sin can subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory. Such sinful prejudice or partiality falls short of God's revealed will and violates the royal law of love. We affirm that virtually all cultures, including our own, at times contain laws and systems that foster racist attitudes and policies.

We deny that treating people with sinful partiality or prejudice is consistent with biblical Christianity. We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism. We deny that systemic racism is in any way compatible with the core principles of historic evangelical convictions. We deny that the Bible can be legitimately used to foster or justify partiality, prejudice, or contempt toward other ethnicities. We deny that the contemporary evangelical movement has any deliberate agenda to elevate one ethnic group and subjugate another. And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.

As stated in the above affirmation, racism is sin. It is a declaration that seems unambiguous enough on the surface and, dare I say, is one with which hardly anyone today - Christian or not - would disagree. Nevertheless, there is a broader context in which the aforementioned attestation should be understood. Which is to say, it does not suffice merely to declare that "racism is sin" apart from investigating first and foremost what is sin. In other words, what exactly is so significant about this small, three-letter word that makes racism the prideful and malicious attitude it is described as in Article 14 of the Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel?

In considering these and other questions, I am reminded of the Westminster Shorter Catechism[1] where, in Question 14, 'sin' is defined as "any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God." But this definition of 'sin' begets yet another question, namely, what is the "law of God" to begin with? In terms of sheer numbers, God's law consists of several hundred very specific commands given by God to His people throughout the Old and New Testament. Those commands fall, fundamentally, under two categories: 1) how you and I are to relate to God, and 2) how you and I are to relate to one another.

But Christ, whom the Scriptures proclaim is the fulfillment[2] of the law of God, declared[3] that those two categories of commands can, fundamentally, be expressed in two practical ways: love God and love your neighbor. This is an important consideration as racism is often understood primarily in terms of a violation of the second category of God's law (how you and I are to relate to each other) as opposed to the first category (how we are to relate to God)[4].

That racism is viewed chiefly in terms of a contravention of man's standard of morality is why increasing numbers of evangelical Christians, and the churches and ministries they attend and support, are so attracted to a "social gospel" that focuses much of its efforts and resources on remediating the tangible impacts of racism, particularly with regard to reforming its discriminatory structures and institutions, as opposed to the spiritual origins of such a sinfully prejudicial attitude.

It is a mindset that is reflected in the words of author, feminist, and social activist Gloria Jean Watkins, who goes by the pen name 'bell hooks'[5] who, in Ending Hate: Killing Racism, insisted[6] that "There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures."

But notwithstanding the socio-cultural implications and ramifications of racism, whether historical or contemporary, the "structure" that most needs transforming is that of the human heart. It was Jesus Himself who made this congenital reality abundantly clear when, in dealing with the hypocritical legalism of the Pharisees, He declared[7], "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man" (emphasis mine).

The human heart is a structure that is inherently defiled; and the source of that defilement is sin.

Our problem, however, both within and without the evangelical church, is that, in our pride, we simply refuse to see ourselves as the innately defiled creatures we are[8]. Consequently, we continue to embrace the ethical mirage that by transforming the prejudicial and discriminatory structures that exist because of ourselves, we can somehow redeem ourselves from the damage done to ourselves by virtue of the structures we have ourselves constructed. There is no thought that is more antithetical to the gospel than the idea that mankind can somehow save himself from himself. As theologian A.W. Pink exclaimed[9], "Just as the sinner's despair of any hope from himself is the first prerequisite of a sound conversion, so the loss of all confidence in himself is the first essential in the believer's growth in grace (emphasis mine)."

The evangelical church must come to the realization that the "social gospel" is not the answer to the problem of racism. The reason it is not the answer is because racism, nor its myriad effects, is not the real problem. The real problem is defiled human hearts that conceive of the evil and ungodly ideals, philosophies, schemes, and attitudes that give birth to the sinfully prejudicial structures and institutions that are representative of those ideals and philosophies.

In other words, what makes "racism" an "ism" to begin with is sin. Apart from sin, the word race, from which the word racism is derived, remains a static, banal, and inobnoxious noun, as opposed to morphing into the dynamic, bromidic, and poisonous verb it has become; not by osmosis by virtue of external influences, but by inheritance[10] of the sinful nature handed down to the human race by our first parents.

The "paradigm" and "practical model" for the kind of transformation about which Gloria Jean Watkins speaks has already been given to us in the gospel in the words of the apostle Paul[11], who exhorts us to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."

Needless to say, racism is not the "good and acceptable and perfect" will of God. But unless the hearts and minds of those who harbor such sinfully prejudiced and discriminatory sentiments and motives toward others of God's image bearers are transformed by the power of the gospel, they will remain utterly and wholly incapable of either knowing or doing that which is God's "good and acceptable and perfect" will[12].



[2] Rom. 8:3-4

[3] Matt. 22:34-40

[4] Gen. 39:9; Ex. 10:16; Josh. 7:20; Judg. 10:10; Ps. 51:4



[7] Mk. 7:21-23 (NASB)

[8] Gen. 3:1-24, 6:5, 8:21b; Eccl. 7:20; Rom. 3:23

[9] The Wisdom of Arthur W. Pink, Volume 1

[10] The Heidelberg Catechism, Part I: The Misery of Man, Q&A #7:

[11] Rom. 12:2 (NASB)

[12] 1 Cor. 2:14


Darrell Harrison is the Dean of social media at Grace to You, a teaching fellow at the Princeton Seminary Black Theology and Leadership Institute, a US Army veteran, host of the Just Thinking podcast, and an ACBC biblical counselor.

Confessing Christ, Good for the Soul


The importance of confessing the faith can be seen from the earliest days of the church to the present. It was on the occasion of Peter's confession of who Jesus is that Christ said to him:

"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:17-19). 

Stephen in Acts 7, made his public confession of who Jesus is, what he had done, and is doing, and for that, the Jews stoned him to death. Rather than recant the faith, Polycarp testified, "Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?" The split in the church that prompted Augustine to write On Baptism related to the question surrounding those who recant their faith in the face of persecution but later come back to the church. The works of Anselm, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, are works of public confession of the person and work of Christ. The reform movements of the Waldensians, Wycliffe, and Hus, were all born out of efforts to both purify and call for a faithful confession of faith. The Reformation was, in large part, a call for and a test of the Reformers confessions of faith. The list could go on. Church history is littered with examples of the importance of regular, public, and faithful confessions of faith.

While a vital part of the Christian life, it is one aspect which does not receive much attention in the projects of many contemporary systematicians. However, one exception stands out. The short and often overlooked work by Herman Bavinck, The Sacrifice of Praise. He originally wrote it for people in the Netherlands, who had been baptized and were ready to make their faith known publicly. After a person had made their public profession of faith and had for the first time been admitted to the Lord's Supper, it was customary to give the gift of a book. At the turn of the twentieth century this book was among the most popular of gifts. Confessing the faith is necessary, not only at conversion, but in all of life, in words and deeds. It was written to encourage and challenge them towards deeper reflection of the nature of their confession, to tether the reader to Scripture and to the rest of the church. It was written as a deeply thoughtful theological work, but also as a tender pastoral hand to educate and comfort believers, leading the young Christian further up and further into the beauty of Christ and Gospel.

However, Bavinck was not unaware of the fact that making a confession of Christ comes with losses. We will lose a great many things if we faithfully confess the name of Christ. However, the beauty of the Gospel is the promise that in losing these great many things (fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, possessions...), we receive back all that we need and then some. In a long string of Biblical allusions, Bavinck put it this way:

"Whoever has sought after and found the kingdom as a pearl of great price, then also receives all other things. Such a person no longer needs to be concerned, like the Gentiles, and ask anxiously: "What will we eat?" or, "What will we drink?" or, "With what will we be clothed?" For his heavenly Father knows that he needs all of these things. He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for the guilty, will also with him grant us all things. The hairs of our head are all known. Our bread is certain and our water sure. Whoever would follow Jesus must forsake everything. Yet even now, in this life, he already receives again fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and fields, and still in the next age, eternal life. Godliness with contentment is therefore a great gain; it is useful unto all things, having the promise of both for this life and the life to come."

One thing that has been hanging around in my head from this paragraph is that Bavinck reminded us that we are promised these things "Yet even now, in this life..." It seems so strange to think about that. The fact that we promised these things in this life. But where in this life can we say that we have received these things?

Bavinck suggested that we receive these things in the church. When we confess Christ, we are brought into the company of other people who have made the same faithful confession. We are united to them in a bond that runs deep. The waters of baptism are thicker than the blood that runs through our veins. When we confess Christ, we are united not only to Christ but to fellow believers. This union will never end.

Scripture tells us that all other relationships (marriage, family, business...) will come to an end (Matthew 22:30). However, the union that we have with Christ and with other members of the church goes into eternity. Christ will always be our head, and we will always have the brothers and sisters who have faithfully confessed Christ.

Confessing Christ comes with great risk. We may lose friends, family, possessions, status, etc. However, we have been promised these things back both in this life and the life to come. In this life we receive these back in the church. This is why church membership is important. The vows of church membership are serious things. Part of these vows is making a confession of Christ ("I know that I am a sinner and in need of God's grace..."I know that God's grace is only availability to me through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ."). Part of what we do when we take these vows is that we say we are committed to one another. That means we are committed to being fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers. It means that we have open hearts and open homes. It means that our bonds with each other run deep and in many cases deeper than the relationships into which we are born. It means, quite literally, that the church is the fulfillment of Jesus promise that we will receive back all that we lose when we confess Christ's name.

Confessing Christ gives us a new identity and a new people to whom we belong. When we make the confession of Christ, we commit to walking with each other. The deep yearning to belong that lies in all of us, is satisfied in the means of grace that God has provided. Taking the vows of church membership, means more than we often realize. However, when we make a confession of faith, we lose everything, and in the church we get it all back.

Cameron Clausing is the assistant pastor at Parish Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Franklin, TN and a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the Trinitarian theology of Herman Bavinck. He and his colleague, Greg Parker, have a new translation of Bavinck's book A Sacrifice of Praise coming out in 2019. He blogs at

Counselor, Comforter, Keeper?


One exegetical consideration upon which I have never truly been settled is that which concerns the meaning of the word παράκλητος (Paraklete)--as it appears in such places in Scripture as 1 John 2:1 and John 14:16. The list of translation options from which we may choose includes such glosses as Comforter, Counsellor, Advocate, Helper, Keeper and Encourager. I have long been undecided to how to come to a settle opinion about the proper gloss. On the surface, all of these translations have their merit. However, we will only ever determine the meaning of the word based on the context in which it appears in Scripture.

Needless to say, I was delighted to find a treatment of the meaning of this word in Geehardus Vos' Reformed Dogmatics. Vos gave the word two individual meanings, based on its respective exegetical contexts. The first is that which is tied to the teaching of 1 John 2:1. Vos wrote:

"[Jesus] is called our Substitute or Advocate. He is α παράκλητος, Paraclete (1 John 2:1). One should note that the word paraclete is used in a double sense in the New Testament. It is originally a passive form and means 'someone who is called to help'--that is, an advocate. Since, however, an advocate can also take the place of someone whom he helps, the word at the same time also takes on the meaning of "substitute." It is so used of Christ in the passage just cited (1 John 2:1): 'And if anyone sins, we have an advocate (a substituting intercessor) with the Father.' This is the first meaning."1

The second meaning Vos gave the word is associated with Jesus teaching about himself and the Spirit--the other παράκλητος--in John 14. He explained:

"The word is taken in a somewhat different sense when Christ calls Himself 'Paraclete' for believers and promises them the Spirit as another Paraclete (John 14:16): 'And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may be with you forever.' Here the Paraclete is 'counsel-giving advocate.' The Holy Spirit, too, is now called a paraclete in this sense, especially because He fills the place of Christ with believers now that Christ has departed. Of course, the principal work of the Holy Spirit as Paraclete is to bring comfort, but the translation of the word itself as 'Comforter,' however common, appears to be incorrect and cannot be justified. Παρακαλεῖν does mean 'encourage,' 'comfort,' but παράκλητος is a passive, not an active, form. The explanation that most presently give it and that is supported by this active form, namely, 'counselor,' is also that of Augustine, Calvin, Beza, Lampe, and many others. The concept 'comforter' is too narrow."2

While this may not settle the question for everyone, it certainly provides a plausible conclusion based on a careful consideration of the unique biblical contexts in which the Holy Spirit has employed the word παράκλητος; and, that is the heart of all true exegetical labor. 

1. Geerhardus Vos (2012-2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, ... K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 3, pp. 168). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

2. Ibid. pp. 168-169.

Godly (Dis)contentment


Nineteenth-century author and hymn-writer Elizabeth Payson Prentiss lived a life of exemplary faith in the midst of serious trials. For most of her life, she was confined to bed as an invalid, and her husband also suffered from ill health. In 1852, in a period of three months, their two young children died.

Later, Prentiss wrote in a letter: "To love Christ more -- this is the deepest need, the constant cry of my soul. Down in the bowling-alley, and out in the woods, and on my bed, and out driving, when I am happy and busy, and when I am sad and idle, the whisper keeps going up for more love, more love, more love!"

Prentiss bore patiently through extreme trials, and yet her words about Christ sound a lot like something we don't often associate with piety: discontent.

Content, Yet Unsatisfied

Most Christians are, of course, familiar with the command to contentment exemplified in Paul's words: "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil. 4:11). The mind trained by God's Word rightly recoils from grumbling and envy and yearns for satisfaction with all God's ways. We know we ought to be content.

What we may not know is that Christians--even contented ones--also experience righteous discontent. In his classic text on contentment, Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that a Christian is "the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world."

It might seem contradictory to say that we are to be content and discontent at the same time, but the Bible holds both to be true. Because we live in a fallen world and because we are not yet arrived at our eternal home, we will necessarily--and rightly--be discontent in some areas:

Our knowledge of God. Like Elizabeth Prentiss, our highest desire in all of life is to know and love our Lord more. And in this life, we will always be peering intently at glorious truth reflected in a scratched mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). We are content, but we are unsatisfied.

Wickedness in the world. It is right for us to be frustrated when ungodliness abounds. As the psalmist writes, "My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law" (Ps. 119:136). When people around us profane the name of the Lord and wholly reject his Word, we are discontent--not because it's inconvenient to us but because it's rebellion against our God.

Our own sin. Until the day of Christ's return, when we are made perfect in holiness, we will always be dissatisfied by our own sinful actions. Paul voices this godly discontent in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (v. 19). Every time we speak harshly to our children or fail to worship God we ought to be frustrated by our lack of holiness.

Godly Discontent

The unsatisfied Christian life--what William Barcley calls "godly discontent"--bears little resemblance to the discontent of our ungodly neighbors.

Our ungodly neighbors are frustrated with their circumstances but unconcerned about God's glory. Their discontent with traffic and test scores overflows into grumbling, envy, and anxiety. Life's difficult circumstances only serve to entrench their hatred of God and his ways.

The Christian, on the other hand, trusts that God will accomplish all his holy will in and through our circumstances. And our holy discontent always draws us closer to him.

Interestingly, this godly discontent actually leads the Christian to greater contentment. Barcley writes, "If sin is our greatest burden, all other burdens are made lighter." When we are faced with frustrating circumstances--when our plans fall through and the rain clouds mount on the horizon--we should make God's glory our first concern. Whatever our circumstances, no matter how disappointing, the thought of disappointing our God is even more pressing.

The psalmist in Psalm 73 is so intent on seeking God that he calls it his only desire: "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (vv. 25-26).

He isn't saying, of course, that there is literally nothing else he desires. He is saying that, by comparison, every other desire seems like nothing. He is content, but he is unsatisfied.

Like the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, we are those who don't always have our right desires satisfied in this life, but who are constantly "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (v. 10). And in this hope, we rest content.

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from Megan Hill's new book Contentment: Seeing God's Goodness (P&R, 2018), a 31-day devotional for Christians seeking to cultivate contentment.

Megan Hill is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of Contentment: Seeing God's Goodness (P&R, 2018) and Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway/TGC, 2016). You can follow her on Twitter.

Retribution and Redemption

Last month, Pope Francis expressed his opinion that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases. At the same time as he took his public stand, a series of popular opinions circulated online about whether or not the death penalty was to be viewed as valid as a Christian position. The better part of those who were vocal on the Twittersphere, also rushed to state unequivocally that they believe that the death penalty is always an illegitimate form of justice. The prevalent opinion was that the death penalty is, in fact, an inhumane form of civil punishment that the church ought not support. In response to these assertions, some raised appropriate questions concerning how accepted definitions of justice are formed. However, as I watched this unfold, one thought constantly reentered my thinking--namely, why did God sanction the death penalty as a principle of retribution against murder in the anti-diluvian revelation? The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on those who reject the death penalty to explain the purpose of the death penalty as a Divinely sanctioned form of retribution in Genesis 9:5-6. 

When we approach this subject, we have to first recognize that the death penalty has its origin in God's dealings with Noah and those who stepped off of the Ark with him. Immediately after the flood, God said:

"For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."

Since there is nothing arbitrary about God's revelation, and since we must seek to understand each and every thing that He breathed out in Scripture in context, we must seek to understand the reason why God made this declaration as soon as Noah and those with him stepped onto the newly created world. 

The first important exegetical consideration concerns that which transpired leading up to the flood. In Genesis 6:11-13, we read, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.'" In one very real sense, we can say that the flood was itself a Divinely appointed typological cosmic death penalty. The Apostle Peter draws out the typology when he explained that the flood was a type of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-7). Without wishing to get into debates over global or local flood theories, the point is that God destroyed all flesh from the face of the earth on account of the violence that filled the earth. The depravity of man was so extensive after the table of nations (Gen. 10) that the Lord brought the pre-diluvian world to an end in this watery judgment. 

The second important exegetical consideration is that which regards the heart of man before and after the flood. In Genesis 6:5-7 we read, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens." The depravity of the hearts of men is what precipitated the retributive floodwaters. However, in Genesis 8:21, immediately after Noah sacrificed an acceptable sin offering to the Lord, we read, "Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done." Here, God makes a starkly different response to the problem of depravity in the human heart. After all, the flood waters could cleanse the earth externally but could never cleanse what was inside the human heart. 

The third important exegetical consideration comes in connection with these first two considerations. In the place of a worldwide judgment, God instituted the death penalty. Knowing that men would continue to act out the depravity of their hearts in murderous ways, God purposed to give a restraining grace to humanity on the whole. God had just entered into covenant with Noah and with all of creation--securing the stage of redemption--and promising His mercy to every subsequent generation of mankind. If one of Noah's descendants had decided to go on a murder spree, the human race and the promise of the coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15) would have been eradicated. Jesus was in the loins of Noah, so to speak. The nations were also in the loins of Noah. Noah stood as a second Adam, the head of a newly created humanity standing in a typical new creation--though far from being the consummated new heavens and new earth. In order to secure the populating of the earth and to accommodate the goal of bringing about the nations out of which He would redeem His elect, the Lord established the death penalty. 

This is, of course, not the only redemptive-historical rationale for the death penalty. The Apostle Paul tied together the importance of the death penalty in Israel's civil law when he appealed to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 in his theological significance of Christ's death. In Galatians 3:13, Paul cited Deut. 21:23, stating, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." The hanging of an individual who had committed a crime worthy of death was followed by the public display of the retribution of God. Jesus was treated as the disobedient and rebellious son--as a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19)--and hung on a tree so that we might escape the final retribution of God on judgment day. In short, if there were no death penalty, there would be no redemption. If Christ had not died a criminal's death on the cross, we would suffer the just punishment of our sins for all of eternity. As the answer to Heidelberg 38 explains, "Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us." The restraining factor of the death penalty ultimately moved to the redeeming factor. As the death penalty served the populating of the nations, so it further served the accomplishment of the atonement. 

While arguments can and will be made either for or against the continuation of the death penalty, these explanations as to its origin and purposes should never be lost on us. To reject or forget them will inevitably lead us to the place where we will ultimately be unable to explain the divine insistence on retributive justice and the history of the work of redemption Scripture. 

A Church Growth Discipline


By God's grace, the church I shepherd has experienced phenomenal growth over the last 15 years. I am often asked what has brought the growth? I am hesitant to answer that question because only God really knows why He has provided this season of growth. I am also reluctant because numerical growth is no validation of any ministry faithfulness. I usually say I do not really know, but I do know some of the things God has used as a catalyst for growth in our congregation. Then one of the things I mention is church discipline. The response is usually a confused look on the face of the person to whom I am speaking. For many, that answer does not make sense. What is less user-friendly than church discipline?

It is even possible that some reading this article may have never even heard of church discipline since the practice of discipline is largely absent today in evangelical churches. I would define church discipline as a vital aspect of Christian discipleship (disciple and discipline have a common Latin source) whereby the congregation lovingly acts help, heal, restore, and liberate wayward members of the body whose actions or teaching subverts the gospel and destroys the witness of the church. The goals of discipline are the good of the one being disciplined, the honor of God, the restoration of the disciplined member, and the gospel integrity of the church. If pleading, prayers, and correction over a long period of time does not lead to repentance, then the church rightly affirms exclusion of the unrepentant from the membership of the church. Most cases of discipline never make it to the congregation because there is genuine repentance in the process (see, Matt 16:19, 18:15-20, Rom 16:17-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13, 2 Cor 7:8-11, Gal 6:1, James 5:20, 2 Thess 3:6, 14-15, 1 Tim 5:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).

Church discipline, rightly done, is a positive, loving, and necessary action of the church for discipleship. Church discipline is done for the purpose of restoration, not exclusion. Church discipline is never carried to its conclusion because someone sins. Exclusion from the membership only happens because the wayward member scorns the corrective love of the church and persists in unrepentant sin. The church determines repentance of the one under discipline and not the individual. The church must reject an unloving false leniency which excuses all behavior under the banner of "All have sinned" (Rom 3:23) and "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7). The church must also reject unloving severity in discipline that stops seeking the good of the offender and simply wants vengeance. As Andrew Fuller wrote, "Love is the grand secret of discipline, and will do more than all other things put together towards ensuring success."

Let me give one example of how church discipline has been a catalyst for growth at the church I have the privilege to shepherd. Many years ago, we found out one of our young adult members was pregnant out of wedlock. If the young man had been a church member, we would have called him to repentance as well, but he was not.  We immediately connected with her to see how she was doing and to pray for her. We assured her of our support during the pregnancy and also talked to her about repentance regarding her sin. She balked at the idea of needing to repent and definitely at the notion of public confession, which we suggested since her pregnancy was going to be a public matter in the church community. We all continued to pray for her and women from the church reached out to her in love. As time went on, she softened and eventually called us to say she wanted to confess her sin publicly and ask the congregation for forgiveness.

She did so on a Sunday morning at the end of the service. People stood up, wept for joy, and applauded the gospel courage of this young woman. A forgiven people are eager to forgive. After her confession, I said to the congregation that the matter had been dealt with and we would do nothing but support her and celebrate the child in her womb. I added that if anyone from this point forward gossiped about the situation or otherwise treated her in an unloving manner, then we would come to them and call for their repentance. She was loved as she had never been loved before by the congregation with support, help, and encouragement. Some ladies provided a baby shower and many consistently asked her how she was doing.

Consider what would have happened if we would have handled that situation the way many churches respond. Everyone talking about it in hushed tones in the corner, smiling when she walks by, and then continuing the gossip when she is out of sight. The young lady would have lived in shame and isolation if we had done that. Few would have reached out to her for fear of seemingly condoning her sinful choices. In fact, that kind of shame, hidden sin culture, often creates a context that tragically pushes young women in the direction of the abortion clinic. How much better it is to lovingly have honest conversations and create an opportunity to celebrate the power and triumph of the gospel.

After that Sunday, and others like it, I have countless church members say how powerful a moment like that is  and how it causes them to delight all the more in the gospel and challenges them to honestly own up to their own sins. On the occasion of the young ladies public repentance a visitor told me they knew at that moment Ashland was the church for them because it was a place where "Jesus changes everything" is not just a slogan but a living gospel culture. As one lady said to me, "This place is real. Nominal Christianity had lulled me into lethargy as if it was all there was out there." The young lady who repented wrote me a letter a couple of years later after she had moved away that said, "Before, I believed the gospel message, but I had never felt and experienced gospel love like that before. All I can say is thank you." Of course, not all situations end as beautifully as that one, but all of them are an indispensable aspect of Christian discipleship.

Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" and is often quoted as if it merely suggests that Christ shows up when we gather together for worship. The verse is actually more specific. It is  a beautiful promise of the presence of Christ in the hard work of church discipline when it is properly done as an expression of Jesus' authority. What an encouragement! Also, it should cause us to ponder what it say about churches that refuse to practice discipline? In Matthew 18:20, Jesus makes a direct promise of his presence regarding church discipline, "there I am among them," and at the end of Matthew he does the same after giving the Great Commission he says, "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20). One promise seems to anticipate the other as indispensable acts of faithfulness in His churches. Yes, church discipline can help your church grow.

Ascension Matters


Evangelical Christians often spend time considering all the benefits won for us on the cross and in the resurrection but spend little time pondering how the ascension further secures and confirms these salvific benefits. We typically give little thought to the question: How does Christ's ascension into heaven benefit us? (Heidelberg Catechism Q.49). In this post*, we hope to consider this very issue in order to better understand how central the ascension to salvation.

The general failure to understand the importance of the ascension for the life of the believer leads to a truncated view of soteriology and the application of soteriology. While there is always the looming danger that we existentialize the objective truths of Christianity, making them mere subjective realities, there is the opposite danger that we as believers fail to recognize that these objective realities that happened to Christ in history have occurred for the benefit of those who are in union with Christ. As believers, we cannot contemplate what God has done 'in the fullness of time' without our hearts being warmed. We recognize that Good has brought the benefits of this once-for-all work unto us in order to nullify all human effort, boasting, and self-glorification. Similarly, we cannot contemplate what has been done for us in the application of salvation, without immediately considering that God has accomplished the benefits in the once-for-all of the work of Christ at the center of history.

The Ascension as an Event in the History of Salvation

At the core of salvation history is the work of the Triune God in the death-resurrection-ascension[of Christ]-and Pentecost. This event complex is divided into the two states of Christ: (1) his humiliation and (2) his exaltation. While it is certainly true that Christ cried out on the cross "It is finished", referring to his self-offering as the sacrifice to pay for sin, Christ's role in redemption continues. Just as Paul might say about the resurrection "if Christ has not been are still in our sins" (1 Cor. 15:17), so too, we might say about the ascension "if Christ has not ascended into heaven itself, we are still in our sins." Even after the work on the cross, there remains the phase of Christ's exaltation in order to apply the benefits of redemption. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck has wisely stated, "Without application, redemption is not redemption" and "In his state of exaltation there still remains much for Christ to do."1 

The Ascension and Christ's Kingship in Glorified Humanity.

Hebrews is arguably one of the most Christological books of the New Testament. It is an exposition of the person and work of Jesus as the Son of God. From the very beginning the book of Hebrews is concerned with the reality of ascension of Jesus Christ and the implications that flow from this reality. We find the Son is the one whom the Father "appointed heir of all things" (1:2) and has now "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (1:3). He is the Son ascended.

The Son in his humanity was at one time lower in status than the angels. But now, after his suffering death, in his humanity he has been exalted up and crowned to rule over them and all of God's creation. He fulfills the Adamic vice-regency and the kingly mediatorship that was given to David and David's descendants. The eternal Son now incarnate fulfills the role that God intended for all humanity in the first Adam. The point is that in the exaltation (both resurrection and ascension) Jesus Christ as a true man is crowned with glory and honor.2 It is this Son, in the experience of true humanity that the Father says "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet".

The Ascension and Christ's Appointment to Priesthood

Not only is Christ's ascension into heaven his coronation to kingship on our behalf, Hebrews gives attention to how Christ's session at the right hand of God fulfills his work as our high priest. He is fully designated and coronated as high priest. He is the high priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:15; 8:1-2). Jesus Christ can only enter the Holy Place after he has accomplished our redemption. "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-12).

The greater more perfect tent that Jesus enters is heaven itself. In the Old Testament "Day of Atonement" the sacrifice was made and then the high priest would proceed into the Holy of Holies to make intercession. So too with Christ, the blood of Christ was shed first so that Christ could go before the throne of God. Recently L. Michael Morales has shown how the book of Leviticus and the whole Pentateuch centers on the ascension offering at the Day of Atonement. The high priest is a cultic Adam who having offered the sacrifice "ascends" into the house of God.3 In the Septuagint, Aaron's Ephod was one of 'glory and honor,' echoing the Adamic language we find in Ps. 8 and Heb 2:6-8.4

The Ascension and the New Covenant.

The ascension of Christ guarantees to us that the New Covenant has begun. It is the oath of the priesthood given to him that makes him "the guarantor of a better covenant" (Heb. 7:22). Christ's ascension into heaven guarantees the oath is fulfilled. Christ is mediating the new covenant. Because it is into the greater tabernacle, the true tabernacle and not the earthly shadow, the ascension guarantees that Christ is mediating a greater covenant than the Old Covenant of the Law. "Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man" (Heb. 8:1-2).

In the Old Testament, as well as Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic texts, heaven is the throne of God. It is the true sanctuary where the earthly tabernacle or temple is a copy of what was in heaven. Moses made it after the pattern he was shown in heaven. The one on earth is a shadow cast by the real tabernacle of heaven itself that God made (Heb. 8:5). We are assured then that Christ is the mediator of something better, a greater covenant than the Old Covenant, because he has entered in ascension to God's right hand. If the earthly tabernacle was symbolic of God's house with a throne is the holy of holies, then heaven is the place of God's true and ultimate throne. Consider the following passages out of Hebrews that speak to this:

"But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." (Heb. 8:6)

"But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption." (Heb. 9:11-12)

"Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant." (Heb. 9:15)

Christ is the greater covenant sacrifice by his death made on the cross but because he enters into the greater tabernacle, heaven itself, Christ's ascension has secured that the covenant is effective. To secure the effects of the mediation of the New Covenant the sacrificed one enters into the true tabernacle. The parallel to the Day of Atonement is striking: the sacrifice was made on the altar but then carried into the holy of Holies so that it could be placed before God's throne. So Christ dies on the cross but enters in glorified humanity offering himself before God in the throne room, 'cleansing the tabernacle' so we can draw near to God (Heb. 9:23-24). Even more, Hebrews overlaps this Day of Atonement imagery with the covenant inauguration imagery from Exodus 24. Just as Moses cleansed the people to put a covenant into effect, Christ cleanses us, entering heaven to sit down having finished his work (10:10-14). Christ is the greater Moses who has inaugurated the greater covenant in his ascension.

Whom Have I in Heaven But Thee?

"For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father's face as our constant advocate and intercessor [Heb. 7:25; 9:11-12; Rom. 8:34]. Thus, he turns the Father's eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father's heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father's throne." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.16)

The Bible teaches us that we cannot enjoy a relationship to God apart from Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. As a sinner, in order to be saved by grace, I need a high priest who has entered heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. God is the ruler who is exalted over all things, who 'reigns from heaven,' but we cannot approach the throne of his glory. We need the incarnate glorified Jesus to go before God the Father so that we might draw near to the Father.

The ascension is a beautiful doctrine. Its truth needs to resonate deep within our heart. It shapes our prayers and it defines our hope. We need to return again to understand the rich benefits of grace that flow from the fact that Christ has ascended into heaven on our behalf.


[1] Richard Gaffin, "Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards," The Practical Calvinist: An introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, (Ed. Peter Lillback; Christian Focus Publications, 2002) 430. The first quote comes from Herman Bavinck Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: Kok, 1976) 3:520 "Dempta application, redemption non est redemption" [Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006) 523-4]; the second quote from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, p.568.

[2] I have argued more extensively for  the Second Adam features in Hebrews 2 in Timothy J. Bertolet, "Obedience of the Son: Adamic Obedience as the Grounds for Heavenly Ascension in the Book of Hebrews" (Ph.D. diss, University of Pretoria, 2017) ch. 4, pp. 157-242.

[3] L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Leviticus (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2015) 28-38, 167-184, esp. 175-6 & 182.

[4] Similarly, G.K. Beale has shown that Adam in the garden is both a king and a priest (Temple and the Church's Mission [Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004] 66-68)

*This is a digested version of a longer treatment by the author on the theological significance of the ascension. You can download the unedited version here

Imagine There's No Hell

At the Desiring God 1990 Pastor's Conference, Sinclair Ferguson gave a talk titled, "The Biblical Basis for the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment." It is, without doubt, one of the most significant treatments of the doctrine of hell that I have ever heard. At the outset of that lecture, Ferguson told the following story: 

"A number of years ago, certainly within the lifetime of all of us present in this room, one of the royal princesses of the realm coming out of a cathedral service in England spoke to the dean of the chapter of the cathedral, and said to him, 'Is it true, dean, that there is a place called Hell?' To which the dean apparently replied, 'Madame, the Scriptures say so, Christian people have always believed so, and the Church of England confesses so.' To which she responded, 'Then in God's name, why do you not tell us so?'" 

If the princess' sentiment was an adequate reflection on the preaching in churches in the Western world so many decades ago, it is certainly true of preaching in the church today. Despite a paucity of biblical preaching on the doctrine of eternal punishment, there remains no shortage of attacks on the idea of preaching about the doctrine of hell. Carving out a caricature of conservative Southern pastors, Andy Stanley recently sounded off about his aversion to the idea of preaching about hell. He said: 

"Have you ever heard preachers (well, you have if you grew up in the South)...have you ever heard preachers rant about sin? It's like they're angry at sinners, they're angry about sin, they're just judgmental--they're angry at sinners and happy about hell (audience laughter)? That's Old Covenant thinking that leaked in. That's mix and match. That's an Old Covenant prophet railing against the nation of Israel, "And God is going to judge you," "And God is going to get you." It's Old Testament. It's Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, do you know what we discover? That sin doesn't make God angry." 

I'm not sure what's worse--the fact that Andy Stanley tagged every minister who happens to be Southern, who hates sin and who preaches about eternal punishment as an angry, judgmental bigot who loves hell or that he threw the Old Covenant prophets in the same basket. 

Whatever one may think about his statement, it is clearly en vogue, in our day, for false teachers to mock the biblical teaching on eternal punishment, every chance they get. The mocking of eternal punishment became something of a trend among former evangelicals when Rob Bell responded to the insistence that Ghandi was in hell back in 2011:

"Gandhi's in hell? He is? We have confirmation of this? Somebody knows this? Without a doubt? And that somebody decided to take on the responsibility of letting the rest of us know?" 

The irony is that while Bell was subtly denying the idea of a place of eternal punishment altogether when he utilized his series of rhetorical questions, he was simultaneously affirming the reality of the existence of such a place. As John Lennon suggested, denying the reality of hell is "easy if you try." But that's the point, isn't it? You have to try and imagine there isn't a place of eternal punishment in which the justice and wrath of God is displayed on the unrighteous for all of eternity, precisely because there is such a place. Which is what makes Stanley's statements so perplexing. It's as if he believes that God somehow did away with a place of eternal punishment--a place that he, at one and the same time, seems to affirm existed prior to Christ coming into the world to saved his people from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10). 

A few days ago, Rachel Held Evans took to Twitter to mock an important point that Tim Keller made about eternal punishment and the cross. Keller had written, "Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you." Clearly missing the theological import of Keller's statement, Evans responded, "I will never understand a worldview in which one's security in Christ is dependent upon the eternal torture of millions of men, women, and children in hell. 'Well at least it's not me' is not a faith rooted in love, but a faith rooted in selfishness and fear.'" Though a terribly twisted misrepresentation of the intent of Keller's statement, Evans is correct about this much: the issue of the importance of the doctrine of hell is the issue of security in Christ. In other words, "From what does Jesus save us (secure us)? and "For what does Jesus save us (secure us)?" If we don't know the biblical teaching about that which Jesus saves us from, we will never adequately begin to grasp the greatness of the love that compelled him to die to secure that which he saves us for

The other issue that Evans fails to see is that Keller, in highlighting the love of Christ, is emphasizing the conjunction of justice and mercy in the death of Christ. In Cur Deus Homo, Anselm--the great eleventh century theologian--captured the essence of this conjunction when he He wrote: 

"The mercy of God, which seemed to disappear when we considered the justice of God and the sin of man, is so great, and so consistent with justice, that we can think of nothing greater or more just. For what can be conceived more merciful, than, when the sinner has been condemned to eternal torments, and has nothing by which to redeem himself, God says, 'Take My Only-begotten Son, and give Him for yourself:' and the Son Himself says, 'Offer Me and redeem yourself?'...Again, what can be conceived more just than that He to whom is offered a Price greater than all the debt, should, if it be offered with the due disposition, forgive the whole debt?"

On the cross, the eternal Son propitiated (i.e. removed) the eternal wrath due to those who have sinned against the eternal God by himself falling under that wrath and suffering the equivalent of eternal punishment in the place of his people. We will never begin to adequately understand Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me" (Matt. 27:26), until we come to terms with the fact that we deserve to be forsaken by God for all eternity on account of our sin (Matt. 25:46). After all, one sin against an eternal being necessarily has eternal consequences. We will never understand what Jesus experienced when he said, "I thirst," until we first hear what he said about the rich man in torments in Hell (Luke 16:24). Jesus warned repeatedly about the reality of eternal punishment under the figure of being cast into "outer darkness" where there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). As J. Gresham Machen once noted, "These words were not spoken by Augustine, or by George Whitefield, or by Jonathan Edwards, but by Jesus of Nazareth."

If there is no hell then there is no need for the atoning sacrifice of the eternal Son of God. If there is no hell, we should draw the same conclusion that the Apostle Paul drew when he put forward the logical implications of the resurrection: "If the dead do not rise, 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'" (1 Cor. 15:32)! If there is no eternal punishment, then there is no magnification of the love of God. As the Apostle explained in Romans 5:8-10, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him." If there is no eternal wrath of God removed by the blood of Jesus then there is no eternal love of God demonstrated in the death of Christ. 

If we are to faithfully herald the love of Christ which passes knowledge, we must faithfully and compassionately herald the wrath of God which passes comprehension. We don't help anyone see their need for the eternal life and blessedness that comes to us by faith alone in Christ alone, if we deny, downplay or disregard the reality of eternal death and destruction that we deserve on account of our sin. Far from being judgmental or selfish, preaching about eternal punishment in order to magnify the grace and mercy of God in Christ crucified and risen is the most loving, compassionate and God-honoring thing a minister can do. May God raise up a generation of pastors and preachers who will faithfully proclaim the wrath to come in order to hold up the One who died to save his people from that wrath.

The Incomparable Conjunction of Love and Wrath

I was recently reading John Murray's profoundly enriching sermon, "The Father's Love"--in the newly released volume of his sermon, O Death, Where is Thy Sting?--and was struck afresh with the wonder of the mystery of the commingling of the Father's love and wrath in His dealings with the Son on the cross. This greatest of all subjects received quite a good deal of attention last year, after Tim Keller tweeted out the following sentiment: "If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness." While I certainly share the concern of those who reacted swiftly to the idea that the Son lost the Father's love when He hung on the cross, I was disheartened to see how many of the responses lacked a strong focus on the simultaneity of the manifestation of the Father's eternal love and divine wrath directed to the Son when He hung on the cross. In his sermon on Romans 8:32, however, Murray held these two seemingly incompatible truths inseparably together. 

When he first gave consideration of the words of the text, "spared not His own Son," Murray explained:

"The Father loved the Son with infinite and immutable love because he did not cease to be the only begotten Son, and the infinite love necessarily flowed out from the very relationship that he essentially and immutably sustained to God the Father" (76). 

Murray insisted that we must distinguish between the two kinds of love that the Father had for the Son. The first is that immutable, "infinite love that flows out from the Father to the Son because of the intrinsic relationship that they sustain to one another" (75) The second is "the love of complacency that flowed out with increasing intensity to the Son because of His fulfillment of the Father's commission" (75). This second kind of love that the Father had for the Son is captured in the words of Christ in John 10:17: "Therefore, the Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again." From this, we must conclude that the Father loved the Son incarnate the most, precisely at the moment when he was voluntarily laying down His life in connection with the command of His Father in the counsels of eternity. Murray noted:

"Every detail of the suffering endured by the Son constrained the love and delight of God the Father because it was all endured by the Son in obedience to the Father's will and--in the performance of the Father's will--the Son committed no sin." 

There is, however, "an incomparable conjunction" at the cross--"an unheard-of conjunction: infinite love and divine wrath." The Son becomes the object of the commingling of the love of the Father and the unmitigated wrath of the Father. "The essence of sin's curse and judgment," stated Murray, "is the wrath of God. So, if Jesus bore sin and if he bore our curse and if he was made sin, then the vicarious fearing of the wrath of God belongs to the very essence of his atoning accomplishment" (78). Here we see that the doctrine of propitiation is of the very essence of the truth of the Gospel. 

Murray further developed the mystery of the meaning of the conjunction of the manifestation of the Father's infinite love and divine wrath at the cross in this sermon, when he noted: 

"The truth is that it is just because the Son was the object of this immutable, infinite, and unique love that he could at the same time be the subject of the wrath of God... (78)

...It was only because the Son was the object of the Father's unique and immutable love that He could be thus abandoned. No other would be equal to it. The lost in perdition will be abandoned eternally, but not one of them will be able to of have occasion to say, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" The abandonment of Christ on Calvary's tree was abandonment in pursuance of the commission given him by the Father, and it was abandonment with the unparalleled effect of ending that abandonment. And because it was abandonment with this result, it was abandonment with inimitable agony and reality...(79)

...The determinate purpose of the Father's love was the explanation for the spectacle of the Son's death. But the love that the Father bore to the Son did not diminish the severity of the ordeal that creates this spectacle--the ordeal of the cross and the abandonment vicariously born" (79). 

The Father's love for those for whom the Son bears His wrath is set against the background of this wondrous conjunction of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son. Murray noted, "The Father loved His people with such invincible love and purpose that he executed the full toll, the full stroke, of their condemnation upon His own Son. That is the Father's love" (77).

All of this should, of course, make us "stagger with amazement...the amazement of believing and adoring wonder" (77). When we come to understand that the Father loved the Son the most while making the Son the object of His full and unfettered wrath--as He stood in our place as our substitutionary sacrifice--our hard hearts are melted. It is the "incomparable conjunction" of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son that enables believers to grasp something of the greatness of the love that the Father has for us. 

The Church Jesus Attends


A friend of mine was recently speaking to a pastor of a large congregation about how things were going in ministry. This particular pastor proceeded to tell my friend that a prominent public figure was coming to speak at the church he pastored. He then went on to boast about the large turnout that they expected at this event. To this, my friend said, "Oh yeah. Jesus comes to our church every Sunday." Though some might consider this to be a flippant, cynical or juvenile response, it is, in fact, one of the most under-acknowledged and under-appreciated truths to cherish. In every church where the word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the sacraments are rightly observed and discipline is administered, God has promised to attend His people with His presence. 

The true and living God has promised to manifest His presence when His people gather together to worship Him according to His appointed means of grace on the Lord's Day. If we really believed that God manifests His presence in a special way in the gathered assembly, we would prepare ourselves accordingly to come into His presence. We would prayerfully desire to come every Lord's Day in brokenness, humility, thankfulness and joy. We would, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, "draw near with boldness" (Heb. 4:16) as we come to worship Him in "reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28).

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul explained that Christ "came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near" (Eph. 2:17). The question is, "When did Jesus go to the church in Ephesus and preach to those who would come to believe the Gospel?" There is only one possible answer. Christ was present in the preaching of the Gospel through the ministers He appointed. When the word is faithfully preached, Christ is preaching. The Apostle Peter explained this when he referred to Gospel ministers as "those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Peter 1:12). The Holy Spirit is none other than "the Spirit of Christ" who spoke in the Old Testament prophets about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that follow (1 Peter 1:10-11). It was "by the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18) that Jesus went and preached to those who were on the earth "in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20). Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) through whom Christ was preaching by the Holy Spirit. So it is with those men whom Christ has commissioned to preach today. Whenever Gospel ministers are preaching the word of God to the people of God through the Spirit of God, Christ is preaching through them. In a very real sense, in every true church where the word is faithfully proclaimed, the risen and reigning Christ is the minister who is preaching salvation and judgment.

The people of God should love Lord's Day worship more than anything because of the confident anticipation that they are going to hear from God. The late Professor John Murray gave the following observation about God's word:

"The Scripture is God speaking--as if we heard the word of God directly from heaven...I suppose that if we were told that at a certain location, on a certain day, at a certain hour a voice was to be heard from heaven--I suppose that if that were plainly certified...I am sure that all that community would be filled with people from hundreds of miles away. They would come from countries. I don't suppose that the fields would hold them. They would be there out of curiosity, if for no other reason. And yet, in the Scripture we have the voice of God just as surely as if God the Father spoke directly from heaven in an audible voice. And it is more sure (2 Peter 1:19) because it is more permanent...with the Scripture there is a permanent deposit and it is the voice of God with continuousness. And, it is the voice of God just as if we heard God speaking to us directly from heaven."1

We should also acknowledge that Jesus is present at the table when believers are gathered together in worship to feed on him by faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the corporate nature of the Lord's Supper in chapter 29.3:

"The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation."

The corporate nature of the Supper is taught in 1 Corinthians when the Apostle came to address matters of the Supper. Paul repeatedly uses the phrase "when you come together," after explicitly tying the observation of the Super to the weekly assembly on the Lord's Day. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, he writes, "When you come together as a church..." After that, he repeats the phrase, "when you come together" three times (1 Cor. 11:20, 33 and 34). If there is any question about the meaning of this phrase, Paul again uses it when addressing how we are to conduct ourselves in the worship service (1 Cor. 14:26).

Then in WCF 29.7, we find the doctrine of the real, spiritual presence of Christ at the table when the divines assert the following:

"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."

There is the promise of the covenant blessing of God attached to the worthy partaking of the sacrament. Paul writes, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). There is also the promise of covenant curses attached to the unworthy partaking of the sacrament in the warnings of 1 Cor. 11:27-32.

Finally, there is the promise of Jesus being present when the church gathers to carry out discipline, according to his word. Murray again explained:

"Many have more respect for the presence of people than the presence of the Savior. And, if numbers are the criteria for our esteem for the presence of God then we miss entirely the comfort of our Lord where he says, 'Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them.'"2

Jesus is highlighting the collective nature of the judicial pronouncement of the elders of his church when he promises to make his presence known in this context. It is with a view of the church collectively conceived (Matt. 18:17)--making a judgment about the spiritual condition of a professing believer who refuses to repent. Jesus is promising his presence to the gathered assembly who are seeking to obediently carry out his ordained process of discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:3-5).

Jesus Christ is the King and the only head of the church. He mediates the presence of God to his people when he stands in the midst of the people of God who are gathered together to worship the living God. Jesus acts as the worship leader of the people of God (Heb. 2:12). He stands as the great High Priest of the Church, making the worship, prayers and praises of his people acceptable before the throne of God (Rev. 1:12-20). Whenever the people of God are gathered together to worship God in Spirit and in truth, according to the means that He has appointed for His church, God is present. Why wouldn't we long to be gathered together with the people of God every Lord's Day to listen to our great God and Savior speak, to receive his sacrificial service and to acknowledge his rule over us?


1. An excerpt from John Murray's sermon, "Holy Scripture."

2. An excerpt from Murray's sermon, "Christ Among His People."

Glory of the Newborn King


Of all the hymns written about the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the words of Charles Wesley's "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" are among the most theologically dense and substantive--because all five stanzas are filled with Scriptural truths about Jesus. Before considering the Christology of this beautiful carol, though, it will help us to recall a little of the fascinating and ironic history behind it. 

Charles Wesley first penned the words of this poem in 1739, a year after his conversion. He originally wrote ten shorter stanzas, without a refrain, and his first two lines were "Hark! How all the welkin rings // Glory to the King of Kings." Nearly all of us today would ask, "What on earth is a welkin?" A welkin is actually not "on earth" at all. Rather, it is the archaic English word referring to the sky or the celestial sphere where the angels dwell with God. 

Fifteen years after Wesley first wrote his poem, his friend, George Whitefield, changed the first two lines to the wording that we sing today. Wesley was not pleased - according to some sources, because he didn't think the Bible taught that the angels sang, and perhaps also because in Luke 2:14 the angels give glory to God the Father, not God the Son.

Controversy has surrounded not only the words of this hymn, but the music as well. Wesley had intended his song to be sung in a slow, solemn manner, using a tune like the one for his "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." That would prove not be so. In 1840, 100 years after the words were written, the great composer, Felix Mendelssohn, wrote a piece of music to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's press. Mendelssohn did not believe that this piece of music was suitable for sacred words. However, the English composer, William Cummings, took Mendelssohn's music and combined it with Wesley's words (altered throughout the 18th century), and the rest is history. 

We now sing a Christmas hymn whose original author didn't like a number of the words, and whose original composer didn't think the music should accompany biblical themes! It is, however, one of the greatest songs in our hymnals. In each stanza, Wesley points us a different aspect of Jesus' person, telling us about the glory of this newborn babe. It will help us to consider each stanza. 

  1. He is the reconciling King.

Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!"
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th'angelic host proclaim,
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"

Wesley, with Whitefield's edits, began by calling all the nations to rise and worship triumphantly at the birth of the King of the Jews and the King of the nations. The second through fourth lines are Wesley's paraphrase of the angelic words in Luke 2:14. The peace of which the angels speak is peace with God for those He has chosen according to His good pleasure. Jesus isn't merely a King, He is a reconciling King; the Man, Christ Jesus, is the only Mediator between God and man. Our sins separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2), yet in Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself, removing the ground of His alienation from us His people, counting our sins against Jesus rather than against us, and punishing His Son in our place (II Cor. 5:18-21). The angels proclaim peace to the shepherds because Jesus was born to die for the sins of His pepl. He became a man so that He might obey and suffer in our nature. This is cause for joy indeed!

  1. He is Emmanuel, God with Us

Christ, by highest Heav'n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin's womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th'incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Jesus is not merely human, but the everlasting Lord of glory. He has come to this world, miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin. Twenty-three of his chromosomes came from Mary, and twenty-three came by the sovereign working of God's power - not from a man. The baby in the manger is truly God, which is why His name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21). Jesus is Yahweh, pleased as man with men to dwell. As Wesley expresses it in another hymn, "Our God contracted to a span, Incomprehensibly made man." Matthew tells us that the virginal conception and naming of Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 7:14, "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." The glory of the manger isn't just that the babe is God, but that He is God with us. All that the tabernacle and temple foreshadowed is fulfilled in the Word become flesh (John 1:14; Colossians 2:9). God becomes man without ceasing to be God, so that He might dwell among us without destroying us with His glory. He desired to be with us, to sympathize with our weaknesses, temptations, and griefs as a man to share our humanity, our infirmities (without sin), our sadness, even our death. Thus with the angels we adore Him!

  1. He is the Sun of Righteousness

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris'n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

The one who spent nine months in the darkness of Mary's womb breaks forth as the Sun of Righteousness of Malachi 4:2. Jesus has come as the Light of the world, shining upon those who walk in darkness (Isaiah 9:1-2). Wesley, a year removed from the dawning of the gospel light in his own heart, declares that the light that breaks through in conversion first broke through when Jesus, covered in afterbirth, made his first cry in Bethlehem. Jesus "emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2:7), so that we might be raised up with Him in newness of life, and be born again to a living hope. He who was rich became poor for our sake, so that we through His poverty might be made rich in life, joy, hope, peace, and glory.

  1. He is the Snake-Slaying Seed

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman's conqu'ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent's head.
Now display Thy saving pow'r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

The fourth stanza gives us a clear reference to Genesis 3:15, the first promise of the gospel, ironically addressed to Satan after the fall of man into sin. Jesus is the ultimate seed of the woman, who came to conquer Satan, to crush his head, even as the great deceiver bruises Jesus' heel. Rather than having in view the cross/resurrection, the place where Jesus conquered Satan (Hebrews 2:14-15), Wesley individualizes the language of Genesis 3 - "bruise in us the serpent's head." 

This stanza reflects the teaching of I John 3:8, which speaks to the purpose of the incarnation by declaring, "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil." The context of that passage is the sin within the life of a Christian (3:8 parallels 3:5, "You know that He appeared in order to take away sins"). 

This stanza is a prayer for Jesus to come and take residence within us, to powerfully fix up His place in us, as it were, to make our heart His home. It asks Jesus to save us not only from the guilt of sin, but from the power and practice of sin - "ruined nature now restore." Ruined in Adam, we need restoration. And so Wesley cries for Jesus to unite sinners to Himself in mystic union through faith, to dwell in our hearts through faith, so that we might be conformed to His image rather than the image of Satan. 

  1. He is the Second Adam

Adam's likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
Oh, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Wesley finally turned to Paul's language from Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15--not to focus on the federal/representative headship of Adam and Jesus (i.e. every single person dying in Adam, and those in Christ being made alive) but on the moral and spiritual kinship we share with our covenant heads. Wesley asked the Lord to efface (i.e. erase and expunge the corruption, rebellion, pride and unbelief) Adam's likeness within us, and to stamp His own image in its place (Romans 8:29). In Jesus, we regain what was lost in the fall: a relationship with God, and an inner likeness to God in knowledge, righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:9ff). In conversion we have put off the old man, Adam, and have put on the new man, Jesus, the Second Adam. He is being formed in those who believe (Galatians 4:19), for we are in Him and He is in us by the power of His Holy Spirit. As we behold His glory, we are transformed into His image (II Corinthians 3:18).

And that is ultimately the point of Wesley's hymn: to show us the glory of the newborn King - a reconciling King; Emmanuel, God with us; the Sun of Righteousness; the Snake-Slaying Seed; and the Second Adam - so that we might believe in Him with all our hearts. May the Lord give us grace to know and love the one of whom we sing.

Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel


This year has been a veritable Reformation-fest-- a marvelous celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (1517-2017). Protestants from all over the world have been recounting the amazing events, courageous figures, and key doctrines of the sixteenth- century movement that changed the course of history.

How can anyone tire of hearing stories about the intrepid Augustinian monk from Wittenberg, the one who bravely stood up to the formidable powers of the Roman Empire for the sake of the Gospel? Who wearies learning of John Calvin's compassionate ministry to suffering missionary- pastors in France or John Knox's courageous gospel preaching in Scotland? What about Reformation doctrine? Do the five solas ever grow dull? No way! They point us to the covenant faithfulness of God and the unsearchable riches of our Savior. Reformation 500 has been an encouragement and inspiration.

Like many, I've attended several Reformation 500 events over the last twelve months. The preaching at most of these gatherings has been soul-stirring. Again and again I've been moved by the captivating stories of magisterial Reformers risking everything for the sake of the gospel. I've been reminded of the daring recovery of essential Christian doctrine. I've also been encouraged to hold fast to the ordinary means of grace-- the divinely ordained means of Word, sacraments, and prayer. These unadorned and seemingly foolish means direct us away from a trust in our own person and work to a trust in the all-sufficient person and work of Christ.

There was one Reformation 500 message that I heard, however, that was different from the others. It was troubling both as to its content and tone; and, it did not--in any way whatsoever--communicate the good news of the Gospel. The sermon clearly demonstrated the need for further reflection upon the history and doctrine of the Reformation in our churches.

The following is a tale of two sermons-- a straightforward account of two very different Reformation 500 messages that I heard in the month of October. The sermons were preached by two different preachers with two very different emphases. By comparing the two sermons, I hope to demonstrate that the best way forward for Reformed denominations in general, and the Presbyterian Church in America in particular, is for ministers to commit to the bold and unmistakable preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ from the whole counsel of God.

The first Reformation 500 sermon that I heard was an exegetically sound and deeply compelling exposition of Scripture. The sermon was on the theme: Solus Christus [Christ Alone]. As the preacher skillfully explained the glory and majesty of Christ, I found myself captivated by the eminence and loveliness of the Savior.

The preacher masterfully set forth the supremacy of Christ. He then wondered aloud how we could ever have a relationship with such an exalted and glorious King. After all, Jesus is so magnificent, so powerful, and so holy; and we are so lowly, so weak, and so sinful. Before answering, the preacher described how the medieval Roman Catholic Church set up buffers between sinners and Christ (e.g. Mary, saints, priests) to relieve the fear of approaching Christ on our own. It was (and is) an erroneous system of co-mediators attempting to shield sinners from a transcendent, unapproachable, and wrathful Christ.

After reflecting upon this pertinent Reformation history, the preacher led us to the mountain peaks of grace as he expounded upon the High Priestly office of Christ. He explained how Christ is the one who offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on Calvary, the one who possesses bottomless wells of grace for rebel sinners, and the one who invites us by grace through faith into a saving relationship with God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator we need, and he is full of love and compassion for sinners.

Towards the end of the sermon--as the grace, truth, and beauty of Christ were on full display--it felt as though time had stopped. I was meeting Christ in his preached word. He had laid hold of me. I found myself ashamed of my sin and profoundly grateful for my Savior. It's what happens when Christ is faithfully preached.

Getting a view of Christ in the preaching that day motivated me to be a more faithful disciple as it relates to my marriage, family, calling, and outreach to the lost. Encountering Jesus in the sermon confronted my selfishness, pride, and worldly patterns of thinking. I was powerfully reminded that my true identify is in Jesus, and not in my worldly accomplishments, moral strivings, or in the way others perceive me. The sermon was a clarion call to faith in Christ.

The second Reformation sermon that I heard was very different from the first one. Regrettably, neither the gospel nor those who risked their lives to recover it were given attention. No, rather than proclaim the riches of Christ, the preacher delivered a impassioned address on racial injustice in Southern history and modern culture. Instead of focusing on the doctrines, events, and courageous men and woman of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, he presented a discourse on the evils of gentrification, income and wealth disparity, and the systemic injustice of white majority cultures. This individual explained and applied the text he was supposed to be preaching through the lenses of a form of critical race theory. It was an exercise in cultural and sociological analysis, and entirely missed the point of the passage from which he was supposed to be preaching. Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the sermon was that in lieu of the gospel, a new law was placed upon the backs of the hearers-- a new and convoluted law requiring social justice and cultural change.

Now, by no means do I want to dismiss the significant problems and serious pain caused by wicked injustices that exist in our (and every) nation's history and culture. Social injustice is as real as it is complex. We should expose and condemn it when we can, in whatever form it might take (e.g. abortion, sex trade, racism, slavery, sexual harassment, etc). Nor do I think it inappropriate for ministers to preach against the sins of our culture, and to bring biblical application on these matters--especially when a text plainly speaks to them. 

By contrasting these two sermons, I am not downplaying the wickedness of social injustice or the need to speak against it. Rather, I'm simply pleading with pastors and churches in the PCA and elsewhere to follow the lead of Christ, the Apostles, and the Reformers to make it a blood-earnest priority to keep the gospel central in our preaching and discipleship. We must not exchange the proclamation of the gospel for moralistic speeches on social justice or any other issue. The church's mission is to make disciples through the faithful proclamation of Christ from the whole counsel of God. Those disciples, actively abiding in Christ, are called to love their neighbors and bear the fruit of the gospel. The gospel is our only real hope for change. Therefore, Christ's saving action, not our social action, must be at the core of the mission and message of the church.

The gospel must never be assumed in our churches. We must boldly and clearly proclaim the gospel from our pulpits, fonts, and tables on the Lord's Day. It must be central in our discipleship ministries. Preaching and teaching the gospel is what the church is called to do. If we do not preach Christ, who will? If we lose sight of the gospel, we will walk down the same road as many mainline denominations who at one point started believing the lie that social activism outweighs the preaching of Christ in both relevance and importance. Vague affirmations of the gospel sprinkled into a spirited message on social justice will not only obscure the person and work of Christ, it will inevitably confuse the mission of the church.

Public and ecclesiastical dialogue on social justice and race have grown tremendously over the past year. It has rapidly increased in my own denomination, the PCA. Some of the discussion has been helpful. But much of it tends to exude more heat than light, and more sociology than sound theology. The purpose of this article, then, is not to expound upon the best way to preach against cultural sins or to explain how the church should be involved in social justice causes. It's to make one simple point: If our churches and denominations are to remain healthy, we cannot marginalize, negotiate, or redefine the gospel.

This year's Reformation 500-fest has served the church well. It has forced Reformed Christians everywhere to remember our rich Protestant and Reformed heritage, and to reflect upon the nature and centrality of the gospel-- the true gospel announcing redemption for wretched sinners through the penal substitutionary death and hell-conquering resurrection of the Son of God. It is that magnificent gospel which must remain paramount in our preaching, worship, discipleship, and mission.

The future health of the church depends on it.

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is senior minister of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina.

Sharing in Christ's Suffering


No one wants to suffer. When suffering comes to us for following Christ, we are surprised, even shocked and dismayed, especially when our lives have been comfortable. How could our communities or families consider us in the wrong? Why would they mistreat us? Why was it that those who love evil, and hate God, could harm us and our loved ones?

In 1 Peter 4:12 and following, the apostle Peter brings the Word of Christ with great tenderness to us: 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you, as though something strange were happening to you' (4:12). The tone is loving, gentle, and firm at the same time. Persecution, for some including literal fiery trial--Nero was emperor--was coming upon the church. But the fiery trial itself is not the problem Peter addresses. The problem he points out is a response of startled astonishment and fear (cf. 3:14). As a new wave of persecution was about to break on the churches of Asia Minor, the Lord steadies his church using Peter, who had himself both struggled (Luke 22) and triumphed (Acts 5:29) under the pressures of persecution. He reminds us that we should expect persecution in this present world.

Rather than being surprised by persecution and thinking it strange, the church is 'to rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed' (4:13). Peter is well aware of Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake... Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:10-12). Through Peter, our Lord reminds us that where we share in his humiliation, we can expect to share in his exaltation.1 The day of his return will be a day of exuberant joy for his people.

Peter encourages us further: 'if you are insulted for Christ's name, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you' (4:14). What the world hates is the sight of Christ in us: "because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you... if they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:19-20). Where the church or an individual believer suffers for the cause of Christ, it is clear evidence of their union with him. Suffering mistreatment because of Christian faithfulness confirms a great reality: "the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you" (4:14). Peter draws on the language of Isaiah 11:2, with its prophecy of Spirit of the Lord resting upon the coming Savior. It also echoes Jesus' promise to his disciples of the presence of the Holy Spirit with them (cf. Matthew 10:20; Luke 12:12; John 15:16-17). The comfort is profound: the Triune God is for and with his suffering children (Romans 8:31).

Suffering for Christ, not because of sin (4:15-16)

The rich comfort of this passage of God's Word brings with it caution and a call to self-examination. Peter has already reminded the church that they can rejoice in suffering, "insofar as you share Christ's sufferings" (4:13) and "if you are insulted for the name of Christ" (4:14). There are sufferings that, though Christians bear them patiently, are not the result of praiseworthy causes. Peter exhorts 'but let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler' (4:15). Suffering for Christ's sake must not be confused with suffering as a consequence of our own sin, as becomes evident in the subsequent sentence.2 'Yet if anyone does suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name' (4:16). There is a close parallel to these verses in the previous chapter: "For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God" (3:20-21). Here, though, there is further instruction for the persecuted. While the world seeks to shame the Christian for their non-conformity to its pursuits, we are not to be ashamed of Christ, nor of faithfulness to him--even where we suffer for it. To be ashamed is to shrink back from giving God the glory due him.


Entrusting ourselves to God (4:17-19)

Suffering of any kind, and perhaps especially the suffering of persecution raises the question, why? Calvin states that if a comparison is made it may seem that God allows the reprobate to have a fairly easy life, while being severe towards his children.3 This troubles us, but the Word provides a humbling and good answer, placing suffering for Christ in the context of God's judgement: 'For it is time for judgement to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And "If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?"' (4:17-18).

God is perfectly holy, just, wise, and good. Whatever suffering we experience in this life, even the "injustice" of persecution, is far less than what we deserve as sinners. Yet, for those in Christ, his judging of his people "the household of God" (4:17) is not condemning, "but the purging, chastening and purifying of the church by the loving hand of God."4 It is for our sanctification, our present and eternal good. The contrast set before us in the text is that if God is so serious about our holiness that he allows hardships, even fiery trials of persecution, then what will happen to those who remain in sinful rebellion against him until they die? Spurgeon states, "if God puts even the gold into the fire, what is to become of the dross?"5 A comfortable life in sin is not better than a life of suffering for Christ: the former ends in judgement to never-ending suffering, the latter concludes in eternal joy, blessedness and peace.

This stark contrast brings us to Peter's conclusion: 'Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good' (4:19). Our lives, including our sufferings are in the Father's hands. The Son, as the captain of our salvation, has also suffered, for us (Hebrews 2:9-18). He has led the way, steadily doing good, through suffering, to glory, "entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (2:23). The faithfulness of God, the Creator of the heavens and earth, is sealed in Christ's suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. He is ever faithful, "for he cannot deny himself" (2 Timothy 2:13). We have every reason for confidence in him as we follow in his steps.


You and the Word

Have you ever suffered as a consequence of faithfulness to Christ? If you never suffer for Christ, why not? Is it because of complacency or compromise? Is it because you love yourself more than you love God, and as a result there is little or nothing of Christ's character in you? When we suffer it is good for us to reflect on the extent to which our sufferings are because of faithfully following Jesus. When we do suffer for his sake, we have every reason to be profoundly thankful, rejoicing now and being glad when his glory is revealed.

The Head that once was crowned with thorns 
Is crowned with glory now; 
A royal diadem adorns 
The mighty Victor's brow. 

The Joy of all who dwell above, 
The Joy of all below 
To whom he manifests his love, 
And grants his Name to know. 

To them the cross, with all its shame, 
With all its grace, is giv'n; 
Their name an everlasting name, 
Their joy the joy of heav'n. 

 They suffer with their Lord below, 
They reign with him above; 
Their profit and their joy to know 
The myst'ry of his love.6


1. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.

2. Dwight F. Zeller, 1 Peter: An exegetical procedure which explores the Epistle of 1 Peter (Westcliffe, Colorado: Sangre de Cristo Seminary, 2009), 211.

3. Calvin, 139.

4. John MacArthur, 1 & 2 Peter: Courage in Times of Trouble (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 47.

5. Spurgeon, Kindle edition.

6. Thomas Kelly, "The Head that once was crowned with thorns" in Trinity Hymnal (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 298.

William VanDoodewaard is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church who serves as Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article is an excerpt from his recently published "Feed My Sheep" A Commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. Welwyn Series Commentary (Evangelical Press, 2017).

The Church's Answer to Racism and Sexism


Racist attitudes, bigoted actions, rape, and assault have recently been dominating the news cycle. In the midst of chaos in our culture, the Church has the great answer to racism, sexism, and classism. We have the answer and we are to show it. The world needs our voice and our example.

Paul says in Colossians 3:11, "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." He then provides a list of virtues that are to mark the Christian's life: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." Paul says that we are to forgive one another and love one another. And then in verse fifteen, he asserts, "And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful."

The Christian is to have the peace of Christ ruling his or her heart. Colossians 3:15 has often been misunderstood. Paul is not thinking primarily about how the Christian is to feel. He has in mind our peace in the fellowship of the church. Notice, he qualifies it by "to which indeed you were called in one body." Peace serves as the arbiter in our dealings with one another. It reigns as the umpire. There will be times that difficulties arise in the church, in our community. But when problems arise, the peace of Christ jumps in and mediates. It rules in our community.

When a baseball player hits an infield grounder to the shortstop and he picks up the ball and fires it home just as the runner from third is sliding into home plate, debate ensues. As kids on the neighborhood diamond, we would argue till someone gave up. "He was safe," one would argue. "No, he was out," someone else would contend. That may occur even in the Major Leagues. However, when the umpire steps forward and says, "Safe," the matter is concluded. The dissension is over. When Christ occupies our lives, the peace of Christ will rule our fellowship. It serves as the arbiter. It is the umpire.

I believe Paul especially has in mind the problems that arise from our differences. Peace is to reign here, where the world doesn't know or experience it. We come from different ethnicities, cultures, races, classes, and genders. Yet, our differences are not what mark us. As Christians, we possess the greatest thing in common: Christ is in all of us. "But Christ is all, and in all" (Colossians 3:11), so peace rules our hearts and our interactions with one another. Our unity, our regard for others, and our respect for differences should strike the watching world with amazement. "They will know you by your love for one another," our Lord said.

As Christians, we view all people as possessing inherent dignity and worth. From the womb to the grave, they matter. From the streets of Manilla to the Mansions on Park Avenue, they possess worth. But even more than that. In the body of Christ, we bring together Greek and Jew, barbarian and Scythian, poor and rich, black and white, Republican and Democrat. We exist as the most heterogeneous body there shall ever be. Before the throne of God will be those from every tongue, tribe, and nation. Yet, we also exist as the most homogeneous body there shall ever be, because we are all filled with the same Spirit--the very Spirit of Christ. As Christians, we dare not reject one another, look down on one another, or forsake one another because doing so would be to reject, look down upon, and forsake Christ.

Maybe Paul's admonition at the end of Colossians 3:15 is the most helpful, "And be thankful." I love that. Be thankful. For what Paul? For one another. We are not only to love one another, not only are we to forgive one another, but we are to be thankful to God for one another. Thankfulness has a way of engendering peace, developing love, and maintaining unity.

Dear fellow believer, let us manifest the unity for which our culture is searching. The answer lies with us, because Christ indwells us. May we show it to the watching world, so that they can't help but ask, "How do they do it?" And let us be ready with the answer that lies within us.

Wisdom Christology and the Bread of Life


When Calvin speaks of sharing the Lord's Supper with Christ, covenantal concepts naturally arise, most notable when Calvin is discussing 1 Corinthians 10-11. Throughout his commentaries, Calvin frequently emphasizes that in the Supper we enjoy both the presence and the benefits of Christ. These are distinctly different lines of thoughts and they represent two different dimensions of Calvin's theology of the Supper. Whereas the motif regarding the presence of Christ involves Pauline themes and images, the motif regarding the benefits of Christ involves Johannine themes and images. When Calvin deals with passages about feeding on Christ, we discover the influence of the Wisdom School. In particular, John 6, which presents Christ as the bread of life, is filled with sapiential themes so typical of the wisdom writers of the Old Testament.

Central to the development of the ideas found in John 6 is Proverbs 9:1-6 where Wisdom invites the faithful to a feast. The wisdom theology understood this banquet as a figure for the delight of sacred learn. Wisdom, according to this passage, has built her house, set up her seven pillars, arranged her table and now invites all to come and eat of her bread and drink of her wine. The Bread of Life Discourse picks up on this figure to show that Jesus is the Word of God upon whom the Christian feasts. However, a passage of Scripture that may have been more important for Calvin would have been Isaiah 55:1-3:

"Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price! Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness."

Calvin explained that references to eating and drinking are taken as figures for receiving divine teaching and thereby entering into an everlasting covenant. The idea that the Word of God should be understood as spiritual food and that the bread and wine were signs of that spiritual food is embedded in the biblical wisdom tradition. Near the beginning of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin says that its simple meaning is "our souls are fed by the teaching of the Gospel, the inner work of the Holy Spirit, and all other gifts of Christ." If it is true that the Word of God is a sacred food and drink which nourishes unto eternal life, it is also true that this food is given both in the reading and preaching of Scripture and in the celebration of the Supper. In fact, according to Calvin, the Supper is a sign and seal that Christ is the Bread of Life for us today, just as it was a sign for the multitude of Galileans whom Jesus fed with loaves and fishes.

Even more important to the Bread of Life Discourse in the story of the feeding of the manna. The rabbis of New Testament times had richly elaborated and augmented the story of the feeding of the children of Israel with manna in the wilderness. We already find this in the Old Testament itself where manna is called the grain of heaven and the bread of angels (cf. Psalm 78:24-25) and in Deuteronomy the manna is understood sacramentally as a sign of the Word of God delivered on Mt. Sinai. God fed Israel with manna to teach them that man does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord (cf. Deuteronomy 8:3). The Law of Moses came down from heaven as a gracious gift from God to enlighten the people of Israel with sacred wisdom. Of this, the manna was the divinely given sign. However, the soul is fed now with earthly things, but God's Word from heaven. Thus, a sapiential interpretation of the story of the manna demonstrates that the Word of God is clearly a heavenly or spiritual food. In the Bread of Life discourse, John contrasts the manna (which fed the bellies of the murmuring children of Israel) with the spiritual food believers receive from Christ in the ministry of Word and sacrament.

The last central theme of the Bread of Life Discourse is the Feast of Passover. At the beginning of John 6, John indicates that the event took place around the time of Passover. If we are to understand the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of Passover imagery, speaking of feeding on the Passover lamb comes quite naturally. Toward the end of his commentary on the Bread of Life Discourse, Calvin recognizes the paschal theme and stated: "It would be of no use to us that the sacrifice was once offered, if we did not now feed upon that sacred feast."

This should make it clear that Calvin's understanding of the Lord's Supper had a place for feeding on Christ. At the Supper, as Calvin sees it, we feed on the paschal lamb whose sacrifice atoned for the sin of the world. Hence, the Word of God is the Lamb of God, who by His sacrifice takes away the sin of the world. The paschal themes alluded to in the story of the feeding of the multitude and the Bread of Life Discourse becomes patent in John 6:51-58. The Supper reveals that the wisdom which nourishes to eternal life is the cross.

Here, the Passover imagery is essential for an understanding of this passage. The vicarious suffering of the Lamb of God is the sacred food which enable those who believe to pass from death to life. Hence, the proclamation that the Lamb of God who died for the sin of the world and is alive forevermore is the Gospel of salvation, the divine wisdom which unmasks the wisdom of this world. When this Word is received by faith, it is a sacred food that nourishes unto eternal life. This is the great feast of the children of God - to feed upon the Lamb of God. It is a feast kept in faith and by faith, for it is faith that feeds upon the divine Word, the holy Wisdom from on High. 

The Lord's Supper is not only a symbol of this truth. It is, to use Calvin's words, "actually presented;" it is promised and sealed. When the bread and wine of the sacrament is offered, Christ is truly offered for salvation. When we accept it, the promise is sealed. The sermon and the Supper both proclaim the Lord's death until Christ comes, and yet they are two distinct moments in our receiving God's gracious gift of salvation. In the sermon, it is presented; in the Supper it is sealed. Thus, Calvin understands the Bread of Life Discourse to mean that in the worship of the Church, both in the sermon and the Supper, we feast upon the divine Wisdom - the wisdom revealed in the cross.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Race and the Imago Dei


In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

"To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are 'like us' and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ."

In this video, Rob and Vanessa talk about race, all mandking being made in the image of God, and how the cross gives meaning to all of life

Wisdom Christology in James and 1 John


In the previous post in this series, we briefly considered how Calvin's appreciation of wisdom theology is particularly present in his comments on the Johannine literature. In Calvin's commentary of 1 John, we discover one of the marks of the wisdom theology, namely, its appreciation of the transcendent nature of God's Word. For Calvin, The Word "which believers we have heard and believed" is the same Word who is from the beginning the divine Wisdom. We find this very clearly in the following comment by Calvin:

"Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word."

The Word of God is a transcendent reality. In fact, it is the fundamental transcendent reality of our salvation. We also notice from Calvin's commentary that the Word of God has the capacity to enliven. Wisdom, as it is understood in Scripture, is far removed from the sort of abstract intellectualism that many associate with an education in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. Wisdom is a way of life, but more than that, it is a power and "sacred vitality". This, too, is a mark of wisdom theology. When the text speaks of the "Word of life", Calvin interprets this to mean the "vivifying Word." This vivifying "Word of life" was with the Father, according to the text. Calvin comments:

"This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for He was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by His eternal wisdom."

As Calvin understood, the eternal Wisdom is a creative, redemptive, and sanctifying wisdom; therefore, this Wisdom is a fountain of life. This divine Wisdom is a redemptive, transforming power. The ability of the Word to transform human life is the basis of its authority and its glory. It is this Word of life - the divine Wisdom - which brings us into fellowship with God and restores the bond of love between believers and God, and between believers one with another.

A very different aspect of the biblical wisdom theology is found in the Epistle of James. James describes Christian wisdom - both its theoretical knowledge and practical application - as embodied within the covenant community. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, is a collection of wise sayings on good conduct which reverberates with themes from the biblical wisdom tradition. Neither of these books tells a story nor develops a systematic line of thought. Typical of the wisdom writers (such as the sages of ancient Israel) is this delight in collecting proverbs on living the godly life.

As is well known, Luther had little appreciation for the moral concerns of James because it seemed to him to be be bogged down in works righteousness. Calvin was of a different mind, as he relates in the introduction to his commentary on James. In responding to the claim that James was not as clear on the subject of the grace of Christ as an apostle ought to be, Calvin commented:

"See how the writings of Solomon differ widely from the style of David. The former was concerned with the training of the outward man, and with handing down rules of social behavior, while the latter is noted for his profound attention to the spiritual worship of God, peace of mind, God's lovingkindness, and the free promise of salvation. Such diversity does not make us praise one and condemn the other."

This passage clearly indicates that Calvin recognized a "Solomonic theology", that is, a wisdom theology. By saying that James is to the rest of the New Testament as the writings of Solomon were to the Old Testament, we discover Calvin agrees in substance with what modern biblical scholarship has recognized concerning the strongly Semitic and sapiential character of James. The whole nature of Calvin's piety was positively disposed toward those beautiful passages in the Epistle of James which speak of the character of wisdom. Consider Calvin's comments on James 3:13-18:

"For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious... For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others."

Consistent with the sages of Old Testament Israel, Calvin understands that wisdom is truly a divine gift. The notion that wisdom is obtained by asking God for it is rooted in the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 3) and the relationship between wisdom being a gift and, therefore, the need to ask for it is developed in Wisdom of Solomon 8:17-9:18. In addition, because true wisdom comes "from above" it is inappropriate to boast about it. True wisdom is therefore humble. Calvin elaborated on this point further in his commentary, when he wrote:

"He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity."

It's clear that Calvin appreciated wisdom that was calm and well composed - the kind of wisdom that was learned but without pretension. Rather, Calvin admired simplicity, sincerity, and sobriety. Following the biblical wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, this sobriety is most clearly demonstrated in speech ethics (cf. James 3:1-12) and humility (cf. James 3:13-18). Calvin understood that true divine wisdom produces ethical fruit primarily because it is the "vivifying Word". Because this divine Word transform human lives, it is expected that the wisdom from above produces true humility, true learning, and true godliness. The Epistle of James taught exactly the sort of piety that he so much admired and that he lived to emulate throughout his life.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Aiming to Preach with Aims


We need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation (Rom. 10:14). Ordinarily we hear his voice through his ordained ambassadors as they preach the gospel in demonstration of the Spirit's power (Rom. 10:15; 2 Cor. 5:19-6:2; 1 Cor. 2:5). Yet we can believe these things and still make fatal mistakes in regard to preaching. People sometimes respond in strange ways to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the preached Word. Some reason that if the Spirit alone changes people's hearts, then it does not matter how well ministers reason with sinners or, in some cases, whether anyone preaches the gospel to them at all. This is like saying that since God can keep us alive without food, he will keep us alive whether or not we eat. Dead souls result from the first way of thinking and dead bodies from the second. What God can do in his providence is a poor guide for what we should do in light of his Word.

In Colossians 1:28-29, Paul shows that preaching requires hard labor in order to achieve its ends when he writes, "Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily" (Col. 1:28-29).

The high aims of preaching demand the heavy labors of preachers. This passage asserts that ministers must preach Christ wisely for the salvation of all hearers. We learn from these truths how and why the lofty aims of preaching flow from its content and determine its manner. This reinforces previous posts on these themes and expands them in relation to the aims of preaching.

Ministers must preach Christ (v. 29a" "him we preach"). Why did Paul consistently treat Christ as the sum and substance of his preaching? Other passages surveyed in this series of posts showed that Christ is the primary object of preaching because, through preaching, Christ brings sinners to the Father by the Spirit's power. Colossians 1 adds that Christ is the primary substance of preaching (v. 29) because Christ builds his church through ministers who suffer for his sake (v. 24-25), because he is the substance of the divine mystery that God has now revealed (v. 26-27), and because union with Christ is the "hope of glory" for believers (v. 27; Phil. 3:20-21). Ministers embody Christ's ministry on behalf of the church. Christ is the reason for their sufferings, the content of their message, and the ground of their hopes. Why, then, must Christ be the sum and substance of their preaching? He must be so because ministers live in communion with Christ as they aim to bring others into communion with him, because they should be consumed with the divine mystery regarding him above all else, and because he must remain the center of their hope. Christ is the bridge between preaching the glory of the Triune God and all other subjects in relation to God. Preaching "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) without relating all things in it to Christ's person and work is like trying to view a beautiful landscape without the light of the sun. It is "him we preach?" Is it him we want to hear about?

Ministers must preach Christ wisely (v. 29b" "in all wisdom"). What does it mean to preach Christ? Negatively, preaching Christ is not merely describing Christ. What would we think of a man who described a woman clearly, accurately, and dispassionately only to learn later that the woman was his wife? Preaching is not like giving a physical description of a suspect to a detective. It is more like singing for joy over one whom our souls love (Song 3:1, 4). It is like the friend of the bridegroom waiting eagerly to introduce the bridegroom to his bride (Jn. 3:29). Positively, preaching Christ must be done "in all wisdom." Preaching Christ should be specific and direct ("warning every man"). The purposes of preaching reflect the purposes of Scripture (1 Tim. 3:15-17). Wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ includes reproof and correction as well as doctrine and instruction in righteousness. "Warning" entails application. "Warning every man" demands specific application. Preaching should be instructive as well ("teaching every man"). As Westminster Larger Catechism 159 states, "They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God." Preaching must aim to convict individual hearers by applying the teachings of Scripture to them directly. Preachers must know the people to whom they preach. Refuting irrelevant errors that people do not face is like shooting without taking aim. Preachers should visit the people to whom they preach regularly in order to know them personally and the challenges they face. Application should not be so specific that we betray trusts and embarrass people publicly in sermons, but we should be specific enough that we can warn and teach "every man." In doing so, preachers preach "wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of their hearers" (WLC 159).

Preachers must preach Christ for the salvation of all hearers (v. 29c). "Every man" appears three times in this passage. We cannot be content to leave anyone behind in preaching. We cannot adopt a "take it or leave it" mentality to the means of grace, in which we preach dull sermons and blame the Holy Spirit for the unbelief of our hearers. Preaching should be zealous and passionate. Preachers must preach "zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation" (WLC 159) Reformed preaching should neither be boring nor harsh. The pulpit is not a platform for beat up pastors to lash back at difficult people. We must keep the final goal of salvation in view. God aims to present every man perfect in Christ, not merely to justify them.

Paul concludes that preaching is dependent labor ("laboring according to his working, which works in me mightily"). By now, readers should detect a pattern in biblical texts that describe preaching. Christ is the primary object of preaching. He reaches sinners by his Word and Spirit, using ministers as his instruments. He is the subject, object, and end of preaching. This pattern raises several questions for preachers:

Do you preach to the glory of God in Christ? Doing so keeps your preaching on track. Do you preach Christ experimentally? Does Christ live in your affections in order to bring life to others through your sermons? This makes your preaching lively. Do you preach Christ pointedly? Preaching without specific and pointed application violates the biblical definition of preaching just as much as failing to preach Christ does. Pointed preaching is part of what makes Spirit-filled preaching effective. Those who repeat Christ's story without pressing Christ on individual consciences and those who press people with duties without preaching Christ fail equally in aims of preaching. Do you labor hard in preaching with the Spirit's help? 

This is what makes preaching powerful. It is not enough to read Bible commentaries, though many of preachers need to read more of them than they do. Commentaries help us understand the text, but they do not help us meet the goals of preaching. Though the Spirit is sovereign in his work, lacking zeal, vigor, or diligence in preaching is a better indicator of laziness than of faith. Preaching must be lively, convicting, instructive, specific, and laborious. Only such preaching can aim to present every man perfect in Christ.

In this final part of my series on the debate concerning the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS), I will identify a few more of the issues that the debate has brought to the surface.

The Quest for a Deep Structure for Complementarianism

The emergence of the ESS position in its current form is in large part an attempt to provide a 'deep structure' for a complementarian position. It seeks to demonstrate that the biblical teaching concerning the complementarity of the sexes is not arbitrary, but is grounded in something beyond itself.

Unfortunately, this quest for a deep structure is, I suspect, often the flip-side of an ideologization of complementarity. What was once an organic part of Christian social teaching, practice, and imagination, recognized as naturally grounded and inseparably bound up with the broader fabric of Christian and human existence--a creational and empirical reality--has been reframed as a theory, ideology, or social programme. In the process it has been uprooted from the broader creational and scriptural context to which it belongs.

Having abandoned or lost much of its proper grounding--not least as people have sought to restrict its import as much as possible to the pulpit and the marriage bed--this more abstract ideology has needed to discover a new theological rationale for itself. In a context where it is under threat, it must defend itself against the charge that it is contrary to the general tenor of Christian teaching and imposes arbitrary expectations. ESS looks like a promising solution to this problem, yet ends up causing more difficulties and provoking more contention than it resolves. In the past, teaching about the complementarity of the sexes wasn't an 'ism' or ideology. Even when ESS was referenced in connection with it, considerably less weight was placed upon the analogy, and certainly not the sort of weight that would press theologians more in the direction of univocity.

The quest for deep structure is not entirely misguided. However, that deep structure is primarily to be found in the concreteness of nature itself as created by God. Scriptural teaching on the sexes is chiefly descriptive, rather than prescriptive or narrowly ideological. This natural deep structure is fitting to humanity's being in the image of God and in its reflection, representation, and bearing of God's creative rule within the world. That we are male and female is not in Scripture an arbitrary or indifferent fact, but something that fits us for the purpose for which we are created, for fellowship with God, representative service and rule of his creation, and manifestation of its beauty and delight. It also provides a symbolic framework that God uses for certain dimensions of his self-revelation. There are not, however, the sort of direct correspondences that ESS supporters advocate.

Accommodated but Real Revelation

Within these debates, there has been a consistent attempt among the critics of the ESS position to protect the Trinity from accounts which both break with the orthodox doctrine and which speculate and project into the divine nature. A robust Trinitarian theology will constantly expose the limits of our language and concepts of God and resist any straightforward reading back of God's accommodated self-revelation in the context of a fallen creation into his eternal being. God surpasses our understanding, our language, and our concepts.

Yet there are genuine dangers on the other side here. In resisting univocal accounts of God's eternal being and accounts which fail to take seriously the reality of divine accommodation (as God reveals himself to us under the conditions of creation and sin in a manner appropriate to the limits of our understanding), we should beware of dismissing the possibility and the fact of divine self-revelation.

The submission of the incarnate Son to the will of the Father should not be projected back into the eternal being of God. However, even when constrained within the limits of orthodox Trinitarian theology, some important relation remains. No, we cannot posit separate wills or centers of consciousness in God, nor speak as supporters of ESS do of authority and submission in the Trinity. Yet there remains a profound fittingness to the fact that it was the Son who became man, a fittingness that gives us some truthful apprehension of the eternal relation between Father and Son. Although this relation is not one of authority and submission and any notion of eternal obedience is excluded, the manner of the incarnation is revelatory of divine taxis.

Appropriate resistance to the careless employment of univocal predication can overshoot, leading us to resist analogical predication and the truthfulness of accommodated revelation. Indeed, an unprincipled apophaticism can be used precisely in order to escape the unwelcome force of accommodated revelation. The egalitarian side of this debate may be especially vulnerable to this, as the asymmetry of the divine taxis is perceived by some to be incongruent with egalitarian values. Likewise, masculine language and images for God are often resisted for similar reasons. Terms like 'Father' and 'Son' used of the Triune hypostases should not be collapsed into notions of human sonship and fatherhood, but nor should they be hermetically sealed off from each other. Some analogical--and revelatory--relation remains.

In their different ways, both radical apophaticism and univocal predication can involve the subjection of the doctrine of God to human categories and demands. The seeming humility of radical apophaticism can actually function as a wilful attempt to carve out realms of autonomy upon which divine revelation cannot infringe. Univocal predication, on the other hand, trespasses beyond the appropriate bounds of our creaturely state.

Structural Defects in Contemporary Evangelical Theology

These debates have exposed extensive structural problems in contemporary evangelical theology. The ESS position is not an entirely novel one, as many of its critics would like to suppose. It has been gaining prominence for a number of decades in evangelical circles. Its rise has doubtless been powerfully catalyzed by the gender debates, yet it cannot be entirely attributed to these and the position has appeared in various forms outside of contexts shaped by them. Many of the people teaching the ESS position do not regard themselves as theological innovators: they were taught the ESS position in their own theological training. It is important that we do not make them the scapegoats for an error that we have harbored in our midst for quite some time. The doctrine for the Trinity has suffered relative neglect in evangelical circles for quite some time; part of our task in recovering it must be the removal of the dust, cobwebs, and grime of error that have accumulated upon it.

Besides this exposure of Trinitarian error, serious and extensive cracks between the disciplines of systematic, historical, and biblical theology have been revealed. Systematic theologians struggle to handle Scripture and biblical theologians manifest a poor acquaintance with orthodox Trinitarianism and historical theology. These breaches between the disciplines must be addressed as a matter of some urgency.

Even among those who hold an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, that doctrine may be much diminished in its role within the broader firmament of Christian truth, not least on account of a failure to explore its capacity to illuminate and enrich our reading of Scripture. Rather than functioning as an integrating and coordinating doctrine, one of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that permeates and relates all else, it risks operating in a manner detached from the rest of Christian truth, chiefly concerned with maintaining its own integrity. Yet the true integrity of the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be maintained where a commitment to pursuing its theologically integrating function is absent.

Should we take the various lessons of these debates to heart, I believe that they will have proved to be profoundly worthwhile, serving both the health and the growth of the Church in the future.

*This is the final post in a series that Alastair began running at Reformation21 last June. You can find the previous posts in this series here

Cruciform Suffering


The fact that the incarnate Son of God "learned obedience" (Heb. 5:8) is an essential aspect of Jesus' human nature and so is indispensable to sound Christology and soteriology. Apart from the cross itself, the clearest example we have of this "learning" is probably found in the Synoptic accounts of our Lord's prayer in Gethsemane (Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22). While Jesus' obedience is of unparalleled import for our justification, his example of submitting to his Father's will and so learning obedience through suffering is also a unique model for our sanctification, the goal of which is nothing less than Christ-conformity.

The Gospel accounts of this prayer show Jesus' desire to avoid the cup of the Father's wrath against sin, but only if that can be done in accord with his Father's will. While this raises some interesting theological questions, the Synoptics give more attention to the subjective or experiential facet of Jesus' prayer. Similarly, our personal appropriation of the text merits serious reflection, not least because submitting one's will to God's when that means accepting suffering involves nothing less than putting to death the remnants of the old man (Mark 8:34-35).

Although Jesus is the supreme example of learning obedience through suffering, the Gospel accounts do not provide a detailed analysis of how this learning took place. For that reason, and because the Old Testament figure of Job exhibits both similarities and differences with respect to Jesus' example, we turn first to the Book of Job before returning to the Gospels (and to the gospel) in order to reflect on how we might imitate Christ in the way that he learned obedience.

Job is clearly a dynamic character in the book that bears his name. At the beginning and end of his suffering, Job accepted the mysterious providence of his trial, trusting firmly in God's wisdom and justice. The narrator affirms twice that at the outset of his trials Job's responses to his suffering were without sin (1:21; 2:10), and at the end of the book Job not only repents of his flawed interpretation of his suffering (and of God), but even intercedes on behalf of his friends. In doing so he demonstrates restored and even strengthened confidence in God's justice, mercy, and goodness.

But what of the bulk of the book of Job, sandwiched between the opening and closing narratives? After an unspecified period of suffering in which he did not draw into question God's goodness and justice and on the contrary affirmed them, Job eventually changes and utters a lengthy curse in chapter three. Who can doubt that over time Job's suffering, compounded by the fear that God had become his enemy (3:23), tore relentlessly at his faith? Eventually his faith wavered, and the curse-lament of Job 3 demonstrates profound differences when compared to Job's beliefs and attitudes in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Job feels that it would have been better for him not to have existed, and he draws into question God's wisdom and goodness as well as the usefulness of such immense suffering in his life. Job expresses these sentiments at several later points in the book prior to God's theophanic arrival (16:7-14; 23:1-7; 30:20-23), and his discourse culminates in a bold challenge for God to answer his accusations (31:35-37).

The differences between Job's lament (which the book does not condone) and those we find in the psalms (e.g., Pss 10; 22) are significant. Hartley notes that Job voices no affirmation of trust nor any vow to praise God after his deliverance, and omits any review of God's faithful character and past intervention on his behalf ("From Lament to Oath," 89-91). As of chapter 31 Job "is not there yet," and God's two speeches in chapters 38-42 are necessary to convey the knowledge Job needs to understand and even profit from his extreme suffering. God's words to Job affirm divine justice over against Job's accusations and highlight Job's incomplete understanding of creation and providence. God draws Job's attention to the "counsel" that Job's words have darkened in 38:2 (referring to God's governance of the world), the tension between Job's desire to affirm his righteousness over against God's in 40:8, and the reality that divine justice (at least sometimes) is brought about gradually (38:12-15). In response to this wisdom instruction, Job "repents," which in this context means that he recognizes his epistemological limitations, rejects his earlier view of God's culpable involvement in his suffering, and accepts God's self-description as good, just, and beyond his comprehension. Amazingly, this takes place before his suffering has ended.

Let's come back now to the double significance of Jesus' obedient suffering, especially as seen through the lens of his prayer in Gethsemane. On the one hand, because of our Lord's perfect obedience, obeying to the point of death on a cross, our sins are atoned for and his perfect righteousness is ours. On the other, he calls us to suffer with him and to follow Him while bearing our cross. One could almost say that these two poles constitute Christianity's unique approach to suffering (which we can define as physical, emotional, and/or spiritual pain that is not demonstrably sent as discipline for our sin). Living on this side of the cross and the empty tomb, especially when seen against the immediate backdrop of Gethsemane, our understanding of why God sends suffering into the lives of His children is significantly greater than what Job enjoyed. We see the cross followed by the resurrection as the grounds of our justification, we have received the Holy Spirit who testifies to the certainty of our eschatological adoption (Rom 8:15-17), and we await with impatience the new heavens and the new earth, "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet 3:13). These redemptive-historical advances demonstrate God's righteousness and grace, and address with brilliant clarity the questions that plagued Job: Where is God's justice? How can the just suffer? Why must the just suffer? Yet the difficulty of Christian suffering remains. Although the goal is nothing less than Christ-conformity, this conformity is inherently cruciformity.

As we know from experience, doubts about God's goodness or the strong conviction that another set of circumstances would better promote our Christ-conformity (or both!) are only too quick to arise in our hearts when we are faced with suffering. Before the final stage of his suffering, Jesus sinlessly petitioned his Father to remove the cup from him if it were possible, always adding that the Father's will was, in the end, also his. Thus even before the response to his prayer was clear, Jesus was ready to accept the cup from his Father's hand. His obedience was neither a perfunctory acquiescence nor something born of compulsion, but rather a sincere (if trembling) embracing of the Father's will.

Depending on our state of heart and mind, the fact that God's fatherly providence is not arbitrary can be either a source of temptation to doubt his goodness (God forbid!) or the soil in which patience, humility, and even joyful optimism can grow. Not only is conformity to Christ's death inseparable from conformity to His resurrection (what Calvin called our "true destiny," on Matt. 2:23, CDCL 45), but offering ourselves to God entails "a real gladness which arises from the love we have for Him to whom our self-offering is made" (Calvin, on Deut 7:7-10, CDCL 34). A positive response to suffering requires that we understand that since God's power and wisdom are both perfect and without limit, our current circumstances are the best way for God to develop our conformity to the image of His Son. We must remind ourselves that of all possible paths, at this moment this trial is what our heavenly Father wills for us. Even in the most extreme suffering, victory in and over suffering is guaranteed by (and cannot be separated from the experience of) the love of Him who "did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all" (Rom 8:39). Suffering believers can therefore know, with utmost certainty, that their heavenly Father is using their present, very unpleasant circumstances to conform them to the image of his Son and to teach them the profound power and glory of his love.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says; "learn obedience as I learned it." Why not another way, any other way? Scripture's answer is that only such a trial, one that cannot be understood here and now, creates a situation in which we can submit our wisdom and our will to God's ("if it be possible . . . yet not my will. . . "). In so doing we will learn that God can be trusted, loved, and honored through a trial which may never be understood this side of glory. Though God's ways are often beyond our understanding, in our suffering we can be certain that though this trial our heavenly Father is lovingly, justly, and wisely conforming us to the death and the resurrection of His Son. "Whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).

Daniel Timmer is the Professor of Old Testament at the Faculté de théologie évangélique (Acadia) in Montreal.

These Present Sufferings


As I write, the United Kingdom is still reeling from the latest terrorist atrocity to be unleashed in one of our major cities. It was particularly horrific in that it was deliberately targeted at children and teenagers attending a pop concert. The grief of those affected has been broadcast widely and it is impossible not to be deeply touched by their anguish - anguish repeatedly expressed in gut-wrenching groans. No matter how much the media and its pundits try to make sense of what has happened, words are inadequate to plumb the depths of pain.

Tragically, there is nothing new in this. This same week saw another terrorist incident back in the headlines--one that took place 41 years ago in Ireland. Four decades on and no one charged for the offense and the surviving members of the victims' families still expressing the raw pain of the loss they have lived with all that time. All this but another symptom of what C.S. Lewis aptly called, The Problem of Pain.

Something in all of us (Christians included) desperately wants to say something in response to these catastrophes, but in doing so we can easily stray into saying too much, or too little. We rarely get the balance right. In light of that we can be thankful for the many places in the Bible where God's words strike just the right balance. And what God says through his servant Paul is a prime example of getting it right.

Addressing the church in Rome, he speaks about 'our present sufferings' and declares they 'are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us (Ro 8.18). Far from being a cop out by kicking the problem of pain into the long (and currently inaccessible) grass of the world to come, this actually provides the springboard for a realistic look at the world in its 'present' state and why it is in this state.

With a significant choice of words, the apostle speaks first of all about creation 'groaning' (8.22), and how 'we ourselves [Christians]...groan inwardly' (8.23), then of the Holy Spirit who intercedes for believers 'with groans that words cannot express' (8.26). Language that speaks of something deep that must be expressed, but for which no normal vocabulary exists.

This in itself would suggest we can go no further. If words are inadequate to communicate these deep sentiments, then why write any more? Except that Paul sets these groanings in a very specific context: that of a fallen world.

The 'present' in which these troubles are ours is what Paul describes more fully to the Galatians as 'this present evil age' (Ga 1.4). The age that began in the aftermath of Adam's fall into sin. An age that is marked, not merely by the inescapable propensity to sin innate in every human being, but also by the consequences and collateral damage sin leaves in its wake.

Interestingly, therefore, Paul speaks first and foremost of 'creation' itself 'groaning as in the pains of childbirth' in this context. Earlier he depicts creation as waiting 'in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed' (8.19). He is referring to the parousia and 'the restoration of all things' associated with that day (Ac 3.21). He portrays it as if the entire created order was standing on tiptoe trying to see over the horizon of time for the first sign of the arrival of that day.

Although our pets may do their fair share of 'groaning' (when they are hungry or lonely) most of creation is inanimate and incapable of expressing any sentiment. So Paul is simply personifying its non-human elements as displaying discontent over its abnormality. The world and universe in their present state are not what God intended them to be; but one day that state of affairs will be changed.

When it comes to how humans respond, however, things are different. We can articulate our thoughts and feelings, however imperfectly. For those who are not Christians and cannot reach for God's word to shed light into the darkness and confusion of our world, they do express themselves in a multitude of ways, but ways that fall short of real comfort or hope. But those 'who have the firstfruits of the Spirit' - believers (8.23) - things are different. We too still groan - indicating the many aspects of present experience we cannot now fathom - but in a way that is tempered by 'hope' (8.24-25). And this enables patience in our affliction.

Paul's last reference to groaning is the one that is most intriguing. He says that the Holy Sprit helps God's children in their weakness, but does so by interceding for us 'with groans that words cannot express' (1.26). How could it be said that the Holy Spirit was somehow lost for words? Perhaps because Paul is giving us a glimpse of the fact that as the glory of God in his being and works go beyond the limits of language to adequately express, so too sin and its consequences do the same. And nowhere is that more plainly visible than on the cross. There we are confronted simultaneously with the word-defying horror of what put Christ on that cross but also the indescribable glory of what he was doing there. And just as the shameful reality of our sin and what it deserve leaves 'every mouth silenced' before God (Ro 3.19), so too when we are confronted with the glory of the Lamb who was slain for our salvation.

The fact the Spirit condescends to 'groan' on our behalf shows there are no simplistic explanations or answers to the anguish that lies behind our groaning. This should say something to us as Christians as we try to speak into the pain that surrounds us in our world. Sometimes it is best to just 'weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn' - but do so as those 'who share in the sufferings of Christ.'


Rev. Mark Johnston is the pastor of Bethel Presbyterian Church in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of Let's Study JohnLet's Study Colossians and Philemon and Let's Study 2 Peter and Jude.  You can follow him on Twitter at @revmgjohnston.

Last week the Barna Group informed us that a whopping ten percent of America's population "love Jesus but not the church." Lack of "love" for the church, for Barna's purposes, is essentially measured by lack of attendance at religious services. Few of those self-identifying with this group would profess contempt for the church. Some, to be sure, do have an admitted bone to pick with the church, but most, it seems, simply can't be bothered with her. But on the principle that neglect is really a rather potent form of contempt, I think we might define these individuals collectively as professed Jesus-lovers but church-despisers.

The really remarkable thing about this segment of our population is that, at least according to Barna's editor-in-chief Roxanne Stone, they "still believe in Scripture." To be sure, the numbers reveal they rarely read Scripture. I'm not sure how convincing or compelling one's "belief" in Scripture can actually be labeled if the one in question never reads the Bible. Presumably the conviction that Scripture is, say, God-breathed and profitable for doctrine and praxis would inspire one (no pun intended) to pick it up occasionally. Still, we're told that these individuals "believe in Scripture," and yet feel no apparent compulsion to follow the rather obvious biblical injunctions to assemble and participate in those rituals that Jesus ordered his assembled followers to perform.

Forgive my bluntness, but claiming to love Jesus while wanting nothing to do with the church is just stupid. If the "Jesus" we're talking about is the God-man whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension is described and defined for us by the inspired writings of those he commissioned to disciple the nations, then the "church" we're talking about must be the entity described and defined for us by those same writings. The "church," according to those writings, is Christ's bride, whom he loves, whom he nourishes, whom he died for (see Eph. 5:25-32). As the hymnist puts it: "From Heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died." Professing love for Christ but little for the church makes about as much sense as saying you like me and want to spend time with me, but really can't stand my wife and would prefer not to have her around. You can imagine the response you'd get if you invited me around for dinner, and then added, "but please leave Louise at home. We really want nothing to do with her. It's only you we want to get to know. It's only you we want to spend time with."

The things about couples is that, well, they come as couples. That's just as true of the archetypal husband and wife (Christ and the church) as it of ectypal husbands and wives (me and my wife, for instance). That doesn't mean that husbands and wives lose their own unique identities. Christ is not the church. The church is not Christ. But, simply put, "you can't have one with the other" (as someone once sang of love and marriage). The futility of trying to sever Christ from the church becomes, perhaps, even more apparent when one factors in other biblical descriptions of the relationship between these entities. The church is Christ's body (Eph. 5:23). How does one love a head but despise the body attached to that head? Trying floating that claim with regard to any other organism!

It's difficult to know how seriously to take the claim that one might love Jesus but despise his bride and body. Part of me wants to merely role my eyes rather than seriously engage such a sentiment, much as I prefer to counter liberal efforts to strip Christianity of its supernatural elements with a pronounced yawn rather than serious argument. But the prevalence of those who believe they can have Jesus without his bride/body suggests, perhaps, the need for some more intelligent response. Maybe a first step in such might be recognizing the part that evangelical Protestantism itself has played in cultivating the naïve assumption that Christ can be had without his bride/body. Are we, dare I say it, largely to blame for such stupidity, by virtue (for instance) of the dismally weak ecclesiology and sacramentology we have championed in the history of American evangelicalism? Or perhaps by virtue of the tolerance we have shown to parachurch organizations that too often subvert rather than support the church by presuming to play the part the church is divinely appointed to play in the lives of believers? Who needs Christ's bride around when you can have his less obnoxious distant cousin?

In an online context, where conversations move at a breakneck speed, we so often fail to carve out time for proper deliberation and reflection. After the firestorm of one debate has passed, we can swiftly move on to the next dispute, failing to reflect upon the lessons that can be gleaned from the conversation that we have just had. Disciplined and patient retrospection is, however, a rewarding activity and our neglect of it robs us of much of the potential profit of experience.

In this article, I want to offer an unapologetically 'cold take', a reflection at some distance in time upon some of the principal points that we can take forward from the conversations surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS).


The prominence of the ESS position owes a great deal to a theological preoccupation with the notion of authority and the relations appropriate to it. Authority has long been a prominent category in evangelical thought, not least in debates about the place of Scripture in the Church. However, as a category it has often been attended by many unconsidered assumptions and has also often been at risk of occluding much else. Both the unconsidered assumptions and the narrow preoccupation have implications for conceptions of divine relations, relations between the sexes, and understandings of Scripture's place in the Church. They represent a constriction of the imagination that often produces damaging and stifling understandings and practices.

For instance, authority is overwhelmingly conceived of both as an authority over and as an authority that exists over against others. Yet there are other ways of conceiving of authority. Authority can be an authority for or involve an authorizing of others. Authority is not a zero sum game in which we are weakened by the authority of another in relation to us. For instance, when speaking about the 'authority of Scripture', we may be inclined to think of that authority purely as something exercised over us to which we must be obedient. We may forget that Scripture is a manifestation and exercise of God's authority for the sake of his saving purpose, a dimension of the ministry of the Father's Word in the power of his Spirit to redeem and renew humanity and the creation. We can also forget that Scripture is an authorizing word, a word that commissions, empowers, and equips us to be God's fellow workers. Similar things could be said about gender relations, where so often an emphasis upon the authority of the man has been at the expense of, rather than in service to, the woman.

Complementarian Diversity

The recent ESS debate has exposed significant diversity among complementarians. All too often, the term 'complementarian' has functioned chiefly as a rallying label and shibboleth, serving the purpose of aligning people with one or the other party in gender debates. Indeed, the terms 'complementarian' and 'egalitarian' (and the polarized group dynamics that they fuel) have often so dominated the debate that it has been difficult to discover the actual diversity of positions beneath them.

This debate has made it more apparent that the term 'complementarian' applies to a diverse range of positions, whose differences are sometimes quite significant. It has also revealed that, on certain issues of deep theological importance with secondary relevance to the gender debates, the actual alignments that matter may cut across our divisions in the gender debates, dividing us from people we may have considered to be in our own camp and joining us with people with whom, in the gender debates, we find ourselves in disagreement.

The need to maintain a unified stance in the face of the external challenges of egalitarianism and the shifting sexual and gender norms of contemporary culture has often led to some degree of a self-imposed stifling of disagreement within the complementarian camp. However, a besieged mentality can produce dangerously brittle and unexamined systems of thought and practice and encourage us to turn a blind eye to serious errors. As the polarizing magnetism of party designations is weakened, a far more complicated picture emerges, along with promising possibilities for progress. Complementarians have always had internal debate, but this and other recent debates further unsettle notions of a shared 'party line' and have thereby expanded the scope of such intramural discussion.

The potential of this space remains ambivalent. It could lead to a fracturing and weakening of the complementarian position in general, as people divide into various squabbling camps. Concerns about this possibility may be heightened by the fact that party mentalities are often still very much in evidence among complementarians on either side of these debates. Alternatively, it could make possible a shared commitment to a challenging conversation among complementarians, through which all of our positions are honed and certain errors are rooted out, even if we do not finally align. Within such a space, it is possible to articulate more developed proposals, as we are no longer primarily concerned with defending a narrow party line.

The Crosswinds of the Gender Debates

Throughout the debate surrounding ESS, it has been concerning to witness the degree to which theological and exegetical argumentation has been caught up in the politics, the antagonisms, and the concerns of the broader gender debates. Reading many egalitarians and complementarian critics of ESS, it has often been difficult to tell what is driving the arguments--genuine concern about the proper handling of the doctrine of the Trinity, or animus against the supposed wrong sort of complementarians. My suspicions that this debate has been peculiarly afflicted by motivated and politicized reasoning have been intensified, as people who have not otherwise shown any interest in or extensive study of the doctrine of the Trinity have exhibited a peculiar concern in this particular case, often while still ignoring related errors in their own contexts. This is a time for all of us to examine our motives, to ask whether we are as alert to error in Trinitarian doctrine when those errors are harnessed to the service of doctrines that we ourselves favour. Is Trinitarian orthodoxy merely being weaponized for our squabbles about the theology of gender?

As I have become more acquainted with the writings in support of ESS in the course of this debate, it has been deeply troubling to see the way in which a framework of authority and submission has become almost programmatic for an understanding of the Trinity for some theologians. While there are instances in which the language of authority and submission is employed of the Trinitarian relation between the Father and the Son in the more recent tradition, the prominence that this has assumed more recently--a prominence that threatens to occlude so much else--is, I believe, unprecedented. It is also, in my assessment, a development that almost certainly has been catalysed by the gender debates.

The intense institutional politics and personal feelings that attend the gender debates make it incredibly difficult to have productive conversations and to reason in a balanced and consistent manner on issues that impinge upon them. It should be a matter of considerable concern that the doctrine of the Trinity has been blown off course in the manner that it has, but also that the integrity of the motives of critics of ESS can so often be in doubt on account of party mentalities. Both this distrust and its corresponding untrustworthiness contribute in their own way to the perpetuation of the problems, as most voices that will be raised against it are compromised or easily dismissed.

The progress that has been made in this debate has primarily occurred as the debate has been removed from a realm dominated by the fickle, capricious, and frequently untrustworthy reasoning of partisan antagonists, and has occurred in contexts sheltered from or opposed to such dynamics. It has also revealed the importance of and need for persons who can stand above partisanship and demonstrate the intellectual integrity necessary to criticize their own colleagues and friends. Where such integrity and courage has been lacking, it is not surprising that even genuine warnings of error have been unheeded.

Trying Not to Remember

I've been thinking a lot about self-deception and the lies we tell ourselves. Sometimes we lie to others so that we can advance ourselves. Sometimes we lie to others so that we can gain a foothold to a place where the truth wouldn't, perhaps, get us. But self-deception is odd. Self-deception is something that doesn't get us anything tangible. Self-deception is something that we do because we cannot bear the truth about ourselves and would rather believe a lie.

As I have been preaching a series through the book of Revelation, I've noticed something of a pattern of deception that existed in several of the churches in chapters 2 and 3. The church in Sardis had one major problem--it had deceived others. That particular church had a reputation they had created and needed to uphold. There were appearances to keep up in Sardis. Laodicea had a similar problem--there was deception and false appearances in that church as well. It was different, however, in the sense that the church in Laodicea wasn't deceiving others without; rather, they themselves were the object of self-deception.

Men lie to themselves about all kinds of things. They lie to themselves about their weight (e.g. my weight on my driver's license may or may not be accurate). They lie to themselves about how disciplined they are (studies show that people under-report how much food they actually eat). And they lie to themselves about other things too (for example, why did you really get married?).

But one of the greatest lies that modern men and women tell themselves is that they are going to make it...that they aren't going to die; that they have a long life ahead of themselves; that they're going to be fine. I felt this was well illustrated this weekend when I watched the movie Passengers with my wife.

[Warning: some light spoilers to follow]

One of the conceits of the movie Passengers is that a space ship is on a very long flight to a habitable planet. 90 years before the ship reaches its destination (which is way too early in the narrative), one of the hibernation pods on the ship opens up and a single man is woken up. A good chunk of the movie is spent with this man wrestling with the reality that he will die alone before reaching the destination. Wrestling with the reality that he has to learn to live alone in isolation while this ship continues on its happy course, he instead opts to wake another passenger so that he doesn't have to spend the rest of his life alone. In doing so, of course, he condemns her to also die a similarly lonely death. When she finds out what he has done she says, "You've murdered me!" Personally, I would have waxed philosophical at that point and reminded her that we're all dying; but, hey, I'm not quite a hollywood hunk like Chris Pratt, so what do I know?

At this point, the movie had an opportunity to wade into some heavy meditations upon death and dying. Unfortunately, the morose theme of the story ends there as some larger conflict and resolution occupies the remainder of the story.

Passengers did remind me that human beings do, in fact, know that they are dying. We do know that the ship is sinking (faster for some than others). But we deceive ourselves with drink and sex and play, hoping to forget the thing that we know to be true. Rather than motivating ourselves to seek life and joy in the God who made us, the majority of humanity would rather content themselves with distractions than face these truths head-on.

We are happy to think upon death in small doses. In what is one of my favorite quotes , John Calvin touches on this point:

"That human life is like smoke or shadow is not only obvious to the learned, but even ordinary folk have no proverb more commonplace than this...But there is almost nothing that we regard more negligently or remember less. For we undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If some corpse is being buried, or we walk among graves, because the likeness of death then meets our eyes, we, I confess, philosophize brilliantly concerning the vanity of this life. Yet even this we do not do consistently, for often all these things affect us not one bit. But when it happens, our philosophy is for the moment; it vanishes as soon as we turn our backs, and leaves not a trace of remembrance behind it. In the end, like applause in the theater for some pleasing spectacle, it evaporates. Forgetful not only of death but also of mortality itself, as if no inkling of it had ever reached us, we return to our thoughtless assurance of earthly immortality." (Institutes 1:714)

Is there anything that contemporary man is better at than "thoughtless assurance of earthly immortality"? Distraction, amusement, false assurances, and self-deception motivate and drive almost his every waking thought and effort. These amusements are absolutely necessary because, in the face of the modern nihilistic tendency to believe that all is meaningless (unless we choose, somehow to infuse it with meaning all our own, of course), there is no answer to the truth that is the bedrock of man's despair - apart from God in Christ, all of this doesn't mean anything. And a thousand years from now nobody will remember you, or me, or anything that we do. The universe will die a cold death as every star burns out and every rock eventually floats away into empty nothingness. If the soul is not immortal and we are not redeemed, then there is no hope. And if you believe that, then distraction is ultimately all that you have.

Massive swaths of humanity have no answer to this problem. And so in the face of such a catastrophic reality, they choose to divert, to amuse, and to forget. They choose self-deception. They choose to lie to themselves. They try not to remember that there is a Creator. That he is holy. That he demands our soul, our life, our all.

Those of us who are in Christ have a firm basis for telling ourselves that we are going to make it. That our inevitable deaths will not be the end. Unlike the rest of humanity, we do not have to create our own tolerable existence through self-deception. For everyone else, the only option is trying not to remember.

Adam Parker is the Pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church in Pearl, MS. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary Jackson and the Associate Editor of Reformation 21.

The debate that raged last year concerning intertrinitarian relations fueled my desire to go back and revisit Richard Muller's volume on The Triunity of God in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (a volume that I cannot commend strongly enough). In doing so, I happened across a brief yet important section in which Muller gives a survey of the history of the exegesis of certain passages of Scripture that deal specifically with the eternal generation the Son. Most interesting of all is Muller's treatment of Proverbs 8:23--a passage in which we hear the Wisdom of God saying, "I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was." The question about the identity of the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8 has been of no small significance in the history of theology. Is this merely a metaphorical personification of an attribute of God? Or, is it referring specifically to one of the Persons of the Godhead? These questions, of course, must be answered in light of the insistence of those, who--while rejecting historic orthodox Christianity--have heretically intimated that this verse speaks of the creation of the Son of God?

In the brief section in which he gives consideration to these questions, Muller concludes that the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 proves that this passage "does indeed refer to the second person of the Trinity 'under the name of Wisdom' and that the text does in fact indicate that the divine wisdom is 'begotten from everlasting.'" He then proceeds to explain the reasoning process of the Reformed when he writes:

"Solomon clearly intended to refer to the wisdom of God--although the text does not specify the phrase, the meaning ought to be obvious. This wisdom, moreover, was with God 'in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' (Prov. 8:22), which is affirmed in much the same way of Christ as divine Word in John 1:1. What is said of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, moreover, cannot be said of anyone other than the second person of the Trinity--and Christ is called the wisdom of God 'in Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς [specifically], 1 Cor. 1:30,' and is so called 'absolutely and simply' in Matthew 11:19. The whole chapter in Proverbs, moreover, clearly speaks of wisdom as a 'person.' As for the Hebrew word olam, the Reformed argument is precisely the same as presented with reference to Micah 5:2: the word can and should be rendered as 'eternal' or 'from everlasting'--particularly so in Proverbs 8:23, where 'everlasting, from the beginning' is explained by the phrase in the preceding verse 'the Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old' and by the entire remaining passage (vv. 24-29), where clearly this wisdom is said to exist before the creation itself."1

Muller sets the Reformed exegesis of Proverbs 8:23 as over against the teaching of The Racovian Catechism--a Socinian document that attempts to deny the eternal generation of the Son from Proverbs 8:23. Muller repeatedly draws on John Owen's Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, where Owen states, in no uncertain terms, that Proverbs 8 explicitly teaches the eternal generation of the Son of God:

"Our argument hence is: 'Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is spoken of, Prov. 8:23, under the name of Wisdom; now, it is said expressly there of Wisdom that it was ' begotten from everlasting:' and therefore the eternal generation of Christ is hence confirmed.' Our reasons are:--(1.) Because the things here spoken of can be applied to no other. (2.) Because the very same things are affirmed of Christ, John 1:1. (3.) Because Christ is the Wisdom of God, and so called in the Scripture, not only in the expression of ὁ Λόγος, but ῥητῶς, 1 Cor. 1:30. (4.) That by Wisdom Solomon in- tended the Wisdom of God, and that that word may be supplied, is most evident from what is spoken of it. Let the place be read. (5.) Christ is called not only the "Wisdom of God," but also Wisdom absolutely and simply; and that not only Prov. 1:20, but Matt. 11:19.2

Further on in his treatment of the Deity of the Son, Muller shows that Calvin also taught that Proverbs 8 was speaking of the eternal generation of the Son. In Institutes 1.13.7 Calvin wrote:

"The Word was truly God...I know prattlers would easily evade this, by saying that Word is used for order or command; but the apostles are better expositors, when they tell us that the worlds were created by the Son, and that he sustains all things by his mighty word (Heb. 1:2). For we here see that word is used for the nod or command of the Son, who is himself the eternal and essential Word of the Father. And no man of sane mind can have any doubt as to Solomon's meaning, when he introduces Wisdom as begotten by God, and presiding at the creation of the world, and all other divine operations (Prov. 8:22)."3

All of this reminded me of what Jonathan Edwards suggested regarding Christ as the Wisdom of God in Proverbs 8. In his somewhat controversial Unpublished Essay on the Trinity, Edwards drew similar exegetical conclusions as Owen:

"Christ is called 'the wisdom of God.' If we are taught in the Scripture that Christ is the same with God's wisdom or knowledge, then it teaches us that He is the same with God's perfect and eternal idea. They are the same as we have already observed and I suppose none will deny. But Christ is said to be the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24, Luke 11:49, compare with Matt. 23:34); and how much doth Christ speak in Proverbs under the name of Wisdom especially in the 8th chapter."4

While much debate has surrounded the precise exegetical conclusions of Proverbs 8:23, of this much we can be sure: the Scriptures unequivocally teach the eternal generation and deity of the Son and the orthodox have always affirmed it to be as one of the most foundational and essential of all Christian doctrine.

1. Richard A. Muller (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 4: The Triunity of God (pp. 286-287). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

2. John Owen, Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, p. 244.

3. John Calvin (1997). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

4. Jonathan Edwards Unpublished Essay on the Trinity.

The Wondrous "Why" of Christmas

Christmas is a time of mystery and wonder. The Virgin Mary was told by the angel that she would conceive and bear a son: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). It is hard to encounter a more exalted event than this! The mystery of Christmas is celebrated in our churches amidst scenes of beauty and majesty that prompt the hearts of children of all ages to rejoice in wonder!

The marvel of Christmas is amplified by the prologue of John's Gospel. In his theological Christmas account, John writes: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things were made through him." This is who Jesus is. Then comes Christmas: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).

John encourages us not so much to consider the mystery of the how of Christmas. The Divine Word, who was with the Father in the beginning, by whom all things were made, has come into our world as a baby! How could the Creator-Son enter the experience of a fragile baby we can never fathom! But the why of Christmas is given in Scripture as a source of wonder and endless joy. Let me suggest three lines of thought regarding the marvelous why of our Christmas celebration of Christ's incarnation.

First, in keeping with his emphasis on the priestly office of Christ, the writer of Hebrews states: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Here is one why of Christmas: God the Son came into our world to know the entirety of the human condition and to sympathize with our weakness and sorrow. The incarnation is the ultimate fulfillment of God's question to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall: "Where are you?" (Gen. 3:9). Man being unable to answer, God has come seeking in the person of his Son. Some theologians argue that it is impossible for God to have gained information by means of experience, since he eternally knows all things. This objection, while true, misses the point. Genesis 3:9 and Hebrews 4:15 involve not a denial of God's transcendence but rather the mystery of the transcendent God becoming immanent.

We may therefore take at face value this wondrous why for the incarnation: Christ became human to draw near to you and know you experientially, so as to sympathize fully with your weakness. As you bathe in the lights of a Christmas tree and sing carols in the church, open your heart to a Divine Savior whose love wanted to draw near to you in a way that required the taking on of mortal flesh. You are not alone, for he came to know, sympathize with, and help you. Perhaps Charles Wesley has put this mystery best: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th'incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!"

A second why of Christmas was given to Joseph in the famous verse giving our Savior his name: "you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt. 1:21). Jesus became incarnate to seek but also to save us from our sins. To this end, Jesus' birth launched a series of divinely planned events culminating in his death on the cross. Hebrews 2:17 states plainly that Jesus "had to be made like his brothers in every respect. . . to make propitiation for the sins of the people." How we impoverish Christmas if we isolate the incarnation from the atonement! The best of our Christmas carols celebrate the first with an aim to the second: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear."

A third wondrous why of Christmas returns us to the book of Hebrews. In his second chapter, the author tells us that Christ was incarnate not only to give us sympathy and make atonement for our sin, but then to sanctify us for an eternity in heaven with him. Hebrews 2:10 states that "it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering." Did you catch the phrase: "in bringing many sons to glory." This is the final why that makes Christmas such a joyful wonder. Wesley celebrates: "Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth!"

How did the eternal Word, the Creator-Son who was with the Creator-Father in the beginning, actually become a baby boy? This is a mystery in which little progress can be made. But why? Here is a wonder for us to know and celebrate: Christ came to draw near to us in sympathy, to make atonement for our sins, and ultimately to bring us into heaven for eternity with him. We say that Christmas is a time for gifts. But this is because it declares God's great and wondrous gift to us. May the why of Christmas fill you with wonder and joy over the gift God has given to you in his Son. What a wonder John has exclaimed, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14).  

Running the Race of Redemption

John Cain.jpg"If I had died in the line of duty, I don't think that I would have come to Christ. If I had been shot, I would have worn that as a badge of heroism. But when God gave me cancer, He brought me to a place of weakness in order to show me my need for Christ." These were the precious words of Chatham County Sgt. John Cain, who died on Saturday evening after a year long battle with pancreatic cancer. John was repeatedly featured on national news a year prior for helping a battered marathon runner finish a race. Within a month, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After his diagnosis, John entered a race--a race in which he acknowledged his need for Christ to carry him across the finish line. 

John joined New Covenant this year. He loved coming to worship and talking about points in the sermon that deeply affected him. When I first met John, he would barely look me in the eyes or talk with me. However, over the past year, John would greet me on Sunday mornings with a deep joy in his eyes, even as his body was wasting away. John's godly parents have been members of our church these past 7 years. They sought to raise their children to love God's word. They expressed to me over the years that their greatest longing was for their now grown children to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. After John was converted, he would talk with me about spiritual realities when we sat together. Among those things that John would speak to me about most of all were the work of Christ, the forgiveness of sins and God's mysterious sovereign providence. He would reach deep into his mind to pull out all the things that he had learned from Scripture as a child--things that he now believed for the first time in his life.

John's life became a glorious testimony to God's redeeming grace. As painful as it was for me to sit by his bedside as he lay dying, my mind was repeatedly filled with a sense of the infinite wisdom of God in crafting the circumstances of John's life in order to draw him to His Son. One minute, John was a law enforcement hero, the next, he was a weak man who recognized his need for Christ and his utter dependence on God to sustain his life.

This Thursday, John will be honored with a police memorial funeral. This will be a glorious opportunity for the proclamation of the Gospel. To that end, I am asking you to partner with me in prayer, "that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel," and, that many of John's family members and law enforcement colleagues will hear the Gospel and will also put their trust in Christ.

More Mercy in Christ than Sin in Us

In his book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes famously wrote, "We have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us." Here is one of those oft repeated statements of Gospel assurance with which believers love to comfort one another. The context, however, is one that has been almost entirely overlooked. Sibbes actually wrote, "If we have this for a foundation truth, that there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us, there can be no danger in thorough dealing." In context, Sibbes was seeking to encourage believers to make a concerted effort to mortification of sin (i.e. thorough dealing). He wrote,  "A set measure of bruising [i.e. spiritual humiliation] of ourselves cannot be prescribed, but it must be so far as (1) that we may prize Christ above all, and see that a Savour must be had; and (2) that we reform that which is amiss, though it be to the cutting off of our right hand, or pulling out of our right eye." 

Many believers struggle with the assurance of salvation on account of their sin. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the final paragraph of the chapter on "Assurance of Grace and Salvation"" (Ch. 18), states this so well:

"True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which wounds the conscience and grieves the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God's withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and to have no light: yet are they never so utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair."

John Owen, in his magnificent work on Psalm 130, set King David forth as the example of one who understood this soul-wrestling with God over his sin and longing for the assurance of God's love and favor. David understood, better than any, the multifaceted way in which God's grace worked in his life with regard to his ongoing battle with sin and his experience of a guilt-laden conscience. Owen wrote:

"Under the Old Testament none loved God more than he; none was loved of God more than he. The paths of faith and love wherein he walked are unto the most of us like the way of an eagle in the air,--too high and hard for us. Yet to this very day do the cries of this man after God's own heart sound in our ears. Sometimes he complains of broken bones, sometimes of drowning depths, sometimes of waves and water spouts, sometimes of wounds and diseases, sometimes of wrath and the sorrows of hell; everywhere of his sins, the burden and trouble of them. Some of the occasions of his depths, darkness, entanglements, and distresses, we all know. As no man had more grace than he, so none is a greater instance of the power of sin, and the effects of its guilt upon the conscience, than he."

Owen went on to set out seven soul-experiences from David's prayers in the Psalms. These serve as typical experiences of one who is already the object of the love and grace of God and yet who feels himself or herself "in the depths." 

1. The loss of the wanted sense of the love of God, which the soul did formerly enjoy. Owen explained: "A sense of God's presence in love is sufficient to rebuke all anxiety and fears in the worst and most dreadful condition; and not only so, but to give in the midst of them solid consolation and joy...This is that sense of love which the choicest believers may lose on the account of sin. This is one step into their depths. They shall not retain any such gospel apprehension of it as that it should give them rest, peace, or consolation."

2.  Perplexed thoughtfulness about their great and wretched unkindness towards God is another part of the depths of sin-entangled souls. "So David complains: Ps. 77:3, "I remembered God," saith he, "and was troubled." 

3. A revived sense of justly deserved wrath belongs also to these depths. "This is as the opening of old wounds. When men have passed through a sense of wrath, and have obtained deliverance and rest through the blood of Christ, to come to their old thoughts again, to be trading afresh with hell, curse, law, and wrath, it is a depth indeed. And this often befalls gracious souls on the account of sin: Ps. 88:7, 'Your wrath lies hard upon me.'"

4. Oppressing apprehensions of temporal judgments concur herein also; for God will judge his people. And judgment often begins at the house of God. 'Though God,' says such a one, 'should not cast me off for ever,--though He should pardon my iniquities; yet He may so take vengeance of my inventions as to make me feed on gall and wormwood all my days.' Ps. 119:120, says David, 'My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.' He knows not what the great God may bring upon him; and being full of a sense of the guilt of sin, which is the bottom of this whole condition, every judgment of God is full of terror unto him."

5. Prevailing fears for a season of being utterly rejected by God, of being found a reprobate at the last day. "Jonah seems to conclude so, chap. 2:4, 'Then I said, I am cast out of Your sight;'--'I am lost for ever, God will own me no more'...This may befall a gracious soul on the account of sin. But yet because this fights directly against the life of faith, God doth not, unless it be in extraordinary cases, suffer any of his to lie long in this horrible pit, where there is no water, no refreshment."

6. God secretly sends His arrows into the soul, that wound and gall it, adding pain, trouble, and disquietness to its disconsolation: "Ps, 138:2, 'Your arrows stick fast in me, and Your hand presses me sore.' Ever and anon in his walking, God shot a sharp piercing arrow, fixing it on his soul, that galled, wounded, and perplexed him, filling him with pain and grievous vexation. These arrows are God's rebukes: Ps. 139:11, 'When You, with rebukes, do correct man for iniquity.'"

7. Unspiritedness and disability unto duty, in doing or suffering, attend such a condition : "Ps. 40:12, 'My iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up.' His spiritual strength was worn away by sin, so, that he was not able to address himself unto any communion with God. The soul now cannot pray with life and power, cannot hear with joy and profit, cannot do good and communicate with cheerfulness and freedom, cannot meditate with delight and heavenly-mindedness, cannot act for God with zeal and liberty, cannot think of suffering with boldness and resolution; but is sick, weak, feeble, and bowed down.

Owen concluded the section on the soul-experience of believers in the depths of sin with this summary:

"Now, I say, a gracious soul, after much communion with God, may, on the account of sin, by a sense of the guilt of it, be brought into a state and condition wherein some, more, or all of these, with other the like perplexities, may be its portion ; and these make up the depths whereof the psalmist here complains."

While these are "the depths" that believers often find themselves in on account of their sin, they turn to the One to whom David said, "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." Concerning this appeal to God's mercy and forgiveness, Owen explained that believers must keep these things in view:

"1. The gracious, tender, merciful heart and will of God, who is the God of pardons and forgivenesses; or ready to forgive, to give out mercy, to add to pardon. 

2. A respect unto Jesus Christ, the only ἱλασμός, or propitiation for sin, as he is expressly called, Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2. And this is that which interposes between the gracious heart of God and the actual pardon of sinners. All forgiveness is founded on propitiation.

3. Actual forgiveness itself, as we are made partakers of it; comprising it both actively, as it is an act of grace in God, and passively, as terminated in our souls, with the deliverance that attends it. In this sense, as it looks downwards and in its effects respects us, it is of mere grace; as it looks upwards to its causes and respects the Lord Christ, it is from propitiation or atonement. And this is that pardon which is administered in the covenant of grace."

Believers, as we struggle in our souls for nearness to God, a restored sense of His favor and delight and new manifestations of His presence and power, we must learn to cry out to God from the depths--acknowledging God's holiness, our sin and rebellion, what our iniquities deserve and the great mercy of God in Christ that he continually shows us as we turn back to him from the depths. It is, in this way, that we will repeatedly experience in our souls the truth that there is "more mercy in Christ than sin in us"--as the Apostle boldly declared when he said, "Where sin abounded, grace did abound much more" (Rom. 5:20). 

Talk of God's attributes that is not tethered to concrete stories of God's dealings with his people in history tends toward abstraction (and so away from doxology, where all talk of God should end). The same is true, of course, of talk about any person's attributes. It's one thing for you to tell me that your spouse is kind and forgiving. I understand the meaning of those words, and, at least in theory, I applaud the virtues thus named. But those descriptors, so long as they remain divorced from stories of specific instances of spousal kindness and grace, don't grip me -- they don't move me to wonder and admiration at your spouse and his/her virtues. It's a whole different thing to tell me stories about how your spouse supported you in concrete ways during a rough spell at work or when your father passed away, or to tell me how quickly and freely they forgave you after you said or did that thing you shouldn't have said or done. Tell me stories, and I gain a more robust appreciation for the positive qualities of your husband or wife. Stories give teeth to adjectives that might otherwise fail to impress as fully as they should.

So too with God. Descriptions of God as just, merciful, wise, and true are accurate. But those words as such, no matter how artfully defined or movingly recited, don't grip us the way that concrete stories demonstrating God's justice, mercy, wisdom, and truthfulness do. And no story -- that is, no historical event -- puts God's attributes more vividly on display than the Cross. If pressed to define the Cross, our first inclination might be to unpack it in terms of what it has accomplished for us. And not without good reason. But we should also strive to unpack the Cross in terms of what it reveals and demonstrates about God. Who he is. What he is like.

Robert Howie does just that in his late sixteenth-century work On Man's Reconciliation with God. Howie was a Scottish born student of Caspar Olevianus and Johannes Piscator at Herborn. He returned to Scotland around the same time that his book on reconciliation was published on the continent (1591). Back home, he became the first principal of Marischal College in Aberdeen following its founding in 1593, and in 1606 succeeded Andrew Melville as principal of St. Mary's College in St. Andrews.

"In the reconciliation of God and man, God's supreme justice, mercy, wisdom, and truth shine." Thus Howie introduces the second chapter of his book on reconciliation. He proceeds to explain how each named characteristic of God is made conspicuous upon the Cross. With regard to God's justice, for instance, he notes how the Cross upheld God's own insistence regarding himself in Exodus 23:7 that he "will not acquit the guilty." God's justice was not compromised in the least by the Cross. Sin received its full due. God's righteous indignation at violations of his perfect law was exhausted. His wrath was poured out completely -- poured out on His own Son in the place of those whom God purposed to save from all eternity.

God's mercy, however, is equally conspicuous on the Cross. "God himself sent his only-begotten Son to die for those who were his enemies. And the Son suffered that wrath to fall on him that rightly should have been poured out on us." There was, Howie notes, no residual virtue in man that moved God to act thus. "God purposed to have mercy upon us entirely according to his own infinite grace, being moved by the indignity and misery of his creatures." Howie concludes his discussion of God's mercy vis-à-vis the Cross by noting several considerations that highlight the extent of that mercy. So, for instance, he points out that "God had mercy upon us, not upon the Angels [who rebelled against him], even though they were more excellent creatures than we." God's saving compassion towards particular sinners likewise exalts his mercy: "Even if all men had remained in the state of original intregrity and just one of those predestined for salvation had fallen, the Son of God still would have come down from heaven, and, leaving behind the ninety-nine sheep, would have sought the one who had gone astray and carried him home on his shoulders."

God's infinite wisdom, Howie notes thirdly, is conspicuous upon the cross. God's wisdom manifests itself in that way that perfect justice and perfect mercy meet upon the cross. "God remained just to the highest degree because he punished our sins with eternal death, not remitting any of them. He was merciful to the highest degree because he did not exact punishment for those sins from us, but from our surety, whom he himself had given to us, and thus he forgave all our sins." Reflection upon the wisdom revealed in justice and mercy's marriage on the cross prompts Howie to both praise and humble intellectual restraint. "Herein lies the astonishing wisdom of God, which transcends all knowledge. The minds of men are not sufficient to obtain exact understanding of these things. Angels rejoice to probe the same. Indeed, this wisdom is of such magnitude that we and the Angels will dwell upon it for eternity - there is much to learn from it, and much to weigh carefully in it."

"God's supreme truthfulness, finally, is conspicuous in our redemption." God's truthfulness, Howie argues, is seen in the fulfillment of God's own threats and promises in salvation history -- threats and promises that, upon the surface, may seem at odds with one another. So, for instance, God's insistence to Adam and Eve in the Garden that "you will surely die" (Gen. 2:7) finds fulfillment on the cross. Death for sin is realized in our substitute. Simultaneously, God's promise from the beginning (Gen. 3:15) of one who would come to conquer sin, death, and hell finds fulfillment on the cross. "God is found to be true in both the threats and promises he made," at that very moment when profound justice and profound mercy, in keeping with God's profound wisdom, meet. "For in the fullness of time, God sent the mediator into the world, and that mediator... absorbed for us that death which God had threatened."

Other attributes of God demonstrated upon the cross could be noted. Howie himself hints as much when he subsequently notes that God's "omnipotence never shone more brightly than when coupled with God's justice, when he determined to free us from death and the Devil... by a course that in itself seemed most impotent (for never did God constrain his omnipotence more than when he died in the flesh)."

In sum, then, we should as Christians regularly turn our thoughts to the cross. And may the cross, in addition to providing peace and hope to us, richly inform our sense of what God is like (our sense, that is, of his character), and so inform our praise.

Christ's Call to Discipleship

CCtD.jpgA Newly Released Audio Series 
from James Boice

Has it ever occurred to you that something is lacking in the lives of many of us who call ourselves Christians? We live in an age where the lack of true discipleship is a fatal defect. But to be a Christian is no light matter. It is a call to a transformed life and to perseverance through whatever troubles may arise. It may be the hardest thing anyone can do, yet with Christ supplying the strength anyone can do it. 

In Christ's Call to Discipleship, Dr. Boice does not mince words. He outlines the meaning, path, cost, and rewards of being a true disciple of Christ. 
Christ's Call to Discipleship is now available for purchase as:

Discipleship is lifelong, it is total. And the rewards are priceless.

Text Links:

The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture's lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ's perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner's good works are cloaked in Christ's own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.

Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:

"Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works--according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him--it must be led into his own light and view--cloaked in Christ's merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." And similarly in Heb. 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him," which statement means not only that man's heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith. Therefore, faith accomplishes two things with regard to the good work of the regenerate man: first, it purifies the heart and fount of that good work (Acts 15:9); and second, it covers, as it were, the defects of that work which proceeds from a heart only partially reborn. The work of the man without faith, moreover, suffers a twofold loss: first, without faith there is clearly no beginning of regeneration, from whence that work should proceed; and second, without faith there is no veil for the impurity under which that work labors."

The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God's law and Christ's perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God's estimation. It encourages us, in other words, to act in faith, not apart from it, but still to act -- contra the perennial claim that Protestant teaching on justification encourages indifference towards good works.

Rollock develops the theme of the justification of believers' good works more fully in his treatise on the subject. That treatise, along with several other previously untranslated writings of Rollock, is now available in English translation in a short volume titled Some Questions and Answers about God's Covenant and the Sacrament That Is a Seal of God's Covenant: With Related Texts, published last month by Wipf and Stock's Pickwick Publications imprint. The principal work included in this volume is the titular catechism, which Rollock published in Latin in 1596. In addition to the treatise on good works noted above, the volume also includes treatises on the divine covenants and the sacraments which were likewise included in Rollock's Romans commentary. All the writings included in the volume make significant use of the doctrine of the covenant of works. That, indeed, was the logic of their inclusion. I've translated the texts myself, and have included an introductory essay which intends to shed new light on Rollock's role in the development of Reformed covenant theology. But, as hopefully indicated above, the treatises on good works and on the sacraments in particular are theologically interesting beyond the use they make of the doctrine of the covenant of works. The book is available from Amazon in hard copy or as an e-book, or directly from Wipf and Stock itself at a slightly reduced price. I dedicated the work to my dog Oakley for reasons explained in the acknowledgments, and all proceeds from the book will be devoted to his ongoing maintenance. So please, for his sake, consider purchasing a copy.

Christ in Flesh and Spirit


Over the past 150 years or so, there has been a biblical theological development in our understanding of Paul's use of the σαρκ/πνεύμα (i.e. flesh/Spirit) distinction--specifically in relation to the Person and work of Christ. The most significant passage in this regard is Romans 1:3-4. The "ontological view," represented by Calvin, Hodge, Cranfield et al, held that Paul was merely referring to the two natures of Jesus when he wrote that Christ was "the seed of David according to the flesh" and "declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of Holiness through the resurrection of the dead." The "redemptive-historical view," represented by Warfield, Vos, Murray, Skilton, Gaffin and Ridderbos, understood Paul to be referring to two sequential stages of experience in existence--one according to the flesh (i.e. according to the old age) and the other according to the Spirit (i.e. according to the new era of the Spirit). 

In his essay, "The Christ that Paul Preached," B.B. Warfield* set out the "ontological view" of the passage when he wrote:

If we reduce what he tells us to its lowest terms it amounts just to this: Paul preached the historical Christ as the promised Messiah and as the very Son of God. But he declares Christ to be the promised Messiah and the very Son of God in language so pregnant, so packed with implications, as to carry us into the heart of the great problem of the two-natured person of Christ. The exact terms in which he describes Christ as the promised Messiah and the very Son of God are these: "Who became of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was marked out as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead." This in brief is the account which Paul gives of the historical Christ whom he preached.

In his defense of the "ontological" view, Warfield stressed the truth about the two natures united together in the one Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. While this was representative of the way in which most older theologians read the passage, Warfield also saw a "redemptive-historical" shift in the juxtaposition of the language used in vv. 3 and 4. He went on to explain that he saw something of a redemptive-historical teaching in the passage as well:

Of course there is a temporal succession suggested in the declarations of the two clauses. They so far give us not only a description of the historical Christ, but the life-history of the Christ that Paul preached. Jesus Christ became of the seed of David at His birth and by His birth. He was marked out as the Son of God in power only at His resurrection and by His resurrection. But it was not to indicate this temporal succession that Paul sets the two declarations side by side. It emerges merely as the incidental, or we may say even the accidental, result of their collocation. The relation in which Paul sets the two declarations to one another is a logical rather than a temporal one: it is the relation of climax. His purpose is to exalt Jesus Christ. He wishes to say the great things about Him. And the two greatest things he has to say about Him in His historical manifestation are these - that He became of the seed of David according to the flesh, that He was marked out as the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.1

Geerhardus Vos explained the "redemptive-historical view" when he wrote:

...As to the one He was "from the seed of David," as to the other He was "out of resurrection from the dead." The resurrection (both of Jesus and believers) is therefore--according to Paul--the entering upon a new phase of sonship characterized by the possession and exercise of unique supernatural power. That this should apply to Christ's body alone, or to the exertion by Chris of somatic power on the bodies of believers alone, while not here expressly denied, is in itself highly implausible. The above interpretation does not, of course, imply that Paul denied the supernatural conception of Jesus by the Spirit. Precisely because speaking of the pneuma-state in the absolute eschatological sense, he could disregard here the previous Spirit-birth and the Spirit-endowment at the baptism.2

Following Vos' exegesis, the late John Murray also held that Romans 1:3-4 was teaching two progressive stages in the redemptive-historical experience of Jesus. He helpfully explained what the shift in the two stages of experience meant for Jesus--and for believers in union with Christ--when he wrote:

Just as "according to the flesh" in verse 3 defines the phase which came to be through being born of the seed of David, so "according to the Spirit of holiness" characterizes the phase which came to be through the resurrection...

...The only conclusion is that Christ is now by reason of the resurrection so endowed with and in control of the Holy Spirit that, without any confusion of the distinct persons, Christ is identified with the Spirit and is called "the Lord of the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus, when we come back to the expression "according to the Spirit of holiness", our inference is that it refers to that stage of pneumatic endowment upon which Jesus entered through his resurrection. The text, furthermore, expressly relates "Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness" with "the resurrection from the dead" and the appointment can be none other than that which came to be by the resurrection. The thought of verse 4 would then be that the lordship in which he was instated by the resurrection is one all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers. The relative weakness of his pre-resurrection state, reflected on in verse 3, is contrasted with the triumphant power exhibited in his post-resurrection lordship. What is contrasted is not a phase in which Jesus is not the Son of God and another in which he is. He is the incarnate Son of God in both states, humiliation and exaltation, and to regard him as the Son of God in both states belongs to the essence of Paul's gospel as the gospel of God. But the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection states are compared and contrasted, and the contrast hinges on the investiture with power by which the latter is characterized.3

John Skilton, in his outstanding 1996 WTJ article "A Glance At Some Old Problems in First Peter," appealed to the importance of adopting the redemptive-historical view of Romans 1:3-4 and arriving at a similar conclusion on the difficult exegesis of 1 Peter 3:18-20:

Readers of the NT have been puzzled at times by statements that seem to indicate that our Lord has become something that he already had been before. For example, in Matt 28:18, Jesus says: "All power has been given unto me in heaven and on earth." The reader asks, "Did he not have all power previously?" In Acts 2:36, Peter says: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made that same Jesus whom you have crucified both Lord and Christ." One inquires, "Was not Jesus both Lord and Christ already?" Other verses raise similar questions. The answer to these questions will be found in a right understanding of 1 Pet 3:18. At the close of that verse Peter writes: θανατωθεὶς μὲν σαρκὶ ζῳοποιηθεὶς δὲ πνεύματι....Flesh and spirit represent two spheres 
of existence or two successive conditions of Christ's human nature... 

 ...Marked off in 1 Pet 3:18, as in Rom 1:3-4, would be two successive stages in our Lord's messianic work. These different stages are reflected also in such verses as Matt 28:18 and Acts 2:36...The second stage, introduced by the resurrection, was "one all-pervasively conditioned by pneumatic powers." The πνεύματι in 1 Pet 3:18 accordingly refers not only to the resurrection, but also to the state of power that followed it.4

While the "ontological view" falls entirely within the realm of the analogy of Scripture and analogy of faith, it does not do full justice to the exegetical construct of Romans 1:3-4. Much more satisfying is the explanation provided by Warfield, Vos, Murray, Skilton, Gaffin and Ridderbos. Understanding the σαρκ/πνεύμα (i.e. flesh/Spirit) distinction in redemptive history helps us understand more of what we have as believers living in the new age (i.e. the age of the Spirit) waiting for the consummation of that age when Christ comes in His glory.   

1. B. B. Warfield, "The Christ that Paul Preached," in The Person and Work of Christ (ed. Samuel G. Craig; Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 73-90. 

2. Geerhards Vos The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1961) n. 10 pp. 155-156. For a continued treatment of this passage see Vos' chapter, "The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Concept of the Spirit" in the Princeton Seminary Biblical and Theological Studies p. 228ff. 

3. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 6. 

It has seldom received as public an airing as is now possible in the context of social media, yet controversy surrounding the eternal subordination of the Son position (ESS) is not new. Although it has not usually intruded upon the wider Christian consciousness and has largely been confined to theological books and the pages of scholarly journals, debates on the subject have been ongoing for well over two decades and, in slightly different forms, even further back.

The egalitarian theologian, Kevin Giles, has been one of the most persistent and prominent critics of the eternal subordination of the Son position, challenging it in a number of different books over the years: The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate (2002), Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity (2006), and The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology (2012). In his 2009 book, Who's Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate, Millard J. Erickson tackled the subject, also from an egalitarian perspective.

Further books have been written in defence or discussion of the doctrine. The New Evangelical Subordinationism? Perspectives on the Equality of God the Father and God the Son (2012) brings together a number of writers from different sides of the debate. Bruce Ware and John Starke recently edited the book One God in Three Persons: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life (2015), which offers various arguments for--diverse forms of--ESS (Steve Holmes' highly critical review and Fred Sanders' friendlier review are both worthwhile reading). Mike Ovey's Your Will Be Done: Exploring Eternal Subordination, Divine Monarchy and Divine Humility (2016) is another recent book in support of the ESS position.

Many articles and reviews of books have been written on the subject. A few examples that I have seen referenced in the current debate include John Dahms, "The Subordination of the Son" (1994); Gilbert Bilezikian, "Hermeneutical Bungee-Jumping: Subordination in the Godhead" (1997); Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm Jr., "A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son" (1999); Craig Keener, "Is Subordination Within the Trinity Really Heresy? A Study of John 5:18 in Context" (1999); Scott Swain and Michael Allen, 'The Obedience of the Eternal Son" (2013); D. Glenn Butner Jr., "Eternal Functional Subordination and the Problem of the Divine Will" (2015).

One of the most striking features of this material is the diversity of positions represented, even among people presumed to be on the same 'side'. Under closer examination, this is not a debate that tidily separates out into two distinct camps. A wide range of positions on several interconnected questions are represented within it, yet the differences are not always where one might expect them.

For instance, the doctrine of eternal generation is a complicating facet of the debate, cutting across apparent party lines. As I observed in my previous post, Grudem and Ware question this doctrine and tend to place the weight of divine self-differentiation upon eternal relations of authority and submission, quite a significant move and departure from the position taken by various other complementarian advocates of the eternal subordination of the Son. Kevin Giles has argued forcefully in favour of eternal generation, yet his fellow opponent of ESS Millard Erickson rejects the doctrine, in part on account of the connection drawn between it ESS in certain circles.

Reading some of the earlier articles in the debate is informative. Kovach and Schemm argued that ESS was the majority viewpoint among evangelical theologians in the twentieth century. In his response to Goligher and Trueman, Grudem also maintained that the ESS position had a strong evangelical pedigree. That both Charles Hodge (in 1871-1873, see his treatment of the Trinity in sixth chapter of the first volume of his Systematic Theology) and A.H. Strong (in 1907, see 619-620 of his Systematic Theology) appear to advocate some milder form of the position--and the latter compares it to relations between the sexes--tells against the claims of those asserting that the position is entirely a novelty of recent vintage, arrived at in order to support a theory of gender relations (a point upon which Giles agrees).

Nevertheless, the more modest stipulated definition Hodge provides for his use of the term 'subordination' in §2.A.4 of his chapter on the Trinity sets his account apart from the position of such as Grudem, who questions eternal generation and greatly elevates the themes of obedience and authority/submission. Besides, even a milder ESS position was not uncontroversial in the 19th century and most of the critics of ESS are not prepared to grant either that it flows untroubled within or naturally develops out from the Nicene tradition.

The slipperiness and equivocation in the use of key terms in these debates is a matter to which I will return. For now, I will observe that both the intense accenting of this doctrine and the proximity to theological anthropology into which it has been drawn do seem to represent more recent developments. Perhaps hairline fractures in poorly articulated doctrines of the Trinity have become more apparent and pronounced as those doctrines have been employed as heavy load-bearing ones in recent gender debates.

Craig Keener is also an interesting case: he is an egalitarian who argues for the subordination of the Son, and who observes--at the time of writing his article--that many other egalitarians he knows share that position, while some of his complementarian friends reject it as heretical. Like Andrew Perriman, Keener firmly resists accounts of gender roles derived from the Trinity, yet has an affinity with the more 'biblicist' and narrative-focused readings of the relationship between Father and Son offered by many complementarians (both Keener and Perriman largely sidestep the 'eternal' dimension of the subordination, as their interest is in the New Testament narrative).

The towering figure of Karl Barth has been an occasional and confusing presence in this debate. In Church Dogmatics, IV.1.202ff., for instance, Barth seemingly draws some of the connections that ESS advocating complementarians have drawn, speaking of God's inner life as involving a 'First and a Second, One who rules and commands in majesty and One who obeys in humility' (202). Barth also speaks of the wife as 'second and subordinate' and suggests that this relation can be clarified when seen in light of the Trinity. He also speaks of a 'twofoldness' of humanity that is 'a reflection of this likeness of the inner life of God Himself' (203).

Barth's account of subordination in the Trinity was highly contested among his theological successors, not least in disagreements between Colin Gunton and Thomas Torrance on the subject. Barth's connection between the obedience of the Son in the economy and his eternal generation is taken up by Swain and Allen. In his essay in Advancing Trinitarian Theology, Darren Sumner defends Barth's account of obedience and subordination in the Trinity, while demonstrating the problems with a selective adoption of Barth on this point. Barth's approach only works within the context of his broader theological framework, a framework that would not be welcomed by most evangelicals. Josh Gillies discusses Barth further here. The work of Bruce McCormack, who develops Barth's actualist Christological ontology in the direction of a Reformed kenoticism, should also be mentioned here (along with a warning that his approach cannot be appropriated piecemeal in support of a complementarian ESS position).

The examples of Giles and Erickson can provide a sense of some further complexities of the debate. As I've already noted, Erickson rejects the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, while Giles staunchly defends it. Although he now seems to be rather more reticent in advocating such a doctrine, seemingly preferring to advocate a 'communal' Trinitarianism, Giles has formerly aligned himself with Erickson's social Trinitarianism: 'The Trinity is a communion of three persons, three centers of consciousness, who exist and always have existed in union with one another and in dependence on one another.' He has also presented such a doctrine of the Trinity as grounding an egalitarian social agenda, appealing to both Jürgen Moltmann and Leonardo Boff (see The Trinity & Subordinationism, 101ff.). Such a position would fall under many of the same strictures as ESS.

Finally, more subtle differences in Trinitarian theology can sometimes surface in this debate between complementarians and egalitarians, even when both deny ESS. Characteristic of some forms of egalitarian Trinitarianism seems to be a minimalistic account of Trinitarian taxis and of the relationship between the economic missions and the processions of the immanent Trinity. Erickson, favourably cited by Giles, writes:

"There is no permanent distinction of one from the other in terms of origination. While the Father may be the cause of the existence of the Son and the Spirit, they are also mutually the cause of his existence and the existence of one another. There is an eternal symmetry of all three persons" (The Trinity & Subordinationism, 103).

It should be borne in mind that it is not only complementarians who are at risk of reading their ideals of community and relations into and out from the Triune life of God.

Within my next post I will outline what I believe to be some of the principal questions that need to be addressed in the current debate.

No Adam, No Christ!

Preaching through Genesis over the past year and a half has encouraged me to re-open quite a number of significant theological subjects--not least of which is the historical character of the foundational portions of God's revelation. Over the past 150 years, biblical scholars have spilled ink ad nauseam over the question of the historicity of the opening chapters of Genesis (as well as other parts of the Old Testament). Denying the historicity of various portions of Scripture was the backbone of theological liberalism at the turn of the 20th Century. Today, in the biblical studies world, scholars are far more nuanced and sophisticated in the ways in which they deny the historicity of Genesis 1-3. With the rise of studies in Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature and complex scientific theories of origins, there is no end to the ways in which its historicity is explained away. 

Today, quasi-evangelical scholars have concocted an amalgamated hermenuetical approach made up of various aspects of Higher Criticism, ANE mythopoetic categories and scientific theories of origin. One can find this amalgamated hermenuetic most notably (or perhaps most notoriously!) in the work of Peter Enns (who continues to spend inordinate time and energy seeking to overthrow the inerrancy and historicity of the foundational portions of biblical revelation). 

Nevertheless, the connection between the creation account and the subsequent redemptive revelation form the internal witness of Scripture to the idea that the historicity and theology of the creation narrative is inseparably linked to the historicity and theology of the redemptive (i.e. new creation) revelation. 

In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos helpfully illustrated the principle of connecting history and redemptive revelation when he said, "within the narrative of Scripture the creation narrative is interwoven like a link in the chain of God's saving acts. God does not make a chain of solid gold, in which the first link is a floral wreath." Vos developed this thought in the following way: 

If the creation history is an allegory, then the narrative concerning the fall and everything further that follows can also be allegory. The writer of the Pentateuch presents his work entirely as history. Against those that believe in the results of higher criticism, it can perhaps be useful to note that according to the critics who carve the Pentateuch into pieces, Genesis 1 belongs to the Priestly Codex, that is, to the more sober, non-poetic part of the Torah. The same writer who describes the layout of the tabernacle and the clothing of the priests gives us the narrative of creation, and he connects both. Further, elsewhere in Scripture Genesis 1 and 2 are treated as history (Exod 20:11; 31:17; Ps. 8; 104; Matt 19:4; 2 Pet 3:5).1

John Murray, in his Principles of Conduct, also defended the historicity of Genesis 1-3 as over against a supposed mythological or mythopoetic interpretation. He explained: 

That Genesis 2 and 3, for example, is story, but does not represent history, the present writer does not believe. An express attempt to refute such an interpretation had not been undertaken...The historical character of the revelation deposited in the Bible does not comport with a non-historical view of that which supplies the foundation and starting point of that history. It is surely apparent how far-reaching must be the reconstruction of the Bible's representation respecting the history of revelation if we are to reject the historicity of the fall of Adam as the first man. It is the conviction of the present writer that a mythological interpretation is not compatible with the total perspective which the biblical witness furnishes.2

Murray, like Vos before him, proceeded to root his argument in the fact that the rest of biblical revelation adopts a historical approach to Genesis 1-3. 

To state the case positively, the concreteness of Genesis 2 and 3, as historically interpreted, is thoroughly consonant with the concreteness which characterizes the subsequent history of Old Testament revelation. It should be noted that of supreme importance is the fact that Jesus and the Apostles assumed the historical character of the Old Testament, and frequently referred to the historicity of the creation narrative, Adam, Noah, a world-wide flood and the Exodus. In Mark 10:6, Jesus affirmed the historicity of the creation account of Genesis 1 when He said, "from the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.'" When he came to predict the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, Jesus again affirmed the historical nature of the creation account of Genesis when He said, "in those days there will be tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the creation which God created until this time, nor ever shall be."3

Appeal to how the writers of Scripture viewed the historical character of the creation/fall account of Genesis is, without doubt, the strongest internal-witness argument of Scripture. This point of paramount significance is seen by a brief survey of how both the Old and New Testament human authors of Scripture viewed the creation account:

  • Moses tells us how Adam was created (Gen. 1:26; 2:5-8) and how many years he lived (Gen. 5:5). 
  • The writer of 1 Chronicles traced humanity from Adam to David (1 Chronicles 1 and 2) by means of historical genealogy. If Adam was not a historical being then neither were all the people from Adam to David. 
  • Job likened the hiding of his sin to Adam's covering his sin (Job 31:33). 
  • Luke traced Jesus' genealogy (from Mary) back to Adam (Luke 3:38). If Adam was not a historical being then neither were all the people from Adam to Jesus. Jesus declared that "He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' (Matthew 19:4). 
  • Paul explained that the reason for death and condemnation was the representative, imputed guilt of Adam's sin (Rom. 5:12-21). Paul also explained that the external giving of the law was first with Adam and then with Moses. Those who were not given external law from Adam to Moses still had the sentence of death in them because of Adam's sin. Paul explains, "death reigned from Adam to Moses" (Rom. 5:13). If Adam was not a historical being then neither was Moses.
  • Paul explained the solution to our deserved condemnation in the obedience of the second Adam, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12-21). He explicitly declared that the first Adam was a "type" of the second Adam. If Adam was not a historical being then neither was Jesus. 
  • The apostle defended the role relation of men and women in the church by the order in which Adam and Eve were created and were tempted (1 Timothy 2:13-14). Eden was the prototype of every subsequent culture. No one can say Paul's teaching was culturally bound because he takes it back to the Garden. He viewed the Genesis account as an accurate historical record of Eden. 
  • The apostle urged the NT church to defend the Gospel by reminding them of the way in which Satan--in time and space--had deceived Eve: "I fear, lest, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11:3)."

Some have responded to the statement "If Adam didn't exit then neither did Christ" by appeal to the continuum fallacy. Ironically, such an appeal is itself a fallacious appeal to logical fallacy. If in historical narratives/genealogies we have explicit statements of generational descent then we have to conclude that it is either A) true (based on the authority of Scripture) or B) untrue. Because of the trustworthiness of Scripture--the variable of variables, in this case--we cannot conclude that part of the genealogy is true and part is untrue. Hence there is no continuum fallacy as there might be with that sort of reasoning where the "inerrancy/authority" variable is not present. 

While some conservative biblical scholars may, in fact, play the "slippery slope" argument too quickly (and even, at times, inappropriately), when the authority of Scripture is brought into the mix, our reasoning is affected in a way that it is otherwise not affected by those things that are not distinctly biblical. For example Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, makes a number of logical arguments about Christ's resurrection and the subsequent impact it has on our preaching, faith and personal resurrection (1 Cor. 15:14-18). As is true of the connection between the historicity and theology of the resurrection of Christ so too of the historicity and theology of the creation and fall account of Genesis 1-3. 

1. Geerhardus Vos. Reformed Dogmatics. R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, & A. Janssen, Trans (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-12014) vol. 1, p. 161. 

2. John Murray Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman's, 1957) p. 9

3. Ibid.

More Goodness Showed To Us Than to Christ

Christians affirm that God is good, but just how good is God? We can speak of him being "infinitely good" but that still doesn't help the person in the pew much. People need specifics.

Is it possible that God could show more goodness to his people than to his beloved Son? 

Think of the truth that the Father poured out wrath upon his Son - his Son in whom he has always been well-pleased (Matt. 3:17; 17:5), even from eternity. How do we understand this mystery? 

In one sense we can say that God was never more happy with his Son than when he was most angry with him. What does that mean? As John Owen says,

"[The Father] was always well pleased with the holiness of [Christ's] person, the excellency and perfections of his righteousness, and the sweetness of his obedience, but he was displeased with the sins that were charged on him: and therefore it pleased him to bruise him and put him to grief with whom he was always well pleased."

This understanding of our redemption leads us to say something rather provocative: that the goodness shown to us, God's people, is "a greater goodness to us, than was for a time manifested to Christ himself" (Charnock). 

God's wrath upon his Son was so intense that it could have sunk millions of worlds of sinful men and angels (Owen). Christ was forsaken by the Father for a time in order that the Father would never forsake us (Heb. 13:5). 

We received a promise that even Christ himself did not receive: Heb. 13:5 - the promise that God will never leave us nor forsake us. Of all the promises made to Christ from the Father, Christ could not have been told that the Father would leave him or forsake him.

The holy one of God was declared at Calvary to be unholy so that unholy creatures like us might be declared to be as holy as the holy one of God. God valued the redemption of the elect so much that He sentenced His own Son to humiliation on earth so that all who belong to Christ may be exalted in heaven. 

So in speaking about the goodness of God, we must speak vividly, sometimes provocatively, about the way in which his goodness is shown to us:

"God was desirous to hear him groaning, and see him bleeding, that we might not groan under his frowns, and bleed under his wrath; he spared not him, that he might spare us; refused not to strike him, that he might be well pleased with us; drenched his sword in the blood of his Son, that it might not for ever be wet with ours, but that his goodness might for ever triumph in our salvation; he was willing to have his Son made man, and die, rather than man should perish, who had delighted to ruin himself; he seemed to degrade him for a time from what he was" (Charnock).

To affirm that for a time God showed more goodness to us than to his Son is to say that Christ's shrieks, cries, and spiritual agonies were not pretended but real.  

We are living in an age, I believe, where preaching has fallen on hard times. There are many reasons for this, but one reason I believe is obvious: pastors have a limited range of vocabulary and do not paint pictures for God's people to be moved by God's goodness, love, patience, wrath, etc. 

God is gracious: fine! But how is God gracious? That's the job of the preacher: to make God's people understand, love, and believe God's grace to them. 

Rapid hand movements are taking the place of vivid, memorable words. Our words, not dramatic hand-waving, should keep the attention of God's people. Sacred rhetoric has been replaced by the karate kid.  

The highest gift possible for the Father to bestow upon his people was the gift of his Son - his Son whom he showed less goodness to for a while than vile, God-hating sinners like you and me. Thus when we speak of God's goodness, we can say that his goodness is such that he showed more love to us than for a time he showed to the one in whom he had no reason to show wrath except that it was better for us that he did.  

A Christmas Reflection

If the dank earth forming marrow and flesh does not entice your wonder, then neither will the Incarnation. 

This Christmas season, I have been thinking of how integrally related Adam and Christ are in redemptive history, as made plain in Romans 5:12-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:42-49. The Trinitarian God spoke Adam into being and formed him from the dust of the ground (Gen 2:7). The Father uttered; the Son manifested; the Spirit gave life (cf. Job 33:4). Out of soil came a son.

In the Incarnation, the same Trinitarian God spoke, but this time in the tongue of redemption. The Father sent (Gal 4:4; 1 John 4:10); the Son complied (cf. John 5:19-20); and Mary conceived by the Spirit (Matt 1:18; Luke 1:35). Out of a womb came the Word (John 1:1).
At Christmas we are ever reminded that the Son of God took on flesh and dwelt among us. 

This, we are told, should bring us to well up with joy--a glorious joy fit for proclamation by an angelic host (Luke 2:13-14). And it should! But reminding ourselves that Adam lies in Christ's shadow may serve to deepen that joy. Here are a few thoughts to remind us of how the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation builds upon the beauty and wonder of creation.

Just as God did not have to redeem, God did not have to create.[1] "Creation was not required, not mandatory, not extracted from God, neither by any necessity imposed from outside nor by any deficit lurking within the life of God."[2]  Creation is the result of a voluntary, gracious, and loving decision. All that we see around us "is a work of God's grace, flowing from God's love."[3]

The creation of Adam, seen in this light, is not ordinary or expected in the sense of being the product of some mechanical law of evolution. Adam was not simply bound to be there in the beginning. Adam was there only because God chose to speak him, and nothing can thwart the sovereign choice and holy speech of an almighty God. Creation was voluntary, not compulsory.

In this sense, Adam's life can be seen as a gift from the Trinitarian Giver. Creation, not Christmas, is the origin of gift-giving. That, perhaps, is part of the wonder of humanity's genesis. Ours is a beginning wrapped and tagged by the Trinity: Adam and his progeny are the gifts God gave to himself--not in divine greed but in divine grace. 

Now, juxtapose this with the Christmas story in the New Testament. If the wonder of Genesis is that God gave humanity the gift of life, then the joy of Christmas is that God gave us new life. And the packaging of both gifts resembled one another. The temporal son took on flesh and bone, as did the eternal Son. The "man of dust" (1 Cor 15:47) had no biological father, and neither did the "man of heaven." 

But there are also stark differences: the temporal son failed where the eternal Son succeeded; the man of dust could offer no salvation, but the man of heaven had salvation in his bloodstream. The first Adam exchanged the words of God for the words of a creature; the last Adam (1 Cor 15:45) crushed the words of a creature with the words of the triune God (Matt 4). 

Given this redemptive-historical relationship between Adam and Christ, we would do well to remember them both at Christmas, with greater emphasis, of course, on the Incarnation. Adam, we said at the outset, is in Christ's shadow, not the other way around. And yet, our appreciation for the utter uniqueness of the Incarnation is deepened when we contrast it with that ancient incarnation of sonship in Adam. What a wonder it was for God to breathe life into the dust and form a person! Such wonder is outweighed only when we reflect on the miracle of God breathing the second person of the Trinity into flesh and blood! We should be awed by Adam, but overwhelmed by Christ. The former brought death through life; the latter, life through death. 

This Christmas, as you focus on the glory of the Incarnation and the gift of the Son of God, remember that this Son cast a long shadow in which a lesser son was born. The world began with a gift; we might not be so surprised, then, to see it restored through one--a far greater and more costly gift: God himself. Such a gift is worth more than gratitude. It is worth our adoration.

Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, 
Christ the Lord. 

- John Francis Wade


[1]  Herman Bavinck, in my opinion, has one of the best treatments of the Triune God as creator. See God and Creation, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp.420-26. God created not simply to have something isolated from him, but to dwell in relationship with his creation. That is why redemption is so frequently spoken of as a restoration or reconciliation with God. Or, for Bavinck, it can be described as a return to God. "Creation thus proceeds from the Father through the Son in the Spirit in order that, in the Spirit and through the Son, it may return to the Father" (p.426).

[2] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), pp.64-65.

[3] Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), p.47.

This post is the second in a twelve-part series on the current Christological confusion taking root in China's emerging Reformed Community (see part 1 here).

Context & Cause of the Current Confusion

In one of the most fascinating developments in global Christianity today, many pastors and other believers in China are embracing Reformed theology and reforming their beliefs and practices. Though a few observers challenge the claim, a Reformed community in China (as opposed to isolated individuals and congregations) does exist, and not just online. The tendrils of this community often twine around the ministries of a relatively few widely recognized ministers. As such, these individuals, whose ministries are often based outside of China, exercise remarkable influence on theological opinion within the still relatively secluded world of Reformed Christianity on the mainland.

For many years now, and at least as recently as 2013, one such influence with an international ministry and reputation has been saying some very confusing things about the human nature of Jesus Christ. [1]  At times, he has attempted to clarify and defend his comments. One such attempt is found in a series of three recordings he made in 2012, which were subsequently transcribed and translated by others. Though these three recordings and a booklet he published in 1991 are the sources cited below, the primary source of the confusion in China's Reformed community has been his oral statements to the same effect in sermons, lectures, and especially question and answer sessions.

Though this man's public statements are the source of the current confusion, as one Reformed observer explains, "the belief that Christ's humanity is uncreated actually has had a longstanding tradition among Chinese Christian leaders associated with Reformed theology, including Jia Yuming." [2]  This tradition appears to be reflected in the widely used Chinese translation of the Belgic Confession, which curiously drops the original's explicit affirmation that the human nature of Christ is created. [3]  All of this predates the current proponent of this view, whose statements may represent what he sees as an established, albeit eccentric, Eastern Christological tradition--a tradition that seemed certain to fade away without his advocacy.

A Cautious Critique

Some of the church's greatest fathers have occasionally said some odd things about Jesus Christ, things later generations viewed as ill-advised or just plain wrong. Take Athanasius of contra mundum fame for his stand against ascendant Arians. Once, while trying to show how his adversaries mangled Hebrews 3:2 about Jesus' becoming or being made or appointed high priest, he drew this analogy of the incarnation:

What the Savior did on His coming, this Aaron shadowed out according to the Law. As then Aaron was the same and did not change by putting on the high-priestly dress, but remaining the same was only robed, . . . in the same way it is possible in the Lord's instance also to understand aright, that He did not become other than Himself on taking the flesh, but, being the same as before, He was robed in it; and the expressions 'He became' and 'He was made,' must not be understood as if the Word, considered as the Word, were made, but that the Word, being Framer of all, afterwards was made High Priest, by putting on a body which was originate and made, and such as He can offer for us; wherefore He is said to be made. [4]

Comments like these continue to fuel sometimes uncharitable suspicions that Athanasius operated with a deficient view of Christ's humanity--that the Son assumed something less than a fully human nature complete with intellect and will. [5] Even if Athanasius was not confused about the humanity of Christ, this analogy and some of his other remarks confuse readers and obscure his orthodoxy as much as they disclose it.

Elsewhere, Athanasius affirms the union of the divine Word with a fully human nature, body and soul. [6] So, we should not conclude too much from an odd analogy here or argument there. Whether the one above is helpful or confusing is a different question than any we might ask about Athanasius's Christology. We may conclude, that is, that this analogy is very confusing or that argument not at all helpful while taking no position on or even defending the source's overall view of Christ's humanity.

Similarly, the following critique centers on the cause of the current Christological confusion within China's emerging Reformed community. The immediate cause is found in certain public statements. I take no position on whether these statements are being understood correctly or if they accurately represent this brother's views; I only conclude that his statements are the cause of some confusion that deserves at least this much attention.


1. For several good reasons I need not explain here, I am not going to name the current source of this apparently confused and certainly confusing teaching. Those most likely to benefit from me doing so will already know who it is; those who do not know probably do not need to know.

2. Jia (1880-1964, formerly known as Chia Yu-ming) had strong ties to prewar Presbyterian mission work in China, teaching at both Nanjing Jinling Seminary and North China Theological Seminary. He gained an international reputation and became vice-chairman of the Committee of the Chinese Church Three-Self Patriotic Movement in 1954. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, (; accessed July 22, 2015)

3. This edition of the Belgic Confession was translated by Charles Chao, published by Reformation Translation Fellowship, and is now available online at

4. Athanasius, Against the Arians, 2.8.

5. See, for example, Christopher Beeley, The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 165. Beeley's harsh interpretation of Athanasius includes accusations that he invented the Arian controversy and died a bitter controversialist defending his narrow Word-flesh Christology.

6. In Letter to Epictetus, 7, he writes this: "But truly our salvation . . . does not extend to the body only, but the whole man, body and soul alike, has truly obtained salvation in the Word Himself. That then which was born of Mary was according to the divine Scriptures human by nature."
Sympathy Made Perfect by David B. Garner on Place for Truth

In our last column, we surveyed the importance of Jesus' life as signaled in Luke 2:52: "Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man." More needs be said. So we return to this theme of Jesus' life, with an eye to appreciating further Jesus' biography of personal growth and maturity, as the means toward his real redemptive sympathy for us.

Most of us can handle Jesus' growth in stature (years). After all, the birth accounts consume one out twelve months of the preaching experiences in our Western churches. Each December we sing the mysteries, celebrate the humility, and soak in the sweet sentiments of God becoming flesh.

We know the crude and compelling story from the Inn-side out. With no place for the newborn King, Jesus was laid in a feed trough. Vulnerable, dependent, and weak, he nursed at his mother's breast and lurched along on the arduous night journey toward Egypt.  The earliest harsh realities faced by the Son of God born of a woman and born under the curse of the law (Gal 4:4) drip with a pathos that rightly disarms us. At the same time, the humble beginnings of baby Jesus fill us with joy inexplicable, as we relish the breath-stealing grace associated with God becoming man.

Stunning as this reality is, we must not get caught up in these particular sorrows or sentiments. The birth narratives tell of the incarnation, but the incarnation is not in itself the gospel. The good news is not only born; it must also be made. Born of the virgin mother, Jesus had to engage our lives, our world, and our suffering. He had to live, to suffer, and to work.

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The unavoidable fact of our utter inadequacy

Preachers are meant to be conduits for the pure word of God. Sometimes the pipe gets dirty and what comes out is impure. Sometimes the pipe gets clogged and the truth gets impeded. Some preachers have poorer settings: trickle, fine spray, jet. I suppose gush can be healthy, if sometimes a little overwhelming. Conrad Mbewe has a delightful setting labelled 'flow.' As one brother commented, he gets a lot said without using too many words.

mountains Brasov.jpgIt was my privilege to spend a week in Romania preaching with Pastor Mbewe at a series of conferences organised by a pastor called Sorin Prodan of Providence Church, Brasov, with an organisation called HeartCry. My previous experience of Romania has been limited to occasional contact with my good friend Pastor Mircea of the Logos Baptist Church in Arad, but I enjoyed fellowship with a variety of saints in a variety of settings, from the beauty of the plains among the mountains near the town of Brasov to the faded splendour of Resita with its once-mighty factories, preaching in a town called Bocsa as well as at the First Baptist Church in Resita itself. It was a delight to see the zeal of many of these brothers for those who are lost, and their ready engagement in healthy discussions about faith and life as those seeking to be bound to the Word of God.

It should be a blessing to travel and labour with a well-seasoned man of God, and Pastor Mbewe certainly did not disappoint. For one thing, it is fascinating and instructive to watch the way that he is approached and treated, and how he responds. However, the best thing is to be able to hear the Word of God handled by a gifted man. I heard him preach several sermons through 1 Timothy 3.16 on the great mystery of godliness, and then one sermon on Psalm 51.13 on the necessity of brokenness in a true minister of the gospel.

It was the Psalm 51.13 sermon that really got me. It was an exercise in 'flow.' With measured periods and with steady cadence, Pastor Mbewe took me apart, driving home some of what had begun to settle from 1 Timothy 3. In the 1 Timothy material, I was reminded of that testimony that we can preach Christ better, but we cannot preach a better Christ. Handling Psalm 51, Pastor Mbewe explained and applied the need for a preacher to be taught in the school of repentance if he is to be a true minister of gospel grace. This came just after I had struggled to communicate much of value in the preceding session, and a few hours before I was due to preach at an evangelistic service in the evening.

But that is where Christ draws us on. The preacher's problem is not that he does not wish to preach Christ. He feels a weight of holy obligation to proclaim the Lord. What he wrestles with is his own unfitness for the task - his own unpreparedness of soul and his inability to communicate what he longs to communicate of the grandeur, greatness, grace and glory of the person of the Lord Jesus in all his saving excellence. And yet the hour approaches when he must preach, and he is found wrestling with God for a deeper and truer sense of these things in his own soul, that he may speak as a dying man to dying men, pleading with God for the sake of those hearing to give him grace and strength to make Christ known. As he preaches, he is conscious that his colours are too dull, his brush strokes lack finesse, his portrait is accurate in degree but fails to capture the full beauty and majesty of the King of kings. When he finishes, he rejoices over what he is called to do even as he mourns over how poorly he does it. Perhaps for a while he is persuaded that anyone else would be more suitable for the task than him. And yet Christ draws him on. He cannot but speak the things which he has seen and heard (Acts 4.20). And so soon he will stand up and try again, asking that if he must fail again it might at least be because he aims high and true, revelling in and weeping over the grand task and the great privilege of making Christ known, conscious that God has ordained that his own weakness is the platform on which Christ's saving strength is displayed, that his own evident need of the Saviour is one of the most powerful persuasives to others of the willingness and ability of the Lord Jesus to deliver sinners.
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ. (2Cor 2.14-17)
And so he casts himself afresh on the Lord, confessing again that the treasure is in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us (2Cor 4.7), feeling the awful weight and privilege of his calling, and trusting in God to accomplish what he himself cannot: "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God" (2Cor 3.5).

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