Results tagged “Christ” from Reformation21 Blog

Reformation 500, Social Justice and the Gospel

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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).

Authority

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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:
http://www.reformedresources.org/james-boice/christs-call-to-discipleship-mp3-anthology/
http://www.reformedresources.org/friends-august/christs-call-to-discipleship-cd-set/
http://www.reformedresources.org/boice-christs-call-to-discipleship-downloads/
http://www.reformedresources.org/james-boice-books/christs-call-to-discipleship/

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

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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!

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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

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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

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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

Notes:

[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.

Notes:

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, (http://www.bdcconline.net/en/stories/j/jia-yuming.php; 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 https://www.ccel.org/contrib/cn/creeds/belgic.html.

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.

Continue at http://www.placefortruth.org/placefortruth/column/sine-qua-non/sympathy-made-perfect

The unavoidable fact of our utter inadequacy

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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).

Video: Christ the Only Way

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