Tuesday, November 29, 2011

An Account of Early Church Worship

On the day called Sunday all who live in the cities or in the country gather at one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the one who is presiding instructs us in a brief discourse and exhorts us to imitate these noble things. Then we all stand up together and offer prayers.... When we have finished the prayer, bread is brought forth, and wine and water, and the presiding minister offers up prayers and thanksgiving to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; after this the consecrated elements are distributed and received by each one. Then a deacon brings a portion to those who are absent. Those who prosper, and who so wish, contribute what each thinks fit. What is collected is deposited with the presiding minister who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason, and those who are imprisoned, and the strangers and sojourners among us.
From Justin Martyr's First Apology, quoted on pp. 28-29 of Wilken, Robert Louis. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. Newhaven: Yale University Press, 2003.

I've been doing some research for a paper on Christology in the early Church, and came across this description of early Christian worship. It isn't directly related to my topic, but it captured my attention nonetheless and I thought I'd share it with you. This description of Christian worship comes to us out of the mid-second century (i.e., the 100s AD) from the hand of Justin Martyr, one of the first great Christian Apologists. (He was a philosopher, and continued wearing his scholarly garb after he converted to Christianity as a statement of his intent to articulate the gospel in a rationally coherent way in the presence of its skeptics and detractors.) I just wanted you to notice a few things about what he says:

1. First, notice the way in which the scriptures are handled: "and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets [in other words, the New Testament or Old Testament writings] are read as long as time permits." The reading of scripture, in line with 1 Timothy 4:13, took on a central importance, and in the congregation of which Justin was a member at least, there was no definite limit on how long scripture might be read at a given worship service. We are probably talking about longer readings rather than shorter ones here, and this raises a worthwhile question: why don't we do this in the church today? Why do we so often read only what will be discussed in the sermon? (This can be especially catastrophic in some parts of the protestant tradition, where the sermon may for better or worse focus on only a couple of verses at a time.) Why not give people more rather than less, so that the diversity of situations out of which church attendees come can be addressed by many things from scripture, and not just the one topic a pastor wants to talk about?

2. Second, notice the twofold pattern of the preaching: instruction and exhortation. This is widely recognized in the church today, but it is helpful to point out the value of this simple approach to sermons. The sermon is intended to address listeners with the word of God, both informing them of and clarifying its meaning (or acknowledging obscurity and uncertainty where it exists), and applying it to them in such a way that the word will take root, grow, and bear fruit in their lives in whatever context or calling they find themselves in. A focus on instruction and exhortation in sermons will in the long run yield communities of Christian disciples who both understand and do the word of God.

3. Third, notice the importance of prayer. It is corporate, something done together, and comes in sequence after the reading of scripture and the sermon. This means that as the church is first addressed by the word of God, it is being prepared to respond with words of its own, based on its own needs that have been put in proper perspective by God's revelation of himself in the gospel. What does corporate prayer look like in your churches? Speaking for my own Anglican tradition, I've come to appreciate lately the value in allowing a significant amount of time for people to pray in the midst of the assembly as they feel led, so that a whole range of the church's needs gets addressed by the church herself. (The pitfall in my tradition is to omit this in the liturgical form of the prayers, so that corporate prayer ends up sounding much more like another segment of the announcements than it does the sweet, rising incense of petition, praise, and thanksgiving from a people to their God.)

4. Fourth, notice the centrality of the Eucharist (i.e., the Lord's Supper). As in the New Testament (cf. Acts 2:42-47; 1 Cor. 11:17-34), the celebration of the meal Jesus gave us was an absolutely indispensable part of Christian worship - one could say, it was the edible word that stood alongside the audible word, the sermon. For a multitude of historical reasons there isn't time to discuss right now, this practice has often been pushed to the margins in protestant worship especially (despite the insistence of reformers like John Calvin on its centrality to Christian worship). A church that is 'all pulpit and no table' is in a precarious position (as of course is a church that is 'all table and no pulpit'), in danger of forgetting the importance of experiencing and enjoying the life of the kingdom in intimate personal communion with Christ and with his body the church. This need challenges us, beyond the mere question of how often our churches 'do communion,' to ask ourselves whether our churches are places where life is truly being lived 'together' in a meaningful sense.

5. Fifth and finally, notice how giving in the church is closely connected with providing for the needs of its members, especially people who are poor or in bad health. This is an area in which many churches have gotten a bad reputation, as impersonal organizations that are more intent upon self-perpetuation and on getting fancier facilities or gadgets than they are on engaging in holistic ministry that seeks to address the practical everyday needs of its family members. I won't pretend to have any experience with the ordinary concerns of church budgeting, but what would it look like for the first item on the budgetary concerns of a church to be "orphans and widows, or those who are in need because of sickness or some other reason"? (The last phrase is deliberately vague - in other words, "fill in the blank!") Might churches actually find that, far from limiting resources for ministry and outreach, this kind of prioritization of financial resources might in the long run actually further the work of ministry, by turning a church into a tight-knit community that loves and cares for its members in a way that is utterly foreign to this world? It is better to have people attracted to churches, not because of the funds that those churches were able to sink into state of the art facilities or media, but because of the Christlike generosity of people whose love for one another was such that they didn't regard anything they had as their own, but only as a gift from God with which to serve others and the world. That's the kingdom springing up in the midst of the present evil age, and Christian generosity of every sort serves as one of the most vivid signposts of the reign of God that has been inaugurated in the world through Jesus Christ, who was generous to the point of giving us his very self, of becoming poor so that we through his poverty might become rich.

Anyway, just some thoughts. Hopefully you find Justin's account compelling!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A God-Summary, Summarized

In him we have deliverance through his blood—the forgiveness of trespasses—based on the great riches of his grace, which he’s made to overflow abundantly to us in the form of every kind of wisdom and insight, just as he has made the mystery of his will known to us, based on his purpose that he publicly displayed in Christ. This was a divine plan for the fullness of the times, to ‘sum up’ all things in Christ—things in the heavens and things on the earth, in him.
Ephesians 1:7-10

I was reading Ephesians and felt the need to share my sense of wonder. Paul says that in Christ, God “publicly displayed his purpose” (Eph. 1:9). This mirrors similar language in Romans 3, where Paul tells us that God “publicly displayed” Christ as “an atoning sacrifice accessible by faith, in order to display God’s righteousness” (v. 25). And what is this purpose? It is “a divine plan for the fullness of the times, to ‘sum up’ all things in Christ—things in the heavens and things on the earth, in him” (Eph. 1:10). Moreover, this purpose was specially displayed to us, to sinners who have received the gospel. His abounding grace, Paul says, has overflowed to us not least in the fact that he’s revealed to us this mystery of his will for the world in Christ. So my question is, do you in fact look at the world around you as it is “in Christ”? If God’s purpose is to “sum up” everything in this universe in Jesus Christ (anakephalaiosasthai—literally, to ‘put under the heading of’), are we endeavoring to regard it in the light of that purpose?

This claim is astonishing enough already, without much further comment. A human being, in whose identity the whole creation is supposed to be somehow contained? What sort of a person is this?! The truth is, this man is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:10), the one whom the whole fullness of deity inhabits bodily (2:9). He is the true son of God where Adam failed to be—true because he is not simply son of God, but God the Son, utterly obedient to the will of his Father where all else have gone astray. The universe was made for his lordship, his headship.

And look at how he exercises that lordship, that headship. How and where do we find all things summed up in Christ, revealed most truly for what they are in him? We come to a cross, to a bloody instrument of torture, to which this man has been affixed—by the very creatures whom God made through him and commanded to represent him in the creation! What sort of a God is this, who accepts crucifixion from the hands of his creatures? What sort of a man is this, who perishes under the weight of evil, the only words on his lips “Father, forgive them…” and “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” This is the identity of our God, most truly displayed! This is God joining us in our god-forsakenness, our godlessness, being for the world that which you and I have refused to be—God's image, God's glory, God's loving presence.

At the cross, we find the prolepsis of what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 1:10, the Son of God bearing all things within himself: all the world’s evil, all the world’s shame, all the world’s guilt, and all the world’s violence—and emerging victorious from the empty tomb, drawing with him all those who have faith in God into newness of his life, and all those who do not into the eternal judgment of death, the final fruition of their tireless efforts to be god for themselves. Thus the cross is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, the place where God’s judgment against the world is unveiled and carried out. Yet by bearing it in himself, Jesus made this self-sacrificial act the most fundamental expression of God’s identity to the creation. (Truly, he is the image of the invisible God!) God has said to the world, in the crucified and risen Messiah, ‘I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, over and against all of your violence and blasphemy, your efforts to make yourselves god and to usurp my creation to suit your own ends; yet I will give you the same life I intend to offer the whole creation, if you will turn from your rebellion and share in my suffering.

That is our God, friends. I don’t really have any comment of my own on to add on the matter, just an irrepressible need to share my astonishment.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sermon on Romans 11

I promised audio a while back for the sermon I gave in August - Here it is! http://www.allsouls.com/downloads/DavidWestfall8.14.11.mp3

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Praying and Resting

The mind that comes to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved, and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by

Your will, not ours. And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.

-Wendell Berry, “Another Sunday Morning Comes” (1979)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the finished work of Christ—how he, by his work on the cross, has already done everything necessary to affect the restoration of our fellowship with God—and consequently how our lives must be characterized by a certain striving, not one that chases after God’s promises to us seeking to grab hold of them, but instead that rests—a striving that rests, that is—in faith, with an utter reliance upon what has been done already, and upon what will be done in the future, when Christ returns.

I’ve been writing a book (tentatively titled Between the Two Appearings) that expounds on Titus 2:11-14, where the Apostle Paul situates all Christian living and striving within a certain timeline, with the finished work of our Savior behind us, and his work yet to be completed ahead of us. Meanwhile I had been preparing a sermon on Romans 11 that I preached this past Sunday (audio will be forthcoming), in which Paul gets at the question of Israel’s continuing disobedience with a sustained look at God himself—at the creator’s sovereign purposes, in history, to consign everything to disobedience, in order that he may have mercy on it (Rom. 11:32). All that while I’d also been reading Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, which criticizes the tendency in American Protestantism (both liberal and conservative) to eschew the preaching of gospel (the person and work of Christ) in favor of law (what we ought to do to be good, relevant, socially-conscious Christians). To that, add reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, in which the character Hazel Motes preaches a “Church Without Christ” (ironically in reaction against what he assumes to be the ‘real’ gospel, which is in fact the Christless Christianity Horton is talking about!), and you’ll be able to see why my recent reflections have been devoted rather exclusively to a single idea, the centrality of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this reflection, though, is not to enumerate all of these reflections, but to focus on one in particular, that I think is of great importance to any one of us: prayer.

For some years now, I have been fairly consistent in following a particular pattern of Christian devotion, that of the Daily Office found in The Book of Common Prayer. (Perhaps you’ve heard this practice referred to by a different name: Daily Prayer, Matins and Evensong, the Divine Office, etc.) In my Anglican tradition, a very precise and rich liturgy determines most of our worship, both communally and often individually as well. At certain times of day—as many as four, usually no fewer than two—a group or an individual may read through the daily prayers in the prayer book, following the format and adding their own personal prayers where appropriate.

As with all spiritual disciplines and practices, this one can be misused—something I realized I’d been doing for who knows how long. It can become a work, a pattern of obedience by which I believe myself to be maintaining my relationship with God through my own action and initiative; if I am negligent—tired and not very attentive one evening, say, or I miss a few times during the week—this may displease him, but if I am diligent, he’ll be very happy and so will I. Of course, if you’d asked me about that danger I wouldn’t have said such things—my fellowship with God is a gift of grace! But had I really believed that, I should not have been feeling guilty when my attention was more prone to wander today, whereas I really prayed good ‘n hard with plenty of feeling and eagerness yesterday.

So as I was reading and writing and thinking about this matter—the objective center of the gospel, this man of Calvary now out of his tomb—I found myself laying the Daily Office aside, and simply pondering daily the mighty work that Christ had accomplished for our sakes, then praying for my needs and those of others I know. The fervency with which I did this varied every bit as much as it did when I prayed the Office, but my feelings were no longer uncertain, the face of God never obscured by the subjectivity of my circumstance. For I had just glimpsed—whether for a long time or a short time, whether with tears or with joy, whether I was tired or wide awake—the agony of a God of self-giving love upon a bloody cross, who I knew in that very moment of prayer embraced me and still embraces me within his very self, hidden in God until his glorious appearing (Col. 3:3-4). I found this to be the anchor of my soul, limiting, as anchors do, the distance that I might otherwise travel in any direction away from the rock-bottom certainty that in Christ, God is utterly, impossibly, irrevocably for me.

Now I hope that touches your heart, because here is the point: I’ve stumbled clumsily across a method of prayer that I think all of us would do well to emulate in one way or another, whatever our particular tradition might be. My temporary vacation from the prayer book has reminded me of what must lie at the heart of all our prayers: Almighty God, glorified in the person and work of Christ, on whom we fix our eyes and to whom we hold fast by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the celebration of this God and what he has done does not have primacy, I am convinced that our praying, our ‘quiet times,’ our disciplines of any kind will inevitably incline more and more toward selfishness, toward self-reliance, and consequently to anxiety.

I say “temporary vacation” from the prayer book because I eventually discovered, to my astonishment, that this is exactly what the Daily Office does—I hadn’t been able to realize it until I’d taken a step back from what I thought I understood! The prayers begin with readings from the scriptures, celebrates the gospel through the songs of Luke, which are assigned to different times of day (Lk. 1:68-79 AM; vv. 46-55 PM; 2:29-32 before bed—try it!), recites the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and concludes with the various prayers and petitions that the group or individual may have. The name “Daily Office,” a translation of the Latin name for it that we might otherwise render “Daily Duty” creates a misleading impression of what the purpose of the prayers actually is: to center those who pray them around a God of grace and glory and righteousness, revealed through Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him, a God before whom we may therefore be utterly confident in Christ.

I say this not to advertise the prayer book itself (though I would recommend it to many), but instead to ‘advertise’ what I have found to be of the utmost importance, whatever form our prayers take. The gospel of Jesus Christ—the good news that God has vindicated Jesus of Nazareth, crucified for the sins of the world, by raising him from the dead and enthroning him over all creation—must take the center stage in all of our praying and thinking about God, because we understand the identity of God himself nowhere so truly as in this event: Jesus crucified, lifted up upon an instrument of torture, giving himself in total love for his enemies and drawing all the world to himself (Jn. 12:32-33). Knowing this, and knowing yourself to be such a one, drawn to this bleeding God of love in spite of your rebellion, means knowing peace, joy, and confidence of a kind that no power or principality can thwart.

As I’ve reflected on these things, I’ve also been reading poetry by Wendell Berry. The last two stanzas of one of his pieces is quoted above, taken from a series of “Sabbath Poems,” all of which address the topic of rest in one way or another. It occurred to me that Berry’s picture of the mind that comes to rest, that has rested from its works by trusting in the gospel of God’s grace (Heb. 4:9-11) and is subsequently cared for and preserved in ways that it cannot even fathom, is a picture of exactly the sort of mindset I am talking about with regard to prayer. Read the stanzas: when it comes to your devotions, your quiet times, or whatever you may call them, do you believe that you are doing something with God, or that God is doing something with you? Your task is not to mount up to God and grab a hold of his arms when you pray, but to see his arms already open to you upon the cross, and then as Berry says, “to die into that rest”—to know yourself crucified with the Messiah but consequently alive to God, as the Messiah is, and resting in what Christ has already accomplished.

Prayer that we offer day by day, then, might be called a microscopic Sabbath of sorts. It is not a work, but a resting from our works, a resting in the beauty of the works of a God who did not spare his own Son but gave him for us all, and will therefore not hesitate to give us all good things (Rom. 8:32). Whatever our tradition, we are all prone to the self-reliance which thinks it is our duty to drag Christ down to us day by day if our prayers are to be fulfilled, when all the while the word of faith, by which we have absolute assurance before God, is close by (cf. Rom. 10:6-9). True prayer is not merely an address to God, but an address in response to Jesus Christ—God’s own address to us, as Karl Barth called him. In short, all our speaking to God must be undertaken in an awareness of the fact that God has already spoken to us previously and decisively in Jesus Christ, who perfectly represents and embodies his character to us (Heb. 1:2-3). Rest is the most natural posture of the soul for this kind of address, because prayer is, at its root, an acknowledgment that I do not run the world and God does—I rest so that I may trust his power to work, power far beyond mine. In your prayers, consider it and consider him: who is this God with whom I must reckon? What do I know of him… a self-giving savior, rich in grace and keeping every hair on my head numbered? Only in that knowledge do I dare ask him anything.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Discerning the Body in Worship

In Christian gatherings and in private Christian devotion, there is a tendency to focus and attend on the unseen, perhaps in a fairly exclusive manner. I don’t want to be too harsh on the idea—after all, do we not worship that which is unseen? “Who hopes for what he sees?” Not only do I not wish to denigrate the needed Christian preoccupation with that which lies beyond the senses, beyond the empirical realm (in a world that often displays little ability to envision anything more than this), it is my ardent desire to see Christians develop a heightened ability to attend upon the presence—and the unfathomable glory—of the invisible, living God, particularly at gathered worship.

But this is related to my complaint. Attending upon God at gathered worship does not necessarily mean closing one’s eyes, waving one’s hands, and drawing one’s mind to the one-on-one, ‘me and my God’ exchange taking place. (Not that I have any problem with eye-closing per se… but do you ever close your eyes to listen not only to your voice, but to a multitude of voices, praising God’s name “with one accord”?) Rather than a basically dualistic dichotomization of the spiritual and the immediately material, would not the church benefit from having eyes to see the Spirit of God also at work precisely in the visible ‘worship event’? We have a whole host of ways of describing how God is present, immanent within his world despite the world’s refusal to know and worship him—but then, is not the presence of a worshiping community, one that is visible to all alike, exactly one such means of God’s immanence? If we are the Spirit-constituted body of the Messiah, then we are the visible sign to the world, to the rulers, to the principalities and powers, that a different lord runs the world, and one who is present in it at that. Christian worship, then, is not meant to invite us only into an invisible encounter with God, but also into a recognition of the display of that God’s glory in the midst of the visible people of God, gathered in the name of their risen lord.

As an Anglican, I think (hopefully without any hint of pride in my tradition or condescension toward others) that I see this vividly displayed when we gather for Sunday worship, in a way that is perhaps missed in some worshiping communities whose philosophies about liturgy are more truncated. (Mind you, every church has a liturgy, whether they realize this or not—they have some modus operandi when it comes to worship services that is generally consistent at every gathering and reflects a particular attitude toward what Christian worship is meant to be.) The liturgy—with or without all the ‘smells and bells’ that one finds in many Anglican churches—is all about facilitating a direct, Spirit-led encounter between God and his people, understood as a collective whole. One is free to ‘keep one’s eyes open,’ as it were, to what is going on all around, to the delicate interplay of the visible with the invisible. What do I see at a ‘typical’ (I use the word cautiously) service in my tradition? I see the people of God, enjoying the presence of God, and am myself taken up into this marvelous event: worshiping his name through song, listening to his word being read, professing our shared faith through the creed, confessing our sins together, and going to the Lord’s table as one, to celebrate our identity as the already-but-not-yet-raised-from-the-dead Body of Christ.

This idea of discerning the invisible in the visible shows up in remarkable ways in scripture, and I’ll focus on one instance in particular: in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul writes, “Whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the Body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29). For centuries this has been co-opted by various people in the interminable debates about the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, but increasingly today it is recognized among scholars and interpreters that Paul’s point here has to do not with the invisible presence of Jesus ‘in the bread’ and ‘in the wine’, but rather with his presence at the supper, his presence among the gathered community—that is, the Body. If one does not attend in the slightest to the reality of this Body in worship—as the Corinthians were failing to do, “each one going ahead with his own meal”—true worship is not being offered. To 'discern the Body,' especially in the Lord’s supper, is to recognize the unique presence of God among a Spirit-constituted, called-out people, and to welcome his presence there whenever this people is gathered for worship.

This is not to say that most evangelicals are facing condemnation or are failing to offer true worship. Who among us doesn’t know the great joy of gathering in a room full of people and praising the name of God together? I am saying, simply, that the truly remarkable, visible reality when the people of God are gathered in the name of Jesus is something we haven’t devoted enough attention to, and it ought to be a part of our imaginative landscape when we approach God in worship week by week. In our emphasis on the unseen in worship, we are sometimes tempted to operate with a conception of the worshiping church as a constellation of tenuously-connected individuals whose worship, vertically speaking, may be quite attuned, but equally may often be, horizontally, quite disconnected. Food for your thought, next time you worship: the Spirit has gathered these people as living members of Jesus’ body, and you have been gathered with them; God walks among you (2 Cor. 6:16), and part of having no good apart from God is seeing “the saints in the land, the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Ps. 16:1-2). It doesn't mean you should be worshiping them—it just means you should be worshiping with them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting the Big Picture Straight

One of the main things that reading a lot of Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and Stanley Hauerwas has done for me is remind me of the vast importance of narrative, not only in scripture and theology, but also in everyday Christian life. Fundamental to a biblical worldview is the idea of a 'controlling narrative,' an overarching story of the creator God and his creation, one that accounts - historically, factually - for the state of the world as it is today and for the direction in which this world is headed. Additionally, the more I've thought about this controlling narrative, the more I've become convinced that most of us Christians simply aren't living in it consciously. We tend to imbibe the lessons of our culture, which has a very strong, very distinct narrative of its own (though its manifestations may differ in certain situations). It is a narrative of progress (social, technological, moral), of capitalistic enterprise (the accumulation of material wealth amounting to the happy and fulfilling life), of postmodern pluralism (the easing of distinctives and softening of moral absolutes leading to a moral landscape devoid of anything imposing or infringing on individual preferences), and so forth. A cultural narrative like this actually has its place within the grand narrative of scripture - it is a feature of the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4), a mirage cast up by the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). It is a deluded misdirection of true human purpose, one that can only terminate in death.

As I've thought about this competition of narratives, it seems to me that part of our problem is that we are reading scripture without the necessary paradigm shift involved in absorbing its distinctive narrative and situating all others within it. We need aids, helps of some kind, that can give us a compass to help orient us as we read scripture and try to see the world in its light. Toward that end, I've been working on a (very rough) systematic outline of the biblical meta-narrative, which I now present to you in the hope that it may 'polish the lenses' a bit in your reading of scripture. It is both systematic and narratival in form, so that the whole of Christian theology may be fitted somewhere into its structure. What is more, the outline is such that one ought to be able to read any part of the bible and attach it to one of the headings. Even in the past couple of weeks, I have found that having something like this in my mind as I read the bible gives me a sense not only of where I am in salvation history, but where it's all going and why it matters. So, here is the outline - afterward, I'll include some further notes on it:


Salvation History

Chapter 1: Adam

  1. God creates & commissions humanity (Adam) to be a blessing to the world and wisely rule over it as his image-bearers.
  2. Adam (& all humanity) fails in that commission, choosing unfaithfulness instead by distrusting God and seeking to take wisdom, knowledge, and immortality for themselves apart from him; this brings upon humanity (in Adam) the curse of exile from Eden, and leaves them bound by the forces of sin, death, and the Devil.
  3. God promises that through humanity he would eventually defeat and destroy sin, death, and the devil, and in effect that humanity’s long exile from paradise would end; this is fulfilled through the second Adam, Jesus of Nazareth.

Chapter 2: Abraham

  1. God sets apart Abraham and his offspring (Israel) to be a special, chosen people through whom this promise to Adam for the whole world would be carried out - a new humanity in which God's original intention for the creation would be fulfilled; he promises them blessing, growth, and a land of their own (Palestine).
  2. Israel enters into slavery in Egypt, and for centuries expectantly awaits the fulfillment of God’s promises.
  3. God redeems his people from slavery in Egypt, and leads them through the Red Sea and wilderness into the Promised Land.

Chapter 3: Israel

  1. God gives Israel a law (Torah) that is to regulate all their social, personal, and religious affairs, and to serve as the blueprint for their life as a holy people bringing Abraham’s blessing to the whole earth.
  2. Israel fails in that commission, choosing unfaithfulness instead by worshiping other gods; they fail to obey the Torah and establish the holy society that God commanded, bringing upon themselves the curse of exile (which recapitulates the curse and exile of Adam).
  3. God promises an end to their exile, not only in geographic terms but also in spiritual terms (i.e., to end the spiritual reality of Adam’s sin in which Israel is also enslaved). This promise is to come through a Messiah, who will bring God's kingdom and draw all the nations of the earth to himself.

Chapter 4: Jesus

  1. God sets apart Jesus and his followers (Jew & Gentile alike) to be the renewed Israel - a special, chosen people through whom his promises will be carried out, a new humanity in which his original intention for the creation would be fulfilled; among them and in Jesus God brings the long-awaited the fulfillment of his promises: the end of exile (for Adam and Israel alike), the coming of the kingdom of God, a new heart/nature through the Spirit, resurrection from the dead, the life of the coming age, the defeat of sin, death, and the Devil.
  2. Jesus is obedient to the will of God where both Adam and Israel failed, and in perfect faithfulness lives the true human life to which both had been called, defeats the forces of Satan, overcomes temptation, and offers himself freely upon the cross for the sins of his people.
  3. God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, and in Jesus redeems for himself a new humanity whose Adamic nature has been crucified with the Messiah, who possess a new heart/nature through the Holy Spirit, whose exile is ended (citizenship in God’s kingdom), and who in the coming age (resurrection) fulfill God’s original intention for the whole creation.



I tried to structure this very consistently, and you'll notice the clear pattern in each 'chapter.'

1. God acts/commissions

2. Humanity fails (until Jesus)

3. God makes a promise and redeems

Also notice the fundamental sweep of scripture in terms of the story of the human race. It is like this:

Adam --> Israel --> Jesus

Scripture is, at its heart, a narrative about God's redemptive purposes with the human race, not a lapidary history of tenuously-connected events. (Perhaps some of the ways of reading scripture that have been influential since the medieval period have gotten us off track here, particularly in how we read the Old Testament.) Adam was given a commission as God's image-bearer, and the fulfillment of it is what all of human history has headed towards: the enthronement of Christ, the true image of God (Col. 1:10) over all things (Eph. 1:10), with redeemed humanity in him serving as rulers over the new creation. When Adam failed, God elected Israel to be the people through whom this purpose would be carried forward; their observance of Torah was not for the purpose of arbitrarily fulfilling God's standards of uprightness, but in order to be the holy people of a holy God, a light to all the nations and the source of YHWH's blessing to all the earth (as he promised Abraham, Gen. 12:3). But like Adam, Israel failed and needed to be rescued as well, since they shared in the same fundamental problem as Adam - the curse of sin and death, and exile from perfect fellowship with God. (This was recapitulated in the Babylonian exile - just as Adam was "east of Eden," so Israel was "east of Jerusalem.") Jesus is the direct answer to this problem: as Messiah he actually embodies Israel (see how this plays out in the servant songs of Isaiah 42-55), and by his life, death, resurrection and enthronement as the vindicated Son of Man (Dan. 7:13&14) he atones for the sins of his people and rises to rule all the nations (Rom. 15:12, quoting Isa. 11:10).

Paul sums it up quite well with these verses:

  1. With regard to Adam. "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:20-21).
  2. With regard to Israel. "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcision to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy" (Rom. 15:8&9).


Friends, maybe this all seems rather dense, and maybe I seem like more of a history nerd than anything else, but when I think of God's purposes for this world and how perfectly they are testified in scripture as part of one flawless uninterrupted plan for the ages, I simply find myself at a loss for words. God's purposes are glorious, are they not? Does it move your hearts at all to see it laid out, and to see how perfectly these disparate books written by dozens of people over more than a thousand years of human history so perfectly, so naturally fit together into one seamless tapestry of God's marvelous promises and mighty acts? Let's be praying that in the coming generations of the church, every follower of Jesus can be captivated by the big picture of God and his purposes for the world, purposes extending far beyond the individualistic concerns we always tend towards, even in our Christian faith. Let's learn to see beyond ourselves - or rather, to see ourselves within this great story, and glorify God for his unfathomable wisdom.

Oh! The depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments; how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given him a gift, that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be glory forever. Amen!

(Rom. 11:33-36)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Do You Know the Holy Spirit Loves You?

The following is an excerpt from John Owen's treatise, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saints' Fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost Unfolded (huzzah!). Yes, Owen's prose is antique-sounding and sometimes hard to follow, but I think he says some really great things here that we ought to spend some time on. Simply put, do you ever think about how much the Holy Spirit loves you? Is he as real, as much of a person to you, as the other members of the Godhead? Verbose though he may be, Owen's words here stir me a lot - especially what he says about how the Spirit bears with us so continually even though we're doing things to grieve and quench him all the time. Anyway, here you go:


Bk. III.vi

THIRDLY. The principle and fountain of all his [the Spirit's] actings for our consolation comes next under consideration, to the same end; and this leads us a little nearer to the communion intended to be directed in. Now, this is his own great love and infinite condescension. He willingly proceedeth or comes forth from the Father to be our comforter. He knew what we were, and what we could do, and what would be our dealings with him,--he knew we would grieve him, provoke him, quench his motions, defile his dwelling-place; and yet he would come to be our comforter. Want of a due consideration of this great love of the Holy Ghost weakens all the principles of our obedience. Did this dwell and abide upon our hearts, what a dear valuation must we needs put upon all his operations and actings towards us! Nothing, indeed, is valuable but what comes from love and good-will. This is the way the Scripture takes to raise up our hearts to a right and due estimation of our redemption by Jesus Christ. It tells us that he did it freely; that of his own will he hath laid down his life; that he did it out of love. "In this was manifested the love of God, that he laid down his life for us;" "He loved us, and gave himself for us;" "He loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood." Hereunto it adds our state and condition, considered as he undertook for us,--sinners, enemies, dead, alienated; then he loved us, and died for us, and washed us with his blood. May we not hence, also, have a valuation of the dispensation of the Spirit for our consolation? He proceeds to that end from the Father; he distributes as he will, works as he pleaseth. And what are we, towards whom he carrieth on this work? Froward, perverse, unthankful; grieving, vexing, provoking him. Yet in his love and tenderness doth he continue to do us good. Let us by faith consider this love of the Holy Ghost. It is the head and source of all the communion we have with him in this life.


Remember, friends, that the Holy Spirit is the water, so to speak, in which you as a believer swim, and that without his ministry in your heart there is no affection for God, no pleasantness to Christ or his promises, no hope or consolation in this life, and no exercise of any spiritual gifts that bear fruit to God whatsoever. How he loves you, to take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh! And remember, especially when his ministry to you seems slight, what Jesus said: "If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Lk. 11:13).

"It is God who's working in you, both your willing and your working, for his pleasure" (Phil. 2:13), and he does that by his Spirit that dwells in you. Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Goodness of the Good News

It has been my impression, and my experience personally, that evangelism leaves many Christians with a sense of being the bearers of bad news rather than good, especially when the audience to our gospel is not receptive and asks us those troubling questions like, ‘so what happens to me if I say “no” and don’t believe this?’ (Of course they know, and we know, that the answer is probably going to be, ‘You will eventually face God’s wrath for rejecting him’—a claim which I regard as true, however uncomfortable it may make me or anyone else feel to say it.) If people face condemnation for not choosing (or perhaps, though this is another debate of its own, for never having the opportunity to choose) the gospel, we wonder, how on earth can the gospel really be good news? Rob Bell in particular has articulated this sentiment, and has concluded in several of his books and public statements, “If the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”

The ‘gospel’ we are talking about, in my experience, is put something like this: ‘You are sinful, but God loves you very deeply, so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for you, and now he invites you to receive that deep love through forgiveness and the joy of eternal life with him.’ To distill it into something shorter, ‘God loves you; you can be saved.’ Then, we turn right around and say, ‘But if you don’t accept this, he’s going to condemn you to hell.’ Rob Bell is simply one of many to point out that this seems inconsistent with everything prior to that warning. And here’s the thing: Rob Bell’s intuition is exactly right. The claims we tend to make in our proclamation of ‘the gospel’ are inconsistent with our subsequent claim that rejecting it leads to damnation.

The problem, however, is not with the warning of the eternal consequences of rejecting God. This is what Rob Bell fails to understand. Rather, the problem is with our way of understanding and articulating the gospel itself. The gospel, simply put, is not that God loves you and wants to save you. Are you shocked to hear me say it? Don’t misunderstand me—this truth may very well follow from the proclamation of the gospel (and the best evidence of its veracity will be whether or not the person eventually embraces the gospel during his or her lifetime), but it is not the gospel itself. It is not what the apostles and the first Christians went around proclaiming as of first importance to all who would listen; it is not an invitation to a new kind of religious experience; it is not an offering of ‘your best life now’ or ‘be sure you’re going to heaven.’ Read through the preaching of the “gospel” in any of the evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ life, or in Acts, and you’ll see that their way of doing it differed considerably from ours. Their gospel was much fuller, much better, and much more powerful—indeed, “God’s power, unto [i.e., leading to, but not synonymous with] the salvation of all the faithful” (Rom. 1:16).

For the apostles, the proclamation of the gospel, the good news, the evangelion, was this: an invitation to bend the knee to Jesus the Messiah, who is the risen, reigning Lord and redeemer of the cosmos, through whom God’s kingdom has decisively broken into creation and defeated the powers of darkness, sin, death, and hell. It is not, in other words, primarily soteriological (I re-emphasize the ‘primarily,’ for salvation is indeed fundamental to the gospel’s meaning and importance); rather, the gospel is primarily, to coin a new term, kyriological. It is focused on the lordship of the risen and reigning Christ, with the salvation of individual sinners comprising an outworking of that reality of Christ’s lordship based on their responsiveness to hearing that lordship announced.

Our whole problem arises, I think, from the fact that we have traditionally behaved (at the popular level at least) as though God’s salvation of individual sinners is the whole purpose for which he created this universe, and the only way in which his goodness and love can be expressed toward us. The simple fact is, our salvation is not the point of history, however wonderful salvation may be (and, oh, how it is!). Rather, God created the universe to display his glory, power, and wise rule within it—in other words, he created this universe to serve as the stage on which the great drama of the kingdom of God would be enacted. The universe rebelled against this script, and God has brought it about nonetheless, over and against all creaturely rejection of his purposes; those who reject him are in turn rejected, and this in no way compromises God because God’s sole objective is not their salvation—it is first and foremost to enact the in-breaking and final establishment of his kingdom, and to accomplish the defeat of all evil and sin that would otherwise thwart this.

Salvation is part of this grander purpose. Salvation is not the good news itself, but follows from an acceptance of the good news—the news that this kingdom has, in fact, come near in Jesus Christ. The goodness of the good news, then, is only tasted by those for whom it is seen as true; it simply is not good news to everybody, contrary to what Rob Bell thinks: it is terrible news for any who would ridicule it, resist it, and persistently live an unjust and unrepentant lifestyle that perpetuates the Adamic existence of humanity and the cosmic state of affairs that necessitated the good news in the first place. That which is good news for the poor in spirit and the meek of the earth, for the mourners and the repentant thieves of this world, is bad news for the proud and boastful, for the self-righteous and self-saviors; that which is good news for the captives and the weak is, at the same time, bad news for the oppressive and the strong—for the gospel says with the utmost clarity, ‘Time’s up! The old order has done its worst at the cross of Christ and even so has lost, and all of it is destined to perish—along with all who go on obstinately serving as its agents. Our only hope, then, is to cling with Jesus to that cross (or rather cling to Jesus on it) and to share in his mysterious and shocking victory.’ If the world will not be a victim with Christ, it will not be a victor with him either—it will ultimately be vanquished.

Our evangelistic task in the present time is not to go around telling people that God loves them and wants to save them if they will but let him. (A million theological and exegetical problems that we don’t have time to uproot here are burrowed deep within this statement.) Our task is, rather, to go around telling people that “the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15). Then we proceed carefully and clearly to articulate how this is so in Jesus the Messiah, while also displaying this reality through the kingdom-shaped life of God's people, the church. The good news, then, goes out to all, but it does not become good news for all. Though it is objectively good without question, it is subjectively experienced as good only by those who accept it; for those who don’t it may become many things—an intriguing notion but ultimately not practical, perhaps, or maybe an impossibility on ‘purely’ empirical grounds, maybe a Nietzschean power-play, or an unreasonable claim about universal truths that don’t and can’t exist—but it won't be good news, whatever it might be, and (so far as we know) it won’t become that in the world to come either. It is good news for a groaning creation and a groaning people of God within it who await the promised renewal, but hateful, abhorrent news to the powers and principalities over this present darkness—and all who serve them—who prefer things just the way they are.

[[An essay concerning this way of defining the gospel is forthcoming (planned for sometime this summer) - I'll keep you posted!]]

Friday, April 22, 2011

"Love Lustres at Calvary"

-From "The Valley of Vision," pp.76-7 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975).

Love Lustres at Calvary

My Father,

Enlarge my heart, warm my affections, open my lips,
supply words that proclaim 'Love lustres at Calvary.'
There grace removes my burdens and heaps them on thy Son,
made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for me;
There the sword of thy justice smote the man, thy fellow;
There thy infinite attributes were magnified,
and infinite atonement was made;
There infinite punishment was due,
and infinite punishment was endured.
Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,
cast off that I might be brought in,
trodden down as an enemy
that I might be welcomed as a friend,
surrendered to hell's worst
that I might attain heaven's best,
stripped that I might be clothed,
wounded that I might be healed,
athirst that I might drink,
tormented that I might be comforted,
made a shame that I might inherit glory,
entered darkness that I might have eternal light.
My Savior wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes,
groaned that I might have endless song,
endured all pain that I might have unfading health,
bore a thorny crown that I might have a glory-diadem,
bowed his head that I might uplift mine,
experienced a reproach that I might receive welcome,
closed his eyes that I might gaze
on unclouded brightness,
expired that I might forever live.
O Father, who spared not thine only Son
that thou mightest spare me,
All this transfer thy love designed and accomplished;
Help me to adore thee by lips and life.
O that my every breath might be ecstatic praise,
my every step buoyant with delight, as I see my enemies crushed,
Satan baffled, defeated, destroyed,
sin buried in the ocean of reconciling blood,
hell's gates closed, heaven's portal open.
Go forth, O conquering God, and show me
the cross, mighty to subdue, comfort and save.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

It's been a few weeks since I finished Rob Bell's recent book, Love Wins, but I don't think I'm too late to catch the wave of attention this book is getting in the evangelical world - nor would I miss it, I think, if I reviewed it a month from now, six months, or even a year or more. The issues raised by this book aren't going anywhere any time soon, and I expect that in the near future we will see a wealth of literature produced by evangelicals taking every imaginable stance on what Bell has brought to everyone's attention. As I've read some of the reviews that have come out already, I've found myself in agreement with most of their criticisms, but at the same time feeling that some of the critics are leaving out what matters most - not only what Rob Bell is suggesting with respect to the afterlife, but why he is doing so. What assumptions have led him to the view he holds? In this (admittedly too brief) review, I hope to lay out what I think is the deepest problem with Bell's argumentation, centering in on the phrase, popular before he wrote this book, that has become its title: 'love wins.'

First, however, I want to talk about what I think is good in Rob Bell's book. While I disagree with many of his exegetical conclusions, I nonetheless feel that he has a few good points to make, and we evangelicals would do well to listen. The first pertains to what I believe is the thesis of his book - which, it may surprise you, is not that Christian universalism is true (at least, I don't think this is his main point). Rather, I think his clearest theses are as follows, found on pages 115 & 116:

Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don't need to resolve them or answer them because we can't, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.


Hard and fast, definitive declarations then, about how God will or will not organize the new world must leave plenty of room for all kinds of those possibilities. This doesn't diminish God's justice or take less seriously the very real consequences of sin and rebellion, it simply acknowledges with humility the limits of our powers of speculation.

Especially with the latter statement, I agree completely. The airtight certainty with which many Christians pronounce eternal judgment on others, contrary to clear biblical prohibitions (cf. Matt. 7:1-2), is presumptuous and hypocritical. "For what have I to do with judging outsiders?" writes Paul (despite being an apostle and witness to the resurrected Christ!). "Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside the church" (1 Cor. 5:12-13). It is one thing to be frank with an unbeliever that if he resists the reign of Christ, he will indeed face condemnation in the world to come; it is another thing entirely to tell an unbeliever that he is, unquestionably, at this very moment, destined to be so. Though I believe very firmly that God has fashioned vessels of wrath as well as vessels of mercy (cf. Rom. 9:19-24), who am I, a mere man, to know who belongs in what category, and why? So, insofar as Rob Bell's book is a simple plea for epistemic humility among evangelicals, I agree with him.

Another good feature of Love Wins is its attention to the character of the world to come. Rob Bell is absolutely right to say, "How we think about heaven...directly affects how we understand what we do with our days and energies now, in this age" (p.44), and unfortunately for us evangelicals, heaven and the afterlife is one area in which we have been biblically and theologically impoverished. (Other writers, particularly N.T. Wright, have done an excellent job of pointing this out - cf. Wright, Surprised by Hope; also The Resurrection of the Son of God.) It is profoundly important to the gospel message that God's purposes, revealed in the Messiah, are cosmic in their scope - in other words, that this whole creation will one day be set free from its corruption and decay, and enter into an eternal age of freedom and flourishing administered by the redeemed children of God (cf. Rom. 8:18:24). The work of Christ on the cross not only reconciles individual human beings to God but also "all things, in heaven and on earth" (Col. 1:20). Though I do object strongly to Rob Bell's corollary view of hell as basically 'what heaven is like for all the spoilsports,' (which ignores biblical imagery of hell involving externality and separation, cf. Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30; Rev. 22:14-15), I nonetheless applaud his attempt to straighten out evangelicals about their future hope - not for a disembodied eternity in the clouds, as some seem to think, but for the new heavens and new earth in which the knowledge of the Lord saturates all that exists (Isa. 11:9).

There are probably other good points for which Bell ought to be commended, but these two are, in my mind, the most praiseworthy. Now, it would be possible at this point to go into great detail about the specific exegetical shortcomings from which the book suffers - particularly, Rob Bell's deeply problematic interpretation of the various "all" statements describing the scope of redemption (cf. Col. 1:20, which is simply saying that redemption is cosmic in scope; 1 Tim. 2:4, which is saying that people of every nation, not just Jews, are to come to a knowledge of the truth; and 1 Cor. 15:22, which is only speaking of 'all' who are 'in Christ' as opposed to those 'in Adam'). I feel, however, that many other reviewers have treated these topics in sufficient detail already, and there is little need for me to say again what has already been said elsewhere (and, in fact, what has been said throughout the history of the Christian church when universalist sentiments have arisen). No, in my mind there is something much more important and much more problematic in Rob Bell's argument, that lies behind his particular presentation of universalist ideas.

The problem can be looked at from two angles, and can be explained in terms of the book's title: (1) Rob Bell argues from a highly problematic conception of God's 'love'; and (2) his view of what it means for love to 'win' is, in my opinion, profoundly un-biblical. Here is what I mean:

(1) Love. From the beginning of the book, 'love' is a lingering concept, but unfortunately one that never gets defined with sufficient clarity. In the Introduction Bell even refers to it as "this love" (p.viii - i.e., as 'this sort of love' that we are talking about, which God possesses), with the apparent assumption that any reader, regardless of cultural background and context, will understand infallibly what 'love' really means. Rob Bell simply cannot talk about God's love without giving it at least some definition, since even a brief foray into scripture will reveal that "this love" actually confronts our modern and post-romantic assumptions about what it is. How, for example, is a biblical writer able to write words as shocking as "Give thanks...to [God] who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for his steadfast love endures forever!" (Ps. 136:10)? As we look at scripture, we find that God's love is not a vague, indefinite principle of good will toward everyone and everything in general, but rather as a fierce, passionate devotion to his people, to the creation, and to all that is good, right, true, and holy. God's love, in fact, lies at the very heart of his wrath: "this love" necessarily entails a deep hatred of all that is evil, wrong, false, and unholy. So, a statement like "God is love" (1 John 4:8), while it may very well sound like an endorsement of Christian universalism (particularly to post-modern, post-romanticism ears), should not be read as such, inasmuch as it overthrows scripture's depiction of God's love as particular and sovereign.

The fourth chapter of Rob Bell's book ("Does God Get What God Wants?") is where his 'argument from God's love' really comes to the fore. His basic proposition is this: if God loves us, he won't coerce our decisions or force us to do anything against our will. So far so good - but for Bell, this appears to mean a necessarily libertarian view of 'freedom' whereby God simply sits back, arms folded, waiting to see 'what will happen,' refusing to take any effective action until we make up our minds on our own to come to him. This, Bell claims, is love. In making this claim about our freedom, he ignores a great swathe of the Christian tradition that has viewed human freedom and God's sovereignty in a different light, with the latter establishing the former, and in no way at odds with it. In other words, while we interact with God according to our 'un-coerced free will,' we recognize at the same time that, ultimately, God is the one sovereignly directing everything that happens - even our decisions, and the reasons we have for making them. He wills that we will freely, in other words, and thus our freedom wouldn't be possible without his sovereignty.

Rob Bell simply ignores this position, treating his own conception of freedom as a self-evident given. But I would argue that this view of freedom and, ultimately, of God's love, lies at the very heart of a biblical view of human beings as created - as given all that they have (including the power to will) by a God who interacts with them contingently at their only level even while he is truly 'writing the story' according to his greater will and purpose. God's love is displayed in scripture not as a generic emotion (that's the romanticism creeping in), but as an active force that takes the initiative against evil, and for the sake of what is good. This brings me to the second problem in Rob Bell's fundamental argument, where his definition of love gets cashed in.

(2) Wins. One of the reasons reading Love Wins was so stimulating for me was that at the same time, I was reading Gustaf Aulen's classic, Christus Victor - a book that in many ways is arguably about precisely the same thing (though written with very different objectives in mind!). In Christus Victor (published in 1931), Aulen critiques the now standard 'Western'/'Anselmian' view of atonement, which in his view tends to downplay divine initiative in salvation and characterize God in a rather passive manner. The alternative, which he presents as the standard view of most of the church during its first thousand years or so, focuses on the victory of Christ through his cross and resurrection, over sin, death, and the Devil, according to God's purpose of redeeming the whole creation (humans included) and liberating it from captivity to evil. Rob Bell actually mentions this atonement theory at one point to bolster his argument, yet ironically, his own view of how love 'wins' scarcely resembles what Aulen or the church fathers he quotes were talking about. Love Wins, as a title, becomes something of a misnomer - a more accurate title for the book might be 'Good Will Eventually Gets What It Had Hoped For.' (Or, if you like, my slightly racier alternative: 'True Love Waits.') Whereas the point of God's victory through Christ in the cross and resurrection was meant to emphasize divine activity, Bell's construal seems to emphasize divine passivity to the point of absurdity. The God corresponding to Bell's idea of 'love' is not the eternal Lord of the universe whose voice breaks the cedars of Lebanon, but a working, middle-class dad waiting for his kid to get home from college: God "is there, standing in the driveway, arms open, ready to invite us in," (p.117, my emphasis) but certainly not actively involved in our coming to him by faith - only 'I,' the all sovereign individual, can do this by the impetus of my own will. J.I. Packer was more realistic about the shortcomings of such sentimental imagery: "the enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which he is powerless to open" (In My Place Condemned He Stood, p. 136-7).

It is especially ironic that Bell should stand behind such a depiction of God as the one he gives, 'standing in the driveway,' while seeming to demand the exact opposite earlier in the book:

"God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants? How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time, but in this, the fate of billions of people, not totally great. Sort of great. A little great.... Will all people be saved, or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end? (pp.97-8)

The problem is, if we go along with Rob Bell in his stress on supposedly 'un-coercive' divine passivity, Rob Bell's worst dreams might come true! After all, no matter how great God is, he could never, ever consider interfering with the will of his creatures, could he? Scripture testifies with the utmost clarity that yes, in fact, he most certainly could, can - does. God's love does not consist in 'sitting there' in passivity while those whom he loves self-detonate in sin and misery, however much it may be 'what they want.' Compare Rob Bell's conception of divine love with what we find in Ephesians 2:1-10:

And you all - when you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk following the pattern of this world's present age, the pattern of the ruler of the power of the air - the spirit that's now active among the sons of disobedience... indeed, it's in that spirit that all of us once conducted ourselves in the passions of our flesh, acting on the desires of the flesh and the mind's intentions, and we were children of wrath by nature, just like the rest of mankind. It was then that God - so rich in mercy! - because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses... by grace you've been saved! And he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that, in his kindness, he'd show us the overwhelming riches of his grace toward us in the coming ages, in Christ Jesus. After all, it's by grace that you've been saved through faith; and none of this is from yourselves - it is God's gift! It doesn't come from works, so that no one would be able to boast. We are God's own craftsmanship, you see, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared in advance, so that we'd walk in them.

That, my friends, is a love that wins. It is a love whose 'winning' precisely doesn't mean leaving us to our own devices. God's love wins precisely because it is sovereign, and works in spite of the sinful human will that is dead in transgressions, that is as unresponsive to God as a corpse is to a surgeon, until the surgeon shocks it back to life. That's God's winning love for us - he made us alive, and did so "even when we were dead." He didn't wait for initiative or impulse on our part, but supplied the initiative and impulse; he didn't 'wait for us to make up our minds,' as Rob Bell seems to think. Love wins precisely because it works beyond our control or ability to prompt it - it is active, not passive.

And thus if God chooses eventually to make every individual person alive, even in the age to come, so be it, but let's not pretend that this didn't come about entirely because of his grace, his initiative, and his purpose. Though I cannot endorse the view myself, leave it to God that it would be within his power to choose to do that at some point. But at least let us not pretend that the detached, hands-off, backwards conception of 'love' promulgated in this book is in any way honoring to God! It is not 'love' of any sort that simply refuses to intervene in the lives of those loved.

Such is my criticism of Rob Bell's book. It is not simply that his exegesis is flawed at many points, or that he makes dubious claims about his place within the broad stream of historic Christian orthodoxy. It is not simply that his view of time and of hell do not seem at every point to make contact with what scripture says on the matter. The real problem with Love Wins, the underlying problem, the ultimate problem, is that it presents us with a picture, both of God and of his love, that is sentimental, passive, and really isn't victorious over anything.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

God-Centered Atonement Theology

I've been reflecting lately on the nature of the atonement. And the more I've done that, reading scripture and pondering the matter, the more I've felt very strongly that a lot of our preaching about the cross since the nineteenth century has missed the point in a crucial way. The content is certainly there (at least, among evangelicals; perhaps not so much among liberal protestants) - sin, judgment, wrath, love, mercy, hope. But it seems as though the arrangement and ordering of these things has been altered in such a way that it is the human individual that takes center stage. As J.I. Packer observed, we've come to believe that at Calvary, God simply constructed a big soteriological machine that we operate, basically in order to save ourselves. I'd like to share, humbly, some of my thoughts on this matter; I also have a feeling that some of my initial comments may seem perplexing to you who know me and probably suppose me to be a pretty orthodox guy. Just read on, and you'll see what I'm getting at eventually.

Anyway, as I was saying, I feel that our gospel has become too man-centered. This is reflected in our preaching, which runs something like this: you are sinful, but you would like to go to heaven (who wouldn't?). That can't happen though, because, you see, God feels wrath toward the sins you've committed, and he is (constitutionally) incapable of forgiving you unless somebody takes the blame. But alas, Jesus has taken the blame, and now by believing you can do what you had hoped to do all along - go to heaven.

The natural consequence of this way of putting it, of this misdirection, is that God looks rather immature. He is ultimately the one with the problem, not us. He has an anger-management issue, one that can only be solved if Jesus steps in and calms him down. 'Sinners have slapped me in the face; I'm not going to forgive anyone until I get to slap someone back.' (Here you have a moral conundrum in the fact that it seemingly doesn't matter who gets punished, so long as someone does, and the wrath in question obtains its cathartic release.) God appears quite weak here, helpless to save anyone until the condition is fulfilled. By believing in Jesus, then, we furnish God with the ability he does not have himself, with the capability he so longs to exercise but cannot. We enable him to forgive us by exercising saving faith. In short: we save ourselves.

This, of course, is dishonoring to God and self-exalting with respect to man. If the gospel reveals anything, it is that God is not constrained by us; rather, the opposite: "He chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4); "he works all things [therefore our salvation too] according to the counsel of his will" (v.11). It is not a question of whether or we will let God do as he desires with us or not.

Notice the change in our emphasis: when the emphasis shifts manward (we want something; we can only get it by means of Christ), the problem shifts Godward (God can't give us what we want, because he is angry about our sin). However, when we do the opposite of this - when we move our emphasis Godward, as I think we should (to his sovereign desire to save sinners, to defeat and destroy evil) - the problem becomes ours, not his. There is evil in this world, there is sin, and God righteously intends to destroy all of it (cf. Rom. 1:18 & 2:6-11). He does not have an anger-management problem; his temper is not the obstacle in question. The obstacle in question is sin, is evil. If he is truly good, God will destroy sin and end its hideous rule over this world; he has promised to do this, and his wrath is therefore a blessing toward that end. The wrath of God is nothing less than the love of God directed against sin, the goodness of God enacted upon evil. When this outpouring of wrath occurs, we are not to feel embarrassed for our Lord, but are to feel joyful (even as we find it awesome and frightful). This, surely, is the view of the authors of scripture. "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness" (Ps. 96:12b-13). God hates evil, hates sin - yes; and, it may shock you, sinners too (cf. Ps. 5:5) - and in his perfect love will not allow either to persist indefinitely. If he did - if God continued to allow the greedy to oppress the poor, the lustful and controlling to molest children and rape women; if God continued to allow the powerful to commit genocide and the hungry to starve, adultery and abuse to destroy marriages and depression and addiction to consume people's lives - then he would not be a loving God. His wrath is his love directed against sin.

What, then, is the cross? Is it not a display of God's wrath as well as his love? Why yes, and also a satisfaction of his justice. "God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation" (i.e., an atoning sacrifice through which God's wrath is spent) "by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness" (or justice, Gk. dikaiosune) "because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Rom. 3:25). We are dead-accurate to say that the wrath of God was poured out upon our sins, our individual sinful acts, at Calvary. There is, however, more to it than that, as we see simply by looking at other statements Paul makes later in Romans. "We know that our old self" (lit. "the old man") "was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free" (lit. "justified") "from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). In these verses (and others such as Gal. 2:20), Paul's picture of the atonement is rounded out quite beautifully: the cross was not centrally a kind of divine catharsis; certainly it was not a means of enabling a weak God to forgive people with whom he really has no quarrel beyond the fact that they've done a few naughty things (but deep down are good enough really to want to know him). Rather, Christ's death is a condemnation and obliteration of the whole sin nature that brought about these transgressions in the first place. In other words, the cross does not merely forgive sins for people who are otherwise good; it destroys sin itself in those who share in Christ's death and resurrection.

In other words - to borrow Packer's language again - the cross actually saves...not potentially. (Here's where we get limited atonement, by the way.) It is not only sufficient to forgive sins as individual acts of wrongdoing, but for those who have saving faith it is also effective for the actual destroying of a whole sin-nature. So to believe in Christ is not merely to escape God's wrath by the cross but also to die to sin and walk in newness of life through the cross (cf. Rom. 6:1-11 & 20-23; 7:4-6; 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 2:19-21; Col. 1:19-22; 2:11-15; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 4:1-2; 1 John 1:7). The result of this is, shockingly, that we are no longer identified with our sins, or indeed with that old self (cf. Rom. 7:13-25), but as Christians walking in the new life of the Spirit, we, by faith, spend the rest of our lives putting off that old self, which is still resident in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3b-13), but is condemned, at the cross, to eternal destruction and oblivion.

Think about it! You do not merely watch from a distance as your savior bears the brunt of God's wrath so that you can save yourself by faith. No: your precious savior bears you in his loving arms with him, up onto that cross - all of your sins, yes, and also all of your weakness, your rebellion, your pride, your covetousness, your hatred for or indifference toward God and others, your coldness and dullness of heart, and everything else within you that enslaves you to sin and suffering and evil and death - and brings you through the cleansing, wrathful, redeeming love of God, and out the other side of that fiery crucible by his resurrection from the dead. By his wounds you are healed, as well as forgiven. He is not only displayed before you on that cross, but embraces you upon it, holds you upon it, carries you upon it. Christian, realize the true scope of the freedom that comes from the cross!

And here the wrath of God ceases to be a terror but becomes a friend, for it is, truly, his love for you - a love that loves you enough to hate your sin, enough to hate all within you that holds you from him, hinders you from loving and enjoying him forever; enough not to immolate you along with the sin-nature from which your identity would be otherwise indistinguishable. No - "he became sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Our God has prised the two of you apart, having condemned the one to death, and having raised the other (you!) to life everlasting!

"In this is love, not that we have loved God" - not that we have really been good enough deep down, have believed, and have allowed him to get over his anger toward us - "but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). It is an act of love: to quench his burning anger against the sin and injustice found among his people by actually destroying it; not to excuse the sin of those he forgives by 'getting over himself,' but to condemn it for what it is while the forgiven remain unharmed. "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4). Consider, Christian, with what love God has loved you in Christ - the God who willed that you should no longer be enslaved, who in Christ accomplished both the forgiveness of your sins and the destruction of your sin, who by the Holy Spirit raises you into the justified righteousness of new life in him, and who even now, as you read this, brings this great work of new creation in you ever closer to completion, brings you and many sons to glory in Christ, the lover of your soul.

Let's start sharing the good news of the cross differently. Let's start remembering that it is not 'God's problem' that put Jesus Christ on a bloody tree, but our problem, and it is by God's sheer love alone that he decided to deal with that problem without destroying us in the process. To be invited to faith in Jesus, then, is to be invited to cling to him as he mounts that cross, to trust in him all your life as he not only forgives you your sins but also destroys your old self and renews your whole character through his Holy Spirit; and then ultimately to to step with him out of that tomb into newness of life that will be made complete one day when we stand in glory. Friends, that's a gospel that preaches.