Friday, March 26, 2010

Our Life and Destiny in the Kingdom of Heaven


Jesus, the Great Prophet like Moses (whose coming was prophesied by Moses), teaches the Gospel from a mountain made holy by his presence, just as Moses taught the Law from a mountain also made holy by God's presence.

And, just as Moses laid down the rule in his day, so Jesus does for ours, as he describes our calling, what our experiences and expectations should be, and what our rewards will be (Matt 5:1-12):

1 He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him.  2 Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: 
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
4 Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. 
5 Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. 
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. 
7 Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy. 
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. 
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God. 
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11 Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Summarizing some information from this passage in a chart:

Experience Now
Reward
When
Spiritual poverty
Possession of the Kingdom
Now
Spiritual mourning
Comfort
In the Future
Meekness
Possession of the whole earth
In the Future
Hunger and thirst for righteousness
Their hunger and thirst shall be filled
In the Future
Merciful
They shall receive it
In the Future
Pure in heart
They shall see God
In the Future
Peacemakers
They shall be called sons of God
In the Future
Persecuted for righteousness sake
Possession of the Kingdom
Now
Reviled and persecuted for Jesus' sake
They have the great prophets' reward
In heaven

Our spiritual experience in the Kingdom of God is described in the terms shown in column 1.  We have a life of spiritual victory, but not so to carnal vision. None of this looks to the world like "victory." Therefore, we must look upon our meekness and lowliness with spiritual eyes, and see the glory in it, and not be like that seed sown on rocky soil, that is disappointed and apostatizes when persecution comes.  Our hope is sourced from Heaven, not from earth.

Columns 2 and 3 show that our lives now are characterized by a hidden victory in tribulations, but later by visible glory and reward, when heaven comes to earth.

But, it is not as if we have nothing but trouble now, while we wait for peace and glory.  It is in the midst of the tribulations that our glorification begins, just as it did for Our Lord on earth.  He is the Lamb slain, reigning from the Cross!  Likewise, we also reign as kings in our Christian ministry in the world (like leaven pervading it and sustaining it), though all the while high powers of the world may laugh, despise or revile.

Therefore, Christian, have faith in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, who even now brings us peace and hope, and the certain promise of mighty rewards, as Paul says (Rom 5:1-5):

1  Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God
3 And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance;  4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 
5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Prayer, and the Greater 'Yes!'


Our Lord received the greatest "No!" in the universe, when he sweat blood in the Garden before going to the cross. He prayed to be delivered from the impending curse and death -- but was not.

Therefore, he has the name above every name, at which every knee will bow -- and we are saved.

Behind the greatest possible "No!" was the Greater "Yes!".

-------------------------------------------------------------

In view of our Lord's promise that he definitely would answer the prayers that came to his Father through him (John 14:12-14), we too must look for and expect the Greater "Yes!". In all our afflictions and tribulations, there will be deliverance, and ministry for Christ, and the reward of glory waits.

The worst sorrow is at the loss of souls. Paul was willing to be cursed from Christ for the sake of his countrymen (Rom 9). Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But, even these tears will be actively wiped away by the hand of the Lord.

Paul could say, after all is said and done (Rom 11), that the Lord's plan of salvation is so great that he can glorify "The depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!" The earthly Jerusalem over which Jesus wept is fulfilled in that redeemed Jerusalem above. Not one of the Lord's people, given him by heaven, will be lost.

So, we may weep in tribulations now, but only in faith. Because, behind every "No!" there still lies the Greater "Yes!".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Systematic Theology -- How Does It Look?


We're all familiar with the thick tomes that profess to give us the survey of the theology of the Christian Faith, beginning with the doctrine of God, then proceeding step by step through the attributes of God, the doctrine of creation, the creation of the spiritual realm (angels), the creation of man, the fall of man, etc., through the covenants, Christology, and redemption, and on into the practical and sacramental theology of the church, and ending up in eschatology.  Not being an expert on "Prolegomena," which is the exposition of the philosophy underlying the concept of Systematic Theology, I have to say that my opinions to follow are just that.  However, I question the tutorial usefulness of much of this mode of organizing the content of systematic theology.  (This method is actually more suitable for providing a traditional indexing scheme for systematic theology reference books.)

It seems to me that there is an internal architectual conflict in the traditionally structured project.  First, there is the "philosophical" approach which, as a sort of apologetic, seeks to explain and build up the body of systematic Christian knowledge by arguing from first principles.  Secondly -- and here is the problem -- the Bible doesn't present the source material for our knowledge in this way.  So, the construction of a gradually developing philosophical edifice of knowledge is attempted via references to inspired material that doesn't teach this way at all.  Recognizing this inconsistency in method, should we not let the tutorial "shape" of the inspired material instruct us how to teach the edifice of Christian doctrine?

The traditional philosophical scheme seeks to build up the credibility of each doctrine in a way that will supposedly impress and gradually lead the mind of the "reasonable" inquirer into a full knowledge of the truth.  But, did anyone ever come to Christ this way?  Does anyone believe the Bible, as the foundation for Christian thought, without first believing the gospel?  Doesn't the way that God makes himself known to us imply the way that we should study his theology?  

There is an alternative, and that alternative is practiced in early Lutheranism, and elsewhere, though it is certainly not new with them.  It is called the "loci" method.

Locus is the Latin for "place," or "topic."  It is similar in meaning to "topos" in Greek, from which we get the English word "topic."  Both locus and topos refer to (often literary) themes or topics.  Philipp Melanchthon's wrote the first evangelical systematic theology and called it "Loci Communis," or "common places," meaning "common topics."  What is done using the "loci" method is to take Scriptural topics, and elaborate them theologically.  Each topic has its own elaboration in terms of available Scriptural data.  Though there is no desire to be irrational or contradictory, or even insistently paradoxical in the writings, it is nevertheless the case that not all possible theological questions are addressed, because Scripture does not address (or answer) them.  Not all antinomies can be resolved.  Mysteries remain.  The point of the "loci" method is to present the important Scripture topics in a manner that is respectful of what the Scripture actually teaches about the topics, and not in a manner which attempts to cover all the range of questions that the human mind can think to ask, or want to demand answers to.

This approach to systematic theology, is, in my opinion, more respectful not only of Scripture, but of the minds of the believers who need to learn the doctrine of Scripture the way it is taught in Scripture, and who do not need to be taught in a manner structured by philosophical and apologetical conceptions foreign to how the Bible teaches itself.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Real Presence -- Real Fellowship


One of the issues concerning the conduct of the Lord's Supper is whether the elements (bread and cup) should be passed among the people assembled for worship, or whether the people should come forward to receive the elements from the hands of the servers (i.e., directly from Christ's representatives).

Even though the latter position has much historical tradition behind it, I believe that the Scripture indicates that the former way better illustrates important doctrine concerning the real fellowship of the believers with one another in Christ.

Let us examine relevant passages from Paul, in I Cor 11:

1 Corinthians 11:2   Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

At this point, Paul begins to speak about head-coverings -- a subject we will not discuss in this post.  After discussing head-coverings, Paul makes the following comment:

1 Corinthians 11:17-18   17 ¶ Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse.  18 For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.

When Paul speaks of "giving these instructions," he is just finished with his discussion of head-coverings (as one of the "traditions" he has taught them).  So, it appears that he continues discussing these important traditions by taking up the question of conduct at the Lord's Supper.

It is clear that his first concern is that there are divisions at the Supper.  Our rationalistic minds are apt to wonder what the divisions were about, and whether or not they were justified.  We have a lot of curiosity here, and also feel that we're justified in "knowing."  But, the point of what Paul is saying is that they are morally unjustified in having those divisions.  Now, it's true that Paul himself discusses proper doctrine in many places, and sometimes makes comments which indicate his willingness to sever fellowship over certain issues.  But, here, in teaching on the "tradition" of the conduct of the Supper, he forbids divisions.

Paul's concern to avoid divisions reveals a very important doctrinal aspect of the Supper: the fellowship of the believers in Christ.

Now, attention can focused on a lot of important aspects of the Supper:  "real presence," the "words of institution," the nature of the Eucharistic Prayer, who has the right to administer the Supper, whether the Supper can be carried away from the gathered church to be administered to the sick, etc., etc.  But, the opportunity to investigate the deep and marvelous lore of all these questions -- valuable as it is -- can take attention away from a profound observation:  We are in this together.  Yes, our connection to the Head of the Body is vital.  But our connection to one another in the Body is also vital and often neglected when talking theology.  This post wants to pay attention to that neglected element.

We may cast our investigation, then, in terms of this question:  What are the implications of the Communion we have with one another in Christ for the conduct of the Supper?

Paul continues:

1 Corinthians 11:20-22   20 Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.  21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.  22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
The point here is that the fellowship of the church cannot be disrespected in the conduct of the Supper.  This is vital.  It is for this reason that the apostle disapproves of their meeting, and even says that "it is not the Lord's Supper"!  Clearly, it can only be the "Lord's Supper" when the fellowship of the church is respected.  There is decidedly little "individualism" present in these comments.  Because of the broken fellowship in the church (evidently on a fairly grand scale), Paul can say that the meeting is "not the Lord's Supper" for any of them (not just the unspiritual ones).

Paul continues in vss 23-26 detailing the ordo of the Supper.  Then, in vss 27-32 he details the need for self-judgment, and the discipline of the Lord, and finally he picks up the same thread of thought that he began this discussion with:

1 Corinthians 11:33 - 12:1   33 ¶ Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.  34 But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment. And the rest I will set in order when I come. 
This passage -- which picks up the initial thread of exhortation, namely, the thread of fellowship within the church body -- must set the tone for all that comes in between.  That is, the ordo of the ceremony, the necessity for self-judgment, and the application of the Lord's discipline to those who insufficiently repent are all understood in the context of the fellowship of the church.

Concerning the ordo, it is said:

1 Corinthians 11:23-24   23 ¶ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread;  24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
Just as the Lord "took" bread, so we "take" it, too.  And, our "taking" and "eating" is given as command to "us" (in the plural).  In other words, the Lord does not give the bread to "you" singular -- that is, to each one of us individually, but he gives it to "you" plural -- that is, to all of us -- the Body.  He makes the fellowship and spiritual priesthood of the Body to be involved in mediating the serving of the bread and cup.

As a consequence of these observations, I suggest that the dominical instructions that Our Lord gave when instituting the Supper (which are repeated by the apostle) indicate that giving the elements ultimately into the hands of the Body for distribution to the Body is most in harmony with the theology of the ceremony and the meaning of Christian fellowship in the meeting.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Real Word and Sacrament


We are accustomed to think that Word and Sacrament convey information, primarily, and that the information conveyed serves to strengthen our faith and to strengthen our union with Christ.  So, when we hear the gospel preached, we think of ourselves receiving the information in the spirit of faith, and therefore we are edified by it.  Likewise for the sacraments.  The Lord's Supper conveys information, by words, by sight, and by taste.  This information is received in a spirit of faith, and therefore, we are edified by the Spirit through faith.  This is true, as far as it goes.  But, consider the raising of Lazarus:

Lazarus, though dead, heard the words, "Lazarus, come forth."  And, hearing the words, he was raised from the dead.  This certainly involves the communication of information, but the primary power is the power of the Word of God to create reality.  So it is in the church.

Men who hear the gospel are raised from spiritual death and come to spiritual life in Christ, and not simply by the conveyance of information!  Being dead, they nevertheless receive Christ "by ear."  And, having received Christ, they continue to receive him afresh by the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Gospel.  Our receiving is not merely the receiving of information.  It is also the receiving of Christ himself.

When we hear the word to our spiritual edification, we are receiving Christ by ear -- by actual participation.  When we are baptized, we are also receiving Christ by water -- by actual participation.  When we receive the Supper to our spiritual edification, we are also receiving Christ by mouth -- by actual participation.  (This has nothing to do with "consubstantiation.")

One writer from the 19th century gives an example:  A blind person who receives the gospel by applying his lips to the feel of the letters on the paper, receives Christ "by mouth," because it was by mouth that he understood it. 

So it is when we receive the Supper.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Imputation and Penal Substitution


In recent academic research in New Testament exegesis, on matters which affect the doctrine taught in the church, it has become the fashion in some quarters to deny the imputation (or divine reckoning) of the righteousness of Christ to Christian believers.  This "new perspective" is found in more well-known teachers, both Lutheran and Reformed, then we want to know.

We need to tune our thinking up when we hear this.  It is common to hear this denial of imputation expressed in terms of a denial of the whole concept and mechanism of it.  But, denying the whole concept and mechanism of imputation also implies denying the imputation of our sins to Christ. 
 
It needs to be understood that denying the imputation of our sins to Christ is a not uncommon doctrine in the whole church history of theology, but when this is done we have to understand that this means that Christ, though he for sure dies as our substitute in some sense, or dies as a righteous man to pay back the honor of an offended God, or dies to show God's displeasure with sin, yet he does not die as a sinner, taking our punishment.  In other words, there are lots of doctrines of "substitutionary atonement" that are not "penal substitution."  In these other doctrines of "substitution" Christ does not truly endure the divine curse and the penalty of our sins.

The next thing to know is that teachers of these non-penal substitutions, particularly today, commonly do not teach that we need this penal substitution at all.  God can forgive whomever he wishes, any time he wishes, without any sacrifice by Christ at all.  This lowers the "power" in the concepts of holiness, of redemption, and of grace.

This is one big problem with the "new perspective."  There is too low a view of the stringency of the requirement for perfect obedience.  That is, there is too low a view of the Law.  There is too low a view of the requirement for holiness.  There is too low a view of the divine curse against sin. Therefore, there is too low a view of the need for "penal substitution."  As a consequence, there is too low a view of the immensity of the free grace expressed toward us in Christ.

Because the concept of sin is too small, the concept of grace is too small.

When we're "laid back" about the law, and about sin, then we're also too laid back about holiness and repentance.  And, when we're too laid back about holiness and repentance, then we're too laid back about the need for total grace.  Grace becomes banal and loses its flavor.  We speak glibly using the word "grace," but it isn't grace.  "Laid back" isn't grace.  "Easy-going" isn't grace.

On the other hand, when the screaming tension between the horror of true sin and the incomprehensible miracle of grace astounds our hearts continuously, then we at least have a chance, by the Spirit, to detest our sin daily, and flee to grace daily, and exult in God, and in the things to come from heaven, and see the power of the Spirit working holiness in our lives.

We have to understand the reason for all that blood in the Old Testament sacrifices.  We have to understand why the Son of God who taught us not to fear death feared his own death, and sweat blood over it -- and he was no coward.  We have to understand the cry of dereliction from the cross -- and the simultaneous piety of it.  This man on the cross was a truly righteous man -- who was spiritually deserted by his God.

Since this man took our punishment, we are delivered from it forever.  Our sins are canceled by what Christ endured on the cross.  Because of what he did, we are now considered righteous.

This is imputation.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

From Moses To Christ


After Moses exhorts the Israelites about their future apostasy, as seen in Deuteronomy 29, he follows this with a prophecy of their restoration in chapter 30.  He says:

Deuteronomy 30:9-16

9 "The LORD your God will make you abound in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your land for good. For the LORD will again rejoice over you for good as He rejoiced over your fathers,  10 if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  11 For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off.  12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  13 Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?'  14 But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.  15 See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil,  16 in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess.

When Paul the apostle exhorts the believers, especially concerning the fate of the unbelieving Israelites, he uses parallel language:

Romans 10:1-13
  
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.  2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  3 For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.  4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.  5 For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, "The man who does those things shall live by them."  6 But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?' " (that is, to bring Christ down from above)  7 or, " 'Who will descend into the abyss?' " (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we preach):  9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.  11 For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame."  12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him.  13 For "whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved."

The parallel language between the two passages illustrates how the preaching of the Gospel is compared and contrasted with the preaching of the Law by Moses.  In other words, there is a parallel because of the similarity of language.  There is a similar "giving of the covenant."  But, there is also a contrast, because Jesus brought a change -- else, there would be no need for Paul to speak this way.

A comparison of the two passages shows that the contrast between them is the preaching of the Law on the one hand, and the preaching of the Gospel on the other.  The other contrast is connected with the phenomenal description of Israelite restoration in Deut 30.  How this happens is at that point a mystery.  The nation has just previously in chapter 29 been described as moving into idolatry and exile from the Land.  By some mysterious sudden transformation they are now prophesied to be restored.

That transformation that restores them is exactly the gospel of Christ that Paul speaks of in Romans 10, where he uses the parallel language to Moses.  The continuity of the covenant is that the people of Israel are restored, according to Moses' prophecy in Deuteronomy 30.  The discontinuity of the covenant is the method by which they are restored -- not under the administration of the Law, but under the administration of the Gospel.

By the Gospel, the righteousness of the Law -- the actual spiritual state called for in the Law -- is fulfilled by grace, through the Spirit, in the believers -- who are not under the Law.

The retroactive grace of Christ made believers in those old days, after the Fall and under the Law.  But the ministry was comparatively scant.  And, the Law, with its curses, threatened not only the disobedient but the godly.  The faithless were confirmed in their rebellion by God's good law.  Many, by their zeal for righteousness according to the law, became the worst enemies of Christ.  The "do this and live" revealed the sin of sinners.

But, when Christ came, with grace in place of the curse of the Law, the wholesale display of God's grace came.  The physical Israelites have been cut out of blessings, for the sake of the calling of the Gentiles, but that calling of the natural family of Abraham by God himself cannot be thwarted in the end.  By the power of the Spirit, the glorious picture of Israelite redemption will come true.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Faith and Obedience -- Not Double Justification


It's clear from Paul and from James that those with a spiritual allegiance to God have the Holy Spirit, and thus show evidence of an imperfect righteousness.

By the strict judgment of the Law, this imperfect righteousness is sin, and yet by the cleansing judgment of God, made in light of the death of his Son, these imperfect works are cleansed and accepted by him.

Furthermore, it is a commonality of Scripture that those who are in a right state with God do show evidence of these works (visible to God at least -- an important caveat), and that the Lord often declares such persons to be "righteous," even though they are sinfully imperfect.

Beyond this, God even justifies -- approves -- the right, though imperfect, actions of his saints, and indicates the eternal, heavenly destiny of people who act like this from a true heart.

But, at root, it is clear that the presence of the Holy Spirit who generates these works in us is a free gift of God, whose coming to us is evidenced by "faith alone" in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the favorable judgment that God makes of the believers' works is a consequence of the favorable judgment he makes of the believers totally apart from their works.  Justification by works is brought about by complete justification apart from works.  There are not two separate hoops to jump through:  first, the judgment of faith; later, the judgment of works.  It is not as if one could have faith and then fail the judgment of works.  Rather, the judgment of works is a vindication of the efficacy of justification by faith only.

Double justification could have been asserted if the first justification (by faith) were incomplete or temporary, so that the threat of doom (in the judgment of works) hung over even those justified by faith.  But, the Paul who asserted "justification by obedience" in Chapter 2 of his Epistle to the Romans, goes on to teach "justification by faith and no works at all" in immediately following chapters of his epistle.

We have to conclude that the term "justification" is a flexible term used with various meanings, just as we use it in ordinary conversation.  We say that a man "justifies himself" when he gives good reasons for his actions that have been questioned.  Likewise, we are justified by our behavior because it reveals who we are spiritually.  But, the power relationship that leads to Christian behavior is a power relationship not to the "do this and live" of the Law, but to salvation as a total gift of free grace in Christ.

This is why the zeal to teach that our faith does inevitably eventuate in good works must be tempered by a larger zeal to make plain the active spiritual connection to Christ, by faith only, which is the source of such a life.

It ought to be considered that the one who is really justified, when the believers are justified in their works, is God.  This is why:  In bringing us to salvation and righteousness, God's method of salvation by grace alone is what is being justified, contrary to the accusations of Satan!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Assurance of Salvation


It seems to me to be a commonplace of Scripture to speak of the difference in behavior between those who know the Lord and those who do not.  Paul speaks to misbehaving Christians by saying, "You didn't learn Jesus Christ this way."

Sounds simple, Huh!

But this introduces a problem.  We are also taught that all our good works are contaminated by sin, and that it is only the gift of salvation that makes them acceptable to God through Christ.

So, which is it?  How do I apply the standards of behavior?  When does my behavior, being so bad, imply that I don't know the Lord.  When is my behavior "good enough" to qualify, even though the sin that is in them is clearly obvious to me?  What is the dividing point between "so bad I doubt my Christianity," and "good enough" that I don't need to doubt it.

Calvin speaks to this, as do the Lutherans.  Calvin's sentiment is simply this, quoting freely: "How do you know that the good you think you see in your works means that you are a Christian, rather than that the bad you see for sure in your works means you are not?"

Calvin's answer is that you don't make this judgment of your own works take the highest priority.  Any repentant believer should take comfort in being accepted by Christ, because there is simply no works component to our acceptance.

But, you say, "My works don't confirm this assessment.  I'm repentant, but there is no good in me."  You can only retreat into "justification by faith alone," a doctrine bandied about a lot, often spoken of glibly, sometimes in controversy, but a God-send in spiritual distress.

Believe the Lord:  "Come unto me all you that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  Bring nothing.  Rest on Christ the Rock, and have joy!

And, what about Christian behavior?

Faith, which receives full salvation without works,
Faith, which rests on Christ the Rock,
This Faith loves God, and
By Him you will be changed!

You will never be satisfied with your Christian behavior, but it will nevertheless come, by grace.  And, your works will be accepted by God for Christ's sake!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Secret Work of God Saving Souls


It's worth a deeper and broader investigation of the Scriptural data concerning God's secret work when converting souls to himself.  Here are a couple of questions for your consideration.

Does regeneration come first?

Those of us of "Calvinist" persuasion (a recent name for an understanding of Scripture that goes back through Aquinas and Augustine to the Apostles and Our Lord) sometimes speak of the "antecedent" work of the Spirit in preparing souls to receive the gospel.  Sometimes some of us (or even some of our confessional material?) speak of this "antecedent" work as "regeneration," meaning the spiritual bringing to life of the soul in such a way that it can be attracted to and receive the gospel.

It turns out that in Reformed academic theological circles that conceptions of the workings of the ordo salutis which involve events in sequence of time are held in serious question.  A brief consideration will show that there are still grounds for investigating the ordo to try to determine a more Scriptural statement of it.

Consider this:  Rom 4 clearly states that God justifies the ungodly.  But regenerate people, though sinners, are not "the ungodly."  Therefore, if God regenerates a man so that he may receive the gospel, then that man is made righteous enough to receive the gospel (by regeneration in the inner man) before he hears and exercises faith.  So, he's born again before he's justified.  But, the gospel isn't for saving those already born again.  The gospel is to bear them again itself.

In my opinion, therefore, it is better to say that the Spirit, when implementing union with Christ in a person's heart, simultaneously inhabits him, gives him new birth including faith (the first feeling of life), and brings him into union with Christ in "one fell swoop."  This view also tends to keep a realistic closeness between the preaching of an "efficacious" gospel and the fruits of it (conversion of hearers).

There have been times in the Reformed camp when regeneration and conversion have been envisioned as being separated by a considerable distance in time for some hearers.  This tends to separate the converting work of the Spirit from the administration of the gospel "sacrament," thus turning the "sacrament" of the gospel into an opportunity to show allegiance to Christ (unwitting Zwinglianism) rather than seeing that the "sacrament" of the gospel is a converting ordinance in itself.

When Christ is preached, and sinners are exhorted to believe, then some of them who hear do immediately obey, rising from spiritual death, just as Lazarus rose from physical death as an analogy.  Christ did not awaken Lazarus so that he could hear the words calling him out of the tomb.  Christ's call to come out of the tomb woke Lazarus from the dead!

Is the Gospel Offer well-meant to the non-elect?

Also consider this:  If the secret work of the Spirit in preparing souls for Christ were not a mystery, then one could say that the gospel offer to sinners was not sincere or well-meant on God's part, when it was addressed to the non-elect.  However, it's a trivial argument from Scripture to prove that God often offers a well-meant gospel to people who reject it.  Christ wept over Jerusalem.  In fact, unless a sinner sees the offer as well-meant, he cannot be saved.  He must accept it as well-meant.

Therefore, we must dig deeper.

All gospel offers from God are well-meant.  The particular, secret work of the Spirit on the elect is to make them willing.  To say just blatantly that God does not desire the spiritual rebirth of certain sinners who hear the gospel opens many questions.  A sinner must then say to himself, "I hear this gospel offer, but do I have grounds for accepting it?  Perhaps it is not meant for me."  This conundrum has been a real problem in certain epochs of Reformed history.  But, this will never do.  The first question a sinner asks when he hears the gospel must not be, "Is this for me?"

It is for him.

We know that it is at God's sovereign ordination and agency that the man believes.  But, how it works is a mystery.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What is God's Real and Greatest Glory?


This is a vital question, and it resolves into important sub-questions, which, in turn, imply some things about theological systems.

1)  Is it God's greatest glory that he is served by his creation, or that he serves his creation?  Who made whom?  Who sustains whom?  Who saves whom?  Who feeds whom?  Who is the only giver?

2)  Is it God's greatest glory that he creates, or is it his greatest glory that he saves?  Is salvation Plan B, to fix up Adam's Fall, so that Plan A can proceed?  Or, is the provision of salvation really Plan A?  Which redounds to the greater glory of God?

3)  Is it God's greatest glory that he legislates obedience, and achieves that control over his creation which he originally intended, in spite of the Fall?  Or, is it that he forgives sin, and creates a new people, giving them the gift of the Spirit?  Who has the "name above every name" in all the cosmos, and what did he achieve to get it?  What is God eschatologically thanked for (Rev. 5).

The answers to these questions are intensely practical, and inform all our dealings with God.

There is also controversy here.

Some try to say that emphasizing salvation like this is man-centered, and that our religion should instead be God-centered.  His glory should be the highest thing, and not even our own salvation.

But, the Scriptures are plain that His greatest glory is to be the Savior and Sustainer of the world he has made -- the Taker of Nothing and the Giver of All.

For a long discussion about theological systems see here.