I deserve death & hell. What of it?

“When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also’.”

–Martin Luther, in Theodore G. Tappert, editor, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, 86-87.

A reflection on God’s goodness & mercy

It gives us occasion to admire the wonderful patience and mercy of God. How many millions of practical atheists breathe every day in his air, and live upon his bounty who deserve to be inhabitants in hell, rather than possessors of the earth! An infinite holiness is offended, an infinite justice is provoked; yet an infinite patience forebears the punishment, and an infinite goodness relieves our wants: the more we had merited his justice and forfeited his favor, the more is his affection enhanced, which makes his hand so liberal to us. At the first invasion of his rights, he mitigates the terror of the threatening which was set to defend his law, with the grace of a promise to relieve and recover his rebellious creature. Who would have looked for anything but tearing thunders, sweeping judgments, to raze up the foundations of the apostate world. But oh, how great [is his compassion] to aspiring competitors! Have we not experimented his [works] for our good, though we have refused him for our happiness? Has he not opened his arms, when we spurned with our feet; held out his alluring mercy, when we have brandished against him a rebellious sword? Has he not entreated us while we have invaded him, as if he were unwilling to lose us, who are ambitious to destroy ourselves? Has he yet denied us the care of his providence, while we have denied him the rights of his honor, and would appropriate them to ourselves? Has the sun forborne shining on us, though we have shot arrows against him? Have not our beings been supported by his goodness, while we have endeavored to climb up to his throne; and his mercies continued to charm us, while we have used them as weapons to injure him? Our own necessities might excite us to own him as our happiness, but he adds his invitations to the voice of our wants. Has he not promised a kingdom to those who would strip him of his crown, and proclaimed pardon upon repentance to those who would take away his glory? and hath so twisted together his own end, which is his honor, and man’s true end, which is his salvation, that a man cannot truly mind himself and his own salvation, but he must mind God’s glory; and cannot be intent upon God’s honor, but by the same act he promotes himself and his own happiness? . . . All those wonders of his mercy are enhanced by the heinousness of our atheism; a multitude of gracious thoughts from him above the multitude of contempts from us.

–Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God

God’s compassion for Lot

Today’s Bible reading had me in Genesis 19. Two quick reflections concerning Lot’s salvation:

(1) “Lot hesitated” in the face of certain destruction but was saved (in spite of himself) because “the compassion of the Lord was on him” (Gen 19:16). I can identify with Lot more than I would ever want to admit. Shamefully reluctant to abandon the domain of sin while God compassionately compels me to find joy in another place.

(2) God’s compassion for Lot is a result of Abraham interceding on his behalf (Gen 16:19 cf. 18:22ff). How much of God’s compassion toward me is due to the faithful prayers of my parents (& grandparents)? I want to pray for my kids like they prayed for me.

‘What are you, then, my God?’

You are most high, excellent, most powerful, omnipotent, supremely merciful and supremely just, most hidden yet intimately present, infinitely beautiful and infinitely strong, steadfast yet elusive, unchanging yourself though you control the change in all things, never new, never old, renewing all things yet wearing down the proud though they know it not; ever active, ever at rest, gathering while knowing no need, supporting and filling and guarding, creating and nurturing and perfecting, seeking although you lack nothing. You love without frenzy, you are jealous yet secure, you regret without sadness, you grow angry yet remain tranquil, you alter your works but never your plan; you take back what you find although you never lost it; you are never in need yet you rejoice in your gains, never avaricious yet you demand profits. You allow us to pay you more than you demand, and so you become our debtor, yet which of us possesses anything that does not already belong to you? You owe us nothing, yet you pay your debts; you write off our debts to you, yet you lose nothing thereby.

– Augustine, The Confessions, 1.4 [trans. Maria Boulding]

When ‘simple’ is incomprehensible

All That Is in GodI realize that reading one book does not make one an authority on a complicated doctrine, but I found James Dolezal’s All That Is in God a compelling argument for the classical understanding of divine simplicity.

As a simple, southern pastor I’ll leave it to the credentialed theologians to adjudicate the finer points of simplicity. In the meantime, I thought I might share a few reflections and excerpts from the book.

First, I need to read more “old” theology from the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Bavinck, etc. The more second-hand exposure I have to these guys the more impressed I am with the breadth and depth of their work.

Second, and closely related, we are either stunningly ignorant or conceited (or both) to labor under the notion that our benighted forebears piddled in the theological shallows leaving us to plumb the depths of the divine nature. There is nothing new under the sun and the writing of many books is endless. Keep those proverbs in mind whenever you read a new book.

Third, my experience in reading this book was a testament to Lewis’ belief that the heart may sing unbidden while working through a tough bit of theology. There’s something about being confronted with the ‘godness’ of God that leaves one in awe and wonder.

Here, then, is a distillation of divine simplicity according to Dolezal:

The principal claim of divine simplicity is that God is not composed of parts. Whatever is composed of parts depends upon its parts in order to be as it is. A part is anything in a subject that is less than the whole and without which the subject would be really different than it is. In short, composite beings need their parts in order to exist as they do. Moreover, the parts in an integrated whole require a composer distinct from themselves to unify them, an extrinsic source of unity. If God should be composed of parts–of components that were prior to Him in being–He would be doubly dependent: first, on the parts, and second, on the composer of the parts. But God is absolute in being, alone the sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, and so cannot in any respect derive His being from another. Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God. (40-41)

A number of implications follow from this basic conviction. First, God’s existence (act of being) and essence [what He is] cannot be constituent components in Him, each supplying what the other lacks. Rather, God must be identical with His existence and essence, and they must be identical with each other. (41)

Second, if all that is in God is God, then each of His attributes is identical with His essence. . . . It further follows from God’s non-compositeness that in Him all His attributes are really identical with each other. For many, this implication is the hardest to accept. It would seem that if we know anything about God, then we know that His power is not His wisdom, and His wisdom is not His goodness, and His goodness is not His eternity, and so on. But if He is simple, and if His being is not dependent on component parts that are ontologically more basic than the fullness of His being, then all these things we say about Him would have to be identical in Him. (42)

God’s essence is not simply a bundle of contiguous properties or attributes, each existing alongside the others as an integrated whole. His divinity is not a sublime set of great-making properties all splendidly arranged together in Him. In His essence, it is not one thing to be good, another to be wise, another to be powerful, and so on. . . . Properly speaking, God is good by virtue of God, not goodness. He is wise by virtue of God, not wisdom. He is powerful by virtue of God, not power. He is love by virtue of God, not love. And when we say that God is goodness itself, wisdom itself, power itself, and love itself, we do not mean that these are so many really distinct parts or forms in God, but simply that He is all that is involved in these terms by virtue of His own divine essence as such. God is not the particular instantiation of a wonderful set of properties. Rather, there is nothing in God that is not identical with His divinity, nothing that is not just God Himself. (43)

Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 3)

I am therefore not deeply worried by the fact that prayer is at present a duty, and even an irksome one. This is humiliating. It is frustrating. It is terribly time-wasting—the worse one is praying, the longer one’s prayers take. But we are still only at school. Or, like Donne, “I tune my instrument here at the door.” And even now—how can I weaken the words enough, how speak at all without exaggeration?—we have what seem rich moments. Most frequently, perhaps, in our momentary, only just voluntary, ejaculations; refreshments “unimplored, unsought, Happy for man so coming.”

But I don’t rest much on that; nor would I if it were ten times as much as it is. I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling. In feeling there is really so much that is not ours—so much that comes from weather and health and from the last book read. One thing seems certain. It is no good angling for the rich moments. God sometimes seems to speak to us most intimately when He catches us, as it were, off our guard. Our preparations to receive Him sometimes have the opposite effect. Doesn’t Charles Williams say somewhere that “the altar must often be built in one place in order that the fire from heaven may descend somewhere else“?

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 116-117.

Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 2)

. . . The painful effort which prayer involves is no proof that we are doing something we were not created to do.

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be delight. Some day, please God, it will be. The same is true of many other behaviors which now appear as duties. If I loved my neighbor as myself, most of the actions which are now my moral duty would flow out of me as spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower. Why is this not so yet? Well, we know, don’t we? Aristotle has taught us that delight is the “bloom” on an unimpeded activity. But the very activities for which we were created are, while we live on earth, variously impeded: by evil in ourselves or in others. Not to practise them is to abandon our humanity. To practise them sontaneously and delightfully is not yet possible. This situation creates the category of duty, the whole specifically moral realm.

It exists to be transcended. Here is the paradox of Christianity. As practical imperatives for here and now the two great commandments have to be translated “Behave as if you loved God and man.” For no man can love because he is told to. Yet obedience on this practical level is not really obedience at all. And if a man really loved God and man, once again this would hardly be obedience; for if he did, he would be unable to help it. Thus the command really says to us, “Ye must be born again.” Till then, we have duty, morality, the Law. A schoolmaster, as St. Paul says, to bring us to Christ. We must expect no more of it than of a schoolmaster; we must allow it no less. I must say my prayers today whether I feel devout or not; but that is only as I must learn my grammar if I am ever to read the poets.

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 114-115.

Lewis: ‘Prayer is irksome’ (pt 1)

. . . by talking at this length about prayer at all, we seem to give it a much bigger place in our lives than, I’m afraid, it has. For while we talk about it, all the rest of our experience, which in reality crowds our prayer into the margin or sometimes off the page altogether, is not mentioned. Hence, in the talk, an error of proportion which amounts to, though it was not intended for, a lie.

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us. . . .

The odd thing is that this reluctance to pray is not confined to periods of dryness. When yesterday’s prayers were full of comfort and exaltation, todays will still be felt as, in some degree, a burden.

Now the disquieting thing is not simply that we skimp and begrudge the duty of prayer. The really disquieting thing is it should have to be numbered among duties at all. For we believe that we were created “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And if the few, the very few, minites we now spend on intercourse with God are a burden to us rather than delight, what then?

– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Mariner Books ed), 113-114

Observing 1Sam 7 — What sorrow is this?

Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

1 Samuel 7:2-4 From the day that the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim, the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to the LORD with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the LORD and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtaroth and served the LORD alone.

The Philistine domination of Israel (chpts 4-6) coupled with the Lord’s judgment on the people of Beth-shemesh (6:19-21) scarred the national psyche. As a result, Israel is said to have “lamented after the Lord” for twenty years (7:2). Since this Hebrew verb (and corrsponding noun) is used to signify the kind of mourning that accompanies a tragic loss (see Jer 9:17-19; Ezek 32:18; Micah 2:4), it seems safe to say that Israel was convinced that she had lost the Lord. Even though the ark’s return to Israel signified the Lord’s return to the land (see 6:20), the people still labored under a sense of divine opprobrium.

Twenty years is a suprisingly long time to lament after the Lord without any kind of response unless you take into account the people’s continued dalliance with their idols. In that case, what’s surprising is that the people needed a prophet to state the obvious: remove the idols, return to the Lord, and all will be made right.

It’s tempting, and not entirely unreasonable, to interpret Israel’s duplicity as an OT example of what Paul calls worldly sorrow (2Cor 7:10). That is, Israel was more concerned with what she had lost—possessions, security, status—than who she had lost. While there might be something to this line of thinking, it’s hard to square with the text’s assertion that the people lamented after the Lord.

Another approach would be to read 1Samuel 7 in light of Ezekiel 20:

“I said to them, ‘Cast away, each of you, the detestable things of his eyes, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.’ 8 “But they rebelled against Me and were not willing to listen to Me; they did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. (20:7-8)

“Also I swore to them in the wilderness that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands, 16 because they rejected My ordinances, and as for My statutes, they did not walk in them; they even profaned My sabbaths, for their heart continually went after their idols. (20:15-16)

“When I had brought them into the land which I swore to give to them, then they saw every high hill and every leafy tree, and they offered there their sacrifices and there they presented the provocation of their offering. There also they made their soothing aroma and there they poured out their drink offerings. (20:28)

Reading 1Samuel in isolation, we feel as if we’re coming across a unique instance of spiritual dimwittedness; but Ezekiel indicates that this supposed anomaly was, in fact, the norm for a nation with divided loyalties. Israel was being Israel. It’s doubtful that there was ever a time when she was whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord.

With the added light from Ezekiel 20, I take away three reminders from 1Samuel 7.

First, God is (unfathomably) “slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6). So much so that “if we are faithless he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2Tim 2:13). My apathetic and guilt-ridden heart needs to hear and believe these truths.

Second, God’s promise of forgiveness isn’t conditioned on perfect penitence. If his forgiveness depends on the quality of my repentance, there is no forgiveness to be had. God help me, I need to repent of my repentance!

Third, in God’s economy one day of repentance is more than sufficient for twenty years of habitual sin because one sacrifice was sufficient for all sin (Rom 3:21-25).

We were over an abyss

You probably all know the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told whence he came, he broke down horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask, Do we really live in such danger? Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved. Look at our Savior, and at our salvation! Look at Jesus Christ on the cross. . . . Do you know for whose sake he is hanging there? For our sake – because of our sin – sharing our captivity – burdened with our suffering! He nails our life to the cross. This is how God had to deal with us. From this darkness he has saved us. He who is not shattered after hearing this news may not yet have grasped the word of God: “By grace you have been saved!”

– Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (quoted by Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion)