What is your only comfort in life and death?

I can’t recall where or when it was that I first encountered Q & A #1 from the Heidelberg Catechism but I know it instantly struck a deep chord. Some truths resonate not just because they’re true but because you so desire them to be true of you.

1. Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.

The Crucifixion

I recently began reading The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ and have been very appreciative of what I’ve read so far. If Part 1 is any indication this may be the first of many passages I share from the book.

[Note to the Haters: the author, Fleming Rutledge, is an Episcopal priest and {gulp} a woman! How do ya like me now???]

On the significance of Christ’s crucifixion to the Christian faith Rutledge incisively observes:

In the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the only word used in connection with the entire span of Jesus’ life is “suffered.” “Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” Who, today, notices how extraordinary this is? What a way to describe the life and ministry of a man so famous for his teachings, parables, healings, exorcisms, and other works! None of these things are even mentioned in the creeds, and very little is said of them in the various New Testament epistles. The wording of the creeds is a vivid demonstration of the early Christians’ conviction that the passion was the culmination and consummation of everything that Jesus accomplished, so as to subsume everything else in the magnitude of its significance. Yet various versions of Christianity stripped of suffering and devoid of crucifixion are more common than ever in affluent America.

Pipe & Pencil(5): Did Christ have one will or two?

Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences, and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under these influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves.

561px-kremser_schmidt_-_christus_am_oelbergDid Christ have two wills corresponding to his two natures (human & divine) or did he have one will uniting the two natures? This is the kind of question that sounds custom-made for theology eggheads. Most of us have given less thought to this question than we have to the enigma of God’s ability to create an immovable object or the number of angels that can occupy a minuscule space.

But how significant and relevant it is for us to affirm that Christ had two wills! Consider the depth this bit of theology would add to concepts like prayer, obedience, the work of redemption, and our sympathetic high priest:

Jesus had ordinary human desires, longings, preferences, and aspirations. Just as truly, he had human aversions. Under these influences he made decisions and pursued options in the same way as we do ourselves.

This is clearly indicated in the Scriptures, not least in the way they distinguish between the will of Jesus and the will of God. This appears in, for example, John 6:38, ‘I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.’ Such language presupposes . . . the logical possibility that Jesus’ natural preferences (based on personal self-interest) might not always coincide with the wishes of the Father. . . The Servant consults not his own interests but the interests of others (Phil 2:4). This climaxes in Gethsemane, where the dilemma becomes almost unbearably acute. At a very basic level, Jesus does not want this ‘cup’. His whole nature shrinks from it, and as he speaks to his Father he becomes acutely aware that there are two wills (and two ways): there is ‘my will’ and there is ‘thy will’. Nor did Jesus find it easy to be reconciled to the Father’s will. It literally terrified him, because here was the concentrated essence of the mysterium tremendum.  It was eerie. It was overwhelming. It was uncanny. Jesus’ victory consisted not in merging his will with that of the Father or even in wanting specifically what the Father wanted. It came from choosing the Father’s will rather than, and even over against, his own. He willed what he did not want…

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 179-180.

A. Stanley affirms inerrancy

Stanley has issued a straightforward affirmation of biblical inerrancy.

Stanley has issued a straightforward affirmation of biblical inerrancy. In an article for Outreach Magazine, Stanley explains that the difference between himself and many conservative evangelicals isn’t doctrinal but methodological.

Glad to hear that. Far better, in this instance, for us to disagree on our methods. Case closed.

UNIDENTIFIED CYNIC: Why did Stanley need a co-author for “his” explanation???

Pipe & Pencil (3): divine omniscience and human ignorance

How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort.

When God became man he took for himself “a human mind, subject to the same laws of perception, memory, logic and development as our own.” As the Son of God Christ knew all things, but as Son of Man he had to learn  (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8). Omniscient in his divinity; ignorant in his humanity.

This human ignorance is attested by Christ himself: “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). How omniscience and ignorance coexist in one person is a mystery beyond my comprehension. And yet the mystery may be a profound comfort. Like us, Jesus walked in darkness. Our Advocate knows firsthand the inner turmoil that accompanies our faith’s obedience as fear & ignorance whisper in our ear:

The other line of integration between the omniscience of the divine nature and the ignorance of the human is that just as Christ had to fulfill the office of Mediator within the limitations of a human body, so he had to fulfill it within the limitations of a human mind. Part of the truth here is suggested by the first of the three temptations in the desert: ‘tell these stones to become bread’ (Mt 4:3). The essence of the temptation was that the Lord disavow the conditions of the incarnation and draw on his omnipotence to alleviate the discomforts of his self-abasement. He could have turned the stones into bread; and he could (perhaps) have known the day and hour of his parousia. But the latter would have undone his work as surely as the former. Christ had to submit to knowing dependently and to knowing partially. He had to learn to obey without knowing all the facts and to believe without being in possession of full information. He had to forego the comfort which omniscience would sometimes have brought. This, surely, was a potent factor in the dereliction (Mk 15:34). The assurance of the Father’s love, the sense of his own sonship and the certainty of his victory were all eclipsed, and he had to complete his obedience as the one who walked in darkness, knowing only that he was sin and that he was banished to the outer darkness. He suffers as the one who does not have all the answers and who in his extremity has to ask, Why? The ignorance is not mere appearing. It is a reality. But it is a reality freely chosen, just as on the cross he chose not to summon twelve legions of angels. Omniscience was a luxury always within reach, but incompatible with his rules of engagement. He had to serve within the limitations of finitude.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 169.
[emphasis added]

Grab your pipe & your pencil

The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become.

For some time now I’ve felt the need to read through a good book on Christology–first, to push back the horizons of my ignorance; second, and more importantly, to feed my soul. In his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, C. S. Lewis wrote:

I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This has certainly been true for me as I work my way through The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod. I honestly don’t know how many people would share my experience in this book–sometimes you “happen” to come along the right book at just the right time. Regardless, Macleod’s has been that book for me which is one of the reasons I’ll periodically pass on some of the more challenging and/or meaningful portions here.

One more thing. For those who might like to find their heart singing over some challenging theology but don’t know how or where to start, maybe look here or here.

Here, then, is an excerpt from the chapter “Christ, The Son of God” on the relevance of Jesus’ transfiguration (pipe & pencil not included):

…[the transfiguration] has an on-going ministry. For Jesus, the trauma is past: he has entered into his rest. For us, it is not past. We are still struggling and suffering. To that situation the transfiguration still speaks, because it discloses not only the glory eternally possessed by the Lord, and not only the glory for which, as incarnate Mediator, he was destined, but also the glory of his people . . . The transfiguration showed not only what he would become but what we would become. The New Testament makes this connection explicitly. We are to be where he is (Jn 17:24). Our bodies are to be conformed exactly to his (Phil 3:21). We, in him, are to become sharers in the divine nature (2Pet 1:4). For Jesus on the Mount, this vision of what lay beyond the cross, not only for himself but for his people, would have been an immeasurable encouragement.

A. M. Ramsey relates this to the twin concepts, opsis and theiosis. Opsis is the spiritual vision which beholds the glory of the Lord. Theiosis is the transfiguring process which results: we are changed into the same image (2Cor 3:18), transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2), and one day we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1Jn 3:2). This goes back to the core of God’s own redemptive determination: to conform all his people to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29). Yet, as the sequel to the transfiguration shows, neither opsis nor theiosis goes on in ideal circumstances. We have to go down from the Mount to the demon-possessed valley. It is there that we must practice opsis; and only there that we can experience theiosis.

-Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, 107.
[emphasis added]

RELEVANT questions(?)

I think Strang misdiagnoses the problem(s) with Bell and consequently offers a faulty prescription for RELEVANT’s readers.

Cameron Strang, founder of RELEVANT magazine, has written an op-ed in which he predicts the mag will catch flak for publishing a conversation with Rob Bell. According to Strang, Bell authored popular books, turned the sermon into an art form with his Nooma videos, and founded one of the country’s most influential churches. But then “a lot of people’s feelings about Bell changed” with the publication of Love Wins, his resignation from the church, and subsequent partnership with Oprah.

Strang writes to ask that people actually read the article before “lobbing grenades,” and to agree to disagree if need be. As you’ve probably guessed already, I respectfully disagree with the agree-to-disagree approach. I’d encourage you to read the op-ed for yourself but I think Strang misdiagnoses the problem(s) with Bell and consequently offers a faulty prescription for RELEVANT’s readers.

  1. Strang erroneously claims the controversy surrounding Love Wins was because it “asked big questions about the existence of hell.” He also says:

Whether or not you feel Bell crossed a heretical line with Love Wins, there is a larger perspective we can take with it. At its core, what Bell did was ask a massive question about which aspects of our theology are based on what Scripture actually says, and which of our beliefs are traditions or assumptions we just added on. Bell came to one conclusion, and maybe you come to another. But the act of asking the question is important.

Two things need to be said here. First, Love Wins did far more than merely “question” the existence of hell. To cite some of the more egregious problems in his book, Bell denied the biblical doctrine of final judgment (86, 88, 93), salvation by faith in Christ alone (154), and the co-existing perfections of love and justice in God’s character (173-174). From these denials Bell confidently told his readers that “we do not need to be rescued from God” (182). Second, Strang gives the disturbing impression that he lacks either a proper definition for heresy or a proper sense of the danger it represents. Heresy is not the sort of thing Christians can just shrug off as a matter of personal opinion. I can hear Strang in his other life as a practicing oncologist: “Whether or not we believe the tumor has crossed the cancer line, let’s take the perspective that just the act of asking the question is important.” When it’s a matter of life & death you’d better be asking the right questions and arriving at the right answers.

  1. Strang is out of step with the Scriptural position on false teaching when he says:

When people like Bell say something we disagree with, let’s resist the urge to write off completely the other things God might say through them that could positively challenge us. Let’s have discernment but remain teachable. Imagine how things would be different if we weren’t afraid of people who might believe differently from us. We might find more common ground than we realize.

If Bell crossed a heretical line, there’s just no way this advice is appropriate. I won’t bury you under a mountain of proof texts, but the NT certainly doesn’t promote collegiality with false teachers in the church (see Acts 20:28-31; Rom 16:17-18; Eph 4:14; Titus 1:9-11; 2Pet 2:1-3; 1Jn 4:1; 2Jn 9-11). Does anyone think that Paul, Peter, or John would encourage us to “find common ground” with those who deviate from the faith?

  1. Strang’s characterization of magnanimity and humility is too simplistic. Eerily parroting the wisdom of our age he says:

To avoid dialogue with people we might disagree with . . . is small-minded. We should be humble enough to realize we don’t know everything and aren’t always right.

But this implies a false contrast. Christians aren’t small-minded or arrogant when they refuse to offer a platform to those who promote false doctrine. Neither are we being tolerant when we swim in a sea of relative truth. We know some truth but we don’t know all truth (Deut 29:29). Let’s hold our ground on what we know.

  1. We should hold teachers to a higher standard. The lay person is, under normal circumstances, given more latitude than the teacher in their doctrinal erring (1Tim 4:16; James 3:1) and so it isn’t unreasonable to expect more from men like Bell. Provocative questions are fine when they serve to promote sound doctrine but not to provide plausible deniability for doctrinal compromise.

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann is quoted as saying “It is not literally with a kiss that Christ is betrayed in the present age: today one betrays with an interpretation.”  Let’s be wary of aiding and abetting that kind of betrayal.

‘I will give myself as a Christ to my neighbor’

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that it is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me; I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ.

-Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Could Abraham have remained childless?

Those “aha!” moments in Bible study are sweet. It’s the experience the psalmist prayed for in Psalm 119:18 — “Open my eyes that I might see wonderful things in Your law” — and that we long to have more of. A couple of years ago I had one of those moments working through Romans 4 and the light from that study¹ brought much-needed correction and clarity on the relationship between justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) and sanctification (the process of our becoming righteous).

Maintaining these two doctrines without allowing one to undermine the other is threading a theological needle. How, exactly, does one harmonize a not-by-works salvation with a working faith? We find various formulations (with varying degrees of authority):

God will take you as you are but he will not leave you as you are.

Saved by good works–no. Saved for good works–yes.

We are saved by faith alone but the faith that saves is never alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith . . . not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

But for all the explanations out there it was the Abraham analogy in Romans 4 that helped me the most. The explicit point of the chapter is that God counted Abraham as righteous because he believed God’s promise.

But consider the broader implications:

  1. The promise of many descendants was given to Abraham although he was neither a father nor able to become a father.
  2. Abraham believed that God was able to do what he could not.
  3. Abraham’s faith was the vehicle by which the promise became a reality.
  4. At the practical level, Abraham “acted out” the promise.
  5. Because God called Abraham a father, God made Abraham a father.

And Abraham’s story was written for us:

  1. The promise that we will be declared righteous is given to us although we are not righteous nor able to become righteous.
  2. We believe that God is able to do what we cannot.
  3. Justifying faith is the vehicle by which the promise of righteousness becomes a reality for sinful people like us.
  4. At the practical level, we “work out” the promise of righteousness.
  5. Because God calls us righteous, God makes us righteous.

In this light I think we can better understand why Paul: (a) expresses disbelief at the notion that Christians would continue in sin after being justified (Rom 6:1-4) and (b) equates those who are “in Christ Jesus” as those who “do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4). The act of justification can’t be separated from the work of sanctification. Those whom God calls righteous apart from works will be made righteous by their works.

To be sure, Abraham never saw the perfect fulfillment of the promise in his life. Neither will we see the perfect fulfillment of righteousness in this life. But the encouragement of Romans 4 is this: because our righteousness rests on God’s promise we can no more remain fruitless than Abraham could have remained childless.

¹The light bearer for this occasion was Mark Seifrid’s commentary on Romans in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.

Study in confusion

Beware doctrinaire campus ministry!

A CT report on a new study from Lifeway Research offers a rather dismal snapshot of current evangelical thinking. The study, which examined the nation’s attitudes toward campus ministries’ faith requirements, surveyed 1,000 Americans. Among the reported findings:

  • Respondents were asked “Should student religious organizations, recognized by publicly funded colleges, be allowed to require their leaders to hold specific beliefs?” 51% of evangelicals said yes, 44% said no.
  • When the same question was asked about student groups at private institutions 60% of evangelicals answered yes, while 36% said no.

So almost half of evangelicals think it’s a bad idea to require ministry leaders on a public campus to hold the doctrinal views of the organization they represent. And more than a third wouldn’t hold ministry leaders to doctrinal standards even at a private institution.


What do we make of these findings? I have three potential conclusions:

  1. The term evangelical has become so broad as to be almost meaningless. (i.e. evangelical has more to do with a certain culture than a set of convictions)
  2. evangelicals are weary (and wary) of being labeled haters & bigots when they allow their doctrine to divide (wherever that dividing line is drawn)
  3. evangelicals are buying into the notion that faith has no place in the public square

Whether you agree or disagree, feel free to discuss.

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