A Reflection on Colossians 2:20: ‘As if you were still alive in the world’

20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. —Colossians 2.20-23 

I have shared the whole pericope, but I want to focus on verse 20. In particular, I want to reflect (so this isn’t proper exegesis) on this clause: “as if you were still alive in the world . . . .” I have literally read Colossians more than a thousand times over the last twenty-six years, and yet as I quickly read it last time this clause stood out to me in deep ways. The thing I like so much about the epistle to the Colossians is its eschatological and creational motifs, and how the Apostle Paul (by the Spirit) masterfully draws those motifs in and from Jesus Christ. What is striking to me about this clause is the conditional ‘as if.’ Because of God’s disruptive grace for us, as that confronts us in the Logos ensarkos (the Word enfleshed), we have been brought into a whole new realm of concrete existence. Even as if we live in this worldthe world that is passing away like a shadow—we are no longer strangled by the bonds ‘this world’ order is.  

I think what strikes me so much about this is the primal idea regarding the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It is the sui generis non-analogous nature of the whole event that causes me to fall prostrate on my face before God. It is the announcement from God alone in Christ that declares that I am no longer alive in this world; that I am a citizen of heaven, and as such I am no longer encumbered by the wiles of this evil age. The notion that I am genuinely free, just as our Triune God is eternally free in His inner-life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, causes me to place my hand over my mouth in awe-struck. Because of what Christ has done by freeing us from this evil age, and transferring us into the ‘Kingdom of the Son’s love,’ we are no longer citizens of this world system; the one that is travailing under a futility it cannot begin to grasp.  

I have an apocalyptic excitement about the reality that I am no longer ‘alive in the world’; that I am only alive in the world of the Kingdom whose foundations can never be shaken. The fact that as Christians we have been transferred to another Kingdom, of the sort that comes with God’s creatio ex nihilo power, says to me that I no longer need to fret and wane along with the rest of this world. In other words, I can have a genuine witness to the world, of which I am no longer alive in, because I am alive from another world whose foundations are the Lord Himself. This goes beyond ethereal platitudes; indeed, this is the concrete reality of all reality. And so, as Christians we walk by the vision of the world from whence we find our lives and orientation; our vision is the faith of Christ for us. In this world we can see from the eschatos of God’s life, who is Jesus Christ. We can see from a world that does not require insight from this world system. And because of this we can genuinely be witnesses to this world, the one we inhabit from day to day, because we see the grandeur of what in fact real life entails. This world, the one that has been triumphed over by the cross of Christ, needs to see the real world through those of us who are its ambassadors. I cannot think of a time in world history where this has been more urgent than today. Maranatha 

Gnesio Protestantism: Living and Breathing in the ‘spirit’ of Luther’s Reformation


Let me propose a different way to think about being Protestant. Often this way is referred to as Radical Protestantism, at least in its modern dress. But what I am referring to is both radical and Gnesio. Both terms, radical and gnesio can be closely related and mutually informing, one of the other. The former comes from the Latin root word radix, which means: ‘root.’ The latter, Gnesio, or γνήσιος in the Greek, means: ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic.’ If you’re familiar with Protestant history, you will recognize this term in reference to the so called Gnesio-Lutherans versus the Philippists. This was an internecine splintering within and among the followers of Luther, post his death. The Gnesios believed they were in strict adherence to Luther’s teachings, whereas the Philippists came to follow the teachings of Luther’s best friend and comrade, Philipp Melanchthon. The details of that rupture are interesting in their own right, but unnecessary to develop for our purposes. I simply want to riff on the language of Gnesio, in overlap with radix.

I have written on this issue numerous times before, but let me reiterate, because I think this issue is fundamentally important. I want to propose that there is actually a Gnesio Protestantism available in the history; that the spirit of Luther’s protesting work has been taken up by various theologians, and yet mostly quenched by the consensus of Protestant theologians. Ron Frost, a former historical theology professor of mine, a mentor of mine, and someone I did a teaching fellowship for, introduced me to this line of thinking eighteen years ago. Let me refer you to something (at length), that Frost wrote (for Trinity Journal, Fall 1997), where he pinpoints what he refers to as a ‘stillborn’ reformation:

Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?

What was it that stirred Martin Luther to take up a reformer’s mantle? Was it John Tetzel’s fund-raising through the sale of indulgences? The posting of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences in October, 1517, did, indeed, stir the public at large. But Luther’s main complaint was located elsewhere. He offered his real concern in a response to the Diatribe Concerning Free Will by Desiderius Erasmus:

I give you [Erasmus] hearty praise and commendation on this further account-that you alone, in contrast with all others, have attacked the real thing, that is, the essential issue. You have not wearied me with those extraneous [alienis] issues about the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences and such like-trifles rather than issues-in respect of which almost all to date have sought my blood (though without success); you and you alone, have seen the hinge on which all turns, and aimed for the vital spot.

The concern of this article, then, is to go behind the popular perceptions-the “trifles”-of Luther’s early activism in order to identify and examine this “hinge on which all turns.”

What was this vital spot? Luther was reacting to the assimilation of Aristotle’s ethics within the various permutations of scholastic theology that prevailed in his day. Indeed, Luther’s arguments against Aristotle’s presence in Christian theology are to be found in most of his early works, a matter that calls for careful attention in light of recent scholarship that either overlooks or dismisses Luther’s most explicit concerns.

In particular, historical theologian Richard A. Muller has been the most vigorous proponent in a movement among some Reformation-era scholars that affirms the works of seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism-or Protestant Orthodoxy-as the first satisfactory culmination, if not the epitome, of the Reformation as a whole. Muller assumes that the best modern Protestant theology has been shaped by Aristotelian methods and rigor that supported the emerging structure and coherence of Protestant systematic theology. He argues, for instance, that any proper understanding of the Reformation must be made within the framework of a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotle’s methods:

It is not only an error to attempt to characterize Protestant orthodoxy by means of a comparison with one or another of the Reformers…. It is also an error to discuss [it] without being continually aware of the broad movement of ideas from the late Middle Ages…. the Reformation … is the briefer phenomenon, enclosed as it were by the five-hundred-year history of scholasticism and Christian Aristotelianism.

The implications of Muller’s affirmations may be easily missed. In order to alert readers to the intended significance of the present article at least two points should be made. First, Muller seems to shift the touchstone status for measuring orthodox theology from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. That is, he makes the Thomistic assimilation of Aristotle-which set up the theological environment of the late middle ages-the staging point for all that follows in orthodox doctrine. It thus promotes a continuity between Aquinas and Reformed theology within certain critical limits3-and this despite the fact that virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, and Luther most of all, looked back to Augustine as the most trustworthy interpreter of biblical theology after the apostolic era. Thus citations of Augustine were a constant refrain by Luther and John Calvin, among many others, as evidence of a purer theology than that which emerged from Aquinas and other medieval figures. Second, once a commitment to “Christian Aristotelianism” is affirmed, the use of “one or another of the Reformers” as resources “to characterize Protestant orthodoxy” sets up a paradigm by which key figures, such as Luther, can be marginalized because of their resistance to doctrinal themes that emerge only through the influence of Aristotle in Christian thought.

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed-measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles-a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther-who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week-chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.” His solution was straightforward:

In this regard my advice would be that Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, Concerning the Soil, and Ethics which hitherto have been thought to be his best books, should be completely discarded along with all the rest of his books that boast about nature, although nothing can be learned from them either about nature or the Spirit.

This study will note, especially, three of Luther’s works, along with Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes Theologici. The first is Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, presented in the Fall of 1517, at least a month before he wrote his more famous Ninety-Five Theses. Second is his Heidelberg Disputation, which took place April 26,1518. The third is his Bondage of the Will-which we cited above written in 1525 as a response to Erasmus. Melanchthon’s Loci was published in 1521 as Luther was facing the Diet of Worms. A comparative review of Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism will also be offered.[1]

Luther’s whole project was one where a radical theology of the Word was at the forefront. He was confronting his sense of how Aristotle’s categories had malnourished, indeed, suffocated the reality of the Christian’s Freedom in the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. This was the ‘spirit’ of the gnesio Protestant Reformation, and one that was quickly snuffed out by the re-adoption of the Ramist and scholastic methodology deployed by the Post Reformation Reformed theologians, along with, ironically, the development of Lutheran orthodoxy. This meant a re-submission to the via antiqua (ancient way) of theological reflection, one informed by Aristotelian and overly metaphysicalized categories that are foreigners to the theology of the Word revealed in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ.

At base or as a fundamentum, my proposal for a so called Gnesio Protestantism brings us back to the original ‘spirit’ of Luther’s reformational work. This would mean, and radically so, that much of the so called “Reformed” theology of the 16th and 17th centuries, insofar as it moved away from the spirit of Luther’s reformation, be abandoned. It is possible to identify a canonical thread from Luther onward, into the present; that is, it is possible to identify people who understood the spirit of Luther’s work, even in and through the 16th and 17th centuries, and onward, but it requires much work to excavate.

Personally, this is why I am so taken by the theology of Karl Barth. Barth more than anyone else that I have come across (even more than Thomas Torrance, who I love) imbibes the spirit of Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He reifies the sort of Christ concentration, and therefore, theology of the Word that I think Luther was all about! Barth’s theology has been politicized though. We must look beyond that. Barth’s theology has been diminished because of his relationship with Charlotte von Kirschbaum; Luther’s should be then, given his apparent anti-Semitism, in his mature years. But we don’t look to these men as absolutes in themselves, we look to the reality that they sought to bear witness to in their unique ways; we look to Jesus Christ, as He is the Word of God these theologians sought to amplify, even in the midst of their sinfulness. The ground and grammar of theology I will always plant my roots and words in is the Word of God that these types of theologians, in opposition to the consensus of theologians (whether they be Roman Catholic or Protestant orthodox), attempted to bear witness to for the world to see and handle and touch.

I commend to you: Gnesio Protestantism. The genuine article Protestantism that has radical rootage in the living Word of God. A Protestantism that is one of dissent, not consent to the consensus. Do you understand this? The spirit of Protestantism, I take it, is one that is rooted in the so called via moderna (modern way). It doesn’t have ground in the natural order of things, like a stable conception of a historical Church, but its ground is in the other worldliness of the heavenly Kingdom; one that is mediated to us by the Pure Grace of God who is Jesus Christ! There is no natural or historical iteration, in my view of the spirit of Protestantism, that can serve as a bastion of stability and authority for the Christian person; only Jesus Christ, as He in-breaks into our lives, moment by moment, afresh and anew, can be that / can do that. Recanto! you say? Nein! ‘Here I stand, I can do no other!’[2]


[1] Ron Frost, “Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?,” Trinity Journal 18:2 (Fall 1997): 223-24 [emphasis mine].

[2] You might be thinking, ‘man, Bobby, drama much?’ Indeed, I’ll both live and die in this drama. Soli Deo Gloria.

Living in the ‘Feeling’ and Reality of Freedom from Sin that God Desires For Us In Christ: From Gestation to Resurrection

I really struggled with a false sense of guilt and condemnation for particular sins from my past for years upon years. The enemy of my soul kept me living under ‘a yoke of bondage’ that Jesus said I ‘would be free indeed’ from. The Lord did not leave me as an orphan though, by the Spirit he ministered to me through a sort of rigorous exercise of training me to think rightly about reality as declared in the evangel of His life as borne witness to in Holy Scripture. After many years of anxiety and depression, particularly stemming from living under this false yoke of condemnation the Lord used the reality of creation and recreation to bring the freedom that I so desperately desired. I am sure that I am not alone in this walk, and so I thought I would share a little bit of how this ‘training’ from the Lord looks; at least the way it looks for me.

As I just intimated a doctrine of creation and recreation, along with God’s sovereign providential care of all reality, played the required roles for me to finally see that I truly was and am free (for God and others). As already noted this sort of education from God was motivated by a crisis—we might refer to it as a theology of crisis—a crisis that brought the realization home that I did not have the resources in myself to bring the freedom that God alone could bring.[1] So how does this relate to God being Creator; and not just in an intellectual sense, but how does that reality relate to these real life spiritual issues in a existential felt manner?

In order to help explain what I’m attempting to detail let me offer a very brief definition of the theological concept creatio ex nihilo (‘creation out of nothing’). Keith Ward offers this definition:

Creatio ex nihilo (Latin for “creation from nothing”) refers to the view that the universe, the whole of space-time, is created by a free act of God out of nothing, and not either out of some preexisting material or out of the divine substance itself. This view was widely, though not universally, accepted in the early Christian Church, and was formally defined as dogma by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Creatio ex nihilo is now almost universally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Indian theism generally holds that the universe is substantially one with God, though it is usually still thought of as a free and unconstrained act of God.[2]

There are many important theological implications we could explore simply based upon this brief definition, but for our purposes I wanted to inject this definition into this discussion to elevate the idea that God is the Creator, and thus all of creation is contingent upon his Word. It was this idea that God started to use in my life, years ago, before I ever had any understanding of ‘creation out of nothing’, that I could have freedom from my past. This concept, before I knew the theological parlance was captured for me in this Bible verse, “3And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high….” (Heb. 1.3). Interesting how even in this verse the concept of being purified from sins and God’s ‘upholding all things by the word of His power’ are connected. It was this connection that God used to bring freedom for me. The lesson took many years, and was full of ‘anfechtung’ (trial-tribulation). The Lord allowed me to existentially feel the weight of what this world might look like without him as the One holding it together. It is very hard for me to verbalize the sense that I experienced, but it was as if I was questioning all of reality; even physical reality. I would look out at the world and based upon the sort of nihilistic logic that had infiltrated my mind (as a Christian!) over the years I would have this excruciating condition of feeling the transitoriness of all of reality. It was living in this reality, accompanied by ‘intellectual doubts’ (not spiritual) about God’s existence, that of course!, threw me into great pits of despondency and despair. But it was also through this that my perception of reality was transferred from one contingent upon my word—and this world system’s word—to God’s Word. It was this process, ironically, that allowed me to finally understand that “If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” (Rom. 8.31–32) Again, like with the Hebrews passage, we see here in Paul’s theology that a connection is made between freedom from condemnation and the creational reality of God’s Word; except here what is emphasized is not creation in general, but creation in particular as that is particularized in the re-creation of God in Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Once I’d been schooled enough with the reality that ‘reality’ is God’s reality based alone upon his given and sustaining Word; once I could ‘feel’ that weight, not just intellectually, but spiritually-affectively, the resurrection and re-creation therein had the real life impact I personally needed to be ‘free’ and stand fast in the freedom that the Son said I would be free within (Jn. 8.36); his freedom in the re-creation; the resurrection; the new creation; the new humanity that is his for us.

So I had this doctrine of creation out of nothing in place, in a ‘felt’ way; with the emphasis being upon the reality that God alone holds all of reality together. It was within this conceptual frame that the doctrine of re-creation and resurrection came alive for me; in an existential-spiritual-felt and lived sense. This is why Karl Barth’s doctrine of resurrection has resonated with me so deeply. It is tied into the type of ‘primordial’ thinking that creatio ex nihilo operates from—as part and parcel of God’s upholding Word—and then explicates that from within a theology of God’s Word wherein the primacy of Christ’s life is understood as the telos the fulcrum of what created reality is all about. Robert Dale Dawson really helped me to appreciate this sort of connection between creation out of nothing and Barth’s doctrine of re-creation as he wrote this:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[3]

Threading out the academic technicalities (that are important in their original context), and focusing on the concepts that serve our purposes, what I draw from this is the significance of what Dawson identifies in Barth’s theology as ‘the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.’ Can you see how all of this might provide the sort of apocalyptic freedom we are in need of in order to live the sort of ‘free’ life that God wants us to before him? It does seem rather mechanical and academic; I agree. Let me try to summarize and draw together the themes I’ve been attempting to highlight in order to provide you with a maybe-way forward in your own spiritual walk and life as a Christian.

The Conclusion. It is actually rather basic, but deeply profound; at least for me. What is required is that we ask for eyes of faith to see what God sees in Christ. He will school us in his ways as we seek him first in the Scripture’s reality in Christ. He will work things into our lives that will shorn away the accretions of the ‘worldly-system-wisdom’ with his wisdom; the wisdom of the cross. He will allow you to ‘feel’ the existential weight of his life, and the reality that that upholds, and within this, this apocalyptic reality of his in-breaking life into ours, the reality that the God who could rightly condemn us has broken into the surly contingencies of our sinful lives and become the ‘Judge, judged.’ If the God who holds all reality together by the Word of his power in Jesus Christ invades this world in the Son, takes his just condemnation of our sins (no matter what they are!) upon himself for us, puts that death to death in his death on the cross, and then re-creates all of reality in his resurrection; then there remains no space for condemnation. The One who could condemn me stands in the way and has eliminated the sphere for condemnation insofar that he has re-created a world wherein only his righteousness reigns and dwells in his enfleshed life for us in his Son, Jesus Christ. What I just noted is the key to grasp. There is another world in Christ; a world accessible by the eyes of faith, provided by the eyes of Christ, in his vicarious humanity which we are enlivened into by the Holy Spirit. This is the real reality that Christians live in and from; and it is this reality that I cling to whenever the enemy of my soul wants to bring me into a life of bondage that belongs to the world that he is king over; a world that is dead and no longer real by virtue of the reality of God’s new world re-created and realized in the primacy of Jesus Christ.

I hope this small reflection might help provide some liberation for some of you out there as well. I realize this all might seem pretty academic, but I don’t really see things that way; I’m hoping you’ll see as a result of this post why I don’t see things in terms of the ‘academic.’ I think good theology, whether people think it is “academic” or not can begin to see that at spiritual levels these ideas can have real life impact and consequences, and that God can use them for the good; he did so, and continues to work this way for me. Just recently, as recent as yesterday, the devil tried to bring me back into a sense of false condemnation and guilt, and I found relief in the very ideas I’ve just outlined. The process, in the head, can be somewhat mechanistic, when working through things this way, but, at least for me, it is what is required for to live a life of freedom that God wants me to live in and from his Son, and my Savior, Jesus Christ. Soli Deo Gloria.


[1] This might also explain why I have so much resonance with Karl Barth’s theology. Early on Barth was known as a theologian of crisis. Martin Luther’s theology was spawned by deep angst, and his theology is often related to what is known in German as Anfechtung (trial/tribulation). This is why I have found these theologians, among others, as some of my most insightful teachers; they understand that the ‘wisdom of the cross’, that a theologia crucis and a theologia resurrectionis are the key components for knowing God and making him known to others. This is where God meets us; it’s where he knows we must be met if we are going to meet him.

[2] Keith Ward, Creatio Ex Nihilo (Encyclopedia.com), accessed 05-18-2018.

[3] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13.

Avoiding the Sin of Acedia: Living the Christian Life in Step with the Spirit of Christ

We come into the Christian life, whenever we do, and start the walk. At first, at least in evangelical circles, we identify new converts, often times with such phrases as “they are on fire,” so on and so forth. But after time passes, trials and tribulations face us, and we
gain experience[s] in the church we might become jaded, or at the very least start to experience a sense of dullness towards all things spiritual. We begin to domesticate and normalize our faith to the point that we conflate our experiences with the object (and subject) of our faith, Jesus Christ. Once we take this step—usually subconsciously—a vacuum is created. This is where things become tenuous, and spiritually dangerous. We will attempt to fill this vacuum with all sorts of new experiences, experiences that are more akin to ‘sowing to the flesh’ rather than ‘to the Spirit.’ We start to engage in daily practices that ‘grieve’ and ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit in our lives, and this all out of the seeming mundanity of our spiritual lives; out of the idea that we have arrived as Christians, had all or most of the experiences one can have, and now are seeking fulfillment in life by other means. I remember, as someone who grew up in the church, having a conversation with friends (who had similar backgrounds) when we were just recently out of high school, we thought we were all ‘veterans’ of the faith; that we’d already seen it all. It wasn’t long after this that I started to slide in my walk with Christ, and what I have been describing thus far began to overtake me; leading to actions that did not magnify Christ, but instead magnified me.

In the ancient monastic church the ‘sin’ I’m referring to was called acedia. Cornelius van der Kooi offers a wonderful description of this as he is discussing participation in the Spirit of Christ in his development of a Spirit Christology; he writes:

. . .  We do not have the unique relationship with God that Christ enjoyed. We are God’s adopted children. Yet this status in itself is a great mystery: it is the triune God who dwells in us, who has poured out his Spirit in his church! At the same time, this indwelling is not a matter of peace but involves warfare. We are often stubborn and do not readily incline to the Spirit and his work. In fact, the Holy Spirit may be grieved and even snuffed out. The house may feel or even be empty. Before we know it, we may be overcome by what in the monastic tradition is called the demon of acedia. It is the feeling of emptiness, boredom, and discontentment, bordering on melancholy. It refers to those times when we live in our own little world, are asleep, are unguarded, and try to put our restlessness to death with nervous distractions. Here no therapy can help us but only healing. God’s Spirit must come in order to fill us and make us complete. Outside of that movement, we are lost.[1]

This sort of creep can even happen to us as we are seemingly and actively walking with Jesus; even in seasons when we think we are genuinely in step with the Spirit. It might not be as overt as the discussion I had with my friends years ago, it might be more subtle; we might be reading the Bible daily, reading theology texts, be involved in church ministries and activities, and yet acedia could still begin to grab a hold of our hearts and put us into a place of spiritual deadness; a spot where we are going through the motions. My sense is that acedia is alive and well in the Christian church, and is one that we need to recognize and repent of.

What this sin points up to me is that within the Christian life there is a vigilance that is required. It is reliance upon the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, that will provide the kind of vigilance we need to avoid this particular ‘demon.’ It is so subtle and ‘creepy’ that we might not know it is even happening to us until we have engaged in some sort of egregious sin that then makes our whole lifestyle all too apparent. This is why reliance upon the Holy Spirit in Christ is so important for the Christian life. He will ‘put us to death over and over again, that the life of Christ might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies’ (II Cor. 4.10). I would suggest that this is what is required if we are to avoid acedia; we must, as the Apostle said of himself, ‘have the sentence of death written upon us that we won’t trust in ourselves, but in the One who is able to raise the dead’ (II Cor. 1.7-9). We can pray for this type of lifestyle, and God will and has provided that for us in Christ. But this type of lifestyle—the one that avoids acedia—is not comfortable. In fact this type of non-acedia lifestyle can cause great anguish, dark nights of the soul, bouts of depression and anxiety, physical tumults, and a host of other means through which the Holy Spirit in God’s providence in Christ, will produce his death in our lives that his life will also be present for the world to see, and for us to experience. If you dare, ask the Lord to arrest any sort of acedia in your life and see what he won’t do. His grace is sufficient (I say with fear and trembling).


[1] Cornelius van der Kooi, This Incredibly Benevolent Force: The Holy Spirit in Reformed Theology and Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 104-05.

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.


[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

The Disastrous Results of Fake-it-till-You-Make it Theology: The Habitus

I have been thinking lately of the deleterious effect that bad theologies have upon us. One of those theologies, that I think is bad, is of the type that believes that as Christians we ought to ‘fake-it-till-we-make-it’; that we ought to muster up enough faith or grace from God to respond to life-circumstances in such a way that an attempt is made (by us) to overcome hard stuff by faking feelings, by faking smiley faces, or faking whatever else with hopes that our souls will follow—a sort of masquerading Christian spirituality. For example, say Joe Christian is having a bad day at monkaquinaswork, instead of being able to admit that he is having a bad day at work he will attempt to overcome his circumstances by faking feelings that he perceives are in line with what a genuine “biblical” Christian response ought to be in the face of said circumstances. Joe Christian believes that over time if he fakes it enough he will begin to instill into his life a Christian character that transcends his daily circumstances, no matter what those circumstances might be.

This approach to Christian sanctification and spirituality has a heritage in the history of ideas. Aristotle introduced a concept known as habitus which medieval theologian par excellence, Thomas Aquinas appropriated and synthesized within his own moral theology. Omar Lizardo describes it this way:

In its initial Aristotelian formulation, the notion of habitus is captured in the idea of hexis (habitus is the usual Latin translation of this Greek word). This refers to the state of possessing (or “having”, Latin habere) an acquired, trained disposition to engage in certain modes of activity when encountering particular objects or situations. For instance, the essential capacity to regularly engage in virtuous action was understood, in the context of Aristotelian ethics, to be the primary exemplification of habitus. Aquinas would refine the application of the concept to ethical reasoning in further specifying the nature and content of the moral virtues. In Aquinas’s rendering, the full virtuous personality is one who has, through effort and training, cultivated the proficiency to act in the morally required manner without effort; that is, a person for whom moral behavior becomes second nature.[1]

Richard Muller defines it this way as applied in a theological context: “habitus infusa: infused habit or disposition; i.e. a disposition of mind or will not present naturally in a human being, usually because of the loss of the imago Dei (q.v.) in the fall, that is graciously instilled or infused in mind or will by God….”[2]

So it is an ‘acquired’ disposition, and understood theologically, it is something given to the elect by God so that they might have the capacity to habituate in virtuous behaviors that will lead to a transformed character (this is akin to what has been called ‘virtue ethics’, an ethical system rooted in the habitus theology of both Aristotle and Aquinas). The emphasis of the habitus is an outside/inside approach to moral/holiness transformation.

Coming back to Joe Christian; when we, like Joe Christian, think that we must fake it till we make it in order to transmute our ‘old-fallen-nature’ into the ‘new-created-nature’ we have in Christ we miss the freedom of the Gospel. The emphasis, because of habitus-like thinking, is now on my effort (yes, with God’s help) to mould and shape ‘my’ character into the character of Christ; Christ is the exemplar I am trying to imitate then through the disposition of the habitus (given by God of course). This might fit well with a view of salvation that works from a declarational emphasis—i.e. or a forensic emphasis—that focuses on the outside of things (like the forgiveness of sins through a paid penalty), but it does not jive well with a participationist theory of salvation.

A participationist theory of salvation emphasizes a view of salvation that sees ‘saved’ persons in deep and intimate union with Jesus Christ (I Cor 6.17); that realizes that we as saved persons have been given new hearts (II Cor 3), and these hearts are not our own hearts but Christ’s. A participationist theory of salvation focuses on God in Christ moving from outside of us into us, as he becomes us (see Irenaeus; II Cor 5.21; etc.), and re-creates our humanity in and from his vicarious humanity from the inside out. A participationist salvation understands that our characters aren’t transformed by focusing on what we can do, or how we can habituate in certain ‘moral’ activities; instead it focuses on who God in Christ is for us and in us. It focuses on His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these other things are added to us and through us from there.

I was reminded today how a habitus theology can set someone up for failure. You can only fake-it-till-you-make-it for so long, and then burn-out ensues; and unfortunately often back-sliding takes over in that person’s life. The problem is, is that we all know that we never really do make it; so it is important for Joe Christian and all of us to set our eyes on the one who has made it for us, Jesus Christ.


[1] Omar Lizardo, “Habitus,” accessed online June 9, 2016.

[2] Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1985), 134-35.


trinity-iconHere is a quote on God as ‘Father’ versus ‘Creator’, this is important, so I am quoting this in length:

. . . The center of the New Testament is the relationship between Jesus Christ and the One he addresses as Father. The communion between Jesus and his heavenly Fatherly is an utterly unique relationship, of which we can know nothing apart from Jesus’ own testimony.

God is thus Father not by comparison to human fathers, but only in the Trinitarian relation, as Father of the Son. Whenever Father is used of God it means “the One whom Jesus called Father.” The paradigm text is John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In Greek, the word for “made him known” is exegesato. Jesus “exegetes” or “interprets” the Father. The term does not denote a generic title for God outside of the Father-Son relationship. Father thus functions in Trinitarian language not as a descriptive metaphor but as a proper name, whose home is the relationship that exists from all eternity between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. That is a relationship to which we as creatures have not immediate knowledge or access.

But by an astonishing gift of grace, Jesus invites us to be united with himself in the power of the Holy Spirit so that in union with him we may come to share in his utterly unique relation of Sonship to the Father. By ourselves we have absolutely no right or ground to address God as “Father.” It is only as we are united with Christ, partaking of his communion with the Father, that we can truthfully address God in this way ourselves. In Paul’s words,

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. . . . When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom. 8:14-17)

We know God only in and through Christ’s relationship of Sonship, into which he invites us as participants (“Pray then like this: Our Father, who art in heaven . . .”). This means that salvation is understood as our communion with the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Fanny Crosby’s hymn put it, “O come to the Father through Jesus the Son, and give him the glory: great things he hath done!” Our knowledge of God and our hope for salvation are directly Trinitarian in their scope.

The traditional naming of the Trinitarian God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is sometimes replaced today by the functional titles of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. This works as an occasional use, describing God’s acts, but not as a substitute for the Trinitarian Name. The Fatherhood of God is tied utterly to Jesus’ naming of his own relationship to God, into which relationship we, by the Spirit, participate.

It was St. Athanasius who noted that the only reason we have for calling God “Father” is that God is so named by Jesus in the Bible. This points to the historical shape that the Gospels too: Christian faith is a biblical faith and a Jesus-based faith. God’s Fatherhood was understood relationally in an through Jesus Christ as self-giving love, and not as a human image or concept projected onto God. There is, in fact, an appropriate “thinking away” of that which is inappropriate in this terminology. By this we mean explicitly thinking away all biological and sexual imputation whatsoever into the theological concept of God. God the Father revealed in Scripture is Spirit. God has no sexual identity; sexuality, after all, is part of creation. The imago Dei (image of God) is not reversible; God is not created in our likeness! The personalized language of Trinitarian theology intends to bear witness in Christ to the liberation of humankind from all patriarchal idols and divinized ideologies. Where this did not and does not happen, there is a perversion of intent that must be utterly rejected on the ground of the nature and reference of Trinitarian language itself. (Andrew Purves and Mark Achtemeier, “Union in Christ: A Declaration for the Church,” 34-36)

There is so much in this that could be noted. I am only going to touch on some of the implications of what is being said here; I am going to reflect (below) with (1) Theological Implications, and then (2) Pastoral Implications.

Theological Implications

Certainly it should at least be highlighted that thinking like that articulated in the quote flows from a prior commitment to a certain mode of theological discourse, in fact methodology or prolegomena. Purves and Achtemeir are in the, what Barth has called, analogia fidei (or analogy of faith) versus the Traditional approach, best articulated by Thomas Aquinas called the analogia entis (or analogy of being). Instead of discussing what the distinctions are, in general here, I am going to focus on how these two disparate approaches play out theologically; and for our purposes, Confessionally. What happens if a particular theologian, or school of theologians, follows Aquinas’ approach versus the more Luther[an], Calvin[ian], Barth[ian], Torrance[an] approach?Here’s how the WCF starts out discussion on God and Trinity:

I. There is but one only,[1] living, and true God,[2] who is infinite in being and perfection,[3] a most pure spirit,[4] invisible,[5] without body, parts,[6] or passions;[7] immutable,[8] immense,[9] eternal,[10] incomprehensible,[11] almighty,[12] most wise,[13] most holy,[14] most free,[15] most absolute;[16] working all things according to the counsel of His own immutable and most righteous will,[17] for His own glory;[18] most loving,[19] gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin;[20] the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him;[21] and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments,[22] hating all sin,[23] and who will by no means clear the guilty.[24] (WCF, 2/I)

And the Belgic Confession:

Article 1: The Only God

* We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God — eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.

Article 8: The Trinity

* In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties– namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. (Belgic Confession)

Contrast the above with the Heidelberg Catechism:

Of God The Father

9. Lord’s Day

Question 26. What believest thou when thou sayest, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?

Answer: That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (who of nothing made heaven and earth, with all that is in them; (a) who likewise upholds and governs the same by his eternal counsel and providence) (b) is for the sake of Christ his Son, my God and my Father; (c) on whom I rely so entirely, that I have no doubt, but he will provide me with all things necessary for soul and body (d) and further, that he will make whatever evils he sends upon me, in this valley of tears turn out to my advantage; (e) for he is able to do it, being Almighty God, (f) and willing, being a faithful Father. (g) (Heidelberg Catechism)

And the Scots Confession:

Chapter 1 – God

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom alone we must worship, and in whom alone we must put our trust; who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible; one in substance and yet distinct in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; by whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible to have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory. (Scot’s Confession, 1560)

At first blush there might not be much discernable difference between the WCF/BC and the HC/SC, but that’s what I want to reflect on for a moment. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting His “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with who man is not. We finally make it to Him as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified Him through “our” categories using man (“analogy of being”) as our mode of thinking about “Godness.” This is true for both the WCF/BC. Contrarily, the HC/SC both immediately speak of God as Father; which is to say that these approach God through an (“analogy of faith” to speak anachronistically). Meaning that the emphasis is on the economic Revelation of God in Christ as the ‘eternal Son of God’ who exegetes God’s inner-life as loving Father, Son, by the Holy Spirit as the shape of his ‘being’ (ousia).

I hope the significance of this is not lost on you. It almost seems nit-picky, I am sure for some of you, that I would try and draw this distinction; but I want to assure you, that it is real — and that it would serve as one of the reasons that Purves and Achtemeir felt it necessary to make the point they do in the quote I provide from them above. The next question might be, what difference does this shift in “emphasis” and approach make in real life; in “pastoral situations?”

Pastoral Implications

I have a friend who is in the midst of “hellish” personal circumstances (a divorce with extraordinary circumstances surrounding it). We meet almost weekly to talk and pray. He has previously (for the past few years) sat under teaching that is self-consciously promoting theology that lines up with the Westminster approach to articulating God; his pastors teach through the theological grid that both John MacArthur and John Piper provide (in general). He is totally relying on the Lord, for this is really all he has, through this terrible season. And often, in our conversation he brings up the issue of “why” if God is sovereign would He allow or decree or appoint or cause the things that are happening to happen in his life in the way that they are. It is hard for my friend to conceptualize a God who is loving Father before He is sovereign Creator. So, like the “WCF” my friend primarily thinks about God through God’s attributes; instead of think of God through His relationship as Father, Son, Holy Spirit. This has real life consequence upon how my friend is trying to process his circumstances, and I must say not for the good. I am glad that I have been able to point him to a way to think about God as loving Father who is sovereign in relation to His Son versus thinking about God as sovereign Creator who deals with humanity through his unqualified attributes as if this is what defines the “essence” of “who” God is. My friend, I think, is starting to see what a difference this makes in trying to think about God in right ways!


Cancer, The Sick, The Outcasts, The Dying: Don’t Forget!

I wanted to take a moment and call us to remember a certain sector of people, of whom I was once apart (not too long ago), that are currently living in a reality that is worlds apart from the daily, mundane reality that ‘healthy’ jesusjairuspeople experience on a day to day existence. As Arthur McGill aptly notes of our society in relation to life and death:

[A]s we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of neat and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them? And given the fine appearances of the suburbs, who can tolerate the slums of the inner city? After all, there we see life collapsing and going to pieces. Urban renewal is required, not to improve the living condition of the people, for they are simply moved elsewhere to less conspicuous slums. It is not to increase the tax revenue, because so much of urban renewal involves tax breaks, subsidized construction, and government office buildings. Rather, urban renewal is required in order to remove from the city that visible mark of the failure of life. [p. 18]

And following a little further on from this:

[W]hat about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them…. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls. [Arthur C. McGill, Death And Life: An American Theology, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1987), 18-9.]

portlandtramI used to drive by that tall and shiny glass plated building with the sky tram connected to it in downtown Portland, OR, and not give that building a second thought—the building that had OHSU stamped on it; I just thought it contributed to the picturesque skyscape of the Portland metroplex. Before 2009 I never would have imagined the kind of death and suffering I was driving by; I never would have contemplated the kind of human suffering that was being experienced, the reality of life-together dreams being snuffed out as spouses, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandparents and grandchildren were slowly dripping away as each drop of poison fell into the veins of those hoping that somehow this magical cocktail would resurrect instead of quench their shared dreams and hopes. But my experience changed. Once I was diagnosed with my statistically terminal cancer, I broke through that glass house, and saw what it looked like from the inside looking out, looking out (literally) on all the cars and people driving by aloof to the fact that I, along  with a host of others, was sitting there dying (of course I generalize to a degree, I am only referring to those driving by who themselves are generally healthy and not on their way to a glass plated building of their own).

Anyway, I thought I would just offer this (cheerful) post by way of reminder. There is a universe next door (as James Sire has used in another context), and people, even in America, are suffering untold misery (even self imposed as it might be sometimes). As you drive by the freshly waxed luxury car today, or you drive by the shiny glass palaces of veneer,  just remember that everyday life looks entirely different from the inside (of those glassy buildings) looking out.

As Christians (and McGill gets to this in the second half of his book), we embrace death, the death that Christ took for us, that His life might also be made manifest through the mortal members of our bodies (II Cor. 4.10). And we glory in weakness, because God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, as we understand that we ec-statically and continuously receive our life as gift from the Son’s life for us. So we don’t hide behind glass windows, and well manicured lawns; we look past the mockery of all that, just as Jesus did when he walked past all of the window dressing and false-mourners at the little girls death. Jesus confronted death with His life, and gave life by absorbing her death through His spoken Word Talitha koum! (Mark 5:35-42). We need to penetrate through all the falsity offered by the worldly crowd, those who mock death, by not genuinely dealing with it; and remember the sick among us.

PS. I would appreciate your prayers, I have my next CT scan at the end of May (just to make sure the cancer is still gone).

Assurance of Salvation: The Puritan’s ‘Practical Syllogism’ in Discussion with Karl Barth’s Election

Do you struggle with assurance of salvation? You know, we are working on putting together a second EC volume that deals with more pastorally driven questions (still theologically grounded) that deal with the “so what?” kinds of questions that naturally might follow upon the doctrines dealt with in our first EC volume. I will be writing, for one of my personal chapters, on the Christian doctrine of assurance. Unfortunately I am afraid that this doctrine has fallen on hard times, not because everyone has assurance of salvation, but for more dire reasons; I think this doctrine has fallen on hard times because most Evangelical Christians in America (and maybe elsewhere in the world) don’t think deep enough about salvation to ever concern themselves with such things. If you are a depth kind of Christian though, the rest of this post is for you.

I used to write, quite frequently on the exploits and happenings of the Puritans (probably because an important mentor of mine, Ron Frost, through seminary was/is a Puritan expert); the Puritans of course are known for their rigid and even ‘precisianist’ (see Theodore Dwight Bozeman’s seminal book The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 [Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia]) modes of existence; in short they became known, in some instances for their legalism. But more positively, the Puritans and that era of Calvinist development (in both England and America) are also known for producing a rich pietistic heritage that promotes a warm hearted love for Christ through the expositional teaching of Scripture (many of the so called New Calvinists [Collin Hansen’s “Young, Restless, and Reformed” are enamored with much of the spirituality promoted by this Puritan heritage, today). One of the doctrines that was internalized and developed during this period was known as the practical syllogism. The ‘syllogism’ was basically an intellectual (mechanistic in its employment) apparatus used to measure the intangibles of either a genuine or temporary (false) Christianity and spirituality. Here is how famed and seminal English Puritan William Perkins articulates this practical syllogism:

Major Premise: He that believes and repents is God’s child.

Minor Premise: I believe in Christ and repent: at the least I subject my will to the commandment which bids me repent and believe: I detest my unbelief, and all my sins: and desire the Lord to increase my faith.

Conclusion: I am the child of God.

[William Perkins cited by R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 71,  cited by Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man, p. 264.]

This syllogism flows out of what Kenneth Stewart in his book calls the only universally agreed upon fifth point of Calvinism (see his book Ten Myths About Calvinism, Appendix: The Earliest Known Reference to the TULIP Acronym, 291-92), Perseverance of the Saints. The belief that true Christians (not just temporary ones, which was another teaching of the Puritan teaching known as experimental predestinarianism) would persevere in good works until they died (or until Jesus came back); and that this perseverance in ‘good works’ reflected that they truly had the Spirit of Christ enlivening them thus proving that indeed they were one of the unconditionally elect for whom Christ died in particular (I just anachronistically used the TULIP conceptually to read the Puritan experience through). You can see how unstable of a situation this might produce for someone who lived under the burden of culturally/societally internalized teaching. Here is the testimony of one man who indeed lived during this period, and was finally set free from this burden through the teaching of Richard Sibbes:

[I] was for three years together wounded for sins, and under a sense of my corruptions, which were many; and I followed sermons, pursuing the means, and was constant in duties and doing: looking for Heaven that way. And then I was so precise for outward formalities, that I censured all to be reprobates, that wore their hair anything long, and not short above the ears; or that wore great ruffs, and gorgets, or fashions, and follies. But yet I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint . . . Doctor Sibbs, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had muchof God and was confident in Christ, and could overlook the world . . . My heart held firm and resolved and my desires all heaven-ward. (Ron Frost. Kelly Kapic and Randall Gleason, eds., “The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics,” Frost is quoting from: John Rogers, Ohel or Bethshemesh, A Tabernacle for the Sun (London, n.p., 1653)

Thankfully for, Humphrey Mills (the man whose testimony we just read), he was relieved from looking to himself apart from Christ as the ground and thus assurance of his salvation. The key is that there should never be an mediate wedge or thing that stands between the believer and their Savior; there should be an immediate relation between Christ and His saints. Sibbes began to offer this kind of way forward (through his style of ‘Free Grace’ Calvinism) under the conditions and material theological categories he had available to him in his particular context.

But I think there is even more constructive resource available for us today; because even though Sibbes pointed people to look to Christ alone first (as a lover of their soul, instead of the law-keeper of their bodies), he still didn’t have the adequate theological resource to truly ground a person’s humanity and thus salvation/reconciliation in the Savior’s, in Christ’s humanity for them. It wasn’t really until we come up to Karl Barth that this kind of teaching was finely tuned and developed. [I would like to write and say more about Karl Barth—and will in the future—but because I am running out of time all I am going to be able to do is offer a quote from Michael Allen as he comments on Barth in his CD, as Barth discusses this issue of assurance of salvation through his teaching on election] Barth was quite aware of this ‘practical syllogism’ as I have described it above, but because Barth saw Jesus as both electing God (the subject) and elected man (the object) of election, he saw Jesus fulfilling both sides of election; thus humanity can rest assured not in their good works, not in their continued and sustained subjective choice for God (made evident by their good works), but they are, for Barth, able to rest assured because Jesus holds in Himself both the Subjective and Objective sides of God’s election for all of humanity in the humanity of Christ which is for us, and thus representative of God with us. Here is how Michael Allen comments on this reality in Barth’s teaching (I have some sweet quotes from Barth from his CD on this that I will have to share later):

[N]otice the personal application of the election of the Son – all others are elect ‘in Him – that speaks volumes about the doctrine of assurance…. Elsewhere in this volume, Barth addresses the so-called ‘practical syllogism’ (II/2.335–340), whereby the Puritan tradition grounded assurance not only in the objective work of Christ but also in the subjective fruits of that union with Christ (namely, in sanctifying evidences of justification in Christ). Barth believes assurance is entirely in Christ, and that the practical syllogism denies that Jesus is obedient for us, just as He is accursed for us. He fills both sides of the covenantal relationship…. [Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader, 102, Nook version.]

So Barth sees through this artificial distinction (dualism) between our humanity juxtaposed with Christ’s humanity, as if our humanity has an ontological reality of its own (apart from finding its grounding in Jesus’ humanity for us). And Barth sees how the Puritans abstracted and annexed the sanctification side of salvation to our humanity while placing this in a refracted relationship with the objective justifying work done by Jesus Christ. The effect, as Barth so presciently observed, was a spirituality was produced that caused people to look at themselves before they could ever look to Christ for assurance. The individual person had to subjectively check their own lives to see whether or not they had enough good works to plausibly confirm that they indeed were fitted with the genuine righteousness of Christ and thus saved. Barth’s remedy (and Barth was not purely seeking to find a remedy for this, in a negative sense) was to ground our humanity from Christ’s elected humanity (as archetypal) for us. Thus, we cannot think of ourselves apart from Him, but only in and through His “saved” humanity for us.

I am out of time …

‘From’ Christ, not ‘For’ Christ: “Why don’t you have a category for obedience?”

I have lots of people email (instead of comment) me about my various posts here at the blog. Recently I received an email from someone who wondered why I didn’t have a category (in my categories for the blog) designated as “obedience”? I haven’t emailed this person back yet, but I thought before I did that I would respond to this rather interesting observation here at the blog first (it seems fitting for me to do so).

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-1To start with, I do have a category entitled “ethics,” which deals with issues and instances of concrete instantiations of Christian obedience (or disobedience); and then I do deal with Christian obedience in many posts, but they aren’t under a specific category of “obedience,” but instead those can be found under the category of “salvation” (and then a lengthy process of weeding through this posts will ultimately yield results that show I have dealt with questions that are oriented around Christian obedience). But I would like to answer this question with more particularity, and clarity on why my blog does not emphasize this category (as important as it is!). My blog does not emphasize this category (in the way my interlocutor is wondering, I presume) because the way I think of our relation to God in Christ, has Christ in the way; and I mean in the way of you and me (logically, theo-logically). Historically, and classically, Evangelicals (given their hybrided dependence upon Reformed/Covenant theology) have emphasized relation with God through a mode of emphasizing law-keeping conditioned by forensic categories of thought (just read an Evangelical systematic theology if you don’t believe me). And insofar that I have eschewed this classical mode, I have abandoned emphasizing law-keeping (code for ‘obedience’, usually) as the emphasis by which I understood relationship with God, and how I conceive of Christian holiness (or obedience as its subsequent expression). To provide an example of where the Evangelical heritage comes from, theologically, in this regard; let me quote Kim Riddlebarger (a contemporary advocate of Covenant Theology, and member of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, along with Michael Horton), as he sketches the original and lasting relationship and way that he (and the classically Reformed) think of how God and man (God/world) relate to each other through the Covenant of Works (or Creation):

[A]s redemptive history unfolded, the first Adam—the biological and federal representative of all humanity—failed to do as God commanded under the terms of the covenant of works. The Lord God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This covenant of works or, as some Reformed writers speak of it, the “covenant of creation” lies at the heart of redemptive history. Under its terms God demanded perfect obedience of Adam, who would either obey the terms of the covenant and receive God’s blessing—eternal life in a glorified Eden—or fail to keep the covenant and bring its sanctions down upon himself and all humanity. Adam’s willful act of rebellion did, in fact, bring the curse of death on the entire human race. This covenant of works is never subsequently abrogated in the Scriptures, a point empirically verified when ever death strikes. This covenant also undergirds the biblical teaching that for any of Adam’s fall children to be saved, someone must fulfill all the terms of the covenant without a single infraction in thought, word, or deed (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). [Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 47.]

Much could be said in critique of this conception of things (and I have already said much, just check my category “critiquing classical Calvinism”), but in order to not get side-tracked from the point of this post, let me stay particular to my intention. In predictable form (since Covenant theology has Creation preceding Covenant), Riddlebarger allows Creation to condition Covenant instead of seeing Covenant (God’s life of gracious love) conditioning Creation (one serious fall out of this theological ordering is that Jesus becomes conditioned by creation instead of conditioning creation himself as homoousion—I digress!). In other words, when Reformed thinkers like Riddlebarger, and his whole tradition, start theologizing and biblical exegeting they start where Riddlerbarger starts, with Law (or the Covenant of Works/Creation). And yet, as Ray Anderson has highlighted (along with others), what should be understood (first), is that God spoke and created (which is an act of grace as corollary with His overflowing life of Triune love). So what grounds any relation with God, first, is not Law-keeping, but the fact that God spoke (which is grace)! This might seem to be a subtle shift, but it is profound!

Following this shift of emphasis, what becomes primary is not my personal obedience (and Law-keeping), but God’s in Christ for us. As Thomas Torrance has written (as I just quoted this in a post below this one),

[…] Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. [see full text here].

This does not mean that personal obedience is not important, but it frames it in a way that allows me to keep my eye on Christ instead of first looking at myself (and then reflexively looking at Christ: i.e. reflexive faith], as if I, myself, can somehow be abstracted out of the only true humanity which is Christ’s. So I “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then all these other things will be added unto me” (and I only seek first, because He first loved (and sought) first that I might love Him, through Him by the Spirit). My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, but Christ’s obedience for me (us); and so this ought to go along ways in illustrating why I don’t have a separate category (apart from Christology) for obedience in my sidebar. Thomas Torrance in his (posthumously published) book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ really captures the import of this shift and way of framing things from God’s gracious Self directed life for us in contrast to the Legalistic emphasis that the classical Covenant of Works flows from:

(iii) The holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s holiness

 This holiness is actualised in the church through the communion of the Holy Spirit. He only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Since the holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s act of self-consecration for the church, then that is the only holiness, the only hallowing of the church there is. That is the holiness which was actualised in the church when it was baptised with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the union of the church with Christ was fulfilled from the side of the church as well as from the side of Christ.

The church is not holy because its members are holy or live virtuous lives, but because through his presence in the Holy Spirit Christ continues to hallow himself in the midst of the church, hallowing the church as his body and the body as his church. Thus the true holiness of the members is not different from this but a participation in it, a participation in the holiness of Christ the head of the church and in the holiness of the church as the body hallowed by Christ. Participation in this holiness however involves for the members of the church a life of holiness, just as it involves a life in Christ, of faith relying upon his faithfulness, of love that lives from the overflow his love, of truth that comes from the leading of the Spirit. Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore personal holiness, and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, edited by Robert Walker, 386-87.]

There is a lot to comment on here as well, but I must limit myself. I will just say that it is this reversal of things (i.e. placing the Covenant of Grace [God’s life Pre-destined]) from Law to Grace that explains why I don’t have a category explicitly labeled “obedience”. It isn’t because I don’t think Christian obedience is important, it is because I think the gr0und of this emphasis is roundly rooted in Jesus Christ for us (and thus I have a category for Christology instead). It isn’t that I don’t think personal obedience or holiness are important, I do! Instead, it is because I am persuaded that focusing on Christ and God’s Triune life of gracious love, and participating in that from the Spirit’s unioning activity will produce obedience and the life of Christ through the members of our bodies as they are constantly given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our body. We obey, only because Jesus obeyed for us first. We don’t obey to ensure that we are one of the elect that God purchased from the mass of “perdituous” humanity; we obey because God loved us first that we might love Him back through the mediating and priestly Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. It is only through this framing of things that I feel I can live out this exhortation from St. Paul:

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1

Without the freedom of God for us in Christ I live under a burdenouss yoke that really ends up being hell; which, I am pretty sure this is what Jesus came to save us from (ourselves), and for Himself (and His shared life in the Monarchia or God-head). So obey, but only from Christ by the Spirit, not for Christ so you can find God’s approval.