The God of the Sinners not the Metaphysicians: Luther’s God is Concrete Love

I grew up a Christian, came to Christ as a very young child; it was real. By time I got out of high school I had become very lukewarm (not realizing I had, of course). The Lord, through some extremely difficult and prolonged circumstances got a hold of me and brought me to the point where I knew my reality was either going to have to be Him, or insanity. I chose life, not death. From that point on I came to habitually inhabit Holy Scripture; read through it non-stop, memorize it, meditate on it. Then I went to school and was formally trained in biblical studies and theology; I learned of philosophical, metaphysical, and grammatical approaches to think God—some of these ways having greater value than others, some having almost no value at all. But the Lord always kept me close to Him, and He did that through this sort of relational and experiential reading of His Word. No matter how prominent these other ways have attempted to rise up, and habituate me in their ways of thinking God, I have always come back to this personal-relational understanding of God; and as that comes through afresh and anew in encounter with His face in Jesus Christ as realized by meditation upon Scripture.

I am sure there are many people out there who have a vibrant relationship with Christ who are also enslaved to highly metaphysical ways for attempting to think God, but I typically fail to see the evidence of that. When they talk about God I don’t recognize the God they are talking about. When they work out the minutiae and ‘angels on a pinhead’ in relation to the inner-workings of God, I do not recognize that as a discussion of the God that I know. I didn’t commit myself to a God who is a math problem, a Gordian Knot, or a quantum algorithm; I committed myself to a God who has a face, and His name is, Jesus Christ! This might sound all so melodramatic to the metaphysicians, but I assure you: it is not! I do understand the theo-metaphysicians fear; that is, they might fear that the God I know might be sublated to my experiences, to our collective experiences—thus falling prey to the Schleiermacherean collapse to the subject, turning theology into anthropology. But I am not talking about that when I refer to experience. I am referring to the fact that I am a constant sinner, who also is now justified (the simul). The God I am referring to confronts humanity, by assuming our humanity, and invites us into a participatory relationship with Him through Christ. The God I am referring to desires fellowship with us, and He has made the way for that to happen through the sending of His sin into the ‘far country’ of our fallen humanity, and raising us up with Him in the new creation of His resurrected humanity. The God I am referring to is all about being in union with us, that we might be in union with Him; this is a personal God, who does what He does because in His inner life is triune and eternal love. This isn’t a God who is accessible to metaphysicians or philosophers; they might talk about some pure being or monad, but that has zero correlation with the God who calls us sons and daughters.

Mark Mattes, a Lutheran theologian, makes these points crystal clear as he describes some of these very themes in Martin Luther’s theology:

The doctrine of justification bears on how God’s goodness is to be understood. Unlike his contemporaries and forebears, Luther has no confidence in either metaphysics or mysticism to establish God’s goodness, in spite of the fact that both approaches influenced his theological development. Luther’s is a highly experiential theology—not that experience is a criterion for truth but that sinners can never detach emotionally when doing theology, and at some point in their lives all sinners will do theology.[1]

And:

Luther was vitally concerned to address the question of God’s goodness. It bears on salvation. His point was that people do not need merely an incentive and an example to be good. They need in fact to be made good from the core of their being, their hearts. Counterintuitively, God does this by granting sinners his favor and promising them new, eternal life in Christ. As believers’ status with respect to God is changed, so is their identity. The law accuses old beings who seek to be their own gods for themselves and so control their lots and the lots of others to death. Humbled by the law, despairing of self, sinners can look to none other than Christ for salvation. In Christ they have a new identity and a new calling—to serve as Christ served in the world—and so to help especially those in need. The gospel promise unites believers with Christ, and Christ impels believers to serve their neighbors freely.

All this grounded in God’s own goodness. Outside of Christ, God is encountered as sheer power, a terror and threat to humans because such omnipotence jeopardizes sinners’ own quest for power, status, and authority. But Luther admonishes sinners not to neutralize this power by harmonizing it with some modicum of human power, such as establishing a free will. Instead, only God has a free will (though humans indeed make choices with respect to temporal matters). If we are to see the content or center of God and find him as good, then se must cling to the gospel alone. It establishes God as wholly love and goodness, indeed overflowing generosity, and serves as a basis from which to affirm life and explore mystery in the world. Goodness can no longer be established as a transcendental through metaphysics. Instead, goodness as a proper name for God and as a means by which every creature can participate in God is established only on the basis of how God acts in Christ, and that is to reconcile, redeem, and renew. Insofar as beauty is tied to goodness, it too will only be established through the gospel and not through metaphysics.[2]

We can see how Matte’s conception of Luther was to think God in purely concrete and relational terms; and this, because Luther was so beat down by his personal sense of sinfulness juxtaposed with a sense of God’s grandeur and holiness. When Luther had his break through of a solafidian, it transformed his whole understanding of just who this God is for him; indeed, he finally realized that God was for him in Christ, and not against him as the theo-metaphysicians had drowned him with. Luther was groomed in a theological world where the conception of God was one that took shape under the specter of Aristotle’s categories. Once he realized that Aristotle’s god was not commensurate with the God he encountered in the New Testament, Jesus Christ, he was able to chart out contra mundum. As Heiko Oberman called Luther, he was now a man between God and the devil. This is what happens when are able to push off the god of the mathematicians and metaphysicians; we are able to realize that God is purely interested in having an ongoing and personal fellowship with each and every one of us. You realize that you are free to press on for that upward call, and live a poured-out life for and from God, and thus for others. This is where the power of God is realized in the Christian’s life. This is why Luther began to be a ‘man between God and the devil,’ a theologian who had epic almost hand-to-hand combat with the devil himself.

This has been my experience too. As I dug into the Bible years and years ago now, I came to encounter this God of Luther’s. I have experienced heavy spiritual warfare, not typically when attempting to think God along with the metaphysicians, but when attempting to proclaim this God who desires to have fellowship with all who will. None of this is to say that God isn’t high and transcendent; it is just to say that to confuse what the metaphysicians are talking about with that doctrine is rubbish. God’s transcendence comes down for us, before it goes up. God’s life is independent and extra from ours, but He has freely chosen, as revealed in the incarnation, to not be God without us. So, for us, to think God’s transcendence we always must think it from who God has revealed Himself to be, not who we speculate Him to be from our own resources and powers. God resists the philosopher’s machinations, and is only and always known by the sinners.

 

[1] Mark C. Mattes, Martin Luther’s Theology of Beauty (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017), 54.

[2] Ibid., 66-7. [emboldening mine]

Irenaeus’ Theology of the Cross Contra Our Theology of Glory and Self-Worship

Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, Let not the mighty man glory in his might, Nor let the rich man glory in his riches; But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. –Jeremiah 9.23-4

Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him. –I Corinthians 8.1-3

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 13.1-2

If anyone knows me, I am not against gaining knowledge; even intricate knowledge when it comes to knowing God. I am all for growing into the depth dimension reality that our ineffable God is in Himself. I believe most Christians, particularly when they have abundant means to do so, who don’t work at growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ are lazy (at best) and engaging in the sin of ἀκηδία or acedia. That said the other extreme of this is present mostly among those of us who would be labeled ‘academic’ or maybe even ‘scholastic’ in orientation. It was this class of people that Martin Luther largely had in his sights when he thought of a theologia gloriae or ‘theology of glory.’ These were the clerical class, and theologians who sought approval, not of God, but of other men; ironically in the so called pursuit of God. Luther disdained this sort of theological spirituality, and I would suggest this disdain was in direct echo of Christ’s heart in Luther’s.

God wants us to know Him deeply, but if we equate that with our credentials as Christians, and how those give us status within the church, God hates this; it represents the sort of lukewarm and beguiling state that Jesus, in the book of Revelation, says sickens Him. At some level, one way or the other, as Christians, we all dip in and out of this sort of self-centered sort of Christianity; it is the constant battle between the flesh and the Spirit (cf. Gal 5.17). Unfortunately, where this sort of ‘centeredness’ flourishes, and even has been institutionalized, is within theological higher learning. For those pursuing careers in this field, it is required of them to earn terminal degrees; write peer reviewed essays, book chapters, and books; and build a curriculum vitae that blows the socks off the nearest competitor. When all of this is built into becoming a professor, editor, dean of a seminary or university, so on and so forth, it becomes almost impossible to fight the good fight and not give into the flight of fancies that all of our hearts and minds play on us. When ‘glory’ is built into career status, or even more brutishly, into plain old intellectual standing among one’s peers, the game is almost lost before it even gets started. Irenaeus knew this, a towering Christian intellect of his day, and so he penned the following:

It’s better, and brings greater benefit, to be a simple, uneducated man or woman, and to become akin to God through love, than to be well-read and clever (in our own conceited opinion) and to blaspheme the God who made us, by making up some imaginary God and Father of our own. As Paul cries out, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Not that Paul wished to condemn himself. But he knew that some people fall away from God’s love by making conceited pretensions to knowledge, imagining themselves to have found some sort of perfection — and then proclaiming a Creator who is less than perfect! To strike down the self-importance in which these folk wall through their so-called knowledge, Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

There can be no notion more self-conceited than this — to imagine that you are better and more perfect than God who created you, formed you, put the breath of life into you, and decreed that you should exist. What good will it do you to have knowledge even of a single reason why anything in creation was made, if you then become proudly puffed-up with this kind of knowledge, and fall away from God’s love which is the very life of the human soul? Far better to believe in God and keep yourself in His love. We should seek no other knowledge but the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who for our sakes was crucified, rather than go downhill into ungodliness through super-smart inquiries and nit-picking explanations.[1]

May God in Christ have mercy on us all! We are all prone to wandering into self-incurved worship rather than worshipping the only true and living God. Without God we are as Calvin said (paraphrase) idol manufacturers; and as Feuerbach opined in his own way, we, as a people, self-project our image onto the heavens and see that as God. May we only see God, as we only can see God, in the prosopon or face of Christ; herein the glory of God is on full and cheerful display.

[1] Irenaeus, cited by Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2017).

God is Not the God of the Statistics: Human Suffering and the Second Coming in Light of Current Events

What is happening? The world is on fire, more than I’ve ever seen in my 45 years. Things are at a ‘biblical’ pitch it seems. To live in this sort of global landscape takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to facing a plague of the sort that we currently are with COVID – 19. There is no doubt that this virus represents a serious health (and thus other) crisis; particularly because of its high rate of transmission—indeed, this is the primary issue with this virus. As we all know by now, one of its primary and cascading effects is the sort of economic destruction it is doing to global financial systems (and households, even more so). The primary issue, whether it be on the health or economic front, as those are interrelated realities, is that human life is at stake. That said, people are suffering in untold ways; whether that be from the virus itself, the loss of income, the loss of relationships, so on and so forth. There is serious physical and psychological suffering being experienced en masse. For the rest of this post I simply want to reflect on human suffering, particularly as that is understood from the Christian perspective; and then bring that problem into discussion with the doctrine of the second coming of Christ.

My approach to suffering, beyond my own existential experience of it, is to start our thinking from Christ; indeed, this is where I want to start all of my theological reflections. In God’s wisdom He knew that our alienation from Him would be the source of untold angst, suffering, and death. He knew, from before the foundation of the world, that it would require that He enter into our humanity and take it all the way to Calvary’s cross; put death to death; rise again; ascend; send the Holy Spirit; and come a second time making the crooked straight, by putting the last enemy, death, into the fiery hell it deserves. He also knew that even though He would defeat death, that there would be an in-between time between His first and second comings. He knew we would be facing trial and tribulation of the sort that could only finally be surmounted, in intensity, by what He bore for us on the old rugged cross. He told His disciples then, and He tells us now:

These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” –John 16:33

He knew of the various plagues, like the Black Plague and Spanish Flu, and now the fear that COVID – 19 would and has instilled into us flatlanders. He knew of all the personal and corporate traumas the world was yet to face after He ascended. He knew each one of our stories, and because of what He knew about what He would win at the cross and the grave, He tells us to simply ‘be of good cheer.’ He isn’t being callous in this, indeed, just the opposite! He knew, even as He encouraged His disciples with these prescient words, what He was to face just around the narrative curve. He knew of the betrayal, the sweating of great drops of blood in Gethsemane, the whipping and crown of thorns, and the timber He would be bearing upon His flayed back in short order. Yet “for the joy that was set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The joy that was to be revealed after the trial so far out surpassed the tribulation itself, that He knew the words of ‘be of good cheer’ are in proportion to the weight of glory set up for each one of us in Him.

As many of you know by now, I was stricken with an incurable cancer (DSRCT) in 2009-10; a cancer that you just don’t survive; as my nurses and oncologists called it: a monster! I was near death multiple times just from the hard-core nature of the chemotherapy they used on me. The amount of suffering we underwent as a family, and that I went through personally, was not something I could have ever imagined beforehand. And yet the Lord was there, the whole time saying ‘be of good cheer’ ‘this sickness is not unto death.’ What I realized more than I had ever known before (and I had been through years of extreme depression and anxiety prior to this) was that God speaks; and I mean that literally, He speaks to the heart in a still small discernable and clear voice. It doesn’t matter how steep the hill, how arduous the road, how ugly the tumor[s]; God in Jesus Christ is King! He is firstborn from the dead, and the only Way, Truth, and Life the Christian needs when facing the abyss of hell. I re-sketch all of this to simply say that Jesus, as God’s Grace for us, is more than sufficient to meet whatever depth of need we are facing. As I used to tell myself: ‘He is not the God of the statistics.’ He is not delimited by a virus, a tumor, or financial collapse; He wants us to know that, He wants the world to know that by our witness to Him.

People like to say ‘Fu#% Cancer,’ and I know what they mean; but I’d rather say: come quickly Jesus! and He does, and will. As Christians we know that Jesus is coming again; and soon, if the levels of hell this world (globally) is experiencing are any indication. There are multitudinous eschatological schemas, in regard to the details, surrounding the second coming of Christ. For our purposes, we will not get into that now. What we know, prima facie, is that Jesus used the analogy of a pregnant mother’s birth pangs; that just prior to His coming those pangs would get strong and come with more rapidity. What we should take from this is that the ‘new creation’ is upon us. As we look around, and experience ourselves, the unending stream of suffering and chaos, as Christians we know that all of that, the whole of the cosmos is about to be turned upside down in the eschatological reality of the new creation. We know, as Christians, that this old tired cosmos, living under a travail and futility it seeks to be loosed from will indeed be loosed at the revealing of the ‘sons of God’:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. 19 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. 23 Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. 24 For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance. –Romans 8:18-25

This stands as the Christian’s real hope even now! The heavens could roll up like a scroll, and the Son of Man could burst through at any moment with trumpets sounding and the Sword of His mouth ablaze with victory and triumph as only the Lamb of God can bring. At His coming COVID – 19, and whatever other thing we can fill that blank with, will be exposed for what it is; the last enemy, which Has finally met its consummate demise. Rather than the statistics, let this be the Christian’s perspective as we face the uncertainty of our momentary troubles and light afflictions. Maranatha

The Yes-God Rather Than the No-God: How Cancer and the Cross of Christ Can Converge on COVID19

I remember sitting next to a guy named, Jay; he had stage four lung cancer. He was a fiftyish aged guy, with three adoring college aged daughters, and a lovely wife. He would get infused with his chemo-cocktail, just as I was; our paths crossed a couple of times. He was a Christian, and still is. With his daughters and wife surrounding him, in support of him as he was receiving his chemo, and me in my chemo-chair next door, with my wife by my side, he and I were talking about Easter, since it was just around the corner. He said (I paraphrase): ‘Easter is going to take on a whole new meaning for us shortly’ (my cancer, like his was terminal and incurable). I remember his wife and daughters looking on at him with smiling faces of support, yet with tears streaming down their faces as he said that. I don’t know what happened to, Jay, but unless the Lord intervened miraculously in his life, in the way He did mine, Jay’s words have taken on a brilliant substance for him. He was full of the hope of resurrection!

In that same infusion center (at OHSU in Portland, OR), on another occasion, I was once again receiving my cocktail. I was just about done for the day when I guy who looked like Wyatt Earp walked in, and sat down next to me. Being a bit loopy, from my chemo, in an effort to lighten things up I asked him: ‘what are you in for?’ He replied: “for life!” That stopped me in my tracks, even though he said it with a smile, it brought the whole sober reality back with a rush; the reality of why he and I, and everyone else in that center was there. From talking to him a little more, I didn’t sense that he had the hope of resurrection in his life as Jay did. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anymore time to speak with him, and that was the last time I saw him (since my treatments after that went back to in-patient only).

I bring these two guys up, in particular, because they illustrate two types of people facing the same exact circumstance; almost certain death from a disease they both had. Even though COVID – 19’s mortality rate is nowhere near the mortality rates of these guys’ cancers, or mine for that matter, their approaches to end of life were shaped by vastly different perspectives. Jay’s was informed by the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; “Wyatt’s” was informed by a sobriety, with a sense of self-generated levity. I walked away from Jay with hope (and grief); I walked away from Wyatt with sadness and a sense of despair. Even though 99% of the people in the world who end up getting COVID – 19 will not die from it, the fear and anxiety surrounding it is for some reason at the heights that these sorts of cancers, being referred to here, are at. Even though that level of fear, relative to the real fear that the mortality rate for certain cancers comes with, may not be correlative to the actual reality (for most!), it is still present.

What also is present, for ALL, is the need for the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. People all over this world, while facing the direst of circumstances, whether those be health related, fiscally related, or whatever else relationship we can posit, need to be like Jay and not Wyatt. Even though the grief is real, even for Jay, and those who loved him, there was a concrete hope and power animating his response to the death sentence he was living in his cancer. My prayer, is that through this time of uncertainty and peril facing the world, at a time where many people are dealing with the fear of mortality, and other existential threats, that people all over this globe would come to the reality that God is for them in Jesus Christ. My prayer is that people will realize that God is the Yes-God and not the No-God for them. That this catastrophe confronting the world would be a time of deep reflection for millions. Just as the cross of Christ was the ‘hour of darkness,’ of the sort that caused the Son of Man to sweat drops of blood, and a desire to escape the heaviness of it all, I pray that this time, encompassed by the cross of Christ, might be the time of the crux wherein people will find their escape into the everlasting arms of the eternal Father; just as Jesus did first for us.

How John Calvin Found Comfort in the Providence of God in the Midst of His Suffering and Own Frailty: With Reference to DSRCT and COVID-19

Sickness, disease, suffering, death, and evil, among other such trifles, are all things that Christians have a capacity to face, before and because of God, with an utter sense of hope and sober trust. Often evil, and all of its attendant realities (including human suffering!), is used as a scalpel to cut God to pieces; leaving him as nothing more than a corpse that the modern person can look at with a kind of perverted joy, and yet somber realization that all they are left with is themselves (they’d have it no other way).

John Calvin, pre-modern as he was, was no stranger to human suffering, sickness, and disease. Indeed, as W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee detail in their contribution to our Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2 book, through their chapter entitled Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence, we come to see, with some precision, the scope of suffering that Calvin endured; particularly with regard to his physical health. We see how Calvin dealt with his fragile constitution, coram Deo, by intertwining his theological framework with his interpretation of his own predicament as a broken and ill person. We see how Calvin’s doctrine[s] of predestination, election, Divine Providence, so on and so forth informed the way he attempted to deal with the ostensible problem of suffering, disease, and the brokenness with which he was so familiar.

In an attempt to provide some good context on how Calvin dealt with all of this theologically, I thought I would appeal (at some extensive length) to Hogge’s and Partee’s writing on the matter; and then offer some reflections of my own in light of Calvin’s approach to suffering. I thought I would tie my own experiences of dealing with severe depression, anxiety, doubt of God, and diagnosis of a terminal and incurable cancer into Calvin’s own approach when it comes to God’s Providence and care in these instances. So at length here is a section from Hogge’s and Partee’s chapter (I’m thinking this is actually a section that Partee wrote):

An Alternative Conclusion

Granted the erstwhile power of Calvin’s exposition of God’s almighty providence, this once shining heirloom is tarnished for many in recent generations. If God is the author of everything and evil is clearly something, then simple logic seems to dictate the conclusion that God is responsible for evil. In other words in the light of his strong affirmation of God’s providence, Calvin’s equally strong denial that God is the author of evil is not as convincing as once it was. Obviously, the sweeping philosophical conundrum of the origin and existence of evil (of which physical illness is a painfully personal example) has exercised serious reflection from the beginning with no satisfactory end in sight. Therefore, if a completely satisfactory resolution is unlikely, at least Calvin’s conclusion can be gently modified by his own suggestion.

Among the alternative possibilities for resolution, Calvin did not for a moment consider that God might be limited in nature (as in process theology) or self-limited by choice (as in Emil Brunner)83 or that God’s interest in “soul-making” requires the existence of evil.84 The regnancy of God is unquestioned. Calvin believed all things are governed by God including human free will. We are to understand “that on both sides the will is in God’s power, either to bend the hearts of men to humanity, or to harden those which were naturally tender.”85 In a bold metaphor Calvin even claims that God fights against us with his left hand and for us with his right hand.86 In both events we are in God’s hands.

Two modern, major, and massive theological acquisitions have provoked a climate change of opinion that Calvin could not have anticipated and which require integration into the family heritage. First, a particularly contentious debate over Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture continues to roil his descendants. There is, of course, no gainsaying that Calvin did not feel the impact of the Critical Historical Method, and, while his response to this development cannot be predicted, its adoption by most mainstream biblical scholars today means that the distinction between human and divine in Scripture is less adamantine than Calvin thought. Thus, a biblical citation no longer closes a discussion but opens it to furtherdevelopment.87

The second wider and deeper change concerns the role of reason. The dream of reason in Western intellectual culture stretched from Plato to Spinoza, but the famous wake-up call which sounded from David Hume alarming Immanuel Kant and rousing him from his dogmatic slumbers, leads to the claim that “The Copernican revolution brought about by Kant was the most important single turning point in the history of philosophy.”88 If so, it is now impossible for Western theologians to ignore Kant’s strictures on pure reason to make room for deep faith. Additionally, the necessity and universality of reason has been challenged by anthropological studies of differing cultures and gender studies within the same culture. Moreover, the developing scientific study of the human and animal brain modifies the confidence of Hamlet’s appeal to “godlike reason” (Hamlet IV.4.38).

Calvin’s epistemological reliance on Scripture and reason is an immense and complicated subject on its own.89 He believed the Bible was the divine Word of God but he also noted its human elements. Likewise, Calvin both praised and blamed reason. “Reason is proper to our nature; it distinguishes us from brute beasts.”90 At the same time, because of sin human reason is not able to understand God nor God’s relation to humanity. 91 Therefore, “Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit, and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit.”92 Still at the end of the day, although Calvin rejects “speculation,”93 he thinks there must be a reason for the existence of illnesses, even if we do not know exactly what it is. Among his explanations, Calvin offers the punishment of human sin, God’s hidden will, the malignancy of Satan and the demons, and the evil will of other human beings. According to Calvin, the proper human response to this situation is faith, humility, patience, and so on. Nevertheless, the variety of these explanations does not challenge Calvin’s basic confidence that the divine intellect has its reasons even though they are hidden from us.

An alternative category of “mysteries beyond reason” is sometimes employed by Calvin and should be noted. That is, Calvin affirms many divine things that humans do not, and cannot, know. For example, he admits the existence of sin as “adventitious”94 meaning it has no rational explanation. Calvin did not, but he might have, applied this category to disease suggesting that while medicine seeks to describe “what” and “how,” theology cannot explain its “why.” This situation has some affinity with Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal realm leading to the concept of “antinomy”—a category impervious to pure, but not to practical, reason. If then we humans can recognize and treat the penultimate and medical causes of disease, we might admit that we do not understand the “reason” for illness and are not obligated to insist ultimately and theologically that there is one. One might leave the painful puzzle to reason and the trustful victory to faith.

Many contemporary students of Calvin’s theology, both clerical and medical, cannot with best mind and good conscience adopt the obvious conclusion that Calvin draws concerning the existence and meaning of disease. Still, seeking a life of faith, hope, and love, one can appreciate Calvin’s passionate conviction that in neither prosperity nor adversity are we separated from the love of God. Therefore, leaving the study of “material,” “efficient,” and “formal” causes to the scientific community, theologians might come full stop before the “final” causes of illness. Affirming in faith with Calvin God’s good creation and encompassing providence, the impenetrable mystery of assigning a “final cause” for disease might be approached with the modesty and humility which Calvin sometimes evinces.

Following this interlude of thundering silence, theology could resume with the glorious theme of hope in life everlasting and abundant where, delivered from pain and death, all tears are dried, all sorrows past, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind see, lepers are cleansed—the dead being raised up made alive in Christ.[1]

Following Hogge’s and Partee’s treatment of Calvin, we can see that Calvin himself, because of his historical location, would defy the modern attempt to peer into the ‘abyss’ of God’s secret council when it comes to trying to understand the ‘cause’ of evil, sickness, and disease. But precisely because of Calvin’s location, theologically, he will consistently defer to God’s sovereign hand of providence in the affairs of this world order, and all of us ensconced within it. So while he will not attempt to speculate or press in the type of rationalist ways that moderns might want to; at the same time he rests and trusts in the reality that God is providentially in control of sickness and disease. He doesn’t have the type of scientific acumen that moderns have ostensibly developed, but he rests in the always abiding reality of God’s almighty ability to succor the needs of all of us frail and indolent humans as we inhabit a world of contingencies and ailments not of our own making, per se.

As modern and now “post-modern” people we want more scientifically derived answers than Calvin can offer us. When we get sick, when we suffer immeasurable diseases and anxieties in our apparently cold and chaotic world, we look to the lab-coats to offer us a cure-for-what-ails-us. But for anyone, particularly those of us, who like Calvin, abide in a deep union with God in Jesus Christ, we will most consistently end up right where pre-modern Calvin always ended up; we will repose in God’s faithful care to never leave us or forsake us; we will rest in the reality that God is both sovereign, and that he providentially walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, even more than we realize.

When I was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round cell tumor sarcoma (DSRCT), an incurable and terminal cancer for which there is no known treatment, I ended up right where Calvin ended up; I had to simply rest and trust in God’s providential and loving care. I did due diligence, in regard to pursuing all known treatment avenues, both traditionally and alternatively, but at the end of the day, and in every instance, I had to rest in the reality that God was in control. Like Calvin, as Hogge and Partee highlight, I had to find assurance and hope in the fact that the God who I couldn’t control was in control, indeed, of my every waning anxiety and fear; that he was in control of the chaos (the cancer) inside of my body that wanted to consume me like a voracious monster. I did find rest and hope in God’s providential care; not in the abstract, but as God broke into my life moment by moment, every moment of everyday during that season.

While sickness, disease, suffering, evil, and the like might not have an easy answer—as far as causation—what we can rest in, like Calvin did, is the fact that we know the One who is in control; who is in control of what might even look like absolute chaos and destruction upon us. We can rest in the fact that, in Christ, we are in union with an indestructible life that death couldn’t even hold down. This is my comfort in life, even now. I rest in the fact that God in Christ gives me every breath that I breathe, literally; the same breath that the risen Son of God rose with on that Easter morning.

Addendum COVID-19

The above is a repost, but I think it is highly pertinent right now! I am trying to work through all of the complexities of this currently; it’s hard to do with all the noise out there, and in my own head. A medical doctor I just came in contact with, Andrew Doan, alerted me to an important article on the numbers revolving around COVID19. I’ve been skeptical, up to this point, of the seemingly drastic measures being taken to squelch this virus; but as I’ve read them, the measures seem justified to me at this point. When the statistical projections are made, as the article linked demonstrates, the numbers coming back from the impact of COVID19 are quite alarming. If we take the measures we are taking now, and maybe more stringent ones, it seems, we can bring this virus to a quicker and less deadly termination for the lives of many of the most vulnerable. I cannot, in good faith, argue for the most vulnerable in the womb of the their mothers, and not equally fight for the most vulnerable among us now. Consistency urges that our response to COVID19 promotes a culture that responds with equal ferocity when it comes to other viruses, and the abortion industry; that we fight these things, and create an infrastructure that makes death and destruction, at least to the level that we have a modicum of control, less rather than more.

We are facing hard times as a people. May Christians, as Calvin did, bear witness to the providential control of God’s goodness in the midst of the most tumultuous moments of our lives. May the death of death be on display in our lives, as the resurrection power of God in Christ is borne witness to as we bear witness to the life of Christ as the ground and grammar of all that is lovely. Maranatha

[1] W. Allen Hogge, M.D. and Charles Partee, “Calvin’s Awful Health and God’s Awesome Providence,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf&Stock Publishers, 2017), 285-88.

The ‘Nothingness’ of Chaos and the Victory of God’s Yes: With Application to the Great Panic of COVID19

Mark Lindsay offers a wonderful treatment of evil or das Nichtige or ‘nothingness’ in the theology of Karl Barth. I want to catch up with him in the midst of that treatment, and read along with him as he describes an implication of Barth’s thinking on evil and sin in the world. But I want to do this in a particular context, with the hopes of drawing out a certain application with reference to the current unparalleled and seismic upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before us in the COVID19 Panic. Let’s catch up with Lindsay, read along with him for a moment, and then attempt to distill and apply Barth’s doctrine of nothingness and evil in the world to our current catastrophe.

The second corollary is that, as the enemy of divine grace, Nothingness is primarily an assault upon God, with humanity as only the secondary target. Again, this is in contrast to Schleiermacher’s doctrine, according to which the sovereignty of God elevates Him above all violations. For Barth, however, the conflict with Nothingness is primarily and properly God’s own affair. Nothingness is the assault of the nonwilled reality against the elected creation. As such, it represents an attack not only upon God’s created covenantal partner but also and primarily upon God’s decision to elect and, therefore, on God Himself. In CD II/2, Barth makes clear that, in pre-temporal eternity, God is an electing God. “[I]n the act of love which determines His whole being God elects.” Moreover, the act of election “is not one moment with others in the prophetic and apostolic testimony”, but, enclosed “within the testimony of God to Himself, it is the moment which is the substance and basis of all other moments in that testimony.” This being the case, the violation by Nothingness of the act and decision of election is as such a violation of God. This means that God, in faithfulness to His covenant, must take up the battle against Nothingness. He must be “the Adversary of the adversary”, otherwise He would not be true, either to His covenant partner or to Himself. As Barth puts it,

We have not to forget the covenant, mercy and faithfulness of God, nor should we overlook the fact that God did not will to be God for His own sake alone, but that as the Creator He also became the covenant Partner of His creature, entering into a relationship with it in which He wills to be directly and [primarily] involved in all that concerns it…[This] means that whatever concerns and affects the creature concerns and affects Himself, not indirectly but directly, not subsequently and incidentally but primarily and supremely. Why is this so? Because, having created the creature, He has pledged His faithfulness to it. The threat of nothingness to the creature’s salvation is primarily and supremely an assault upon His own majesty.

Barth is not thereby implying that God Himself is essentially threatened and corrupted by Nothingness, as humanity is. The counterpart of humanity’s vulnerability to the power of das Nichtige, which we have already seen, is that we must not overestimate its power in relation to God. Indeed, if its power should be rated “as high as possible in relation to ourselves”, it must be rated “as low as possible in relation to God.” Nevertheless, God is not unmoved by radical evil. On behalf of His creation – which, in its encounter with Nothingness can only show itself to be the impotent victim of suffering – God opposes, confronts and victoriously crushes His graceless adversary. As may be expected from such a consistently Christocentric theologian, the locus of this triumph over evil is the incarnation or, more specifically, the cross and resurrection of Christ.

At this place, we must qualify our earlier comment that God is not threatened by Nothingness. In the incarnation, God Himself becomes a creature and thus takes upon Himself the creature’s sin, guilt and misery. In “what befalls this man God pronounces His No to the bitter end.” The entire fury of Nothingness – and of God’s wrath directed towards it – falls upon Christ “in all its dreadful fulness…” Precisely, however, because this man is also God, “Nothingness could not master this victim.” It had power over the creature. It could contradict and oppose it and break down its defences. It could make it its slave and instrument and therefore its victim. But it was impotent against the God who humbled Himself, and Himself became a creature, and thus exposed Himself to its power and resisted it.

By confronting and decisively triumphing over Nothingness in Jesus Christ, God has relegated it to the past. In the light of the cross and the empty tomb, “there is no sense in which it can be affirmed that nothingness has any objective existence…” Barth rejects outright the suggestion that radical evil exists in the form of an eternal antithesis. On the contrary, he insists that it has no perpetuity. It is neither created by God, nor maintained in a covenantal relationship with Him. Thus, “we should not get involved in the logical dialectic that if God loves, elects and affirms eternally he must also hate and therefore reject and negate eternally. There is nothing to make God’s activity on the left hand as necessary and perpetual as His activity on the right.” Nothingness has been brought to its end, no longer having even the transient and temporary existence it once had. On this note of “cosmic optimism”, Barth concludes his presentation of his doctrine.[1]

There are complexities—like Barth’s doctrine of election—that we will not have time to unpack here. But hopefully, you, the readers are able to at least see how asymmetrical this warfare is between God’s holiness in Christ for us, and His [last] enemy, which is: death (or nothingness or das Nichtige). The bottom line is this: for Barth, according to Lindsay, evil operates in a sort of Athanasian key. It is a non-reality reality that parasitically seeks to dissolve the very Good of God’s triune Life into nothingness. Because, for Barth, God has freely elected to not be God without us, but with us [Immanuel], when the non-graced side of contingent reality (or nothingness, or evil), along with its nothingness minions, like the satan or the demons represent (the principalities and powers in Paul’s Colossae theology), attempt to ‘kill, still, and destroy’ God’s creaturely reality (namely: us / humanity), this attack is an attack on the very Who of who God is. Barth is careful to retain the Creator/creature distinction in this framework, just as he has, as George Hunsinger identifies it, a ‘Chalcedonian Pattern’ shaping his theology; but it is highly significant, in Barthian theology, to realize that God humbled Himself for us, in keeping with His Who character, that He might exalt humanity unto Himself in the resurrected and recreated humanity He assumed for us in the incarnation. This is significant, for Barth, just because, as we have been considering, in God’s Freedom, once again, for God to be God in His new creation, it means that He will not do that without us; this is God’s Grace, and represents the Divine No, and ultimate dissolution of what already is nothing in God’s Kingdom: evil and death. It is because God has so identified Himself with us in Christ, that we, the creatures are assured of being on the Yes side of God’s indestructible eternally triune Life.

Application

How might the above consideration apply to the current panic, and unprecedented global upheaval we are currently seeing unfold before our eyes as the ostensible result of COVID19? Clearly, there has been upheaval, chaos, and conflagration the world over throughout the annuls of world history. Wars and rumors of wars; famines and destitution; pandemics, plagues, and paranoia have swept through the landscape like a scorched earth since the Great Lapse of Adam and Eve ‘in the beginning.’ What has sustained humanity through all of these tumultuous seasons of waning and wallowing?

The answer to this, should be clear by now: it is God’s Yes, and His decisive No in His Yes, to the das Nichtige that seeks to kill and destroy all that is good and holy in the world; all that has been taken up into God’s humanity for us in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 8.18ff). It is this eternal reality, the ‘Lamb slain before the foundations of the world,’ that sustains this seemingly fluttering and futile earth-system. The Life in this world is not contingent upon this world, but the One who sustains it moment-by-moment through the Word of His power; who is the risen Christ! This is the victorious reality that cedes the nothingness that would desire to assume the life of God as its own; on its own non-terms, and anti-Christ ways.

When I look out at the chaos, fear, pain, and suffering this teetering world is currently experiencing; when I am tempted to fling myself into the nothingness and das Nichtige that seeks to dissolve God’s life, and make it its own; I fall back, moment-by-moment, into the reality that nothingness stands no chance against the everythingess of God’s triune and eternal Life. This is the hope that the Christian has in this world. And no matter what the exterior circumstances nothingness seeks to throw at us, as Christians, even in our own angst and experience of this nothingness, we of all people can bear witness to the fact that we know that we and all humanity can participate in the extra life of God for us in Jesus Christ. We can bear witness, even when ‘we have the sentence of death written upon us,’ to the reality that ‘we know the One who raises the dead.’ Isn’t this what the world is fearful of, and panicking over? Isn’t it ultimately fearful of having its current experience of life and satisfaction snuffed out? We can bear witness to the world, no matter how deep the terror of nothingness might seem, that there is a something reality that has penetrated nothingness and turned it on its head. We can give the world Hope, as they see that operative in our lives; as they see the Holy Spirit bearing witness that God is love, and that He has demonstrated that by taking nothingness to the cross of Christ and resurrecting a new day for all who will. Soli Deo Gloria

 

[1] Mark R. Lindsay, Barth, Israel, and Jesus: Karl Barth’s Theology of Israel (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 48-52. Also see Lindsay’s Pdf of his whole chapter where this long quote is taken from entitled: Nothingness Revisited: Karl Barth’s Radical Evil in the Wake of the Holocaust. In the book version that I’ve been reading Lindsay has the pertinent sections from Barth’s CD bracketed throughout for the reader’s reference. In the essay form he has all of the CD references footnoted; the reader will want to refer to his essay which I have linked here if they want to follow up further in Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Confessing My Need for God’s Holiness

Being unholy and a saint, or the famous Luther simul peccator et justus reality is a reality indeed. In one moment, we can be worshipping the Holy God, having good fellowship with the Triune God, having good koinonia with the saints; and in the next instance we can find ourselves engaging in the sins that so easily beset us. It seems to me that if we don’t have theologies, like a theology of the cross, that has the capacity to speak to this reality on an ongoing basis, then we don’t really have a good theology at all. It is true, Christ came to make us slaves of righteousness; and He did indeed do that in His vicarious priestly humanity for us. But as the epistolero, John reminds us, if we say we have no sin we make Christ a liar; and that since we will sin, seventy times seven, we have an Advocate with the Father who will go to the Father over and over again, showing the Father His scar pierced hands and side, and endearing us to the eternal life that He has become for us—in our stead.

I am sure that without this reality, without the reality of God’s Gracious flesh for us in the Christ, I would be damned every second of every day; sometimes more intensely damned than other times, but damned nonetheless. This is the gravitas the weight of glory that only the God-man, the one consubstantial with the Father and Holy Spirit, could bear for us. And Jesus isn’t just bearing my sins, as heinous as they are, He is bearing the sins of the world; He has borne them into the cleft of the rock, and dashed them into the deepest part of the sea; the part of the sea where east and west will never touch. Though my sins be as scarlet, Christ’s righteousness makes me white as snow; not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit saith the LORD.

I must remind myself of this blessed hope, of the grace of God that has appeared to all humanity; teaching us to live righteously in this godless and sensuous age. Without this hope we would be destined to be wandering stars for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever; like Balaam who sold himself out for praise and adulation of men; like Judas who betrayed the Son of Man for a meager thirty pieces of silver; like Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils; like Korah who sold his family out for prestige and power; like Achan who couldn’t help but lust after the forbidden booty; like King David who yearned after the beautiful Bathsheba. Without Christ we, like they, have no ultimate or even penultimate hope. This is what I must remind myself.

I must remind myself that I stand before a Holy God who requires that I be just as Holy as He. I must remember that God is in His Holy Temple, and that I ought to shut my mouth and be still before Him. I must never forget that one day soon I will see Christ, and be like Him in every way; and in this hope I find the purity I am looking for. I must internalize this reality by the Holy Spirit, and allow the power of the resurrection to penetrate the marrow of my bones; transforming me moment by moment from the inside out. I must like King David, when confronted with my failures, be quick to repent and cast myself at the feet of God’s Holy Mercy; crying Kyrie eleison! And with the zeal of Zacchaeus, I must pursue God’s Holiness, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in and through the resurrected humanity of Christ, as I participate afresh and anew in the union I participate in as Christ continuously includes me in the recreation of what it means to be genuinely human, to be genuinely free in His type of freedom (in the continua recreata). I must rush the throne-room of Grace, and boldly seek audience with the Almighty, as He holds the Right Hand of My Savior. I must know that He is God, and that I am not; and I must stand in this non-analogous ineffable reality, and simply behold His majesty.

If I am going to have hope as a bond-slave of Christ, I must seek Him first, His Kingdom, His righteousness; and know that all these other Holy things will be added unto me. I must store treasures in heaven, where moth and rust cannot destroy; I must have pure eyes, because this is the gateway of life. I must hide myself in the prayer closet of the womb of God, and come to know God as I rest my head on the bosom of the Son. If I live in this Holy tabernacling of God’s life among us, Emmanuel, and find my only solace therein, I will have the hope, the Holiness of God that I seek. If I desire this liberty, the sort where the Spirit of God is, for the Spirit is Liberty, then I will enjoy the pleasures of God forevermore because I will be eternally present at the Right Hand of the Father.

I write this this early morning as a justified sinner. I write this knowing full well that unless the Lamb of God had not come to take away my sins, among the sins of the world, that I would be eternally damned; eternally damaged. I am writing this because within a moment, like Israel, I went from worshipping the Holy God in sweet fellowship, to worshipping in my high places like the idolater I often am. I write this because I needed to remind myself of the Hope of Holiness that I have achieved in the risen Christ; that I have power to say No to idolatry and Yes to the righteousness of God in Christ; because I know that Jesus is my Yes and Amen before the Father. I write this because I have the Spirit of the risen Christ inhabiting my blood bought body, which is the Temple of the Holy Spirit; and He yearns that as Christ is, so also would I be in this world. amen amen

Confessing With Augustine My Fear of Death

We all face things in life that remind us of our mortality; often not as frequently as might be healthy. The primary thing in my life is the cancer I was diagnosed with in 2009 (DSRCT). It is an incurable cancer with a typically fatal outcome. I was spared of that, by God’s Grace, and have continued to live cancer free over these last almost ten years. Every now and then, and this is one of those times, I am faced with some sort of abdominal pain, or intestinal sickness that causes me to have deep angst. I am currently experiencing some intestinal issues, and my mind can’t help but run to the worst case scenario; i.e. it’s back. I note this because it is a real reminder, for me that I continue to live in a mortal body that could most certainly die at any moment; from a variety of circumstances. We all have these moments; as I was mentioning above these moments can be helpful. Yet these moments, depending on the circumstance can be unhealthy and cause us angst and fear that robs of us of the great joy and hope that our living God desires for us; that He desires we find in Him alone.

None of this was foreign to Augustine’s experience. He had a friend die suddenly; a friend who wasn’t saved when he fell ill, but came to Christ in the midst of his death dealing sickness. This hit Augustine hard. But it had the effect of causing him fear about his own mortality. He was beside himself at his friend’s passing, but at the same time it caused him to have serious fear about his own mortality; he feared that he too could pass just like that. He writes in his Confessions:

But why do I say all this? It is not now time for questions, but time to confess to you. I was wretched; my whole mind was wretched, bound by its friendship with things mortal, and torn in pieces when it lost them. It was then that I felt the wretchedness which had afflicted me even before I lost them. Such I was at that time; I kept weeping bitterly, and in bitterness I lay down to rest. I was wretched – but I still loved my wretched life more than I loved my friend. However much I wished to change my life, I would not have preferred to lose it rather than to lose my friend. I am not even sure that I would have been willing to die in his stead, like Orestes and Pylades in the story (if it is any more than a story), who, it is said, were prepared to die for each other or to die together, since it would have been worse for them if both were not alive together. In me there arose completely the opposite feeling; I was oppressed with both a weariness of life and a dread of death. I think that the more I loved my friend, the more I hated and feared death as my most implacable enemy, supposing that if it could devour him, it might suddenly swallow up all mankind. Such, I remember, was my condition throughout. Look on my heart, O God, look within. See me as I remember; you, my Hope (Ps. 71.4 [Ps. 70.5]), who cleanse me from the taint of such feelings, who direct my eyes towards yourself, who draw my feet out of the snare (Ps. 25.14 [Ps. 24.15]). I was astonished that other mortals lived, since he, whom I had loved as if he were immortal, was dead, and even more astonished that though he was dead, I, his other self, lived. He spoke rightly who said that his friend was ‘half his soul’. I felt that my soul and my friend’s were one soul in two bodies, and life filled me with horror, as I had no wish to live on, a mere half of myself. Perhaps, too, I dreaded death for this same reason, fearing that he whom I had loved so much would die utterly.[1]

Augustine knew a fear of death, and had a realization of his mortality that in one sense purified his perspective; but more pointedly, in this instance, it mostly caused him consternation and even fear. He sensed the finality of it all, particularly as this finality gripped his friend’s life; a friend so close, Augustine considered him half his self. It was the immediacy of it all, displayed in the very guts of Augustine’s own trepid soul.

I am experiencing something like this at the moment. I have an unresolving abdominal issue, that most likely is fine; but in my mind’s eye, and in the experience of this very moment I have a dark fear over. My mind has raced to a finish line that represents a false start. There is some real reason for my own trepidation, given my past health record. But more than likely it is the enemy of my soul attempting to scare me into a paralyzing fear that causes an unnecessary reflection on death unsanctioned by my Father who is the living God. Like Augustine, there is a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better; but then there is a dastardly fear of entering the unknown abyss of death. Even though I know that the Shepherd of my soul has transversed the valley of the shadow of death; even though I know that my life is resident in His through a participating union of eternal bliss, there remains an unknown component. Death is the last enemy that has not yet been placed under the Savior’s feet; as such it remains a threat to this dusty frame, and all I currently desire is retreat. Selah

[1] Augustine, The Confessions (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2001), 71-2.

The Temple of God’s Triune Life: Learning to Hear God’s Voice, With Samuel as the Case Study

Learning God’s voice is often a process, but Jesus taught that His Sheep would know His voice; we read in John 10.27: “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of young Samuel. It is a favorite, on one hand, because my own “conversion” story mimics Yahweh’s call to Samuel. The LORD called me out of my sleep in the middle of the night to Himself when I was three. I went and woke my parent’s up and they led me to Christ. On the other hand, this is a favorite story because it pictures how God comes to each of us, and calls us out of our childhood into the pathway of maturation and growth as we learn to distinguish His voice from all others. Let’s read this story, and follow up on the other side.

Now the boy Samuel was serving Yahweh in the presence of Eli. The word of Yahweh was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. And then one day when Eli was lying in his place (now his eyes had begun to grow weak so that he was not able to see) and the lamp of God had not yet gone out, Samuel was lying in the temple of Yahweh where the ark of God was. Then Yahweh called out to Samuel and he said, “Here I am!” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” But he said, “I did not call you. Go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down. And Yahweh called Samuel again, so Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” And he said, “I did not call you, my son. Go back and lie down.” Now Samuel did not yet know Yahweh, and the word of Yahweh had not yet been revealed to him. Again Yahweh called Samuel a third time, so he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, because you called me.” Then Eli realized that Yahweh was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel “Go lie down. If he calls to you, then you must say, ‘Speak Yahweh, because your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Then Yahweh came and stood there and called out as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, because your servant is listening.”[1]

Samuel didn’t immediately know God’s voice for him; instead he went to what was common to his experience, he went to Eli—a known and concrete quantity, so to speak. But Eli, based on his own experience of God knew that there was something deeper and more Holy about the voice confronting young Samuel. The LORD persisted that night with Samuel until Samuel went from not knowing God, to knowing and being able to recognize His voice from others.

God, likewise, persists with us. But it is required that we have eyes to see and ears to hear. He has given those for us in the mediatorial eyes and ears of Jesus Christ. We have the capacity to see and hear God, but it requires an obedient yielding to this work of God in our lives in order for us, each day, to move from not knowing God, to knowing God. Samuel, once this initial revelation came, persisted in this life of obedience, and it shaped his life for years to Kingdom come. This is an important realization: knowing God is a daily, moment by moment reality. We have the freedom in Christ by the Holy Spirit to say yes or no to God’s constant revealing of Himself to us, or not. There are clearly plenty of other voices that vie for our attention, typically not as sage as Eli’s was for Samuel. And yet God persists with and for us just as sure as He is and always will persist in the humanity of Jesus Christ for us. He always lives to make intercession for those who will inherit eternal life. Samuel came to know this voice at a young age, and he persisted in his pursuit to hear this voice each day of his life for the rest of his life. He didn’t have to do anything to prompt God’s voice for him. It is because of who God is for us that God pursues us, just as sure as He has put on flesh for us in the Son, and as such there is nothing we can do but humble ourselves to seek God’s pursuit of us.

This is so much simpler than we think. Like Samuel lying there in his bed doing nothing, we too, simply lay in the temple of the LORD, where the ark is, and herein we are constantly in touch with the living God. Indeed, we are the temple of the living God as we now participate in the vicarious humanity of Christ. He tabernacled (Jn 1.14) for us, that we might tabernacle with Him; just as He has tabernacled with the Father by the bond of the Holy Spirit for all of the eternity of their shared Triune life. Each step we take, every bed we lay in, every plane we fly in; wherever we are we are in God’s tabernacle, indeed we are God’s tabernacle. This, because of who God is for us, is the depth reality of our lives as Christians. We don’t have to do anything or go anywhere to hear God’s calling and penetrating voice. He has freely chosen to come to where we are, beset in our dusty frames, and fellowship with us here that we might fellowship with Him there in the temple of His Triune life. His voice is ever present. Just as young Samuel came to know, we too should come to know that God’s voice is always there; He is ready to succor and care for us in ways that we cannot begin to imagine. But it does require some work; it requires obedience. But even that is not from us, but comes to us by the energy of the resurrection life of Christ that we have been brought into by the Spirit; and that we are brought into afresh and anew moment by moment. Herein is God’s voice, the verbum Dei for us.

 

 

[1] Lexham English Bible.

On Being a Broken Christian

These will just be some introductory comments On Being a Broken Christian. Where to start, really? But I wanted to simply address an underlying problem, as I see it, attending the evangelical churches in the main. Most commonly the doctrine of perfectionism is associated with Wesleyan or Methodist Perfectionism. R.C. Sproul[1] writes of perfectionism:

An ancient heresy of the distinction between two types of Christians, carnal and Spirit-filled, is the heresy of perfectionism. Perfectionism teaches that there is a class of Christians who achieve moral perfection in this life. To be sure, credit is given to the Holy Spirit as the agent who brings total victory over sin to the Christian. But there is a kind of elitism in perfectionism, a feeling that those who have achieved perfection are somehow greater than other Christians. The “perfect” ones do not officially—take credit for their state, but smugness and pride have a way of creeping in.[2]

This points up a particular and absolute form of ‘perfectionism.’ What I am hoping to engage with is a broader species of this seriously deleterious form of thinking on the Christian life. I see perfectionism as a logical conclusion to what I am really after, which is a focus on performance based Christianity. Going forward I plan on writing further on these themes in more detail. But what I want to at least identify for us here is the hope I find in Scripture in regard to broken people; broken Christians.

The locus classicus passage that comes to mind is Jesus’s story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the self-effacing and repentant Publican. Jesus details it for us this way:

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (KJV)

The Pharisee, in the New Testament, is the classic type-caste of what a performance based Christianity might look like. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘they are whitewashed tombs with dead man’s bones inside.’ This is what I think has become pervasive in so many evangelical churches, to the point that I can hardly stomach attending. It is the whole structure of this sort of Christianity that parallels what Jesus condemns. And it is true, people are well-meaning in these structures; but at the end of the day, good intentions are not able to bear the weight of God’s holiness. One problem I see associated with this style of what some have called ‘moralistic therapeutic deist’ Christianity, is that there is this prevalence to think that the Christian must have it all together prior to being able to ‘do ministry.’ But this kicks against Christ’s life itself. Jesus was despised, and ugly by superficial worldly standards. Jesus was constantly broken and broke, wandering around from this quarter of Israel to the other seeking somewhere to lay His head.

This brings us to the Publican. This was the character that Jesus found ennobling. It is the Christian who recognizes their broken state; not just intellectually, but in current and ongoing daily life circumstances. These are the people Jesus thinks characterize His Kingdom come. People who have thorns in the flesh; people who are poor and destitute; people who are beaten for His names sake; people who live in a constant battle with drug, sex, gambling, power, and other addictions. These are the people Jesus came to seek and save. It is in our weaknesses that God’s strength in the resurrected Christ is made ‘perfect.’ Jesus, in His humanity, understood that He ec-statically received His life as gift from the Father by the creativity and anointing of the Holy Spirit. It is when we are in like state as Christ, in a humiliated status that we are most prone to look elsewhere for a ground of life other than ourselves. We may well have brought the humbling circumstances of life by our own stupid choices, but in God’s Grace in Christ He wants to meet us right there and manifest His Life and Strength for us.

Jesus offered, and continues to offer an upside down version of the current world system. His Kingdom is one that is populated by the broken and vagrant among us; those who are sick and dying in need of a Savior. Jesus is uninterested in a performance based Christianity that attempts to place a veneer of white teeth and bronzed skin in the forefront. Jesus confronts and contradicts that; He contravenes and interdicts that by the incarnation itself. The Incarnation of God reflects the character God exalts. It is a character that does not think robbery of God is something to be grasped. It is a character that is not self-concerned, but instead is self-given. And among us sinners, it is a character that even in the midst of our stupid and un-contrite life choices, God is happy to meet us there; over and over again; seventy times seven. God has not called us to live a life of small-talk and happy-faces. He has called us to Himself from right where we are in our unaccomplished and filthy unvarnished statuses. It is here His strength is made perfect; not by might, nor by power, but by His Spirit.

This is just an off-the-cuff post that I will follow up with others in days to come.

 

[1] I only refer to Sproul because he was one of the first that came up on a Google search. I actually think that the form of Calvinism that Sproul was a proponent of helps to foster, ironically, a form of perfectionism that plagues so much of Western Christendom. But that will have to be saved for another post.

[2] R.C. Sproul, “The Heresy of Perfectionism,” accessed 07-11-2019.