The Final Judgment (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 20)

Revelation 20:1-3, 11-15

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while…. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, xhe was thrown into the lake of fire.

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(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.139-41. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

As long as the time of our life in this world is devoured by the dragon of evil and guilt, time has no meaning for us. It returns upon itself in empty circularity and futility, unable to arrive at its true goal, unable to reach the fulness of life. But when the Kingdom of God invades our sin-infested time in Jesus Christ, the circularity of time is broken. That is why Jesus Christ is called Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, and that is why, in order to describe what happens when God’s perfect time breaks into the midst of our time, the Apocalypse uses a definite span of years. For the things concerning Jesus Christ have an end, a fulfilment. Now that Jesus Christ has come into our world all things move towards a climax, which will be the day of harvest both of good and evil. That is why the apocalyptic expression “thousand years” speaks of Satan being loosed again, for God insists on bringing all the work of evil to a head. Then the head of the serpent will be destroyed, and all its slimy body of sin and evil, which it had trailed throughout human history, shall be burned with everlasting fire….

On that day the books will be opened, the book of our past, the book of destiny, the book of life. Mysterious as it may appear, these are not really different from the heavily sealed book which was seen in the visions of the fifth and sixth chapters. The last judgments are all bound up with the judgments that even now shake the earth, though they mark the fulfilment and their end. As at the opening of that heavily sealed in the hand of God there were calamities and woes and plagues upon the earth, so here there are woes and calamities and judgments for all who have allowed themselves to be seduced by Satan and who have not taken refuge in the sacrifice for the sins of the world….

That is what St. John calls the second death — a terrible and a ghastly truth. But we dare not shut our eyes to it, although no one likes to talk about it or preach about it. However much there may be which we cannot understand about that mystery of iniquity and its judgment, it is quite clear from the Word of God that those who die in their sins do not pass out into nothingness and forgetfulness. There is time beyond death, time for the damned as well. And it is because there is such a thing as time beyond, that hell is so terrible. It is time that has denied itself fulfilment in Christ, and time therefore which has a dreary lastingness about it, for it can only double back upon itself forever in sulky, sullen memory of past sins…. Hell is God’s judgment upon those who ultimately choose evil, but even hell itself comes under the judgment of God. That is to us the ultimate inexplicability of evil, but St. John makes it perfectly clear that the holy love of God is against hell.

And what about those who have been sealed with the blood of Christ and whose sins have been covered?… Just because Christ has invaded time, that day will mean for the believer the fulfilment of all his faith and hope in the crucified and risen Jesus. The things concerning Jesus do have their fulfilment. Therefore that will be the day when the Church of the faithful shall be filled with all the fulness of God according to the power that works within her. If on that day we have Christ alive in our heart, then the book of destiny will be the book of life, for us. Christ the Lamb of God who bears away the sins of the world is He to whom all judgment is committed. In Christ, the day of judgment is the day of vindication, the day when those who have witnessed the good confession before the Pontius Pilates of this world will be enthroned with Christ in the judgment of all evil. As they have shared the reproach of Christ in His judgment by the world, so they will share with Christ in his judgment of the world…. Then let the devil shout himself hoarse in his accusations against us at the bar of judgment! The Christian has a cry that conquers the world, the word of his testimony and the blood of the Lamb. “It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again!” It is the power of the resurrection that prevails.

Posted in Devotional, Eschatology, Judgment of God, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Resurrection, Revelation, Sin and evil | Leave a comment

The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

Posted in American evangelicalism, Biblical interpretation, Critiques of Karl Barth, Election, Evangelical theology, Karl Barth, Predestination, Reformed theology, Revelation, Scripture, Sola Scriptura, Theological methodology, Word of God | Leave a comment

Post Tenebras Lux: After 500 Years, Can Reformation Finally Come to the Heart of Roman Catholicism?

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Yes, that is a picture of Martin Luther posted on the right in front of a Catholic Church in Italy in remembrance of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

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Don’t believe me? Here is a closer look.

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As if one picture of Luther were not enough, a nearby Church thought it necessary to post five!

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Not only is this posting of Luther’s picture in front of the Catholic Church in Italy a reason to celebrate, but it also holds a special significance for me in that my name is printed on it as well. Why? Because the Catholic Church in the community where I live has asked me to participate in a conference that will be open to the public in which I will have the opportunity to discuss the significance of the Reformation past, present, and future with Catholic priest and eminent professor of theology and history Don Ermis Segatti. I have participated in something like this in the past, and I am very much looking forward to another occasion in which I will be able to speak on the continuing relevance of the Reformation in a public forum.

The reason why this is exciting for me is because, as it is well known, the Reformation had little to no lasting impact in Italy, largely due to its proximity to the heart of Catholicism in Rome. Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church succeeded in stamping out the majority of the Protestant incursions into the Italian peninsula. Since that time, the Church in Italy, to say nothing of the wider culture, has borne the indelible imprint of the countermeasures adopted against the Protestant faith and immortalized in the decrees of the Council of Trent.

Times are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that a local Catholic Church here in Italy is commemorating the start of the Reformation, posting Luther’s next to its main entrance. Even the pope has recently expressed a measured amount of respect for Luther in his good intentions to bring necessary reform to the Church. Among the various explanations for why this may be occurring, it might be helpful to know that the Catholic Church in Italy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a severe hemorrhaging of its faithful. The number of Italians still claiming to be Catholic has dropped dramatically in the last few years and has reached an unprecedent low. In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church?, Catholic priest and theologian Hans Küng details this steady exodus of Italians away from their inherited faith when he writes:

It has become increasingly clear that the number of people who consider the Church necessary – or even useful – has continually decreased since the peak of public approval at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), and under Benedict XVI it dropped to an all-time low. The results of significant surveys conducted in a number of Western countries show that this decline is not a development restricted to the ‘recalcitrant’ German-speaking countries.

In Italy, the land of the pope, less than half of the population still consider themselves to be Catholic, 20 per cent less than in 2004 (IARD RPS). This is despite the fact that more than 80 per cent consider religion to be important, a drop of only 8 per cent compared to six years previously. But many people want to have nothing more to do with the Church as an institution. Only 46 per cent still have confidence in the pope; six years ago the number stood at 60 per cent.[1]

Since Küng wrote these words back in 2013, nothing seems to have stemmed the tide of Italians leaving the Catholic Church. A new article published last year documents that:

…a record number of Italian Catholics are also thought to have defected from the Church in 2015, according to figures published in January by the Italian Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists (URR), an organization that helps Catholics abjure their religion by providing them with forms that can be downloaded online and sent to their local parish. Some 47,726 forms were downloaded in 2015, beating the previous high of 45,797 set in 2012, while the not-so-popular Pope Benedict was still at the helm of the Catholic Church. [Full article here]

Not only are the Italian faithful disillusioned over the condition of their Church, but trouble is also brewing in the highest echelons of the Roman hierarchy. On March 2, 2017, CSN News reported the following:

According to a report in The London Times and best selling Catholic author and journalist Antonio Socci, about 12 cardinals who have supported Pope Francis since his election in March 2013 now fear that his controversial reforms may cause a schism in the Church, and so they hope to pressure the Pope to resign. 

“A large part of the cardinals who voted for him is very worried and the curia … that organized his election and has accompanied him thus far, without ever disassociating itself from him, is cultivating the idea of a moral suasion to convince him to retire,” reported Socci in the Italian newspaper Libero, as quoted in The London Times of March 2. 

The cardinals who want Pope Francis to resign are among the liberal prelates who backed Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) four years ago, said Socci, and they would like to replace him with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state. 

“Four years after Benedict XVI’s renunciation and Bergoglio’s arrival on the scene, the situation of the Catholic church has become explosive, perhaps really on the edge of a schism, which could be even more disastrous than Luther’s…” said Socci. [Full article here]

Socci is manifestly not an admirer of Martin Luther, whom he holds to be responsable for a “disastrous” schism. Nevertheless, he fears that the Catholic Church is on the verge of a schism potentially more disastrous than anything Luther provoked, and this time the instigator is none other than the pope himself.

I do not write this as one who sits in judgment over the Catholic Church. I strongly disagree with Socci’s view of Luther and of the Reformation in general, but that is really beside the point that I want to make, which is this: the Church in Italy needs gospel renewal! It is no mere Protestant polemic to acknowledge the fact that the Catholic Church, at least the part of it that lies closest to its center, is sick and bleeding out. Everyone in Italy knows this. According to Hans Küng, there is no denying “debilitating and potentially terminal illness from which the Church is presently suffering” [2]. Although I am sure that many Catholic apologists elsewhere will object, it is a fact that most Italian Catholics who live closest to Rome, like Antonio Socci, are gravely concerned over the languishing health of their Church and are fearing the worst. It is no unkindness to call something what it is.

It is no human strategy or solution that can bring healing to the fatal wound of Italian Christianity, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ which alone is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). To say that the increasing numbers of Italians turning their backs on their Church, and for that reason on Christ as well, need the gospel is simply to say that they need others who will share the gospel with them. As Paul argued in Romans 10, how will they hear unless they are told, and how will they be told unless others are sent to them?

All this to say, Italy needs missionaries. Not necessarily missionaries of the traditional “jungles-of-Africa” variety, but reformissionaries who are committed to bringing gospel renewal and revival to a land increasingly devoid of Christianity. Even Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged this when he wrote:

 …we also sadly know of some areas that have almost completely abandoned the Christian religion, where the light of the faith is entrusted to the witness of small communities: these lands, which need a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel, seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message. This variety of situations demands careful discernment; to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances. And yet it is not difficult to see that what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse, an expression of a new, generous openness to the gift of grace. [Full text here]

Indeed, the contemporary situation and need of Italy is not unlike that which John Calvin described in the 16th century:

…the question is not whether the Church suffers from many and grievous diseases, for this is admitted even by all moderate judges; but whether the diseases are of a kind whose cure admits of no longer delay, so that it is neither useful nor proper to wait upon too slow remedies…. We maintain to start with that, when God raised up Luther and others, who held forth a torch to light us into the way of salvation, and on whose ministry our churches are founded and built, those heads of doctrine in which the truth of our religion, those in which the pure and legitimate worship of God, and those in which the salvation of men are comprehended, were in a great measure obsolete.[4]

This is why I am in Italy. I long to hold forth the torch taken up by Luther five hundred years ago and play some small part in sparking true gospel reformation across the land that has always been the center of Roman Catholicism. For the last five hundred years, the light of the gospel has not been permitted to shine with its refulgent glory throughout the peninsula. Up until the 20th century access to the Bible was extremely limited in Italy, and not until Vatican II was full blessing given to the faithful to read it for themselves. For this reason, the Bible has been dubbed “‘the absent book'” in the history and culture of modern Italy”,[3] and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Centuries of suppression have ingrained within the Italian psyche a reticence, if not downright opposition, to reading the Bible. We can only pray that God would mightily work to change this tragic reality. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. If they will not hear, how will they have faith?

So I would ask that you would pray for me in my work here in Italy, and specifically as I prepare for this upcoming conference on the Reformation. Might God be pleased to use the current crisis in the Catholic Church to open wide its door that for five hundred years has remained bolted shut against the great truths rediscovered during the Reformation? I don’t know, that is in his hands. For my part, I just hope to maybe push it open a crack! If nothing else, I would at least celebrate the small victory that is the local Catholic Church’s decision to post pictures of Martin Luther just outside its doors and host a public event commemorating his work. Perhaps now is the time to start proclaiming again the great Reformation motto: Post Tenebras Lux! After Darkness Light!

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[1] Hans Küng, Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013), p.45

[2] Ibid., p.1.

[3] http://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/bibbie-d-italia-la-traduzione-dei-testi-biblici-in-italiano-tra-otto-e-novecento_(Cristiani-d’Italia)/

[4] John Calvin, Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), pp.185-186.

Posted in Church history, Ecumenism, Five Solas, Italian evangelicalism, Italian Reformation, Italy, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Personal, Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Francis, Protestantism, Reformation, Reforming Catholicism, Reformission, Roman Catholicism, Scripture | Leave a comment

“I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me!”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Praying with Importunity

In my personal devotions I have been reflecting much lately on prayer. Prayer is something that, if I am honest, has not been a consistent practice in my life. Not that I have neglected prayer; rather, as the great prayer warriors of history might say, I have not “prevailed” or “importuned” in prayer. Much of this stems from the fact that I have too much confidence in what I can accomplish in the flesh and far too little faith in what God will do in response to my prayers. At the same time, I confess that I have exercised very little patience even when I given myself to intense praying, disappointed by the apparent ‘lack of results’.

For people like myself (and I’m sure there are many!), passages like Luke 11:9-10 can be perplexing:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

After praying for a while and not seeing tangible answers, I am left thinking: “I have asked but have not received! I have sought but not found! I have knocked but nothing was opened! What is wrong?”. Honestly, it is just sometimes easier to neglect prayer than to face this troubling question.

However, I have recently found much help from a sermon in which the great Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this very passage. Lloyd-Jones’s insights struck me like a bolt of lightning and have since invigorated by fervency and constancy in prayer. He says:

Now many no doubt have had this perplexity with regard to the whole question of answers to prayer. There are statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that you only have to ask and you will receive. So people say, ‘But I have asked, and I have not received’, and they do not understand this. I am suggesting that the answer is that LLoyd-Jonesthere is a greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think, and our Lord suggests that, in varying the expression, ‘Ask; seek; knock.’

True asking, I am suggesting, is the knocking. In other words, asking does not mean a casual request. You suddenly feel like it and you make your request, then you forget all about it by the next morning. That is neither true asking, nor true seeking. In true asking there is a kind of urgency, there is a refusal to be content with anything less than the answer. That is where this knocking comes in. You do not merely shout from a distance, you go on and you approach nearer and nearer, and at last you are, as it were, hammering at the door.

This is clearly the teaching of Scripture itself. Our danger, all of us, is to reduce the great blessings of the Christian faith to some almost automatic process. I have often compared it to the slot machines into which you put your coin and draw out your chocolate or drink—there it is. That is simply not true in the Christian life. It is not true at all. There is this element of real seeking, ‘hunger and thirst’. ‘Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ That does not mean that in a service you wish you were living a better life and you would like to be better, or when you are at a funeral you feel the same thing, and then forget all about it and go back and live the same old life. No, hungering and thirsting after righteousness! ‘Asking; seeking; knocking!’

And as that is the teaching of the Scripture, you will find this abundantly confirmed in the testimonies and the experiences of people who testify to having received this great blessing. Many of them have had to strive sometimes for years before they have had this wonderful experience, and they say, furthermore, that looking back they can see that there difficulty was that their seeking was fitful—they would do it in spasms and then forget all about it. Then they would come back to it, and then forget about it again. But then they reached a point at which they became desperate, and like Jacob of old they, as it were, said, ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Now that is the thing, typified once and for ever in that great story of Jacob. And it has been repeated so often in the lives and the testimonies of people.

The trouble with us is we are all half-hearted about this. Our Lord is speaking here about importunity…. So that if we just almost casually, as it were, ask God for this blessing and nothing happens, we must not blame God. We have not fulfilled the conditions, and have not really asked. Do not forget—’Ask; seek; knock.’ Importunity! ‘I will not let thee go!’… God is our Father and he does not give us the blessing we want immediately, always. Thank God he doesn’t. We would never grow up if he did, and this is part of our whole process of sanctification. By withholding the blessing God searches us, examines us, makes us examine ourselves, and realize the terms and the conditions, and he deepens the whole of our spiritual life.

This again is something that the generation to which we belong is tending to forget. We are a people who always desire some short cuts, some easy method, some kind of ‘package’ blessing. And that is one of the great differences between the Christian literature of this present century and of the Christian church up to about the middle of the last century. People would seek a blessing for years before they received it. But there was a purpose in it all; God was dealing with them and leading them along a given path. You will never know the heights of the Christian life without effort. You have to strive for these things—there is a seeking, knocking, and an importunity. And it is because so many have missed that element that they get into confusion at this point.[1]

Although I might quibble a bit with some of the things that Lloyd-Jones says here (in good Torrancean fashion I would want to frame the ‘conditionality’ of prayer more in terms of Christ’s vicarious intercession for us), his fundamental point is incisive and illuminating: “there is greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think”. The problem lies not with God, nor with the promise that he has made us in Christ about responding to to us when we ask. The problem is that we have not truly asked! Asking in prayer is not making “causal” or “fitful” requests every now and again; it is importunate seeking and knocking! It is Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received God’s blessing! It is that relentless zeal to prevail, as Jacob did, even if it means wrestling all through night!

This is, of course, not meant to give hope to our selfish desires. In the context of Luke 11, Jesus is specifically speaking about the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Lloyd-Jones reminds us that truly asking for the Spirit in prayer, and for all of the blessings promised us by God in the name of Christ, does not consist a sporadic or infrequent affair. It is the determined resolution of Jacob wrestling with God, of the woman demanding justice from the unjust judge, of the man requesting bread from his friend in the middle of the night, until God grants what he has promised. It may takes days, weeks, months, or even years, but this is what it means to truly ask of God. We ask by seeking and knocking until the door is opened to us, and by not giving up until it does so.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.166-169.

 

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Devotional, Holy Spirit, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Prayer, Preaching | Leave a comment

Towards a Christological Missiology: T.F. Torrance on the Relation between the Missio Ecclesiae and the Missio Christi (Reformission Monday)

In my last post exploring T.F. Torrance’s missional theology, I proposed the possibility of a kataphysic, or scientific, missiology. Essentially what this means is that the church’s missiology — its understanding and practice of mission — must not be constructed primarily on the basis of pragmatic or cultural considerations but must be developed in strict accordance to its object, i.e. the reality and content of the gospel that the church is called to proclaim to the world. The reason for this, as I discussed in that post, was that the object of the gospel’s witness, Jesus Christ, is himself the Word of God in both its content and communication; he is both revealer and revelation, both God speaking to humanity and humanity answering God, and as such he determines not only the message but also the proper mode of delivery. Therefore, our testimony about him must conform to the testimony embodied in him.

kataphysic missiology is thus a christological missiology. From beginning to end, our understanding and practice of mission must be centered on and circumscribed by the doctrine and reality of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Christ is not merely the message that we can preach however we deem best or efficacious, for it imposes on us its own categories of relevance and its own proper means of communication. The theology and practice of the missio ecclesiae is determined by the theology and practice of the missio Christi.

Torrance provides further rationale for this approach by unpacking the implications of the New Testament conception of the church as the body of Christ. If the church is the body of which Christ is the head, then it is beholden to do only and nothing but that which Christthumbrns-faces-jesus-139-426x6401 himself does (though properly adapted to its position as ‘body’ rather than ‘head’). Quite simply, the body can do nothing of its own accord or creativity but must follow its head in all things. Torrance writes:

The New Testament uses the expression ‘body of Christ’ in two ways. On the one hand it is used in a comprehensive sense to speak of the whole Christ who includes the church within his own fullness, the new man in whom the new race is concentrated, the true vine that includes the branches. In this sense Christ is the church, for he embodied himself in our humanity and as such gathers our humanity in himself into oneness with God. He identified himself with us, and on that ground claims us as his own, lays hold of us and assumes us into union and communion with him, so that the church finds its essential life and being only in him. Christ is the church, but it cannot be said that the church is Christ, for Christ is infinitely more than the church although in his grace he will not be without it. Hence on the other hand, the New Testament uses the expression the body of Christ to relate the church to him in such a way that it is distinguished from him as the body of which he is the head, as the servant of which he is the Lord, and yet as his friend and partner upon which he freely bestows his own royal inheritance as the Son of God.

That the church is the body of Christ means that it participates in him, draws its life and nature from him, sharing in all he has done for it and sharing in his very life as the incarnate Son of the Father. Everything that the church is as church it owes to Christ an derives from his grace, so that everything that it does or says or thinks must be in the name of Christ and to his honour and glory alone. It is only through participating and sharing in Christ that the church is to be regarded as his body, as his image and likeness among mankind, as the expression of his love and truth, as the reflection of his humility and glory, as the instrument of his gospel, as the earthen vessel that holds his heavenly treasure and holds it forth for all humanity to share freely. Only on the ground of this participation in Christ is the church a community of believers, a communion of love, a fellowship of reconciliation on earth.[1]

For Torrance, the New Testament’s description of the church as the body of Christ is no mere metaphor but refers to the mystery of the church’s true nature as spiritually united to Christ as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, even as Christ has incarnately united himself to us bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. The church has its being not in and of itself but only insofar as it is participates in Christ, much like the branches have no life in themselves unless they are organically united to the vine. In this ontological and covenantal relation, the church literally cannot be or do anything unless it abides in Christ (John 15:4-5). For this reason, the church can only offer Christ and him crucified to the world, and it can only do so by following Christ in the way that he himself took in mission to the world. Only like this — proclaiming Christ as he himself demands to be proclaimed — can the church be “the instrument of his gospel” and “a fellowship of reconciliation on earth”.

Thus, we see once again that a kataphysic missiology is a christological missiology. Stay tuned as I continue to explore this theme in weeks to come!

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Milton Keynes; Downers Grove: Paternoster; IVP Academic, 2009), pp.362-3.

Posted in Christology, Ecclesiology, Gospel, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Reformission, T.F. Torrance | Leave a comment

The Word of God Victorious (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 19)

Revelation 19:9, 11-16

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.126-131. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

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We must understand this chapter from the contrast implied throughout between the Babylonian whoredom or harlotry and the marriage of the Lamb. It is the contrast between the Church that has remained faithful and true to the Word of God in the midst of the seductions of the world, and the false Babylonian church that has adulterated the Word of God with the word of man…. The fact is that as long as the Church is in this present world it is menaced by the image of the beast. She cannot help but have a tainted worldly form for she belongs to this world and is formed and fashioned by its culture and civilization and history. But she belongs to the City of God and is supremely the Church from above, and as such she must ever repent in dust and ashes, She must ever be prepared to place her worldly form on the altar of the Cross…. Therefore the true life of the Church in this world must always be the life of ferment and conversion and revolution and renewal and reformation…. Outwardly it is quite impossible to separate the true from the false, but God knows who are His and who are prepared for the marriage of the Lamb. It is in the moment of crisis, at the coming of the Bridegroom, that the secrets are revealed….

Then St. John tells us he saw Heaven opened and he beheld a white horse and its rider — the symbol of truth in embattled and victorious might and triumph. In contrast to anti-Christ, the counterfeit rider and his white horse of an earlier vision, this one is called “Faithful and True.” At last the shams of time and all the deceptions of Babylon are ruthlessly exposed. This is the final truth of human history. “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God” (19:12-13).

What is the meaning of this unknowable name?… In old Semitic thought to know a person’s name meant in some sense to have power over him, to be able to control him. But the Word of God reserves the mystery and power of its own name. It cannot be controlled or manipulated to serve other ends. The Word of God empowers itself, enacts itself, for the Word of God and the Power of God are one. No man can fulfil the Word of God, or enact its promise in the course of history. No church has control over the Word of God so as to be able to maneuver its fulfilment in the world. That is what the false church thinks it can do, that it can organize the Kingdom on earth, that it can wed temporal and spiritual power, and master the universe as the vicar of vice-regent of Almighty God.

But at last the Word of God comes forth as a sharp sword to discover the lies and hypocrisies of men and to smite the power of the earth in their mingling of false religion and beastly power. At last the Word enacts its own fulfilment, manifesting its power and revealing its name, King of kings and Lord of lords. And behold, that name is written upon the vesture that bears the mark of Calvary, and all the world is given to know that Christ Crucified is indeed Power of God. It is inevitably a day of judgment when God joins His power to His Word, and so, though this is the marriage supper of the Lamb with its song and rejoicing, it is also a day when the Kingdom of God is violent and the armies of heaven are completely victorious.

We live between the times, between the First Advent and the Second Advent, between the Word of Forgiveness and the Word of Judgment, between the Last Supper and the Marriage Supper, for that final day has not yet come. Meantime the wedding is being prepared and the invitations are being sent out by the messengers of God. They are out upon the highways and the byways of the earth compelling people to come in. It is so terribly urgent that they must do all they can to persuade men, knowing the terror of the Lord, and under the constraint of the invincible love of Christ.

Posted in Biblical interpretation, Christology, Devotional, Ecclesiology, Eschatology, Judgment of God, Mission & evangelism, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, T.F. Torrance, Word of God | 2 Comments

Christ As Savior Before Creator: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of the Post-Resurrection Perspective of the Apostolic Witness

As I work my way through Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s magisterial work on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, I continue to be illuminated and blessed by the riches that he was able to mine from the depths of the biblical witness. In the excerpt that I would like to share in this post, Mackintosh offers a brief but powerful reflection on the significance of the post-resurrection perspective that we find in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. In this specific instance, Mackintosh exposits the beautiful hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Let’s look first at the passage in consideration and then listen to Mackintosh’s comments:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In this picture of Christ…the apostle moves onward from historical to cosmic modes of interpretation. We may single out the three main statements: first, Christ is the organ of creation, absolute in function and eternal in existence; secondly, in Him all things are held together, cohering in that unity and solidarity which make a cosmos; thirdly, as all things took rise in Him, so they move on to Him as final goal. The aorist tense is used to affirm that Christ created all things, for the writer is thinking of the pre-existent One; but the fact that he lapses into perfects and presents is a suggestive hint that he contemplates this pre-existence through the medium, so to speak, of the st-paul-conversionexalted Life. Or to put it otherwise, Christ is conceived as creator of the world qua the Person in whom the universe was in due time to find its organic centre in virtue of His work of reconciliation; He was the initial cause of all things, as being destined to be their final end. His function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour.

The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord… It is interesting to compare an earlier form of the same idea. This is in 1 Co 8:6: “To us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him.” Christ is the agent in creation, yet He is here designated not as Son, but by the title usually applied to the risen Saviour. As in Colossians, the ideas of creation and redemption are united—redemption being the present fact from which thought begins, and in the light of which alone creation can be interpreted. The Son before all time is visible through Christ’s historic work in grace…In the Colossian passage, therefore, we can discern also this inferential counter-movement of thought redemption is a fruit of, and has its basis in, Christ’s place and work in nature.[1]

Mackintosh packs so much substance in so few words that it would take far more than a mere blog post to explain it while doing it justice! I think that we can grasp the essence of his argument, however, if we take careful note of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord”. This is, in other words, the post-resurrection perspective of Jesus Christ that is evident throughout all of Paul’s writings (and arguably the New Testament as well). That is to say, the apostles did not begin their preaching and teaching about Christ by identifying him as a mere man (as he may have appeared to many people prior to his resurrection) or by expounding his pre-existent, un-incarnate state as the second person of the Trinity. Rather, their perspective throughout their witness is, as exemplified by Paul in Colossians 1, of Jesus as the exalted God-man, forever clothed in our humanity yet inextricably bound up with the identity of the one God of Israel. It is from the point of view of Jesus resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father on high that the apostles articulated the meaning of the person and work of Christ.

While this observation may seem a bit obvious from a casual reading of this passage, it carries with it, as Mackintosh understood, a host of astonishing implications. The person of whom Paul speaks here as the one through and for whom all things were created is not simply the Son of God simpliciter, but Jesus Christ, the very same who was crucified, risen, and is coming again! This is stunning. It seems that Paul was not able to think of Christ as merely the pre-existent Son of God in abstraction from his incarnate humanity any more than he was able to think of Christ as a mere historical figure in abstraction from his pre-existent divine being. In other words, for Paul, the one through whom and for whom all things came into being was the God-man Jesus Christ!

Now this is not to deny the incarnation as a particular event both in history and in the life of God himself; rather it is to emphasize that God brought creation into being through the his Son for the purpose of providing a theater, as it were, in which to enact the glorious drama of incarnation, atonement, and redemption. As Mackintosh puts it, Christ’s “function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour”. This does not mean, of course, that Christ’s achievement as Saviour actually occurred prior to creation; rather it was in view of his redemptive achievement that he exercised his function as Creator. Simply stated, the Son of God was our Savior before he was our Creator. It was in view of the saving history of Christ’s incarnate life that the history of the universe was given its beginning.

Mackintosh’s student T.F. Torrance often referred to this foundational insight in his own theological work. In one of his later publications on the Trinity, Torrance echoed his esteemed teacher’s interpretation of Colossians 1 in a particularly eloquent way:

In virtue of his intrinsic and eternal Fatherhood God always had the power to create, and did actually create because he was and is the Father of the Son. Expressed otherwise, since God is Father in himself, as Father of the Son, he is essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself. Creation arises, then, out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, and is activated through the free ungrudging movement of that Fatherly love in sheer grace which continues to flow freely and unceasingly toward what God has brought into being in complete differentiation from himself.

This is a truth which we have come to grasp only through the incarnation of his Love in Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all. The utterly astonishing truth revealed in the fact that God did not spare his beloved Son but freely gave him up for us on the Cross is that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself, and that, with the gift of his dear Son in atoning sacrifice for our sin, God the Father will continue freely to give us all things. This is why it may be said, not only that our understanding of creation is proleptically conditioned by redemption, but that the actual creation of the universe in the outward movement of the Father’s love was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it in order to redeem the creation and to reconcile all things, things visible and invisible alike, to himself. This is another way of expressing what the New Testament Scriptures refer to as the divine act of ‘predestination’ before the foundation of the world, but of course an act of predestination in which we may not and cannot rightly interpret that ‘pre’ in terms of the kind of temporal priority, or indeed causal and logical priority, with which we have to do in the universe of created space and time.[2]

This certainly provides much food for thought. The implications of this are far-reaching, as Torrance illustrates when he mentions the doctrine of predestination (i.e. the impossibility of dividing the scope of creation from the scope of redemption), but I must stop here. May God continue to grant us, as he did to these faithful servants, an ever-deepening understanding of and passionate love for our great God as he revealed himself in Jesus Christ!

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.70-1.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), pp.209-10.

Posted in Apostle Paul, Biblical interpretation, Christology, Doctrine of God, Election, H.R. Mackintosh, Incarnation, Predestination, Reformed theology, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance, Trinity | 5 Comments

With Unveiled Face: St. Paul on Reading Scripture in the Light of Jesus Christ (with reference to John Behr)

In recent days I have published a number of posts on the centrality of Jesus Christ to all biblical interpretation and theology. When I speak of the centrality of Jesus Christ, I do not merely mean to say that Christ remains at the center (and thus the ultimate goal) of all that we think and say about God but, even more, he defines the totality of its area and circumference, the content and limits of the knowledge of God imposed upon us by the actual way in which God has revealed himself to us. In other words, all of our thinking and speaking about God should have a distinctively Christological shape: every thought and word about God, from first to last, must be taken captive to Christ.

I have often approached this theme from the perspective of theological/dogmatic reflection. In this post, I would like to do so from an exegetical standpoint to demonstrate that this Christologically-comprehensive way of reading Scripture and doing theology is not the product of reasoning abstracted from the authoritative witness of Scripture itself but indeed derives from it. Introducing his excellent study on the development of Christian theology from the second century onward, John Behr points us to 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6 as an example of this:

The relationship between Scripture, the Gospel and Christ is not a subject of direct reflection for Paul, as it will be in the second century… However, the dynamics of this relationship is intimated by Paul, in a complex passage which merits being cited at length:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of the fading splendour. But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the rembrandt7Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (2 Cor 3:12–4:6)

In this very dense passage, Paul begins to address the interconnected relationships between Moses and Christ, the Scriptures and the Gospel. According to Paul, the “same veil” that Moses placed over his own head remains to this day upon those who read “Moses”—now a text. But this veil is removed for those who have turned to the Lord and can now understand Scripture aright. That the veil was removed by Christ means that it is only in Christ that the glory of God is revealed and that we can discern the true meaning of Scripture, and that these two aspects are inseparable. The identity between Moses the man and Moses the text, whose face and meaning were hidden by the same veil, is paralleled by the identity between Christ, in whose face is revealed the glory of God, and the Gospel which proclaims this. So, behind the veil is nothing other than “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ,” himself the image of God, though this remains “veiled” to those who reject the Gospel….

This is not to imply that the Gospel itself is, as Ricoeur claimed, simply “the rereading of an ancient Scripture.” The proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ is not straightforwardly derivable from Scripture. Rather, the death and resurrection of Christ acts as a catalyst. Because God has acted in Christ in a definitive, and unexpected, manner, making everything new, Scripture itself must be read anew. The “word of the Cross,” the preaching of “Christ crucified” may be a scandal for the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but it alone is the “power of God” making known “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:18–25). This preaching, the kerygma, provides what Hays describes as “the eschatological apokalypsis of the Cross,” a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with “a profound new symbolic coherence.” Read in the light of what God has wrought in Christ, the Scriptures provided the terms and images, the context, within which the apostles made sense of what happened, and with which they explained it and preached it, so justifying the claim that Christ died and rose “according to the Scriptures.” It is important to note that it is Christ who is being explained through the medium of Scripture, not Scripture itself that is being exegeted; the object is not to understand the “original meaning” of an ancient text, as in modern historical-critical scholarship, but to understand Christ, who, by being explained “according to the Scriptures,” becomes the sole subject of Scripture throughout.[1]

If we pay careful attention to what Paul says in these verses, it should become clear that the apostle’s own approach to interpreting Scripture (understood as the Old Testament, but no doubt applicable as well to the New) was Christologically comprehensive in the sense outlined above. For Paul, reading Scripture apart from the illumination that it receives from the glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ is to remain under the veil that characterized the knowledge of God in the Mosaic covenant. Only in Christ is this veil removed so that when Moses is read (and the rest of Scripture, for that matter) we are able to comprehend its true meaning. If we limit ourselves to a historical-grammatical exegesis of the text (which certainly has its place), we have not truly understood Scripture, nor have we constructed a truly Christian theology. Why not? Because such an approach fails to penetrate behind the veil that only Christ can remove and apprehend the knowledge of God that only the glory of Christ can bring to light.

So here it is from the mouth of the apostle Paul himself: apart from Christ who constitutes the Alpha and the Omega of biblical interpretation and theology—its beginning and ending, its limits and its content—we cannot truly behold God who lies hidden behind a veil. To not know Christ is to know nothing; to know Christ is to know everything.

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[1] John Behr, The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), pp.25-28.

Posted in Apostle Paul, Biblical interpretation, Christology, John Behr, Orthodoxy, Revelation, Scripture, Theological methodology | Leave a comment

The Urgent Task of Waiting: Blumhardt and Barth on the World-Shaking Power of Patient Expectancy (Reformission Monday)

Reformission Monday is the time when I pause from writing in reformission to reflect on reformission itself. Reformission aims at fulfilling the church’s commission through reformation and renewal, bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every sphere of human thought, speech, and life. Reformission thus proceeds on the basis of the deep and unbreakable unity between didache and kerygma, between Evangel and evangelism, between message and method, between the Word enfleshed, written, and proclaimed.

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On 15 February, the Gospel Coalition blog featured a fantastic article by missionary Josh Manley entitled “Be Patient, Missions Is Urgent“. If you have not read this article, please go and do so right now! Manley cuts against the grain of the tendency, common to most missionaries, to pursue their vocation through a back-breaking busyness carried out at a neck-breaking pace. Against this, Manley wisely reminds us that it is precisely because the missionary task is so urgent that “it demands men and women with the patience to commit to God’s means in order to accomplish God’s ends”. This is so true. How often we think (regardless of what we might say) that it really is the quantity of our time and the quality of our work upon which the spread of the gospel depends! It is obvious what we truly believe by what we actually do. More energy devoted to “doing for God” rather than “waiting on God” reveals that our trust really reposes on ourselves rather than on God.

This is something about which I am becoming increasingly convicted in my own life and to which I am seeking to dedicate more concentrated effort: the urgent task of waiting on God. As one of Karl Barth’s formative influences, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, knew, waiting on God does not mean inactivity or indolence but rather the arduous cultivation of a humble expectancy on the power of God in Christ and through the Spirit that disparages any presumption on our part to be able to usher in the kingdom of God through our best and most well-intentioned labors:

Christ is the beginning and the end of God’s kingdom. Therefore we can say with all confidence and certainty, “The Savior will come again!” He is bound to complete his work, and it is our task simply to be servants until his return, to be in the service of him who is coming. We are, as it were, to represent by our lives the coming of Jesus Christ. We must not, therefore, be so concerned and active, or make such tremendous efforts, as though we were able to achieve the victory of good on this earth. This, of course, we are quite incapable of doing. Only the Lord Jesus can bring it about, he who came a first time and is going to come again a second time. He will complete it – not 1456946697we. If we are loyally and firmly set upon this – “He will come again” – then the gospel of the kingdom will become personal and living to us. We must never separate this gospel from Christ’s person. Without his personal presence, no talking about the gospel, no talking about his coming kingdom, is of any value at all.

So we must be prepared for the coming of Jesus Christ, which is not only something in the future but a present reality in those who wait for it in their hearts. We are to be servants watching for his return. Not that we get everything nicely arranged for ourselves, but we can and we must postpone our main concerns until he comes. His servants have a twofold task: they are to wait for him in the sense of being active and doing something, and they are to be stewards. The waiting for the Savior involves a personal relationship to him as to a living person, making the gospel living and relevant. There are many people who are always waiting for something new in Christianity, as if something could be achieved through a new faith or a new church. We leave all that alone. We hold fast to the promise of a personal Savior, whom God will send as he has sent him before. And we know that we as persons are quite unable to lead a faithful life unless our Savior is personally with us…

“‘I am the beginning and the end,’ says the Lord.” Do we believe that? Believing is one thing, but getting down to living it out – that is something else. Let each one of us be earnest with himself and get off his soft bed. Even if it costs you your life, go right in, into the thick of the fight! Jesus is alive, and Jesus is victor, and he has given us our part to carry out. But as we do our part, let us not forget that what finally matters is God’s deeds, not ours. “With God we shall do valiantly!” (Ps. 108:13) This was said by David, who went to war without putting his trust in weapons. Sad to say, our faith does not bring about such deeds. The only kind of deed of God we know is something like founding an institution without the necessary money. If, after energetic begging, the money comes in, we call this a deed of God! This, and other things like it, are all that we know. These, however, are our deeds, not the deeds of God. They are all right, but we have to admit that they are but a makeshift solution until God comes and intervenes. To hope for deeds of the kingdom – that is faith. We must be beggars in the kingdom of God and not go away from the door until we have been given something from God. And we really need drastic deeds of God.[1]

Servants, stewards, warriors, beggars. This is all that we are or can ever be in the cause of Christ. We work, we fight, we sweat, we bleed, but ultimately we trust not in our working or fighting or sweating or bleeding but only in that of Jesus Christ. This goes against every arrogant fiber of our fallen human nature that seeks every opportunity to exalt itself at the expense of dependency on God. Yes, even missionaries are guilty of this! We want to be capable of peforming drastic deeds for God rather than waiting for drastic deeds from God! But alas, we are not capable of such deeds, and until we are crucified with Christ so that we abandon all confidence in our own efforts and fervently beseech the Lord of the harvest to act, we are ultimately doomed to labor in vain. Thus, Karl Barth comments:

But how shall all this [new creation] become reality? Blumhardt has two answers: the one he gives to God, “Only you, O God, can help, none other!” The other he gives to us, “Ask. Ask and you shall receive. And in asking we share in, we help with, the new creation.” Blumhardt sees the coming kingdom being prepared in a double movement in heaven and on earth, and the actual decision lies not in the visible but in the invisible world. If something new is to arise on earth, God ultimately has to do it, but young-barth-1for our part we can sow truth and justice. In quite a natural way, therefore, Blumhardt comes to a concept that is very important to him – the biblical concept of the little flock, God’s Zion, who gather around Christ not for their own salvation but for the redemption of the world. They are to represent God’s cause, God’s future, in a special way. Gathering and waiting fit hand in glove.

What will such people have to do? One thing above all: to know and to become deep and firm in the knowledge that “our actual doing must come from the strength of God.” Such people are best described by what they do not do. This attitude – quiet, eagerly expectant, and directed toward God – is what Blumhardt calls “waiting.” It would be good not to pass lightly over the profound depth of what he means by this, because all too often a comfortable sort of nonsense is made out of this concept. Blumhardt’s meaning is that waiting, although turned inward at first, is in its essence revolutionary: “Lord God, make new! Make us new!” To act – to “wait” – means just the opposite of sitting comfortably and going along with the way things are, with the old order of things. For Blumhardt, divine and human action are closely interlocked, not in a mechanical but in an organic sense. It is our calling, our task in everyday life, that people can see the Savior through us. When we “hasten and wait” toward God like this, the consummation is prepared, coming from God himself. Out of what is now present, and in those who live expectantly in the power of God, the future is built up quietly and inconspicuously. When will it finally appear? What is needed for this to happen in an outer way? Such questions are irrelevant. For those who await God’s coming, behind everything lies the great future of God.[2]

As I read this, one phrase in particular stands out to me and cuts me to the quick: “Such people [that is, such people who are truly useful in the kingdom of God] are best described by what they do not do”. Obviously, there is a bit of hyperbole here to make a point. Barth is clear that “waiting” does not mean that we “sit comfortably”. Yet it does mean that we do not become so immersed in doing work for God that we neglect time better spent in waiting on God. Ideally, we would desire to be able to do both simultaneously: work while waiting, wait while working. However, for many like myself, it is extremely difficult to cultivate an attitude of waiting while drowning in work. This means that, at least for me, I need to set aside more concentrated time for learning to wait on God, primarily through extended and uninterrupted periods of prayer, fasting, and meditating on his Word. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, and I must mortify the latter in order to vivify the former. I am growing increasingly convinced that my best work as a missionary will be accomplished on my knees. If I truly believe that my work is really God’s work and will be effective only when it is done through his power, then why would I not dedicate the most time, not to talking about him to others (as important as that is) but to talking about others to him?

I would like to conclude with an anecdote recounted in the biography of John Hyde, an American missionary to India who was often called “praying Hyde” or “apostle of prayer”. His biographer notes that the impact of his incredible commitment to prayer extended far beyond the amazing results seen in his own ministry:

Behold how much was wrought in the life and work of one lady missionary. She had worked hard for many years in her district, and none of the work there was bearing real fruit. She read the account of Mr. Hyde’s prayer-life, and resolved to devote the best hours of her time to prayer and waiting on God in the study of His Lord and will. She would make prayer primary, and not secondary as she had been doing. She would begin to live a prayer-life in God’s strength. God had said to her: “Call upon Me, and I will show thee great and mighty things. You have not called upon Me, and therefore you do not see these things in your work.” She writes: “I felt that at any cost I must know Him and this prayer-life, and so at last the battle of my heart was ended and I john-hyde-5had the victory.” One thing she prayed for was that God would keep her hidden. She had to face being misunderstood and being dumb and not opening her mouth in self-defense if she was to be a follower of the Lamb.

In less than a year she wrote a letter, and oh, what a change! New life everywhere—the wilderness being transformed into a garden. Fifteen were baptized at first, and one hundred and twenty-five adults during the first half of the following year! “The most of the year has been a battle to keep to my resolution. I have always lived so active a life, accustomed to steady work all day long, and my new life called for much of the best part of the day to be spent in prayer and Bible study. Can you not imagine what it was and what it is sometimes now? To hear others going around hard at work while I stayed quietly in my room, as it were inactive. Many a time I have longed to be out again in active work among the people in the rush of life, but God would not let me go. His hand held me with as real a grip as any human hand, and I knew that I could not go. Only the other day I felt this again and God seemed to say to me, ‘What fruit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?’ Yes, I knew I was ashamed of the years of almost prayer-less missionary life. “Every department of the work now is in a more prosperous condition than I have ever known it to be. The stress and strain have gone out of my life. The joy of feeling that my life is evenly balanced, the life of communion on the one hand and the life of work on the other, brings constant rest and peace, I could not go back to the old life, and God grant that it may always be impossible.”

Another year passed, and she wrote again: “The spirit of earnest inquiry is increasing in the villages and there is every promise of a greater movement in the future than we have ever yet had. Our Christians now number six hundred in contrast with one sixth of that number two years ago (before she began the prayer-life and gave herself to it). I believe we may expect soon to see great things in India. Praise for His hourly presence and fellowship!”[3]

May God give us the strength, as he did to these his servants, to practice the difficult discipline of waiting on God. The need of the world is immense, and the task of missions is urgent, so let’s get busy waiting!

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[1] Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 15-18, 33-34. Kindle Edition.

[2] Karl Barth, “Afterword” in Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Action in Waiting (Walden/Robersbridge/Elsmore: Plough Publishing House, 2012), pp. 145-6. Kindle Edition.

[3] E.G. Carre (ed.) Praying Hyde (Alachua: Bridge Logos, 1982), pp. 33-34. Kindle Edition.

Posted in Church history, Karl Barth, Kingdom of God, Missiology, Mission & evangelism, Prayer, Reformission, Spiritual warfare | Leave a comment

Fallen is Babylon the Great! (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 17-18)

Revelation 17:1-6; 18:1-3, 19-20

Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls…carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.… After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.”…“Alas, alas, for the great city where all who had ships at sea grew rich by her wealth! For in a single hour she has been laid waste. Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.120-2. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

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There is no doubt as we read these strange chapters of the Book of Revelation, with their visions of monstrous and abominable creatures, that we shudder in our souls, and well we might! But let us look at the facts squarely. Look out abroad upon the world…and see the monstrosities of evil, unbelievable wickedness, and bloodshed. Then look again at the monstrous creatures of the Apocalypse, drunk with the blood of the people. Are they not much the same?…[T]hat is true of all the world today behind the economic strangle hold of world affairs. Behind all its commerce and trade, vast and wonderful as they are, there is traffic in the souls of men. The God Mammon even employs religion in its commercial enterprises. Behind many seemingly Christian enterprises there lies the darkest monster of all, the solidarity of human guilt, the dragon of unbowed pride. It is by pride that we turn the glory of Almighty God into the image of sinful man and what is even worse, the image of the beast. Man has been made in the image of God, but when the image of God in man is prostituted to human pride, man produces a monstrous evil and the mark of the beast is on him. Look at the beastly way in which the world crucified Jesus — that was done by religious pride.

If the Word of the Gospel discovered the secrets of the human heart so that men were offended at Him and resented Him and finally crucified Him because in their pride they were cut to the quick, then that is true of human history on a vast scale. The pressure of the everlasting Gospel evokes the organized and final opposition of collective human pride and Babylonian egoism. Surely that is the crisis of our times, the emergence amongst the nations of the image of the beast. At first it is only the scaffolding of a vast structure erected upon the pillars of social goods and western morality but before we know where we are, power is given unto this image. It thunders in arrogant pride and as many as will not do homage to it are sacrificed. It is the Babylonian captivity. But listen to the Book of Revelation, for pride cometh before a fall. “Babylon is fallen, is fallen! Babylon the great is fallen!” In the apocalyptic calendar it will disappear overnight like a huge stone cast into the midst of the sea. In one hour is her judgment come! Then shall the world weep and lament — all who were made rich by her costly merchandise, all who lived deliciously with her, all who were intoxicated with the wine of her culture, and all who trafficked in the souls of men. Then shall the redeemed rejoice, and all the holy apostles and prophets, for Babylon shall be found no more at all…

Such is the judgment of God upon the defiant pride and culture of man that tries to storm the way back into Utopia, into the Garden of Eden. That way is barred by an angel with a flaming sword. But there is a way, through the Garden of Gethsemane and through the Garden of Arimathea. It is the way of the Lamb. “I am the door,” He says. “He that entereth not by the door … but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1).

Posted in Devotional, Eschatology, Judgment of God, Preaching, Prophets & prophecy, Revelation, Sin and evil, T.F. Torrance