Psalm 2:7-12: The reign of Christ (Psalm of the Day, 4/365)

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7 I will tell of the decree: the Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 

Act 3: Christ speaks. The Word of the Lord is here recounted by Christ himself. According to Paul, this decree was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and enthronement in heaven (Acts 13:33). This “generation” of Christ does not have to do with his coming into existence, but with his coming into possession of a universal reign.

Confirming this are the subsequent words of the Lord which grant to Christ “every power … in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18). Whether they want to or not, the very nations which opposed him will become subject to him. The imagery of the rod of iron that smashes earthen pots in pieces conveys the idea of decisive judgment in response to the rebellion of the nations. In terms of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative, however, this judgment ultimately serves to fulfill God’s redemptive purpose to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3, 49:10). The final goal of judgment is to put the world into order, and to this end it must sweep away all that contributes to disorder.

Incredibly, Christ will grant his saints to participate in his authority over the earth at the time of his return (Ps. 149:6-9; Rev. 2:26-27; 19:15). Meantime, those who are seated with Christ on his heavenly throne in virtue of their union with him can intercede on behalf of the nations, asking God to make them Christ’s inheritance in salvation (Eph. 2:6).

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Act 4: The worshipper speaks. With his final exhortations, the psalmist challenges our concept of worship. Remembering that this psalm, like all the psalms, is a song to be used in worship, we must conclude that worship such as this has teeth, playing a vital role in the spiritual warfare to which the church is called. This is worship that commands what it proclaims — worldwide submission of every creature in heaven and earth to Jesus Christ — and that warns of the judgment which will fall upon those who stubbornly refuse to do so.

At the same time, this is worship that announces the joyful message of salvation: he who judges is also our refuge from judgment. Far from being contrary to his love, God’s judgment revealed in Christ is a manifestation of his love. The wrath of God is the form that his love assumes when its loving purpose is threatened by sin. Judgment is God’s refusal to accept the refusal of humanity. He judges because he loves, and he loves by means of his judgment.

To a Lord such as this, the right response is twofold: rejoice with trembling! Paradoxical though it may seem, this is the only possible response. The fact that Christ is the only righteous man means that the rest of us are all unrighteous and deserving of judgment. Ma this fact also means that whoever takes refuge in him will be justified, shielded in the shadow of his own perfect righteousness.

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Psalm 2:1-6: Why do the nations rage? (Psalm of the Day, 3/365)

As the second half of the entry point into the psalms, Psalm 2 indicates that the rest of the psalter is not to be interpreted simply as the words of God to his people or the words of the people in response to God, but primarily as the words of the One who embodies both: Jesus Christ. It shows this by recounting a cosmic drama that unfolds through a series of four acts.

1 Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?

Act 1: The nations speak. In contrast to the righteous who, according to Psalm 1:2-3, meditate on God’s Word (and thus prosper even in times of want), the nations “meditate” on vain things and are thus doomed to failure. Inasmuch as it is the “nations” and “peoples” that do this, we must conclude, as Psalm 14:2-3 will declare, that there is no one truly righteous, not even one. This casts new light on the interpretation of the righteous man of Psalm 1: ultimately there is only one.

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying, 3 “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

Here we see both the vain things that the peoples meditate (represented by their kings and rulers) and those against whom they do so. They seek to mount a rebellion against Yahweh and his “Messiah” — his Christ — viewing their authority as bondage. Indeed, this rebellion recapitulates the entire history of humanity ever since the first sin committed in Eden. But such rebellious meditation is vain because no one can stand against God and his Christ. Even at the culmination of human rebellion when Christ seemed defeated, when “there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Acts 4:27), even then the rebellious world did not triumph.

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.

Act 2: Yahweh speaks. From the perspective of God in heaven, the self-vaunted plots of the peoples are ludicrous. God cannot be mocked; rather it is he who will mock those who attempt to do so! Though often derided, those who belong to Christ need never be ashamed (cf. Rom. 1:16-18), for the deriders themselves are those whom God holds in derision!

5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

The vain rage of the nations is further exposed in this: though they refuse to “meditate” on God’s Word (Ps. 1:2), they will hear it nonetheless, and they will have no choice but to bow in submission under its judgment. Those who try to rebel against God’s Word will nevertheless be terrified by it when it comes to them no longer as a promise of salvation (v.12) but of wrath. In one way or another, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).

The Intensive Presence of God’s Future: Karl Barth and the Christological Goal of Old Testament Revelation

Many people criticize Swiss theologian Karl Barth for presumably being overly Christocentric in his approach to interpreting Scripture and doing theology. Barth, so it is argued, forces biblical texts and dogmatic concepts into an ostensibly prefabricated Christological mold, thus “seeing Christ” in places where he actually does not appear. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not it is even possible to be too Christocentric, this kind of criticism simply does not hold up to scrutiny, especially when we consider the exegetical sections that Barth intersperses between larger blocks of theological exposition in the Church Dogmatics. The following passage, taken from CI/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004, 95-101), demonstrates how Barth is willing to let the Old Testament speak for itself without applying a flat Christological hermeneutic. In fact, it is precisely as Barth seeks to listen to the Old Testament on its own terms that he finds himself compelled to acknowledge the “intensive presence” of “God’s future” which culminates, ultimately and only, in Jesus Christ. In order to see this, it is (unfortunately) necessary to quote a rather lengthy section, yet one that rewards a full and careful reading. Barth writes:

There is an eschatological thread in the Old Testament in line with which, as the Old Testament recognises and explicitly states, the covenant of God with man comes to be realised, and the hiddenness and revelation of God beyond the actual event attested in the Old Testament is primarily future event. The eschatological character of the divine reconciliation and revelation does not mean any negation of its presence, either here or in the New Testament…. [I]s not God’s future the most intensive presence, incomparably more intensive than anything we regard as present? We have seen with what intensity God’s covenant and hiddenness in the Old Testament point to God’s coming. In this very intensity they are already present, and Abraham, Moses and the prophets are recipients of revelation in the full sense of the term. But we still have to put it in this way, that they receive the revelation of Yahweh as those who wait for it and hasten toward it….

The point is this. Of a whole series of ideas which have decisive significance for the world of the Old Testament, we may safely say that to understand them correctly in the sense of the texts, we have to know them from two aspects, like the winged altars of the Middle Ages. In front there is presented to us a definite aspect of the covenant and of the hiddenness of God in a definite present of historical time. But from behind there is Screen-Shot-2014-01-07-at-3.45.55-PMpresented to us at the same time, in terms of the same or related concepts, the corresponding aspect of fulfilled time, the finished work of God to come….

When, for example, the Old Testament speaks of the “people” or of “Israel” or of “Judah”, the primary meaning is, of course, the sum-total of the descendants of the sons of Jacob, with whom as such the covenant was made at Sinai. But at once the separation of the ten northern tribes from the two southern suggests that this primary idea of “people” will not carry all that is meant in the Old Testament by God’s people, the chosen people. A people within the people, as it were, is the people which is meant in the divine covenant and participates in its fulfilment. But we are still involved only with the primary idea if we regard Judah-Benjamin as this people, compared with whom North Israel finally disappears from history. For Judah-Benjamin is not this people, but as their own prophets say, a converted “holy remnant,” spared in the judgment. Who belongs to this remnant? Who are now God’s people? The adherents of a prophetic community of disciples? A community of the faithful congregating about the temple? The few righteous who walk in the way of Yahweh’s commandments? Yes and No. Yes, because actually such a people is discernible in the foreground; No, because prophetic exhortation and hope do not remain with this people, because later prophets like Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah speak again of a “people,” of Jerusalem, even of Israel as a whole. The people within the people, the genuine Israel, is obviously not identical either with the sum-total of Jacob’s descendants or with any section of this sum. But the genuine Israel, elect, called and finally blessed by Yahweh, is merely typified in both, and remains a goal beyond the history of either. In the strictest sense this people is ahead of itself in time. It has still to be seen what this people really is.

When the Old Testament speaks of the “land” promised and then given to this people, the primary meaning, of course, simply is the land of Canaan commended to the fathers by God. But, again, whatever the qualities of this geographical entity may have been at that time, as such they are wholly unsuited to exhaust the full meaning that lies in the conception of the promised land. When we look beyond the conception of a land “flowing with milk and honey,” to the promises associated with it (particularly when things were really not going well in this land), our gaze is necessarily directed to the paradise lost and restored which is to be the dwelling-place of this people, to the miraculously renewed earth upon which this people will some day live amid the other happily and peaceably united peoples. Thus the “land” is certainly Palestine, but with equal certainty, in and along with this land, there is meant the quite different land which is not actually visible in the history of Israel, because it is its goal, because it is therefore outside it. The one land is waiting for the other.

When the Old Testament speaks of the “temple,” by that is assuredly meant the house in Jerusalem which David wished to build for the Lord and which Solomon did build for Him as His abode, and therefore as a place of prayer and sacrifice for this people. But this temple could be destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again, without losing anything of the intensity of its significance. What it is and is not in the foreground is governed by the temple of the future in the background, which, built according to Isaiah not by men but by God Himself, will stand and shine upon some quite other mount of God, to which some day not only Israel but the nations will make pilgrimage. It is from the standpoint of its future that the temple at Jerusalem is what it is.

What does “lordship of God” mean in the Old Testament? First, of course, the present fact, as such apparently of infinite significance, that this people belongs to Yahweh, is ruled, punished and rewarded in its destinies by Yahweh, has therefore as a whole and in all its members to obey Yahweh’s instructions and commands. Can there be anything more here, a supreme background? Yes, here particularly, and it is quite understandable that attempts have been made to concentrate in the idea of the “complete lordship of God” the entire eschatology of the Old Testament. For at this very point everything present is to be regarded from the standpoint of its own future. Is it not at present bounded on all sides by what is before our eyes, the fact that this people belongs to Yahweh, that He exercises power over them, that they have to listen to Him? Does not the hope necessarily arise of the Kingdom without end? Not only does this hope actually arise, but it clearly gives power and possibility to faith in God’s lordship even in this very present moment. It is by future accomplishment that God’s people lives even in the imperfection of its present situation and government. And it never sees its fulfilment. Its presence seems, on the contrary, to grow more imperfect on every side. At all events, the political equivalent of the Kingdom of God in the external power and position of this people grows more and more insignificant. But in the same proportion it seems to be the more definitely aware of that which is the goal and boundary of His ways, namely, that God shall put all His enemies under His feet. His lordship is to be established as much over the innermost heart of His people as over the whole world.

What is the meaning of “judgment” in the Old Testament? In the first instance judgment is executed quite concretely and with disturbing frequency in the form of great national disasters, from the plague of serpents in the wilderness to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the dreadful picture in the foreground, from which according to the Old Testament very few generations of this people were entirely spared. But apart from the very real picture of slaughtered and burned towns and villages, of fields full of slain, of long processions of exiles—apart from all this there is no knowledge of what “judgment” means in the Old Testament. And yet the Old Testament thought of judgment does not derive its seriousness and gravity from this source. For something far more dreadful is at the back of it all, the end of God’s love, the rejection of Israel, and over and above, the burning wrath of God upon all nations, the judgment of the world. This is not present; strictly speaking, it is future. But it is a matter of this future in the present. The prophets look beyond the flames which, kindled by hostile men, destroy Samaria and Jerusalem, but also in the end Nineveh and Babylon, to see this quite different, unquenchable flame. And they were speaking of it, of this background, of this future judgment, when they referred so threateningly and definitely to the foreground.

The most important of the ideas we have to mention is that of the “king.” The king is in the first instance and as such the autocrat who rules at a given time in Jerusalem, one of the smaller or smallest among the many of his kind in the Near East of that day. But we have already been told that the king is at the same time one of the outstanding instruments of the divine covenant. If any figure stands strikingly in the shadow of the divine hiddenness, it is that of the king. That is to say, this figure, too, points beyond itself. It is probably an old tradition that David already conceived of himself as the type of the righteous man, one “that ruleth over men, that ruleth in the fear of God, and is as the light of the morning when the sun riseth, a morning without clouds, when the grass springeth out of the earth through the clear shining after the rain” (2 Sam. 23:1–7). This righteous king, who is at once threatened and promised in the future by the existence of the present king, is the Messiah, the king of Israel, nay the world king “at the end of the days.” Once more selection is effected as in the case of the “people”; for the kings of Samaria do not share in this hope, but only those of Jerusalem. Even here the lineage of David seems often enough to be broken as regards this preparation for the coming king; the king for the moment, even if counted among the “good” kings, frequently seems to be little more than a symbol of this lineage of David….

What is involved in Messianic expectation is not an intensifying but a sheer transcending of present political experience. It comes to this, that the conception of the king in particular can be described as the central form of Messianic expectation, but as such it is clearly too narrow to express all that is to be said of the expected bringer of salvation. The “servant” in Deutero-Isaiah is much less a king than a prophet, and the son of David in Ps. 110 and the tsemach in Zech. 6 is priest and king at once. The “son of man” appearing in the clouds of heaven in Dan. 7 shows all the characteristics of a ruler, but, naturally, the ruler who makes an end of the world powers and of world power as such. If the interpretation of the Book of Enoch is applicable, he is no less than the first man returning in glory—first also in a supreme sense even as compared with Adam. And the functions of the expected One, namely, a victory which is not preceded by a struggle (the Messiah does not Himself take part in the Messianic woes which precede Him, but when they are finished He appears), a rule of peace without end, the rooting out of sin, the judgment of the world, supreme sway not only over human spirits but also over a renewed world of nature—all these can be summed up under the concept of rule, but only in such a way that the functions of an earthly king obviously fall very far behind, having really become a mere parable….

We have seen that along with the idea of the king there are other ideas with which Old Testament expectation is linked; nation, land, temple, the lordship of God, judgment. At the same time it cannot be denied that all these other ideas, or the expectations linked up with them, culminate and become concrete in this one, the idea and expectation of the king of the end of time. The Messiah is already “the hope of Israel,” so far as all Israel’s hopes point to an historical event on earth, an event altogether introduced by God, breaking into all other history from above, but actually within history, a real historical event. The analogy between present type and coming reality does not break down, because the reality to come will also be a man ruling in the name of God—ruling, of course, in quite a different way. And with his appearance all that is now expected will be quite different, the true Israel, the land of promise, the temple on the mount of God, the Kingdom without end, the judgment of the world.

This, then, is the explicit expectation of the Old Testament. It must be held together with what is said about the covenant concluded but not fulfilled and about the revealed but not realised hiddenness of God in the Old Testament. And what was said about the covenant and about the hiddenness of God receives confirmation from the presence of this explicit expectation. It is only  from the recollection of fulfilled time, from the New Testament point of view, that we can say that in respect of this expectation the Old Testament is the witness to divine revelation, so that its expectation is no illusion, but the kind of expectation when the expected One has already knocked at the door and is already there, though still outside.

Mere expectation, therefore, or abstract expectation, an autonomous time of preparation, is excluded. Is there fulfilled time and expectation? Has the Messiah appeared? Later Judaism, the documents of which were not adopted into the Old Testament Canon, more than once thought so, and every time the end was a bitter disillusionment. And when Jesus Christ arose in Galilee and Jerusalem, the same later Judaism, represented by the authorised experts in the canonical Old Testament and the official bearers of the sacred tradition, looked right past Him, in fact rejected Him outright and smote Him on the cross. If He was the Messiah to come, if He was the revelation attested by the Old Testament in expectation, as the Christian Church confesses it, then we can only say that it had to be so, that rejection was possible in spite of the fact that Holy Scripture of the Old Testament lay open straight in front of these men’s eyes and was read by them with genuine industry and attention. Revelation does not speak directly even in its most definite testimonies—i.e., not by way of a demonstration that can be carried out by experiment and logic. The expectation of revelation in the Old Testament is prophecy, not prediction to be controlled experimentally by logic. That is why it was and is possible to look past it. That is why it could and can be rejected. How could it be otherwise? It is self-attested by the fact that this expected revelation is really revelation, that the Old Testament present participates in a future which is really God’s future. That is, one may be offended by it; it can only be believed in; it speaks only in the way revelation speaks….

[I]f [the Church] recognises revelation and lives by revelation, that is unmerited grace, as Paul says in Rom. 11:20f. The mystery of revelation, which is the mystery of free, unmerited grace, includes the Church of the New Testament inseparably with the people whose blessing is attested for us in the Old Testament as expectation of Jesus Christ. And this very mystery acts not only as a barrier but as a bond between Church and Synagogue which, like the impenitent sister with seeing eyes, refuses to see that the people of the Old Testament really expected Jesus Christ and in this expectation was graciously blessed.

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.

Not By Bread Alone: Karl Barth on the Word of God as the Divine Determination of All Humanity

Sometimes when presenting the gospel, it is all too easy to speak as though an act of faith or an existential decision play some sort of determinative role in altering the reality of the individuals in question. Appeals are made to “make” or “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior”, as though our acceptance of Christ could create a new situation that did not previously exist, as though Christ were not already our Lord and Savior, whether we acknowledge him or not! Now I realize that there is a kernel of truth here, for there is a fundamental change that occurs in the conversion of sinners under the preaching of the gospel, but overall this kind of approach fails in that it comes across more as suggestion than declaration, more as counsel than command. As Pope Francis recently stated (full text here):

The Word of God cannot be given as a proposal – ‘well, if you like it…’ – or like good philosophical or moral idea – ‘well, you can live this way…’ No! It’s something else. It needs to be proposed with this frankness, with this force, so that the Word penetrates, as Paul says, ‘to the bone.’ The Word of God must be proclaimed with this frankness, with this force… with courage… you will say, yes, something interesting, something moral, something that will do you good, a good philanthropy, but this is not the Word of God.

How very true. The gospel is not a proposal, not a good idea, not self-help advice or a “try it and if you don’t like it then return it for a full refund” bargain. Rather, it is the declaration of what is already true of all people, regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is then a command to submit this new reality as the already-determined basis of human life under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. When Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31, he did not offer them Jesus Christ as simply a better option among the pantheon of their other gods; rather he solemnly asserted:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

According to Paul, the advent of Jesus Christ has set all of reality on an entirely new basis. In Christ, a whole new order – a new creation, a new kingdom – have come into being, and this is something which has irrevocably determined the destiny of every single human being, whether they realize it or not. As Karl Barth explains:

As God’s Word itself is revelation, i.e., a new word for me, so the situation in which it sets me as it is spoken to me is an absolutely new situation which cannot be seen or understood in advance, which cannot be compared with any other, which is grounded in the Word of God and in this alone. It is, of course, a situation of decision. But this barth-lecturing1is not the decision of my own particular resolve and choice (though there is a place for these too). It is a decision of being judged and accepted. And because the particular judgment and acceptance are God’s, it is a decision of my particular reality, of the particular meaning of my resolve and choice.

Just because the Word of God means “God with us,” just because it is the Word of the Lord, of our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, it obviously pronounces our judgment to us. In it, it is decided who we are. We are what we are on the basis of this judgment, what we are as its hearers, i.e., we are believers or unbelievers, obedient or disobedient. Previously and per se we are neither the one nor the other. Previously and per se we do not even have the possibility of being either the one or the other. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, are possible only to the extent that, as our act, they are our particular reply to the judgment of God pronounced to us in His Word.

In faith and obedience my resolve and choice is truly good before God. Whatever else may have to be said about me, I exist in correspondence to God’s Word. I have received and accepted His grace. In unbelief and disobedience my own resolve and choice, whatever else may have to be said about me, is truly bad before God. I exist in contradiction to God’s Word. I have not accepted His grace. Either way it is I—this is really my own supremely responsible decision. But it is not in my decision that it acquires the character of being a good choice on the one hand or a bad one on the other. The implication of this decision of mine taken with my own free will, namely, the step either to the right hand or to the left, the choice to believe and obey or the refusal to do either—this qualification of my decision is the truth within it of the divine decision concerning me.

In speaking to me God has chosen me, as the man I am, to be the man I am. The new quality I acquire through the Word of God is my true and essential quality. I cannot give myself this true and essential quality. Only God can judge me. I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision. In this decision whereby it is decided who I am in my own decision and whereby it is decided what my own decision really means—in this realisation of my reality, this bringing of our works to light (Jn. 3:20f.; Eph. 5:12f.), the Word of God is consummated as the act of God. It is always the act of the inscrutable judgment of God.[1]

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are what we are because of the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the people of Israel that God had allowed them to hunger in order to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. As Barth helps us to understand, this is not a metaphorical statement, neither is it expressing an existential truth related only to our religious or spiritual experience. At bottom, it is ontological fact: it is by the Word of God that we were created, it is by the Word of God that we are sustained in existence, and it is by the Word of God that we are reconciled and redeemed, and it is by the Word of God that we will be judged. The reality to which this Word attests is the reality of every human being, prior to and independent of any recognition of it.

This is what makes missions and evangelism so desperately urgent: the church must proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God that undergirds and enfolds their existence and summons them to live in accordance with it. This is also what makes missions and evangelism possible: the church can proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God because it is already true for them, irrespective of whether or not they accept it or reject it. Certainly, the moment of decision when the Word of God confronts us is massively important, and it will bear decisively on whether we will be judged as obedient or disobedient, as believers or unbelievers, as sheep or goats. But the salient point, as Barth makes clear, is that even before our decision to believe or to disbelieve in the Word of God, that Word has already made a decision regarding us, and it is ultimately on that basis that our eternal existence has been decisively determined, and it is precisely for this reason that we must make known that decision to every human being and call them to respond with their own decision of repentance and faith.

Therefore, let us, with the apostle Paul, boldly proclaim as far and as wide as we can the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and for all, confronting all people with the reality to which they are commanded to submit, the reality of God’s judgment of the world in righteousness through the man Jesus Christ, died, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.

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[1] Karl Barth Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.161-162.

But Will It Preach?: T.F. Torrance, H.R. Mackintosh, and the Intrinsic Connection between Theology and Mission (Reformission Monday)

It comes as no surprise to readers of Reformissio that I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Among the many reasons for which I esteem him so highly, perhaps the greatest is the fact that his theological work was a means that served the greater end of his missionary vocation. Although primarily remembered and studied as an academic theologian, Torrance himself attested many times to the fact that he was fundamentally driven by an torrance-as-a-childevangelistic zeal to proclaim the gospel to the world. Indeed, as Torrance recollected, the birth of this zeal could almost be said to have coincided with his own birth to missionary parents in China:

Through my missionary parents I was imbued from my earliest days with a vivid belief in God…. Moreover, as long as I can recall my religious outlook was essentially biblical and evangelical, and indeed evangelistic…. I was deeply conscious of the task to which my parents had been called by God to preach the Gospel to heathen people and win them for Christ. This orientation to mission was built into the fabric of my mind, and has never faded – by its essential nature Christian theology has always had for me an evangelistic thrust.[1]

Elsewhere, Torrance succinctly described the primary aim and driving passion of his life in this way:

I look upon my life as dedicated to the spreading of the gospel, evangelizing in different areas of human life and thought, and I think that is undoubtedly derived from my parents and from my upbringing.[2]

What is so fascinating to me about this is that among the growing number of articles, studies, and monographs being written about Torrance today, very few have been dedicated to this area of his life and thought. Much work has been done in relation to his epistemology, his theory of hermeneutics, his dialogue with the natural sciences, his theological methodology, his retrieval of patristics, and his constructive dogmatics, particularly in the areas of trinitarian theology, Christology, and soteriology. While all of these certainly represent critical elements in Torrance’s thought, it seems to me that, in light of his own personal testimony, they are merely parts of a much bigger whole, the various branches that grew from the vine of his underlying sense of a missionary vocation. Thus, whether he was lecturing in dogmatics, or dialoguing with scientists, or surveying the course of historical theology and philosophy, his ultimate goal was to proclaim the gospel in fulfillment of the great commission to make disciples of all nations.

Alister McGrath is one scholar who has helped to bring this aspect of Torrance’s life and work to greater light. In his intellectual biography of Torrance, McGrath not only traces the development of Torrance’s sense of a missionary vocation back to his upbringing but also to the time he spent under the teaching of Hugh Ross Mackintosh at New College in Edinburgh, Scotland. As McGrath observes, Mackintosh was to prove a decisive influence in the direction that Torrance’s calling would ultimately take as a missionary theologian/theological missionary (i.e. reformissionary!):

Mackintosh envisaged a close link between theology and mission, arguing that a theology which failed to sustain and encourage a missionary or evangelistic attitude was not a theology worthy of the name. He often posed a simple question as a litmus test to some theological account of a doctrine: ‘How would that be received and understood on the mission field?’ … Mackintosh’s clear concern to relate theology and mission would have a powerful impact upon Torrance and opened the way to a new understanding of his future as a missionary.[3]

For the young Torrance, Mackintosh had a profound effect on the deep integration of theology and mission that would indelibly mark the rest of Torrance’s career. While often held apart in isolation from each other – theology confined to the domain of the l1430944844academy and mission confined to the domain of the church/missionary – Mackintosh affirmed and crystallized Torrance’s instincts regarding the intrinsic and necessary correlation between the two. For Mackintosh, a theology that does not result in mission is no theology at all. The litmus test of all theology was not only “Is it biblical?” but “Will it preach on the mission field?” On Mackintosh’s influence Torrance wrote further:

In New College I was more than ever drawn to [Mackintosh’s] deeply evangelical and missionary outlook in theology, and to his presentation of Christ and the gospel of salvation through the cross in ways that struck home so simply and directly to the conscience of sinners. Here was a theology that matched and promised to deepen that in which I had been brought up by my missionary parents. I was far from being disappointed. To study with H. R. Mackintosh was a spiritual and theological benediction, for he was above all a man of God, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. His exposition of biblical and evangelical truth in the classical tradition of the great patristic theologians and of the Reformers was as lucid as it was profound, but it was always acutely relevant, for the central thrust of the Christian message was brought to bear trenchantly and illuminatingly upon the great movements of thought that agitated the modern world. We were made to see everything in the light of the revelation of God’s infinite love and grace in Jesus Christ and of the world mission of the gospel.[4]

Here we see one of the reasons why Torrance understood all of his work, even the most scholarly and scientific, as serving his primary calling as a missionary of the gospel. As Mackintosh instilled in the young Torrance, the gospel that itself proclaimed the mission of God to the world in Jesus Christ could not be compartmentalized and safely quarantined within certain sections of the church’s faith and practice, as though “mission” was an occupation reserved for a very limited number of Christians. Neither could the gospel be sealed up within the ambiguous realm of “religion”, as though its relevance pertained only to the church and its affairs, having no bearing on science, philosophy, politics, religion, culture, society, and so on. As the revelation of the divine intention to transform all the kingdoms of the earth into the kingdom of God and of his Christ, Torrance believed that the mission of proclaiming that revelation in every earthly sphere was the indispensable and central task of every single Christian and of the church as a whole. In Christ God has set all of reality on an entirely new basis, and the message of that new reality – the new creation – was to be proclaimed far and wide, even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

This indissoluble bond between theology and mission was not one that Mackintosh merely taught as some sort of theoretical idea but was something that he himself modeled as a professor of theology. Torrance recalls that

The lectures he gave us were often a form of what St. Paul called logike latreia, “rational worship”. And they were always evangelical and redemptive in their import. Many a would-be theological student was converted in his classes, although some, as I well remember, used to get very angry for they found themselves questioned down to the bottom of their being. Mackintosh was immensely modest and never arrogant, but he left no room for compromise in the way his lectures drew us out under the searching light of the holy love of God incarnate in Christ. Mackintosh himself was so consumed with the moral passion of the Father revealed in the death of Jesus on the cross, that in his lecture-room we often felt we were in a sanctuary where the holiness and nearness of God were indistinguishable.[5]

Considering a potential chair of theology of his own, Torrance would later refuse to comply with the request to conduct his dogmatic lectures in a “dispassionate” way, and here we can see why. As he had learned from Mackintosh, theology that was truly theology could never be dispassionate, for it dealt with “the holy love of God incarnate in Christ”, proclaiming the name above all names that every tongue will one day confess and before which every knee will one day bow. If theology is the knowledge of God in Christ, then how could it ultimately aim to do anything less than summon people to anticipate that day by falling down in the present in holy reverence and adoration before the throne of God? For Mackintosh, the lecture hall was not a dry, dispassionate t-f-torrance-1946place; it was, as Torrance remembered, a “sanctuary” in which the students were drawn into a personal encounter with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This profound interweaving of theology and mission – the theology of mission and the mission of theology – would be the lodestar guiding the Torrance throughout the rest of his life.

It is for this reason that McGrath appopriately closes out his biography of Torrance by writing the following:

Perhaps this is a fitting note on which to end this account of the theological achievement of Thomas F. Torrance. His massive contributions to the discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity, to the developments of the Reformed heritage, and to the dialogue between Christian theology and the natural sciences ensure that he will be a voice to be reckoned with in the next century. Yet perhaps Torrance himself might prefer to be remembered as one who both knew and proclaimed the faithfulness of God in the midst of the uncertainties and anxieties of this world…[6]

To conclude, I would simply like to say that I write this not to exalt Torrance or Mackintosh, but to set them before us as compelling examples of how each and every Christian is called to be a theologian and a missionary, for the gospel calls us all to plumb the depths of the knowledge of God in Christ and to spread that knowledge to the uttermost reaches of the context to which he has called us. Our voice may not have the reach or influence that Torrance or Mackintosh had, but that should not matter. What matters is that we remain faithful to the task that God has laid on each one of us.

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[1] Quoted in Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), p.13.

[2] Hesselink, I.J., 1984. ‘A Pilgrimage in the School of Christ: An Interview with T.F. Torrance’ in Reformed Review 38(1), p.49.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.29-31.

[4] T.F. Torrance, “Hugh Ross Mackintosh: Theologian of the Cross” in H.R. Mackintosh, The Person of Jesus Christ. (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 200), pp.71-2.

[5] Ibid., p.75.

[6] Alister E. McGrath, TF Torrance: An Intellectual Biography. (London/New York: T&T Clark, 1999), pp.240-1.

The Triumph of the Gospel (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 14)

Revelation 14:6-7, 14-16

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”…Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.95-96, 99-100. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

Once again the apocalyptic vision is directed downward, not this time to be fascinated by the hypnotic eyes of the serpent, but to watch the Gospel at work … The Gospel is indeed the Gospel of love and comfort and all grace, because it is the Holy Creator who has in Jesus Christ in order to let the whole of human evil go over Him. It is in the preaching of the Gospel that the same God of Righteousness and Truth confronts men. This intervention in meekness and suffering is a violent and masterful force in history. It is indeed God’s almighty power, and so the Gospel is still the secret of what happens in the painting_example_chris_koelle2world. This Gospel of pure grace, which deals with men solely on the basis of the death of Christ, cuts away the ground from beneath our feet and passes a total judgment upon the world for which Christ died. Because it is the Gospel of universal forgiveness, it bears at its heart a divine judgment which is the crucial fact that determines all history, so that every crisis in human affairs falls under its action and reflects its meaning.

If the modern Church has lost the note of anguished constraint under the love of Christ, the note of desperate urgency in the evangelization of the world, it is because she has tended to detach the love of Christ from the Cross. But in the New Testament and in the faith of the early catholic Church, the Gospel of Christ crucified was brought right into the center of life and preaching so that the smouldering fires of divine judgment, the resistance of love against all that is not of love, gave to the Church’s love a stringent and irresistible constraint. It also injected elements of desperate urgency and decisiveness into all her relations with the world. The smouldering fire of divine judgment, the irresistible will of holy love against all that is unholy and unloving, is what St. Paul called the “terror of the Lord,” or what St. John calls the “wrath of the Lamb.” That is why it is impossible for the Church at any time to come to easy terms with the contemporary order, for the God of love is in her midst and by the preaching of the cross He smites the image of human empire and intervenes with mercy and truth in every form of human existence and action, economic, social, political, national, international. That is why the world is thrown into such ferment, because the Incarnation is God’s attack upon the inhumanity of man, because the Gospel of love and freedom is God’s assault upon the forms and orders of the world fashioned to serve human selfishness and greed and pride…

It is a terrifying spectacle, as it appears from the side of the angels. There is an angelic counterpart to all that happens on the earth. The Church preaches the Gospel and bears witness to Jesus Christ, but behind the human action it is a supernatural power that gives it all increase and brings it to its great fruition in the Kingdom of God. And men make war and work devastations upon the face of the earth. They unlock the mighty powers of nature and let them rage over the earth in their fury and wrath, but behind all that there is a supernatural hand thrusting in the sickle of judgment, for it is a matter of life and death, of the kingdoms of this world, and the Kingdom of God and His Christ. It is thus that the Apocalypse teaches us to look behind the outward facade of earthly events in Church and nation, in peace and war, in age after age. We see ripening throughout them all the moment of harvest when at last God will utterly divide the right from the wrong, the truth from the falsehood, the wheat from the tares, when all evil and unrighteousness, all suffering and death, and all that is imperfect and corruptible shall utterly pass away, and the perfect and the holy and all that serves the love of God shall endure.

Reformation As War: The Story of One Man’s Awakening to the Reality of Spiritual Opposition (Reformission Monday)

I recently finished reading a challenging, disturbing, but ultimately rewarding book appropriately entitled The Awakening. I say “appropriately entitled” for two reasons. First, it recounts the story of Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a nineteenth-century German pastor, and his “awakening” to the spiritual war in which he found himself but of which he had been unaware and in which he had thus remained ineffectual. Second, by recounting Blumhardt’s efforts to bring revival and reformation (i.e. reformission) to the small German town of Möttlingen, it also serves to awaken the reader to the reality that all who engage in such ministry must face. In the book’s introduction, Günter Krüger provides a synopsis of Blumhardt’s “awakening”, subsequent “fight”, and ultimate victory:

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, into a long line of Swabian craftsmen, Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) read the entire Bible twice by the time he was twelve, and the rest of his life bore the imprint of its message. Though his early devotion never faltered, he began to wonder even in his youth why the power of the gospel seemed so limited in the present day. If the Bible was truly the living word of God, he wondered, why was God’s nearness so hard to perceive in the world around him? Where was the spirit that had animated the first believers in the apostolic era?

In the summer of 1838 Blumhardt, now thirty-three, … took on the pastorate at the nearby village of Möttlingen. Möttlingen and its affiliated parish, Haugstett, were among the poorest in the region. When Blumhardt arrived, a crippling spiritual lethargy lay over the whole congregation. Pastor Barth, Blumhardt’s immediate blumhardt100predecessor and a brilliant preacher, complained bitterly to him that the parish seemed preached to death; people were fed up with the gospel, and if some still attended church, most of them slept in their seats. The entire town seemed to be held in a sleepy thrall.

Beginning in the fall of 1841, Blumhardt was drawn into a spiritual struggle that he referred to for the rest of his life as “the fight.” At first he tried to keep a cautious distance from it, but it soon became obvious that he would not be able to stay uninvolved. Gottliebin Dittus, a young woman from a pious Möttlingen family who had once been Pastor Barth’s favorite pupil, was regarded in her village as a “God-fearing” member of the parish. At the same time she was known, ever since her childhood, to have suffered recurring nervous disorders and various other maladies, including inexplicable attacks not unlike epileptic seizures. Repulsed by her peculiar behavior, Blumhardt kept his distance from her. He would come when summoned during her worst attacks, but he went reluctantly, feeling that her case was no task for him as a pastor. Village physician Dr. Späth, on the other hand, argued that Gottliebin’s disorders were beyond the scope of his medical knowledge, if not symptomatic of supernatural forces at work. It was on this account that Blumhardt finally agreed to observe the woman.

Before long [Blumhardt] was so deeply involved in Gottliebin’s struggle that no one could hold him back. For one thing, he was ashamed at the thought of conceding power to the darkness affecting her. Moreover, he pitied her. Little did he know that he had embarked on an uncharted journey of the most bizarre kind and entered a battle so intense that it would demand all of his energies for the next two years. Though the echoes of this battle reverberated for the rest of Blumhardt’s life, he tended to play it down whenever he was asked about it in later years, insisting that it was not the struggle itself but its aftermath that was really significant. This aftermath was a remarkable movement that arose soon after the conclusion of Blumhardt’s fight. An unprecedented “awakening” of repentance that swept his entire parish like a wave, it soon spread beyond Möttlingen to neighboring villages and towns throughout the Black Forest…

Modern minds tend to deny or ignore the very existence of satanic forces, let alone their hold on specific individuals. Blumhardt felt that this skepticism trivializes the reality of evil….

As soon as one tells a bible story with a phrase like “Then he cast out the demon…” people tune out; they dismiss it as religious nonsense. They do this because they cannot recognize any capacity for evil, any wretchedness in themselves. If we are not aware of human wretchedness, we cannot appreciate the Savior’s role in the kingdom of God, which means the end for Satan…And it will come to that! If we already have power to overcome evils, is that not enough reason to believe that God is beginning to take up his reign?

Blumhardt’s insights have great relevance today…For Blumhardt, the only acceptable tools were the “pure weapons of prayer and the word of God.” The building up of the church in Möttlingen did not begin with preaching but, as he put it, with struggle, prayer, and finally, victory over “personalities of darkness.”[1]

There is much more to this story than what is summarized here, and I can only recommend reading the book in its entirety to discover all the incredible things that occurred during Blumhardt’s ministry in Möttlingen. My purpose in reproducing this snapshot here is to make a simple point: reformation (or, as the case may be, reformission) is war. Not, of course, war “against flesh and blood”, as Paul would remind us in Ephesians 6:12, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.

The reality of this war is graphically illustrated in the example of Johann Blumhardt, whose hard-fought struggle against the demonic forces oppressing a young woman in his parish ultimately led to the veil of blindness being lifted from the entire town and region. Although initially hesitant to involve himself in “the fight”, as he called it, Blumhardt came to realize that the real reason why the people in Möttlingen seemed so cold and indifferent – dead even – to the preaching of the gospel was due to the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” which could not be opposed except by wielding “the pure weapons of prayer and the word of God”.

Note well: the Word of God and prayer. It is not that Blumhardt and his predecessor had neglected to preach; indeed they had not! Rather, Blumhardt discovered that when he preached, the gospel remained “veiled to those who are perishing” for “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” (2 Cor. 4:3). Had not Blumhardt awakened to the nature of the enemy and of his hold over the people of Möttlingen, and had he not fully given himself over to battle that enemy, consciously and directly, not only with the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, but also with much prayer and fasting, he would likely never have seen the greater awakening which eventually took place, an awakening that resulted in the most awesome demonstration of the power of God to pierce the darkness and lift the blinding veil from the eyes of large numbers of people so that they could see the glory of Christ in the gospel.

As I reflect on this with respect to my own calling and ministry, I must confess that, although I give lip service to the reality of spiritual warfare, the resolve of the enemy, and the necessity of prayer, I have not been as conscious of nor direct in engaging in the battle of prayer as I should be. From the opening words of the book, I could identify with Blumhardt’s frustration: I am convinced that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, yet I don’t see much fruit as I share it, teach it, and preach it. Why is that? Perhaps the story of Blumhardt’s awakening is stirring an awakening in myself, bringing me to the realization that the god of this world is indeed blinding the minds of those to whom I am ministering in Italy, and that this kind of spiritual battle cannot be won “by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). Indeed, was not that the problem to which Jesus alerted his disciples when they could not cast out the demon in Mark 9?

Truly, truly, the battle of reformission cannot be won through study, writing, teaching, and preaching alone (something that I as a theologian-type naturally gravitate toward). Hearts will not be changed, churches will not be revived, faith will luther-inkwell-4not be reformed and rekindled until the spiritual hosts of wickedness are confronted through prayer. For anyone with an understanding of the Reformation, this should not come as any surprise, as Clinton Arnold points out:

Satan and his forces fiercely pursue their objective of promulgating all forms of evil in the world. This includes, above all, deceiving people and hindering them from grasping the truth about God’s revelation of himself in the Lord Jesus Christ. But it also includes working to bring about the demise of the church through inciting moral evils among its members. This understanding of the devil and his work was central to the Reformation. Heiko Oberman, Reformation scholar and biographer of Martin Luther, has observed that for Luther the precious truth that “God is for us” directly implies that “the devil is against us.” He goes on to note that belief in the devil’s opposition to Christ and the gospel “is such an integral part of the Reformation discovery that if the reality of the powers inimical to God is not grasped, the incarnation of Christ, as well as the justification and temptation of the sinner are reduced to ideas of the mind rather than experiences of faith.”[2]

So following the example of Luther and Blumhardt, let us devote ourselves more than ever before to the hard labor and costly warfare (it is hard and costly!) of incessant prayer, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph. 6:18) that the god of this world might be thwarted in his efforts and that those under his blinding spell might be liberated to see the glory of Christ in the gospel. And in so doing, may God be pleased to bring about another powerful awakening in our day and place as he did in nineteenth-century Möttlingen.

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[1] Günter Krüger, ‘Introduction’ in The Awakening: One Man’s Battle with Darkness by Friedrich Zuendel, (Rifton: The Plough Publishing House, 2000), pp.xiii-xviii

[2] Clinton E. Arnold. 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Three Crucial Questions) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), (Kindle Locations 300-307).

The Mystery of Iniquity (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 13)

Revelation 13:1, 5-10

And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads … And the beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. If anyone has an ear, let him hear: If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.88-90)

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Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation

Surely this is the Word of God to us out of this chapter. There is such a seething evil in the sea of humanity that no matter how much we try to give Christian shape to this world apart from Christ Himself, all that we may do is to give a fresh disposition to the forces of evil among men. Sooner or later that latent evil will break out through the surface and reveal itself in bestial form and all the world will be aghast at it. It will hypnotize them and fascinate them until they are thoroughly deceived.

Let us make no mistake. No amount of reshuffling can put a truly Christian shape on the world. No amount of international discussion, no amount of diplomatic arrangements, no United Nations policy can really imprint a Christian pattern and character upon the world apart from the Gospel of salvation. If the nations do not give Christ pre-eminence, they are bound to fail in their efforts for peace. They may succeed for a time. They may erect a semblance of Christian rule among the peoples of the earth. They may appear to imprint the lineaments of the Kingdom of God upon the races of humanity. All that can be done apart from Jesus Christ is to give a fresh disposition to unbelief, to give organic and subtle shape to human evil and pride and selfishness. Thus in due time even so-called Christian organizations may easily reveal themselves as part of a many-headed monster of evil, the more monstrous because it is world-wide and bears Christian similitude… Our Lord warned us that whenever people say, “Here is the Kingdom of God,” or “There is the Kingdom of God,” not to believe them, for the Kingdom of God does not come with observation. It would be blasphemy to confound the Kingdom of God with the bestial images of world power.

We must learn, therefore, not to put our trust in any human image, no matter how marvellous and how Christian it may appear to be. Let us not drag the Kingdom of God down to the patterns and politics of this strange evil world. Let us rather hold fast to the Word of God, the Word that promises a new heaven and a new earth. As yet the Kingdom of God is invisible, unobservable, except to the eye of faith, but God is working. We may understand but little of God’s strange work in history. All that we are able to see may be the beastly shapes of human pride and lust for power rampant in the earth, but one day these weird and crooked patterns will pass away and the promise of God will be revealed as perfectly fulfilled.

That applies to our own heart and life as well. Let us not confuse the Kingdom of God with this or that image or pattern in our own life. Our life is hid with Christ in God. The day will come, said Jesus, when we shall learn the truth about ourselves and about the world and we shall be surprised. But we must keep our eyes fixed entirely upon Him. He is the only Image of God, and the true Image of man. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Author and the Finisher of our faith, the Creator and the Redeemer of the world. What He has purposed in Creation will not be thwarted. He will redeem it from all its sin and evil. It is only in Jesus Christ that we may discern the truth. He is the guarantee of faith, that the evils forms and perverted patterns of this world shall utterly pass away and at last the human heart, the society and the world in which He lived, will take their full imprint and character from the image of Jesus Christ alone.

The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

In talking with someone about my recent post on why a commitment to universal atonement, at least as articulated by T.F. Torrance, does not entail a corresponding commitment to universal salvation, I was reminded of how counterintuitive this seems, especially to those coming from a background in traditional Reformed soteriology. Although not stating it in quite these terms, I explained that far from necessitating universalism, Torrance’s understanding of universal atonement actually necessitates the very opposite! To many, such as the person with whom I was conversing, this statement appears to be highly paradoxical, if not utterly incoherent. It seems that if we affirm universal atonement, then we are either forced to affirm universalism or fall back into a libertarian notion of free will. If we reject both of these options, then, so the reasoning goes, we are left only with the possibility of affirming limited atonement and its corresponding view of limited predestination.

While this post may not clear up all of the confusion, I would like to offer what I hope will be a further clarification of this issue. This time, my point of reference will be Karl Barth who, in the first half volume of his Church Dogmatics writes:

[It is not] faith that puts in effect all that the Word of God tells us. Faith too, and faith especially, is faith in Jesus Christ. It is thus the recognition and confirmation that God’s Word was already in effect even before we believed and quite apart from our believing. Faith particularly—and this is the element of truth in the older Lutheran 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cdoctrine of the [efficacy of the Word apart from its appropriation]—lives by the power which is power before faith and without faith. It lives by the power which gives faith itself its object, and in virtue of this object its very existence.

Baptism was instituted for this reason, as a sign of this true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.[1]

Let me try and unpack Barth’s reasoning. First, Barth asserts that when the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, comes to us whether in written or spoken form, it is not our act of faith that “activates” its power so as to make it true. What the gospel proclaims is true, apart from and prior to our act of faith. As Paul argued in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, the fact that many people are blind to the light shining in the face of Christ does nothing to detract from that light’s brilliance. Just like the sun, the light of Christ revealed in the gospel shines on us, whether we are able to see it or not. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is, as Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:36, the Lord of all, whether or not they acknowledge him as such. The fact that not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord in the present does not mean that Jesus is not actually the Lord, even their Lord, the one to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth.

Now, Barth continues, if the gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all people independent of their awareness or submission to him, then this means that they are implicated in the sovereign decision that God has made concerning the final destination toward which all of human history is directed. That is to say, the decisive event that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is determinative for all human beings. As Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

The gospel is God’s command that “all people everywhere repent”, a command that, in contrast with the “times of ignorance” characterizing history prior to the coming of Christ, now confronts every human being precisely on account of the death and resurrection of Christ. Leading up to the final judgment, this gospel is a “fragrance from life to life” for those who are saved is the same gospel that is also “a fragrance from death to death” for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Note well: the destiny of the latter is not determined by a power different from the one that determines the destiny of the former; both result from an encounter with the objective reality of the lordship of Christ which the gospel proclaims to all. Jesus is Lord of all people, and thus the destiny of all people is inextricably bound up with him, whether they acknowledge it or not.

With this understanding in place, Barth moves on to describe the actual moment of decision: what then accounts for the division between those who are saved and those who are perishing? It is not that God has decided positively for some and negatively for the rest, for the gospel’s proclamation of the universal lordship of Christ means that the same decision has been rendered for all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess in one way or another. Rather, Barth offers an asymmetric account of the point of division between the two groups: those who hear the gospel and believe simply confirm the reality of the decision that God has made concerning them. This is not a “free” choice in the sense that it can ultimately be traced to an autonomous decision on the human side; it is simply what we would normally expect when those who are under God’s decision in Christ are confronted with this fact through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding explanation for why the rest refuse to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over them. It is a mystery because in Christ God has negated sin, condemning it in the flesh of the one who was made in likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). There is no rational, logical explanation for why Christ’s subjects do not subject themselves to him but rather resist and rebel. When this occurs, therefore, their refusal to repent cannot be described as a “free” choice either, in the sense that they have simply chosen between two equal possibilities. Because the gospel comes as a command with the infinite weight of the authority of God, there is only one conceivable option when it confronts us: repent and believe as God has commanded. The “choice” to do the opposite is not truly a possibility that exists on the same level; hence it is asymmetric. Thus when people make this incomprehensible choice, they do not show that they are free but only unfree, enslaved to the sin that has been negated at the cross, having their minds blinded by the god of this world to keep them from seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3).

Thus, whether we consider those who are saved or those who are perishing, in neither case do we have a situation in which the determinative factor is either that 1) God has positively decided for the salvation of one group while deciding for the damnation (or at least passing over) the rest, or that 2) the people confronted by the gospel have simply exercised their free will. Rather, both those who are saved and those who are perishing respond, for reasons that cannot be correlated, on the basis of the prior decision of God in Christ. Those who respond in faith have merely done that which corresponds to God’s prior decision for them, whereas those who respond in rebellion have merely done that which a mind blinded and enslaved by the god of this world are capable of doing. Undergirding all of this is the gospel’s proclamation that the destiny of every single human being has been decisively determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, an objective fact that lays upon every human being the necessity to repent and believe. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, it is the universal scope of that which the gospel proclaims that creates the crisis of decision to which all people are called, giving rise to the “impossible possibility” that many will refuse and thus consign themselves to eternal damnation.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.154.