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).

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“Nothing Other Than Sheer Life”: Martin Luther on Preparing to Die (1519)

In 1519, Martin Luther preached a sermon in which he offered counsel on the importance and manner of preparing to die. This message has become particularly relevant to me in light of the passing of a dear family member. In a day and age in which we try to shield ourselves as much as possible from death and dying, Luther’s exhortation to begin to prepare for death — even at a young age (as Luther was when he preached this sermon) — may seem a bit morbid and morose. I think, however, that Luther’s exhortation is wise counsel indeed, even if it makes us uncomfortable. Whether we like it or not, we will all die (barring, of course, the return of Christ), and since we know not the day of our death, it behoves us all to prepare ourselves for it. Are we not, after all, called by Jesus to take up cross and die daily as we follow him?

What follows is an excerpt from Luther’s sermon highlighting the centrality that he placed on Christ as our only hope in life and death. When we walk, or prepare to walk, through the valley of the shadow of death, the light of our path will be knowing that in Christ crucified and risen again we find “nothing other than sheer life”. It is Christ’s victory over death, and this alone, that can adequately prepare us for our dying day.

[S]ince everyone must depart, we must turn our eyes to God, to whom the path of death leads and directs us. Here we find the beginning of the narrow gate and of the straight path to life [Matt. 7:14]. All must joyfully venture forth on this path, for though the gate is quite narrow, the path is not long. Just as an infant is born with peril and pain from the small abode of its mother’s womb into this immense heaven and earth, that is, into this world, so man departs this life through the narrow gate of death. And although the heavens and the earth in which we dwell at present seem large and wide to us, they are nevertheless much narrower and smaller than the mother’s womb in comparison with the future heaven. Therefore, the death of the dear saints is called a new birth, and their feast day is known in Latin as natale, that is, the day of their birth. However, the narrow passage of death makes us think of this life as expansive and the life beyond as confined. Therefore, we must believe this and learn a lesson from the physical birth of a child, as Christ declares, “When a deathPortraitofLutherwoman is in travail she has sorrow; but when she has recovered, she no longer remembers the anguish, since a child is born by her into the world” [John 16:21]. So it is that in dying we must bear this anguish and know that a large mansion and joy will follow [John 14:2]….

Death looms so large and is terrifying because our foolish and fainthearted nature has etched its image too vividly within itself and constantly fixes its gaze on it. Moreover, the devil presses man to look closely at the gruesome mien and image of death to add to his worry, timidity, and despair. Indeed, he conjures up before man’s eyes all the kinds of sudden and terrible death ever seen, heard, or read by man. And then he also slyly suggests the wrath of God with which he [the devil] in days past now and then tormented and destroyed sinners. In that way he fills our foolish human nature with the dread of death while cultivating a love and concern for life, so that burdened with such thoughts man forgets God, flees and abhors death, and thus, in the end, is and remains disobedient to God. We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move….

You must look at death while you are alive and see sin in the light of grace and hell in the light of heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view. Adhere to that even if all angels, all creatures, yes, even your own thoughts, depict God in a different light—something these will not do…. [Y]ou must not view or ponder death as such, not in yourself or in your nature, nor in those who were killed by God’s wrath and were overcome by death. If you do that you will be lost and defeated with them. But you must resolutely turn your gaze, the thoughts of your heart, and all your senses away from this picture and look at death closely and untiringly only as seen in those who died in God’s grace and who have overcome death, particularly in Christ and then also in all his saints.

In such pictures death will not appear terrible and gruesome. No, it will seem contemptible and dead, slain and overcome in life. For Christ is nothing other than sheer life, as his saints are likewise. The more profoundly you impress that image upon your heart and gaze upon it, the more the image of death will pale and vanish of itself without struggle or battle. Thus your heart will be at peace and you will be able to die calmly in Christ and with Christ, as we read in Revelation [14:13], “Blessed are they who die in the Lord Christ.” This was foreshown in Exodus 21[Num. 21:6–9], where we hear that when the children of Israel were bitten by fiery serpents they did not struggle with these serpents, but merely had to raise their eyes to the dead bronze serpent and the living ones dropped from them by themselves and perished. Thus you must concern yourself solely with the death of Christ and then you will find life. But if you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish. This is why Christ says, “In the world—that is, in yourselves—you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” [John 16:33]….

[Y]ou must not look at sin in sinners, or in your conscience, or in those who abide in sin to the end and are damned. If you do, you will surely follow them and also be overcome. You must turn your thoughts away from that and look at sin only within the picture of grace. Engrave that picture in yourself with all your power and keep it before your eyes. The picture of grace is nothing else but that of Christ on the cross and of all his dear saints.

How is that to be understood? Grace and mercy are there where Christ on the cross takes your sin from you, bears it for you, and destroys it. To believe this firmly, to keep it before your eyes and not to doubt it, means to view the picture of Christ and to engrave it in yourself. Likewise, all the saints who suffer and die in Christ also bear your sins and suffer and labor for you, as we find it written, “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the command of Christ” [Gal. 6:2]. Christ himself exclaims in Matthew 11[:28], “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will help you.” In this way you may view your sins in safety without tormenting your conscience. Here sins are never sins, for here they are overcome and swallowed up in Christ. He takes your death upon himself and strangles it so that it may not harm you, if you believe that he does it for you and see your death in him and not in yourself. Likewise, he also takes your sins upon himself and overcomes them with his righteousness out of sheer mercy, and if you believe that, your sins will never work you harm. In that way Christ, the picture of life and of grace over against the picture of death and sin, is our consolation. Paul states that in 1 Corinthians 15[:57], “Thanks and praise be to God, who through Christ gives us the victory over sin and death.”…

So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell [1 Pet. 3:19] for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure. If you concern yourself solely with that and believe that it was done for you, you will surely be preserved in this same faith. Never, therefore, let
this be erased from your vision. Seek yourself only in Christ and not in yourself and you will find yourself in him eternally…. He is the living and immortal image against
death, which he suffered, yet by his resurrection from the dead he vanquished death in his life. He is the image of the grace of God against sin, which he assumed, 613b7272dfd5cefc7d4e07ea48712bbdand yet overcame by his perfect obedience. He is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe….

[W]hat more should God do to persuade you to accept death willingly and not to dread but to overcome it? In Christ he offers you the image of life, of grace, and of salvation so that you may not be horrified by the images of sin, death, and hell. Furthermore, he lays your sin, your death, and your hell on his dearest Son, vanquishes them, and renders them harmless for you. In addition, he lets the trials of sin, death, and hell that come to you also assail his Son and teaches you how to preserve yourself in the midst of these and how to make them harmless and bearable. And to relieve you of all doubt, he grants you a sure sign, namely, the holy sacraments. He commands his angels, all saints, all creatures to join him in watching over you, to be concerned about your soul, and to receive it. He commands you to ask him for this and to be assured of fulfillment. What more can or should he do?

From this you can see that he is a true God and that he performs great, right, and divine works for you. Why, then, should he not impose something big upon you (such as dying), as long as he adds to it great benefits, help, and strength, and thereby wants to test the power of his grace. Thus we read in Psalm 111[:2], “Great are the works of the Lord, selected according to his pleasure.” Therefore, we ought to thank him with a joyful heart for showing us such wonderful, rich, and immeasurable grace and mercy against death, hell, and sin, and to laud and love his grace rather than fearing death so greatly. Love and praise make dying very much easier, as God tells us through Isaiah, “For the sake of my praise I restrain it [wrath] for you, that I may not cut you off.” To that end may God help us. Amen.

[Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition, W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), 392-402.]

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.

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).

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 21: Irresistible Grace (The Logic of Hell)

In this final post on reforming Calvinism’s doctrine of irresistible grace, I arrive at a burning question—perhaps the burning question—that constitutes for many the deal-breaker when it comes to an evangelical reworking of Reformed soteriology. With its emphasis on the “one-for-all” dynamic of Christ’s person and work (i.e. in Christ all people are represented in his election, incarnation, and atonement), it seems to imply, if not downright demand, the heresy of final universal salvation. Is this indeed the ultimate defeater of the revised form of Calvinism that I have been advocating throughout this series?

I can think of no better response to this question than the one that T.F. Torrance gives in his introduction the Reformed confessions and catechisms in The School of Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp.cxiii-cxvi). Torrance writes (and I quote at length):

If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means that the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God go back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation crucified5and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself?

That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all that He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.

All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand; that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.

This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalising of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it.

Words and thoughts fail us when we try to think like this. We can only stammer for we hardly know what we say, but must we not ask what is the relation of Christ of those who ultimately refuse Him? And since we cannot think it out to the end, if only because the end, the eschaton, is still to come, must we not yet say, that ultimate refusal of Christ cannot undo the fact that the sinner was made brother to Christ by His Incarnation, and bought with the blood of Christ, and in that He died for him and even rose again for him, must we not also say that when he stands before God at the final judgement it is what Christ has done for him that raises him to judgement? Such implications may baffle us until we clap our hands upon our mouth, but whichever way we turn we are still faced with the inescapable fact that the Incarnation and the Cross involve the being of all men, so that they have their humanity only from Him.

This is certainly a dense offering from Torrance, one that alone warrants a book-length treatment to expound all of its underpinnings, nuances, and implications. Nevertheless, I only want to add a couple of comments in conclusion. First, Torrance helps us to see that far from leading to universalism, the universal scope of the incarnation and the atonement is actually the only way to make sense of the stark reality of an eternal hell. Most other explanations either seem to make God out to be cruel and unjust, or they elevate God’s justice to the point of stripping him of his other essential perfections such as mercy, grace, compassion, and love. Torrance’s account, on the other hand, provides a compelling logic for hell’s reality and eternality. It is precisely because God has bound himself to all humanity in virtue of his loving assumption of that humanity in the incarnation of his Son that none can simply slip into non-existence (or be annihilated). The Word became flesh so that this could never happen! Therefore, God could no more permit the dissolution or effect the annihilation of anyone than he could, as Torrance says, undo the incarnation itself. What is more, the atonement that Christ carried out in his state of incarnation (thus implying its universal scope) demonstrates the infinite measure of the love of the God who pledged his very self in death for the sake of humanity. Those who reject this omnipotent love can only, as Torrance states, “shatter themselves” against the love that will not let them go. In rejecting the love of God in Christ, they find themselves on the shadow side of the cross where they are rejected by the love that opposes all that is opposed to it.

Second, Torrance dislodges the mystery of damnation from some mysterious, hidden pretemporal decree and relocates it to its proper place: in the mystery of sin. This is “the enigma of Judas”, an incomprehensible rejection of the love of God that was first displayed in the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel in Eden. There is no satisfying way to explain how or why Adam and Eve rebelled, and likewise there is no satisfying way to explain how or why anyone else would, or will forever, reject the love of God in Christ. Sin is by nature irrational, and thus it is by definition impossible to find a rationale for it. If we could rationally explain sin, then we would empty sin of the very thing that makes it what it is. We can only, as Torrance cautions, “stand aghast” and “clap our hands upon our mouth”. While this will certainly not satisfy those who press for tidy logical systems, it is the only answer that can be given when we peer into the bottomless pit of evil, of what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2 the “mystery of iniquity”. What we must not do is strip the incarnation and the atonement from its full range and power in the attempt to rationalize that which is ultimately irrational.

All this to say, the question of universalism should not stand in the way of reforming Calvinism!

The Wrath of the Lamb (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 16)

 Revelation 16:1-17

Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, “Just are you, O Holy One,  who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!” And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments!” The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds. The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty…And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.106-9. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

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Let us take care to note that these angels are clothed in pure and white linen, and have their breasts girded with golden girdles. This means that the wrath which they are about to pour out upon the earth is a pure and sinless wrath, priestly in its function and golden in its integrity, quite unlike the wrath of man…Moreover it is a judgment that proceeds out of the innermost part of the Temple, out of the Holy of Holies which enshrines God’s Testimony, His inviolable Word. But let us not forget that the Commandments of God in that Holy of Holies are all covered with the tender mercy of God…Once a year on the great Day of Atonement, the High Priest, girded much as these angels were, offered sacrifice and slipped through the veil that screened the inner shrine from public view…With confession of sin and the pleading of sacrifice the High Priest received the atonement and brought word back to the waiting congregation. “It is finished! It is done! God has judged the sin and forgiven His people!”…

So it is at Calvary. There we see the sacrifice of the Lamb who was also the High Priest. The veil is torn in twain from the top to the bottom, and the Mediator enters through the thick darkness of the world’s guilt and God’s holy judgment, into the heart of the mystery and makes atonement. We hear the triumphant voice: “It is finished! Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” but we cannot fathom the awful depth of the suffering behind those dread words: “…My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me?”…But here we do see something of the horror of great darkness that pressed with such crushing weight upon the Spirit of our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane, and of the bitterness of the cup which He drank to the very dregs, being made a curse for us. As vial after vial of wrath is poured out upon the earth, the sea, and the air in sevenfold fulness until at last there comes a great voice out of the Holy of Holies, and from the Throne of mercy, saying, “It is done!” – surely it is intended that we should understand in all that something of the unmitigated darkness and agony of Golgotha. If God must at last pour out such wrath upon inveterate and defiant godlessness, it is a wrath at the cost of infinite agony to Himself. It is His voice that John hears from the throne of mercy, and it is at His bidding that these pure angels pour out their vials upon the earth…

One after another the whole kingdom of the beast is smitten with divine judgment, until at last the whole trinity of hideous wickedness – the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet – is roused from its lair to gather the forces of the wide world to do battle against God Almighty. That is an organization of forces on a universal scale in which all that is anti-God reaches out to its limit of arrogant defiance…But it shall never be! The meek and gentle Jesus, the Lamb of God, shall come forth to Armageddon as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, for the purpose of His love shall not fail. The voice that went up in exultant suffering from Calvary shall ring out again in final triumph over all: “It is finished!” And He shall reign for ever and ever, the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The Wrath of God’s Holy Love (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 15)

Revelation 15:1-4

Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished. And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.103-4. Artwork by Chris Koelle, The Book of Revelation)

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After the third interlude comes the last series of seven plagues, called this time the seven vials of wrath…Only when we take [these three series of calamities] together can we see in proper dimension the unfolding of world events as the fierce attempt of pride to gain the mastery over the world, an attempt which shatters itself upon the wrath of God’s holy love. When the seven seals were broken, we found ourselves looking at the course of history, and at first it was difficult to say whether the events were of God or of the devil, but more and more there appeared the contours of planned evil in it all. When the seven trumpets blew, we discovered that behind the outward fashion of history and all its parade of evil powers, the real forces were quite different, the power of the Cross, the Word of God, the prayers of the saints, and the prayers of God’s people. Now we see that, shot through them all, are the judgments of God upon the defiant pride of godlessness. From this angle the history of the world is seen to be the history of God’s judgment upon it.

In order to make that quite clear we are given in the short fifteenth chapter a vision which places us in the right perspective to see the outpouring of divine wrath. It is as though St. John would say: Only from the angle of triumphant thankfulness can we look upon destructive judgment. There is indeed no judgment of divine wrath that is purely destructive in its intention, but lest we should think so, we must get God’s angle of vision, see the wrath from His side, and learn that throughout all is the purpose of love and redemption. That may be difficult for us to do as long as we are earth bound and can only look out with fear and terror upon the judgments that shatter the earth. But this vision is given in order to teach us that while our view is distorted by proximity to the terrible things, that view is the true one which the redeemed have who look down upon it all and burst into thankfulness and praise.

The significant fact here is the sea of glass mingle with fire…: of glass, because the judgments of God are crystal clear and they pierce down to the dark depths of iniquity and nothing is hidden from its searching light: mingled with fire, for our God is a consuming fire in the passion of His holy love, and at last all the sin of humanity that has gone to the making of the anarchy and wickedness that have covered the earth will perish for ever in the heat of the burning. But this is the fire that consumes and yet does not consume away, for ti is the fire of holy love that burns the dross and refines the silver. At last we shall have again the vision of a crystal sea perfectly reflecting in its unsullied transparence the pure love of the heavenly Father.

Between God and the Devil: Martin Luther on Waging Spiritual War in the Ministry of the Gospel

In a post entitled “Reformation as War” in which I discussed spiritual warfare as a somewhat neglected aspect of Reformation history, I included a brief reference taken from another source to Heiko Oberman and his portrayal of Luther as spiritual warrior in his book Luther: Man between God and the Devil. After writing that post I was hungry for more from Oberman, so I acquired my own copy of his book in eager anticipation of reading further about Luther’s spiritual battles. Oberman did not disappoint, and what I read was so interesting that I thought it would make for an excellent follow-up to my previous post. Here is what Oberman recounts:

In all modern classroom and textbook treatments of Luther, the Devil is reduced to an abstraction: be he a figment of mind or time. Thus the Evil One, as a medieval remnant, can be exorcised from the core of Luther’s experience, life, and thought…

Luther’s world of thought is wholly distorted and apologetically misconstrued if his conception of the Devil is dismissed as a medieval phenomenon and only his faith in Christ is retained as relevant or as the only decisive factor. Christ and the Devil were equally real to him: one was the perpetual intercessor for Christianity, the other a menace to mankind till the end. To argue that Luther never overcame the medieval belief in the Devil says far too little; he even intensified it and lent to it additional urgency: Christ and Satan wage a cosmic war for mastery over Church and world. No one dsc00808can evade involvement in this struggle. Even for the believer there is no refuge—neither monastery nor the seclusion of the wilderness offer him a chance for escape…

There is no way to grasp Luther’s milieu of experience and faith unless one has an acute sense of his view of Christian existence between God and the Devil: without a recognition of Satan’s power, belief in Christ is reduced to an idea about Christ—and Luther’s faith becomes a confused delusion in keeping with the tenor of his time. Attempts are made to offer excuses for Luther by pointing out that he never doubted the omnipotence of God and thus determined only narrow limits for the Devil’s activities. Luther himself would have been outraged at this view: the omnipotent God is indeed real, but as such hidden from us. Faith reaches not for God hidden but for God revealed, who, incarnate in Christ, laid Himself open to the Devil’s fury…. To Luther Christmas was the central feast: “God for us.” But that directly implies “the Devil against us.”

This new belief in the Devil 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. That is what Luther’s battle against the Devil meant to convey. Centuries separate Luther from a modern world which has renounced and long since exorcised the Devil, thus finding it hard to see the difference between this kind of religion and medieval witchcraft. But Luther distinguished sharply between faith and superstition. He understood the hellish fears of his time, then discovered in the Scriptures the true thrust and threat of Satan and experienced himself the Devil’s trials and temptations. Consequently he, unlike any theologian before or after him, was able to disperse the fog of witches’ sabbath and sorcery and show the adversary for what he really was: violent toward God, man, and the world…

The following chronicle of his own encounter with the Devil as a poltergeist has a clearly medieval ring:

It is not a unique, unheard-of thing for the Devil to thump about and haunt houses. In our monastery in Wittenberg I heard him distinctly. For when I began to lecture on the Book of Psalms and I was sitting in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times in the storage chamber [the area behind the stove] as if dragging a bushel away. Finally, as it did not want to stop, I collected my books and went to bed. I still regret to this hour that I did not sit him out, to discover what else the Devil wanted to do. I also heard him once over my chamber in the monastery.

The final passage, with its pointed formulation and its underlying expression of contempt for the Devil, was amazing at the time and is overlooked today: “But when I realized that it was Satan, I rolled over and went back to sleep again.” It is not as a poltergeist that the Devil discloses his true nature, but as the adversary who thwarts the Word of God; only then is he really to be feared. He seeks to capture the conscience, can quote the Scriptures without fault, and is more pious than God—that is satanical.

When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already know that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins—not fabricated and invented ones—for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ. This wonderful gift of God I am not prepared to deny [in my response to the Devil], but want to acknowledge and confess…

Many of these stories come from Luther’s Table Talk, the collection of his conversations with dinner guests…Luther’s recollections do not have the function of self-glorification, nor do they look back to the “good old days” of a man who is getting on in years. As a rule they have a point to make: the reporting of battles past is to instruct and prepare the younger generations for the prospect of the fierce opposition which will always threaten the preaching of the Gospel.[1]

The tendency that Oberman identifies — the tendency to minimize or overlook this particular aspect of Luther’s life and work as a Reformer — is one that is not limited to purely secular circles. As Christians, we are also susceptible to cultural, scientific, and philosophical influences that would lead us to pay little attention to the reality of the spiritual war in which we, just like Luther, are engaged. This does not mean that we deny the existence of the enemy, it is just that we can tend to underestimate the ferocity with which he labors to undermine any effort to preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. While they may sound a bit strange to modern ears, Luther’s own testimonials of his scuffles with the devil are a stark reminder of this reality. As Paul stated in Ephesians 6:11-13:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, 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.

These spiritual forces of evil are real, and the fiery darts that they continually shoot do perhaps more damage than we are aware. This is not to give them too much credit, but rather to wake us up to the reality of the battle in which we are always engaged, whether we want to be or not. This is why Paul continued by exhorting the Ephesians (6:18-19) to

keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.

In light of our warfare, we must pray, pray, pray, and then pray some more! If Paul needed prayer “with all perseverance” in order to open his mouth boldly to proclaim the gospel, how could we think that could get by with anything less? Our adversary prowls like a roaring lion, seeking to destroy and devour any effort to proclaim the gospel, to blind people to the light which threatens to dispel this present darkness. So brothers and sisters, let us pray indeed with all perseverance that through the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth the kingdom might come and the will of God might be done on earth as in heaven. And let us be constantly prepared, dressed in the full armor of God, to do battle with the spiritual forces of evil, because “where Christ is present, the adversary is never far away”.[2] Yet let us also take heart, for as Luther quipped: “When the Devil harasses us, then we know ourselves to be in good shape!”[3]

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[1] Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2006), pp.104-6.

[2] Ibid., p.106

[3] Ibid.

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.

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.