“This Grim Fire I Fear Not”: The Forging of Scotland’s Reformer in the Burning of George Wishart

One of the important historical sites in the lovely seaside town of St. Andrews in Scotland is the ruins of its historic castle. Just outside of the castle along the street there is an inconspicuous marker laid into the pavement consisting in the letters “GW” which stand for the name George Wishart. The marker quietly commemorates the exact spot upon which Wishart was burned at the stake on the orders of Roman Catholic Cardinal David Beaton for preaching the Reformed faith. Compared with his disciple John Knox, Wishart is not nearly as well known or widely remembered, having died when he was only aboutDSC_0423 33 years old. Apart from a relatively short period of itinerant preaching in Scotland, Wishart does not appear to have accomplished much in promoting the Scottish Reformation. Yet, as many have remarked, had there been no George Wishart, there would likely have been no John Knox, at least Knox as the Reformer that we esteem today.

Knox himself paid tribute to his courageous mentor in his History of the Reformation of Scotland when he wrote the following account of Wishart’s execution on 1 March 1546:

The manner of Master George Wishart’s taking was thus:—Departing from Haddington, he took his good-night, as it were for ever, of all his acquaintance, especially from Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. John Knox pressing to go with him, Master George said: ‘Nay, return to your [pupils], and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken away from John Knox, who, albeit unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…. Before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to make advertisement. At the first word, Master George said, ‘Open the gates. The Blessed Will of my God be done!’…

The Bishops, with their complices, condemned this innocent man to be burnt as a heretic, thinking verily, that they should do to God good sacrifice … When all was done and said, my Lord Cardinal caused his tormentors to pass again with the meek lamb unto [St. Andrew’s] Castle, until such time as the fire was made ready…. When the fire was made ready, and the gallows, at the west part of the Castle of St. Andrews near the Priory, my Lord Cardinal, dreading that Master George should have been taken away by his friends, commanded to ben all the ordnance of the Castle right against the place of execution, and commanded all his gunners to stand beside their guns, until such time as he was burned. They bound Master George’s hands behind his back, and led him forth with their soldiers from the Castle, to the place of their cruel and wicked execution….

When he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees, and rose up again; and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the World, have mercy upon me! Father of Heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ Then he turned to the people and said: ‘I beseech you, Christian Brethren and Sisters, be not offended at the Word of God, for the affliction and torments which ye see prepared for me. But I exhort you, love the Word of God and suffer patiently, and with a comfortable heart, for the Word’s sake, which is your undoubted salvation and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, I pray you, show my brethren and sisters, which have heard me oft, that they cease not to learn the Word of God which I taught unto them, for no persecutions in this world, which lasteth not. Show them that my doctrine was no 1024px-The_martyrdom_of_George_Wishartwives’ fables, after the constitutions made by men. If I had taught men’s doctrine, I had gotten greater thanks by men. But for the true Evangel, which was given to me by the Grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage. Ye shall not see me change my colour! This grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake; and not to fear them that slay the body, and afterward have no power to slay the soul. Some have said I taught that the soul of man should sleep until the Last Day; but I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night, ere it be six hours, for whom I suffer this.’

Then he prayed for them which accused him, saying; ‘I beseech Thee, Father of Heaven, forgive them that have of any ignorance, or else of any evil mind, forged lies upon me. I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them that have condemned me to death this day ignorantly.’ Last of all, he said to the people on this manner: ‘I beseech you, Brethren and Sisters, to exhort your Prelates to the learning of the Word of God, that they may be ashamed to do evil, and learn to do good. If they will not convert themselves from their wicked errors, there shall hastily come upon them the Wrath of God, which they shall not eschew.’

Many faithful words said he in the meantime, taking no care of the cruel torments prepared for him. Last of all, the hangman, his tormentor, upon his knees, said; ‘Sir, I pray you, forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death.’ To whom he answered: ‘Come hither to me.’ When he was come to him, he kissed his cheek, and said: ‘Lo! here is a token that I forgive thee My heart, do thine office!’ Then, the trumpet sounding, he was put upon the gibbet and hanged, and there burnt to powder. When the people beheld the great tormenting of that innocent, they might not withhold from piteous mourning and complaining of the innocent lamb’s slaughter.[1]

As Knox goes on to recount, Wishart’s martyrdom set off a chain of events that in God’s providence brought Knox to the forefront of Scottish Protestantism, under whose leadership the Reformed faith would arguably have its most widespread, unified success. The outrage over Wishart’s execution led to the storming of St. Andrews castle, the establishment of a consolidated Protestant movement, and the recognition of Knox as the movement’s primary preacher and driving force. Not only this, but as reflected in Knox’s History, the passionate preaching and dying exhortations of George Wishart fueled a fire in Knox’s bones equal to the flames which had consumed his beloved mentor. Little did Cardinal Beaton know, the fire that he kindled in an attempt to stop the spread of Reformation preaching in Scotland was the spark that ultimately set the entire country ablaze.

When Wishart went to the stake, the prospect of the Reformation’s success was tenuous at best. It would be understandable if in a passing moment of weakness prior to his execution Wishart had questioned if his short life really amounted to all that much some accounts, he had failed in what he endeavoured to do. Yet his was his self-sacrifice thatWishartKnox played a significant, if not determinative, role in shaping John Knox into the Reformer that he became and in galvanizing the Scottish people as a whole under the banner of the Reformation.

I am reminded of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel: When Peter saw [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'” No doubt Wishart would have wanted to remain to continue to preach alongside Knox for many years to come. Perhaps he may have questioned God in allowing his ministry to be cut short. Yet in the providence of God, what perhaps seemed like a failure and a defeat in the immediate time turned out to be the catalyst for Scotland’s Reformation. We never know all that God intends to do with us, and it may take eternity before we discover the marvelous beauty and perfection of his sovereign plan. Yet discover it we shall. So let us not despair in our present sufferings, failures, setbacks, and defeats. In God’s redemptive economy, nothing is ever wasted.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 52, 55-56, 58-59, 62-65.

The Answer is More Certain than Our Prayer: Encouragement to Pray from Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism (with commentary by Karl Barth)

Heidelberg Catechism 129

Q. What does the word “Amen” signify?

A. “Amen” signifies, it shall truly and certainly be: for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God, than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of him

[W]e must begin with the end, that is, we must first consider the answer to prayer. We may be surprised at this, for, from a logical standpoint, we should ask first, “What is prayer?” And only afterward, “Do we receive an answer when we pray?” Now for the Reformers the basic and vital point is this certitude: God does answer prayer. That is the first thing we must know. Calvin says it explicitly: We obtain what we request. Prayer is grounded upon this assurance. Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God prayeranswers. God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts. God does not act in the same way whether we pray for not. Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence. This is what the word “answer” means.

In Question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that the answer to our prayer is more certain than our awareness of the things that we request. It seems there is nothing more sure than the feeling of our desires, but this Catechism says that God’s answer is still more certain. We too must have this inward assurance. Perhaps we doubt the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of our request. But one thing is beyond doubt: it is the answer that God gives. Our prayers our weak and poor. Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them. That is why we pray….

Let our prayer not be offered according to our good pleasure; otherwise there would be then on our part inordinate desires. Let it be patterned after the rule [the Lord’s prayer] given by the One who knows our needs better than we ourselves. God has directed us first to submit ourselves to him in order that we may present our requests. So that we may conform to this order, we must eliminate in our prayers all questions like this: Does God listen to us? On this point Calvin is categorical: “Such a prayer is not a prayer.” Doubt is not permitted, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before we pray we must assume the attitude of someone who has been heart….

“Amen.” It is enough to recall what Luther and the Heidelberg Catechism tell us about this. Luther affirms that it is a good thing to say “Amen”! In other words, it is a good thing to learn not to doubt when we pray, but to believe, because “Amen” means, “So be it.” Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so! On its side, the Heidelberg Catechism declares that “Amen” means that the certainty of the divine response is greater than the certainty we feel within ourselves of our needs and desires. The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.

[Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002). 13, 19-20, 65-66.]

“Strive Together With Me”: The Central Role of Prayer in the Apostolic Mission of Paul (Reformission Monday)

To build on last week’s post on the central role of prayer in driving forward the mission of Christ and the church throughout the narratives of Luke and Acts, I commend to you the following excerpt from David G. Peterson’s excellent essay (from the same volume) on the same theme in the writings of the apostle Paul. To elucidate Paul’s understanding of prayer vis-à-vis the progress of his mission, Peterson hones in on Romans 15:30-32:

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company.

[The following excerpt comes from David G. Peterson, “Prayer in Paul’s Writings,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 99-100]

Paul’s request for prayer-support comes in the context of declaring his travel plans (15:22-9) and as a sequel to the report of his own prayers in this connection (1:8-15). The importance of this passage is indicated by several factors: his use of the verb parakaleo (‘exhort’, cf. 12:1), his address to the Roman Christians as ‘brothers’, his 001appeal to the authority of their common Lord and the love by which the Spirit binds together … (15:30) and his use of the extraordinary verb sunagonisasthai (‘strive together’, NIV ‘to join me in my struggle’, cf. Col. 4:12) to emphasise the earnestness, urgency and persistence with which they must join him in praying to God….

Paul uses the agon terminology to describe his own costly apostolic mission, understood as a striving for the gospel — a continual contest against opposition in the eschatological age (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-7; Col. 1:29; 2:1). The believers at Philippi are said to be involved in the same struggle for the gospel as Paul (Phil. 1:30). It may be, therefore, that in Rom. 15:30 Paul is saying that the Romans can share in the struggle of his own apostolic ministry as they unite in prayer for him.

It seems likely that Paul had multiple motivations for writing Romans but that his missionary plans lie at the heart of his concern. Rom. 15:23-29 indicates that he had firmly in mind three important journeys: to Jerusalem, to Rome and to Spain. ‘Each of these trips is directly connected with his work as an apostle to the nations/Gentiles, and each one, in its own way, is related to the occasion and purpose of Romans’. Paul’s request for prayer-support in regard to these journeys (15:30-2) is thus essential to his purpose in writing.

The argument of the epistle reaches its climax with this appeal: the apostle hopes that the addressees will be ‘moved to begin united prayer for him, and that by their continuing supplications they themselves may be given that responsible maturity about which he himself has been praying’ (15:5-6, 13). Furthermore, as they unite in praying for him, they will be ready to receive him, to refresh him, and to facilitate his journey to Spain (v.24). Indeed, it appears that the apostle’s aim was to establish a base of operation and support in Rome for his new sphere of ministry in the west of the Empire….

Although the appropriateness of intercessory prayer is sometimes questioned by contemporary writers, the apostle expresses no doubts about its efficacy and its significance in the saving purpose of God. He clearly believed that God was in total control of people and events and that he could overrule the hostility of every opponent, unite disputing Christians, open the way for the gospel to be preached in new lands and grant the gift of faith in response to gospel preaching. Knowing God’s intention that the gospel should be heard in every place (cf. Rom. 1:5-6; 15:18-21), he made his plans to preach Christ where he had not already been named and submitted those plans boldly and directly to the sovereign will of God in prayer. Paul knew that God in his wisdom had decreed that his people should pray for his will to be done.

Thus believers were urged to pray that God would ‘open a door’ for the gospel, providing the apostle with a field in which to work, enabling him to ‘proclaim the mystery of Christ’, and to make it known as he ought (Col. 4:3-4, cf. Eph. 6:18-20). They were encouraged to pray that the word of the Lord might ‘spread rapidly and be honoured’ in other places as it did in their midst and that the apostolic team might be ‘delivered from wicked and evil men’ (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Such prayers were not merely an expression of commitment to the work of the gospel but a genuine calling upon God to act to fulfil his purposes in the ways outlined. Thus there is no escaping the centrality of intercessory prayer to Paul’s theology of mission.

“The Disqualification of Human Powers”: The Virgin Birth and Salvation By Faith Alone (T.F. Torrance on the Apostles’ Creed)

Here in Italy, the month of May is dedicated to the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. Outside the local Catholic parish, a large banner reads: “Maria, Mamma di Noi Tutti” (Mary, Mama of Us All). In Catholic theology, Mary is held up as the prime example of divine-human cooperation in salvation. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (61-62) states:

[Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls…. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

I would contend, however, that Catholic teaching has it completely backwards. Far from being the greatest example of human cooperation in salvation (i.e. a synergistic soteriology), Mary constitutes the greatest example — or what T.F. Torrance calls “the great bulwark” — of the historic Reformation emphases on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. According to Torrance, these doctrines are necessitated by and implied in the central affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Torrance explains:

The two usual credal statements used for this dogma [of the virgin birth] are, natus ex virgine Maria and conceptus de Spiritu Sancto: Born of the Virgin Mary, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. To the understanding of these we must address ourselves. The “born of the Virgin Mary” means that Jesus, while really and genuinely having a human birth of a human mother, was not born as other men are. The “conceived of the Holy Ghost” means that the secret and origin of Jesus lie wholly with God and in his sovereign gracious will alone…. That is to say under the sovereign act of God, not under the sovereignty or act of an earthly father. In other words, in this act, man and God are not co-equal partners. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the great bulwark, or ought to be when rightly understood, against all 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectsynergistic ideas and all monistic conceptions of faith in God. What took place, took place under the free will of God, in which God alone was Lord and Master, in which the birth of Jesus was grounded in the sovereign creative act of God alone.

But that does not mean that the work is an act on the part of God without man, but on the contrary that “man” plays a great part in it all, for in Jesus the eternal Son of God becomes man, but he becomes man, and the man-side of the act is the predicate side alone. This act of God’s sheer Grace, this advent of God, … means a disqualification of human capabilities and powers as rendering possible an approach of man to God. It is to man that God comes. But in that God comes, in that God acts in an act which is grounded in himself alone, though among men, there is carried in the words “born of the virgin Mary” the disqualification of human powers. Jesus Christ is not in any sense, even in a co-operative sense a product of human conjugal or any other activity. The fact that he is born of the Virgin betokens the downright reality of God’s Grace which begins from and continues in his sovereign initiative. Thus here we have the sentence on human nature to the effect that human nature as such has no capacity, no power, no worth, to beget a Christ, to be the place and ground of divine revelation. Man and God are not equal partners here in the work of Salvation; it is entirely of Grace — “conceived of the Holy Spirit“. How are we to understand that?

First, we are to see that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is in no sense the product of the causal-historical process of nature or of the world. God the eternal Son entered into humanity and assumed flesh and took it to be one with himself in the Person of Jesus Christ….

Second, we are to think of the birth of Jesus as a creation on the part of God, a creative act of the Spirit, in Mary. But here we must not think that there was any sort of marriage between Mary and the Spirit — that idea would simply be heathen mythology. Nor are we to think that this creation was creation out of nothing, but rather creation out of our fallen Adamic humanity, ex virgine, out of the Jewess Mary. That is to say the creation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin presupposes the first creation, and betokens a recreation in the midst of and out of the old. That is a large part of the significance of the Incarnation, that Christ really comes to us, to our flesh and assumes it; that out of our fallen humanity which God has come in Christ to redeem and reconcile fallen sinful human beings to himself, he created and assumed flesh for himself for ever, to be one with it. The humanity of Jesus Christ was a real and not a docetic affair. This indicates, nevertheless, the fact that the origin of Christ was an act of God alone, and therefore an act of sheer Grace.

Third, we are to understand the birth of Jesus as a break in the sinful autonomy of man…. In his own sovereignty or autonomy man is not free for God’s Word. And thus the birth of Jesus takes place apart from any act of human will or assertion, apart from human sovereignty, such as epitomised in the act of the man or the father. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, is the actor here, and he alone, in which the act of human assertion is excluded. Thus Christ is not born as a result of human nature, but of an act of the Spirit; in other words, the Incarnation is an act of pure Grace and not of nature. Here in the Virgin birth man has no say in the matter; he exercises no act of self-will in order even in helping to bring about the act of God.

Fourth, it is here that we may discern very clearly the significance or meaning of the Grace of God in its most pure form; and in a form we may do well to take as a norm for our understanding of all God’s gracious acts, and of all other theological statements. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary, telling her of the choice of God. She has not to do anything in the matter except under the operation of the Spirit. What she does is humbly believe, and is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. The attitude that the believer must take up towards Christ in Salvation is that very attitude of trust which Mary took up: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is an act of humble willing obedience and surrender to God. And in her there took place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

We must think of our own salvation in Christ in a similar way. In the address or annunciation to us of the Word of Christ himself, we are called to surrender to him in like manner, and there takes place in us the miracle of Christ is us! That is the Christian message. And it is not at all of our active willing. To as many as believe in God, to them gives he the exousia or power to become the sons of God! We are born again, to transpose the metaphor, not of the will of man or of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God…. What happened at the birth of Jesus Christ altogether uniquely, happens on another level in every instance of rebirth in men, women and children in Christ Jesus, or when he enters into our hearts and thereby recreates us. Just as in the birth of Jesus Christ there was no foregoing action on the part of human co-operation between an earthly father and mother, so in our salvation there is no Pelagian or synergistic activity either. It is from first to last salvation by Grace alone, salvation of men and women and children and among men and women and children that is grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both man or woman or child and God.

Christ was conceived immediately by the Spirit — therefore in a Virgin. We are saved by faith, but in faith which is itself ultimately the gift of God, a human act, yes but grounded in God alone…. Faith is here not a creation out of nothing, but is creatively begotten through the Holy Spirit in a human child of God, in the sphere of his/her human choices and decisions, not of his/her human personality, but a creation out of it, and therefore independent of it. Thus in no sense is faith a product of our human capacities, thought or ability or insight…. As Mary welcomes the annunciation of the Word, of the Christ, and receives it, and so conceives: so we receive the Word of God which is engrafted into our souls, and, as it were, ‘conceive Christ’ within our hearts. We simply receive, giving up human capacities and powers. We do not bring the Christ into us, we do not appropriate him or make him real to us and in us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit; our part is humbly and thankfully to yield up all our autonomy and sovereignty, in surrender to the Work of God on and in and for us through the Spirit. [T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 118-120.]

No doubt Torrance’s exegesis of these credal statements will be contested by many. I am convinced, however, that he is correct. When we pay careful attention to the biblical narratives in which Jesus’s conception and birth are recounted, it seems clear that the Evangelists stress the absolute sovereignty of grace. It is the Word of God (alone!), communicated by the angel, that takes the initiative. It is the Word of God, enlivened by the Spirit, that works in Mary that which, from a human perspective, is an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, and nothing lay in her power, without a human father, to bring her Savior to conception. It was, in other words, wholly an act of sheer grace. Grace alone. And all that Mary could do in response — that which she did do — was merely accept the Word of God to her and the Work of God within her by faith. By faith alone.

And so it is with all of us as well. We hear the Word of God in the word of the gospel which promises us the work of God in salvation. All we can do is simply respond in simple faith: “May it be to me according to your word”. Thus it is that the Apostles’ Creed teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Turning the Points of History: The Decisive Role of Prayer in Luke and Acts (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:

Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to 10 Pentecostestread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.

The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….

[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.

Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.

Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]

If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.

I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!

A Holy and Patient Violence: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Blessing of Unaswered Prayer

As I wrote in a recent post “I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me“, the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones has helped to radically change my view of prayer, a discipline with which I have struggled to maintain consistency for most of my life. Revelatory to me was Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of what it means to ask in prayer: not asking casually, infrequently, sporadically, or even just once or twice, but seeking and knocking, wrestling in prayer like Jacob with God who exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I jacobrealized that my lack of patience and perseverance in prayer was that I had misunderstood what it means to “ask” of God. This simple yet profound insight has since revolutionized my prayer life.

Later in the same collection of sermons, Joy Unspeakable, I happened upon another revelatory moment, a single phrase that struck me with the same thunderous force as before. Whereas previously Lloyd-Jones taught me that true “asking” in prayer involves importunate “seeking” and “knocking” until the door is opened, here he explains the reason for this and reveals the hidden blessing that comes when God does not (or seems not) to answer prayer.  Once again, the great Doctor penetrates into the biblical text and unearths a treasure that promises to enrich an impoverished life of prayer. In order to feel the impact of what Lloyd-Jones says, however, it is necessary to understand the wider context of the sermon. First we will consider Christ’s words in Luke 11:5-13, and then we will listen to Lloyd-Jones’s exposition:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now here is Lloyd-Jones:

Without an element of importunity and persistence, or urgency and almost a holy violence with God, we have little right to expect that God will hear our prayer and answer it. Indeed, as we have seen, in holding back the answer God is preparing us. He wants us to come to this place in which we realize we are indeed helpless and hopeless, and so become desperate and cry out to him…. I must of necessity add immediately that you must at the same time be patient. Now that sounds as if it is a contradiction; and yet it is not, because if we become impatient, then our spirit has gone wrong again. The fact that a man is urgent and importunate does not mean that he is impatient….

The combination of these two things works like this: your urgency is born of your consciousness of need and of the greatness of the blessing. But you are not impatient, because you have now come to see that you are entirely unworthy of this blessing, you are unfit for it. The moment you become impatient what you are really saying to God is that you deserve this, and that he should give it to you, and that he should not be keeping you waiting in this way. That is impatience and it is always wrong. That proves again, that you are not fit, and that you need to be prepared much further.

This is important because it is impatience that always leads people to give up. ‘It is no use,’ they say, ‘I have striven for many years.’ They really have a sense of grudge against God. They say to him, ‘I have done everything you have said but I have not had the blessing.’ The end, that is unspoken, is, ‘Why is God treating me like this?’ The answer is, because you are like that, because of your very impatience, because of your restlessness of spirit. So we must neither be impatient nor discouraged. The prayer at this point is,

Thy way, not mine, O Lord, [h]owever hard it be.

Or as another hymn puts it:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, [n]earer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross [t]hat raiseth me.

That is the prayer—one of utter submission, a desire to know God and his love, to be filled with his love, to be his servant, to live to his glory. You must say, ‘It is your way, not mine. I don’t know, I have lost confidence in myself and my understanding. I am leaving myself in your hands.’ Urgent, importunate, but not impatient and not discouraged….

It is he who gives this gift. He knows when to give it, when we are fit to receive it. All we can do is to long for it, yearn for it, cry out for it, keep on doing so and to be importunate. But above all we must leave ourselves unreservedly, and the great issue itself, entirely in his blessed and loving hands…. If you are in this position of seeking, do not despair, or be discouraged, it is he who has created the desire within you, and he is a loving God who does not mock you. If you have the desire, let him lead you on. Be patient. Be urgent and patient at the same time. Once he leads you along this line he will lead you to the blessing itself and all the glory that is attached to it….

The possibilities are there for any genuine child of God who longs to know the love of God in its fullness! Go on pleading. Go on asking.

O love divine, how sweet thou art! When shall I find my willing heart [a]ll taken up by Thee?

Go on offering that prayer, and in his own gracious good day he will grant you your heart’s desire, and you will begin to know that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’.[1]

There is so many profound insights here that it would certainly take more than a blog post to unpack them all! But I really only want to highlight the single phrase that left me thunderstruck: God is treating me like this because I am like that! Reading this, my gut reaction is to retort, in good British fashion, “Dr. Martyn, that’s a fairly cheeky statement!” How dare Lloyd-Jones tell me that God is treating me like…, oh wait, he’s right, I am like that!

The more I think about it, the more I am forced to admit that I am the one who is being cheeky with God. “Lord, I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you haven’t answered. Why are you treating me like this?” And then in the ensuing silence, I hear a still small voice that lovingly yet reprovingly responds: “I am treating you like this because you are like that. By the very fact that you ask this question, you show me that you are not ready for the blessing for which you are asking. You need to learn to be content with having ME, apart from whatever answers you may or may not receive. Were I to give you what you want right now, then I would only be reinforcing the self-centered, impatient attitude with you have come to me in prayer. And if I did that, then you certainly would not become the kind of person that you need to be in order to faithfully steward the gift for which you ask.”

Lloyd-Jones has, by way of Scripture, exposed an ugly corner of my prideful heart. It smarts, it hurts, but it is the truth. It is my very impatience with God in prayer that indicates I am not ready for the answer that I am seeking. It is my willingness to give up, to let go of God before he blesses me, that reveals how untrustworthy I am to handle the very thing for which I am praying. Before God can give me the blessing that I seek (assuming here that the blessing that I seek is according to his will), I must be the kind of person who can be entrusted with that blessing, who will not turn around and use it for selfish or self-aggrandizing purposes.

The crucible of unanswered prayer develops in us, as Lloyd-Jones observes, a holy violence that is paradoxically marked by patience, a desperation with which we lay hold of God and refuse to let go, no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost. It is on the anvil of unanswered prayer that God forges us under the pounding hammer of his holy love into people who are fit for the blessing that he desires to bestow upon us. It is through the fire of unanswered prayer that our sinful dross is purged and our faith, endurance, and character are refined into pure gold. But until we have passed through that fiery trial (weeks, months, years?) and come out on the other side recreated in the image of God, we should not necessarily expect God to answer our prayers as we would expect. He is God, we are not, and ours jesus-praysis to submit to his will, obeying his command to importunately persevere in prayer, regardless of what happens, knowing that within his “no” to us there is hidden a resounding “yes”.

When we think we have asked God for a fish or an egg, it is more likely that we have asked him for a serpent or a scorpion, and as our loving heavenly Father, he refuses to give it to us. What we need is for him to change us so that we are able to recognize this! Perhaps, then, if unanswered prayer is the way that God makes us ever more desperate and dependent on him, transforming us ever more from glory to glory, drawing us ever deeper into fellowship and communion with him, might it not be the greatest blessing of all?

So let us pray with a holy and patient violence, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, even if it means that we sweat drops of blood. It is in arriving at the place where we can wholeheartedly confess, “Not my will, but yours be done”, that God begins to shower down upon us his most abundant blessings.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.224-226, 231.

God’s Speech is His Act: On the Contemporaneity, Power, and Unicity of the Word of God (with reference to Karl Barth)

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host…For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. (Psalm 33:6, 9)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)

Sometimes in interconfessional discussions (or debates) about the Word of God and its place in the church, we can tend to focus so much on questions such as the authority of tradition and the problems of interpretation that we neglect what is perhaps the most critical issue: what exactly is the Word of God? Is it ‘just a book’ that does not become “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12) until properly wielded in the hands of those uniquely authorized to do so? Or is this too reductive of a definition? It seems to mislabeling-the-word-of-godme that until we are clear on what the Word of God is, we will be unable to come to agreement on its position and role in the church.

The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, respected across confessional lines, is particularly remembered for his theology of the Word of God which he unfolded in a threefold manner as the Word revealed, written, and proclaimed (in that order). Since for Barth, the Word of God revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ is absolutely primary (for no other Word existed in the beginning with and as God!), the Word cannot be reduced to what is written in Scripture or proclaimed by the church. Since the Word of God is first and foremost the Word who is God through whom and for whom all things came into being, it possesses the aseity and eternality of God and is, properly speaking, identical with the living and efficacious action of God in creating, ruling, and redeeming all things. Barth explains (and I quote at length):

When God speaks, there is no point in looking about for a related act. The fear that talk might be “only” talk is, of course, only too apposite in relation to human speech. When man speaks, then his misery, the rift between truth and reality in which he lives, is plainly exposed, and the more so the better and more beautifully and truly he speaks….When God speaks, however, the fear is groundless. The man who has heard God speak and might still ask about the related act is simply showing that he has not really heard God speak. We can hear Christian sermons and ask what really happens as they take place. What does actually correspond to all these words? This is a question well worth putting. We can even hear Holy Scripture and simply hear words, human words, which we either understand or do not understand but along with which there is for us no corresponding event. But if so, then neither in proclamation nor Holy Scripture has it been the Word of God that we have heard. If it had been the Word of God, not for a moment could we have looked about for God’s acts. The Word of God itself would then have been the act. The Word of God does not need to be supplemented by an act. The Word of God is itself the act of God. It is act to a degree that everything else that we usually call act, event, practice, life, etc., and that we usually miss and demand as a supplement to man’s word, can only seem to be very questionable as real act in comparison with it. The Word of God makes history in the supreme sense.

The fact that God’s Word is God’s act means first its contingent contemporaneity. What is meant by this is as follows. The time of the direct, original speech of God Himself in His revelation, the time of Jesus Christ (which was also and already that of Abraham according to Jn. 8:56), the time of that which the prophets and apostles heard so that they could bear witness to it—that is one time. But the time of this witness, the time of prophecy and the apostolate, the time of Peter on whom Christ builds His Church, the time of the rise of the Canon as a concrete counterpart in which the Church receives its norm for all times—this is another time. And the specific time of the Church itself, the time of derivative proclamation related to the words of the prophets and apostles and regulated by them—this is yet another time. These are different times distinguished not only by the difference in periods and contents, not only by the remoteness of centuries and the disparity in the men of different centuries and millennia, but distinguished by the different attitude of God to men. Jesus Christ was no less true man than the prophets and apostles. But in virtue of His unity with God He stood absolutely over against them as a master over against his slaves…It is this difference of order, of first and second, of higher and lower, that makes the times of the Word of God so different. Three times there is a saying of the Word of God through human lips. But only twice, in the biblical witnesses and us, is there first a letting of it be said to us, and only once, in our case, an indirect letting of it be said to us mediated through the Bible…

…if we abandon the distinction of the three times in terms of order, then no matter how loudly or sincerely we may talk about revelation and its concreteness and historicity, and no matter how illuminating or practical may be the shape we give everything, we have really abandoned the concept of the Word of God itself. When we are able to eliminate our non-contemporaneity with Christ and the apostles by putting ourselves on the same soil as them or putting them on the same soil as us, so that, sharing the same prophetic Spirit and having the measure of inner truth in our own feeling, we can discuss with them the gross and net value of their words; when contemporaneity, therefore, rests on the hypothesis of a merely quantitative difference between them and us, then the concept of the Word of God is humanised in such a way that it is no wonder people prefer to use it comparatively rarely and in quotation marks; the surprising thing is that they have not preferred to drop it completely and unequivocally…The present Church, however historically it may feel and think, speaks the last word as the heir and interpreter of history. Not having God’s Word in the serious sense of the term, it stands alone and is referred back to itself. If, however, we insist that the concept of God’s Word means that the Church is not alone and is not referred back to itself, then we must accept the fact that the distinction of the times is one of order, and in no case can the contemporaneity of modern 41hq6NqLxFL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_proclamation with Scripture and revelation be understood as one that we can bring about by eliminating the distinction, by incorporating Scripture and revelation into the life of humanity. It can be understood only as an expression of the fact that God’s Word is itself God’s act…

The fact that God’s Word is God’s act implies secondly its power to rule. God’s speech is His action in relation to those to whom He speaks. But His action is divine. It is the action of the Lord. It is thus His ruling action. When and where Jesus Christ becomes contemporaneous through Scripture and proclamation, when and where the “God with us” is said to us by God Himself, we come under a lordship. The concepts election, revelation, separation, calling, and new birth which we touched on earlier all denote a promise, a judgment, a claim on man by which God binds man to Himself. Gospel and Law as the concrete content of God’s Word imply always a seizure of man. No matter what God’s Word says to man in concretissimo, it always tells him that he is not his own but God’s. If in the light of its origin in revelation, in Jesus Christ, we understand the Word of God as the epitome of God’s grace, grace means simply that man is no longer left to himself but is given into the hand of God…

If a man knew nothing of this power that both sustains and stimulates, both protects and punishes, both pacifies and disturbs, if he merely heard about it without knowing it as a power, he would only give evidence that he knew nothing of the Word of God. We are acquainted with the Word of God to the degree that we are acquainted with this power. We speak of God’s Word when we speak in recollection and expectation of this power, and when we do so in such a way that we realise that this power of the Word of God is not one power among others, not even among other divine powers, but the one unique divine power which comes home to us, to which we are referred, in face of which we stand in decision between the obedience we owe it and the unfathomable inconceivability of disobedience, and consequently in the decision between bliss and perdition. The Holy Spirit, at least according to the Western understanding of the divine Triunity, cannot be separated from the Word, and His power is not a power different from that of the Word but the power that lives in and by the Word. Nor do we know anything about God’s power in the creation and governance of the world except through the Word revealed, written and proclaimed. And when we know it through this Word we cannot possibly separate it from the power of the Word…

Where God has once spoken and is heard, i.e., in the Church, there is no escaping this power, no getting past it, no acknowledgment of divine powers that are not summed up in this power, that are not related to the manner of this power and active in its mode…All this must be said of the Word of God because the Word of God is Jesus Christ and because its efficacy is not distinct from the lordship of Jesus Christ. He who hears God’s Word is drawn thereby into the sphere of the real power of this lordship. There applies to him and for him everything the Word of God says as promise, claim, judgment and blessing. Preaching does not put it into effect; preaching declares and confirms that it is in effect. It is proclamation of the Word of God when it proclaims it as something that is already in effect.[1]

That Barth is correct in his assertion that the Word of God is the Act of God, that God’s speech is his action in revealing himself and ruling his creation, is evident throughout Scripture: “…so shall my word be that goes from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose…” (Is. 55:11). This means, then, that to hear the Word of God is to be claimed, acted upon, and ruled by God himself: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10-11). It is possible, of course, for us to mishear the Word of God, or to understand but reject and disobey it, but this is only possible because the Word has first sovereignly claimed us in being spoken to us. It is the effectual action of the Word on us that makes us responsible to respond rightly and inexcusable if we respond wrongly.

This means that, in the final analysis, it is not upon our interpretation (or misinterpretation!) that the efficacy of the Word depends. Neither is it the antiquity of our ecclesial tradition or the validity of our orders of ministry that guarantee that the Word of God will not return empty but will accomplish its divine purpose. No, it is because the Word of God is ultimately the act of God — the divine speech that “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17) and that reconciles as it reveals —that the Word is sure to evade any human attempt to domesticate it or overrule any human misuse of it and infallibly accomplish its end: creating light out of darkness (Gen. 1:3), breaking through rock like a hammer (Jer. 23:29), and raising the dead to life (Ezek. 27:4-5).

It is because the Word of God is not dead and mute but living, active, and seated on the throne of heaven from whence he pours out his “Spirit of truth” to “take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14) that ensures the Word’s “contemporaneity” with us and over us even now in our present time. Therefore, the Word of God is, as Barth recognized, something that the church can speak to itself and to the world only after it has first been spoken to the church. Only if it were possible for us to erase the “non-contemporaneity” of the Word in its continual and direct address to us could we then suppose that our own words, however important or authoritative, 4830823741_12cd6b5c97_oassist, supplement, substitute, or exist alongside of that one Word which is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Yet if this were possible, then the Word of God would not longer be the Word of God but a mere human word, and would be thus emptied of its divine power and efficacy.

If we carry this understanding of the Word of God consistently through to its theo-logical end, we will be left with only one conclusion, the one that Karl Barth clearly expressed in this context:

[And he is the head of the body, the church] (Col. 1:18, cf. Eph. 1:22f.). This is said of Christ. But Christ is the Word of God, contemporary in prophecy and the apostolate and contemporary in the proclamation of His Church. If He is contemporary here, if He makes that step, then we are necessarily faced with the recognition of the sovereignty of God’s Word in the Church which characterises the Reformation view of God and the Church.[2]

This, in short, is the reason for sola Scriptura.

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.143-5, 147-150, 153. Emphasis mine.

[2] Ibid., pp.150-1.

John Calvin on the “In-Christness” of Predestination

Sermon excerpt from John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. (London; Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), pp.32-33:

How then do we come to God? How do we obey him? How do we have a quiet mind that yields itself in accordance with faith? All these things come from him, and so it follows that he must do all himself. Wherefore let us observe that in saying God elected us before the creation of the world, St. Paul presupposes that which is true, namely, that God could not see anything in us save the evil that was there, for there was not one drop of goodnesscalvin-farewell-sermon_wileman_john-calvin_p96_300dpi for him to find. So then, seeing he has elected us, regard it as a very clear token of his free grace…

He confirms the thing in better fashion still by saying that the same was done in Jesus Christ. If we had been elected in ourselves it might be said that God had found in us some secret virtue unknown to men. But seeing that he has elected us outside of ourselves, that is to say, loved us outside of ourselves, what shall we reply to that? If I do a man good, it is because I love him. And if the cause of my love is sought, it will be because we are alike in character, or else for some other good reason.

But we must not imagine anything similar to this in God. And also it is expressly told us here, for St. Paul says that we have been elected in Jesus Christ. Did God, then, have an eye to us when he vouchsafed to love us? No! No! for then he would have utterly abhorred us. It is true that in regarding our miseries he had pity and compassion on us to relieve us, but that was because he had already loved us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God, then, must have had before him his pattern and mirror in which to see us, that is to say, he must have first looked on our Lord Jesus Christ before he could choose and call us.

And so, to be brief, after St. Paul had showed that we could not bring anything to God, but that he acted beforehand of his own free grace in electing us before the creation of the world, he adds an even more certain proof, namely, that he did it in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as it were, the true register. For God’s vouchsafing to elect us, that is to say, his vouchsafing to do it from all eternity, was, as it were, a registering of us in writing. And the holy Scripture calls God’s election the book of life. As I said before, Jesus Christ serves as a register. It is in him that we are written down and acknowledged by God as his children. Seeing, then, that God had an eye to us in the person of Jesus Christ, it follows that he did not find anything in us which we might lay before him to cause him to elect us. This, in sum, is what we must always remember.

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)

pageimage-521579-4492847-revelation_graphicnovel_30worship

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.

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.