Psalm 7:8-17: He Has Readied His Bow (Psalm of the Day, 10/365)

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Psalm 7:8 The Lord judges the peoples; judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me. Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end, and may you establish the righteous—you who test the minds and hearts, O righteous God! 10 My shield is with God, who saves the upright in heart. 11 God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day. 12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and readied his bow; 13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons, making his arrows fiery shafts. 14 Behold, the wicked man conceives evil and is pregnant with mischief and gives birth to lies. 15 He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. 16 His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends. 17 I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.

Taken by itself, the psalmist’s statement in verse 8 could seem arrogant or presumptuous. However, it is the prayer of one whose righteousness is found by taking refuge in the righteousness of God (v.1), and ultimately the prayer of the true king, David’s greater Son, who indeed was fully righteous (Rom. 1:3-4). According to this psalm, to be righteous is not so much about right-doing as right-relating. That is, the righteous are not those always do righteous works (indeed they often fail!) but those who make the righteous Lord alone their refuge.

The emphasis thus falls here on the righteousness of the Lord who is a shield to the upright, that is, to those who look to him as their shield. The judge himself is the only shield from judgment. The righteousness of God also means that he is indignant against unrighteousness. Although he may stay his judgment, he will not let unrighteousness triumph. Even in his patience God prepares his weapons of wrath against unrighteousness. Those who spurn God’s patience in unrepentance only store up further wrath to be revealed in the day of judgment (Rom. 2:4-5). Indeed, the Lord’s patience is kindness meant to lead to repentance! God is kind even in his indignation, yet those who reject his kindness will find nothing other than that indignation. Ultimately, though, wickedness is self-defeating. The wicked fall into the very pit that they dig to ensnare others. Sin is folly, self-destructive, and suicidal. God need only turn the unrighteous over to the fruit of their deeds!

The judgment of God is mercy to his saints. The righteousness that is terror for the wicked is reason for thanks and praise for the righteous. As he concludes the psalm, the psalmist has not yet seen the deliverance of judgment, yet he can still confidently sing future songs of praise in the present moment of distress for the righteous God is faithful. If the psalmist had reason to praise even while in distress, have much more do we who have seen the Lord’s deliverance already take place in Christ through the judgment of the cross!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

“He Is Our Flesh”: John Calvin on the Saving Significance of the Incarnation

Sometimes when we think about Jesus Christ and his saving work, we can tend to lay so much emphasis on his death for our sins and resurrection for our justification (as Paul puts it in the last verse of Romans 4) that we neglect the redemptive significance of his incarnation, of his becoming flesh to dwell among us, of his being born of a woman to redeem us from the curse of the law. Thus, I think that it is opportune, if not necessary, that this Christmas season we ponder the astonishing truth that, as the Nicene Creed eloquently states, the Son of God “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate by the H0ly Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”. It is no accident that the Creed, the cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief, attaches saving significance not only to Christ’s death and resurrection but also to his incarnation and birth.

To help us understand a bit better what this means, I offer to you one of my favorite sections from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he movingly describes the reason for which God became man in Christ:

Now it was of the greatest importance for us that he who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven, no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God. What then? The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is, God with us” [Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23], 130816-004-e1c66273and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our uncleanness and God’s perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator.

What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse? In undertaking to describe the Mediator, Paul then, with good reason, distinctly reminds us that He is man: “One mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim. 2:5]. He could have said “God”; or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to him, the Spirit calls him “man,” thus teaching us that he is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh. Here he surely means the same thing that is explained elsewhere at greater length: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb. 4:15].

This will become even clearer if we call to mind that what the Mediator was to accomplish was no common thing. His task was so to restore us to God’s grace as to make of the children of men, children of God; of the heirs of Gehenna, heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom. Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace? Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us…

For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man. It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of world and air. Who but a power higher than world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness, or lordship and authority of heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son.[1]

What richness and beauty there is in Calvin’s exposition of Christ’s incarnation! This is not to exalt Calvin, but rather to exalt the one whom Calvin enables us to see with clearer vision. How marvelous is it to contemplate the condescension of God himself, in the person of the Son, to live “among us as one of ourselves”, to become “body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones”! Could anything be more amazing than this?

Calvin’s takes us deeper into this profound mystery when he takes notice of Paul’s emphasis on the fact that Christ as Mediator is “man”. This assures us that we have no need to seek the Mediator, for he has sought us and found us, yet not by coming to us from without but from within our very flesh! Because of the incarnation, Christ “is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh”. As made visible in his power to healing the sick and the dying through his touch, Christ’s incarnation means that he “touches” our depraved nature with the “contagious holiness” (thanks Craig Blomberg!) of his own. Indeed, Christ could not be nearer to us now that “he is our flesh”. Echoing many patristic writers, Calvin declares that in so doing, Christ imparts to us by grace that which is his by nature.The Son of God became like us so that we could become sons of God. Though the incarnation, Life eternal has swallowed our death and Righteousness divine has removed our sin.

Here we see how deeply intertwined Calvin understood Christ’s person and work, the incarnation and the atonement, to be. As he writes elsewhere in the Institutes, Christ reconciled us to God “by the whole course of his obedience”, and that “from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us”.[2] By subjecting himself to the frailties and temptations of our sin-scarred condition and yet remaining without sin, he condemned sin in the flesh and bent our rebellious will back to God, undoing the consequences of Adam’s “My will be done” with his own obedient “Your will be done”. Could there be anything more wonderful? Could there be a love that is greater? Could there be a salvation more certain and complete?

As we celebrate this Christmas, may our song of praise indeed be “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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[1] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1-2.

[2] Ibid., II.xvi.5.

A Finger Pointing: Karl Barth, Matthias Grünewald, and the Mission of Theology

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It is fairly well known that Karl Barth produced his voluminous theological writings while sitting under a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald’s celebrated “Crucifixion” scene from the Isenheim alterpiece, the original of which now resides in Colmar, France. For Barth, Grünewald’s masterpiece depicted in visual terms that which he endeavoured to do throughout all of his dogmatic labors. Like John the Baptist who could only point to Christ crucified as a faithful witness, so also is it the theologian’s duty, like that of the church as a whole, to divert attention away from itself and testify of Jesus Christ who alone reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God. It is this in which consists the church’s true glory: that like John the Baptist, the church may decrease while Christ increases.

Here is how Barth himself described the effect that Grünewald’s painting had on him:

This condition under which alone Christology is possible takes visible form in the main picture on the altar at Isenheim by M. Grünewald. Its subject is the incarnation. There are three things to be seen in the picture, and it is difficult to say where the observer should begin. In the background upon the heights of heaven, beyond earth’s highest mountains, surrounded by innumerable angels, there is God the Father in His glory. In the foreground to the left there is the sanctuary of the old covenant. It also is filled with and surrounded by angels, but inexorably separated from the background by an immensely high, gloomy partition. But towards the right a curtain is drawn back, affording a view. And at this point, at the head of the whole world of Advent looking to see the Messiah, stands Mary as the recipient of grace, the representative of all the rest, in adoration before what she sees happening on the right side. Over there, but quite lonely, the child Jesus lies in His mother’s arms, surrounded with unmistakable signs reminding us that He is a child of earth like all the rest. Only the little child, not the mother, sees what is to be seen there, the Father. He alone, the Father, sees right into the eyes of this child. On the same side as the first Mary appears the Church, facing at a distance. It has open access on this side, it adores, it magnifies and praises, therefore it sees what is indeed the glory of the only-begotten of His Father, kruis_grtfull of grace and truth. But it sees only indirectly. What it sees directly is only the little child in His humanity; it sees the Father only in the light that falls upon the Son, and the Son only in this light from the Father.

This is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly. It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself. Because of this light streaming down from above, it worships before this human being as before God Himself, although to all visual appearance He is literally nothing but a human being. John the Baptist too, in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point—and here everything is bolder and more abrupt, because here all indication of the revelation of the Godhead is lacking—point to a wretched, crucified, dead man. This is the place of Christology. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery. It can and must adore with Mary and point with the Baptist. It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this (Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.125).

Indeed, we cannot and must not do more than, like Mary, bow in humble submission and adoration and, like John the Baptist, point away from ourselves and to Christ through faithful witness. But we can and must do this, for it is Christ alone who as the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

The Lion-like Power of a Lamb-like Weakness (T.F. Torrance on Revelation 5)

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb…And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:2-10

(The following sermon excerpt comes from T.F. Torrance, 1959. The Apocalypse Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 35-36, 40-41.)

Here is the message of this chapter. In spite of the monstrous and demonic upheaval of the world, in spite of the fact that the whole world seems to have broken loose from God in our time, in spite of all the unbelievable disorder and ruthless sway of evil, there is a book in Heaven carefully and decisively written by the hand of God about the destiny of the comp-anneke-kaai-de-verzegelde-boekrol-en-het-lam-apocalypse-4-1988world. There is order behind the chaos. There is plan behind the confusion…God still holds the world in His hand and He will not be thwarted. His purpose will be and actually is being fulfilled here and now…

[But] this is our trouble….[P]eople in our modern world imagine that God’s power is like the bare power we use in science, only absolutely almighty, and we think of the action of God’s power in terms of mechanical action and of the sheer crushing weight of atomic energy…Thank God His power is revealed to us in this vision as absolutely different. God’s almighty power, God as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, is revealed as the Lamb as it had been slain. He is God who has stooped to enter into our weakness and into our guilty past, in order to break its power from within. This is the undreamed-of thing, something that was not. A little babe was born, despised and rejected of men. On the Cross He became the weakness of God, a sacrificial Lamb, but as such the mightiest power in heaven and earth. That is the power that may enter our life and break it of its fetters and sin. It may deliver us from the clutches of sin-infested time and bestow upon us the pure freedom of the children of God. The world still laughs at this power and calls it weakness, but this is the God who chooses the foolishness of the world to confound the mighty…

No one anxious and troubled about the fateful chaos of our world need weep any more at the bitterness of its destiny. “Weep not,” says the voice of the vision. “Behold the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, . . . the Lamb as it had been slain”…Thus there breaks out from all creation, represented here by the four strange-faced creatures, and all the race of redeemed humanity represented by the four and twenty elders, a new song…It is a new song, because in spite of all the dire wickedness of the earth, at last the lion and the lamb lie down together in the paradise of God. It is a new song which the angels of heaven sing at the summons of God every time a sinner repents and turns back to the heavenly Father. “Rejoice with me,” says the Father, “for this my son was lost and is found. He was dead and he is alive again” (Luke 15:24).

The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1)

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near…

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

As much as T.F. Torrance is remembered for his contributions in the world of academia, he was at heart, very simply, a preacher of the gospel. We do not really know Torrance if we know him only as theologian and scholar and not as herald and witness of Jesus Christ. One of the published collections of Torrance’s sermons is entitled The Apocalypse Today, auferstehungand, as suggested by this title, it reproduces a series of expositions of the book of Revelation in which Torrance sought to cut through many of the speculative and fanciful approaches to the Apocalypse and lay bare its central theme and focus: the revelation of Jesus Christ. Be blessed as you read what Torrance has to say about the message of Revelation 1:

At its very heart Revelation means the unveiling of jesus Christ. That is the significance of the first verses in this chapter, and it is the clue to the whole book. The unveiling of Jesus Christ implies that He has already been veiled – which is one of the facts of the Incarnation. God the Son has come amongst us in such a fashion that the full glory of His divine majesty is veiled in the humanity of Jesus. In a very real sense God was concealed in Jesus, veiled behind His flesh and suffering. How could it be otherwise? Moses looked only upon the divine glory when covered under the shadow of God’s hand. But in Jesus, God Himself has entered the shadow, in order to draw nigh and reveal Himself to us. Such veiling is a necessary part of His unveiling, for He can be unveiled to us only as we are forgiven and healed of our darkness. It is through the “veiled” Son of God, the suffering servant, that God’s sublime glory is fully revealed in the Cross and Resurrection…

it is about that vision that St. John takes up his pen to write – and human language seems so impotent for the task. The Apostle reaches out after all sorts of symbols and pictures to try to convey the full reality of Christ, but in the end he has to fall down as one dead. The words that he has left us still bear even in their grammar the traces of a mighty impact, but John was bidden and empowered to write. Frail though the human langue is, it bears to us here under the inspiration of the Spirit a sacramental description of Christ. It gathers up in simple earthly analogies the One whose nature is akin to our own, and yet points out beyond to the Eternal Son who transcends all symbols and words in the lustre of uncreated light.

That light John had seen for the first time in Galilee, when he thought of it as the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. Now he speaks of a blinding reality, a countenance as the sun shineth in its strength, in His right hand seven stars, hair white as wool, eyes as a flame of fire, and feet ike burnished brass, as if they burned in a furnace. No wonder the Old Testament saints said they could not see God and live, for God is a consuming fire. And yet that is how we must see God even in the face of Jesus Christ if we are to be saved by Him: in the full blaze of His Holiness and Majesty. He has eyes like a flame of fire that search the heart consuming evil with its flame. he has words like a sharp two-edged sword, words which cut and cleanse, and a voice that swells in regal command like the voice of many waters. And yet, in spite of all that dread eternal light, John did not fail to recognize at its heart one like unto the Son of Man. Behind the thunder of the trumpet he heard unmistakably the gracious voice of Him who spake like no other man. In the depth of that burning vision He discovered one touched with the feeling of his own human infirmity and he knew it was Jesus, for Jesus remains man even as the Lord of glory.

If we haven’t understood the point of Revelation yet, let me put it into simple terms: it’s all about Jesus! This is why the book begins with a special blessing for those who hear and keep its words. In Revelation, we are brought into personal communion with Jesus Christ and, through him and by the Spirit, with the Triune God himself. It is Christ whom we meet and see and hear in this book, and the appropriate response is not speculation on future events or fancy charts and graphs but awe, love, and adoration. To him be glory and honor and blessing and praise forever and ever, Amen!

On Lingering Questions and the Nature of Theology

Yesterday I posted a response to one aspect of Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism. This was inspired, in large part, by Bobby Grow’s own blog post to which Kevin Vanhoozer commented:

I suppose my lingering question is this: if the Incarnation means that the all humans are elect (because the Son assumes/elects human nature), and if the atoning work of Christ benefits all human beings, and if Jesus’ vicarious humanity includes his faith on my behalf, then it wouldSquare Peg in a Round Hole seem that his saving work is sufficient for all.

The usual response at this point is that I am imposing a Western logico-causal framework onto the discussion, whereas I’m only trying to think clearly!

On my own blog and in reply to what I wrote yesterday, someone who frequently comments here remarked that he too shares Vanhoozer’s question. What I would like to do in this post is not provide an extended answer (something which Bobby has just offered here) but rather to offer a brief (given the length of yesterday’s post!) reflection on the reality of having to live with “lingering questions” in any theological endeavor due to the nature of its subject matter.

 T.F. Torrance writes:

Let us be quite frank. To speak like this of God’s inner Being we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God’s Being, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands on our mouths, for God is ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being. The God whom we have come to know through his infinite condescension in Jesus Christ, we know to be infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that it would be sheer theological sin to think of identifying the trinitarian structures of our thought and speech of God with the constitutive relations in the Being of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall far short of the God to whom they refer, so that their inadequacy, as concepts and as statements, to God must be regarded as essential to their truth and precision. The Triune God is more to be adored than expressed.[1]

If we truly take to heart what Torrance says here, we will all acknowledge that, to a certain extent, all of our thinking and speaking about God and his ways and works constitutes a “sacrilegious intrusion” into places where ever angels fear to tread. This is not to say, of course, that our theologizing is inherently sinful; quite the contrary. Nevertheless, it is to say that when we are dealing with the reality of the eternal God in his Triune being and activity, it is inevitable that questions will remain. Many of our unanswered questions, I think, come from the fact that while we can often affirm “that…”,  it is much more difficult to understand “how” or “why”.

I can affirm that God is One and Three, but I don’t know how this can be.

I can affirm that this Triune God created all things ex nihilo, but I can’t explain how he did.

I can affirm that evil entered the good creation of God through the sin of Adam, but I have no idea how or why it happened.

I can affirm that the Word became flesh, one person, two natures, fully God, fully man, but how this can be I cannot begin to fathom.

Similarly, I can affirm that all humanity is elect and represented in the vicarious humanity of Christ, but I cannot give an account for the precise “mechanism” (for lack of a better terms) of how individual human beings come to share subjectively in Christ’s humanity, nor can I comprehend why many will ultimately be damned.

This is not to say that no explanations can or should be attempted. Indeed, as I mentioned above, Bobby Grow has done an excellent job in responding to Vanhoozer’s questions. Rather, it is to say that all of our explanations fall short of the reality which they attempt to describe, and that we have to admit that, in the final analysis, what we understand is far less than what we don’t understand. This is the nature of the subject matter – or better the Subject himself – that is the object of our inquiry in theology.

In summary, many questions will linger, regardless of the particular ‘system’ or ‘school of thought’ or ‘confessional tradition’ that we follow. This is not an excuse, of course, for intellectual laziness. Rather, it is a humble admission of our finitude and incapacity to fully understand the ways and works of God. At the end of the day, all we can do is clap our hands over our mouths, fall on our faces, and worship.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1980. The ground and grammar of theology, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. pp.166-167.

True Theology: Open, Repentant, Humble, Doxological

As I have continued to mull over Muller’s critique of Karl Barth that R. Scott Clark posted on the Heidelblog, I keep returning to the charge that Barth’s works, unlike those of the Protestant scholastics, present “ideas that refuse to achieve closure.” I am not sure why this particular criticism vexes me so. Perhaps because it strikes me as symptomatic of a deep theological hubris that, despite superficial declarations to the contrary (i.e. archetypal vs. ectypal theology), pervades the system and methodology of Muller, Clark, and other scholastic sympathizers. Perhaps it is because I have been learning, in my own study, about the importance of a humble, repentant theology that never becomes triumphalistic in tone (as though it has everything figured out while others do not). Perhaps it is also because a theology that proceeds with the assumption that presenting ideas capable of achieving closure is possible and/or desirable opposes the doxological goal of all human theologizing. That is to say, our theology should not lead us to glory in ourselves, as though the system we have created is either fully realized or superior to all others, but it should lead us rather to fall on our faces in worship, awe, and reverence before the God whom all of our best theological statements can not even begin to adequately describe.

This is why, throughout the history of the church, theologians who, in my opinion, have most profoundly grasped the loftiest heights and the deepest depths of God’s self-revelation in Christ have stressed that absolute necessity of relentlessly maintaining the intrinsic openness, repentance, humility, and doxology of all human thought and speech about God. By way of example, I would like to offer quotations from two such theologians – Athanasius and T.F. Torrance, who press this point with unmistakable clarity. First, Athanasius states in his famous treatise On the Incarnation:

And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the Athanasiusexpanse of the sea and wish to count its waves. For as one cannot take in the whole of the waves with his eyes, for those which are coming on baffle the sense of him that attempts it; so for him that would take in all the achievements of Christ in the body, it is impossible to take in the whole, even by reckoning them up, as those which go beyond his thought are more than those he thinks he has taken in. Better is it, then, not to aim at speaking of the whole, where one cannot do justice even to a part, but, after mentioning one more, to leave the whole for you to marvel at. For all alike are marvellous, and wherever a man turns his glance, he may behold on that side the divinity of the Word, and be struck with exceeding great awe.[1]

Developing this further is T.F. Torrance who writes:

[T]heological statements about God are essentially Christ-oriented doxological statements of intrinsically open structure just because they derive from and intend the Triune Mystery of God, and therefore resist the kind of logico-rational thinking which appears to offend against the understanding of God as infinitely greater than we can t-f-torrance-sketchconceive and to detract from his sublime ineffability. In other words, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be so stated that it is not controlled from behind by a prior conceptual system, such as one finds in scholastic metaphysics, or in an independent and antecedent De Deus Uno, but only in such a way that it reconstructs and transforms the framework of though we bring with us…

When we approach the Trinity of the ineffable God we are on holy ground where the Cherubim and Seraphim hide their faces and theologians must take the shoes off their feet and fall down in wonder, worship and praise before the incomprehensible Majesty of God. That does not simply mean that this is the right way to end up an account of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity but that all our statements about the Trinity from beginning to end must arise out of and remain rooted in a continuity of godly life and worship…That must be the case with our understanding of the whole economy of salvation, while all our devotion and liturgical life must be allowed to have a trinitarian structure. This is what theolgia really is.[2]

Let us be quite frank. To speak like this of God’s inner Being, we cannot but feel to be a sacrilegious intrusion into the inner holy of holies of God’s incomprehensible Mystery, before which we ought rather to cover our faces and clap our hands upon our mouths, for God is utterly ineffable in the transcendence and majesty of his eternal Being. The God whom we have come to know through his infinite condescension in Jesus Christ, we know to be infinitely greater than we can ever conceive, so that it would be sheer presumption and theological sin on our part to identify the trinitarian structures in our thinking and speaking of God with the real constitutive relations in the triune Being-in-Communion of the Godhead. All true theological concepts and statements inevitably fall short of the God to whom they refer, so that, as we have already noted, their fragility and their inadequacy, as concepts and as human statements about God must be regarded as part of the correctness and truthfulness of their reference to God.[3]

What Torrance articulates here in this final paragraph is of utmost importance. Not only is it inadvisable to think that our ideas about God can ever achieve closure, but it is actually “theological sin” for it means that we have, in effect, come to fully equate our theological statements with the ineffable divine reality to which they merely point. Rather, as Torrance avers, it is precisely in “their fragility and their inadequacy” that our theological statements can be said to be truthful, for what could be further from the truth than the notion that our theology has attained such a perfect, or at least sufficient, state that we can consider it to have achieved closure?

True theology, therefore, is open because God is ineffable and transcendent. It is repentant because we are sinful. It is humble because he is God and we are not. And it is doxological, because in the end all we can do is fall on our knees and confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 65–66.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Trinitarian Perspectives: Toward Doctrinal Agreement. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. pp.101-102.

[3] Torrance, T.F., 1996. The Christian doctrine of God, one being three persons, Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark. p.110.

The vicarious worship of Emmanuel

Today I thought that I would post something more devotional in content both because it is Sunday and also because I celebrate the fact that I was finally able to get to church after having missed a number of weeks due to my ongoing health issues. It was a joy and encouragement to be able to do so, and I was reminded as well how wonderful it is to worship in my mother tongue, something that is a rare privilege for me. Apart from that, though, I was led to reflect on the role of how the vicarious humanity of Christ (something that I have been pressing into deeply over the last few months) impacts the joy and wonder of worship.e9832693147d0c4c460c0f83c1f36fe4

My thoughts closed in on the name Emmanuel, “God with us” applied to Jesus in Matthew 1:23. I have always loved this particular designation for Christ, but for much of my life I had an overly superficial understanding of what it means. Laying stress on the fact that Jesus is God with us, my conception tended toward a more docetic view. Docetism is the name of the ancient heresy according to which Jesus was truly God but did not actually become human and only appeared to be so. Now I did not explicitly deny that Jesus was fully man, but on a functional level I tended to focus less on Jesus’ humanity, thinking of it more as the instrument, so to speak, that enabled him as God the Son to dwell among us physically on the earth. In other words, Jesus was ‘God with us’ in the sense that he was the second person of the Trinity dwelling among us human beings.

What I failed to realize, that of which I am only beginning to grasp the implications, is that Jesus’ humanity was not a mere instrument. He himself is not merely God with us, but he is also God with us.  As the Word made flesh, the Son of God incarnate, the sole mediator between God and humanity, Jesus is in his very person both God descended to humanity and humanity ascended to God. Jesus is in his very person not merely the Word of God spoken to humanity, but he is humanity’s perfect receiving and responding to that Word. Jesus is in his very person both the God who reconciles and communes with humanity and humanity that is reconciled into communion with God. Jesus is in his very person not only the God who calls for faith, obedience, and love from humanity, he is also humanity that believes, obeys, and loves perfectly in our flesh and on our behalf. As Athanasius beautifully said in his fourth discourse against the Arians, the Son of God became the Son of Man so that “He might minister the things of God to us, and ours to God”.

Specifically in relation to our worship of God, this has stunning implications. Let me explain by way of personal testimony. For many years I would sing most hymns and songs in church somewhat unreflectively. The fact that these songs included phrases such as “I love/trust/obey you with all of my heart” did not bother me that much. At a certain point, I became much more aware of the problem with singing such phrases, because in reality, I knew that I did not in fact love/trust/obey God with all of my heart. I was singing a lie, or so I thought. So I oscillated either between feelings of guilt (when I concentrated on my own defects) or thoughts of judgment and criticism (when I looked at all the other ‘hypocrites’ who were singing such phrases). Much of the time, I simply would not sing or pray at all because I felt so unworthy. How could I possibly worship God in a way pleasing to him if I was singing and saying things that I knew were not true? The words of Jesus rang in my ears: “You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me.”

When I contemplate, however, the fact that Jesus is not only God with us but also God with us, that he is God’s Word to humanity and humanity’s perfect response to God’s Word, everything changes. I no longer waver between feelings of guilt toward myself or critical thoughts toward others. I no longer stay silent when hymns and songs and prayers put words on my lips that I could otherwise only sing insincerely or hypocritically. Why is this so? It is because “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). When worship songs or prepared prayers lead me to pronounce affirmations of my wholehearted love, trust, and obedience to God, I press deeply into the truth that it is Jesus who has wholeheartedly loved, trusted, and obeyed in my humanity and on my behalf. Since I have been crucified with Christ and Christ lives in me, the songs that I now sing and the prayers that I pray in the flesh I sing and pray by the faithfulness of Christ! It is Christ who sings and prays in me and for me!

I no longer have to wonder whether my worship and prayers will be acceptable to him, because it is Christ himself who is my song and my prayer. It is Christ as not only true God but also true man who, according to Hebrews 2:12, sings God’s praise in the midst of the congregation of his people. I no longer have to grovel before God hoping that my feeble attempts at worship may somehow be acceptable to him on the basis of my own efforts at self-examination and purification. I know that my worship will be acceptable to him as a pleasing aroma because I am in Christ, Christ is in me, and it is he who is clothed in my humanity and seated in heaven at the right hand of God who ultimately offers up the perfect sacrifice of worship.

So I can truly sing and pray in freedom and in joy, because Jesus is truly Emmanuel in both senses: God with us and God with us.