Saturday, March 2, 2024

Happiness

The men in church recently had a stirring discussion about the nature of happiness. At our men’s breakfast we heard a really good talk on the “Blessed” man of Psalm 1. Talking about “blessed” led to talking about joy which, per usual, led to talking about the difference between joy and happiness. I’ve come to think a little differently about the difference over the last several years, or, more accurately, whether there is a difference. Usually Christians put the difference (as they see it) like this: 


“Happiness is fleeting, but joy is eternal.” (Which can be true to some degree.) Or…

“Happiness is circumstantial, but joy is heavenly.” (Which is even closer to the target.)


Our guest speaker also made the close-to-target point (I think quoting someone, maybe Lewis from Mere Christianity) that if we seek happiness we won’t find it. But if we seek the Lord, we will find him and happiness, too. That’ll preach! 


Here’s my question (and I’m just going to lay my cards on the table): Aren’t happiness and joy the same thing, with the primary difference being where we seek it from? Consider: 


1. The word for “blessed” in Psalm 1:1 is asher, an interjection used also in 2:12 and 41:1. It’s something people experience. Similarly, and dissimilarly, the word baruk is used in 41:13 in reference to God:  “Blessed be the Lord.” His blessedness is obviously different from man’s, seen in the fact that it uses a different word. 


2. BUT. Another word for “joy” is used of God in 1 Chronicles 16:27, the word chadda (“Strength and joy are in his place.”) This is the same word used in Nehemiah 8:10 in which God’s people are told “The joy (chadda) of the Lord is your strength.” That is, God’s joy becomes the substantial source of man’s joy. 

-So, God’s blessedness is different from man’s, but his joy can be appropriated to 

man’s capacities (hence Joy as a “fruit of the Spirit” in Gal. 5:22: God the Holy Spirit 

has Joy, and gives it.)


3. Further, we might also observe that the Septuagint (that is, greek) version of the Old Testament uses the same word for “blessed” in Ps.1:1 (“Blessed is the man…”) as what is used in Jesus’ New Testament beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12 “Blessed are you…”): makarios. Critical commentaries often note that makarios could appropriately be translated as “Happy,” i.e. “Happy are those who…” Thus Psalm 1:1 could appropriately say “Happy is the man who walks…” And Ps. 2:12 could say “Happy are all who take refuge in (the Son.)”


This is weedy, I know. My point is that happiness and joy are so close in the Bible, both existing in God and promised to come to believers from God as they follow him. Believers get joy from the Holy Spirit, and experience happiness from him as they walk with him, even if it is only in partiality (presupposed in Matt. 5:3 where “Blessed/Happy are the poor in spirit, for their’s is the kingdom of heaven.” Obviously poverty of spirit isn’t a happy experience, usually. But it’s blessed in God’s eyes and thus it eventually leads to eternity with him.)


But the real reason I’m writing is because Peter Kreeft’s comments on Aquinas’ treatment of happiness were so settling for me this morning, I just had to share. Kreeft’s Summa on the Summa* is an annotated translation of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica that I’ve been reading in small chunks at a time for roughly 6 months (very small chunks!)  In the “first part of the second part” of Summa Thomas proves that all people make choices based on seeking an end (that is, pursuing a goal, going in a direction, having an orientation.) Animals are instinctive, so they just try to survive; but image-bearers (people) have a will that pursues ends. They want to survive but they also want to thrive while they do it. Thomas thus employs Augustine’s On The Trinity to prove that man’s last end—that is, the ultimate goal which determines all of humanity’s lives, and as such, is actually not just last but is first—is happiness. All live their lives seeking happiness. They might seek it wrongly (which we’ll see), but they seek it nevertheless. Even if we come to Christ for Christ’s own sake, we’re doing so because he makes us happy. 


This is where Kreeft comes in, and I’ll quote him at length: 


“Happiness means not merely subjective contentment, or rest of desire, but also real 

blessedness, the state of possessing the objective good for man. It is contentment, but 

contentment in the true good. Like bodily health, it has both a subjective and an 

objective aspect. The word ‘happiness’ in English connotes only subjective satisfaction. 

Moreover, it connotes something dependent on fortune, or chance (‘hap’), something 

that just happens, like falling in love, rather than something we work at, like charity. 

“(Thomas says that) the last end of human life is stated as happiness because all seek 

it, and seek it as an end, not as a means to any further end, while they seek all other 

things as means to this end. No one seeks happiness in order to be rich, powerful, or 

wise, but people seek riches, or power, or wisdom because they think these will make 

them happy, in either the subjective sense or in the objective sense.” (349-50, fn3)


Hopefully you follow Kreeft’s line of thought: We can be subjectively happy, where we’re satisfied in a real sense. But it might not be a happiness in the true good. As such, it, as a passing happiness, won’t last. But true happiness is satisfaction in the true good, that is, in Christ, who is himself joy and happiness. That’s why he spoke of “…the glory (he) shared with (the Father) before the foundation of the world,” where the Father, “loved (him) before the foundation of the world” (Jn.17:24, 5). He, as God’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:24), was to the Father, “daily his delight, rejoicing before him always” (Prov. 8:30).**


What I’m trying to say is this: We don’t have to choose between man’s happiness and Christ’s joy. Rather, since Christ is himself the God-man in whose image we’re all created (Jn. 1:3-4) and who came to earth to redeem us to himself (1:12-14), mans true happiness only exists in Christ’s joy. It, therefore, is not a sin to seek it in him. It’s only a sin to define it ourselves and then demand that he give it to us our way. We won’t find it then. 


But if we confess that he is both happiness itself and the source of all experienced happiness, he will share with us all what is his. In this way, he, as the joy of the Lord, becomes our strength. This is what it means to “Rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1): To know that he’s your life, that he’s happy, and that as you live a cross-bearing life following him, you’ll share richly in resurrection happiness too. 


What joy!


--

*See Kreeft, Summa on the Summa, 349-50, footnote3


**For an utterly joy-producing sermon on this topic, see Hans Boersma, "Happiness in Christ" in Sacramental Preaching: Sermons on the Hidden Presence of Christ, 111-123.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Once It Was the Blessing, Now It is the Lord: Ash Wednesday 2024

I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday 2024. Ash Wednesday is an extremely old Christian day commemorating the beginning of Lent. Lent is a 40 days’ length of time of intense discipline leading up to Holy Week and Easter. Christians use the time to mimic Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, usually abstaining from certain conveniences like favorite foods, alcohol, delicacies, television, etc. The goal is that that for a time they will do without, and draw closer to Christ instead. Ash Wednesday, where ashes are often spread in a cross-shape on the forehead, commences Lent, commemorating that we as humans are simply made from the ground’s dust, and to dust shall we return. But even that is not the end of the story, for Christ is our very life (1 Jn. 5:20).


In the spirit of commitment to Christ—ever the theme of the believing life, not just during Lent—I thought I’d share a couple of lines from this old A.B. Simpson hymn “Himself.” The hymn articulates well what my sermon from this past Sunday took 40+ minutes to say: Discipleship is the constant endeavor to grow in love for the right things with the right proportions. Citing Bernard of Clairvaux’s “4 Loves” (12th c.), the sermon saw that a primary effect of this maturation in love is that one grows out of using God to get things into thanking God for all things, and using things to serve him. Believers over time learn this as they learn that he is himself the treasure. As they grow they “count all things as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8), willing to lose all things, because he is the source, and they know him directly.


If you observe Lent, let these words give you vocabulary for what you’re pursuing during this season: A life where Christ is treasure, and all things come from and go back to him for whom they exist. 


“Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord;

Once it was the feeling, now it is His Word; 

Once His gift I wanted, now the Giver own; 

Once I sought for healing, now Himself alone. 


“Once ’twas painful trying, now ’tis perfect trust;

Once a half salvation, now the uttermost!

Once ’twas ceaseless holding, now He holds me fast; 

Once ’twas constant drifting, now my anchor’s cast.” 


All in all forever, only Christ I’ll sing

Everything is in Christ, 

And Christ is everything.

                       A.B. Simpson—“Himself,” ad.1891

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Alistair Begg, and the Perils of Legalism

If I’ve got to go down on the side of one or the other, I’ll go down on this side, the side of compassion, with people accusing me of weakness, rather than go down on the side of condemnation, which closes any doors or opportunities for future engagement with those who know exactly what we believe about the Bible and about Jesus and so on.”


So said Scottish pastor Alistair Begg this past Sunday (scroll to 33:10) before his congregation of 40+ years, Parkside Church (outside of Cleveland, OH). For those unfamiliar, it came public that Alistair said in an interview a few months ago that, in response to a Christian woman asking his advice about whether she should attend her grandson's marriage to a transgender person, Alistair said that she should attend. The grandmother, having in the past made both the gospel and her love clear to her grandson, was shocked at Alistair's response. And so were multitudes of believers, who have been blessed by Alistair's 40+ years of faithful Bible-exposition, never capitulating on cultural compromises, always handling them with grace and clarity. 


Backstory 

But conservative Christians, especially in America, took it as yet another example of a well-known pastor bowing to the cultural zeitgeist, going back on what he once knew was true, now rejecting it so that he can  be respected. (See Alistair's wikipedia page for links to such criticisms, under "theological views.") 


Alistair finally responded to the dust-up this past Sunday, in a sermon entitled "Compassion vs. Condemnation," on the older son of the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15). Alistair's point of contact between the text and the recent events was that the older brother had pharisaism/legalism in his heart (a clear point in Jesus' parable). Legalism in a Christian context could be thought of as commitment to a set of rules that are, at best, the effect of reflection on God's revealed truth, but not God's revealed truth itself. A biblical example would be the many leaders in Isaiah's time who "honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from (him)...teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Is. 29:13 LXX, Jesus quoting it in Matt. 15:8-9; emphasis added). They had built a culture on inferences, reflecting on God's commands, and were holding peoples' feet to the fire to keep the inferences, instead of feeding on the commands. Jesus' point is that one cannot be a legalist about God's commands. They can only be a legalist about man's. 


Legalism 

So, as an example, I disagree that the Old Covenant Sabbath continues under the New, because I think it reached its purpose in Jesus, our sabbath rest (Heb.3-4, cf. Matt.11:28-30). I think that this is why Paul at many points (Rom.14:5-6, Gal.4:10-11, Col.2:16-17) minimizes the necessity of esteeming any particular day as more special than another. 


BUT. Do I think Christians who hold that Sunday is the "Lord's Day" of Rev.1:10, and thus the Sabbath, are legalists/Pharisees? Not necessarily; many of these Christians are driven by a desire to keep God's commands. A legalist would go further, adding rules for sabbath observance that the Bible doesn't, and then being condemnatory toward those who don't abide. The rules become the standard, not the revealed command itself. This might be a poor example, but you get the point: Legalism/Pharisaism is a commitment to a set of rules or a desired culture as though it is inspired by God, when it is not. (This is why liberal Christians who don't hold to the Bible's inspiration call everyone legalists: They're not sure God has actually said anything.) 


So, conservative Christians have seen what has happened with sexual ethics in the current day, and how America, with its once rock-solid commitment to Christian ethics (or so it is assumed), has drifted into "all manner of sin" (Matt. 12:31, cf. Rom.1:28). Homosexuality is normal (or as Michael Scott would say, "Gay: Good,") as is transgenderism, abortion, etc. So, we figure, since we cannot have anything to do with those things, then to interact at all is to support them


A Question 

Here's my question: Is that true, or just implied? In other words, does having gay friends, liking a post from a gay co-worker, or even attending a gay wedding "taking part in the unfruitful works of darkness" (Eph.5:11)? Or can those things be done in a way that affirms the human nature of the people without affirming the sin? Consider this: We know that the same Paul (read: God through Paul) who said "take no part" also said to not even associate with a brother (read: Christian in your church) given to "sexual immorality or greed, or who is an idolator, reviler, drunkard, or swindler." Interestingly, Paul immediately follows this by saying this rule does not apply to our relationship to "outsiders," (non-Christians), only insiders (1 Cor. 5:11-12), because God will judge those outside (5:13). Apparently holiness is more important in the church than outside the church! "Judgment begins at the house of God" (1 Pet. 4:17). If people in the church are stuck in sin, that's more serious for us than those in the world who are! 


My point is not to imply contradiction in the Bible (there is none), but that understanding comes from humbling our hearts and asking God for clarity (ie, as in Ps.119). In this case, I'm unsure if attendance at a gay wedding is participation in it any more than your enjoyment of Starbucks drinks is participation in their LGBTQ agenda, or that of Panera (which seems to be the Christian meeting placeTM), or your use of iPhone is participation in Apple's, or if John Macarthur's public endorsement of Donald Trump as the best available candidate in 2020 means that Macarthur endorses everything Trump stands for. I could go on with examples, but my point is this: Obviously, we're all drawing the line somewhere between "loving neighbor and enjoying/stewarding creation" and "participating with sin." 


And because of that, I just don't think we should write off a man with 40+ years of gospel faithfulness--including utter clarity about his stance on the sinfulness of homosexuality (and having lost ministry opportunities because of it)--because he told a grandmother in a particular situation to draw the line somewhere that we wouldn't. 


To be clear, I disagree with Alistair. I wouldn't attend, nor would I counsel someone to. But I know what he was saying. And as I watched the video of him sharing this past Sunday how it's affected him, I was sad for him; I love him, am so grateful for him, and don't want his good name to be soiled. 


The Current Day

But such is the time we're in. I fear that Christians are experts at criticizing the world, but not at looking at ourselves (and our churches). The amount of political and patriotic idolatry present in the American churches is alarming (gone is our citizenship being in heaven first), as is the prevalence of porn and masturbation among believing men (gone is holiness as our priority), and the self-centeredness of women dressing and acting like the women of the world (gone is modesty and humility as benchmarks of true femininity). As a people who have as central to our identity the presentation of our whole selves to God as living sacrifices (which is the true worship that Jesus said he came to bring, Rom.12:1, cf. Jn.4:24), conservative churches just want to time-travel on Sundays back to the 50s, while liberal churches want to genre-travel into a Celebrity Roast-like church dynamic (the roast-ee being conservative Christians, of course; "We're not perfect, no one is...but at least we're not like them.")


And how both sides engage with the gay community, Alistair said well in his sermon: "We either affirm (liberal) or condemn (conservative.) But the reality is that, because of the Bible, we should do neither." That is to say, God will not let me affirm people living in sin, nor will he let me condemn them. Instead, I have to take it on a case-by-case basis, draw the line somewhere that doesn't put me into contradiction with the Word...forget the cultural status quo, and judge it by its consistency...and trust the Holy Spirit to check me if I'm in danger of either being licentious or pharisaical. And he will! Is that not exactly what it means to "walk by the Spirit" (see Rom.8, Gal.5)?: To believe that he'll lead me in how to rightly apply his word? Alternatively, to set up extra rules, even if well-meaning, might lead us into the very legalism that Jesus so clearly came to save us from. And that tendency can (and does) wax both right and left. 


I'm pretty sure that that's all Alistair was saying. I can't tell you what to think; all I can tell you is what I would say in Alistair's situation (which I did, above). And in this situation, I'll just conclude by borrowing from Simon and Garfunkel: Fellow Jesus-following Christians, "Slow down, you move too fast."

Monday, December 18, 2023

No Empty Space

"Your steadfast love, oh Lord, extends to the heavens; your faithfulness to the clouds…

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! 

The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 

They feast on the abundance of your house, 

And you give them to drink from the river of your delights. 

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light." 

-King David, Psalm 36:5, 7-9


I remember watching outer-space-themed movies as a pre-teen/early-teen in the late 90s. Deep Impact, Armageddon, Contact, etc. You might remember them. Latent as a sub-theme in most of these was the idea of the vacuity (emptiness) of space. On one occasion (on which movie, I can’t remember), a guy gets blown off of an asteroid by a random surface explosion, and goes hurtling into outer space, screaming in terror in his helmet, knowing he will die a lonely, miserable death in the vacuity of empty blackness. This view of the universe was woven into the minds of millennials with a ubiquity (and certainty) that takes major revisionism to deny. 


Combine it with the naturalism of the Lion King (and to be clear, we all love the Lion King), where people and animals are merely a part of an impersonal “circle of life,” and you begin to see emerge the final product of the late modern presuppositions that make today's thirty and early forty-somethings the skeptics about theism that they are: 

a) Space is big, dark, empty, and full of random explosions that will send us out into it 

alone; and 

b) My significance is found in the fact that I contribute to a food/survival chain. (Never 

answered in Lion King is how this impersonal, mechanical view of the universe in any 

way justifies Simba’s rage at his uncle for killing Mufasa: Doesn’t Scar’s ingenuity and 

cleverness simply prove him to be higher on the chain?) 


But David, under inspiration by the Spirit of the God who is, says something interesting in the text above: God’s steadfast love—his chesed love (it’s Hebrew; think covenantal, eternal, Trinitarian, relentlessly saving, protecting, healing)—extends to the heavens. Now God dwells perfectly in heaven (Matt. 6:9, Ecc. 5:2), so we would expect David to say that God's steadfast love extends from the heavens. But he says “to the heavens”; the implication seems to be that the the steadfast love of God, as far as humanity is concerned, starts on the ground. That is, our existence in this time and in this place is itself evidence of his steadfast love. He puts us where we are when we are, so that, as Paul says in Athens, “we’ll feel our way toward him and find him” (Ac. 17:27). 


But note the very next thing Paul says: “Yet he is actually not far from each of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being” (17:27-28). So he has chosen to place each of us in our unique lot in life because it is the best lot in which each of us can seek and find him. But what we’re seeking is not something far off, but something with a presence that is experienced by so simple an act as breathing, even existing. We do nothing apart from God’s supplying of our being. “In his hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job. 12:10); note, we breathe, but the breath is cradled in his hand. In that same sense he says via Jeremiah, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23:23); similarly still, Jesus says that even something as insignificant as a sparrow's death does not occur apart from God’s provision, and neither do we lose hairs so that he loses count of them (Matt. 10:28-30). Our being is continually supplied by God, as is all being in both general and particular. We don’t act apart from him: If we do good, we participate with him; if we do bad, we choose non-participation, but his wisdom is such that those acts of non-participation will serve his good purposes in the end. Obviously this raises a lot of follow-up questions about causality and evil, but I’m going to decline them for now. I’d recommend a couple of books, footnoted below.*


Simply put, the difference between this view of the universe and the impersonal, mechanical, prone-to-explosion, unavoidably lonely view of the universe is obvious: If all of life is lived before God’s face, deriving from God’s being, there is not even a single square inch of space in existence that is lonely. If some catastrophe happened while in outer space, sending someone hurtling away, it is not nothingness into which they hurtle, but the space which the God of steadfast love fills. Neither is our significance tied to our production in some survival cycle, but on God's graciously giving us life, breath, and everything (Ac. 17:25) which means he cares, and invites us to himself, moment by moment. Thus even the one hurtling into outer space would do well to learn to think, even in that moment of terror, “While I’m terrified, nothingness doesn't consist in this spiral away, but only in refusing to look to and believe in God, and instead to think what I want to about this. God will care for me, and if that means death, it means entrance into his joy” (“Enter into the joy of your master” Matt. 25:21).


I think that this is why v.5 in the Psalm above flows into vv.7-9 the way that is does: His steadfast love fills all space and time such that he is inescapable, and when people acknowledge it and learn to rest in him, his care, his provision, etc., two things happen, one following the other: a) He becomes their refuge from the troubles of life (v.7); and b) He satisfies them with the joy and delight that exists in his perfect glory (vv.8-9, “the river of your delights”; see also Ps. 46:4).


In short, if you know the steadfast love of God the Trinity, you know that this love both follows and precedes you everywhere you go (Ps. 23:6). There is no isolated place, period, mood, thought, etc. You derive all things from him who is the “fountain of life” who, echoing Calvin, never dries up, and is the source of all goodness.** Or, to summarize, quoting Calvin: 


“After we have learned by faith to know that whatever is necessary for us or defective in us is supplied in God and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom it hath pleased the Father that all fulness should dwell, that we may thence draw as from an inexhaustible fountain, it remains for us to seek and in prayer implore of him what we have learned to be in him.”***

 

And even in uncertainty, pain, even despair, such thoughts or feelings don’t change that He who is the fountain of life and all good things shepherds even in this. It’s only matter of time before there’s rejoicing again.

-------------


*Andrew Davison, Participation in God, chs.1,2,5,9; Peter Kreeft, Summa on the Summa (his annotations on the most relevant portions of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica; see especially “Four: Cosmology and Providence,” which deals with Summa I.44-105, pp.189-239.
**This terminology comes from his Ephesians sermons. 
***Institutes, III.20.1. Emphasis added. 

Friday, November 10, 2023

A Precious Remedy

I haven't been writing much, not because I haven't had anything to write, but because my writing attention has been on my dissertation. At the time of this writing, I am roughly four weeks from submission, so I'm "under the gun," as they say. But I need a fresh blog post so that I don't totally get out of practice. 

Over the last several years, my reading has been divided into several subsections, in many cases where books cause cross categories: First is research-reading, in which I read for the specific purpose of guiding higher academic pursuits (whether it be PhD, or proposed articles, papers for conferences, or publishing possibilities); second is personal theological growth, which is reading geared toward growth in "knowledge of Christ Jesus" (2 Pet. 3:18); third is pastoral and pedagogical reading, which is reading that assists my preaching and teaching at church, as well as what assists my teaching in the classroom setting; finally is personal growth and fun reading, in which I read things that I think help me either to practically follow Jesus or are just sort of decompression-reading.  

For the first category, Matthew Barrett's 900-page Reformation as Renewal is a current pursuit; in it he argues for an alternative reading of the history of the Reformation and the age in which it occurred than what is traditionally believed by both Protestant and Roman Catholic (highly, highly recommended). For the second category, I'm reading Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa, which is an annotated commentary on major portions of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica (also highly recommended). For the third category, I'm reading Jim Davis and Michael Graham's The Great Dechurching, in which they break down the exodus from the church that has occurred in America over the last 40 years. It is well worth any Christian's time - the church has work to do, because a lot of people have left churches for reasons that are avoidable. (And one fact worth considering is that the higher the level of a person's education, the lower likelihood of dechurching. In a world where we hear that progressive education is the problem in America, it is actually the case that church attenders who had high levels of academic achievement were less likely to leave church!)*

But one example of reading that belongs to the final category is the Puritan Thomas Brooks' Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices. I've owned it for a long time, but haven't spent much time in it until recently. Oh my goodness, is it helpful. Christians are to be in a constant defensive position against the devil, because his mission this side of the cross and leading to Christ's final coming is to destroy our faith (2 Cor. 4:4, Eph. 6:13f., 1 Pet. 5:8-10). It is not "fundamentalist" to believe that Satan is an actual entity at work in the world^; everyone, I think, believes evil exists. What is the source of evil, then? The devil, who has "devices" or "designs" (2 Cor. 2:11), of which we are to be made aware. 

Brooks (1608-80) spends the entirety of his pastoral work on the various "devices" Satan uses to destroy believers, giving several "precious remedies" that assist the believer in their battle. One of those devices which Satan employs to 

"keep souls in a sad, doubting, and questioning condition, and so making their life a hell, is, by causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yea, so to mind their sins as to forget, yea, to neglect their Savior...Their eyes are so fixed upon their disease that they cannot see the remedy, though it be near."*^ 

This is a device in which the devil tries to keep the believer, still inhabited by sin and sin tendencies (1 Jn. 1:8, 10), so focused on their sin condition that they cannot see the Savior who has cleansed them and is available to them. Hence becomes fulfilled what Isaiah wrote, that the rebellious, by their sin, have made a wall between themselves and God, such that he cannot hear their prayers (Is. 59:1-2). Satan wants people to think that they're so bad, and hopelessly so, that God cannot (because he would not) listen. 

And Brooks' first precious remedy almost took my breath away when I read it: 

"The first remedy is for weak believers to consider, That though Jesus Christ hath not freed them from the presence of sin, yet he hath freed them from the damnatory power of sin. It is most true that sin and grace were never born together, neither shall sin and grace die together; yet while a believer breathes in this world, they must live together, they must keep house together. Christ in this life will not free any believer from the presence of any one sin, though he doth free every believer from the damning power of every sin."# 

I was stunned at Brooks' comment that sin and grace were not born together (for grace has to do with God's eternal giving nature, and sin, with a reactive refusal to participate in God), and thus they will not die together (that is, I'll one day be set free from sin's presence, but grace will continue). So until the end, sin and grace have to live together. They can't not. That's why Paul says the flesh and the Spirit are at war within believers (Gal. 5:16), and why everywhere the New Testament cautions against letting sin fester, for it can balloon to unmanageable bigness (i.e. Heb. 3:13, 12:15). We will not attain a practical perfection in this life, though it must never be because we are not seeking to be perfect like our Father (Mt. 5:48). We are all seeking something, living in light of some picture of the "good life." So we must always pursue God's "good life," which he has for us. 

So when we consider consistent sin struggles, areas where we are not growing like we should, frustrations with lack of love for God or for others, etc. we should remember that the devil would have us focus all of our attention on those areas. But much better is to remember that sin and grace are living together inside of each of us, and that they will do so until the end. And as Brooks says on the next page, if Jesus doesn't dispense entirely with particular sins in this life, it is because he has chosen not to, and thus he will forgive us when we slip, when we return to him and ask.^^

While it is true that Jesus did not die and rise again so that we would live this life defeated and hopeless in sin, it is also true that he does not leave us in this life of misery for us to feel defeated by our lack of growth and Christlikeness. Our faith is not seen in our perfection but in the ability of He who is perfect to cause us to keep returning to him. If the devil accuses--which is what he does--I counter his attack by returning to Jesus again, and again, and again, so on. And such reflection should be balm to a weary soul.


*See Davis, Graham, The Great Dechurching, 111-12.

^See, for instance, John Mark Comer's helpful Live No Lies, which is a book about Satan and evil, written from a decidedly non-fundamentalist perspective. 

*^Precious Remedies, Puritan Paperback edition, 142, emph original. 

#Ibid, 143, emph original.

^^Ibid, 144.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Augustine, On Predestination and Jesus as Our Fountain of Grace

“Therefore in Him who is our Head let there appear to be the very fountain of grace, whence, according to the measure of every man, He diffuses Himself through all His members. It is by that grace that every man from the beginning of his faith becomes a Christian, by which grace that one man from His beginning became Christ.” 
                           -Augustine, On Predestination, XXXI

In context, Augustine is arguing against both Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Both camps assert the necessity of man’s willing consent to his own conversion, in the former case (Pelagianism) in entirety (that is, conversion is entirely man’s consent), and in the latter (semi-Pelagianism) in partiality (that is, conversion is partially God’s doing and partially man’s consent.) Up against both of these frameworks, the former which is, thankfully, fairly uncommon today, and the latter, which is almost ubiquitous among evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox today, Augustine aims to assert that salvation is all the work of God, raising the dead, granting faith to the faithless, and empowering, by grace, the obedience of the once disobedient. 

Augustine bases his argument on such portions of Sacred Scripture as: 

-“When you were dead...He raised you with Christ. By grace you have been saved…this is not your own doing, but is the gift of God, that no man should boast” (Eph. 2:5, 8-9). 
-“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn. 6:44). 
-“It has been granted you to believe in him…” (Phil. 1:29)
-“What do you have that you did not receive...Why boast as if you didn’t receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7) 
-“As many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” (Ac. 13:48)


But mostly in this quote, Augustine is drawing on Heb. 12:2, which calls Jesus the “Author and Perfector of our faith.” That is, He begins it (that is, faith) in us and He completes it (maturing it, perfecting it) in us. 

This means that, just as God the Trinity is the fountain of life for all that exists, God the Son, the second Member of the Trinity, via His incarnation in the Person of Jesus Christ, is the fountain of grace for all of those who believe in and hope in Him. 

Like God the Trinity not only begins but at every moment continually gives all people who live their being (eg. “In Him we live and move and have our being,” Ac. 17:28), so God the Son in Jesus Christ both begins and at every moment continually gives all of His people their salvation and eternal life. No one can say, “God offered to save me, and I accepted,” though countless believers throughout the centuries have tried to (and still do). They should instead say (and will say one day), “God offered to save me, and I accepted, because the Holy Spirit moved me to willingness to embrace the One who He taught me is eternal life.” Or they’ll simply say, “God saved me through the Lamb” (as in the heavenly songs of Revelation 4-5). Augustine is explaining how this salvation occurs.

But the reason Jesus can be our salvation in the first place is because the eternal Son became temporal man in the first place. Note the logic of Augustine’s last sentence in the quote: By Christ’s grace one becomes a Christian, which is the same grace that united the man Jesus with the the divine Son in the hypostatic union. In other words, God's grace brings us, men and women, to Himself, because God's grace, in the person of Jesus, brought a human nature to Himself, to give us a Savior who could truly be our fountain of life. Why am I a Christian, right now? Because the life of Jesus, the God-man Incarnate, is in me, as a spring of living water in a parched land. It is not parched anymore. Thus Jesus' promise, “I will give you living water” (Jn. 4:10).

And indeed, He has done so and continues to. 

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Wilderness Teaches Us to Pray

I recently led a little Bible study at our Wednesday evening prayer meeting entitled “What the wilderness teaches us.” I leaned for the main point on a little section in Zack Eswine’s The Imperfect Pastor, because it was a profoundly helpful point for dealing with difficulty and trial, or the wilderness. Hopefully you agree. 


Context

Luke wants to show Jesus as the Son of God, seen in the fact that unlike Matthew’s genealogy (which shows Jesus’ Jewishness by taking him back through David to Abraham), Luke takes Jesus all the way back to Adam, who is then called “the son of God” (3:38). While that might seem strange, it shouldn’t be. Israel is called the son of God at several points (Ex. 4); and being the first made in God’s image, we should expect that Adam is son-like in a way that the other species are not. 


But immediately after the genealogy, which is itself a break in the narrative, following Jesus’ baptism where the Spirit of God came down on him, Luke says that the Spirit then drove Jesus into the wilderness for a time of testing. So: a) Spirit is on Jesus at baptism, b) Jesus in his humanity descends from Adam the Son of God. c) Then the Spirit drives him for testing. And the first thing the devil says is “If you’re the Son of God…” (4:3). It’s clear what Luke is saying: To give the Holy Spirit He has, Jesus has to endure the same kind of temptations both Adam and Israel, God's sons, did. For how could Jesus save humanity if he wasn’t tested like we are? 


Testing

This testing continues for 40 days (4:2). Imagine a month and a half of no relief, just constant testing, all day, every day, and hunger. And these temptations were the same types of ones we go through (Heb. 4:15). The essence of sin is getting things God promises us not on God’s terms; so temptation will be consistent with that. Thus the devil says, “I’ll give you the kingdoms of the world if you’ll bow to me.” Jesus would get the world as his inheritance eventually, but he had to wait so he could receive it on God’s terms. Satan’s temptation is essentially, “The Father is lying to you—he won’t give you the kingdom; you need my advice,” similar to Genesis 3: “God’s lying to you—he won’t give you eternal life; you need my advice.” 


As an aside, Jesus’ withstanding temptation means that he can truly help us in temptation (Heb. 2:18). When we’re tempted, the temptation ends one of two ways: Either we use our God-given escape rout (1 Cor. 10:13), or we give in. But Jesus, as Thomas Goodwin said, truly knows how to defeat it because he stared it down and never sinned. Therefore only he knows how strong the pull is. 


Afterward

Back to Luke: He survives the temptation, then it becomes clear that he is a man of prayer. See Luke’s comments in 5:16 and 6:12: Jesus prays a lot. He prays so much that the disciples ask him to teach them (11:1). Why did the Son of God, of all people, need so much prayer? 


Here’s Eswine’s answer, and I think it is beautifully said: In Jesus’ time of great testing in the wilderness, a time of testing beyond what we can imagine, he learned to bring all of his burdens to His Father in prayer. The wilderness taught him to only have God (Ps. 73:26, 143:6). Then when the testing was over, he’d had enough practice that prayer was second nature even to his human nature. 


This is exactly why Hebrews 5:8 says he learned obedience through what he suffered. It isn’t that he had been disobedient before. But that in his testing, he learned to submit himself to His Father’s will. Imagine, “Father, will this ever end?...Okay, I guess I have to wait.” In so doing, he learns to step into God’s will and trust him. 


Teach Us

This all explains his answer to the disciples asking “Teach us to pray.” He gives them the so-called Lord’s prayer, which is a deferent submission to God’s Kingdom, will, and leading, where the pray-ers only self-concern is for forgiveness, essentials, and holiness (11:2-4);. After teaching them the Prayer, Jesus then gives them a lesson on asking, seeking, and knocking; and then he promise the Holy Spirit to those who ask the Father (11:13). 


Seems like a strange promise: Why the Holy Spirit? Because to live like Jesus, seeking God’s will and Kingdom, it will lay you low like Jesus was, and you will need His empowering Spirit. In essence, the disciples say “Teach us to pray,” and he says “Okay, but you’ll go through the wilderness, and you’ll need the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit will, therefore, be God’s answer to your prayers.” 


That probably didn’t excite the disciples very much, especially considering that the next thing after the Spirit’s leading Jesus into temptation was Jesus proclaiming the Spirit’s presence on him for the jubilee year, which almost got him killed (Lk. 4:16ff., cf Is.61:1ff.). But the wilderness teaches obedience to God’s leading, and trust that He will be your defender and defense. And that is the purpose of the Father giving us His Spirit.


Or in other words, it is through the wilderness that God's Spirit teaches us to pray.