Friday, October 6, 2017

Reading the Old Testament with the Early Church

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There are three things we should understand about the Old Testament and the early Church if we want to read the Scriptures the way the first Christians did. First is that, for the early Church, the Old Testament constituted the Scriptures. The Gospels and Epistles had not yet been written. It was not until about the AD 50s that the epistles began to be written, and the 60s that the Gospel writers began their work. But the Church had the Old Testament, and their faith was that it was all about Jesus, because that is what Jesus had taught his disciples, and they found Jesus and the gospel all throughout. Even when the New Testament writings came along, the Old Testament remained indispensable for the Church in her understanding of Christ.

The second thing to realize is that the Old Testament the early Church used was not the Hebrew version but the Septuagint, also known as the LXX, an ancient translation of the Hebrew text into Greek. This was the common form of the Scriptures used among the scattered Jews because, in their exile, a great many of them did not know Hebrew. It was natural then for the early Church, even though the first Christians were Jewish, to read and study and incorporate this Greek version into their liturgies. And whenever the New Testament writers cited or quoted the Old Testament Scriptures, as they very often did, it was the Greek version that they used. The Septuagint deserves much more respect than many evangelicals have been willing to give it.

The third thing we need to recognize is that, though the early Church found Christ everywhere in the Old Testament, they did not do so by a literal or grammatical method of interpretation but by allegorical or figurative readings of the Scriptures. We can observe this in how the New Testament writers handled the Old Testament. Whenever they cited, quoted or alluded to the Scriptures, the take-away for them was always about Christ and the gospel, even when a literal reading of those Scriptures would have shown no evidence of such — indeed, there are several Old Testament passages which, if taken literally, would be a contradiction of Christ and the gospel. For several centuries, the early Church followed the exegetical pattern of the apostles and New Testament writers. They did not go to the Old Testament Scriptures for history lessons but for spiritual nourishment, the testimony of Christ they contained — and they did not lack for food.

Friday, July 14, 2017

We Are God’s New Creation in Jesus Christ

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For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
Last time, we looked at Ephesians 2:8-9, at the patron/client relationship in Paul’s day, at the nature of faith as faithfulness when the object of faith is a person, and considered that faith/faithfulness is not our own doing but the gift of God’s grace. My belief is that the faith/faithfulness through which we have been saved is the faithfulness of Christ himself.

As we come to verse 10, we should remember that it is just as much about salvation by grace through faith/faithfulness as verses 8-9 are. Paul does not switch gears but continues his thought. This is indicated by the Greek word gar, translated as “for,” which connects to the previous verses. But the salvation aspect should also be apparent to us by the remainder of verse 10: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

In the patron/client relationship, marked by “grace” and “faith”, there was an expectation that good works would follow. So, in verse 10, Paul speaks of good works. But notice whose works these are: “We are God’s handiwork,” he says. The Greek word for “handiwork” is poeima and refers to something that has been made or done. We are God’s workmanship, God’s doing, and not our own. This is not only the reality of our creation, it is also the reality of our redemption. We are, Paul says, “created in Christ Jesus.” We are part of God’s new creation in Christ. If any man be in Christ, Paul says elsewhere, he is a new creature — the old has passed away and now there is new creation! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We are created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” The NIV wording is misleading — “which God prepared in advance for us to do” might sound like God preordained a to do (or to don’t) list for us to follow. But that misses what Paul is talking about. Having been saved by the grace of God through the faithfulness of Christ, our new life in Christ does not now collapse back down into moralism.

The Lexham English Bible does a better job here: “which God prepared beforehand, so that we may walk in them.” What God prepared for us beforehand was not a moralistic list but the good works themselves. This is why Paul does not say that we should do them — the only doing here is God’s — but that we should walk in them. Because we are God’s workmanship, these good works are God’s works, not ours.

Paul speaks of this divine work in his letter to the church at Philippi: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). And a little bit later he tells them to continue to “work out” their salvation, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). It is God in us, willing his will and desire in us, and energizing it in us.

Because we are created in Christ Jesus, these “good works” are his works, not ours. Our part is to walk in them, to live in what God has prepared and what Christ has done, to yield to the life of Christ in us, and to the new creation we are in him. In Galatians, Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith [faithfulness] of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 KJV).

We may also think of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) manifesting the life of Christ in us. This fruit (love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) is not something we generate ourselves — fruit is not something we clip onto the tree but is what comes forth from the life of the tree. It is the Holy Spirit who brings forth his fruit in us.

All of this is God’s work through and through — the work of God, the life of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit. Our part is to walk in it, yielding ourselves to it in faith. It is purely by the grace of God that we are saved through the faithfulness of Christ. And by faith, we come to know God through Christ, to embrace who Christ is in us (and who we are in him), and begin to live out the reality of God’s new creation.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Salvation By Grace Through Faithfulness

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For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
You have been saved by grace through faith, Paul tells his readers. In the context of the Greek and Roman culture of the day, they would have recognized the language of “grace” and “faith,” especially when used together, as the language of personal relationship, especially one of benefaction; that is, a patron/client relationship.

A patron would extend himself in friendship to another person and show him favor. It was a gift, and offered freely. He was not obliged to extend his friendship but would offer it because he desired to do so. The other person, the client, would decide whether he wanted to enter into that friendship. If he did, he would respond to the benefactor’s gracious act with faith. (You can read more about patronage culture in Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, by David A. deSilva.)

What is the nature of faith in such a situation? If the object of faith is a set of propositions, then it might be sufficient to think of it merely as mental agreement to the reliability of those propositions. In the abstract, we might even agree that another person is trustworthy, but that is not the same things as having faith in or toward that person. In the context of human relationships, of entering into friendship, faith is more than that. It is not only trust in the reliability of that person as friend; it is also faithfulness to that person. In the patron/client relationship, both parties have each other’s back. The patron is on the side of the client and the client is on the side of the patron. It is the idea that “we are in this together.” They keep faith with each other.

In Ephesians 2, there are a couple of things that set God’s patronage apart from that of Paul’s surrounding culture, and their significance would be immediately grasped by Paul’s readers. First is that God has, in Christ, extended his patronage, which is to say his grace and favor, even to his enemies, to people who are against him. At the beginning of chapter 2, Paul reminds his readers that they had formerly been dead in trespasses and sins, in rebellion against God (vv. 1-3). But God did something that was completely unexpected and undeserved:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
For no other reason than his deep and abiding love for us, God showed the richness of his mercy and extended grace and favor, making us alive together with Christ, raising us up together with Christ, seating us with Christ in the heavenlies. This is salvation, freely and unconditionally given to us in Jesus Christ. In a key moment in the book of Romans, Paul declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the unprecedented grace and patronage of God in extending his friendship even to all who have rebelled against him (which we have all done in one way or another).

The second remarkable thing about God’s patronage that sets it apart from all others is that even the pistis, the faith/faithfulness with which to respond to God’s patronage, is itself a gracious gift of God. That was quite unparalleled (and by the nature of things, quite impossible) in the patronage of Greek and Roman culture. But God has shown grace upon grace by his gift of faithfulness. It means that we do not have to somehow generate it in ourselves — and, indeed, we cannot — but it has been gifted to us. All is done by God, and that leaves absolutely no room for any of us to boast. In the patronage of men, a faithful client could boast of how faithful he was to his patron. But with God, there is no such room because even the faith/faithfulness is supplied by God.

Whose faith/faithfulness is this, then? Certainly not ours, for Paul tells us that it is the gift of God. I suggest that the faithfulness that has been given and through which we have been saved is the faithfulness of Christ. This would not be the first time Paul brings out this point. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul relates the words he spoke in rebuke to Peter:
We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16, NET Bible)
We are justified, put right with God, by the “faithfulness of Christ.” The underlying Greek words are pisteos Christou. Grammatically, it is a genitive construction, and taken as a subjective genitive, indicates possession; in this case, the faith/faithfulness of Christ. However, it is also grammatically possible to take it as an objective genitive, which would indicate faith/faithfulness in or to Christ. There is ongoing discussion in scholarly circles concerning which is the most appropriate way to understand pisteos Christou as it is used several times in the New Testament.

My own view is that it should be understood as referring to the faithfulness of Christ. I have several reasons for this, but if I may digress for a moment, one I would like to mention briefly is what Paul says in Romans 5:18 in regard to Christ and our justification: “Consequently, just as one trespass [Adam’s] resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act [Christ’s] resulted in justification and life for all people.” Adam’s act of disobedience resulted in condemnation for all; Christ’s act of obedience — we may say “faithfulness” — resulted in justification for all. It is not our faith but Christ’s faithfulness that has done this.

Returning to Galatians 2:16, notice that Paul contrasts the “faithfulness of Christ” with the “works of the law.” Paul is adamant that we are reconciled to God by the former, not by the latter, and that justification by the faithfulness of Christ is the reason for having faith in Christ.

In Ephesians 2, there is a similar contrast between faithfulness and the works of the law. We are saved, Paul tells us, through God’s gift of faith/faithfulness, “not by works, so that no one can boast” (v. 9). The works in view here are the works of the Mosaic law. Paul goes on to show that the division between Jews and Gentiles, which was a division demarcated by the law, has been broken down by Christ, “by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (vv. 14-16). One of the issues was circumcision (v. 11), a work of the law that, for the Jews, marked out who belonged to the people of God.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, then, as in Galatians 2:16, faith/faithfulness is contrasted with the works of the law. We are put right with God through the former, and clearly not through the latter. And it is through Christ’s faithfulness, not our own, that we are saved.

In the next post, we will see how the faithfulness of Christ continues in Ephesians 2:10, and that our salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God in Christ.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Random Thoughts

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Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About love, freedom, glory, humility, and finding ourselves in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • The love of God never forces our wills ... it frees our wills.
  • Freedom is not the power to change who we really are but the grace to discover who we really are in God.
  • The story the Scriptures tell looks very different from the outside than it does from the inside, where we realize we are part of it. It is only from the inside that we begin to understand it as the story of the gospel, the story of Christ — and truly good news.
  • Mercy is God’s judgment.
  • We are chosen in Christ. Faith does not make this true. Faith embraces the truth of it.
  • The manifestation of evil is not in any way necessary for the glory and goodness of God to be revealed.
  • The passion of the bird is to fly, and of the fish, to swim. In this way, they honor the God who made them and what they were created to be. Likewise, the passion of man is to worship and adore in holy fellowship. But when the object of our worship is anything less than God, the world disintegrates.
  • The glory of God and the humility of Christ are the same thing.
  • You cannot experience God second hand.
  • Today I contemplate God in Christ and Christ in me. It is a good day.
  • The love of God burns away all our delusions so that our wills may be truly free and we become the divine image God created us to be.
  • Today I partake of Jesus my healer, in whom I am made whole.
  • The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has joined Himself to us. This changes everything. Literally.
  • The good news of the gospel is that you and I are part of God’s new creation in Christ.
  • The good news of the gospel is that we are chosen in Christ for the unity of all things in heaven and on earth — which means that all are chosen.
  • Jesus has never been about the difference between us and them — He came for all.
  • To the extent we are willing to forgive others, we are allowing God’s forgiveness a place in us.
  • The good news of the gospel is that in Jesus Christ we discover our true selves being renewed to the image of our Creator, and so become who we really are.
  • When we love well, we are doing good theology, for God is love.
  • Weep with those who weep, for tomorrow it may be your turn. And rejoice with those who rejoice. Same reason.
  • Every moment, regardless of season or circumstance, is an opportunity for me to become what God has created me to be — to discover my true identity in Christ.
  • Christ is the lens through which we read the Scriptures and the context by which we understand the world.
  • We are always reaching out for God and each other. We just very often do not realize it.
  • We fulfill the Law not by following the Law but by following the Spirit, whose fruit is love.
  • Christians are those whacked-out people who believe that God has, in Christ, broken the power of sin and conquered death on our behalf — and that this changes everything.
More random thoughts …

Thursday, June 22, 2017

God’s Anger is Not Forever

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The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
    slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will He harbor His anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
    or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:8-12)
There are several striking things in this brief passage, and they are perfectly revealed to us in Jesus Christ. First, we see that the Lord is full of compassion and grace. There is nothing God has ever done or ever will do that is lacking in either of these. God, in his holiness and justice, always deals with us according to mercy. God overflows with love toward all, even to those who have turned away and consider God as their enemy. The Father loves them nonetheless. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)
What of God’s anger, then? The psalm writer tells us that the Lord is “slow to anger.” God is longsuffering toward us, exceedingly patient with us. Alongside God’s patience, there are a couple of other things the psalm writer would have us understand about God’s anger. The first is that, however we might think about the anger of the Lord, it is always for the sake of God’s love toward us all. See in these verses how it is couched in the middle of God’s compassion, grace and abounding love. God’s anger is always conditioned by his faithful love toward us. His anger is not at us but at sin and evil and darkness — how we break vital relationship not only with God but also with each other, with creation, and even within our own beings. By such dark ways, we do harm to others and to creation as well as to ourselves.

Second, however we might think about the anger of the Lord, the psalm writer tells us this: It will not last forever. It is never God’s last word about anyone. For the anger of the Lord does not come to condemn us but to deliver us. For God is forgiving towards us and does not treat us according to our sins. He does not hold them against us — he removes them from us! Such is God’s love and mercy toward us.

The people whom the psalm writer primarily has in mind as the object of God’s faithful and enduring love are the people of Israel. God made covenant with them and, through Moses, showed them wonderful deliverance. The Lord, “made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel” (v. 7). But in Jesus Christ, God reveals that this same love is not just for Old Testament Israel but for all the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17). “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

This calls for faith, for it is through faith, turning from our own darkness to the light of Christ, that we embrace this great reconciliation, come to know our forgiveness and find our true freedom in God. But if we embrace the darkness, the light of Christ will seem to us like the anger of God instead of the love that it is, for light is God’s judgment on the darkness. The anger of God will not last forever, not because God changes in his disposition toward us — God is ever and always disposed toward us in love, for God is love — but because our disposition toward God changes and we finally see Divine Love for who he is.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Divine Love, Holiness, Mercy and Justice

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Recently, I came across this quote by J. C. Ryle, who was an Anglican bishop (the first one in Liverpool, England, according to Wikipedia). It is from a sermon he wrote called “The Great Separation”:
Beware of new and strange doctrines about Hell and the eternity of punishment. Beware of manufacturing a God of your own: a God who is all mercy — but not just; a God who is all love — but not holy; a God who has a Heaven for everybody — but a Hell for none; a God who can allow good and evil to be side by side in time — but will make no distinction between good and evil in eternity. Such a God is an idol of your own imagination!
Ryle was, no doubt, a good Christian, a fine man of God, and rightly to be celebrated. But if it may be permitted, I do have a problem with what he has said in this rather popular quote (and one that has often been echoed by others). In the body of his sermon, Ryle is anxious to safeguard the doctrine of an eternal hell, which is the reason for the distinctions he makes in this quote. For Ryle, anyone who disagrees with that doctrine is presenting a “strange and new” doctrine.

Perhaps such a view that differed from his new and strange to him, but it was not new to the Church, which has never come to a settled understanding on the nature and duration of “hell.” In fact, for about the first five hundred years, the predominant view of the eastern branch of the Church was very different from Ryle’s. They understood the Scriptures as teaching a universal restoration in which God would finally be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28), that the purpose of hell was for cleansing and that it was therefore of limited duration.

But whatever view one takes about hell and everlasting punishment, the problem with Ryle’s quote is that it seems to me to pit God’s love with God’s holiness, and God’s mercy with God’s justice. As if a God who is all love cannot also be holy, and a God who is all mercy cannot also be just. Or as if the love of God must be qualified by the holiness of God, lest God’s love be taken as overly loving, even to the point of offending God’s holiness. Or likewise, as if the mercy of God must be balanced out by the justice of God, lest God’s mercy be understood as too merciful, even to the point of offending God’s justice. But this does not seem to me to adequately understand the nature of divine love and holiness, or of divine mercy and justice.

LOVE AND HOLINESS
The First Epistle of John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:8, and again in 1 John 4:16). Love is not merely a part of God (as if God had parts), or something God has, or does or chooses. It goes deeper than that: Love is what God is. And what God is, he is wholly, not just in part; and not just potentially, either, but fully actualized, fully expressed. In other words, God is all love.

That God is all love tells us about the holiness of God. The Greek word for “holy” refers to what is “set apart.” Holy things are those set apart for God. God’s people are “set apart” for him and are called “holy ones” (another word for this is “saints”). The holiness of God’s own self is the utter uniqueness of God — there is none other like God.

Only of God can it be said that he is love. Human beings may have love, choose love and act in love. But it cannot be said of any of us that we are love. Whatever love, or capacity to love, we may possess, we do not have it in and of ourselves. It is a gift we have received from the God who is love. This uniqueness, that God is love, sets him apart from everything.

God is all love. Every act of God, then, is a manifestation of both the love and holiness of God. A god who is not all love cannot be a god who is truly holy but is a divided, conflicted deity, because it is possible for him to act in ways that are not of love.

We can reckon with the holiness of God as much as we like, but in the end, it does not differ from his love one bit. So, the love of God does not need to be qualified by the holiness of God. For if the holiness of God is the same as his love, then to qualify God’s love with his holiness would be to qualify God’s love with his love. On the other hand, if the holiness of God is different from his love, then to qualify God’s love with holiness would be to qualify it with something that is non-love. In that case, God’s love would itself then be something less than all love: love qualified by non-love. The God of whom it is said that he is love would also then be something less than love — and God would not be truly holy after all.

MERCY AND JUSTICE
The love of God does not work against his holiness, and the holiness of God does not work against his love. Nor do they balance each other out. Likewise, the mercy of God does not work against his justice, and the justice of God does not work against his mercy, or his love. But both the mercy and justice of God are manifestations of the holy love of the God who is all love.

Because God is all love, the justice of God is loving toward all. God’s justice, then, is not about retribution, for love is not retributive. But God’s justice is always restorative, because love always seeks what is best for the one who is loved. So, God, who is love, always seeks what is best for his loved ones (which includes everyone), even when they consider themselves enemies of God.

If God’s justice is restorative, is this not divine mercy? To speak of the mercy of God and the justice of God, then, is not to speak of two different things but to speak of the same thing in two different ways. For both divine mercy and divine justice fully manifest the love of God toward us, or else they have no place in the God who is love.

The restorative justice of God means that, though good and evil exist side by side in the present age, this shall not always be the case. The loving justice of the God who is wholly love will by that holy love remove all evil from his loved ones until they are fully restored, and then God will truly be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). Otherwise, evil would continue to exist in God’s good creation forever — and would that not be a failure either of God’s love or God’s power, or both?

Thursday, June 15, 2017

All God’s Promises are “Yes” in Christ

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But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us — by me and Silas and Timothy — was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:18-22)
There are several things that stand out for me about this passage. First is that Paul is speaking of all the promises of God. “No matter how many promises God has made” is a statement that includes every one of God’s promises. But when were these promises made, and where? Surely, Paul has in mind everything God promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. These promises are not just a few scattered here and there in the Scriptures. The whole movement of the Old Testament is one of promise, and is summed up in God’s big promise to bless all the nations and families of the earth through Abraham.

Every one of God’s promises in the Old Testament is answered in Christ. If that is so, then it seems to me that they must all be about Christ. And if that is so, then I find in that one more indication of how we ought to read the Old Testament: it is about Christ. Indeed, Christ taught his disciples that the Scriptures are about him, and this is how Paul and the other New Testament authors understood them.

All these promises are answered in Christ with a big, fat “Yes.” People waffle. People qualify their “yes” with “no.” People say “maybe.” And with people, it is often hard to know where you stand. No so with God. In Christ, he has made it very clear where we stand with him, and it is an unqualified, unconditional “Yes.”

Christ is God’s “Yes” to us all, for by his Incarnation, Christ joined himself to us all and became one with us all. Christ is God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham to bless all the earth. God’s “Yes” redounds to us all not because of anything that we have done but because of Christ’s union with us.

Paul says that it is God who makes us stand firm in Christ. This is nothing of our own doing; it is the faithfulness of God in Christ. It is God who has anointed us, even as he anointed Christ with his Spirit. It is God who has put his Spirit in our hearts. And it is God who has set his seal on us, demonstrating that, Yes, we are his people. We contributed nothing at all to this, not even our faith, but it is Christ’s faithfulness that has done this for us.

Not only is Christ God’s “Yes” to us but he is also our “Yes” to God. “Through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.” It is through our union with Christ, and the Spirit of Christ within us, that we can say “Yes” and “Amen” to God.

This “Amen” is not what has caused us to be union with Christ. We are in union with Christ not because of our faith but because of his Incarnation. But by our “Amen,” we say “Yes” to this union. It is the faith by which we embrace this union, recognizing the truth of it and giving ourselves over to it. The “Amen” we speak is the echo of God’s “Yes” to us through Christ and his Spirit, and is offered to God through Christ and the Spirit.

Both God’s “Yes” and our “Amen” are the work of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — bringing to pass what God promised long ages ago. This is the divine fellowship we have been brought into through Christ, and God in his love is graciously waking us up to it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Works Contract Mentality

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For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
A few days ago, I talked about how many evangelicals have a contractual view of the gospel, except that in place of works, they have substituted faith as a condition of the contract. Even so, the works contract mentality remains with many of them.

Much of Western Christian theology has imagined some sort of works contracts in our relationship with God. That we were supposed to keep the rules and do the works, but we failed disastrously and broke the contract. That Christ came and kept the rules and the works perfectly, making up for where we had failed, and then at the cross paid a penalty for our failure to keep the contract.

This sort of thinking can be seen in how merits and penances are thought of, at least at the popular level, in the Catholic Church, as credits and debits. And many in the Protestant tradition have turned the penalty they imagine Christ paying into one that is paid to God one our behalf because of our failure to keep the rules and do the good works, or because of the bad works we have done.

The works contract mentality persists even further when it is turned into a system of rewards for the redeemed: doing good works for added honors or benefits. That is nonetheless works-oriented thinking, the supposed contract being that, if we will perform good works, God will give us special rewards as a sort of bonus to our salvation. In that thinking, we are saved by grace through faith, but additionally rewarded for individual merit. Whenever we are talking about earning anything from God, however, we are no longer talking about grace but about something earned — and that misreads the gospel and the life of faith in Christ.

The apostle Paul, however, speaks very differently about good works. In Ephesians 2, he sets aside any idea that we are saved by Law-works (Ephesians 2:8-9), but also any idea that we ever earn anything from God. He understands that we are God’s workmanship, not our own, and that we are created in Christ Jesus by God, not by ourselves (Ephesians 2:10). We are God’s work, so any good that comes from that is God’s good, and any merit that comes from that is God’s merit.

In another letter, Paul tells us that it is God himself who is at work in us, not only doing through us the things that please God, but also working in us the very desire to please God (Philippians 2:13). It is God’s work from first to last — and that’s grace. So, Paul can declare, as he does in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”