Thursday, November 30, 2017

Random Thoughts

Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About love, forgiveness, glory, divine grace, and finding our lives in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of prayer and quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • When we are unwilling to forgive, we put up a roadblock to what God wants to do in us and in the world.
  • If we are not ready to forgive those who have sinned against us, we are not ready to pray the prayer Jesus taught us.
  • The ability to truly forgive others is a miracle, a gift of God’s grace.
  • To forgive others requires repentance on our part. On our own, we do not wish to forgive, so we must turn our soul toward God, who alone can work that miracle in us.
  • Faith is not so much about certainty as it is about trust.
  • Haters are gonna hate. Lovers are gonna love. Which will you be?
  • If a literal reading of the Old Testament contradicts the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, then the literal reading must give way.
  • The Christian life is one shaped by the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • If we are disappointed in others on Jesus’ behalf, we probably need to spend more time with Jesus, who is not disappointed in any of us — he came to rescue all of us.
  • The light of Christ shines in every human being and the darkness cannot overcome it.
  • There is nothing that could ever put to shame the love Christ has for us.
  • Sin is not a broken law but a broken relationship — with God, with each other, with creation, even within our own selves. Christ came to turn us back to God and each other, to restore all of creation and make us whole.
  • Jesus entered into our darkness and faced down the accuser of our souls. He is our light.
  • The light of God does not come to condemn us but to free us from our darkness.
  • Salvation is not so much a matter of destination but of transformation by the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • True repentance, the turning of the soul toward God, is a miracle, a gift of God’s grace.
  • The love of God, wisdom of God, justice of God, holiness of God — these are all one. For God is one, and God is love.
  • There is no us and them in Christ. There is only the union of all things in heaven and on earth.
  • The ability to see things from a different perspective is a miracle, a gift of God’s grace.
  • The love, mercy and grace of God are with us always, without limitation or condition.
  • You are created in the image of God, and there is nothing you can do that could ever change that. It is the truth about who you are.
  • All humankind is summed up in Jesus Christ, in whom God became one with us — even in all our brokenness.
  • Discipleship is learning to live in the reality of King Jesus.
  • Discipleship is learning to live in the divine fellowship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Discipleship is learning to live in the fullness of God and our completeness in Jesus Christ.
  • Lord my rest, teach me Your way, the simplicity of Your love.
More random thoughts …

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Weeping with Those on Social Media
Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)
In times of tragedy, it has become common on social media to see people offer “thoughts and prayers,” condolences for folks who have been bereaved or injured, and regions that have experienced disaster. It is a way of reaching out, of grieving with and for them and each other. It is a recognition that, in the words of John Donne, “no man is an island entire of itself,” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Every day the bell tolls somewhere, as it always has, but with the coming of instant news and the sharing of social media, we now experience its resonance more immediately and pervasively than we did before. Every day, almost every hour, we hear the bell toll, and it tolls for us.

We can easily become overwhelmed. Our thoughts are filled with it, our hearts moved by it, and we look for the light of hope, for our own sake as well as for others, lest we all sink into despair. Many offer up a prayer, whether out of great faith or feeble. We post our “thoughts and prayers” and our “heart goes out.” Unsophisticated words, no doubt. Even clich├ęd. Yet they express our grief, our hope and our faith nonetheless for it.

The apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians at Rome, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” Rejoicing with those who rejoice is the easier of the two. On Facebook, we literally “Like” their announcements of good news, new homes, new jobs, anniversaries, retirements, vacations, children, grandchildren — even their pets and their meals. We have a lot of fun with it. But we also weep with those who weep. It is not merely some external idea about what we ought to do. The grief dwells within us, however much we may realize it, and it flows out of us one way or another.

Like our rejoicing, our weeping shows up on social media, too. When someone describes a difficult situation they are going through, friends often offer a simple comment like, “Praying.” Likewise, when someone specifically asks for prayer, friends will even use the “Like” button in response, as if to say, “Yes, I’m praying for you.” That may seem inadequate, and perhaps it is, but I have seen many friends on Facebook express great appreciation for the abundance of such responses they received, and how they somehow felt the prayers and were encouraged and strengthened by the outpouring.

When there are natural catastrophes such as the recent hurricanes, earthquakes and wild fires, or acts of terrorism, mass destruction or other man-made evils, such as last month’s heinous Las Vegas shootings, and this month’s killings at Sutherland Springs, we all feel the grief of it. We mourn, and one way it comes out is with such modest words as, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” It is a way of reaching out to each other, that we might all know that none of us are alone in our grief. And we pray, for we believe that God does hear and that he does care. It is a faith that God will somehow get the last word, and that it will be a good word.

In recent days, some folks have deemed “thoughts and prayers” something to be mocked, shamed, and dismissed as “virtue signaling.” More often than not, from what I have seen, those who have been dismissive have an agenda they seem impatient to get to, and all this grief-sharing just gets in the way unless it can be exploited for their politics. But however inadequate “thoughts and prayers” may seem for one’s activism, it is at the least an expression of grief and should be respected as such instead of shamed or mocked.

And if it comes down to a choice between prayer and politics, I’ve seen what both can do, and I will choose prayer every time.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reading the Old Testament with the Early Church

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
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
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 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 thing 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

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
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

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 was 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.

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.

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
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
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.”

Friday, June 9, 2017

God and a Christ-Shaped Theology

The way we worship is the way we believe. Back in the fourth century, Evagrius of Ponticus said, “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” I have discovered that the more I consider Christ, the more my theology changes in conformity to Him. One of the changes this has meant for me is in how I understand the portrayal of God in the Old Testament.

I take all the Scriptures to be true, but I take them all to be about Christ. Because that is what Christ taught us they are about. I take their witness of him to be trustworthy, authoritative and infallible — because that is the purpose God has intended for them (see Intention and Inerrancy). However, I do not take them to be infallible in regard to whatever other purpose we might wish to put them to.

I have a very great problem with an interpretation of the Scriptures that depicts God as destroying a whole world of people, or of commanding genocide. Such depictions seem to me to be ungodly, because they are unChristlike. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the perfect expression of God. Jesus himself said that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. So we should expect that God behaves like Jesus and not in a way contradictory to Christ and his teaching. We should expect that God practices what Jesus preached.

And what did Jesus preach? He taught us to love our enemies. And how does love behave, or what does love look like? Like genocide? Of course not! The New Testament shows us very clearly what love looks like and how it behaves. We can see this in the Gospels. We can see it in the cross. We can find it in the epistles: for example, in First John, in 1 Corinthians 13, in Philippians 2 and elsewhere.

We find in First John that God is love. Love is not just something God has, something God does or something God chooses. No, love is what God is. Love is his nature, so everything God does is the manifestation of his love. That being so, we should expect that God always acts in love towards all, even towards the wicked and all who have considered God their enemy.

How does God deal with his enemies? By wiping them out? No! But we can see in Jesus Christ what God does: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). How does God deal with his enemies? Not by killing them but by humbling himself for our sake. By pouring himself out on our behalf. By uniting himself with us, and by shedding his own blood on the cross for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

So I reject any interpretation of the Scriptures that portrays God in such a way that contradicts the revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ, and in what Christ and his apostles have taught us about love. Though my discipleship may be weak, erratic and poorly lived, I take the Christ-centered hermeneutic very seriously, and I am challenged by the Christ-shaped, cross-shaped theology in the Scriptures.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Contractual View of the Gospel

Many evangelicals have a contract mentality about salvation, that salvation is a matter of quid pro quo, of this for that. They have simply exchanged the contract of works for the contract of faith. In the works contract, God says, “If you do this (works), I will save you; if you do not, you will go to hell.” In the faith contract, God says, “If you do this (faith), I will save you; if you do not, you will go to hell.”

Some have tried to simplify this contract as much as possible, and it becomes all-important to them that they get the terms of the contract right (terms such as “repentance” and “faith”), that they are understood correctly, because heaven and hell are seen to hang in the balance. In that context, the idea of certainty becomes paramount for them. Or in the parlance of my former tribe, it is “knowing for sure that you will go to heaven when you die.” And if you are not certain, it is likely that you have not properly understood the terms of the contract, and your soul may be in great danger.

The problem with this whole way of thinking is that it remains nonetheless about a contract. But the truth of the gospel is that God does not deal with us according to any contract, neither one of works nor even one of faith. God deals with us according to Christ, and our inclusion in him through his Incarnation. But when we make the gospel about contract, or about the certainty of going to heaven, we have displaced Christ. And instead of seeing him as our desired end, we have made him merely the means to our desired end, a ticket to our destination of choice — and that is an idolatry.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Day We Were Born Again

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Those were Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, in John 3:3, and indicate something vitally important: Without the “new birth,” we cannot see the kingdom of God.

This took Nicodemus by surprise. “How can someone be born when they are old?” he said. Sure, the Gentiles needed to be born again, to come into the Jewish fold. But surely Jesus was not talking about him, a “teacher of Israel” and a member of the Sanhedrin — a Jew in good standing. He was already born a Jew, and heir to the promises of God. So how could he be born again when he was already a faithful Jew?

Yet Jesus’ words were quite inclusive: Everyone must be born again. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). This recalls the promise of the Lord found in the prophets, that he would gather his people from the nations, sprinkle clean water on them, cleansing them from all their impurities and idolatries. That he would give them a new heart and a new spirit — that he would put his own Spirit in them (Ezekiel 36:24-27).

Yes, Nicodemus, you need this, too — all of humanity does.

How does this happen? How are we born again? Peter tells us something about that, something just as surprising as Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: God, in his great mercy has given us new birth into a “living hope,” and he has done it through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It happened when God raised Christ from the dead.

Jesus the Christ is God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Not just one of us but, more importantly, one with us — that is, in full union with us, for he is fully human as well as fully divine. His death on the cross, then, was the death of all humanity, so that all humanity might be made alive in Christ. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” Paul says (1 Corinthians 15:22). For God, in his great mercy, has “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” He has “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

In Colossians 1, Paul says that Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:18-20). That Christ is “firstborn” from the dead shows that there are many others. The scope of it is vast, for God’s purpose in Christ is to reconcile to himself all things in heaven and on earth.

In Colossians 3, Paul speaks more about the resurrection of Christ and our new life in him: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3).

This was not theory for Paul. He experienced the reality of it for himself: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). The death of Christ was Paul’s death, so that the life of Christ was now Paul’s life.

This new birth is a birth from death into life, into divine life, into the life of God. For God has made us alive with Christ, who is the firstborn from among the dead. Just as his death on the cross was our death, too, so his birth from the dead was also our birth from the dead. Since we have died with Christ, our life is now hidden with Christ and in God. Peter shows us that the source of this new birth is the resurrection of Christ.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
Through the resurrection of Christ, we have new birth into a powerful expectation, a life that is far more than we can imagine. It is a life and inheritance that comes from heaven. The Greek words translated “born again,” in John 3, can just as well be read as “born from above,” for the new birth is one that can come only from God, for it is a life that transcends all the boundaries of this present age.

The day Christ was raised from the dead was the day we were born again — the day all humanity was born again. Through faith in Christ we come to know the new birth God has given us so freely by his grace. Through faith we follow Christ into this new life. Through faith we embrace our union with him and begin to understand that our new life is hidden with Christ in God. Through faith, we discover the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has begotten us anew through the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

Friday, April 14, 2017

On This Day

Good Friday and what God was doing in Christ: On this day, God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
  • On this day, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
  • On this day, God reconciled to himself all things in heaven and on earth through Christ by the blood of the cross.
  • On this day, Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!
  • On this day, Christ the Good Shepherd laid down his life for his sheep.
  • On this day, Christ the Mercy Seat took away the sins of the world.
  • On this day, Christ died for our sins, fulfilling the Scriptures.
  • On this day, Christ made cleansing for our sins.
  • On this day, Christ freed us from our sins.
  • On this day, Christ ransomed us from all bondage.
  • On this day, Christ cancelled out the “handwriting of requirements” that was against us, nailing it to the cross.
  • On this day, Christ disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
  • On this day, Christ judged the world, driving out the “prince of this world,” and now draws all people everywhere to himself.
  • On this day, Christ destroyed the works of the devil, breaking their power.
  • On this day, Christ broke the power of him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil.
  • On this day, the righteous act of Christ resulted in justification and life for all.
  • On this day, we were crucified with Christ, to make us alive to God with him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Death of All Humanity

For much of my life as a Christian, I accepted the theory known as “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” There are three aspects to that: Penalty, substitution and atonement. The atonement aspect is about reconciliation, at-onement — union with God. That is what Christ came to bring about. “God was in Christ,” Paul tells us, “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). It is the ultimate expression and goal of the gospel — and praise God for it!

But over several years, I began letting go of the penal aspect and finally rid myself of the last vestiges of it in my thinking. It is centered on the idea that God was angry and could not forgive us without first somehow being appeased by bloody sacrifice. To me, that smacks of paganism, which is one reason why I have given it up. But the greater reason is that the Scriptures do not speak of the cross and the atonement as divine punishment or penalty. Nor was that how the early Church understood them. The penal idea did not arrive on the scene until the time of the Reformation, in the 16th century. Now, to be clear, the cross was a sacrifice, and it was for our sake, but it was not a penalty Christ paid on our behalf to appease an angry deity.

That leaves the substitutionary aspect of the atonement, and I have no problem with it. What Jesus did on the cross was for our sake, and something we never could have accomplished for ourselves. But I do want to qualify the nature of that substitution. What we usually think of as substitution is an exchange between two things, where one thing is treated or dealt with in place of another. In the penal substitutionary view, God’s anger, holiness and justice required a penalty that we could not pay, so Christ came and paid it on our behalf, and being God as well as man, he could pay an infinite price and satisfy an infinite debt. But that sort of substitution does not begin to grasp the depth of how Christ’s death on the cross relates to us. It was not a matter of Christ dying instead of us, as if thing A were exchanged for thing B. Rather, it was that thing A became thing B.

That brings us to the mystery of the Incarnation, when God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and was called Jesus. In becoming a man, Christ did not just become one like us, or even just one of us — he became one with us. In the Incarnation, God joined himself with all of humanity.

The truth about humanity is that we are all connected, for though there are many human beings, there is only one humanity. We are not merely a collection of individuals but we belong to one another. What affects one, though we may not necessarily realize it on the local level, ultimately affects us all. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” So begins John Donne’s famous poem, which ends with the line, “therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” This connection, the relatedness of all humanity, is as old and as deep as Adam, and Paul tells us a profound and sobering truth about it: “In Adam all die.” The sin of one human being infected all humanity, bringing death to all, because we are all connected.

Of course, Paul’s message does not end with those sad words — there would be no good news in that —but he leads us to a deeper truth, and more joyful: “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” (Romans 5:18). “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

In Christ, God has joined himself to all humanity. The death of Christ on the cross, then, was not instead of the death of all humanity — that would have simply been the substitution of A for B. But the death of Christ on the cross was the death of all humanity. Christ did not just die for all humanity but as humanity, and all humanity therefore died with him. “We are convinced,” Paul says, “that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

But if we died with Christ, then to what did we die? For one thing, we died to sin, to the power and slavery of sin. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). Sin is not the infraction of a divine law or code but the brokenness of fellowship with God, in whose image we were created. In turning away from God, humanity turned away from the source of life and thus was bound to die. We were under the power of death because we were under the power of sin. But the death of Christ frees us from power of sin.

In the death of Christ, all humanity died. Now, of course, where there is a death, there must also be a burial, and that brings us to the mystery of baptism. Paul says, “We were therefore buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In baptism, we are buried with Christ so that we may live a new kind of life, a life of fellowship with God.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:8-11)
The death of Christ frees us from the power of death. Indeed, it was the death of death itself, for death had no power over him who is life. His death was our death so that his life could be our life. One day, even our bodies will be raised from the dead to be like that of Christ in his resurrection.

Yet, even now, we participate in the resurrection life of Christ, for we share in the same humanity with Christ. Paul speaks of how, “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” (Ephesians 2:4-6).

Made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, seated with Christ in the heavenlies — this is not just a promise about the future but a present reality. For the Incarnation of the Son was not temporary but eternal. He did not merely put on humanity like a suit to be taken off at the end of the day but he became fully human, yet remaining nonetheless fully divine. Nor did he merely lower himself down into our humanity — he raised humanity up into his divinity. Divinity and humanity are perfectly united in Christ, so that we may be one with God.

The death of Christ was the death of humanity. The resurrection of Christ is the resurrection of humanity. And the Ascension of Christ to his throne at the right hand of the Father, where he reigns forever as Lord of the Universe, is the ascension of humanity. This is the New Creation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Did God Curse Jesus on the Cross?

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13)
Did God curse Jesus on the cross? Now, that may seem to you quite an odd question, and I am very glad if it does. From a Trinitarian viewpoint — which understands the one God as Three Persons in mutually interpenetrating, mutually indwelling union — the idea of the Father cursing the Son makes that union sound very dysfunctional. Is that what the Scriptures teach?

In recent discussion about the atonement — how the death of Christ on the cross saves the world — a friend of mine took the penal view, that the cross was a divinely imposed penalty Christ paid for us. I agree that what Christ did on the cross, he did for our sake and on our behalf, accomplishing for us what we never could have done for ourselves. But I do not believe it was a matter of paying any sort of divine penalty. In support of his view, my friend offered this passage:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14)
For those who believe the penal view of atonement, this may at first sound like God cursed Jesus in order to deliver us from the curse. After all, did not the Law of Moses say, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole?” And did not Jesus hang on a cross, a pole? But let us look carefully at the Scripture Paul quotes, understand it in its own context, and then compare it with how Paul uses it. The line Paul cites is from Deuteronomy 21:22-23.
If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
As we compare this passage with how Paul uses it, there are three important things to note. First, this passage is about someone who has been guilty of a capital offense, been put to death, and their body exposed on a pole or tree. Does this apply to Jesus in the way that it is written? We know that Jesus was put to death and nailed to a cross, but was he guilty of any capital offense — or any offense at all, for that matter? No, not by the Law of Moses, he wasn’t. And though Scripture speaks of Christ bearing the sins of the world, it never holds him guilty of any of them.

The Law of Moses made no provision for putting an innocent man to death, not even for the sake of another. Indeed, the Law always condemns the shedding of innocent blood. So, if the Law had cursed Jesus, it would have violated itself and shown itself to be illegitimate for condemning an innocent man.

Second, in the Deuteronomy passage, the one hanging on the tree is said to be “under God’s curse.” But in Paul’s citation, that idea is conspicuously absent. Had he meant to teach that God cursed Jesus on the cross, this would have been the perfect opportunity for him to do so. Yet Paul deliberately leaves out “by God” when he quotes the Deuteronomy passage. The reason for that should be clear enough. Paul did not believe that God cursed Christ.

This is further supported by a third point: Paul does not tell us that Christ was cursed. Rather, he explicitly states that Jesus became a curse. Notice carefully: Jesus did not become cursed but he became a curse, and that is a very different thing. To understand why, we must look to see what Paul was addressing in the first place. We find that just a few verses earlier, in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’” (Paul here quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26).

The Jews had failed to keep all the Law and by that very Law they stood condemned — under the curse. So, Jesus took the part of those who were under the curse of the Law. Yet it was impossible for him to be cursed either by God (because Jesus is God, and the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not a dysfunctional relationship), or by the Law of Moses (which could not condemn an innocent man without condemning itself). The curse had no right to him, so Christ became a curse to the curse.

In Colossians 2:14, Paul tells us what Christ did with the curse of the Law: He “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NKJV). Or as the NIV says it, “having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Now, Christ did not curse the Law itself but the indictment it brought, the “handwriting of requirements,” or the “charge of legal indebtedness.” At the cross, he wiped it all out. He did not pay a penalty to satisfy the “requirements,” or pay off whatever was the “indebtedness.” Instead, he cancelled it, rendering it null and void. He condemned it by “nailing it to the cross.” He cursed it with the curse of hanging it on a pole.

Why, then, did Paul quote a line from Deuteronomy that would otherwise seem to indicate the that one on the tree was cursed? It was because he was not offering a grammatical-historical exegesis — the Jewish interpretative tradition did not approach Scripture that way, nor did Paul or any of the other New Testament authors read the Old Testament that way. In Galatians 3, Paul was not explaining the way things were under the Law of Moses but showing what God has done in Christ, and what the true significance of the Law is in light of that. So, he related the two Scriptures he quoted from Deuteronomy on the basis of the word “cursed” — linking Scriptures by a shared word was a common method of Jewish interpretation. Then he picked up on the word “pole” in the latter text to make the very different point that the former curse was itself dealt with by a curse.

Christ was not cursed by God, by the Law or by anything at all. By his death on the cross, he became a curse to the curse that was on the Jews, and in that way not only redeemed them from the curse of the Law but opened the way for the long-promised blessing of Abraham to come upon the Gentiles as well.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Snare Has Been Broken
Praise be to the LORD,
    who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
We have escaped like a bird from the fowler's snare;
    the snare has been broken, and we have escaped.
Our help is in the name of the LORD,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.
(Psalm 124:6-8)
We have escaped, been set free. The snare that held us in bondage has been broken. We need no longer remain there.

It happened at the cross, this escape, almost two thousand years ago. Jesus went up against the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities. He went up against the works of the devil, all the power sin could muster against him. He went up against death. These all nailed him to the tree and rejoiced against him there.

But they did not understand, or else they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. Their imagined victory was actually their demise. For at the cross, the power of God’s self-emptying love, revealed in Christ, broke the snare and shattered the chains that held the world so tightly bound.

The cross of Christ disarmed the principalities and powers, destroyed the works of the devil, and broke the power of him who held the power of death, that is, the devil. By his death, Christ demolished even the power of death itself, for it is impossible that death could ever hold the Lord of life.

At the cross of Christ, the forgiveness of God was fully revealed. As the apostle Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

All those old chains no longer hold us, no longer have any power or authority over us. We have been set free. Let us therefore count ourselves dead to these things, and them to us. Let us, as Paul says, reckon ourselves dead to sin but alive to God. For we have died with Christ at the cross that we may walk in the power of his resurrection. “For as in Adam all died, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Friends, hear and believe the good news of the gospel. In Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and we have been made alive to God. The snare has been broken and we have escaped. Come walk in this new life.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Random Thoughts

Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About faith, divine love, the kingdom of God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • We do not overcome evil with evil — not even with the lesser of two evils. We overcome evil with good.
  • Do good and leave the results to God who knows how to redeem every situation.
  • The will of God for you and me, in one word: Love — to love and be loved.
  • God is love. The will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven is nothing else but the manifestation of love.
  • Jesus knew how to multiply five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand. He knows how to multiply His body and his blood to feed His people.
  • Wherever the will of God is done on earth as in heaven, there we find the kingdom of God. And there heaven and earth have become one.
  • The glory of God is not found in the will to power but in the will to love. The greatness of God is not found in the ability to take but in the ability to pour Himself out for love.
  • What counts, the apostle Paul said, is faith expressing itself through love. God is love, and faith in God looks like love.
  • Christ did not come to hold us accountable for sin but to set us free from the bondage of sin.
  • Love is unconditional, not co-dependent. Or controlling.
  • The gospel is not a sin management program.
  • The cross was not a management tool for God’s anger issues — and Jesus was not being co-dependent.
  • We are not defined by our faithfulness to God but by God’s faithfulness to us.
  • Father, Son and Holy Spirit, lead us all into the eternal bliss of Your divine fellowship. Amen.
  • We are holy not because of what we do or don’t do but because of whose we are.
  • I desire no other reason for doing good then that God is love and Jesus is Lord.
  • Christ became a human being that we might become our true selves and know real freedom.
  • Christ has irrevocably, inextricably entangled Himself with all humanity — the Incarnation cannot be undone. O Glorious Entanglement that saves the whole world!
  • The Cross was the inevitable consequence of the Incarnation, when He who is infinite life joined Himself to a humanity bent toward death — it could only ever result in Resurrection.
  • Teach me today, Lord Jesus, for You are my proverb and my psalm, my wisdom and my praise. Amen.
  • Christ, the True Light who gives light to everyone, has come into the world. Follow Him.
  • Neither death nor evil nor sin have any purpose, any rightful place in God’s creation. They are imposters, detracting from life and good and wholeness. But their power has been broken at the Cross, where they were shown to be the frauds they are, and they are destined for destruction.
  • Christ is the True Light who gives light to all the world. Look for His light in everyone you meet.
  • Faith in Christ looks like following him.
More random thoughts …