How Can We Know God?

booksMore wisdom from the Belgic Confession (1619), about how we can know who God is (Article 2):

We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead, as the Apostle Paul saith (Rom. 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse.

Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word; that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

Somebody created the universe. Somebody preserves the universe to keep it intact. Somebody also governs it, by establishing and upholding it day by day. I particularly like the description of the creation as “a most elegant book.” We can look at creation, and tell something of our Maker and Sustainer.

To be sure, this world isn’t the way Yahweh originally made it. But, even though marred and ruined by the Fall, it still reveals His glory, goodness, grace and kindness each and every day. This is enough to “convince men, and leave them without excuse” that He exists, and it tells us something about His “eternal power and Godhead.” This general knowledge doesn’t tell us how to know God, who He really is, or what has gone so wrong with our world (and with us). It doesn’t even tell us His name! But, it does tell us He is there, He is powerful, and He is Almighty.

From there, God “makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word,” which another confession of faith calls “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction,” (1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1). The Bible doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about Him. But, it does tell us everything “as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”

So, if you want to know God – look at the world around you, see the evidence of His presence in creation, and His goodness and grace in sustaining that creation. Then, look to His Holy Word, and read about who He is, and what He sent His eternal Son to do so long ago.

Start with one of the Gospel accounts, like Mark.

Read a summary of the Good News. Go through this short presentation. Contact me, if you wish.

No Creed But the Bible?

creedCarl Trueman has some wise words about creeds and confessions:

The fact that I am a confessional Christian places me at odds with the vast majority of evangelical Christians today. That is ironic, because most Christian churches throughout the ages have defined themselves by commitment to some form of creed, confession, or doctrinal statement. This is the case for the Eastern Orthodox, for Roman Catholics, and for Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican Protestants. Some streams of Baptists have also had confessions; and many independent churches today that may not think of themselves as confessional have brief statements of faith that define who they are and what they believe.

Furthermore, as I shall argue later, even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed.

Despite this, it is true to say that we live in an anticonfessional age, at least in intention if not always in practice. The most blatant examples of this come from those who argue that the Protestant notion of Scripture alone simply requires the rejection of creeds and confessions. Scripture is the sole authority; of what use therefore are further documents? And how can one ever claim such documents have authority without thus derogating from the authority of Scripture?

I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true.

Anticonfessionalism among evangelicals is actually closely related to their putative rejection of tradition. For many, the principle of Scripture alone stands against any notion that the church’s tradition plays any constructive role in her life or thought.

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.), KL 153 – 162; 165 – 171.

I’m a Baptist, so here are some creeds and confessions I’ve found particularly helpful (the last two are not from the Baptist tradition, but are still extraordinarily useful):

 

Against Cardboard Shepherds

5000Trinitarian heresies usually stumble over who Christ is. Without fail, these heretical groups, sects and movements brand themselves as “renewal movements.” God gave us the Scriptures but, alas, things went haywire after the apostles died. The church lurched into heresy bit by bit. These groups warn us that the Greeks influenced Christian thinking, and eventually this pagan philosophy corrupted our doctrine of God, and the church was in darkness. Until . . . (cue theme music) . . . someone read the Bible for himself and discovered The Truth (insert heresy now).

For example, Anthony Buzzard, a conservative Unitarian, writes,

Though I believe with a passion the extraordinary and yet eminently sane claims of the New Testament writers, I have the strongest reservation about what the Church, claiming to be followers of Jesus, later did with the faith of those original Christians. I believe that history shows an enormous difference between what has through the centuries come to be known as the Christian faith and what we find reported as first-century Christianity.[1]

The truth is that these cults are reading the Bible in a very flat, sterile way. The Gospels are thoroughly Trinitarian, and the cults cannot find their doctrine through a systematic exposition of Scripture. Here, in our text this morning, we see Jesus as the shepherd over Israel:

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:30-34)

Mark is the only Gospel writer who specifically explains why Jesus “had compassion on them.” It was “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Why were they seeking Him? It wasn’t for the free food; that would come later (Jn 6:26)! It was probably a combination of excitement because of His status as a miracle worker (cf. Mt 14:34-36), and also His unique teaching on the Kingdom of God, which everyone acknowledged carried enormous authority (cf. Mk 1:22).

Mark tells us Jesus “began to teach them many things.” Matthew adds He “healed their sick,” (Mt 14:14) and Luke explains “he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing,” (Lk 9:11).

Who is this shepherd?

It’s easy to pass by this reference to Jesus as the shepherd without comment. That would be a mistake. Jesus has already identified Himself as Messiah, and commanded everyone to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:14-15). His entire ministry identifies Him to not be an ordinary prophet or messenger. He is altogether extraordinary:

  • He’s the one John the Baptist preached about, who would baptize the faithful with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8).
  • God ripped the heavens open to proclaim Jesus as “my beloved Son” at His baptism (Mk 1:10-11).
  • He’s the One who withstood all Satan’s temptation for forty days (Mk 1:12-13); the Last Adam triumphed where the first failed so miserably.
  • He’s the one who gathered disciples to “become fishers of men,” (Mk 1:17), to call people to repent and believe in Christ and His coming Kingdom.
  • The demons are terrified of Christ, identify Him as God’s Holy one, and beg Him for mercy (Mk 1:23-24). The congregations in the synagogues are astonished, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” (Mk 1:27).
  • He heals the sick, conducts exorcisms with ease, commands the demons to be silent – and they obey (Mk 1:32-34, 39)

I don’t mean this to be a tedious recitation of Jesus’ deeds. I believe Christians are so familiar with the Gospel accounts that we often forget how extraordinary they are. Jesus has proved His credentials by the end of Mark’s first chapter, and there are 15 more to go! Remember that, when Jesus was plainly asked if He was the Messiah, He pointed to His deeds as proof the Kingdom of God had broken into this present, evil world (Lk 7:18-23).

So, realize that Jesus’ actions and words already tell us He isn’t only a king. He’s divine and equal to the Father, yet distinct. This context is important when you consider Mark’s comment; “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). This is a very important phrase throughout the Old Testament.

To modern ears, the notion of Jesus as “the shepherd” evokes pastoral images. However, in Scripture, the “shepherd” is the leader and ruler of Israel. These are echoes of military victory and royal government, not pastoral sensibilities.[2] Though, to be sure, in Jesus both these themes merge together.

Moses’ True Successor

Moses asked God to appoint a successor for him, “that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd,” (Num 27:17). He worried the Israelites would falter if they didn’t have a strong and godly leader to show them the way. In our text, Jesus sees His countrymen who had followed Him so far; some desperate with disease, others desperate for news about the promised Kingdom. He had compassion on them because they were lost. They had no guidance. They had no leader. Remember, immediately before this account, Mark just finished recounting Herod Antipas’ debauchery and his murder of John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29). Antipas is the nominal Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day, and what a contrast!

So, God chose Joshua, “a man in whom is the spirit,” (Num 27:18). Interestingly, Moses prophesied about a man who would be raised up from among the Israelites, who would be like him, and to whom all Israel would be obligated to listen. This man is Jesus (Acts 3:22-23), who certainly had the Spirit, too (Mk 1:8,10)! Mark is identifying Jesus as the true leader of Israel, the successor par excellence to Moses.

The Bold Prophet

In another passage, King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah form an alliance against Syria. They seek a rubber-stamped blessing form the Lord, and their hirelings oblige with flattering words. Jehoshaphat asks if Ahab has another prophet handy. Ahab admits that, yes, there is another prophet, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil,” (1 Kings 22:8).

This prophet, Micaiah, initially offers a rote prediction of smashing success. When pressed, he gives the real message: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd’ and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace,’” (1 Kings 22:17).

Micaiah’s point is clear – Ahab is such a worthless and pagan leader that the Israelites, in effect, have no shepherd at all. The prophet exited with this warning to Ahab, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me!” (1 Kings 22:28). In contrast, Jesus is the promised Messiah, the true shepherd of God’s people.

The Coming King

In Zechariah, the prophet tells us the coming King will come on the scene in a meek and lowly manner. Yet, this king “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea,” (Zech 9:9-10). Because of the blood of this king’s covenant with them, He’ll set the Israelites free (Zech 9:11). He will lead them into battle and crush all Israel’s enemies; they’ll trample their foes so terribly the blood will flow like wine (Zech 9:12-15).

Why is this conquering king necessary? Because, in Zechariah’s present day, “the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for want of a shepherd,” (Zech 10:2).

The theme is the same. The current leadership in Israel was apostate and worthless, even in the early years of the return from exile! But, take heart – a new king would come! That king is Jesus, who came to shepherd His people.

Yahweh the Shepherd

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord promised the Israelites that, one day, He’d destroy the Babylonians, the very nation which was gathering to destroy Israel in their day. When Babylon eventually fell, God promised, something marvelous would happen:

In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten.’

My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold (Jeremiah 50:4-6).

Their leaders have led them to disaster; they wander about like lost sheep who can’t find their way home. Interestingly, Jeremiah tells us that Yahweh is the shepherd who will re-gather Israel and tend to them (Jer 50:19-20). Yahweh is the true shepherd; yet, Mark tells us it is Jesus.

The psalmist also tells us, “Know that the LORD is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Ps 100:3). David confessed Yahweh is his shepherd (Ps 23:1).

Jesus the Shepherd

This context helps us understand Mark’s comment better. Jesus felt this compassion for the people because He was their true and promised leader; the Anointed One. His words and actions (briefly summarized from Mark’s first chapter, above) prove He is not merely a man, but the Father’s unique Son, distinct from Him, with equal power and glory. He was their “shepherd” because He was the promised leader; the one who would succeed where Moses, Ahab, and the leaders in Jeremiah and Zechariah’s day failed so terribly. In that capacity, He “taught them many things” about the Kingdom, and about what it means to truly love God (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6). Zechariah tells us Yahweh is their shepherd, yet Jesus is the One who came. What does this tell us?

The Scripture is soaked in the Trinity; in the distinction and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny the Trinity often protest they’re simply following the monotheistic faith of Abraham, and reinterpret the New Testament through this grid. “There is not a word in the New Testament about any such revolutionary changes in the definition of God.”[3]

These men and women would likely find nothing noteworthy in Mark’s comment about Jesus as the shepherd who had compassion on his lost people. This is a flat, sterile, cardboard way to read Scripture. Jesus’ deeds, words, and the Old Testament teaching about the coming shepherd and Messiah prove otherwise.

Notes

[1] Anthony Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007; Kindle ed.), KL 296-300.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 191.

[3] Buzzard (Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, KL 215).

The Trinity in the Old Testament

beckwithCarl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, explains a little bit about how God revealed His triune nature in the Old Testament scriptures:

What are we to make of Scripture variously identifying the sole creator of the heavens and the earth as YHWH, Elohim, Word, Spirit, Wisdom, and Father? The answer must be that the scriptural understanding of monotheism encompasses both Is 44: 24 (“ Thus says YHWH, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: I am YHWH, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself”) and Gn 1: 1, Dt 32: 6, and Ps 33: 6.

Scripture declares that YHWH by Himself made all things, stretched out the heavens, and made us from the womb. According to Scripture, however, the same may be said of the Father, the Word/ Wisdom, and the Spirit. Further, Scripture insists that we have one creation, not three, and that these three created, not that they contributed a part here and a part there. Their work of creation is one.

The only responsible conclusion according to the Scriptures is to confess the correlative and coequal working of Father, Word/ Wisdom, and Spirit, and to locate all three— equally and eternally— within the unique identity of YHWH, our Elohim.

Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4538-4547.

The Tale of the Two Husbands

contrastOnce upon a time, in a far away land, there lived two doting husbands; Peter and George. From the outside, they were similar in every possible way. Peter was a successful businessman in the city, and George an executive at a large bank. Both were still younger men, around 40 years of age. Both had been married about 15 years. Both had two children. Each was blissfully unaware of the other’s existence.

They lived and worked in the same city, commuted to the same suburb, and, quite unwittingly, frequented the same café every Tuesday morning (at nine sharp). They moved in the same circles, in overlapping orbits, but their lives never touched . . . until yesterday.

On that day, after a particularly hard day at the office, Peter and George each found their way to a upscale florist in the city. It was an expensive place, with scandalous prices. Peter and George didn’t care – they were on a mission. Flowers and chocolates were the order of the day, and a quick trip home to the wife. Fences needed to be mended, sores patched up, an armistice signed.

You see, Peter and George had each treated their wives in a beastly fashion lately, and it was time to make amends. Battles had been fought, blood had been shed; unforgivable things had been spoken. Now, both men were prepared to surrender, and flowers and chocolates were the first tentative steps towards a cease-fire.

Home they went, fighting the same traffic, the same commuters, even (ironically) each other at one point. Finally, they arrived home, steeled themselves for marital combat, and plunged into the arena, ready to set things right so peace could reign in their households once more . . .

What happened, you ask?

Peter’s wife forgave him for his sins. George’s wife smacked him across the face, flung his dinner at him, stuffed the flowers in the toilet, and raced away to her mother’s house for the night, bringing the children with her.

Why the different reactions?

  1. Peter was genuinely sorry for his sins. He told his wife he was sorry, and outlined what, exactly, he was going to do to fix things – starting now. He didn’t just talk; he acted. He proved his sincerity by his actions, and together, they built their marriage stronger and forged ahead.
  2. George wasn’t sorry. The flowers and chocolates (hazelnut chocolate, of course) were a bribe, a holding action. He didn’t want to change at all. But, he figured he could buy some time and (why not?, he figured wickedly), some “affection” with this peace offering. It didn’t work, of course. His wife saw through him; he’d pulled this trick one too many times. George sat alone, in the dark, and thought pitiful thoughts while his wife sobbed at her mother’s.

Why the parable?

This parable illustrates two completely different approaches to a relationship with God; one Christian and the other pagan.

  1. Peter is the man who truly loves God. He admits when he does wrong (i.e. “confesses his sins”). When he says he’s sorry, he means it. Not only that, he proves his sincerity by concrete action (i.e. “repents”). He serves God because he loves Him, and when he makes mistakes (which are often), he is genuinely sorry.
  2. George is the man who doesn’t love God. He claims he’s sorry, but he lies. He doesn’t mean it, because nothing ever changes. He’s an empty suit, a man who lies out of habit. He’s never sorry. He’s just anxious to bribe his way out of trouble with false promises and false assurances.

Any wife can tell the difference between these two men. And, to extend the analogy of the parable, God can tell the difference between them, too.

The divide here is about motivation.

  1. Why do we serve God?
  2. What is our aim, our motivation, the self-conscious outcome we’re looking for?
  3. Do we seek cheap favor with God by bribery, or do we seek to serve Him because we love Him?

There is a chasm between these two positions.

What difference does it make?

It makes all the difference in the world. It certainly made a difference between Peter and George, didn’t it? Some confessing Protestants seek to blur these lines, as if they’re irrelevant. One of those people is Matthew Bates.

I’ve mentioned Bates several times in the past few weeks, because I’m reading his new book Salvation by Allegiance Alone. Bates has a PhD from a Roman Catholic institution, and teaches at a Roman Catholic school. In his book, he’s deliberately trying to build a bridge that Protestants and Catholics can cross together. He’s wrong.

Consider the Tale of the Two Husbands, and the motivation Peter and George had for their actions. They had the same outward actions, but completely different goals and objectives. Now, consider what Bates wrote:[1]

As nearly all Christians agree, perseverance in allegiance is required. If the union were to be severed by an unrepentant cessation of pistis (allegiance to Jesus as Messiah-king), then the continuing presence of the union-securing and fruit-producing Spirit would be decisively ruptured; the born-again person would experience spiritual death. That individual would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.

Christian traditions disagree about whether or not such a severance is possible. Reformed and some Lutheran Christians prefer to speak of the impossibility of rupture (“eternal security”).

Meanwhile, Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant traditions believe that it is possible for an individual to enter decisively into saving union but then to depart through an unrepentant turning away.

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

Bates says something true, and something terribly wrong:

  1. Obedience is a necessary result of saving faith. You can’t have faith in Christ, then deliberately not obey Him. Actions prove where your heart is. It did for Peter, and it did for George, too.
  2. But, Bates claims that, if a person stops being loyal to Jesus and stops being obedient to His word, then that person “would no longer be justified, righteous, or innocent before God; eternal life would no longer be a present possession.”

Bates advocates a scheme where the person obeys Christ in order to retain eternal life. No matter which way you “nuance” this, you have works salvation. I don’t believe you can argue otherwise.

Typically, Reformed Protestants have argued that loving obedience is a natural result of union with Christ. That is, because our hearts, minds, and souls have been changed, because we have a new nature, and because we now honestly seek to please God, we’ll naturally desire to obey His word. So, in that sense, “good works” are not meritorious for salvation; they’re just the fruit of it.

Elsewhere in his book, Bates rejected this view. I don’t want to go into his reasons here. However, I do want to argue that it does matter which position you take on “good works.” I’ll quote him again:

This debate should not, however, obscure the larger point about which Christian theologians are nearly unanimous: it is necessary for an individual to persevere in pistis throughout the course of her or his lifetime in order to attain final salvation.

I disagree. This is about self-conscious motivation. When the Christian does what the Bible says, what is his reason for doing it? What outcome does he expect from his “good work?” What result does he expect to achieve by it?

The Protestant (i.e. the Christian) understands salvation is a present, permanent reality, and his “good works” are merely the inevitable and grateful response of the believer to God’s grace. He loves God, and wants to serve Him.

The Roman Catholic, however, sees God’s initial grace in salvation as a gift given to the Christian, which enables him to then merit for himself eternal life:[2]

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life . . .

The Protestant says a Christian simply will persevere in faith and good works until the end, because he loves God and wants to serve Him. The Roman Catholic (and, apparently, Matthew Bates) says the Christian must persevere in order to attain eternal life.

This is not a minor point of doctrine. It’s the difference between Jesus’ Gospel and “another Gospel” (cf. Gal 1). It’s a difference in self-conscious motivation. It’s the difference between Peter and George – and we all know how that turned out . . .

Notes

[1] Matthew W. Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 190-191.  

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1995), Article 2010.

Framing the Gospel All Wrong?

Picture3I have a problem with many Gospel tracts. No doubt, they’re written by well-meaning, kind Christians. But, they’re often badly written, leave out the resurrection completely and invite the reader to pray a pre-scripted prayer (as if obedient recitation will actually do anything). But, perhaps the best reason why I don’t like most Gospel tracts is because they often frame the Gospel all wrong.

Jesus’ Good News doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There is a context, a backstory, a history and a timeline that produced this Good News. Yet, most Gospel presentations are incredibly self-absorbed . . .

  • It’s all about you and your sin
  • It’s all about God desperately wanting you to join His club
  • It’s about Jesus wanting you to believe in Him, as if He’s a jilted lover, crying in the street like a pitiful damsel, hoping against hope you’ll throw open your door to your heart so He can seek shelter from the storm
  • It’s all about how you can escape hellfire and damnation
  • It’s all about how God loves you and has a great plan for your life

No. No. No.

It isn’t so much that all this is untrue. After all, Jesus did die to atone for our sins. God does desire people to be saved. The Gospel does save you from hellfire. If you’re chosen by God for salvation, then He does have a great plan for your life.

No, the problem is framing. This is framed all wrong. It’s not about you; it’s about God. This kind of presentation (above), which I only slightly exaggerated, is morbidly self-absorbed and selfish. There is no context there. It’s as if the Gospel just dropped out of heaven onto your lap; (1) you’re a sinner, (2) but God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you, (3) so just pray this prayer, and (4) you’re saved. Halleluiah! Pass the popcorn, and fill the baptistery.

I’ll write more on this later. For now, ponder this:

Christianity is all about the human response of faith, or so popular teaching and perception would have us believe. Undeniably, faith is essential to Christianity— right? Or is it? I would argue that like rot in an apple, much of the malaise in contemporary Christianity stems from a rotten core. The gospel, salvation, and the Christian life have little to do with “faith” or “belief” as generally defined or understood, and this is the decay in the interior— so much so that it would be best if these words were abandoned with regard to discussions of salvation among Christians.

The Greek word pistis, generally rendered “faith” or “belief,” as it pertains to Christian salvation, quite simply has little correlation with “faith” and “belief” as these words are generally understood and used in contemporary Christian culture, and much to do with allegiance. At the center of Christianity, properly understood, is not the human response of faith or belief but rather the old-fashioned term fidelity.

The author continued, later in his book, and explained:

My intention is not to flatten the rich multiple meanings and nuances of pistis into a bland singleness. Rather it is to claim that, when discussing salvation in generalized terms, allegiance is a better overarching English-language term for what Paul intends with his use of the pistis (p.78).

These are provocative words, and Bates’ book is full of provocative thoughts. I don’t agree with all of them, but I do appreciate all of them. However, he does hit upon something profound – does our modern notion of “faith” match what the Old and New Testament consider “faith” to be? Has our “me-centered” culture made us unwittingly re-frame the Gospel in a very selfish way?

We must remember that God has a kingdom, Jesus will rule over this kingdom, and Christians are His slaves whom He’s rescued from darkness, and all who reject the Gospel (i.e. reject the King) will be killed.

So, what is faith?  When we preach the Gospel to unbelievers, how should we frame the Gospel story? When we urge people to “repent and believe” and be justified “by faith,” what is faith, exactly?

  • If God has been working all salvation history towards His coming Kingdom (see Revelation 21-22)
  • and if Jesus will be the King of this Kingdom
  • and if Christians will spend eternity worshipping Him and serving Him in a new earth, in a new and better creation

Then, are we really capturing the essence of “faith” if we reduce it to “I believe in Jesus!” Isn’t there a bit more freight to the content of this belief?

Surely, whatever else may be said, “”faith” includes allegiance and submission to Christ as King. If we can get this, then perhaps we can begin to appreciate how badly we often frame the Gospel. Perhaps, too, we can begin to have a richer understanding of what faith actually is.

Pssst! Yes, I take the Lordship position on salvation . . .

Learning from Smart, Dead Guys

Ikone_Athanasius_von_AlexandriaWe really don’t know everything. I know – it’s crazy. Christians stand on the shoulders of dedicated, intelligent and devout brothers and sisters from days gone by. Our very vocabulary, the categories and structures of our theology have been shaped by the controversies and issues of bygone days.

This is why creeds and confessions are such valuable tools in a Christian’s arsenal. See, for example:

  1. The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith
  2. The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith
  3. The Belgic Confession

So, because Christians before us have already puzzled and thought until their puzzlers were sore, I’ve decided to take some time to read about Christology from some 4th century Christians. Last year, I translated the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 AD). I plan to write a short introduction and commentary on it, and basically use it as a vehicle to teach 4th century Christology.

In order to really understand what was going on in the 4th century, I need to do two things:

  1. I need to read some good history books, and
  2. I need to read what Christians from the 4th century actually wrote about Christ, and see how they responded to the Arian heresies and the controversy about the Holy Spirit.

That’s where Athanasius of Alexandria comes in. He was a key figure in the Christological controversies of the 4th century; perhaps the key player. I don’t have time to read everything he wrote (that would take a while!), but I am taking time to read some of it.

That brings me to the point. The man was a genius. It’s always humbling to learn something from really smart, dead guys. And, to top it off, Athanasius didn’t even have wireless internet!

In this short excerpt from his work On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius tackled the objection that Jesus’ death was humiliating and unfitting for the Son of God. Read what he has to say, and think about it:

For perhaps a man might say even as follows: If it was necessary for His death to take place before all, and with witnesses, that the story of His Resurrection also might be believed, it would have been better at any rate for Him to have devised for Himself a glorious death, if only to escape the ignominy of the Cross.

But had He done even this, He would give ground for suspicion against Himself, that He was not powerful against every death, but only against the death devised for Him; and so again there would have been a pretext for disbelief about the Resurrection all the same. So death came to His body, not from Himself, but from hostile counsels, in order that whatever death they offered to the Saviour, this He might utterly do away.

And just as a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage, does not pick out his antagonists for himself, lest he should raise a suspicion of his being afraid of some of them, but puts it in the choice of the onlookers, and especially so if they happen to be his enemies, so that against whomsoever they match him, him he may throw, and be believed superior to them all; so also the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, even Christ, did not devise a death for His own body, so as not to appear to be fearing some other death; but He accepted on the Cross, and endured, a death inflicted by others, and above all by His enemies, which they thought dreadful and ignominious and not to be faced; so that this also being destroyed, both He Himself might be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be brought utterly to nought.

So something surprising and startling has happened; for the death, which they thought to inflict as a disgrace, was actually a monument of victory against death itself. Whence neither did He suffer the death of John, his head being severed, nor, as Esaias, was He sawn in sunder; in order that even in death He might still keep His body undivided and in perfect soundness, and no pretext be afforded to those that would divide the Church.[1]

You’d be surprised how much you read in Christian books is really just a regurgitation of stuff somebody else said a long time ago. I’m learning a lot from Athanasius. I can also see where our understanding of theology has, in some instances, advanced beyond him – particularly in the 5th century, leading up to the Chalcedonian Creed. But, what an explanation he provided here!

You can learn a lot from smart, dead guys . . .

Notes:

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in NPNF2, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Archibald T. Robertson (New York, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1892), 4:49.