Friday, June 27, 2014

Luther's Theology of the Cross: Great Blessings Through Great Suffering

Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, talked about something called the theology of the cross (as opposed to the theology of glory). The first theology is the good and right one, but harder for our human nature to embrace than the second one. Yet it's the only theology that offers sanity and hope in all the difficult experiences of this life. This excerpt from an article by Carl Trueman tells a little bit about how the theology of the cross is so very meaningful for our lives. I highly recommend following the link to and reading the whole article.

Luther...had a dramatically restrictive view of revelation. God revealed himself as merciful to humanity in the incarnation, when he manifested himself in human flesh, and the supreme moment of that revelation was on the cross at Calvary. Indeed, Luther sometimes referred enigmatically to Christ crucified as "God's backside"—the point at which God appeared to be the very contradiction of all that one might reasonably have anticipated him to be. The "theologians of glory," therefore, are those who build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves. The "theologians of the cross," however, are those who build their theology in the light of God's own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.

The cross is [the paradigm] for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.

This point is hard for those of us in the affluent West to swallow. For example, once I lectured at a church gathering on this topic and pointed out that the cross was not simply an atonement, but a revelation of how God deals with those whom he loves. I was challenged afterwards by an individual who argued that the cross and resurrection marked the start of the reversal of the curse, and that great blessings should thus be expected; to focus on suffering and weakness was therefore to miss the eschatological significance of Christ's ministry.

Of course, this individual had failed to apply Luther's theology of the cross as thoroughly as he should have done. All that he said was true, but he failed to understand what he was saying in light of the cross. Luther would agree that the curse is being rolled back, but that rollback is demonstrated by the fact that, thanks to the cross, evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God's will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil can also be subverted to the cause of good.

More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too. Yes, the curse is reversed; yes, blessings will flow; but who said that these blessings will line up with expectations of affluent America? The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, do those who are united to him by faith have any right to expect anything different?

This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.

Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God—yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt—we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.

Luther's theology of the cross is too rich to be covered adequately in a single article, but I hope that my brief sketch above will indicate the rich vein of theological reflection which can be mined by those who reflect upon 1 Corinthians 1 and upon the dramatic antitheses between appearance and reality that are scattered throughout Scripture and marshaled with such force by Martin Luther. An antidote to sentimentality, prosperity doctrine, and an excessively worldly eschatology, this is theological gold dust. The cross is not simply the point at which God atones for sin; it is also a profound revelation of who God is and how he acts toward his creation.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Creeds and Confessions

I've been reading a good bit about the historical confessions of the Reformed church. The one most familiar to me has been the Westminster Confession. Three other historic Reformed confessions known as the "Three Forms of Unity" are the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Reformed Baptists also have a historic confession, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, also called the Second London Confession.

The serious use of and adherence to such confessions has fallen out of favor, both among Reformed and Baptist churches. I think this is a problem! Without common beliefs about such weighty doctrines as the inability of man and the sovereignty of God in predestination and election, how can a local church maintain and enjoy the fellowship with one another God means us to maintain and enjoy?

Churches who don't use and adhere to these historic reformed Confessions will have members who disagree on all kinds of doctrinal issues. People who join the church will not have a clear idea on where the church stands on various important doctrines. Lack of commitment to a reformed confession seems to me to be a recipe for disunity. 

Here's an article by Carl Trueman about the importance of creeds and confessions and why we need to return to them. He has also written a book about the subject which can be purchased here.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith can be found here.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Romans And Proverbs And The Fear Of The Lord

The book of Romans is both very plain in its meaning and message and filled with puzzles that require meditation and brain work to "solve." Paul is brilliant and logical, and is also the apostle God chose to receive a revelation of grace and of the gospel like no other. Paul truly considered himself to be the least among the apostles because of his past persecution of the church. 

But back to Romans: it's both very plain in meaning and message and in places, "hard to understand" (as Peter famously characterized Paul's writings). But not impossible. As mentioned, those places simply require more thinking, more lingering upon the text and context, more Spirit-helped brainwork. Logic is involved. (Spiritual understanding doesn't preclude logic.) It's all important, both the plain parts and the more difficult ones; all for the sake of seeing Christ as more lovely, and God as greater and more good, than ever. 

That's the way it is not only with Paul's writings but with all of Scripture. The Bible describes itself to contain, in it's wisdom, proverbs and riddles (Proverbs 1:6). To understand it, and thus God, one must "receive," "treasure up," "make your ear attentive to" and "incline your heart to" God's words and commandments. One must call out for insight, raise one's voice for understanding, seek for those things like silver and search for them like hidden treasure (Proverbs 2:1-8). This is all done because of, and in order to learn, the right and proper fear of Yahweh. To behold his beauty. 

All this is true work! God never said that insight and wisdom into his ways would be handed over easily and casually. He has always been a God who has been all about being sought as treasure, as more desirable than the finest silver or gold. That's how truly worthy he is. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Adoring The God We Behold

God deserves our adoration. He deserves, as Scripture tells us, our highest praises. What exactly does this look like, how is it accomplished, in reality?

I realized some years ago that simply saying "Praise the Lord" or "I praise you Lord" is not praising the Lord! The words "praise the Lord" in the Psalms are actually a command to God's people to open their mouths and say something about God. First of all, it is a command to open our mouths and say true things about God's greatness and goodness. Secondly, speaking these true things must spring from genuine admiration for him and thankfulness to him. And finally, we are to speak these things in this way both to others and to God himself. Praise is telling others about God, and praise is telling God about God, as we see in the Psalms.

Now, understanding that praising God consists of saying true things about his greatness and goodness with admiration and thankfulness, both to others and to God himself, we must remember something else we we learn from Scripture: it is from the abundance of the heart that we speak (Luke 6:45). If our hearts are not really filled with love and admiration for God, words of praise won't come spilling out of our mouths. We'll hardly know what to say about him. If our hearts feel stony and cold toward him, if we're hurt and confused by difficulties in our lives, for example, and we're unfamiliar with God's word and ways, this will stop up our hearts from admiration and thankfulness, and our words (or lack of them) will reflect this.

If we find ourselves in continuing (not temporary) difficulty with the biblical command to adore and praise God, the first thing to do is to realize that this is our lack; there is no lack in God's worth. If our knowledge of God through the Scriptures has not resulted in the assurance that we know him well, that we are on accepted and intimate terms with him, that he is our constant friend and ally, and that we may trust him completely with all our sorrows as well as all our joys, then our journey of faith may have gone amiss. We need to realize that it's possible to belong to him yet not know him well, if our knowledge of him has been gained through other means than a much-opened Bible and a Scripture-saturated life of prayer. If our hearts remain dull toward him, and words of praise and thanks are hard to find, then we must re-examine what we think we know of him.

The apostle Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthian church, exhorts the people to pay close attention to the message of the apostles because they, the apostles, have been made the ministers of the new covenant, wherein God's glory has been most fully revealed and made known. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:4-11 that the apostle's teaching is in fact the ministry of the Spirit, revealing the glory of God through Christ in a way that far surpasses what was seen through Moses. The message of the apostles "portrays Christ" in this way (Galatians 3:1), as do the rest of the Scriptures. This is why Paul says that when the Spirit of God removes the veil that blinds, we are set free to behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:16-17). And it is as we behold, as we see and gaze upon this glory, that we are transformed into the same image. We become, by degrees of glory, like that which we are gazing upon (2 Corinthians 3:18).

But how do we see and gaze upon the glory of the Lord? We can put all the above paragraph in very simple terms. Paul is speaking metaphorically, but what he means is simply this: it is by the Spirit's work of opening our spiritual eyes to the message of the Scriptures that we come to know and admire and thank God for what he has done. The message of the apostles has been recorded and written down and is now the New Testament Scripture. The first-century church beheld the glory of the Lord when they heard or read, with spiritual understanding, the apostles' words about Christ and him crucified. We now behold the glory of God in the same way, the Holy Spirit opening our eyes to comprehend the message of  the Scriptures.

There in the written word we "see" the glory of Christ revealed through the various narratives, the explanations, and the teaching; this sight causes our admiration to blossom and swell and grow for all that God has done through the sending of his Son for our sin. There we see the hope for the resurrection of the body and the final restoration of all things. There we find the strength for going on, for how and why we are to hold on to hope in God (for how he holds us!). We need the Old Testament also, for it paints the epic and tragic portrait of man, and of God's dealings with man; there we learn man's true story and nature, and the greatness of God's plan of the ages for our rescue.

It is our wide and faithful reading of Scripture, through the new covenant, apostolic, Spirit-enabled "lens" of understanding, that enables us to obey the command of God through the Psalmist to truly praise him. Unless we have studied the portrait of Christ in this way both in the OT and the NT, unless we have gazed upon the glory we see building steadily from Genesis to Malachi, and then bursting into full view from Matthew to Revelation, we won't know the true things to say about God.

If we're only used to praising God for what we have temporally—our good health, our nice cars and homes, our healthy loved ones—then we will be at a loss when those things are taken away. We should always be thankful for our health and for what God has provided. But we very much need to set to work cultivating a taste for the things of eternity, don't we. This taste is only truly gained when we comprehend the message of Scripture as explained by Christ's apostles, his appointed ministers of the good news. We can only adore and praise the God whose glory we behold.

Open your Bible. Go to Ephesians 2:15-23 and pray along with Paul, for yourself and for all Christ's church, that "the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your understanding enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe..."

And keep reading the Scripture, fastening your gaze on the glory of God revealed there.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Way To God

"Years ago, two cousins were visiting near the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Although they were told by their parents not to venture into the swamp, they disobeyed. As the sun was setting, they decided to head home in hopes that their absence would not be detected. Neither boy made it back. When they were found dead a few days later, a note was attached to one of the boys. It read, 'I thought I knew the way, but I was wrong'.

"Do you know the way to God? Are you sure you are right?"

I appreciate Jim Elliff and his organization, Christian Communicators Worldwide. Here is a wonderful article to share with seekers: The Way To God

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Grief: When We Want Our Loved One More Than God

Yesterday was the "anniversary" (too light a word for loss!) of my son Joseph's death nine years ago. This annual milestone arrived exactly 37 days after the death of my dear brother, just turned 49, from leukemia and its complications. He died on August 27th of this year, and my family is all feeling much grief and sorrow over this great loss to us.

But it's not a permanent loss for his family and friends who are in Christ, as he also is. We are all heading swiftly toward the same destination- away from the body, at home with the Lord, and therefore reunited with each other. For that reason... and because we know that it is God himself who "has fashioned us for this very purpose" (to be "clothed with immortality")... and because "knowing the fear of the Lord" (that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ) we must, like the Apostle, live and speak so as to persuade others... for all those reasons, we must struggle, even in our grief, to honor and please the Lord.

I remember in the weeks after my son's death, as the initial shock began to morph into a relentless ache of grief and pain, I began to consider this. My one desire was to be with my son again. My initial desire had been to die, and be laid in the ground with him! I did not want to live in this world without him. I had other children though, and a husband, and knew I would have to go on. Knowing this, I began to consider how I would "go on"- in what manner? Begrudgingly... depressed... hopeless?

No, I needed hope, and there was hope. I was not at the place that my one, burning desire was to be with the Lord- to see him face to face, to be free from the remaining sin that so hinders our love for him. I didn't yet know enough to have the right affections, but I knew that I didn't know, and was sorry for it. I was engulfed with pain for the loss of my son, and missed him desperately. But I believed God's word, though I couldn't always feel it. So I purposely focused on the hope I could feel: that of being reunited with my son one day.

I began searching the Bible for all that it had to say about this. I came across a great book that was very helpful, Heaven, by Randy Alcorn. This book brought together many things in the Bible that are reason for excitement both at finally being with Christ and with being reunited with all the saints, including our loved ones. I didn't substitute this book or anything else I read for the Scripture. I began becoming a student of God's word, and found rich comfort there.

So for a long while, when I thought of heaven and especially of the new heavens and the new earth, it was the hope of being reunited with my son that gave the most comfort. But I began, somewhere along the line, to confess this to the Lord, who I knew to be tender to our weak frames and an understanding Father. I remember asking him for his forgiveness for making more of my son, in a sense, than I did of him. I even found myself sometimes when being tempted by some desire or another to sin, that I would think about Joseph and decide that no, I will not fall into that temptation, I'll resist and flee from it for Joseph's sake, because someday I'll see him again and I don't want to dishonor him. You see how I almost substituted my son for the affections I needed to have toward God? Yet I knew I did this, and admitted it to the Lord, and asked him to work in me so that my affections became the proper ones I should have, the ones that would most please him and would be most useful to the people left here on earth.

And that did happen- over time, the Lord by his Spirit used his word, which I stayed careful in making use of, he used my prayers which I falteringly but persistently continued in, and he used the passage of time, during which occurred the many testings that try our faith and make it more genuine. He used all those means to gradually change my heart's affections, to make me more genuinely loyal to him and his designs and plans and will for this life, to lift my heart and mind to heavenly things and make me want heaven! and want himself for his own beauty, and power, and holiness. Now, I can truly say that to be reunited with those I love- my son, my mother, my brother- is the wonderfully glad "icing on the cake" of the glorious prospect of seeing our Lord, of knowing him in a state that is free from the hindering sin and wrong desires that so afflict us in this life. Of being at home, brought by grace to be safe at last with him.

It is amazing to me at how unproud God is in this, that he doesn't chastise or condemn the honest heart that sees what the Bible says about loving him supremely, above all else, but struggles with their heart's affections in doing it. He knows it anyway- he doesn't want us to hide it, but to confess it to him. I used my love for my son in those early days of grief to resist temptations to sin, to build hope, to provide an interest in heaven and in heavenly things. The more I read the Bible, the greater my interest became in God himself and in his ways. My love for my son eventually took its proper place, which is the very best thing; I so wish it had had its proper place when he was alive.

I guess the point of this article is to try to help a little with this aspect of grief. For many Christians, they build their grief around the loved one they've lost, due to their faith in God not yet being what it ought to be. I'm saying, if this is the case with you, recognize and confess it early on. Do what you can, when you can, to try to move your affections along toward a right placement of them in God himself, through becoming a student of his word and by prayer for him to help you in it. Keep an honest heart about it! This above all is pleasing to God.

Here's one very practical way I moved toward this in some of the early days; it's a practice I still keep up, that of praying Psalm 119:36-38 (this Psalm is all about God's word, the Scripture, and what it is to us):

"Incline my heart to Your testimonies, and not to gain.
"Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways.
"Establish Your word to Your servant, as that which produces reverence for You." (NASB)

The more I requested this help from the Lord the more I really desired it, and the more he supplied it. May the Lord encourage and help you on your journey through grief, may he incline your heart to his word and establish you in it, as you seek, however falteringly, to know and honor him.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Desires That Will Stand In The Judgment

"Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment" (Ecclesiastes 11:9).

The only thing that makes sense of this counsel— to follow your own desires, knowing that God will bring you to account for them at the last Day— is to have right desires. And the only way to have right desires is to desire what God approves. And the only way to desire what God approves is to be given new desires. And the only way to have new desires is through the new birth. 

How gracious of God that the young may rejoice and be cheerful in good ways that will stand before His judgment.