The treasurer stood up and spoke on behalf of the church elders, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money to build the extension. The bad news is, it is in your pockets’.
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It’s interesting to note the parallels Scripture draws between Elijah and John the Baptist. Malachi had prophesied that the Coming of God to his people would be preceded by Elijah. He would come to prepare the people for the advent of God, the arrival of the Day of the Lord (Mal 4:5,6; cf. 3:1).
Elijah was a noted prophet who preached boldly to Israel in days of serious spiritual apostasy in Israel. He rebuked kings (1 Kings 21:17-29) and called for a national turning of hearts to the Lord (1 Kings 18:21). His confrontation with Jezebel, King Ahab’s idolatrous and murderous wife, almost led to his death (1 Kings 19:10).
We can see clearly why John the Baptist is an Elijah figure (Mk 9:12,13). He calls the sinful nation to repentance (1:4,5; Lk 3:7-11) and warns that judgement is pending (Lk 3:9). The Lord is about to come and sift the people, for some it will mean salvation and for others judgement (Lk 3:15-18). He boldly confronts Israel’s King and rebukes him leading to his imprisonment (Mk 6:17-20; Lk 3:19,20) and finally death orchestrated by Herodias, Herod’s vindictive and murderous illicit wife (Mk 6:21-29).
The parallels between Elijah and John are clear: both are bold prophets in days of spiritual apostasy; both are connected to Israel’s end-time hopes; both call the nation back to God; and both face hostile kings and their ruthless wives. Indeed, it seems that Elijah’s experiences with Ahab’s and Elijah act as a prophecy of what would happen to John, though where Elijah lived John died (Mk 9:13).
The disciples, knowing that the scribes (rightly) insist that Elijah’s coming must precede the coming of the Day of the Lord, a day of both salvation and judgement, are puzzled that Elijah had not come. Jesus points out that John is effectively if not actually Elijah; he has come in Elijah’s Spirit and power (Matt 11:14; Lk 1:17. cf. Jn 1:21).
Of course, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s Coming or Advent, seems to refer to one event in the OT. It is only in the NT that we discover it has two phases. He has Come and is yet to Come. Is Elijah yet to come before the Second Coming? There are many questions surrounding these things that I certainly know little about. Even those who know much more have a limited grasp. And of course only some things are revealed.
But what is revealed is for our feeding in faith. God brings his people into his plans and purposes that we may have fellowship with him and be enriched in faith. Hopefully this little biblical cameo further confirms our wonder at God’s ways. God knows, we need modern day Elijahs. We need John the Baptists. People fearless and bold in the power of the Spirit, called by him to call for repentance and faith in the light of the Lord’s Coming. Perhaps one such figure will prove to be the final powerful Elijah-voice and usher in the Day of the Lord.
Unlike some church traditions , the one with which I am most familiar did not use the Psalmody, nor were there liturgical readings and as a consequence the Psalms were less familiar, certainly less memorised. What was stressed, however, was that they revealed Christ. This Christological hermeneutic (that they spoke of Christ) was clearly correct. Christ himself laid its foundation when he said the OT Scriptures spoke of him and upon resurrection taught his disciples to find in these Scriptures, including the Psalms, ‘the things concerning himself’ (Lk 24:44). Later the apostles regularly cite the OT, and not least the Psalms, as a witness to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. The theology of Hebrews in particular rests largely on a cluster of psalms.
It is important to recognise that a Christological reading of the OT is not a fanciful or merely imaginative reading of the OT by the apostles in the light of Christ. They do not subscribe to the post-modern interpretative notion that what matters is not the writer’s intention but the reader’s interpretation. These may, we are told, bear little resemblance. The NT writers are not the vanguard of such a hermeneutic; they did not see what was not there. They read the OT Christologically because it was Christotelic, that is, it looked forward intentionally to the future and the arrival of the Messianic Age and Messiah, the Christ. It was always promise awaiting fulfilment, expectation anticipating realisation. It had a goal and that goal was Christ. Christ and the apostles simply read the OT according to its own Christotelic intention.
This is as true of the Psalms as of any other of the OT; they too look forward. It is clear as we read them that however much they describe people and events of their time such is the poetic excess and exuberance that the immediate context cannot satisfy the poetic vision and something more ultimate is envisaged. What seems like mere lyrical excess is much more; it is the Holy Spirit engaging the poet’s heart and mind to envisage people and events yet future. In a word, the Psalms are prophetic.
Let me illustrate. One category of psalm, is the royal psalm. Many psalms are written by David, Israel’s archetypal king. Future Judaic kings were evaluated by their similarity or otherwise to David. Thus, Davidic psalms are royal psalms (though only some are so designated by scholars), expressing the perspective and aspirations of Israel’s king. Other psalms are written as eulogies to the Davidic king. Whether written by or for the Davidic king there is in these psalms hyperbolic elements of description and anticipation that go way beyond anything David or his successors experienced. There is an idealising, an exaltation, that makes the psalm transcend its initial reference. From these psalms a Davidic King and Kingdom such as Israel had never known emerges, a Warrior King who will conquer all his enemies and nurture his people. He will have a worldwide and everlasting Kingdom over which he will reign with wisdom and justice as a priest-king by the power of a life that like his kingdom never ends. He give his people God’s promised eternal rest (Ps 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132, 144. Cf. Hebs 1-5).
He is all that is great about David and immeasurably more; the king of which they speak does not so much aspire to be like David rather David acclaims him as Lord (Ps 110). His cause (Ps 2) will be championed by God for like the nation he is God’s son (the king is a kind of embodiment of the people). Indeed, and here some psalms are most daring, he will himself be God (Ps 45, 110; Cf. Lk 20:40-44; Hebs 1). He is both David’s son and David’s God, his offspring and his origin, the ultimate David (Ezekiel 34:23). In Messiah, divine sonship is taken to another level. He will not be merely a titular son, or adopted son (as were the Davidic Kings) but an actual son, the ‘one and only’ (Jn 1:14). Such a coomposite exalted poetic vision clearly exceeds normal royal reigns; it is plainly messianic. It is hardly surprising that Peter affirms in Acts 2 that David was a prophet (Acts 2:30,31). Indeed David’s life as first rejected then recognised king, his suffering and consequent glory, his heart for God and literary gifts shaped him by divine providence to be the prophet who would reveal in his songs not only the shape of the messianic kingship but the inner life of Messiah, his thoughts and emotions, his agonies and ecstasies, and his odyssey of tested faith which was the messianic mission.
Which brings us to a second Christological theme that pervades the Psalms, that of the righteous or innocent sufferer. The Davidic king is a divine son who suffers, and suffers unjustly. Psalm 22 comes immediately to mind. It is a psalm of David, a lament (there are more than fifty psalms of lament). For the faithful in Israel, Yahweh, the covenant keeping God, promised life, which had at its core the enjoyed presence of God. Yet here is a faithful son – one whose faith is foundational to his life for he has trusted from his mother’s womb – who faces death not life. The God he expects to be near is far off; it is his enemies who are near, and ironically, it is his fidelity that they use, with animal-like ferocity and cruelty, to mock and oppress him. He endures extreme physical and psychological distress. Pain, shame, isolation, and desolation overwhelm. Death is so certain and imminent that he describes himself as lying in ‘the dust of death’ while his enemies divvy up his clothing; he will not be wearing them again. Yet the lament ends with a cry for deliverance (22:19-21). The faithful son is distressed, dismayed, disoriented, and desolate but he does not doubt; he will trust with his last breath. His cry of dereliction does not issue from a loss of faith but a loss of fellowship, of contact.
We are not told in the psalm whether the afflicted one dies or not. In so far as it describes an actual experience of David clearly he did not die (or there would be no Psalm 22). But like so many psalms the experience described is so rarified it goes beyond that of the writer. David, for example, did not trust from his mother’s breasts. Here is a faith experience that transcends that of the writer. It is prophetic. It is fulfilled in Messiah. Only he does justice to the poetic vision. As one writer comments,
‘The only adequate and natural interpretation of the psalm is that which sees in it a lyrical prediction of the Sufferings of Messiah and the Glory that was to follow. No Sufferer but One could, without presumption, have expected his griefs to result in the conversion of nations to God.’
The psalm is repeatedly cited in the NT in the narration of the crucifixion (Matt 27:35,37,46). Jesus cites it (twice) on the cross as do his enemies who surround him though they do so unwittingly. Both confirm its anticipatory aim.
James H. Brooks wrote,
‘ the Psalms… describe so largely in prophecy the inner life of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin; and unless that fact is kept constantly in view, the Psalms cannot be read intelligently.
For Christ, of course, unlike David, deliverance from death is found beyond death and out of death (Hebs 2:14, 5:7) that he may be not only a model of persistent faith but the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Hebs 5:9). In resurrection he is surrounded no longer by enemies but by his own, those whom he calls ‘his brothers’. They are his ‘brothers’ not because he became one with them in incarnation (else all men would be his brothers) but because they become one with him through his death and resurrection. It is in resurrection he acknowledges the believing seed of Abraham as his brothers (Ps 22:22; Hebs 5:9; John 20:17).
There have been many righteous sufferers throughout history before and since the cross. Many of God’s sons have their sonship tested through unwarranted inexplicable suffering. Many have their faith stretched into the jaws of death. Jesus identifies with them all. He stands in organic union with all his brothers who suffer for their faith in the God. This psalm and others express not only the response of their authors to undeserved affliction and that of oppressed saints in future generations for whom they provide a resource for prayer but supremely they express the response of the messianic king who becomes in all ways like his brothers, sin apart (Hebs 2). Messiah became one of us. He was tested like us. He was traumatised as we are. He trusted as we are called to do. Our cry became his cry. Our distress his. And because his faith inevitably outstrips ours so too does the opposition such faith excites and the suffering that follows. If we want an insight into the physical and mental anguish that Christ experienced then we must reflect on the Psalms. There we find how he learned what it was to cry to God ‘out of the depths’ (Psalm 130) sometimes day and night without relief (Ps 22). And when we feel we are just there we are assured he has been there before us and knows how to sustain us in faith (Hebs 4:14-16).
Of course, there is a further dimension to Christ’s sufferings; he suffered vicariously for sins. Here too it seems the Psalms give insight. Many psalms describe occasions when God judges the writer for personal sin, yet some of these are applied in the NT to Christ. Clearly they can be so understood only when we realise that unlike the writer he suffered not for his own sin but for that of others. But here we begin to explore yet another way in which the psalms are prophecy of the Christ. And this, along with Messiah as both the ideal ‘blessed’ man of Psalm 1 and the favoured ‘son of man’ of Psalm 8 (Hebs 2) must await another time.
I listened to a podcast a few moments ago where the speaker made an observation on Genesis One regarding marriage I had not heard before and thought worth sharing. He pointed out that the creation story concerns a series of binary complements that are integral to how things are intended to be.
We read of God creating the heavens and the earth. We read too of light and darkness or night and day, moon and sun, sea and dry land. Finally, and as a climax we read, ‘male and female’ he created them (in the following chapter we discover this is for marriage). In each case, both are necessary for the whole. The whole requires the complementary parts to be complete, to be ‘good’.
When, thousands of years later, society begins to reconfigure marriage to include same-sex marriage then not only is it tampering with something very ancient and long established, a scary thing in itself, but is tampering with a building block that Christians believe lies at the very foundation of the created order. Every previous tampering with marriage (polygamy, divorce, etc) has threatened the harmony of life. It seems indisputable that this even more fundamental attack on the nature of things can only lead to greater chaos, societal dysfunction and decay. When we erode the divinely ordered foundations trouble can only ensue.
I know some will disagree with the contention in this post. That’s fine. Christians may disagree agreeably over lots of things. I wish to simply lay out the basics of why I believe the sacrifice of our Lord was not only universal in extent but also specific in intent. My focus is not on the universal but on the specific. It is for me a cause for great wonder and gratitude that God not only loved the world of rebellious humanity but in a specific sense the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me.
In this snapshot of the atonement then the universal aspects of Christ’s sacrifice are assumed. The Bible is clear that the sacrifice of Christ had a cleansing effect in heaven itself. I have no doubt that Christ loved the world -the whole world – and gave himself for it. My focus is not on these, nor Is it to deny or diminish these, but to demonstrate that there is a specific focus in the atonement that is more than merely a subset of the whole but is tied in some way to purpose and intent. In a word, there is clearly a sense in which the atonement is because God loves the world but there is just as clearly a sense in which it is because he loves his own. If we as humans are capable of such different kinds of love it would be strange if God were not. If we are capable of making sacrifices that have the potential to benefit many while having a definite intention to benefit our own, why not God.
So where is specificity taught? The best place to begin is with the idea of covenant. In OT times covenants were made between specific parties. Major covenants were often ratified by a covenant blood sacrifice and covenant meal. Both sacrifice and meal were exclusive to those bound in covenant relationship. The specificity of the sacrifice was underlined by its blood being sprinkled on the covenant people. In the OT these features can be seen in various significant covenants between God and those with whom he chooses to enter into covenant. When we come to the NT we see the same covenantal features in the New Covenant. The covenant sacrifice of the NC is the death of Christ. In the Upper Room as Jesus eats the Passover Meal (associated with an old people and an old redemption and an old covenant) with his disciples, he introduces a new meal commemorating a new redemption associated with a new covenant with a new (or renewed) people. We read,
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Specificity is stamped on the sacrifice. It is for the covenant people guaranteeing the covenant promises to them. The covenant people are not indeterminate. They are not nebulous and undefined, a mere potentiality. They are specific and concrete, those who have faith in Christ. It is specifically for them the sacrifice is made, upon them it’s blood is sprinkled (1 Peter 1:2), and it is they who participate in the covenant meal. They are ‘the many’ of Isaiah 52, 53. Those who shall be astonished and understand. Those with whom he shall share a portion and divide the spoil; his offspring (53:10).
In Hebrews this specificity is enhanced.
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins commiintted under the first
Notice the new covenant sacrifice guarantees salvation blessings for the covenant people. Those in covenant relationship will receive the promised eternal inheritance, the mediator will ensure it and the certainty rests on what his sacrifice achieved. It didn’t merely potentially ransom them, it actually ransomed them; it set them free from sins. The sacrifice effected the salvation of the covenant people.
While it is true that the new covenant people are those who believe, in Hebrews it is not their belief that is the focus it God’s call. The NC people are ‘the called’. This is of course consistent with how the main covenants work. It is God (the greater covenant partner) who is sovereign. The covenant and the covenant partner is always his initiative. He chooses those with whom he will enter covenant and he decides the terms. In the NC the divine initiative could not be clearer. The covenant is monergistic; its his will and power that accomplishes it. It is a covenant of ‘I will’ (Jer 31:33,34; Ezek 36:22-32). In this covenant faith, as with all else, is itself a covenant gift (Eph 2:8,9; Roms 12:3; 1 Tim 1:14,14; Phil 1:29; 2Thess 1:3; Luke 22:31,32; Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5). In the NC God meets its obligations. Thus those ‘called’ will receive the ‘promised inheritance’ – the death of Christ secures it.
This specificity in the death of Christ is seen elsewhere too. We see it in John 10 where the shepherd’s death is specifically for the sheep.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
The death of the shepherd arises from his love for his sheep. The sheep are a defined flock. They are those known by the Shepherd and who know him. They are those the Father has given (10:29). They are his ‘own’ (10:3, 14). It is for these sheep he dies. He cares about them in a unique way. They are the focus of his death.
Special love also lies at the heart of the next example; Christ’s love for his bride, the church.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[a] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
It is impossible to view this love is just part of the general love that God has for the world. The whole image demands a discriminating, choosing, and bestowing love. It is the wonder of an inexplicable love for a moral Cinderella; a purposeful love that intends to transform her into something more wonderful than any fairy tale ending. It would be perverse to muddy this image with injecting the bride’s choice of her lover. The whole focus is the love of the lover. It is his delight in someone who is now ‘bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh’. In a patriarchal culture the selecting love is the initiative of the male. In this unique, undivided, exclusive love the bride is called to luxuriate and delight. In it she finds security and dignity.
And this exclusive love is the reason Christ dies. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Hallelujah.
The high priest, Caiaphas, declared (albeit unwittingly) the targeted nature of the atonement when he said ,
50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Likewise the redeemed in heaven understand that the blood ransom of the cross was designed not to ransom every tribe and language and people and nation but to ransom from among every tribe and language and people and nation.
9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Thus as one writer well says, ‘though Christ died for all men in some sense, he didn’t die for all men in the same sense’. While the atonement is designed to be sufficient for all it is intended to be efficient for the many.
In the words of Romans 3,
22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all (universal) and upon all them that believe (specific).
You may well think, and with justice, that my apology is for my long absence. I do apologise for this and take the opportunity to thank those who have encouraged me to get in gear again. This is my first effort at doing so. I felt it fitting to begin with an apology, not in the conventional sense, but in the more theological or philosophical sense – an apology for my faith, that is, why I am a Christian.
why I am a Christian?
Why am I a Christian? I suppose deterministic sociologists may insist I am the product of my upbringing. My background was staunchly evangelical. I was reared by devout Christian parents, and it is true that this influenced me. I thank God it did. Yet it would be untrue to infer that I am a Christian merely because I was raised in a Christian environment. After all many are raised in Christian homes yet turn away from the faith in which they were nurtured in later life. So Christian parents were a significant influence but not determining and defining in my faith.
There are of course wider influences on a boy growing up. For me, my wider circle of family and friends was a fairly balanced mixture of Christian and non-Christian though, in retrospect, I am not inclined to think there was any marked influence from either, certainly in terms of personal influences. Formal church influence however, well that’s another matter.
An undoubtedly strong influence was the preaching I regularly heard. I was taken to church services from as far back as I can remember. One of these was the ‘gospel’ service. Each Sunday evening the preaching (forty-five minutes or so) was specifically evangelistic. It was unambiguously directed at ‘unsaved’ folks, and being a non-covenantal Church (we did not believe in covenant children but that all from birth are ‘children of wrath’) the young from the earliest were in no doubt they were part of the ‘unsaved’ and should understand the message to be directed at them. The message was simple: we are all sinners before God heading for a well-deserved hell who must look to a crucified Christ for salvation and trust in him. I heard this message in various forms week in and week out. I knew Christian parents, though a God-given privilege didn’t make me a Christian. Rather, with privilege came responsibility; judgement would be worse for those who, knowing the truth, turned from it. Often the realities of hell were graphically described and, for young impressionable minds, frighteningly so.
My view now is that ‘hell fire and damnation’ preaching directed at the young was, if not wrong-headed in principle at least over-zealous in its intensity. I say this with some diffidence because I believe divine judgement is necessary in a moral universe; if God is a moral God and we are moral creatures then judgement and punishment follow and the destruction of hell (conscious punishment) a necessary moral reality. Our western world, of course, does not really believe in punishment but that is more due to a soft-bellied liberal sentimentality born out of a cushioned and self-indulgent existence than out of any true moral perspective. Ask the parent of a murdered child whether he believes justice involves punishment and you will get a different answer. Ask those who have suffered atrocities at the hands of murderous regimes for their view. Indeed, ask your own heart, and free from ideological notions, it will affirm the need for justice and punishment.
Punishment is integral to moral outrage and I find no difficulty with this biblical emphasis. I also believe it is important to preach about hell – who did so more graphically than Jesus (Luke 16). He stood in the stream of prophets who warned their contemporaries of coming divine wrath (Lk 21:23; Jn 3:36). He warned men to fear not those who could destroy the body and do no more but he who could destroy body and soul in hell forever (Matt 10:28); end time wrath was also eternal wrath. Indeed, he went further and asserted that all judgement had been given to him; he not only prophesied judgement he claimed to be the judge (John 5:22, 27). Nowadays fear is popularly understood as a negative and unhealthy emotion. It is not always so. In a world like ours we must inculcate fear. Fear of danger, moral or physical, is wholesome not harmful. We warn of strangers… roads… fire, and so on. The question for me is how early and heavily the fear of divine judgement (or for that matter other threats in life) should be impressed on young minds not whether it should so be.
Children today are viewed differently than a generation ago (when they were to be seen and not heard). They are unhealthily molly-coddled. They are romantically regarded as innocents to be protected at all costs from the uglier realities of life. To speak to them of an eternal hell is considered monstrous and criminal. The truth is children are not innocents and as soon as they are able to assert their will we find out just how selfish (like ours) it is. They need love but they need discipline. They need freedom but they also need boundaries. They need security but they also need to learn fear if they are to live securely. Fear is part of true knowledge, indeed, as the Bible makes clear ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’. How true! Where God is held in awe humanity will find true wisdom and children should learn that God is to be held in awe and is not to be trifled with. Thus a compelling case exists for warning of coming wrath. The only question is at what age this wrath should be impressed.
Yet, having said all of this, I suspect the Lord who said ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’ may have stressed upon them his holy love more than his holy judgement, he may have drawn them more in their tender years by the beauty of his grace than the horror of his wrath. All that being said, coming wrath wonderfully concentrated my young mind and led me at the age of nine to cry out, ‘what must I do to be saved’. The psychology of fear had its due effect and in some ways it still (rightly) does (Hebs 10:26-31; 12:25-29).
What of human psychology? Is there a psychology predisposed to faith? Is there a ‘religious gene’? Is my faith simply the product of my psychology? I am quite sure it isn’t. For one thing Christians reflect every kind of human psychology. There is no Christian psychological ‘type’? Among Christians just as in the wider society can be found all personality types. What distinguishes Christians and non-Christians is much deeper than personality type and goes to the heart of our being – our nature itself, our fundamental spiritual core. Non-Christians have a core naturally opposed to God whereas Christians have, by God’s grace, been gifted at conversion with a new heart that naturally loves God and is drawn to him.
But if (God’s )grace first taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved then grace has since that early lisping of faith consolidated it in so many ways. Firstly, and most importantly, this faith has been consolidated intellectually. I am a Christian today because my faith-foundation intellectually has been simply deepened and reinforced over the years. I could write a taxonomy of considerable length enumerating the ways my faith has been intellectually reinforced/confirmed. I will mention three that for me have been particularly foundational.
the question of origins
I find existence compellingly argues a Creator. To me it is a slam dunk. I cannot see the vagaries of naturalistic evolution, even allowing for time and chance being moderated by ‘evolutionary intelligence’, producing our world as we know it. This seems to me utterly incredible, far more incredible than a Creator. The most natural, reasonable, and instinctive conclusion is that creation argues powerful, creative, moral intelligence, a Creat0r. The Christian faith maintains just this and adds that God-consciousness is also innate (Roms 1:18-26). My heart concurs.
the nature of existence
It is an enigma to me that some Christians are embarrassed by the Christian claim that the human heart is intrinsically evil for this seems to me one of the most concrete and unassailable facts of Christian belief. The Christian faith insists that humanity although initially made upright has fallen from how it was created and is now morally and spiritually broken. The human heart is now viciously self-regarding and opposed to God; it is sinful. I find this description of the human condition compelling. Human evil is axiomatic. The Bible’s description of the human condition is a powerful concrete apologetic for the Christian story.
Of course, it is a big step from believing God exists, and even man is evil, to believing in the Christian God, which brings me to the third foundation I find convincing.
the phenomenon of Jesus
Why am I a Christian: I am convinced by Jesus. Christians trust Jesus. Ultimately my ‘faith’ is ‘in’ Jesus. He is my ‘apology’, my foundation of foundations. I observe him and believe. I observe: he fulfils OT expectation albeit in a way unexpected; the Kingdom signalling miracles he performs, attested by people no less cynical of the miraculous than we are; the wisdom of his instruction, prophetic, authoritative, and profound, has the unmistakable ring of truth and is authenticated by later events; the character authority he exudes carries the weight of someone truly human but not merely so – full of grace and truth; his resurrection, prophesied by him and verified by many, sealing his claims – the extraordinary beyond-category outcome of an extraordinary beyond-category life.
The unique phenomenon who is Jesus is why I am a Christian.
Of course, I could add all sorts of other reasons for my continuing faith. I could point to the ongoing influence of Christian friends, various experiences of life, a Christian wife, books I’ve read and so on but these, important as they are, are secondary rather than primary, part of the superstructure rather than the foundation. Yet all aspects foundation and superstructure contribute to the building – the fortress – that is my faith. These are all the influences, the stones, that God has used in the building of my life for I have no delusions that my faith is sourced in me. No, it is sourced in God’s grace. He has shaped my life. He has brought me (sometimes it seems against my will) to where I am now. His grace has brought me safe thus far and his grace will lead me home. My own small life is an apology for gospel grace; I have known God.
Why am I a Christian? Because God has made me so. I am a creation of his redeeming grace. All is of God. This is the baseline confession of all intelligent Christian faith and experience, and it is mine. By the grace of God I am what I am.
Recently, I was asked to speak on the implications of the cross in the life of the believer. The following three posts are simply my presentation on this topic. I hope they will prove useful. Please excuse the less literary and more oral nature of the post.
The Living Cross
We are gospel people. And we are gospel people in the fullest sense. Our lives are created and shaped by the gospel and right at the heart of this gospel is the cross.
The cross is critical to the gospel as this winter series has reminded us. The cross is God’s answer to the fundamental problem of existence – the problem of human sin. God’s glory and man’s happiness are both jeopardized by human sin. What is the solution? The solution, the only solution, God’s solution, is the cross. There in the death of Jesus all is made right. God’s glory is vindicated. His heart of love towards man, even though he is a sinner and a God hater is declared. His own integrity is revealed as he shows how he can be right while declaring right the ungodly. His holy wrath is displayed in all its glory against sin yet in a way that exonerates the sinner. The cross is God’s propitiating sacrifice for sins. There the debt of sinful humanity is more than fully met as Christ who knew no sin became sin for us and underwrote our liabilities. There the stain of sin whose defiling effects have pervaded the whole universe was expunged in Christ through whom God has reconciled all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
At the cross, God’s power is placarded as every cosmic enemy of God and man that found strength through sin was disarmed and defeated and disgraced as Christ triumphed over them by removing the sin that gave them leverage through the sacrifice of himself.
An inglorious Roman cross, paradoxically, is the great revelation of God’s glory and basis of all human happiness. I say paradoxically for of course to any other than those who have eyes of faith the cross is an object of derision. It is a symbol of folly and failure. Criminals died on crosses. Failed messianic pretenders died on crosses. Wisdom, power, salvation did not lie in a cross; it was the opposite of these. Such is the perceived wisdom of the world. Yet God’s wisdom delights in confounding the worldly-wise and his power mocks the pretensions of the strong. Ironically, God reveals the glory of his infinite wisdom in the folly of crucifixion, and the glory of his mighty power through the weakness of one crucified. Such, and much more, is the story of the cross.
In this cross we believe. Of this cross we preach. But, and it is an important but, the cross is not simply a spectacle we observe, and a paradox in which we believe, it is an event in which we participate. If our lives as gospel people are gospel-shaped then this means they are cross-shaped. The cross is not an icon we wear it is an experience we share, our identity, our lives are cross-shaped, they are cruciform. We are a crucified people. Identities are shaped by histories or narratives; our history, our narrative, is that we have been crucified with Christ.
In Philippians Paul says it succinctly,
Gal 2:20 (ESV2011) I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
In a sense, Paul’s whole understanding of the Christian life is packed into this text. It is a life of faith-union with Christ that takes us out of this world and into another. At conversion by faith and through the Spirit we are united to Christ and share in Christ’s death and resurrection life. At the cross our moral history as people alive in this world came to an end. When Christ died we died. When Christ was raised to a new life in resurrection so too were we. If Christ is now in heaven then so too are we; holy and without blame before God in Christ is our true moral position. This is where God sees us and it is here we must see ourselves. For Paul, Christian living is simply this reality of death and resurrection unpacked and applied.
Our task tonight is to explore some of the ways Paul unpacks this reality, particularly the reality that we are now crucified with Christ and are now dead. We could turn to may Scriptures to do so but we will limit ourselves to a few.
Firstly, Roms 6.
Died to Sin
- What would be your response to someone who said they were a Christian but seem unconcerned about sin in their life? What would you say to a Christian who said all evangelical talk about seeking holiness was legalistic pietism and a denial of our justification?
- How would you counsel someone who claims to be addicted to some sin?
- How would you answer someone who claims to keep trying to die to sin but with no success?
- What do you say to someone who feels disgusted/hates at who they are and tends to despair?
- A popular slogan is I am simultaneously a saint and a sinner? Is this true?
- How would you counter the claim that the gospel of grace is a licence to sin?
Paul’s answer to each is found in Roms 6.
Paul has taught that we are right with God purely by grace apart from works (Ch 3-5). We can do nothing to bring about our own salvation. Our right standing with God is a gift and comes through grace (5:17). Indeed Paul has just said, where sin has abounded (by law making sin more sinful) God’s grace has abounded all the more (Roms 5:20).
If, however, our salvation is all of grace in the face of human sin and has nothing to do with our own efforts does not this encourage sin? If my standing with God has nothing to do with my personal responsibility but is sourced in God taking the entire responsibility for my righteousness will I not cavalierly give myself to sin?
Rom 6:1 (ESV2011) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
Paul’s answer is clear.
Rom 6:2 (ESV2011) By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
Don’t you know, Paul says, your baptism enacts your participation in Christ’s death (2b). In his death, not only were our sins dealt with (Roms 3:25, 4:7) but so too was sin – the entity or power. It was dealt with because at the cross the person we were in Adam died; we were crucified with him for the express purpose that sin should lose any rights over us and so any hold upon us (vv 6,7).
You can’t accuse a dead man of sin – he is beyond it. Sin cannot demand his obedience for he is no longer alive; dead men don’t sin. Sin has no rights, no claims, no power over someone who is dead. While a man is alive he is responsible for his actions and will be judged by them but when he is dead he is beyond all of this – he is no longer accountable for them. Nor is he going to sin again because he is dead. All living people in the world are under the authority of sin. It rules their lives (Eph 2:1-5). It dominates their existence. But dead people are not ruled by sin. Sin cannot come to a dead person and accuse him or demand his obedience. He is beyond its jurisdiction, its claims, its sphere of influence and control.
On the cross Jesus placed himself under the jurisdiction of sin. He took sin’s charges and accusations upon himself. But in death he moved beyond sin’s authority never to have any relationship with it again. The death he died to sin, he died once for all, but the life he now lives he lives to God (Roms 6:10). He rose out of death into a realm where sin had no place, no influence or authority. He lives now in the presence of God, and for God, never to have to do with sin again.
Now says Paul this is your location as one who participates in Christ. Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Roms 6:11). As he is now so are you in this world. Treat this as the reality of your life. He does not, in Roms 6, tell us in detail how this is realised in our lives. He does not tell us that we are born of God, are partakers of the divine nature, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit who enables us to hold the flesh in the place of death and live a new life to God. All of this will come later. Here we are simply told it is all the product of living under grace (Roms 6:1,11). For at the moment he simply wants us to grasp the change in jurisdiction is what the cross achieves and the moral implications it carries. We are says Paul, as far as this world is concerned, dead. We no longer live in the realm where responsibility to gain righteousness and life lies in us. All the responsibilities of the old age have no legitimacy in our lives for we do not live in it. This is the logic, the moral force, the moral imperative of the cross in your life. At the cross whatever was involved and entailed in being a son of Adam (authorities, relationships, and responsibilities/obligations to these) came to an end.
But, is not all this talk of gospel grace dangerous? Is it not a licence to sin? If you tell a man he is, from God’s perspective, no longer a responsible man living in this world will not this result in antinomianism and freedom to sin? If you tell him when he does sin that he can say ‘it is no longer I but sin dwelling in me’ (Roms 7:17) is not this a means of passing the buck and promoting evading moral responsibility? Will it not simply encourage sinning with a sense of impunity? No, says Paul, for how can we if we have died to sin wish to live any longer in it? It is a moral contradiction, an incongruity. The whole reason you became a Christian was to be done with sin. To be free from its rights over you. You wished to be free from the great burden of being a failed person. You saw just how much of a sinner who were and that if you were held responsible for right living you would ever stand condemned. You needed to be free from all of this responsibility and this is precisely what God did in the cross. He took you out of the realm where responsibility for living lay with you and so sin reigned and placed you in another realm, the realm of grace where all is ‘of God’.
Little wonder such teaching frightened people and led to accusations of antinomianism. But Paul’s response is not to water down his claims. Rather it is to press home the inner logic of them. Your participation in Christ has taken you out of the world where sin has rights why would ever want to subject yourself to it again. If you give yourself to obey sin you have not understood what the cross is all about. The moral force of the cross means you have done with sin. The moral imperative is now to live as one dead to sin (one who will never allow it authority again) for that is your new position and standing and anything else is contradiction and inconsistency.
Rom 6:17-18 (ESV) But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
But you don’t understand sin has a grip on me. There are sins I am addicted to. First of all remember we are talking of sin as a force and power not individual sins. You may commit individual sins because Christians fail and slip back into unbelief. We fail to live consistently with who we are in Christ. But this must not shake our confidence in who we are. We must not think because we sin, we must sin. Grace has freed you from this power, this tyranny. Grace works in your heart through the new nature and Spirit so that you need not sin. You may sin but you are not addicted to sin, nor to any individual sin. This is a lie of Satan. You have died to the realm where sin has authority and cannot be resisted. You live in the realm of grace where the authority is ‘grace’ and so all is of God. Sin for a Christian should not be regarded as an inevitability to which we resign ourselves. All God’s power in grace is available to enable you to overcome sin. You need not yield to sin. Sin has no longer dominion over you. It cannot force your obedience. You may find it difficult to forsake any specific sin but I assure you, in Christ, you can.
It is a matter of faith. It is a matter of asserting to yourself – I have died to sin’s power, I need not sin, I will not let this particular sin or any other sin have control in my life. This applies to anything. It applies to addictions of every kind. It applies to the draw of pornography, lying, stealing, covetousness, greed, etc. I must never assume as a Christian these are inevitable for they are not.
A temptation may present itself and do so powerfully but you are free and must tell yourself this. You must grasp and insist on your new identity in Christ. This is the fight of faith. Turn away from sin. Refuse to listen to its lusts and desires. These are not yours. They come from the old life to which you have died. Refuse to listen and refuse to do what the temptation demands. It may call powerfully, insistently, like a past lover, but you have died to that relationship. That life has passed. You may say you do not ‘feel’ you are dead to sin. This is understandable for indwelling sin (the flesh, or the old person you once were while living in this world) is crying out to be obeyed. But it is not a matter of how you feel but of living by faith. Faith lives by what God says not how we feel. Faith believes what God says is true and acts on that basis; it takes God at his word. Faith inhabits the gospel realities. Faith is a gospel-shaped life. Thus Paul writes,
Rom 6:12-14 (ESV) Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
I keep trying to die to sin, but I can’t. All the old desires just keep coming into my mind. All the old weakness and temptations keep raising their ugly heads. It seems as if my soul is still full of sin. But who asked you to try to die to sin? Certainly not me. Not the Bible. Paul doesn’t say we must die to sin he says we have died to sin. It is a matter of affirming this in faith. He does not say sin has died. Sin is still as powerful as ever. It is still within as insistent as ever. The flesh (indwelling sin) is always clambering for attention. Look within and you’ll still see all kinds of volcanic sin ready to erupt.
It is not sin that has died, it is you who died.
This means, in practice, at least two things.
Firstly, it means you must not feel depressed and guilty about the sinful tendencies of your heart. When you see all kinds of evil smouldering in your heart you must not despair, rather you must refuse ownership. This is not the real you. This is the old you who God has declared dead and you must reckon this to be so. The new you (of resurrection faith) is the real and true you. The old is sin dwelling within. It is the flesh seeking place and power. But it is not ‘you’. You have died and passed through death into a new life. Therefore you must not feel guilty about these old lusts and desires. You must not think they are yours, they are not. You are not responsible for them. You must disown them. They belong to a world and personal identity that died at the cross. Never accept any accusations about these tendencies. Never take responsibility for them. Never feel depressed and despairing about them. God does not view them as you and neither must you. You are a new person. You are risen with Christ. You are the new life created and sustained by God’s indwelling Spirit whom God already sees seated with Christ in heaven, holy and blameless and beyond sin and accusation. What a glorious freedom the gospel brings from guilt and the terrible crushing sense of failed responsibility and a corrupt heart.
Secondly, we should realise we are not called to try die to these thoughts and inclinations, that is, we are not called to find some way of stopping them arising in your souls. We can’t stop sinful thoughts and inclinations arising. What you are called to do is by faith recognise that these are not the real you. The ‘you’ to whom these belong has been pronounced dead. This ‘you’ was crucified at the cross. Judgement has been carried out on this ‘you’. These are the inclinations of a life which is gone and all you need to do is accept this judgement (concur with it) and live in the light of it.
In other words, refuse to listen to their clambering and cries. Give them no credence. No foothold. When they arise simply dismiss them from your mind. Remind yourself these all belong to a past you, a former self and you have died to that self and will neither be condemned by it nor conned, cowed, or coerced into obeying it. Whatever it urges refuse. This is what Paul means when he says we are, by dependence on God’s Spirit, to put to death ‘the deeds of the body’ (Roms 8). There may be pain in this, and cost, for the flesh desperately wishes to be pampered, but we must crucify it, or rather recognise it is crucified and treat it as such.
Unconverted folks have great difficulty in looking with equilibrium at the corruption that is in their own hearts for they (rightly) think of what lies in their heart as ‘them’; they are identified by their ‘flesh’ and thus find the truth about themselves hard to face at but Christians should not be like this. We should be able with a steady eye to look at inner corruption and condemn and disown it for that is precisely what God did with it at the cross and what we accepted in conversion. We realised then that the flesh had no profit and was evil and we have gladly done with it that we may live in a new life of grace, beyond responsibility and its corollary condemnation where all is ‘of God’.
Paul earths this faith-perspective in Ephesians and Colossians.
Eph 4:17-32 (ESV)
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!- assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [your having put off] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and [having put on] to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
This is how we live in the reality that we have died to sin and are alive to God (Roms 6:10). In Colossians, Paul expresses it slightly differently but it is essentially the same point.
Col 3:1-17 (ESV2011)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Sin is a moral contradiction for those who participate in the cross. It is a denial of all we have become in Christ. How can we who have died to sin live any longer therein?
Let me consider one further point.
What if as a Christian I do sin? And both experience and Scripture tell us we will and do. Surely I must take ownership for this sin. Surely this sin condemns me and defines me. Surely for this sin I am responsible. Surely I must hate myself because of this sin? Well, this is a point where it would be easy to get our thinking skewed. On the one hand, there is a sense in which of course we do take responsibility for our failure. We recognise that we have failed to live by faith. We have not lived as close to Christ and as dependent on the Spirit as we ought and so we have sinned. Our response should be to feel the shame of our action and hatred for our sin and to confess it with the intent of forsaking it knowing God will be faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
However, and it is a very important ‘however’ we will do this never wavering in our consciousness that we are sons, seated with Christ in heaven, holy and without blame in God’s sight. We will insist the sin does not define us. We will insist it is inconsistent with who we are and not a reflection of our proper identity. We are saints, not sinners.
In this sense we can rightly say, that this sin is not of me but of sin dwelling within me (Roms 7:17). Its source is not so much in me (the new me) as in the principle of sin that still resides within, namely, ‘the flesh’ (7:18,22). Thus I will hate the flesh and hate the sin but refuse to hate myself for ‘self’ or my true identity is that of a new person in Christ. I may as well hate Christ for my life and identity is in him.
Responsibility for sin in any ultimate sense I will reject for responsibility (of the kind that brings judgement) can only be laid at a living person in the world and I am not alive in the world; I am dead, crucified with Christ. The source from which this sin originated has already been condemned in the flesh of Christ and is no more. Thus I refuse to wretchedly self-condemn, though, by faith, I do condemn and disown (and hate) the sin and the nature from which it erupted. By faith I concur with God’s verdict upon this nature and all that flows from it. Through the cross I have now what the writer to the Hebrews calls, ‘no more conscience of sins’. He does not mean I do not care about sin but that I do not stand condemned by sin. In Pauline language, I have died to sin and my life is hid with Christ in God. Or, as in Roms 8
Rom 8:1-4 (ESV)
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Praise God for such a salvation. With Horatius Bonar we exclaim,
I bless the Christ of God, I rest on love divine,
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear,
Each lingering shade of gloom.
I praise the God of peace, I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.
In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth,
And me He loveth still.
’Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me; I live because He lives;
My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light,
My midnight into day.
Some further implications of participation in Christ’s death I will consider in the next couple of posts.