Tag Archives: Gospel

Let’s Get Growing (3) – As Gospel Community

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in August 2021 (page 13), the third in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw a some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan. I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him, is Jesus.”

Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood, or even worse forgotten, the grace of God.

There are two ways to misunderstand grace: one is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive—and live in—the reality of this grace.

The two errors often are connected. The first error forgets that all of us lives only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ me; we work harder, wear masks, and practise image-management, trying to earn our belonging, and prove our worthiness. We hide, and we perform.

Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others—as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed, and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God—and from one another—in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.

Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness is mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles—our hearts—to another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing—experiencing!—God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply—and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.

Picture Credit: Katie Workman

Let’s Get Growing (2) – in the Gospel

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in June 2021 (page 13), the second in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). To the Corinthians he said, “We are being transformed into the image of Christ!” (2 Cor. 3:18). Yet it seems that this ‘transformation’ comes ever so slowly, especially in my own life!

Can our lives really be changed?
Can our lives be really changed?

Significant growth in a Christian’s life comes through a range of experiences, some unique to each person, others necessary for any Christian who wants to grow. All Christian growth is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit and involves a deepening engagement with Scripture and our response in prayer and thanksgiving. Trials, suffering, service, and ministry are also common catalysts of growth.

At the root of all Christian growth, however, is a fresh encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the gospel (Mark 1:1), and includes the story of his birth and baptism, his preaching and teaching, his healings and miracles, his parables and promises, his compassion and companionship, and supremely, his suffering, death, and resurrection. By returning again and again to the Gospels—prayerfully, studiously, hopefully, and in conversation with others—we open our lives to a transforming encounter with the gospel.

These stories speak to us, challenge, call, and commission us. They summon us to repentance and faith, to believe impossible things—and to hope for their reality, to a vision of the kingdom of God, to a life of companionship with Jesus, and to a participation in his mission.

So let’s get growing by reading, meditating, and pondering their message. And let’s do this in conversation with others in our small groups and at church. And with those who have written commentaries, and with the great preachers and theologians of the church. Let’s deepen our engagement with the gospel so that its message might penetrate the deepest corners of our minds, spark our imagination with new visions of life, and guide our decision-making and will in those directions.

But I want to say more.

If engagement with the gospel is the root of transformation, at the heart of the gospel is a message of grace. At the heart of the gospel is the story of God who has loved us, and turned to us, come to us, and suffered for us and in our place. God stoops to gather us up, even in our sinfulness and alienation, even in our opposition to him.

But this is a disruptive grace by which God not only forgives our sins but also claims us as his own. By this grace, he calls us out of the life we have independently constructed, and into a new life of friendship and obedience. To be touched by grace is to know that we are profoundly loved—and confronted. When Peter saw Jesus’ majestic power and authority, he also saw himself with fresh eyes and cried out, “depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That Jesus did not depart is pure grace. That he called Peter into a life of discipleship and service—this too is the same grace, and the two cannot be separated.

At the heart of the gospel—and therefore at the beginning of all Christian growth and transformation—is God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and of friendship with God (John 15:13). But only real sinners need apply! It seems that it is only as we face up honestly to our own willfulness, brokenness, and sinfulness that this grace captures our hearts with its transforming power. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20)—and begins its healing work.

How might we experience this transforming and liberating grace? By turning again and again to Jesus, the Friend of Sinners (Matt. 11:19), coming clean with him, and with those we have wronged, and letting grace do its work. And by participating in communities of grace where the gospel of this grace is practiced and exemplified. We’ll talk about that next time.

Tell the Story!

Carroll, The Birth of Meaning (Christmas)In a recent article in the Weekend Australian entitled “The Birth of Meaning”John Carroll, professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University, wrote a quite penetrating complaint concerning the infantilising of Christmas in western culture. It was an article in the Christmas edition of the paper and so concerned the place of the nativity in recent western culture. (If the link is blocked by a paywall, use the link above the image to access a PDF copy.)

The whole article is worth reading. Carroll targets the churches with a particular criticism:

The churches have been derelict in their primary duty: they have failed to retell their constitutive and defining story in meaningful contemporary terms … They have inherited the richest cultural treasure in the Western tradition, yet they turn their backs on it and wonder why their pews are empty. They compensate by taking up social justice and political causes. However, once they have become indistinguishable from social workers and political activists, why should anyone take their religious pretensions seriously?

His advice: tell the story! With all its metaphysical claims, and its whole-of-life Jesus narrative.

Sounds like welcome advice.

The Sinlessness of Jesus 4: Karl Barth

Karl Barth approaches this question not as an issue to be explored in and for itself, but as part of his discussion of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God. Specifically, his treatment comes in Church Dogmatics I/2, section 15.2 “The Mystery of Revelation: Very God and Very Man.” Barth’s exposition in this subsection is a meditation on John 1:14 “the Word became flesh,” and in this portion specifically (15.2.ii; pp. 147-159), Barth is considering what is meant when Scripture speaks of the divine word becoming flesh.

That the Word was made “flesh” means first and generally that He became man, true and real man, participating in the same human essence and existence, the same human nature and form, the same historicity that we have. God’s revelation to us takes place in such a way that everything ascribable to man, his creaturely existence as an individually unique unity of body and soul in the time between birth and death, can now be predicated of God’s eternal Son as well (147).

For Barth, the Johannine phrase means first and primarily that the Word became “participant in human nature and existence”; that is, in the humanitas by which humanity is distinguished as human as opposed to God, angel, or animal (149). Since, however, human “nature” cannot be real in an abstract sense but only in the concrete reality of an actual person, the Word became not simply “flesh” but an existing person, a single individual, the man Jesus Christ. “Thus the reality of Jesus Christ is that God Himself in person is actively present in the flesh. God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151).

Barth goes further, however, to consider the nature or quality, as it were, of the “flesh” that the Word appropriated:

But what the New Testament calls σάρξ [sarx, “flesh”] includes not only the concept of man in general but also, assuming and including the general concept, the narrower concept of the man who is liable to the judgment and verdict of God, who having become incapable of knowing and loving God must incur the wrath of God, whose existence has become one exposed to death because he has sinned against God. Flesh is the concrete form of human nature marked by Adam’s fall … The Word is not only the eternal Word of God but “flesh” as well, i.e., all that we are and exactly like us even in our opposition to him. It is because of this that He makes contact with us and is accessible for us (151).

Here Barth argues at some length from both Scripture and the history of theology, that the Word became “fallen flesh,” that is, he partook of fallen human nature. “He was not a sinful man. But inwardly and outwardly His situation was that of a sinful man. He did nothing that Adam did. But He lived life in the form it must take on the basis and assumption of Adam’s act” (152). This is precisely what Donald Macleod cannot and will not say. For Barth, though, this is a key distinguishing feature between Christianity and other religions both ancient and modern, which also include instances and concepts of incarnation. In Christian faith, God did not merely become human, and did not come as a hero figure—something found in the other religions, but took the nature identical to ours in the light of the Fall (153).

But this is necessary not simply as an apologetic point. More important is the fact that if the Word has not come to us—actually come all the way to us—then we still reside in the darkness, untouched by the light which has come into the world and which, shining in the darkness, enlightens every person (John 1:5, 9), untouched by revelation and reconciliation. God’s Son has come all the way to us, not only assuming our nature but entering “the concrete form of our nature, under which we stand before God as men damned and lost” (153). Only thus can Christ be “like us” and so represent us before God.

True, the Word assumes our human existence, assumes flesh, i.e., He exists in the state and position, amid the conditions, under the curse and punishment of sinful man. He exists in the place where we are, in all the remoteness not merely of the creature from the creator, but of the sinful creature from the Holy Creator. Otherwise His action would not be a revealing, a reconciling action. He would always be for us an alien word. He would not find us or touch us. For we live in that remoteness. . . . Therefore in our state and condition He does not do what underlies and produces that state and condition, or what we in that state and condition continually do. Our unholy human existence, assume and adopted by the Word of God, is a hallowed and therefore a sinless human existence; in our unholy human existence the eternal Word draws near to us . . . supremely and helpfully near to us (155-156).

Thus although the Word came in sinful flesh, he did not do what we in the flesh do; he committed no sin. Again Barth turns to Scripture, this time to Romans 8:3, to argue that there

In the likeness of flesh (unholy flesh, marked by sin), there happens the unlike, the new and helpful thing, that sin is condemned by not being committed, by being omitted, by full obedience now being found in the very place where otherwise sin necessarily and irresistibly takes place. The meaning of the incarnation is that now in the flesh that is not done which all flesh does (156).

Jesus Christ did not sin, and it was impossible actually that he could for, as we have already noted above, in Christ “God Himself in person is the Subject of a real human being and acting” (151). God is the subject of this genuinely human life, something Barth will go on to explore and exposit in the following paragraphs.

Finally, Barth goes as far as to identify what constitutes Jesus’ sinlessness: standing where we stand in the state and position of fallen humanity Jesus bears the divine wrath which must fall upon sinful humanity.

He judged sin in the flesh by recognising the order of reconciliation, i.e., put in a sinner’s position He bowed to the divine verdict and commended Himself solely to the grace of God. That is His hallowing, His obedience, His sinlessness. Thus it does not consist in an ethical heroism, but precisely in a renunciation of any heroism, including the ethical. He is sinless not in spite of, but just because of His being the friend of publicans and sinners and His dying between the malefactors. . . . This is the revelation of God in Christ. For where man admits his lost state and lives entirely by God’s mercy—which no man did, but only the God-Man Jesus Christ has done—God Himself is manifest (157-158).

Several things are clear in Barth’s exposition. First, he adopts an Alexandrian christology in which the Word assumes human nature, though he goes beyond what the Fathers taught by insisting that it is a fallen human nature. Second, he understands Jesus’ sinlessness as the New Testament portrays it: the fact that Jesus did not sin, rather than in terms of an ontological sinlessness located in sinless flesh. Third, his exposition is shaped by his commitment to the priority of divine grace in salvation, and indeed his exposition serves the proclamation of the gospel of grace, for there is no place here for a Pelagian moral heroism, or for works-righteousness. Rather, the way of Christ as presented by Barth, is the way of salvation for all: a humbling acknowledgement and acceptance of the right of divine justice by which we are condemned as sinners—slain by the word of divine judgement, and yet marvellously and miraculously raised by the mercy of God into the newness of life.

Jesus did not run from the state and situation of fallen humanity, nor seek to bargain with God about the justice or otherwise of his situation, nor sought to improve his situation through his own attempts at moral goodness, but bowed under the divine judgement, and bore it “in solidarity with us to the uttermost,” so that there was done which we do not do: the will of God” (158).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (2)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:12-24, The Orientation of the Doctrine of Election.

Barth then develops his next major point, namely, that the doctrine of election must be understood as gospel, as grace. There can be no parallel or coordination of election and reprobation otherwise the good news becomes “bad news” (12-18; the reference to “bad news” is on page 18).

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel … Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. … The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel—we must put it as pointedly as that. But more, the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce. It is the very essence of all good news (12-14).

Barth acknowledges that the doctrine “throws a shadow” (13), but insists that the No must be spoken only in service of the Yes which is the first and last word. For Barth, the doctrine must be understood unequivocally as gospel. Barth notes that this positive statement of the doctrine has been asserted throughout the tradition, which indicates its “evangelical character.” Barth provides a brief biblical overview of the nature of election as grace in which he insists that there are not two columns in the Book of Life, but one column only. Whence, then, the doctrine of “double predestination”? Barth traces the concept through Augustine, Aquinas, Isidore of Seville, Gottschalk, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Arminians.

The basic demand by which any presentation of the doctrine must be measured, and to which we ourselves must also conform, is this: that (negatively) the doctrine must not speak of the divine election and rejection as though God’s electing and rejecting were not quite different, as though these divine dealings did not stand in a definite hierarchical relationship the one with the other; and that (positively) the supremacy of the one and subordination of the other must be brought out so radically that the Gospel enclosed and proclaimed even in this doctrine is introduced and revealed as the tenor of the whole, so that in some way or other the Word of the free grace of God stands out even at this point as the dominating theme and the specific meaning of the whole utterance (18).

Barth identifies three central characteristics which all “serious” conceptions of the doctrine have in common: “they all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterizes the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine” (19). This grace is free, mysterious, and righteous (18-24). There is no cause for election other than God’s free grace. No works or righteousness or even faith are the ground for being elect. God’s grace and therefore his election is mysterious and incomprehensible, and so can be investigated only in faith and adoration. God cannot be called to account before the bar of human reason. Finally, the tradition has also insisted that in the exercise of his free and mysterious grace, God is also righteous. At this point, Barth qualifies the tradition insisting that only as we understand who God is can we agree that election is righteous. If the believer’s agreement is forced, if they harbor secret questions, doubts or protests about the nature of election, it is not true adoration: “We are not bowing before the caprice of a tyrant. Our submission cannot be such that it is accompanied by a still-remaining and ever-increasing inward complaint and resistance” (22). There can be no sacrifice of the intellect in this matter; conversely, we must allow our intellect to be instructed by God: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Barth provides a number of citations from Calvin (23) in which Calvin argues that “God’s will is reason” because God is perfectly just and the fount of all justice. There is no higher court of appeal to which God must give account. God’s justice may be secret; it is also blameless.

For the will of God is so much the highest rule of justice, that whatever he wills must be considered just. So when it is asked why God acts in such-and-such a way, it must be replied, ‘Because he wills’. But if you go further, and ask why he has willed it, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, which cannot be found … We are not describing a lawless God, who is a law unto himself… The will of God is not only pure of all wickedness, but is the purest rule of perfection, even the law of all laws [Inst. iii.23.2].

If a mortal man pronounced that he willed or commanded that his will was to be reason, I would say his statement was tyrannical. But to extend that to God is a terrible sacrilege. For it is not permissible to attach anything improper to God, such as that desire springs up in him as it does in men. But by this merit of honour, it is attributed to his will that it be worthy of being reason, since it is the fount and rule of all justice (23; Congrég. C.R. 8, 115?).

Barth thus accepts these three primary characteristics of the doctrine of election in the tradition. To the degree the tradition expounded Scripture as testimony to the work of the triune God, it may be considered Christian theology, and their intention—if not their results—may be accepted (24). Therefore he concludes this discussion of the orientation of the doctrine by viewing these three central characteristics through the lens of the gospel (25-34). The election of God is not bare choice as though the concept of choice can be absolutized.

More Hugh Mackay

Hugh MackayOn Tuesday I gave a brief review of Hugh Mackay’s Infidelity. Here are a few more insights from the book, asides from Mackay the psychologist, which sparked an interest as I read. The first comes as Tom is discussing Sarah’s past with her mother, Elizabeth, and has relevance for the kinds of spirituality we nurture in the church, and especially in our youth and young adults groups. Elizabeth says of Sarah:

She went wild over religion, too. There was more than a bit of overlap, in fact. I think a lot of adolescents confuse spirituality and sexuality – don’t you, Tom? Or is it just that churchgoing covers all that steaminess in a cloak of respectability? (276)

The second finds Tom reflecting on the nature of intimate relationships, salient as a warning for all couples, and more broadly, for any kind of relationship:

I had heard plenty of clients describe the frightening lunge from ‘I love you’ to ‘I hate you.’ It had always struck me as being a bit like a passion hangover – when the stimulants were withdrawn, their toxic effects took over. The swing from devotion to indifference was more common, though, and more familiar to me. When the love switch is turned to ‘off,’ for any one of a thousand reasons, or none, the current simply stops flowing. You don’t have to hate someone to destroy a relationship – you just have to lose interest. (298)

The final thought comes from the final chapter of the book, and here Mackay’s agnosticism comes to the fore:

The hardest thing, finally, is to accept our insignificance in the scheme of things – or perhaps to accept that there is no ‘scheme of things.’ There are no inevitabilities. No embedded meanings, either – only those we choose to attach to what happens. And often, when we most ardently desire them, no answers.  Life surges on, mostly out of control, rarely giving us respite… (310)

There is both wisdom and pathos in this statement. In the end, though, it seems that life, for Mackay, has only the meaning we ascribe to it. That we do ascribe meaning to life is part of what it means to be human. That we ascribe meaning to life, though natural, is also somewhat arbitrary and threatens to undermine the kind of ethics that Mackay wants to commend. This approach inevitably leads us back to ourselves as the moral centre in a manner reminiscent of the biblical book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) – and the results were less than ideal. Stanley Grenz recognises this problem and argues that “justification of moral claims requires a foundational principle that in the end is religious” (The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics, 58).

The message of the gospel is not that there are no inevitabilities, or that every question will be answered, or that life can be fully controlled. In these respects, Mackay is quite correct. Yet the gospel assures each person that their lives, choices and deeds can and do have enduring significance. Further, it testifies to a transcendent meaning embedded in the orders of creation and redemption that tells the truth of our existence and so provides an orientation to the good life. The moral life is not simply the assertion of power in this direction or that, but response to a transcendent reality which in the Christian tradition is understood in terms of the triune God of infinite goodness, holiness and love.

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 2:12

Phil 2-12Philippians 2:12
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Paul has just written or included the magnificent “Christ-hymn” of vv. 6-11 which speaks of Christ’s self-emptying, his humiliation, obedience and subsequent exaltation, which he also prefaced with the exhortation to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). Therefore, in view of the graphic example of Jesus’ commitment and obedience to the will of the Father, Paul now exhorts the Philippians also to “work out” their own salvation.

As already indicated, the first thing to remember with respect to Paul’s admonition here is to set it in its own historical and literary context. It is possible to treat this text as a piece of general Christian advice separated from its context so that to “work out one’s salvation” can be filled with just about any kind of content. Further, it can be treated in such an individualistic way that working out one’s own salvation is something one does and achieves on one’s own, apart from and without the community of God’s people. Finally, the text can be approached as a theological battle ground where the issues of salvation by faith apart from works, or the relation between God’s work and human work are discussed in an abstract manner as though there were no context at all, and as though we need to carefully explain what Paul really meant, because Paul was not quite careful enough in what he has written here. So the major question for us is: What did Paul mean when he wrote this phrase?

The context for this verse probably goes all the way back to Paul’s exhortation in 1:27 which also includes a reference to Paul’s presence and absence:

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

Paul, imprisoned in Rome and so very far away from his beloved Philippians, writes to encourage them to stand firm in the gospel in the face of persecution and suffering (vv. 28-30), disunity (2:1-4), and the crooked and depraved age in which they live (2:14-16). Whether he is present or absent he wants them to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So, too, in 2:12 he writes that he wishes them to obey his commands “not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.”

The particular command Paul now wants them to observe is that they “work out their own salvation” (tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe). It should go without saying that Paul is not here saying that we save ourselves by our own works, as is perhaps suggested by Zerwick & Grosvenor: “do your best to bring about your own salvation in fear and trembling…” (596). Elsewhere Paul insists that believers are saved, not on the basis of their own works, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 3:21-26; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). Even in Philippians Paul refuses to seek any righteousness of his own, but only that which comes from God alone through faith in Jesus Christ (3:9).

To say this, however, is not to say that the believer is passive, that no response or action is required. Just the opposite! Having been “found in Christ” and having received the gift of righteousness that “comes through faith in Christ,” believers

Must apply to its fullest consequences what is already given by God in principle. The believer is called to self-activity, to active pursuit of the will of God, to the promotion of the spiritual life in himself, to the realisation of the virtues of the Christian life, and to a personal application of salvation. He must “work out” what God in His grace has “worked in” (Müller, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians [NICNT (1955)], 91).

Even Müller’s good counsel, however, is too abstracted from the immediate context. Within the flow of Paul’s argument, to work out one’s salvation means adopting the way of Christ in humility and service to others, in costly obedience to the will of God, pursuing a unity of love and purpose amongst the people of God, offering steadfast witness to the world as we live as the children of God, holding fast to Christ as our only righteousness, and looking forward to his coming as our only hope. To work out one’s salvation entails shouldering our share of the mission, and resisting all attempts to dilute our faith, and all threats to the unity and work of the church.

One of the wonderful features of the letter to the Philippians is the catalogue of vibrant examples presented for the church to emulate; Jesus, Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul himself, are all set forth as exemplary examples of Christian dedication and service, and all show what it means to work out our salvation. The Christian is called to live the Jesus way today and tomorrow, looking for opportunities to humbly serve others for their benefit, and the gospel for God’s glory, as they long for and await the Lord’s return.

Worship on Sunday – Glorious Day

Sometimes—not often—I hear a worship song that I like immediately. It happened the first time I heard In Christ Alone, and it happened with this song as well. Perhaps it is because there is a kerygmatic element to them: both songs tell the story, proclaim the gospel, preach Jesus. And yet the pro me element is also palpable—“living he loved me.” Enjoy!

(If the video does not work, go to the band’s website where there are also other videos, including the story behind the song.)

One day when heaven was filled with his praises
One day when sin was as black as could be
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin
Dwelt among men my example is he
The Word became flesh and the light shined among us
His glory revealed

Living he loved me, dying he saved me  
Buried he carried my sins far away         
Rising he justified freely forever   
One day he’s coming O glorious day! O glorious day!

One day they led him up Calvary’s mountain
One day they nailed him to die on a tree
Suffering anguish despised and rejected
Bearing our sins my Redeemer is he
The hands that healed nations stretched out on a tree
And took the nails for me

One day the grave could conceal him no longer
One day the stone rolled away from the door
Then he arose over death he had conquered
Now ascended my Lord evermore
Death could not hold him, the grave could not keep him
From rising again

One day the trumpet will sound for his coming
One day the skies with his glories will shine
Wonderful day my beloved one bringing
My Saviour Jesus is mine

Scripture on Sunday – James 1:25

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:25
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Finally, the point of James’ little parable becomes clear. James has exhorted his listeners to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, for the one who is only a hearer and not a doer is like a person who upon looking at their image in a mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like. Literally, they forget what kind of person they are (vv. 22-24). “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” says James, “and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” The point of the parable revolves around the contrast between hearers who forget and doers who act. It is this particular contrast which draws together the language of the previous verses and so unites the whole passage.

Another contrast has been suggested. Some commentators, for example, contrast the “momentary glance” into the mirror with the sustained and persevering study of the Scriptures. The language James uses, however, does not allow this. In verse 23, the word used for looking into the mirror is katanoounti which means to “take note of, consider, to study,” or as Moo notes, the word regularly connotes thoughtful, attentive consideration. So, too, the word used in this verse, parakyptō, literally has the sense of “to bend over to look at more closely, to peer” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 693; Moo, 83). Thus the contrast between the two persons is not in the manner of the looking, but in the doing as opposed to the forgetting. The person who merely hears the Word gains no more lasting benefit from the Word than they do from looking at themselves in the mirror (Moo). The person who perseveres in the Word and is a doer, however, is blessed in their doing.

The details of this verse are worth pondering. James shifts his language in this verse from that which he used earlier. In verses 18, 21, 22 and 23 he refers to the “Word,” whereas in verse 25 this Word has become “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (nomon teleion tov tēs eleutherias). Further, instead of “doers of the Word” as in vv. 22-23, the person is now a “doer who acts,” or literally, “a doer of the work” (poiētēs ergou).

What does James mean by his first shift? The first thing to note is that for the Jew, the law signified God’s revealed and authoritative will. That the Jews considered the law to be good and perfect is clearly seen in such passages as Psalms 19:7-10 and Romans 7:12. That James saw some continuing validity in the law is seen in 2:8-12 and 4:11-12. In James 2:8-12 James again refers to the “law of liberty” (v. 12) as well as referring to “the royal law” when citing Leviticus 18:19. Further, in this text, the law as a principle and not simply as a rule, is still valid. If a person keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, they become accountable for the whole. In 4:11-12 James refers to God as the lawgiver and judge, thus emphasising the divine authority which lies behind the law.

Is James therefore teaching in verse 25 that the believer must diligently persevere in the Old Testament law in order to be blessed? The matter is not quite that simple. Although James certainly sees the continuing validity of some aspects of the law (see, e.g. 2:8, 11), it is likely that he is reading the law not simply as a Jew, but as a Messianic Jew, that is, as a follower of Jesus in whom the law has been fulfilled (Moo, 50). This is seen most obviously in the flow of James’ argument to this point. The “Word” which James has been referring to throughout this section is the word of truth (v. 18), that is, the gospel. When he substitutes the phrase “the perfect law of liberty” James does not simply jettison the gospel and substitute the Mosaic law as the basis of Christian life and blessing, but reads the law “in a Jesus kind of way” (McKnight, 158), or as Davids expresses the same idea, the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (100). James, together with other early Christians—including Paul—viewed the law as fulfilled and perfected in Jesus, and so Jesus as the giver of a new or renewed law (Davids, 99). This, perhaps, is the point of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in Matthew 5:17-48. Paul, too, can refer to “the Law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21, where it likely has reference to the love commandment which fulfils the law (Romans 13:8-10), and is thus the equivalent of James’ “royal law” (2:8), and an echo of Jesus’ second great commandment (Mark 12:31). James’ point is simple: the good news of the gospel includes an unavoidable and searching demand for obedience (Moo, 84). Put theologically, the gospel does not supersede the law but includes the law, though the law fulfilled and radically reinterpreted and refocused by Jesus.

James’ second shift is from “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” While it is probably better to translate poiētēs ergou as a “doer who acts” in order to maintain the contrast with the “hearer who forgets,” we do well to pause over James’ use of ergon here, given that “work” and “works” constitute a major theme in his letter, and his use here presages the major treatment of the theme which he will undertake in 2:14-26. Further, in verses 26-27 James will bring this section to its climax by identifying three particular kinds of “work” or activity he intends his listeners to engage in, including especially the work of controlling the tongue, as well as works of mercy and holiness.

James, then, understands the law of liberty in terms of obedience to Jesus’ teaching as he reinterprets the law, and so as a word which makes free (cf. John 8:31-32). The believer is to “persevere” (kai parameinas) in this liberating Word as a doer who acts and thus as a doer of the work. Although Zerwick-Grosvenor (693) suggest that the perseverance is in the activity of looking into the perfect law of liberty, it is better to understand it in the sense of practicing what one finds there, as James goes on to say. In this way one becomes a “doer who acts” rather than a “hearer who forgets” (ouk akroatēs epilēsmonēs alla poiētēs ergou), and so one who also “will be blessed in their doing” (houtos makarios en tē poiēsei autou estai). Estai is future and so suggests that the blessing will be eschatological (cf. v. 12). Nevertheless, the “doer” will be blessed “in the doing” suggesting that a blessing will also accompany the actual act, and so the blessing may have a temporal as well as an eschatological aspect.

How to Think Theologically (Stone & Duke)

Learning TogetherHoward W. Stone & James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically
(Second Edition; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

I picked this book up at the book table during our recent ANZATS Conference. The next day they replaced it with a third edition copy – D’Oh!

Stone & Duke have written their smallish, easy-to-read book with students and interested lay people in mind. Their basic premise is that all Christians are theologians simply because they are Christian. Their passion, however, is that Christians approach all of life with a theological frame of mind; that they learn to live in the everyday rough-and-tumble world informed by and responsive to a developed theological framework which helps them in their decision-making and action. In a word, their desire is to nurture informed Christian life rather than supply an academic method for “getting the right answer.”

The book is divided into three sections with chapters 1-4 laying the foundation for theological reflection. The chapters explore what theology is and how it is approached, adopting the ancient characterisation of theology as “faith seeking understanding.” The authors rightly insist that theology is a human activity, a response to God grounded in faith. Theology is personal but not private. It is an interactive practice, dialogical, corporate and communal, grounded and occurring in the Christian community. These chapters address the distinction between “embedded” or implicit and possibly pre-reflective theology, and “deliberative” theology, which is an explicitly chosen and committed theology, based in critical reflection on one’s beliefs and practices.

Stone & Duke use the metaphor of a craft to describe theology. Theology is something learned and developed through practice and growth in skill. The task of theology is to interpret all of life through a lens of faith, bringing all the various features, facts and experiences of life into explicit relation to Christian theological categories and truth claims. But even this lens, and these categories need to be assessed, and Stone & Duke provide four tests for assessing our theological perspectives:

  1. Is it “Christian” – i.e., conformed to the gospel?
  2. Is it intelligible, and plausibly coherent?
  3. Does it have moral integrity?
  4. Is it valid – i.e., true to life, Scripture, and actually true?

Ho to Think TheologicallyThe authors identify the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral—Scripture, tradition, reason and experience—as the resources (rather than “sources”) required for theological reflection. Of these, Scripture is primary, but reason is the most active, at work in our interpretation of Scripture, in the exploration and evaluation of tradition and experience, and in the work of building connections between theology and all the other disciplines of academic inquiry.

Chapters 5-7 form the heart of the book, and provide the three categories of thought that are to guide life-related theological reflection. The first category is the gospel which more than anything else, is the story of the love of God revealed Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, and the meaning of this story as it is unpacked in the writings of Scripture. Theological reflection involves bringing all of life into explicit correlation with the major features of this story including what it means to embody this story in the world, and how this gospel is communicated and its benefits received by people through faith.

The second category concerns the human condition, by which Stone & Duke mean the reality of sin as the basic problem of human existence, and how that problem finds resolution through the provision of salvation and the means of grace. The authors insist that without clear thought around these matters, we will fail to address the issues of real-life at the level required to see God’s transformative work. The final category of thought required for fruitful theological reflection is vocation which addresses the inescapable question: “What must we do? How are Christians called upon to act?” (100). In many situations a variety of responses and actions are possible, so Stone & Duke provide guidance for choosing the most fitting response, which include assessing the real reasons for why we typically act as we do, identifying distinctly Christian reasons to guide our response. The point is “to choose one particular view or action that is the most fitting expression of Christian faithfulness in a given situation” (107).

It is worth noting that Stone & Duke do not prescribe the particular way in which these critical categories of thought must be believed. In fact, just the opposite. They insist that there are varieties of ways in which issues of gospel, sin and salvation, and vocation have and are understood in the Christian tradition, and that deliberative theological reflection will be open to explore, question and evaluate each of them. Their intent is to help communities of believers come to grips with the content and meaning of these doctrines within their own traditions and situations.

The final section of the book (chapters 8-9) detail some of the practices involved in critical theological reflection and the spiritual disciplines which support it. These chapters locate the practice of theological reflection in the community of faith, and insist that theological reflection be aligned with spiritual formation. Participation in Christian community and practices of spiritual formation help serve to keep theological reflection from becoming merely an individual and purely cognitive exercise in which the believer’s faith becomes privatised and intellectual rather than spiritual. For these authors, “spiritual formation is a bridge between theological reflection and day-to-day experience” (127).

We need a theology that prepares us for the difficult business of being Christian in the fray of the real world, undergirds our commitment, and guides our action. … To act in accordance with our Christian commitments, often there will not be the luxury of extended theological consideration. The theological work has to be done in advance—deliberative theological reflection—so that its results can inform our every choice. … [As Christians we] need a foundation of prior deliberative theological reflection to prepare us as best as possible for dozens of daily choices as well as the life-altering decisions we face. … We believe that developing basic clarity on the issues raised by the three diagnostic exercises (gospel, the human condition, and vocation) will stand the Christian in good stead when facing the myriad of difficult situations that every day presents (129-130).

Paul commended the Roman church saying, “I myself am satisfied about you, brothers and sisters, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). This useful book will help contemporary Christians and churches follow in Rome’s footsteps, providing a means to develop the skills of theological reflection with an eye toward this kind robust discipleship and praxis. The clear framework and practical case studies illuminate how congregations might actually practise theological reflection. Leading congregations in intentional and systematic reflection on the gospel, the human condition, and vocation will help them think Christianly, something urgently needed in a culture in which we are very often more shaped by the culture than we are by Christ.