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Archive for January, 2008

This week I’ve been listening to sermons from the web on Luke 14.  I’m preaching on it on Sunday.  It’s Jesus at a banquet.  He heals on the Sabbath, He teaches about not taking the seats of honour, He calls people to invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind to dinner and He speaks of the kingdom as a great feast.  Wonderful stuff.

But do you know, in all the sermons I’ve listened to from the web, what’s been the number one application of Luke 14??  Quiet times!  From both UK and US pastors, the predominant take-home message was ‘make sure you get alone with God every day.’  I’m not going to name names but I listened to some big hitters.  And they preached on the feast.  The feast where Jesus tells us to throw feasts and then speaks of the kingdom as a feast.  And what’s their conclusion: ‘We need to get on our own more!’  ??!  Usually the logic was: Don’t take the places of honour => Therefore Get humble => Therefore get on your knees => Therefore commit to quiet times. 

Now there were two notable exceptions:  John Piper was good.  And so was the Australian (obviously!) Mike Frost.  (Those two aren’t usually positively lumped together but there you are).  But the rest took Luke 14 and boiled it down into some very individualistic applications.

Now I’m all in favour of ensuring that our doing flows from a lively relationship with Christ.  But why does that equate to ‘getting alone with God’??  I mean how do we get from the feast to the prayer closet??  Are conservative evangelicals that afraid of getting our hands dirty in mission, in rubbing shoulders with the poor, crippled, blind and lame?  Are we that individualistic and moralistic?

Anyway…  I do think a healthy relationship with Christ means talking and listening to Him daily.  But why is the quiet time the touch-stone of evangelical spirituality?  Why is it the default application for every sermon?  (I say this against myself)  Why do we reach for the privatized exhortations so readily?

And how many times have I heard Robert Murray McCheyne’s daunting challenge:

What a man is alone on his knees before God, that he is and no more.

I mean it’s right to be challenged by that.  But is it true?  And is it right to aim for this as the very model and highpoint of Christian maturity?  What about: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:35)

I dunno.  Bit of a rant really.  What do you think?

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I’ve just written an essay on repentance and evangelism.  It was very hurriedly written, but basically my point is: Unbelievers can’t repent, believers must – all the time

One of the implications is that evangelism is calling sinners to come to Christ just as they are.  Two men preaching in the 19th century grasped this very well indeed.

Here is Spurgeon calling sinners to repentance:

Do not attempt to touch yourself up and make yourself something other than you really are, but come as you are to Him who justifies the ungodly. …The Gospel will receive you into its halls if you come as a sinner, not otherwise. Wait not for reformation, but come at once for salvation. God justifieth the ungodly, and that takes you up where you now are; it meets you in your worst estate. Come in your disorder. I mean, come to your heavenly Father in all your sin and sinfulness. Come to Jesus just as you are: filthy, naked, neither fit to live nor fit to die. Come, you that are the very sweepings of creation; come, though you hardly dare to hope for anything but death. Come, though despair is brooding over you, pressing upon your bosom like a horrible nightmare. Come and ask the Lord to justify another ungodly one. (From “Justification of the Ungodly” by C.H. Spurgeon.  A sermon on Romans 4:5)

And this is from a wonderful piece called Evangelical Repentance by John Colquhoun (1748-1827) 

Do you postpone the act of trusting in the Lord Jesus for all His salvation, till you first sit down and mourn awhile for your sins, or till your heart be so humbled that you may be welcome to Him, and so have from your own resources a warrant for trusting in Him? Do you object against coming to Christ because you are not certain that your conviction of sin and your repentance are of the right sort? Do you apply yourself to the exercise of repentance in order to be qualified for believing in Christ, or do you apply your conscience to the commands and curses of the broken law, in order so to repent as to be entitled to trust in Him? Know, I entreat you, that this preposterous and self-righteous course will but sink you the deeper in unbelief, impenitence, and enmity to God the longer you try in this manner to seek for evangelical repentance in your heart or life, the farther you will be from finding it… Do not try to wash yourself clean in order to come to the open fountain of redeeming blood; but come to it as you are, and, by the immediate exercise of direct confidence in the Lord Jesus, wash away all your sins (Ezek 36:25).

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I flew a kite here for the notion of confession following our taking of communion.  It wasn’t enthusiastically embraced!

I was reminded on Sunday of how brilliant Thomas Cranmer’s ‘Prayer of humble access’ is.  In the Anglican church, this is what we pray before receiving communion.  Isn’t it great?

We do not presume to come to this your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Now if the supper was explained to people ‘On the night He was betrayed, Jesus took bread…’.  And people said this prayer, haven’t we been sufficiently prepared?  Then, following my appropriation of Christ’s grace, then I formally confess my sins – and let’s take some time about it, let’s mourn our sin and hate it.  But don’t we confess best when humbled by grace?

(Even if you object to this, thought I’d share the prayer – good huh?)

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How about that for a title?

Just two half-formed thoughts really that flow from recent musings on the trinity…

First, Bobby has some interesting posts here and here that touch on (among other things) Barthian methodology and avoiding universalism.  Now one way of describing universalism is the conflation of church and world – that is church and world become, in the end, identical.  Can trinitarian theology help?

Well Christ is Priest of God.  And we’ve been seeing that Christ and His Father are one – not identically but with important self-distinctions upheld in their mutual relations.   Christ as Priest has His distinct existence which is neither identical with the Father nor identical with humanity.  He is God for man and Man for God and this mediatorial existence is absolutely essential to His Person.  But in this mediation He does not collapse into either party.  He remains, in eternity, distinct.

Now the church, corporately, is a royal priesthood.  And, again, the absolutely essential nature of the church is mediatorial.  We do not exist for ourselves but find our very being in reaching out into the world.  But, church does not for this reason collapse into world.  Church remains, in eternity, distinct.   

Now it’s interesting that Barth’s trinity is explictly not ‘three divine I‘s’.  He states emphatically that his trinity is a ‘single subject thrice repeated’.  Here (IMHO) there is not adequate room for self-distinction in the Godhead.  I wonder whether the fruit of that, down the line, is inadequate distinctions being drawn between church and world?  Just a thought.

Secondly, more briefly.  If, as I’ve argued, the equal Persons are differently gifted and perform different roles, doesn’t this re-shape what we mean by gender-equality?  Equality, if it’s grounded in God’s equality, includes and upholds real differences in gifting and function.  I mean let’s do the exegetical work on the relevant passages, but beware playing the ‘equality’ card in a way that would commit you to modalism when speaking of God!

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Ok, so the last post put forward church life as an analogy of trinitarian life.  More specifically:

‘Differently gifted members of one priesthood’ is analagous to ‘Differently gifted Persons in one Godhead.’

Once this is seen, then we can all breathe a sigh of relief and just let Jesus be Jesus. 

What do I mean by that?  Well let me ask a few questions.  When you read the Gospels, do you ever wonder:

  • Why doesn’t Jesus just say ‘I am God’?  Why all this ‘I am sent…’ stuff?
  • Why does Jesus keep saying things like: ‘I can do nothing by myself’? (e.g John 5:19,30)
  • How come Jesus sleeps?
  • How come Jesus doesn’t know when He’s returning?

Do we get worried when we see that Jesus is ‘differently gifted‘ to the One He calls Father??

Well we needn’t be.  It is a revelation of His divine nature (and not a concealment) that we see in Jesus such dependence on the Father.  When He says ‘I am sent’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Son of the Father.  When He says ‘I can do nothing’ it reveals His divine nature as the eternal Servant of the LORD.  When He sleeps it reveals His divine nature as One dependent upon the ever-wakeful Father.  When He says He doesn’t know when He’s returning He reveals His divine nature as One sent from God.  He waits on the Father’s command and does not initiate His first or second coming.

He really can’t do anything by Himself.  He really does sleep (He really does die even!)  He really doesn’t know when He’s returning.  But for all that He is no less divine.   For He belongs to the other Members and in union with their ‘giftings’ He is a full participant in the communion that is God.

We don’t need to assign these differences in Jesus to some ‘human nature’ locked off from a special sphere of uncorrupted deity.  Jesus’ deity is not insulated from these differences, it includes them.  It is the human Jesus who says ‘If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.’  It is the human Jesus who says ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’  In His differences, even in His complete humanity, He is the living God.  So let’s let Him be who He is in the Gospels.  Let’s not fit Him into some pre-conceived notions of divinity.  Let’s let Jesus be Jesus.

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In previous posts I have discussed the priesthood of all believers and how this doctrine interacts with the doctrine of the trinity.  In my last post on this I examined the connection from Trinity => church.  In this post we’ll go in the other direction: church => trinity (a much more perilous route!!).  My question is:

          Can ‘different giftings united in one priesthood’ be thought of as an analogy for the trinity?

If it can, then it would be ok to see different Persons of the Godhead differently gifted.  This different gifting would imply no difference in divinity (just as differences in charismatic gifting implies no difference in priestliness).  Instead we could affirm the differences we see in the economy as real and not apparent and yet in no way infer any ontological subordination.

To set this up, let me quote from Athanasius’ Deposition of Arius

And if the Son is the “Word” and “Wisdom” of God, how was there “a time when He was not?” It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom.

Here we have, of course, a thought-experiment.  But it is interesting to note exactly what thoughts are being had by Athanasius.  The argument is basically this: 

1. The Son is the Wisdom of the Father.

2. It is inconceivable to have the Father without wisdom.

3. The Father must have always had the Son. 

Now it doesn’t take much thought to imagine the Arian come-back to this.  Surely you could just say that the Father has always had wisdom in Himself, i.e. considered apart from the Son.  This was a move which Athanasius was unwilling to make.  The logic of Athanasius’ position (without which his argument fails) is that the Father must have the Son to have wisdom – He does not have it in Himself. 

All this accords with verses like 1 Cor 2:10-11, where the wisdom of God is seen as an irreducibly inter-Personal knowledge.  The Father is wise in the wisdom of the Son, known in the Spirit.  Athanasius reveals in this argument that he did not conceive of the Persons as having divine attributes (like wisdom) complete in themselves.  The attributes are not, on this conception, identical CV’s repeated for each Person.  Rather, each Person shares in the common divine life because they so belong to one another and inter-penetrate one another that Each has a complete share in the giftings of the Others.  Yet those gifting (attributes) are properly unique to the Persons in their distinctive existences as Begettor, Begotten and Proceeding.  The Son is the Wisdom of the Father.  The Father is not wise in Himself but only in the Son and by the Spirit. 

As we discussed the priesthood of all believers we were led to just these kinds of conclusions.  I am priestly not by myself but only in and with you and your gifts.  And because of you and your gifts – you and they belong to me (Rom 12:5).  Is it not the same with God?  The Son so belongs to the Father that He who is Wisdom eternally makes wise the Father in the Spirit, etc, etc.

Isn’t it very suggestive that 1 Corinthians 11 tells us that Father and Son are Head and Body (v3) just before we read a whole chapter on the church also being like a body??  And isn’t it interesting that the following chapter (13) discusses how the many are one – love!?

Can we not say by analogy with 1 Cor 12:15: “If the Father should say ‘Because I am not Wisdom, I do not belong to the Godhead,’ He would not for that reason cease to be part of the Godhead… ”  You see where I’m going with this.  Just as the priesthood of all believers is the corporate priestliness of differently gifted believers so the equal divinity of the Three is the corporate divinity of differently gifted Persons.  Yet these Persons so belong to each other that they are never without the gifts of the Other.

Now some think that Athanasius’ famous affirmation opposes such a position:

‘The Son is everything the Father is except Father…’  

But I’m saying, if Athanasius is being true to his Deposition of Arius he must mean this in terms of ontological equality.  That is the sense in which we must uphold these words.  But it’s very clear, viewed from another perspective, that the Son is many things the Father is not – Begotten, Mediator, Prophet, Priest, Prince, Sent One, etc, etc.  So whatever the above affirmation means it does not mean that the Son’s CV is the same as the Father’s.  Instead, just as my gifts are different to yours, so the particular attributes of the Persons are different.  And just as your gifts belong to me in the unity of the church so the Person’s attributes belong to one another in the unity of the Godhead.

We’ll see why this is important shortly.

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From Genesis 1, the way of the LORD has always been forming, then filling.

The filled-out reality is there by anticipation even in the forming. The intention for filling is included in the forming. But still the order is ‘form, then fill.’:

  • In Gen 1:2 – a formless and empty creation is then formed (days 1-3) and filled (days 4-6) as the Word of God is revealed (Gen 1:3ff).
  • (This is similar to both the tabernacle and the temple where first it is formed, then filled by the Glory of the LORD).
  • Adam is formed (from dust) and then filled (by the breath of the LORD God).
  • Humanity as male and female is first formed in Adam and then filled out in Eve’s creation and their consummation.
  • The first Adam is filled by the Last.
  • The people of Israel as the seed of Abraham are filled by Christ, the Seed of Abraham.
  • The law is the form of the covenant and is filled by the gospel events.

In all this we remember that the intention for filling is already anticipated in the forming. The very forming reveals a long-intended desire to fill. The forming sets everything on a trajectory towards something beyond itself.

Is it too much to suggest on this basis alone the supralapsarian tendencies of the Living God? I’ll do it anyway!

Eden is not the point. Adam is not the point. Adamic humanity is not the point. Israel and its worship is not the point. All these things are forms, intended to be filled-out by realities to which the forms themselves point but which they do not themselves contain. The intention is always to move through Eden and beyond to the New Jerusalem; through Adam and beyond to the Heavenly Man; through Israel (and its worship) and beyond to the Church of Jesus Christ.

Tellingly, this movement goes through death and out the other side to resurrection.  Thus…

  • The day is not always bright (as it will be in the new creation). Instead it goes from darkness into light.
  • The tree is not first, first comes the seed (John 12:24; 1 Cor 15:37)
  • There are not blessings and curses for Israel as alternative present tense realities but rather the blessings come after the curse. (see Deut 4:23-31; Deut 28-29 culminating in 30:1ff).
  • The cross comes first and then resurrection.
  • The LORD makes the old covenant and then the covenant renewed. (though the new covenant reality is grasped by faith long before both old and new covenants purchased).
  • The LORD makes the old earth and then the earth renewed.
  • First comes my body of flesh and then my spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:44)

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The Christian therefore knows two incontrovertible facts:

1. All things are forward-looking. The best is yet to come (let’s never yearn for Adam, for Eden, for Israel, for old covenant).

2. The path to better things is through suffering: the road to resurrection blessing always goes through the cross.

Psalm 30:5 For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Psalm 126:6 He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

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When discussing the priesthood of all believers I tried to highlight the corporate nature of our priestliness.  I only find my priestliness in union with Christ and in union with others.  Both are essential.

The priesthood of all believers is not a priestliness that is the private possession of each believer.  If we argue like this then the very basis for the doctrine is undermined.  If I claim priestliness in myself then I can be priestly without you.  And if this is admitted then my different gifted-ness and the distinct exercise of my priestly gifts will easily appear as a different order of priestliness to yours.  And once we say that we’re a hop, skip and a jump from a priesthood of the few.

No – the priesthood of all believers upholds that, while having different gifts to you and while exercising them in different ways, I cannot be priestly without you.  Yet with you I am both priestly and I have your gifts – for you in your giftedness belong to me, and I to you (Rom 12:5ff).

In thinking this through the connections with trinitarian theology suggest themselves pretty readily.  In John 17, Christ prays for a priestly church unity.  That is, He prays that the church be united as witness to the world. (see v18, 21, 23).  In v21 and 23, Christ makes clear the proto-type for such priestly unity: the Father-Son union.  So in thinking about Church and gifts, there seem to be some fruitful lines of enquiry into Trinity and attributes. 

In this post I’ll consider things from Trinity => church.  In my next post I’ll think of church =>Trinity.

As we consider things from Trinity => church. It seems like the major trinitarian heresies are easily seen in our understandings of church.

tritheism: a ‘trinity’ of separable Persons becomes, in church practice, separable priests – lone-ranger, hit and run  evangelists divorced from the corporate life of the church.

modalism: a one-ness in which the Persons lose their distinctiveness becomes, in church practice, a forcing of church members into the same mould.  Everyone must exercise every gift.  Training in mission = making everyone do street-evangelism.  That kind of thing.

subordinationism (Arianism): The ontological subordination of Son and Spirit becomes, in church practice, the suborination of the non-full-time Christian workers.  It’s the old two-tier way of life first espoused by Eusebius but replicated today.  The ‘perfect’ are the priests (nowadays the ‘full-time Christian workers’), the ‘permitted’ are the regular folk (nowadays those whose tithes support the ‘full-time Christian workers’). 

The antidote must be to go back to the trinity and understand again how the many are one.  Not competitively, not identically, not merely apparently.  Rather the one-ness (of God and of church) is a unity of distinct Persons whose belongingness to one another makes them who they are.  

I am – in all my differentness to you, in all my distinct gifting and role – one with you in the mission that constitutes both me and the church.  Without you I have no mission, in fact I have no ecclesial being – that is, I am not a Christian.  I have my life and being and we have our mission to the world only because we belong together at the very deepest level.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (John 17:20-23)

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Rest of series:

Part two

Part three – Let Jesus be Jesus

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Is “systematic theology… the end process of exegesis and biblical theology”??  Ben Myers writes brilliantly against such a conception.  To imagine that a pure biblical scholar can dispassionately read off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools is ludicrous.  To imagine that then the systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order is similarly misguided.  As Myers says ‘It’s theology all the way down.’  Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.

And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting.  We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied.  Yet the Word is a Person.  And His book is Personal (John 5:39).  It’s not something we judge with our double edged swords – the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)

Now Jesus thought the Scriptures were absolutely clear.  He never made excuses for theological error.  He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible.  He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm.  If they get it wrong He assumes they’ve never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!  So the perspicuity of the Bible is not in dispute. 

But Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong – “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matt 22:29)  And, again, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)  They are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify – Jesus.  This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation.  Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  Within this paradigm – a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us – the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.

But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one.  It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis.  Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician! 

And yet, I have often been in discussions regarding the Old Testament where theologians will claim an obvious meaning to the OT text which is one not oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  They will claim that this first level meaning is the literal meaning – one that is simply read off the text by a process of sound exegesis.  And then they claim that the second meaning (it’s sensus plenior – usually the christocentric meaning) is achieved by going back to the text but this time applying some extrinsic theological commitments.

What do we say to this?  Well hopefully we see that whatever ‘level’ of meaning we assign to the biblical text it is not an obvious, literal meaning to be read off the Scriptures like a bar-code!  Whatever you think that first-level meaning to be, such a meaning is inextricably linked to a whole web of theological pre-suppositions.  The step from first level to second is not a step from exegesis to a theological re-reading.  It is to view the text first through one set of pre-suppositions and then through another.

And that changes the direction of the conversation doesn’t it?  Because then we all admit that ‘I have theological pre-suppositions at every level of my interpretation.’  And we all come clean and say ‘Even the basic, first-level meaning assigned to an OT text comes from some quite developed theological pre-commitments – pre-commitments that would never be universally endorsed by every Christian interpreter, let alone every Jewish one!’  And then we ask ‘Well why begin with pre-suppositions which you know to be inadequate?  Why begin with pre-suppositions that are anything short of ‘the Power of God’ and ‘the Son of God’?   And if this is so, then why on earth do we waste our time with a first-level paradigm that left even the post-incarnation Pharisees completely ignorant of the Word?  In short, why don’t we work out the implications of a biblical theology that is trinitarian all the way down?  Why don’t we, at all times, read the OT as inherently and irreducibly a trinitarian revelation of the Son?

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I’m no expert on the historical use of this phrase but surely there are some unhelpful ways of spinning this evangelical touchstone.  Here’s what I think the phrase must protect:

  • The church as a whole is the only earthly priesthood the NT recognizes.  (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 5:10) 
  • Every Christian has equally entered this priesthood. 
  • None is more priestly than another. 

To this should be added the indispensibile prior truth: Christ is our one and only, all-sufficient Priest.  (How easy it is to trumpet the priesthood of us against catholic understandings.  How much better to lead with the priesthood of Christ.  But that’s for another time!)

So this is what we are protecting by the phrase.  BUT surely what we can’t mean is:  Every individual is equally a priest in themselves.  Here is the great danger of misunderstanding the phrase – I may start to look for my priestliness in myself.  That is, I may say ‘the priesthood is all believers; I’m a believer; therefore I, on my own, am a priest.’  To think like this is to completely invert the intention of the doctrine.  My priestliness is found only in union with Christ and with the corporate priesthood that is His body.  And I must look for priesthood in both those places – first in Christ and second in His body.  But never in me!  I, on my lonesome, am not a priest. I, on my lonesome, cannot begin to bring God to world or world to God.

Why is this important?  Well, let’s just think of the implications for evangelism:

1. Upon trusting Christ I have joined a priestly body and therefore my whole existence is now caught up in priestly work – i.e. mediating God to world and world to God.  But…

2. It is a priestly body and so I must never do this in isolation.  The self-funded, self-governed, one-man evangelist is not godly evangelism.

3. Because there are many parts but one body (1 Cor 12:20) we can honour the different parts without forcing ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ to be lips!   In other words we shouldn’t force non-speaking-gifted Christians into speaking roles.  But…

4.  We do have to encourage speakers and servers (1 Pet 4:10f) together to utilise their complementary gifts in mission.

That seems fairly straightforward.  And yet. 

  • How much of a church’s evangelistic strategy simply involves bringing the non-Christian to the pulpit?
  • How much of evangelism training simply equips individuals for solo-witness? 
  • How much of it simply equips individuals for their verbal ‘answer’? 
  • What does the average church-goer think of when they think of evangelism – corporate or individual?  The ‘answer’ or more than that? 
  • How many of the church’s exhortations to evangelism are straight-forward challenges for ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ to be ‘lips’?
  • How little do we encourage members of the body to come together organically and complement one another in mission? 
  • How do Christians feel who aren’t gifted speakers – do they feel that they are just as missionary, just as priestly?

I think much of these problems come from an individualizing of the ‘the priesthood of all believers’?  We have turned something inherently corporate into a private possession of each member.  As soon as this happens then I can be an evangelist without you.  The ‘lips’ get on without the ‘hands’ and we quickly revert to a ‘priesthood of the few’ – just via another route. 

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Anyway, these thoughts have come out of preparation for this sermon on 1 Peter.

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How to attain humility?  Determine to think low thoughts of yourself?  You’d be defeated before you began.  Self-deprecation is still self-deprecation.  No, to be humble we need to be humbled

Daniel 4 gives us a great picture of this.  Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man in the world, is humbled by the triune God who is ‘able to humble’ ‘those who walk in pride.’  (Dan 4:37).

As a young(ish) Australian male I know a little something about walking in pride.  What can I learn from Daniel 4 about humility?

 First, the hero of the piece, Daniel, accomplishes his work only in the power of the Holy Spirit.

“I know that the spirit of the holy gods is in you and that no mystery is too difficult for you.” Dan 4:9 (LXX has ‘Holy Spirit of God’ – translating the plural ‘gods’ as elsewhere in Scripture)

“None of the wise men in my kingdom can interpret it for me. But you can, because the spirit of the holy gods is in you.” Dan 4:18.  See also 5:11,14 (LXX translates them all as Holy Spirit of God)

Without the Spirit, Daniel has nothing to offer.  With the Spirit, Daniel is wiser than the wisest men on earth. 

Second, the promised King of God’s Kingdom is described as the Lowliest of Men.

“the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes and sets over them the Lowliest of men.” (Dan 4:17)

In the great inversion of all our human expectations, God’s choice for King is not simply a lowly man, but the Lowliest of men.  The King of all kings is the One who says “I am gentle and humble in heart.” (Matt 11:29)  How can Nebuchadnezzar exalt himself when the Chosen One of the Most High is the Servant of all? 

Third, Nebuchadnezzar learns humility when he worships the Most High God:

 

34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes towards heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honoured and glorified Him Who lives for ever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as He pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back His hand or say to him: “What have you done?” 36 At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honour and splendour were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom.

With his eyes turned upwards, Nebuchadnezzar praises Him Who lives forever.  The sovereign glory of the Omnipotent Father draws out of him awed worship.  I’m told (and I can believe it) that the Grand Canyon will take your breath away – no-one stands on the rim with high thoughts of themselves.  And no-one can confess the majesty of our Father and not be correspondingly humbled in the process.

So how do I fight pride?  The doctrine of the trinity of course. I need to know that anything I have of worth in God’s service is a gift of the Spirit – “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7). 

I need to know that the Lord of Glory is Himself the Lowliest of men.  His glory is His service.  So how can I exalt myself above Christ?

I need to know that the Most High Father is awe-inspiring in His heavenly power.  As I worship Him I find a grateful ‘nothingness’ by comparison which is, at that very moment, my restoration to honour.

To be enfolded in the life of these Three is to be well and truly humbled. 

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On humility, see also Bobby on Gospel Living 

— to KC a fan of trinitarian theology!

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Where does repentance fit?

Where would you place the ‘confession’ in a communion service? 

I was speaking about that yesterday with another gospel minister.  I ‘flew a kite’ for the idea of confessing after receiving the sacrament.  Perhaps, I wondered aloud, we could receive Christ in the bread and wine (of course with reverence recognizing the body of the Lord) and then repent of all our unworthiness.  Perhaps this would better model the fact that our repentance flows from the prior grace showered on us ‘when we were still sinners.’  (Rom 5:8)  In our sin we are unable to turn to Christ, yet in His mercy He has turned to us to ‘justify the wicked’ (Rom 4:5).  And, as recipients of such undeserved mercy, our hearts are then humbled into repentance.  So should we put the confession after communion?

What do you think? 

I’ve been thinking about this especially because I’m writing a paper on repentance at the moment.  Here is the outline of my proposal. I’d love any thoughts you may have on it…

“I propose to write on the implications for pastoral ministry of our doctrine of repentance. Where should repentance fit into our soteriology and therefore how should we proceed in preaching and teaching, in evangelism, administration of the sacraments, in pastoral care, edification of the flock and in relations with the parish and wider world? In each instance the minister of the Word of grace encounters sin in its various forms. In each instance there is a danger that the covenant love of God will be presented as a conditional contract – a kind of “repent, then believe” ordo salutis. This would be to invert the Gospel in which Christ meets us exactly in our sin and does so unconditionally and with no respect to our capacity for Him or His new life. (Romans 4:5).

On the other hand Christ’s salvation is precisely a salvation from sin – a deliverance from the realm of the flesh, the world and the devil. “The wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9). The triune God embraces sinners and in that embrace, changes them (1 Cor 6:11).

How do we as church model this Gospel ordo salutis? How do we preach repentance from our pulpits? At what point do we call the enquiring non-Christian couple to live out a Christian sexual ethic? To whom do we administer the sacraments? (In this question lies, among other things, the balance between communion as a “converting ordinance” and the dangers of “eating and drinking judgement” (1 Cor 11:29)). How do we counsel our people towards repentance? What counts as repentance when various addictions and relational involvements muddy the waters?

I’m sure my research for this will take me in many directions, yet I propose that I begin with the Biblical material, in particular the Old Testament covenants and the NT Pauline corpus. I also hope to investigate the controversies regarding the Western ‘ordo salutis’ comparing historical positions with each other and the Biblical data. I intend to make use of Calvin’s distinction between ‘Evangelical and Legal Repentance’, especially as it has been developed by JB Torrance. As I begin these lines of enquiry I expect that many others will subsequently open up.”

Any help?

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Our church is in a sermon series encouraging us to put mission at the heart of all we do and say.  It’s got me thinking about one of my favourite verses: “I believed therefore I have spoken.” (2 Cor 4:13)  I’ve been trying to think, what do I need to believe in order to be the evangelist God calls me to be?  Here are 21 thoughts:

  1. God is mission.  He is Sender, Sent and Proceeding.  His being is irreducibly bound up in sending – in mission.  He is the out-ward focussed God, the spreading God.  He is a fountain of sending love.
  2. Participation in the life of this God means, inescapably, participating in the glorifying/magnifying/proclaiming of the Persons (“Behold My Servant…” Is 42:1ff).  Life in God means life in mission.
  3. The Father is over all our missionary efforts.  He is the real One who summons the world to faith in Christ and who orders all things that they might be brought under His feet (Eph 1:10).  Therefore He is not limited by my limitations and can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. (Eph 3:20).
  4. The Son is the centre of all our missionary efforts (Rom 1:3-4).  He is the One proclaimed – the substance of all our proclamation.  Good thing too because He is unbelievably attractive.  Speak of Him and you cannot go wrong.
  5. The Spirit is the power of all our missionary efforts.  You are ‘clothed with power’ as you go in mission (Luke 24:49).  The One whose very nature is to make known the Son is with you in divine power and presence. 
  6. Hell is real and the certain destination of all those apart from Christ.  (Acts 4:12; 2 Thes 1:8-10)
  7. The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16).  I am unleashing divine potency as I testify to Christ.
  8. The love of Christ compels us (2 Cor 5:14).  This is not a case of God saying, “I’ve been good to you in X, why don’t you be good to me in Y.”   It’s a case of “I have swept you up in my mission to the world.  Now carry on!”
  9. I am salt and light (Matt 5:13-16). I am a witness (Acts 1:8). Whether I act on this or not, I don’t have to become an evangelist.  God has made me what I need to be.
  10. My flesh is the real enemy to evangelism not lack of evangelistic techniques!  My flesh curves me in on myself when mission is to extend myself into the lives of others.  The arguments against me evangelizing always revolve around my present comfort, introspection and the status quo.  My desire for vain glory, approval and ease stops me gospelling.  My fight against the flesh is one fought on the front lines of the mission field.
  11. My authority to speak of Christ is not about me ‘earning the right’ but the authority is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. (Matt 28:18-20)  That is the Ultimate Disruption that authorizes all other disruptions of the status quo that aim at making disciples of Christ. 
  12. Giving myself away is the happy life – the way of Christ, the way of blessing.  (Mark 8:35)
  13. Disgrace for the sake of the Name is glorious (Acts 5:41).  There is nothing like evangelism for experiencing standing with Jesus as one chosen out of the world (John 15:18-21). 
  14. Nothing is neutral (Matt 12:30).  My friends, family, colleagues and the public space is not neutral but conveys spiritual values all the time.  I never ‘inject’ God-talk into the world.  All talk is god-talk, that is – talk about ultimate spiritual values.  I never need to be ashamed that I’m the one forcing spiritual views on another.  Such proselytising is a necessary part of all conversation.  I may as well bring true God-talk to bear.
  15. The Gospel is about everything!  Fundamentally I don’t have to turn the conversation to spiritual things.  It’s already spiritual and it’s already addressed by the Father in the Son and by the Spirit.  (I just have to figure out how! – but that will come in time.)
  16. The community is chosen, dearly loved and special in its world-focussed outward-looking-ness (1 Pet 2:9).  I have a whole body – the body of Christ – behind me.  In fact no, let me re-phrase.  The body of Christ surrounds me as an intrinsically evangelistic organism.  The burden is never simply on my shoulders.
  17. The community in its unity is hugely important  (John 13:34-35; John 17:20-26).  Before I’ve loved the unbeliever, my love of the believer (if done in view of the world) has already witnessed powerfully to Christ.
  18. The community in its diversity is hugely important (Eph 4:10-12).  I have been uniquely gifted in the evangelistic task and I am surrounded by others (who I need) who are likewise uniquely gifted.
  19. I don’t have to be holy first then a missionary.  I strive for holiness in mission.  (More on this in other posts).  It is the outward-looking holding-up-of-Christ that is the umbrella activity of the Christian under which my holiness is worked out.  So don’t wait to evangelise while you sort out your personal walk.  Use mission to conquer those besetting sins and habits (they won’t be properly conquered any other way!).
  20. I don’t have to be complete in knowledge first and then a missionary.  John 9: “I was blind but now I see.”
  21. There is reward for the evangelist!  (Dan 12:3; Luke 16:9; 1 Thes 2:19)

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I’m sure others can add more.  What is it that we need to trust that will motivate our evangelism?

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No (good) trinitarian theologian wants to have a fourth thing – a divine substance considered apart from the Three Persons.  But it’s important to be aware that this error (effectively having a quaternity) has two versions.  There is a vulgar quaternity and a more insidious one.

The vulgar one looks like this:

Oneness and Threeness 1 

Here is the “shamrock” trinity – three bits growing out of an underlying stuff.  In practice this is, roughly, how many unthinkingly view the trinity.  Such a vulgar quaternity is rightly rejected by theologians.  It can be seen immediately that the ‘Godness of God’ is considered at a completely different level to the three Persons in their roles and relations.  What makes God God is fundamentally impersonal attributes that may be expressed in the Persons but not constituted by their mutual inter-play.  So we can safely reject this version of things.

But I find that many theologians, having rejected the vulgar quaternity, congratulate themselves prematurely.  There is also the insidious quaternity to be dealt with.  There is another way of having a fourth…

Oneness and Threeness 2

Fundamentally this error consists in conceiving of the one God separately to a consideration of the three Persons in communion.  Recently I read a theologian say “God is both one and three – both a person and a community.”  This is an example of the insidious quaternity.  One-ness and Three-ness are laid side by side to uphold a belief in the equal ultimacy of one and three.  Yet the one-ness of God is conceived of as a uni-personal one-ness – that is, it is separately considered to the multi-personal three-ness.  One and Three were not mutually interpreting truths but instead the ‘one God’ is thought of in non-communal (that is, non trinitarian) terms.

This is the approach taken by by so many doctrine of God text books where De Deo Uno (on the One God) is addressed prior to De Deo Trino (on the Trinity).   Yet, unless the two section are integrated at the deepest levels then there is grave danger of a fourth thing – i.e. “God plus Trinity” or “God apart from Trinity.

When this theological method is followed, often (not always but most times) section one unfolds such that the Three Person’d interplay takes no meaningful part in the discussions of the attributes.  Yet, typically, these attributes are asserted to be the virtue by which God is God.  On this view it is still possible to discuss the ‘Godness of God’ without reference to the perichoretic life of the Three.  Here One-ness and Three-ness are considered to be non-competing perspectives on the same God.  This effectively means that it is possible to speak in non-triune terms about the living God.  ‘God’, then, is not the same thing as ‘the Three Persons united in love’.   

This is also a quaternity.  Just a more insidious one.

And the only way I can see to avoid this fourth thing is to side with the Cappodocians: God’s being consists without remainder in the Three Person’d perichoresis .

 Oneness Threeness 3b

The one-ness of God is not a simple divine essence but the very unity of the Three.  The being of God is not an underlying substance (contra the vulgar quaternity).  But nor is it a separately conceived essence (contra the insidious quaternity).  Rather God’s being is the very communion by which the Three are One.   

Trinity is not a perspective on the one God.  Rather the only God there is is trinity.  And the only way to conceive of Him is in triune terms.  ‘God’ is ‘Trinity’.  Unless this strict identity is maintained a fourth enters in.

Thus we must never conceive of the one God in any other terms than trinitarian ones.  (Re-write the text-books!).  God’s being is in His communion (to use Zizioulas’s phrase).  His One-ness is in His communion.  And (let’s not forget) His Three-ness is in His communion – the Three are only who they are in this eternal perichoresis.   To put it another way: God is love.

Therefore let’s guard against a ‘fourth’ whenever it threatens.  Let’s reject the vulgar quaternity, but let’s also reject the insidious quaternity.  And if people call us ‘extreme social trinitarians’ or ‘tritheists’ or whatever, let them.  The dangers on the other side are far greater.

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         This is a re-working of an older post on One-ness and Three-ness.

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Barth for Beginners

Hello all,

I’m going on a blog-fast for the next week.  Feel free to comment on anything but I will resist replying – for a bit anyway.

In the meantime enjoy this!   Barth 101:

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A friend of mine is at Bible college and has been set an essay on trinitarian theology and the difference between east and west.  He emailed me to ask “So what??! I mean realistically what are the implications of the different approaches?”

Here’s part of my response.  I have obviously caricatured positions to make a point.   I’m trying to be as stark as possible to drive home the difference.  And the west is obviously not as bad as I’ve suggested, nor is the east the paragon of virtue.  There are basic things about eastern trinitarianism I disagree with – but not their starting point.  And that’s my focus here.  So here is my response:

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Ok, you say ‘So what?’  I say – ‘So everything!’

De Regnon [who my friend mentioned in his email] is a good lead.  Let me re-phrase his insight:  The west begins with One and then tries to figure out how to get Three.  The east begins with the Three and then figures out how the Three are One. 

Re-read this until you have the distinction firmly in mind…

The west begins with One and tries to get to Three.  The east begins with Three and then gets to One. 

Now between these positions there is all the difference in the world.

If you’re eastern you say: “I’ve met this guy Jesus and He introduces me to His Father and sends His Spirit.”  And then, having met the Three Persons in the gospel, you say ‘what kind of one-ness do these three Persons share?’  And because you think in this way you can conclude: “These three Persons are *one* because they are united in love.” 

So you go to John 17 and you see Jesus saying He wants His followers to be one the same way He and the Father are one.  And then you say “Aha!  The one-ness of the church is loving unity, therefore it stands to reason that the one-ness of Father and Son is loving unity.”  And then you remember 1 John 4 and you say with joy: How is God one?  God is love!  God is a loving community of Three Persons. 

And this means that the greatest thing in all reality is love (because God is love).  And it means that reality is relational.  And it means that loving community among disinct people is very important.  One-ness for the east is a loving union of particular Persons who don’t lose their individuality (Father, Son and Spirit are all different Persons – they are not one because they are identical.) 

So the east simply says: God is three distinct but totally united Persons loving one another.  Let me flesh out three implications of this:

1) It means that difference, distinction, community, relationship, mutuality, reciprocity and LOVE are all at the very very centre of who God is.  God’s identity is not primarily a collection of attributes but a community of love

2) Because even the Father, Son and Spirit find their identity in relationships we see that relationship is at the heart of personal identity.  God is who He is because He is love.  God is who He is because of the relationships of Father, Son and Spirit.  Therefore I am who I am because of the relationships I share in.

3) Community is hugely important.  Even in God, different voices are not silenced by one dominant ruler.  Instead different voices contribute to a one-ness that’s all about distinct persons working together in love.

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On the other hand the west begins by saying: “we know that God is one.  We know that this one God has all sorts of attributes that go with the ‘Creator’ job description. So God is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, impassible, immutable etc etc.”  Then the west says, “Ok we’ve got the one God, but now in the gospel we meet these three Persons.  So how can the three Persons qualify as this one God?” They figure that since the one God is defined by these attributes then the way these Three are One is by sharing in all these same attributes.  And so they map these attributes identically onto the three Persons.  In this way the distinctions between Persons gets lost.  Every difference is blurred into the one God who is defined not by relationships but by attributes (i.e. He’s big and clever).  Three implications of this:

1) God’s identity is primarily a collection of attributes – attributes that are about His distance from creation, His difference to us.

2) If God is who He is because of His attributes – personal identity is essentially about *attributes* (about being big and clever).  Therefore I am who I am because of how big and clever I am.

3) Community is not really that important – there’s only one voice and will that counts.  Distinctions and difference will get bull-dozed before the all-important one.

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Ok, now that I’ve laid it out like this, hopefully you can see some of the ‘so what’ significance??

Let me tease it out by discussing the three implications:

Regarding 1):  In the west, God has been defined as a collection of attributes that place Him at an infinite distance from us.  Now if you go out on the streets and talk to people about whether they’re religious, basically (keeping eastern influences out of this) people will say either they do or they don’t believe in a distant, uni-personal God who is approximately the ‘omni-being’ of philosophy.  Whether they believe in “God” or don’t believe in “God”, the “God” they’re talking about is the collection of attributes which the western theologian began with before they examined the gospel!  The god that our western culture has either embraced or rejected is not the God of the gospel!  Instead the “god” of the pub discussion is pretty much the “one God” that the western theologian began with.  And if the bloke in the pub rejects that god – I don’t blame him!!  That’s not a god who is obviously related to Jesus of Nazareth (or His Spirit or the Father He called ‘Abba’).  And therefore its not a god who appears to be particularly interested in us – its not a god revealed in gospel love but in philosophical speculation.  Now the cultures shaped by the western church have been shaped by this doctrine of God.  When they accepted “God” it was this “God” they accepted.  When they rejected him, it was this “God” they rejected.

Atheism has basically been the rejection of this god.  People have decided they don’t want a distant omni-being over against them and proclaimed his non-existence.  And what people like Colin Gunton are trying to ask is “Would the west have rejected “God” so thoroughly if the “God” they were presented with by the western church was the community of committed love revealed in Jesus?”  The answer still might be yes, but it’s an interesting question anyway!

Regarding 2): The question of personal identity.  Well if we go with the west, my identity is all about my attributes.  I need to build up a CV of my big-ness and clever-ness.  That will define me.  But if I go with the east then my identity is about my relationships.  I am who I am because fundamentally I’m in Christ (and what’s more I’m a son, a brother, a husband, etc). When I take this seriously, my western status-anxiety can be relieved in a second.  I find liberation from the western drive to prove myself and forge an identity for myself.  I am given identity in the relationships I have (primarily my relationship with Christ). 

Think also of the abortion debate. What is it that defines whether this foetus has personal identity?  Ask a westerner and they’ll instinctively answer you in terms of attributes: “This foetus can/can’t do X, Y, and Z therefore the foetus can/can’t be aborted.”  But what if the foetus is a person not because of its attributes but because it already stands in relationships of love?

Regarding 3): The point about community.  Here’s a quote from the website: (http://www.christthetruth.org.uk/threepersonsunited.htm)

“…what can we learn about relationships and community from The Relationship? In gender relations, in multi-ethnic society, in equal opportunities policies, in the church, in our families – we are constantly confronted by people who have real and important differences and yet people who ought to be treated with equal respect and dignity. How do we appreciate the differences and uphold the equality? If we treat all in exactly the same way, are we not ignoring the valuable distinctives? This ‘melting pot’ approach falls foul of oppression-by-assimilation. The incumbent majority always wins out at the cost of the minorities – they either become like the majority or they die. Do we, therefore, treat specific parties differently in an attempt to give them a leg-up? When this happens stereo-types can be re-enforced by ‘special treatment’ and work against the value of equality. Furthermore: who defines the appropriate yard-stick of “success” in a culture? Perhaps it is better to abandon the idea of community altogether and accept along with Margaret Thatcher that there is “no such thing as society.”

“Well what can the Trinity teach us? At the heart of reality lies a Community of different but equal Persons who have their own identities constituted by their mutual interdependence. They work together as One. There definitely is such a thing as society. Person-hood can never be considered individualistically but is made up of relationships on which we depend. Within The Community, the Persons freely submit to one another in roles of subordination while never losing their equal status. They do submit to differences in treatment and in function – but they maintain a definite equality of being and uphold one another in bonds of unconditional love. Here is a Community on which to model our own.”

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Over at White to Harvest there are some very stimulating discussions of election and assurance going on – see here and the comments here.   But just to stick up for the reformed tradition, here are (very selective!) quotations from three of the greats.  Not to say that these are consistently followed by each theologian or their tradition but here are some good bits nonetheless:

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John Calvin

Faith: “is a firm and sure knowledge, of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes, 3.21.2.)

“Christ, when he illumines us into faith by the power of his Spirit, at the same time so engrafts us into his body that we become partakers of every good.” (Institutes, III.2.35)

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C.H. Spurgeon

“Many persons want to know their election before they look to Christ, but they cannot learn it thus, it is only to be discovered by ‘looking unto Jesus.’ If you desire to ascertain your own election; after the following manner shall you assure your heart before God.  Do you feel yourself to be a lost, guilty sinner? Go straightway to the cross of Christ and tell Jesus so, and tell Him that you have read in the Bible, ‘Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.’  Tell Him that He has said, ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’  Look to Jesus and believe on Him, and you shall make proof of your election directly, for so surely as thou believest, thou art elect.  If you will give yourself wholly up to Christ and trust Him, then you are one of God’s chosen ones; but if you stop and say, ‘I want to know first whether I am elect’, you ask what you do not know. Go to Jesus, be you never so guilty, just as you are.  Leave all curious inquiry about election alone.  Go straight to Christ and hide in His wounds, and you shall know your election.  The assurance of the Holy Spirit shall be given to you, so that you shall be able to say, ‘I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him.’  Christ was at the everlasting council: He can tell you whether you were chosen or not; but you cannot find it out any other way.  Go and put your trust in Him and His answer will be – ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.’  There will be no doubt about His having chosen you, when you have chosen Him.”  (‘Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God.’ Morning and Evening, July 17.  1 Thess 1:4.)

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Karl Barth

“If we would know who God is, and what is the meaning and purpose of His election, and in what respect he is the electing God, then we must look away from all others, and excluding all side-glances or secondary thoughts, we must look only upon and to the name of Jesus Christ, and the existence and history of the people of God enclosed in Him” (Church Dogmatics, II/2, p54).

“We must not ask concerning any other but Him. In no depth of the Godhead shall we encounter any other but Him… There is no such thing as a decretum absolutum. There is no such thing as a will of God apart from the will of Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ reveals to us our election as an election which is made by Him, by His will which is also the will of God. He tells us that He Himself is the One who elects us… As we believe in Him and hear His Word and hold fast by His decision, we can know with a certainty which nothing can ever shake that we are the elect of God” (II/2, p115).

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Here is my favourite from Barth:

“We might imagine the conversation to which it gives rise and some of the forms which it necessarily takes. The man to whom it is said thinks and says that he is not this new, peaceful, joyful man living in fellowship. He asks leave honestly to admit that he does not know this man, or at least himself as this man. 

The Word of grace replies: ‘All honour to your honesty, but my truth transcends it. Allow yourself, therefore, to be told in all truth and on the most solid grounds what you do not know, namely, that you are this man in spite of what you think.’

Man: ‘ You think that I can and should become this man in the course of time? But I do not have sufficient confidence in myself to believe this. Knowing myself, I shall never become this man.’

The Word of grace: ‘You do well not to have confidence in yourself. But the point is not that you can and should become this man. What I am telling you is that, as I know you, you already are.’

Man: ‘I understand that you mean this eschatologically. You are referring to the man I perhaps will be one day in some not very clearly known transfiguration in a distant eternity. If only I had attained to this! And if only I could be certain that even then I should be this new man!’

The Word of grace: ‘You need to understand both yourself and me better than you do. I am not inviting you to speculate about your being in eternity, but to receive and ponder the news that here and now you begin to be the new man, and are already that which you will be eternally.’

Man: ‘How can I accept this news? On what guarantee can I make bold to take is seriously?’

The Word of grace: ‘I, Jesus Christ, am the One who speaks to you. You are what you are in Me, as I will to be in you. Hold fast to Me. I am your guarantee. My boldness is yours. With this boldness dare to be what you are?’

Man: ‘I certainly hear the message, but…’

In this perplexed and startled ‘but’ we see the attack, and who it is that is attacked.” (V/2, p250)

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Much of this is from a comment or two I’ve made here at Dan Hames’ excellent blog.

The trinity is a very old doctrine. See The Trinitarian Old Testament for just how old. But Nicea (by which I mean the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed of 381 which we say in church today) gave us certain terminology that is accepted by both East and West.  Its creed is basic to all Christian churches.  Yet its doctrine of God is a particular one – one that is sometimes unwittingly (sometimes wittingly) side-lined, ignored or opposed.

The first thing to notice is Nicea’s doctrine of ‘the one God.’  To the untrained eye, it looks like it doesn’t have one.  It simply says ‘We believe in one God’ and then immediately goes on to speak of ‘the Father Almighty’, ‘one Lord Jesus Christ’ and ‘the Holy Spirit’.  Nicea gives absolutely no definition of the one God except to unfold His being in the description of the Three. No doubt many scholastic theologians (if anachronistically present!) would have inserted quite an extended treatise on the omnis in between “I believe in God…” and “…the Father Almighty”. But Nicea doesn’t let you force a breach between a description of the One and the Three.  To describe the One is to unfold the Three.

When looking for a doctrine of God’s ‘ousia’ (being), again a typical western theologian may be disappointed.  All we have in the creed is the controversial phrase ‘homo-ousios’.  Jesus, the Son, is ‘homo-ousion tw patri‘ (of one being with the Father).  There is not here a prior definition of ‘ousia’ which is then mapped onto the three Persons.  Let me repeat: There is not a prior definition of ‘ousia’ which is then mapped onto the three Persons.  Instead we infer what the ‘ousia’ is from the fact that Father and Son are ‘homo-ousios’.

Jesus, in all His difference from the Father, is still homo-ousios with the Father. In His divinity He is ‘God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made.” Even in His divinity He is ‘ek tes ousia tw patri‘ (out of the being of the Father). There are important differences between Father and Son that are not papered over but rather affirmed by and included in the homo-ousios.

The homo-ousios does not denote three-fold repetition but rather, in TF Torrance’s words:

“The Father/Son relationship falls within the one being of God.” (Trinitarian Faith, p119).

Homoousios “meant that the Son and the Father are equally God within the one being of God.” (ibid, p122)

The homo-ousios upholds the distinction (as well as unity) of Father and Son. Remember that you can’t be ‘homo’ with yourself. And it points us to the fact that the Father is Begettor, the Son Begotten. The Father from Himself, the Son from the Father (even according as He is God, contra Calvin but with Nicea!).

There are genuine differences in Persons that in no way compromise their equality of divinity. There is never a time when the Son is not homo-ousios with the Father nor is there a time when the Son is not begotten of His Father. Therefore there is not an ousia of the Father that could ever be separately conceived and then assigned in equal measure to Father, Son and Spirit. Instead the ousia of God is a mutually constituting communion in which Father, Son and Spirit share. The ousia of the trinity consists in three Persons who are ‘homo’ with one another. While Nicea does not say explicitly that the ‘ousia’ is the communion of Persons, it points decidedly in this direction. (See Torrance’s ‘Trinitarian Faith’ for more).

All this is to say that distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit are upheld within the divine nature. The divine nature is not a set of pre-determined attributes which are identically mapped onto the Three. The divine nature is constituted by difference, distinction, mutuality, reciprocity – it is a divine life (a dance even!) not a divine stuff.

Compare this with so much doctrine of God in the west.  First an ousia of ‘omnis’ is determined.  The one God is discussed for 600 pages in terms of ‘uncreated Creator’.  And then we face the Three.  What do we then do?  Simply give to each Person this CV of attributes and insist that this is what the Nicene homo-ousios demanded!  On this understanding all difference, distinction, mutuality and reciprocity is banished from the status of deity.  In preference to the lively interplay of Father, Son and Spirit, a ‘simple’ doctrine of the One (read divine simplicity) is forwarded.  And God’s own being is conceived of as a stuff not a life.

Think I prefer Nicea!

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For a sermon of mine on trinity go here.  For some excellent talks by Mike Reeves on the subject go here.

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