Far away, so close: transcendence beautifying immanence

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When you’re going through something difficult or scary in life, it’s the most natural thing in the world to want someone close to you; to go with you or to be right by your side.  For the Christian, one of our dearest hopes in pain or trial is also that God Himself is close to us and present with us by His Spirit.  We cling to verses like Prov. 18:24 (“there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother”) and Matt. 28:20 (“And, behold, I am with you always, even  to the end of the age.”) as anchors in the storms of our lives that God is close to us; the He is immanent and that He cares for us.

But how many of us in our trials and difficulties would also ask God to reveal His transcendence to us; just how very far away and separate He is?  How many would go to verses like Ecclesiastes 5:2 (“God is in the heavens and you are on earth, so let your words be few.”), Isaiah 55:9 (“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”) or Dan. 4:35 (“He [God] does according to His will among the hosts of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him ‘What have you done?'”) to find comfort in our pain and confusion?  It may seem incomprehensible to make such a request, and yet, I was reminded again recently in a difficult situation of my own, that without a clear understanding of God’s transcendence, His immanence (nearness) actually ends up being diminished in the comfort it offers.

Consider:

The God who is near

All the verses and hymns and prayers for God to be close to us in our pain are absolutely good and right.  God has promised to be near to us and to comfort the lowly and afflicted (Ps. 34:18; Is. 42:3).  And because He is God, there is an additional comfort in knowing that we have access to His closeness whenever we need it; whether we are suffering in a prison cell in North Korea, or visiting hours have simply ended and we’re alone in our hospital bed at night.  His presence is what brings us hope and comfort and joy (Ps. 16:8,11).

The God who is far away

And yet we must not be so captivated and focused on the immanence of God, that we begin to substitute the true picture of the God of the universe for what I once heard Alan Hirsch refer to as “Buddy-Jesus.”

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For all of His closeness, He is also the God who is from before all things and the Creator of all things (Gen. 1:1, Col. 1:16-17); the God who has dominion over all things (Dan. 4:34b-35, Col. 1:17) and who works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11).  He gives and takes authority from kings (Prov. 21:1, John 19:11) and He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16).  And that’s just a fraction of all that the Scriptures have to say about just how far away and separate – how “other” – the God of the universe is from His creation.

Why far away is so good

Does that weaken your sense of God’s immanence?  Does it make the comfort of God seem farther away and inaccessible in your pain and your struggle?  It shouldn’t.  Because you see, absolutely nothing about God’s transcendence cancels out a single thing about His immanence.  The truth is, it makes it even more comforting.

Think about it:

  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He can offer us, not just a hand to hold at our hospital bedside, but healing from what’s put us in the hospital bed!
  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He does’t just carry you through the hard times (sorry “Footprints”) He carries you through every moment of your life!
  •   If God is not just near, but also far away and sovereign over all, that means He doesn’t just stand beside you as you go into that scary meeting or that difficult conversation, He also has the power to change and shape the hearts of the people you are facing!

In fact, it’s even the transcendence and complete “other-ness” of God, that makes Christmas and the Incarnation of Jesus so much of a bigger deal.  Because it only highlights all the more just how incredible it is that this massive, transcendent, sovereign, holy God actually took on human flesh and really came to dwell among us (Is. 9:6-7; Col. 1:19; Phil. 2:5-8).

So if you’re going through some trial or difficulty today yourself, know that God is absolutely right by your side; as close as your very breath.  But He is also completely “other” from you and able to act on your circumstances according to His perfect sovereign will in a way that can truly affect change (both in you as well as your circumstances).

And if you’re a pastor or a parent or a communicator of God’s word in any way, give the people you counsel and teach and comfort with the word of God a picture of both God’s immanence and  His transcendence.  I hope you’ve seen that understanding the breathtaking holiness, sovereignty, power and “other-ness” of God does not weaken or diminish the reality of His immanence and comfort in our trials.  It is – in fact – the very thing that makes His immanence truly comforting.

You can’t have one without the other: why the resurrection is essential to the gospel

Maybe you’ve been there before. Maybe not.  You’re on a trip and flying out momentarily, so you buckle up, get comfy, and find an album you love on your brand new iPhone 27 (hey, it could happen!) that you just waited 48 hours in line for yesterday, outside in the freezing cold.  You plug in your ear buds, press play and close your eyes … and hear nothing! And you lose it!!!  You stayed up all night transferring everything from your old phone to this one – not to mention freezing your butt off just to get the new phone – only now to have this piece of junk fail you!  You’re moments away from stabbing a pen into the screen when, quietly and sincerely, a 4 year old girl sitting on the aisle-seat toddles over and plugs in the dangling headphones cable into your phone and goes back to her seat.  This is what the kiddos like to called getting “PNWED!”

The waiting. The freezing. All the effort to transfer data: useless without plugging in the headphones!

An image similar to this came to me today as i was reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.  In chapter 15 he begins by giving us one of the quickest and most succinct tellings of the Gospel (historia salutis) in verses three and four:

“For i delivered to you as of first importance what i also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …”

Now if you’re like me you’ve read this in the past and tended to focus on the first action of Christ viz. “died for our sins”, when thinking/speaking of salvation.  “What is the gospel?”, someone might ask you: “that Jesus died for your sins bro!  He suffered on a Roman cross in your place to absorb the holy wrath of God that you deserved b/c of your sins.”, you reply.  And there is nothing incorrect about what you just said! In fact, it may even lead one to wonder why Paul even “tacks on” all that other stuff about being “buried” and “raised on the third day” and “appearing” to all these people.

But the reason Paul does this is not to paint a broader picture, or prop up the “real” gospel message with extra details.  The reason is that without the resurrection you actually don’t have the gospel!

Just 10 verses later, Paul starts to kick the legs out from under a gospel presentation that focuses solely on Christ’s death, like Barry Bonds to a pelican, and then spends the rest of the chapter talking about nothing but resurrection.  He says without the resurrection, his (and all the other apostles’) preaching is in vain.  Without the resurrection they are misrepresenting God.  Without the resurrection our faith is in vain.  And finally, the ‘lights-out’ punch comes in vs. 17 when he writes,

“And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”

You ever come across verses like this: verses you’ve read a hundred times, that feel like you’re reading them for the very first time?  It feels like this has to be an epic “typo” of some kind when you really see what Paul is getting at here. That everything:

– the Incarnation of Jesus as a baby, born of a virgin,

– the life of perfect obedience,

– the betrayal and horrific suffering,

– even the substitutionary death on the cross,

ALL MEANINGLESS if Jesus stays in the tomb!

(… take a moment and just let that sink in)

It’s little wonder that he follows this profound statement, that should rob our very breath, by adding,

“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

The resurrection is essential to all these aspects of the life and substitutionary death of Christ b/c it is the very capstone of them; the place where God places His eternal seal on them all and says, “Accepted!  Paid in full!”

Romans 6:10 says, “For the death He died He died to sin, but the life He lives He lives to God.”  Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”  This ‘perfection’ for us only comes if Christ’s work is accepted and then applied to us.  Finally, in Philippians 2, after speaking of Christ’s Incarnation, life and death, Paul writes, “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

The bodily resurrection of Jesus: the true and only hope of the Gospel and the King’s Seal on Christ’s Person and work on our behalf, making it effective unto salvation.  Because of this, we can now worship and praise this living and glorified Saviour in heaven with all its host crying,

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing.”

Take it away, and the heavens – along with us – fall silent.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  Luke 24:5,6

His Word + our faith = all the difference

If you’re anything like me, you look at the picture above and your knees get weak – not from some kind of heady infatuation – but rather, out of terror and fear.  Thankfully for math-challenged people like me (and for ‘Über-geeks’ as well) God has made some equations in life much easier to understand.  This does not mean that everything involved is un-complex and without even incomprehensible parts, but that at least the “math-part” of putting all the pieces together is easy enough.

*note: I’ll confess from the outset here that this post is more about exploring an idea than making a point or, to put it another way, the point of this post is actually a question.  I’d love for any feedback or push-back you’d care to offer.  

When considering the Ordinances (or Sacraments, properly defined) of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, it occurred to me recently how essential both the Word of God spoken, and our faith applied, are to these means of grace to us.  Whatever is used to mean, in its modern usage, it must be stated that Baptism and the Eucharist are not “ex opere operato” which holds the idea that these gifts are efficacious in and of themselves irregardless of any outside influence from either the minster or from the one receiving.  John Calvin had said, regarding this idea, that, “Grace resides in Christ, not in the elements, and the efficacy and power emanates from the Holy Spirit.”  But this begs the question then, ‘How does Baptism and the Eucharist become effective to us?’  ‘What do the Word of God and our faith bring to the Sacraments that would not be there otherwise?’

The short answer is: everything!

The Word of God

Consider first two passages of Scripture.  In Hebrews 4:12 we read that the Word of God is both a “living” and an “active” thing.  In Isaiah 55:10,11, God reminds us that His Word is powerful and effective; able to accomplish all that He intends it to do.

The language can be difficult for some, but i believe Augustine expressed well the relationship between God’s powerful, effective Word and the elements used in the Sacraments, when he wrote,

Let the Word be added to the element, and it will become a Sacrament.  For whence can their be so much virtue in water as to touch the body and cleanse the heart, unless by the agency of the Word …”

I think it’s safe to say here that what Augustine had in mind when he spoke of the “Word” being added to the elements was the Word of God, which would surely include both a gospel presentation as well as the words of institution.

Faith Applied

We have clear statements in Scripture regarding what faith is (“… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Heb. 11:1) and its purpose as it relates to God (“Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.” Heb. 11:6).  But how does our faith then apply to the Sacraments?

Again, John Calvin says of this,

It is certain, therefore, that the Lord offers us his mercy, and a pledge of his grace, both in his sacred word and in the sacraments; but it is not apprehended save by those who receive the word and sacraments with firm faith” [emphasis mine].  He justifies this fact by reminding us that, “in like manner as Christ, though offered and held forth for salvation to all, is not, however, acknowledged and received by all.”  For those who hold to a real, spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Westminster Confession states that Christ is only, “present to the faith of believers in that ordinance.” [emphasis mine]

It is essential to add here that all of these factors combined find their power and efficacy in the Holy Spirit, both in the understanding of the Word of God (1 Cor. 2:10-14) and in having faith to believe in God in the first place (Eph.2:8).

When i try to place all these things considered together, then, even a common sense understanding begins to emerge.  If i’m in a church and, by some accident or purpose, fall into the baptismal tank, neither i, nor anyone else, is going to think that i am somehow now baptized.  No (as we’ve said), the words of institution as well as the intention of my heart and application of faith are necessary for this to be said.  In the same way, if i break apart a loaf of bread and pour myself a glass of Merlot while sitting in the pew at church, i am not suddenly taking the Lord’s Supper.  Again, the elements of the Word and faith and the power of the Spirit are needed to make this so.

What i take this all to mean is that the Word of God spoken/or the words of institution is about the right application of the Sacraments, and our faith is about the right apprehension of them (again, all brought together and empowered by the Holy Spirit).

But at the end of the day, here is the question i’m left with: what if one of these things is not present? (okay, the Holy Spirit part is obvious, but the other two then!)

If my buddy dunks me under the water at a swimming pool without a single word, but i believe in my heart that i am identifying myself with the death and resurrection of Christ, am i then baptized?  How about in a church by a minster (again, with no words spoken)?  Conversely, what if a minister in the church administers my baptism faithfully but i don’t truly have faith in God’s saving work in my life: am i still baptized then?  Further still, if i take the Lord’s Supper, trusting is Christ’s finished work for me on the cross, but the pastor speaks no words, do i still really take it? Or if the minister faithfully presents the elements, but i eat without faith; what then?

If we believe, as we said at the beginning, that the elements themselves are not ex opere operato viz. that they have no efficacy in and of themselves, then the answer to all these questions above is probably, ‘No.’  Or, ‘maybe no’? ‘Maybe yes’?  I don’t know!

One last thing to consider: particularly with regard to the faith of the person in taking the Sacraments, i believe it was Calvin who once painted a picture of wine being poured over a jar with its lid sealed.  Without opening the lid, the jar receives nothing (except getting wet).  To put it another way, imagine bringing a glass of wine to your lips and tipping it up without opening your mouth.  In both these cases, it is the opening of the vessel to receive the wine that brings the benefit (however correctly it may be poured) and Calvin argues that this “opening to receive” is the faith by which we truly partake of the Sacraments.

It’s a question worth pondering anyways whether you are a minster or a congregant.  What is our role in the application and apprehension of these means of grace given to us?

Selah.

on union with Christ

If you’ve never toured a vineyard it’s certainly one of those experiences worth having, even if you don’t enjoy wine. The sights and smells are rich, and full of an earthy-beauty (plus for people like me, it’s a chance to pretend for a moment like you’re traveling in Tuscany and not southern British Columbia!)

As you wander through the long lanes, with branches straining under the load of luscious grapes, even a casual observer can see that there is an interconnectedness about what you’re looking at; a syllogistic pattern of vines planted in the earth, branches attached to the vines, and grapes exploding in slow motion out of the vines.  Remove the vine and you have no branches or fruit. Remove the branches and you have no fruit. Remove the fruit and … well, you make some wine!

Something that you’ll miss however by a single visit is the seasonal changes a vine goes through.  Come in late Fall and you’ll see rows and rows of fruit ready for harvest.  But come in winter and you’ll see the vines trimmed down to almost nothing. Or come in spring and you’ll see the slow climb up the trellis as the branches spring from the vine and reach for the sky above and it’s nourishing light.  The thing to take away here is that even healthy, fruit-bearing branches have seasons where you see no fruit on them at all!

The last thing to notice is the pile of branches that have been pruned.  It takes a trained eye to see it, but even a seemingly healthy branch that bears no fruit needs to be cut away so that the healthy branches can have room to grow unhindered and produce more fruit.  It seems cruel perhaps but the vinedresser knows what is needed to produce the best crop.  These branches that are cut away are then simply piled up and burned.

In John 15, Jesus draws from these same observations we’ve just made and makes the following connections to Himself, the Father, and to us: He says, “I am the True Vine and my Father is the Vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

A verse later He says, “Abide in Me and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

Finally, He says, “I am the Vine, you are the branches (avoid the temptation to hear cheesy 80’s worship chorus here). Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” He then goes on in sobering terms to describe the branches that do not abide which are cut away, wither, and are gathered and burned.

And as we consider what it means to have union with Christ and, ultimately, to abide in Him, the analogy of the vineyard has striking revelations for us:

*note – i do realize that, technically speaking, “abiding” in Christ and “union” with Christ are separate things to be sure. I am merely moving past the obvious connection that if one is not first united with Christ, they cannot abide in Him.

The first, and most obvious, revelation seen here is that bearing fruit requires being connected to Jesus. The analogies are many and sundry. A fish can’t live out of water. We can’t live under water. And fruit doesn’t grow in the air. It needs to be attached to something to grow at all.  And bearing fruit is always connected in Scripture with life in Christ.  The one who bears no fruit at all (and i want to stress that point at all, for – as we saw above – fruit growth has it’s seasons) is not united to Christ, no matter how many WWJD bracelets, bible memory verses, or church attendance pins they may have.  A story i never used to get, but that illustrates this point strikingly, is found in Matt. 21:18,19 where Jesus curses the fig tree and it withers.  The key to understanding it is in seeing that the tree Jesus comes up to “looks” healthy (leaves growing and, i assume, figs are supposed to be in season).  But when Jesus sees that there is no fruit, he curses it and it withers (sound like anything we just read in John 15 about branches w/o fruit being cut off and withering?) So with us: no matter how healthy and spiritual we may appear to the world around us, God is not fooled, and our complete lack of fruit shows the true health and life of our soul (or rather the lack of it).

The second, and perhaps not as obvious, revelation is that – as the branch itself that is separated from the vine could not bear fruit and withers – so a man or woman separate from Christ – the true Vine – can not only not bear fruit, but has no life in them.  Earlier in John 6, Jesus used striking words to make this same point when He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  In Colossians 3:4, Paul says of Christ that He “is your life“, and that when He appears, we will also appear with Him in glory.  As those united to Christ by faith and seeking to abide in Him always, we are meant to be nourished by the true Vine; to feed on Him by faith through the Word and the sacraments, in order to have His life in us.  So that we finally begin to see and understand, as He says, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” Here Jesus goes beyond the fruit part even; He says in effect, ‘forget the fruit bro – you can’t do anything apart from Me!’

So critical is this union with Christ to our eternal life and salvation that John Calvin began book three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion – Calvin’s main section relating to the application of redemption – with this statement, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from Him, all that He has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”

May it be said of all of us who profess Christ, that we did not only wear the ‘clothing of the branches’, but that we – truly united to and abiding in Christ – bore ‘fruit in keeping with repentance’, and produced a bountiful harvest to the glory of God.

amen.

Unless you go with me …

I remember not so long ago being at Disneyland with my family.  We headed over to ‘Toon Town’, and when my girls saw the Goofy Gadget roller coaster, they both got really excited [another level higher than the excitement they already had just being at Disneyland for the first time] and wanted desperately to go on it.  We got into the line, but i noticed that as we got closer to going on the actual ride, my youngest daughter began to become increasingly fearful and gripped my hand more firmly. ‘Daddy, i don’t want to go anymore!’, was her plea as we were just a few people away from getting on.  I told her that b/c we were so close and had waited all this time, that she should at least give it a try, to which she said, ‘Daddy, will you please go with me?  I don’t wanna go unless you come with me!’

In Exodus 33, God gives the command to Moses for he and the people to leave Sinai and begin travelling towards the promised land, but – b/c of their covenant-breaking idolatry with the golden calf – God states, “but I will not go up among you, lest I  consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Ex. 33:3  All the people, including Moses, get all freaked out and sad at this word from God, but God is like, “No way!  If I spend another minute with you fools I’m gonna take you all out!” [my paraphrase]  But what stands out most to me – among other things – here is Moses’ response to God as he pleads for Israel in the tent of meeting.

Here he has God’s promised land of ‘milk and honey’ before him, and God is promising to even send an angel ahead of them to drive out the other nations, so they will surely inherit the land.  But Moses – having learned a few things thus far on the trip – sees the great problem with what God is saying through Him and he responds by saying these words,

“If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.  For how shall it be known that i have found favour in Your sight, I and Your people?  Is it not in Your going with us, so that we are distinct … from every other people on the face of the earth?”

Moses understands that even the possession of this amazing promised land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is not worth going into if God will not go with them.  He understands that the Presence of God amoung them is infinitely more important than the simple possession of the land, to the point where he even refuses to go into it without the Presence of God going with them!

And in considering this text, it made me wonder if we couldn’t become so focused on projects and ideas and ministries in service of God, that we don’t share the understanding that Moses had in first seeking God’s presence amoung them?  How many of us would be willing to sacrifice a new ministry we’ve just begun, or a job we’ve finally received, or a fiance we long to marry if – in assessing it –  we saw that God was not present in it?  How many of us truly begin any such endeavours with the heart of Moses here: that we will not even begin to proceed if God will not go with us?  For, in many respects, the presence of God assumes both the blessing and protection of God.  One example of this is seen in 1 Sam. 18:12 where the presence of God departs from Saul and rests on David; Saul realizes this and is rightly afraid, for the blessing and protection of God now clearly rests on David.

So, in Ex.33 God was saying to Moses and Israel [as well as to all of us today] – in effect – ‘Do you seek Me or My blessings?  Will you refuse My blessings even if you can’t also have me, or are you ‘cool’ to just have My stuff with or without Me?’

Spurgeon speaks to this same idea in his sermon on Rev.14.  Quoting Samuel Rutherford he says, “‘Heaven and Christ are the same thing“‘, and, ‘O my Lord Jesus Christ, if I could be in heaven without thee, it would be a hell; and if I could be in hell, and have thee still, it would be a heaven to me, for thou art all the heaven I want.‘”  Even our own”promised land” in the life to come – let alone the blessings we pursue in this one – should not be worth having if Christ be not present there!  May then this prayer of Moses be on all our lips in whatever endeavours we set out on; that we may always seek the Giver firstly and not the gift alone.

Amen.

A cautious victory

I was awaiting the decision today – like many – from the BC courts on whether the polygamy laws in Canada would be upheld.  This case had/has wide sweeping implications and deals with many more subjects than just polygamy itself, including (but not limited to) pedophilia, child-traficking, and religious freedoms in general and particular to the FLDS.  And I have to say, i really rejoiced and thanked God when i saw that the laws had been upheld and this deplorable practice would not become legal in Canada.  But even before the ruling came in, i had this nagging feeling that has not yet left me.  And it is simply this: we must be careful as evangelical Christians how much we champion and rejoice this legal and moral victory, for in the very same year, doctrines and practices we hold dear could be “on the block”.

I want to be clear in my words here: i am in no way saying polygamy is right or good, nor am i saying that the law was not right to prosecute and deny this practice.  I also believe that, while Scripture does not explicitly say “polygamy is a sin” the pages of the Bible are filled with example after example of the destruction and absence of blessing that comes from taking more than one wife; i trust that is not a point anyone in my circles is disputing.

What i am saying though is that we are already seeing affronts on the church of Christ in our day; from seeking to declare the Bible as “hate speech” to the more subtle insidiousness of pluralism and tolerance, which relegate the truths of God to ‘one choice amoung many’ and ‘acceptable as long as it stays within the confines of the church walls‘.  And with that, i would say there is a growing ‘for now!’ attached to that acceptance of the belief and practice of evangelical Christianity.  For one example, listen to the words of the judge (George Macintosh) who handed down this verdict today in BC, as presented in the Vancouver Sun article,

“In a 335-page ruling, the judge said that while the law “minimally impairs” the constitutional right of religious freedom, it is justified by the harms polygamy causes to women, children and society.” http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Judge+finds+polygamy+constitutional+used+prosecute+children/5755741/story.html

… did you catch that?  It is acceptable to impair (‘minimally’ in this case) religious freedom in Canada when the court views that the harms caused by such a religious practice (and that is what the Bountiful guys were claiming protection under) warrant it.  Now here a thoughtful person should take pause i feel.   To both say ‘yes and amen – of course!’, but also to consider that what we endorse and champion here as justice, could all to easily turn against our own cherished belief and practice someday.  For, who decides in the end what is “minimally impairing” to religious freedom, and who decides what particular “harms” warrant greater restriction of those same freedoms?  Again, understand me that i believe this judgement to be right and good and in accordance with God’s law.  But whenever a human court wins any victory over religious freedoms in Canada, it should be celebrated with caution.  Thankful to God for the good, and humble at His grace which at the same time shields His truth in a culture that places us all (Christian, Mormon, JW, Muslim) under that category “RELIGIOUS”.

The why of me – Part II

In his book “Finally Alive” John Piper writes these sobering words, “Instead of moving from a profession of faith, to the label born again, to the worldliness of so-called born again people, to the conclusion that the new birth does not radically change people, the New Testament moves in the other direction.  It moves from the absolute certainty  that the new birth radically changes people, to the observation that many profession Christians are indeed not radically changed, to the conclusion that they are not born again.” (‘Finally Alive’, Piper, John pg. 14,15)

The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 6:6, “We know that our old man [self] was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”  It is now a terrifying thought to look back at the assurance in which i operated; certain of my right standing with God and daily becoming effortlessly better at looking the part when i needed to.  After i graduated from high school, i did a year of university and then followed the family tradition of a Bible school education which (i see now) only made things worse for me.  Now i had a theological education to “back up” my unfounded certainty of my salvation, which also allowed me to be much more adept at navigating the Scriptures to justify whatever sinful behaviour other might see.  I could enter in to theological discussions and even point out the sinful behaviour of others (all the while ignoring the spiritual deadness in my own soul.) The ‘old man’ was still very much alive in me.

In his own testimony, the great preacher Charles H Spurgeon wrote, “Long before i began with Christ, He began with me.”  This echos much of what i see in my own life looking back: the obvious hand of God leading me, working in me, preparing me for the day when He would reveal Himself to me and utterly blow up the paper walls hiding the true nature of my heart. This came through much pain and struggle (that ‘old man’ can still put up quite a fight) – Paul wasn’t kidding when he wrote, “through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) – and, also, the ‘machines’ do not go quietly into the night when one is woken up from the Matrix.

My testimony today is one where i know i have now been transformed only by looking back at my life and comparing it to my life now – i don’t have a ‘spiritual birthday’ that i know of.  The transformation that Christ makes is total and complete, not a moral conformity or a religious exercise to perfect.  In Ezekiel 36, we see that what God has in mind is a complete heart transplant, not a makeover.  Along with that, His desire is that His very Spirit would dwell within us “causing us to walk in His statutes and obey all his commands.”  All that time before, i had been content to make God a ‘part of my life’, never realizing that He wanted to be my life.  My very desires are changed now so that i no longer serve myself but i desire to serve God in all things; He has become my treasure where i once treasured only myself; and i now make war with my sin where i once tolerated it (even loved it).  As II Cor. 5:17 says, i know i have now become a new creation; that the old [man] has gone and the new has come.  As Paul also says in Philippians 3, i know i have not attained to perfection: either in being free from sin or the knowledge of Christ, but “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.” (Phil. 3:12)

Thanks be to God for this inexpressible gift! (II Cor. 9:15)

Satan – a dog on a leash

How are we to look at the workings of Satan, the Devil, our great enemy, Lucifer – that most beautiful of angels swelled by pride and cast out of heaven, in the life of the believer?  And, how are we to understand it correctly without the pendulum of our thoughts swinging into either the error of thinking too highly of him on the one side, or not even considering him at all on the other?  The Apostle Paul seems to suggest (at least) in 2 Cor. 2:11 that we are not to be ignorant of Satan’s devices and, so, be outwitted by him, so we should at least consider the matter at some level.  I’ll offer a few thoughts on both the negative and positive side of the issue  – not as an exhaustive treatment of the doctrine of Satan by any means, but more as a cursory drive-by – and then see where we land.

On the negative side

The great Reformer Martin Luther wrote in one of his more well known hymns, “For still our ancient foe, doth seek to work us woe – his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”  Luther’s own battles with this ‘ancient foe’ are well documented and are not surprising considering the ‘gate’ at which he stood; ready to swing open the dungeon and allow the light of Scripture to flood in.  In fact, had he not been more opposed by the corrupt church at the time and Satan himself, one might have even rightly wondered if he was in the right theologically (or mentally).

Countless Scriptures flesh out our understanding of Satan as well.  To name but a few, Peter tells us to be “sober minded” and “watchful” for “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8), Jesus speaks of him in John’s gospel saying, “He [the devil] was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44), and we see him in Genesis 3 coming in the form of a serpent to the garden and deceiving the first people, ushering sin and death into God’s good and perfect creation (Gen. 3:1-7).  Paul later calls Satan the “prince of the power of the air” and the one who is “at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2), and Jesus is tempted for 40 days by Satan after the inauguration of His ministry; he even claims to have authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:1-13).   So we have this powerful, fallen angel (Luke 10:18) and ‘grandmaster’ of evil and father of lies who is, from the beginning, against God and works against His good purposes. Along with this, he is – as Luther rightly penned –  a foe no mere mortal can withstand and has no equal on earth.

*We will, for the present discussion, leave out Hollywood-ish or cartoonish ideas about Satan, for neither – it seems – treat him as a real being beyond a character in story, or mythology, or a gag of some kind, and are thus irrelevant to this discussion.

On the positive side

This is where i’d like to spend the bulk of what space is left – for i feel this is where the real hope and freedom the gospel offers on the subject can be found.  And, saying that, it seems to me that no hopeful discussion of evil or it’s father – for the believer in Christ – should begin anywhere but with God’s sovereign control over all things, as Ephesians 1:11 so gloriously states, “… Him [God] who works all things according to the counsel of His will.”  Now, it is not my intention to ‘rabbit’ off into a discussion on the subject of sovereignty at this point – i will, for the purposes of this post, assume the sovereign control of God over all things as both understood and agreed upon.  But it serves us well in this, and many other subjects, to begin with the reminder that God is on His throne (Rev. 4:2) and there is nothing that happens that is outside of His knowledge and/or will; Scripture tells us that even a sparrow does not fall without His knowledge (Matt. 10:29) nor does the roll of dice end up in the hands of chance (Prov. 16:33).  This is itself would be more than sufficient knowledge to silence any fears over the work of Satan, along with the fact that god has given us everything we need to battle the enemy, not in our own strength and by our own devices, but by His (Eph. 6:10-19, 2Pet. 1:3,4).  More than this, Scripture tells us that Satan is a defeated foe; defeated even from the moment he thought he’d won (Gen. 3:14,15).  Beyond this, we have the ‘end of the story’ as it were in Revelation, which describes the fulfillment of Satan’s destruction (Rev.12:9, 20:10).

But – returning to the first point of God’s ultimate rule over all things – something that has always driven home the point, and illustrates this ‘dog on a leash’ picture so well, is the testimony of Scripture that Satan does nothing without the permission of God.  Two passages that demonstrate this clearly are Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6  where Satan is “allowed” to afflict Job, and Luke 22:31 where Jesus tells Peter that Satan had “demanded to have you” or, as it is rendered in some translations, “Satan has asked to have you that he might sift you like wheat,”.  In both cases, though both men ARE afflicted/sifted/etc by Satan, it is done so only by the express permission of God and only so far as it works toward His own purposes.  *as a side thought, it’s a wonder Satan doesn’t just sit and wait for his ultimate destruction, for you’d think by this time, he’d see that every victory he thinks he’s winning is used to achieve God’s glory and the increase of his kingdom in the end!

With all this in view, it is no wonder then – after admitting the fearsome and formidable power of Satan in this world, Luther then responds with this reply:

And tho this world, with devils filled Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us,

The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him,

His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.