Friday, December 30, 2016

Jonah and the Sovereignty of God

Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” --G. Campbell Morgan.

People always want to know who's really in charge. When people are at a restaurant or a hotel and have a problem, they ask to see the manager. Often times when involved in some social project, you just have to stop and ask: “So just who is running this show, anyway?” Even when aliens invade us, the first thing they always demand is: “Take us to your leader.” It's only natural. The only way to get anything done is to start with the proper authority; to find the person whose in charge. And there are many people who are in charge of various things in life--CEOs over businesses, parents over households, politicians over nations. But the Bible teaches us that there is one--and only one--who is ultimately in control charge over everything. And though this it might not be the first place you would look for such a lesson, you can find this very well taught in the story of Jonah, a story which clearly shows us the sovereignty of God.

The word 'sovereignty' means having complete and absolute control or authority; not being under the authority of anyone else. So, for instance, a nation is said to be a sovereign power if it is not under the control of some other country, if it has full power to direct and govern itself. A sovereign is someone who rules over a country, someone who has the final and absolute authority of his people. Sovereignty means being in charge. And though many rulers and authority figures can legitimately claim sovereignty in some degree or measure, ultimately there is one who is Sovereign over them all. All people, no matter how great, no matter how much authority they possess, no matter how many people they can control, no matter how many resources they control--all of them must bow before the sovereignty of God. We see several aspects of God's sovereignty revealed in the story of Jonah.

First, we see that God is sovereign over His own people--for Jonah was one of God's people. He was a Jew, one of the chosen people of God. Beyond this, he was a prophet, someone whose sole function and purpose in life was to serve God. Even while running away from God and from his duty to God, he told the sailors: “I am an Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven.” And here is the interesting thing about the story of Jonah. God came to Jonah with a mission that Jonah didn't want to fulfill, and so he ran away. But we do not read anywhere that Jonah tried to question God's command or counteract it. And while it's possible that the Bible simply didn't record this, it seems as if Jonah took God's word as final. He was foolish enough to think he could run from God, but not quite foolish enough to think he could argue with God. He seems to have accepted without question the fact that God had every right to send him to Nineveh, even though he didn't want to go. And that is because God is sovereign over His people.

God is sovereign over His people because, well, they are His people.  If we belong to God that fact necessarily entails the truth that He is sovereign over us. The Jews were the special, chosen people of God; God described Himself as their father and their king. He gave them special protection so that they could serve as the means through which His plan would be fulfilled. But all of this implied that God was sovereign over them--as a shepherd has control of His sheep or as a farmer has control of his fields, God was sovereign over His people. Psalm 95 gives injunctions both to worship God and to obey Him. The reason for this is: “For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Psalm 95:7) Throughout the Old Testament, we find similar language. God demanded the obedience of His people because, in some sense, they belonged to Him.

And if this were true for the Jews in the Old Testament, it is even more true for us as Christians. For a Jew had no choice about being born a Jew, but we have a choice about being born again as one of God's people. And if we have chosen to belong to God, that means that we admit that He is sovereign over us and must fulfill His plans for us. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.” (Ephesians 2:10)

If we are God's people, then God is sovereign over us, as He was over Jonah; He has the authority to tell us where to go and what to do and we must either submit or run away, as Jonah did. But this is only one part of the sovereignty of God. The most memorable part of the book of Jonah isn't so much Jonah himself as the things that happened to him--and these too show us the sovereignty of God.

Throughout the book of Jonah, we see God orchestrating events; we see Him pulling the strings of nature to bring about certain effects--because God is sovereign over nature and natural events.

First, while Jonah was running away from God, a large storm rose at sea. There is nothing unusual about that. We know the causes of storms and they are a natural part of life. But God arranged things so that this particular storm would arise at this particular time. “But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” (Jonah 1:4) God in His sovereignty deliberately arranged for this storm. As you may remember, the storm had the affect of bringing Jonah face-to-face with his sins and, ultimately, led to his being thrown off the ship.

But that was not the end of God's working in the life of Jonah: Jonah 1:17 says, “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”  We don't know for sure if the fish or whale which swallowed Jonah was a natural creature or one God specially created for this purpose, but we do know that it was no accident that it happened to be right there and happened to have the munchies for prophets. God, as the sovereign ruler of nature, arranged events so that Jonah was swallowed alive and preserved.

In the final chapter of Jonah, we see another example of God using natural creatures--this time a gourd and a worm, which God used in order to teach the prophet an object lesson about mercy. But again, we notice that  God “prepared” these things (Jonah 4:6-7); in other words, God was working, even in seemingly ordinary and natural things. Just as a master tactician arranges for his armies to be at just the right spot at the right time so they can strike the finishing blow, so God arranged trivial and mundane events to work out His will.

And that is why we have no reason to doubt that God can sovereignly arrange whatever He intends. For instance, Jonah prophesied the destruction of Ninevah--which never happened because the people of Ninevah  repented. But what we do know is that God would have had no trouble in bringing about if necessary. Whether it would have been some miraculous like fire falling from Heaven (such as happened to Sodom and Gomorrah) or something more prosaic like an invading army (which God used to punish Israel and Judah), we know that God in His sovereignty, could have brought it about without the slightest problem.

What, then, is God's sovereignty over nature? It is simply this: God is able to act in and through the natural events of this world (or set them aside entirely and work directly) in order to affect His will. God never looks at some event or force in the world and says, “Oh dear, now what are we going to do about that?” He is the irresistible force before which, in the natural world, there are no immovable objects.

Why is God sovereign over nature? There are many reasons for this, but we can briefly give two. God is sovereign over nature, first of all, because of Creation. Just as God is sovereign over His people because they are HIS people, so God is sovereign over the world because it is, well, HIS world. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Revelation 4:11) God has control over this world because He created it. As an artist has full control over his picture or as a novelist has full control over his story, so God has full control over this world. But not only did God create the world, but he continues to uphold it by his providence. Colossians 1:17 says that “by him all things consist” or hold together. God did not create the world and then leave it to its own devices like a man winding a clock and leaving it to tick alone on a shelf. God continually and every moment exercises His providential care over the world and without this (so it seems) the world would instantly collapse. God both originally made and continually upholds this world and it is for this reason that He is sovereign over it.

It is an amazing truth to realize that God is sovereign over His people and His world--but what of those who are not His people, who are not (willingly) part of His world? Well, the story of Jonah also tells us about that--it also shows that God is sovereign over all nations.

Here we need to make a clarification. We can use the word 'power' in two different senses.  On one hand, we have the idea of strength or ability, the ability to accomplish something, to do something, to exert some kind of influence. When we use power in this sense, we think of strong men like athletes and body builders or of strong machines capable of moving mountains or of the strong winds and tempests of nature. On the hand, power can have the idea of authority or right. When we use power in this sense, we think of important men like politicians and executives or of the inflexible laws of logic and morality which have the authority and right to direct our lives. And when we speak of the sovereignty of God or the power of God, we include both these ideas. God has both the might and the right. We see this as we move from God's sovereignty over the natural events of the book of Jonah to His specific dealings with Ninevah. The people of Ninevah were not the people of God. The very likely didn't even know who God was; the name of the Lord Jehovah was probably a strange one to them. But that did not change the fact that God was sovereign over them.

God had the right to bring judgment. This was Jonah's message: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) Though this does not actually happen, we can be quite sure it would have--as, in fact, judgment did eventually come to Ninevah many years later. We do see many other examples in the Bible of God bringing judgment, all culminating in the great and terrible day of the Lord when He shall bring all works into judgment.

And there is one thing that is certain--Ninevah deserved this judgment. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria is noted in history for its extreme cruelty, even in a time period when cruelty was essentially the norm. What Ninevah was and what it represented was an ideal of oppression and cruelty, of moral hunger and greed.

But the essential point is that it was God who was bringing judgment. We are often reminded (and not without reason) that we have no business trying to bring about judgment on wickedness. God has specifically told us not judge others--we are not judges; much less are we executioners.“Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” (Romans 12:19) But while this forbids vengeance to us, in the same breath it gives it to God. We are not to bring judgment because that is the province of God alone. The windows of God's house are composed of His unbreakable holiness and therefore He alone can cast stones. Just as ordinary citizens are not to go around locking robbers in their basement because imprisoning criminals is the province of the government, so we are not to judge people for their sins, because only God can do that.

God has right to bring judgment because of the nature of His own deity. God is, by definition, the standard or rule by which all created things are judged. Because God is, in principle, perfect, He alone can judge all imperfections. And because He is the creator, He has the right to judge and punish all created things. Just as a parent has the responsibility to keep his house in order; just as a driver has the responsibility to keep his car on the road; just as a government has the responsibility to protect its citizens--so God, as the sovereign of the universe, has not only the right but the responsibility to bring about judgment on man for their sins.

But if this were the end of the matter, it would be a terrible truth; for, before the face of God, we all deserve judgment. But that is not the only truth Jonah teaches us. Not only is God sovereign over the nations in the sense of being able to bring judgment, but also--God has the right to forgive.

The only person who has a right to forgive a wrong is the person who is wronged. If I punch my brother in the face, none of you can say, “Well, I forgive you for that.” The only person who can forgive me is my brother. But the person who is wronged always has that right of forgiveness. And God is the one who is wronged in every sin. Because God is the ultimate law which defines right and wrong, every crime is a crime against God. In every wrong act we do to our neighbor or to ourselves, we are blaspheming the nature of God; we are denying in practice the very fabric of the Cosmos.  And for that reason, God does have the right to bring judgment--and, also, the right to forgive.

God is a God of justice and because He is, He also may be a God of mercy. If I have money--if it is mine free and clear--then I have the right to save it, to spend it, or to give it away. That is what it means for it to belong to me. And because the right of judgment belongs to God, He also has the right to forgive. Jesus told the parable of some workers who complained because other workers were paid (comparatively) more than they were for the same amount of work. Though they received just wages, it seemed unfair that others should receive more. To this, their employer replied: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:15) And just as a man has the right do as he will with his own money, so God has the right to forgive people and delay judgment.

Many people believe this is why Jonah was so hesitant to go to Ninevah. “I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.” (Jonah 4:2) He was afraid that if he preached to Ninevah, they would repent and God would forgive them. And he didn't want them to be forgiven, because the people of Ninevah were terrible people; they deserved judgment for the things they had done. The people of Ninevah had done terrible things to Israel; it is not surprising that Jonah would have a desire for their judgment. Often times, when we see some terrible act of violence or cruelty, our first response (and not without reason) is a desire for justice. And God can--and will--bring justice. But God also has the right to forgive. He had the right to forgive the people of Ninevah just as He forgave Jonah. And so Jonah had no right to feel bitter (as he did feel) because God forgave Ninevah--since God is sovereign and He has the right both to judge... and to forgive.

There is an important final note to this matter of God's sovereignty. The word sovereignty implies the rule of a king or sovereign. Many people picture God's control over the world like that of a man over a machine or a scientist over an experiment; a detached, impersonal control for an abstract purpose or for no purpose at all. But God's control is that of a king. Just as a king--a good king--acts in order to bring about certain things, so God always works for a purpose. God is not like a child playing with blocks who arbitrarily sets up one pile and knocks down another. Though God's authority is absolute, He always exercises it for a purpose. God is a king and He always works for the sake of His kingdom. We see this in the story of Jonah.

God didn't just look down at Jonah and think, “You know, we haven't had any stories about fish in the Bible yet. Let's stick in a giant fish here and have it swallow a prophet.” God had a purpose for why He did what He did. In every step of His interactions with Jonah, there was a purpose. By having the storm come up, having the whale swallow him, raising and destroying the gourd in chapter four--and even by calling Jonah in the first place (even though God knew how Jonah would react)--in all these things, God was working out his purpose. And that purpose was Jonah's salvation. God could have sent His warning to Ninevah through some other channel. But if He had, Jonah would never have learned that “Salvation is of the LORD.” (Jonah 2:9) And though we don't know the end of the story of Jonah--we don't know if Jonah finally recognized God's working or rejected it--we do know that God worked in His life to bring Him to that point of decision.

The same can be said for God's working with Ninevah. Obviously, if God had only wanted to bring judgment on Ninevah, He could have done it without dragging in Jonah at all. He could have just done it. Only a single word and judgment would have come. But God's sovereignty is not limited to bringing judgment; God is also sovereign in order to bring about mercy.

And all of this only points forward to God's working for our salvation. Just as throughout the story of Jonah, we see God working, acting sovereignly, in order to bring the possibility of repentance and forgiveness both to Jonah and to to the people of Ninevah, so God worked, sovereignly, to provide us with a plan of salvation, so that we might have the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

Many people in this world desire to be in charge. Many say, “If I were in charge, things would be different.” But let us never forget who is really in charge of this world. God is sovereign over all things--without rival and without limitation. He is sovereign over His people, with the authority to direct and command them. He is sovereign over the natural world, with the power to arrange circumstances to forward His plan. He is sovereign over all people, with the authority to bring justice--and mercy. And in all this, He is sovereignly working out His master plan for the world. Just as a king works to forward his Kingdom, so God is always working to advance His Kingdom, a Kingdom of mercy and grace, so that all men can see that: “Salvation is of the LORD.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

And a Black Dog is Baying for the Dead

Violets are blue; tulips are gold;
The blood of a man is hot and red;
The ice hangs white and cruel and cold;
And a black dog is baying for the dead.

The snow is kindled by the day,
A glistening, frozen wonderland
Where children burrow, laugh at play.
They're dropping bombs on Pakistan
Which fill the desert with the scream
Of burning metal, burning lives
While fans are rooting for their team
As for the Super Bowl it strives.
A mother is high on meth again,
Her child shivering in the cold
And “Christ was born in Bethlehem”
Sing choirs in cathedrals old.
As outside thugs and soldiers fight,
Inside the poor with soup are fed;
Your Gible evolved into Gabite;
And a black dog is baying for the dead.

The rotting corpse of Autumn leaves
Floats on the stream through forests fair;
A child in his high chair grieves
For his fallen Teddy bear;
The stars are glistening in the skies
As clear and cold as at man's first sight;
A church has split over wearing ties;
And a man was shot through the heart last night
In a ghetto alleyway close and dark
For being black or being white;
And on green lawns of a peaceful park
The children play; and children fight;
In the turning gyre of the pheasant, it
Has heard the hunter's gun and fled.
Trump is running for president.
And a black doing is baying for the dead.

A baby is born in his mother's blood,
An old man breathes out his life's last thought,
In lowlands men fight with the flood
As in stores cheap goods are sold and bought.
On a smooth lawn of brown and green
Men hit a ball into a tiny hole,
And children (callous more than mean)
Have tortured a boy with a broken soul
Till down in the cafeteria
He's taken his life with a length of rope;
They've discovered a new bacteria
By peering through a microscope.
Sonic is getting old Eggman down,
Breaking robots with his head;
Graduates march in cap and gown;
And a black dog is baying for the dead.

From the cold streets of the city gray
To the silence of the forest dell,
From the joy that comes with dawn's first ray
To the darkness of a prison cell
The skein of life runs, day by day,
As rough and hard as turtle's shell,
As fierce as the snow's sublime display,
As cold as the icy breath of Hell,
As dark as a grave of stone and clay,
As strange as the shredding of a sacred veil,
As stark as a green hill, far away
Where they killed like a dog Emmanuel--
And the end returns to where it began
Where the word which killed the Word was said.
The tears of God join the tears of man
And a black dog is baying for the dead.

For we are the sons of the knowledge tree
Who are fed by the flesh of God,
Twisted around our destiny
Like the serpent 'round Moses' rod.
In shards of a sacred chalice,
In fractals of Heaven and Earth
We offer a toast without malice
To the darkness of death and birth
While the tune of life's grandest symphony
Is played on death's rattling bones;
Yea, our hope is that dark epiphany
When the homeless one leads us home.
For tulips are gold and violets are blue;
The blood of our God is hot and red;
He spilled it for us in a covenant new
And a black dog is baying for the dead.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us;
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's Strength and Consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art--
Dear Desire of ev'ry nation,
Joy of ev'ry longing heart!

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a Child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit,
Rule in all our hearts alone.
By Thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

This is one of Wesley's better known hymns. Whether or not he was specifically thinking of Christmas when he wrote it, it has become associated with Christmas and with good reason though--as with nearly all Christmas songs--it would be equally appropriate at any time of the year. As always with Wesley, it was the personal application of the doctrine that was most interesting. It is not enough that Jesus was born once as a Child--interesting as the story is, it has not real relevancy to our lives unless we add that He was also born a King "to reign" not just in the world but "in us forever."

This hymn is shorter than the average Wesley hymn but still contains a good deal that is interesting. The essence of Wesley's poetry is a power of compression which rather dazzles the modern reader. Wesley sometimes says more in a line than a modern poet would say in an entire poem. This is not meant either as praise or blame. The thing is merely a difference in style and both styles have their merits and their disadvantages. But unless we recognize this characteristic of Wesley's poetry, it will seem dull or pointless to us.

The first thing to notice about this hymn is the emphasis it gives to the person and work of Christ. He is the "long-expected" one, he "Israel's Strength and Consolation," but not of Israel only for He is the "hope of all the earth" and the "desire of ev'ry nation." And lest this talk of the earth and nations seem too impersonal, He is also the "joy of ev'ry longing heart." Notice the all-inclusiveness of this. Jesus is not merely one great man as other great men, for the greatest man could only have relevancy to a fraction of humanity. But Jesus is both a man and something more than a man and so is the central pivot and meaning of the universe, as Paul argues in Colossians 1 and elsewhere. Moreover, there is something else about Jesus to notice in the first stanza of this hymn. Jesus was a teacher, but there have been many other teachers. Jesus was both a saint and a sage, but there have been other saints and sages. If he were no more, His work might be somewhat better than others, but it would be no different in its essential character. But Jesus did not come merely to teach, or reform, or "tell everyone that it might be a good idea to be nice to each other."  Above all other things, He was a super-hero--that is, He came not to talk or suggest, but to act--He came to save the world. He was "born to set [His] people free." He was a liberator. What did he liberate people from? "From our fears and sins." Sin is what caused a breach between God and man in the first place; it is the sand which clogged and corroded the clockwork of man's moral nature; it is the cause of everything bad that has happened since. And once evil entered the world through sin, fear also appeared as a byproduct. There is a fear which is the natural byproduct of evil or danger and there is also the fear of God which comes from guilt (see Genesis 3) and it is hard to say which Wesley had in mind here--probably the latter. In any case, Jesus came to free humanity from that. But His work was more than merely negative, more than merely destroying some danger. He also made it possible for us to "find our rest in Thee." He not only frees man kind from death but gives a new life and meaning in Himself.

This positive side of Christ's work is taken up more in the second stanza. Jesus is more than a savior in the passive sense--He is a conqueror. He was "born a Child and yet a King." He did not come merely to slay the monster of sin and then return to Heaven and leave the world as it was. He was not merely born to end sin but he was "born to reign in us forever." What God's original plan for mankind was cannot now be known with certainty, but we do know that now, He has chosen to make Jesus Christ the pivotal point, final end, and essential meaning of all things. He has conquered the world and made it His own, so that He may His "gracious kingdom bring." This was the message of Jesus, that He was bringing a kingdom, that it was very nearly there in His lifetime if not already present (a, message by the way, that makes little sense if this "kingdom" would not appear for another two thousand or more years). Wesley's concept of the kingdom, at least as outlined in this hymn, has to do purely with Christ's reign within the hearts. It is "in all our hearts" that He shall rule alone or unrivaled. But how is this possible? How can Christ be literally present in the souls of all His followers? Through the medium of His "own eternal Spirit." (See Romans 8 and the Pascal Discourse.) It is the Breath of God which is always sent to bring the Word. It is the Spirit that makes the Son present in the soul.

Finally, Wesley makes the point that through Jesus exaltation is at least a possibility for man. He may "raise us to [His] glorious throne." Though the possibility may or may not be actualized in any individual life because of their own particular choice, the possibility is settled. As another Christmas song has it, "Man shall live forever more,/Because of Christmas day." But how is this possible? How could any one assure the possibility of such exaltation for any member of the human race? Only someone who had "all-sufficient merit." And it is for that reason, and that reason alone, that Jesus is the long-expected One who could deliver His people.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The First Gospel

In order to understand this world, you have to understand one fact--that this world is not what it was supposed to be. The world we live in is not merely a mixed bag, a place with good points and bad points. This world is a good thing that has been spoiled. The English dramtist W. S. Gilbert remarked in his old age something to the affect that “I am a ruin; a picturesque ruin, but still a ruin.” And that is the truth about the world; it is a glorious ruin, but it is still a ruin.

God created the world very good. We don't know all the details--or, really, hardly any of the details--of that original world, but we do know that it was very good and there was no death in it. No person or animal died in that world and, if God's plan had continued, would they ever have died. But man sinned and that changed everything.  It is for that reason that death entered the world.

The story of sin begins with a snake in the garden, a snake which enticed mankind to turn from God and commit the first sin. After that first sin, God came down and pronounced judgment against the snake, against woman, and against man. The judgment against the snake is found in Genesis 3:14-15. “And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

There are two parts to this judgment or curse. First there is the degradation of the serpent--that it would be cursed above all the cattle and that it would a low-down snake-in-the-grass, essentially. Second, there is an enmity between the snake and the woman and between her offspring and its.

But the progress is very interesting. First there is an enmity between the snake and the woman. Second, there is enmity between the snake's offspring and the woman's offspring. This seems logical enough. And certainly, the human race and the snake-kind cannot be said to be on amicable terms to this day. “Ancient Israelites, who often encountered snakes in their daily activities..., would find the statement quite meaningful as an explanation for the hostility between snakes and humans... This ongoing struggle, when interpreted in light of v. 15, is a tangible reminder of the conflict introduced into the world by the first humans’ rebellion against God.” (NET Bible)

But there is a third step to this progression or, if you will, a third part to this curse, and that's the interesting part. And that is the conflict between the woman's seed and the snake itself. (Expositor's Commentary) “It (the woman's offspring) shall bruise thy head (the snake's), and thou (the snake) shalt bruise his (the woman's offspring's) heel.” This word used for bruise here refers to repeated attacks, attacks over and over again. The Word Commentary translates this couplet: “He will batter your head/and you will batter his heal.” There is an ongoing conflict here; not a single, one-time event which is very strange if it is between this particular snake and the woman's offspring. You would expect this conflict to be between the snake's offspring and the woman's offspring--but it isn't. It is as if this particular snake were going to outlive the woman and be the principle actor in a conflict which would go on for ages. “This suggests that the author views the snake in terms that extend beyond this particular snake of the garden... Consequently more is at stake in this brief passage than the reader is at first aware of. A program is set forth. A plot is established...” (Expositor's)

But if there is to exist enmity between the snake and the woman's seed, it has to be something more than an ordinary snake. And since it could talk and engage in subtle discourse, this seems clear anyway. But in order to find out who the snake was, you have to go the opposite end of the Bible. “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” (Revelation 12:9) Why does John bother to call this being both a dragon and a serpent? It makes sense as dragons are usually portrayed as reptilian, but in that case why bother adding the term serpent? And why does he call him that old serpent or, as some translate it, that ancient serpent? Clearly this John's way of connecting Satan with the serpent that tempted Eve. Whether Satan took on a reptilian form or possessed a serpent or however the scheme was actually worked, it was Satan who was the active agent in leading mankind into sin. He told the first lie which is why Jesus said that he is the father of lies.

So there is enmity between Satan and the woman's seed. If we see this simply as referring to humanity (since all humans are the descendants of Eve) there is definitely a truth here. Satan has been at continual war with humanity since Eden. And though there are those who explicitly follow Satan, for the most part even sinners hate Satan even as they follow him. (Wesley) And whatever you understand by the offspring of Satan, the truth also holds, since all sinful things, all things which spring from the Devil and his actions, are at war with humanity. Ultimately, even, in every man's soul, the offspring of the devil and the offspring of the woman are at war.

But there is another way to look at this passage. The offspring of the woman is referred to as singular. This is common when dealing with a collective group of people--but it is also possible to interpret this as a single entity--in other words, that it is one particular person who is described as the seed of woman, not the entire human race. Moreover, many have pointed out that it is odd that the offspring is described as coming from the woman. Both Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent; they were, together, the parents of the human race and so the quarrel between them and the serpent (whether literal snakes or Satan) would be carried on by the seed of both. So why is it specifically the seed of woman? We may find the answer to that in Isaiah 7:14 “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

The idea of their being a Messianic prophecy in this verse goes back to BC Jewish writings (Word) and has been reiterated by Christian writers since Iraneaus. (NET Bible) For this reason, this passage is sometimes referred to as the Protoevangelium, or First Gospel, since it is here, at the very point of man's sin, that the first hint is given of the deliverance from sin.

All death came into the world because of sin. The world is the twisted mess that it is because of sin. That is why when God promised to send a Messiah it was specifically to deal with this primal problem of Sin and its primal author, Satan. If the Messiah had been what the Jews expected, simple a political champion who would overthrow the government of Rome, He would not have solved the real problem. Rome was a recent problem and one which, one way or another, would pass away eventually. To be a true savior of the World, the Messiah would have to go back to the beginning and destroy the evil of the world at the root. And so it is prophesied that he would batter the serpent's head and the serpent would batter his heel. Though continual and mutual warfare is pictured here, it portrays a bad outcome for the serpent. “[T]he serpent is in a tactically weaker situation, being able only to strike at man's heel, while man can crush its head.” (Word) In every step the Messiah took, he was crushing the serpent's head while Satan could only, in futile anger, strike at his heel. But there is even more. The NET Bible says that it is possible to interpret the ending phrases of v. 15 as synchronous, so that it could be translated: “he will crush your head as you attack his heel.” In this case, this seems very possible a reference to the death of Christ--in that moment, Satan struck at the Messiah, lodging all his poison in His heel, only to find that by that act, he had affected his own defeat, for in the Crucifixion the master and final stroke of Sin is absorbed and transformed into the master stroke of God.

Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 55
NET Bible, Genesis 3:15
John Wesley's Notes on the Old and New Testament, Genesis 3:15
Word Bible Commentary, Vol., 1, p. 80

Friday, December 9, 2016

"The Unaborted Socrates"

“What do you want?”

“Only some conversation.”

This is an apt way to begin a discussion of Peter Kreeft's book The Unaborted Socrates which is, ultimately, a conversation. The premise is simple enough, if a little unconventional--what would happen if the ancient Greek philosopher and paragon of rational dialog just happen to reappear in modern day Athens, in an abortion clinic, and become involved in the ethical debate surrounding abortion? The book is constructed in the form of a dialog--to be exact, in three dialogs which pit the eponymous Socrates in turn against a doctor, a philosopher, and a psychiatrist, in all of which Socrates uses a cold sense of reason and a dry sense of humor to investigate the question of abortion. Though occasionally the book strays into the technical language of philosophy or science, for the most part it is very conversational and easily accessible to anyone.

However, it is not my intention here to construct a formal book review. As I said, the book is built around three dialogs. The second two are substandard for Kreeft's works and seem almost pointless (especially the third). It is within the first dialog that the essential matter is discussed. The whole question of abortion comes down to this--is a fetus a human person with the rights of such or not? If it is, then abortion is wrong and all other conversation on the point is essentially irrelevant. If it is not, than abortion is clearly right and should be treated as an indifferent matter or a positive good. This question--what is the fetus--is topic of Socrates' first dialog, a conversation Dr. Rex Herrod, an abortion doctor. My intention in this article is to summarize the argument presented in this conversation.

The central question is this: is abortion murder? Kreeft defines murder as “killing an innocent human being.” (17) In abortion, the fetus is killed and it cannot (by any stretch of the imagination) be termed guilty of anything, and therefore “if the fetus is a human being, abortion will have to be called murder.” (19) And this question is not affected by our personal opinion or view since the nature of a thing is not determined by our ignorance or knowledge of its nature. “Even though some think a fetus human and some do not, yet if it is human, one who kills it is a murderer.” (26)

The argument then turns to the question of what it means to be a human being. The one thing that differentiates humans from all other creatures is the desire for wisdom and knowledge. “Man is a rational animal, one who wills to know.” (36) However, while this is an essential part of humanity, humanity cannot be entirely defined as such since infants and unconscious people are still human being even if there are not functioning in the distinctive role of a human. (37) Therefore the fact that a fetus does not function as a human being does not prevent it from being human. (And the same argument would apply to any other attempt to define a fetus as inhuman based on functionality.)

Since the question of what the fetus is cannot be answered based on functionality, the argument then turns to science. Socrates points out that each person has a unique genetic code present in every cell in their body, a genetic code which determines everything about a person (physically speaking.) This code is not fully present in the spermatozoa or the ovum, but from it is present from the moment of conception. In an adult human, we would say that the genetic code is the genetic code of a human being. But it is the same code in the adult that it was when they were a fetus. In one case, the code is that of a human being; then why is it not the same in the case of the fetus since the code itself does not change?

The question is never answered and instead the argument takes another turn, with the objection being raised that the fetus is simply part of the mother. (An objection, by-the-by, which seems answered in the fact that it has a separate and unique genetic code.) That brings up the subject of the Transitive Relation--“that if A is part of B and B part of C, then A must be part of C.” (46-47) A brick is part of a wall and a wall is part of a building and therefore a brick is part of the building. But by this logic, since a normally developed fetus has two feet, if it is part of its mother, then the mother must have four feet. The absurd conclusion forces us to reject the idea that the fetus is part of mother.

The argument then visits a few brief red herrings, such as the fact that we date our life from birth not from conception--which proves only how we date things not the reality of what things are.

The next argument revolves around qualitative and quantitative difference. The differences between an infant and adult can be roughly grouped into four categories (size, development, dependence, and mobility). However, none of these differences change the essential nature of a thing and therefore do not affect the morality of killing it. “Can we say that it is murder to kill a large person but not a small person? Or is it worse to kill a larger person?” (57) Obviously not. And these four categories are also the things that make the difference between a newly conceived zygote and a newly born infant. Therefore, they do not affect the question of whether killing it is or is not murder.

The argument then turns to the attempt to define a human being on the bases of viability. A young fetus cannot survive outside the womb and therefore it is not human. However, this leads to an absurd conclusion--who and what is a human being differs from place to place and from time to time. Some infants can survive outside the womb only because special scientific equipment which is not available at all times and places. (And, for that matter, some adults can only continue to live on the same principle.) If viability defines humanity, then it is a varying, inconsistent standard and someone who is a human person at one time and place wouldn't be at some other time and place.

The argument finally returns to the genetic question. At the point of conception, a new genetic code comes into existence which is not the code of the mother nor of the father. “Whose, then, if not the new individual of the species homo sapiens?” (66) Conception--the moment at which this new genetic code comes into existence--is “a radical break, a single moment of change at which we can reasonably draw a line and say something new has come into being.” (67)

The argument ends with one final objection. Since the question of whether a fetus is or is not human is a very controversial one, would it not be best to leave it unanswered, to leave it with an attitude of open-minded agnosticism? The problem with this objection is the act of abortion itself. Certainly, it is permissible to leave a philosophical question unanswered. But to continue killing something which may possibly be human without determining whether it is or is not is “the height of folly.” (72)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Escape from Evangelicalism (Part 1)

I will believe in the Redeemer when the Christian looks a little more redeemed.
--Friedrich Nietzsche--

It was high time to go...
--Lewis Carroll--

The events of this year have been largely tragic or comic (depending on how much one cares about the future of Western civilization), but they have been beneficial in one respect--they have alerted many of us to one staring and obvious truth. The truth we have been brought to face is that the S. S. Evangelical has sailed into very dangerous waters and its days are numbered. As its few stalwart survivors are invariably dashed upon the rocks of secularism or sucked into the whirling vortex of nihilism, it is advisable that those of us (especially from the Wesleyan tradition) who were already uncomfortable stowaways start thinking of leaving. It is permissible for the rats to leave the sinking ship, because they were never welcome passengers anyway.

But before we get too far involved, we'd better stop to clarify our terms. Evangelicalism can mean all sorts of different things to different people and at different times. In some other countries, for instance, evangelical simply means 'not-Catholic.' As such, it is not within the scope of this article. Traditionally (and still in some contexts), it could be defined as believing in the Witness of the Spirit. As such, Wesleyans are evangelicals and arguably bear the honor and the guilt of having created evangelicalism. But this is not the meaning assigned by most people now to the word. (And when was the last time you heard either a Wesleyan or an evangelical talk about the Witness of the Spirit, anyway?) As the word evangelical is used today, it does not refer to one specific idea, but rather for a general movement. This movement is held together by certain shared doctrines--the authority of Scripture as the source of absolute truth, the necessity of a “personal” relationship with Jesus Christ as the means of salvation, believer's baptism, Creationism of some form or another, and (especially) the necessity of social and political action being based on the truths of Scripture. However, these doctrines do not entirely define the movement and it is not these specifically which I am writing this article to attack. But any movement which grows out of specific doctrines will spread far beyond those doctrines, as a tree sends its branches far away from its base. And, judging by the fruit of this particular tree, somewhere there is a corruption in the sap which is driving it farther and farther from its roots. So, by evangelicalism, I mean the mass of Christianity in America (I have no experience to speak of other places) which holds to some degree of historical orthodoxy, emphasizes a personal experience, and insists on political and social action based on Scriptural principals--it is this mass of Christianity which, whatever its ideology and whatever its intentions, has wandered far away from the path of truth and righteousness and is becoming a scandal and an embarrassment to the rest of the Christian community. I could discuss the symptoms which prove this to be true, but I think they should be obvious and, in any case, I think that would take us too far afield.

I cannot be absolutely certain what the root cause of all this is or whether there even is a single root cause. However, while I cannot with certainty state the cause, I think I can suggest a cure. If we are to go forward from the shipwreck of American evangelicalism, we must take seriously and joyfully the fact of Jesus' resurrection--something that has been lost from evangelicalism. Not that evangelicals disbelieve in the Resurrection--belief in it could be taken as an essential part of evangelicalism--but they have ceased to take it seriously, have lost the central and vital importance of it. For all intents and purposes, the evangel of the New Testament church was the Resurrection. This was the good news. Paul was accused of preaching strange gods at Athens because he preached Jesus and the Resurrection. The crucifixion was not without its importance, but over all and surpassing all was the Resurrection. And the truth is that for the modern Evangelical, the Resurrection does not have this all-surpassing importance. And without this, we have lost the secret of New Testament Christianity--the secret which give the early church its power.

In most modern Christian teaching, the Resurrection plays not functional role in the Atonement. Our salvation was purchased by the Crucifixion while the Resurrection only validates Christ's divinity but has no real relation to our salvation. I do not say that if you asked an evangelical thinker they would deny the importance of the Resurrection--I only say that if you do not ask, you will probably never hear of the importance of the Resurrection; at least, not as it specifically relates to the Atonement. Especially in the more “conservative” circles of evangelicalism, the Atonement is explained solely in terms of debt and payment. Jesus “paid a debt He did not owe.” In the crucifixion, Jesus suffered in our place to pay our debt to God. I do not argue with this story in so far as it goes--but the overpower message of the New Testament is that this story does not go far enough. Christ did not merely die for us; He also rose again for us so that as He lives, so we to may live. Whatever the formal theological statement of the matter, the New Testament makes this much clear--our Atonement consists in sharing both in Christ's death and His resurrection.

And this is not an academic distinction. It makes a vital difference for this reason: when we are saved, it does not merely mean that our past sins are taken away by Christ's blood shed on the cross--though it does mean that. Salvation is not merely forgiveness; it is not simply the canceling out of the past. Salvation means that we share in the resurrected life of Christ. Salvation is not merely a legal fiction affected in the courts of heaven. It involves an actual, metaphysical union with God Himself. This is the point where Wesleyans differ sharply and irrevocably with Evangelicals. For the most part, modern Evangelicalism teaches that salvation is a one-time, irrevocable event affected by faith, which has a moral but not an essential relation to the rest of life. (So going through the process of naturalization makes you a citizen, but it does not in-and-of-itself make you a good citizen though hopefully it causes you to make yourself into one.) Over and against this Wesleyans teach that salvation is the beginning of a new life, a life which must be maintained or it will be lost, as with our old life. But even within Wesleyanism, this doctrine is becoming muddied because of a confusion regarding the role of Entire Sanctification and other issues, so that many Wesleyans now seem to teach that this new life does not begin at salvation but at some point subsequent to salvation. But against both these doctrines is the clear message of the New Testament: “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again... Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:15; 17)

Jesus did not die and rise again simply to affect legal pardon or to save us from some kind of penal sentence--that might have been possible in some other way. What was not possible in other way was what He accomplished--He gave us life, because He gave us His own life so that we can honestly say: “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live; yet not I, but Christ who lives in me.” Irenaeus put it this way: "Because of His boundless love, He became what we are in order that He might make us what He is." Salvation is not merely a legal fiction, it is an actual reality; Jesus did not give us a “Get-out-of-Hell-free card” which is useless at the moment but which we hold unto we land on that final space of life. Jesus came that we might have life--new life--His life--life more abundant and free. The technical name for this is Regeneration and though this word is still volleyed back and forth across the courts of Evangelicalism, if we are ever to move forward, it must become not a word but a reality in our doctrine and in our hearts.

There is a secondary consequences of this. With salvation divorced from regeneration (or, to put it another way, with the crucifixion divorced from the resurrection), the Christian life becomes a secondary matter and, more often then not, it is assumed that it is affected by our own effort, not by the power of God, which is assumed to be at work only in justification. I do not mean to say that evangelicals do not teach the importance of the Christian life--for the most part, they do. What they do not do is teach that the Christian life is essentially connected to being a Christian. What they (to some measure) fail to teach is that our life as Christians is bound up part and parcel with the resurrected life of Christ. More often than not, in Evangelicalism (and even in Wesleyanism) the Christian life is presented solely in terms of our “witness.” And while this witness is clearly important, it is an out-flowing of the essential life of Christ--not the other way around. In Wesleyan circles, sometimes living a Christian life is watered down to simply “because if you don't, you'll go to Hell” which, though true, also misses the point. Saying: “You'd better live because otherwise you'll die” is technically true but seems somehow to have things backwards. In either case, the same mistake is being made.

God did not redeem us simply so He could put a check-mark next to our name in His account book; we do not live a Christian life simply so we don't flunk out of Heaven. These mistakes are serious, since they ignore they deep-rooted eternal plan of God. “[God] hath chosen us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” (Ephesians 1:4) “Living the Christian life” is not an optional thing we do to impress the world, nor is it an additional necessity we must fulfill in order to get into Heaven--it is the fundamental driving force of the entire work of God in this universe. From the very beginning, the whole point of the plan of redemption was that we should be made like God, that we should be caught up into the life of God, which is possible only through the Resurrection of Christ.

But even though the Christian's union with Christ and life in Christ is a metaphysical reality, that does not mean that living a Christian life happens automatically, any more than the metaphysical reality of physical birth means that you need do nothing the rest of your physical life. Because God is alive in us we must live for God; you must “work out your own salvation” precisely because “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 1:12-13) The technical word here is Edification. As one puts care and effort into constructing a building so that it will fulfill its potential and be what it was designed to be, so as Christians were are to be built up into what God intends us to be; that they may be complete or perfect: “Teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Colossians 1:28)

And that invariably brings us to another important concept which evangelicalism has treated with a strange coldness--and that is the doctrine of the church. The fundamental atmosphere out of which modern Evangelicalism arose “stressed the individual's direct access to God apart from any church, defining the Christian life primarily in terms of individual devotion and holiness.” (Pearcey, Total Truth, 257) This is not to say there are not voices within evangelicalism emphasizing the church; nor that certain matters regarding the church are not in high emphasis within their circles--but fundamentally, the belief of evangelicalism is that "spirituality is an intensely individual relationship to God" and that any corporate aspect of Christianity is merely an additional aid or bonus feature. (LaHaye, How To Be Happy Though Married, 45)

But this is not the belief of the New Testament.  In New Testament thought, to speak of being a Christian was to speak of the church. "New birth may be--in a restricted sense--an individuals experience, but it is not, for John [and for the all the writers of the New Testament], an individualist conception: it connotes membership, and loving membership... in the divine family." (White, Open Letter to Evangelicals, 190) As Hodge said, "A solitary Christian is but half a Christian!"

I think it could be argued that this emphasis on the church was because of the emphasis on the Resurrection--death is a very individual matter and in so far as we are saved by Christ's death, we have an individualistic religion; but live is a very public and corporate matter, and in so far as we are saved by Christ's life, we have a public, corporate religion--but whether or not this is the cause, it is quite certain that the entire New Testament is built around the church; that, for New Testament writers, the church was the plan of God. The writer to the Hebrews says that Christ's work was "bringing many sons unto glory" and adds that "both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." (Hebrews 2:10-11) When Paul explains the work of Christ in Ephesians 5:26-27, he does not say that it was for individual Christians that Christ worked but for the church: "That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." Over and over again we are told that Christ's work in atonement was for His people, His bride, His church. God's purpose in atonement was to create “a personal organism of holy men” (Curtis, The Christian Faith, Chapter 23)

There is a direct connection between the lack of emphasis on the church and on edification since, throughout the New Testament, the church is seen as the locus of edification. But this fact is based on the essential reality of what the church is. The church is not a hot house, but rather a garden--not a place where things grow artificially due to human ingenuity, but a place where things out to grow naturally with help from human assistants. The church “is a living thing” (Kennedy, A Servant in the House) because it is the body of a living Head. Just as individual Christians have life because they share the lift of Christ so the church as an organism has life because it shares the life of Christ. And if much of modern evangelicalism seems dead, it may be because it has failed to take seriously and personally its own life, the life by which we all live.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


The sky is bright with life's pure rays,
The brook is laughing as it plays
Among the forest's leaf-strewn maze
While flowers dance along its ways.
As noon-light slays the morning haze
God's presence fills our lives with praise
And drives the darkness from our days--
So now together let us raise our voice.

When waves as black as death arise;
Pain falls in torrents from the skies
And wind, like tortured spirits, cries
Through the dark night hear! Heav'n replies:
“In all your dying, He too dies.”
With us, He shares His sacrifice
And naught of men or Satan's lies
Can change His love or compromise His choice.

Give thanks.
For all along our mortal race
Though smooth the road or hard the pace
We know we walk before His face
Within a Cosmos made of grace
So leave your shame and sorrow base
And with thanksgiving bring your case
To Him who bore our sin's disgrace;
Let all mankind from all their places, ranks
Give thanks.

"O Heavenly King, Look Down From Above"

O heavenly King, look down from above; 
Assist us to sing Thy mercy and love: 
So sweetly o'erflowing, so plenteous the store, 
Thou still art bestowing, and giving us more. 

O God of our life, we hallow Thy Name; 
Our business and strife is Thee to proclaim; 
Accept our thanksgiving for creating grace; 
The living, the living shall show forth Thy praise. 

Our Father and Lord, Almighty art Thou; 
Preserved by Thy word, we worship Thee now, 
The bountiful Donor of all we enjoy! 
Our tongues to Thine honour, and lives we employ. 

But O! above all, Thy kindness we praise, 
From sin and from thrall which saves the lost race; 
Thy Son Thou hast given the world to redeem, 
And bring us to heaven, whose trust is in Him. 

Wherefore of Thy love we sing and rejoice; 
With angels above we lift up our voice: 
Thy love each believer shall gladly adore, 
For ever and ever, when time is no more. 

This hymn of Charles Wesley is listed under the heading: "For Believers Rejoicing." Though the emphasis of the hymn is more on spiritual blessings than physical ones, it seems appropriate for the season of Thanksgiving. It is interesting to note that the hymn actually begins with an invocation, "O heavenly King, look down from above;/Assist us to sing Thy mercy and love." Even in the act of thanking God for His help, Wesley was asking for help from God in order to do it. In this, Wesley recognized our utter helplessness and complete dependence on God. It is only by God's help that we can ask for His help and only by His help that we can thank Him for it, for it is God who is at work within us both to will and do His good pleasure.

The main keynote of the hymn is wonder at the vast and overflowing nature of God's goodness to us. God has not given us a little; He did not bestow the bare minimum we needed and no more. No, for His grace and generosity are constant: “Thou still art bestowing, and giving us more.” The most generous person can only give so much, but there is no limit to God's grace because God has an infinite supply. This may be the meaning behind the line: “So plenteous the store.” Old Mother Hubbard went to her cupboard and found it bare, but God's cupboard is never empty for it is supplied by His own omnipotence.  It is not just that God has given us grace but, as the second stanza says, we thank Him “for creating grace.” God is not a rich man; He is the mint.

God is the source of all blessings; He is “the bountiful Donor of all we enjoy.” And that returns us to the opening thought that even our power to praise God comes from God. He is the “God of our life.” It is “the living” that “show forth Thy praise.” While we must be careful not to read too much into this, Wesley may have been thinking of the fact that God is the source of life and that we live in Him. As John Wesley put, Jesus “is now the life of everything that lives, in any kind or degree.” (Sermon LXXVII: "Spiritual Worship," Works, 6:429-430) In any rate, our life only continues because of God, because of His Word by which all things were created and continue to exist. We are truly “preserved by Thy word.” Because of this, our life belongs to God and it must be poured out in praise: “Our tongues to Thine honour, and lives we employ.” The whole purpose of our life is to praise God. “Our business and strife is Thee to proclaim.” Strife here seems to mean “that for which we strive.” In other words, praising God is to be the central focus of our life, that which we work and strive for.

And what is interesting is that all this is in the first three stanzas. It seems that in these Wesley is simply looking at God as the Creator and sustainer of the world. The “grace” which He creates is not specifically saving grace but common grace. This is great, but what is “above all” is “Thy kindness” through which God “saves the lost race.” (Note in passing that Wesley speaks of the race being saved, referencing the fact that the plan of Atonement is not merely for the individual but for the human race itself.) He saves us “from sin and from thrall” or, in modern terms, slavery. (Wesley intrinsically connects salvation with liberation. The doctrine of a salvation which does not affect liberation is very alien to Wesleyan thought.) God gave His son “the world to redeem” so that for those “whose trust is in Him” there now the promise that Christ will “bring us to heaven.” Wesley rather succinctly summarizes the entire Gospel in this stanza.

The final stanza can be seen as the climax of the hymn. Because of all that has been said up to this point--because of all God is and has done for us--therefore “we sing and rejoice.” And in this praise of God there is unity, both with fellow Christians (“Thy love each believer shall gladly adore”) and with the “angels above.” Praise for God unites the church militant, the church triumphant, and even the angelic hosts. And because this praise is direct at God, it can continue as long God exists. When the world is destroyed and remade, when all we know has been swept away and recreated, “when time is no more,” even then our praise shall continue “for ever and ever.” It will never end, because we will never come to an end of all God is or run out of reasons to praise Him.