Archive for December, 2012

Justification and Adoption: The Soil for Perfection to Grow In

Posted in Uncategorized on December 31, 2012 by ancienthopes

I remember a pretty and classy young woman I met in France in the summer of 1975. I was there for a 2 month short term mission trip, and she was coming off a two year term, and she spoke French fluently. I had no romantic feelings for her, and she certainly had none for me, but I do remember being in awe of her. It just so happened that in September she enrolled at the same college as I was. The guys, of course, were all agog over this new addition to the feminine pool. One day there was a roller skating party, and there was an event where the guys lined up on the side of the rink and the girls would come by and choose a skating partner. I was shy and stayed back by the wall while the rest of the guys were clamoring eagerly to be chosen. Since this girl was new and I was one of the only ones she knew, she skated right through the guys to me and led me out into the rink. The guys were amazed and shocked that I would be chosen, as was I! I remember being awash in happiness.

Justification seems to me to be a lot like this. What right did I have to be out there in the rink skating in happiness with this girl? Certainly all the other boys had problems with it! I was not as cool, sophisticated, good looking etc. as they were, and legitimately they felt the injustice about it. In fact, it was by virtue of her grace and the basis of a relationship that she chose me. True, I didn’t deserve to be out there, but none of the guys could do anything about it. Justification is a legal term that describes one aspect of salvation from the perspective of law. I stand justified before God and the hosts of Heaven and earth by the grace of God that is activated by my response of faith. It is critical here to understand that justification, in spite of its importance, is not to be understood as the totality of our salvation, but an aspect of it. In fact, it provides the context for our glorification in this world and the next, a safe place to grow into perfection.

Another salvation term closely related to justification is adoption. When we stand justified before God, we switch families. No longer a part of Adam’s Family, we are no co-heirs with Christ in God’s family. When we are in a family, especially a good family, we feel secure; God made the family to be a safe and secure place for people to grow up and become what He intended them to be. If our experience of family is what God intended, then we feel secure in it. We do not worry about being kicked out of it; it is a place of grace. If we offend, we become contrite and seek and receive forgiveness. In fact, everyone in the family works hard for each other to succeed. We do not take anyone for granted, especially God our Father and Jesus His Son our brother. We have confidence because of our position in God’s family. Though our responsibility and obligations are real in the family, we do not think of our position “performance based” in the sense that if we do not perform we will get “kicked out.” Families are a place of security, and it is only in the context of security does God expect us to reach for high ideals.

A grave problem in some circles of Christianity is that Justification is elevated as the primary idea of salvation. With this sort of thinking, we feel that we are “saved” because we are justified, and justification becomes an end in itself. We feel that we are protected from a “works righteousness” mentality, but are left with nowhere else to go in our Christianity. We have no clear direction, but wait out our lives with vague platitudes of “becoming more like Christ” when there really is no clear direction or thought given to intentional spiritual formation. We are left with no high ideals to strive for, “perfection” is watered down to becoming “mature,” something we hope will come with the aging process.

Justification and adoption are two ideas, one from the law courts, and the other from the family, that act like two points in a multifaceted diamond. The whole of the diamond is the glory of the whole of our salvation. In fact, if you look carefully in St. Paul you will see that “glorification” is the most accurate term for our salvation. This glorification is in process as we are transformed into perfection; there is even a sense where we are not “saved” yet because we are not glorified. Even the verb “justify” is used by Paul in the future tense, an act which will be complete when we actually stand before God at the end of time (Rom. 2:13, 3:20, 30). Justification and adoption, if understood correctly, provide the rich soil in which perfection can take place.

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The Problem of “Alien” Righteousness

Posted in Uncategorized on December 24, 2012 by ancienthopes

We cannot go further in our discussion on Christian perfection without addressing the whole idea of “alien” righteousness. The ancient Church clearly saw that the starting point in discussion of what makes us human is that man, although fallen, was made in the image of God, and thus endowed by the grace of God with certain powers. With Martin Luther and the Reformation, the starting point in the discussion of what makes us human is that we are sinners that deserve damnation, and with this is tied the doctrine we discussed in the last post, the total depravity of mankind. From here something new developed that forever shaped Protestant theology, and that ultimately made the whole idea of perfection, and even the more general doctrine of sanctification, awkward ideas in the Protestant world ─ the completely new concept of “alien” righteousness.

What “alien” righteousness means is that the righteousness that justifies us before God is external to us, located in Christ, and is applied to us from without by grace and remains completely a righteousness alien to us as persons. It can never be said to be our righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness, “reckoned,” or imputed to us. Since only Christ is perfect in His righteousness, and we are helplessly depraved, only an act of grace apart from us can justify us before God the Judge. Although Christ’s righteousness becomes ours through faith, it is never something God works in us from within, but acts as a sort of clothing from without that saves us from damnation. (See Christian Theology by Alister E. McGrath for an excellent discussion, 4th Ed. 2007. pp. 375f.) Growing up in evangelical circles, and attending a Presbyterian seminary, this doctrine seemed as natural to me as apple pie at Thanksgiving. Anything else meant that we saved ourselves by our own works which undermined grace through faith. I had no idea that this doctrine of “alien” righteousness constituted a complete break with 1500 years of Church history and theology, let alone Scripture. It became a new lens through which the Protestant world read the Epistles of Paul. When one wears the same lens every time one reads Scripture, of course one sees the same thing everywhere.

The problem with “alien” righteousness is that it essentially ignores or disregards something we humans all know intuitively, and which Scripture plainly teaches, that we are divine image bearers. It undermines the human mystery. True, we are justified and saved by grace through faith, but this righteousness is something God works within us. Jesus Christ lives within us through the Holy Spirit, and He works His righteousness through us as real persons responding to His presence within. True, our wills are bent away from God and toward self, but Jesus gently works with our wills to bring them into union with His. Our reason is darkened and insufficient to comprehend God, but Jesus enlightens our reason so that we can understand the things of God. Our emotions are “miss wired,” driven by fear and sinful desires, but Jesus draws our emotions to Himself. All these interior aspects of our humanity made in the image of God, and others not mentioned, are really ours (will, reason, and emotions), and though fallen, can be renewed, and when they are renewed by the power and grace of God, they remain ours, a righteousness that Christ works in us. From one angle it is Christ’s righteousness because He is the One that works within us. Apart from Him we can do nothing! On the other hand, this righteousness is truly ours and part of who we are because, by the grace of God, we have responded to Jesus with our interior “machinery.” When we give ourselves over to this with our whole hearts, we live the life of perfection!

It is Christmas Eve and I see that I have bitten off more than I can chew for the time and space before me … we need to continue this discussion in our next post.

God Stands by in Divine Wonder

Posted in Uncategorized on December 17, 2012 by ancienthopes

God is very fascinated and curious about us humans. How startling is that passage in Genesis 2:19 when He made the animals, “and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.” Here is the sovereign God of the universe, who is enthroned above space and time, knowing the beginning from the end. And yet, He stands by with fascination and curiosity to see Adam, His own little miniature, in the acts of decision and creativity. We can only conclude that Adam, made in the image of God, has integrity before God. This means that he possesses real determining power, and has a free, creative hand in shaping his environment and his future. God stands by in divine wonder!

We see something similar with Cain, but under very different, somber circumstances. God sees murder in his heart, and gives him an ultimatum; “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. Its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Here, even after the fall, Cain possesses real determining power; he can do well, and he can rule the beast. What is true for Cain is true for us all. Everyone stands responsible before God and humanity for one’s actions, and has been endowed with real power to do both good and ill. On this fact the concept of divine judgment is base as St. Paul writes: “… ‘who will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking …” (Romans 2:6-16). God has very high expectations of us all, Jew or Greek, Christian or non-Christian. Why? Because we are image bearers empowered with real choice. God stands by in divine wonder!

Cain’s line progresses with evil to the extent that it is corrupt beyond repair (Genesis 6). In contrast, Noah “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (6:8). This is a Hebrew idiom that means that God was “delighted” with Noah (made God smile). Why? Because he was a “just man, perfect (There is that Hebrew word tāmîm again) in his generations” (v. 9). We are not yet ready to define “perfection,” but we will here say that it definitely does not mean sinless perfection. We know this because the Bible everywhere assumes that fallen humanity is in a state of sin and has lost original glory; we cannot stand before a Holy God apart from mercy and grace. However, a metaphor works here to help us understand “perfection” ─ Noah “walked with God” (v. 9). This places him in the good company of Enoch (5:24), who “was not for God took him.” How magnificent it is to imagine a mortal struggling in his sinfulness taking strides alongside of God. God glances by his side in admiration.

The real truth about fallen humanity is that we are a mystery. We are far more wonderful (actually and potentially) than we can ever know, and we are far worse (actually and potentially) than we could ever know. The truth does not lie in the middle between good and bad, but in the extremes of good and bad. To find the truth about ourselves we need to push out the ends of this paradox to the max. On one hand we are divine image bearers and are endowed with power to become and do well far beyond our imagination. We can reach for perfection! On the other hand, if we could see the actual and potential evil in ourselves as it is, we would pass away in fright. We are in dire need of grace and God’s help. Theological maturity demands that we embrace paradox.

The doctrine of total depravity does away with the human mystery and with it our humanity, making us one-dimensional. It is the child of a warped rationalism that cannot endure paradox, and can only exist in a world that is clamped down in absolute determinism. God can only be great to the extent that man is made small. This is absurd. The foundational fact about us human beings is not that we are sinners in need redemption (as true as this is) but that we are divine image bearers. We all know this on an intuitive level. When we go down the street and look at people, we do not say to ourselves, “look at all these nasty sinners.” Rather, we look upon them with respect if we see them rightly. When we look into another face, whether it is Christian or not, we are looking into the face of God.

But all this is theological background to our main topic, and that is perfection. If we embrace total depravity, there is no room in our world view for perfection, and therefore no real incentive for spiritual growth. There is nothing in us that God can work with. This leads us to the next doctrine which blinds many from spiritual growth; that is the doctrine of “alien” righteousness.

Perfection: The Goal of Life

Posted in Uncategorized on December 10, 2012 by ancienthopes

We have just finished going through the idea of “law” in general and the Ten Commandments specifically. We see that God has expectations of us. This leads to one of the most critical question of all? What exactly does God expect of us especially now that we in vital covenant relationship with Him? Well, it is very simply said; perfection! God told Abraham in a critical juncture in the Old Testament, “Walk before me and be perfect” (Heb. tāmîm, Gen. 17:1). Likewise Jesus told His disciples in a critical place in the New Testament, “Be therefore perfect (Gk. téleios) as your father who is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

At present we will not explain what perfection is because it takes a whole lot of theological background and rethinking for us to get back to the biblical idea of perfection. However, two things are certain. First, it does not mean “mature.” Perfection is a radical idea, and our English word “mature” is too lame an idea to carry all of the theological freight necessary for the Hebrew tāmîm and the Greek téleios, let alone motivate someone to high ideals. Second, perfection as a radical idea must be the goal of any soul that aspires to God; without a goal, we surely will not get anywhere! This is a true maxim for any accomplishment in this life, and it is true for spiritual things as well. You tell me, look around you. What do you see? Do you see Christians in general living like Jesus did? There really can be no other reason for this other than they do not have a clear goal fixed in their mind and heart, and are therefore aimless.

There are a number of reasons why many good Christians will not even allow a discussion on perfection, or if they do they quickly reduce the whole idea down to “mature” like a number of prominent translations do. There are doctrines that many hold on to for dear life which are very true to some extent, but when made exclusive to the detriment of other doctrines, become perverted. One of these is the doctrine of “total depravity.” The actual term is not biblical, and it is not intellectually, anthropologically, or biblically honest to hold to it. Usually it is used in this way; we fallen sinners cannot think or do anything without the taint of sin, and certainly cannot think or do anything that can save our souls before a holy God. I certainly agree with this statement, but fervently believe that the term “total depravity” simply doesn’t accurately describe the complexity of humanity before God.

In our next post we will go into more detail on this doctrine of total depravity. For now, I will merely say that to hold it like I did for many years blocked the window of self understanding. I gave lip service to the truth that we are, though fallen, made in the image of God without really thinking about what it means to be made in the image of God as a sinful person. I found it impossible to grasp the true biblical doctrine of perfection when benighted with the doctrine of total depravity. This will take some time to develop.

Finally, let’s prayerful ponder the idea proposed above; that without a spiritual goal, a clearly defined goal that we can grasp with heart and soul, we will not grow, or only grow haphazardly. This goal is explicitly stated in Scripture in various and key places in the Bible. We are to aspire to perfection.

The opening line of the Evening Prayer (Compline) in the Anglican Breviary is “May the Lord Almighty grant us a night of quietude and perfection at the end of all our days.” The end of the day parallels the end of our life; when we pray this evening prayer every night it allows us to assess our day, and look to the end of our life’s journey with the amazing and wonderful desire to be perfect before God. But what this means takes time to unwrap.

The Sin Behind the Crimes

Posted in Uncategorized on December 4, 2012 by ancienthopes

We are used to thinking of the 10 commandments in the category which scholars call “moral law.” By this is meant that they are universal to all of humanity and thus universally applicable as a moral code. Whatever merits this might have, the ancient Hebrews understood that these 10 commandments were given explicitly to them as a nation under covenant. True, as a royal priesthood, Israel was to demonstrate the righteousness of their God to the nations by living by these laws. For them, these laws would better be understood as “criminal law” in the context of their culture, for breaking any of them meant drastic punishment.

All except the last commandment ─ coveting. Coveting is certainly a sin, but it is by its very nature not punishable by law. However, we see that without coveting, which we here are loosely defining as inordinate desire, the four previous crimes of murder, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness cannot happen. Israel’s history displays examples of this disease of coveting in key passages of Old Testament history. Achan confesses that he coveted the beautiful garment, silver and gold, which led to his thievery (Josh. 7:21). Because the covenantal community was a whole and not individual, the crime was considered a national failure. The debauched inhabitants of Gibeah covet (lust for) the Levite, but he threw out his concubine instead, whom they murder (Judges 19-21). This in turn spurred on the unholy fratricide between Benjamin and the other tribes, and Israel became a murderous nation. David’s adultery with Bathsheba is the parade example of coveting turning to the double crime of adultery and murder (II Sam. 11). Because David was King, his crime had national consequences. Finally, we find King Ahab incapacitated with covetousness over Naboth’s orchard, which Naboth could not sell to him because the property inviolably belonged to his family. Jezebel arranges for his murder through false witnesses (I Kings 21). One scholar, David Noel Freedman, believes that the whole of Israel’s history from the moment the 10 commandments were given in Exodus to the fall of Israel in the book of Kings, chronicles a progression of breaking each of the commandments; when the last one, the ninth, was broken, it was only a matter of time when the kingdom would fall (“The Nine Commandments: Uncovering a Hidden Pattern of Crime and Punishment in the Hebrew Bible.” Doubleday, 2000).

Be this as it may be, coveting with its companions of greed and lust is the unseen, interior origin of all crime. Hence this 10th commandment stands last of all as the emphatic warning that keeping the law is a matter of the heart. Jesus tells us nothing new when He teaches us that adultery happens in the heart, for the great 10th commandment interiorizes the previous four. One will not be punished if one covets his neighbor’s wife, but if he does, he stands before God as if he actually committed the act of adultery. This was clear as day in the law for the Old Testament believer. What was new about Jesus and His teaching was that He actually lived the law to perfection, and in fact was the law incarnate, whereas Israel as a nation failed. The amazing good news of the Gospel is that Jesus now mysteriously dwells within the hearts of His people like Yahweh dwelt in the most holy place of the Temple in Old Testament times. This places the law of God in the most interior depths of our being, enabling us to aspire to Christ’s perfection. We now might boldly say that if Christ did it, we can do it too. This attitude is called perfection, and we will spend some time this Advent contemplating what this means for us.