Sunday, December 30, 2012

Don't Make New Year's Resolutions

The trouble with New Year's resolutions is that they attempt to do by human power under the Law what can be done only by the Holy Spirit under the Gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
At the beginning of a new year, many people have nothing better to do than to make a list of bad deeds and resolve from now on -- how many "from-now-ons" have there already been! -- to begin with better intentions, but they are still stuck in the middle of their paganism. They believe that a good intention already means a new beginning: they believe that on their own they can make a new start whenever they want. But that is an evil illusion: only God can make a new beginning with people whenever God pleases, but not people with God. Therefore, people cannot make a new beginning at all; they can only pray for one. Where people are on their own and live by their own devices, there is only the old, the past. Only where God is can there be a new beginning. We cannot command God to grant it; we can only pray to God for it. And we can pray only when we realize that we cannot do anything, that we have reached our limit, that someone else must make that new beginning.

We are dependent on the Holy Spirit, and He works when and where He wills. The Apostle John said,

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8)

In accord with the Apostle, the Augsburg Confession says:

The Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ's sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake. (AC, Article V.)

Our reason and strength can do nothing. Only the call of the Holy Spirit can do anything. Martin Luther said:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed.)

We are dependent on the Holy Spirit, so what we must do is pray for the Holy Spirit. Jesus said,

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:13)

Let us pray believing that the Father will give us the Spirit gladly. He desires to give us the Spirit more than we desire to receive him.

Many are so wounded, so defeated by their sins that they hardly dare to pray for the Holy Spirit. They hardly dare to believe. Helplessness does not impede prayer. Helplessness qualifies us to pray. Prayer is for the helpless. Ole Hallesby said:

As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed, the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.

This is not only true of us before our conversion. Prayer is our last resort also throughout our whole Christian life. I know very well that we offer many and beautiful prayers, both privately and publicly, without helplessness as the impelling power. But I am not at all positive that this is prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray.

Listen to this, you who are often so helpless that you do not know what to do. At times you do not even know how to pray. Your mind seems full of sin and impurity. Your mind is preoccupied with what the Bible calls the world. God and eternal and holy things seem so distant and foreign to you that you feel that you add sin to sin by desiring to approach God in such a state of mind. Now and then you must ask yourself the question, "Do I really desire to be set free from the lukewarmness of my heart and my worldly life? Is not my Christian life always lukewarm and half-hearted for the simple reason that deep down in my heart I desire it that way?"

The honest souls struggle against the dishonesty of their own being. They feel themselves so helplessly lost that their prayers freeze on their very lips.

Listen, my friend! Your helplessness is your best prayer. It calls from your heart to the heart of God with greater effect than all your uttered pleas. He hears it from the very moment that you are seized with helplessness, and He becomes actively engaged at once in hearing and answering the prayer of your helplessness." (Ole Hallesby, Prayer, pp. 18-19 (Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis 1931.)

"Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts." (Zechariah 4:6)

Don't make New Year's resolutions. Pray helplessly for the Holy Spirit, trusting that the Father, for Jesus' sake, will give you the good gift.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Today, Heresies Begin in Earnest

It is Christmas, so today, heresies begin in earnest.

Our desire for self-justification cannot abide the Incarnation. It is a scandal that we should need God to come to us in this way to save us. Did it take all this? Are we so bad? Are we so powerless?

See the Christ child with our eyes, not with the mind's preconceived notions. What does He do? He cries one way when hungry, another when tired, and another when He has messed his diaper. He cannot walk, speak, or see past two feet. He has no teeth, cannot digest adult foods, and he nurses. He burps, teethes, crawls, and toddles, and he ruins things in the house because of his childishness, like every other child.

He was humiliated by being born in poverty, living a life of relentless suffering, being crucified, dying, and being buried.

The human body is corruptible. Was it necessary for God to corrupt himself for us?

All this floods us with scandal. This offends, drives away, forces to stumble, pushes into betraying and deserting, and causes us to sin the one sin of refusing God's mercy as it is in Jesus.

Maybe our desire for self-justification has gotten lucky. Maybe one scandal of the Incarnation can save us from the other. The first scandal is about our needing Christ this way. The second scandal is about how God becoming man could be true. Have we taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it?

Ah, that's our out. We can use the second scandal to make the Incarnation implausible, saying, God could not become man. Then we won't have to face the first scandal of our sin demanding such humiliation of God (not that the Incarnation itself is part of his humiliation, though to human reason, it seems to be).

So Monophysitism could be an out. We could say, instead of Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, that Christ's divine nature absorbed his human nature in such a way that human nature has been changed into Deity. Then we wouldn't have to take his human nature seriously. Scandal erased. Problem solved.

Or Julianism could be an out. We could say that somehow Jesus' body was incorruptible before his crucifixion. We could say that there is no more to the humiliation of Christ than there is to the humiliation of others. Scandal erased. Problem solved.

Or Sacramentarianism could be an out. We could say that the divine and human natures in Christ are united in such a way that neither has real communion with the other. We're on a roll.

Or Nestorianism could be an out. We could say that Christ is not one person, that the Son of God is one, and the Son of Man is another. The humiliation, again, evaporates, and our problem about justification is solved. We can justify ourselves.

Or we could say that God and man are only titles, not natures, or that to say God has become man is only a manner of speaking, not a reality.

In fact, our ingenuity, fueled by the deepest motivation of all, self-justification, will know no bounds in inventing ways to just undo Christmas. And since we must undo it, or die, die to self and live to Christ, we might as well take the most direct route, Arianism, and just deny the deity of Christ outright.

That's right. Then we could get back to saving ourselves, mercilessly. Heresy begins in earnest today, because Christ Jesus has disturbed our comfortable world by letting himself be born to a milk giver, to save us from our sin, and bring us home to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jesus Is the Real Nowhere Man

Sidney Herald religion column published December 23, 2012

The Beatles sang:

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans
For nobody

They weren’t singing about Jesus, but if we leave aside for a moment what we know about him because of faith, their words make a picture of his life. Jesus looked like the real nowhere man from a real nowhere land. He came to earth because of what looked like his nowhere plans. His plans were for nobodies, like us.

Jesus was born in a barn. Mary wrapped him in strips of cloth, not regular clothes. When Jesus' parents appeared for Mary's purification in the Temple, they offered a pair of turtledoves, the usual offering of the poor who could not afford a lamb.

King Herod knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That was walking distance from Herod’s palace. Herod had a chariot. He didn’t visit. Jesus was beneath him. The only ones who visited were poor shepherds and a handful of foreigners.

Jesus grew up in Nazareth, population no more than 480. Nazareth was mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, by Josephus (the noted ancient Jewish historian), or in the Talmud (a central text of mainstream Judaism).

Nazareth had a no-account and evil reputation. When Philip told Nathanael that the disciples had found Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The region around Nazareth was Galilee. The Jews wouldn’t even claim it as their own. They called it “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “Galilee of the Nations.”

Jesus warned a scribe who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When Jesus was challenged to pay the Temple tax, he did not have a shekel. When he died, he had no will, no burial plot, no tomb. He could not provide for his mother. From the cross he put her into the care of John.

This nowhere man came to earth because of his nowhere plan to save nobodies from their sin. He planned to go to the cross, the place of shame, guilt, weakness, foolishness, and condemnation, which is to say, into our place, into our nowhere land of sin.

When the Canaanite woman, who was not among the children of Israel, wanted Jesus to deliver her daughter from a demon, He said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Kneeling, she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She made herself a nobody, a dog. She called Jesus her master. She believed He would give her what she needed. Jesus called that faith and delivered her daughter immediately.

By faith, the Nowhere Man delivers nobodies from the nowhere land of sin into the Kingdom of Heaven, the forgiveness of sin, and righteousness before the Father. “Though He was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9)


Friday, December 21, 2012

Trinity in Luther Christmas Sermon

From a sermon of Martin Luther for Christmas Day, reprinted in Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. I, pp. 181-83 (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, USA: 1983)

And the Word was with God.

21. ... But here he clearly distinguishes the persons, so that the Word is a different person than God with whom it was. This passage of John does not allow the interpretation that God had been alone, because it says that something had been with God, namely, the Word. If he had been alone, why would he need to say: The Word was with God? To have something with him, is not to be alone or by himself. It should not be forgotten that the Evangelist strongly emphasizes the little word “with.” For he repeats it, and clearly expresses the difference in persons to gainsay natural reason and future heretics. For while natural reason can understand that there is but one God, and many passages of Scripture substantiate it, and this is also true, yet the Scriptures also strongly oppose the idea that this same God is only one person.

22. Thus arose the heresy of Sabellius, who said: The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are only one person. And again Arius, although he admitted that the Word was with God would not admit that he was true God. The former confesses and teaches too great a simplicity of God; the latter too great a multiplicity. The former mingles the persons; the latter separates the natures. But the true Christian faith takes the mean, teaches and confesses separate persons and an undivided nature. The Father is a different person from the Son, but he is not another God. Natural reason cannot comprehend this; it must be apprehended by faith alone. Natural reason produces error and heresy; faith teaches and maintains the truth; for it clings to the Scriptures, which do not deceive or lie.

The same was in the beginning with God.”

25. The Word was with God, with God, and yet God was the Word. Thus the Evangelist contends that both assertions are true: God is the Word, and the Word is with God; one nature of divine essence, and yet not one person only. Each person is God complete and entire, in the beginning and eternally. These are the passages upon which our faith is founded and to which we must hold fast. For it is entirely above reason that there should be three persons and each one perfect and true God, and yet not three Gods but one God.

26. The Scholastics have argued much pro and con with their numerous subtleties, to make this doctrine comprehensible. But if you do not wish to become entangled in the meshes of the enemy, ignore their cunning, arrogance, and subtleties, and hold to these divine words. Press into them and remain in them, like a hare in a rocky crevice. If you come out and deign to listen to human talk, the enemy will lead you on and overcome you, so that you will at last not know where reason, faith, God, or even yourself are.

27. Believe me, as one who has experienced and tried it, and who does not talk into an empty barrel; the Scriptures are not given us for naught. If reason could have kept on the right road, the Scriptures would not have been given us. Take an example in the case of Arius and Sabellius. Had they clung to the Scriptures and disregarded reason, they would not have originated so much trouble in the church. And our Scholastics might have been Christians, had they ceased fooling with their subtleties and had clung to the Scriptures.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas: God Was an Embryo

... and, John the Baptizer worshiped him from womb to womb -- Luke 1:39-45.

Who is human?

Who may be baptized?

What is worship?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bonhoeffer's Advent Illustration: Miners Waiting for Rescue

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Advent sermon in a London church, December 3, 1933.
You know what a mine disaster is. In recent weeks we have had to read about one in the newspapers.

The moment even the most courageous miner has dreaded his whole life long is here. It is no use running into the walls; the silence all around him remains. ... The way out for him is blocked. He knows the people up there are working feverishly to reach the miners who are buried alive. Perhaps someone will be rescued, but here in the last shaft? An agonizing period of waiting and dying is all that remains.

But suddenly a noise that sounds like tapping and breaking in the rock can be heard. Unexpectedly, voices cry out. 'Where are you, help is on the way!' Then the disheartened miner picks himself up, his heart leaps, he shouts. 'Here I am, come on through and help me! I'll hold out until you come! Just come soon!' A final, desperate hammer blow to his ear, now the rescue is near, just one more step and he is free.

We have spoken of Advent itself. That is how it is with the coming of Christ: 'Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.'"

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christ's Birth Is Your Birth

From a Sermon for Christmas Day by Martin Luther, reprinted in Sermons of Martin Luther, vol I, pp. 144-45 (Baker Book House Company 1983).

We see here how Christ, as it were, takes our birth from us and absorbs it in his birth, and grants us his, that in it we might become pure and holy, as if it were our own, so that every Christian may rejoice and glory in Christ's birth as much as if he had himself been born of Mary as was Christ. Whoever does not believe this, or doubts, is no Christian.

O, this is the great joy of which the angel speaks. This is the comfort and exceeding goodness of God that, if a man believes this, he can boast of the treasure that Mary is his rightful mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. For these things actually occurred and are true, but we must believe. This is the principal thing and the principal treasure in every Gospel, before any doctrine of good works can be taken out of it. Christ must above all things become our own and we become his, before we can do good works.

But this cannot occur except through the faith that teaches rightly to understand the Gospel and properly lay hold of it. This is the only way in which Christ can be rightly known so that the conscience is satisfied and made to rejoice. Out of this grow love and praise to God who in Christ has bestowed upon us such unspeakable gifts. This gives courage to do or leave undone, and living or dying, to suffer every thing that is well pleading to God. ...

Therefore see to it that you do not find pleasure in the Gospel only as a history, for that is only transcient; neither regard it only as an example, for it is of no value without faith; but see to it that you make this birth your own and that Christ be born in you."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Prison Letter from Bonhoeffer

Be brave for my sake, dearest Maria, even if this letter is your only token of my love this Christmas-tide. We shall both experience a few dark hours – why should we disguise that from each other? We shall ponder the incomprehensibility of our lot and be assailed by the question of why, over and above the darkness already enshrouding humanity, we should be subjected to the bitter anguish of a separation whose purpose we fail to understand… And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives. – Dec. 13, 1943

I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth. – December 1, 1943

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Maybe We Shouldn't Invite Them

Sidney Herald religion column published October 28, 2012

“Maybe we shouldn’t invite them to our church.”

Two friends said that to each other. They were heading the showing of a Billy Graham film at the local theatre. They thought about people who might talk to them afterwards. They wanted to refer each one back to churches of their own upbringing or family connections. For those not raised in any church and with no family connection, they talked about inviting people to their own church.

But then, they wondered if they should.

Every congregation has its problems. Theirs was no exception. They talked of how they and their congregation often were disobedient and self-willed. “What if, by hanging out with us, something of us rubs off on them,” one of them asked. “Are we doing them any favors by leading them into being self-willed like us?”

Take it to the next level. Does Christianity have a similar, bigger problem? Is Christ self-willed?

Since Jesus is God, doesn’t He do whatever He wants? Doesn’t God have the prerogative to follow his own will? When we invite people to follow Christ, are we inviting them to imitate a self-willed person? If Christ is self-willed, why shouldn’t everyone be? If everyone were self-willed, the conflicts would beat society to pieces. Community and fellowship would become hopeless.

Once again, the answer is the Trinity. Though God is one, yet God is three persons. The Three enjoy community and fellowship that are beautiful and blessed. They maintain their blessedness in many ways. One of the ways is that the Son is not self-willed. Jesus is God as much as the Father is. Yet, in Trinity, He obeys his Father, and that is what saves us from our self-willed disobedience.

Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:38-40

Obedience is not something God only commands. It is something God himself does. God the Son obeys God the Father. Because the words Father and Son are not just two titles for one person, but refer to different persons, the obedience of the Son to the Father is real.

While the obedience of the Church is not so shiny, still, the Church is where we hear about the perfection of Christ’s obedience to the Father. No one else teaches the Trinity, and therefore no one else shows the hope for salvation, community, and fellowship. The Father wants us to hear the word about the Son, believe in him, and be raised on the last day. So Christians invite everyone to the imperfect Church, and the perfect Christ.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Will We Ever Hear the End of It?

Sidney Herald religion column published October 21, 2012

You have seen a kid like him. One day, he is trying too hard to please everyone. The next, he doesn’t give a rip what anyone thinks. One minute, he walks with ease. The next, the ground beneath his feet turns uneven and rocky.

You’re there one day when he gets into trouble. He “borrowed” his brother’s toy without asking, and he broke it. His parent lights into him. He is grounded and loses his allowance for two months.

Then the parent says, “This is just like when you broke the window, and when you played with matches,” and on and on. The parent drags up past infractions. When will he ever hear the end of it? He feels that punishment never is enough. There never is real restoration. His conscience worries him with intrusive fears of condemnation.

The whole human race was in the same shape. Under Moses, God prescribed sacrifices for sin. Those sacrifices never laid condemnation to rest. Sacrifice had to be repeated. Sacrifice peaked on the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16) Even that had to be repeated again next year. Like that kid, Israel never heard the end of it.

Those sacrifices pointed to Christ. As with the Day of Atonement, when the sins of Israel were laid onto the sacrificial animal, on the cross, the sins of the world were laid onto Christ. Israel’s sin brought death to the sacrificial animal, and our sin brought death to Christ.

But that’s not enough, if Jesus, like that kid and Israel, never hears the end of it. Our only way out of sin is to have him as our substitute. Once He takes our sin, does He ever hear the end of our sin? If our substitute never hears the end of our sin, neither do we. What can clear our conscience from fear of condemnation?

Once again, the answer is the Trinity. The resurrection of Christ is not only his coming back to life. It is also his going to the Father. He could go to the Father because the Father accepted his sacrifice as the end of condemnation for our sin. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, and the Father has put angels under Christ’s authority. (1 Peter 3:22) Jesus is seated while the Father defeats Christ’s enemies. (Psalm 110:1; Hebrews 1:13) That’s acceptance. That’s restoration. That’s hearing the end of sin and condemnation.

Peter says Jesus went to God “that He might bring us to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) Our hope of going to the Father lies in the Trinity event that Jesus went to the Father. He went to God to give us a “good conscience,” (1 Peter 3:21) so we could “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-20) Our conscience is cleared by what happened between the Father and the Son for us. They are steady, even when we feel unsteady. The Trinity makes the resurrection of Christ our justification.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

How Do Sump Pumps and Sacrifice Work?

Sidney Herald religion column published September 16, 2012

Last year at our farm at Wildrose, we reached the peak in a long period of historically high precipitation. Sloughs ran over. Fields were saturated. Few crops were planted. By July, nearly all my neighbors were talking about seepage into their basements. They were going on about their sump pumps.

My basement didn’t have seepage yet. While I was sympathetic about my neighbors’ problems, I was not interested in the solution. Sure, I was vaguely curious how one could put something electric in water without electrocution or fire, but I was not interested in how sump pumps work.

Then it happened. Water started seeping into our basement. It welled up from deep within the house. If not stopped, it would flood the floor and rise. It would make the foundation crack and settle. It would ruin everything with rot and mold.

Once I had the problem and knew I was in trouble, I wanted to know more about it and the solution.

It is like that with sin and salvation. As long as sin is only our neighbor’s problem, we have less interest in the problem and the solution. Once we have the problem and know we are in trouble, we want to know more about sin and its solution, the sacrifice of Christ. Just as questions about how a sump pump works become vital when our own basement is flooding, so questions about how sacrifice works become vital when our own soul is seeping from within, flooding, cracking, settling, rotting, and molding.

There are questions about how sacrifice works. It does not work for a person to make a sacrifice to himself. If Jesus is the sacrifice for our sin, to whom did he make his sacrifice?

Sacrifice results in death. When Jesus was dead and buried, who presented his sacrifice?

How did Jesus rise again to life for our justification?

As with nearly everything vital to our faith, again, the answer is the Trinity.

Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” The Father, the Son, and the Spirit all work together in the sacrifice. Jesus, the Son, sacrifices himself for us. His sacrifice is to God, the Father. His sacrifice is presented through the Spirit. Without the Trinity, sacrifice would not work.

The Father and the Spirit together raised Christ from the dead. Galatians 1:1, Romans 8:11, Ephesians 1:17, 20. No Trinity, no resurrection. The dead do not raise themselves.

Apostle Paul says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The Christian confession, the confession of the sacrifice that saves us from sin, is a confession of the Trinity. It is a confession that the Father raised Jesus from the dead for our justification.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

How Well Loved Are You?

Sidney Herald religion column published August 19, 2012
“Mom always liked you best.”
That was the signature line of the comedy act, the Smothers Brothers. In an interview by PBS, Tommy Smothers recalled how it started. He was the younger, dumber brother. Dick was the older, smarter brother. Dick, as usual, was running Tommy down. He did it so convincingly that the audience stopped thinking it was only an act.
The audience started to hiss and boo Dick. Tommy said, “He’d do this one litany, about five or six lines in a row. ‘You’re stupid. You’re dumb. You’re not a man. You’ve never done anything right. You’re a failure. You’ll never amount to anything.’” Tommy answered, “Yeah, and mom liked you best.” The audience fell apart.
Why was that funny? Why did that relieve the tension that was running so high against Dick? The audience had a pent up desire to see Tommy win, to top Dick, to play trump. Unexpectedly, he did. Suddenly, in a bitter way, the brother who was supposed to be a failure was a smashing success.
Tommy won the argument with one, simple statement. The dumber brother showed that in one important way, he was smarter. Unpack the line, “Mom liked you best,” and it says, if you’re so smart, why do you think you can hurt me with all those rotten things you are saying, when I already have been hurt as badly as anyone can be? Does it get any worse than my mother not loving me as well? I am down so far, how did you think you could put me down any farther?
Life does that to us. It tells us we are not loved as well as others. As bad as that is when it involves our mothers, it is worse when we feel that way about our Heavenly Father. The Devil, the world, and our own fallen thinking try to take away our assurance of how well the Father loves us.
As with nearly every problem in our faith, the Trinity is the answer. Because of the Trinity, we can receive assurance of how well loved we are.
Jesus said to his Father, “You sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” John 17:23. The Only Begotten Son of the Father says the Father loves us, his adopted sons, exactly as He loves the Only Begotten. The love in the Trinity between the Father and the Son is the same love that the Father gives to us. We are loved as well as Jesus is.
The Only Begotten Son tells us He, too, loves us exactly as the Father loves him. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” John 15:9.
The Spirit also brings us the same love. “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Roman 8:15-16.
Through the blood of Christ, we receive Trinitarian love.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is Love a Lie?

Sidney Herald religion column published July 21, 2012

What is more common than talk of love? The word is overused. So much love is false. Billy Joel sang truth in “A Matter of Trust”:

Some love is just a lie of the heart
The cold remains of what began with a passionate start

Some love is just a lie of the soul
A constant struggle for the ultimate state of control

Some love is just a lie of the mind
It’s make believe until it’s only a matter of time
With all the lies of love, with all the wounds, betrayals, cruelties, deceptions, and abandonments, we still hope for true love, love eternal, love divine.

But, without the Trinity, love is abolished.

Before creation of heaven and earth, there was only God. There were no creatures, angels or humans. Suppose there were not three persons in God. Suppose there was only one. Where was the love? It never was.

We might imagine a god who, though only one person, still loved. The love of such a god must have been self-love. That person had only himself to love. Love’s nature would be so altered that it is no longer what we desire. Love would become hellish. Bishop Kallistos Ware says “Self-love is hell; self-love signifies the end of all joy and all meaning. Hell is not other people; hell is myself, cut off from others in self-centeredness.”

In the Trinity, even before creation, there was love. There was the Father and Son. The Father loved his Son and the Son loved his Father. That was family. That was home. The Son had a home in his Father and the Father had a home in his Son. The Trinity is love’s eternal home.

Even richer, there was the Holy Spirit. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit all loved each other eternally. Before a blade of grass ever felt the dew of morning, before a tree heard a bird song – before Adam saw Eve – love already was true, divine, and eternal between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus said to his Father, “You loved me before the foundation of the world.” John 17:24

Such love was full of glories and wonders, pleasures and comforts. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit were one in the heavenliness of heaven.

What happiness to never need to wonder what the other person said behind one’s back, to never wonder what was meant by a comment, to never be unsure of the attitude behind a look of the eye, for an expression of the face to never be a riddle or mask, to trust, to believe all things, to bear all things, to hope all things, for there to be no wrongs or record of wrongs, no envy, no rivalry, no rudeness, no gossip, for every moment and every blink of consciousness to be all kindness and faith perfectly.

Through the blood of Christ, the Trinity invites us into a love like theirs, the love that is no lie.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Blessed Begats

Sidney Herald religion column published June 10, 2012

“The begats” is a listing of generations from Adam to Noah. It was repetitious and boring. In each generation, it says someone was born, had kids, lived awhile longer and they died. This repeats nine times. In the King James version, the wording was, the person “begat” sons and daughters. That’s why I call the listing the “begats.”

What was the use of dull, repetitious information about some ancient people? I couldn’t see it.
Something happens as we age. We attend more funerals. The people we know age with us, so more of them die. Thanks to Confirmation instruction, those nine repetitions of “and he died” in the begats echoed back to me before a funeral one day. Maybe, I thought, God repeated “and he died” nine times to help us see a truth, the bitter truth of death. Death is a truth. None of those nine people made it out of this world alive.

The begats were still boring, but not as useless as I had thought. They show truth that is best to accept while young. That’s why they have you read it in junior Confirmation.

That made me wonder, was there more of use in the begats? There was. Standing out like a lone tree on the prairie, one generation did not end with, “and he died.” Suddenly, something was different. “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” Enoch made it out of this world alive.

God took Enoch from the earth alive to foreshadow what Jesus later explained, the resurrection. Enoch gives a glimpse of the sweet truth of the resurrection.

The begats were becoming more useful and less boring. There was still more.
Enoch walked with God. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden, God walked with them in the cool of the day. After they sinned, they tried to hide and not walk with God. How was Enoch able to walk with God?

Hebrews 11:5-6 tells us how. “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him.” By faith Enoch walked with God. By faith Enoch pleased God. By faith Enoch made it out of this world alive.

God had already promised Adam and everyone descending from him that He would give his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins, to redeem us from the curse of death and give us new life. Enoch heard the Gospel, believed it and by faith received the grace of walking with God.

The begats show the bitter truth of death, the sweet truth of the resurrection, and the gracious truth of walking by faith with God. Now they are not boring. They are the blessed begats.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Preciousness of Loathing Sin

Our meditations on Jesus in Gethsemane have seemed, no doubt, repulsively gloomy. They have been dark and heavy in their view of sin, the sinfulness of sin, and God's wrath on sin. It might seem that there is little value in such gloom.

Who Knew?

But, who knows value? Might Jesus know? Might the Father know? Might they know better than we? What do their actions show about how they value Jesus' loathing of sin and wrath?

In Gethsemane, Jesus loathed sin and wrath to death, and the Father approved him for the contrition He worked on our behalf. This is contrition: not that we are contrite, but that Jesus was contrite on our behalf, and the Father credits his contrition to us. When we hear the proclamation of Christ's contrition for us, and believe that He was contrite and that it was for us, as a grace under the Gospel, God grants us entry into the contrition of Christ.

Jesus set his face to suffer this loathing and contrition for us and for our salvation. Has his work only little value? Was Jesus wasting himself? Was the Father wasting him?

The Father saw Jesus suffer this innocently for us. He saw Jesus dying in the garden because of his loathing of sin and wrath. The Father exalted him to sit at his right hand. Doesn't that say something about how the Father values Jesus' loathing sin, and loathing it for us?

Hiding our Faces

In Gethsemane, our sin attacked Jesus in his sympathy for us. In his holiness, He loathed sin to death. He did this to save us, and it shows what He saved us from: sin at heart in us, and wrath at heart in God. A central act of the central Man of history is his loathing of sin ... ours. We can try to neglect it, but then we are neglecting the central Man of history.

Jesus suffered "as one from whom men hide their faces." (Is 53:3) We must see his suffering, and not hide our faces from him.

The Acceptable Sacrifice

We may wonder, how can something so awful as loathing be precious. Things have value as God values them. God can say what is precious.

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart These, O God, You will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)

In Hebrew, the word translated as “despise” is bazah (baw-zaw'). It means disesteem. The double negative “not despise” or “not disesteem” means, positively, what He does esteem, what He does value. This is what God will not despise, what God values, what is precious to him, what he accepts, what he receives: a broken spirit, a contrite heart.

Dwelling and Reviving

Because God esteems a contrite heart, He dwells with it and revives it.

For thus says the High and Lofty One Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah 57:15)
These verses make promises, the promises of the Gospel. God promises to esteem, to value. He promises companionship, saying He “dwells with.” He promises new life, saying He revives. He promises these blessing not only as external circumstances. He promises these graces in the spirit and in the heart. Nothing but the Gospel could proclaim these promises. They are the Kingdom of God come near, even “within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Crushed to Powder

Our English Bibles translate several related Hebrew words as “contrite.” These words include daka, dakka, and dakah (dak-kaw’). The literal meaning of the second of these is “powder.” When used to speak of an action, these words mean to crumble, to bruise, to break in pieces, to crush, to destroy, to smite, to oppress, to beat to pieces, to dash to pieces. When used to speak of the effects of an action, they mean to collapse physically, to collapse mentally, to be humbled, to be contrite, to be brokenhearted. Think of a powdered heart, powdered over the sin. When Jesus felt our sin as if it were his, he collapsed and said he was dying. This, again, is what it was for Jesus to be, as Mark says, "sore amazed" in Gethsemane. His Father esteemed him highly because, over the feeling of our sin, when he loathed it, he was contrite with “godly fear.” (Hebrews 5:7)

Proof of God's Acceptance

We have many convincing proofs that God accepts a spirit crushed, a heart broken over its sin. In the small space of this posting, I give you only a few of them.
  • Word of Promise

    God uttered words of promise that he would accept a contrite heart. It may be easy to think that God’s name is his highest value. Jesus places “Hallowed be thy name” as the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer. Yet David said, “You have magnified Your word above all Your name.” (Psalm 138:2) God magnifies his name, but He magnifies his word above his name, and emphatically above “all my name.” Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” (Matthew 24:35) God’s word of promise to accept a contrite heart in us will endure the passing away of heaven and earth.

  • He Accepted It in Jesus

    The Father accepted this in Jesus. Jesus was heard in Gethsemane for his godly fear. “In the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear.” (Hebrews 5:7) He will accept in us what he accepted in Jesus.

  • He Prizes Jesus, and Accepts Those Who Prize Jesus

    The Father accepts the heart that prizes Jesus. “A broken heart prizes Christ, and has an high esteem for Him.”[1] The Father responds to us according to the way we respond to his Son. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.” (Psalm 2:12) “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23) “The Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God.” (John 16:27) The Father accepts the broken heart because it exalts his Son.

  • It Is His Own Work

    A contrite heart is God’s own work. It is a sacrifice of his own preparing. He will accept his own work. He will accept the sacrifice that He prepared for himself. Abraham told Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb.” (Genesis 22:8) “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) The heart that he gives us he will accept in us.
In Gethsemane, Jesus told not only those 3 and 8 who were with him there, but all of us, "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation." To our Savior God, the Suffering Servant, watching and praying against temptation are precious. He will answer our prayer and deliver us from evil.


1. John Bunyan, The Acceptable Sacrifice: the Excellency of a Broken Heart, (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: Destiny Image Publishers, 2001 modernization of the original 1688 edition), p. 61.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Horror of Bland Love

We have been meditating on Jesus in Gethsemane. We have seen that a horror assaulted him, and the assault was killing him then and there. The terror was none of the usual suspects. It was the attack of sin and wrath. By this we mean, sin and wrath themselves, not just their symptoms or consequences. We have seen that, as our Mediator, by sympathy, Jesus felt what it is like to be us, to be sinners, while himself remaining holy. To feel sin as if it were his was killing him.
In the last posting we considered sin at heart, which is the failure to love God. The assault of sin made Jesus feel what it is like to not love his Father and the Holy Spirit. The sin of failing to love can be hateful, but it also can be lukewarm and indifferent. In Gethsemane, Jesus felt this part of our sin also.
In this posting we look at a particular aspect of the attack of sin: to be out of taste for God, for God to be a tasteless cup, to have only a bland love for God.

Triune Delight

The Persons of the Trinity are fully engaged in loving one another. God is neither cold nor lukewarm. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. Jesus said in prayer to his Father, “You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24) Love is an eternal Triune flame.

See the glories and wonders, the pleasantness and comforts of such love. See from eternity the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, distinct persons, but One, one in the heavenliness of heaven. What made heaven heavenly was their union in love. Put that love anywhere and that place must be heaven!

What happiness to never have to wonder what the other person said behind one’s back, to never wonder what was meant by a comment, to never be unsure of the attitude behind a look of the eye, for an expression of the face to never be a riddle or an enigma, to trust, to believe all things, to bear all things, to hope all things, for there to be no wrongs or record of wrongs, no envy, no rivalry, no rudeness, no gossip, for every moment and every blink of consciousness to be all kindness and faith perfectly.

Pleasure in the Son

When John baptized Jesus, his Father said from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” God wanted us to know three things. Jesus is his Son. The Son is beloved. The Father experiences pleasure in his Son.

At the transfiguration, the Father repeated those things and added another. He said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” We should hear him, why? Because he is God’s Son. Because he is beloved of God. Because God is pleased in him.

Because Jesus is pleasing to his Father, it is pleasant for the Father to hear him speak. Had we more pleasure in Jesus, hearing him would be more pleasing.

Pleasure in the Father

These are the delights, the pleasures of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus enjoyed all this from eternity. He still enjoyed it in his Incarnation. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; In the scroll of the Book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart.’” (Psalm 40:7-8) “In Your presence is fullness of joy; At Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16.11)

Tongue of Grace

God invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8). Watson say, “Grace changes a Christian’s aims and delights.” To the lovers of God, he is a sweet cup.

The tongue of grace savors God. Jesus tasted the sweetness of his Father fully, for Jesus was “full of grace.” (John 1:14). Jesus had the grace to taste, the grace to see. He had the grace to love, the grace to delight, the grace to enjoy, the grace to take pleasure in God. Because he had a fullness of grace, he had a fullness of enjoyment in God. Jesus was a hedonist, being full of pleasure in his Father. He had the grace to be a holy hedonist.

Hedonism has a bad name, but that is only because our hedonism is lazy and settles too cheaply for trinket-and-trash pleasures. Our hedonism believes the lies that taste sweet on the graceless tongue but are bitter in the belly. But with God are pleasures forevermore, righteous and true, honest and self-giving, and this worthy pleasure Jesus sought and knew.

Out of Taste

But in Gethsemane, sympathetically, he felt in his heart and conscience as if our sin were his. Because lack of love sums up and fulfills sin, in a short time, Jesus experienced sympathetically all our sin by feeling our lack of love as if it were his lack of love.

Remember we saw that when Jesus was “sore amazed,” in an ekthambeo, there was something outside himself that he saw, that appeared suddenly, that approached him, that already was approaching him when first he saw it, that got the drop on him, that forced itself upon him, that was a menacing horror. Besides everything else it was, it was this: to be out of taste for God, to feel, because of his great sympathy for us, our sinful lack of taste for God.

A Tasteless Cup

To the lovers of God, He is a sweet cup. To the haters of God, he is a bitter cup. To the lukewarm, to the indifferent, God is a tasteless cup. Jesus groaned earnestly to see whether “this cup” might pass. Besides the cup of God’s judgment, God’s wrath on sin that he drank by dying on the cross, “this cup” was immediate in Gethsemane: a bitter cup of hating God, or worse, a tasteless cup of being indifferent to God.

A tasteless cup. Contrast that to the blessedness of the eternal Trinity. Without the Trinity, we cannot know what riches Jesus stood to lose. This cup was a loss of riches. It was the loss of pleasure in his Father. From eternity, for him to live was to love, delight in, and take pleasure in his Father and the Holy Spirit, and to be loved, delighted in, and pleasing to his Father and the Holy Spirit.

Attack of Blandness

To see coming at him the blandness of our sense of God was a sudden and horrifying alarm at a terrific object. To see with our colorless eyes threatened to rend His nerves. To sympathize with our lackluster view of God threatened to freeze the blood in His veins.

When, by sympathy for us, he saw God dulled through our eyes, when he felt the carrying flame of love snuffed by his sympathy for our listless apathy toward his Father, he was troubled, disabled, feeble, astonished, dazed, having no soundness within. The ademoneo of Gethsemane was his being glutted into a severe depression by overfilling his mind with our boredom in God and feeling as if it were his boredom. The perilupos of Gethsemane was our lukewarmness passing over, under, around, and through Jesus’ conscience. As he was dying in ekthambeo, ademoneo, and perilupos, the angel strengthened him to suffer our distracted disinterest more. The angel strengthened him so that he could enter an agonia of our languid indolence to his Father.

To Jesus, the intemperate, holy hedonist whose whole life was to seek the pleasure of and pleasure in God, our tastelessness was a cause of immediate, precipitous death. For the experience of our sinful abstinence from God, our unholy temperance in love, our iniquitous moderation in delight, Jesus said to his three closest disciples, “I’m dying here.”

The disciples, who are the best of men, and the best of believers, lay asleep. Jesus tells them, "Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation." Watch against the nightmare of bland love.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Sin at Heart

In Gethsemane, Jesus as our Mediator, by sympathy for us, felt what it is like to be as we are, sinners. He felt our sin as if it were his, while himself remaining holy. This assault of sin was killing him then and there.

We carry on as though we are adjusted to our lives of sin. What is it about sin that, when Jesus felt sin for us, it shocked him to the point of death?

Law and Love

“Sin is the transgression of the law,”[1] or “Sin is lawlessness.”[2] Anything that transgresses the law is a sin, and lawlessness is sin. All of the law hangs on two commandments, to love God and our neighbor.

Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”[3]

Not only is the law “summed up” in love,[4] the law is fulfilled by love. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[5]

A Carrying Flame

Thomas Watson says love “is a holy fire kindled in the affections, whereby a Christian is carried out strongly after God as the supreme good.”[6] That 1692 English might sound stuffy to us, but consider it carefully in its parts, and it is anything but stuffy.

Love is a fire. See it kindled. The fire is holy. This kindling of fire is in our affections. Steel strikes flint. Sparks fall into tinder. Flames alight in our heart. As the fire burns, we are carried out. Today we say love is moving, and Watson’s language says that more vigorously. He says we are carried out strongly. The fire carries us after God. Affections are like that. They are carrying flames. Burning affection has eyes. It sees God as the supreme good.

Knowledge, Beauty, Affection

Affection beholds God for his loveliness, his righteousness, his justice, his mercy, his generosity. God has many attributes. A. W. Tozer says a divine attribute is something true about God.[7] Because, as Watson says, “The antecedent of love is knowledge,”[8] we need to know about God, we need to know his attributes, so that fire is kindled. Knowledge acknowledges truth about God, but love is rapturous in God. Love is taken by Beauty.


Aquinas said, Complacentia amatis in amato: “The lover’s delight is in his beloved.” Watson says, “This is loving God, to take delight in him.”[9] Many Christians are trusting the Lord for salvation, they are trusting the Lord for guidance, and they are walking in his ways. The Psalmist refers to this in Psalm 37:3, “Trust in the Lord, and do good.” In the next verse he says, “Delight yourself also in the Lord.” In addition to trusting and obeying, he urges us also to delight in the Lord, for in sin, essentially what is wrong with us is that we don’t love God.

A Word Too Strong

Delight is a strong word. We use it, but in an odd way because it is too powerful for us. When we buy a greeting card for an amorous occasion, such as a wedding anniversary, the card might use the word. We don’t mind so much letting the card use that word, and we would like our beloved to feel touched by the words on the card. But that word, delight, somewhat remains there, on the card. It remains there, on a page of the Bible.

Imagine if a man were to say, “I delight in my socket wrench set” or “I am delighted with my ¾ ton diesel pickup.” He probably is, but he won’t use that word. He will say he loves football. He will say he loves his wife. He will not say he is delighted in his wife. He will not say he is delighted in God. Delight is a strong word, and he knows the word claims more than he can honestly say about his feelings for God.

Delight is a high degree of gratification of mind, a high-wrought state of pleasurable feeling, an extreme satisfaction, an affect of great pleasure as when a beautiful landscape delights the eye or harmony delights the ear.

The God Called Blessing

Watson says,

We must love God propter se, for himself, for his own intrinsic excellencies. We must love him for his lovelieness. Meretricius est amor plus annulum quam sponsum amare: “It is a harlot’s love to love the portion more than the person.” Hypocrites love God because he gives them corn and wine: we must love God for himself; for those shining perfections which are in him.[10]

Too often we are corn-and-wine Christians. My pastor years ago, Craig Strawser, preached a sermon titled, “The God Called Blessing.” He spoke of an idol in our hearts, the blessings of God. We bow down and worship his blessings, not Him. We don’t love him. We have delight in his provision, his benefits, but not in Him. We relate to God providentially, but not personally, not intimately, not with kindled, carrying flames. Craig said, “We make God our butler.” A. W. Tozer said,

Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms. We want to get Him where we can use Him, or at least know where he is when we need Him.[11]

We make God a rich uncle, an addiction counselor, an auto mechanic, a plumber, an insurance adjuster. My pastor, Paul Turek, in a sermon on prayer said, "So often we relate to God as if, I hate to say it, he were some cosmic EMT.” A. B. Simpson writes in his hymn, Himself, “Once it was the blessing, Now it is the Lord.” In the fourth stanza, he makes the piercingly plain confession, “Once I tried to use Him.”


Love sums up and fulfills the law. Lack of love sums up and fulfills sin. We usually think of a lack of love as hate. In the First Commandment, God speaks of generations who hate him. Hate certainly is sin, but so is indifference. In Jesus says to the church at Laodicea,

I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth.[12]

Indifference is a lack of love. God is more nauseated by indifference towards him than he is by hatred. Not the cold but the lukewarm he vomits.

Sympathy for Lukewarm Exploiters

From eternity and through his incarnate life until Gethsemane, Christ loved the Father and the Holy Spirit with delight. Love for the Father and the Spirit was a carrying flame. In his knowledge of the Father and the Spirit, He was taken in his affections by their beauty. He loved them for themselves, not for how He might use them. That was health and life.

But in Gethsemane, to save us, He volunteered to feel by sympathy as if He were a lukewarm exploiter. That was killing him, as it might us, if only we could feel it ourselves. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He took this on, so that on the cross, this sin of ours would be fully punished in him, giving us a covering under his blood, and reconciling us to God. When we hear his two Words to us, the Law of sin and wrath, and the Gospel of forgiveness in Jesus, and receive them as the truth, we are born again, and love to God and neighbor are kindled with our new life. These are the works of God, and because they are his works, we can be confident in them.


1.  1 John 3:4, KJV.
2.  1 John 3:4, NKJV, ESV.
3.  Matthew 22:35-40.
4.  Romans 13:9.
5.  Galatians 5:14.
6.  Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981 reprint, first published 1692), p. 6.
7.  A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 20.
8.  Thomas Watson, The Ten Commandments, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1981 reprint, first published 1692), p. 6.
9.  Ibid., p. 7.
10.  Ibid.
11.  A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 16.
12.  Revelation 3:15-16.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Wrath: Jesus, Paul, and Beyond

R.V.G. Tasker, Professor of New Testament Exegesis in the University of London, said:

The view advocated so persistently and so thoroughly by Marcion in the second century, and consciously or unconsciously echoed in much so-called 'Christian' teaching in recent years, that the Old Testament reveals solely a God of wrath and the New Testament solely a God of love, is completely erroneous. It can easily be disproved by anyone who is prepared to give more than superficial attention to the text of the Bible.[1]

John the Baptizer: Wrath to Come

When John the Baptizer "saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" (Matt 3:7) He said the same thing to the crowds. "He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" (Luke 3:7)

John is the last Old Testament prophet.[2] He speaks of the wrath "to come." So we can't confine the wrath of God to the Old Testament.

Jesus: Wrath Remains

Jesus said, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." (John 3:36) The wrath of God remains. It is not confined to the Old Testament.

Paul: Day of Wrath Coming

Paul begins his explanation of the Gospel to the Romans, saying, "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." (Rom 1:18) He says we "were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind." (Eph 2:3)

Paul speaks of God's wrath as something to be revealed on a great and terrible day in the future. He says, "But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. " (Rom 2:5) He says, "There will be wrath and fury." (Rom 2:8) "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things [sin] the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience." (Eph 5:6) "On account of these [sin] the wrath of God is coming." (Col 3:6)

The future wrath is the reason for the shedding of Christ's blood. "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God." (Rom 5:9) We "wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thess 1:10)

John: Wrath of the Lamb

In the last book of the New Testament, John sees a future time with people "calling to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'" (Rev 6:16-17) The Lamb is Christ. He is the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of sacrifice and atonement.[3]

Angels bring the future wrath of God. (Rev 14:19; 16:1) Then Jesus, himself, brings it. "From his [Jesus'] mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty." (Rev 19:15)

Wrath: Endless Destruction

God's wrath destroys body and soul, but this destruction is not an annihilation. The torment goes on and on, day and night, without rest forever.

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Rev 14:9-11)

Who Revealed Hell?

That scene suggests "hell fire" that we like to relegate to the Old Testament and to outmoded tent revival preaching somewhere in the Bible Belt decades ago. But get this: Jesus is the revealer of hell and hell fire.

The Old Testament hardly develops the idea of hell. It talks about Sheol and hardly describes it. Sheol is shadowy. It might be bad, but it does not appear hellish.

Jesus uses the word geenna for hell. This was the valley of Hinnom, a valley of Jerusalem. It was the open town dump that burned and smelled continually. This is Jesus' chosen picture of hell. This tells in one word more about hell than does the whole Old Testament.

It won't do any good to flee from Moses to Jesus if we are trying to avoid talk of hell and hell fire. Frankly, we'd do better running the other direction, if we could. Jesus reveals hell and hell fire in Matt 5:22, 5:29, 5:30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 23:33; Mark 9:43, 9:45, 9:47; Luke 12:5. To ignore hell, one practically must ignore Jesus.

Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, the High Priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the mercy seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, to make atonement for sin. Inside the Ark were the two Tables of the Law, the writing of condemnation against us. The blood covered that condemnation and turned away the wrath of God.

This is not outmoded history. The ark existed first in the Holy of Holies in the heavenly realm, and then a shadow or copy of it was made on earth in the days of Moses to give us some notion of sin, sacrifice, and salvation. Christ, our eternal High Priest, entered the Holy of Holies in the heavenly realm and, through the Spirit, offered his sacrifice to God. (Heb 9:11-14) The Ark goes on forever in heaven. "Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple." (Rev 11:19) Wrath is excluded from heaven only because the blood of Jesus covers it.

Who Knows about Wrath?

Jesus knows about wrath. He suffered it for us.

The denial of wrath begs the question, why did Jesus make such a project of turning away from us what did not exist? Why did the Father provide in Christ a solution looking for a problem. If there is no sin, wrath, or salvation, what were Gethsemane, the cross, and the Day of Atonement about? Why do the temple, the ark, the covenant, and the blood of Jesus go on and on in heaven, if wrath is nothing?

Magnificare peccatum -- to make sin great -- was, according to Luther's lecture on Romans of 1515-16, the sum of this Pauline epistle. Luther's entire doctrine of justification hinges on a person's existential [existenziell] experience of himself as a sinner without the possibility of coming to God. Luther's doctrine of justification was among Bonhoeffer's basic theological convictions, and thus taking sin seriously was a crucial theme for him. ... The function of the law is to reveal sin to the sinner who wishes to conceal it. This happens when the law drives the sinner to despair, from which only God's pronouncement of freedom in the gospel can deliver him. ... [Bonhoeffer] says, "Where there is no law, there is no sin. Where there is no sin, there is no forgiveness. Where there is no forgiveness, Christ came into the world and died in vain."4

Admit wrath, and receive the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. Do not be deceived and ruined by the spirit of the age in which nothing is sin and nothing is forgiven.


1.  R.V.G. Tasker, "The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God," The Tyndale Lecture in Biblical Theology for 1951, (London: The Tyndale Press, 1951), p. 27.
2.  Matt 11:13-14; and Luke 16:16.
3.  John 1:29; 1:36; Acts 8:32; 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 5:6-13; 6:1, 16; Rev 7:9-10, 14, 17; 8:1; 12:11; 13:8, 11; 14:1, 4, 10; 15:3; 17:14; 19:7, 9; 21:9, 14, 22-23, 27; 22:1, 3.
4.  Wolf Krotke, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther" in Peter Frick, ed., Bonhoeffer's Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, (Tubingen: Dulde-Druck, 1961) p. 65.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Wrath Words

In Gethsemane, Jesus began to suffer the wrath of God on our sin for us. This is part of his turning the wrath of God away from us. It is part of Jesus being our propitiation for sin.
Today, many scholars teach that God cannot really have wrath. He is, they say, only love and mercy. But, in Gethsemane, was Jesus only pretending? Was his suffering a sham?

Jesus is the Word.[1] To follow the Word (Jesus), we might consider the Word (Scripture) and the words[2] Jesus uses there for wrath. His words, the words of the one who suffered wrath for us, the one in Gethsemane, not those of scholars who suffer little or nothing for us, must be the accurate basis for understanding Jesus in Gethsemane.

In Hebrew, the words Jesus uses for God's "wrath" are:
  • charown (khaw-rone'), burning anger, from the primitive root charah (khaw-raw'), to glow or grow warm, and figuratively (usually) to blaze up, of anger, zeal, jealousy.

  • `aph (af), (properly) a nose or nostrils, and also (from the rapid breathing in passion) ire, from the primitive root 'anaph (aw-naf'), to breathe hard or be enraged.

  • qatsaph (kaw-tsaf'), to crack off, i.e., (figuratively) to burst out in rage; or as a noun, qetseph (keh'-tsef), a splinter (as chipped off), and (figuratively) rage or strife.

  • chemah (khay-maw'), heat, and (figuratively) anger, poison (from its fever).
  • `ebrah (eb-raw'), an outburst of passion.

  • ka`ac (kaw-as'), to trouble, and (by implication) to grieve, rage, be indignant.

  • rogez (ro'-ghez), commotion, restlessness (of a horse), crash (of thunder), disquiet, anger.

In Greek, the words Jesus uses for God's "wrath" are:
  • orge (or-gay'), (properly) desire (as a reaching forth or excitement of the mind), and (by analogy) violent passion (ire or (justifiable) abhorrence), and (by implication) punishment.

  • thumos (thoo-mos'), passion (as if breathing hard). The root of this word is thuo (thoo'-o), (properly) to rush (breathe hard, blow, smoke), and (by implication) to sacrifice, and (implication, genitive case) to sacrifice by fire, and (by extension) to give up to destruction (for any purpose).
Some scholars say these words make God petty. Who can say that another is small but one who is supposedly greater? Are we greater than God to accuse him of pettiness, or to say He made a mistake in choosing the words to describe himself? Of course it would be us sinners who accuse the Holy One of pettiness. Sin causes us to believe ourselves great, our sins small, and God petty.

I give no apology for these words other than that they are the words of Jesus. We have a vision problem that Jesus calls blindness.[3] Jesus came to restore sight to the blind,[4] to shine light into the darkness.[5] The light of God's wrath is the light of Jesus' humiliation and suffering, the light of his suffering for us, the light of God's grace, mercy, and forgiveness in Jesus, the light of our salvation in him.

1.  John 1:1, 14.
2.  Jesus gets his words from the Father, He gives the words to us, and when we receive them, they make us clean. John 3:34; 6:63, 68; 8:45-47; 12:48; 14:10, 24; 17:8.
3.  Matt 15:14; 23:16-26; Luke 6:39; John 9:39-41; 2 Cor 4:4; 2 Pet 1:9; 1 John 2:11; Rev 3:17.
4.  Matt 11:5; Luke 4:18; 7:22; John 9:39.
5.  Matt 4:16; Luke 1:79; 2:32; John 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36; 12:46; Acts 26:18; 26:23; 2 Cor 4:4-6; Eph 1:18; 5:8; Col 1:12-14; 1 Thes 5:4-5; James 1:17; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:7; 2:8-11; Rev 21:23-24; 22:5.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Denial of Sin and Wrath

We have been looking at the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane. His condition and behavior were so extreme that they demand a better explanation than what is usually given.

We have seen that Jesus was dying in the garden because of his assumption of our sin not only as Surety by reckoning, but as Mediator by sympathy. While remaining holy, He felt our sin as if it were his. Sin itself, not just its symptoms and consequences, is loathsome to Jesus. Loathsome and lethal. Jesus was sorrowful to death for our sin. His contrition on our behalf for our sin was mortifying.

Denial of Sin

Wide sectors of the Church deny sin. We minimize, neglect, or re-characterize it. We preach self-esteem and self-improvement. Ours is a religion of moralistic therapeutic deism. But in Gethsemane, we see that Jesus was sensitive to sin.

By our insensitivity to sin, we are insensitive to Jesus. His experience in Gethsemane was contrition for our sin. If we cannot confess sin, how can we know him in that experience? It was killing him, and it would kill us to admit it. By distancing our selves from confession of sin, we distance ourselves from him.

Denial of Wrath

With sin comes the wrath of God on sin. When Jesus began to assume and feel our sin in Gethsemane, He began to assume and feel the wrath of God. This, too, was killing him then and there in the garden. This, too, was part of the assaulting horror that he saw attacking him that made him "sore amazed."

With the denial of sin comes the denial of wrath.

The wrath of God is not a highly popular concept and it appeals to us when an outstanding scholar suggests that we may do away with it. We like to feel that we have nothing to fear from God, whatever sins may trouble our consciences.[1]

It's Nothing Personal

Scholars redefine wrath as referring only to natural cause and effect. God made the world, set it to function by natural laws, and what we call wrath is only the outworking of natural consequences. We sin, and disaster follows. There is nothing personal about it. Wrath is not a trait of God. Nothing needs to be done to change God's attitude toward sinners.[2]

They go so far as to alter translations of Bible texts to avoid saying that Christ's sacrifice turned away the wrath of God. They avoid words like propitiation not because such words are technical. After all, they substitute the equally technical word expiation. Words like propitiation are not so technical as to prevent us from knowing, if we wish to know, that they mean turning away the personal wrath of God. The scholarly translators know it. But they say, God couldn't have wrath, so Christ's cross did not need to turn it away, and therefore it didn't.

Expiation is an impersonal word that speaks of solving an impersonal problem. To expiate is to make amends for a wrong. The focus is on the wrong and the amends, not, as in propitiation, on the personal reaction to the wrong and the personal reaction to the amends. In expiation, wrongs are more minor than sin, and amends are more minor than blood atonement.

The Cross Trivial

In expiatory terms, the cross does little because the problem it solves is little. As sin is reduced to impersonal wrongs and atonement is reduced to impersonal amends, so wrath is reduced to impersonal, natural consequences. Since wrath is consequence, merely, we need therapy and morals, merely. We need from Jesus only moral influence, sage counsel, and inspirational uplift. That's what the cross does. It positions Jesus as example and coach.

It is not necessary that any such person as Jesus ever actually lived for the exemplary, amends-making expiatory religion to function. Function. That's what the impersonal religion needs to do, and it can do that without the Person of Christ. Christ need be nor more than myth so long as by myth we obtain the function of self-esteem and self-improvement.

Archetype of Overkill

To position Jesus as example and coach, did He have to suffer so in Gethsemane? Has He become such a great example by such pitiful behavior? Did He have to die by crucifixion? Why did He have to die at all? Why was such a great remedy applied for such a small problem? Wasn't that oveerkill?

Apparently the Father sacrificed his Son for merely therapeutic and moralistic reasons. No wonder critics accuse the Father of child abuse against his Only Begotten Son. Church scholars taught them to think so! John 3:16 has become the archetype of overkill and, hence, of abuse.

Comfort Zone

We prefer this therapeutic and moralistic religion because, somehow, we make ourselves believe we are more comfortable by denying sin and wrath, by hoping in our selves, than we could be by having a Savior from sin and wrath. "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people" has gone out the window to make room for, "Be the best you you can be." Such a trinket, when we could have had this treasure:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD's hand
double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

Vision Difficulties

To see Jesus in Gethsemane, we must see sin, wrath, and substitution. Jesus took our place in sin and wrath. He turned the wrath of God away from us. He caused a personal change in God's attitude toward you and me.

Before we can approach Jesus in Gethsemane, we have to back up and re-establish that God has wrath on sin. Then maybe we can see that Jesus suffered it for us. In our next postings, we will look at what Jesus says, not what the scholars say, about wrath. After all, in Gethsemane, Jesus' condition and behavior were caused by his idea of wrath, not the idea of philosophers who have never bothered themselves to take God's wrath for you.

Socrates drank a cup of hemlock, but not the cup of God's wrath on my sin. Jesus was horrified in Gethsemane like no other because he drank a cup that no one else ever drank, the cup that would have been mine and everyone's in the world.


1.  Leon Morris, The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1983). pp. 154-55.
2.  C. H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1944), pp. 22-23.