Lent II (A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.

Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20

Cloister Cross

The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)

I.

While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.

Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.

II.

In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.

Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.

Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”.[1] This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.

III.

To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.

Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.[2]

But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.

So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…

In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). [3]

IV.

The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.

Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.

Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

[2] David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.

[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).

Faith in God’s Future

A sermon preached on Sunday August 11, 2013 at Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora.

Lectionary Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40

In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard Jesus speak to a large crowd that, according to Luke, numbered in the thousands (cf. 12:1).

Jesus told the crowd the parable of the rich fool who selfishly hoarded treasure for himself, but failed to be “rich toward God” (12:21). The fool was too focused on his own prosperity and failed to acknowledge God as the provider of all things.

Following the telling of this parable, Jesus turns to his disciples and unpacks the meaning of the parable. Listen to Jesus’ words: “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying…Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

I’m sure the disciples’ reaction to these words is the same as ours is: “Sure, Jesus. Easier said than done!”

Listen to Jesus’ next words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

It’s almost as though Jesus knows exactly what is going through the hearts and minds of his disciples…through our hearts and minds.

But then Jesus follows these words of comfort with a harsh command: “Sell your possessions, and give alms”.

Jesus’ disciples have already given up their careers and left their families to follow him and now he is asking them to sell their possessions and give the profit to the poor?

This is an extreme demand.

This is an impossible demand.

Hearing the difficult words of Jesus makes us uncomfortable because we fear that Jesus might actually mean what he says.

However, the harshness of Jesus’ words should not distract us from discerning what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knows how easily his disciples can be distracted by possessions.

Jesus knows how easily we can be distracted by possessions.

But, the question remains: what are possessions?

Possessions are not things that we own; possessions are things that own us.

Possessions are those things that shape our desire, form our imaginations, and demand our allegiance. Possessions are those things that we think we cannot live without.

In other words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).

Jesus is concerned that his disciples do not become distracted from the mission he will send them on once he returns to the Father. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that things like food, clothing, and shelter are unimportant or that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts we have.

Rather, Jesus is saying that the excess accumulation of things can too easily become a distraction, especially when we selfishly hoard these things rather than use them to bless others.

After all, the mission of the disciples, of the Church, is the same mission given to Abraham: to be a blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:2-3), to be a blessing to all people.

Listen once again to Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples who are undoubtedly troubled with and confused about Jesus’ difficult words about material possessions.

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples to prepare them for life without him, to prepare them for their mission.

However, in the context of the verses that follow, an additional meaning to Jesus’ comforting words is evident.

Jesus tells a parable about watchful slaves, slaves who are ready for their master when he returns.

Jesus is telling a parable about his second coming.

Jesus knows he will be leaving the earth, but, in the parable of the watchful slaves, Jesus indicates that he will be coming again.

Following Jesus’ ascension, his disciples expected his imminent return. They assumed it would be merely a matter of weeks or months, or possibly a few years before Jesus returned. This expectation was also held by St. Paul in his early writings.

Once we remember that Luke was the last of the four Gospels to be written, about 50-65 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection, we hear Luke using Jesus’ words of comfort not only to address his disciples then, but also to address the second generation of Christ followers, to give them comfort amidst their anxiety and uncertainty so that they may continue to fulfill Christ’s final earthly command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Indeed, Luke uses Jesus’ words of comfort to address every generation of Christ followers since.

So, why should these words matter to us today, 2000 years later?

The matter because they address with our discomfort with Jesus’ command to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor.

They matter because they challenge our anxiety about the future.

They matter because they confront our doubts about whether or not Jesus will really return like he promised.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we avoid talking about Christ’s second coming and all that goes with it.

It’s not considered a topic for polite conversation and we certainly don’t want to sound like those who, time and again, claim to have the exact date and time of Christ’s return figured out.

Furthermore, we aren’t sure if we even want Christ to return, especially when things are going well in our lives.

And yet, Christ’s words, “do not be afraid, little flock” remind us that amidst the turmoil of life where suffering, death, and evil seem to have the last word, that we have a promise from Christ that he will give us the kingdom.

Christ’s words of comfort remind us that we know the ending of our story – that Christ will come again to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and will restore all things such that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

These words remind us that the future second coming of Christ is anticipated and, in many ways, is embodied in the present life of the Church.

Christ’s second coming is embodied in the Church that follows Christ’s command to “be dressed for action” (12:35). The King James Version translates this phrase as “let your loins be girded”. It is a funny phrase. In the context in which Luke was writing, it meant to prepare oneself for battle. Although the imagery of getting ready for battle may be unsettling to some, the phrase underlines the urgency of Christ’s words.

The Church must be prepared for Christ’s return “in the middle of the night, or near dawn” (12:38), times at which it is most difficult to stay awake, especially when you’ve already been waiting for some time.

As disciples, as those slaves who are to be ready for the master’s return, we are baptized into the life of expectant waiting. However, our waiting is never idle. Our waiting is not idle for we are called to cultivate God’s Kingdom here and now. In so doing, the future of God’s kingdom becomes a present reality.

The life of discipleship requires patience and perseverance in the midst of anxiety and fear.

The life of discipleship requires vigilance that we do not become possessed by possessions or distracted by calculating the time of Christ’s return.

The life of discipleship requires faith, the same faith of Abraham who left his homeland because he trusted in God’s promise.

Of course this is all easier said than done. But once again, recall Jesus words to his disciples: “do not be afraid, little flock”. Jesus is not addressing his disciples individually; rather, he is speaking to them as a group. While Jesus’ words can and do offer personal comfort, we must remember that he is speaking to his disciples, then and now, collectively. This means that as Christ followers, we do not face our struggles and fears alone, but in the company of our fellow sheep, those who trust him, those who are entrusted with the task of cultivating the Kingdom.

In the Nicene Creed, we confess that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Likewise in the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead”.

The confession of Christ’s second coming remains central to our Christian faith. And, it remains central to the good news that we are called to proclaim – that through Christ, God will reconcile to himself all things (cf. Col. 1:19).

The challenge we face as Christ’s disciples is this: do we believe our fears about the future or do we trust in Christ’s promise that he will come again to set the world aright?

Do we trust that Christ is the master who will return and serve his faithful slaves, those who were waiting, watching, and ready?

Are we waiting?

Are we watching?

Are we ready?

Do not be afraid, little flock. May you find comfort in Christ’s words, trusting in his promise. And may you go from this place to patiently prepare for Christ’s return by loving God and your neighbor as yourself, as you pursue justice and invite others to participate in God’s kingdom of shalom here and now.

Amen.

Is Justification Just? Exploring the Link between Election, Justification, and Divine Justice in Reformed Theology

My previous post “Why I Left the Christian Reformed Church” gained a significant amount of attention (over 2,000 views) – more than I anticipated. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is. The number of “hits” on the post have dropped off, but, in the past few days, have spiked once again. I heard a rumor that the post is being discussed on a CRC pastors’ facebook group. Perhaps this partially explains the spike.

I suspect that the biggest objection to my previous post will be on that which is near and dear to Reformed folks (and something that is near and dear to me due to their formative influence) – the theology. Reformed pastors love a good theological discussion/debate/disagreement. Unfortunately, in my experience, the norm for critique in these discussions is a form of anti-thetical critique such that those who disagree with “us” have clearly not understood “our” position and the critique takes the form re-trenching previously held positions. I know this because I used to be one of the worst offenders in this regard.

I suspect that I’m taking heat for having not adequately understood Reformed theology, etc., etc. Perhaps. But then again, I studied Reformed theology at the Institute for Christian Studies, what some in CRC-circles consider to be the lunatic fringe.

More recently, I am a student at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. One of the papers I wrote last term was on Reformed theology. A number of people asked about it. Although I was (and still am somewhat) reluctant to share it, I did very well on the paper. So, I’m a little less reluctant to share it since my professor gave it his seal of approval.

I offer it here. In so doing I know that I will, in the eyes of some, confirm my theological ignorance of Reformed theology and therefore my theological reasons for living the CRC will be easily rejected. So be it.

Be forewarned, this is an academic paper, so it might be a bit dry. I also apologize for the footnotes – for some reason, clicking on the links will not jump down to the text of the notes, which means a great deal of back and forth scrolling (the footnotes are kind of important…)

So without further ado, here it is…

The doctrine of justification continues to be a matter of debate, both between Roman Catholics and Protestants and among Protestants themselves.  Central to this debate is the importance of justification vis-à-vis Paul’s conception of the gospel.[1]  Represented by the theology of Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof, the traditional Reformed understanding of justification is tightly bound to a questionable interpretation of the doctrine of election as double predestination, is framed in juridical terminology that does not follow the logic of Paul’s thought, and is rooted in an understanding of divine sovereignty that necessitates retributive justice against those whom God deems unrighteous.  The Reformed understanding of justification and divine justice rests more on maintaining the internal logic of its own systematic theology than it does on the biblical witness concerning the centrality of justification in Paul’s thought, its relationship to other doctrines, and the restorative nature of divine justice.  Therefore, the traditional Reformed understanding of justification is problematic, especially in terms of its soteriological and eschatological implications vis-à-vis divine justice.

The debate about justification among Protestants remains highly polarized between those who defend Reformation orthodoxy and those who use a different interpretative and theological framework.  In order to understand the tension points of this debate, it is important to understand the theological foundations that shape the arguments of both sides.[2]  This paper will look at how Reformed theology understands justification in terms of the link between election/predestination, the righteousness of God, and the nature of divine justice followed by a brief sketch of some alternative interpretive and theological perspectives that unravel this tight relationship.  Thus, the primary purpose of this paper is a theological summary and critique for the purposes of continuing the discussion rather than breaking new ground.

Part I – Justification is the Gospel: the Reformed Argument

The five points of Calvinism, also known as the ‘doctrines of grace’, are expounded in the Canons of Dordt and summarized by the acronym ‘T.U.L.I.P.’.[3]  Although Reformed theology has many branches, it remains rooted in this 17th century document.[4]  The Canons of Dordt directly shape the Reformed understanding of election, justification, and divine justice as further expounded by Herman Bavinck, Charles Hodge, and Louis Berkhof.[5]  Given that the reformulation of justification was one of the theological legacies of the Reformation, it is not surprising that those traditions in direct genealogical lineage would continue to assert both the uniqueness of the Protestant interpretation of the doctrine, particularly in distinction from the Roman Catholic understanding, and the centrality of justification.  For many Reformed theologians, justification is the essence of the gospel.  Along with other contemporary Reformed theologians, popular Reformed preacher John Piper maintains that justification is “the heart of the gospel”[6] and occurs through the forensic imputation[7] of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner.

Many continue to be puzzled by the apparent arbitrariness and utter injustice of Reformed soteriology and confused by its use of circular reasoning, an incoherence Paul Schraeder memorably depicts in a scene from his 1979 film, Hardcore.[8]  Jake van Dorn, the staunch Dutch Reformed protagonist, makes a telling confession in trying to explain the tenets of Calvinism to a hooker in the Las Vegas airport: “I’ll admit it’s confusing when you look at it from the outside.”[9]  This rather convenient defense is used time and again by Calvinists responding to those who are unable to wrap their heads around the logic and its implications.[10]  Although the criticisms raised in this paper are nothing new to Calvinists, they are offered in the spirit of dialogue.

A. Chosen before I was Born: Election and Justification

Election is what the Reformed scholastics call the decretum absolutum, God’s absolute and unchangeable decree made from eternity.   It remains one of the central doctrines in Reformed theology as is evidenced by its direct connection with other doctrines, particularly justification.  If justification is the heart of the gospel message, then election is the core of Reformed soteriology.  As the Canons of Dordt explain, God “decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved… he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them”.[11]  In other words, to be elect is to be justified.  Thus, justification and election are correlative in Reformed theology, a fact Bavinck states directly:  “It is the elect who are justified”. [12]  Those who are justified are the elect; the elect are those who are justified. There is ultimately no distinction between them.[13]

According to Louis Berkhof, election has a dual purpose: “the salvation of the elect” and “the glory of God”.[14]  Thus, predestination/election is always unto salvation.  More importantly, election is meant to show God’s sovereignty.[15]  The inverse of election is that “some of the human race were not elected”.[16]  Those who were not elected are the reprobate.[17]  Similar to election, reprobation has a dual purpose: “to pass by some in the bestowal of regenerating and saving grace” and “to assign them dishonor and to the wrath of God for their sins”.[18]  Therefore, as Bavinck concludes, “Christ obtained salvation only for the elect”.[19]  However, this raises the question: why is Christ’s death and resurrection necessary in such a framework whereby salvation is the result of an eternal decree made prior to the creation of time?[20]  .

Because election and justification are two-sides of the soteriological coin, Bavinck claims that “justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls”.[21]  Justification is the greatest “of all God’s benefits given in the covenant of grace” because it means “the forgiveness of sins”.[22]  Moreover, the terms ‘justification’ and ‘forgiveness of sins’ are interchangeable.[23]  This means that God’s forgiveness is offered only to the elect.[24]  Only they are made righteous “on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, which is ours through faith”.[25]  However, faith is not a human work, but remains “the gift of God within time”.[26]  Therefore, God is the one who elects, justifies, forgives, and gives faith, and God is the one who reprobates, condemns, blames, and withholds faith.  As Bavinck summarizes, “the elect cannot take the credit; the reprobate cannot blame God”.[27]

Not only is the centrality of election/justification in Reformed soteriology established and God’s defining role in each, but so too are questions regarding the arbitrary nature of God’s election[28] and the apparent limits of God’s forgiveness.  The Reformed response is that God’s election is always just, despite any claims to the contrary.  Election is a matter of God’s “hidden will” and therefore not subject to human speculation.[29]  Because God had reasons for choosing Abel over Cain and Jacob over Esau and his ways are higher than human ways, we are required to accept this selectivity as a mystery and inquire no further.[30]  Such is the scandalous nature of election, something at which we are supposed to marvel and tremble.  Although it is meant to be a doctrine that provides comfort, the Reformed doctrine of election seems to raise more questions than anything else.  Perhaps the absence of questions is a sign of one’s election?

Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin offers an interpretation of election that challenges the traditional Reformed view.[31]  According to Newbigin, the key to understanding the doctrine of election is that “the particular is chosen for the sake of the universal”.[32]  Therefore, election is the “choosing, calling, and sending one to be the bearer of blessing for all” since God “purposes the salvation of all” (71, 72).[33]  Newbigin’s primary concern in this chapter is to ensure that the church has a proper understanding of election so that it does not fall into “the illusion that [it has] a privileged position with God that insures them against disaster”.[34]  Election affirms the “corporate nature of salvation” and confirms that salvation is about “a shared participation in and shared responsibility for God’s created world”.[35]  Although election remains linked to salvation, the primarily purpose of election remains the corporate responsibility of the church to proclaim and participate in the ongoing story of God’s redemption.  The church is therefore in a position to preach not the gospel of justification, but the good news that God, through Christ, has liberated and redeemed the cosmos.  Thus, the gospel is, in effect, an emancipation proclamation that calls all of humanity to gratitude, not for individual election for a selected few, but for what God has done and is doing for his beloved creation.  The elect are called to be “a royal priesthood and a holy nation”, mediators between God and people and ambassadors of God’s kingdom.  With Christ as high priest, the church is a community of priests who are the righteous representatives of God.[36]   Therefore, we can conclude that justification is about empowering the elect to fulfill their calling.

B. God’s Law court: Justification as Acquittal

Reformed theology operates with a juridical/forensic understanding of justification by faith.  Similar to election, justification “takes place once and for all” from “eternity” and both remain gifts from God.[37]  Therefore, a person is never justified “on account of faith” because faith remains “equivalent to…the merits of the righteousness of Christ”.[38]  Justification is a onetime declaration of righteousness where the elect are not declared “godly”, rather their “sins are expiated” and they have “a title founded in justice to eternal life”.[39]  Thus, in distinction from the ‘subjective’ understanding of justification held by the Roman Catholic Church, Reformed theologians emphasize the ‘objective’ nature of justification as “not an ethical but a forensic act”.[40]

Because “the law of God is clear” that “the righteous must be acquitted and the unrighteous condemned” through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the elect receive “a verdict of acquittal” and the reprobate are condemned.[41]  This means that “the sins of those who believe are not counted against them”.[42]  Therefore, “justification applies to all sins, past, present, and future, and thus involves the removal of all guilt and of every penalty”.[43]  This forensic understanding of justification is exemplified by “Paul’s theocentric position” where “the law and the expectation of obedience are not set aside”.[44]  The “gift of grace” is thus: “God put Christ forward as a propitiatory sacrifice for our trespasses and Christ was raised for our justification”.[45]  As Bavinck later clarifies, “in justification, not only the merit of Christ’s passive obedience is imputed but also that of his active obedience.  In that benefaction, believers receive forgiveness, exemption from punishment”.[46]  The assumption underlying this forensic understanding of justification is that it indicates moral perfection, an actual ontological state of righteousness that is only achieved through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness on the sinner thereby removing the guilt of sin and granting eternal life.[47]

However, recent scholarship has strongly questioned the forensic understanding of justification, primarily since the language of justification is not nearly as central as Reformed interpreters make it out to be.  Moreover, the traditional assumption about Paul’s language concerning the works of the law is not what Paul had in mind.  In other words, while the Reformed emphasis on God as the sole author of salvation is correct, Paul is not arguing against so-called works righteousness.  Rather, his argument concerns how Gentiles are included among the people of God.  No longer does the Torah restrict God’s righteousness as extended to the Jews only; justification by faith means “liberty, and, most important of all, liberty from the law”.[48]  Therefore, for Paul this liberation is “one of the chief blessings of justification by faith”.[49]

Consequently, not only is justification not central to Paul’s’ thinking, it has little to do with the issues assumed by the traditional Reformed view.  Justification is but a subtheme in the larger issue of participation in Christ.  Therefore, it is necessary to turn our focus onto this main theme because it offers an alternative to the juridical interpretation particularly since Paul’s “in Christ language is much more persuasive in his writings than his talk of God’s righteousness”.[50]  This “in Christ” language refers to a “quite profound sense of participation with others in a great and cosmic movement of God centred on Christ and effected through his Spirit”.[51]  Participation in Christ emphasizes the ongoing experience of sharing in his faithfulness through the acts of discipleship.  Therefore, human faith is neither a matter of mere ‘belief’, nor something that God gives to the elect.  Rather, faith is about the experienced reality of our restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ.[52]  Justification is not an appeasement of God’s righteous wrath, but it is part of what it means to be reconciled with God.  Moreover, justification and, ultimately salvation, is about our participation in Christ’s eschatological victory over the powers and principalities, which liberates us from our bondage to sin.

While the Reformed emphasis on justification as entirely an act of God whereby he extends his grace to humans is commendable for its theocentric focus and avoidance of human-made salvation, it also raises an important question:  if the elect are justified and forgiven because of the gift of faith, can the unrighteous reprobates justly be held accountable for their faithlessness when God is the sole author and originator of election, justification, and faith?  Is it just for God to arbitrarily condemn them when their eternal fate was assigned before time?

C. The Righteous Retributive Justice of God: His Ways are not our Ways

The Canons of Dordt open with an explanation of “God’s right to condemn all people”.[53]  Following Romans 3:19 and 3:23, the Canons explain that “God would have done no one an injustice…to condemn [all of humanity] on account of their sin”.[54]  According to Bavinck, “the question is not whether there will or will not be righteousness or justice with respect to the law of God, but whether we earn that righteousness or receive it as a gift of grace”.[55]  In other words, God remains just in his election and in his condemnation because God remains sovereign over all things, including the salvation and damnation of humanity.  Thus, the lynchpin of Reformed theology is the sovereignty of God, a doctrine that must be defended above all others.  However, it is precisely the Reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty, particularly as it relates to divine justice, where the problematic elements of election and justification are most clearly evident in their implication of the retributive nature of God’s justice such that the elect are saved from eternity, but the reprobate are punished for their faithlessness, for a lack of faith which was never given to them to begin with.

According to Bavinck, “there is no conflict between God’s justice and his love.  God’s justice and wrath are not opposed to grace but in a sense included in it”.[56]  Thus, Christianity ties “justice and love together at the cross”.[57]  God, “who is holy”, did not ignore “the demands of the law”, rather, “he put forward Christ as a means or sacrifice of atonement”.[58]  This reveals God’s righteousness “by which he equitably and justly vindicates the righteous and condemns the wicked”.[59]  It is precisely through the “expiatory sacrifice of Christ” where “both [God’s] justice and grace” are most clearly manifested.[60]  Bavinck concludes that God’s righteousness is “offered as a means of atonement” that “proves God is…able to bestow salvation on his own”.[61]  However, this requires that “although God’s wrath rests on the wicked already, the manifestation of that wrath in all its terror is reserved for the future”.[62]  In other words, “[God’s] justice manifests itself especially in giving every man his due, in treating him according to his desserts”.[63]

Berkhof argues that “divine justice is originally and necessarily obliged to punish evil”, a punishment required for “the maintenance of right of justice”.[64]  Likewise, the Canons of Dordt explain that God’s justice “requires…that the sins we have committed…be punished.”[65]  Therefore, “we cannot escape these punishments unless satisfaction is given to God’s justice”.[66]  Although the elect and reprobate are both “equally guilty”, it is through Christ’s death that “God is merciful to the former and just to the later”.[67]  Consequently, reprobation is “that decree of God whereby He has determined to pass some men by with the operation of His special grace and to punish them for their sin to the manifestation of his justice”.[68]  This punishment “serves God’s justice” in two ways: “it redresses past violation” and “it seeks to prevent future ones”.[69]  Furthermore, punishment is “a powerful proof that only justice has the right to exist, that only God is good and great”.[70]

The nature of God’s justice is always retributive since “retribution…is Scripture’s principle and standard of judgment”.[71]  Therefore, “punitive judgment cannot do without the element of retribution”.[72]  God’s wrath and vengeance are always just, as explained in Romans 1:18 and 12:19.  Indeed, God’s wrath and vengeance are correlative and rooted in his righteous sovereignty.  Therefore, Berkhof concludes:

“The fact that God favors some and passes by others does not warrant the charge that He is guilty of an injustice.  We can speak of injustice only when one party has a claim on another.  If God owed the forgiveness of sin and eternal life to all men, it would be an injustice if He saved only a limited number of them.  But the sinner has absolutely no right or claim on the blessings which flow from divine election”.[73]

Because all the attributes of God, including his righteous justice, are “ultimately grounded in his will as Creator and Lord of all”, God’s decrees and actions proceed from his “absolute freedom” and therefore God is free to do as God pleases.  God can elect whom he wants and condemn who he wants, decrees and actions that are entirely based on God’s sovereign will.  The election of some and the reprobation of others is all part of God’s “secret plan” rooted in the “sole decision of God’s will”.[74]  Therefore, we would do well to remember that “the reason of divine righteousness is higher than man’s standard can measure”.[75]  For Reformed theology, God is pure sovereign will, and this sovereignty is perfectly manifest in his justice.  Whereas God’s mercy elects and justifies, God’s justice condemns the reprobate, those whom God chose for eternal punishment.  Both election and reprobation are manifestations of God’s sovereign grace.

            However, this understanding of divine retributive justice does not correspond with the biblical witness concerning God’s restorative justice.  According to the traditional Reformed understanding, retributive violence is necessary in order to establish and maintain divine justice.  While this emphasis on the divine prerogative of justice is certainly correct, it “does not entail that retribution is a divine imperative”.[76]  In other words, although vengeance belongs to God, “it does not follow that God must execute vengeance upon sinners or else fail to be God”.[77]  If God’ justice is most clearly displayed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, then “God’s gracious action in Christ, through the cross, by which we are justified and reconciled, renounces retaliation for the God’s covenant loyalty and justice”.[78]  Therefore, the cross stands as a symbol of God; “retribution-transcending, sinner-redeeming, enemy-reconciling love, justice, and peace”.[79]  The cross is not an instrument to seal the eternal fate of the elect; it is a symbol of God’s justice, a life-giving justice that transforms the entire cosmos and liberates it from bondage to sin and death.  God’s justice is fundamentally about what N.T. Wright calls “putting the world to rights”.[80]

Reformed theology is correct in its assertion that we cannot presume to construct a logic of God’s wrath, or to understand it solely in terms of retribution. Vengeance belongs to God.  However, this does not mean that God takes an eye for an eye, nor does it mean that God remains neutral or unmoved by injustice.[81]  Rather, the Bible gives us a clear picture of a God who cares about justice.  God is not indifferent to evil.  In passages such as Romans 1:18, God’s wrath is directed against “ungodliness and injustice”.  His wrath is an expression of his pathos, his deep care and compassion for his creation.   As Walter Brueggemann explains, “God bears the vengeance of God in order that ‘his’ creation can have compassion”.[82]  Because God has wrought vengeance “in his own person…grace has overcome”.[83]  This is the true meaning of the sovereignty of God’s grace.

Therefore, the justice of the cross anticipates the eschatological justice Christ brings with his return.  God’s “creative justice” remains “quite different from the forms our earthly justice takes.  What we call the Last Judgment is nothing other than the universal revelation of Jesus Christ, and the consummation of his redemptive work”.[84]  The goal of God’s judgment is not retributive punishment of the reprobate, but rather “the restoration of all things for the building up of God’s eternal kingdom”.[85]  The justice that Christ brings is one that takes the reality of sin and death seriously.  His justice aims to give healing to the victims, right the wrong, and to transform the perpetrators, all through this love.[86]  Though this may offend our human sense of justice that often calls out for blood and retaliation, we must defer our sense of human justice and demand for retribution not by projecting them onto God’s justice, but by trusting that God’s justice is exactly what our broken world needs.

Because God did not leave his creation in a state of sin, decay, and death, we can no more expect that he will eternally condemn those whom he created in his own image.  To do so is essentially a form of self-immolation, an unrepeatable act already performed on the Cross.[87]  Surely Christ’s death on the cross and descent into God-forsakenness was precisely so that no one would ever experience these things in eternity.[88]  God took the punishment himself so that none would perish.  The triumph of God’s justice is Christ’s incarnation, his death on the cross, his resurrection, and his Parousia.  The power of God’s justice is indeed “a power that reclaims and renews the whole creation, delivering it from the threat of nothingness…and rendering it transparent to his restorative presence”.[89]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Reformed conception of God as pure sovereign will is a divine embodiment of Nietzsche’s will-to-power.  This reduces divine freedom to “a kind of ontic voluntarism, and theophany to mere legislation, such that creation and revelation could be imagined only as manifestations of the will of a god who is, at most, a supreme being among lesser beings”.[90]  In other words, although Calvinists claim that God’s ways are higher than human ways, the result is that God becomes a divine monad of sheer power whose actions and decrees remain completely arbitrary and tyrannical.  Therefore, God cannot be absolutely free because God remains bound by the demands of his justice to punish those whom he deemed reprobate, a punishment that necessarily displays his absolute power.  Thus, this God is an “omnipotent despot who not only ordains the destiny of souls, but in fact predestines the first sin, and so brings the whole drama of creation and redemption to pass (including the eternal perdition of the vast majority of human) as a display of his own dread sovereignty”.[91]

Ultimately, this view of God cannot help but lead to nihilism because it engenders a profound hopelessness as the result of an anxious fixation with one’s status before God that will remain unconfirmed until the Second Coming of Christ.[92]  In spite of the argument that the Reformed doctrine of election is meant to bring comfort since one’s salvation cannot be lost, neither can it be fully confirmed on this side of eternity either, leading to an overwhelming and unhealthy fear of God.  For many Christians, Christ becomes the object of attachment in order to shelter us from the abusive and vengeful Father.  Moreover, the Reformed understanding of predestination is essentially a form of fatalism, albeit a divinely directed fatalism that leaves people with no real ethical responsibilities since human freedom is an illusion.  As the orchestrator of all things temporal, the God posited by Calvinists is essentially the same as Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover, an indifferent deity interested in self-glorification.

Although Calvinists are quick to point out that we should not question God, this is a convenient strategy that equates their theology with divine fiat.  Therefore, the questions I raise here are not meant to question God, but to question the Calvinist understanding of God.  It remains unclear why the damnation of the majority of humans is necessary for the maintenance of divine justice.  What kind of God would make his creation the object of his wrath such that he would eternally punish them for the sake of his own self-glorification and holiness?   Surely, an omnipotent God is able to act freely.  Moreover, if the defining attribute of God is love rather than power, as evidenced in his covenant faithfulness and in sending his Son, God will always act according to his character.  This is not to suggest that the alternative to the Calvinist understanding of election is necessarily universalism, but to argue along with the Calvinists, that salvation belongs to God alone.[93]  However, the difference is that we must learn to live within the tension of the biblical witness between texts that speak of the real possibility of being cut off from Christ and those that speak of universal redemption.

Furthermore, because Calvinists hold that these decrees and actions are from eternity and remain unchangeable, the incarnation and atonement of Jesus Christ are superfluous.  In the end, Jesus’ death was necessary not to save us from sin, but to save us from the Father.  Jesus is reduced to a model of the righteous life for our earthly sojourn and someone who “fills in the gaps of our knowledge…concerning the means of salvation, but he tells us nothing of the nature of this salvation”.[94]  Rather, he “merely fulfills a divine decision regarding salvation that is made apart from him in eternity”.[95]  In other words, Jesus is “an afterthought, a mere instrument for the sake of accomplishing redemption of the elect”.[96]  However, if Christ is the self-revelation of God, then T.U.L.I.P. and the God it depicts is completely at odds with the God of love revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

Although one often hears Reformed theologians speak of the “sovereignty of grace”, it seems that a better phrase to describe their theology is the “grace of sovereignty”, a grace that is displayed in mercy to the elect and punishment of the reprobate.  However, the need of Reformed theology to maintain God’s sovereignty is misplaced particularly since this is something that God is perfectly capable of doing.  However, in Reformed theology, God is made into a tyrant in order to protect his sovereignty.  Furthermore, if Christ is the clearest revelation of God, then it would seem that God is not interesting in maintaining his sovereignty and justice, but is willing to forsake them for the sake of saving and redeeming the cosmos (cf. Philippians 2). Contrary to the Calvinist conception of sovereignty as pure will-to-power, divine sovereignty is kenotic and cruciform.

The Reformed adage ‘ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda’ applies equally to the theology of the tradition as much as it does to its ecclesial practices.  This paper sought to highlight the problematic relationship of election and justification vis-à-vis divine justice within Reformed theology and briefly sketch some alternative interpretations in order to unravel this tightly-bound set of doctrines.  By unraveling this doctrinal set, it is possible to affirm the Reformed emphasis on God as the sole source of salvation and the divine judge who brings his justice.  However, the nature of divine justice in traditional Reformed understanding cannot be considered just even within its own paradigm, precisely because the justice it suggests merely propagates the very problem that plagues the world.  God cannot have the final word in a cosmos where evil and suffering continue to echo for an eternity in the fires of hell perpetuating an eternal form of deathless death.  If Paul is correct in 1 Corinthians 15 that the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and that God will become all in all when all things are subjected to God, then the victory of the cross where all are made alive in Christ remains the source of divine justice and provides the shape of our hope in Christ.


[1] It is also important to note the theological overlap of atonement and justification since both deal with salvation and redemption.  Thus, one’s understanding of the atonement will bear on one’s understanding of justification and vice-versa.

[2] To be clear, this polarization is for heuristic purposes.   Just as within the Reformed tradition where there are subtle differences of interpretation, so too are differences within the so-called “New Perspective on Paul”.  However, the internal differences notwithstanding, the Reformed tradition, as a whole, is essentially unified in terms of its understanding of justification.

[3] This acronym was later developed as a heuristic tool and mnemonic device as follows:

Total Depravity – all humans have a propensity to evil and are incapable of good.

Unconditional Election – God has chosen a certain number of people, the elect, to be saved.  God chose the elect from the beginning of time.

Limited Atonement – only the elect will be atoned for and therefore saved.

Irresistible Grace – God’s grace cannot be rejected or denied

Perseverance of the Saints – once elected by God, one will remain one of the elect

[4] Calvinist theologians will point to Augustine as the root of their theology.  While Calvin was highly influenced by Augustine, an influence that continues to resonate in Reformed circles today, Calvin, and those who follow in his footsteps, remain thoroughly shaped by the Reformation.  As a result, their reading of Augustine is through a Reformed lens.  The Canons of Dordt, along with the various catechisms and documents composed in the years following the Reformation (for example, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confessions, etc.), are the articulation of a distinctly Reformed theology.  Within confessional traditions, such as the one I was raised in (the Christian Reformed Church of North America), doctrinal adherence to the “Three Forms of Unity” (The Canons of Dordt, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Belgic Confession) is mandatory for all those holding church office (minister, elder, and deacon).

[5] Bavinck and Berkhof were chosen because they remain two of the most influential Reformed theologians in Dutch Reformed thinking; their books are required reading in some Reformed seminaries.  Charles Hodge was chosen because although he represents a different branch of Reformed theology (the Presbyterian/Westminster branch), his thinking on justification is almost identical to that of Bavinck and Berkhof.  This paper intentionally focuses on Calvinists rather than Calvin given the complexity and nature of Calvin’s thought.  In the Institutes, Calvin is less interested in developing a systematic theology than he is in engaging a number of his contemporary interlocutors.  Furthermore, the fact that the Institutes expanded and went through a number of editions over time is a testimony to the evolution in Calvin’s thinking and emphasizes the pastoral nature of the book (much like Paul’s letters).  On the other hand, those who used Calvin’s work as a basis for their own theological systems are much more direct and consistent in their arguments.  Therefore, a straightforward engagement with their work is possible.

[6] According to Scot McKnight, Piper goes so far as to equate justification with the gospel; cf. McKnight, King Jesus Gospel, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, p.25ff. Although justification is a Pauline concept, John Piper, in answering the question “did Jesus preach Paul’s gospel”, says that, yes, “Jesus preached justification”.  Apparently, justification is also part of Christ’s gospel.

[7] In distinction from Catholic understandings which emphasize impartation.

[8] Calvin had his detractors.  Indeed, the Canons of Dordt were written in response to the teaching of Jacob Arminius.

[9] The film was written and directed by Paul Schraeder, someone who grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition represented in the film.  Thus, van Dorn’s explanation of his beliefs is no mere characterization, but represents the doctrinal content of Calvinism.  I should add that my interest in the subject matter of this paper is as a former ‘insider’ in the stream of Calvinism represented by van Dorn.  Even when I was ‘inside’, it was all very confusing, but one was not allowed to ask questions about the logic of the belief system.  Now, as an ‘outsider’ looking in, I am in a place to ask these questions.  Cf. Richard Mouw’s recent attempt to explain the five points of Calvinism with “gentleness and respect” in his Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.  While Mouw achieves this gentleness and respect in his explanation, the logic of Calvinism remains.  Like all good apologists, Mouw winsomely defends his tradition.  While Mouw certainly offers a kinder, gentler, Calvinism, in the end, he, like Jake van Dorn, remains an ‘insider’ and therefore ends up preaching to the choir.  The audience of ‘outsiders’ will undoubtedly have the same reaction as the hooker to whom Jake van Dorn was explaining Calvinism: “I thought I was f***ed up!”

[10] For example, in engaging with Calvinists, the claim is often made that if one is not in full accordance with the Canons, that she has either misread them or is dealing with ‘straw men’.  Apparently, the only way to fully understand the Canons is to fully agree with them.

[11] “The Canons of Dordt”, Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1988, p. 124.

[12] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Abridged in One Volume, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011, p. 561.  The same applies for those who convert to Christianity, for they are among the elect: cf. Canons of Dordt, Article 11, p. 134.  Thus, the point of evangelism is to help the elect self-identify as elect.  However, if one is not elect, conversion is impossible.  If the salvation of the elect is unalterable regardless of if one is aware of their election or not and if conversion is only possible for those who are elect to begin with, evangelism is an unnecessary activity.  As a parishioner at a Reformed church once shared with me, “we don’t need to do evangelism because the doors of the church are always open.  If someone is one of the elect, the will find their way to us”.

[13] The scriptural basis for this is Romans 8:30.  Indeed, the rest of chapter 8 through to the end of chapter 11 serves as the biblical foundation for the Reformed doctrine of election.  However, this raises the question of whether of not this serves to isolate this section from the rest of Romans, thus taking it out of the context of the argument of the entire letter and elevating it above the rest of the letter.  Cf. Ephesians 1:4-6.

[14] As Berkhof explains, the second purpose is the “final aim” of election such that “even the salvation of men is subordinate to this”.  Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949 edition, p. 115.  The order of Berkhof’s dogmatics is quite telling.  Following his discussion of the doctrine of God, Berkhof immediately launches into the doctrine predestination.  Even Calvin did not ascribe such a position to predestination in the Institutes.

[15] “The elect are justified by God so that they would glory in him and in nothing else”.  Reformed Dogmatics, p. 561.

[16] Louis Berkhof, Manual of Christian Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1933, p 91.

[17] Berkhof defines the doctrine of reprobation as “that eternal decree of God whereby He had determined to pass some men by with the operations of his special grace, and to punish them for their sin, to the manifestation of his justice”.  Systematic Theology, p. 115.  Cf. “Predestination includes two parts, namely, election and reprobation, the predetermination of both the good and the wicked to their final end”.  Berkhof, Manual, p. 11.  Likewise with Hodge: “the death of Christ had a reference to his people, whose salvation it rendered certain, which it had not to others whom, for infinitely wise reason, God determined to leave to themselves”.  Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 edition, p. 547.

[18] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 116.  The “some” used by Berkhof is a bit of an understatement.

[19] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 529 (my emphasis).  Moreover, Bavinck later explains, “the elect are justified by God so that they would glory in him and in nothing else” (p. 561).  Although Reformed theologians often speak of the elect as a group, the focus remains on the individual.  Election in this understanding is highly individualistic.

[20] The answer, according to T.U.L.I.P., has to do with the total depravity of man.  However, as attested by the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’ and ‘the perseverance of the saints’, because election is a divine decree it remains in effect, the sinfulness of humans notwithstanding.

[21] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 563.

[22] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 533.

[23] Cf. p. 669 in Reformed Dogmatics.

[24] In his argument, Bavinck’s primary concern is to maintain that “it is always God and he alone who grants forgiveness”.  Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.

[25] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 556.

[26] Article 6, “The Canons of Dordt”, p. 123.  Likewise, “faith…flows forth from election” (Article 9, p. 125).  Cf. Article 7, p. 130.

[27] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 251.  The logic of this claim, theocentric or otherwise, is simply mind-boggling.  So too, the Canons of Dordt, “the decision of reprobation…does not at all make God the author of sin…but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger” (Article 15, p. 126).  However, this seems to run counter to Calvin’s claim in the Institutes III, 23, 7 where, because of his perfect knowledge, God foreknew that the world would fall into sin.  Moreover, not only did God know this, God willed and permitted it to be so (cf. III, 23, 8).

[28] Cf. Canons of Dordt, “Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than others…and so [God] decided to give the chosen ones to Christ to be saved…in other words, he decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them [and] to sanctify them” (Article 7, p. 124).   While the argument rightly underlines God as the sole originator of salvation, the means by which this salvation is effected through arbitrary selection remains highly questionable, not because some humans are more deserving of salvation than others, but rather because all humans need salvation.

[29]  Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 211ff.

[30] Contrary to Wolterstorff’s conclusion that in Romans 9 Paul is “not talking about who God ultimately justifies’ he’s talking about the fact that God chooses certain people and certain persons for a special role in the story line of redemption.  He’s not talking about divine strategy; he’s talking about divine tactics”, Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, pp. 267-8.

[31] It should be added that Newbigin was part of the Reformed tradition himself, serving in the United Reformed Church.

[32] The Open Secret, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995 ed., p. 68.

[33] This choosing is “in Christ” such that “there is no election apart from Christ” The Open Secret, p. 71.  It is important to note Newbigin’s extended discussion on the nature of biblical universalism found on pp. 79-81, summarized as follows: “Salvation is making whole and therefore concerns the whole” but “this universalism also takes absolutely seriously the freedom and responsibility that God has given to every human being, and therefore it acknowledges the necessity of judgment and the possibility of rejection” (The Open Secret, p. 80, 81).

[34] The Open Secret, p. 73.  No one, whether elect or not, has any claim on God because God retains his “sovereign freedom” (76).  Cf. the discussion of God’s sovereignty as will-to-power in the conclusion of this paper.

[35] The Open Secret, p. 76, 77.

[36] Cf. Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010 for a sustained reflection on election as representation.

[37] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 513, 517.  Cf. the discussion on p. 517ff where Berkhof outlines his grounds for the doctrine of justification from eternity.  Cf. Bavinck, pp. 566-567 where he discusses election as the eternal decree and justification as the outworking of this eternal declaration in time.

[38] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 520, 521.  As Bavinck explains, “Faith is not the material or formal cause of justification; it is the very act of accepting Christ and his benefits” (567).  However, as previously mentioned, faith remains a gift from God.  Likewise, Berkhof: “faith is never represented [in Scripture] as the ground of our justification…faith then is equivalent to the contents of faith, that is, to the merits of the righteousness of Christ”.  Systematic Theology, p. 521.

[39] Hodge, Systematic Theology, p. 142.

[40] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p.555.  Cf. Hodge, Systematic Theology, p. 119ff.  To be clear, Bavinck warns that “overemphasizing the objective forensic character of justification and tying it to election…opens the door to reducing faith to a passive vessel of the eternally imputed righteousness of Christ”, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 562.  Bavinck wants to highlight the tension between the objectivity of divine initiative in salvation and the subjective human response.  Drawing on Luther, Bavinck argues that the subjective element of justification is a process of responding to the divine gift of salvation through obedience in the life of faith (cf. discussion on pp. 553-570).  However, the subjective human response cannot grant salvation.  Thus, the objective declaration of God remains central.

[41] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 564, 565.  Just as reprobation is the inverse of election, condemnation is the inverse of justification.  Thus, Hodge explains: “In condemnation is it a judge who pronounces sentence on the guilty.  In justification it is a judge who pronounces or declares the person arraigned free from guilt and entitled to be treated as righteous”.  Systematic Theology, Volume 3, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973 edition, p. 122 (cf. also p. 548 of volume 2).  The Reformed understanding of justification in juridical terms becomes clear.  However, one must ask whether or not Hodges’ metaphor holds given that a in a court of law, a judge does not pronounce anyone “as righteous”.  A judge may find a defendant ‘not guilty’; however, it must be remembered that innocence is a prerequisite in any courtroom, until evidence proves otherwise.  This is not the case in the Calvinist courtroom where all stand guilty and are awaiting either justification or condemnation and the sentence, a verdict and sentence which were determined prior to the court case.  The point is that the juridical metaphor favored by Reformed theologians does not hold because, like all solid metaphors, it requires a correspondence to reality.  The connection in this metaphor is tenuous at best.  Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that the language used in forensic understandings of justification are problematic because “acquitting and pardoning, declaring innocent and forgiving, are not only distinct but incompatible”.  Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, p. 258.  The title of this paper is influenced a chapter in Wolterstorff’s book entitled “What is Justification and is it Just?” (pp. 258-282).

[42] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 565.

[43] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 514.  So too Bavinck, “the forgiveness that is part of justification is nothing less than the complete acquittal of all the guilt and punishment of sin, not only of past and present but also of future sins”.  Reformed Dogmatics, p. 568.

[44] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.

[45] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 565.

[46] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 716.

[47] In a nutshell, the ordo salus of Reformed theology is election-justification-sanctification-glorification, where election is the pre-temporal divine decree that selects those who will be justified, sanctified, and, when Christ returns, glorified.  As Berkhof explains “glorification connects up immediately to justification.  Being justified by faith, believers are heirs of life eternal”.  Systematic Theology, p. 516.

[48] James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, p. 388.

[49] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 389.

[50] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 391.

[51] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 404.

[52] As Kathryn Tanner notes: “what justification refers to in us is the fact of our unity with him, our incorporation within his own life, which brings about our being born again to a new identify with him”.  Christ the Key, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 86.  For two interesting interpretations of justification as a process of theosis, see Michael Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009 and Veli-Matti Karkkainen, One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004.

[53] Article 1, p. 123.

[54] Article 1, p. 123.

[55] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 555.

[56] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437.

[57] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 533.

[58] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 564.  Cf. Berkhof where God’s righteousness is “closely related to the holiness of God”, Systematic Theology, p. 74.

[59] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 206.

[60] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437, (my emphasis).

[61] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 437 (my emphasis).

[62] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 207.

[63] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 75.

[64] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 75, 76, (my emphasis).

[65] “Canons of Dordt”, Article 1, p. 130 (my emphasis).  Cf. Answer 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “God requires that justice be satisfied.  Therefore the claims of justice must be paid in full, either by ourselves or another”.  Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, p. 17.  My emphasis.  Apparently, Christ pays the claims of justice for the elect, but not for the reprobate who must pay for themselves.

[66] “Canons of Dordt”, Article 1, p. 130.

[67] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 251.  Cf. Answer 11 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “God is merciful, but he is also just.  His justice demands that sins, committed against his supreme majesty, be punished with supreme penalty – eternal punishment of body and soul”.  Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, p. 16.

[68] Berkhof, Manual of Doctrine, p. 91.

[69] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 380.  However, it remains unclear how punishment of the reprobate is accomplished, especially since Bavinck neglects to give an explanation.

[70] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 383.  Although Bavinck acknowledges that it is possible that eternal punishment is “inconsistent with the goodness and love of God”, he concludes that “if it is not inconsistent with the justice of God, it is not and cannot be inconsistent with his goodness either” because “if a thing is just, it is also good”.  As a result, “goodness that nullifies justice is no longer true and real goodness.  It is mere human weakness and wimpiness and…in no way corresponds to the true and living God who has revealed himself in Scripture as well as in nature”.  Bavinck maintains that the doctrine of eternal punishment is the only valid biblical interpretation because it is the only interpretation that takes seriously “the integrity of the justice of God and the deeply sinful character of sin”.  Reformed Dogmatics, p. 763.  However, as we will see, Bavinck drastically overstates his case.

[71] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 381.

[72] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 383.

[73] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.115.  Cf. Bavinck, “God does not act arbitrarily or capriciously with his creatures but covenantally in grace with his people” (my emphasis).  Reformed Dogmatics, p. 208.  However, once again, the emphasis on God’s people, his elect, underscores the limited scope of justification and salvation.  Thus, this argument fails to defend God from the charge of arbitrariness vis-à-vis the reprobate.  Furthermore, the shape of the covenant in Genesis 9 indicates that humans do in fact have a claim on the promises of God.  Indeed, the shape of all divine and human covenants in the Bible, particularly the Abrahamic covenants, indicates a right and claim on God through the covenantal relationship.

[74] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960, Book III, Chapter, 23, section 2, p. 949.

[75] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960, Book III, Chapter, 23, section 4, p. 951.  Cf. Romans 9:20.

[76] Darrin Snyder Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012, p.415.

[77] Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 415.

[78] Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 73.

[79] Belousek, Atonement, Justice, and Peace, p. 73.

[80] Wright uses the phrase throughout his book Simply Christian, New York: HarperOne, 2010.

[81] One need only look to Jesus’ words regarding the lex talionis to sense God’s rejection of retributive justice.

[82] Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007, p. 77

[83] Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, p. 80.

[84] Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 250.  Therefore, the Last Judgment is truly part of the Gospel message, not in the sense of the gospel-at-gun-point, but the reality of God’s healing and renewing of all things.  Cf. Moltmann, Son of Righteousness Arise!  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, esp. chapter 13.

[85] Moltmann, The Coming of God, p. 251.

[86] The fact that everyone is both a victim and agent of sin underlines our bondage to the principalities and our need for liberation.

[87] Cf. Moltmann, The Crucified God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974.

[88] However, hell on earth remains a present reality while we, along with creation (cf. Romans 8), await the Second Coming.

[89] Christopher Holmes, Ethics in the Presence of Christ, New York: T & T Clark, 2012, p. 63.

[90] David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, p. 133.

[91] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 134.  Cf. also his The Doors of the Sea, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, where Hart deconstructs Calvinist theodicy.

[92] As a former pastor in a Reformed church, I can speak to the nearly paralyzing uncertainty many Reformed folks live with in terms of ascertaining whether or not they and/or their loved ones are among the elect.  Attending church becomes the primary way of gauging whether or not one is elect.  The failure to attend church, regardless of whether one is involved in the life of the congregation, is often viewed as the cardinal sin.  Even if one slept through and entire service, it would matter little, so long as they were physically in the church building.  On the other hand, there are those who develop such a certainty regarding their election that they develop a smug sense of superiority to the point where, as one Reformed parishioner told me, “I am unconcerned about the spiritual state of my neighbor.  That is entirely between them and God.  I know I am one of God’s chosen and the only relationships I need to worry about are those with my fellow Christians”.

[93] Cf. David Congdon, “The Problem with Double Predestination and the Care for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism”, Testamentum Imperium, vol. 2, 2009, pp. 1-15 where he argues that the only two biblically and theologically viable views are double predestination and universalism.  Cf. Moltmann, The Coming of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996: “Universal salvation and a double outcome of judgment are therefore both well attested biblically.  So the decision for the one or the other cannot be made on the ground of ‘scripture’”, p. 241.

[94] Congdon, “The Problem with Double Predestination and the Care for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism”, p. 6.

[95] Congdon, p. 7.

[96] Congdon, p. 9.

Re-Visioning Youth Ministry Part 2

note: for some reason the graphics did not post

The purpose of Part 2 was to spark the imagination for creative and out-of-the-box thinking.  We intentionally chose not to go into great detail about these ideas because we want local youth ministries to explore and take ownership of these ideas themselves in their local context.  However, we are very willing to assist any youth ministry in both the exploration and implementation of these ideas.

PART 2 – AWAKENING THE GIANT

I.  Tradition – from Walls to Wings

The importance of story-telling

– incorporating testimony into worship services and programming; encouraging leaders and parents to be open and vulnerable about their faith and life

– sharing the stories of one’s faith community (congregational & denominational)

Room for exploration

– leaving room for different interpretations of our tradition and encouraging unity in diversity

– creating safe spaces for doubt and wrestling with deep questions – do not impose doctrinal conformity, but leave space for exploration – we both grow out of and into a tradition – this is an organic process; our theological identity is not something that can be forced on us

–  allowing youth to experiment with fresh expressions of our tradition that resonate with our current culture – let them take the lead in exploring what it means to be Reformed in the 21st century

Worldview formation

– Underline the differences between a Reformed worldview and the kind of “pop-Christianity” found in Christian media; renewed commitment to using Reformed curricula; ongoing teaching and training youth leaders in Reformed theology

Be intentional about reminding the congregation and parents of their baptismal vows

II. Education – from Information to Transformation

– Incorporate mentoring into youth programming (intergenerational mentoring and peer-to-peer mentoring) – one-on-one relationship building as the foundation for youth ministry

– Reevaluate our programs and de-program where necessary

– Evaluate our youth programs in terms of the fruit they bear – are they making disciples?  What kind of disciples are they making?

– Renewed emphasis on discipleship as the purpose of our youth programs – catechesis for the 21st century that focuses on head, heart, and hands

– Incorporate rites of passage and discipleship milestones beginning in Sunday School

– Equip parents to be the primary disciplers of their children – youth ministry becomes focused on ministry with parents as well as with their children

– Offer Adult “Continuing Education” programs – adults need to model the importance of ongoing faith formation – underlines and models to youth why things like catechism, etc. are important

– Cultivate missional imaginations in our congregations – a passion for making a difference in the local community and the world.  Give youth the opportunity to take the lead in this area.

– Teach biblical exegesis and hermeneutics to youth (Fig. 1) – gradual development of emphasis on biblical stories (Sunday School) to biblical story as a narrative (Jr. High) to “speaking with a Reformed accent” (Profession of Faith) to Reformed theological themes (High school)

– Engaging worship – this doesn’t mean “loud, contemporary music”, rather, it means worship services that prepare everyone, young and old, to worship as a way of life – worship services that engage all learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic) and where the congregation participates as a whole; worship services that prepare people to worship as a way of wife; worship services that cultivate missional imaginations and send people to minister in their communities and spheres of influence

– Create long-term visions for youth ministry – youth ministry begins in Sunday School and extends into early adult years (i.e. youth ministry goes beyond ages 13-18) and is primarily focused on discipleship

– Youth groups need to strike a positive balance between “large group”, “small group”, “missional”, “outreach”, “spiritual formation”, and “community building” events.  We tend to default to one or two of these types of events, depending on the strengths and interests of the leaders and youth.  All of these foci are needed for the holistic formation of disciples.   Change the foundation of youth ministry from large group activities to one-on-one mentoring and build upon that – mentoring, small group activities (Bible discussion, spiritual formation, service projects), large group activities (service projects, etc.), and community building events (congregational events, events with other youth groups, etc.)

III. Culture – from Consumers to Creators

– Intergenerational Church – worship, leadership, playing and praying together – peer based groups have a time and a place, but they should not be our default position

– Embrace multiculturalism – “outsiders” are welcome – embrace diversity

– Train youth in leadership and allow them to serve in meaningful leadership roles

– Become intergenerational – worship, leadership, service

– Counter-cultural preaching – prophetic preaching that challenges the mores of consumer culture, uses cultural references, etc., social justice issues, etc.

– Leadership training for youth and youth leaders – what does it mean to be a kingdom leader?

– Equipping sessions for parents

Praying with the Psalms

A Sermon I gave on August 8, 2011 at Bethel CRC (Newmarket):

Texts: Psalm 22:1-8; Psalm 102:1-11; Psalm 88:1-7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do we do with Psalms like these?

To our ears, they are irreverent and accusatory toward God.  There is no show of deference or respect that we would expect from someone talking to God.

Who talks like this?

What gives them the right?

This is not the way we are supposed to speak to God.

And yet, here they are, in the Bible, in a book that is all prayers and songs to God.

Part of the reason these Psalms are difficult and even offensive to us is because we’ve often overlooked them, preferring the more happy and uplifting ones.  We are so used to hearing that Christians must be joyful that we don’t know what to with these Psalms because they don’t express the type of joyful attitude we expect from Christians.  We assume that this is not the way Christians are supposed to think or behave.

However, this expectation has more to do with the assumptions of our culture than it has to do with a biblical understanding of prayer.  Our culture, and, as a result, many Christian congregations, are addicted to happiness.  Any other attitude than perpetual cheerfulness is seen as a downer.  Our solution to someone who is not always happy is to give them medication in order to help them feel more balanced and positive.  But in the end, our culture’s addiction to happiness prevents us from facing and dealing with the sadness and grief in our lives.  It’s almost as though we are afraid of our emotions.

So, when we hear these difficult Psalms, we are disturbed and unsettled.

I mean, who talks like this?

We do.

If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is that we all do.

In the midst of grief, struggle, and doubt, we cry out from the depths of our being, begging to be heard and to have the pain go away.  But, because we are addicted to happiness, we lack the emotional capacity to process what we are feeling.  We assume that something must be wrong with us for feeling this way, so we ignore our emotions or we try to medicate them, whether through prescription drugs or other means.

Psalms like these teach us that prayer is more than simply nice thoughts expressed toward God or asking for basic needs.

Prayer is the discipline of confronting ourselves – our strengths, our weaknesses, our struggles, our triumphs – and meeting God face-to-face with absolutely nothing standing in the way.  This requires brutal honesty and humility with ourselves and with God.

We are used to using our piety and reverence as buffers between us and God.  The Psalms teach us that we don’t have to do this.

If the Psalms are the “prayer book of the Church”, then what do these difficult Psalms teach us about what it means to pray?  How can we learn from them as we seek to re-train ourselves in the discipline of prayer?

First, we need to reclaim art as a form of prayer.

The Psalms are poems.  Poems are artistic expressions using words, pauses, meter, metaphor, and rhythm.

So, if the Psalms are poems, then they are artful forms of prayer.  This means that art, whether poetry, painting, music, sculpture, or any other artistic medium you can think of, can be used as forms of prayer.  This also means that we can pray without using words.  Our art can be used as a creative act that responds to the reality and power of God.

God has given us imaginations.  Our imaginations are part of what it means to be made in the image of the God who creates.  Our imaginations can and should be used in prayer.  The Psalms engage our imagination and turn it toward God, allowing us to enter into his presence.

Art, in all its forms, is an important form of prayer.

Second, we need to reclaim lament and grief as indispensible expressions in prayer.

The Psalms are, in the words of John Calvin, “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”.  In other words, the Psalms express the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, both the fullness if our divine likeness and the staggering depravity of humans.  The Psalms teach us that expressing the full range of our emotions – from love and devotion to bitterness and even hatred – is a necessary part of prayer because it helps us to face our feelings and to bring them completely to God.

The Psalms teach us that openness and honest with God are part of what it means to have a close and deep relationship with him.

We need only look to how Jesus prayed to understand this.  In the garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion, Jesus’ prayer was one full of agony, to the point of sweating blood.  This is a far cry from what we normally associate with prayer, sitting around the table before a meal, or sitting in pews on a Sunday morning.

And what about Jesus’ words on the cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus is directly quoting Psalm 22.  But more than that, he is accusing God of abandoning him, of crying out, where are you God?  How could you do this to me?  Jesus used these very raw words as an expression of what he was going through and as a prayer to God.

Sometimes we are too quick to praise without acknowledging how we really feel.  Our praise becomes empty of passion because we haven’t be honest with ourselves and God about how we really feel.  The result is that we begin to drift away from God.  We find ourselves unable to praise and pray because we haven’t been able to protest.

The difficult Psalms we are looking at tonight suggest that protest to and even against God can be a prelude to praise.  When you read the rest of Psalm 22 and 102, it becomes clear that there is a progression – the Psalmist starts with rage, he reflects on how these feelings are affecting him, and it almost always leads to rejoicing.  There is a transition from pain to hopeful praise that God will hear the prayer and will act.

There is something very important and necessary about acknowledging our pain; it helps us to face our hurts and to begin the healing process – you can’t start getting better is you are in denial about being sick!  When we are hurting, we are extremists – we don’t mince words to express how we are feeling.  When we are open with God, we begin to be open with each other and this allows us to “bear each others’ burdens” as a community.

This means that prayer is not always neat, tidy, and well-spoken words – it is raw emotion that expresses the realities of what we are going through, the highs and the lows.  If we are unable to this to and with God? Then to whom can we?  And what are the consequences of our faith if we don’t share our struggles with God?

Like the poets who wrote these Psalms, we need get past Christian “political correctness” about how we talk to/about God.  Christian speech should always be dangerous speech and return to speaking using biblical vocabulary and talking and praying the way the psalms and prophets do.  There is no room for a tame and domesticated spirituality in the Church; we won’t find it in the Psalms, so we shouldn’t either in the church.

It is important for our spiritual health to face disorienting texts like these Psalms because it forces us to rely on God’s faithfulness and to reexamine our relationship with him.  We have to remember that because God is God, he can take our complaints; it is better to be brutally honest with our loving God than it is to turn our back on him because we assume he won’t like what we have to say.

a close relationship with God opens you to brutal honest with God – again, look at the Psalms and the Prophets.  We cannot afford to talk to God with embarrassment or trepidation.  We speak the truth in love; we can pray with chutzpah, indeed we must for it teaches us to abandon ourselves in outright trust of God; we can hold nothing back when we pray; if/when we do, we are not really praying, rather, we are just saying empty words. The ability to “rage against God” can help us to develop a deeper and more profound hope as our raging calls God and ourselves to our covenant responsibilities.  And this, in turn, will help us to cultivate a more deeper, defiant, and resilient hope.

Prayer must be open and honest and passionate – Prayer is a face-to-face dialogue; it must be so.  Like all good relationships, our relationship with God requires openness and honesty form both parties – we don’t like it when God is blunt with us and we often shy away from being blunt with God.  This is a requirement for developing intimacy and humility.

The Psalms are confessional in character – they express deep longing, belief, doubt, etc. – the whole array of human emotion.  They are not “objective” statements of fact; they are expressions of profound belief.  The Psalms are dialogical in character – they are a conversation between God and humans.  Our prayers are not a monologue; our relationship with God is not a one-way street;

Praying with the Psalms the way the Psalms are written will develop a daring, vibrant, transformative, daring, and bold faith – this is the only kind of faith that will sustain us in times of trail and in times of joy; a deep and multi-dimensioned faith, not a shallow and insipid faith concerned with intoning moral platitudes and niceties.

Amen.

SHALOM: Peace No Matter What

A Sermon I gave at Bethel CRC on July 31, 2011.  Our youth group recently went on a SERVE Trip – you can check out the video here
Text – John 14:25-27

Every year at SERVE there is a theme for the week.  The theme is meant to tie the entire SERVE experience together – from the worksites, to the evening sessions, to the relationships we built with our teammates.  We gathered every night as a group to explore the theme with our site speaker.  Immediately following the large group gathering, we would continue the discussion in our small groups.

This year’s SERVE theme is “SHALOM: Peace No Matter What”.  Today, we are going to spend a bit of time exploring this theme in order to give you the chance to encounter some of the things we talked about and learned at SERVE.

Unless you are Jewish, “Shalom” is not a word that you hear very often in your daily conversations or in church services.  And yet, the concept of Shalom is central to the Biblical story.  The Bible begins and ends with Shalom.  So, why is it that such an important theme is so often overlooked by Christians?

The main reason for this has to do with translation.  The Hebrew word, “shalom”, is usually translated into English as “peace”.  Typically when we think of peace, we think of the absence of war or of the idealistic and unrealistic aspirations of people wearing bellbottoms and flowers in their long hair.

We all want peace, but at the same time, as modern people living in a world where warfare and bloodshed are the norm and dominated by an economic system based on conflict and the survival of the fittest, we are very cynical about the possibilities of peace and an end to global conflict.  This is especially true of us Calvinists who preach about the “total depravity” of all humanity.  We have been taught to believe that peace is impossible in a fallen world.  This, in turn, leads us to turn a deaf ear to biblical references of peace since we know that war, not peace, is our current reality.

In our culture, we also understand peace as a sense of inner tranquility.  There is no end to the amount of books, programs, and products that all claim to offer us the secrets to peace of mind in the midst of our hectic lives.  We want to live perpetually blissful lives, free of stress and conflict.

However, these definitions of peace are not what the biblical writers have in mind when they talk about shalom.  While it is true that shalom does entail an end to war and a sense of inner tranquility, this is not what shalom is really about in its fullest sense.  While the absence of conflict is a good thing, in the end it is not enough; the mere absence of conflict cannot by itself lead to reconciliation, healing, and restoration.

Indeed, when we translate “shalom” as “peace”, we end up with a very one-dimensional and secular understanding of a central biblical concept.  This means that our preferred translation of “shalom” as “peace” can be very misleading, suggesting nothing of the richness and depth of what shalom truly is.  Shalom is more than a political concept and it is bigger than an individual feeling of serenity; Shalom is cosmic in scope.

Shalom, translated literally, means wholeness or completeness.  It refers to harmony and unity between all things.

Furthermore, shalom is also connected to biblical understandings of justice and truth.  When justice is accomplished, shalom prevails.  When truth is revealed, shalom abounds.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see shalom used as an expression of hope and longing for the restoration that the Messiah will bring.

Truly, Shalom is a central theme of the biblical story.

In the beginning there was Shalom.  Everything was good.  Everything had a name.  Everything was provided for.  There was harmony.  Creation was complete and whole.  God’s assessment of his creation “it is good” implies shalom.  God could rest and enjoy the word of his hands because shalom thrived.

But then.

But then the disobedience of Adam and Eve and their dissatisfaction with the way things were disrupted shalom.

Sin began and continues to destroy the goodness and harmony of God’s creation.  It unravels what was once whole.  It tears down relationships and causes enmity between people.

If Shalom is the way things are supposed to be, then sin is the way things are not supposed to be.

Sin is the antithesis, the complete opposite, of shalom.

God is the God of shalom.  Sin and its devices have no place in the world he lovingly created.  God desires the flourishing of creation and to enjoy a relationship with his image-bearers.  His purpose and plan is to bring all things to himself, to love and bless what he has made.  In other words, shalom is God’s will for the world.

Nothing can stand in the way of God’s love.  God emptied himself sending his son, Jesus, to earth in order to proclaim God’s message of hope.  The hope that God will restore his broken creation and that Jesus would be the one who would usher in the kingdom of God’s shalom.

However, as much as God is faithful to his promises to bless and to heal, we, like Adam and Eve, are dissatisfied with the wholeness that God offers and seek to find it on our own.  We long to be made whole, but insist that we are the ones to do it.  We search for what is missing in our lives while asserting that we be the ones who define what it is that is missing.  We want shalom, but we want it on our terms.  We are looking for shalom because we were made for shalom.  Yet, we are always quick to settle for the imitation rather than the real thing.  We would rather be perpetually distracted by temporary happiness offered by the latest trend than to accept the gift of a life with God.  The former is easy and costs only money.  The latter is difficult and costs us our lives.

In our quest for our self-made shalom, we always end up dissatisfied, hurt, lonely and unable to find what we are really looking for – God’s shalom.

Although distorted by sin, shalom was brought back into focus through Christ’s resurrection.  His resurrection signals the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because of his sacrifice, shalom is restored between humans and God – listen to these words from Romans 5: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace, shalom, with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”.  Our relationship with God is restored; it is once again whole and complete.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice, shalom is also restored between us and our neighbors – listen to these words from Ephesians 2:14-16: “For he [Christ] is our peace, our shalom; in his flesh he was made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us”.  The divisions that cause us to hate our neighbor and go to war with each other become secondary to the unity that we share in Christ.  Mother Teresa once said “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”.  We are all, each and every person on the planet, image bearers of God, forgiven and loved by Christ.  This is our true and first identity.  When we remember this, then there is no room for hatred and conflict or for disunity and distrust; there is only love for God and neighbor.  There is only the fullness of shalom

Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension show us that God’s kingdom of shalom is at hand.  But more than that, Christ’s actions on earth bring this heavenly kingdom into earthly reality.  The division that sin caused between heaven and earth is being erased.  Heaven and earth are being restored into one whole and seamless reality.

Think of it this way.  In the Old Testament, the tabernacle was meant to represent heaven and earth.  It had two rooms; the first room, where the table of showbread, the golden lamp stand, and the incense altar were, represented earth.  The second room, the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant, represented heaven.  There was a thick curtain that divided these two rooms.  The curtain represented the division or separation between heaven and earth, between humans and God.  A division caused by sin, a division that is not the way things are supposed to be.

Now, think of what happened when Jesus died.  The curtain in the temple in Jerusalem was ripped.  To be clear, the curtain in the temple served the exact same purpose as the curtain in the tabernacle.  God’s heavenly kingdom is breaking into earth reality.  The ripping of the curtain represents the triumph of shalom over sin.  Because sin has been defeated, there is nothing to separate heaven and earth.  God’s future, a time when justice and peace will finally embrace, is coming into the present.

Shalom is about restoration, about heaven being united to earth, about the lordship of Christ over all creation, about the final defeat of sin, death, and suffering once and for all.  This is our hope as Christians; and it is a hope we are called to bring into reality now.

As Christ-followers, we are called to be shalom-makers.  Jesus summarized it best in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Blessed are the peace-makers, shalom-makers, for they are children of God”.  Bringing shalom to our world is one of the primary tasks of the church.  We must be actively pursuing and sharing shalom with the world.  Toward his conclusion in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear that you will be known by your fruit, and, as you know, shalom, is one of the fruits of the Spirit.

In our text for today, Jesus gives two gifts to his disciples: the Holy Spirit and God’s Shalom.  It isn’t very difficult to see the connection between the gifts and the implication of what these gifts are to be used for.

Shalom is a gift that we receive and it is a gift we give to others.

Shalom is the power of the Holy Spirit living and working in us, empowering us to share God’s shalom with the world.

This means that we cannot claim to be Christians if we are not actively pursuing and sharing Shalom.  In the words of the Psalmist, we must “seek shalom and pursue it” for we are known by our fruit.

We respond to the gift of Shalom by either ignoring it or by participating in it.  There is no middle ground.  If God is in and with us, then Shalom will prevail – it will explode out of us.  When we abide in shalom, we cannot help but pass it on!

To receive the gift of Shalom, we must turn our back on the destructiveness of the world; however, this does not mean we turn our back on the world.  Our mission as the church is to enter the world to spread shalom.  When we abide in shalom, we seek to bring healing and wholeness to our broken world.  In other words, the church is called to be a community of shalom – to be a foretaste of God’s future and to bring God’s shalom to the world.

Someone once said that “to dwell in shalom is to enjoy living before God, to enjoy living in one’s physical surroundings, to enjoy living with one’s fellows, to enjoy life with oneself”.  Shalom is about life the way God intended to be lived – a life of joy, gratitude, satisfaction and rest.  A life lived to the fullest in hopeful anticipation of Christ’s return when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.  A life lived in self-sacrificial love for others in the midst of a hurting world that calls out for healing – a world where hunger, warfare, broken relationships, and suffering abound.  A life lived that works for justice.  A life lived that seeks to bring healing and restoration.  A life that knows even when sin and death seem to always have the last word, that the Holy Spirit will always bring comfort and shalom.

When Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done”, he was teaching us to pray for shalom.  God’s kingdom is one where Shalom abounds.  God’s will is for shalom to permeate the entire universe.  As God’s covenant partners, our responsibility is to cultivate God’s kingdom and to do his will.  Through his resurrection, Christ has established his kingdom on earth.  We do not idly wait for his return because we, the church, the people of God, are called to be Christ’s presence on earth – to be shalom-makers, bearers of faith, hope and love.  The coming of the kingdom is about the restoration of shalom, about God reconciling all things to himself.

On SERVE this year, we had the chance to participate in God’s shalom by learning, praying, eating, playing, and serving together.  All are acts of worship.  All are acts of shalom.  All are a taste of God’s kingdom.  When we gather together as a church to learn, pray, play and to serve others, we too are participating in shalom.

I want to leave you with a challenge today – that when the Bible talks about “peace” that you remember that it is really talking about shalom.

Shalom is God’s gift to us.  May we faithfully pursue it and pass it on to those who are so desperately seeking it.  Amen.

Profession of Faith, Hope, and Love

Below is sermon I gave at our recent Profession of Faith service at Bethel Christian Reformed Church on June 19, 2011.

The text was Romans 4:16-5:5.

In our text for today, Paul is in the middle of explaining to the church in Rome how believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, are saved through faith.  Paul wants to make it very clear that our salvation does not depend on what we do for God or how well we follow religious traditions.  Rather, we are saved by what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Our salvation comes through faith in Christ alone.

According to Paul, we can understand salvation through faith by turning to the story of Abraham.  Abraham is the father of all who believe in Jesus because he saw clearly that faith is about trusting the promises of God.  God promised Abraham and Sarah, who were childless and well beyond child-bearing years, that through their offspring, Abraham would become “a father of many nations”.  Even though the promise seemed impossible to fulfil, Abraham and Sarah trusted God.  God was faithful to his promise – Abraham and Sarah had a son named Isaac.

But God’s promise to Abraham didn’t end with Isaac.  Throughout the Bible, we hear of God’s promises to end the reign of sin and death and to establish his kingdom on earth.  These are promises that are realized in Jesus’ coming to earth.  And if you read the Jesus’ family tree in Matthew and Luke, you will see that Jesus is the great-great-great-great-great-great (you get the idea), grandson of Abraham and Isaac.

These promises of God are made to you as well.  At your baptism, your parents accepted God’s promises on your behalf.  Today, in making a public declaration of your love for Jesus, you have accepted these promises as your own.  Because you trust these promises, you are daughters of Abraham and sisters of Jesus.  You have claimed Christ and his promises as your own.

Amy, Avery, and Kirstyn – you are on a journey.  It is a journey of becoming like Jesus.  It is a process of transformation, of putting off the old self and putting on the new self as you let Christ rule in your life.  Your Profession of Faith is not a graduation from “Church School” or a diploma in Christianity.  Today is not about how much of the Bible you have memorized or how good you are at understanding doctrine or how well you follow religious tradition.  Profession of faith is not your destination – you have not arrived at some spiritual resort.  Today is not the end of your journey.  In many ways, your journey begins today and it will take the rest of your life to complete.

Today is about the public commitment you have made to be Christ followers.

But what does it mean to be a Christ follower, to be a disciple of Jesus?

Throughout his letters, St. Paul describes discipleship in three simple words – faith, hope, and love.

If discipleship is a journey of becoming Christ-like, then we can describe the elements of discipleship, faith, hope, and love, as the things that we take along with us on our journey.

As Christ followers, we have faith that Jesus is God.  Jesus is the perfect and the clearest revelation of who God is.  We have faith that Jesus is who he says he is – that he is the son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the one who is 100% human and 100% God.  When we have faith in Christ, we are putting our trust in him.  When we trust someone, we take them at their word.  In putting our trust in Jesus, we believe what he says is true and we begin to see the world the way he sees the world.

If discipleship is a journey, than faith is the map we use to navigate our world.  However, the map of faith is not regular two-dimensional road map that helps us get from point A to point B.  Rather, the map of faith is like a topographical map that helps us see, in three dimensions, the terrain in which we are travelling.  In other words, the map of faith is like Google Earth or Google Maps in street view – we can see the shape and structure of things.

The map of faith is not a treasure map where “X marks the spot”.  Faith in Christ gives us eyes to see the world in a new way – the true nature of things is revealed and our journey of transformation creates a new way of seeing as we begin to see people and things in a new light and from a different perspective, from the light and perspective of God’s love.

However, if the map of faith is not about pointing us toward a final destination or a buried treasure, then we need something to orient ourselves, to make sure that our eyes stay faithfully focused on God`s promises.  We might be able to see the world though eyes of faith, but seeing is not enough.  While a topographical map can provide a detailed description of a landscape, without knowing where you are and the direction you are heading, a map quickly becomes useless.  We need to be able to orient ourselves otherwise our journey cannot begin.

Hope orients us and gives us our bearings.  Hope is like a compass.  It helps keep our eyes focused on God’s promises.  Jesus promises us that he is coming again and will renew all things.  This hope orients us in a world of cynicism and despair, where death and evil seem to always have their way.  Hope gives us direction – we set our sights on the One who is the Morning Star, to the future he will inaugurate, a time when “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.  Hope points us in the direction of God’s kingdom.

But, as I’ve said, our journey is not about a final destination.  It is not about making it safely through earth and getting into heaven.  Actually, the opposite is true.  It becomes clear in Revelation 21 and 22 that our destination is not heaven; rather, heaven’s final destination is earth.

This means that the compass of hope orients us toward God’s future, a future that he began bringing into the present with the resurrection of Jesus.  A hope for the restoration of all things.  A hope that calls us to continue God’s work in the present by being the hands and feet of Christ in our broken world; a hope that overcomes the easy despair of cynicism; a hope that laughs in the face of the impossible because through Christ all things are possible; a hope that enlivens us to show the world that another way of seeing and being in the world is indeed possible; a hope that call us to bring God’s future into the present.

However, our journey is difficult.  The map of faith and the compass of hope are not enough to sustain us.  We require provisions that will never run out, an abundant source of nutrients that will provide what we need, especially during difficult times – the times when we feel that we are lost and going in circles and the times when we feel like we are going nowhere, travelling alone on a dark and unknown path.

The everlasting love of God is what we require to give us strength for the journey.  Indeed, it is the only provision we need.  God’s love supplies us with the nourishment we need to persevere on our journey.  God’s love is the backpack we carry.  There is no room in this backpack for hatred or fear or revenge.  In this backpack, we carry the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

But this love is not something that we selfishly hoard in our packs – it is meant to be given away.  In fact, it is only by giving it away that our supply is replenished.  Love is the most important element of discipleship.  It is also the hardest.  It is the hardest, because it is the kind of love that always puts others first.  It is a self-sacrificial love that loves others no matter the cost, even the point of death.  It is the kind of love Christ showed us by emptying himself, taking on human flesh, becoming a slave and dying all for the sake of those he loves – each and every one of us.

Through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to give this love to others.  When we try to keep it for ourselves, when we try to contain it, we find that our supply runs low and how quickly the Fruits of the Spirit become rotten and inedible.  The gift of love that Christ gives us is a gift that is meant to be shared.  We were given this love in order to give it away to those who do not have it.  By giving it away, we never run out.  The love of God is the only provision we need on the journey of discipleship – a love that requires us to give of ourselves totally and completely, following Christ’s example.

The Holy Spirit equips us with what we need for our journey in following Jesus – the Map of Faith, the Compass of Hope, and the Backpack of Love.  All three work together to transform us from the inside out as we become more and more like Jesus.  And as we are transformed, our transformation prompts the transformation of others.  This means that we never travel this journey alone – we travel with Jesus, the one who carries our burdens so that we are free to carry his love.  It also means that we travel in that great cloud of witnesses who have also made a decision to follow Jesus.

The journey of discipleship is all about knowing and showing Christ’s love so that we may become like him.  As his disciples, we have faith in God’s promises, hope that God can and is doing the impossible, and a self-giving love for God and neighbour.

Amy, Avery, and Kirstyn, today you have professed your faith and in professing your faith you have also professed your hope and love…and the greatest of these is love.  Amen