John Owen’s Christology: Against Stereotypical Portrayals to the Contrary

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John Owen (1616-1683) is regarded highly by those who are classically or confessionally Reformed, such as those who subscribe, whether strictly or essentially, to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. He was clearly a theological genius, who, while devoted to the life and health of the church, was a man of deep knowledge, logical precision, and a master of nuance. Yet, among those who are less-than-classically Reformed or otherwise theologically persuaded, his theology gives off a repugnant, offensive stench.

This is in large part due to his treaty entitled, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This volume has garnered the praise of some (confessionally Reformed) and the infamy of others (broadly Reformed and otherwise inclined/persuaded). This is due to the fact that it was one of the most in-depth pre-Enlightenment defenses of the doctrine called, by proponents, definite redemption, and, by opponents, limited atonement (i.e., the idea that Christ died to secure the salvation for a particular people rather than for every person; hence, the words ‘definite’ and ‘limited’). Unfortunately, the notoriety of this specific treatise of Owen’s has had a negative effect which originates from both the confessional and more broadly Reformed, namely, that the high point of Owen’s theological contribution is centered on a theological concept as controversial as definite redemption/limited atonement.

It is not our purpose to argue for or against Owen’s explication of this particular doctrine. Rather, our purpose is to, however briefly, counter the common charge against the confessional Reformed that they were not thorough enough in how they related the person and work of Christ to the rest of theology.

Before we begin with something outside of the above noted and contested treatise, it is important to note at this point that the Death of Death is a treatise which is thoroughly Trinitarian and Christological in its explication. Owen begins the volume with detailed discussion of the role of each person of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—in the plan of redemption. This shouldn’t be something easily overlooked or minimized. In other word, if one wants to take serious objection to Owen’s articulation of definite redemption, one must address his Trinitarian starting point. And, as a warning, whatever else one wants to believe about Owen, he was a profound Trinitarian theologian who was aware of the many nuances that characterize the same; and, he maturely incorporated this into his explication of many a doctrine.

In addition, the next two “books” of Owen’s Death of Death are, for all intents and purposes, a Christocentric explication of redemption, dealing with his life, death, resurrection and ascension. The crux of the work of Christ, for Owen, is this: Christ making satisfaction for our sins as our great High Priest; that is, by the sacrifice of himself once and for all, removing the need for any further sacrifice. Again, as with our warning regarding his Trinitarianism, if one is to refute Owen’s understanding of definite redemption, one must address his thorough and mature Christology. A brief survey of the vast corpus of Owen will demonstrate his concern for and emphasis of the Triunity of God and the central role of Christ for us. In other words, Owen does not admit of ‘cheap shots.’ Rather, one must refute his Trinitarian-Christological logic to refute his, perhaps monstrous, explication of definite atonement.

Moving on from this rather long introduction, we will look at (again, only briefly—this is a blog post after all) a connection that Owen makes between Christ’s person and work and God’s revelation of himself. In Owen’s Christologia, he argues for the centrality of Christ’s person and work in God’s revelation of himself. In fact, he arguably anticipates a known antagonist to that most (un)popular aspect of Owen’s theology noted above. This antagonist is Karl Barth, the famous 20th-century Swiss theologian who walked away from liberalism and walked against, so to speak, some main aspects of confessional Reformed theology.

According to Owen, God determined that a representative was necessary for humans to know him. The fundamental reason for this is that God, in his transcendent and holy (ontological and moral, respectively) separateness from man, was unable to be known by a broken, sinful humanity. Moreover, pre-Christ revelations of God were not sufficient in themselves; that is, God’s revelation of himself in creation (i.e., general revelation) and in the Old Testament did not, so to speak, encapsulate and fully express who God is. Additionally, true apprehension of God’s nature is determined and limited by God making himself known in us. Looming largest is Owen’s contention that our never-ceasing drive toward idolatry and sinful rebellion is the strongest reason for the need of a “representation” of God who displays God’s immanence in the face of our radical separation from God (both ontologically and morally).

This representative is Jesus Christ, the God-man, or, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, incarnate (i.e., assuming a human nature). Why? Because Christ is the “complete and perfect representation of the Divine Being and excellencies” (Works, I:69). This expands, as one might expect, given our prolonged introduction to this rather short body, to Trinitarian concerns. Christ is, first, autotheos; that is, very God in his essence, and, thus, co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in every way. Christ is, with regard to his person, eternally generated from the Father; thus, he receives the divine attributes and his sonship from God the Father. In this connection, Christ is, for Owen, the essential image of God. Distinct from yet dependent on this, Christ, as God in the flesh (incarnated), is the sole “representative image” of God, which speaks most particular of his mediatorial role as the High Priest par excellence between God and man (Works I:70-73).  

This means for Owen that Scripture, as the word of God, cannot be equivalent to the essential and representative image of God (with the latter being dependent on the former), namely, Christ. Rather, Scripture is God’s revelation and declaration of Christ, the one in whom God is near to us, which makes Christ, in turn, the end and the object of it and the faith in God which it solicits. It is in the true object of faith, Christ, who is God assuming human flesh (i.e., Christ’s person and work), that the two means of God—Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit—proceed and find their effectualness. It is therefore impossible to effectively and thus truly know God apart from Christ;  therefore, even Scripture is rendered useless, never mind all other ways in which God reveals himself, apart from Christ. Christ is the totality of the revelation of God; he is the sum, the beginning, and the end of it (Works I:74-78).

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The Book of Job: Wisdom in Suffering

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The book of Job is an odd book in the biblical canon. Many people understand the basic premise of the book, namely, that Job suffered greatly, then all that he lost was restored and more. Yet, this understanding of the book merely touched on three or four chapters of the forty-two chapter book. So, while these mere three or four chapters should frame how one is to understand and interpret the basic thrust of Job, one has to ask: what about all the other chapters? So, it is our purpose, however briefly explored, to suggest some other things that the book of Job teaches us.

Job is a man who not only lost his children and his possessions, and, was encouraged by his wife to curse God, but, he was also afflicted with extreme physical debilitation (Job 1-2). In fact, this latter form of suffering, more than anything else, seems to be the cause of his consternation in the subsequent chapters (cf. Job 1:20-22).

One thing we can gather from this is that there is a form of suffering that is internal to a person which is harder to bear than any external suffering which one may be undergoing. We can have people in our lives whom we care deeply about pass, we can even suffer great financial and material loss, yet, these are really external to our being. That is to say, we can observe and even mourn for these losses yet they do not have to impact us internally. Now, of course, the acts of mourning or observing are internal acts, so to speak, but we are really speaking of a matter of degrees. In other words, the type of suffering mentioned is external to us until we internalize it. For example, I can observe and mourn for a loss, yet, this mourning will be likely temporary and, in a very real sense, forgettable. But, when suffering is internal or, in this case, internalized, it becomes a part of us, or, at least it can feel that way. Thus, rather than being temporary and forgettable, we carry it about like a heavy weight on our frame. This kind of suffering, it is important to add, can be physical, mental, or spiritual; or, as we’ve already suggested, internalizing external suffering can, in effect, transform it into an internal suffering.

This weigh of internal suffering in turn moves us to question the very heart of justice, which is a theme that occurs repeatedly in the book of Job. Job, under the weight of physical affliction, asks, in diverse ways: why? Why do the wicked, the ungodly, the evil, the you-name-it, prosper while the righteous and godly suffer? This is a theme that is not unique to Job but is repeated on numerous occasions by the prophets. Why must I, who loves God and his ways, suffer when the wicked, who do not love him and despise him, prosper and have lives void of suffering? Yet, with this wrestling regarding justice, especially, the justice of God, Job remembers the steadfast character of the Lord, who truly is just and true. This teaches us that trusting in the goodness and justice of God in the face of suffering is a sure source of comfort and strength. Reading Job Christocentrically, this becomes even clearer for the One God whose good and just character we rely on is the same God, in the person of Jesus Christ, who suffered as our great high priest and who thus knows quite intimately the suffering which befalls humankind … indeed, even the righteous.

Moving beyond this, there is a clear relational lesson from the book. Job, as is well known, is surrounded by friends who question his moral and spiritual integrity, and, therefore, argue with Job that the cause of his suffering is God’s rebuke and discipline toward him. Yet, we know from Job 1-2 and 42:7-9 that this is a reductionistic understanding of Job’s plight. Therefore, instead of seeing Job’s plight rightly, with humility and love, they choose to pass judgment on his suffering, assuming rather presumptuously the cause thereof. Thus, his friends become the foils of the book.

This teaches us a number of things. When we see someone else suffering, we should pause before rendering a judgment. We must ask the right questions; we must search diligently as to the matter, as far as we are able; we must have love, compassion, and mercy toward them. This is so very hard to do, we’ll be the first to admit.

There’s a most obnoxious form of pride that rises within us when we see someone suffering which seeks to impute evil or defective motives to the sufferer thus providing a cause for their suffering. Yet, this pride moves us from a place of love to a place of hate. We are then blinded by our hate, no longer able to see ourselves or the suffering ‘other’ rightly. We no longer recognize that we, with all of our presumptuousness, deceitfulness, self-seeking, you name it, are just as deserving of suffering as the next person. It is not because we are “special,” “morally superior” or possessing a refined moral compass relative to others that we are not suffering; rather, it is a gift from God, as is every other good thing. The absence of suffering is a sign, a reflection, of the goodness of God, not our own goodness.

As Job rightly and wisely declares, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). In contrast to the “friends” of Job, we are to lay down our lives for our friends, consider others better than ourselves, be willing to give to others even if it brings suffering upon us, and, mourn for and have love, compassion and mercy toward those whom we see suffering. For, as Jesus tells us, we should treat others as we would want to be treated (Luke 6:31).

While more could be said, we will close with this. Job is fundamentally a book about wisdom, especially wisdom in relation to suffering. Job states, “the fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Job 28:28). Commending ourselves to God, and him alone, regardless of what happens, regardless of who supports or denounces us, regardless of whether we have or lack, internally or externally, is the path to wisdom for all the good that we experience in this life, and, truly, in the one to come, is from the hand of the good God who is steadfast and never changing (cf. Job 42:10-17).

Software Development and Ministry: A Theology of Work

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Today I am offering a guest post from my friend James Pavilic (@jtpavlic). By way of introduction, James is a bi-vocational pastor who has worked in software development for almost 20 years and currently lives in Mesopotamia, Ohio where he is on the journey of rural church planting.

Software Development and Ministry

As a bi-vocational minister and software developer, I hope to bring a unique perspective to encourage church planters and pastors in their relationship and dealings with the unique personalities and perspectives of software developers.

The Necessity of a Biblical Theology of Work

Why work?

Well, most of us (whether believer or non-believer) don’t want to starve. So, we drag ourselves to work 5 or 6 days a week for anywhere from 40-80 hours a week. Some people fight their way through the week living for the weekend (using the common expression “TGIF”). Others are ok with work and accept it as part of life. Still others love work so much that you can hardly get them to stop.

Why the broad range of views? I believe that this is because of each individual’s theology of work. This is why it is necessary to have a biblical one that is both accurate and balanced.

Some believers think that work is post-fall, meaning that this was part of God’s curse on humanity for their rebellion against Him. Is this true? Others believe that work is a blessing and part of God’s design for humanity which should be delightful all the time. Is this realistic?

A balanced view

Genesis 1-3 seems to paint a different picture. Let’s quickly look at it. In Genesis chapter 1 we see God at work. This is clear from Genesis 2:2 where it says two times that God finished the “work that he had done.” The idea found in the Hebrew word for work is labor, something that is done or made. If God does it, then it certainly isn’t sinful or bad.

Why does this matter? In Genesis 1:26 we are told that humanity was made in the image, or likeness of God. But how do we know that work is something that is imaged? Genesis 1:28-30 seems to tell us this. Here we see that humanity was to be fruitful and multiply, have dominion, tend the garden, and harvest food from the plants. Moreover, it also points us to the fact that humanity was to take the luscious garden they were in as a kind of template which was to be used as a model for the rest of the world.

If this were not enough, we see in Gen. 2:5 and 2:15 that humanity was to work and keep the ground. This working and keeping was not a curse, but was simply what humanity was to do as they imaged God as His “earth keepers and beautifiers”.

Some big implications

In Genesis 1-2 we see a happy picture of life and work. But there is a slight problem…this happy picture doesn’t continue. The fall happened (Gen. 3:1-19). Humanity thought they knew better than God and rebelled against him. Wanting to do their own thing they brought down God’s curse not only upon all of humanity, but the earth as well.

One major curse was that getting food (work) would no longer be easy and pleasant, instead, it would be difficult and work would be hard or toilsome (Gen. 3:17-19). Thus, work, a thing that was meant to image God and be done with delight, was cursed. Working would not always be a delight, it would be hard.

But how does this translate to today? Many of us don’t till the ground. We work in the service industry, the healthcare industry, the financial sector, IT, childcare, teaching, etc. If you work in one of these sectors, or another, you could probably come up with your own ways that your work is cursed. The same is true in IT as there are hardware failures, software bugs, malicious hackers, loss of data, poor programming, poor design, terrible people to work with, and a litany of other things that make work hard. Thus, the reality of the curse meets us every day when we wake up and take our short or long commute to work.

A ray of hope

However, this isn’t the end of the story. There is hope. It is possible to actually enjoy our work and have it benefit us and others, it can be redeemed. Every day doesn’t have to be a waiting to say “TGIF”, or having others ask us if we have a “case of the Mondays”, nor does Wednesday have to be “hump day.” Work can be redemptive—making the world a better place while also blessing people too.

Jesus Christ came to redeem our souls and our interactions and attitudes toward the world, other people, and God. He demonstrated by His own life that He wasn’t afraid of work, and it wasn’t bad to Him. He showed us that work was to be done to the best of our ability and to the glory of God.

When He regenerated us, He gave us a new heart that would reform our relationship with God, our relationship with humanity, and our relationship with the world. He gave us purpose and meaning not only in our minds and hearts, but in our hands. He blessed us with redemption so that we might be a blessing to the world. Our work can be used to glorify God and bring delight to Him and others.

“I don’t work for you”

One day after a season of very long hours and difficult projects, my boss called me into his office and thanked me for my hard work, dedication, and the good attitude which I had been doing it with. He then asked me why I was such a good worker. My response to him was, “I don’t work for you. I work for God first and foremost. He tells me that I am to work for Him, giving Him my best and my all. So consequently, I give my best to you, and will continue to do so.”

This was a chance to share my raison d’être (reason or justification for existence). I was able in that brief moment, without being too preachy, to share a little of the reason for the hope is in me (1 Peter 3:13-17). Our lives should be all about God and for Him. Why? Because all things are through Him and to Him (Col. 1:16).

A vision for every profession

Work is not primarily to make money, to make us great, or to simply get us the food we need to survive and have the fun we want. Work is something we do because it is in our DNA. God made us to image Him, to work hard and to do our work well. We are to be craftsmen/women who create excellent product by doing excellent work. We should delight in being able to do this because we are a new humanity in Christ Jesus. We are created for good works that are more than loving others, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and stopping oppression. We must do these things, this is part of the good works Christ has called us to, but it is more than this. It is doing all our work with a full heart and to the Lord (Col. 3:23-24).

Our work is to image God in the manifold ways that He has blessed us with gifts and talents. To the artist, creating beautiful and stirring art. To the chef, incredibly tasting and well-presented meals. To the stay-at-home mom, caring and nurturing children as God does us. To the software developer, designing, creating, fixing, rebuilding, correcting, and ordering software with craft. To the IT professional, running projects on time and within budget, fixing computers, teaching others how to use computers, managing databases, etc.

Doing all we do for the Lord and doing it well. This is what the result of being given a new humanity produces.

 

A Preliminary, Sophomoric Critique of Barth’s Understanding of Election

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Barth, in his Church Dogmatics (II/2 §33), argues that if Christ is the subject and object of barthelection, and election is gracious, then it follows that the only decree, the only word of God, is a gracious one in Christ–the electing and elected. Now, we are aware that the topic of Barth’s understanding of election is a complex one and has been scrutinized and debated many times over. It is our purpose, then, to offers some brief, initial, and exploratory thoughts (in contradiction to mature and decisive ones), however incomplete and suggestive, regarding his understanding of election.

First, if one posits an asymmetrical relation between election and reprobation, such as, e.g., Bavinck, then it is not out of bounds to define election as gracious thus avoiding the symmetrical construal of so-called double predestination. Put simply, many Reformed theologians can go quite a ways with Barth on the subject of election. Barth even recognizes this at some point, although he notes that they don’t go all the way, as he sees it, with this truth (cf. CD II/2, p. 115).

Second, given the union with Christ that believers enjoy, the hypostatic union of Christ, and, the Triune and thus Christological shape of election (which are to be joined together), we can agree, along with Barth, that there is a very real sense in which Christ is both the subject and object (electing and elected) of election.

So, what makes Barth’s view so distinct then and what sets it apart from some representative Reformed understandings of election? We would suggest it is what Barth infers from the first two truths, namely, that the “only decision” executed by Christ is a gracious one, i.e., God’s gracious election (cf. CD II/2, pp. 115-116).

This raises the question: can we, in light of the teaching of Scripture, affirm that Christ only executes a gracious decision, as the subject and object of election? There are some initial reasons why this seems implausible. To begin with, it reduces Christ’s entire ministry, including his teaching, to a gracious, loving act of God. While one can never say that it is anything less than this, it would be oversimplifying things to say that Christ’s person and work entail only this.

Put simply, this leaves the impression that the wrath of God (i.e., God’s righteous indignation against sinners), which is in fact Christ’s wrath (who is truly God), is subordinate to and eclipsed by God’s love. That is to say, God’s love has priority over and is determinative of God’s wrath. God’s wrath is categorically trumped by God’s love.

Now, we would be reticent to think that this is in fact what Barth is suggesting, but, it seems to be an implication, however unwelcome it may be by Barth himself. It is clear that Barth has a practical purpose for his understand of election: he finds it of urgent necessity to argue for a Christological (= gracious) understanding of election so as to support the assurance of salvation that the believer, the elect, is to find. If election is relegated to some hidden, absolute decree, the substance of which is unknown, rather than being located in Christ, then the believer is left with little assurance, giving rise to asceticism, mysticism, and the like, if left unchecked (cf. CD II/2, pp. 110-115).

Yet, there is a practical consequence that Barth, at least from our brief engagement with his thought thus far (remember we are merely offering exploratory, incomplete arguments), fails to recognize. Barth’s construal, we would argue, is an incipient, implicit antinomianism.

Some explanation is necessary at this point. If Christ’s only decision, only activity, is a gracious one, then this makes Christ’s wrath (as truly God) merely passive. That is to say, it removes Christ from being the agent of God’s wrath, making it merely a lack or inactivity on God’s part. Reprobation, in turn, is merely a “passing over.” Now, we would suggest that there is some truth to the proposal that reprobation is a “passing over,” as it were, but it is not only that. All men are condemned and thus reprobate, apart from Christ. They are justly condemned justly because they hate God, love wickedness and suppress the truth in unrighteousness (John 3:17; Rom 1).

So, there is a “passive” element to reprobation. Christ does not make someone reprobate; rather, they are already reprobate due to their union with the first man, Adam (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15), and their active rebellion against God. And, it is at this point that we see an asymmetry between election and reprobation.

Election is purely an act of God’s grace, not by the works of effort of any person, whereas reprobation is rooted in the fallen, sinful state and actions of human beings.

But, alongside this, there is an “active” element to reprobation. Christ as God is actively wrath of Christwrathful toward fallen sinners. He is decisively wrathful, as it were. Thus, God’s (= Christ’s) wrath is not only the absence of union with and familial connection to God but also the active opposition on the part of God toward sinful persons.

Now, it will be helpful to bring it back around to our antinomian charge regarding Barth’s construal. By describing God’s only decision, with Christ as the ground, as gracious, Barth, whether intentionally or not, severely minimizes the reality of sin, God’s active opposition to it, and, as a consequence, portrays God’s attitude and actions toward sin as something less than that which fits the biblical account, leading, in turn, to a latent, underlying, if not overt, antinomianism.

To conclude, we can appreciate Barth’s critique of some portrayals of God’s activity ad extra as these (can) lead to an lack of assurance of salvation, resulting in sub-Christian approaches to sanctification. Yet, in his zeal to protect and promote the gracious activity of God, in Christ, he does not adequately account for, and, at least implicitly, minimizes God’s deep and persistent hatred for sin. Rather, it is because sin is so repugnant, so abhorrent in the sight of God that the person and work of Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension is painted in such marvelous, such powerful relief. It is this same Christ who will one day consummate the kingdom of God, defeating all of God’s enemies, including death. For, as Paul says, “the wrath of God is revealed … against … all unrighteousness of men” (Rom 1:18) and “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Rom 1:17).

The Whole Counsel of God in Its Proper Proportion

Below is a guest post from my close friend Stephen Burch. By way of a bio, God is His Father. Christ saved Stephen going on 17 years ago. He is a husband to Tara and father of three. He is a church planter with Reliant Ministries in Asheville, NC. His motto: “Christ is all.”

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“I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27).

“I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

All of God’s people are called to believe and declare all of God’s counsel in its proper proportion. All of God’s word–the Scriptures–are the whole counsel of God. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Without all of Scripture or the whole counsel of God, we will not be complete or equipped for every good work. In fact, there are aspects of God’s counsel that if not believed, lead to eternal damnation. This is a grave matter! Paul’s innocence of the blood of all was because he did not shrink from declaring any part of the whole counsel of God. We must be a whole counsel people. We must be whole counsel ministers. We should not leave out certain aspects of God’s word. Paul would have been guilty of blood if he left out part of the whole. Ministers, leaving out part of God’s counsel because we do not like it, agree with it, see its relevance or want to deal with the consequences of declaring it is massively more petulant than one of my children refusing healthy parts of their given diet. If it is in God’s word, if it is a part of God’s counsel, we must not, for our own good and the good of others, shrink from declaring or believing it. God knows better than us!

We must declare the authority of Scripture as God’s word. We must declare God’s holiness, righteousness, power and wrath. We must declare God’s justice, sovereignty and goodness. We must declare the love of God our Father. We must declare predestination and election. We must declare the law of Christ. We must declare the sinfulness of man, and the eternal damnation of the unrepentant. We must declare the mercy, grace and love of Christ and the joys of heaven. We must declare the Person and offices of the Lord Jesus. We must declare His great sacrifice for sin–the bloody cross, His burial, and His resurrection and ascension. We must declare the necessity of the new birth by the Holy Spirit. We must declare justification by Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone apart from works. We must declare that without holiness no one will see the Lord. We must declare that Christians are to put to death the deeds of flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. We must declare what we find in God’s word as we find. We must declare man’s responsibility to repent of sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must declare that sanctification is the result of walking in the Spirit. We must declare that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and dead.

Additionally, we must declare the whole counsel of God in its proper proportion. All of God’s word, all of God’s counsel is true, but certain truths are more essential than others. Certain truths are weightier than others. Certain truths are more important than others. In 1 Cor. 15:3-4 we read, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” So, the death, burial and resurrection of Christ Jesus, clearly, is of first importance. We must put the emphasis where God puts the emphasis. Logically, it follows then, that there are others truths, that while no less true, hold secondary or tertiary importance. The foundation of a building is more important than the bathroom tile. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone by which all other stones in the temple must line up. The cornerstone is not what Scripture teaches about tongues or the millennium, but Jesus Himself. Christ is all (Col 3:11). Jesus is the foundation of the temple. To put a bathroom tile in place of the foundation by emphasis is a grave error.

Jesus is the head of the church and must be treated as such. Jesus is the chief prophet that we must hear in all things. He is the High Priest and the King of Kings. Therefore, as we handle truth, the Person, offices and work of Christ carry more importance and weight and therefore should receive more attention than, say, case laws from Leviticus. Nevertheless, the case laws of Leviticus are true and given by God to us for our instruction. The dietitian of an army is massively important. A wise army chef would feed the troops healthy food in their proper proportion: eggs and fruit for breakfast, a sandwich and salad for lunch, and meat and potatoes and vegetables with a small dessert for dinner. Imagine an army missing fruits or vegetables. Imagine an army fed only protein. Imagine an army eating only dessert. The importance of the substance and its proportion is massively important in diet. When dealing with God’s counsel, the same principle holds true; people will not meet their full potential, be anemic or worse–die–if these truths are not heeded.

As we present Christ, we must present Him as He is–both a Lion and a Lamb. We must not declare Christ as warrior Lion to the exclusion of His Lamb-like grace. If we believed some people’s unbiblical portrayal of Christ, one would think he is a lily white powder puff who tolerates sin because…well, he is like us. Or, others portray His terrors so loudly and frequently that their hearers fear to come to Him. Jesus is full of grace and truth. He is a Lion and and Lamb. Jesus is a just God and a Savior.

The whole counsel of God is like a great orchestra lead by Christ. It is filled with many instruments all playing harmoniously in their proper proportion (Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, chap. 5). So, away with the one or two string banjos of men constantly plucking away at their pet truths.

We can err in what we hold back or by setting forth certain truths more loudly than they should or by declaring secondary truths more frequently or with more passion than primary or first importance truths. We must be led by the Spirit to have success in proclaiming the whole counsel in its proper proportion.

People of God, in choosing a preacher, find an elder who will proclaim the whole counsel of God in its proper proportion. And, elders of God, when others think of you and your ministry may the first thing that comes to mind be, “he determines not to know anything ‘among [us] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified'” (1 Cor. 2:2). And, second, “that man loves the whole counsel of God.” Third, “he is lead by the Spirit because the whole counsel is presented in its God-given proportion.” May, at your life’s end, you be able to say with Paul, “ “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26-27).

Moving from Lament to Comfort in the Light of God’s Presence

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst

“Jesus wept.” Lazarus, Jesus’ friend, was dead, lying in a cold tomb. “Jesus wept.” We Jesus - gardencannot allow the gravity of perhaps the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) to escape us. Why did Jesus weep? The Son of Man, the Son of God, wept. Who, more than he, felt the weight of death, the travesty of it? Death was not some benign thing for Jesus. Death was not indifferent. It was not merely the death of a friend that Jesus was weeping over. It was the reality of death itself. Oh, the agony of a broken world, of a shattered creation. Jesus, being “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), knew better than anyone how very grim was the reality of death.

To imagine that life could slip from a living being is a horror beyond comprehension. God, yes, Jesus, created a world that was good, a world that was whole. Yet, this same creation is, as the apostle Paul writes (Romans 8), subject to futility: the futility, the open-yawning mouth of death. How vacuous! How empty! How devoid of the fullness, the bounty, yes, the wholeness that finds its origin in the Lord of all is a creation infiltrated, poisoned by, cancerous and ever-hungry death!

This is why Christ, possessing this abundance life in himself, uninhibited by death, was collapsing under the weight of the prospect of drinking the cup of God’s wrath on the cross. So severe was the weight of the agony of this prospect that he, as the Lukan account records it, sweated blood. The one, never having truly known death, possessing the life everlasting found in and only in God faces the prospect of becoming death, of experiencing the harrowing reality of death. Yes, “Jesus wept.” He agonized under the weight of it. He was “deeply moved” (John 11:38) by it.

You see, Jesus, as the Son of Man, felt the weight of a broken creation inflicted by a cancerous foe in way that could never had been possible apart from the Son of God’s assumption of human flesh … and he wept, he agonized, over it. Furthermore, as Son of God, he never viscerally experienced what it means to walk in discord with God, with said discord resulting in pervasive death in one’s thoughts, deeds, and, feelings. Words cannot adequately express the brutal travesty of such a one as the Christ, the Son of the Father, experiencing death although never knowing nor ever being deserving of death.

Jesus response on these two occasions can be understood as lament and is therefore instructive of how we ought to perceive our own life in the presence of God. To start, as our lives become more enveloped by the familial presence of God, as we begin to love what he loves and hate what he hates, as our minds are enraptured and delighted with the things of God, we begin to grasp how cruelly grim, darkness, heinous, ghastly (to use a few descriptors), a sin and death drowned creation really is. And, a most appropriate response is lament. We lament, we groan as we perceive with Christ’s mind the immense gap that exists between what is and what ought to be. Thus, we should expect nothing less than a life in God’s presence to begin to feel lament.

This lament we will (or, more strongly, should) experience does not remain “out there.” We quickly come to term, in a way which—praise be to God!—Christ never knew, how very much this same sin and death consumed creation is indicative of our very own being. The Psalmist writes:

 … I am lonely and afflicted.

The troubles of my heart are enlarged;

bring me out of my distresses.

Consider my own afflictions and my trouble,

and forgive my sins (Ps 25:16-18)

Our afflictions, our distresses our not only the result of external, ‘out there,’ circumstances, but are indeed the result of our sin, for which we need forgiveness. We feel loneliness and trouble of heart because of our own sins and the sins committed against us. And, we lament. Just as Jesus wept over a living being having life stolen from him, so should we, as our mind is conformed more into the mind of Christ, lament over the lifelessness that we often find in our own selves. Being in the presence of a living, loving, ever so gracious God makes the brutality of a death-riddled creation, a death-riddled heart, so uncomfortably and strikingly apparent. And we, rightly, lament.

Lamenting, truly lamenting, is a proper and fitting response to being in the presence of the Triune God who is perfect in all his ways. Yet, this lamenting is not the end of being in God’s presence. Rather, we move from lament to comfort. After outlining the immense suffering he has experienced, Job exclaims:

“I know my Redeemer lives,

and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

yet in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see for myself,

and my eyes shall behold,

       and not another” (Job 19:25-27).

In the midst of Job’s lament, there is hope, there is comfort for his “Redeemer lives”! Paul writes, referring to the lament we feel when faced with our death-bleached hearts and minds, “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Corinthians 7:10).

True God-induced and inspired lament is of the sort that does not remain in the depths of sorrow and agony. Rather, it is a lament that moves toward hope; it is a lament that moves toward finding comfort.

And, where do we find comfort? Along with Job, we exclaim: I know my Redeemer lives! resurrectionThe various shapes and forms of death, the bitter consequence of sin, does not screech the final note. If our redeemer lives, then we live for we are hidden with him (Colossians 3:3)! Yes, our redeemer lives (1 Corinthians 15), and so, we move from mourning, from lamentation, to a comfort found in him who conquered sin and its results by his death, resurrection, and, ascension. Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). In the same way, Paul writes:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

To conclude, before God’s perfect love and goodness, we rightfully lament a creation subject to futility, which includes our very selves; yet, this lament moves us to find comfort in the only way we can: our union with the risen Christ.

 

Why Does Reading Books Matter?

Reading books is, for many, a thing of the past. In our image-centric culture–one in bookswhich we are so very used to sound bites (e.g., Youtube videos, the news), i.e., quick, easily assimilated bits of knowledge (so-called)–it is hard to think of reading a book, never mind, many books. Of course, there will always be the reading of books, but, my aim here is to urge against a general tendency in our culture and society to move away from reading.

First, reading builds can shape one’s character. This may not be the most obvious benefit of reading books, but, let me elaborate. Patience is required to read books, especially good ones. It takes time, thought, reflection, even persistence, to read good books. Not all books are good because they are easy to read or the book version of a sitcom; some books are good because the content is so rich, so significant, that, even if written in a cumbersome, awkward, or otherwise less-than-perfect style, they still offer something from which the reader will gain.

Moreover, the reading of books encourages humility. To take on another’s perspective, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is a form of listening. Listening, in turn, is a form of humility. To truly listen to someone, whether orally or by way of reading, is to be willing to relinquish our own constant driving to hear ourselves and to actually hear someone else. This is actually a skill that is quite difficult; it is one which many people think that they have, but are merely approximating. In a sense, then, the reader is sitting at the fit of the writer, so to speak, to learn, to take part in, to be enveloped by the words, the thought patterns, indeed, the world of the writer. This can be the utmost form of humility; although, admittedly, not usually of the kind that sustains itself. Nor, it’s important to add, is this humility a necessary result of reading. (For, isn’t it the case that many a reader is of the repugnantly arrogant sort?) But, I would argue, that one is much more likely to grow in humility, patience, and the like, if one reads books.

Second, the reading of books helps one to see and understand, if not agree with, the perspective of another. This is especially the case with non-fiction books where agreement or the lack thereof is more clearly intrinsic to the process. It is much harder to be vitriolic, harsh, judgmental, or scathing (to name a few) toward another if one has actually taken the time to read and understand their point of view. This can go for politics, religion, ideology, philosophy, even linguistic theory (yes, even linguists debate, trust me).

Third, the reading of books helps the reader to process information better. Like anythinglearning, reading, and, it’s corollary, learning, is a muscle that needs to be worked. The more one works this ‘muscle,’ the more it grows stronger. If one does not learn, with reading being a significant means of such, then the ability to learn, and, therefore, to think begins to atrophy. Now, some may not value thinking, or, processing information. But, it would be the height of foolishness to take such a path for, in fact, we all think, we all process, we all digest, the world around us, ourselves, and other stimuli in our lives. Put simply, it is impossible, unless one is truly in a vegetative or like state (in which case, probably not reading this post), to cease from thinking. That is to say, anti-intellectualism, of the most crass variety, is a non-starter for it is a non-option.

My last reason most especially pertains to those in the church who desire to teach, lead, instruct, guide, preach, counsel … love. If one wishes to be an ambassador for Christ and truly serve his church by being a light to those in darkness and a comfort for those who are suffering, then reading is a necessary supplement to this task. To read specifically the Scriptures but also books that teach, edify, encourage, guard, is to grow in one’s capacity to love the Lord by loving those whom he loves. Ignorance, especially of the willful kind, is not the right choice if one is truly wanting to serve Christ’s church. Yet, with that, it is important to make a caveat: the reading, in most cases, will fit the calling of the particular individual. So, a pastor should read books on how to pastor well, books that encourage him to pastor better (such as Christian biographies); counselors should read books about counseling as well as books that deal with specific issues that come in counseling.

All these things, along with many others, support a single, overall contention of mine. The reading of books, in proper proportion and with respect to one’s calling and station in life, is always a good thing; indeed, it is a thing that should not be neglected, for, to do so, is to neglect loving God and growing in humility. Don’t mistake this as a prescription as to how much or at what pace to read, but, rather, it is to commend, in general, the importance and necessity of reading.