The Work of Christ: More than God’s Justice

Robert LethamTony Reinke said in his book Lit! that, along with whatever else he is reading, he tries to always be in book on the work of Christ. This desire surely needs little explanation if you are a Christian. But before you think I am laying on the guilt, let me admit that in 2018 I read only two books on the work of Christ, and both of those were at Easter. One of them was Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ. And it is my intention to post some reflections on it over the next month as we head towards Easter this year. You are reading the first post in this series which – along with the second – will be thinking about penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which Letham defines as, “Christ himself willingly submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf and in our place so that we will not have to bear it ourselves” (p133).

Numerous objections have been raised against PSA through the years and today the doctrine is perhaps facing some of its harshest criticism to date. Letham outlines and addresses two popular objections to PSA: (a) it seems unjust; (b) and therefore raises questions about God’s character. Letham more than adequately rebuffs these criticisms and defends the biblical, just and loving doctrine of PSA. But I want to touch on a third issue he interacts with, “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories” (p137). In other words, many feel that PSA reduces God’s grace to a cold transaction devoid of affection, or “stock-exchange divinity”, as Edward Irving called it. How do we answer this objection?

Briefly Letham shows how the Bible speaks very positively about God’s law. Quoting from a handful of Psalms he argues that God’s judgments are deemed perfect, and those who meditate on his justice are called wise. In the Gospels we do not see Jesus abolishing the law but rather pressing its demands upon the entire person, “requiring total and lifelong dedication to the service of God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, while Paul asserts the law’s inability to save in Romans he is careful and clear not to reject it (Romans 3:31; 7:12, 14). So, regardless of our dislike for legal categories, the Bible affirms them; God’s justice, righteousness and judgment are not merely good, but perfect.

Letham then provides a second argument against those who would reject PSA, on the grounds of it being abstract, too ledger like, or extrinsic. He writes, “It may be helpful for us to see the penal substitutionary death of Christ in the context of God’s loving provision for the deliverance of those who otherwise were without hope…The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice” (p138). You should probably read that quote again. Letham’s point is that instead of divorcing God’s love from legal categories, the Bible holds them together. “God’s amazing love had to be righteous as well” (p139).

This post is more technical than I aim to be here, so let me keep it short and attempt to offer a neat conclusion. PSA is a central idea in both Old and New Testaments. But far from seeming to reduce God to justice crazed tyrant, in God’s provision of a substitute – ultimately his own Son – we see God’s crazy love (thanks Francis Chan). The cross beautifully demonstrates God’s love and his justice. In love Christ faces my judgment. His perfect justice partners his love and removes the penalty for sin. Hear Letham one last time, “Sin is so central to to the New Testament portrayal of the atonement that a theory which leaves it on one side is deficient” (p163). PSA upholds God’s perfect justice, presents us with God’s great love and pardons us of our sin. To adapt a few lines from O Church Arise: Come see the cross, where love and justice meet.

Bray on Scripture: Experiencing God’s Love

Gerald BrayThe denomination I belong to has been labelled many less than positive things. In fact, I was recently asked about a written statement I made in 2016, where I called REACH “exclusive and condescending.” Presiding bishop, if you are reading this, I still love our denomination. But returning to what other people have called REACH, I’ve heard: dry, cerebral, bland and academic. And that was just this past week. While these descriptions are true to varying degrees, another label I wear proudly is that we are bibliocentric. Though some Christians are irked by our staunch commitment to biblical preaching and teaching, it is a mistake to conflate being fully persuaded about the centrality of the Bible with boring bookishness. Previous posts in this series have argued that without Scripture we will worship idols; Spirit filled ministry is Bible saturated ministry; and God’s Word is sufficient to sustain faith. I hope those older posts went some way towards persuading my readers that the Bible is a staple for the Christian life, now I want to challenge believers who know that but no longer delight in reading God’s Word. In other words, knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.

In God is Love, Gerald Bray writes, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.” Bray makes two linked points: firstly, our expectation when we read the Bible should be that we will not only learn of but experience God’s love, for his words speak to our hearts; secondly, this does render the Bible less than authoritative or objective, so while we encounter God in his words we must also pay attention to what he says. This can be illustrated with the conversations we have every day: someone is behind speech so I cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it. Conversation is personal. This is no less true of Scripture than it is of speaking to my neighbour. Bray wants us to remember that behind the Bible is a lover, the God we were made to enjoy and delight in. Studying the Bible is therefore where we experience the love of God, as he addresses us and answers our hearts’ longings. We would do well to approach our devotional reading or the preached Word on Sundays with that expectation, for “the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself,” which brings us to another point Bray makes.

Even though Christians reject the idea of holy or sacred objects “there is Holy Scripture because the Word of God is present in it, proclaimed by it, and made efficacious thought it.” Similarly to the previous point, Bray writes, “We treasure his words…because we sense his presence in them.” If it is true that behind the affectionate words found in Scripture is a person then we must affirm that he is present when they are read. Sadly many Christians today limp between Sunday highs, ecstatically powerful times of worship, which usually means the band was tight. But if we understand the points Bray is making we would forget such a limited view of God’s presence and exchange it for a more biblical understanding and expectation. We are not merely hearing the words of God when the Bible is read we are being invited, or ushered, into his presence by those very words. God is no more present in the spine tingling atmospheres many churches manufacture than he is when the plain Word is read. When we open the Bible and seek God’s presence in his speech we can actually experience him in a way that far surpasses engineered emotions. If only we believed this when we opened our Bibles.

Doodle: Childlessness and the Sovereignty of God

I have now written a couple of posts arguing against the position of many Christians that says married couples must at least attempt to have children. Most recently I challenged what I believe are weak arguments against deliberate childlessness, developing another post I wrote on the topic last year. This shorter post is a personal note, appended to those linked above. And I am writing it because though I stand by my position, my wife and I recently had a child; in fact, we knew my wife was pregnant when my first post went up. So here, very briefly, I want to answer some of the pointed criticisms and more emotional reactions to my posts.

God is sovereign

Institutes volume 1One comment on my original post read, “You aren’t the one who decides if you have kids or not. You may do your best to prevent it, but if the Lord wants you to procreate you are going to have kids.” AJ, who posted the comment, could not have been more correct. We had decided that we did not want children, but God willed something else. I am reading through Calvin’s Institutes this year and it was certainly no coincidence that I read this the day before my son was born, “Augustine rightly complains that wrong is done to God when a higher cause of things than his will is demanded” (1.14.1). Calvin also writes that we must accept God’s secret purposes. Though that section addresses speculation, it applies well to sovereignty. Later, Calvin writes, “If we had quiet and composed minds ready to learn, the final outcome would show that God always has the best reason for his plan (1.17.1).

Children are a gift

Since God is sovereign it follows that children are the result of him giving them to us. They are not something everyone is entitled to, nor are they something every married couple should expect (or demand) from God. This is surely part of the reason children are called a blessing throughout the Old Testament. My wife and I are very grateful for our son. Our experience of him has been serendipitous, an unlooked for delight. But because children are a gift, a blessing from the Lord, all of us must remember what the Puritan Samuel Rutherford wrote in one of his letters, “I write my blessing to that sweet child, whom you have borrowed from God; he is not heritage to you, but a loan, love him as folks do borrowed things.” We are not entitled to children, as Rutherford says they are not our heritage but borrowed from God. We are entrusted with children, to treasure and take care of them.

How to we respond to God’s sovereignty and gifts?

Theodore LewisThis is the question all of us must answer, and not only when God gives or withholds children. At another point in his Institutes (1.16.6), Calvin shows that the scope of God’s sovereignty is ubiquitous, “Nothing at all in the world is undertaken without his determination.” This, Calvin says, means that discontentment with our lot is nothing other than the attempt to rid ourselves of God’s purposes. AJ’s comment on my post touched on this, “Hopefully if your wife does get pregnant the child is not aborted. Surely a pastor would not do that.” I would want to add that no Christian would do that. But the point as I conclude is the question: how do we respond to God’s sovereignty, and the gifts he does or does not give us? One of the names we were considering for our son was Felix, which is Latin for lucky or fortuitous. The name we settled on was Theodore, ‘gift of God.’

Book Review: What the Bible Teaches About the Trinity

Considering the present theological maelstrom about the Trinity punctuating most timelines and newsfeeds, I chalked it up to providence when I was given this short book to review. While the intricacies of the Son’s eternal submission to the Father will be dismissed as a superfluous conversation by many, studying what God has revealed about himself as both three and one – Father, Son, and Spirit, yet one God and not three gods – is not a subject (if we can call it that) that any Christian should pass over. Indeed, every Christian should be familiar with what the Bible teaches about the Trinity. In this helpful and mercifully short book Stuart Olyott sets out to do just that.

Stuart OlyottIn the introduction, Olyott offers his work as a primer, both concise and accessible. Without assuming to settle minor and infinitely complicated details about our doctrine of the Trinity, throughout the book the reader is presented with the major tenets and a few key passages. He acknowledges disagreements, mostly those of the past, and modestly owns that there is much as creatures we will never comprehend. Instead his modest aim for the work is that, “It will remove that sense of strangeness that you may feel as you first approach this deep subject and make it possible for you to progress where once you thought you would never begin” (p7). Olyott achieves this, providing his reader with a very useful and far from insignificant first step in their lifelong study of the living and true God, the Trinity.

Even though Olyott overstates the point when he writes that no question about God containing the word ‘how’ can be answered (p15), I appreciate that he makes humility and adoration key components to his work. As the author says, “We come as humble learners, searching the Scriptures…humbled that we cannot enter anywhere, except where he has permitted. We are not as God. We are creatures. We can never discover what he has not revealed” (p16). This is such an important and often overlooked point when it comes to the Trinity, specifically, and Christian doctrine, generally. We come to God as fallen and finite creatures, meaning it is appropriate we do not view the subject of God’s nature, or any theological matter, as one we might master. Rather, as Olyott insists from the beginning of his book and concludes in his final chapter, we should walk away from theological study as reverent worshippers. Olyott’s book captures these twin attitudes, as the author refuses to venture far beyond what we can know from Scipture and he brings the book to a close exploring how the truth of God as Trinity shapes worship and prayer.

TrinityWith this attitude of teachable humility and reverence, Olyott approaches the deep truths of God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. You can read other reviews to learn how the book is laid out; here I want to briefly comment on the general flow and aims of the book. Olyott identifies three Trinitarian heresies that have almost always existed in the church: polytheism, Unitarianism or Monarchianism, and modalism (p51; expanded on p81-86). The first overstates God’s plurality or threeness, resulting in three gods as opposed to the God who is one. The second favours God’s oneness and generally– for example in Arianism – denies the full divinity of the Son or the Spirit. The third suggests that God has at different points in history worn different masks, meaning there is no Son for God simply took another form or mode. But identifying the common heresies that ignore and twist the witness of Scripture does not get us where we need to be. Olyott then unpacks the mystery of the Trinity, affirming threeness and oneness, distinction and unity, the full divinity of each person of the Trinity with the repeated scriptural insistence that there is one God. This forms the bulk of the work and is worth reflective reading, critical engagement, and serious study. Olyott carefully guides the reader through the turbulent waters of Trinitarian theology, making all the necessary stops, and only a few that would have been better left out of a primer. The author works hard throughout his work to make plain what has been revealed to us but also warning against that which has not. I appreciated his simplicity, especially considering that God’s Triune being is perhaps the greatest mystery we will ever encounter (p16); and I thought the strict dismissal of all analogies for the Trinity was an important challenge to teachers and students alike (p78, 86). Though he covers immense ground in a short space, Olyott does well to avoid reductionism and shows that when it comes to the Trinity responsible simplicity can only go so far.

Before concluding this review, it must be said that while Olyott demonstrates the appropriate instinct to turn his abridged theology into doxology, I found his application to be shallow. This shallowness also extends to Olyott’s theological corrections, which are dated. On the first criticism, my want for application, to limit the practical value of the doctrine of the Trinity to worship, prayer, and salvation feels like a sermon where the application is: read your Bible, pray, and evangelise. To pick just a few examples, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is immensely important for our understanding of the cross, progressive holiness or sanctification, God’s comforting and powerful presence, being transformed by God’s Word, and properly grasping human nature since we are made in the image of God. Secondly, the book possesses too few timely corrections that the proper understanding of the nature and work of God results in. Obviously this is not a work exclusively on the Holy Spirit, but pneumatology is an area where modern misunderstandings must be challenged. And I am not only talking disagreements about spiritual gifts or growing Pentecostalism; we desperately need work to be done around the role of the Spirit in empowering and making Christians fruitful, illuminating Scripture, and convicting us of sin. These were my two major criticisms of the book: it lacked rich, practical application and did not adequately challenge the significant errors that result from an incomplete view of God as he has revealed himself. But the brief work more than makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere.

Scotum FideiIn closing, let me reiterate the outstanding positives of Olyott’s work: accessibility, humility in approaching this study, application of the truth that God is Trinity, careful treatment what Scripture teaches, and the correction of common Trinitarian heresies, unwitting and deliberate. I have other further questions that I would like to raise but this review is already far too long. Therefore I highlighted just two concerns about the book, chosen because of the nature and intended audience of book: application and challenging prevalent misunderstandings. Having said that, my copy is well marked and I plan on returning to it in the future as both a teaching resource and invaluably concise reminder of the God whom we worship.

I received this book for free from Evangelical Press in exchange for this honest review. I was not required to write a positive review of the book. If you enjoyed this then you might enjoy other reviews I have written, here and here, covering some theological works, Christian living, and a few novels.

The Magician’s Nephew: A Strange but Familiar God

My wife and I recently decided to workLewis - Narnia through C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Growing up functionally illiterate, in a non-Christian home, meant that I stumbled into Narnia as an adult. Yet the subsequent comings and goings between my world and Narnia have retained the wonder of childlike discovery, and I cannot imagine that familiarity will ever dull my enjoyment Lewis’ resplendent masterpiece. Aiming to reflect on one chronicle a month, I hope to offer short posts sharing the light shed by each rereading, starting here with The Magician’s Nephew, though I think the point picked here applies to the entire series.

Referring to the Lewis’ entire Narnia narrative, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argues in The Lion’s World that Lewis was not trying to simply translate or repackage Christian doctrine. Instead the stories evoke what it feels like to believe in the Christian faith. Thus Lewis offers his readers the opportunity of encountering what they think they know for the first time. This is no truer than Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan, the Christian God.

Lewis cleverly exhibits this in the character of the Cockney Cabby. Standing in the dark and unformed Narnia, Aslan begins to sing, “[What] was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it” (p61). Ironically, the Cabby exclaims, “Gawd,” as the Voice resonates with their souls and raises the new Narnian landscape. Then, alongside Digory and Polly, “[With] open mouths and shining eyes; they were drinking in the sound, and they looked as if it reminded them of something” (p62). “The earth was of many colours: they were fresh, hot and vivid. They made you feel excited; until you saw the Singer himself, and then you forgot everything else.” It is God indeed who the Cabby sees in the fresh light of Narnia’s young sun. Though however magnificent the newly created world is, and long before Jadis’ evil has sunken deep roots there, the Singer rather than the song demands the audience’s attention.

After addressing the animals and before Aslan establishes the Cabby and his wife as the first king and queen of Narnia, he asks the Cabby (p81-82), “I have known you long. Do you know me?” The Cabby replies, a little perplexed, “Well, no, sir. Leastways, not in an ordinary manner of speaking. Yet I feel somehow, if I may make so free, as ’ow we’ve met before.” To which the Lion says, “You know better than you think you know, and you shall live to know me better yet.” The Cabby is then asked if he would like to stay in Narnia, where he would not only rule but also come to know Aslan, without the obstructions of the world he knew, back in London. Lewis does this for us, his readers, too. We are invited to encounter our Creator, who does not merely invest his creation with the marvellous richness of his own mind but installs us as his honourable rulers. This is the story that we think we know, even possessing some vague recollection of, yet choose to forget.

Lewis in 1950Aslan is at the same time both oddly familiar and unsettlingly strange. The Cabby knows this Lion. And so do we. For this is no mere literary character, he is the immense God that Lewis loved. This God lends great dignity to people. He searches them out, drawing them to himself. He steps across worlds in order that they might know him. As Rowan Williams writes, “In a word, what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace: the unplanned and uncontrolled incursion in our self-preoccupied lives of God’s joy in himself.” But, and it is apt that the last word comes from Aslan, full of regret and a heavy heart, when he describes Digory’s uncle the magician, “Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good” (p98).

How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin

Noahs-ark-pic

As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

Aronofsky's NoahI agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.