Monday, May 29, 2006

Ordered List of Salvation

When I first started writing down a systematic theology, I wanted to make a positive contribution rather than simply nitpick other peoples' theologies. At this point I have explained at some length a theology that I hope owes first allegiance only to God's revelation and is founded, it is my prayer, firmly on Christ. Here is the same presented in summary as an ordered list of salvation. Note that the order in which certain items are listed is not some claim to know more than God has revealed about the order of his thoughts, but a logical sequence in which we are able to see what God has done and has made known.
  1. God, in love desiring fellowship with his creation, decreed that all things in heaven and on earth should be headed up under Christ.
  2. God, accordingly, made mankind in God's image and breathed God's spirit into man. Within boundaries that God set, God gave mankind a lordship of his own and, consequently, both the possibility of highest glory and the inherent risk of rebellion. The possibility of rebellion was inherent in making mankind in God's image and capable of a degree of lordship.
  3. Mankind rebelled against God. The actual rebellion was neither decreed as necessary nor forbidden by God, but was within the domain of possibilities God had circumscribed as part of creation. The possibility of rebellion was a necessity of creating a creature in his own image.
  4. Mankind's rebellion against God is a fundamental depravity: a mislaid foundation that affects everything we do and sets us at enmity towards the true God and towards each other. Mankind's rebellion against God is the root cause of all "evil" properly called. Evil is correctly attributed to man's rebellion, not God's decree.
  5. God, in his goodness, decreed that all evil would be destroyed. The sinner was appointed a day of destruction. Yet God's hatred of evil did not overcome his love for his creation. This is God's grace: that God sent Christ into the world; and grace comes through Christ.
  6. He sent Christ as hope for the sick and dying world: healing the sick, restoring all kinds of infirmities, freeing those who were tormented and imprisoned in spirit, and raising the dead.
  7. He sent Christ as hope for the guilty and ashamed: he proclaimed repentance and forgiveness of sins, cleansed the impure and the defiled, and was a covenant of forgiveness sealed with his own blood.
  8. He sent Christ as hope for the world to come: he raised him from the dead, breathed God's own spirit into the people, and sent his Spirit to seal and to renew mankind in the image of God.
  9. He sent Christ as light for the darkness, as the power of God for our salvation, whose words carry the Spirit of God and create the desire for God within us.
  10. Mankind's judgment hinges on the encounter with Christ. Christ sets us free from our slavery to sin and calls us to follow him, to die with him, to be raised to life with him. In Christ, the evil in us is judged and condemned, the good re-created and renewed. God turns to man only in Christ his chosen mediator, and sinful man returns to God only in Christ.
  11. Yet in Christ God has chosen weakness, and God's grace in Christ does not revoke the gift of creation: that we, bearing God's image and having some lordship and capable of fellowship with God, are then necessarily able to rebel and turn away from God. So salvation is properly attributed to God's will that all should repent and come to a knowledge of the truth, but damnation is properly attributed to the rebellion of man.
  12. At the Last Day, Christ will judge the world, both the living and the dead. Evil will be defeated and destroyed. The beauty and gladness promised in creation will be fulfilled. The hopes of God's fellowship with man will be consummated with Christ and his people.
For those who like equations in their ordered lists of salvation, I'd offer this:

sinner + Christ = redeemed.

To those who would add other things or remove Christ from the key place, I'd have just one question: Is Christ sufficient or not?

Thank you to the readers who have stuck with me through this long journey writing down a systematic theology. I enjoy theology and expect to write about it again. But I have a few other things on my list that I've been postponing for too long, and (after I field any questions as best I can) I'll be moving on to other topics for awhile.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Chosen In Christ

How do you explain to someone what it means to be "chosen in Christ"? People tie their minds in knots over election. Here goes the tail-chasing: If God gets his way then he picks who goes to heaven and who goes to hell; Christ dies for those he picked; God didn't really love the other people; God does not even intend good towards most people; God could save all if he wanted but does not want ...

This is a popular, popular view of "election" -- but it turns election into something unScriptural. It turns "election" into something Christless, something to which Christ is added later, instead of placing Christ firmly as the cause of election, instead of "Christ in you" as the definition of election. And that view of election also wreaks havoc with any rational and balanced idea of a loving, just, and merciful God -- a trustworthy God -- a God in whom you can actually have faith as opposed to merely submission and obedience and perhaps awe at his power and fear of his wrath.

Some camps take Judgment Day as their starting point and reason backward in time: at the Last Day some people have God's favor and others are condemned. Therefore, they reason, God must not have wanted to save them. But here we have run against the plain meaning of so many Scriptures that the conclusion is untenable. Other camps know from Scripture that God loves all people in a meaningful way and they reason forward from God's love. They reason that in Christ God sends an offer; that some take it and some leave it; that some are capable of taking it. But here again we have run against the plain meaning of Scripture, and the conclusion is untenable. Where did they go off track?

Both have missed the same point, which I'd sum up as, "What does Christ have to do with it?" To be sure those views each have places for Christ -- but not the key place, the decisive place, the place of honor, the cornerstone, the foundation. Both camps look at Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection, ask the question "What does that have to do with me and my salvation?" and answer "Nothing by itself, unless something else is added to it." Some add God's will in favor of some and against others into the mix. Some add man's will into the mix. Neither allows Christ to genuinely be the mediator.

Of course man's will comes into play: but apart from Christ man is incapable of turning to the God who should condemn him. The idea that man turns to God apart from Christ, knowing that a faithful God would destroy him, is nonsense. Of course God's will comes into play: but apart from Christ, God's does not love a rebellious sinner that he should condemn. The idea that God looks on favor towards some, apart from Christ, and then sends Christ to them is nonsense. God can offer a rebellious sinner only death. A sinner remains a rebel as long as he can expect only death. A sinner only turns towards mercy and life. God only turns towards the pure. Outside of Christ, God and man only meet in judgment. Where God meets man with mercy is only in Christ. Where man turns to God for healing is only in Christ.

In Christ, love and faithfulness meet together. In Christ, evil is condemned. Christ dies, and we die with him. God is satisfied with his son, and with all who are in his son. The evil is destroyed and put to death in Christ -- because we are in Christ. In Christ's death, our evil dies and we nail our sins to the cross with him. Christ is raised, and we are raised with him. New life is given us, new hearts, a new spirit, a new birth. God turns to us, and we turn to God.

Time and again, I have heard people ask some version of this: "but how, exactly, does this happen?" Usually this means, "You can't mean it's all done in and through Christ. No, really, what else is there?" Christ is it. Christ is God's wisdom. Christ is God's power for our salvation. The answer is Christ. There is not some other answer besides Christ and outside of Christ. It's all about the encounter with Christ. The Bible discusses at least four possible outcomes of the encounter with Christ in the parable of the sower: Some don't understand and the new life does not take root; some understand well enough for easy times but not hard times, so that the new life begins growing but then dies; some have the new life growing but it is crowded out by the rest of our lives (I think most of us are like this); some rest fully in Christ and become productive and beautiful things to celebrate. To be sure, the parable of the sower does not cover all the varieties of "lost" reactions seen in Scripture. There is also the complete hatred of Christ that comes from the fact that he shows us our sin in all its ugliness. But even such people as these have been known to be changed by the encounter with Christ. Saul of Tarsus springs to mind.

From the viewpoint of an evangelist out to "sow the seed" -- to proclaim Christ -- there are some practical applications. If someone does not understand at first, we are patient. Or we try again after they're more shaken up, more open. Remember the parable of the prodigal son? The best thing that ever happened to him was the famine. Life is like that, we'll all be humbled at times. God gives grace to the humble. If someone is too proud to listen to a message of help and humility now, the day may come later when they are not too proud to listen to a message of help and humility. When we see someone struggling with the hard times -- and that's all of us sometimes -- we shade them and shelter them, but we also help them put down deeper roots. The "name it and claim it" and "victorious life" crowds just set people up for failure at hard times. Suffering, pain, and death are not signs of God's hatred -- they are the birthpangs of the new life. The new life does not come unless the old life dies -- the life at enmity with God. It hurts when the old life dies, and every thing we ever depended on apart from God is shown to be at best a shadow of him and at worst a distraction from him. If we hold onto that old life, we die entirely with it under God's judgment. We are lost. If we hold onto Christ, the old life dies under God's judgment and we are raised to new life with Christ.

The encounter with Christ changes us; it also frees us. Without him, we are slaves to sin. If anyone imagines those are just words, remember the times you've struggled not to do something and have done it anyway. Sin's the boss and we're just following orders. Reluctantly maybe, eagerly maybe, but either way we have trouble resisting. Christ sets us free.

And what about Judgment Day? Still some are saved and some are lost. They are not lost because God did not care to save them. They are lost because salvation was in Christ; the light came and they loved darkness better. Christ saves us -- salvation is from God. But God does not compel that we receive him any more than he compels obedience to his moral law. The phrase "irresistible grace" contains a very bad misunderstanding of what "grace" is. "Grace" is a favorable relationship, or the various results and benefits of a favorable relationship. "Repentance" is a change of heart, a transformation from the encounter with the message of forgiveness, death, and resurrection in Christ. Christ himself, then, is the channel of God's grace to us: grace comes through Christ. But nothing about the grace of Christ compels repentance, compels us to change.

Why does God not compel our repentance, if he truly loves us? Consider how we are made: in God's image. Consider why we were able to fall: because we bear God's image. Again, as best I can see, God took such a risk not because he desired the resulting evil, but because he desired such a great good. If God saves us -- who is it that he is saving? If we are saved by dying and being reborn, renewed in his image, then what happens to ourselves? If God re-creates us by force, either we no longer bear his image, or we are no longer who we were in any sense at all. We would not be "redeemed" by this forceful re-creation; there would be no continuity at all between us now and us then. The "self" that is redeemed would not be itself any longer. The thing that is "redeemed" against its will would be a new creation without any continuity with the old. God might as well have started over on a new planet if there is no continuity between the old that is being redeemed and the new that is redeemed.

Apart from Christ, man is enslaved to sin. We cannot choose God; we cannot want to approach that which will condemn us. God chooses us in Christ, not apart from Christ. Christ sets us free. But from there, we can still live or die. Have you ever heard of "prevenient grace"? Some people use that to mean the grace that comes to us before our conversion. In a view which maintains that grace comes through Christ, "prevenient grace" means that Christ has died for us, Christ has turned aside God's wrath, and there is a safe and holy place to meet God, a refuge for the sinner: Christ. Christ has died for the whole world. It does not therefore follow that the whole world will be saved; this is because salvation is not a mere transaction. Our place is to bring the message of Christ to people so that they may encounter the living Lord. He alone can set them free. And neither is God's will a mystery in this regard: he wills to redeem the world through Christ. He who receives him receives the one who sent him; he who rejects him rejects the one who sent him. That is God's will in regards to judgment and salvation.

And us? We are not chosen in and of ourselves as if we of all sinners had found special favor in God's sight. We are chosen in Christ. Apart from Christ, we have no relationship to God but that of condemnation: we rebel against him and make ourselves idols and selfish tyrants each after our own scale; he condemns this, and rightly. Time and again, the Scriptures link being God's chosen people to being in Christ.

So the answer about our salvation is this: Christ. There is no other answer.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit

In looking at the work of the Holy Spirit, again, books could easily be written without having fully explored what is good to know. A thumbnail sketch can never do full justice, even if I had studied all that could be studied and known all that should be known. The point of this sketch is to highlight the connections between Christ, the Spirit, and our salvation.
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the Law, or by believing what you heard? (Paul to the Galatians)
The gift of the Spirit starts with Christ. This gift comes by believing the message of Christ. The gift of God's Spirit was given in ancient times to those who had a message from God and an office from God. The gift of God's Spirit is given today to those who trust in Christ. All who have received Christ have a message from God and an office from God. The Holy Spirit is God's own Spirit within us. I have often wondered whether anything besides God's Spirit was lost in mankind's rebellion against God. Wasn't his image inside us a spiritual image? And by the same Spirit we are born again, made children of God. By the Spirit we call the maker of all things Our Father.

The Spirit remakes us in God's image, in Christ's image, with his own character: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, and knowledge; and in us creatures also fear of the LORD, and joy in his presence. We are not given fear instead of joy, nor joy instead of fear, but both gifts of knowing God. The Spirit prepares us for all the different times and purposes under heaven.

Through the Spirit we are Temples of God where God himself lives. The Spirit lives in us, and people see God's love in us. We cannot be proud; they see God's strength most plainly in our weakness. God's mercy is known most plainly to others when we ourselves see how plainly we also need mercy. We do not need to despair of the darkness around us; the world sees God's light most plainly in great darkness.

Through the Spirit we have fellowship with each other. Through the Spirit, God's love for the world finds its way into our own thoughts also.

God's gift to us begins and ends with Himself. The things we have through the Spirit are familiar to us. They are God's character. Christ had the same. And by the grace of God, we share that divine nature. As Christ was Son of God, through the Spirit we are also children of God. As Christ was God's Temple, so through the Spirit we are God's Temples. As Christ was the immovable rock on which God built his church, we become living stones in that church. As Christ is the light of the world, with his Spirit in us we become the light of the world. Through the Spirit we become heirs along with Christ -- heirs to his holiness, heirs to his wisdom, heirs to his love, inheritors of eternal life.

This, too, has implications for our evangelism. The Holy Spirit is received through the message of Christ. Those Christians who are ashamed of Christ have no light for the darkness -- and the darkness grows; no way to guide the lost -- and the number of lost grows; no truth to give the confused and seeking -- and the confusion grows. "Seeking" is often just an upbeat euphemism for "lost", not knowing where to go. And many, many people both within Christianity and without turn to themselves for their certainty and their hope. Which leads us back to the beginning:
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the Law, or by believing what you heard?

Index for systematic theology series

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Question of World Views

The world view of different cultures as seen through the eyes of popular artists.

El Greco

Van Gogh

The point? The worldview which gives rise to a popular artist like Dali is deeply distorted.

Post-modernists have claimed that a religious culture distorts someone's view of the world. Just to look at the art, it would seem that an anti-religious culture distorts the worldview. Later artists show a loss focus, or a loss of the sense of beauty or reality. Finally artists like Dali actually prize deliberate distortion (for its novelty or boldness, or breaking the old tired cliches of the dogmatic and rigid past, of course). It's all very intersting and fun as an experiment. For the record, I actually enjoy the "melting clocks" ... but not nearly as much as El Greco's works.

The same trends can be seen in a culture's scholarship, but the trends are perhaps seen most clearly in a culture's art. The "melting clocks" reminds me a bit of the Jesus Seminar's view of the gospels.

Due to recent lack of time to continue my current series, I've pulled this out of things previously blogged at CADRE Comments. Hope to be back to new-article blogging soon.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Children's Movies and Misguided Moralisms

I'm taking a short break from the theological stuff today. With the summer movie season coming up, one thing is sure: the children's movies -- i.e. the movies I'll actually have a chance to see -- will have morals, and those morals will be worse than merely sappy, they will also be wrongheaded. No, don't get me wrong, I plan on enjoying the movies anyway. Of the 3 movies discussed below, I enjoyed 2 of them very much. The other, being a sequel, was mostly stale left-overs that never quite got warmed to the level of the original. Here is a sampling of kid-pic moralism:

Film: Mulan II
Moral: "My duty is to my heart."
The problem? In practical daily use, it equates selfishness with morality. That "duty to my heart" bit only gives good results if you have a pure heart. And that just scratches the surface ...

Film: The Incredibles
Moral gaffe: "Everyone's special." "Then no one is special."
Did you ever look at a field of bluebonnets? It is spectacular. But no one flower is "special". When, exactly, did people start thinking that, to be good and worthwhile, you had to "special" -- that is, different from everyone else? Doesn't that assume that "everyone else" is not really good and worthwhile? Since when did we find our value in what separates us from others instead of what we share with others? And what exactly has that done to our sense of belonging together as a people?

Film: Pirates of the Caribbean / Curse of the Black Pearl
Moral: "Sometimes an act of piracy may be the right course of action."
Yes, but the other 99 times out of 100 piracy is murder and theft. (Is piracy the result of "My duty is to my heart" kind of thinking? Hmm.) If the film industry wants something novel and innovative, how about a pirate movie where the murderers and thieves are portrayed as bad guys, and those trying to stop them are portrayed as brave and worthy? Of course, anyone getting their sense of morality from Hollywood pirate flicks has worse problems than whatever morally questionable package the filmmaker is selling. Pirates I was a fun movie. It just would have been better if they hadn't tried to tack on moral overtones at the end.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Christ: The Foundation of Baptism

There is enough to say about baptism to fill a book easily. And for those who will read this and notice that I left much unsaid, I know even as I begin typing that will be true enough. Still, this post on baptism will begin with baptism and Christ; the next one forward will continue with baptism and the Holy Spirit. This is not intended to separate the two, since they cannot rightly be separated; it is only to keep one post to a manageable length.

In our would-be-sophisticated age, it is too easy to miss the simple forerunners of baptism: the ceremonial washings which had foreshadowed it, God's promise of purity to be fulfilled in us. In our would-be-sophisticated age, it is too easy to be high-minded and miss God's humility. He has time and again chosen lowly ways to reach out to us. And it is easy, in our intellectual age, to forget that physical things such as water and the body are God's good creation. In the age to come, God does not resurrect only our intellects or our souls, but he raises both body and soul. In obedience, his laws govern more than our minds, but our bodies also. So in cleansing and renewal, he reaches out to more than just our spirits, but also our bodies. In this intellectual age, Christians should lead the way in keeping a holy regard for the physical world, in which and through which God chooses to make his wonders known. We should not despise the simple water of baptism, in which the body is honored as well as the soul in our Christian life, and the body participates as a good and redeemed part of creation. The baptism with water on our flesh renews the promise of Eden that the physical world is good, and points forward toward the world to come which, if you read the end of the Book, is not where man joins God in heaven, but where God joins man on a beautiful, holy earth (Revelation 21). God does not allow us to divide our bodies and souls, as if one could be holy and the other not also holy.

The first lesson that the New Testament hammers home about baptism is repentance. It is not spiritual accomplishment that drives us to seek baptism, but our filth, our humility, our need. In baptism, we turn to God for cleansing. The New Testament repeatedly discusses the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This connection between baptism and forgiveness offends some people on the grounds that forgiveness comes from God through Christ, not from water or, worse, from obedience to a law. If forgiveness comes through obedience, then it is earned and not a gift; it is no forgiveness at all. But on the grounds that the plain words of our first teachers must stand unchanged and undisputed if we are disciples, if we trust these words and go forward trusting them, we find that the Scripture says baptism saves us not through our obedience but through Christ's death and resurrection. Baptism is no empty ritual. Christ speaks of his own death as a baptism. He speaks of the deaths of his disciples after him as baptisms that they must undergo. Paul speaks of our baptism as being baptized into the death of Christ. Paul teaches that our being joined to Christ's death is a guarantee of our being joined to Christ's resurrection. Paul compares baptism to Moses leading the people out of slavery to freedom through the waters of the sea. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Noah, when by water God judged and cleansed the world, and saved his people. This baptism, Peter says, now saves us not by washing the dirt from our bodies, but the answer of a good conscience toward God through Christ's resurrection. So baptism is not an exercise in obedience to a ritual which does nothing; it is joining in Christ's death and resurrection, which transforms and saves us, forgives us and cleanses us. Our repentance also is the death, or putting to death, of whatever within us is still an enemy of God, nailing these also to the cross. Repentance always goes to the cross and seeks forgiveness and cleansing there in Christ. So Christ's death and resurrection are the foundation of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Index for systematic theology series

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Christ and the New Creation within Us

For those of us who have ever held a newborn child in our hands, we know the miracle of birth. There is joy and wonder in a new life. And a newborn is, in some sense, an emblem of innocence. A newborn does not know hatred or resentment, sullenness or apathy. I will not stop here to discuss the topic of original sin -- whether the child is born in a state of sin. For here, it is enough to focus on these words of Christ:
Flesh gives birth to flesh; spirit gives birth to spirit. Do not be astonished when I say you must be born again.
God's Spirit within us, then, is our new birth. The Spirit showed itself explicitly during Christ's ministry both at the beginning and the end. Christ's public ministry began with his baptism, when the Spirit of God descended over the waters. And after Christ's resurrection, he breathed on his disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit.

But both of these -- the spirit over the water, and the breathing into someone -- are things we have seen before. Before Jesus' baptism, the last time we saw the Spirit of God over the waters was at the beginning of the world: "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2). And again at the beginning of the world, when God created the man from the dust, he breathed on the man to give him life (Genesis 2:7). So in Christ's ministry we see the Spirit showing Christ to be the beginning of the new creation. We also see that Christ is the way that the new creation comes to us. Jesus breathed on his disciples to give them God's breath, just as in the beginning God breathed on man.

Because the Holy Spirit and the new creation are so closely linked with baptism, these comments will be continued in the next post on baptism.

Index for systematic theology series

Monday, May 01, 2006

Christ and the Worship of God

"Destroy this Temple," Jesus said, "and in three days I will build it again." The people who heard him thought that he was talking about the Temple in Jerusalem. But the Temple he had spoken of was his body.

The Temple was no ordinary building. It was the place where sacrifices were offered, the place where atonement was made. There the priests interceded for the people. Every day, the people all across the land directed their prayers to God towards the Temple. Within the Temple, the Holy of Holies housed the Ark of the Covenant, and with it God's mercy seat. When the Law ordered people to appear before the LORD several times each year, they fulfilled the requirement to appear before the LORD by going to the Temple. God's own presence was in the Temple.

The Temple that Jesus had spoken of was his own body. In saying this, Jesus transferred the title of "Temple" from a building in Jerusalem to himself. Now we look to him for the sacrifice offered, we look to him for atonement. We look to him to intercede for us, and people direct their prayers to God towards him. In Jesus is the covenant, and in him is God's mercy seat. When we appear before him, we appear before the LORD, and God's own presence is in Christ.

The ancient ceremonial law was a shadow of what was to come. The reality comes in Christ.

Index for systematic theology series