Nature, Grace, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

 

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In a previous post, I argued that if we want to see the renewal of the church, it must be a renewal that takes the triune nature of God seriously. I quote at length Gordon Fee to that end. Fee argued that the Charismatic gifts are for the building up fo the church, and should not take pride of place or seen as the absolute end of the Christian life. The Holy Spirit makes us into the image of Jesus Christ to the Glory of the Father (as I said in this post).

One concern about the Spiritual gifts that I continually struggle with is the relation of humanity’s natural capacities, our ability to think, feel, reason, etc. and the gifts of the Spirit, especially the gifts of tounges and words of knowledge. When I’ve heard the gifts of prophecy taught, it is said that we need to discern the difference between our thoughts, the devil’s intrusions, and God’s words. The thing that bothers me about this is that it can end up neglecting or denigrating the goodness of human nature; as if the Holy Spirit fills us not to make us human, but to transcend our humanity.

To approach this question properly, we need to ask what humanity is, what we were created for and how we attain that end? In short, humanity is created by God out of his goodness as the image of God composed of both soul and body, we were created for life with God, and we attain that end through God’s grace and the economy of salvation (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.93, 103).

Two things are important to note here: 1) God’s goodness is the grounds of his grace; to say that God creates out of his goodness is to say that he creates freely and graciously (see Aquinas, Summa, 1.6). Therefore, 2) from the beginning, human nature is created by the free grace and goodness of God. This means that we are both natural creatures with specific aptitudes etc. and beings created for God. We were created with the need for God; a necessary openness to God’s work of creating and sustaining us towards being made into fullness of the image of God (Sin complicates things, because both the capacity for God and the natural gifts of human nature are both marred, but they are redeemed and renewed in Jesus Christ). Thus, while Aquinas affirms that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it (Summa, 1.1.a8), this perfecting of nature is established in the reality that creation is already God’s goodness poured out as grace.  God created humanity for himself, which means we need him to achieve our end goal – life with God. The path to that end goal is Christ, and according to Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit and his manifold gifts that build us up to that end goal (see. 1 Cor. 12, Eph 4). To sum up, Humanity is created as a creature made for the creator and on their way to the creator (see Summa, 1.93; 1e11ae.1-5; and this post).

If this is true, then charismatic gifts could fall within the realm of grace perfecting nature. But what of our original concern: the overriding of natural capacities? While grace does not destroy nature, nature being what it is, a graced contingent reality opened to God, is dependent on the creator. Could it be that the gifts of tounges and prophecy are not a negation of nature, but God using our nature and infusing it with his grace to build the body of Christ up out of God’s goodness, and freedom? Is it possible that our minds and language are sanctified for use beyond our understanding or capacity, to God’s glory and praise? I propose that we can answer both of these questions on the affirmative.

If these thoughts are tenable for the Christian life, there is room for God to both use one’s ‘natural’ talents in a ‘supernatural’ way and to infuse us with his grace in a way that is beyond our apprehension. For example, God could direct one’s reason, submitted to God to draw a conclusion about another person’s life that is, in fact, a word of knowledge; or God could simply infuse into one’s mind a thought or word that is  ‘from the outside.’ Both of these are acts of God sanctifying human nature, the first within our capacity for a particular end and the other beyond our capacity and understanding.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit, come from the outside and can seem to overwhelm our human nature; but the truth of the matter is that they are simply making us capable of what we were created for: communion with God. The gift of tounges draws our mouths, hearts, and mind into a space where we trust that God is at work in a way that we cannot understand (by the way, it is still your lips and mouth and tongue that move!). In the gift of prophesy we are encouraging and building the body of Christ up towards our mutual end goal: Life in God. Both of these gifts, along with the rest of them orient us towards becoming the unified body of Christ,  as we journey towards our end goal: fellowship and friendship with the triune God in Glory.

 

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Cyril of Alexandria

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“God in his love for humankind provided for us a way of salvation and of life. For in believing in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and making this confession before many witnesses [at baptism], we wash away all the filth of sin, and are enriched by the communication of the Holy Spirit, and ‘are made partakers of the divine nature’ and gain the grace of adoption. It was necessary, therefore, that the Word of the Father when he humbled himself to emptiness and deigned to assume our likeness, should be for our sake the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows that ‘he who in everything is first’ must in this also set the example.” Cyril of Alexandria (ACD, 2.147).

A few observations:

  1. God not only provides a way of salvation but a way of life as well. Jesus’s life is both an example and the path of the good life. Put another way, Jesus is the Means and the end of true human life. Jesus saved us for eternal life with the Triune God, and this life begins now.
  2.  Cyril narrates the order of salvation in relation to baptism: belief, confess, baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit, “made partakers of the divine nature” and given adoption. This path of salvation is grounded in believing and encountering the Triune God who loves humanity, it is enacted through the sacrament of baptism and sealed with the Holy Spirit who testifies to us that we are adopted children of God.
  3. “Partaking of the divine nature” is a quote from 2. Peter 1:4: “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” What it means to partake of the divine nature, without transgressing the creator/creature divide has been greatly debated. From this quote, we can say that it means, at the very least, being filled with the Spirit, united to Christ and given the grace of adoption. In other words, partaking of the divine nature is being brought in to a relationship with the triune God for our salvation, and it is grounded in the triune God’s work of salvation. 
  4. Salvation, life, baptism, adoption, being filled with the Holy Spirit, all happens because the eternal Word of the Father, the equal Son of God, became human for our sake so that we can have life in him. The Incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the means and path by which we are united to God, receive forgiveness, are justified, sanctified and filled with the Spirit.  Thus, partaking of the divine nature is grounded in and located in Jesus Christ, who is the mediator between God and humanity.

Quotes from The Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus On the Economy of Salvation

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When I started reading the church fathers, one of the most refreshing aspects of their writings was the way they talked about The scope and depth of Salvation. This quote is taken from an excellent resource, the Ancient Christian Doctrine series, and exemplifies the way Gregory summarize Scripture’s witness to the magnificent work of Christ in his life, death, and resurrection.

“He who gives riches becomes poor, for he assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of his Godhead. He that is full empties himself for a short while, that I may have a share in his fullness. What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it. He partakes of my flesh that he may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second communion far more marvelous than the first; in as much as then he imparted the better nature, whereas now he himself partakes of the worse. This is more Godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.” Gregory of Nazianzus, ACD, 2.105.

This is a beautiful passage that exposes some of the most profound mysteries of our faith, in the context of Jesus Christ’s humility as the source of the salvation of the world. First, it is vital to see that Gregory reflection on Christ is an expansion of the magnificent Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This verse, for Gregory and many other church fathers, is a touchstone for reflecting on God’s work of salvation.  Christ who is equal to the Father, the same essence, became human to bring humanity into communion with God.
Significantly, Gregory does not speak of this salvation in abstract terms, he sees his own life wrapped up in this mystery: “What is the riches of his goodness? What is this mystery that is around me?” The life that Jesus lived is the life that he gives Gregory. He took Gregory’s sin and death and gave him his life and love.

To clarify the second half of the quote, let me explain what Gregory is saying. ‘The image’ which Gregory refers to is the image of God, that we read about in Genesis 1:26-28.  The salvation in Christ is much greater than when Adam and Eve were created (‘second communion far more marvelous than the first’) because in Jesus Christ humanity receives a more profound and greater union with God than Adam and Eve had. This is the mystery of the incarnation: Christ has taken our human body and life and made them his, forming what is sinful and dying into his body which is holy and immortal, through his infinite life.

The personal appropriation of Christ’s objective work on the cross for all of humanity is what continues to capture my attention in Gregory and other Church Fathers. They knew and experienced the reality of Christ’s wonderful exchange in their lives. As an Anglican priest, I am reminded that when I serve the meals of Grace of word and sacrament to the church, I am offering my congregation nourishment to continue to grow in this mystery: the mystery of our justification and sanctification and glorification in Jesus Christ through the Power of the Holy Spirit. Every week, we are invited into this great mystery of Salvation – union with God in Christ, so that we can have the same mind and be the one body of Christ in the world.

 

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Thomas Aquinas On the Image of God in Humanity

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In Christian Theological Anthropology, a fundamental question arises: what does it mean to be made in the image of God? There have been many answers proposed to answer this question. Two of the most common responses to this question is that the image of God is primarily found in the reality that humans are intelligent and relational creatures because God is intelligent and relational. Another common appraisal of the image of God in humanity is that humanity is the representative of God in the created world. When Aquinas is brought up in this discussion he is often plastered with a simplistic negative assessment: he believed that the image of God resided in the intellectual faculties of humans, that is not what Genesis 1:27-28 meant by the image of God. Therefore his assessment is incorrect. While Aquinas does focus on the intellectual facilities of humans in a way that, perhaps, is not the original meaning of Genesis 1:27-28, his view is much more nuanced than and is investigating.

In this post I want to consider a few quotes from Aquinas’s articles on the Image of God to propose the following: 1) that Aquinas’s doctrine of the image of God is not static. Instead, it has three factors: creation, redemption, and glorification. 2) In these factors, it is Christo-centric. 3) And while he does focus on the human mind as the seat of the image of God, it is the human mind directed towards God, thus revealing the relational dynamic of the image of God in humanity.

From the beginning of Aquinas’s Summa, he establishes three essential principles: 1) that the human creature is made for a particular end: to know and love God, and the only way we can know God is through revelation (1.1.a1). 2) Theology proper is the study of God: God himself in his infinite life and that which comes from God, i.e., all that is not God. This is how Aquinas says it, “But in sacred science, all things are treated of under the aspect of God; either because they are God himself; or because they refer to God as their beginning and end” (1.1.a7). Theology proper, i.e., theology ordered towards who God is and what God does start and ends with God as the beginning and end of all that exists. 3) since theology studies derivatively all that comes from the Triune God in his creative activity, the study of theology traces God’s creation, redemption, glorification, and the return of the creature to God – i.e., the mission of the Son and the Spirit for the reconciliation and restoration of the world (see 1.43-44). Taking these points together, in relation to our topic, human nature and the image of God will have a particular direction, one that is grounded in God as humanity’s creator and God as humanity’s end.

Our quotes come from Aquinas’s 93rd question in the first part of the Summa. He introduces the question as follows: “We now treat of the end or term of man’s production inasmuch as he is said to be made to the image and likeness of God” (1.93.Pro). So in treating the end goal of humanity’s creation, Aquinas establishes what the image of God in humanity is; in do8ng si the end, i.e., the beatific vision of God, or communion with God, shapes the beginning.

In the first article, Aquinas established what the image of God is in man. He argues, that humanity is an imperfect likeness of God, not imperfect because of sin, but imperfect because humanity is a creature, not the creator. This imperfection is akin to a painting of a real thing (1.93.1a). Humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, but not perfectly so because they are creatures and because there is only one perfect image of God:

The First-Born of creatures is the perfect image of God, reflecting perfectly that of which He is the Image and so he is said to be the Image, and never to the image… The image of God exists in his first-born Son; as the image of the king is in his Son who is of the same nature as himself; whereas it exists in man as in an alien nature, as the image of the king is in a silver coin. (1.93.reply 2).

The image of God in humanity is from God and is directed towards humanity’s end: perfection and union with God in Christ Jesus who is the perfect image and likeness of God. Notice, that for Aquinas, in the scope of redemption Christ, not Adam, is the first born of creation. He is the perfect image of God in the creation, and he is the one in whom our imaging of God is made perfect.

This is made evident a few articles later, where Aquinas considers whether all of humanity has the image of God or not:

Since man is said to be the image of God by reason of his intellectual nature, he is the most perfectly like God according to that in which he can best imitate God in his intellectual nature. Now the intellectual nature imitates God chiefly in this, that God understands and loves Himself. Wherefore we see that the image of God is in man in three ways. First, inasmuch as man possesses a natural aptitude for understanding and loving God; and this aptitude consists in the very nature of the mind, which is common to all men. Second, inasmuch as man actually and habitually knows and loves God, though imperfectly; and this image consists in the conformity of grace. Third, inasmuch as man knows and loves God perfectly; and this image consists in the likeness of glory. Wherefore on the words, The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us (Ps 4:7), the gloss distinguishes a threefold image of creation, of re-creation, and of likeness. The first is found in all men, the second only in the just, the third only in the blessed (1.93.a4).

Setting aside the definition of the image for a second, notice how Aquinas defines the image of God in humanity via the whole of the economy of God’s work in the world: Creation, re-creation, and glorification. Mankind was created to know and love God, after the fall humanity was re-created when the perfect image of God, the Son, came and saved humanity. The image is brought to completion and perfection when humanity knows and loves God as much as is humanly possible in the beatific vision. This threefold distinction not only shows how the image of God is related to the work of Christ in creating, saving, and glorifying humanity in his own body, it also demonstrates that the image of God is in all of humanity. However, because mankind was created to be in communion with God, there are different levels of image bearing correlated to where one is in relation to the true image: Jesus Christ. Thus, the image of God is both a given reality in creation, but because we were made for God, it must also be re-created and perfected through the mission of the Son and the Spirit so that humanity can delight in and know the one for whom we were created.

This final point helps us make sense of why Aquinas, following Augustine, sees the image of God as especially located in humanity’ intellectual nature. For Aquinas, the intellect is not mere rationality, it is the location of our knowledge and love; our knowledge of God and our desire for God. our ability to know and love is what sets humanity apart from other creatures (1.93.a6). But this knowing and loving are not a general knowing and loving, but knowing and loving God. Aquinas quotes Augustine who argues that the image of God in humanity is most reflective of God when it is knowing and loving God (1.93.a8). In other words, the fullness of the image of God in humanity is directly connected to individual humans united to God in Christ through the Spirit who builds up in us the mind of Christ and fills us with the love of God.

Thus the location of the image of God is connected to the intellect not because knowing is the most God-like feature of humans, but because we were created to know and love God. When humanity is united to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, actively pursuing him in love and knowledge, that is when we are most reflecting the image of God, at least while we are still on earth. In the new creation, the image will be made perfect, and we will be like the first-born of all creation, the perfect image of God without defect: Jesus Christ the Lord.

From this discussion, we can see that Aquinas’s understanding of the image of God is about reflecting and participating in the knowledge and love of God. That for which humanity was made is grounded in Christ who is the perfect image, and it is brought to completion through the economy of salvation.

When we talk about the image of God, Aquinas’s understanding gives significant direction: 1) we must affirm that everyone has the image of God, and thus has an intrinsic value and significance. 2) At the same time, because we were created to be in a relationship with God, those who are oriented towards God in Christ have the potential to reflect the image of God more faithfully, insofar as they are orienting their lives towards the knowledge and love of God; i.e., growing in sanctification. 3) Knowledge of who God is and what God does, combined with a desire and delight in God is the path of conforming to the image of God in Christ Jesus (see John 17:3). 4) The image of God is still being brought to completion through the invisible missions of the Son and Spirit in the lives of Christians. 5) The end for which we are created was revealed at the beginning: We were made in the image of God to enjoy him forever in Christ.

Jesus as the Greater Jonah: Mark 4:35-41

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Introduction: 

While I was preparing my sermon for this past Sunday, I noticed that some commentators perceived some parallels between this pericope of Scripture and Jonah. I want to follow this thought up, but I don’t have space for it in my sermon.

In my sermon, I show that in Mark 4:35-41 Jesus reveals himself as the Creator and Savior of unbelieving disciples. In this reflection, my goal is to first note the connections between the Jonah story and the calming of the sea – both parallels and contrasts – and then ask how these connections help further our understanding of Jesus revealing himself as Creator and Savior. Additionally, I will consider how Jonah as a type of Christ calls us to read the calming of the Sea as a figure of Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Passages of Scripture:

Jonah 1:

1 Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil[a] has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

4 But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard[b] to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17 [c] And the Lord appointed[d] a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Mark 4:35-41
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. 37 And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The Call:

To begin, note that God called Jonah to be a prophet of Israel to Nineveh. In its original context, Jonah is understood as representative of how Israel was supposed to be a witness to the whole world. Israel was called to be a witness to the world of Yahweh and his mighty deeds. Jonah’s flight from God and his mission signifies Israel’s rejection of God and his call on them.

Jesus too was commissioned by God as a prophet – first to Israel and then the world – but unlike Jonah, Jesus does not flee the presence of God. He is, in fact, the very presence of God in the unbelieving world. Jesus does what Jonah refused to do, he obeys God. In this way, we see that Jesus figures how Israel was supposed to be; he recapitulates Israel’s faithlessness with his faithfulness.

The Storm: 

Jonah flees God, but God’s presence is not so easily escaped. The fact that Jonah thought he could flee God’s presence shows how limited his understanding of God was. The boat is caught in a great storm, and while the crew fights for their lives, Jonah is asleep in the boat. Sleep, in Scripture, often figures death. It is possible that this points to Jonah’s own spiritual deadness, or foreshadows what is about to happen to him. The crew wakes Jonah up so that he can call upon his God for help. As the narrative continues we see that Jonah realizes that the crew will die because of his unfaithfulness, he eventually convinces them to cast him into the sea, and they do. The storm calms, and the pagan gentiles worship the God of Israel in fear and thankfulness. The irony should not be missed, that even as Jonah flees his mission, God uses his waywardness to bring sinners to repentance.

In Mark 4 we see Jesus asleep through the storm, just like Jonah. But his sleep was not one of spiritual deadness or avoidance of God, rather it was one of quiet presence. Jonah didn’t escape the presence of God, and neither had the disciples been abandoned by God. Jesus was asleep in the boat,  and the disciples come to Jesus in fear, just as the crew came to Jonah. However, the disciples did not look for salvation or even a prayer from Jesus, they merely wanted help. Despite their unbelief, Jesus causes the storm to immediately cease. The unbelief of the disciples is turned into fear, much like the fear of the crew on Jonah’s boat. For both crews, the fear was provoked by a unilateral revelation of God and his power. But unlike Jonah’s crew, the disciples do not worship God, they still do not understand who he is. If Jesus is the true Israel, the disciples represent Isreal in its disbelief and spiritual deadness. They, like Jonah, did not really know who the Lord God of Isreal was.

When we read these two stories together, we see Jesus fulfilling the ministry that Jonah and Israel, was called to, i.e., to be witnesses of Yahweh. But more than that we see that someone greater than Jonah has come, God, himself, has come to save the world. This salvation is demonstrated by Jesus saving his unbelieving disciples, which signify unbelieving Isreal and the world. In the end, Jesus is the greater Jonah.

The Two Sleeper’s Death?   

The fact that both Jonah and Jesus slept during the storm should cause us to pause. For Jonah, his sleep shows his lack of spiritual sensitivity – his spiritual deadness- to God’s presence and his providential judgment on his flight. This sleep is continued in his descent into the turbulent waters where he spent three days in the belly of a great fish. Traditionally, this has been understood as a kind of death. It is only after dying and rising that Jonah completes his mission from God. In its context, Jonah’s death points to the death of exile that Isreal experienced as God’s judgment for their unfaithfulness.

Is it possible that Jesus’ sleep, read in light of Jonah’s sleep-death further fills out the revelation of his Lordship as creator and savior? I suggest that the parallel between the two sleepers leads us to see Jesus’s sleep as a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection, where he ultimately saves the whole world from death and disbelief. If Jesus’s sleep points to his death and resurrection, it follows that this passage shows us that Jesus’s work of salvation is ultimately grounded in his death and resurrection. It is because of his death and resurrection that he saves and delivers those who call upon him even in their disbelief and fear.

Conclusion: 

Whether this is a helpful, fair, or good reading of the Calming of the Sea is up for debate. However, I do think it helps to highlight the depth of this event as something more than just a fancy miracle, but as a theophany of God’s whole plan of Salvation: The Creator and Redeemer saves the ungodly. Reading it in light of Jonah’s sleep/death can help us see the depth of the revelation: that it is only in the death of Jesus Christ that the fullness of salvation is brought to bear upon the ungodly.

 

 

 

The Triune Shape of the Gospel

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Human words have a nasty habit of losing their meaning when we overuse them. Say your name 100 times, and it begins to sound weird. This happens to me with important Christian words.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’ll say, “we are saved by grace through faith” and pause and think, “wait, what do those words mean again?” How do we remedy this? By seeing how every Christian word connects to who God is and what God does (This is done primarily through the disciplines of Corporate worship, Bible meditation, and study). Leaving these words aside for another time (I am working on something on grace at the moment), I want to turn to an essential   word for Christians, the well-worn word “Gospel.”

By way of reminder, let’s just peruse a few places in Scripture where the word is used.

Mark 1:1: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mark 1:14-15: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;[a]repent and believe in the gospel.”

Romans 1:16: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

1 Corinthians 1:17: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Philippians 1:27: Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,

What is the Gospel? According to John Webster, it is the “good news of Salvation in Jesus Christ, especially as a matter of public proclamation” (263). It is the good news that salvation has been accomplished and is found in Jesus Christ. But when this good news about Jesus Christ is preached, the hearers are led to the Father by Jesus, and the Father and Son give the Holy Spirit to dwell in the one who hears and receives the good news. When the Gospel is preached its content becomes a reality in those who receive it. When the Scripture says the “Gospel of God” or the “Gospel of Jesus,” we must understand this to mean that the Triune God both the origin and the content of the Gospel (Webster, 263).

Meditating on Romans 1:16-17, Webster unfolds this in greater detail.

“Originating in God’s omnipotent rule over all things the gospel concerns salvation, the comprehensive reordering of God’s relation to humankind. In the gospel, God is reconciled to sinful creatures as fellowship is restored through the life, death, and exaltation of Jesus Christ. As such, the gospel is the revelation of God’s righteousness: God’s character and work as the holy one, who in Christ effects the sinner’s acquittal, renewal, and restoration to life in fellowship with the Creator and Savior” (263).

Webster is a mouth full, but he really helps me order my thinking about the Gospel. The Gospel originates in God, who desire to reconcile sinful humanity to himself through the life death and resurrection of Jesus. This restoration of fellowship reveals that God is righteous, he makes what was wrong right through Jesus Christ’s work of salvation including our justification, sanctification, and glorification. While Webster does not note it here, Christians receive the content of the Gospel when we are indwelled with the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, then, is the content of the whole story of salvation; what God has done for sinful creatures in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is also the bringing about, or application of this great work fo salvation in individual believers lives.

So, when we say “preach the Gospel” we mean preach the content of the saving acts of the triune God for human salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification). And when we preach this Gospel this same God works it into peoples lives.

When we say, “believe the Gospel,” we mean believe in the reality that God the Father sent his Son to restore right relationship with sinful human creatures, and the Father and Son sent the Holy Spirit to bring sinful creatures into that relationship, to make them holy and new.  The Gospel is the triune God’s active work of saving and restoring humanity to communion with God the Father, in the Son through the Spirit. The Gospel is the content of salvation and the enactment of salvation in peoples lives to the Glory of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Gospel then is both the most simple reality – God saved Sinners – and the deepest of infinite mysteries because it is grounded in the eternal and infinite life of the Triune God of Grace.

By way of conclusion, I want to offer a quote from a book I just finished. It is about how the Gospel is grounded in the reality that God is Triune, The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders. I would highly recommend it. Sanders quoting a famous Puritan Theologian John Owen. Note how his telling of the gospel closely resembles Webster’s description of the content of the gospel.

“When God designed the great and glorious work of recovering fallen man, and the saving of sinners, to the praise of the glory of his grace, he appointed, in his infinite wisdom, two great means thereof: The one was the giving of his Son for them, and the other was the giving his Spirit to them. And hereby was way made for the manifestation of the glory of the whole blessed Trinity; which is the utmost end of all God’s works” 151).

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The Quotes from John Webster are in his article “The Gospel,” In The Dictionary of Theological Interpretation of the Bible,” 263-264.

The quote from John Owen comes from his book The Holy Spirit, 23.

The Patience of God in Theology and the Parish

The deluge of information and competition in our culture provokes a particular kind of vice and anxiety in me; the feeling that I must produce and perform beyond my creaturely capacities. I must present to the world a perfect image of myself with no sense of development or change. I have studied for four years, written a thesis, and I am now in full-time ministry; i feel that I must have something to say, and if I am to be heard I must say it loudly and quickly. Another way to put this is that I am impatient to do theology and to do it well. I want immediate results; I don’t want to have to wait to become a good theologian.

John Webster, a theologian I am coming to enjoy more and more, confronted me with my impatience in an essay where he articulates the nature and interpretation of Holy Scripture. Towards the end of the article he offers this rebuke to any who desire to grow in the knowledge and love of God, though he  orients his comment towards theologians:

“Theological work, including theological interpretation, requires the exercise of patience. This is because in theology things go slowly. We are temporal creatures, we do not relieve revelation in a single moment; and we are sinful creatures whose idolatry and inattention are only gradually overcome…. We must be patient, suffering God’s works, looking for the coming of the Spirit to instruct us in the truth of the Word. Webster, The Dominion of the Word, 31).

My desire to produce theology in a moment of inspiration is grounded in my habitual vice of impatience and my idol of a self-image of someone who has something important to share. In this passage, Webster argues that impatient theology is a rejection of our humanity and our need for redemption. Theology cannot be done in the key of self-created genius, or emotive inspiration, or rational self-propulsion, but only in submission to the one who is my creator and redeemer. Ultimately theology must be done in the context of God’s own patience.

1 Peter 3:9 says, The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

God’s patience towards his creatures is grounded in the plentitude of his love and goodness. Out of the infinite and eternal life of God, he shows patience to his creatures- Psalm 103:13, he remembers that we are dust –  who are in dead in their sin – Rom. 5:6-8, For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—  but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  In the economy of salvation, we are the recipients of God’s patience towards us as creatures and sinners demonstrated in the long-suffering of God and the salvation wrought in Christ, and we are given his patience through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

To do theology well, I must receive the gift of patience and participate in the mortification of my idols and impatience.  Receiving this gift means attending to being patient with my own limitations, accepting that I am a creature who is limited, and I must be patient with the Holy Spirit’s slow work of sanctification. In other words, my growth as a theologian is co-terminus with my steady growth in sanctification.

The gift of the Holy Spirit and the working of Christ’s patience within me frees me from the anxiety to produce something brilliant or worthwhile. I can be free to faithfully seek God in my ministry, my studies, my writing, and my prayers.  Patience in theology means relying on the one who I am called to write about and study; it means resting in his providential guidance of my study as he redeems my desires and intellect, turning them towards their proper end: the knowledge, love, and communion with the Triune God.

Finally, the patience that God has towards me and the patience he gives me in my pursuit of him turns towards my ministry, towards patience with others in the church. Here a whole host of idols and vices arise, like my desire to see lives changed (so that I can be seen as a successful minister). When I do not see the results that I think i should, I grow impatient and bitter. Webster’s insight about theology works here as well. If theology is slow because it is God working out the sanctifying of our minds and hearts, so will the sanctification of whole lives and communities be gradual. This gives me hope as I look to a lifelong vocation of ministry in Christ’s church. If God can be patient with me in my wandering pursuit of him as he mortifies and vivifies my mind and heart, how much more so am I called to be patient with his body the church?

 

 

A Brief look at Union with Christ

I wrote this to help me think through explaining union with Christ in the context of a discipleship group I am trying to start at the church I am serving. It isn’t an exposition of the whole doctrine of Union with Christ. In the future, I hope to examine how the doctrine of Union with Christ relates to the Hypostatic Union, specifically, how theologians have articulated the location of our union with Christ in relation to the Hypostatic union. 

We know that as Christians we are disciples of Christ, called to follow, imitate, and do what he says. We’ve also established that for many of us, the gap between what we know we are supposed to do and what we are doing is often pretty extensive. We could try to double down and exert our wills and just force ourselves to be disciples, but this always leads to some kind of exhaustion mixed with a sense of guilt and shame at our failure. Last week we learned that Christian’s are not just saved from death and sin, but we are also saved for a certain kind of life: life submitted to Christ and in obedience to his will. The question that still remains is how is this done? How is the gap bridged? How do we live in obedience without shame overwhelming us when we faith, and pride overwhelming us when we succeed?

The Christian answer to this is the doctrine of Union with Christ. To understand the doctrine, we must first define it and consider its benefits for the Christian. So what is union with Christ?

Rankin Wilbourne offers this, simple and biblical definition: Union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you.” (43). What does this mean? First, to be in Christ means that everything Christ has done and is doing is yours – his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In Galatians 2:20 Paul says it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul can say this because, in a very real, not metaphorical way, he has died with Christ and now lives in Christ. This is true for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ – His life is your life. The second part of the definition is that Christ is in you. How is this possible? In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to leave, but that he will not leave them as orphans but he will come to them. How does Jesus both leave and come to them? He says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” How is this possible? This is all possible because the Holy Spirit, the advocate, and helper will dwell in his disciples. Jesus leaves his disciples, physically, but remains with and is one with his disciples, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, the Son and Father come to dwell in the hearts of his disciples. (see John 14:23). As Wilbourne says, “To be united to Christ is to have the Spirit of Christ within you. The Spirit is the real, living bond between Jesus and us.” (51).

This is the basic doctrine of Union with Christ, but how does this relate to our lives? Gordon T. Smith summarizes it this way:

“Christ himself, his very self, becomes our true home even as we ourselves, our embodied selves, are the home of Christ. Therefore we do not merely follow Jesus, though we certainly follow. We do not merely obey Jesus, though we certainly live as those who do his will. And we Do not merely imitate Jesus, though, without doubt, we follow his example. Rather, we participate in the life of Jesus – literally, not metaphorically.” (41).

So Union with Christ is a literal reality, not something we just conjure up or imagine. But how does Union with Christ happen? Well, we’ve already seen that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, drawing us into Christ and Christ into us. God also uses the means of Grace, Word and Sacrament (baptism and Eucharist) to strengthen and ground us further in our union with Christ. (Smith, 41).

At this point, you might be wondering where the classic words of Justification and Sanctification have gone? Nowhere. Justification is the beginning of our union with Christ. When God in Christ justifies us objectively, we are forgiven and liberated from sin. This leads to sanctification: where Christ’s whole life is poured into our lives uniting us to his life through the Holy Spirit (see Smith, 49-50). To see this at work in Scripture, read closely Ephesians 2:1-10.

Union with Christ then is the central reality of salvation; it is the reality that moves every part of the Christian life. To see this, let us consider how Union with Christ benefits our daily walk with him. Following Wilbourne, Union with Christ gives us a new identity and purpose.

In a world obsessed with self-definition and glorification, Union with Christ is good news. Wilbourne says it this way, “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story. You don’t have to discover or craft, create or achieve, invent or reinvent your identity. Your identity is found not deep within you but outside yourself.” Your identity is Christ himself, you are the beloved Child of God in Christ. This takes time to believe and sink in, that is why we need to continually be reminded of our identity through Worship, Word, and Sacrament, but it is the truth. God has adopted you to be his very own. Paul in Ephesians 2 Says that you’ve been made alive together in Christ, you’ve been created in Christ. Your life is his life. This means that we don’t have to strive or work for our sense of identity and belonging: it is already given to us in Jesus.

Union with Christ also gives us a new purpose. Out of our identity in Christ, we don’t need to fear or prove ourselves anymore because we are beloved Children of God. This means that some of the harder verses in scripture can begin to take on a new light, especially the verses that challenge us to grow in Christ-likeness, in holiness. Ephesians 2 10 says “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are created in Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith as a pure gift (see Ephesians 2:8-9), with a purpose: for good works. However, this is not some sort of exchange: we are saved so now we have to do good works. How is that possible? Union with Christ.

“In the Bible holiness is both what we already are and what we are called to become” (Wilbourne, 180). Wilbourne uses two images that help communicate this: union with Christ is our anchor and our engine for growth in sanctification and good works. On the one hand, Christ is your anchor, your complete salvation and sanctification. You are in Christ, totally sanctified and completed in Him. So when we struggle with doubt, failure, or the desire to prove ourselves,  we Look to Christ who has completed his work of sanctification in us already. To return to Ephesians 2, we are already created in Jesus Christ, everything is accomplished. We don’t have to make ourselves holy; it is a gift.

Further, we are called to be holy, to be transformed, grow in holiness, and do the good works prepared for us (Lev. 11:44; Eph 4:15, Rom 12:2). These verses point us to the reality that we are holy in Jesus objectively, and yet, we are called to grow in holiness as we journey to our final home. Jesus “Not only declares us holy, but he also empowers us to be holy. Union with Christ means Christ is in you. The presence and power of Jesus now dwell within you by his Spirit…. And Just as Christ lived a completely holy life and was able to overcome every temptation, so now, because he is within you, he gives you a new disposition to live for him” (Wilbourne, 181).

The combination of these two images: anchor and engine, gives us both assurance that when we struggle we are not lost – you are in Christ – and courage and confidence to continue to pursue holiness – Christ is in you.

Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life. Because Christ is in us and we are in Christ we can talk about how to grow in holiness without worrying about trying to earn our salvation. Because of Union with Christ, the gap between our beliefs and our actions can slowly close because Christ is with us and in us making us like him. So, in summary, we have learned that: Union with Christ is the doctrine that believers, through the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension with the result that we are literally in Christ and Christ is in us, giving believers a new identity and purpose.

 

Resources:

The two books I used for this short lesson are one of many books on the topic of Union with Christ. I liked Wilbourne’s book because of its accessibility. Smith’s book casts a vision of Christian Maturity with Union with Christ as the starting and ending point.

Smith, Gordan T. Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity.  Downers Grove: IVS

Wilbourne, Rankin. Union with Christ. Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2016.

 

Leaving to Stay in the Church

I became an Anglican in 2011, thinking that I could escape the world of evangelicalism; the over-politicized, over moralized, over condemning evangelicalism I so desperately want to rebel against. But, not knowing all of what had happened in the world of TEC, I became an Anglican in the ACNA. I thought that this orthodox Anglican movement would be different: Orthodox, but not too fundamentalist about it. Selfishly, I wanted a place to be a Christian, even a Christian leader, where I could believe what I wanted to; where I could be a Christian, but not have to commit to the demands of the gospel, because that felt evangelical, radical, exhausting.

So when I first came across the prophetic witness of Ephraim Radner and R.R. Reno, calling the faithful to stay “in the ruins of the church” my heart skipped a beat, “Am I in the wrong church?” Did I, in fear, make the wrong choice when my episcopal rector told me “either northern Indiana, central Florida, or the ACNA”? He gave me a choice: the Episcopal Church or the ACNA – it was 2010. Did I make the wrong decision? Did I separate from the ruined church to try to find the ideal church?

 

Coming to the game late, I don’t know what the attitudes of my fellow Anglicans were at the front lines of the long defeat of Anglicanism. I only saw the aftermath: the lost lawsuits, the growing bitterness, and resentment, the hope that our faithfulness would lead to fruitfulness. The (ironic) prayer that “God was doing a new thing.” I saw the hope that the enemy was out there, and now that they were gone, perhaps, things will go well with us. “Prosper the work of our hands, O Lord.” Years later now, Anglicans still walk the road of the long defeat, our faithfulness has not necessarily lead to fruitfulness. I suppose that we are still under the loving judgment of God, separation from heretical teaching does not purge us of our sin and collusion. Liberalism and fundamentalism is the same thing on opposite sides of a spectrum. Does Anglicanism not suffer from this heresy?

 

Looking back, not knowing the hearts of people, I wonder how intertwined a vision of orthodoxy and a vision of political, social, and economic conservatism was in the formation of the A.C.N.A? I question now how much the defense of the creed was merely a guise for a particular kind of American Christianity. We thought we were purging the church of unorthodox belief. But orthodox belief does not save the human heart. Did we realize that the enemy is not outside us, but in us? Corruption does not come from liberal bishops but our hearts. Doesn’t the very gospel that we say we faithfully preach point to our hearts as the source of corruption? I discovered as God drew me further into the Anglican movement, that the breaking away did not fix our problem. The heretics was not the only source of ruination. We are. I am.

 

I joined a breakaway movement looking for historical continuity, hoping for stability, waiting for the church to be the church. I joined this movement hoping to escape the demands of euangelion and find solace in a peaceful church that was orthodox but didn’t disturb anyone. I became an Anglican to find the freedom to live a softer, calmer, less offensive Christian life. I say this as a confession; I was wrong to desire this. It is within the realm of the Spirit of my age; I wanted to be a Christian without commitment.

 

What I found was the church, broken, rebellious, sinful. Orthodox on paper – at least along conservative lines, and even still certain things are amiss – but still divided, still politicized, still searching for a silver bullet to fix its problems. I found a church in ruins under the judgment of God. And I too came under that judgment. I became an Anglican to get away from evangelical Christianity and the demands of Christ that evangelicalism, at its best, seeks to uphold. All I’ve discovered is my evangelical, conservative, politicized American Christian brothers and sister in Anglican churches. I found my rebellion, judgmentalism, and desire to escape the demands of Christ and his Gospel judged.

 

God brought me to the Anglican Church in North America, not to escape the ruined church but to minister in it and be broken for it. In his great mercy, he gave me a broader context for Christ to confront me with his call, and a wide-open stream to find deep nourishment for my ministry in this age. But this ministry still remains a ministry in the midst of a ruined, broken, prideful Church. I never really left the broken church of my childhood because its brokenness is my own brokenness, my own rebellious heart called to obedience and love.

 

For me, to join the Episcopal Church would be to leave the ruins of my church, the ruins of evangelicalism in America. These are my people, in an Anglican context, but still my people; Trump lovers and all. The church, all the churches, are in ruin, it seems to be only a question of which ruin God places you in to be faithful and seek to be fruitful in this time of destruction.

 

All this maybe self-justification to Radner and Reno’s challenge to remain faithful, but I don’t think it is. In God’s providence, I rebelled yet found myself in the midst of the people I thought I left; God in his goodness has guided me back to my church in ruins for me to preach, mourn, shepherd, and love it faithfully, that is, to love Christ faithfully in it. I became an Anglican to escape evangelicalism, to escape myself, I now call myself an evangelical Anglican (in the great tradition) to remain faithful to the church I’ve been called to, the broken, ruined, suffering, heretical, Anglican Church in America.

 

My very ecclesial membership speaks to this brokenness: I am an Anglican Church of North America priest serving as an Anglican Mission in the Americas member. In the midst of the chaos, I pray it will be taken up and transformed into the cruciform order of Christ through the life-giving Holy Spirit.

 

That is what this blog will be about. Seeking to be a faithful minister to Christ in the ruins of the Anglican Church of America. In this blog, I will be practicing dogmatic reflection, cultural analysis, and theological interpretation of the Holy Scriptures for the church. My prayer is that this discipline will not only continue to bring me into contact with the purging and illuminating fire of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but will bless others as they continue to make sense of living as disciples of Christ in his Church.