Lenten Reading: Aquinas on the good and necessary reasons for the Incarnation

If God is who as he is revealed in Scripture, was it really necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate to save humanity? This question is an honest one, seeing that Christians confess that God is all powerful and perfect, he could, conceivably, have restored human nature without becoming incarnate. However, Aquinas argues that according to Scripture, the mystery of the Incarnation was necessary to save humanity. To defend this Aquinas first qualifies what is meant by necessary, and then shows the benefits of Christ’s Incarnation for humanity in terms of how it helps those who believe in Christ grow in the good and withdraw from evil.

Aquinas distinguishes between two types of necessity: essential necessity and convenient necessity. The first, he argues is like the necessity of food for life. The second, is like the necessity of a horse for a long trip. “When the end is attained better and more conveniently” (III.Q1.A2). He argues that the incarnation was necessary in the second way, and not the first, because God who is all powerful could have done it differently. Yet, in light of humanity’s plight and God’s goodness, Aquinas, pointing to Augustine who says, “There was not a more fitting way of healing our misery” (III.Q1.A2).

To explain how the incarnation of the word is the most fitting way he divides his topic into two sections: How the incarnate Word draws us to the good and withdraws us from evil. Under the first section he shows how the Incarnate Word is the cause of Faith, Hope, Charity, good works and glory in the Christian. It is appropriate that Aquinas frames his understanding of Christ’s person and work in these terms, because he has just covered this path of life in Christ in the previous volume in terms of faith, hope, love, virtue, all of which leads to the end goal of “Full participation of the Divinity.” In presenting these five steps, he quotes Augustine. Let’s consider them one by one.

Christ’s incarnation furthers faith because Christ is the Truth revealed in human flesh. As Augustine says it: “In order that man might journey more trustfully toward the truth, the Truth itself, the Son of God, having assumed human nature, established and founded the faith.” Faith is established in the Truth by means of the Truth himself becoming human and revealing himself in the humility of human life. Hope is encouraged and strengthened by the revelation of God’s love for us which is most beautifully expressed in the Son of God becoming human. This same infinite divine love enkindles charity in us, according to Aquinas and Augustine, because what presents God’s love for us more than him becoming one of us and dying for us?

Having grounded Faith, Hope, and Love in the person and work of Christ, Aquinas focuses in on how Christ is our example for the perfect human life. Again, turning to Augustine, he argues that Christ makes visible the invisible God so that man could follow God’s will. For Aquinas, this is not mere imitation, but a life infused with Grace, through the Holy Spirit’s presence. (see further 1-2.Q109-114).

Faith, hope and love grounded in Christ, infused with the good works of Christ given through the Holy Spirit is the life of the Christian which leads the Christian on to end goal for which they were created: “Full participation of the Divinity, which is the true bliss of man and the end of human life; and this is bestowed upon us by Christ’s humanity; for Augustine says in a sermon: God was made man, that man might be made God.” In Christ is the whole means and ends of true human life given to all those who believe in him as John 3:16 says. It is worth nothing that Aquinas he uses the same framework of Faith, Hope and Love when he presents the reasons for Christ’s resurrection and ascension (III.Q53.a1, Q57.a2.ad3).

But the human condition is not one of neutrality, it is one of enslavement to evil. This Christ also had to free humanity form the enslavement and destitution of their fallen selves. Aquinas, explains this withdrawal from evil in five moves.

The first two moves relates to how humanity understand itself. First Christ incarnation shows us to not prefer evil and the devil over humanity itself. In other words, if God became human, then there is a certain goodness to humanity over and against the powers of evil. This is amplified by the his second point: “we are thereby taught how great is man’s dignity…” (III.Q1.A2). This has two effects in one’s Christian life, it reminds us of our God-given worth, and it exhorts us to pursue holiness.

In these first two the dignity of humanity is established, despite sin. In the third and four, Humanity is shown in Christ’s incarnation that they could not save themselves from the pride and presumption of sin. Here we see a kind of pendulum swing from one extreme to another: we either think of humanity as nothing, or as everything. Christ in his glorious humility both raises humanity up to its proper dignity, and gives humanity its properly creaturely humility. As Augustine says, quoted by Aquinas: “Because man’s pride, which is the greatest stumbling block to our clinging to God, can be convinced and cured by humility…” (III.Q1.A2).

The establishing of humanity’s proper dignity and relation to God occurs in Christ’s death, Resurrection, and Ascension, when he frees humanity from the “thraldom of sin.” Jesus, as God and man made satisfaction for humanity’s sin and death in his death and resurrection. Aquinas establishes this point by quoting Pope Leo at length:

“Weakness is assumed by strength, lowliness by majesty, mortality by eternity, in order that one and the same mediator of God and men might die in one and rise in the other – for this was our fitting remedy. Unless he was God, he would not have brought a remedy; and unless he was man, he would not have set an example.” (III.Q1.A2).

Aquinas, ends his answer by pointing his readers back to the fact that the Incarnation and ensuing saving work of the Trinity is beyond our apprehension, by positing that there are many more advantages of the incarnation given to humanity which are beyond our understanding. This is an essential reminder for Christians and Theologians, we may apprehend much about Christ and his gospel, but we will always be standing in the face of the infinite personal mystery of the Triune God and his infinite holy love.

This summary of Aquinas’s understanding of the good and necessary fittingness of the Incarnation is just a tiny taste of the deep theological and exegetical reasoning Aquinas offers in his Doctrine of Christ. I just finished reading through the 59 questions on Christ and cannot recommend them enough.

Aquinas on The Beginning, Ordering, and End of Theological Contemplation

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Mark 12:30-31 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

In a previous blog post, I quoted J.I. Packer who says that the Christian life is at its fullest when we are worshiping God with our heads, hearts, and hands – our minds, wills, and actions (note that emotion is not identified with the heart). Additionally, I’ve talked about John Webster’s understanding of the Pastor as Apostolic Contemplative Theologian. A part of the church’s service to God is thinking about him well, conforming our minds to the mind of Christ (Romans 12:1-2). Jonathan Edwards said it well: “The basic goal of any intellect is to work toward ‘the consistency and agreement of our ideas with the ideas of God.’”

When it comes to studying God, it is wise to ask, how can or should we conform our thoughts with who God is? In Christian theology, there are two primary ways to go about this: the order of knowing and the order of being. The order of knowing is roughly based on the Christian’s experience of encountering the Triune God: so we may start with Jesus Christ, then the Holy Spirit, and then God the Father. In recent years, many theologians have attempted to think about theology with the order of knowing as the primary ordering of theological inquiry. It also makes personal sense to many in the church because it relates to their personal experience. For an engaging and sensitive articulation of the order of knowing, while acknowledging the difficulties with this view, read Fred Sander’s The Triune God.

But, while this ordering makes personal sense, we must consider, who is the subject of theology? The answer is the Triune God. If that is so, shouldn’t the subject of theology, order our study of God even if the way we know the subject is tied to historical revelation? It is a question like this one that has pushed some theologians to order their theological reflection on the revelation of Scripture not in terms of our experience of God, but in terms of who God is and what God does. However, in having our minds conformed to the knowledge and love of God in Christ we must allow the ordering of our understanding of God to be dictated by who God is, not our experience of God. Theological contemplation is grounded in our experience and knowledge of God as he is revealed in Scripture, but it is properly ordered by the subject matter of theology: God and his works.

Let’s turn to a few quotes from Thomas Aquinas to see how he orders his contemplation to God and the works of God, while, founding the knowledge of this ordering on the Revelation of Scripture.

Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is a masterful example of rigorous theological reflection in this mode of theology. While Aquinas organizes his theology in terms of God and all that relates to God, he offers two other supplementary organizing principles that help make sense of the primary ordering. In the first article in the first question on The Nature Sacred Doctrine, Aquinas ponders whether revelation is necessary, or whether humanity can know what is needed for life via philosophical reflection. Aquinas posits:

It was necessary for man’s salvation that there should be a knowledge revealed by God besides philosophical knowledge built upon human reason. First, indeed, because man is directed to God, as to an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason: The eye hath not seen, o God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait for Thee (Isa. 66:4). But the end must first be known by men who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation…Where as man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of the truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. (1.1.1a)

Aquinas distinguishes between philosophical science and divine revelation and argues that knowledge of God must come from divine revelation because humanity was created by God, is directed to Him as our end, and God is the one who saves humanity. In other words, all of the Christian faith is grounded in the divine revelation of Holy Scripture. Tn this Aquinas begins his theological argumentation and contemplation assuming divine revelation for the salvation of humanity as the grounds for contemplation.

Further, he also holds that all of creation finds its beginning and end in God, and thus all creaturely reality is reflected on theologically in relation to God:

“Sacred doctrine does not treat God and creatures equally, but of God primarily, and of creatures only so far as they are referable to God as their beginning and end.” (1.1.3. reply 1).

Therefore, the material of revelation is Sacred Scripture, and the subject of theology is God and his creatures in so far as they are related to God. This thought brings us to our final quote:

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. (1.1.7a).

In theology then, according to Aquinas, God is the primary subject and ordering principle. Everything – Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology etc. – must be considered in light of God Himself, and God as the beginning and end of all creatures. Thus, for Aquinas, the order of knowledge, which includes being incorporated into Christ through the Holy Spirit, is assumed for proper theological contemplation.

Aquinas ends up ordering his whole theological account in the Summa along these lines: he begins with God, then all that comes from God. Within this account, he orders the economy of salvation around the reality that all creatures come from God and end in God. Thus, he considers creation, fall, Grace, and finally Christ as the means and end of humanity’s return back to God. In general terms, Aquinas’s ordering of theological inquiry is simply the order of God’s own revelation: “In the beginning, God” and “God created the heavens and the earth.”

How does this ordering help the church in its worship and mission?

First, it puts God at the center of theological endeavors, not humanity’s experience of God. When someone becomes a Christian, they encounter Christ, are filled with the Spirit and brought into the Body of Christ. This conversion reorients them to God as the beginning and end, and thus it is appropriate, if not vital, to begin learning the Christian faith, and the Christian experience in terms of God and then us. In doing so, our minds are sanctified and brought into alignment with the virtue of humility. We need only look at the Apostles and Nicene Creeds to see that this ordering of our knowledge of God and salvation along the lines of God’s Triune being (and only then divine missions) is the proper way to learn the Christian faith.

Second, Theology cannot be separated from the life of the Church or the spiritual life of the individual Theologian. To worship God with our whole minds requires that we are already in the realm of God’s kingdom. Theology done rightly is not rigorously guided by Scriptures and continually submitting to the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of our minds. It is grounded in the worship of the Church and the frequent reception of the means of grace: the Word and Sacraments.

Third, there is no necessary opposition between the order of knowing and the order of being, but the order of being should take precedence in contemplating God because he is the subject of the divine revelation; the one Christians come to know by means of the free divine initiative to reveal God to us. We saw that divine revelation, specifically Scripture, is the grounds for our ability to contemplate God. Scripture is taken as the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the words of the prophets and apostles to reveal who God is and what God does. God reveals himself to humanity as the God who is both infinitely beyond human knowledge and who condescends to share with humanity true knowledge of himself.

Much of what I’ve attempted to say is summarized by Theologian and Thomist Giles Emery in the following quote:

The elaboration of a theology works in three stages, which one can formulate as follows. The first comes from the acknowledgment of the revelation of the Trinity through its action in the world, listening to and following the witness of Scripture. The economic and soteriological current runs through the heart of this unfolding of the Trinitarian mystery… The reading of Scripture and Christian experience is its main resource… In the second stage, beginning from their economic revelation, this theologian puts forward a speculative [read rigorously contemplative] reflection on the persons, in their distinction and their unity. This is the doctrine of the immanent Trinity or in Thomas’ own language, the doctrine of the Trinity ‘in itself.’ A third and final phase uses the two initial moments as a guide into a speculative reflection on the actions of the persons within this world. This is where a genuine doctrine of the ‘economic Trinity, the Trinity as ‘principle and end of creatures,’ is conveyed. (Giles, The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, 415-416).

What we see in our quotes from Thomas is an assumption of the first stage as the content of divine revelation, which then grounds his theological investigation of God in himself and God at work in creation as the beginning an end of all created reality. This leads to the third stage, as one can see in many of his articles in Questions 27-44. Some theologians may prefer to focus on the first stage, but for Thomas, the subject matter of his investigation leads him to order his theology beginning with God and then everything else.

Many questions remain for me in my exploration of Aquinas, such as, how does the Gospel relate to the ordering of theological contemplation? How does God’s knowledge of himself relate to our knowledge of Him? How do we guard against overestimating and underestimating humanity’s apprehension of the Triune God’s divine life? Thus, while I am genuinely taken by Aquinas’s mode of theological contemplation, I have a lot more to consider and learn.

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.

 

L’Abri a Way of Life for the Church Part 2: Francis Schaeffer Encounters the Trinity

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Have you ever wondered why Christians struggle, or just don’t, live what they believe? Francis Schaeffer questioned that to the extreme:  he let go of everything he believed and started from square one to ask “is any of  Christianity true?” This search for truth led him to experience the beating center of the Christian faith: the reality that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loves and saves humanity. One could go so far as to say, that the Trinity is the center of all of Schaeffer’s thought.

In my first post about L’Abri, I talked about the foundational reality of life at L’Abri: trusting and dependent prayer. I also pointed to the reason for this way of life: Schaeffer’s desire to live life in total trust in God’s existence and providence.

What are the grounds for this belief? Especially in a world that is immersed in a cynical distance from faith in the supernatural, combined with the suppression of anything that smells of transcendence concerning real things. We are allowed to believe in some kind of transcendence for personal experience, or in the movies, but not in life. Life is brutishly natural. Schaeffer wants to offer a view of reality that is diametrically opposed to this suppression of transcendence.

In this post, I want to show the content of Schaeffer’s belief in supernatural reality with the help of Fred Sanders. I argue that Schaeffer’s life and the life of L’Abri as a witness to the existence of God is grounded in the reality and experience of the Triune God of Christianity.

Fred Sanders, in his book The Deep Things of God, demonstrates a deep, though often implicit, Trinitarian grounding in a broad swath of evangelicals throughout Church history (As an aside, I found this book very healing in my own struggle with evangelicalism. In short, I discovered the doctrine of the Trinity outside of evangelicalism, but this book helped me see the implicit Trinitarian theology at work in evangelical pastors and theologians). Sanders profiles several evangelical theologians and pastors throughout the book, one of those profiles is of Francis Schaeffer (pages 181-189). 

After pastoring for several years, Schaeffer had a crisis of faith. He stepped back from his faith and started exploring it again, to discover whether it was really true and real, and what the implications of Christianity are if it really is true. After wrestling for months. This is what Schaeffer concluded:

I came to realize that indeed I had been right in becoming a Christian. But then I went on further and wrestled deeper and asked, “But then where is the spiritual reality, Lord, amongst most of that which calls itself orthodoxy?” And gradually i found something. I found something that I had not been taught, a simple thing, but profound. I discovered the meaning of the work of Christ, the meaning of the blood of Christ, moment by moment in our lives after we are Christians – the moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity in our lives because as Christians we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. That is true Spirituality. (Schaeffer, “Two Contents, Two Realities,” in Works vol. 3 (416-417). 

Of course, this quote leaves us wondering, what does this ‘moment-by-moment work of the whole Trinity” look like? What does the supernatural reality of the Trinity look like in our daily lives?

The Holy Spirit indwelling the individual Christian is not only the agent of Christ, but he is also the agent of the Father. Consequently, when I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son as well as of the Holy Spirit – the entire Trinity.  Thus now, in the present life, if I am justified, I am in a personal relationship with each of the members of the Trinity. God the Father is my Father; I am in union with the Son, and I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This is not just meant to be a doctrine, it is what i have now (True Spirituality, 271). 

Schaeffer’s point is that the Doctrine of the Trinity is not something to merely be believed, it is the warp and woof of the Christian life. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inseparably work to bring about our salvation; they meet us in a real and personal encounter, and live with us in daily communion, as the triune God.  That is the Christian life.  True to evangelical form, Schaeffer emphasizes that this encounter is an experience of personal relationship, personal relationship with the whole Trinity.

Our relationship is never mechanical and not primarily legal. It is personal and vital. God the Father is my Father; I am united and identified with God the Son, God the Holy Spirit dwells within me. The Bible tells us that his threefold relationship is a present fact, just as it tells us that justification and Heaven are facts (Basic Bible Studies, 362). 

This personal and vital relationship with the Triune God of the universe is the heart of the Christian life and the center of the Gospel. Evangelicals summarize the personal encounter of the Gospel that leads to conversion with the phrase, “accept Christ as Savior.” Schaeffer uses this phrase and reveals its Trinitarian depth: “When I accept Christ as my Savior, my guilt is gone, I am indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and I am in communication with the Father and the Son, as well as the Holy Spirit  – the entire Trinity.” (True Spirituality, 269). This is the Christian life, nothing less than life in God.

In a world that lives under the suppressive exclusion of transcendence, Christianity declares that the God of the universe dwells in every Christian who puts their faith and trust in Christ. The reality of the Trinity in the Christian life, True Spirituality, subverts and rebels against the oppression of transcendence. God offers “a moment-by-moment, increasing, experiential relationship to Christ and to the whole Trinity” (True Spirituality, 264). The Transcendent personal triune God breaks upon our brutish naturalism and reveals a whole way of life, real belonging, real wisdom and knowledge, and real joy: life in the happy land of the Trinity.

This is the vision of God and reality that grounds the continued ministry of L’Abri. Should the church seek to live in this reality? yes. Will it? It is my prayer and my pursuit.

 

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Richard Hooker on Christ our Righteousness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 1:30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In church, we can through around a lot of big words. And sometimes how they relate to Jesus and our life can be confusing. I find it easy to forget how justification, sanctification, and glorification relate to one another, to my life, and especially to Jesus Christ. In my studies, I’ve found that seeing how all of these relate to being united to Christ helps align the words to the reality of salvation.

Richard Hooker, in his sermon, A Learned Discourse on Justification, offers a helpful summary of how justification, sanctification, and glorification all relate to Christ and our union to him. Hooker argues that all of humanity stands before God as unrighteous and enslaved sinners. But Christ, in his death and resurrection is made the “righteousness of men.” Following Paul in Romans 5, Hooker argues that just as all of humanity were captive in death because of Adam, so all were made righteous in Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he saved humanity from sin through his atoning and substitutionary death on the cross. 

In other words, those who are in Christ are united to his work of salvation, are made right with God and humanity. Christ’s being our righteousness – a reality that comes from outside of unrighteous humanity, i.e., we do not earn nor do we deserve it; it is a total gift. It is one work of salvation in the one person of Christ, but it is distinguishable in three different ways.

“There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the World to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the Lord to come is both perfect and inherent. That whereby we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified is inherent, but not perfect.” (Sermon II, sec. 3).

Hooker’s language is Old English and can be a little confusing, so let me parse out a bit what he is saying.

First, the glorifying, justifying, and sanctifying righteousness is Jesus Christ’s life and work applied to us. There are not three different righteousness, but one right person, Jesus Christ. Imagine one beam of light refracting out of a prism. Jesus is the righteous one who works his righteousness for humanity in three distinct but united ways.

The first refracted beam is glorifying righteousness. Hooker begins with glorifying righteousness to establish the end goal of human salvation:  communion with the triune God perfectly and inherently. Perfectly meaning that we are as we were created to be, and inherently, it is an internal condition – we are made entirely holy inside and out. This is the goal end to which God created and redeemed us to draw us into union with God in Christ. But we do not yet have this righteousness.

The second bean is the justifying righteousness. In the death of Christ, we are justified by his perfect righteousness,  but it is outside of us.  We are declared sinless and united to Christ’s death. It is important that the death of Christ justifies us from the outside and is perfect because it establishes the security and reality of salvation. We are made right with God because of Christ’s perfect obedient righteousness, and it has nothing to do with our ability to be right with God. Christ the righteous one dies for the unrighteous. The perfect righteousness of Christ becomes ours as a gift without works. The reality of justification is sometimes scoffed at as a mere judicial fiction. It is not fictitious because it is a perfect gift given and established in the infinite Triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nothing can change the justifying work of Christ, it is done and accomplished it is perfect, and it is given to those who are united to Christ in the Holy Spirit. Which brings us to the third beam of refracted light.

Jesus’s righteousness, his life, death, and resurrection, is infused into us through the Holy Spirit, making his righteousness ours internally but not perfectly. This is the processes of sanctification. Jesus is our righteous and gives us his Holy Spirit who infuses us with Christ’s virtues, habits, and life. It is not perfect, that comes in glorification, but it is a real infusion and process of growth and maturing. This righteousness is no less a gift, while at the same time it is internal and real because it is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us, uniting us to Christ, who gives us his eternal life and love with the Father.

In his magnum opus, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker puts what we’ve been saying differently.

“Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are impulsed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. The first thing of his so infused into our hearts in this life is the Spirit of Christ…” V.56.11.

Here we see that we are perfectly justified by the imputation of Christ’s work on the Cross for us, and sanctified internally by the infusion of grace in our lives through the Holy Spirit which eventually leads us to be glorified perfectly and inherently.

In the end, what Richard Hooker helps us see is that Jesus Christ is our righteousness at all points in the Triune God’s economy of Salvation. When we struggle to believe we are loved, known and forgiven, Christ our justifying savior is there to tell us that he has completely saved us. When we struggle with Sin and the desire to know and love God Christ our sanctifying savior is with us and in us through the Holy Spirit drawing us further up and further in. When we look to the future, Jesus our glory is there calling us home and cheering us on to the full communion that awaits us in the new heavens and new earth. This is the light of the Christian, and because it is all Jesus Christ, we have nothing to boast about, and that is good for us because Christ is our Righteousness.

This compact summary of Christ as our Righteousness helps me think clearly and worship more faithfully the fantastic and beautiful Triune God. I hope it blesses you and leads you to worship God the Father, Son, and Spirit in heart, mind, and action.

 

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

John Calvin on Union with Christ

 
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As I continue to research the doctrine of Union with Christ and other topics, I want to post significant or insightful quotes and offer some reflection on them.

Have you ever struggled with the feeling that all that stuff that Jesus did in his life is great, and sometimes you can sense that it means something to you, but it feels kind of cold and distance? Growing up in the Church I thought that a lot. Jesus died for me, 2000 years ago, but it didn’t get into my inner life, it didn’t sink down into my mind and heart and bring real change. So I was surprised when I found that this is actually a real problem and one that the doctrine of Union with Christ, rooted in the Inseparable and joyous life of the Triune God answers. Calvin sums it up the problem and solution splendidly in the following quote.

After presenting his doctrine of the knowledge of God, creation, and redemption in Books 1-2 of Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin turned to the Christian life in Book 3. This is how he opens this book:

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separate from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore to share with us what he has received from the Father he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our head” [Eph 4:15], and ‘the first-born among many brethren” [Rom 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into him” [Rom 11:17] and to ‘put on Christ [Gal 3:27]; for as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yes since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.” The Institutes of Christian Religion III.1.1.

This is a crucial passage on union with Christ in Calvin’s writing, and we can observe several essential things about union with Christ in it.

First, there is a Trinitarian pattern to Union with Christ. To receive the love of the Father and the salvation the Son achieved on humanity’s behalf, we must be united to Jesus Christ. For this to happen, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, must dwell in us. Salvation is accomplished in Christ, and applied to the Christian, in faith, through the Holy Spirit.

Second, Union with Christ puts us back on the right track towards humanity’s end goal. The end goal of union with Christ is humanity’s incorporation into fellowship and communion with the Triune God; so that we can be friends with God as we were created to be.

Third, note that salvation is only attainable in union with Christ. There are only two positions humanity can have in relation to Christ; outside, where there is no salvation, and inside Christ through the Holy Spirit, where salvation, life, and all goodness is.

Fourth, it is through the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity that we enjoy Christ and his benefits. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus Christ dwells in us and we in him. No Holy Spirit, no Union with Christ. In my growing up imagination, this was the link that was missing. I needed to see that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, dwells in me and brings me into communion with The whole Trinity. The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ in my life, personally.

Finally, the benefits that the Spirit applies – often summed up with words like justification, sanctification – are all found in personal union with Christ. That is not to say that justification and sanctification are the same things, rather, these are the double grace of union with Christ. We are declared in right standing with God because we have died with Christ and risen with him – passing through the judgment of our sin in Jesus – and we are continually being made new in the image of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit – who gives us the character, virtue, and life of the perfect human: Jesus Christ.

Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life, it is how we are made right with God, brought into communion with God, and renewed in his image.

*Forgive the irony of using an Icon of Christ while quoting John Calvin. I appreciate a lot of his theology, but I disagree with his rejection of Icons, though I respect his concern about Idolatry.

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.

L’Abri: A way of life for the Church? Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a series of reflections on my experience with L’Abri and how its vision can help the church in the 21st century. For more on L’Abri: http://labri.org/ 

Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts and writings were the warp and woof of my high school years and my life today. Francis’s book, True Spirituality, punctuates my memory as a turning point in understanding the Christian faith. I still regularly listen to an album of Bach cello solos I heard at an L’Abri Fellowship conference. But above all, the vision of L’Abri as a place of hospitality, prayer, and gospel living is in my mind almost daily.  It was only natural that I would eventually find myself at L’Abri.

After graduating from Taylor University, I went to L’Abri England to explore my vocation and calling. What I experienced was a peculiar way of life: a life that sought to live the Good News of Christ in the everyday habits of hospitality, honest conversation, and practiced community. Francis founded L’Abri in Switzerland with this vision and purpose: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God” (Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, 15-16).  This vision worked itself out in several ways, but most striking to me – and the point I want to reflect on for the rest of this post – is the total dependence on God as a way of witnessing to God’s existence.

Francis did not shy from the radical truth claims of Scripture. But what he did, that so few people do, is live them. I can’t remember where I read this, or if it was something that someone said at L’Abri, but it struck me as a perfect description of L’Abri: it is the Gospel intentionally on display in the lives of everyday people. This display included meals together, lots of tea, open, honest, and life-giving conversations, and a Tuesday morning time of prayer.

Every Tuesday morning the community would gather and pray for its daily, weekly, and yearly needs. They don’t ask for help; they don’t advertise their needs, they pray and trust that God will provide, and God does. This belief in God’s good, loving, and providential provision for everything, I suggest, is one of the most significant witnesses to God’s existence that L’Abri offers. Their prayer-filled trust in God’s provision endures as a witness to God’s existence under the suffocating weight of secularity’s imposition of a world voided of transcendence.  L’Abri witnesses to the rest of the Church and the world that there is a God who is real and actively at work in the ordering of all of life, including the provision of food and basic needs.

L’Abri’s radical reliance on God to provide everything needed, when compared to the Scriptures, is not very radical at all. It is made strange by the fact that so few people live this way. So few people live in total reliance on God for their daily needs. The question that continues to prod me is whether the Anglican Church could live in a way similar to L’Abri?

Since we are both submitted to the same God of the same Holy Scriptures, I desire to say yes; the church can live such a witness. I dream of seeing the Church as a place where God’s existence is demonstrated through its’ life and work; God’s existence demonstrated through lives that are entirely dependent on God for everything. What would that look like in the church? It would mean a profound change in our vision of the good life and our sense of purpose in life. It would mean being oriented towards God and his kingdom, not our wants and consumeristic desires.

I am convinced that we must begin with knowing and believing in the God who provides for what we need. This means we must both seek his face in prayer and take a good look at how we define what we need. But believing and knowing is not enough, we must put into practice the habits of praying for what we need. What would it look like for a church, at their vestry, to honestly and earnestly pray for their needs?

What would it look like for a church to pray and truly rely on God for its financial and material needs, and for the people God wants in the church? What would it look like if we prayed for our daily needs and did the small tasks of faithfully trusting God to provide in our every day lives? If we believe God is the God who he says he is, then we must be on our knees in prayer for his good provision and direction. I really can see no way around it. What is the end goal of this trust? Nothing less than the witness to God’s reality and existence.

I struggle with trusting God the way that the people at L’Abri do. But I also see no other way forward; I believe the way that L’Abri prays is the way the church should pray. “We pray that God will plan the work, and unfold his plan to us (guide us and lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings” (Schaeffer, L’Abri, 16). Some may object that this leads to passivity, I would suggest that it does not. Because when we rely on God to provide everything we need, that includes the energy, will, strength and ability to do the next thing in front of us. We pray that God will provide for everything, and he will.

One afternoon I joined a veteran L’Abri Worker for a cup of green tea. As we looked out his window on the English countryside sipping our tea we talked about life, the sacramental nature of reality, and the absolute good providence of God. I confess to him that I was struggling to trust God, the worker pointed me to Philippians 4:6-7 as a passage to meditate on.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

This passage stays with me because I saw it lived out L’Abri.
I believe that the way forward for the Anglican church in America today is living with this kind of faith, trust, and hope; a total abandonment to God’s loving care and providence. This way of living, unlike any evangelistic strategy, will demonstrate the existence, love, and power of our Triune God.