Monday, October 16, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 109

On page 96 as Bonhoeffer moves into his concluding focus in Life Together, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he writes about the special place confession one to another has in preparation for the Supper.

“It is the command of Jesus that no one should come to the altar with a heart unreconciled to another Christian…The day before the Lord’s Supper together will find the members of a Christian community with one another, each asking of the other forgiveness for wrongs committed. Anyone who avoids this path to another believer cannot go to the table of the Lord well prepared.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 96.

Here Bonhoeffer is not only talking about confession of our sins one to another, but going to brothers and sisters against whom we have sinned and asking their forgiveness – Bonhoeffer points out that this is more than an apology, this is confession of sin.

In my own life I have stood before the communion table and asked forgiveness of someone in the congregation more than once before I could administer the bread and wine. Why? Why could I not have done this privately? I could have done it privately before our worship gathering if I had been convicted of it before then, or if I had been both convicted and had had time to do so before our worship gathering. In each instance I believed that if I proceeded in serving the Lord’s Supper without asking for forgiveness that I would be profaning the Table and serving the elements as a hypocrite.

So we have both the practice of confession of our sins one to another, a confession in which we hear the Word of Forgiveness in Christ; and we have the practice of going to a brother or sister against whom we have sinned and asking their forgiveness for the wrong, the sin, we have done against them. The is the path to the communion Table, and while we may struggle with the former practice and not be prepared to embrace it, we must not evade the latter practice, otherwise the roots of bitterness and sin will work their way deep into our souls. Tender and new weeds are easy to pull, deep-rooted weeds are difficult and can be dangerous to the good plants of the garden.

“What brought the accusation of blasphemy against Jesus was that he forgave sinners; this is what now takes place in the Christian community in the power of the present Jesus Christ” (page 97).

While I realize that some of us may resonant with the above, and others may reject it out-of-hand, I hope we will ponder Bonhoeffer’s words for they could not have been lightly penned, not in the context of the book Life Together; whether we agree with him or not I think it proper to give Bonhoeffer the courtesy of thinking about what he has written. Confession to one another is important to Bonhoeffer and we should ask “Why?” Bonhoeffer concludes his book with a focus on confession and the Lord’s Supper – why does he do this? Why is this so important?

If we are indeed the Body of Christ, if this is a present reality, if the Trinity lives within His Body, then as He is so are we in this world – whether we believe it or not, whether we consciously experience it or not. The Tree of Life in Revelation Chapter 22 is a picture of a tree, like the Aspen, which grows through its root system; one tree has become many trees yet the many trees are the one tree and they are genetically identical. The Aspen tree is considered by some to be the largest living thing, with the Pando “clone” over 100 acres in size and weighing around 14 million pounds – surely the Body of Christ dwarfs the Aspen tree.

Too often we recoil at a thought because we have seen it misunderstood and misused, we ought to know better – what riches in Christ have we forfeited because of this thinking? And just because my lack of faith may cause me to pragmatically think, “I’ll never see that in this life,” does not mean that I should not hope for a fuller expression of the glory of God in Christ in His people – just maybe God will surprise me as He has surprised others.

If we are a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation” then we ought to discover what that means. (Peter does not write in 1 Peter 2:9 that we are a nation of sinners). John writes that Jesus Christ “has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:6 – see also 5:10; 20:6). Surely the New Testament writers understood what the image of a priest would convey, surely when the writer of Hebrews calls Jesus our High Priest, rather than simply “our Priest”, he understands that a High Priest is surrounded by other priests. The NT teaching of the “priesthood of the believer” takes the OT priesthood and transposes it upward in Christ – yet this is not an individualistic priesthood, this is not a priesthood where people serve in isolation from one another, this is a priesthood, it is a communion, a fellowship, with our High Priest as our Head. Little wonder that Peter writes that we ought to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God” and that when we speak we ought to speak as the “oracles of God” – for we have been made a holy nation and a royal priesthood.

Our world needs the Body of Christ functioning as a priesthood, the Body needs its members functioning one to another as a priesthood. Sadly we fear and we do not function. We are afraid to be who we are in Christ – we prefer the safety of Egypt. Slaves need not take risks, they are secure in their bondage.

“For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God,” (Romans 8:14 – 15). Better to live a moment in the freedom of Jesus Christ than a lifetime in chains.

Let us not fear to be who God has made us in Jesus Christ. Let us not fear to be the kingdom of priests, let us not fear to be Christ’s royal priesthood.

There is a sad irony that as we approach the 500th anniversary of what is commonly thought to be the beginning of the Reformation that we give but lip service to the priesthood of the believer which Luther sought to restore. Are we any better than the children of those who killed the prophets (Matthew 23:29 – 31)?

Bonhoeffer left confession and the Lord’s Supper for the end of his book because he considered that in this “the community has reached its goal,” a thought that we will explore in the next post. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Reflections on Romans 4:1 – 5:11: (8)

“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6 – 8.

“Helpless” (being without strength), “ungodly,” “sinners,” and then in verse 10 “enemies.” Christ died for these people; who are these people? We are these people. We all once “were,” many still are, many are no longer – but we all once were. Christ died for us all, for God so loves the world that He gave His only begotten Son and He does not desire that any should perish but that we all might come to repentance – but not all receive the justification and reconciliation that God has proffered in and through Christ Jesus. This is a deep mystery to me and I do not purport to understand it, I only see glimpses – it is as the Grand Canyon, each overlook presents a particular vista and perspective. It is as Yellowstone, microsystems within a mysterious park. It is as Grand Teton National Park, there is no doubt as to where the mountains are – so do the love of God and the Christ of the Cross tower above all else - their majesty is unmistakable.

We were helpless, we were without strength; if we thought ourselves to be something, in truth we were nothing – in one sense we were as babies, unable to care for ourselves. In another starker sense we were enemies of God – let there be no mistake about that, God did not reconcile friends to Himself, He reconciled enemies. In the earlier chapters Paul has demonstrated that there is no one righteous, not even one.

When parties are at war the goal of each party is to destroy the other, to win the war by military action. Yet God’s goal was not the destruction of His enemy mankind, but rather its salvation and reconciliation. While we were rebelling against God, God was loving us. When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies He is calling us to live and love as God, He is calling us to live as the Trinity (as the Trinity lives in us). He is calling us to manifest the Divine Nature in our relationships to those who continue to be God’s enemies. God reconciles us by and through His love manifested in Jesus Christ and His Cross.

Can we see ourselves helpless and God loving us? Can we see ourselves as ungodly and God in Christ dying for us? Can we visualize ourselves as sinners and enemies of God and God reconciling us to Himself – to be in intimate relationship with Himself?

God’s love is passionate, it is pursuing, it is longsuffering – consider that Jesus took the sins of the world on Himself on the Cross – all of the evil deeds ever done, all of the evil ever thought, all of the filth which hearts have ever pondered – the Holy Lamb of God bore all of our sins, took them on Himself. Consider that Jesus, the Lamb, not only took our sins upon Himself, but He took us – and all that “us” means – upon Himself, into Himself – the core of our individual and collective beings, evil enemies that we were – He enfolded us within as He died and was buried so that we all might die in Him and be raised in Him (Romans Chapter 6).

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him – 2 Corinthians 5:21; it is on this basis that Paul in 2 Corinthians pleads for his readers to be reconciled to God – the basis of God’s love in Christ on the Cross; “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died, and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Cor. 5:14 – 15).

To lose sight of who we were is to lose sight of the love of God which bridges the chasm of sin and death, which defeats our rebellion and hatred, which bore the hideousness of our deeds and ourselves on the Cross. For those who have yet to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ – let this encourage you to see how great God’s love for you is, how greatly He desires you to know Him and the depths of His love – He desires that you begin a new life in Him and that you learn to allow Him to live in you and through you – He desires that you experience the peace and joy of knowing that your sins are forgiven and that you have an eternal future in Jesus Christ.

Helpless we were when Jesus died for us, when He called us; helpless we are outside of Him; “…much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10).

Are we living in the “much more”? In the “much more” of His love, His grace, His reconciliation, His Holy Spirit, His empowering new life?

Let us live in more of the “much more” today. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 108

Regarding confession one to another, Bonhoeffer notes that there are two dangers that we must be aware of; the first concerns those who hear confession and the second has to do with the motive and attitude of those confessing. He does not think that one person should hear the confessions of everyone else; the person may become overburdened, hearing confession may become routine, and there may be “unholy misuse of confession for the exercise of spiritual tyranny over souls” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 95.)

I am particularly sensitive to the latter danger, having seen abuse of position on more than one occasion and having heard and read of it more than I care to think about. Bonhoeffer also counsels that only those who themselves confess their sins to others should hear the confession of others, writing on page 96, “Only those who have been humbled themselves can hear the confession of another without detriment to themselves.”

Perhaps Paul is reminding us of our propensity for self-justification and for comparing ourselves with others when he writes (Galatians 6:1-3), “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” What is the temptation Paul speaks of? While it may be a temptation to engage in the same trespass that another Christian is caught in, I think it may also be the temptation to think ourselves better than others, especially better than the brother or sister caught in the trespass – the latter is the way I read this passage while not denying the possibility of the former.

If I am to hear the confession of a brother I must do so in both the knowledge of the completeness of the Atonement and the knowledge that outside of Christ there is nothing good or righteous within me; the knowledge of the Gospel enables me to speak the Word of Forgiveness to my brother; the knowledge of my own soul outside of Christ enables me to identify with my brother and to not think that I am better, for without Christ I am nothing, I am worse than nothing…I am capable of hideousness – my sins nailed Jesus to the Cross…let me never forget that.

Concerning the person who confesses, Bonhoeffer warns that “For the well-being of their soul they must guard against ever making their confession into a work of piety” (page 96). That is, there is nothing meritorious in confession; as Bonhoeffer writes, “The forgiveness of sins is alone the ground and goal of confession.” He goes so far to write, “Confession understood as a pious work is the devil’s idea.” This is, of course, true of any action that we clothe with the idea of merit, with the trappings of self-justification – a danger which we all (I think) (and which all traditions and practices) must be aware of – we have a propensity to justify ourselves and if we are bitten with actually thinking and living in self-justification then we have been bitten by a viper and our pride will swell and poison will course through our system.  

Bonhoeffer believes that confessing to one another is essential in life together, but he also knows the pitfalls involved in the practice – the dangers are great but so are the rewards – the rewards of living life together in unpretentiousness, at the foot of the Cross, in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ – where we all stand before Christ, and in Christ, as those who once were sinners in rebellion against God, but who are now saints washed by the blood of the Lamb wearing robes of righteousness.

“Worthy are You to take the book and break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe, and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” Revelation 5:9 – 10.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Reflections on Romans 4:1 – 5:11: (7)

 “And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and proven character hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:1 – 5 (NASB).

Tribulation/suffering; perseverance/endurance; character; hope that does not disappoint or let us down or put us to shame – why? Because God’s love has been poured out [from God] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

“Through the Holy Spirit” – life in the Spirit is amplified in Chapter 8, but here we see the role of the Holy Spirit in our formation into the character and image of Jesus Christ (8:29), a role which will be expanded upon in Chapter 8, to the point where we can say that we are sons and daughters of God through and in the Holy Spirit. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (8:14). The Spirit of sonship lives within our hearts, the very love of God for God is love.

This love sustains us and draws us into Christ in our suffering, developing endurance within us as we submit our will to the will of God; our submission to the will of God (by the grace of God) places us in the position for God to form the character of Christ within us (both in affirmation and negation), and as we allow the Holy Spirit of God to work out the will of God within our inner selves our hope in God grows deeper and brighter and into a heavier substance, reaching beyond the veil (Hebrews 6:19; 10:19ff)) – and the love of God draws us onward and upward and ever deeper into the Trinity.  

Affirmation in Christ confesses the complete and perfect work of Jesus Christ, the fullness of the Atonement – “By this will [the will of God manifested in Jesus Christ] we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). We affirm the transforming power of the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:14 – 19). We affirm the “already – not yet” (Romans 8:30; 1 John 3:1-3).

Negation is found in our denial of “self” – “…If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). We also practice negation when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9 – 2:2). We live lives of negation as we continually consider ourselves “dead to sin” and then live lives of affirmation when we consider ourselves “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

The process of transformation into the image of Jesus involves both affirmation and negation, a vision of Jesus Christ and a repudiation of who we were/are outside of Christ. The sculptor must free the image embedded in the marble by chipping away at all that is not of the image.

“We have come to know and believe the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). Coming to know the love of God is a process, it takes time and it takes experience, and much of the experience can be in the form of tribulation and suffering – we don’t really understand this love that the Holy Spirit has poured within our hearts; we don’t understand and accept the deep assurance that it brings, we don’t really understand its nature, and we don’t comprehend the unwavering character of God’s love – not at first, not most of us anyway.

This is a love so “other” than we are that it loves its enemies (Romans 5:10) and not only loves them, but loves them to the point of drawing them into intimate relationship – of dying so that its enemies might live. Ought we not to humble ourselves and bow our knees before such love?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 107

“The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 94.

On page 95 Bonhoeffer tells us that in the presence of a psychologist we can only be sick and that psychology does not know that we are “ruined” by sin and need the healing that comes with forgiveness in Christ. “Another believer views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ.” Our baseline need is not therapy but confession of sin and forgiveness.

He goes on to say that when we live daily in the Cross that we will lose the “spirit of human judgmentalism.” “The death of the sinner before God, and the life that comes out of death through grace, becomes a daily reality for them.” For the Christian this is Romans Chapter Six in practice, considering ourselves dead to sin and alive to God, living in our identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the person who does not yet know Jesus, before we can arrive at Romans Six we must journey through Romans chapters 1 – 5:11; we must repent and trust Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life – for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then comes the great transfer of Romans 5:12ff.

Bonhoeffer writes not just as a theologian and pastor, but he also writes as the son of a famous doctor, Karl Bonhoeffer, who was chair of the department of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at a Berlin Hospital and whose research is still cited in psychiatric papers. Dietrich grew up in an academic and theological environment, so when he writes about what psychology can’t do in identifying sin and offering hope through Jesus Christ he writes with an integrated perspective.  “The psychologist views me as if there were no God” (page 95).

Of course in our own time there are counsellors and psychologists and psychiatrists who are Christian, the challenge is at least twofold – the first challenge is whether the Bible is the foundation and the context of their thinking and practice. For unlike physiological medicine which treats the body (though it should also treat the whole person), these practices treat the inner person and there is simply no other foundation upon which a practitioner of the inner person ought to build, and no other context within which he ought to serve, than that of the Bible and its anthropology and its doctrine of God.

The second challenge is the therapeutic mindset of the professing church; just as we have been taught to reach for a pain pill with every ache and at the first sign of discomfort, so we have been taught to run to counseling if things go awry within us or with others, or to watch the latest therapeutic video presentation or read the latest popular therapeutic book or attend the hottest new program for making our lives and relationships better. This mindset is so embedded within much of the professing church that we may not be able to extricate ourselves from it. We instinctively turn to counselling before we turn to Christ and His Word in the community of believers, in life together.

It is the Word of Christ that must form us and heal us and transform us into His image; our goal, our aim, is not to feel better but to be more like Jesus. Are we living obedient lives to Jesus Christ? Are we submitted to the Word of God? The Biblical self-image is not that “I am special” it is that Christ is everything and that when I am in Christ that I have all that I need – and yes, He has especially made me (Psalms 139), but let me not be deceived about who I am outside of Christ, outside of Him I am the greatest sinner who ever lived. I am not called to be preoccupied with myself, I am called to love God and others and to lay my life down for Christ and my brothers and sisters.  

In my own service to others in pastoral work, when I learned to ask, “Where is the lordship of Jesus Christ in your marriage?” things took on an entirely different perspective with husbands and wives in marital difficulty. Then there could be confession of sin, then there could be healing, then Jesus was Lord and He was bigger than the marriage – and not only could the husband and the wife repent and confess, but the marriage could repent and confess. Yes, I could still coach them in communicating and decision-making and in other areas of marriage, but that was secondary, the lordship of Jesus Christ was first and that meant confession.

Just as there are healing properties in our physical bodies, so are there healing properties within the Body of Christ, in life together; learning to confess our sins one to another and praying for one another that we may be healed (James 5:16) presents us with an image of those properties in action. A healthy body is a body in which the parts are in balance and relationship, one in which every part, every element, is fulfilling its God-designed purpose. Can we not see that this is who we are as God’s people? (Ephesians Chapter 4).   

Friday, September 29, 2017

Marketplace Ponderings – 5

Speaking of Christ, Isaiah writes, “He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:7). The rule of Christ is rooted in righteousness and justice.

“By justice a king gives a country stability, but one who is greedy for bribes tears it down.” (Proverbs 29:4). When those in authority exercise justice and equity, those from whom they are responsible experience stability.

Christians are called to participate in the reign of Christ. Since His reign is one of justice and equity, we are called to extend justice and equity to others. This means that we apply standards uniformly. It means that everyone gets a fair shot at a job, a promotion, or a contract. It means that if we are going to be flexible on an issue, that we are flexible with everyone. It means that if we are going to show mercy that it is without regard to our personal likes and dislikes. When we are agents of equity we are agents of Christ. When we violate the principle of equity we violate the reign of Christ.

A friend assumed oversight of the payroll operations of her firm. She discovered that a number of employees were eligible to receive compensation for unused sick days they had taken over the past few years. The previous payroll supervisor had no intention of paying the employees because they were unaware of their eligibility to receive payment. The eligibility was going to expire at year-end. What was the equitable thing to do?

Tom and Frank have been with the company for the same length of time. They do the same job and their levels of performance are similar. Tom has been aggressive in salary negotiation over the years, Frank has not. There is now a wide gap between their salaries that can only be attributed to the fact that Tom is a better negotiator than Frank. Is that an equitable situation?

The person who exerts the most pressure is often the one who receives preferential treatment. We may use a number of rationales to justify our making exceptions to the rule, but the fact remains that when we apply different standards to people that we act in a way contrary to the reign of Christ. This is not to say that we should not show mercy, those in positions of authority are in those positions to (hopefully) show mercy as well as ensure accountability and to exercise their authority with wisdom and humility.

When those in authority manage and lead with justice and equity they promote stability within their organization. People know what to expect and they develop a sense of trust in the firm. As Christians in the marketplace we are stewards of God’s justice and equity. Even if our life of equity is an island in a sea of corporate capriciousness, we are called to be faithful to the character and rule of Jesus Christ. Such a life is worth more than giving out a thousand religious tracts to our coworkers, such a life provides credibility to our words of witness – we are agents of Christ in the marketplace. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reflections on Romans 4:1 – 5:11: (6)

“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance proven character; and proven character hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:1 – 5 (NASB).

Romans 3:21 – 5:11 is an upward trajectory that accelerates in 5:1 – 11. In chapters 1 – 3 God through Paul convicts the entire world, Jew and Gentile, of sin and rebellion – Paul looks at the jury in 3:10 and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, as the Scripture says, there is none righteous, no not one,” and then reinforces his point in 3:23 with, “For all have sinned and all short of the glory of God.”

But in the midst of his convicting words, as Paul wraps us his air-tight case against Adam’s Race, he introduces hope as he starts to talk about “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:22), an image he introduced in 1:16 – 17 but which he held in abeyance until conviction of sin was argued and was secure, until there was seemingly no way out of mankind’s dilemma.

Just as Paul drove home in his downward trajectory that “all have sinned,” in his upward trajectory he emphasizes the “guarantee” (4:16) that we have that God justifies those who believe in Jesus Christ, and in 5:1 with his “therefore having been justified by faith” begins to show what this means in terms of a relationship with God and His purpose in our lives. This is not about getting some ticket punched for heaven, this about being in intimate relationship with the Trinity and with one another – this is about eternity present, past, and future.

The minor crescendo of 5:1 – 11 (minor compared to the major of 8:31 – 39) is one of exultation and rejoicing; we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (5:2), we rejoice in tribulations (5:3), and we rejoice in God through Jesus Christ through whom we have been reconciled (5:11).

In this upward acceleration Paul introduces the work that tribulation does in our lives (5:3), its work is such that we exult/rejoice in it. In the upward trajectory of Romans 8, in the setup leading to Romans 8:31ff, Paul returns to tribulation (8:18), “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” Then in the major crescendo we hear the words echoed through the cosmos, “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The maturation process in Christ that Paul describes in 5:3 – 5 is linked to 8:28 – 29 in that we are justified, sanctified, and adopted in order to be “conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren,” (8:29). As I have said many times, Romans 8:28 is perhaps quoted out of context more than any verse in the Bible, all things do not work together for a nebulous and indefinable good – which is the way 8:28 is normally quoted; but rather they work together for good so that we might be more like Jesus, that we might be transformed into His image.

In 5:1 – 11 justification and peace with God are linked to a journey that not only includes glory, but glory in the midst of tribulation. But notice how the image of tribulation is placed within a context of assurance; we are justified, we have peace with God, our hope does not disappoint, the love of God is poured within our hearts, Christ died for us while we were His enemies, God demonstrates His love for us, we are saved from wrath, we are reconciled, we are saved by the life of Christ. Our tribulations are experienced within the ocean of God’s love and peace and desire for us to know Him.

Without such assurance at least one of two things will happen when we experience hardship and tribulation; we will either fall away (Matthew 13:20 – 21) or we will think that God is angry with us and doubt the work of Christ on the Cross, we will doubt the surety of His Word, we may even doubt our salvation and whether we have ever really known Jesus Christ. When people preach and teach a salvation that is contingent on us, contingent on man, they set their people up for insecurity, anxiety, and preoccupation with themselves. One can hardly not be preoccupied with oneself if one’s salvation is always in doubt, when it is contingent – this is hardly the guarantee that Paul writes of in Romans Chapter 4. Often folks in this situation seek signs or experiences to reassure themselves that they are in a relationship with God, that they are special – my friends, God’s Word is enough – if we should never “feel” a thing God’s Word is sufficient. Of course our kind heavenly Father will reveal Himself to us in myriad ways to make Himself know, of course He will share our days with us…but let us trust Him first and then trust Him to draw us to Himself as He desires, not as we desire. And let us never think that having begun in the Spirit of God that we can reach perfection through our own means (Galatians 3:3).

We are called to mature in Jesus Christ, to be discharged from the hospital nursery. This is the clear teaching of the Bible; is this our clear teaching? Our expectation?

Jesus, make us like you, individually and as brothers and sisters, as your Body, your Church. Let our marriages be like you. Our individual lives be like you. Our fellowships like you. Our friendships like you. Holy Father, conform us into the image of your Son, let your holy will be done, in our lives as in heaven. 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 106

“It is not experience with life but experience with the cross that makes one suited to hear confession.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 94.

I want to follow yesterday’s post up quickly before both I and you, the reader, lose the train of thought from yesterday, for there are other cautious considerations that one should ponder regarding confession one to another. Yet again I wish Bonhoeffer were here to discuss this with. Is he writing as a seminary professor to ministerial students? Is he writing as a pastor to a broad spectrum of Christians? What is in his mind as he writes about confession? What might this look like in a congregation? It may be easier to visualize what this looks like with seminary students than in a typical Christian congregation.

Bonhoeffer has more to say regarding confession, and I think you’ll see that he is hard-hitting as he crosses the finish line of Life Together, but before we cross the finish line with him I want to pause and think about what I’m styling “cautious considerations.”

Regarding the above quote, while it is true that to hear confession one should have “experience with the cross”, often experience with the Cross walks hand-in-hand with life experience – there was a reason men were to be thirty-years old before entering into the priesthood under the Levitical Law. There is a reason New Testament leaders are to be proved and tested and evaluated. The Bible recognizes the importance of experience, of seasoning, and certainly this idea is important within the priesthood of all believers – we are all (hopefully) in some stage of maturation; I am not sure that as a rule novices ought to be expected to bear the burden of hearing confession – nor am I sure that we want to risk having those making confession hurt by the immaturity of others. This is something that ought to be worked out – I am not working it out on a blog, it is to be worked out in life together. On an organic basis I can see that seasoning may not be critical, such as when all brothers are at roughly the same mile post marker on their journey, but I can also see the opposite.

Also, if you are reading this without having read Life Together, or without having read the preceding blog posts (over 100 now) – please do not read what Bonhoeffer is writing about confession in isolation from his entire book, and if you are tempted to introduce what he is writing about confession to a group of Christians please don’t do it…unless you have read the entire book and thought deeply about it. Confession, the way Bonhoeffer presents it, should not (cannot?) be practiced without a commitment to what goes before it. Bonhoeffer begins Life Together with submission to Christ and His Word, this must come before anything else. Without submission to Christ and His Word confession is reduced to some kind of group therapy and can become something self-centered, theatrical, and those engaged in it can open themselves and others up to confusion, manipulation, and narcissistic introspection. Life Together is about life in Christ together, not about a therapeutic methodology.

Perhaps there ought to be mentoring of sorts in all this, as in all of the Christian life. The older and seasoned mentoring the younger in hearing confession and speaking the Word of forgiveness. I also think that a seasoned brother or sister ought to practice circumspection in their confession to others – not to preserve a fa├žade, but simply because we ought not to burden younger brothers and sisters with confessions that may not be helpful.  Here again Bonhoeffer is on point when he emphasizes that we need to realize that we are capable of any and all sin, we need to see our sin and our sins nailing Jesus Christ to the Cross, then and only then can we, I think, perform the sacred service of hearing the confession of another.

I am sure there are many other “cautious considerations”, the reader may have thought of them and may be far ahead of where I am in my thinking –  I am not very far. Bonhoeffer thought this so important that he concludes Life Together with this discussion, and he writes passionately about it. Whether we agree with him or not, I think we owe it to him and ourselves and those we love to ponder what he is saying – just maybe he has something we need. Yes, it is unfamiliar territory for most of us, and perhaps some of us have previously ventured into that territory and been hurt – but consider that Bonhoeffer is writing to guide the church through the darkness descending on Europe and the world, and that in doing so he concludes his book with the importance confessing our sins to one another…why? Why is he doing this? Why is he so passionate? What can we learn from him? What are we not seeing?

What are we seeing?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 105

“Luther himself was one of those for whom the Christian life was unthinkable without confession to one another, In The Large Catechism he said, ‘Therefore when I urge you to go to confession, I am urging you to be a Christian.’” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 94.

Bonhoeffer discusses the question of whom we should confess to, and he answers that all believers in Christ can hear confession. That, of course, leads to more questions, some of which I’ve touched on in previous posts. On page 94 Bonhoeffer explains that those who live beneath the Cross of Jesus “will find that there is no sin that can ever be unfamiliar…Whoever has once been appalled by the horror of their own sin, which nailed Jesus to the cross, will no longer be appalled by even the most serious sin of another Christian…It is not experience with life but experience of the cross that makes one suited to hear confession.”

To those who may take issue with Bonhoeffer’s (and Luther’s) emphasis on confession by arguing that there is no such Biblical emphasis, I would ask them to consider the following: There are other doctrines that, in terms of specific verses, do not have “critical mass”. Consider how often Hebrews 9:27 is quoted to argue against second-chances after death – what other verses do people normally quote? Can you recall them? Are there any? On the one hand if we believe that Scripture is God-breathed and inspired, then a verse is a Word of God – understood of course in its context – for we must keep in mind that originally verses were not verses, as we think of verses, but words and thoughts connected to other words and thoughts – what we call “context”. So if we have a verse that tells us to confess our sins one to another and to pray for one another so that we might be healed we have a sure Word of God just as Hebrews 9:27 is a sure Word of God.

In addition to this, however, is what the Word of God tells us about the nature of the Church, the Cross, who we are in Christ, forgiveness of sins, and the nature of reality in general. What is the nature of Christian reality? Which is to say, what is the nature of reality? – for God’s reality should be our primary consideration so that we can learn to live in Him and relate to others, within and without His Kingdom, as we live and move and have our being in Him. What is the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the clothes we wear? What country do we live in? What language do we speak? Whose thoughts do we think?

If we consider this issue of Biblical reality in Jesus Christ then perhaps we will see not only what Luther and Bonhoeffer saw, perhaps we will enlarge their vision and experience, perhaps we will journey farther down the road and explore new expanses – I think they would like that, I doubt that either one of them desired that those who came after them would stop where they were when they transitioned into the Presence of God.

Bonhoeffer points out that self-justification is toxic to the church, an enemy of life together. Just as hypocrisy and self-justification, in the form of the religious establishment, crucified Jesus Christ; just as self-justification in the form of legalists opposed the Gospel in the Early Church; so these same elements temp us today and threaten our relationships with one another. Confession one to another keeps us honest (we hope), it is a preventive against hypocrisy, and it reminds us of who we are outside Christ and who we are inside Christ. Confession dismantles our pretension and leads us to assurance in Christ.

If the nature of the Church is the nature of God, if we are indwelt by the Trinity, if we are joined to our Bridegroom, then confession is sacramental – we receive the grace of God through one another as we hear the Word of forgiveness from others who form the priesthood of all believers. Confession is sacred and holy, it is one believer trusting another believer as we trust Jesus Christ – for we are both in Jesus Christ. This is the enduring reality of God, the only true sustainable reality…are we living in what is Real or are we living in what is passing away?

If “verses” are not part of the fabric and tapestry of life…then what are they? If we cannot see the pattern which they weave…then what are they? A thread is not a tapestry, a thread is not a garment, we cannot clothe ourselves with individually hanging threads, threads that are not woven together. Are we naked or are we wearing the garment of God and His Word? This is to say that we ought not to reject Bonhoeffer out of hand simply because we may have prejudices against confessing to another Christian, or because we have not been raised this way, or because we don’t immediately see the Biblical context within which he is working…or because we are afraid. We are called to a life of holistic integration in Christ and this includes seeing the Scriptures as a unity, as a way of life in Christ. To be sure there are considerations of prudence and wisdom and understanding and maturity that ought to be considered when we approach confession and we will consider those in a future post.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Marketplace Ponderings - 4

I was giving a breakfast talk at a local church, after which we formed small groups to further discuss the material that I had presented. Much of my focus had been on our responsibility to serve our coworkers. One of the participants in the small group said, "My daily goal is to get to work, do my job, and get home without having interaction with coworkers. Interaction can lead to problems, and I don't need problems." While I have to admit that I was taken aback by the comment, I appreciated the person's honesty.

Considering the hectic pace of life, it isn't unusual for us to have days, or perhaps weeks, where we feel that we have accomplished something by simply making it through another day, or to another paycheck. Some of us may feel that we've done well just to have finished another year with some semblance of sanity or equilibrium.

Yet, our heavenly Father has called us to be sensitive to others, even in the midst of personal turmoil and uncertainty. One of the characteristics of our Father that Jesus shares with us is that, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." Matthew 5:45. The context of this verse is Christ's instruction that we should love and bless those who treat us badly. His point is that if our Father sends his sun and rain upon all people without discrimination, that we should also bless all people without discrimination. This includes our coworkers.

How can we be a blessing to our coworkers?

Prayer is a good place to start. Just as the sun and rain of our Father nourishes our planet, so our prayers can nourish the lives of our coworkers. As women and men whom have been called by God to a corporate priesthood, prayer for others is an integral part of our calling. Consider the fact that it is possible that you might be the only person who ever prays for a coworker, and that if you don't pray for her, then nobody will.

I have some friends who use an organizational chart as a prayer tool. I mentally walk through my firm's offices and stop at each desk and pray for the individual.

What should we pray for? Well, certainly that they will know Christ, and that if they already know him that they will grow in relationship with him. However, I also think that we ought to pray for other specific issues. Has there been a loss in the family? Is there a new baby? Is there unemployment or sickness in the family? Perhaps the person is going through a tough emotional time. Maybe there is loneliness.

Do we know our coworkers well enough to know how to pray specifically for them?

Praying for specifics helps us to be open to relational opportunities with others. When our hearts and minds are focused on others in prayer, the Holy Spirit can communicate to us concerning our relationships.

Thanksgiving for our coworkers is also important. The Scriptures teach us that we are to give thanks for all people, 1 Timothy 2:1. I have heard many a Christian share how giving thanks for a coworker has served to reduce tension and break down unseen barriers between individuals.

In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus teaches that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We have a responsibility to live as salt and light in the marketplace. While our opportunities for expression will be different, depending on our gifts and environments, we can trust our Father that there will be opportunities, for we have a purpose and destiny in Him.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Reflections on Romans 4:1 - 5:11 (5)

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” Romans 5:1.

Peace. What shall we make of this idea? Do we relate to moral peace? Spiritual peace? Do we fall into the trap of thinking that spiritual peace is a state of consciousness, or unconsciousness; of thinking that it is something that we can develop within ourselves? And what of moral peace? Do we look to ourselves to set our own moral standards? Do we numb ourselves with diversion or pleasure or drugs or with moral denial or with descending greater and greater immorality until we have lost all sense of moral righteousness?

Who needs peace with God if there is no God with whom to have peace, to whom to be reconciled? If all guilt is false guilt then the only one we need make peace with is ourselves.

When the church wants to make everyone feel better it does everyone a disservice, it masks sin the way narcotics can mask the pain of cancer; when the church wants everyone to feel good about themselves it blocks the way of repentance, the way of faith in Christ, the way of justification by faith, the way to peace with God.

At least in an immoral world there may still be a sense of immorality, but in our amoral world there is no sense of right or wrong, good or evil, sin or righteousness.

For those who have been convicted of their sin there is not only hope in Christ Jesus, there is assurance in Christ Jesus. When we believe as Abraham and David believed (Romans Chapter 4) we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ and we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Our lives become a story not about us, but about Jesus.

In Christ, when we look back at our sin with remorse and sorrow, we need not fear the wrath and judgement of God for we have peace with God - we have been reconciled to Him (2 Corinthians 5:17 - 21). This peace comes with the glory of God as a present experience and a future expectation (John 17:22; Romans 8:18); it is a glory that shines brighter and brighter as we journey toward that Great Day in Christ. There is a glory in justification that surpasses understanding, how can it be that God not only sees me as if I have never sinned, but also as if I have always kept His holy Law? I do not understand this, I do not understand the Cross, I do not understand the great Divine Transaction that took place on Calvary...but I have experienced it - it is true...and I exult in hope of the glory of God.

No matter how much guilt we may sense or may have sensed, no matter how desperately we may have sought peace with God, no matter how much we may have longed for forgiveness and cleansing, no matter how deeply we may have yearned for a relationship with God - there is One who desires these things far more than we can think or imagine, who desires them so deeply that He gave His Only Begotten Son so that we might experience, in that Son Jesus Christ, all of these things in an intimate relationship with Him. God desires us more than we desire Him. He desires forgiveness for us more than we desire forgiveness. He desires that we have peace with Him far more than we have desired peace with Him. Let us remember daily, let us remember throughout the great and wide and deep and high and wide the love of God for us much God loves us, how much he loves me, how much He loves you.

Can you imagine the depths of the Pacific ocean? Can you imagine is vastness? It is as a drop of water compared to the love that God has for you. Can you stretch yourself to imagine the solar system? A galaxy? Galaxies upon galaxies upon galaxies upon galaxies? They are as your own backyard compared to the love of God for you.

Yes indeed we can exult in the expectation and hope of the glory of God, for His glory, the glory of His love, the glory of His grace, the glory of God justifying sinners, of God sanctifying those who were once His enemies (and we all either are or were His enemies - make no mistake about this), this multifaceted glory He now shares with us as His sons and daughters in Jesus Christ - the Prince of Peace.

Are you living in the peace of God today? Is Romans 5:1-2 your story too? It can be, God wants it to be.

If it is your story then tell someone today so that it can be their story too.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Church – Reflections: 7

The more I ponder “the church” the more I keep coming back to the question, “What is the nature of the Church?” I am reminded that in theology, or at least in theology as I know it, we begin with God and the nature of God. If in thinking about God we begin with His nature, does it not make sense that when thinking about the Church that we begin with its nature? To add emphasis to this, if God dwells within the Church, then the nature of God becomes necessarily the incarnational and transcendent nature of the Church. Of course, while the life of God in Jesus Christ was perfectly expressed, the life of God in Christ in the Church is a mystery in the tension of the “already-not yet.” The Church is the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23) and yet this fullness is developmentally and organically being manifested (Ephesians 4:1 – 16). To me, at least, this is a mystery.

I have a little book by John Jefferson Davis titled, Handbook of Basic Bible Texts. As I recall this was a required purchase for my Systematic Theology courses at Gordon-Conwell. In retrospect I find it refreshing that we were required to purchase a book of Bible verses grouped around key doctrines – after all, if we weren’t going to base our thinking on the Bible what was the point of theology? (A question a number of seminaries and pastors might ponder).

At the beginning of the chapter on the Church Davis has this quote from Martin Luther, “I believe that there is on earth, through the whole wide world, no more than one holy, common, Christian Church, which is nothing else than the congregation, or assembly of the saints, i.e., the pious, believing men on earth, which is gathered, preserved, and ruled by the Holy Spirit, and daily increased by means of the sacraments and the Word of God.”

I wonder if we functionally believe what Luther wrote?

My Systematic Theology textbook was (and is!) Millard J. Erickson’s Christian Theology. His treatment of the Church begins with…The Nature of the Church. Erickson's leading section heading is, Confusion Regarding the Church, and in discussing the confusion he writes:

“In addition to the confusion generated by the multiple usages of [the term] church, there is evidence of confusion at a more profound level – a lack of understanding of the basic nature of the church.”

“Among the reasons of this lack of understanding is the fact that at no point in the history of Christian thought has the doctrine of the church received the direct and complete attention which other doctrines have received.”

Erickson quotes John Macquarrie:

“Probably more gets written on the Church nowadays than on any other single theological theme. Most of this writing has a practical orientation. We hear about the Church in relation to rapid social change, the Church in a secular society, the Church and reunion, the Church in missions. But however valuable some of the insights gained in these various fields may be, they need to be guided and correlated by a theological understanding of the Church.” [Italics mine].

If we don’t know the nature of the Church how can we know who we are? How can we know how the life within us is supposed to express itself? How can we know our identity? How can we relate to one another? To the world? To the flow of history? How can we stand against temporal pressure to conform to society and to be successful as the surrounding culture defines success?

We are a people who ought to transcend the temporal and in transcending the temporal to be a blessing to those around us. And yet, we are a people driven by the pragmatic and our thinking is utilitarian. Instead of being the timeless and timely people of God we are captives to popular currents and demands and engage in marketplace thinking just as Amazon or Walmart or Apple. We are competitors for customers – either customers who have yet to enter the church world or those patronizing competitors in the church world. Our functional nature is less that of God and more of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood.

Who has the courage to ask fellow pastors to talk about the nature of the Church and how that nature informs pastoral ministry? To ask seminary administrators, professors, and “development” departments? To ask congregations? The language we will hear will be pragmatic and organizational – it will not be Biblical and rooted in the nature of the Biblical Church.

We don’t know who we are.

What is the nature of the Church?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 104

“In confession there occurs a breakthrough to assurance. Why is it often easier for us to acknowledge our sins before God than before another believer?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 92.

Bonhoeffer reasons that because God is holy and without sin, and another believer knows sin from personal experience, that we ought to find it easier to confess our sins to another believer. Then he argues that if this is not the case that we ought to ask whether we are deluding ourselves about our confession to God, “whether we have not instead been confessing our sins to ourselves and also forgiving ourselves.” He observes that, “Self-forgiveness can never lead to the break with sin. This can only be accomplished by God’s own judging and pardoning Word.”

The other believer is a guard against “self-deception.” Confessing to another believer brings our sin to light; Bonhoeffer makes a point of writing that he is not talking about a general confession, but rather confession of specific sins, and that God gives us assurance of forgiveness through the other believer “so that we may be assured of divine forgiveness” (page 93).

On page 93 Bonhoeffer is clear that confession to one another is not a “divine law,” but he does think it is “a help” – and he obviously thinks it is a significant help. “Confession stands in the realm of the freedom of the Christian” (page 94).

If we hold to the priesthood of the believer, and if we understand that a role of a priest is to cover and not expose, to mediate and not build barriers, to represent God to man and man to God; then I think we ought to pause and consider what Bonhoeffer is saying. If we strongly react against what Bonhoeffer is teaching then we might want to ask ourselves why we are so opposed to the idea of confessing one to another. Could it be because of prejudice against other traditions? Prejudice can blind us, it will blind us. On the other hand, those in traditions that practice some form of confession may well not appreciate the sacramental element of what they practice, taking it for granted and therein not encountering the Word of assurance. We all have our difficulties.

I know from experience the release and closure inherent in specific confession of sin and hearing the Word of the Cross and its forgiveness spoken to me by another brother. Also, as I have previously written, I know the victory over temptation when I tell another Christian about the temptation I am facing. When darkness is exposed to the light of the Gospel the darkness loses its power, its footing, its position.

So why don’t we confess our sins one to another? Beyond the question of whether we see the sacramental aspect of the practice, beyond the idea that this is an element of koinonia, of life together, lies the simple fact that we just don’t trust each other. We don’t trust others to view us in light of the Cross and we don’t trust others to keep our confession in confidence.

Regarding the former, if we don’t trust another Christian to view us in light of the Cross it means that we, as a people, have yet to fully encounter and understand the justification and sanctification that we have in Christ and His Cross. We have yet to view life from the eternal reality of the Cross. We have yet to learn to see with the eyes of God and speak with the Word of God and love with the heart of God. It means that we continue to compare ourselves with others, measuring one another by our own standards, ranking sin, exalting ourselves – we have yet to learn that we are called to be agents of reconciliation in Christ, through Christ, and to Christ. The evil of news headlines is not about others, it is about me and until it is about me I will not come close to knowing the fullness of assurance of justification and sanctification. Self-justification and pretension must be utterly destroyed – only then can I hear the confession of another and not flinch; the Cross of Christ must be magnified above all self-justification and self-righteousness, putting to death the hypocrisy of the “old man.”

Inherent in the priesthood of the believer is a recognition of the Sacrifice that has been made, a vision of the holy Lamb of God offering Himself on the altar of the Cross, bearing our sins, bearing ourselves – the holy Lamb dying for unholy humanity, bearing all the evil and wickedness of mankind so that we might be reconciled to God through the death of His Son. A priest is bound to fellowship with the Sacrifice, the fellowship of His suffering. As the Sacrifice gave Himself for others, so the priest of Christ gives himself or herself for others. The nation of priests is by its nature sacrificial, it is called to lay down its life for others.

The second question is one of trust, can we trust one another not to betray our confession? If we live as mere men (1 Corinthians 3:3) then we cannot trust one another for we will betray confidences, we will use our knowledge for manipulation, we will make ourselves look good at the expense of others. Again, if we know who we are in Christ, if we see our lives as the lives of priests, of saints, as those who have been justified, sanctified, and glorified (Romans 8:29 – 30), then we would learn that our relationships with others are sacred trusts, and that to violate those trusts is to violate the Atonement, the Cross, the Nature of God. Who would dare to pollute the Trinity? Who would bring defilement into the Presence of God? If God lives within His people, then to pollute the sanctity of confession, to betray a brother or sister, to defile a relationship – is to profane the Temple of God. We are not a civic organization, or a business organization, or a recreational organization…we are not even a religious organization…God’s people are God’s Temple and His Presence lives within them…who are we to desecrate His Temple? Our awareness of the Presence of God within us is seen in how we treat one another – by that measure an observer may be forgiven for wondering if we really think God lives within His people.

Bonhoeffer’s approach to confession presents us with a path to assurance and a way out of self-justification. Are we mature enough to take it, or shall we remain children playing hide and seek?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Reflections on Romans 4:1 – 5:11: (4)

“For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed…” (Romans 4:16a).

“Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:19 – 22).

In times past when I’ve thought of the birth of Isaac I have primarily thought of it in terms of God bringing life out of the dead bodies (reproductively speaking) of Abraham and Sarah. This is a prophetic motif echoed in Isaiah 53:2, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground…” Again and again God brings life out of death, or preserves hidden life when all around is death and dryness and drought. And of course in Abraham’s offering of Isaac we see a shadow and type of God the Father offering our Lord Jesus on the Cross, and in Abraham receiving Isaac back we see a shadow of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – keeping in mind that the ram in the thicket and the son Abraham was offering were one and the same – ah what mystery is the Gospel.

But there is another element, a raw basic element, that I have not thought much about but which now stares me in the eye – truly Abraham could do nothing but believe or disbelieve – he could do one or the other but there was no third option. He did not have the option of procreation with Sarah because their bodies were reproductively dead. Abraham and Sarah could not make something happen in and of themselves for they were past that season of life. This couple were well past the season that they could reproduce children, it wasn’t even close so that there could be no question about the source of the life as the term “the deadness of Sarah’s womb” clearly testifies.

Not only did Abraham not become “weak in faith” but he “grew strong in faith” and was “fully assured that what God had promised, He was able to perform.” Abraham knew there was nothing he could do but he also knew that God would do what He promised. Abraham knew that having a child was biologically impossible, but he also knew that God would keep His promise. There is a difference in saying, “I know God can do whatever He wants,” and in saying, “I believe God will keep His promise.”

There is a sense in which we must come to the end of ourselves if we are to trust God as Abraham trusted God. As long as we think that we have the capacity to achieve righteousness in and of ourselves, by our own efforts, by our own understanding – then we will hold back just enough of ourselves not to trust God as Abraham trusted God, then we will preserve our pride, our ego, our vanity, our self-righteousness – then somewhere, hidden within us, will be a locked room in which we preserve our religious “works” and hypocrisy and rebellious independence from God. To be sure this is a pilgrimage and we cannot truly understand our own hearts, but we can pursue increasing trust in Christ as He draws us to Himself by grace. We can, by grace mediated by the Holy Spirit, say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:25).

I do not pretend to understand this, I really don’t; I do not understand the mystery of faith in God, I do not understand in the least how trusting in God through Christ results in salvation, how can a child understand these things? Perhaps it is easier for a natural child to understand these things than an adult – a child has less baggage to get in the way, an adult has a lifetime of trash (at least some of us do). But this I do know, I can do nothing in and of myself to achieve righteousness, nothing to make God accept me or love me or give me new life in Christ. However, by the mystery of God’s mercy and grace in Jesus Christ I can, by His grace, respond to Him and trust Him and believe in Him and I can learn to be “fully assured” that what He has promised He will perform. I can look to Jesus and not myself, and in looking to Jesus I can know that the promise is guaranteed once and for all.

God’s promise of salvation is also a promise to see us through to the end of life, through our struggles, through our seasons of doubt – for salvation is so much more than having a ticket punched for heaven, that is not the Gospel; Gospel salvation is holistic and it is complete in Christ – it is about what Jesus Christ has done, is doing, and will do – both in our individual lives and in the cosmos. There is great assurance in this because it does not depend on me for initiation or sustaining or completion – I can trust my heavenly Father and Jesus to love me and lead me in relationship, I can trust them to help me trust them more and more. As the old hymn says, “O for grace to trust Him more.”

We can no more produce eternal life in ourselves than Abraham and Sarah could produce biological life. We were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), we were helpless. But thank God that, “…while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).

I find this amazing. I take great comfort in it. What about you?