Tag Archives: Christ

Foundations for a life that pleases God

Yesterday I started a series on the book of Ephesians. I used the opportunity to lay out some of the major themes of the book as foundations for living a life pleasing to God.

The reality and character of God. In our secular age, it has become rather popular to jettison the idea of God all together as a mere illusion or crutch and to find some other foundation of life. Even among people who believe in God, He is far from foundational, instead, He is a peripheral part of life which we bring in or throw out as seems useful to our own goals. But for Paul, the reality and character of God forms the very foundation for every other argument he makes.

Reality: What Paul assumes in Ephesians, the writer of Hebrews makes explicit: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

Character: Paul is less interested in defending the reality of God than he is in describing his character. Indeed, the purpose of much of Ephesians is simply to draw his readers to love and worship God. God is the creator of all things (3:89). He is “over all and through all and in all” (4:6). He is the “glorious Father” (1:17). And, He is characterized by great love and as being “rich in mercy” (2:4). In this vision of God, He is the creator and sustainer of all things – and thus serves as a good foundation not only for our personal lives but for the entire cosmos. Further, He is not a distant and removed creator, but one who loves and shows mercy to his creation.

God’s work in Christ. Many monotheistic religions would affirm this vision of God as the foundation for life, but what makes Christianity unique is this second foundational principle: God’s work in Christ. God’s work in Christ naturally flows out of his love and mercy. How does He show us love and mercy? By sending His one and only Son into the world to save the world (John 3:16). And what did Jesus do? He gave us “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (1:7). He “brought us near [to God] by the blood of Christ” (2:13). He “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:19b-20).

The Christian faith rests on the foundation of the historical reality of Jesus, on His historical death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. Through this reality we can be forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and made alive.

God’s gifts, given through Christ. Through the work of Christ, and out of the boundless riches of God’s mercy and grace, God gives gifts to those who believe in him. These gifts are expanded throughout the letter but nowhere more than in Ephesians 3:3-10 (explanatory video in the link), but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on just three which are mentioned in 1:1-2: Paul’s apostleship, Grace, and Peace.

Paul’s apostleship: In some circles, it has become popular to accept the teachings of Jesus but reject Paul, but to do so would be a mistake. Indeed, God has given us apostolic teaching as one of the key foundations for the church (2:20). Specifically, God gave Paul special insight (revelation) into the mystery of the gospel; that Gentiles could be saved and incorporated into the people of God in the same way that Jews could, through faith alone, apart from the law. It was in large part due to Paul’s special mission to the Gentiles that the church expanded the way that it did.

Grace: Grace is God’s unmerited favor and this unmerited favor is what leads to our salvation. It equips us to serve the body of Christ, making it mature in the faith. And, will be revealed in its fullness when Jesus returns.

Peace: In our harried 21st century lives we’re particularly interested in how to achieve inner peace, but the peace which Paul refers to in Ephesians is, first, peace with God and second, peace with one another within the body of Christ. But, it makes sense that if we were to achieve peace in these first two senses, an inner peace would likely follow.

Without these gifts – knowledge of the gospel revealed through Paul’s apostleship, grace, and peace – the Christian life would be impossible. We would simply lack the power to accomplish what God has commanded us to do.

Our identity in Christ: Paul spends a large portion of his letter exhorting Christians to obey God. But prior to these commands he identifies his audience as “God’s holy people… faithful in Christ Jesus.” This identity comes first and foremost from what God has done for us. Out of God’s great mercy he sent Jesus. Jesus died on the cross and rose again. It is through this work that God grants us the gifts of grace and peace. And, it is these gifts which make us truly holy in the eyes of God. We’re objectively holy, with a righteousness that comes from God and is received through faith, even before we are subjectively and imperfectly holy. Indeed, our faithfulness flows out of this new identity in Christ, and apart from that identity, living a faithful life would be impossible.

There are many things in life competing for our core identity. But our identity in Christ is the only one which will never, can never, be shaken.

Actions: Only after laying this firm foundation does Paul lay out the moral exhortations later in the letter: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). It may be useful to think of Christianity as an iceberg. Most of the iceberg is below the surface. This forms the foundation of the iceberg and makes that which is above the water stable.

In Christianity, this foundation is the rich theological principles of the character of God, God’s work in Christ, God’s revelation, grace, and peace poured out on us, and the reality that when received by faith these form in us a new and lasting identity. The “above the surface” part of the Christian faith is what we actually do. These too are essential, but are not foundational. We make a mistake when we flip the proportions of the iceberg, when we make Christianity essentially about what we do, de-emphasizing theology and the incredible work of God. Such a faith is fundamentally unstable. If we get the foundations right, the actions, while still requiring the hard work of obedience, will follow naturally.

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On confronting evil

ethicsDietrich Bonhoeffer lived in a time of stark evil, during the rise of fascism in Germany. In Ethics he writes this description:

“Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform of greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and brilliant lightning-flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness.” 66

Bonhoeffer observed that there were many approaches to attempting to oppose such stark evil. He was critical of many of them, particularly of the theoretical ethicist for whom evil was a theory, an abstraction. The moral theorist fails to reckon with the reality of evil and is therefore ineffective.

Then he moves on to the failure of others.

The reasonable man. Those who attempt to oppose evil through reason alone “neither perceive the depths of the evil nor the depths of the holy.” They believe that reason is enough to hold the sinking ship together. They are end up disappointed by the ultimate unreasonableness of the world and withdraw.

The ethical fanatic. The ethical fanatic believes that he can oppose evil through “the purity of his will and of his principle.” But Bonhoeffer notes that it is the nature of fanaticism to aim wide of the mark, to be like a bull charging at the red flag instead of the one holding it. The fanatic, however ideal and noble his cause, is undone by his superior opponent.

The man of conscience. Here Bonhoeffer refers to the person who is most concerned with maintaining a clean conscience and who is primarily guided by that inner voice. But Bonhoeffer worries that evil will also overwhelm him. “Evil comes upon him in countless respectable and seductive disguises so that his conscience becomes timid and unsure of himself, till in the end he is satisfied if instead of a clear conscience he can have a salved one.” The man only concerned with conscience falls easily into self-deception.

The man of duty. But perhaps one can keep oneself clean by claiming duty. “Responsibility for the command rests upon the man who gives it and not upon him who executes it.” So the argument goes (to disastrous consequences we now know through our historical lens.) No, the man of duty “will end by having to fulfil his obligation even to the devil,” becoming not an opponent of evil, but party to it.

The man of absolute freedom, or what we might call the realist. This person is not bound to their conscience. They are willing to “sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise.” And, “he will easily consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off the worse.” But Bonhoeffer knows that this, too, is foolish. This man ultimately blinds himself to what is bad or worse and also becomes party to evil.

Bonhoeffer’s final critique is of the man of private virtuousness. If one cannot fight evil in the public sphere at least this person can seek refuge here. “He does not steal. He does not commit murder… Within the limits of his power he is good.” But this can only go so far. Eventually for this man to avoid all public conflict he must blind himself to the injustice around him through a process of self-deception. He will either face internal conflict or will become a Pharisee, easily judging others while himself steering clear of that which makes him uncomfortable.

So what is Bonhoeffer’s solution?

“A man can hold his own only if he can combine simplicity and wisdom.” 70.

By simplicity Bonhoeffer means “to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted and turned upside down.” In other words, simplicity means to be wholeheartedly fixed on and committed to God, to be single-minded and single-hearted.

By wisdom Bonhoeffer means to “see reality as it is” and to “see into the depths of things.” Wisdom and simplicity go hand-in-hand because “it is precisely because he looks only to God, without any sidelong glances at the world, that he is able to look at the reality of the world freely and without prejudice.” And again, “only that man is wise who sees reality in God.” In other words, we can’t see into the depths of the reality of the world unless we can look squarely at God, since the reality of the world rests in God. This is what it means to combine simplicity and wisdom.

But Bonhoeffer admits that this all sounds theoretical and, indeed, impossible. “No man can look with undivided vision at God and at the world of reality so long as God and the world are torn asunder. Try as he may, he can only let his eyes wander distractedly from one to the other.” But all hope is not lost, for Bonhoeffer sees one, and only one, solution to this: Jesus.

In Christ “there is a place at which God and the cosmic reality are reconciled, a place at which God and man have become one. That and that alone is what enables man to set his eyes upon God and upon the world at the same time.” Furthermore, the reality of Christ is not a principle and is not theoretical. It is not love in the abstract. It is the God-man entering into reality, into history, and into the starkly evil world in which we actually live, bearing the evil of the world upon his shoulders, healing the wounds of the world through his stripes.

To live with simplicity and wisdom then, is to keep our eyes and our hearts fixed on Christ. And it is only Christ who is the “Reconciler of the world.” Bonhoeffer concludes, “It is not by ideals and programmes or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God.”
Book Recommendations

The Cost of Discipleship

Ethics

Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community

Because He Lives

This past week I felt utterly bombarded by bad news. Part of this is because of my own failure to disconnect from electronic media. But part of it is that we just live in a very dark, hostile, and broken world. It’s scary out there. It can be easy to believe that the world is spiraling out of control.

But today is a day to celebrate the day that Jesus rose from the dead! And that day changed everything. It changed everything for the world. It changes everything for us.

I’m reminded of the words of the old hymn “Because He Lives”. The chorus goes like this:

Because he lives
I can face tomorrow
Because he lives
All fear is gone
Because I know he holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives

From here we could go on and on:

Because he lives death is not the end.

Because he lives the powers of evil have been disarmed.

Because he lives I know that not only can God break into history, but He has in a decisive way.

Because he lives no matter who has power for now on earth, Jesus sits on the throne of heaven.

Because he lives I know that since, in what looked to be a moment of utter defeat, God gained the ultimate victory, no situation can be too bleak that God cannot show his power.

Because he lives I know Jesus is the righteous judge who brings perfect justice in the end.

Because he lives I have the power to live a life pleasing to God.

Because he lives I am free from the slavery of sin and the fear of death.

Because he lives one day I will live in a resurrected and incorruptible body.

Because he lives I can trust God when he says that there will be a time of “no more crying, no more tears.”

Because he lives I know that God is able to transform all of creation.

Because he lives I know that history, in all its bleakness and decay, will have a happy ending for those who trust in the one who died and rose again.

Because he lives… because in time and space the God-man Jesus who was really dead, really came to life… because this historical reality is attested to by those who, with nothing to gain, gave up their lives to tell what they had seen and heard… because he lives, I know that he really is the Resurrection and the Life and the right now, in him, we experience the power of the resurrection, and that in the future we will experience it again, and then without the devastation of sin and the sorrow of death!

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Looking for equality, love, and freedom?

Are you looking for equality, love, and freedom?

Find it in Jesus, at the cross.

We are equal in our humanity. We have all been formed in the image of God and are all, therefore, worthy of honor, love, and respect. God knit us together, loves us, and pursues us as a Father.

We are equal in our rebellion. We have all turned away. We all fall short. We all stand convicted before a holy God. We’re all sick and in need of healing, in slavery to sin and in need of someone to free us, guilty and in need of forgiveness.

We are equal before the cross. We can all find forgiveness, healing, and freedom if we come to Jesus at the cross. Here our rebellion is paid for in full. At the cross we see love, real love, not any cheap imitation.

At the cross we see love that

…… deals directly with sin. Jesus’ love displayed on the cross does not hide our sin or pretend it does not exist. In the cross we see the horrifying reality of our rebellion and its true offensive to our Creator.

…… goes to extreme and sacrificial lengths to bring us salvation. Our rebellion is dealt with once for all through Jesus’ sacrificial death.

…… takes us as we are. No one comes to the cross as a “good” person. We all come in our rebellion as enemies of God, but we walk away his friend, reconciled to our Father.

… demands our radical life change and sacrificial obedience. We are all called to take up our own cross and live a life of love and obedience. This call is an act of love because when we lose our life (living by our own terms) we find it in abundance in God.

… brings freedom.

The cross brings freedom from the slavery of sin. When we come to faith we share in Jesus’ death. We no longer have to live at the whims of our rebellious desires. We are free to live a life of love and obedience.

The cross brings freedom from the fear of death. On the cross Jesus conquered the one who holds the power of death by taking away the sting of death, sin. For the one who comes to Jesus in faith, death is an enemy that’s been beaten and we can live in that glorious freedom.

The true nature of our equality, the true nature of love, and the true nature of freedom are revealed, and offered freely to us, in Jesus on the cross. Go to the cross.

On Faith: A Painful Story

Attic After School starts up this week, so here’s the next installment of “On Faith” from Hebrews 11.

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. Hebrews 11:17-19

When I was in Seminary I had to translate Genesis 22:1-14 (God testing Abraham). Translation requires slow and careful attention to every word. It’s impossible to translate (for non-experts) quickly. The problem is that Genesis 22:1-14 is one of those stories you want to get to the end of quickly. You want to get to the part where God stops Abraham from killing Isaac and provides a ram for the offering. You do NOT want to dwell on what precedes that – God’s command to Abraham, Abraham and Isaac setting out, Isaac’s question; “the fire and the wood are here but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Isaac is bound. Abraham raises the knife… I winced every time I translated the words “son” and “father.” I believe the writer wanted this response. He wanted us to feel anxiety, pain, worry, even sickness in the pit of our stomachs.

I am, to this day, still blown away by Abraham’s response. He responded with a faith I will probably never fully grasp. He could have responded in so many different ways. He could have argued – “this is the son of the promise!” Yet, the only record we have is that he simply obeyed.

Somehow, Abraham held two (apparently) competing concepts in his head. First, he really did fear God enough to give his own son (Gen 22:12). Second, he was absolutely confident that God was true to his promise that Isaac would be the son of the promise. The text of Genesis makes this second point clear. Abraham told his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and we will come back to you.” And, in response to Isaac’s questions Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb,” a phrase that prophetically echoes through the ages.

Hebrews 11:19 explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.”

I’m not sure how he worked it all out, but as Abraham held the knife over his son, his only son, he was both prepared to act and certain that he would be returning with Isaac down the mountain. Now that is incredible faith! I can think of no contemporary example or application but I’m not sure that I should. No other story is like it.

except one…

God the Father sent His Son, His one and only Son, the Son who he loved, into the world. There was no closer father/son relationship than this. And yet, both knew the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was to be the perfect once-for-all sacrifice. Imagine the Father’s heart when his Son cried out in the garden, “please take this cup from me… but not my will, but yours be done.” Make no mistake, God did not force Jesus to go to the cross. The Son acted of his own accord. He laid down his life willingly – spurred on by the same motivations as the Father; the ultimate glory of God and love for the lost sheep. And yet, though they both acted willingly and in one accord this ought not cause us to think that the Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not really full of anguish. The Christ, fully God, fully man, experienced the full weight of the curse, of hell, as he took the guilt of our sin. He was crushed for our sake, and by his stripes we are healed.

God himself had provided the lamb for the offering, and it was His Son.

Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If God demonstrated His to us by giving us own Son, how much more will His love continue to work for our good? Indeed, Romans 8 continues “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Though he did not fully understand, this “love of God in Christ Jesus” was the object of Abraham’s faith. He reasoned that God Himself would provide the offering (which He did both with the ram in the thicket and in the once-for-all offering of His Son) and that God could raise the dead (which He did figuratively of Isaac and literally of Christ.) Because of Abraham’s faith, God credited to him as righteousness. Abraham only saw from a distance, but at this stage in history we see fully. And God now offers to us salvation through faith, faith in His promise, faith in His Son, and faith that He can, and did, raise the dead. And, like Abraham, this faith will be credited to us as righteousness because of the grace of God in Jesus.