Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Strength, weakness, and connecting the dots

We are too big in ourselves when we do well, and too little in Christ in our failings. O that we could learn to be nothing in ourselves in our strength, and to be all in Christ in our weakness!

--Samuel Bolton
The True Bounds of Christian Freedom

Saturday, February 16, 2013

God's Promise: Not an offer, but our end

Virtually our entire existence in this world is shaped, determined and controlled by conditional promises and calculations.

We are brought up on conditional promises.
We live by them.
Our future is determined by them.

Conditional promises always have an “if-then” form…

If you are a good girl, then you can go to the movies.
If you do your schoolwork, then you will pass the course.
If you do your job, then you will get your pay.
If you prove yourself, then you will get a promotion.

And so on and so on, endlessly until at last we die of it, wondering if we had only done this differently, perhaps then…

Though such conditional promises are often burdensome and even oppressive, they are nevertheless enticing and even comforting in their own way because they give life its structure and seem to grant us a measure of control. If we fulfill the conditions, then we have a claim on what is promised. We have what we call “rights,” and we can control our future, at least to a certain extent.

So, we hang rather tenaciously onto these conditional promises. We hang desperately onto the conditional promises, hoping to control our own destiny. We live “under the law” and cannot get out–because we really don’t want to. We prefer to go our own way even up to the last barrier: death. Religion is most often just the attempt to extend this conditionality into eternity and to gain a certain measure of control even over the eternal itself.

But the saving act of God in Jesus Christ–comprehended in justification by faith alone–is an unconditional promise. Unconditional promises have a “because-therefore” form. Because Jesus has overcome the world and all enemies by his death and resurrection, therefore… you shall be saved. Because Jesus died and rose, therefore God here and now declares you just for Jesus’ sake… Because Jesus has borne the sin of the whole world in his body unto death and yet conquered, therefore God declares the forgiveness of sins.

Now, we have a desperately difficult time with such an unconditional promise. It knocks everything out of kilter. Is it really true? Can one announce it just like that? No strings attached? Don’t we have to be more careful about to whom we say such things? It appears wild and dangerous and reckless to us, just as it did to Jesus’ contemporaries.

The best we can do is to try to draw it back into our conditional understanding–so all the questions and protests come pouring out. But surely we have to do something, don’t we? Don’t we at least have to make our decision to accept? Isn’t faith, after all, a condition? Or repentance? Isn’t the idea of an unconditional promise terribly dangerous? Who will be good? Won’t it lead perhaps to universalism, libertinism, license and sundry disasters? Don’t we need to insist on sanctification to prevent the whole from collapsing into cheap grace? Doesn’t the Bible follow the declaration of grace with certain exhortations and imperatives? So the protestations go, for the most part designed to reimpose at least a minimal conditionality on the promise.

It is true, you see, that [as sons of Adam] we simply cannot understand or cope with the unconditional promise of justification pronounced in the name of Jesus. What we don’t see is that what the unconditional promise is calling forth is a new being. The justification of God promised in Jesus is not an “offer” made to us as old beings; it is our end, our death. We are, quite literally, through as old beings.

--Gerhard Forde
from the essay, "Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification"

Sunday, February 10, 2013

God's purpose ... in my failures

The God of the Bible knows what he is doing.  His work is, as scripture says, “past finding out.”  He asks for no advice.  He is not holding question and answer press conferences.  He is not writing books of ten easy-to-understand bullet pointed explanations.  He has spoken, and it is up to me to hear, believe and live accordingly.

And for me, at least, it’s difficult.  It’s difficult knowing that I have failed in so many ways, hurt so many people, brought so many sinful consequences into my relationships… and God is at work, somehow, in all of it.

I want God’s purposes to be carried out through what I’ve done right.  I’ve studied, preached, taught, served, counseled, led, encouraged and lived for the Gospel for more than 35 years.  I don’t want God’s purposes to be about my failures, broken promises and abuses of others.  I want to put what I want on the table, and I want God to work with that. But that’s not the way it’s going to be. God is going to do what he wants to do, for reasons that can't fit into a sentence in the Bible, but which are far too mysterious to wrap my mind around.

Sunday night I’m going to preach on “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  I know what the text means, but I can’t read it without thinking that I am, in a way, fearful of what God is up to.  God is not invested in hearing me say what I “need.” If he wants to take away, he will take away, and his purpose will be for me to go on without whatever he took away.  The same with suffering, obscurity, humiliation and failure.  God cannot be manipulated into carrying out my plans with my selected materials. He is about carrying out his plans with whatever materials he chooses.

I am guilty of wanting God to make much of me rather than make me into a soul who makes much of him now and forever.  The quest is not for understanding, but is for joy. The promise is not that God will do what he determines, but that he is determined to satisfy me forever with himself.

My prayer is that I would trust God by exalting in his love, goodness and grace poured out in Christ and directed invincibly and irresistibly toward me.

-- Michael Spencer