Weekly Worship Service
Join us for our worship service each Sunday at 10am. Worship service location: Carina Senior Citizens Centre, 1 Edmond St, Carina.
Weekly update from GCI President Joseph Tkach
Layers of legalism
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the novella, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who proclaimed his disdain for Christmas and all it represents by exclaiming, Bah humbug!
The word humbug is interesting. It’s an archaic word with 18th century origins that refers to deceptive or false talk or behavior. When used of a person, it means that the person is a fraud or a hypocrite. Thus in crying bah humbug, Scrooge was saying that anyone who sees Christmas as a time of joy, peace, hope and love is a fraud. In his warped mind, Christmas is a lie—a clever ruse by which people get out of work and receive undeserved gifts or bonuses. Bah humbug!
Beware the disease of humbug
In the essay, “The Prevalence of Humbug,” Cornell Professor Max Black notes that “humbug has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself.” He then gives the example of a woman who, though healthy and prosperous, complains to Anton Pavlovich that, “Everything is so grey: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me grey…. and I have no desires… my soul is in pain… it is like a disease.”
In reply, Pavlovich says her unjustified humbug attitude truly “is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus fradulentous.” It seems that the ones who loudly proclaim bah humbug, have succumbed to this “fraudulant disease” themselves.
I suppose the reason the word humbug recently came to mind is that the Advent-Christmas season is just around the corner and that reminds me of the multiple Ebenezer Scrooges I’ve encountered over the years—people who have convinced themselves that everything about Christmas is fraudulent.
I’ve also encountered multiple Scrooges who exclaim bah humbug to the idea that Christianity is about living fully under the grace of God. Sadly, their humbug attitude toward grace is a defining characteristic of many Christian cults. Their viewpoint concerning salvation and the Christian life (sanctification) is known as “works-righteousness,” which they live out by extracting from the Bible various systems of rules and regulations for achieving salvation and spiritual growth. In a word, works-righteousness is legalism, which has two primary layers of deception that we must seek to avoid. Let me explain.
1. The deception that salvation is secured by works
The first layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow contribute to our salvation. Legalism is grounded in the false premise that Jesus is not sufficient—therefore salvation requires that our works supplement those of Jesus. A legalist might say, “If I do my part, God will do his.” The reason people succumb to this legalistic premise is that it appeals to fallen human nature, which likes to think that we have some sort of capacity to earn, or qualify for, salvation. Fallen nature wants to be able to say, “Look what I’ve contributed!” Life in general provides evidence that supports this false view—as we acquire more information and skill, we get a better job, earn more money and achieve a better status. There is “no free lunch,” and we get ahead due to our own effort. It’s no wonder people project this way of the world onto God and his salvation. But doing so is a tragic mistake that distills down to the false premise that Jesus’ atoning work is somehow deficient or inadequate.
Our fallen human nature pridefully insists that we surely must have something that God needs from us to complete our salvation. But Scripture says just the opposite. In his letter to Christians in Colossae, the apostle Paul proclaimed that “In Christ you have been brought to fullness” (Col. 2:9-10). When Paul pleaded with God to remove the “thorn” in his flesh, God’s replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). The author of Hebrews adds that “By one sacrifice [Christ, our high priest] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14). The gospel truth is that when it comes to our salvation, Jesus is all-sufficient. We aren’t given salvation as a reward for our works. It is the work of Jesus, not our own efforts, that makes us holy. Our works in service and obedience to God are a thankful response to all that God, in Christ and by the Spirit, has done on our behalf to qualify us for salvation. We cannot qualify ourselves!
2. The deception that salvation is maintained by works
The second layer of legalism is the deception that our works somehow maintain our salvation. This is as much a humbug as the first layer, yet it is seductively deceptive in that it contains a seed of truth. It begins by rightly acknowledging that we all fall far short of God’s perfection. But then the lie creeps in as we think that this separation can somehow be resolved through our own efforts—through a righteousness grounded in our own works. This legalistic deception thus acknowledges that salvation is a gift, but then it embraces the lie that the gift must be maintained by our works.
If you think about it, it’s not possible that our works would somehow maintain our salvation since we know we cannot and do not behave perfectly once we commit ourselves to following Jesus. This is not to say, of course, that our response to God is to throw proper morality out the window and live recklessly. As Paul says, “God forbid!” (Rom. 6:2, KJV). The apostle Peter tells us that once we have tasted God’s goodness, we will continue to grow in our salvation (1 Pet. 2:1-3). That growth has to do with our relationship with our Triune God—Father, Son and Spirit. This is a gift of grace that flows from his love toward us, and the trust we have in his lordship.
Our transformation into the likeness of Christ is a gift we receive by and through the faithfulness of Jesus who, by the Spirit, lives and works within us (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Our salvation, deepening trust, and living communion with God come to us as God’s freely-given gifts. As we live into that communion, we receive upgrades as we learn to trust and obey God—as our faith continues to grow.
Sadly, in the history of Christianity there have always been some who distort the truth of God’s gospel of grace with add-ons that seem like genuine pathways to growth. In reality, these add-ons are legalisms—means employed to try to obtain and then maintain God’s good graces.
Let there be no confusion, brothers and sisters: God has sent Jesus to save us because, from start to finish, we cannot save ourselves!
Giving thanks that there is no humbug with God,
The glory of God’s forgiveness
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Though God’s amazing forgiveness is one of my favorite topics, its reality is difficult to fully grasp. Its foundation is God’s freely-given, yet costly act of atonement through the Son, in the Spirit, culminating at the cross. It is there that, not only are we acquitted, we are restored—made “at-one” again with our loving triune God.
In Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, T. F. Torrance put it this way: “We must clap our hand upon our mouth again and again for we have no words adequate to match the infinitely holy import of atonement.” T. F. recognized that the mystery of God’s forgiveness is the work of a gracious genius—a work so pure and great we are unable to fully comprehend its glory.
According to the Bible, the glory of God’s forgiveness is seen in its multiple, related benefits. Let’s take a brief look at four of those gifts of grace.
1. With forgiveness comes the remission of sin
The necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins helps us not only understand how serious God views sin, but also how we should view sin and guilt. Our sin unleashes a force that would obliterate the Son of God himself and destroy the Trinity if it could. Our sin requires the Son of God himself to overcome the evil that sin allows by giving his own life in exchange for ours. As believers, we don’t see Jesus’ death for our forgiveness as a mere “given,” or “right”—it is what leads us to a humble and deep appreciation for Christ, which leads us to go from simply believing, to gratefully receiving, then ultimately to worshipping him with our whole lives.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have total forgiveness. This means that all injustice is taken over by the impartial and perfect Judge. All that is wrong is identified and overcome—undone and made right for our salvation at God’s own expense. Let’s not just gloss over this stunning reality. God’s forgiveness is not blind—just the opposite. Nothing is overlooked. The evil is condemned and done away with and we are rescued from its deadly consequences and given new life. God knows every detail of sin and how it harms his good creation. He knows how sin harms you, and those you love. Further, he sees beyond the present to how sin impacts and hurts to the third and fourth generation (and beyond!). He knows the power and depth of sin and that’s why he wants us to understand and rejoice in the power and depth of his forgiveness.
Forgiveness allows us to see and know that there is more to living than what we see and experience in our present temporal existence. Because of God’s forgiveness, we can see and look forward to the amazing future God has prepared for us. He has not allowed anything to happen that his atoning work cannot redeem, renew and regenerate. The past has no power to determine the future that God has opened up for us though the door of his beloved Son’s work of atonement.
2. With forgiveness comes reconciliation with God
Through the Son of God, our elder brother and high priest, we know God as our Father. Jesus invited us to join him in calling out to God our Father as Abba, an intimate term meaning Papa or Dearest Father. He shares with us the intimacy of his relationship with the Father and ushers us into the closeness the Father desires to have with us through his Son.
To lead us to this intimacy, Jesus sent his Spirit, and it is by the Spirit that we become aware of the Father’s love and we begin to live as the Father’s beloved children. The author of Hebrews emphasizes the superiority of Jesus’ work in this regard:
The ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs [the priests of the old covenant] as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. (Heb. 8:6, 12)
3. With forgiveness comes the undoing of death
T. F. Torrance’s nephew, Robert Walker, in a GCI You’re Included interview, noted that the proof of our forgiveness is the undoing of sin and death as proven in the resurrection:
The resurrection is an almighty event. It’s not just the raising of a body from death, it’s the beginning of a new creation—the beginning of the renewal of all of space and time… The resurrection is forgiveness. It’s not just the proof of forgiveness, it is forgiveness, because in the Bible, sin and death are linked. So for God to undo sin, means to undo death. That means the resurrection is God’s undoing of sin. It’s raising somebody up who has taken our sin out of the grave, so that it is our resurrection. That’s why Paul says, “If Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins.” …The resurrection is not just somebody being raised from the dead, it’s the beginning of the reconstitution of everything.
4. With forgiveness comes restoration to wholeness
In our election to salvation, the age-old philosophical dilemma is unwound—God sends the one for the many and the many are incorporated into the one. As Paul wrote to Timothy:
For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle… a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1 Tim. 2:5-7, NRSV)
Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for Israel and for all humanity. He is the true servant of the one God, the royal priest, the One for the many, the One for all! Jesus is the One in whom and through whom God’s purposes of forgiving grace are worked out for all people who have ever lived. God chooses or elects the One not to reject the many, but as The Way to include the many. In the saving economy of God, election does not imply rejection. Rather, the exclusive claim of Jesus is that only in him may all be restored to God. Note these verses from the book of Acts:
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12, NRSV)
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Acts 2:21, NRSV)
Let’s share the good news
I think you’ll agree with me that all people need to hear the good news about God’s forgiveness. All need to know that they have been reconciled to God and are being drawn to respond to that reconciliation by the proclamation of God’s Word, empowered through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. All need to understand the invitation to receive and then participate in what God has done and is doing so they can live in personal union and communion with God in Christ. All need to hear and know that Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal purpose of God to bestow his pure and infinite love upon us, to undo death, and to gather us back into eternal life in him. All humanity needs to hear the gospel because, as T.F. Torrance notes, it is a mystery “more to be adored than expressed.”
Rejoicing that our sins have been atoned for, and we have been forgiven by the God who loves us perfectly for all time,
Our true identity in Christ
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
When asked to define their identity, people reply in various ways. Many focus on what they do—I’m a plumber… an engineer… a homemaker. Others refer to traumas of the past—I’m a recovering alcoholic… I’m a former prisoner. Some take on identities assigned to them by others—She’s wealthy… he’s homeless… she’s a snob. Though some of these are superficial, they all, for better or worse, can powerfully shape the way a person self-identifies.
Speaking of personal identity, I recently ran across this insightful statement from Scottish pastor, theologian and author George MacDonald:
I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of. For to have been thought about—born in God’s thought—and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest, and most precious thing in all thinking.
George MacDonald is credited with being the father of fantasy literature. A mentor to author Lewis Carroll, he also strongly influenced C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. His literary works, including his sermons, are excellent (several are on my “to read” list).
It begins with knowing we are loved unconditionally
Though MacDonald understood that God created us to be glorious creatures who are made in his image, many Christians don’t grasp that truth. Though they know Christ died for them while they were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8), they don’t yet understand that God loves them because of who they are in relationship with him, rather than because of what they have done (or not done). That is a good thing because when it comes to what we have done or left undone, we all have fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Thankfully, God loves us unconditionally with the same love by which he loves Jesus. Note these words in Jesus’ high priestly prayer for us:
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22-23)
We then reject false identities
In reflecting on the profound nature of God’s love for us, I found myself humming the song, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places—the tragic behavior that is the lot of far too many people in our world (Christians included). It’s a fundamental, vital truth that we cannot find true fulfillment in ourselves because we were created to reflect God’s glory. Seeking to gain glory for ourselves from ourselves will never lead to lasting fulfillment. Glory can only be received as a gift from another who has it to give. Where we look to find our identity says a lot about what we think will give us that glory.
I have enjoyed many jobs in my life, starting as a paperboy delivering the daily newspaper via my trusty old bicycle. I then worked as a box boy at the first Trader Joe’s Market, a custodial floor crew cleaner, a child-care worker, an administrative assistant, a customer service training supervisor, a church pastor and a church administration director. As much as I have enjoyed these jobs (and a few others I did not list) my true identity is not derived from any of them. My true identity is in Christ—no more, no less. I praise God that my identity is not in the things I’ve done, nor is it in the things that have been done to me. God gives me my identity in him and that is a gift of free grace. I am his, body and soul.
Tragically, some people find their identity in victimhood. Most of us have been victims, some much more tragically than others. I would never want to minimize or trivialize anyone’s pain and suffering resulting from being victimized, but equally tragic is becoming so defined by a past event that it is as if a stake was driven deep into the ground connected to a chain, that then is fastened around their neck so they can never move beyond the perimeter of that past event.
We embrace our true identity
Though we will experience suffering in this life—sometimes at another person’s hand—the gracious Lordship of Jesus means we can live with confident hope knowing that no past event can determine the future God has for us, no matter how horrific that event was. The power of God’s redemption through the crucifixion of Christ demonstrates in no uncertain terms that God can overcome all evil and bring out of all suffering things of eternal value. Our true identity thus comes from the future that God, in Christ, holds out to us. Nothing can rob us of that goodness and glory!
An understanding of and confidence in our true identity in Christ changes how we live here and now, looking forward with hope to our eternal future. This perspective even helps us gain a new perspective on our past suffering. That doesn’t mean we minimize it, nor does it mean we look on it with joy. However we are no longer victimized by it—it no longer defines our identity. We know that God redeems all things in Christ, and that includes the evil from which we have suffered and even the evil we have committed that led to the suffering of others. Indeed, we have hope in the redeeming power of God to put all things right.
We know nothing can take it away
While a prolonged illness or a seemingly irreconcilable difference with loved ones may oppress us and deprive us of many good things, they cannot change who we are in Christ. Nothing can take away our inheritance as his beloved children. The actions or words of others may rob us of something we have worked for such as a higher grade or a job promotion, but again, no one can take away what God has in store for us for eternity. When our identity is in Christ, we know that we can and will identify with Jesus in every facet of his earthly life, and that includes his sufferings.
The important dynamic here is that just as Jesus’ sufferings were not wasted nor a hopeless event, neither are ours. God can use our joys and our sufferings as a part of our sanctification. Just as we suffer with him for a while, so we will be glorified with him. Our hope is just as the apostle Paul taught in the book of Romans:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:16-17 ESV)
We cannot experience the good that comes from suffering if we stand apart from Christ, refusing to entrust to him all our sufferings. But when we entrust all we are and have to Christ, God uses our suffering to help us gain an eternal hope, with Jesus Christ, the Crucified, as the Redeemer of all things. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
And so we live into our true identity
Realizing that our true identity is in Christ, we seek to have God’s glory shine through all aspects of our life. We no longer seek to conform to the culture of this world, which, among other things, fallaciously tells us that we can separate our sex from gender, or even choose whatever race or ethnicity we’d personally prefer, regardless of our genetics. The apostle John gave this instruction:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions is not from the Father but it is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17 ESV)
The stark reality is that if we are not seeking to find our identity solely in Christ, then we are seeking it in something else. As the Holy Spirit helps us grow in understanding that our true identity is in Christ, we are freed to enjoy and glorify him in the unique ways he created us to be. In Christ we are righteous, made holy and totally loved. In him we are enabled to bring glory to God, not by our own doing, but through his gifts and blessings.
Though our identity tends to be shaped by many factors (see the diagram above), our conversion deepens as we abandon any images of ourselves that are not from God. Instead, we embrace what God says about us, knowing that he is pleased with how he defined and created us, body and soul. The heart of receiving our sanctification is to live in trusting fellowship with Christ, holding to what the apostle Paul explained in saying that God has “set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22). I praise God that he makes clear to us that our identity is not determined by what we do, what we possess, or by the opinions others hold of us. Instead, our identity is defined by God, by who we are in gracious relationship to him.
Celebrating our true identity in Christ,
PS: Please join me in praying for all those devastated by Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes in Mexico. We are grateful that, according to initial reports from the Caribbean Region and Mexico, our members were spared loss of life and serious injury. Details about property damage are sketchy—we’ll let you know more as details come in. In the meantime, you can click here to watch a video showing damage to the island of Dominica. Our members Cris and Mary Vidal live there, right next to Castle Comfort shown in the video. Thankfully, though their roof was damaged, it did not blow away. If you’d like to help GCI members who will need financial assistance due to disasters like the recent ones, congregations can donate to the GCI Disaster Relief Fund
Redeeming the gift of time
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Rosh Hashanah begins this week at sundown, September 20. A festival with multiple meanings, the Jews celebrate it as New Year’s (Rosh Hashanah means “beginning of the year”). Rosh Hashanah also commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve. According to Jewish tradition, when God “blew” the soul into Adam, the sound made was like the blowing of the trumpet-like shofar, which in ancient Israel announced this festival (Leviticus 23:23-24). Rosh Hashanah is also considered the anniversary of the creation of the universe, which means that it commemorates the beginning of time.
While reading about time, I was reminded that it too has multiple meanings. One is that time is an asset, shared equally by billionaires and beggars. We all have 86,400 seconds each day, and since we can’t bank them (time can neither be overdrawn nor retrieved) the question for us is this: How will we spend the time we have?
The value of time
Understanding the value of time, Paul, in Eph. 5:16 (KJV), exhorted Christians to be “redeeming the time.” Before I unpack his meaning, let me share a poem about time’s great value:
Realize (author unknown)
To realize the value of one year, ask a student who has failed an exam.
To realize the value of one month, ask a mother who has given birth to a premature baby.
To realize the value of one week, ask an editor of a weekly newspaper.
To realize the value of one hour, ask the lovers who are waiting to meet.
To realize the value of one minute, ask a person who missed the train, bus or plane.
To realize the value of one second, ask a person who has survived an accident.
To realize the value of one millisecond, ask the person who has won a silver medal in the Olympics.
Time waits for no one.
Treasure every moment you have.
You will treasure it even more when you can share it with someone special.
How is time redeemed?
This poem makes a point about time similar to the one Paul makes in Ephesians 5. In the Greek New Testament, there are two words that we translate as redeem. One is agorazo, which refers to buying something in the agora—the normal marketplace. The other is exagorazo, which refers to buying something elsewhere. Paul uses exagorazo in Eph. 5:15-16 (NIV) to exhort us to, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” I enjoy the King James translation, which speaks of “redeeming the time.” It seems that Paul is urging us to redeem the time outside the normal market exchange.
While we don’t use the word redeem much today, it used to be a common business term, literally meaning “to buy up or buy back.” If a person could not pay a debt, they could make arrangements to become servant to the person they owed until the debt was paid. Their servitude could also be ended if someone would pay the debt on their behalf. Debtors who were bought out of servitude this way were said to have been “redeemed.” (We think here of how Jesus redeemed us, but that’s another topic.)
Property could also be redeemed—just like we see in pawnshops today. On one hand, you could say Paul is telling us to buy—redeem—the time. On the other hand, since the context of Paul’s instruction is to be followers of God, we can also say Paul is seeking to focus our attention on the One who has redeemed the time for us. His point is that we don’t have time to waste by focusing on anything other than Jesus and the work he has invited us to share in.
Wuest’s Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Vol. 1) has this comment on Ephesians 5:16 (KJV):
“Redeeming” is exagorazō (ἐξαγοραζω), “to buy up.” In the middle voice as it is used here, it means, “to buy up for one’s self or one’s advantage.” Metaphorically, it means, “to make a wise and sacred use of every opportunity for doing good,” so that zeal and well-doing are as it were the purchase-money by which we make the time our own” (Thayer). “Time” is not chronos (χρονος), “time as such,” but kairos (καιρος), “time as regarded in its strategic, epoch-making, seasonable, opportune seasons.” The idea is not to make best use of time as such, which is what we should do in the sense of not wasting it, but of taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.
Because time is not normally viewed as a commodity that can literally be redeemed, we understand Paul to be speaking metaphorically, saying, in essence, that we are to make the best use of the situation we are in. When we do that, our time will have far greater meaning, significance and thus “payoff.”
It’s God’s gift
As a part of God’s creation, time is God’s gift to us. Some have more of it, and some less. Due to medical advances, good genetics and God’s blessing, many of us will live into our 90s and a few past 100. Recently we heard of the death of a 146-year-old man in Indonesia! But no matter how much time God gives us, as I mentioned in my August 30th letter, Jesus is Lord of time. Through the Incarnation, the eternal Son of God came from eternity into time. Thus Jesus experiences created time differently than we do. Our time, being created, is limited in duration, while God’s time, being uncreated, is unlimited. God’s time is not sequenced, as is ours, into past, present and future. God’s time is also of a different quality—a kind of time we cannot fully grasp. What we can (and should) do, is live in our time, secure in the hope of joining our Creator and Redeemer in his time, which is eternity.
Don’t misuse or waste it
When we speak metaphorically of time, saying things like, “don’t waste time,” we are implying that in some way we can lose the correct use of our precious time. This happens when we allow someone or something to make us use time in ways or for purposes we don’t value. It’s in this metaphorical sense that Paul speaks of “redeeming the time.” He is exhorting us to not misuse or waste time in ways that fail to contribute to what is valuable to God and thus valuable to us as Christians.
In that vein, when we refer to “redeeming the time,” we must remember that our time is redeemed or recovered first by God’s forgiveness through Christ. It then continues to be redeemed as we properly use our time to contribute to a growing relationship with God and each other. That redemption of time is God’s gift to us. When Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 5:15 (KJV) to “walk circumspectly not as unwise but as wise,” he is telling us to buy up the opportunities that time affords us in order to honor God.
On mission “between the times”
God has given us time to walk in his light, co-ministering in the Spirit, with Jesus, in advancing God’s mission. To do so, we have been given the “time between the times” of Christ’s first and second advents. Our mission in that time is to assist others in seeking and knowing God—helping them live by faith and love, secure in the hope that, in the end, God will have completely redeemed all creation, time included.
My prayer for us in GCI is that we will be redeeming the time that God has given us by faithfully living and sharing the gospel of God’s redemption in Christ.
Thankful for God’s gifts of time and eternity,
PS: At the time this is being posted, we await final word concerning our members in the Caribbean (impacted by Hurricane Maria) and Mexico (impacted by the recent earthquake). Initial reports from our pastors in Mexico City and Tlaxcala (areas impacted by the earthquake) is that our members, perhaps with a few exceptions, are OK. Please join me in praying for all who are in harm’s way as the hurricane continues, and as earthquake aftershocks occur. We will let you know of any financial needs that arise that we can assist with through the GCI Disaster Relief Fund.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Have you noticed how Jesus makes a party even better? John 2:1-10 tells of the time Jesus saved a wedding party from embarrassment by turning water into the highest quality wine. I’d love to have a taste, agreeing with Martin Luther that “beer is made by men,” but “wine by God.”
Though Scripture doesn’t say which grape Jesus had in mind when turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, perhaps it was the one that comes from the Vitis vinifera vine, which is the source of most of the grapes used to make wine in our day. That vine produces grapes that have thicker skins, larger seeds and typically are sweeter than the table grapes we’re familiar with.
I find it interesting that Jesus’ first public miracle (John 2:11a) was essentially private—accomplished without the knowledge of its main beneficiaries, the wedding party. Nevertheless it was of great importance in that it provided evidence to Jesus’ disciples (John 2:11b) that Jesus truly was the incarnate Son of God sent to save the world. Perhaps that’s why one theologian quipped that “wine is like the incarnation—both divine and human.”
Though Jesus’ miracle saved the wedding party in Cana from a major social faux pas, it did not address human suffering in the way his many healings and exorcisms did. Nevertheless, turning water into wine strikes me as a good first miracle for Jesus, not because wine is the most healthful and hygienic of beverages (as claimed by Louis Pasteur), but because by turning water into wine, Jesus demonstrated his power over nature. He didn’t just change the water’s flavor, he changed its molecular structure! By doing so he showed both the power and goodness of God.
That the setting for Jesus’ first public miracle was a wedding seems to me to carry great meaning. Perhaps that’s because I’m thinking a lot about my daughter’s upcoming wedding, but most of all it’s because Scripture tells us that those who receive Jesus in faith (the church as one body) enjoy an intimate, eternal relationship with Jesus as his “bride” (Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7-9). In Scripture, wedding celebrations often serve as metaphors of the messianic age and the fullness of the kingdom. Jesus desires that we not only anticipate that fullness, but that we pursue it. He makes this point in several of his kingdom parables, including this one:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. (Matt. 13:45-46)
In this parable Jesus shows that the kingdom (and particularly the king of the kingdom) is the most valuable thing we’ll ever possess. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states that parables are “almost always formulated to reveal and illustrate the kingdom of God” (vol. 3, p. 656). In Parables of the Kingdom, C.H. Dodd adds that a parable is “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (p. 16). Though not parables per se, many of Jesus’ miracles were kingdom-focused. In turning water into wine, he made a point similar to the one he was making in some of his kingdom parables, likening entrance into the kingdom to attending a great banquet.
In John 2:11 we’re told that the miracle of turning water into wine was a “sign” by which Jesus “revealed his glory.” But in what way? In healing people, Jesus revealed his authority to forgive sin. In cursing the fig tree, he showed that judgment was coming upon the temple. In healing on the Sabbath, Jesus revealed his authority over the Sabbath. In raising people from the dead, he revealed that he is the resurrection and the life. By feeding thousands, he revealed that he is the bread of life. And by miraculously providing abundant blessings for a wedding banquet in Cana, Jesus seems to have been revealing that he is the one who provides the abundant kingdom blessings of God that contribute to joy and life, both now and in the fullness of the kingdom. The miracle at Cana thus fills out for us a little more of Jesus’ true purpose and character. When I contemplate that miracle, I can’t help but consider how Jesus is transforming us into something far more glorious than what we would be apart from his miraculous work in our lives.
Jesus’ miracle at Cana often comes to mind when I’m enjoying a glass of fine wine. By saying that, I’m not advocating the abuse of alcohol in any way. As Paul would say, “God forbid!” The Bible frequently warns against such abuse (Gal. 5:21) and Jesus forbids drunkenness (Luke 21:34). That being said, reading of Jesus’ miracle at Cana helps me live and work in a way that points toward the coming fullness of the kingdom of God when Jesus will have removed all the residue of sin and we will sit down with him at the greatest family reunion banquet of all time. Perhaps Jesus will provide some of that wine from Cana! It will surely “gladden” our hearts (Ps. 104:14-15).
Raising my glass in a toast to the kingdom,
Leadership changes; humans in relationship
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Tammy and I returned home a few days ago from GCI’s joy-filled Denominational Conference in Orlando. Over 1,000 members and friends attended, coming from 29 countries. Together we celebrated the theme, We Are GCI! In the “selfie” below, Pastor Doug Johannsen and I stand on stage at one of the sessions. For more about the conference, click here.
During the conference, I announced that on January 1, 2019 I will be retiring—stepping aside as President of Grace Communion International. On that date, GCI Vice President Greg Williams will become GCI President. After retiring from GCI employment I will continue serving as Chairman of GCI’s Board of Directors and Russell Duke will continue serving as Vice Chairman.
These changes in our leadership, recently approved by our Board of Directors, will be accompanied by the move in April 2018 of our Home Office from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC. We’re thankful to God for the way he has provided our next generation of denominational leadership, both in our Home Office and in our other GCI offices around the globe. Thanks for your prayers about these transitions!
Humans in relationship
As I near retirement, I often find myself rejoicing that God in his goodness has created us to be humans in relationship. The topic of the nature of humanity has fascinated people down through the ages (and has sometimes led to fanciful speculation). Often, the focus has been on what is called the human “soul.” Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 BC) thought the soul was a bodily agent composed of an unusually pure or rare form of matter such as air or fire. Thales of Miletus attributed the soul to magnets because seeing magnets move iron, he assumed they were alive. Plato reasoned that the soul has three parts: “reason” (λογιστικὸν), “spirit” (θυμοειδές) and “appetite” (ἐπιθυμητικόν). In today’s modern (scientific) era, many view the soul as nothing more than the result of electro-chemical activity in the body’s neural networks.
In Genesis 2:7 (KJV), a person is said to become a “living soul” when God breathes into them the “breath of life.” The Hebrew word translated “soul” is nephesh (נֶ֫פֶשׁ), sometimes translated “living being,” “creature” or “life.” The Old Testament uses nephesh in reference to both humans and animals (e.g. Gen. 1:20-30; Ezek. 47:9) and describes death as the cessation of breathing (Gen. 35:18). The Old Testament thus sees the “soul” as the life-possessing quality of humans and animals with God being the source of that life. Indeed, it is God who gives life to all living things.
The Old Testament then differentiates between animals and humans by declaring that humanity has, uniquely, been created “in” or “according to” the image of God. This is further explained in the New Testament where Jesus is shown to be the original image of God—the archetype of the first Adam (Rom. 5; 1 Cor. 15). We are told that all persons were created in, through and for Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15-16). Thus we learn that we were created to be images of The Image, Jesus, the eternal Son of God incarnate.
The New Testament also shows that the Son of God upholds the universe and all that is in it (Heb. 1:1-3). Were he to forget about the universe for even a nanosecond, it would cease to exist. Thus we understand that existence itself involves a real (though impersonal) relationship of the Creator God with his creation through the Son. But that’s not where the story ends. As we know, from the beginning humans cut themselves off from God out of distrust and pride, which bore the fruit of disobedience and alienation. God himself would have to personally intervene to reconcile humanity and redeem us back into personal communion and communication with him so that his original purpose would be realized.
So out of love, the Father sent the Son to grab hold of us down to the roots of our nature so as to free us from bondage to guilt and the power of sin and thus restore us to communion with himself. Because of what Jesus Christ did for us, we now can personally and individually grow in relationship to him and become conformed to his image. This is possible only because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit who enables us to share in the human nature that the Son of God assumed then reconciled, renewed and regenerated through the whole of his incarnate life—from conception through life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. The Son of God is not only our Creator and Sustainer—he is our Redeemer!
Through Jesus, we learn that the triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) have existed in a relationship of loving, knowing and glorifying one another before there ever was a creation. Knowing that God is relational, and that Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, in the Spirit, we understand that we have our being and freedom in that image of being-in-relationship, which starts with Jesus, the Lamb who was slain on our behalf from the foundation of the world. The Bible shows us that from the moment the Triune God spoke everything into existence, we were created by him, for him and in his image to be relational beings—relating to ourselves, to others, and to God. It is no wonder then that Jesus points out that the greatest commandment is to love God and that the second, following that, is to love others.
Whole, complete persons
Noting that the apostle Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:23, uses the words spirit, soul and body in describing our humanity, some have mistakenly concluded that these are three separable components. While these terms do refer to distinct aspects of our human selves, they refer to the whole person in different relationships as noted by theologian N.T. Wright:
Just as, for Paul, soma [body] is the whole person seen in terms of public, space-time presence and sarx [flesh] is the whole person seen in terms of corruptibility and perhaps rebellion, so psyche [soul] is the whole person seen in terms of, and from the perspective of what we loosely call the “inner” life…. Paul can use the word pneuma [spirit] to refer to the human “spirit,” by which he seems to mean…the very centre of the personality and the point where one stands on the threshold of encounter with the true god. (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 283)
Spirit, soul and body are thus to be understood as descriptions of the various relationships we have with God and one another as persons in relationship. Our spirit involves our relationship to God, our soul is our inner life (relationship to or within ourselves) and our body stands in relationship with the world at large. Theologian Tom Smail explains it this way:
The word psyche plays a different part in Paul’s tripartite description of our humanity than it does in the bipartite approach implied in [Matthew’s] quotation from Jesus [Matt. 10:28], where body stands for our relationships with the world and this present age and soul for our relationship with God and the age to come, and the point is that we can lose the former without losing the latter…. In other words, the terms body, soul and spirit are meaningless apart from the relationships to the world, other people, and God in which the self stands. We are body, soul and spirit as persons and not as individuals, because…we image the God whose own being is not that of a solitary individual, still less of three such individuals, but of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in inextricable relationships with one another, three persons, and one God. (Like Father, Like Son: The Trinity Imaged in Our Humanity, p. 152)
Becoming like Jesus
Understanding our humanity in these holistic ways, I take great delight in Paul’s statement:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23, ESV)
Paul understood that God orchestrates our sanctification as whole, complete persons, in spirit, soul and body. We are children of God by nature as well as by adoption who, by the Holy Spirit, are becoming like Jesus, the true image of God. Our Triune God is loving us to perfection so that one day, when glorified, we will receive fully and share completely in all that Christ has accomplished for us, and so become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4 ESV). We thus embrace and rejoice in God’s loving work of sanctification by his Word and Spirit.
Forever thankful that Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith,
Thinking and living “trinitarianly”
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I’m sure you’ve noticed that the messages dominating the media are often opposed to what Scripture teaches. It’s rare to see a commercial on television encouraging us to reach out in self-sacrifice to serve others. Instead, the media constantly repeat materialistic, self-focused messages that say Me first! My wants! What I can have! That is one of the reasons I don’t like watching TV commercials. Tammy and I dislike them so much we record everything we watch on TV so we can fast-forward through the commercials.
Scripture teaches us to minister to others in self-sacrificial ways—giving away our time, talents, energy, finances and commitment. But the biblical message of self-sacrifice often is drowned out by the “noise” of a consumeristic culture. I can hear the jingle now: You deserve a break today! That self-indulgent, I deserve message is often heard as “abandon responsibility and think only about yourself.” It’s the opposite of the self-sacrifice lived and taught by Jesus: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, ESV).
Please don’t misunderstand. Self-sacrifice is not about abandoning all desire for good and enjoyable things. I chuckle when someone, having been asked what they have denied themselves in order to follow Christ, reply with a list of sinful behaviors they have given up. Is it really self-sacrifice to refrain from murder or adultery? No, authentic self-sacrifice is grounded in the realization that life isn’t all about the self—it’s about being in relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit. It’s about knowing who God is, and who he is in relation to us and others. It’s about acknowledging the invitation we’ve been given to participate with the Father in what he is doing through the Son and by the Spirit to fulfill his mission for the sake of the world that he loves. Self-sacrifice is about following Jesus’ New Commandment to love others just as he loves us. It’s about being willing to give up whatever is necessary in order to share God’s love and life with others.
Ultimately, self-sacrifice is more about a who than a what. It’s about God the Father sending his Son in the power of the Spirit to show us who God is and what he desires for all humanity. In that regard, we should not miss how Jesus honored small acts of self-sacrifice. Think of the boy who gave up his lunch and more than 5,000 were fed. Or consider the widow who gave her last coins as an offering. We should see these acts for what they are—sacrificing the self to serve others. Such acts reflect the heart and mind of God the Father who, in order to give us eternal life, sacrificed his only begotten Son at infinite cost to himself. The cross of Christ proves that God loves us so much he is willing to suffer loss for our sakes. In his self-sacrifice to serve us, God did not lose any of his dignity or worth. His self-sacrifice is one of the reasons we sing that he is “worthy of worship.”
British systematic theologian Colin Gunton (pictured above) was fond of saying that to properly understand Christian doctrine, we must learn to think trinitarianly:
If you want to understand how God works in our world, then you must go through the route God himself has given us: the incarnation of the eternal Son and the life-giving action of the Spirit. Let me repeat: the Trinity is about life. Irenaeus is the writer of that great sentence, often heard from him: “The glory of God is a human being truly alive.” The Trinity is about life, life before God, with one another and in the world. If we forget that God’s life is mediated to us trinitarianly, through his two hands, the Son and the Spirit, we forget the root of our lives, of what makes for life and what makes for death.
Thinking trinitarianly informs us about God, about human nature, and the nature of the church. When the Bible tells us that we are created in God’s image, it is not talking primarily about an innate human capacity. Rather it is telling us about the form of human existence corresponding to God’s relationship to us. To be authentically human, we are to image (reflect, correspond to) who God is in all that we are.
As an echo of the life of God, the church should reflect the kind of being God is—a being in relation—a communion. Jesus came to reveal what God is doing and what he has in store for us. He came as a true human being and took on human nature—our defective, fallible flesh; yet, he remained sinless. Sometimes I ponder how Jesus did that. It was not from a built-in divine programming, but because he freely and totally relied on the moment-by-moment guidance of the Holy Spirit in his human life. Even while living in human flesh on earth, Jesus’ relationship with God the Father and God the Spirit remained in unbroken communion. As the apostle Paul explained, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
Gunton wrote about what it means to be a human person:
Among the great achievements of those who have thought trinitarianly is the concept of the person as a living whole rather than as a mind encased in matter. How it came about is a complicated and difficult matter to describe, but it is one of the fruits of the trinitarian teaching that God is three persons in one being. By thinking about the Trinity, the early theologians came to realize that they had come across an entirely new conception of what it is to be personally. To be is not to be an individual; it is not to be isolated from others, cut off from them by the body that is a tomb, but in some way to be bound up with one another in relationship. Being a person is about being from, and for and with the other. I need you—and particularly those of you who are nearest to me—in order to be myself. That is the first thing to say: persons are beings who exist only in relation—in relation to God, to others and to the world from which they come.
The real truth of human nature is found in Jesus Christ and in him alone. We must see that God’s affirmation of humanity as “good” is fully realized only in Jesus. T.F. Torrance put it this way:
Jesus Christ is the Word by whom, for whom, and in whom we have been created in the image of God, so that in his Incarnation as Immanuel, God with us and for us and in us, he is the secret of our creation and redemption―in him we may now penetrate through all the distortion, depravity and degradation of humanity to the true nature of man hidden beneath it all.
As we follow Jesus, responding to God’s call in our lives, the Holy Spirit leads us in a “Christomorphic” direction—the way of self-sacrifice. Indeed, the true nature and dignity of humanity is established and disclosed in the human nature of Jesus. True self-sacrifice is giving up our autonomous self and self-will in order to more fully live in Christ. Our true personhood, our true dignity, thus lies not in ourselves alone, but in union and communion with Jesus. In Jesus, by the Spirit, we think and we live trinitarianly.
Enjoying the life that is ours in union and communion with Christ,
Understanding God’s Triune nature
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the Western liturgical calendar, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday—a day to rejoice in what theologians call “the divine mystery.” Though much about God is beyond our comprehension, by grace we are able to understand that God is one in Being and three in Person—the Trinity.
The nature of understanding
Thinking about understanding, we acknowledge that, at times, it comes suddenly—like a flash of light seemingly out of nowhere. But most often, it comes gradually—the way I came to understand mathematics when I was young. As I began to grasp the concepts of algebra, many of my classmates remained perplexed. The further we progressed in math, the smaller the classes became—many of my classmates did not want to torture their brains that way! But for those who stuck it out, the reward was a broader and deeper understanding of the marvelous world of mathematics, which tells us so much about the intricacies of God’s amazing creation.
Why it’s vital to study theology
I share this math illustration because I see a similarity in the way we grow in our understanding of God’s Triune nature. For various reasons, some Christians are unwilling to study theology, which includes challenging concepts like God’s three hypostases (Persons). Though not “lesser Christians,” these folks (who believe in and love God), remain uninformed concerning the history of how the church came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. While this understanding is important for all Christians, it’s vital for those who teach within the church. If preachers and teachers don’t have an accurate understanding of the nature of God, what they teach may be a fuzzy (even distorted) picture of God. Lacking understanding of theology, they will be unable to answer the questions members have about God and unable to counter the false teachings about God that undermine the faith of many of God’s children.
Brothers and sisters, because this is a serious matter, I strongly encourage our pastors, preachers and teachers to carefully study theology, abandoning all false notions concerning church history and misinterpretations of Scripture, in order to embrace the historic, orthodox teaching of the church concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, which can be summarized in three fundamental truths:
- There is one God (Mark 12:29; John 14:9; Heb. 1:2-3).
- God is three distinct (not separate) Persons (Matt. 3:13-17; Matt. 28:19; John 1:1; Col. 1:15-16; John 14:17).
- Each Person is fully God (Phil. 2; Col. 2:9; Acts 5:3-4).
Avoid flawed analogies
Over the centuries, several analogies have been used to help people understand the Trinity. Unfortunately, in one way or another, most of them advance false ideas. Here are four examples: 
- The Trinity is like the three forms of water: ice, liquid and vapor. While it is true that water exists in these three forms, looking at God this way advances the false idea (a heresy called Modalism) that God merely represents himself in three different forms, but is not three distinct Persons. Historically, the primary proponents of Modalism taught that God first manifested himself as Father, then as Jesus, then as the Holy Spirit. These modes were viewed as consecutive, temporary and thus never co-existent, thus denying the distinctiveness of the three eternal Persons of the Trinity.
- The Trinity is like the three parts of an egg: shell, white and yolk. By viewing God as existing in parts, this analogy teaches a heresy called Tritheism. But the three Persons of the Trinity are not three unalike parts (as with the parts of an egg). God is revealed to be three divine Persons who share one divine nature and are one in Being.
- The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover: one entity with three parts. This is perhaps the most well-known analogy, purported to have been used by St Patrick. Like the analogy of the three parts of an egg, this analogy fails to account for the fact that the Godhead is not simply split into thirds.
- The Trinity is like a man who is a father, a son and a husband: one man, three functions. The problem here is that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not merely functions of God—they are three distinct Persons. A typical man may have a wife (and so be a husband), children (and so be a father), but he acts out these differing roles depending on whom he is interacting with at the time. This analogy is another form of Modalism.
The careful use of human language
When it comes to teaching the truth concerning God’s nature, human language (which is always analogical) falls short in one way or another because it is unable to fully embody all that God is. For example, we use the word “Persons” to refer to the three “distinctions” of God. Doing so is helpful because out of all created reality, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are most like human persons in nature (or we might say that human persons are in their nature most like the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We capitalize Persons to indicate that the word is being used in a special manner in describing God’s nature. Thus we exercise great care in selecting words knowing that, as the apostle Paul wrote, “The mystery of godliness is great,” humbly acknowledging that God is much greater than we can say or understand. Not being a creature, God cannot be understood in the same way we understand created things. However, because God has revealed himself to us, we can apprehend God even though we cannot exhaustively comprehend God.
A common shorthand version of the doctrine of the Trinity says that “God is three in one.” Some anti-Trinitarians say this is a contradiction, but they are wrong—it’s a paradox. Knowing of paradoxes in the physical realm (e.g., light is both a wave and a particle) it should not surprise us to learn that, when it comes to God’s nature, there are paradoxes. To say that “God is three in one” is not to say that God is one in Being and three in Being, or that God is one in Person and three in Person (those statements are contradictions). Instead it is saying that, paradoxically, God is one in Being and three in Person.
It is not the intent of the doctrine of the Trinity to explain how God is triune. That, as Paul reminds us, is a “mystery.” The teachers of the early church taught that proper doctrine preserves this mystery, for God cannot be exhaustively explained as though God were a creature. In humility we confess that our understanding of God’s nature has limitations, though Jesus did reveal to us the personal names of the three Persons of the one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
We also learn from Jesus that rather than a lonely being, God is a fellowship (communion) of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who have their very being by being in a relationship of holy love—knowing and glorifying one another for all eternity. That is why John tells us that God, who is love (1 John 4:16), out of love sent his only Son to reconcile the world to himself (John 3:16). Thus it makes perfect sense that the central will of our Triune God for us is that we would love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbors as we are loved by God (Matthew 22:37-39).
With these thoughts about God in mind, GCI’s Statement of Beliefs says this:
God, by the testimony of Scripture, is one divine Being in three eternal, co-essential, yet distinct Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The One God may be known only in the Three and the Three may be known only as the one true God, good, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, and immutable in his covenant love for humanity. He is Creator of heaven and earth, Sustainer of the universe, and Author of human salvation. Though transcendent, God freely and in divine love, grace and goodness involves himself with humanity directly and personally in Jesus Christ, that humanity, by the Spirit, might share in his eternal life as his children. (Mark 12:29; Matthew 28:19; John 14:9; 1 John 4:8; Romans 5:8; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 1:2-3; 1 Peter 1:2; Galatians 3:26)
Why seek to grow in understanding God?
I’ll end now with one of my favorite quotes from Charles Haddon Spurgeon—it says well why we seek a deeper understanding of God.
It has been said by someone that “the proper study of mankind is man.” I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God’s elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, “Behold I am wise.” But when we come to this master-science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought, that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass’s colt; and with the solemn exclamation, “I am but of yesterday, and know nothing.” No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God.
Forever seeking a deeper understanding of our Triune God,
 For a short, amusing (tongue-in-cheek) and insightful video addressing some of the common analogies related to the Triune nature of God, watch the video at https://youtu.be/KQLfgaUoQCw. For a Trinity Sunday sermon by Weekly Update General Editor Ted Johnston, click here.
Pentecost – all are included!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I remember as a child lining up in the schoolyard where sides were chosen for a sports competition. Invariably, the most athletic or popular were picked first. Though kids lacking athleticism and popularity were some of the brightest in my class, they typically were picked last. I remember feeling sorry for them—some, no doubt, still bear emotional scars.
So that no child would suffer the humiliation of being picked last, a gym teacher in my school tried a different approach. He assigned two kids (ones that often were picked last) to serve as captains who then chose the other team members. One began by picking kids usually selected last. Unfortunately his team lost and the next time captains chose sides, they reverted to picking the most athletic and popular first.
Perhaps you remember Merlin Olsen (pictured at right). As a child, he was one of the non-athletic, less-than-popular kids who got picked last. The embarrassment he felt apparently motivated him to work hard at sports. Eventually he excelled—during a 15-year career in pro football he was selected for the Pro Bowl 14 times! After retiring, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and went on to become a popular actor, portraying Jonathan Garvey on the TV show Little House on the Prairie.
Thinking about the humiliation of being picked last in sports got me thinking of the very different way God picks people to be invited into his kingdom. Instead of choosing on the basis of talent or popularity, God chooses on the basis of who he is and what he, in Christ and by the Spirit, has done. On that basis, as we say in GCI, all are included! 
Jesus made it clear that he came into the world not to reject or condemn, but to include and to save. In his economy, those who (by worldly standards) seem highly qualified, may end up going into his kingdom last, while the seemingly un-qualified may end up going in first. In his parable of the vineyard workers, Jesus declared that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). His point was that God invites all into his kingdom and so excludes none. Jesus made a similar point when, speaking of his death, he said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).
As the “son of man,” Jesus (the “Son of God”) is the elected (chosen) human. In and through him, and by the Spirit, we all have been chosen to share in all the benefits of God’s grace—we all are invited to become participants in Christ’s rule and reign. The Day of Pentecost (June 4, this year) celebrates this inclusive calling. It is made possible by Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, followed by the Spirit’s post-ascension ministry to lead all people to repentance and faith, and as followers of Jesus, to live into the reality of who they have been called to be—members of God’s household. Pentecost is thus a joy-filled reminder that everyone has this calling—everyone has been selected to be on God’s team. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate that inclusion—the reality that, in Christ (the elected One) and by the Spirit, all are included!
The interesting twist here is that God does not force those he selects to play on his team. Each person must decide whether they will play or remain non-participants, watching from the sidelines. Though God loves all unconditionally, he loves each one of us enough to want us to participate and thus receive all he offers. But God does not force that participation—personal fellowship and communion with God cannot be impersonally coerced or mechanically caused (Hebrews 4:2). Instead, God sends the Spirit to free and enable us to share in all that Christ has accomplished for us, in our place and on our behalf. Though, in love, God permits people to reject his love, forgiveness and grace, he never stops loving them—he never stops calling them to participation.
As the captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10 KJV), Jesus continues to reach out to all people—and his training is available to all who say “yes” to his “Yes” to them. What a blessing it is to be on the Lord’s team—and what a joy it is to share with him in reaching out to those who, though included, remain on the sidelines.
PS: For a beautifully-produced meditation with readings from the Pentecost account in Acts 2, see the video from Fuller Studio at https://youtu.be/F5w3upHui48—it would make a great introduction to a Pentecost sermon.
 Regarding what GCI means by the phrase, “all are included,” be sure to read Dr. Gary Deddo’s essay “Clarifying our Theological Vision,” being published serially in GCI Equipper—click here for the first and second parts, the third will be included in the June issue, published later this week.
What about evangelism?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Searching for something to listen to as I drove home, I landed on a Christian radio station where a preacher made this proclamation: “The gospel is good news only if it’s not too late!” Seeking to motivate Christians to evangelize their neighbors, friends and family who have not yet accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, his underlying message was clear: “You must share the gospel before it’s too late!” Though that viewpoint is shared by many (though not all) evangelical Protestants, other viewpoints have been espoused by orthodox Christians both today and in the past. I’ll briefly review some of those viewpoints here, concluding that we don’t need to know exactly how and when God brings people to receive his salvation in order to actively participate today in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of evangelism.
The preacher I heard on the radio holds a perspective on evangelism (and salvation) sometimes referred to as restrictivism. That viewpoint asserts that if a person has not explicitly and consciously accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before they die, their opportunity for salvation has ended; for them, God’s grace has run out. Restrictivism thus teaches that death is somehow stronger than God—like a pair of “cosmic handcuffs” it restrains God from saving people when they (even through no fault of their own) have failed to explicitly declare Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior before death. According to restrictivism, lacking the exercise of conscious faith that names Jesus as Lord and Savior before death even seals the fate of 1) those who die without hearing the gospel, 2) those who die having embraced a faulty gospel, and 3) those who die after a life of mental disability that kept them from understanding the gospel. By placing such severe conditional limits on who does and who does not enter salvation, restrictivism raises perplexing and provocative questions.
Another viewpoint on evangelism held by many Christians is known as inclusivism. This viewpoint, which sees the Bible as authoritative, understands salvation as being possible only through Jesus Christ. Within inclusivism there are multiple perspectives concerning the fate of those who have not made an explicit profession of faith in Jesus before they die. That diversity has existed throughout church history. Justin Martyr in the second century and C.S. Lewis in the twentieth century both taught that though God saves people only because of the work of Christ, a person may be saved even if they do not know about Christ so long as they have an “implicit faith” that results from God’s grace being active in their life by the Holy Spirit. They both taught that “implicit” faith then becomes “explicit” when God provides the circumstances that allow the person to understand who Christ is and how God, by grace, has provided for their salvation through Christ.
Another viewpoint (within the camp of inclusivism) involves belief in what is referred to as postmortem evangelization. This viewpoint asserts that people who die unevangelized can still receive God’s salvation following death. This perspective was espoused in the late second century by Clement of Alexandria and made popular in our day by theologian Gabriel Fackre (born 1926). Theologian Donald Bloesch (born 1928) also taught that if someone has not had any opportunity in this life to know Christ and put their trust in him, God will give them that opportunity when they appear before Christ following death.
Some Christians hold to a viewpoint known as universalism. It teaches that (in one way or another) everyone necessarily will be saved, regardless of whether they are good or bad, have repented or not, or have put their faith in Jesus as Savior or not. This deterministic perspective says that, in the end, all souls (whether human, angelic or demonic) will be saved by God’s grace, making the response of the individual to God of no consequence. This viewpoint apparently arose with the Christian leader Origen in the second century and various versions have been espoused since then. Some (but not all) versions of universalism repudiate Jesus as Savior and regard one’s response to God’s free gift as irrelevant. The idea that one can repudiate grace, reject the Savior, yet still enter into salvation is repugnant to most Christians. GCI does not consider such versions of universalism as biblical.
What does GCI believe?
There are many other viewpoints held by Christians concerning evangelism and the related topic of the how and when of salvation. Some believe God will give all people multiple “chances” before death sufficient to enable them to have at least an implicit faith in Christ. Others believe God will ultimately save the vast majority of humans, though they do not try to explain the how or when. What does GCI believe? As with all doctrinal matters, our commitment is to begin with the truth revealed in Holy Scripture. There we find that God has reconciled all humanity to himself through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19). Concerning that work of reconciliation, Jesus, dying on the cross, declared “It is finished!”
Thus we know from biblical revelation that whatever happens to people in the end, it will not be due to any deficiency in the motive, mind and purpose of God. Our Triune God has done everything possible to save every person from the terrible and horrific condition known as “hell.” The Father has given us his one and only Son to be our representative and substitute, standing in for us as our High Priest. The Holy Spirit now works to draw each person so that they may share in all the benefits held for them in Christ. This is what we know and believe. But there is much we do not know and we must be careful not to draw conclusions (not make “logical inferences”) beyond what we are given to know for sure.
For example we must not presume upon the grace of God by dogmatically declaring a universalistic perspective that God, in saving all people, will violate the deliberate choice of some who willfully and persistently reject his love, turning away from him and repudiating his Spirit. While it is hard to believe that anyone would make a choice like that, if we are to be faithful to Scripture (with its numerous warnings against resisting the Word and Spirit), we must acknowledge that some may, in the end, reject God and his love. The important thing to remember here is that such a rejection is their choice—it is not their destiny. As C. S. Lewis shrewdly observed, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” In other words, hell is where you have to eternally resist the love and grace of God. Even though we cannot say for certain that all humans will ultimately accept God’s grace, we can hope that will be the case. And that hope aligns with what God desires, that none perish but all reach repentance. Certainly we can and ought to hope for no less and we should join with the Spirit as he works to lead people to repentance.
As we’ve shared many times, the love of God and the wrath of God are not symmetrical opposites; they are not opposed to one another. God is against everything that is against his good purposes to reconcile and redeem his beloved creation. In other words, God opposes anything that opposes his good, loving purposes. God would not be loving if he did not do so. God hates sin because it is resistance against his love and good purposes for humanity. His wrath is thus an aspect of his love—God resists our resistance. In his grace, motivated by his love, God not only forgives us, he also disciplines and transforms us.
We must not put a limit on God’s grace. Yes, there is the real possibility that some will choose to eternally resist God’s loving and forgiving grace, but that will not be because God has changed his mind about them—his mind has been made up in Jesus Christ. I love the way our good friend Gary Deddo explains this reality:
We are living, as Paul says, living up into Christ, because we really belong to him. We belong first, and then we believe that we belong, and then, as we’re believing we’re belonging, we’re going to be living up into it. The Holy Spirit is the power within us enabling us to live more and more fully and freely as the children—the reconciled children of God that we really are. We’re living into a reality, we’re not creating a new reality—that’s been done in Christ—we’re living up into the reality. Although there are those who are resisting the reality, nobody is going to change it. We either affirm the reality or live in denial of the reality—that’s the nature of our choice. Sometimes we think our choice is to create an alternative reality. No, that would make us God. We’re not. Our only choice, and the choice that God gives and enables us by his Spirit to make, is to live in the reality that God has established and created for us, out of his goodness, holiness, mercy and grace. (Quoted from “Those Who Never Heard the Gospel” at www.gci.org/yi/deddo27)
Looking through the lens of Jesus
Because salvation, being personal and relational, involves God and persons in relationship, in thinking about God’s judgment we must not assume or impose limitations on God’s desire for relationship. The purpose of God’s judgment is always to save—it is for relationship. Through his judgment God sorts out what needs to be eliminated (condemned) so that a person can experience relationship (union and communion) with him. Thus we believe that God judges so that the sin and evil is condemned, but the sinner is saved and forgiven. He separates us from sin “as far as the east is from the west.” Like the scapegoat of ancient Israel, God sends our sin away into the wilderness so that we might live a new life in Christ.
God’s judgment sanctifies, burns away, purifies in Christ to save the person being judged. God’s judgment is thus a sorting or sifting—a separation of what is right from what is wrong, what is against you and what is for you, what leads to life and what doesn’t. To understand both the nature of salvation and of judgment, we must read Scripture, not through the lens of our own experience, but through the lens of the person and work of Jesus our holy, loving Savior and Judge. With that in mind, consider these questions and their obvious answers:
- Is God limited in his grace? NO!
- Is he handcuffed (stymied) by time and space? NO!
- Does God have to work within physical constraints like humans do? NO!
- Is he limited by our lack of consciousness? NO!
- Is he the Lord of time? YES!
- Can he squeeze into our time as many opportunities as he wants to open us to grace by his Spirit? CERTAINLY!
Knowing that we are limited and that God is not, we must not project our limitations upon a Father who perfectly and completely knows our hearts. We can count on him to be faithful, even if we do not have a final theory as to exactly how his faithfulness and grace will be exemplified in the life of each person both in this life and the next. We do know this: in the end no one will say, “God, if you had only been a little more gracious… so-and-so would have received your salvation.” We will all find God’s grace to be more than sufficient.
The good news is that the free gift of salvation for all humans relies entirely on Jesus’ acceptance of us—not on our acceptance of him. Because “all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved,” there is no reason for us not to receive his gift of eternal life and live by his Word and in the Spirit who the Father sends to us so that, today, we might share fully in the life of Christ. There is thus every reason for Christians to do the good work of evangelism—to participate actively in what the Holy Spirit is doing to lead people to repentance and faith.
Loving the knowledge that Jesus both accepts and qualifies us,
Is the law binding on Christians?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As Tammy and I waited in an airport lobby near the gate where we would soon board our plane to fly home, I noticed a young man two seats away glancing at me repeatedly. After several minutes he asked, “Are you Joseph Tkach?” He seemed delighted to start a conversation, noting that he had recently been disfellowshipped from one of the Sabbatarian groups. Our conversation soon turned to the law of God—he was quite interested in my comment that Christians understand that though God gave Israel the law, they were incapable of obeying it perfectly. We agreed that Israel truly did have a “colorful” history, often separating itself from God’s law. We also agreed that this was no surprise to God, for he knows the beginning from the end.
I then mentioned to him that the law given to Israel through Moses had 613 commands. He agreed that there are numerous arguments concerning how many of these laws are binding on Christians. Some argue all are to be kept because all are “from God.” But if that were true, Christians should be sacrificing animals and wearing phylacteries. He agreed there are all sorts of opinions concerning which of these 613 commands have a spiritual application today and which do not. We agreed that the various Sabbatarian groups are divided on this issue—some practicing physical circumcision; some the land Sabbaths and Israel’s festivals; some a first tithe but not a second or third, and some three; some keeping the Sabbath but not the annual festivals; some observing new moons and sacred names—each believing their “package” of doctrines is biblically correct and the others are not. He noted he had been wrestling personally with this issue for some time and had discontinued the way he had been observing the Sabbath, though he still worried that he might not be keeping it correctly.
Surprisingly, he agreed that many Sabbatarians err in not recognizing that the coming of God in the flesh (in the person of Jesus) established what Scripture refers to as the “new covenant” (Hebrews 8:6), making the law as it was given to Israel obsolete (Hebrews 8:13). Those who do not acknowledge this basic truth, and so seek to live by the terms of the law of Moses (added 430 after God established the covenant with Abraham, see Gal. 3:17) are not practicing the historic Christian faith. I think a breakthrough in our discussion came for him when he understood to be false the idea (held by many Sabbatarians) that we are now “between the old and new covenants” (with the new covenant not coming until Jesus returns). He also agreed with me that Jesus was the real sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 10:1-3) and though peace offerings and fellowship sacrifices are not specifically said to be done away in the New Testament, we know Jesus fulfilled them as well. As Jesus declared, the Scriptures do testify of him, and he fulfills the law.
The young man told me he still has questions about keeping the Sabbath. I told him the Sabbatarian perspective fails to understand that the application of the law has been transformed by Jesus’ first coming. Though still valid, the law of God now applies in a spiritual way—one that takes full account of Christ’s fulfillment of the law as it was given to Israel; one that relies on our deepened relationship with God through Christ and by the Spirit, which reaches down into our very nature—into our hearts and minds. By the Spirit, we now live out our obedience to God as members of the Body of Christ. For example, if our hearts are circumcised by the Spirit of Christ, it does not matter whether or not we have been circumcised in the flesh.
Christ’s fulfillment of the law means our obedience to God flows out from that deeper and more intensive work of God accomplished by Christ and the coming of his Spirit. As Christians, our obedience flows from what always was behind the law, namely the heart, mind and ultimate purposes of God. We see this in Jesus’ new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus both spoke and lived this command, knowing that, in and through his earthly ministry, God would, by the power of the Spirit, write the law upon our hearts, thus fulfilling the prophecies of Joel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
By bringing a new covenant that fulfills and completes the task of the old, Christ transformed our relationship to the law and renewed the form that our obedience takes as his people. The same underlying law of love exits, but Jesus personified that law and fulfilled it. The old covenant with Israel and the law enclosed within it (including sacrifices, tassels and Jubilee years) had, for the nation of Israel, specific, particular applications of the underlying law of love. But those specifics are, in many cases, now obsolete. The spirit of the law remains, but the letter of the written law specifying the particular form of obedience does not necessarily hold.
The law could not fulfill itself; it could not change hearts; it could not prevent its own misuse; it could not guard against temptation; it could not specify the particular forms of obedience for each and every family on earth. Since the completion of Jesus’ earthy ministry and his sending of the Holy Spirit, there are now other ways by which we express our devotion to God and our love for our neighbors. Those who have received the Spirit can now better hear the Word of God and understand God’s purposes for their obedience because that obedience was embodied and revealed in Christ, passed on to us by his apostles, and preserved for us in the books we call the New Testament. Jesus, our great High Priest, shows us the heart of the Father and sends us the Spirit. By the Holy Spirit, we can now respond to the Word of God out of the depths of our heart, bearing witness in word and deed to God’s purposes to extend his blessing to all families of the earth. This far exceeds what the law could do, for it is far beyond what God intended the law to accomplish.
The young man agreed with these points, then asked how this understanding applies to the Sabbath. I noted that the Sabbath had several purposes for the people of Israel: it reminded them of creation; it reminded them of their exodus from Egypt; it reminded them of their special relationship with God; and it provided physical rest for animals, servants and families. Morally, the Sabbath reminded Israel of their duty to cease from evil works. Christologically, it pointed them to the need for spiritual rest and completion in the coming Messiah—trusting in him rather than in their own works for salvation. The Sabbath also symbolized the completion of creation at the end of the age.
I shared that most Sabbatarians seem unable to see that the regulations of the law, given to Israel through Moses, were temporary—restricted to a particular time and place in the history of the nation of Israel. I noted that it is not hard to see that “not cutting the corner of your beard” or “make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear” are not relevant for all times and places. When God’s purposes for Israel as a nation were fulfilled in Jesus, God, through his Word and Spirit reached out to all people. As a result, the form of obedience to God changed to fit the new situation.
When it comes to the seventh-day Sabbath, authentic Christianity does not turn the seventh day of the week into a form of astrology as if God had made one day of the week superior to the others. Instead of setting a single day aside to acknowledge God’s holiness, God now resides in us by his Spirit, thereby making all our time holy. Though we could meet together on any day of the week to celebrate God’s presence with us, most Christian churches meet for worship on Sunday, the day most widely-regarded as the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, thus fulfilling the old covenant promises. Jesus magnified the Sabbath law (and all aspects of the Torah) far beyond the temporal limits of what the written letter of the law could do. He even elevated the law of “love your neighbor as you love yourself” to “love one another as I have loved you.” This is a staggering quality of love that cannot be captured in 613 commands (or even in 6,000 commands!). God’s faithful fulfillment of the law makes Jesus, not a written code, our center point. We don’t focus on a day of the week, we focus on him. We live each day in him, because he is our rest.
Before we boarded our respective flights, we agreed that the spiritual application of the Sabbath law is about living a life of faith in Christ—a life that, by the grace of God, through the new and deeper work of the Holy Spirit within us, changes us from the inside-out.
Forever grateful for God’s grace that heals us from head to toe,
PS: I asked Gary Deddo to write an essay that elaborates on what I’ve shared here and also in my letter on the covenants in the March 22 issue of Weekly Update. You’ll find his essay in this issue (click here)—it’s long, I know, but the topic deserves a comprehensive review. I encourage you to read his essay carefully.
Did the Trinity break at the cross?
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On Good Friday, many Christians will ponder a statement spoken by Jesus as he hung dying on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Search the internet and you’ll find multiple explanations for why Jesus spoke these words (quoting Psalm 22:1). A common one is that he made this anguished cry knowing that his heavenly Father, being holy, had turned away from him as the sins of the world were placed upon him. The problem with this explanation is that it posits a separation in the Holy Trinity. Did the Trinity break at the cross?
As we think about this issue, we must first remember that the doctrine of the Trinity declares that there is one God who exists eternally as three distinct Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Trinitarian faith is based on this doctrine. A key word is eternally—had there been a separation (even momentarily) between the Father and Son at the cross, eternally would no longer apply. But it does, and therefore the Trinity cannot have been broken. Here are some of the reasons for this conclusion:
- Perichoresis. Early church teachers used the Greek word perichoresis to describe God’s inseparable, tri-personal nature. The word makes clear that God is not composed of detachable parts. The three Persons of the Trinity are one—meaning that the Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell (coinhere) one another from eternity. This unique relationship of the Triune Persons was revealed by Jesus to his apostles who, in turn, told us. Were God not Father, Son and Spirit in this way for all eternity the Father would not be the Father nor God, the Son would not be the Son nor God, and the Holy Spirit would not be the Holy Spirit nor God. God has no other way of being God except by being Triune. The only God that was, is and will be is the one Triune God.
- God’s omnipresence. Scripture teaches there is no place where God is not present. It also teaches God is three Persons who coinhere—they are inseparable, and thus everywhere present together. That being so, God’s omnipresence calls into question how any sort of divine abandonment could have occurred, particularly considering that the “fullness” of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus (Col. 2:9).
- God’s omniscience. Scripture also teaches that there is nothing God has not known, seen or anticipated and has intended a providential response to. God knows the beginning from the end. At the moment he spoke everything into existence, he knew every sin that would ever be committed, and the remedy for it. If we take the metaphor that God cannot “look upon” sin in an absolute way, meaning not have any awareness of or have absolutely nothing to do with sin, then how did he know that humanity would continue to sin and send prophets to Israel with a warning message? If God cannot look upon sin, how could he ever deal with sin in any real way? To say that God could not look upon that which he already knew would occur, is nonsensical. The metaphor, taken from Hab. 1:3, simply means God does not in any way approve of sin and evil.
- The whole God is Savior. Jesus declares in John 17:21 that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. Jesus was describing a unique, permanent reality that tells us who he is. That’s why Scripture declares Jesus to be Immanuel (God with us). It’s also why the New Testament tells us that the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) is our Savior, not just Jesus, or just the Father or the Holy Spirit.
- The teachings of the early church. That the idea of a breaking apart of the Trinity is unbiblical is attested by multiple leaders and teachers in the early church, and later, including Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus, Peter Abelard and Thomas Aquinas. Why? Because when they read all of Psalm 22 (which Jesus was quoting), they found unity and harmony between the Father and the Son, not separation and alienation.
- Jesus’ other statements on the cross. The other statements spoken by Jesus on the cross do not support the idea of a God-forsaken Son. In dialogue with his Father, Jesus says the following: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34); “It is finished” (John 19:30); and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Note also Peter’s comment on Pentecost, giving voice to Jesus addressing his Father: “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27 ESV, making reference to Psalm 16:10 ESV). God is not defiled by sin, nor is he afraid to look on sin, even the sin of the whole world borne by his Son on the cross.
- Jesus, who is not separate from sinners, is God. Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, dwelt on earth in the midst of sinful humanity in order to deal with evil and death. He touched lepers and raised the dead. He identified sin wherever he encountered it and warned against it. He fought temptation to sin directed at him from the source of sin itself, Satan. He experienced for us the temporal wages of sin, which is human death. Jesus did all this as the eternal Son of God incarnate. God, revealed to us in Jesus, does not separate himself from sin and evil. Instead, the incarnate Son of God came right into it, taking it upon himself, and thus bringing healing to sin-sick humanity.
- God is not defiled by our sin. Had our sin defiled God, Jesus could not have been our perfect sacrifice, because as Paul explained in 2 Corinthians 5:21, Jesus, who “had no sin,” was, by God, made “sin for us.” This does not mean that Jesus became sinful (a sinner). Rather, it means he became a sin offering for us just as the Azazel goat was on the Day of Atonement as the representative of Israel’s sin. Note this in Isaiah 53:10 (ESV):
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering [‘asam] for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Jesus did not become a sinner stained with impurity or immorality. Instead, by assuming our sinful nature and condition, and then sanctifying that nature in himself (ultimately on the cross), Jesus became the innocent, unblemished sin offering on our behalf, thereby reconciling us to God. The notion of an absolute separation of God the Father from Jesus the Son falls far short of the biblical facts.
God was not taking his wrath out on Jesus
The theory that God’s separation from sin included pouring out his wrath on his Son is another wrong-headed idea that is not biblically defensible. The truth of the gospel is that the Father was not punishing the Son, as if the Father opposed the Son, was at odds with him, or willed at that moment that the Son’s end would be the same as the end of sin and evil itself. God is not guilty of child abuse, as some who reject the cross of Christ altogether claim. That charge is based on a false inference that the church has never taught (even by those upholding a separation theory).
The idea that the Father took out his wrath on his Son is preposterous. It ignores the biblical facts that the Son was not forced by the Father to die, but that Jesus voluntarily laid down his life and took it up again (John 10:18; Hebrews 7:26). The Father and the Son (with the Spirit) are one in will and mind to do whatever it would take to rescue humanity from sin and the power of evil. The Son was no victim of a tragedy. You would expect no less from the tri-personal God who is eternally one in being.
The author of Hebrews contrasts animal sacrifices with the triune activity involved in bringing about our redemption: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb. 9:14). Note here that it is the whole Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) who accomplishes our salvation. And within God’s triune nature, love and anger (wrath) are not at odds. Because God loves us, he is against all that is against us. Were God were not opposed to sin and evil he would not be loving towards us. God separates us from our sin, rescuing us, and condemning the sin and the power of sin. This he has done in the “flesh”—the human nature of the Son of God incarnate:
God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh… (Rom. 8:3 ESV)
It is not just the Father who is angry against sin. The Father and the Son are equally committed to our redemption and thus to the final judgment that condemns all evil. The whole triune God hates sin for what it does to his creation, yet he loves the sinner for whom Jesus died. The apostle Paul taught that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ASV). The Father, Son and Spirit deal with our sin in the incarnate Son, regenerating our fallen nature in him (Titus 3:5) so that we might share in his new humanity by the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit. The only opposition we find in God is his opposition to sin and evil. The only separation we find involving God is what God does to separate us (his beloved) from evil. This is what was accomplished by the redemptive work of the whole Triune God in and through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.
Like a surgeon eradicating cancer cells that threaten the life of the patient, the only object of the Triune God’s wrath is the evil that has corrupted human nature—the nature assumed by the eternal Son of God, on our behalf for our salvation. God’s wrath is his act of overcoming and eradicating evil because of his love for us. His wrath is not returning pain for pain. Only the Triune God can separate the sin from the sinner, thus rescuing and saving the patient whom he loves, while condemning the sin that he opposes so that in the end it will exist no more. That is what God has accomplished for us in and through the life, death and resurrection of the God-man Jesus Christ.
A new look at Jesus’ statement on the cross
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” begins the Psalm Jesus was quoting (Psalm 22); it does not end it. The desperate opening line is answered with repeated, reassuring acknowledgements of God’s presence, not his absence. Verse 10 says, “From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.” Verse 11 says, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Verses 19-21 declare, “But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me. Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of dogs. Rescue me from the mouths of the lions; save me from the horns of wild oxen.” Then verse 24 is the clincher: “For he [God] has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
In typical rabbinic fashion, when Jesus quotes the opening line of Psalm 22, he is thereby referencing the entire Psalm, which speaks not of separation or abandonment but of God’s rescuing presence. Because Jesus suffered terribly in the flesh, there is no problem understanding that he felt, in his humanity, a sense of abandonment. But this did not surprise Jesus, or make him question the Father’s love for him. He could identify with the writer of Psalm 22—not just the opening line, but the entire Psalm. Thus Jesus spoke to God, knowing that his Father was listening. Perhaps most fully there on the cross, Jesus felt and knew the Father’s implacable opposition to evil and his commitment to eradicate it. And that is what his cry of dereliction indicates. But we are not justified in asserting or even implying that the Trinity experienced some sort of break or that the Father was pouring out his wrath on his Son.
Jesus died for us in “the flesh,” that is, in his human nature. But his divine nature did not die (by definition, being divine means not subject to death). However, since both natures are joined in the Person of the eternal Son of God, we can say that his divine nature did accompany his human nature in death. And that is why a regenerated human nature rose with Jesus in his resurrection. The perichoresis of the Trinity was not suspended during the time Jesus was dead, as if there were temporarily only two Persons in the Trinity. With the death of his humanity, Jesus did not cease being the eternal Son of God who is one in being with the Father and the Spirit.
As our ascended and ever-faithful High Priest, Jesus Christ, still fully human, identifies with us in our human feelings of abandonment, alienation, shame and scorn because of sin. Jesus voluntarily identified with sinners by experiencing these emotions, while remaining sinless. God—Father, Son and Spirit—allowed evil men to crucify Jesus and allowed him to die a cursed, humiliating death. He assumed our experience of forsakenness to overcome that death, to heal it, thus renewing our communion with and belonging to God. Never, however, did God abandon Jesus! Never was the Trinity broken asunder. Never was Jesus left alone, abandoned by God. And never are we left alone or abandoned, for God says, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5), and Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
I wish you all a blessed Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday,
The one, tri-Personal God
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
A common misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is to think that it teaches three gods (tritheism). But that is not the case. The historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity upholds one God (monotheism) while teaching that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How can God be one and three? The answer is important to understand, not merely as a point of doctrine, but as a way for us to understand and thus relate to the one, tri-Personal God.
Three Persons, one being
To be faithful to the biblical revelation, early church teachers declared that God is one in being and three in Persons. In indicating what each of the three are, they utilized the Greek New Testament word hypostasis (ὑπόστασις), which in ancient Greek has a range of meanings: nature, substance, image, essence. This range is reflected in the various translations of Hebrews 1:3 where the Son of God is declared to be “the express image of [God’s] person [hypostasis]” (KJV translation). The NASB and ESV translate hypostasis as “nature,” the ASV as “substance,” and the NRSV and NIV as “being.” Down through the ages (including in the ancient creeds of the church), when referring to the Trinity, hypostasis was most often translated into the Latin word persona (and thus person in English—I have more to say below about the limitations of this word).
Having chosen hypostasis to refer to the three personal distinctions of God, these same teachers chose the Greek word ousia (meaning being) to refer to God’s oneness. Put together, hypostasis and ousia convey the reality revealed in Scripture that God is one in being (ousia) and three in Persons (hypostases). Thus the early church theological consensus used hypostasis (person) to refer to the three personal and eternal realities that stand forth in distinction and in relationship to each other in God’s one ousia (being).
The personal names of the three Persons that constitute the one God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) were, of course, given to us by revelation. And with that revelation came the fact that there are three Persons, not two or four or an infinite number. Note that these teachers did not say that God is one being and also three beings, or one person and also three persons. How God is one is different from how God is three. Therefore, speaking precisely, we would say that there are “three real and eternal distinct Persons in the one God.”
Limitations of language
Theologians realize that the word “person” in English is not perfectly adequate to use in speaking of God’s three personal distinctions (hypostases) in relationship. This is because the way we understand persons in our creaturely experience carries with it the idea of separate individuals or different beings—an idea that does not apply in reference to God. As Athanasius noted, we must think of God theologically, not mythologically whereby we would project human, creaturely concepts onto God, as if God were a created thing.
It’s important to understand that theological language about God is necessarily analogical wherein there can only be partial overlap of meaning of the two things being compared—a prime example being the use of the word “persons” in speaking of the hypostases (the three distinct Persons) of the one God. There are points of overlapping meaning between the Persons of the Godhead and human persons that we can affirm, but there are then points that do not overlap—things that apply only to creatures and not to God and vice versa. When it comes to humans, persons remain distinct in being—they remain individuals, no matter how close (“one”) they might be relationally. But when it comes to God, the distinctions of the divine Persons (hypostases) occur within the one being (ousia) of God.
Because God is not a creature (a created being), we do not use the word Persons when speaking of God in the exact same way we use persons when speaking of human relationships, including relationships within the human family. While there are real relationships within God’s one being, those relationships are not between separate beings. The three Persons of the Trinity, through their absolutely unique relationships with one another, constitute the one being (ousia) of God in a way that is quite unlike the oneness within a human family. The relations between the Persons of God are very different from the relations that we creatures experience. In God, the relationships constitute them one in being. That is not the case for human beings. Recognizing that we are thinking analogically, we must keep in mind that the uncreated God cannot be explained in terms of the relationships within a created human family. Trying to do so would lead us into mythology and even idolatry. Recall that some pagans taught and believed that the gods are family. They also believed that the gods were sexual beings!
God is tri-personal
The relationships that occur between the three Persons within the one eternal being (ousia) of God are neither external to the Persons or to the being of God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit can and do communicate with one another. Within the one being of God there is communion (fellowship) from all eternity, even before creation (John 17:1-26; Hebrews 1:8-9). The tri-personal God was never lonely.
When the Bible speaks of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, each are called God, each speak and, as Jesus tells us, each act and exhibit attributes of personhood such as knowing, loving and glorifying one another. Capitalizing the word Person is one way we indicate that the word is being used in a special way in referring to the personal distinctions within the Godhead. The word Person, understood rightly, gives us a word that emphasizes God’s personal-ness in his own being (nature), and in relationship to us as human creatures.
Grounded in the biblical revelation, early church teachers found various ways to speak of God as one in being and three in Person. Following Jesus’ teaching concerning his being “in” the Father and the Father being “in” him (John 10:38; 14:10), they spoke of the Persons “in-existing” one another (enousios in Greek). They also coined the theological term perichoresis to signify that the divine Persons “mutually indwell” or “envelope” one another, making room or space for one another. Other ways perichoresis has been translated is that the divine Persons “co-inhere” or “interpenetrate” or are “convoluted” or “involuted” with one another. The idea being conveyed is that the whole of God is present in each of the divine Persons and that all the works of the Triune God are indivisible—the three Persons always work jointly, each contributing uniquely to that work. Such a perichoretic relationship only pertains to God and to no creature or creaturely reality. God is God alone; there is none other like him.
Upholding God’s oneness, distinction and equality
The framers of the Trinity doctrine understood it to be vital to uphold simultaneously three things about God: the eternal oneness or unity of being, the eternal distinction or differentiation of the three divine Persons, and the eternal equality of divinity of the three Persons. Thus, the historic, orthodox doctrine of the Trinity preserves for us both the biblical revelation that there is but one God and no other, as well as the biblical testimony that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are equally divine and true God of true God. It should also be noted that the doctrine of the Trinity was never meant to explain all of what God was or how exactly God exists in a triune way. It was meant to protect the mystery of God while affirming the most faithful way to understand, as far as we can, the revelation of God in Christ and according to Scripture. It was meant to lead us to faithful worship!
Those who claim that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches three gods demonstrate a lack of understanding of the doctrine, which as I’ve already noted is monotheistic, not tritheistic. There is only one being that is God, and this one being is tri-personal, with each of the three divine Persons having full possession of the divine nature. All three Persons of the one triune God possess all the attributes of deity. British theologian Colin Gunton explained it this way:
The Father, Son and Spirit are persons because they enable each other to be truly what the other is: they neither assert at the expense of nor lose themselves in the being of the others. Being in communion is being that realizes the reality of the particular person within a structure of being together. There are not three gods, but one, because in the divine being a person is one whose being is so bound up with the being of the other two that together they make up the one God. (The Forgotten Trinity, page 56)
The three-in-one God at work
As we approach Holy Week followed by Ascension Sunday and Pentecost, keeping in mind what these days remind us of, let’s be inspired and comforted knowing that the one God who is three in Person brought about our salvation. Our Redemption was accomplished by the whole God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Our Triune God is actively at work in our world—in our lives! In that regard, note this from Colin Gunton:
If you were to ask him how God works in the world, what are the means by which he creates and redeems it? Irenaeus would answer: “God the Father achieves his creating and redeeming work through his two hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Now this is an apparently crude image, but is actually extremely subtle. Our hands are ourselves in action; so that when we paint a picture or extend the hand of friendship to another, it is we who are doing it. According to this image, the Son and the Spirit are God in action, his personal way of being and acting in his world—God, we might say, extending the hand of salvation, of his love to his lost and perishing creation, to the extent of his only Son’s dying on the cross. Notice how close this is to the way in which we noticed John speaking in his Gospel. The Son of God, who is one with God the Father, becomes flesh and lives among us. This movement of God into the world he loves but that has made itself his enemy is the way by which we may return to him. The result of Jesus’ lifting up—his movement to cross, resurrection and ascension—is the sending of the Holy Spirit—another paraclete, or second hand of God the Father. The Spirit is the one sent by the Father at Jesus’ request to relate us to the Father through him. (The Triune God of Christian Confession, p. 10)
The next time you hear someone object to the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming it teaches three gods, I hope you’ll be able to explain to them the difference between tritheism and the actual doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps you’ll also be able to share with them the wonderful truth of the mystery and glory of the tri-personal God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
I wish you all a blessed Holy Week,
PS: To learn more about the doctrine of the Trinity, I recommend that you read Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves (IVP). Note also that we have a wonderful course at Grace Communion Seminary titled “The Doctrine of the Trinity.”
It really is finished
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Addressing a group of Jewish leaders who were persecuting him, Jesus made a revealing declaration concerning the Scriptures: “It is these that testify about me” (John 5:39 NASB). This truth was confirmed years later in this proclamation from an angel of the Lord: “The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10 NASB).
Unfortunately, the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day turned a blind eye to these truths concerning Scripture and Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Instead, they focused on the religious rituals of the Temple of Jerusalem, which they then abused for their own benefit. As a result, they lost sight of the God of Israel and failed to recognize the fulfillment of prophecy in the person and ministry of Jesus, the promised Messiah.
The Temple of Jerusalem was truly magnificent—Jewish historian and scholar Flavius Josephus noted that its shimmering white marble exterior, accented with gold, was awe-inspiring. Imagine then the people’s surprise and shock when they heard Jesus prophesy that this glorious Temple, the center of old covenant worship, would be utterly destroyed—a destruction signaling that God’s plan for the salvation of all humanity, apart from the Temple, was right on schedule.
Jesus didn’t seem particularly impressed with Jerusalem’s Temple—and for good reason. First, he knew that God’s glory is far greater than any building of human construction, no matter how grand. Second, Jesus knew that the Temple would be replaced—a fact he shared with his disciples. Third, he saw that the Temple no longer served the purpose for which it had been constructed, saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Note also what is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Matt. 24:2, and see Luke 21:6)
On two occasions Jesus foretold the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The first occasion was his triumphal entry into the city as people laid their clothes on the ground before him—a customary way to honor someone of great importance. Note Luke’s account:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
The second occasion was when Jesus predicted Jerusalem’s destruction while being led through the city to the place of his crucifixion. The streets were packed with people—both his enemies and his enthusiastic followers. Jesus foretold what would happen to the city, the Temple and the people as a result of the destruction about to be meted out by the Romans. Note again Luke’s account:
A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” (Luke 23:27-30)
History tells us that Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled some 40 years after he made these statements. In A.D. 66, the Jewish inhabitants of Judea rebelled against the Romans and then in A.D. 70, the Temple was demolished, much of Jerusalem was razed, and the people suffered horribly—all as Jesus had, with great sorrow, predicted.
When Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished,” he not only was referring to the completion of his atoning work of redemption, but also declaring that the old covenant (Israel’s life and worship as defined by the Law of Moses) had served the purpose for which God gave it. With Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, the work that God, in and through Christ and by the Spirit, did to reconcile all humanity to himself was accomplished, thus bringing to pass the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy:
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds, and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And no longer will they teach their neighbor or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
In saying, “It is finished,” Jesus was declaring the good news of the inauguration of the new covenant. The old had gone, the new had come. Sin had been nailed to the cross, and God’s purposes of grace were fulfilled by the reconciling atonement of Christ that made possible the deeper work of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds. Such transformation gives us a share in the regenerated human nature renewed in Jesus Christ. What was promised and signified in the old covenant thus now found its fulfillment in the new (renewed) covenant in Christ.
As the apostle Paul taught, Christ (who is the new covenant) accomplished for us what the Law of Moses (the old covenant) could not do nor was it intended to do:
What then are we to say? Gentiles, who did not strive for righteousness, have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law, did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone…” (Romans 9:30-32)
It was sin and pride that made the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the Judaizers of Paul’s day think that their own religious efforts could accomplish what only God himself, by grace, in and through Jesus, is able to achieve for us. Approaching the old covenant as they did (on the basis of works-righteousness) was a distortion brought about by the power of sin. Grace and faith were certainly not absent from the old covenant, but as God knew she would, Israel turned her back on that grace. Thus the new (renewed) covenant was, from the beginning, envisioned as the fulfillment of the old covenant—a fulfillment worked out in the person and work of Jesus and through the Spirit, rescuing humankind from pride and the power of sin, and forging a new depth of relationship for all humanity, throughout the world, in a relationship that leads to eternal life in the presence of the Trinity.
So as to mark the magnitude of what was occurring on Calvary’s cross, shortly after Jesus cried out, “It is finished,” an earthquake shook the city of Jerusalem, leading to four events that rocked human existence, and fulfilled the prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and the inauguration of the new covenant:
- The veil in the Temple, blocking access to the Holy of Holies, was torn from top to bottom
- Tombs were opened and several dead people were raised to life
- Jesus was acknowledged by bystanders to be the Son of God
- The old covenant gave way to the new covenant
In saying “it is finished,” Jesus was declaring that God’s presence would no longer dwell in a building made with human hands, or in a particular location within that building (the Holy of Holies). Rather, as Paul noted to the church at Corinth, God now dwells in a non-physical temple, formed by the Spirit:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16-17, also see 2 Cor. 6:16)
The apostle Peter put it this way:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:4-5, 9)
On the basis of Jesus’ earthly ministry, God made a way to live in and among us, making us holy as we, by the Spirit, share in Christ’s own sanctified and regenerated human nature (Titus 3:5-7). Further, all our time is set aside and being made holy as we live under the new covenant, which means participating, by the Spirit, with Jesus in his continuing ministry. Whether we are at our jobs at work or engaged in recreation, we are citizens of heaven—living the new life in Christ—and so we shall live until either our death or Jesus’ return.
Dear ones, the old order is finished—in Christ we are new creations, called and equipped by the Spirit to be on mission with Jesus to live and share the good news. Let us be about our Father’s business!
Sharing in Jesus’ life, by the Spirit, with you,
What Jesus says about the Holy Spirit
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I sometimes talk with believers who struggle to understand how the Holy Spirit, like the Father and the Son, is divine—one of the three Persons of the Trinity. I typically offer them examples of how, in Scripture, the things said about the Father and the Son, which assume they are personal, are also said about the Holy Spirit. I then note the many titles ascribed in the Bible to the Holy Spirit (see the list below). Lastly, I share some of what Jesus taught concerning the Spirit. In this letter, I’ll focus on that teaching.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit in three ways: Holy Spirit, Spirit of Truth and Paraklētos (a Greek word translated Advocate in the NIV, Counselor in the RSV, Helper in the ESV and Comforter in the ASV). Scripture shows that Jesus did not view the Spirit as a mere reservoir of power. The word paraklētos, which means “one called to the side of,” is commonly used in Greek literature to refer to a person who takes up the cause of another and defends them. In John’s writings, Jesus refers to himself as a paraklētos, then refers to the Holy Spirit using the same term.
On the evening before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was going away (John 13:33), though he promised not to leave them “as orphans” (John 14:18). Instead, he promised to ask the Father to send “another Comforter [Paraklētos]” to be with them (John 14:16, ASV). By saying “another,” Jesus was indicating that there was a first (himself), and that the one to come, like himself, would be a divine Person of the Trinity, not just a power. Jesus had been serving as their Paraklētos—in his presence (even in the midst of terrible storms), the disciples found the courage and strength to go outside their “comfort zones” to participate with Jesus in the ministry he was doing on behalf of all humanity. But now Jesus was going to leave and they were, understandably, deeply disturbed.
Up to that time, Jesus had been the disciples’ Paraklētos (note 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is called “an Advocate” [Paraklētos]). But now (particularly post-Pentecost), the Holy Spirit would be that Advocate—their ever-present counselor, comforter, helper and teacher. What Jesus promised his disciples, and what the Father sent, was not a mere power, but a Person—the third Person of the Trinity, whose ministry is to lead and guide the disciples in the way of Jesus.
We find the Holy Spirit operating in personal ways throughout the Bible: in Genesis, he hovers over the waters; in Luke’s Gospel, he overshadows Mary. He is mentioned 56 times in the four Gospels, 57 times in Acts, and 112 times in Paul’s epistles. In these references we find the Spirit, in distinctly personal ways, comforting, teaching, guiding, warning, determining and distributing gifts, interceding for us when we don’t know what to pray, assuring us of our adoption, and freeing us to call out to God as our Abba (Father) just as Jesus did. Note Jesus’ instruction:
When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:13-15)
In communion with the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit has a distinctive ministry. Instead of speaking about himself, he points people to Jesus who then takes them to the Father. Instead of doing what he wills, the Holy Spirit implements the Father’s will in accordance with what the Son declares. The divine will of the one, united, triune God is thus expressed by the actions of the Father, through the Word (Jesus), performed by the Holy Spirit. We now can enjoy and benefit from the personal presence of God ministering among us by the Holy Spirit, our Paraklētos. United in being, act, will and purpose, yet distinct in three divine Persons, we worship and adore the Trinity.
Thankful for the Holy Spirit and his ministry,
Interpreting the Bible rightly
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In GCI, our high view of the Bible aligns with Jesus’ declaration concerning the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament): “These are the very Scriptures,” he said, “that testify about me” (John 5:39). Believing that Jesus is God’s self-revelation to humanity, it is our commitment and practice to follow this important teaching from our Lord, reading the Bible through what we might refer to as the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Doing so means reading Scripture in a way that both prepares us for Jesus, then leads us to him as Scripture’s intended, ultimate fulfillment. Unfortunately, not everyone follows this Christ-centered method of biblical interpretation, often falling, instead, into one of two ditches as I’ll now explain.
Ditch one: Viewing Scripture as outdated and thus irrelevant
The first ditch involves the erroneous belief that Scripture, being ancient, is not relevant in our modern era. With this perspective, Scripture is seen as “past truth,” “dusty truth” or a bunch of “old love letters.” People fall into this ditch when they fail to understand that the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible in a way that makes it relevant in all times (including our own). They also fail to understand that the Spirit works in all times to illuminate the understanding of the believing and worshiping church so that it can discern the application of Scripture in its time. In GCI, we believe that the Bible, being timeless, has relevance for all people in all times. As God’s gift to humanity, it is authoritative, compassionate and reliable, providing wise instruction in good and right living (relationships). As we trust in that gift, and in the Spirit’s ongoing work of illuminating our minds to receive it, we will avoid the ditch of believing that the Bible is an irrelevant relic of the past—a false belief that leads to confusion, speculation and captivity to the prejudices of our current time.
Ditch two: Idolizing Scripture (bibliolatry)
The second ditch people fall into is called bibliolatry (or biblio-idolatry). This error turns the Bible into an idol by elevating it to a level not intended by God. It seems that Jesus had this error in mind in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently” he said, “because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Reading Scripture apart from the “interpretive lens” of Jesus’ person, life and work leads to multiple errors of interpretation including ones that justify blatantly un-Christian behavior. For example, some people neglect their God-given responsibilities toward society in a belief that Christ’s soon return will take care of the problems of society. Such errors arise when Scripture is interpreted using self-contrived methods that impose meanings on the Bible unrelated to what is conveyed by reading Scripture through the “lens” of Jesus. Those who fall into the ditch of idolizing Scripture transfer their trust in God’s gift of the Bible, and the working of the Holy Spirit in and through that gift, over to their own powers and methods of rational analysis. The result is an interpretation at odds with the character and purposes of God expressed to us in and through Jesus Christ.
Some will take my comments concerning bibliolatry as an attack on the idea of the primacy of Scripture (Sola Scriptura). But I am not demeaning the Bible, instead I am pointing out that it is a mistake to elevate the Bible (the written Word of God) to the point of seeing it as equal with Jesus, the Living Word of God. Here are three examples of that error:
- Several years ago, I explained to an unmarried church member that he should not greet everyone at church with “a holy kiss.” In his desire to “live by every word of God” (including 2 Corinthians 13:12), he was failing to understand that Paul was not issuing a mandate on how Christians should greet one another, but advocating the Christian use of a common custom of Paul’s day. That practice is not a cultural norm in North America in our day (though it’s still followed in some parts of the world). Paul’s instruction on this custom was like writing your married son and saying “Give your wife and children hugs and kisses from Grandma every day.” These are not general instructions for everyone in the church in all ages.
- Some use a verse or two of Scripture to claim we must always lift our hands when praying or singing in church. Though this practice can have deep personal meaning, that meaning is lost when the practice is mandated for all people—something Scripture does not do. The Bible gives multiple examples of positions in prayer including standing (1 Kings 8:22-23; Luke 18:10-14; Mark 11:25); sitting (Nehemiah 1:4); kneeling (Luke 22:41; Acts 9:40; 20:36; Daniel 6:10); bowing (Ezra 10:1; Psalm 95:6); lying prostrate (Numbers 16:22; 1 Chronicles 21:16-17; Matthew 26:39); lifting hands (1 Kings 8:54; 2 Chronicles 6:12-13; Ezra 9:5; Lamentations 2:19; Psalm 28:2; 141:2; 1 Timothy 2:8); looking upward (John 17:1); downcast eyes (Luke 18:13); and being adorned in sackcloth and ashes with fasting (Psalm 35:13-14; Daniel 9:3). When we look at all the biblical data, we find that there is no mandate for a particular position.
- Some insist that the Hebrew language must be used when we speak or write the names of God (this is typically referred to as the “sacred names” teaching). There are various problems with this teaching. First, there are no manuscripts of the Bible in Hebrew that are older than Dead Sea Scrolls. Second, in the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek (with a few passages in Aramaic), God’s name in Hebrew (Yahweh) is translated into the Greek words Kyrios (Lord) or Theos (God). These Greek (non-Hebrew) names are then used in quoting Jesus speaking about God. Given these facts, and in the absence of any biblical verse telling us otherwise, it is clear that there is no justification for claiming we must use the Hebrew names for God.
A Christ-centered approach to biblical interpretation does not support bibliolatry in any way. It does not view the Bible in any sense as on par with (equal to) God. The Bible, which has a derivative authority, does not have more authority than Jesus—unlike Jesus, the Bible does not forgive our sins or raise us from the dead. Therefore we do not pray to the Bible or in any other way worship it. When we read Scripture through the lens of Jesus, we see that it has a limited (though very important) scope. It does not contain all of God’s eternal knowledge (as does Jesus). And while the Bible gives us principles that apply to all situations in life, it does not explicitly give us all the information on every subject we need for daily living. For example, it does not tell us to brush our teeth, eat a balanced diet, whether or not to drive a car, or what kind of clothing to wear.
Bibliolatry typically involves a strict, woodenly literalistic approach to interpreting Scripture—seeking to get it to speak authoritatively to every conceivable topic. This practice distorts what is essential and central to the purpose of God’s gift of Holy Scripture, namely to reveal to us who God is, and who we are in relationship to him. In that context, it also reveals ethical principles concerning how we are to relate to one another. These principles, like all that Scripture declares, are fulfilled in Jesus Christ who directs us to the shape of the life we are to live as members of his Body under the new covenant. In short, the purpose of Holy Scripture is to reveal to us the triune being (love) and doing (loving) of God incarnate in Jesus Christ, along with our proper responses involving loving God (with all we are and have), then passing on that love to others, our neighbors.
Bibliolatry fails to distinguish between the authoritative sign (witness) and its source (author). We see this distinction when John the Baptist (sign/witness) points away from himself to Jesus (Source). Jesus the eternal, incarnate Son of God, is the Living Word (Source) and the Bible is the written Word (sign/witness). The written Word is authored by and points to the Living Word. The Living Word authorizes the written Word. Our relationship with the Living Word will necessarily lead to following what is revealed in the written Word—indeed, that is its designed purpose.
Though the Bible is our authoritative and irreplaceable connection to God, we worship God, not the connection. This is what Jesus was attempting to teach the scribes and Pharisees. While they likely knew the Hebrew Scriptures well, in saying to them, “you don’t know me or my Father” (John 8:19), Jesus was making it clear that we must distinguish the written Word of God from the Living Word of God, but not in ways that would separate them (as some erroneously do). God has joined the sign/witness and the Source and instead of pulling them apart, we must keep them together in proper relationship.
Practices that spring from bibliolatry (like mandating a holy kiss, hands lifted in prayer, or use of Hebrew in speaking God’s name) do not make us more “spiritual.” Our focus must be on what the Bible was written for: to help us know and then abide in a relationship with the triune God. We are spiritually alive as we live in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That communion involves a life in which God knows our thoughts, and we embrace his revelation to us of his nature, seen in the person of Jesus. This communion with God, through Christ, by the Spirit is both the source and the content of true spirituality. The Bible, then, is God’s gift to lead us to and within that communion.
Thankful for the Bible, rightly understood,
PS: To learn more about this topic, check out these GCI resources:
- For a You’re Included interview in which Mike Feazell interviews Jeff McSwain, click here.
- For a review from Terry Akers of the book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, click here.
Jesus: God’s ultimate act of speech
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
An undergraduate speech class professor of mine taught that there are three aspects of a speech: 1) what is said; 2) how it is said; and 3) who says it. I sometimes reflect on this insight when preparing sermons—focusing particularly on how these aspects of a speech relate to the Bible where what is said, in both the Old and New Testaments, is the message of salvation in Christ; where how it is said has largely to do with the Spirit inspiring the retelling of Israel’s story, which includes Christ; and where who says it is the living Word of God, Jesus Christ—God’s ultimate act of speech.
The author of Hebrews refers to Jesus Christ (God’s “Son”), as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3 ESV)—or as the NIV has it, “the exact representation of his being.” Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is the ultimate, definitive speech of God. He is the life, the way and the truth of God personified in order to communicate with us. We rightly, therefore, refer to Jesus as the living Word of God, knowing that he transcends the written word (Scripture) because the totality of God cannot be reduced to a text. Jesus’ life exudes the character of God and embodies God’s kingdom rule. As the Word made flesh, he interprets for us what it looks like to live in relationship with God in anticipation of the coming fullness of the kingdom.
The declaration that Jesus is “the exact imprint” of God’s “nature” should create new connections in our minds in telling us the truth that God is like Jesus. To express this truth, the apostle John calls Jesus the Word (Logos/Logic) of God. Centuries later, in The Trinity, Augustine explained the triune relationship of love that God is using this analogy: If Jesus is the Word, then there must be speech (the Spirit), and a speaker (the Father). Augustine’s analogy expresses both the three-ness of the divine Persons and the one-ness of God’s being as Trinity. Though all analogies ultimately fall short, this one helpfully conveys the wonderful truth concerning God’s nature, and his revelation to us in and through Jesus, by the Spirit. I enjoy the way Gary Deddo put it at one of our conferences:
Jesus was the self-revelation of God, and the self-giving of God. He was the embodiment of God’s love for the world. Everything else then shifted around that new and living Center, and a renewed grasp of who God was. He was identical to Jesus Christ. There was no other God, no God behind Jesus Christ, no Old Testament God in contrast to Jesus Christ. God is like Jesus all the way down.
Think back to the prophetic promise given to Abram in Genesis 12: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV). As Scripture goes on to make clear, Jesus, the Seed of Abraham, is the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. In the book of Acts we read this about Jesus: “There is salvation [ultimate blessing] in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). God gave us the written word of God (Holy Scripture) to point us to our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God. The Bible is the only ancient book that can be read with the author still present with us, and Jesus, through the Spirit, uses the written word to tell us about himself, and also about his bride, the church.
To help us better understand the nature of the church and its ministry, Gary Deddo has written a lengthy essay that addresses the related topics of ecclesiology and missiology. You’ll find the introduction and part one of his essay in this issue (click here). Additional parts will be posted once a month, leading up to our Denominational Conference in Orlando, Florida, in August 2017. I believe you will enjoy reading how Jesus is the foundation of the church, and about the nature and purpose of the church that Jesus continues to build.
I wish you all a blessed Advent as we rejoice in the coming of Christ into the world for our salvation.
Loving the Living Word,
How to understand the Bible
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Bible is one of the world’s most accessible books, having been translated into most of the world’s major languages , and in many of those languages, made available in multiple versions. People with computers, tablets, or smartphones are able to download the Bible for free, and even hear it read aloud. Yet, with this accessibility, many people do not read the Bible. Thankfully, most Christians do, but do they understand what they are reading?
Few of the early Christians had access to Scripture, and even when they did, most were unable to read. As a result, learning in the early church came mostly through oral teaching, which often included the reading of letters from the apostles that were circulated among the churches. A few churches had scrolls of the Old Testament translated into Greek, but again, most early Christians could not read.
Some house churches had cabinets (similar to those used in Jewish synagogues) in which they stored letters from the apostles and others. Which letters each congregation possessed varied. Most probably had copies of some or all of the Gospels, a few of Paul’s letters, a letter or two from John and other apostles, and perhaps a copy of the Acts of the Apostles. Many had a copy of a story from someone called The Shepherd, along with letters from a Roman pastor named Clement. Most would not have had copies of some of the letters we now find in the New Testament—Hebrews and 2 Peter, for example. When gathering for worship, many early Christians made use of what we call the Apostles’ Creed (they called it the Rule of Faith), which summarized the apostles’ teaching concerning God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Despite this diversity in teaching resources, the New Testament churches experienced great unity, due largely to the oral teaching based on stories of Jesus and letters from the apostles, understood in light of the rule of faith. This teaching gave them the common, grand understanding that Scripture holds out for us today, namely that all Scripture is about Jesus. Jesus was what the early Christians taught, and what they shared with others. Jesus was (and still is) the gospel.
One thing is sure—when early Christians gathered, they were not arguing over the correct days for ancient Israel’s festivals, the meaning of Hebrew words, or the necessity of learning Hebrew to know God’s love and plan for them. Even the apostles, who as good Jews had observed the festivals, understood that the festivals were part of the old covenant of promise, which pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant in Jesus (through his life, death, resurrection and ascension). They never taught that Israel’s holy days revealed anything but Jesus.
It is disappointing that among those who read and even regularly study the Bible, interpretations have developed ranging from slight variations in understanding, to totally missing the point. This happens for a number of reasons, but I want to point out one that plagues Sabbatarians in particular. Reading that God rested on the seventh day, then gave Israel the command to rest on the seventh day, Sabbatarians use the Sabbath as the “lens” through which they read and interpret all Scripture. In doing so they completely miss that the Sabbath command was about a covenant grounded in a particular place and time, having largely to do with promises concerning the Promised Land. But before we judge the flaw in their thinking, we must admit that many of us have had the experience of hardening our mental defenses against those who tell us that seventh-day Sabbath observance is not part of an obedient Christian’s life.
Sabbatarians are mistaken in using a lens other than Jesus to interpret Scripture. Jesus warned of this error when he said this to the experts in the Law of Moses (the Torah):
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
Jesus was not saying there is something wrong with the Torah—he was criticizing their use of it as their lens to interpret Scripture. Jesus is to be that lens, and that is why he proclaimed himself Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:5). Jesus called upon the experts in the Law (and all people) to interpret the Sabbath in terms of who he is, not in terms of any preunderstanding they might have concerning the Sabbath.
The apostle John had this truth concerning Jesus’ primacy emphasized to him by an angel:
The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.” (Revelation 19:9-10)
Scripture and prophecy are not unlocked and understood by anything other than the One to whom they point—Jesus Christ. He (and he alone) is the focus of all Scripture—not geo-political alliances, not British-Israelism, and not Israel’s seven festivals. God has given us the New Testament, which, through the lens of Jesus, interprets the Old Testament. When we use the Old Testament to interpret the New Testament, we make the mistake of doing it “bass-ackwards,” as the old spoonerism goes. An insistence on keeping the Sabbath on a particular day in order to be righteous before God is a prime example of this mistake. Beware of anyone telling you differently!
The Sabbath was given to point us to Jesus, not the other way around. The Old Testament Sabbath is a sign, which like all signs is given to point to its fulfillment—its reality. The commandment to “keep the Sabbath holy” is magnified under the New Covenant. Under the old covenant, the tabernacle and later the temple were holy because God made them his place of dwelling among his people. This was a temporary arrangement designed to point to Jesus coming and making his dwelling among us. Once Jesus fulfilled his atoning work on the cross, leading to his resurrection and ascension, he moved from dwelling among us (John 1:14) to living in us through the Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-17). God, through Jesus, by the Spirit, now dwells in us, making us and all our time holy. Under the old covenant, God’s people sought a holy closeness to God once a week; under the new covenant, we are given a new life with Jesus living in us and transforming us from the inside out. It is no longer a once-a-week time with God, it is now a new life in him and he in us. Jesus, and not any day, is our Sabbath rest, and so we celebrate him when we gather as his people.
When we read the Bible, we do so to help us see Jesus—to help us learn from and about him. We read the Bible to help us understand that, by the Spirit, Christ lives in us as we respond to him in faith, hope and love. We read Holy Scripture to help us see God’s faithfulness for his beloved throughout all history—working all things in preparation for the turning point of history—the Incarnation, which was God’s plan from before the foundation of the world. We read the Bible to remind us that we are God’s chosen ones—made holy and righteous through Jesus. We read the Bible to see how God has invited us to join him in his continuing work of revealing himself to others so they too can know the true lens of life, Jesus Christ. We read the Bible because it is the written word of God designed to always point us to the living Word, Jesus, our Lord.
Reading the Bible with joy, through the lens of Jesus,
 As noted by Wycliffe Global Alliance, though there has been much progress in recent years, much more needs to be done to get the Bible into the hands of all people groups on earth. There currently are about 7000 languages in active use in the world, and at least one book of Scripture exists in over 2,900 of these languages. However, of the (approximately) 7.2 billion people on earth, about 1.5 billion of them do not have the full Bible available in their first language, though over 663 million of these have the New Testament. For more information on this topic, click here.
How big is hell?
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Unless Tammy is flying on the plane with me, I never know whom I’ll be sitting beside. Most do not seem to want much conversation, especially after they ask me, “So what do you do?” If I say I’m a pastor, there is often a polite comment made as they put on their headphones and/or open a book to read. If I say I supervise missionary work, then a bit more conversation takes place. On a recent flight, however, after the initial courteous exchanges, my row partner paused and then asked, “How big do you think hell is?”
As we talked, it became clear that he was wondering how many people are now in hell and will go there. Will hell be larger than we imagine and heaven smaller? It’s interesting he didn’t ask about my definition of hell, or what the Bible says about hell. He just wanted to know how big it is.
I joked with him and asked if he was familiar with the pictures of Dante’s Inferno. He said no, and I said, “Well, he makes it look as though hell is already full.” I went on to explain that this topic seems to suffer from more misinformation circulating about hell than is realized.
Most are surprised to learn that the early church did not dogmatize the topic of hell, nor was there a singular view of the subject. In fact, hell is not mentioned in either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. Perhaps this was because the early church fathers realized humans aren’t qualified to judge such matters of eternal consequence—only Jesus Christ is (a good realization, indeed!) .
If we take Jesus seriously when he teaches about mercy, we should also take him seriously when he teaches about punishment. After all, mercy only has meaning if we are escaping a real punishment. Jesus used a variety of word-pictures for the punishment of those who refuse the loving mercy of God: fire, darkness, pain and destruction. Jesus is describing the result of a life of perpetual resistance to God’s love. Whatever hell is, it is a state of alienation from God for those who refuse his unconditional love, grace and mercy. However, this does not mean that God is the one who dispenses the pain and anguish. It is not the equivalent of parents who spank or abuse their children.
Tragically, the all-too-common misperception of God dispensing pain arises from a faulty view of God’s nature. It ignores the eternal relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit, which is lived out in the life of Jesus. It misses the point of God’s kind of humility, which is expressed in mutual self-deference to the other. We should always bear in mind that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 17:25-26). And the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal Jesus’ mission (Hebrews 10:15-16). Jesus taught that when the Spirit comes, he’ll not bear witness to himself but to Jesus (John 15:26). We see that mutual, reciprocal love in Jesus’ teaching about his purpose for coming to earth, saying he did not come to condemn the world but to save or rescue it (John 3:17).
Even more tragically, many people view God as if he suffers from manic depression or a multiple personality disorder. They struggle with the idea that on the one side, God is a being of wrath and then on the other he is a God of love. Some go so far as saying the Father has wrath, but Jesus came to bring love. But if Jesus is the “exact representation” of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) we cannot separate the Father’s nature from the Son’s nature or the Son’s nature from the Father’s. The same is true of the Spirit.
Rather than seeing God in such an inconsistent and dissected manner, it is vital to realize that wrath and love are two aspects of a single attribute that is the fundamental character of God. Our talk about God is only accurate when based on the reality of Jesus Christ. He came from the Father to reveal the Father. And what we see in his life and ministry, including at the cross, is that God’s love and God’s wrath are not finally separate.
At the cross, God’s love in Christ is patently real, but so is God’s hatred toward sin. It isn’t that God loves the elect and hates the reprobate—rather, he loves us all, but hates the sin in our lives. Therefore we should think of hell in the same framework as we think of heaven by relating both to the love of God in Christ. God tells us to love our enemies and does no less himself. Because he loves us, he must be against whatever is against us—whatever damages us, harms us and ruins our relationships with God and with others. Anything less would not be loving. The sin in us is the object of God’s wrath because we are objects of his love.
At the cross, we see that the wrath of God has been meted out against human sin, guilt and alienation. Sin was literally put to death there. And it is of paramount importance to see that Christ assumed our broken, diseased humanity, turned it back to God and took on himself the judgment against our sin and guilt. As a result, we have been rescued from our sin, while our sin is condemned and sent away. The punishment due sin was (note the past tense) endured on the cross and does not take place in hell.
Systematic theologian Colin Gunton uses an interesting analogy to understand the love of God on the cross. He equates it to the cosmos suffering from cancer and Jesus taking all of that cancer into his being to heal it. His point is that at the cross we see both God’s judgment against evil and God’s love for sinners. Since God loves sinners, our understanding of hell must account for both the judgment and the love of God that takes place on the cross.
A person who rejects God’s love is not going to enjoy heaven, and God is not going to force them to be part of the heavenly celebration. Even if he did, they would not enjoy it or experience its benefits. Instead, he permits those who repudiate his mercy to follow their own direction—one decisively shaped by their rejection of God’s love and their perpetual choosing of evil. They cannot see love and mercy as a good choice since they insist on having their own way, saving their pride, no matter what the consequences. Hell is therefore created by those who eternally resist God’s love—it is for those who will not and thus cannot be in the presence of God’s holy love.
C.S. Lewis describes it well in his novella, The Great Divorce:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in hell, choose to be there. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
When we talk about the glories of heaven compared to the agonies of hell, we should bear in mind that we really cannot conceive the reality of either. It is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard and what no mind has conceived. The best way to contrast heaven and hell is the way C.S. Lewis described it:
And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that it [hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.
We’ve all experienced loneliness in feeling separate from God and we’ve all experienced joy in understand that we are loved, forgiven, adopted and included by God in the love and life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. One simply cannot compare one experience with the other.
Here is a final thought to bear in mind when we think of hell as the culmination of judgment: Not only should we see that hell is related to the love of God, but that heaven is also part of the judgment of God. Those who turn to Christ are overjoyed and overwhelmed in realizing that Jesus is the real Judge, a judge who died for the people he judges. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus, our Judge, has paid the penalty for the sin of all. Being in heaven means being in fellowship and communion with the Judge who saves by means of his judgment.
The one who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and the wicked, is the one who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ already has taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. Therefore judgment should signal a time of joy for everyone, as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity. Evil is banished forever. Those who want to live with Christ in that goodness will be able to; those who do not want to will not be forced to.
Our hope is in God who sent his Son who ministered to the cosmos through the Spirit to make hell a smaller, rather than larger place. The real answer to my seatmate’s question is that it is only God who knows how big hell will be. And he has done everything he can to make it as small as possible. Given who God is in Jesus Christ, there is no good reason for anyone to go to hell—only the foolish “reason” of repudiating God’s love and forgiveness in order to keep one’s pride.