Showing posts with label Christology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christology. Show all posts

Friday, May 24, 2013

The despondency of Jesus: some thoughts on Isaiah 49:4

When reading Isaiah 49 the other day I was struck afresh by the Suffering Servant's expression of despondency in Isaiah 49:4. The Servant is conscious of being divinely called and commissioned (Isaiah 49:1-2). The Lord assures him, 'You are my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' (Isaiah 49:3). Yet, the Servant feels that his work has been in vain, 

But I said, "I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity"

We take it that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42, 49, 50 and 52/53 is the Lord Jesus Christ, who took 'the form of a servant' (Philippians 2:7) and gave his life a 'ransom for many' (Matthew 20:28). Matthew identifies Jesus with Isaiah's Suffering Servant (Matthew 8:16-17 cf. Isaiah 53:4, Matthew 12:15-21 cf. Isaiah 42:1-4). Jesus was conscious that he was the Father's 'beloved Son' in whom he was 'well pleased', (Matthew 3:17 cf. Isaiah 42:1). And of Isaiah 49:4 E. J. Young writes, 'It is, we believe, Jesus Christ in His humiliation of whom the prophet speaks.' (The Book of Isaiah, Volume 3, 1984, Eerdmans, p. 272). 

This is a little explored aspect of our Lord's incarnate life, but Matthew does not hide from us the fact that Jesus sometimes felt despondent in his ministryHe laboured to teach and instruct his followers in the way of the kingdom, yet they were often slow to learn (Matthew 16:5-12). Despite having witnessed his miracles, they failed to believe in his power to heal the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 17:14-21). The Lord did not simply shrug off the disciples' lack of understanding and faith. It seems he found it deeply exasperating, 'do you not yet understand?', 'how long shall I be with you?' The fact that one of the Twelve was going to betray him disturbed his spirit, John 13:18-21. 

The despondency of Jesus when faced by the unresponsiveness and failure of his followers is an indication of the reality of his humanity. He emerges from the pages of the Gospels as as Emmanuel, God with us as one of us. In his human nature the Son of God was vulnerable to disappointment and pain. In his compassion he longed to gather the inhabitants of Jerusalem to himself, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37-39). The heart of God disclosed anthropathically in texts such as Genesis 6:5-6 beat in the breast of the incarnate Son. But didn't Jesus as the Son of God who know all things, even that his own followers would be slow to understand and believe?  Yes, but all that Jesus knew as the omniscient Son of God was not communicated to his human mind. His despondency was the product of disappointed hope in Christ's soul. Not that he was disappointed in God, but in man. He hoped that with all that he had taught and shown his disciples, they would have understood more and believed more, but sadly they did not. 

Anyone who has been involved in serving the Lord in any way will have experienced despondency at some point. Our evangelistic efforts seem to bear little fruit and conversions are few. Valued church members sometimes move on. The revival for which we have long prayed has not yet happened. Above all, perhaps there is the despondency over our own lack of progress in the life of faith. We ask,

And shall we then for ever live
At this poor dying rate?
Our love so faint, so cold to Thee,
And Thine to us so great?

However, Jesus' despondency did not descend into embittered unbelief. I have not quoted the whole of Isaiah 49:4, which continues,

But I said, “I have laboured in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
    and my recompense with my God.”

Although the situation looked bleak and the Servant felt that his efforts had been wasted, he was assured that  the Lord would justify him and reward his labours. Our Lord was 'tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). The fact that he sometimes felt despondent tells us that such emotions are not necessarily sinful, but we should resist the slide into hope-destroying, strength-sapping discouragement. Whatever appearances may suggest the contrary, our labours are not in vain in the Lord. Jesus battled through despondency and accomplished the work his Father gave him to do. He 'endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down on the right hand of the throne of God' (Hebrews 12:2). Alec Motyer comments, 
Resting in faith is the answer to despondency. Thus, Isaiah foresaw a Servant with a real human nature, tested like we are, and proving himself to be the author and perfecter of faith, a real, personal faith that can say my God when nothing any longer seems worthwhile. (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 1993, IVP, p. 387). 
Feeling overwhelmed  by the task that was set before him drove Jesus to cry out to his God and Father in prayer  (Hebrews 5:7). Isaiah records the Lord's answer to his despondent Son, Isaiah 49:8. God upheld his Servant (Isaiah 42:1), even as he bore the sins of many. He raised him from the grave. Exalted to the right hand of the Majesty on High, the Suffering Servant, 'shall see the labour of his soul and be satisfied' (Isaiah 53:11). The Lord's promise to his Chosen One is fulfilled, 'You are my whom I will be glorified' (Isaiah 49:3). The hope of resurrection glory drives despondency from the hearts of all the Lord's servants, 1 Corinthians 15:58. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Jesus is doing now by Gary Brady

What Jesus is doing now,
Gary Brady, EP Books,
2012, 224pp
We often reflect on what Jesus did for our salvation in the past and look forward in hope to what he will do when he returns. But we don’t tend to give so much attention to what he is doing now. Gary Brady attempts to make good that gap in our thinking in this most helpful book.

Brady writes with clarity and simplicity, but there is nothing trite about this work. His treatment is characterised by theological depth, biblical accuracy and sound pastoral wisdom. The insights of wide range of writers are called upon to help us better understand the subject in hand.

The author begins by explaining clearly who he is talking about; the Jesus who is fully God and fully man in one person. It is as the God-Man, exalted to the right hand of the Father that Jesus carries out his present work on our behalf.

At the heart of the book is an exploration the multifaceted work that Jesus is doing now. He is our prophet, priest and king who applies the salvation he accomplished to his people by power of the Holy Spirit. Special attention is given to the intercessory ministry of Christ.

In a final chapter, Brady asks ‘How should we live in the light of these facts?’ Here the reader is challenged to live for Christ’s glory and be encouraged by the fact that our ascended Lord will protect us from our foes. Knowing that he ever lives to make intercession for us should embolden us draw near to the throne of grace in prayer.

Taking time to meditate on what Jesus is doing now should move us to worship him and inflame our longing for his return. With that in mind, this book is highly recommended. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Monday, January 14, 2013

In Christ Alone: Living the gospel centred life by Sinclair B. Ferguson

In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson

It's long been my practice to leave a book in the car that I can read when waiting for a doctor's or dentist's appointment or something. That way waiting time isn't wasted time. However, since investing in an Android tablet, loaded up with the Kobo e-Reader, I've been grabbing the tablet when I expect to be waiting around for a while. I've invested in several e-Books, usually at knock-down prices, but one of the first I downloaded was In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson. It was going for only £0.99 at the time. Unbelievable. The title is really great for occasional reading, when you've got five or ten minutes to spare, as it's made up brief and punchy chapters that get straight to the point. 

If you are not already acquainted with Sinclair Ferguson's writings, then this might be a good place to start. You couldn't wish for a better theme than life in Christ and the theologian certainly warms to it. This title is informed by the theological acumen and exegetical skill that we have come to expect from Ferguson's pen, or keyboard more likely. But especially here, his gifts as a theologian and biblical scholar are at the service of a pastor-teacher with a keen desire to help the people of God live out of the fullness of their union with Christ.

Ferguson draws on the riches of God's Word to paint a fine portrait of the person and work of the Saviour. He is the second person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh for us and our salvation. He is our Prophet, Priest and King. He died for our sins and was raised from the tomb that we might live through him. In Christ we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. By virtue of our union with him we are justified and called to a new life of faith and holiness. Ferguson gives attention to the practicalities of life in Christ, devoting pithy chapters to matters such as prayer, guidance, the mortification of sin, Christian liberty and humility in service. In the the final chapter we are given a glimpse of the rest that remains for the people of God.

This work is Ferguson at his best. In Christ Alone is theologically profound without being complicated, devotionally warm without being sentimental and practical without being a spiritual self-help manual. When reading I often had to pause and silently worship the Christ who brought me into saving union with himself by his Spirit and into communion with our God and Father. I doubt reading Hello magazine or a leaflet on the health benefits of tea while waiting for an appointment would have have the same effect. Highly recommended. 

Friday, January 04, 2013

Stephen Charnock on Christ and the theodrama

I know that posting quotations isn't proper blogging, which should involve at least some original writing. It's just typing stuff out. But I couldn't resist this one, which I came across when reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones. Puritan divine, Stephen Charnock sounds a bit like a seventeenth century version of theodramatist-in-chief, Kevin Vanhoozer (interviewed here). Charnock places Christ at the dramatic centre of the communicative action of God,  
Christ is the stage wherein all the attributes of God act their parts. (From Charnock, The Knowledge of Christ, in Works; 4:139). 
As Vanhoozer more recently put it,
Thinking of doctrine in dramatic rather than theoretical terms provides a wonderfully engaging and in integrative model for understanding what it means to follow – with all our mind, heart, soul and strength – the way, truth and life embodied and enacted in Jesus Christ. (From Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, p. 16.)
Admittedly, for Charnock  drama is a one-off handy metaphor, rather than the key idea that shapes his theologizing, but is is interesting to note this Puritan precedent for Vanhoozer's  theodramatic proposals.

Kevin Vanhoozer's follow up to Remythologizing Theology is  Divine Action and Providence, his contribution to Zondervan's promising looking 'New Studies in Dogmatics' series

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Christmas and the Trinity

If it is true that all three divine persons are involved any act of God, then the incarnation of the Son involved the whole Trinity. That does not mean that the Father and the Holy Spirit as well as the Son became incarnate. It was fitting that the Son as the image of the invisible God became man, created in the image of God according to his human nature. 

But the Son did not become incarnate apart from the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Father sent the Son into the world as man and sustained, taught, guided and empowered him by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the incarnation was that Christ might redeem us from sin by offering himself without blemish to God through the eternal Spirit. The Father raised his Son from the dead by the Spirit of holiness and by that same Spirit exalted Christ to his right hand in glory. The glorified Jesus poured out the Spirit from the Father upon the church on  the Day of Pentecost. 

Through the Son the godhead bears the impress of Jesus' human experience of humiliation, sorrow and death. Our triune Lord remembers our frame, knowing that we are dust. The Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, who groaned under the burden of our fallen world, makes intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered.  The Father of the suffering Son's ear is ever attentive to the cries of his children. His tender hand will wipe all tears from their eyes.

Believers will share in the glory and exaltation of the incarnate Son. He, as the life-giving Spirit will raise them from the dead, transform them into his image and welcome them into his Father's house. There they will dwell with the Triune God for ever. Christmas is the gift of the Trinity. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise, by Craig Hovey

Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise,
Craig Hovey, Cascade Books, 2012, 162pp.

There is surprise which is nice, there is shock, which is not and then there is a bit baffled, which is neither one thing or the other. I was prepared to give this book a fair reading. The title has a nice ring to it and the author has some thought provoking things to say, but in the end I was left a feeling bit baffled. 

On the plus side Hovey emphasises that because Jesus is the risen and living Lord, we can never wholly  posses him or think that we have come to know all that there is to know all about him. The living Jesus always has the capacity to surprise and amaze his followers. 

The writer makes a valid point that the  evangelical tendency to focus on the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact to be proven almost beyond all reasonable doubt can rob the resurrection of its theological significance. Yes, the resurrection of Jesus really happened, but we don't stop there. The fact that Jesus is risen means that he is a living presence to and in the church. 

Now for the baffled bit. For starters, the death of Hovey's 'Unexpected Jesus' was not an act of penal substitutionary atonement. His love for his enemies who crucified him exceeded their hatred for him. Only in that sense says the author, was the Cross good news. It is not that Christ saved us from our sins by dying in our place. Hovey cites Robert Jenson, "The Crucifixion is God's salvific action just in that God overcomes it by Resurrection." While it is true that we are saved by the living Jesus, it was by his death that he paid the price of sin so that we might be forgiven and put right with God. The lack of a rigorous theology of the Cross is a serious shortcoming in this work.

Hovey has a highly sacramental vision of the church, where he speaks not only of Christ in the church through the Eucharist, but Christ as the church (p. 45). He acknowledges that Christ cannot be wholly contained in the church and that there is always more of Jesus than is present in the church, but in speaking of Christ as the church he is in danger of collapsing the head into the body. 

The writer's construal of the day of judgement is not what might be expected if we take the witness of Scripture seriously. Hovey points out that the Father has committed all judgement to the Son (John 5:22). He reasons that "God's word of judgement is none other than Christ." (p. 117). He asks, "Can the lover of enemies be the same who oversees their final destruction?" (p. 116). Yes, because judgement on Christ's part is not an act of hatred, but justice, Matthew 25:46, John 5:28-29, 2 Corinthians 5:10.  Hovey holds out the hope that Jesus will judge in favour of those who have expressed antipathy to the Christian faith, on account of their concern for the poor and needy of the world. But while caring for the downtrodden is commendable, it is by faith we are saved, by grace and not by our works, Ephesians 2:8-9. 

As I say, there are some good things here, but Hovey's attempt at sketching out a 'theology of surprise' doesn't altogether stand up to serious biblical scrutiny. Sad to say that the issues mentioned above explain why bafflement rather than surprise was the overriding emotion evoked by my reading of Unexpected Jesus: The Gospel as Surprise.

* Thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of this book. 

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Thomas Goodwin on election in Christ: what it is

See here and here for parts one and two of this series that has been left hanging in the air for some months. 

Having ruled out several deficient ways of understanding the believer's election in Christ, Goodwin proceeds to give his positive exposition of the subject. 

1. Christ, the federal head of the elect 

The Puritan divine construes election in Christ in federal terms. He does not use the language of "federal headship" that is often found later Reformed theology, but his treatment has a distinct federal flavour. "Jesus Christ in election is head of the elect. He was from the first considered and ordained by God as a Common Person, to represent us." (p. 70, Exposition of Ephesians: Chapter 1 to 2:10). Goodwin draws an analogy between Adam and Christ. All humanity were created in Adam. As the first man (1 Corinthians 15:47), Adam acted in a representative capacity. "Thus in choosing Christ God looked on him as a Common Person, as a second Adam, and chose us in him." (p. 71). But the fact that elect were chosen in Christ as a 'Common Person' does not mean that God's people were not chosen individually and personally. "God did not choose in the general... he knoweth the very persons fully and particularly; yea and distinctly viewed them when he elected them. And notwithstanding he thus chose us as distinct persons from Christ, yet still our election is in Christ. (p. 71). 

It is because the Son of God was chosen as Head of the elect in eternity that he assumed our nature and came to redeem the people of God in the fullness of time. But even prior to the incarnation Christ acted as Mediator of the covenant of grace. He was a Common Person to the fathers under the Old Testament, forgiving their sins by virtue of the atonement he would one day perform on their behalf (p. 73). 

Election in Christ is the foundation of the covenant of grace. "And so a covenant was struck between God and us, through Christ's representing us, as the covenant of works was between God and us considered in Adam. And thence it is that Christ, by the prophet Isaiah is called 'our covenant'." (p. 75). That believer's election is in Christ guarantees they will  receive the blessings of the covenant. Goodwin cites Paul's words in 2 Timothy 1:9, 'the grace that was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began.' If God chose his people in themselves, the apostle could have written that he purposed to give them grace before the world began. But Paul says that grace was actually given to the elect in Christ Jesus, as he stands as a 'Common Person' representing his people who are chosen in him. "God in the act of choosing us gave us to Christ, and in giving us to Christ he chose us." (p. 74). 

2. The order of election 

According to Goodwin, Christ was chosen first, and we in him. "Jesus Christ was the Head of election, and of the elect of God; and so in order of nature first, though in order of time we were elected in him. In the womb of election he, the Head came out first, and then we, the members." (p. 74). Note that in saying that Christ was chosen first and we in him, Goodwin is careful to say that he is speaking of an order of nature rather than time. This is because the expositor is mindful that Paul teaches that we were chosen in Christ "before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4), which Goodwin takes to mean "from eternity" (p. 77). He reasons, "Before the world was there was nothing but eternity. If you look past the world, you put your head up into eternity." (p. 77). Goodwin tentatively construes Paul's words in a slightly supralapsarian sense, agreeing with those who understood the words "before the foundation of the world" to refer to the order of God's decrees, not simply to the act of creation. He sees this as a further evidence of God's love for his elect, that "he chose you before he purposed the world; he preferred you to all the world." (p. 78). The seventeenth century Puritan almost anticipates modern day multiverse theory saying, "Value God and his love more than all the world, though there were millions of them." (p. 79). This might seem like rather abstract theologizing, but as ever with the Puritans, Goodwin's  theology is put to practical use,
Fear not the ruin of kingdoms, not of the world, for your being depends not on either of them; God chose you before all worlds. Let kingdoms totter, and mountains be thrown in the midst of the sea, 'we have a kingdom that cannot be shaken,' Heb. xii.28. (p. 80).
3. Chosen in him

And so Thomas Goodwin offers a federal explanation of election in Christ. Jesus is not the meritorious cause of our election. God chose his people simply out of love and free grace. But neither is union with Christ merely the goal of election. The Puritan would not have agreed with the words of Louis Berkhof, that Christ was merely  'the mediate cause of the realisation of election' (see here). The elect were chosen in Christ as a Common Person, the second Adam, the Head of God's new humanity who cannot be considered, even in the predestinating decree of God apart from Christ or outside of Christ, "For God chose you in him; the being you had was in him before the world was." (p. 77). As Herman Bavinck put it,
It is not that Christ was thereby the ground and foundation of election; but the election of the church is the very first benefit bestowed on the church; and even this benefit already occurred in union with Christ, and above all it has its goal, not as its foundation, that all other benefits - rebirth, faith and so forth - will be imparted to the church by Christ. In this sense, then, the election of Christ logically precedes our own. (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2, p. 404) 
Besides a certain "holy Baines" (p. 70) or "Mr. Baines" (p. 78) Goodwin refrains from citing sources for his views on election in Christ. But what he says is certainly in keeping with the teaching of John Calvin. Admittedly, Goodwin's highly developed federalist construction is not found in the Reformer, but Calvin insisted that we are not chosen in ourselves, to the end that we might be united to Christ, but we are loved and elected in him. Hence it is foolish, harmful and dangerous to contemplate election apart from Christ. He is the mirror of our election,
But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion III:24:5). 
Robert Letham, who  is critical of Berkhof's stance on election in Christ argues, "Thus, our entire salvation is received in Christ, election included. Union with Christ is existent at the point of our election in eternity." (The Work of Christ, Robert Letham, IVP, 1993, p. 55-56). Salvation is by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Prior to faith in Christ a person remains subject to the wrath of God upon their sin (Ephesians 2:3 cf. John 3:36). But the gift of faith itself is granted by virtue of the people of God being chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:3-4). Goodwin comments, "if all be given us in Christ, then faith also [is given us], as we are considered already chosen in Christ" (p. 66).

The Puritan expositor's Christocentric doctrine of election is grounded in sound biblical exegesis and is consistent with the best insights of Reformed theology. It is deeply pastoral, pointing the believer to Christ in whom we are chosen, rather than leaving us mystified and unsure in the face of God's inscrutable decree. Above all, Goodwin gives due honour to the God, who gave us grace in Christ Jesus before the world was made. He calls us to love the electing God more than a million worlds.

In the next and concluding post in this series I plan to consider what Goodwin has to say on God's purpose in electing his people in Christ. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Edward Taylor against the heretics

I'm trying to read a poem a day by Edward Taylor, the New England Puritan. I don't always get what he's trying to say as the language is sometimes quite obscure. What's 'inckt' supposed to mean? And I thought that a mall is a shopping centre, but Taylor envisages a 'mall of steel' splitting heretics' brains away. The mind boggles. 

However, this morning's poem was full of interest. It is a meditation on Colossians 1:15, entitled, 'The First Born of Every Creature'. The text is often cited by Arians, Socinians and Jehovah's Witnesses to prove that as the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ was not the eternal Son of God. Edward Taylor is having none of it. In his poem he asserts the full deity of Christ and threatens heretics with a grisly fate.

First Born of e'ry Being: hence a Son
      Begot o'th'First: Gods onely Son begot.
Hence Deity all ore. Gods nature run
      Into a Filiall Mould: Eternal knot.
      A Father then, and a Son: persons distinct.
      Though them Sabellians contrar'ly inckt.

This mall of Steel falls hard upon thy foes
      Of truth, who make the Holy Trinity
Into One Person: Arians too and those
      Socinians calld, who do Christs Deity
      Bark out against, But Will they, nill they, they
      Shall finde this Mall to split their brains away.


As Taylor recognises, using Colossians 1:15 to deny the full deity of Christ is to misinterpret the text. That Jesus is the “firstborn of creation” does not mean the Son was the first creature that God made. Arians and their theological heirs and successors deny the eternal pre-existence of Jesus, saying that there was a time when the Son was not. Over and against Arian error the church confessed that the Son was “begotten not created” at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. Arians have badly misunderstood what Paul is saying here. They make him contradict what he says later on in the passage. If the Son was created, then how does Colossians 1:16 make sense, let alone Colossians 1:17?

So, the apostle was no Arian. For Paul Jesus was very much included in the divine identity, Romans 9:5. But what does he mean when he calls Jesus the “firstborn over all creation”. In the immediately previous verses Paul has described salvation as a new exodus, Colossians 1:12-14. And the exodus event also provides the key to Paul’s meaning here. In Exodus 4:22 God describes Israel as 'my son, my firstborn'. Firstborn sons had special inheritance rights. Pharaoh was to let Israel go so that God's firstborn could claim his inheritance,  Exodus 4:23, 6:8 The firstborn in Egypt were killed at Passover, but the Passover lamb was substituted for the firstborn children of Israel. They were redeemed by blood, Exodus 12:12-13. Israel's firstborn therefore belonged to the Lord, Exodus 13:2 & 15. The firstborn had a special prominence and importance, Psalm 89:27. To conclude, in Old Testament revelation the 'firstborn' were associated with a cluster of ideas: preeminence, ownership, inheritance and redemption.

So, when Paul describes Jesus as the 'firstborn over all creation' he is not suggesting that Jesus was the first thing God made. As Taylor said, the Son is fully God, 'Deity all ore'. Paul's point is that as the 'firstborn' Jesus belongs to God. He is God's “own Son” Romans 8:32, “the Son of his love” Colossians 1:13, John 3:16. Also as the firstborn son, Jesus has the right of inheritance, Romans 8:17. But although God spared the firstborn children of Israel by substituting the Passover lamb, he did not spare his own Son, Colossians Colossians 1:14, 1 Corinthians 5:7. As the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ is creation's 'kinsman redeemer' who liberates the world from the tyrannical grip of sin. This is a thought that Paul will take up at greater length in Colossians 1:20.

There is more to redemption than personal salvation. Christ's work has cosmic dimensions, Romans 8:21. This is how big our Jesus is. He has acted to redeem creation from all the terrible effects of the fall. This is the Jesus we must preach. This is the Jesus we worship. He is the 'firstborn over all creation'. He’s got the whole world in his nail pierced hands.

Taylor concludes his poem with a prayer,

Make mee thy Babe, and him my Elder Brother
     A Right Lord grant me in his Birth Right high.
His Grace, my Treasure make above all other:
      His Life my Sampler: My Life his joy.
      I'le hang my love then on his heart, and sing
      New Psalms of Davids Harpe to thee and him.

(The Poems of Edward Taylor, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 84-85) 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The Son of God with Power

Paul begins his Epistle to the Romans with a summary statement of the gospel he wished to proclaim in Rome:
The gospel of God…concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead. (Romans 1:34.)

Paul sets before us the broken symmetry of the life Jesus Christ who was “born according to the flesh” and “declared to be the Son of God with power”. The great transitional event in these two phases of the history of Jesus Christ is his resurrection from the dead. For Paul “flesh” is synonymous with human life in a fallen world. To be born “according to the flesh” is to be born weak. God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). To be sure, Jesus Christ “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Yet he came as flesh, without the trappings of kingly majesty.

But this man, Jesus Christ was “declared to be the Son of God with power”. This, at any rate is how the New King James Version translates the text. Scholars are divided on how exactly we are to translate the participle “declared” in question. In usage elsewhere in the New Testament, the verb can mean to “delineate” or “demarcate”. This meaning is apparent when regional boundaries or borders are described, “in the regions of…” (Matthew 4:13, 8:34). In this sense, Jesus was “marked out” or “delineated” as the Son of God. Another use of the verb is “to determine” in God’s purpose (Luke 22:22), (Acts 2:23). The word is also used to describe Jesus being appointed or ordained by God as judge of all mankind, (Acts 10:43, 7:31).

But if we take the word here to mean “appointed”, in what meaningful sense could Jesus Christ be “appointed” as the Son of God? Orthodox Christology has always insisted that Jesus Christ ever was the Son of God. Our text itself suggests that it was “his Son” that was “born according to the flesh”. Also in Galatians 4:4 Paul affirms the pre-existence of Jesus as the Son of God. He did not become God’s Son at birth, it was as God’s Son he was sent to be born.

Evangelical expositors will want to avoid any suggestion that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection. This would be to fall into the heresy of adoptionism – the notion that Jesus was adopted as God’s Son, rather than being God’s Son from eternity.

Because of this difficulty with Jesus being “appointed” as the Son of God by his resurrection, some scholars prefer the translation that Jesus was “declared or “marked out” to be the Son of God”. Dr. Robert Reymond argues for this point of view (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Nelson, 1998, p. 240-245). He takes the words “in power” as qualifying the participle “declared” or “marked out”. Jesus was thus “powerfully marked out as the Son of God …by the resurrection of the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 242.) Reymond, understands the phrase “by the Spirit of holiness” to mean Jesus’ divine nature, that stands contrast to his human nature as “flesh”. Thus Reymond, paraphrases the text, “who was powerfully marked out as the Son of God in accordance with his divine nature by his resurrection from the dead.” (Reymond, 1998: 243.)

But is this necessarily the best interpretation of the text? Reymond has avoided any suggestion that Christ became the Son of God by his resurrection. However, his exegesis is not shared by other Reformed scholars who prefer the translation that “Jesus…was appointed [not simply marked out as] the Son of God with power ...”

At least as far back as Geerhardus Vos, conservative scholars have argued that, “The reference [in Romans 1:4] is not  to two coexisting states in the make-up of the Saviour - his divine and human natures - but to two successive stages in his life.” (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, P & R, 1930, p. 155.) The contrast in the text is between Jesus Christ being born according to the flesh by incarnation and appointed the Son of God with power by resurrection. The words “with power” qualify the new resurrected state of the “Son of God”. In the flesh, Jesus was the Son of God in weakness, but after his resurrection he was appointed the Son of God with power.
The apostle is dealing with some particular event in the history of the Son of God incarnate by which he was instated in a position of sovereignty and invested with power, an event which in respect of investiture with power surpassed everything that could be ascribed to him in his incarnate state. (John Murray, Romans, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 11.)
The “spirit of holiness” need not be taken to mean the Son’s divine nature as Reymond suggests. Paul’s intention is not to reflect on the relative natures, divine and human than constitute the person of the Son of God. He is describing the Son’s incarnate state before and after his resurrection from the dead. “Spirit of holiness” is a unique designation of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. However, as Barrett points out, it was a common way of referring to the Holy Spirit in Hebrew and Aramaic writing. (C. K. Barrett, Paul, Geofferey Chapman, 1994, p. 24.) If, as Barrett suggests, Paul is using a pre-existing creedal formula here, this unusual way of describing the Spirit makes perfect sense. Murray comments,
Thus when we come back to the expression “according to the Spirit of holiness”, our inference is that it refers to that stage of pneumatic endowment upon which Jesus entered through his resurrection. (Murray, 1987: 11.)
Post-resurrection, the incarnate life of the Son of God was transformed and endued with new power by the Spirit. Paul can write that, “The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45.) Christ was conceived by the Spirit according to his human nature and endued with the Spirit at his baptism. But on his resurrection, the Son was lifted to an unprecedented plane of Holy Spirit dynamism. The time of incarnated weakness is over. Jesus is now the Son of God with power.

This interpretation, that Jesus was appointed as the Son of God with power by his resurrection, avoids the danger of adoptionist Christology, while doing justice to the language of the text. It was because Jesus Christ was God’s Son and the messianic seed of David, born according to the flesh, and who died for sinners, that he was appointed the Son of God with power. “He was raised because of what he was. He did not become Son by being raised: he was raised because he was Son.” (Donald McLeod, The Person of Christ, IVP, 1998, p. 91.)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday and the Son's impassible passion

For thus we say that He both suffered and rose again, not as though God the Word suffered in His own Nature either stripes or piercings of nails or the other wounds (for the Godhead is Impassible because It is also Incorporeal), but since that which had been made His own body suffered these things, He again is said to suffer for us, for the Impassible was in the suffering Body. (St Cyril's First Letter to Nestorius, here). 
According to Cyril of Alexandria, at Calvary, "the impassible was in the suffering Body". In so saying Cyril rightly affirmed the impassibility of the divine Word and also took into account that the Word made flesh suffered for us in his humanity. This is where the communicatio idiomatum or 'communion of attributes' in the incarnate Son comes into play. That which was true of Jesus only in his humanity, i.e. he suffered and died, was not an act of his human nature per se, but the act of the person of the Son in and through his humanity. It is  not sufficient to say that the divine nature of the Son remained impassible, while his human nature suffered on the cross. Rather, it was the case that the person of the Son of God suffered for us in his humanity, Galatians 2:20

When theologians speak of the 'passive' obedience of Christ at the cross, as distinct from the 'active' obedience of his life, it is not meant to suggest that Christ was inactive at Calvary. When used in this context, 'passive' means 'suffering', in the same way that 'impassibility' means 'without suffering'. However, we must remember that the  whole of Jesus' incarnate life involved suffering (Hebrews 5:8), and that his death was a positive act of obedience (Philippians 2:8 cf. John 10:17-18). In the words of B. B. Warfield, 'His very passion was his own action.' (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 134, P&R). 

This is important, because we should not think of Christ as a mere victim of suffering. The Son did not suffer on the cross primarily in order to show empathy with a world racked by pain and tragedy. Certainly, Jesus our great high priest is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, (Hebrews 4:15). But his cross was not so much an act of divine identity with a suffering world, as divine self-substitution for a guilty world. The good news is this: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3 cf. 1 Peter 3:18). 

What we sinners need above above all else is not the sympathy fellow-sufferer, but the salvation accomplished by a substitute-sufferer. Jesus'  cry on the cross was not, "Now I know how you feel!", but, "It is finished!". We are saved by the impassible passion of the Word made flesh and crucified for us at Golgotha. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cicero on the offence of the Cross

Wretched is the loss of one's
good name in the public courts,
wretched, too, a monetary fine
exacted from one's property,
and wretched is exile.

But, still, in each calamity
there is retained some trace of liberty.
Even if death is set before us,
we may die in freedom.

But the executioner,
the veiling of heads,
and the very word ‘cross,’
let them all be far removed
from not only the bodies
of Roman citizens
but even from their thoughts,
their eyes, and their ears.
(Cicero, 106-43BC, Pro Rabirio Postump 16)

Crucifixion was a reserved for the lowest of the low, rightless non-Roman citizens who had been sentenced to suffer a most excruciating death for their crimes. As a method of execution it was designed to humiliate and degrade as well as kill. On that basis it might be thought that the Christian church would want to hush up the fact that its founder, Jesus Christ was crucified. The opposite is the case. Jesus regarded his death by crucifixion as the moment of his exaltation when his divine glory would be most fully revealed, John 8:28, 12:32-33, 17:4. 

The apostles placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at the very heart of their preaching, 1 Corinthians 2:2. This was despite the fact that the idea of a crucified Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews and an offence to the Greeks, 1 Corinthians 1:23. No amount of rhetorical razzle dazzle could obscure the "offence of the cross" (Galatians 5:11). That is why Paul renounced rhetoric and preached a crucified Christ in a crucified style, 1 Corinthians 2:1-3. He knew that nothing but the power of the Spirit of God could make his preaching convincing and effective, 1 Corinthians 2:4-5. 

The reason why the apostles made Jesus' scandalous death so central to their message is that they believed that he did not die for his own sins as a failed Messiah, but for ours, as the world's true Saviour. "Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8),  "Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:3), "who have himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:6), "he himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2). 

The cross of Jesus is the great revelation of the glory of our triune God. There we see that the Father so loved the world that he have his only Son to suffer and die for us at Calvary. There we see the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us, bearing our sins in his body on the tree. There we see the eternal Spirit lovingly upholding the Son as he offered himself to God in our place. 

Cicero urged his fellow Roman citizens to avert their thoughts, eyes and ears from the cross.  But the cross of Jesus holds our thoughts captive. We live by looking to him who was lifted up for us. The message of the cross is a symphony of God's grace to our ears. That which was most shameful to Cicero was the proudest boast of the apostle Paul, Galatians 6:14.

That is why we sing...

 1    O what matchless condescension
            The eternal God displays;
        Claiming our supreme attention,
            To his boundless works and ways.
                    His own glory
            He reveals in gospel days.

    2    In the person of the Saviour,
            All his majesty is seen!
        Love and justice shine for ever;
            And, without a veil between,
                    Worms approach him,
            And rejoice in his dear name.

    3    Would we view his brightest glory,
            Here it shines in Jesus’ face;
        Sing and tell the pleasing story,
            O ye sinners saved by grace;
                    And with pleasure,
            Bid the guilty him embrace.

    4    In his highest work, redemption,
            See his glory in a blaze;
        Nor can angels ever mention
            Aught that more of God displays;
                    Grace and justice
            Here unite to endless days.

    5    True, ’tis sweet and solemn pleasure,
            God to view in Christ the Lord;
        Here he smiles and smiles for ever;
            May my soul his name record;
                    Praise and bless him,
            And his wonders spread abroad.
            (William Gadsby, 1773-1844) 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


If we are to avoid heresy we need to get the maths of the incarnation right.

The incarnation of Jesus was an act of addition not subtraction. He did not become the Son minus his divine glory when he became man. He added to his divine glory a lowly, yet perfect human nature. 

If the incarnate Son was less than fully divine, he was not the final revelation of God. Only one who was fully God and fully man could reconcile man to God through his sacrifice of infinite worth. 

But the Son did not add a human person to his divine person. The person of the Son entered into union with a human nature, conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin's womb. 

There is no merger of the divine and human natures of the Son so that 1 (divine) x 1 (human) = 1 Christological hybrid. The divine and human natures of the Son remain distinct, unconfused and unmixed. 

There is no division between the person of the Son and his human nature. His humanity has no independent existence or identity. We do not confess that the human nature of Jesus died for our sins, but that the Son died for us in his humanity.  

The incarnation will never be reversed by the Son subtracting his human nature from his divine person. Our great high priest who has passed through the heavens is the Son of God, who, in his humanity is able to sympathise with us in our weaknesses. 

Confessional postscript 

The Definition of Chalcedon (451 A.D) sets out the mathematics of the incarnation with great precision and care.  It should be required reading for all preachers. Not that it says all that there is to say about the wonder of Word made flesh. But as with all good creeds and confessions the Definition erects a fence around the mystery to save us from erroneous thinking and speaking about the incarnation of Jesus.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Something extra from Calvin for Christmas

In his book, John Calvin's Ideas, (Oxford, 2004), Paul Helm devotes a chapter to The Extra (p. 58-92). Helm defines Calvin's extra, or the extra Calvinisticum like this: "the view that in the Incarnation the Son retained divine properties such as immensity and omnipresence and therefore Christ was not confined within the limits of a human person". It would have been better for Helm to have said, "within the limits of a human nature", but I'll let that pass for now. The main point is that Calvin was especially clear on the fact that the enfleshment of the Son entailed no change in his divine being, 
They thrust upon as something absurd, that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined  in the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if in his  immeasurable essence the Word was united with human nature into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven. He was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin's womb, to live on the earth, and hang upon the cross, and yet he continually filled the world as he had from the beginning. (Institutes II:13:4). 
As Helm points out, Calvin's "extra" was not in fact distinctive to the Reformer at all. A similar emphasis can be found in Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas and other notable Doctors of the Church. Here is Augustine,
And we think that something impossible to believe is told us about the omnipotence of God, when we are told that the Word of God, by whom all things were made, took flesh from a virgin and appeared to mortal senses without destroying His immortality, His eternity, or diminishing His power, or neglecting the government of the world, or leaving the bosom of the Father, where He is intimately with Him and in Him! (Letter to Volusian, cited in John Calvin's Ideas, p. 59).   
Also along these lines, my attention was recently drawn to a hymn by Joseph Hart (1712-68),

1    The Lord that made both heaven and earth,
            And was himself made man,
        Lay in the womb, before his birth,
            Contracted to a span.

    2    Behold, from what beginnings small
            Our great salvation rose;
        The strength of God is owned by all;
            But who his weakness knows?

    3    Let not the strong the weak despise;
            Their faith, though small, is true;
        Though low they seem in others’ eyes,
            Their Saviour seemed so too.

    4    Nor meanly of the tempted think;
            For O what tongue can tell
        How low the Lord of life must sink,
            Before he vanquished hell?

    5    As in the days of flesh he grew
            In wisdom, stature, grace,
        So in the soul that’s born anew,
            He keeps a gradual pace.

    6    No less almighty at his birth,
            Than on his throne supreme;
        His shoulders held up heaven and earth,
            When Mary held up him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Did Jesus leave his throne when he became Man?

Christmas carols often claim that the Son of God "left his throne" when he became man. A few examples,

There was no room in Bethlehem
for Him who left his throne

Thou didst leave Thy throne
and kingly crown

The Lord of hosts, the God most high,
who quits His throne on earth to live

The trouble is that I'm at a loss as to what all that is supposed to mean. When he became man, did the Son abdicate his role in the lordship of the Trinity, ceasing to rule the cosmos together with the Father and the Holy Spirit? What does such a construction do to our doctrine of the Trinity? Besides, Scripture bears witness to the fact that the Son was involved in upholding and guiding the universe before and after he was made flesh, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3. And Hebrews 1:8, citing Psalm 45:6-7 insists that the Son's throne is "for ever and ever". 

The nearest Scripture gets to the idea that Christ "left his throne" is in using spatial language to describe the incarnation. In the Gospel According to John Jesus often testifies that he came down from heaven to earth, John 3:13, 6:51. But even here, we need to understand that this language is figurative, accommodated to our capacity as creatures constrained by space and time. Being of the same divine essence as the Father, the Son is omnipresent. He was not shorn of his immensity when he became Man. In the words of Augustine, Jesus  became was he was not - fully human, without ceasing to be what he was - fully God. The one who was born in Bethelem  was at one and the same time filling heaven and earth, unconstrained by the restrictions of created space. When Scripture speaks in terms of the Jesus coming down from heaven, this language is intended to convey the dazzling height from which he stooped when the Word was made flesh. 

But still, even as he was born of woman, born under the law, Jesus was the sovereign Son, ruling over all things together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Rather than depicting Christ as surrendering a throne at the incarnation, the bible insists that he came to claim his crown as the Redeemer-King of the people of God, Isaiah 9:6-7, Luke 1:31-33. The incarnation was not an act of dethronement for the Son, but of further enthronementBecause he who was the form of God took the form of a servant and became obedient to the death of the cross, God exalted him to his right hand in glory.  Jesus is the Lamb in the midst of the throne, worthy to reign because he redeemed us to God by his blood, Acts 2:36, Philippians 2:8-11, Revelation 5:5-6, 9-10. 

Well might angels sing in wonder
as they herald forth his birth;
even they can scarcely ponder 
why God's Son came down to earth.
See Him now, enthroned in glory,
earth awaiting His return.
While our hearts recount the story
may these hearts within us burn.
(Graham Stuart Harrison) 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Lamb in the midst of the throne

Revelation 5:6

God’s sovereignty is mediated through Jesus Christ, the Son of God who became man and redeemed us by his blood. In his humanity Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand in glory. Jesus Christ is Lord. God’s sovereignty has a human face. “The dust of the earth is on the throne of the Majesty on high” (Rabbi Duncan). In Revelation 4 God, reigns in unapproachable light, and in absolute power over all things. We might be overwhelmed by the majesty of it all, even the angels were, Revelation 4:10-11. But in the midst of the throne is a Lamb that once was slain, the Christ of Golgotha, who knew pain and suffering, who overcame by the shedding of his blood. He is no remote potentate, who cares little for the suffering and struggles faced by his people in the world. He looks down upon his church. He sees her fighting not to lose her first love, fighting against temptation, fighting against error, facing suffering. He is able to sympathise with her. He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. In all our affliction he is afflicted. The sovereignty of God is tinged with the sympathy of Christ. The Lamb is in the midst of the throne.

LAMB of God, Thou now art seated
High upon Thy Father's throne;
All Thy gracious work completed,
All Thy mighty victory won:
Every knee in heaven is bending
To the Lamb for sinners slain;
Every voice and heart is swelling,
"Worthy is the Lamb to reign".

Lord, in all Thy power and glory,
Still Thy thoughts and eyes are here;
Watching o'er Thy ransomed people,
To Thy gracious heart so dear;
Thou for us art interceding;
Everlasting is Thy love;
And a blessed rest preparing
In our Father's house above.

Lamb of God, when Thou in glory
Shalt to this sad earth return,
All Thy foes shall quake before Thee,
All who now despise Thee mourn;
Then shall we at Thine appearing,
With Thee in Thy kingdom reign;
Thine the praise, and Thine the glory,
Lamb of God for sinners slain.

(James George Deck, 1802-84) 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels One Person by T. Desmond Alexander

Discovering Jesus: Four Gospels One Person
by T. Desmond Alexander, IVP, 2010, 141pp. 

Many first time readers of the New Testament have asked, 'Why four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, wouldn't just one do?' If you have ever wondered about that, then this is the book for you. Alexander begins by giving a brief overview of the Gospels. He highlights some common themes in the Gospel accounts such as the fulfilment of Scripture, the kingdom of God and the centrality of Christ's passion. 

After that the scholar devotes two chapters to each the four Gospels. He skilfully teases out the special features their distinctive portraits of Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is the Son of God who gives his life as a ransom for many. In Matthew, Jesus is the Son of David who establishes the kingdom of heaven. In Luke, Jesus is the Saviour of the world who seeks the lost. In John, Jesus is the Lamb of God who brings eternal life through a new exodus. These portraits are not in conflict. Together they reveal something of the many splendored glory of Jesus' unique person and work. 

Alexander gives attention to the composition of the Gospels, delving into the issue of which Gospel was written first (probably Mark), and to what extent Matthew and Luke drew on on material from Mark. He touches on the 'hypothesis' that seeks to account for passages common to Matthew and Luke that are not  found in Mark. In a final chapter the writer reviews the key points of his book and offers some moving reflections on the wonder of Jesus.

Discovering Jesus is an accessible introduction to the Gospels that will help the reader of the New Testament  to appreciate afresh who Jesus is, what he came to do and what it means to follow him. 

* Reviewed for Protestant Truth Magazine.