Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Christmas!

A foggy Westbury High Street

Here's wishing my readers a very happy Christmas. May you be filled with the joy of the Saviour and experience the blessing of time spent relaxing with family and friends.

It is often said that the virgin birth of Christ has little theological significance. See here for my post on this subject from Christmas 2005, in which I question that assumption.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 3)

In the previous two posts (click on the label below), I sought to probe the Biblical teaching on this subject. Now, in this final post, I propose to look at the theology of partaking of the divine nature.
Athanasius (295?-373), well known for his defence of the full deity of Christ, was much taken with the idea of Christians partaking of the divine nature. For him, it is only possible for human beings to be deified if Jesus was fully God and fully Man,
"For therefore did he assume the body originate and human, that having renewed it as its framer, he might deify it in himself, and thus might introduce us all into the kingdom of heaven after his likeness. For man had not been deified if joined to a creature, or unless the Son were very God; nor had man been brought into the Father's presence, unless he had been his natural and true Word who has put on the body." (Against the Arians 2.70)
Athanasius taught that the incarnation of Christ involved a great exchange, boldly saying, "He was made man that we might become God" (On the Incarnation 54). He did not mean than Christ ceased to be God when he became Man or that we will be absorbed into the being of God. He was trying to express the wonder of the deification of the saints, based on 2 Peter 1:4.
This emphasis on deification became central to the understanding of salvation in the East. Gregory of Palamas (1296-1359) distinguished between the unknowable divine essence and God's uncreated energies, through which he interacts with creation. He speculated that to be deified is to participate in the energies of God But this removes deification from its New Testament Christological basis. We are made partakers of the divine nature by being transformed into the image of Christ through the Spirit.
While the East focuses on salvation through deification, Reformed theology has tended to concentrate more upon the removal of the guilt and penalty of sin through justification. But there is really no need to choose between partaking of the divine nature and justification. They are both important aspects of the New Testament's theology of salvation. Athanasius' statement, "He was made man that we might be made God", is not (as he realised) the whole story. The Son was made man, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh, that God might condemn sin in his flesh (Romans 8:3). The forensic aspect of redemption is essential for our deification. Its is justified sinners, who are no longer under the condemnation of the law (Romans 8:1), who are glorified together with Christ (Romans 8:17).
This is not to say that deification has been neglected altogether in Western Reformed theology. Robert Letham discusses this in p. 471-474 of his book, The Holy Trinity. (See my review here).
Calvin returns to 2 Peter 1:4 several times in the Institutes. We have already noted his rich exposition of the key text in the first post.
"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thess. 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance". (The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III:XXV:10)
We must never forget, with all out theologizing, that to partake of the divine nature is to be filled with love, for God is love. Peter himself insists on this, "For this very reason, giving all diligence add to your" (2 Peter 1:7). To put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14) is to be clothed with love, which is the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:14).
I conclude with a quote from Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, discussing the deification of man in Christ in the teaching of Athanasius,
"When Athanasius said that the Word of God became incarnate in order that we might be deified he was speaking of the redemptive purpose of the Son's coming, which was not only to set us free from the guilt and power of sin and to reconcile us to the Father but also to exalt us in himself to the glorious perfection of God's everlasting kingdom and to that imperishable life that swallows up our mortality; he was speaking of our transposition from this present frail and fleeting existence to that full and unclouded existence which is bestowed upon us by God; he was speaking, in short, of the attainment of that resplendent destiny of harmony with our Creator that was from the beginning intended for us. To enter into the "inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for us" is to "become partakers of the divine nature" (1 Pet. 1:4, 2 Pet. 1:4). It is not the obliteration of the ontological distinction between Creator and creature but the establishment at last of intimate and uninterrupted communion between them". (The True Image, Eedrmans, 1989, p. 286. )
Charles Wesley, then was right to sing that:
He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
PS. Courtesy of "revdrron" see here for a wonderful Spurgeon quote on this subject.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Paul Helm's unexpected Christmas visitor

See here for Paul Helm's festive story of an surprise visitor.
The guest looks like a tramp with skin like old bark. Who could it be?

Is God really a delusion? by Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath

Listen to Alister McGrath's response to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins

Monday, December 18, 2006

Glory to God in the highest!

"Glory to God in the highest..." (Luke 2:14) A Christmas Sermon Outline
We live in a society that lives to consume. We buy therefore we are. This is never more evident that at "Christmas Time". The shops do a large percentage of their annual business during the festive season. Everything possible is done to encourage the consumer to buy, buy, buy.
A consumerist society is a selfish one. Life is centred around the wants and desires of the customer. Woe betide the lowly shop assistant who has to tell the almighty consumer, "Sorry, you can't have what you want, we're out of stock."
When people from such a society begin to see that there must be more to life than this, they get into "spirituality". But they do so as consumers who want their needs satisfied rather than as pentient worshippers who want to meet with God on his terms.
The acid test of true religion is this: Does it make the angels sing "Glory to God in the highest!" This cuts through the self-centeredness of the contemporary spiritual quest. True faith is all about the glory of God.
I. Glory to God in the highest because Christ the Lord is born
Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12.)
i. Glory to God for good news
In a word full of trouble and grief, here is a message to gladden our hearts
ii. Glory to God for Christ is born
God has kept his promises and fulfilled the ancient prophecies. At last, the long-awaited Messiah has been born in the City of David.
iii. Glory to God for the Lord is born
What a statement, kurios, the LORD God has been born! What a marvel of grace and love. The angels cry our "Glory to God in the highest" because God the Lord came to the lowest as Man. Here in the birth of this baby, more of the glory of God is revealed than ever before. The Trinity, only hinted at in the OT is now clearly revealed as the Father sent his Son to be born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit.
II. Glory to God in the highest because the Saviour has come
For there is born to you...a Saviour
i. We need to be saved
The angel proclaimed the good news of salvation to shepherds. These were the vagabonds of the ancient world. They had very bad reputation. They needed a Saviour. So do we, for "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and the "wages of sin is death". We cannot come to God as consumers with something to offer him. He does not meet us on out terms, but on his, through the Saviour. This is not about our quest for self-fulfilment, but about God's desire to glorify his love by saving us.
ii. We need a perfect Saviour
A sinner cannot save sinners. Our Saviour has to be one of us - human and other than us - holy. The baby Jesus was the Holy One (1:35). As he grew up, he committed no sin. Even Pilate had to admit "I have found no fault in this man".
iii. We need a Saviour who has died in our place
Jesus did that when he was nailed to the cross to atone for sin and bring us forgiveness. Because he has died, like the dying thief, we can be with him in paradise if we trust in him.
iv. We need a Saviour who has conquered death
Luke 23 is not final chapter of the Gospel - Luke 24 is. As the angels said to the women who visited Jesus' empty tomb, "He is not here but is risen!" (24:6).
Thine be the glory risen conquering Son,
endless is the victory Thou o'er death hast won.
The babe of Bethlehem was born to deal with sin and death once and for all. Glory to God alone for sending Christ the Lord to save us.
III. Glory to God in the highest because he is worth it!
The good news of Jesus calls us to God-centeredness. What grabbed the angel's attention and made a multitude of heavenly beings sing was the incarnation of God. "Christmas" is all about what God has done. In our pampered, consumerist society we are told by advertisers, to buy their products "Because you're worth it!". The Christ-event draws our gaze to the glory of God. We have forgotten that our chief end is not to shop till we drop, but to Glorify God and enjoy him for ever. He is worth it!
Have you see a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Have you come to him as a sinner needing to be put right with God? If so you will sing with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest!"
Christian, reflecting on the birth of Jesus should shock you out of a self-centred, consumerist mentality. Are you in the Christian life for what you can get out of it, or is your chief delight in living for the glory of God? Do you come to Church to see what you can get out of the service, or to magnify your God and Saviour?
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,
But to your name give glory.
(Psalm 115:1)
Preached to Penknap Providence Church on Sunday 10th December

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thought for the Day

I've recently added a "Thought for the Day" spot to my sidebar (just beneath "About Me").
I'll try to post a fresh quote every day if I can.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 2)

Peter's distinctive teaching that believers partake of the divine nature is closely related to what he says about their ultimate glorification. (See part 1). While other New Testament writers do not speak of the divinisation of believers, they do teach that Christians will share in the glory of God, which ammounts to the same thing. Jesus prayed,
And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one (John 17:22).
Paul taught,
and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Rom 8:17)
We suffer with Christ and will be glorified together with him, because we are united to him. We are in Christ (8:1) and he is in us (8:10). In terms of 2 Peter 1:3 & 4, it is through Jesus' divine power that we are made partakers of the divine nature. This makes divinisation a Christological category.
God's ultimate purpose is that we will be conformed to the image of his Son,
For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Rom 8:29)
Human beings were created in the image of God. That image was tarnished by sin. In Christ, the divine image is renewed and perfected,
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of him who created him(Col 3: 9 & 10).
The divinisation or glorification of believers is tightly linked to their resurrection from the dead. Christ's resurrected humanity has not been absorbed into his deity. He remains fully God and fully man. His humanity has been lovingly renewed by the Spirit, and is resplendent with the glory of God. The Father has poured all his creative genius into beautifying the once crucified body of his Son. We shall fully partake of the divine nature when we are made like him in resurrection life. The glory of God that shines in the face of Jesus Christ will then be reflected in our faces too.
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself. (Philippians 3:20 & 21).
And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. (1 Corinthians 15:49.)
We will not only be made like Christ, we will participate in his lordship. Jesus made this remarkable promise to the church at Laodicea,
To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne as I also overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. (Revelation 3:21).
Paul also says.
If we endure, we shall also reign with him. (2 Timothy 1:12).
The first Adam was made lord over the old creation Genesis 1:26-28 His lordship was radically undermined by the fall Genesis 3:17-19. In Christ, human lordship over creation is restored - Hebrews 2:6-9. Partaking of the divine nature is fulfilled when believers enjoy an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:11). Made like our glorious Lord, we will reign with him in the new heavens and the new earth.
In Part 3, I will conclude this series by looking at some theological reflection on partaking of the divine nature.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The impassioned God of B. B. Warfield

B. B. Warfield

Over at Helm's Deep, Paul Helm discusses Warfield on divine passion. The great Princetonian is often dismissed as a ploddingly conservative and unoriginal theologian. But Helm draws on his insights into the emotional life of Christ to propose a new way of understanding the impassibility of God. See here for this stimulating article.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Partakers of the divine nature (part 1)

During our Sunday evening Service, we sang this hymn by Charles Wesley:

1. Let earth and heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made Man.
2. He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s Name.
3. Unsearchable the love
That has the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.
4. He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.
5. Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.
After the meeting, a member of the congregation asked me what Wesley meant in the 4th verse by And make us all divine? "We'll", I said, "that is probably an allusion to 2 Peter 1: 3 & 4." Which says:
3. as His divine [theias] power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, 4. by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine [theias] nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
Thankfully, I was able to give a few words of explanation and the member was satisfied that she had not been singing heresy. But, what did Peter (yes I believe that Peter did write 2 Peter!) mean by "you may be partakers of the divine nature"?
On the face of it, the words suggest that we will somehow be absorbed into the deity. But such an idea is more akin to mystical paganism than the New Testament. The word "divine" or theias is only found here in 2 Peter and Acts 17:29. In vs. 3 it is associated with the divine power of Jesus our Lord. So, how do we become "partakers of the divine nature"?
1) We are made partakers of the divine nature through the promises of God. Jesus has given his people all things that pertain to life and godliness. He has called us by glory and virtue. In him the "exceeding great and precious promises" are given. Paul teaches that all the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus (2 Cor 1:20). Peter probably has the promise of Jesus' return uppermost in his mind (see 3:1-4, 9-13). The Lord has promised to return to this world to defeat evil and renew creation. "According to his promise we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (vs. 13). Through this same promise, believers are made partakers of the divine nature in anticipation of the glory that is to come.
2) We partake of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. Partaking of the divine nature is not to be conceived of as a mystical absorption into the deity. It has a strong soteriological and ethical dimension. Believers have escaped from worldly corruption. This escape is related to the the fact that we have been called by the glory and virtue of Jesus (vs. 3). In 1 Peter, the apostle writes of the people of God as those who have been "called out of darkness into his marvelous light" (2:9). This "call" is not a mere invitation to be saved. It is a mighty, effective summons to salvation from sin. The ethical implications of partaking of the divine nature are spelt out in vs. 5-11. Note "for this very reason..." vs. 5.
But still we are left with the question, "What does it mean to partake of the divine nature?" The text suggests that this is a redemptive rather than ontological category. We partake of the divine nature through the Word of God as we are delivered from the corruptions of a fallen world. There is no sense in which Peter is teaching that the ontological distinction between God and the creature has been abolished in the gospel. But to partake of the divine nature is to be made God-like, to be renewed in his image and to be drawn into the closest possible union and fellowship with him. No higher possible privilege can be imagined.
Peter may have a unique way of expressing this thought. But he says something quite similar, using different language in 1 Pet 5:1 & 10,
The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed:
But may the God of all grace, who called unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.
To partake of the glory that shall be revealed when the Chief Shepherd appears (vs. 4) and to be called to God's eternal glory is the eschatological dimension of partaking of the divine nature. Our destiny is to share in the glory of Christ. United to him by the Spirit, we shall be enjoy communion with God in the splendour of the new heavens and the new earth. Truly, Jesus became man to "bring our vileness near and makes us all divine."
I conclude with the comments of John Calvin,
For we must consider from whence it is that God raises us up to such a height of honor. We know how abject is the condition of our nature; that God, then, should make himself ours, so that all his things should in a manner become our things, the greatness of his grace cannot be sufficiently conceived by our minds. Therefore this consideration alone ought to be abundantly sufficient to make us to renounce the world and to carry us aloft to heaven. Let us then mark, that the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us. (See here.)
In Part 2, I hope to examine the wider New Testament teaching on this theme. In Part 3, I will reflect on the theology of partaking of the divine nature.

Friday, December 08, 2006

2006 Westminster Conference Reports

Friend's Meeting House, Euston, London, Conference Venue

Gary "Bloggy Man" Brady has posted reports on the 2006 Westminster Conference. This year, papers were delivered on William Tyndale, The Puritan Doctrine of Just War, The Puritan Doctrine of the Atonement, The Azusa Street Revival, Thomas Cranmer and John Owen on the Trinity. See here for Gary's reflections.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

David Wells on Christian hope in a postmodern world

Christian hope is not about wishing that all things will get better, that somehow emptiness will go away, meaning will return, and life will be stripped of its uncertainties, its psychological aches and anxieties. Nor does it have anything to do with techniques for improving fallen human life, be they therapeutic or even religious. Hope, instead, has to do, biblically speaking, with the knowledge that "the age to come" is already penetrating "this age", that the sin, death, and meaninglessness of the one is being transformed by the righteousness, life and meaning of the other, that what has emptied out life, what has scarred and blackened it, is being replaced by what is rejuvenating and transforming it. More than that, hope is hope because it knows it has become part of a realm, a kingdom, which endures, where evil is doomed and will be banished, that it has left behind the ship of "this age" which is sinking. And if this realm did not exist, Christians would be "of all men most to be pitied" (I Cor 15:19), because their hope would be groundless and they would have lived out an illusion (cf. Ps 73:4-14).
From Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World,
(Eerdmans/IVP, 2005, p. 206)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

John Calvin on Christian Liberty

For some, this may sound like an unlikely topic. John Calvin on Christian liberty? Might as well consider Oliver Cromwell on the divine right of kings! What's that old disciplinarian, got to say about the subject of Christian freedom? Quite a lot actually. He devotes a chapter to this theme in his Institutes of the Christian Religion - Book III:XIX. Indeed, he says, "if the subject be not understood, neither Christ, not the truth of the Gospel, nor the inward peace of the soul is properly known." (Sect. 1.)

The basis of Christian freedom is justification by faith. The believer is free from the accusations of the law of God, having been justified by grace through faith in Christ. The Epistle to the Galatians is the great charter of Christian liberty. Paul teaches that believers have been freed from the ceremonies of the law such as circumcision. We have also been liberated from the curse of the law in Christ who was made a curse for us. The law reveals the way in which Christians should live, but it cannot condemn us:
For when the conscience feels anxious as to how it may have the favour of God...if brought to his judgement seat... the requirements of the law are not to be brought forward, but Christ, who surpasses all the perfection of the law, is alone to be held forth for righteousness. (Sect. 3.)
We are not free to sin because we have been called by the grace of God to righteousness and holiness. But we do have freedom when it comes to adiaphora or things indifferent. This is a very important point, "The knowledge of this liberty is very necessary to us; where it is wanting our consciences will have no rest, there will be no end of superstition." (Sect. 7). Believers are fee to eat, drink and wear what they please. These things were written against the background where Roman Catholic traditions like eating fish not meat on Fridays were observed by many people. Such matters are adiaphora - the Christian is free to do as he likes with regard to such issues. We are not bound by the traditions of men. Calvin also deals with the tendency toward asceticism in those who have not grasped the principle of Christian liberty,
If he hesitates as to a more genial wine, he will scarce drink the worst with a good conscience; at last he will dare not to touch water if more than usually sweet and pure. In fine, he will come to this, that he will deem it criminal to trample on a straw lying in his way. (Sect. 7.)
Liberty is to be used responsibly. We are not to abuse our freedom by offending the conscience of the weaker brother. On the other hand, we must not to yield to Pharisaical types who would seek to rob us of our true freedom in Christ.
Christian liberty is one of the precious fruits of the gospel. But this important principle has often been forgotten in the history of the Church. Who said that believers should abstain from meat on Fridays or than Ministers should not marry? We are called to freedom in such cases.
The Evangelical Church is not without fault in this matter. Christian holiness has sometimes been reduced to a list prohibitions. These often concern things that are adiaphora at best. "Thou shalt not drink alcohol!" "Thou shalt not go to the Cinema!" "Thou shalt not listen to rock or pop music!" Oh really? Why then does Psalm 104 tell us that God has given us wine to "gladden the heart"? (vs 15). Are Christians really forbidden to watch all films? Why can't a believer enjoy Coldplay just as much as Chopin or listen to Snow Patrol rather than Shostakovitch?
A believer will be discriminating about what he watches and listens to. But the blanket prohibition of all alcohol, movie-going and pop music is a violation of Christian liberty. Fundamentalism has often been guilty of a legalistic approach to holiness. This can make the Christian life seem joyless and unattractive. Evangelicals need to embrace the principles of gospel liberty set out so clearly by John Calvin.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. (Galatians 5:1)

Introducing the Bloggy Man

See here for Gary Brady's cartoon creation over at Heavenly Worldliness.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Barnabas Fund: Iraq Fear & Hope Christmas Appeal

The Barnabas Fund exists to give practical help and encouragement to persecuted Christians. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, their International Director is an expert on Islamic / Christian relations. See here for an article on the Islamization of Europe and here for the Islamic Doctrine of Sacred Space as it affects the UK. See here for reports of the severe persecution that Christians are facing in Iraq and for details of the Fund's Christmas Appeal.