The Cost of True Riches (or The Cost of Discipleship…but that’s Already Taken)

As per my usual custom, I was perusing the daily newspapers the other morning. Whilst doing so, I happened upon a very interesting article in The Age. It reported that the creator of the 1960s-set drama, Mad Men, had forked out $250,000 for use of a Beatles’ song, Tomorrow Never Knows. According to the creator, “…the show lacked a certain authenticity…” because he had never been able to use a master recording of the Beatles. So, his solution was to spend a quarter of a million dollars for the privilege (see “Mad Men Pays $250,000 for Beatles Song,” The Age, 9th May, 2012).

It’s a mind-boggling amount of money, simply for a few minutes of music. But my point is not to focus on an apparent case of financial profligacy. Of course, we may baulk at the thought of spending that much on something as ephemeral as a few bars from a pop-song. Others, though, may see this as a wise investment. Arguments of this ilk are, in many ways, beside the point. It seems to me that the story is instructive for a very different reason. This peculiar little story can actually offer followers of Jesus a model, or metaphor, for the nature and cost of Christian discipleship. The costly efforts of the Mad Men creator to secure something he saw as absolutely indispensable to his creation should stimulate our thinking about how much Christians are willing to part with in order to reach that which is most precious. In order to perfect his show, to better it – to authenticate it – the creator (and the producers, no doubt) was willing to spend a small fortune on something relatively small.

How much more, then, should Christians reflect on the value placed upon, say, intimacy with Christ, and the consequent costs that are involved in securing that intimacy? Only if Christians are willing to pay the price for an authentic life of discipleship will they actually receive it. To be sure, intimacy with Christ is a gracious gift. The act of the dying, triumphant God, who opened up the possibility of salvation for those fashioned in his image, is something that cannot be earned or extracted. It is grounded in the free act of the One who is eminently free. However, this gift is not without cost. Indeed, salvation may be free, but it is expensive. It costs a lot, and entails much sacrifice: for the God who offered himself for his sinful image-bearers; and for those image-bearers who, by the Spirit, have given themselves to him in return. This is the hard road of discipleship and progressive sanctification, as Christians live out their declared separation from sin and under God’s reign. No claim regarding the Christian life that posits anything less can truly be known as such. Christian authenticity is none other than the reality of Christ’s life in the life of an individual; and given that this reality can only come about as the individual takes a resolute, lifelong stand against everything that would mar Christ’s image in him, Christians ought to reflect soberly on how costly that can be.

The New Testament has much to say about the costliness of true discipleship – about the sacrifice that Christian authenticity entails. Against the backdrop of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Christ, the authors of the NT write frequently of how much it takes to walk the narrow road. Cheap grace is not to be found in its pages; nor is an antinomian attitude countenanced. For once it is recognized that the chief obstacle between the Christian and intimacy with Christ is the constant predation of sin, the struggle against it takes on new, almost cosmic, meaning. The Apostle Paul, for example, spoke of putting to death the sinful nature (cf. Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:24). That is a striking image: death. Christians are called, not to reason with the sinful nature, or to simply oppose it (though that is certainly true). They’re to put to death, so to speak. Paul uses the chilling finality of a person’s demise as a way of getting at the attitude Christians should have towards sin. In the pursuit of authentic discipleship, followers of Christ are to ruthlessly and completely separate themselves from its pernicious effects.

But Paul is not the only NT writer to speak about the struggle for holiness, the cost of discipleship, and the conflict against sin. The evangelists, who recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, included in their works sayings that point to the importance, nay the utter urgency, of pursuing that which is godly. Let’s look at one particular passage: Matthew 6:19-24. It occurs in the midst of Jesus’ so-called Sermon on the Mount, where he offered a kind of new covenant charter to the disciples that had gathered around him and received his ministry. In this passage, Jesus commands his followers not to store up earthly treasures for themselves. Instead, he counsels them to store up heavenly treasures (v.20) that cannot be harmed, followed by the conclusive statement that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (v.21).

The creator of Mad Men, obviously devoted to his work, is a perfect reflection (albeit in a rather perverse way) of the general thrust of Jesus’ words in verse 21; indeed, one might even say that his heart – the centre of who he is – lies with his creative endeavours. That forms the background to what might seem to be an extreme act. Jesus’ pithy statement rings true, regardless of context, for one’s life will be devoted to what one considers most valuable, such that one will offer everything for it. The question for those who claim to value Christ above all need to reflect upon where their hearts are set, and just what their treasure is. A person “cannot serve two masters” (6:24); devotion to God cannot be tempered by devotion to something else. As such, authentic Christian living – living that is genuinely and transparently Christ-like – will not admit such admixture.

Intimacy with Christ, and the life that is transformed accordingly, is one that demands the complete devotion of the person who benefits from it. Again, we may look to Jesus himself to shed light on this. Matthew 13:44-46 has him likening the kingdom of heaven (God) to both treasure and fine pearls. They conjure up images of objects prized and valuable. Like them, the kingdom is something to be treasured; and, like the ones pursing them in Jesus’ parable, those who claim to follow him are to “sell everything” for it. In order that true Christian discipleship may flourish, a resolute willingness to sacrifice everything for it needs to sit firmly within the Christian’s heart. Whereas Paul uses the image of death as a way of characterizing the extent to which Christians ought to pursue God and the holy life, Jesus here puts it in terms of payment. Either way, the point is clear: Christian discipleship is a life marked by the kind of total sacrifice that is itself grounded in the knowledge that what is being received is of infinite value. It cannot be otherwise. It means taking up one’s cross, dying to sin and declaring exclusive allegiance to the One in whose image we are made and to whose likeness we are being conformed. It means giving everything – up to, and including, ourselves – in order to secure something far more valuable. The late John Stott, in writing of the Christian’s struggle against the sinful nature, said this:

“Self-denial…is actually denying or disowning ourselves, renouncing our supposed right to go our own way” (“The Cross of Christ”, p.323).

Quite so. The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, said that when “Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”, and in many ways, it is true. Having been bought at the price of Christ’s death, we must recapitulate that death in our lives so that we might obtain true life. Indeed, we are to “put to death” the sinful nature (borrowing from Paul). Of course, that is the case for all those who are in Christ, for death is the final stage of sin’s rule. Nevertheless, discipleship in this life demands a thousand daily “deaths” to self, to the pride, to sin. Only as that happens can we truly say that we are members of God’s kingdom. Denying the sinful nature and taking hold of God’s kingdom, therefore, are two sides of the same coin. Or, to put it slightly differently, everything that I have mentioned in this essay – intimacy with Christ, the pursuit of holiness, authentic discipleship, and devotion to God – are of a piece; you cannot have one without all the others. It’s a packaged gift. As I said earlier, it’s a gloriously free gift. However, an authentic Christian life, even more so than an authentic TV program, costs everything. 


The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part One)

Once completed, these will be companion pieces to my earlier essay on the cross. This first one is a little late, since Easter has already come and gone. But as the saying goes, “better late than never”.

Christians know well how to celebrate the crucifixion of Jesus. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the resurrection. Whilst we rightly proclaim the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, as a triumph over the powers of evil, and as a demonstration of God’s holy love (cf. Romans 5:8), it seems that many are much less certain about the significance of Christ being raised from the dead. Indeed, beyond the vague notion that it means we can now possess eternal life, or that it was God’s way of publicly vindicating his Son (both true, of course, but they need to be worked out in more detail), Christians are unsure quite what to do with the resurrection.

Hopefully, these posts can offer a kind of corrective. There are many ways in which the resurrection of Christ is a vital belief for his followers. What I want to concentrate on are four different dimensions of this great event:

1)    The resurrection as a vital element in the justification of believers – that is, their being declared righteous before God despite their sin.

2)    The resurrection as a necessary foundation for sanctification.

3)    The resurrection as the ground upon which people can claim membership in God’s family.

4)    The resurrection as the first step in new creation.

There is not enough space to consider each of the fours aspects in the one post. So I shall simply focus on how the resurrection is a necessary part of our justification.

Resurrection and Justification

We normally think that our being justified before God rests upon the sacrificial work of Christ on the cross. That is certainly – and gloriously – true. What I didn’t say clearly in my post on Christ’s crucifixion is that it was an act of substitution, of penal substitution. In other words, Jesus paid the penalty for sin that was ours to pay, as our substitute and representative. When he walked the road to Calvary and was put to death at the place called Golgotha, Jesus “stood” in our place under sin’s weight and God’s condemnation of it. Indeed, he died the death that we were due to die (“For the wages of sin is death” – Rom. 6:23). God in Christ managed to do for us what we could not do ourselves, by shouldering the price of sin and forgiving us justly (ie. without condoning sin).

Consequently, when we place Spirit-impelled faith in Christ’s work, we trust in his once-and-for-all death as the means by which we can come into a right relationship with God. That right relationship is closely identified with our justification, which is a legal term that is used often by writers in the New Testament (not least, Paul). We are justified by faith because God reckons us to be righteous. And he reckons us to be righteous precisely because we have, via the work of the Spirit, appropriated the benefits of Christ’s gracious, representative work on the cross. Our sins are no longer counted against us, and we are no longer separated, alienated, from God.

This is a wonderful truth, which has been secured by the cross. However, it is not the cross, in isolation, which has secured it. In fact, I would go as far as to say that by itself, the cross would have been a monumental failure. That may seem a trifle overblown, but we have to remember that in God’s redemptive economy, Jesus’ shameful death was always – of necessity – going to be followed by his triumphant resurrection. And this has important implications for our justification. What may not be apparent to many Christians, in their commendable zeal to ground our righteous standing before God in Christ’s sacrificial work, is that this legal position also hinges upon the certainty of the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross and the resurrection are indissolubly linked, forming one saving event. This is true, whether we are referring to our initial standing before God or to our ultimate glorification. Unfortunately, the resurrection is invariably neglected when it comes to explaining the ground for a Christian’s justification before God, even though the link is made explicit at several points in the NT.

Romans 4:25 is a prime example of the relationship between the resurrection and justification. It is also, out of interest, a clear example of how the NT often considers the death and resurrection of Christ as one event. Let’s take a look:

“He [Jesus Christ] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification[emphasis mine].

They cannot, nor should they, be seen as ultimately separable acts. This is important as we move on. In any case, reading the above verse suggests one very important fact: Christ was raised so that we might be justified. Our justification would not have occurred had it not been for his triumph over death. Now, it is possible to read this verse a little differently. That is, some might reverse the causal order and argue that because justification had already been achieved (presumably through the cross), Christ was raised from the dead. The act of raising Christ from the dead becomes, then, the public demonstration of something that had already been accomplished. In other words, the cross alone opened up the possiblility for the justification of sinners; the resurrection was the outward, tangible sign of what was already the case. Views to the contrary notwithstanding, I think it best to say that what Paul is arguing in Romans 4:25 is that Christ’s resurrection in some way secured our justification. It’s not that the cross was unimportant in this scheme – far from it. However, it would have been incomplete, and therefore futile, without triumph over death three days later.

Understanding the judicial significance of death is important at this point. Our death is a consequence of sin, to be sure. But to be clear: it is also a sign of God’s judgment upon it and those who participate in it (which is to say, everyone). Indeed, in sinning, we alienate ourselves from the very source of life; death is the inevitable (but not to say, impersonal) implication of this estrangement and divide. I noted earlier that in taking on the burden on humanity’s sin at Calvary, Jesus also bore God’s wrathful condemnation of it. He did so as our representative, bearing punishment on behalf of others. But without the resurrection, Christ’s substitutionary offering before God would have been a rejected one. By taking the place of sinful humanity, Christ had to be raised. For only then could it be said that he himself had been justified as the representative man (bearing the divine punishment for sin before being vindicated) and that death, as a judicial consequence of sin, had been defeated.

Christ’s vindication – his being raised from the dead publicly – was necessary, in that without it, the guilt that he shouldered on behalf of humanity would not have been removed. The penalty of death would still have been in place, sin’s reign unbroken, and God’s condemnation upon us. Or, as I. Howard Marshall, a NT scholar, puts it:

“…The resurrection is God’s release of Christ from the punishment of sin that he is bearing; he remits any continuation of the punishment. Hence, there is now the possibility of a new relationship between God and the man whom he has judged in death, and so God can now forgive sinners” (“Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity”, p.86).

The new relationship of which Marshall speaks is the new legal status of human beings, who because of Christ’s successful and accepted offering, can now escape sin and its divinely-ordained penalty, death, thereby enjoying a right relationship with the God who has forgiven them on the basis thereof. Insofar as we participate in Christ (through Spirit-impelled faith and union), we are counted as righteous before God. But that could only come about with the raising of Christ after his death. That is why Paul can say, in 1 Corinthians, that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). He is pointing to the very thing I have suggested in this essay: that if Christ has not been raised, then he is still dead; and if he is still dead, then his offering was unsuccessful in paying the penalty for sin, since God did not remit the condemnation that befell Jesus as our representative. If that is so, then we are still locked in our sins, apart from God and facing the consequence of death.

“But”, Paul declares, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). All who are in Christ “will be made alive” in him (v.22). It is the fact of the resurrection that completes the sin-bearing work of Christ on the cross. More than that, it brings us assurance of our own vindication – our own acquittal, our own triumph over sin and death – as we are brought into union with him.

When Glory and Wisdom Die

Easter is upon us. Many have been, and will be, flocking to churches to sing, praise, worship, listen, pray and fellowship. Many more will elect to devote their time to other things, perhaps forgetting (or not knowing in the first place) the events that lie behind this cherished time.

Those events are what I want to celebrate, and so this post is a kind of paean to the God who initiated them; who set them in motion, so that his image-bearers might be saved, rescued – redeemed. Of course, I refer to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, God’s Son, in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Through these epochal acts, God in Christ secured for us what we could not accomplish by ourselves. Through Christ’s death, God took upon his own shoulders the pain and penalty of sin; through his triumphant resurrection, God defeated sin’s companion, death, and vindicated his Son’s sacrificial offering.

That is, admittedly, a very rough treatment of something that cannot be grasped in a few sentences. In fact, one might say that the church’s entire biblical and theological reflection upon the events of Easter has barely scratched the surface of the manifold wisdom of God. The analogy of a diamond springs to mind. Like a diamond, the cross and the resurrection are multifaceted to a seemingly infinite degree; no one perspective – no one image – is alone capable of capturing the brilliance of what we see.

With that in mind, my post may well be seen as reductionist. For I seek to hone in on the first part of God’s redemptive work – the cross – and distil two particular dimensions pertinent to its significance: the revelation of God’s glory; and the demonstration of God’s wisdom. The cross stands as the paradoxical occasion for both these divine attributes, and indeed, can be seen as the “theatre” (to borrow Calvin’s term) of their supreme manifestation.

The Cross as a Revelation of God’s Glory

John’s Gospel is unique for many reasons; indeed, it is quite unlike the Synoptics in several respects. One of the most significant differences is the way in which it treats the cross. For the fourth evangelist, the cross itself functions as a revelation of the glory of God. Consider the prologue (John 1: 1-18): the evangelist begins this section by equating the mysterious “Word” with God himself. Later, he declares, with stunning imagery, that “the Word became flesh” and dwelt in the midst of humanity (v.14). That concept (i.e., the Word dwelling amongst flesh-and-blood people) can also be translated as “tabernacled”, and conjures up the idea of one pitching a tent or, as is the case here, a tabernacle. It is a clear allusion to the notion of Yahweh’s glory becoming manifest, visible, brilliantly apparent, in the tabernacle he directed the Israelites to establish for him.

What the evangelist is proclaiming is that the same Creator God, who dwelt with his people and displayed his glory thus, is also the very same God who has made his “home”, as it were, in human flesh. One hardly needs to possess unparalleled interpretative skills to realise that the fourth evangelist is talking about Christ when he speaks of the “Word”. What surprises is the connection between the embodied life of a Galilean peasant with the resplendent majesty of the sovereign Creator. Indeed, John links the Incarnation with the revelation of divine glory in the very next part of the verse. He writes, with the awestruck sincerity of an eyewitness, that “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only”, with “One and Only” functioning as a veiled reference to the uniqueness of the one true God. The manifestation of God and his glory are here inseparable, and the evangelist pinpoints them in Christ himself.

So we see that the self-abnegation and humiliation of the Word (read: Jesus Christ) is intimately, though paradoxically, linked to his glorification from the moment of his advent. But it does not end there. For John takes the strange unity of glory and humiliation beyond the Incarnation, and marries them at Calvary in a way that would have seemed nonsensical to many of his contemporaries. Three times in his gospel, he records Jesus as using the phrase, “lifted up” (3:14; 8:28, 12:32), which is not only a literal reference to his crucifixion – in particular, the act of his being raised up on the wooden cross as part of the process of execution – but also a metaphorical nod to his glorification. His being “lifted up” did not simply pertain to the physicality of being nailed to a piece of wood above a throng of onlookers; that event, grisly as it was, actually revealed the unmitigated glory of Father and Son in harmony.

It deepens further the paradox of Christ’s mission, almost to the point of offense. How indeed, we might ask, could a form of execution – used not only to kill, but to subject a person to the most extreme form of public humiliation – be the site of the manifestation of God and his majesty? How could Christ himself say, with the cross clearly in view, that the “hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23)? How could he pray to the Father, the night before his death that “…the time has come. Glorify you Son, that your Son may glorify you” (17:1)? Clearly, Jesus thought of his death, not primarily as a form of debasement (though on a certain level, that was the case – cf. Philippians 2:8c), but as a necessary part of his revelatory work. Bearing in mind that God’s glory cannot be separated from himself, the unveiling work of Christ on the cross was the supreme unveiling of God.

On the cross, the Son revealed the splendour of the Father. On the cross, the saving sovereignty of God was manifested. On the cross, the power of God to vanquish the powers of evil, death and sin were uniquely revealed through its accomplishment. The diverse attributes of the triune God – love, mercy, justice, authority, wrath, judgement – were drawn together at a single point with the violent demise of one man. And it was in that demise that these attributes were seen in all their pristine beauty. We beheld his glory – the glory of a man, mangled by the brutality of a world that had rejected its god.

The Cross as a Demonstration of God’s Wisdom

Some people are loath to admit this truth. For moderns, the cross seems like a bloodthirsty act. At the very least, it seems morbidly ridiculous to suggest that God would reveal himself through something as shameful as the cross. Even if salvation was a necessity, why should God elect to accomplish it through something so at odds with what we normally think of noble and praiseworthy? It is not simply a problem for moderns; the apostle Paul confronted a similar dilemma when he preached the cross to cultural and ethnic contemporaries. Writing to the Corinthians, he freely concedes that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was the very antithesis of the ideals possessed by Greek culture and Jewish religion. But, Paul declares, Christ crucified is the revelation, embodiment, of God’s wisdom and power (v.24). Paradoxically, the cross fulfils Greeks’ search for wisdom and Jews’ search for miraculous might (cf. v.22), doing so in way that confounds the world’s expectations. But that is part of the point; the apostle suggests that the wisdom of God bursts the boundaries of – and indeed, is unbounded by – the cultural and religious frameworks that man imposes on truth and knowledge. Rather than conforming himself to the ways of man, God enacted something entirely new; something unprecedented; something so unlike the wisdom of the world that it would hardly have been believed.

No matter. For Paul, Christ is indeed the demonstration of God’s wisdom, despite the apparent foolishness of that statement. Two things are noteworthy. First, Paul appears to be singing from the same hymn sheet as John. Both testify to the embodiment of God’s wisdom in and through the person of his Son, Jesus (1 Cor. 1:24,30; cf. John 1:1-2, where “Word” should be seen as a synonym or sorts for wisdom). God’s truth has become supremely known in Jesus – and that, supremely enacted in his shameful death.

Second, Paul’s notion of wisdom is not a static, intellectual concept, any more than it was for his companion, John. Both men, standing in the tradition of their religious forebears, regard wisdom as a dynamic, creative process. It transforms and changes. It is, one might say, powerful, in that it can wrought a shift in reality. Think Proverbs 8, which speaks loftily of wisdom being a partner in creation. Thus, for Paul, God’s wisdom is authoritatively revealed in the salvation of sinners. It is embodied in Christ crucified, whose death was God’s way of effecting the redemption of his image-bearing creatures, ending the reign of sin and death, and inaugurating the age of new creation. He has shamed the wise and the learned, for their sophistry – skilled as it might be – cannot solve the ultimate question of humanity’s predicament or its relation to the Creator. However, the ministry of his Son, who has dealt with sin, once and for all, through his own sacrificial death, has provided a definitive answer. Through death and apparent failure, God in Christ has, ironically, defeated the powers arrayed against humanity (cf. Colossians 2:15) and opened up the way of reconciliation between himself and his image-bearing creatures.

The cross of Christ radiates the upside-down brilliance of God. Nevertheless, his saving work is left incomplete if we do not consider Calvary’s necessary sequel, the empty tomb. Indeed, the cross cannot be understood except in light of the resurrection. The enigma of Easter Sunday is one that I will explore in due course. For now, let us celebrate and commemorate the strange, yet irrevocable, hope elicited by the death of a loving God.

Romans and Worship

(Caveat: this post is largely for a Christian audience. Nevertheless, I hope that those who are not Christians may still profit from it).

My past few blog posts have sought to engage with some ideas current at the moment – medical ethics, domestic politics and the effects (good or otherwise) of social networking. In this post, however, I wish to explore a topic that may appear to be more personal, perhaps more devotional, in character and complexion. Nonetheless, it is still a vitally important topic, especially for Christians who seek to found their lives upon godly truth. It could even be said that the topic to which I refer is actually a very public thing. Though it most certainly is personal, it is not thereby private. Indeed, as I hope to show, what I want to look at in this post stands over-against everything else that Christians do as disciples and pilgrims in this world, framing every dimension of our lives.

I am here talking about worship, for worship forms a central part of the Christian’s life. We should never doubt this, since to worship is to express, enact, dramatize and reflect the truth of God. But why is this important? Why should God want to be worshiped? Moreover, what is the connection between worship and truth anyway? These questions have been rattling around my mind for a little while, and in order to provide a semblance of an answer, I shall turn to the book of Romans.

It’s strange that I should look to this particular part of Scripture to shed light on these questions. Paul’s letter to the Romans reads more like an elaborate theological treatise than it does a missive to a particular congregation dealing with particular issues. Nor is it the first book one thinks of if one wants to develop some kind of biblical understanding of worship. Psalms, for example, might seem to be a more appropriate contender. That said, behind and beneath the lofty themes of universal sin, the achievement of the cross, justification, sanctification, glorification, resurrection and God’s sovereignty, one will uncover another strand in Romans – less overt, to be sure – dealing with the theological importance and rationale of (proper) worship. Now, I shall spend a bit of time following the thread, so please bear with me. Hopefully, it will be worth it!

The strand begins in the very first chapter of Paul’s epistle. After a preamble, where he outlines the purposes of his letter, the apostle goes on to survey the dreadful, and universal, condition of humanity. Romans 1:18-32 is a broad-brush diagnosis and description of the problem of human sin. At the end of this section, after having offered us his theological analysis of the origin and evolution of human depravity (to which I shall return), Paul lists a number of sins that characterise the human condition: greed, malice, gossip, slander, ruthlessness, and the like (vv.28-32). Not that every person has been guilty of all these sins; but Paul’s point is to suggest that their very presence in humanity is evidence that it has gone awry.

As I said, Paul does offer an explanation of sorts. The sin we witness around us, the unrighteous acts – whether earth-shattering, or more “trivial” in nature (though sin is never really trivial in nature) – find their ultimate source in the rejection of truth. Specifically, it is the rejection of the truth of God that has led to the corrupt human landscape that Paul surveys. The notion of truth and related concepts are important for Paul in these early sections of his letter. In verse 18, as a way of commencing his diagnosis, Paul speaks of men (read: humanity) actively suppressing the truth (of God). Then, over the next couple of verses, Paul develops his point, by suggesting that the knowledge of the true God, though it has been apparent (vv.19-20), has been spurned by humanity; people have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, worshiping instead “created things” (v.25). Despite the pretence of wisdom, those who have engaged in such acts (which means all of us) have in fact departed from ultimate reality – namely, God. And with that departure has come a darkening of thoughts, of hearts and of feelings (cf. v.21). Estrangement from God has also meant estrangement from his truth, with both mind and will mutually corrupted and mutually corrupting.

It’s a rather heavy way of beginning a letter, but it is the necessary ground for what Paul wants to say later about the majesty of God’s salvific plan. What ought to concern us at the moment are a couple of points that emerge from Paul’s polemical opening, the relevance of which will become apparent as I proceed. First, truth (and its loss) stands at the heart of the human problem, as Paul sees it. He refers to this predicament in a variety of ways: the exchange and suppression of truth; the futility of thinking apart from, and in opposition to, God; “foolishness”; the acceptance of lies; the false claims of wisdom made on the part of sinful humanity; and the loss of divine knowledge. This constellation of words and concepts, all found in Romans 1:18-32, constitutes a theological package that Paul uses to explain the problem of human depravity and spiritual need. In effect, the truth of God has been rejected, spurned, arrogantly dismissed. Humans have arrogated for themselves the position that God rightfully occupies, and have attempted to claim for themselves the wisdom that belongs to him. Rather than perceiving themselves and their position in God’s creation correctly, people have turned from him – the source of all truth – and have followed tantalising, yet spurious, substitutes. Indeed, Paul says as much in verse 21, linking the refusal to give God his due as God with the degradation of thought, heart and will alike. This is no mere refusal to accept an intellectual proposition. Rather, Paul correctly declares that a loss of truth has degraded humanity on a multiplicity of levels. Depraved thinking leads inexorably to depraved behaviour – which is exactly the link the Apostle makes in v.28 (…”he [God] gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done”).

Second, Paul implicitly suggests that the rejection of God as the proper object of worship did not thereby mean that humans worshiped nothing. Not at all. On the contrary, Paul is canny enough to see that once God is displaced from that proper position, other things – “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (v.23) – ended up filling the gap. A person’s pattern of thinking, and thus the actions linked to it, never occurs in a void. It can either be framed by God’s truth or it can be framed by veneration of something else. In the society in which Paul wrote, physical idols would have been most dominant. Greco-Roman culture was replete with an entire galaxy of gods that were honoured and worshiped. In our own day, there are many such “idols” that vie for our attention. They may not be made of gold or wood or stone, but they exert a similar influence over people, dragging them away from the true God who created them. Paul is perceptive enough to realize this fact – that rejection of God’s truth does not entail the birth of a new kind of humanity, or the elevation of people to a new moral or sapiential plane. It simply means the replacement of one god with another. Similarly, Paul knows that this idolatry is indissolubly linked with the loss of true knowledge that I spoke about a moment ago. What is witnessed externally is invariably a reflection of what occurs internally, within a person. As thinking is transformed, so too is belief and action. These dimensions, concurrent within a person, go hand-in-hand.

So, what are we left with? Paul offers us a diagnosis for the universal condition of sinful humanity. He will spend the next few chapters unpacking both the problem and the solution, ending with the climax of his high theological drama in Chapter 8. Strange as it may sound, I want to skip over Chapters 2-7, in order to focus on what Paul says in the eighth Chapter of his epistle. The intervening sections outline the process by which God responded to humanity’s predicament, but for my purposes here, I want to concentrate on the telos, the end-point of that process. For it becomes clear that the grave problems the apostle outlined in the first chapter find their ultimate resolution in this particular section of Paul’s missive. Chapter 8 is the counter-point and the answer to Chapter 1, helping to frame what lies in-between. Indeed, it almost reads like a deliberate reversal – more than that, a redemptive elevation of God’s creation to something beyond that which it was prior to sin’s baleful effects.

In Chapter 1, for example, the apostle referred to humanity being able to perceive God’s reality through the material, created order (vv.19-20). In Chapter 8, he writes that creation itself eagerly awaits the revelation of God’s newly created people (v.19). Rather than worshiping it, God’s redeemed will lead creation into a new era of freedom, so that it, too, may experience the liberation God’s renewed image-bearers will experience. That renewal takes place within the wider context of the advent, the bursting forth, of God’s new creation. Further on in Chapter 8, Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that those saved by God will be conformed to the likeness of his Son (Jesus)” as a part of their salvation (v.29). This seems to be a deliberate, counter-posing allusion to his earlier description of humans giving up their worship of the true God for created “images” (v.23). Those saved by God will no longer worship created things, thereby being conformed to them. Instead, they will be shaped according to the image and likeness of Christ, thereby attaining the glory that humanity has always sought (albeit through rebellious autonomy from God). In other words, humanity exchanged God’s glory for the idolatry of the created world, which included “mortal man”; through the coming of Christ, the true man – who is simultaneously the image of the immortal God – God’s image-bearers may take possession of the glory that they had lost (v.30; cf. 1:21, 23).

What has all this to do with worship? It might sound like a powerful statement of God’s gracious and redemptive activity in this world, which culminates with the sacrificial work of Christ. But at what point does this story link up with the notion of proper worship? The answer lies in the first couple of verses of Chapter 12. After digressing to make some (important) remarks on the implications of the gospel for unbelieving Israel, Paul turns his attention to the practical and ethical implications, for believers, of what he has written. There, he writes:

“Therefore, I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” (Romans 12:1-2b).

Many of the themes I have already canvassed have been compressed into these few short sentences by the apostle. Worship, conformation to external conditions (whether good or ill, degrading or redemptive), right thinking, and so on, are all present. If Chapter 1 was the outline of the problem, and Chapter 8 the final, climactic outline of the solution, then the commencement of Chapter 12 is the first step in the practical, ethical consequences for believers. No longer are they to participate in the idolatry Paul railed against at the beginning of Romans; no longer are they to be shaped by the world (as it exists in rebellion against God) or created things; no longer are they to allow the effects thereof degrade thinking and corrupt action (a la Rom. 1:28-32). Using the language of sacrifice, Paul urges his readers to devote themselves to God as an act of worship and to allow him to renew their minds (note the passive “…be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, which indicates an activity initiated by God). His readers are to offer themselves wholeheartedly to Him. All of this stands in stark, and deliberate, contrast with what Paul spoke of in Chapter 1, and is the direct consequence of what he declared in Chapter 8.

As Christians, then, our worship is to be directed to God. That much is obvious. Also obvious (though no less important) is the conviction that worship is an act of gratitude, to be sure. Paul says that we ought to do this “in view of God’s mercy…” (12:1), which implies a thankful attitude. But my point is to suggest that worship is a more layered, more multifaceted, phenomenon than some might assume. Firstly, it is a way of standing against the universal (human) reality of sin and untruth, as Paul so clearly intimates. Secondly, it is a marker, a sign, that we are renewed people, led by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Our worshipful acts not only oppose and challenge the overt and latent forms of idolatry by which sinful estrangement from God is manifested; they also constitute declarative acts, by which we say that we are redeemed and being redeemed daily. Everything Paul wrote about humanity in Chapter 1 is to be deliberately counter-posed by Christians worshiping the true God and being conformed – nay, transformed – to God’s true image, Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the pattern of true humanity. It is a prophetic witness, flowing out of the work that God has performed to undo the universal effects of the situation Paul has already discussed. Through it, we too participate in the undoing of the primal sin of idolatry, directing ourselves, our lives, our bodies, to the One who created us. As renewed people, who will take their places in God’s new world, our worship is a revelatory act, which springs from the revelation that we have received. Not that we possess it in its totality. Nonetheless, we rest our hopes upon Him, for we trust in his promise to complete the work that he has started. As we Christians give ourselves to God, we do so in an anticipatory sense: through worshipful acts, we enact and experience a foretaste of the liberating truth of God, which will inhabit and envelop his creation with the consummation of his salvific plan.

Finally, then, our worship of God – which flows out of, and is a response to, the initiating steps he took to rescue us from our sin and idolatry – further enables us to escape the corruption of thought and will that has characterised idolatrous humanity. It is, in itself, a means of change. Having been brought from the realm of sin and death into the realm of holiness and life, we can now take our proper places as God’s true image-bearers, offering our entire lives in service to him (rather than the world as it now stands). That is why Paul can so readily link worship with the renewal of mind and thought. It is also why transformation is to be seen against the backdrop of human depravity. If the original human problem was characterised by the spurning of God’s reality for idols, and the resultant loss of divine knowledge, then its opposite is characterised by worship of the One who is actually God, leading to the reclamation of truth, the vanquishing of sin, the purification of the will, the redemption of bodies and the ennobling of a sanctified mind (contrast Rom. 12:1-2 with Paul’s earlier talk of a “depraved mind” in 1:28). And if some suggest that worshiping God, regardless of its apparently beneficial effects, is simply an exercise in divine ego-stroking, then one can point them back to the comment I have already made: that worship occurs universally, whether God is the object or not. If we are meant to be framing our lives around God, and have been created for that express purpose, then to do otherwise is a denial of our nature (apart from a denial of who God is).

So, worship is not simply something in which we engage on a Sunday morning because it has been determined by tradition (though corporate praise is a vital part of the life and witness of the church). Let us not forget that Paul exhorted believers to offer their whole bodies – not just their voices – to God. Indeed, worship is inescapably ethical in character. Still less has the practice of worship been instituted by an insecure god who needs to be glorified. Rather, worship – for Christians, that is – constitutes an all-encompassing embrace of God’s reality and truth, in conformity to our true natures, and against the backdrop of the rejection of divine truth. In this scheme, we allow ourselves to be moulded by the wisdom that was always meant to shape humanity. At the same time, we also offer a prophetic critique to, and of, a world that pursues a multiplicity of false gods and deities in much the same way that the subjects of Romans 1 did. I can think of many, even in the city of Melbourne: aside from religions that deny the reality of God (as he truly is) and the revelation of his truth, people are enraptured with consumerism, materialism, post-modernism, sport, success (however defined), hedonistic living, and so on. They are ultimately futile, for they do not lead to the God with whom we have been created to have a relationship. They certainly cannot lead us into his new world, for they cannot erase – and in fact, reinforce – the very problems that have alienated us from him in the first place.

Two final points. First, I have not yet offered a portrait of what God’s truth actually is. It’s all well and fine to critique the false claims to truth that abound in this world. But what is the truth around which we are meant to revolve our lives? I’ve already hinted at it, but it bears repeating in a more explicit way. God’s truth is embodied in the One to whose image we are being conformed – Jesus Christ. Of course, truth, whether divine or secular, is intellectual, cognitive, conceptual. Paul’s references to the mind and to thought would be meaningless without this basic understanding. Belief in the nature of God, and in how he has revealed himself, is a vitally important aspect of worship. But truth, in a biblical scheme, is also deeply personal. Jesus Christ is God’s personal truth enfleshed. In him, we see what God is like and how we are to live. In him, we witness the pristine revelation of God and the abiding image of true humanity, co-mingling and co-existing. And, as the Jesus of John’s Gospel declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Earlier in that book, Jesus counselled a Samaritan woman to worship God “in spirit and in truth” (cf. John 4:24). Bring these two verses together, and what do we have? A call to worship God, to devote oneself to him, through and in the truth made incarnate in Jesus. When we read the Scriptures, which proclaim Christ hidden and revealed, we begin to see what God’s truth – and hence, the truth about who we are to be – actually looks like.

Second, we do not come to God of our own volition; neither can we worship God merely as we are. It requires the abiding presence of God’s Spirit to reveal, enliven, encourage and inflame. Paul speaks of the importance of being led by the Spirit in the eighth chapter of Romans. Before talking about Christian disciples as God’s redeemed, liberated people, the apostle offers his readers two ways: the way of the flesh; and the way of the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:4-12). It is the way of the Spirit that leads one into the truth of God (which is to say, the very character and presence of God himself). And when we arrive at Paul’s statement about worship at the beginning of Chapter 12, he says explicitly that it is a spiritual act. Such a declaration dovetails nicely with John 4:24, which I surveyed above. The fact is that true worship of the true God can only be accomplished in the Spirit. It can only be achieved when a person’s life is saturated in Him. Not only so, but it requires the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about receptivity in sinful people. Word and Spirit – God’s wisdom and intimate presence – work in unity to bring about a newly created people, who are saturated in his truth and worshiping in it.

* * *

We rightly celebrate, and dutifully declare, God’s truth to a sinful and broken world. However, let us not forget (those of us who are Christ’s followers) that the reason we have access to the Father, and have been empowered to imitate Christ, is the fact of his (Christ’s) own sacrifice. Indeed, his sacrifice makes possible our own acts of devotion before God (which is part of Paul’s point in Rom. 12:1-2). I have referred several times to Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans in connection with the redemption of God’s people. But what I said there is only possible because of the act of oblation that Christ himself performed on our behalf. Sure, Paul speaks about being set free from the corruption of this present world. He speaks about being led by the Spirit as the mark of truly redeemed people. Yet that has only come about because of the epochal work of Christ on the cross, who allowed God’s condemnation of sin to fall upon his own person (8:3). Given the reality of this great act of divine mercy, which is simultaneously the revelation of the truth of the triune God; and given that our goal as Christians is to be conformed to the likeness of the Christ who embodies that truth, in life and in death, there is only one question: why would we not worshipfully participate in this redemptive process?

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.1)

Over the past few months, I have engaged with the issue of evil and suffering from various angles. The job of doing so appears to be quite pressing at the moment, given what we have seen occur around the world. I began this series shortly after the devastating floods inQueensland. But the destruction they wrought has been dwarfed by the unimaginable numbers of dead and missing (not to mention the tens of thousands of homes destroyed) by the recent earthquake and tsunami off the coast ofJapan. And all the while, people in other parts of the world continue to endure violence and bloody suppression at the hands of unjust dictators, whether inLibya or Syria. To remain unaffected by these events probably means that one has not truly understood their magnitude, nor the suffering involved.

In previous posts, I attempted to grapple with the different interpretations of evil and suffering in the world, pointing out the deficiencies of an atheistic perspective whilst also trying to provide some rationale for belief in God amidst hardship and tragedy. However, those posts were written at the level of general philosophical engagement and speculation, and whilst they may have been successful in their respective aims (people perusing this blog will have to judge their success!), they were abstract renditions of the problem. Further, whilst they may have created space for belief in God, they in no way automatically validated the Christian faith. In these posts, I hope to provide a fully Christian account of evil and suffering, in addition to giving some insight into God’s response. I mean, it’s one thing to claim that the so-called “free will argument” (for example) makes the existence of God and the presence of evil theoretically consistent; quite another to claim the truth of the Christian faith and to tell the story of what God is actually doing about evil and suffering in the midst of a messy and chaotic world. I trust, however, that readers will have gained some insight into these issues by the time you finish these articles.

No account of evil and suffering that claims to be truly Christian can be so without a robust account of sin. These days, it seems that sin is a “four-letter word” (despite only having three). People – even some Christians – are reluctant to speak about it, and our increasing theological illiteracy (among other things) has made the concept opaque and offensive. But although unpopular, sin is a much-needed antidote to the rather shallow and trivial accounts of human wrongdoing that sometimes abound. Far from being an easily malleable species, whose perfectibility is simply a matter of the right environment, humanity has proven itself to be in dire spiritual and moral need. I am not arguing that human beings are incapable of goodness and of right moral action; the contrary is demonstrably the case. But what is clear – at least from the vantage point of Christian theology – is that humanity’s nature is deeply corrupt. Against the progressivist, who might argue that all people need is a good dose of post-Enlightenment thinking to see them on their merry way towards the summit of human existence, it is apparent that there is something intrinsically warped about humanity, which no amount of education or moral reasoning can completely ameliorate. That warped nature is ultimately the result of humanity’s ruptured relationship with God; a rejection of the One who has created this world and in whose image we have been made; and a repudiation of the source of goodness and truth. I said in my previous post on this topic that humanity has been endowed with free will, and that much of the evil and immorality that we witness is a consequence of free will’s abuse. That is indeed true, but a Christian interpretation goes further, making the claim that even free will has been strangled by human sin, such that God’s image-bearing creatures, who were made to reflect the goodness of their Creator, are now unable to escape the distorting effects of primal disobedience. Each of us has, to varying degrees (though I would not like to speculate on that point further), been “infected” by this spiritual, moral and ontological chaos, with the consequence that all are separated from God, and are confirmed in that separation through actions that render us both victims and perpetrators of seemingly irrevocable evil.

Paul speaks at some length regarding this existential predicament in his letter to the Romans. There, with broad brush strokes, the Apostle highlights the dire state of man (Rom. 1:18-32). Using the creation narratives in Genesis as a backdrop, he argues for the present state of humanity being both a recapitulation and reflection of the first man’s willful separation from his Creator. What is more, Paul makes the very startling claim that not only humanity, but all creation, is in a state of chaos, and that the latter’s “slavery” is bound up with the former’s rebellion (Rom. 8:19-22). God created this world as his good world; he launched his project of creation by bringing it forth from the chaos (Gen. 1:1-2, where water symbolizes chaos, a common motif in Jewish cosmology), and by giving humanity the task of stewardship – exercising his wise order over the earth he had made. But, humanity failed in that task, and rather than being an unambiguously good and fruitful place, creation became marked by the encroaching chaos – darkly signified by death, the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s separation from the Author of Life. Man has bowed to sin’s monstrous performance on history’s stage, and the litany of sins Paul reels off at the end of Chapter 1 points to his (man’s) estrangement from God as well as his willing embrace of evil. What we witness now, with horror and with tears, flows from that distorted inclination within man.

This, at least, is a compact Christian rendition of humanity’s – and hence, the world’s – predicament. Even here, in the prosperous calm of the west, we are not immune to the more banal expressions of evil. Thus, the question arises once more: what is God doing about evil in the world? Some might think that God is unmoved by the brokenness and the suffering that abounds; I mean, it does appear that he has simply left the world to its own devices, and is eerily quiet when disaster strikes. But no. God has provided the solution to the problem of evil – not by “solving” it philosophically, as if it were a puzzle; and not by vanquishing it through an awesome display of destructive, worldly power (though he has vanquished it, and has done so through power). Instead, he has defeated evil in the most surprising fashion. Evil – at least in principle – has seen the curtain come down on its presence, though not in the way one might expect.

Of course, I am referring to the ministry of Jesus, climaxing with Calvaryand the empty tomb. His advent was the culmination of a redemptive project that God began with the calling of Abraham (Gen. 12). Through Abraham’s descendents, Israel, God set about reclaiming his world. But Israel, too, proved to be infected with the same sin that had corrupted the rest of humanity; God’s chosen instruments of rescue needed rescuing themselves. So he did the unthinkable – he involved himself, radically and intimately, in the fate of his people, and thus, the fate of the world. The transcendent Creator achieved the apparently impossible feat of becoming part of his creation. And as redeemer, he made a way through sin and death and evil and injustice by allowing himself to be momentarily crushed by these forces, even as he nullified their power through the events of Easter. And so it is here that the cross and the resurrection take their rightful place together at the heart of Christianity’s answer to the problem of evil and God. So much could be said about this epochal event (and they must be taken together as one event), but here I want to concentrate on just a few passages that shed light on the nature of the climax of Jesus’ ministry, and through them, weave together a theological tapestry that presents the full sweep of God’s climactic response to evil’s malevolent cry. Many of us have asked God what he is doing about it all. Through Jesus Christ, he has answered. That answer, however, will have to wait for my next post.