Sanctification: Not Sitting Back (Letham)

Systematic Theology Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God sanctifies the ones he calls out of darkness into his marvelous light.  But we who are called out of darkness and given the Holy Spirit are also responsible for growing in faith and obedience.  I appreciate how Robert Letham summarizes this:

Paul writes of us having been predestined to sanctification by the Father (Eph. 1:4-5).  Elsewhere he speaks of it being the will of God (1 Thess. 4:3), and of our receiving the Holy Spirit for that purpose (John 17:17, 19; Eph. 5:25, 27; 1 Thess. 4:7-8; 5:23; etc.). Specifically, sanctification is appropriated to the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:1-2). He indwells the people of God. Scripture is silent as to how the Spirit operates, for this is beyond our understanding, as Jesus points out in John 3.

Notwithstanding, sanctification requires our fullest effort as well.  It is not a case of sitting back and letting the Holy Spirit take over, for the Spirit works through our own responsible engagement.  Here Romans 8:12ff is important to grasp.  We are obliged to put to death the deeds of the flesh.  However, it is by the Spirit that this is done.  Again, in Philippians 2:11-12, Paul writes that we are to work out our salvation; but it is God who puts this desire in us and brings it to effect.  Similarly, Paul can say that the grace of God was evident in his life, since he worked harder than anyone else (1 Cor. 15:10).

Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, p. 734-735.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

“A Great Multitude Which No One Could Count” (Carson)

I’ve always loved the texts in Scripture that explain how the redeemed people of God are a huge multitude of people throughout history from all over the world. It’s encouraging to think about the massive group of people that Jesus lovingly rescued by his life, death, and resurrection.

One such text is Revelation 7:9: I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues... (NASB).  I appreciate Don Carson’s comments on this phrase:

First, they spring “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (7:9). There is not a whiff of racism here. Moreover, this theme keeps recurring in the book. For instance, already in Revelation 5:9, the elders sing a new song to the Lamb: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The ultimate community of God is transnational, transtribal, transracial, translinguistic. In that sense, Los Angeles is a better anticipation of heaven than Tulsa, Oklahoma. Let the church, strengthened by the grace of God, live out now, as largely as possible, what she will one day be.

Second, everything significant about these people turns on the work of God effected through the Lamb—in short, it turns on the Gospel of God. So they stand “before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (7:9); they cry “in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’ ” (7:10). While the angels worship God (7:11–12), John is told that these people “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). In short, whatever else is found in Revelation, this book overflows with the Gospel.

Third, the ultimate prospect for the great multitude is not located in this life. They “are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple” (7:15). Nothing bad will ever again befall them (7:16). “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). The book of Revelation fans the flames of courage and faithfulness in this life, even in the teeth of the most virulent opposition, by holding out the most glorious prospects for the life to come.

D. A. Carson, For the Love of God: Volume One.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Union, Justification, Sanctification, Glorification (Horton)

Justification: Two-Volume Set (New Studies in Dogmatics) Horton, Michael ; Michael Allen, Swain, Scott R. cover imageI appreciate the following selection from Michael Horton’s Justification (Vol 2).  It’s about union with Christ, justification, sanctification, and glorification:

Union is not a goal but the source of our life.  Chosen in him [Christ], redeemed by him, and crucified, buried, and raised with him, we share in Christ’s pioneering journey in an ‘already’ and ‘not-yet’ manner.  Justification is the fundamental turning point in the sinner’s status before God, while sanctification is the turning point in the sinner’s condition, and glorification will be the turning point in the whole existence of the saints.

Although we will be all that he is in his glorified humanity, we are not yet raised bodily.  Yet we have been raised from spiritual death, justified and definitively renewed. We are being conformed to the image of Christ daily, suffering in the joy of the prize that has already been won for us. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1).  Although we still struggle mightily against Satan, sin, and the realities of a fallen world, Christ has already subdued Satan.  “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet’ (Rom 16:20).

Union with Christ (or the ‘great exchange’) is the braoder intersection where rival perspectives demand a fork in the road – the false choices that we have met frequently along the way – but where, in a more integrated account, they meet without any contradiction. Covenantal and apocalyptic, personal and corporate, soteriology and ecclesiology, the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, forensic justification and transforming renewal, faith and works all find unity without conflating one with the other.

Michael Horton, Justification, Vol 2, p. 451.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

A Bonhoeffer Christmas with Barth

 God Is in the Manger is a collection of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on advent.  This book is edited in such a way that one can read a devotional each day during the Christmas season.  Each devotional is a snippet of Bonhoeffer’s writing, another short reflection, and a section of Scripture.  (NOTE: at the time of this blog post, God Is in the Manger is free at Logos Bible Software)

If you’ve read Bonhoeffer, you know that some of his thoughts and insights are quite helpful and penetrating.  But if you’ve read enough of Bonhoeffer, you also probably end up scratching your head and either disagreeing with or doubting something he wrote.  I’ve written here before noting that even though some evangelicals want to make Bonhoeffer a fellow evangelical, he certainly is not (see here and here)! In fact, sometimes when I read Bonhoeffer I hear echoes of Karl Barth.

Back to Bonhoeffer and his Christmas devotional. This is an interesting book to read. As with other Bonhoeffer material, it’s good and not-so-good at the same time.  And like other writings of Bonhoeffer, echoes of Barth come out in these Christmas devotionals as well:

Now there is no longer any godlessness, any hate, any sin that God has not taken upon himself, suffered, and atoned for.

Because Jesus took upon himself the guilt of all people, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who want to extract themselves from the responsibility for this guilt, also remove themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence. Moreover, they also remove themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless guilt bearing of Jesus Christ and have no share in the divine justification that covers this event.

The figure of Jesus Christ takes shape in human beings. Human beings do not take on an independent form of their own. Rather, what gives them form and maintains them in their new form is always and only the figure of Jesus Christ himself.

To be sure, some parts of Bonhoeffer’s Christmas devotional are helpful and good:

“Joy to the world!” Anyone for whom this sound is foreign, or who hears in it nothing but weak enthusiasm, has not yet really heard the gospel. For the sake of humankind, Jesus Christ became a human being in a stable in Bethlehem: Rejoice, O Christendom! For sinners, Jesus Christ became a companion of tax collectors and prostitutes: Rejoice, O Christendom! For the condemned, Jesus Christ was condemned to the cross on Golgotha: Rejoice, O Christendom! For all of us, Jesus Christ was resurrected to life: Rejoice, O Christendom!… All over the world today people are asking: Where is the path to joy? The church of Christ answers loudly: Jesus is our joy! (1 Pet. 1:7–9). Joy to the world!

So there you go!  If you want a fascinating Bonhoeffer Christmas devotional complete with echoes of Barth, you’ll want to get this: God Is in the Manger (Westminster John Knox, 2019).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Man Abandoned To Himself (Pascal)

 Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) is one of those Christian authors I can read over and over.  His writing has a depth to it that is both profound and thought-provoking – two things that are not so common in much of today’s Christian literature.  Here’s a section of Pascal’s writing I was reflecting upon this afternoon.  You might have to read it a few times – but it is worth the effort!

…What religion then will teach us to cure pride and lust? What religion will in fact teach us our good, our duties, the weakness which turns us from them, the cause of this weakness, the remedies which can cure it, and the means of obtaining these remedies?

All other religions have not been able to do so. Let us see what the wisdom of God will do:

“Expect neither truth,” she [God’s wisdom] says, “nor consolation from men. I am she who formed you, and who alone can teach you what you are. But you are now no longer in the state in which I formed you. I created man holy, innocent, perfect. I filled him with light and intelligence. I communicated to him my glory and my wonders. The eye of man saw then the majesty of God. He was not then in the darkness which blinds him, nor subject to mortality and the woes which afflict him. But he has not been able to sustain so great glory without falling into pride. He wanted to make himself his own centre, and independent of my help. He withdrew himself from my rule; and, on his making himself equal to me by the desire of finding his happiness in himself, I abandoned him to himself.

And setting in revolt the creatures that were subject to him, I made them his enemies; so that man is now become like the brutes, and so estranged from me that there scarce remains to him a dim vision of his Author. So far has all his knowledge been extinguished or disturbed! The senses, independent of reason, and often the masters of reason, have led him into pursuit of pleasure. All creatures either torment or tempt him, and domineer over him, either subduing him by their strength, or fascinating him by their charms, a tyranny more awful and more imperious.

Such is the state in which men now are. There remains to them some feeble instinct of the happiness of their former state; and they are plunged in the evils of their blindness and their lust, which have become their second nature.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works, p.140.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Hezekiah: A Second David with “Messianic Dimensions” (Arnold)

 Hezekiah was one of those kings of Judah that really sticks out in the biblical record.  And he sticks out in a good way.  The author of Kings, the Chronicler, and the prophecies of Isaiah contain quite a bit of information on king Hezekiah. His story, reign, and literary references are not just coincidental or bare history.  Instead, the authors of these stories in some way portray Hezekiah as a “second David,” as Iain Provan noted in his excellent article on Hezekiah in the NIDOTTE.  If you want a good summary of Hezekiah’s reign and a biblical commentary on it, check out Provan’s article.  He even gives  a helpful list of parallels between Hezekiah and Jesus.

Speaking of helpful resources on Hezekiah, Bill Arnold’s “Hezekiah” contribution to the Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books is also very much worth reading.  Here’s his conclusion, which is similar to Provan’s:

The biblical materials devoted to Hezekiah’s reign are clearly less concerned with these historical specifics and more interested in his religious reforms and individual trust in Yahweh. Today’s historians can only conclude that his foreign policies were disastrous for Judah, resulting in the loss of Judah’s territories, mass deportations and the subjection of Judah to Assyrian rule.

But the Bible’s undaunted adulation of Hezekiah is related to the fact that he survived the most direct encounter Judah had with Assyrian might. Jerusalem was spared Sennacherib’s sword, and regardless of the tribute it cost or the specifics of the Assyrian army’s miraculous withdrawal (2 Kings 19:35–36; 2 Chron 32:21; Herodotus Hist. 2.141), the reign of Hezekiah is interpreted and evaluated in this light (2 Kings 18:3; 2 Chron 29:2). This heroic portrait emerges in the biblical materials, creating a trajectory from Isaiah and 2 Kings to 2 Chronicles, continuing into the early rabbinic and Christian literature, resulting in messianic dimensions for the figure of King Hezekiah.

Contributing to this imagery of devout Hezekiah are traditions of his support of ancient Israel’s wisdom literature (Prov 25:1), his reliance on prayer (2 Kings 19:14–19; 20:2–3; 2 Chron 32:20, 24) and certainly his religious reforms. But central to all of this is Hezekiah’s unwavering trust in Yahweh to deliver. A reverberating theme of these texts is Hezekiah’s reliance or “trust” in Yahweh. The verb bāṭaḥ, “trust,” occurs eighteen times in the texts devoted to Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:5, 19, 20, 21 (2x), 22, 24, 30; 19:10; 2 Chron 32:10; Is 36:4, 5, 6 (2x), 7, 9, 15; 37:10), representing perhaps the greatest concentration of the theme of OT faith in any of its narrative compositions. Trust is at the root of Hezekiah’s opposition to idolatry (2 Kings 18:4–5), his observance of Mosaic law (2 Kings 18:6) and his attitudinal disposition of dependence on Yahweh for deliverance (2 Kings 18:30).

The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, p. 411.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Church: A Waste of Time? (Bavinck)

Herman Bavinck on Preaching and Preachers Bavinck, Herman cover image Herman Bavinck wrote the following words around 1890 in Holland, but they are quite relevant to our situation in the United States in the year 2019:

Humility, as is rightly said, is the garment that always suits us… Humility must be our home and traveling and wedding and mourning garment.  In order to cultivate this Christian humility, it is good and necessary to pay attention to many things in which we fall short and that can keep us from boasting.

Think only of the sermon in the church service.  The era of the powerful pulpit is no more.  Churchgoing is gradually declining, not only among the moderns but also among the orthodox in most places.  Interest in the church and desire to listen to a sermon is declining. There are now thousands who are estranged from the church, who never darken its doors, and their number increases by the day.  Many who have been called orthodox have permanently given up the practice of going to church twice on Sunday; once is more than enough for them.  For many, being in church for so long, sometimes two whole hours, is even viewed as a waste of time.  In our busy, calculating age, people think that this time could have been better, much better, used…

This aversion to the church should certainly be accounted for, in large part, in relation to the spirit that dominates in our time, under the influence of which one has formed a wholly wrong concept of ‘going to church.’ We live in an era of grandiose activity, an era of steam and power.  It hastens and turns and pushes everything forward.  We do not think about rest, silence, or calm.  Whoever does not follow suit simply belongs to the past or is trampled underfoot.  Time is money, and money is the soul of trade.  ‘What do I get from it? How is it useful?’ These are the questions of the day. Feverish excitement and stressed overwork are the hallmarks of all business. The silence of the holy and the calm of the eternal are all to sorely missed.

‘More haste, less speed’ [Festina lente] is an old proverb.  It is a rivalry, a competition to be the fastest.  This spirit has also left its mark on Christians.  Despite their confession of an ancient faith, they are also children of the era.  An industrious, active Christianity is now appearing.  Sitting in silence under the word, which should have been their strength, has fallen from their thoughts…  Now there is something else to do.  …We no longer have the time or desire to go to church twice on the day of rest, sometimes to spend an hour listening to a sermon from the mouth of a teacher they have heard so often.  What could be exciting or useful there…?

Herman Bavinck, Preaching & Preachers, p. 57-59.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002