Jul 9 2013

A Look At The Non-Western Gospel

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9, ESV)

What’s My Gospel?

There are, obviously, different gospels being taught out there. Paul called the teaching that following the Jewish custom of circumcision was a gospel different enough to suggest that those who taught this should not stop at the foreskin. Yes, he said that. Besides suggesting that they should go to hell.

But which is the proper Gospel?  As in the old TV show What’s My Line?, we should ask, “Will the Real Gospel please stand up?”  Is it the one that says we should trust in our baptism (even when we were baptized as infants)?  Is it the one that says salvation is based on our decision and our faith?  Or perhaps the one that says that however we get in, we’ve got to avoid “backsliding” or be in danger of losing our salvation?

When you look at what Paul says, choosing a gospel can be a scary proposition.

A Pre-Modern Gospel

Being a somewhat independent sort (not always a good thing, I admit), I’ve done my share of wandering, at times being sucked in by some mildly religious/superstitious forms of Christianity. Over the years, being influenced by Luther, CS Lewis, NT Wright (and a number of good Anglicans),  having spent a lot of time in Galatians, and spending 2 years teaching through the Gospel of John, I came to a number of conclusions about the Gospel.

Coincidentally, many of these conclusions are very close to the Eastern Orthodox approach to the Gospel.  I recently found a great summary of the Orthodox view of the gospel, from the Saint Justin the Philosopher Foundation for Orthodox Christian Apologetics, who seems to exist only on Facebook.  Because not everyone is on Facebook, I will reprint the article here, linking back to the original above.  I suspect they won’t mind.

I encourage you to read through it, and comment as you see fit (respectfully, of course).  I am not saying I agree with this 100%, but I think much of this is spot on.

The Gospel As Understood by the Orthodox Church

Many Protestants ask Orthodox Christians what the Orthodox understanding of the Gospel is. This is our attempt at explaining to Protestants (and others) what the gospel is:

The gospel is that the kingdom of Heaven has broken into our realm through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we have an incorrect understanding of what  these things mean, this will lead to large errors of practice, which will seriously impair our entrance to the kingdom of God. For example, Calvinist theologian Sinclair Ferguson describes  his spiritual life as “dragging his sin before the Cross.” By this, he means putting penal substitution into practice. When he sins, he feels guilty because God is angry at him. At this  point, he remembers that God already punished Jesus for his sin, so he “drags it before the Cross” to rid himself of guilt. But what does this do to actually deify him? Note the word  “deify.” Ferguson has never used that word to describe salvation. But “deification” is the substance of salvation. Let me explain. Our Lord, the pre-eternal Son and Word of the Father, is fully divine. He has, from all eternity, had all the properties of deity common to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Man was created in  the Image and Likeness of God. The Holy Fathers interpret this to mean that man reflects certain properties of God, but does not reflect them fully. This is not a “shortcoming”, but rather  a statement that God is infinite, and the brightness of man’s reflection of God can increase forever and ever. So Adam was “very good.” But He was not as good as he possibly could be. If he  was, the Hebrew would say “very very good.” Adam was granted authority over the garden. As he partook of the grace of God, he himself would reflect God ever more brightly, and, as the  steward of God’s creation, the “high priest”, one might say, he would lead all Creation to more brightly reflect the grace of God. At this point we must briefly comment on the meaning of “grace” according to the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Fathers. Protestants interpret grace to mean “God’s unmerited favor.” This is an  incorrect interpretation.

Grace is not only “God’s unmerited favor” (not to imply that the grace that we receive is earned, but rather that this idea is not contained in the word itself), but refers to the power of God actualized in the world. For example, in the first chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, Our Lord is  referred to as “full of grace and truth.” How could Christ be full of “unmerited favor?” In the third chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel, Christ is referred to as “growing in grace and  stature.” How could Christ “grow” in unmerited favor? A reading much more in accord with the Biblical text is the understanding of grace as “God’s power actualized in the world.” This is  what Orthodox Christians mean by the “energies of God.” In essence, God cannot be known. But God’s essential power is actualized in the world through His uncreated energies. These energies are  truly and really God, and they are the means of participation in the life of the divine. Adam would grow in His reflection of God’s likeness in energies, but because no man or angel could  ever partake of the divine essence, He would never be “subsumed” into God. He would always be a deified Adam, never losing his personal existence. Anyway, this path of deification was the right path Adam was walking. Tragically, through events we all know, Adam turned away from this right path. The serpent promised him that “he would  be like God.” Wanting to be like God was not Adam’s error. (As a sidenote, the fact that many Protestants think it is reflects how completely they have lost the concept of deification) We  should all want to be like God. The Holy Apostle Peter says that we are to “be holy, as he is holy.” So why would we want to be unlike Him? No, Adam’s error was trying to be deified (which  means more fully reflecting God’s properties) APART from God. This was not the end of the Fall. The pre-incarnate Word appeared to Adam and asked him what he had done. The Fathers teach  that if Adam at this point had honestly admitted his error, repented, and promised obedience henceforth, the serpent would have been thwarted and God would have reconciled Adam to Himself.  But Adam did not. Adam lied and blamed his wife.

Thus, Adam was expelled from the Garden, and the creation over which he was set a steward fell into corruption, death, and decay. Death  itself cannot be spoken as a literal (though the imagery can be used metaphorically) “punishment” from God. God did not say to Adam, “If you eat, I will surely kill you.” God said, “If you  eat, you will surely die.” Death is simply the natural result of turning away from the only source of life.Corruption, death, decay, these now all became a part of the human experience. And, in a significant, but often overlooked passage, Moses writes, “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered  a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” This is the “image of Adam” described in the New Testament. It is the image of God in a state of corruption and  imperfection. The Old Testament, even in the deified Prophets and Patriarchs, is a story of how man tries to reach God and always falls short. The ideal of ever more brightly reflecting the  Divine Image could not be attained. Even the Saints of the Old Testament could not attain full glory, because humanity was enslaved.

This is where Christ comes in. The pre-eternal, infinite, uncontainable Word of God became a human being. The eternal Divine Word acquired a human nature. That is, He acquired the set of  properties common to all human persons. In assuming humanity into Himself, He deified it. The human nature was perfectly united and brought into communion with the Logos of God and so  became completely deified at the very moment of the incarnation. Christ, the perfect Image of God (Colossians 1:15) reconstructed the Image of God in man by becoming a man Himself. Christ  grew up, sanctifying every stage of life in His own Person. When Christ announced His public ministry, this was not going to be a collection of pithy moral sayings before He got to what  really mattered, the Crucifixion. No, every miracle and act that Christ did, every word that He spoke, has immense significance in the Christian life. By subjugating himself to death, Adam  subjugated himself to Satan. Satan was the “Prince of this World” and God’s people was a small resistance movement. Most of the false gods throughout pre-Christian history have been  demonic. Many pre-Christian civilizations were under the direct control of Satan’s minions. This is a frightening truth, but if one reads the Book of Daniel, one finds references to the  demonic princes and rulers of other, specific nations. So, when Christ announced “The kingdom of God is at hand!”, this was a world-shaking truth. It was a declaration that Satan’s rule was  over, that God had come at long last to set things right. The Israelites, however, expected this to be in a carnal sense. They expected the Jewish Messiah to come and lead an army to  overthrow the Romans and establish a Jewish government in the Holy Land. The evil Roman Empire was itself only a symptom of the disease, and Our Lord understood that, so He went and fought  the source- Satan. When He cast out demons, this was a statement that God was finished with them, that they were going to be driven out. When Christ healed men from diseases, this was a  statement that the reign of corruption was coming to an end. In short, these were all means of announcing that corruption, death, demonic rule, these were finished. When Christ taught, He  was giving us the true Torah, that which the Torah of Moses was only a shadow. This Torah was one of the heart. It was how man would live in the Kingdom that Christ was ushering in. This  Torah changed the heart of man, which is why the Lord said that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” So, Christ’s ministry had two closely related functions. It was first to announce the  nearness of the Kingdom of God and it was second to describe how man would live in that Kingdom through the preaching of a Torah of the heart.

On Great and Holy Friday, Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified for our sins. While this phrase is acknowledged by nearly all who confess the name of Christ, what this actually means is a  subject of intense debate. Most Protestants suggest that God poured His wrath upon Christ’s head so that He did not have to pour it on our heads in hell. The Scholastics suggested that  Christ, in dying a shameful death, generated an infinite store of honorable merit, which could be accessed by the Sacraments and good works. The Church, however, through its Prophets,  Apostles, and Fathers, has an altogether different doctrine. It was mentioned above that Adam had made suffering, corruption, and death a part of human experience. Christ came to reconstruct the  Divine Image through His own incarnated Person. In order to sanctify the fullness of human experience, the terrible truth was that God had to partake of death itself. He had to descend to  the lowest state of human existence. And He did. Christ suffered greatly, and died one of the most shameful deaths known to man. He partook of all our sufferings, our sorrows, our  sicknesses, and our pains. And because it was the infinite God who entered into these things, He healed all of them. This is why the Prophet Isaiah says, “By His stripes, we are healed.”  Satan, as the one who held the power of death, believed that He had won. He had taken the Messiah of God. What He did not take into account is that Christ had never subjected Himself to  Satan’s authority. Christ had never entered into Satan’s communion. But Satan took Him nonetheless. This was his greatest mistake. As Satan had no power over death, Christ broke free of it,  and released all the spirits who communed with Him into Paradise as well. Satan was disarmed. Christ said that He would “disarm the strong man”, and that He did. In the Apocalypse, Christ  says that HE “holds the keys of death and Hades.” This is a profound and glorious truth. Christ had gone down into the lowest state of human existence. He now was bringing up human  experience to the highest points of divine experience. This is the message of the resurrection! The resurrection is the ushering of humanity into the high places. It is the deification of  the body itself. The body, while before it had been a prison of corruption, sickness, and death, was now in Christ a glorious blessing. It was renewed, deified, made incorruptible.

Man, however, still has freedom of choice. God desires all men to come into the communion of His energies, His love. But true love requires freedom. If we choose not to be deified, then  that is our choice. If we desire this wonderful state of deification, how do we do it? The first thing that we must do is have faith. Faith is the foundation of the entire Christian life.  It is the particular attitude which sees God not as a distant lawgiver, but a close father, one who is merciful and good. The one who acts consistently with his faith will undoubtedly be  saved. It must be emphasized that faith does not guarantee consistently acting with that faith. One may have faith, but if one does not act consistently with it, the faith dies.  If one DOES act consistently with the faith, one chooses to be baptized. This Baptism, St. Paul says, clothes us with Christ. It clothes us with His death and resurrection. It frees one  from the subjugation of Satan, who takes every man who sins even once. This Satanic system is the system of law. When we are baptized, we are freed from it, because we become “in Christ.”  As Satan had no authority over Christ, so also He loses authority over every man who is “in Christ.” We are now in a different system, a “system” where the goal is “partaking of the divine  nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and being “conformed to the image of His Son.” (Rom 8:29) When we are anointed with the oil of God (this is known as Chrismation and is described in the Book of Acts  as “laying on of hands), we are indwelt with the grace of the Holy Spirit. This “Chrismation” is really a part of the Mystery of Baptism. The Holy Spirit is our only hope. He is the one who indwells us,  who bestows grace on us, by whose power we do anything that is good. However, salvation still requires “work.” This is not the “work” that one does in a business setting, where one works a  particular number of hours and the boss gives you a particular payment. This is the principle of obligation condemned so forcefully by St. Paul in Romans 4:4. If we work like this, there is  no relationship with the boss. One simply works and receives due payment. But God owes us nothing. Salvation itself requires intimate COMMUNION with God, so if one does these works out of  view of Christ, the communion is not improved, and they will be burned up on the Last Day. This is why St. Seraphim teaches that only good works done for Christ’s sake give us the grace of  the Holy Spirit. NT Wright describes works that save in this fashion. The only works that benefit for salvation are those that are organically related to their result. So, when you make a  new friend, you might describe yourself as “working” for that friendship. But this is only in the sense that talking, hanging out, spending time with this person naturally produces a  friendship. If you went to his house, mowed his lawn, did not talk to him, this “work” woul do nothing to produce a friendship. It is the same with God. Praying, fasting (as fasting dulls  the passions), partaking of the true Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, these are the ways that we commune and relate with God. They naturally produce communion with God.

Christ, through His incarnation, death, and resurrection,  ushered the People of God (who already existed in the form of Israel) to the highest and most advanced state possible, that of being His own Body, which we call the Church. The Church is the People of God that have  partaken of the Divine Nature in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. The Church is “necessary for salvation” only because Christ is necessary for salvation. It is through Christ alone  that man can be saved, and the Church is Christ’s Presence in the world. This is meant this in more than a symbolic sense. The Church is a Eucharistic Community. It is the Eucharist which creates  the Church. St. Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17) The Church is Christ’s Presence to the world because of the Holy Eucharist. We become “one body in Christ” by partaking of Christ’s body in the Holy Eucharist. This is the People of God as it has been transformed by the new covenant. The Prophets and Patriarchs of Israel and the Old Covenant are also members of the Church, because the Church is not an organization that exists in this world, it is a heavenly reality, containing ALL the People of God, made manifest and visible to this world in the form of Eucharistic Communities.While man experiences a foretaste of his eternal destiny when he dies and his body is separated from his soul, this is still an unnatural state. On the Last Day, the Lord will return to Earth to Judge all mankind. This “Judgement” is simply the placing of every person in the place where the condition of their soul requires. Christ will deify the New Creation. The grace of God will be in all and through all. For the person oriented towards God, this means they will continue on their journey of deification forever. For the person oriented away from God, the energies of God only inspire further resistance to God. Thus, the person who reposed while walking the wrong path will forever walk that path. His Divine Image will be deconstructed eternally as they become more and more evil and selfish. The state of living eternally without any love for others, and living with others who are like that- this is hell. The state of living eternally, in a deified and glorified body, in a condition of ever-increasing love and bliss, and living under the direct rule of Christ the King, with others who lovingly serve Christ the King- this is Heaven. This is not to say that we won’t have something to do on the New Earth. No, we, as the Image-Bearing representatives of God to all Creation, together with Jesus Christ, the ultimate Image of God, will forever work on our mission of deifying all Creation. This is eternal joy.



Jan 10 2013

A New Chain?

I don’t read a lot of blogs anymore, Christian or otherwise.  In a world where churches are obsessed with “feeding” people, and people are obsessed with “getting fed,” I find that I’m pretty fed up.  As a result, I don’t write that much anymore (as you can probably tell, if you’ve tried following this blog). I figure you’re all about fed up, too.

Today, however, I ran across one of those gems that was worth reading, and worth sharing. It doesn’t hurt that the post included a couple of choice strips from “Pearls Before Swine,” and a video of Derek Webb’s “A New Law,” which I had totally forgotten about. In my opinion, it’s possibly the only decent “Christian” song recorded in the couple of decades.  Here’s the opening of L.R.E. Larkin’s Mockingbird post, “Run, Dog, Run!

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20


I’ve written on Stephan Pastis’ work before; Pearls before Swine is my favorite comic strip, and I read it daily. Pastis typically displays what we might call “great acumen about human nature.” And he’s done it again here in the above (and below) strips.

It’s naïve Pig’s response that caught my eye. When asked why he’s excited, Chained-up Dog replies with tremendous enthusiasm, “New Chain!!” Pig’s right, being excited about a new chain is quite optimistic. In fact, it’s nothing to be excited about, because it’s not good news—the dog is still chained up.  But, truth be told, don’t we all get excited about the new thing/behavior/rule/diet/routine that will be the key to real success, to us finally achieving control over our lives. It’s in our fallen nature to be oriented as such. I’ve seen this in my own life, and I’m sure you’ve seen it in your own. I’ve seen it in my tendency to be attracted to the newest diet craze (where are we now, gluten?) to my fruitless efforts to watch just one show at night (wait…how is it 12am?).  I desperately try to control broken behavior with behavioral changes, and that is just switching out an old law for a new one; that’s not freedom and it’s certainly nothing to be excited about.

The good news is that the Gospel is not a new chain, a new law. It is a word of freedom, silencing the law and its tyranny in my life, in our lives.

Couldn’t have said it better, myself.  Read the rest of the post here, along with the video I promised.

Jun 14 2011

The “Jesus-plus” Gospel

I don’t know who Kevin DeYoung is, or why I’ve run across him so many times in recent weeks. He blogs at a place called “The Gospel Coalition,” and the masthead identifies him as “DeYoung, restless and reformed.” However, he appears to be preaching what the Apostle Paul referred to as “another gospel, which is no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7).

In his current post, “Gospel-driven effort,” he writes

Last week I wrote a piece about the role of effort in the Christian life. It was born out of concern that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel (something I have gladly advocated many times) that we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives. My worry is that we are afraid to exhort each other, as Scripture does, to strive, fight, mortify, vivify, and make every effort for godliness.

He goes on to explain that this post responds in part to that of Tullian Tchividjian, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  His was a marvelous essay on the power of grace to transform us.

The Jesus-plus “gospel”

DeYoung, however, doesn’t seem to trust either grace or the Holy Spirit, at least not completely. He quotes Martin Lloyd-Jones:

The New Testament calls upon us to take action; it does not tell us that the work of sanctification is going to be done for us. . . .We are in the ‘good fight of faith’, and we have to do the fighting. But, thank God, we are enabled to do it; for the moment we believe, and are justified by faith, and are born again of the Spirit of God, we have the ability. So the New Testament method of sanctification is to remind us of that; and having reminded us of it, it says, ‘Now then, go and do it’. (178, emphasis mine)

Remember the gospel indicatives. Then give full throat to the gospel imperatives.

If we have any doubt as to what DeYoung is meaning, he concludes with,

We all need God’s grace to believe what is true and do what is right. We died to sin in the death of Christ. Now we must put to death the deeds of the flesh.

Notice how the emphasis shifts from being saved by grace (Jesus-plus-nothing) to  “now we must” (Jesus-plus-human effort).  As Paul said, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Gal 3:3).

Much ado about something

Am I making too much of this?  Is a little bit of human effort added to the gospel not anything to worry about?

This “little bit of human effort” thing is insidious; pastors can still preach what seems to be grace, but as Paul indicates in Galatians, to add just a little bit of anything to the pure Gospel of Christ is to lose it completely. And, Paul was not talking about justification; no one in Galatia was questioning salvation by grace alone. Paul was specifically talking about the teaching that something must be added to grace in order to live the Christian life. Circumcision. Eating Kosher. Just a little bit of striving.

It’s all Jesus, or it’s nothing.

Piper, too.

Justin Taylor (who also writes at The Gospel Coalition and who became famous by being the first to rip Rob Bell to shreds) quotes John Piper about being “more than conquerors:”

You must not be separated from the love of Jesus Christ. The aim of the attacker is to destroy you, and cut you off from Christ, and bring you to final ruin without God. You are a conqueror if you defeat this aim and remain in the love of Christ. God has promised that this will happen. Trusting this, we risk.

Notice the emphasis here. You must not.  If you defeat and remain. God has promised what? I think Piper needs to read Romans 8 again—Paul clearly states that we are more than conquerors through Christ, and that we can never be separated from the love of Christ. Not through our effort, but because of the unfailing love of Christ.

The Gospel Uncensored

There is an alternate gospel being preached, and it’s still quite popular. It’s also evil.  It’s robbing people of grace and freedom as they are conned into striving for something that has already been given them.

Do we have to strive?  As Jesus said, “The work of God is to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). And as Tullian Tchividjian said,

Christian growth does not happen by working hard to get something you don’t have. Rather, Christian growth happens by working hard to daily swim in the reality of what you do have. Believing again and again the gospel of God’s free, justifying grace everyday is the hard work we’re called to.

I strive, not to become holy or sanctified, but to proclaim the good news that is the gospel. This is why Ken and I wrote The Gospel Uncensored. In the book, I quoted from Martin Luther’s introduction to his Galatians Commentary:

The devil, our adversary, who continually seeks to devour us, is not dead; likewise our flesh and old man is yet alive. Besides this, all kinds of temptations vex and oppress us on every side. So this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of the truth, life and salvation lost. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish.

I have nothing against Piper, Taylor, or DeYoung personally; I’m sure they are nice folks, and sincere. However, I think they are sincerely wrong about what they are teaching. As I mentioned above, it seems that the root of this teaching is a lack of faith in the power of Christ to transform lives; that grace and the Holy Spirit aren’t quite up to the job.

I think they are.

Jun 4 2011

Cross theology (vs everything else)

Martin Luther wrote about what he saw were the two predominant theologies that existed, the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. At the risk of over-simplification, the theology of glory includes the belief that our own works contribute to either our salvation (as in our determination to repent) or our sanctification; that we can work our way “from glory to glory.”

The theology of the Cross keeps people coming back to the finished work of Christ for everything.

There’s an interesting group of folks who call themselves “Resurgence,” who are dedicating to bringing the gospel back into evangelicalism. Most of them seem to be Calvinists, but they are really into Martin Luther. (I think some of them like to think Luther was really a Calvinist, but he wasn’t.)  They have an interesting website, if you can get past the extra-large print and graphics they use. I don’t really know what they are thinking… but that’s beside the point.

In looking at Luther’s 1518 Disputation, Matt Johnson writes a nice little post entitled Why your failures are a blessing.  It’s worth reading. Of note is the following quote from another interesting blog called Mockingbird:

“Theologians of the Cross take great comfort in the thought that, when they are suffering, encountering difficulties of every kind, it is not a sign of God’s abandonment or displeasure, but is, in fact, a mark of His presence and work in our lives…Of course, the problem is, none of us actually believes this…”via R-J HEIJMEN at Mockingbird

In case you don’t go read the whole post, here’s Matt’s conclusion:

The cross shows us that we are powerless in our ideas of self-salvation. The cross also reminds us that God’s purposes are accomplished even amidst suffering. And sometimes, especially in suffering. Knowing this may not help us feel better when things are going poorly or always give us clarity when bad things happen. But what we do know is this: God deals with sin once and for all at the cross.