The Magnet Parable

 
 

Let me offer a magnet parable.

 

magnet parableA man bought an industrial grade mobile magnet—a smaller version of what one sees in the auto crushing business.  He was proud of himself for being both noble and practical. He was noble because he planned to use the device to clean up his town.  It was practical because the soda and beer cans he planned to collect all had value: each included a small deposit in the purchase price that could be refunded once it was returned.

With his magnet the man was certain that he could collect hundreds of cans in the time it took others to collect them one at a time.  He also knew of a number of littered roadways and overflowing trash bins that were certain to generate quick cash.

But it didn’t work!  As he drove around with the magnet head hung out over the side of his truck all it ever attracted were bits of scrap—leftover fragments from auto accidents, screws and bolts, nails and wires—but not a single beer can. This was an absolute mystery because he made sure to let the magnet hover over the conspicuous cans.  But even then they never moved!

Finally it dawned on him that the magnet wasn’t strong enough: he needed an upgrade.  The problem, however, was his cash flow.  It had taken all his spare money to buy the first system so any upgrades would have to wait.  Next then, in order to rebuild his cash reserve, he adopted a new approach: adding heavy-duty glue to the face of the magnet.

Before long he put out his sticky-glue-swabbed-magnet and it worked.  Wherever he found cans by the road he pulled his levers in the truck to manoeuvre the magnet over the can and lowered it until he made contact and the aluminium can was his!

The modification had its drawbacks, though.  For one, it wasn’t easy to remove the cans from the magnet because of the glue—they all needed to be done by hand, one-by-one.  And, even more, he had to pull off the grass, mud, plastics, and ceramics that the glue also collected.  And then the recycling stores didn’t welcome the sticky cans!  So it wasn’t long before the mucky magnet was sold on eBay—at a huge loss—and the project came to an unhappy end.

A question, of course, is why the man ever thought magnets would attract aluminium—the stuff such cans are made of—since magnets only attract the ferrous metals like iron and steel.

You also might be wondering, why such a nonsensical parable?

Here’s why.  Because God has given us a similar principle: he will be attractive to some people but not to all.  And we can’t tell beforehand who will be drawn to him and who won’t be, but the difference can be discovered in time by the principle of spiritual attraction.

The principle is made explicit in John 8 and 17—to name just two spots—so that we know that God’s word is attractive to those who will join his eternal family.  In fact there’s a sorting process going on right now: his teaching is attracting God’s family but not everyone finds that family attractive.  So when Christ’s words are offered in a given setting some will respond like a steel bolt drawn to a magnet, but others won’t be stirred in the slightest.

The attraction is God’s love.  In John 8:31 Jesus said as much to a group of erstwhile disciples.  The basis of true discipleship is a spiritual kinship birthed by God’s work in hearts—a point made in John 3 and elsewhere.

The process is always word-based.  Listen to Jesus: it is only by abiding in “my word” that someone becomes a disciple.  He went on: “If God were your Father, you would love me” and “The reason you do not hear [my words] is that you are not of God” (John 8:31, 42, 47).

In John 17 Jesus spoke to the Father with the same principle in mind: Jesus offered the word the Father sent him to share and it produced two opposite responses.  Some came to him and believed; but others hated him and his disciples.  “I have given them your word [speaking of the disciples] and the world hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (17:16).

What was Christ’s aim in offering his divisive word—a word that attracts some and not others?  To identify those in the world who love him: “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (17:26).

What, then, can we take from our parable?

This much at least: some churches today have replaced Christ’s word with swathes of attractive activities and it seems to work.  Lots of people can be collected.

But what defines such churches?  A love for Christ and for neighbours?  Or a love for the lively enjoyments being offered?  From our gospel principle we learn that the latter—those who aren’t captured by Christ’s love as expressed in his word—are being collected for all the wrong reasons.

So let’s get out the divine magnet of God’s love as revealed in his word and see what happens.  I predict that the glue-covered folks won’t be impressed, but the real children of God will leap to the source and clamour for more.  Try it and see!

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

What Really Matters?

 
 

What should be our greatest priorities in life?

 

what really matters?Of all the questions we may ask few are more important than the simple query, “What really matters?”

The question presumes that priorities shape the way we live—that some options are more important to us than others.  A corollary for most people is that we can examine and change our priorities. So we ask, “what’s important here?” in order to consider our options.

Maybe our priorities do belong to us.  Or, maybe they don’t.

I realize, of course, that the ability to define our own priorities is treated as a truism of life.  I may, for instance, decide to abandon the immediate pleasure of drinking sugary drinks in favour of long-term health benefits.  Or as I mature I may decide to take up fine arts and painting because I’ve begun to enjoy aesthetic creativity.

But it may be that this apparent freedom blocks our ability to see the bigger biblical reality.  The Bible presumes a single guiding spirit to be at work in shaping our priorities—one Spirit is holy and his competitor is unholy (see Ephesians 2:1-3).  One is from above; the other from below.  One is Christ-focused; the other is self-focused.

This is a topic already traced on this site before now so I’ll just recall that the Bible sets out a binary opposition of “two masters” from beginning to end.  And mastery by either of these two competing masters is spirit-derived.

And it’s in this context that Jesus called his disciples to an unlikely life: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).  Jesus is laying down a hard line: the cross was a hideous death device.  So with this in mind think about whether you prefer choosing torture and death instead of comfort and security.

We might be able to conceive of the possibility as an “in theory it could happen” sort of prospect but I think most honest folks will agree that even Christians—often very discretely—treat Christ’s call to bear a cross daily as so much nonsense.  Our real concern is to seek personal security and comfort.  Yet the main ambitions of self-concern, no matter how innocuous, are not priorities for Christ.

The context for Christ’s view is based on his eternal experience of communing with the Father: he knows just one proper destiny.  And every human is moving either toward him or away from him.  So when we speak of priorities we need to remember that they exist in the context of reaching one destination or the other.

It also means that our apparent freedom only operates within the confines of our destiny.  It’s a bit like a passenger on a cruise ship: when the ship is under way a given passenger has freedom within the available deck space but the ultimate option ends at the ship’s rails.  The ship’s captain actually defines the direction and destination.

So the “really” in “what really matters” is a bottom line or boundary: something central to our identity has a final say in what’s acceptable or unacceptable.  For most of us, as suggested above, the ultimate goal is our personal security.  The “cruise ship” of life has a destination of personal welfare in view and any version of “God” needs to support that benefit.

It’s here that Paul followed Christ’s radical call when he announced, “I am crucified with Christ” living by “faith” in Christ.  For him “what really matters” was to know Christ and to make him known.  Paul teaches, then, that an ambition to please the Lord is the one great priority of life.  All other ambitions belong to the “world” and the “flesh” in that their underlying devotion is to self and not to God.

A quick read-through of the Bible will underscore this theme.  In Psalm 2, for instance, the dividing line between the nations that “rage” against God and a proper place with God is a desire to kiss the Son.  In John 5 the religious scholars of Christ’s day were condemned—despite their Bible training—because “you don’t have the love of God in you.”  And in John 8 a group of erstwhile believers in Jesus were exposed as frauds because they resisted key features of what Jesus was teaching.  Jesus went right to the heart of the issue: “If God were your Father you would love me.”

Love is what matters most.  And we love God as a response: he first loved us and we return that love.  This is not to focus on love in itself, but to engage God’s love and to live with him as the ultimate object of our love.

The ungodly spirit gains control of the world by promoting self-concern in place of Christ-concern as the ultimate measure of life and meaning.  Call it self-love.  God, in response, sent the Son to die to that world and the Holy Spirit to woo us away from the ambitions that self-love offers.

In sum we learn that apart from him we can do nothing.  And once his winsome love is present nothing else really matters.

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

If, Then

The wrong headed thinking of Job’s friends

 

Job's friendsI noticed something in Job I hadn’t seen before.  Job’s erstwhile friends all used an “if . . . then” approach to confront Job over his presumed sins.  The point was simple: If you change your behaviors, Job, God will reward you.  If not, then God will punish you.  Very clear and very confrontive.

This strategy of rebuke began with Bildad in chapter 8: “If you will seek God and . . . if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you . . .”  Zophar adopted the same approach in chapter 11.  Eliphaz gave it a try in chapter 22.

They were wrong but we need to look more closely at the story to see why.

Behind their moral exhortations was another premise: that serious loss or suffering is a certain indicator of continuing sin in one’s life.  This in turn set up a formula for engaging God: he rewards everyone who behaves; and he punishes all who misbehave.  It’s a quid pro quo—cause and effect—arrangement that everyone needs to understand and apply.

We know, of course, not to dismiss the point that God does, indeed, judge sin.  In Deuteronomy 27-28, for instance, God set out two possible trajectories before Israel: one promised blessings and the other led to disasters.  The Bible says as much from start to finish as Jesus himself made clear: no one can serve two masters—God and the world—but will love one or the other.  Yet this polarity can’t be reduced into the one-for-one packaging that Job’s friends were using.

In fact, at the end of the book God himself said as much to the three useless advisors, “My anger is aroused against the three of you, for what you said about me wasn’t right, while Job spoke properly” (42:7).

This may surprise us because in the prior verse Job had just confessed his own fault, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”  Something in Job had been corrected, but it wasn’t the same sort of error God attributed to his three companions.  So what were the separate issues?  What did Job miss?  And what did the companions get wrong?

Let’s consider the second of these first.  Throughout the book Job’s dismissal of his friends’ counsel was based on three certainties.  First, he acknowledged that every person is guilty of sin at some level so that a divine pattern of tit-for-tat punishments for particular sins would be obvious if this was truly God’s plan.  Second, based on the cause-and-effect formula of his friends, nothing Job had done could account for his extraordinary sufferings.  And, finally, he knew that we all know of a host of truly wicked people who have completed their lives without ever facing Job-like sufferings.

Job saw the issues his friends missed. 

He even adopted the “if . . . then” premise of his friends in a final dismissal of what they were claiming.  This is seen in chapter 31 when Job offers more than a dozen “If I have [ever] . . . then [let me be punished accordingly]” assertions.  In this defence he covers a variety of human faults that his companions apparently had been presuming against him.

Job thus reversed their premise of circumstantial guilt with his own testimony that he was righteous even in using their implied behavioural standards.  That finally quieted them—no one could prove Job guilty on any score—even if they remained unconvinced.

Job, on the other hand, was guilty of thinking that God was obliged to defend his moral reputation. 

Job’s grumble was that a divine courtroom was needed in order to show his skeptical human companions that he was not a perpetrator of great evil: “my eye pours out tears to God, that he would argue the case of a man with God, as a son of man does with his neighbour” (16:20-21; see, too, 23:1-7).  The Trinitarian overtones in Job are remarkable as he looks for God to represent him before God—something also suggested in 19:21-27.

So when God confronts Job at the end of the book he takes up Job’s reputation-centred issue, a concern that began to blur Job’s other certainty that God always does what is right.  Job, now confronted by God himself, quickly agreed that he had been presumptuous!

Now let’s return to the “if . . . then” thread that runs through the book.  Are we in league with Job’s flawed companions?  Or do we stand with Job?  The question is important in light of the moralistic tendencies found in current evangelical faith.

What do I mean?

Just this.  If we think of God as a supernatural Santa who is urgently tracking whether we’re naughty or nice we’ve fallen into the moralist trap.  It’s a trap because it makes God out to be a pliable and unworthy figure—a supernatural resource we get to use to our own ends—as we seek to manipulate him by our behaviours.  If we behave well his “tit-for-tat” duty is to bless us.  And with that our “faith” is actually a confidence in our own behaviours as we think—like Job’s companions did—that we create our own goodness, a goodness that God is obliged to reward.

God wants our hearts, not our good works.

When we open our hearts to him, he makes us good, and not the other way round.  And Job was truly a good man—a man of faith—but in the episode reported in this book his faith was only met with Satan-defined suffering.

We do well, then, to end with two expressions of Job’s enduring faith: “Though he [God] slay me, I will hope in him” (13:15); and “he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (23:10).

Thank you, Job, for being such a fine example of authentic faith for us!

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Faithful

An unlikely Old Testament hero—the African eunuch,
Ebed-melech—offers us a model of courage.

 
rf-132x132We first meet him in Jeremiah 38 when he rescued Jeremiah. The prophet was in trouble—discarded to die in a muddy cistern—until Ebed-melech acted. In the rescue this African’s faith invites admiration and imitation. And through his story we gain another facet in knowing God.
But before taking up any lessons let’s review the episode.
First, who was Ebed-melech? We don’t know him apart from Jeremiah. His name in the text seems to be a title rather than a personal name. It means “servant of the king.” And so he was: one of the palace staff for Zedekiah, King of Judah. This raises a related question. Was he a free man? Probably not. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch. Men don’t volunteer to be eunuchs and as an Ethiopian—an African—he was almost certainly a black man serving in a non-African setting. This is the profile of slavery.
Second, who was Jeremiah? God’s iron-like prophet in a nation of balsawood characters. He spoke on God’s behalf to warn Judah, a nation miraculously rescued from an Assyrian invasion only a few decades before, of coming doom. Judeans, with the earlier rescue, felt they were bulletproof because God lived among them in his Jerusalem temple. And with that they were spiritually faithless as this citation reveals, among many, from Jeremiah 18:11-12.
Jeremiah speaking—“Return, every one from his evil way, and amend you ways and your deeds.”
The answer—“But they say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’”
The Judeans soon wanted to kill this messenger for exposing their sin. Jeremiah, we should add, was an equal opportunity prophet. His targets included almost everyone: the people, other prophets, the priests, and the kings of his era. Even his own family wanted to kill him. So he was, to say the least, a lonely voice.
Yet Jeremiah was reliable.
Whatever God told him, he told the people—and whatever he said came true. So when we pick up the cistern episode the local disaster was nearly at a crescendo. Jeremiah warned that the Babylonian Army would soon defeat Judah; and the Babylonians already had Jerusalem—Judah’s capital—under siege.
Jeremiah was imprisoned at this stage but still safe. The question—given the hostility towards him—was how long this would last. Eventually a group of officials came to King Zedekiah and asked for permission to kill him. The king gave his passive approval—“[I] can do nothing against you”—and Jeremiah was soon in the cistern.
Cisterns—emergency water tanks carved into bedrock stone—didn’t have outlets; so any dirt or debris that collected on roofs and in rain channels were washed into the tank and settled to the bottom over time. With Jerusalem under siege—and her main water springs located outside the city walls—all the free water had already been drawn out of this cistern. All that remained was deep mud. The only way out was by the mouth of the tank and that was beyond Jeremiah’s reach. He was without food and the suffocating ooze would drown him if he tried to sleep. Jeremiah was doomed.
Jeremiah RescuedThat’s when the African servant had enough. He went to the king and called for a moral reversal: “My lord the king, these men have done evil!” His stunning charge either cowed the king or stirred his conscience—or both. Zedekiah quickly gave new orders, this time for Jeremiah to be rescued and Ebed-melech led the effort. This part of the account was uniquely specific: a looped rope was lowered and Ebed-melech told Jeremiah to use rags to pad his arms against the rope as he was drawn out of the thick muck. Jeremiah survived and was then protected to the end.
The story of Ebed-melech didn’t end with the rescue. It concludes later, in chapter 39:16-18, with another rescue, this one from God who spoke to Ebed-melech through Jeremiah when the Babylonians finally conquered Jerusalem: “For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the LORD.”
We leave the story with some final reflections.
First and foremost, Ebed-melech was not passive in the face of evil. Even though he was virtually powerless—an African slave—he stepped out to stir the king’s conscience. God also spoke of Ebed-melech’s conduct as his “trust in me.” By this trust he refused to be intimidated by powerful men. And this, in turn, gives us the source of his courage: a vision of God that matched Jeremiah’s at a moment when it counted most.
This is what faith in God can and should produce: courage and action whenever it’s needed.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Conversion as Conversation

Do all true conversions come
by way of a conversation with God?

rf-132x132My life-changing response to God’s love—my conversion—came through a conversation with Christ. I was a young skeptic—ready to dismiss my Sunday-School charade of faith—when a chain of unlikely events caught my attention. Was God at work? Did he actually exist? Or, more to the point, if he did exist was he trying to catch my attention?
What came next can be compressed to this: I picked up a Bible and began reading the Gospel of Matthew. When I reached the Sermon on the Mount the reading turned into a conversation. What Jesus said had personal impact: as if the writing was meant for me.
What were the key features? When Jesus spoke about sin in chapter five I recognized myself as a sinner. Then I asked—inwardly but in fully formed thoughts—what he expected of me. He answered in what I read next: perfection! This back-and-forth was repeated as I raised follow-up questions, each of which was addressed just a verse or two later.
Conversion as ConversationWhen I reached Matthew 6:33 he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” I took it as a personal invitation and responded with an unconditioned, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” That exchange continues to define my life.
One impact is that I still come to Bible reading for my ongoing conversation with God. I bring my questions and concerns to Bible reading and I find his presence there, still answering and stirring new questions.
My experience raises a question: do all true conversions come by way of a conversation with God? Did my personal encounter reflect a necessary feature of salvation, or was it one option among many—or, perhaps, an exception to the rule?
If it depends on what I hear from others it seems to be exceptional—but should it be? We usually hear of two other approaches to conversion. One has been called “decisionism”: as people are invited to make a “decision for Christ.”
The assumption here is that a person’s mind and will are engaged by the speaker’s reasonable and compelling case for the gospel. Faith, then, is the listener’s agreement with gospel claims that includes a practical embrace of those claims—the “trust and obey for there’s no other way” portrayal of faith.
A second widespread approach to faith is the educational—“catechetical”—model. It usually starts with infant-baptism in the believing community. God is understood to be present both in extending needed grace to the infant through baptism, and then in supporting the child’s progression to adult faith with Christian education as his means of grace.
It’s worth noticing that both the decision and catechetical forms of faith are cooperative: divine and human actions are required. The decision model focuses on the adult choice to believe the gospel; and the catechism model relies on church training and the student’s eventual expression of agreement in order to be confirmed in the faith.
Yet something may be missing in both models. In each case the symmetry between God’s efforts and the person’s efforts are based on knowing and choosing: God informs and we choose.
What isn’t addressed is a changed heart—something only accomplished by the Spirit’s ministry. We can think of John 3 here.   And the first fruit of the Spirit is a transforming love. That’s not to say that decision-based or training-based models of faith preclude an encounter with God’s Spirit and his love poured out in our hearts. Yet in many settings that love isn’t portrayed as God’s basis for awakening faith.
In James 2:19 we’re reminded that simple knowledge isn’t the sole basis of faith: even demons believe in God. And the Jewish religious leaders in the New Testament were premier representatives of an educational and decision-defined—behavioral—form of faith. What was missing? Jesus told them in John 5:42, “you do not have the love of God within you.” In other words, the calling of Matthew 22:37 to love God isn’t a passing thought. And we’re aware of 1 Corinthians 13—of faith, hope, and love—as well.
It might be argued, of course, that love is equated with obedience in John 14:21 so that love is just another word for self-determined obedience. But even a cursory reading of the context tells us otherwise. The metaphor Jesus uses in the next chapter—the vine-branch-fruit imagery—presents love and obedience as borne out of our abiding in his love, so our love is a fruit of his love and not the other way round.
So what of the conversion-as-a-conversation model of faith? The central premise is that a once-deaf—or a once-blind—heart is now able to hear and see. In Paul’s expression of Ephesians 1:18, “the eyes of our hearts” are enlightened by the grace of God. The former “hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18) that once supported alienation and ignorance of God is now undone.
All we do is listen and respond.
“Respond to what?” some might ask.
To his self-giving—as the Word of God—and to his Spirit-generated Scriptures that tell us of himself. In effect he invites us into a conversation he’s had with the Father and the Spirit from eternity past and that will continue into the eternal future for all who know him.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Catching the Spirit of Romans

What is the proper place of the Holy Spirit today?

Through the centuries the Church’s perception of the Holy Spirit has often been overstated or understated.
The Montanists, for instance, stirred a strong reaction by their claims of immediate Spirit-direction. And centuries later Joachim of Fiore mistakenly posited a new Age of the Spirit to displace the presumed passing of the ages of the Father and the Son. Many followed his lead, to the growing concern of church leaders.
Catching the Spirit of RomansThe 17th century Puritans were then equally errant—in the face of cultic Spirit groups like the Familists—by reducing the Spirit’s role to the invisible “doctrine of means”: holding that he only works indirectly, through “means of grace” such as preaching, praying, Bible reading, and the like.
So what is the proper place of the Spirit in the Church for today?
The answer, of course, is: Whatever God wants it to be. And he gives us some clear indications in the Bible. The book of Acts, for instance, tells us how the Spirit was the overt director of early Church growth. His activism was powerful and pervasive.
Yet there are arguable hesitations in treating all the descriptions in Acts of the Spirit’s activism as normative for today. So in asking how the Spirit means to minister today, especially given the historic cycle of abuses-and-suppressive reactions, we look for guidance from the Bible.
And the New Testament epistles offer as much as we need to know about the Spirit’s work. In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, for instance, we have crucial coaching on the Spirit’s role in forming faith. Paul’s Spirit-rich ministry was described in Acts; then in Romans Paul presents the Spirit’s work with special care. So let’s go there.
In an overview reading of Romans we find what might be called Spirit-bursts among longer stretches of relative silence. The epistle starts with a reference to the Spirit in Paul’s introductory remarks. Following that are one-off references in 2:29, 5:5, and 7:6. Chapter 8 then explodes with 21 references—the greatest concentration in the Bible—followed by notices in 9:1, 11:8, 12:11, and 14:17. And, finally, Paul ends with a micro-burst of 4 references in chapter 15.
References to the Father and the Son, by comparison, are much more common and evenly distributed. And that raises a question: is the Spirit’s role diminished by Paul’s relatively localized references?
No. The same pattern is found in the Gospels and elsewhere in Scripture. John, for one, has his own major Spirit discussions in chapters 3 and 14-16. Even the Old Testament has concentrations as in Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 36-37.
Reasons for this pattern grow out of the Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
Spirit’s unique role—his ministry in the “economy” of the Trinity. The Spirit, in very simple terms, has the role of facilitating fellowship or communion both within the Godhead and in our union with Christ. The Father, for instance, planned our salvation; the Son accomplished it; and the Spirit applies it. Each role is crucial but the narrative discussion of the planning and the accomplishing has the most print.
With that in mind, let’s trace the Spirit-in-Romans in a very brief overview. We’ll need to read between the lines at points and I invite each reader to take a look for himself or herself.
Paul launches the epistle with a Trinitarian reference to the Son’s human heritage in King David and to the Holy Spirit in his deity—the latter being witnessed to by the power evidenced in Christ’s resurrection (1:4). The text is cryptic—reflecting some assumptions we need to chase elsewhere.
Paul’s concern in writing to the Romans features a disturbing tension between one or more of the Jewish Christian house-churches—a group still devoted to Jewish practices—and the Gentile-Christian (with some Jews involved) house-church. The former presumably saw Jesus as the Messiah who came in a Jewish context—with Gentile Christians then expected to take up Judaism in expressing their faith. In chapter 2 Paul dismisses this vision and, with that, he reminds these Jews that their own spirituality lacks moral credibility.
The Gentile-Christian house church—certainly the community led by Aquila with his wife Priscilla (16:3-4)—offered a healthy contrast to the unhappy Jews. The Gentile Christians had an exemplary spirituality (2:14-16). Paul attributed the success of their genuine spirituality to the Spirit’s work of circumcising the heart—of aligning the heart to God’s ways by inner reformation (2:29).
The key text in Romans for understanding this inside-out change of heart was then offered in Paul’s call for hope in the face of external persecutions: “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (5:5).
Love, then, is God’s power for change. The sin of self-love or pride can only be dissolved by a greater love. And the Spirit—the Trinity’s agent of fellowship—carries God’s love to the soul. Paul—without losing sight of this truth—then called on Romans to embrace this grace of love—“that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (5:8)—with a new sense of freedom and power.
Then when we reach chapter 8 we find that, despite Paul’s silence about the Spirit’s presence and fellowship in chapters 6-7, his presence was still seen as the basis for transformation. Once again this is accomplished by the Spirit sharing God’s love with his chosen ones: “[Nothing of any sort] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). In other words the Spirit is forever pouring that love out in our hearts and that sets up the security we need!
There’s much more to be said but I’m out of space. Let me just say that later texts like chapter 12:1-3 call for rethinking everything in life on the basis of this love. We see this link to love in later references—“Let love be genuine” and “love is the fulfilling of the law” (12:9 & 13:10)—and in the summary of 15:13 we return to the Spirit’s work of producing hope: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So how does the Spirit change us? By dramatic signs and wonders on the one hand? Or by disappearing and leaving the task of faith to us, on the other? Or—as in Romans—by living in us, and forever speaking into our hearts: “The Father loves you and he wants you to call him Daddy! Come with me and let’s enjoy him as much as the Son does!” Read Romans and see for yourself.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

You want what?!

 

Everything.

God wants everything we have, and all of who we are. Not more and not less. God’s ambition for us is heart-based: he wants whole hearts. That includes our mind, soul, and strength. Or, in contemporary terms, our time, our employment, our money, our devices, our attitudes, values, marriages, plans, and everything else we can think of.
This radical divine ambition came as a dawning when I was converted: the basis for my response to Christ. Jesus came to me with the language of “two masters” in Matthew 6:24. He was saying, in effect, “I want to be your master but you have another master right now—and that must change.”
I mention my embrace of Christ’s calling for my life to highlight a point that many Christians seem to have muddled. The point is important: God isn’t looking for our cooperation or appreciation. He wants, instead, a marriage-like devotion. So when I next read Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and responded so that he began to reshape my deepest values, the implications of this calling started to unfold.
My response of, “Yes, Lord, I’m yours!” meant everything started to change. Knowing Jesus became both my immediate and my ultimate ambition. That’s not to say that I was always consistent or wholly persistent: by no means! But my movement toward him was a new trajectory in life. Later on I realized my “yes” reflected the ministry of the Spirit winning my heart and uniting me to the Son as in the marital-union language of 1 Corinthians 6:15-20.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when at theological college a few years later I read a book by a Christian scholar that treated this kind of faith as “crypto-sectarian.” The author actually made the charge against a 17th century Puritan, John Cotton, but it also applied to me.
Cotton, by the way, was converted by the preaching of Richard Sibbes when Cotton was already a trained and respected Puritan preacher. Sibbes’ teaching of Christ’s love and free grace by the coming of the Spirit caught Cotton’s heart and changed his life. And, obviously, it said something about Cotton’s new view of his earlier version of faith.
What I shared with Cotton, and Sibbes before him, and Calvin before him, and Luther before him, and Bernard before him, and Augustine before him, and the Bible before them, was a marriage-like commitment. God, by the Spirit using unconditional Bible promises of his love and mercy in Christ, made all the difference. His love is both captivating and freeing. And we love him because he first loved us.
The troubling book I read—by William Stoever—was a creed-based critique of the free-grace movement among Puritans. It was, arguably, a lively exercise in Whiggish history—the measuring of earlier historical events by later values. In other words, what Stoever today believes to be correct doctrine was imposed on the 17th century Puritans. So Stoever’s personal Reformed convictions were his basis for criticizing Cotton as a heretic.
As such it buried the real issue: that the Reformed movement was, and still is, divided by two competing versions of Reformed faith. One version—Stoever’s modern view—treats God’s grace as an empowering gift to the elect. This newly created grace offers power to live in line with God’s demands. In turn this obedience displays their status as genuine believers. Obedience, then, is the hallmark of faith.
Cotton’s alternative version of faith followed Luther’s Reformation insight—also embraced by Calvin—that saving grace isn’t a created power but God’s indwelling presence by the Spirit. He then changes us from the inside-out by changing our desires. And with new and holy desires the fruit of obedience follows. But obedience isn’t the focus of faith. Only Christ has that pedestal and any call to look to self by focusing on obedience is to look in the wrong direction.
What Stoever either missed or dismissed, as a result, was the continuity between Cotton and Calvin. This was a key issue in the original Puritan debate: transformation comes only by the Spirit’s participation in a convert’s soul. He stirs the reciprocity of mutual love.
So Calvin himself would need to be seen as a “crypto-sectarian” along with Cotton if Stoever had followed the trail of evidence based on what Cotton kept saying to his colleagues, “I’m just following Calvin!” And he was.
In a nutshell Stoever insisted that God wants a balance between himself and his believers—a symmetry between Nature (humans) and Grace (God). Stoever argues that Cotton’s newfound belief in the abiding presence of the Spirit violates this symmetry. How? By Cotton’s claim that believers, by this union with Christ, are fully dependent on God.
Such complete dependence, Stoever warns, violates God’s desire for a Nature-Grace partnership by means of enabling and saving grace. Grace, as a booster force given by God to the Elect, allows them to retain a certain independence that pleases God.
But Independence, even of this type, is a curious thought to all of us who were converted by repenting of our independence. Adam started the problem by declaring independence so it’s certainly not likely to be a feature of salvation. So Cotton dismissed independence and moved from one version of Reformed faith to another. And he got it right.
Go read and see for yourself. Boasting or Nature-boosting just doesn’t cut it. God still wants everything.
~ Ron

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo UK
 
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Justified

 

Where do we stand with God?

Is he pleased with us? Are we confident about the future—sure about eternal life?
Hopefully, yes, but let’s pause to think about it. And let’s ask the question in light of God as the Father, Son, and Spirit God.
justified-cordeo ukJustification—our engaging God’s righteousness—is a biblical linchpin for Christians. The English terms “righteous” and “just” are two translations of one root word in the original language. The idea of being set right with God seems simple enough but how it happens is more complex. Debates about justification are common as was illustrated by an exchange between Tom Wright and John Piper not so long ago.
In this small space I’d like to consider a narrower aspect of justification that doesn’t get much notice: what does our justification accomplish for God?
To answer I’ll return here to a theme I see throughout the Bible. I now refer to it regularly but I was shy to use it until I found it in the writings of Martin Luther and some of the 17th century Puritans.
Here it is. God the Father wants to share his beloved Son with others. So he created those who would become the Son’s beloved ones—his collective “bride”—to receive from the Son what the Son receives from the Father: devoted care and creative fellowship.
This narrative starts in the beginning as we meet God in his plurality: “let us” make “him” and “them” in “our” image. Later we discover the Son as the Father’s beloved companion—his “Word”—who reveals the Father to others. Together with the Spirit they are “one.”
Later in the Bible we discover labels for God: He is good, holy, righteous, pure, blameless, just, wise, and so on. These are words that describe his triune communion. And so it is that he is also said to be love—a word expressing God’s mutual devotion and the basis of his overflowing care for the creation.
This love sets up God’s gift of companionship.
In love he walked in the Garden of Eden to be with Adam and Eve. Adam, however, spurned God’s love and lost confidence in God as he usurped God’s place.
Adam’s lost confidence was tied to his lost love: for a fallen person to trust God, God must fulfill that person’s will. And God must live under the fallen pretense that humans are autonomous: made to be free.
But God treats this as utter nonsense. He knows that all humans were enslaved from Eden onward by the great Liar and his one Lie: “You can be like God!”
But even after Adam’s fall God was determined to live among us. He chose a people for himself and set up, first, a tent and then a temple as his earthly home among us.
The Father also sent the Son at an appropriate time to offer humanity the ultimate expression of his love—the God-man who was not fallen. His was a life of total dependence on, and unrestrained affection for, the Father and with that a love for his creation.
Sin is a violation of this love: a complete disaffection for God.
The bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit is a mystery to fallen people—and the willingness of the Father to send the Son to die and redeem his bride is sheer folly. Life in sin, instead, endorses the Enemy’s ambition to dismiss God.
The Father laughs at this—as the “nations rage”—and refuses to allow for self-love as an alternative to a love for his Son (Psalm 2). God’s love is unrestrained and unrestricted otherness—what fallen humanity can’t begin to comprehend—as in the eternal love of the Father and the Son as communicated by the Spirit.
So the sum of God’s eternal communion is love. The Old Testament refrain, for instance—“his loving kindness endures forever”—sets out God’s motivation. And that warns humans that self-love—the motive behind fallen assertions of freedom and independence—has no future. God condemns sin to a single realm: death.
The Spirit shares this mutual love of the Father and the Son. His role in humanity is to whisper God’s word—expressing his love—in our hearts. Most humans remain deaf in their sin—hard-hearted. But others begin to hear and respond to Scriptures—especially those who have been damaged by the proud and successful god-pretenders. The hearers are the elect: the bridal ones.
There’s much more to be said about God, of course, but this is enough for now. As we return to the question of our being righteous with God—of being justified—we find a lover waiting for us. The Father offers his Son in love. The Spirit woos us with that love and wins some but not all. Faith is a dawning that Satan lied and that God loves us on his terms, not ours. We were made by God, for God. And faith works through love.
Listen, then, to Jesus as he prayed on our behalf:

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you and these know that you have sent me” (John 17:24-25).

So justification is the culmination of a love story: it is our gazing into Christ’s eyes by faith and saying, as his bride, “I do.”
And with that we become what God meant us to be from the very beginning: his beloved ones who share all that he is, including his righteousness.
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Heartfelt Knowledge

 
 

Knowledge can be interesting, useful, and random.

 
heartfelt knowledge
Recently I experienced random knowledge on a BBC radio program. The presentation featured an expert on the properties and uses of lithium. He helped connect two worlds for me. On the one hand I knew that lithium is used to treat bipolar disease. On the other hand I know my laptop uses a lithium battery. The expert told us how the conductive properties of lithium explain both uses.
But never mind the lithium: the point is that this professor knew his subject.
What, then, about the underlying notion of knowledge in this or any other field? To know something is to engage it either directly or indirectly—by experience or through training. I can, for instance, be taught about lithium and/or I can use a lithium battery. I can also know a person or I can know about a person even if we’ve never met.
What is the point of knowledge? Should we seek as much knowledge as possible? Is knowing an end in itself, so that we should seek to know as much as possible? Even if the content seems insignificant to us? Or is knowledge mainly functional—a benefit directed by particular needs?
In academia the broad accumulation of knowledge is treasured. So, too, is specialized knowledge. Students with especially retentive minds tend to prosper with this sort of knowing. Yet the validity of some forms of knowledge can’t be assured. History is full of misguided expertise—with the worldview of Ptolemy as one grand example.
I raise these questions to stir thought rather than to offer answers.
One more question.
We usually treat the content of our varied courses at school and college as indirect knowledge—as foundational content that is available to others in the same way we’ve learned it: from our instructors and from books. It is objective knowledge: standard and reliable information about topics as varied as geology, geography, history, literature, maths, and more.
But is our knowledge ever really objective?
In asking the question I recall a conference put on for doctoral students during my London days. One segment pitted two history professors in a debate over this question. One held that historical research is an exercise of discovery: the work of finding and expressing a true portrayal of past events. The other professor disagreed and insisted that written history is like a creative painting or an informed novel: the guiding feature is the historian’s creativity rather than the task of uncovering the truth about an event or person.
Both men agreed that historical studies use incomplete evidence. No one can resurrect the past in comprehensive detail or discover all the motives and thoughts that were active in an earlier era. So historical studies can only offer approximations of the past. The question, then, is what the historians have in mind in writing their history.
Let me suggest that the language of “true”—whether in historical studies or in other fields—is central to what we mean by objective. So the two London professors were really debating the benefits of objective history versus subjective history. One version feels obliged to engage the past on the terms the past provides. The other feels free to use the past for present purposes. The former might ask the question in a study of Martin Luther, “Would Luther agree with my portrayal if he was still alive?” The latter would dismiss that option as impossible and not a concern anyway as he would want to offer a “Luther for today.”
Of course there’s only so much freedom in this subjective-objective debate. I’m happy for poets and novelists to be subjective. But in applied aeronautics we all want Boeing and Airbus engineers to be hard-nosed objectivists as they design the aircraft we fly.
The late Kenneth Kantzer, once the Dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, waded into the question of reliable knowledge in the realm of theology. He compared the kind of knowledge we have in science and engineering—the realms of lithium research and aircraft design—to the debates we meet in matters of faith and worship.
Kantzer compared the ease of being accurate in non-moral issues such as aeronautics to the moral distortions or deflections that take place as someone comes closer to an unwanted truth—and, ultimately, to an unwanted God.
A lithium scientist, for instance, might be absolutely objective when he talks about properties of lithium and its place on the periodic table. But if he happens to be involved in adultery and is faced with a God who calls him to repent, all his skills as a learned scientist may turn to be used to dismiss God’s existence. So he can be objective on the one hand and fiercely subjective on the other. Call it a function of moral defensiveness. His subjective religious stance will then conflict with the evidence of an ordered universe—a divinely designed universe—that serves as the unacknowledged basis of his lab research.
Kantzer’s argument of moral deflection is a paraphrase of Romans 1:18-32. The evidence of God’s hand in shaping the universe is a compelling reality for a believer—as one who knows and loves God—but all others will “suppress the truth” by their unrighteousness.
This is a theme we find elsewhere in spiritual concerns. Jesus, for instance, condemned the Bible scholars of his era for missing the evidence in Scripture that offered a witness to his own deity in John 5. The problem? “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.”
Paul said as much about the majority of the world “who are perishing because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:10).
Knowledge, as a wrap up, can be seen as the fabric of all we engage through our perceptions and learning. Yet knowledge ultimately exists as a function of our hearts. That is, the source and sustaining presence behind all that can be known is the Triune God who loves us.
So to grow in every dimension of knowing—to know without moral distortion—we need to embrace the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He determined the properties of lithium and is ever ready to meet us in our subjective places as the object of our greatest devotion.
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Evangelism

 
 

The high cringe-factor

 
My friend is an evangelist, a global Christian activist who offers the gospel whenever and wherever he finds opportunity. After any restaurant meal, for instance, he’ll fold the tip in a gospel tract. His voicemail message offers a gospel invitation to callers. His favorite strategy is to take non-Christian friends golfing in order to engage in a gospel conversation somewhere on the back-nine.
There’s a lot of what my British friends call a “high cringe-factor” in his sharing: many folks run for cover when he heads their way! He recognizes that response, of course, but treats it as the cost of doing business. Sometimes he recalls Paul saying, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel.” So it doesn’t matter what others think.
And, to be honest, I know he views me as one who doesn’t take Christ’s call to evangelism very seriously. He’s right, of course. At least by his measure. I’ve never seen much fruit in his approach so I don’t use it. But I don’t despise it. If even one person comes to faith by reading a tract he left behind, great. God’s hand isn’t short in using any means to save some.
But recently the time came for me to tell him that I’m also an evangelist. His eyebrows arched in surprise and skepticism. Was I kidding?
I wasn’t.
“My focus is the church,” I told him. “Many ‘Christians’ have never actually met Jesus so whenever I teach or preach I offer what I know I needed to hear before I came to a living faith.”
Here’s my approach. The church is a ready audience because people come each week expecting to hear someone talk about Jesus from the Bible. And lots of these folks are where I once was—assuming they have a proper faith while not actually knowing Jesus.
Call it a social or cultural faith. But—without wanting to be ungracious yet to be honest—it isn’t the kind of faith Jesus affirms.
We can think, for instance, of the flawed faith in John 2:23-24 where “many believed . . . but Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them [lit: “believe in them”]. In other words their faith wasn’t the real thing even though they had was some sort of appreciation for Jesus.
I was once in that place. I thought I was a Christian and then I actually met Jesus. Afterwards I wondered how I had attended church for so many years without ‘getting it.’ My claims of faith amounted to a sincere charade—the art of acting as if I knew him when we had never actually met.
So after meeting him I became an evangelist to the church.
Who needs this evangelism?
A group in any given church that is bigger than we realize, but never a group we can know with certainty. That knowledge is God’s turf.
Yet Jesus gives us some clear indicators of the need. Those, for instance, who don’t see Jesus as wonderful are signaling that they’ve never met him. He’s more attractive than any of the things he has created, so to meet him is to taste the greatest goodness of all. And, with that, his impact on all who meet him is consistent: he stirs a spontaneous and persistent love that reciprocates his own love.
So once this encounter takes place the person who meets Jesus begins to read and respond to the Bible as a way to hear from a dear companion. True faith always engages what Jesus says. He said as much to a crowd who professed to have believed in him: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples . . .” (John 8:31).
Yet in this John 8 setting the ‘believers’ he was speaking to only wanted a part of what Jesus offered, not Jesus himself. And this utilitarian approach to faith had a corollary: a distaste for his teachings. And because of that distaste Jesus charged this clan with being aligned with the desires of the devil. Jesus also challenged them with a truism for the ages: “If God were [truly] your father, you would love me.”
Jesus offered another sign of true faith in John 13: a faithful love for others and for other Christians in particular.
This one is tough.
It’s one thing to love other Christians who love us, but too many members of the church love very selectively. I can think, for instance, of various fence-building versions of faith where love is conditional: limited to those who affirm particular creedal, behavioral, or denominational commitments that make up their own version of the gospel.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were experts at this conditional sort of caring: “we’ll love you if…”   Jesus, by contrast, loved the world even as the world moved to kill him. His treatment of Judas at the last supper showed this sort of love.
John, with Jesus in mind, crystallized the point: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
So my evangelism is to those who claim to be Christians yet who hate other Christians. And to those who claim to be Christians but who have no taste for the Bible.
The basis of this evangelism?
Christ’s call for us to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbors too. It’s that simple. Jesus made this the ultimate measure of his own evangelism.   And many of the ordinary people of his day responded but not too many of the scholars.
Many of the religious leaders, in fact, weren’t happy with his emphasis on God’s love. And that’s what got Jesus crucified.
So be alert to the implications of this kind of evangelism—there’s a very high cringe-factor in being crucified! But it’s what Jesus called for in John 12:24 and what Paul affirmed in Galatians 2:20. Read these texts and see what you think.
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Righteous?

 
 

What, according to the Bible, makes us righteous?

 

Measuring holiness?Righteousness—and how to achieve it—is at the heart of Christian faith. But what, according to the Bible, makes us righteous? Another word, justification – “to be made righteous”, refers to the same issue: how do we come into a proper standing with God?

In Christianity at least three ways of determining righteousness have been promoted: an applied measure, a legal measure, and a relational measure. Applied righteousness is easy: any conduct that satisfies God’s demands makes a person righteous. Legal righteousness is broader: if a person has been judged guilty for his sins God is free to offer a reprieve by dismissing the legal charges against him.

Martin Luther, for instance, used this understanding when he spoke of Christians having an “alien righteousness” through faith in Christ. In his view a given believer is granted the full moral standing of the Son—absolute righteousness—through faith, even though the believer’s conduct still falls well short of Christ’s applied righteousness. In other words a person’s applied righteousness isn’t critical; the Father’s forgiveness in Christ through faith is what counts.

This debate was central to the 16th century Protestant Reformation as the Roman Church dismissed Luther’s claim and insisted that Christians must work to achieve actual righteousness through a “faith formed by love”. And the Roman version of love was will-based—a function of self-determined obedience—rather than an affective love. Spirituality, then, grows as a responsibility of the seeker rather than as a response to God’s love. God, in their view, is a righteous judge who demands that his followers rise to his ethical standards. Conduct that falls short remains under God’s righteous wrath.

Luther, on the other hand, believed that God is a lover who draws us into the affective bond of the Father and the Son. Love, in turn, is a shared delight and response to a loving God by his beloved ones. And the devotion of love—our faith—is what changes us to be more and more like the Son in our daily conduct. Our hearts follow after the heart of the one we love.

With that historical sketch in mind I was struck with Paul’s discussion of sin in Romans 3.

There the relational righteousness of God comes into focus. The chapter famously declares that all humanity is morally broken: “None is righteous, no, not even one; no one understands; not one seeks for God” (verses 10-11). So human righteousness, by this measure, is nonsense and pretense. No one, apart from Christ, ever achieves actual righteousness.

What catches our attention in the following verses is Paul’s resolution of the problem: of “how the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

What’s striking is how Paul set out the problem of sin in the earlier verses of the chapter: he began by framing sin as a problem of faithlessness in verse 3—“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” Next, in a restatement in verse 5, Paul set out the same concern but with a new term in place of faith-concerns. “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? . . . . By no means!” The two expressions are parallel so that unrighteousness is aligned with faithlessness.

Faithfulness and faithlessness are terms that press us towards a relational rather than a legal focus, but the two are coordinate concerns. Think, for instance, of the refrain that comes with so many broken marriages—“The spouse was unfaithful.” In such cases God’s law is certainly broken but the deeper issue is the violation of love.

And that refrain, as it relates to God and his people, jumps off the pages of the Old Testament in any rapid reading of the Bible. Jeremiah, for instance, treats it as a central theme in his warnings to Judah: “You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD. . . . She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore” (Jer. 3:1 & 8).

The contrast between the faithful husband-who-is-God and his faithless bride, Israel, is played out again and again in the Old Testament. Hosea’s marriage to faithless Gomer is the vivid picture of God’s anguish over his faithless creation.

In this book the prophet goes beyond Israel to address the faithlessness of humanity as a whole: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7). But God persistently refuses to give his bridal people away to their predilection for evil and promises to draw back at least some to himself: “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jer. 32:40-41).

Here’s the point: we will do well to reflect on God’s real “heart” and “soul” desire for us to have a love relationship with him that is sound. We aren’t meant to give our hearts away to the love of success, wealth, security, and the like—to self-love—but to be wholly devoted to Christ. This is what we were made for. And this is what ultimately defines righteousness rather than mere law-keeping. Laws only confront broken relationships; they don’t build faithful hearts. Luther was right in his emphasis on God’s role in restoring us. We won’t ever do it on our own.

So faithfulness and righteousness is the fruit of love. The gospel is God’s call for us to turn back to him, to hear his expressions of faithful love. That alone will stir us to love him in return—both wholly and faithfully.

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

And the Holy Spirit

 
 

The theologians of Constantinople —wary of the Spirit
—minimized the Spirit’s role in the church

 

The Council of Nicaea in 325 worked hard to summarize a sound understanding of the Triune God in the face of Arian error. They explained how Jesus, the Son, exists in eternal relationship with the Father. In a final document they added this truncated final object of proper faith—“And in the Holy Spirit.” The Father-Son reality was their main focus; yet the lack of substance in their mention of the Spirit reflected an uncertainty about his being and work.

The Council of Constantinople in 381 addressed the Holy Spirit more fully by describing Him as “the Lord, the giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, and who spoke through the prophets.” A much better summary.

My own theological heritage was more like the theologians of Nicaea than the theologians of Constantinople—wary of the Spirit—as they minimized the Spirit’s role in the church. I suspect it reveals an enduring reaction to the overstated focus on the Spirit found in some Christian traditions. The errors of past—as in the teachings of Joachim of Fiore, or the prophets of Zwickau, or the radicals of Munster, or the Familists of England—still haunt the church. Some are still promoting these excesses. But folly must not cause us to retreat from what the Bible tells us of the Spirit’s ministry.

Let me raise three issues for conversation.

First, all Christians affirm the Spirit’s place in the Trinity as a necessary feature of faith.

This goes beyond the mere title offered at Nicaea. We must adopt, at least, the biblical premise of Constantinople: the Spirit is our Lord and he brings God’s life to believers. This is the truth Jesus offered Nicodemus in John 3. Without the Spirit of God there is no eternal life—a person is dead in sin until the Spirit comes and brings God’s life.

One can draw from this that in the day Adam sinned he died as God had promised—“in the day you eat [the forbidden fruit] you shall surely die” versus Satan’s claim, “You will not surely die.” Here Satan deceived Eve, and Adam then joined her in eating and dying. The Spirit—the source of Adam’s life—was grieved by this rejection and departed from Adam.

When Adam died so did all of his extended offspring: since the fall no human has ever been physically birthed with the Spirit in his or her soul. His role as the means of spiritual life ended in Eden and now must be reengaged. As Jesus put it to Nicodemus, “that which is born of the flesh is [merely] flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

So Christ, by the Spirit, now stands outside human souls—unloved and uninvited but still speaking his own words of love. What Adam once enjoyed—God’s love, joy, peace, and more—is still available, shared in quiet whispers. But our human appetite to be independent—to “be like God”—carries us in an opposite direction.

Second, the Spirit communicates God’s heart so that he is effective in drawing some, but not all, back into the life Adam despised. This is our new spiritual life.

John Calvin captures this:

“He [God] wills to work in us. This means nothing else than that the Lord by his Spirit directs, bends, and governs, our heart and reigns in it as in his own possession. Indeed, he does not promise through Ezekiel that he will give a new Spirit to his elect only in order that they may be able to walk according to his precepts, but also that they may actually so walk.” [Institutes, 2.3.10]

The richness of the Spirit’s activity in believers is what makes the book of Acts so lively and also so promising: lively in its portrayal of the Spirit’s past initiatives, and promising in what the range of the Spirit’s role can be among us today. What we must remember is that the Spirit’s ministry is always self-defined by what Jesus shared – “he [the Spirit] will bear witness about me.”

The third reality of the Spirit’s ministry is that he changes us from the “inside-out”.

The spiritual life relies on the Spirit and not on our old and fallen habits of trying to “be like God”. Paul all but shouts this in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 when he wrote that the Spirit moves us “from glory to glory”—into an ever-increasing likeness to Christ who is the Image of God. He uses the gospel to win our hearts with God’s love and then to reshape our hearts into an alignment with God’s heart.

How does he do this? By pouring out God’s love in our hearts. It’s like a breeze coming into a forest that was once still and dormant in death: with his arrival the wind of the Spirit brings a wonderful animation that all can see and Christians will enjoy.

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

What do you think?

 
 

A feisty debate stirred the New England churches in 1636.

 
 

The question at stake was the nature of faith—what is it that makes a Christian?what do you think

In an early exchange of letters between two of the pastors, Peter Bulkeley asked John Cotton whether he would agree that there must be “the work of faith in us to apprehend” a saving union with Christ—in other words, does a believer apply his or her will in the function of believing?

Cotton responded that a soul does nothing to initiate faith: “the soul receives Christ as an empty vessel receives oil—the receiving is not active but passive.”  Cotton pressed his case by using the biblical analogies of faith being comparable to fruit production: the birth and growth of any fruit depends on the tree or the vine that bears it and not on the fruit itself.

In an allusion to John 15:5 Cotton wrote, “We must either be abiding in Christ, or else existing outside him (that is, without his abiding in us) or else we can do nothing.”  For any other conclusion, Cotton went on, “we must look for it in Aristotle’s Ethics, for it is not revealed in the Gospel of Christ” [in D. Hall, ed.,Antinomian Controversy, 37 & 40].

In his response Cotton showed he was alert to Martin Luther’s key point in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology—a set of 97 theses Luther produced a few weeks before he posted his more famous 95 Theses.

In thesis 40 of the Disputation he made the point that we are not justified by doing just deeds, but having been made just [by God’s work in us] we do just deeds.  Then in thesis 41 he made it clear that he was intentionally challenging Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as the “worst enemy of grace” because in his book Aristotle presumed that virtues come about by practicing virtuous deeds.

This, of course, remains the major question in debate about how salvation is applied: is faith something we offer God in order to be saved, or is it a response God produces in us by his initiative?  The church has long struggled with a straightforward reading of the texts that Luther and Cotton were using.  Just as Cotton faced strong resistance from Bulkeley and Thomas Shepherd, Luther faced similar headwind from the Humanist scholar, Desiderius Erasmus.

As a sidebar, we need to push deeper into the controversy than many do these days.  The language of “believe . . . and be saved” is offered in the Bible and it’s then read as an imperative or command we need to obey.  Okay, but we still need to ask about the context in which such imperatives are properly read.

That is, too many Christians read such texts as unwitting disciples of Aristotle by presuming that everyone has a ‘freedom of the will’ that allows for moral choices.  But the Bible actually teaches that we’re dead in our sins so that we have as much initiative to obey God as a cadaver has for breathing.

At a more sophisticated level, many try to mitigate the issue of spiritual death by holding that God has enabled sin-“damaged” wills to obey once someone is given a restorative grace (“enabling grace”); and this is granted just to some (the “elect”) and not to all—since the rest are assigned to be “reprobates.”  But this is still not a compelling case to the degree that human effort is viewed as crucial to salvation: so that God helps us save ourselves.

Where Cotton differed from Bulkeley—who believed in enabling grace as a necessary precursor to exercising the saving act of faith—was in his view that the heart is dead towards God.  There is nothing to “enable” until God, by the Spirit, comes and reveals Christ’s love to the unbelieving soul in a direct encounter.

In other words, in Cotton’s view, as Luther also believed, the problem of sin is that it operates through heartfelt disaffection and not as a moral and volitional disability.  The problem of our souls is that we don’t really like God as he truly exists or want him to be God to us.

Bulkeley, by contrast, believed that everyone “wants” God but needs a boost of grace—God’s gracious assistance—to achieve a standard called “saving faith” that God demands of us.  Cotton, against Bulkeley and like Luther, believed that our hearts are utterly deceptive and that we may want what God seems to offer—heavenly safety—but not God himself.

The result of this New England controversy was a lot of pejorative labeling.  Cotton’s followers called their opponents “papists” because of their emphasis on human initiative—in treating faith as a human responsibility—which they viewed as the great error of Roman Catholics.  Bulkeley and Shepherd’s followers in turn labeled Cotton’s clan as “antinomians” because they dismissed law-keeping as a legitimate basis for spiritual growth.

To measure the question more broadly let’s turn back now to an even earlier version of this debate: to the 5th century argument between Augustine and Pelagius.  What triggered the sharpest disagreement was Augustine’s call to “Love and do whatever you want.”  This horrified Pelagius, a British moralist who was trying to clean up the immoral tendencies of the Roman church in Italy.

In a nutshell Augustine also believed that God changes people from the inside-out.  Luther believed that God changes people from the inside-out.  And Cotton believed that God changes people from the inside out.  All believed that when the Spirit of God pours out God’s love in our hearts we start to think and act in ways aligned with God’s heart.  That leads to true godliness.

Pelagius, on the other hand, believed that moral change is something we need to offer God on our own initiative.  So that spirituality is a change from the outside-in.  Erasmus agreed and so did Bulkeley.  We just need some help from God to pull it off.

In practice, then, the difference comes in the way we think.  According to the Augustinian tradition we are captured by God’s love and it changes the way we think.  It changes what and who we think about: Christ replaces self as the focus of our reflections.  And we think of others in light of Christ’s love for them.  And with that our conduct is changed.

Alternatively, we think about how we need to work harder in establishing our obedience of faith. Yet, ironically, the focus is still on ourselves: as long as we remain morally sound, we’re actually thinking about our own welfare and about God as our assistant.

So what do you think?

Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog
 

Where Should We Start?

 
 

Everything starts with God.

But who is he?

What is God like?

 
 
Dionysius, the self-professed convert of Paul, has helped shape one point of view. The true Dionysius, noted in Acts 17:34, isn’t known to us beyond his cameo Bible reference.  But a much later figure who borrowed the name and identity of Dionysius is critical to the question.  He was able to offer a version of God that still has broad credibility by using his ‘borrowed’ affiliation with Paul to speak with New-Testament-like authority.
pseudo-dionsiusToday this figure is known as Pseudo-Dionysius.  He was, in fact, a 6th century philosopher who did much to import Neo-Platonism into Christianity.  His actual inspiration wasn’t Paul but Proclus (410-485) who relied, in turn, on Plotinus (205-270)—both of whom were not Christians.
This is tedious stuff for non-historians, I’m sure, but the question of what God is like is important.  And Pseudo-Dionysius plays a larger role in our modern conception of God than most of us know.  This, in turn, calls for a bit of patient curiosity, so please track with me as we note three other important figures.
A Greek Orthodox leader in the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor (580-662), was quickly convinced that Pseudo-Dionysius was the actual New Testament convert of Paul.  He, in turn, did much to shape today’s Orthodox liturgy—of worship-as-ascent—based on what he took from Pseudo-Dionysius.
Another convert was the Brit, Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c.815-c.877), who carried Dionysian views into Latin-speaking realms.  His efforts helped develop Roman Catholic mysticism that, like Orthodoxy had already done, followed the Dionysian call to a three-step ascent into God.  This was the pathway of purgation, illumination, and union: an approach to spirituality that is gaining momentum today.
A third major convert to Ps. Dionysius calls for special notice: Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  Aquinas is important because he offered the most elaborate and compelling blend of Greek classical theology/philosophy—with Aristotle as a guiding light—and medieval Christian faith.
A number of recent scholars—promoters of Post-Reformation Protestant Scholasticism—have shown that today’s Reformed theology is a slightly enhanced reprise of what Thomas once taught.  And they’re right.  For many—but not all—in the Reformed tradition today it’s as if the early Reformation never occurred.  Thomistic themes still reign in defining faith.
To be clear, the evidence is compelling that Martin Luther and John Calvin were repelled by the Thomistic package and meant to overthrow it—and many Puritans, including Richard Sibbes, agreed with these reformers—but that’s another story.
What we want to note here is that Thomas relied heavily on Aristotle for his methodology and his ethical framing of salvation, but many of his most significant assumptions about who God is came from Pseudo-Dionysius.  A formal historical study by Fran O’Rourke, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas, charts this.
For the sake of space let’s take up just one feature: the question of where our assumptions about God begin.  Where did Aquinas start—as do many Christians today—in thinking about God?  He followed Ps. Dionysius by portraying God as utterly different from the creation. So much so that God is ultimately beyond reach.  Here is Aquinas speaking in the Summa Contra Gentiles (as offered in O’Rourke, 54-55):

“. . . he [God] is super-eminent over other things and set apart from all.  And this is the ultimate and most perfect limit of our knowledge in this life, as Dionysius says in the Mystical Theology, ‘We are united with God as the unknown.’  Indeed, this is the situation, for, while we know of God what he is not, what he is remains wholly unknown.”

Aquinas, with Dionysius, adopts an incommensurability of knowing: a complete resignation about ever knowing God as he really is.  Instead we are left knowing him only “through his effects” as the One who causes all that is, but exists outside all that is.
What kind of God emerges from this starting point?  One very different from the God who offers himself in the Bible!
Let’s spurn philosophical speculations about the nature of being and essential divinity for a moment and ask what God reveals about himself at the beginning of Scriptures.  If we allow God the privilege of disclosing whatever he/she/it may want to disclose of [him]self we find a startling reality: “Us”.
As in the one God saying in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” And then, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
What we can start with is a single God who exists in a wondrous communion as “Us” and that this “Us” generated another “us”—that is, humanity, including the readers of the Bible.  And the fact that God birthed us out of his own communion tells us of his priority to engage us in some sort of commensurate bond of knowing and sharing.  And his name is Jesus who now reveals his Father by the ministry of his Spirit.
There’s much more to say, of course, but let’s be sure we start where we’re meant to start.  With a God whom the Elder disciple was speaking of when he twice said in 1 John 4 that, “God is love.”  This love is the bond in the originating Us who now shares it with any of us who receive his love and respond.
If only Thomas had started with the Son—who offers real Love as an ultimate starting point—in place of Ps. Dionysian and Neo-Platonic speculations about the unknowable One, many might have a more satisfying and winsome faith today.
Thankfully it’s not too late to reconsider: to enjoy the God who is known as a Triune Us and who tells us he loves us.
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
~ Ron
 
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].
Visit Spreading The Goodness
Visit the Cor Deo Blog