Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sabbath and God's sanctification

God told Ezekiel about the people of Israel: I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live. Moreover I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them (Ezek 20.11-2).

God's commandments lead to life; a life lived in obedience to them is a truly human, prosperous, flourishing life. It is one thing to be alive from a purely biological point of view, and it is another to feel "alive" in a fuller, deeper way. The depressed are alive in the first sense but not in the second; the happy and joyful are alive in both ways. The lesson here is that God's commandments lead to life of this second sort: they lead to eudaimonia, to use the Greek philosophical term.

But because we are sinful and weak in various ways, it is very difficult for us to keep God's commandments. Through our disordered desires and ignorant prioritization of temporary, transient pleasures over lasting goods, we sabotage ourselves in the quest for a life well-lived. Therefore God commands the sabbath as a reminder that I the LORD sanctify them (v. 12). We don't sanctify ourselves, though we make efforts towards sanctification, so much as God sanctifies us.

When we sabbath, we rest from our labors. Rest is important because it is the way we are made stronger. You can't get much stronger lifting weights every day; you will exhaust yourself and do more damage than good. You need periods of rest, so that your body can rebuild itself stronger than before. I imagine that in the same way, our spirits need rest as well. We need a day of rest, in which we remind ourselves that we depend upon God, not our own strengths, and in which we bring supplications and prayers before him, asking him to renew us for another week of struggle and toil.

I am not particularly good at keeping Sabbath, which is perhaps why I am not particularly good in general. Holy Week provides ample opportunities for reflection upon God's grace and providence, however, as we consider Christ's sufferings, death, and resurrection. The ultimate Sabbath is Easter Sunday, when, confronted with the resurrection of Christ, we receive the greatest encouragement and empowerment of all: as Luther said, God in Christ has defeated death, sin, the law, the devil, evil, and everything else that stands in our way, and this victory he shares with us when we ask for it.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wimpy universalism

Some persons -- mostly of the conservative Reformed sort, in my experience -- consider universalism and other theological positions which heavily emphasize the goodness and love of God to be weak, wimpy, pansy theologies. A Facebook acquaintance of mine (who is not a universalist) who regularly posts universalism-friendly status updates about the "traditional" understanding of hell as eternal torment received this comment on one of his posts: Everything [you write] is pansy, heretical gush. Augustine, too, considered the very many universalists of his time (immo quam plurimi -- the vast majority of Christians, in his words) to be misericordes, which we might translate into contemporary idiom as "bleeding hearts."

These persons suppose that universalism is for the soft, for those who can't face the cold, hard facts of reality: namely, that God has horrible wrath against sinners which, if they do not repent, will damn them for the rest of forever for their iniquities. But we can play the psychologizing game in the other direction, as well.

I happen to think universalism is quite morally demanding, and requires a kind of strength that the ordinary person does not have. The universalist believes that, ultimately, the world is a good and favorable place for humanity, and this is because it is created and conserved by God, who is ultimately good and loves everyone. There are no ultimate cold, hard facts to face up to, because God's face is not cold and hard, but ultimately loving and good, even if harsh for the moment: Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lam 3.32-33).

But this conception of the world is morally demanding, because it requires that we conform ourselves to God's image, who is good to all. If God is good to all and forgiving of every sin, then I can't have any excuses for failing to do so. If God loves all persons and is concerned for the good of everyone, then this same attitude of unconditional benevolence has to inform my thinking and my reasoning, as well. I can't reject anyone forever because God does not reject anyone forever. I can't be unconcerned for some persons because God is concerned for everyone. I can't be unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of sinners, because God was willing to sacrifice for the sake of sinners -- while they were still sinners.

St. Isaac the Syrian spoke of the merciful heart:

It is the heart's burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God (Ascetical Homilies, I/71).

The pinnacle of universalist ethics, in my estimation, is this merciful heart. It is a transformation of the inner person, with the result that the pain of the world is felt personally, and supplication unto God for mercy and salvation results naturally. The person with the merciful heart wants everything to be well; she is tired and exhausted by the suffering in the world, and sees God as the world's only hope for rescue and restoration. This mercy extends even to creatures of the earth and to demons, those who do evil out of ignorance, those who are darkened in their minds. This may seem weak and possibly feminine to some -- perhaps an example of sexism in some theological thinking -- but that is a difficult objection to square with the truth that the fruit of the Spirit and the wisdom from above is a character of precisely the sort St. Isaac describes: gentle, merciful, kind, good, forgiving, peaceable.

Universalism is hardly wimpy; it demands an ethic of unilateral goodness which is beyond the strength of those who fancy themselves harder, stronger, in touch with reality because they believe some will be deservedly damned forever. They care about themselves and their "justified" sentiments of resentment and moral condemnation too much to open themselves to the demand of forgiving the wicked, of praying for bastards like the ISIS decapitators, to feel for the pain of those who deserve punishment. This is an excuse for them to be unforgiving and mean, for them not to make efforts and sacrifices for the sake of reconciliation and forgiveness. It is an excuse for them to be cold. Of course, it goes without saying that there are some who affirm the "traditional" understanding of hell as eternal torment, and who nevertheless are better than their doctrine, and have an uncommon goodness and compassion for sinners, even while they are sinners. But not all are like this.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

I recently watched Woody Allen's great movie Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) for my Theology and Film class. It contains much fascinating discussion on the topics of the existence of God, evil, ultimate justice, morality, the meaning of life, sexuality, and much more.

The story is about an ophthalmologist who is trying to get out of an affair, when his mistress threatens to tell his wife about everything. He struggles with the possibility of having his criminal brother arrange a murder, wondering if such a thing can be done. He was raised a Jew but rejected religion in his youth; yet now and again, his father's words haunt him: The eyes of God are on us always. He gives in and has the murder arranged. He is stricken by guilt for some time, but after a few months pass, he sees that nothing will come of it. He has gotten away with it, or so it seems to him. So he goes on and lives his life, rationalizing and doing what he can to continue living in the world with as little pain to himself as possible.

The philosophy of the film is quite bleak. God doesn't exist; human beings are mostly selfish, desperate, needy creatures who will suck the life out of one another in order to stay alive; one's moral sense may mean nothing in light of the originless, destinationless state of the world. The murderer gets away with it -- he refused to take responsibility for his sins when his mistress threatened to spill the beans, and he refuses to take responsibility after the murder had been committed. And that's the way things go.

From the point of view of philosophy, I think the nihilism of the film is indefensible, and at times the arguments are puerile. The "protagonist" perceives that if he was not punished right away by God for his murder, it must be because there is no God. Of course, the alternative is that God gives him the opportunity, this side of the grave, to repent, whereas there is a punishment fixed for him in the afterlife. Yet he finds himself hardened in his unwillingness to confess and make right, as much as is within his powers. Perhaps in this way God destines him to punishment: because he has chosen the way of unrepentance, now there is no more forgiveness this side of the grave, but only an inevitable punishment and regret.

Of course, Allen would respond: we don't know anything about any afterlife; if there is to be justice, it ought to be justice here and now. But Allen addresses Judaism, for which resurrection is a hope grounded in the empirically underdetermined conviction of God's justice. I am not a Jew but a Christian, who believe in the apostolic testimony about Christ's resurrection. This Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Judeans put to death, was raised by God from the dead, and he will judge the world. This much he tells us himself. His resurrection is a proof of the victory of life over death, justice and goodness over nihilism. But Allen doesn't address Christianity, because he doesn't know it; at most, "Christ" is an exasperated exclamation in the mouth of a character or two in the film.

At the very least, I commend Woody Allen for seeing that a world without God is a cesspool. That is what the "protagonist" says, at one point when he is overwhelmed by guilt: I believe in God, Miriam. I know it. Because without God, the world is a cesspool. That is absolutely right. Without God, there are only immoral human beings, draining the life out of one another in selfish egoism.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Humans are always complicating things

The Preacher says: See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes (Eccl 7.29).

Sometimes I wonder whether or not this is most evident in the case of sexual ethics. My own position is more or less the natural law position of the Roman Catholic Church: the natural goal of the sexual act is procreation, so that engaging in it in such a manner as precludes this is immoral. This excludes the use of birth control, masturbation, gay sex, etc. It's a very cut-and-dried position, straightforward and candid, grounded in what is supposed to be an obvious observation of the function of the genital organs. It's supposed to be an example of how God made us very straightforward.

If you deny this natural teleological view, and things quickly get grey. Is masturbation immoral? Is watching pornography immoral? Is non-standard sex, such as sodomy, immoral? Is gay sex immoral? Is pre-marital sex immoral? Is consensual, safe incest immoral? These are questions to which there are no obvious answers in the literature, at least among those who reject the natural law position.

Monday, March 23, 2015

To be good

You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 5.23-5).

These days I find myself quite tired -- not just physically, but also spiritually. The ceaseless conflicts ongoing at my church, disappointments and frustrations with persons close to me, and an unending awareness of my own shortcomings and faults and vices are weighing down upon my spirit. I am getting tired of seeing the same old life in the flesh, to speak theologically, the same old life of vice and sin.

Christian existence ought not be like this. It shouldn't be "the same old" every week. Paul told the Ephesians that the very substance of the teaching they received when they were evangelized was this: put away your old identities and become new people in light of the salvation of Christ. Your whole way of life and identity must be transformed, so that you are renewed and remade in the image and likeness of God. You are supposed to be like God in the world.

And what is God like? This how God manifests himself in us through the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5.22-3); pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy (Jas 3.17). We are like God when we exhibit these traits, and yet these traits are most often missing from my church experience, as well as in my own life.

I think the existence of God would be clearer to many if those who believed in him actually spent time in fellowship with him. Plotinus once said, Without virtue God is just a word. That is exactly right. If God himself has broken into the world and changed things from the very root, then this ought to manifest itself in the way you and I live, who claim to know this God. I have to be different.

But I'm not going to become different by making efforts on my own power, as if I could prove God's power through my own. I must commune with God, enjoy fellowship with God, be with God -- then the presence of God will transform me.

At the end of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, the whiskey priest has a brilliant realization, just as he is staring death in the face. To be saint -- that's what truly mattered. And it wouldn't have been that hard to do, he realizes in retrospect. Saying "No" here, refusing that offer, spending more time in prayer, whatever it may have been.

That's how I feel, too. To be a saint, to be truly good -- that is what truly matters. And it can't be that hard.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jerry Walls on the self-deceived in hell

How is it that a person can freely choose to spend eternity in hell, despite the torment and the pain and the suffering it will bring? That is the question Thomas Talbott poses in his argumentation in favor of dogmatic universalism. There would seem to be no motive in choosing to be damned, and plenty of motive to reconcile to God, if things were laid out clearly. Thus, reasons Talbott, the notion of a freely chosen eternal damnation is nonsense.

Jerry Walls sees the problem and tries to provide a solution in Hell: The Logic of Damnation (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992). He doesn't believe that God shuts people up in hell for eternity; rather he believes that people choose to remain in hell, even though God would gladly have them escape.

He agrees with the intellectualist presupposition of Talbott's argument: ...if the choice of hell is an intelligible one, there must be something about the subjective experience of choosing evil which can account for why some may prefer it to goodness (1992, 126). There has to be something about the choice which appears good to the person making it. Walls's answer is that the damned find something about hell preferable to heaven -- whether it is affirming their own justification in defiance of God's judgment, or preferring to wallow in sinful rebellion against God in protest, or whatever.

Now Talbott wonders: won't the experiences of hell convince these persons that they have made the wrong choice? Walls responds that persons in hell may rationalize their choices in some way. This hardens them, so that their sufferings become in a strange way more tolerable. Thus in "A Hell of a Choice: Reply to Talbott," Religious Studies 40(2) (2004), 203-216, Walls denies that hell is intolerable for the damned (2004, 212). Rather than be convinced otherwise, they harden themselves in the face of some evidence that their choice was  a bad one, and they remained damned forever.

Walls supposes that he has shown that a person can freely self-impose damnation upon herself for an eternity. I am less than convinced.

Walls seemingly agrees with the intellectualist conviction behind Talbott's argument: if a person is freely to choose hell (if the choice is to be intelligible), there must be something about life in hell which the agent finds desirable, which she understands to be good. And yet at the same time, he seems to deny it when he supposes that the damned may deceive themselves into thinking that they are making the right choice. He writes: If we cannot deceive ourselves, there can be no sustained motive to choose evil, and hence no freedom so to choose (1992, 130). In this case, the will seems to act independently of the intellect, forcing upon it a false understanding of the world, thus enabling a sustained choice of evil.

Now which is it? Is intellect prior to will, or will prior to intellect?

I take it that persuasion is possible where two parties are disagreed so long as the disagreement is grounded in intellect. If Walls and I disagree about something, and intellect alone is the source of our disagreement, then we can convince each other, assuming that sufficient evidence is available. But if Walls's disagreement with me is not intellectually founded but rather caused by some perversity of will, contempt for me as a person, fear of the consequences of being wrong, or whatever, then I cannot persuade him merely with evidence. Other methods must be used.

Now when those persons who are in hell deceive themselves into thinking that they are making the right choice by remaining there, is this act of self-deception free and intelligible, or is it not?

If it is intelligible, then it must be grounded in some perception or understanding of their intellect, as Walls himself grants. In this case, the difference of opinion between God and the damned is an intellectual matter, and so he can convince them otherwise by providing adequate evidence that they are wrong. But if it is not intelligible, if their act of self-deception is not free, then certainly neither can their choice to remain in hell on the basis of that self-deception be free.

In this way, I think Walls's project fails. Either the self-deception of the damn is due to intellectual error of some sort, in which case they can be corrected through persuasion and proof, or else it is not, in which case it is not free self-deception and their choice to remain is also unfree.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The grand reunion at God's kingdom

I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt 8.11).

One of the pains of life in this world is separation. We are separated from people we love, whether our parents, our children, our friends, or our neighbors in a number of ways. Sometimes what separates us is death; other times it is merely the circumstances of life. The separation is painful nonetheless.

I don't like to be separated from others. I moved twice in my life, once when I was around ten years old, and then again when I was around thirteen. I was separated from my friends because my family had moved to another state, and I have since lost contact with many of those friends. I was separated from other friends because we went to different schools and never kept in touch. I was separated from yet other friends because differences of opinion proved too great a strain on the friendship. These things were painful for me. I will probably be separated from these people yet again, if I should go out of state to do my doctoral work. I don't want to be separated from others, from the ones I love. I always liked being with others for long periods of time, enjoying their fellowship and simply experiencing life together.

With at least some persons I have been reunited, and this is a blessing from God in my eyes. The greatest blessing of all will be had then, in God's kingdom, when we will be united with all those from whom we've been separated. Whether it was death or differences of opinion or merely the circumstances of life, we will come together and enjoy each other's fellowship and the fellowship of Christ all as one. Abraham will get to see his grandson Jacob; Isaac will get to see his father once more. I will get to see my friends -- and my enemies -- in  a grand dinner party that has no comparison or rival on this side of history.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Amos the prophet gone wild

During the second quarter of my education at Fuller Theological Seminary, I took a class on the Hebrew prophets. It was one of the most important classes I've ever taken, because the class inspired in me an appreciation for God's harsh message. Of course, if you read my blog at all, you will know that often I write about the Lord's mercy and love, his goodness and compassion, which I am convinced are behind everything that God does. Nevertheless a faithfulness to the language of the bible demands that appropriate respect be paid also to the 'hard sayings' of the Hebrew prophets and their radical message.

Amos is one of those prophets who spoke harshly to the people. He had good reason to do so: first, he was obeying the command which God had given him; second,  the people of Israel had been corrupted and lived in sinful decadence. So he addresses them with fire and brimstone in a way that condemns their injustices.

One of my favorite lines is this:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan 
  who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
  who say to their husbands husbands, "Bring something to drink!" (Amos 4.1)

These immoral upper-class women live decadent lifestyles. They spend their days partying, having a good time, enjoying themselves -- all at the expense of the poor and needy. They lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; they sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; they drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! (Amos 6.4-6). They might think much of themselves, but Amos calls them cows and prophesies their doom. Because they live in luxury and ease while others are suffering and are in need of their help, Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away (v. 7). The LORD wants us to care for those who are suffering, and to do what we can to help them. Because these women lived in luxury and didn't feel for those in need, they found themselves suffering the same fate, if not a worse one.

Of course, people in general don't want to hear these kinds of messages. Amaziah, the high priest of Bethel, tells the king of Israel that this prophet Amos is conspiring against him (7.10), since he constantly prophesied the doom of Israel. Amaziah tells Amos:

O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom (7.12-13).

Get out of here, go bother someone else! But Amos refuses to back down; in fact he goes even harder:

I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'

Now therefore hear the word of the LORD.
You say, 'Do not prophesy against Israel,
  and do not preach against the house of Isaac.'
Therefore thus says the LORD:
'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city,

  and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword,
  and your land shall be parceled out by line;
you yourself shall die in an unclean land,
  and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land'" (7.14-17).

There is an important lesson to learn here: God can make use of nobodies like Amos to upset the worlds of the Somebodies like Amaziah and the cows of Bashan. Those who think they are somebody, who are proud and who are certain they are above the rest will find themselves confronted by God's messenger in one of the least of these. And typically God will not speak kindly, precisely to upset the pride of the lofty. If they would humble themselves and repent, they could have life; but if they harden their hearts, they will learn -- like the cows of Bashan learned -- that God's little guys always turn out to have been right.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

If you are the Son of God. . .

I recently read through the Lukan description of Christ's temptations in the desert, and I was fascinated by the questions posed to him by the Devil. Specifically, I am intrigued by the repeated refrain: If you are the Son of God. . .

It seems to me plausible that the time spent in the desert by Christ had to do with his sense of identity, his knowledge of who he was. Previous to this, he had been baptized by John in the Jordan River. There God had spoken to him: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3.22). Immediately after this, he is driven by the Spirit of God into the desert to endure temptations. The temptations of the devil are motivated by the question of Christ's identity as the Son of God. For this reason, it seems to me that one of the problems Christ had to wrestle with in the desert was exactly this: is he really the Son of God? And what does this mean?

Nikos Kazantzakis addresses this problem in his work The Last Temptation of Christ. Now that is a work of fiction, a product of the author's imagination, but it seems to me he is right in proposing that Christ might have wrestled with the question of his own identity. We must remember that Christ had a human nature such as our own, subject to doubt and fear and uncertainty. It would have been part of the process of the sanctification of his human nature, its redemption and transformation, that he come to learn of his identity over time, rather than being sure of it from the beginning. Moreover, it would make no sense that he be tempted by the devil with reference to his identity, if he were sure of it at all times.

But what could it mean for Christ to do this? What is the significance of Christ's coming to struggle with his identity as Son of God for our sake?

I think it is not a coincidence that Luke describes Adam, the prototype of humanity, as the son of God in the genealogy immediately preceding the temptation narrative (3.38). If Christ comes to perfect human nature and to repair it from its sinful inclinations, he must come to repair humanity's understanding of its relationship with God. For this to happen, he must be told, as man, that he is God's Son, the Beloved (3.22). He must come to learn that, before anything else, God is the Father of humanity, and therefore loves humanity and cares for it. After all, what else apart from this unshaken trust in God's benevolence could give Christ the strength to die for humanity, to leave himself in the unmerciful hands of those around him who call for his murder? Thy will be done -- such is the prayer of the one who knows God loves him!

This is a process that has to be repeated in us, as well, as we learn to be Christians; the conversion of Christ's humanity, so to speak, is the model of the conversion of our own. I've said elsewhere that Christianity is about learning that God loves you, and that this love is expressed most clearly in what Jesus Christ has done for us. We too have to begin to understand that God loves us. This thought must transform our minds, transform our hearts, transform our understanding, transform our thinking. This is how we can obey Jesus' intimidating imperative to trust in God at all times -- because we are convinced that he loves us, no matter what.

When we are baptized, we should realize that at that moment, God himself speaks to us and says: You are my Son! You are my Daughter! When we are led through difficult trials, often beyond what we think we can bear to suffer, we ought to remember that God loves us. More than anything else, God loves humanity and cares for it. Just as Christ suffered crucifixion but was resurrected to glory, just as he was made perfect through his suffering, so also it may be that our own perfection will come about through the sufferings God permits to come our way. Our own sufferings are a participation in Christ's suffering, but that means that we will participate as well in Christ's resurrection.

Much more can be said. It will have to wait till another time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Maximus the Confessor on 2 Cor 5.21

One of the most perplexing and confusingly ambiguous passages in scripture is found at 2 Cor 5.21, where Paul writes:

For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The question is rightly asked: what could it mean for the Lord to be made sin, and yet not to know sin? What could Paul be speaking about here?

Typically you will find this text interpreted in evangelical Protestant circles as a reference to Christ's suffering on the cross in punishment for our sins. Christ is "made sin," according to this interpretation, because God imputes to him our sins and he is punished for them. The interpretation is a forensic one, grounded in a legal metaphor of salvation.

My convictions are different, and I much prefer the more ontological interpretation that Maximus gives. He interprets the line in the light of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. (My quotations to follow are translated from the Romanian text, found in the Filocalia Sfintelor Nevoințe ale Desăvîrșirii, vol. 3.)

In Questions to Thalassius 42, the distinction is made between the sin of the will and the sin(fulness) of the nature. Because the will of Adam voluntarily turned from what is good to what is evil, it is condemned. Furthermore, this turn affected the whole nature of humanity, which was subsequently deprived of its immortality. The sin of the will refers to the voluntary misdirected action of the will, away from the Good and from God. The sin of the nature refers to the corruptibility inherited by the human nature as due punishment for the sin of the will.

God saw fit to punish the voluntary sin of Adam through a change of his nature from incorruptibility to corruptibility, from immortality to death. Maximus says that God judged that it would not be good for man, who corrupted his free will, to have an immortal nature (42.6). At the same time, God desired to save the nature of man from death and corruptibility, and so assumes a human nature in Christ, fallen as it is, and saves it through his obedience.

Now, Christ does not himself personally sin. There is no voluntary sin in the life of Christ, no misdirected act of the will. Nevertheless Christ does become sin insofar as he takes upon himself a human nature subject to passion and temptation and death, same as the rest of us have.

Maximus distinguishes between "my sin" and "the sin for me," echoing through the latter phrase the terminology used by Paul above in 2 Cor:

The Lord not knowing, therefore, my sin, that is, the misdirection of my free will, he did not take upon himself nor was he made my sin. But taking upon himself that sin for me, in other words, the corruptibility of nature for the sake of the fallenness of my will, he became for our sake a man subject to passions by nature, undoing my sin through the sin for me (42.5).

The narrative, then, is like this. The sinful act of Adam brought corruption and death to human nature. Christ assumes a corrupt and moribund human nature, but does not sin. Because he does not sin but keeps his will obedient to God, he is raised from the dead and his nature is transformed unto immortality and incorruptibility.

The scriptural narrative here is obvious:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb 5.7-9).

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name (Phil 2.7-9).

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8.3).

Maximus comments on this passage implicitly when he says:

The transformation of the nature towards passion, towards corruptibility and towards morality is therefore the condemnation of the sin committed by the free will of Adam. Humanity did not have this state from God from the beginning, but brought it about and came to know it voluntarily committing sin through disobedience. The condemnation unto death is the fruit of this sin. The Lord taking therefore this condemnation of my freely chosen sin, that is, the passion, corruptibility, and mortality of my nature, he became sin for my sake through passion, death, and corruptibility, voluntarily clothing himself with my sinful nature -- he who was not condemned by free choice. He did this in order to condemn sin and my condemnation of will and nature, at the same time casting out of my nature sin, passion, corruptibility, and death (42.6).

Through his obedience in a corrupt nature, an obedience which results in his resurrection from the dead and the transformation of his nature to incorruptibility, God condemns sin in the flesh.

I much prefer this incarnational interpretation of Paul's language to the forensic one. The Logos of God assumes a fallen human nature such as ours, and through the obedience of his will, he sanctifies it and redeems it for us all, condemning sin in the flesh by destroying its presence and its effects.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Tell others what the Lord has done for you

When Jesus exorcises the demoniac near the tombs, he doesn't permit him to become one of his followers, but he says: Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you (Luke 8.39). He was from a town of Gentiles; he goes and begins to prepare his hometown for the gospel of Jesus Christ, which will eventually spread to the Gentile lands and peoples after the resurrection.

This is an example of how testimony about the works of God function in evangelism. This sort of thing is present in many of the psalms, as well. Consider for example:

Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the LORD. . . .
I have told the glad news of deliverance
    in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
    as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
    I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
    from the great congregation (Ps 40.3, 9-10).

The psalmist experiences God's deliverance in some impressive way, but he doesn't keep the event all to himself. Rather he speaks out about it, and tells the whole congregation. He says, moreover, that this testimony has an evangelistic function. It will move many to see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD (v. 3).

There are numerous other psalms that speak about people turning to God after having witnessed the great things he had done. This is most notable in Ps 22, which speaks of the results of the redemption of the suffering servant of God:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before him. . . .
Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
    saying that he has done it (vv. 27, 30-1).

I think the psalmist is speaking about the true suffering servant, Christ. More precisely, I believe his words find prophetic fulfillment in the resurrection of Christ, which will be followed by the conversion of the nations. Every knee will bow down to him (Ps 22.29; Phil 2.9-11) and worship Christ! This is because they will learn of what God did for him, how he raised him from the dead. They will recognize what they did wrong, and they will acknowledge that he is the true Son of God.

This motif, then, of evangelism by personal testimony is prevalent in the scriptures. Of course, we should always focus our evangelism on the testimony of the apostles to the resurrection of Christ, since that is what saves us, above everything else. Still there is place for the mention of our own experiences of God's deliverance in the midst of it all, as well. We have ample biblical precedent for such a practice, both in evangelism and in the context of the church meeting.

One of the things I like about the Romanian Pentecostal churches is the way they do intercessory prayer. Every prayer meeting, there is one specific prayer dedicated to intercession on behalf of those suffering or troubled in some way, whether present in the congregation or not. The whole assembly is given the opportunity to mention reasons for prayer with a loud voice, and after they have all been announced, everyone prays together for those things. Here, too, there is opportunity to bring thanksgiving before God and the assembly for things which have taken place in the lives of the members of the church. I find that messages of thanksgiving always motivate the others to pray, because they are newly encouraged and reminded that God is still active and working in the world.

Telling others about what the Lord has done for you is a way of letting them know that God is still out there; he still cares for us. If he answered my prayer, he can answer yours. I prayed for a long time that I would find a place of work which was suitable to my talents and my training. Finally, after more than a year of praying, I have found a job at Grand Canyon University. Furthermore it is a job which offers the opportunity of promotion in the future. For this, I am endlessly thankful to God, because this job is an undeniable gift. I enjoy what I do immensely; there could not have been a more perfect place or time for me to get this job. In the same way, I encourage everyone else to pray to God and to trust that he will provide for you.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The LORD's compassion

Perhaps my favorite psalm is Ps 145, which praises God's universal benevolence and compassion at great length. I've posted about it and quoted it multiple times before, but it never hurts to hear the truth again.

My favorite verse from the psalm is this one:

The LORD is good to all,
  and his compassion is over all that he has made (v. 9).

Why is it important to think about God's compassion being over all that he has made? Among other reasons, it gives us confidence in approaching the Lord in prayer, no matter what the subject matter may be. This same sentiment is echoed in the epistle to the Hebrews:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb 4.15-6).

Christ knows what it is like to live in the world, with all its temptations and trials; as the psalmist wrote, he remembers that we are dust (Ps 103.14). Because he knows the difficulty of our situation, we can approach him with confidence, expecting to receive grace and mercy. Dumitru Stăniloae likewise says somewhere that mercy everywhere and always accompanies Christ; for this reason we are always to seek mercy from him, pleading with Christ, Lord have mercy!

I love the compassionate God who is concerned for his creation, and who is concerned even for me. Though I sin against him and many times I run from his face, yet he is good to me and provides for me all the things I need. Among other things, he provided me with a wonderful job after I had been praying for years for such a thing. He gave me the job when I was able to work it, and not before when the demands of seminary were much higher than I could have handled.

I don't have much of anything to say in this post except to praise God's compassion. He is good to me, and to the whole world! He loves me and he loves the whole world! There is a quotation from Kuyper, I think, along these lines: "There is not one square inch of the entire universe about which Christ does not claim, 'Mine!'" I accommodate this sentiment thus: there is not one square inch in this universe for which the LORD's compassion and goodness has run out, or ever will.