Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well, first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd. When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things and clarify the Biblical vision of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.” 
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there. The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven. But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is one of two direct names for the place where dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First, heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours. Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven, Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next, paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there. Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally, the new creation (also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity. 

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

This past Sunday I received the opportunity to preach, which I haven’t done in some time. I greatly enjoyed it, and thank God that my message was well-received. In my preparations, I wrote a manuscript, and I decided I would upload that as a post. It’s long, mind you, since it’s an entire sermon, but I hope someone can be blessed by it.

Why “In the Flesh?”

Tonight I’ll be starting in 2 John 1:7. I won’t be spending much time there, but I’m using this verse to bring up a particular question. After that, don’t worry, I’ll still be using the Bible, but will focus on a couple other passages to answer that question. So let’s look at it.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

There’s another verse, 1 John 4:2, which likewise says “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

So here’s what I would like to ask. This is question of the entire message. Why is it so important that Jesus came “in the flesh?” Why is this such a big deal that John commands in 2 John 1:9-10 not even to greet or welcome someone teaching otherwise?

Most of you have probably never wondered this, just taking it as a given that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. You probably take his flesh for granted. If someone disagrees, though you’d seriously condemn their error I doubt you would be able to explain why this is so important, except for “That’s what the Bible says.”

My goal in this sermon is to fix that. I want to, straight from the Bible, answer why it is so vital that Jesus came “in the flesh,” both for our beliefs and for our practical lives.

But before I get into all this, I should quickly explain what “in the flesh” means. When John uses the word “flesh,” he definitely doesn’t mean it at all the way Paul usually does. For Paul, “flesh” usually refers to the sinful and corrupt aspect of human existence. The “flesh” is the part of human life that causes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, which include stuff like sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, ambition, arguments, envy, and promiscuity. This obviously isn’t equal to “the body,” because for example hatred is not something you do with your body but your heart.

When John says Jesus came “in the flesh,” he is saying that Jesus came in a real, physical, human nature with a tangible body. He could be seen, heard, and touched like he said in 1 John 1, and His body wasn’t an illusion or mask like some people were teaching at the time. This is the doctrine of Incarnation. Incarnation means that God become a human being in Jesus Christ. So again, why does it matter so much? Why is it so important that Jesus came in a real human body?

As a good Baptist, I want to address this with three points. The first is why Jesus coming in the flesh is necessary for salvation, and it might not be just the reason you immediately think. The second is why Jesus had to come in the flesh to do anything at all meaningful for us, people who live in flesh. Finally, the third is what practical implications Jesus’ coming in the flesh has for us now.

Flesh and Salvation

So onto the first point. What does Christ coming in the flesh, in real human nature and body, do for our salvation? How did God becoming a baby who needed diapers changed work towards our rescue from sin and death? The first obvious answer is that He came so He could die on the cross. That is part of the answer. But there is more to it. To answer this first question, then, I’ll use Hebrews 2:5-18. If you all want to turn there, I’ll be in it for several minutes. In this passage, the author of Hebrews has just been speaking of how and why Jesus is superior to the angels, due to His divine nature as the Son of God. But at this point he moves into Jesus’ humanity. Even as a human, He an exalted place over the angels. Here’s what it says:

And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about. For in one place the Scriptures say,

“What are people that you should think of them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.”

Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation. So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.

For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.” He also said, “I will put my trust in him,” that is, “I and the children God has given me.”

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

This text is, in my opinion, probably the most important text about Jesus’ Incarnation, which, remember, means His coming in human flesh. So I want to go through it and draw out the logic it uses to explain why Jesus’ flesh is so vital to our salvation. But before I get too far, I should point out potential translation confusion. In some Bible versions like the one I’m using, verses 5-8 speak in the plural of “them” or “human beings” or “people”, while many others speak in the singular, saying “him” and “the son of man.” Here the literal words are singular, but they are speaking in a collective sense. The human race is being represented by a singular “man” or “him.” Even the phrase “son of man” in this verse only means a child of humankind, not specifically Jesus.

So here’s the flow of the passage. In seeking to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels on the side of his human nature, the author quotes Psalm 8, where the psalmist is baffled at the dignity God has given the human race even though we are so puny and less beautiful than His other works. He asks how mere men can be important enough to warrant God’s care or attention.

Then he celebrates the high place God has given humanity. He set us up only a little less than the angels for a while, and He gave us glory and honor. He put us in charge of the whole world like we see in Genesis 1:28-30. How could we deserve this? We’re so small.

But what the author of Hebrews points out is that not everything seems to be in our control even though God gave it all to us. There is suffering, sin, and death wreaking havoc on our world. So what’s wrong? Have we completely lost the high position given to us by God?

The answer is kind of like Paul’s “By no means!” See, even though we don’t see humanity in control of the world God gave us, we do see Jesus. He became a human like us in the flesh, and was made lower than the angels for a while. The rest of us may not be in control of the world God gave us, since we were under Satan’s rule, but Jesus was crowned Lord and is forever exalted. He is reigning in glory and honor. But how did He get there? He died for us all, all of the weak humanity. Because He obeyed the Father even to the point of death, He has been crowned king of everything, which means that He has regained control of creation for us all. A human being is on the thone of the world standing in for God, just like God originally intended.

So at this point the author of Hebrews goes a little further in what Jesus did to restore us to this place. He says that it only fitting that God should make Jesus, the source of our salvation, perfect through suffering. Now this doesn’t mean Jesus was sinful and then became perfect, obviously. He says elsewhere in Hebrews that Jesus was without sin. In this case perfect means mature or complete. Jesus wasn’t completely in place to restore fallen people until He Himself had endured the same sufferings that we do, and He had to learn the experience of rejecting sin and living in faith. He became a man, one of us, and had to live by faith like one of us and deal with what we deal with. The only way to heal man’s problems was for the Creator and Sustainer of all life to become a man Himself and fight them back.

Finally, this text tells us that Jesus as a human being had to share our fleshy nature to become our High Priest. A priest stands before God in place of his people, and offers God the sacrifice required. So only a man of flesh-and-blood can represent us, flesh-and-blood people. He had to be like us in every way to minister to the Father on our behalf. For us to be near to God, we need a pure human priest to lead the way. This is the same point behind Paul specifying in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. So in last—but not least!—place, Jesus had to become a human being to be our High Priest before God, a work essential to our salvation which continues forever. In fact, this is the key reason we know that Jesus is still human, though that’s definitely a topic for another day.

Anyway, to recap, this is why Jesus became flesh and blood for our salvation. We were supposed to be the rulers of God’s creation, but when we sinned we became subject to death. And when we became subject to death, Satan–who wields death as his power–became a ruler over us. So when Jesus became one of us, when He came in our dying flesh, He started fighting back. He cast out demons and went to war against Satan’s kingdom. He forgave sins and removed Satan’s ground for accusing us before God. Finally, He died. It looked like Satan had beaten Jesus, beaten God, with his weapon of death, but then Jesus rose from the dead. Now Satan has nothing left. No sickness, sin, or death can defeat the Christ who healed, forgave, and rose again. So Jesus, having ascended to heaven, stands now in glory and honor, the conquering human King who has won back humanity’s God-given place as the rulers of this world and defeated Satan who stole that place, and our eternal High Priest representing and substituting for us all in God’s presence.

At this point, we see just how important Jesus’ human flesh was to our salvation. If Jesus had no human body, then none of this chain would have worked. There would be no truly human person to represent and substitute on our behalf, healing sickness, forgiving sin, and beating bodily death. No human being would take the throne of creation to restore humanity to their proper place in the world. Satan would still hold the power of death, since without a physical body Christ could have no physical resurrection to remove the sting of physical death. Jesus had to be like us in every way if He was to suffer for us, forgive us, and empathize with us a High Priest before the Father. And without His flesh, He could do not a single one of these things. We’d still be doomed.

Flesh and Human Existence

This brings me to my next point. A creative and curious person could ask, “Why did Christ need a body for all this? Couldn’t He have accomplished all these things in a spiritual way without coming in the flesh?” And of course, when dealing with God, the answer would have to be “Sure He could.” But, to do that He would have had to make us simply spiritual beings without physical bodies. Or He could have made us with bodies that don’t matter, with only the spirit counting for anything, like the ancient Gnostics believed. But that’s not how He chose to create us. He already had the angels who were purely spirit. When God chose to create man, He chose to create a kind of person with a real, physical nature. He made people defined by having bodies.

Some of you may think this is strange. After all, don’t we believe, to supposedly quote C. S. Lewis, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body?” Well, no, and Lewis never said this, either. The truth is that God made us equally body and soul, physical and spiritual. The entire Bible shows the importance of this, starting with creation. When God created mankind, He made them from the dust of the earth first, and only then added spiritual life. The physical was an integral part. Then He blessed the first humans in a physical way, giving them rule over the physical world and telling to make babies. He created mankind in His own image, and this actually means something very physical which most people don’t realize.

See, in the ancient cultures surrounding early Israel, a six day building project would represent the construction of a temple to a god. At the end of the six days, an image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent its presence and authority. An visible, material idol was placed there to stand in for the invisible, immaterial deity. So in Genesis 1 we can see that same concept being used by Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit to show all creation as the massive and glorious temple of the one true God. At the end of the construction, He places an image in the temple to carry out His authority on the earth. Just like the idols of the other ancient temples, in this case a physical image–humanity–is created specifically to exercise His authority and care in creation. So even part of what defines our being made in the image of God is precisely the fact that we are physical!

The theme of man’s physical existence goes on and on from that point. In the Law, God chose to set Israel apart by all sorts of physical signs that affected their day to day bodily life. He wanted to them even conform their flesh to His purposes, as proved by food laws, purity and cleanliness laws, laws about property and land, and even laws about going to the bathroom! The primary sign of His covenant was the intimate and very physical cut of circumcision. All through the Law is this theme: God cares about the physical aspect of being human, and even that part is essential to being who He made us to be.

The pattern continues explicitly in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality. He strongly condemns all fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc because why? Because the body is irrelevant to our life? By no means! He says that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. According to Paul our flesh counts a lot.

This all culminates in the Christian hope of resurrection. This is the final hope of Christianity as opposed to others. Unlike the Buddhists and Hindus, today’s New Age spiritualities, the Platonists and Gnostics of yesteryear, we do not hope to escape the body to spend eternity in some pure spiritual existence, but God has promised us the resurrection of our bodies, the transformation of corruptible flesh to incorruptible, mortal bodies to immortal ones. He proved this when He raised Jesus from the dead in a body that is still solid to the touch and capable even of eating. And if this resurrection is so important and lies behind our future resurrection, then clearly our bodies matter so much that they were included in God’s salvation for us..

This means Jesus had to become flesh. If Jesus didn’t become flesh, then we poor humans who God designed in such a fleshy way would be hopeless. When bodies are in trouble, what can they gain from pure spirit? It would be all over our heads and irrelevant to this bodily life God created for us. At best we could only be half saved, with our souls rescued and our bodies abandoned, leaving us incomplete for eternity. So Hebrews is right. Since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus had to become like His brothers in every way. He had to save bodies, not just souls.

Flesh and Loving Thy Neighbor

But this brings me to my third point. We should rejoice that God Himself, the Creator of all who is who He is and dwells in heaven, loved us so much that He was willing to become a real, fleshy human being to save us. I mean, it’s ridiculous when you really think about it. This glorious and unfathomable God became a helpless baby. He cried for food. He pooped and needed diaper changes. He got confused and scared when His mommy left the room. He tumbled around learning to walk. He made silly sound while learning to talk. He did chores, got hot, got cold, got hungry, and experienced hardship. In fact, since Joseph kind of disappears from the Bible by Jesus’ adulthood and on the cross Jesus gave care of Mary to John, Joseph probably died. If so Jesus suffered the pain of losing His stepfather. He grew up and went through puberty, probably getting embarrassing acne and for all we know maybe even crushing on some pretty Jewish girl. He learned to be a handyman and worked with tools in the hot sun to make a living. Then He got baptized, a sign of repenting from sin, in front of a bunch of people even though He was sinless. He gave up food for 40 whole days, being tempted by His growling stomach to cheat and poof up something to eat. From that point on He spent over three years meeting people of all kinds, with every disease and injury known to man, to have mercy on them. He witnessed bruised and broken bodies, disgusting to sight and smell. He associated with the worst of sinners and people of the lowest situation. He helped the poor and the needy in their distress. Finally He suffered and died with criminals and was buried like any other dead man. All of this, He did for us and for our salvation, out of gratuitous love. We ought to be completely grateful, humbled, and worshipful that He submitted to all this so that we could be rescued from it.

But that, praise be to God for it, is still not my third point. My third point can be found in Philippians 2:4-11. My third point, the real life application, is that we should do the same thing that Jesus did. We should suffer all of this to rescue others. Here’s what those verses say:

Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is what we learn from the Incarnation, from the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He humbled Himself and lived among those in the depths of sin and death. So go thou and do likewise. Jesus descended to a stable, so can we not enter the slums? Jesus got up close and personal with people who had leprosy, a disease that leads to bruising and loss of body parts. So should we.

I remember once when I was a pretty young that I told my dad I couldn’t possibly work with people so diseased or injured that they looked really gross. I just didn’t think I could handle it. As a good father should have, he rebuked me and asked how I was supposed to follow Jesus’ example. I never forgot that, and in working on this sermon I remembered it and realized how profound that rebuke was. This is the same lesson we learn in Jesus’ coming in the flesh for us. He got down in the dirt to help us, so we should get down in the dirt to help others. Jesus, as I mentioned earlier, went through puberty for us. As someone only 20 years old myself, I remember well that process and think that alone was enough of a sacrifice to teach us that God means business.

I don’t want this to stay abstract, either. I want to cut right to the real life implications of what I’m saying. If Jesus was willing to come so far down for us, we ought to really be working that kind of humble love into our lives. So think for a moment. When was the last time you visited someone who was sick, someone outside of your close family? When have you visited someone in prison, someone who however evil he may be would still be as sympathetic as any villain on Once Upon a Time if you knew his story?

Of course, for many of us the answer to both of this might be “Never.” Because we don’t do what Jesus did. Instead of humbling ourselves in obedience and stepping down from our comfort, we build up walls and separate ourselves from the lowest parts of this world. We try to protect our families from that bad world out there by not associating too much with prostitutes, drug users, homeless bums, and just rude poor people who smoke too much, even though this is precisely the kind of person Jesus sought out. We have all sorts of excuses, and I want you all to think for a moment if you do this at all.

The call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to get away from this secluded, protected world of our own making. We are told to have the same attitude as Jesus, who left the eternal glory of His Father to help slimy rich guys who cheat the commoner along with poor women who sell their bodies for extra cash. So we ought to be doing the same kinds of things, going to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, ghettos, slums, and poverty-stricken communities in landfills. We have to become part of these groups, these peoples, not sharing in any of their sins but sharing completely in their relationships. Just like Jesus made His home among our miserable race, we should be willing even to make our home within the worst nations, regions, or neighborhoods. And why? To love them and show them Christ, who humbled Himself to an even greater extent.

Naturally, we do not all have the same precise call in fulfilling this mission. Some of you parents may simply need to interact with the marginalized parents and their children at school. Some of you might need to get into prison ministry, or to start a ministry for visiting hospitalized people without families or friends. Perhaps you should get involved with one of the food pantries around, or if you know where to find one a rehab group or organization. I suspect at least a couple of you may be required to move, maybe to a third world tribe, a persecuted land, or even a crime-infested inner city. After all, people in all these places I’ve mentioned need to be helped, both body and soul, by Spirit-led believers who can share with them not only blessings for the moment but blessings for eternity in Christ.

I know, though, that these are serious callings. I also know that it is bold of me to say what I am saying, that every single one of you has some way that you are obligated in the Lord to radically humble yourselves into the depths of our broken world to bless others. And it’s a scary demand. If we do these things, Jesus promises we run the risk of being hurt physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In some cases–if we’re doing it right–our lives may end up at stake. But where God’s call is high, His grace is even higher. See, if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus in His Incarnation, when He came in the flesh for us, then we can know for certain that God will do the same thing for us in the end that He did for Jesus. And what did He do? He vindicated Him. He raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him, proving that He was in the right the whole time and giving Him power and authority. And God has promised to do the same thing for us. The same Spirit who raised Jesus will raise us, and if we humble ourselves we will be exalted in due time. In the end, God will publicly declare our righteousness and prove it by our good works, and He will give us authority in His kingdom. So we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry. The worst that could possibly happen if we follow Jesus in this way is that we could die, which we know will be undone in our physical bodies at the end. Because Jesus came in the flesh.

The Call to Believe

But of course, if you don’t have that same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, you won’t be raised. In that case there would be no hope and there is good reason for you to fear. If you are not united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His dead and resurrection, then you are still under the one who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. And if you merely say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t actually do the Father’s will in imitating the love of Jesus in His coming in the flesh, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46,

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

So if you are one of these goats who claims to follow Jesus but really doesn’t, or if you don’t even acknowledge Jesus as Lord at all, then you have no other choice. I’ve told you how much God loved you that He went through the whole course of human life, from dirty diapers to acne to death itself, to free you and bring you to Himself. And as we saw in Hebrews 2, He did everything that was needed to save you, since we humans were all trapped by death and couldn’t save ourselves. Now it is finished, like Jesus said on the cross. He’s done it all and by tasting death for everyone He reconciled everyone to God. So as I step down, I assume they’ll move into invitation. Which means you should repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You will be saved. Then just like Jesus came down from heaven, come down to this altar and arrange to be baptized, so that by experiencing this sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection you can start your own journey to follow after His life of humble love.

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

The life of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived the perfectly obedient human life. He died an atoning death. He rose victoriously from the grave. The end.

Okay, that’s not the whole story. There is a part I left out. Did you spot it? After He rose again, Jesus spent 40 days appearing on and off to the apostles, and finally He ascended into heaven. This event, simply enough, is called the Ascension. Given that today is 40 days since Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to say a little something in memory of this event.

The Ascension usually receives little attention, and I do not think this is fair. People view it as the happy ending. It’s the part of the story we need to get the resurrected Christ out of the picture and explain why He isn’t still around. But indeed, there is more to it than that, and this has been woefully ignored. So here’s a quick summary of two things the Ascension does for us:

  • The Ascension secures our salvation by establishing Jesus’ eternal role as High Priest. Hebrews mentions early on how after Jesus performed His atoning work He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father. And what does He do there? He brings sanctified humanity into the presence of God so that man and God can experience the reconciliation He won. For the Scripture says, “We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God—Jesus, the Son of God.” Because of this, it then says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.” As a human representative, Jesus is our priest in heaven before the Father.

    So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. On our behalf Jesus has gone in there before us and has become a high priest forever, in the priestly order of Melchizedek.

    Hebrews 6:18b-20

  • The Ascension made time for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to be saved. What would Jesus have done if He had not left? Wouldn’t He simply keep on with His task, and get straight to judging the world? After all, Jesus did not rebuke His disciples for thinking He would restore the kingdom to Israel, only that He was doing it right then. The Old Testament didn’t even prophesy about separate comings; it treated Jesus’ first and second comings as a single event. But by ascending, Jesus has created time for evangelism. If the end had come then, only a handful of people would be saved. But God wanted to give everyone time to come to the knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the Gospel. Not until every people has heard will Jesus return to finish what He started (Matt. 24:14).

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days some people will appear whose lives are controlled by their own lusts. They will make fun of you and will ask, “He promised to come, didn’t he? Where is he? Our ancestors have already died, but everything is still the same as it was since the creation of the world!”…But do not forget one thing, my dear friends! There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same. The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.

    2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

Thinking of these things, let us thank God that Jesus did not only live for us, die for us, and rise for us, but also ascended for us! Amen.

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

“Now none of this matters if you don’t already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” the preacher says with a shift of tone. “Without Him, you can’t live an abundant life. So here’s what I want you to do. With eye head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus Christ into your heart tonight and be saved from your sins, please raise your hands. No one looking around; it’s just me. It’s okay if you’re shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…”

Ever heard anything like this? I’m quite sure that you have. This is, in a way, the climax of most special Christian events. After music and shenanigans and finally a sermon, the preacher seeks for people who want to accept Jesus. Of course, sometimes making such a public statement is a bit embarrassing. Who wants to admit they need Jesus tonight? So, in the interest of making sure people aren’t scare off at the invitation of the Gospel, it is only natural that we would ask everyone to close their eyes and give potential converts their privacy to make this personal decision of faith. Right?

I think this is dangerous, actually. Despite the good intentions, I am confident that this method of encouraging people to convert actually has very harmful side effects. The main problem is the creation of false believers. In fact, this method of invitation does away with the very call of the Jesus in the Gospel in favor of a seeker-sensitive, pandering call. Where the Gospel demands self-sacrifice, asking everyone to close their eyes for potential believers protects them from any need to sacrifice at moment one.

See, the true conversion which results from genuine encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and a yielding of the soul to His grace should never take timid form. The major verse about becoming a believer, Romans 10:9, says this: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But where is the confession when the new believer is told he can come in secret, with no one else watching? Likewise, in Mark 8:38 Jesus promises this: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are lots of verses with this same theme. If you would come to Christ, you are not given the option of doing it covertly.

altar-call-1

This requirement should be no shock, anyway. How can someone who is actually coming to know the grace of Jesus refuse to make it known that they love Him? All such refusals are sinful. When we pander to them, we are saying, “It’s okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.” The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you’re too proud to admit you’re still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you’re already saved and you’re scared to show them otherwise. Perhaps you simply fear what people will think about you if you become a follower of Jesus. But to all this, the Scripture says that “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.”

So what should we do? When we open the invitation, we must make it clear that the call to follow Jesus is not easy, and involves self-denial all the way through. Instead of “everyone will close their eyes for you,” we should tell them, “If you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.” But what if this means fewer people raise their hands? What if less people decide to accept Jesus because of this? Then I daresay we have lost nothing. For if someone is clinging so much to their pride that they won’t even sacrifice an initial confession of faith, then surely that person is not actually being led by the Spirit of God to salvation! If the Spirit is working in them at all, they must be resisting that work. Making it easy will only encourage people to think they are saved, to think they’ve been secured and converted and will make it to the resurrection, even when they have no faith beyond mental facts. This is what Jesus showed us in His ministry. He did not provide an easy call, but time after time said controversial and scary things, sometimes apparently trying to get rid of anyone not serious about following Him.

Honestly, I think part of the problem may lie in the pride of people performing such events. Not all are like this, but there are many who love the numbers more than the fruit, even without realizing it. The more tally marks they can make for people who raised their hands to accept Jesus, the more impressive their events will seem. Easy invitations make for large numbers of “salvations” which in turn bring attention to the ministry doing these things. But we must be willing to sacrifice even the image of our works for God if we wish to do right in leading people to the truth.

The real danger here, by the way, is not only adding to our lists more saved people than there really are, but creating people who believe they are secure and saved when they are still in their sins, never more to worry about their spiritual state because of one misleading event.  Their chance at salvation in the future may be seriously hindered because they think they have already found the life in Jesus, even though they only accepted an easy and impotent form of the Gospel. It is like a cancer patient who dies before his time, all because an incompetent doctor told him that he was cured when he really wasn’t, so he stopped seeking treatment. May God never let this happen!

So what do I propose, again? Let’s tell people the truth: you must die to yourself if you wish to follow Christ. In the simplest and first way, just don’t pander to their self-consciousness by giving them a moment of secrecy to make their “confession.” Make them confess Christ publicly or not at all. This the example of Jesus. In fact, if I were to have it my way, I would yank open a baptismal at the invitation and tell people, “Sacrifice your pride and your dry clothes if you truly believe. Confess Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized in the name of the Jesus for your forgiveness!” This kind of radical call will not only keep people from falsely and shallowly converting to their soul’s detriment, but may even embolden and inspire those who the Spirit is working in, giving them a concrete way to express their new faith. In this way, we together with our new brothers and sisters can honor Christ as those who need not be ashamed.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

There Is No Life Possible in A Covenant of Works

“Do this and you will live.” This statement, taken from the Bible, has become the main basis for the idea in Reformed theology of a “covenant of works.” What is the covenant of works? Here’s Reformed covenant theology 101:

In covenant theology, there are two or three primary covenants revealed in redemptive history. The first, not accepted by all covenant theologians, is the covenant of redemption, a hypothetical agreement between the members of the Trinity to redeem a people for God. In eternity past, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit swore to work together for redemption.

The next covenant is the covenant of works. The covenant of works is supposedly the covenant made between God and humanity (specifically Adam) in the Garden of Eden, which required man to perfectly obey God, for which God would in return give eternal life. “Do this and you will live.” If man measures us to God’s standard, he experiences salvation. Otherwise he does not.

Finally, there is the covenant of grace, which came in several historical forms (think the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the Church). In this covenant, God gives His people free and unmerited salvation by grace on the basis of Jesus Christ. In classic covenant theology, God can offer up this covenant because Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works that Adam broke. Since Jesus held up man’s end of the deal, all who are in Him get the salvation He earned by works.

This all sounds okay at first glance, but consider the absurdity of this: God the Father originally provided eternal life (which, according to Jesus, is knowing God and His Son) to His child on the basis of performance. Daddy let his son get to know and relate to him only to the extent that his son measured up to certain rules. Is this right, fatherly, or Biblical? I do not think so. Thus the problem with the covenant of works.

Moreover, law cannot lead to relational knowledge of God. God and people cannot unite through law anymore than a husband and wife can have a truly loving relationship by signing a marriage license. In fact, unlike the marriage license, law is actually a barrier between God and humanity. For the law was given, according to the Scriptures, to expose and condemn us in our sins, and to reveal what we should be against what we are. But in the beginning, with Adam, these things were not so. Before the Fall there were no human sinners to be condemned, no difference between the “is” and the “ought,” what should have been and what was. So by performing these roles law keeps us at a distance from God, safely removed from the consuming fire of His holiness while still subject to the truth of His holy standard.

If indeed God’s covenant of grace, His agreement to humanity through Jesus, is based on a covenant of works being fulfilled, then God’s love is after all secondary to His law. In this way, God’s law is more essential than His love, because while He must treat us the way we deserve under law to be who He is, He doesn’t have any need to treat us with love to who He is (despite “God is love” appearing in Scripture without “God is law”).

Basically, if I could sum up what I’m trying to say, it would be that God is our Father, not a legalist. The law comes because of His love, and grace precedes any commands from God, even His commands to Adam, in opposition to the theory of a covenant of works. Eternal life could never come from law, even for a man who obeyed it perfectly, because law stands between man and God. Eternal life can only come apart from the law, through the God-man Jesus Christ who by fulfilling law stepped out of its reach to restore us to relationship with God. Amen!

There Is No Life Possible in A Covenant of Works

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Jesus’ Unconditional Election

Probably the most defining doctrine of classical, TULIP Calvinism (TC here, as in my previous posts) is the U, “unconditional election.” It is this doctrine which most people associate with the word “predestination.” In order to explain how Evangelical Calvinism (EC, remember) retools election, I will need to briefly but clearly explain both TC unconditional election and Arminian conditional election.

The “Normal” Election Debate

Here’s the gist of the two positions I’ll explain EC election in light of:

  • In TC unconditional election, God chooses before time for some people to believe and others to remain in unbelief, not based on anything He foresees in or about them. God does not elect people to salvation because He knows they will believe or do good. Instead, people believe and do good because God elects them to salvation.
  • In Arminian conditional election, God chooses before time for some people to be saved because He foresees that they will use the grace given to them to believe. He maintains everyone’s free will with prevenient grace, and looks ahead to see if they will use it to believe. If so, they are elect.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of TC unconditional election: infralapsarian and supralapsarian. Infralapsarians believe that God’s choice of election is made in light of His choice to allow (or cause, as some Calvinists say!) the Fall, while supralapsarians believe that God’s choice to allow the Fall is made in light of His choice to elect some to salvation. This isn’t super important right now, but I’ll come back to it.

Electing Who to What, Again?

What is is that the classical Calvinist and Arminian views of election have in common? They consider election the wrong kind of choice. Think of this for a moment: Election is, basically, choosing. When we elect a President, we choose him. When I elect to watch Doctor Who, I choose it over any other show at that time.

For Calvinists and Arminians, election is God’s choice of who will be saved. On this, EC is very different.

In both TC and Arminianism, the choice involved in election is assume to have a certain “who” and a certain “what.” They both consider the “who” of election to be individual believers (not counting corporate election right now), in TC those unconditionally chosen by God and in Arminianism those who God foreknows will believe. They both consider the “what” of election to be final salvation (well, some Arminians argue sanctification) for the “who.” So for both, election is God’s choice of who will be saved.

On this, EC is very different. Drawing heavily from Karl Barth, for EC election can be summed up as God’s choice to be God for a humanity made to be for Him, both sides purposed in Jesus Christ. The “who” is Jesus, both the God who chooses to be for man and the true Man chosen to be for God. The “what” is the loving communion between God and humanity created entirely in, through, and by the one God-man.

Jesus became the reprobate for us so that we could become the elect in Him!

In a secondary way, the human race as a whole becomes the “who,” because Jesus traded His place as God’s Chosen One for our place as the reprobate (those who are not elect but condemned). Because Jesus, “who did not know sin [became] sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” we are now elected in Jesus’ election. The only reprobate (again, those who are not elect but condemned) is Jesus because He suffered our reprobation on the Cross, yet even His reprobation is no more because He rose again and ascended to heaven!

In case this was all confusing, I’ll summarize. Election is choosing. God’s elect, His chosen one, is Jesus. God chose Him to be the Mediator, the God-man who brings God and man together, because He chooses to be man’s God. We are by nature the reprobate, the not-chosen ones, because of our sin. But Jesus became the reprobate for us so that we could become the elect in Him. Now He is risen and we are free to be God’s chosen humans, because we are in Christ, God’s chosen Human.

To add to all this, EC election is unconditional. Jesus is not elect to save us because of any foreseen faith or merit humanity might have. Jesus did not choose humanity because we deserved it or had some potential. His choice to be for us is of freedom and love and completely gratuitous. This election is also supralapsarian, that is, based before the Fall. God did not choose Jesus to bring humanity to Him because of our foreseen or planned sinfulness. It was not originally because God knew we would sin that He brought in Jesus’ life as the solution. Instead, Jesus was always the plan. For God to freely be man’s God and make us God’s man, Jesus was the way from the start.

So What about Free Will vs. Predestination?

I’m sure this all sounds very lovely, but many of you are probably wondering what this has to do with free will and predestination as the debate usually goes. Do people make the final choice if they will be saved or does God choose who will believe? Well, the answer isn’t as simple as the question would like it to be. This particular either/or is a little messed up.

The God revealed in Jesus is not equally interested in saving and destroying.

Unfortunately, to answer this correctly requires that I add another idea to this mix, one that will take longer than this post to explain. If you’re up for some advance study, that element is the [i]vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ[/i]. Google should help if you’re interested until next time. Another hint would be to go back to my second post on eternal security, which has Christ’s vicarious humanity as an important but unnamed theme.

Before I do end, I will explain that EC does clearly and vehemently reject the TC concept of double predestination in which God chooses before time who will be believe and be saved vs who will remain in unbelief and be damned. This is simply not Christian, that is, it is not a Christ-ian concept. The God revealed in Jesus is not equally interested in saving and destroying, on the same basis willing to predestine to life and death. He prayed “Father forgive them” over His most damnable enemies. Therefore the TC idea of God being pleased to unconditionally destine people to death simply doesn’t work.

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Jesus’ Unconditional Election

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Some Quick Background and the Gist

In my last post, I introduced my recent (somewhat in progress) transition from classical, TULIP Calvinism (“TC”) to Evangelical Calvinism (“EC”). I did not elaborate much, of course. That is the point of the rest of the series. Before I get into all the details, I’ll give a quick history lesson about where EC came from. After all, no discerning believer is going to jump straight into novel doctrine. He’ll need to see roots in the tradition of the Church. Totally new ideas in theology are almost always wrong and lead to dangerous paths, after all.

A Brief History of Evangelical Calvinism

Like all Christian beliefs, EC seeks to have a root in Scripture. Every tradition has its own major texts, though, and EC is no different. Hebrews is a major resource for EC theology. Romans 4, Ephesians 1, Philippians 2, and Colossians 1 are as well. These touchstone texts help form the basis for many of the fundamental ideas in EC.

A next major historical reference point for EC theology is Athanasius. He was a 4th century Christian apologist who did some great work on the Incarnation and the Atonement. His book On the Incarnation is still a classic. He is not alone among the Church Fathers in many of his ideas. EC theology makes good use of them.

In looking to historical documents EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

After that, there is some helpful influence within medieval theology. Not much of that is notable here. Naturally, being historically Calvinist and thus also Reformed, EC traces itself in a defining way to the Protestant Reformation. EC theology takes quite a bit from Martin Luther and John Calvin. This doesn’t include either of their ideas on election and predestination. Luther’s “theology of the cross” and Calvin’s use of union with Christ with the duplex gratia (double grace) of justification and sanctification are very important.

Next, EC follows along certain lines of Reformed theology that developed in Scotland. John Knox is an important theologian in this path. In looking to historical documents (as any good Reformed tradition does) EC identifies mainly with the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

Evangelical Calvinism, like the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.

In modern times, EC draws quite a bit from Karl Barth (especially in the election department) and even more from Thomas Torrance. Both of these stand firmly in the Reformed camp, though not mainstream. Torrance is himself the origin of the term “Evangelical Calvinist.” It comes from his book Scottish Theology. There he sometimes referred to Scottish Calvinists who preached more on grace than predestination as “evangelical Calvinists.” This was because their theology and practice was naturally more evangelistic than that of classical Calvinism. Today, readers of Torrance including Bobby Grow and Myk Habets have taken that term and made it the designation for this overall theological direction.

I want this to make something clear. EC is not meant to be altogether “new.” Novelty is not always a virtue, especially in theology. While EC might say a few mostly new ideas, most of the EC project is pulling together different ideas that have roots all back through Christian history. Some of these EC refines or explains in new ways. All of them are brought into a sharply Christ-centered focus which has not always been used for them. But the EC movement, in the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, seeks to recover old truths and refresh their understanding, not to invent.

A Brief Summary of Evangelical Calvinism

So, what do we get from this history? How did this kind of theology turn out? It seems, to me, to take every thought captive to Christ. It starts and ends with the Triune God of love. EC understands Him only through the way He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ and then Scripture. We do not start with logical proofs for God’s existence, and a discussion of divine attributes. Instead we start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself—the exact expression of God’s nature—and recorded in Scripture. Any ideas about God’s all-power, all-knowledge, or all-presence are understood by how they are presented to us in this revelation, not by abstract philosophical reasoning. This, naturally, includes questions involving God’s sovereignty and electing plans.

For EC theology, Jesus is the center and the rule of understanding. As Bobby Grow often says, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.” Jesus is the “image of the invisible God.” He is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.” God has spoken to us about Himself perfectly in His Son. So everything we know about God must be understood in light of what Jesus reveals about Him. Jesus says “Let the little children come unto me.” Therefore God the Father is not working deciding behind the scenes which of the children will not come to Him. “God so loved the world so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” This does not allow for “God secretly decrees which ‘whosoevers’ believe and which perish.” That would mean that God Himself still hides from us, showing in Jesus only some of what He is and what He does. In fact, in this case, it would seem as though Jesus is Himself not God as a man, but God partially revealed through a man!

We start with the revealed fact of the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the way God acts as seen in Jesus Himself.

Not only, though, is Jesus the perfect appearance of God. He is also the prototype human! All human nature is based on Jesus’ human nature. This might sound strange, but consider this. Humanity was created “in the image of God,” aka the imago dei. What is that image? It’s been debated for years, but in truth the answer was always in Scripture. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God!” Jesus is the image of God, and we are made in His image. Therefore Jesus’ own human life is the basis for ours. But what does that mean and what does it do?

Well, because of the last two paragraphs there is no nonsense in EC about a “limited atonement.” Jesus did not come and die only willing to save a handful of people. In fact, simply by coming as a human being Jesus is shown to working towards the salvation of everyone. In Jesus God Himself is joined to humanity in His very nature. So He redeems our fallen state through a life of sinless perfection and complete sanctification. Born “in the likeness of sinful flesh” He condemned our sin. He had a human nature like our own yet didn’t sin, showing us all as guilty. But He doesn’t leave us in our guilt. Instead He died, in His own human person summing up ours on a deep and real level. So He wrapped up all of our sin in Himself and died, taking it with Him. Even though His life proved that we deserved judgment, Jesus suffered that same judgment He brought on us.

Humanity was created “in the image of God.” Jesus is the image of God!

Finally, on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. In 40 days, He ascended to heaven. These events are the final guarantee of salvation for the human race. Jesus, as I said before, is the basis for human life. So when He died to sin, rose from the grave, and ascended to the Father, He accomplished this for all humanity. The death of our sinful natures, new Spirit-powered life, and communion with God are now part of human nature itself! All we need is to hear the Gospel preached with the power of the Holy Spirit working in it. Then we can be brought by the Spirit’s power into Jesus own human life, and so believe and be saved. When we are connected to Jesus by the Spirit through faith, we share His death to sin, His Spirit-powered resurrection life, and His intimacy with the Father. Amen, hallelujah!

Next Time on “The Nicene Nerd”

I hope all of this has rung true to you. I do imagine that it is not obvious how this differs from some things you may have always heard, or how it addresses the so-called 5 points of Calvinism. Rest assured I will answer these questions in the rest of the series. But I thought it was important to go ahead and explain why EC is not a new invention, and what the Gospel looks like from an EC perspective. In my next post, I will probably discuss what’s on everyone’s mind: election and the will of man.

A Different Kind of Calvinism: Some Quick Background and the Gist