Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

Project Credo: Trinity

This semester I am taking two introductory classes on Christian doctrine, both of which require me to write a 10-12 page credo, simply expressing what I believe about every topic covered in class. I started work on one of these recently, and for fun I thought I’d share my section on the Trinity. (Yes, I will be posting the full credos as PDFs when I’m finished.)

The Trinity

There is only one God, one true divine being with one single essence or ousia. He is a single Subject, indivisible, who cannot be broken apart. Yet it belongs to the one divine essence to subsist in three distinct Persons, revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully and entirely God, possessing the fullness of the one divine nature in unity with the other Persons. God thus exists as a unity-in-trinity, or a trinity-in-unity, in which the single divine ousia exists in a trifold mode of three hypostases. The Persons are each distinguished not by any divine attributes of which one person has more or less, for they are all entirely equal and divine, but by their relations to each other. The Father is the Father precisely because He is Father of the Son, for example. Apart from these internal relational distinctions, there is no possible essential or eternal difference to draw between the Persons of the Trinity. They are each essentially equal in power, glory, wisdom, authority, and love. They share one will, intelligence, and emotional life. There is no hierarchy, supremacy, or subordination of any kind within the immanent/ontological Trinity. The Father is an unqualified equal to the Son who is an unqualified equal to the Spirit who is an unqualified equal to the Father. Each has the fullness of the one divine nature, the one divine nature which itself constitutes them as relations of one God. The divine nature both constitutes the relations of the Triune Persons and is constituted by their relations. In these relations, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit, but in these cases the generation neither compromises the aseity of each member nor defines some kind of ontological contingency. Neither should the begetting of the Son of the procession of the Spirit be seen as Persons originating from the unoriginate Person of the Father, but rather the Persons come from the being of the Father, the one ousia which each Person fully shares. 

In history, God has expressed Himself in a unique Triune economy, and the way the Trinity is expressed in redemptive history is called the economic Trinity. In the economic Trinity, as a general pattern, the Father sends and initiates, the Son obeys and accomplishes, and the Spirit implements and consummates. In this economy the Father clearly takes the ultimate authority, this likely because of the correspondence with His eternal begetting of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. The Son is, in a certain sense, the fulfillment of God’s economy, as throughout the Old Testament and finally in the Incarnation He was (and remains) the personal, distinct, tangible appearance of God within creation. Throughout the whole of redemption, the Spirit acts as the agent of divine power, the one who accomplishes the supernatural divine will within natural space and time. These role distinctions are consistent and ultimate in human relationship to God, but they are not themselves internal to the divine being, though they in an imperfect and finite way reflect the internal Triune relations of God. They call forth a response for human faith and practice which seeks to worship the Father through the mediation of the Son by faithful union in the Spirit, and to do the will of the Father on the ground of the work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Project Credo: Trinity

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

A sermon I preached this morning. I pray it will be of some edification.

So, I am not one to get too political in the pulpit for the sake of simply avoiding unnecessary strife. Christians can and do disagree on political issues, though I do believe that Scripture and Christian preaching can and does have some things to say to politics. I’m also not intending to make political point here or offend anyone. But I wanted to menion a funny story I’ve run across about Donald Trump because it is related to what I’m preaching on this morning.

In an interview a while back, Trump was being asked about his relationship with God. He was asked this question: “You have said you never felt the need to ask for God’s forgiveness, and yet repentance for one’s sins is a precondition to salvation. I ask you the question Jesus asked of Peter: Who do you say He is?”

Trump’s first response originally was mostly irrelevant and ignored the issue to point out how much support he has from Christians. But then he was asked the question again to get back on track, and he said this: “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.”

Now, obviously this is a silly answer. It’s nearly a joke. It doesn’t tell you who Jesus is, just how Trump supposedly feels about Him. I bring this up not to Trump-bash, but to make a point. The identity of Jesus is important. Even crazy Presidential candidates are forced to reckon with it. Jesus left the earth 2000 years ago but people still have to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Well, that’s my theme today, and for the next however many times I get to preach here. I want to look at the different Biblical angles for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth, called “Christ” and “Son of God,” is, and I want to see what focusing on these different angles can tell us about our relationship to Him and how we ought to live as His people.
So for today I want to start with something very basic, an aspect of Jesus’ identity that almost anyone could agree on from simple history. This is Jesus as a prophet. It cannot be denied that, whatever else Jesus was, He was a prophet. Everyone is willing to concede that, whether atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or random people off the street. Some might think He was a false prophet, and some might think His prophecies came from delusions or evil schemes, but it is uncontroversial to say that Jesus lived as a prophet. It is also the first in most orderings of what people like John Calvin have called the “threefold office of Christ” as prophet, priest, and king. So I’d like to look at Jesus’ prophetic role according to Scripture, and then to see what we can learn from that.

But in order to do that, I will actually also have to go deeper, because a prophet cannot be understood apart from his message, his word. In the case of Jesus, He Himself is a word, actually the Word of God the Father. Because of this any attempt at explaining Jesus’ prophetic office apart from His being the divine Word can only be incomplete. But with both of these in mind, Jesus as prophet and as Word, we will be able to see just how knowing who Christ is can change our lives as His followers.

So, with that goal in mind, on to what Scripture says about Jesus as a prophet. The first thing to notice is that, with our order of the Old Testament canon, Jesus in the New Testament comes right after the prophets. I’m not convinced that this is any arbitrary coincidence. I think it matters. Throughout the OT prophets we see Israel struggling with God, sinning and begging for help and almost repenting but still sinning more, and God kept sending them prophets. These prophets brought God’s word to Israel, usually warnings of judgment or promises of restoration, and in fact most of the time both are mixed. Then there is silence for 400 years. The last prophet writes and dies, and no word from God comes to Israel for centuries.

It is at this point that John the Baptist shows up, the first prophet in a very long time. He announces that the Lord is coming and that the people need to get ready and repent. Then Jesus comes to Him and is baptized, and immediately begins His own prophetic ministry. The very first words we here from Jesus in the Bible are in Matthew 4:17, and they are words of prophecy. He starts preaching, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

At this point it would be useful to clarify what the prophetic office is. Essentially, to be a prophet is to hear God’s word and relay it faithfully to men. This is a human task, something which humans do for God and for their listeners. It is a kind of work as a mediator, in this case mediating messages, as opposed to the priest who mediates blessing or cursing, or the king who mediates justice. God elects a man as a prophet, calls him to obedience, and entrusts him with a word for God’s people.

Part of the reason for this need is that God transcends us. He is Creator and we are creature. There is an infinite qualitative distinction between God and man. We quite literally have nothing in common with God by nature. Some people would say that we’re like ants or cockroaches compared to God, but even that makes us seem more like Him than we really are. It takes omnipotent power to bridge this gap. Because of this humans can only hear from God if God first puts His words into a human mouth. Otherwise His word, as pure and holy and omnipotent as it is, would be a poweful terror for us, like when God spoke to Israel from Mt. Sinai and they begged Him to stop and speak only to Moses.
But what makes a prophet able to hear God’s word if others cannot? This is the role of the Holy Spirit. This is why in the Old Testament in the few occasions that people are filled with the Spirit, many of them are prophets. The Spirit fills the prophet with the word of God, and the prophet speaks the word of God using his human words. This means that ordinary people can then hear the word of God and respond to it.

This brings us to Jesus’ baptism, the start of His prophetic ministry. At His baptism, according Matthew, Luke, and John, the Spirit came and dwelt in Jesus. We must remember that Jesus’ humanity was truly and fully human in a normal sense, and so in His human life He also needed the Spirit to empower Him for His prophetic ministry. So once He was baptized, anointed as a prophet, He was filled with the Spirit and began preaching.
This actually now brings us to my main text on Jesus’ prophetic office. What matters most for prophets is the message they preached, so I want to go to Luke 13 to find a summary of basically Jesus’ entire message, beginning in verses 1-5.

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

What Jesus says here is actually in His preaching all of the time in all of the Gospels. Roman oppression has killed some Jews. That’s a normal part of the background of the day, and one of the main concerns of the Jewish people who were waiting for their Messiah to rescue them. But of course there was a tendency to view the people who suffered most as the worst sinners, as though the people who Pilate killed were special targets of divine judgment. Jesus corrects them by saying that unless they repent, they will all suffer the same fate. He brings up another example of a tower which fell in Siloam and killed people. Those people weren’t any more guilty either. Unless they repented, they would all likewise perish.

Now, it is important to realize that this isn’t just Jesus saying, “Everyone’s a sinner.” Jesus was a prophet to Israel specifically, just like most the prophets before Him. Israel needed to repent, and Israel was in danger of coming judgment. It’s also important to realize that Jesus isn’t saying, “These people died, and if you don’t repent you will go to Hell.” The word for “likewise” in “likewise perish” means “in the same way.” These people died by Romans violence and falling buildings. Here Jesus prophesies not just any judgment, but the judgment coming on Israel through Rome. This is, again, just like the prophets before Him. They prophesied coming judgments by God through the armies of Babylon, or Assyria, or other nations. Jesus prophesied a coming judgment by Rome. Unless they repent, they will perish under Roman violence and collapsing buildings, a prophecy which was fulfilled when Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70.
This is a constant theme of Jesus, and it is core to His message. It is the point of parables like that of the wicked tenants and the of the talents. We see it pop up again immediately in our chapter, verses 6-9. The fig tree, a figure used in the OT for Israel, has no fruit, and it must be cut down unless it bears fruit very soon. At the end of this chapter, in verses 33-35, Jesus makes the meaning of this message explicit. He says:

It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken.

The message is clear, and it is repeated throughout all of the Gospels over and over again as Jesus battles with the Pharisees, the Saducees, the zealots, and the Herodians. Israel is about to be judged, and God will use Rome, the very nation they expect God to rescue them from, to do it.

There are, though, two major differences between Jesus’ message and the messages of the prophets before Him. First, this is not just one more judgment in an ongoing cycle. This is Israel’s last warning. If they do not repent now, they will not be given another chance. This is most clear in the parable of the wicked tenants. The owner sends messengers and servants, and finally his own son, but the tenants kill the son, so instead of giving more chances the owner destroys them. Israel has been sent many prophets, but Jesus will be the last, and if they reject Him, as Jesus knows they will, then they will be desolated. This exile will be permanent, and Israel will ever be under the curse of the Torah which they disobeyed.

But, despite all of this negativity, there is a strong positive side to Jesus’ message. On the one hand, He preaches coming judgment, but just like the other prophets He preaches with it coming restoration. Unlike the other prophets, He preaches that the restoration is now. This is what we see when we move back to the middle of this chapter. In verses 10-17, Jesus heals a disabled woman and brings glory to God on the Sabbath. He then moves on to talk about the Kingdom of God breaking in small at first but certain to grow into something massive. These are also major themes in His ministry elsewhere. His first prophecy was that the Kingdom of God was coming. These healings are all signs of it. The loose attitude towards Sabbath regulations is also a sign, a sign that the weekly Sabbath law is now being fulfilled in the great Sabbath of the Kingdom of God.
This Kingdom is the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel. Even though there is a coming judgment, there is also a way for forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration. This way is in following Him, the Messiah. This is what Jesus preached from the beginning, like in Luke 4:18-19:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The year of the Lord’s favor had arrived, and if anyone would repent of their sins, their attempts at establishing their own justification though stricter Torah observance or revolutions against Rome, but instead simply follow God’s Messiah, they would enter into this year, the age to come. This was to be the way out of the judgment. Israel as a whole was ready to reject the Messiah and be judged by God, but those who would instead repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah would find that they could follow Him into a new way of being God’s people which would survive even the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. This was ultimately the way into the resurrection, the regeneration of the world. Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will give you life in the age to come.”

This all, then, comes back to the belief in Israel since they were originally exiled into Babylon that Yahweh their God had departed from them, especially from Jerusalem and the Temple. The glory which used to fill the Holy of Holies had disappeared, and they suffered constant subjection under the pagans. They had been waiting on God to return to them and rescue them again, to bring His glory back into Israel. Jesus preached just this: the return of Yahweh to Zion, a return which would lead to judgment for the wicked and salvation and resurrection for those who embraced Him.

This actually explains some of Jesus’ more odd prophetic actions like whithering the fig tree or cleansing the Temple. He symbolically announced that judgment had arrived, just as the prophets in the OT performed strange actions to illustrate their points.

But, the way Jesus did these things was all even more odd. His healings, His control over nature, His forgiving sins, riding triumphantly into Jerusalem after declaring maternal care, His cleansing the Temple–all of this almost makes it look as though Jesus were Himself acting as Yahweh returning to Zion. You get the impression that these acts are divine acts. Jesus appears to have considered Himself to be not just Yahweh’s prophet, but in some sense an embodiment of this God Himself.

This could, of course, have been passed off as lunacy or maybe something more devious, especially once Jesus was hung on a cross to die. If Beau were to start acting like he’s God, I think we’d all suspect that he’d gone crazy. So it seemed that way for Jesus, too. If He was in any sense God, or an agent of God, the Cross made no sense. God is the judge, not the judged. He is the life-giver, not mortal.

Yet then after three days Jesus rose from the dead. It would seem that this means Jesus was right. In some sense He was truly acting God’s acts. And it is the Gospel of John which helps us understand this, for in John we find that Jesus is not only a prophet, but the divine Word of God Himself.

This brings us to John 1:1-18, the text where we can see most clearly that Jesus is a prophet who reveals Himself as God. John 1:1 tells us that in the beginning the Word was with God and was God. It tells us that Jesus was and is this Word, the Word of creation, of light, and of life. This Word is not merely from God, but is of the very same being, the same essence as God. Verse 14 is key: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word is God as He knows, sees, and proclaims Himself. The Word of God is God speaking God, and this is precisely who Jesus was. This Word became a human being, and as a human being He became a prophet.

The prohetic office and Jesus’ divine person as the Word of God work together in a unique way. This why is Jesus is not merely another prophet, but the last and the greatest prophet whose coming marks the climax of Israel’s story. The word from God which Jesus spoke in His life was not merely any message, but in fact His own person as God’s self-revelation. Basically, Jesus as a prophet preached the Word of God, but unlike every other prophet Jesus was the very same Word of God which He preached. The judgment Jesus warned Israel about was His own judgment, a judgment He made Himself and suffered Himself. The Kingdom of God He said was coming was in fact His very own authority, His own reign over all the earth. And the return of Yahweh to Zion He announced was literally His coming to Jerusalem as the Word of God.

What we understand from this is something which is elsewhere described in John, namely that the word and act of Jesus the prophet from Nazareth are literally and directly the word and deed of God. There is no difference. In John 5:19 Jesus says it simply: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”

So Jesus as a human prophet is somehow from within His human life and nature doing the very work of God. The call to repentance was Gods’ last call to Israel. His healings were not just signs of the coming Kingdom but part of the way God was actually calling the new creation into existence. The judgment He proclaimed would be a judgment He Himself would execute and suffer.

All of this, when brought to the Cross, means that Christ’s suffering, being executed as a false prophet and revolutionary, is in fact the act of God. Jesus died for the nation, for the world, which means that God Himself took upon all of this for us. This means we are assured that at His very core, in the depths of His being, God is for us, a God who self-sacrificially loves us. What Jesus did in His whole life and ministry, but especially on the Cross, is what God does. We know God because we know Christ, and knowing God in this way means that His love for us goes all the way down even into Hell. And this is who God really is. The fact that Jesus is both God’s prophet and God’s Word means that, as Scottish theologian T. F. Torrance liked to say, “There is no God behind the back of Jesus.”

This is the ground of all of our assurance. The prophet who said “Neither do I condemn you” is the same God of the universe who will judge the world. There is no division, or even a true distinction, between the mercy we see in Jesus, the gracious promises He offers to those who follow Him, and who God is toward us. This is how we know that there is absolutely no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We do not know everything about God by looking at Christ, simply because of human limitations, but because the prophetic word of Christ comes from His person as the Word of God who is God, what we see in Christ is true all the way down into the depths of who God is. To quote Torrance again, “God is deep but not devious.” We can have confidence to follow Jesus wherever He leads because we know that the words by which He leads us is the Word of God, and whatever He tells us about our destination is exactly where we will end up. If we are in Christ, then we are in God, and if we are in God, we have every reason to hope.

But to mention being in Christ brings us to the question of what a life in Christ looks like. This in turn brings us back to Jesus the prophet. When Jesus left His disciples, He did the same thing for them that the prophet Elijah did for his successor Elisha. He left behind His Spirit. At Pentecost, Jesus poured out His own Spirit on the Church, so now by the Spirit we are called to continue Jesus’ ministry as prophets. It is our job to be prophets like Jesus, continuing to proclaim His message. Jesus told everyone about the Kingdom of God wherever He went and whatever He did, and this is how we are also called to live. This is why we must evangelize: we share in the ministry of Jesus as prophet. We have to spread His message in the power of His Spirit now that He has been taken to heaven. Obviously not all of us are prophets in the common sense of receiving direct, personal messages from God and being called to preach them and perform signs to confirm them. Yet in another sense we are all prophets now. We’ve received a direct message from God in the prophetic Word of Jesus. We are called to share this Word, and if nothing else we are supposed to use our lives as signs to confirm it. In Jesus we all become prophets, and as prophets we must share the Word of God, who is Jesus, with the world around us.

Now, if we’re going to be prophets like Jesus, our message needs to match up with His. But there are differences. Much of what Jesus preached was directly to a unique moment in Israel’s history. They were about to be judged, the Old Covenant would end, and the Kingdom would come through Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection. In our day, all of that has already happened. So how do we carry on Jesus’ message in our AD world? We have to look back, see Jesus’ message, and how He has fulfilled what He preached, and then apply the new situation created by His fulfillment to our message. What does this look like?

To begin with, the whole world today is in a similar situation to Israel. At Pentecost God began to invite all the nations into His covenant. He called the Gentiles to repent and submit to Jesus. But the world in large part hasn’t repented. They’re still sinning and rejecting God’s purposes and calling. They’ve been doing this all since Jesus came on the scene, cooperating with the Jews to kill Jesus. But God has raised Jesus from the dead. That proves all He said was true, and God has now put Him over all the world as its judge. Unless they repent, they will all perish under Christ’s judgment, just like they killed Him under their own.

But even so, the Kingdom of God has entered the world in Jesus, especially in His resurrection. The risen Christ offers eternal life as the source of salvation, a way of escape from the coming judgment and a path into bliss of the age to come. This marks the beginning of a new creation, which will eventually set all the universe free.

So now Jesus is set to return, and when He does judgment will come, but those who believe in Him will find that He has already suffered judgment for them. The wicked will perish and the righteous, specifically those who find righteousness by trusting in Christ, will be raised just like He was.

This is, at least, one possible way to tell the story, a sample of how we carry on Jesus’ message in view of the world’s changed situation after He fulfilled His work. And this king of message is what we need to proclaim. It is what we need to tell our neighbors and friends and coworkers. We have all been called to be prophets of Jesus, following in His footsteps as a prophet, by our union with Him.

So how can we really, practically do this? That’s a great question, and if any of you know the answer I’d be glad to hear it. But seriously, we need to think about that and do what we can to proclaim the word about the Word. Some of that might be personal evangelism, talking one-on-one to people we know. Some of it might be Bible distribution or street preaching. Personally, I would like to see especially here a way to get involved in more canvassing and survey evangelism. And of course there are actual mission trips, and there is VBS and community outreach. We must do all of this, and anything else we can come up with, to be prophets of Christ, sharing His Word with the world.

Our lives must also match our message, just like Jesus’ did. Jesus preached that the time of God’s favor had come, and He proved it by healing, forgiving, and redeeming broken lives. He also preached that the time of judgment had come, and He acted it out in the Temple, on a fig tree, and in His harsh condemnations of the religious elites who were leading people astray. He lived the life He said that God’s people must live in this new time: a life characterized by love for enemies, trust in God, patience under persecution, and compassion and mercy to those in need.

If we are going to be Jesus’ prophets, we have to live the same way. If we don’t, we make our message look fake or powerless. For Jesus there was no difference between the life He lived as a prophet and the divine Word which He was in His person. In the same way, we can’t let there be any difference between our lives and the Word of Jesus that we preach. Of course we will fail at this over and over again. We sin daily, and we fail to be the prophets we are supposed to be. We don’t share the message of Jesus enough or well enough, and we don’t live the kind of way that backs up even what we do say. But Jesus anticipated that from the start, and our union with Him includes our dying with Him, so that our sins are already dealt with. His “Neither do I condemn you” is assured for us. Confident that Jesus will keep His word, since He is God’s Word, we can try again, repent daily, and continue to press on in our lives as prophets of Jesus.

The goal of all of this, of course, is for us to make Jesus visible in both our words and our deeds. We want to direct people away from us and to the Word of God, who Himself was a prophet of His own Word. We basically just want people to see and hear Jesus when they see and hear us, because whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. We do and say what Jesus does and says which is what God does and says to reach our final end. We want the world to find life in knowing God. So I encourage all of us, myself more than all of you combined, to take this call to heart and do anything we can to be prophets of Jesus. If we combine our witnesses as the Body of Christ, then one day Isaiah 11:9 can be fulfilled, and “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This future, the hope of the Kingdom of God, is our call and mission. So let us take up this mission, and follow after our leader, a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus the Prophet and the Word

Life Is about the Trinity

In the wake of recent Trinitarian controversies on the Christian blogosphere, I’ve been given to some very interesting study on the topic of the Trinity. (If such controversy interests you, Alastair Roberts has been working on a round-up of the debate at Reformation 21.) I’m not going to bore you with much of it, even if I don’t find this boring at all, but I would like to offer some thoughts.

In my studies about the Trinity recently, I have been reminded of one crucial fact. This is ultimately what life is all about. By that I don’t refer to technical debates about the finer details of orthodox Trinitarianism. Rather, I mean coming to know God. And the true God is Trinity. As St. Gregory Nazianzen once said, “When I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Yet this God who is Triune is the only God, the God who loves us, the God who created us, the God who saves us, and the God for whom and from whom and to whom are all things, including our lives.

This is the subject which I have been thinking about lately. Life is about the Trinity. Life is about God the Father, the Maker of heaven and earth. It is about the Lord Jesus Christ, His only Son. It is about the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life. In all things, then, our faith calls us to bear in mind not just that there is a God, but that this God is Father-Son-Spirit. 

The struggle, however, is to see this not as a detail of Christian dogmatics. We must instead recall that this is the living reality of the God to whom we pray and whom we serve on a daily basis. In our devotion, in our prayers, in our walks before God and man we somehow must live out a Trinitarian reality. This can’t be merely abstract, of course. We must recognize in their individual ways the works and persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. We must live and worship accordingly.

But what does this look like practically? How do we will all of our life with the recognition that knowing the Triune God is the meaning of it? Ultimately, it requires intense training, constant reminders to ourselves of who God is. This is why Scripture leads the way for us by teaching us to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19), by blessing us with the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:13), by imploring us through Christ and the Spirit’s love to pray to the Father (Rom. 15:30). It is why in our churches many of sing a doxology which concludes with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Many songs and hymns reflect such a structure. The Apostles’ Creed, which many churches recite each Sunday, is ordered around God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ His only Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In our personal lives, we would do well to consume as much of this as we can. Read Scripture and see the shape of the Father-Son-Spirit works and relations. Pray to the Father in the name of the Son in the Spirit. Acknowledge each of the members of the Godhead in your prayer and devotion every day.

Of course, one might still wonder. Can this really matter that much? But the truth is that it can. It does. For life is all about the Triune God, about knowing and worshiping Him. In fact, this vision of Father, Son, and Spirit is eternity, the destiny of the universe. Everything is from Him and to Him and for Him forever. Amen.

Life Is about the Trinity

Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)

“The Trinity is like…” Talk about a dangerous way to start a sentence. As Christians, we believe strongly in the strange and paradoxical truth that in some way, God is both one God and yet also exists three co-equal, co-eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a deep mystery. Certain details of how this works will always be beyond the furthest limits of human understanding.

Of course, that’s not always a helpful thing to say around skeptics and curious new believers. They want answers that make sense to them. So naturally we try to use analogies. This is, in my opinion (though with the support of many Reformed theologians), a bad idea. Analogies for the Trinity have a huge flaw: the reality of the Trinity is so unique that all analogies will fall in line with some heresy or another.

Speaking of heresies about the Trinity, I should explain the two main kinds of heresies possible. The first group is called modalist or Sabellian heresies. In this kind of heresy, there is really only one person of God, and He acts or reveals Himself in different ways, modes, or means at different times. Sometimes He interacts with us as Father, other times as Son, and other times the Spirit. Some heresies in this group would say that God was the Father, then became the Son, and then became the Spirit. The defining point of these heresies is that God only exists as one person, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all basically different aspects or parts of that person.

The other kind of heresy you can fall into with the Trinity is tri-theism. Tri-theism is simply a belief in three Gods. There are many ways of looking at the Trinity which basically say there is the Father God, the Son God, and the Spirit God, all separate beings who work together in creation and salvation history. This is also a serious heresy, since all tri-theism violates the basic creed of God’s earliest covenant revelation: “The LORD your God is One.”

So, here’s where analogies fail. All analogies for the Trinity end up basically agreeing with one of these two kinds of heresy. Want some examples? Here they are:

  • The Trinity is like an egg. This analogy says the members of the Trinity are like an egg: an egg has shell, white, and yoke while being one egg. But this acts like the members of the Trinity are basically just parts of one person, which would be a Sabellian heresy. Or, for that matter, you could interpret this analogy as a tri-theistic heresy, since the shell, white, and yoke are each totally different materials. 
  • The Trinity is like the three states of water. This analogy uses ice, water, and water vapor to explain the three members of the Trinity. Three forms but one substance. This is a blatant modalist heresy, since in this case the one substance of water just switches between different forms. Honestly, this is practically textbook modalism.
  • The Trinity is like mustard. Just one word, man: tri-theism. At best.
  • The Trinity is like someone being husband, father, and employee. This analogy is totally modalist, trying to make the different roles of one normal person comparable to one God substance existing eternally as three persons.
  • The Trinity is like three-in-one shampoo. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I didn’t come up with this one. Using three-in-one shampoo for the Trinity is basically tri-theistic, saying the Trinity is like three totally different substances mixed in one container.

I could go on, but the basic point should appear by now. Trinity analogies inevitably line up with one heresy or another. This happens because nothing we can see, touch, or understand is actually anything like the Trinity.

Here is where I drag in quantum physics. See, in quantum physics there is something called the Heisenburg uncertainty principle. According to this principle, having equally precise knowledge of both a particle’s position and the particle’s momentum (think “speed” for simplicity if you don’t understand) is impossible. The more you know one of them, the less you know the other. The only ways to precisely measure a particle’s position throw off the momentum too much to measure both, and the only ways to precisely measure a particle’s momentum make nailing down the location impossible. So there’s a trade-off: the more you drill into a particle’s position, the less knowledge you have of the momentum, and vise-versa. If you want to know both at the same time, you have to be content with only a very imprecise and vague knowledge of both.

I think the Trinity ends up in a similar situation. Our God is has revealed Himself both in one-ness and three-ness. Yet there is a trade-off in how precisely we can understand these two realities. The more we try to nail down God’s one-ness, the more we lose sight of His three-ness. The more we try to nail down God’s three-ness, the more we lose sight of His one-ness. If we want to balance these two realities Biblically, we find ourselves with no choice. We cannot try too hard to analyze or analogize, or we will end up seeing a God who is basically all one-ness and no three-ness (modalist/Sabellian heresy), or a God who is basically all three-ness and no one-ness (tri-theist heresy). If you want to have a God who is truly both three and one, who is three-in-one, we have to check our normal reasoning and analogies at the door. All we can do is humbly bow at God’s self-revelation.

This, of course, is the necessary way of faith. If we believe in a God who is greater than we are, we have to accept that sometimes truths about Him are greater than any truths we understand, and He cannot always fit into the categories and ideas we are used to. So how else can I conclude but to use the praise of the Apostle Paul?

Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His being and untraceable His essence! For who has known the nature of the Lord? Or who has ever explained Him? Or who has ever understood Him, and deserved to be renowned? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.

Why Trinity Analogies All Stink (With Help from Quantum Physics!)