Suddenly you stop, and realize, “Wait a minute! What just happened?”
Since school deadlines are pressing down upon me for next week, I should finish preparing for classes instead of writing this post.
But I thought I’d take just a moment to try to use words to quickly alert you about something special that is happening tomorrow.
Since I am writing quickly, hopefully you will overlook typographical and gramatical errors.
Though I am no Elijah, there is this Elijah-voice in my head.
Just because I may not have realized the profoundness of my request to Kiran, the voice is insisting that this is more than just getting someone to preach in my stead.
Maybe it is because of the way Kiran responded, but in any case, it occurred to me later that this is a foretaste of a dream come true.
I actually began having this dream in the summer of 2007. I was in Kavali, a medium sized town in Andhra Pradesh just north of Nelore in southeast India.
In an odd twist of Providence, I was a foreigner in the meeting hall with 30 men I’d never met, some of which would eventually form the Presbyterian Church of South India. Kiran Kumar was my host and the event planner. My job there was to prepare these men for licensure and ordination exams. The pastors and church planters had been taking seminars for the past year with the support of Mission to the World.
Our church had given me some time for a missions sabbatical, and so, with my credentials in hand along with all the answers to Dr. Bryan Chapell’s licensure and ordination book, I set off on this adventure into the mysterious land of Maharastras and Kipling.
To these men, I was the expert sent from afar with the answers. Information was to go from me to them, and hopefully, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they would be equipped to pass their exams, and form this new denomination.
What was the problem? India is no ordinary place, and I’m not nearly as credentialed as I think. The only thing that was fairly resilient was my presumption which soon came tumbling down upon my head.
It wasn’t long before my faith was unravelling. How do you possibly teach others in a foreign country like India, across language and cultural barriers, when you are completely falling apart and can hardly believe the words coming out of your own mouth.
Sometimes I feel that way as a preacher at home, but it was especially acute in that alien land.
As many of you know, those weeks and months in India were pivotal in my life and ministry in so many ways too numerous to recount.
In any case, it wasn’t long before all I had left to give these men was to confess my inadequacies, fears, and weaknesses and cry out to God in prayer before the entire venture completely fell apart.
Instead of these men contacting Mission To The World (MTW) and asking for me to be replaced with someone who actually knew what they were doing, as I confessed my fears and failures, these men began to confess their fears and failures.
In that environment of palpable helplessness, the Holy Spirit showed up and turned what would have been preparation for licensure and ordination course into a beautiful extended worship service.
Literally, Jesus became real to us. Over the next days and weeks, we all began to see him covenantally fleshed in these beautiful doctrines. We experience together His real spiritual presence as we cried out in prayer agreeing with one voice — me in English and them in Telegu — to the same “Abba, Father!”
As the Spirit began to work, it wasn’t long into those days that I began to notice something else about these men. I needed them as much or more than they needed me.
I had gone to India as the one with the answers, the one with something to give. They were the ones needing someone to come and give them the answers. But soon the Spirit began to create channels into my own prideful heart for the gospel and he was using these men to do it.
Specifically what it was that I needed was clear to me as well. These men loved Jesus — not for His stuff, but for who He is and what He had already done to save them.
They loved Jesus, and they loved Scripture. For eight to ten hours a day, day-in and day-out, they marveled at God’s Word.
After rearranging a few doctrinal issues (my limited contribution), though these men didn’t recognize it, I knew that the students had far surpassed their supposed teacher.
This is not to feed into the common pragmatic criticism that seminary or theological study is counter-productive. Not at all! It was really more of a testimony about me, and my own life and heart.
These men showed me what “receiving faith” looks like. I could tell you what “receiving faith” is theologically, but to see “receiving faith working out in love” to God and others was beautiful.
What was delight for them regardless of their circumstances, was duty for me in the best of circumstances, becoming anger at God when things don’t go well. This taught me an important principle.
Sometimes you have to lose faith to find faith. Sometimes, you have to have your faith unravelled, find yourself flat on your back, so that you can become “like the ground receiving the rain” in order to really receive from the Faithful One as you discover and rediscover who it is you can really trust and why.
That is not to say that it is only crisis experience that leads to faith, but it is amazing how we can live a life of delusional self-trust without even realizing it.
It was during this time in the Summer of 2007 that the dream began to take shape. I began thinking to myself, “Not only do I/we need to be preaching the gospel to these men, we really need these men to come and mission us with the gospel.”
As the years and subsequent trips to India have gone by, I have had the privilege of learning so much from my brothers in India. Part of my regret of being in school these past three years has been my inability to go back to India.
And I still wanted our church to have this same experience of being under the preaching of our brothers in India.
As many of you know, the person who first hosted me in India, Kiran Kumar, has become a dear brother in the faith to me.
For the last two years, Kiran has been studying at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. When chance affords he and Preveena often come to our house for sometimes lengthy stays.
Consequently, Nashville has become their home-away-from home. Nashville Presbytery is like their home presbytery and Hickory Grove has become like their home church. And you have been very generous in supporting them in their ministry over the years.
Kiran will be arriving today to stay with us through the end of August, the beginning of Fall classes.
(On a side note, if you would like to spend some time with Kiran, you can give him a call. And if you’d like to support he and Preveena, that would be great too as I know they are struggling financially).
In any case, a few days ago, in order to buy myself a little more time to prepare for school, I asked Kiran Kumar if he would preach this Sunday at Hickory Grove in my place.
As a result of my cognitive processing deficits, the significance of what I was actually asking Kiran didn’t occur to me until later.
You can guess Kiran’s initial response. And, you can guess, based on how pushy I can be, my response to his unwillingness to preach on the basis of inadequacy. Turn-about is fair play!
So, instead of me preaching, Kiran is preaching this Sunday at Hickory Grove.
But that wasn’t the voice in my head causing me to spend valuable time writing. My immediate aim was to just create some space for school that begins next week instead of time spent on sermon preparation.
It took me a couple days to realize the connection. This is what Nation2Nation (N2N) is all about! This is a taste of what I’ve been dreaming about since I returned from India that first time in 2007.
Yes, it is already happening in Nashville. Timothy Tan is planting a church in Nashville among the Chinese community. Matthew Creamer will be preaching at Hickory Grove in two weeks, and our hope is that he will plant a church among the Arabic speaking community in Nashville. David Carerra is helping us make new inroads into the Latino community. Aslan is on the move among the nations in Nashville.
Yet for me, slow to believe as I am, that dream first started in 2007 in India, and now Kiran is here, at Hickory Grove.
And, as evidenced by his texts to me, he is experiencing some of that weakness and fear so familiar to me seven years ago in India. God has brought us full circle.
And now we at Hickory Grove have the opportunity to be like those men in Kavali. We can open wide our hearts to receive from Christ through our brother Kiran.
The Presbyterian Church of South India will be leading a church in the Presbyterian Church of America. And hopefully, this is just the beginning of that dream come true. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
So, to sinners everywhere, “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take from the free gift of the water of life.” (Rev. 22:17)
Praying can make people nervous. Do you believe that? I believe it. I think I’ve prayed plenty of nervous prayers.
What we’re trying to get you to see is that, as we keep on praying for all the saints, often we are trying to get God to change the other person for our benefit.
So, when we pray for the other person, we’ve got a little price tag on it. Change the other person so it would help me.
Change my husband because he is very irritating in the morning, or change my wife because she doesn’t have my dinner ready when I come home in the evening, or whatever it may be.
[T]his is, I think, is done unconsciously, and God is so generous that He often hears those prayers.
[B]ut really, the heart of praying ought to be something bigger and larger than an immediate return on my investment in praying.
We don’t want to come away saying, “I just don’t feel my prayers are answered very much.” Or, we may take the wrong kind of action, based on our prayers.
You prayed a nervous prayer about somebody changing, or you prayed a prayer which was self-centered . . . You really weren’t letting the word abide in you, but you felt the pressure of that other person’s behavior, and you just had to escape that pressure so you prayed hard for that person to change.
Then, you went to that person determined to fulfill your own prayer. Has anyone ever done that?
That’s where we are spiritually naive. We have not taken seriously the remnants of totally depravity which still exist in believers.
Believe me, insofar as the flesh is in us yet, it is still flesh. It is unreserved flesh, and cannot reformed, it can only be crucified.
Oftentimes, we don’t face up to the degree in which the flesh has entered into our thinking and even our praying.
That might discourage you from all praying, but don’t let it because we are only talking about what we need to face up to and just tell God about and admit that you have a problem and let Him guide you out of it.
What does this boil down to?
Well, we are creating the very kind of thing that we don’t want to create.
We go to that other person, we’re dogmatic, we’re self-centered, or just outright arrogant, and we work against the very thing we are praying for.
We are praying for that person to be filled with love, and we have prayed it out of this anxiety, and then, what happened was that when we went to the person,we weren’t ourselves what we were praying for the other person to be.
What I am trying to say is that the first prayer work, then, is praying that God would change something in me. There’s where the first prayer work begins.
If you miss this, then, when you hear that big promise back in John 14:12-14 about the greater works . . .
When I was in Uganda, I remember I was preaching at this conference.
Ugandans are enthusiastic people, and they love miracles. So, I said to them, “If I had the power to enable you to raise the dead from the local cemetery, would you like that? How many of you would choose that as the best thing I could give you?”
And all hands shot up, everybody wanted to raise the dead. There wasn’t anybody there who didn’t.
But I said, “I think that might be very damaging to you because God is in the business, not of giving you the gift of miracles of raising other people from the dead, but He wants to raise you from the dead.
And, the biggest thing that He can give you which shows that you have passed from death to life is when you love others before you love yourself.
And, if you could raise the physical dead to life, and that would happen, it would attract much attention to you. And, that could feed your self-adoration, your self-worship, which is really strong in all of us.”
What God wants is the thing that really convicts the world of sin, and that is — “Behold how they love one another.”
I tell you, that really goes a long way, when people, out of love, live lives of integrity in relationship to each other.
There is the great prayer work. When I can say I love my Father, and I love my brothers and my sisters, and I love the lost. When that happens, there is revival in the church, and it cannot be kept from changing and influencing the world.
If you miss this, if you don’t see this, everything else is going to get foggy. You’re going to have great trouble figuring out what your gifts are. You’re going to have much trouble figuring out what you are called to do or where you should be.
Excerpt from “Praying For Success” (Unpublished), Jack Miller, 3/12/86.
Heavenly Father, we really don’t know much about praying.
We’re good at talking. We’re good at gossiping. We’re not good at praising, and we’re not very good at witnessing.
We want to be honest, and we want to have You deal with us where we really are.
We also have many lusts and ambitions. And we are often fools for our own sakes. But we want to be different. We want to get rid of this. We want to become fools for Christ’s sake.
We ask You for mercy. We are not talking about someone else; we’re talking about ourselves.
We need to have Your compassion over us. We ask You to pity us with Your fatherly heart and eye and send Your Spirit to cleanse us and to give us a new joy, a new fellowship with You, a new eye to see that You are our Father, a new glorying in Christ, a new glorying in You, a new freedom in the Spirit, a new setting aside of anxieties, deep awareness that there is nothing You are not sovereign over.
We pray Father, that You would bring us the comfort of knowing we are wonderfully loved by our God, that we might in wonder and trembling joy take the pardon of our God, the pardon for crimes of deepest dye, a pardon bought with Jesus’ blood.
Lord, give us the gift of the Spirit to pray. Revive us, change us, make us different: that we might forgive our enemies, and bless them, that we might love our friends, that we might be tender to those nearest us, that we might be the vehicles of Your ministry in our age.
Open our eyes to see evangelistic opportunities. May we have a heart to see, a mind to see; may we love people.
May we realize that John 3:16 is applicilble wherever we are, that men are under Your wrath and Your curse, but You also offer them a beautiful redemption in Jesus Christ. Redemption brings life and not death. Cause us, then, to proclaim the realities of this new life. Awaken us to the peril of men; help us to see that they are lost, that they are dying without Christ. When they go to hell, that door shuts; it will never be reopened.
Lord, give us the knowledge of Your truth. Cause us to live, and then, Lord, as we go forward, daily teach us to pray. Daily teach us to love and to reach out.
Now, God, whatever has been helpful from this, take it and cause it to remain, that it might be turned into burning faith and intelligent thinking, that it might be fruitful for many lives. Amen.
Excerpt from “Evangelism and Prayer”, The Pastor Evangelist, 33-51, n.d.
Current discussions/disagreements about the meaning of sanctification by faith (e.g., most recently surrounding Tullian Tchividjian) often seem to be framed in terms of human effort or lack thereof with inadequate reference to union with Christ.
When union with Christ is referenced, there is little correspondence to the Spirit of Christ, though Scripture often uses “in Christ” and “in the Spirit” interchangeably.
Constantine Campbell, in his exegetical and theological study on union with Christ differentiated the Trinitarian-godward direction of union with Christ from the man-ward reception of the benefits of union with Christ. In this context, a quote by Wikenhauser caused me to think more about this.
“Close examination of the cases where Paul uses these two phrases (e.g., “in Christ” and “in the Spirit”) with the same ideas reveals an interesting fact: Paul always uses the phrase ‘in Christ’ when he is speaking of salvation as such, while he reserves the phrase ‘in the Spirit’ for the conduct of the faithful as contrasted with the life of the natural man, and especially for the new sphere of life as contrasted with the life of ‘the flesh’ (sarx), or when he is dealing with the effects of the Spirit on the interior life of the believer.“
Wikenhauser’s observation made me wonder what would happen in this particular theological debate if we intentionality framed this discussion on sanctification with primary reference to “in the Spirit”, which includes the “conduct of the faithful”, the “new sphere of life”, and “the effects of the Spirit on the interior life of the believer.”
Currently the debate tends to focus primarily on the man-ward aspects of sanctification, often abstracted from union with Christ, resulting in polarizing arguments that are overly anthropocentric and highly legal.
Making the man-ward aspects of the grace of sanctification in Christ (e.g., the third use of the law, repentance and faith, obedience, human effort, etc.) more than, or even as monolithic as the god-ward aspects of “in the Spirit” (Gal 3:1-6) can create even more confusion about both the grace of sanctification as well as the inter-relationship of those man-ward aspects to each other.
Consequently, the whole discussion of sanctification by faith becomes skewed toward being too man-ward and insufficiently God-ward with respect to “in the Spirit.”
My guess is the Holy Spirit probably knows about Calvin’s third use of the law, how to use the law lawfully, the place of redeemed effort, and the relationship of union with Christ to justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification better than any of us.
This is not to suggest being anti-theological. In actuality, it would seem proper theology to overtly and explicitly frame this theological discussion primarily “in the Spirit of Christ”, and secondarily in terms of the man-ward aspects of union with Christ. Failure to do so would call for theological correction.
“In the Spirit” requires overt and explicit expression since Reformed-minded people are naturally accustomed to talking more about law/grace and legalism/antinomianism dualisms while presuming upon (and thereby neglecting) “in the Spirit.”
We then justify our neglect of the Spirit by feeling good about doctrinal precision when the Spirit is more than capable of guarding God’s truth.
What better example to follow than the Apostle Paul who seems to caution us with his own employment of the language of “in the Spirit” when he speaks of union with Christ in the context of the Christian life and sanctification by faith.
I do realize abuses can abound the other direction (e.g., talk about the Spirit with little theological depth), but this is not likely our problem in this particular debate. Further, the man-ward aspects of union with Christ can serve to delimit and correct the more egregious errors.
Left to ourselves, without primarily and intentionally emphasizing “in the Spirit” in sanctification, some of us are likely to elevate secondary theological arguments to primary ones.
I can almost imagine some who would even argue with God about law and grace, Calvin’s third use of the law, antinomianism, and the role of human effort.
If God were to asks us about the role of the Spirit in union with Christ, we would likely to say something like “Of course, the Holy Spirit is a given in sanctification.” And that is the problem. The Holy Spirit can never be taken as a given!
“In the life of the believer, the Spirit becomes the means through whom union with Christ is lived out.”
The ordinary “man-ward” means of grace — the Word (which includes the third use of the law), the sacraments, and prayer — are gracious gifts of God instrumentally used by the Spirit uniting the church to Christ.
For quotations, see Paul And Union With Christ: An Exegetical And Theological Study, Constantine Campbell, 362
For many laypeople today, as well as for a surprising number of pastors and scholars, the TULIP acronym — or its implicit notion that predestination is the center of Reformed theology — provides their basic framework for Reformed doctrine.
It is in this context, then, that they understand the bondage of the will.
While I have critiqued elsewhere the use of the TULIP acronym by the “new Calvinists,” I suspect that the theology circulating around this widespread acronym is at least part of the reason that the Reformed emphasis on [union with Christ] has been lost by many.
For those who have not been initiated into TULIP circles, here is a basic explanation:
- T stands for Total Depravity: Sinners are totally unable to please God.
- U stands for Unconditional Election: From eternity, God elects some for salvation, an election that does not depend upon a person’s behavior or upon foreknowledge of the person’s faith and obedience.
- L stands for Limited Atonement: Christ’s atoning work on the cross is intended only for the elect.
- I stands for Irresistible Grace: Humans who come to faith do not synergistically act in cooperation with the Holy Spirit; rather, the Spirit overcomes human resistance.
- P stands for Perseverance of the Saints: The elect remain steadfast in their faith and do not fall away.
As Ken Steward has noted, although the acronym is often used as a key to the theology of Calvin, Calvinism or the Reformed tradition, it does not date before the 20th century.
Moreover … with regard to the term “total depravity,” the TULIP acronym is easily and frequently misunderstood. I use the term “total depravity” in this chapter only after qualifying exactly what I mean by it.
TULIP as it is commonly understood sounds negative — the T, L, and I in particular strike many as misanthropic (e.g., against mankind) and coercive.
For some it confirms their suspicion that Reformed theology is negative and misanthropic, since they assume TULIP defines Reformed theology.
However, the notion that Reformed theology should be defined by TULIP is a misunderstanding on several levels.
First, TULIP is an attempted summary of the 17th century Canons of Dordt — and a poor summary at that. (For example, the Canons never speak of atonement as “limited.”)
The Canons of Dordt emerged from a controversy with the Arminians in the Netherlands and were written as a response to a statement from the Remonstrants.
Thus, in many ways the Canons were saying “no” to certain claims (while saying “yes” to Reformed claims).
Second, In its historical context, the Synod of Dordt was not seeking to be a summary of Reformed doctrine.
It never attempted to write a general statement of faith — a statement with a fully stated doctrine of sin, atonement and salvation. Why? Because in its Dutch context, it already had a general statement of faith: the Belgic Confession.
The Canons of Dordt were written to provide a clarification of Reformed doctrine on a cluster of issues related to election, sin and the assurance of salvation.
As such, they functioned as a kind of explanatory footnote to the Belgic Confession, which gave a broad summary of Reformed doctrine. Thus, the Canons were intended to be received as a supplement to the Belgic Confession.
Taken together, the Canons of Dordt and the Belgic Confession do indeed have a rich theology of communion with God through union with Christ.
The Belgic Confession includes a theology of human communion with God before the fall (Article 14), the alienation that takes place through sin (14-15), and the way in which salvation is restoration through justification and sanctification in union with Christ (22-24). Moreover, it develops this theology of communion with God in its account of ecclesiology (esp. 28-29) and a powerful sacramental theology rooted in communion with Christ (33-35).
Thus, since the Canons function as a supplement to the Belgic Confession, the Canons can both assume and further develop the Belgic’s theology of total communion and bondage of the will.
Indeed, while the Canons are most famous for their emphasis on sin, they also teach that salvation is a restoration of communion — a life-giving communion that restores creatures rather than annihilating them. …
Whatever one thinks about the Canons of Dordt, a doctrine of salvation as communion that accompanies a Reformed doctrine of sin can certainly be seen in the documents — when they are received as they were intended, as a supplement to the Belgic Confession.
But as long as modern interpreters wear TULIP-colored glasses, assuming that TULIP summarizes the whole of Reformed theology, the result is an imbalanced picture, a theology of total depravity with much less clarity about the gracious communion received in the double grace of union with Christ.
Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology And Ministry For The Church, Loc 1145-1202, Kindle Edition
For those who have struggled with the unending theological confusion about free-will and the bondage/depravity of the will, which includes many of us despite our veneer of confidence, I personally found Billing’s discussion of total depravity contextualized by union with Christ interesting and helpful.
It’s long, but writing it out helps me process, and I thought many of you, without the time I have to read, would find it as interesting as well.
So think of it as a way to participate/be in union with me as I study. The rest of my friends, please indulge me.
“Contrary to frequent caricatures of Reformed theology in which God is seen as diametrically opposed to humanity, Calvin and the mainstream Reformed tradition follow this Augustinian line of thought in claiming that:
“True humanity is humanity in communion with God.”
Therefore, divine agency does not mean diminishing the human. Saying that redemption is 100% empowered by God does not mean humanity is belittled to nothingness (e.g., or a puppet, or fatalistic future, my addition).
No. Instead, full deity and full humanity belong together in communion.
Thus an action performed “by the Spirit” is an activation of our human faculties, not a diminishment of them.
Calvin, in his neglected work “The Bondage Of The Will And Liberation Of The Will” replies to a Roman Catholic critic, Albert Pighius, who claims that Calvin’s doctrine of the will contradicts the church fathers and demeans the created goodness of human beings.
Calvin’s defense is to cite certain church fathers, especially Augustine, and to provide further clarifications of his position.
In addition, Calvin makes an ad hoc use of Aristotle (for his own distinct theological purpose), employing the distinction between “substance” and “accident.”
A “substance” is the essence constituting something (e.g., that we all share human “nature”).
An “accident” is a characteristic in which members with the same substance can differ without losing the substance (e.g, that one person has brown eyes and another has green eyes — both people retain a human nature or “substance” despite their “accidental” difference of eye color).
Using these terms, Calvin claims that the “substance” of human nature is good.
As he states in [Calvin's] Institutes, the original, created human nature is not only good; it is “united to God.”
Indeed, Adam is righteous through a “participation in God.”
However, in the fall, the “accidental” characteristic of sinning is added, alienating humans from God, from neighbor, and ultimately from themselves.
In this fallen state, human beings seek their identity “in themselves” or “in the flesh.”
They seek to be human apart from God.
But of course, that is simply repeating the sin of Adam — following one’s own wisdom rather than lovingly trusting in God.
While fallen humans share the accidental characteristic of sinning (e.g., accidental in Aristotelian terms, not “oops I accidentally sinned” — my addition) this characteristic does not completely vanquish the “Imago Dei” (e.g., image of God in man) which Calvin says is a “participation in God.”
Again: this characterization of “imago Dei” makes sense with Calvin’s view of humanity.
To be fully human is to be united with God, and although sin seeks autonomy from God, there is still a trace of this union with or participation in God in all humanity (e.g., “our hearts are restless and will not find rest until we rest in thee”, Augustine, my addition).
In redemption, then, is where Calvin’s Aristotelian distinctions do especially important work.
When Paul speaks about being “crucified with Christ” and putting to death the flesh, or the old self, is this misanthropic (e.g., against humanity)?
Does this make salvation a “rupture of identity” — leaving behind all that we were and taking only what is new?
No, Calvin says.
The Christian life, involving the mortification of the flesh, is a “restoration” of who we were created to be.
How? Recall the language of union and communion with Christ in John and Paul.
This communion and union is a “restoration” of the created goodness.
In Aristotelian terms, the accidental characteristic of sinning is gradually diminishing and overcome in redemption, restoring the good, created “substance” of human nature, which is in communion with God.
When we deny ourselves as the first step in the Christian life, according to Calvin, this is NOT denying our CREATED selves; it is denying our OLD SELVES, our false selves that seek to be autonomous. …
In the incarnation [of Christ] we see perfect harmony between divinity and humanity, but as Augustine noted, Christ’s humanity has no autonomous power on its own.
It exists because the Divine Word of God has assumed humanity in Christ.
Thus as believers grow in Christ, they grow in communion with God mediated by [union with Christ.]
Because of this, the idea of “true humanity” that is not divinely initiated communion with God is a contradiction in terms.
Does the denial of an autonomous [free-will] in Christ mean that Christians become completely limp and passive because of God’s work?
Stated differently, if divine and human agency is not partitive, such that God does part and the human does part, will humans refuse to live an active Christian life?
While it is true that both justification and sanctification are “received in union with Christ” (not achieved by the sinner autonomously), this reception is an activating one.
In other words, sinners are moved from death to life, from passivity to activity, as they are enabled by the Spirit to participate in Christ.
The new life of the Spirit in sanctification is received as a gift. But it activates our capacities.
As we see in Jesus Christ, true humanity (in harmony with God) is active humanity — actively obedient to the Father, active in loving God and neighbor.
As Calvin says in “Bondage And Liberation Of The Will”, God does not “cause” faith or action in us without our assent.
Yet “assent is properly called ours, but not in such a way that it should be understood to derive from us” apart from union with Christ. …
Thus, communion with the Spirit is what makes our faith and action our own.
Stated differently, God DOES use our will, our mind, our ministry, and our efforts to preach the gospel and to live faithful Christian lives.
But wherever there is fruit, the credit should not be divided between God and us.
When we pray and the prayer is answered, we should not congratulate ourselves for praying with wisdom and diligence.
No. In all things, we give praise to God, because even sanctification is a GIFT, first and foremost, that we receive from God in union with Christ.
J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology And Ministry For The Church, Loc 878-943, Kindle Edition
Imagine a day laborer living in a great kingdom.
The day laborer “never dreamed . . . that the emperor knew he existed, who then would consider him indescribably favored just to be permitted to see the emperor once, was something he would relate to his children and grandchildren as the most important event of his life.”
But suppose the emperor did something unexpected: “If the emperor sent for him and told him that he wanted him for his son-in-law: what then?
Quite humanly, the day laborer wold be more or less puzzled, self-conscious, and embarrassed by it; he would (and this is the humanness of it) humanly find it very strange and bizarre . . . that the emperor wanted to make a fool of him, make him the laughingstock of the whole city.”
In this parable, the day laborer working in the countryside recognizes the high and exalted place of the emperor. An occasional encounter with the emperor would be delightful — enough so that the laborer could keep his own comfortable life, keep his friends, keep his identity, yet have it embellished by the honor of the emperor.
“A little favor — that would make sense to the laborer.”
But what if the emperor wants to make him his own son?
The prospect of adoption in this sense is an offense. It is too much closeness – it is the sort of closeness that requires giving up one’s own identity.
Yes, it is a high and exalted place to be the child of the emperor, the king of the land. But it is too high and exalted — wouldn’t he be a laughingstock? Wouldn’t he lose all that is precious to him if he were to ascend to be the king’s son?
In the words of Kierkegaard, the day laborer says, “Such a thing is too high for me, I cannot grasp it; to be perfectly blunt, to me it is a piece of folly.”
It would be wonderful if the king would send him some money or a letter to cherish as a relic. But the king is asking for much more. The king is asking to be more than an accessory to his identify.
The king wants his full identity, his entire life–wants him to be exalted, the child of the king.
And so it is with God, the King.
Yet adoption by the King is such a radical notion, we resist it. We would rather have an occasional brush of God’s presence, or a relic of his solidarity with us, so that God can be an appendage to our identify.
But God wants more than that; he wants our lives, our adopted identity.
By bringing us into the new reality of the Spirit, we can call out to God — Abba, Father — as adopted children united to Christ.
Yet there are few things more countercultural that this process of adoption–losing your life for the sake of Jesus Christ, to find communion with the Triune God.
(J. Todd Billings, interacting with a parable by Sorèn Kierkegaard and applying it to adoption, in Union With Christ: Reframing Theology And Ministry For The Church, Loc 407ff Kindle Edition)
All of us can, in one way or another, identify with the prodigal son. We go off on our own, we mess up, we return, and our father welcomes us back.
But what if you are the father? What do you do if the son wanders off a second, third, or fourth time? What if it becomes a habit? Do you still welcome him home each time he returns? At what point might your warm welcome encourage him to go out again? Shouldn’t you at least drop the welcoming ceremony or tone it down a bit?
The message of [the Gospel] is NO, never.
There is no limit to God’s love and no limit to God’s welcome home to us. We can’t outsin his forgiveness.
In a letter to a guilt-ridden co-worker in the Reformation who was beside himself with grief over a great mistake he had made, Martin Luther writes:
“You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though he could be our helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins … “
“He must rather be a Savior and a redeemer from real, great, grievous, and damnable transgressions and iniquities–yea from the greatest and most shaking sins … “
Luther concludes ” … my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us who are the real, great, and hard-boiled sinners ….”
“You will have to get used to the belief that Christ is a real Savior and you a real sinner.”
These two refreshing stories help us whenever we may be tempted to parade our level of spiritual pride around or to make it appear by our actions that we are no longer in need of forgiveness.
Pride in our level of spirituality can have a very negative affect on our Christian witness.
The less-than-authentic self we present to others may pass on the message that we’ve arrived.
Far from imparting hope and forgiveness our appearance may discourage those who feel there’s no way they can live up to the image we’re presenting.
When we’re authentic, however, the message gets through.
A story by noted Bible teacher Steve Brown illustrates this point well. He talks of a time when he was speaking at a church in Pennsylvania.
After his talk, someone from the audience walked up to him and said, “You know, a lot of preachers get up and say ‘I’m a sinner just like you’ I want to let you know that you’re the first one I ever believed. ‘”
There are two messages in this chapter.
First: we can’t “outsin” God’s forgiveness.
Second: It’s far better to present ourselves authentically than to show an image to the world that appears “above it all.”
When our presentation is authentic, our message will be authentic.
In those days I would get apart and I would have these intense prayer times and Bible reading and come out filled with fire and so on and God would bless and Rosemarie would be standing there wondering what in the world is going on.
But anyway, I had one of those times. Somebody had come by with a real financial need. I gave him all the money I had.
I gave him in that giving part of Rosemarie’s food money.
Now that is getting personal and Rosemarie said Jack, “do you know you gave away half the week’s food money?”
I guess I kind of overlooked that a bit and she said, “do you know that next week we are having five people coming over and eating with us every day plus we have all those others eating with us?”
I said, “well, would you be willing to conduct an experiment?”
We needed extra money anyway to feed the five plus all of us that we didn’t have in the first place.
So I prayed and asked God, “we are weak, we are poor and we don’t have enough money, enough food, so would you really open up the windows of heaven.”
I said, “just give God a couple of days.”
Now our backporch is pretty large and on Thursday somebody brought over a lot of fresh vegetables, a big supply.
There was enough there to solve the problem.
But on Saturday, somebody brought over not only a supply of fresh vegetables, three or four times as many as we already had, but they brought all these canned goods.
There was so much in the way of food on the porch that we had a crisis to know what to do with it.
I was rushing around giving it away, the. freshest stuff to neighbors.
We had so much in the way of canned goods that we still had some of it two years later.
The weight is on God.
The success is God’s kingdom. It is God’s work so I keep giving back to him the work that I have to do.
I must do it in the sense I don’t have the power to do it, I don’t have the strength, I don’t have the resources, but I have a God who has unlimited resources and I will believe him.
Jack Miller, A Son Meets With His Father
In talking to the public prosecutor’s wife in the hotel, she said, “I go to All Saints Church. What church do you go to?”
I said, “Well, I go to “All Sinners”.
And she said, “You must have a large parish!” I said, “Well, that’s true.”
When you’re out there, they’re my people, and they’re getting converted, and God is working with them, and they’re developing the gifts of the Spirit.
So, when you approach them, and say, “Now look, in one sense you’re under the wrath of God, and in another sense, His love is over you, beckoning you to the cross.
And, that love is speaking to you. God loved the world, and His message to you is ‘come and embrace the Son of God.”
And then I would say, “But if you don’t enter into that love, those same hands which reach out to you, they’ll turn you in to hell.
And, if you can hold your finger in a candle for 15 seconds, you’d be a brave man. Try it. Do it for a minute, do it for 5.
And, some of you here, do not know that body and soul will be plunged into a burning lake of fire, forever, and I weep for you, I weep for you.
Come to Jesus now, flee from the wrath to come, and embrace the love that’s over you.
Christ has taken that lake of fire, it’s been poured on Him on Calvary. will you not come.”
And, they come. They come.
Somebody said “You scare them to death.”
Yeah! That’s one of my aims. I’m out there to scare them to death before they scare me to death. Scare them to life, scare the death out of them. We scare the hell out the them.
Really, that’s true! There was hell in them, and it needed to be scared, a holy scaring was in order.
And, I think some of our people need a holy scaring, too.
And yet, within that framework of love so immeasurable that we cannot describe it, that our tongues must just sometimes cease as we think of the wonder of that divine love which was reaching out to us in the very counsels of eternity.
Jack Miller, 1980 Ministers Conference with Henry Crobindom, Part 3