Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: Condescension of Infinite Majesty!

O Nativity of spotless sanctity! O birth honorable for the world, birth pleasing and welcome to men, because of the magnificence of the benefit it bestows; birth incomprehensible to the angels, by reason of the depth and sacredness of the mystery! In all its circumstances it is wonderful because of its singular excellence and novelty. Its precedent has not been known, nor has its like ever followed. Birth alone without sorrow, alone without shame, free from corruption, not unlocking, but consecrating the temple of the Virgins womb! Nativity above nature, yet for the sake of nature! Surpassing it by the excellence of the miracle, repairing it by the virtue of the mystery! Who shall declare this generation? The angel announces it. Almighty Power overshadows it. The Spirit of the Most High comes upon it. The Virgin believes. By faith she conceives. The Virgin brings forth. The Virgin remains a virgin. Who is not filled with astonishment? The Son of the Most High is born. The Son, begotten of God before all ages, is Incarnate! The Word is become an Infant! Who can sufficiently admire?  
And it is not a needless Nativity, a superfluous condescension of Infinite Majesty.  
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judah.  
Awake, you who lie in the dust awake and give praise. Behold, the Lord cometh with salvation. He comes with salvation, He comes with unction, He comes with glory. Jesus cannot come without salvation, Christ cannot come without unction, nor the Son of God without glory. For He Himself is salvation, He is unction, He is glory. 
-St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), On the Vigil of our Lord’s Nativity

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Five Years

My blog reaches a milestone today. I posted my first blog post five years ago, a quote from Thomas à Kempis from The Imitation of Christ. While there have been a great many changes in my life over the past five years, including many changes in my theological opinions, I still assent whole-heartedly to the words written by this German monk who was born in 1380.  If I were to start a new blog today and desired a good quote to begin things I would make the same choice I did five years ago and quote Thomas à Kempis' exhortation to love Jesus "above all else."

Blessed is he who understands what it is to love Jesus and despise himself for Jesus' sake. Jesus wants to be your only love and to be loved above all else; therefore, you must abandon all other beloveds for your one Beloved. The love of a creature is fickle and deceitful, while the love of Jesus is faithful and enduring. He who clings to a creature will fall when that creature fades away, but he who embraces Jesus shall stand firm forever.
Love Jesus and keep Him as your friend. When all others forsake you He will not leave you nor will He allow you to perish on the last day. Whether you like it or not the day will come when you find yourself separated from everyone and from everything.
Hold fast to Jesus both in life and in death and commit yourself to His steadfast love, for He alone can help you when all others fail. Your Beloved is such that he admits no rival; He wants your heart all to Himself and desires to reign there as a king on his own throne.
If you could free yourself from all creatures Jesus would gladly dwell within you. If you have placed your trust in men rather than in Jesus you will find that it was almost all wasted. Do not trust nor lean on a reed that is shaken in the wind. All flesh is grass, and all its glory shall fade like the flower in the field. 
If you look upon men's outward appearance you will soon be deceived, and if you seek consolation and profit from them most often you will end up being the loser. If you seek Jesus in everything you will certainly find Him, and if you seek yourself you will surely find yourself, but to your own disaster. You do yourself greater harm by not seeking Jesus than if the whole world and all your enemies were against you. 
-Thomas à Kempis

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Treasure at Powell's

Growing up near to Portland, Oregon, there has always been one place downtown where I could spend inordinate amounts of time, Powell's Bookstore. On Wednesday I headed down with my girlfriend to enjoy my last night at home before a two-month stretch of very busy rotations which start tomorrow. When I go to Powell's I often find something that I consider to be somewhat of a treasure, usually for a surprisingly low price.

I was not disappointed Wednesday as I picked up a book that had been on my list of things to acquire for a long time. One of my favorite subjects is church history and being of mostly Welsh, Scottish and English descent, the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, written around AD 731, is a book I've long wanted to read. I imagine that in reading it, I will be reading a history of how my own distant ancestors were first introduced to the saving power of the gospel of Jesus Christ so many centuries ago by missionaries coming from Europe and how my church, the Church of England, was born.

The copy I found was printed in 1903 in London and is very good shape. The price I paid was far lower than I would have imagined. If I ever finish residency maybe I'll be able to read it but for now it will be a very important addition to the church history shelf in my bookcase.

A lithograph of The Monastery of Jarrow on the Tyne "where Bede lived and died"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Paradox Must Stand

Questions about soteriology, the particulars of the salvation of sinners, are ones which have occasionally frustrated me for many years. I once was a vocal Arminian, ready to try to tear to shreds in a debate any Calvinist who crossed my path. I spent two years at a seminary with some of the best Arminian minds in the world. I sat under the teaching of Jerry Walls who has debated with Calvinists at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and done a decent job of it, although I seriously doubt he convinced any Calvinists to change their position.

From the beginning though, even when I would defend Arminianism with all the force I could muster, I had my doubts about the position. One thing that bothered me the most at Asbury was that I noticed Arminians would use much more philosophy and reason in defending their position while the Calvinists would tend to focus much more on the plain teaching of Scripture. My doubts about Arminianism continued to grow as the "emerging church" movement took off and I saw so many Arminians enamored with men who would later be shown to be false teachers, either by denying basic Christian doctrines or by calling "blessed" what the Bible calls sin.

When I started medical school at Loma Linda I was surrounded by Seventh-day Adventists, almost 100% of whom have an Arminian view of salvation. But those who would become my close friends were nearly all non-SDA Calvinists who tended to be very confident in their theological positions. I came to Loma Linda disheartened with much of what I saw going on in Arminianism and was forced to truly consider the Calvinist position in the conversations and debates which occurred on a regular basis during my years there.

One thing that I realized early on was that I was a monergist and had always been one. I knew that Scripture taught monergism and when I looked subjectively at my own salvation I knew that there could be nothing but the monergistic grace of God at work in saving me. It's strange that I had not realized this before but I now understood the vague sense of unease I had always had with the Arminianism I once thought I embraced. And while many, perhaps the majority, of Arminians will say that they are monergists, when the mechanics of their system is taken into account I can't help but think it looks pretty synergistic to me.

But while monergism was something I could not deny and while I came to the conclusion that a denial of monergism is a very dangerous theological position to hold, I could not go the rest of the way with my Calvinistic brothers. While they generally seemed to be much more humble in their relation to the Word of God compared to many Arminians I had known, it still seemed that the system of Calvinism didn't fit well in places with what is revealed in Scripture, especially in terms of the scope of Christ's atoning work and God's will for the salvation of all sinners. If you've read this far you probably don't need to be reminded of the many verses which would indicate that Christ did indeed die for the sins of the whole world and that God does indeed desire that all should reach repentance and not perish (2 Peter 3:9). I know that Calvinists have their verses too which would seem to refute the Arminian system of thought.

I write all of that lengthy preamble to give some sense of why I felt so blessed by two sermons I recently heard preached on consecutive Sundays. On the first of those two Sundays the text was Isaiah 64:1-9. Rarely have I heard the holiness of God preached in a clearer or more forceful way. It is here in Isaiah that we see that the best "righteousness" we could ever attempt to offer to God is "as filthy rags." It is the frequent denial or underestimation of the infinite magnitude of God's holiness which allows some to think that they have something to contribute for their salvation, that they have some righteousness of their own in which they can stand before God. But this idea that we contribute something to our own salvation is also refuted here by the prophet when he says in v. 7, "there is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you..." Perhaps one could argue that this very clear proclamation of monergism applied only to some specific group of people and not to humanity as a whole. But when this verse is read in the context of the teachings of Paul and of Christ, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44)," then I think one can do nothing but accept that truly no one rouses himself to "take hold of God." No boasting is allowed because the glory of salvation, from beginning to end, goes to God and His amazing grace to helpless sinners who could do nothing to save themselves (Romans 3:27).

A week after the holiness of God, the hopeless state of sinners and the saving grace of God in Christ, by His shed blood, toward those hopeless sinners, was so emphatically proclaimed, the text which was preached was 2 Peter chapter 3. Here the mercy of God was proclaimed in His "slowness" and patience in allowing sinners time for repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 reads, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." Here the preacher acknowledged the monergism which he had preached the week prior but I was so thankful that he did not then begin advocating some system of theology to make sense of the paradoxical nature of these claims of Scripture, that salvation is of God alone without admixture of some work of man and that God desires that none should perish. Yet Scripture is also clear that not all will be saved. It cannot be denied that hell is a real place which will be inhabited by many for all of eternity. Instead of assuming some "secret will of God," where He in reality only desires the salvation of some, or by giving man glory in salvation by making a "decision" into the decisive saving act, the Pastor simply stated, "the paradox must stand." I was so thankful for the freedom given in this statement, the freedom to simply believe the plain teaching of Scripture without assenting to some system of thought which may make perfect logical sense but which seems to deny some important aspect of who God is or who we are as helpless sinners.

Stating that "the paradox must stand," is taking a position of humility. It feels good to think we have things figured out. It's very satisfying to have five or seven points which fit together with perfect logic in explaining the relationship of God to man. It's also satisfying to many to deny the gravity of the fall and the depravity of man and imagine that we are capable of cooperation with God in our salvation instead of simply acknowledging that we are dead in our sins, can offer nothing toward the gaining of salvation and that all of our righteousness is in Christ, in His shed blood. Being humble before the Word of God and allowing paradoxes to stand has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a Christian. I'm thankful to sit under the preaching of one who strives not to go beyond what is revealed in the Bible and I hope that God will allow me to do likewise when I meditate on Him and His ways.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Danger of Prosperity

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”
-John Wesley