Last night I was in a dinner conversation with some good friends. We came to a topic I’ve been chasing for years. After a thoughtful early exchange I soon took over with a history and Bible-waving rant. And only after my friends lassoed me and wrestled me to the ground did I realize I had been selfish … and what I shared hadn’t been the least bit helpful.
Let me underline the point. I wanted to be helpful but I was actually selfish. I thought I was offering my knowledge as a resource but I was actually thumping my own passions in order to satisfy my own sense of rightness. And everyone else at the table was left in the dust as I raced ahead without noticing they weren’t coming along. They weren’t being helped. And at least a couple were being hurt.
Later in the evening, now alone in my room, I looked back. With deep sadness. I had gotten out of hand—but why? Why had I ignored my friends’ hearts as I pressed ahead to make my flamboyant points?
I have an answer. I was pressing ahead with what I viewed as truth; but love wasn’t the motor of my sharing. The connection of always speaking “truth in love” had been broken.
That’s not to say my convictions have changed. I’m still confident that what I meant to share had real value. But the matter of valid insights isn’t more important than the issue of heart-devotion that carries words. At some point I switched from caring for my friends to caring for my point. And the two—the truth-value and the value of relationships—must never be separated. Not if we love each other. But the two had drifted apart in my words. And I was wrong.
The ministry I work with, Barnabas International, has a theme text for the year—1 Peter 4:7-11—and it bears on my reflections. Notice these segments especially: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. … As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks the very words of God….”
So, how do any of us speak “the very words of God” today?
First, if what we share comes as part of God’s love for us—his grace—then we have the potential to offer that grace to others as we speak. We become stewards of his grace.
In other words love sets up a two-step process: we experience his gracious love moving our souls; and we then offer gracious words to others. At the start we love God because he first loved us. Then we love others as God calls us to love them by sharing what he’s doing in us.
Now, let me go back to the dinner gathering. I had reduced my thoughts to a single-step process. I took a big dose of knowledge and used it as a battering ram. Truth—including any elements of factual accuracy I might have to offer—hadn’t been communicated. Why not? Because I wasn’t embracing the Way, the Truth, and the Life in what I was saying. So what I offered instead was the stuff of sin—of my dismissing God’s communing presence as I spoke.
So now it’s time to consider a reversal of the order offered in our Bible verses. I violated the pathway of God’s grace. And now I need my friends to “keep loving me earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” And I’m sure they will because these friends know God’s words. And that his words express a love that brings healing.
On my part I need to return to God’s two-step process in my conversations. Only then will I again offer to others his words that carry love.
The Bible invites readers to thank God always. Even in hard circumstances. But when we’re in those times it’s easier said than done! Challenging times invite a good grumble—not a praise session. Yet this reversal of common sense sets up a pathway to faith-growth.
I know I’ve chased this topic before but we can never say too much about it. This time let’s probe thanksgiving in a more dramatic setting than before. More than we’re ever likely to face ourselves.
Picture an army in ancient times faced with an invasion by a massive enemy army. The home team is small: up against insurmountable odds. So their king, in desperation, called for divine help.
The prayer is recorded in the Bible: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”
We may recognize the story—in 2 Chronicles 20. The soldiers were Judah’s national army; Jehoshaphat was the king; and they were facing a coalition of hostile forces coming from across the Jordan—both Ammonites and Moabites.
God’s answer to the king was also as simple and direct as the king’s prayer. He spoke through a prophet, Jahaziel: “Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s.”
God gave added instructions. The next day Jehoshaphat was told to muster his army to be sightseers: to watch. They had God’s firm assurance they wouldn’t need to fight. So they gathered on the front lines as requested and waited to see how God would keep his promise.
Jehoshaphat also did something unusual as they gathered. Rather than set his strongest soldiers to the fore—his equivalent to Army Rangers or Navy Seals—he ordered the Temple choir from Jerusalem to go to the front and start a worship service!
It wasn’t a traditional approach, to say the least. We even have the main stanza of their singing: “Give thanks to the LORD, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
There were other pieces to the story. When warning of the invitation came the king made the response a nationwide event. He proclaimed a fast and invited all the Judeans to come to Jerusalem to “seek the LORD.” But what did that mean in practice?
It meant, at least, that Jehoshaphat prayed. He prayed publically and on behalf of his people.
The particular prayer in the text is the one we cited at the start. But then we only noticed the final sentence. The earlier elements of the prayer offer a lesson: the king used strong theological and historical truths to set up the finale to his prayer.
Jehoshaphat started with theology: he remembered God’s standing over all the nations. God rules both the invaders and the defenders.
History came next. The king reminded God that Jerusalem was home to the temple: God’s meeting place on earth. And when the temple was first built God promised his people they could always come there to pray; and especially if they were threatened or oppressed.
Jehoshaphat also reminded God that, during Joshua’s invasion of the land, centuries earlier the two current invading nations had been spared by God’s mercy. So it didn’t seem right at this later stage in history for them to destroy the Judeans who had once spared them.
A couple of lessons here: God seems pleased when we cite his words and values back to him! And prayers focused on his greatness and reliability—as the ultimate promise-keeper—are welcome.
But what about the battlefront choir and the worship service? How did that fit in?
Let’s give Jehoshaphat credit for an applied faith. Based on his confidence in the theology of his prayer; and his confidence in God’s promise through Jahaziel of victory, the king did what the situation called for. He offered a big, “Thank you, Lord!”
In other words, his faith wasn’t in the circumstances—so that he only gave thanks afterwards—but in God and his word. So the thanksgiving reflected the confidence of the king and his people that God still ruled over the nations and that his promise of security could be trusted.
What happened in the battle?
The consortium fell apart! The two armies fell into fighting with each other and a slaughter followed. Judah only needed to watch the scene.
And while they watched the unexpected battle they were singing their praises. So God kept his promise and Judah was providentially spared.
The line in the prayer we cited at first—“We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you”—was, and still is, key. God alone offers a basis for our faith. And our faith is evident by our honest expressions of thankfulness. No matter what our circumstances bring.
This is the season for graduations.
Speeches, diplomas, and congratulatory cards are showered on the graduates. And their potential—the promise open before them—is a common theme in these cards, speeches, and toasts. The grads are told they have the potential to touch lives for good—perhaps to start an amazing tech firm or a worldwide charity. And even the potential to become President. Nothing is ruled out!
But is it true?
Well—without wanting to rain on any graduation parades—let’s be honest: it’s a misleading sentiment.
In the real world every person’s potential narrows very quickly from birth onward. Like a small descending rivulet that leads into a valley, that leads into a tightly descending draw, which finally reaches the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, we all find boundaries in life. Our natural gifts, our circumstances, and our early and often mundane life choices set up most of our life options. Early steps start to preclude a host of once-possible opportunities in life.
There are two main features of potential. The first is personal and the second is circumstantial. These overlap with nature and nurture distinctions.
Circumstances are critical: they set up channels for most of the personality-based features of the graduate’s potential. A child born in Peru, for instance, has a different range of options compared to a child born in Poland. And a farmer’s daughter raised in Nigeria will have options that differ markedly from those of a pastor’s son raised in Norway. Both will enter life with a certain range of educational, social, and economic circumstances already in place. And some settings will offer greater potential for personal initiative than others.
A child’s freedom to explore their unique personal interests will also narrow very quickly depending on their nurture. A child raised in a Christian school or homeschool environment will have a matrix of values and vision very different from what most public schools offer today.
The point is that any graduation discourse about personal potential makes about as much sense as a bowman telling his arrow about the wonderful potential the arrow has in deciding where to land!
Yet let’s avoid cold determinism. My arrow analogy is useful but it has limits—as does our probing of personhood and life placement. Each soul does, indeed, have freedom. Not the traditional “free will” of Adam’s fall but the freedom of a heart-response to love. And God’s love is offered to all: divine predestination, while biblical, isn’t a prison made of some sort of eternal concrete. Instead it’s a promise, based in God’s love (as in Ephesians 1), that his plans for good aren’t overruled by our Enemy’s ambitions. His love is still offered to all even if, after Adam’s Fall, it draws only some to salvation. As Jesus reminded us, many are called but few are chosen.
What, then, would I say if I happened to be a graduation speaker this coming weekend? What sort of potential can be promised, properly, to our happy graduates?
I would start with God. He created all of us for the good works he prepared beforehand for us to engage and enjoy. The fountain of this plan is his triune being: he is a God who lives in love. His love consists in the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son, facilitated and sustained by the Spirit. Both creation and redemption display the spreading goodness of God’s love.
So in the great analogy of marriage, the Father wants his beloved Son to have a bride. But the bride is not coerced or bribed to respond. Instead she, despite any initial doubts or fears, eventually finds her Pursuer to be captivating: one whose truth, creativity, and faithfulness are unsurpassed.
While his love is offered freely to the world, the world has loved darkness rather than his light. And in the end we will find a pattern was in play. From the beginning God determined that only those who recognize their need for this love would respond and become the collective male-female spiritual bride. They are, mainly, the poor and lame and weak—the lowly rather than the proud. He knew ahead of time—before the creation—whose hearts he would draw to become the bride. Figures like Paul and the woman at the well in John 4 stand out—both, though conspicuous sinners, were pursued and captured by divine love.
So the question in front of each graduate revolves around love: whom—or what—will they love? It makes all the difference for what follows. If they respond to God’s love in Christ they have the opportunity—the potential—to discover life in Christ. But if they dismiss God’s love they also dismiss that potential. Instead they take on for themselves all the demands and responsibilities of trying to function as independent, self-directed agents: as little gods.
I would end: “And so, dear graduates, here’s the potential that lies before you: God invites you to taste and see how good he is. And once you come into his embrace—if you aren’t there already—you will have the potential to become all he’s made you to be. Go for it!”
This morning we shared and prayed at Pat’s home—fifteen men who do global ministry. Then I moved on to a local coffee shop to write this piece about change. At Pat’s place we talked about a variety of worldwide changes. And with that conversation in mind I found myself noticing some of the changes represented by my Starbucks neighbors. Having sixty-plus years as a grid helped.
Some changes are superficial. Tattoos, for instance, were once exceptional but they now define proper style. So, too, skinny jeans. And some of the men in nearby tables are as dramatic in their hair fashions as any of the women. There’s also a nearly complete shift from the books and newspapers of the past to the phones, tablets, and laptops of today.
Deeper changes are also in view. One cuddly couple at a nearby table reminds me that same-sex preferences are more overt than ever before. And, in a separate arena, my laptop news summary for the day reminds me of changes in the American political scene. The major parties are both selecting presidential candidates whose personal values—though radically opposed—would chill a polar bear… if, of course, our metaphorical bear had biblical values!
So is this just an “I hate change” rant?
No. I’m just inviting us to be more conscious of our shifts. Change is pervasive, constant, and cyclical. Some change is good and some evil. We can be sure that in another couple of decades the more superficial fads will be passé, readily replaced by new devotions; and some of the deeper moral and political shifts of today will either be reversed or will have solidified into concrete social realities. What is certain is that change always swamps efforts to protect the present moment.
I also reflected on a cyclical quality of change during my latest trip to Poland. For one of my transit nights I picked an inexpensive lakeside hotel after reading that it was once Kaiser Wilhelm’s hunting lodge. Wilhelm, the final emperor of Germany, ruled during World War I and then stepped down after Germany lost the war.
On checking in at the hotel I saw a photo of the splendid Kaiser and his retinue standing on the lodge steps in 1905—the same steps I took to reach my modest overnight room. Time has a way of humbling the lofty and affirming the humble.
So here’s a thought question: given the certainty of change, what direction is our own change taking? What are we becoming? As Christians, for instance, we speak of change as transformation—what Paul refers to in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”
Notice how Paul treated change as an inward movement that brings about new behaviors. Any change in the world—whether in us as private citizens or in society at large—starts in the soul. And in tracing this theme through the rest of his letter to the Romans—mainly in chapters 5, 8, and 13—Paul traces every positive change to God’s love poured out in the hearts of believers; or, negatively, to a devotion to the creation rather than to the Creator.
So the world is always changing; and so are Christians. And the direction of our change always depends on how we engage this basic biblical opposition. There is one whose Lie—his claim that we can “be like God”—is only overcome by a delight in Jesus Christ as our true Lord and lover. Jesus, alone, brings changes that are rich, satisfying, and nurturing to others. It all starts in the soul—in our devotion; in what we love.
That, in turn, exposes the locale of change—the place in the soul where love turns into action.
So even as we speak of “choosing” to do things it only expresses a love at work in us. If we love what the Lie offers, we’re immediately and necessarily self-deceived by precluding God from the process. We pretend that our choice is an autonomous creative act—as if we live ex nihilo lives. Yet it’s obvious to a critical—biblically grounded—observer that we’re simply following a current social fad or, ultimately, a satanic cultural impulse. There are, ultimately, only two masters in life.
As Christians, then, we realize how heart-based we are. Our hearts have been awakened to a new and living focus: to our love for Christ. And in response to that love we know how derivative our actions are. We are lovers. And in Christ we get to be creative responders: not as automatons but as lovers of the One who created us to be creative in the context of his love.
So, for instance, we’re free to pray, “Oh Lord, I want to get another tattoo as my expression of love for you today!” Or, perhaps, “Lord, please be with me at the hospital as I go to see my friend who just had surgery this morning for his colon cancer.” We have real freedom in love.
Yet what we soon discover is that some prayers have more weight than others—and that’s where transformation by the renewal of our minds starts to show. And once we’re transformed to look more like Jesus; and as we live as a community of transformed believers, we start to change the world around us.
So let’s give three cheers for change! And let’s pray for Christ’s love to be more and more obvious in us.
Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) loved Jesus. It spilled out in his life and sermons as an infectious joy. And today more and more kindred hearts are hearing of Sibbes.
So what did Sibbes offer?
The records of Gray’s Inn offer a tease. The Inn was an important residence hall and training center in central London, set up to supply England with her next generation of political, legal, and commercial leaders. Sibbes was the chapel preacher at the Inn for much of his adult life.
In the days before Sibbes arrived the records include scolding reminders that chapel attendance was required of all residents. But that ended once he started preaching. In his days the chapel was enlarged and the residents were reminded not to bring guests: space was limited and reserved for those who belonged!
If you’d like to read a bit of Sibbes I recommend starting with his Description of Christ. It was his lead-in sermon series to his signature work, A Bruised Reed. Both are available in the first volume of his collected works. And on the Internet.
In his description of Christ Sibbes knew that most people feel distant from God. The distance, he believed, came mainly from a sense of human sinfulness in the face of God’s holiness; and a sense of human finitude over against God as the unbounded creator. So it was both a moral and an ontological gap.
Sibbes, however, didn’t accept this gap. There is, he believed, a reversal of pride and humility in Christ’s incarnation that opens a way to full communion with God. Jesus humbled himself to address human pride—becoming a man, dying on the cross, and then offering life to all who respond to him.
Sibbes saw the irony of this reversal: Jesus humbled himself even though humility is wholly inappropriate for him! Yet by this humility he draws people away from the arrogant ambition to be like God, and then offers union with the Father through a faith birthed by love.
“Whence comes it that Christ is a servant? It is from the wondrous love of God, and the wondrous love of Christ. To be so abased, it was wondrous love in God to give him to us to be so abased, and the wondrous misery we were in, that we could not otherwise be freed from; for such was the pride of man, that he, being man, would exalt himself to be like God. God became man, he became a servant to expiate our pride in Adam, so that it is wondrous in the spring of it.” [Sibbes, Works, 1.7]
Sibbes, in other words, understood sin to be the default of every soul. And sin consists in pride—self-devotion—so consuming as to be inescapable. Inescapable because the proud heart has no desire to be set free from self-love.
So Jesus, sent by the Father, gave up his life in order to expiate Adam’s sin. This, the man-who-is-God, then shows us the joy of his own humility and invites us to join him at the cross.
An amazing plan that we never expected! At least until we met Jesus and saw him as a servant to all of us who caused his death. All this by way of God’s Triune love.
Thank God for such winsome humility!
Recently I watched an American Public Broadcasting television show about the mathematical universe. The program featured the universe of numerical relations around us—relations by which we can trace underlying patterns in the universe.
Galileo and Newton became stars for having identified key formulae—some of the many patterns that point to the orderly numerical relations of the universe as a whole. We’re able to discover more and more about reality by following the pathways offered by numbers.
The program also noted how digital images and music represent sets of numbers arranged to reproduce “real” sources on display screens and in sound systems—all of which we take for granted with our digital cameras and our digital recordings.
And, as we also know, the digital world can be re-shaped by clever number crunchers. Creative and fictive Photoshop images and impossible actions performed by virtual movie stars are now commonplace. The skilled digital workers are godlike in shaping their new realities.
Yet weather systems still set a boundary. The program narrator acknowledged limits in our current mathematical models so that, for one, weather forecasting isn’t as reliable as we might wish for. But, the program suggested, we’re doing better all the time.
I certainly appreciated the program and learned from it. Yet as a Christian I dismissed the implicit—and sometimes explicit—assumption that guided the production. The narrator treated the universe as an unaccountable product of time and evolutionary chance. For me, on the other hand, God’s breathtaking creative wisdom was in view from beginning to end.
Of course there’s nothing new in this division of perspectives. Christians always worship the Creator and see his fingerprints in the creation. And non-Christians always dismiss the Creator and focus on the creation in terms aligned with human autonomy. Which is only to repeat what Paul said in Romans 1.
But back to the weather where the mathematicians fall silent in the face of its vast complexity. The weather is beyond our control. And apart from an immediate window of five to ten days, it remains unpredictable.
And the New Testament apostles were alert to all this centuries ago when they spoke of Jesus with awe after he snuffed out a storm: “And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’” – in Mark 4:41.
These folks were not naive. Jesus healed people, exorcised demons, multiplied food, and even raised people from the dead. But all these events were so localized that willful skeptics could doubt such claims both then and now. Weather, on the other hand, is neither strictly local nor single-event-based. Certainly no man can change a weather system. No man, that is, except Jesus.
But first let’s dismiss the soft skepticism offered by the “God of the gaps” version of Christianity. This is an awkward halfway house between secular Naturalism and biblical Supernaturalism. In the “gaps” version of faith people rule out God’s direct involvement in whatever science can explain. The outcome is a very narrow—and ever-shrinking—space for God to be in charge of things. Proper Supernaturalism, on the other hand, attributes everything to God. Every feature of life and nature are his work. So while Naturalism attributes God’s orderly works to dumb luck, Christians attribute such views to a willful dismissal of abundant evidence: to becoming fools.
So what controls the weather? The devoted Naturalist treats it as a complex and self-ordered system—as something uncontrollable even if we can identify some operational forces behind it. Devoted believers, on the other hand, view weather as a complex system ordered and ruled by God.
The Bible also treats the weather as part of God’s providential care for his creation. That’s not to say the weather is a unique indicator—the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is ultimate—but it’s one we notice more than most. Even when it brings tragedy in the so-called “acts of God.”
So weather brings both good and ill. We read of the great flood and of Joseph’s rise to power in Genesis—both stories that feature God’s rule over the weather. The promises in Leviticus 26 and elsewhere underscore God’s blessing expressed in seasonal rains and sunshine. Later we read of Elijah’s three-year drought. There is the storm that decimated Job’s family; and the storm that got Jonah tossed out of his boat.
In the New Testament we have more. As we’ve already noticed, Jesus calmed the storm with a word. God also reassured Paul that he and his companions would survive a Mediterranean storm in Acts.
So here’s something that intrigued me about the television show about mathematics. It pointed to the continuity between the mathematical ordering of nature that science is discovering; and the mathematical basis for human creativity in ordering virtual reality. A movie made some years ago about The Perfect Storm, for instance, offered a compelling picture of an actual storm. But it was all computer generated—using mathematical tools.
So why is our world today missing the point? Hollywood only mimics God when it creates a virtual reality with tools God created. And the fingerprints of God—as seen in the mathematical order of the creation—should be telling us something. The magicians in Egypt who imitated some of Moses’ miracles finally gave up and acknowledged, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19). Yet Pharaoh’s heart remained “hardened.”
My prayer, then, is that coming storms—sometimes in melodramatic events that are increasingly common—will begin to awaken more of our skeptical friends to God’s presence in his ordered yet sometimes feisty creation.
I pray, especially, that many will repent and believe in Jesus who can calm any storm with a mere word.
Let me introduce Fran O’Rourke’s book, Pseudo-Dionysius and the Metaphysics of Aquinas. It’s a solid contribution to the history of Christian thought. O’Rourke, a philosopher, teaches in Dublin and the book came out with E. J. Brill in 1992. It’s now in paperback from Notre Dame.
Why mention a book intended for academics? Will it help grow us spiritually? Or make for better marriages? Or resolve climate change? The answers are: unlikely, no, and certainly not. It’s robustly impractical. But it still invites notice.
Here’s why. It helps explain why some Bible college students fade spiritually while at seminary. That is, as the theology O’Rourke describes is offered in part or in whole at a given school, a student’s vision of God starts to change. The divine image cools down as quickly as an autumn day turns cold after sunset.
To be clear, O’Rourke isn’t addressing students or their faith; or God’s temperature. He writes, instead, about the theology of the brilliant 13th century thinker, Thomas Aquinas. And it’s what Aquinas taught that brought the chill. The warmth once offered by Augustine’s Triune God—portrayed as Lover, Love, and Beloved—was pushed aside by newer portrayals of God.
And we need to acknowledge that Aquinas is still a big dog in some circles—particularly among the Post-Reformation Scholastics of the Reformed tradition. Even though Martin Luther opposed his main tenets; as did John Calvin; Richard Sibbes; and many others.
O’Rourke tells us that Aquinas relied on Pseudo-Dionysius for his view that God is wholly other: existing beyond the reach of any human thought. God is, Pseudo-Dionysius believed, beyond being—“the cause of all being, is yet himself non-being since he is beyond all being.” Aquinas differed a bit, holding instead that God is absolute Being. But either view led to a premise of God’s complete transcendence.
God, in other words, is so completely unlike his creatures that we really don’t know what he/she/it is actually like. This, in turn, sets up God’s incommensurability—his necessary lack of connection with the creation—and a requirement that grace must be a divinely created quality to bridge the gap between God and creation.
As a result these beliefs objectified the nature of the relationship between the Creator and the creation: no sort of mutual affection was in view. For the Thomists God exists without any emotional connections. We only have the traces left behind from God’s past activities.
That would seem to signal the end of the story of God for us—since it’s hard to talk about a God who is completely out of reach. But we’re still left with a need to find some sense of identity and meaning; so for any hard-working theologian or philosopher the project continues. We still need to ask about who we are as creatures—as humans—even if we don’t have any real access to the Creator.
So who was this Pseudo-Dionysius? And why did he carry so much weight?
The answer is that Aquinas would have viewed him as Paul’s convert in Athens as cited in Acts 17:34. So there was no “pseudo” tag to his name back then. It was as if Dionysius offered Paul’s deepest Christian insights but with more logical precision. But in the 15th century Lorenzo Valla noticed that Dionysius was actually echoing the 3rd and 4th century teachings of Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and Proclus—both pagans. So Dionysius was actually telling a fib!
Just what version of God did Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and others offer? The version then passed on to Aquinas by way of Pseudo-Dionysius?
One essential theme was clear: they held to Plato’s view, from centuries before, that God is an ultimate singularity—“One”—in whom every idea has its ultimate reality. Yet God is greater than his ideas—he just “Is.” And as an absolute Monad there isn’t space for speaking or listening in his being.
An analogy is that he is like the sun and we experience his divine rays—our own existence and ideas—as metaphysical sunshine. But we can’t ever hope to know him or to know about him. Why? Because an ultimate “One” doesn’t have any conversation partners! He just exists.
What Plotinus and Porphyry added to the mix was a claim that this One has, in fact, extended himself as both Mind and Soul—which accounts for divine distinctions and the human opportunity to encounter something of God’s being. These double-extensions are only temporary and necessarily return into the One in a process of “emanation and return.”
What Pseudo-Dionysius then offered was a Trinitarian revision: the Father is the One, and the Son and Spirit are the Father’s temporary emanations who return to the One. So the One is Ultimate and ultimately inaccessible. The Son and the Spirit offer us traces in his direction, but no real access.
The human role, then, is to climb a threefold ladder: to first purge oneself of dialog-based thinking; then to wait for some sort of encounter or illumination; and then, perhaps, union: so the searcher gets to experience something of whatever God leaves in his trail. But it still can’t be talked about—God, after all, isn’t a conversationalist in the Platonic vision of reality.
To be clear, O’Rourke doesn’t press into all this. What he does tell us is that Aquinas embraced Pseudo-Dionysius’s metaphysics. And it’s helpful to be informed about his views in light of the enthusiasm of various Thomists and Pseudo-Dionysian mystics.
I also believe that very little of what Pseudo-Dionysius promotes will have traction for those who abide in their Bibles and who know God’s love poured out in their hearts by the Holy Spirit—as a living and relational grace.
But we should be ready to help any Bible college students who catch a theological cold.
Let me start by telling a true story but with some particulars changed to honor privacy.
Gary’s comment caught my attention at the funeral of his father, Ricky: “I’m glad he’s finally at peace and together again with Linda.” Linda, his mother, died of cancer six years earlier.
As context, I knew Linda from church. She came to faith as an adult and had a strong faith for the final decade of her life. Her son, Gary, went to church with her after she met Jesus and he continues in church today. His father Ricky, on the other hand, never professed any sort of faith. Nor did he ever visit the church.
So, given Ricky’s apparent distance from faith, is Gary right? Are his parents now together in heaven?
It’s a sensitive concern—not one we’re inclined to address. Nor is his sentiment unusual. Most people adopt optimistic views of the afterlife when a loved one dies. But does the Bible endorse Gary’s optimism?
Some would say yes. Rob Bell, for instance, wrote about the inevitable success of Christ’s redeeming love—so that no one will endure eternal judgment. I’ve also read Baxter Kruger’s works and I know about his endorsement of Paul Young’s novel, The Shack. Both men embrace an implicit universalism that goes back to Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance (among others). Their points make some sense once they’re framed within broader theological commitments.
But other Christians dismiss such views. They point to the many Bible texts that speak of eternal judgment. As in Matthew 23 where Jesus warned the hypocrites of his day, “how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
So where do I land? In the Bible I find a literal hell and the reality of eternal judgment to be bedrock assumptions. The theologically derived views of my universalist-leaning friends just aren’t convincing.
So I was filled with grief at Ricky’s death. Saddened because, as we read in 2 Thessalonians 1:9, he faced “the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…”
But it’s also clear in the Bible that this isn’t because God lacks mercy. It was Ricky’s choice to dismiss what God had offered him. In other words I accept the claim of 2 Peter 3:9 that God “is not willing that any should perish…”
We then return to an underlying question. Why, then, is heaven exclusive? If everyone is guilty—“for all have sinned” (Ro. 3:23)—why are some saved and not all? If God has mercy on some, but not all, why does he waste so many human lives as assumed in the standard account of hell? Any honest headcount tells us that God’s Foe has many more recruits than God has.
So Gary’s sentiment—with its implicit universalism—was an understandable effort to resolve this tension.
Yet the Bible doesn’t embrace the “all-will-be-well” narrative that emerges at so many funerals. Instead we read that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. And God’s declared jealousy in the Decalogue has substance. As does the great command to love God—with the alternative that many hate God instead. Or in the jealous exhortations of James 4. The problem of sin centers on God’s heart being broken by a world that rejects his love.
To chase this—and to revise some of the common narratives we hear—we need to recall that salvation starts with a Triune God. The relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit led to both creation and redemption. The relational reality of God “is love.”
So let’s return to 2 Thessalonians where Paul blamed sinners for their devotion to Satan’s deceptions “because they refused to love the truth and so to be saved.” So God gave them over to their desires. And they were not victims of a capricious selectivity.
This won’t make sense to those who hold to a human-centered theology. Instead we need to turn to a Son-centered theology. The world rages against God for not protecting and enhancing human ambitions—a fact cited in Psalm 2. But the biblical narrative centers on the Son and not on human dreams to be like God.
Let’s turn, instead, to a more biblical narrative: to the Father’s ambition to find a bride for his Son. The Father’s plan is to share his Son with the creation. Just as the Father has delighted in his Son from eternity past, the bride of Christ is invited to enjoy the Son’s glory for the rest of eternity.
A glimpse of this comes with a review of John’s gospel. It begins with God’s love for the world in John 3:16. But the world instead loves darkness rather than light … so much so that by the time we reach John 17 the Son’s portrayal of his love for the Father is a winnowing reality. Some are drawn to the love of God and others hate what he offers.
So the real problem of sin is its informed disaffection: a love of self in place of a love for the Son. And, on the other hand, those who respond to the invitation to know and love the Son are welcomed to the Triune family of God.
But what of the terrible inefficiency of this plan? Shouldn’t everyone be brought into heaven to be Christ’s holy and blameless bride?
Will people who don’t find the Son attractive really want to share eternity with him? And is God somehow obliged to allow for eternal human autonomy? Isn’t it true, instead, that the nature of a marriage is its exclusivity—that the defining quality of the marital bond is the love and mutual attraction of the husband and his spouse?
So Gary’s optimism is misplaced. Love is avid. When we know the Son it all makes sense. And Ricky saw that love in Linda’s devotion to Jesus. But he wasn’t interested. And that’s the tragedy.
“Let all things be done for building up.” This call wrapped up Paul’s response to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 14:26 on the question of spiritual gifts. He was dealing with a divided and spiritually immature church—“infants in Christ”—who wrestled, ironically, with how to be godly in their new relationship with God.
So here’s my question for the day. How good are we at building up others—with helping new children of God to be more godly? Not just as individuals but in our church ministries? And in parachurch ministries?
I ask this as an honest question in the afterglow of a global workers’ conference in Oak Harbor, Washington. One of my highlights was a midweek visit with the Navigator ministry at the local Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. The “Navs” feature outreach and discipleship—a building-up ministry—with a unique focus.
I spent time with the Navigators decades ago during my two-years as an Army draftee. I still remember that time with pleasure—in my being built up by others. I later met and worked with the first fruit of the Nav ministry—Les Spencer—a sailor on the battleship West Virginia who started meeting over the Bible with a mentor, Dawson Trotman, in 1933. Another of that first round of Navs was Ed Goodrick who marked me deeply as one of my Bible college teachers. Ed combined a dynamic mind with a robust devotion to Christ.
These men were great building block figures in my own growth. As was Art Branson, my high school youth pastor. For Art the Scriptures were an artesian well of God’s overflowing heart—where we could “taste and see” God’s love for us. He ministered to more than a hundred youth but he still had time for me as an individual. He was a ready coach and companion to any of us who were hungry to grow.
And that’s what I have in mind as I write this. How many of us are good at helping others to grow? In doing what Jesus did with his small core?
As an example of the need, as I started writing this entry at a local coffee shop a young man was sitting at the same long table with his Bible open. We struck up a brief conversation about Bible reading—my own Bible was obvious—and he was soon promoting a well-known “kingdom” cult. After he left I couldn’t help but wonder how a Dawson or an Art might have helped him in his first days of Bible reading—in doing some “building up” on a proper foundation.
Over the years I’ve noticed certain tendencies in the church at large. Some feature star-based ministries—churches led by charismatic orators. Other churches promise wealth and health. Still others offer therapeutic ministry—ways to find more satisfaction and success in life. But these approaches rarely produce biblical maturity—the sort of well-rounded believers who live and talk like Jesus.
So where are ministries that feature authentic spiritual construction?
I’ve also noticed that the fastest-growing churches I’ve been part of over the years—those that still proclaim a clear devotion to Christ and to his teachings—are often thin in offering what Art offered me. Home groups that review last Sunday’s sermon are the high-water mark for most. It’s not a bad approach but the more robust work of digging and developing truth from closer Bible study is rare.
So here’s a thought. Are the pastors in such churches operating with a spiritual gift that needs to be complemented by other gifts? I can think, for instance, of Billy Graham’s realization in the 1950’s that the many people who responded at his crusades needed to be helped. He soon got in touch with Dawson for help on that score and the Nav ministry started to multiply.
One of the apostle Paul’s big points in what he wrote to the immature Corinthian church was his so-called “love chapter”—1 Corinthians 13—located in the middle of his discussion about spiritual gifts. As Paul reached the finale in his letter about building up others he had already elevated love as the only proper basis for ministry.
So I’ll end with that thought. We all need to love and be loved. My mentor, Art, reflected Christ’s love for him. And he shared it with those of us who were hungry to grow. We jumped at the more focused times he offered. As I look back that only amounted to a few of us—out of the larger group of more than a hundred—but he was always there. He loved God and he loved us. He was infectious.
Paul offers a bottom-line we need to notice. Who is available today for the young and hungry believers found in any ministry setting? Shouldn’t churches and ministries today do more in offering more robust pathways to maturity? Let’s call it a constructive suggestion.
Jesus wept over Jerusalem—“because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
So, given the Son’s presumed power to grant salvation to the elect why was he weeping? Let me poke this question with a pair of affective insights—insights that recognize the heart as the defining motive center of both God and humans.
Earlier in Luke the author confronted the social and spiritual leaders who dismissed Jesus. These, in contrast to tax collectors who responded to Jesus, were said to have “rejected the purpose of God for themselves.”
In Acts 2 we also read of God’s ultimate control of the rejection of the gospel by Israel’s leaders: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Here we see just a small part of how the combined Luke-Acts—taken as a single original composition—offers a glimpse into the interplay of human and divine initiatives. Luke, as we just read, can be as strong as any other Bible author in asserting complete divine rule over creation—including God’s selection of some humans, but not all, for salvation.
Yet he also affirms human culpability for rejecting God’s grace on a number of occasions—as if human initiative is the key feature in what takes place.
So in the perpetual debates over the basis for salvation—pitting God’s will against the priority of human free will—is Luke clueless?
We have some evidence to chase. The intersection of human sin and divine redemption is called repentance—something required if humans are to be saved from Adam’s fall. John the Baptist, for a starter, came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Jesus also featured this theme: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). And in Peter’s Pentecost sermon of Acts 2 he replied to the convicted listeners’ question of “what shall we do?” with a call to “repent.”
This call-and-response seems to elevate the human will in achieving salvation: the reader is called to act. Yet there’s a caveat. Bible scholar Leon Morris noticed that Luke always treats repentance as a gift of God. As in the case of Peter’s visit to Caesarea and the conversion of Cornelius and other non-Jews. This convinced the Jewish Christian leaders that “to the Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
On the other hand it’s also clear that Luke regularly portrays grace as something humans can resist—as we noticed already. In Asia Minor Barnabas and Paul shifted their ministry focus from the Jews to the Gentiles because of this: “Since you thrust it [the gospel] aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
Now let’s add another feature. How do we define grace?
In my book, Richard Sibbes: A Spreading Goodness, I trace a division among 16th century Puritans. Many Puritans unwittingly followed the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas who defined grace as a supernaturally-supplied human capacity: God gives this grace to empower the fallen human will. But it’s a gift God only gives to the elect. And, according to these Puritans, only the elect—those who have a grace-enhanced will—can effectively choose to repent.
In this arrangement Aquinas rejected Peter Lombard’s earlier portrayal of grace as God’s personal presence in the soul: the gift of the indwelling Spirit. So the Puritans who followed Aquinas battled the Puritans who agreed with Lombard by way of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Both men dismissed Aquinas, as did Sibbes a century later. They all held the Spirit to be the presence of God’s grace in the soul.
If we track this debate over time the divide has only hardened. One way to see this today is to ask whether grace is portrayed by a teacher as a “what”—something humans have and use—or a “who”—the Spirit who comes and captures souls by revealing Christ’s love.
And that difference sets out two competing versions of salvation.
If, for instance, we follow the Thomistic view—that in order to repent a person needs a grace-empowered-will, the focus is on human responsibility. Yet with that comes an odd corollary that grace is “irresistible” because it represents a divine power that never fails. God’s will, in effect, overrides the weaker human will in the elect in a way that is always “efficient.” In effect it treats humans as divinely manipulated objects.
And with this arrangement we can conceive of “non-elect” people as those who may long to be saved but who are unable to achieve the faith needed to be saved. Let’s call it the crippling consequence of being human—born in sin as Adam’s fallen children.
But if we follow Augustine-Lombard-Luther-Calvin-and-Sibbes—among many others—and read the Bible as portraying the Spirit as God’s grace—as his gracious life-giving presence—we have a different scenario. We are still Adam’s fallen children but the problem reveals the same ambition Adam unleashed: we want to explore the “freedom” to be “like God.” So the problem of sin isn’t a crippled will but a robust will that doesn’t want God to be God! It’s a robust self-love.
This points to a second feature of the Puritan divide. In the Augustine/Lombardian view the human mind and will are instruments of the heart. We always do what we love to do; and our minds then rationalize our love and guide our choices. So the problem of sin is that we love to sin. And Satan knows how to manipulate our love—Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:1-3.
A proper gospel, then, dismisses the Thomistic portrayal of a disabled human will as the problem. The real issue is that we are forever resisting God’s grace as offered by his Spirit. We, like Adam, still manage to grieve, quench, and blaspheme the Spirit who is forever witnessing to the beauty and love of God as revealed in Christ.
The good news is that some—usually the poor, the lame, the weak, and the social outcasts who are “sinners” or “blind”—are drawn to God’s love. His winsome wooing overcomes self-love, especially in those who fall short of being “like God.” The woman at the well, Zachaeus the tax collector, and the man born blind offer examples of this. God, in fact, allows weaknesses in a fallen world—as in the man born blind—as unique pathways for grace. And the parable of the wedding feast says as much: “many are called but few are chosen.”
So is Jesus still weeping over Jerusalem? Over those who despise him and resist his grace? Yes. But he also knows that some—his “sheep”—will recognize his voice and respond. And “sinners” hear his voice better than those who are already “righteous.”