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093454-01-08

Augustine of Hippo is a towering figure in church history and theology. All agree that he was born a Berber in what is now Algeria. But there is quite some debate about how African Augustine really was. Some of this surrounds the question of how dark his skin was – something that was almost irrelevant to the understanding of ethnicity in the Ancient world (ethnicity was understood much more in terms of place, language, customs and kinship). Some have suggested that since Roman north Africa was part of the Roman empire and since Augustine was skilled in Latin rhetoric, spent several years in Italy and was heavily influenced by the classical philosophers, he is more Roman than African.

Four points in answer:

  1. Augustine clearly understood himself to be an African. He talks of “Pontitianus, our countryman so far as being an African, in high office in the Emperor’s court” (Confessions, Book 8, emphasis added). Admittedly, when Augustine talks of ‘Africa’ (e.g. four times in his Confessions) he is almost certainly speaking of the Roman Province of Africa – central, coastal North Africa excluding Morocco and Egypt and certainly not including sub-Saharan Africa. However Roman ‘Africa’ was a distinctive place in the Empire, one that Augustine identified with and where he spent most of his life serving as a presbyter, preacher and overseer of the church.
  2. No culture is sealed. There is no pure indigenous culture. Every culture has come from somewhere else, is a mixture of influences from different places and is gradually (or speedily) in the process of change. North African cultures had clearly been greatly impacted by the coming of pagan-classical Roman rule and then, a few hundred years later, by the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. But Roman Africa would have been a very different place from Roman Britain or Roman Italy. As recent post-colonial theorists and anthropologists have discovered, colonialism (ancient or modern) does not create monolithic cultural hegemony but rather a complex patchwork of hybrid cultures as different places interact with the colonising culture in different ways. At the same time, the colonising culture turns out to be equally complex, changeable and undergoes its own hybridisation. The fact that Africans like Augustine and Pontitianus were working in Rome, not as slaves but as free men, teaching rhetoric to the elite, shows a different side to the Roman Empire than the one we often see in films like Gladiator, where the only Africans coming into Rome seem to be slaves to be slaughtered in the Colosseum. The Roman Empire was highly multi-cultural. That could be seen in an African man with a Roman name, following an eastern mystery religion (Manichaeism), with a professorship in classical rhetoric in the heart of the Empire and being prompted by tales of Egyptian monastics (especially Anthony) to consider a Palestinian religion (The Way) which has been adopted by the Roman state. The Roman world was highly diverse, interconnected and mobile with people like Augustine and his family quite able to make trips between Italy and Africa. So let us give up the idea of distinct, hermetically sealed ‘African’ and ‘Western’ cultures, either in history or today.
  3. When Augustine describes his family (in Confessions, Book 9) there are some quite African-sounding cultural details. His maternal grandfather, when a baby, was carried on the back of a young village girl “as little ones used to be carried on the backs of elder girls.” Augustine’s mother Monica (a Berber name) was brought up largely by a maid who was very strict with her, including making sure she didn’t drink too much water, a discipline to prevent intemperance. And as Monica comes close to death, Augustine notes how his brother tries to encourage his mother to keep going on the journey back home (from Italy to Africa) “wishing for her, as the happier lot, that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land.” Quite an African sensibility.
  4. Despite the complex influences upon him, ultimately Augustine was neither captive to his African culture nor Roman culture because he came to encounter the culture-transcending God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture. At first the words of the Bible were repulsive to him: “they seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of [Cicero]; for my swelling pride shrunk from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof. Yet were they such as would grow up a little one [child]. But I disdained to be a little one; and swollen with pride, took myself to be a great one.” (Confessions, Book 3). Augustine’s polished classical education prejudiced him against the rough bluntness of the Bible’s language while his pride, and perhaps also his African upbringing which would no doubt have emphasised the importance of transitioning from boy to man, prejudiced him against a reverse rite of passage – transitioning from man to little child. But, despite the cultural offence, he describes how he was slowly, agonisingly, irresistibly drawn by the saving power of God and through these same Scriptures was brought to Christ, crucifying his old nature and putting on Christ. And how then the Scriptures came alive to him, especially the Psalms: “how was I by them kindled towards Thee, and on fire to rehearse them, if possible through the whole world, against the pride of mankind” (Confessions, Book 9). It is these Scriptures which gave Augustine his strong doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man – doctrines which are foolish and offensive to the natural man. It is these Scriptures which gave his mother Monica an increasing awareness of the surpassing goodness of the Future Land prepared for her such that by the time of her death she was no longer concerned to be buried on her ancestral land. It is these Scriptures which are the only hope for people from all nations.
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Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. (2 Tim. 1:14)

We go through 2 Timothy with each new group of apprentices but it is always fresh and cutting. One of the things that’s really jumped out for me this time is the emphasis on both human work and the Spirit’s work. There is fanning of the flame to do but the fire is God’s gift (1:6). We are to suffer… by the power of God (1:8). We need to guard the gospel… with the help of the Holy Spirit (1:14). We are to be strong… in the grace in Christ (2:1). We are to think hard… and the Lord will give the understanding (2:7). We are to instruct opponents… hoping that God will grant repentance (2:25). We are to preach the Word… strengthened by the Lord (4:17).

Some of us may be tempted to speak only of the Spirit and to downplay human effort. In that case the challenge of 2 Timothy is that guarding the gospel will involve a lot of hard work, hard thinking, intentional effort and careful following of the apostolic leadership training strategy (2:2). Others of us (perhaps more of us) are tempted to focus on human activity and practically ignore (or only play lip service to) the work of the Spirit. For us, we need to remember that the gospel cannot be guarded simply through structures and programmes and curricula. As Ken Irungu pointed out, gospel ministry cannot be professionalised. We wholeheartedly believe in 2 Timothy 2:2 – it is one of the iServe Africa straplines – but transmitting good gospel truth to the next generation of Bible teachers for them to proclaim and teach it faithfully to others will not serve to guard and advance the gospel unless there is also a powerful work of the Spirit.

Why?

  1. Only the Spirit can change hearts. Only the Spirit can move the affections from love of the world (4:10) to love Christ and his people (1:7). Only the Spirit can move us from being ashamed of the gospel to unashamed (1:8). Only the Spirit can produce faithful, hardworking, persevering-through-suffering servants who are concerned to please their commanding officer (2:4-6) rather than the crowd.
  2. Only the Spirit can open minds to understand the truths of the gospel (2:7). J.C. Ryle: “The very same person who is quick and clever in worldly things, will often utterly fail to comprehend the simplest truths of Christianity. He will often be unable to take in the plainest reasonings of the Gospel… They will sound to him either foolish or mysterious.”

So please pray for us! Pray for iServe Africa and the young people starting off their ministry apprenticeship year that the Spirit would go out with His Word and change hearts and minds.

I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…

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In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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We all love the armour of God. It’s such a great visual aid. Perfect for Sunday School sessions and all age services. Just Google a Roman soldier, find a worksheet to colour in, dress someone up. Perfect.

The armour of God is also a delight to commentators, whether scholarly or devotional. Each piece of armour invites pages of extrapolation on how the particularities of first century Roman armour help us to understand the spiritual point that Paul was driving at.

But what if the armour of God isn’t really about Roman soldiers?

  1. The armour of God is the Old Testament armour of God. As most commentators observe, the clearest allusion made by Ephesians 6 is to Isaiah 59:17 where the LORD God himself puts on his battle garments including righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation. The LORD has a sword (Isaiah 34:5-6; 66:16). Also in Isaiah the Coming Christ has faithfulness (truth) as a belt around his waist (Isaiah 11:5) and a mouth like a sharpened sword (Isaiah 49:2). Looking at the wider OT we find that the LORD is often found giving himself to his people as their shield (Gen. 15:1; 20x in the Psalms), even as their shield and sword together (Deut. 33:29).
  2. The armour of God is Christ the LORD. William Gurnall who wrote 1700 pages on the armour of God put the matter very succinctly when he commented: “By armour is meant Christ.” Paul’s whole letter to the Ephesians, as all his letters, has been dominated by Christ. Christ is the truth (John 14:6). Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Christ is our salvation (Luke 2:30). This is in continuity with the OT where we find that the LORD is our salvation and our righteousness (Ex. 15:2; Jer. 23:6) and it is perfectly consistent with Paul’s thought that we should put on Christ and clothe ourselves in him (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27).
  3. The words for the pieces of armour in Ephesians 6 are not technical terms for pieces of Roman armour. The word ‘belt’ is not actually there in verse 14. The phrase ‘girding round your loins’ has a Hebraic flavour and suggests getting ready for action. Breastplate (v14) and Helmet (v17) use common Greek words found 10 and 9 times respectively in the LXX (the Greek OT), including where they both appear together in the key passage Isaiah 59:17. Commentators are confident that the shoe Paul has in mind in verse 15 is the caliga, the Roman soldier’s battle boot, but Paul doesn’t actually mention boots. He says simply, ‘feet shod with readiness’ – the word readiness calling to mind the ministry of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3-4; Luke 1:17,76; 3:4-6). The shield might make us think of the famous rectangular red scutum of the Romans, used in their famous tortoise formation, but Paul uses a common word for shield found 19 times in the LXX (e.g. the shield of King Saul – 1 Sam. 1:21). The word for sword is one of two common Greek words for sword, both of which are used extremely frequently and often interchangeably in the NT and LXX. Sometimes a distinction is made between the short stabbing battle sword (machaira) of Eph. 6:17 and the long sword of justice but it is the machaira which appears in Rom. 13:4 as the sword of justice and in Isaiah 27:1 (LXX) as the sword of the LORD himself.
  4. Paul was probably not chained to a Roman soldier in battle armour. While it might be tempting to imagine Paul dictating his letter to the Ephesians while looking at the different pieces of Roman armour, Stott comments, “…it would be unlikely that such a bodyguard would wear the full uniform of an infantryman on the battlefield.” Certainly battle boots and a huge shield would have been strange for a prison guard. If Ephesians is written from Paul’s house arrest in Rome described at the end of Acts then it seems it was not a deep dark dungeon confinement. It may be that the chains are more a way of expressing his legal status and restriction of his freedom and liberty than literal iron chains (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9). There is a danger that we read the situation of Peter in Acts 12:6 into Paul’s references to his chains.

This is not to say that it is impossible that Paul was not thinking at least partly of the Roman soldier or that his first readers might not have thought of a Roman soldier. But it is to say that the most important background to Ephesians 6:10-20 is not the first century imperial legionary or centurion but the Old Testament and also Pauline and NT thought.

So what?

  1. Scripture Alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. You don’t need to be an expert in first century Roman warfare to understand Ephesians 6. Certainly the Bible was written by humans in particular cultures at particular times but again and again we find that all the background we need to know is in the Bible itself. We know what we need to know about Ephesus from Acts 19. We know what we need to know about the armour of God from the OT. Even the flaming arrows of the Deceiver are there (Prov. 26:18-19). The approach that leans heavily on external sources and historical reconstructions a) takes us into uncertain territory (Which expert do you believe? Which rank of Roman soldier are we talking about? Did they all have plumes in their helmets? What if another historical source turns up that changes our understanding of the context?); and b) takes authority away from the text and the reader and gives a dangerous amount of power to the ‘expert’ as he tells me what I could never have known on my own. This has even more important implications in other parts of the NT where the historical reconstructions of liberal scholars tell us, “I know that it looks like the Bible is saying this but if you really know the culture and politics in first century Ephesus then you would know that it actually means the opposite of what it looks like it means.” Scripture is our guide to Scripture.
  2. Grace Alone. The Roman Soldier analogy tends slightly towards seeing the pieces of armour as passive instruments with the soldier (me) as the active fighter. In contrast, if we see the armour of God as the OT armour of God – The LORD himself, Christ the Lord – then it is closer to the mark to see us as the passive ones and God as the active one. He is giving us his armour, he is giving us himself. He is surrounding us as a wall of fire and a fortress and shield. Yes there are imperatives to ‘Put on’ and ‘Take up’ and ‘Stand’ – we need to walk in the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1) but it is first and foremost something received, gift. So let us not turn Ephesians 6 in to a series of things for us to do. That is fig leaf armour. We need the armour of God. We need to put on Christ and glory in his sovereign grace. “According to Ephesians 6 believers need to be armed with God’s own righteousness if they are to be protected against the blows and arrows of their spiritual enemies… The position of power and authority with Christ to which they have been raised is greater ‘than that possessed by their mighty supernatural enemies’. As they appropriate this salvation more fully and live in the light of their status in Christ, they have every reason to be confident of the outcome of the battle.” (Peter O’Brien)
  3. The Church of God. The Roman soldier analogy tends towards making us think of an individual centurion or an army of individuals each putting on their own armour. But the letter of Ephesians has been about the church. In Ephesians 6, as throughout the letter, the address is second person plural (it comes out better in Kiswahili than in English). It’s not addressed to the Lone Ranger solo Christian. It’s not little me being called to stand firm and put on my armour and fight. It is the whole church being called to clothe themselves in the gospel armour. The song, O Church Arise gets it just right. The one new man (Eph. 2:15) – the Church – must put the armour on. The armour of God himself. So that, as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD will surround his people, both now and for evermore (Psalm 125:2).

Much of what has been written and taught from the illustration of the Roman soldier is spiritually true and edifying. But let’s say the right things from the right texts. And let’s rejoice in what Ephesians 6 is clearly saying about the divine armour that we the church have been given and let us put on Christ.

 

Mastered

I was using some discipleship material recently when I came across this introduction:

“Very few Christians have a plan for mastering the Scriptures… We master all sorts of complicated skills and accomplish major personal learning and development programs when needed in our life and work but remain at elementary levels of development in the Word. In this session, we will explore the importance of every believer developing a goal of mastering the Scriptures…”

I appreciate what the author of these notes is driving at but it’s the word ‘mastering’ that I find disturbing. Is the Bible like chartered accounting – a complicated skill or a series of principles to learn and master? If the Word is a hammer and a fire, if it is the very word of God at work in us who believe, if it is living and active, then surely the cry of Martin Luther is more apt:

“The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

Surely we need to be mastered by the Word. And specifically by the Christ of the Word. Simon Manchester, speaking somewhat critically of his own Australian conservative evangelical constituency, warned us last year:

“I wonder if you’ve noticed an unedifying tendency… to focus on the Bible at the expense of Jesus… I do urge you to beware this trend. It’s not that we want to separate the text from the author or the text from the subject but if our [preaching], sermon by sermon, is always ‘about the Bible’ we may have missed the purpose of the Bible. And… I think it is more flattering to self to ‘talk Bible’ because we present ourselves as masters of the Bible with the ignorant masses listening to us. But no preacher is ever going to get up and say they’re the master of Jesus. And not only will we teach more reverently if we handle the Bible to see Jesus, we will also, I think, have the blessing of the Holy Spirit whose desire is to see Jesus glorified and not the guru at the front who is showing himself to be so clever. (EMA 2016)

So let’s seek, in our reading and our preaching of the Word to tremble, to find Christ, to be captured and mastered by him, to proclaim him, to see him glorified.

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In one sense the gospel is very simple.

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Pet. 3:18)

The gospel is solidly centred on the Cross of Christ with the chief end being fellowship with God. As J I Packer put it: ‘adoption through propitiation’ (Knowing God, p. 241). John Stott was spot on that the core of the atonement is Christ as our substitute – the great exchange. That is not a ‘model’ – that is the reality at the very heart of the atonement. All the (valid) ways of talking about the atoning work of Christ are perspectives on that truth or metaphors to describe it or roads that end up there.

So in one sense it is quite simple. Wonderfully. The Son of God is punished in my place that I might be a son of God. A three year old can understand that. But then when you get thinking about it theologically you find that it is actually quite complex.

I remember preparing for a talk on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 a few years ago. As part of my preparation I read quite a bit of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and a few other shorter papers. Suddenly I realised I was out of my depth in very deep waters. I started to wonder whether I really understood the gospel at all. Fortunately I did come out of the forest with something I was able to give to the student gathering but it opened my eyes to see something of how complex and deep the atonement is.

For example, how would you answer these questions:

  1. What role does the incarnation play in the atonement?
  2. What role does the resurrection play in the atonement?
  3. What role does the ascension play in the atonement?
  4. Did Christ die for everyone or for his elect?
  5. What was the most awful suffering for Christ on the Cross?
  6. How did that suffering deal with guilt, shame, law, wrath?
  7. How could God justly punish the innocent and justify the guilty?
  8. What was going on within the Trinity as Christ died? Who was punishing? Who was being punished? Was there a rupture in the Trinity? What was the role of the Spirit?
  9. Did God die?
  10. What were the chief ends/goals for which Christ died?
  11. How does Union with Christ relate to the atonement?
  12. How does faith relate to the atonement?
  13. How do the covenants of the Old Testament relate to the atonement?
  14. How does the theme of the glory and revelation of God relate to the atonement?
  15. How does the theme of wisdom relate to the atonement?

I am sure there are good and satisfying and wonderful answers to all these questions but my point is that they are not simple and some are very complex indeed. You’re not going to get a handle on some of these questions without a lot (perhaps a life time) of hard prayerful study.

To make a slightly different point, I have been getting very excited recently by the rich complexity of the ways in which the Bible tells the gospel. Just take Isaiah. Look at some of the different metaphors and imagery:

  • Scarlet sins being washed as white as snow.
  • Marriage, adultery, jealousy, divorce, wedding. God as husband. His people as the unfaithful bride. The prostitute is brought back as the faithful one.
  • Darkness and gloom to light of dawn.
  • God with us.
  • Beauty of the LORD, ugliness of sin, the marred man, new beauty.
  • The rock, refuge, shade from heat, refuge from rain.
  • Justice, injustice, judgment, righteousness, guilt, law court. The true judge redeems through justice.
  • Topography. Mountain of the LORD exalted. Hills flattened. Valleys filled.
  • Sick battered body. Beaten bruised body. Disease. Healing.
  • Joy and distress.
  • Dishonour, shame, honour. Pride brought low. Humility exalted.
  • Trees, bushes, stump, branches, vines. Growth, fruit, cut down, planting. Fertile to barren and barren to fertile land.
  • Sovereignty. The zeal of the LORD, the unstoppable plan, decree, will of the LORD to judge and save.
  • Architecture. City ruined and rebuilt.
  • Kingship. Human kings, divine king. Bad kings, good king.
  • Faith, trust, taking refuge in, relying on, looking to.
  • Scattering and gathering.
  • Eden. Curse to new Eden.
  • Exodus. Parting of the sea, column of cloud and fire, way through the wilderness. New Exodus from Exile.
  • Oppression and freedom. Removal of rod and burden of oppressor.
  • Fear and comfort.
  • Restlessness and rest.
  • Populous places left deserted. Deserted places filled with life and people.
  • Idols versus the true God. Idols smashed or thrown away.
  • Fire, burning wrath, sacrifice.
  • Warrior, battles, sword, bloodshed, victory, conquest.

This is not even an exhaustive list. The point is that each of these metaphorical schema are ways in which the gospel can be told – and is told in Isaiah. Each one is like a different palette of colours which Isaiah can use to paint the atonement. So he might use the blacks and browns and yellows and oranges of the darkness/light theme to show how the dawn of Christ has broken into the darkness and gloom of sin. And then he might turn to the greens of the horticultural palette to paint the gospel in terms of fruitless trees cut down and then a new branch growing up. And then he might take up the red and orange and white of fire/sacrifice to paint how the fire of judgment will sweep through but be absorbed by a perfect sacrifice. Sometimes (in fact often) he picks up two or three palettes at a time and blends imagery – e.g. of city and marriage and beauty and joy.

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Let’s start to appreciate the beautifully complex way in which the Bible tells the gospel. Let’s not reduce it to ‘Christ died for you’ every time. Let’s preach the passage of Scripture in front of us and see how the atonement is painted there. Is it sacrifice? Is it law court language of guilt and justification? Is it warrior langauge of a hero overcoming our enemies? Let’s preach the gospel in the variety with which it is presented. Not only will that mean that we don’t need to fear that ‘preaching the gospel every week will be boring’ – we will also see how the Cross of Christ deals with all the multifaceted ugliness of sin and opens out into a multifaceted Christian life.

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A lot has been written on the sanctification debate – how do we grow in holiness – and I haven’t got anything to add. My main conclusion is simply that it’s complicated… and yet our temptation is to try and find the silver bullet, the one thing that encapsulates everything that’s important to say about Christian growth and the fight against sin. Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on sanctification have tended to focus on one means or aspect of sanctification – perhaps future-focused faith or gratitude for the finished work of Christ for sinners – and those books are absolutely brilliant… until they start to suggest that this is the heart of the matter, the engine, the one thing you need to know.

DeYoung reminds us that there is not a singular motivation for holiness:

Jesus is the Great Physician… The gospel is always the remedy for the guilt of sin, but when it comes to overcoming the presence of sin, Jesus has many doses at his disposal. He knows that personalities and sins and situations vary… Jesus has many medicines for our motivation. He is not like a high school athletic trainer who tells everyone to “ice it and take a couple ibuprofen.” …The good news is that the Bible is a big, diverse, wise book, and in it you can find a variety of prescriptions to encourage obedience to God’s commands. (The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 56-57 emphasis added)

DeYoung then goes on to list 40 different motivations which, as he says, are not even an exhaustive list. So sanctification is a multifaceted thing. Partly because our sinfulness is horribly complex, partly because the gospel of Christ is beautifully complex.

So how does sanctification work? How does the gospel of grace relate to a life of obedience?

  • It’s about being who we are. Identity.
  • It’s about seeing the vastness of our debt and the costliness of our forgiveness and so forgiving others infinitely smaller debts.
  • It’s about seeing in the Scriptures the beauty of Christ and being captured by that better vision.
  • It’s about understanding and experiencing union with Christ. Growing in a marriage relationship.
  • It’s about wanting to please the Bridegroom.
  • It’s about a fear of the Lord.
  • It’s about godly sorrow.
  • It’s about joy.
  • It’s about submitting to a Kingly Saviour Lord.
  • It’s about knowing the sinfulness sin.
  • It’s about tasting the goodness of the ways of God and the Law of Christ.
  • It’s about waiting for Christ’s return, longing for him, hoping in a better and lasting possession and the work that springs from that eternity-focused faith and hope.
  • It’s about living as a beloved child of God. Adoption.
  • It’s about desperate dependence on the Spirit who alone can change us.
  • It’s about doing all this together, as a community of God’s people, rebuking, correcting, encouraging, urging, praying, preaching, singing.

It’s about all these things and more. It’s complicated.

One suggestion

The more I think about this the more I wonder whether the answer isn’t simply to preach the Word – to go through the chapters of the Bible letting God tell us how to grow in Christlikeness. For example – why not simply preach through Ephesians 4-5? We would find there all sorts of different motivations and means and imperatives and gospel logic (including many of those listed above) that just come straight out of the text and flow and mesh together in a way better than any of us could put it. Or how about preaching a series through Leviticus or Ezekiel or Hebrews where we are taught deep rich truths about sanctification through imagery and language that is extraordinarily powerful. Why don’t we just let our holy (complex) God himself teach us how to become holy as he is holy?