Sonship and Being

The seed of the serpent can be recognised by one primary motive: it convinces the individual that his or her primary calling is to become somebody.

“Self Made Man,” Bobbie Carlyle,

This creation of an imagined being is the essence of idolatry. Those who are under the power of Satan is characterised by a supreme trait: the pursuit of becoming, what we usually refer to when we speak of self-actualisation or self-authentication.

This should not be difficult to understand. Once we assume the position of creator, we are instinctively driven to create a self.

We were never called to do this. To be created by God is to be called towards the acceptance of an identity, not an effort to construe it. This dream of becoming is a demonic deception and prohibits us from being. To be a son* does not happen as a result of the effort of the will, having been taught the characteristics of a son, striving to live up to the identity of a son, or any such thing. It is a reality that can only be attained to through a process of birth that is initiated by another.

This is where we go wrong. Our lack of a sense of self forces us to compensate by creating an ideal self in our imagination. This we do by borrowing from those who seem to have succeeded in their construction of a self. Our neighbour seems more concrete than ourselves, more actualised, more authenticated, and so we imitate our neighbour in the hope of becoming the self that we perceive the neighbour to be. This is where the prohibited motivation to desire the possessions, indeed the very life of the neighbour, arises.

The creation of a self is not a responsibility given to a son. The son’s responsibility is to obey the father, and to do so according to the sovereign timing of the father. The son should not try and improve on the father’s wishes and resist the father’s will by trying to construe a will that seems better for him. Neither should the son resist the will of the father because the father’s will seems too hard, too difficult or too unattainable. The son’s responsibility is to trust the father’s wisdom and initiative, and to yield to it on an ongoing basis. The son is not called to suppose or imagine what the ideal son looks like, and then separate himself from the father’s instruction in order to be free to pursue the goal of ideal sonship. The moment he does so he is acting contrary to his very identity as a son.

The deception in the garden took place because the serpent convinced the first son and the first daughter of God to pursue an identity independent from that of the one birthed from their father. The serpent succeeded in providing an image that was different to the one that God the Father had in mind. Surely Adam and Eve thought that the attainment of the image-ideal would be of such a nature that it would be acceptable even to God. In this sense the desire for self-authentication was so strong, and the anticipation thereof so clear, that it proved a greater reality than the prospect of death.

The greatest hindrance to effective Christian living is the demonic idea of creating a self. Unwittingly, multitudes of professed believers have borrowed this pagan ideal of those who do not know God as a father. We have adopted their idolatrous practices. We have followed in their footsteps. This we have done, not in a carnal sense but a religious one.

We have assumed, mistakenly, that conversion means to no longer pursue the creation of a carnal self but rather the creation of a spiritual self.

And so, we have juxtaposed carnality and spirituality at the wrong side of the equation. What we should have done is to draw a contrast, not between carnality and spirituality as the goal of our self-authentication, but rather between the acts of creating a self and accepting a self as it was originally created.

How does this work in practice?

The Christian begins his life confronted with the image of the ideal Christian. This image is proclaimed in books, from pulpits, by his spiritual peers and virtually everywhere that one goes in the Christian world. Unwittingly, the Christian is drawn into that place of comparison that happens when you view the ideal proclaimed by Christendom in the light of your own progress or lack thereof. The contrast between the ideal and the present self is undeniable, and the emotions evoked as a result of the inevitable comparison is compensated for by a virtuous and solemn dedication to commit oneself to whatever process is necessary to become like the image.

This is where Satan is more like an angel of light than anywhere else. Because the projected image of spirituality is so glorious and radiant in its appearance, and so unlike anything that comes from the realm of darkness, the Christian does not think for one moment that he/she is in fact beholding the image of Satan himself.

What we learn from this is that the devil’s primary objective in the life of an individual is not to dissuade that individual from pursuing a Christian ideal, as we are often taught to think. Rather, it is to convince the Christian that he or she is responsible for the crafting and sculpting of their own Christian identity.

Satan has little interest in what you create. His only interest is to turn you into a creator.

The fallacy that God has called us to change springs from this demonic deception. Nowhere in Scripture are we called to try and change ourselves, as though this is the great aim and goal of Christianity. What Scripture teaches is that we should live by faith in the work of God that no man can emulate. This is clearly depicted in the example of Abraham who understood that he did not have the ability to create life as a result of his body being as good as dead. Abraham had to look away from himself and to God. He had to trust God. He had to understand that God could call those things that are not as though they were. And, very importantly, he had to understand that he himself could do none of that.

This is what faith is all about. It is to look away from the self and to look towards God, the Creator. The object of faith is God himself, not some or other object created by the imagination, invisible to the naked eye, waiting for us to call it into existence in the way that God called the earth into existence. The error of modern-day faith is that it turns us into co-creators with God, instead of children believing on the finished, completed and perfect work of the Father.

Where does that leave the Christian, then? If I am not allowed to entertain an image of an idealised Christian self, then what am I left with?

The answer is simple: the glorious image of Jesus Christ, the perfect son of the Father who has accomplished everything necessary for sonship.

I am to behold Christ, not an imagined self created by my own desires.

The book of Hebrews depicts the Christian walk as a wilderness pilgrimage with the eyes focused on Jesus Christ, and reveals this as the substance of faith. Herein we are joined by all the faith heroes of the past. These men and women were looking for a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Their vision was in Christ and a future, heavenly inheritance. Their vision was never on some or other improved version of the self, not even a godly self.

The Bible makes it clear that we are given provision only for the day during our wilderness wanderings. This excludes any focus on a long-term project of self-improvement, no matter how sanctimonious such a project may be. Our calling is one of obedience for the day, nothing more.

The moment we envisage more than a mere day, we shall intuitively become aware of the fact that our provisions are not sufficient for our intended journey.

This explains the prevalence of spiritual anxiety amongst God’s children in our age. Inundated with sermons on self-improvement and adaptation to some or other Christian ideal, we are constantly reminded that our rations are insufficient for our pilgrimage.

*It goes without saying that the term sonship includes sons and daughters, and is used because it appears so in Scripture.


The Social Forces of Denominationalism

by H. Richard Niebuhr

Christendom has often achieved apparent success by ignoring the precepts of its founder.

The church, as an organization interested in self-preservation and in the gain of power, has sometimes found the counsel of the Cross quite as inexpedient as have national and economic groups.

In dealing with such major social evils as war, slavery, and social inequality, it has discovered convenient ambiguities in the letter of the Gospels which enabled it to violate their spirit and to ally itself with the prestige and power those evils had gained in their corporate organization.

In adapting itself to the conditions of a civilization which its founder had bidden it to permeate with the spirit of divine love, it found that it was easier to give to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar if the examination of what might belong to God were not too closely pressed.

This proneness toward compromise which characterizes the whole history of the church, is no more difficult to understand than is the similar and inevitable tendency by which each individual Christian adapts the demands of the gospel to the necessity of existence in the body and in civilized society.

It has often been pointed out that no ideal can be incorporated without the loss of some of its ideal character. When liberty gains a constitution, liberty is compromised; when fraternity elects officers, fraternity yields some of the ideal qualities of brotherhood to the necessities of government. And the gospel of Christ is especially subject to this sacrifice of character in the interest of organic embodiment; for the very essence of Christianity lies in the tension which it presupposes or creates between the worlds of nature and of spirit, and in its resolution of that conflict by means of justifying faith.

It demands the impossible in conduct and belief; it runs counter to the instinctive life of man and exalts the rationality of the irrational; in a world of relativity it calls for unyielding loyalty to unchangeable absolutes.

Clothe its faith in terms of philosophy, whether medieval or modern, and you lose the meaning of its high desires, of its living experience, reducing these to a set of opinions often irrelevant, sometimes contrary, to the original content.

Organize its ethics – as organize them you must whenever two or three are gathered in tlie name of Christ – and the free spirit of forgiving love becomes a new law, requiring interpretation, commentary, and all the machinery of justice – just the sort of impersonal relationship which the gospel denies and combats. 

Place this society in the world, demanding that it be not of the world, and strenuous as may be its efforts to transcend or to sublimate the mundane life, it will yet be unable to escape all taint of conspiracy and connivance with the worldly interests it despises.

Yet, on the other hand, Christian ethics will not permit a world-fleeing asceticism which seeks purity at the cost of service.

At the end, if not at the beginning, of every effort to incorporate Christianity there is, therefore, a compromise, and the Christian cannot escape the necessity of seeking the last source of righteousness outside himself and the world in the divine aggression, in a justification that is by faith.

The fact that compromise is inevitable does not make it less an evil. The fault of every concession, of course, is that it is made too soon, before the ultimate resistance “to the blood’’ has been offered. Even where resistance seems to have gone to the uttermost the loyal man remembers that it might have been begun earlier, that it might have been continued a little longer, and that any compromise of the absolute good remains an evil. At last men must continue to condemn themselves not only for their failure to do what they could, but also for their failure to perform what they could not, for their denial of the absolute good whose categorical demands were laid upon their incapable will.

But compromises are doubly evil when they are unacknowledged, when the emasculation of the Christian ideal remains undiscovered and when, in consequence, men take pride, as in an achievement, in a defeat of the essential gospel.

Such unconscious hypocrisy not only bars the way to continued efforts to penetrate the stubborn stuff of life with the ethics of Jesus but is the author of further compromises made all too early. So it produces at last a spurious gospel unaware of its departure from the faith once delivered to the saints.

Denominationalism in the Christian church is such an unacknowledged hypocrisy. It is a compromise, made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world. Yet it often regards itself as a Christian achievement and glorifies its martyrs as bearers of the Cross.

It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society. It carries over into the organization of the Christian principle of brotherhood the prides and prejudices, the privilege and prestige, as well as the humiliations and abasements, the injustices and inequalities of that specious order of high and low wherein men find the satisfaction of their craving for vainglory.

The division of the churches closely follows the division of men into the castes of national, racial, and economic groups. It draws the color line in the church of God; it fosters the misunderstandings, the self- exaltations, the hatreds of jingoistic nationalism by continuing in the body of Christ the spurious differences of provincial loyalties; it seats the rich and poor apart at the table of the Lord, where the fortunate may enjoy the bounty they have provided while the others feed upon the crusts their poverty affords.

For the denominations, churches, sects, are sociological groups whose principle of differentiation is to be sought in their conformity to the order of social classes and castes. It would not be true to affirm that the denominations are not religious groups with religious purposes, but it is true that they represent the accommodation of religion to the caste system.

They are emblems, therefore, of the victory of the world over the church, of the secularization of Christianity, of the church’s sanction of that divisiveness which the church’s gospel condemns.

Denominationalism thus represents the moral failure of Christianity. And unless the ethics of brotherhood can gain the victory over this divisiveness within the body of Christ it is useless to expect it to be victorious in the world. But before the church can hope to overcome its fatal division it must learn to recognize and to acknowledge the secular character of its denominationalism.

The Humility of the Apprentice: A Repost


This morning I meditated on the magnificent words of Isaiah 66:2:

But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

I was taken back to thoughts that I penned down eight years ago on this blog…

What do you think of when you hear the word “disciple”?

If you are like most people the word will conjure up an ideal standard of Christian commitment. There are normal Christians, and then there are… disciples.

The conventional wisdom goes something like this: A disciple is one who has distinguished him or herself as wholly dedicated to the Lord. To become a disciple is the goal of Christianity, and discipleship is the means to get people there. We need to make disciples, not just converts. Once a person has attained to the status of a disciple he or she has fulfilled the intention of the great commission. A disciple is distinguished from a mere believer as the finished house is distinguished from its blueprint.

Does some of this sound familiar? Are you more or less in agreement with these statements? If so, you may have missed one of the central and most vital messages of the New Testament. By giving some special status to the term “disciple” you may very well have robbed yourself of the very thing that is intended by the word.

In the first place, the word has absolutely nothing to do with attaining to some spiritual level. Whilst it may have overtones of commitment and discipline (many people erroneously believe that the word disciple is a derivative of the word “discipline”), these have more to do with the actual meaning we have assigned to the word than the word itself.

The word disciple is a classic example of the confusion that arises when a Biblical word is not translated but transliterated, that is, the transcription of a word in one language into corresponding letters of another language without regard to the original meaning.

Disciple is a transliteration of the Latin “discipulus” which carries the same meaning as the Greek New Testament’s “Mathetes”, namely a “learner”, “student,” “pupil,” “apprentice,” or “adherent”. Of course none of these meanings are retained in the English word disciple.

Let us consider the implication of this for a moment. Don’t you think there is something slightly weird about a commandment to “go and make learners of all nations”? This would imply that people in a pre-evangelised state are not learners, and that the intention behind the so-called “Great Commission” is to turn them into ones.

But wait, it gets weirder. This would also imply that to become a disciple is not to live up to some level of commitment, but to be reduced to the level of one who needs guidance. It is to let go of preconceived notions and to open oneself up for receiving new information. To become a disciple is not to reach the end of the road, but to be placed at the beginning of it. It is not a destination, but a point of departure. It is not an accomplishment, but an emptying.

The Call to Learn

None of this should be surprising. The New Testament overflows with verses speaking about the necessity of learning:

• Repentance (metanoia in Greek, from meta and nous) means a “changing of the mind”.
• The transformation that follows repentance takes place through a “renewing of the mind” (Rom.12: 2).
• Spiritual warfare, according to Paul, has to do with breaking down strongholds, and such strongholds are defined as “arguments and opinions raised against the knowledge of God”. Paul further defines spiritual warfare as “taking thoughts captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5).
• In the same passage mentioned above, Satan is depicted as the one who leads people’s thoughts astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (11:2) and who “blinds the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4).
• The New Testament depicts unbelievers as having been given up to a “debased mind” (Rom.1: 28), as walking “in the futility of their minds” and as being “darkened in their understanding” (Eph. 4:18).

This explains why Christianity is a lifelong process of learning. The subject matter, of course, is nothing but Christ himself, in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”, providing the rich resource for reaching the “riches of full assurance and understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery” (Col. 2:2-3). We are “taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21). In fact, he IS the truth, John says (John 14:6), explaining his earlier statement that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

The incarnation of the Word is the objective dynamic in this equation. The process of “learning” is the subjective dynamic. The one cannot exist without the other.

And so Jesus says “learn from me” (Matt. 11:29), and Paul says “you have not so learned Christ” (Eph. 4:20). Jesus Christ is our curriculum, and he has preserved the revelation of Himself in the Scriptures outside of us, his Spirit within us and his Body around us. And so we have no excuse not to “learn him”.

If you were given the knowledge above and then the assignment to formulate a “great commission” for the church (without any preconceived ideas) you may very well have written it exactly as it appears in Matthew’s gospel. Clearly the first step on the narrow road leading to life is to become a “learner”. This is no accomplishment or badge of distinction, but rather a painful and humbling “letting go” of personal convictions, opinions, paradigms and the like.

It is to embrace the poverty of spirit prescribed in the first line of the Sermon on the Mount. It is to aspire to the education of Christ, and to say with him “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me” (John 17:16). It is to stop being Martha and to become Mary. It is to sit at the feet of Jesus and receive from him.

If you have not first become a learner you cannot progress any further on the path of liberation from your own dearly held convictions that have put your thought life into bondage, that determine your emotions and ultimately dictate your actions.

Where do the ducks go?

What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?

The question reminds me of another one: Where do the ducks go when the lagoon in Central Park freezes over?

Recognize the words? It’s from Salinger’s famous The Cather in the Rye (spoiler alert), and it is so subtly asked in the novel that the careless reader is bound to gloss over it. It also remains unanswered, which is significant. There is an idiotic attempt at a response by a nameless cab driver, but that does not count. If anything, his answer adds to the mystery.

Why does the question matter? Because it encapsulates the aimlessness of the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s wanderings. Everything remains open-ended, it seems. His efforts at meaning-making and finding answers lead him nowhere. Ultimately, he fails to discover where one goes when your circumstances become unbearable. That’s the point.

No one knows, it seems. Least of all the grown-ups.

So what does Holden do? This is where the beauty comes in, and, in my view, the single element that has catapulted the book to the top lines of must-read lists for decades. Salinger manages to say more through a single image – a catcher in the rye – than libraries of philosophy have done for centuries.

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

When your life becomes unbearable, and you wish you could spread your wings and fly away from it all, but you cannot – because there simply is nowhere to go – then there is a single sensible thing left to do: Help others not to fall into the abyss that your life has become.

Yes, I know. Not everyone interprets the book in this way; as though there is some moral compass to discover in it. The book has little to do with Christianity, and no one can be exactly sure what the famously elusive Salinger was thinking when he wrote the words above. Yet, somehow he tapped into the collective psyche of the human race by confronting the aimlessness of mortal human existence with a viable and practical alternative; to give up the quest and substitute it with a life of selfless service.

If you get this, you can skip reading the book. You can skip the profanities and references to sex (although moderate by today’s standards). It’s not a book Christians have generally felt comfortable reading or recommending. But we can certainly note that Salinger does a brilliant job of using a single unanswered question as a premise for painting a beautiful scene of a life dedicated to the well-being of others and, in the process, a life that becomes progressively oblivious to its own pain.

This life-out-of-death motif is central to Christianity. It underlies the sacrificial theme of both testaments. It illustrates what Jesus meant when he said that if you seek to find your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will find it. Here’s the connection.

To be clear, we do not serve to escape or forget our pain. We do so because Christ is our life and it is his divine nature to love and serve. The catcher-analogy breaks down at a point. Yet, at a practical level, to be other-centered is a great way to forget about yourself and your own misery. No rational person would deny this.

Which brings me back to my own question above: What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?

Ironically, as I am writing, my friend Siju from India posted in the comments section of last week’s blog-post. His words so perfectly and serendipitously describe where I am heading with the question above that I will borrow them (Thanks Siju!):

Bible study done by the natural mind happens in the realm of the flesh/natural which consists of “IMAGINATIONS, ARGUMENTS, PROPOSITIONS & CONCLUSIONS” which do not have the SUBSTANCE of LIVING BREAD that gives/maintains life. And such bible study (or ministry ) inevitably ends up in debates such as “Calvinism vs Arminianism”. It is like a hungry man given a fantastic menu in the restaurant, it tantalizes him but he is still hungry! And he does a deeper study about the dishes that he thinks will satisfy him and finds out their recipes and is thrilled for a time because of the discovery but faints because he has yet not got the meal!!! He then slanders this hotel and goes to another hotel and repeats the same thing but still does not receive the meal that can sustain/maintain his life with “vitality to perform daily tasks “, “pleasure satisfy his longings”, and “comfort in times of troubles”. New Covenant learning and ministry is NOT “learning and transferring concepts” but the broken and hungry being fed with “Living Bread by the Father” ( ) and due to a “love overflow” ( ) the same person is able to distribute “Living Bread in brokenness provided by Christ from the Father”.

The “study of the dishes”… What a powerful way to describe the practice of theology apart from partaking of Christ as the living bread from heaven!

The point is that there is no answer that can satisfy the yearning of the dying soul (Hence the Catcher-analogy above). The life that God alone can give is not an ideological construct and can never be reduced to one, which also happens to be the main point of last week’s post on Ravi Zacharias.

In the garden, God became an idea – an intellectual concept – the moment the humans sank their teeth into the forbidden fruit. By opting for an alternative source of life, namely the knowledge of good and evil, humanity subjected their notions of God to that source. And so God (god?) became a recruit into the thought-world of humans instead of the Creator outside of it.

In the process, God-talk became an intellectual and speculative thing, on the same par as Siju’s menus served in the different hotels apart from any real food that possesses the power to still appetites.

The idea of God as our life is too big for theology. In fact, it is not worthy of the designation “idea”. It is too real. Too incarnate. Too experiential. Too accessible. Too inviting. Too irresistible for the hungry and thirsty.

And the charge, that we will all lose our mental faculties and instantaneously become heretics if we dare conceive of life as something to partake of instead of reduce to a creed (menu?) of our choice, is too outrageous to be dignified by a response. As discussed elsewhere, the Biblical idea of heresy has to do with the act of choosing opinions and causing divisions in the process.

So where does one go?

You exchange the quest for a new lifestyle. You give it up. You walk away. You leave it all behind. You become like Salinger’s catcher in the rye. You become like Siju’s feasters at the banquet of living bread.

In short, you begin to conceive of Christ as your life, and his doctrine as a moment-by-moment adventure of impartation and response that will constitute a type of learning that can only be described as the school of Christ. You will soon find that not only your God-awareness but your other-awareness will increase with leaps and bounds.

This does not exclude study or discussion or deliberation. Rather, it provides the groundwork for it. Some of us have found that we cannot stop talking after we’d walked away.

There are great discussions in the rye, believe me. But they are wholly different to the depressing ones we had before we packed our bags.

What happened to Ravi?

Miller & Martin, the Atlanta-based law firm hired by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) to investigate allegations of sexual impropriety against their founder, released its report on Thursday.

It is devastating, to say the least.

Zacharias died in May 2020 from sarcoma. At his funeral, Mike Pence referred to him as “the C.S. Lewis of our day” and “the greatest Christian apologist of this century”, echoing a sentiment shared by millions of evangelicals worldwide.

As the RZIM website puts it, “For over 30 years and across 43 countries, RZIM has met millions of questioners with thoughtful answers concerning faith and God.” At the helm of this influential organization was the phenomenon of Ravi Zacharias – the Indian-born Canadian-American with the gentle spirit and razor-sharp intellect.

For years, the quickest draw in a duel with an atheist has been to grab your phone and swiftly swipe to a YouTube snippet of one of Ravi’s talks or viral answers to a doubting student during a Q&A in a packed auditorium at some or other famous university.

Now, we are all forced to deal with sentences such as “Tragically, witnesses described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.” This particular statement comes from RZIM’s “Open Letter” that accompanied the release of Miller & Martin’s report, so no rumours or conjecture here.

I cannot help but wonder what the student in that video is thinking.

So what happened? Why? What are we to make of it? How should we respond?

I think the most important thing we should do is not look for new answers, because there aren’t any. Humanity is still the beast it has always been, an issue that has been dealt with in depth in the pages of Scripture. The clearest presentation of the dilemma of being human is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we are all under discussion there. Ravi, you, me; all of us.

Our lives are a composite of two worlds, we read in Romans: The world of the flesh and the world of the Spirit. If we are dead in our sins – unregenerate, as we say – the world of the Spirit is reduced to the voice of the conscience; a law in our hearts that manifests as thoughts accusing or excusing us. Because of the power of conscience, Paul tells us, gentiles are just as accountable as the Jews who have a written law to guide them in matters of wrong and right.

However, neither the voice of conscience nor the Torah can provide the life-energy that is required to live up to their prohibitions and commands. For this to happen, one needs to enter the world of the Spirit and become a citizen there. This can only happen through a very real crucifixion and death to the world of the flesh and a subsequent resurrection in the world of the Spirit.

We have all kinds of fancy words to describe this passage, such as regeneration, new birth, conversion, getting saved, and so on. But it all boils down the same thing: I have died to my flesh and I am alive to the Spirit, who has now become my guide in the place of the fuzziness of my conscience and the impersonal dictates of a written code of regulations.

But here’s the thing, and Romans is pretty clear about it: Even though I have participated in this glorious transition from death to life and flesh to Spirit, it is still quite possible to exit the world of the Spirit and conduct my life in the old way of the flesh. In fact, at a certain level it is inevitable. And that is okay, because the immediacy and finality of the transition takes time to filter through to my cognition and from thereon to my actions. Life unveils itself in a fashion that can only be described as hesitantly; like a woman who guards herself ferociously until convinced that the one who pledges a commitment to her can be trusted with her gifts. It’s all one glorious process of growth and ever-increasing intimacy, until we shed our previous allegiances; not because we have to but because we want to.

In Romans, love fulfils the law and meets its obligation because the problem of illicit desire, underlying all the works of the flesh, has been overcome by non-elicit desire.

An analogy might be suitable here: It is the love that I have for my wife that has delivered me from my attractions to other females. She is the fulfilment of the law my mother gave me when she warned me against a certain type of girl. The commandment could not sustain me, I must confess, and even my nagging conscience proved little help when I was swept away by adolescent lust. But all of it disappeared when the power of love for the girl of my dreams invaded my soul. Those girls now seem bland and boring in comparison to the love of my life. I no longer have a need for mother’s prescriptions.

In Romans, as in the rest of Scripture, immunization against desire and the actions that spring forth from it is found in the realm of love. The Bible is a story of greater love subduing lesser love. It is as simple as that. The two greatest commandments are great exactly because they contain the power to deliver human beings from all their vices and addictions . “If you love me you will obey my commands,” Jesus said, and he was not kidding.

It is here where the world of the Spirit and the world of the flesh part ways. The world of the Spirit is governed by the force of love – love for God and love for neighbour. The satisfaction of intimacy with God banishes the need to be satisfied in other ways. Contentment is the distinguishing characteristic of the true believer. Just and right living is no longer legislated from the outside in, but has become an unstoppable force of passion from the inside out.

If this is true, then it means spiritual growth is nothing but an ever-increasing awareness of the beauty and sufficiency of God; not as some or other doctrine of transcendence but as a very real moment-by-moment life experience. I am constantly being weaned off my infantile dependencies. My maturity exists in my ongoing discovery that the shepherd’s green fields and still waters surpass all other sources of nutrition. My childhood cries are substituted by a single confession: “I shall not want.”

But it also means something else. Those who have wandered back to the world of the flesh and its works have done so because of one reason only: They have broken the first and greatest commandment. They loved something outside of God more than God himself. And the reason for this is that they have found a satisfaction and release in that thing – a satisfaction and release that they never discovered in God.

 “I need it,” the women quoted Ravi as saying. The great apologist understood and could defend the gospel better than anyone on the planet, but he had a need that was never satisfied in his walk with God. Whilst he excelled in the letter of Scripture, he failed in its spirit.

Ultimately, the great challenge is not to understand well, but to love well. I am convinced that our blindness and stubbornness in this regard constitutes the single biggest sin of the church of God in this present age.

This, I believe, is the word that God is speaking to us through the public disgrace of Ravi Zacharias.

On Dreams, Desires, Justice and Fellowship

2020-02-06At the root of all injustice lies a dream.

The dream presents a standard, and makes judgment possible. The dreamer judges himself by the standard of the dream, and then judges others by the same standard.

The dream is never inspired by what is, but what can be. The dream lies in the realm of the miraculous, which provides the power of its magic and enchantment. In the dream voices are allowed from another realm, which is why its inspiration seems divine.

The dream creates a new reality: The tension between what is and what can be. This tension is unbearable for the human soul, and it can only be conquered by one thing: Desire. Desire is the sweet voice that ensures the tension can be resolved. The distance between the dreamer and the fulfillment of the dream is eradicated by desire, for desire is the faith that promises to make the unreachable reachable.

When this judgment occurs, the dreamer leaves the path that he is on and ascends on the stairway of imagination offered by desire. The journey disengages the dreamer from his reality and allows him to escape into the nebulous world of the gods. Driven and energised by his desire, the dreamer takes the light at the end of the stairway as the standard for judging himself and others. He does not see that he has become inferior in his own estimation, and that the illusion of his future greatness is but a tranqualizer by which to suppress the horror of his nothingness in this world. He does not see that the world of goodness has been transformed into a prison of injustice by the power of his desire. Equality has been transferred to the top of the stairway, and justice becomes a crusade instead of a gift of the present.

There is only one antidote for the dark magic of desire’s fever and its hallucinations of injustice. It is to discard the dream and see God. God is not a dream, and he is not to be found in dreams. It is this one thing that separates him from the world of the false gods as expressed in images that aim to concretize the dreams of those on the stairway of desire.

God is in the present. His invisible attributes and divine power can be seen in the things he has made. God has made himself so visible that it is impossible to not see him. His life in all its goodness is around us all of the time. There is only one way to be blinded to God, and that is to turn him into a destiny, a dream, an accomplishment of the self’s ingeniousness. Idols are always imagined.

The serpent understood this, and that is how he beguiled Eve. Divinity was presented as a destiny. The present became the future. The contentment of all that she had was replaced by the desire of the one thing that was out of reach. The justice of creation’s fullness was replaced by the injustice of a single prohibition. Gratitude became offense. Fellowship became a dream. Unity became rivalry.

This is the curse of every human who does not see God. It is also the curse of those who claim to know God but have allowed the dream in their midst. This is true even of the church of Christ. When fellowship becomes a dream, it is destroyed. The enchantment of the dream is a bewitchment and a destruction of the real. The only church that will ever taste the fellowship and unity that exists in God alone is the one constituted by those who have died to the dream.

This death must first take place in the life of the individual before it can manifest in the life of the fellowship. Indeed, this is what it means to lose one’s life – to stop feeding on the image of an accomplished future self; to anticipate no future greatness in this world; to demand and expect no peace and comfort as this present age defines it. It is this collective death to aspiration that will bring the gathering of believers face to face with the glory that has already been bestowed on them as the church of God.

Unity that is constituted by a common dream and common vision, and expressed in a name that captures the essence of the commonality, falls apart when the anticipated penetration of the divine destiny fails to materialize. Its adherents will then be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. Such a church will be revealed as a daughter of Babel, not the Bride of Christ.

The true bride rejoices in the presence of the groom. She loves him in the here and now, and she does so with all of her being. She is immune to the voices of other lovers and the lust of desire for their images. She is content with his provisions. She rejoices in his love. She sees him as just, and shares in his justice. She becomes just as he is just. She loves as she is loved.  And so she remains with him forever.

Oh God, when every dream fails; when all anticipation is revealed to be but the dust of death; it is then when we return to you. Forgive us our idolatries and the imaginations they have inspired. You are the treasure in the field. You are the pearl of great price. Who do we have in heaven but you? And on earth we desire nothing but you. You are our shepherd. We shall not want.  



Who is the man in Romans 7?

Scream Edvard MunchRomans 7 may very well be the most misunderstood chapter in the Bible. It is here where we read the following words:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. Romans 7:15-20

Someone over at Quora asked me a while ago to explain the meaning of these verses. I know it is an issue for many Christians, so here is my answer.

I found it quite befuddling that the majority of responses to your question (by far) suggest that Romans 7:15–25 is about the “two natures” that battle within a Christian. This is in fact not the case, and it is evident from a few observations:

  1. Paul’s references in Romans 7, “I agree with the Law” (verse 16) and “I delight in the Law” (verse 22) occur nowhere else in the New Testament, and are irreconcilable with his statement that we have been “released from the Law” (verse 6) and that we have “died to the Law” (verse 4). Clearly the man of Romans 7 finds his moral guidance in the “old way of the written code” and not in “the new way of the Spirit” (verse 6). Similarly, his statement in verse 18, “I have the desire to do what is right,” contradicts his confession as a regenerate man in Philippians 3, namely that his main desire is no longer to do right according to the Law’s prescription (Phil. 3:9), but to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:10).
  2. The use of the present tense in the passage does not necessarily mean that Paul is speaking about a present experience. As some Bible commentators have pointed out, the tense that Paul is using here can be described as the “dramatic present.” (See, for instance, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, The Law: Its Function and Limits, Guildford and London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973, p184.) This means that Paul is using the same type of language as a man describing an accident scene that he had witnessed days before: “Here I am, standing on the pavement, ready to cross the road. The next moment I see this car. It jumps the red light and collides with a truck…” This person is clearly not speaking about his present experience, but is describing a past experience in the way that he experienced it while it was taking place. Thus, he is transporting his listener to the event for dramatic effect.
  3. In line with the above, readers regularly miss the fact that Romans 7’s own testimony, found in its opening verses, tells us how the chapter should be interpreted. Note verse 5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Paul is using the past tense (while we were living in the flesh) to describe a life that once was (sinful passions, aroused by the law, that bore fruit for death). As you will see, the rest of Romans 7 is about the experience of sinful passions that are aroused by the Law, and this includes Paul’s words about being unable to do the things that he wants to do! Thus, it is an account of a past experience, namely a life lived in the flesh void of the Spirit of God.
  4. The struggle of the man in Romans 7 is not with the Law in general, but with one single commandment, namely the prohibition to “covet” or “desire” (verses 7 and 8). The man in Romans 7 says that it was this commandment that enabled him to know sin, for it produced in him “all kinds of covetousness.” Thus, without it he simply would not have known sin for the powerful force that it is.
  5. The prohibition to “covet” is found in the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, and represents the sin of the heart as opposed to the misdeeds of the body. As I explained elsewhere: While the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the tenth commandment prohibits the intention that precedes those actions. Note that the seventh commandment tells a person not to “commit adultery,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s wife.” Also note that the eighth commandment tells a person not to “steal,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” Clearly we break the tenth commandment every single time before we break any one of the other nine. And the reason is clear: We first desire to do something before we go ahead and do it. Put differently, we first do it in our hearts before we do it in our deeds.
  6. Romans starts off in Chapter 1 with a discussion of the entrance of sin into the world, and explains that it took place when God “handed us over to covetousness/desire” as a just retribution for having rejected his revelation towards us. This desire underlies the entire list of external “sins” that are listed in Chapter 1, and is “irresistible” due to the fact that God handed us over to it. Romans 7 tells us that the Law was given not only as a restraint against committing “sins” (plural), but also as an instrument to reveal the unconquerable power of “sin” (singular) within us, so as to make us look away from ourselves to a Saviour. Romans 7 can never be understood if it is not seen as a response to the problem of Romans 1!
  7. The pattern of desire underlying sins is confirmed by the Genesis account of the fall of humanity: The woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). The desire then overcame her and she ate the fruit.
  8. Similarly, James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)
  9. Peter and Paul independently identified desire as the single force that has corrupted humans and causes them to behave in the ways that they do:…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:4)…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. (Ephesians 4:22)
  10. Paul’s ultimate answer to the problem of irresistible desire is found in Galatians 5:24, and is there represented as the mark of the regenerate Christian: And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
  11. The message of Romans 7 is that the spiritually astute Rabbi Saul of Tarsus was no exception to the rule above. While he could keep himself from doing any deed that was prohibited by the Law, he could not suppress the inclination of his heart that yearned to do them! The tenth commandment tells us that God is concerned with more than an outward allegiance to his Law. What he wants is an inward desire to please him. We should stop sinning not because we have to, but because we want to. And the only way in which that can happen is if we have a change of heart. Put differently: To keep the first nine commandments, one merely needs a measure of determination and will power. To keep the tenth, one needs a heart-circumcision, namely the crucifixion of the flesh as pointed out in “9” above. In this way the “Law is our schoolmaster to Christ.”
  12. To be regenerated is to experience a change of desire, and to identify Jesus Christ as the bread and water that alone can satisfy the appetites of the heart. It is to be enabled to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” When this happens, the underlying motive for treating others unjustly disappears, for they are no longer regarded as potential sources for one’s well-being. One is then regulated from within, and no longer requires the Law as a restraint. In this way the “righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled,” as stated in the opening verses of Chapter 8. Chapter 13 completes this message of Romans by stating that “love is the fulfilment of the Law.” The Biblical definition of love is nothing but a redirection of our passions and desires back to their rightful object, namely God. From that position of utter joy and contentment we are free to love others, for we no longer wish to complete ourselves by desiring those things that belong to them.
  13. To be totally and completely delivered from the power of desire has nothing to do with a hypocritical claim to “Christian perfectionism,” but is the simple testimony of a person who has encountered an object of affection that far outweighs all other preceding attractions. It is to fall in love, and to spend the rest of your life growing in that love. This is God’s only prescription for the problem of human, idolatrous desire. Thus, it is not far-fetched to reject the notion of “two natures” battling within, and to assert that Romans 7 and 8 present us with a beautiful picture of a life that has been captured by the power of love for God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In fact, every believer should have this testimony. If not, they have never tasted the fulness of the satisfaction that is found in Christ alone.
  14. Lastly, the idea that the defeat of the man in Romans 7 is synonomous with the normal Christian experience is completely contradicted by the context of Romans 6 to 8. Note the following verses: How can we who died to sin still live in it? (6:2); We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (6:3); We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (6:6); For sin will have no dominion over you… (6:14); …you who were once slaves of sin…(6:17); …having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness. (6:18); For when you were slaves of sin… (6:20); But now that you have been set free from sin… (6:22); For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (7:5); For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (8:2); …he condemned sin in the flesh… (8:3). In line with the above, note the contradiction between 7:14, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin,” and 8:9 “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” It is impossible that both statements can be true at the same time, and refer to the same person.

Escape from Heresy (IV)

fish-jumping-from-boulWith our previous definition of heresy in the bin (a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine), we are ready to take a step closer to the way the Bible defines the term. Ironically, we will see that the definition that we have rejected is not merely incorrect, but in fact an excellent display of heretical thinking.

We will also see that it has stood the test of time so well because it looks very much like the real thing indeed…

Heresy in the New Testament

So how does the Bible use the word? Whilst the Greek term hairesis (αἵρεσις) sounds very much like our English “heresy”, it actually means something else. Before we discuss this, let us note that the word appears 9 times in the New Testament, and that 6 thereof are found in Acts:

  • Luke uses the word to refer to the Sadducees (5:17) and the Pharisees (15:5).
  • Tertullus uses it in his case against Paul, in reference to the Nazarenes. (24:5)
  • Paul uses it in his defense against Tertullus’ accusations, referring to the manner in which the people were speaking about “the Way”, that is, Christianity. (24:14)
  • Paul uses it in reference to the Pharisees, and his former life as one of them. (26:5)
  • The Jewish leaders in Rome used it in reference to the Christians, when they request Paul to share his views with them. (28:22)

At first glance it feels like we are on familiar ground: Everyone accuses everyone else of heresy. But a closer inspection of these verses reveals that the word refers to the people – the actual movement– not just the doctrine held by them. Which is why English Bibles typically translate hairesis as “sect” throughout Acts.

The word is used in a similar way in Paul’s famous teaching on the Lord’s supper: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions (hairesis) among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19)

The “works of the flesh” list in Galatians 5 also includes the word: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (hairesis), envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

The last reference comes from Peter, and provides us with the only Biblical example where the word appears to be used as we understand it: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)

We will return to Peter, but let us note for now that the New Testament authors did not think of heresy purely as a cognitive exercise gone wrong – an “incorrect belief” that did not conform to an established, accepted doctrine. Rather, they thought of it in terms of something that caused division. Heresy had to do with factionalism.

If we look at the etymology of the word, it becomes clear why. Derived from the Greek hairein (to choose, take, grasp), hairesis means “choosing or taking for oneself.” Thus, it refers to a “self-chosen opinion” (Strongs) that separates the person from the group and causes division. According to some scholars, it derives from the Indo European root ser which means “to seize”, and is linked to the Hittite saru and the Welsh herw. Both these words mean “booty.”

Thus, the error is not to be found in an incorrect or incomplete understanding of a matter, but in the choice to settle on an opinion that will lead to division. Out of the 9 references in Scripture, 8 carries this clear connotation.

Whilst the reference in Peter may seem like an exception, the context makes it clear that the “heresy” of the false teachers had nothing to do with theological issues, and everything with “greed”, “sensuality”, “lust”, “passion” and the like.

The problem with the “heresies” in Peter is clear from the adjective – they are “destructive.” Likewise, the problem with the false prophets who will spread them is that “many will follow their sensuality.” As above, the heresies will lead to a schism among the flock of Christ, and the outcome will be detrimental for those who have been torn away. The problem of the “false words” of verse 3 is not that they fail to conform to a correct credal construct, but that they enable the false teachers to “exploit” their hearers.

Again, note the focus on the “self” and its opinionated choices.

False Doctrine in the New Testament

Does the Bible then say nothing about doctrine that deviates from Biblical doctrine and becomes “false” in the process?

It does, but in a manner that accords with the way it defines hairesis.

For instance, Paul tells Titus that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9)

Churches love this verse and do everything to follow it to a T. Which is why I was once banned from a Pentecostal pulpit after telling two senior elders that I no longer believed that people who do not speak in tongues have never received the gift of the Holy Spirit. I had forsaken sound doctrine, as sound doctrine was understood in my classical Pentecostal congregation, and could no longer give instruction in it to my congregants. Thus, I no longer qualified as their pastor.

When I convinced my best friend to get baptised with me in the summer of 82, his Dutch Reformed dominee wanted to administer censure against him. Many godly elders in South Africa suffered that fate in the seventies and eighties as a result of their decision to be baptised as believing adults. They had contradicted sound doctrine and suffered public rebuke, in accordance with Titus 1:9.

And so we can go on, which brings us back to the problem of defining a heretic as someone who has embraced a doctrine at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine: Orthodox according to who?

If we carry on reading in Titus the problem resolves itself. Those who contradict sound doctrine are empty talkers and deceivers who teach for shameful gain (note the corelation with Peter), devote themselves to Jewish myths, and profess to know God whilst denying him by their works.

On the other hand, to “teach sound doctrine” (2:1) is to teach the older men to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. It is to teach the older women not to slander or become alcoholics, but to train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure. It is to teach the younger men to control themselves. It is to teach bondservants to respect their masters, not be argumentative and refrain from stealing, so that in everything they may “adorn” the doctrine of God. It is to teach people to submit to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

At this point you may ask, “Where on earth is the doctrine in all of this?”

The answer is rather disturbing: The word “doctrine”, as we understand it (a systematic codification of beliefs, along with its verb form “indoctrination) does not appear in the Bible. The Greek word is simply “teaching” (didaskalia). And the content of the teaching in Titus is the application of the Christ-lifestyle to males and females, the young and old, and bondservants.

This, believe it or not, is “sound doctrine.”

The Heretic in Titus

Interestingly, it is in Titus where we run into the “heretic” (hairetikon), the only place in the entire Bible where the word appears.

By now you should know what to expect. He is contrasted with those who hold to the “sound teaching” by virtue of their “good works” (a term that appears 6 times in Titus’ 3 short chapters and characterizes sound teaching better than any other term), and is identified as follows: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division (hairetikon), after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:9-11)

Interesting, isn’t it? The heretic is the one who gets involved in religious controversies and quarrels about the law, who draws conclusions and stirs up division as a result. The one who embraces sound teaching is the one who avoids these things, who does not quarrel, who refuses to be argumentative, and who channels his/her energies into becoming a “model of good works” (2:7).

If this does not shake you to the core, then perhaps you are unaware of what goes on in the inner circles of the denominational universe, and behind the closed doors of theological faculty boardrooms.

Does the rest of the New Testament concur with Titus? We will explore this in the posts to come.

(PS: I am aware that the above raises a myriad of questions, and lends itself to a number of misinterpretations and caricaturizations. But let’s stick with Scripture and trust it to address these issues as we continue to explore this theme.)

A Turkey’s Tale (A re-post)

I posted this 6 years ago, but a re-post seems appropriate at this time. As I am writing, the entire globe is yearning for a “return to normalcy.” We are using our memories of the past to construct our vision of an ideal future, and this enables anticipation – that powerful and enchanting substitute for real faith.

Ironically, the focus of true faith is presence. Translated into time, that means immunity to the regrets or nostalgia of the past (including bitterness towards those who messed up our past), and immunity to the fear or anticipation of the future (including an attraction to those who can lead us to a better future). It is the ability to experience the fullness of God in the now, regardless of the circumstances accompanying it. Thus, it is ultimate freedom.

Presence, of course, is not a type of “awareness” or “mindfulness” sought for its own sake, through meditation, contemplation or any such strategy. It is Christ with us. There simply is no other way in which frail humans made of dust can partake of the eternity which is to be found in God alone. 

2TurkeysBI am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:

I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.

Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:

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All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12


Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.

Escape from Heresy (III)

fish-jumping-from-boulOn that fateful day, 27 October 1553, on the plain of Champel at the gate of Geneva, whilst the flames were engulfing Michael Servetus, he used his last breath to cry out in a loud voice, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” The words were ignored by the bystanders, and Servetus died soon afterwards.

Commenting on the affair, in his Calvin: A Biography, Bernard Cottret wryly remarks: “He passed away after committing a terrible error of syntax; he cried out, ‘Oh Jesus, son of eternal God, have pity on me!’ in place of the proper, ‘Oh Jesus, eternal son of God.’” Cottret concludes: “His punishment was due to the misplacing of a single adjective. Heresy is never anything but a question of grammar.”

Servetus did not agree with John Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity, and so rejected the notion of Christ’s eternal sonship. The solution to his heresy was a simple alteration of words, a “confession” that would set the matter straight. And so William Farel, like a good grammar teacher, tried to persuade Servetus in his final hours to fix his sentence construction and earn his freedom. But of course Servetus didn’t.

The Chronicles of Geneva

The obsession with a correct articulation of words and sentences as a sure antidote to heresy governed the religious thinking of 16thcentury Geneva. The Registers of the Consistory of the city confirm as much. The single theme that recurs throughout these records, in some or other form, has to do with the citizens’ ability to recite the “Pater” and the “confession” faultlessly. And yes, these people were summoned to appear in front of the consistory if there were any doubts about their religious commitments.

Here are some typical extracts, dating from the years 1542 and 1543. In each case, John Calvin was present:

Jacques Emyn: Summoned to render an account of his faith. He responded that he had made little progress and said the Pater, “Our Father, etc,” and a few words of the creed. The Consistory advise, having given him proper admonitions…

Charriere: She said her Pater fairly well, the creed very little. Remanded to Thursday.

The sheath-maker’s wife: …in the French language she could not say her creed; in Latin in a general way.

Clauda, daughter of Tyvent Joctz: …said the prayer poorly, and does not know the confession. She was admonished…

 And so it goes on, page after page, month after month, year after year. The only other spiritual activity that enjoyed the same scrutiny was the attendance of Monsieur Calvin’s sermons. The question, “Are you born again?” does not appear in the records.

The error behind the contemporary definition of heresy hinges on the very misunderstanding that governed the thoughts of the religious elite in Calvin’s Geneva, namely that it is possible to capture and preserve the essence of the sacred in a formulation that consists of mere human words and nothing more.

It should be noted that this understanding obscures the true nature of evil by subtly suggesting that one can banish it through the powers of a credal construct. Words arranged in the correct order becomes a type of magic charm that can dispel the darkness of the human heart. If only I can extract the good confession from the heretic, I will have destroyed the heresy. If not, I will have to destroy the heretic. (If not by fire, then by rumour).

The Real Problem

Where on earth did this idea come from?

We could approach the question like good historians, citing a pendulum-like overreaction on the Reformers’ part to the mysticism of the late Middle Ages.

Or we could point to the fact that the Reformation coincided with the dawn of the Renaissance – that golden era of enlightenment rationality, the scientific method and the birth of the industrial process and left-brained utilitarianism.

Or we could remind ourselves that the power of words experienced a revival during Luther’s time due to Gutenberg’s invention that immortalised the speech-bubble by turning it into print, hence the centuries-old association between the Protestant message and the gospel tract. And so on.

We can do so, but we will be scratching the surface.

The idolisation of words as containers of spirituality stretches much further back than the time of the Reformation. It even precedes the word-obsessed religious subculture of first-century Palestine – one that prompted Jesus to rebuff prayers that relied on a vain repetition of words to increase their efficacy, and rebuke those who confessed him with their lips whilst their hearts were far from him.

In fact, it predates the Isaiah passage that Jesus quoted from, “…this people draw near with their words” and “their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13, NASB), and it does so by millennia.

The Sacralisation of Language

Study the history of religion and you will soon run into the fascinating phenomenon of sacred language.

Like the architectural design of religious edifices symbolising the coveted penetration of the heavens, or the idea that some select locations on the globe are more suitable than others for doing so (this mountain, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Mecca, the “church” around the corner…), or the notion that spirituality is an impossibility without the mediation of a guru or holy man or priesthood of sorts, or the conviction that God is in the habit of assigning strange titles and dress codes to individuals who have learnt about him in settings inaccessible to the general public; the belief persists that there is an indissoluble bond between God’s revelation of himself and the words by which that revelation were conveyed.

The idea might not have been a bad one, were it not for the fact that it suffers from the same malady as our conceptions of what makes a heretic: Everyone seems to have their own version of what God has revealed to us.

And so there are tens of thousands of well-meaning folks, especially in the southern states of the USA, who remain convinced that God’s chosen language of communication is the type of English that King James and his cohorts spoke at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Travel north to Pennsylvania and you will run into Amish believers who are convinced that God would have them read the Bible in Luther’s Gothic Script High German, even though many of them struggle to understand the antiquated language.

Visit a couple of traditional Catholic churches on the way and you will meet people who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the sixties, that allowed the use of vernacular languages in the Mass in the place of Latin.

There are many other examples.

The phenomenon is not restricted to Christendom. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a revelation specifically in Arabic and should only be recited in Quranic Arabic. Translations into other languages are mere “interpretations.” Shinto practitioners chant in a form of Japanese that was spoken in the ninth to twelfth century. Hindus worship in Sanskrit, a language considered “dead” by many. Buddhists memorise their texts in Classical Tibetan. And so on.

The pattern repeats itself throughout religious history and can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation as we know it. Sumerian, one of the oldest languages known to humanity (spoken in ancient Mesopotamia of the Bible), was replaced by Akkadian in the second millennium BC, but lived on as a sacred and ceremonial language until the first century.

You cannot really go much further back than that, can you?

You can, in fact: To a time before language existed as we know it today; to a time when the notion of “knowledge” was understood and intended to be conveyed in a manner that transcended the limitations of mere spoken syllables and written symbols.

More about that in the posts to come.