The Basics of Life

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-3-50-04-pmRevien and I have just returned from an unforgettable weekend spent on a Free State game farm with a group of over 30 believers.

There were no special speakers.

There was no set program or agenda.

There were no presentations, projectors or video clips.

The were no musical instruments, except for a guitar.

I knew almost everyone in the group, and so I was aware of some imposing academic qualifications and remarkable professional accomplishments. I also knew how incredibly gifted and skilled some of these people were. And I knew that quite a few were involved in areas of selfless, sacrificial service that would qualify them to be sainted by the Pope.

But hardly anyone else knew, none of it mattered and nothing was ever mentioned. We were mere brothers and sisters, and what we had in common far outshone everything else we had done in our lives, both good and bad.

Our common ground, I believe, can best be described as a simple conviction that the fullness of God is to be found in Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ has made himself unimaginably accessible to each and everyone of us.

If this truth does not strike you as mind-bogglingly profound, then it can only be because the reality of it has never dawned on you.

The fullness of God… Can we even begin to imagine what this means? Those famous Hubble telescope images testify to one small part of who he is. The rainforests of the world to another. The beauty of romance, and of music… The inexplicable nature of young children… The ocean… The fragrances, from flowers to freshly ground coffee beans… The tastes…

The list goes on and on, and still we are nowhere close to describing or comprehending his fullness.

God poured the totality of this fullness into Christ, and then Christ invited us to come to him and partake of him as a starving man would partake of a banquet prepared for a king.

This is who he is. This is what he has done for us.

Most of all: He knew who he was dealing with. He knew what he had to to for the whole thing to work out and not be undermined by our imperfections.

And so he bypassed us and gave us a single instruction: Forget about yourself and look at Jesus Christ. Behold him, hear him, trust him. That’s all you need to do. Learn from him. Do so, and you shall find yourself coming face to face with the living God…

If you believe this, I mean truly believe it, then you will soon experience an unintended and inevitable consequence: You will begin to lose the taste for depictions of him.

Mere words will no longer suffice. Screaming men in suits will no longer seem to channel him. Neither will hulky youth leaders with Jesus tattoos and designer specs, or trance-like worship songs sung by beautiful girls with angelic voices, or fog on the stage, or feathers from angels’ wings, or street healings, or football stadiums filled with people…

When compared with the face of Christ, all of it will seem like the dust of death. This disturbing awareness will become progressively stronger, and you will not be able to shake or suppress it.

It will be a natural consequence of another awareness rising up in you, something that you may never have experienced and that you do not have words for. And then, slowly but surely, you will begin to understand: This thing that I am experiencing…this is the love of God…this is love for God.

I spoke and preached about faith for more than three decades, and I realize now that I hardly knew what I was talking about. What I have just described is faith. Faith is not, as some have suggested, a type of positive mindset magic that can coerce God into falling in with your plans. Nor is it a confessed belief in a series of propositional statements called a “creed.”

No, faith is to simply look away from yourself and to look to the Author of Life. This is what Abraham did, and this is the only thing that will ever qualify any person to be worthy of the name “child of Abraham.”

Believe me: Apart from this, no salvation exists.

And so God has given us faith and love, and a way to him that is so simple that a child can find it, yet too simple for those of us who think that he needs our gimmicks to turn him into an object of interest.

What type of a god needs an atmosphere in which to reveal himself? What type of a god requires dimmed lights, and mood music, and the astounding facilitation of his presence by some or other dynamic individual who knows just “how,“ in order to show up?

I’m not sure. The hypnotic prerequisites for this type of manifestation makes me think that he is not really a “he,” but an “it” – a god of our imagination.

The good news, as mentioned earlier, is that Jesus Christ knew who he was dying for. He understands our pagan inclinations. He understand our propensity to redefine faith and turn it into something “we must do.” He understands that sheep fall prey to wolves. He knows all of it, much better than we can ever imagine.

The fullness of God indwells him, remember?

And so he is patient with us. He will even allow us to see something of him whilst pursuing his presence in the most ridiculous of manners. But this is not to endorse our behavior. It is to assist us to turn from it. Whilst we are presuming on the riches of his kindness and forbearance, he is giving us time to repent.

Which brings me back to the weekend. And to an observation of what happens when a group of people who have been spoilt for the God-facilitation industry come together in the name of the One who has spoilt it for them.

It is an amazing thing to share a common interest in the Christ who is within us. It is to stare at one another in utter wonder and amazement, knowing that the revelation of the Jesus in my brother is complimentary to the revelation of the Jesus in me.

It is to behold one another as though one is beholding Christ, knowing that we will encounter dimensions of him in and through one another that is not accessible anywhere else.

And so we had to force every conversation to come to an end. Our insight into the mystery of God expanded again and again. It would have been no different if he was sitting there in our midst, speaking to us, revealing the Father to us.

In fact, that is exactly what he did. He was there – in his body.

A wise brother said something towards the end of the weekend: “You cannot put the wind in a box.” And we all understood. There is a depth of understanding and “knowing” that is restricted to the fellowship of the body. When we “behold” Christ in one another, we see things that are not seen when we are by ourselves. We cannot capture these revelations, box them, take them home, turn them into information and retrieve them at leisure. Moses and Elijah won’t camp on mountains.

And so we left, longing for our next gathering, longing for that part of Christ that can only be seen when we come together as his members and display the miracle of God’s fullness in our love for one another.

What do Ernest Becker, René Girard, Anders Nygren, Daniel Gilbert and the Book of Romans have in common?

Romans small3
Many moons ago I heard about a book that won the Pulitzer price for General Non-Fiction in 1974: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. The title intrigued me, and so I ordered it from the USA. (I could not find a single copy in the whole of South Africa…)

The book blew my mind. To this day I regard it as the best “non-theological” commentary on the human condition that I have ever come across. I followed it up with Becker’s Escape from Evil, and the experience pretty much repeated itself. And I am still working through his The Birth and Death of Meaning. Slowly…

I don’t think these books are everyone’s cup of tea, but they exposed me to a line of thinking that helped me greatly to understand the predicament of being human, as well as my Christian faith.

The only other scholar in the field of the human sciences whose writings had a similar effect on me was Rene Girard. His work on mimetic desire, conflict and scapegoating is fast becoming legendary. It is also becoming extremely popular, which is perhaps unfortunate. Girard has been, and is being enlisted as an apologist for a number of causes and doctrinal novelties that I doubt he would have personally endorsed. Sadly, this is often the case with profound thinkers who are no longer with us.

Added to this, Girard is a human being and his insights are certainly not complete or perfect. One does not have to agree with every tenet of his theory to gain much from it (the proverbial fish and bones). To elevate him to the status of guru is unwise. Many of his views do not sit well with conservative evangelicals, but that does not have to create an either/or conflict. His main contribution is in the field of anthropology, and his readers should consider for themselves what the implications are for their theology. For instance, the notion that you HAVE to reject the penal substitution theory of atonement in order to gain much from Girard is, in fact, not true. His work is multifaceted, and can be thought of as a series of self-contained units, each flowing into the other. There is no need to follow him slavishly, or to adopt each of his conclusions.

I have often thought of these two men as Cyrus-like servants of God, in the sense that they fulfilled a spiritual purpose without knowing that they were doing so, or at least the extent to which they were doing it. I suspect that Girard discovered it along the way, but that he was too modest to actually make something of it.

To elaborate on these purposes would fill a book, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say that Becker’s assessment of the human condition is pretty dark and damning, and that he suggests, as an objective scholar and social scientist, that “primitive Christianity” may be the only answer to the succession of failed immortality ideologies and “hero-systems” that have marked the human race since the dawn of time. Biblical Christianity, of course, takes the problem of death really seriously. Modern Christianity, according to Becker, is simply another “hero-system” or effort to deny death, and thus he relegates it to the same status as all other immortality ideologies. (All Restorationists may now applaud.)

The irony of these scholars’ work is that it has been mostly overlooked by mainstream theologians and believers (Girard’s work is finally being noticed, as mentioned, but this only happened relatively recently), seemingly because it did not come in the stereotypical theological wrapping. But this is in fact what makes it so powerful. As young researchers neither of them were crusaders for a cause or motivated by some or other belief system that created a research bias and predisposed them to looking for clues that would fit into an existing schema. They truly “stumbled” upon the powerful truths that they ended up articulating for the rest of us, and only later related it to the sphere of religion.

My all-time favourite interview is of Girard telling how he discovered that the Decalogue’s Tenth Commandment reveals mimetic desire to underlie all divine moral codes, and that it did so millennia before he came up with his theory. He notes that he finds it absolutely befuddling that this obvious fact has been overlooked by theologians. (First five minutes of interview – you can skip the rest).

To me Becker and Girard’s work represents two sides of the same coin: Mimetic desire is in fact the subjective response to the reality of death, and thus our greatest and most sophisticated effort at denying death. (Eve found the power to dismiss God’s warning of impending death through the enchantment of desire).

What we covet is in fact the life of the neighbour, and the closest we can come to this is to appropriate his/her possessions. In the process the neighbour is “sacrificed” to effect the life-exchange and overcome death. Our fascination with vampirism is but one testimony to this subconscious drive within.

This, of course, is where the gospel comes in. My greatest companion volume to Becker and Girard is Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros (another largely forgotten work) – a book that shaped Karl Barth’s theology significantly.

Barth beautifully summarises Nygren in these words:

Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.

The book that completed the puzzle for me was Daniel Gilbert‘s Stumbling on Happiness. His groundbreaking work in regard to affective forecasting reveals that we desire things because we anticipate that they will make us happy. In this way we become slaves to our projections of a happy future self who inevitable ends up being grumpy about everything we have accumulated and achieved for him/her when we finally meet him/her.

Gilbert is not a believer, but his insights into the things that make humans tick are worth noting – and a lot of fun to consider alongside a Bible open to Ecclesiastes.

I was blown away when I discovered the book of Romans to be an eternal and majestic exposition of all of the above, especially Paul’s interpretation of the Mosaic law as a vehicle to reveal that God handed humanity over to desire as a result of rejecting him, and that none of us, no matter how religious, can suppress the power and dictates of desire, and so we “all have sinned”.

It is indeed impossible to understand the much disputed Romans 7, or even Romans 2, without these insights. In Romans 7 Paul represents the religious persona trying to do good but being tripped up by desire, revealing him/herself as a lawbreaker and in need of a saviour. In Romans 2 he hints at this by telling very “righteous” people that they were doing exactly the same as the “sinners” whom they were judging.

To conquer covetousness, and in the process fulfill the intention of the law as revealed in the tenth commandment, something called “love” is needed, that is, the ability to joyfully take what is mine and hand it over to my neighbour, as opposed to taking what belongs to my neighbour and appropriating it for me.

Agape is therefore diametrically opposite to covetousness, and here Nygren is helpful.

This suggests a reversal between the subject and object in the sacrificial drama, and this, again, is where Girard becomes helpful. The identity of the scapegoat is changed, and the “living sacrifice” is revealed as the only one with the ability to live this life of love and service and so fulfill the law by proving him/herself to be covet-free.

However, to do so, the underlying death-conquering motive that manifests in denial, mimetic desire and “heroism” must be dealt with, and this can only happen where there is an actual participation in the life that is really life. Hence, an identification with the life of God (as opposed to the apparent life of the neighbour) is necessary as the first step to be delivered from acquisitive, mimetic, erotic desire.

Romans 4’s Abraham reveals this action as something called “faith:” “My body is as good as dead, but God can give life where there is none!” The acknowledgment of “my body of death” is imperative as a basis for faith, and so Paul’s despair in Romans 7 as a result of his inability to conquer mimetic desire is intended to produce this very cry “who shall deliver me from this body of death” as a precursor of the faith that followed and that would lead to an impartation of Spirit-life in Romans 8, and thus to the new identity of a “living sacrifice” in Romans 12 (one who has died yet is alive, like Isaac & Christ) who is finally able to live the life of love and service expounded upon in chapters 12 right through to the end of the book.

Interestingly, the introductory passage to the “practical” section of the book, in the first verses of chapter 12, reveals that the “renewing of the mind” has to do with not thinking higher of oneself than you ought to, but to think with sober judgment, namely as a particular, single member in this new, resurrected body of Christ.

Thus chapters 1 to 11’s covetous narcissistic self that seeks to be served is exchanged in 12 to 16 with an “alive” sacrificial self that seeks to serve, and who never thinks of itself outside the boundaries of its particular calling in the community of the saints. Thus the rivalry that is prohibited by the tenth commandment, underlying and constituting the covetous self, is done away with completely. Envy and inferiority, as well as pride and arrogance, are also done away with.

In the place thereof, an identity with a very particular calling and equipping, whose life is shared with others, is encountered, embraced and accepted. The only rivalry that is left is revealed by Paul (tongue-in-cheek, I’m sure) to be the following: Outdo one another in showing honour! (12:10)

I have been long convinced that most of our psychological ailments spring from the cognitive dissonance triggered by the failure of our death-denying, hero-aspiring tendencies.

In other words, our failure to keep up with the Joneses drives us mad. And so it should, for God is telling us to go back to the right tree. I have found in Romans a paradigm to challenge our most basic and dearly held presuppositions, rather than just another “therapy” aimed at helping us to live up to our delusions. In fact, in my experience virtually all efforts at therapy represent efforts to assist us to better deny death and to better actualise or authenticate ourselves.

The converse is also true. I have been completely astounded at the impact of going the opposite route, namely using the above truths as a basis for counseling (anti-counseling?) brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truly, only those who are willing to lose their lives can find it, and any therapy that is not based on this truth is tantamount to doing interior decorating on death row.

Ironically, the Buddhist insight into desire as the cause of suffering and its related ideals of selflessness and Nirvana are now being “discovered” by many Christians, causing them to reject Christianity in favour of a philosophy of selflessness and slow, restful religion. Yet Buddhism or any of its derivatives cannot compare with the majestic way in which Paul expounds these very same things – the “primitive Christianity” referred to by Becker.

The Bible has a much more sophisticated and practical approach to desire and selflessness than what you can find in any branch of Buddhism, or anywhere else in the entire universe for that matter, but you have to read carefully to find it.

(This post was originally a comment on the blog of David McAnulty)

Goodbye, Mr Cauvin

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 8.01.26 PMHere’s a scenario…

It’s the year 96, and John is on Patmos. He’s had a second vision, and it is extremely disturbing. He is told not to disclose it, which relieves him greatly. The vision is dark and absurd beyond anything he could ever have imagined, and he is convinced no one would believe it.

In the vision he is shown a strange type of rectangular scroll, one that glows and that can be unrolled by pressing a circle on it. It contains a discussion amongst followers of Christ during the start of the great apostasy.

The discussion is about something called Neo-Jehanism. Turns out a man by the name of Jehan is going to become a big name amongst the saints centuries into the future, and gather millions of followers behind him. But not everyone will find him or his teaching appealing, and so another saint by the name of Zoonhermans would rise up and oppose him, also gathering millions of followers behind him.

 Ultimately the schism would become so absurd that it would be be narrowed down to something called the Five Statements of Jehan, composed to refute the arguments of Zoonhermans’ followers. During the times of the end, the Five Statements would be summarized by a set of letters that would serve as a type of code for determining whether one is a “Jehanist” or a “Zoonhermian.”

 The befuddling thing about the vision is that saints from all over the world would feel the need to place themselves into one of these two categories, and provide reasons for doing so.

 To make matters worse, each group would be severely divided amongst themselves: The Jehanists would be made up from hundreds of strange named clan-types who would constantly be bickering and arguing amongst themselves: The Elders, the English, some from the Immersers, and so on. The Zoonhermians would be made up of clans like the Method Makers, the Festival Goers, the Gift Receivers, many from the Immersers, and so on…

It’s winter here in South Africa. A friend gave Revien and I a truckload of wood last week, and so the two of us spent the best part of Saturday sipping Cappucinos and listening to the crackling of a blazing fireplace and some great music.

That was the nice part.

But then I began to fiddle on my Ipad, and stumbled onto a five year old Classic iMonk post with almost three hundred comments. The Calvinists and Arminians were at it again, and of course I felt obliged to follow the whole thing and ride it out. Right to its very end.

But it left me feeling strangely empty and fatigued. And wondering what on earth the point was of it all, and what Paul and Peter and John and the others would have had to say about it.

To make matters worse, I spent the previous Thursday doing research for a project that involved tracing the origins of Calvinism’s famous TULIP acronym, only to be reminded that it never existed before the twentieth century.

For those who are interested: Its first known use was in 1905, when the American Presbyterian minister and hymn writer, Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee, was heard using it at the Presbyterian Union Of Newark New Jersey.

And even then it was not fully developed. McAfee’s “U” stood for Universal Sovereignty, not Unconditional Election.

Of course it is said that the so-called Five Points are much older than that, dating from 1619 and the famous Synod of Dordt, where they were stated in response to the Five Articles of the Arminian Remonstrants. But even that does not solve the problem of TULIP’s relative late arrival at the Calvinistic party. Not all Calvinists are wildly excited about the acronym, or convinced that it faithfully represents Dordt. As Kenneth Stewart put it in  The Points of Calvinism: Retrospect and Prospect:

There is the striking fact that twentieth-century writing on behalf of TULIP has only very infrequently engaged with the actual Canons of Dordt of which the acronym purports to be a paraphrase or summary. This meant, and means that writers have been implying the fidelity of the acronym as a rendering of Dordt’s meaning without ever being pressed to demonstrate that this fidelity exists in fact. To call the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a ‘broad brush’ approach, is arguably too kind! Why has there been no inquiry as to whether there is actually a true correspondence between this alleged paraphrase of Dordt, and the actual intention of the Canons – widely available in English? We may well be overdue for a revisiting of the Canons of Dordt themselves – even to the point of quoting them, or making a fresh compressed summary of their actual contents.

That explains something I have often wondered about, namely why many Dutch Reformed dominees here in South Africa have never even heard of TULIP.

Thinking of all this, my cheery Saturday morning mood dampened, and in its place memories arose from over a decade ago. That was my post-Pentecostal period, during which I, too, earnestly tried to become a Calvinist.

The thing that I could not wrap my head around at the time (perhaps I should say heart) was double predestination, a term derived from John Calvin’s assertion that the decree of election is symmetrical with the decree of reprobation. In plain English, it means that the God whom I had come to know as the ultimate source of love had chosen to damn some to the very extent that he had chosen to save others.

Some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes iii, xxi, 5)

To make matters worse, the “eternally damned” weren’t mere stats on some theological pie chart, but a significant portion of the very broken children, teens and widows that I had been ministering to for years as a pastor and shepherd. God chose the majority of them to be damned forever and no one shall stand in his way? Has God then become my opponent in the ministry? Was Jesus even aware of this? Would he be angry if he found out?

These were the crazy thoughts that haunted me. And so I devised a plan: I would become a four-point Calvinist. I would not limit the atonement, and my acronym would simply be TUIP. That would allow me to have the best of both worlds. I could still listen to MacArthur, and distribute recordings of Sproul’s The Insanity of Luther, and read Piper’s The Pleasures of God, and introduce a younger generation to Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy, and collect Pink’s books, and dislike TBN.

I could have all of this without the nagging thought that there was something darkly terrifying about God, that perhaps he did not love my children as much as I did but hated them, that perhaps the whole unfolding nightmare would drive me to a place of such insanity that I would want to escape from this terrifying God, revealing myself to be one of the reprobate after all, and ultimately suffer the inevitable fate of joining the rest of them in a cosmic concentration camp where we would suffer forever without the merciful prospect of death by gassing or gun or suffocating under a pile of corpses – all of this so that God’s perfect sovereignty and justice would prevail.

I figured that I would never have to worry about any of this again. Calvin’s reference to a “secret decree” under the guise of God’s loving exterior would never give me another sleepless night, and I would never even have to wonder whether the decree was still secret after Calvin caused it to leak out.

All of this would magically vanish through a simple subtraction!

Which brings me to the flashback. I had to test my plan, and so I presented it to one of the brethren of my newfound Reformed community. The man had a formidable intellect, and was regarded as one of the more mature men in the group. I told him that I had made peace with the fact that I am a four-point Calvinist, and asked him for his opinion. His response was immediate and to the point: “We have a name for four-point Calvinists. We call them…ARMINIANS!”

Pop. That was it. There was no way out.

During that time another brother, whom I had grown to respect and love, proved to be somewhat more gentle in his approach. He used the term “inescapable conclusion” in reference to TULIP’s L.

And then there was the discussion where all of this was applied to the hopeless fate of non-elect children dying in infancy, which was perhaps the single most disturbing experience of them all.

I’ll spare you the rest. In the end, it all became too much and my effort to morph into a follower of a dead Frenchman by the name of Jehan Cauvin failed spectacularly. Which, in the long run, turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to me.

I put it all behind me, and conceded that my reasons for wanting to become a Calvinist (Cauvinist?) were infinitely stupid in the first place. It really had nothing to do with a desire to rethink my view of God, grace, election, free will, the atonement or anything else. These questions had been settled in my heart and mind years before, as a result of the teaching of the Bible, prayer, study, contemplation, fellowship, and simply walking with Jesus Christ through the thick and thin of life for two decades.

No, the reasons why I was attracted to Calvinism were all circumstantial. I can list them, but it is really unnecessary as the late Michael Spencer himself has already done a wonderful job in another one of his classic posts: Why Calvin is cool: An infomercial for Calvinism.

Note that Spencer starts the updated post with the words “Even though I am no longer a Calvinist, a lot of this essay is still true…”

Here’s some extracts from the post, providing us with a synopsis of Spencer’s reasons for calling Calvin cool, and perhaps providing some penetrating insights into the real reasons for Calvinism’s recent resurgence. Ironically, none of them has anything to do with the stuff that almost drove me batty over a decade ago, and ALL of them are to be found in other expressions of Christianity. (If one would only look!)

“Calvinists have their problems, but going the openness route or denying the authority of Scripture are not dangers in the near future…Calvinism is fired up about missions…Calvinism is the strongest resistance to the excesses and errors of the church growth movement…Calvinism is warmly God-centered…Calvinism is contending for the Gospel…Calvinism is evangelistic, when practiced and not just debated… Calvinism has a wonderful reverence for history… Calvinism has the best approach to cultural issues… Calvinism isn’t detoured into fads (Jabez, Left Behind etc.)… Calvinists are great apologists… Calvinists aren’t on television…”

Those things were all true, and wonderful, and available without having to become a double predestinationist! (or whatever it is called).

And so, in the end, I was happy to write a dear John letter to Mr. Cauvin. The whole thing was just a bad affair. I was attracted to him for the wrong reasons, which blinded me to his dark side and simultaneously ruined any possibility of other, more wholesome relationships.

These were the memories that surfaced on Saturday. And the, for a moment, I felt like phoning my old friend who had trashed my dreams of becoming a four-point Calvinist. I wanted to ask him: “How could you? How could you use a novel and questionable doctrinal construct, not a century old at the time and a babe in comparison with the doctrine of the rapture that you so despise, to bully people into a category of your own making and subject them to a ridiculous stereotype that flatly ignores their personal histories of following the Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching of Scripture to the best of their abilities?”

But of course it would be useless. I realized how little effect humanitarian considerations have on Calvinists when I read John Piper’s response to Thomas Talbott’s On Predestination, Reprobation, and the Love of God: A Polemic.

In fact, I reread it just now, and experienced a near irresistible temptation to get back in the fight and tell the whole world why Piper is wrong, and how both Scripture and common sense contradict him at every point, and why it is not okay to pray for your children thinking that they may be reprobates, and…

But then I’ll just go back there, and I’m not sure I want to do that.

Bye bye, John…

 

Death and The Prosperity Gospel

burning_money_symbol_picture_2_165377In the mid-nineties I enjoyed a rare privilege. With the help of an Afrikaans journalist I had traced the whereabouts of a man who was, at the time, the most notorious Christian in all of Southern Africa. I showed up on his Capetonian doorstep one sunny afternoon, and he kindly invited me in. What followed was one of the most memorable conversations of my life.

My fascination with him had begun many years before, whilst attending a week-long seminar where he spoke about the cross of Christ. He was by far the best Bible teacher I had ever heard, and remains so to this day.

In fact, his clarification of sin and salvation changed the course of my life.

But for a number of reasons his ministry nosedived soon after I met him, leading to an extremely public media crucifixion by the ecclesiastical establishment in South Africa. The whole affair ruined his reputation to such an extent that the remnant of his teaching ministry went underground, mostly in the form of cassette tapes. There it remains to this day.

Naturally, I was befuddled. How could a message of this profundity, this calibre, simply be wiped off a Christian landscape riddled with so many radically inferior versions of the same truths?

I was determined to find out, and hoped that my visit would reveal an answer.

It did. From the very lips of the man himself. Oh, we spoke for hours, and enough was discussed to fill a book, but a single statement stood out – one that has never left the back of my mind.

Over the two decades since then, it has both haunted and helped me countless of times.

It was simply this, and even now I can recall the moment when he uttered the words:

“I hate religion too much.”

I got it. And in that moment I knew that I was attracted to his teaching for more reasons than its sheer brilliance. I had the same problem, and it threatened to damage my work for the Lord in the very same way. I hated religion (perhaps I should say “religiosity,” to distinguish it from the true religion spoken of by James) too much. And I especially hated certain types of religiosity more than others.

Those words saved my life, for without them I would have fulfilled what I thought was God’s calling on my life: To become a crusader for the truth.

It sounds noble, doesn’t it? But we were never called to lay our lives down for the truth. We were called to lay them down for Christ, and the difference is monumental.

Note that I am speaking for myself here, and not for my friend who taught me this lesson. His hatred of religiosity came with its own hazards, and I respect him too much to speculate about them. But in my case it manifested as a dangerous substitute for God’s actual calling on my life: To forget about myself and my own offenses, and to proclaim his immeasurable greatness and the incomparable delights of losing and finding our lives in him and him alone.

So why am I going on about all of this?

Simply because I read a New York Times article this morning that stirred up all of those old emotions. And, like an old recovering addict, I had to subdue them by applying my golden line in a calculated, cognitive, emotionless manner, coupled with the closing of my eyes and a very deep breath:

“You hate the prosperity gospel too much.” 

If only you knew what it takes from me not to expound on this statement, not to explain why I hate it so much, not to at least leave you with some shred of information that may inspire you to also… you know?

The intoxicating potion is beckoning, as always, but I will refrain, albeit it with shaking hands. The glow of exposing the hucksters, of naming names, of storming into the fight… Alas, it is no longer for me. To quote Nietzsche (of all people), I fought the dragon, and in the process I became the dragon.

But I am quite happy to provide the link to the article (bet you are relieved!), for I think it is magnificently written. Also, the author has clearly, and graciously, been spared the dark offense that turned me into a poor apologist for this particular cause.

And so I heartily recommend Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me by Kate Bowler.

 

 

What is the “Blasphemy Against the Spirit”?

crossing-crossroad-businessman-fashion-medium copyA friend recently asked a question about the “blasphemy against the Spirit” in the comments section of the “Key to Hebrews 6:4-6” post. I am posting my response here for those who may be interested. A lot of people wonder about this issue, and there are many misconceptions about it, so I hope this will clear at least some of the fog.

The Unpardonable Sin in the New Testament

The idea of an “unpardonable sin” can be traced to at least three passages in the New Testament. The first is found in the gospels and appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The full text in Matthew (12:22-36) reads as follows:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The second passage is in 1 John 5:16:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

The third passage is in Hebrews 6:4-6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 

I dealt with the third passage here, and so I will omit it from this post.

A Work of the Spirit

Firstly, we need to notice that the Matthew 12 passage presents the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a way that is different to anything found in the first twelve chapters. Here we read Jesus’ words: “…I drive out demons by the Spirit of God…”

Secondly, we need to notice that a quote from the prophet Isaiah precedes the passage. It starts with the words: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” (v17). The quote is from Isaiah 42:1-4 and paves the way for the reference to the work of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Note that the passage in Isaiah points to several things that the Lord Jesus would do in his earthly ministry, but only to one thing that God the Father would do: “I will put my Spirit upon him.” It is God’s Spirit “upon” Jesus that would empower him to proclaim justice without having to quarrel, cry aloud or let his voice be heard in the streets. It is God’s Spirit who would enable Jesus to minister without breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smouldering wick, and to bring justice to victory and enable the Gentiles to hope in his name.

Why does Matthew quote the Isaiah passage? In verse 16 we read that Jesus had been healing people, and that he “ordered them not to make him known”. Matthew tells us that herein is a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Naturally, for the whole point of the prophecy was to reveal that the active agent throughout Jesus’ ministry would be the Spirit of God and not the forceful efforts of a human being or a mere  audible testimony. That is how he would “proclaim justice” without needing to quarrel or cry, or even having people “hear his voice in the streets”. And so his order to the people not to make him known is a fulfilment of the prophecy.

A remarkable parallel of the principle embodies in Isaiah’s quote is found in Zachariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

The “Anointed One” and the Kingdom

This brings us to the statement in verse 28: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” According to the Old Testament prophets, the coming of the kingdom and the appearance of the Lord’s “anointed one” were one and the same thing. According to the New Testament, the “anointing” is the Holy Spirit who comes upon a person or dwells in a person. And so Jesus is saying that the manifestation of the “anointing” is a sign that the kingdom is at hand.

It is also for this reason that Jesus’ famous reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue, and his subsequent statement that “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, began with the words “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” It is the Spirit-anointing that validates the ministry of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah.

Many people are in fact ignorant of the fact that the two most important words that we have in the Bible to refer to Jesus, namely “Messiah” and “Christ”, both mean exactly the same thing: The Anointed One. Messiah is a transliteration (a phonetic transcription of a word from one language into another with no regard for its actual meaning) from the Hebrew mashiach and Christ from the Greek khristós. The “Anointed One” was the future Jewish king from the Davidic line, anointed to usher in and rule in God’s kingdom.

More Than a Mere Exorcism

What we find in Matthew 12 is thus more than the testimony of a man, or a mere miraculous exorcism. We find a unique display of the Spirit’s power, with the express intention of revealing the appearance of the king and his kingdom, combined with the deposition of the “prince of this world”, the evil ruler who is identified as “the strong man”. We see here the dawn of the messianic age, the era of the Spirit’s power and conviction.

The fact that this was the intention behind the miracle can be inferred from the people’s response. They were “astonished” and asked” Could this be the son of David?” (verse 23). That was exactly the point. The “son of David” was the Messiah, the Christ, the one chosen and anointed as king of Israel, just like David was before him. Driving out demons “by the Spirit of God” was intended as a sign that the kingdom was upon the people, that the king of that kingdom was in the process of being revealed and that the messianic prophecies were being fulfilled.

This is exactly the effect that the miracle had on the people, except of course for those who refused to acknowledge and respond to the the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. They were not merely skeptical about a supposed miracle, but were in fact hardening themselves to a direct revelation from the Father, through the Spirit, that Jesus was Lord and Christ. 

The Spirit as God’s Agent of Conviction

To appreciate the above, we need to consider that the “anointing” was never intended to remain on Jesus alone, but to be distributed amongst his followers. Even though Jesus performed miracles in “the power of the Spirit”, this was intended as a mere introduction to something much greater, deeper and more lasting. God’s purpose was that all who would respond to the revelation of his Son, through the activity of his Spirit, would ultimately receive the fullness of the Spirit for themselves.

This “promise” is evident in Old Testament passages, such as Ezekiel 36:26-27:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 

It is also evident from many New Testament passages, such as the following ones in John’s gospel:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (14:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (16:13)

Years later, in his first epistle, John would look back on these promises and proclaim that they had been fulfilled:

But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (2:27)

It is clear from these passages that the way in which God deals with and speaks to human beings in this present age is through his Spirit.  Note Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-12)

It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of truth” who “convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

The End of Ignorance and the Era of Accountability

If God comes to us” through his Spirit” in this present age, then it follows clearly that the way in which to resist him is is to resist his Spirit. By resisting God’s Spirit we are, in fact, resisting the only available channel of legitimate divine communication with him, and thus all potential benefits proclaimed by and accessible through the Spirit.

Simply put, the sin against the Holy Spirit is unique because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is unique. It is a ministry of illumination, of enlightenment, and so it brings an accountability to humanity hitherto unknown to them.

Space does not permit an in depth discussion of God’s willingness to overlook human ignorance, but let us at least note that the Bible has much more to say about this than what people generally realise. The following verses provide a few examples:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)

Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Timoth 1:13)

And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-48)

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. (Matthew 11:21-22)

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:22)

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

The receive the illumination of the Holy Spirit is to have the both the problem and excuse of ignorance removed. It is for this reason that Jesus calls the rejection of the Holy Spirit an act of blasphemy. It is a willing, knowing rejection of God. It is a sin in the light and against the light. As God’s “agent” convicting a person of sin and righteousness, the Holy Spirit is the channel through which a person is led to confession, repentance and forgiveness. To resist the Holy Spirit is to willingly and knowingly resist the offer of forgiveness, and so it is a sin which cannot be pardoned on the grounds of ignorance or unintentionality.

Speaking Against the Son of Man

Note that Jesus said “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven”. Why? 

The answer is remarkably simple: There is nothing in Jesus himself that reveals him to be the Messiah, and so to merely reject the historical Christ, without any revelation as to who he is, is on the same par as rejecting any self proclaimed prophet. It is an act of ignorance, the reason being that the ONLY way in which people could recognise Jesus as the Christ was through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit sent from the Father.

This is clear from a number of passages in the New Testament, but one stands out. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (See Matthew 16:13-16), their answer revealed that no one knew: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asked Peter, who replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Note Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Also note that this “revelation” from the Father was not an arbitrary incident, but one that would serve as the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. The way in which Peter “recognised” Jesus models the way in which every future believer would recognise him – through a personal revelation from God the Father, through his Spirit. Indeed, no one can come to the Son unless the Father “draws” him or her (John 6:44).

Similarly, John the Baptist stated that Jesus was in the world, but that the world did not recognise him (John 1:10). He then went on to say to the Pharisees “among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). Finally, he confessed: “I myself did not know him” (verses 31 and 33). So how did John then recognise Jesus? Note his reply in verses 33-34: “The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” Again, God the Father, through a work of his Spirit, revealed Jesus to be the Christ.

The same principle is evident from Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Herein is the key to the sin “against” the Spirit. According to Romans 10, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. A person can only make this confession of salvation through the Holy Spirit, Paul says, and so it follows naturally that salvation can only be rejected by resisting the Spirit.

No Forgiveness in this Age or the Age to Come

The final predicament that we face in this passage comes from the statement that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either “in this age or in the age to come.” This has led many to believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit, once committed, becomes a permanent condition in the life of the one who has committed it. Yet this is not what the text says. It says that the penalty of the sin has eternal consequences, which is a wholly different thing. It never says that the sin itself cannot be repented from.

To understand this, imagine a doctor saying to a desperately ill patient that he has to take his tablets daily in order to get better, and then giving him a chilling warning: “If you do not take your tablets, you can never recover. Not now, not next week, not next month or next year, never ever…!” Does this mean that the curse becomes a permanent and unalterable reality if the person becomes agitated with the side effects of the tablets and throws them in the trash? Of course not. He merely needs to come to his senses, go back to the doctor for another prescription and start taking his tablets in order for their healing effects to start.

In the same way, the sin against the Holy Spirit has eternal consequences as long as it is being committed, but that does not mean that one cannot repent and yield to the Holy Spirit and find the forgiveness that has been so elusive during the time of rebellion.

Two Unpardonable Sins?

We have seen that there is only one unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. This oftentimes raises the question: What then about the “unsaved” – those who have never come to Christ. If they are never forgiven because of their lost state, does that mean that there are two unpardonable sins?

By now you should be able to answer this question for yourself: The sin of being and remaining “unsaved” when one is enlightened by the Holy Spirit is in fact the sin against the Holy Spirit. People who reject Christ do so by rejecting the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, not by rejecting some bearded Palestinian prophet from the first century who looks no different than thousands of male Middle-Easterners. And so Christ was really warning the Pharisees in Matthew 12 that they were alienating themselves from a salvation offered to them by resisting a display of the Spirit’s power. The era of the “Anointed One” had arrived, and, with that, the promised kingdom and deposition of Satan. This was the salvation that they had been awaiting, but now they were excluding themselves from it. During the times of “ignorance” they had the benefits of an Old Testament system of Law and sacrifice, but now they were expected to promote from the types and shadows to their realities.

A Final Word: The “Sin Unto Death”

This also answers our last question: What about 1 John 5:16’s “sin that leads to death” that is so severe that one should not even pray for those who committed it? Here it is again:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

With all of the above in mind, the question answers itself: The “sin unto death” is the unpardonable sin, the sin for which there is no advocacy or mediation. Unlike the sins committed by a “brother” that one can pray for, a prayer that God will answer by giving “life” to the brother, this sin is committed apart from Christ and the atonement. A mediatory prayer is entirely useless, for such a person is not a “brother” who qualifies for the intercessory work of the advocate.

This interpretation is clearly inferred from everything we have covered above, but one can actually find it in the immediate context of the passage. Note the words leading up to verse 16:

“And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth… If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Note that God’s testimony concerning his Son takes place through the “Spirit who testifies”, and that the one who responds in faith to this testimony receives the Son and “has life” whilst the one who rejects it “does not have life”.

This explains why we can pray for a “brother” who sins, and ask God to give him life, for he already has life and has qualified himself to be an ongoing recipient of life. Such a person’s sins are not unpardonable, for he has an advocate who speaks on his behalf. Here John echoes his earlier words “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

However, the sins of the one who does not have Christ and who does not have life (because he/she has rejected the testimony of the Spirit) are sins that lead to one place only: Death. An intercessory prayer for forgiveness is no use, for their is no advocate who speaks on his/her behalf. Such a person must first yield to the testimony of the Spirit and receive the life of the Son before we can pray for him/her as a brother or sister.

Confessions of a Charismatic Cessationist

IcefireIn the South African spring of 1999 I left the Charismatic fold. The timing was not intentional, but it coincided beautifully with what was going on in my heart. My ecclesiastical winter had finally passed. The cognitive dissonance caused by reading authors like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, CS Lewis and Watchman Nee, whilst enduring an outbreak of the Toronto Blessing in the denomination that had ordained me into the professional pastorhood, was something of the past.

I had discovered a new world, lush with expository sermons and void of emotional excess. I began devouring anything anti-Charismatic I could lay my hands on and was more than proud to call myself a Cessationist. And, of course, I told everyone in hearing distance to read the final, conclusive word on the Charismatic movement: John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos.

Nearly two decades of inner turmoil had left me seething with anger, and so, quite predictably, my rant soon became condescending, judgmental and pharisaical. I eventually realised that I needed to repent, but it wasn’t easy. There were people like David Wilkerson and Lee Grady, I had to remind myself. Pentecostals who did not fit the image of the stereotypical charismaniacs that I had created in my mind. And then there was a disturbing intellectual arrogance amongst some of my new found non-charismatic friends, something that made me feel at times that we were worshiping an icy cosmic computer who would freeze every single time that we got the TULIP code wrong.

At the time I was reminded of an air-conditioning advert that I had once seen in a Time magazine: A man holding a fire in one hand and a block of ice in the other. That pretty much summarised my experience. I did not want either of the two, and I did not know how to bring them together.

But thankfully I was also reminded of something else, a lesson that the Lord had taught me many years before: Christianity is about the person of Christ, not about an ideology. In Him all things meet and hold together, even if we cannot figure out how this actually works.

And so I rediscovered my first love: The Lord Jesus Christ. I repented, and resolved to walk with him again, which happens to be the best decision I have ever made.

As I did, I was reminded that there exists no tension in Christ, that he truly “is our peace”. Not only does he reconcile us with one another, as the famous passage in Ephesians tells us, but he also reconciles our impossible theological dichotomies in himself. There are times when he sounds like a Charismatic (“…you do not know the power of God…”) and times when he sounds like a Reformed theologian (“…you do not know the Scriptures…”). We are clearly dealing with two realities of the person of Christ here, each of which will become corrupt and antagonistic towards the other when separated into its own little corner.

Perhaps this explains something of the sad divisions amongst us as Christians. Our Lord is so huge, so rich, so multi-dimensional, that one can find an aspect of almost anything somewhere in him. And so it is no big feat to do so and to enlist that part of him as an apologist for our particular theological crusade, making it appear that we are indeed his truest representatives.

No, the real challenge is much bigger. It is to deny that part in us that are peculiarly attracted to a part in Christ, and to allow all of him to consume us. Only then will we see the fullness of the Father in the face of Christ.

Christianity Isn’t for You

images-12At the beginning of November 2013 blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post entitled “Marriage Isn’t for You”. The post went viral and attracted over 24 million views within four days after its publication. No one was more surprised than Smith. He described the experience as “staggering, inspiring, overwhelming, and more than a little intimidating.”

Smith’s clever choice of a heading certainly had something to do with it. I spotted the sentence amongst a myriad of Huff Post headlines, and immediately followed the link to the article, wondering what on earth this was all about.

But the post surprised me. Contrary to expectation, and quite opposite to first impressions, it argued that marriage was never intended for self-gratification, but for the sake of one’s partner. In Smith’s own words: “A true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, ‘What’s in it for me?’, while Love asks, ‘What can I give?’”

This, I would suggest, provides the real reason why the post caused such a media sensation. Not only had Smith inadvertently touched on one of the greatest mysteries of the universe, but also allowed his readers to hold the key that unlocks it.

A Profound Mystery…

Remember that rather strange sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – the one that reads: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church”? Remember that Paul was writing about marriage, and how marriage is an earthly reflection of a heavenly relationship?

If you do, then you may know where I am heading with this. According to Paul, the relationship between marriage and faith is a hidden one. It is a “profound mystery”, meaning that humans in general are unaware of the correlation between the two, or, if they are aware of it, they generally do not understand it too well.

It is this very ignorance that Paul addresses in the passage that contains the sentence mentioned above (Ephesians 5:21-32). In the human relationship between a husband and wife, the husband depicts Christ and the wife depicts the church, Paul says. Understand the correlation, and you can unlock the mystery of marriage.

Wives…

Beginning with the wife, Paul explains that the way for a wife to understand her role in marriage is to turn to her knowledge of Christ. There she will be confronted with a story of a lover and his beloved, and her experiential knowledge of what it means to be the beloved, that is, the one at the receiving end of the lover’s favour. She will be reminded that to be loved is a gracious and wonderful thing, a thing of acceptance and not initiation. She will be reminded that her calling is to yield, to surrender, to succumb, to be filled with the fullness of her lover’s life. Herein is ultimate satisfaction and safety, and the word that Paul chooses to embody this act of blissful concession is the word translated “submission” in most of our English Bibles.

It is this very holy and indescribable thing that the wife is to take from her walk with Christ, and bring into her marriage. This is not intended to be something mysterious or complicated. If a woman walks with God, it is as easy as taking the trusted old family recipe into a new kitchen and having exactly the same results as everyone has always had in the old one.

Husbands…

Having made this point, Paul turns his attention to the husbands. Their advice is exactly the same as their wives’, with one important distinction. What they are to bring into their marriage is not the role of the beloved, but of the lover.

This may sound daunting, but it is not supposed to be any more difficult than the preceding advice.

The man who walks with God understands that he was first loved before he could love in return. He understands that the love that saved him was the love of God, that is, a love that cannot be evoked, stirred up or earned by some ongoing performance on his part. It is something sovereign, eternal and unconditional, and it is so in all of its aspects.

To drive the point home, Paul uses the metaphor of the love that a “head” has for its very own “body”. It is a love that is birthed from an indescribable unity, and its very nature is to nurture, protect, nourish and cherish. “No one has ever hated his own body”, Paul says, and so the husband is informed in no uncertain terms what it means to be the “head” in this equation.

Mutual Submission

But there is something else that we need to notice. This act of loving “headship” on the husband’s part is not in contrast to the one of “submission” prescribed to the wife. In fact, the husband is also called to submit to the wife (see verse 21). What this means is that we are not talking about a role of submission versus one of non-submission, but of two roles of submission, albeit in two totally different ways.*

Of course the body is “submitted” to the head, but the head is in fact very much submitted to the body. Even though it initiates the animation of the body, its entire function can rightly be described as one of “service” to the body.

Is it any wonder that Christ, who is the head of the body, first introduced himself as its servant?

It is in submission that the two roles of husband and wife meet and are united. Diverse as these callings may be, they are introduced by a singular overriding and collective call: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

What the Copy Tells Us About the Original…

This is where our friend Seth Adam’s Smith’s insight comes in. Marriage is not for me or for you, Seth points out. It is for the other. He hit the nail on the head, if you would excuse the pun. “I am there for you”, the body says to its head. “I am there for you”, the head replies to the body.

But it goes even further than this. Whilst the insight may be a novel one for some (and undoubtedly fiercely disputed by others), it underlines something else, namely the nature of what it means to be a part of that other marriage, that is, the heavenly one.

If the nature of earthly marriage is derived from heavenly marriage, and if that nature is selflessness, submission and service, then what does it in fact tell us about heavenly marriage?

Put differently, if “marriage is not for me”, then how much more is “Christianity not for me”?

As It Is In Heaven…

I realise that I’m putting the cart before the horse here. We are supposed to get our understanding of marriage from our understanding of Christianity, not the other way round.

But sometimes one sees the cart before you see the horse, and this is what has happened with Seth’s post. Whilst it does a wonderful job of telling us how to behave in marriage, it does not provide the source of that wisdom. And so we shall do well to remind ourselves that marriage is selfless for one reason only: The model that it is based upon is thoroughly selfless, from beginning to end.

Let’s start with the head of this body, Christ: Christ loved his bride selflessly. What this means is that Christ’s attraction to his bride did not spring from his own needs or desires, stirred up by the prospect of having those needs met in a union with her. Rather, it sprang from the needs of the bride, and the prospect of him fulfilling that need in her. Christ’s love was a giving love, not a taking love.

To be drawn to a person to the extent that that person needs you, rather than the extent to which you need him or her, is a strange and foreign concept in the world we live in. It turns the direction of what we understand as “love” around. Yet this is the way in which Christ loved us.

The Bible is clear about the correlation between people hungering and thirsting after God, and God’s love for them. Passages in this regard are numerous. Our need for him is what draws him to us, as upside-down as that may sound. The blessedness of the poor in spirit and those who mourn and hunger and thirst after righteousness are contrasted with the woes of those who are full and need nothing. He came for the sick, not the healthy. He is close to the brokenhearted. He resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. He sides with the returning prodigal of Luke 15, the sinful tax collector of Luke 18 and the adulterous woman of John 8. To drive the point of his strange love home, each time he does so in the presence of those who are religiously smug and unaware of their need for him.

But the passage that sketches the contrast most strikingly comes from Luke 7. Here we find the principle repeated in a narrative of another sinful woman and another Pharisee, but we also find something else. Note the following words:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wwiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Yet again it is the needy one who attracts Christ to her, and who receives his mercy. But the story goes one step further than the ones mentioned above, and explains how this very fulfillment of her need is transformed into a miraculous and wonderful thing, namely her love for Christ.

What we learn from this passage is that the selfless love that Christ has for those who are desperately aware of their need for him, fills them in such a way that it evokes deep gratitude and a reciprocation of that very love. Indeed, they love God because he first loved them.

At first glance this reciprocated love may seem selfish, in the sense of “I am attracted to you because of what you can do for me.” But in fact it is not. The reason why Christ can love without the anticipation of some sort of “filling” is that he is already filled by the love of the Father. And so he loves freely and without condition or ulterior motive.

Once a human being becomes the recipient of this divine love, the same miracle occurs inside of her. She is filled with the fullness of God in such a way that she no longer needs anything else, and this divine contentment manifests itself in a love that bubbles forth from a position of fullness exactly as Christ loves from a position of utter fulfillment and joy in the fullness of the Father.

Note the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

This fullness enables us to be attracted to others based on their needs, not ours. This fullness enables us to love one another as Christ has loved us, demanding nothing from them and anticipating no reward for our love, but desiring only to share the richness of the fullness within us.

The Insight that Transformed Karl Barth

1101620420_400Few people are aware that much of the theological genius of the legendary Swiss theologian Karl Barth can be traced back to a book that dramatically altered his understanding in this regard. It expounded the two different types of love described above, namely the love of God as opposed to the love of fallen man. This monumental work was written by Anders Nygren and the title says it all: Agape and Eros.

In Barth’s classic work Evangelical Theology, he relies heavily on Nygren and says the following about these two types of love:

Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible. In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.

The conclusion of this whole matter is astoundingly simple. If Christ has filled me with all the fullness of God, then I no longer need Christianity to do so. Then Christianity need not feed or satisfy me in any way to retain its appeal. Then my Christianity is no longer for me, but for others. Then the fellowship of the brothers and sisters need not meet the requirements of my personal checklist to qualify for my inclusion. Then I become a giver of the life that is within, wherever I am and whatever I do.

And as I do so, the words of Christ constantly prove to be true: It is more blessed to give than to receive. This type of giving does not deplete my resources, but expands and increases them. This type of love does not drain me, but reinvigorates me. As I give, God replenishes, and what could possibly be more blessed than that?

* Not everyone agrees that Ephesians 5:21 teaches mutual submission. See, for instance, Wayne Grudem’s “The Myth of “Mutual Submission”. It should be noted that most scholars who share Grudem’s views do so because they believe that the idea of “mutual submission” promotes “egalitarianism” by seriously undermining the Biblical teaching of the unique authority and leadership role of the husband in marriage. However, if we understand the term “submission” as a general category of selflessness and service, and one that underlies all the distinct callings of the members of the body, including that of husband and wife, the dilemma is solved.