Archive for the ‘True Christianity’ Category
I 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:
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.
5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. 6:1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And this we will do if God permits. 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 5:12-6:6
I recently contributed to a discussion on verses 4 to 6 above, and thought it would be helpful to share some of my thoughts here for those who are interested.
As you may know, these verses have proven to be a major stumbling block for many believers. They seem to suggest that it is impossible to repent and come back to the Lord after having “fallen away”. This is an obvious problem for those who have “backslidden” at some or other stage of their Christian walk, and who are trying to come back to the Lord.
It is also, and especially, a problem for those who have come back to the Lord after a period of backsliding, and who are haunted by the possibility that the Lord has not accepted them back or fully forgiven them.
Theologians generally try and escape the severity of these verses by going one of two routes:
1. They argue that the term “fall away” implies a total apostasy and denial of the faith, and not just a falling into sin.
2. They argue that the people referred to by the author were not really saved to begin with, and that they rejected the fullness of the revelation or enlightenment intended to bring them to salvation. If you reject the conviction of the Holy Spirit at such a level, then there remains nothing else that will convince you, hence the “impossibility”.
A Third Approach
However, there is a third way to approach these verses, and that is to look at the “big picture” of Hebrews. When we interpret the passage against the backdrop of the entire letter, especially with due consideration to the immediate context of verses 4 to 6 (beginning in 5:12), we find a message that is immensely positive and encouraging, and actually means the exact opposite of the above interpretations.
Let me start by pointing out that the error of both interpretations is the failure to interpret verses 4 to 6 in the light of verse 1. Does it not strike us as odd that the re-repentance that is prohibited in verse 1 is suddenly portrayed as a desirable but unattainable ideal in verse 6? In verse 1 we are told that repentance should not be repeated. In verses 4 to 6 we are told that repentance cannot be repeated. The author seems to be telling his readers that they are trying to do something that cannot be done, and that it cannot be done because it should not be done. Herein is the solution to the dilemma, as we will see in a moment.
“Once” and “Again”
To understand this, we need to understand the way in which the author juxtaposes the words “once” and “again” throughout the letter (e.g. 9:25-10:14). “Again” signifies the imperfection of the Old Covenant sacrifice, and “once” the perfection of Christ’s.
Keep in mind that the recipients of this letter were Hebrews, i.e. Jewish Christians. Also keep in mind that the Jewish nation as a whole rejected Christ due to the fact that they could not make sense of Christ’s Messiahship against the backdrop of their own religious traditions. The very shadows and types of the Old Testament that were intended to prepare the way for the Messiah actually blinded them to the Messiah. Jewishness, if not correctly understood, can prove to be a handicap in one’s grasp of New Covenant truths. It would appear that this was the problem addressed in the letter to the Hebrews.
To view the cross through an Old Covenant “lens” is to underestimate the finality of it. It is to see it as a sacrifice that should ideally be repeated regularly, in line with all the other sacrifices of that dispensation. This view would, quite obviously, manifest as an understanding of repentance as an associated act that also needs to be repeated again and again (repentance being the subjective response to the objective act of sacrifice).
And so the Hebrew Christians were not advancing towards maturity as they were laying again and again a “foundation of repentance from dead works” (verse 1, boldfaced in the text), in line with their understanding of a sacrifice as something that needed to be repeated again and again. This manifested itself as a need to have the “basic principles” taught to them “again” (5:12) which is, according to the Hebrews author, tantamount to feeding on milk, i.e. the first step associated with growth.
The impossibility of “repenting again” (6:4-6) is stated to emphasise the doctrinal absurdity of the idea, as unthinkable and impractical as “crucifying once again the Son of God” (6:6; 9:25-26). It is NOT stated as something that needs to happen but is now prohibited by an angry God who has run out of grace. In the New Covenant the repentance of regeneration happens once, because it is not the effortful turning of a human being, but rather the “perfecting for all time those who are being sanctified” 10:14. (This type of foundational repentance should not be confused with daily and ongoing “repentance”, which is legitimate and necessary, and not referred to in these verses.)
This is confirmed by the words in verse 1 “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works”. Thus the entire passage speaks against re-repentance, and identifies it as the cause of the Hebrews’ spiritual immaturity. The “impossibility” of verse 4 is intended to reinforce this truth, revealing that the New Covenant was never intended to provide an opportunity for re-repentance (Also see 10:26). In fact, this is not merely undesirable but impossible as we are no longer the ones overseeing the act of sacrifice. This Lamb was provided by God, and he only provided one.
The reason for a single sacrifice, resulting in a single repentance, is simple, and clearly stated in other passages in Hebrews:
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own,for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (10:25-26)
He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:12)
And the clincher:
Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins… And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:1-4, 10)
Note that Christ came to not only forgive our sins, but to “put away sin”, to secure an “eternal redemption”, and to sanctify us “once for all”. Also note that the Old Covenant sacrifices could not provide any of this. If they did, two things would have happened:
1. They would have stopped being offered. In other words, the “repetitious” cycle would have ceased.
2. The worshipers would no longer have any “consciousness of sin”.
Clearly the Hebrews never understood this. The absence of both these elements in their (Old Covenantal) understanding of the cross manifested itself in a constant need to re-repent. Indeed, the need for repentance flows from a consciousness of sin. If the sin is not “put away”, the effects of the repentance would be short-lived.
The superiority of Christ’s sacrifice is thus best expressed in a new type of repentance that mirrors the completion and perfection of Christ’s sacrifice. The repentance on earth is what the sacrifice is in heaven. It reflects the perfection thereof, and thus it cannot be repeated.
The point is that these “problematic” verses of chapter 6 are intended to liberate, not condemn. They have nothing to do with the unpardonable sin, and everything with the glorious reality that to fall into sin is not to entirely undo the benefits of the cross, calling for a ritualistic repetition thereof. All that is needed is to get up and carry on, mindful of a secure salvation that has perfected us, even though we stumble and fall regularly.
Much of my early Christian life was spent around believers who regularly ended up on the carpet between the front pew and the pulpit of the church, crying and begging for forgiveness. Sundays were mostly “repentance day”. We were evangelized. And then we were evangelized again, and again, and again. I think part of it had to do with the revival culture of the denomination, and the romance of tent evangelism, and the sovereignty of the altar call, and the centrality and supremacy of the sinner’s prayer, and so on.
As a kid I was given a little red Gideon’s New Testament containing a neat blue line on the back page where you were supposed to enter your “salvation date”. I changed that date so many times that I eventually lost track.
Strangely, in the midst of all the feverish activity there was a severe lack of spiritual maturity, both in my life and the lives of many others.
I could never understand this strange dichotomy, until I discovered the letter to the Hebrews. And then it became clear. We were like a man who got stuck in a revolving door. We were running, yes, but we were running in circles. We kept on repeating our entrance, and we never got anywhere. The very thing that was intended to make our spirituality “take off”, anchored it to the ground in a devastating way.
And oh boy, were we ever “conscious of sin”!
The letter to the Hebrews blew my mind. It provided a blue print for spiritual growth, and taught me that faith is to grasp the reality and finality of my own salvation. It showed me that humans once were the active agents in the ritual of sacrifice, but that God took over from us with one final, perfect sacrifice. We were now at rest, for God had finished his work. And it was so perfect that even the very thought of trying to repeat it bordered on blasphemy.
In fact, I began studying the book of Hebrews so much that I believe I have found a most likely candidate for authorship, but that is another story for another day…
(Please note that this short explanation merely scratches the surface and obviously does not deal with any of the questions that will/may arise from it. Yet it provides a basis from where one can do your own study. But feel free to ask questions. I’ll gladly respond.)
(Please Note: I did not intend to publish this post today, and I never intended it to be a response to anything or anyone. It was meant as a mere continuing reflection of the issue under discussion here, and quite coincidentally happened to touch on the secondary issue of “election”, “predestination”, “Calvinism” or whatever you may wish to call it. However, John Piper published his “Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election” yesterday, and so I thought it would be appropriate to hasten the publishing of this article so as to provide another angle to the whole discussion. The title is tongue-in-cheeck, but the five numbered paragraphs below does indeed provide five distinct Scriptural reasons why election does not take place in a vacuum and cannot be portrayed as “unconditional”. If the length bothers you, approach it like the proverbial elephant: One piece at a time!)
Most of the last few posts on this blog have been dedicated to exploring the mystery of denominationalism. How can it be that one body, functioning under the authority of one head, constantly divides itself in the name of that head, and (as unbelievable as this may sound) as an expression of its allegiance to that head?
If you have been following the series you will remember that this question arose from another one: What does it mean to be “simple” or “organic” in our understanding and expression of the church of Jesus Christ?
Whilst these terms may mean different things to different people, they are pretty unambiguous as far as one basic principle is concerned: The life that animates the body (and that includes the body of Christ) is not something complicated. It is not a thing engineered or driven by contemporary sources of authority, such as psychology, or motivational theory, or the management sciences, or marketing strategies.
Neither is it a type of social dynamic, such as you may experience at a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, or at the local retirement village’s bowling green on a sunny Saturday.
No. This life is a life of its own. It is natural. It emanates from God himself and is sustained by him. It transcends reason (although it certainly does not exclude it), and is not subject to a particular “doctrinal” understanding in order to be experienced. (If this statement makes your hair stand up, keep on reading.)
As C.S. Lewis famously wrote in Mere Christianity: “People ate their dinners and felt better long before the theory of vitamins was ever heard have: and if the theory of vitamins is some day abandoned they will go on eating their dinners just the same. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works . . . I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality . . . You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.”
Turn First, Then See
Of course Lewis is not giving us a license for heresy here. And neither did Jesus Christ when he said: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life… yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
The point behind both these quotes is that the powers of the intellect cannot produce life, no mater how diligently they are applied. Rather, life is experienced through an active participation in some or other source of life (“…come to me that you may have life”), preceded by a seeming voluntary commitment to do so (“yet you refuse…”).We’ll say more about that little word “voluntary” in a moment.
Once this happens, “understanding” becomes a possibility. “He certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it”, Lewis says, sounding a bit like Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”
The “turning” is primary, the understanding secondary. You first come to Jesus, who is life, and then you understand the Scriptures. Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. (See my post On Faith and Reason for further clarity on this issue.)
Remember Jesus’ words at the Feast of Booths, spoken in response to the question of his learning without ever having studied? “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” The message cannot be clearer. You first choose to submit to God’s will, and then you develop an uncanny ability to discern God’s truth.
If you remain unconvinced, think about theses words of Jesus: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” Allegiance precedes revelation, in other words.
The Mystery of Election
The principle runs like a golden thread through the Bible. There are many more verses that highlight this fundamental truth of Scripture. When understood correctly, they shed a most amazing light on one of the church’s greatest controversies, namely the issue of “election” or “predestination.”
I do not wish to elaborate on this here, as this would require a separate series of blog posts. Yet the issue is relevant to the current series of posts as far as the “determinism” of the human will is concerned, and so I will offer at least a synopsis.
Proponents of the so-called TULIP theology, usually referred to as “Calvinists”, are quick to point out that the human will is in bondage and that it requires the life-giving grace of God to be set free in order to choose for God. Verses like the following ones are oftentimes used to support this idea:
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. Acts 16:14
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. John 6:44
And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. Matthew 13:11
And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. Acts 13:48
Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls… Romans 9:11-12
No one can argue with these verses. At first glance it would indeed appear that our wills are in bondage and that God sovereignly chooses which wills to liberate (graciously) and which wills to leave in bondage (justifiably).
However, a careful reading of the above passages reveal that the “determinism” implied in them are preceded by something else, namely a commitment of sorts on the side of the people who eventually became the recipients of God’s sovereign grace.
1. A Tale of Two God-Fearers
Lydia, for instance, was already a “worshiper of God” before God opened her heart to the preaching of the gospel. Similarly, Acts 10 tells the story of Cornelius on whom the Holy Spirit fell (quite sovereignly, I would say) whilst he and his household were listening to Peter’s preaching of the gospel.
But, as with Lydia, this divine intervention was preceded by something else. Before Cornelius or his family had even heard of the gospel or Peter’s existence, we read that he was “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people and prayed continually to God.”
Is this coincidence? Whilst the ability to hear, understand and respond to the gospel was clearly one sovereignly given by God to Cornelius and Lydia, there is not a single verse implying that their pre-Christian commitment to God was also sovereignly handed to them. On the contrary, both these narratives paint a picture of a general, basic and fundamental commitment to God that was rewarded by a specific and special revelation of him. The first commitment was free, the second determined and irresistible.
2. No one can come to ME unless…
This sheds some much-needed light on the “problematic” second verse quoted above. Do the words “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” mean “no one who is not a Jew or a Christian can sincerely fear and worship the unknown God that is perceived in nature and through conscience unless the Father draws them to do so?“ Not necessarily. The Bible nowhere speaks of such a double-drawing.
Of course Calvinists would argue that Lydia and Cornelius’ God-fearing traits were symptomatic of their already existing calling, and not causal to it. But the Bible nowhere says this. The Bible introduces them as God fearers whose hearts were opened by God once they heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and not before. As Peter said to the apostles and elders at the Jerusalem Council: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us.”
If this is true, then it means that the ones drawn by the Father to the Son are not drawn randomly because of God’s elective purposes, but because of their inner willingness to submit to God, regardless of their level of religious or theological understanding. (I’ll get to Jacob and Esau, in case they have just popped into your mind.)
This is no place to debate how such a willingness may manifest itself, or whether it is always as evident and pronounced as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia, and so I will not touch on this issue here. Suffice it to say that this particular verse only refers to a coming to Christ (hence the capitalized “me” in the caption above), and does not infer anything regarding an inability of the “pagan” or “gentile” who is confronted with God’s “general revelation” and an accompanying option (or absence thereof) to worship and fear the “unknown God”. On the contrary, the very next verse sheds some light on the fact that the “drawing” of the Father does not take place in a vacuum, but is preceded by an active participation on the part of the believer, exactly as was the case with Cornelius and Lydia. We will return to verse 45 towards the end of this article.
3. The Secrets of the Kingdom
This brings us to our third verse. The words “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given”, sound pretty conclusive, don’t they? Not if you read the rest of the passage.
The quotation, of course, is taken from the famous “Parable of the Sower.” Whilst most Christians know this parable, many of us are unaware of its central message. It is in this message that we will find a startling revelation regarding the so-called tension between “God’s sovereignty” and “human responsibility”.
The parable appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. The three accounts do not differ much, although Mark and Luke contain a statement that is not found in Matthew. This statement is essential for our understanding of the parable. Mark presents it at the end of the parable, and as its conclusion and practical application. The passage in its entirety reads as follows:
Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”
Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable? The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.”
Before we discuss this statement, as contained in the last paragraph above, let us note that the parable is about a sower, his seed and the ground on which it falls. Although there is only one sower and one type of seed, there are six different outcomes. Of these three are negative and three positive. It is the aim of the parable to illustrate why the effect of the seed differ so vastly, in spite of it being the same seed sown by the same sower.
Path – no fruit
Rocks – no fruit
Thorns – no fruit
Good soil – 30 fold
Good soil – 60 fold
Good soil – 100 fold
The seed is identified as the “word” in Mark and “the word of God” in Luke. The path, the rocky ground, the thorns and the good soil are identified as the various locations where the recipients of the word are. These locations determine, in each case, how the word is received after it has been “heard”. It is important to note that all “hear” the word and that this is the only common denominator between them. The effect that the word has on them, however, is fully determined by the particular place they are at in their lives at the time of hearing.
The statement found at the end of Mark’s account, and also in Luke 8:18, is pivotal for understanding the parable. Note the words “more” and “taken away”. In Luke we read “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away”. Mark adds: “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”
Here is the solution to the predicament: The different outcomes depend on the way in which the word is “heard”. Those who “consider carefully” what they hear fill up their measure and so qualify themselves for receiving more. They are contrasted with those who hear but allow Satan to take away the word that was sown in them (the seed along the path), those who hear the word but have no root (the seed sown on rocky places) and those who hear but allow the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things to come in and choke the word (the seed among the thorns).
In summary then, three groups hear the word intently and receive more of the same word, whilst three groups hear the word carelessly and has it taken away from them. But let us note something else. The responsibility of humans and the sovereignty of God are not at odds here. They co-exist. It is the responsibility of humans to “take care” how they hear, and it is God who “gives more” or “take away”. We choose whether we will hear or not. God chooses whether he will give more or take away. His sovereign intervention in the process does not take place in a vacuum. It is based on the way in which we hear.
If any doubt remains, look at our quoted verse again: “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Matthew’s version says “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven…”). The disciples are living examples of those to whom more has been given. They understand the secrets of the kingdom. Those “on the outside” don’t. Parables are secrets to them. They see but do not perceive, they hear but do not understand.
It is clear that God is the one giving the “knowledge of the secrets”. The disciples cannot do this, no matter how hard they try. Yet God’s sovereign gift of revelation is not independent from their responsibility. They cannot force the revelation, and God does not force their hearing.
There is a last principle that we need to note. Mark’s words “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” are expanded upon in Matthew, where we read: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’
Note that Isaiah predicted a future judgment of deafness and blindness on the people. But also note that this grim forecast was preceded by something else. The people first closed their own eyes. God’s judgment was not something that came out of the blue. It was an intensifying of a condition that the people had already succumbed to quite willingly. The callousness of their hearts preceded the ultimate deafness of their ears and blindness of their eyes. God merely gave them over to that which they had already chosen. And so Isaiah becomes the ideal commentator to clarify Jesus’ teaching as set out in the parable of the sower.
One can hardly read this without being reminded of a rather scary passage in 2 Thessalonians: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” Note: These people refused to love and believe the truth, and God then sends the delusion.
Again, God’s sovereignty and humanity’s responsibility are not at odds. They co-exist, and the one never functions at the expense of the other.
Let us summarise. The people in the parable, the disciples themselves and the individuals referred to by Isaiah and Paul all provide us with the same message: Humans are responsible at a very basic level. What they do with this responsibility will determine the way in which God will intervene in their lives. They first “turn”, and then they “see”. As I said at the beginning of this post: Commitment precedes interpretation. In fact, commitment determines interpretation. It is as simple as that.
God Finds, and Then Chooses
If we only had the parable of the sower we may have wanted to debate this conclusion. But we don’t. The principle is evident all over Scripture. In fact, it is overwhelming.
Before we look at our last two verses, let us consider an important implication of the conclusion above. The parable of the sower is about seeing and hearing, but it is more than that. It is about two types of seeing and hearing. The one takes place at a basic level and is the responsibility of humans. The other takes place at an advanced level and is the responsibility of God. The first is the prerequisite of the second. It is the qualification, if you wish. There seems to be a “general revelation” accessible to all people, and a “special revelation” accessible to a select few.
The first has to do with a faith-commitment of sorts, the second with a God-given understanding. Those who work well with the first are granted access to the second. The first depends on the heart, and so Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abram had access to it, even though their theological understanding was “pagan” by Jewish or Christian theological standards. (For instance, Abram could “believe” and receive an accreditation of righteousness without ever having read the Old or New Testament.) The second has to do with a peculiar and specific understanding of God, such as the revelation given to Noah about the coming judgment, or the prophetic insights of Enoch, or the calling of Abram.
On that last point: Years ago I asked a Calvinistic believer if he thought Abram had to “qualify” in any way to be called by God. Naturally, the dear brother was shocked by the very suggestion. According to his theological system the insinuation bordered on blasphemy. I told him about the pattern that runs throughout Scripture, namely that a particular calling and/or revelation of God always seems to be preceded by some or other condition of the heart. I then showed him a verse in Nehemiah 9 that he had never considered: “You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land…” Interestingly, God did two things: He found, and he chose. Never is it stated that Abram’s faithful heart was sovereignly created by God. God “found” it like that, and then he chose Abram as an instrument for both revelation and service.
This accords with the “election” of David. During the legendary lineup that preceded God’s choice of Israel’s king, God whispered to Samuel: “…the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Clearly David had the heart God was looking for, as the rest of the narrative reveals. This fact is confirmed in Acts 13 where we read “he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” God found, and then he raised up. The pattern is clear.
It would appear that the disciples understood this pattern. At the end of Acts 1 we read: “And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” Yet again: God knows the heart, and then he chooses.
After sharing these verses, my friend responded angrily: “That is nonsense. God creates the heart!” Yes, he does. But nowhere is it stated that he sovereignly creates the heart with a deterministic bent and then pretends to “find” it like that.
The Progressive Nature of Revelation
One thing that is clear from this is that revelation is progressive, and that the relationship between human responsibility and God’s sovereignty seems to change in line with this progression. Like the seed used to symbolise God’s word, our understanding of God and his kingdom begins small and grows towards maturity. But the more it grows, the smaller we become.
Our responsibility has to with the quality of the soil and with planting and watering. God’s part has to do with the growing of the seed. Our will plays a huge role at the outset, but God’s will becomes more prominent as we grow up in him.
As John the Baptist declared: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And as Jesus said to Peter: “I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
4. Appointed to Eternal Life?
Our second last verse quoted above reads as follows: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
I have oftentimes heard this verse quoted in my discussions with Calvinists (many of whom are dear friends, just in case you wondered). After many years of contemplating this issue, I began to see the pattern described above, namely that God’s sovereign intervention in the lives of people (especially in regards to the revelation of his Son) is preceded by a certain predisposition of the heart that is portrayed in the Bible as the responsibility of the individual. As mentioned above, the New Testament sometimes refers to such people as “God-fearers”.
With this in mind, I found myself staring at Acts 13:48 one day. It was a strange verse, I had to admit. Some of the Antiochians were “appointed to eternal life” and, accordingly, responded to the gospel message. Clearly others were not appointed to eternal life, and did not respond. How does that work?
But then I thought about the pattern of Scripture: If there is a clearly stated divine and sovereign intervention by God, it was usually preceded by some or other reference to the “heart” or to “fearing God”. A sudden expectation welled up in me as my eyes began skimming the page. The next moment I read: “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.” This was verse 26 and it preceded verse 48! Furthermore, verse 16 recounts Paul’s opening statement to the Antiochians: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen.”
These words were spoken during Paul’s first Sabbath in Antioch, in the synagogue and to the Jews, and was understood at the time as being exclusively Jewish in their application. But then Paul and Barnabas explicitly “turn to the gentiles” (verse 46) and the true application of those words become clear. The “gentiles” were not a third group besides “the family of Abraham” and the “God-fearers”, but included in the latter. The “God-fearers” were not simply an official group of proselytized gentiles, but anyone who had a basic fear and respect for God. These were the ones to whom God graciously granted the revelation of his son. The pattern manifested itself yet again!
As Solomon stated famously, wisely and prophetically: The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.
5. Jacob and Esau
Romans 9 is oftentimes used as the trump card of Calvinism. As John Piper wrote:
“All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9… So to illustrate the point of God’s unconditional election, Paul uses the analogy of Jacob and Esau: “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — [Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’” (verses 11–12). In other words, God’s original purpose in choosing individuals for himself out of Israel — and all the nations! (Revelation 5:9) — was not based on any conditions that they would meet. It was an unconditional election. And thus he says, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (verse 15; see verses 16–18; Romans 11:5–7).”
However, the purpose of Romans 9 is not to explain why Johnny next door was predetermined to eternal wrath whilst Suzy across the road was predetermined to eternal glory. No, the chapter itself provides the purpose: It is to explain why “the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it whilst the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.” (v 30-31).
In other words, the metaphor had to express how those of whom is said “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises…” (verse 4) could have “stumbled over the stumbling stone” (verse 32), whilst those who were not God’s people could be called God’s people, and those who were not God’s loved one could be called God’s loved one (verse 25). This uncanny reversal of these two people groups is the issue, and it raises the question: Where can one find a more fitting analogy than a physical portrayal of the “older serving the younger”, and the firstborn’s rights being handed to the second born, than the story of Jacob and Esau?
Romans 9 has nothing to do with individual election and everything with the unexpected inclusion of the gentiles into God’s plan of salvation. Paul’s point is that God is God and that he can embrace and accept a foreign people, based on his mercy, whilst he may resist his own people in spite of their works. Indeed, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (verse 16). The contrast is not between reprobate Johnny and predestined Suzy, but between the mercy of the New Covenant, extended to the gentiles who did not have the works of the law, and an incorrect works-based hermeneutic upheld by Israel.
As I once explained it: ‘I can choose who I want’ is not the statement of a father to all his children after he has chosen only the oldest brother to accompany him on a fishing trip, but rather the statement of the father to the older brother after he has chosen the smaller brothers to accompany the two of them on their next fishing trip.
This, and this alone, is the potter’s lesson. To read more into Romans 9 is to speculate dangerously.
This post has now become unfashionably long and I have to land, even though we have only scratched the surface of an amazing doctrine of Scripture.
The main thesis of this article is astoundingly simple: We are completely responsible and God is completely sovereign. However, our responsibility and God’s sovereignty are to be found at different intersections on the highway of God’s progressive revelation, and so even though they co-exist they do not do so in a mysterious and frustrating tension that is inconceivable to our grey matter and that necessitates some dark background with lists of names that are engraved in concrete as far as their owner’s eternal destiny is concerned.
Humans have a basic responsibility, and that is to fear God. It is a responsibility given to all people everywhere and they are accountable in this regard. No human can escape this and all humans have a sufficient grasp of eternity in their hearts to respond in this way to God. Depending on their free and chosen response to this, God will progressively make himself known to these individuals. It is as simple as that. Likewise, the “measure of light” in people’s lives (for the lack of a better term) will one day constitute the criteria for their ultimate judgment.
The revelation that Jesus Christ is the son of the Living God is indeed one that cannot be facilitated by a human, or freely considered and then voluntarily accepted or rejected. No, it is a God-given miracle of enlightenment, and in this sense all Calvinists are spot-on and should be saluted. Yet this revelation does not take place in a vacuum, and here they are incorrect. Such revelation is the logical conclusion and manifestation of a life that has already subjected itself to God, albeit in a basic, mysterious and even theologically ignorant way.
To try and define the terms and conditions of such “submission” would be sheer idiocy, and should be avoided at all costs. Perhaps we can dare to say that an immoral drunkard may have more of this basic matter in his heart than an upright religious man. However, such interaction between a person and his/her God is intimate and mysterious beyond description, and thus can never be defined.
And so all the verses that appear to speak of an “election” in the New Testament, based on their suggestion that to come to Christ is not a voluntary act but an involuntary one, need not make us hysterical. Using the “pattern” above, I will conclude with a number of them, as well as some others that display the same pattern:
Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. John 6: 45
(Note that the responsibility of hearing and learning from the Father precedes the “coming” to Jesus. Also note that this verse follows our second verse discussed above, namely “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”)
If God were your Father, you would love me… John 8:42
(Need I say anything else?)
He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. John 8:47
(Here Jesus is referring to people hearing his own words. The same pattern emerges. “Belonging” to God precedes hearing the words of Jesus. The first is voluntary, the second determined.)
Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. John 18:37
(Same pattern. “Siding with the truth” precedes listening to Jesus, and appears to be a free and voluntary act.)
The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. John 10:25-27
(As above. Faith in Christ is determined and preceded by being part of his “sheep”, but nothing indicates that he has sovereignly made some into sheep and others not. In this context, sheep are those who have learned to follow the voice of the shepherd before his actual appearance. John 6: 45 above applies yet again.)
There are many other examples, but these will suffice. My only intention here is to indicate that the so-called determinism in salvation seems to be linked to coming to Christ, and never to the basic underlying condition of “siding with the truth”, “listening to the Father”, and so on. These appear to be the responsibility of the individual, and so “election” can never be represented as something “unconditional”.
Lastly, the implicit horror of Calvinism (apologies to my Calvinistic brothers and sisters, but that is the way many of us perceive a doctrine that teaches that Jesus Christ did not die for all people, and that billions of souls were created for an eternal torment about which they can do absolutely nothing) is completely neutralized when approached from the standpoint above. In this scheme, both our responsibility and God’s sovereignty remain intact.
May the God who loves the whole world, and that includes every single solitary soul, bless you and keep you.
A meditation for the morning: (The language is archaic and non-inclusive, I know. Please ignore, or skip the reading if you can’t. It is an extract from a personal journal and was never intended for a blog. The only reason I’m publishing it is that it has greatly assisted me in my understanding of spiritual matters, and that there may be some solitary soul out there who may also benefit by reading it.)
All of life is mediation. The reason is the alienation of man from himself, his fellow man, his environment and his very own speech.
Man relates with himself through other men. He sees and feels himself based on what other men want, not what he himself wants. He is a stranger to himself, and he only finds familiarity by looking to his neighbor. His neighbor is the standard, the bridge to himself. And so he lives through his neighbor. His neighbor is his mediator to himself. If he cannot imitate his neighbor he sinks into isolation. He loses connection with himself.
Man relates with his fellow man through pretense. He has to pretend that he is like his fellow man in order to reach his fellow man. His mask is his bridge to community. He does not realize that he himself is a neighbor to his fellow man, that he himself is perceived as being original. That is how strong his pretense is. He deceives not only his neighbor but also himself. He does not see himself as someone else’s beginning. He remains an actor, for without the charade he ceases to exist.
Man relates with his environment through hope. His environment provides him with the means to build a mask, and so he is attracted to his environment. He does not see nature as it is. He sees nature as it can be. Nature presents the bridge to the wish dream, and the hope of the wish dream the bridge to nature. Man’s relationship with nature is the relationship of the wood carver who robs the life of the tree to make an idol.
And so man lives happily in nature and next to his fellow man, thinking that he has established a community of reciprocal appreciation. But man is eluded. There is no community, only a constant interaction between actors on a stage. There is no reality, only a lie. It is for this lie that man lives. Man cannot tolerate the truth, for the truth means that he ceases to exist.
The unmediated life is the life that Christ brought to the world. It is life itself, not a pretense of life or a description of life. This life is its own mediator. I am the life, Christ said. Christ is the mediator, Paul said. And so this life mediates itself.
What this means is that the original relationship with man himself, with other men and with his environment is restored in Christ. In Christ we do not relate with ourselves through other men. We relate with ourselves through Christ. We see ourselves as he sees us. And so a direct and unmediated relationship with ourselves becomes possible. We no longer have to pay an indulgence to be accepted by ourselves. We become acceptable through Christ. There is no longer any bridge that leads to ourselves. Christ is the bridge. The man in Christ loves himself as Christ loved him. He does not need to impress himself from a distance. There is no distance. Man embraces himself. Man loves himself. Man is happy with himself. This is not the toxic love that man has for the image that he has created of himself. No, this is the unmediated love of an unmediated self for an unmediated self.
The relationship with man’s neighbor is changed. Christ now becomes the bridge to the neighbor. Man relates to his neighbor honestly. He does not need to visit his neighbor as a pretender, because he loves himself as Christ has loved him. He loves his neighbor in the same way. He sees his neighbor for who re really is. He sees behind the pretense. He loves his neighbor, and he disregards the mask. He has become a true neighbor, not a fellow pretender.
Man now sees nature for what it is. Nature is no longer beautiful because it enhances the image of man. It is beautiful because it was created by Christ and for Christ. Christ is the door to man’s environment as he is the door to man’s neighbor and to man himself.
The man of no mediation sees the world as it is. The veil has been removed. His relationship with nature and men is now direct and original.
But it does not stop here. The meaning of words is changed. In a sense all words are instruments of mediation. In a sense all words are adjectives. They all describe something, even if they are verbs or personal pronouns. But when mediation ceases words are no longer descriptors. That which is signified by them begins to describe its very self. For the man of no mediation the things are given their own voices. They reveal themselves. And so this man is reluctant to describe what he sees, for he understands that words cannot convey reality. He understands that one final Word summarised and included all other words in Himself. What is needed is a private meeting between men and things, and so the man of no mediation removes himself to make this happen. He is slow to speak. When he does speak he proclaims Christ, for Christ is more intelligible than the words of men. Christ is the Word.
The man of no mediation sees no need to explain Christ. He is not an apologist. Rather, he seeks to enforce the explanations of Christ. This is what it means to preach Christ. It is to allow him to speak, not to muzzle him in order to speak on behalf of him.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Philippians 3:1
Some things are so vitally important that they need to be said more than once.
Years ago I wrote an article that is buried somewhere under the posts in this blog. I believe it to be one of the most important things I have ever spoken or written about. I also believe it to be more relevant today than ever before.
As many of the newer visitors and subscribers to this blog have not read it, I feel quite compelled to repost it. Please feel free to copy the content, post it elsewhere or distribute it in any form.
Blessings to all.
There is something wickedly satisfying about arriving first in life. This I learned at a tender age after my first success in beating my older brother to the kitchen table in our house in Namibia. Our lunchtime races down the long passage had become somewhat of a ritual, and, being the smallest, I was usually the last one to arrive. But when success did come it came sweetly. After all the thrashings, I enjoyed his defeat even more than my victory.
This is why I call it wickedly satisfying, for joy derived from another’s misfortune is wicked indeed. The Germans speak of “Schadenfreude” (leedvermaak in Afrikaans), that is, that warped sense of relief we experience when something bad happens to others instead of us. It explains why humans enjoy gossip and are morbidly fascinated with vehicle accident scenes, and it reveals something of the universal human drive to end up on top of the heap, to always win, to die with the most toys (See Ecclesiastes 4:4). The rat race is indeed an apt description of life on planet earth.
Ego-death a Non-negotiable
Many prophets and sages have warned for millennia against running this race, and they have done so in the names of many gods. Examples abound, but I will mention just one. Buddhists have a real issue with the ego, and they teach that “man is a bundle of desires”. The solution? If you remove the source of envy you also remove unhappy and resentful feelings about others’ possessions, they say. And so the Buddhist authorities in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan have banned advertising.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, has a completely different approach to the matter. Instead of warning us against running the rat race, it tells us that we are rats. We are, therefore, perfectly consistent when we behave in the crazy ways we do. It is not our behavior that constitutes the problem, it is our identity. Hence the New Testament’s one and only prescription: The annihilation (read crucifixion) of the competitive rat.
Without this event, which we can call “ego-death”, any effort at Christianity is as sensible as attempting to climb Everest by staying at home. It simply cannot be done. The cross is no different to the guillotine, the noose or the electric chair. It is an instrument of death and serves the explicit purpose of executing the criminal. What a silver bullet and wooden stake are to a vampire, the cross is to the ego. The funeral of baptism is the funeral of self, and so 2 Corinthians 5:17’s “new creation”, resurrected in the image and the likeness of Christ, is a creation that seeks not to win but to serve, for this is what Christ came to do.
It was Adam and Eve, under the inspiration of the serpent, who thought that equality with God was something to be grasped, not Christ (See Genesis 3:5 and Philippians 2:6).
A Religious Masquerade
Egos, of course, hide well, and they hide best under cloaks of righteousness, which is why we so constantly run into them in churches. In the Bible religious self exaltation is personified by the sect of the Pharisees: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Their dress code, behaviour in the religious assemblies, status and titles all conspire to elevate them above the masses, giving them the bizarre privilege of fusing the religious pilgrimage with the ego-trip, impressing God and people simultaneously, obtaining heaven with earth still in their pockets.
Winning means arriving first, as my early races down the passage taught me. To win one must have arrived, and winning religiously implies having arrived religiously. For clerical supremacy to survive some sort of arrival is required, and, as it happens in churches, a fitting doctrine is needed to prove and clarify the arrival.
A doctrine of arrival, put very simply, is a theologically constructed idea which proposes some final insight, experience or realisation of promise. It distinguishes the one who has arrived from those who are still on their way. It also offers a circumvention of the painfully humbling business of believing, hoping and waiting. Proud people do not wait well, which explains why God employs time so successfully in humbling his servants. Forcing arrival by fabricating a destination is humanity’s attempt to appear victorious and to bypass the discomfort caused by the impatience of the ego.
The Error of Realised Eschatology
There is no heresy as deceitful as the one which offers a shortcut to the Promised Land. Such impatience led to Adam’s sin, to Esau forfeiting his birthright, to the Israelites constructing a golden calf and to the Prodigal leaving the family home. Every time the underlying philosophy is the same: We want it all. We want it now
Since the time of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who taught “that the resurrection has already happened”, doctrines of arrival have littered the ecclesiastical landscape. Theologians speak of “realised eschatology”, that is, the erroneous and dangerous view that the blessings linked to the resurrection of the saints, the Lord’s return, the visible and final coming of the Kingdom and the restoration of all things are to be appropriated somehow in this world and age.
There are many modern day examples of this age-old heresy, for instance prosperity theology (the restoration of our finances and possessions), extreme teachings on healing (our bodies and health have been restored), obsession with signs and wonders (natural laws have been made subject to us), the conviction that doctrinal perfection is possible (we understand perfectly), elitist churches who believe that they have a perfect understanding and practice of “fellowship” (we love and meet perfectly), post-millennial Reconstructionism or “Kingdom Now” theology (we have the perfect political system) and the belief in sinless perfection (we are perfectly holy).
All of these, of course, are just different and novel ways of proclaiming “we have arrived”.
The Biblical Doctrine of Waiting
It was David who said “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” This principle runs like a golden thread throughout Scripture. Abraham had to wait for the promise of a son to be fulfilled. Moses had to wait 40 years in the wilderness before God called him, and then another 40 years before he was afforded a glimpse of the Promised Land. The disciples had to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, and in the letter to the Romans we read that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
The Kingdom has come in part but not fully. We haven’t arrived yet, and the pain of the planet is one of God’s most efficient tools to remind us of this and to build our faith. The heroes of Hebrews 11 were all looking ahead to a heavenly country. They were not perfectly healed, prosperous, organised or, if you look closely, sinless. Their ‘perfection’ beckoned from a heavenly country.
The ironic thing is: To the degree that we want to drag heaven down here we cease to find it in our hearts, we cease to live by faith, in other words. Perfectionism in its many guises is nothing but veiled materialism. It is an insistence to make the intangible tangible, a refusal to live by faith.
The answer to all of these is quite simple:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18 – 25)
Christianity is a waiting religion. When we wonder why this is so, we are reminded by Scripture that we are “saved in hope”, and that “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Ultimately all waiting experiences are intended by God as exercises to strengthen us for the great wait: The day of his coming. Through them we are taught and reminded that the gratification of Christianity is not instant but deferred. Through them we learn to live by faith, not by sight.
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. 1 John 2:15-17
Do not love the world, John tells us. If you do, then the love of the Father is not in you.
The problem with some of us is that we turn from the world before we turn to the Father. And then, when we eventually do turn to the Father, we make the mistake of thinking that we have already (rather conveniently) forsaken the world. We may even conclude that we have some advantage over those poor souls who have not yet dealt with the issue of “not loving the world”.
If we hold to such a view, we have never come close to understanding John’s words. In fact, we may love the world very much whilst thinking that we have forsaken it.
The key to understanding John’s words is found in Jesus’ words: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). “Loving the world” does not mean loving something that exists apart from you. Rather, it means that you love something in which you live and of which you are a part.
What I mean is this: You cannot separate the idea of your own “life in the world” from the idea of “the world”. The two are inseparable. And so, “loving the world” means loving some or other relationship, dynamic or interaction that exists between you and the world. This could be anything, and it differs from person to person, but the common denominator between all of them is what Jesus refers to as “your life in this world”.
It is this thing that you are not allowed to love. It is this thing that you are told to hate. It is impossible to not love the world whilst loving your life in it.
Some of us turn from the world as one would turn from a bad business partnership. Perhaps we have been disillusioned by the loss of a loved one. Perhaps by war, disease or poverty. Perhaps we are sick and tired of the rampant materialism around us. Whatever the case, it is not that difficult for a thinking person to see through the facade of life and to adopt some or other countercultural agenda to express his or her misgivings.
They are all around us: Some become Greenpeace activists, others gangster rappers. World haters are as plentiful on the worldwide web as are the utopian experiments that have preceded it. From Babel to Woodstock, people have tried to reengineer society. Tupac Shakur has become the spokesman for many of his generation when he sings: “It’s just me against the world, baby.”
The point is, while all of these people turn against the world, none of them turn against their own lives in this world. And so their turning away from the world in one way always ends up as a turning back to it in another way. Paul Gauguin became sick of the pretentious Parisian art scene and fled. But he still had his life in this world, and so he was forced to find an alternative place for it. This he did in Tahiti, where he reinvented himself by indulging in sexual exploits with prepubescent peasant girls. Tahiti may be the exact contrast of Paris. But it is still in this world. Gauguin merely swopped one life in the world for another. He may have told himself that he had escaped, but he hadn’t. He died at 54, his body racked with Syphilis and poisoned by alcohol. He loved his life in this world, and so he lost it.
The same can be said of countless other efforts to flee the world. It never works. Indeed, it cannot work. You can no more hate the world than you can flee from it by trying to jump to the clouds. There is a law that will bring you back. You may not end up in the same place where you left off, but you can rest assured that you will return. Hating the world in one way will always lead to loving it in another. That is why burnt out CEO’s become tree huggers and billionaire heiresses philanthropists.
And so it is simply impossible to turn from the world before one has turned to the Father. You may think that you have seen through the world and that you did so all by yourself, but you are deceived. The world lives on happily in your new life. God is little concerned with that which you have turned from. He is interested in what you have turned to. If it wasn’t him, then you have simply traded in old idols for new ones.
A Religious World…
The error above is by no means restricted to the sad world of those who have forsaken obvious forms of worldliness for subtle ones. On the contrary, its worst manifestation is in the area of religion, and the reason is clear to see: Religion, more than any worldly form of otherworldliness, provides a way to turn against the world without turning against your life in this world. This is because religion provides a substitute life that appears to be more non-worldly than any other. And so religion makes it more possible to hate the world, whilst loving your life in it, than any other pursuit.
Ever wondered why billions of people are happy to turn to religion without seeing the need to turn to Christ? The answer is simple: Religion does not need Christ to facilitate the great escape from the world. It can do so all by itself. To escape one’s life in this world is a different story. For that you need Christ. And the reason is clear to see. To escape from one’s life in this world is to escape from your very self. And that cannot happen without Jesus Christ.
What Jesus commanded was a peculiar thing. To hate one’s life in this world is to hate the symbiosis that exists between the world and you. It is to understand that there is a demonic and vile interplay between the human soul and this dark, evil age. It is to understand that the two feed on one another, and that they cannot exist without one another.
Many Christians believe that the so-called “world” was created by Satan. Of course I am referring here to the wicked world system, not the planet we live on or the people on it. The Greek word “kosmos” is used in Scripture to refer to all three, and we are only using it in the sense of the world system. Let us not be confused. The most famous verse in all of Scripture tells us that God loved the world, and he was not contradicting himself. He loves the people, and he has created the planet as a depiction of his glory. But he hates the system, and that is what we are commanded to hate.
When Paul called Satan the “god of this world” (literally “age” in Greek), this is what he had in mind. And so it is not difficult to see why people think that Satan created this wicked world system.
But he never did. We did. This world is nothing but a projection of our hearts, tailor-made to suit our desires. We birthed it. We invented it. We hold the rights to the patent. Fallen humanity created this world in the same way a man takes a piece of wood or clay and shapes it into an idol. Satan never gave us Hollywood. We did. Satan did not give us Wall Street. We did. Satan did not invent the Mafia, or the Third Reich, or the porn industry. We did. And astonishing as it may sound, we did all these things, and keep on doing them, for the very purpose of reacting against our very own former systems that have failed us. Whether it’s Hefner’s house of bunnies or Hitler’s Aryan race, we all seek the Utopian kingdom that will help us to escape a world that has failed us in some or other way.
The reason why Satan is the god of this world is not because he has created it, but because we have elected him. You don’t need to create a country in order to be its president. What you need is to win the hearts of the people. And this Satan did. He rules through us, not apart from us. We created this world as a result of our allegiance to him. He rules our hearts, and so everything we do is from him, through him, for him.
This is why it is impossible to escape the world, and sheer idiocy to suggest that a human being can do so. We are not in the world. The world is in us. The reason why Christ set his kingdom up in the hearts of people and not in Jerusalem is that the problem has never been in Jerusalem. It is within us. That is where the change of rule should take place.
When we flee the world, we take it with us. We may become desert monks, but we will only transplant the world in the process. It is not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out.
“For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”
The first step to forsaking the world is to hate your own life in it. It is to see that your very soul has been baptised in a way of thinking and behaving that is corrupt from its beginning to its end. It is to see that you yourself are the contamination, the primary shaper of the bricks that make up Babylon. It is a deep need to cease existing in your present state, a passionate desire for a new life altogether.
In short: It is to see Christ as the fullness, glory and beauty of God, and the desire to be dissolved in him. There is no other passage out of this world but through Jesus Christ. He is the Ark. He will take you to the new world. He will take you through the waters of death and judgment. In them he will bury you and everything associated with you. And out of them he will birth a new creature, conformed to his image and likeness.
The only way to ever stop loving this world is to believe in Jesus Christ, to know him and to love him with all of your being.
All other efforts to do so are futile. It is as simple as that.