Monday, September 15, 2014

There is another country

I am finding this week rather nerve-wracking.  As someone who has always considered himself British, the prospect of my country being voted out of existence by about 4% of its inhabitants is alarming and depressing.  I still hope it won't happen.  I will be genuinely heartbroken if it does.

But I have been remembering in the last couple of days that this is normal.  It is right that we love the things around us, including the countries into which we find ourselves born; but all such things pass away.  I have been pondering the patriarchs as they are described in Hebrews 11.  They were reminded of the fact that they were strangers and exiles in the earth by their literal wandering; they did not have possession of the homeland they had been promised.  But they could have gone back to the places they had left behind.  They did not do so, because they desired a better country, a heavenly one, a city which God has prepared.  This is what I am preaching to myself, in case things go badly on Thursday: your citizenship never was really here, in this place; your love for this homeland is just an echo of the desire for another, true home; if all this goes, your identity is essentially untouched, because it is in Christ.

After all, if the UK endured to the final day, it would still be shaken and removed in the end, and I look for a Kingdom that cannot be shaken forever.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Word of his power

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high...

I have always found these verses from Hebrews 1 to be astonishing, but in recent times the reason for my astonishment has changed somewhat.  I used to be amazed that Christ, even during his incarnation, was upholding the universe by his word.  I am not sure that I had a clear conception of what this 'word' was or meant, but I suppose in a vague sense I detected an echo of Genesis 1 and the creation saga.  That the universe was sustained by a word is not surprising if it was created by a word, but that it should be sustained by the word of a human being - of the man Jesus - even as he lived among us...  Even as he died for us...  That was astonishing to me.

Now I incline to think somewhat differently.  I want to ask, what is this word of his power?  I think that the answer is that the word of Christ's power is the gospel of his resurrection - the story of his making purification for sins and sitting down at God's right hand.  That doesn't make the verses less astonishing.  But the astonishment now is not that the God-man could uphold the universe with a word; it is that the universe depends for its existence on the word of the victory of Christ. It is not astonishing that Jesus could somehow uphold the universe with a word whilst he was incarnate; it is astonishing that the incarnation of the Son of God is precisely the word by which the universe is sustained.  This is just another way of saying that everything exists for him, through him, and in him.  The gospel is the innermost logic of creation; it is the reason anything is.

Which also means that I now tend to detect in Genesis 1 an echo of Hebrews, and of John 1, rather than vice versa.  Jesus is the beginning, the centre, and the end of everything that God has made.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Being myself (3)

My 'self' - my identity - is above (hidden with Christ) and ahead (waiting to be revealed at his coming).  Let's be clear: this is my real self, my real identity now, based on what Christ achieved then.  But it is still concealed, even from me, and pursued by faith in expectation that it will one day be given to me.

Whilst all of this might seem to open up an intolerable gulf between my experience of myself and my true self (although is it worse than the non-Christian's awareness of the gulf between who they are and who they want to be?), it also lays to rest any notion that overcoming this gulf might be my work.  It is not.  My true self is not something to be achieved, but something to be received.  Moreover, identity is not threatened by any of the things that might seem to stand against it - my own under-achievement, other people's scorn, or even death itself.  No, death is the gateway to resurrection, and therefore to my true self.  The only thing that can really threaten my identity is unbelief, since faith is the (subjective) link between me and my identity in Christ (as the Holy Spirit is the objective link).

So, there is a certain relaxation here.  But we need to be careful: it's not the relaxation of saying 'God loves me just the way I am'; it's the relaxation of saying 'God loves me in Christ and will bring me together as one person united in him'.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Being myself (2)

If it is true that for those who do not know Christ self-identity is essentially a compromise between 'who I find myself to be' and 'who I consider myself to be (or want myself to be)', the gospel of Christ admits of no compromise.  It says, with the force of God's command, 'you must be yourself' - even as it says with the force of God's liberating good news 'you may be yourself'.  But command and permission are predicated on and derived from the simple factual statement: 'Jesus died and rose for you'.

Sometimes the NT describes a Christian as one whose self has been crucified with Christ, or as one who has died and been buried with him.  On the other hand, sometimes it presents an imperative - put to death your old self, kill your sinful deeds.  How can the indicative be true, and yet the imperative have force?  If my 'self' is dead, how can I kill it?  Conversely, if I must kill it, how can it be true that it is dead?

We need to remember that the death of the old self is accomplished in Christ - and we know this because of his death and resurrection.  But we do not see it.  It is a Christological reality, which means it is really true, as true as the victory of Jesus over death is true.  But it is not yet seen.  The Christian's life is hidden with Christ, to be revealed only when he is revealed.  It is not revealed even in part in this life, but is perceived only by faith - faith which is itself awaiting the fulfilment of the promise that what it believes will one day be seen and experienced.  That is why the apostle can write that he no longer lives, since Christ lives in him - but on the other hand, that the life he continues to live in the flesh (that is, with his old earthly self still there) is lived by faith in the Son of God.  Christologically speaking, something fundamental has happened; he had died.  But that is received at this point only by faith.

Nevertheless, faith that is really faith finds an answer in action.  It is an answer, not a new and independent action, but an answer nevertheless.  That answer is to bear witness to the reality as it is in Christ by putting to death the old self in the here and now.  We do not set out to crucify the self so that the old self might die; that would be a new action.  Rather, as an answer to what Christ has done, we set out to crucify the self because it is already crucified in him.  Our action is not the thing; it is the witness to the thing, the faint echo which nevertheless shows that the original Word has been spoken and heard.

Rather than a life of compromise, that sets up a life of conflict.  We look for a new self, perfected in Christ, currently hidden, coming with him.  It will be a resurrection identity; in continuity with this self we know, but transfigured.  To get to resurrection, you have to go through death.  The Christian life is death, putting to death.  That is why we are fools to live this way if Christ is not raised. If Christ is not raised, we should find a happy compromise between the person we are and the person we want to be, and learn to happy with ourselves.  But Christ is raised from the dead, and therefore we fight and die.  It is worth it.  80 years of constant tearful struggling for righteousness is worth it if just over the horizon there lies my resurrection, and that glorious moment when I see him as he is, and myself as I truly am....  It is worth it.

Anyone who says 'this is just the way I am' has left the way of Christ.

This is hard, so hard.  A narrow gate and a hard way.  But he is with us, and even on this hard way there are still waters and green pastures.  And he will give us rest.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Being myself

The only problem is, which 'self' should I be?

At the most basic level, all of us come up against the phenomenological self.  That is to say, the person we experience as ourselves.  The bundle of experiences, characteristics, and attributes - physical, mental, and spiritual - which are 'me'.  This is not the same as the person other people encounter; by (provisional, and in need of later tweaking) definition, a 'self' can only be self-experienced.  It is who I am to myself.

But then, I am also aware of another self, the sort of self I want to be, the aspirational self.  Sometimes I am just aware that the self I experience does not match up with well the person I like to think I am.  Sometimes, more painfully, somebody else describes me, and I realise that I am indeed 'like that', even though I feel that is 'not really me' - I am forced to own their description, even as I really want to disown it.  So a gap opens up between 'who I am' and 'who I want to be' - except more often than not, I do not see it that way.  Rather, I see 'who I am' and 'who I really am'.  Perhaps this is a delusion, but it is an important one; I harbour the thought that 'I' am really other than - better than - the self I experience.

The gospel of the world is that I can be, and should be, my aspirational self.  'Sanctification' is about being more myself, more the person I like to think of myself as being.  And when I hit a roadbump - when there is something in my phenomenological self which I don't seem to be able to adjust - I should adjust my aspirational self instead.  The goal is to bring the two together, one way or another.

But then there is what I will call the Christological self.  In Christ, my identity is not about my self-identity.  My true self has already been identified in him.  I don't see it now, because it is hidden.  But that doesn't mean it isn't real.  My self is determined, not by me, but by Jesus Christ, his life, death, and resurrection.  Because here is someone - the only person - who really and truly knows me better than I know myself.  As my creator, he knows the self I was made to be; as my redeemer, he knows the self I have been eternally determined to be.

So the true gospel says: be yourself.  But not the self that is determined by the mere phenomena of your existence, or even by your dreams and aspirations, but by who Jesus has determined you to be.  And these are not the same.  Just because I see something in me doesn't mean it belongs to my truest self.  Just because I dream something doesn't mean it is who I really am.  I am who I am in him, and to be a disciple is to look to him and to walk like him.  And so to be myself.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A prayer

The Lord reveal himself more and more to us in the face of his Son Jesus Christ and magnify the power of his grace in cherishing those beginnings of grace in the midst of our corruptions, and sanctify the consideration of our own infirmities to humble us, and of his tender mercy to encourage us.

And may he persuade us that, since he has taken us into the covenant of grace, he will not cast us off for those corruptions which, as they grieve his Spirit, so they make us vile in our own eyes.

And because Satan labours to obscure the glory of his mercy and hinder our comfort by discouragements, the Lord add this to the rest of his mercies, that, since he is so gracious to those that yield to his government, we may make the right use of this grace, and not lose any portion of comfort that is laid up for us in Christ.

And may he grant that the prevailing power of his Spirit in us should be an evidence of the truth of grace begun, and a pledge of final victory, at that time when he will be all in all, in all his, for all eternity. Amen.

Richard Sibbes

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


The concept of holiness is all about the existence of boundaries, and the enforcement of those boundaries.  Leviticus is perhaps the book of the Bible which most clearly illustrates this.  The Tabernacle set up, with its Most Holy and Holy Places, symbolises the fact that God is separate.  The Priestly system reinforces this.  At the same time, the Levitical legislation separates Israel as a people from those around them, and creates and enforces a number of boundaries within the people, between clean and unclean.

There appear to be three main boundaries: firstly the boundary between God and not-God, or the Divine and the created - this boundary is implicit in Leviticus, and brought to the fore in the Deuteronomic and prophetic denunciation of idolatry; secondly, the boundary between Righteous and unrighteous - this is really the same thing, but viewed from the perspective of fallen humanity, and therefore if you like ethically rather than ontologically; and thirdly, the boundary between the dedicated and the ordinary - this can be positive (a thing is positively set apart for God and therefore not for ordinary use) or very negative (as in the judgement on the peoples of Canaan, in which some peoples are found to be so corrupt that they are to be devoted wholly to the Lord by destruction rather than treated as 'ordinary' enemies of Israel and Israel's God).  This third notion of holiness - instrumental holiness, if you like - runs through Old and New Testaments, but isn't what I'm talking about here.  I have in mind the distinction between God and creature, and between Righteous and unrighteous.

When we say that God is Holy, we mean both that he is inherently the reality denoted by these boundaries - he is God and not creature, he is righteous and not unrighteous - and at the same time that he is the active enforcer of these boundaries - he will be God and not creature, he will be righteous and not unrighteous.  Tied up with this latter is the idea that God will be seen to be God, and the Righteous One.  He will vindicate himself by enforcing these boundaries.

That is why an encounter with God in his holiness is a terrifying thing.  Think Isaiah before the altar.  As the Seraphim sing out 'Holy, Holy, Holy', he can only respond with 'Woe is me!  For I am lost!'  The fear is not unjustified - to come before the Holy One in an unworthy manner is death.  This fear is also the reaction to Jesus amongst those who understand who he is. The God who will be God over against his creature, and who will maintain and display his righteousness over against sinners - this Holy God, the God we encounter in Christ - he is to be feared.  God's holiness seems to demand separation.

And yet...

Throughout Isaiah's prophecy, God is 'the Holy One of Israel'.  As the Holy One he is, God binds himself to unrighteous Israel.  In just the same way, as the Holy One he is, God binds himself to his fallen creation.  He will be Holy in our midst, not Holy without us.

Where is the logic?

In John 17, Jesus declares that he sanctifies himself - sets himself apart as Holy - so that his people might be sanctified.  He enforces the boundary between God and creature, and between Righteous and unrighteous, by bringing them into the closest connection and yet being consistently God and consistently Righteous.  I think it would be fair to say that at the cross he is the boundary.  His existence is the Holiness of God, God in his active Holiness maintaining his right over against his rebellious creation.

It is just like Leviticus said it would be.  Why build this tent to keep God apart from the sinful people?  It was so that he could go with them!  The boundary is enforced because without it God cannot be with his people.  God maintains himself over against us so that he can confront us and relate to us.

God's Holiness in Christ should make us first fearful, and then thankful.