Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jesus, the Elect

If you want to know where the idea of election, commonly attributed to (blamed on?) John Calvin, comes from, and how it works, you need to look at Jesus.  Jesus is the chosen one of God.  He is the elect par excellence.  When the Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, this was a clear witness that he was the Father's chosen one, his elect.

If you believe that Jesus is unique amongst all human beings, you already believe in election, and you already believe in what many consider to be the most offensive part of the doctrine: that some are chosen whilst others are not.  If Jesus is the chosen, nobody else is.  Already you have the scandal of particularity - that God deals with this particular person, in this particular way which is not accessible to the rest of us.  Belief in Jesus as the Christ necessitates this.

But what is offensive to many about the Calvinist doctrine is that it is unconditional election; God's choosing does not depend on anything in the recipient.  This, too, can be traced Scripturally to Jesus (although I don't know whether Calvin ever did this, and I have reason to doubt it).  Early church theologians, following the witness of Scripture, spoke of the anhypostasis of Jesus' human nature, which was just an invented Greek word to say that the human nature of Christ had no existence apart from its assumption into union with the divine nature of the Son of God.  In other words, there weren't a bunch of humans sitting on a shelf and God chose one he liked; rather, in willing the incarnation, God willed that this particular human be.  He wasn't the elect of God because of anything he had done.  Everything he was and did flowed from his being the elect of God.

Which brings us to the aspect of election which doesn't get enough airplay in Calvinist circles: the elect are chosen for the sake of others.  Jesus is the elect in order to gather in the elect.  Until such time as that circle of election is complete, election always means election to service, because that is what it meant for Jesus.  And since Jesus was chosen in order to bring salvation to the world (without limits known to us), we cannot ever assume that anyone currently standing outside the circle belongs there.  Election means service.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Mocking God

God is not mocked - Galatians 6:7

...twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” - Matthew 27:29

A god who needs protecting is no god at all.  In particular, a god who needs human beings to take offence on his behalf and to violently protect his reputation and honour is no god.  If he is a god, let him contend for himself.  Let's be straight: a god who is this brittle, this fragile, this needy - he is nothing.  An idol.  Emptiness.

What difference does it make that God - the God we see in Christ - willingly submitted to mockery and scorn?  Surely at least this: every Christian crusade, every Christian blasphemy law, every time a Christian says 'well they wouldn't get away with mocking Islam in this way' - this is always a misunderstanding and diminishing of God.  It does not serve his glory for us to try to fight for him; rather in so far as we are able we conceal his glory.  His glory is revealed at the cross.

Christians serve a God who is big enough, strong enough, secure enough, that without his own glory being threatened in any way he could endure mockery and abuse from creatures he had made.  Indeed, we serve a God who could take that very mockery and abuse and turn it into the most stunning revelation of his own glorious love: the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He does not need us to take offence on his behalf.  He does not need, or ask for, our defence.

Let us not transform him into an idol, imprisoned by his own fragile glory.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Yesterday was the Epiphany, when we particularly remember the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.  For those of us who are Gentile Christians, I think there are at least four good reasons to think more about our Gentile identity.

1.  It keeps us humble.  We were not people who were close to God - rather, we were separated from Christ, without God.  If we get a taste of the blessings of the gospel, it is as dogs gathering up the crumbs under the table.

2.  It reminds us of God's grace.  It is remarkable that repentance and life have been granted even to the Gentiles.  Unlike the people of Israel, we were in no way prepared for the reception of this gift.  Unlike the people of Israel, we had no obvious interest in Christ.  If God has revealed himself to us - even us Gentiles - in Christ, then it can only be his free grace.

3.  It keeps us focussed on Jesus.  We are certainly not the 'true Israel', the real people of God.  Neither is 'Israel' the 'true Israel'.  Rather, Jesus the Messiah is in his own person the only true Israel, the only one who truly kept the covenant, lived out his election, acted for and to God in faith and faithfulness.  If we are the people of God in any sense, it is only because we are joined to him by faith.

4.  It helps us to remember that we are not the final goal.  Just as Israel needed to remember that they were not called not only for their own sake but also for the salvation of the world, so we Gentile Christians need to remember that if we have been called it is ultimately for the salvation of Israel.  Getting this right is the key to remembering that in general we are called for the sake of others, and not just to rest in our undeserved privileges.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In the darkness

"Christmas is about light shining in the darkness; the light still shines and we still acknowledge that." - Gregor Duncan, Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway.

It is so very, very dark out there.  Just as dark as it was back then, before the child and the manger, before the virgin and the angel.  Darkness.  Disaster, unforeseen and inexplicable.  Human evil, human suffering, the groaning of creation.

When will the little light, kindled in the stable at Bethlehem, be spread through the whole earth?  When will it drive away the darkness?  When will the shadows retreat before its brilliance?

Joyous light of glory of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ...

What is all our celebration but to turn our backs for one day on the darkness and huddle around the flickering light...  And to believe?

To believe in the one day, the not yet, the light of the New Jerusalem which never dies - no sun, no moon, no night; the glory of God and the Lamb...

Yet in thy dark streets shineth...

Yes, the everlasting light is shining, still shining.  If we only had eyes to see...

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Paradoxes

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Christina Rosetti

Our God is so great that it doesn't belittle him to become a tiny baby.

Our God is so powerful that it doesn't weaken him to be totally dependent on a mother.

Our God is so holy and separate from sinners that it doesn't defile him to take on our nature.

Our God is so utterly free and unrestrained that it does not frustrate him to lie helpless in a manger.

Our God is so sovereign over time that it does not test his patience to learn how to talk and walk.

Our God is so glorious that it does not diminish him to be unknown and tucked away in  a stable.

Our God is so transcendent that it takes nothing from him fully to enter in to humanity.

Our God is Jesus Christ, and no other.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Christmas Spirit

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God."

Christmas is about the Incarnation of the Son of God, the breaking in to human history of Immanuel - God with us as one of us.  Christmas is the basis of all our knowledge of God.  I think that without it I would be an atheist, or at least agnostic.  If God had not shown himself to us, in real space and time and history, I'm not sure I would have spotted the signs of his presence throughout creation.

But Christmas is also about the Holy Spirit, and his own pre-eminent work.  Throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is portrayed as that person of the Godhead who is working within the creation, sustaining it and renewing it.  And here he is sanctifying one part of genuine created reality for the greatest purpose of all: the coming in of God himself, not only to be near humanity but to be a human being.  As Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, so he will be empowered throughout his life by the Spirit, and will eventually offer himself through the same Spirit to the Father, suffering and dying, before being raised again by the power of that same Holy Spirit.

There is a sort of vague 'spirit of Christmas' which is abroad, a generic festivity and merriment.  But the true Spirit of Christmas is very specific, very personal.  He is the Spirit of Jesus, the man who is God.  And that should mean more merriment, deeper festivity, real celebration.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The last victorious act

Reading John Owen's meditations On the Glory of Christ is one of the greatest pleasures that I have enjoyed so far in life - no exaggeration.  As I've been revisiting it recently, one of the things that has struck me is that the preface is largely about death.  The author was himself not long for this world: "My principal work having been now for a long season to die daily, as living in a continual expectation of my dissolution..."

What will enable us to face death?  How can we die well?  How "may we be able to encounter death cheerfully, constantly, and victoriously"?

Owen proposes three things.  Firstly, we must be prepared to surrender our spirits to God, after the example of Christ - something which is very difficult for us, both on account of our sinfulness and on account of the natural constitution of a human being as body and soul conjoined.  Secondly, we must be prepared to let go of the flesh and everything that goes with it, good and bad.  Thirdly, we must be happy to resign ourselves to God's management of time, and not to resent his timing.  How are these things, which are admittedly desperately difficult, to be achieved?

For Owen, these "cannot be attained unto, without a prospect of that glory that shall give us a new state far more excellent than what we here leave or depart from.  This we cannot have, whatever we pretend, unless we have some present views of the glory of Christ."  We cannot expect to enjoy Christ hereafter unless we have enjoyed him in this life.  And we cannot have any expectation of dying well unless we have that future glory to look forward to.

Since unless the Lord comes (Maranatha!) I will certainly die, there is nothing better for me to do with my time now than to meditate on the glory of Christ, to acquire a taste for his goodness, to learn to value him above everything else.  In so far as I do this, I will be prepared to surrender to death.

"This is the last victorious act of faith, wherein its conquest over its last enemy death itself doth consist" - namely, to be so delighted by the prospect of seeing Christ in his glory that I can be comforted in death and happily surrender my spirit into his hands.

God help us so to do.