Friday, August 21, 2015

Jesus, justifier and sanctifier

In Church Dogmatics IV/2 p499f. Barth deals with the relationship between justification (God's declaration that those who trust in Christ are righteous) and sanctification (God's separation of those who trust in Christ to be holy and live out holiness).  It's one of the most practically important issues in theology, and one where I think we have a lot to learn.

Barth takes us back to Chalcedon, and the relationship between the two natures - divine and human - of Christ.  The two natures are undivided but also unconfused.  That is to say, they cannot be separated, but neither can they be merged.  Christ's divinity is never without his humanity, and vice versa - but his divinity is not his humanity, and his humanity is not his divinity.  For Barth this has direct bearing on the question of justification and sanctification, because the architecture of his doctrine of reconciliation works like this: Christ as the God who humbles himself is the justifier; Christ as the man who is exalted is the sanctifier.  In his one action - which takes in his whole life, death, resurrection, and ascension - Jesus the God-man is Christ the justifier-sanctifier.

The dangers of confusing justification and sanctification exist on both sides.  If justification is merged into sanctification, as Barth suggests occurs in much Roman Catholic teaching, then faith in Christ will disappear into the works of the Christian, and Christian confidence in the gift of righteousness given in Christ will be lost.  If sanctification is merged into justification, the necessity of good works may be lost in a one-sided emphasis on the judicial verdict of God.

On the other hand, the danger of separating justification and sanctification looms on both sides.  To think of justification without sanctification is to imagine that God's declaration of righteousness does not actually lead to holiness; it thus imagines a strange asymmetry in God's work.  A God on the one hand concerned with righteousness to the point of giving his Son is on the other hand unconcerned with human behaviour.  But to think of sanctification without justification is to think an impossibility, since sanctification means walking in confident obedience before God, and this simply cannot be without a firm assurance springing from the verdict of righteousness pronounced in Jesus.  How, after all, could I be joyfully obedient when even my obedience is so obviously inadequate?

I think probably the great danger in the sorts of churches I know is that justification and sanctification are both preached, but they are preached in isolation.  My observation is that the gospel is often taken to mean justification, whilst sanctification is perhaps thought of as a more or less distant consequence of the gospel.  In practice, that means that when we preach obedience it often seems disconnected from the gospel.  It is not then surprising that some in our churches treat any preaching of the need for action as legalism and anti-gospel, because of course even the right preaching of the right actions is indeed anti-gospel in so far as it proceeds from an autonomous principle of obedience rather than the gospel.

The answer, I think, is to see with Barth that justification and sanctification are one in Christ, both achieved by him in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  This means talking about Jesus as much when we are discussing the need for, and motivation and power for, human obedience as we do when we are discussing the gift of righteousness.

Monday, August 17, 2015

He is (fiercely) good

The kids are staying with Gran and Grandad for a couple of days.  Yesterday as we prayed we entrusted them to God - not that one expects anything terrible to happen at Gran and Grandad's house!  But just because we are not often apart from them, and when we are it is a reminder that we need to pray for them.

Entrust them to God.  Put them in his hands.  Trust that his love for them is greater than ours.

What is really hard about that is knowing that entrusting them to God, who is utterly trustworthy, will not necessarily mean that they will avoid some of the things we would like them to avoid, or have all the things we might like them to have.  It does not necessarily mean they won't be taken from us before we're ready (will we ever be?), or that they won't be led through hard and bitter times.  It does not mean that they will have straightforward careers, or romances, or financial security.

It just means that we trust that God is good and will do them good.

When I struggle with this, it is because God's goodness is so much stronger, and his love so much more penetrating, than mine.  He will do good, even if it hurts.  He will love, even if that love looks like breaking us.  I realise that at some level I don't want that for my children.  I realise I don't want it for myself.  I am comfortable with a nice, middle-class, not-too-extreme goodness.  I like it when people seek my good, so long as they are not intrusive about it.  I enjoy sensible, middle-class love, which doesn't impose itself or go beyond the boundaries I set for it.

In short, I like others to be good and loving to me so long as that leaves me pretty much as it found me and doesn't threaten my sense of comfort and self-satisfaction too much.

The goodness of God is so much fiercer than I can handle!  The love of God is so much deeper than I can fathom!  He wants to - is determined to - do me good, as defined by his all-knowing wisdom.  He wants to - and in Christ has given everything to - show me love, the kind of love that completely reshapes the loved in the beautiful image of the lover.  He wants to make me holy and righteous and good and bring me into his presence forever; I want him to make me comfortable and happy and good-ish and make me secure in myself for now.  I want his goodness and love to scale themselves down to my terms.

Instead, I am given Jesus.  And he is good.  And I can entrust myself and my children to him.  Because he is love.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Waking up

David is quite excited about waking up:
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
On a couple of occasions he welcomes in the dawn with praise.  What is so exciting about a new day?  I don't think David even had access to coffee.  What did the morning have to offer him?

I suppose the key thing is that David has been asleep.  Being asleep is the state of least control.  Awake, David may be King and have followers at his beck and call.  Asleep, he is absolutely vulnerable.  Sleep is like a temporary death.  So waking up is like... a resurrection?

The morning brings fresh mercies.  The death of sleep has wiped out the sin of yesterday - but to rise from that sleep takes a new act of mercy.  Putting yesterday to death doesn't necessarily lead to tomorrow.  Fresh mercy, new life.

But fresh mercies are crowded out pretty quickly by fresh struggles, fresh disappointments, fresh sins, fresh troubles.  Fresh, but old.  They seem new, but they belong to yesterday's yesterdays.  Not yet new, not totally.  Morning becomes afternoon, and we long for sleep - to put the day with all its mess to bed.  To die, to sleep.

And yet every moment could be a morning, rich with new mercy, springing unexpected from the grave of just now, the grave dug by Christ with his own cruciform shovel.

That is why it says:

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Monday, August 10, 2015


Sometimes sin is described in Scripture as a rebellion, a terrible insurrection, a rising up against God.  But sometimes it is not that.  Sometimes "sin is merely banal and ugly and loathsome", having nothing of that human (and damnable) pride and self-confidence, but only the failure to act, only the resolute determination to be nothing and do nothing.  "The sinner is not merely Prometheus or Lucifer.  He is also - and for the sake of clarity and to match the grossness of the matter, we will use rather popular expressions - a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-for-nothing, a slow-coach and a loafer" (CD IV/2).

Because the Gospel not only liberates us from our action - our desperate attempts to make something of ourselves - by telling us that all is done in Christ, it also liberates us from our inaction - our no less desperate attempts to evade responsibility and action - by telling us that we can proceed on the secure basis of the righteousness of Christ.  The good news of Jesus is that in him we are really new people, who do not need to work to make ourselves something, but are already made something and therefore can (and must) work.  Our sinful self with its sinful actions is put to death, but we are not left as a vacuum.  Rather, we are created in Christ Jesus for good works.

So, no more inaction through despair - our work is not good enough, but it is ordained and blessed.  And no more inaction through laziness - our work is necessary because it is ordained and blessed.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and live!

Friday, August 07, 2015

Fruitful tension

The last four verses of Psalm 51 introduce a striking - less charitably, odd - tension into the composition. Here they are, split into two pairs of verses:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The first pair broadly represents the interests of the rest of the psalm, but the concluding pair introduces a whole different, and at first glance contradictory, concerns.  To list a few, the psalm has been very individual and personal, but the end introduces corporate and national themes; the psalm is a plea for mercy, but the end introduces the idea that God might be pleased with Zion; and most strikingly - because of the verbal contradiction - the psalm has been concerned with inward attitudes, but the end introduces ceremonial actions.

What do with this?

Of course the standard critical response will be that the last two verses are a later addition, perhaps from someone concerned by the apparent slight on the temple system in the previous end of the psalm.  Well, that's as may be - it's a plausible hypothesis.  The frustration, though, is that by not dealing with the psalm as we have it - and in the only form which we know for sure it has ever had - we can miss out on really helpful theological reflection.  After all, might it not be useful to ponder the relationship between the individual's piety and the good of the covenant community?  Might not a meditation on the relationship between our plea for forgiveness and God's good pleasure be a fruitful one?  And we surely would benefit from thinking carefully about the contrast between sacrifices in which God does not delight and those in which he delights indeed.

I would suggest that the points of tension in this psalm are actually the points where we can learn most about God and ourselves.  I wonder if that might be the case elsewhere?

Thursday, August 06, 2015


Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  I have to confess, the transfiguration story sounds a lot like myth to me.  I struggle to read it - as the authors of the gospels obviously intended it to be read - as the report of a real event in the earthly history of the man Jesus of Nazareth.  How could I not struggle?  I am a product of post-Enlightenment western culture.  I have been trained to see material reality as absolutely opaque.  If there is a spiritual reality, it is totally masked by the empirical world, which is the only reality to which I have any access.  The transfiguration story, which records the obvious incursion of the spiritual into the physical world, dramatically contradicts this.

Some thoughts:

Clearly, the NT does not regard material (or physical) reality as opaque.  If it were opaque, how could it be the material part of the good creation of the one Creator God - the maker of all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible?  If my eyes have been trained to look at physical reality and then stop, I need to re-train them.  The Enlightenment attempted to put up walls between physical and spiritual, in order in the end to put the latter utterly beyond reach (hence Deism).  This separation is absolutely not the Biblical view.

On the other hand, I am not sure the NT regards material reality as transparent.  If it were transparent, how could it be real as physical matter?  It is interesting to hear from people at work in other cultures which do not share my cultural biases.  Often the spiritual realm is an everyday reality for people - in good and bad ways.  But I wonder whether there isn't a danger in this direction of collapsing the physical into the spiritual, such that the physical world is not allowed to have its own reality.  Moreover, it seems to me that the Biblical viewpoint is much more restrained in talking about the spiritual realm and its appearances and influences within the physical world.

I've been pondering another image: perhaps we should see material reality as translucent.  In other words, having its own shape and colour, but being open to the spiritual realm shining through - or casting a shadow.  Imagine a stained glass window, the appearance of which is transformed when the sun shines through it - or when someone walks past outside and temporarily blocks the light,  What if I could re-train my vision to look at physical reality as a medium which could at any time be illuminated by the glory of God - or shadowed by the demonic?  I wonder if that might help me to appreciate both physical and spiritual more - and I wonder if the transfiguration might be an interpretive key.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Life and death

"Choosing the time you die is a human right."

That is according to the partner of a healthy 75 year old who recently decided to end her own life rather than face the "indignity" of ageing.  The story is, from my perspective, desperately sad - but it makes complete sense.  If life is my possession, then I can give it up when I choose.  If I have a right to life based on nothing more than my own individuality, then I surely have a right to die.

This morning, as most mornings, I said Morning Prayer, and as usual prayed: "as we rejoice in the gift of this new day..."  Today is a gift.  My life today is a gift.  But that can only be true and meaningful if there is a Giver, and if he is good.  Even a good day is only a gift if it is generously given by Someone.  And a bad day - the sorts of days which presumably Gill Pharaoh was imagining when she chose to die rather than to live through them - could only be a gift if it came from a Giver who was able to take our suffering and do something positive with it.  And of course one day we will die, and that day of my death could only be a gift - a day I could rejoice in receiving - if it came from the hand of a Giver who was able to redeem even death.

In other words, if and only if the gospel is true - if Jesus died and rose - then life is a gift, every day is a gift, and nobody has a right to choose to die (though they certainly do, following Jesus, have the 'right' to give up life for another or for Christ - but that is a different thing).

It strikes me also that the gospel has something to say about the supposed indignity of old age.  Wherein is the indignity felt to lie?  Ms Pharaoh said "I simply do not want to follow this natural deterioration through to the last stage when I may be requiring a lot of help."  Is there any inherent indignity in requiring a lot of help?  I think I know what she meant; it is not a nice thought that one day I might be reliant on others for basic functions like toileting and eating.  But the gospel does tell me that my dignity as a human being, far from being contradicted by my need for 'a lot of help', derives from being helped.  I am a person Jesus died to help.  I am utterly, utterly dependent on him for everything - and existing in that relationship of dependence is what being really human means.

All in all, I am struck by the contrast between a culture where life is a random eruption from a sphere of death, and can collapse into that sphere again at a whim, and the gospel, where life is a gift to be treasured because it can be fulfilled in Christ.  And I am reminded that my only comfort, in life and death, is that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Counting on it

Real faith is more than just knowing or even believing that something is true.  After all, even the demons are perfect monotheists.  Real faith means counting on it.  It means that this faith becomes a real factor in life, decisions, actions.  Faith - trust - is not something that can be put on one side of life in general, so that it occupies a more or less watertight compartment.  In so far as it is real, faith becomes a factor in life and shapes everything around it.

Isn't this what Abraham found as he climbed the bitter slope of Moriah?

-Hey, Abraham, do you believe that God can raise the dead?

What would he have said as he bound his son - his only son, whom he loved - to the altar they had built together?

-Believe it?  I'm counting on it!

That is why faith will always have more than a hint of desperation about it.  Faith actively eschews - despairs of - other more obvious, more ethical, more strategic, more sensible ways of getting things done.  It walks away from them, because faith is counting on something else - the power and promise of God.

That is why faith is not just believing, for example, that God answers prayer.  Faith is counting on God's promise to answer, and that means venturing something.  Putting it all in his hands.  Faith is putting yourself in a position from which if God proves false to his promises, or lacks power, or will not move...  then you will fall.  It is the precipice, and yet at the same time it is the road.  Immense daring, and yet also just ordinary life.  Dangerous, but absolutely safe.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of the life of faith is that so much of it simply involves counting on God to be faithful to me even when I don't count on him.  That looks like the prayer of repentance, the perseverance in getting up and rededicating ourselves to his service every day even though we failed yesterday and will fail again today.  Neither so terrible nor so rewarding as Moriah - but I guess Abraham had plenty of those days too.

Faith always shows itself in works - works that make no sense without faith - just because that is what trust means.  It means acting as if the Other Person is trustworthy.