30 January 2013

It Is Not a Hard Saying

Christ, according to Paul, will do everything or nothing; if righteousness is in slightest measure obtained by our obedience to the law, then Christ died in vain; if we trust in slightest measure in our own good works, then we have turned away from grace and Christ profiteth us nothing.

To the world, that may seem to be a hard saying; but it is not a hard saying to the man who has ever been at the foot of the cross; it is not a hard saying to the man who has first known the bondage of the law, the weary effort at establishment of his own righteousness in the presence of God, and then has come to understand, as in a wondrous flash of light, that Christ has done all, and that the weary bondage was vain. What a great theologian is the Christian heart--the Christian heart that has been touched by redeeming grace!

. . . That is the centre of the Christian religion--the absolutely undeserved and sovereign grace of God, saving sinful men by the gift of Christ upon the cross. . . . Everywhere the basis of the NT is the same--the mysterious, incalculable, wondrous, grace of God.
--J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (1925), 193-95

The Lion Awakes

29 January 2013

The Greatest Fairy Story

Reading Tolkien's letters. Here's an arresting bit from a 1944 letter to his son Christopher. It is a window in to what is perhaps the great secret to Tolkien's literary power.

Tolkien has just heard a sermon on the healing of Jairus' daughter and is reflecting on the healing of a young boy Tolkien had witnessed in 1927.
But at the story of the little boy (which is a fully attested fact of course) with its apparent sad ending and then its sudden unhoped-for happy ending, I was deeply moved and had that peculiar emotion we all have--though not often. It is quite unlike any other sensation.

And all of a sudden I realised what it was: the very thing that I have been trying to write about and explain--in that fairy-story essay that I so much wish you had read that I think I shall send it to you. For it I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce).

And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint has suddenly snapped back. It perceives--if the story has literary 'truth'--that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest Fairy Story--and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. . . . So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of truth behind the apparent ananke of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us.
--Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 100-101

28 January 2013

I Have Overcome the World

Luther, in a sermon on John 16:33:
It is as though Christ wanted to say: "My dear friend, write the word 'I' with a very large capital letter, in order that you may see it well and take it into your heart. . . . It does not matter that you are small and weak; I am all the larger and stronger. . . ."

Christ declares: I have already overcome the world. Thus the great and the small, the rich and the poor, will join hands and be a match for the great monster behemoth. If he tries to swallow and devour you as if you were a little gnat, I will become a big camel in his throat and tear My way through his belly until he bursts and has to return you in one piece, whether he wants to or not. I am the One who says this to you.

But you must turn your eyes from yourselves and be sure to consider who I am, in order that you may be able to say: "Listen, death, devil, pope, emperor, and world, you are really putting on airs. You are showing your long, sharp teeth and are opening your jaws wide. Compared with you I am a poor little worm. This is true. But what do you think about Him who says: 'I am the One' and 'I have overcome the world'--says this to me and tells me to rely confidently on it?"
--Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 24: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John Chapter 14-16, p. 415-17

24 January 2013

Often Creeps In

In June 1741 Jonathan Edwards wrote a letter to a recent convert, Deborah Hatheway. She had written Edwards seeking wisdom for how to live the Christian life. Edwards responded with 19 pieces of counsel. The letter became something of a classic—within 150 years, over 300,000 copies had been printed. The eighth piece of counsel is:
Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin that ever was, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building, and is the most difficultly rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, and often creeps in, insensibly, into the midst of religion and sometimes under the disguise of humility. 
--Works of Jonathan Edwards, Yale edition, 16:93

Justification and Regeneration

Seems to me there are roughly four camps when it comes to the question of how to put together the gospel with our ongoing growth.

Maybe we can put all four in terms of their unification of the objective/legal/pardoning/external side of salvation (which for simplicity's sake we'll call justification [J]) with the subjective/mystical/empowering/internal side (which for simplicity we'll call regeneration [R]).
1. Unbelievers (neither J nor R). No focus on either justification or regeneration. Full-blown functional Pelagianism and Socinianism without knowing it.

2. The Christian Buzz Lightyears (R, not J). A focus on regeneration to the neglect of justification. Overly optimistic. Anthropologically naive. Historically known as 'Neonomian.' Forgets that even the regenerate continue, in many ways, to be hard-wired to self-generate, even a little bit, God's approval. Focuses on the ongoing need for the work of the Spirit to the neglect of the ongoing need for the work of the Son. I think the German Pietists Franke and Spener were probably here. Probably Wesley too.

3. The Christian Eeyores (J, not R). A focus on justification to the neglect of regeneration. Overly pessimistic. Pneumatologically naive. Historically known as 'Antinomian.' Forgets that the regenerate are new creatures with new impulses and new desires who are able to do new things out of new motivations that truly are, for all our fallenness, pleasing to God (as a son pleases a father, not an employee a boss). Focuses on the ongoing need for the work of the Son to the neglect of the ongoing need for the work of the Spirit. I think Berkouwer is here, as I have publicly argued before. Perhaps Luther too, though in my reading of him he talks way more about obeying the Ten Commandments than those who quote him generally do.

4. The New Testament (J + R). Soberly optimistic, injected with realism. Rejoices in both justification-grace and regeneration-grace (which come together nicely when we make union with Christ the soteriological umbrella, as the NT demands). Grace is both pardon (Rom 3:24) and power (1 Cor 15:10). We are, our whole lives long, simul justus et peccator; yet we also are able to actually act differently. A deep appreciation of the depths of sin, even in the regenerate, wedded with a deep appreciation of the new power ignited in the new birth. Believers are given a new power, new impulses, new taste buds; holiness now appears strangely beautiful instead of repulsive; yet one of the main ways that hunger for holiness is fueled is by sustained, repeated reflection on the gospel of grace, the need for which we never outgrow. I see Calvin getting this just right. And Owen. Schlatter too. And Whitefield got both of these together in a wonderfully combustible way.
The point is that we should emphasize neither the objective to the neglect of the subjective nor the subjective to the neglect of the objective. Of course, the four camps above are not neatly divisible. And we all naturally operate on the assumption that we ourselves have the perfect balance, which may or may not be the case.

But honest and humble self-examination would be a salutary check for many of us. Are we emphasizing the full picture of salvation with the rhythm of the New Testament? Or are we emphasizing what appeals to us the most, resisting equal appreciation of all the Bible says about salvation?

The Horror of Self

The last lines of Mary Elizabeth Williams' horrifying pro-choice essay:
I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time—even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.
As my friend Drew Hunter rightly tweeted--the baby's whole life for the mother's convenient one.

This article is the very epitome, it seems to me, of the horror of Self. It is clothed with smiles and sarcasm, but it is quite close to hell itself--the inversion of light and beauty and rest and shalom. It is not simply putting oneself before another's comfort or convenience or feelings or financial stability, but another's life. It is a real-life horror story: the one (a mother) who exists to nurture and protect and love is transformed into its opposite: quietly killing the helpless out of self-nurturing, self-protection, self-love. This is Gollum. It is unmasked ugliness.

It's truly sobering to ponder the fury that will descend on those who publicly call for their children to be passed through the fire and sacrificed to the god of Self. Yet even now all need not be lost for Mary. 'A life worth sacrificing,' she concludes. There she says, honestly and unflinchingly, what abortion is. The heart of abortion is a mother saying to her child, Your life sacrificed for me. The heart of the gospel is the Lord saying to us, My life sacrificed for yours. God's sacrifice of his Son means that her sacrifice of her son need not be the eternal banner over her life. Her repentance will mean God has done for her in his Son, out of love, what she has done for herself to her son, out of hate. And she and I will stand together, equally amazed at the grace lavished upon, and needed equally by, each of us.

23 January 2013

What Is Holiness?

Holiness, as I then wrote down some of my contemplations on it, appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature, which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishment to the soul.

In other words . . . it made the soul like a field or garden of God, with all manner of pleasant flowers; all pleasant, delightful, and undisturbed; enjoying a sweet calm. . . .

The soul of a true Christian, as I then wrote my meditations, appeared like such a little white flower as we see in the spring of the years; low and humble on the ground, opening its bosom to receive the pleasant beams of the sun's glory, rejoicing as it were in a calm rapture; diffusing around a sweet fragrance; standing peacefully and lovingly, in the midst of other flowers round about; all in like manner opening their bosoms, to drink in the light of the sun.
--Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative, in Works, 16:796

We tend to think of holiness in terms of vehemence, zeal, ardor, passion. Better is 'sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm.' Hell can imitate the former far more easily than the latter.

19 January 2013

Newton on Doctrinal Controversy

Wonderful letter from John Newton to a pastor who had written him describing his intentions to rebuke the doctrinal errors of another pastor. Seasoned, wise counsel.

A few excerpts--
'As to your opponent, I wish that before you set pen to paper against him, and during the whole time you are preparing your answer, you may commend him by earnest prayer to the Lord's teaching and blessing.'

'Of all people who engage in controversy, we, who are called Calvinists, are most expressly bound by our own principles to the exercise of gentleness and moderation. If, indeed, they who differ from us have a power of changing themselves, if they can open their own eyes, and soften their own hearts, then we might with less inconsistency be offended at their obstinacy: but if we believe the very contrary to this, our part is, not to strive, but in meekness to instruct those who oppose.'

'I readily believe that the leading points of Arminianism spring from and are nourished by the pride of the human heart; but I should be glad if the reverse were always true; and that to embrace what are called the Calvinistic doctrines was an infallible token of a humble mind. . . . I am afraid there are Calvinists, who, while they account it a proof of their humility, that they are willing in words to debase the creature and to give all the glory of salvation to the Lord, yet know not what manner of spirit they are of.'

16 January 2013

It Is All Useless

My dear friend, we must make this perfectly clear. When you come into the Christian church and listen to this gospel as it is in truth, you must realize that everything you are in the world is of no value. It does not matter who you are, what your natural ability is, what your degrees and diplomas, your academic attainments, what knowledge you may have garnered. It is all useless to you. When you come into the realm of the church, the Pharisee is as helpless as the publican. The greatest sage is as helpless as the newborn babe. . . .

Thank God that his way of salvation is so utterly and entirely different from ours. . . . What does the gospel demand of us? Simply that we know that we are paupers, simply that we repent and admit and confess that we have nothing at all, that we are blind and lost and damned and hopeless and helpless.
--Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 'The Great Watershed,' in Setting Our Affections on Glory: Nine Sermons on the Gospel and the Church (Crossway, 2013), 41, 43

15 January 2013

What Our Church Planting Brothers Are After

'Very pretty!' said Gandalf. 'But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone.'
--J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, p. 6

James 1:22

Zephaniah 3:17

Sam Storms:
I’ve been a Christian for 51 years. I’ve been a pastor for 38 years. I guess that makes me “old” and somewhat experienced. In any case, I’ve seen more than I care to remember of human pain and predicaments. I’ve counseled rebellious teens and lonely senior citizens. I’ve spent hours with bitter wives and their passive husbands. I’ve cried with victims of sexual abuse and rejoiced with those set free from bondage. Their problems may be different. Some are men, others are women. Some are old, others young. But the one thing they share in common is the deeply felt need of the human soul to know and  feel that God loves and enjoys them.

. . . Pain becomes bearable and tomorrow no longer terrifies when your soul is touched with the reality of God’s delight in you.

14 January 2013

'I Have Given Myself Clear Away'

Rolled out of bed in internal haste today. Rereading this brought me back to liberated, soul-sighing sanity. My life is not my own. Nothing to prove, nothing to achieve. No life circumstance requires savvy manipulation. He is sorting it all out.

Jonathan Edwards' diary, 1723:
Saturday, January 12. In the morning I have been before God; and have given myself, all that I am and have, to God, so that I am not in any respect my own: I can challenge no right in myself, I can challenge no right in this understanding, this will, these affections that are in me; neither have I any right to this body, or any of its members: no right to this tongue, these hands, nor feet; no right to these senses, these eyes, these ears, this smell or taste.

I have given myself clear away, and have not retained anything as my own. I have been to God this morning, and told him that I gave myself wholly to him. I have given every power to him; so that for the future I will challenge no right in myself, in any respect. I have expressly promised him, and do now promise almighty God, that by his grace I will not.

I have this morning told him, that I did take him for my whole portion and felicity, looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were. . . .

This I have done.

And I pray God, for the sake of Christ, to look upon it as a self-dedication; and to receive me now as entirely his own, and deal with me in all respects as such; whether he afflicts me or prospers me, or whatever he pleases to do with me, who am his.
--Letters and Personal Writings, in Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16, pp. 760-63

For God Alone, O My Soul, Wait in Silence (Ps 62:5)

Where sin runs deep
Your grace is more

11 January 2013

Prophet, Priest, King

Bavinck on the work of Christ: 
Christ had to bear all three offices. He had to be a prophet to know and to disclose the truth of God; a priest, to devote himself to God and, in our place, to offer himself up to God; a king, to govern and protect us according to God's will. To teach, to reconcile, and to lead; to instruct, to acquire, and to apply salvation; wisdom, righteousness, and redemption; truth, love, and power--all three are essential to the completeness of our salvation. . . .

Rationalism acknowledges only his prophetic office; mysticism only his priestly office; millennialism only his kingly office. But Scripture, consistently and simultaneously attributing all three offices to him, describes him as our chief prophet, our only priest, and our eternal king.

Though a king, he rules not by the sword but by his Word and spirit. He is a prophet, but his word is power and really happens. He is a priest but lives by dying, conquers by suffering, and is all-powerful by his love. He is always all these things in conjunction, never the one without the other.
--Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:368

09 January 2013

08 January 2013

The Purpose of Poetry

To express the inexpressible (note Sam's words 'so I can't tell you what I mean'). To tap in to that ancient haunted longing for our true home that certain smells and songs remind us of. To become human again.

1. C. S. Lewis, responding in a 1949 letter to a woman who had written him explaining that her religious doubts had 'all dissolved in a wordless illumination of the mind':
No, one can't put these experiences into words: though all writing is a continual attempt to do so. Indeed, in a sense, one can hardly put anything into words: only the simplest colors have names, and hardly any of the smells. The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can't be expressed in language. I labor the point lest the devil should hereafter try to make you believe that what was wordless was therefore vague and nebulous. But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and the most indubitable realities which escape language: not because they are vague but because language is. What goes easily into words is precisely the abstract--thought about 'matter' (not apples or snuff), about 'population' (not actual babies), and so on. Poetry I take to be  the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.
2. Martyn-Lloyd Jones recounts a time that a friend of his wrote to Chesterton asking, 'Why is it that the poets can be so glorious in their poetry but often are so disappointing in their personal lives and in their beliefs and in their prose?' Chesterton wrote back:
Poets often sing what they cannot say.
3. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings:
'The Lady of Lorien! Galadriel!' cried Sam. 'You should see her, indeed you should, sir. I am only a hobbit, and gardening's my job at home, sir, if you understand me, and I'm not much good at poetry--not at making it: a bit of a comic rhyme, perhaps, now and again, you know, but not real poetry--so I can't tell you what I mean. It ought to be sung. You'd have to get Strider, Aragorn that is, or old Mr. Bilbo, for that. But I wish I could make a song about her. Beautiful she is, sir! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di'monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far-off as a snow-mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that's a lot o' nonsense, and all wide of my mark.'

07 January 2013

01 January 2013

The Logic of Grace

The ending to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,' set a few days after Christmas in late nineteenth-century London. Horner, who has just been proven guilty by Holmes, confesses, and then says--
'My sister thinks that I am going mad. Sometimes I think that I am myself. And now--and now I am myself a branded thief, without ever having touched the wealth for which I sold my character. God help me! God help me!' He burst into convulsive sobbing, with his face buried in his hands.

There was a long silence, broken only by his heavy breathing and by the measured tapping of Sherlock Holmes' finger-tips upon the edge of the table. Then Holmes rose and threw open the door.

'Get out!' said he.

'What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!'

'No more words. Get out!'

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.
'After all, Watson,' said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, 'I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.'
HT: Jack Collins