A Heart for Christmas or for Christ?


“This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”
– Jesus –

The Christmas music played in the background as Rod wrapped packages. While the music brought back many happy memories, recent events took his mind in another direction.

Work at the courthouse was increasingly difficult. Last year they removed the Ten Commandments. This year county employees received a memo requesting everyone to tone down “Christmas” rhetoric. They didn’t outright censor “Merry Christmas,” but they might as well have.

Closer to home Rod received his yearly Christmas list: Put up the tree. Buy non-perishables for the church’s homeless offering. Put up the crèche. Have some holiday cheer.

“Very funny,” Rod thought to himself. “My wife thinks of everything: Have holiday cheer!”

And she did. She knew the pressures of work and the added stress of church had made Rod more than just a “grouchy bear,” as she liked to call him. Only two weeks remained until Christmas, and he was overwhelmed with Christmas events at church. And as a result his Joy to the Lord was out of tune. So to spark his Christmas spirit, Rod’s wife put him to work on the crèche he loved. It worked marvelously. Continue reading

How the Lord’s Supper ‘Saves’ the Church

lord's supperYou cannot care for me with no regard for her,
if you love me you will love the church.
Derek Webb –

As Derek Webb’s song (“The Church”) points out, to love Christ without the church is like loving a man and loathing his wife. Such inconsistency isn’t socially acceptable. Neither is it spiritually permissible. Those who have been born again are joined to God’s family (1 Tim 3:15) and are called to submit themselves to a local church (Heb 10:24–25; 13:17).

The opposite problem is also possible. It is very possible to love the church more than Christ. Now, when this sort of thing happens, Christ is never denied, only demoted. And typically, it doesn’t happen by conscious choice or designed effort. There is never an advertising campaign to elevate the church above Christ. It happens the way that gravity causes bodies to sag—time and spiritual lethargy work together to pull the heart away from Christ.

Leaving our first love, as Revelation 2:4 puts it, doesn’t come through a traumatic event. Instead, it is what happens when members and pastors of a church focus their energy and conversation on church business, church budgets, church activities, church methods, and church growth.

Church, church, church. If all attention is given to the bride, the bridegroom will be lost.

Even when believers champion orthodox belief and defend biblical practices, men and women will still fall in love with a church more than Christ. Because our hearts are deceitful and naturally unbelieving (Jer 17:9; Heb 3:13), even the most committed churchmen are susceptible to loving the church more than Christ. In fact, the ones most committed to church are the ones most likely to love the church more than Christ. Continue reading

Christ, the Firstfruits of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

firstAfter testifying to the reality of Christ’s resurrection (v. 20), the second thing Paul address in 1 Corinthians 15 is the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated by his resurrection. Verse 20 says that the Jesus who was raised from the dead is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

The Feast of Firstfruits

The word “firstfruits” is a harvest term. It is the produce that first arises from the ground. In Israel it was to be dedicated to the Lord, as an offering of thanksgiving. For instance, Leviticus 23 commanded Israel to bring an offering of firstfruits in a festival that followed Passover and preceded Pentecost (vv. 9-14).

Historically, the feast which occurred on the “day after the Sabbath” after the Passover (v. 11) corresponded to the day when Israel was brought out of Egypt as God’s firstborn. Notably, this timing indicates part of the significance of this festival and the meaning of “firstfruits.” One old commentator writes,

The offering unto God . . . commemorated Israel’s separation from the nations, as a firstfruits of redemption. [It] symbolically signified the consecration of Israel unto God as the first-born unto Him from the nations, the beginning of the world’s great harvest. (S. H, Kellogg, Studies in Leviticus, 468)

In Israel’s history, this feast was meant to remind Israel of the Exodus and how that event confirmed their status as the firstborn son of Yahweh (Exod 4:22). That Christ would be called the “firstfruits” in 1 Corinthians 15:20 corresponds to this reality. He is the Son of God; not only in his divinity but in his humanity. His resurrection designates him the firstborn among many brethren (Rom 1:3-4; 8:29-30). Continue reading

“For the Sake of My Name”: Why God’s Pursuit of ‘His’ Glory Secures Our Good

gloryUnderstanding the glory of God and God’s purposes in salvation history can be hard. First, the God’s singular pursuit of his glory is hard to accept because it crushes our innate man-centeredness. Second, the glory of God is hard to understand because it requires a wide-ranging biblical theology to see how God pursues his glory in salvation and judgment.

And yet, because glory stands at the center of God’s character (Isa 48:9-11), his creation (Ps 19:1), his purposes for humanity (Isa 43:6-7), and his plan of redemption (Eph 1:6, 12, 14), it is vital to see how God’s glory relates to salvation.  Indeed, it is necessary to relate God’s glory and humanity’s redemption, because Scripture repeatedly speaks of his glory as the ultimate reason why he suspended his judgment on Israel, sent his Son for the world, and poured out his Spirit on the church.

To see how God’s glory relates to God’s loving act of redemption, let me draw your attention to a theme that runs throughout the Psalms and Prophets. It is the repeated refrain that God saves, forgives, and guides his people for the sake of his name. 

Instead of commenting on what that means in each instance, let me simply list a number of verses and draw a couple implications at the end. Continue reading

Exploring Kenotic Christology: A Book Review

This review goes back a couple years, but it gets at an issue that continues to be espoused—namely the idea that Christ “emptied” (kenosis) himself of some of his divine attributes.

Evans, C. Stephen (ed.).  Exploring Kenotic Christology: The Self-Emptying of God.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 360 pp. $34.95.

Exploring Kenotic Christology is a compilation of 12 essays edited by Stephen Evans.  From start to finish the goal of the book is to make a place for the “kenotic view” of Christ’s incarnation alongside, or in replace of, the “classical view.”  Introducing the writers, Evans writes, “Most of the authors can fairly be described as advocates of kenotic Christology, at least in the sense that they are convinced that this approach is a promising one to explore, even if not all of them are convinced of its final adequacy” (5).

In the assigned essays, this statement holds up.  While making a case for kenosis as a viable doctrinal interpretation, the authors do so with modesty and regard for the history of the church.  They recognize their position as the minority view and are very conscious of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon.  They frame their works within the boundaries prescribed by these historic councils, and they seek to demonstrate how their views better develop the confessions of 325 and 451.

The topics in this book range from biblical interpretation to doctrinal formulation, historical and systematic, to philosophical implications and complications.  The dialogue centers around classic Christology, that which has been espoused since the early church, and the more recent development of kenotic Christology.  Thomas Thompson chronicles the rise of this theory in 19th century Germany with Gottfried Thomasius “first articulating this new approach” (78).  His name, along with Wolfgang Gess and Hugh Mackintosh, are mentioned frequently in the book as the forebears of this approach.

The differences between the classical view and the kenotic view are as follows: Classical Christology posits that when the Son of God became man, he added humanity to his divine nature, but he never lost any of his divine attributes.  His deity was veiled in humanity, but he was all the while God incarnate.  This view follows the Chalcedonian formula of “one person, two natures” and has been explicated through the centuries by theories such as Thomas Morris’ two minds view.  Often this approach appeals to mystery and ineffability when considering how humanity and deity coinhere, and when more specific details are pressed theologians often appeal to the communication idiomatum.  While giving an answer for how deity and humanity are conjoined in Christ, kenotic Christology wants to go further.

Appealing to the term ekenosin in Philippians 2:7, kenotic Christology emphasizes Christ’s “emptying.”  It is not that the Son took on flesh (cf. John 1:14), but in order to do so he had to leave behind certain properties or aspects of deity.  Looking to explain the manner in which deity took on humanity, kenoticists are dissatisfied with appeals to mystery.  They appeal to the Bible to find ways of describing God the Son’s humiliation.  They charge classical views with grounding their claims in views of God that are found outside the Bible—in natural theology and philosophical presuppositions of what God must be like.

Assessing their arguments, it seems that a kenotic view of Scripture does agree with orthodoxy.  Mackintosh’s four axioms, for instance, suppose “(1) the deity of Christ; (2) his personal pre-existence; (3) his true humanity; and (4) the unity of his person” (91).  Likewise, Gordon Fee’s chapter, “The New Testament and Kenosis Christology” appeals to Philippians, Hebrews, and the Synoptic Gospels to support his doctrinal claims.  Likewise, the overall argument of the book, while recruiting philosophy and theology, does aim at explicating Scripture.  In fact, some of the arguments against classical Christology’s reliance on natural theology and philosophy, while narrow, have a certain Sola Scriptura appeal.  So there are positive elements to the book.

With that said, there are some troubling features as well.  First, many of the authors appeal to God’s self-limitation to explain how the Son could “empty” himself.  They admit to the (temporary) loss of divine attributes of omniscience or omnipotence and explain it by God’s divine power to limit himself.  However, this radically reshapes who God is and opens the door to all kinds of unwanted entailments.  Open Theism being just one.

Second, with self-limitation comes a whole new formulation for God.  Kenotic Christology is willing to redefine immutability, simplicity, and even our understanding of the Trinity to a more social model.  In fact, the whole subject of divine attributes is brought into question, so that God’s “omni’s” may be accidental attributes, not essential.  This radically deforms Christianity’s understanding of who God is.  While they appeal to the Bible for a more “biblically informed” doctrine of God, they disregard these doctrines too easily.  They construe them as extra-biblical accretions from the natural theology of Anselm and others.

Third, while rejecting classical views of God and the incarnation on the basis of faulty philosophical positions, Evans et al are just as guilty.  Frequently, Evans sequesters free will theism and incompatiblistic freedom to advance his argument, yet in doing so he relies on a faulty belief system.  These Arminian notions do not best articulate Scripture’s teaching about God, his creation, and the people made in his image. Therefore, any doctrine built on their foundation will be skewed.

Overall, the kenotic model, while picking up many important and biblical elements of Christ’s incarnation, does not make sense of all the biblical data.  It keys in on the change in the incarnation, but it does not retain Christ’s unchanging deity (cf. Heb. 13:8; Col. 1:19; 2:9)  Even in the primary prooftext, Philippians 2:7, kenotic proponents fail to recognize that “emptying” is coupled with addition, “taking on the form of a bond-servant.”  Therefore, to single out Christ’s loss is to consider only one side of the equation.

Likewise, the systemic effect of reshaping other doctrines to fit this model demands too much.  Better to synthesize the self-sacrificing, humbling work of the incarnation with the unchanging, all-glorious, omnipotent Son of God, than to throw out his deity because it makes more sense.  There is a mystery to the incarnation and one that should be explored, but one that should not minimize Christ’s deity or devalue his humanity.  In the end, the kenotic theory of the incarnation does the former, it brings into question the sustained deity of Christ and it misshapes the whole Godhead.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

A Devotional Reading Guide to ‘The Final Days of Jesus’

final daysOne of the most edifying books I’ve read (and am still reading) in 2014 has been The Final Days of Jesus. Written by Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor, the book chronicles the final week of Jesus’ life and puts in  order all the events of that climactic week. On Wednesday nights I am teaching through the book, and in my own personal devotions I am reading through it. 

To help others read through the book, I put together a 40-day reading plan that is now available on-line.  The outline lays out daily Scripture from the Gospels, many intertextual connections to the Old Testament, and the page numbers to read from The Final Days of Jesus

Here is the devotional guide’s introduction. Let it be an invitation to a slow, worshipful reading of the passion narratives in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Continue reading

Christ Did Not Come for Chimpanzees


Photo Credit: From CNN article “Chimps should be recognized as ‘legal persons,’ lawsuits claim”

This month the New York Supreme Court is deciding on whether or not to rule on a case involving the legalization of chimpanzees as human persons. Yes, this is a real report, not one from The Onion. In the state of New York, the Nonhuman Right Organization is filing a lawsuit on behalf of four chimpanzees—Tommy, Kiko, Hercules, and Leo—to let them have the same rights as humans.

Unable to speak for themselves (because they are not human), CNN reports that the leader of NRO (Steven Wise) and the co-founder of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (Joyce Tishler) are making the case for these animals that humanity (i.e., homo sapiens) is not a necessary prerequisite for personhood.

Such is the moral insanity of our day, that men and women made in the image of God are unable to see the (biological, social, spiritual, and legal) differences between humans and apes. Albert Mohler critically reports on this subject on his daily podcast, The Briefing (Dec 4, 2013), and Graham Cole in his new book, The God Who Became Human: A Biblical Theology of the Incarnation provides a Christological reason why men and women are different than apes.

Anglican professor of theology at Beeson Divinity School, Graham Cole makes this critical observation. “The very fact that God became truly human underlines the value of human life. The Creator did not become a lion (apologies to C. S. Lewis) or a dolphin or a parrot. He became one of us” (The God Who Became Human, 150).

Cole is exactly right. Humanity is not only distinct from every other species because we alone are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-28). Humanity is also unique because Christ only took on human flesh (Rom 8:3; Heb 2:16-17). What was once obvious to humanity—that man and beast were categorically distinct and therefore deserved different legal standings—has been lost in theory and is now requiring a court ruling to determine what personhood means.

Cole continues his Christological argument for humanity’s uniqueness and stresses that Jesus himself recognized the difference between man and beast, giving greater value to the former.  Citing Catholic and Protestant scholars alike, he writes,

As . . . the eminent twentieth-century Roman Catholic Jacques Maritain argued often, “the sanctity of human life ultimately rests in the fact that Christ became incarnate as a human creature, not some other sort of creature.” Protestant theologian Karl Barth adds to the chorus: “The respect for human life which becomes a command in the recognition of the union of God with humanity has incomparable power and width.” It is no surprise then to find in the Gospels that Jesus operated with a scale of creaturely value. Human life is more valuable . . . than that of a sparrow, even a flock of them (Matt 10:29–31). This valuing of human life over that of other creatures is criticized by some as ‘speciesism’ [e.g., Peter Singer] but is fundamental to a sound theological anthropology that factors in the reality of the incarnation. (150)

Indeed, as the court case in New York reminds us, we need to go back to the basics and reiterate that man and beast are not the same. God created man in his image to rule over creation, not to receive them as persons with equal rights. While Scripture declares that the righteous will have regard for the life of his beast (Prov 12:10), it never confuses the difference between people and pets. Even more, with the coming of Jesus Christ as a man, we see in Scripture and history that God’s incarnation is the final word on who he thinks is most valuable. Christ gave his life to redeem the human race, and we ought not confuse who that is.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

One Solitary Life

oneJames Allan Francis was an early-twentieth century American pastor who authored a handful of books. He is also the “anonymous” author who stands behind the famous poem, “One Solitary Life.” This poem which often circulates at Christmas time is a testimony to the power of Christ’s humble life.

As Christmas nears and we contemplate Christ’s incarnation, may we be reminded of the glorious power of Christ’s humble life.

He was born in an obscure village,
the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in still another village
where he worked until he was thirty.
Then for three years
he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never had a family or owned a home.
He didn’t go to college.
He never traveled more than 200 miles
from the place he was born.

He did none of the things
one usually associates with greatness.
He had no credentials but himself;
he was only thirty-three
when public opinion turned against him.

His friends ran away.
He was turned over to his enemies
and went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to the cross
between two thieves.
While he was dying
his executioners gambled for his clothing,
the only property he had on earth.

When he was dead
he was laid in a borrowed grave
through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
and today he is the central figure
of the human race,
the leader of mankind’s progress.

All the armies that ever marched,
all the navies that ever sailed,
all the parliaments that ever sat,
all the kings that ever reigned,
put together,
have not affected
the life of man on earth
as much as that One Solitary Life. [1]

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

[1] James Allan Francis, The Real Jesus and Other Sermons (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1926).

Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement

lambIn his chapter on “Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement,” Paul Helm observes that Calvin’s universal language is pastoral in nature and necessary (and biblical) because of humanity’s epistemic condition. In other words, because humanity is ignorant of the future, the decree of God, and who God’s elect are, it is most appropriate for the pastor (and all Christian witnesses) to offer the gospel freely to all people. In fact, it is spiritually dangerous to call men and women to look for evidences of grace in themselves as ‘pre-conditions’ for election. Rather, following Calvin’s teaching, one’s election can only be known in the mirror of Christ.

On this point Helm quotes Calvin who rightly observed,

But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion3.24.5, quoted in Helm, “Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement,” From Heaven He Came and Sought Her118)

Accordingly, may we look unto Christ today. The invitation to come is available to all, and all who come will discover God’s covenant love that he set on his elect before the foundation of the world.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

More Than Baby Talk: A Primer on the Incarnation

gloryPutting our children to bed is always a precious time to read the Bible, sing hymns, and talk about the day. But precious as it is, it is not always simple.

A few days ago, as our five year old was minutes from dream land, he began asking questions about Jesus’ birth. I listened to my wife explain that Jesus had always existed. And I heard him respond, “Yes, but he was also born,” exposing the challenge that if Jesus was born than he must have had a beginning. Right?

Perhaps, we have the making of a little Arian in our home (as in Arius from the fourth century Africa, not the Third Reich in twentieth century), or perhaps he is simply experiencing the challenge that we all face when we begin to press into the incarnation of Jesus Christ. What does it mean that the eternal Son of God who was with God before the beginning of time (John 1:1) took on flesh and became a man in time?

The Incarnation

The subject of the incarnation is puzzling for adults let alone little boys with active imaginations. Continue reading