Back in January I shared this message to Carnoustie Community Church on Psalm 33. I hope you enjoy it as we see God the Artist, Planner & Rescuer.
Tag Archives: Knowing God
95% is not obedience
Recently I have started reading the bible in what I would call the Countdown style. 2 from the back, 1 from the front and 1 from the middle – ie 2 chapters from the Old Testament, 1 from the New and 1 psalm. It has brought up some interesting insight as I mediate on such a broad sweep of redemptive history.
This morning I read Genesis 21 & 22, Matthew 11 and Psalm 11 and found an interesting parallel. In Genesis Abraham’s love for his son is tested, in Matthew John the Baptist’s quest for the Messiah is answered, and in the Psalm David’s refusal to flee from his enemies is declared.
It struck me that each of these passages shows us an important but different aspect of obedience. Obedience in the bible is always in the context of relationship with the Creator. As our maker and father he instructs us in the best way for us to walk, he guides us towards the best pasture to feed on. The question is, will we follow?
Abraham’s obedience overcomes paternalistic love; John’s obedience overcomes nationalistic apathy; David’s obedience overcomes hostile attack. In each the test is different but similar. Do you love me more than your greatest love? Will you follow me if you are the only one? Are you prepared to trust in my protection?
Sometimes we are tempted to think of obedience as this impossible standard of perfection that encompasses everything we think, say or do…and that would be correct. On this level our every action is marred by our tainted motives. Much of this is innate and only slowly and painstakingly redeemed.
However there is another aspect of obedience which is the deliberate choices we make to either follow or reject God’s leading in our lives. This is conscious, deliberate, stumbling toward God in faith moment by moment. We will never defeat our every sinful motive (who can know all their hidden faults?), but we are expected to choose the path of obedience over family love, fear of enemies and paralysing apathy.
In this place if we are only willing to give God 95% of our hearts, then this is not obedience. Full and unreserved surrender is the currency of heaven. Yes we stumble in times of weakness, yes we have a backlog of bad tendencies to work through, but in the moment by moment relationship we are holding nothing back. This is the outworking of Jesus’ call to remain in him and bear much fruit.
Father, help us to submit our lives to your care, enable us to overcome our hesitation and fall forever into the ocean of your unconditional love. Amen
Tellus the answer Mother
Long before any of us were born, before we ever had a thought or asked a question, a civilisation had been born, grown, conquered the known world and then died. In this society the great questions of life were asked by the philosophers, portrayed by the plays and idolised by the poets. An intricate web of personalities stood behind the cause and effect of the visible and invisible world. The civilisation was the Roman Empire, and the personalities were their pagan gods.
In chapter 7 of the City of God, Augustine dissects as an expert surgeon the layers upon layers of these gods. A complex hierarchy determined the degree of control or influence of each god. He again goes back to Varro to use one of their own philosophers to ensure he represents their position accurately. Augustine asks basic questions like, is there a logical reason why some gods have more important responsibilities or are given a greater degree of worship? After a lengthy analysis of these so-called principal or select gods, Augustine concludes that there is no logical system to explain the hierarchy, but “simply because those divinities have succeeded in winning greater renown of the general public”.
So far, so good. We, as a modern, sophisticated reader, can look back at these times as naive and easily discard their superstition. Maybe. This is when the chapter gets really interesting! For Augustine pushes on to the deeper question behind and beyond the pagan rituals, to ask, to what purpose was all this constructed? Why did all of this appear? According to Varro, all the images and attributes and ornaments were created in order that those initiated “could fix their eyes on them, and then apprehend with their minds the true gods, namely the Soul of the World and it’s manifestations”.
Don’t miss the significance of this, one of the leading experts and advocates of the Roman gods is saying that these hundreds of gods were created because there is something else that is indescribable, there is something Other that is untouchable. It is this that he calls the Soul of the World, this essence that is not human, or any created thing, that is beyond our senses but we can hear it’s echo in our lives.
What is this essence? Varro describes it using the three degrees of the soul (borrowed from Aristotle): the most basic level is the material body; the next is sensibility, the ability to experience sensation; the highest level is intelligence, “a faculty denied to all mortal beings except man”. Augustine then goes on to say that “it is this part of the World-Soul which, according to Varro is God; in man he calls it genius“. This genius connects all things together, and expresses itself as the god of the earth, Tellus, the Great Mother, and the god of the sea Neptune.
An essence within but beyond the created world? Something intelligent, like a person but not human? We may say we have left all of this superstition behind hundreds, if not thousands of years ago, but when I went to see The Last Jedi at Christmas this could have been the script for Ray’s island training (a story that mirrors the sentiments of many who feel there must be something out there). Feel the force Ray, find the genius Varro. Why are we aching, reaching, yearning to find what is just out of reach? To describe something indescribable? To find a unifying purpose to make sense of all of life? We may have dropped the pagan gods, yet the human heart remains the same…looking for a way to explain our sense of unaloneness in the universe.
The seeking is good, the longing is innate, but the answer is wrong. For what Varro called the World-Soul, what the modern spirit-seekers may call the Force, what the Greeks called the logos, has been revealed once and for all. Not as a thing, or a system, but as a person. The mistake has been to look inside the created order for the answer, when all the signs pointed to the answer being outside of the natural order of things. “In the beginning was the logos (Word)” says John the apostle. And who is this Word? “And the word was with God, and the Word was God…the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”.
All of the ancient pagan system was man’s Herculean attempt to explain the personality behind the planets. Years before Augustine another church father told us that “by the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry hosts by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33). It is the breath of God that we can see on our rear view mirror, the word of the Lord that we can hear echoing across our our conscience. It is the call of Jesus, the Word made flesh, calling to our lost world to come home.
The Master’s mind
At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.
We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better. Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:
i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:
- Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
- Cremation practice and law in Britain.
- The banana industry.
- Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.
Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.
So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.
ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.
Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel. To the natural man it is foolishness.
There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.
iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.
Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.
Fortuna favours the bearded
Marcus Varro was the Richard Dawkins of his day – an intellectual powerhouse, an articulate scholar and a renown academic. He was described as “Varro, that man of universal science”, a man who, like Hitchens, “wrote so much that we find it hard to believe that anyone could have read it all”. Back in the final years of BC, Varro wrote a treatise on the Roman gods; rather than attack these gods, he sought to rescue them from the mire of cultural confusion. He was the ancient popular religious author, whose books would have topped the best seller lists from Constantinople to Carthage.
It is to Marcus Varro that Augustine turns in Book 6 of City of God in order to refute the widely held belief that, the superstitious worship of these pagan gods had any eternal benefit. In his first five chapters he has already argued that the Roman gods cannot provide benefit in this life, but perhaps, he asks, we should still acquiesce to them for future blessing in the life after death?
It is important to remember that at this time people believed that the gods were intimately connected with every aspect of life, from the growing of beards (Fortuna) to eternal life (Juventas) to everything in between. They interacted with the gods in three spheres of life, defined by Varro as the mythical, physical and civil. Augustine reframes these categories as the fabulous (from fable), natural and civil. The fabulous is the area of the poets and plays, the natural is the philosophers and the civil the general public. Indeed, Varro states that “the first type of theology is particularly suited to the theatre; the second is particularly concerned with the world; the special relevance of the third is to the city”.
Throughout the chapter Augustine traces the degrading plays and temple ceremonies that were involved in worshiping these gods. He wonders if it really matters to the people whether these tales are true or not. The details of many of the acts cannot be repeated they are so explicit and crude. In frustration he cries out “if the tales are true, how degraded are the gods! If false, how degraded the worship!” Varro agrees, and states that we should not look to the fabulous or civil gods for help “because they are both equally disgraceful, absurd, shameful, false, far be it from religious men to hope for eternal life from either the one or the other.” Augustine then quotes from Annæus Seneca, who observed about the Jews that “those, however, know the cause of their rites, whilst the greater part of the people know not why they perform theirs.” He says, in effect, at least the Jews knew why they did things, the general public didn’t really understand, they just followed custom.
Surely this is the heart of the matter – in a world without absolutes who decides what is rational and what is superstitious? We look back at these people as superstitious, just as today’s atheists look at Christians as equally superstitious. We live in the age of secular humanism, where there are absolutely no gods behind the scenes, only the mechanistic mono-dimensional world where the only reality is the reality I see with my eyes. The so-called rational secular humanists claim the voice of reason as they heap scorn on our belief in things that the human eye cannot see. In chapter 6 of City of God the roles are reversed. It is society that sees hundreds if not thousands of gods everywhere, and it is Augustine who is claiming the voice of reason. In chapters 1-5 he has argued against those who believe that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of benefit in this life, in chapters 6-10 he takes on the belief that the gods are to be worshipped for the sake of eternal life.
Mankind has always oscillated between pantheism and atheism, with a healthy dose of monotheism thrown into the mix. The world is such a wonderful, capricious and unsentimental place and our lives are so fragile that we struggle to reconcile the certainty we long for with the uncertainty we experience. Are the failed crops a sign of divine displeasure, a random act or ecological karma? The response of people in Augustine’s day was to humanise their gods and make each one accountable for a different aspect of life, even the growth of beards. Their gods were an integral part of everyday life – the topic of the theatre, the focus of ceremonies, the theme of the academics. They were awash with superstition and contradiction.
Augustine asks the key question, “can these gods give you eternal life?” Does following them bring reward in this life, or the next? Augustine sought to refute the idea that the gods had any real power to control events and uses the most well known philosopher of the day on the topic. Atheists say that Christians are right to argue there are not thousands of gods – but that they stop one God short of the correct answer. But this underestimates the magnitude of the binary difference between 1 and 0. For me it is like finding a spouse – for the boy desperate to find his perfect girl the difference between no one and someone is immense. It is the difference between happiness and sadness, joy and despair.
No matter what the prevailing fashion of society is, there will always be Christians who hold to the reality of the Someone. For they have met their true soulmate and have found lasting, deep joy. The contrasting religious background may be black or white, pantheism or atheism, but the red of the cross will always stand out. Let society say we are alone in the universe, or let them say there are hundreds of mini-gods under every stone, we cannot agree.
The merit of Christ’s death
Book 2 Chapter 17 Section 1-6
In this short and complicated final chapter of Book 2 Calvin is wrestling with the merit of Christ’s death. In what seems at times theological hair-splitting Calvin is addressing a very specific question that was apparently put to him by Laelius Socinus in 1555. The topic is absent until the 1559 edition and scholars believe that it was inserted following the correspondance between the two men. Socinus asked Calvin “how God could have been determined (by this he seems to mean “bound”) by the merits of Christ (i.e. his redeeming work on the cross) if redemption was solely a matter of God’s free and sovereign decision. If God is sovereign there would appear to be no need of any intermediate.”
In the words of Alister McGrath “Why is Christ’s death on the cross sufficient to purchase the redemption of humanity? Is it something intrinsic to the person of Christ, as Luther had argued?…Or was it that God chose to accept his death as sufficient to merit the redemption of humanity? Was this value inherent in Christ’s death, or was it imposed upon it by God?” (from Reformation Thought by Alister McGrath). The question posed to us is “does mercy require means?” Was the death of Christ of such a nature that it had to wash away the sins of the elect, or was it effective because God had ordained that this was the means by which redemption would be granted?
Calvin argues that the two things are not necessarily contradictory and that “the free favour of God is as fitly opposed to our works as is the obedience of Christ.” Calvin goes on to explain how we see both the chief cause (the love of God) and the secondary cause (faith in Christ) play out in scripture. The most obvious example is John 3.16 “God so loved the world (chief cause), that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him (secondary cause) might not perish.” Calvin argues that “by his obedience (Christ), truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father…if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due to us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting.”
Whether God had to accept the sacrifice of His Son for the redemption of humanity or whether He chose to is a tough nut to crack. In the beginning of time God was perfectly free to create whatever future He so desired, to hypothesise at what could have been done different seems the sort of speculation that Calvin normally avoids. For His own good pleasure God chose to set in course a series of events that would eventually lead to the cruel death of His one and only Son. This is the one and only way of salvation that has been opened up to us. Let us run to Christ and cling to Him for rescue without becoming pre-occupied with the means He used.
The elderly women rescued from her burning flat would be viewed with astonishment if, as she is about to be lifted from the smoking room, began to ask the fireman whether she had to be rescued through this particular window, or whether the one in the living room could have been used instead. We have a means of escape before us, let us run to our Saviour and allow Him to know the hidden depths of His choices.
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” 1 Peter 1.18-20
The curse of the cross
Book 2 Chapter 16 Section 1-19
Having spent a good few weeks now meditating on the incarnation, person and offices of Christ, I feel as if that there is enough mystery in these truths to spend the rest of our lives in wonder and study and still never plumb their depths. And yet this is only the beginning of the story. It is as if we have been going through the first few chapters of a biography and have only covered the scene-setting for what is to come as the main part of the life story. We all want our lives to mean something, to have some greater significance, but we have here a man who lived the first 30 years of His life in obscurity. A man who knew the most significant act He would do would be His death – He really lived to die.
Thus, in this chapter Calvin describes the impact of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Calvin describes the following important aspects of Christ’s death:
1. His voluntary subjection. Of His own free will Christ came to earth, laid down His life and gave up His Spirit (John 10.15+18, 19.30). Christ chose to come, He chose to go to the cross, He chose to be a willing sacrifice. The Father did not force Jesus to do anything, He acted in willful submission to the divine will, for it is impossible for their to be any disunity in the Trinity. Christ cast away all care of Himself that He might provide for us. He even “submitted to be condemned by a mortal, nay a wicked and profane man” – in the form of Pontius Pilate. Although He could command all the legions of angels to His defense, instead He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent and submissive before a blasphemous mob.
2. Condemned as a criminal. Calvin makes the point that “in order to remove our condemnation, it was not sufficient to endure any kind of death. To satisfy our ransom, it was necessary to select a mode of death in which He might deliver us, both by giving Himself up to condemnation, and undertaking our expiation. Had he been cut off by assassins…there could have been no kind of satisfaction in such a death. But when He is placed as a criminal at the bar, where witnesses are brought to give evidence against Him, and the mouth of the judge condemns Him to die, we see Him sustaining the character of an offender and evil-doer.” Calvin concludes that “thus we perceive Christ representing the character of a sinner and a criminal, while at the same time, His innocence shines forth, and it becomes manifest that He suffers for another’s and not His own crime.”
3. A propitiatory victim. Here Calvin focusses on the method of Jesus’ death – the cross. He died a death that was cursed in Jewish tradition – “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21.23). He was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system, which had been established as a purification for sin. By bearing the just punishment for all our sin, and even becoming sin for us (1 Peter 2.24), Christ through the imputation of our wickedness was offered to the Father as a propitiatory victim. But Calvin reminds us that we should not think that the curse of the cross overwhelmed Him, but rather “by enduring it He repressed, broke and annihilated all its force.”
Calvin concludes by lifting our eyes to the wonder and glory of the cross, for rather than it being the reason for our defeat, it is the centerpiece of our victory. For “faith apprehends acquittal in the condemnation of Christ, and blessing in His curse.” The Apostle Paul even celebrates the triumph which Christ obtained upon the cross “as if the symbol of ignominy, had been converted into a triumphal chariot.”
We are now at the heart of God’s plan to rescue His children from their rebellion. The death of Christ describes the means whereby God was able to both judge sin and forgive sinners whilst retaining His integrity. In the first few chapters of Book 3 we will learn how this act becomes effective in reconciling us to God through the channel of faith.
Unfortunately some Christians today feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus’ death being a wrath-appeasing sacrifice. I admit that it is a difficult truth to comprehend. How could the Father ask His only Son to undergo such pain and suffering? How could He think to sacrifice His only Son – the uncreated for the sake of the created? But this is the true love of God, the costly, self-sacrificing love of God.
Looking back to what God asked Abraham to do in sacrificing Isaac, what appears to be madness suddenly becomes a clear picture of what God Himself was going to do – sacrifice His only Son. What Abraham was asked to do but stopped from completing, God the Father carried through to its conclusion.
It seems to me that we should not question God’s actions as a Father towards His own Son. We who are fathers sometimes have to make impossible decisions that no one else can make. But if we being imperfect reflections of the divine Father seek to do what is right, then will not the true and perfect Father always act with the utmost honour and integrity? Rather than cast doubt on what the bible clearly teaches we should recognise our distorted view of love and confess our wonder that the Father, Son and Spirit would go to such lengths for creatures such as us.
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Colossians 2.15
Father, we praise you that you were willing to give up your one and only Son to the disgrace of the cross and Jesus we praise you that you were willing and obedient to do all that the Father asked. Help us to cling to the victory you gained by becoming a curse for us. Amen.
The heavenly King and the earthly Church
Book 2 Chapter 15 Section 1-6
Having considered why it was necessary for Christ to become man in order to accomplish our salvation in the previous chapter, we now turn to the role which Christ undertook to achieve that end, namely becoming for us our Prophet, Priest and King. Or to put it another way, after having considered the person of Christ in chapters 12-14, Calvin now turns to the work of Christ in this chapter to the end of Book 2.
Calvin briefly touches on Christ’s prophetical and priestly role, but gives fuller attention to His kingly office. Calvin reminds us that this is by nature a spiritual role, “because it is from thence we learn its efficacy, the benefits it confers, its whole power and eternity.”
Its eternity – as the angel describes for us in Daniel 2.44 and Luke 1.33, the rule of Christ will never end and will never be destroyed. Jesus promises to be the eternal governor and defender of the church, both the church universal and of each individual member.
Its power – Calvin states that “as we hear that Christ is armed with eternal power, let us learn that the perpetuity of the church is thus effectually secured; that amid the turbulent agitations by which it is constantly harassed, and the grievous and fearful commotions which threaten innumerable disasters, it still remains safe.”
Its benefits – we must realise that the benefits of Christ’s kingdom are to be found in the life to come. “We must know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantages – such as leading a joyful and tranquil life, abounding in wealth, being secure against all injury, and having and affluence of delights.”
Its efficacy – Christ reigns for our protection and edification. “Since then He arms and equips us with His power, adorns us with his splendour and magnificence, enriches us with wealth, we here find most abundant cause of glorifying, and also are inspired with boldness, so that we can contend intrepidly with the devil, sin and death.”
This chapter is a sorely needed reminder to many within and on the fringes of the visible church. So many people, becoming frustrated and disillusioned with the current state of the church, reject all forms of organised Christianity to go it alone. This chapter reminds us that the church’s final glorification is assured. We should see if our bibles ever promised us a perfect church this side of glory? The church as we see it today is not as it will be once it has been transformed by the Spirit of Christ on the last day. Just like the ugly duckling that was despised and rejected because it was different, we also are only in the first phase of our development. A day is coming when the real beauty and perfection of the universal Church will shine from East to West. We will spread our wings and glide across the skies, just like the young swan when it realised it was never meant to be a duck!
Let us not judge by mere appearances. We should always remember that Christ’s rule and authority over this world is no less real or powerful because it is currently a spiritual reign. One day it will be both visible and spiritual. Similarly, the pre-glorified Church is earthly because it is subject to the limitations and corruption of this world. The wheat mixes with the tares so that none but Christ can tell them apart, while within each wheat there is the daily battle between the spiritual and sinful that also affects the present purity and glory of the true church. One day the tares will be completely removed and the impurity of the wheat fully purged. Until that day we should not give up on the church, for despite all its problems, what better work is there to do in the present life than to be fellow workers with Christ in growing and maturing His kingdom, in preparation for that final wedding day.
“We proclaim Him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me.” Colossians 1.28+29
Father, we confess we are not what we should be, that we our churches are not what they could be. We thank you that the future of the church is secure – it will one day shine as the beautiful bride that Jesus died to redeem. May this vision bind us together and enable us to see beyond our current frailties. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
Two natures, distinct but united
Book 2 Chapter 14 Section 1-8
In the previous chapter we considered why the incarnation was necessary for the salvation of mankind. But how did this work in practise? How does the Creator inhabit a creature without losing something of either the human or divine natures? Calvin addresses these issues in this chapter and asserts that when we say the Word was made flesh “we must not understand it as if He were either changed into flesh, or confusedly intermingled with flesh but that He made choice of the virgin’s womb as a temple in which He might dwell.” Indeed, Christ became man “not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.”
Calvin maintains that the “entire properties of each nature remain entire, and yet the two natures constitute only one Christ.” In attempting to illustrate how two substances can exist without confusion, Calvin draws our attention to our own natures, which consist of both body and soul. Although they exist simultaneously in the one person, each is distinct yet perfectly united.
When we turn to how Jesus describes himself, and how the NT authors describe how these two natures dwell in one person, we find that there is a number of ways used to communicate these truths. Calvin recognises that they:
1. Sometimes attribute to Him qualities which should be referred specifically to His humanity. This is when Jesus’ human attributes are demonstrated, such as when he weeps beside Lazurus’ grave or confesses He does not know the last day.
2. Sometimes qualities applicable primarily to His divinity. This describes times when Jesus’ is described as divine. For example when Jesus said “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 13.58 this clearly could not refer to His humanity, but rather His divinity.
3. Sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not specifically apply to either. Here is where Calvin says “the true substance of Christ is most clearly declared”. This is most common in John’s gospel, with numerous examples of Christ’s work as the Mediator exhibiting both the human and divine natures. When we read of His “having received power from the Father to forgive sins; as to His quickening whom He will…as to His being appointed judge both of the quick and the dead…are not peculiar either to His Godhead or His humanity, but applicable to both.”
4. Sometimes communicate the two natures with each other without specifically referring to them (this is known as “a communication of properties”). One example of this is when Paul states that Christ purchased the church “with His own blood” (Acts 20.28). As Calvin says “God certainly has no blood” but as Christ shed His blood on the cross for us, the acts which He performed in His human nature are transferred to his divinity.
Calvin finishes by refuting the false teaching of Eutyches, Nestorius and Servetus regarding the person of Christ. They taught that Christ either had two natures (Nestorius) or that He was a fusion of two natures and wasn’t fully God or man (Eutyches) or that Christ was a “figment composed of the essence of God, spirit and flesh” (Servetus).
Studying Calvin’s understanding of the person of Christ has brought fresh light to many familiar bible passages. It is so easy for me having accepted the two natures of Christ for many years to miss the full impact of the concepts the New Testament writers are trying to convey. The idea of the one and only God shedding His blood for us was bizarre to a first century Jew and should shock us to think of it as even being possible. And yet it happened.
How can an eternal, all powerful God die? Only by somehow entering into frail human flesh could the death of God become remotely possible. This is a mystery, for we know that it is impossible for the God who sustains all things by the power of His word to die. Because of His love for us God found a way to enter into the theatre of creation, to fully experience life as a human and then willing submit Himself to the ordeal of death. What wisdom to even devise such a plan of salvation, what love to set it in action and what determination to see it to the bitter end.
“Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity, so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2.14-15
Father, our minds cannot fully grasp how it was possible for the Son of God to become the Son of Man and yet we believe and know that Jesus is the Christ. Thank you for freeing us from the fear of death, for He has gone before us and broken its power. We praise your wisdom, power and mercy for such a wonderful salvation, Amen.
And the Word became flesh
Book 2 Chapter 13 Section 1-4
Having established that it was necessary for our salvation for Christ to become man in the last chapter, Calvin moves on to argue against those who deny the full humanity of Christ. He argues against the ancient heresies of the Manichees and Marcionites who taught that Christ was “invested with celestial flesh” or only appeared as a “phantom” without a real body, respectively.
Marcion imagined the Christ assumed a phantom instead of a body because it is said that He was made in the likeness of man (Philippians 2.7). But the context of this verse is the humility of Christ in the face of His right to glory and honour. The point is that Christ was willing to appear as if he was only a man and nothing more, even though the truth was very different.
The Manichees dreamed of an aerial body because Christ is called the second Adam, the Lord from heaven (1 Corinthians 15.47). But, as Calvin argues “the apostle does not there speak of the essence of His body as heavenly, but of the spiritual life which, derived from Christ, quickens us.” Indeed, this very passage is one of the strongest in support of the real physical body of Christ as Paul argues repeatedly that our future resurrection from the dead is intimately connected with whether Christ’s real, physical, flesh and blood body rose from the grave.
The other points used to demonstrate the real and full humanity of Christ are that:
- The phrase “seed of Abraham” is directly applied to Christ by Paul (Galatians 3.16). This is not an allegorical statement but echos the promise made in Genesis 3.15 that the seed of the woman would crush Satan’s head.
- He was subject to physical infirmities. Jesus exhibited the full range of human physical needs and emotions – laughter, crying, being tired, frustration, jubilation, and disappointment.
- His portrayal in scripture as having experienced our weakness (Hebrews 2.11, 17; 4.15). Why would we be exhorted to consider Christ as being sympathetic with our human frailties if He never really became human?
- He was born of a woman (Galatians 4.5). Although His conception was supernatural His gestation within the womb and birth was just as any other human. He did not arrive on a cloud from heaven, but through the same means that we all arrived on this world.
The mystery of the incarnation is profound. The bible clearly teaches that Jesus Christ has a fully human and fully divine nature in one person. But what this must have been like to experience is clearly beyond our human minds. What must it have been like for the eternal second person of the trinity to have experienced life on earth for the first time? To be hungry and satisfy that hunger with food, to feel the wind and rain, to feel the pain of torture and the agony of death.
And yet His two natures never became confused or contradictory. The eternal Word became flesh, but still sustained creation every moment. “The Son of God descended miraculously from heaven, yet without abandoning heaven; was pleased to be conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb, and yet always filled the world as from the beginning.”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4.17