October 21, 2011 § 2 Comments
On July 27, 2011, my wife and I were blessed beyond measure with the birth of our son, Nathaniel. Since he is our first child, he came with him a host of new challenges and decisions, one of which was the inevitable question of baptism. My wife (who grew up Lutheran) and I (who grew up quasi-Mennonite) grew up with different practices and beliefs about baptism, and we’ve had many conversations about it. These discussions were entirely academic until our son came into the world and placed us immediately in the concrete moment of decision. There was no getting around this one; this is definitely a case of where “not to act is to act.” So, to get to the point, we have decided to baptize him, and I’d like to explain how I got there.
Unfortunately there was no way to make this decision without departing from one side of the family—in this case, mine. In the end, I think there is sufficient scriptural ambiguity to warrant different practices and still call it “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). But we did have to decide one way or the other, and this is how I came to it. (Rebekah has her own reasons, and she would explain it differently; but just because she grew up as a paedobaptist doesn’t mean she hasn’t thought this question through.) What follows is not intended to be an apologetic—I’m not really interested in convincing anyone to change their view. All I wanted was to articulate a clear answer to the question, “Why do you want to baptize your son?”
As we discussed this issue, I kept coming back to one question: What is baptism? Why an infant ought to be granted or denied baptism depends on the answer to this first question. Interestingly, I also found that I couldn’t explore the theology of baptism without simultaneously exploring my understanding of the gospel as a whole. All in all, it became a rather large question.
So what is baptism? The New Testament speaks of baptism in different ways. I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll try touch on the pertinent ones for this particular discussion.
Union with Christ
Paul speaks about baptism in terms of our union with Christ, that in baptism, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. So what do we mean by union with Christ? One important passage, though not explicitly baptismal, is found in 2 Corinthians:
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. . . . So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (5:14-15, 17)
This passage is actually rather staggering. If Christ died for all people, then all people have died. Can we ignore the universal scope of Christ’s death? Paul links Christ’s death with a death all people die, and then connects this with being remade as a new creation in Christ. Though Paul does not speak here of baptism, he speaks of being united to Christ in his death and raised to new life in his resurrection. This is already done, and, in some mysterious way, all humanity has already been implicated in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is also made quite clear in Romans 5:
If, because of the one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (5:17-21).
Paul is presenting Christ as the “New Adam.” The “Old Adam” was the head of the old humanity, but Christ is now the head of the new humanity (cf. Col. 1:15-20). Once again, Paul speaks of all this as something both that has already been accomplished in Christ, and that somehow includes all humanity. Union with Christ in this sense is about participating in something that God has done in Christ for all.
Now, what does all this have to do with baptism? We see where Paul takes this, immediately following the passage quoted above:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin (6:1-7).
Considering Paul’s language in Romans 5, it is not surprising that someone might take it to mean that the all-inclusive, already-completed work of Christ means “Well, Christ has done it all, I guess I can keep on sinning!” Paul anticipates this. The interesting thing is how he frames his answer. He never says, “Well, Christ has done a lot for you, but you still need to meet him halfway.” No, he meant what he said in Romans 5, and Christ’s work really is all-encompassing. The issue for Paul is that we have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, so if we keep on sinning we become a contradiction in terms. We are living out of sync with our baptismal identity. For Paul, the we have actually become new people; our “old self was crucified with Christ.” That is who we are. But we are only this by merit of what Christ has already done. Christ has died, was buried, and has been raised; we are baptized into all of this.
Baptism is about being united to Christ, incorporated into Christ, participating in what Christ has already accomplished, and recieving a new identity in him. This also comes out in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12). Baptism, to quote T. F. Torrance, is “the sacrament of what Christ has done on our behalf when he incorporated himself into our humanity and acted in our place and in our name before God” (Atonement, 192). Baptism is first and foremost about what God has done for us in Christ.
Incorporated into Christ’s Body
It seems only logical that if we are all baptized into union with Christ, then we are also baptized into communion with one another. We all have the same Lord; we are all part of the new humanity of Christ. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Paul has just urged them to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). But he doesn’t say, “Make yourself united,” but rather to maintain the unity that has already been established. All the things that are “one” are connected. All these things are “one” because they ultimately come from the one God. There are not many baptisms, but one baptism. There are not many bodies, but one body. Because there are not many lords, but one Lord. When we are incorporated into Christ in our baptism, like it or not, we are incorporated into Christ’s body, the church. When the church is divided, we are not living as the baptized community of faith. We are living as though we are many bodies, but there is only one body. We are baptized into that one body of the one God, Father, Son, and Spirit.
Paul addresses this when he writes the Corinthian church, “Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13). These questions are obviously rhetorical. Christ has not been divided. Paul was not the one crucified. The people were not baptized in the name of Paul. People are segregating themselves, claiming allegiance to this or that Christian leader. But Paul’s point is that these divisions are incongruous with their baptism: they were baptized in the name of Christ, and Christ will not be divided. Later in the letter he spells it out more clearly: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).
Baptism, therefore, is an unavoidably communal event. We can’t be baptized and remain outside of the church community. We cannot be united to Christ and remain separate from Christ’s body. To quote Torrance again, “baptism is the sacrament of what Christ has done within the covenant community and is therefore the sacrament of inclusion into the covenant community” (Atonement, 192).
Response to the Gospel
The New Testament also portrays baptism as the human response to believing the gospel message. It is our “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us. This comes out most clearly in Acts, as the early church spreads throughout Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8). We frequently find the sequence: belief, repentance, baptism. Perhaps the most complete and concise statement about baptism in this regard appears immediately after Peter’s Pentecost sermon:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37-39).
Peter had just finished preaching to the people, and they evidently believed what they heard. They have a very practical question: “What should we do?” What is the proper response to hearing and believing the gospel? Peter answers, “Repent and be baptized.” He then identifies two blessings that come with it: the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Finally, he adds that “the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
This last line is particularly instructive here. That the promise is “for your children” and “for all who are far away” indicates the two basic ways that the church will grow, namely, through evangelism and procreation. This is really no different than how Judaism was sustained and spread. A foreigner could choose to join the Jewish covenant community, but there was never any question of whether a Jewish baby would join that community.
“You,” “your children,” and “all who are far away” are really subcategories of “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” This emphasizes, yet again, that God is the primary actor. Even in a passage that closely links baptism with a conscious response to faith in the gospel, the response is still something that follows God’s call. Indeed, there is always a certain amount of passivity in baptism. Note that no one never baptizes themselves; a person receives baptism (“Repent and be baptized!”). This passivity is more pronounced in the discussion of union with Christ and incorporation into the body, but even here it is not absent.
This still leaves the question of the relation between faith and baptism. Must baptism be preceded by a conscious confession of faith for it to be valid? This is usually the first question in the baptism debate, but I don’t think it can properly be answered without working through some of the larger questions of baptism, as I have attempted here. What I have written so far is the result of how I worked through the issues. I might be wrong, but I don’t think anything I’ve said so far necessitates one baptismal practice over the other. I’d like to think that a paedobaptist and a credobaptist alike could affirm what I’ve already said while remaining theologically consistent with their own practice. Nevertheless, we did eventually have to make a decision, and so I think I can finally address the question of infant baptism in particular.
Scripture is clear that there is a necessary connection between faith and baptism, but it never spells out exactly how the two are related. Here are some considerations—not arguments why you should practice infant baptism, but the line of thinking that brought me there.
• Baptism is primarily about what God has done for us in Christ. Our faith and trust in Jesus always comes secondary—both qualitatively and chronologically—to the faithfulness of Jesus himself. Often the arguments against infant baptism are based on subverting this insight. Believers’ baptism can certainly be practiced in a way that acknowledges the primacy of God’s action, but infant baptism seems like a more natural expression of it.
• Baptism ought never to be divorced from the church. We are never baptized into a “me and Jesus” relationship. We are baptized into Christ, and therefore we are incorporated into the body of Christ. We cannot have one without the other. It seems reasonable to treat those whom we have incorporated into the body like they have also been incorporated into Christ himself. I don’t think we ever really treat “children of the church” as if they are somehow excluded from our church fellowship, so to me it makes sense to treat them as if they are also included in Christ. This strongly suggests baptism.
• Baptism ought never to be divorced from discipleship (Matt 28:19). This is closely tied to its relationship to the church. Anyone baptized into the community of faith should be raised and instructed in the faith. All members of the body will falter at one time or another, and we all depend on the support of the body for encouragement and help. Yes, we have a responsibility as baptized believers to follow Christ. But we also have a responsibility as “baptist believers” to help our fellow Christians grow in faith. When the church can no longer be a community of discipleship, it should seriously question its role as a “community of baptizers.” Any baptismal practice, therefore, should presuppose the practice of discipleship. The faith confessed by the believer in baptism expresses the candidate’s intention to be discipled; the faith confessed by the parents in infant baptism expresses the community’s intention to disciple the child.
• The church grows either by gaining converts or growing families. The baptismal “test cases” we see in the New Testament deal exclusively with the former. We should therefore be careful how much weight we put on the apostolic practice recorded in Acts. We should, however, make reference to Acts as a control over our theology of baptism. If we come up with a view of baptism that allows for infants but contradicts what we see in Acts, we are in trouble. I believe the theology of baptism outlined above, however, makes room both for infant baptism and for what we see in Acts.
It probably would have been possible to think through all these points in terms of believers’ baptism, but that is not where I ended up. In the end, whatever our practice is, we need to practice it responsibly. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Infant baptism always threatens to separate baptism from faith, just as adult baptism always threatens to destroy the baptismal grace founded in Christ’s word alone” (“The Question of Baptism,” in DBWE 16, 567). Wherever we land on this issue, we cannot think that by adopting the “right” practice we are somehow in the clear. Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong journey of discipleship and faith.
My apologies for that somewhat lengthy and slightly technical discussion. I’d like to bring it all together now and answer the question suggested by the title of this post: Why do I want to baptize my son?
I want to baptize my son because I strongly believe that Christ has died for him, and, what’s more, Christ has been raised for him too. God has already acted graciously and decisively in Christ on Nathaniel’s behalf. I want Nathaniel to receive his identity from Christ and to be united to Christ in his death and resurrection, being freed from sin and being made new.
I want to baptize my son because he has been born into the community of the baptized. He will be raised in the faith in the community of faith. From his very earliest days, I want him to be included in the covenant community. He may have a lot of growing to do, but he is still part of the body of Christ!
I want to baptize my son because I believe that his “Yes” to God can only be made because of God’s “Yes” to him in Christ. Nathaniel may waver in faith throughout his life (don’t we all?); yet even if we are faithless, still God will remain faithful. I want Nathaniel’s faith to be built on the unshakable faithfulness of Christ.
I want to baptize my son: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal. 3:26-27)
March 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Have you ever counted on something to last forever? Not that you really thought it would last forever, but you lived as if it would? Right before I started going to Seminary, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a new laptop. I had owned a few before, but they had always let me down—their battery-life was unreliable, they overheated, they crashed. So, I decided I would pay a bit more money to get a Mac. Sure, they were a bit more expensive, and sure, there was a bit of a learning-curve, but at least I knew they were reliable. For three years of school, I used it for all my assignments. Three years of theological essays, book reviews, biblical research, and personal reflections. Three years of sermons I had written and songs I was working on. Three years of music and software I had bought. Three years of pictures—including our engagement and our wedding photos. I had poured a pretty good portion of my life into my computer. I trusted it to store important work, record thoughts, and keep memories.
As I’m sure you’ve already anticipated, my computer didn’t last forever. One evening, I was using it and everything locked up. I couldn’t move the mouse and the keyboard wasn’t working. I turned it off. I turned it back on. Nothing. Uh oh. The next day, I brought it to the Mac store to see if it could be repaired. The technician told me: “Looks like your hard drive crashed.” “Excuse me?” I said. This is a Mac, I was thinking, I thought they were supposed to be reliable! He looked at me and said, “So . . . you have everything backed up, right?” Um, to reiterate, I thought this thing was supposed to be reliable!
Long story short: I had a new hard drive installed, but I was never able to recover my data. I was able to find some of it—like our most important pictures—on discs, but most of it was gone forever. And yes, I now back everything up.
Now, if you had asked me, “Joel, do you really think your laptop will be around in 50 years, or even in 20 years?” I probably would have told you, “No.” And if you had followed up by asking, “Well, is there anything on your laptop that you do want to be around in 20 years?” I would have said, “Absolutely.” And if you had concluded by asking, “So, what are you doing to guarantee that you won’t lose that important stuff?” I wouldn’t have had an answer.
But honestly, even now, I have a backup drive, but I don’t really think that’ll be around in 20 years. I print off my assignments now, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t lose them (especially with how I am with organization). In the end, I actually can’t guarantee that all the irreplaceable things in my life will be around as long as I am. In some sense, I have to admit that I am trusting my life to things that I know won’t last forever.
In Scripture, we read, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever. If this is true, then I’m very interested in what it might mean to trust my life to God’s word. In other words: In a world that is constantly trying to convince us to put our trust in that which fades away, what might it mean to trust in God’s word, which never fades?
I think we can start to answer this question by addressing three others: (1) What is God’s word? (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? (3) How does God’s everlasting word touch my own life? These are the questions that emerged for me as I studied our passages for this morning. This phrase, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever, occurs twice in Scripture: First in Isaiah 40, and then again as a quotation in 1 Peter. This poetic expression is used in slightly different ways in either passage, so I think it’s helpful to look at each of them in turn.
First to Isaiah 40. This passage is found in vv. 6-8. But one of the most important keys to understanding it comes by reading what comes on either side of it.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.”
If you’ve ever read through Isaiah, chapter 40 is like a big sigh of relief. For a good portion of the first 39 chapters, all we hear about is God’s judgment, the unfaithfulness of the people, and their punishment. Chapter 40 starts a drastically new section of hope, beginning with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people!” The tone shifts from judgement to hope, from anticipation to announcement. The opening words indicate that the message is no longer judgement but forgiveness. The time of punishment and bondage is over. Israel has endured the full—even the double—retribution for her sins. Now it’s time to deliver a message of peace and comfort.
These verses are all about preparing for a message of good news. Verses 3-5 use the imagery of a great highway: Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! The otherwise difficult terrain of the wilderness is made smooth to make a great road that the exiled Israelites will return on. Valleys are lifted and mountains are lowered so that all the land is leveled and flattened. We all live on the prairies; we know exactly what this looks like. (Basically, the idea was to transform the Middle East into Manitoba.)
The image of this great highway is just one of several images that form a larger overall picture of rescued Jerusalem. In addition to the great highway, there are also allusions to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and descriptions of the wilderness turning into a garden, reminding us of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Jerusalem has been in exile across the wilderness, but now they have been freed, the highway has been paved for their return, and even the wilderness has produced water to drink and trees for shade.
So, as we move into the next verses, we read about God’s eternal word in the context of comfort and hope—and not of some vague comfort and hope, but a specific hope and comfort that is tied to the expectation of Israel’s return.
6-8 A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” A voice has already cried out for the building of a massive highway through the wilderness. Now, a voice shouts for someone to shout. What should I shout? Remember that the message to be proclaimed is not some random set of propositions or predictions, but it has to do with God’s word for his people, and specifically God’s word for his people in the midst of new comfort and in the expectation of return. So what is the message?
All people are like the grass. All their glory fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.
You’ll see that there are actually two comparisons going on here. God’s word is contrasted with the grass and flowers, because, unlike them, God’s word lasts forever. But the real contrast isn’t between God’s word and flowers, but between God’s word and people. People are like the grass; God’s word is not like the grass. People are frail; God’s word is not.
So back to some of the questions I had at the beginning: (1) What is God’s word? and (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? In Isaiah, God’s word isn’t “the Bible” per se. Most obviously because while Isaiah was prophesying, there was no “Bible.” They would have had some writings, probably at least Genesis through Deuteronomy, and a growing collection of Psalms used in worship. But in Isaiah, this isn’t what is meant by “God’s word.” In the context of Isaiah 40, God’s word—the word that endures forever—is what God has said.
What has God said? We’ve just been reading it. “Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Her hard service has been completed and her sin has been paid for. The glory of the Lord will be revealed. The Sovereign Lord comes with power. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that are with young.” This has to do with God’s everlasting covenant promise. God’s word endures forever because God is always faithful to the covenant. God has promised to redeem Israel, and this word is true forever.
This passage serve an important function in the larger context of Isaiah 40-55. This section declares a new promise from God: that God will come in glory and save his people. Yet before this promise can be understood and believed, it is important to emphasize that God actually does what he says. God’s message of comfort is good news, but it is only good news if God’s word is actually true, if it actually stands as it is spoken.
Maybe we’re too used to the emptiness of words. We’re used to “reading between the lines” when people talk. We assume that there will be some level of disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. This isn’t only true of politicians and used-car salesmen, but also of people who genuinely want to be true to their word. People who say they’ll do something, with full expectations of being able to do it. When I tell Rebekah that I plan to do the dishes while she’s away at work, I (almost) always mean it. But sometimes schoolwork gets away with me, and before I know it, I’ve made my own words false.
But God isn’t like that. There is no disconnect between God’s word and God’s action. This is clear from the very beginning of the Bible, where God creates the world by speaking it into existence. There is no disjunction between “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” and the result, “and there was light.” When God says, “I will do this,” in a sense he has already done it. God’s word doesn’t come true—it is true.
The contrast is made between human frailty and God’s enduring word. God’s promises are not like our promises. God keeps his covenant through all generations, even to this day. This passage emphasizes God’s eternal faithfulness (contrasting it with our consistent faithlessness) so that the new message of comfort and hope is actually heard as a message of comfort and hope, because it is proclaimed with the certainty that God’s promises are always true.
When we talk about trusting our lives to God’s word, it’s not about trusting in a book but about trusting in God. God’s word is what God says; and what God says God does.
But let’s be careful not to forget the other side of the comparison: Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. God’s word stands forever, unlike us. In Isaiah, this isn’t just about comparing God’s word with our mortal bodies, but about comparing God’s faithfulness with our faithlessness. In verse 6, when it says that all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field, the word for ‘glory’ is actually one that is generally used to speak of God’s covenant-faithfulness. The NIV usually translates it as “kindness” or “lovingkindness,” but it’s a bit more specific than that. God’s “kindness” isn’t about God being “nice” but about God acting with favour toward his people, toward the whole world. His word is the revelation of his active kindness toward humanity, expressed in the Old Testament in his covenant with Israel. This word is eternal because God is eternally faithful to what he has said.
My point of saying all this is this: When we talk about trusting in God’s everlasting word rather than in things that pass away, we are trusting in God’s generous and faithful kindness toward us. But the contrast is between God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. We need to be careful not to turn that trust itself into something that depends on us. In other words, we need to trust in God’s word; as opposed to trusting in our trust in God’s word. You see this kind of thing when you hear people tell you that you would be healed, if you only had enough faith. If only you would give up a certain sin, God would show you more love. As soon as we trust in our own faithfulness to God, we’re right back where we started: trusting in that which fades away.
In Isaiah, God’s word is God’s covenant promise, and God is faithful to his promises for all generations, which means he is even faithful to us. That is how we can say that God’s word endures forever. But the question remains: What does it mean to trust our lives to God’s word? What is the relationship between God’s trustworthy promises and our personal trust in those promises? How does God’s eternal word touch our own lives?
1 Peter 1:24-25
This leads us directly into Peter’s use of this passage. I always find it interesting to see how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. 1 Peter is full of Old Testament quotations, and many come from Isaiah. Maybe this is because Peter’s audience was strikingly similar to Isaiah: both wrote to people who were strangers and aliens in their land, people displaced from society and despised. Let’s see how he uses Isaiah 40:6-8 (1 Pet 1:22-25):
You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.
Peter quotes this passage while speaking about new life in Christ. This is a pretty radical reinterpretation of Isaiah’s words. Peter is interpreting the Old Testament prophecy through the lens of the gospel. The key to Peter’s reinterpretation of Isaiah is that he identifies God’s word—the word that endures forever—as the message of the gospel. God’s word is still about God’s faithful action in history, but Peter knows that now God’s word has entered history so completely that it became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, and now it is truthfully proclaimed by the apostles.
This is integral to Peter’s message. Because he is writing to strangers and aliens, the outcasts of society, he shows a great concern for showing them how their true home is in being part of Christ’s family. The church is a home for the homeless. Peter speaks about being born again into this new family—and this is not just a new family, but a new sort of family. Unlike our human families, through which we are born into mortality and sin, in this new family we are born of God’s eternal and incorruptible word. God’s word is the foundation for our new life. And our new life is eternal because God’s word is eternal.
Yet this word isn’t just any word. In Isaiah, we saw that God’s word is God’s promise to his people. That the eternal God will be eternally faithful to his word, and so we rightly say that God’s word endures forever. Peter understands that God’s word has found its full expression in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. So after he quotes Isaiah, he adds one simple line of commentary. After affirming that “the world of the Lord remains forever” he adds, “And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.”
So, to return again to my questions, (1) What is the word of God? and (2) in what sense does God’s word endure forever? (1) For Peter, the word of the Lord that endures forever is none other than the message of the gospel. In fact, it is not merely the words about Jesus, but Jesus himself. (2) This word endures forever because it is spoken by the eternal God. Peter can still understand God’s word in light of God’s covenant promises, but in the Word made flesh, in Jesus, we can see the full extent of God’s covenant-faithfulness to us. How do we see God’s faithfulness in the Word Jesus? We see it in the most remarkable way. Not only does God extend his faithful hand to us in Jesus Christ, but in Christ’s life of obedience—from his temptation in the wilderness to his final surrender on the cross—Christ is the faithful human response to God’s faithfulness. In Christ, God is both faithful to us and he takes up our own unfaithfulness in his unending faithfulness.
One writer explains it this way: “Many years ago I recall thinking of the marvelous way in which our human faith is implicated in the faith of Jesus Christ and grasped by his faithfulness, when I was teaching my little daughter to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ has hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand” (T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 83).
That illustrates what I mean when I say that Christ’s own faithfulness takes up our weak attempts at being faithful. God has always been faithful. 2 Timothy says that “If we deny him, he also will deny us; [yet] if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2:12-13). Here we see that for God to go back on his faithfulness would somehow be tantamount to God denying his own self. In other words, God cannot be faithless because God is faithful. It’s not just what he does; it’s who he is. We can be faithless (“if we deny him”) and he can accept our faithlessness (“he also will deny us”) but he cannot go back on his faithfulness, “for he cannot deny himself.” Paul understands this when he tells the church in Rome, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true” (Rom 3:3-4). God’s faithfulness is not somehow contingent on our faithfulness. So even though we are like the grass, even though we wither and we fade, still the word of our God endures forever.
This brings us to the final question: (3) In what sense does God’s word enter my own life? For Peter, God’s word enters our lives because our new life in Christ is born of God’s everlasting word, the gospel of Christ. In fact, he quotes this passage as a way of supporting his moral instruction: Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. Our new life in the Word Jesus is the foundation for all we do as Christians, for all we do to show love to one another. It’s the foundation for our faithfulness to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it’s the foundation for our faithfulness to God as his children.
Isaiah teaches us how God’s word endures forever in God’s everlasting faithfulness to us; Peter teaches us how we receive life eternal in this same word, Jesus Christ. God’s word is living and eternal, and in this word, we are born into new life. This is explicit in Peter, but it’s already hinted at in Isaiah. In ch. 55 (as the major section that began with ch. 40 comes to a close) the prophet says this:
Come to me and listen to my words,
hear me, and you shall have life:
I will make a covenant with you, this time forever,
to love you faithfully as I loved David. (Isa 55:3)
God’s word is the revelation of God historically in speech and action, and it is this eternal word that causes the grass to wither and the flowers fade as it blows over. Yet, paradoxically, this same word that reveals our own frailty is also the word that gives us new life. Our eternal life in the Word Jesus comes from the eternal outpouring of God’s life to us in Christ. This is how we can be “born again,” as Peter says, “but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.”
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Though this passage is used in slightly different ways in Isaiah and in 1 Peter, maybe we can summarize it like this: God’s word is what God says, and what God says is true forever. Ultimately, this is about God’s faithfulness, God’s active kindness toward us. The word of God is true forever because God faithfully and continually makes his word true.
By contrast, we are like grass because we are ultimately incapable of being faithful. Our words, like our lives, are short-lived. But we see that God’s eternal word touches our finite lives: Isaiah showed us that God’s word is his covenant faithfulness to his people. Peter was able to see this fulfilled: God’s spoke his faithfulness to us so completely that he became human. God’s word touches our lives because God spoke into our very lives in the person of Jesus Christ. And through this word of God, we are born into eternal life.
I spoke at the beginning about how I had, in a sense, poured my life into my laptop, even though I knew wouldn’t last forever. It seems ridiculous to think that I had counted on something so transitory to sustain even a small part of me. But if you use your imagination and think about it from my laptop’s perspective, the situation is rather different. My laptop could never sustain me, but in a way, by pouring myself into my laptop I was actually sustaining it. By using it, I gave it some kind of “life”. Without me, it was essentially dead. Similarly, we have no life apart from God’s word. God sustains us by pouring his life into us in Jesus.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but hopefully it helps illustrate the point a little. When we think about the eternal nature of God’s word, we need to understand that God’s word both endures forever and is the source of eternal life. Apart from God’s word—without God pouring his own life into ours—we pass away like grass. We are sustained by God’s word Jesus Christ. Not just our minds or our morals, but everything we are.
The problem is, we don’t hear God’s word like Isaiah or Peter. Isaiah received the word of the Lord in a special way. Peter spent three years with Jesus himself. Even if we believe that God will be faithful to his word, how do we hear it? Maybe that would be a good question to take with you this week: How do I hear God’s word? To give you a place to start, I would say it’s always best begin with where you know God’s word has been revealed and proclaimed: in Christ, in Holy Scripture, and in the church community. But still ask yourself (and be specific): How do I hear God’s word?
But more important than this question is the truth that is attested in Scripture: God has spoken in Jesus Christ. God continues to speak to us through his Spirit. God’s word simultaneously reveals his faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. Yet, in Christ, God’s unending faithfulness takes firm grasp of our weak and feeble faith, so that we can cling to God’s word of promise—even if it means mostly God’s clinging to us. In Christ, we can endure forever by holding to God’s word that endures forever—even if it means mostly God’s holding onto us. Yes, we are like grass. Yes, our faithfulness is like the flower of the field. And yes, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but—but the word of our God endures forever.
January 30, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here is the second précis of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, as part of an ongoing project of mine. I had it ready to post on Friday, but I lost internet access for the weekend. I hope to post these regularly on Fridays, as my designated thesis day.
In an age when ethical problems have become ever more concrete and polarized [that is, Nazi Germany], ethical theories seem most superfluous. All the old approaches have failed: reason, fanaticism, conscience, duty, freedom, and private virtuousness are either blind to evil, ineffective against it, or forced to join its ranks. We know and experience ethical reality not by an ethical system but by standing in the reality of God in simplicity and wisdom. The simple person knows only God’s truth and thus has the freedom of an undivided heart; the wise person sees the reality of the world for what it is and thus has the knowledge of truth. A person is simultaneously simple and wise who looks with an undivided gaze at both God and the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Christian ethic can proceed only from the reconciliation of the world with God in the human Jesus Christ. In Christ, God’s love has met and overcome reality, not abstractly but by a real human life really lived. Becoming a real human being, God has once and for all said Yes to humanity, and has willed that we too become real human beings. The love of our fellow human beings must be grounded in God’s becoming human, and when we despise humanity we despise what God has loved. Indeed, Jesus is not a human being but the human being, and so what has happened to him has happened to us. Christ is the judged human being, and in him all humanity is judged. Yet the crucified is also the risen—God has raised to new life the true human in whom is raised the new humanity. The human being, accepted, judged, and awakened to new life by God—this is Jesus Christ, this is the whole of humanity in Christ, this is us. The form of Jesus Christ alone reconciles the world with God. From this form proceeds all the formation of a world reconciled with God.
Ethics as formation is thus concerned with the one form that has overcome the world—the form of Christ, God become human, crucified and risen. The process of formation is not about trying to become like Jesus or follow his teachings, but about Christ himself transforming us into his form. Being human means being conformed to the one who became human. God changes God’s form into human form so human beings can become human before God. Formation means in the first place Jesus Christ taking form in the church. The church is the human being who has become human. Yet the church is not a “model society” but the form of Christ from which the whole world must be addressed. Formation to the form of Christ includes two things: (1) that the form of Christ remains the same—not in the abstract, but concretely as the one Christ uniquely is as the crucified and risen reconciler; (2) and that the form of the real human being is preserved in Christ’s unique form, that the real human being receives the form of Christ. Ethics as formation is possible only on the basis of Christ’s form present in Christ’s church. The church is where Jesus Christ is taking form among us here and now and where it is proclaimed.
January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment
I stumbled on this interview yesterday (via another blog I cannot now recall) with David Torrance, the youngest brother of Thomas and James. He speaks on pastoral ministry, the person and work of Christ, freedom, grace, and forgiveness. It’s about half an hour long, and is very much worth the time. It’s available on video, audio, or as a written transcript.
If I ever become a pastor, I want to be like him.
January 21, 2011 § 9 Comments
I realize that it’s been over a month since my last post, and since I’m sure you eagerly visit this blog several times a day hoping for an update, I apologize for your frequent disappointment. What I’ve decided to do over the next while will double as thesis research and blog content. I’m re-reading through Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and writing précis on each manuscript. My hope is that this will help focus my attention on potential issues, major themes, key scriptures, and, most relevantly for my current project, how Bonhoeffer undergirds his ethics with theological anthropology. But I also thought that for those of you who have never had the chance (or energy) to read through this book, I could post my summaries for your reading pleasure. Please ask questions or make observations if you have any. You probably see things I don’t and your input will be very helpful to my research.
Note that a précis makes no attempt to be original, and I have lifted many lines directly out of the text. The idea is simply to reproduce the author’s argument in a condensed form. This also means that anything profound, questionable, or just plain awesome in what follows is Bonhoeffer, not me.
I: Christ, Reality, and Good
Ethics [DBWE 6]: 47-75
The question of being or doing good, though seemingly the obvious starting-point for Christian ethics, must be immediately abandoned as inappropriate to the topic. The only valid starting-point is the will of God. When being or doing good is the telos of ethical reflection, a decision has already been made to treat either the self or the world as ultimate reality, necessarily excluding the reality of God. The ethical question must always come down to this: With what reality will we reckon in our life? With the reality of God’s revelatory word or with the so-called realities of life? Because in Christ the reality of God has entered the reality of the world, the question of good can only find its answer in Christ. Seeking the good is about participating in the reality of Christ, for good is the real that has its reality only in God. Any attempt to separate ethics into nature and behaviour, the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’, intention and consequences, results in abstraction. Humans are indivisible wholes, and to participate in the indivisible whole of God’s reality is the meaning of the Christian question about the good.
In Christ, we stand at once in the reality of God and in the reality of the world. The Christian ethic is concerned with how these realities become real in our world today. The doctrine of the two realms, which states that the divine and the worldly are two distinct and unreconcilable realities, must at once be abandoned. There are not two realities but one, the reality of Christ, in which the reality of God and the reality of the world are united. Every static distinction between two realms leads to eternal conflict, but one who stands in the one reality of Christ embraces reality as a whole. Therefore, the church cannot think of itself as the locus of God’s acceptance outside the world; rather it must faithfully call the world into the community of the body of Christ to which the world in truth already belongs.
Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and toward Christ and has its existence only in Christ. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether it knows it or not. This relation of the world to Christ becomes concrete in the divine mandates: work, marriage (family), government, and church. These exist as commanded by God; there can be no retreat from the “worldly” into the “spiritual” without retreating from this concrete form of human life given by God. The divine mandates place us before the one reality of Christ, in whom God and world were united. The will of God is the realization of the Christ-reality among us and in our world, and it has already been fulfilled by God. Therefore God’s will is not hidden and incomplete, but disclosed and accomplished. The ethical question arises from being confronted with this revealed Christ-reality in the world today.
December 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
As a way to round off some of the discussions about preaching that have been going on here lately, I thought I’d post my (provisional) theology of preaching. I’ve tried to keep it as positive and constructive as possible. It was originally written as my final paper for homiletics class, and I’ve left it relatively unchanged. So here it is, the fruit of a few months of thought on the subject and several hours of writing. I’ll probably rework it as time goes on, but this is where I am right now.
Preaching is the word of God proclaimed, an event wherein God’s word is mediated through the words of a sermon. As an act of divine communication, it has its origin in Christ, its basis in Holy Scripture, its efficacy in the work of the Holy Spirit, its context in the church, and its end in doxology. As an act of human communication, it is a theological address delivered by an individual within a community.
1. The Essence of Preaching
1.1. Preaching as the Word of God
The first epistle to the Thessalonians describes the nature of Christian proclamation in rather startling terms: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). Preaching is not merely an explanation of God’s word or an application of God’s word but it is God’s word. The Second Helvetic Confession directly affirms this: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” A natural question arises: how can the words of a preacher also be the word of God?
A word is only the word of God if God himself speaks it. We must therefore distinguish between the sermon itself and the act of preaching it. The sermon is an address that has been composed on the basis of scripture and prayer; preaching is the event in which the Holy Spirit mediates God’s word to the church-community through the words of the sermon. Preaching is thus the word of God proclaimed because through it God speaks to the hearts and minds of his people.
1.2. Preaching as Mediation
When we speak of the knowledge of God as coming by God’s word, we understand that it is never immediate, but that it is always mediated. We cannot know God as God knows himself, we can only know God as he has chosen to reveal himself. This means that the knowledge of God must be mediated to human beings in a way human beings can understand. Calvin describes this as accommodation, that God accommodates himself to our limits as an adult does for a child. God has done this and continues to do this through his word, incarnate, written, and proclaimed. It is with the latter that we are currently concerned, yet it will become clear that the proclamation of God’s word is based upon and cannot be separated from the written or incarnate word.
We can say that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God only if we say that it is actually God who speaks through the preacher. This is why the preacher is a mediator, because God speaks his word through the words of the sermon. The preacher cannot manufacture mediation by crafting a particular type of sermon. It is always God and God alone who reveals himself. As Barth says: “God will make himself heard; he it is who speaks, not man. The preacher only has to announce the fact that God is about to speak.”
2. The Nature of Preaching
2.1. Origin in Christ
The preaching of the word of God is the word of God. This means that it has its origin in the first and last word of God: Jesus Christ. Christ is the origin, norm, and purpose of Christian proclamation. We speak because God first spoke to us, and God has spoken most clearly and definitively in his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Preaching has its origin in Christ like rivers have their origin in the ocean: the clouds that rise from the ocean waters rain on the land and fill the rivers that eventually flow back into the ocean. All comes from Christ and flows back into Christ. The preacher’s primary task is not to expound in detail the original meaning of a text, nor to give the congregation five easy steps to a biblical lifestyle, nor to wax eloquent about this or that doctrine; the preacher’s primary task is to preach Christ crucified and risen, to preach that Jesus is Lord. Bonhoeffer is worth quoting at length here:
The proclaimed word has its origin in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It neither originates from a truth once perceived nor from personal experience. It is not the reproduction of a specific set of feelings. Nor is the word of the sermon the outward form for the substance which lies behind it. The proclaimed word is the incarnate Christ himself. . . . The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One. . . . He is the access to the historical Jesus. Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.
To speak of proclamation as Christ himself is simply to accept that the New Testament means what it says when it calls Jesus the Word. Where once the meaning of “the word of God” might have been confounded into ideas of language, now we understand that the Word is a person, Jesus Christ. The act of proclamation is participation the person of Christ. The event of proclamation—the movement of the Spirit from pulpit to pew—is the presence of Christ himself.
2.2. Basis in Holy Scripture
If preaching has its origin in Christ, then it has its basis in Holy Scripture. The Bible can be called the word of God because it testifies to the one who is the Word. The whole Bible is normative for Christian belief and practice—and therefore for Christian proclamation—because by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit it bears faithful and sufficient witness to the gospel of Christ. Like John the Baptist, the Bible is not itself the light, but it bears witness to the light (cf. Jn 1:8). We can rightly call Holy Scripture the word of God because it has been and is continually taken up by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into its words. As the word of God written it is the basis for the word of God proclaimed. This is why sermons should have as their basis a certain biblical text. Yet regardless of which text it is, whether from the New Testament or the Old, no matter what its so-called “original meaning” might be, the sermon should always seek Christ in God’s written word. The field of biblical studies might treat historical or linguistic analyses as legitimate ends in themselves, but the congregation must hear the gospel proclaimed.
2.3. Efficacy in the Work of the Holy Spirit
The preacher works hard in the study and in the pulpit, but if the word of God is to be preached it must be God who preaches it. Therefore the efficacy of preaching is in the work of the Holy Spirit alone. Sound biblical exegesis, though indispensable for sermon preparation, will not guarantee that God will speak. Careful organization and delivery, though crucial for the congregation’s comprehension, will not guarantee that people will hear God’s word. Specific contemporary application, though useful for exhortation, will not guarantee that lives will be changed. Unless God says it, it is not the word of God. We cannot preach words and hope that God will add his voice to ours; we must believe that God will speak and add our voice to his. The Holy Spirit, not effective preaching, is the real point of contact between the text and the congregation.
If the goal of preaching is to produce faith and obedience, then it must ultimately be the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not stand above the word as its master but beneath it as its servant. Preaching, though the medium of God’s word, is blind to the event of proclamation. God’s word is not a force to be subdued and controlled but a person to be trusted and obeyed. If the preacher has managed to change minds by sheer force of eloquence, then proclamation has not occurred; it has only been a motivational talk. However, if preaching has resulted in changed hearts despite bumbling words and stuttering voices, then surely the Holy Spirit has spoken.
2.4. Context in the Church
The Bible and preaching are the word of God, but this is true only in the context of the church. This is because all human words, written or spoken, are a dead letter apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This occurs both at the moment of conception—in ancient words or in the pastor’s study—and at the moment of delivery—during the reading of scripture or at its proclamation. To say that preaching is God’s word only in the context of the church is simply to say that preaching cannot be divorced from Christ. For Christ is the Lord of the church, and his Spirit dwells among his people. Where Christ is preached and believed in the community of faith, there Christ also is. And where Christ is, there is the church. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “I preach, because the church is there—and I preach, that the church might be there. Church preaches to church.”
This also emphasizes an important characteristic of preaching, namely that it is a communal effort. It is not merely the preacher but the hearers. It is not merely the hearers but the preacher. Preaching must occur within the “being-saved community.” A sermon is not proclamation until it is preached. The actual event of preaching occurs in the church-community when the Spirit takes up the words of the sermon and so uses the preacher as a mediator of the word in the community of the Word.
2.5. End in Doxology
The chief end of preaching is to effect faith and obedience. Paul says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). These three words, “Jesus is Lord,” are the most concise expression of Christian faith. When the Holy Spirit speaks to the hearts and minds of the church-community through the words of a sermon, the result is a faith that can confess these three words. This confession must lead to obedience, for no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” without saying, “Jesus is my Lord.” Faith and obedience are inseparable: “Only the obedient believe, and only the believer obeys.” This unity of faith and obedience is the expression of doxology. Doxology is the worship of God in spirit and truth, and it is the primary end of preaching. The appropriate response after a sermon is not, “That was interesting,” or, “That was challenging,” but, “Praise be to you, O Christ!” A life of doxology is a life of faith and obedience, a life that believes Jesus is Lord and lives with Jesus as its Lord. Indeed, preaching itself is an act of doxology. The compulsion to proclaim that Jesus is Lord exists only in the one who has already confessed it and continues to confess it. The Holy Spirit, who has worked to produce faith in the preacher and who will work through the words of the preacher to produce faith in the community, is the same Spirit who asks, “Whom shall I send?” The preacher is the one who has responded, “Here I am; send me!” (Is 6:8).
3. The Practice of Preaching
Formally, preaching is unavoidably a form of public address, an act of communication. To say that God speaks his word through the words of the preacher is not to say that the preacher can simply say any words and hope that God will speak through them. (Of course, God can and does choose to speak through whatever means he sees fit, but just because God can speak through a bad sermon does not mean that this is what we should endeavor to produce.) Preachers are both passive and active, passive because they have no control over if and how God’s word will be spoken to the people, but active because their task is one of faithful and obedient proclamation of the gospel.
As an act of communication, preaching is practical theology. This is because theology is the human attempt to communicate intelligibly about the word of God, and a sermon is the attempt to proclaim the word of God. Theology gives us the language; preaching is the conversation. All theological reflection must therefore be normed by event of proclamation. Theology leads directly into preaching, which leads directly into faith and practice. When theology goes bad, preaching goes bad. Any theology worth doing is worth preaching, so when theology cannot be preached, it should be seriously questioned.
As public address, preaching takes the form of an individual speaking in a community. It is not an abstract set of propositions delivered to an abstract group of people; it is a real human person communicating with other human persons. Oration and rhetoric are for the detached individual speaking at a group; honesty and humility are for the person who speaks within a community as one of them. Preaching a sermon in context means knowing the context both of the biblical text and of the ones who will hear it. A sermon attempts to communicate God’s word in a specific community at a certain time. That is why you can never really preach the same sermon twice. God’s word remains the same, but the world in which it is preached is in constant flux. As soon as the preacher becomes detached from the community, preaching will suffer. If we believe that God speaks through his word—incarnate, written, and proclaimed—then we must hold that God speaks through his word to us today. Therefore, preaching can never be divorced from the people who hear it.
Thus far, we have asserted that preaching is God’s word proclaimed precisely because it is God who proclaims it. Yet the readiness of God to speak should never produce laziness in the preacher. On the contrary, the fact that God might speak should terrify the preacher all the more. For if God indeed is ready to speak through a sermon, the preacher should fear lest God’s word be drowned out with the noise of human words. In the end, the words of the sermon should seek to be transparent to the word of God; the voice of the preacher should endeavor to be silent before the voice of God. Far from making preaching an easy task, the reality of God’s word means that preaching will be an unavoidably rigorous exercise. Perhaps the best advice is this: “Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit—and then work like stink.”
*1* All scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
*2* The Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 1. It explains as follows: “Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good” (http://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, accessed 30 November 2010).
*3* A lengthy discussion of this assertion can be found in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II, part 1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. L. M. Haire (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010), 9ff.
*4* For example: “The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all scripture profitable for instruction” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries 500th Anniversary Edition 5 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009], 239).
*5* This is the well-known trifold expression of the Word of God as described at great length in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I, part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010).
*6* On preaching as mediation, see David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 251ff.
*7* Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (London: SCM, 1964), 66.
*8* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Proclaimed Word,” in Clyde E. Fant, ed. and trans., Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 126 (emphasis added).
*9* So, Bonhoeffer: “The word, to be specific, is present in the church-community as the word of scripture and of preaching—essentially as the latter. There is no intrinsic difference between these two forms, for they remain a human word so long as they are not inspired by the Spirit of the church-community. The Spirit is not linked with the word of the Bible like a substance. Thus effective preaching is possible only within the sanctorum communio” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1, Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr., general ed. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 232).
*10* So, Calvin: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008], 678 [4.1.9]).
*11* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Causality and Finality of Preaching,” in Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching, 138.
*13* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 68.
*14* Haddon Robinson appropriately quotes an old adage: “The text without the context is a pretext” (Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd edition [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001], 59).
*15* Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2008), 147.
December 16, 2010 § 4 Comments
Note: This sermon was a revision of a rough draft which I intended to preach in my homiletics class. After the revision was done, it was agreed that the original “rough” draft actually preached better, so I used it instead. This version—a fairly significant departure from the original—is probably better suited for the eye than the ear, so I have chosen to post it here, in all its unpreachable glory.
Also note: I am well aware that my semi-frequent posts (rants?) about preaching leave my sermons rather open to criticism. I have no idea to what extent my sermons reflect my ideas about preaching. I may find that my theology of preaching contributes more to my homiletical weaknesses than strengths, at which point I may be compelled to reevaluate it.
We often talk about ‘following Jesus’—but what does that mean? I’m sure you all remember those four letters that changed how we thought about this for a while: WWJD. What would Jesus do? This was our paradigm for following Jesus. We tried to do what we thought he might do in our situation. When someone rubbed us the wrong way, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to be nice. When we were tempted to sin, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to resist. When we saw someone being mistreated, we thought, WWJD?, so we tried to step in. We wore bracelets to remind us to always ask ourselves, what would Jesus do? So is this the answer? Can we reduce following Jesus to following his example?
In Hebrews 12, the writer begins by comparing our Christian life to a race or a marathon. He says that we know what direction to run by fixing our eyes on Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right and of the throne of God” (12:1-2). This is one of those classic “underline” passages. It speaks to us with force and clarity. When our Christian walk feels more like an endurance-run than a casual stroll, this passage encourages us to keep it up.
It also seems to equate Christian living with following the good examples of Jesus and the faithful men and women of old. “Since you are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”—in other words, remember that you are surrounded by the faithful, so be faithful. “Looking to Jesus, . . . who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God”—in other words, look what Jesus did, and look at the reward he got. So should we conclude that following Jesus is about following his example?
The first clue that there’s more going on in this passage than a mere exhortation to follow Christ’s example is that Jesus is called “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2, NRSV). The word ‘pioneer’ implies that Jesus didn’t just lead the way, he established a completely new way. We are told to travel along this way, as runners of a marathon who diligently follow their course. And how do we know what the course is to follow? By looking to Jesus. But the question always is: How do I look to Jesus? Where is he?
1. The Ascended Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus is now sitting at the right hand of the throne of God. So we look to his ascension. We know that death could not hold him, and that he has indeed gone to be seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Can we follow him there?
If we borrow the imagery that has been used throughout the book of Hebrews, we might think of this in terms of entering the Tabernacle. Following Christ into the presence of God is a movement out of the world the sanctuary. Fixing our eyes on Jesus means looking where he stands, into the inner-chamber of God’s presence, the place that used to be dark but now has been illuminated by Christ.
Now we can imagine the trail that Christ blazed for us. Combine the race imagery with the Tabernacle imagery, and we can picture a road that runs from the world into the camp, through the camp and into the courtyard, through the courtyard and into the Holy Place, and finally it runs behind the curtain, into the Holy of Holies. Hebrews teaches us that Christ is indeed in that most holy place, a place so near to God that the earthly version was merely a hint and a shadow of it (Heb 9:24). So Christ is there, mediating the new covenant and performing the office of high priest on our behalf in a way that human high priests never could. So when we fix our eyes on Jesus, we look into the Holy of Holies. Our course remains certain so long as we keep him in view, and our destination is the very presence of God. So, when we get there, have we reached the end? Is the sanctuary the finish line?
Without a doubt, the book of Hebrews, from chapter 1 all the way to chapter 10:18 has been drawing us into the sanctuary. It has shown us how Christ is the way to true fellowship with God. That Christ is the perfect high priest, the better mediator of a better covenant. Theologically, the movement has taken us from the world, through the camp, and into the tent. And in the tent we find that the veil has been torn away. That in Christ we stand in the presence of the living God with confidence.
But this trek isn’t easy. We are constantly burdened by sin, which weighs us down and tangles us up. Why is sin such a big deal? Because following Jesus leads us into the very presence of God. Think about all the cleansing rites that the high priest had to go through before he entered into the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle on the Day of Atonement. Hebrews describes this in 9:6ff.: “the priests go continually into the first tent to carry out their ritual duties; but only the high priest goes into the second, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people” (cf. Lev 16). Even when he went behind the curtain he had to burn enough incense to produce a cloud, which protected him from direct contact with God (Lev 16:12-13). Jewish tradition even holds that they would tie a rope around the ankle of the high priest before he went in, just in case he was impure in some way and was struck dead by God’s holiness. So, even though we have a better high priest, a perfect high priest who stands in the very presence of God, our sinfulness is still a big problem. In Christ we are already holy. But we are not yet holy. That’s why sin will trip us up as we run the race into the sanctuary.
How can we just “lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely”? The answer is Christ. We can run this course because he pioneered it. He is the pioneer of our faith because he is the perfecter of our faith. He is the only Israelite to have obeyed with perfect obedience, to go the whole way. We stand before God with confidence because he stands before his Father with confidence. We are not yet holy, but we are already holy in him.
We should assume the expectation is that we will stumble, that sin will continue to trip us up. Yet we fix our eyes on Jesus and run with perseverance the race that has been set out for us, the race that we run along the track that Christ laid out for us. We fix our eyes on the ascended Jesus, our Lord who mediates in the true Holy of Holies, looking behind the torn curtain into the Most Holy Place, and Christ our light shines in that darkest of places. And we do indeed arrive. We stand in the very presence of God. That’s what the writer of Hebrews is going to such great lengths to demonstrate. So, is that the end? If Jesus is the finish line, then does the race end in the sanctuary?
2. The Incarnate Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Looking up, we see that Jesus is in the sanctuary. But looking down, we see that he is also in the manger, that the ascended Lord was first the incarnate Lord. We see that before Jesus left us to be with his Father, he left his Father to be with us. Yahweh, the great I-Am, left his heavenly dwelling to be Emmanuel, God-with-us. We too must continually leave the sanctuary as people-of-God to be people-in-the-world.
It’s easy to think of this path that we run as the one that takes us away from the world. That with our eyes fixed on Jesus, our progress on the way surrounds us with more and more walls—the walls of the courtyard, and the walls of the Holy Place, the curtain of the Holy of Holies—until at the end, we find we are in an enclosed space, just us and God, with multiple barriers set up between us and the world.
But is this the course that Christ took? If our movement follows the movement of Christ, does it end after we have entered the sanctuary and shut the curtain behind us? No, if Jesus was the forerunner of this race, if we run the road that he established, then we need to turn on our heels and follow him back into the world. It can’t only be about a movement from the world into the sanctuary. It must also take us from the sanctuary into the world.
If we’re following Christ, then we should look at the course he took. The book of Philippians sums up his movement well: “[Christ], though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Christ’s movement was from heaven to earth, from God to the world, from complete and perfect fellowship with his loving Father to complete and utter rejection by the people he created. This is also our path. We had come into the sanctuary and expected to hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” but instead we hear, “Come, follow me!”
The course we run with our eyes fixed on Christ doesn’t end by taking us out of the world and into the sanctuary. That is only the beginning. Ours is also the path of humiliation, self-emptying; it is the path that leads us out of the sanctuary, through the courtyard, out of the camp, and back into the world. When the writer of Hebrews tells us to look to Christ, what does he say? “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (12:3). Why would he say that if the Christian life was about being safely nestled in the inner-room of God’s presence? No, he assumes that, just as Christ endured hostility from sinners, so must his followers endure such hostility. This is precisely because the path of Christ leads right back into the world.
Here we have an odd tension: the theological movement of Hebrews takes us from the world into the sanctuary, but the social movement takes us from the sanctuary into the world. And this has always been the call. When God called Abraham, he said, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). The blessing was never intended to exist for its own sake. God sought to draw near to all humankind through his relationship with Israel. Israel was to be a “kingdom of priests”, the mediator of God’s covenant with all humanity. But because the people could not remain faithful to God on their own, God fulfilled his covenant in the most surprising way. He became one of them and was obedient in their place. He became the faithful Israelite. Christ has taken us into the sanctuary that we might live faithfully in the world.
Faithful living in the world has never been easy. We have just heard about the great heroes of faith in the previous chapter. They are acclaimed because they were faithful, and their faithfulness is praiseworthy because faithfulness is difficult. Along the way we struggle. We struggle with our own sin as we enter the sanctuary of the ascended Jesus; we contend with the world’s sin as we enter the world of the incarnate Jesus. After a while, we simply start to lose steam. Why should we keep fighting? Why should we keep running?
It is this struggle that we are told to “endure for the sake of discipline” (12:7). This constant desire to give up, whether because our sin seems too strong or because our faith seems too weak. Listen to the words of Hebrews:
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (12:7-11)
The problem is that sin is a real struggle, that human sinfulness is an undeniable fact of life, and that this fact continually comes up against the fact that we are made new in Christ. It’s made all the worse because the church is enduring both an internal and an external struggle. The world looks on and ridicules us or even persecutes us; but even within the community, we struggle with sin and encounter the rebuke of God’s word. We are rebuked in the sanctuary, because we stand before a holy God; and we are rebuked in the world, because our faith is perceived as foolishness. We hear the world’s No to our faith and we hear God’s No to our sinfulness.
The problem is that sin is a real struggle. We are both sinner and saint. This means that Christians are conflicted, and we tend to experience this conflict as suffering. But here we are given a new perspective. This conflict should be seen as discipline rather than suffering. Suffering speaks of an angry God that wants revenge, but discipline speaks of a loving father who wants to shape and grow his children into wholeness. He calls us to faithfulness precisely because he loves us so much.
Why are we sons and daughters of God? We learn that back in 2:11: “For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” He goes on to say, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. . . . Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (2:14, 17). We are children of God because the one Son of God has called us his brothers and sisters. He has become one of us. Because God made himself human, when we stand in the presence of Christ, we stand in the very presence of God. But because God made himself human, when we stand in the presence of Christ, we stand in the midst of the world. The path we take from the world into the sanctuary is the very path that Christ laid out from the sanctuary into the world. We stand at the entrance to the Tabernacle and Christ says, “Come, stand in the presence of my Father and Lord.” So we step behind the torn curtain and Christ says, “Come, stand in the presence of my brothers and sisters.”
The ascended Jesus leads us into the sanctuary. The incarnate Jesus leads us into the world.
3. The Crucified Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. So which is it? When we follow Jesus, are we being led into the presence of God or into the presence of the world? Where do we see him? Where do we look? When we looked to the ascended Jesus, we were led into the sanctuary. When we looked to the incarnate Jesus, we were led into the world. Now we must look at the crucified Jesus. We look at the one of whom we once shouted, “Crucify him!” and the one who said to his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There on the cross, he hangs, rejected by the world, and even, for a moment, by God. Can we follow Jesus here? Do we dare to fix our eyes on the cross of Christ? Can we bear the rejection of the world and the rejection of God? Drawing near to Christ, we suffer the world’s rejection of his holiness. Drawing near to Christ, we suffer God’s rejection of our sinfulness.
I think this is the author’s central concern of this particular passage. He has already gone to great lengths to demonstrate how in Christ we are free to enter the sanctuary with confidence. How Christ stands behind the torn curtain and beckons us to join him. He has reminded us that Christ has come into the world, become one of us. That he has called us his brothers and sisters and therefore his Father calls us his children.
But what happens when we cannot see the ascended Christ or the incarnate Christ? What happens when all we can hear is God’s No to our sinfulness and humanity’s No to our faithfulness? If we run this race with our eyes fixed on the cross, where will we end up?
Fixing our eyes on the crucified Jesus, we are led to share in his utter rejection. We who bear the joy of salvation must also bear the shame of the cross. Yet we are told to persevere. Why? Because Christ did. And because he has done so, he has taken his place at the right hand of God. We too, must “go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Heb 13:13).
When we are going through a time of struggle, a time when the world offers us no peace and God seems to have turned his face away from us, we fix our eyes on the crucified Jesus. Not because this lessens the struggle. If anything, sin and suffering are only darkened under the shadow of the cross. For as our eyes gaze upon our dying saviour, we know that Christ has taken even this on himself—that he has confronted the depths of our sin, that he has already struggled on our behalf, that our current struggle is our solidarity with Christ in his suffering.
4. The Risen Jesus
Fix your eyes on Jesus. Where do we look? Looking at the ascended Jesus, we thought we were headed into the presence of God. Looking at the incarnate Jesus, we thought we were headed out into the world. Looking at the crucified Jesus, are we lost? We have moved from the world into the sanctuary, then from the sanctuary into the world. Now we seem to have been pushed out of both. Is this the last word?
By no means! The whole of the book of Hebrews, from 1-10:18, has been drawing us into the sanctuary. It has shown the insufficiency of the old covenant to accomplish the cleansing of sin and the freedom to stand before God, that as long as the tent was standing, there was no way into the sanctuary (9:8). It demonstrates how Jesus Christ, the priestly king, has made a sufficient, once-for-all sacrifice for sin, and that through him, we can enter confidently behind the curtain. That through Christ, we can enter into the very presence of the living God. But then we are told that since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, go and be faithful! We are brought into the Holy of Holies that we may be sent back out into the world. We have been drawn from the world into the court, from the court into the tent, from the tent into the holy place. Yet when we get there, Christ shoves us right back out into the world. Peering through the torn curtain in the Holy of Holies, we see that Christ has already blazed a trail out into the world. This is the path we run. We run through the curtain, past the altars, out into the courtyard. In the court we see a great cloud of witnesses—Abraham is cheering, Joseph is waving his coat like a flag, Moses is pounding his staff on the rocks, yelling, “Go, go, go!”—and we follow the trail right out into the world. We see Christ, standing out in the world, saying, “Come.” We look back, and see Jesus in the sanctuary, saying, “Go!” We look next to us, and see that Jesus is running alongside us, saying, “Let’s keep it up!”
But in the world we encounter struggle too. We who need constant reminder that we are accepted in Christ need also to be reminded that we are rejected because of Christ. The scandal of the cross means Christians will always in some sense bear the disgrace of the name of Jesus. Yet Christ came into the world. He left the Holiest of Holies to come to the deepest, darkest corners of earth. But he did so that he might unite God and the world. The crucified Jesus is also the resurrected Jesus. And at the end of the age, the new heavens and the new earth will be established, the holy city, the new Jerusalem will descend and we will hear: “‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one seated on the throne will say, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Rev 21:3-5).