Paul, Peter and John…The Centrality of the Cross

Jesus knew He had to die in order for His mission on earth to be complete but how did His apostles view His death?  Many Christians think that the main thrust of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus, John Stott writing “It is often asserted that in the book of Acts the apostles’ emphasis was on the resurrection rather than on the death of Jesus” [38].  Of course there is nothing wrong with that but Stott is writing a book entitled The Cross of Christ, and his focus is not on resurrection but on the importance of the death of Jesus.  Do we as Christians prefer to skip the uncomfortable negative news so we can get to the good news?  Do we ignore the sacrifice in order to get to the salvation?  Is it easier to turn away from the vision of our Savior hung upon the cross than stare directly at that spectacle and consider its meaning?

Furthermore, is there any evidence for a doctrinal explanation of Jesus’ death in the writings of the apostles?  Is there any evidence for the centrality of the cross in the minds of the apostles or were they like us; they just wanted to skip over the bad part to the good news of the resurrection?

The “human verdict” for Jesus was death on a cross; of course, the resurrection was the “divine reversal of the human verdict.”  You can’t have one without the other, but do we dwell on the resurrection too much and ignore the sacrificial death of our Savior?  Stott argues that the writings of Paul, Peter and John do provide ample evidence that Jesus’ key followers knew that Jesus was on a divine mission directed by His Father God, a mission that led to a purposeful death.

In turning to Paul, it is clear why he refers to his own writings as “the message of the cross.”  In First Corinthians and Romans, he uses phrases like “we preach Christ crucified,” Jesus’ baptism is referred to as initiation “into His death” and the Lord’s Supper as a “proclamation of the Lord’s death.”  Paul felt that Jesus’ death on the cross was proof of the very essence of God’s wisdom and power.  When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was convinced that Christ died for our sins “according to the Scriptures.”   Repeatedly Paul focuses on how humankind is sinful and guilty before God and Jesus came to make “the unrighteous right;” in Jesus, “God presented as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood” [Romans 3:21-25].  We are “justified” through the blood of Jesus, “reconciled to God through the death of His Son.”  Paul knew that the sacrificial death of Christ was necessary for us to be saved from our sin.  In Galatians, Paul boasted in nothing “except for the cross”.  Certainly Paul did not let resurrection overshadow the importance of the cross; there is evidence that the cross was central to his message. 

When we focus on Peter, his testimony about the importance of the cross is also clear.  His first letter opens with a statement that his readers have been sprinkled by the blood of Jesus.  He reminds his readers that they are redeemed at a cost, not with “perishable things such as silver or gold” but rather “the precious blood of Christ, a Lamb without blemish or defect” [First Peter 1:18-19].   Peter connects the sacrifice of Christ to our need for redemption: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” and “Christ dies for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” [First Peter 2:24; 3:18].   In the context of First Peter, the cross is the main point of emphasis and Christ is our “sin-bearer and substitute.”  Peter does not gloss over the cross in his writings, moving on to the resurrection; he knows the importance of the cross for the Christian’s life and he explains it clearly. It is central.

No apostle concentrates on the cross more than John.  John even tied the incarnation of Jesus to the death of Jesus: “he saw the incarnation as being a view to the atonement” [Stott, 42].   God’s love for mankind was seen in the birth of His Son, whom He “sent . . . as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” and whose “blood purifies us from every sin” [1 John 3:16, 4:9 etc].

An even more striking portrayal of John’s focus on the death of Jesus is seen in the last book of the Bible, Revelation.  Jesus is introduced in this book as the “firstborn of the dead” and “the Living One” who was dead but is now alive forever.  The most common designation that John gives Jesus is “The Lamb”.  This title occurs twenty-eight times in the book and it has nothing to do with Jesus being meek.  It is about Jesus as a sacrificial character whose blood has been shed so His people can be set free.  Stott says in order to understand the full ramifications of The Lamb, you have to divide the symbolic meaning into salvation, history, worship and eternity.

We owe our salvation to the blood of The Lamb.  “Salvation belongs to God, who sits on the throne, and to The Lamb.”  Man has been “washed . . . and made white in the blood of The Lamb.”  In other words, all of mankind owes their righteous standing because Christ went to the cross.  Furthermore, our salvation is secure because not only are our names written in The Lamb’s book of life, but the Lamb’s name is written on our foreheads” [all references to Revelation].

History is also depicted in Revelation.  Our Savior is standing in the center of God’s throne, sharing the rule of Almighty God.  The occupant of the throne is holding in His hand a seven-sealed scroll which is generally identified as the book of history.  In Revelation, John weeps because no one can break the seals on the scroll but The Lamb does break the seals and proves He is a part of history.  Stott writes “It is significant that what has qualified Him to assume this role is His cross, for this is the key to history and the redemptive process it inaugurated.”  No matter what will come to man, God will overcome the devil due to the blood of The Lamb, which is in all of history, until the final victory.

In Chapter Five of Revelation, choir after choir sings the praises of The Lamb.  “Four living creatures and the twenty-four elders” fell down before The Lamb and began to sing a new song.  They sing that Jesus is worthy to take the scroll of history and open the seals because He has been slain “With your blood you purchased for God, from every tribe and language and people and nation.”  Next John hears a hundred million angels singing “worthy is The Lamb, who was slain.”  When the four living creatures [representing all of mankind] fall down and worship The Lamb, this (of course) is worship to the extreme.

Finally, John makes the case that the cross entitled Christ to have eternal importance.  Revelation is one of the most difficult books to understand in the Bible but “eternal” imagery is powerful regarding the lasting influence of The Lamb.  John is telling the reader that from the eternity of the past to the eternity of the future, the “center stage” is occupied by The Lamb of God who was slain for all of us.  Jesus is placed on an equal level with God.  Jesus mediates God’s salvation, shares God’s throne, and receives God’s worship.   What allows Jesus these privileges forever is the fact that He was slain for man and died to procure our salvation.  John has the vision that God and Jesus are forever coupled: Stott describes this as “the seer’s uninhibited coupling of ‘God and The Lamb’” [44].

I have been a Christian all of my life, attending church all my life and making a “born again” commitment in 1998.  I know first hand that as Christians approach the Christmas season, the incarnation will get a tremendous amount of attention and 100 days later, we will have a tremendous celebration of the resurrection.  John Stott is trying to take a little of the emphasis off of the beginning and the end of the life of Jesus. He is trying to suggest that we should stop and consider the importance of Jesus’ death, for it is in His death that we are forgiven, in His death we are made righteous before God, for it is in the sacrifice of His life that we have a chance for eternal life.

Paul, Peter and John certainly did not forget the importance of Jesus’ death.  One might examine their writings and conclude that they felt it was the key to all that followed.  Like us, maybe they would have preferred to “skip over the bad part” to get to the resurrection but when one does a close reading of their writings, they certainly did not ignore the fact that Jesus died for all our sins.

They did not turn away from the fact that Jesus hung upon the cross.  They stared directly at that spectacle and had a serious consideration of its meaning.

They recognized the centrality of the cross…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Awareness of Jesus

Most of us don’t think about it all the time.  Overemphasis on it may lead to depression.  Too much concern about it can cause us to stop accomplishing anything in our lives.  I once had a doctor tell me “None of us are going to get out of this alive.”  I had an aunt who had terminal cancer and she spent the last year of her life obsessing about it, planning every detail of her final moments on earth.  What I am talking about, of course, is death.

We will all have to go through it.  None of us can avoid it.  It is a fact; we all have to die.

Jesus was no different.  He knew He was going to face death.  But then again, Jesus was different; Jesus was God.  Christians believe He had divine powers, extraordinary insight, a sense of purpose for all that He did in His life.  In the post “Looking  Into the Mind of Jesus”, I summarize John Stott’s argument that Christ knew He had a purpose for His life and that purpose centered on His crucifixion.  Stott even tried to make the case that Jesus intended the cross to be the central symbol of Christianity. That idea was in Christ’s mind from the beginning.

That may be, but some would say that is a bit far-fetched.  How could anyone plan for a religion to adopt a symbol that represented a horrific method of execution?  How can Stott write an outrageous sentence like “the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus Himself.” Others might say that of course Jesus could have done that; He is all powerful.  He is God.    

Whatever one chooses to believe about this matter, let’s put this centrality of the cross debate aside and deal with more practical matters about the imminent death of Jesus Christ.  Stott states that there were three “earthly” factors that led to the death of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was very aware of these factors, in fact some would say He did very little to avoid His death.  He knew that Jewish national leaders hated Him, He knew that Biblical Scripture predicted His death, and there is evidence that He made very deliberate choices which led to His death.  

Can we argue about the centrality of the cross as a plan in the mind of Jesus?

Yes…

Can we argue that Jesus was surprised that He was going to die a horrific, violent death?

No…

Jesus knew that Jewish leaders were actively trying to find a way to have Him killed.  Christ did not have a rigid attitude toward the Law, especially the Law regarding The Sabbath.  When Jesus encountered a poor man with a shriveled hand in a synagogue on Sabbath day, He did not hesitate to help the man.  He healed his hand.  The Gospel writer Mark comments that the “Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus” [Mark 3: 6].  Christ knew this and He also was well aware that other important prophets had already been persecuted.  Essentially, Jesus threatened the power structure of the day.  Stott recounts Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah 61 in the synagogue when He expressed a “divine preference” for Gentiles.  As recorded in Luke 16-30, the Jews in attendance drove Jesus out of town, took Him to a hill and were ready to throw Him down a cliff.  Jesus walked away from this threat, but He knew that eventually they would succeed in their mission to kill Him.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ knew the Scriptures.  It was foreordained that the Messiah would have to suffer, would have to die, would be resurrected and would experience God’s glory.  Stott comments on Jesus’ Old Testament references about His fate but for me the strongest forecast of His death comes in Isaiah.  As a novice Christian, I was not an avid reader of the Old Testament, but when I had to read Isaiah as part of a Bible study at church I marveled at the words from the Eighth Century B.C. Prophet.   Yahweh is “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”  He was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.”  He is “raised and lifted up and highly exalted.”   The thoughts of Isaiah influence so much of what Jesus said in His last days.  When He commented that He “must suffer many things” and has “not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” His thoughts allude to Isaiah 53.  Stott comments: “It was from this chapter more than any other that He learned that the vocation of the Messiah was to suffer and die for human sin and so be glorified.”  It all makes sense when Jesus turned to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and said “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?”  Christ knew the Scriptures; He knew He had to die for mankind.

Finally, one can analyze Jesus’ choices that led to His death.  I have always wondered why Jesus did not summon Angels to save Him from the suffering He had to endure.  I have always wondered why Jesus had to answer Pilate’s query about Jesus being king with “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice.”  He could have just said “No!”.

He was the Son of God; He had the power.  He had a mind and could make choices; He did not have to condemn Himself.

Yet He did…

Stott writes that Jesus was determined “to fulfill what was written of the Messiah, however painful that would be” [37].  It was not due to a sense of fatalism or a desire to be a martyr for the faith.  He believed the Old Testament Scripture and was determined to do the will of His Father.  “Father, if You are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet I want Your will to be done, not Mine.”  The human side of Jesus knew that He was headed for great suffering but He chose to accept the will of His father over the dread of the pain ahead.  He did not have to go to Jerusalem for Passover, but He went.  In His last days His language changed.  The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected.  What has been written about Him must be fulfilled.  When He did not appeal for Angelic help it was because God’s strength must shine forth in His weakness.  “It was not because He was the helpless victim of evil forces arrayed against Him or of any inflexible fate decreed for Him, but because He freely embraced the purpose of His Father for the salvation of sinners, as it had been revealed in Scripture” [Stott, 37].

Without a doubt, Jesus knew His days were numbered as He travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate His last Passover.  It was clear to Him that the people who hated Him the most were the ones who had the most power.  It was clear to Him that the Scripture foretold that He would have to suffer many things and He would have to give His life as a ransom for many.  It was also clear that He had to make hard choices in order to bring about His Father’s will.  He was a man on a mission and His own death dominated His mind.  He knew that He had come to save mankind, to suffer us from our sins. 

He was not surprised by His death, in fact He knew it was coming, He knew when it would come and how it would come.  This foreknowledge does not compare to my knowledge that I will die one day; it is much more.  He did not ask to be delivered from death because that is the reason He came to earth, for He knew His death was “glorification”…

We know why He came to earth, for in His death we are saved.

“For I have not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many.”

“God made Him who had no sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God”*

*2 Corinthians 5:21

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Looking Into the Mind of Jesus

Attribution…

It is a normal part of everyday life.  People around us do things and we make guesses about their behavior.  I use the word “guesses” on purpose because it is pretty impossible to be certain about why people do what they do.  Maybe the best words to describe the process of attribution are we make interpretations of others’ behavior.   This is not an exact “science” to say the least.*

The reason I start my comments with this discussion is the following statement by John Stott:  “The fact that a cross became the Christian symbol, and that Christians stubbornly refused, in spite of the ridicule, to discard it in favor of something less offensive, can only have one explanation.  It means that the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus Himself” [Stott, 35].

Sounds to me like Stott has ventured into unknown territory.   He is saying that our emphasis on the cross came from the life that Jesus led and the things that Jesus said.  He is attributing the cross to “the mind of Jesus.”

The next question follows: How can he say that?

Here is a summary of his argument.

Granted, the popular opinion of the Jews of Jesus’ day was that the Messiah would be a revolutionary political leader.  Instead we all know the story; that the Messiah was born of a virgin in a manger in a livestock shed.  We know of no sign that Jesus was even aware of His divinity until He was twelve years old.  He was in Jerusalem with His parents for the celebration of Passover.  They lost track of Him and when they found Him, He was in the temple and when His parents approached He said the following words: “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2: 41-50].  Stott points to how He said this as a sign that He knew He was on a mission.  God had sent Him into the world for a purpose.

The next momentous occasion was His baptism and the moments of temptation after His baptism with the devil in the desert.  There was no hesitation in His response to the temptation.  He knew to avoid the powerful prizes offered by Satan.  He knew His purpose.

In His public ministry, Jesus began to reveal His mission.  When His disciples began to state that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus told them to “not tell anyone.”  Stott writes that He was aware that the Jews wanted a powerful hero to save them from Roman oppression.  After feeding the five thousand, the crowd intended to force Him to be king, but He slipped away.  He knew His mission must be completed through His crucifixion, not elevation to some earthly throne.

Peter blurted out that Jesus was the true Messiah, but what was Jesus’ response?  “Out of my sight, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.”  Again, He knew this statement by Peter would only impede his pathway to the cross.

Jesus took His disciples aside several times and predicted His future.  We see this in the book of Mark: “We are going to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law.  They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him.  Three days later He will rise.”  We see this prediction three times in Mark 10, Matthew 20 and Luke 18.  This was a man on a mission.

In the last week of His life on earth, Jesus referred to perfume that was going to be poured over His head as preparation for His burial.  He gave out bread and wine as emblems of His body and blood, a sign that He knew that these elements would be in commemoration of His death. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, He could have called on men and angels to help Him in His time of need but He didn’t, saying “how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way.”  Stott writes that Scripture “bears a common witness to the fact that Jesus both clearly foresaw and repeatedly foretold His coming death [on the cross]” [brackets mine].

What we are discussing here is Jesus’ perspective on His own death.  What Stott is arguing here is that Jesus knew He had crucifixion in His future and He responded to events in a way that would get Him up on that cross.  Repeatedly Jesus used the expression “My time has not yet come” to say that circumstances were not quite right yet.  When He changed water into wine, He was urged to go Jerusalem and declare His divinity and He said “My time has not yet come.”  When he made what the Jewish leaders labelled as blasphemous statements there was a push to seize Him but He slipped away “because His time had not come yet.” 

But when circumstances were right, He changed His expression.  He went from “My time has not yet come” to “the hour has come for the Son to Man to be glorified.”  In Jerusalem when some Greeks asked to see Jesus, he repeated that sentence about His glorification.  He commented later on His death and said that it was to glorify the name of His father.  Twice in the upper room He said that it was almost time for Him to leave the world and be “glorified.” 

This shift to “my time has not come” to “the hour has come” is solid evidence that Jesus knew the reason He had come into the world.  He knew that He was destined to meet a violent, premature and purposive death on the cross and He was directing Himself to that end. 

Stott goes further in his writing: “From this evidence supplied by the Gospel writers, what are we justified in saying about Jesus’ perspective on His own death?  Beyond question He knew it was going to happen” [Stott, 35].  Are we willing to go as far as Stott and say “the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus Himself?”

As in all attributions, Stott may be right or he may be wrong.  It all boils down to his interpretation of the Scriptures.  Stott feels that the cross became the Christian central symbol of the faith because of loyalty of Jesus’ followers and Jesus intended for it to be that way. 

In the next post, we will discuss three more reasons for the cross to be central to the faith, what Stott calls “three intertwining reasons for its inevitability.”  However, he already feels justified in saying that Jesus was following God’s plan for Him to be crucified.  He already feels justified in saying that the cross of Christ is the central symbol of Christianity.  He has looked at Jesus’ words and Jesus’ actions and feels he knows the plan.  We have the cross at the center of our faith because Jesus wanted it that way.

It was supposed to be that way all along…

*Attribution is a core concept in the study of human communication.  As humans, we are geared to make meaning out of others’ verbal and nonverbal expressions, even though we “miss the mark” a lot.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”

In 1979, the contemporary sanctuary of St. John United Methodist Church* was dedicated.  As part of the preparation for that dedication day, two members** of the church designed a large cross and suspended it from the ceiling of the church.  To their amazement, the lighting in the church produced two shadows one on each side of the cross, making it symbolic of the cross at Calvary. This captured the imagination of church members so much that the cross has never been taken down and remains in place today.

Needless to say, when one visits my home church, the cross is central to the worship service, you might say it is “front and center.”

But for Christians, the centrality of the cross is not that unusual.

John Stott begins his book The Cross of Christ with some explication of how the cross is prevalent in Christian art, architecture and every aspect of Christian worship.  His example of art is the painting by Holman Hunt entitled The Shadow of Death.  His example of architecture is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  His explanation of the centrality of the cross in worship is expressed from the viewpoint of a “stranger” who is visiting a worship service at St. Paul’s. 

As I read his discussion of worship at St. Paul’s, it made me consider the symbol of the cross in my church and I have to admit, it shows up everywhere, from bulletins to crosses around members necks.  From the antependium [that cloth that is draped over the pulpit] to the lapels on parishioners’ jackets.  We have so much beautiful stained glass at St. John UMC and it is full of crosses.

Maybe it is in so many places that we take the cross for granted.  It was not always so.

Stott explains that early Christians did not even use the symbol of the cross to signify their faith.  First of all, they were afraid to use it because of its close association with the death of Jesus.  Persecution was so common that there was fear that its use would make it easier to identify Christian worshippers, and therefore allow Romans and Jews to find them and to exact punishment.  Despite the fact that Christ died on the cross, in the First Century, crucifixion was regarded as a shameful way to die, a punishment reserved for common criminals.  When a person was convicted of murder, rebellion or armed robbery in the Roman world, they met their end on the cross.  This method of punishment was barbaric [literally]; the Romans began the practice after discovering its use by peoples at the edge of the known world.  Crucifixion was an extremely slow death and most often criminals suffered additional torture while hanging on the cross.  The use of a cross as a positive symbol in those times would have been unusual. 

Roman citizens in the First Century were exempt from crucifixion, except in extreme cases of treason.  Stott writes that Romans regarded crucifixion “with horror”. 

Jews in the First Century also regarded crucifixion as a disgusting way to die.  They cited scripture from Deuteronomy which says “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” [Deut 21: 23].  One reason that they could never accept Jesus as The Messiah is that they believed He died under God’s curse because He was crucified on a tree.  Their experience with crucifixion was often at the hands of vengeful Roman generals.  The Roman general Varus crucified two thousand Jews in 4 B.C. and  general Titus crucified so many Jews that they ran out of space on the main road and they ran out of trees to make crosses.  They hated the symbol of the cross.

Today’s Christian might think the symbol of the cross has been around since earliest days of Christianity, but that is just not the case.  Early Christian symbols that were accepted were drawings of a peacock [meaning immortality], the dove, the athlete’s victory palm or the fish. 

In the second century, Christians began to depict significant themes of redemption in their art.  Noah’s ark gained popularity as well as Abraham killing the ram instead of Isaac, Daniel in the lion’s den, his three friends in the fiery furnace and Jonah being disgorged from the belly of the whale.  These symbolic paintings were less incriminating than the cross and only those instructed with the Christian interpretation of the art would understand their significance for the faith. 

Christian symbols for Jesus could have been the crib, the manger, or a carpenter’s bench.  Other choices could have been a boat, where Jesus taught the crowds at Galilee or the apron He wore to wash the disciples’ feet.  The throne could have symbolized the sovereignty of Jesus or even the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  Instead, the two bars of the cross eventually became the preeminent Christ symbol because they commemorate Jesus’ death.

In the second century Christians began to draw, paint and engrave the cross as a symbol of their faith and they also began to make the sign of the cross on themselves.  Tertullian recorded the practice of Christians “signing” the cross in his writings in A.D. 200.  Hippolytus, the Roman historian writes of signing the cross as a common ritual in A.D. 215.  He also comments on a Christian bishop who made the sign of the cross on the forehead of candidates for confirmation. 

In the sixth century, the crucifix began to be commonly used by Christians. This symbol of the cross with Jesus attached was an obvious reference to His sacrifice for us and it solidified the cross as Christianity’s central symbol. 

Of course, there have been periods in Christian history where the cross has been attacked.  Puritans in England in the Sixteenth Century felt that the cross was a sign of Roman Catholic “popery” and discouraged its use.

But today Stott writes “the cross is the universal symbol of Christianity.”

I have joined the choir at St. John and the choir sits right under the large cross at the front of the sanctuary.  As I look up from the choir loft, I realize that I am only fifteen or twenty feet away from this large symbol.  We don’t sing the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts too often but if we would sing it and if we would all gaze upon the cross, the meaning for any Christian is only too obvious. 

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

The cross of Christ—the universal symbol of our faith.

*St. John United Methodist Church, Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  **Cecil Hammonds and Arch Hitch                                                                                    

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Studying Stott Once Again…

“I bought this book in 1976—in 1999 I read it and have found it a blessing.  Stott answers so many questions.”  [written by me on the back page of my 1971 paperback edition of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity].

Readers of my thoughts on St. John Studies may have seen several references to my “born again” faith in some of my posts over the years.  I dedicated my life to Christ in 1998 and the reading of Basic Christianity was one of the books that I read very early on in my walk with God.  During 1998, I fell in love with the New Testament because I had a hunger for the answers about life that I found there.  I came to know God in the midst of personal trauma and I was going through a crisis of purpose in my life.  I literally did not know how I was going to move forward.  The habits that I had developed over forty-six years of life were just not working.  I desperately needed a new direction.  Along with the New Testament, John Stott’s writing explained the deeper level of meaning that could be found in the Christian life.  Along with the Bible, his book clarified my purpose.  His writing was sensible.  It was very clear and easy for me to understand.  His explanations were solid; I remember feeling that this man really knew his subject matter; there was no waffling.  Here was someone who had a stalwart commitment to his faith.  I have very fond memories of reading his little paperback.  It costs one dollar and fifty cents at the retail bookstore, but I got my copy at a used bookstore for seventy-five cents. 

I tell you all this to explain my admiration for this British Anglican priest and theologian.  In his lifetime, he was one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the world.  He wrote fifty books about Christianity. In 2005, Stott was named to Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World List.”  His influence on the Christian faith in his lifetime was significant.  His influence on me was significant.  Now twenty one years after encountering Basic Christianity I get to study John Stott again.

Alister McGrath, Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University states that The Cross of Christ was written at the height of Stott’s career, when he was sixty-five years old.*  Why would John Stott undertake a book dedicated to the cross?  He explains in his Preface that the cross “lies at the center of the historic, biblical faith, and the fact that this is not always everywhere acknowledged is in itself a sufficient justification for preserving a distinctive evangelical testimony.”  [Stott, 13].    Maybe we take it for granted that the cross is where God [through Christ] substituted Himself for all of us and bore our sins.  This was how He restored man to His family.  J.I. Packer says this idea is the “distinguishing mark” of the evangelical movement in the world.

Another reason is that in 1986 no book on the cross was written by an evangelical author for “thoughtful readers.”  At that time, Stott felt like he was filling a void in Christian literature. 

How does he try to construct his book?  How does he approach a discussion of the cross?  In parts one and two, he states that he tries to argue for what he calls the “heart of the cross.”  He puts forth his explanation of satisfaction and substitution, two words Stott will use as his basis for an extensive definition for atonement. In part three, he discusses the “achievements of the cross,” what God did through having his Son on the cross.  Part four addresses how Christians are to “live under the cross.”  In this last part, Stott attempts to explain how the cross transforms everything about how we live as Christians. 

Stott had anxieties about writing this book which he discusses in his preface.  First of all, he wanted to be true to the word of God.  He did not want anyone to accuse him of misinterpreting Scripture.  Secondly, he wanted to acknowledge work by other theologians.  To ignore excellent work by others is to be “disrespectful.”  He realized that the Holy Spirit has enlightened scholars for many centuries as they penned their thoughts about God; he knew their work reflects God’s working through their study.  Thirdly, he wrote that he tried to understand Scripture in relationship to the contemporary world.  He wanted his book to reflect what the cross means to us today.

Finally, Stott states that writing a whole book just on the cross is “presumptuous.”  While wanting to write The Cross of Christ, he admits that knowing the real reason that God wants to reconcile Himself to this world is a mystery.  Man has his theories, but do any of us really know the mind of God?  Stott puts it like this: “it would be unseemly to feign a cool detachment as we contemplate Christ’s cross.  For whether we like it or not, we are involved.  Our sins put Him there.  So, far from offering us flattery, the cross undermines our self-righteousness” [Stott, 18].  We may not understand the cross, but we can stand before it as merciless sinners.  We hope God speaks to our hearts the words of pardon and acceptance we long to hear.  After hearing those words, we hope to pick ourselves up and go into the world to serve Him.

Stott is humbled to be able to share his thoughts on the cross.  Maybe as readers we should be prepared to be humbled as we read his thoughts.  I certainly need to be forgiven for the many sins that I commit on an everyday basis.  In 1999 when I encountered Basic Christianity, I was in need of basic answers to basic questions about my life.  Twenty years later, I still struggleas I do things I know I should not do.  How can I sin like I do and call myself a Christian?  How can I proclaim that I am “born again” yet I still do things that I know are very wrong?

In 1999 I needed Basic Christianity.

Maybe in 2020 I need The Cross of Christ

*from the Foreword to the 2006 Edition of The Cross of Christ

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Not Written in Vain…

Knowing God…*

What does it mean to “know” God?  How does one really get to know Him?  Don’t all Christians know Him?  Isn’t that special knowledge something that just goes along with declaring “I am a Christian”?

I wish it worked that way, but sadly, it doesn’t.

The reason J.I. Packer wrote his book Knowing God is that he thinks that too many Christians profess to know God, but that is not the reality.  Many really don’t know God at all.  Ignorance of God “lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today” [Packer, 12].  Packer feels that too many Christians don’t know God’s ways nor do they know how to commune with God so they can change their relationship with their Lord and Savior.

In the very last section of his book Knowing God,  Packer discusses the climax of his book and he titles the climactic section “Learning to Know God in Christ.”  He summarizes the various places that he has taken us on our quest through his book.  The God we seek is of course found in the Bible; that is a major starting point for knowing God.  Christians need to study it.   Packer even makes it easier; he recommends we spend most of our quality time studying the book of Romans.  There we will encounter and hopefully understand God revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Three in One in historic Christian teaching.

He states that “knowing Him starts with knowing about Him” so he wrote chapters about God’s character [goodness, severity, wrath and grace etc.].  The more Packer discusses God’s character, the more we could see that we as human beings are fallen creatures.   We are not good, not strong, and definitely not self-sufficient.  Indeed we are all going to hell unless our Lord intervenes through His grace and saves us.  We just don’t have what it takes to live a righteous life.  Not only do we lack knowledge, but we also lack the resolve we need in order to lead a righteous life.

Packer has written that to know God is to develop a personal relationship with Him.  The relationship is mutual; God wants to share Himself with us and we need to share ourselves with Him.   In our sharing, we must be honest because we can’t hide from Him.  He sees all we do and He knows why we do it.  It is absurd to think we can play silly games with our Father.  This reciprocal process is akin to human relationships.  Humans choose to share their thoughts with other humans and trust develops as private information is treasured and not shared with others.  Closeness develops as sharing continues over time.  In my life, I try to be completely honest with God.  He knows my failings, my weaknesses [after all, He made me], so holding back and trying to be something I am not is a fruitless exercise.  It may work in the world, but it does not work before God.  For Christians to learn God’s ways, we have to approach God with no pretense. 

Furthermore, we must be prepared to know God at a pace that is slower than we like.  We may think we can rush the process, but that is also a silly game we try to play with God.  He will reveal as much of Himself as He wants on His timeframe.  The process of knowing Him never ends and we have to admit that we are stymied by our own limitations.  The longer we dedicate our lives to trying to know God, we eventually discover we are incapable of fully knowing God because of our sinfulness.  God and His Son Jesus Christ are perfect and we are not.  We always fall short of the standard of holiness needed to truly commune with God.  That does not mean that God does not expect us to try to grow in righteous living.  Packer is correct in recommending a solid knowledge of the Book of Romans.  In that book in particular, we encounter the words that we will perish eternally unless we accept and receive the promise of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  Jesus is our Savior.   Without Him we don’t stand a chance of really knowing God.  He removes the barrier of sin in our lives; He gives us our opportunity to pray, to ask forgiveness, to experience God’s grace.

When we decide to ask Jesus into our lives, we can begin to know Him by reading His word.  When we read, over time we hopefully will begin to understand His word better and as we begin to understand, we see that God wants us to obey His word.  Packer writes that knowing God expresses itself in faith and faith expresses itself in prayer and obedience.  In this climactic section of his book, Packer quotes Oswald Chambers: “The best measure of the spiritual life is not in it ecstasies, but in its obedience.” 

Toward the end of his book, Packer spends many pages explaining how adequate God is.  Indeed, many of my posts discuss God as “adequate.”  Why is adequate good enough?  Packer writes that knowing God is adequate “is as high in the knowledge of God as we can go this side of glory” [278].  When we realize this, we have more than we need to be conquerors.    We have more than we need to live a victorious life.  “When we speak of the adequacy of God it is this link that we highlight and this link is of the essence of Christianity.  Those who know God in Christ have found the secret of true freedom and true humanity.”  Life is not perfect for humanity; it cannot be.  But let’s not be defeatist; we can experience some victory in our lives.  What we must do is claim it.  We must be realistic; victory does not mean the end of the war.  Humans are humans.  The war rages on.  Life is a constant struggle between sin and righteousness with periods of happiness and periods of despondency.

Again in Romans [Packer says this is the most important book in the Bible] the Apostle Paul discusses the conflict of his two natures.  These are key Scriptures for understanding who we are in our relationship with God.  Think about it; if Paul is feeling this way, don’t you feel this way too?   “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin.   For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.   But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good.   So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.   For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.   For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.   But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.  I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.   For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man,  but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.   Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?   Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin”  [Romans 14-25].

Wretched man that I am!  Who will set me free? 

What is Paul doing here?  He is being honest before God.  There is no other way for him to be before God.  In Second Corinthians we again find Paul bemoaning his condition.  He has a “painful physical ailment.”  We are not sure what that ailment is but it keeps him from being proud before God.   He has asked God to take it away three times but God has said the same thing three times.  “My grace is all you need, for My power is strongest when you are weak.”  God is telling Paul he is human.  You are not superhuman.  Ailments are just part of your life on earth.  Is it sin Paul is moaning about?  Is it actual physical limitation?  Whatever it is, God is willing to work through Paul and he knows that (even in his wretched state).  He resigns himself to be “happy” and “proud” of his weaknesses because he suffers for “Christ’s sake.”  Here is the most important Scripture for me: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Paul knows where his strength comes from.  It comes from God.  God will eventually set Paul totally free; He has already done that through His son Jesus Christ.  Knowledge that God can use us on this earth with all our warts is true freedom.  It is the best knowledge about God that we will have here on this earth.

How will we begin to experience this freedom?  The answer is unbelievably simple: accept Him into your life and hold on.  The Christian life is a roller coaster, like life is for all humans.  It has wonderful highs and horrible lows.  When we go up for the highs, it is exhilarating.  When we plunge downward to the lows, it can be so scary.  But we have a handlebar.  We need to clutch that handlebar for that is our God.  If we grab that handlebar and never let go, He will keep us safe. 

That is the Christian’s advantage.     

Many who profess to be Christians also profess to know God.  They may know facts about Him.  They can possibly quote Bible verses.  Every time the church is open, they are there.  They can explain the sacrifice of His Son Jesus who came to earth to save us from our sin.  They may understand the significance of the resurrection, but they really don’t know God.   Many know God intellectually but knowledge of God is so much more than that.  It is an emotional as well as intellectual connection between humans and our Father.  To know God is to have Him in your heart as well as your head.

Packer quotes Psalms 27: 8 to explain this heart connection:  “Thou hast said, ‘seek ye my face.’ My heart says o thee, ‘Thy face Lord, do I seek’”.

That psalmist gets it, the reciprocal nature of a heart and head connection between God and man.  God loves us and He wants to draw close to us.  Man loves God and man wants to draw close to God. 

If Knowing God  motivates any reader to understand what the psalmist is saying, Packer comments: “it will not have been written in vain.”

I can only speak for myself.  I have written about the book since April 22, 2019.  I have been challenged by it.  I have enjoyed writing about it.  I have learned from the pages I have read. I will miss my study of the book.

Here is my thought: Packer need not worry about the purpose of his book…

Knowing God was not written in vain.

*This is my last commentary of J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thanks Dr. Packer…

Are you still writing about “that book”!

My wife [my editor] said that just the other day.  My response was “not much longer.”

Well it has finally come to the point when I have to announce a new book to blog on and that book is John W. Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

Before I get to Stott, I have to do two things: write about J.I. Packer’s concluding thoughts in Knowing God and I want to make my personal comments about how I reacted to his book.

I was a bit concerned when I started working on Knowing God on April 22, 2019.  I did not get into the book very far before I knew that it was no ordinary book about the Christian faith.  Packer was humble in his descriptions of  Knowing God, saying it was not a “treatise on God,” saying at best it is a “string of beads: a series of small studies on great subjects.”  I jumped into the book and I soon felt like an inexperienced swimmer trying the deep end of the pool for the first time.  I soon found myself in over my head.

I did not panic.

I just began to study and to think about Packer’s ideas.  I looked for pieces of discussion that I could bite off, pieces that were not too extensive or too complex.   I thought if I could break the book down into smaller parts, I could make it manageable. 

Still I knew the book was special; one only had to read the accolades on the back cover to realize that I had a classic of the faith to plow through.  R.C. Sproul, one of the best theologians and teachers I have ever encountered, called the book a “masterpiece.”  Dr. James Kennedy called it a “contemporary classic.”  Chuck Swindoll writes that since the mid-1970’s, Knowing God has been on the top of “top twenty Christian books I have read.”

I began in April of last year with the idea that I would try to post comments on Packer every five days but as I dug into the book, I could see that weekly posts were going to have to be my standard.  It took too much preparation to write about his thoughts.   When I began St. John Studies in 2014, I would post every day or every other day but the books I wrote about were a lot less challenging.

I am not complaining.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I know that J. I. Packer taught me so much.  He says early in the book that one of the main problems in the church today is Christians who are ignorant about God.  Maybe I fall into that category because as I poured over the pages, I found myself learning so much more than I ever imagined I would learn. 

Packer opens Knowing God with a story of two kinds of people who are interested in Christianity.  One kind he calls balconeers.  They sit on balconies, high above the roadway watching travelers go by on the road below.  These people observe but they really don’t take part in “the walk.”  Packer says their concern is with the theoretical.  The other kind are the travelers.  Travelers have practical problems.  They are on their walk.  They have to decide which way they are going to go, how they are going to get there and how to survive the trip with relative comfort.  With Knowing God, Packer writes a book that draws from both viewpoints.  For example, at times it is theological,with hefty discussions of the role of evil in the world and how evil can exist at the same time that God has sovereign control of the world.  At times it is practical as it addresses evil as a problem that all of us must deal with.  How can Christians live life battling evil?  How can we bring some good out of everyday life in a world that has so much evil?  A mix of balconeer material and traveler material…

As I anticipate discussing The Cross of Christ , I wonder how I will feel about it.  It has its share of accolades as well.  Luis Palau describes it as “One of the outstanding books of all times.”  Dr. D.A. Carson says it is a “must read” book for every minister’s bookshelf.  My experience with Dr. Stott comes from his little book Basic Christianity.   When I came to Christ in 1998, I picked up a copy of that book and it inspired me.  I had so many questions and Stott provided so many answers.  Besides the Bible, Basic Christianity became a foundation of my faith. 

Are you still writing about “that book”!

Not much longer…

One more post on what Packer calls “the climax of our book.”

One more post before I say good bye to book that has really helped me know God much better.

Thanks Dr. Packer.*

*J. I. Packer died on July 17, 2020 at the age of 93.  For the St. John Studies tribute by Leland Ryken see St John Studies  July 20, 2020.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“Who Shall Separate Us From The Love Of Christ”

The final verse…

Romans 8:31, Romans 8: 32 and Romans 8:33…*

Three Scriptures that J.I. Packer has used to conclude his book Knowing God

Now we discuss the fourth scripture. 8:35:  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”…

Packer’s focal point of the Scripture is this: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”.

The short answer to the question is no one shall.

I had an unusual experience just last night.  I belong to a book club at my church and we were discussing  the book  Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones.  One of the main ideas of this novel is that we all need love and in the case of this book, the main characters [two girls] need love from their earthly father.  I was facilitating the discussion of the book and I happened to be the only man in the room.   I asked this question: “How important is it for a girl to have her father’s love”?   I asked all the women in the room to respond.  All of them expressed the fact that they did not have enough of that love or attention from their fathers.  Almost all of them said “he was working too hard, he was too tired or he did not have time to attend to my needs.”  One woman said “It is so important for a girl to be loved by her father”.

We all need to be loved.  We all need unwavering love.

Packer discusses an image of a woman who is blowing on thistledown.  As she blows on the plant she is saying “He loves me—He loves me not,” hoping that the last remaining thistle will be on “He loves me.”   This presents a view that God’s love for us is uncertain.  It may be or it may not be.

But God’s love is not like human love.  Human love is not guaranteed to fulfill anothers’ needs.  What is served up may not be enough.  “Divine love is a function of omnipotence, and has at its heart an almighty purpose to bless which cannot be thwarted.”  This divine love is love from God and love from his Son, Jesus Christ: “[God and Jesus] are one in loving sinners, and also that the love which elects, justifies and glorifies is love ‘in Christ Jesus.,’ love knowable only by those to whom Jesus is ‘our Lord’” [Packer, 275].

This love that the Apostle Paul writes about in Romans 8: 35 is love that saves.  This divine love is the love that sinners experience when they declare that Jesus is their Lord and they are made right in their life by their declaration.  At that point God’s love is immutable; “nothing can at any time part us from that love or come between us and the final enjoyment of its fruits” [Packer, 275]. 

What Paul is saying is two-fold.  First of all, God is our keeper.  As we declare our love for Him, He holds us fast.    It says in First Peter, 1: 5 “[Christians] are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.”  Packer says “the power of God keeps them believing, as well as keeping them safe through believing.  Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you” [Packer 275].

That’s security.  That’s affirmation.  That’s assurance of God’s love.

Secondly, Paul is saying that God’s love is adequate as our end.  Human love relationships are ends in themselves, “having joy in themselves.”  Our relationship with God is more; the loving relationship with Our Father fulfills us to a higher degree.  Packer writes that loving God will mean that we are “fully satisfied, needing and desiring nothing more.” 

Paul is attacking the idea that Christians going through hard times can feel they are experiencing God withdrawing His love.  When unknown things occur, when we are facing an uncertain future, when “cosmic forces” intervene which we cannot master, it is human nature to have fear.  It is also human nature for us to admit that fearful times can take a toll on our relationship with God.  When undergoing tough times some people draw closer to God; whereas others ask “why me?” and fear that God no longer loves them, maybe He is even punishing them.   Paul is fighting this latter tendency in his words: “I count everything sheer loss, because all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I did in fact lose everything.  I count it so much garbage, for the sake of gaining Christ….All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of His resurrection, and to share His suffering, in growing conformity with His death, if only I may finally arrive at the resurrection from the dead….I press on, hoping to take hold of that for which Christ once took hold of me….forgetting what is behind me, reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press toward the goal to win the prize which is God’s call to the life above, in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 3: 8-14].

Why do we choose to love God?  We are dedicating ourselves to “perfecting” our relationship with Him.  Packer writes “How could it be otherwise, when it is a love relationship?”

I recently taught a Sunday school class on God’s unshakable promises and my focus was on God’s promise to protect us from evil.  The point of my class was that God has conquered satan and it says so in His word.  I asked the class if they really knew the significance of the common Christian sentence “We are more than conquerors.”  [Note the sentence is in Romans 8: 35, the Scripture for this post].  My point was in the context of God’s victory over satan but “We are more than conquerors” can also apply from the fact that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  When we have fear, we need to know that we have a loving God who cares for us.  Packer uses the example of Paul and Silas in stocks in the Philippian jail.  They could have bemoaned their fate, saying that God had deserted them, He no longer loved them, that their situation was evidence that God put them in a horrible position. 

What did they do?

They began to sing.

They were more than conquerors.

They knew that God’s sovereign love is never withdrawn from Christians who really believe. 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”.

No one…

*for discussions of 8:31, 8:32 and 8:33 see previous posts on St. John Studies:  “A String of Beads”, The Cost, The Effectiveness and The Consequences” and “Be Assured…It is God Alone”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Be Assured… It is God Alone…

“What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”  Romans 8: 31…

“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”  Romans 8: 32…

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Romans 8: 33…

J.I. Packer closes his book Knowing God with four verses from Romans.  After discussing the implications of Romans 8: 31 and 32 in the two previous posts, it is time to comment on his use of Romans 8: 33.

It is a very personal verse since it deals with an idea that all Christians struggle with—assurance.  When Christians give their lives to Christ, they are “made right” with God, their sins are forgiven and they are “born again.”  Christians who are born again want to make the effort to live their lives for Jesus as much as they can. 

What does all of this mean?  Some Christians may take their salvation for granted.  In my Bible I have the date March 1, 1998 which is the date I got out of my pew and walked to the altar of my church.  I gave my life to Christ that day.  I could list other important dates where I felt the pull of Christ on my life, dates that proceeded March 1, 1998.  My salvation was a process, a life changing process.  In those days, I knew I needed to change; I needed something more in my life.  I needed to have guidance, inspiration and discipline.  I was lost. 

Gradually God began to make sense.  He provided answers that I sorely needed.  I felt peace for the first time in my life, lasting peace.  The more I learned about God, the better life felt.

I was ready to make a commitment.

I have never taken my salvation for granted.

In my early “born again” days, I was the classic new Christian that Paul describes in First Corinthians 3:2: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”  I was a baby.  I was super happy because I was in love with Jesus.  I had a new purpose in life, but I was living on milk, not meat.

And I had a problem…

I was still sinning like I did before I was born again. 

That is what Packer addresses with Romans 8: 33.  What was going to happen to me when I sinned and I knew better?  Was God going to take His love away?

Romans 8: 33 is the Apostle Paul’s effort to assure us that God understands our weaknesses and He will not desert us.  Packer thinks the idea is so important for our knowing God that he concludes his book with this discussion.  “There are two sorts of sick consciences, those that are not aware enough of sin and those that are not aware enough of pardon” [Packer 272].  Romans 8: 33 ministers to the latter.  The Apostle Paul knew how hard it was to be joyful when there is fear that justification is provisional, that God is going to declare one day that you are no longer “made right” with Him.  Paul knew that Christians “fail and fall” and memory of sins committed after becoming a Christian are more painful than thoughts about sinning before being born again. 

Paul denied that lapses can endanger our station with God.

First of all, Paul knew that people are not chosen for salvation in a haphazard fashion.  God has a plan when the “merciless sinner” becomes born again.  “Those whom God justifies now were chosen for eternity for final salvation, and if their justification were at any stage revoked, God’s plan for them would be entirely overthrown. So loss of justification is inconceivable” [Packer, 272].

Secondly, Packer points to Paul’s idea of sovereignty in judgement.  In short, this means that God has ultimate power over decisions about salvation.  “God justified you with (so to speak) His eyes open.  He knew the worst about you at the time when He accepted you for Jesus’ sake; and the verdict which He passed then was, and is, final” [273].  When the Apostle Paul wrote Romans, his model for sovereign power was based on the concept of the “royal judge.”  The Royal Judge had all the power of the legislature, the judiciary and the executive and when the judge made a judgment about a person, they became that person’s “champion and protector.”  Our Sovereign God justifies us and maintains that justification.  Packer goes further:  he says God intends us to enjoy our justification in full.  No one can question the decision.

Third, lest we forget, we have a powerful intercessor who is working on our behalf.  Jesus Christ is sitting at the right hand of God interceding for us.  Christ died and was raised from the dead for us and this act was designed to save us from condemnation.  Jesus bore the penalty of our sins.  He was our substitute.  Packer writes “[Paul expressing] the idea of Christ condemning us is absurd….He died…He rose and was exalted…Now by virtue of His enthroned presence at the Father’s right hand, He intercedes with authority for us…Shall He now condemn us?” [Packer, 273].  Christ is our mediator who loves us and gave Himself up for us.  He wants us to enjoy the “full fruits” of redemption.  “The idea [of our Mediator condemning us] is grotesque and impossible” [273].

To know God is to know that He is our sovereign protector.  He is for us, so why fear anything?

To know God is to know that He gives us all that we need and we should not want more than He provides.  He graciously gives us all things.

To know God is to know that He gives us salvation and once He gives that, He does not take it back.  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 

Be assured…

It is God alone…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Cost, the Effectiveness and the Consequences

In the previous post*, I discussed “If God is for us, who is against us,” the idea that if God is on our side, no opposition can crush us.  That is thought number one of J. I. Packer’s “four final thoughts.”

Final thought number two is “No Good Thing Withheld.” 

Not only can no opposition crush us, but with “No Good Thing Withheld” he is stating that God gave up all for us.  He gave His Son for us and He is holding nothing back in the good things that He is capable of giving us.

All of the four final thoughts come from the Apostle Paul’s ideas as expressed in Romans 8 and the starting point for Packer’s conclusions are verses 38-39: “I am convinced that neither death nor life. . .nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Packer says that we as Christians need to meditate on verses 38 and 39 and realize we are “more than conquerors” and our God is more than adequate.

The “no good thing” final thought comes from Romans 8: 32: “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?”  This Scripture focuses our attention on the costliness of our redemption.  As you consider the sacrifice that God made in giving His only Son for our sins, you begin to realize that God’s love for us has no limits.  Packer describes this act in these words: “If the measure of love is what it gives, then there never was such love as God showed to sinners at Calvary, nor will any subsequent love-gift to us cost God so much”[Packer, 264].  Sometimes Christians have a feeling that God has a limit on the gifts He can give us.  Seriously consider the cost of our redemption through the death of His Son Jesus Christ and as you do, you will conclude that none of us should ever limit how much God can show His love for you and for me.

Besides the cost of God’s sacrifice of His Son, Packer also wants to emphasize the effectiveness of God’s gift of redemption.  The death of Jesus Christ is the basis of God’s forgiveness of man but we don’t really receive that forgiveness unless we have faith in God.  Here is where many of us get confused, that there is some quid pro quo arrangement with God.  We won’t receive any gifts from God unless we give God a gift [our faith for example].  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Packer writes “psychologically, faith is our own act, but the theological truth about it is that it is God’s work in us: our faith and our new relationship with God as believers and all the divine gifts that are enjoyed within this relationship, were all alike secured for us by Jesus’ death on the cross” [Packer, 265].  The cross is often our focal point in God’s eternal plan to save us but we don’t have to give God anything or show God anything in order to receive His loving gifts.  Of course we focus on the removal of the “sin barrier” which is Jesus atoning for our sins [wow, what a gift!].   But think about the beauty of the process of becoming a believing Christian: one is called, one is justified and then one leads a life that glorifies God.   One can say about God, how shall [not will] He not give us all things because the sacrifice of His Son opens up the doors for us to be given all of His gifts. “The saving purpose of God, from eternal election to final glory, is one, and it is vital for both our understanding and our assurance that we should not lose sight of the links that bind together its various stages and parts” [Packer , 265].  If God’s pursuit of a relationship with man is the story of Christian history, effective is the word I would use to describe how God has brought that all about.

If you thought Packer’s discussion of the cost and the effectiveness of God’s gifts to us is a bit dense, he really presents challenging material about the consequences of God’s gift of redemption.**  Maybe you are thinking that this gift with no “strings” is too good to be true.  Maybe you are thinking that I am not sure I am “believing” enough.  Maybe you have times when your faith is a bit shaky due to temptations from the world.  God has given me faith but is it growing?  What we are really looking for is assurance.

Packer writes a lot about this in his final thoughts, but to synthesize his thinking, he feels that God is very serious about the First Commandment: “thou shalt have no other Gods before you.”  Some might say that this is what He demanded of the Israelites who lived in a polytheistic culture, but Packer says that today’s Christian lives under the same commandment. 

What does this mean for today?

We are to live the life of a “pilgrim,” a temporary resident of this earth.  We are to be willing to give up material wealth and the security it provides.  We must be willing to carry our cross daily.  We are called to be meek people.  We are called to be sensitive to the plight of others.  We are asked to be ready to suffer indignity for our faith as those around us in today’s world will turn a cold shoulder, show us contempt and disgust.

Sound hard?

It does.

“Do we live it? [the kind of life that Christ calls us to]. Well look at the churches, observe the shortage of ministers and missionaries, especially men; the luxury goods in Christian homes; the fund-raising problems of Christian societies; the readiness of Christians in all walks of life to grumble about their salaries; the lack of concern for the old and lonely and for anyone outside the circle of ‘sound believers’” [Packer, 269].

God says “thou shalt have no other gods before you.” 

What Packer says God is really saying is that I am all you need.  I am adequate.  You need not fear accepting responsibility for those less fortunate, I will help you.  You don’t have to have all those trappings of material security; they distract you from Me.  I am all you need.  Don’t worry about all those social conventions.  Follow Me and you will be fine.  Don’t worry about fitting in. 

Then come the words from Packer: “Now let us call a spade a spade.”  The Apostle Paul in Romans 8 is saying that we are not believing God for enough.  “The name of the game we are playing is unbelief.”  When we don’t take God at His word, it is us showing our shaky faith.  If God denies us something we think we need, we moan.  Faithful people see that God really is making room for other things He has in mind.  We can find ourselves stuck in a static faith that is too culture-based.  We think we are worth what we are worth because of the things we possess.  Our possessions are our security.  Our possessions become our God.

Instead of taking that risky, costly move that God is calling you to do, we hold back and cling to the things of this world.  On one level, we know God has the strength and wisdom to do anything.  On one level we know that God has overall plans for our ultimate good.  On one level we know that God is constant in His love for us, but we hold back anyhow.

If we would only believe “he will give us all things” Packer writes “one day we shall see that nothing—literally nothing—which could have increased our eternal happiness has been denied us, and that nothing—literally nothing—that could have reduced that happiness has been left to us.”

Are there consequences of accepting God’s gift of redemption?  There are.  But as human beings we don’t need to be that concerned about counting the cost.  Consequences is a word that sounds negative but in this case it is not.  Our God is a good God and He loves you and me.  The consequences are good consequences. 

Let me close this discussion with wonderful concluding words from Packer:  “Your God is faithful to you, and He is adequate for you.  You will never need more than He can supply, and what He supplies, both materially and spiritually, will always be enough for the present” [Packer, 271].

*the post “A String of Beads” September 15, 2020, St. John Studies.

**The consequences section of this post is long but Packer really has an extensive discussion of his third point.  I tried to be as succinct as possible but I would refer the reader to pages 266–271 for his more developed explication of the consequences of God’s gifts to us.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment