Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Patristic Christmas

The letter to Diognetus, generally dated between 130 and 200, is by an unknown author to a recipient named Diognetus. Diogentus, who may or may not be a real person, has questions about Christianity that the author tackles in the letter. The questions are found in chapter 1 and can be summarized as:
  1. what God do Christians place their trust in?
  2. what practices do they observe?
  3. why do they reject worldly customs, Greek gods, and Jewish practices?
  4. why do Christians show such love/affection to others?
  5. why has the new religion Christianity entered the world now and not earlier?
In chapter 7 of the letter the author talks about the God we trust sending His Son:
For, as I said, this was no mere earthly invention which was delivered to them, nor is it a mere human system of opinion, which they judge it right to preserve so carefully, nor has a dispensation of mere human mysteries been committed to them, but truly God Himself, who is almighty, the Creator of all things, and invisible, has sent from heaven, and placed among men, [Him who is] the truth, and the holy and incomprehensible Word, and has firmly established Him in their hearts. He did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things—by whom He made the heavens ... This [messenger] He sent to them. Was it then, as one might conceive, for the purpose of exercising tyranny, or of inspiring fear and terror? By no means, but under the influence of clemency and meekness.
At Christmas time we celebrate the birth of our Savior. That special time in history when God chose to send His Son (the Word) from heaven to become flesh and dwell among us (John 1:1-2,14). That baby that we see lying in the manager of our nativity is 'the very Creator and Fashioner of all things' who commands the sun, moon, and stars.The Word through whom all things are made (John 1:3; Heb 1:2) and who embodies grace and truth and holiness.
As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so sent He Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Saviour He sent Him, and as seeking to persuade, not to compel us; for violence has no place in the character of God. As calling us He sent Him, not as vengefully pursuing us; as loving us He sent Him, not as judging us. For He will yet send Him to judge us, and who shall endure His appearing?

For God has loved mankind, on whose account He made the world, to whom He rendered subject all the things that are in it, to whom He gave reason and understanding, to whom alone He imparted the privilege of looking upwards to Himself, whom He formed after His own image, to whom He sent His only-begotten Son, to whom He has promised a kingdom in heaven, and will give it to those who have loved Him.
God so loved the world that He sent Jesus into the world to save and not to judge (John 3:16-17, 12:47), to offer grace and mercy and life to those who receive Him. He offers this gift but will not force it on anyone. However the warning is made that when he comes again it will be to judge. Who can stand (Malachi 3:2; Rev 6:17) when Christ is sent again? Only those who have accepted and placed their trust in the One whom God has sent.

The questions posed in this letter remind us that at Christmas - as the worldly customs of trees, Santa, and exchanging gifts swirl by - we need to stop and reflect on that most precious gift - that God loved us enough to send Jesus who is Creator, King, Son, and Savior. We need to stop and praise the God we trust and remember that - like the early Christians - He wants us to be known for the love we have for others because He first loved us (John 13:34-35; 1 John 4:19). God sent His best from heaven to dwell among men, may we with the angels proclaim - Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14).

Note: Quotations are from ANF Volume 1. The first quote listed is from chapter 7, the second quote is from chapter 7 and chapter 10.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Holiness of God VII and VIII (Wrestling with God and Holiness)

In chapter 7 Sproul demonstrates how wrestling with God results in peace and access to God. 
Jacob, Job, and Habakkuk all declared war on God. They all stormed the battlements of heaven. They were all defeated, yet they all came away from the struggle with uplifted souls. They paid a price in pain. God allowed the debate, but the battle was fierce before peace was established.
Sproul reminds us that in order for "the transforming power of God to change our lives, we must wrestle with Him".

Chapter six answered the question - how can God be considered Holy given some of the harsh actions attributed to Him in the OT. In chapter 8, Sproul looks at an equally difficult question - 'how can the Bible possibly call us "holy ones"?'
The saints of Scripture were called saints not because they were already pure but because they were people who were set apart and called to purity. The word holy has the same two meanings when applied to people as it has when it is applied to God. We recall that when the word holy is used to describe God, it not only calls attention to that sense in which He is different or apart from us, but it also calls attention to His absolute purity.
I think we all can admit that we are not holy in the sense of absolute purity since we are still prone to sinning. Even if we convince ourselves that we are not committing sins in what we do, we would have trouble with our internal thoughts and motives:
The call of nonconformity is a call to a deeper level of righteousness that goes beyond externals. When piety is defined exclusively in terms of externals, the whole point of the apostle's teaching has been lost. Somehow we have failed to hear Jesus' words that it is not what goes into a person's mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of that mouth.
The only reason we can be called holy ones is because:
Christ's righteousness is really put in our account. God sees us as righteous because we have been covered and clothed by the righteousness  of Jesus.
While righteousness may be credited to our account upon our placing our trust in Christ, living a life of purity becomes a life long struggle.
There is no time lapse between our justification and the beginning of our sanctification. But there is a great time lapse between our justification and the completion of our sanctification.
Sanctification is a process by which we who are in Christ work with the Holy Spirit to become more like Christ because of the hope we have. And this process will require us to wrestle with God and our desires to conform to this world and remain in our sinful lifestyle.

These chapters called to mind the Apostle Peter who said it this way:
The therefore refers back to the opening of the letter where we are told that the mercy of God has "caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven". Because of this living hope and future inheritance that is ours because of the forgiveness we have in Christ we should act as follows:
prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." (1 Peter 1:13-16)
Here we are told we must prepare our minds. That will require effort - a teachable spirit, studying the Scriptures, seeking out good teaching, and changing our views to conform to the truth. But preparing our minds must not be to only acquire knowledge. It must be in preparation for us to apply what we learn so that we are self controlled (sober) and obedient to His commands rejecting our former way of life.  We are to live a life of nonconformity to this world and strive for purity. What a wrestling match we face each and every day.

Click here for more thoughts on chapter 7 and here for chapter 8.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Holiness of God VI (Far be it from You)

If the premise of chapter one - that we must understand Holiness if we are to understand God and Christianity - is correct then this chapter dives head first into the deep end to deal with why that is so by dealing with a difficult question. How do we deal with some of God's actions in the Bible and still declare Him as Good or Holy?
Whoever reads the Old Testament must struggle with the apparent brutality of God's judgment found there. For many people this is as far as they read. They stumble over the violent passages we call the "hard sayings." Some people see these sayings as sufficient reason to reject Christianity out of hand. ... In this chapter I want to stare the Old Testament God right in the eye. I want to look at the most difficult, most offensive passages we can find in the Old Testament and see if we can make any sense of them.
Sproul analyzes several examples that many would consider harsh and unjust actions of God. These include:
  1. Nadab and Abihu, Aaron's sons who are destroyed for offering "strange fire" in the tabernacle (Lev 10; Ex 30:9-10).
  2. Uzzah who is killed for touching the ark preventing it from falling off an ox cart (1 Chron 13; Num 4:4,15,17-20).
  3. The conquest of Canaan and the slaughter of men, women, and children (Deut 7:1-6, 9:4-6).
  4. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:20-33)
  5. The people killed in a collapsing tower (Luke 13:1-5)
As we examine these events we like Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah question God and ask "will the righteous be swept away with the wicked?" Like Abraham we must conclude - "far be it from You" because
[t]he justice of God is always and ever an expression of His holy character. ... What God does is always consistent with who God is.
The problem as Sproul points out is:
[t]here is a reason why we are offended, indeed angered, ...[w]e find these things difficult to stomach because we do not understand four vitally important biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace
Sproul reminds us that all sin against God is a capital offense and only the grace of God prevents the deserved sentence from being carried out immediately. So when we question why God would allow the righteous to be judged with the wicked we are coming at it from the wrong point of view. There are no righteous people. We are all sinners deserving death. However because God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Ex 34:6-7) we have lost sight of holiness and think we are entitled to  grace.
God's usual course of action is one of grace. Grace no longer amazes us. We have grown used to it; we take it for granted.
We have come to expect God to be merciful. From there the next step is easy: We demand it. When it is not forthcoming, our first response is anger against God, coupled with the protest: "It isn't fair." We soon forget that with our first sin we have forfeited all rights to the gift of life. That I am drawing breath this morning is an act of divine mercy. God owes me nothing. I owe Him everything.
Justice is what we deserve and Sproul rightly reminds us "don't ever ask God for justice-you might get it." Rather than assume we deserve God's grace and will always benefit from it we must instead remember that God's delaying justice is to allow us time to repent, trust in Christ for salvation, and live worthy of our calling (Rom 2:3-5; 2 Pet 3:9,14-15).

I echo the many who said that if only one chapter (at least out of the first six) was to be read, this one should be the one. Click here for other thoughts.