Tuesday, 29 March 2016

John Webster on Jesus' resurrection life and ours in him

It's only in the last year or so that I've begun to read John Webster.  I never had anything against him, just wasn't aware of him.  Now that I've begun to read him, I realize that I have been missing out on one of God's good gifts to the church today.  Webster is a theologian's theologian and an advocate of theological theology (see the first paragraph of this article by Derek Rishmawy for what Webster means by this). 

I am currently working through a volume of his sermons, Confronted by Grace.  It is excellent.  As Michael Horton says on the front cover blurb, "in reading these sermons: one forgets the preacher and hears Christ."  That about says it. 

Too often even decent expository or exegetical sermons are light on doctrine and leave the hearer inspired, edified or convicted (worthy things though they are) but not necessarily more aware or convinced of their own rich confessional heritage and resources.  On the other hand, theology is sometimes so systematized, compartmentalized and theoretical that, although it feels like it might have been born to the same mother (the biblical text) as preaching, they long since grew up and moved to different cities and they seldom visit each other.  Sometimes it feels like theology is the domain of the professionals but has no regular place in the life of the church.  And unfortunately, where theology was once queen of the sciences, for some generations already it has been relegated to justifying its existence in the academy by morphing into and partnering with other fields of study in a sort of parasitic existence, trying to justify its continued seat at the table, the same table over which it once presided from the head. 

In Webster's sermons, the theological treasures of the biblical text are exposed and expounded and the reader's heart and mind are fed with wholesome fare.  One gets the sense that, even as he approaches the Word (and therefore the Inspirer of that Word) with humility, he does theology and exposition with a confidence that could only come from a person fully convinced of the truth and importance of God's written revelation and its ability to form the Church in the here and now. 

John Webster has a wonderful post on Christ's resurrection and its implications for individual Christians, the church, and the whole of the creation over at Reformation 21.  For those used to taking their theology a tweet at a time, this may seem long but I promise it will repay the 15 or 20 minutes to read and ponder it.  This is one of the best brief treatments of the resurrection I've ever read.

I trust you will find, as I have, both your heart and mind ignited by the precious truth, as well as the subsequent and contingent truths (read it to see what I mean), of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Monday, 28 March 2016

Leithart on the resurrected Christ as our life

Ok, so I said that it was a final meditation last time...how was I supposed to know there was more?

Here is Leithart again on the resurrected and living Christ as the life of those whom he indwells by his Spirit and whose lives are hidden in him. 

One caveat:  when Leithart says, "We died with Christ, and Christ lives in us by the Spirit so that our lives conform to His life, repeatedly dying and living again", he doesn't mean that Christ repeatedly dies and lives again, as though he is proposing some perpetual or repeated sacrifice of Christ.  Christ died once to accomplish salvation:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit    (1 Pet. 3:18)
 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.    (Heb. 9:24-28)
Rather, Leithart is talking about our lives and the pattern of life we are called to live in imitation of Christ.  We are called to a pattern of dying to self, sinful desires, temptations of the flesh, remnants of the old person, the world, and living to Christ and living for others.  That is the repeated pattern of dying and living again. 

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Leithart on Easter Sunday

One final Leithartian meditation on the resurrection of Jesus for Easter Sunday here

He is risen.  He is risen, indeed!

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Some Leithartian thoughts for Holy Week

The darkness of death on Good Friday gives way to the light of Easter Sunday - read here.

Jesus came to serve, even to serve traitors like Judas, traitors like us - read here.

In Jesus' death we see not the surrender of his sovereignty, but the exercise of it - read here.

Holy (silent) Saturday appears to display the defeat of Jesus but Jesus descends into the grave to turn death inside out - read here

John Webster on the God who, in Jesus, bears our sins

     "Surely," Isaiah tells us, "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows" (53:4); and again: "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (53:6); and again: "he bore the sin of many" (53:12).  It's easy to misunderstand this.  If we're not careful, we can think that what's happening in the passion is that God is simply punishing an innocent victim for our wrongdoings - as if God simply requires that the punishment for our crimes should be enacted, and it doesn't matter who is punished.  But Jesus is not just a mute sacrificial animal.  If he is like a lamb led to the slaughter, it's not because God is victimizing him; it is because he is God himself fulfilling his own purpose; it is because he is God the Son, freely and lovingly acting out the will of the Father.  "It was the will of the Lord to crush him" (53:10).  That does not mean that God just vented his anger at sin on Jesus.  It means that he, Jesus, the Son of God, is God himself bearing the wounds of our wickedness.  God does not save us by sacrificing someone other than himself.  God sacrifices himself.  In his Son, God himself, bears our sins.  He makes himself an offering for sin (Hebrews 7:27). Or as Colossians puts it, "in him" - Jesus - "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (1:19).

     "How does this change the course of human life?  In this way: By becoming one of us, by absorbing into himself the full extent of our sin, God destroys sin.  God sets aside a whole world, the world we have made for ourselves, and God puts in its place a new world, the world of the new creation.  In that world, we are set free from sin, and set free to live in fellowship with God.  Good Friday, and its final outworking on Easter Day, is the new creation, the re-creation of the world.  It's the point at which the world and all humankind are made new.  We can't do this; we can't undo the knot we have tied.  But God can: God has power and authority to make new, and in the passion of his Son performs this ultimate act of mercy, bearing our iniquities and so setting us free.  And for us, this means that we become righteous.  That is, we are put back in relation to God.  Fellowship, friendship with God, is restored - not by us, but by God himself.  We no longer turn to our own way; God himself turns us back to himself.

                 - from the sermon, The Triumph of Divine Resolve (Is. 53:6, 10), in Confronted by Grace, p. 85-86

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Of Reviews and Previews

Nice to see Baker Academic Blog linked to my review of Union With Christ, by J. Todd Billings. 

Until I've done much more study on the subject, I reserve judgment on the issue of just how much and to what extent, if any, the incarnation may be a model of missional ministry for the Church.  However I agree with Billings' assessment that most of what has been written on it just points to the incarnation as a pattern for us to follow rather than showing from Scripture that it is meant to be one.  And certainly the majority of the New Testament's references to believers imitating Christ or following him refer to his love manifested in self-giving sacrifice for others and obedience to the Father rather than some other aspect of his life or ministry.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Billings' book on an oft neglected but recently renewed area of study for Christian theology.  My review was originally posted here.

But if you bump over to Baker, be sure to check out this new book on hermeneutics by Craig Bartholomew.  There is a long list of scholars who have praised this new work.  Here is just one such blurb from Christopher J.H. Wright:
"A magisterial textbook, but much more than a textbook. Every aspect of biblical hermeneutics is thoroughly explored in a readable, engaging, and stimulating manner. The real joy of the book, however, lies in the subtitle: 'for hearing God in Scripture.' This transforms the hermeneutical task from an exercise between a reader and an object (the Bible) to an encounter between a listener and a person (God). The former requires good and proper methods, tools, and wisdom, all of which matter greatly. The latter calls for response, faith, repentance, and obedience, all of which matter even more. Bartholomew not only explains both dimensions but also models them again and again. From the subtitle on the opening page, we move in a fitting way to the closing chapter on preaching the Bible. For if the ecclesial context of authentic biblical hermeneutics is crucial, then the church needs to know again the story we are in, which requires renewed commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God from the whole canon of Scripture. This book provides ample resources for just such a challenge."
Sounds good.  I can't wait for it to arrive, sometime around April 25, if Amazon is to be believed!

Monday, 21 March 2016

Review of Peter Leithart's Traces of the Trinity

Peter Leithart's book, Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience, (from Brazos Press) is a fine work of contemplative theological reflection.  Do not expect an explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, the history of the doctrine's development, nor an exploration of the biblical evidence and exegesis upon which that doctrine is established. Rather, this work assumes some previous familiarity with the doctrine of the Trinity, although enjoying and benefitting from this book doesn't require any great depth of knowledge of either the theology or the history of the doctrine. This is a very accessible read.

This is the work of a sensitive observer, someone who is attuned to notice and carefully point out the nature of things at their core functioning and their underlying design. Leithart sees evidence of the triune nature of the creator-God in reflections and shadows of mutuality and interconnectedness seen all throughout creation; in the way so much of human interrelationship as well as the interdependence of all of creation displays something of the triune characteristics of the Designer. Speaking as a believer, I was led to awe and wonder at seeing more richly the triune nature of God woven throughout all that has been made. There is also an apologetic function for this book in engaging thoughtful unbelievers with the evidence of a triune relationship standing behind and woven throughout all that exists.

This book could have been subtitled, "Patterns of Perichoresis" or "Mosaics of Mutual-indwelling", since that is the specific aspect of the Trinity that Leithart examines here: the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the triune Godhead. (Admittedly such a subtitle might have made this sound like a book for the professionals, a "theologians-only" project, and scared laypeople away, which would have been a shame. Good thing nobody asked me.) Leithart focuses attention on perichoresis as demonstrated in everything from sexuality, language, and music, to time, ethics, and logic. Whether discussing the physical and emotional mutual-indwelling of man and woman in marriage or mother and baby in pregnancy, or discussing the perichoretic nature of how the past meets and overlaps with the future in the present moment and each serves to define the other, Leithart's observations draw the reader to look at everyday experience through fresh, triune lenses.

As with everything Leithart writes, not only is this an interesting and edifying read, it is also very enjoyable. I hope this is the first of several such volumes of tracing the Trinity throughout life and creation.  It would be particularly interesting to see other aspects of the triune nature and life of the godhead examined. Highly recommend.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Muslim's refugees coming to Chirst in Europe breathes some new life into dying churches

Gene Veith has a very interesting and encouraging post about Muslims coming to Christ in Europe and the effect it is having of reviving some near-dead churches in Denmark and Germany and elsewhere.  Be sure to read the links he provides within his article for a fuller picture of the situation.

As Veith says,

"The conversions of the Muslims would appear to be God’s work.  It isn’t happening due to church programs or to outreach efforts (valuable as those may be).  It isn’t that Christians are going to Muslims to try to convert them.  Rather, the Muslims are coming to the Christians asking for the Gospel.

The revival in Denmark–as well as other countries–may just start with the Muslims and then keep spreading."

Monday, 14 March 2016

John Webster on Preaching

I just started Confronted By Grace by John Webster.  It is a compilation of sermons preached at various times and places by this very capable theologian and after only the introduction and two chapters, it promises to be very good.  Here is a long excerpt about preaching from the preface:

     "Preaching is one of the principal ways in which the God of the gospel has dealings with us.  The gospel's God is eloquent: He does not remain locked in silence, but speaks.  He does this supremely in the mission of the Son of God, the very Word of God who becomes flesh, communicating with human creatures in human ways, most of all in human speech.  The Son of God comes as a preacher (Mark 1:38); this is a primary purpose and one of the most characteristic activities of his earthly ministry.  His apostles, too, are summoned by him to preach the gospel: to speak from him and about him, to address their fellow creatures with testimony to the gospel.  And this apostolic commission remains for the Church.  Paul's charge to Timothy - "Preach the word" (2 Timothy 4:2) - extends to the Christian community now, and faithfulness to the charge is basic to the way in which the Church fulfills its nature and mission as the community of the Word of God.  The Church of the Word is a Church in which, alongside praise, prayer, lament, sacraments, witness, service, fellowship and much else, there takes place the work of preaching. 

     "There are at least three elements to preaching.  First: Holy Scripture.  Scripture is the body of texts which God forms to be his "Word," his communication with us in human language.  In these texts, God teaches us, gives us knowledge - of himself, of ourselves, and of his ways with us.  Preaching is not any sort of public Christian discourse; it is the Church saying something about the words of this text, on the basis of the words of this text, under this text's authority, direction and judgment.  Second: the congregation.  At the Lord's summons, the people of God gather in his presence.  They gather in the expectation that something from God will be said to them - that however anxious, weary or indifferent they may be, the God of the gospel will address them with the gospel, will help them to hear what he says, and will instruct them on how to live life in his company.  Third: the sermon.  God speaks to the congregation through the human words of one who is appointed by God to "minister" the Word, to be an auxiliary in God's own speaking.  The sermon repeats the scriptural Word in other human words, following the Word's movement and submitting to its rule.  In this, the sermon assists in the work of the divine Word, which builds up the Church, making its life deep, steady, and vital."

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Helpful thoughts on Church Discipline & the Worship Industry

Here is some clear thinking on a couple of controversial topics in the church today that shouldn't be controversial topics in the church today:  Church Discipline & Worship Music. 

Over at Crossway blog is this very helpful post about the practice of church discipline.  This is not an in depth "how to" or an exploration of the relevant biblical passages but it is exactly what it says in the title: 10 things you should know about church discipline.  There are other good resources out there on the biblical basis for and instructions about how to implement church discipline.  However, to get people thinking about this often neglected and often misapplied practice, this is a great place to start.

AND in other news...

I don't know much about Jonathan Aigner.  I have only come across him recently.  I've read a couple of posts of his over the last few weeks, particularly about the corporate nature of the worship service and the sung worship of the church.  For the most part I have agreed very much with what I've read from him thus far - posts like this one on 10 hymns we should stop singing (which, in the main, I agree with...possible exception of Beethoven, though even that critique has much merit).  This post on why we should boycott the worship music industry I admit that I heartily agree with.  Amen and amen.  I'll probably be reading him more in future. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Review: Union with Christ, by J. Todd Billings

In Union with Christ, J. Todd Billings has written an accessible, articulate and challenging book dealing with various doctrinal and practical implications of the Christian's adoption by God through the saving work of Christ and by the agency of the Spirit. While not an exhaustive exploration of the doctrine of union with Christ, this study does explore various aspects and implications of it. This is a work of theological retrieval, drawing on sometimes forgotten themes from past sources, especially Calvin , to bring something long neglected back to the foreground for the edification and strengthening of the church today.

In chapter 1, Billings examines the implications of the doctrine of union with Christ as a much needed corrective for large swaths of the modern church's (especially in North America) practice of the faith as a form of Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD) and he shows how a robust understanding of union places us in a relationship with God where we are being graciously conformed to the image of his Son rather than us morphing a detached God into an idol made in our own image and for our own convenience. In chapter 2 Billings discusses Calvin's doctrine of union and how, rightly understood, it counter balances the tendency to misunderstand the doctrine of total depravity in a number of ways by either proponents or opponents of the doctrine (which can have the effect of eroding a right doctrine of the Imageo Dei). Chapter 3 shows how the Christian's union with Christ is central to and essential for our communion with an otherwise unknowable and incomprehensible God. In Chapter 4 Billings explores how a partial recovery of the doctrine of union with Christ formed the basis for some of the steps taken in the church of South Africa helping to kick start the end of Apartheid and how systematic segregation first came about through a racial division at the Lord's Table stemming from a neglect (and therefore a functional denial) of the doctrine of union. Billings rightly sees this as a functional denial of the doctrine of the unity of the body through union with Christ at the very place which ought to be the most clear demonstration of believer's union with Christ and its implications for the unity of the church body. He goes on to show how the liberal church's focus on social justice is devoid of its power without a robust belief in union with Christ and conversely he calls the orthodox and conservative to recover this neglected aspect of its own theology in order to restore justice to both thought and way of life. Finally, chapter 5 explores the recent trend to view the incarnation as the model for missional ministry. Billings demonstrates that, while many of the proponents of incarnational ministry are working toward some truly admirable goals and reforming some erroneous practices, when they hold up the incarnation as a pattern, they are doing something that Scripture itself never does. Rather, as the author convincingly shows, it is our union with the crucified and risen and indwelling Christ (by his Spirit) that is the basis and model, as well as the power, for our gospel mission and at the heart of what it means to imitate Christ.  (For a more accessible treatment of union with Christ as a basis for missional ministry, see Tim Chester's book, Ordinary Hero.  It is an excellent resource for a study group, although the reflection questions sometimes seem weak.)

Again, there are depths that this book does not plumb, and it was not the purpose of this study to go all the way down into the doctrine of union with Christ. Those looking for a deep exegetical exploration or a systematic treatment won't find it here, although both aspects are present and certainly stand behind this work. This study is just right to reintroduce the church to this oft neglected doctrine and to give us a tantalizing taste for the rich fruit that awaits the church that recovers a right theology and reintegrates a right practice of the implications of the union of the church (and the individual Christian) to Christ. I recommend this to pastors, students, well-read laypeople and armchair theologians everywhere. 

If this review has been helpful, please go to my review at Amazon.ca or Amazon.com and vote for it or comment.  Thanks.