Monday, October 13, 2014

My Grace is Enough

In my last post I attempted to show that the heart of Paul’s gospel is human participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. United with Christ, the believer plunges into the grave and is raised up into new life. The old passes away and there is new creation. The sin-enslaved body which gives death as its wage is crucified and the spiritual body is raised to life. Sin lies defeated, no longer able to work death in the believer.

In each movement, the believer is with Christ and is in Christ. Christ undoes death by death. In summary, “One has died for all; therefore all died”(2 Cor 5:15).

We can lay out Paul’s thought in four basic propositions. 1-Christ took on our vulnerable flesh. 2-Christ destroyed our flesh on the cross. 3-God faithfully raised Christ to new, bodily life. 4-Christ’s new body, though similar to ours, can never again be touched by death.

This is the story Paul compels his readers to take part in. Baptism serves as the symbol of our participation with Christ(Romans 6:4).

If this participatory interpretation of Paul’s theology is not yet fully convincing, we may look to Paul’s life for further insight. If participation is truly central to Paul’s gospel, his self-understanding should reflect this.

2 Corinthians 10-13 appears to be a useful place to start. Here we find Paul’s defense of his ministry to his church in Corinth. It is his most zealous and passionate writing. Many scholars believe it to be the “Letter of Tears” referenced in 2 Corinthians 2:4.

At this point in Paul’s ministry, everything he had been working for in Corinth appeared to be falling apart. His church was being torn from his arms by a group of Christian apostles. These “super-apostles,” as he calls them, convinced many Corinthians to reject Paul. It is here at this point of desperation that Paul pens arguably his finest work.

To win back his children Paul seeks to prove that he is truly qualified to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. The super-apostles had made the Corinthians well aware of Paul’s dubious credentials as an apostle. Paul wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, nor did he ever meet Jesus. He didn’t even have a letter of recommendation from a real apostle!   

There was even more damning evidence brought against Paul by the super-apostles. Here is what classified Paul as a pseudo-apostle.

“Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way”(2 Cor 11:7-9).

The super-apostles had persuaded the Corinthians to doubt Paul’s ministry because of his refusal to receive payment. “Surely a true apostle requires compensation,” the Corinthians thought, “Really valuable, life-changing messages don’t come cheap. How can someone who lives in poverty be worthy of honor?”

Undoubtedly, these super-apostles influencing the church were quite impressed with themselves; so impressed that they expected a worthy payment. They had wealth, power, charisma and success; all things Paul never obtained. In a culture that believed Heaven rewarded the honorable and punished the shameful, the super-apostles were apparently upstanding gentlemen. So upon arriving in Corinth their question concerning Paul was simple. Is Paul a man of honor or of shame? Could he, a man apparently stricken by God, really be a true apostle?
Here is how Paul decided to answer.

“But whatever anyone dares to boast of-I am speaking as a fool-I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman-I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship and thirsty, often without food, cold, and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble and I am not indignant?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus(blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor, under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands”(2 Cor 11:21-33)

In a breathless list of persecutions, anxieties, vulnerabilities, and humiliations, Paul makes the case for his apostleship. The Corinthians now have an extended list of reasons to abandon Paul. In a culture of honor and shame, Paul brings only those things which bring him disgrace to the forefront. How does he expect to persuade anyone? He explains himself,

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with my weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong”(2 Cor 12:7-10).

In Paul’s eyes, the cross of Christ, the weakness of Christ, has proven the world upside down. What the world deems wisdom is foolishness. What it deems success is failure. If Christ, the one worthy of all honor, died in shame on a cross, all human accomplishments are reduced to nothing. Nothing remains unaltered by this single fact. He now sees his weaknesses as strengths. In his weaknesses, he experiences Christ. Therefore, Paul will only boast in the cross and the salvation it brings.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”(Philippians 3:10-11).

Knowing Christ through sharing in his sufferings has become the only desire of Paul’s heart. With his heart and mind transformed, he understands what boasting truly means. The one who boasts in strength proves himself estranged from Christ. Anyone who scorns weakness has refused to die with Christ. There is no salvation, no new life, apart from death in Christ. In every beating, every flogging, Paul dies with Christ. In every anxiety, persecution, and hardship he is with Christ and Christ is with him. He in Christ and Christ in him.

The cross-shaped communities Paul sought to establish and maintain were under constant threat of being undone because of the vision of the cross espoused by the super-apostles. Theirs is an incredibly attractive vision, but one that lacks the full force of Christ crucified. It does not bid man to come and die so that he may truly live. Nor does it reveal the one great truth, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

To accept the cross-less gospel is to abandon Christ. To miss the meaning of the cross is to miss everything. In weakness and suffering, the Christian must participate in the death of Christ. There is no hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrected life if the cross is traded for worldly strength and success.
For this reason alone, Paul chose to persuade his children with a list of his weaknesses and failures.

These autobiographical passages have presented us not just with evidence, but with the fullest, most sublime expression of Paul’s participatory vision. In every instance Paul envisioned his ministry as participation in the cross of Christ. His profound understanding of Christ and his cross unquestionably make him worthy not just of the title apostle, but Apostle of the Lord.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Found in Him

The Apostle Paul was constantly fighting an uphill battle. Among the Gentiles his message of the cross was mocked as foolishness, devoid of any profitable wisdom. Worse still, it was declared a curse from God by his own people. Despite this, Paul took his unattractive message of the crucified Messiah into these cultures of beauty, power and wisdom.

But what was it about the cross that Paul found so compelling? Reading his letters it becomes apparent that he found in the cross a moment of incomparable salvation. Though paradoxical, the power of God was on display at the crucifixion; power to reduce even the wisest to complete foolishness.

To understand the Pauline vision of the cross we look to 2 Corinthians 5 as an outline and then Romans 5-8 for a fuller exposition.  

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”(2 Cor 5:14-15)

The idea that Christ died for all is agreeable to most Christians. Perhaps less agreeable though, is Paul’s declaration that through Christ’s death, everyone died. Christ’s death and the Christian’s death are inseparably tied in Paul’s thought.

One should ask then, what is gained from the death of the believer? For Paul, the death of the believer meant a freedom from slavery to sin which he believed was the universal condition of humanity(Romans 3:9). This salvation affected by the cross is the transformation of one’s very nature.

Christ’s death, and thus our death through participation in his, allows us to live no longer for ourselves but for Christ. This is the beauty of the cross for Paul. The self-seeking life, the one which pays death as its wage is undone(Romans 6:23). The resurrected life of Christ is now available to all.

“From now on, therefore we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Cor 5:16-21)

To the believer, a profoundly new way of understanding Christ and his cross has become apparent. It is neither a stumbling stone, nor foolishness any longer, but the very power of God to renew the whole of creation. Paul calls this salvation more precisely reconciliation, the making of peace. The believer is reconciled to God because of Christ.  

Now, some have interpreted this reconciliation as a kind of appeasement of God’s wrath. That through Christ’s death, God was no longer wrathful at the world. This misreading cannot, fortunately, be reconciled with the text. The fundamental problem at the heart of everything for Paul, is not a wrathful God but a wrathful, rebellious creation. Creation can do nothing but rebel as she is enslaved to sin having a mind set on the flesh.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s laws-indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:6-8)

For Paul, hostility and death are tied to the life of the flesh, but peace and life are tied to the life of the spirit. What the cross does for humanity then, is unshackle us from the life of wrath towards God. The creation, despite her trespasses, is made new by Christ. She is finally at peace with her Creator.

It seems common to have this understanding of God exactly backwards. But does God need appeasement before He can love? Is not His every movement compelled by love?

Romans 5:9 can be a stumbling block for this understanding. Most translations read “saved through him[Christ] from the wrath of God.” The translators have assumed the words “of God” as they do not appear in the Greek. Based on its context though, we must take this verse to be describing salvation from our own wrath, not God’s. Paul correctly calls all people ungodly, sinners and enemies of God(5:6,8,10). Despite all this, he says, God sent Christ to die for us because of love. It is clear then, that we are the hostile enemies of God, not the other way around. We have broken the peace, and severed the relationship, not God. With steadfast endurance we violently resist the God of peace. All of this to say that despite our hatred for Him, God’s fundamental posture towards His creation is love and pity. Through our death in Christ, God has offered us a way to put an end to our hostility.

Therefore, Romans 5-8 also supports a view of the cross that is participatory rather than penal. We may now resume our analysis of 2 Corinthians 5.

Back to our 2 Corinthians passage, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) The first half of this verse is initially difficult to understand. The struggle, I believe, stems from the pre-existing framework we have brought to the text. Though Christians often come to this passage with a penal understanding of the cross, it just will not fit. Paul has not all of a sudden ceased to think of the cross in terms of participation. Remember, “Christ died for all; therefore all died.”

For clarity we must turn to Romans once again. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” (Romans 6:6-7) Notice first, the lack of retribution language in both of these texts describing the cross. Christ’s death here is not a kind of punishment for humanity’s sins. Instead, the believer participates in Christ’s death and resurrection. By doing so, he gains freedom from his sinful nature(body of sin). The believer hands over his sinful body to Christ so that it too might be crucified.

“He made him to be sin” Here Paul is setting out to prove that the body of Christ that was on the cross is analogous to our own sinful bodies. This is very important for Paul. Christ’s death is only effective for us if his body is like our bodies. Christ, though he was blameless, became a body of sin, our body of sin, and destroyed it once and for all.

The effect of this death therefore, is not forgiveness per se, but new life. Just as God was faithful to raise Jesus to new life, He is in the same way faithful to the believer. Our new life, as with Christ’s resurrected life, is no longer vulnerable to sin and death. In becoming the very righteousness of God, the believer lives a life of the spirit. The sinful body can no longer compel him on towards destruction.

Thus, at the center of Paul’s thought is participation in the death and new life of Jesus Christ, our Lord. In the death of Christ, weakness has become power, sin has become righteousness, hostility has become peace, death has become life upon life, and the repulsive cross has become unimaginable beauty. What is foolishness to the world has proven to be the pearl of greatest price. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”(Philippians 3:8).

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Statement of Faith: Scripture

I’m going to write here a couple of posts of commentary on a typical evangelical church “Statement of Faith.” I find these documents fascinating as windows into the thinking and thus practice of many churches. The instinct to codify the foundational teachings is a noble and necessary endeavor that is as old as the church itself(1 Cor 13, Apostle’s Creed).

The sometimes dubious texts used to support the doctrines presented here and in other statements prove that Christians must be vigilant in the pursuit of sound exegesis. The pull to read into the text is strong and ever present. So here ya go.

The Scriptures or Bible
We believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the verbally inspired word of God, the final authority for faith and life, inerrant in the original writings, infallible, and God-breathed. (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21; Matthew 5:8; John 16:12-13)

This church understandably begins with its views on the scriptures. This arrangement is certainly common but remains outside of orthodoxy. The Bible cannot be the starting point for Christians because the scriptures were unequivocally not the starting point for the first Christians.

Christians, uniquely among religions, believe a person is the truth, not a book. John the Evangelist tells us this in his epilogue. Paul also calls Jesus “the image of God,” something he never uses for his scriptures. The NT writers were adamant that Jesus of Nazareth is the truth about God and the truth about everything. Nothing and no one else will do. This Jewish peasant carrying his execution stake up the Hill of Calvary is the full and total revelation of who God is and who God has always been. For this reason the center of the Christian faith has always been the historical person and work of Jesus and should remain so. But why did the sacred authors of the NT claim such a thing about this man? The answer lies in a single historical event they claimed forever changed their perception of reality.

Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, that this particular event affected each of the twelve disciples three days after the crucifixion of their rabbi. The belief of the twelve that Jesus was raised from the dead by God is the sole reason the church began and the sole reason we have the NT writings. Resurrection proved for the disciples that God was faithful to his servant, their Lord. Paul declares this clearly in 1 Corinthians 13, and also says that in raising him up from the dead, God appointed Jesus as son, proving him righteous and true (Romans 1). So without the resurrection, Jesus is nothing but a peasant crushed by Rome. He is not Messiah, Son of Man, nor Savior.

The fidelity of the NT documents also hangs upon whether or not Jesus got up after the crucifixion. If what these authors experienced of Jesus is true, then their message, preserved for us, is also true. The Evangelists, Paul and the rest of the NT authors eagerly, sincerely and reliably point to this single historical event which vindicated the words and deeds of Jesus. For the earliest Christians, the resurrection of Jesus meant that the story of his life really matters; it meant he matters more than the Jewish scriptures, more than any revelation of God ever given. Nothing is outside of the supremacy of Jesus for the Christian.

Which leads us into the Old Testament. It is important to appreciate that as Jesus travelled from village to village, he met with fierce opposition from those who read the Jewish scriptures the most, not the least. While he was alive, those who knew the scriptures saw little that was special about Jesus. The Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees certainly did not believe the scriptures testified to him! But this is the very point the Gospels strive to make. Jesus didn’t make sense to most Torah observant Jews. Those who saw him alive after crucifixion had no choice but to read the OT in light of him.  If God raised Jesus from the dead, then Jesus is the truth that all other truths are subject to.

All of this goes to say that there is no Christian way to read the as the “verbally inspired word of God, the final authority for faith and life, inerrant in the original writings, infallible, and God-breathed” without first understanding the absolute centrality of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

The kind of descriptors being used for the Bible here is also concerning. All of them seem good and true, but they set the reader up for failure. There is no acknowledgement that the Bible is a library of books by many different human authors, some of whom did not agree. A plain reading of the texts as if they are a whole does not produce the singular voice that this statement suggests. If what binds all the books of scripture together is their attestation to Christ, as Jesus claims on the road to Emmaus, we need to do a better job expressing the limitations and purposes of the Bible. If we enter into the whole of the scriptures with the expectation of absolute, plain truth about anything and everything, we will undoubtedly find a God that looks little like Jesus.

At best this church’s initial statement of faith simply ignores the historical and contextual issues related to reading the Bible. At worst, it condones the belief that the Bible is the Truth which only Jesus can truly provide.