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Posts Tagged ‘means of grace’


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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In recent years there have been more than a trickle but less than a flood of books on the topic of idolatry. I’ve read books by Tim Keller and Elyse Fitzpatrick. There is a relatively new out by Brad Bigney called Gospel Treason: Betraying the Gospel with Hidden Idols (e-book too).

In some ways the subject of idols is under addressed (similar to the subject of the Trinity and Union with Christ). The Bible focuses on the topic a great deal. So I’m thankful for Bigney’s foray into this subject.

He is a pastor and biblical counselor. That shows through in his work. There are enough personal examples and stories (his and other people’s) to flesh it out for us, but not so many that you grow weary. I’m finding there is a fine balance to maintain in this matter.

He identifies the issue in chapter 1:

“To move toward idols is to move away from the gospel and the Savior that the gospel proclaims, so the problem is not peripheral- it is central. … When the gospel loses center stage, your spiritual immune system shuts down, leaving you susceptible to a myriad of spiritual illnesses.”

Because we are sinners, albeit justified sinners, we are still prone to wander. Or drift. We drift toward someone or something that is essentially a Christ-substitute. In other words, towards an idol.

We may see our struggles with sin, but fail to see the idols underneath that struggle. Think of it like addiction. Your addiction often leads to a host of other sins: deceit, sloth, theft, adultery or promiscuity and perhaps even murder. The addiction is driven by something however. If you don’t address that “something” you will just shift addictions. Many AA meetings are filled with people chain-smoking cigarettes and gulping coffee. When we don’t address the idol our sin patterns simply change instead of going away. We think we are more sanctified, but we really aren’t. We continue to be stuck spiritually.

Bigbey is honest. He’s not offering a cure-all. We will struggle with this problem the rest of our earthly lives precisely because, as Calvin noted, our hearts are factories of idols. He also notes that God’s goal is not simply for you to sin less, but to make you like Jesus. Sometimes the process of changing our hearts means struggling with visible sins. He wants a Christ-conformed you, not a haughty person who simply obeys externally. In Jesus’ day they were often called Pharisees.

“Everything outside of Christ is saltwater, and it only leaves you thirstier than you were before.”

How do we see the carnage of idols? Bigney points us to the chaos in our relationships. This is what James does in his letter to the church. We tend to think other people are the problem and that if they will just go away all will be well. While there is an element of truth, we struggle with idols too and contribute to many of our relational conflicts. The conflicts are meant to help us see the idols. They are the visible manifestation of the unseen idol.

Bigney borrows quite a bit from David Powlison and Paul Tripp throughout the book but particularly from this section. That is not a bad thing. It is hard to improve on their work.

Idols also shape our identity. They alter our view of ourselves and the world. They are like fun house mirrors but we think we are seeing clearly and accurately.

“Your idolatry is bigger than just clinging to a few counterfeits. It includes taking on an identity replacement that leads to a sense of losing yourself.”

Bigney continues the diagnostics with a chapter on following the trail, looking at time, money and affections. Idols need to be fed and they consume those three things at an unhealthy rate. He then returns to the topic of chaos. This time it isn’t simply relational chaos but chaos with respect to time or money.

He returns to the heart, again, to warn us against following our hearts. While we are regenerate, and this affects every aspect, we are not fully and perfectly transformed. Therefore you heart can still lie to you and want the wrong things.

“Everybody is following his own heart and making a big, fat mess. Listening to your heart will lead you from one relationship to the next, and one job to the next, and one disaster to the next, with no end in sight. Guide your heart, guard it, but don’t dare follow it.”

Sticking with the heart, he wants to help us see where our hearts are most vulnerable. “Your heart is the compass that points to where you run under pressure.” Each of us has weaknesses. Satan knows them so you better know yours too.

After ten chapters of diagnostics and warnings, he moves into how God works to reorient us. He focuses on the means of grace, as he should. Even here there are warnings. We are to seek Christ in them, not just the doing of them to check them off our list. Our life is found in Christ, not in the reading, worship services etc. They point us to Him and we can find Him there but we too easily settle just for the externals. Daily reading? Check. Prayer time? Check. Weekly worship? Check.

We can do that and still be controlled by idols, particularly the idol of control (the need to be in control of your circumstances). We also need to be in fellowship with Christ’s people. They help us spot our sins and idols if we are in meaningful & biblical community (not simply a country club). Together we seek to submit ourselves to God (as seen in James 4).

Bottom line: … this was a good book. At times I found it inconsistent. There were excellent chapters and some that didn’t have much red ink underlining things. Could be a me thing. The bulk of the book is spent on explaining why they are a problem and how to diagnose them in your life. He did loop around some of those things a few times. I wanted him to develop the means of restoration more thoroughly, particularly union with Christ. Unlike Ed Welch, for instance, he doesn’t talk about the role of the sacraments (though E Free churches and pastors typically don’t focus on the Lord’s Table). So this good book could be better.

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Last week we looked at a Lutheran perspective on sanctification by Gerhard Forde in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. We (this would be the imperial we if no one reads this) also noted some of the responses, particularly the one by Sinclair Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the next to present his view of sanctification, a Reformed perspective on this doctrine.

It should not surprise anyone familiar with Sinclair Ferguson to know that his presentation is not polemical, but well-reasoned (polemics can be well-reasoned, but often aren’t) and interacts quite a bit with Scripture (not just tossing out a reference proof text). As a Reformed pastor, I have a strong affinity with this presentation. Since it pretty much represents my view (recognizing that in 20 pages you can’t say all there is to say about sanctification) I can see no weaknesses or faults to discredit this view. The other authors obviously pointed out some they perceived (and in some cases imagined).

“A necessary connection between biblical doctrine and holy living is fundamental to the biblical and apostolic way of thinking. That is why Scripture is so full of moral imperatives logically derived from doctrinal indicatives…”

Instead of starting with justification like Forde did, Ferguson starts with the profound and oft-neglected doctrine of union with Christ. As Christ is our justification, so He is our sanctification: thru our union with Him. United to Him in His death, burial and resurrection (though I could add more) we are justified and sanctified (the double blessing of union that Calvin notes).

“Christ himself is the only adequate resource we have for the development of sanctification in our own lives.”

He shares His resources with us. So, Ferguson notes that sanctification is neither accomplished by divine fiat or self-exertion. Christ has provided all we need, and by virtue of our gracious union with Christ we are able to draw on these resources. It is not like a Matrix download where Neo instantaneously gains skills. By faith we drawn His resources and trust His Spirit to work in us. We participate but are utterly dependent.

“Faith involves trusting in and resting on the resources of Christ as though they were our own.”

At this point Ferguson walks through Romans 6 to understand how our union with Christ effects our sanctification. In Christ we have died to sin (via His atoning death) and live to God (via the resurrection) which is the essence of our sanctification. Death to sin does not mean we don’t sin (see Romans 7) but our sin no longer condemns us (Romans 8:1). We are no longer under its authority. Our life is no longer determined by our past, but Christ’s past. The verdict has been passed and Christ’s vindication means we are alive to God, and live for God. Because we are united to Christ we are a new creation. We are no longer the old man in Adam but the new man in Christ. Sanctification can be understood not as getting used to our justification, but as growing into our new identity in Christ.

This new man encounters oppositions from the world, the flesh and the devil. Spiritual warfare, in Scripture, is about the struggle between them and the Spirit. They seek to undermine our new life in Christ like old drinking buddies. They use guilt, shame, temptation and more. This is the context of Paul’s statements on the subject in Ephesians 6. Our sanctification is not an easy thing but one met with great resistance: internal and external.

“All that is true for me in Christ has not yet been accomplished in me by the Spirit.”

This is close to Frame’s perspectivalism. Christ’s work for us has already taken place and I already benefit from it. I have imputed righteousness, for example. Christ’s work in my by the Spirit (and His work thru me by the Spirit) is not been fully applied. Some of it is not yet, or not completely. Imparted righteousness has begin but is not complete. It won’t be until glorification. Romans 7 and Galatians 5 are two places that introduces us to this painful tension we must live with and in.

One aspect of sanctification is called mortification, the putting to death of sin aka the practices of the old man in Adam (Ephesians 4; Colossians 3). This imperative follows the great indicative of our union with Christ. We begin to live in accordance with our new identity in Christ (called vivification which Ferguson does not explicitly mention). We do not work to earn a new status or identity in Christ. Christ is restoring His image in us by His sanctifying grace.

Ferguson then moves to discuss the means of grace essential to our sanctification. These do not merit grace, but are the ordinary means by which God gives us grace as we seek Him by faith. He mentions the Word, God’s providences (often affliction or prosperity which reveals our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as sins that need to be confessed), fellowship and the sacraments. You will notice much of this is found in the Church. The Church is one of Christ’s essential means of grace for our sanctification. There we hear the Word, receive the sacraments and enjoy fellowship (including rebuke and encouragement).

The controversial aspect to this is the Law and the Christian’s relationship to the Law as part of the Word. It should not be controversial in light of 2 Timothy 3’s view of Scripture. The third use of the law, as a guide for Christian living, is often accused of being legalistic. But we are not trying to establish or maintain our status through obedience. We have these by grace. The Law shows us what it looks like to live as the new man in love. We don’t say, as we are often accused of saying, that the Law has the power to sanctify us. The power comes through our union with Christ in the power of the Spirit through faith and love.

The Responses

Ferguson said very little about the Law (just about 1 page), but Forde sees this as overplaying the role of the law in our sanctification. He puts words in Ferguson’s mouth about the law “producing holiness.” He is allergic to the law and misinterprets Ferguson as a result. In some sense Forde underestimates the “already” aspects of our salvation such that we still interact with the law as if non-Christians. I can read the Law and say “this is who Christ is and who He wants me to be- help me to be like You.” Forde agrees with Ferguson’s description of sanctification (though it differs greatly from his own chapter) but faults him on implementation. Perhaps because there is so little implementation in Forde’s scheme (to borrow his phrase).

Wood, the Wesleyan perspective, agrees with much of what Ferguson says but claims that the intention of the heart is what is decisive. That is rather subjective in practice. He takes this to briefly introduce Wesleyan perfeectionism. It is not sinless perfectionism but we’ll get there next time.

Spittler calls himself a “Reformed Pentecostal” and sees much to affirm in Ferguson’s presentation. He would not share Ferguson’s high view of the sacraments. He also thinks there is too much focus on controlling behavior.

The Contemplative response, by Hinson notes that Ferguson makes too little of prayer in his discussion of the means. I suspect Ferguson would agree with this oversight. He then lapses into a great misunderstanding of the Puritans which seems to imply that Ferguson wants to coerce obedience from people, even non-Christians. I really didn’t follow this line of reasoning because it was quite irrational as well as historically inaccurate.

Bottom Line: Sanctification by being united to Christ and appropriated by the means of grace.

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Leaders made mistakes. Even pastors do. The good ones learn from their mistakes and the bad ones don’t. As a result, I’ve been reading Mistakes Leaders Make by Dave Kraft.

The first mistake Christian leaders can make is to allow ministry to replace Jesus. This is quite subtle. It is a question of identity and satisfaction. The identity and satisfaction of a Christian is intended to be Christ. But the pastor or Christian leader can, like other people, have them shift to the work we do. In this case that is ministry.

“Our identity in and intimacy with Jesus slowly dissipates, and over time, the ministry begins to occupy center stage in our affections, time, and focus.”

One of the contributors to this process can be ambition. Godly ambition is a good thing. But it can morph into selfish ambition and you don’t even realize.

Most pastors work long hours. They often feel the pressure for the church to grow. We have to invest ourselves intellectually, emotionally, financially and more. With that investment there can be that subtle shift into selfish ambition. We confuse our goals with God’s goals. Results become increasingly important. Our emotions begin to move up and down based on the numbers.

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In the past year so there, a discussion (not a conversation!) has been going on about the nature of sanctification. Much of this as taken place on the internet, among people who are (or seem to be) friends or at least acquaintances. One of those men was Kevin DeYoung. He believed that he should write a book examining the Reformed Tradition’s view of sanctification. I, for one, is glad he did. The Hole in Our Holiness is that book.

Kevin avoids the temptation to write a polemic against other views. Instead, he is more positive approach, instructing people line upon line. He generally writes concisely, making the book accessible for lay people. He is not overly technical either. The most technical chapter is “Be Who You Are” because it covers our union in Christ. He does a good job explaining what it is, and how our sanctification flows out of that union.

DeYoung begins by addressing the odd gap that exists in broader Reformed circles. We speak much of being gospel-centered, but we don’t seem to be making as much progress in our sanctification as we would think. Isn’t the gospel sufficient? Yes, it is. And yet God has appointed various means of grace.

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No, I’m not talking about progressivism. I’m not talking about evolutionary progress. I’m not talking about the progress of civilization.

I’m talking about progress in sanctification. Sometimes we fall into the trap that it really isn’t possible. We see our sins more clearly and more abundantly than we did before. We seem mired in it.

In the final chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung address the very real possibility, and expectation, of progress. There is such a thing as hope and change, in the life of a Christian.

He starts in 1 Timothy 4:15. Shortly after his ordination, it clicked for him.

15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Paul wanted people to see Timothy’s progress, not just as a pastor but as a godly man. He was to practice “the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” But in verse 12 he’s told to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” He was to be growing, making progress, in these things. This implies that while Timothy was godly, he was not perfect and could become more godly.

“Paul didn’t think “set an example” means “get everything right the first time.”

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Kevin DeYoung continues with the general theme of our union with Christ in the 9th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness. That union is the foundation of our communion with Christ. That communion with Christ is important to our growth in holiness.

Communion with Christ is only possible for those who are in Christ, or united with Christ. Communion, or fellowship, with Christ is our ultimate goal. All of the blessings of the gospel, including sanctification, come to us in Christ. We do not seek them, including holiness, apart from Christ. We seek them from Christ. All that you could ever seek, with the exception of sin, is to be found in Christ. Seeking them elsewhere is an exercise in futility.

“Just as a once-for-all, objective justification leads to a slow-growth, subjective sanctification, so our unchanging union with Christ leads us to an ever-increasing communion with Christ.”

DeYoung distinguishes between union and communion. They cannot be separated from one another, as if you have one without the other. But they are different. Our union with Christ is unbreakable. Our communion with Christ is subject to change depending on whether we are pursuing Him or sin at a given time. It is like marriage, he notes, we are in the state of marriage regardless of how we feel about each other at the moment. But the strength of our marriage is variable, depending on love and sacrifice. You are not more or less marriage. You either are or are not. But your marriage can be more or less healthy. Similarly, we are not more or less a Christian (union with Christ), but our relationship is more or less healthy (communion & sanctification).

“I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s important we understand that communion with God is predicated on union with Christ and not the other way around.”

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