The Freedom of Being a Creature

Luther loved to speak about the great privilege of being a creature fashioned by God. The first true thing about us is that we are creatures of God. We do not determine our existence. We are fundamentally dependent. Creation establishes God as the ultimate giver and us as the ultimate receivers.

This relationship never changes—though sin would lead us to believe that these roles can be reversed. In fact, sin is an attempt to transgress the creature/creator boundary. To be a creature is to be wonderfully free. Our life is not up to us. Think for a moment on the vocation of a creature. What does it entail to be God’s image-bearing creatures? What are the benefits?

  • We receive our initial existence
  • We receive our ongoing existence
  • We depend upon him for all that we need
  • We are made to do all that he asks
  • Privilege and grace is at the core of our existence
  • We are free to be creatures and to let God be God
  • Creatureliness provides a boundary that proves to be our freedom

In the story line of Scripture, we can see the purpose and freedom of being a creature given, lost, and then restored in Christ. The fall was a giant leap upward. It was the first human attempt to transgress creaturely boundaries. The result was the fall, which left us less than the creatures God intended.

All sin is of this same nature—it is a rejection of our creatureliness. Viewing sin through this lens helps us better understand our refusal to receive from God and our incessant endeavor to become him. In our sin, we grasp at omnipotence and omniscience. We try to operate as though we are omnipresent and all wise. We interact with others as though we are sovereign and worthy of worship.

In short, our sin always betrays the fact that we are trying to be someone and something that we are not. We are trying to be God. This is idolatry. We seek to dethrone God and place ourselves in his rightful position. Such rebellion is worthy of death. In this graphic, sin would look like pushing past the boundaries of the box into the realm of the creator.

We were made with good limits. Physical exhaustion may be an attempt at omnipresence. Sinful independence and arrogance toward God could well be grasping for his self-sufficiency. Believing you call the shots and striving to control everything is attempted theft of God’s sovereignty.

Trusting your own wisdom above all others transgresses the creature boundary, it is a striving for foreknowledge and omniscience. Every aspect of the divine being becomes the battle-ground of the sinful creature. We want to wipe out God and be him. The cross of Jesus Christ says at least this much.

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The gospel is the good news of God becoming a creature to take the punishment for rebellious creatures in order to restore them back to their appropriate creatureliness. It is the most amazing story ever told. The Son reveals Creator and creature. In him, we see who God is and who we were intended to be. We behold in him a humble God who refuses to take advantage of his deity using it instead to serve humanity.

In him we see a creature that loves God, trusts God, obeys God, loves people, and goes about his daily tasks with joy and purpose. It is through his perfect life and his perfect death that our punishment is removed and we are restored. Through the justifying and cleansing work of the cross we stand in the right before the Trinity.

Through the indwelling Spirit and his mighty work, we are being remade into the creatures we were intended to be. God is in the business of making us human once again. The glory of the gospel is that it is powerful enough to make us creatures.

Through the gospel, we are liberated from our endless strivings for deity. We are relieved of thrones too large for us. We are freed from thoughts too high for us. We are released from trying to know all things and control all things.

The weight of trying to be God is lifted from our shoulders. In other words, our sin is put to death. We are free to be who we are: creatures. By the gospel, we take our rightful place as recipients. We move from subject to object. We move from standing to kneeling. We move from running to resting.

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The Heart of Paul’s Mission Methodology

When you look at the missionary practices of the apostle Paul he seems to be all over the place. He receives support and he refuses support, he circumcises his converts and he abominates the idea of circumcising his converts, he lives like he’s under the law and he lives like it doesn’t exist, he eats certain foods and abstains from certain foods.

And there are many other tensions in his missionary service. It appears at times that his methodology is haphazard and inconsistent. The diversity of his approach warns us against building strategies on one facet of his missionary service. The driving force in his methodology is the gospel. His mantra was: I do all things for the purpose of the gospel (1 Cor 9:23).

His burning passion was to see the gospel advanced to all the nations. This drove his every decision. What is most beneficial for the movement of the gospel? Because every context was different and because he faced diverse circumstances, the answer to this question always varied. The reason he received support at certain times and not others is because refraining and receiving in these various scenarios furthered the gospel.

The reason he circumcised Timothy and not Titus was for the advance and protection of the gospel. The reason he becomes all things to all men, which inevitably changes the way he engages different people, is for the sake of the gospel.

There is a lot of freedom in how we go about building strategy and mission methodology. If we keep the gospel at the center of it all our methods will inevitably be very fluid. We will be more sensitive to our context and more willing to shift and move according the circumstances in front of us.

The number one problem with every mission methodology is that it is built off one portion of Scripture and it fails to take the rest into consideration. It is paradigm driven rather than principle driven. We get locked into a certain methodology that appears to be bearing fruit and we then believe it is the only or the most effective way to reach people.

This principle of “all things for the gospel” liberates us from the slavery of missionary methods and enables us to engage people in fresh ways. There is much to draw from in Scripture regarding various strategies for going about mission. At the heart of them all is the principle of gospel advancement.

But if we would be well rounded we need to sit at the table with all the various missionary voices. We must not restrict ourselves to Paul. We must sit down at the table with Jesus, Peter, Timothy, Titus, Epaphras, James, Silas, Stephen, Phillip, Apollos, Priscilla, Aquilla, Silvanus, and Barnabas among others.

We need to hear the perspective of married couples as they have engaged mission. We need the voice of the single man. We need the voice of the church planter, encourager, preacher, evangelist, and apprentice. Each of these missionaries will give us a fresh perspective.

We may utilize the various strategies implemented by Jesus, Paul, Peter, and Barnabas at various times in our ministry. As we are driven by the gospel, we will find that fluidity between the various methods is most appropriate rather than rigidity and dogmatism. If we weave all our methodological thinking through the gospel we will be just fine. We will be free and equipped to do what is best in any given context.

Moving Toward Hope

As we begin our transition from hopelessness to hope, recall research that kicked off this exploration. We saw the significant impact of hopelessness on every facet of our existence. Let’s take a look on research regarding hope.

Researchers have identified significant benefits of hope. Studies have shown that hope leads to life satisfaction, positive mental health, purpose, harm avoidance, confidence, productivity and resilience.[1] The positive outcomes related to hope stretch into inter-personal relationships, social health, psychological adjustment, academic achievement and human flourishing.[2]

The wellness effect of hope does not stop there. Research has shown shocking physical health outcomes related to hope. Higher levels of hope have been shown to have positive effects on adjustment from brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, breast cancer and even pain tolerance.[3]

Once again, the research highlights the importance of hope. This intangible reality is critical in our lives. Hopelessness must be combatted with hope. Who would not want the outcomes listed here? This body of research also pushes us toward a more nuanced discussion of hope. It begs a number of questions that will serve our forward progression.

Is there an overlap in biblical and psychological discussions of hope? Should we make distinctions between hope as a fixed reality and hope as wanting a certain outcome? Is there such a thing as false hope? Is there such a thing as temporal hope? Should we distinguish between our experiences of hope and hope as an object? Is there any hope apart from saving hope? Does biblical hope contain the benefits claimed in this research?

If our assessment of hopelessness is accurate, hope is far more than a human benefit. It is a saving need. If hopelessness is directly tied to the fall and our painful inheritance as sons and daughters of Adam, it follows that hope would be connected to redemption and rescue. Hope alone can unravel the effects of hopelessness and heal the rupture of despair.

As we explore the biblical data on hope, the questions above will find answers and our grasp of this theme will expand and deepen.

[1] Dedova, “Meaning in Life and Hope as Predictors of Positive Mental Health,” 193.

[2] Katherine Kandaris, “The Moderating Effect of Hope on the Relationship Between Emotional Approach Coping and Flourishing in College Students.” College of Education (DePaul University, 2013), 23.

[3] Kandaris, “The Moderating Effect of Hope…” 23.

Hopelessness compels us toward Hope

Hopelessness is a mighty force. We reject the promise of God for peace, hope and salvation and exhaust ourselves trying to relieve our hopelessness. We devise our own plans for getting hope. I will find hope in a relationship. I will find it in a job. I will find it in possessions. I will find it in power. I will find it in pleasure. I will scour the earth. I will use every resource in my power to rid myself of hopelessness. I know this road, it’s a dead end. From what we have seen, this posture is the root of our problem not the solution. We know the ache for hope, but as we stiff-arm the God of Hope it remains evasive.

In despair, we reject the promise of God for joy, purpose and an eternal future. Such promises are too good to be true. Such promises are simply not true. Despair retreats from God and lives without grasping for hope. “Despair, too, presupposes hope. ‘What we do not long for, can be the object neither of our hope nor of our despair’ (Augustine). The pain of despair surely lies in the fact that a hope is there, but no way opens up towards its fulfillment.”[6]

God’s Word cuts through the noise. He speaks clearly and authoritatively about our hopelessness. He defines it for us. Does God’s four-fold description of hopelessness speak to you? Are you without Jesus? Do you know his people? Are his promises yours? Do you have God in this world? Do you recognize hopelessness in your active rebellion or in your passive despair?

Hopelessness should drive us to hope. But we must know where to find it. Empty promises of hope abound. God’s Word gives us the path. It points us the right way. It directs us to the Triune God. Amid despair, there is hope; a certain, fixed, unfailing hope that will anchor your soul. This is good news. I need an anchor. If such stabilizing news existed, would you not long to hear it?

Hopelessness creates an appetite for hope. It makes us ache for relief. Embracing our brokenness, owning our sin and facing the fact that life is desperately messy is foundational to receiving the gift of hope. We must start here, but we cannot stay here. Hope awaits. We have spent ample time outside of Eden. We must press forward to Bethlehem and onto Jerusalem.

[6] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7.

The Contours of Hopelessness

Theology must find feet, it must bleed. We must always ask the ever-relevant question, so what? Why does any of this matter? How does this help us at all? How does an accurate biblical understanding of hopelessness change things for us. Jurgen Moltmann is correct, “as long as hope does not embrace and transform the thought and action of men, it remains topsy-turvy and ineffective.” [1] Consider a few things regarding the pertinence of a theology of hopelessness.

God is a surgeon and his Word is a scalpel.[2] With great precision and skill, He diagnoses our ailments and provides saving care. Hopelessness is the diagnosis. It puts words to the unrest in our souls. It pinpoints the aftermath of our sin. It captures the wreckage within us. It speaks to the pain around us.

We put our finger on a core problem when we speak about hopelessness. It is a deeper issue than we thought. It is more pervasive than we imagined. It is multi-faceted and shows up in ways we didn’t anticipate. Jurgen Moltmann makes this astute observation about hopelessness.

“Hopelessness can assume two forms: it can be presumption, and it can be despair. Both are forms of the sin against hope. Presumption is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Despair is the premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God. Both forms of hopelessness, by anticipating the fulfillment or by giving up hope, cancel the wayfaring character of hope. They rebel against the patience in which hope trusts in the God of the promise.”[3]

In other words, hopelessness has multiple faces. It shows up in active rebellion as it strives to rip prerogative from the hands of God and fulfill his promises with human strength. We see this in the Abraham-Sarah story. The promise of a miracle baby to a century old spouse was more than a stretch, it was impossible. Instead of resting in the promise, Abraham took matters into his own hands. The root of his action was hopelessness, he lost hope in the promise of God. But this hopelessness took the form of active, prideful rebellion.[4]

Hopelessness also shows up in despair, this is its inactive face. It curls up into a ball, crawls into a hole, throws its hands up and simply quits. Like active hopelessness it gives up on the promise of God. The only difference, it lays down instead of rising up. We see this in the story of Elijah. God does mighty things through the prophet showing his power through fire and rain. Moments later, his life is threatened and Elijah despairs of the promises of God. He flees, hides, lays down and pleads with God to die.[5]

[1] Moltmann, Hope    Moltmann draws this observation from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949)

[2] God is described as Physician a number of times (Exodus 15:26, Psalm 147:3, Hosea 6:1, Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). Hebrews 4:12 states that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword and capable of “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 7. Moltmann states that this idea is drawn from Joseph Pieper’s treatise Über die Hoffnung (1949).

[4] In the Abraham-Hagar narrative (Genesis 16:1-15) we learn that Sarah and Abraham jointly despaired in God’s promises. Sarah explicitly says, “The Lord has kept me from having children” (16:2). In other words, God is the own barrier to his promises! He has kept me from the very thing He has promised. She then states, “Go sleep with my slave, perhaps I can build my family through her’” (16:2). The despair is potent. God is in the way. He won’t build the family he has promised, so I will. The remainder of the narrative points to an unsurprising tension between Sarah, Hagar and Abraham. The fruit of active hopelessness is always painful.

[5] 1 Kings 18-19. This side of hopelessness may also exist in the Abraham-Sarah story. In Genesis 18:1-15, the promise of a child is reaffirmed in spite of the successful attempt to defy God’s word and have a child through Hagar. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh in response to the promise. It is clear that Sarah’s laughter at this time is not one of joy-filled faith (18:12-15). The laughter of unbelief may be very close to the passivity of hopelessness—it is despair cloaked in a smile.

 

No God = No Hope

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

Hope has a triune shape. We saw what separation from the God-man means. Here, Paul targets life without God the Father. In short, hopelessness is the absence of the Trinity. Despair, hope’s counterpart is also triune in form. It is to live without the Three. It is to be without the One.[1]

God the Father is the God of all hope.[2] He is hope’s true source, the giver of all true hope, the very hope of hope. Hope is eternally elusive without God.[3] It does not exist. Helmut Thielicke articulates a painful angle on being apart from God.

“Behind the heroic, set face of man lies the whole tragedy of a child who has lost his father…Doesn’t the world seem a dreadfully ‘unfatherly’ place? Ever since men have walked on earth; have they not always been terrified by the fatherness of the world? The history of the world, taken as a whole, is a story of war, deeply marked with the hoof-prints of the apocalyptic horseman. It is the story of humanity without a Father-so it seems.”[4]

The garden expulsion left us fatherless. It left us homeless. It left us hopeless. This is the fray into which the Triune God enters. We have to grasp the backdrop of despair before we can understand the hope of the gospel.

Hopelessness sets the stage for hope. Scripture is clear, the situation is dire. To be without hope is to be without God’s Son, the one Lord, the one Savior whose name is Jesus Christ.

Hopelessness is to be without God’s people, to be separated from the community of faith that is connected to the one who is Hope.

Hopelessness is to be without God’s promises, to know the absence of his covenant-keeping faithfulness.

Hopelessness is to be fatherless. It is to be without God in this world, to be separated from the very source and fountain of all hope.

[1] The Triune shape of hope is incomplete without the Holy Spirit. In the broader context, we see that He grants us access to the Father through the Son (Ephesians 2:18). The following pages will show that He is Hope. From a theological perspective, equality of divine essence demands exact equivalence among Father, Son and Spirit regarding any ontological assertions about God and hope. God is Hope. This is true of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

[2] Romans 15:13

[3] Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, 136. “The term ἄθεοs, ‘without God,’ occurs nowhere else in the NT or LXX. Where it is used in Greek writings, it can denote either a person who does not believe in a deity, an impious person, or a person forsaken by God or the gods.” Lincoln argues that the third nuance is most likely in this text. “They lived in a world without true hope and without the true God.” Forsakenness is the status of everyone born east of Eden. The Bible paints the canvas with dark shades of despair. It must. It is the backdrop of the dazzling spectrum of grace and hope.

[4] Helmut Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer (Baker House: Grand Rapids, 1960), 18-21.

 

Hopeless Without God’s Promise

“Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called ‘the circumcision,’ which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:11-12).

The “covenants of promise” are the words of a God who cannot lie.[1] They are his gracious commitments to his people. They are the good He swears to do for them. They are blood-drenched promises, ultimately costing him everything. O. Palmer Robertson provides an insightful definition of a covenant.

“A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignly administered.” [2]

God makes promises. I will forgive you.[3] I will rescue you from judgment.[4] I will hear your prayer.[5] I will give you eternal life.[6] I will provide you daily bread.[7] I will not punish you.[8] I will be gracious to you.[9] I will be your God.[10] You will be my people.[11] I will be with you.[12] I will never leave you.[13] I will not forsake you.[14]

He swears to his own harm that these promises are sure and will never be abnegated. He takes a cross and vacates a tomb to ensure the efficacy of every word. Without God’s promise of salvation, there is no salvation. Without God’s promise of forgiveness there is no forgiveness. To be without God’s covenant is to be without a relationship with him and without all his promises. This is hopelessness.

When God speaks, it is true. When God promises, it is certain. Hope is directly tied to our relationship with His word. If his promises are not for us, despair is inevitable. If his promises are for us, hope is guaranteed.[15]

[1] Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians (Word Books: Dallas, 1990), 137. “The only other place in the NT where the plural form of ‘the covenants’ is found is Romans 9:4 where Paul states, ‘to them belong…the covenants…and the promises.’ The writer probably has in mind a series of covenants with Abraham (Genesis 15:7-21, 17:1-21), with Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5), with Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15), with Israel (Exodus 24:1-8), and with David (2 Samuel 7).” I would add the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31-34. Walter Kaiser argues that repeated Old Testament formulas “epitomize the content of the promise…the gospel itself is the heart of the promise: ‘in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ Another is the tripartite formula, ‘I will be your God, you shall be my special possession and I will dwell in the midst of you.’” Walter Kaiser Jr, “The Old Promise and the New Covenant: Jeremiah 31:31-34,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 15 (1972), 12. In other words, all the covenants serve to emphasize the certainty God’s presence with us, possession of us and faithfulness to us. They all drive us toward the gospel and the hope which is found in that good news.

[2] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (P&R: Phillipsburg, 1987), 4.

[3] Psalm 51:7-9, 103:12, Isaiah 1:18,1 John 1:9, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 4:32

[4] John 3:18, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, 1 John 4:18

[5] Psalm 91:14-16, 2 Chronicles 7:14, Matthew 7:7-11, 21:22, John 14:13-14, 1 John 5:14

[6] Psalm 16:11, 21:4-6, Daniel 12:3, Matthew 25:46, John 3:16, 6:51, 8:51, 11:25-26, 17:3

[7] Job 38: 39-41, Psalm 34:10, 50:10, 81:10, Matthew 6:11, Philippians 4:19, Hebrews 13:5

[8] Psalm 32:1-2, 103:6-14, Lamentations 3:22-24, Romans 8:1-2, 31-34, Ephesians 2:1-10

[9] Exodus 34:6-7, Romans 5:1-2, 12-21, 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, Ephesians 2:4-9, Hebrews 4:16

[10] Genesis 17:8, Exodus 29:45, Leviticus 26:45, Ezekiel 14:11, Zechariah 8:8, Hebrews 8:10

[11] Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12, Ezekiel 37:23, 27, Jeremiah 7:23, 31:1, 33, Revelation 21:3

[12] Deuteronomy 31:8, Joshua 1:9, Matthew 28:20, 2 Corinthians 13:11, Philippians 4:9

[13] Deuteronomy 31:6, 8, Joshua 1:5, Isaiah 41:10, John 14:6, Hebrews 13:5, Revelation 21:3

[14] 1 Kings 8:57, 1 Chronicles 28:20, Psalm 37:28, 94:14, Isaiah 41:17, 42:16, Hebrews 13:5

[15] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 62. Moltmann provides the following definition of promise and the unique dynamic a promise creates.  “A promise is a declaration which announces the coming of a reality that does not yet exist. Thus, promise sets man’s heart on a future history in which the fulfilling of the promise is to be expected. If it is a case of a divine promise, then that indicates that the expected future does not have to develop within the framework of the possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of the promise.”