Creation Apart from Works

We are dust. We must never forget our origins. Our existence is marvelous. We started from a clump of mud. God’s creative, forming, breathing energy was infused into the dirt as he fashioned a creature to bear his image—simply phenomenal. This is a cornerstone of our reality. Life and death, joy and sorrow are located at the intersection of the Creator-creature distinction.

It is no mistake that the first line of the Apostle’s Creed says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” In this simple affirmation we confess our creatureliness and our Maker’s sovereignty. Martin Luther is wonderful in his comments from his small catechism on this phrase. He asks the question: what does this mean? He answers.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them; that He richly and daily provides me with food and clothing, home and family, property and goods, and all that I need to support this body and life; that He protects me from all danger, guards and keeps me from all evil; and all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I am in duty bound to thank and praise, to serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.

I love the way he frames God’s creative work as an act of “fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.” Our existence is without “any merit or worthiness in me.” I did not earn my existence. Creation is apart from works, it has nothing to do with me whatsoever—it is based purely on his good pleasure. Luther provocatively utilizes the language he often uses of justification to speak of creation. His point: creation and justification operate on the same principle, grace alone.

The posture of the creature is hands open to receive. The posture of the sinner is arms outstretched grasping at what is not ours. A posture we know all too well since the transgression of our first parents. Justification is about making us human again…it returns us to this receiving posture. God graces us with salvation apart from any merit of our own.

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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.

Luther on Scripture

Martin Luther developed his theology around the conviction that the Word of God is true and strong. He believed, as do I, that Scripture is the speech of God. It is no different than the speech that brought earth into existence out of nothing. It contains that same power and purpose.

Here are three great quotes that capture some of his thinking on Scripture. We can see hints of sola scriptura (scripture alone) and ad fontes (back to the sources) in the first quote. In the second and third quotes we see Luther’s pastoral approach to Scripture. It is a safeguard against despair and temptation. It is a wellspring of hope and confidence.

“He who has made himself master of the principles and text of the word runs little risk of committing errors. A theologian should be thoroughly in possession of the basis and source of faith—that is to say, the Holy Scriptures. Armed with this knowledge it was that I confounded and silenced all my adversaries; for they seek not to fathom and understand the Scriptures; they run them over negligently and drowsily; they speak, they write, they teach, according to the suggestion of their heedless imaginations. My counsel is, that we draw water from the true source and fountain, that is, that we diligently search the Scriptures. He who wholly possesses the text of the Bible, is a consummate divine. One single verse, one sentence of the text, is of far more instruction than a whole host of glosses and commentaries, which are neither strongly penetrating nor armor of proof. As, when I have that text before me of St Paul: “All the creatures of God are good, if they be received with thanksgiving,” this text shows, that what God has made is good. Now eating, drinking, marrying, etc., are of God’s making, therefore they are good. Yet the glosses of the primitive fathers are against this text: for Bernard, Basil, Jerome, and others, have written to far other purpose. But I prefer the text to them all.”

“Oh! how great and glorious a thing it is to have before one the Word of God! With that we may at all times feel joyous and secure; we need never be in want of consolation, for we see before us, in all its brightness, the pure and right way. He who loses sight of the Word of God, falls into despair; the voice of heaven no longer sustains him; he follows only the disorderly tendency of his heart, and of world vanity, which lead him on to his destruction.”

“A fiery shield is God’s Word; of more substance and purer than gold, which, tried in the fire, loses naught of its substance, but resists and overcomes all the fury of the fiery heat; even so, he that believes God’s Word overcomes all, and remains secure everlastingly, against all misfortunes; for this shield fears nothing, neither hell nor the devil.”

The Roots of Gratitude

Psalm 100 was written to instruct the community of faith on giving thanks. It is a blue print of sorts for developing a posture of gratitude. Thanksgiving in the text is grounded in understanding two key things: creation and covenant. The Psalm begins with a call to celebration and praise showing the connection between joy and thanksgiving. As Karl Barth said, joy is the “simplest form of gratitude.”

This joyful gratitude comes forth from knowing something about God. The text says, “Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, not we ourselves we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” In other words, know that God is the Creator and we ourselves are creatures. It is good to be reminded that we did not create ourselves—an obvious fact we actually do forget.

As creatures we are fundamentally dependent. Our existence itself is a gift. Do you see how this is foundational to gratitude? If your existence is a gift then it follows that everything that comes your way is also a gift. All of life is truly God’s gift to us. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians make perfect sense when you think about life this way: “What do you have that you have not received?”

G.K. Chesterton once said that “All goods look better when they look like gifts.” This is true. The fact is, all of life can and should be viewed this way. Imagine seeing life through this lens—it is the opposite of entitlement. Embrace what it means to be a creature of God and this view of life as gift will begin to take root.

The Psalm continues with a call to enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. The imperatives for thanksgiving really pile up in this section. Then comes a further root cause of giving thanks. “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” The ground of thanksgiving provided here is the goodness and steadfast love of God.

The language of steadfast love is tightly connected to covenant. The word refers to loyalty and covenant faithfulness. It is the type of love bound to oaths and promises and sealed by blood. These promises are made by a God who cannot lie and can never change. They are made by a God who ultimately sent his Son to fulfill his promises to us and provide a way of forgiveness and hope. Understanding that the wonder and certainty of the blood bought promises of God produces gratitude, it must.

The Father’s Humility in Creation

In the last post we discussed the humility of God the Father before creation. Today we turn to his humility in the act of creation.

The Father’s Humility in Creation

We have established the perfect equality of the three persons. It is also important to touch on distinction within the Trinity, historically called taxis. Bruce Ware gives us some helpful categories for understanding distinctions in the Godhead.

“For Trinitarian doctrine, distinction of personhood is as necessary to maintain as unity or equality of essence is also to maintain….It is clear that two categories seem to encompass the heart of their distinctiveness: relationship and role. Each is distinct in relationship within the Godhead such that each is who he is in part defined by the distinctive relationship each has with the others. The very identity of the first person of the Trinity is seen in and through his relationship as the Father of the Son. Likewise the very identity of the second person of the Trinity is seen precisely through and not apart from his being the Son of the Father. That the Spirit is subject to both Father and Son seems, then, to make it clear that his relationship is as one under the authority of the Father and the Son. Relationship, then, is a central category for understanding what distinguishes the three persons from each other.”

Colin Gunton further discusses the Father’s relational authority over the Son and Spirit.

“The priority of the Father is not ontological but economic. Such talk of the divine economy has indeed implications for what we may say about the being of God eternally, and would seem to suggest a subordination of taxis—of ordering within the divine life—but not one of deity or regard. It is as truly divine to be the obedient self-giving Son as it is to be the Father who sends and the Spirit who renews and perfects. Only by virtue of the particularity and relatedness of all three is God God.”

We are now positioned to discuss God’s humility toward the Son and Spirit in creation. Scripture designates the Father as the one holding supreme authority. He is identified as the architect of creation. Yet, it is precisely in creation where we glimpse this King’s humility.

He empowers the Son to speak the divine fiat that brings all things into existence (Jn 1:3). He tasks the Spirit with the honor of enlivening creation through the spoken word of the Son (Gen 1:2, Ps 33:6). The Father shared the glory of bringing all things into existence. He did not keep this to himself. In the New Testament the Father gladly takes the back seat along with the Spirit as they spotlight the Son as the Creator (Jn 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Col 1:16-17, Heb 1:2).

You, Me, and the Ground (2)

In the previous post we looked at how man is taken from the ground and made for the ground. We also focused on the ground as a generous gift of God to his creatures. In this post, we continue looking the theme of ground. As you will see, there are some more interesting references to ground in Scripture.

Ground as Witness


At times, Scripture personifies inanimate objects. The ground  is said to feel things and do things.  One interesting activity attributed to the ground is that of a witness.  In these two examples, the ground gives an account to God about our activity. Apparently when no one else is looking, the ground we walk on is.

“And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground ‘”(Gen 4:10).

“If my land has cried out against me and its furrows have wept together, if I have eaten its yield without payment and made its owners breathe their last, let thorns grow instead of wheat, and foul weeds instead of barley” (Job 31:38-40).

Ground and Judgment


When sin makes entrance into the world our relationship with the ground changes. The context of blessing and gift becomes the place of curse and judgment. The ground we were called to cultivate and keep turns against us and makes life hard. Death drives us back to the ground from which we were made. In Cain’s case, his judgment is to be driven away and cursed from the ground. He experienced a double curse in relation to the ground. In Israel’s case, the ground responds to their rebellion by opening its mouth and swallowing an entire tribe in judgment.

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

“You are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand…Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground” (Gen 4:11, 14).

“And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly” (Num 16:31-33).

Ground and Grief


There are two strands of biblical data in the vein of grief and ground. The first relates to the grief of the ground. Paul utilizes the language of groaning and pain when discussing the current state of the earth. In the text that follows we see that the ground grieves and hopes along with mankind. The second relates to the grief of men and their use of the ground to express their sorrow. There are a multitude of examples in Scripture when humans crumple into the dust and cover their heads with it to express a traumatic loss of heartfelt repentance. 
This act of grieving and repentance signifies humility and recognition of one’s status before God. To lower oneself to the ground and pull the earth over your head communicates that you know where you came from and you know where you are going. This body language communicates to God what the psalmist voices in Psalm 103:13-14. “The Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”  
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:19-22, cf. Jer 14:4, Joel 1:10).
“A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head” (1 Samuel 4:12, cf. 2 Sam 15:32).
 “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
 

You, Me, and the Ground (1)

You may recall a post from a couple weeks back on the dust. In that post, I highlighted the significance of being created out of the dust. This post is an extension of that line of thinking. I am intrigued about our relationship with the ground. Even writing that sentence feels weird. Relationship with the ground? Seems strange. You may be surprised to find that  Scripture actually has a bit to say on the topic. So here we go. You, me, and the ground. I will explore this theme over the next three posts.

Made From The Ground


Scripture indicates that mankind, plants, beasts, and bird were made from the ground. None of these creatures were created from nothing. They were all formed out of the ground. This creation out of something motif implies that we are all vitally connected to the substance from which we came. We are “from” the ground!

“The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground” (Gen 2:7).

“And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight” (Gen 2:9).

“Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” (Gen 2:19).

Terrence Fretheim in his book on Creation Theology spells out the importance of texts like this in our theology.

“Even more the ground (adamah play on adam) proves to be a crucial ingredient for the creation of the human. Human beings are not created ‘out of nothing,’ but out of an already existent nonhuman creature, a creature that has creative capacities (Gen 1:11-13, 24). The ground proves to be an indispensable medium for the creative work of God the potter (of nonhumans as well as humans, 2:19). In other words, human beings are keenly dependent upon the ground not only for their sustenance and livelihood but also for their very being. Without the ground they would neither exist nor survive. At the same time, as we have noted, the ground depends on the human for its proper development. Issues of dependence and interdependence  in a highly interrelated world are her brought to the forefront.” [1]

On a side note, this truth may be the most significant and foundational for building a biblical ecology.

Made For the Ground


The ground preceded us. It was foundational for our existence. We are dependent upon it for our life and sustenance. Ground exists for our good. And yet, there is a sense in which we were created for the ground as well. As Fretheim put it, we dwell in a “highly interrelated world.” The ground is dependent upon us to cultivate and keep it. That seems to be the thrust of these two texts. Note especially the language of the second passage.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

“The Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:23).

Ground as Gift


Our existence is a generous gift of the Creator. The context of our existence is no less a gift. He forms us from the ground and then allows us to live, move, and have our being on the same thing from which we were made. This ground that we make our home on is considered a gift, whether it be Eden, the Promised Land, or the New Earth.

 “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen 2:8).

“Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Deut 26:15).

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5).


[1] Terrence E. Fretheim, God and the World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 54.