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.

Why Weakness Should Drive us Godward

Weakness, moral and otherwise has a way of pushing us away from God. It certainly does not serve as a confidence builder when approaching the holy God of the universe.

Hebrews introduces us to a different perspective, an incarnational logic. Take a look at Hebrews 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The call in this passage is to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near” to God with confidence that we might know the help of grace when in need. Note what grounds  the call, what forms the foundation of this confidence.

Incredibly, it’s how God engages our weakness. The “for” and “then” of the text drive us to the central confidence giver in the face of weakness—a sympathetic Savior.

We do not have a mediator who lacks understanding, a stand-between ignorant of suffering, a high priest incapable of meeting weakness with grace. He is sympathetic (συμπαθῆσαι). This is a description of the God-man. This is the fruit of  the incarnation and cross—understanding and sympathy.

The NIGTC commentary on Hebrews states that “Christ’s earthly life gives him inner understanding of human experience, and thus makes him ready and able to give active help.”

The very thing that drives us away from God should push us toward him. Our weakness is always met by a gracious, understanding Savior who desires to provide help. He does not engage our weakness with condemnation, but kindness.

Through Christ even our weaknesses are transformed into an invitation to know his grace and mercy. They are the occasion for experiencing God’s help.

Freedom for Slavery

Paradox lies at the heart Christian faith. Strength is found in weakness, the first will be last and losing life is how we find it. Most striking, we find the mighty God in a crib and on a cross. The majesty of the Creator is his humility.

Peter touches another paradox in his first letter. He states, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for what is evil, but living as servants of God” (1 Pet 2:16). You are free, the gospel has done that for you. But people freed by the gospel are strange. They use their freedom to ensure their slavery.

The word servants (δοῦλοι) literally means “slaves.” The gospel liberates us for joyful service to others. Martin Luther’s book, The Freedom of the Christian builds on this paradox. His preface says it well.

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

These two theses seem to contradict each other. If, however, they should be found to fit together they would serve our purpose beautifully. Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in I Cor. 9:19, “For though I am free item all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law” [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant” [Phil. 2:6–7].

Another great treatment on this theme is a book by Murray J. Harris called Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ. We are freed for slavery.

Gospel Strength

“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

In one sentence Paul pulls back the curtain on the link between strength and the gospel (2 Tim 2:1). What can we learn from Paul’s words to Timothy?

  • The source of strength in this text is grace. Paul affirms here that the journey of the Christian is by “grace alone.” In other places, Paul asserts that we are “saved by grace” (Eph 2-8-10). Here he shows us that we are “strengthened by grace.” The journey begins and continues by grace.
  • The grace that Paul speaks of is that which is located in Christ Jesus. Here he pushes us toward a gospel-centered understanding of strength. The grace of God is found in the message of the incarnate, crucified, risen and exalted Lord. As we press into the gospel of our salvation, meditate on it, study it, internalize it, speak it to one another, trust it and allow it to permeate our hearts and minds we are strengthened.
  • The word translated “be strengthened” is the present passive imperative form of a verb that is concerned with being strong (ἐνδυναμοῦ). Paul commands Timothy toward strength and yet, Timothy’s role is passive. Strength is required of us, it is a command. Strength comes to us, it is a gift. Timothy is called upon here to unfurl the sails of faith and position himself to catch gospel wind. The call here is to strategically position ourselves to be reminded of the gospel of God. We are to put ourselves in situations where reading, hearing, speaking and believing the gospel is sure to happen.
  • Strength comes from the gospel. Weakness must also be gauged by the gospel. Proximity to the gospel determines both strength and weakness. Full battery on a cell phone indicates recent close proximity to its power source, just as low battery indicates distance from its power source. Paul is helping us grasp that weakness is no mystery in the Christian journey. When we are far from the gospel we will certainly be weak. When we are near the gospel we will certainly be strengthened.

Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us

Biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim said this about the indwelling of the Spirit. “The absolutely highest stage of intercourse with God is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament Church, when man’s individuality is not superseded nor suppressed, but transformed, and thus conformed to Him in spiritual fellowship.”

During the last few months we worked through a series of posts on the indwelling Spirit. I have spent time expanding what was written. I wanted to share the finished product with you. My hope is that you will find it helpful, encouraging and challenging. Please let me know any feedback you may have. Thanks so much! Here you go: Indwelt: The Presence of God In Us.

Around the Table with God

Jesus is God in the flesh. He reveals the heart, nature and intentions of God. When you read the gospel narratives through this lens everything changes. Read Mark 2:15-17 from this angle.

“Later, Levi invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. (There were many people of this kind among Jesus’ followers.) But when the teachers of religious law who were Pharisees saw him eating with tax collectors and other sinners, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with such scum?’ When Jesus heard this, he told them, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.'”

Who you eat with says a lot about you. Eating a meal is one of the most intimate gestures of human life. God chooses to eat with the broken, the outcast, the rejected, the lost and the sick. This is a God who lives in the fray. This is a God who is fearless in the face of pain and need.

The irony of the passage is in the two categories mentioned by Jesus. In reality, there is one category for humanity…the only difference is whether or not one embraces reality. In the words of Paul, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). God is saying to us all: come and sit at my table. He is a hospitable God.

Immanuel: God With Us In Our Sin

Names mean something. This was especially true in the world of Christ. Names were carefully chosen and would often set the trajectory of a child’s life. In the Matthew narrative we learn that the naming of Jesus was no different. The text says that Mary and Joseph received divine guidance regarding what they would call Jesus. “You shall call his name Jesus for He will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

The name Jesus has Hebrew roots, it literally means “God saves.” God the Father makes clear what the saving work of Jesus is focused on…sin. His name indicated the reason for his coming. His name was a constant reminder of why he was born. Jesus came to deal with sin, this is absolutely central to his purpose. In the context it is very interesting to see that the author moves on to state that his name will be called Immanuel, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).

Placing these two names side by side is instructive, something the context also seems to require. God is with us and God saves us from sin. Jesus is the God-man who enters the fray, he comes alongside and is present with us even in our sin. To save us from our sin he must walk with us as we struggle and falter. The saving work of God is not accomplished at a distance. He is uncomfortably present…so much so that “he who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

When we speak of the God who is with us, we mean to say that he is with us in our darkest moments, our greatest sins, our desperation, our brokenness, our weakness, our pain, our grief, our suffering…he is with us in the places where we need him most. Luther was right, God is “with us in the muck and in the work that makes his skin steam.”

Indwelling in 2 Corinthians: Empowered and Sealed

“And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22).

This text locates the Spirit in the heart of the believer. Here indwelling is connected to two important theological concepts. First, Paul connects anointing to indwelling. Anointing has a rich biblical history. Throughout the Old Testament the language of anointing was used to set apart objects and individuals for a particular task determined by God. Certain items used in the sacrificial system were anointed to make them holy in their usage (Lev 8:10).

Certain individuals were anointed for specific tasks related to God’s purposes. For example, certain kings (1 Sam 16:13), prophets (1 Kgs 19:16), and priests (Ex 40:15) were anointed to carry out their vocations to the glory of God.The anointing of people was coupled with the Spirit’s presence and empowerment. The anointing communicated that the Spirit was with the individual empowering them to fulfill their God-given role (1 Sam 16:13).

This anointing motif comes to a head in the work o Jesus. His title “the Christ” literally means anointed one and Messiah. He was the subject of Isaiah’s words in this text (cf. Lk 4:18).

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Is 61:1-2).

Jesus is the anointed servant of God tasked with saving the world. His work is enabled by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Through his death and resurrection he secures our redemption. In his ascension and exaltation he shares the Spirit with his people (Acts 2:33).

The Spirit now anoints all believers without exception. The indwelling of the Spirit universalizes anointing to include the entirety of the covenant people. The task assigned the new covenant people is to expand the kingdom of God by bringing the gospel to all nations.

The second theological concept in this text tied to indwelling is sealing and guaranteeing. The coming of the Spirit to live within us is equivalent to God setting his seal of ownership upon us. The text identifies God as the “one sealing us.” The Father is the subject of this sealing, the actor in our text. Believing humans are the objects of this sealing. God seals, believers are passively sealed.

God’s seal is God’s guarantee that we are his people and he is our God. It is the promise of inviolable mutual ownership. The doctrine of indwelling is a rich source of encouragement in this passage. It communicates the permanent empowering presence of the Spirit for the tasks to which we are called. It speaks of the assurance of belonging to God through his seal and guarantee.

Indwelling in 1 Corinthians: No Longer Your Own

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

This is an important passage for the theme of indwelling as it situates the doctrine within an important redemptive historical theme, namely the temple. The text indicates that the indwelling presence of God signals the establishment of a temple. The strands of this theme are evident throughout the storyline of Scripture.

God dwells with his people in Eden. When Eden is lost his saving presence is manifest as he indwells the tabernacle and then the temple. Temple means God’s presence with his people. This is why the destruction of the temple leading to exile was so horrific to the Hebrews.

In the New Testament the temple theme finds ultimate expression in the incarnation. Jesus is the new temple (Jn 2:19-21). God’s presence is manifest fully and perfectly in Christ.

By faith people are united with Christ, the Spirit is granted, and they become temples of the living God. This text points to individual believers as temples. The New Testament also connects the corporate people of God to the temple motif (1 Cor 3:17).

The presence of God is now a reality in the physical bodies of believers. Temple language is always connected to indwelling, ruling, and covenant faithfulness. These concepts are now true for us. One implication and one imperative flow from the doctrine of indwelling in the text.

The implication is that we do not belong to ourselves. We are not our own. We were purchased at the cross and sealed as God’s possession by indwelling. God has made us his own through the blood of his Son and the home-making of his Spirit. Every square inch of our bodies belong to another.

The imperative attached to indwelling is the call to glorify God in our bodies. These bodies belonging to God are to be used for his honor and pleasure. The doctrine of indwelling is a game changer. It forever alters our sense of identity and compels to live in a way fitting of someone who is literally a residence of the divine.

Indwelling in John: From With You to In You

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17).

John 14-17 has been traditionally called the “farewell discourse.” Jesus is preparing his disciples for his coming departure. As to be expected, the disciples are anxious and concerned about their master leaving. Jesus aims to comfort and he does so by explicating some of the richest Trinitarian theology in all Scripture.

Jesus is leaving but the disciples will not be alone. He assures them that his effectual prayer will open heaven and God’s Helper will come down. The Spirit of truth will descend, an answered prayer, a divine gift.

The coming Spirit signals God’s enduring support and presence. By the Spirit God will now dwell eternally with his people (τὸν αἰῶνα). This text removes any possibility of divine withdrawal, for eternity.

John goes a step further. The eternal presence of God with us shifts to God in us. This is an unprecedented move. D.A. Carson captures this in his book on the farewell discourse.

“One of the most remarkable aspects of Jesus’ teaching in this passage, however, is that it is the triune God who takes up his dwelling in the disciples of Jesus. This truth is unavoidable: ‘I will ask the Father and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of Truth.’ . . . The Old Testament writers were concerned that God should live with men [citing 1 Kgs 8:27; Ezek 37:27; Zech 2:10] . . . John insists that this occurred historically in the incarnation: ‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us’ (1:14). But now we are brought a stage further: this God reveals himself to the individual believer and takes up residence within him [citing 2 Cor 6:16; Lev 26:12; Jer 32:38; Ezek 37:27; Eph 3:16, 17a; Rev 3:14-21].”[1]

The indwelling Spirit is an unparalleled gift. Jesus tells the disciples a little later that it exceeds even his incarnate presence with them (Jn 16:7). Who can fathom it? God residing in man!

Generosity has always characterized the one true God. He is ever giving the greatest gift to his creatures, himself. This is but another stage in God’s self-donation to broken, believing humanity.

The text indicates the particular role of the Spirit as he indwells believers. He will be another helper. Like the Son of God he will serve and support. The text does not indicate specifics of his helping role. The rest of the New Testament helps us flesh this out.

A few verses later Jesus elaborates on the dynamic of indwelling. “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (Jn 14:23).

The previous verses indicate the Spirit’s residence within us. This verse expands the concept of indwelling to include the Father and Son. We are talking about the Trinity living within. God is indeed with us and now in us!

The implications of this are staggering. God has graciously welcomed us into his fellowship. More than that, he has stooped low and come to us. He has come knocking on our doors and has made himself a home within us.

Coming full circle we must remember that Jesus is speaking comfort to his disciples. The promise of indwelling is intended to bring confidence, peace, and hope. The doctrine here is pastoral to the core.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Farewell Discourse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 46-47.