Category Archives: Theology

Don’t Be So Cavalier About It

Lebron James (a.k.a. King James) has caused no small stir the world of professional basketball.  In what resembled a celebrity divorce, he shook the Cleveland dust off his feet only to wiggle them in the white sands of South Beach.  Cleveland got stood up at the altar while Lebron parades around town with his new girlfriend(s).  The Heat are in first place and the Cavaliers are dead last.  Despite the desperate longings of all Cleveland fans, poetic justice is heretofore denied.   The divorce wasn’t an amenable one and the aftershocks still reverberate.  The Cavaliers try to save face while Lebron rubs their face in it.  The drama is as entertaining as it is silly.

Last Tuesday night the Los Angeles Lakers handed the Cavaliers a 55-point drubbing.  And like a husband who prides himself on exploiting how pathetic is ex-wife is without him, Lebron James tweeted during the game: “Crazy.  Karma is a [expletive]. Gets you every time. Its not good to wish bad on anybody. God sees everything!”  It’s not good to wish bad on anybody; unless, apparently, you’re Lebron James speaking of Cleveland.  Poor Lebron.  Little Ol’ Cleveland just won’t leave him alone to play million-dollar footsie with his new suitors.

Dare I call into question King James’s theological acuity.  After all, I don’t want him tweeting about me!  But he was quite confused to use “karma” and “God” as cooperating partners (i.e. syncretism).  Karma, an Indian concept, is the universe’s (or gods thereof) way of maintaining moral balance.  Do good things and good things will happen to you.  Do bad things (like pick on Li’l Lebron) and bad things will happen to you (like 55-point losses to the Lakers).  In the end, god (whoever or whatever that is) rewards those who do good and punishes those who do bad.  So do good, Cleveland.

This, however, has nothing to do with how God orders the universe.  Lebron was right in one sense: God does see everything.  I suppose this includes the process by which Lebron fathered two children out of wedlock, whose mother he’s stringing along as a perpetual “fiancee.”  Nevertheless, God does see everything but not in order to reward self-righteousness.  God doesn’t measure his favor based on human merit because no human is meritorious of his favor (Rom 3.10-18).  Good things happen because Christ happened.  And only those in Christ can expect any favor from God.

Still, there are Christians who might snicker at Lebron’s sophomoric tirade but themselves live as though God does co-op karma to accomplish his will.  For example, how often do we think that since we read our Bible this morning then God owes us some favor this afternoon?  Or, since I prayed earnestly about something that God should return the favor.  I scratched God’s back so he will scratch mine.

What about the other side of the coin?  My car wreck this afternoon was God getting me back for sinning this morning.  Or, since I’m on God’s “bad side” then I shouldn’t expect his favor until I can get back on his “good side.”  That’s a karmic way of life, and one that is not fit for God’s people.

There are consequences for sin that God rightly sees they’re played out (Gal 6.6-10).  But this is different than viewing the universe as a cosmic chess game in which we’d better make all the right moves before God checkmates us.  God doesn’t relate to us based on how well we impress him.  On our best day, we are still law-breakers and God cannot abide law-breakers (Rom 3.23).  As Christians, we are at all times dependent on the intercessory of ministry of Jesus (Heb 7.25) “who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor 1.30).  There is never one moment when God does not relate to his people apart from the imputed righteousness of Christ.  We don’t impress God.  He impresses us in Christ.  Jesus is the only one who has rightly obeyed and earned a way back into Eden (Heb 10.19-20).  And our best effort at worship must be filtered through and cleansed by the interceding ministry of Christ.

In catechizing our children we ask, “Can you see God?”  They respond, “No, but he always sees me.” Lebron might tell his children that since God always sees you then make sure what he sees is good so that he’ll do good to you.  Let us tell our children differently and biblically.  What God sees in and from us is worthy of eternal death.  But he sent his Son to die for what he saw in us.  Now, for all who repent and believe, even when God sees everything about us he chooses to see Jesus instead (Col 3.3).

Lebron may think himself worthy of God’s applause, but God has a far different understanding of “heat.” One taste of God’s heat and Lebron will beg to be back in Cleveland.

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Full Atonement, Can it Be . . . Limited?

Philip Bliss gave the church a treasure when he wrote the hymn “Man of Sorrows! What a Name” (1875).  There is no sweeter foretaste of heaven to hear your church belting out:

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Full atonement.  What is it about full atonement that Bliss (and we) would be led to wonder if it could be?  When did this atonement happen and when was it considered “full” (i.e. complete, irrevocable)?

The doctrine of limited atonement has caused no small stir in the history of Christian theology.  In fact, it has caused its share of theological tsunamis which have left some drowning in confusion and others awash in abject hatred.  There is no way I will stem the tide in a measly blog post (or in any format, for that matter!).  If 2,000 years of weighty volumes written by infinitely smarter Christians has not settled the matter then it’s the height of folly to assume I will.

Often, limited atonement (or particular redemption) is assumed to be a logical inference from Scripture rather than explicit biblical teaching.  In Calvinist lingo, you cannot logically spell TULIP without “L.”   I appreciate the healthy skepticism toward logical inferences in spite of clear biblical evidence. We’re not to logically conclude anything that Scripture does not intend we conclude.  Where Scripture upholds apparent paradoxes we shamelessly uphold them.  Where it leads us to solid, reasonable conclusions then we defend them.  Where it leads us to God’s mystery, then we rest in God’s wisdom with the other ignorant travelers.

Let’s first set the record straight, though.  Every Christian believes in a limited atonement.  If there is a real hell populated by real people in an age to come, then there are necessarily unatoned-for people in the world.  The atonement is not universal because not every single person will have their sins atoned for.  Many will pay the penalty of their own sin by suffering God’s eternal wrath.  Every Christian believes this, or should.  So, the question is not whether or not the atonement is limited.  It is.  The question is who limits it and when.  Does God limit the atonement at the cross?  Or does man limit the atonement by his unbelief?

Though we could survey a host of biblical passages, I will defend from Mark 10.45 that for the atonement to be “full” it must be limited by God at the cross.  What follows is a sliver’s sliver of what should be and has been said.

Jesus prepared his disciples for a lifetime of radical servanthood by appealing to his own example:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mk 10.45).

If the Son of Man claimed no rights of privilege then neither will his followers who serve God’s kingdom after him.

But what did Jesus say about the atonement?  He said it would be substitutionary and particular.

It would be substitutionary in that he would give his life as a ransom “for” or “instead of” or “in the place of” (Gk. anti) many.  So rather than “many” drinking God’s cup of or being baptized in God’s wrath, Jesus would do it for them.  Whatever hell would be for every one of God’s people, Jesus would endure it on their behalf.

But, the atonement would also be particular.  How so?

The very idea or theme of “ransom” implies a transaction of redemption, wherein two estranged parties satisfy terms of an agreement that protects someone from an otherwise just and rightful punishment (in this case, death).  See Exodus 21.29-30 where an exchange happens that liberates a person from his debt.  When the exchange happens, there is no longer any debt to the offended party.

This is why Jesus is going up to Jerusalem: to satisfy the terms of agreement between God and his people.  What is that agreement?

God created us for his glory (Is 43.7); namely, to rebound back to him eternal praise and honor for his greatness, grace and goodness.  But we’re born with hearts intent on our pleasure and glory (Eph 2.1-3).  And as soon as we’re able our hearts express themselves to that end through the members of our bodies (mind, heart, eyes, ears, arms, legs, etc.).

God is owed eternal praise from every person he’s created.  And every person who fails to give him eternal praise must pay the penalty that fits the crime: eternal death (Rom 6.23a).  I owe God an eternity’s worth of honor.  When I fail to do that then I owe him an eternity’s worthy of judgment.  Life for life.  Skin for skin.

However, God has set a ransom price.  That is, we can be bought out by the right person.  God will release from his wrath all those for whom a proper substitute is provided.  That proper substitute must live perfectly–giving God the honor he is due in a lifetime of obedience.  And he must then suffer the just punishment for all those he would redeem.  In other words, God will get paid.  If anyone is going to enjoy the new creation with God then they must present to God a perfect record of obedience.  Someone has to meet those demands or else no one escapes eternal death.

Having set the ransom price, God himself provided the ransom payment.  He is owed a perfect life and sufficient death and Jesus went up to Jerusalem to meet that demand for all of God’s people (the “many”).

So it wasn’t to Satan that Jesus paid the ransom because Satan didn’t hold the ransom note.  He doesn’t have the power to eternally condemn (see Mt 10.28).  God holds the ransom note and provides the payment himself!

Now, many would object saying Jesus died for the penalty for everyone that has ever lived.  He atoned for the sins of every single person.  But it’s up to every single person whether or not he/she takes advantage of that work.  God has done his part in crucifying and resurrecting Jesus and now he waits longingly to see who will choose to benefit from that gracious work.  In other words. if the atonement is limited it will be so by unbelieving men but not by God.

To illustrate, we could use the coupons included in your Sunday paper.  They’re sent to everyone whether or not everyone decides to use them.  Likewise, God has sent the “coupon” of redemption (the work of Christ on the cross) to every person, but that’s all he can do.  It’s up to each person to decide whether or not he/she will redeem that coupon and receive what is promised in return (i.e. atonement).

But this offends the notion of ransom or redemption as it’s presented in the New Testament.  Jesus said he would give his life as a ransom, not offer his life as the potential ransom.  He is saying that a transaction is going to take place at the cross, wherein God will accept Jesus as the price for those who would otherwise be damned.

God is a just and righteous God.  When the terms of atonement (redemption) are met he must–by his own name–liberate all those for whom the price was paid.  If the cross was the act of redemption (ransom) and it was according to Jesus, then God must–unless he offend his own character–release all those from their debt for whom Christ’s death was intended.  Jesus’ death was a ransom payment, not a ransom offer.  And if a payment for everyone then everyone must be released from their debt to God.

But the cross was not the sending out of coupons to everyone.  The cross was the actual redeeming of the coupon!  The cross was not offering a redemptive transaction to everyone; it was the the transaction wherein Jesus’ life actually (not potentially) bought particular lives from God’s just and eternal wrath (Jn 10.11, 15, 17f.).  How could Jesus cry out with his last breath, “It is finished!” (Gk. tetelestai) if he knew redemption wasn’t really finished, if there was still part of the transaction left to be completed by us?

Isaiah 43.1-7 anticipates the cross, where Jesus’ life was given in exchange for the lives of all those who would later believe.  At his death (not at the point of faith) Jesus said to the grave, “Give them up!”

John Murray wrote in his classic Redemption Accomplished and Applied:

The ransom utterances of our Lord show beyond question that he interpreted the purpose of his coming into the world in terms of substitutionary ransom and that this ransom was nothing less than the giving of his life.  Redemption, therefore, in our Lord’s view consisted in substitutionary blood-shedding . . . in the room and stead of many with the end in view of thereby purchasing to himself the many on whose behalf he gave his life as a ransom” (p47).

So when exactly was Jesus’ life exchanged for the lives of sinners?  When did full atonement happen?  Consider the following sample of texts (all emphases mine):

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20.28).

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life (Rom 5.10).

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace (Eph 1.7).

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions,  having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2.13-14).

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,  and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives (Heb 2.14-15).

For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance (Heb 9.15).

We don’t activate an otherwise latent redemption.  We don’t complete the transaction of redemption when we repent and believe.  We repent and believe because the transaction was completed at the cross for the sake of those who believe.  The “coupon” was exchanged there.  Regeneration, repentance, faith, justification, sanctification and glorification are the applications to us of Christ’s completed work on our behalf.  All those and only those for whom Christ died will repent and believe.

In John 10.15, Jesus promised to lay down his life for the sheep.  In v26, he chastises “the Jews” and explains the reason they don’t believe him is because they’re not his sheep.  So, if Jesus lays down his life for the sheep (v15) and only sheep believe (v25), then only those for whom Jesus lays down his life will believe.  Or, those who believe (sheep) do so because Jesus has laid down his life for them.  Stated negatively, if you’re not a sheep for whom Jesus laid down his life (as a ransom) then you will not believe.

Some may protest saying God would not be fair if particular redemption is true.  But God will not be praised for his ingenious plan to share or offer salvation to sinners.  He will be praised for the glory of his grace in actually saving sinners (Eph 1.7).  God did more than come up with a great plan.  He actually affected that plan by exchanging the life of his Son for the children he gave Jesus (Jn 6.37; Heb 2.13).  What exalts God more: that he does some saving of everyone or that he does all the saving of some?  The apostles thought the latter was more glorious.

Particular atonement is not to restrain grace from anyone, but to unleash grace on those who know they’ve been ransomed: “to make known the riches of his glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9.23).

Dear Christian, God did it all! He did it all for (not because of) you!  You are not a little bit redeemed or a little bit ransomed.  You were ransomed in full at the cross and that’s why you now believe.  You are free entirely (Gal 5.1).  You are no longer under God’s thumb of wrath, but under his wing of mercy.

My sin–oh, the bliss of this glorious tho’t;
My sin not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross
And I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

Wingless Bones, not Boneless Wings

“For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12.25).

The Sadducees made great 1st-century conservatives but even better 21st-century liberals.  They denied all things supernatural, especially any notion of bodily resurrection from the dead (cf. Mt 3.7; 16.1, 11-12; 22.23, 34; Lk 20.27; Acts 4.1-2; 5.17; 23.6-8).  Their creed was Sola Torah (Torah alone); whatever Torah did not clearly teach was not to be believed.  As their Torah did not command a resurrection they denied its reality.

They tried to stump the resurrection-believing Jesus with a stock apologetic argument against resurrection (Mk 12.18-23).  The Pharisees fell for it every time so why not Jesus?  “Riddle me this, Jesus.  Seven brothers marry the same woman according to the law of levirate marriage (Dt 25.5-6).  Who of the brothers has dibs on this woman in the so-called ‘resurrection’ you so firmly believe?”  They were sure they’d stumped the Truth.

But Jesus quickly dismissed their straw man argument on grounds of ignorance of both Scripture and God’s power (Mk 12.24).  They had no clue about the nature of the resurrection life.  It’s not the unending continuation of this life, but a whole new life in a whole new dimension.  Ain’t no marriage in heaven because there ain’t no death in heaven and therefore no need for procreation (Lk 20.3).  Resurrected folk become like angels in that they do not maintain familial or conjugal relationships (v25).  Again, Jesus did not say the brothers became angels at death, but became like angels in the way that they don’t marry and have families.

So let’s be clear: people who were “good” in this life do not become angels when they die.

This may not be news to you, but it will be to many who do not understand Scripture’s teaching on life after death. How many funerals—even those considered “Christian”—have this underlying assumption that our deceased loved one is now floating around in heaven with fluttering wings and a flowing white robe, looking down on us and following us around in the breeze wishing we wouldn’t cry.

I remember at Mom’s funeral (20 years ago this year) how many would console me with the thought that she was now an angel. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but now I realize that wasn’t good news. And it came from folks who should’ve known better. So, let’s make sure we know better before the next funeral!

This news may be a profound disappointment to you or someone you know.  After all, what could be better than becoming angel and flying around wherever you want, being willingly invisible and invincibly powerful for eternity?  Not becoming an angel doesn’t sound like good news.

While it may seem like harmless sentiment, it actually cheapens several important biblical doctrines. So I want to try to defend why it is not good news that people become angels when they die. Stated positively, I want to prove why it is actually good news for the Christian that we do not become angels when we die.  I suggest five theological areas where this “harmless” sentiment actually harms how we understand humanity, Christ, salvation, sanctification and judgment.

Anthropology: God created humans to be physical, corporeal beings.

To discount the body as less important than the spirit is a product of Greek—namely, gnostic—heresy. It was common in 1st century Greek life to assume the body to be evil and the spirit to be good. And as such, one could do whatever he wanted with the body because it’s evil and will be destroyed. What one does with his body has no affect on his spirit.

To assume we become angels at death is to consider the body to be worthless, temporary and unnecessary to being eternally complete as a human being. This is why Paul spent so much time defending the glory and importance of what we do with our bodies:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (Rom 6.12-13).

For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6.20).

What we do with and how we treat our bodies matters because our bodies matter to God. God created us as unified, holistic beings with a spirit that impacts the body and vice versa (for examples, see Ps 32.3-4; Is 40.31). By nature, when we suffer spiritual strain we lose appetites. By nature, when we’re sick we feel spiritually drained. This is why the gospel is so radical: it gives strength where there is no strength to be had!

For example, why do post-abortive moms suffer spiritual affects? They’ve been sold the line that it’s their body to do with what they want (there is no connection between body and soul), but they suddenly realize that to monkey with the body has far-reaching spiritual implications.  They realize God has created our bodies to respond to and affect spiritual realities.  This is why our spiritual appetites lead to physical actions (cf. Jas 1.14-15; 4.2).

God did not create us as physical bodies with a spirit, or spirits with a body, but as spiritual bodies to reflect his glory both inside and out. To separate the soul from the body is to be sub-human.

Christology: Jesus’ bodily resurrection anticipates what will happen with all believers in Christ.

God promises to conform all believers to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29). God will “transform the body of our humble state inot conformity with the body of [Christ’s] glory” (Phil 3.21). When we see Jesus we will be like Jesus (1 Jn 3.2).  Therefore, whatever Jesus is in his glorified state is what we will be in ours. And Jesus was raised bodily to become the first fruits of God’s intention for true humanity.

Stated negatively: Jesus did not become an angel when he died. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will not become angels when we die.

Stated positively: Jesus was raised bodily. God promises we will be like Jesus. Therefore, we will be raised bodily.

But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8.11).

To assume we become angels at death is to say we would rather be an angel to be like Jesus for all eternity. That’s an insult to Jesus.

Soteriology: God’s salvation is complete when our physical bodies are redeemed/glorified in a bodily resurrection.

Given God’s valuing the body, his salvation must necessarily include—and his grace experienced by—the redemption of our fallen bodies.  What happened with the Fall in Eden was the destruction of the body and soul. We die in every sense of the word. We die physically and we die spiritually. In Christ, God reverses that curse so that both body and soul are redeemed restored to unrestrained, eternal glory.

. . . we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8.23).

For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked” (2 Cor 5.1-3).

Christ’s work is not complete when we die and go to heaven. His work is complete when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil to a resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5.28-29).

So we don’t breathe a sigh of relief at the funeral of a dead Christian because God has finally taken them to a better place. While we’re thankful that is true, we also groan because there is still something wrong with seeing a soulless corpse decaying in a box. God’s plan of redemption is not yet complete until the redeemed soul is reunited with the redeemed and resurrected body.

The gospel does not end at “going to heaven when you die.” It ends at the resurrection, where recreated body and souls enjoy and worship Christ’s unrestrained glory in the recreated cosmos. It ends when all our senses are redeemed from the curse of sin so that we know God with every faculty of our being.

Sanctifcation: Being human for eternity is necessary for understanding, appreciating and enjoying God’s grace for eternity.

As a sub-category of soteriology, we should say something about the affect this has on our sanctification: our becoming like Jesus by growing in the understanding and enjoyment of the gospel.   God designed the plan of redemption so that he will be worshiped for his being the God of sovereign and unending grace, displayed in Jesus Christ.

He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the kind intention of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the beloved” (Eph 1.5-6).

So the content of our worship for eternity will be to glory in God’s grace. It will be praising him that though we deserved the fullness of God’s wrath in hell, we now enjoy the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven. As the smoke of hell rises up forever and ever (Rev 19.3) we will proclaim, “Hallelujah! We’re not there, but we should be! We’re not where we deserve to be, but where God chose us to be!”

The glory of the gospel is that in Christ alone God saves forever those who otherwise deserve to be damned for their sin. They experience God’s grace for no other reason than God chose to love them for his own sake.

These are things, Peter wrote, “into which angels long to look” (1 Pt 1.12). In other words, angels love to watch God’s plan of redemption working out in the lives of his people. But, they watch it as outsiders looking in. They will never experience what it’s like to be cast under the wrath of God only to be redeemed from that wrath by the work of Jesus. In a word, they will never know what it’s like to experience the fullness of God’s grace.

Neither unfallen or fallen angels (cf. 2 Pt 2.4) will experience the fullness of God’s grace. Only redeemed and resurrected humans will.

So it is better to be created by God, left to fall into sin and under his eternal and just wrath, to be dogged by sin and pain of repentance, and then to be rescued from that wrath by grace through faith in Jesus Christ than to be created as or become an angel.  Becoming an angel at death would actually shortchange the worship God is due and our eternal joy of being the object of God’s sovereign grace.

Wings would actually interfere with our enjoyment and vision of God!

Judgment: God’s ultimate judgment of sin will be the physical, bodily torment of all unbelievers.

Just as the eternal enjoyment of God’s grace in the new creation will be a bodily, physical experience, so will the experience of God’s wrath in hell.  To make light of the body with respect to eternal life is to make light of God’s grace in the gospel. To make light of the body with respect to eternal death is to make light of God’s judgment.

Hell is not en vogue these days (if it ever was!). But all of Scripture, and especially Jesus is quite clear that hell will be the eternal, conscious, physical (bodily) torment of all those who resist Christ in this life.

“If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5.29-30).

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10.28). Satan doesn’t destroy the soul and body in hell. God does!

In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame” (Lk 16.23-24).

We’re all familiar with John’s image of the “lake of fire” that will receive all unbelievers and Satan himself (Rev 20.14f.; 21.8).

Every description of hell depicts a physically painful experience of God’s eternal wrath. And regularly the image of hell is a place where people suffer skin-scorching fire and lung-filling toxic fumes. Now, that may all sound fanciful and a bit cartoonish to you. But, even if the language is symbolic then how much more will the reality be!

I’m told that 3rd and 4th degree burns create the most horrific pain we could ever experience. So if you wanted to describe the fullness of God’s wrath it would be appropriate to depict the unending pain of 4th degree burns. Death would be a favor, but there will be no favors in hell.

Hell is not the absence of God, where all unbelievers are left to their own devices. God will be just as present in hell as he is in heaven. Only, he will be present in the fullness of his wrath rather than the fullness of his blessing.  And all those there will have every one of the their senses fully sensitive to that wrath. Just God must raise our bodies to be equipped for heaven (unending life without pain) so must he raise and prepare the body for hell—unending pain without death.

To assume good people become angels at death you must consistently assume bad people become demons. Just as becoming an angel would shortchange joy, becoming a demon would be getting off easy!

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Joel Beeke on Unconditional Election

“Is Christ the mirror in which you see your election?  Do you believe in Christ as your only hope for salvation?  Do you see beauty in Christ, finding Him to be the altogether lovely one? Do you desire Christ for His own sake, not merely for the sake of benefits, such as heaven?  Oh, then you have Him and the seal of His election.  You are the elect of God, for the elect are known by their fruits (Matt. 7:20), and the crowning fruit is to know Jesus Christ, whom to know is eternal life (John 17:3).  If you can say, ‘Less than Jesus would not satisfy me, and more is not needed because more than all in Him I find,’ you are elect, for that is what saving faith believes.  As Ernest Kevan writes, ‘Nobody ever came to Christ because he knew he was one of the elect: he came because he needed Christ.’  The great sign of our election is this soul dependence on Christ” (Joel Beeke, Living for God’s Glory, p68-69).

Thank God that you treasure Christ (1 Cor 1.30).

Touching on Touchstone

In the latest Touchstone Magazine Daniel Boerman wrote a sweet article entitled “When the Wood is Dry.”  The following excerpt was most edifying:

There is . . . a gospel for sufferers.  Jesus not only suffered in our place; he also suffered as an example for us to follow.  He warns us that obedience in a sinful and fallen world will not be easy.  The world does not appreciate or applaud faithful discipleship.  Living selflessly and loving as we serve God and others will sometimes expose us to serious pain.  And sometimes God may compel us to share in some of the forsakenness and bitterness that Jesus himself experienced.

[God’s silence] is a blessing because it enables me to share just a little of what it meant for Christ to be utterly abandoned by God and man when he was hanging on the cross.  I know something of the desperation and exasperation he felt when he uttered that despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).  I realize that my experience was only a tiny taste of the suffering of Christ, but it is nevertheless real.  I count it a privilege and and honor.

Our suffering is a means of God’s grace to remind us about the ineffable glory of the cross and the assurance of our sonship.  Affliction is not necessary for who we are or are not, but who we’re going to be.  After the glorious declaration of Jesus’ God-pleasing sonship at his baptism (Mt 3.17), Satan immediately questioned that sonship.  Jesus is led into the wilderness where Satan prefaced his tempations with, “If you are the Son of God then . . .” (Mt 4.3, 6). In other words, suffering is unbecoming of God’s Son with whom he is well pleased.  Is this the way God treats his beloved Son?

It is certainly the way God must treat sinners.  And if that Son is to become sin for us (2 Cor 5.21) then, yes, it’s the way he must treat his Son (cf. Heb 5.8).  If any son of Adam is to enjoy heaven then the Son of God must suffer hell.

It’s as though God says to his suffering child, “This really hurts, doesn’t it?  Could you suffer it forever?  Could you suffer it million times worse? Could you suffer it a million times worse for the sake of your enemies?  How would you feel toward someone who suffered such pain on your behalf?  That’s what I did for you, child, so suffer well knowing it’s as close to hell you will ever get.”  Paul expressed it this way:  “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5.7-8).

Within hours of his passion Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17.24).  Jesus prayed that if he did all the suffering then his enemies-turned-brothers should share in all his pre-existent glory and Trinitarian love.  And Jesus always gets what he prays for.

The Paradoxical Love of God

It is God who takes the initiative in reconciling us to him, not Christ who take the initiative in persuading his reluctant Father to relent.  The cross occurred because God is a God of grace, not to make him a God of grace (Derek Tidball, The Message of the Cross, p223).

Jesus did not convince the Father to love us.  Jesus convinced us the Father loves us.  God was not reluctant to love us until Jesus persuaded him otherwise.  We are reluctant to love God until Jesus persuades us otherwise.

Scripture is quite clear that we are born enemies of God (Rom 5.10) and children of wrath (Eph 2.3).  And until we obey the Son we remain under the wrath of God (Jn 3.36).  Apart from Christ we are have “no hope and are without God in the world” (Eph 2.12).  God stands against us from birth because we stand against him from the same.  God hates all who do iniquity (Ps 5.5; 11.5).  I do iniquity.  Therefore, barring some change in either God or me, God hates me.  And God does not change.

Yet, at the same time God stands against us he also makes provision in love to reconcile us to himself (Jn 3.16).  The emphasis of John 3.16 is not “whoever believes” but on the extent of (or “the manner of” which is the meaning of “so”) God’s love to provide salvation to the very people (i.e. “world”) he must damn.  Or, stated differently, John did not argue the extent man’s free will to believe Jesus.  He stressed the extent of God’s free will to love those he otherwise hates.  God purposed to hate his Son in order to prove his love for us.  “Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love” (Micah 7.18).

God pledges himself to love (by virtue of his grace) those he is obliged (by virtue of his holiness) to hate.  This is the epitome of love.  God did not hate us until he loved us.  He loved us despite hating us.  God does not start loving us when we believe.  We believe because he loves us (1 Jn 4.10)!  “What the cross changed was not his attitude but our standing before him” (Tidball: 224).

Jesus asked, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same” (Lk 6.32-33).  For God to love us because we’re just that lovable makes God no more virtuous than any work-a-day sinner.  But to love one’s enemies and bless those who deserve to be cursed?  That’s love from another kingdom which operates under a different economy.

When Jesus commands us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk 6.27-28) he’s not helping us toward less stress.  Loving and blessing enemies is quite stressful!  He’s commanding us to do what God did for us.  He loved his enemies (Rom 5.8, 10).  He did good those who hated him (Eph 2.4-7).  He blessed those who cursed him (1 Cor 6.9-11).  He prayed for those who mistreated him (Lk 22.31-32; 23.34; Jn 17.20).  He loved sinners like us despite having also to hate us.  He initiated (and affected!) reconciliation with the last people on earth who deserved to be reconciled (2 Cor 5.19).  Therefore, God’s people love in the way only God can love (2 Cor 5.18).

Friend, who do you hate?  From whom do you withhold blessing and prayer?  And has God treated you (his enemy) the same way you’re treating your enemy?  You may be rightly offended and justly owed but that is true of no one like it’s true of God.  Yet, he did not let your hatred of him stop him from loving you to death (literally).  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven” (Mt 6.10).

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Now We’re Getting Somewhere (or Someone!)

God has granted of late several soul-enlarging conversations with my dad.  It’s relatively uncommon that sons can pore over Scripture either with their dads or 83-year-old men, much less a combination of the two.  But in God’s inestimable grace and wise providence I’ve enjoyed this undeserved gift.

Several days ago we wandered into the deep end (which Paul would say is the kiddie pool of the Gospel) to discuss the doctrines of grace.  God has given Dad a helpful combination of patience and eagerness.  He wants to know what we can know, but in a way that promotes gentleness and respect.  Never has Dad wanted to argue the point, but learn the truth.

As we navigated the sovereignty of God in salvation Dad was led to the question of all eternal questions.  It took me by surprise and at that point I realized we were getting somewhere together.  Or better yet, we were getting Someone together.  The question Dad was compelled to ask was: “Why then am I saved and not someone else?”  When he asked that my heart raced and soul swelled.  It wasn’t because I felt like I’d taught my dad something, but because that was the question I needed to hear for my own sake.

I thought my first instinct would be to unpack the answer to that question with biblical-theological arguments and counter-arguments.  But, I couldn’t.  That question was doxological, not pedagogical.  It didn’t need an answer from the head, but worship from the heart.  So I exclaimed, “That’s it, Dad!  Now we’re getting at grace!  It’s the answer to that very question we will celebrate for all eternity!  That’s the question that grace necessarily begs if we’re to understand God’s grace at all.”

And it is the answer to that question that makes the most of Jesus and our glorying in him.  Give credit where credit is due.

But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Cor 1.30-31).

Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness

I love godly widows who have read rich theological books and pass them on to their ignorant and immature pastors.  I often wonder who exactly is pastoring whom!

A latest offering is Horatius Bonar’s The Everlasting Righteousness, from which we enjoy this:

Man has always treated sin as a misfortune, not a crime; as disease, not guilt; as a case for the physician, not for the judge.  Herein lies the essential faultiness of all mere human religions or theologies.  They fail to acknowledge the judicial aspect of the question, as that on which the real answer must hinge; and to recognise [sic] the guilt or criminality of the evil-doer as that which must first be dealt with before any real answer, or approximation to an answer, can be given.

And this:

Sin is too great an evil for man to meddle with.  His attempts to remove it do but increase it, and his endeavours to approach God in spite of it aggravate his guilt.  Only God can deal with sin, either as a disease or a crime; as a dishonour to Himself, or as a hinderer of man’s approach to Himself.  He deals with it not in some arbitrary or summary way, by a mere exercise of will or power, but by bringing it for adjudication into His own courts of law.  As judge, seated on His tribunal, He settles the case, and settles it in favour of the sinner, of any sinner on the earth that will consent to the basis which He proposes.  Into this court each one may freely come, on the footing of a sinner needing the adjustment of the great question between him and God.  That adjustment is no matter of uncertainty or difficulty; it will at once be granted to each applicant; and the guilty man with his case, however bad, thus legally settled, retires from court with his burden removed and his fears dispelled, assured that he can never again be summoned to answer for his guilt.  It is righteousness that has reconciled God to him, and him to God.

Forde Days of Purpose

I can’t put this down.  Gerhard Forde’s interaction with Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is now one of my must-reads for preparing men for eldership.  Read Calvin’s Institutes first and then this.  Most modern church “leadership” books seek to empower men for ministry.  Luther (and Forde) seek to kill them for it.  Dead men make better gospel preachers.

Thesis 22 of the Disputation reads, “That wisdom which perceives the invisible things of God by thinking in terms of works completely puffs up, blinds, and hardens.”

Forde comments on pp92-93:

Religiously we like to look on ourselves as potential spiritual athletes desperately trying to make God’s team, having perhaps just a little problem or two with the training rules.  We have a thirst for glory.  We feel a certain uneasiness of conscience or even resentment within when the categorical totality of the action of God begins to dawn on us.  We are always tempted to return to the safety and assurance of doing something anyway.  Generally, it is to be suspected, that is all we planned to do, a little something.  But to surrender the “wisdom” of law and works, or better, to have it taken away, is the first indication of what it means to be crucified with Christ.

Though beyond Forde’s scope in the book, the “little something” in Baptist life often takes the form of altar calls, sinners’ prayers, church membership and (strangely!) baptism.  The gospel’s demand for repentance and faith is nothing less than the demand for death and resurrection.  Bonhoeffer (another sturdy Lutheran!) wrote famously, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).  And we don’t like leaving people to die.

We want them to come down here.  Pray this. Do that.  Do something, anything (but not too much) so that we have something to show for the effort.  Yet, Jesus left Nicodemus in his “night” (Jn 3.1-15).  He watched the young ruler walk away sad with his bulging pockets (Mt 19.21).  They must be left to die if they are to live.

Forde concludes (p102):

The theologian of glory finally is “frightened to death,” if one may so speak.  The terror is in the fact that the end of sin has come and the Old Adam and Eve can no longer survive.  Then one is a candidate for being born anew.  That is the gateway to being saved by the creative righteousness of God.

The New Adam

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous (Rom 5.19).

The type/antitype relationship between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5 is a theological gold mine.  In a sense, we can simplify all men down to this relationship.  We are sons of Adam until we are sons of Christ.  We are old men (Adam) until he dies and we put on the new man (Christ).  We are dead men until we’re made alive.  We are unrighteous until we’re made righteous.  We’re decaying with the old creation until we’re made part of the new creation.  There are only two kinds of people in all of human history: Adam folk or Christ folk.

History began with a man in a garden before a curse-bearing tree.  At at the end of Jesus’s life we’re back in a garden again before a curse-bearing tree (Gal 3.13).  History has been reset.  At the dawn of the new creation, what will the Second Adam do?  Will he withstand the temptation?  Will he finally undo for us what the first Adam did to us?  Will he obey the ultimate test of obedience?

God told the first Adam not to eat one bite of the tree.  God commanded the Second Adam he must drink its fruit to the dregs.

Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Lk 22.42).  The first Adam knew he must refuse the fruit of the tree, but didn’t want to.  The Second Adam didn’t want to drink of the tree, but knew he must.  The first Adam blamed God’s will.  The Second Adam submitted to it.

The first Adam clothed himself in hidden shame after eating of the tree.  The Second Adam endured public nakedness on the tree for all the world to see (Gal 3.1).

The first Adam hid from God hoping to save his life.  God hid from the Second Adam so that he would save ours (Mt 27.46).

The first Adam exiled us from Paradise, guarded under angelic lock and key.  The Second Adam opened the doors of paradise again to us (Mk 15.37; Heb 10.19-20).  The angels that once kept us out as God’s wardens now welcome us in as Christ’s servants (Heb 1.6,7,14).

For the joy set before him, the first Adam sunk his teeth into the fruit.  For the joy set before him, the Second Adam endured the cross (Heb 12.2).  They both partook of the tree, but one killed us and the other made us alive.

The first Adam had to obey unto life.  The Second Adam had to obey unto death (Phil 2.8).

The first Adam sought to become like God and died.  The Second Adam became like man and lived (Phil 2.5-11).

The first Adam gave up his children’s lives for the sake of his appetite.  The Second Adam gave up his life for the sake of his children (Heb 2.14-15).

The first Adam have children who lie, steal and kill.  The Second Adam has brothers and sisters who tell truth, give generously and impart life.

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Indeed, Jesus reversed the curse, undoing for us all that Adam did to us.  Let us run to him in the Garden and enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Breakfast with Doc Martin

This morning our local pastors’ fellowship discussed On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Gerhard Forde’s commentary on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.  What a feast this was for the soul!  I was converted all over again!

Luther caused no small stir with his informal “attack” on papal indulgences (the “Ninety-Five Theses”).  Luther was asked to formally defend his views before his fellow (and supportive) Augustinian monks at their formal meeting in Heidelberg, Germany.  He did so in April, 1518, the result of which is now immortalized as the Heidelberg Disputation. However, he did not address the content of the “Ninety-Five Theses” as expected.  Instead he formulated another set of theses defending what was far more fundamental than indulgences.  With 28 “theological theses” Luther defended the substance of the gospel itself expressed as a grace-based “theology of the cross” over against a works-based “theology of glory.”  This disputation was arguably more important for the church than the Ninety-Five Theses.

Although all the theses are worthy of meditation, three in particular gripped me this morning.

Thesis #25: He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.

“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4.5).  Despite how much we profess “faith” in Christ we’re ever tempted toward works-righteousness.  Will I have done enough in the end?  Perseverance is not simply lifelong obedience, but is the ongoing display of an enduring faith.  We are “protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pt 1.5).  The question will not be if I’ve done enough but if I’ve believed the right thing.

The gospel (the theology of the cross) is so powerful that if you truly believe it then it will create what it demands (Rom 1.16).  If I persistently believe the right thing then I will increasingly behave the right way.  But my heart rebuts, “I’m still a screw up!”  And I always will be in light of God’s glory.  This is why we rejoice God doesn’t credit righteousness where it is due, but where Christ is believed.

Thesis #26: The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done.  Grace says, “Believe in this,” and everything is already done.

God’s pleasure forever rests in Jesus Christ whose obedience unto death (Phil 2.8) earned the Father’s favor once-and-for-all (Heb 7.27) for all those the Father gave him (Heb 2.13-15).  God demands to be loved with all our heart, soul, mind and strength or else be damned.  Who can do so?  Jesus has loved God as God deserves and freely shares that Trinitarian love with those who believe (Jn 17.23, 26).

Thesis #28: The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.  The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

In other words, we (man) love those things that demonstrate some inherent ability to please us.  As we have no inherent ability to please God or merit his love, God creates what he can love.  He makes us into the sort of people from whom he can derive pleasure.

God loves in us the reflection of his glory in Christ, implanted by the Holy Spirit.  The Father loves the Son supremely as there is nothing more lovable.  And for him to love us as he’s promised he conforms us to Christ (Rom 8.29), so that we can share in the very thing that pleases him above all else.  There is no greater pleasure in the universe than that which pleases God, and by our union with Christ God lets us share in that pleasure.  God creates what is pleasing to him: people who reflect the excellencies of his Son.

The more we try to be worthy of that pleasure the less of it we will enjoy.  The more we believe Christ has done all and is all, the more we experience God’s love.

Stay in Your Lane

Then Manoah arose and followed his wife, and when he came to the man he said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?” And the man said, “I am.”  Manoah said, “Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy’s mode of life and his vocation?” So the angel of Yahweh said to Manoah, “Let the woman pay attention to all that I said.  She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded” (Judges 13.11-14).

Living by Ft. Hood the last four years has allowed me some initiation into Army life.  Soldiers live by strict chains of command mediated through circuitous acronyms.  I’ve yet to figure out all the various levels (it is the Federal government after all) but I have picked up on a few “Armyisms.”  I’ll thrown in a “Roger that” when Amy wants to do lunch.  I am a hopeless romantic.  Why answer “no” to a question when “negative” will do just fine?  And don’t call sargeants “Sargeant” around here unless you want to be pegged a silly civi’ tourist.  Greet them “Sar’nt” with a “Hooah” and you’ll be one of the boys (or girls, as the case may be these days).

There one Armyism, however, that I absolutely love.  Assume Private Jones asks Sar’nt Williams the reason behind a recent order.  Maybe Sar’nt Williams will tell him, but more often than not he’ll say, “Just stay in your lane, Private Jones.  Just stay in your lane.”  In other words, just do your job as commanded and trust that you’ll know what you need to know when you need to know it.  Some information is, as they say, above your pay grade.

I thought about this when reading about Manoah this morning (Judges 13).  Manoah, a Danite, was married to an unnamed and infertile woman.  God (the angel of Yahweh) appeared to her and promised to open her womb.  And during her pregnancy she must give up her nightly glass of Bordeaux and refuse all unclean food.  Her soon-to-be son will be a teetotaling, long-haired Nazirite and the one to deliver Israel from Philistine oppression.  He would be Samson.

She told Manoah this news and he prayed to hear it for himself.  When God appeared again to them Manoah begged for more information (v12).  What will become of this boy?  What will he do for a living?  What sort of man will he be?  What are we supposed to do when he gets older?  Cloth diapers or Pampers?  Football or choir?  College or trade or military?

God responded to Manoah’s questions like Sar’nt Smith does Private Jones.  The Maxwell Revised Libertarian Verson reads vv13-14 thusly: “Manoah, just stay in your lane.  Make sure your wife does what I’ve already told her to do.  Flush all your wine and keep a strict kosher diet.  You need not concern yourself with anything beyond that.  Trust me.  I’ll let you know what you need to know when you need to know it.”  Samson’s parents had no idea, and couldn’t know, what God intended for their son (see Judg 14.4).

A similar interchange happened between Jesus and Peter (Jn 21.18-23).   Jesus assured Peter he would die for loving Christ and serving his sheep.  Peter saw John in the corner of his eye and asked Jesus what will become of his dear ol’ friend.  Jesus responded in v22, “Peter, just stay in your lane.  I love you and have custom-designed your sanctification.  So tend my sheep like I’ve told you and don’t worry about what I’ve planned for John.  That’s between him and me.” (MRLV)

How often we complicate God’s will by demanding to know what God would not have us know yet.  God commands an obedient step and before we take it begin asking about the six steps later.  For examples: If I forgive her then what will happen if she does it again?  If I give my stuff away then what will I do if I might need it again?  If I initiate that difficult conversation then what will happen to our relationship down the road?  If I move there then what will our life look like in ten years?  If I love him again then what if he doesn’t reciprocate?  If I leave this ministry then what will happen with it next year?  If I take on that ministry then what will become of it? Why do I need to this since it wasn’t what so-and-so needed to do in their situation?

Before long we complicate ourselves into paralysis.  Because we can’t know everything we don’t do anything.  But we simply cannot know all that God is doing “under the radar.”  God will be trusted for who he is, not what he can prove.

Stay in your lane.  Take the step in front of you, not the one you can’t see yet.  Obey what God has clearly commanded you now and trust Him for what comes later.   God is not mystical about his will.  He knows us too well for that, which is why he calls us sheep.  He is our Kind Father who knows to light our way just enough.  He is our Gracious Father who gives us all that’s necessary to obey.  He is our Good Father who will always do what is right for us.  The next step may not be easy, but it will be clear.

So go back home, Manoah, and fluff your wife’s pillow.  She’ll need the rest.

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Calvin Community Church

“The Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the ministry of the Word and sacraments.  He so esteems the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes his own [authority] diminished” (Calvin, Institutes, IV.I.10).

The Reformation did not seek merely to recover the gospel, but to recover the true gospel church.  Therefore, there’s far more to Calvinism than TULIP and far more to being “Reformed” than embracing/defending the doctrine of election.  Being “Reformed” (or at least Calvinist) means loving the local church and all her glory as our spiritual “mother”:

“For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep up under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels” (Ibid., IV.I.4).

There are no true Calvinists but church-loving (which is to say saint-loving) Calvinists.  When we join a church we don’t join an abstract set of doctrines, but a sinful-yet-justified people with whom we commit to living out those doctrines (Rom 12.5; Eph 4.25).  If God’s grace is sovereign (which it is) then we commit to unleashing it in our brothers’ and sisters’ lives.  God’s grace is not sovereign because we argue the point better than our Arminian brothers and sisters.  It’s sovereign because it really leads us to repent from sin, believe in Christ, love our Bibles, pray like mad, worship with all our might, love baptism, feast at the Lord’s Table, mourn with our brothers, and rejoice with our sisters.

I’m a committed Calvinist through and through.  But our lives are not spiritually stunted because we may be Arminian, but because we love sin too much and Christ too little.  I don’t need a better argument; I need a better Savior!  Help me to that Savior and I’ll soon learn the sovereignty of God’s grace.  Where am I to best learn of this Savior but from the authoritative voice of the Church: a mother who loves me enough to confront, convict, convince and comfort me of God’s grace in Christ!

Ask Calvin to show you a “Reformed Church” (a term that would probably confuse him) and he’ll show you a group of folks  who really help one another to greater enjoyment of Jesus through Word, sacrament and discipline.