Trinity Sunday: Objects & Agents of Grace

Trinity Sunday: Objects & Agents of Grace

This posts adapted from my sermon on Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014) at The Cathedral Church of Saint Luke.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday is one of the principal feast days in The Episcopal Church: Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany. Most feast days are about events connected to God’s redemptive plan (birth of Christ, Magi worship Jesus, crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Ascension, outpouring of the Holy Spirit). But today is about God specifically.

Rusty Old Switch

Let me tell you a story as an angle in to what we will focus on this morning. Just bought a house and moved in the past few days. Under the break box is a rusty smaller box that looks like a timer or switch or something. I fiddled with it a few days ago, flipping it on and off to find out what it did. It seemed to be a useless old fixture.

The next day as we were moving some things in I noticed that a few things weren’t working. First, I couldn’t get the sprinklers to come on and then the garage door wouldn’t work and then the pool started turning green because the pool filter hadn’t bee running.

I called the couple we bought the house from. They explained that I must have turned off the switch for all these things I needed. That rusty old switch gave power to all these very important functions I needed, especially the pool filter. I had my two little girls coming over the next day and they were excited about the pool. I couldn’t have them swimming in algae.

I now know the significance of that rusty old switch and now I check it all the time. If something goes wrong, I run over to see if it’s related to the switch.

That’s kind of like the doctrine of the Trinity for us. It can be something we take for granted or even dismiss as “rusty” or “old” or “not useful,” but the reality is that the Trinity is the heart of what that we celebrate every Sunday and all the benefits of being adopted into God’s family. That’s why it is the topic of Article 1 of the 39 Articles.

Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity

What is the Trinity and why is the doctrine important? God is one. God has one mind, one plan, one will, one nature, one essence, one Being. God is one and eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and HS. That is the Xn teaching on the nature of God. That is what “trinity” means. It is “tri” “unity”. This is what Tertullian was communicating when he created the word “Trinity”, which isn’t in the Bible but the teaching sure is. He was saying there is tri-unity: which is that God is one but three persons and three persons working together with one will, one nature, one mind. These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature. While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.

Within God there is both unity and diversity: unity without uniformity, and diversity without division.  The Athanasian Creed (circa. ad 500) says it like this: “We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity; we distinguish among the persons, but we do not divide the substance. … The entire three persons are co-eternal and co-equal with one another, so that … we worship complete unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.”

Our focus on Trinity is not just talking about the metaphysical, eternal understanding of the nature of God. But the Bible also talks about what the Trinity means for us and how we encounter God. Let’s look at two of these.

We are objects of grace and agents of grace. The order matters too. We are first object and then agents. Being an agent doesn’t make you an object.

Objects of Grace

First, we are OBJECTS of the Trinity’s grace The doctrine of the Trinity is most fully realized in the NT where the Father, Son, and Spirit are seen accomplishing redemption. We see this clearly in 1 Peter 1:2: “To those who are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, and for obedience to Jesus Christ for sprinkling his blood.” Our salvation is triune in the sense that the Father plans redemption of the world, the Son accomplishes redemption by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the Holy Spirit applies redemption to us in our hearts and lives.

We worship not only the complete unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, but we worship because the Triune God was fully active in our rescue and redemption. Redemption of sinful humans is accomplished through the distinct and unified activity of each person of the Godhead. Listen to Heb 9:14: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Or  2 Cor 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

This is “grace upon grace.” This is the unconditional overwhelming love of God.

My father taught me the word “unconditional.” I remember him saying, “I love you unconditionally.” I thought he was taking about Air Conditioning. Since we lived in FL, I knew AC was important and figured it as a good thing. But I finally asked what “unconditional” meant. He explained that there was nothing I could do for him to love me any more and nothing I could do for him to love me less…ever.

That’s when I learned that love begets love. You go where you are loved. I was compelled to be around him lots and to obey him. His love for me motivated my loyalty and love for him.

And this applies to us as we relate to God. We are objects of grace and we get to be and are called to be agents of the Trinity’s grace

Agents of Grace

This is what our Gospel reading is about: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.”

This is the Great Commission to Jesus’ disciples and also a picture of our participation. We get to be agents of the very thing we desperately needed. That’s a high calling. It’s a renewal of the original calling in the Garden of Eden to “multiply and have dominion” except now it is both physical and spiritual.

But notice that the commands to do those three things are in between two promises: Jesus has authority and Jesus is with you. You need to know both of these. These promises give us hope and expectation: “I have authority over everywhere, so go everywhere because it’s mine.” We should expect God to act and that our endeavors to be fruitful.

In addition to having authority, he is with you for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal. He is with you always and forever, no matter what. This is covenantal faithfulness and presence.


On this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate that we who were once enemies of God are now reconciled and objects of his grace…but on top of that we even are commissioned to also be agents of that grace to the world.

Let us pray: “Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth: set up your kingdom in our midst. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God: Have mercy on us, sinners. Holy Spirit, breath of the living God: Renew us and all the world. Amen.”


Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Many contemporary Christians feel disconnected from the vibrant, Spirit-filled ministries of the prophets and apostles described in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God seemingly took the people of Israel through miraculous event after miraculous event. In the New Testament, those who watched the ministry of Jesus were seized with amazement (cf. Luke 5:25) at the miracles he performed, and the apostles in the early church regularly performed signs and wonders among the people (Acts 5:12).

Yet today, such miraculous events seem rare and, when we do hear reports of miracles, many Christians are skeptical. At the very least, Christians feel that there is something different about the way God worked in the Old and New Testament periods and the way he works today. This raises a valid question: Why don’t we experience today the miracles we read about in the New Testament?

To answer that question, we need to understand not only how God works through providence and common grace [link to previous standalone post on miracles and providence], but we must also understand the purpose of miracles in the Bible.


The Purpose of Miracles in Scripture

Miracles in Scripture are acts of God that proclaim his sovereign power over creation as well as his commitment to the good of his people. Miracles are often significant because they serve a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan, giving evidence of the authenticity of God’s messengers who bring his revelation to humanity. This is one of the primary functions of miracles in the Scriptural narratives: “When miracles occur, they give evidence that God is truly at work and so serve to advance the gospel.”[1] Miracles serve as an authentication of God’s message and his messengers.

In the Old Testament, Moses did miracles to attest to his authority as God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:1–9). Similarly, the prophets were given words to speak from God, and in order to verify their authority God granted them the ability to perform miracles (1 Kings 17:17–24, 18:36–39, 2 Kings 1:10).

Whereas “the miracles of the Old Testament age authenticated Moses and the prophets as men of God…the miracles of the New Testament age authenticated in turn Christ and his apostles.”[2] Nicodemus, for example, recognized that God was with Jesus because of the miracles he did (John 3:2). Luke records approximately 20 of Jesus’ miracles and four—all healings—are unique to only Luke. Jesus’ miracles authenticate his authoritative role in the divine plan that brings salvation (Luke 7:22). In fact, the scope of Jesus’ healings shows the breadth of his authority. He heals the sick, casts out evil spirits, and cures a variety of specific conditions: a flow of blood, a withered hand, blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, leprosy, dropsy, and fever. He resuscitates the dead and exercises power over nature.

Miracles also point to God’s kingdom and the restoration of creation. John calls the miracles of Jesus “signs” (John 4:54, 6:15), and Jesus suggests that his miraculous works verify that the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:14-23). Jesus performed healings, exorcisms, and “nature” miracles (such as turning water into wine and multiplying food) as a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth. As Grudem puts it, the one of the purposes of miracles was “to bear witness to the fact that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives.”[3] This is exactly the point of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Because of Jesus’ miraculous works, those who saw him knew that the God of Israel was once again acting in their midst.

Tim Keller points out that miracles

“lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce…Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.”[4]

Jesus’ miracles reveal his divine identity—an identity that calls for worship. This is the response of the disciples after Jesus walks on the water: “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). When asked whether he was the “one who is to come” (Luke 7:19) Jesus, instead of answering with a word testifying that he is the Messiah, points to his miracles. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is focused on his authority and the promise he brings. Jesus’ saving work inaugurates the kingdom of God, delivers sinners, secures forgiveness of sin, and provides the Spirit.

Grudem’s description of miracles in the Old and New Testaments is worth quoting:

“It seems to be a characteristic of the New Testament church that miracles occur. In the Old Testament, miracles seemed to occur primarily in connection with one prominent leader at a time, such as Moses or Elijah or Elisha. In the New Testament, there is a sudden and unprecedented increase in the miracles when Jesus begins his ministry (Luke 4:36–37, 40–41). However, contrary to the pattern of the Old Testament, the authority to work miracles and to cast out demons was not confined to Jesus himself, nor did miracles die out when Jesus returned to heaven. Even during his ministry, Jesus gave authority to heal the sick and to cast out demons not only to the Twelve, but also to seventy of his disciples (Luke 10:1, 9, 17–19; cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 9:49–50).”[5]

The miracles of the early church, then, served an immediately relevant purpose in redemptive history: verifying the authenticity of God’s revelation and signaling the coming of the new eschatological age among God’s people.

Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. One of the largest disputes in the early church concerned whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to keep the Old Testament Law and be circumcised. It became such an issue of dispute that Paul, Peter, and Barnabas met with the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to debate the issue. What is interesting is that, as Acts 15:12 says, “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Here the miraculous works of God served as evidence to the Jewish Christians that God was in fact working in a new and unique way among the Gentiles as well.


Miracles Today

How should Christians think about miracles today? First, we must realize that the sheer volume and close proximity of the countless miracles in the Old and New Testaments served significant purposes in God’s redemptive plan at the time. However, this does not mean that God does not still do miracles today. Indeed, as Wayne Grudem notes, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.”[6] Miracles still happen, and Christians should avoid the two extremes of seeing everything as a miracle and seeing nothing as a miracle.

Second, Christians need to expand their understanding of God’s action to include both his providential sustaining in daily affairs and his miraculous works of redemption in the church. For example, in John 14:12, Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” But it is not immediately clear what Jesus means when he says that those coming after him will do “greater works.” Some may think that these “greater works” refer to more miracles and other such events. However, D. A. Carson’s insights here are helpful:

Greater works…cannot simply mean more works—i.e. the church will do more things than Jesus did, since it embraces so many people over such a long period of time—since there are perfectly good Greek ways of saying ‘more,’ and since in any case the meaning would then be unbearably trite. Nor can greater works mean ‘more spectacular’ or ‘more supernatural’ works: it is hard to imagine works that are more spectacular or supernatural than the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the multiplication of bread and the turning of water into wine.”[7]

Instead, Carson says that the “greater works” done by those coming after Jesus point primarily to the new eschatological order established by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

The ‘signs’ and ‘works’ Jesus performed during his ministry could not fully accomplish their true end until after Jesus had risen from the dead and been exalted. Only at that point could they be seen for what they were. By contrast, the works believers are given to do through the power of the eschatological Spirit, after Jesus’ glorification, will be set in the framework of Jesus’ death and triumph, and will therefore more immediately and truly reveal the Son. Thus greater things is constrained by salvation-historical realities.[8]

And while these works certainly included the signs and wonders done by the early church in the Spirit’s power, they are not limited to those miraculous deeds. Instead, they also included the “mystery” of Gentiles being included into the one new people of God, to which Paul referred in Ephesians and Colossians. God’s miraculous works in the church include the forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of those who were formerly far off into God’s one new people. Healings, signs, and wonders are extraordinary, but no more extraordinary than the redemption accomplished by Christ.

What this means, ultimately, is that just because we do not frequently see any extraordinary miraculous events happening around us, it does not mean that God is inactive. Rather, we should recognize (a) that God is active in the regular (natural) processes we see every day; (b) that God is miraculously calling people to himself as his church grows and expands; and (c) that people are experiencing God work in miraculous supernatural ways in their lives in other parts of the country or world. To miss this is to miss the scope and significance of God’s action described in Scripture.

Whether or not we are privileged to witness obviously miraculous, supernatural events, Christians can be confident that God is actively at work in the world, bringing people to himself, bringing glory to Jesus, and building his church (Matt. 16:18).

[1] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[2] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 412.

[3] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[4] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 95–96.

[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 359.

[6] Grudem, 371.

[7] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 495.

[8] Carson, John, 496.

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

If you read the Bible, it is pretty clear that primarily masculine imagery is found throughout the Old Testament in reference to God (“father,” “warrior,” or “jealous husband,” for example). However as Leonard Swidler points out, we also find feminine language and images applied to God, even if to a lesser degree, as well as applied favorably to virtues such as wisdom.


And Yahweh God made tunics of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

Swidler comments: “Already in the most ancient part of the Bible…one finds Yahweh performing a customarily female task in Hebrew society (cf. Prov 31:10-31): Yahweh God acts as a seamstress.”

Mother and Nurse

Was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, like a beloved little mother with a baby at the breast?” (Numbers 11:12)

Swidler comments: “When the Israelites in the desert complained of their problems to Moses, he in turn complained to Yahweh with rhetorical questions that by negative implication project onto Yahweh the images of a mother and a wet nurse.”

 Loving Mother

When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. . . . I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. (Hos 11:1, 3, 4)

O Yahweh, . . . I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. (Psalm 131:2)

Yahweh’s Motherly Compassion

Is Ephraim my dear Son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more do I remember him. Therefore, my womb [“heart” ESV] trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion (rachem arachamennu) upon him. (Jeremiah 31:20)

Swidler comments: “In Hebrew, rechem means womb. The plural form, rachaim, extends this concrete meaning to signify compassion, love, mercy. The verb form, rchm, means to show mercy, and the adjective, rachum, means merciful. Thus to speak of compassion or mercy automatically calls forth maternal overtones. This motherly compassion is attributed to God in a number of places.”

God in Birth Pangs

Yahweh God goes forth. . . . “But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.” (Isaiah 42:13-14)

Israel in the Womb of God the Mother

Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly (beten), carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save. (Isaiah 46:3-4)

Nursing Mother

For Zion was saying, “Yahweh has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:14-15)

 Comforting Mother

For thus says Yahweh: . . . Like a son comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you. (Isaiah 66:12-13)


Yet you drew me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts. (Psalm 22:9)

Swidler comments: “In Ps 22:9, Yahweh is depicted in an intimate female role, that of a midwife.”

Wisdom Personified as a Woman

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. (Prov 1:20-21)

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her  fast are called blessed. (Prov 3:13-18)

Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud. (Prov 8:1-3)  (Proverbs; Job 28)

In the book of Job, Swidler explains, “the hymn of praise to the feminine Hokmah is continued. She is not subject to the laws of the cosmos but is its mistress. She is inaccessible to humanity, being known only by God. The feminine Hokmah is again both personified and an attribute of God.”

For example, But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its [“her”] worth, and it [“she”] is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It [‘She’] is not in me,” and the sea says, “It [‘She’] is not with me.” (Job 28:12-14)


I don’t use feminine pronouns to refer to God, but reading these passages make me wonder if I’m being more conservative than the Bible. The main reason I don’t is not because of convictions about gender and roles. It is simply because Jesus didn’t use feminine language or images about God and did use male imagery, specifically “Father.” But as soon as I say that I feel the tension as if I’m pitting Jesus agains the very scriptures that are all about him.

Instead of using feminine pronouns, I prefer to the term “God’s self.” For example, “God reveals God’s self both in Jesus Christ and in the holy scriptures.” I like the awkwardness of using that term.  I  like that “Gods self” doesn’t seem to fit so well in our linguistic constructions. That seems theologically correct to me.

Of course, God being spirit is neither, strictly speaking, male or female in the embodied human sense. This sort of language is used in the Bible in order to better communicate to us in terms we can relate to. Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that Old Testament descriptions of God encompass both the masculine and feminine.

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the “miracle” to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called “miraculous” we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?

In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.

Wrong Views of Miracles

Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn’t usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn’t normally act in creation, which, as we’ll see, is not biblical.

A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.

The opposite of the second perspective is the “God of the gaps” view, which basically attributes anything we don’t presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by “mere science,” the “God of the gaps” view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.

Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith: “In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form ofmiracles. Starved for some practical sense of God’s concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God’s ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains” (page 368).

That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.

Miracles vs. Providence

One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God’s continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”

So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God’s everyday sustaining providence.

According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (355). Or, as Horton puts it, “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually. 

God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, “When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it” (369).

When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” fades. Horton explains: “We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God’s agency. The question is not whetherGod is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved.Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous” (369, italics original).

“Interventionist” views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God’s providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God’s agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God’s activity acknowledges that “even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service” (368).

To be disappointed at not seeing “Bible-like” miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God’s providential care over creation. “Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks,” Horton writes. “Not only when one’s cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer” (369).

Whether we experience God’s power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon’s hands, God is equally near to us, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

Grace Motivates and Other Things I Wish I’d Known…

Grace Motivates and Other Things I Wish I’d Known…

About Leadership

Grace is not the opposite of strong leadership, but the heart of it. This is important for leadership in all realms, and especially in ministry.

Insecure leaders worry about power dynamics and control. They worry about losing. Or as my friend Steve Brown says, “Real pastors worry about people and their walk with Christ. Wolves in sheep’s clothing worry about power and control.”

Because of their misunderstanding of people and leadership, weak leaders manipulate instead of persuade. But strong leaders know that grace motivates.

Grace is not the opposite of strong leadership, but the heart of it.

Mature leaders are secure enough to be insecure. We get this from Jesus, who demonstrated his power by death on the cross. Following him, Christian leadership looks like suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others as we give ourselves unconditionally to the aid of others. Mature leadership is built on trust, empowering others, and a deep sense of security, not in self, but in Christ.

Carl Trueman explains powerfully the implications for this new understanding of Christian authority: “Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.”

About God’s Sovereignty

The sovereignty of God is not just some abstract principle—it should be understood in the context of the character of God. The God who is sovereign is the same God who is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty (Exod. 34:67). God is merciful, compassionate, loving, holy, and just.

Weak leaders manipulate instead of persuade. But strong leaders know that grace motivates.

God’s sovereignty is not merely a technical, abstract, theoretical concept but a truth about God and how he relates to his creation. It is a description of the God who Jesus teaches is also my “Father” who loves, protects, and provides. Sovereignty should be understood in a more robust manner than the mechanical and sterile way some talk about it.

God’s sovereignty should bring believers comfort. Here are two examples.

First, Article 17 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion talks about God’s sovereign grace in a powerful way:

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchedness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Put most simply, God’s electing grace should lead us to focus on Jesus’ cross, not the doctrine of election. To focus on the latter at the expense of the former leads to either despair or pride.

God’s sovereignty should bring believers comfort.

Second, the “Prayer of Humble Access,” a prayer said before communion, brings together to majesty of God and his mercy: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.” The God “whose property is always to have mercy” is also the one who is your advocate, Father, and judge.

Because God is more sovereign than my sin, suffering, and stupidity, it means that he also cares more than I do about the things that burden me. God’s sovereignty means that God is “the One who loves in freedom.” This sovereign grace is about God overcoming the sinner’s resistance with divine love.

About Counseling

Listening is more important than you think. If listening is just a skill or technique, it is more about you coming off as a good or wise counselor. But listening is a ministry. Ann Long describes the ministry of listening as a gift, hospitality, and healing. Almost anyone can give advice, and most people give way too much way too early.

Listening is a way to serve someone humbly, love them well, and share their burden. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, “The beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”

The Ultimate Theophany

The Ultimate Theophany

The topic of theophanies is often neglected in biblical and theological studies, though it is very important.

Theophanies are instances of divine self-revelation in which God manifests himself to humans. The word “theophany,” which means “appearance of God,” comes from the Greek roots theo [God] and phaino [to appear]. While theophanies occur in different forms in Scripture, the content of a theophany is always the same: theophanies consistently show God graciously revealing himself and his covenantal promises to his people.



No figure in Scripture had as many encounters with God through theophanies as Moses. God appeared to Moses in the fire of a burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6), causing Moses to hide his face. At Mt. Sinai, Moses went up to the mountaintop to worship God. He saw God at a distance and was invited into God’s presence, remaining there for 40 days. Later, Moses met “face to face” with God (Exod. 33:11; cf.Num. 14:14Deut. 34:10). This expression hints at the intimate nature of theophanies. Even though Moses experienced a special and intimate relationship with God, he did not experience full revelation. Moses asked God to reveal his full glory to him, but God refused, telling Moses that no one could see God’s face and live (Exod. 33:20). So God passed by Moses, allowing him to see his back (Exod. 33:21–23).


Many scholars consider Genesis 3:8 to be the first theophany in Scripture. Adam and Eve heard the Lord walking in the garden and hid themselves from his presence. Gordon-Conwell professor Jeffrey Niehaus translates the phrase “cool of the day” as “in the wind of the storm,” based on a rare use of a specific Hebrew word. God often appeared in a threatening form when he was coming to bring judgment. After Adam and Eve sinned, God’s presence was dreadful, declaring judgment for their wrongdoing. Similarly, God revealed himself as a warrior before the Israelites overtook Jericho (Josh. 5:13–15). As Tremper Longman writes, a judgment theophany, “though always threatening, brings both curse and fear to God’s enemies and blessing and comfort to God’s people (Nah. 1:1–9).”


God’s appearances to individuals in the Old Testament were frequently connected to his covenantal dealings with them. Specifically, God revealed himself in theophanies to provide assurance that he would maintain his end of the covenant (Gen. 26:2428:12–1335:1948:3). For example, after Abraham arrived at Canaan, God appeared to him, promising that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the land (Gen. 12:7) in accordance with God’s covenant promises. God appeared to Abraham in human form before Isaac’s birth, assuring Abraham and Sarah that they would conceive a child in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Additionally, God manifested himself in human form to wrestle Jacob in order to get him to embrace his covenant blessing (Gen. 32:24). By the end of the narration, Jacob is certain that he had met God “face to face” (Gen. 32:30).


God’s self-revelation culminates in the incarnation of Jesus, making him the ultimate theophany. Those who saw the face of Jesus saw the Father (John 14:9), experiencing a much more profound theophany than Moses did. Moses asked to see God’s glory, and those who lived with Jesus received what Moses had asked for (John 1:18). Carl Henry writes in God, Revelation and Authority:

The New Testament channels all interest in the theophanies of God into the divine manifestation in Jesus Christ; the Old Testament (Septuagint) term for theophanic appearances is, in fact, used of the resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ (ōphthē,1 Cor. 15:5–8).

“Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness.”

Jesus is also the ultimate “judgment theophany.” He declares judgment on those who reject him (John 3:18) yet provides comfort and blessing for those who would come to him and receive the mercy of God. Jesus brings judgment by revealing the high demands of God’s righteousness (Matt. 5:48) and the depths our desperate condition under sin. His substitutionary death reveals the weight of the curse, which could only be lifted through the death of the Son of God: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). This is the ultimate judgment theophany, one that leads to hope and salvation.

Again, Jesus is the ultimate “covenant theophany.” Jesus, as God, ushered in the final covenant in “in his blood” (Matt 26:28), the new covenant. In Jesus, God himself looked into the eyes of his disciples and promised to be true to his word. Jesus reveals the ultimate, eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20) between God and his people.



Theophanies remind us of the famous words of Francis Schaeffer: “He is there and he is not silent.” God has not and will not leave his people to suffer in isolation. He will “descend far beneath his loftiness,” as John Calvin said, and reassure us that he will do as he promised. “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 24:7) summarizes the covenant promise that runs all through the Bible, and theophanies point to this comforting reality.


Theophanies should humble us. Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29). All the various pictures of Yahweh in the Old Testament highlight this truth. Theophanies, according to Walter Elwell and Barry Beitzel, “conveyed a sense of the awesome majesty and power of God who is to be approached only with reverence and humility according to divinely prescribed procedures.” Ultimately, God’s holiness is most clearly seen in his wrath against sin, revealed and satisfied at the cross of Jesus.


Theophanies point to God’s gracious condescension to our weakness. Theophanies are visual—they give tangible and physical proof of God. In a sense, they are God “writing it in the sky” for us. Though God wants us to trust him even when we can’t see him (”Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,”John 20:29), theophanies offer a glimpse into the heart of our God who graciously condescends to help and comfort those who join Thomas in unbelief.

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.

The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation—how people can be forgiven of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life with God. The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

The Five Solas are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Let’s have a brief look at each of these five statements.


The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

Every word of the 66 books of the Bible is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

When rightly interpreted, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. Additionally, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.


We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, and despite our sin.

As humans, we inherited (from our ancestor Adam) a nature that is enslaved to sin. Because of our nature, we are naturally enemies of God and lovers of evil. We need to be made alive (regenerated) so that we can even have faith in Christ. God graciously chooses to give us new hearts so that we trust in Christ and are saved through faith alone.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

Sola fide and sola gratia express the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”


God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Because God is holy and all humans are sinful and sinners, we need a Savior who mediates between us and God. Neither religious rituals nor good works mediate between us and God. There is no other name by which a person can be saved other than the name of Jesus. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and his sacrificial death alone can atone for sin.



Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful by product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This was originally posted at Christianity.com

The Father of Fathers

The Father of Fathers

As we approach Father’s Day in places like the U.S. and the U.K., it is worth stepping back and considering the original father, God the Father, “from whom every fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).

Most people are quite familiar with the concept of God as Father. The modernist theological liberalism of the last few centuries popularized the concept of the “universal fatherhood of God” along with the “brotherhood of man.” However, if we look at Scripture we might be surprised at what we find about the fatherhood of God.


God is rarely referred to as Father in the Old Testament. When he is, it is usually in the sense that he is the Father of the nation of Israel (e.g., Deut. 32:6), a term that primarily conveys a sense of authority. As the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament explains (p. 8),

In the Israelite family, the father has almost unlimited authority. He is master of the house; the children are taught to honor and fear him (Mal. 1:6). He controls the other members of the family as a potter controls his clay (Isa. 64:7). Yet “he is not an isolated despot, but the centre from which strength and will emanate through the whole of the sphere which belongs to him and to which he belongs. . . . To the Israelite the name of father always spells authority.”

God is also compared to a father to explain some of the characteristic ways he acts toward his people, such as his compassion, his discipline, and his care for the weak and powerless:

  • “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” (Ps. 103:13)
  • “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12)
  • “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Ps. 68:5)

However, in the Old Testament God is not usually referred to as the father of individual people, and Jews did not address him as “Father.” That is why when Jesus arrived, the intimacy with which he addressed God was so striking.


Jesus’ frequent references to God as “Father” were unheard of in his context, and dramatic. “Father” was his favorite way of addressing God. We see Jesus using this word for God 65 times in the Synoptic Gospels and over 100 times in the Gospel of John, in stark comparison to the 15 times the term is used for God in the whole Old Testament.

The specific word Jesus used was Abba, the Aramaic word “Father.” It’s a word that small children could use when they addressed their fathers, though older children and adults used it as well (so it should be translated “Father,” not “Daddy”). Addressing God as Abba conveys a level of intimacy with God that had not been claimed by anyone before Jesus: only a natural-born child would use this form of address. Jesus’ use of Abba was striking enough that several times the biblical writers include the original Aramaic along with the translated Greek word pater, “Father.”

“Jesus dared to address God simply and intimately as ‘Abba.’”

Jesus’ relationship to God as Father is unique. To Jesus, unlike anyone else, God is “my Father.” Yet he taught his disciples (and us) to address God as “our Father” (Matt. 6:9). This is because through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, we are adopted by God into his family. God becomes our loving Father because we are united with Jesus Christ and receive the same family privileges and blessings that Jesus has as the faithful Son.

Because of our adoption into the family of God, we now have complete access to our Father. Hebrews 4:14–16 states:

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.

We share intimacy with the Father through our incorporation into Christ, and by the Holy Spirit indwelling us. Because of our relationship with the Son and the Holy Spirit we can come to God in prayer and dependence at any time. His arms are always open to us.


Paul writes in Romans: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoptions as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” The imagery of adoption means that believers are not naturally children of God, but become children of God because of Christ. And Jesus dared to address God simply and intimately as “Abba.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed, “Abba, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” “Abba” is also the word he uses in the Lord’s Prayer to show us two things: our intimate relationship to God as his children, and security with God based on his promises to us.

“Abba” indicates warmth as well as confidence to call on God as a father who is able and ready to help. As Martin Luther preached, the little word “Abba” surpasses all eloquence and combats the cruel teaching that we should feel uncertain concerning our status with God. Abba summarizes the message on every page of Scripture: that God is merciful, loving, and patient, and that he is faithful and true, and that he keeps his promises. All the promises of God were fulfilled in the gift of his only Son, so that “whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”


Human fatherhood is modeled on the fatherhood of God. As Paul writes, “every fatherhood in heaven and on earth” is named after God the Father (Eph. 3:15). What are some of the characteristics of a father described in Scripture?

  • Gentleness and compassion: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13).
  • Wisdom and instruction: “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching” (Prov. 4:1–2).
  • Discipline: “For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:12).
  • Love: “Jesus answered him, ‘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’” (John 14:23). “For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27). “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1).
  • Exhortation and Encouragement: “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:10–12).
  • Protection: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Psalm 146:9).
  • Provision: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7–11)

Being a father is a high calling, a way to image our loving heavenly Father who loves and cares for his children better than any earthly father can hope to. Those of us who are fathers should feel the gravity of this calling. When we fail to love as our heavenly Father does, let’s keep repenting and trusting in Jesus, who has adopted us into the family of God the Father. Even when we are faithless, he remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13) . . . just like a good father.

Every Knee Will Bow

Every Knee Will Bow

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9–11

For Jesus Christ, the way to exaltation was crucifixion.

This passage is part of a hymn sung in the early church that celebrates the deity, humility, death, exaltation, and worship of Jesus Christ. The hymn’s theme is tied to the mystery of the incarnation—Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.

As Paul recounts, though Christ was “in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). Instead, Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. . . being found in human form” (2:7–8). The Creator of all things humbled himself and was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”

Christ willingly took the form of a servant in order to give up his life for us, as he told his disciples: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul writes, “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:8).

The phrase “even death on a cross” emphasizes that the form of Jesus’ death revealed the extent of his humility, for crucifixion was not only brutally painful, but horribly degrading as well. In fact, Roman citizens could not legally be crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for foreigners, slaves, and criminals. From his birth in a barn to his death between two thieves, Jesus identified with all of humanity, including the outcasts.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ death on the cross is not emphasized for its painfulness and degradation, but for what it accomplished: full payment for the sins of the world. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

In his death on the cross, Jesus went to the lowest depths. But three days later he was raised to life and exalted to the highest heights: “Therefore God has highly exalted him” (2:9). After enduring the cross, Jesus now “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).

God intends for Jesus Christ to be worshiped by all creation. God exalted him “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10–11). A fluke of the Greek grammar leads the ESV to translate the phrase as “every knee should bow,” but this should not be understood as conveying what ought to happen—it’s what will happen. This becomes clearer when we realize that the line is an allusion to Isaiah 45:22–23:

Turn to me and be saved,

all the ends of the earth!

For I am God, and there is no other.

By myself I have sworn;

from my mouth has gone out in righteousness

a word that shall not return:

‘To me every knee shall bow,

every tongue shall swear allegiance.’

By applying this declaration to Jesus, the hymn powerfully affirms that he is God. In addition, the hymn declares that every knee will bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This again is a massive claim of Jesus’ deity, because it says that all beings, including angels and demons, will bow and confess to this Jesus. Such a claim could never be made about a mere human—only God could receive such worship.

We worship the exalted Jesus Christ because of who he is (Lord of all creation), and because of what he did for us in his death and resurrection: Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24).