Vows, Promises, and the Problem of Love

Vows, Promises, and the Problem of Love

Vows and Promises

One of my favorite parts of officiating a wedding ceremony is the vows and promises, because they are filled with so much significance and gravity.

Here are the vows I use when marrying people:

In the Name of God, I, ____ take you, _____ to be my wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

The promise at the giving of rings is also powerful:

I give you this ring as a symbol of my vow, and with all that I am, and all that I have, I honor you, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Just look at it. Who can actually fulfill this promise? “With all that I am, and allthat I have, I honor you.” Just to increase the intensity, the vows and promises are made “in the name of God,” the Holy Trinity.

We are faced with the option either to treat such an impossible task as sentimental hyperbole and eventually dismiss it as such, or to face eventual despair at failing to measure up.


Law, Love, and Grace

These promises and vows sound similar in their intensity to Jesus’ summary of the law of God in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [Deut. 6:5]. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself [Lev. 19:18].”

God’s commandments are good and right (1 Tim. 1:8Rom. 3:31Rom. 7:12-16), but they lack the power to produce the life they require. This informs how we understand Jesus’ command to love God and others with all our hearts. Because of our sin, God’s standard of perfect love is our problem.

But God also provided the solution. Jesus obeyed perfectly and completely on our behalf, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the dead to conquer sin and death.

Through Jesus Christ’s righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection, God fulfilled the law’s requirements on us, conquered the power of sin that held us in slavery by its accusations, and gave us new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Law serves to heighten our understanding of our own sin, not to lessen it (Rom. 7:7-12), and it does not lead to eternal and ultimate forgiveness. Thankfully, with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, forgiveness of sins is now available. Through Christ we can avail ourselves of a power that the Law never had. The Law hung over us as a ministry of death, threatening to kill us for our sins; the Spirit of Christ delivers us from the bondage of sin, guilt, and death into new life (2 Cor. 3:6-7). What the law was powerless to do, because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering (Rom. 8:3).

God’s grace is overflowing and abundant (Rom. 5:15176:12 Cor. 4:15;8:99:814). It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us!” (2 Cor. 5:14).

The law threatens and demands, but does not motivate. This is not to discount the value of the law. The law of God is “perfect, true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:7-9) and “holy, just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), but it does not enable people to do what it demands. The Apostle Paul writes, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). Law does not empower us to do what it mandates—but grace does (Matt 10:8Rom 2:4Rom 6:14Titus 2:11-12).

Jesus’ work has freed us from the curse of not obeying the law to love God and others perfectly. We are free to acknowledge our failure, because Christ, who loved perfectly, is our righteousness.

But God doesn’t just leave us to our failure—He gives the Holy Spirit to those who trust in Christ. God’s Spirit gives us new hearts through regeneration, and God Himself enables us to start fulfilling the law through love (Gal. 5:14).

Love for God and others is the fruit of the miracle of regeneration and the Holy Spirit’s work within us. The Holy Spirit begins empowering us to want to love, giving us the ability to love, and causing us to know the love of God.

This is not a new law for us to follow. Love is the fruit of the Spirit—it’s what God does in us, not what we try to muster up in our own strength, as if we could pay God back. As Philippians 2:13 teaches us, it is God who works in us to will and do His good pleasure, which is summarized in the law.

God produces love for Him and others in our hearts and works in our hearts to cause us to delight in what He delights in. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Because God has loved us so well in Christ, we are freed to love Him and love others.


How does this all relate to marriage? As Mike Mason writes in The Mystery of Marriage, “A vow is a confession of inadequacy and an automatic calling upon the only adequacy there is, which is the mercy and power of God.”

Wedding vows are much more than a declaration of the spouse’s attempt to be decent. Couples should make these vow and promises in awareness of their inability to fulfill them in their own strength, yet believing that God will enable them to do so. It is in light of this reality that they can profess their love for each other.

While weddings are moments to celebrate the love the couple has for each other, there is a prior love, God’s love. God’s love is what makes the vows and promises more than quaint sentimentality. God’s love is the foundation for dealing with failure to fulfill these vows and promises perfectly. God’s love is the best motivation to fulfill these promises and vows in any meaningful way.

Theologians of the Cross vs. Theologians of Glory

Theologians of the Cross vs. Theologians of Glory

In preparing to teach on leadership, I’ve been studying Luther’s contrast of theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. Here are some great books and blog posts I have been reading.


 On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 by Gerhard Forde

This book is a “must have” if you want to understand the implications of being a theologian of the cross. It is a brilliant theological and pastoral reflection on the Heidelberg Catechism.

The cross is itself in the first instance the attack of God on the old sinner and the sinner’s theology. The cross is the doing of God to us. But that same cross itself, and only the cross, at the same time opens a new and unheard-of possibility over against the sinner’s old self and its theology. That means that a theology of the cross is inevitably quite polemical. It constantly seeks to uncover and expose the ways in which sinners hide their perfidy behind pious facades. The delicate thing about it is that it attacks the best we have to offer, not the worst. This explains why the theology of the cross is generally spoken of in contrast to atheology of glory. The two theologies are always locked in mortal combat. Wherever there is mention of a theology of the cross without indication of this combat, it is not truly the theology of the cross that is being expressed.


“Luther’s Theology of the Cross” by Carl Trueman

Luther does not restrict the theology of the cross to an objective revelation of God. He also sees it as the key to understanding Christian ethics and experience. Foundational to both is the role of faith: to the eyes of unbelief, the cross is nonsense; it is what it seems to be—the crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God. That is how the unbelieving mind interprets the cross—foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. To the eyes opened by faith, however, the cross is seen as it really is. God is revealed in the hiddenness of the external form. And faith is understood to be a gift of God, not a power inherent in the human mind itself.

This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christ—through suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.

This argument is explosive, giving a whole 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.


“The Forgotten Insight” by Carl Trueman

At this Reformation season, we should not reduce the insights of Luther simply to justification by grace through faith.  In fact, this insight is itself inseparable from the notion of that of the theologians of the cross.   Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found.  Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture.  They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross.  An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.  Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary.  It is repentance.


“The God of the Cross” by Carl Trueman

Our temptation to be preoccupied with those that our celebrity-aesthetic society finds lovely – the young, the artistic, the talented, the famous, the trendy, the brash, the bold, the beautiful, the cool, the self-promoting and the hip – does not reflect the priorities of the God of the cross. He is more likely to build his church with precisely those that this world considers weak and despised.   Indeed, he delights so to do; and our attitude, our self-understanding, our theology, our proclamation of who God is and how he acts, must all reflect that fact if we are to be true theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory.

The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.  And such were some — no, such were all — of us.


Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Alister McGrath

An excellent historical guide to Luther’s theology of the cross.

A fundamental contention of the theologia crucis [theology of the cross] is not  merely that God is known through suffering (whether that of Christ or of the individual), but that God makes himself known through suffering. For Luther, God is active in this matter, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God.

This brings us to the dialectic between the opus proprium Dei [God’s proper work] and the opus alienum Dei [God’s alien or ‘strange’ work], which Luther introduces in his explanation of Thesis 16 [of the Heidelberg Disputation]. The basic paradox involved is illustrated with reference to the justification of an individual. In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature (opus proprium Dei): God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ The opus alienum [strange work] is a means to the end of the opus proprium [God’s proper work]. The significance of suffering, whether this is understood as passions Christi [the suffering of Christ] or Anfechtung [spiritual assaults of the Christian], is that it represents the opus alienum through which God works out his opus proprium.


The Prince Who Came to Serve

The Prince Who Came to Serve

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

John 13:3–5

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he exploded our normal ideas about what a god does. Creating, judging, and rewarding are things that sounds like divine activities—not washing feet, eating dinner with prostitutes, going to parties with tax collectors, and hugging lepers.

Jesus’ lowly service is a practical picture of how Jesus inverts our normal view of authority, dignity, and power. Jesus’ unselfconscious act of service was a picture of God’s upside-down approach to our world and to us. The ultimate picture of this is Jesus’ humbling himself to endure the death of the cross and bring us cleansing through his substitution in our place.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky gives us a picture of this upside-down approach in his novel The Idiot. It’s about a young prince, Prince Myshkin of Russia, who returns home to society after a long stay abroad. Prince Myshkin finds himself surrounded by people who are rage-filled, backbiting, power-hungry, and envious. They struggle for accolades and live like beasts.

Jesus Christ is the prince who came penniless and powerless to serve.

As Prince Myshkin is dropped into the middle of this depravity and forced to struggle with the reality of people’s sin, his interaction with this corrupt and immoral group is astounding! Prince Myshkin is frail and simple. He speaks clearly and without lies. He loves anyone he comes into contact with, especially the peasants and the servants. He is not self-aggrandizing, and he embodies grace and peace. And for all of his love and kindness, his meekness and his tenderness, the world around him dismisses him as an idiot.

Jesus Christ is like Prince Myshkin. Our world—in all its “wisdom”—finds him and his cross foolish. He is the prince who came penniless and powerless to serve: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). In coming as a humble servant, full of grace and truth, Jesus reveals our sovereign God’s paradoxical approach to the world.


The Work of Christ: A Q&A with R.C. Sproul

The Work of Christ: A Q&A with R.C. Sproul

Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries, the author of more than 70 books, and a beloved Bible teacher, pastor, and scholar. He was also my seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Sproul recently wrote a new book, The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You, and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.

Justin Holcomb: Is it helpful to distinguish between the person of Christ and the work of Christ? Why or why not?

R.C. Sproul: This distinction is not one that I make. It’s one that’s been made classically, and there’s a reason for it. In order to understand the significance of everything that Jesus did, his work, we have to understand who Jesus is. To understand who Jesus is, we have to look at what he did. So there’s a symbiotic interaction, an interconnection between who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We distinguish them, but we can never separate them because it’s the same Jesus who did what he did and who is what he is.

JH: In the book, you describe Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism as the most important text in the New Testament for defining the work of Jesus (p. 74). Why is Jesus’ baptism so important, and why does it matter for our salvation?

RS: It’s so important because, first of all, it was when his public ministry began, when he was ordained as the Messiah. He was anointed at his baptism by the Holy Ghost coming down from heaven, and his baptism itself showed his ministry of taking upon himself, in his human nature, all of the obligations given by the law of God to the people of Israel. You remember that John the Baptist was reluctant to perform the baptism of Jesus since it was for repentance of sin. Jesus has no sin, and John knew that. He tried to stop Jesus.

Jesus said, “No, wait. It’s necessary. I have to do this.” In his baptism, he was identifying with his fallen people that he had come to redeem and taking upon himself the whole weight of the demands of the law as the new Adam.

JH: Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to God the Father. You distinguish the active obedience of Christ from the passive obedience of Christ. Why is this distinction necessary, and why do you think it has been neglected?

RS: First of all, let me be quick to say that this distinction, again, does not originate with me. There’s a classic distinction in theology between the active obedience and the passive obedience. Here’s what it gets at.

The passive obedience of Jesus describes the work that he did to take upon himself the punishment due to us for our sin. Jesus was like the lamb led to the slaughter: he passively allowed himself to be killed and to be crucified and to have our sin imputed to him. All true Christians will certainly grant that Christ bore our sins for us, and that his work on the cross was the work of obedience.

“One issue came up that the Protestants and Catholics could not agree on . . .”

Remember, in the garden of Gethsemane, he asked that the cup be removed, but he said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” Jesus passively obeyed that mandate and went to the cross. Without the cross and without the imputation of our sin to Christ, there’s no salvation for us, and Christianity is nothing but moral suggestions.

In distinction from that, we talk about his active obedience. To understand the importance of that, let’s realize that the cross achieves and the atonement effects for us the removal of our sin. And the removal of our sin makes us innocent before God. It puts us in the position that Adam was before the fall. But for Adam to inherit the kingdom, he not only had to be innocent, he had to be righteous.

So again, to obtain the goal of saving us, the Savior had to not only take away the guilt of the people he was trying to save; he also had to provide for them the positive righteousness that God required in order to be saved. As the new Adam, Christ succeeded where Adam failed. By one man’s disobedience, death came into the world. By another man’s obedience came life and salvation. The active obedience of Jesus has to do with Jesus’ living a life of perfect obedience to the commands of God and achieving, in himself, perfect righteousness, which righteousness is the grounds for our justification. His righteousness imputed to us covers us and gives us the righteousness that God requires for us to be saved.

“. . . the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification.”

This whole idea of imputation has been coming under attack in recent decades, partly because of what happened in the Evangelicals & Catholics Together (ECT) discussion. If you go back to the 16th century after the Reformation, after the split, there was an enormous effort to heal that breach. Significant discussions between leaders of the Reformation, the Protestants, and leaders of the Roman church were held. They came together to try to resolve their differences. There was a point at the Regensburg meeting when many thought the breach was resolved and healed and it was going to be okay, but then one issue came up that they could not agree on: that was the issue of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification. The Roman Catholic Church insisted then and insists now that the only way God will declare a person righteous is if righteousness inheres within him. The Bible and the Reformers teach no, the only way God ever declares us righteous is by imputing to us righteousness that is not inherently ours. Martin Luther called it a foreign righteous. He stated that it is an alien righteousness that is outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ, which is accomplished through his perfect obedience.

“Our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of [during] the Lord’s Supper.”

So you have people now who want to keep this rapprochement with Rome, who want the Protestants to drop the imputed righteousness or the perfect active obedience. There are also certain dispensationalists who don’t like the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ because it’s so closely related to the idea of the covenant. Adam was in a covenant with God that we call that the covenant of works. It can be fulfilled only by somebody performing those good works. We say we’re justified by faith alone. That’s the graciousness of the covenant. But the point is that the demands of the law, the works that are required, are graciously provided for us by the active obedience of Jesus.

If you don’t like or don’t believe in a covenant of works, then you don’t like the whole concept of Christ’s active obedience. So, from that circle among evangelicals, we’ve had strong, sometimes fierce, attacks on the active obedience of Jesus in recent years. I think it’s a great tragedy.

JH: In the book you note that when Jesus held the Last Supper, he was taking the Old Testament liturgy of the Passover and transforming it. What do you think is the significance of this for our understanding of Jesus and for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

RS: Clearly the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of an Old Testament liturgy. Jesus met with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, and he changed the liturgy of the Passover. This is where the church was born and the new covenant was instituted because Jesus instituted a new covenant in his blood. That new covenant was not a radical split from the old. It was the fulfillment of the old.

Jesus is the Passover Lamb. It’s his blood that gives the atonement, not the blood of bulls and goats, and it is his blood that keeps us from the avenging angel of death, that is, the blood of the lamb that we now have on our doorposts. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of the historic Passover and the whole system of redemption in the Old Testament. That’s why he said this is a new covenant “my blood . . . which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

“Without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.”

I think that the new covenant was instituted with that declaration, and it was ratified the next day with the pouring out of that blood in Jesus’ atoning death. It is extremely important for us to understand that our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of in the upper room when he instituted the Lord’s Supper.

JH: Why was Jesus’ resurrection necessary for his mission? And what does it mean for our future?

RS: Again, Jesus’ mission was to save his people. The New Testament tells us he was raised for our justification. What does that mean? Obviously, if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, there’s no reason to believe that his atoning sacrifice was acceptable to God. But God’s message with the resurrection is that God declares him to be the Just One, the Holy One, the One who is our Redeemer. So without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.

JH: This book comes as a continuation of a long and fruitful writing and ministry career for you. What do you believe is the most important book you’ve written? What issues do you believe need to be addressed by the next generation of Christians?

RS: You know, I don’t know which is the most important. I keep coming back to The Holiness of God. I also think that Faith Alone is an important book, and The Truth of the Cross. Different books are important for different reasons. When I write in apologetics, that has a certain kind of importance that is different from when I write in theology. So, it’s hard for me to say.

JH: What other books do you recommend for those who want to dig deeper into the work of Christ?

RS: Well, there’s been work done by David Wells at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the work of Christ. G. C. Berkouwer, my own mentor in my doctoral studies, has two volumes, The Person of Christ and The Work of Christ, both of which, I think, are extremely important and are two of the better works in his career. I recommend those.

JH: Thank you for serving the church by writing this book. I hope many readers will get it and benefit from it as they continually look toward the work of Christ for their hope and assurance.

Dr. Sproul’s new book is called The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You.

God The Rescuer

God The Rescuer

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” Exodus 14:21–22

The Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land is the great story of deliverance in Jewish history. This passage recounts the parting of the Red Sea, when God miraculously opened the way for the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. It reveals God showing up to rescue his people in the middle of pain, insecurity, and confusion.

For thousands of years now, Jews have remembered and celebrated how God took them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Psalms celebrate this deliverance: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him” (Psalm 66:5–6). At a crucial moment, on their way out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, God divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could avoid being slaughtered by the Egyptian army. If God had not provided, they would all have died.

For Christians, the Exodus foreshadows the ultimate story of deliverance. It points to the death of Jesus on a cross. We look back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the work of God on our behalf. The Exodus and the ministry of Jesus tell us that God is a God of those in need, that God brings life and flourishing where death and destruction try to reign. The Exodus and the cross tell us that God’s nature is to rescue us. God comes near to us—down here in the thick of our fear and suffering.

There is no work we can do in exchange for this rescue. It is undeserved and unearned. The psalmist is highlighting the mighty works of God on our behalf, and now we see this fulfilled in Christ. Jesus did the work we couldn’t do, on our behalf. We couldn’t be good enough. We couldn’t fulfill the righteousness required by the Law. So God, in the person of Jesus, did the work we couldn’t do for us. God attributed Jesus’ work as our work. God exchanged our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. The work of God on our behalf is the best news possible to those under threat of destruction. God is our rescuer.

Jesus and the Day of Atonement

Jesus and the Day of Atonement

[The priest] shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. . . .

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness. . . . The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:15–16, 20–22 NIV

The priestly rituals described here were done on the most important day of Israel’s year: the Day of Atonement. And it is no coincidence that the word “atonement” (often translated as “propitiation”) is used throughout the New Testament for what Jesus did by dying on the cross. It is safe to say that these goats are a foreshadowing of the cross.

The scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people.

The first goat was sacrificed as a sin offering to God on behalf of the people. The second goat was presented alive before God, where the priest confessed all the sins of the people, symbolically placed them on the goat’s head, and then sent it out to the desert as a “scapegoat,” taking the sins of the people with it. The first goat deals with wrath: the slaughtered goat diverts the wrath of God from the people to the goat. The second goat deals with shame and guilt: the scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people by removing their sin far away.

Whatever Our Sins

The first sacrifice was for “whatever their sins have been.” This means everything—your dark secrets that only you know, the ones that you are too ashamed to tell anyone, the embarrassing sins, and the reoccurring sins. Four times, in the context of the second goat, the chapter refers to “all” the Israelites’ transgressions and sins—every last one of them, especially the shameful ones.

How can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it.”

The Bible speaks of sins we’ve committed and sins committed against us by using words like “defiled”—which means filthy, unclean, dirty, and shameful. Many of us have a sense of defilement, and the consequence is feeling shame and judgment.

The Cross Tells Us So

So how can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it” or because you’re inherently lovable. You know God loves you because Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrificial goats. The cross tells you that God loves you and how God loves you—he willingly died for you to make you clean. The love of God is not sentimental or weak; it is effective, it redeems, it embraces, it renews. It is a courageous, restoring, transforming love. The cross expresses the love of God.

God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.

Because of the cross, you can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies you by what you have done or by what has been done to you. The cross is for whatever your sins may have been, what they are, and what they will be—all of them. You are forgiven. You have been made new. Now God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.

Unity Around the Gospel: Machen on the Church

Unity Around the Gospel: Machen on the Church

This is the last installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. This post covers the final chapter, in which Machen contrasts the incompatible visions for the church in Christianity and liberalism, and calls for the church of his day to re-orient itself on the gospel.

Machen argues that Christianity and liberalism are unified in concern for social institutions, but the greatest social institution is the church of redeemed men and women. Liberalism taught the doctrine of the universal brotherhood that unites people regardless of race and color, but neglected the biblical doctrine of an even closer brotherhood that unites those who have been born again in the church of Jesus Christ. The greater hope for society and the world is found in the church, because real transformation of society comes through the gospel message that the church treasures and spreads.

A False Unity

The problem that Machen saw within the visible church of his day was that both Christians and liberals were joined in a false unity. The church of his day allowed those who did not truly hold to a confession of faith to remain as full members. Not only were orthodox Christians and modern liberals considered members of the same church, but it was considered narrow-minded to try to divide the two camps. Those who held to central biblical doctrines like the cross of Christ and substitutionary atonement were viewed as conservatives fussing about unimportant doctrinal matters. The church climate of the time believed that liberals and conservatives should live together in unity and get on with Christian service.

If we really love our fellow-men we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Savior of their souls. (p. 158)

The Height of Dishonesty

Machen shows that to continue on in this kind of false unity is the height of dishonesty. The narrow person is the one “who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them” (p. 160). When New Testament Christians and modernist liberals understand one another, they will see that their beliefs are entirely different—one views the death of Christ as an unimportant doctrinal point, while the other believes it is the very heart of Christianity.

This kind of unity is dishonest, Machen argued, because many ministers in the church of his time were claiming to agree with confessions of faith that they in fact manifestly disagreed with. It is a bold-faced lie, Machen insisted, to be a minister of the church, which by its very nature is devoted to spreading the gospel message, and then oppose the very message one is committed to hold. Machen writes, “Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim” (p. 141).

An Entirely Different Religion

Machen argues throughout his book that liberalism is an entirely different religion from Christianity. For the church to passively accept those who disagree with the biblical gospel and allow them to preach another gospel is to betray not only Christ, but all those who have gone before and funded church mission agencies that were supposedly committed to the spread of the gospel. Machen believed that the church could not just get on with “Christian” life and service while it tolerated false doctrine that detracted from the gospel message at the core of the church.

Shall we be satisfied with preachers who merely “do not deny” the Cross of Christ? . . . God send us ministers who, instead of merely avoiding denial of the Cross shall be on fire with the Cross, whose whole life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed Savior who loved them and gave himself for them! (p. 148)

In light of this sad confusion of Christians and modern liberals in the church of Machen’s time, he called leaders in the church to continue not only to preach the gospel, but also to defend the faith, to carefully consider the qualifications of potential leaders, to encourage local congregations to find pastors who were passionate about the cross of Christ, and, most importantly, to promote the study of Christian doctrine.

A Concerned but Confident Conclusion

Though Machen was deeply concerned about the widespread influence of modern liberalism throughout the church in the world, he concludes Christianity and Liberalism on hopeful note, confident that God will revive the church again and bring reformation.

This is the final post in the series on J. Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity and Liberalism.

What is Happening? Where Is God?

What is Happening? Where Is God?

Senseless and horrific tragedies, like the shooting early this morning in an Orlando nightclub, cause us to ask important questions.

Here are some I’ve heard frequently already:

  • “What in the world is going on?”
  • “How are we to think and feel about violence?”
  • “Does the Bible say anything about violence?”

The Bible begins with God, the sovereign, good Creator of all things: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God’s creative handiwork—everything from light to land to living creatures—is called “good.” But humanity, being the very image of God, is the crown of God’s good creation: “behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31). As the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings reveal God more wonderfully than any other creature—as they were created to be like God, by God, for God, and to be with God (Gen. 1:26–27, 2:15)

In Genesis 1:26, God says “Let us make man in our image.” In the very beginning, our Creator gave us a remarkable title: he called us the image of God. This reveals the inherent dignity of all human beings.

Peace . . .

In Genesis 1 and 2, we see that God’s plan for humanity was for the earth to be filled with his image bearers, who were to glorify him through worship and obedience. This beautiful state of being, enjoying the cosmic bliss of God’s intended blessing and his wise rule, is called shalom (the Hebrew word for “peace”). As the scholar Cornelius Plantinga Jr. writes

In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be.

Shalom means fullness of peace. It is the vision of a society without violence or fear: “I will give peace (shalom) in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid” (Lev. 26:6). Shalom is a profound and comprehensive sort of well-being—abundant welfare—with its connotations of peace, justice, and the common good. Biblical writers use the word shalom to describe the world of universal peace, safety, justice, order, and wholeness God intended (Isa. 32:14–20).

. . . and Violence

Genesis 3 records the terrible day when humanity fell into sin and shalom was violated. Adam and Eve violated their relationship with God by rebelling against his command. This was a moment of cosmic treason. Instead of trusting in God’s wise and good word, they trusted in the crafty and deceitful words of the serpent. In response, the Creator placed a curse on our parents that cast the whole human race into futility and death. The royal image of God fell into the severe ignobility we all experience.

This tragic fall from grace into disgrace plunged humankind into a relational abyss. Paul Tripp writes:

What seemed once unthinkably wrong and out of character for the world that God had made now became a daily experience. Words like falsehood, enemy, danger, sin, destruction, war, murder, sickness, fear, and hatred became regular parts of the fallen-world vocabulary. For the first time, the harmony between people was broken. Shame, fear, guilt, blame, greed, envy, conflict, and hurt made relationships a minefield they were never intended to be. People looked at other people as obstacles to getting what they wanted or as dangers to be avoided. Even families were unable to coexist in any kind of lasting and peaceful union. Violence became a common response to problems that had never before existed. Conflict existed in the human community as an experience more regular than peace. Marriage became a battle for control, and children’s rebellion became a more natural response than willing submission. Things became more valuable than people, and they willingly competed with others in order to acquire more. The human community was more divided by love for self than united by love of neighbor. The words of people, meant to express truth and love, became weapons of anger and instruments of deceit. In an instant, the sweet music of human harmony had become the mournful dirge of human war.

God’s good creation is now cursed because of the entrance of sin (Gen. 3:14–24). The world is simply not the way it’s supposed to be. The entrance of sin into God’s good world leads to the shattering of shalom. Sin, in other words, is “culpable shalom-breaking.

Evil is an intrusion upon shalom. Sin wrecks the order and goodness of God’s world. Sin is the “vandalism of shalom.” Plantinga writes:

God hates sin not just because it violates his law but, more substantively, because it violates shalom, because it breaks the peace, because it interferes with the way things are supposed to be. God is for shalom and therefore against sin. In fact, we may safely describe evil as any spoiling of shalom, whether physically, morally, spiritually, or otherwise.

Regarding this dimension of sin, Plantinga writes:

All sin has first and finally a Godward force. Let us say that a sin is any act—any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed—or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame. Let us add that the disposition to commit sins also displeases God and deserves blame, and let us therefore use the word sin to refer to such instances of both act and disposition. Sin is a culpable and personal affront to a personal God.

God’s image-bearers were created to worship and obey him and to reflect his glory to his good creation. According to G. K. Beale:

God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation.

After the fall, humankind was enslaved to idolatry (hatred for God) and violence (hatred for each other). Sin inverts love for God, which in turn becomes idolatry, and inverts love for neighbor, which becomes exploitation of others. Instead of worshiping God, our inclination is to worship anything else but God. Idolatry is not the ceasing of worship. Rather, it is misdirected worship, and at the core of idolatry is self-worship.

Instead of loving one another as God originally intended, fallen humanity expresses hatred and violence toward their neighbors. Sigmund Freud serves unexpectedly as a theologian of original sin. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud writes:

Men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment. The result is that their neighbor is to them not only a possible helper or sexual object, but also a temptation to them to gratify their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without recompense, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [“man is a wolf to his fellow man”]; who has the courage to dispute it in the face of all the evidence in his own life and in history?

Both the vertical relationship with God and the horizontal relationship with God’s image-bearers are fractured by the fall. Evil is anti-creation, anti-life, and the force that seeks to oppose, deface, and destroy God, his good world, and his image-bearers. Simply put, when someone defaces a human being—God’s image bearer—ultimately an attack is being waged against God himself.

The foundational premise of the Bible after Genesis 3, therefore, is that this fallen world, particularly fallen humanity, is violent. The cosmic war begun by the serpent in Eden, described in Genesis 3, produces collateral damage in the very next chapter. Immediately after the fall, there is a radical shift from shalom to violence, as the first murder takes place in Genesis 4. After God shows regard to Abel’s worshipful offering, Cain responds by raging against God and murdering his brother (Gen. 4:4–5, 8). The downward spiral of humankind and the constant spread of sin continued as God’s blessing are replaced by God’s curse.

Violence is sin against both God and his image-bearers. In our hatred for God, we hoard worship for self and strike against those who reflect God’s glory. Plantinga explains:

Godlessness is anti-shalom. Godlessness spoils the proper relation between human beings and their Maker and Savior. Sin offends God not only because it bereaves or assaults God directly, as in impiety or blasphemy, but also because it bereaves and assaults what God has made.

A portion of the Old Testament is a catalog of cruelty. Widespread violence and the appalling evil of fallen humanity are recorded in detail on nearly every page of the Hebrew Bible:

Acts of reprobate violence explode from the pages of the Old Testament as evil people perform unspeakable acts: Children are cannibalized (2 Kings 6:28–29; Ezek. 5:10; Lam. 2:20), boiled (Lam. 4:10), and dashed against a rock (Ps. 137:9). During the Babylonian invasion, Zedekiah is forced to watch his sons slaughtered, after which his own eyes are gouged out (Jer. 52:10–11). Pregnant women are ripped open (2 Kings 15:16; Amos 1:13). Other women are raped (Gen. 34:1–5; 1 Sam. 13:1–15; Ezek. 22:11); one of them is gang raped to the point of death (Judg. 19:22–30). Military atrocities are equally shocking. We read about stabbings (Judg. 3:12–20; 2 Sam. 2:23; 20:10) and beheadings (1 Sam. 17:54; 2 Sam. 4:7–9). These are normal military atrocities. More extraordinary cases involve torture and mutilation: limbs are cut off (Judg. 1:6–7), bodies hewed in pieces (1 Sam. 15:33), eyes gouged out (Judg. 16:21; 2 Kings 25:7), skulls punctured (Judg. 4:12–23; 5:26–27) or crushed by a millstone pushed from a city wall (Judg. 9:53). Two hundred foreskins are collected (1 Sam. 18:27), seventy heads gathered (2 Kings 10:7–8), thirty men killed for their clothing (Judg. 14:19). Bodies are hanged (Josh. 8:29), mutilated and displayed as trophies (1 Sam. 31:9–10), trampled beyond recognition (2 Kings 9:30–37), destroyed by wild beasts (Josh. 13:8; 2 Kings 2:23–24) or flailed with briers (Judg. 8:16). Entire groups are massacred (1 Sam. 22:18–19; 1 Kings 16:8–14) or led into captivity strung together with hooks through their lips (Amos 4:2).

Grieve with Hope

Violence is a bitter fruit of the fall and is, without question, a “vandalism of shalom.” God’s response to evil and violence is redemption, renewal, and re-creation. Evil and violence are not the final word. They are not capable of creating or defining reality. That is God’s prerogative alone. However, evil and violence can pervert, distort, and destroy. They are parasitic on the original good of God’s creation.

The cross is both the consequence of evil and God’s method of accomplishing redemption. Jesus proves, by the resurrection, that God redeems and heals. And when Jesus returns, he will make all things new.

Until Jesus returns, we groan (Rom. 8:23) and we grieve (1 Thess. 4:13). Grief is not a sinful emotion but is the result of sin. God and his people have legitimate grief because of sin and the pain it brings. Because of God’s redemptive work through Jesus Christ, he will wipe away all of your tears (Rev. 7:17; 21:4). We look forward to the day when grief will be banished. Therefore, you can have hope, which invites you to grieve, but not to grieve as one who does not have hope (1 Thess. 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:55–57). We grieve with hope because Jesus’ resurrection is proof to us that God is about healing, redeeming, and making all things new.

What Jesus’ resurrection began will find its completion in the new creation. The new heavens and the new earth described in Revelation 21:3–5 is a picture of perfection:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. . . . Behold, I am making all things new.

Parts of this post are adapted from our book Rid of My Disgrace.

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

This is the sixth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. In this post we see how theological liberalism and Christianity have completely different hopes for salvation.

J. Gresham Machen shows us that liberalism’s view of salvation is human-centered, while Christianity is God-centered. Liberalism thinks that human nature inherently has the resources for our own salvation, but Christianity teaches that the resources for salvation only come from God’s supernatural act of redemption through the atonement of Jesus.

Belief in the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners is criticized by modern naturalistic liberalism. Instead, the death of Christ is seen as an example of self-sacrifice, as a picture of God’s hatred of sin, or as a display of God’s love, but not as the propitiatory substitution of Jesus in our place, for our sins. Aside from viewing substitutionary atonement with disgust, liberalism criticizes salvation by the cross of Christ because it is dependent upon history, makes for a “narrow” and “exclusive” religion, and seems to challenge the character of a God of love.

All sin at bottom is a sin against God. (p. 130)

Four Objections

Machen answers liberalism’s objections in several ways. First, Christianity is dependent upon history because the good news of the gospel is rooted in the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ, not mysticism. The good news of the gospel announces that this event has ushered in a new age for the world, and that God has redeemed sinners. Second, Christian salvation has always been centered on devotion to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.

Third, Christian salvation is consistent with the attributes of God. Jesus’ love and the Father’s wrath do not separate the triune God. The Father and Jesus are both angry at sin: the Father is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), and Jesus grabs a whip to rid his temple of corrupt moneychangers (Matt. 21:12–13). Machen shows the falsehood of the common caricature of the angry Father taking it out on the innocent Son, because it is God himself who pays the penalty he requires: “God himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God himself in the person of the Father who spared not his own Son but offered him up for us all” (p. 132).

Fourth, the New Testament says that Jesus died not merely as a martyr, but as the divine Son of God who is able to bear the sins of others and who willingly chose to die for us (John 10:18).

The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life he brings those for whom he died. (p. 114)

Redemption is applied to us through the creative act of God by the Holy Spirit in the new birth. This is necessary because humans are not innately good (as liberalism assumes), but dead in sins, in need of regeneration and God’s life-giving grace. People must have faith, but faith itself is a gift to be received from God, not a work to be done by us (Eph. 2:8). Instead of liberating humanity, in reality liberalism denies the freedom it promises, which is only found in the liberating grace of God.

Much More than a Means

Liberalism offers a social salvation that believes religion is a means to some greater goal, like more socially conscious institutions and healthier communities. Biblical Christianity is not less, but much more than that. It does not withdraw from the world, but seeks the welfare of the world. Most importantly, it seeks the welfare of the world by calling people to repent of their sin and accept the reconciling work of God in the death of Jesus for them.

Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity. (p. 152)

The message of Christianity is not primarily about religious virtues, but the message that God has acted in history on behalf of sinful humanity to reconcile us to God. This reconciliation then brings freedom to live a life of love toward God and others. God does not exist primarily for our sake; we exist for the sake of God. Salvation is not found in a way of life, but through faith in the act of God in Jesus Christ.

In the next and final post, we’ll see how Machen shows that Christianity and liberalism have incompatible visions for the church. 



Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.