Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Colossians--The Supreme Sufficiency of Christ

Just started reading Douglas Moo's new Pillar NTC Commentary on Colossians and Philemon.

Thus far, I've been very impressed with the Pillar NTC series (though, admittedly, D.A. Carson's The Gospel According to John sets the bar rather high!). So far, Moo is entirely living up to expectations. (Not that this is terribly surprising, of course--his NICNT commentary on Romans remains the best such work in the English language...and that from such a discerning reader as Carson!)

Colossians is a letter I've been turning to a lot lately; the picture there of Christ in all His Glorious Majesty boggles the mind:

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross." (1:15-20, ESV)

What rich, profound thoughts these are! And yet, I find myself convicted in that, like I do all too often, I encounter passages such as these and pass too quickly over them, not savoring or delighting in them as I ought, not considering what enormous consequences there are to such concepts.It's one thing, after all, to talk blithely (and even dismissively) of "the supremacy of Christ"...I've yet to meet a professing Christian who argues otherwise, of course. And yet, ought not the SUPREMACY of Christ necessarily entail the SUFFICIENCY of Christ?

This is a challenging notion for me--how often have I really considered what it means for God's Grace in Christ to be "sufficient" for me? How often do I content myself with a superficial acknowledgment that "yes, Christ is indeed great and glorious and above all," without considering that what that must necessarily mean is that in Christ God has given me absolutely EVERYTHING I could possibly need?

"The false teachers [at Colossae] were appealing to spiritual beings, visions, and rules to find security in this very uncertain universe. In doing so, they were questioning the sufficiency of Christ. They may have done so directly, but it is more likely that their questions about Christ were implicit in their approach and that it is Paul who draws out the implications of this "philosophy" for Christology. The false teachers were so preoccupied with their own program for spiritual fullness that they were separating themselves from the only true source of spiritual power: the Lord Jesus Christ, the one in whom God in all his fullness is to be found and the one through whom God has accomplished the reconciliation of the world. Here is the essence of the false teaching: it is "not according to Christ" (2:8). And, at the risk of generalizing unduly, we might suggest that here as well is the point of contact for the application of the message of Colossians to a wide variety of historical and contemporary teachings. Any teaching that questions the sufficiency of Christ--not only for "initial" salvation but also for spiritual growth and ultimate salvation from judgment--falls under the massive christological critique of Colossians." (Moo, p. 60)

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Hard Lesson in Thanksgiving: Miscarriage and the Goodness of God

"Madam, life's a piece in bloom
Death goes dogging everywhere;
She's the tenant of the room,
He's the ruffian on the stair."

--W.E. Henley

Over Thanksgiving, I was challenged by one of the blogs I frequent. To wit:

Scripture says that one of the marks of the Spirit-filled believer is that he gives "thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20). In fact, we're flat-out commanded to "give thanks in all circumstances" — and, as if that's not enough, Paul adds, "for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Quite apart from the shocking challenge of Scripture, I realized I'd never quite followed up on something I said I would do. Last month, my wife and I were expecting our first child, and we suffered a miscarriage. At least, that's what it's called...but "miscarriage" is such a clinical, impersonal word to describe something as intensely personal and painful as anything I've ever felt. This was a death in the family, and no amount of obfuscating can cover that visceral, palpable sense of loss. And yet, Dan's words above are entirely true: Christ-followers ARE commanded to "give thanks in all circumstances" precisely because doing so "is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."

And so, as part of my journey here, fellow travelers, I try to make sense of all this, to consider why and how I ought to give thanks to God for my grief and loss. This runs quite contrary to much of the advice I received in the wake of our loss--advice that counseled me NOT to think about these things, NOT to attempt to understand them, NOT to analyze them. I have profound problems with this advice, though--especially regarding the whole notion of 'analyzing' our suffering. I'm not entirely sure what that means. If, by "don't try to analyze it," my friends (who mean well, to be sure) simply mean, "don't dwell on it," then I have no quarrel with that. We are solemnly commanded (for some incredibly important reasons!), to "not grieve as others do who have no hope," after all.

But I have my doubts that this is what my brothers and sisters who encouraged me in this way really mean by "don't try to analyze it"...all too often in the current climate of American evangelicalism, "don't try to analyze your suffering" secretly means, "God had nothing to do with your situation, so stop trying to assess it in those terms." I wonder, though, what sort of comfort this (wholly unbiblical, let us say) 'wisdom' is supposed to offer. The person who offers this platitude (again, doubtless meaning very well by doing so) seems to be saying one of two things. They seem to mean either (A) "God is not 'behind' your suffering in any meaningful sense--there is, after all, a real devil in the world"; or else (B) "Your suffering, unfortunately, is ultimately your own--God absolutely blesses and relieves from suffering anyone who is obedient to Him and who prays sincerely and fervently for their situation...you must've failed in one of those areas, or else you wouldn't be in this situation."

Let me say from the onset that I don't believe any of the people who offered me the advice in question deliberately intended to mean (B) at all. At least, I would sincerely hope not! Yet this kind of thinking is a necessary consequence of the kind of approach so many contemporary evangelicals take toward prayer and faith: if it's always God's Will to heal, and if it's true that "All lack is on our end of the equation," then anyone who is NOT healed, by necessity, has only themselves to thank, whether because they never had sufficient faith or because they're in some kind of egregious sin.

John chapter 9 makes very short work of this particular brand of nonsense:

"As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him." (v. 1-3)

This was a man blind from birth, and in the one place where Jesus has a prime opportunity to put to rest any false notions the disciples might have about God causing this person to be born blind (meaning it would have been a condition he had suffered with for decades), Jesus instead says that THE reason for this man's suffering was "that the works of God might be displayed in him." Notice, beloved, what Jesus does NOT say: He does NOT say, "Had this man or his family or the people praying for him only demonstrated more faith or more obedience, he would no longer be blind." Likewise, He makes no attempt to say anything approximating, "This man's blindness has nothing to do with God--it's simply a work of the devil." When asked about the cause of this man's blindness--and consequently the 20-30 years of suffering he endured on account of it--Jesus told His disciples that this blindness was ordained by God.

So I don't see at all the value of denying that God is sovereign over my suffering. Indeed, I don't see that there can be any hope in the midst of suffering at ALL if God isn't sovereign over it; if I get sick because of an attack of the enemy that God couldn't stop, how can I really trust Him to heal me? If God is absolutely opposed to sickness and suffering, then how comes it to happen in the first place? Did my baby really die because I didn't pray hard enough? (That's the conclusion at which we'd arrive if we took men like Bill Johnson seriously.) If so, what would the "magic prayer time" have been? If I'd prayed 15 minutes longer everyday, would that have "released God" (whatever that means) to heal my baby? How, then, if I'd only prayed 14 minutes and 30 seconds more everyday? Did I simply not use the right words? If so, what spell or incantation might I have used to conjure God's healing power? This, brothers and sisters, is the kind of arrant nonsense we face if we consistently deny the sovereignty of God in our suffering.

Now, having said all that, what can I take from this situation? Given that Scripture affirms the sovereignty of God over human pain and suffering (for other examples see here; another very good resource is actually available for free online in its entirety on PDF), what kinds of things should I give thanks for in the aftermath of something that hurt so deeply and bitterly? I desperately want to have the apostle Peter's vision, and genuinely say, along with him:

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (1:1-7)

You see, what Peter does here is so beautiful and precious! Writing to fellow saints who are themselves suffering and enduring persecution, Peter immediately grounds his guidance to them in terms of God's eternal purpose of election and the fulfillment of His plan from before the foundation of the world (cf. 1:18-21) and reminds the churches that their hope lies not in their own strength, but in the living hope of Christ's Resurrection and the Promised Inheritance of that Resurrection (i.e., eternal life), which in turn is kept (as they themsleves are) by the Power of God. Moreover, Peter says to these churches that the goal of their suffering is that it "may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ"; they suffer, in other words, that in their suffering the magnificence and splendor of Jesus Christ may be made known, in the interim by the victorious genuineness of their faith, but ultimately at the last day when God's People are vindicated in Christ's return. In fact, Peter's argument here is a great deal like the Apostle Paul's (much more famous) argument in Romans:

"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8:28-39)

Again, we have as the ground of our hope in the midst of suffering God's Sovereign Purpose of election and His determination to save those whom He foreknew. Precisely because God has laid in place this great plan of salvation, we may have hope that "for those who love God all things work together for good." And, Paul says, because of this we can know for a certainty that "IN all these things" (not "in spite of", not "instead of") we prove victorious--"more than conquerors."

And so Scripture gives the lie to any assumption that the believer's suffering and pain in this world are somehow beyond God's jurisdiction or outside the scope of His Sovereignty. So the question now is no longer "Must I worship God in spite of suffering?", but rather "How many ways can I be thankful for this?" As an answer, I offer the following:

I give Thanks to God for our miscarriage because...

1. Because it forced me to turn to Christ and to cast my cares upon Him by looking to His Cross and what He accomplished there. You see, at the core of the Gospel lies this precious, precious word we almost never think about anymore--John uses it in his first letter when he tells us that "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1:9-10).

That Christ is the propitiation for our sins means that in His Person He endured the full measure of all God's Wrath against our sin on the Cross, and that all the demands of God's Justice have been perfectly satisfied in Him, so that we who believe on Christ are counted righteous before God. This was God's Plan for salvation from before the foundation of the world, and when Christ on His Cross shouted, "Tetelestai!", it rendered certain the absolute fulfillment of every aspect of God's Plan. Human beings of themselves and their own efforts cannot satisfy the demands of God's Holiness--all our very best works carry with them the stain and reek of wickedness. But God in His Mercy has made a people who were dead in sin alive in Christ.

And where the rubber meets the road for me in the death of our baby is this: Jesus Christ the propitiation for sin means that God is not indifferent to suffering; indeed, it means that He actually understands it a good deal more thoroughly and more viscerally than I ever will. In the Cross, Jesus shows us that human beings MATTER, and we matter so much that the Only Son of God, the Lord of Glory, became a slave and endured scorn, derision, torture, and death to redeem us. And a God Who has shown us how deeply we matter to Him is a God in Whom I can place my trust.

2. Because in our miscarriage I had the opportunity to see the pure and precious and beautiful faith of my beautiful bride. Misty has handled her pain and sorrow with a faith and a hope that is encouraging and challenging and inspiring and amazing. What a great and glorious thing the Lord hath wrought in the heart of this precious saint! She is hourly, daily a reminder to me of God's overwhelming Goodness and Grace to me, a sinner. I would never have seen this faith shine so dazzlingly and brilliantly had it not been for the blackness and horror of the situation that called it forth, and so I give great thanks to my God to see all that He has done in her. Godliness is a jewel of matchless beauty, and my bride wears it well indeed!

3. Because I have a child who, even now, lives a life of imperishable, painless, eternal, and unblemished happiness. In His Presence there is fullness of joy and a life of which all that this world offers is only a shadow and a pale reflection. You see, the Gospel doesn't end on the cross--the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us absolute assurance that the sacrifice Jesus made on the Cross for our sins has been accepted by God, Who now counts all who believe on Christ as righteous and holy...indeed, because the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us, we have absolute assurance that we too may partake in the resurrection life.

I love what Samuel Rutherford says in a letter he wrote to a mother who had lost her younger son:

"And therefore ye are to love that cross, because it was once on Christ's shoulders before you; so that by his own practice he hath over-gilded and covered your cross with the Mediator's lustre. The cup ye drink was at the lip of sweet Jesus, and he drank of it; and so it hath a smell of his breath. And I conceive ye love it not the worse, that it is thus sugared; therefore drink, and believe the resurrection of your son's body...And withal, if ye consider this, had ye been at his bedside, and should have seen Christ coming to him, ye would not, ye could not, have adjourned Christ's free love, who would want him no longer."

I feel this indescribable loss at not ever having had the pleasure of meeting my child...but I love him too little if I yearn to have him here instead of where he is now.

"Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven."

4. Because in all this, I am made to remember who I am. I am a sinner. I deserve wrath and hell and judgment and damnation for my sins, but in Christ Jesus God has offered His Son--His Only Son--to suffer in my place the punishment that I have earned by a lifetime of covenant-breaking, cross-defiling, grace-abusing, God-hating wickedness. All of the agony of this situation came upon me unbidden and unexpected. Yet God endured all this and far worse to save me when I hated Him. He did all this willingly for someone who was His enemy. How all this forces me to treasure and adore the matchless love of God in the gift of His Son Jesus!!!

5. Lastly, I rejoice in our miscarriage because by it I have the opportunity to share all this with you. Thinking and praying and searching the Scriptures for the last several weeks has renewed the deep and abiding passion I have to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I Thank God for anything He does that causes me to think on the Cross, to run to it and to explore and meditate upon and rejoice in the Awesome things that He has done. I Thank God for anything that gives to me the opportunity to share the Gospel I love with the people I love, and for the chance to challenge and exhort and encourage the church of Jesus Christ. May God richly bless you and reward you with Himself.

In Christ,
Curtis Sheidler