“The Gateway to Our Homeland”

In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxas relates the martyred German theologian’s perspective on death.  Just over a decade before he faced the gallows as an enemy of Hitler’s Third Reich, Bonhoeffer spoke of death in a sermon.  His view on how the Christian should regard one’s own death as something transformative and good challenges as much as it encourages:

“No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence. . . .

“That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up–that is for young and old alike to think about.  Why are we so afraid when we think about death? . . . Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it.  Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word.  Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves.  Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him.  Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.

“How do we know that dying is so dreadful?  Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?

Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith.  But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” (Bonhoeffer, p. 531)

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Posted by on February 16, 2014 in Bonhoeffer, Faith


The Mystery of Sacrificial Giving

Illustrated by Arthur A. Dixon

Those familiar with the Bishop of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables recall his generosity, demonstrated most prominently by his gifting of two silver candlesticks to the convict Jean Valjean—a gift as unexpected as it was undeserved.  Worthy at the moment of only condemnation, Valjean accepts not only the silver he had stolen but, essentially, his freedom as well.  The Bishop bestows this gift by grace . . . and to the perplexed receiver the true value of this gift seems indescribable.

But there is more to the Bishop’s character.  His generosity springs from a mind-set that puts others first and rests on a solid clarity of life’s purpose.  At another point in the novel, the Bishop is about to embark on a dangerous journey to a remote village in his parish.  Yet a notorious gang of thugs has laid claim to the wilderness along the way.  Fearing for the Bishop’s safety, the mayor attempts to convince him to forgo the trip:

“But the brigands, Monseigneur?”

“Hold,” said the Bishop, “I must think of that.  You are right.  I may meet them.  They, too, need to be told of the good God.”

“But, Monseigneur, there is a band of them!  A flock of wolves!”

“Monsieur le maire, it may be that it is of this very flock of wolves that Jesus has constituted me the shepherd.  Who knows the ways of Providence?”

“They will rob you, Monseigneur.”

“I have nothing.”

“They will kill you.”

“An old priest, who passes along mumbling his prayers?  Bah!  To what purpose?”

“Oh, mon Dieu!  What if you should meet them!

“I should beg alms of them for my poor.”

“Do not go, Monseigneur.  In the name of Heaven!  You are risking your life!”

“Monsieur le maire,” said the Bishop, “is that really all?  I am not in the world to guard my own life, but to guard souls.”

What are we to make of this mystery of sacrificial giving?  Thomas à Kempis, a fifteenth-century monk and the principal author of the devotional classic The Imitation of Christ, had much to say about denying oneself in the service of God and others.  One example:  “No one is more powerful, no one freer than he who knows how to leave all things, and think of himself as the least of all.”

Thomas à Kempis

I see in this maxim a glint of explanation behind the power and freedom routinely exercised by Hugo’s Bishop.

This past Sunday, my pastor exhorted our congregation to give sacrificially.  He emphasized again that “generosity is not something God wants from you . . . it is something God wants for you.”  The thought crossed my mind that sacrificial giving had little to do with what we gave but everything to do with the spirit that characterized our offering:  cheerful, humble, faithful.

Giving sacrificially entails not just an episode of selflessness but the habit of self-denial, rooted in faith and geared toward glorifying God.  Again, Thomas à Kempis proves instructive.  Imagining what Christ might say to a disciple, he writes,

What more do I ask than that you give yourself entirely to Me?  I care not for anything else you may give Me, for I seek not your gift but you.  Just as it would not be enough for you to have everything if you did not have Me, so whatever you give cannot please Me if you do not give yourself.

“I seek not your gift but you.”  This seems to be the heart of the matter, for what more can we give?  And why should we think that giving anything less would be enough?


Prayers That Matter Much

In Miracles, C. S. Lewis explains how our prayers make a difference–even when they don’t seem to:

When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that (if only we knew it) the event is already decided one way or the other.  I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers.  The event certainly has been decided–in a sense it was decided “before all worlds.”  But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. (p. 291)

Pray MoreThere is no question whether an event has happened because of your prayer.  When the event you prayed for occurs your prayer has always contributed to it.  When the opposite event occurs your prayer has never been ignored; it has been considered and refused, for your ultimate good and the good of the whole universe. . . . But this is, and must remain, a matter of faith. (p. 294)

It is also a matter of will . . . but not yours:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” –1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Book Comments, C. S. Lewis, Prayer


Life in the Vanishing City

Phantom TollboothIn Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth—a classic children’s story for all ages—the boy Milo unwittingly takes a journey into a world of fantasy, where he discovers that his own world is far from the boring place he considered it to be.

During one of several encounters with the creatures and people of this fantasy world, Milo learns about the tragedy of living an unexamined life:

“Many years ago, on this very spot, there was a beautiful city of fine houses and inviting spaces, and no one who lived here was ever in a hurry.  The streets were full of wonderful things to see and the people would often stop to look at them.”

“Didn’t they have any place to go?” asked Milo.

“To be sure,” continued Alec; “but, as you know, the most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.  Then one day someone discovered that if you walked as fast as possible and looked at nothing but your shoes you would arrive at your destination much more quickly.  Soon everyone was doing it.  They all rushed down the avenues and hurried along the boulevards seeing nothing of the wonders and beauties of their city as they went.”

Milo remembered the many times he’d done the very same thing; and, as hard as he tried, there were even things on his own street that he couldn’t remember.

In the Vanishing City“No one paid any attention to how things looked, and as they moved faster and faster everything grew uglier and dirtier, and as everything grew uglier and dirtier they moved faster and faster; and at last a very strange thing began to happen.  Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.  Day by day the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, until at last it was entirely invisible.  There was nothing to see at all.

“What did they do?” the Humbug inquired, suddenly taking an interest in things.

“Nothing at all,” continued Alec.  “They went right on living here just as they’d always done, in the houses they could no longer see and on the streets which had vanished, because nobody had noticed a thing.  And that’s the way they have lived to this very day.”

“Hasn’t anyone told them?” asked Milo.

“It doesn’t do any good,” Alec replied, “for they can never see what they’re in too much of a hurry to look for.” (pp. 117-18)

Look up.  Look around.  Seek wisdom.  See beauty.

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.  For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.—Proverbs 2:1-6

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Posted by on April 22, 2013 in Book Comments, Knowledge


A Slender Cord in the Hands of a Great God

Charles Spurgeon on faith and works . . . two passages on the merits of one and inadequacy of the other:

I am told that years ago a boat was upset above the falls of Niagara, and two men were being carried down the current, when persons on the shore managed to float a rope out to them, which rope was seized by them both.  One of them held fast to it and was safely drawn to the bank; but the other, seeing a great log come floating by, unwisely let go the rope and clung to the log, for it was the bigger thing of the two, and apparently better to cling to.  Alas!  The log with the man on it went right over the vast abyss, because there was no union between the log and the shore.  The size of the log was no benefit to him who grasped it; it needed a connection with the shore to produce safety.  So when a man trusts to his works, or to sacraments, or to anything of that sort, he will not be saved, because there is no junction between him and Christ; but faith, though it may seem to be like a slender cord, is in the hands of the great God on the shore side; infinite power pulls in the connecting line, and thus draws the man from destruction. (All of Grace, pp. 45-46)

And another:

Those who hope to be saved by trying to do their best know nothing of that glowing fervor, that hallowed warmth, that devout joy in God, which come with salvation freely given according to the grace of God.  The slavish spirit of self-salvation is no match for the joyous spirit of adoption.  There is more real virtue in the least emotion of faith than in all the tuggings of legal bond-slaves, or all the weary machinery of devotees who would climb to Heaven by rounds of ceremonies.  Faith is spiritual, and God who is a spirit delights in it for that reason.  Years of prayer-saying, and church-going, or chapel-going, and ceremonies, and performances, may only be an abomination in the sight of Jehovah; but a glance from the eye of true faith is spiritual and it is therefore dear to Him. (All of Grace, p. 99)

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Book Comments, Charles Spurgeon, Faith


Rejoicing in the Resurrection

In Miracles, C. S. Lewis explains how the resurrection of Christ ushered in a kind of “new creation” and changed everything:

The Resurrection was not regarded simply or chiefly as evidence for the immortality of the soul. . . . On such a view Christ would simply have done what all men do when they die:  the only novelty would have been that in His case we were allowed to see it happening.  But there is not in Scripture the faintest suggestion that the Resurrection was new evidence for something that had in fact been always happening.  The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe.  He is the “first fruits,” the “pioneer of life.”  He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man.  He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death.  Everything is different because He has done so.  This is the beginning of the New Creation:  a new chapter in cosmic history has opened. (pp. 236-37)

In a broad sense, this “new chapter” is the age in which we live.  And it is reason for rejoicing . . . the crescendo of this song of hope we sing.  I am tempted to say it’s the “light of a new dawn” and leave it at that, but Sinclair Ferguson offers the same sentiment without seeming nearly as trite.

For what took place in the Elder Brother [Jesus] will one day take place in the lives of all the children [of God].  Not only so, but already, through fellowship with him in our regeneration, through “new birth,” we experience the first rays of that glorious morning.  The light of the world to come has already crept over the horizon of our lives and is shining into the death-darkened days in which we live. (Children of the Living God, p. 19)


“‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you . . . that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.’  And they remembered his words.”—Luke 24:5-8


Rejoicing in the Cross

John Piper on why the death of Christ matters not just eternally, but for today:

Because for redeemed sinners, every good thing—indeed every bad thing that God turns for good—was obtained for us by the cross of Christ.  Apart from the death of Christ, there is only condemnation.  Therefore everything that you enjoy in Christ—as a Christian, as a person who trusts Christ—is owing to the death of Christ.  And all your rejoicing in all things should therefore be a rejoicing in the cross where all your blessings were purchased for you at the cost of the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. (Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 51)

In Christ, every circumstance of our lives is redeemed to the glory of God.  Because Jesus took the cup of wrath, our cup overflows with joy.  Every single blessing we experience comes to us through the work of Christ on the cross.  All blessings . . . purchased for us at great cost . . .

2013-03-30 21.59.47-2Piper only echoes an idea expressed over two centuries earlier by Jonathan Edwards, who spoke more emphatically about this purchase:

Our blessings are what we have by purchase; and the purchase is made of God, the blessings are purchased of him, and God gives the purchaser; and not only so, but God is the purchaser.  Yea, God is both the purchaser and the price; for Christ, who is God, purchased these blessings for us by offering up himself as the price of our salvation. (from Edwards’ 1731 sermon, “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence”)

We are not a party to this transaction, but it is settled to our favor nonetheless   . . . to our utterly undeserved favor . . . an exchange that resounds through eternity as a testament to God’s grace.  The cross towers over us and shines before us.  We live in its shadow and in its light.  It matters.  It’s really all that matters.

From Don’t Waste Your Life, Piper again:

Every enjoyment in this life and the next that is not idolatry is a tribute to the infinite value of the cross of Christ—the burning center of the glory of God.  And thus a cross-centered, cross-exalting, cross-saturated life is a God-glorifying life—the only God-glorifying life.  All others are wasted. (p. 59)


“The Torment of a Soul Estranged from God”

Content to simply “be saved,” we often lose sight of the price God paid to deliver us from spiritual bondage and eternal condemnation.  We reverently sing:  “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.”  But are we that curious?

In Basic Christianity, John Stott reminds us of the great cost associated with the Son’s loving obedience to the Father.  It was a cost that extended far beyond excruciating physical pain and personal humiliation.  By more fully understanding this cost, we can more clearly appreciate its worth.  Grace is free to us . . . but our debt fell upon another.

“And then in desolate spiritual abandonment that cry was wrung from his lips, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’  It was a quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22.  No doubt he had been meditating during his agony on its description of the sufferings and glory of the Christ.  But why did he quote that verse?  Why not one of the triumphant verses at the end?  Why not, ‘You who fear the Lord, praise him!’ or ‘Dominion belongs to the Lord’?  Are we to believe that it was a cry of human weakness and despair, or that the Son of God was imagining things?

“No.  These words must be taken at their face value.  He quoted this verse of Scripture . . . because he believed he was himself fulfilling it. He was bearing our sins.  And God who is ‘of purer eyes than to behold evil’ and cannot ‘look on wrong’ turned away his face.  Our sins came between the Father and the Son.  The Lord Jesus Christ who was eternally with the Father, who enjoyed unbroken communion with him throughout his life on earth, was thus momentarily abandoned.  Our sins sent Christ to hell.  He tasted the torment of a soul estranged from God.  Bearing our sins, he died our death.  He endured instead of us the penalty of separation from God which our sins deserved.

“Then at once, emerging from that outer darkness, he cried in triumph, ‘It is finished,’ and finally, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.’  And so he died.  The work he had come to do was completed.  The salvation he had come to win was accomplished.  The sins of the world were borne.  Reconciliation to God was available to all who would trust this Savior for themselves, and receive him as their own.  Immediately, as if to demonstrate this truth publicly, the unseen hand of God tore down the curtain of the Temple, and hurled it aside.  It was needed no longer.  The way into God’s holy presence was no longer barred.  Christ had ‘opened the gate of heaven to all believers.’  And thirty-six hours later he was raised from death, to prove that he had not died in vain.” (pp. 92-93)

“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”      —2 Corinthians 5:21

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Posted by on March 27, 2013 in Book Comments, Cross of Christ


A “Hunger” Satisfied by Grace

In the fictional world of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the only real authority is one without mercy.  The Capitol revels in the exercise of absolute power, perversely instituting an annual tragedy and calling it entertainment.  Katniss Everdeen, the indomitable heroine of Collins’s dystopian novel, describes the hopeless plight of the subjugated, whose necks strain under the heavy boots of heartless taskmasters:

Selecting the Tribute“Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.  How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion.  Whatever words they use, the real message is clear.  ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do.  If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you.  Just as we did in District Thirteen.’” (p. 18)

At the yearly “harvest” preceding this sacrifice, Katniss stands amid the throng of potential tributes and listens to an official commemorating the ritual as “both a time for repentance and a time for thanks.” (p. 19)

That the narrator recognizes these words as a sham seems realistic enough, given the godless world in which she dwells.  The Capitol rules.  There can be no genuine repentance or thankfulness when the only known authority is wholly incapable of grace or mercy.

Repentance in simple theological terms entails a “turning away” from sin, but it requires much more than a determined act of the will . . . much more and, in a certain sense, much less (from us).  In The Christian Life, Sinclair Ferguson explains how adopting an attitude of repentance depends entirely on the character of God—the One with ultimate authority, both now and for all eternity:

“Only when we turn away from looking at our own sin to look at the face of God, to find his pardoning grace, do we begin to repent.  Only by seeing that there is grace and forgiveness with himwould we ever dare to repent and thus return to the fellowship and presence of the Father. . . . The law may lead to conviction, exposing a sense of guilt and need, as it did also in [the Apostle] Paul’s experience.  But only when grace appears on the horizon offering forgiveness will the sunshine of the love of God melt our hearts and draw us back to him.” (p. 75)

In the darkened world where the Capitol is god, we should not expect to see the warming thaw of repentance.  The hardhearted do not feel their chest tighten with the knotting pang of guilt.  They do not crumple in moral exhaustion at the feet of cruel authority, seeking forgiveness from what they know to be hopelessly merciless through and through.

But in the real world, God the Creator and Redeemer enables true repentance by revealing Himself as merciful . . . reaching down and extending grace that not only enlightens but also calls us home.

“. . . in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”—2 Timothy 2:25


A Gallop with the King

In our efforts to live faithfully as disciples of Christ in the here and now, we often lose sight of the work in store for us when the King returns. In Miracles, C. S. Lewis gives us a glimpse of the resurrection life:

There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room . . . for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desires. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, “Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with the wealth that perishes?” Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him? (p. 266)

We do not use ourselves up for the sake of Christ, day in, day out, only to cross over into a state of dull relaxation. We should instead expect to be lifted up in a colorful, quickening breath to experience “true wealth”    . . . the exhilaration of newness . . . the comfort of vague familiarity . . . the joy of utter completeness.

This earthly life is not a race to the finish line so much as it is practice in preparation for eternity, when we will know rest to be sure . . . but not inactivity. Get ready for “a gallop with the King!”