“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!”


A Miracle, “Small and Close”

Joy at ChristmasWith raw–almost breathtaking–imagery, C. S. Lewis reflects on the miracles of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation. God is at work in every pregnancy. But months before that first Christmas, Nature’s God directly intervened in His Creation and began to make all things new. In Miracles, Lewis poignantly captures the logic and beauty of this dramatic, grace-filled Rescue.

“The human father is merely an instrument, a carrier, often an unwilling carrier, always simply the last in a long line of carriers–a line that stretches back far beyond his ancestors into pre-human and pre-organic deserts of time, back to the creation of matter itself. That line is in God’s hand. It is the instrument by which He normally creates a man. For He is the reality behind both Genius and Venus; no woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, without Him.

“But once, and for a special purpose, He dispensed with that long line which is His instrument: once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events. Once the great glove of Nature was taken off His hand. His naked hand touched her.

“There was of course a unique reason for it. That time He was creating not simply a man but the Man who was to be Himself: was creating Man anew: was beginning, at this divine and human point, the New Creation of all things. The soiled and weary universe quivered at this direct injection of essential life–direct, uncontaminated, not drained through all the crowded history of Nature. . . . The miraculous conception is one more witness that here is Nature’s Lord. He is doing now, small and close, what He does in a different fashion for every woman who conceives.”

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Posted by on December 25, 2012 in Book Comments, C. S. Lewis, Incarnation


Groans of Hope

In the days preceding our youngest daughter’s adoption, my wife and I take a hair-raising taxi ride to her orphanage for one of several two-hour visits.  Odessa’s visibly run-down northern district lacks the charm of the city center but is still very much alive.  We careen past crammed streetcars.  Curbside sellers of potatoes and watermelons line the main thoroughfare.  Stray dogs dodge packs of pedestrians on the move.  Stylish-looking twenty- and thirty-somethings wait impatiently at bus stops alongside frumpy pensioners.  Boys and girls clad in white shirts and black slacks or skirts walk smartly to school while young mothers guide sleek strollers in and out of corner markets and convenience stores.

We turn off the bustling avenue and into a maze of backstreets that wind between dingy playgrounds and towering apartments.  All of the latter seem designed from the same oversized building cut-out, bleak and sharp-edged but flecked with drying laundry, signal flags of life draped from countless windows.  A kerchiefed, brown-sweatered woman hunches over a homemade broom and sweeps the ubiquitous dust from one place to another.  The crumbling asphalt track our taxi takes is creatively bounded by old tires–upright, partially buried half-moons of faded blue, red, and green.  Near the end of the road, we reach the chain-linked fence enclosing the orphanage.  Our cab slows and then lurches forward haltingly.  We answer the driver’s quizzical look with a nod and pay as we open the car doors and exit.  Handing our visitors’ pass to the gatekeeper, we enter and continue on a short distance to a bench outside the building’s main doors as our greeter branches off toward the office, flip-flops dragging laconically over the pavement.

We are not permitted to peer into the inner sanctum of the orphanage.  But the warm weather gives us no compelling reason to gratify our nosiness.  We sit on the bench and wait, watching small children under the supervision of clinical-looking, white-coated nannies file outdoors.  Many of these three- to five-year-olds walk unsteadily, and the nannies hustle them over to the railing with relentless business-like efficiency.  Clutching the metal railing, they descend five steps to an apron of neatly cut brick framed by beds of marigolds and wildflowers.  There, the children are reassembled into fragile chains held together by tiny fingers hooked into belt loops.  Some nannies construct these chains gently.  Most just yell at their charges, roughly prodding shoulders or pulling arms when progress slows as curious smiling eyes linger too long on us.  We get the sense that the nannies resent our intrusion.  We represent a distant hope for which these young ones dare not dream.  At the moment, we are a distraction in a strictly controlled environment that brooks no nonsense.  It is, after all, playtime.  And nothing as trivial as a pair of friendly faces should delay that for even a minute.

The rows of children march from the welcome area and disperse throughout the orphanage grounds.  Still waiting, we gaze after them with swelling sadness.  Fifty feet away the neat brick yields to darkened cracked cement paths leading to play stations with squeaking swings and splintering carousels.  In one direction, a dour German shepherd paces in front of a dirty dog house to the irregular clanging of a thick rusty chain.  The tiled skeleton of a swimming pool long-empty lies buried in the shade of a weeping willow.  Turning elsewhere, we glimpse beyond some trees the ruins of an orange-speckled castle of concrete set in a corner of the grounds.  We learn later that it serves as a makeshift latrine.  So as sounds of pre-lunch recess rise sporadically to our ears, we become aware that these ripples of gladness will soon disappear into the depressing eddy whirling around this orphanage and its young occupants.  The desire to take more of them home washes over us.

We are relieved to see the door open and A. emerge in the arms of a nanny.  Jumping to our feet, we retrieve a few diapers from our backpack and hand them to the woman.  Nodding, she accepts this Pamper ransom and then finishes fussing with a knit cap resting awkwardly on our baby’s head.  It’s a sunny day in late August.  We smile plainly, reluctant to seem grateful for tenderness when the behavior we observe may be little more than suffocation.  Free to roam the grounds, my wife and I find a secluded spot and begin to savor this precious time with our daughter.

Just shy of her first birthday and having Down syndrome, A. has no words for us.  I hold her.  She regards me with warm ambivalence and tightly sucks in both lips, smacks them like a toothless cartoon granny.  Slight tickles near her underarms elicit truncated giggles.  Her eyes widen as her mouth goes taut in a wild breathless grin, a moistened tongue pressing firmly against her lower lip.  Already, I know I love her.

I lay her down on a blanket, and she begins to kick both feet playfully in the air with comic rapidity.  She stops abruptly after ten quick repetitions and grabs a colorful rattling toy.  While on her back, A. lifts it to her mouth with one hand.  I tenderly raise the other to form a mutual grip around the toy.  The first hand flops immediately to the blanket.  Observing the same mechanical response a few times more, I marvel at the realization that my soon-to-be one-year-old daughter cannot hold an object with both hands simultaneously.  I picture a circuit in her brain where the breaker has flipped and flash ahead to the work that awaits us once we get her home.  My wife–a one-time occupational therapist–sets about the happy task of helping our daughter develop the muscle tone and agility to support herself in a forward-kneeling position.  A. grunts and groans as her limbs give way and bend under the pressure of my wife’s gentle hands.

This groaning, I reason, stems from fatigue or frustration.  It is not a cry of discomfort, not the demand for material satisfaction one would expect from a baby.  The sound she makes is more guttural and raspy, a sigh that seems to express a longing for something deeper.  It’s different.  It exerts.  It penetrates, striking me as a primitive verbalization of her struggle.

Coaxing her to reach, my wife and I jingle a toy overhead.  Bright eyes follow the flash of color, and a hand stretches to grasp it.  A groan.  With some difficulty, she rolls to lay on her stomach.  We draw the knees underneath her torso and lift up to extend her arms.  Pushing on the ground, limp muscles tense.  A groan presses from her lungs just before shoulders and arms give way in a soft collapse.  Stubby fingers open and close, and she listens attentively to the sharp zip of their scratching on the nylon blanket.  She shifts her gaze to a little blue ball and fiddles with its rubber nubs.  Again, a friction-laced cooing sound . . . a baby’s groan.

Alert to a light breeze sweeping across the orphanage grounds, she tightens her neck and back and cranes her head.  She tilts her eyes upward even further and horizontal wrinkles cross her forehead.  I pretend that this is the first time she has felt the wind on her cheeks.  I study her countenance and see a person engaged in the struggle to understand her world.  And I am awe of the persistent effort she makes.  I imagine now that her groans are groans of anticipation . . . groans of hope.

She reminds me that all of us groan under the weight of our corporeal imperfections and disabilities.  We may manage on most days–some even thrive, often–but none can escape the mundane pull of gravity.  Its drag never fully dissolves this side of eternity.  Some of us may gulp down the antidote of joy, gracefully supplied.  Still, we pass the days in these bodies of ours–these tents, steadily sagging and rain-soaked.  We reach and ache and long to shed this earthly skin and be crowned with garb more real . . . to be truly alive.

“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 5:2-5)

In Children of the Living God, Sinclair Ferguson writes about this groaning–this longing for a home yet unseen    . . . but one that we know has been prepared for us.

“We are waiting eagerly ‘for the adoption of sons,’ when, in the resurrection, our whole being will share in the new life of the risen Christ, who is our Elder Brother.  Then we will bear the full family likeness of the sons of God.  This is not a groan of despair; it is a groan of hope.  And because we already have the firstfruits of the Spirit, the adoption certificate and guarantee, we know that our hope will not be disappointed.” (pp.125-26)

So as I listen in wonder to the groans of my daughter, I smile and think wistfully that her groans express hope     . . . hope for the day when we will welcome her home.  As a father, I long for that day.  And when I contemplate my Heavenly Father hearing the groans of His children with an even greater love and longing, it brings tears of joy.

We took A. out of the orphanage on her first birthday. She is home with us now.


Gracious, and Seasoned with Salt

In this eight-minute exchange with Bill Maher, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is by no means theologically or stylistically perfect.  Nonetheless, his humble and winsome defense of the Christian faith in a rather hostile setting bears watching. What I’ve written below is not a summary of the Maher-Douthat dialogue but three, more general “take-aways”:

1 — To advance the claims of Christianity you must know the Word of God.  The Bible’s message is simple but not simplistic. There are nuances for which skeptics will demand an explanation. In discussing them, believers must be diligent, not dismissive . . . “rightly dividing” the Word of God (2 Timothy 2:15).

2 — When you know the Word of God, you need not fear engaging in conversation about it. You should, in fact, relish opportunities to present the gospel and refine your understanding of its message. Speaking (coherently) requires thinking. So you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn through the process of searching for the words to explain the wonder of grace and truth and the reason for the hope we have. When you know the Word of God, the charges that atheists fire your way actually strengthen your faith–much like a vaccine strengthens one’s immunity to a disease. Consider Bill Maher’s snide questions to Douthat. They set up well-worn arguments that at once garble and oversimplify what the Bible teaches and what most Christians believe.  Contrast Maher’s flippant jabs for the purposes of laughter with Douthat’s genuine attempts to demystify and help his inquisitor understand. Which approach strikes you as more compelling?

3 — Finally, the inexhaustible arrogance of atheists like Bill Maher–though worthy of condemnation–should really elicit our sympathy.

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”–Colossians:4:6

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Posted by on September 15, 2012 in Apologetics, Evangelism


Shepherd of Grace, Shepherd of Truth

The familiar image of our Savior as a shepherd appears throughout Scripture.  Perhaps the most cherished is King David’s reverent ode to the Lord as a shepherd of restoration and provision, a shepherd who makes our comfort complete (Psalm 23).  The Apostle Peter refers to Christ as “the chief Shepherd” of our souls (1 Peter 5:4), and the writer of Hebrews echoes this sentiment (in verse 13:20), calling Jesus “the greatest shepherd.”  He leads perfectly, and those who follow will never go astray.

Jesus Himself employs the same metaphor in the gospel accounts, memorably so in John 10:14-15.

“I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

This is Christ as the shepherd of grace.  He comes to rescue, providing protection, comfort, and direction to lost sheep undeserving of such invaluable gifts.  We can point to the manifestation of these gifts countless times in our daily life.  Most decisively though, Christ performed His shepherding work on the cross, where He bore our sin and suffered so that we might live, receiving His righteousness through faith and thus escaping the Father’s holy wrath.  Why this gift of unmerited grace?  He knows us and delights in us.  We were the apple of His eye even before our first blink.  So He laid down His life to save us.  Grateful for His grace, we seek to love this shepherd.  We long to rest upon His bosom, basking in shared intimacy just as the gospel writer did.

But elsewhere, Jesus describes Himself as a shepherd fulfilling a different function.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.  Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. . . . And these [on the left] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”–Matthew 25:31-33, 46

Coming in glory with the angels and sitting on His throne before the nations, Christ judges all people according to what they have done.  As in John’s gospel, He is a shepherd . . . only now He is a shepherd of truth separating the sheep from the goats.  In the first account, Christ is the shepherd who seeks and saves the lost.  In the second, He comes to uphold the integrity of His flock.

This passage from the Book of Matthew emphasizes the inviolable connection between what we do and who we are.  The sheep–those who have followed Jesus in this temporal life–have borne out their faith in good works, serving others in love and for His sake.  The self-righteous goats protest that they would have served Christ if only they had seen Him.

But Jesus’s point here is that it’s not just about selectively doing good deeds.  It’s about doing them out of an unbridled love for Christ and gratitude for the work He has done in us.  It’s about doing them with a spirit that willingly places our work under the mantle of Christ’s supreme work and purpose . . . about doing work that is similar in kind to the self-sacrificing, humbling, redeeming work He did on the cross.  It’s about having eyes that see Christ in the world and then responding with a desire to serve Him by ministering to the people He loves.  That the goats consider their empty works sufficient for salvation is tragic.  They remain blind even under the bright light of judgment.

For good reason, our hearts warm easily to the shepherd of grace portrayed in John 10 while the tendency is to rationalize as we explain the actions of Matthew 25’s shepherd of truth.  But there is only one “Chief Shepherd,” and Scripture consistently presents Him as both Rescuer and Judge.  Indeed, these two elements of Christ’s character are foundational, not only with respect to who He is, but also to our faith.  Without grace, we’re lost.  Without truth, it wouldn’t seem to matter.  But it does.

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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in Bible Reading, Character of God, Grace, Truth