Archive for May 2013

Love with no invoice

May 29th, 2013 — 11:44am

Like the rest of my generation, I like talking about love. I think love is supremely important. I think love is basic to life. I think love is the answer to most of the world’s problems. And I’m often embarrassingly fuzzy on just what this thing is we’re always talking about.

When my generation talks about love, we seem to have one of two things in mind: for a lot of us, love boils down to self-gratification (“I love X” really just means “X gratifies me”); among more religious types, love tends to be defined in terms of stoical self-sacrifice (“I love you” means “I would do anything for you, and I don’t care if I get anything back”). Does either of these, though, really capture the complexities of love?

Take Jesus, for example. In fact, take Him as more than an example: take Him as the Lord who said, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” What does it look like to love like Jesus?

There’s no question that Jesus loved self-sacrificially. He didn’t demand anything from us as the condition of His love, nor does He demand anything from us as some sort of reimbursement for His love. He’s never embittered by our lack of response. His love and grace are free. They come without an invoice.

That’s not the total picture, though. Jesus is the sovereign Lord who loves unconditionally, but He’s also the Bridegroom who seeks, desires, invites, and calls for a response. I can see no other way to make sense of the term “jealous God” than to acknowledge that – in an entirely divine, self-sufficient, non-needy way – our Lord wants something out of His relationship with us.

It would appear, then, that loving like Jesus means bringing a robust desire into our relationships, and sustaining that desire in the face of many disappointments, without ever sliding away into self-gratifying lust (“my needs and desires are first priority”), controlling demand (“you will give me what I need and desire”), or resentful self-protection (“you haven’t given me what I need and desire, so I’m done with you”). The heart must be full of unquenchable desire for the good of the beloved and the response of the beloved, and precisely this desire must fuel the motions of love when no response is forthcoming – and indeed may never come.

The way this works depends a lot on the kind of human relationship involved. I think we can place human relations in two categories, which aren’t mutually exclusive: we have companion relations (marriage being the best example), and we have service relations (parent and child, for instance). In companion relations, the expectation of mutuality is quite high, and rightly so. One expects and desires reciprocal benefit. In service relations, there’s a higher expectation of self-sacrifice, the denial of one’s own desires and needs to meet those of the one being served.

The lover’s joy in a companion relationship lies both in blessing the beloved (there is definitely a service component in such relations) and in being blessed by the beloved. The lover desires good for the beloved and desires good from the beloved. This is not wicked selfishness; it is love. No spouse wants to be simply an object of dutiful service; he or she wants to be desired as well for what he or she can give.

In service relations, it’s a bit different. While there’s always some level of reciprocity in these relations, the server’s joy comes predominantly in seeing the other blessed. What thrills the soul of a nursing mother (I speak not from experience) is simply seeing the contentedness of her little one. In C. S. Lewis’ terminology, this is pure Gift Love.

Now to some painful realities. What happens in a companion relationship (say, a marriage) if one’s partner (husband, wife, friend, etc.) doesn’t give back? What happens if it’s not mutual, the way it’s supposed to be? What to do with one’s desires then?

Or what happens in a service relationship (say, that of a parent to a child, a counselor to a counselee, a pastor to congregants, or a king to his subjects) when those being served don’t feel blessed; or don’t acknowledge that they feel blessed; or do feel and acknowledge that they’re blessed, but not that blessed? Children grow up, move away, and give their lives to others with only a cursory appreciation of all their parents have given to make their lives possible. Is it back to stoical self-sacrifice, then, for the poor servant?

It seems to me, again, that following Jesus means free-flowing desire without selfish demand or self-protective bitterness. Love desires the good of the beloved and its own joy in the good of the beloved; and in this desire it serves. Love desires that the beloved may know the goodness of loving, and it desires the fruit of that goodness for the beloved’s and for its own sake; and in this desire it seeks, calls, and invites without retreat. Sometimes a companion relationship must for a long while become a service relationship; and many a service relationship is transformed into beautiful companionship (think of the friendship between adult children and their aging parents); but in every case desire is sustained. Following Jesus is anything but a stoical death to desire.

There’s a poignant application here for those who serve Christ’s church as under-shepherds. A true shepherd desires nothing more than that the sheep committed to him be blessed. This is a pure and Christlike desire. But how quickly and subtly it is soured by selfishness! One moment a pastor desires to be a shepherd through whom the sheep are blessed; the next moment, he desires to be a shepherd without whom they simply can’t imagine living. One moment he wants to build a church where people are refreshed, healed, cleansed, strengthened, and mobilized; the next, he wants a church where people are attached by an umbilical cord. One desire draws with the open hand of true friendship, of true love; the other clutches with a desperate need to feel its own importance.

To desire with no pretensions of sovereignty; to affirm otherness with active desire that the other not only be, but also become, for the benefit of the other and oneself; to nourish desire and hope for fruit when the tree appears barren; to value another enough to maintain what seems a doomed invitation to reciprocity; to be “naïve” enough to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things without fear – this is the love of Christ. It never leaves an invoice, but it always wants all of the beloved. And my generation badly needs to be talking about it.

Comment » | Arete’s Riddles

A reading recommendation

May 28th, 2013 — 10:46am

The blogosphere is a noisy place, filled with clamoring voices who believe they deserve an audience. A few voices (usually the quieter ones) are consistently worth hearing;  one such voice belongs to my friend Alastair Roberts. He blogs at, and I urge you to read anything he writes. He is a rarity: careful, judicious, precise, thorough, and (perhaps most remarkable in the modern climate) courteous.

For a sample of his work, start with “The New Purity Ethic” posted recently.

Comment » | Of Books and Beer

Longing to be saved

May 23rd, 2013 — 2:45pm

It is the demand of nature itself, “What shall we do to have eternal life?” The desire of immortality and of the knowledge of that whereby it may be attained, is so natural unto all men, that even they which are not persuaded that they shall, do notwithstanding wish that they might, know a way how to see no end of life. And because natural means are not able still to resist the force of death, there is no people in the earth so savage, which hath not devised some supernatural help or other, to fly unto for aid and succour in extremities, against the enemies of their lives. A longing therefore to be saved, without understanding the true way how, hath been the cause of all the superstitions in the world. O that the miserable state of others, which wander in darkness, and wot not whither they go, could give us understanding hearts, worthily to esteem the riches of the mercies of God towards us, before whose eyes the doors of the kingdom of heaven are set wide open! Should we not offer violence unto it? It offereth violence to us, and we gather strength to withstand it. (Richard Hooker,  A Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown)

Comment » | Grace and Life

The danger of pastoral counseling

May 20th, 2013 — 4:07pm

The danger of pastoral counseling is that it can become a way for people to feel better without actually obeying Jesus.

Comment » | Pastoral Pondering

Extra-biblical “revelations” (part 4)

May 17th, 2013 — 10:00am

Previous installments herehere, and here.


Ephesians 2:20

Paul’s answer to that question in Ephesians 2 is wonderfully simple and profound. He says in this passage that the apostolic (firsthand) and prophetic witness to Jesus Christ in the period after Christ’s ascension is the foundation of the church. Jesus, and God’s revelation through Him, are the “cornerstone” of the church, and around this cornerstone was laid the foundation of divine revelation through those who heard Him (the apostles), and the accompanying authenticating witness of the New Testament prophets (to this might be added the authenticating witness of all the signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit during the days of Jesus’ eyewitnesses).

The foundation, once laid, is not laid again. The laying of the foundation does not continue. But clearly, it wasn’t only in this early period of the church’s history that she needed to be strengthened in receiving and confessing the apostolic salvation-message. Has God provided any continuing means for her to be “built up” in her most holy faith?

Ephesians 4:11–16

The answer to this is an emphatic yes! Later in the same epistle, Paul teaches that the work formerly done by Jesus’ apostles and their accompanying prophets is now being done by what he calls “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers” (v. 11). Unlike prophets who spoke in the days of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, these officers work from a completed foundation of revelation, from a completed apostolic gospel. They do not (nor do others) exercise sign-gifts, because the firsthand witness that was to be authenticated by those gifts has now been finished and set forth in its fullness. Not to put it too crassly, the firsthand witness (regulated by the apostles of Christ) had a natural “expiration date,” namely, the death of those witnesses; and so the work of God corroborating their witness was subject to natural expiration as well.

But this doesn’t mean that the Lord’s purpose to strengthen the faith of His church won’t be accomplished by other means! What we need now is not the authentication of firsthand witnesses, but the preaching and teaching of evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Through their labors the completed “deposit of the faith” (the completed apostolic salvation-message) is passed down from generation to generation in the church (see, e.g., 2 Tm 2:2). The Holy Spirit will not cease to illuminate that deposit as it is expounded and handed down, and so the church will stand and be saved until the return of her Lord.

Comment » | Biblical Authority

Extra-biblical “revelations” (part 3)

May 17th, 2013 — 9:59am

1 Corinthians 14:5, 21–25

In these verses, Paul sets out rather strict parameters for exercising the sign-gifts. In particular, he wants to explain what prophecy and the gift of “tongues” are for (i.e., what is their controlling purpose).

With respect to prophecy, Paul says its purpose is to “build up” the Body of Christ (vv. 3–5). Build up the Body in what? In its confession of what the apostles and other eyewitnesses were then witnessing. Those “speaking in the Spirit of God” (prophesying) will not say Jesus is accursed, but will rather say He is Lord (12:3), thus strengthening the church in its reception of the message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, and in its glad confession (along with those witnesses) that “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9).

Prophecy is to serve another purpose as well – the conversion of unbelievers. If an unbeliever enters into the assembly, and all are prophesying, he will be “called to account by all” (14:24), the secrets of his heart will be disclosed, and so he will fall prostrate and worship God (14:25). This too is a purpose of prophecy, as it confirms and reinforces the apostolic (eyewitness) message.

If, by confirming the apostolic salvation-message, prophecy builds up the saints and convicts unbelievers, what then is the purpose of “tongues”? Here Paul says something quite astonishing (14:20–23). He refers to Isaiah 28 where the prophet writes that because Israel refuses to listen to plain speech against their sin and for their salvation (v. 12), God will speak to them instead “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue” (v. 11), in a stammering, childish way that will not save them (v. 13); and Paul says the fulfillment of this curse is the gift of tongues apportioned by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost! In other words, tongues do not build up the saints in their reception, and confession, of the apostolic witness – they are not a sign for the help and confirmation of those who receive the apostolic witness (1 Cor 14:22). Rather, they are a sign of God’s curse on those who won’t listen to that message – they are a sign “for unbelievers” (particularly Jewish unbelievers) of God’s judgment on those who will not confess Jesus as Lord and Christ. As such, tongues will not save; and in not saving, they actually fulfill their purpose! (This isn’t to say that interpreted tongues couldn’t fulfill a function much like that of prophecy, as Paul says in 14:27; but a strange tongue by itself, uninterpreted, doesn’t confirm or authenticate – for saints or unbelievers – the salvation-message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses; and so it can neither save nor sanctify.)

What are we to make of all this? The point of Paul’s setting forth apostolic regulations for the exercise of prophecy and tongues was to ensure that the purpose spoken of in Hebrews 2:4 was fulfilled: that saints were strengthened to believe and confess what they had heard from the apostles and other eyewitnesses. Prophecy was to be judged so that it wasn’t abused to serve any other purpose than accompanying and authenticating the message of Jesus’ firsthand witnesses (14:29); tongues were to be exercised with full understanding of their redemptive-historical judgment-function in the history of Israel (14:20–21).

This is made even clearer in what Paul then goes on to say.

1 Corinthians 15:1–11

Here, and following naturally from what he has just said, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel (the apostolic salvation-message) which he had preached to them; “which,” he says, “I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if [note his concern] you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain” (vv. 1–2). While this text sets the stage for what he is about to say about the resurrection, it also explains why he is so anxious that the Corinthians observe his regulations concerning tongues and prophecy: their steadfastness in receiving and confessing “the gospel” of Jesus’ eyewitnesses is at stake. If the sign-gifts of prophecy and tongues are not exercised in such a way that they build up the church in its reception of the salvation-message first spoken by God through His Son, and proclaimed by the Son’s eyewitnesses, then the controlling purpose of these gifts is not being realized. God knew the faith of His church in this early stage of their history was a fragile thing, and that is precisely why He confirmed their faith by many signs, wonders, and gifts – but woe betide the church if the gifts were not exercised in accord with the divine purpose! They had been given to serve the authentication of the gospel as it proceeded from the mouths of Jesus’ eyewitnesses – that gospel was the foundation of the church on which it stood, and by the standard of that gospel the exercise of gifts had to be judged. If the threat of unbelief was part of the reason for God’s giving the gifts, now there was a similar threat in the gifts themselves: that they be exercised so as to deflect attention away from the gospel!

It begins to appear that there was a kind of “periodicity” to these gifts. The apostolic concern about their use raises a question (already implicit in Hebrews 2:4): would they continue to be distributed by the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ eyewitnesses had completed their message and passed from the earth? To be continued . . .

Comment » | Biblical Authority

Not all faithless

May 15th, 2013 — 6:07pm

They be not all faithless that are either weak in assenting to the truth, or stiff in maintaining things any way opposite to the truth of Christian doctrine. But as many as hold the foundation which is precious, though they hold it but weakly, and as it were by a slender thread, although they frame many base and unsuitable things upon it, things that cannot abide the trial of the fire; yet shall they pass the fiery trial and be saved, which indeed have builded themselves upon the rock, which is the foundation of the Church. (Hooker, Learned Discourse)

Comment » | Grace and Life

No man’s case so dangerous

May 15th, 2013 — 6:04pm

Hooker again:

Our very virtues may be snares unto us. The enemy that waiteth for all occasions to work our ruin, hath ever found it harder to overthrow an humble sinner, than a proud saint. There is no man’s case so dangerous as his, whom Satan hath persuaded that his own righteousness shall present him pure and blameless in the sight of God.

Comment » | Grace and Life

Our wisdom and comfort

May 15th, 2013 — 6:01pm

From a sermon preached by Richard Hooker on March 28, 1585, entitled A Learned Discourse of Justification, Works, and How the Foundation of Faith is Overthrown:

It is our wisdom, and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, That man hath sinned, and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.

Comment » | Grace and Life

A singular thing

May 15th, 2013 — 2:41pm

It is a singular thing to consider that there are people in the world who, having renounced all the laws of God and nature, have made laws for themselves which they strictly obey . . . . (Pascal, Pensées, VI, 393)

Comment » | Arete’s Riddles

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