April 24, 2011

Easter Sunday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, 'Rejoice!' So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him (Matthew 28:9 NASB)
Sometimes, my friends and family are surprised at the intense passion this highly rational man can display when it comes to Jesus. Really, there should be no wonder about the matter, for the passionately reasonable faith I possess mirrors that of the first person to see Jesus after He arose from the dead.

Mary Magdalene initially appears in Luke 8, when she is noted as prominent among the women who supported the ministry of Jesus. The physician Luke informs us that Jesus had previously cast seven demons out of her. Demons are fallen angels, spiritual principalities and powers who rebelled against the rule of God in order to place one of their own in His place. Demons seek to rule the world through the perversion of truth and the subjugation of humanity. To be personally possessed by demons may result in personal harm at the bodily level, but demons also destabilize the human mind. Therefore, when Jesus cast out demons, He did so through intense prayer and powerful proclamation.

Mary knew Jesus primarily as 'Rabboni' ('Teacher'), indicating she knew Him as the one who liberated her with His words. Her mind was once under the sway of the false teachings of the ruler of this world. Then Jesus freed her through His own teaching, a teaching characterized by the authority of truth. Mary's mind had been released from the demonic powers active in this world's ideologies. Her conversion was a conversion to the highest of rationalities, the rationality of the creative Logos, who is the source of right reason. That Logos became flesh in Jesus in order to restore human beings such as Mary to their right minds.

As has been noted before, the courageous faithfulness of the women disciples stands in stark contrast to the cowardly disbelief of the male disciples during the crisis of the cross. Mary and the other women followers of Jesus were the last to leave the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and they seem to have departed only because they were compelled to obey the Lord's Sabbath ordinance. Moreover, they were the first to arrive on the morning after the Sabbath to minister to His body.

Over against such faithful devotion, Peter--the man who claimed he would stand with Jesus until the end--fled before the mob, denied his Lord three times, and withdrew from the scene to weep with guilt. The other disciples, too, ran for their lives. John was the male disciple who seems to have stayed long enough to be commissioned to care for Jesus' earthly mother. Perhaps their nonthreatening presence preserved the women from Roman and Jewish hostility, or maybe there really was a personal fortitude among the women that their public leadership currently lacked. Before the sun came up, out of devotion to the Man who released her from the grip of ideological bondage, Mary led the other women to take spices and prepare his body for permanent burial.

But when the women arrived at the tomb, their world was turned upside down. An angel, emitting the light of heavenly glory, descended to roll away the large stone covering the tomb. The earth shook under the electric might of this angelic act. And the professional soldiers guarding the tomb, men who knew power and how to use and abuse it, were debilitated. Heaven's display of shock and awe left them paralyzed. This woman, once tormented by the deceptions of fallen angels, now witnessed the power of 'an angel of the Lord'. She was frightened, too, but this angel spoke words of comfort and of transformative importance to her. This angel was different, for his power was submitted to the Lord who had liberated her.

The angel told her not to be afraid. He knew that she was coming to take care of His crucified body. But there was no need for that anymore, because His body was not here. Why? He was no longer dead. 'He is risen, as He said!' Through her keen mind rushed those words that Jesus had told His disciples before this week had begun. He had warned them that He would be betrayed, that He would suffer at the hands of the elders and chief priests, and that He would die. But He also said that on the third day He would arise from the dead. Had He done what He said He would do? Had Jesus embraced death and walked right back through it into life?

As if sensing her wavering over the unprecedented nature of the Lord's resurrection, the angel invited Mary to see where Jesus had lain. As she looked in, she knew there was something intentional about this raising from the dead. When Lazarus had been raised from death by Jesus, Lazarus needed assistance to be unbound. But Jesus conquered death on His own through the divine power of His Holy Spirit and thus needed no assistance. Moreover, Jesus folded the expensive linen and placed it neatly aside, indicating His approval of the goodness of restored creation.

Finally, the angel of the Lord over life and death told Mary Magdalene to go tell the disciples, 'He is risen from the dead!' The disciples must, therefore, go to meet Him where He appointed them to gather in Galilee. There, they would see Him and have their questions answered. Of course, we know Galilee would also be the venue for the disciples to receive the Great Commission, which has defined the purpose of the Christian life on earth ever since.

Marveling over these unprecedented events, trying to make logical sense of what she had seen and heard, Mary and her companions immediately set out to find the disciples. Mary obeyed the angel and went to seek out the men who were to lead the new faith, the faith in the living Lord who had conquered death. With tears in her eyes, Mary ran into another man. At first, she thought this man was the gardener and with humble apology, she asked where she might find Jesus' body. Really, she did not want to bother anybody. She just wanted to take care of His broken, lifeless body.

Then, He spoke to her. We can hear Him saying to her, 'Mary,' with the gentle power that only He possesses. Her capacious mind remembered all the times Jesus had taught her the truth, and it suddenly dawned on her that the gardener was no anonymous gardener at all. He had said her name in the familiar way that only He could say it. And her world was changed in a moment. THE ONE SHE THOUGHT WAS DEAD WAS NOW ALIVE! Death was transformed into life! Hopelessness was changed into hope! Untold fear was turned into unlimited joy! Her mind cried out with her voice to the Master who is Reason Himself, and with the greatest passion in the world, she fell at His feet to cling to Him for all she was worth.

Twice in my own life, I have seen a person fall and grasp the feet of another. Such an act is unusual. It is an act of chaste intimacy; it is an act of love; it is an act of hope. Once, I saw a distraught woman cling to the legs of a husband who decided to walk away from a lifelong commitment. Another time, I saw a man kicking his wife with cowboy boots. As I ran to grab him and stop this vicious act, the man's little girl leaped on his feet, hoping to protect her mother. Such an act is unusual. When the Magdalene grabbed her Risen Lord's feet--and she was not alone among the women disciples in doing so--she was telling the Lord she never wanted to depart from Him again.

Moreover, these perfectly orthodox women rendered that thing which human beings render only to God: they 'worshiped' Him. At that moment, the faith of these women became the faith of the first Christians. They had personally witnessed His death for the sins of mankind, they had personally heard the Gospel of His resurrection from the angel, and now they personally gave their homage to this Man, the God-Man, their Teacher, their Lord, their Savior. These women were the first Christians, because they were the first to believe that God had come in Christ Jesus, had died, and had risen from the dead. Jesus commanded them to do what they were already beginning to do: 'Rejoice!' He then untangled His feet from their hands, letting them know there was much to do, and warning them He would ascend to the Father.

And for nearly a whole day, the faith that saves humanity was exclusively the faith of these women. The Gospels tell us that the women went and told the disciples, but they did not believe, assuming these women were just relaying 'idle tales'. Later, after Jesus appeared to two men, Simon and Cleopas, that evening at the inn at Emmaus, they raced the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples, but they still did not believe. Only late in the evening, when they had shut the doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus Himself appeared in His resurrected body to the disciples. Jesus rebuked their unbelieving, hard hearts. At last, they believed. And one of them, Thomas, took another day to meet Jesus, but when this doubter did finally see Jesus, with his hand in the Teacher's side, he cried out with the reasonable faith of Mary Magdalene, 'My Lord and my God!'

Some people assume that reasonableness and faith are anathema to one another. Certainly, there is a difference between reason and faith. Faith, according to Hebrews 11:1, is 'the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' Faith, in other words, will always require what Soren Kierkegaard referred to in terms of an existential leap. However, faith is, nevertheless, substantial, and faith is based upon evidence, even as it is temporarily formed in hope. The faith of Mary Magdalene was a supremely reasonable faith even as it was a supremely passionate faith. She was not embracing idle tales, unreasonable fables. She had been there and done that and wanted no more falsehood.

No, Mary Magdalene was reasonably passionate and passionately reasonable, because the One who is Reason Himself was the One who suffered the greatest Passion on her behalf. She saw Him die with her own eyes, a spear in His heart, and she saw Him alive again, and she believed. Her faith is my faith, and together, we are quite passionate and quite reasonable about Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. And like her, I look forward to the day when I can fall at His feet, weeping in worship, and beg Him for the privilege of always living in His presence. Noli me tangere no more.

NOTE: This is the third and final installment of three reflections on Holy Week. Please go here for the first reflection, on Good Friday, and here for the second, on Holy Saturday.

April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:9 ESV)
What exactly was happening with Jesus Christ between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Sunday? It may be hard to believe, but most contemporary Christians, including many pastors and professional theologians, have not stopped to reflect deeply upon this question. This is amazing, because it is so central to the economy of the atonement (Mark 15:37-16:1 and parallels), central enough to be considered in the first Christian sermon, the first public presentation of the gospel (Acts 2:27, 31), and central enough to have a New Testament book dedicated to the theology of that event (Hebrews).

The plain fact is that between His crucifixion on Friday and His resurrection on Saturday, Jesus Christ, whom orthodox Christians confess was fully God and fully man in one whole person, was dead. Perhaps this is the problem for us. There are all sorts of knotty and complex questions that arise and we don't know how to answer them with our limited theological development: First, how do you understand and explain death? How do you explain that Christ, who is God, was literally dead? What does this entail for our understanding of the unity of the God-man? Did God literally die? Second, what does this entail for our understanding of the state of man between physical death and physical resurrection? Does death mean the cessation of existence, as some prominent evangelicals have held, or is the soul active in death? Third, what does this entail for our understanding of the universally accepted Apostles' Creed, when it declares that Christ was 'dead, buried, descended into hell'? What was Christ doing in hell? Fourth, what does this entail for our understanding of the Old Testament saints, who looked forward in faith to the Messiah, but who died before His atoning work was accomplished on their behalf? Fifth, why is it significant enough for the prophet to note that Christ would be buried with the rich and for all four of the Gospel writers to note that this was indeed the case? Sixth, why was it providentially necessary that Christ die? Could the Father have found some other way than the horrific death of His only begotten Son, whom He loves? Finally, what was going on within the divine Trinity between the death of the Son of the God and His subsequent resurrection? What were the Father and the Spirit and the Son doing in their relation with one another?

What we will accomplish today is not the provision of a final answer to these deep and important questions, but the proffering of a suggested outline that may help us begin to answer them. A way forward to a theology of Holy Saturday may be through a consideration of what was happening on earth, in heaven, and in hell on this day, a day that basically changed the structure of the universe.

Holy Saturday on Earth

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried with the wicked and the rich. Some interpreters and translators (yes, translation is an act of interpretation) want to make a distinction between the wicked and the rich, as if the rich possessed some righteousness, but that is difficult to reconcile with the scathing social commentary of a Jeremiah (17:11), Amos (4:1), or Micah (6:12), or the ruminations of Psalms (ch. 49) and Proverbs (28:6, 11, 20, 22). No, rather than making a distinction between the wicked and the rich, the point is to focus upon the honor of the rich in their death and burial. Although wealth does not change the perception of a person before God, it does change the perception of a person before men. In death, a rich man will have 'honor' even if he 'does not remain' (Psalm 49:12).

Isaiah prophesied that the Suffering Servant would be buried like wicked human beings but with the rich, because in His death, even men would perceive that He remained honorable throughout. Isaiah and the Gospels make much of Christ's demeanor during His trial and crucifixion. He refused to defend Himself; He refused to curse His false accusers; 'He was led as a lamb to His slaughter'. The stark contrast between the wickedness of both Jew and Gentile during the trials and crucifixion of the Lord and the manifest righteousness of the crucified God-man caused men to honor Him. At the end, after the frenzied, uncontrolled hatred of mankind had spewed its murderous bile upon the Innocent Man, there was widespread recognition that this was a travesty of justice.

Why would we 'hide our faces' from this One who was now the very opposite of 'beauty'? Why did Pilate symbolically wash his hands of the matter? Why did the one thief confess that he deserved death but Jesus did not? Why did the crowd that looked on at the crucifixion and saw Jesus breathe his last 'beat their breasts'? Why did God Himself bring a great darkness over the land at the death of this man? Why would a pagan Roman centurion cry out the very claim of Messianic faith of an orthodox Jew but currently absent Simon Peter, 'Truly this was the Son of God' and 'Certainly this was a righteous man'? Why would a frightened rich man named Joseph of Arimathea all of the sudden take courage and ask Pilate for the dead body of Jesus? Why?! Because all of them--Jew, Gentile, Rich, Poor, the Everyman, even God Himself--all of us knew that Jesus was without sin!

Jesus did not deserve to die. He had no sin. He was the exemplar of righteousness. He was completely obedient in all things to the will of God. Human government and opinion at all levels, from the local to the imperial, from the populist to the elite, from the religous to the royal, displayed our fundamental depravity in our happy collaboration to put to death the only Innocent Man. And we knew it. This is why Joseph and Nicodemus took His body and wrapped Him in expensive linen and spices. And this is why Joseph gave Him his own tomb. After their despicable treatment of the Innocent Man, the least men could do was take His dead body and give Him an honorable burial.

And the women who loved Jesus followed along to see where He was going to be buried. Then they went home to honor the Sabbath. They went home to rest even as they grieved. The human body of Jesus rested, too, on that Sabbath day. But the Son of God, whose body rested on earth, was not merely resting on earth. He also rested in hell, enjoying the proclamation of His victorious vindication. And He rested in heaven, displaying His once-for-all sacrifice to His Father through His eternal Spirit. Did He rest? Yes! His work was done, but the ramifications of His willing act to receive our death continue forever. This is why He could cry out from the cross that complex word of triumphal tragedy, 'It is finished', and yield His spirit in death.

Holy Saturday in Hell

On this Saturday those many years ago, there was silence in the households of the spectators. The Romans returned to watch over a quiet city. The Jews returned to honor the Sabbath law. The women and the disciples rested, the tears on their faces dry, the darkness in their hearts complete. Peter, the rock who became a coward, no doubt cringed in shame and considered himself dead in spirit. The silence of hopelessness is the worst silence of all. But there was no silence in hell that day. Rather, there was a shout in the abode of the dead. Sheol was shaken and transformed forever by the very presence of the Son of God in spirit.

At least, this is how the church fathers understood Holy Saturday. The addition of descensus ad infero to the Apostles' Creed occasioned no evident opposition, because the early church believed that Christ 'first descended into the lower parts' so that He might lead 'captivity captive' (Ephesians 4:8-9). Peter preached that 'His soul was not left in Hades', understanding Hades to be the equivalent of the Old Testament Sheol, the abode of all the dead (Acts 2:27, 31). The early fathers understood that Hades and Gehenna (both unfortunately translated by the King James Version as 'hell') were two different places. Hades was the abode of the dead, which was divided into two chambers before the atonement, the 'bosom of Abraham' for believers and 'this flame' for the wicked (Luke 16:19-31). At the cross, Christ was 'put to death in the flesh', but He was 'made alive by the Spirit'. He then went to preach 'to the spirits in prison'. The 'gospel was preached also to the dead' (1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6). Christ thus confirmed the disobedient in their judgment and freed the Old Testament believers, who had a 'good testimony through faith', but who could not until His work on the cross was completed 'receive the promise' (Hebrews 11:39). The Old Testament saints subsequently made their appearance in Jerusalem after Christ's resurrection, startling many (Matthew 27:50-53).

The Patristic understanding of Holy Saturday has found adherents among Anabaptists, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. Modern scholars, especially those in the Reformed tradition and under the spell of the Enlightenment, are less convinced. However, for those theologians who think historically rather than philosophically, there is a certain concurrence to what the Fathers discerned in Scripture. It also presents a serious challenge to the Reformed idea that the Old Testament saints could be born again by the Holy Spirit before Christ performed His work on the cross and gave the Holy Spirit to the church. The primary difficulty, however, with the idea of a 'harrowing of hell' is that it depends upon a scattered exegetical approach to Scripture, and some of the readings of the texts may be countered by legitimate alternatives. The Patristic presentation remains intriguing.

Of unchallengeable significance is the fact that Christ was doing something important in heaven with His death.

Holy Saturday in Heaven

The author of the book of Hebrews believes that in His death, Jesus Christ brings together eternity with history. (The book of Hebrews was written as an encouragement to Jewish Christians considering apostasy to relieve their persecution.) The author demonstrates from a series of sermons on the Old Testament that Christ is superior to everything, including the angels, the old covenant, the old priesthood, and the old sacrifices. In chapter nine, drawing on the priestly typology of Leviticus, He focuses particularly on the death of Christ as the perfect sacrifice by a perfect priest, who reconciles man in time with God in eternity.

'Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission' (Hebrews 9:22). This single phrase seems to be thrown in almost casually, but it is the key to the eternal significance of Holy Saturday. It is only through the blood-spilling death of the perfect sacrificial victim that a way is opened into life. Because of the sinfulness of human priests, a way to reconciliation with God could never be opened for those who willfully sinned. Eternal reconciliation depends upon a perfect priest with a sinless sacrifice. As for the perfect priest, Jesus Christ is the only one who could mediate between God and man, because He alone is both God and man. As for the sinless sacrifice, Jesus Christ likewise is the only one who, though tempted in all things as we are, is without sin. He is, uniquely, both perfect priest and sufficient sacrifice.

The significance of the sacrifice of Christ comes not only from its place in human history, a cross in first-century Palestine, but from its place in eternity. Through His sacrifice, Christ 'obtained eternal redemption'. As a result, we 'may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance'. The only way the eternal value of a temporal sacrifice could be established is if it were 'once-for-all'. For this purpose, the second person of the eternal Trinity took humanity into Himself through being conceived of the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. As the one who is simultaneously fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ shed His blood in human death for our eternal benefit.

His work on the cross was performed 'once at the end of the ages' in order to 'put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself'. The cross of Christ is where time and eternity find their fulfillment. Sin is atoned, creation is recovered, and man is brought into the presence of God with this sacrifice. The death of Christ is necessary, because it is the sacrifice that restores everything to the way God intended. With His death, Christ brought humanity into the presence of the Father, having satisfied the wrath of God against sin and demonstrated the love of God for sinners. The death of Christ is where we find 'the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God' (Hebrews 9:14).

In other words, with His death, which we see so clearly throughout Holy Saturday, the eternal Son of God comes through the eternal Holy Spirit to present His blood to the eternal Father as a sacrifice. This sacrifice is what allows sinful man to find again His way into the presence of God. By reason of His love and in accordance with His holiness, God the Trinity has sacrificed the humanity of the Second Person of the Trinity in order to open the way for sinners to be reconciled and enter the Triune life, eternal life with the God who is one yet three.

This, at least, is how this unworthy man understands this most holy Saturday. Through faith in Christ, this dishonorable sinner may join the honorable man on the cross, escape from the deserved horrors of hell, and see heaven opened to a life with the God Who is, Who was, and Who is coming. I pray you too will believe and live.

NOTE: A reflection on Good Friday and an accompanying note on the Christian calendar may be found here. A reflection on Easter Sunday may also may be found here.

April 22, 2011

Good Friday: A Baptist Reflects on Holy Week

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5 NASB)
Why did God the Father send His only begotten Son to take on our humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in order to die on the cross? This is the great question regarding the atonement, a question that demands an answer. Some eight centuries before the event of the cross itself, the Father sent His Word to whisper by His Spirit into a prophet's ear part of the answer. Why would Jesus come to die on the cross? 'For our transgressions...for our iniquities.'

As a seminary student, my best friend, now the pastor of a very large church, invited my wife and I to watch a showing of U2's 'Rattle and Hum'. It was supposed to be an interesting movie, since some of the members of that band had identified themselves as Christians. One song struck me as quite effective and affective. The old blues artist, B.B. King, accompanies U2 lead singer, Bono, to voice confession of personal wickedness, particularly when they forsook true love in favor of crass fornication. That piece reached its climax in some profound reflections. In 'When Love Comes to Town', King joined with U2 to belt out with conviction, 'I was there when they crucified my Lord, I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword, I threw the dice when they pierced his side'.

Leaving the theater, I wondered whether King understood the strong theological realism he had just affirmed. Did he really understand that we were the ones who had pierced the Son of God? Did he understand that sin is universal and that sin, even when committed against man, is committed ultimately and primarily against God? Did he understand that the cross was not only a temporal event, in a particular time and place in Roman Palestine, but also an eternal event that brings all of human time into heavenly focus?

Do we really understand that it was our sin that nailed him to the cross? Do we really understand that we were the Jews crying out, 'Crucify Him! Crucify Him!'? Do we really understand that we were the Roman soldier piercing His side to watch His blood flow out of a broken heart? Do we really understand that God crucified His own Son, not for the sin of His Son, but for our sin? Because of our embrace of pride in the garden, it is the most difficult thing for a human being to admit truthfully and with all of his or her heart, 'I am wrong. I have sinned. I have no excuse.'

When we look at the cross from 800 years beforehand, we must weep with Isaiah, the mouthpiece of God, in the deepest of woe, 'I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips!' When we look at the cross on that day, we must run away and cry with Peter, the weak one who is supposed to be the 'rock', knowing that we just denied our best friend, the one we confessed only shortly before, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God'. When we look at the cross two thousand years later, we must plaintively admit with all of our soul, along with B.B. King, 'I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword'. It is my sin that put Jesus on the cross, my sin, and I have no excuse!

However, neither Isaiah nor Peter in biblical days, nor King nor us in these days, are left without hope. Beyond the lying lips about God, beyond the traitorous denials of God, beyond the sins of the body committed against God, there is God Himself. And God Himself seeks our reconciliation. On the cross of Jesus Christ, the righteous wrath of a holy God against our utter depravity was met with the gracious mercy of a God who is love in essence. For Isaiah, the transformation from wicked sinner to victorious saint occurred when the angel flew with tongs holding a hot coal from the altar to cleanse those lying lips. For Peter, the transformation from wicked sinner to victorious saint occurred when the risen Lord once again looked directly at the one who had denied him and again committed the care of other souls to him. For King, the admission that he was at the cross participating in the slaughter of the Lord of creation was followed by the victorious proclamation, 'but I've seen love conquer the great divide'.

If there is hope for a lying prophet and if there is hope for a fallen apostle, then there is hope for a fallen music star and there is hope for you and me. Whatever your sin, know that God is reaching out to you externally through His proclaimed Word and internally through His convicting Spirit, calling you into a restored relationship with Him. In Jesus, God became a man in order to die on the cross, so that you might have your sins forgiven. Christ took the sins of all men of all time upon Himself at the cross and took our punishment for us. If you will believe, then those sins no longer need to be owned as yours. He has taken them upon Himself, and He has overcome them through His death and resurrection. Confess, repent, believe, come to life, leave the guilt behind, open your eyes in hope toward the God who forgives and invites you to a glorious eternity.

NOTE: When I was a pastor, I recognized that Baptist churches, especially those on the old American frontier, often did not make much of the Christian calendar, the exceptions being the particular days of Christmas and Easter themselves. In my free church context, the Christian calendar was and is often crowded out by primarily secular concerns: American Independence Day, Veteran's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, even the Super Bowl. Such secular holidays have their place, but might it be of some value if we Baptists were to make more of the specifically Christian holidays, literally treating our 'holidays' as 'holy days'?

Mind you, I am not arguing for a return to the saints' days of the old Christian calendars, though a broad appreciation for Christian history could have a memorial value to inspire us to walk with the faith of such exemplary saints as Polycarp of Smyrna, Monica of Hippo, Michael Sattler, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather, what would it be like if we in the free churches were to focus on the biblical side of the Christian calendar? What if we were to seek to integrate the biblical events more intentionally into our daily lives in order to foster a greater appreciation for the impact of the calendar on the rhythm that establishes our lives?

In that train of thought, I once encouraged my congregation to replace our annual 'revival' with a focus on the events of what is traditionally known as 'Holy Week'. Rather than starting the evangelical week of revival on a Sunday and ending on a Wednesday, we started on a Wednesday and ended on a Sunday. On Wednesday, we began with the washing of the disciples' feet. Weren't the deacons surprised when I called them up on stage and removed their shoes to wash their feet, some of them fresh from the farm! The chairman of deacons even unconsciously pulled a Peter on me and tried to forbid me from washing his feet, since he should wash mine.

On Thursday, we celebrated the Lord's Supper and reflected on the fact that God intentionally sent His only and eternally begotten Son to die on the cross for our sins. And Christ Jesus, knowing what would come next, intentionally left us the practice of the Lord's Supper for continual memorial celebration between the Last Supper and the Lamb's Supper, when the universal church first gathers with Him. On Friday, two of our hefty, young deacons brought in several large pieces of wood during the middle of my sermon and nailed together a grisly cross. The shock of deacons interrupting the pastor's sermon was one thing. The visible representation that we human beings were the ones who put Him on the cross was quite another.

On an overcast Saturday, we gathered in a somber mood to remember that on this day, Jesus' body was in the tomb as He conquered hell. But then, oh, yes, we arose early to watch the sun rise together on Sunday, resurrection Sunday, the day when history was transformed by eternity, when death was defeated, when the grave became not an end but a beginning! And our final service was on Sunday at the normal time.

The transformation of the people (and the pastor) in our attitude toward what Christ had performed during that week some two millennia ago, about which some half of the gospel literature was devoted, was palpable. And the effect on the unwritten Baptist liturgy was nothing short of revolutionary. (Yes, even the low churches have a high regard for their liturgy. We just do not typically write them down and call them liturgies.) Alongside this call for a return to integrating the biblical calendar into our free church calendar, I offer a few thoughts today, tomorrow, and Sunday, on the meaning of Easter.

April 20, 2011

The Spiritual Condition of Infants

Adam Harwood, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at Truett-McConnell College in Clevelend, Georgia, answers a critical question on the minds of many Christians, especially parents, about the eternal destiny of their youngest children. Dr. Harwood provides a meticulous survey of the biblical witness and the historical responses and arrives at a most biblical conclusion. The book includes a foreword by Paige Patterson and has been endorsed by Charles White (Spring Arbor University), James Leo Garrett Jr. (Southwestern Seminary), and Rustin J. Umstattd (Midwestern Seminary). My own endorsement is as follows:
Through extensively examining relevant biblical and historical sources, two major questions with profound pastoral consequences are answered in this important book: Do infants inherit a sin nature from Adam? Although utilizing different models, most theologians agree that infants inherit a sin nature. However, are infants, therefore, guilty before God? In answering this second question, Adam Harwood challenges the dominant systematic discourse and properly reorients our understanding of infant salvation. Harwood's careful thesis will stand.

The book can be purchased here or here. Congratulations go to Dr. Harwood for this signal achievement.

April 4, 2011

Top Ten Theological Truths Every Young Christian Should Know

(The following summary of doctrine was created at the request of the leadership for the Youth Ministry Lab at its 2011 meeting. YML recently drew a great number of young people and their ministers together for worship and instruction in Fort Worth, Texas, where numerous decisions were made to follow Christ into salvation and service. It is offered for general readership here.)

The Trinity: The one true God who created all things, who redeems believers, and whom believers worship is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; God the Trinity is eternally one God in three persons.

The Bible: God reveals all the truth we need in order to know of Him, to be reconciled to Him, and to live for Him in the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, which comprise Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is the perfect Word of God with full authority over mankind, because it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, who kept the original autographs free from error, who preserves the text through history, and who testifies its full trustworthiness while illumining its meaning to us.

Creation and Providence: On the basis of His love, the triune God created all things, visible and invisible, out of nothing, sustains all things providentially, and will bring all things to their proper end for His glory.

Humanity and Sin: The triune God created humanity, male and female, in His image. He gave mankind dominion over the earth and commanded him to be fruitful and multiply. God intended the man and his wife for a faithful lifelong marriage exclusively with one another, the man at the head of his family. However, Adam with all of his descendents rebelled against the Creator. Thus, human beings come under a sentence of condemnation to eternal death through their own sin. Humanity was driven from the holy presence of God because of sin.

Jesus Christ: In order to restore mankind and bring him to eternal life, God the Father sent His only begotten Son, the eternal Word of God and second person of the Trinity, to unite Himself forever with humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus Christ was conceived of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, lived a sinless life, taught us the words of God, died a propitiatory death on the cross as a once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, arose from the dead on the third day for our justification, ascended to reign enthroned at the right hand of the Father, and will one day return to render judgment on all creation.

The Holy Spirit: God sends the eternal Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, into the world to accompany the proclamation of the Word of God and convict men of the sin of unbelief, of the coming judgment on the ruler of this world and those in the world, and of the righteousness that is available freely to all sinners through faith in the Son of God. The Holy Spirit comes to reside in new believers, providing them with the seal of promise that God will complete His work of salvation, with spiritual fruit to characterize their lives, and with spiritual gifts for the edification of the church, especially the gift of proclamation.

The Beginning of Salvation: In salvation, when a person hears the Word of God proclaimed and truly believes by grace, the external righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the believer as justification, thus saving him from condemnation; at the same moment, the Holy Spirit sovereignly regenerates or transforms the believer with faith and repentance so that this person now begins to follow Jesus Christ in salvation.

The Christian Life and the End: As salvation continues, a believer is assured of perserverance unto eternal life, but must consistently seek to grow in holiness through hearing, reading, and knowing God's Word and the Holy Spirit's work of sanctification. Salvation will one day be completed in God's work of glorification, when believers shall receive transformed bodies in the first resurrection as Jesus returns to reign. At the end of the millennium, Christ shall judge all with the eternal consequence of heaven or hell. By grace, believers are united with God and one another, entering the eternal presence of the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

The Church: All believers must regularly and faithfully worship God with the church, the gathered congregation of true believers, hearing the Word of God proclaimed and observing the Lord's ordinances, beginning with believers-only baptism by immersion as a sign of faith and continuing with regular celebration of the meaningful memorial of the Lord's Supper, submitting to redemptive congregational discipline.

The Great Commission: The church, inclusive of all believers as a royal priesthood in Christ, was commissioned by the Lord, beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, to go to the entire world until the end, to proclaim the Word of God so that whosoever will believe should become disciples of Jesus Christ, to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to teach them all things contained in the Word of the Lord, of which this is a mere summary.