Monthly Archives: September 2015

Divine Joy and Joy Divine: Five Points on Creation

We tend to treat God’s act of creating heaven and earth as an event in the long past, relevant to our lives only as setting the stage for the drama of sin and salvation. But the biblical doctrine of creation is much richer than that. It brims with implications for daily life and for understanding God’s continuing relationship to us in providence and in salvation. The first two chapters of my book The Faithful Creator explore the biblical doctrine of creation, summarizing it in five points. In today’s post I want to state these points and briefly explain them.

(1) The one God is the absolute origin and sovereign ruler over all that is not God. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul states this truth in unforgettable words: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Rom 11:36; cf. 1 Cor 8:6). The two concepts of absolute origin and sovereign ruler go together. Our creations can get away from us and outlive us, but that is because we are not “absolute” origins for the things we make. Nothing escapes the Creator. And that is very good news for those who love the Creator and believe he is good!

(2) The one God freely established the Creator-creature relation, which is characterized by generosity, freedom, and power on the Creator’s side and dependence and debt on the creature’s side. God was, is and always be our Creator. We will always depend on the Creator and will be forever in his debt. For some, this type of relationship seems demeaning, and they wish to forget it or try to escape it. But those who understand that the one on whom we depend is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ revel in the gracious gifts of our faithful Creator.

(3) The creation really exists before God and stands before him as good; that is, as the result of God’s act of creation, the creature really is what God intended it to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, God pronounced the creation good at almost every point. And the Psalmist exclaimed, ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’” (Ps 24:1). And Paul explains, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:3-4). That creation is “good” does not mean that it is perfect or that it cannot be misused. Rather it means that each and every creature has a place and a function rooted in the will of the Creator. Christians are not Gnostics or Manicheans who reject the body, food and the human joys of life. The good things of creation may be legitimately used to sustain and enhance human life and bring glory and thanksgiving to God. Only, they must not be worshiped or enjoyed selfishly or greedily. Instead they are meant to provide occasions for shared joys. Jesus did not condemn feasting but he did urge us to invite the poor and the sick that they may share in the joy!

 (4) The Creator-creature relation established at the beginning, with its characteristic qualities, endures for all time. The author of Revelation praises God in these words, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11). God sustains his creation through the powerful word of the Son (Hebrews 1:3). Creation is happening now. Every new moment and every new thing comes from the hand of the Creator. What a difference it would make in our sense of God’s presence if we grasped this truth! The world and everything in it, every beat of our hearts, every breeze that cools our brows, and “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:16-17) comes from the heart of our faithful Creator!

 (5) Human beings possess a unique relationship to the Creator characterized by their image and likeness to God and responsibility to him. Human beings are not the whole of God’s creation but they have been given a special role. We have been given the capacity to know and love the Creator, and we have the obligation to image the Creator in the created world. Of course we don’t do a good job of it. In the New Testament we learn that Jesus Christ is the image of God in an archetypical sense: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15; cf. 1 Cor 15:49). By living in fellowship with the true image of God in the power of the Spirit we can begin to do what Adam did not, that is, shine with the glory and image of God (Col 3:10; 2 Cor 4:4; Rom 8:9) and spread the divine light over the world. Let there be light!

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What Pope Francis Should Say to America and the World…But Probably Will Not

Francis is coming to America! If Pope Francis really wants to act like the Vicar of Christ and the heir of the Apostles, he might consider speaking the way they spoke. They did not advise the devil on how better to manage his affairs; they cast him out. They did not instruct rulers, soldiers, politicians, scientists, public officials, rich, poor, men and women in their official and social roles. They spoke to them as naked human beings, responsible directly to God. They spoke about the most urgent matter: how do you stand with your God?

So, your honor, instead of playing the scientist, policy expert and economist, why not speak about something on which you can speak with real apostolic authority: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then the division you cause would between those who accept the gospel and those who reject it! That is would your predecessor Peter did in Acts 4; and that is what Paul did in Acts 19. You could begin like this…

“God is the creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them. Every individual owes God for their existence and everything they have and are. Apart from God you are nothing and your accomplishments are worthless. And each one, poor and rich, obscure and famous, weak and powerful will answer to God for every word they say and everything they do and for how they use everything they have been given. Everyone dies, and everyone will stand before the “judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Every secret will be revealed. It is no excuse to say, “I was acting for the company or the country or for an ideal.” Nor will it work to say, “I was oppressed or poor or ill favored.” God does not show favoritism. Nothing else matters if God is not pleased with our work. The most urgent problem, the root of all other problems, in the world today is its sinful rebellion against the Creator (Romans 1).”

“The answer to this problem, the only answer, is Jesus Christ. He is Lord of all, and every knee will bow to him. He alone has been raised from the dead and is seated at God’s right hand. He alone is our righteousness and wisdom. There is no salvation, no knowledge of God and no life in any other savior. He demands that you repent of your sin, trust in his mercy and following him. No excuses, no delays.

“Allow me to quote a warning given by Apostle Paul in Romans, Chapter 1:

“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.”

“Is this not the real problem in America and in the world we live in? We can give more specificity to Paul’s warning by quoting his moral teaching in Galatians 5:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

“Hence my first word to America, to its leaders, officials and its people and to the world is the same as Jesus’ first message to the people of his day: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” Jesus said many things after and along with this message of repentance, but he never compromised or set it aside. Jesus proclaims that the deepest problem that plagues this world, the root of all others, cannot be solved by sinful human beings, individually or collectively.”

This is what Pope Francis should say but probably will not.

One reader recommended that I place the following paragraph from the comments into the post:

“Well, I am thinking about how leftest politicians fawn when he speaks about global warming or socialist economist policies and how rightest politicians fawn when he speaks about abortion or same-sex marriage. Neither party cares to hear the message of repentance; they want to use the church for their own ends. Why not simply call everyone above and beyond the world? Why not attack the devil in his stronghold and call out the idolatry of human self-worship? Do not let yourself be co-opted by the worldly minded! Call them all beyond their utopian visions, right or left.”

The Doctrine Post-Christian Culture Loves to Hate

Today I want to bring out two truths implied the Christian affirmation that God created “all things visible and invisible.” (1) We tend to locate God’s act of creation in the long past and apply it only to the first creatures. Most Christians are semi-deists; they think God acts in the world but only on occasion, in what are called miracles. But the doctrine of creation asserts that God is Creator in all time and space and of every creature that comes into existence. The world is God’s constant act of creating. God acted just as much as creator in giving you and me existence as he did in saying “let there be light.” We are just as dependent on God for our existence as was the first creature that came into being from nothing. We can allow this thought to inspire us to celebrate God’s love, grace and faithfulness or create in us resentment that we “owe” God so much, that we do not create ourselves and are obligated to obey his commands.

(2) Everything God made is good, and God made everything. There is sin and evil in the world, but the world itself is not evil. The affirmation that “everything is good” means that each and every creature was created for a purpose that serves the final end for which God made the world. There is no such thing as an evil entity, that is, a creature that should not exist and cannot be used for good. Sin and evil are misuses of created things, which are good in themselves. Accepting the Christian view that God created all things good should compel us to look for God’s wisdom in the created order of nature and seek God’s will concerning how to use the creation for good.

But there have always been those who deny the goodness of creation and suspect the Creator of malice. In the early centuries of Christianity (1st through 4th Centuries), some forms of Gnosticism including Manicheanism taught that a world as bad as ours had to be the work of an evil god. They rejected embodiment, passions, sex and eating meat as evil. They were not just vegetarians or vegans; they considered eating fruits and vegetables murder, unless you performed the proper ceremonies to free the spirit trapped within. The goal of this religion was escape from entrapment in the material world, and its practices and ceremonies were designed to facilitate this escape.

I see in contemporary culture some troubling analogies to the Manichean rejection of creation and the Creator. Perhaps this sounds implausible. After all, we live in a pleasure seeking, sensuous culture, not a world-denying one. Let me explain. Modern culture began with a general dissatisfaction with the evils attributed to the ancient social order. Thinkers sought first to persuade and enlighten their way to utopia. Revolutionaries found this method too slow and ineffective and turned to violent revolution to remake the social order. Both of these methods are still being used, but some unwanted conditions cannot plausibly be attributed to unjust social structures or to the physical malfunction evident in disease. Some are bound up with creation and the created order.

I am thinking of Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Jesus reaffirmed this created order in Mark 10:6-7: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” We must be clear that both male and female are made “in the image of God.” Both are fully human and they are made for each other, to complete each other. Woman is not woman apart from man and man is not man apart from woman.

But there are distinctions that constitute the maleness and femaleness of each. It seems to me that if we really affirm the goodness of the Creator and the order God made, we will embrace and celebrate our maleness or femaleness and the mutually defining the relationship between the two. God made males with certain distinguishing characteristics. These characteristics are “good,” that is, they can be used for the good purposes for which God designed them. (They can also be misused.) God made females with certain distinguishing characteristics, and these characteristics are also “good,” that is, they can be used for the good purposes for which God designed them. (They, too, can be misused.) One set of characteristics is not better than the other, because what makes them “good” is their God-given purpose, not some humanly imagined ranking of goods. Hence men and women should seek their proper dignity and identity not in relation to humanly constructed social orders, which always reflect the fallen and sinful human condition, but in relation to God. Envy and competition, distain and domination or pride and shame arise from ignorance or rejection of the goodness of the Creator. Every gift is to be used for others. The Creator’s work should never be the occasion for pride or shame.

Contemporary culture does not think or speak this way about male and female, nor define the goodness of maleness or femaleness in terms of God’s purpose in creation. Instead, it speaks of “gender” (indeed of multiple genders), which it considers a socially constructed reality, and spreads it out in an infinite continuum. Increasingly, the dominant culture denies the “for each other” nature of male and female with its God-given goal of becoming “one flesh.” In place of a God-created natural teleology it substitutes individual preferences, male for female or female for female or male for male or both. Instead of accepting and celebrating God-created nature, it celebrates the human act of defying confining natural structures and asserting a self-liberated self. At the heart of the gender revolution lies a Manichean-like rejection of creation and the Creator. It seeks escape from entrapment in the confining male-female distinction (the “binary gender” construct) and mutuality, not by practicing asceticism and engaging in mystical ceremonies as the Manicheans did, but by willful acts of self-recreation, rearrangement and redirection. But the fundamental heresy is the same: creation is not the good work of the benevolent Creator to be embraced and celebrated but a condition from which to escape by any means possible.

Creation: The Most Neglected And Underrated Teaching In Contemporary Christianity

I am very excited to announce the publication of my book The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in An Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 2015). I got my first copies Tuesday, September 15. I have more I want to say about the church, but in view of the arrival of the book, I want to focus on doctrines of creation and providence for the next few weeks.

Christianity affirms that the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ and experience in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Creator of all things. The first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to be careful to avoid idolatry. There are many “so-called gods and lords” out there in the culture, “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6:). And the first declaration of the Nicene Creed (381) affirms: “I believe in one God, Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Considering its foundational importance and its comprehensive scope, the Christian doctrine of Creation may be the most neglected and underrated teaching in contemporary Christianity—and the most hated by those outside. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Faithful Creator, I underline the importance I see in the doctrine of creation:

“Learning how a thing began tells you much about how it will end and the course of its journey. In our experience everything begins from nothing and returns to nothing. From dust to dust, sunrise to sunset, in the end everything returns to its beginning. And if our origin really is nothing, our end will be nothing as well and our story a meaningless tale. But the Bible’s story does not begin with nothing, and it does not end with nothing. It begins and ends with God. And because God is our beginning and end, our journey will not be meaningless, for God surrounds and enfolds our time in his eternity. God alone is our origin and our creature-relationship to God defines our essence, and this makes the study of divine creation supremely relevant to our existence” (p. 25).

Taking creation and the Creator seriously can transform the way you feel about the world around you and your own existence. And taking the faithfulness of the creator seriously by coming to embrace the doctrine of God’s all-embracing providential care, can begin to liberate us from the pervasive anxiety that robs us of the “peace that passes understanding.” These are the reasons I wrote this book.

You can look at the Table of Contents or browse sections or purchase the book at Amazon.com or other online sites:

http://www.amazon.com/Faithful-Creator-Affirming-Creation-Providence/dp/0830840826/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1442619010&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

Next Post to Follow Soon: “Why Contemporary Culture Hates the Christian Doctrine of Creation”

What is the Church? Building, People, Event or What?

“The church is not the building, and the church is not an idea. The church is not merely the clergy. The church is the people!” Perhaps you have heard words to this effect. True, the church is not the building. Employing the word “church” to refer to a house of worship makes sense only because the church meets there; it’s not the primary meaning of the word. The church is not merely an idea but an actual thing. But is the church merely the people?

No, it cannot be merely the people because in that case any gathering of people would be the church. To be the church, the gathered group must at least be people of Christian faith and be gathering for the purpose for which the church meets: praying, hearing Scripture read and expounded and, most centrally, participating in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Well then, does the church exist only when Christians gather to participate in the Eucharist? No, for then the church would be merely a periodic event the people engage in rather than a reality that encompasses their whole persons all the time. Surely the church exists even when it is not gathered and visible.

How can the church be a reality even when it is not gathered and visible? And why is this important? Most references to the church in the New Testament refer to the Christians in a particular locality whether gathered or not. But the letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians refer to the church as the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, 30 and Colossians 1:24). Paul speaks of how Christ “feeds and cares” for his body the church like we feed and care for our bodies (Ephesians 5:29). The relationship between Christ and the church is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32).

Paul speaks of individual Christians as having been “baptized into Christ” (Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:26). Christians are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; and many other places) and “have the spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Christ is “in you” (Romans 8:10) and you are “in Christ” (Romans 8:34). Just as a physical body has many parts but is one, “in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5). We are “united” with Christ (Philippians 2:1-2). In the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, we “participate in the body and blood of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

What, then, is the basis of the existence and the unity of the church even when it is scattered over a city or the whole world or meets under different denominational names? Of course, the answer is Jesus Christ with and in and through the Spirit of God. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ has been united to him. And in him all are united to each other as the church. The church, then, is the people of God gathered together in Christ through the Spirit. They are always together in Christ, but they long for the visible gathering where they can express their faith in Christ and love for each other.

Though the church is always one, holy, catholic and apostolic in Christ, and it exists in full actuality in him, the spirit of Christ drives us together so that we can experience that reality with our eyes and ears and hands. Just as Christ became incarnate in a physical body in Jesus of Nazareth to help us in our weakness, he draws us together to participate in the Eucharist, in prayer and in hymns so that we can touch, taste, and hear him in our time and space. The church is his body, and in it he speaks in audible voice and comforts with physical touch.

So it does not matter how small a church you attend or in what corner of the planet you gather. Christ is there, and where he is, there is also the whole church–the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. And I too am there with you, my brothers and sisters.

The Politics of Jesus

Did Jesus have political aims? Of a certain kind, yes. Let’s talk about it.

In his book Politics, Aristotle wrote:

“Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it; he is the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one,’ whom Homer denounces—the outcast who is a lover of war; he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.” (Book 1.2.9).

Human beings are endowed with reason and speech, and these powers cannot be brought into full actuality apart from human community. Human nature is so rich that it cannot be realized fully by one individual, but when many people over centuries contribute their gifts, each individual can enjoy the work of all. The products of reason and speech become common property and enrich everyone. In the first paragraph of Politics, Aristotle made this significant claim: “If all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims, and in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good” (1.1.1).

Aristotle grounds the state in human nature. A being that is stateless by nature is either a god or a beast. The political order encompasses all other communities within its sphere. Unlike subordinate communities, it aims “in a greater degree than any other, at the highest good.” A family, a guild or a school will aim at the welfare of its members, a partial good. The state aims at the welfare of everyone, so that everyone may enjoy to the fullest degree the full flowering of human nature.

Let’s compare and contrast Aristotle’s thinking about the political community with the New Testament’s teaching about the church. Surely Aristotle is right that the state is an outgrowth of human nature and that a being stateless by nature is not human in the ordinary sense. The church is a human community, and Aristotle would number it among those subordinate communities that aim in a less comprehensive way at the highest good. But Christianity understands this community to be composed of a “new humanity,” “born again,” a people endowed with the “Spirit of the living God” and having under gone “the transforming of their minds.” They are in Aristotle’s words “above humanity.” A divine power is at work in the church to raise it above normal human life.

Aristotle is also on target when he asserts that every community aims at a good that gives it purpose, unity and identity. However, Aristotle’s “highest good” is limited to this world, this life. Christianity asserts that human beings should aim at a goal higher than the common good of the whole community within this life. God created human beings in the image of God, and human nature, empowered by the grace of the Spirit, can participate in the divine nature and attain eternal life. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, the church’s aim is off target; it aims too high and it demands too much of mere mortals. It is bound to fail.

The New Testament presents the church as the community founded by Jesus Christ. It is indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit and directed to God the Father. In analogy to Aristotle’s view of the state, the church is based on the nature of the new humanity and is necessary for the full flowering of this new human being. Christians are not “birds that fly alone,” but they really do fly. The Christian is not only a human being endowed with reason and speech but also someone united with Christ, who dwells in heaven and yet fills the universe. The Christian has received the life-giving Spirit and has been freed from the power of sin and death. Unlike Aristotle’s natural human being, the Christian lives by faith and not by sight.

The church is the community whose threefold purpose is (1) to enable the new powers and virtues that have been given to believing and baptized human beings to come into full use and benefit the whole church and through the church the whole world; (2) to embody as far as possible in the present the perfect community of heaven, the Father, Son and Spirit and the coming Kingdom of God, which is the union of human beings and God in the perfect divine/human fellowship; and (3) to call the whole world to rise up not only beyond the beastly nature of the stateless one, the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one.’ It also calls human beings beyond the best political order human beings can create. She serves the whole human race by calling it to its final destiny and revealing its true dignity.

Hence to normal human beings, Christians will always appear to have their heads in the clouds. Their values are a bit askew. They are always rejoicing but never take pleasure in evil. They are serious about everything but in despair over nothing. The Christian is as courageous as a lion but as gentle as a lamb; they have wills as hard as steel but hearts as soft as wax.

The church will never subordinate itself to the political community because the good it seeks is higher than the good sought by the state. The virtues she promotes—love, faith and hope—are better than those the state values. She seeks heaven while the state grasps at earth. The state is built on violence and coercion, and it seeks wealth, power and worldly security; the church is built on freedom and love and seeks treasure in heaven. The church is the temple of God, the city of God, the body of Christ. The state is human nature writ large, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

For Aristotle, human beings are “political animals” whose destiny is achieved, if at all, only in this life. For Christianity, human beings are more; they are ecclesiastical animals whose destiny lies in eternity, in the divine life.