Dim and Dimmer

Mrs. Dim hates autumn leaves almost as much as I hate the sound of leaf-blowers. She wages a steady campaign upon the leaves, determined to keep their time on her lawn and flowerbeds as short as humanly possible. Sometimes she uses a system that I have seen other people use on their property: She gets the blower out first and blows the leaves off her deck and driveway and out of her flowerbeds (and even off the street in front of her house), and then she uses the mower to gather, shred, and bag the leaves. Her system is efficient, if noisy. And then she has those lovely black bags sitting on the street by her green lawn for several days instead of those ugly leaves that she so hates.

Last Saturday morning I was working at the computer—part preparation for another week of teaching, part free-lance writing—when I heard the sound of her blower. Looking out the window, I saw the mower was out too, ready to go. My concentration was shot, and I had to pick up a few things from the store before the weekend was over, so I figured the time was ideal for me to get out of the house for about an hour. My daughter was doing homework, so I let her know where I was going and jumped into the car and escaped.

An hour later I returned home with my purchases. The neighborhood was quiet. I put my purchases away and sat down again at the computer. Then I heard the sound of Mrs. Dim’s lawnmower. She was at it again! I asked my daughter if Mrs. Dim had taken a break while I was gone. She said, “Well, she didn’t stop the instant you left, but she did take a pretty long break.”

It is hard not to be bitter about this. I’m sure she had her reasons, and they probably had more to do with conserving her energy than with annoying her neighbor. All the same, my brilliant plan to escape her noise was foiled. And the war on leaves continues.

A family bought a house down the street this summer. As they were moving in, they cut down two trees to make room for a storage shed. Since then, they have been removing trees at the rate of about one a month. Along with my abhorrence of the torturous chain-saw noise, my resentment at the murder of healthy trees is intense. When this subdivision was built, the designers preserved as many of the hardwood trees as they could. Every yard has several trees that are obviously older than the houses. These are healthy trees that shade the neighborhood (saving electricity that runs air conditioners in the summer), provide refuge for urban wildlife, and generally make life pleasant. In the autumn they coat the ground with beautiful brown leaves, fun for children to build leaf piles and bury themselves, fun even for adults like me to wade through, enjoying the crisp, crunchy sound and the memories of childhood that it stirs.

I understand that not everyone wants to live near trees. Some people just hate leaves, while others live in fear of a storm toppling a tree onto their house. People like that should buy houses that are not surrounded by trees. Not far away there are subdivisions where the builders cleared all the plants and topsoil off the land, built houses and streets, put down an inch or two of topsoil, and covered it with sod. A family that hates trees should buy a house in one of those subdivisions. It makes me very bitter to have them move into my neighborhood and start removing the trees with noisy chain saws.

Besides, they might give Mrs. Dim some bad ideas.

J.

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Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter seven: the mystery of Election

Chapter seven—the mystery of Election

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4).

Generally when an election is held, many people vote and a few people win. When God holds an election, the opposite is true. God alone votes, and many people win. John once saw the winners of God’s mysterious election: “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). When was this election held? According to Paul, God’s election took place “before the foundation of the world.”

The mystery of election seems to be the mystery that causes more confusion and argument among Christians than any other mystery. This mystery contradicts human reason and logic, but so do the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Put simply, the mystery of election is that no one will enter God’s new creation (which we often refer to as heaven) unless God has chosen that person, but no one will be omitted from God’s new creation unless they have rebelled against God and refused his blessing of redemption.

The gift of redemption is meant for the entire world. God sent his Son to redeem all people because “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Jesus “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2). The power of his redemption is conveyed through the means of grace—the spoken promises of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in Baptism, and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. Yet some people receive the means of grace and still refuse the gift of redemption. Some people have heard God’s promises, have read them for themselves in the Bible, have been baptized, and have even eaten and drunk at the Lord’s Table, and yet they still do not believe God’s promises to be true. Because they do not believe, Jesus says he will address them on the Last Day and say, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

The worst mistake any person can make in front of the Judgment Seat of God is to say to the Judge, “Look at the life I lived and give me what I deserve.” Anyone who thinks that his or her life is good enough to please God and to earn a place in his Kingdom has not been paying attention to the commands of God. Those who repent know that their lives are not good enough for God. They throw themselves on God’s mercy and beg for his forgiveness. Those who believe know that Jesus has redeemed them. He has taken what they deserved and paid their debt in full on the cross; moreover, he has granted credit for his righteousness to sinners and invites them to receive the rewards that he deserves.

No one enters heaven without being chosen by God. No one is left out of heaven without having rejected God’s gift of redemption. Through reason and logic, people have tried to reconcile that paradox and solve the mystery of election. Every effort to reduce this paradox to something humans can understand also contradicts the message God has given in his Word.

Some Christians suggest that, because God is all-powerful, nothing happens except what God wants to happen. Because of the power of God, some people do good things and others do bad things. Because of the power of God, some people believe his promises and others refuse to believe. Because of the power of God, some people will live forever with him in the new creation and others will be imprisoned with the devil. If God did not always get what he wants, he would not be all-powerful. Therefore, if some refuse to believe and are punished, God must want to punish them and not to redeem them.

The prophet Ezekiel records God’s message: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) Paul also writes that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). Love is the very nature of God. He sent his Son to pay a price sufficient for the redemption of the whole world. No one can sin in such a way that God is unable to forgive that sin. The only unforgiveable sin is to refuse the gift of redemption—and that is unforgiveable, not because it is such a bad thing to do, but because it blocks the path of God’s love and forgiveness.

If God is all-powerful, though, and if he wants all people to be saved, then maybe all people will be saved in the end. Perhaps some will spend some time in the devil’s prison after Judgment Day, but then they will repent and believe and escape to the new creation. Maybe God has other ways of rescuing sinners that do not involve repentance and faith or knowledge of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Jesus did not think that was so. In Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as you will…My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:39, 42). If there were another way to rescue sinners, the cross would not have been necessary. Instead, the apostles preached about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

What of those who ask God to judge them by their own lives rather than through Christ’s redemption? Jesus will say to them, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). Eternal fire was not intended for human sinners, but there is no other place for sinners who reject the gift of redemption. When Jesus described the new creation, he often described it as a large party, such as a wedding reception. He also spoke of those locked outside of the party. He once said, “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28). Speaking of the follower who betrayed him, Jesus said, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21). If there were any hope of sinners escaping the devil’s prison after Judgment Day and entering God’s new creation, then Jesus would not say that it would be better not to have been born.

So God wants all sinners to be saved, but not all sinners will be saved. Love is at the center of God’s nature, and love makes one vulnerable. Aside from their destiny, though, what is the difference between the saved and the lost? Reason and logic suggest that some difference must exist in the people themselves causing some to be saved and others to be lost.

Some people suggest that the saved are better-behaved than the lost. Although they sinned and broke some of God’s commands, still their behavior was better than that of other people. The problem with this approach is that it suggests that some sins, or some combination of sins, cannot be forgiven by God. The Bible clearly says that the difference is not in moral goodness. Judged by moral goodness, no one can be saved. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

If the difference is not in moral goodness, then it must be in repenting and believing. Those who repent and believe are saved, but those who do not believe are locked out of heaven. Therefore, logic and reason suggest that repentance and faith are choices made by some people but not made by others. The difference between the saved and the lost is the difference between those who choose to believe God’s promises and those who choose not to believe. Choosing to believe is often spoken of as “giving your heart to Jesus,” “asking Jesus into your life,” or “inviting Jesus to be your personal Savior.” By any description, this choice is thought to mean the difference between being a Christian and being an unbeliever.

Jesus said to his apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16). John speaks of believers in Jesus as the children of God “who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). Paul wrote, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3).

If the last several paragraphs seem packed with Bible verses, the intention is to show the depth of the mystery. Anyone can pick and choose verses from the Bible to try to solve the mystery of election one way or another—whether saying that God chooses to condemn people, or that God will save all people, or that some people choose to be save while others choose to be lost. The full mystery of election is that no one can enter eternal life in God’s new creation without being chosen by God, and no one is barred from that new creation without having rejected God’s promises of redemption.

Paul wrote, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). He also wrote, “And you were dead in trespasses and sins…But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even while we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1, 4). Enemies of God, dead in our sins, no person could choose to become a believer and a member of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus has done all the work to redeem his people, and Christians contribute nothing to that work. Not even a prayer or a decision redeems sinners.

Jesus told people to repent and believe the Gospel. It seems as though he meant that people had to do these things to be redeemed. Jesus also told a paralyzed man to rise, take up his bed, and walk. This man was paralyzed and could not do those things before Jesus commanded him to do them. The power of the Word of Jesus made that man able to do what Jesus told him to do. Lazarus had been dead four days when Jesus came to the cemetery. Lazarus could not have made himself alive and left the tomb if Jesus had not said, “Lazarus, come out!” Once Jesus said those words, Lazarus was alive and was able to leave the tomb.

The picture of being dead and being made alive by God’s Word is helpful to make this mystery more plain. No one who is dead can choose to become alive. Those who are alive, though, can make choices. Joshua announced, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). He did not mean that he and his family were spiritually dead but now chose to be spiritually alive. Quite the opposite—Joshua said those words after describing all the work God had done to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. Joshua and his family had been made alive by the work of God. They chose now to remain alive rather than to return to death.

Living people can make choices. When Jesus called, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus returned to life. At that moment he had a choice—he could obey the command of Jesus and leave the tomb, or he could remain in the tomb until he died again. He chose to leave the tomb. Before Jesus spoke, Lazarus had no choice. He could not leave the tomb, because he was dead, and dead people cannot make choices.

Some people hear the life-giving Word of God and choose not to believe his promises. They want to be their own saviors and enter God’s Kingdom by their own goodness, or else they reject the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus or some other key part of God’s promise of redemption. For whatever reason, they choose death rather than life. Judas Iscariot was an apostle of Jesus Christ who heard his preaching and saw his miracles. Yet Judas chose to value thirty pieces of silver above Jesus and his promise of redemption. The letter to the Hebrews says that “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6). This does not mean that a person who is a Christian and sins is lost forever. In that case no one would be saved, because all people—even Christians—sin every day. In this lifetime Christians remain both sinners and saints. The person who has believed in Jesus and then seeks some other way to be saved—or rejects the promise of redemption outright—cannot be saved in any other way, because only through the sacrifice of Jesus is redemption offered.

Some people hear the message of Jesus and resist it. They are choosing death rather than life. Yet some people resist the message for years and then come to believe it. During those years, the Holy Spirit was working through that message, preparing them for the day when they would repent and believe by the power of Jesus working through his message of redemption.

Other people repent and believe for a while and then stop believing. They are choosing death rather than life. They may be distracted from Jesus by their problems, by persecution or mockery of their faith, or by doubts that arise in their minds. They may be distracted from Jesus by their blessings, the good things they have in this world, or the good things they want to have, or the struggle to take care of what they have. In either case, they make the tragic mistake that Judas made when he considered thirty pieces of silver more valuable than Jesus.

None of us asked to be born into this world. We cannot choose to be alive. Life is a gift from God. But we can choose to die. The body can be damaged in a great many ways, some of which are deliberate and some that are not. We can choose to maintain our bodies, eating the right foods, getting enough sleep and enough exercise, and keeping our bodies clean. The choice to remain alive is not like the choice to become alive. We can sustain the life of our bodies for many years, but only Jesus can raise the dead.

What is true of our physical lives is also true of our faith. We were dead in sin and could not choose to become alive. Only Jesus can raise the dead, but he does so by the power of his Word. Now that Jesus has made us alive, we can choose between dying and remaining alive. To remain alive spiritually, we need to be fed by God’s Word and nurtured by all the means of grace which Jesus has provided in the mystery of his Church.

Some Christians become spiritually anorexic. I do not use that term lightly; anorexia is a devastating illness which causes great harm to those who suffer from it and also brings pain to their families and their friends. Spiritual anorexia seems more bland and more acceptable than physical anorexia, but it is actually more devastating, because it leads to eternal death. A spiritually anorexic Christian may not think that he or she is choosing death, but that Christian is choosing not to nourish his or her spiritual life. Such a Christian avoids the Word of God. He or she avoids hearing the Word of God preached and taught; he or she avoids reading the Word of God; he or she avoids the mysterious meal which Jesus told his followers to receive often because it too is a means of grace. That Christian may say to others, “I still believe in Jesus, and I don’t need to go to church to be a Christian.” Without the Word of God in his or her life, that Christian is starving his or her faith and is risking the death of that faith.

Faith itself is a mystery, and the Church is also a mystery. We cannot tell whether or not a person is truly a Christian. Only God knows who believes and who refuses to believe. Only God knows who is a member of the true Church. We can and we should exhort one another to repent and believe the Gospel, just as Jesus and his apostles did. We can and we should invite those Christians who are neglecting their spiritual lives to return to life in the Church where their faith is nourished by the Word of God. We cannot and should not judge one another. Jesus is the Judge, and we trust him to judge fairly on the Last Day.

Therefore, we leave in his hands all the difficult cases. The Bible appears to say that no one can be saved who has never heard of Jesus. This teaching would certainly seem to apply to millions of people who lived and died without once hearing about Jesus. Jesus will judge fairly on the Last Day; meanwhile, he emphatically tells the members of his Church to bring his Word to all people so that all may hear that Word, repent and believe, and be redeemed. Likewise, we cannot judge the fate of little children who die before they can hear and understand God’s Word and who have not been baptized. David had a son who died at the age of six days; that son could not have been circumcised. Trusting God’s goodness, David prayed for the child and mourned while the baby was still alive but ceased to mourn when the baby had died. “I shall go to him,” David said, “but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). This hints that redemption may have been given to David’s son even apart from the ceremony of circumcision, but only God knows that for sure.

God knows who the elect are. By the same token, God knows who has chosen not to believe his promises of redemption. Election is a mystery; reason and logic cannot guide anyone to understand how the redeemed are saved only by the choice of God but the unbelievers are lost only by their own choice. The mystery of election is not meant to frighten believers or to cause Christians to worry about whether or not God has chosen them.  The mystery of election is meant to comfort Christians, to take away their worry about whether or not they are truly redeemed. Those whom God has chosen truly care about God and his kingdom. Those who have rejected his promises do not care about God and his kingdom, so they are not going to worry about whether or not they are redeemed.

If I look at myself, measure my faith, and count the things I do for God, I have reasons to doubt and be worried about my redemption. I do not feel that my faith is strong enough to save me, and I know that I have not done enough good things to deserve a place in God’s kingdom. If I look at my Redeemer, I have no more reason to doubt or worry. My Redeemer has done enough to bring me into his kingdom, and he is not going to change his mind about me now that he has redeemed me.

God chose us Christians in Christ before the foundation of the world. Before God said, “Let there be light,” he knew all about you. He knew your name and the kind of life you would live. He knew the price he would have to pay to redeem you and bring you into his kingdom. Thinking about you and about your redemption, God chose you. He chose to create a world into which you would be born, and he chose to continue his plan of redemption so you could be with him forever in his perfect new creation.

The mystery of election is a great comfort. It assures us of our place in God’s plan and in God’s kingdom. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Seven Mysteries of the Christian faith–Chapter six: the mystery of Christian living

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2).

God created people to do good things. We are to love God and to love our neighbors, and our love is intended to be active, making the world a better place. God does not need anything from us, but he wants us to take care of each other. When we help someone else, we are helping someone God loves. We serve God by helping each other. In this way, we accomplish the plan of our Maker. We do what we were created to do.

We do not always love God as he deserves to be loved. We do not always help our neighbors as they need to be helped. We have fallen short of our Maker’s plan for our lives. Because we have failed, God could reject us. Instead, he redeems us. He pays to fix what we have broken. We ran away from him, but he brings us back to himself. We were buried in our wrongdoing and in a world filled with sin and evil and death, but our Redeemer entered this world and got himself dirty, enduring even death itself, so we could have eternal life in his new perfect creation.

We contribute nothing to our redemption. Jesus has done all the work to redeem us. Even the means of grace that create and strengthen faith are God’s work in our lives, not our work for God. Being redeemed, though, we do not sit on our hands and wait for Jesus to appear in glory. We are his Body doing his work in the world. The plan of our Maker, that we should do good works in love, remains his plan for us. He did not redeem us so we can do good things; he redeemed us because he loves us. One result of being redeemed, though, is that we now have the power to do good things, showing our love for God and our love for the people he loves.

Jesus lived a perfect life. He always did the right thing and never did the wrong thing. Now, redeemed by Jesus, we imitate Jesus. We obey God’s commands. We help the people around us. We strive to make the world a better place. Our ability to do these things does not come from the commands of God; our ability to obey his commands comes from his work of redemption. We do not transform ourselves; we are transformed by God’s forgiveness, changed back into the people that God wants us to be.

One of the paradoxes of Christian living is that every Christian is both a saint and a sinner. We do not go back and forth between one and the other—at every minute each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and a saint who knows the Savior. In Romans 7, Paul describes the paradox of being both a sinner and a saint. Like Paul, we do not understand ourselves. We cannot explain why we break God’s commands. With Paul, we say, “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). Every day we repent, and every day we believe the promises of redemption. Every day we are made new, transformed by the forgiveness of God.

Some Christians think they can stop sinning and can become perfect in this lifetime by the power of God’s redemption. To convince themselves that this has happened to them, they have to ignore their sins, redefine them as mere mistakes, or blame other people for any time they do not act like Jesus. Our Lord would not have taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” if he did not know that every day we would trespass, and every day we would need his forgiveness. Even more than we need daily bread, we require daily forgiveness. We are sinners while also being saints. We strive to be like Jesus, but the harder we try to imitate him, the more we realize that we are falling short of the glory of God.

Christian living is a challenge. We contribute nothing to our redemption, but our imitation of Jesus does require effort on our part. Some people call Christian living sanctification, while others call it discipleship. Jesus told the Church to “make disciples.” No one can be a disciple of Jesus without first believing his promises of redemption; but no one can believe those promises without beginning to be transformed by those promises. As James wrote, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

A living faith produces good works, as a living apple tree produces apples. Apples do not cause the tree to live, and good works do not cause redemption or faith. We cannot judge our redemption by what we do—when we make that mistake, we have room to doubt the truth of God’s promises. Our good works are never enough to balance our mistakes. If we judge ourselves by God’s standards, we are failures. Only when we see ourselves through the promises of God do we see that we are saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven. God sees us through those promises; he sees us through the good works of his Son. Our sins were removed when Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Now all that remains on our record in God’s book is the perfect righteousness of Christ, accompanied by those times that we succeeded in imitating Christ.

Jesus compares our good works, not to apples, but to grapes. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). These words describe a second paradox: nothing we do is counted as good apart from the presence of Jesus. Many unbelievers have done great things in the world, showing deep love for their neighbors and making the world a better place. None of those good things, done without faith in Jesus, counts in God’s book, because even the greatest of good works is still tainted by sin. On the other hand, the smallest good deed of a believer—even giving a child a glass of water—is a good deed recognized by God. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, but with and through Jesus we do many things that are recorded as good.

God does not need our help. He made the world and it continues to run according to his rules. Every day God is active keeping his creation running according to his plan. Now God allows his people to cooperate with him. He tells us to pray for daily bread. When we gather for a meal, we thank God for the blessings we have received from his generous hand. Yet the food we eat, a gift from God, also involves the labor of many people. Farmers planted the seeds and tended the fields and harvested the crops. Millers ground the grain into flour. Bakers added other ingredients to the flour and put the loaves in the oven. Truck drivers moved the grain to the mill, moved the flour to the bakery, and moved the bread to the store. We then went into the store and took some of that bread, exchanging money we earned by doing some other kind of work so we can have the bread on our tables. God created the seeds and the fields where they grew. God gave the farmers and millers and bakers and drivers the ability to do their jobs. He gave us the ability to do our jobs. He will not send us manna every morning as he did for the Israelites between Egypt and Canaan. He expects us to work, as he expects the farmer and miller and baker to work. We cooperate with God, and we receive the good things he wants us to have.

Every good thing done by a Christian is done by the power of Jesus, who reminds us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” In doing good things, though, a Christian cooperates with Jesus. We cannot make anyone a believer in Jesus; we cannot even make ourselves believers. God makes us his partners in redemption, though, by giving us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. When we tell other people about Jesus and what he has done, we use the keys that Jesus gave to his Church. We are cooperating with God to bring redemption to other people, even though no effort on our part can cause the redemption of any person.

Christians pray to God. God does not need our advice. When we mention problems to him, whether our problems or the problems of other people, God is never surprised. He knows everything; he knows all about those problems. God wants us to pray. He wants to hear from us every day. He wants us to praise him and thank him, not because he needs our thanks and praise to feel good about himself, but because we need those reminders of the goodness of God. He wants us to confess our sins. Our prayers do not earn his forgiveness, and a sin will not be unforgiven if we forget to confess it to the Lord. God wants us to pray to him about the things we want and need. God already knows what we want and what we need. He will not refuse to give us something that we need if we forget to pray and ask him for it. God wants us to love our neighbors and pray for their needs. He knows what they need and will not refuse to give them what they need if we forget to pray and ask him for it.

God does not need our advice, but he loves us as a Father and wants to hear from us. Imagine spending an entire day with someone you love and never hearing that loved one speak one word to you. Some days we treat God that way. To keep that from happening, God commands us to pray. He promises to hear our prayers and to answer our prayers. As we pray for daily bread and receive it from God with the cooperation of the farmer and the miller and the baker, so in our prayers we cooperate with God. We become his partners, making the world a better place through our prayers as well as through our other good deeds. A Christian who is so ill that he or she cannot leave the bed can still do good things by praying for other people.

Sometimes a Christian is aware of the good deeds he or she is doing. Often that Christian is not aware that he or she has done a good deed. Imitating Jesus becomes easier over time, just like any other activity. When you learned to walk, when you learned to ride a bicycle, and when you learned to drive a car, at first what you were doing took effort and concentration. After a while, the task became easier, and eventually you could do these things without thinking hard about the details of what you were doing. The good deeds of a Christian are selfless, done without awareness. They are not done to earn rewards. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). In the same sermon, Jesus spoke about helping other people, about praying, and about fasting, each time saying that such things should be done secretly. The good things done by Christians are part of their relationship with the Lord; they are not done to impress anyone. When we help others, Jesus says, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3).

Jesus promises that God will reward our good works. But Jesus does not want us to keep score of our good works. In his parable about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46), those entering God’s kingdom are surprised to be rewarded for doing good things. “When did we do all that?” they asked. They had done those things without keeping score, but Jesus remembered every good deed and treated it as service to him. Likewise, those barred from the new creation asked, “When did we fail?” They thought they had done enough good deeds to win God’s approval. Because what they did had been done without faith, every failure was remembered and they were treated accordingly.

Christians do good things without keeping score. Often the best things Christians do are not noticed as good deeds. They are simply the result of love. No one enjoys changing a baby’s diaper. Some people consider changing a diaper to be about the most revolting thing they ever had to do. Yet people change diapers. They do these good deeds because they love the baby and want the baby to be healthy and comfortable. When a Christian changes a baby’s diaper, God sees that good deed and remembers it.

Most Christians recognize the saintliness of others more than they recognize their own saintliness. Acting selflessly out of love, a Christian is serving God by helping others without keeping score. For that matter, every Christian knows his or her own secret sins. Being aware that we are sinners, we continue to repent and continue to be active doing works of love. Other Christians inspire us to do more, because we are all working to imitate Jesus and do things as he would do them.

Some good deeds are done in the church building or as church activities. Many more good deeds are done in other settings. Members of a family do good deeds for each other. Friends and neighbors serve God by helping each other. Even someone working for a salary is still doing good deeds that bring glory to God (unless, of course, their chosen career is sinful or they are doing corrupt things on the job). Paul’s letters follow a similar pattern: he addresses problems, shows the answer to those problems in Christ’s redemption, and then urges his readers to do good things. Many of those good things involve husbands and wives, parents and children, and workers and employers. “Whatever you do,” Paul wrote, “in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

As members of the body of Christ, each Christian has unique ways to serve God by helping others. In the congregation, different Christians do different things to serve the entire body of Christ. Every day of the week, in homes and workplaces and schools and neighborhoods, Christians are doing good things that help others. Because they have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, Christians do different good works. If we were all the same, many good things would never get done. Because of the diversity God created, his Church is filled with many different people doing many different things, all for his glory.

God’s commands tell Christians how to live, but God’s commands do not address every situation a Christian will face. The attitude of a Christian is not slavish obedience to rules, but freedom to be like Jesus. Different Christians make different decisions about their personal lives. Some drink no alcohol, and others drink in moderation. Some Christians are vegetarian, and others eat meat. Some listen only to certain kinds of music, while others enjoy many kinds of music. Where no command has been given by God, Christians are free to serve him in various ways. God has forbidden his people to judge each other for their personal decisions. To the Romans and the Corinthians, Paul stressed this diversity. He warned Christians not to offend each other by openly doing things that trouble others. The Christian who eats meat willingly forgoes meat in the presence of the Christian who eats no meat. However, when the vegetarian is not around, the other Christian is free to eat meat. Neither one judges the other, but both act in a way that shows love for God and love for each other.

The good things done by Christians do not earn for them a place in heaven. Redemption is accomplished only by the work of Jesus Christ. His redemption which opens heaven to Christians changes the lives they live on earth. As an additional mystery, one could say that Christians live backwards. Everyone else in the world assumes that the present is shaped by the past and that the future is shaped by the present. For the Christian, though, past sins are erased and do not shape the present or the future. Eternal life in the new creation is guaranteed and is not shaped by what we do today or by what we did yesterday. Instead, what we do today is shaped by our future. Because we are citizens of the new creation, we are transformed today. The forgiveness of Jesus changes us, making us able to do good things today.

We do not know when that Last Day will come, the Day Jesus will appear in glory and we will enter his new creation. Only God knows that mystery; he has not revealed it to anyone. This creates a paradox for each Christian. We live each day as if it were the Last Day. We spend our time doing the things we want to be doing when we see Jesus face to face. Yet we also plan for the future. We do not waste our resources, because we want them to be available for future generations. Even if a Christian was firmly convinced that the world was going to end tomorrow, that Christian would still plant a tree today.

We are not yet perfect. We still sin and fall short of God’s glory every day. In the new creation we will be perfect. Today we practice for that perfection. Loving God and loving our neighbors, serving God by helping our neighbors, we remind ourselves of the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves of the home Jesus has prepared for us in his new creation. And we teach others about Jesus, not only by our words, but also by our loving examples.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter five: the mystery of the Church

In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body…This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5: 28-30, 32).

In the beginning of the world, when God created everything that exists (aside from himself), everything that God made was good. God created the first man and placed him in a garden. Then something was not good. “It is not good,” God said, “that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). God created a teammate for the man and brought her to the man, performing the first marriage.

The Bible frequently describes the Church as the Bride of Christ. In Moses and the prophets, the nation Israel was called God’s Bride, and the apostles declared that the Church is Christ’s Bride. Old Testament believers and New Testament believers are the same Bride of Christ, the same Church, because they are saved by the same promises. Before Jesus was born, people were saved through faith that a Savior would come; after Jesus died and rose from the dead, people are saved through faith that a Savior has come.

When God speaks of the Church, and generally when his people speak of the Church, they are not talking about a building. They are not talking about an administrative structure. They are not talking about a private club or a business. Instead, they are talking about the people who are saved through trusting God’s promise of a Savior. The mystery of the Church is that all these people, living in different times and different places, speaking different languages, diverse in income and political importance and education, should all be united in one body that is called the body of Christ as well as the Bride of Christ.

Phone books are becoming as obsolete as rotary telephones. Now most people look for churches on the internet. Look anywhere for a listing of churches, though, and you will find many different labels. Congregations describe themselves as Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Protestant, Pentecostal, Methodist, and many other labels. Some are Lutheran, some Baptist, some nondenominational. They can be Congregational, Episcopal, or Presbyterian. The Church is divided into many different groups, and these groups are as diverse in beliefs and practices as they are diverse in languages and cultures.

Ask God how many churches he sees in your hometown, and he answers, “one.” Ask him how many churches he sees in your state or your country, and he answers, “one.” Ask him how many churches he sees on the planet Earth, and for good measure throw in the saints with God in Paradise, and God still sees only one Church. Anyone who believes the promises fulfilled by Jesus Christ is a member of that one Church. Anyone who refuses to believe those promises is not a member of the one Church.

Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead to keep his promise of redemption and also to establish his Church. Seven weeks after his death and resurrection, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to the apostles to establish that Church on earth. One hundred twenty people were gathered together in the name of Jesus at the beginning of that day; by sunset three thousand more had heard the message about Jesus the Redeemer, had been baptized, and were members of the Church.

God’s Word has power to change lives, and the day of Pentecost is not the first day that people were drawn to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit. Moses and the prophets spoke as they were guided by the Spirit of God, and people were saved through faith in the promises that came from God. The first sermon preached to sinners was spoken by God shortly after the first sin. God called those sinners to repentance, and they both confessed that they had done what God told them not to do. Speaking then to the serpent through whom they were tempted, God spoke about the Redeemer who would repair what sin has broken. “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God said, “and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Believing that this promise was true, the promise of an Incarnate Redeemer who would crush the serpent’s head, Adam and Eve were redeemed and became the first members of the Church.

Part of the mystery of the Church is that it is both visible and invisible. There are not two churches, one visible and the other invisible. There is one Church which is visible in some ways and invisible in others. The Church is invisible because no one other than God truly knows who is a member of the Church. You cannot walk down the street and distinguish people, saying, “That one is a Christian; that one is not a Christian.” Faith does not show in people’s faces or bodies or in the sounds of their voices. Faith shows in the words that people say, but even then you cannot know who means the words of faith that they speak and who does not mean what they say.

The Church becomes visible through the Means of Grace. God’s Word has power to change lives. Wherever the forgiveness of sins is announced at a gathering of God’s people, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever the Bible is read and studied and its message is shared, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever people are baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, believers are present and the Church is present. Wherever people eat and drink the ceremony established by Jesus Christ, believers are present and the Church is present.

If all the buildings were taken away from the Church, and all the labels and signs were removed, and all the administrative structures were stripped away from the Church, and its non-profit status was revoked, the Church would not cease to exist. Believers would still be alive on the earth, and whenever they gathered together, Jesus would be with them, as he has promised (Matthew 18:20). Wherever on earth the Means of Grace are found, Jesus Christ and his Church are also present. The Church will not cease to exist on this world until the Day Jesus appears in glory to claim his people and to begin his new creation.

When the Church gathers, though, all the people present are not necessarily part of the Church. They might be in the same building as the members of the Church, and their names might be written on the same administrative lists, but some people who are among the believers are not believers. If they do not believe in Jesus Christ and his promises, they are not members of the Church. The Church is called the Body of Christ. Some writers have crassly written that, as the human body has things in it that do not belong to the body, so the Church has people in it that do not belong to the Church. Whenever you blow your nose or use a toilet, you demonstrate the point those writers are making. Jesus had a gentler and more elegant metaphor, comparing the Church (the kingdom of God) to a large bush in which the birds can perch and make their nests. The birds are in the bush, but they are not part of the bush (Mark 4:30-32).

The Church appears to be divided into many warring factions, but God still sees only one Church, containing all the redeemed who ever lived, including those still alive today. The Church appears to be broken into many pieces that are at war with one another, but God sees every Christian through his Son and therefore sees them all united and at peace with one another. The Church appears to be weak, unable to survive the many challenges of a sinful world, but God sees the Church victorious, rising with Christ and living forever with him in his new creation. What God sees, Christians must accept by faith. When the Church seems to disappoint Christians, they call upon their faith to remind them that what they have seen is not the real Church, but God still sees the real Church and sees individual Christians as members of that Church.

The Bible calls the Church a temple built out of living stones (I Peter 2:4-5). The buildings where Christians learn about God and are served by him are also called churches, and they can be vivid reminders of the one true Church. A church building must rest on its foundation, or it will fall. A brick sitting out in the parking lot is not part of the building. In the same way, the Church must rest on the foundation of Jesus Christ and of his prophets and apostles. It must rest on the spoken and written Word of God, as delivered by God’s prophets and apostles. Any person who resists the Word of God is not among those built on the true foundation. Any person who rejects the redemption offered by Jesus Christ is not part of the Church. Like a brick sitting out in the parking lot, such a person does not belong to the Church. As a brick can be moved, though, and added to a wall, so God sometimes moves people and makes them part of his Church. He moves them by the means of grace so that, through faith in the promise of redemption, they can become part of Christ’s eternal kingdom.

The Bible also calls the Church the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-31). All the bricks in a wall are pretty much the same, but the parts of the body can be very different. Together they are a healthy body. They do different things in different ways, but the parts all work for the benefit of the entire body. Eyes see, ears hear, hands grasp, feet walk, but each part does what it does for the good of the entire body. In the same way, the members of the Church have different abilities, different resources, and different opportunities. Some can support the work of the Church with generous gifts, while others can contribute very little material support to the Church. Some are talented musically, while others are not. Some are good teachers, while others are not. Some are good cooks, while others are not. When Christians gather around the means of grace, Jesus is with them. He guides his people to work together like a healthy body, each doing what he or she can for the glory of God and for the benefit of the whole Church.

The Bible calls the Church the Bride of Christ.  The love a husband has for his wife is a picture of the love Christ has for his Church and for each member of the Church. It seems at times that the Church is an unfaithful Bride. The unfaithfulness of Israel was acted out by the prophet Hosea and his bride Gomer. Hosea was told to forgive her wife and accept her again, just as God forgives sinners and accepts them even when they are unfaithful to him. Sinners are redeemed, not because they earn redemption or deserve it, but because God loves sinners enough to pay the price for their redemption.

Every marriage is a picture of Christ and his Bride, the Church. If that is true of every marriage, it must be true of the first marriage. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” How does the Triune God know how it feels to be alone? The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are always together, loving each other, and doing things for one another.

On one occasion, though, one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity was alone. On a Friday afternoon, Jesus, the Son of God, took upon himself the world’s sins to redeem the world. Those sins came between Jesus and his Father so he could pay the price to remove those sins. In the darkness, Jesus was alone, and he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

After Jesus died on the cross, one of the Roman soldiers poked him with a spear—perhaps to see if Jesus had died or had only fainted—and from the wound in his side flowed blood and water. Medically, that indicated that Jesus had died and that fluid had collected in his chest. Early Christians found deeper meaning in the blood and water that flowed from his side. They saw the blood and water as pictures of two of the Means of Grace—the water of baptism and the blood of Christ in Communion. These early Christians remembered another Friday when another man slept—not the sleep of death, but still a deep sleep—and God opened his side, took out a rib, and from that rib made a wife, a teammate, for Adam. As the bride of Adam came from his side, so the Bride of Christ comes from the cross where Jesus died, and from the Means of Grace which bring people to faith in Jesus and in the power of his sacrifice.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter four: the mystery of faith and the means of grace

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. Romans 10:14-15, 17

Christians do no work to earn God’s forgiveness and redemption. Jesus Christ has done all the work necessary to save the entire world from sin and evil and death. If someone tries to purchase God’s love and forgiveness, that person is insulting God by trying to pay for the gifts that God has already given for free.

Yet the preaching of Jesus was summarized with this sentence: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The prophets and the apostles also told people to repent and to believe. The Bible repeatedly warns that no one can be saved from sin and death without believing in Jesus Christ. The mystery of faith, quite simply, is that we must have faith to be God’s people, yet nothing we do causes us to be God’s people.

Repentance and faith are not our gifts to God; they are his gifts to us. Repentance and faith are the result of God the Holy Spirit working within us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). Paul is not describing the sounds made by our mouths, for any person can utter either sentence. Paul is describing the absence or presence of faith. If a person has faith in Jesus, that person has been given faith by the Holy Spirit. Christians cannot take credit for their own faith; only God deserves credit for the faith of his people.

Repentance and faith require no effort. They are not work done by Christians. If you believe that two plus two equals four or that Tokyo is in Japan, you trust the truth of those statements. You trust the people who first taught you those facts. Even though some facts are harder to learn than others, believing what you already have learned is never hard work.

Repentance and faith are more than mere facts, though. A person might say “Jesus is Lord” in twenty different languages and still not believe that it is true. A person might be able to recite long statements of faith from memory without agreeing with that faith. Repentance and faith involve knowledge, but they also involve a relationship with that knowledge. Repentance and faith require a relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship happens, not when we find him, but when he finds us. He is the Shepherd who has gone out into the wilderness to bring his wandering sheep back to the fold. He is the Priest who sacrificed himself on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. He is the Savior who rescues sinners through his own life and death and resurrection.

Repentance and faith are not things that Christians do once and then never have to do again. Because they both involve a relationship with Jesus, both are ongoing parts of a Christian’s life every single day. If a Christian were to say, “I already repented—I don’t have to repent anymore,” or, “I already came to faith—I don’t have to believe anymore,” he or she would be badly mistaken. Christians constantly repent and constantly believe. Even while they sleep, Christians are still in a relationship with Jesus. They have faith both awake and asleep. If the brain of a Christian is damaged by injury or illness, that Christian might lose many things—the ability to talk, the ability to walk, or even the ability to think clearly. That Christian would not lose his or her faith, because Jesus and the Holy Spirit remain unchanged; and the relationship of faith is their work, not a Christian’s work. By the same token, even little children too young to walk or talk can have true Christian faith. John the Baptist had not been born when he leapt for joy at the sound of his Savior’s mother (Luke 1:44). Jesus spoke more than once about the faith of little children. (See Matthew 18:2-4 and Matthew 19:13-15 for two examples.) Repentance and faith do not require intelligence, because they are mysteries. They happen even without being understood.

Jesus commands us to repent and to believe. We could not do these things without his help. Jesus often works this way. A paralyzed man was brought to him, and Jesus commanded him, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:11). This man wanted to do these things, but he could not do them until Jesus gave him that command. When Jesus gave the command, the words that he said made the man able to do those things. On another occasion, Jesus visited a grave and commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Lazarus came out of the grave. He would not have been able to leave the grave without the command of Jesus, for he was dead; but the words of Jesus gave him the ability to do what Jesus commanded. Lazarus left the grave alive because Jesus, by calling him, made him able to obey.

In the same way, when Jesus tells people to repent, he gives them the ability to repent. When Jesus tells people to believe, he gives them the ability to believe. The Holy Spirit works through the words of Jesus so that people can do what Jesus wants them to do. The Word of God has great power to do marvelous things. God created the world by his Word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Paul wrote that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). That is true, not merely because God is so good that he would never lie, but because God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, God’s Word makes things happen. Whatever God says is true because, by saying it, he makes it true.

Repentance is the awareness that we are sinners who need a Savior. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have done wrong (or failed to do right) and that we cannot fix that problem. Repentance can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the repentance. Repentance is that part of our relationship with God that moves us to throw ourselves on his mercy. When we repent, then, we are responding to God’s commands. He has told us what to do and what not to do. The Holy Spirit guides us by comparing our lives to God’s commands and showing us our guilt. This awareness of guilt is good when it brings us to God for forgiveness. Awareness of guilt is bad only when it stands between ourselves and God, keeping us from knowing his forgiveness.

Faith is the awareness that we are sinners who have a Savior. When we believe, we acknowledge that Jesus has rescued us from our sins. We acknowledge that his life and death and resurrection guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life. Faith can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the faith. Faith is that part of our relationship with God that trusts his mercy and all his promises. When we believe, we are responding to the gospel. God sent his Son to be our Savior, and now God tells us what Jesus has done for us. Awareness of Jesus and his rescue mission is always good. Without this faith, no one can be saved.

Some people claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you have faith.” That claim is nonsense. Believing in Jesus as Savior is not the same as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nor is it the same as believing in yourself. Believing in Jesus means knowing and trusting his promises. Believing in Jesus is an ongoing relationship that was started by Jesus and is continued by Jesus. He gives us faith as a gift, not as something we deserve. He gives us faith because he loves us and wants to bless us.

God could bestow repentance and faith any way he wants. He wants to give those gifts through his Word. He created the universe through his Word, and now he creates new life in us through his Word. That Word comes to us in several different forms. These forms are sometimes called the means of grace. That label applies to them because, in each of these forms, God’s Word brings grace to his people so we will repent and believe. God does not intend for any Christian to choose just one of the means of grace and neglect the others. He wants his people to be strengthened by all the means of grace. Trying to be a Christian without regular use of the means of grace is like trying to survive without eating. The means of grace are not optional; they are God’s way of keeping repentance and faith alive.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish what I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God accomplishes its purpose when it is spoken. Moses, the prophets, and the apostles all spoke before they wrote. Their spoken word had as much power to save lives as does their written word. When they delivered God’s commands, the Holy Spirit used those commands to cause people to repent. When they delivered God’s promises, the Holy Spirit used those promises to cause people to believe. Moses and the prophets spoke about a Redeemer who would come, and people were saved by believing that he would come. The apostles spoke about the same Redeemer but said he had already come, and people were saved by believing that Jesus had come as promised.

Christians have several names for the means of grace that is spoken. They call it mission work, evangelism, witnessing, outreach, and sharing the faith. Jesus specifically gave this power to his apostles and to all Christians. To Peter he said, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). Later he said almost the same words to all the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). This gift was so important to Jesus that he said it a third time just hours after his resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Keys are powerful. They lock and unlock doors. Who has the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just missionaries, and not just preachers. Every Christian has those keys. Just before giving the keys to his apostles on Easter night, we are told that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Anyone who has received the Holy Spirit has also received the keys to heaven. As Paul indicated to the Corinthians, anyone who believes in Jesus has received the Holy Spirit. When a Christian announces forgiveness, that message is as sure and certain as if Jesus stood there himself and said, “I forgive you.”

Generally when Christians gather together for services, one Christian (or sometimes more than one) has been chosen to lead the services as a pastor or minister or preacher. In those gatherings, that minister speaks the words of forgiveness. When the service has ended and the Christians go home, each one of them carries the same keys.  No one who believes God’s Word is lacking the power to share God’s Word with others.

Sharing God’s Word includes warning sinners that they need a Savior. The message, “God loves you, he forgives you, and he wants you to live forever with him in heaven,” will be misunderstood by any hearer who thinks he or she is pretty good, deserving God’s love and a place in heaven. The mystery of redemption has no meaning to someone who does not understand sin. When Christians speak God’s commands and apply them to the lives of others, the Holy Spirit works through those commands to guide people to repent. Christians do not talk about sin to make other people feel bad. Christians do not talk about sin to show that they are better than other people. Christians do not talk about sin to try to control other people. The main reason we share God’s commands is that we want also to share his promises. We want people to repent because we want them also to believe the gospel.

Speaking the commands without the promises, then, is even worse than speaking the promises without the commands. We cannot make anyone believe in Jesus. We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus. When we describe his promises to other people, though, we are using the keys to the kingdom of heaven. As the Holy Spirit uses the commands of God to guide people to repent, so he uses the promises of God to guide people to believe. Christians are blessed by Jesus with the opportunity to bring his treasures to the people we know.

God’s spoken commands and promises are powerful. His written commands and promises are also powerful. The Bible describes itself as the Word of God, but believing it is so because the Bible says it is so is circular reasoning. The Bible conveys God’s power because it was delivered through the prophets and apostles, God’s authorized messengers to the world. The word “apostle” means “messenger,” not in the sense of a mail carrier, but in the sense of an agent who has power to speak for the sender. An agent representing a corporation or an ambassador representing a government is an apostle. Therefore, when the apostles wrote letters to churches and to individuals, their letters were considered messages from the one who sent the apostles; namely, Jesus.

Odd conspiracy theories have been invented to explain the origins of the Bible. The truth is far less dramatic than the theories make it seem. As Christians gathered the writings that are now known as the Bible, they asked three questions about each writing. They asked: Does it come from a prophet or apostle chosen by God? Does it agree with the message that is being taught in all the Christian Churches? Is it known to most Christian congregations? Books that did not meet these three requirements were not included in the Bible.

Some books were easily included: Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets; likewise the four gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, and the letters of Peter and John. Although Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two books were not written by apostles, their association respectively with Peter and Paul earned them approval. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews, the letters of James and Jude, and the book of Revelation were questioned by some Christian leaders, as was the Song of Solomon. Because these books were well-known to Christians and agree in content with the rest of the Bible, they were eventually included. Many books were omitted—the Gnostic writings because they disagreed with Christian teachings, and letters from other Christians such as Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, because they were not written by apostles.

Christians disagree with each other about the authority of the Bible. Some say that the prophets and apostles were just writing their own opinions about God, his commands, and his promises. Such Christians consider themselves free to disagree with any part of the Bible they do not want to believe. Other Christians picture God dictating the words of each book of the Bible to the various writers. Such Christians know that, when they disagree with the Bible, they are disagreeing with God himself.

The Bible is a mystery, though, because it comes entirely from God and yet comes entirely through ordinary human beings. Every word of the Bible is God’s Word, yet every word of the Bible is also of human origin. The Bible might be compared to Jesus, who is completely God and completely human all the time. The Holy Spirit guided the writers, but he did not dictate to them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote accounts of Jesus that were shaped by their own personalities. John and Paul have noticeably different writing styles. The Bible can be studied with all the techniques used to study human literature, because it is human literature. The Bible can be trusted as a true message from God, because it truly is a message from God.

As literature, some statements in the Bible are straight-forward while others use figurative language. When the Bible says God “will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4), the Bible does not teach that God has wings and feathers. The statement is true—that God protects his people—but it is written as poetry and must be read as poetry. Many of the significant disagreements about what the Bible means in various places is a disagreement about whether a statement is literally true or telling the truth with poetic imagery. The best way of handling such disagreements is to interpret the difficult passages of the Bible by comparing them to clear passages about the same topic.

Some people read the Bible as nothing more than literature. It is, of course, literature, but it is also far more. Some people read the Bible for information about history. The Bible contains information about history, but it is far more than a history book. Some people read the Bible looking for God’s commands. The Bible contains many commands from God—experts have identified more than six hundred commands in just the first five books of the Bible. God’s commands tell people why they were created and what they are meant to do. Merely reading the commands does not make people able to do what God has commanded.

Along with literature and history and the commands of God, the Bible also contains God’s promises. Even the commands help to emphasize the promises, since the commands of God show where we have sinned, and the promises of God show how we are saved from sin. The Bible, as a means of grace, has the power to shape lives. The Holy Spirit through the Bible tells people to repent and believe the gospel, and it also causes people to repent and believe the gospel. The Bible describes itself as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but the Bible’s main purpose is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).

Whether God’s Word is spoken or read, it changes lives. Through its message, God’s Word brings the mystery of redemption, causing faith in Jesus Christ and strengthening that faith. Sometimes believers are not sure of their faith. If they would look at their Redeemer, they would be confident they have been rescued and redeemed. Instead, they look at themselves and ask, “Is my faith strong enough? Do I believe as much as I should believe? Can I be sure that the message of the Bible really is meant for me?”

To answer those questions, God combines his Word with basic elements of the world he created, bringing us the power of his promises in ways that do not rely only on words, even though the Word of God is the only power that gives the elements any power. Even before Jesus was born, God had ceremonies for his people to observe, promising them forgiveness and a place in his kingdom through these ceremonies. He commanded that every boy born to a family among the people of God be circumcised. If a man wanted to join the people of God, he also had to be circumcised. Circumcision happened once in a lifetime, but it was a reminder to a man for the rest of his life that he belonged to God. God also commanded that various animals be sacrificed in specific ways. The sacrifices were given often, according to the commands of God, but through them God promised forgiveness of his people’s sins.

Jesus was circumcised a week after he was born. He was obedient to all the commands of his Father, including that of circumcision. For the first time in his mission of redemption, Jesus endured pain and shed his blood. Through his obedience and through his blood, he was rescuing sinners. Now that Jesus has completed his mission, God no longer requires the ceremony of circumcision. Before the work of Jesus was finished, circumcision was very important. Now it does not matter whether or not a believer has been circumcised.

The system of sacrifices that God commanded was very important to God. All those sacrifices were pictures of Jesus and of his mission of redemption. As animals shed their blood and died, forgiveness was conveyed to the people of God because they were foreshadowing the suffering of Jesus and his death on the cross. For this reason, the sacrifices required faith to bring the forgiveness of sins. When God’s people went through the motions of sacrifice without thinking of his promises of redemption, God hated the sacrifices they offered (Isaiah 1:11-14 and Psalm 50:8-11). Yet when the same sacrifices were offered in faith, God accepted them and kept his promise to forgive the sins of his people. Like circumcision, though, the system of sacrifices ended when Jesus offered himself on the cross. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice, and now God’s people are no longer required or expected to offer animals to God. After all, the animals were only pictures of redemption; the death of Jesus on the cross accomplished real redemption.

Even without circumcision, God has a ceremony that declares that certain people belong to him. This ceremony is called baptism. It involves water, although different groups of Christians apply the water in different ways. More important, it involves the Word of God, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Through this ceremony people are claimed for the kingdom of God. Some Christians baptize children, even infants, just as boys were circumcised when they were only a week old. Other Christians have children wait until they are old enough to say that they believe in Jesus and want to be baptized. In either case, baptism is a mystery. How can some water and a few words mean the difference between belonging to God and not belonging to God?

Baptism must be important, because Jesus commanded baptism. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” he said (Mathew 28:19), and he added, “Whoever who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul linked baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus, saying that a baptized Christian takes part in that redeeming work that Jesus did, the work that brings forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 6:3-6).

Paul was also thinking of baptism when he wrote about the “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Jesus spoke the same theme when he said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).Peter also wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” (the flood in the days of Noah) “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (I Peter 3:21).

Baptism saves people. It regenerates people. It brings people the forgiveness that Jesus guaranteed by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. Baptism does not save because the water has magic power. It does not save because it is obedience to a command, a good work that buys love from God. It saves because of the Word of God. It saves because of the promise of God. It saves as an adoption ceremony, one which brings people not only into God’s kingdom, but even into God’s family.

Jesus was baptized. He had no sins for which he needed to be forgiven. He had no need to be adopted into God’s family—he is already the only-begotten Son of God. One could say that Jesus was baptized to show how important baptism is to him. He commands us to be baptized, and so he obeys his own command. More than that, the mystery of baptism is the promise of adoption, which is linked to the mystery of redemption, particularly the Great Exchange. A Christian who is baptized is seen as clean and new, no longer stained by sin. The sins do not merely disappear; they go to the cross, where Jesus pays for them in full. When Jesus takes those sins, he replaces them with his perfect goodness. Through baptism, God the Father now looks at a Christian and says what he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). For whenever God looks at a baptized believer, God is seeing Jesus his Son.

For this reason, a Christian declares, not “I was baptized” on a certain day, but “I am baptized.” Baptism is a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime, but baptism is also a continuing relationship with God. Of course this relationship is still centered on Jesus Christ. A person without faith in Jesus is not saved, even if he or she was baptized. To the Christian who believes in Christ, though, baptism is a personal guarantee from God. It answers the question, “Do I have enough faith?” It answers the question, “Can I be sure that the messages of the Bible are really for me?” Baptism is God’s “yes” to those questions. It is his assurance that his promises are true and will not be broken or rescinded.

Another mystery is known by several names, including Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper. By any name, this meal in miniature is something that Jesus told his people to do often. His establishment of this meal is recorded four places in the Bible (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, I Corinthians 11:23-26). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes additional comments about this mystery, calling it “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:17).

Jesus established this mystery during the Passover meal just a few hours before he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would begin the final steps on his way to the cross. Jesus took a piece of Passover bread, made without yeast. He prayed a prayer of thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” Later in the meal, he took the cup of thanksgiving—the third of four cups of wine traditionally drunk during the Passover meal. When he had given thanks, he gave the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” He then added, “Do this often, remembering me.”

Christians have struggled to understand this mystery. Some say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the bread, it actually changes into the body of Jesus, although it still seems like bread to all the senses. They say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the wine, it actually changes into the blood of Jesus, although it still seems like wine to all the senses. Other people say that the bread is only a reminder of the body of Jesus, given on the cross, and that the wine is only a reminder of the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. Some, embracing the mystery, say that the bread remains bread but is also the body of Jesus. They say that the wine remains wine but is also the blood of Jesus. They compare this paradox to that of Jesus himself, who is entirely God and entirely man at the same time.

Jesus did not give this mystery so that his followers would have a reason to argue among themselves. Nor did he give it as an empty ceremony, something to be done just because he said so. Jesus told his disciples to remember him when they ate and drank of the mystery. Specifically, they are to remember that the body of Jesus was given for them on the cross to remove all their sins. The blood of Jesus was shed on the cross to take away all their sins. Jesus was not being morbid or gross when he spoke about eating his body and drinking his blood. He was speaking of an intimate relationship, more intimate than we can have even with any other human being. As Christians, we want to be close to our Redeemer. By this mystery, Jesus comes closer to us than any of us would have imagined possible. He actually serves himself to us in order to remind us of how he sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus serves this meal of mystery to his people to bring them the same blessings that come through the spoken Word and the written Word. He brings the same blessings that come through the Word with water in baptism. Now, through eating bread and drinking wine, Christians are blessed with forgiveness, with redemption, and with victory over all their enemies, even death itself. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a good work that earns any blessing. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a favor we pay to him. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is an opportunity to receive the good things that Jesus wants to give. It is time spent with our Redeemer, participating in what he has done for us so we can receive the benefits of what Jesus has done.

This mystery sometimes is compared to the feast promised to God’s people in the new creation.  There once again Jesus will serve his people, inviting them to join in the victory celebration that marks his victory. On his own, Jesus has conquered sin and evil and death. He does not want to celebrate alone. All his people will be with him forever in that new creation. Aside from a few scattered verses in the last book of the Bible, eternal life in the kingdom of God is not described as wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, or playing harps. Instead, it is described as an enormous party—the best of foods, the best of wines, music, dancing, and the company of all our best friends. When Jesus invites us to his house to share a meal today, we remember the invitation he has given us to the great unending celebration in the world to come.

The means of grace are the spoken Word of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in baptism and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. The mystery of the Word of God in each of these forms generates in every Christian the mystery of faith. Jesus commands us to believe, but the Word that commands us to believe also causes us to believe. By this mystery, we are redeemed.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter three: the mystery of Redemption

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved… (Romans 8:22-24)

Coupons are the only things that people redeem today. A customer cuts a coupon out of the newspaper, or off of a package, or prints a coupon from the internet, and brings the coupon to the store. The clerk at the store redeems the coupon by giving its value to the customer, whether the coupon is worth ten cents, twenty-five cents, a dollar, or any other amount.  Payment of a known value is the root meaning of the word “redemption.”

In the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, slaves were redeemed. The seller would take the slaves into the market and put them on display. Interested buyers would look at the slaves and perhaps ask questions about them. When a buyer was ready to make a purchase, he would announce, “I redeem this one.” Money would change hands—the buyer would give the agreed value of the slave to the seller. The slave was not then free; the slave was now the property of a new owner.

The Bible says that God is our Redeemer—specifically, that Jesus Christ the Son of God is our Redeemer. He has paid a price to make us his property. We are not free now to do whatever we want; we are free to do whatever Jesus wants. Yet, because of this purchase, we are free. We once were slaves to sin, but Christ—by redeeming us—has taken us out of the power of sin. We once were destined for death, which we deserved, but by the price he paid to claim us, Jesus has set us free from death and has granted us the gift of life instead.

The financial metaphor of redemption is only one of the Bible’s pictures of what Jesus has done for us. The Bible speaks of salvation, of justification, of cleansing, and of other descriptions of what Jesus has accomplished. By any name, this gift from Jesus is a mystery. How does the life of one man, lived in Jewish communities at the edge of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, make any difference to us today? How does the death of that one man, condemned as a criminal and executed on a cross, change the world and bring blessings to Christians? Christianity stands or falls on this point, for if the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus have no meaning today, then nothing in the Bible is worth learning or remembering. Without the sacrifice of the cross, Christianity has no hope and no good news to offer.

Some people today reject Christianity precisely because they cannot accept the mystery of redemption. Perhaps some of the analogies used to describe this mystery have repulsed those people. The description of an all-powerful God who sacrifices his only Son to rescue a group of people who do not deserve such mercy can be hard to accept. For if God sacrificed his Son, to whom did he sacrifice Jesus? Who is greater than God, and therefore in a position to accept this sacrifice? Likewise, the thought of one innocent being suffering so that many others can escape the suffering that they deserve can be repulsive. If the torture of one innocent child could bring great benefit to you and other people, would you accept that benefit, or would you reject it because of the unjust suffering of the one innocent child?

No analogy can completely describe the full meaning of redemption or salvation. Each analogy will have some weakness in its description; after all, redemption is a mystery. The cross, of course, was real. The pain, the bleeding, and the death were all real, not mere pictures or messages of some other reality. Jesus was innocent, but he was not a helpless child. He obeyed the will of his Father and accepted the torture of the cross because he knew that his suffering and death could redeem sinners. Yet no power greater than God received the payment that Jesus offered. Only God is Almighty; only God is in charge of the universe. Justice comes from God alone, not from any greater source, whether personal or impersonal. When the Bible speaks of redemption, the message of the Bible is that Jesus loves us enough to pay full value to make us his property. Redemption is still an analogy. The real meaning of the cross is deeper and more mysterious than any analogy.

On a certain weekend chosen by God from the beginning of creation, the Son of God was seized by his enemies. For more than thirty years he had lived on this planet, obeying all the commands that God has given to his people. He made enemies, though, largely because he promised rescue for those who had sinned, and said that he would perform that rescue. He was condemned by the Jews for blasphemy, because they believed that Jesus had insulted God by claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus was not guilty of blasphemy, because he truly is the Son of God. Rather than using the truth as his defense, Jesus remained silent and allowed himself to be turned over to the Roman authorities. Since the Romans had no law against claiming to be the Son of God, the high priests accused Jesus of claiming to be a king. This also was true, although Jesus did tell the Roman governor that his Kingdom is not of this world. Still, under pressure from the local crowd, the governor signed the order to send Jesus to the cross, condemned as a traitor to Rome because he was “the King of the Jews.”

The torture of death on a Roman cross was enormous, but the physical pain felt by Jesus is not the worst pain ever felt. Many other people were crucified by Roman authority both before and after the death of Jesus. Millions of other people have been tortured with physical pain, whether through the deliberate cruelty of other people, or due to illnesses or accidents. Some have lived with such pain for years. Being mocked by his enemies and abandoned by his friends made the suffering of the cross worse for Jesus, but even that rejection was not unique. The ultimate torment of the cross, which was added to the physical and emotional pain, was separation from his Father. The Father and the Son have always loved each other. For a few hours that Friday, though, the Father rejected and abandoned his Son, and Jesus felt the spiritual pain of separation from a loving God. In the darkness his voice was heard, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?”

In simple language, the absence of God’s loving presence is called hell. Some people work their own way to hell. They do not want to be with God, so they try to get away from God. Anyone who willingly breaks God’s commandments is claiming independence from God. Everyone who chooses to sin is choosing to be in hell rather than to be with God. God does not allow that choice to be our final answer. Through the redemption paid on the cross, people are rescued from hell. Jesus went to hell that Friday afternoon so other people would never have to go there.

Like any mystery, the mystery of redemption is misunderstood in various ways. Some people see the death of Jesus on the cross as nothing more than an example, teaching his people the kind of sacrifice he expects all his people to be willing to make. The meekness of Jesus, his willingness to forgive those who hurt him, and his confidence in his Father despite all appearances, are elements of his sacrifice that Christians can admire and should imitate. But if the cross were only one more lesson in the teaching career of Jesus Christ, it would have no power. Without true redemption, the example is empty and might as well not be imitated. Though other people see the lesson as more about the world than about Jesus, they also are missing the point. The events of that weekend are much larger than corruption in society, the abuse of power by those who have it against those who don’t, or the inevitable danger of confronting a rotten system with honesty and love. When people start talking about the sacrifice of Jesus in these ways, they show that they completely misunderstand why Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to a cross.

Other people understand that Jesus died on the cross to save people. They misunderstand which people Jesus died to save. They assume that Jesus would only give his life to save those who are worth saving. In one way or another, they consider what it would take to be among those worth saving. Those who have not committed any great crime or caused a lot of damage in the world might be worth saving. Those who have taken part in the right religion might be worth saving. Those who have tried their best to be good, even though they have made a few mistakes, might be worth saving. Those who are better than average might be worth saving.

The Bible does not say that some people are worth saving and others are not worth saving. Instead, it says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” (Ephesians 2:1), and, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In case anyone wants to say that people are saved through Christ after they have done something good to show that they were worth saving, the Bible clearly says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

God is holy. He has zero tolerance for sin. One small sin destroys a person’s worthiness to be saved in the same way one tiny hole pops a balloon. No one can begin the process of being saved, because without God’s help we are dead in sin. Therefore, the mystery of redemption requires that Jesus pays the entire price to rescue us, since without him we cannot rescue ourselves.

While some people say that we have to start the process of redemption by being good enough to rescue, other people say that Jesus begins the process and we must finish the process to be redeemed. Some say that we have to do good things to show that we have faith and have been redeemed. Others say that we must invite Christ into our lives or decide to belong to him before we can be redeemed. The answer to this misunderstanding is the same as the answer to the previous misunderstanding. Nothing we do finishes redemption, because redemption was finished on the cross. Jesus paid the entire price to redeem his people; nothing remains to be paid by his people. “This is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” If redemption had to be earned, even by the smallest action, then it would not be a gift. Jesus the Son of God completes the entire act of redemption, doing all the work from beginning to end.

A more subtle misunderstanding is that Jesus does all the work to redeem his people, but the reason he redeems them is so they can do good things for him. We were, after all, created to do good works. Being redeemed, we belong to Christ and are expected to obey him. We are free to do what he wants, not free to do what we want. Redemption and the forgiveness of God does indeed change people, making them able to imitate Jesus. While the connection seems logical, it still does not match what God has said through the prophets and apostles. We were created to do good works, but we are redeemed because God loves us. Good works are expected from us, but they do not cause our salvation. If someone asks, “Why did God make me?” the answer is found in the good works we are meant to do. If someone asks, “How am I forgiven for my sins? How am I saved from evil and from death?” the only answer is the mystery of redemption, the mystery in which Jesus does all the work that needs to be done.

All the descriptions of redemption are analogies. Real redemption is a mystery that cannot be explained by a single analogy. The word “redemption” itself is a financial analogy. It suggests that, by suffering and bleeding and dying on the cross, Jesus paid a price to purchase us. Before he redeemed us we were slaves to sin and evil and death, but now we belong to him. Another way of describing redemption with a financial analogy is to say that each time we sinned and broke God’s commands, we increased the debt that we owe to God. Even the best of us cannot pay that debt. Jesus is like a wealthy friend or relative who recognizes that we are deeply in debt and cannot pay what we owe; he pays all our debts himself, and then even opens a new account with his money and gives us that account so we too can be wealthy.

The analogy of redemption is sometimes described as Jesus taking the form of a ransom. As a Redeemer he assumes our debt and pays it in full; as a Ransom he claims us for himself, buying us out of the power of sin and evil and death. Neither image should be pressed so far as to suggest that Jesus is paying our value to a higher power. Jesus, the Son of God, is already the highest power that exists. However, the Son of God is offering payment to make us his people because he wants us to be his people.

A similar analogy omits the financial picture but says much the same thing. Jesus endured what we deserve so we can receive something better in exchange. By sinning, we broke our relationship with God. We indicated that we no longer wanted to be God’s people. The ultimate separation from God is called hell. Jesus experienced hell for several hours on the cross so we would never experience hell, even though by our sins we deserve to be there. In experiencing what we deserve, Jesus was able to spare us the punishment we deserve and instead give us a gift, blessings that only Jesus deserves.

This analogy is sometimes called the Great Exchange. Because we have broken God’s commands, doing what we want instead of what God wants, we deserve to be punished. Because Jesus lived among us as one of us and always obeyed God’s commands, he deserves to be rewarded. Because Jesus loves us, he trades places with us. He takes on the guilt for all our sins, and his own Father treats him as guilty of those sins. He abandons Jesus on the cross, and by doing that he removes the punishment that we deserve. Instead, Jesus gives us credit for his goodness. Because Jesus has given us that credit, God sees us through Jesus and claims us as his children. If Jesus had not exchanged destinies with us, he would be the only human being in God’s new creation. Because Jesus paid for our sins, we can join him in that new creation and live there with him forever.

This exchange was acted out in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was hearing several cases in Jerusalem when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to him. Pilate perceived that Jesus was guilty of no great crimes that deserved death. In various ways, he tried to find a way to set Jesus free. In his hearings that morning, he had condemned a convicted terrorist named Barabbas to death on a cross. Pilate now offered the priests and their minions a choice: either Pilate would set Jesus free, or Pilate would set Barabbas free. Because they were determined to destroy Jesus, they called for freedom for Barabbas. When Pilate then asked what he should do to Jesus, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him.” Up until that moment, the crowd had been planning to stone Jesus to death, according to the Law of Moses, but for that they needed Roman permission. Now the mention of Barabbas led them to call for the cross for Jesus. Barabbas, the convicted criminal, was free, and Jesus took his place, receiving the punishment Barabbas deserved. Every person redeemed by Jesus is a Barabbas deserving punishment, but Jesus has taken away that punishment and endured it himself so sinners can be free.

This same exchange can be described with a judicial analogy. We are defendants in God’s courtroom, and the evidence proves our guilt. Our accuser (Satan) reminds both God and us of the punishment we deserve. But we have a defense attorney who speaks on our behalf. By taking away our punishment (or by paying our fine himself), he is able to have us declared “not guilty.” The meaning of the word “justification” is “declared not guilty.” When he justifies us, God is able to remove our guilt, take away the punishment we deserve, and give us the gift of salvation, making us citizens of his eternal kingdom.

Why doesn’t God just forgive us because he is good? Why must Jesus pay a price to redeem us? The answer to those questions is best shown by another analogy which also involves justice.  When people break God’s commands, they hurt other people. They damage God’s creation. God cannot ignore the harm done by sin. God is holy and just. A holy and just God cannot ignore evil or pretend that it doesn’t matter. Forgiveness is free to sinners, but it is not cheap. The forgiveness of sins is very expensive, and someone has to pay that price.

God is just, but he is not justice. God is holy, but he is not holiness. Not only is God loving, but God is love. Love is the center of the nature of the Triune God. God loves the people he made, even those who have sinned. God’s love triumphs over his holiness and his justice when God himself faces the punishment that sinners deserve and pays their debt in full.

One can almost imagine Satan, the accuser, stamping his little foot in God’s courtroom and shouting, “That’s not fair!” God is not fair, because God loves us too much to be fair to us. Anyone who demands justice from God in his courtroom is making a big mistake. God does not want to treat us as we deserve; he wants to treat us as Jesus deserves, since he has already treated Jesus as we deserve.

Some of the parables of Jesus describe God’s loving injustice. A landowner pays the same amount of money to workers who worked on his farm twelve hours and workers who worked only one hour. A manager is commended for changing the accounts when he is about to be fired, knowing that he is making friends for his future by his dishonesty. A strong man (the devil) is tied up by a stronger man (Jesus) so the stronger man can rob him of his possessions (sinners). God’s injustice is good news for those of us who need forgiveness and do not deserve forgiveness.

Redemption is often pictured as a rescue mission, which is why Jesus is called Savior. He saves his people from their sins. One depiction of Jesus doing the work of a Savior pictures him diving to the bottom of a muddy pond. Buried in the mud at the bottom of the pond is treasure. Jesus gets himself dirty hunting for that treasure. He lives among sinners and is even killed by sinners. Jesus finds the treasure, though, and brings it to the surface with him. In the same way, we are lifted out of this world of sin, claimed by Jesus, and lifted up to his kingdom. We never could have traveled there on our own; Jesus had to come down to us to lift us up to him.

Another picture of his rescue mission depicts Jesus as a shepherd, going out into the wilderness to bring back a sheep that has wandered, since the sheep cannot find its own way home and cannot defend itself in the wilderness.

Perhaps the most frequent picture in the Bible of redemption is that of victory over God’s enemies. Christians often become attached to the financial analogy or the judicial analogy and overlook the picture of Christ’s victory. On the cross, Jesus fought all our enemies. He fought the sins we have committed, and he fought the sins committed against us. He fought evil and injustice in this world, and he fought all the forces of evil, including the devil. He fought death—the final result of sin and rebellion—and every one of these battles was won by Jesus. In the long-standing war between God and evil, the decisive battle was fought outside the gates of Jerusalem on a Friday long ago. Jesus won that fight, and he announced his victory later that weekend by rising again from the dead.

Nations honor soldiers who give their lives on the battlefield defending their country. Our King gave his life on the cross to rescue his Kingdom from evil. Sports fans celebrate the victories of their teams and say “we won” even though they contributed nothing to the victory. Likewise, Christians are able to celebrate and say “we won” because of the victory Jesus won that weekend. Jesus does not mind sharing his victory; he wants to share his victory. Life in the new creation will be an unending celebration of the victory Jesus won and shares with his people.

One Day Jesus will return in glory, raise all the dead, and begin his new creation. This Day is called Judgment Day, because on that Day Jesus will announce his judgment, declaring who will live with him in his new creation and who will be locked outside his kingdom. Judgment Day will not be a trial; it will be only the announcement of a verdict. People will be divided instantly into two groups—the saved and the lost—and those who are saved will begin celebrating the victory of Jesus with him.

Those who trust in Jesus do not have to fear that Day. Being redeemed, they know his verdict already. On Judgment Day, according to Jesus and his prophets and apostles, the sun will stop shining and the earth will shake. Already when Jesus was on the cross, the sun stopped shining, and when he died, the earth shook. God’s Judgment was poured out on his Son and is finished. No Judgment remains for the people redeemed by Jesus, the people who belong to Jesus.

Redemption is a mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery about redemption is the question, why? Why does Jesus love us enough to give his life for us? Why would he redeem us, rescue us, justify us, and claim us for himself? The answer cannot be found in us. The answer can only be found in Jesus. His nature is to love and to forgive. Because Jesus loves and forgives, we have been redeemed.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter two: the mystery of the Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Some years ago, when I was teaching in a Christian school, a mother of one of the students contacted the principal of the school, upset because her son said I had taught the class about reincarnation. The principal checked with me and was able to tell the mother that I had not said anything on reincarnation, but I had been teaching the class about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The next time I spoke to that class, I made sure that they understood both words and knew the difference between them.

Reincarnation is an idea found in the Hindu religion (and also in some ancient Greek philosophers) that, after death, the spiritual substance of a being returns to the world in a different body. Most Christians reject the idea of reincarnation, since it is not supported by any portion of the Bible. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ, however, is one of the central mysteries of the Bible. The word Incarnation comes from the Latin expression for “became flesh.” When the Son of God was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born in Bethlehem, he was a human being, as human as the rest of us. This miracle, celebrated by Christians every Christmas, makes Jesus unique in the history of world religions. According to some religions, their founders were wise men but were not gods. Confucius, the Buddha, and Muhammad never claimed to be gods. In some other religions, gods pretended to be human. Greek and Roman gods were said to walk among people disguised as humans, and Krishna was said to be the human appearance (avatar) of the Hindu god Vishnu. In none of these cases, though, were the beings said to be entirely divine and entirely human at the same time.

Christians say that Jesus is the Son of God, equal to God the Father in every way. Both the Father and the Son are eternal, timeless, and unchanging. They both know everything and can do anything; they both are present everywhere in the universe. They both are good, holy, and loving Persons; and all of these things can be said of the Holy Spirit as well. At the same time, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit never became human. God the Son was born in Bethlehem. As a man, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. He was arrested, tried, convicted, sentenced, and put to death in Jerusalem. He also rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.

This Jesus is 100 percent God, and he is also 100 percent human. Here is the paradox, the mystery of the Incarnation. Although he is completely God and completely human, he is still only one Person. Nothing can be said of Jesus the Son of God that is not true of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Nothing can be said of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, that is not also true of the eternal Son of God. A Person who can be God and human at the very same time surpasses human understanding. Yet this is what Christians have believed and taught since the earliest times of the Church, because this is what the apostles said and wrote, and this is what Jesus said about himself.

Some conspiracy theorists claim that Jesus never said that he was God. They say that even the apostles did not clearly declare Jesus to be God. These theorists point out that dozens of gospels were written about Jesus, and they say that three hundred years after Jesus died, church leaders chose to hide the gospels that emphasized Jesus as a man and included in the Bible only the four gospels that can be used to teach that Jesus is truly God.

Only one thing said by these conspiracy theorists is true: dozens of gospels were written about Jesus. Within 150 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus, prominent Christian leaders were already proclaiming the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to be the only reliable gospels. The other gospels were not hidden by the Church, but they were rejected because they did not agree with the teachings of the Church, drawn from the writings of the prophets and apostles.

Most of the other gospels were either early attempts at historical fiction, trying to fill in the missing gaps of Jesus’ biography (such as what kind of child he was), or were deliberate blends of Christian teaching and Greek philosophy. To the Greek philosophers, the material world is an evil place from which truly spiritual beings want to escape. Writers who blended that philosophy with Christianity are known as Gnostics, because they claimed to possess hidden teachings of Jesus that are meant only for truly spiritual people. Many of the Gnostic writings claim that the world was created by an inferior god, but sparks of divinity fell into the world and became human beings. A better god then sent a messenger, Jesus, to free those divine sparks and return them to the spiritual world. Jesus was pure spirit and only pretended to be human. He could not be hurt or harmed in any way. One Gnostic gospel describes the disciples of Jesus crying when they saw his body hanging on the cross, until they looked higher, where they saw the spirit of the Christ, laughing at his enemies for thinking that they had hurt him. Basic teachings of Jesus, and of the apostles and prophets, were rejected by Gnostics. These teachings included the goodness of God’s creation, the idea that sinners could be redeemed by a sacrifice, and the promise that God’s people would rise as Jesus rose from the dead. Christian leaders rejected the Gnostic writings, not because they carried embarrassing truths, but because they completely changed the teachings of the Christian Church.

Even some sincere Christians, rejecting most of the Gnostic ideas, still believed and taught that Jesus is truly God but that he only pretended to be human. Reason and logic convinced them that Jesus could not be completely God and completely human at the same time. They viewed Jesus as a Teacher who came to show people how to live and how to be saved. Like the Gnostics, they did not believe that the Son of God could truly suffer or die, so they described his crucifixion as a lesson in sacrificial love. John addressed this view of Jesus in one of his epistles. He wrote, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (I John 4:2). John had strict words for those who denied the human, fleshly, reality of Jesus, identifying them as “antichrist.” From that first epistle of John, Christians identify three teachings that John said were essential for Christianity: Jesus is God, Jesus is human (“came in the flesh”), and Jesus is the Savior.

Other Christians, both ancient and modern, have emphasized the humanity of Jesus without being sure that he is truly God. They have suggested that in some way he became God, at least for a time. Some said that Jesus can be called the Son of God because he was inspired by God. Others have said that Jesus was adopted by God the Father (perhaps on the occasion of his Baptism) and so became the Son of God in that way. Some people who call themselves followers of Jesus continue to suggest that Jesus is only a wise teacher, on the same level as Confucius and the Buddha and Muhammad, but no greater.

The Bible says that Jesus allowed people to worship him, even though he taught that only God should be worshiped. In the face of opposition, he claimed the authority to forgive sins, and he also described himself as the one Judge to appear in the sky at the end of time. When Jesus was on trial and was asked under oath whether or not he is the Son of God, he clearly claimed that title (Mark 14:62). Jesus could have escaped execution had he said, “I’m not claiming to be God; I’m just trying to teach people how to live.” The high priests told Pilate that Jesus deserved to die because he made himself equal to God (John 19:7). To the Romans, claiming to be “a son of a god” was not grounds for punishment, but to the priests such a statement was blasphemy. They were his enemies because he claimed to be the Son of God.

Trying to make the mystery of the Incarnation acceptable to reason and logic, other Christians have suggested that Jesus is a god but not the Almighty God. Such Christian teachers said that the Son of God was the first thing created by the Father, and that the Father then created everything else through the Son. This suggestion that Jesus is a god who deserves worship but is not eternal or almighty prompted a meeting of the Church leaders around three hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This meeting was not held to invent new teachings about Jesus; it was held to study the Bible, to learn what Christians had been saying all along about Jesus, and how to summarize this teaching in clear and concise language. At this meeting, Christian leaders voted to accept a statement of faith which describes Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father…” These words describe the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. Many Christians still say these words aloud as part of their regular services.

Even with the issue resolved that Jesus is truly God and Jesus is truly human, the relationship of those two Natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ remains a mystery. Christians have struggled to understand this mystery, but as in all the mysteries, any attempt to use reason and logic to resolve the paradox leads only to false teachings.

The simplest solution is that the body of Jesus is fully human and the mind and spirit of Jesus are fully divine.  While this might seem to make sense, it would mean that Jesus is not truly human. If his thinking was the thinking of God and not that of a man, then he could not be tempted as we are tempted. The soul that Jesus committed into his Father’s hands from the cross was a human soul, not only the soul of the Son of God. Jesus has experienced humanity in every aspect that makes us human; in human body, human mind, and human spirit.

The next simplest solution is to think of the two Natures as somehow combined in the one Christ like two boards glued together or two liquids (such as vinegar and olive oil) mixed together. The divine Nature remains divine, and the human nature remains human. The mixture results in a unique Being, both God and man, but neither really influences or shapes the other. Mary is the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who has no father; Jesus the Son of God is the Father’s only-begotten Son, but he has no mother. As a man, Jesus experienced hunger, but the eternal and unchanging Son of God was never hungry. Jesus the Son of God calmed storms, cast out demons, and raised the dead, but the human Jesus of Nazareth had no part in those miracles.

That solution also fails to describe the Jesus of the Bible. The Son of God truly became human and experienced humanity; he did not just join himself to a human body or mingle his Nature with a human nature. The Son of God has experienced everything that it means to be human. The Gnostics denied the importance of the physical world which was created by God and was called good by God. Any attempt to separate the divine and human natures of Jesus, so that one or the other exists alone, denies from the goodness of God’s creation and makes Jesus only a spiritual Savior rather than the Redeemer of all creation.

One more solution has been suggested from time to time: it is thought that Jesus is fully human, but that the divine nature of Jesus consumed his human nature. He had a human mind, but all his thinking was done by his divine mind; he had a human will, but all his decisions were made by his divine will. This solution seems logical, but it also counters the Bible’s teaching that Jesus is fully human, like us in every way (except that he never sinned). After debating these resolutions to the mystery of the Incarnation, early Christians decided to retain the mystery. Jesus is one Person who is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human. He has the mind of God, but he also has the mind of a man. He has the will of God, but he also has the will of a man. Because Jesus never sinned, his human will always agrees with his divine will. Jesus felt no inner conflict being both God and human. The two Natures within him never fought or contradicted each other. At every time, then, Jesus remains completely divine and completely human.

The mystery of the Incarnation means, then, that the Son of God became a created being, traveling through time as all men and women and children travel through time. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Mary can be identified, then, as the mother of God. The Son of God was born as all other babies are born, and he experienced infancy and childhood as all other people experience them. The Son of God grew to be a boy and then a man. He learned how to walk, and how to talk, and how to read. He was hungry and he ate. He was thirsty and he drank. He was tired and he slept. He needed friends, and when he was without his friends he was lonely. He was in danger from every menace that might threaten any person: the hostility of a king, the danger of a storm, or the plotting of a group of enemies. Like every other person, Jesus was subject to the commandments God had given to his people. Jesus was required to love and obey God the Father, and he was required to love and to help his neighbors. As a human being, Jesus was tempted to sin—not just in the wilderness for forty days, but every day of his life on earth. All the things that distract us from God were there to try to distract Jesus too. All the suggestions that something might be better than obeying God’s commands were suggested to Jesus too. The Son of God faced every temptation that we face, but Jesus always resisted temptation and did the will of his Father. Not just the human Jesus of Nazareth, but the all-powerful Son of God, was arrested by his enemies and dragged from trial to trial. His enemies slapped and beat the Son of God, and they spit on him, and they mocked him. The Son of God was beaten with whips, and he bled. The Son of God was nailed to a cross, and there he suffered, and there he died. The Son of God knows how it feels to face death, because he has faced death as surely as any mortal human being.

Can God die? The death of the Son of God is like the death of any other human being: his spirit was separated from his body, and his body was laid to rest. We learn about the death of a Christian by remembering the words Jesus spoke while hanging on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” and, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When any Christian dies, he or she is with Jesus in Paradise. Though the body is laid to rest on earth, the spirit of that Christian is in the hands of God the Father until the resurrection that is to come.

The Son of God knows what it is to live a human life and to die a human death. Jesus of Nazareth, the human son of Mary, knows what it is to be “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.” The son of Mary knew everything (although he chose to forget a few things—the Day of his coming in Judgment, for example, or the sins committed by his people). The son of Mary was present everywhere in the universe even as he walked across Galilee and Judea. The son of Mary could do anything, although the miracles he worked always helped other people and not himself. The son of Mary is timeless, eternal, and unchanging. The son of Mary is in charge of the universe and was running the universe even as he slept in a manger in Bethlehem.

What was true two thousand years ago in Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem is also true today. The two Natures of Christ remain together and cannot be separated, because Jesus Christ is one Person, not two persons. The Son of God is the son of Mary; and the son of Mary is the Son of God. He rules the universe, and he does so while thinking of his people, those who trust his promises. He hears the prayers of his people, and he answers those prayers. When Christians pray for the things we need this world, Jesus hears and understands, because he is still one of us. When we pray for others Jesus understands our love for them, for he had a mother and brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors and enemies in this world. When we are tempted and pray for help, Jesus knows how to help us, because he was tempted in every way that we are tempted today.

Sometimes Christians imagine that the body of Jesus has been put into storage until he needs it again on the Last Day. Nothing in the Bible says that the body of Jesus is in storage; instead, the Bible makes it clear that the Jesus who is with us always is the same Jesus who taught his disciples and ate and drank with them. The Bible says that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, but the right hand is not one place in the universe; it is power and authority over the entire universe. Instead of placing his body and his human nature in one location after his ascension, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Jesus—the one Jesus, with a divine Nature and a human Nature—is in the largest places and in the smallest places. No one can find any place where Jesus is not present. He fills the entire universe with his presence, so he can keep his promise to be with all his people, wherever we go. He has the power to hear all our prayers and answer all our prayers, even if millions of us are talking to Jesus at the same time.

Jesus can be with all of us and can pay attention to all of us because he is not limited by time. He can walk through life with me and be aware of every detail about me, and then he can do the same with you. Because time does not limit him, Jesus can be with each of his people always and still can run the entire universe without forgetting anything that needs to be done. Jesus is the ultimate time traveler, because he does not even need a time machine to move forward and backward in time as he chooses.

Until science fiction writers began writing about time travel at the end of the nineteenth century, Christians did not think of Jesus as a time traveler so much as they pictured him as timeless. We know that “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Some Christian writers mentioned the “preincarnate Christ” who was present in the Old Testament, before the Son of God had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. When Jesus ascended “that he might fill all things,” he was able to fill time as well as space. The same body that was born to Mary, that grew from a boy to a man in Nazareth, and that preached and taught and worked miracles in Galilee and Judea, traveled backward in time to speak to believers of earlier generations. The God seen by the prophet Isaiah seated on a throne in the Temple was the Jesus who had died on the cross and had risen from the dead. The God who ate with Abraham and wrestled with Jacob was the Jesus who had ascended that he might fill all things. Even the hands that took clay in the Garden of Eden to form the first man were hands scarred from the nails of the cross; the Savior could see those scars and know what would come from the man he was creating and from his descendants.

The mystery of the Incarnation is that God would choose to become human, to live among humans, and to help humans. Beyond that, though, is another mystery, the reason God chose to be Incarnate. God can do anything he wishes, but he wished to create the world, and he wished to redeem the world. The mystery of redemption, accomplished on a cross outside of Jerusalem, is the reason that God chose to bring about the mystery of his Incarnation.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter one: the mystery of the Holy Trinity

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (II Corinthians 13:14).

Who is God? The first and greatest mystery of the Christian faith is the identity of the God whom Christians worship. God’s people have always declared that God is one. Christians identify the one God as three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. (Until the twentieth century, the Holy Spirit was more generally known as the Holy Ghost, but most English-speaking Christians today prefer to call him the Holy Spirit.)

Jews and Muslims agree with Christians that God is one. The three religions further agree that the one God is timeless and unchanging. He is eternal, not subject to the laws of time. He is present everywhere, and he knows everything, and he can do anything he wants. He is the Creator of everything that exists, and he has the right to rule everything that exists. He has the right to tell people what to do and what not to do, and he has the right to punish people who break his rules. Further, Jews and Christians and Muslims agree that God has spoken to his people through special messengers that are known in all three religions as prophets.

Jews and Muslims do not accept the mystery of the Holy Trinity. They insist that Christians are worshiping three gods instead of one God, and they further believe that the one God is insulted by the Christian teaching of the Trinity. Many Christians, in their speaking of God and to God, often speak as if they did believe in three gods rather than one God. Because it is easier to think of the three Persons as distinct beings rather than one Being, we often forget or overlook the unity of God. We betray this misunderstanding whenever we speak of the three Persons of God as “them” instead of “him,” or whenever our prayers and hymns address the three Persons individually but neglect to speak to the one God who consists of those three Persons.

(I need to pause here to address the apparent maleness of God. Only God the Son has taken on human form. The Father and the Spirit have no body, so technically the Father and the Spirit are neither male nor female. In this book, as in all my writing and speaking and thinking about God, I use the traditional male words for God. I do this for three reasons: the prophets and apostles who wrote the Bible consistently used male pronouns and descriptions of God; when the Son of God became human, he chose to be male rather than female; and in many places the Bible hints that the relationship God has with his people is pictured by the marriage of a man and a woman, in which God takes the role of a husband and his people take the role of his wife.)

That the three Persons of God are one Being, one God, rather than three beings, is a paradox. Not only is God greater than time and space, his nature appears to run counter to the very rules of mathematics. Whenever God’s people try to understand the mysteries and paradoxes of the Christian faith through reason and logic, they produce ideas that are contrary to what the prophets and apostles said about God. The early Church referred to these misunderstandings as heresies. People were heretics, not because they opposed God or were trying to change Christianity, but because they were trying to understand God and the things he said. Heretics were opposed by councils and teachers of the early Church, not as evil enemies, but as sincere people who made the mistake of trusting their own minds and thoughts more than they trusted the messages of God’s prophets and apostles.

To counter the idea that the Persons are three gods, some Christians explained that “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are three job titles for the same person. When dealing with creation, Jesus expresses himself as the Father. When dealing with salvation, the rescue of sinners, Jesus expresses himself as the Son. When dealing with faith and Christian living, Jesus expresses himself as the Holy Spirit. Since it is always the same God, they reasoned, it is always the same person. In a similar way, a man might be a son, a husband, a father, a laborer, a writer, a friend, and a neighbor. He is all seven of those things, but he is not seven men; he is one man doing seven different things.

The problem with that logical explanation is that the three Persons who are God relate to each other in a way that a man with several tasks does not relate to himself. Some people talk to themselves and a few even answer, but when Jesus prayed, he was not talking to himself. He was speaking to his Father, and his Father heard and answered his prayer. Furthermore, the father aspect of my life is not going to send the writer aspect of my life anywhere. I go to the store, but I do not send myself to the store. The Bible says that God sent Jesus into the world to rescue sinners. It says that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to his Church. This sending was not leaving and then returning under a different name. It reflects a relationship of the three Persons. The Father loves the Son. The Son loves the Father. They both love the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit loves them both. This love is not God loving himself; this is genuine love that is shared among the three Persons who together are one God.

Another logical explanation for the mystery of the Trinity is that only the Father is truly God; the Son and the Holy Spirit are something less than God. Sometimes Jesus is described as a wise and devout man, a prophet and a teacher, who told people about God. Sometimes he is described as a man who was adopted by God the Father and made holy and perfect. Sometimes Jesus is regarded as the first thing the Father created and the means by which the Father made the rest of the universe. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is sometimes seen as a force or power that comes from God rather than a Person.

Once again, this logical explanation does not match what God says about himself. Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Jesus will judge all people at the end of time. Jesus knows everything, and there is nothing he cannot do. He promises to be with all his people, which means he is able to be everywhere. The Bible tells God’s people to worship only God and no one else, but Jesus is worshiped. Jesus is eternal and unchanging, but only God is eternal and unchanging.

There is only one God. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. There is only one Lord. The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is Lord. There is only one uncreated, eternal, and unchanging Being. The Father is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging; the Son is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging; the Holy Spirit is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging.

Conspiracy theorists claim that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was invented by church leaders three centuries after Jesus died and rose from the dead. Because the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they claim that the idea of the Trinity was invented by human beings and is not in the Bible. Yet from beginning to end, the Bible gives evidence that God is three Persons while remaining one God.

The Hebrew word “El” is the generic word for God; like the English word “god” it can refer to the true God, to false gods, or to other beings with God-like authority. When referring to the true God, however, the Hebrew Bible often uses the word “Elohim,” which is plural. Aside from the mystery of the Trinity, it is hard to explain why the Bible would use a plural noun for the one God. God also talks to himself in the plural: “Let us make man in our image,” for example, and “Let us go down and see what they are doing” in Babylon. These are not final arguments, but they are evidence that the idea of the Trinity was known even to Moses and the prophets.

Moses often speaks of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. The Angel of the Lord often says things and does things that can only be said and done by the true God. On the day that Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, the Angel of the Lord spoke to him and said, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). He then speaks a blessing that can come only from the true God. On Mount Sinai the Angel of the Lord spoke to Moses from a burning bush, identifying himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). He also identifies himself with the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) which means “I am,” a significant reminder that the true God is uncreated, eternal, and unchanging.

God spoke to many people and was seen by many people. Not only did Abraham and Moses see God, but Jacob wrestled with God, and Isaiah saw God seated on a throne in the Temple. Yet John writes, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). From this we know that Jesus (not God the Father) ate with Abraham, wrestled with Jacob, spoke with Moses, and was seen by Isaiah.

The Psalms often depict the Father-Son relationship within the Holy Trinity. Psalm 2 describes the Messianic King and says, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7); another Messianic Psalm says, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Psalm 110:1). The prophets often said that they were guided by the Spirit of the Lord in their messages.

Jesus frequently spoke of the Father and of himself as distinct Persons, yet on the night when he was betrayed, he said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9) and, “Believe me that I am in the Father and he is in me” (John 14:11). Earlier he had said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus also told his apostles to baptize in the name—not the names—of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Many more verses could be quoted from the epistles to demonstrate the fact that the apostles knew only one God, but knew the Father to be God and knew Jesus to be God. Perhaps the most important verse about the unity and the Trinity of God is often overlooked: “God is love” (I John 4:8). The Bible says that God is almighty, but it never says that God is Power. The Bible says that God knows everything, but it never says that God is Knowledge. The Bible calls God holy but not Holiness, good but not Goodness, eternal but not Eternity. Yet the Bible does say that God is love. Outside of space and outside of time, without any regard to creation, God is love—love is the very nature of God. Yet if God is only one Person, only one Being, he could not love anything but himself. God’s love, then, would be a selfish love and not true love. “God is love” because, outside of space and time, the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. That love, like God himself, is eternal and unchanging. That love is the reason that God wants his people to love him and to love each other, because we were created in the image and likeness of God.

Christians have tried to find analogies in creation to talk about the Trinity, but most of them fall short of accuracy. Some have spoken of the apple, for the core and flesh and skin of the apple are all apple. Yet the parts of an apple are distinct in a way that the Persons of God are not distinct. Other Christians have spoken of water, which can be vapor, liquid, or ice. Only rarely, though, is the same water in all three conditions, as the Persons all are eternally God. Patrick, the missionary to Ireland, is said to have defended the teaching of the Trinity by pointing to a shamrock and asking if it is one leaf or three leaves. When his Irish listeners could not agree among themselves about the shamrock, Patrick supposedly said, “How can you understand the Creator if you cannot even understand a small part of what he created?”

God is best understood by knowing what he says about himself. The names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were not invented by people to talk about God; they are used by the prophets and apostles to talk about God. In the Father-Son relationship we find, not an analogy for the nature of God, but a description of God’s basic nature. People and animals in their families are pictures of God, not the other way around. Because people and animals exist in time, fathers come before sons and are greater than their sons (at least while the sons are still children). Because the Trinity exists beyond time, the Father and the Son are equal in power, authority, and glory. Jesus is begotten of the Father (as all children are begotten by fathers and conceived by mothers), but he has always existed. In other words, the Son is being continually begotten by his Father. (“Today I have begotten you” signifies not one particular day in human history but the eternal today of God’s experience.) He honors and respects his Father as human children are expected to honor and respect their parents, even when they are no longer children. The fact that he submits to the will of his Father does not mean that he is less than his Father in power and authority; in fact, the submission of Jesus shows that he is equal to his Father. Otherwise he would not submit; he would by nature be forced to honor and obey his Father.

The Holy Spirit is neither created nor begotten, but he proceeds. Eastern churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Western churches, including the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches, teach that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In either case, he is eternally proceeding as the Son is eternally begotten. No one aside from God can understand what that means, but Christians believe it because it matches what the Bible says about the Trinity.

Christians often distinguish the three Persons of the Trinity by what they do. God the Father is described as the Maker of heaven and earth and all that exists aside from God. God the Son is recognized as Jesus, the Redeemer who entered creation to rescue creation from the forces of evil. God the Holy Spirit is known as the Person who grants faith to Christians and strengthens them to live as God’s people.

On the other hand, John writes that “All things were made through him [Jesus], and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). Paul wrote that “by him [Jesus] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16). Moses wrote that, at the time of creation, “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). All three Persons of the Holy Trinity were involved in creating the universe.

Only the Son of God became human, lived, died, and rose again to redeem sinners and rescue the world. Yet the Father was involved in redemption because he sent his Son, and the Holy Spirit is involved in redemption by strengthening Jesus for his rescue mission and by drawing people to Jesus. All three Persons of the Holy Trinity are involved in redeeming sinners.

Paul wrote, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). When Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus replied, “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). All three Persons of the Holy Trinity are involved in granting faith and guiding Christians in their lives.

It seems at times as though the Holy Spirit is the forgotten Person of the Holy Trinity. The apostles wrote much about the Father and the Son but did not mention the Holy Spirit as often. Christians talk more about the Father and the Son than they talk about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit apparently wants this to happen. His goal is not to draw attention to himself, but to draw people to Jesus. When people hear about the redeeming work of Jesus, the Holy Spirit is present and active in the message. One might say that the Holy Spirit is truly humble, wanting Christians to talk about the Son of God and not about the Holy Spirit.

When Christians are talking about Jesus, though, the Holy Spirit is active in their speaking. When Christians read the Bible, they are reading the words written by apostles and prophets who were guided by the Holy Spirit. When Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, Jesus is present as he promised (Matthew 18:20), and the Holy Spirit is also present. The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are present, for God the Father is known only through Jesus (John 1:18).

The prophets and apostles wrote about gifts from the Holy Spirit, and sometimes Christians wonder about those gifts. Various abilities are described as spiritual gifts, and the Bible makes it clear that not every Christian receives the same gifts (I Corinthians 12:4-27). How does a Christian recognize his or her spiritual gifts? Any ability that a Christian has that serves other Christians and helps the mission of the Church (which is to draw people to Jesus) can be considered a spiritual gift. Some Christians think that their spiritual gifts should be different from those talents and abilities they have already received through creation by God the Father. Such a distinction should not be made, since the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods.

No one can fully understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, aside from God himself. Christians believe this mystery to be true because God has revealed that truth to his people. With angels and with believers from Old Testament times and New Testament times, Christians join together singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to honor the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Mrs. Dim’s new hobby

It’s been a while since I have complained about my neighbor, Mrs. Dim. As a matter of fact, she has taken up a new hobby this summer to go with her compulsive lawn and garden maintenance. Mrs. Dim is now a carpenter. She has set up a table saw and a power sander in her garage, and now she can be noisy even when rain is falling and she can’t blow leaves around her yard.

I have no idea what she is building. The work has been going on all summer. Is she making new kitchen cabinets? Replacing carpeting with wooden floors? Rebuilding the entire house from the bottom up? Or has someone told her to build an ark? She has visitors by from time to time, and I’ve started to wonder if she is taking in work just so she can run her table saw more often.

Recently I have learned that “Highly Sensitive Person” is a recognized category—it appears to be treated more as a personality type than a disorder, which is fine by me. Like other HSPs, I am sensitive to odors, to loud noises, to bright lights and bright colors, and so on. Long before I knew that there was such a thing as an HSP, I was already making decisions to avoid uncomfortable situations. No fireworks or rock concerts for me. No car or motorcycle races. Even a trip to the movies is rare, because they have the volume so blasted loud.

How then does a Highly Sensitive Person cope, living next door to a Highly Noisy Person? Even her usual speaking voice is turned up to eleven (because ten isn’t high enough for her). With the windows closed and the air conditioner running, summer has been tolerable. Now as we approach the middle of September, we will have more afternoons and evenings with the windows open for the cool fresh air. I am planning coping strategies even as I type, but I will welcome any suggestions from others.

Coping Strategy # 1: Play music. Every time the mower, trimmer, blower, or (now) the table saw is in use, I will throw on a CD and try to cover up her noise as it invades the house.

Coping Strategy # 2: If possible, leave the house. Go to the library. Go for a walk in the park. Go sit by a body of water. Just get away.

Coping Strategy # 3: I’m stuck. I really can’t think of any other way of dealing with this problem.

Mostly likely someone will suggest that I speak with her about the problem. How do I do this? Do I say, “Mrs. Dim, I am a Highly Sensitive Person, and you are a Highly Noisy Person. Something has to change.” I’m sure her first answer would be along the lines of “put up and shut up.” If I point out that she spends too much time tending her lawn and blowing leaves off her porch, I’m sure she will say that I spend too little time tending my lawn and getting rid of my leaves. If I mention that it’s hard for me to concentrate on reading a book when she is making her assorted noises, I suspect she will tell me that anyone who wants to sit and read must be lazy and undeserving of any consideration.

People are not all the same. We have to tolerate a lot of differences to get along in this world. If I would rather suffer in silence (Oh, for a weekend of silence!) than confront Mrs. Dim, then I guess I must also accept the fact that she is never going to change. Unless, of course, she adds another hobby. Knowing her, it will probably involve a drum set, bagpipes, or both.

J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Church–Introduction

…according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forward in Christ… (Ephesians 1:7-9).

God wants to be known and loved by the people he has created. Yet God is far beyond human understanding; he is essentially unknowable. The mind of even the most saintly Christian falls short of comprehending the full identity of the Lord. The best a Christian can do in this lifetime is to accept the things God says about himself and to love the God revealed in his messages, even when God’s own descriptions seem to defy the best thinking his people can achieve.

In his letters, the apostle Paul sometimes mentioned the “mysteries” that had been entrusted to him. In modern thought, a mystery is a novel or movie about a crime that has been committed. In a modern mystery, a detective examines clues and eventually determines the truth about the crime and the person who committed that crime. Such mysteries are solved through the use of reason and logic. The detective succeeds because of his or her ability to comprehend what is seen and what he or she has been told. When Paul used the word “mystery,” he was not talking about puzzles that can be solved. The apostle used the word “mystery” in its earlier sense, meaning something that cannot be known until it is revealed.

You do not know my name until I tell you my name. You might, with careful and deliberate research, be able to find my name. Or, if you were with me, you might over time be able to guess my name. The easiest way for you to know my name, though, is for me to tell you my name, or for me to have it printed on the cover of a book. My name is a mystery that can be revealed, but the nature of the true God is an even greater mystery, something that can be known only when God chooses to reveal it to people.

Ancient Greek scientists and mathematicians were among the first people in the world to try to understand the world through reason and logic rather than through revealed messages of religion. These wise Greeks were determined to know how the world works, and they expected the world to make sense. One of their assumptions was that all numbers are related, and that every number that exists can be expressed as a ratio, or fraction, made of two other numbers. Any number that could not be expressed in that way was, in their opinion, “irrational.” As they studied the world around them, though, they found numbers that are irrational. If you divide the distance around a circle (the circumference) by the distance across the circle (the diameter), the result is irrational, a number that cannot be described as a ratio of two other numbers. If you divide the diagonal distance across a square by the length of any of the square’s sides, the result is another irrational number. Greek geometers had to accept the existence of numbers that their reason and logic labeled irrational.

Modern science has detected many things about the world around us that seem illogical and unreasonable. Light is a paradox: it acts like a stream of particles, but also like waves of energy. Most of the particles of which matter is made defy logical understanding. An electrical engineer can create a device powered by a circuit of moving electrons, but a nuclear physicist cannot identify just one electron or tell you where that electron is and how fast it is moving. The rules that govern objects large enough for us to see and hold do not apply to the tiny pieces of which those objects consist. Euclid’s laws of geometry and Newton’s laws of physics only match the world we observe; underneath the observed world lies a world that is very different, a world of paradox and mystery.

If the created world is full of paradox and mystery, then it comes as no surprise that the Creator is also a Being of paradox and mystery. The god who fits into human comprehension and understanding would be a poor and weak god, hardly deserving of human worship and praise. The nature of God is not beneath human reason and logic; the nature of God is far above human reason and logic. When his mysteries have been revealed, people can begin to use reason and logic to describe and discuss those mysteries. If God had not told us about himself, no philosopher or scientist could ever have invented him.

This is not to say that a Christian must abandon reason and logic to talk about God or to believe in him. Reason and logic are part of God’s creation just as the senses of sight and hearing and touch are created by God.  Christians are not called to believe the mysteries because they are absurd. Christians are called to believe the mysteries because they are true. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll reports this conversation between Alice and the White Queen:

“Now I’ll give you something to believe. I’m just one hundred and one, five months, and a day.”

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.

“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again; draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said; one can’t believe impossible things.”

“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Christians do not practice believing impossible things as the White Queen did. Christians accept the mysteries of the faith because they trust God. Their trusting relationship with God causes them and enables them to believe the paradoxes that the world calls irrational and unreasonable, because Christians know that God is bigger than our minds and bigger than the world which he created.

How do Christians know which mysteries to believe? God authorized certain messengers to tell his people what to believe. He sent Moses and the prophets to speak his messages and to put them into writing; then Jesus authorized the apostles to speak and to write about him. The authority of the prophets and the apostles comes from Jesus himself, so in the end Jesus has revealed the mysteries of the faith and has told his people what to believe.

In the early years of the Church, meetings were called to discuss these mysteries and to find ways to describe and discuss them in reasonable and logical ways. The creeds and confessions of the Christian Church are not meant to add anything to the Bible or to replace the Bible. Their purpose is to summarize the Bible so Christians can discuss the mysteries contained in the Bible. Creeds and confessions are used by Christians to teach others the Christian faith. They are used by Christians to speak to one another about what they believe. They are used by Christians to speak to God, saying aloud to him that we believe what God has told us about himself.

Creeds and confessions are used to describe the truth, and they also were written to identify errors. Some of the creeds even say that whoever does not believe the statements they contain is not truly a follower of Jesus Christ. As recently as one hundred years ago, a group of Christian preachers in the United States made a list of “fundamental” truths that they said are believed by every Christian. They went on to say that anyone who did not believe one of those fundamental teachings was not really a Christian. The author of this book has no authority to declare what is truth and what is error. The author of this book has no authority to judge any person and his or her relationship with Jesus Christ. This book is written to describe the mysteries that Christians have believed and taught over the centuries. Therefore, if any reader feels that the words in this book are judging or condemning his or her faith, rest assured that this book has not been written for that purpose. Christians can disagree with one another without rejecting or condemning each other.

This book is written to describe the mysteries about God as they are revealed in the writings of the prophets and apostles chosen by God and as they have historically been understood and restated by Christians. It is written with the hope that God’s people will rediscover the awesome wonder that comes from realizing that God is far more grand and glorious than our minds can comprehend. Christian faith is no intellectual exercise to define God with words and sentences. Christian faith is a relationship with God which touches every part of the Christian life: mind, heart, and spirit. That which we do not understand we still rejoice to believe, accepting the mysteries of the Christian faith as part of the beauty of the relationship we have with the Lord.