Thursday, June 16, 2011

An Unknown Love

1 John 4:16: 
We have come to know and have believed the love
which God has for us.


Faith in Christ is central to the believer’s existence. We are justified by faith in Christ (Romans 5:1), and the object of our faith is the Lord Himself who loved us with a love that transcends the experience and understanding of the natural man. Now the natural man defines love from the vantage point of his autonomous selfishness, but the Father revealed His love in view of His eternal union with His Sona union in which the Christian now abides in the risen Savior. We have come to know this Lord, and by grace alone, we have come to know the nature of His precious and unique love. Such love is not the product of the lusts of the flesh, but it is that which comes from the One whom John describes as follows: God is love. If we could know this God from our flesh alone - from our base and sinful nature – then we would have to question the nature of such a deity. But by God’s work of regeneration, we have “come to know and have believed the love which God has for us.” Without His spiritual transformation, such love is a love unknown.

Samuel Crossman, in his work entitled, “The Young Man’s Meditation” (1623-1683) echoes this sentiment quite well in this hymn:

My Song is Love Unknown

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take, frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed for Christ would know:
But O! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

Sometimes they strew His way,
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they saved,
The Prince of life they slay,
Yet cheerful He to suffering goes,
That He His foes from thence might free.

In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb wherein He lay.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

The central message of the Gospel is the message of God’s transcendent person, nature, glory, power, wisdom, holiness, justice and love. Thus, when we point men to the cross, we must remind them that the love expressed through the death of Christ is a love that cannot be known by mankind’s sinful nature. Such a love as this came from Heaven above and can only be known by those who have been born again (anothen - from above). But until the scales are removed from his eyes, the natural man can only admit that such love is a love unknown.

See also,

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Passionate Unity


Passionate unity can be a beautiful thing, or it can be a horrific evil. Thus, one thing is certain: passion, by itself, does not determine the quality of any unity. Men can be passionate and unified about a number of things. In Acts 19 we read about the passionate chanting of the inhabitants of Ephesus, where they declared "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" for two hours.

Now that's passion!

But it also happens to be great idolatry. Without truth, our passions remain unsanctified, being defiled by our indwelling sin. But there is something about our human nature that wants to herald passion (even sincere passion) as that which is commendable (apart from truth), but I would suggest to the reader that such thinking is dangerous. The inhabitants of Ephesus may have been very sincere in their devotion to Artemis, but this did not sanctify their idolatry. Any unity among men cannot be adjudicated by the substance of raw enthusiasm alone; instead, truth stands as the plumb line for any alliance and determines if such unity is holy or unholy. We see this very clearly illustrated through the Greek word homothumadon - "one accord" - a word that speaks of a passionate unity among men, whether good or bad:

Romans 15:5-6: 5. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, 6. so that with one accord [homothumadon] you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Acts 18:12-13: 12. But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord [homothumadon] rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat, 13. saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”

The simple construct of this word - homothumadon - is quite telling: homo [same] + thumadon [from thumos - passion]. Overall, it speaks of a unity that is rooted in a common passion and resultant conviction among men.[1] What this term does not settle is the basis of such passion/unity, and therefore, context is essential and determinative. As revealed in Romans 15:5-6, the Christian's passionate unity [v.6] is rooted in a like-mindedness that is in Christ [v.5]. Without such like-mindedness in Christ, our unity is anchorless, no matter how passionate it may be. This is evident in Acts 18:12-13. Those Jews who sought to try Paul before Gallio were extremely unified and passionate about their cause, but we must remember the shallowness of such zeal:

Romans 10:1-2: 1. Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. 2. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.

Without truth, all zeal is rendered is useless. This should remind us of the danger of subjectivism, where the worshipper's personal affections are elevated above God's truth. Zeal is crucial indeed, but without truth, it is wasted energy. The other extreme offers no solution either: truth, without genuine faith, hope, and love is nothing less than religious hypocrisy.

This lesson of genuine unity is crucial, because the extremes of men (Subjectivism or Pharisaism) offer us no hope. The biblical path is the true path. Therefore the church must seek a passionate unity that is founded upon nothing else but the stable foundation of God’s Word.

[1] The thumos in which the unanimity consists may be anger (Philo Flaccum, 144), fear (Jdt. 15:2), gratitude (Wis. 10:20), etc. Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (5:185). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

True Marriage: A Covenant of Love

bonhoefferQuaint and pithy sayings are often mistaken for genuine wisdom, especially when they are given to us from historical figures or men of renown. Great danger comes when the hearer becomes passive with such "wisdom" by failing to measure everything by the standard of Holy Writ. No man can match the ancient wisdom of God's Word.[1] Consider the following counsel offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a young couple about to be married:

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, [it is] the marriage that sustains your love.”

We should wonder if this is true. Can it be said that the marriage covenant itself is what sustains love? One problem with Bonhoeffer's statement is that it is rather vague, and leaves itself open to a variety of possible interpretations. Ultimately, what sustains any marriage is the Lord Himself. But accepting his statement at face value, I would suggest that Bonhoeffer has created an unhelpful dichotomy - especially for a marriage between two believers. You see, when two genuine Christians enter into the bond of marriage, they are doing so within the perfect bond of unity - agape-love. If they are Christians at all, then the centerpiece for all their affections is rooted and grounded in such love. Now we should clarify an important point here: when speaking of agape-love we are not talking about the self-oriented infatuation which is common in our world (eros-love). Such a distinction is essential, especially since men like C.S. Lewis have popularized the idea that marital love is rooted in such eros-love:

"By Eros I mean of course that state which we call 'being in love'; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are 'in.'"[2]

Unfortunately, Lewis' interpretations of eros-love reveal a lack of understanding of simple history and etymology. Because of such a shortcoming, he fails to offer a scriptural description of genuine love found between two believers in Christ. What must be understood is that true marital love is rooted in a Christ centered, Christ exalting, love which establishes the perfect bond of unity in all our relationships:

Colossians 3:14-19: 14. Beyond all these things put on love [ten agapen], which is the perfect bond [sundesmos] of unity. 15. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16. Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father. 18. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19. Husbands, love [agapete] your wives and do not be embittered against them.

Paul's description of the centrality of love in verse 14 should not be seen as separate from his continued instructions in vs. 18 & 19 - all of these summary commands are related to the principal injunction [by ellipsis] to "put on love" as our chief garment in Christ. Should we conclude that Paul has not marriage in mind when speaking of the perfect bond of unity - love, then we have missed too much. Paul's emphasis on the primacy of agape-love is very consistent throughout his writings, and reveals his commitment to the Savior's injunction concerning the foremost commandment of love: Mark 12:28-31, such that “on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”[3] It is this same bond of agape-love to which the Lord refers when He reveals the basis of His covenant faithfulness to Ephraim, despite their wickedness:

Hosea 11:4: 4. I led them with cords of a man, with bonds of love [desmois agapeseos], And I became to them as one who lifts the yoke from their jaws; And I bent down and fed them.

As well, it is such love that is especially modeled in the Savior's relationship with His bride, the church:

Ephesians 5:22-25: 22. Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. 25. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her..."[4]

The constancy and centrality of love within the marriage covenant cannot be ignored, nor should it be separated from the marriage covenant itself as if it could be in a Christian marriage. Like our faith in Christ, agape-love will wax and wane in any marriage, but what sustains the believer's love is not a covenant, by itself, but the Lord Himself and His unfailing love. If we love at all, we do so, as believers whom the Lord loved first.[5] Without such love, there can be no perfect bond of unity in any relationship. Thus, when two unbelievers face marital difficulties, there is a great danger that looms in their midst. Without the bond of God's supernatural love, there is no substantive bond between them beyond the legal covenant itself. But when two believers face marital difficulty, there is something very powerful and needful there that cannot be removed from the marriage union itself - the perfect bond of unity - the bond of God's love. When two believers face struggles and trials with one another, such is a time that requires an even greater measure of agape-love. Romantic affections will especially wax and wane, but genuine love will always stand as the centerpiece of every godly marriage. If a man were to believe that it is his covenant promise alone that sustains his marriage, he has made too much of his oath,[6] and too little of the power of God's love in his life and in the life of his wife. If he thinks that his marriage can be sustained without love, then he has been reduced to a miserable condition of thought concerning the nature of God's faithfulness, power, and sufficiency. An anniversary card from such a man should never be crafted nor given:

"The first 20 years were great. The next 20 years will be difficult, but just remember - I'm enduring it because of my oath. Happy Anniversary Honey!"

Without the love of God, every marriage is reduced to a mere contractual obligation, with brief hints of eros self-satisfaction sprinkled here and there.

But that is the world’s version of marriage.

I have seen some very sweet and elderly marriages which revealed the fragrant aroma and evidence of Christ's sanctification in their lives - marriages that went beyond 50 & 60 years. It is not that these were perfect people, but what I have witnessed is the power of God's love and sanctification in the lives of genuine believers, such that the perfect bond of unity was a growing reality in their lives, even more real than when they first said to each other: "I do." This is what one might expect from people whose lives are being conformed to the image of Christ on the sure foundation of agape-love. Thus, what a young couple ought to hear is this:

“You will be sustained by the power of God’s love in your marital covenant – for His love, in and through you both, will supply the perfect bond of unity to weather all of the storms, struggles, and changes of life.”

There is great hope in the message of God's great love, and it is for this reason that I have felt so compelled to write Altar to an Unknown Love in view of the many obfuscations of this important subject. The subject of genuine love is nothing to trifle with. Whatever Bonhoeffer meant by what he said, I must prefer Scripture and the power of God to sustain anything.

[1] Psalm 119:100: I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts.
[2] C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves.
[3] Matthew 22:40
[4] As the church is called to a loving submission to Christ, so too are wives called to submit to their husbands. The absence of the word love in Paul's instructions to wives must not be construed as denoting an unloving submission: this would be contrary to his earlier point made repeatedly in Ephesians chapter 3.
[5] 1 John 4:19.
[6] Matthew 5:31-37: 31. “It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; 32. but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33. “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34. “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35. or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36. “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37. “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the Legacy of C.S. Lewis

Some Wisdom from the Past: J.C. Ryle


From the Introduction of his book, Holiness, Ryle offers some timeless words of warning and concern for the body of Christ:

There is much in the attitude of professing Christians in this day which fills me with concern, and makes me full fear for the future.

There is an amazing ignorance of Scriptures among many, and a consequent want of established, solid religion. In no other way can I account for the ease with which people are, like children, "tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine." ( Ephesians 4:14.) There is an Athenian love of novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers. Thousands will crowd to hear a new voice and a new doctrine, without considering for a moment whether what they hear is true.--There is an incessant craving after any teaching which is sensational, and exciting, and rousing to the feelings.--There is an unhealthy appetite for a sort of spasmodic and hysterical Christianity. The religious life of many is little better then spiritual dram-drinking, and the "meek and quiet spirit" which St. Peter commends is clean forgotten. ( 1 Peter 3:4.) Crowds, and crying, and hot rooms, and high-flown singing, and an incessant rousing of the emotions, are the only things which many care for.--Inability to distinguish differences in doctrine is spreading far and wide, and so long as the preacher is "clever" and "earnest," hundreds seem to think it must be all right, and call you dreadfully "narrow and uncharitable" if you hint that he is unsound! …All this is sad, very sad. But if, in addition to this, the true-hearted advocates of increased holiness are going to fall out by the way and misunderstand one another, it will be sadder still. We shall indeed be in evil plight.

For myself, I am aware that I am no longer a young minister. My mind perhaps stiffens, and I cannot easily receive any new doctrine. "The old is better." I suppose I belong to the old school of Evangelical theology, and I am therefore content with such teachings about sanctification as I find in the Life of Faith of Sibbes and Manton, and in The Life, Walk, and Triumph of Faith of William Romaine. But I must express a hope that my younger brethren who have taken up new views of holiness will beware of multiplying causeless divisions. Do they think that a higher standard of Christian is needed in the present day? So do I.--Do they think that clearer, stronger, fuller teaching about holiness is needed? So do I.--Do they think that Christ ought to be more exalted as the root and author of sanctification as well as justification? So do I.--Do they think that believers should be urged more and more to live by faith? So do I.--Do they think that a very close walk with God should be more pressed on believers as the secret of happiness and usefulness? So do I.--In all these things we agree. But if they want to go further, then I ask them to take care where they tread, and to explain very clearly and distinctly what they mean.

Finally, I must deprecate, and I do it in love, the use of uncouth and new-fangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification. I plead that a movement in favor of holiness cannot be advanced by new-coined phraseology, or by disproportioned and one-sided statements--or by overstraining and isolating particular texts--or by exalting one truth at the expense of another--or by allegorizing and accommodating texts, and squeezing out of them meanings which the Holy Spirit never put in them--or by speaking contemptuously and bitterly of those who do not entirely see things with our eyes, and do not work exactly in our ways. These things do not make for peace: they rather repel many and keep them at a distance. The cause of true sanctification is not helped, but hindered, by such weapons as these. A movement in aid of holiness which produces strife and dispute among God's children is somewhat suspicious. For Christ's sake, and in the name of truth and charity, let us endeavor to follow after peace as well as holiness. "What God has joined together let not man put asunder."

It is my heart's desire, and prayer to God daily, that personal holiness may increase greatly among professing Christians in England. But I trust that all who endeavor to promote it will adhere closely to the proportion of Scripture, will carefully distinguish things that differ, and will separate "the precious from the vile." ( Jeremiah 15:19.)