Monday, July 28, 2008

Glorious Grace: Thoughts from Ephesians 1

I've been making my way through the book of Ephesians this summer, and it is rich with truth about God's grace. In the first chapter of his letter to the dearly beloved church at Ephesus, Paul lays out some weighty spiritual principals, namely, the idea of predestination. The modern Church has struggled with the implications of the idea that God himself chose before time those to whom He would impart grace--this is one of those places the gospel is especially offensive--but it seems to me that there is no other plausible explanation for our faith. If we are not able in and of ourselves to come to God; if, as Christianity suggests, we have fallen from relationship with Him because of the nature of sin, then it seems only logical that nothing but His grace, His choosing, could save us. Since I don't have the time or space here to go into the Scriptural arguments for reformed theology, and since I'm certainly no expert on the matter, let's suffice to say that Ephesians points clearly to predestination, and Paul's claim to that end negates several expressed and unexpressed ideologies of the current age.

Paul writes, "for he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will--to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves" (Ephesians 1:4-6).

Of course this is one brief passage, but there are many others throughout scripture that support predestination. (For scripture specifically using the word "predestined," see Romans 8:29 and 8:30 and Ephesians 1:11; for scripture alluding to the concept, read almost any part of the Biblical text with critical eye.) Looking at this passage alone, I find it hard to understand how some can proclaim open theism, or, the belief that God is in some way limited in knowing the outcome of His creation. Verse eleven negates this idea, as well: "In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will." (I am reminded of a favorite Caedmon's Call song, in which the lyrics go, Cause You knew how you'd save me before I fell dead in the Garden, and You knew this day long before You made me out of dirt. And You know the plans You have for me. And You can't plan the ends and not plan the means.)

Equally difficult to fathom is the current vernacular regarding salvation in most mainline churches; the emphasis has become about us and our choice as opposed to God's choosing us in Christ. For more on this subject, listen to my friend Rob's sermon "To the Praise of His Glory!" which was perfectly timed with my own study of Ephesians. [Clicking here will redirect you to the church website, where you can download a podcast.] I love the phraseology Rob uses to explain predestination: "God's before-time decision versus our real-time decision." Another consequence of the dismissal of reformed theology is that many of us act as though the salvation of those around us were dependent on us and our competencies. We rely far too little on God to do the work and see ourselves not as vessels of God's grace, but as those burdened with the impossible task of convincing people of their need for God. In reality, we cannot convince them. We are utterly incapable of doing the work except that God works through us. It is His work.

Of course, the criticism of reformed theology is that it breeds lazy Christians who don't understand the value of working for the Harvest. But a correct understanding of predestination, I would argue, includes that we are indeed called to be diligent ambassadors of Christ's grace, doing so with humility and reliance on Him to soften the hearts of those whom He has called.

Moving on from that lengthy tangent, another thing that struck me in studying Ephesians 1 was the implications for the Kingdom, specifically what some theologians have referred to as the "already/not yet" nature of the Kingdom. Having studied the Sermon on the Mount with Greek InterVarsity at the University of Richmond this past semester, I'm kind of on a "Kingdom" kick. In verses 9 and 10, Paul writes, "And he made know to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment--to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ." In other words, because Christ came and brought a new vision of what holy living looked like (see Matthew 5-7 for a description), we are already enacting the Kingdom by following Christ, thereby allowing His lordship to reign on earth as He reigns in our lives. But at the same time, we are awaiting the glory of the Kingdom that has not yet reached its fulfillment.

Another theme that stands out to me from this first chapter is that of the Trinitarian essence of God. The other day, I was expressing to my friend Goodie my desire to write youth curriculum on the nature of God. She shared that in a seminary course she took recently, her professor emphasized the importance of dwelling on the Trinity as the primary aspect of God's nature and then seeking to discover His attributes (i.e. loving, faithful, etc.), which are secondary. (I believe the early Christians talked about this idea in terms of the essence of God, or His ineffable person, and the energies of God, those qualities we can define.) It was interesting to look back at my notes from Ephesians after our conversation and see that the Lord had revealed something similar to me through Paul's words. He mentions each Person of the Trinity, and then describes their functions in grace. Here is a brief laundry list: the Father blesses us, chose us in Christ, predestined us in love, lavished grace upon us, and made His will known. Christ is the One God loves, our redemption, our forgiveness, the riches of grace, the mystery of God's will, the one head who chose us with the Father. The Holy Spirit is a seal that marks us and a deposit guaranteeing our salvation. More on Ephesians later...

"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know Him better" (Ephesians 1:17).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On the Sharpening of the Christian Mind, Part I

I'm reading an interesting book entitled Love Your God with All Your Mind, by J.P. Moreland. If you're not familiar with Moreland, he's a reputable scholar who studied under Dallas Willard (now Moreland's mentor), and he currently teaches philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in California. He has a B.A. in chemistry, masters degrees in theology and philosophy, and a Ph.D. in philosophy, to boot. To say that Moreland's a smart guy would be the understatement of the year, but don't be intimidated by his book! He calls the modern church to be not merely a feeling body, but a thinking one (to put it in the terms of the Myers-Briggs). And this feeler (meaning me) is encouraged--he suggests that thinking and feeling don't have to be in opposition with one another.

(On that vein of thought, consider the Hebrew word for "heart," which is lev. In early Jewish thought, the lev was considered the seat of action and emotion. In other words, emotion and logic worked hand in hand to mobilize one's responses to life.)

In the first chapter, Moreland sets out to explain what he calls "the loss of the Christian mind in American Christianity." He writes that until the 1800s, Christians from the Early Church on were known as some of the most brilliant minds of their respective eras. Take for example, Augustine, who shied away from Manichaeanism because the Christians had a more reasoned explanation of faith and life. Augustine's conversion, Moreland writes, was largely thanks to the intelligence of Christian men in his life. In the recent centuries, the Church has taken a more passive approach to intellect, creating a wishy-washy gospel that is unattractive to the scholarly world. Moreland urges Christians to intensify their study of scripture, to study apologetics, to become more articulate by sharpening their minds.

As I think ahead to this book and it's relevance to my stage of life (I'm caught between two extremes as a sometimes-frivolous sorority girl and a closet nerd starting seminary in the fall), I'm reminded of some quotes about the life of the Christian mind from my favorite authors:

"I wonder whether there is anything as exquisitely lovely as a brilliant mind aglow with the love of God." -A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of Man

"Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened. One of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself." -C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

"When the Spirit illuminates the heart, the a part of the man sees which never saw before; a part of him knows which never knew before, and that with a kind of knowing which the most acute thinker cannot imitate." -A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of Man

People say the Church is growing and expanding; yes, it's ten miles wide now and about a quarter inch deep." -Leonard Ravenhill, British Preacher

"The temper of religious thinking in our times is definitely not theological." A.W. Tozer

"Whatever weakens you reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, and takes off the relish of spiritual things--that to you is sin." -Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, (emphasis mine)

"The Church today is languishing for men who can bring to the problems of religion reverent, courageous minds intent upon a solution. Christians are parrots...content to sit safe on their familiar perches and repeat in a bright falsetto religious words and phrases." -A.W. Tozer, God Tells the Man Who Cares

My aim here is certainly not to bash the Church, but to take an honest look at where we all fall short as a body in encouraging the collective mind. When Moreland writes that "the Church must train high school students for the intellectual life they will encounter at college," I am as guilty as the next youth worker in regards to students I've ministered to. I'm challenged by these brilliant minds (i.e. Moreland, Tozer, Lewis, and others).

More on this book once I get a little further in...

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gracious Uncertainty: Lessons from the Pillar of Cloud

For several years now I've been challenged by the story of the pillar of cloud. My freshman year of college, I had been praying fervently about spending some time ministering in Japan, and things were uncertain. Plans for my trip had fallen through several times, and I found myself questioning if God was shutting the door on my going or if I just needed to push through some opposition from the Enemy. That semester, I was reading Shadow of the Almighty, a book about missionary martyr Jim Elliot, written by his wife, Elisabeth Elliot. (If you've never read any of Ms. Elliot's books, I commend her to you as an incredible writer!) In one of Jim's college journal entries he wrote:

"Guidance for Israel in their [sic...] wandering was unquestionable (Numbers 9). There could be no doubt if God wished them to move. Shall my Father be less definite with me? I cannot believe so. Often I doubt, for I cannot see, but surely the Spirit will lead as definitely as the pillar of cloud. I must be as willing to remain as to go, for the presence of God determines the whereabouts of His people. 'Where I am, there shall also My servant be.' Very well, Lord--what of this summer?"

"Surely the Spirit will lead as definitely as the pillar of cloud"...Those words were like water to my soul during a time when the only thing clear was my inability to make things happen. And "I must be as willing to remain as to go"...a challenge to open my hands as I waited to see what was in store. As I, too, asked the question, "What of this summer?" the Lord ministered to my heart in regards to the clarity He promises those who call upon Him. He showed up in a powerful way, opening every door to allow me to go to Japan (see photo above of time spent in Kobe) and affirming His ability to accomplish His purposes regardless of circumstance.

Three summers later, a college graduate with no job, Numbers 9 is again the meditation of my heart; only now I am saying, "Very well, Lord, what of the rest of my life?!" While not having a job has certainly had it's perks this summer--like having time to go to weddings and to get settled in a new city--there have also been plenty of days when I'm discouraged by my unemployment. I have to say I never thought that as a college graduate I'd be excited about a job at the is a humbling thing, really. But even on those difficult days, I'm reminded of how God provided for His people in the desert by sending them manna (Exodus 16) and quail (Numbers 11), and by causing water to gush from the rock (Numbers 20). In similar fashion, the Lord's sweet blessings have "gushed" out in my own life this summer--He's provided a wonderful family for me to live with, He's met my needs through supportive parents and a meager income working a few hours of retail, and best of all He's lavished me with an amazing community of friends here in Nashville. I'm trusting that just as He guided the Israelites through the desert and into the land of the promise, He will "establish the work of my hands" (Psalm 90:17) in due time. In this case, I must be as willing to go as to stay!

I'm reminded of a quote from Oswald Chambers' My Utmost for His Highest:

"Certainty is the mark of the commonsense life…gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation. Leave everything to Him and it will be gloriously and graciously uncertain how He will come in, but you can be certain that He will come!

With breathless expectation!

and for a humorous take on this subject, check out my good friend Josh's blog post:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Freelance Work

Links to the work I do, wherever the Cloud settles

Two Part Bible Study: Out of Bondage and The Kingdom is Near
for MMF, March 2011

Loose the Chains of Injustice

for MMF, February 2011

Devotions for LifeWay's Essential Connection, January 2010
EC Magazine, January 2011

Two Part Bible Study: Everyone Who Believes in Him and Nothing is Impossible!
for MMF November 2010

Devotions for LifeWay's Essential Connection, October 2010

Contagious Joy Spreads in Nassau AIDS Camp,
for MMF August 2010

Two Part Bible Study: More Than You Expected to Give and The One You'd Least Expect,
for MMF July 2010

Exploring Your God-Given Calling,
for MMF June 2010

Two Part Bible Study: Repentance and Rest[oration], Part I and Part II
for MMF April 2010

Hallowed Be Thy Name: Innovative Ideas for Practicing the Discipline of Prayer,

for MMF

The God of All Comforts: Svitlana Rozsokha Ministers to Orphans in Ukraine,
for MMF

Go Greek!
for MMF

Pls txt me l8er
for MMF

Missional Bible Studies--June

Adoption Stories, for MMF

Sandwich Days, for MMF

Sudanese Women Find Comfort in God's Presence
for myMISSIONfulfilled

A Little Snippet for Greek Conference '08
for InterVarsity staff

Richmond's Arts and Sciences Magazine