Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Metta World Peace, Simon Peter, and Me

Every major professional sport always seems to have its "bad boy" whose career is defined by bad judgment, irresponsible behavior, and flagrant defiance to rules, officials, team and league authorities. For the last little while in the NBA, that "bad boy" has been Ron Artest. In a relative few years, Artest has earned a reputation as being a loose cannon. He's admitted drinking alcohol in the locker room during games. He showed up to practice in a bathrobe. He applied for a job at Best Buy to get an employee discount. He asked for time off because he was tired from promoting a R&B album for a group on his production label. His confrontation with Pat Riley earned him one of many suspensions in his career. Artest is most notorious for his involvement in the brawl that broke out in a Pistons-Pacers game in 2004 when he got into a physical altercation with fans and players. For that incident, he earned a suspension that amounted to 86 games, the longest in NBA history. Off the court, he's been involved in cases of traffic violations (including driving without a license), animal abuse and domestic violence (the latter, for which he served 10 days in jail).

In September of 2011, Artest announced to the world that he had officially changed his name to Metta World Peace. He chose Metta as a first name because it is a Buddhist term that refers to loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence, and kindness. Courtney Barnes, who has the unenviable job of being Artest's publicist, said that Ron had been considering the switch for a long time, "but it took many years of research and soul-searching to find a first name that was both personally meaningful and inspirational." Artest said in a statement, "Changing my name was meant to inspire and bring youth together all around the world" (Reference)

But a changed name does not always coincide with a changed nature. On April 22, 2012, with the season winding down and the playoffs on the horizon, Metta World Peace maliciously elbowed James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder, causing Harden to suffer a concussion. When the NBA took action to render a 7-game suspension of Metta World Peace, several news outlets posted the headline, "Artest Suspended Seven Games" (example). When I saw that headline, I thought, "Artest? I thought he changed his name?" And suddenly I thought of another famous example of a changed name and a nature that was slow to change with it. 

When the Apostle Andrew brought his brother to meet Jesus, the Lord said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)." The name Cephas, or Peter, means Rock. Simon was a man whose emotional instability would become notorious through the events recorded in the four Gospels. John MacArthur describes Simon as "brash, vacillating, and undependable. ... he fit James's description of a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Jesus changed Simon's name, it appears, because He wanted the nickname to be a perpetual reminder to him about who he should be. And from that point on, whatever Jesus called him sent a subtle message. If He called him Simon, He was signaling him that he was acting like his old self. If He called Him Rock (Peter), He was commending him for acting the way he ought to be acting." (MacArthur, Twelve Ordinary Men, cited in The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 1-11, p.67). 

The Lord Jesus had given Peter a new name, and was at work transforming his nature to match his name. The same could be true of all of us. We who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ are called "Christians," which means "like Christ." But often, our behavior and attitude reflects more of what we used to be than we have been called to be. What the world sees in us is often very much "unlike Christ." But the moniker hangs over us, reminding us, sometimes subtly and sometimes severely, of how unchanged we remain, and how desperate we are for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

It is relatively easy to change one's name. It is impossible to change one's nature. Jeremiah 13:23 asks, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" It seems obvious that the answer is "NO!" And the Lord says that if the leopard can change his spots, "Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil." We cannot. But all things are possible with God. Through faith in Christ, our sins are washed away and we are given a new name and a new nature. But the old nature abides, requiring daily and moment-by-moment dying to self. The new nature breaks through in fits and starts, slowly, gradually, over a lifetime. But it is God who does the work by His Spirit within those who belong to Christ. 

Metta World Peace seems to be aware that a change is needed. But that change is not possible by paperwork at the courthouse. Metta World Peace is a man who needs Jesus. Without Jesus, he can change his name all he wants to, but he continues to act like the Ron Artest of old. And when Peter's faith falters, he acts like the old Simon. When my faith falters, I act like the guy who lived 20 years ago before I met Jesus. So, the fact is that I need Jesus every day, as Peter and Ron Artest do. I am not yet what I am supposed to be. Thankfully, because of the transforming power of Christ in me, neither am I still what I used to be. But I have within me "the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). This hope assures me that, "Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2-3). 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Luke 23:46 "Father Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit"

The Season of Lent began on February 22 with Ash Wednesday and culminates today in the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Throughout this season we have been focusing our thoughts on the seven statements spoken by Jesus Christ as He died on the cross. The great Puritan Bible scholar Matthew Henry wrote that “one reason that He died the death of the cross what that He might have liberty of speech to the last, and so might glorify His father and edify those around Him.”[1] Think about that for a moment. No other mode of execution would provide Jesus the opportunity to speak these wonderful words of grace that do so much to enlighten us to His love, His suffering on our behalf, and His purpose in dying to redeem us from sin. In the first saying, when He prayed for His Father to forgive His murderers, we saw His infinite mercy. In the second, when He promised paradise to the repentant criminal, we saw His abundant grace. In the third, when He entrusted the care of His mother to the Apostle John, we saw His tender compassion. In the fourth saying, after the sky was darkened and as He bore the sins of humanity under the flood of God’s judgment, He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” In that expression, we see His intense agony. In the fifth saying, as Jesus said, “I thirst,” we saw His unique character. In the sixth saying, as He said, “It is finished,” we saw His complete mission. And now we come to the final of the seven sayings. After uttering this statement, Luke and Mark say that “He breathed His last.” John and Matthew speak of how He “bowed His head” and “gave up” or “yielded up His spirit.” This is the final dying word of the Savior.

I remind you of the extent of His suffering that He has endured. In addition to dealing, throughout His life, with opposition from the religious and political leaders of His day, undoubtedly orchestrated by Satan to destroy the Messiah before His mission was completed, we know that He was betrayed by one of His own disciples and handed over to His enemies. In that moment, every one of His followers abandoned Him. Bounced around in a kangaroo court where He faced false charges from lying witnesses who had received payment to speak against Him, Jesus was convicted in the greatest mockery of justice the world has ever known. He was tortured extensively, from beatings to scourgings, not to mention the shameful mockery He endured before ultimately being sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be executed in a cowardly attempt to appease a bloodthirsty mob. Crucifixion was the cruelest form of execution ever devised in the minds of sinful men. After carrying the heavy cross to the place of death, the victim of crucifixion would be stretched out, the joints being ripped from the sockets to add to the pain and misery and make the process of dying all the more excruciating. Then, nails would be driven through the wrists and the crossed ankles of the victim as they were raised up in public shame and humiliation. The death would be long and agonizing. In addition to traumatic blood-loss, dehydration, and agonizing pain, the cause of death in crucifixion was almost always suffocation. As the body weakened, it was harder to draw in breath. The victim would fight for breath, pressing against the spike in the feet to thrust the body upward and outward to inhale. Eventually, exhaustion, pain, and complete agony would make breathing impossible. Jesus endured all of this.
But we must remember that He endured it for us and for our salvation. He died the death of a wicked sinner, though He was completely righteous. The death He died was that of a sacrificial substitution. He died under the providence and purpose of God in our place. In Him all of our sins might receive their just penalty under the justice of a Holy God. Every sacrificial lamb, and goat, and bull that had ever been slain under the sacrificial system of Israel had foreshadowed the day when Jesus would become for us the ultimate sacrifice. God Himself, incarnate in human flesh, would bear our sins that we might be reconciled to Him. And now the end of that process has drawn nigh. He utters one final saying, and then He gives up His spirit to death. As we look at this final saying, we see that it is not the helpless cry of a hopeless victim. It is rather the triumphant cry of a victorious King, whose mission to redeem His people from sin is now complete. There is an understated humility and meekness in these final words, but at the same time, a tone of intimacy, confidence, and sovereignty over life and death as He says, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”

I. The Dying King Speaks Intimately

The Fourth Commandment prohibits the taking of God’s name in vain. While we usually associate this with a specific set of blasphemous vulgarities, to take God’s name in vain means something broader. It means to use God’s name in empty and meaningless ways. Over the centuries, some have taken this commandment more seriously than others. When pious Jews would come across the covenant name of God in Scripture, they would substitute the name Adonai for YHWH, thinking that it would prevent them from misusing the covenant name. At various points in Israel’s history, people would speak impersonally of God by referring merely to Heaven, or pronominally by simply saying, “Him.” On the other end of the spectrum, we might point to modern man’s tendency to speak flippantly of God as “the Man upstairs,” or “the Big Man,” or something ridiculous like that. But when Jesus, the Son of God and God the Son, spoke of God in a way that no one ever had before. He spoke of God as His Father. Though God had been spoken of in times past as the Father of Israel, no one dared to speak of Him with such intimacy as to call Him their own Father. It would have been considered blasphemous and vanity to be so familiar with Him. Jesus changed all that.

In every time but once, in the fourth saying of the cross when He cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” Jesus always addressed God as “Father.” In that unique occurrence when He refers to His Father as, “My God,” He did so because the intimacy of their eternal coexistence was ruptured as He bore the sins of humanity under the full measure of divine and holy wrath. The severity of that judgment was so intense that all of creation was affected. The sky grew completely dark in the midst of the day and the earth shook. But here, with the full penalty now paid for the sins of humanity by the shedding of His blood and the world-saving mission now completed in His death, He is able to speak once more with the affection and intimacy that He had known for all eternity. He says at last, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.”

Of course, He could uniquely claim this for Himself, being the divine, coequal, coeternal Son, and Second Person of the Triune Godhead. But Jesus did not reserve this intimacy merely for Himself; He taught His followers that they too could speak to God and address Him as “our Father.” The Bible tells us that all who receive Jesus Christ are adopted as the sons and daughters of God. He becomes in truth a Father to us all through faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. It is the great longing of God that all of His children in this family of faith would know the intimacy of a personal relationship with Him that Jesus experiences and makes possible for us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, before His arrest, Jesus prayed, that His followers “may all be one,” saying, “even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21). Jesus had prayed in that prayer with great intimacy, calling out to God as “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36), using the most tender of all expressions, akin to us saying, “Daddy” or “Papa.” And the Apostle Paul said that we, as followers of Jesus, can use the same intimate terminology as we approach the God of the universe. In Romans 8:15-17, he writes, “you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Again in Galatians 4:6-7, he says, “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” The death of Jesus makes this possible for us, by removing our sins and covering us with the very righteousness of Jesus Himself.

But in our suffering, we are so prone to forget that we have been loved with this kind of intimate love! It doesn’t take much for us to forget that the God who created the universe and who reigns over all in glorious sovereignty is in fact our Father! Notice Jesus, enduring the most cruel hardship ever experienced by anyone in human flesh, crying out to God and casting Himself upon Him as His intimate Father! Oh that we, the adopted sons and daughters of God, might rest in the intimacy of the only begotten Son as we cry out to God in the hardships of life and even in the face of death! The King of Kings, the Lord Jesus, speaks intimately as He addresses the Father with His dying breath.

II. The King Speaks Sovereignly

Have you ever been in a situation when things were completely beyond your control and you felt helplessly dragged along by your circumstances or the will of another? Some of us experienced that a year ago when we crossed the border from India to Nepal late one evening. In a rustic and dark border control shack, we sat in front of an Indian official and heard him tell us that if we crossed the border, we could not return. This didn’t go along with our plans. We had planned to cross that same border back into India two weeks later. I plead our case and produced documentation, but to no avail. The man said, “You can go to Nepal tonight, but if you do, you cannot come back to India.” There was nothing we could do to change his mind. He was in control, and we were at his mercy, and he didn’t have any. But we had come to go to Nepal, and to Nepal we must go, not knowing if or how we would get back to India, or home to the U.S.A. We were not in control of any aspect of that at this point. It was very unsettling.

Often we are tempted to look at the suffering and death of Jesus in a similar way. We see Him being hauled off from Gethsemane by an armed contingent, and dragged from one authority to another who pronounce His fate. And then we see Him being nailed to the cross and hung to die. It seems to us that everything is radically out of His control and that He is at the whim of wicked people. But this is not accurate. At no moment in this entire episode is Jesus ever out of control. At no moment is He a helpless victim. He is not passive in His dying. He is the active agent, sovereignly in control of all that is transpiring. We see this by His words, “I commit my spirit,” followed by His deliberate act of bowing His head and breathing His last. Everything, including His dying breath was in His complete control.

In John 10:17-18, Jesus said, “I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” At the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword from the mob that had come to take Him away, Jesus said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). Pilate said to Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus said, “You would have no authority over Me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:10-11). Jesus was in control of the whole ordeal. And when it came time to die, it was Jesus who determined when and how He would go. Augustine said, Christ gave up His spirit in death “because He willed it, when He willed it, and as He willed it.”[2] Those at the scene of the crucifixion could not believe that He was dead so quickly (“quickly” being a relative term, for hours had elapsed). In order to hasten death so that the bodies could be removed from the crosses before the Sabbath, the soldiers came around to break the legs of the victims so that they could no longer raise up to draw breath. But when they came to Jesus and found Him already dead, they could not believe it! In order to prove that He was really dead, the Bible says that “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:34). He did not need their assistance to hasten His death. When He knew that the time was at hand, He voluntarily breathed His last and committed His spirit to His Father. He was sovereign until the very end, including over the very moment of His death.

Now, in this sense, Jesus is utterly unique. None of us can control when we will die. You may object to that and ask, “What about suicide?” Surely you know that many attempt to take their own life and fail to do so. They try to end their life but they live on, in whatever state, with all the scars and shame of their failed attempt. The fact remains that we do not control the moment of our death. But as Jesus was sovereign over His dying moment, He too is sovereign over ours. And if we have lived knowing Him as Lord and Savior, then we can rest in His sovereign control over our lives and our deaths without fear, knowing that when our final breath draws nigh, our spirit – that immaterial part of our being that will live on eternally in heaven or hell – will depart in the hands of our Savior. It was in this tranquil peace that Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died. Acts 7:59 records his dying words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Because Christ was sovereign over His own life and death, we know that He is also in control of our own, and we can live and die without fear, knowing that because He committed His own spirit to the Father as He died for us, we can commit ours to Him as we live and as we die.

The dying King spoke intimately to His Father, and sovereignly as the Lord of life and death as He died on the cross. But I want to conclude by pointing out how confidently He spoke in His dying breath.

III. The Dying King Speaks Confidently.

Of the many fears and phobias that afflict humanity, one of the most common is the fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear a rattling of the door, you may fear what caused it. Perhaps it was an intruder, or it could have merely been the wind. But until you know for certain, there is a sense of fear at what could be causing the rattling sound. But suppose you knew that it was your loving father opening the door and ready to embrace you and lavish you with gifts? If you know that, then all fear is removed. Another fear that often grips human beings is the fear of death. I can’t help thinking that the fear of the unknown underlies much of our fear of death. We fear death when we do not know what is on the other side of the door. But if we knew that on the other side of death’s door, there was a gracious and loving Father who would be there to receive us and embrace us and to lavish gifts of unspeakable glory upon us, then the fear of death would vanish. We could face death with confidence and assurance. And that is how Jesus faced death.

There is confidence in the words of Jesus as He says that He is committing His spirit into the hands of His Father. Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit. Jesus is not here committing His spirit to the great unknown. As He yields His life up to death, He knows that He is committing His Spirit into the hands of His Father. It is interesting how the word hand is used in the suffering and death of Jesus. While they were still in Galilee, Jesus had told His followers that He would be delivered into the “hands of men, and they will kill Him” (Mk 9:31). At Gethsemane, He told His disciples that the hour was at hand and “the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Matt 26:45). Yet here, when it comes time to die, Jesus knows that He is not in the hands of these sinful men, but in the hands of His Father. Thus Peter can speak of the entire ordeal in Acts 2:23, saying that Jesus had been nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men who put Him to death, but that it all occurred by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.

Jesus’ confidence in the face of death assures us that this is not the end. If death meant merely the end of existence, then there would be nothing to commit to the Father. If eternal suffering and perdition awaited on the other side of death, then there could be no confidence in committing Himself to the Father. But Jesus knew full well that on the other side of death there was life that continued on, a glorious life in the presence of His Father where He had eternally dwelt and shared in the glory of Triune deity. There is a confidence in knowing that though His body will go into the grave, His spirit will be with the Father in mere moments. He had promised the thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” And there they would come into the presence of the Father together.

But Jesus also knew that death was not the end of His body. He knew, and had announced to His disciples in advance, that after He was killed, He would rise from the dead. Thus, though His dying word is a prayer to His Father, it is not His final word. After rising from the dead, Jesus would continue on in the presence of His disciples for forty days before ascending to His Father. And Jesus has promised all of us who follow Him by faith that the same future awaits us. When death comes, our spirit will depart to be with God. As the Apostle Paul said, “I … desire to depart and be with Christ” (Php 1:23), and in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.” But we also have the promise that we will follow Christ in resurrected glory as our bodies rise from the grave on the final day. Jesus said, “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming … for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, " DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:22-23; 52-57).

Death’s only advantage over us comes through the fear of standing before a holy God and having to deal with our sins. But if we know that Christ has come and conquered our sin and the law that stands to condemn us through His death, and conquered death and hell for us through His resurrection, then all fear is gone. We who have trusted in Jesus by faith can look death in the face and say, “Where is your sting?” We know that there is life eternal to be gained immediately and ultimately when our bodies will burst forth like Christ’s from the tomb in resurrected glory!

At the Council of Constance in 1415, the great evangelical Gospel leader Jan Hus was condemned as a heretic for preaching the simple of Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone – the same message that we preach here every Sunday. And after condemning Hus to be burned at the stake, the leading bishop said, “We commit thy soul to the devil!” But Jan Hus steadfastly declared in response, “I commit my spirit into Thy hands Lord Jesus Christ. Unto thee I commend my spirit, which Thou hast redeemed.” Hus had the same kind of Easter confidence that the Lord Jesus Himself and all of His faithful followers have had through twenty centuries of Christian History! Because we know that Christ has redeemed us from sin and its penalty through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, we can face death without fear, knowing that our spirit has been entrusted to God and that life everlasting awaits beyond the grave. Because Jesus said, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit,” we who are His by faith can say the same thing in the face of death.

As we close in prayer, I would like to ask you to consider the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He did this for you and for your salvation. If you have never trusted in Him before, I pray that this day you might you might behold Him dying on the cross for your sins, and conquering death for you through His resurrection, and turn to Him in repentance and faith and receive Him as your Lord and Savior. And if you have, then I pray that this Easter, you would consider these final words of Jesus, and know that because of His life and death and resurrection, you have been granted a wonderful intimacy with God. You need not cower from Him in fear or wonder about His love for you. He is your Father, and you can live in the embrace of His love. And you can trust completely in the sovereignty of God over all that comes your way in life and even in death. Knowing this, you can face each new day, even and including your final day, in the confidence that your spirit has been committed to Him, and He has redeemed you to Himself in a relationship that can never be severed, not even by death. There is life beyond the grave. Easter is a reminder that He lives, and that in Him you have life everlasting as well.

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 1907.
[2] Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 13, Paragraph 16 (page 78 in this edition);  in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff, Series 1, Volume 3. Accessed Online schaff/npnf103.pdf. Accessed April 5, 2012. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

On the Effectual Call of the Gospel

I'm doing a good bit of writing on Reformed issues today as a follow up to some classroom discussions in my Church History class last night. While lecturing on Calvin and his "Ism", one student remarked, "Well, if only the elect will be saved, and all of the elect will be saved, and none of them will be lost, then we might as well not do anything." Ah, that is the famous straw man argument! It beats and destroys a position, but that position is not Reformed Theology (or Calvinism). It beats and destroys Hyper-Calvinism, which is a far different thing. It was Hyper-Calvinism that prompted William Carey's critics to say that he didn't need to go abroad for the Gospel for God would save the elect without our help. Indeed, God does not "need" our help, and preaching the Gospel is not helping Him. It is obeying Him. We preach the Gospel because we were commanded to do so, and because God has determined that it is through the preaching of the Gospel that He will call His elect to Himself. As I mentioned in my previous post, even the Canons of Dort (written by Calvinists who were more Calvinist than Calvin!) urged the necessity of preaching the Gospel to all nations and all people! Typically, we illustrate this by pointing out one example after another of those who, like Carey and others, were robust Calvinists and passionate missionary-evangelists. But, last night in class, I was struck with a sudden urge to share a different illustration. I would credit the Holy Spirit with the idea, for I don't recall ever reading it before.

Suppose there is a large rectangular table covered with shiny, silver-colored objects. Some of those objects are metal, and some are plastic, painted to look like metal. How can we determine which ones are truly metal? One way we can do this is to take a large magnet and hover it just above the table, and watch the metal objects "jump" up from the table and attach to the magnet. All those that are left on the table are not metal. They are plastic. Otherwise, they would have been drawn to the magnet. Now, you might say, "What if there is metal covered by plastic pieces which are hindering it from being drawn to the magnet?" or "What if the portion of the magnet closest to the metal piece is already covered with metal so that the power in that portion of the magnet is not as strong?" Well, we must pass the magnet over time and time again, from every angle and direction to make sure that all the metal pieces have been drawn upward.

This is a parallel with the effectual call of the gospel in drawing forth the elect. Like our table, the world is filled with the elect and the nonelect. They look alike, they act alike, they smell alike, etc. So how do we know who the elect are? The Gospel is our magnet! When we preach the Gospel to all nations and all people, the elect are drawn out by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. They are drawn to the Gospel like metal to a magnet. But we know some who heard the gospel time and time again, and did not respond, and then much later they did. Yes, they are like those pieces of metal in the later part of the illustration. One factor or another hindered them from being drawn. But eventually, they will be, if they are "metal," if they are elect. We do not know who is elect and who is not, so we keep preaching the gospel, from every angle and every direction, time and time again, so that all of the elect are drawn out by the effectual call of the Gospel.

So, we must preach the Gospel. It is the magnet that draws the elect to Christ. 

The Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Intent of the Atonement

As I've been teaching about the Reformation in Church History this semester, I have tried to be careful to explain the difference between Calvin, Calvinism, and the TULIP (often spoken of as the "five points of Calvinism"). John Calvin (1509-1535) was a man -- by all measures, a man whom God used greatly for His glory. I always come away from reading Calvin feeling blessed by the experience, and so I read him often. Calvinism is the systematization of Calvin's teachings. I suppose one could say that Calvinism originated with Calvin, but it didn't attain full and final form with him. His followers and successors contributed to what we call Calvinism today. This is why I feel like, unless we can point to a page number in the Institutes of Christian Religion, we ought to speak of Reformed Theology rather than Calvinism. I will never forget when I got my first copy of the Institutes a number of years ago. I searched the Table of Contents and the Index to find the TULIP explained and defended. I expected that Calvin would have a section on each petal of the TULIP wherein he would write some brilliant explanation of the point. But guess what? It wasn't there. The TULIP doesn't come from Calvin (though I suppose one could find quotes from the Institutes to defend each petal of the TULIP) or from the city of Geneva. The TULIP comes, fittingly, from Holland. Well, sort of, anyway. In response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance published in 1610 by the followers of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Dutch Calvinists convened at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) to articulate the essentials of their faith. The conclusions of this meeting were published in The Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort articulate what is known as "Dortian Calvinism." This became the most popular expression of what is called Calvinism. But the TULIP acrostic comes much later. From researching several sources, the earliest use of the acrostic seems to have been in a 1905 lecture to the Presbyterian Union by Cleland Boyd Mcafee. From that time, it was popularized by well-known writers, such as Lorraine Boettner, A. W. Pink, and more recently R. C. Sproul and John Piper. For the benefit of readers who may not be aware, the letters stand for: 

T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

Now, when it comes to the TULIP, by far the most controversial element of it is the "L", which stands for "Limited Atonement." Thus we find many people who say that they are "Four-Point Calvinists" because they reject Limited Atonement. Others say that they can hold to Limited Atonement only if it can be defined in a specific way, namely that the atonement is limited only in its efficiency (it will only save the elect), not in its sufficiency (it is unlimited in its power to save anyone who would repent and believe on Christ). I myself have made this claim numerous times. However, upon researching this line of thinking, one finds that it is actually closer to what the Arminians posited in the Five Articles of Remonstrance. 

In Article Two, the Arminians said: 
That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This seems to indicate that the dichotomy between "sufficiency" and "efficiency" of the Atonement is an Arminian position. Now, if it is true, then it doesn't matter whether or not it fits into one system or the other. And if it is not true, then we should not hold to it, even though our system may require it. And this is where we run into danger by isolating one proposition of the Arminian system or one petal of the TULIP from the rest. In my class lecture, I likened the petals of the Tulip and the points of Arminianism to a Jenga tower. In the game Jenga, the goal is to remove a block from the tower without toppling the whole thing. It seems that the systems of Arminians and Calvinists require all of the "blocks" to hold up each other. One cannot say, "I am a Calvinist, but I reject limited atonement," and neither can one say, "I am an Arminian, but I reject unlimited atonement." Each of these positions are critical to keep the respective "tower" from collapsing. 

The Arminian system is designed to demonstrate that salvation is a "synergistic" process that combines the work of God with the "act" of the human being to believe upon Christ. The Calvinist system, on the other hand, is a "monergistic" system that sees all the work being done by God Himself, and the belief of the human being as a result or effect of what God has done. Thus, in the Arminian system, unlimited atonement means that sins have been atoned for all people, and those who choose to believe upon Christ will receive the benefits of the atonement. The Calvinist system emphasizes that no one is able to make that choice (because of total depravity) until and unless God has unconditionally elected them, covered them in His atonement, drawn them by His irresistible grace. The Arminian system, regardless of how palatable it sounds, presents "in total," a salvation that is not secure for anyone. As Packer describes the Arminian position, "Christ's death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (there is no such gift); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe" (quoted in R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown, p164). 

Sproul writes, "Reformed theologians do not question that the value of Christ's atonement is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole fallen race. The value of His sacrifice is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole fallen race. The value of His sacrifice is unlimited. ... When we speak of the sufficiency of the atonement, however, we must ask the question, Is it a sufficient satisfaction of divine justice? If it is sufficient to satisfy the deamnds of God's justice, then no one needs to worry about future punishment. ... [I]f Christ really, objectively satisfied the demands of God's justice for everyone, then everyone will be saved. ... If faith is necessary to the atonement, then Christ's work was indeed a mere potentiality. In itself it saves no one. It merely makes salvation possible. Theoretically, we must ask the obvious question, What would have happened to the work of Christ if nobody believed in it? ... In this case Christ would have died in vain. He would have been the potential Savior of all but an actual Savior of none" (Sproul, Grace Unknown, pp165-167). 

Thus, it seems that we are asking the wrong questions and splitting the wrong hairs in a discussion about sufficiency and efficiency. Sproul says, "The ultimate question has to do not so much with the efficiency of the atonement, but with its design" (p168). So, it seems best to remove the question of sufficiency from the discussion altogether, for it is a discussion of mere hypothetical potentials. When we speak of the atonement, what is at issue is its effect. Only the elect will be saved by the atonement of Christ. In this case, we must conclude that it was only designed to redeem the elect. Otherwise, we end up with either an incomplete atonement (because it needs belief to make it "work", and since so many don't believe, it is a rather pitiful attempt at redemption); or else (worse?), a universalism that has all humanity redeemed ultimately whether they want to be or not. Ironically, this ends up being more "deterministic" than robust Calvinism. 

Returning then to the question of whether or not it is fitting for a Calvinist to speak of a sufficiency/efficiency dichotomy, or whether tinkering with the phrases makes one a "four-point Calvinist" or a "one-point Arminian," we can be encouraged by the language of the Canons of Dort. Under the Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 3, the Dortian Calvinists wrote, "The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice for the satisfaction of sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world." Article 8 says further, "For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation...." 

Contrary to those who say that such a system hinders the spread of the Gospel, it is instructive to read Article 5 under the same Second Main Point of Doctrine in the Dortian canons: "Moreover, the promise of the Gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together the the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel." 

My point here is to, at a far greater length than I originally intended, suggest that it is perfectly in keeping with a monergistic reformed system of faith to say that Christ's atonement is sufficient for all and efficient only for the elect. Even though this is the language of Arminians, we see in the Canons of Dort that it is also the language of Calvinists. But behind the language is the reality that for Arminians, the atonement does not actually secure atonement for anyone; it merely makes it possible. For Calvinists, there is greater confidence that the atonement actually succeeded in securing the redemption of the elect. Thus, the matter at stake is not sufficiency or efficiency, but design or intent. Therefore, a Reformed (or Calvinist) Christian can say that they believe in an atonement which was sufficient for all, yet designed for the elect, and fully efficient for them. 

As I have said many times, we should never seek to be identified with a system, but with the Savior. By most of my friends, I am called a Calvinist. By a good number of Calvinists, I am called some kind of tertium quid ("a third thing", neither Arminian or Calvinist). But my aim is not to earn any labels. My aim is to follow Christ and His Word, and in so doing, I am ever more comfortable with all five-points of the TULIP, given that they are fully explained and not taken as self-sufficient phrases. 

Monday, April 02, 2012

It is Finished (John 19:30)

Today is commemorated as Palm Sunday in churches around the world, the day of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It was the beginning of His final week that would end in His death on the cross, and ironically the only day of His earthly life, with the possible exception of the day of His birth, when He received the worship He was due. But as we know, it did not take long for the tide of public opinion to shift against Him during what we call Passion Week, the week of His suffering, betrayal, rejection, and crucifixion. Over the last several weeks, we have been studying the seven statements that Jesus spoke from the cross, and today we come to the penultimate word. In English, we read three words, “It is finished.” If we were to read this in the Greek New Testament, we would find it is only one word: Tetelestai. But this single word of the Greek language is so profound that the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said it “would need all the other words that were ever spoken, or ever can be spoken, to explain this one word. It is altogether immeasurable. It is high; I cannot attain to it. It is deep; I cannot fathom it.”[1] Theologically, this word has so many ramifications for us that it would require hours, if not days or weeks, to fully treat it. So, for time sake, we must limit what we say about it here and now. And I have chosen to limit it by the bounds of this text and its context. The words of John 19:30, and the surrounding context speak of the finishing or completion of two particular aspects of the person and work of Christ. It speaks of the fulfillment of all the prophecies about Him, and it speaks of the completion of His mission to save the world from sin.

I. The prophecies have been fulfilled.

Last Sunday, we dealt with the saying of Jesus in John 19:28, “I am thirsty.” And we discussed at some length the necessity of this saying in order to fulfill prophecy. John said in verse 28, “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill Scripture, said, ‘I am thirsty.’” One of the reasons for Him saying that word (it is a single word in Greek) was to fulfill Scriptures that stated that the suffering Messiah would thirst in His dying, and that He would be offered vinegar to drink. Every other promise that had ever been made by God’s prophets about the coming of the Messiah, His earthly life, His ministry, and His suffering, had taken place. Of course there were more prophecies that had not been fulfilled yet, and those would have to follow His death. But of those prophecies concerning how He would come, who He would be, what He would do, and how He would die, had all been fulfilled. Now that He has announced His thirst and been offered the sour wine-vinegar to drink, He can say at last, “It is finished.” Spurgeon said, “There is not a single jewel of promise, from that first emerald which fell on the threshold of Eden, to that last sapphire of Malachi which was not set in the breastplate of the true High Priest.”[2]

The Messiah had been prophesied in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, as the Seed of woman (Gen 3:15); born of a virgin (Isa 7:14); born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2); a descendant of Abraham (Gen 12:3, et al.), of Judah (Gen 49:10), and of David (2 Sam 7:12-19). Of course all of these are uniquely true of Jesus. In addition to these and many other aspects of His birth, there were explicit prophecies concerning His ministry on the earth. When Jesus entered the synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of His public ministry, He was handed the scroll of Isaiah from which to read, and the words for the day were the words of Isaiah 61 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord." And then Jesus closed the book, and sat down, and said to the congregation, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Those words describe perfectly the earthly life and ministry of the Lord Jesus. He did preach the Gospel to the poor. He did proclaim liberty to those who are captive in sin. He did grant sight to the blind. And He did many other things that the Old Testament had announced in advance that He would do. When John the Baptist was in prison awaiting his execution at the hands of Herod Antipas, he sent word to Jesus: “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” And the word Jesus sent back to John was this: “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them” (Matt 11:2-5). In other words, “I am doing everything that the prophets said the Messiah would do.

And of course the prophets also spoke of His suffering and death. In our study of the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross, we have mentioned how there were prophetic images in David’s Messianic Psalms, particularly Psalm 22 and Psalm 69, which spoke of His manner of death. But nowhere will you find a more exact description of the suffering of the God’s Anointed Servant than in Isaiah 53.

He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering … Isaiah 53:3-10 (NASB)

And now each of the multitude of prophecies has been finished, fulfilled, and completed, and they are completed in Jesus Christ and in Him alone. Spurgeon notes, “Brothers and Sisters, what a wonderful thing it is, that a mass of promises, and prophecies, and types, apparently so heterogeneous, should all be accomplished in one Person!”[3] Indeed, if we were to read all of the prophetic descriptions of the Messiah apart from knowing Christ we might consider them to be contradictory and impossible to find fulfillment in a single person. In the words of Spurgeon, “He must be a Prophet like unto Moses, and yet a champion like Joshua; he must be an Aaron and a Melchizedek; he must be both David and Solomon, Noah and Jonah, Judah and Joseph. No, He must not only be the lamb that was slain, and the scapegoat that was not slain, the turtledove that was dipped in blood, and the priest who slew the bird, but He must be the Altar, the Tabernacle, the Mercy Seat, and the Showbread!” Where can all of these promises, pictures, and prophetic words and images come to pass in one person? Only in Jesus. Spurgeon says, “Take away Christ for one moment, and I will give the Old Testament to any wise man living, and say to him, ‘Take this. This is a problem; go home and construct in your imagination an ideal character who shall exactly fit all that which is herein foreshadowed.’” [4] If Christ had not come to fulfill all of these things, then they could not have been filled in any other individual. And thus, as He died, the Lord Jesus is able to examine the catalog of biblical prophecies, including and up to His thirst, the drink He would be offered, and now His impending death, and say with confidence about the entire array, “It is finished!”

These words, or the singular Greek word Tetelestai, indicate that the prophecies are all fulfilled. Now, a second truth is expressed in these words as well, which is somewhat related and yet distinct from the first. And that is …

II. The mission has been accomplished.

If you are like me, I imagine that you often start more things than you finish. My library is filled with books I never finished reading. Around my house and my office are the remnants of projects that I started and never got around to finishing. Some time ago, a friend of mine taught me a valuable lesson about life. He is a triathlete and marathon runner. He told me that he had finished the Marine Marathon in DC, and I asked him naively, “What place did you come in?” I can’t remember exactly, but he said something like 347th place or something. I said something dumb like, “Oh, well, maybe you’ll get ‘em next time.” He said, “No, you don’t understand. Most people don’t run marathons to win. They run to finish the race.” He didn’t view his 347th place finish as a loss. It was a victory because he finished. The more I thought about that, the more I thought that life is a lot like that. What matters is not how fast we run the race, but whether or not we finish what we set out to do. When Jesus died, He could say in a unique sense that no one else ever could, “It is finished.” He had completed what He came to do.

The mission of Jesus was announced by the prophets in advance, and it was declared to Joseph in Matthew 1:21 before His birth: “you shall call His name Jesus (which means “Yahweh, or Jehovah, is salvation”), for He will save His people from their sins.” He came to save His people from sin. And how would He do that? Jesus said of His own mission, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28). His mission was to serve humanity by giving up His life as a ransom to save us from our sins.

We understand this word “ransom,” and usually associate it with a payment that is made for the release of hostage or someone who has been abducted. We envision movies where someone glues letters clipped from a magazine or newspaper together to make a ransom note, and then someone shows up with a briefcase full of money in exchange for the release of the victim. Well, in the case of our predicament and Jesus’ ransom, the situation is somewhat different. We have not been abducted or kidnapped. We have willingly entered a state of slavery – slavery to sin. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose to disobey God, and by that act, humanity was taken captive in the slavery of sin. Each of us is born in that state by virtue of their sin, but each of us makes our own sinful choices as well. So we are sinners from birth by nature, and we demonstrate that through our own sinful choices and actions. Our predicament is utterly helpless and hopeless apart from the delivery of a ransom. But Jesus did not come to earth from heaven with a briefcase full of unmarked bills. He came into the world with all that He would need to pay the ransom – a human body. The ransom would be paid with His blood as He becomes our substitute and a sacrifice for sin on the cross. At the cross, He bore the sins of humanity beneath the full measure of God’s wrath. As He carried our sins, the fellowship of God the Father and God the Son for the first time in eternity, prompting Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But now, with the price having been paid, the sacrificial substitution offered, Jesus can say, “It is finished.”

For centuries, on the altar before the Tabernacle and the Temple, countless animals bled and died as sacrifices for sin. But the work of the priest was never done. These animals did not pay the price. They were like purchases made on credit. They promised that payment would be made, but the payment had not been delivered. And so one after another, at times by the dozen, by the hundreds, or by the thousands, more and more blood flowed from lambs and bulls and goats. But the price had not yet been paid. It is interesting that when the Lord gave Moses the instructions for building the Tabernacle, He specified how every furnishing was to be constructed. But there was one piece of furniture noticeably missing. There was to be no chair, because the work of the priest was never done. There was no time for sitting and resting, for there was always more to be done, more blood to be shed. And so the writer of Hebrews says, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He (Christ), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12). His mission of redemption was finished.

Archaeologists have discovered ancient papyri in the Near East which were receipts for taxes that had been paid. And across those papyrus pages are written the single Greek word, Tetelestai. It means “paid in full.” If you were to write out all of your sins, and the penalty that they deserve in the justice of God, and staple that list together with that of every human being who has ever lived or ever will, you would find that Jesus has written in His blood across every page, Tetelestai, “Paid in full!” It is finished. Our sin debt is paid for by His blood in His substitutionary death on the cross. Paul says in Colossians 2:14 that Jesus has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” The record of sin and condemnation was nailed to the cross as Christ became sin for us and received our wrath and paid our debt. It is finished and it is paid in full.

This means that nothing more is required. How will you be saved? By looking to Christ as your sin-bearer and seeing the debt of your offenses before God as paid in full in Him. What more then can you add? Can you add your own works to this? Can you add participation in some ritual, or observance of some holy day, or financial contribution to any religious institution to this? No, because the debt is fully paid. There are some things that can be improved by addition. You can improve your paycheck by adding an extra digit. But there are other things that addition only destroys. Imagine if you were to add a “g” to the word “love”? Would it make it better? Would you rather have “love” or a “glove”?[5] I remember my high school science teacher mixing chemicals in the lab one day. He mixed the liquid from one bottle with another liquid from another, and nothing happened. But then he dropped just a few flakes of another chemical into the beaker, and a small explosion occurred. That is what happens when we try to add anything to the completed work of Christ. It doesn’t enhance our salvation, it destroys it. Spurgeon said, “Will you pin your rags to the fine linen of Christ’s righteousness? Why will you add your counterfeit farthing to the costly ransom which Christ has paid into the treasure-house of God?”[6] You have nothing to contribute; all you can do is receive. The price has been paid by grace, in blood, and in full for you.

A year or so ago, I had a conversation with a church-going man who professed to be a Christian. The man said to me concerning someone who had recently died, “I know she is in heaven because she was a good person.” I said, “Do you think that is what it takes to get to heaven?” He said, “Sure!” I asked him, “Suppose you were to stand before God and he were to ask you, ‘Why should I let you into heaven?’” He said, “Because I am a good person, and I’ve done some good things,” and so on he went. I said, “Have you ever put your faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” He said, “Oh yes, that too.” I said, “No, not ‘that too,’ but ‘that only!’” He protested and continued to debate me, until I finally said, “Listen, who are you trusting in to get you into heaven? Jesus alone, or your own goodness.” He said, “My own goodness.” I said to him, “Sir, then I must tell you on the basis of your own words that you are not a Christian, for a Christian is one who trusts in Christ alone to save them.” I am sad to say that the man has never spoken to me since. But I spoke to Him as truthfully and lovingly as I could. And I would say the same thing to any one of you today. Our only hope is to be found in Christ alone, and we can add nothing to the salvation that He offers us freely by His grace. If we try to add to it, what we are saying is that Jesus was not telling the truth when He said, “It is finished.” Is it or isn’t it? If it is, then you need nothing but Christ. If it isn’t, then we have no hope. It is as simple as that.

As I preach this sermon today, I have two aims. One is to speak to the heart of the one who is not a Christian, who would acknowledge that he or she has never placed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To you, I would say that you can look to the cross and find all of your sins forgiven because Jesus has paid the full debt and finished the work of redemption. And it is my most earnest prayer and desire that you would do so even this day. But I also desire to speak to the one who, like that man I just described, thinks that Christianity is about what you do. If you describe your Christianity as something that you have done, then that is not Christianity. The Good News of the Christian Faith is that you cannot do anything to make yourself right with God. It has all been done for you by Jesus. All there is for you to do is receive Him, receive His gift, receive His shed blood as the payment for your sins and the purchase of your redemption. He has paid it in full. I heard it said a long time ago when I was just a young Christian, “Christianity is not spelled D-O, but D-O-N-E.” All that is required to reconcile you to God and rescue you from sin has been done by Christ, and when it was completed, He said with finality and full confidence, “It is finished!” My prayer is that you will come to rest and abide in the reality of the finished work of Christ.

[1] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “Christ’s Dying Word for His Church,” in Sermons on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1966), 170.
[2] Spurgeon, “It is Finished.” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Sermon No. 421, December 1, 1861, p. 2. Available online: Accessed March 28, 2012.
[3] Spurgeon, “Finished,” p. 2.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Philip Ryken, “Mission Accomplished,” in James Montgomery Boice and Philip Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999), 57-58.
[6] Spurgeon, “Finished,” p. 6.