December 18, 2017

The Preeminent Question

icon.jpgUpdate: Those of you who like this post would probably enjoy reading four previous IM essays, all hopefully helpful on this topic.

A Conversation In God’s Kitchen: Thoughts About The Bible
On Christless Preaching
A Simple Statement on the Inspiration of the Bible
Magic Books, Grocery Lists and Silent Messiahs

While discussing the doctrine of election the other day, I asked BHT fellow Bill a version of the following question: “If you were able to follow Jesus for the three years (or whatever) of his ministry, life, death and resurrection, do you believe you would conclude that Jesus believed the same version of the doctrine of election as you do today?”

That question applies to all of theology. In fact, it is the preeminent question of the Christian Life. I do not say the preeminent question of Christian theology, but of the Christian life, because in the end, theology must lead to the lives that we live. Theology must be a description of REALITY. Of real life. Just as mathematical propositions must eventually let the space shuttle fly or a heart monitor give accurate readings, so our theology must prepare us for death, and for the lives we lead before death. Our theology must make us human beings, husbands, fathers, teachers, neighbors, members of a community, and so on.

For many Christians, this discussion is a discussion of “What does the Bible say?” So, Romans 9 and John 1 are really no different from one another, as both are inspired scripture, and we can discuss election from Romans 9, come to our conclusions and announce that we have the truth.

On the other hand, I believe that the purpose of Romans 9, John 1, Leviticus 18, Ecclesiastes and so on is to allow us to hear God’s Final Word: Jesus. Scripture is the recipe for the cake that God is baking: Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World. Jesus says that what he says, is and does is our window to the the true God, and is our truth for life and death. Therefore, it is Jesus that I am seeking in theology. Jesus is what matters in theology.

The preeminent question in reading Paul is simple: How does Paul introduce me to Jesus? Not “What does Paul teach about election?” The preeminent question in Leviticus and Judges is “How does the law and the history of Israel introduce me to Jesus?” Implicit in this is the great truth of John 1 and Hebrews 1:

John 1:16-18 16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV Hebrews 1:1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

All that God is doing is centered in Jesus, not in Paul’s theology or the Old Testament history.

Colossians 1:12-20 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Ephesians 1:3-10 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

The Preeminent Question of Theology- and life- is not “What is Reformed Theology?” It is not “What does Paul teach about election and predestination?” It is not “How can I be right and the other fellow wrong?” The only question that matters is whether we hear, see, know, comprehend and ultimately BELIEVE God’s Final Word, the Mediator of the New Covenant that is ALL he is doing for us in the Gospel.

Does what I believe about election, the Bible, universalism, truth, God and so on, correspond to Jesus? Do I know Jesus? Is my truth, my worldview, my reality, JESUS?

Comments

  1. Excellent! Well said! Way to bring it all back home to what it is really all about. We readers thank you once again! Peace be the journey!

  2. I did a study a few years ago of what the apostles in their letters taught about Jesus — who he is, what he means to the believer, and so forth. I came up with an impressive list of attributes. According to the epistles, Jesus is —

    · Our access to God (Eph. 2:18)

    · The source of God’s affection and compassion toward us (Phil. 21:1)

    · Our claim to blamelessness and holiness (Eph. 1:4; Col. 1:22; 1 Thess. 3:13)

    · The source of every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)

    · The source of the character of God in us (Gal. 5:22 -23)

    · Our comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-5)

    · God’s communication through us to the world (2 Cor. 3:3)

    · Our completeness ( Col 1:28 , 2:10)

    · Our death to the old self (Gal. 5:24)

    · Our deliverer from the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13)

    · Our encouragement (Phil. 2:1)

    · Our fellowship with God (Phil. 2:1)

    · Our source of forgiveness (Rom. 8:1)

    · Our freedom (Rom. 8:2; Gal. 5:1)

    · The source of fruitfulness, success, and accomplishment in our life (Rom. 7:4; 15:18)

    · The fullness of God in us (Eph. 3:19)

    · Our experience of God’s glory (Rom. 8:30 ; 2 Thess. 1:12)

    · Our hope (Eph. 1:18 ; 1 Tim. 1:1)

    · Our justification before God (Gal. 2:16 -17)

    · The source of God’s kindness toward us (Eph. 2:7)

    · Our liberty (2 Cor. 3:17 ; Gal. 2:4)

    · Our life (Acts 17:28 ; Rom. 6:8; Gal. 2:20 ; Col. 2:13, 3:3)

    · Our experience of the love of God (Rom. 8:39 ; Eph. 3:17 -18)

    · The one who manifests the power of God in us (Eph. 1:19)

    · Our motivation and our ability (Phil. 2:13)

    · Our peace with God, and our peace in every situation (1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Thess. 3:16)

    · The perfecter of God’s work and purpose in us (Phil. 1:6)

    · Our connection to the power of God (1 Cor. 1:24 ; Phil. 3:10)

    · Our power to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:25)

    · The source of effective prayer (Rom. 8:26 , 34)

    · The one who brings the presence of God into our experience (2 Cor. 2:14 ; Eph. 2:6)

    · The one who makes us partakers of the promises of God (Gal. 3:29 -4:7; Eph. 3:6)

    · Our protection from the evil one (2 Thess. 3:3)

    · Our protector in heart and mind (Phil. 4:7)

    · Our redemption (Rom. 3:24 , 5:8; 1 Cor. 1:30 ; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)

    · Our rescuer from the darkness (Col. 1:13)

    · Our rescuer from judgment (1 Thess. 1:10)

    · The resident of our hearts (Eph. 3:17)

    · Our resurrection (Eph. 2:4-5; Col. 2:12)

    · Our righteousness (Rom. 5:17 , 10:4; 1 Cor. 1:30 ; 2 Cor. 5:21 ; Phil. 3:9)

    · Our sanctification, or holiness (1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 2 Thess. 2:13 )

    · Our security (Eph. 1:13)

    · Our strength (even when we are weak) (2 Cor. 12:9; Ehp. 3:16 , 6:10 ; Phil. 4:13)

    · Our supply for every need (Phil. 4:19)

    · Our union with the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:9)

    · Our source of unity (Rom. 15:5)

    · Our victory (Rom. 7:24 -25; 1 Cor. 15:57 ; 2 Cor. 2:14)

    · Our knowledge of the will of God (1 Cor. 1:24 , 30; Col. 2:3)

    · Our source of wisdom and knowledge (1 Cor. 1:24 , 30; Col. 2:3)

    · The first and the last – namely, our everything (Rev. 1:8)

    …and this is for starters.

    When I read Paul talking about “knowing Christ,” I realize that he’s talking about knowing Christ in experience…not know ABOUT Christ from a book, or from attending a seminar, or from a systematic theology. To me, “living the Christian life” means experiencing Jesus as my comfort, as God’s love, as the source of every spiritual blessing, as the character of God in me, as my access to the Father, as my liberty (from bondage), as my motivation, as my empowerment, as my security (a petal of the TULIP), as an expression of God’s love for others through me, as the life in the branch that produces the fruit on the vine, as my first and last….not in abstract terms, but in first-hand experience in the nitty-gritty of my life.

    And the odd thing about this is that had it not been for Acts and the epistles, I wouldn’t know that Christ is all these things to me, and that these attributes of Christ are available to me by virtue of my spiritual union with him.

  3. Another thing to consider, related to the question: The disciples clearly watched Jesus in his earthly ministry, were as close to him as anyone could possibly imagine, and yet to a man, they didn’t give much evidence of “getting it” in terms of Jesus’ significance to their lives and ours until he had died, rose, ascended, and they were given or filled with the Holy Spirit at and after Pentecost.

    (And, btw, I often wonder how the apostles could have gotten their doctrine straight without the benefit of 2000 years of systematic theologies. 😉

  4. Which raises an interesting possibility: That much of Christian theology isn’t necessary AT ALL to saving faith in Jesus.

    The faith of the woman healed of 12 years of bleeding was probably utterly devoid of the results of 2,000 years of Christian theological speculation, yet her faith is commended.

    The Conversation that results FROM Jesus is not the same as FAITH IN JESUS.

    Yeah…that’s what I said 🙂

  5. BTW, Michael, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve passed your essay on “Christless preaching” from iMonk archives to others. I think that piece really nails what’s wrong with the evangelical church today. I’ve been grinding this axe for years — that we rarely hear, either from the pulpit, nor from most of the church-run/sanctioned Bible studies, about Jesus Christ — and all I get is a glazed stare back from believers.

    The idea that Jesus is the central focus of all scripture, and should be the central focus of all theologies, is sadly lost on a lot of Christians. I’m sure you and I know people who would go to their deaths (figuratively, perhaps) defending “limited atonement,” but when you ask them, “What difference does it make to you in your daily experience that you have the resurrection life of Jesus living in you?” they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

    You mentioned that scripture is the recipe to the cake, and the cake is Jesus. I would add, and I think you’d agree, that we were created to partake of and enjoy the cake.

  6. imonk: “That much of Christian theology isn’t necessary AT ALL to saving faith in Jesus.”

    I absolutely agree with this! And this is one of the wonderful things about the grace and calling of God: our salvation is not dependent on perfectly understanding all the nuances and subtleties of salvation and how it was accomplished and applied. So, someone can be wrong on some arcane point of theology, and still be saved. And, when you think about it, which one of us has a perfect understanding of God’s plan of salvation, and how he worked, and is working, it out? I’m not saying that “grace” allows us to be intellectually sloppy, or egregiously wrong on vital points, but much of the straining at gnats that goes on in some theological debates is useless, IMHO.

  7. Brian C says:

    Sincerely agree that Christ is to be the center of all we do, say, and learn. I really like the posing the question you raise–“How does ______ take me closer to Jesus?” This is a high standard and if you apply it to activities in and out of church, a lot of stuff starts to look silly.

    One question for now—what do you mean in the comment by
    “The Conversation that results FROM Jesus is not the same as FAITH IN JESUS.”?

    I don’t understand this statement.

    Brian C.

  8. I hopefully explained it in the example.

    Two thousand years of Christian theology are the conversation that followed Jesus. But what is going on in the experience of so many who came to faith in Jesus in the New Testament wasn’t two thousand years of theological discussion. It was sola fide. Simple faith.

    A primary heresy of many of us with theological bents is to make our theology equal to faith. Much of our theology is utterly incomprehensible to most people, and maybe even to us, if we’d be honest.

    Faith is simple trust in all God is for us in Jesus. Theology is the conversation that follows. Interesting. Important. Connected. And not the same.

  9. Yes!

  10. Excellent post, couldn’t agree more. It’s amazing how much Christian theology doesn’t even mention Christ, let alone begin with him.

  11. Brian C. says:

    imonk,

    That clears it up nicely. Thank you.

    Ironic that it is often those of us who (claim to) hold so dearly the doctrine of Sola Fide who would, knowingly or unknowingly, add academic requirements to it…

    Brian C.

  12. Listen, iMonk. This Christocentricism, it’s gonna get you nowhere fast. 😉

  13. So…anyone want to belly up and say that the whole conversation about “This is my body” is a conversation that doesn’t define sola fide?

    Careful….don’t join me on the dark side 🙂

  14. I frankly had to face that this very year.

    Being stuck in a fringe suburb of LA, with very few good choices for church, I was put in a quandry about the LCMS church I wanted to attend. They (like most LCMS churches, as I understand) insist that you sign on 100% to the Lutheran teachings on the Lord’s Supper before they will administer it to you. Frankly, if the ones giving it are Christians (they are) and the ones receiving it are Christians (I like to think I am), and it is properly administered (bread and wine linked by word and liturgy to the life, death & resurrection of Christ), do we *have* to agree 100% on the mechanics of how God works in it? I’m not quite sure we actually *can* understand how God works in it.

    We did work out an accomodation, thankfully. It’s the only church I found in town that really has great preaching and solid liturgical worship. But that sort of entrenched “our way or the highway” mentality really gets in the way of being the “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church” – which they recite every Sunday, ironically enough.

    P.S. Michael, don’t tell Josh I said this – he may just turn me in. ;-}

  15. The LCMS are being internally logical when demanding that only those who subscribe to their church’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper partake of the Eucharist.

    Paul teaches us that he who eats and drinks unworthily fails to correctly discern the Lord’s body, eats and drinks damnation unto himself. The LCMS Lutherans do not want you to eat and drink damnation unto yourself, therefore they are very clear on how to correctly discern the body.

    Whether the LCMS are correct about consubstantiation is a different argument.

  16. Dinah Clarke says:

    It has long been a concern to me that more emphasis seems to be given to knowing correct theology, and even in being able to quote the appropriate Bible verses for every problem rather than knowing God Himself.

    My own opinion is that the Bible has not been given to us primarily to teach us the “rules”, but rather, to teach us about God – Who He is, what He is like, what He has done, and what He plans to do. And then, wonder of wonders, to invite us into a personal relationship with Him.

    So theology should be a means of clarification, and not an end in itself. Doctrine a setting out of what generations of Christians have found out about God from searching the Scriptures. And both are aids to an end …. not the end itself.

    Re election …. Jesus Himself made several statements that can only point to election (John 6 & 15).

    But from the lips of Jesus again, the purpose of His coming … “Now this is eternal life : that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”(Jn.17:3).

    But though knowing God is individual, it is also corporate … otherwise how could we fulfil His command to love one another?

    Besides, God is infinite, and surely more than one human mind can contain, so like a diamond, we each hold up our “facet” for the joy of the others, and the glory of God.

    joy!

  17. This is something I’ve thought alot about, and haven’t come to a conclusion. Maybe you guys have some thoughts.

    -Is Jesus truly the point? Without wanting to blaspheme, I sometimes wonder if by sticking on Jesus we miss other attributes of God such as wrath and soverignty seen in the OT.

    -If all we need to know comes from the life and example of Jesus, why do we have 2/3 of the NT? For that matter, why do things like theology exist?

    I don’t necessarily believe these things, but I do wonder what others feel about them. Or, maybe the Baltimore air has just gotten to me…

  18. Mai –

    Is Paul really talking about recognizing consubstantiation in the I Cor 11 passage? That is what the LCMS seems to be saying in effect. It also seems to me that in doing so, and making that a test for receiving communion, the LCMS is saying in effect, “Only WE have true communion, because only we properly understand it.”

    I will grant it may be internally logical – but how *ecumenical* and *charitable* is it?

  19. Doug: I can’t speak for the LCMS doctrines, because my background is RC, but the RCC asks non-Catholics not to take Communion at Mass, and their rationale (if I understand it correctly) is that for non-Catholics to take Communion would be to pretend to a Christian unity which, sadly, does not exist at this time.

    It’s not so much “believe as we do or you don’t get to play;” it’s more “this act has a meaning and we can’t allow our natural desire to be friendly with everyone violate that.”

  20. For those who do not believe that others share the same Church or the same Gospel, that makes sense. For that very reason, I would not in good conscience take the Catholic Mass. But Lutherans and Reformed are (or should) be a different case. We are both “evangelical”, we both are members of the Body of Christ – on what basis can the Lutherans deny communion to those who do not share the same theological understandings of God’s actions underlying the Eucharist?

    I must admit that my thinking on this point is very influenced by John Frame…

    http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/joh_frame/PT.Frame.EVR.9.html

  21. Hey! Great article on the absense of Christ. He is the Way!