Changing Seasons

Our hot and unusually wet summer here in southeastern Pennsylvania has produced a different kind of autumn. I assume that the abundance of moisture caused confusion for many of the trees. In normal years, the leaves would all be on the ground by early November. Not so this year! There are still holdouts refusing to turn loose of their host and drift downward to await the winter snows. It’s like they’re stalling, hoping to turn back the calendar.

But, the calendar will advance. The leaves, even the most stubborn holdouts, will fall. Time stands still for none of us. And those falling leaves are a gentle and beautiful reminder of a coming appointment we all must keep.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10, ESV).

This is a sobering thought. But for the apostle Paul, it was also a thought that filled his heart with joyful anticipation. We are going to stand before Jesus! We are going to see His face! And if we are faithful to make choices that please Him, we will hear His words of commendation. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This was what motivated Paul to say, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). In other words, there were only two days on Paul’s calendar: “today,” and, “that day.”

Every choice we make on this day will influence what words we hear from Jesus on that day. Let’s make it our aim today to “please him” – to keep on becoming God’s kind of husband, God’s kind of wife, God’s kind of parent or grandparent, God’s kind of friend, God’s kind of church member.

Someday, just as sure as those leaves are falling outside my window, we will stand before the Lord who loved us and gave Himself for us. By His grace, let’s give ourselves back to Him today.

Interrupted Routine

By all accounts it was just another Monday morning . . . at least as normal as Mondays can be.  It was that transition time of the year in September when our grasp on summer is beginning to slip.  Fall was just around the corner, but the smells and sights of fall hadn’t quite begun to replace the warmth of the sun’s rays. On this Monday morning that transition wasn’t too noticeable.  So Brandon Wright jumped on his motorcycle and headed to town.

On this ordinary, routine September morning as Brandon drove down the street near the campus of Utah State University in Logan, Utah, he could not have known how abruptly his life was about to change.  Most of us have heard, at least, some of the story and, no doubt, have seen some of the pictures.

In less than an instance, Brandon spotted a BMW pull out of a parking lot and turn into his lane of traffic.  The problem, of course, was that the driver did not see Brandon and was driving right at him.  To avoid the head-on collision, Brandon laid the motorcycle down.  His reaction may have averted the head-on collision and may have prevented him from being thrown over the car; however, the end result was Brandon under the car, the motorcycle leaking gas, and the collision igniting the gas.  Both the cycle and the front end of the car were on fire . . . and Brandon, he was practically out of sight under the BMW.

What follows is a story of redemption.

By all accounts (at least, those I have heard and read) the bystanders and witnesses to the accident without hesitation, once they realized what had happened, sprang into action.  After one person attempted to lift the burning car off of the cyclist without success, person after person left the sidewalk; left their way to school, work, or home; left their schedule; left their Monday morning routine; and joined in the rescue effort.  As the ad hoc rescue team grew, the car was lifted higher and higher until one of the rescuers was able to grab Brandon by a limb and drag him to safety away from the burning wreckage.

Brandon was taken to a hospital where he was treated and began his recovery.  The rescuers? . . . Well, they just blended back into their Monday morning routines . . . they simply returned to their daily life.  Apparently no need for comment or acclaim or whatever might follow.

This story of redemption is a story of deed, and not of dialogue.

From what I’ve read and seen about this incident, not one bystander did anything but go to the aid of this total stranger.  No belittling comments about the safety issues of riding motorcycles.  No speculations about carelessness, texting, or getting just dues.  No assigning of blame or judgment.  No wondering about whether or not he would have to be rescued again if he survived this one.

As the account of this Monday morning story of redemption crossed my mind, James 5:19-20 surfaced from the recesses of my memory.

“My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

The Christian life, in this fallen world, is a life of opportunity to participate in redemption stories.  On a daily basis, opportunities to rescue either a fellow member of the human race or a fellow believer in danger of temporal or eternal loss cross our paths.

The story of redemption—whether temporal or eternal— is the story of seeing real needs and bringing real grace.  It is the story of deliverance.  It is the story of judgment averted, not decreed or predicted or questioned.  It is the story of deeds, not simply dialogue.

Let’s get off the sidewalk and into action!

Did Jesus Die because of Joy or Indifference, Part 4

No one has done more in this day to promote the idea that God acts to magnify his own glory in the world than John Piper. He writes,

Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These he performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment he has in glorifying himself…If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of his own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in him. But if he does in fact employ all his sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximize the enjoyment of his own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice (Desiring God, expanded edition; Multnomah Press, 1996, 33).

Piper is quick, however, to credit those in recent history who influenced his thinking along these lines. Specifically, he mentions Blaise Pascal and C. S. Lewis.

Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician, inventor, and philosopher spoke of the fact that all men seek happiness, so that whatever they do is motivated by a pursuit of joy:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Some may respond that this is the very reason why we ought to be motivated by duty, and not personal joy. In doing so, they argue for a joy-less existence, hardly the picture in Hebrews 12:2 of Christ, our example. Pascal continues:

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

Pascal reminds us of a fundamental Christian truth: while unbelievers see humanity as one, in fact, there is a distinct difference between regenerate and unregenerate life, thought and knowledge. I think one of the reasons why some Christians don’t want to accept joy as the motivation for all things is that they don’t trust the human heart (and they shouldn’t!). But we must make a distinction between the redeemed heart and the unredeemed. As regenerate I now know what truly makes me happy, and so can pursue it, always being guided by the Word. Those who want a duty-based love don’t seem to trust the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification to give us new, redeemed desires to pursue.

Piper also credits C. S. Lewis, whose sermon, The Weight of Glory, contains a well-known analogy. Piper says that the first page of the sermon was one of the most influential pages of literature he had ever read. This passage show that the problem with human beings is that they don’t seek pleasure (joy) with nearly the resolve and passion as they should.

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love- You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

 If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

That last line gets to the heart of the issue, I believe. The problem with duty-based love is not that it seeks no pleasure, but it seeks lower pleasures, pleasures that are often subtly very wicked. Duty-based love seeks the pleasure of satisfaction that I have been virtuous, maybe even noble, and feeds my pride. Duty-based love seeks the pleasure of having done what is morally good, and so now I feel good in myself, feeding my self-righteousness. Duty-based love seeks the pleasure of knowing I have done my duty, so that I can justify myself when I judge others for not having done theirs. Oh yes, duty-based love seeks pleasure as much as debased eroticism, just with a more respectable outcome.

But both duty and hedonistic eroticism share a common feature—they seek too little joy, or they seek it in ways that brings only minimal joy. In Part 5, we’ll explore John Piper’s explanation of why the pursuit of joy ought to be the motivating factor for everything we do, for everything we do is worship.

Did Jesus Die because of Joy or Indifference? Part 3

Since neither the context of Hebrews 12:2, nor the rest of the NT portrays ideal love as dispassionate duty, as Kenneth Wuest supposes, the question begs to be asked, where did we get this idea? Significant theological and philosophical objections also can be raised against this view.

In response to Wuest’s second point, that there is a necessary connection between selflessness and a refusal to benefit in any way from a loving act, we must reject this as the case. First, as mentioned above, ekenosen in Philippians 2:7 by no means entails that Christ emptied himself of anything, much less of self. Christ’s “self” is not in conflict with his love and supremacy, such that it needs to be laid aside. However, granting Wuest’s understanding of Christ emptying himself of self, there is still no logical entailment between selflessness and refusing to benefit in any way from the cross. It is entirely possible to act selflessly and still receive joy from one’s act (1 Thess. 3:9). More on this later.

Wuest seems to adopt the idea of duty that was articulated most clearly by Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German philosopher. Kant believed that for an act to be truly virtuous, it should be done with no consideration for the benefit the individual may receive by performing the act. The purest act would be that in which no benefit could accrue to the performer of the act. If the individual received any benefit whatsoever, said Kant, the act would be of no moral value and meaningless.

Kant’s morals were consistent with his philosophy, which divided knowledge between the phenomenal (that which can be empirically observed), and the noumenal (that which is known apart from the senses, such as God, the soul, and the thing in itself). We can believe the noumenal, said Kant, but we can only know the phenomenal. Therefore, in judging an individual’s act, the motive is inaccessible to the senses, and therefore all that counts is the act itself. The nobility of an act of love or duty is intrinsic in the act itself, with no consideration for the motives of the individual performing the act. According to Kant, then, it wouldn’t matter why Jesus went to the cross, just that he went to the cross. And even more, if Jesus received no benefit from his crucifixion, his death would be morally superior and purer. And since it’s Jesus, we must assign to him only the purest motives.

This distorted view of love and selflessness has unfortunately infected many definitions of love in Christian writing and teaching. And it is simply not biblical. God does not act dispassionately. While God is essentially impassible, in his creation of the world and covenanting together with us through Christ, he condescended and bound himself to us in Christ. His relationship is one of genuine emotion, including love, joy, wrath, and jealousy. This distinction between the essential attributes of God and the creational (or covenantal) attributes understands God to be immutable, yet genuinely respond to his creation with real emotion. As a result, there is no need to deprive Jesus of a motivation of joy in his death.

In addition, the preceding context of Hebrews 11 makes it clear that the heroes of the faith did not live from a sense of “pure” duty and Kantian indifference. Rather, they were motivated by the reward that “lay before them.” Hebrews 11:13-16 presents the paradigm, which is followed by several examples of heroes who lived for (the joy of) future reward:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

For he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (11:10)

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. (11:24-26)

Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. (11:35)

As these verses demonstrate, these heroes of the faith had a motivation of reward, or we could say, the joy of reward for what they did. This joy for what they would receive did not conflict in any way with their God-pleasing faith. In fact the opposite is true. We have already shown that there is no necessary connection between selflessness and a refusal to benefit in any way from a loving act. But it goes one step further. There is a necessary connection between an act of faith or obedience and the motivation for that act. Here is the principle: if an act of obedience or faith is not done out of a cheerful heart (seeking joy), it is not acceptable to God (2 Cor. 9:7).

Now we have turned Wuest’s essay on Greek prepositions on its head. While the Greek text certainly allows the sense of substitution or exchange in the use of anti, it is most certainly not a valid argument to say, as he does, that the rest of Scripture conflicts with our conclusion. Rather, the rest of Scripture stands in testimony against a Jesus who would die out of Kantian indifference.

Hebrews 12:2 depicts Jesus as seeking maximum joy for his own glory. He thought little of the shame of the cross because of the magnitude of the joy that would be his after securing redemption for his people. By securing redemption, he guaranteed that there would be for all eternity a people who would magnify his glory (Heb. 12:28-29). His motivation, then, was ultimately for his glory.

In Part 4 of this essay, we will look at the richness of joy-motivated love in the writings of men such as Blaise Pascal, C. S. Lewis, and John Piper. These men help reshape our faulty ideas about Christ’s love and ours.

Did Jesus Die because of Joy or Indifference? Part 2

In the last post we raised the question of whether Hebrews 12:2 teaches that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that would be his if he went to the cross and secured the salvation of his people by his atoning death, or whether Jesus endured the cross instead of retaining the joy that was already his. In Part 2 we challenge Kenneth Wuest’s argument for the latter interpretation.

First, while anti certainly carries the meaning “instead of” (substitution) or “in the place of” (exchange) in some passages, the only argument Wuest marshals against “because of” (cause), is that the sense of substitution or exchange is the predominant one in the NT. He treats this predominance as a slam-dunk argument, but actually this argument is unconvincing for at least one reason. The predominance of a particular usage of a Greek preposition should not be considered inarguably decisive unless the exceptions to that usage are exceedingly rare. In this case, however, there are several other occasions of anti being used causally, including Luke 1:20; 19:44; Acts 12:23, and 2 Thessalonians 2:10. All of these uses of anti clearly express cause. A solution to this dilemma, then, cannot be found purely on a syntactical basis.

Second, Wuest is so focused on the preposition anti, that he ignores the immediate context of both passages he cites, both Hebrews 12:1-2 and Philippians 2:1-11. Hebrews 12:1 uses the same phrase as in 12:2, “set before” (“the race set before us” and “the joy set before him”) to refer to the “race of faith” that lies before the Christian. Following Wuest’s reasoning, the race of faith for the Christian would be something already finished, which the Christian already possesses, not something lying ahead of him. And yet, that is clearly not the case. The race of faith lies before the Christian, just as the joy for which Christ endured the cross lay ahead of him. The race that Jesus ran is the race that believers run in union with him (Rom. 6:3-5). Believers run the race of faith motivated by joy (1 Thess. 2:19) because Jesus did the same.

Third, only the causal sense of anti properly parallels the phrase “despising the shame” later in 12:2. Jesus did not “disregard” or “count as nothing” (kataphronesas) the disgrace of the cross in a vacuum. He did not do so in a noble and tragic sense of destiny. Rather, he considered the indignity of the cross as little or nothing in light of the magnitude of joy he would experience by atoning for the sin of mankind, and bringing his children into eternal glory with him (1 Pet. 2:9). His attitude toward the shame of the cross was the result of his appreciation of the joy available to him.

Fourth, in the immediate preceding context of Philippians 2:5-8 (verses 1-4), Paul explicitly exhorts the Philippian believers to be like-minded so that they might make Paul’s joy full! In other words, the motivation for the believers in Philippi to become unselfish and of one mind was to make Paul’s joy complete. Additionally, the Apostle John is motivated to proclaim and write about Christ for the fullness of joy that would result (1 John 1:4; 2 John 2:12). This does not sound like a dispassionate appeal to indifferent selflessness.

The Scriptural basis for Wuest’s idea of a dispassionate Jesus, then, seems rather thin. A question worth asking is, “Where did this idea of duty-based love arise? In Part 3, we will look at the influence of Immanuel Kant on the Christian conception of love.

Did Jesus Die because of Joy or Indifference? Part 1

I came across a book this week that I’ve had in my library since my days in Bible college, Kenneth Wuest’s The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament (Moody, 1982). In a chapter on the practical use of prepositions, Wuest seeks to dispel the notion that Hebrews 12:2 teaches that Jesus went to the cross “because of the joy set before him.” The problem with this interpretation, says Wuest, is that we misread the preposition translated “for” (anti). Wuest says that the idea that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was his to claim if he did so, does not fit with Philippians 2:5-8. There we are told that Christ “emptied himself.” Wuest explains:

If Philippians 2:5-8 means anything, it means that the considerations that led our Lord to the cross were utterly devoid of any thought of self. The Greek has it, “He emptied Himself.” The word “Himself” is, in the Greek text, a pronoun in the accusative case. The action of the verb terminates upon the person or thing designated by the word in the accusative. The emptying terminated upon Himself. That is, our Lord emptied himself of self. He set self aside. That means that His going to the cross was an absolutely selfless action. (p. 57)

If Wuest is correct, then Jesus went to the cross not because of any joy he would receive, for he already had maximum joy in his exalted Preincarnate state. Rather, he chose the cross instead of the uninterrupted joy he had experienced for eternity past. He exchanged the joy he already had for the shame of the cross. He did this by emptying himself of what he wanted to do. Once he emptied himself of his will, he was able to die for sinners.

A problem emerges at this point in Wuest’s interpretation of ekenosen, the word he translates as “emptied himself” in Philippians 2:7. The interpretation of this word is not a given, for other possible meanings include, “made himself nothing,” “nullified himself,” or “made himself of no account”.  These meanings are supported by the following participial phrases in Philippians 2:7 that explain how Christ made himself nothing: by taking the very nature of a servant, and by being made in human likeness.

Nevertheless, one could still accept Wuest’s last two sentences above, as long as the selflessness of Christ did not preclude joy. But Wuest doesn’t stop there. He continues, “His attitude towards his work on the cross was not even associated with any thought of joy that might accrue to Him by reason of His sufferings.” (p. 57-8)

Wuest’s argument, that Jesus died “instead of” the joy he already possessed, rides on 1) the correct meaning of the preposition anti, and 2) the supposed necessary connection between unselfishness and disinterest in one’s own joy. One is a syntactical argument, and the other a philosophical/theological one. In Part 2 of this essay, we’ll look at these two issues separately, and see if Wuest’s argument can stand up to scrutiny. The implications of this text are important, for they weigh heavily on our idea, not only of Christ’s love for us, but also on the way in which we should love one another. Wuest’s view of a Savior who endures the cross, emptied of self, seems to promote a view similar to that of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. But is this really the correct view of Christian love?

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