August 21, 2016

The ministry of the reign of God

This post concludes a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For the other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

Christ Icon, St. Catherine's Monastery
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
We have looked at Andrew Purves' view of pastoral work as the ministry of the spoken Word of God, the heard Word of God, the grace of God, and the presence of God. Now we'll look at his understanding of pastoral work as the ministry of the reign of God, which is about helping people embrace the hope that is theirs in union with the Lord Jesus who reigns over all, both now and forever.

Rather than wishful thinking, this hope is grounded in the reality of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, who, already, has included us in his life through his vicarious (representative-substitutionary) humanity. This hope gives Christians power for living in the present, despite their weakness and suffering. Purves shares three points concerning this hope: 1) the ground of hope, 2) the liveliness of hope, and 3) the transformations of hope.

1) The ground of hope

Christian hope is based on the resurrection of Jesus (see 1 Peter 1:3, 1 Cor. 6:14, John 14:19; Acts 23:6), which the early church believed was "not only a sign that Jesus was alive, but a guarantee that they would live also" (p. 218). The church fathers understood that Jesus' resurrection must be understood in the light of his crucifixion, which is more than an event that ended Jesus' life---the cross "reached into God's inner experience in such a way that God in Christ has, firsthand, experienced life unto death" (p. 219).

Fully understanding our present suffering, God does not turn a blind eye to our weaknesses and sufferings in this sin-sick world. Though evil is a present reality, we are not alone---the Father, Son and Spirit stand with us in solidarity. Thus our hope, which looks to the future, is not dis-connected from our present. Indeed, the Father, in the Son and by the Spirit is present with us both now and in the future; in this life and the next. Purves' comments:
The hope of the gospel... lies not only in a hope for the future, but also in a hope for the past---our pasts and our coming pasts of sinfulness, disobedience and faithlessness. In the dying humanity of Jesus Christ, God has... gathered up our history and present experiences of fear, wantonness, violence, death, and so on into himself, and given humankind a hitherto undisclosed future that is now announced in the event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (p. 220)
Ascension of Jesus 
Hajdudorog Cathedral
(public domain, Wikimedia Commons)
Because Jesus, in his humanity, is our representative and substitute, when he died, we all died; and when he rose we all rose. That being so, "resurrection... must be thought of not just as a doctrine of faith to be believed, but also as a personal apprehension of faith through hope" (p. 220). The pastoral implications of this stunning reality are enormous, particularly in situations that involve death, for "hope affirms that life, not death, has the last word" (p. 221).

This hope is not mere wishful thinking, for Jesus himself is "the subject matter of hope, just as our union with him is the agency that makes hope personal and powerful in our lives." Indeed, "hope is not its own subject, at least not first of all, because Jesus and our union with him, not our hoping, is the hope of the gospel" (p. 221). This being so, in pastoral ministry, we seek to strengthen the hope of God's people by proclaiming and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Purves comments:
Pastoral work is always in one way or another a ministry of hope that because Christ is risen, we too will share in his life. This word of assurance, on the basis of this ground, must ever be on pastors' lips. The ultimate word, the decisive word that is ever and always announced is: Christ is risen! Life! (p. 222).   

2) The liveliness of hope

Jesus is the ground of hope, a hope that becomes ours in a deeply personal way through the ministry of the Spirit, who helps us experience the reality that Jesus is not just raised, but it now present with us in the power of the Spirit: Christ in your, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27) is the way Paul put it. Because Christ truly is our hope, by the power of his Spirit we live hopefully.

As Jesus promised, he is with us always (Mat. 28;20), and this is particularly true as believers gather in Christian community where they experience Christ's real presence in Word and Sacrament. Christian hope is announced in the sermon, sealed in baptism and participated in via the Eucharist. Through this gospel-focused, Christ-centered and Trinitarian-shaped worship, the answer to a key question comes into sharp focus: What happens to us when we die? The answer we are given in the gospel is that our future, both in this life and the next, is locked into Jesus, for his life is our life. "In some sense or other, then, Christian hope is for life in Christ and through Christ after death" (p. 224).

What are the implications for pastoral work? Here are a few: 
  • When preaching funeral sermons, our focus will be on witnessing to the resurrection and thus casting everything back on Jesus into whose future we entrust ourselves.
  • We will encourage people to participate in worship that orients us regarding God and ourselves---giving us perspective on life that is "true and not ephemeral and merely self-indulgent fancy, ...worship that keeps God's promises and hope for future fulfillment before us" (p. 224).
  • Our teaching and preaching will confront the Devil's lies that keep the people of God from missional living. As Purves comments: "Each Christian has a gift from the Holy Spirit, a blessing from God... given for a missional purpose.... Practical Christian renewal has to find a space for helping the people of God discover and accept their giftedness and blessedness and then to hold them accountable for its suitable employment and enjoyment" (p. 226).

3) The transformations of hope

Rather then being one of passively sitting by, or of withdrawing into a self-protective shell, a life directed by Christian hope is one in which we step out in hope and faith, willing willing to suffer as we actively seek positive transformation in the world. This involvement is not about advancing political agendas, but about being faithful to the "eschatological indicative of the gospel that creates its own imperative for action and life" (p. 228).

In short, hope fuels mission in the world as we willingly place ourselves into situations that call out for transformations. Purves comments:
The hope of the gospel must be seen as hope for the hopeless, wherever they are to be found and in whatever form that hopelessness is found.... There can be no real separation between work for social righteousness, evangelism and pastoral care.... Wherever Christ is, there the church is found. (pp. 228, 229.
As we step out in hope, our emphasis will be on the formation of community where person-building relationships are started and nurtured. As Purves notes, "In all things, Christians bear witness to the coming reign of God as relationship restorers" (p. 231).

On mission with Jesus, we will also be willing to address the great issues of national and international life in ways that reflect the mind of Christ. This "entails an advocacy of policies, attitudes, and behaviors that are congruent with the reign of God" (p. 231). This means advocacy against the things that demonize people, including their destructive behaviors. As advocates, rather than moral police, we love the sinner, even as we denounce the sin. As Purves notes, "Christians are to be advocates for social righteousness, peace, freedom, and dignity, though on gospel terms, not on terms of personal or national self-interest" (p. 232).

Purves concludes his discussion of Christian hope, and his book, noting that the prayer of the church is "Thy kingdom come." Only God can bring about his kingdom---all things finally are cast back upon him. And with that important concluding thought in mind, we pray, "Come Lord Jesus and establish the fullness of the reign of God on the earth."

If you benefited from this series of posts on Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, you will likely appreciate two other books on pastoral theology by Andrew Purves: The Crucifixion of Ministry and The Resurrection of Ministry. Enjoy!

August 15, 2016

The ministry of the presence of God

This post continues a series that examines key points in Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11.

In earlier posts we looked at Andrew Purves' view of pastoral work as the ministry of the spoken Word of God, the heard Word of God, and the grace of God. In this post we'll see what he says about pastoral work as the ministry of the presence of God.

Against the Wind by Liz Lemon Swindle
(with artist's permission)
As Purves notes, "through union with Christ we are bearers of the presence of God" (p. 193,  italics added). This is so because Jesus, by the Spirit, continues to come to us as Emmanuel (God with us). The Holy Spirit, called the Paraclete (Advocate, Comforter), then gifts believers, as members of the body of Christ, to be present with Jesus as he ministers to suffering people.

Bringing comfort and strength 

The ministry of God's presence, in Christ, by the Spirit, is fundamentally one of giving comfort. This ministry, as Purves notes, is "both a strength-giving ministry and a ministry of address [proclaiming the Word of God]" (p. 194). According to Scripture, because God has comforted us in our times of suffering, we have been enabled to join God in comforting others, thus sharing what we have received (2 Corinthians 1:4).

To join with God in this way is the essence of pastoral ministry. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (KJV), "comfort" and "consolation" translate the Greek word paraklesis, which is associated with the Old Testament's use of two evocative metaphors for pastoral work: shepherd (Isaiah 40:11) and mother (Isaiah 66:13). Note that when the God of Israel as shepherd/mother comforts his sheep/children, he calls them forth out of bondage to evil and sin. Thus comfort and deliverance (salvation) are closely linked. And so it is in the New Testament where the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ comforts his children by calling them forth into his salvation where they are gifted to share with him in bringing comfort (salvation-deliverance-healing) to others. Note these comments from Purves:
There is a power for ministry in those who are themselves wounded, who have received the comfort of God, and who now minister to others in the strength of healing. (p. 197)
We receive from Christ the paraklesis of God; but we share also in union with Christ his ministry of comfort. Aside from this participation, our ability to receive and give comfort is bereft of the power of the comfort that is abundant for us and for others. (p. 198) 
Purves makes three points about pastoral work as participation in the comforting-healing-transforming, personal presence of God in the lives of those who suffer:
  1. As ministers of Christ, we can be confident that God is at work bringing comfort to those who are afflicted. Thus we can (and should) confidently announce to them the sure word that God has not abandoned them and is present to console them. 
  2. We can proclaim to them that their suffering is neither meaningless nor purposeless. We can tell them that in and through Jesus Christ, God assumes their afflictions and redeems them, turning them into empowerment for ministry to others.
  3. We can announce to them that in suffering they are not alone, but part of the body of Christ, where when one member suffers, the whole body suffers and is there with them to bring comfort.

Sharing in God's loving care for persons 

As ministers, it is important we keep in mind that pastoral ministry is about what God himself is doing to bring comfort and strength to hurting people. Our job, therefore, is to point people not to ourselves, but to the divine Comforter. We do so largely by being present with them. As Purves notes, "encouraging people to cry out to the God who has already drawn near and addressed them in redeeming love and grace is a most significant part of pastoral work" (p. 200).

As we bring this encouragement through our presence, the Spirit will, at times, lead us to offer words of admonition and exhortation. We do so, "not as a moral appeal, but...on the basis of what Christ has done. Salvation is its presupposition and the [admonition] is ultimately for [the purpose of] fruit bearing" (p. 204). Purves continues:
Pastoral admonition... urges people to live within a framework or boundary, and it identifies behaviors and attitudes that are not acceptable, and other that are to be expected and encouraged. The Scriptures teach that right believing will lead to right living; but right living must be taught and people must be guided. (p. 205)
So we do have our part as pastoral ministers in the lives of those who suffer. However, we must always keep clearly in mind that it is God's ministry---he is the One who comforts, converts and when needed, disciplines. We then seek to participate with him with competence, in humility seeing our weakness, and recognizing that God himself makes us competent (2 Corinthians 3:6). As Purves notes, "It is in union with Christ that we share in Christ's competence and thus in his ministry" (p. 208). That said, Purves adds this caveat: "It would be wrong to think that ministry is an invitation to passivity [or incompetence], for that would be a misunderstanding of human weakness" (p. 208).

May the Father of comfort and strength, through his Son, and by his Spirit (the Paraclete), 
work in and through your ministry of presence to bring his comfort to many, 
so that they too may participate with him in bringing comfort to many. 

August 8, 2016

The ministry of the grace of God

This post continues a series that examines key points in Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 81011.

So far we've explored Purves' view of pastoral work as ministry of the spoken Word of God and the heard Word of God. Now we'll see what he says about pastoral work (including the work of disciplemaking) being ministry of the grace of God.

It's all about grace

As Purves emphasizes, through union with Christ, by the Spirit, we are both recipients and bearers of the grace of God. We bear God's grace through "a life of holiness lived graciously as Christian vocation." This vocation is the particular way we go about "sharing in [Christ's] ministry to the glory of God, for the sake of the world" (p. 176). It is vitally important to note that this ministry, which includes making disciples with Jesus, is all about grace.

Come and See by Liz Lemon Swindle (use with permission)

It's not about what we do for ourselves

It's common for churches to operate in a way that views grace as limited to justification with discipleship being largely about what we do through our own (Spirit-empowered) efforts. But as Purves notes, our life in, by and with Christ (including our sanctification) is about grace from start to finish. Therefore pastoral work, which appropriately includes a focus on sanctification, must be viewed not as what we get people to do for themselves, but what we do to help them embrace and participate in the reality of Christ's obedient human response to the Father, by the Spirit, on their behalf. Said another way, we help them to be who they, in Christ, truly are (already).

Isn't disciplemaking legalistic?

Some, embracing this understanding that sanctification is about what Christ does for us, mistakenly reject disciplemaking as being legalistic. But this rejection is tantamount to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater," for as Purves notes, referencing Karl Barth's teaching, God's indicative of sanctification ("I will be your God") has a corresponding imperative ("You shall be my people"). The point is that we are called to participate in our sanctification, which is accomplished already in Christ (see Colossians 3:3). Purves points out the implications of this understanding for our work in pastoral ministry (including our disciplemaking ministries):
Pastoral work must have the call to discipleship as vocation clearly in mind---that is, living in all things to the glory of God for the sake of the world, and the ministry of the grace of God becomes the place where we hold together two seemingly different but necessarily conjoined aspects of Christian experience: pastoral care as the announcement of forgiveness and communion, and the grateful call to discipleship as lived Christian vocation. (p. 176, emphasis added)

Discipleship: the journey from union to communion

Seen from this perspective, discipleship, which includes a calling to Christian vocation-ministry, has principally to do with what Purves refers to as "restoration to communion" (p. 177). This is the movement that takes us from union to communion with God. But a word of caution is in order: we must not conceive of union and communion as being somehow separated, "as if we might foolishly choose the one without the other" (p. 177). The point is that justification and sanctification go together. Both are "in Christ" and thus both are about grace---the gracious work of the triune God on our behalf to rescue us by including us in his life (union) and thus to restore us to fellowship (communion) with himself. Both union and communion call forth from us a response---not to make union and communion "actual" but so that we might, as believers, experience the reality (or, said another way, so that we might who we truly are). As Purves goes on to note, fundamental to that experience is being embraced by the reality of both God's forgiveness (our justification) and the depth of the communion that is ours with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit (our sanctification).

Helping people experience the reality of God's forgiveness

Pastoral ministry is fundamentally about helping people experience God's forgiveness. But to do that, we must begin by helping them to know that triune God who is love. Purves elaborates;
All pastoral work begins within the framework and announcement of the love of God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). The gospel begins from the standpoint that God so loved the world... (John 3:16). We must first approach people not with God's judgment, or even with God's forgiveness---for we cannot assume that a person knows who the God is who judges or forgives him or her.... Thus the first pastoral movement of the ministry of grace must be, quite simply (although of immense significance), the announcement: "Jesus Christ is Lord, and this Jesus who is God loves you." (pp. 179-80)
On this basis, we can then declare to people that reality that this God of love has forgiven them. I urge pastors not to fear being "too generous" in this declaration. To be miserly "signals some kind of legalism" (p. 182). According to Purves, pastoral care properly grounded in the grace of the forgiveness of God will have these characteristics:
  • Above all else, it is a ministry of love expressed through caring.
  • It sees each person "in the light of the fact that Jesus Christ lived and died for this person, who, therefore, has been forgiven and restored to fellowship with the Father. In Jesus Christ this person has been elected to be God's friend, and is now called through the Holy Spirit correspondingly to live this truth" (p. 183). Note that the imperative ("live this truth") follows the indicative ("has been forgiven and restored"). As ministers of the grace of God, we see the person before us as "God's person," even if she does not yet know who she truly is.

Helping people experience the reality of communion with God

In Galatians 4:5 Paul gives us the frame of reference for the ministry of grace, noting that God sent his Son "to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." Unfortunately, some pastors attend more to the "under the law" part, while minimizing the "adoption as children" part. In doing so they are (perhaps unwittingly) "substituting a legal standing for a filial... thereby undercutting the great promise of the gospel." It's important to note that the atonement means not only forgiveness-redemption---it also means sharing in Jesus' sonship (a filial relationship) with his Father. By grace, having been forgiven/redeemed, we are restored "from our orphan state to communion through adoption" (p. 184). In union with Christ we come to God as God's children, a reality that has two important implications for our work as pastors and other ministers of the gospel:
  • Worship. Building on the indicative that we are God's adopted children, we lead people to the imperative (i.e. the grateful response) of the worship of God, which is our sharing in Jesus' own communion with his Father. Seen from this viewpoint, worship is about relationship. Moreover, we understand that this relational worship has sacramental value, not merely symbolic value. As Purves notes, all pastoral work "comes from Word and sacrament and returns to Word and sacrament, which means that pastoral work legitimately seeks to bring people into worship" (p. 185). Pastoral, sacramental (liturgical) practices include anointing the sick, celebrating Holy Communion, reciting ancient prayers, reading and interpreting Holy Scripture, confessing of sin and declaring absolution, and singing hymns and psalms.
  • Peace with God. "Pastoral work has the extraordinary privilege of being able to say to all manner of people in all kinds of situations, 'You belong to God; God has made you the beloved through Jesus Christ and restored you to fellowship with God. Receive who you are, and rejoice!" (p. 187, italics added).

Concluding thoughts

Here are concluding thoughts from Purves on pastoral ministry as ministry of the grace of God.
  • "To participate in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is to share in his life as the grace of God, from God, to and for us" (p. 187).
  • "The grace that is for all... means both the mercy of God and communion with God for all and the vocation given to all who live in Christ by the act of the Holy Spirit. It means both that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6), and that Christ's power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)" (pp. 188-9).
  • "There is no reality of justification that is not also life in the Spirit, or sanctification. The Bible calls this being born again, and it leads to the Christian life as our life "in Christ" as opposed to our life "in Adam".... Pastoral work properly includes among its responsibilities the sounding of the call to vocation... [indeed] every Christian is called in virtue of the sanctity of the one who calls" (p. 189).
  • "The 'superabundance of grace' (Rom. 5;20) does not imply disregard for ethically responsible and vocationally oriented living. 'In Christ' means living in the explicit context of the fundamental relationship with Jesus Christ that determines everything else. The priority of the grace of the indicative is the ground of the imperative, which is no less gracious---it is also 'in Christ.' Any weakening of the imperative however, would be to advocate a practical theology of cheap grace, grace without obligation or discipline or cost" (p. 190).
  • "Discipleship is the call to follow Jesus; conversion is the turning to God and the turning to others; vocation is the daily living in all things to God's glory. Discipleship, conversion, and vocation refer to the same reality---to life 'in Christ'---but from distinct perspectives" (p. 190, italics added).
  • "Discipleship reminds us of our being bound to Jesus Christ. Conversion reminds us that we are always in process of being turned back to God. Vocation reminds us that discipleship and conversion are not merely pious states or abstract theological concepts, but actual conditions of Christian existence, the truth of which is expressed through human work day by day" (p. 190, italics added).
  • "Living out our vocation is to be understood in such a way that there is congruence between who we are in Christ and our life" (p. 190).
  • "Pastoral work that does not include the call to conversion, discipleship, and vocation leaves people passive recipients of [God's grace]. They can never know the full power and experience of grace in their lives, for they receive grace in one dimension only" (pp. 191-2).
  • "The call 'Follow me' comes to every Christian from Jesus Christ himself. Karl Barth, in typical fashion, notes that grace here takes the form of command. The grace that unites us with Christ requires that we are to do something, namely, share in his mission from the Father in some regard" (p. 192).
  • "We can only do as we are bidden (Matt. 14:28). But we are bidden by Christ, to whom we are bound. That is why it is grace, and that is why the yoke of Christ is easy and his burden light (Matt. 11:30)" (p. 192).
For more on this topic, click here for another Surprising God post; here for a GCI Weekly Update article, and watch this video:

July 30, 2016

How big is hell?

GCI President Joseph Tkach answers a question that many people ask. This post appeared originally in GCI Weekly Update.

Tammy and Joseph Tkach
Unless my wife Tammy is traveling with me, most of my seatmates on planes don't seem to want much conversation---especially after they ask, “What do you do?,” and I reply, "I’m a pastor." But when I say "I supervise missionary work," more conversation often ensues.

Recently, a seatmate asked, “How big do you think hell is?” It’s interesting he didn’t ask for my definition of hell, or what the Bible says about it. He just wanted to know how big it is. I jokingly asked if he was familiar with the pictures of Dante’s Inferno (see an example below). When he replied "no" I said, “Dante makes it look as though hell is already full!” I went on to explain that the topic of hell seems to suffer from more misinformation that is typically realized.

Dante's Inferno by Bartolomeo Di Fruosino
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Most are surprised to learn that the early church did not dogmatize the topic of hell, nor was there a singular view of the subject. In fact, hell is not mentioned in the Apostle's Creed or the early versions of the Nicene Creed. Perhaps this was because the early church fathers realized humans aren't qualified to judge such matters of eternal consequence---only Jesus Christ is.

If we take Jesus seriously when he teaches about mercy, we should also take him seriously when he teaches about punishment. After all, mercy only has meaning if we are escaping a real punishment. Jesus used a variety of word-pictures for the punishment of those who refuse the loving mercy of God: fire, darkness, pain and destruction. In doing so he was describing the result of a life of perpetual resistance to God’s love. Whatever hell is, it is a state of alienation from God for those who refuse his unconditional love, grace and mercy. However, this does not mean that God is the one who dispenses the pain and anguish. It is not the equivalent of parents spanking or abusing their children.

 Tragically, the all-too-common misperception of God dispensing pain arises from a faulty view of God’s nature. It ignores the eternal relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit, which is lived out in the life of Jesus. It misses the point of God’s kind of humility, which is expressed in mutual self-deference to the other. We should always bear in mind that Jesus said he came to reveal the Father (Matthew 11:27; John 17:25-26). And the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal Jesus’ mission (Hebrews 10:15-16). Jesus taught that when the Spirit comes, he will not bear witness to himself but to Jesus (John 15:26). We see this mutual, reciprocal love in Jesus’ teaching about his purpose for coming to earth, saying he did not come to condemn the world but to save (rescue) it (John 3:17).

Even more tragically, many people view God as if he suffers from manic depression or a multiple personality disorder. They struggle with the idea that on the one side, God is a being of wrath and then on the other he is a God of love. Some go so far as saying the Father has wrath, but Jesus came to bring love. But consider this: if Jesus is the “exact representation” of the Father (Hebrews 1:3) we cannot separate the Father’s nature from the Son’s nature or the Son’s nature from the Father’s. The same is true of the Spirit. Rather than seeing God in such an inconsistent, dissected manner, it's vital to realize that wrath and love are two aspects of a single attribute fundamental to the character of God.

Our talk about God is only accurate when based on the reality of Jesus Christ. He came from the Father to reveal the Father. And what we see in his life and ministry, including what he did at the cross, is that God’s love and God’s wrath are, finally, not separate. At the cross, God's love in Christ is patently real, but so is God’s hatred toward sin. It isn’t that God loves the elect and hates the reprobate---rather, he loves us all, but hates the sin in our lives. Therefore we should think of hell in the same framework as we think of heaven by relating both to the love of God in Christ.

God tells us to love our enemies and does no less himself. Because he loves us, he must be against whatever is against us---whatever damages us, harms us, and ruins our relationships with God and with others. Anything less would not be loving. The sin in us is the object of God’s wrath because we are objects of his love. At the cross, we see that the wrath of God has been meted out against human sin, guilt and alienation. Sin was literally put to death there. And it is of paramount importance to see that Christ assumed our broken, diseased humanity, turned it back to God and took on himself the judgment against our sin and guilt. As a result, we have been rescued from our sin, while our sin is condemned and sent away.

The punishment due sin was (note the past tense) endured on the cross and does not take place in hell. Using an interesting analogy, Trinitarian theologian Colin Gunton equated God's love seen at the cross of Christ with the cosmos suffering from cancer and Jesus taking all of that cancer into his being to heal it. At the cross we see both God's judgment against evil and God's love for sinners. Since God loves sinners, our understanding of hell must account for both the judgment and the love of God that takes place at the cross.

Think of this: a person who rejects God's love is not going to enjoy heaven, and God is not going to force them to be part of the heavenly celebration. Even if he did, they would not enjoy it or experience its benefits. Instead, God permits those who repudiate his mercy to follow their own direction---one decisively shaped by their rejection of God’s love and their perpetual choosing of evil. They cannot see love and mercy as a good choice since they insist on having their own way, saving their pride, no matter what the consequences.

Hell is therefore created by those who eternally resist God's love---it is for those who will not and thus cannot be in the presence of God's holy love. C.S. Lewis describes this understanding well in his novella, The Great Divorce:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in hell, choose to be there. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. For those who knock, it is opened. 
When we talk about the glories of heaven compared to the agonies of hell, we should bear in mind that we really cannot conceive the reality of either. It is, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard and what no mind has conceived. The best way to contrast heaven and hell is the way C.S. Lewis described it:
And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies, and itchings that it [hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. 
We've all experienced loneliness in feeling separate from God and we've all experienced joy in understanding we are loved, forgiven, adopted and included by God in the love and life shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. One simply cannot compare one experience with the other.

Here is a final thought to bear in mind when we think of hell as the culmination of judgment: Not only should we see that hell is related to the love of God, but that heaven is also part of the judgment of God. Those who turn to Christ are overjoyed and overwhelmed in realizing that Jesus is the real Judge---a judge who died for the people he judges.

“The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus, our Judge, has paid the penalty for the sin of all. Being in heaven means being in fellowship and communion with the Judge who saves by means of his judgment. The one who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and the wicked, is the one who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ already has taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. Therefore judgment should signal a time of joy for everyone, as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where evil is banished forever and nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity. Those who want to live with Christ in that goodness will be able to do so. But those who do not want to. will not be forced to do so.

Our hope is in God who sent his Son who ministered to the cosmos through the Spirit to make hell a smaller, rather than a larger place. The real answer to my seatmate's question is this: Only God knows how big hell will be and he has done everything he can to make it as small as possible. Given who God is in Jesus Christ, there is no good reason for anyone to go to hell---there is only the foolish "reason" of willfully repudiating God's love and forgiveness in order to keep one’s pride intact.

July 22, 2016

The ministry of the heard Word of God

This post continues a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 91011.

Abide with Me by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)
We looked last time at the ministry of the spoken Word of God (in preaching and pastoral care). Now we'll look at the ministry of the heard Word of God. Jesus is the focus in both, for as Purves notes, as the incarnate Word of God, Jesus "not only speaks God's Word to and for a man he hears and receives God's Word on our behalf" (p. 166). This is truly good news, because left to our own devices in either aspect of ministry, we are cast back on ourselves---left helpless and without hope.

Jesus: speaking God and hearing man

As Purves notes, Jesus is "speaking God and a hearing man, and this for us." Indeed, the gospel declares that the God-man Jesus, being our representative and substitute, both speaks and hears (and in hearing obeys) God's Word on our behalf. That being so, "at all points the ministry of the gospel is a ministry of God's grace" (p. 167). Some object to this teaching, wrongly thinking it means there is no calling (imperative) for us as persons to proclaim and hear/obey God's Word. Purves is well aware of this objection and gives this response:
That which has been heard vicariously [by Christ on our behalf] can by God's empowering Spirit be heard by us for what it is, the Word of God with its claims upon [our] life. Yet even then, let there be no doubt, that later hearing is itself a hearing "in Christ," a hearing, that is, in which [the individual] person participates in that which Christ has already heard on her behalf... Our human hearing of the Word of God always happens in union with the actuality of Christ's hearing for us, so that the hearing of the Word of God is, as with everything else, a gracious gift of God in and through Jesus Christ. (p. 168)

The basis of our assurance

It is on this basis that we gain true assurance of salvation, for salvation, from first to last, is God's work on our behalf, not our own work. Purves comments:
While a [personal] response is called for, we are saved by God in, through, and as Jesus Christ. This means that the hope of salvation rests in God's goodness, not in a required response or behavior... (p. 169) 
This is good news for those who are cognitively impaired (like who suffer with Alzheimer's disease, or for babes in arm). It is also good news for the rest of us, particularly when we take seriously how deep the "stain of sin" affects us all, for  the effects of the fall are truly pervasive.

Is this universalism?

Don't misunderstand Purves' point here. He is not teaching universalism. As he is careful to note, in the case of those who in Christ can hear and respond (and thus have response-ability) a response is called for and by the Spirit is enabled. Nevertheless, we all (no matter what our limitations) can, and should, rest assured that the imperfection (feebleness) of our response does not jeopardize our salvation, for in the end, Christ has heard God's Word and on our behalf has already said "yes." As pastors we can, and with confidence should proclaim this word of comfort. It truly is affirmation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what about faith?

Lord I Believe! by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)
Unfortunately, especially since the Reformation, the Latin theological tradition (North American Evangelicalism being a primary example) has tended to emphasize heavily the faith of the believer, which has been elevated to a precondition for salvation. But if that is the case, how is a person to know if they have enough of the right kind of faith to be reassured that they truly are saved? This is a huge pastoral issue. Sadly, the "bottom line" of salvation for many is this factor of human decision---a paradigm that, according to Purves, leads to "a religion of...conditionalism" (p. 170). He comments:
A fully evangelical [Christ- and gospel-centered] perspective on faith does not cast persons back upon themselves, whether upon religious experiences of some kind or the assent given to statements of belief. Here, as at all other points of Christian faith and experience, the primary reference is to Jesus Christ as the one who stands in for us, doing for us what we do not and cannot do for ourselves. In this case, Jesus Christ is the one who, in the flesh of our humanity, hears and responds disbelievingly and faithfully to the Word of God. Before we have faith, he is the believing human into whose faith we are engrafted, so that at the last we are cast upon his faithfulness and not our own. This is not to dispute the faith that grows within, which is the Spirit's gift. Neither is it to say that in the freedom of Christ's faith for us to which we in the Spirit are engrafted we may not with perversity and ingratitude walk away from faith in unbelief to our judgment. This is surely a great mystery. Nevertheless, the whole movement of the gospel is away from us and toward Christ, in whom we have faith. Faith involves our trust in God's gift rather than confidence in our choices. (p. 171) 
In the end, "our faith" as we might refer to it, is not our own, but what God, by grace, has done in our life as a special gift of the Spirit who joins us to Jesus, including to his faith (faithfulness) on our behalf. "In union with Christ, that which is his becomes ours" (p. 171).

What should we do as pastoral ministers?

Think now about our response to all this as pastors and ministry leaders. Our calling is not to "throw people back on themselves" (as in urging them to "work up" faith), but to encourage them to throw themselves on Christ---to trust in him fully, including relying on his faith, not their own. Remember the statement in the Gospel of Mark: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24 KJV). What we do in ministry must always be shaped by the Christian truth that in all things we, and those we serve, do not stand before God on the strength of our own piety, good works or faith. Rather, because the Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus we share in everything that he is, has done and will yet do---all involving both hearing and obeying the Word of God on our behalf. Ministers of Christ, I implore you---proclaim this gospel truth to your people and then minister accordingly.