Archives For Salvation

One of the pivotal events in the history of God’s grace is found in the Torah account of a dream. Jacob was the heir of Abraham, through whom the Lord promised to redeem the world. But Jacob was far from noble.

Nevertheless, because of the Lord’s mercy (the same mercy he offers to us), he forgave Jacob and promised to bless his descendants. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder extending from earth all the way to heaven. “And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” (Genesis 28).

This dynamic connection between heaven and earth reveals God’s constant concern for his creation. Some, such as Martin Luther, have seen in the dream a foreshadowing of the Incarnation itself.

This ladder or stairway can be interpreted in a variety of ways. One thing it is not, however, is a guide to human ascent from our fallen world to the presence of our Creator. (The Lord is the one who comes to us.)

Having acknowledged that the dream’s purpose is not to model sanctification or individual spiritual ascent, it is easy to see why the metaphor of ladders, and the action of climbing, give way to other applications.

The most vivid contemporary example comes in the form of a Christian spiritual entitled “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” A number of versions of the lyrics exist. This is quite unsurprising since it began as part of an oral tradition. According to one website devoted to spirituals, the following lyrics are typical.*

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder
Soldier of the Cross

Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Ev’ry round goes higher ‘n’ higher
Soldier of the Cross

Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Brother do you love my Jesus
Soldier of the Cross

If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
If you love him why not serve him
Soldier of the Cross

While there are longer versions, this one aptly illustrates how the metaphor of the ladder—in this case, explicitly Jacob’s ladder—offered a powerful image of deliverance. Climbing the ladder with Jesus, was tantamount to experiencing deliverance from the ills of this world.

America’s Library of Congress offers a useful page which describes “African American Gospel music [as] a form of euphoric, rhythmic, spiritual music rooted in the solo and responsive church singing of the African American South.” They add that “its development coincided with—and is germane to—the development of rhythm and blues.” The site offers links to four 1943 recordings of spirituals. None of these, however, is the hymn we are discussing.

“We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” was one of the earliest spirituals to be widely adopted by the interracial faith community. It is familiar in many denominations, and was recently sung in my own Lutheran congregation. Hymnary.org states the song has been “published in 79 hymnals.” Even those who consider themselves unfamiliar with the hymn often recognize its rousing refrain: “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Soldiers of the Cross.”

The talented Paul Robeson recorded the hymn on a number of his albums. The inspiring rendition by scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon was included in Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War.

C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Ladder

The ladder offers such a convenient analogy for growth or spiritual maturation that others have also applied it in this manner. The ladders inspired by Jacob’s dream include the following two which continue to influence Christian disciples today, even though they were written many centuries ago. The second of these was considered by C.S. Lewis to be one of the works of faith influential in his life.

John Climacus (579-649) was a Christian teenager when he entered the monastic life at the foot of Mount Sinai. He soon earned the respect of his elders in that barren land. In the words of Fathers of the Desert, “in this ascetic seclusion he became ripe for the designs of God.”

The abbot of a monastery on the Red Sea requested guidance on the ascetic life to use with his monks. John responded with The Ladder of Divine Ascent. You can download a modern translation of this priceless work here. While the treatise was written specifically to guide monastics in their spiritual growth, many other Christians have also found its wisdom helpful in their own, non-monastic settings.

John introduces the virtue of obedience with two vivid images used by the Apostle Paul, the athlete in training and the armor of God.

Our treatise now appropriately touches upon warriors and athletes of Christ [and the manner in which] the holy soul steadily ascends to heaven as upon golden wings. And perhaps it was about this that he who had received the Holy Spirit sang: Who will give me wings like a dove? And I will fly by activity, and be at rest by contemplation and humility.

But let us not fail, if you agree, to describe clearly in our treatise the weapons of these brave warriors: how they hold the shield of faith in God and their trainer, and with it they ward off, so to speak, every thought of unbelief and vacillation; how they constantly raise the drawn sword of the Spirit and slay every wish of their own that approaches them; how, clad in the iron armour of meekness and patience, they avert every insult and injury and missile.

And for a helmet of salvation they have their superior’s protection through prayer. And they do not stand with their feet together, for one is stretched out in service and the other is immovable in prayer.

The following passage will be of particular interest to Christian writers. John advises those drawing closer to God to maintain a journal of their progress and insights. I offer it within its wise context.

Let all of us who wish to fear the Lord struggle with our whole might, so that in the school of virtue we do not acquire for ourselves malice and vice, cunning and craftiness, curiosity and anger. For it does happen, and no wonder!

As long as a man is a private individual, or a seaman, or a tiller of the soil, the King’s enemies do not war so much against him. But when they see him taking the King’s colours, and the shield, and the dagger, and the sword, and the bow, and clad in soldier’s garb, then they gnash at him with their teeth, and do all in their power to destroy him. And so, let us not slumber.

I have seen innocent and most beautiful children come to school for the sake of wisdom, education and profit, but through contact with the other pupils they learn there nothing but cunning and vice. The intelligent will understand this.

It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account.

In the fourteenth century, an Augustinian mystic in England wrote a book called The Scale [Ladder] of Perfection.” Walter Hilton (c. 1340-1396) provides spiritual exercises requested by a woman adopting life as an anchoress.⁑ You can download a free copy of Evelyn Underhill’s 1923 edition of Hilton’s counsel at Internet Archive.

In 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote to Roman Catholic monk Bede Griffiths in response to the latter’s question about his familiarity with Hilton’s work. “Yes, I’ve read the Scale of Perfection with much admiration. I think of sending the anonymous translator a list of passages that he might reconsider for the next edition.” That same decade Lewis’ collected correspondence reveals he recommended the title to at least two individuals.

Of greatest interest to students of C.S. Lewis will be his mention of the medieval treatise in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. Here the great author describes his worldly understanding of prayer served as a terrible stumbling block to his faith.

To these nagging suggestions my reaction was, on the whole, the most foolish I could have adopted. I set myself a standard. No clause of my prayer was to be allowed to pass muster unless it was accompanied by what I called a “realization,” by which I meant a certain vividness of the imagination and the affections.

My nightly task was to produce by sheer will power a phenomenon which will power could never produce, which was so ill-defined that I could never say with absolute confidence whether it had occurred, and which, even when it did occur, was of very mediocre spiritual value.

If only someone had read to me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort “by maistry” what God does not give! But no one did; and night after night, dizzy with desire for sleep and often in a kind of despair, I endeavored to pump up my “realizations.” The thing threatened to become an infinite regress.

One began of course by praying for good “realizations.” But had that preliminary prayer itself been “realized”? This question I think I still had enough sense to dismiss; otherwise it might have been as difficult to begin my prayers as to end them.

How it all comes back! The cold oilcloth, the quarters chiming, the night slipping past, the sickening, hopeless weariness. This was the burden from which I longed with soul and body to escape. It had already brought me to such a pass that the nightly torment projected its gloom over the whole evening, and I dreaded bedtime as if I were a chronic sufferer from insomnia. Had I pursued the same road much further I think I should have gone mad.

This ludicrous burden of false duties in prayer provided, of course, an unconscious motive for wishing to shuffle off the Christian faith; but about the same time, or a little later, conscious causes of doubt arose.

David Downing, co-director of the Wade Center wrote an excellent essay entitled “Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis” which describes in the broader context what C.S. Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Note for example a passage in Surprised by Joy in which Lewis discusses the loss of his childhood faith while at Wynyard School in England. He explains that his schoolboy faith did not provide him with assurance or comfort, but created rather self-condemnation.

He fell into an internalized legalism, such that his private prayers never seemed good enough. He felt his lips were saying the right things, but his mind and heart were not in the words. Lewis adds “if only someone had read me old Walter Hilton’s warning that we must never in prayer strive to extort ‘by maistry’ [mastery] what God does not give.”

This is one of those casual references in Lewis which reveals a whole other side to him which may surprise those who think of him mainly as a Christian rationalist. “Old Walter Hilton” is the fourteenth-century author of a manual for contemplatives called The Scale of Perfection. This book is sometimes called The Ladder of Perfection, as it presents the image of a ladder upon which one’s soul may ascend to a place of perfect unity and rest in the Spirit of God . . . [passage continued in footnotes]. ⁂

We’ve considered four separate ladders today. Despite their differences, they all share a common trait—they are meaningful to those who are earnest about growing in the faith. Whether slave or free, wise or simple, or hermit or cosmopolitan—each of these ladders affirms eternal truths.

Underhill described Hilton’s motivation for writing in this way: “It is for those who crave for this deeper consciousness of reality, and feel this impulse to a complete consecration, that Hilton writes.” I believe this is true for the authors of each of these four treasures.


* The following, simpler version appears to follow an earlier tradition. A musical accompaniment for this example can be found in The Books of American Negro Spirituals. The author, James Weldon Johnson (1876-1938), provides a rich and earnest introduction to the book, originally published in two volumes. He expresses his hope that collection “will further endear these sons to those who love Spirituals, and will awaken an interest in many others.”

We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
We am clim’in’ Jacob’s ladder
Soldiers of the cross

O

Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Ev’ry roun’ goes higher, higher
Soldiers of the cross

⁑ An anchoress (or anchorite) was a religious woman (or man) who would often be walled off in their monastic cell near a church, to foster their life of prayer by freeing them from interruption.

⁂ Downing’s discussion of C.S. Lewis’ reference to Walter Hinton’s insights on prayer is so valuable that I am compelled to offer the rest of it here. You can read the entire essay via the link on the article’s title.

The passage about “maistry” Lewis wished he’d known as a boy comes early in The Scale of Perfection, a section about different kinds of prayer, including liturgical prayers, spontaneous prayers, and “prayers in the heart alone” which do not use words.

Hilton’s advice for people “who are troubled by vain thoughts in their prayer” is not to feel alone. He notes it is very common to be distracted in prayer by thoughts of what “you have done or will do, other people’s actions, or matters hindering or vexing you.”

Hilton goes on to explain that no one can keep fully the Lord’s command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. The best you can do is humbly acknowledge your weakness and ask for mercy. However badly one’s first resolve fades, says Hilton, you should not get “too fearful, too angry with yourself, or impatient with God for not giving you savor and spiritual sweetness in devotion.”

Instead of feeling wretched, it is better to leave off and go do some other good or useful work, resolving to do better next time. Hilton concludes that even if you fail in prayer a hundred times, or a thousand, God in his charity will reward you for your labor. Walter Hilton was the canon of a priory in the Midlands of England and an experienced spiritual director of those who had taken monastic vows. His book is full of mellow wisdom about spiritual growth, and Lewis considered it one of “great Christian books” that is too often neglected by modern believers.

Hilton’s recurring theme—do what you know to be right and don’t worry about your feelings—is one that appears often in Lewis’s own Christian meditations. But, alas, Lewis as a boy did not have the benefit of Hilton’s advice.

In those boyhood years at Wynyard, he was trapped in a religion of guilt, not grace. More and more he came to associate Christianity with condemnation of others, as in Northern Ireland, or condemnation of oneself, for not living up to God’s standards.


A Note on the Illustration

Nicolas Dipre was a French early Renaissance painter, who flourished 1495-1532. His painting of Jacob’s Ladder portrays the biblical account of the Jewish patriarch’s dream. The icon Ladder of Divine Ascent was painted four centuries earlier by an anonymous iconographer. It is from Saint Catherine’s Monastery beside Mount Sinai, and portrays the ascent of saints in the pursuit of holiness. While fallen angels (devils) seek to drag them from the path, John Climacus leads other in the path to heaven.

shakespearean-suicideAre all who commit suicide damned? Some would claim this is true. I, however, agree with Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis that God’s mercy is capable of rescuing even these. Suicide invariably leaves in its wake more sorrow than it heals.

Even the irreligious Mark Twain recognized this. In 1889 he wrote to a friend: “I do see that there is an argument against suicide: the grief of the worshipers left behind, the awful famine in their hearts, these are too costly terms for the release.”

I share with Lewis and Luther the belief that suicide can be forgiven. Our position is based on our personal understanding of the counsel in God’s word, as viewed through the lens of the Incarnate Word himself. As a personal conviction, not based on clear biblical guidance yea or nay, it is not a concept that should be formally taught.

There a second reason why this interpretation should not be actively promoted. It may encourage the premature ending of human life. The fact is that many, perhaps most, people contemplate suicide at some point in their life. But nearly all choose instead to live—some because of their fear of damnation. Prevented from killing themselves due to this fear, the critical moment passes, and they learn suicidal impulses are a transitory curse. Some seek help from others, which is even better.

In other words, when people are especially vulnerable to such thoughts, the last thing they need to hear is that suicide offers a ticket from the trials of this life to the bliss of heaven. On the contrary, if they can be discouraged from choosing the irreversible course during these moments of deep confusion and suffering, they can survive to experience restoration and renewed hope.

Many potential suicides press on and end up living lives filled with joy, contentment and meaning.

Martin Luther put it this way.

I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil.

They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber.

However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc.

Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned.

However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.

C.S. Lewis understood this dilemma as well. In a 1955 letter to Sheldon Vanauken, who had lost his wife and was drowning in grief, Lewis even appealed to the church’s traditional teaching on the subject to quash in advance any contemplation of suicide.

[Jean] was further on [more spiritually mature] than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on.

That is one of the many reasons why suicide is out of the question. (Another is the absence of any ground for believing that death by that route would reunite you with her. Why should it? You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient.)

There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.

In our world, which appears to value life less each day, Lewis proclaimed the mere Christian commitment to the value of every life. Historian Richard Weikart addresses this in “C.S. Lewis and the Death of Humanity, or Heeding C.S. Lewis’s Warnings against Dehumanizing Ideologies.”

Many Christians recognize that we are living in a “culture of death,” where—especially in intellectual circles—there is easy acceptance of abortion and increasing support for physician-assisted suicide, infanticide, and euthanasia. While many Christians make cogent arguments against such practices—as they should—we seem to be losing ground.

This is because our society is embracing secular philosophies and ideologies, many of which deny that the cosmos has any purpose, meaning, or significance. Once the cosmos is stripped of value, humanity is not far behind, especially since most secularists have also rejected any objective morality.

When C.S. Lewis cautioned about the dangers of dehumanizing secular ideologies in The Abolition of Man and his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength, many Christians took notice. But, on the whole, the intellectual world paid little heed, careening further down the fateful road against which Lewis warned. Lewis’s critique is still a powerful antidote to the degrading vision of humanity being foisted on us by intellectuals in many institutions of higher learning.

We Christians are not immune to the genuine power of some of these arguments. For example, as a military chaplain I determined many years ago to one day write an article about the complexity of “Euthanasia on the Battlefield.” We do not serve Christ well by ignoring complex subjects or dismissing the reasoning of our “adversaries” without giving their points genuine consideration.

The ultimate barrier comes in the fact that our worldviews ultimately collide. Secularism and other religious philosophies are irreconcilable with the teachings of the One who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis notes that suicide has been regarded in some philosophies as a virtuous path. Not so, in Christianity.

If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his—the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own:’ for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.

Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it. . . . When we act from ourselves alone—that is, from God in ourselves—we are collaborators in, or live instruments of, creation: and that is why such an act undoes with ‘backward mutters of dissevering power’ the uncreative spell which Adam laid upon his species.

Hence as suicide is the typical expression of the stoic spirit, and battle of the warrior spirit, martyrdom always remains the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity.

This great action has been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary. There the degree of accepted Death reaches the utmost bounds of the imaginable and perhaps goes beyond them; not only all natural supports, but the presence of the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.

Whenever you encounter someone overshadowed by the dark cloud of despair and death, speak to them life. Dispel the lies of suicide. Confront the Enemy, so that Satan would not be “given an opportunity to cause slaughter.” As Luther also said in the context quoted above:

It is very certain that, as to all persons who have hanged themselves, or killed themselves in any other way, ’tis the devil who has put the cord round their necks, or the knife to their throats.

Graphic and true. I choose not to participate in Satan’s murderous purposes by promoting suicide, and I encourage you to join me.

_____

The photo above comes from one of the many renditions of Romeo and Juliet.

guardian angelOxymoron is a great word. Too bad so few people understand what it means.

In America, at least, nine times out of ten you will hear it misused. Most folks seem to think it means a “contradiction in terms.”

One common example is “military intelligence.” Perhaps I am sensitive to it, being a veteran, but I would enjoy never again hearing people guffaw at that term.

In actuality, the oxymoron is a much more sophisticated rhetorical device.

An oxymoron is the combination of two incongruous words or images to create a unique effect. Often it hints of irony. For example, “she was a poor little rich girl.”

Further examples suggest complex circumstances. “Cruel kindness” and “making haste slowly,” are quite intriguing. The context would provide greater illumination, but these phrases suggest a painful treatment given in love . . . and urgency, tempered by caution.

Another example, apropos for an age in which zombies have become so popular, is the phrase “living death.” Reanimated corpses aside, this oxymoron is extremely powerful.

It evokes the sense of a person’s life having become deathlike in some way. Perhaps it is physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual. In any case, drawing together life and death in this epigram is provocative.

In his most vulnerable work, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes humanity itself as an oxymoron. Most certainly, he uses the word appropriately.

Sometimes, Lord, one is tempted to say that if you wanted us to behave like the lilies of the field you might have given us an organization more like theirs. But that, I suppose, is just your grand experiment. Or no; not an experiment, for you have no need to find things out. Rather, your grand enterprise. To make an organism which is also a spirit; to make that terrible oxymoron, a ‘spiritual animal.’

Lewis’ point is well taken. That the Creator of the cosmos would make flesh bound human beings with a spiritual nature that allows him to describe as made in his own image, is incomprehensible.

Animals are animals. That is what modern secularists argue that we are. Yet it is evident to the vast majority of humans throughout all times and cultures, that we are unlike beasts. For we possess a spirit. And we are, accordingly, that unique thing among all beings—a spiritual animal.

So peculiar are we in the universe that even the angels themselves—spirits, never “animals”—are curious about the nature of our redemption. As Peter writes in his first epistle:

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories.

It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.

From one oxymoron to another, I hope that this new year brings you many blessings. Most especially, I pray that if you have not already experienced this wondrous miracle which amazes even the angels of heaven . . . that you would come to know God’s love.

The World’s End

October 20, 2014 — 9 Comments

christ arisenMany years ago, while attending seminary, I was invited to preach at a Pentecostal congregation in my home town. One of the conversations I had that day taught me more about the importance of sound biblical preaching than every homiletics course I ever took (combined).

Lutherans, I must admit, are not big advocates of “end times” concerns. The reasons for this are far too complicated to address in a brief column now. Ironically, however, although we confess our confidence that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” every week, we seldom talk about the details of that arrival.

At the aforementioned service, I did preach on the second coming of the Messiah. And, to distill it down to a single message, I suggested that the Scriptures teach us to live in a sort of tension. We should live with a conscious awareness and urgency that the parousia could happen at any moment . . . and, prepare for the future as though the return of Christ (and subsequent new creation) will not take place for another thousand years.

Shortly after the service ended, a woman approached me and shared how she “wished she could have heard that sermon thirty years earlier.” She related how different her life would have been.

She said in her youth she had longed to attend college, but she never did . . . because she knew Jesus would return before she graduated.

When she and her husband bought a home, she wished the property had some fruit trees, but she never planted any . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they bore fruit.

Saddest of all, she told me that when her children were born, she never raised them to become mature adults . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they grew into the men and women they became.

Nearly forty years later I am more convinced than ever that living with the “tension” I described is the proper course of disciples of Jesus.

So, how does this work out in reality?

While a few of us know people who become so preoccupied with the end of the world that their lives go askew, it’s the other error to which most of us are prone. We tend to think that the return of Christ bears little or no connection to the age in which we live.

We are so preoccupied with our present responsibilities and dreams that we invest precious little time in contemplating how these things will matter in the scope of eternity.

I highly recommend to you a recent article on this subject that will remedy this dilemma. Andrée Seu Peterson, a gifted writer I have commended before at Mere Inkling, reminds us all of the fact that Jesus’ second coming may be just around the corner. Andrée writes:

Who would have thought that after centuries of modernity, beheading would once again be a means of persecuting the people of God? Does it not send a chill up our spine to read all about it in Revelation 20:4 even as we hear about it on CNN? “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.”

C.S. Lewis famously described two errors people fall into when considering the occult. Either we get caught up in unhealthy expressions of the supernatural, or we dismiss the reality of demons and their destructive agenda altogether.

I believe humanity’s impulsive nature makes us vulnerable to the same extremes when it comes to the final days of the world we call home.

I strongly encourage you to read Peterson’s article here, as a timely reminder that you were created for far more wonderful and amazing things than we can ever know in this life. Even the best this world offers is but a hint and a foretaste of what awaits those who trust in God.

Any Name But That

August 18, 2014 — 7 Comments

jesus nameThis week I read one of the clearest descriptions of the gospel I have ever heard. It appeared in an article written by the most (how do I put this mildly?) daunting professor I have encountered in my Doctor of Ministry studies. “Intimidating” would also work . . .

But his brilliance and rapid fire delivery of thought-provoking concepts is not the reason for me mentioning him here. It is his ability to cut through the confusion, and express simply the essence of the good news, the Christian hope, the gospel.

I’m not pandering to him, mind you, because my grade for his systematics course was filed long ago. It is simply that Joel Biermann said extremely succinctly, something that I have always attempted to emphasize in my own ministry.

The Gospel is the good news, but it is not just any good news. The Gospel is a word of liberation and encouragement, but it is not just any word of liberation and encouragement. The Gospel is a wonderful event and a joyful experience, but it is not just any wonderful event and joyful experience.

In other words, when it comes to defining the Gospel, it is vitally important that we move past vague ideas or general notions and grab hold of the central thing. The central thing is Jesus.

This is a truth too many fail to understand. Sadly, this is true for some “inside” the Church as well as outside of its doors.

Goodness is good. Generosity is wonderful. Encouragement is precious. Courage is noble. Love is (almost) divine.

Yet none of these are the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus. In him the world discovers every good thing from the hand of God the Father, our Creator.

Jesus is indispensable. Without his holy name, the “faith” would simply be a praiseworthy “religion.” Without Jesus, it could instruct how to live, but it could not redeem.

It is precisely this point—the name of Jesus—that makes the Gospel objectionable to some. “Care for the sick,” some say, “just don’t mention that name.” On other lips we hear “The Church does lots of things that benefit the community, but please don’t mention that name that offends people.”

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life. . . .”

And someone came and told [the High Priest], “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people. . . .”

And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter five).

C.S. Lewis knew quite well that Christianity is all about Jesus. Without him, the person Jesus the Christ, whatever passes for the “Church” would merely be a noisy gong. Lots of “religious” talk would remain . . . but the Gospel would be absent.

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story. The things He says are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, “This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go,” but He says, “I am the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.” He says, “No man can reach absolute reality, except through Me. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved. . . .”

“Come to Me everyone who is carrying a heavy load, I will set that right. Your sins, all of them, are wiped out, I can do that. I am Re-birth, I am Life.” (1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”).

In the same way as the apostles, C.S. Lewis, my seminary professor, and all of those who have entrusted themselves to the grace of God in Christ, know the name of Jesus is not optional. In fact, it is all about the name.

For it is Jesus, and him alone, who is the alpha, omega and the whole of the Gospel.

Confusing Creeds

November 7, 2013 — 6 Comments

Nicene CreedThere are a couple of sentences in the traditional translation of the basic Christian creeds (statements of faith) that lead to confusion.

Due to the literary examples below, Christian readers may find the following discussion more interesting than non-Christians—but everyone interested in clarity versus confusion should find something intriguing.

The creeds offer a prime example of why it is absolutely crucial to ensure that gradual shifts in language do not undermine or blur the intended meaning of a given sentence. To illustrate, consider this line from the Nicene Creed.

. . . [Jesus] who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. (1662, Anglican Book of Common Prayer).*

The potential confusion here lies in the archaic usage of the word “of.” Whose Holy Spirit are we referring to? Mary’s innate holiness and purity? The educated Christian may stumble over that dated phrase—which is still used in some denominations—but a person not acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity might easily misinterpret it as a Maryological, rather than Christological, confession.

Let’s consider two more recent translations, and note how the first restores the intent of the original writers. The second of these commonly used translations reflects the hand(s) of “politically correct” revisers.

For us and for our salvation he [Jesus] came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (1975 International Consultation on English Texts version).

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human. (1988, English Language Liturgical Consultation version).

We will consider a second example momentarily, but let’s first look at something C.S. Lewis wrote about reflecting on the importance of the creeds. He noted that too often we rattle through the words without considering their significance. This is unfortunate.

In an essay entitle “On Forgiveness,” Lewis describes a personal epiphany and offers counsel to those tempted to take familiar words for granted.

We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying. For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed. At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in. “If one is a Christian,” I thought “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins. It goes without saying.”

But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church. And I have begun to see that, as far as I am concerned, they were right. To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought. Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

As usual, the Oxford don was correct. However, just as good translations possess the power to inspire, so too poor or antiquated translations exercise the ability to confuse.

Here is the promised second example.

And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures . . . (1662).

Ah, I understand, think the uncatechized, the Bible teaches us that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter. Well, yes it does, but that is not the sense in which the second phrase is intended. Here, “according to the Scriptures,” means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were all accomplished in accordance with the promises of the Word of God.

In other words, “just as was promised in the Garden of Eden and foretold by the prophets, Jesus won victory when he rose from the grave in accordance with the loving plan of God the Father.” The newer versions make that fact only slightly clearer.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures . . . (1975 and 1988).

Perhaps a future revision will replace “in accordance with,” using something like “as foretold in” or “fulfilling the scriptural promises.”

Some of us worship in congregations using a variant of the seventeenth century creed, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that most of them have at least replaced “And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead” with “both the living an the dead.” After all, we wouldn’t want people to think that one’s salvation is dependent upon their speed.

_____

* This slightly contemporized version of the creed has already remedied the terribly confusing term “Holy Ghost,” which evokes images of disembodied souls and hauntings.

It’s Still Christmas

December 29, 2012 — 10 Comments

nativity iconMerry Christmas!

One of the sad things about living in a secular nation is that people understand very little about the real meaning of Christmas. For example, many people take their trees down on 26 December, mistakenly thinking Christmas is “over.” In reality, the Christian celebration of the Nativity of Jesus only begins on Christmas Day!

The commercial world celebrates the season of Advent and deceptively calls it “Christmas.” These weeks, which should mark a spiritual preparation akin to Lent, are instead transformed into a frantic race to accumulate the perfect gifts to show others just how much we value each of them. And, since we love our family and close friends, there is a constant temptation to be far more extravagant in our gift giving than we can afford.

Returning to the season of Christmas, in which we find ourselves this day . . . we discover a brief occasion to focus our spiritual reflections on the singular Christmas miracle, the Incarnation. God becoming a human being. The Word through whom all things were created, becoming a mortal like the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve fashioned in his own likeness.

Christmas is, indeed, a glorious season.

C.S. Lewis had many insights into the Incarnation miracle. It is most certainly worthy of our serious attention. If it did not actually happen, Jesus should be dismissed altogether, for he claimed to be one with our heavenly Father. However, as Lewis declared in Miracles, “If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the Earth.”

One of the great literary treasures of the world is a precious book written before the year Anno Domini 318. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote a treatise called “On the Incarnation,” which makes great reading and is readily available online. A fairly modern translation was written by Sister Penelope Lawson, an Anglican nun.

Sister Penelope prevailed upon C.S. Lewis to write an introduction to her translation, in which he said, “This is a good translation of a very great book.” The full volume, complete with Lewis’ outstanding preface, is available. Here is just one of his gems:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.

Still, as wonderful as Lewis’ introductory comments are, the greatest treasures here are the bishop’s teachings about Jesus. To whet your appetite, taste the following wisdom from Athanasius’ own introduction to his work:

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

You can read the entire work at this site. Have a blessed Christmas season!

I was recently reminded that February 2012 marks the seventieth anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters. Other bloggers have remarked on the anniversary, for example here and here.

Lewis dedicated the book to his dear friend and fellow Inkling, J.R.R. Tolkien.

If you’re unfamiliar with the letters, you really should rectify that gap in your knowledge. The letters are penned by Screwtape, a senior Devil, to Wormword, a less experienced tempter. They illuminate Satan’s demonic tactics and provide keen insight into our fallen human nature, replete with its countless vulnerabilities.

There’s even a graphic novel version of the collection which was published in 1994 by Thomas Nelson in partnership with Marvel Comics.

While the anniversary of the Letters in and of itself is certainly significant enough to merit a blog announcement . . . this post includes something quite rare. The fact is we’ve come into possession of one of Screwtape’s instructional emails, written to another subordinate demon.

For the benefit of those who would arm themselves against the snares of the Enemy, we reproduce it in full below.

(Oh, and as a reminder, when Screwtape refers to his Enemy, he is actually talking about the Creator of heaven and earth. Also, you can’t actually trust anything he writes since he’s a Liar, just like the archangel he followed so long ago. For example, note his incorrect reference to his own “immortality.”)

My Dear Esculentus,*

Another decade has passed since that puppet of the Enemy released to the world a portion of my correspondence with Wormwood. Of course, the lamentable Wormwood has had ample time to regret his carelessness in that matter, as I often remind you.

A decade’s but a snippet to immortals such as us, of course, but to the mortals it marks a significant portion of their brief lives. Why the Enemy loves those pitiable insects so much goes beyond logic!

Still, another halfscore has flown past and that damaging treatise remains in print. In fact, if anything, it continues to grow in popularity.

We simply cannot have our “patients” made aware of our treatment regimen for them. If they come to realize that our most successful deception is untrue, the relentless work of centuries will be undone.

We have labored tirelessly up to the present day to persuade humanity that all truth is subjective! Fortunately, the vast majority of the population in what are ironically labeled “enlightened nations,” has accepted our suggestion. This allows them to eagerly swallow the comforting lie that “all roads lead to god.” If they realize that all roads do indeed lead to a ‘god,’ they might abandon one of the many paths that lead to our Master who is ever-eager to “swallow” them in turn.

Better by far that those entrusted to our misleading, nourish our infernal Father than that you and I sate his appetite. (As you know, I say that figuratively, since our Father’s hunger for power can never be truly satiated. His all consuming hunger is one of his infinite qualities, which we rightly extol.)

But, back to your primary concern my appetizing friend, your patient. By all means keep him from reading The Screwtape Letters. In fact, the farther you keep him from anything written by Clive Staples Lewis, the better!

Keep him in the company of liberal companions who have embraced the myth of there being no objective truth. That way, we can prevent him from ever meeting the Enemy who proclaims himself to be—yes, disgusting isn’t it—the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Never pass up an opportunity to impress upon your patient that such a claim is politically incorrect to the utmost. Remind him he will be shunned by society if he argued there was a single truth. Indeed, make him think the very suggestion that anyone sincerely following another path might be lost, is repugnant.

Many of your fellow tempters have experienced great success in motivating the humans they treat to replace in their world views the virtue of Truth with the sentimentality of Sincerity. This you must do as well.

Persuade him that the eternal destiny of all who believe in something, is secure. Convince him that it is by their sincerity that they are saved. Oh how sweet it is when they accept this dark epiphany!

And it has never been easier to win humans over to this view than it is today. If you wish to embellish the doctrine with vague language about “God being love” and all that, so be it. Just see to it that they never open the Enemy’s book to recognize how grossly they have edited and distorted that concept!

Oh, and in closing, allow me to once again remind you of how I began this digital epistle. (We both know that it frequently takes a dozen or more reminders to make a firm impression on your dull mind.)

Do whatever it takes to ensure that your patient never reads the Letters! And, be wise to guard our own correspondence, lest you end up in the agonizing company of the afore-censured Wormwood.

Your affectionate adoptive Uncle,

Screwtape

*Esculentus translates from the Latin as either “delicious” or “succulent,” and if you have read The Screwtape Letters you know what that suggests about Screwtape’s interest in his protégé.