Christ baptized into our sins (#1)

Happy Jesus’ Baptism Day yesterday! We had another rich, rich sermon from Pastor Douthwaite. In fact, I think I’ll start a brief series on baptism this week based on excerpts from that sermon. John’s baptism is described as being a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But Jesus didn’t have any sins! So what does it mean that He came to be baptized?

Everyone else, we heard earlier in the Gospel, was baptized by John as they were “confessing their sins.” But Jesus did not have any sins to confess. He did not inherit any sin, nor commit any sins. In fact, He should have been repulsed by that water! Talk about a cesspool! That water was filled with just about every sin imaginable. Sins washed off the multitude of sinners. You name the sin, and Jesus is hip-deep in it. Idolatry, adultery, sexual immorality, murder, theft, hate, prejudice, lying, selfishness, coveting, pride, greed, lust – and Jesus jumps right into that putrid, toxic water! And lets it be poured all over Him. All the filth. All the sin. It’s disgusting.

But His Father’s not disgusted, but delighted! So is the Holy Spirit! The First and Third Persons of the Holy Trinity are thrilled that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, receives John’s baptism. They’re elated that He’s drenched in this sin-infested water. And so the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and the Father speaks His approval: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” He doesn’t say (as we probably would): Get out of that disgusting water! Go clean yourself up! No, this is exactly right. This is the will of God. For Jesus to stand with sinners. For Jesus to be washed in our sin, to take our sin, to become the sinner. For Jesus to take our place.

Theology of the Cross and the Problem of Evil (#6)

Our final installment of our consideration of Carl Trueman’s article Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.

Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was itself willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God, yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt, we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.

Theology of the Cross and Suffering (#5)

Carl Trueman, whom we have been blogging about all week, goes on in Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

The cross is paradigmatic for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.

This point is hard for those of us in the affluent West to swallow. For example, some years ago I lectured at a church gathering on this topic and pointed out that the cross was not simply an atonement, but a revelation of how God deals with those whom he loves. I was challenged afterwards by an individual who said that Luther’s theology of the cross did not give enough weight to the fact that the cross and resurrection marked the start of the reversal of the curse, and that great blessings should thus be expected; to focus on suffering and weakness was therefore to miss the eschatological significance of Christ’s ministry.

Of course, this individual had failed to apply Luther’s theology of the cross as thoroughly as he should have done. All that he said was true, but he failed to understand what he was saying in light of the cross. Yes, Luther would agree, the curse is being rolled back, but that rollback is demonstrated by the fact that, thanks to the cross, evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God’s will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil can also be subverted to the cause of good.

More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too. Yes, the curse is reversed; yes, blessings will flow; but who declared that these blessings have to be in accordance with the aspirations and expectations of affluent America? The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, have those who are united to him by faith any right to expect anything different?

Thanks to John for alerting us to this very personal appropriation of the Theology of the Cross by someone struggling with cancer.

By the way, Emily is right that suffering is not meritorious in any way. Luther said that crosses we choose are not crosses at all. Suffering involves precisely encountering what we do NOT choose and do NOT want, which takes us even beyond simple pain and utterly confounds those who think truth itself is subject to our will. But this is a part of life. The Cross of Christ shows that suffering is not “meaningless,” as we often say, but that He is bearing not only our sins but “our griefs”and “our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4) so that in our own crosses of suffering we can grow closer to Him.

Theology of the Cross: Good Works & Vocation (#4)

Still more from Carl Trueman’s article Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

Luther does not restrict the theology of the cross to an objective revelation of God. He also sees it as the key to understanding Christian ethics and experience. Foundational to both is the role of faith: to the eyes of unbelief, the cross is nonsense; it is what it seems to be—the crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God. That is how the unbelieving mind interprets the cross—foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. To the eyes opened by faith, however, the cross is seen as it really is. God is revealed in the hiddenness of the external form. And faith is understood to be a gift of God, not a power inherent in the human mind itself.

This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christ—through suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.

This argument is explosive, giving a whole new understanding of Christian authority. Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.

Prof. Trueman is Presbyterian, so he talks about “elders,” but what he says and what Luther says about being “little Christs to our neighbors” (from The Freedom of the Christian) is at the essence of the doctrine of vocation. It speaks to a Christian’s exercise of authority in all of the estates: in the church (pastors); in the state (rulers, citizens); and in the household (marriage, parenthood, the workplace).

Thus, we can say that husbands do indeed have authority over their wives; but the Christian husband should use that authority in self-denying, cross-bearing service to her. The same holds true for the authority of parents over their children, bosses over their employees, and lawful rulers over their charges. This rules out every kind of tyranny and self-serving imposition of power.

Theology of the Cross and the Gospel (#3)

More from Carl Trueman’s article Luther’s Theology of the Cross:

This insight is one of the factors in Luther’s thinking that gives his theology an inner logic and coherence. Take, for example, his understanding of justification, whereby God declares the believer to be righteous in his sight, not by virtue of any intrinsic righteousness (anything that the believer has done or acquired), but on the basis of an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ that remains external to the believer. Is this not typical of the strange but wonderful logic of the God of the cross? The person who is really unrighteous, really mired in sin, is actually declared by God to be pure and righteous! Such a truth is incomprehensible to human logic, but makes perfect sense in light of the logic of the cross.

And what of the idea of a God who comes down and loves the unlovely and the unrighteous before the objects of his love have any inclination to love him or do good? Such is incomprehensible to the theologians of glory, who assume that God is like them, like other human beings, and thus only responds to those who are intrinsically attractive or good, or who first earn his favor in some way. But the cross shows that God is not like that: against every assumption that human beings might make about who God is and how he acts, he requires no prior loveliness in the objects of his love; rather, his prior love creates that loveliness without laying down preconditions. Such a God is revealed with amazing and unexpected tenderness and beauty in the ugly and violent drama of the cross.

Theology of the Cross, Power and Language (#2)

Carl Trueman in his article Luther’s Theology of the Cross we introduced yesterday, on the “revolutionary implications” of this insight, that God is to be known only in Christ crucified:

Luther is demanding that the entire theological vocabulary be revised in light of the cross. Take for example the word power. When theologians of glory read about divine power in the Bible, or use the term in their own theology, they assume that it is analogous to human power. They suppose that they can arrive at an understanding of divine power by magnifying to an infinite degree the most powerful thing of which they can think. In light of the cross, however, this understanding of divine power is the very opposite of what divine power is all about. Divine power is revealed in the weakness of the cross, for it is in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil powers and corrupt earthly authorities that Jesus shows his divine power in the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. So when a Christian talks about divine power, or even about church or Christian power, it is to be conceived of in terms of the cross—power hidden in the form of weakness.

For Luther, the same procedure must be applied to other theological terms. For example, God’s wisdom is demonstrated in the foolishness of the cross. Who would have thought up the foolish idea of God taking human flesh in order to die a horrendous death on behalf of sinners who had deliberately defied him, or God making sinners pure by himself becoming sin for them, or God himself raising up a people to newness of life by himself submitting to death? We could go on, looking at such terms as life, blessing, holiness, and righteousness. Every single one must be reconceived in the light of the cross. All are important theological concepts; all are susceptible to human beings casting them in their own image; and all must be recast in the light of the cross.

This can be the key to a new apologetic to postmodernists, who assume that truth is nothing more than a language game that masks the imposition of power. Here is another kind of Word and another kind of Power, one intent not on controlling but on redeeming.