The Parables – Mark 4:1-25 (sermon)

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This is a sermon I gave on Jesus’ teaching of the parables from Mark 4:1-25. Follow the link to listen:

http://www.fellowshipbatesville.org/resources/multimedia/details?id=1085062

Salvation as Sharing

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The patristic writers all the way up through the Reformers were fond of stating the gospel in terms of participation and sharing. Athanasius’ wording perhaps is the most famous: God became man that man might become God. That is not to say that men become gods; rather, through salvation, mankind is thereby enabled share in God’s own life. Calvin and Luther had gospel formulations akin to this as well. For instance, Calvin, in his section on the Lord’s Supper in the Institutes, says this: becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him.

The point here is that Jesus becomes what we are that we might become what he is. Or put another way, salvation is all about sharing. God shares in our humanity, in our suffering, in the consequences of our sins, that we might share in his infinitude and righteousness.

Kallistos Ware, in his The Orthodox Way, explains it this way:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification. The notion of sharing is a key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that, just as man is authentically personal only when he shares with others, so God is not a single person dwelling alone, but three persons who share each other’s life in perfect love. The incarnation equally is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (p 73-74)

The Incarnation as a Saving Reality

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Patrick Henry Reardon, in his new work, Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that the incarnation was an integral and necessary part of mankind’s redemption. In other words, the incarnation was not a step along the way to the “real saving work” of the cross. Rather, the incarnation was of primary importance in the schema of redemption.

His initial starting point is the assumption that the end goal of humanity is not simply moral uprightness, obedience etc; rather, the end goal of humanity at-one-ness with the Triune God. Man was created to be in a vital, living union with his Creator; to be initiated into the love-community of Father, Son and Spirit. Having this union broken through man’s apostasy, God’s redemptive goal is once again to be at one with his creatures. This at-one-ness is accomplished first through the union the Son with human nature in the incarnation and completed in his death and resurrection.

Reardon explains:

In the scholastic theology known to me, the Incarnation was essential to our redemption, not so much as an act [but] as a condition. That is to say, the Incarnation was not, in itself, redemptive; it made redemption possible.

In the Church Fathers, however, I began to discover another perspective. I learned that, if the goal of redemption is the union of man with God, then the Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.”

“Whatever was assumed was not healed” is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, who in response to the Apolloniarian controversy, argued that Christ’s incarnation of full humanity was pertinent to mankind’s redemption and renewal. If the entire human nature is fallen and corrupted through the fall, then God must redeem and sanctify all of human nature in the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is a necessary element of salvation.

Reardon goes on to explain:

“Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This assertion, which came to be accepted as a principle, meant that the Son’s full assumption of our human nature was required for the work of redemption. A qualified or limited Incarnation would not satisfy. If God’s Son had not become a full human being, he could not have been a Mediator between God and the human race. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of human experience could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved…

If the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it…

Reardon’s last point is paramount in my estimation: nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. If the incarnation means that Christ assumes a human nature, then the incarnation must fall under the category of redemption. Put another way, it is not right to parse out “soteriology” from “Christology” or “anthropology”. They are all intimately connected to one another. And they all fall under “soteriology”. Reardon spells this out by highlighting that the early fathers of the church originally headed soteriology under the “part of Christology; its foundational thesis declared that what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, and for our benefit, depended entirely on who He was”.

Reardon goes on to cite several early fathers who understood the incarnation of Christ to be the initiatory process through which humanity was being healed of sin and corruption. One central part of Christ’s life is his baptism at the Jordan river. During the baptism, the Spirit is said to “remained” on Christ. Reardon explains the significance of this:

Among the gospel references to this event (Jesus’ baptism), only John explicitly stresses the permanence of the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus: “He remained (emeinen) upon Him”—“ remaining (menon) on Him.” This Johannine detail of the Spirit’s descent has long been the object of Christian observation and comment. In the second century, for example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons regarded it as indicating the spiritual renewal of the human race. He wrote on this point by way of commentary on Isaiah 11: 2, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest (anapavsetai) upon him.”

Irenaeus also commented that the Holy Spirit

“descended on the Son of God— who was made the Son of Man— becoming accustomed with Him to reside (skenoun) in the human race and to abide (anapavesthai) among men and to reside in the workmanship of God, accomplishing in them the will of the Father and renewing them from what is old to the newness of Christ.”

The Holy Spirit’s “abiding” on Jesus, for Irenaeus, referred to a renewed state of humanity by reason of the Incarnation.

Reardon contiues:

Almost three centuries later, St. Cyril of Alexandria pursued Irenaeus’s interpretation of the text, but he placed it within the Pauline theology of the New Adam. Into the body and soul of the first Adam, wrote Cyril, God had “impressed, like a seal, the Holy Spirit, that is, the breath of life.” Because of this creative activity, man’s nature was “established for every kind of excellence, by virtue of the Spirit given to dwell in it.” The old Adam, however, had failed to safeguard this state of grace. He and his seed had lost the presence of the Holy Spirit conferred at Creation. What was needed, Cyril believed, was a Second Adam, who would not forfeit the gift of the Holy Spirit. From the old Adam the Holy Spirit “flew away” (apepte), but on the Second Adam He came down and remained. The Spirit descended on Jesus, wrote Cyril, “that He might become accustomed to remain (menein) in us.” Thus, the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus at His Baptism, found a permanent and completely suitable dwelling in the human race.

The point here is that the incarnation began the initiatory process of human redemption. We may call the cross the climax, but not the beginning. It starts with the incarnation.

 

 

Wright, Paul and Justification

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In his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, NT Wright attempts to outline his understanding of Christian salvation, particularly on the meaning and significance of justification. He is a proponent of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP), which is an attempt to place the writings of Paul within his first century context, and to stop demonizing Judaism.

While the NPP is and has been a controversial movement within the Protestant world, I do feel that what Wright et al are attempting to do is helpful. In particular, Wright’s attempt to place Paul’s understanding of justification, and Christ’s work, in the context of the larger narrative of Israel, and covenant, and what Wright calls “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (98), is incredibly illuminating. In my opinion, it opens up the doctrine of salvation to the entire narrative of scripture. Indeed, Wright explains that justification — like any biblical doctrine — must have its context. And when taken out of that context, it loses its biblical, even Jewish, emphasis.

There is one section in this book that is especially helpful. In this section, Wright explains that to understand the gospel, and justification, one must understand Christology; that is to say, one must understand who Christ is, and what he was about. Then we can get what justification is.

Wright explains:

Paul uses Christos, designating Jesus as the Messiah, in conscious belief that the Messiah is one in whom two things in particular happen:

  1. “The Messiah” is the one who draws Israel’s long history to its appointed goal…The single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed…to culminate in the Messiah, who would fight the victorious battle against the ultimate enemy, build the new temple, and inaugurate a worldwide rule of justice, peace and prosperity. Paul of course, saw all of these as being redefined, granted that the Messiah was Jesus; but none of them lost
  2. The Messiah is therefore the one…in whom God’s people are summed up, so that what is true of him is true of them. To belong to the people over whom David, or David’s son, was ruling was spoken of in the Old Testament as being “in David” or “in the son of Jesse”. Paul can therefore speak of Christians “entering into the Messiah” through baptism and faith, as being “in him” as a result. He is the “seed of Abraham”, not simply as a single person but because he “contains”, as the goal of God’s Israel-plan, the whole people of God in himself. (103-104)

Wright makes the point that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came for the explicit purpose of summing up and completing Israel’s long history: he is the true and faithful Israelite. He is Israel itself realizing God’s Abrahamic promise to bless the nations! Consequently, Wright also explains that all who believe in Christ are caught up “in Christ”, and thus participate in him as the true Israel. Put another way, we are taken up in the faithful Israelite, such that we constitute the new Israel in him.

Salvation then — for Wright at least — is being caught up into the new Israel, into Christ himself, and entering into the new fulfilled people of God. It is constituting the new, eschatological, people of God.

Wright will go on to say that while justification is a distinctly juridicial term — he defines it as a declaration that believers are “in the right”, it is a “status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90) — it is a term which must be placed within the Israel, or covenantal context. Put simply, believers are declared to be in the right because of the reality that they are in Messiah, who is in himself faithful Israel, who has fulfilled God’s promises for the world.

Lord’s Supper: Truly Seeing

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When Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord and ate of the fruit, it says in the Genesis account that their “eyes were opened”. Their eyes were opened to their own sin and shame. We know this, because they immediately tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This of course did not resolve the problem, because what they had seen was a spiritual shame, a separation from God’s very life. 

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, sees a parallel between this “seeing” of sin and shame, and the episode of the Emmaus road in Luke 24. After his resurrection, Christ met with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road, and that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vs 16). They could not see Christ as he was; it was only after Christ ate with them that they could see. 

Luke goes on to say that Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs 30-31). Ratzinger sees this, first, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and second, as a parallel to the “eating” and “seeing” in the Genesis account of the fall. 

Ratzinger explains:

[A]t the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

The Lord’s Supper then is a “reverse seeing” from shame and sin, to redemption and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is meant reverse the effect of the fall: to open our eyes and unite us to life itself, the risen Lord.

The Meaning of Sacrifice

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Sacrifice is a concept found quite literally everywhere in the scriptures. In fact, throughout every major story in the Bible, we find instances of sacrifices. While it is readily apparent that the concept of sacrifice finds its fulfillment, its telos, in Christ, it is not readily apparent what the meaning of sacrifice is.

Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, has an interesting discussion on its meaning. He begins by noticing that the “common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious” (Kindle version, loc. 250). Put another way, one way to view sacrifice is that destroying something is a means of “acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things” (loc 250), as worshipping him as supreme over all things. 

Ratzinger however disagrees with the concept: “belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction”, he says (loc 250). Instead, he brings in Augustine’s definition of sacrifice. He says,

The true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (loc 258).

What Ratzinger means by this is that sacrifice, rather than being about destruction, is about the giving of oneself in totality to God. It is “losing oneself” in total surrender to God, and thereby finding life in God’s own life. It is giving oneself in love to God to the point of being completely eclipsed by the divine love, and becoming “divinized” with his life.

To clarify his meaning, Ratzinger references creation: he points out rightly that creation itself is a divine act of self-giving love. God, out of the sheer gift of his own self, gives in the act of creation: he gives mankind life and creaturely freedom. And man in his freedom has two choices: he can receive this sheer gift of grace and give himself wholly back to God; or, he can retreat into himself and collapse into selfishness.

Ratzinger says,

God’s free act of creation is indeed ordered toward [a return]…Sacrifice in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization (loc 313, 321)

Man as created is meant to receive God’s love and in his own gift of freedom, give himself wholly back to God’s love and life. The more he gives, the more he participates in God’s own life. So then, Adam was given creaturely freedom in order that he might give himself totally back to God. Instead, he retreated from God and preserved himself. 

This is, Ratzinger says, sin at its essence: it is the retreat of oneself into the self, into self-preservation, into finitude, into death. Ratzinger says:

Original sin, so hard otherwise to understand, is identical with the fall into finitude, which explains why it clings to everything stuck in the vortex of finitude” (loc 305).

In his fallenness, rather than giving of himself to God, man clings to himself, and collapses into “the vortex” of finiteness. This condition of finitude, or turning in toward oneself, is what every man must thus be redeemed from. He is called to sacrifice, to give of himself, and yet, he cannot! He is utterly unable, tangled in the mess of his own selfishness. And thus he destroys himself.

Consequently, this is why Israel’s animal sacrifices were so insufficient, and called for a better sacrifice: Israel sacrificed bulls and goats. At best, these offerings were a part of the self, a gift of remorse and thanksgiving. However, at worst, they were a replacement of the self, a substitution of the self. Ratzinger explains:

Temple sacrifices was always accompanied by a vivid sense of its insufficiency… Already in 1 Samuel 15:22 we meet a primordial word of prophecy that, with some variations, runs through the Old Testament before being taken up anew by Christ: “More precious than sacrifices is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” In Hosea the prophecy appears in this form: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6) (loc 391-99)

The blood of goats and bulls was not only insufficient, but detestable by the completion of the Old Testament, precisely because it was Israel herself that God wanted. Israel at her worst gave the sacrifices in place of herself. Their hearts were far off from God, even when offering the sacrifices! This called for a true sacrifice, which could give mankind fully to God. 

Taken into the New Testament, this is precisely why Christ’s self-sacrifice is sufficient: it is in the cross that Christ offers himself — the perfect man —  fully and without reserve to God the Father. God the Son, in the incarnation, takes humanity to himself, and offers it to God to the point of death; he gives himself in totality to the divine love, and thereby becomes divinized; or, put biblically, he is raised imperishable. Finitude no longer has a say, for the divine love has illuminated mankind through the self-offering of Christ.

This is also why Christ is called the new Adam. He is the true man, who gives himself back in love to God. And it is through this self-sacrifice that humanity is thus welcomed into the life of the Godhead. Ratzinger explains:

The vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us to that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration (loc 502)

Being united to his sacrifice through faith, we are brought into the life and love of God; and being united to the Godhead, we are then called to “take up our cross”, to “love ourselves not, even unto death”:

It is man, conforming himself to [Christ] and becoming [Christ] through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world” (loc 478)

Does Calvinism Limit Christian Love?

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Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.

Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?

Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.

Balthasar explains,

If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.

So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.

Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,

On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”

In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.

As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,

[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …

… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.

Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.

However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?

Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,

Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”

So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?

How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.

With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.

Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:

How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)

[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…

…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.

We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.