So Is the Bottomless Pit

Few things are as potentially as dodgy as deep Trinitarian theology in a postmodern age. Now Trinitarian theology really is deep, and no one should contest that. Only the Spirit can search out the deep things of God (1 Cor. 2:10). But in a postmodern age, the cat sat on the mat is also deep, but for different reasons. We don’t want to affirm the consequent, right? God is deep, but so is the bottomless pit. Not the same thing at all.

You may take my word for it — much Trinitarian theology theseadays is simply laying down cover fire for those who have another agenda entirely, one that has nothing whatever to do with historic Trinitarian theology. Kierkegaard once said that Christians use commentaries the same way a little boy stuffs his britches with padding to ameliorate the effects of a spanking. Trinitarian theology can serve the same noble function — confronted with the fact that the whole world is laid up guilty before God (Rom. 3:19) . . . I mean, Perichoresis magazine is at least eighty pages thick. Whhummff!

Let us take the phrase the Trinity is the gospel — which is wonderful on the face of it — and see if there could possibly be any problems with it. One of the best books I ever read was John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. When I finished it, I just started right over again at the beginning. So there is a way to say this kind of thing that is perfectly orthodox, and which is a blessing to every hungry heart. What is the gospel? God is the gospel. But there is also a way of saying it that is highly problematic.

I would like to reapply a phrase that Samuel Johnson once used when he said a particular activity was like “rowing without a port.” This is human relativism in a nutshell; this is postmodernism, squeaking oars and all. In many sectors of the theological world, Bartley’s “retreat to commitment” is almost complete, and when people talk about the social Trinity, they are actually talking about their society, not His.

A litmus test for whether this is happening or not is found in the laws of thought. If predication is possible about the Trinity as the Trinity is, was, and ever shall be, and if the truth of such predication is what Schaeffer used to call “true truth,” and if the timeless nature of this expressed truth is rooted and grounded in the nature and character of the triune God Himself, then we are good. The laws of thought are descriptive attributes of God. The law of identity means the Father is the Father. The law of non-contradiction means the Father is not not the Father. The law of the excluded middle means that the Father is the Father or He is not, and no alternatives. Because all of this is true truth, living truth, it comes to pass that down here in the world that God created we are blessed to be able to say that the orange is the orange, the orange is not not the orange, and the orange is or the orange is not, and no third options.

Three Chains II: Guilt

Introduction:

The solution to fear is deliverance. The answer to guilt is justification. The solution to shame is the honor of glorification. To release someone from one of these chains requires that he be released from all. And Jesus Christ is the only one who can do any of it. Last week we considered the authority of fear, and the deliverance provided by the fear of God—which is love for God, given by the grace of God. This week we move on to the chain of guilt in order to address how God has released us from it.

The Text:

“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).

Summary of the Text:

In the first chapter of Romans, we learned that the Gentiles were under the power of sin. In the second chapter, Paul argued that the Jews were also under that same power. Here in the third chapter, he is showing us that Jews and Gentiles together were sinners together, and that all are under the power of sin. Everyone is a sinner, and everyone is a sinner in accordance with the law. God gave the law to those who are under the law (meaning under the condemnation of it), and God’s purpose in giving the law was so that every mouth would have to shut up, and so that whole world would become objectively guilty before God.

Guilt Outside and Inside:

In Scripture, guilt is not primarily existential guilt. When we say “guilt” our primary meaning for this is guilt feelings. But guilt is created by, and measured by, the law of God. In other words, guilt is objective, regardless of how the guilty party feels about it. Once the judgment of the law is passed, and the accused has “his mouth stopped,” there are certain subjective sensations that come when the holy law of a holy God comes into the conversation and shuts you down. But that is a consequence.

Present and Absent Both

This Supper of the Lord is not limited in its signification to just one or two things. It is richly laden with meaning on multiple levels. But two of them might appear to be in tension.

The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of what Christ has done for us, and the Lord’s Supper is a communion in what Christ has done for us. This Supper is a memorial of the Lord and it is communion with the Lord. In the former sense, it would appear to assume the Lord’s absence, and in the latter sense it would appear to assume the Lord’s presence. Both are true, but in different senses.

Confession and Construction

When Nehemiah heard about the desolate state of the ruined city of Jerusalem, he was greatly humbled, and he cried out to the Lord in true confession of sin. “We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.” (Neh. 1:7). This was the man who was to rebuild that city, and so he began by clearing the spiritual ground—he began with confession of sin.

Marjorie Becker, R.I.P.

The hymn O Worship the King uses a striking phrase to describe the condition of man in this fallen world of ours. It describes us as “frail children of dust, and feeble as frail.” That line contains two elements of biblical truth that I want to emphasize here today. The first is that we are indeed frail children of dust. But the second element is also important, and that is the element of glory. When it says that we are as feeble as frail, the import of that phrase might be lost if you didn’t know that frail described a kind of delicate china. This includes the element of glory, but transient, passing glory. Frail things are obviously frail, but frail things can be exquisitely beautiful and glorious. Beautiful things are not required to be sturdy.

The Bible certainly describes our condition in this world as fragile. We are dust, the Psalmist says. God is considerate of our frame; He knows that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). To counter our boasting and pride, the apostle James says that our lives here are a mist (Jas. 4:14). And the Psalmist emphasizes the point yet again when he says this: “Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; And mine age is as nothing before thee: Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity” (Ps. 39:5) “When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: Surely every man is vanity” (Ps. 39:11). “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: To be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity” (Ps. 62:9).

For some these might be assumed to be melancholy thoughts, and they would rather not think of them. But this is a funeral, this is a memorial service after all, and should we not take a moment like this to reflect on our own mortality? Well, certainly we should, but we have to take the biblical teaching in the full biblical context.

Earlier I mentioned the element of glory. First, as Christians we know that the Scriptures promise us a sure and certain hope of the resurrection. There is glory coming, and the Bible tells us this wonderfully and explicitly. “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). There is a glory coming, and all the sufferings we have ever gone through, raked together in a heap, would not even move the balances if any of this glory were on the other side. We long for that glory, and we look forward to that resurrection.

Toward that end, God has given us intimations of glory. We see brief, passing, evanescent displays of it . . . and then it is gone. In this world, glory is glory, but it is frail—it goes. There is glory coming, certainly, but God has given us trace elements of that glory in our lives here and now.

Last night many of us were privileged to see a gorgeous and overdone sunset. It was the most lurid orange you could possibly imagine, with a rainbow issuing challenges on the other side of the sky, as though they were vying with each other. In this case, the sunset won. Now this display lasted just a few minutes, and then it was gone. Completely done. Vanished. It was as gone as glorious sunsets of a century ago. The only thing it left behind was the sure and certain knowledge that somewhere it must be like that all the time.

We see them, but not really. If a sunset like that happened every century or so, and it happened on a schedule, when the time rolled around, there would be hundreds of thousands of people gathered to see it. Symphonies would be written about it. Poems would be composed. If it happened every century, we might really see it. But whether we see it or not, something is still there to be seen.

Man is such glory. He is the image and glory of God. Nevertheless his day of departure arrives—all flesh is grass, and the grass withers and the flower fades. But while it is here, what do we have? We have the image and glory of God, fading like the best sunset you ever saw.

This sanctuary is filled with people whose lives will set. This world is filled with them also; we have billions of them. We just walk by them, not really noticing what is occurring. What is occurring is a promise. The fading glory, followed by a black night, is a promise of a coming glory, followed by a glorious day. Moments of glory before the sky turns black are a brief and momentary statement of what the dawn of the everlasting day will be like.

So what we are told by every sunset is that Christ is the ultimate sunrise, and that He will rise over creation, just as He rose from the dead, and He will shine on every man. “Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14).

Marjorie Becker was a Christian women, who trusted in Jesus for her salvation. Her sun has now set, but her Dawn and ours is steadily approaching. The everlasting Dawn is another day closer than it was. It will happen. How many millions of times has God promised it? Every night we lie down to sleep, to practice our dying, and every morning, we clamber out of bed, haltingly practicing our resurrection skills.

Marjorie has gone before us, and just as will happen with us, she had all of her frailties swallowed up by life. Whenever someone who believes in Jesus approaches death, this particular smudge of cloud, or that one, just adds to the wonder. It is true frailty; the sun is setting. It is true glory, and nothing can be said that counters the promise of the Dawn. This is true for all of us.

We have been told many times—this glory will not last. And this glory will not last because in and through its passing, the good Lord is promising us a glory that cannot fade. We are Christians, and so we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We believe that orange fades to black, and that black turns to gray, and that gray bursts into an everlasting azure day.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.

The Problem of Tiffany Sugartoes

Scripture refers to that kind of ruler who frames “mischief with a law” (Ps. 94:20). Those who do this kind of thing are men who sit on thrones of iniquity, and God refuses His fellowship with any such thrones.

There are many ways to frame mischief with a law. Everyone grants that one example would be when a despot pillages all the poor peasants in order to fund his Belshazzarian kegger tomorrow night. That would be one example. That would be the big E on the eye chart.

But are there other examples of thieving mischief? While some established thieves are debauched, others are a bit more clever. If Suleiman the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to beef up the personnel department of his seraglio, then that is both tacky and theft. But if Obama the Magnificent takes 20K from me in order to provide loan guarantees to Goldman Sachs, and they use it to provide a holiday bonus for a rising junior executive, who uses it on a weekend blowout in the Hamptons with a girl named Tiffany Sugartoes, then this is just as tacky, and just as much theft, but we can say that they cover their tracks better these days.

So let’s spend a bit of time distinguishing sins from crimes. When dealing with individuals, sins that ought not be crimes are either contained entirely within the person’s motives, or they are actual behaviors for which no scriptural case for attaching civil penalties can be made. An example of the former would be bitterness or lust. An example of the latter would be speaking rudely to someone in a crowded elevator.

A sin becomes a crime when we can make a scriptural case for attaching civil penalties to a particular behavior. Murder is a crime; hatred is a sin. Adultery is a crime; lust is a sin. With individuals, the distinction is relatively easy to make.

A ruler is not subject to the same applications of civil penalties, at least not in the same way. In a well-ordered biblical republic, it should be possible in principle to hold anyone accountable for their behavior, regardless of the office they hold. But even in a healthy society, bringing justice to bear in such cases is more challenging because rulers have supporters, and they often appoint their supporters to positions of influence over investigations of injustice. But enough about Eric Holder.

The “civil penalties” for rulers are not limited to the one process shared by all the citizens — indictment, trial, verdict, and so on. To whom much is given much is required. God holds rulers accountable by other means as well. He can do it by other means, such as natural disasters (1 Kings 18:17-19), military invasion (Dt. 28:48), a civil war (2 Sam. 15:10), or a coup (2 Kings 11:14). An average citizen can be punished for his crimes, and so can a ruler be. But when it happens to a ruler, there is a good deal more mayhem.