Redeemed Suffering in Lamentations

“Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem” by Horace Vernet, circa 1844

When we think of a suffering prophet, we tend to think of Jeremiah, and not without good reason. His message was consistently rejected by the people he was trying to help. He was thrown into a cistern. (Jeremiah ch. 38) He was treated as a criminal. At one point, his manuscript was destroyed and he had to start from scratch (Jeremiah ch. 36), which any writer knows is a devastating blow. He lived to see all the dreadful things he predicted come to pass. The city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah were destroyed. Many people were killed, and those who survived were sent into exile. Yes, if there was anything that characterized the life of Jeremiah, it was pain and suffering.

In addition to the long book that bears his name, Jeremiah is also held to be the author of the short work titled Lamentations. This is not a book to which Christians typically gravitate, for it is admittedly a downer. Yet, within those pages, there is much we can learn about suffering in the lives of God’s people, and how God Himself redeems it. Continue reading

Children’s Ministry and the Ministry of the Word

An old Baptist Sunday School class in the 1940s. National Archive photo

As it turns out, Twitter is an excellent source of inspiration for my blog. Why, a couple weeks back, I couldn’t help but notice someone commenting that the New Testament applauds churches for many things, but children’s ministry is not one of them. I think I understand where they were coming from, but I do not like the implication of this statement.

The person in question, who I am not going to name because I have no wish to demean them, belongs to the Reformed tradition. There is a great emphasis within this sphere on the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. If I understand correctly, these means of grace are the focus of our corporate worship in church. In some quarters (though certainly not all), this can lead to a de-emphasis or even suspicion of anything that is not a part of that Ministry of Word and Sacrament. Once again, this is how I understand it: I did not grow up in a Reformed church.

I assume that this was the genesis for the comment that scripture did not applaud (i.e. institute) the other “ministries” that are commonly part of church life in this country and others. I do not fully disagree with this, but if we are using such a point of view to diminish children’s ministry or say that it is not important, then I think we have made a grave mistake. Let me explain why I believe this to be the case. Continue reading

The Sting of Death and our Hope in Christ

A sixth century mosaic in the church of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy depicting the women arriving at the empty tomb and receiving a message from the angel. Photo by Flickr user Lawrence OP

If you went to church yesterday, Easter Sunday, it is quite likely that you heard a sermon that referenced 1 Corinthians chapter 15 – unless, of course, your pastor is one of those who doesn’t break from textual order for hell or high water. This is a wonderful passage of scripture, which not only establishes the truth and doctrinal centrality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but also covers many of its practical implications in the life of the believer. Most people tend to focus on the first portion of the chapter, but Paul also has some great things to say at the end.

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’”

1 Corinthians 15:54-55

What a beautiful picture this is of death being utterly defeated and the curse that lies upon humanity being broken! Those who belong to Christ no longer have to fear death, for it is not the end.

Yet, there is more to what is being said here than meets the eye. You may have noticed that Paul is actually quoting from the Old Testament. The phrase he is referencing appears in the book of Hosea. When you see it in context, you will realize that it is anything but cheery. Continue reading

“For You and for Your Children”: The Curse and the Promise

Depiction of Pentecost in the Hortus Deliciarum, circa 1180

Whenever someone from a confessional Reformed denomination attempts to talk to me, a “Reformed-ish Baptist”, about the need for paedobaptism (infant baptism), they often point to a declaration that the Apostle Peter made on Pentecost: “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:39) They mention these words to a primarily Jewish audience as proof that the Abrahamic Covenant’s inclusion of entire households extends to the New Covenant instituted by Jesus Christ, and that the promises made by God are just as applicable to children as they are to adults.

I certainly agree with the second half of that assessment, though I think that we need to also remember the Apostle Paul’s teaching that Abraham’s true children are those by faith. However, my point here is not to refute the Reformed position. Rather, I wanted to share some thoughts I had with regard to this verse that affect the way I think about Covenant Theology, though not necessarily about baptism. Continue reading

Redeemed Suffering in Job

“Job’s Despair” by William Blake, circa 1805

If there is any book in scripture that reads like an examination of the purpose of human suffering, it is surely Job. This may not be the only place in the Bible where the concept is considered, but due to the nature of the text – a lengthy debate between one suffering man and his friends, with an appearance at the end by God Himself – it is particularly compelling. In one of the most famous passages in this book, Job boldly proclaims, “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives…” (19:25a) I would like to take a moment to examine this comment and what exactly Job meant when he referred to God as his “Redeemer”.

When I as a 21st century Christian read Job’s words, I automatically think of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. Without a doubt, His atonement has redeemed all who believe. Yet, Job lived long before Christ walked the earth; in fact, he lived long before most of the Messianic prophecies were made. Could Job have foreseen the work of Jesus Christ? Was that what he meant by the word “Redeemer”? Continue reading

Those Who Live By Faith Are Just

“The Sermon of the Beatitudes” by James Tissot, circa 1886-69

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

In the last essay, I discussed how Christians are meant to live as humble rebels in a hostile world, serving as ambassadors for Christ. The first and most obvious way we do this is by proclaiming the gospel message and making disciples, which is the only true hope for reconciliation. That is the end to which everything else is a means. However, there is another aspect of our mission that I have previously hinted at and would like to dive into now: a humble rebel is committed to social justice.

Oddly, the concept of social justice makes some Christians uncomfortable. I believe this is because they are typically associating it with what is known as the “Social Gospel”, a theological movement that rose to prominence in the early days of the 20th century and was associated not only with a desire to help the poor and vulnerable, but also with theological liberalism and a de-emphasis on doctrine. I can understand why people would have serious reservations about that.

Social justice, on the other hand, is a very biblical concept. Indeed, it is one of the main themes of scripture, and it is inextricably linked with doctrine. The Bible actually has far more to say about social justice than any number of issues to which we devote more attention. It is part and parcel of reconciliation, for if you are not pursuing social justice, you are not only making reconciliation more difficult, but you are actively increasing discord.

Martin Luther is often said to have had his theological breakthrough when he read the Apostle Paul’s quotation of a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, KJV) Luther’s story is a bit more complicated than that, but the importance of this verse is clearly evident. What I am about to suggest to you is that this phrase can also be reversed: not only do the just live by faith, but those who live by faith are just.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not challenging the traditional view of justification by grace alone through faith alone.)

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No Thank You, Aquinas: Women Are Not Misbegotten

Depiction of Thomas Aquinas by Gentile da Fabriano, circa 1400

Thomas Aquinas was undoubtedly one of the greatest thinkers in Christian history. His Summa Theologica is quite possibly the most influential theological tome of all time. Christians of all stripes certainly have much to gain from reading the works of Aquinas.

However, my opinion of Aquinas is decidedly mixed. He introduced some great ideas into Christianity, but also some unfortunate errors that have resounded down to the present day. One such concept is the notion of “redemptive suffering”, which I have recently been studying. Aquinas was not the first person to teach this idea, but he certainly helped to lay the groundwork for a theology in which human suffering could itself hold salvific power.

Another place where Aquinas introduced erroneous thinking into Christianity is naturally rather important to me: his beliefs regarding women. The problematic section comes in Part One, Question 92 of the Summa. The first article he considers is, “Whether the woman should have been made in the first production of things?” Continue reading

Should Christians Use Satire?

Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”, perhaps the greatest satire film of all time. This is what’s at stake, people.

Yesterday, I was moseying around Twitter rather innocently: well, at least as innocently as possible for a person such as myself. As I was scrolling through the long line of news updates and quotations by famous theologians, I came across the following.

Could it be that The Gospel Coalition is taking a stand against satire and sarcasm? One Tweet does not amount to a campaign, but to have two of the biggest names in that organization make such comments does suggest a certain point of view. Continue reading

That Time Martin Luther Became a Thief

In this 1875 painting by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, “Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family”, Melanchthon is portrayed sitting at the table behind them. Apparently he was present at every Luther family gathering?

The relationship between the German Reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon has been puzzled over by scholars for centuries. They were fellow professors at the University of Wittenberg and collaborated on a number of projects, from a German translation of the Bible to the Augsburg Confession. Yet, there were undoubtedly some theological differences between them in later years, and all their contemporaries noted that their personalities were essentially opposites. Luther himself once characterized the relationship in the following way.

I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles, and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.[1]

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How Christ Redeemed Our Suffering

In a recent essay, I made a throwaway comment to the effect that Jesus Christ has not only redeemed us, but also our suffering. I then fell prey to a nagging question. “What exactly do you mean by that, Amy?” It seemed right to me that I should follow up on that thought and flush it out more fully. Here is the result.

Suffering is a result of sin, either directly or indirectly. There was no suffering before the Fall – not even anything we could truly call difficult. Following the Fall, we suffer in such myriad ways that we become desensitized to a certain percentage of it in order to simply get through the day. First, you have the obvious aches and pains, an assortment of physical maladies so diverse that it has made the health care industry one of the largest in the world, with plenty of room to grow. Then there is the emotional pain brought about by daily disappointments: friends letting you down, careers going south, opportunities missed, etc.

There is the persecution, both active and passive, faced by so many Christians worldwide, to which the New Testament devotes much of its focus on suffering. There are those times when the universe itself seems out to get you, so bemoaned in Alanis Morisette’s hit tune, “Ironic”. Often ignored is the spiritual suffering we all experience due to the distance between ourselves and God, which is only less painful because we are unaware of what perfect communion with God really feels like. Last of all, there’s the really big one: death.

The good news is that Christians do not suffer in the same way as everyone else. Yes, we are subject to the same kinds of suffering, and anyone who tells you that becoming a Christian will magically make your life suffering-free is either a liar or doesn’t believe in what the Bible has to say. They are setting you up to feel that either you are failing in your faith or God is failing as God, for you will inevitably face suffering. The difference is not that Christians don’t suffer, but rather that through the work of Jesus Christ, our suffering has been redeemed. Continue reading