A Follow Up on Sanctification: What It Is and Isn’t

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The last post attempted to look at three ways being “gospel-centered” might actually affect our understanding of sanctification and how we then live that out in the life of a church, primarily through small groups and discipleship. I thought I would list a few more that could be added. If you have others that you would add leave a comment with your thought and a couple supporting verses.

Gospel-Centered Sanctification includes:
From the last post
1) It is about receiving news not advice.
I Cor. 15:1-8; Eph. 1:13-14; Acts 15:6

2) It is about repentance not resolve.
James 5:16; I John 1:8-9; Ps. 32:5

3) It is about our need not our self-sufficiency.
Rom. 8:9-11, 13; Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 5:16-17, 25; Col. 2:20-23

At least a few others I might add would be:
4) Sanctification is about heart transformation not behavior modification.
Mt. 15:19-20; Luke 6:43-45; Matt 23:25-28; Heb. 8:10;

5) Sanctification is becoming like Christ not becoming the best me.
2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:28-29; John 3:2; Col. 1:28

6) Sanctification is motivated by freedom in Christ not slavery to law.
Rom. 8:1, 15-16; Gal. 5:1, 14-16;

7) Sanctification is about a striving for progression not arriving at perfection.
Phil. 3:12-14, 20-21; I Thess. 5:23; I Pet. 5:10;

8) Sanctification happens in the church community not in isolation.
Heb. 10:24-25; I Thess. 5:11; Col. 3:16; I Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:1-3

9) Sanctification involves deliverance to live under the rule of Christ not to be self-ruled.
Rom. 6:6-7, 22; Col. 1:13; I Cor. 6:20; Ex. 20:1-2

Putting the Gospel Back in Gospel-Centered

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[Editors note: This blog post originally appeared at The College Park Blog and is being recycled here to tie into other posts on sanctification.]

My pastor beats the gospel drum with regularity, not as an afterword to the message, but as the fulcrum. I can hear his passionate voice: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” Sunday to Sunday our church progresses through a sermon series, and our pastor refreshes us not with something new but with something that never gets old. The unconverted must awaken to their biggest problem in life, their sin, and so we hold up before them again and again God’s graciously given solution, Jesus Christ. We the converted presume there must be a different word we need to hear but again we‘re told: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” We are gospel-centered, in practice not merely in theory, because the gospel must guide every area of our lives as Christians.

Think through how quickly we move past the middle part of that message: “we’re not [holy].” When we gather together in small groups or in one-to-one relationships we often speak and act as if the problem is no longer our sinfulness, but rather our lack of discipline, effort, or commitment. When we first believed the gospel it was clear our performance couldn’t overcome the impasse that God is terribly holy and we’re tragically sinful. We used to be the problem and only God could provide the solution, but now we tend to jettison faith and think we’re capable of fixing our problems. Stuart Smalley’s classic quip soon describes how we live: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” When we ignore indwelling sin and see ourselves as basically good, our performance becomes central because we figure the answer must be somewhere within.

Here’s where being “gospel-centered” reorients us. We must recognize that our default mode is to turn back to good works we do to make things right instead of trusting in the truly good work Jesus accomplished that made us right. How can you tell if you’ve fallen into this thinking? Consider how often, in small groups and discipleship, we give advice instead of the gospel, turn to effort instead of repentance, and live out of self-sufficiency instead of need. We must be vigilant, therefore, lest the tide of self-reliance pulls us away from the safe shores of the gospel.

News, Not Advice
Since you’re an acute reader with a disdain for obscurity, you’re likely asking what I mean by “gospel.” Most simply, it means good news. The gospel in its full-length version unpacks many important details and implications. But, for a truncated summary, it is the news that the God-man Jesus redeemed sinful men and women back to God through his redemptive death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the tomb.[1] The good part of the news asserts anyone can receive this redemption through free grace from God.

I know, your reading pace picked up because you’ve heard this song a hundred times. But don’t miss out on this subtle truth: news isn’t advice, opinion, or motivational speech. News reports—whether on TV, your mobile device, or that ancient script called a newspaper—spread the word about what already occurred in history, not what I think should happen.

So where might our actions betray a gospel-centered perspective? Trouble arises when we resort to offering sage advice to one another, giving opinions, or dispensing the latest spiritual maxims. For the gospel (and no shabby replacements) to remain the center we must regularly remind one another of the good news of Jesus Christ. We retell this accomplished, objective, historical news and unpack the never-ending applications gushing from it.

In Transformational Discipleship, the authors draw a clear line in the sand between advice and news. “Advice often masquerades as the gospel. Messages filled with advice to help people improve their lives or turn over a new leaf are in contradiction to the nature of the gospel—news we respond to, not insight we should consider heeding.”[2] If the majority of our conversations sound like “you should try doing this or that” instead of “Jesus has already done this for you” then we’re quickly heading out to the stormy sea of advice and opinion.

I sense the nervousness in you heating up, so yes, almost every situation we come up against does lead to some next steps with legs on them. However, that happens after firmly rooting ourselves in the news of the fully sufficient work Jesus already accomplished for us.

Repentance, Not Resolve
Unlike a lot of other news, however, the gospel is dynamic; it does something to us. It grabs us and shakes us back into the reality we quickly forget: sin is a big deal and our hearts reek of it.

I avoid thinking of myself or my sin in these stark terms. Instead of confessing my sin, I pray that I would “do better.” Instead of seeing my cutting tongue as sin requiring humble repentance I might piously say, “I’ve not done a good job in my speech this week and I need to make that a higher priority.” Talk about a weak and surface-level disclosure! How much more freeing would it be if I would simply admit that my hurtful words are sins and they come out of my rotten heart? Through my language of “doing better”, “trying harder”, or “being more disciplined” I create the mirage of being a good person. All I need, I tell myself, is to dig deeper into my inner reservoirs of strength and goodness. In reality, I need more God-dependent and self-humbling repentance and less self-sufficient and God-ignoring resolution.

Repentance allows us to move beneath the surface and deal with our need for true heart change. When we don’t identify sin as sin, but merely call it a weakness we fail to adequately deal with it. The Bible paints sin as rebellion against God and choosing our own way, whereas our culture tells us we simply struggle with flaws needing improved upon. Repentance of sin to one another must replace recounting our struggles and the self-will behind resolving to try harder. Confessed sin calls upon our community of faith to both lead us back to the gospel for forgiveness while walking with us in a life of righteousness holding out the greater joy.

Need, Not Self-Sufficiency
Once we choose repentance from sin instead of improvement of our weaknesses, it becomes clear we can’t dig out of the problem we got ourselves into. And yet again, we have to intentionally avoid speaking and acting as if our maturity in Christ simply makes or breaks itself depending on my strength. I don’t just need more discipline. The problem isn’t primarily that I’m not trying with enough vigor. The performance foundation teeters because we make our growth self-centered instead of gospel-centered.

The gospel frees me by taking the yoke off my back as I live in the truth that Jesus atoned for my sin and gave me his righteousness. It also liberates by putting God in charge of my sanctification instead of me (deep exhale). When I stop relying on myself and my resources and collapse into trust in God, I see He possesses the power I needed all along. Not only does He supply the power for change, but when we shift our focus from what I should do to what Jesus has done, it changes our motivation and fuels a genuine longing for God. “What I needed is what all of us need—continual belief in the depth of God’s forgiveness and the resilience of his genuine approval in Christ. In brief, what I needed was more Jesus, not more discipline.”[3]

In our small groups and discipleship we must cease speaking as if we only need to grit our teeth, be more disciplined, and fight harder to overcome where we’re falling short. To be gospel-centered in practice and not just in name requires us to honestly tell one another that you’ll never be able to look like Jesus by your performance and energy. Jesus has already redeemed us so as we ask the Holy Spirit to take over and change our heart, to convince us of our identity in Christ, and to help us live as a new creation—one who rests in God’s power, not our own. And we do it for God’s glory, not our own.

The Center HoldsGospel-centered isn’t a label we claim to feel like we’re in the right camp. It’s something we live by to enjoy and experience Jesus in our lives. The first thing we need to hear isn’t a pile of “do’s and don’ts” or “should have’s and next time’s.” Instead, our greatest need is to go back to the well of the gospel to discover fresh life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being gospel-centered means we turn to the news of the gospel instead of advice and we meditate on what Jesus has already done before thinking about what I need to do.

Footnotes:
[1] Several recent books deal with the wide ranging scope of the gospel, including: Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Minneapolis: Focus Publishing, 2008).
[2] Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 72.
[3] Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 39.

Have Some Sam Adams This Weekend

adamsSamuel Adams penned the following in a letter to Joseph Warren on November 4, 1775. The notion of separation between one’s public and private life, especially for leaders, was completely foreign to Adams. Doubtless, it would have been just as curious an idea for other founding fathers. Samuel Adams helped found our country, and he was one of many who discerned the importance of the government assisting in the promotion and protection of Virtue for both the improvement of our private and public spheres of life. [I have left the original spelling.]

“The Eyes of Mankind will be upon you to see whether the Government, which is now more popular than it has been for many years past, will be productive of more Virtue moral and political. We may look up to Armies for our Defence, but Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State shd [should] remain free, where Virture is not supremely honord.
…Since private and publick Vices, are in Reality, thought not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost Pains be taken by the Publick, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the Minds even of children, and the moral Sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our Ancestors for these great Purposes be encouraged by the Government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffusd and Virtue is preserved. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauchd in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.”

Taken from ed. William J. Bennett, The Spirit of America (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 261.

For more on the importance of virtue (across the board) to our founding fathers, see Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founding Fathers Different.

Europe Vacation Travel Summary: The Whirlwind

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I’ve had a few people ask about the recent trip my wife and I took to Europe so I thought I’d give a brief rundown of the itinerary. If you’re not interested, and you probably aren’t, feel free to just scan the pics. I’ll limit myself to a couple of pictures for each day, with just a highlight or two mentioned. The trip was a great experience and hopefully Melissa and I will cherish the memories for years. One of the things I liked about the trip was how it encompassed so many things you might want to see on a vacation. No need to decide between mountains, beaches, rolling hills, country sides, or metropolitan cities because Nice and Italy had them all. Not to mention it allowed for most things you’d want to do on a vacation all in one: seeing historical sites, paintings, architecture, nature hikes, museums, gardens, enjoying the best food and wine, UNESCO sites, world-renowned cities, and even boat rides on the sea. The daunting task for me here is how you scale down nearly a thousand pictures to just a handful, and how you summarize the countless memories and breathtaking sights in one blog post. I’ll skip the two full days of traveling on planes, since that largely consisted of being crammed and eating things I wouldn’t buy in a gas station.

Continue reading Europe Vacation Travel Summary: The Whirlwind

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes (ch. 3-4)

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This week, I’ll combine my summary of chapters 3-4 of The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. In these two small chapters the author begins to explain what is meant by the second metaphor of the book, “the smoking flax.” To review, the book is based upon the messianic description of Jesus from Matthew 18:21.

18 “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
19 He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
20 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
21 and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (ESV)

The ESV says, “a smoldering wick he will not quench,” but Sibbes goes with the wording as “the smoking flax he will not quench.” Sibbes sees this phrase as referring to those who experiencing a “little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption” (16). Or, you might think of it as the smoldering wick/smoking flax are whose faith is present but the flame is just flickering. This might be a season or it might be where they are after conversion, but Sibbes seems to be referring to those whose faith isn’t yet where they would like it to be. He then uses paragraph after paragraph to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in how he loves, cares for, and fans into flame the smallest sparks of grace in us.

In fact, Sibbes reminds all of us that there is always a mixture of grace and corruption in us (this side of heaven). Just like earlier he said God bruises us so that reeds might know they are reeds and not oaks, here also he reminds us that corruption is not taken away at conversion so we might continually see our need for Christ. “The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them” (18). We are indeed being refined, “but not so exactly as that no dross remains…Perfect refining is for another world, for the world of the souls of perfect men” (25).

Unfortunately, remaining sin robs many believers from the assurance God desires for them. In Chapter 3 Sibbes shepherds us with the caution not to look to our sanctification but to our justification to know that we are secure in Christ. Subsequently in chapter 4 he offers two reasons why Christ will not quench the smoking flax:
1) The spark is his own; kindled by the Spirit.
2) It leads to his glory in how he preserves light in the midst of darkness.

Several examples are given of how Jesus patiently loved and even sought out those with but a little spark: Thomas in his doubt, the two wavering disciples on Emmaus, Peter in his denials, and the churches in Revelation. Using the example in Matthew 15:32, he writes, “Christ’s heart yearned…when he saw the people without meat, ‘lest they faint in the way;’ much more will have regard for the preventing of our spiritual fainting” (21). Sibbes knows the heart of man all too well and admits we do not often treat others with such grace, and in fact our natural tendency is to quench the smoldering wick. It should not be so, which is why he sets for the example of Jesus and calls us to mirror him our grace and kindness to Christians in their weaknesses. This proves difficult, because some are need of the rod, but we must be careful not to give the rod to those who need us coming in meekness.

Sibbes doesn’t simply move from the perceived “problem” of a smoking wick to the “solution” of a strong flame. Many of us, like me, are too quick to see sin as a problem needing fixed and the ultimate goal being our maturity as disciples. While sin does need eradicated and we do need to grow like “oaks in righteousness”, it is even more important that we meet Christ in our sin as the one who draws near and helps us out. Richard Sibbes tells us in plain words that even our sin must not be missed as an opportunity to experience our need for Christ and his unrivaled sufficiency. “Where Christ shows his great power in weakness, he does it by letting men understand themselves so far as to breed humility, and magnify God’s love to such as they are” (23). Later he echoes the sentiment that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. “Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God” (23). In all four chapters this theme has been sounded loud and clear. God is not impressed and attracted to us when we think we’ve performed well, nor is he disappointed and driven away when we think we’ve been utter failures. Our greatest problem remains our sin, and yet when we confess our sin to God it can be used as our greatest comfort, God’s grace. “Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace” (18).

Constantine Through My (Phone) Lens

K710_ConstantineRomeIf you hear the name Constantine and immediately you think of Keanu Reeves, please keep reading. As much as I like a good Keanu Reeves film this post will focus on the Roman Emperor Constantine. As Peter Leithart says in Defending Constantine, ““It is one of the epic lives in Western history, full of firsts and foundings.”

It’s been especially fun reading about Constantine in light of my recent trip to Rome. Constantine might have set up his capital in Constantinople but his footprint still strongly remains in Rome. Here’s a tiny bit about Constantine through the lens of my camera. I won’t be digging into the controversies, retelling his bio, or even listing many of the “first and foundings” attributed to him. Instead, I’ll simply recount some highlights of Constantine that fit with pictures I took while in Rome. Come on, I have to justify taking these pictures somehow so what better way than this?!

Continue reading Constantine Through My (Phone) Lens

Three Creeds Every Christian Should Know

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This morning our church recited the Apostles Creed. There are at least two reasons why I’m glad we do this. First, the Apostles creed is accepted by the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches so it has been affirmed by Christians for over 1600 years (at least). Second, it’s the most simple of all creeds and formed the base of later creeds, such as the Nicene creed. It’s simplicity is both its weakness and its strength. Later creeds would expand upon the Apostolic creed, but they would not deny anything it contained. The church fathers named heresies because they believed a heresy was  a departure of the Christian gospel, and where the gospel was distorted or lost the Christian faith was distorted or lost. We would be well served by regularly reading and reciting these three creeds, both for our doctrinal orthodoxy and for right worship of our Triune God.

The Apostles Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty
[Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried;
[He descended into hell (Hades)]
The third day he rose from the dead; He ascended into heaven; and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; [the communion of saints]; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; [and the life everlasting]. Amen

The clauses in italics are those not included in the “Old Roman Creed” from around 340, but was included in the final accepted version. Compare this to the Nicene Creed (381 version), which simply amplifies the Apostles Creed.

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried;
And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets;
And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the Resurrection of the dead,
And the Life of the age to come. Amen.

Whereas the Apostles creed summarized the most basic beliefs of the early Christian faith, the Nicene creed took a stance on upholding the deity of Christ and the Triune God. The Chalcedonian Creed (451) outlines the orthodox view of the two natures of Jesus Christ.

The Chalcedonian Creed

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

I’ve not read any of the articles but I feel comfortable recommending The Resurgence’s series on The Concise History of Creeds & Confessions to learn more.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapter 2)

sibbesChapter 1 of The Bruised Reed was short and sweet. It stated that commission or calling Jesus received (Servant-Messiah) and the manner in which he carried that calling out (i.e., so as not to break a bruised reed). It also briefly outlined two foundational points: (1) we are reeds (and not oaks), and (2) bruising has many good intended effects.

Chapter 2 is titled “Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed.” Whole paragraphs deserve quoting so my challenge here is what to leave out. Some have complained about the weightiness of Puritan writings. If your goal is to simply finish books quickly then yeah, you should probably stick with 21st century writings. But, one of the things I appreciate about Puritan Paperbacks (or Puritans in general) is that every page contains weighty ideas that stretch the mind and stir the heart. You can pick up the book and read one or two pages and then put it down and just mull over what you’ve just read. My advice would be to read Puritan Paperbacks like this, not like a story where you read long narratives at a time and not like most contemporary Christian literature where you need to dig through whole chapters to find a gem.

This chapter opens with an encouragement to “see” the grace of Christ in the following:
1) The “comfortable relationships” Jesus has taken upon himself: husband, shepherd, brother.
2) The gentle names used to describe himself: lamb, hen, dove, savior.
3) The gracious way he executes his offices: inviting the poor in spirit, asking us to cast our cares on him, interceding for us with tears, and a meek king.
This is not to say that Jesus is only meek and mild, since he most assuredly possesses incomparable strength and dignity, but it is to say “he will not show his strength against those who prostrate themselves before him” (9).

In the next section he provides three points (one paragraph each) of what we should learn from this.
1) Come boldly to the throne of grace. Do not hide or shy away, as if God is harsh to bruised reeds, but come knowing God is full of gentleness and grace to the humble. “Are you bruised? Be of good comfort, he calls you. Conceal not your wounds, open all before him and take not Satan’s counsel” (9, emphasis mine). That phrase has echoed in my mind, “conceal not your wounds, open all before him.”
2) Take support in this when bruised: “Christ’s way is first to wound, then to heal” (10). We can take comfort not only in the promise that we will not be broken in our bruising, but we can also rejoice that “according to my trials will be my graces and comforts” (10). Almost none of us would choose to walk through that door were the choice left to us but God does have good effects planned for the hard circumstances we enter upon.
3) Notice the different dispositions and intent between Christ and Satan. Satan sets upon us in our weakest to attach and destroy, whereas Christ comes to bind up the broken-hearted.

The remainder of the chapter falls under the heading “Who are the bruised reeds?” It’s here that Sibbes enters into the typical Puritan style of raising perceived questions and then offering answers. It’s a straight-forward and helpful approach to thinking through tough issues. Here are three nuggets of wisdom. First, Christians are quite different and so we must be careful not to treat all bruised reeds the same. To say it differently, Sibbes insists some people are of such sensitive consciences or have a temperament where they are prone to being crushed under condemnation, whereas others are prone to excusing themselves and might be pressed with more force. “It is dangerous, I confess, in some cases, with some spirits, to press too much and too long this bruising, because they may die under the wound and burden before they be raised up again. Therefore it is good in mixed assemblies to mingle comfort that every soul may have its due portion.” (12). Second, the physical and emotional affect the spiritual, and vice versa, because we are both physical and spiritual beings.”Sometimes our grief from outward grievances may lie heavier upon the soul than grief for God’s displeasure, because, in such cases, the grief works upon the whole man, both outward and inward…especially bodily sicknesses which, by reason of the sympathy between the soul and the body, work upon the soul so far as to hinder not only the spiritual, but often the natural acts” (13). Third, we should be gracious with those in the midst of suffering by giving them some freedom in how they deal with their emotions through their words. “And therefore we ought to judge charitably of the complaints of God’s people which are wrung from them in some cases” (14). He uses Job as an example of someone who vented with God in a way that might make us feel uncomfortable, and yet the Bible says he remained blameless. Good advice indeed so we are careful not to always fact-check those who are speaking out of their pain.

Since sets of three have been the pattern for this post, here are three short quotes that should always stay in our mind.
1) “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us” (13). Rehearse this to yourself over and over.
2) “…let all know that none are fitter for comfort than those that think themselves furthest off” (14).
3) “Christ’s sheep are weak sheep, and lacking in something or other; he therefore applies himself to the necessities of every sheep” (14). Not as quotable as the other two, but if we ourselves as weak sheep in need than we might better grasp the goodness of Jesus as a gracious and sufficient Shepherd.

There’s Something About Mary…the mother of Jesus

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In my recent trip to Europe (hence the grainy pic above) where I visited several beautiful, historic Catholic churches there were several questions that came to mind. As a Protestant, one of them was why the big deal about Mary? My Catholic tour guide (he was fantastic) paralleled the current Pope to Michelangelo in their preference to pray to Mary over Jesus. I’ve heard that before but it still always strikes me as curious. Why the need to make Mary more than the biblical authors do and when did it all start?

Of course, to be a bit simplistic, I think part of the problem clearly lies in the fact that most people were illiterate in the church’s history, and the Bible was, unfortunately, kept away from the eyes and ears of the people. However, I still found something intriguing and wondered if any Catholics who once belonged to these ancient churches ever asked why Mary wasn’t in the story pictures. By story pictures, I’m referring to those paintings (usually on ceilings) that were meant to tell biblical stories–often the overarching biblical story–to people who couldn’t read and wouldn’t have Bibles even if they could read. What I noticed is that in these paintings of biblical stories (meaning stories actually based on the texts) is that other than the birth of Christ, Mary remains noticeably absent from the other paintings. Wouldn’t anyone in the church ever have wondered why Mary was being elevated when she’s clearly absent from the paintings retelling the biblical story? Yes, there were many paintings and statutes of Mary throughout the churches I went too, but these weren’t part of the paintings retelling the biblical story. I find this fascinating. My hope isn’t to offend Catholics but to really understand more of the history behind mariology.

After returning home, I was given the chance to read a bit of early church history in preparation of teaching a session at our church. Since I don’t do well with letting things go I thought I’d do a tiny bit of digging as to when references to Mary developed as something more than just the virgin mother of Jesus. I’m just scratching the surface on this and related issues so I’d appreciate any feedback or sources.

I’ve been reading a bit of Irenaeus since my talk focuses on the rise of bishops and why apostolic succession was so important for the church’s unity. Irenaeus was the first guy I came across who talks about Mary in detail, although I later found that he probably was reiterating what he read in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue With Trypho the Jew. [Note: Although Justin Martyr parallels Mary with Eve he seems to focus on what both of them conceived, not their merit or actions.] It seems like (from my limited reading) Mary was referenced early as the church combatted Gnosticism. Most forms of Gnosticism denied the genuine humanity of Jesus, so Mary the mother of Jesus was used to defend the humanity of Jesus. It seems this quickly progressed into something more. This is a good time to stop and remember that the earliest theologians (2nd-3rd century AD) were still grappling both with who Jesus was and what salvation actually meant. Unfortunately, many of these early church fathers had a theology of salvation or atonement that was quite under-baked. Once persecution settles down and Athanasius enters the scene we’re provided with a much more robust theology. Back to Irenaeus, who is known for how he sees the NT recapitulating the OT. In his Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, he takes the biblical parallel between Adam and Jesus as the 2nd Adam (cf. Rom 6 & I Cor. 15) and stretches it so that Mary parallels Eve. Here’s one quote (thank you Google Books):
“And just as through a disobedient virgin[,] man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of Go man was reanimated and received life….For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin.” (Dem 33)

After this, other patristic theologians wrote similar things (Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome) and it seems like Mary’s role and importance grew at different times in later history. Then, in the 19th and 20th century we can see how Roman Catholic dogma had progressed to not just seeing Mary as playing an important role in bringing Life through Jesus, but to actually playing a part in redemption with Jesus. In 1854, Pope Pius IX put into dogma via papal bull the doctrine of Immaculate Conception, stating that Mary was conceived without original sin. Then, in an Encyclical from Pope Pius XII in 1954, he states the following (there are several similar statements): “39. Certainly, in the full and strict meaning of the term, only Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is King; but Mary, too, as Mother of the divine Christ, as His associate in the redemption, in his struggle with His enemies and His final victory over them, has a share, though in a limited and analogous way, in His royal dignity.”

I was more interested in the historical factor of where an interest in Mary came from (and still am since this is only one factor among many). As a bible-thumping Protestant, I strongly uphold our redemption in the 2nd Adam, and since Mary is never mentioned or hinted at in regards to our salvation or paralleled as a 2nd Eve I strongly disagree with Roman Catholic theology in this regards. Not only is it a big stretch to making Mary a 2nd Eve because Jesus is a 2nd Adam, but it also seems to be a big stretch even to get from the quotes of the early church fathers on Mary being significant (because she conceived Jesus and therefore conceived life) to the later Roman Catholic teaching that she is an associate in our redemption.