From the sentiment of Christ’s babyhood to the fellowship of his death

A word of encouragement to those who may be preaching on Philippians 2.5–11 this week:

‘The centre of the Incarnation is where Christ placed the focus of His work—not at the beginning of His life, but at its end; not in the manger, but in the cross. The key to the Incarnation is not in the cradle, but in the cross. The light on Bethlehem falls from Calvary. The virtue lies in some act done by Christ; and He Himself did no act in His birth, but in His death He did the act of the universe. The soul of the Incarnation does not lie in His being born of a pure virgin; but it lies in the death of His pure soul and the perfect obedience of His will as a propitiation for the sins of the world. God was in Christ as reconciler, not as prodigy. The key to the Incarnation lies, not in the miracle performed on His mother, but in the act of redemption performed by Himself. Christ’s great work on our behalf was not in assuming our nature at birth, but in what He did with the nature we call assumed. Men were not redeemed by Christ being born as He was, but by His dying as He did. It is that which establishes His power over us sinners. It is that which makes His real value to our souls, because it is there that He atones, expiates, reconciles. It is that which gives chief value to His entrance in the world—not that He was miraculously born, but that He was born to die and redeem. The saving humiliation was not that of the manger but of the cross. It was a humiliation not inflicted or imposed, but achieved. And the self-emptying behind all was one to be explained, not by anything happening to Him in His humble birth, but by what happened through Him in His humiliating death. If He had not been born in that way, and yet had died as He did, He would still have been our reconciliation with God, our Redeemer from the curse, and our Saviour from the sin of the soul and of the race. The power of His Incarnation has become so weak among men, for one reason, because its explanation has been sought at the wrong end of His life. The wonder has been transferred from Good Friday to Christmas, from the festival of the second birth to the festival of the first, from redemption to nativity, from the fellowship of His death to the sentiment of His babyhood’. – PT Forsyth, God the Holy Father, 40–1.

Michael Jackson and the cult[ure] of dead celebrities

Michael JacksonRick Floyd, in his recent post on the death of Michael Jackson and the culture of celebrity, includes this insightful claim:

‘The church’s notion of the faithful dead as the communion of saints (see my Mystic Sweet Communion) has been replaced in popular culture by the cult of dead celebrities whose lives for the most part serve more as cautionary tales than good examples’.

Too true. This reminded me of Camus’ definition of culture as ‘the cry of men in face of their destiny’. Still, Jackson’s death is both a tragedy (even in Camus’ sense of that word) and a reminder that in the most unCamus-like economy of grace, hope hopes in the redemption who comes on the other side. For it is the triune God – and not Michael Jackson, and still less that army of fans and critics that he left behind – who has, in Jesus Christ, made the final call on this man’s life, and fate.

Yes, Jackson’s chapter is included in that growing book of ‘cautionary tales’, but that book is not the last in the series.

Forsyth on the foundation of hope

‘All the crises of [Christ’s] life … had themselves a crisis in His death, where the victory and the solution was won once for all. He did not cheer the disciples with the sanguine optimism of the good time coming. It was not a sanguine optimism, but an optimism of actual faith and conquest. It was not the hope of a conquering Messiah soon. ‘He is here,’ was the Gospel. And so we are not hopeful that the world will be overcome; we know it has been. We are born into an overcome, a redeemed world. To be sure of that changes the whole complexion of life, religion, and action in a way to which today we are strange. It is much to be quite sure that the world will one day be righteous; it is more to know that a universal Christ is its perfect righteousness already. We see not yet all things put under righteousness, but we see Jesus already crowned with that glory and honour. That is Christianity. If it seem absurd, it is only as the peace of God is so in such a world as surrounds us’. – Peter T. Forsyth, The Justification of God: Lectures for War-Time on a Christian Theodicy (London: Independent Press, 1957), 219.

Advent Reflections for 2007

Revelation, Old and New – Part 3

Here’s the final part to Forsyth’s essay, Revelation, Old and New. O how we need to regrasp this stuff for today!

If people tell me, as they sometimes do, that all creation and all fife is one vast revelation, one vast miracle, teeming at every particle and pore, that so far from denying revelation they see nothing else, I have a suspicion of the vague, the grandiose, the forced note, those colours that crack in life’s heat, and that run in the swellings of Jordan. Truly revelation is the greatest of miracles. and the spiritual life is one vast miracle of revelation, because of the Holy Ghost. But it is not a miracle diffused over creation. The Omnipresence of God is not yet His nearness. Immanence is not yet communion. To know that God is there is one thing, to know that we are known of God is another. And that is true religion. The historic is not for religion the course of history but its core. Revelation is not something out of the every– where into the here. That ends –nowhere. It is a miracle condensed at a moral centre where life has a fierce crisis, not an outspread calm. There is more than the miracle of creation.

And it is the miracle of the creation within creation, of the new creation, the miracle of the Redemption. In all the cosmic ranges of space, in all the long reaches of crowded history, there is nothing so marvellous, so majestic as God’s mercy in Christ to me a sinner. That is the revelation in all revelation. That is the new moral life, the new Humanity. That is what makes a religion a GREAT thing. If nature and history be so great and mighty as we now know them to be, what are we to say of the greatness of their God ? It is too high, we cannot attain to it. Nature exhausts our imagination; how shall it compass God ? If the mind flags and the heart falls in the effort to conceive the boundless power and tragic glory of creation, what strength have we left to pursue that way till it land us in the God of it all? We have none. And we must take another way. Or rather God takes another way with us. We cannot find Him in His world, and He must find us. But not there. He reveals His heart of grace neither in the cosmic scale of things nor in the demonic force of heroes, supermen, who are more ready perhaps to ravage than to heal, who are not shepherds of the people but wolves. The greatness of power He changes to another order of greatness. The Almighty reveals Himself as the All Holy. A dreadful, crushing revelation, unless the holy God is revealed also as the God of all grace; unless revelation be redemption, unless it be God’s self–justification in ours.

Because He is holy to see, I must not approach Him, but because He is holy to save, He must come to me, that no speck of His world remain which is not covered, claimed, and cured by Him; no soul which is not judged and redeemed into His fellowship. This holy, judging, redeeming, tender love of the awful God is the miracle of the moral world. Nothing is so miraculous in Christ as that union of infinite majesty and intimate mercy.

I began with a text, let me draw to a close with one. Some of the greatest texts of the Bible are not in the Bible but in the Apocrypha. And here is one from Sirach, “As is His majesty, so Is His mercy–“ What a phrase to make music in the night. There is no such majesty conceivable as the holiness of God; and –in Christ’s Cross, its judgment all comes down ‘in mercy. It comes down, down, down to a poor bent rheumatic figure of a woman creeping and shaking along mean streets with a little old bonnet, a little old basket, and a pennyworth of stale bread in it. And one day the crooked shall be made straight, and her rough life plain. And it comes, that mercy comes down, if we could but get it to her, to that still poorer creature, dishevelled and unsexed, shot cursing of a Saturday night from a dram–shop in the Canongate. If such things lie somehow within the majesty of an immanent, patient, silent God, they are not outside His mercy. But it is a light thing that God should have mercy where we have pity. To such ruins our own pity flows promptly, and it is not God’s crowning mercy that He should pity and restore these. Does His majesty go as far as mercy on Mephistopheles? Has He any mercy on those blackmailers and panders who batten on men’s vices like vultures, spend their life jeering at goodness, and drink down souls like wine? Has He any mercy on those who grow rich by hounding on the nations to war ? Any of those who ravage continents in the sheer lust of power? We can have none. Nor should we. If there be any, it is God’s alone. True, the revelation is a world’s redemption; but must these creatures survive to complete the world?

And yet there are times when we who judge thus can and should have no mercy on ourselves. There are dreadful hours, ‘in souls of whom you would never think it, who do not argue “if God be merciful to that poor wreck, He can be merciful to me.” The greatest hour is not reached till we have come to say, with him who called himself the chief of sinners, If God has been merciful to me, there are none to whom He cannot.”

That is the revelation of the Lord which is the beginning of heavenly wisdom. And with it the Church underlies the University and the State.

The Revelation we need most is that which comes to our darkest and most terrible hour, to man’s centre in the conscience, and to the conscience in its impotent despair. It comes to the hour of our guilt. And what makes our guilt? Our guilt is made, and especially our best repentance is made, when we see the holiness of God, and care more that that should be made good than for our own salvation. And nothing else can save or quiet us but more revelation of more holiness, and that is redemption, the last revelation. The coming of perfect holiness is in the cross of Christ, which at once confounds, crowns, and recreates our moral world.

Revelation, Old and New – Part 1

REVELATION, OLD AND NEW
(delivered under the auspices of the Guilds of St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, 1911)

“But God commendeth His own love to us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. v. 8.)

May I at the outset be a little theological? I must be, to be fair to my text. I promise to be quite religious and quite humane before I am done. But theology is to religion what principle
is to life.

First, I would say, Revelation is really Redemption. The light was the life of men. The new light was the new life.

Second, Redemption is a thing of heart and soul and will and mind. Our thought of it must be humanized to the hungry heart, and it must be moralized to the guilty conscience.

I. First, then, Revelation is really Redemption.
And here note three things.

1. GOD IN CHRIST DOES HIS OWN LOVING, GIVING, SACRIFICING, AND SAVING.

Two mistakes are made about Revelation. It is treated either as mere display of God or as mere statement of Him. We think of God either as allowing Himself to be seen or as allowing Himself to be explained. We think of Revelation either as a picture of God or as a truth about Him. He is regarded either as an object of contemplation or as an object of discussion, as a beatific vision or a dialectic theme, as the object either of a mysticism or of an orthodoxy. We are agreed that, if there be a revelation, it is God’s gift, but we are not agreed about what He gives; whether it is a theophany of Himself or a declaration about Himself or something else. Some say Christ came to show us the Father, to show us His portrait, or sketch His character; others that He came to tell us of the Father, to give us His truth, His theology. In either case we have but portrayal. And it is hard to say which mistake has done more mischief—the notion that God’s great gift is a picture of Himself to be admired, or the notion that it is a truth about Himself to be credited.

What God gave us was neither His portrait nor His principle; He gave us Himself—His presence, His life, His action. He did more than show us Himself, more than teach us about Himself—He gave us Himself, He sacrificed Himself. It is ourselves He seeks, therefore it was Himself He gave, life for life and soul for soul. He asks us for life–committal, because it was His life He committed to us. He gave us love by giving us Himself to love. He does not make His love and goodness just to pass before us in a panorama; nor does He lay it out parcelled so that we may readily just take it or leave it. Where would then be the urgency of Christ–His final and awful dilemma put to us? God carries His love home to us. He will not let us alone with it. He invades us with it. He “commends” it to us–not in the sense of praising it, but of committing it ‘into our hands. He takes the last pains to get it home to us; nay, He carries it home Himself, does it all Himself. He “commends His own love”. He does not woo us by proxy. Christ was no mere messenger, but present God. The divine Lover is His own apostle. He did not simply send His Son; He came in His Son, and in His Son’s cross. God was in Christ’s reconciling. He did not simply make use of death, of His Son’s death He died. Surely what the Son suffered cost the Father even more. When Paul spoke to the Galatians about his preaching of Christ, he says he “placarded Christ” before them (Gal. iii. I).

I made a great exhibition of Him, writ Him large, made a show of Him, and glorified Him openly. That was an apostle’s work. He depicted Christ, and pointed to Christ, and commended Christ. He said “Hear me,”—not, “Look to me”, but “Look to Christ … Receive Christ.” He preached not himself. No apostle did. They preached Christ, and were Christ’s apostles. But Christ did say “Look to me.” In Christ God was His own apostle. God directed Himself, nay, sped Himself, to the human heart in Christ. He did not employ another. God was not to Christ as Christ was to Paul. Paul was sacramental to us for Christ, but Christ was mediatorial to us for God. Christ is not vicarious for God as He is for us. He was continuous with God as He is not with us. He did not represent God to us on the same principle as He does us to God. Christ dying therefore was God commending His own love to us. The Cross was no mere assurance of God’s love, but its action. Christ was the love of God giving itself to us, the grace of God bestowing, spending, pouring itself out on us, the holiness of God reclaiming us to holiness, not turning us toward it, but replacing us in it. God does not love us by deputy; He does not give us by deputy; He does not save us by deputy. He brings and wings His own love. His holiness takes its own consequences in an evil world. He does His own suffering and saving. He is a Jealous God. None but Himself shall redeem us for Himself. He is a monopolist of sacrifice. He does not part with the agony and glory of the Cross to any creature. None shall outdo Him in sacrifice. No creature has a right to sit with God on the throne of the Cross. It was no created being that died for us. Creatures as we are, it is in no created Spirit that we can live. Our Redemption is too costly for any but our Creator, and a creature must let it alone for ever.

In a word Revelation is Redemption. The new light is new life. God reveals His own self to us sinners in that Christ dies for us. We are not sages, we are sinners. Already by its intelligence the world knew not God. And there is no other way of revealing God to sinners but by redeeming them. We must be redeemed into the power of understanding a holy revelation. Does it not come to that? The Revelation is not a glorification of love as a poet might do it. it is not an illustration of it like a parable. The Son of God was not a mere symbol of God, an illustration. God’s revelation of love is the bestowal of love as a lover does. It is not a show but a sacrament. Nay, it is more. It is not the donation of love as a thing—as something which God could detach, hand over, pour out, and part with. God’s love is God loving. It is the gift of Himself who is love, given in the only way that love could give itself to loveless men, by the way of death. God’s answer to us is the word of reconciliation. And we answer it not by being impressed, and not by being convinced, but by being conciliated, by being reconciled,—by an eternal life of communion. For it was a revelation once for all and for ever. Do I carry you with me?

2. LET US MOVE ANOTHER STAGE FORWARD.

Revelation to sinners must be redemption, not chiefly because it is love, but because it is holy love. “His own love.” God Himself, I have said, does His own revealing of Himself as Saviour without prophet or deputy. But that word “His own” has another shade of meaning. God’s love in Christ was not only not vicarious: it was His own in another sense. It was unique in kind. There was, there is, nothing like it anywhere. It is holy love, a love peculiar to Him. God so loved–not so intensely but so peculiarly, in such a special way, so holily. He did not come with even the best human love lifted and made infinite. That is sacred but not holy. He came with another kind altogether, of which the love of mortals, however intense and tender, is but a symbol.

Do you ask what love is when it rises as high as God?

Here it is. Herein is love, not that we loved passionately, but that He loved holily. Do you want to know what love really is and does at its height? You must not go to love in sinful men who, being evil, know how to give good gifts to their children, but to love in holy God, who gives His native holiness. You must not go to lovable men and women, nor to those who are the great lovers of each other in fact or ‘in romance, but to the love of the evil world by the holy historic God. You want to know what fatherhood is? You must not magnify and cast upon the heavens the image of the best of mortal fathers. You must not go to a deduced fatherhood–deduced from man and imported into God. You must not –import fatherhood into God, nor goodness, patience, pity, sacrifice. That would be working in quite the wrong way, moving in quite the wrong direction for religion. Religion begins with a revelation that comes clown, not a passion that goes up. We must not reverse the divine current. It would be what is called anthropomorphism. It is imposing man on God instead of revealing God through man. Our love is God’s speech but not His Word.

No. We do not understand God from religion but religion from God. But where is He, you say, if not in my heart? He is in history. We must go to history, to Christ, and find the fontal Father there, the absolute Father, from whom all fatherhood is named in heaven and earth. He is in our experience but not of it. We must go to Christ’s Holy Father. Christianity is not fatherhood but holy fatherhood. We must go to the Father whose love is holiness going out to love men back to itself, and whose grace is holiness going down to love them up to itself His own love means it is holy love.

3. AND ONE STEP MORE

How is holy love to be revealed to unholy men? How is the outgoing holiness to reach them? How but by death God knew what He had to expect when He committed His holy self among evil men. It was shame and death. There is no way but the Cross of committing a holy love to such a world as this. The gospel of a holy God is not soon popular. The holier your love of men is the more you will suffer and be rejected with it. God Almighty knew, for Himself even, no way but the Cross to the hearts and wills of evil men. Nature is to be sanctified by no genial grace, by no loving charm, but by suffering grace. It only sanctifies because it redeems, it only redeems because it atones, it only atones because it dies in holy obedience, it only dies to rise, and it rises, as it died, by the spirit of holiness (Rom. i. 4). God’s holiness makes in Christ its own atonement, commends its own love as grace, does its own justification, and redeems us into its own communion.