Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Do Christians Worship Three Gods? Part 3

When I was but a wee lad, my dad and I would camp out in the backyard in the summertime.  The night lights of Denver couldn't dim the explosion of the milky way in the Colorado sky.  My father would comment on how glorious the universe was, and then tell me to ponder the fact that the space we were gazing up at, with its zillions of stars, went on and on without end.  My little brain tried to wrap itself around the idea until smoke began issuing out my ears.

I suspect the discussions these last couple of weeks on this site have affected you as the infinite universe did that young boy.  But aren't we glad?  After all, a god we can fully comprehend is no god at all.

This week we shall conclude our study of the Trinity (a blog on the Trinity would have to be in three parts, wouldn't it?) by asking the question, "Does the Trinity matter?"

God created us originally to be a kingdom with Him.  We were made in His image in order for us to be stewards of the created world, both by means of and for an intimate relationship with God;  God would dwell with us, and we would fulfill our created purpose as individuals united in the kingdom of God forever. We should see from this that God is not only infinite but personal.

The relational (personal) nature of God exists eternally.  We know God is also eternally autonomous or non-contingent Being--that is, His Being is totally self-existent: God doesn't depend on anything outside Himself for existence (please remember the limitations of language, here).  How then can God be both non-contingent and personal (relational)?  He is Triune Being.  The three persons of the Godhead--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--eternally exist in relationship of Love; for, God is love.

The Triune God revealed Himself in creation:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water. God said, “Let there be light." And there was light! [Genesis 1:1-3][NET]

The Father created through the agency of the Holy Spirit by speaking through the Son (the Word).  The Apostle John reiterated this in the prologue of his gospel using the precise eloquence of the Greek language:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God. [John 1:1] [NET]

The Greek word order for the last statement communicates the binitarian relationship of the Father and Son (Word) which is each are fully God yet distinct persons.  Despite this concise theological beauty of the Greek, some have chosen to translate it, "...and the Word was a god."  They did this because they believe the Son to be a created being, so they adjusted the scripture to fit their theology.

Arius of Alexandria, who lived at the beginning of the 4th century AD was the first to propose the idea of the created Son.  Indeed, his proposition sparked the convening of the council at Nicea in 325 AD to hammer out the orthodox dogma of the Trinity as ultimately codified in the Nicean creed of 381 AD.  The church rightly demurred at the idea of a created Son, and in the end declared it a heresy.

Once one relegates the Son to creature, one obliterates the Trinity, and consequently changes how God acted in creation and re-creation.  We've already covered creation.  By re-creation I mean our redemption--our salvation--as the key component in reclaiming all creation.  From the Trinitarian perspective, the Son is essentially involved in creation as John states in the very next verse of his prologue:

All things were created by him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. [John 1:3][NET].

There is no room here for the Son to be merely a sort of insulation, or motivation, or template of creation, which is all he could be as a created being.  Similarly, the Son is essentially involved in our re-creation.  In ours and the creation's salvation a created Son could be nothing more than a role-model for us.  Despite all the hand-waving of the Arians and their descendants, a created Son is a limited and therefore changeable being, not god.  As such, he would have been powerless to create us or save us.

All humanity since the rebellion of Adam and Eve (or innocent humankind bearing God's image) has remained in death, which is separation from God.  As we humans have been groping around in the darkness of death, we have driven ourselves farther from the right order and Love inherent and requisite to God's kingdom (remember for us to function in the kingdom--to work out our created purposes--we need God to be the light for our eyes and the breath for our life: we need the intimate relationship with God).  This ever-broadening distance from God has left a trail of destruction both to our relationships and our environment; we have sinned both because of and for the hubris of believing ourselves capable of being god.  And being dead, we are powerless to resurrect ourselves--to return to our original relationship with God, who is the source and sustainer of life.  Therefore our death and sin is an infinite transgression; we either remain under God's wrath, or God has to do something about it; in the same way only an infinite god could create the universe out of nothing, only an infinite god can resurrect what is permanently dead.

But reduce the Son to creature and you are forced to methods for our salvation that either compromise God's character or impose on us the fallen creature what is impossible.  Thus, the Unitarians teach that God is omnipotent and can therefore simply forgive us without the death of His Son on the cross, and so everyone in the end will be saved, regardless.  They say this is love, but it isn't because love is a two-way street; love is a relationship.  Universal salvation would contradict love because we would remain totally passive.  Universalism would also repudiate God's holiness.  God said if we turned our back on Him we would die.  Not only is death total disorder, it is the just outcome of our sin.  For God to simply overlook our sin by making death a mere abstraction would be to contradict His holiness.

Therefore our only hope is that God somehow enter death to satisfy His holiness.  And this He did as a supreme act of love.  By taking on flesh as Jesus the Christ, God's only and unique Son, God died the death for us but being God was not overcome by it so that by clinging to the Son in faith we too shall overcome death.  Because God is Holy, Jesus had to die; because God is love, Jesus did die for us.

We see then, if we hold to a non-trinitarian perspective, we cling to a spurious hope for our salvation.  But our salvation is trinitarian; our hope is solely in the completed and faithful work of Jesus the Christ, the son of God.

But our salvation involves more than forgiveness; we need to be able to remain in God's kingdom, and this by loving God by obeying Him, and so loving others.  Such ability comes through an intimate relationship with God; He must teach us how to love in holiness.  The non-trinitarian perspective once again leaves us high and dry.  The Unitarianians, for example, teach, as a consequence of their theology, that Christ is nothing more than a role model for us to follow--an motivator to obey God.  The trinitarian perspective teaches us that God will fill us with His Holy Spirit so we both know what obedience looks like and are empowered to do it.  I might watch a prodigy violinist perform and be awestruck, but all the training and work on my part will never make me a prodigy violinist; I must be given the gift.  Love demands that I choose to accept the gift; love is completed in me by God when I return back to Him the love He first expressed to me.  Without the grace the comes to us through the indwelling of God's Spirit, we would remain shipwrecked outside of God's kingdom desperately trying to obey a bunch of rules; our hope would lay in our own abilities to walk in the holiness of God's love, which, of course, was the pipe dream of our rebellion.  We delude ourselves if we believe we are non-contingent beings; we need God to live and live to the fullest as dwellers with Him in His kingdom--the very reason He created us in the first place.

It is a triune God who created us, and who in more recent times entered history to save us from death.  Without appreciating the truth of the Trinity and looking on its truth, much like that boy back in Colorado did the universe, and standing on it in faith, we will remain trapped in death by our own fallibility and arrogance.  Jesus is king, because He lives!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Do Christians Worship Three Gods? Part 2

Have I been with you for so long, and you have not known me, Philip? The person who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me, but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves.” [John 14:8-11][NET]

In this way Jesus responded to Philip’s request for Jesus to show them the Father that they could be content. Jesus equates Himself with the Father; yet Jesus is the Son.  Therefore, through this response to Philip, Jesus reveals the mystery of the Trinity to us.

As I explained last time, all we can understand about God is what He has revealed about Himself.  This revelation has come to us by His Word that took on flesh and dwelled among us--Jesus the Christ—God’s Son—and through the written word—the Holy Scripture—the Bible.

Is the above encounter with Philip the only time Jesus equated Himself with the Father, and therefore reveals the Trinity?  The answer is no.  We will examine several scenarios to support this.

Probably the main reason the Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus was Jesus’ mostly veiled claims of His oneness with God.  For example, consider the account of Jesus healing the paralytic:

Just then some men showed up, carrying a paralyzed man on a stretcher. They were trying to bring him in and place him before Jesus. But since they found no way to carry him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down on the stretcher through the roof tiles right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Then the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to think to themselves, “Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their hostile thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you raising objections within yourselves?  Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralyzed man – “I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher and go home.” Immediately he stood up before them, picked up the stretcher he had been lying on, and went home, glorifying God.  [Luke 5:18-25][NET]

Jesus forgives the paralyzed man’s sins, something only God can do; the Pharisees were quite correct in their understanding of this.  For this reason the Pharisees cried foul in the most serious manner possible: “He blasphemes!”  Of course, any yahoo could come along and pronounce anyone forgiven; who would ever know if it was true or not?  Jesus addresses this by asking, “Which is easier, to say….”  Jesus’ claim of bearing the authority of God Himself, which I submit is tantamount to asserting Jesus’ divinity, was validated by the miracle He did.  Can you now see Philip nodding at the response of Jesus we started with? We should be nodding, too.  This situation should also tell us that Jesus is no mere prophet (more on this later).

It’s too important to miss, so I must digress for a wee moment and point out that the Father, by His son, through the power of the Holy Spirit was bringing about restoration—yes, re-creation—in the account of the paralytic.  You see, the forgiveness and healing, such as given the paralytic, that came through Christ weren’t parlor tricks, but real acts of justice in Love; because of His great love for us, and in the power of that Love, God brings order out of chaos, life back from death, and light into darkness.  He accomplishes this in part by His forgiveness and His healing balm made available through the faithfulness of His son.  And this would not be possible if Jesus were not perfectly God.

During the long confrontation between Jesus and some Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah but didn’t understand what that meant beyond political aspirations, Jesus would make a startling claim.  Let’s listen in….

Then the Judeans responded, “Now we know you’re possessed by a demon! Both Abraham and the prophets died, and yet you say, ‘If anyone obeys my teaching, he will never experience death.’ You aren’t greater than our father Abraham who died, are you? And the prophets died too! Who do you claim to be?” Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory is worthless. The one who glorifies me is my Father, about whom you people say, ‘He is our God.’ Yet you do not know him, but I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him, and I obey his teaching. Your father Abraham was overjoyed to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Judeans replied, “You are not yet fifty years old! Have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” Then they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out from the temple area. [John 8: 52-59][NET]

Jesus, by calling Himself, I AM, equates Himself with God.  The Messiah (i.e., Christ) was never to be simply a human being set up by God to free Israel politically, but God, Himself, come in the flesh, to bring His eternal kingdom to all who acknowledge Jesus as King and follow Him by faith.  This was a huge stumbling block for the Jews.  Sadly, it remains a stumbling block for some Jews and non-Jews—even those professing religion.

In the account of the paralytic (above), Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man.  Indeed, the two most common terms spoken by Jesus the Christ during His ministry on earth were the Kingdom of God and the Son of Man.  One might think by the latter title Jesus meant His humanity.  In fact, Jesus is perfect Man.  But the name Son of Man refers to more than His humanity; it speaks to the fact of Jesus’ Divinity.  The name comes from the prophecy of the Messiah given to Daniel, and recorded in the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel in the Old Testament:

I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him. To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed.” [Daniel 7: 13,14][NET]

Only God deserves the worship afforded the Son of Man, here.  By referring to Himself as the Son of Man, Jesus again asserts the fact of the distinction with inseparable union of the Father and Son of the Trinity—God who took on flesh to save His world.

Okay, perhaps we can concede from all the discussion thus far that Jesus reveals the binitarian relationship of the Father and Son within the Godhead—that is, each person—Father and Son—is fully God, and one God.  But does Jesus ever reveal the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity?

Jesus’ clearest declaration of the Trinity is found in His great commission to His disciples:

Then Jesus came up and said to them,All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28: 18-20][NET]

In the Gospel of John 14: 15-31, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit and the purpose of His coming.  We can infer the Holy Spirit as a person from Jesus’ description; but we must look elsewhere for confirmation of this (more on this next week).

During another event where Jesus had cast out a demon, the Pharisee observers accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Satan.  Jesus’ response to them implies the perfect Trinity indwelling Christ:

Now when Jesus realized what they were thinking, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and no town or house divided against itself will stand. So if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you. How else can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can thoroughly plunder the house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. For this reason I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. [Matthew 12: 25-32][NET]

Now, scads of things can be learned from this account, but I would have us make three observations about the Holy Spirit: 1) He is equated with God because He is doing work only God can do, and receiving honor only due God (note also, the binding of Satan—the rendering him powerless—by the work of the Holy Spirit in casting out demons is all part and parcel of the justice I spoke of earlier in terms of forgiveness and healing, expressed here by Jesus holistically as God's kingdom purpose: “then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you.”); 2)  The Holy Spirit is seen as a separate person of the Trinity of the Son and the Father by the role the Holy Spirit takes in the overall redemption process; indeed, the church Fathers used the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in creation and in salvation as one way of understanding the idea of persons (we’ll explore this more next week); and 3) it is by the agency of the Holy Spirit that Jesus casts out the demons.

The last point deserves a bit more explanation before finishing this post.  As I said earlier, Jesus is no mere prophet.  Other prophets did miraculous things, but only because God gave them the Holy Spirit temporarily to do them—that is, the Holy Spirit had been measured out to them.  But Jesus is perfect God.  John said,

For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he does not give the Spirit sparingly. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things under his authority. The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath remains on him. [John 3: 34,35][NET]

By “does not give the Spirit sparingly” John means, unlike a mere prophet, Christ has the Holy Spirit without measure.  We see this graphically illustrated when the woman who had been suffering from bleeding touched Jesus' cloak without Him seeing her, and power went out from him and healed her on the spot (see Mark 5: 25-34).

Therefore, it is God who touched the blind man’s eyes with Jesus’ hand and caused the man to see; God did it: the person of the Father willed it, the person of the Son spoke it, the person of the Holy Spirit effected it—God did it.  The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each fully God, and one God, took on flesh and dwelled among us as Jesus the Christ His one and only unique son.  And Jesus has revealed this to us by both His words and His miracles.

Reeling?  Join the club.  While we can never explain the Trinity, we can certainly appreciate it, and therefore fully trust God who loves us dearly.

Next week we will see if Scripture reveals the Trinity.  In the meantime, rest up.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Do Christians Believe in Three Gods? Part 1

Some folks out there accuse Christians of worshipping three gods because Christians believe in a Triune God—that is, the Trinity, concisely expressed as follows:

God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.

Let me state categorically from the get-go: Christianity is not polytheistic; Christians affirm and stand rigidly on the Shema: “Listen, Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” [Deut. 6:4,5][NET]  Reading the above statement of the Trinity to mean God is three gods is no more correct than saying the wave and particle natures of light are two distinct and separable types of light.

Theologians have identified many analogies over the centuries to help us grasp the concept of the Trinity.  Some have been better than others.  The church frequently adopted fire as a favorite example:

 “….: just as we recognize the existence at once of fire and the light which proceeds from it: for there is not first fire and thereafter light, but they exist together.  And just as light is ever the product of fire, and ever is in it and at no time separate from it, so in like manner also the Son is begotten of the Father and is never in any way separate from Him, but ever is in Him.” [John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, Chap. VIII]

They would elsewhere complete the analogy by noting the radiance or heat generated by fire as analogous to the Holy Spirit [I apologize, but the reference eludes me].

Only in the last hundred years or so have we come to appreciate the duality of physical light: light, which is inherently energy, is both a wave and a particle.  Consequently, only in recent times have we discovered what I believe to be the best analogy of the Trinity.  I will explain this by using the phenomenon of light to help illuminate (no pun intended) some of the key oppositions to the orthodox statement of the Trinity (above).

When we experiment with light we can sometimes detect its wave nature, such as when we shine light through a prism, and other times detect its particle nature, such as the Photoelectric Effect.  But in none of these experiments does light cease to be light, nor does it become only a wave or only a particle.  But regardless what character we might observe at any given moment, the other character is in no way lost; it is always the phenomenon of light in its total essence we are studying.  In the context of light, the wave is light, the particle is light, and together is light.

Saying light sometimes becomes only a wave and other times only a particle would be analogous to the argument called Modalism perfected by Sabellius at the dawn of the third century AD to describe the triune nature of God.  Sabellius asserted that in order to preserve the Shema and also allow for the three persons of God, God must transform into a given person at a given moment such that the remaining two persons meld into the person expressed.  But the Fathers quickly saw the fatal flaws of Modalism preventing it from adequately describing the Trinity.   Modalism leads to monstrous ramifications, particularly when considering the redemptive work of Christ on the cross.  The church Father, Tertullian, stated the problem succinctly:

He who raised up Christ and is also to raise up our mortal bodies will be as it were another raiser-up than the Father who died and the Father who was raised up, if it is the case that Christ who died is the Father.” [Prax. 28:13] 

Modalism, otherwise known as Sabellianism, was quickly abandoned and deemed heretical by the orthodox church.

The phenomenon of light does not allow for us to apply some sort of hierarchy to wave, particle, and energy; these characters coexist as distinct yet inseparable properties that are; and are without competition or rank.  The same must be asserted about the three persons of the Trinity.  Some have proposed the Hierarchy of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the foregoing decreasing order of authority.  But if this picture were accepted, then one would certainly lapse into a trithiesm, unless one deems the Son and Spirit created Beings (an idea to be discussed later)—in which case they would not be gods.  Hierarchy implies division and limitations; but God is simple and uncompound because He is perfect, unchanging, omniscient, omnipotent, and completely autonomous; we know this because God tells us His name:  “I Am that I Am.”  For these reasons and others, the church quickly relegated what came to be called subordinationism to the dust-bin of heretical teachings.

I have used the analogy of light to help guide us away from incorrect perceptions of the orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity.  But we must understand three limitations of any analogy applied to the living God who is and was and is to come.  First, there is no perfect analogy for God; any analogy will fall hopelessly short because God is infinite and therefore beyond our ability to understand or describe Him.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how fathomless his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has first given to God, that God needs to repay him?” [Rom 11:33-35][NET]

Not only is God beyond our reason and comprehension, He is also beyond our language.  For example, when we speak of the three persons of the Trinity, what do we mean?  The term person is wholly inadequate, but frankly there is no better term.  For this reason I like the light analogy because when I ponder the concept of person I think about the mysterious dual character of wave and particle.  They offer a way of picturing person that words could never communicate.  Nevertheless, the light analogy as with any analogy is imperfect and we must be careful not to push it too far; alas, some physicists might complain I have already done that.  Let's keep it simple, baby.

Secondly, no analogy explains the cause or reason for the existence of the Trinity.  For that matter, no one can explain the dual nature of light; it simply is so.  It is a mystery.  The nature of God who created light is shrouded in even greater mystery—yes, decidedly so.  The church Fathers understood the limitations and simplicity of the Trinitarian formula (above); it leaves questions unanswered.  We must realize that they refined it enough to keep our thinking from straying into heresies.  To refine it any further would not only be foolhardy--God is infinite--but dangerous, because we can so easily slip into erroneous concepts that can lead us astray from God’s purposes, authority, and love in holiness.

Third, no analogy proves the existence of God or the truth of the Trinity.  These things cannot be proved a priori.  I must say, though, the phenomenon of light does provide compelling circumstantial evidence for the existence of God; light fits in nicely with the teaching of Scripture:

For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.” [Rom. 1:20][NET]

All we can know and understand about God is what He has revealed about Himself.  This revelation is the Word, Jesus the Christ who lives forever as King at the right hand of God and the Scriptures testifying of Him handed down to us.  Therefore, the question becomes for us: “Do the Scriptures teach the Trinity of God?” or, stated differently, “Does God reveal Himself as triune Being?”  (Note Being is a limiting term—that carn-sarn language again—because God transcends Being)  Well, to find out, you will have to wait until next week—same bat-time, same bat-channel!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath Water

The old adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” apparently originated after the medieval bath practices.  To conserve resources, families would bathe infrequently drawing each time one tub of water.  The father would bathe first, followed by the mother, and on through the children, finishing with the baby.  By the time the poor infant was dipped in, the water must have become quite turbid, and if the parent wasn’t careful, the baby might go out with the murky bath.

As with all adages having stood the test of time, this one illustrates--rather graphically, I think—an all too common truth of human nature.  We have a tendency of answering one set of extremes with an opposing and equally extreme set before we finally--usually after considerable collateral damage—settle into a balanced view.  An example of this on my mind of late is the crucifix.

Most of the Protestants emerging from the reformation in the 16th century repudiated symbols such as the crucifix because they were seen as idolatrous; they worried that people would worship the graven images rather than the invisible Lord.  I confess that most of my life I have felt the same way; although I have a much more liberal view about the graphic arts than members of some minor Christian sects.  When it came to the crucifix, though, I was more concerned by its theology than it being a potential idol.  To me the resurrection of Christ is pivotal to the Christian faith, and somehow this seemed to me more in keeping with an unadorned cross than a crucifix.  I’m having a change of heart on this; I'm beginning to wonder if I may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Certainly, the resurrection is essential to our faith.  But the resurrection would have been meaningless had Jesus not suffered and died the particular death He did; His was no ordinary death; Jesus died into death by experiencing for us complete separation from God.  Because Jesus was perfect both in humanity and divinity, such death had no hold on Him; God raised Christ to a life transfigured both physically and spiritually from the life we live now; Jesus’ resurrection was not a mere resuscitation as with Lazarus, who would die again—even though Lazarus’ resurrection was a type of what we who trust in King Jesus will have through Him.

We have no clue of the suffering Jesus experienced in our stead.  The beatings, scourging, taunts, and jeers our Lord endured, and the pain he suffered from being nailed to the cross through his wrists and feet were horrible beyond most imaginations.  But what set the terror and torment Jesus endured outside any human experience was His complete separation from God who is the source of life.  We have no reference point for such suffering.  For this reason it has drifted into mere abstraction for us, with debilitating effects.
As our understanding of the cost Christ paid for us to gain access to God’s eternal kingdom dwindles, I’m afraid we find it more difficult to be the suffering servants our Lord calls us to be in the present world.  As we lose sight of the suffering component of being a kingdom dweller, we become more fixated on the rewards of being in the kingdom; and this results all too often in complacency, or worse, sin.

Saint Paul clearly explains in Romans 12  what our proper response should be:

“(1) Therefore, I urge you, Brothers [fellow believers] , through the tender mercies of God, yield your bodies as living sacrifices, holy [and] well pleasing to God—your reasonable divine service. (2) And don’t conform to this age, but be transformed (metamorphosed) by the renewing of [your] mind, so you can ascertain what is the good, well pleasing, and perfect will of God.” [my translation]

What are these tender mercies of which Paul speaks?  Are they not captured in the “therefore” beginning this passage?  Yes: there is God reaching out to us in mercy that we might see our sinfulness and repent (Rom 2); and there is God’s faithfulness to His covenant promise through Christ’s faithfulness on the cross, with the certainty of the kingdom for all who put their trust—who walk by faith--in King Jesus (Rom 3,4); and there is forgiveness of sins, peace, and the love of God filling us through His Holy Spirit in this kingdom (Rom 5); and there is life in Christ because He lives (Rom 6); and there is power through His Holy Spirit living in us to please God, and the certainty of God’s faithfulness in the final vindication of His kingdom dwellers and the restoration of all creation (Rom. 7,8).  We have a great and sure hope in the kingdom of God, but that hope demands a response.  And the response is sacrifice.

All of those tender mercies should lead us to the conclusion of our sacrifice because to be a kingdom dweller with Christ forever demands we be transformed; only when we are fully transformed can we share in the Divine nature and finally perfectly know and therefore conform completely to the will of God.  And this transformation will entail suffering, but suffering we can be certain will attain its objective—our transformation; this is the certainty we have as kingdom dwellers through faith in King Jesus.

The trouble comes when we see this transformation happening purely by osmosis, as if we are simply passive recipients.  But that is not what Paul said.  We must in response to all that God has accomplished through Jesus the Christ seek to present ourselves as living sacrifices, which means we make daily, even minute by minute decisions to change away from the standards and paradigms of the present age and into conformity with the will of God.  The Holy Spirit identifies these needed changes in us, He empowers us to make those changes, but we must choose to obey Him; this is what it means to be a living sacrifice.  There’s more.  If we fail to obey him, He will remind us of this, too; and if we repent, we are forgiven.  But again, repentance is another aspect of being a living sacrifice.  It is also what Jesus meant by us needing to exert all of our effort to enter the kingdom through the narrow gate.  Many people will believe that transformation is simply a matter of association with Jesus and doctrines and concepts about Jesus; they will be disappointed in the end because only through striving to be living sacrifices by faith in King Jesus do we truly enter His kingdom and therefore salvation.

So I ask again, how can we be living sacrifices if we are desensitized to the horrific sacrifice that made God’s kingdom open to us?  I think it’s nearly impossible because without a deep sense of Christ’s suffering we so easily slip into a perspective of “it’s all about me” instead of “it’s all about Christ”.  For this reason Christ broke bread and shared the chalice of wine with His disciples and commanded us to carry on the same practice until He returns.  Christ knew we needed to be reminded regularly of the cost that was paid for our redemption.  For this reason, too, I think it is good to have a crucifix in plain sight to remind us what it means to be a living sacrifice and keep us awake to the entreaties of the Holy Spirit and so be living sacrifices.