Monday, May 20, 2013

The Divine Conspiracy of Predestined Conformity [Romans 8.28-30] (17 June 2012)

We are currently hearing messages on key passages from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome. Last week we saw how creation itself will be redeemed when the children of God are finally redeemed. We saw that God is not concerned only about humans, but about every part of his good and beautiful creation, which God himself has now subjected so that humans may learn obedience.

Today, we have a short passage, but one so rich, a whole series of messages could be given on them. I cannot do full justice to the richness of the text. But what I wish to do is reveal a conspiracy. It is contained in this passage. And it is one orchestrated by God. So let’s get to it.

Having spoken about creation groaning for its redemption and having told us how the Spirit helps us when we ourselves groan, Paul continues with the startling words, “We know.” We know. Not we believe. Not we think it might be so. Not it is highly likely that. Not the forecast is. 

No! Rather, we know! 

The Spirit living in the Christian gives such supreme confidence in the reality that Paul is about to describe that only the words, “We know” could capture it.

But what is it that we know? “All things work together for good toward those who love God.” What in the world does this mean? What does “all things” refer to? The majority view is that this refers to the circumstances of a Christian’s life, that everything that happens, whether good or bad, works in favor of the Christian. Another view, reflected in the NIV, is that God works in everything that happens in a Christian’s life so as to produce good through it. 

But if we consider the flow of the passage, and the fact that Paul has only just devoted quite bit of space to the groaning of creation, we will be led to understanding that “all things” refers to creation itself.

The Spirit helps us when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for with regard to the redemption of creation. But because creation realizes that a Christian is someone who will be bodily redeemed, someone who loves God, someone for whom Jesus died, someone indwelt by the Spirit, creation itself is favorably inclined toward the Christian. Every part of creation works in tandem with every other part for the benefit of those who love God. We will shortly see what that benefit is.

Mind you, I am not saying that this does not happen in the context of the circumstances of our lives. To say that would be absurd, for we are benefited only through the circumstances of our lives. 

What I am saying is that it is not the case that creation is somehow working against us and that God is somehow turning the bad things that creation hurls at us into things that benefit us.

Rather, the bad things are hurled at us by the forces of evil and the humans who willfully or helplessly assist those forces. And God lifts the curse on creation for the sake of those who love him. Creation is now able to join God in benefiting those who love him and, in doing so, oppose the forces of evil. What the benefit is we will see shortly.

Now Paul moves on to one of the most controversial pair of verses. Paul mentions this string of ideas – foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification. 

The last three, namely calling, justification and glorification, can easily be seen as a temporal sequence. One first receives the call to believe the gospel and trust Jesus, whether over time in the context of a Christian home or over time in the witness of a Christian friend or even as a onetime invitation in say a crusade such a conducted by Billy Graham or by receiving a tract, etc.

Then, if one believes the gospel and trusts Jesus, one is justified and becomes a part of the people of God. And finally, as Paul wrote in the passage we discussed last week, we wait in hope for our glorification.

Because these three ideas easily fit into a temporal sequence, many Christians have tried to see the first two also as fitting the same sequence. So, it is claimed that a person would not even receive the invitation to believe the gospel and trust Jesus were it not for the fact that that person were predestined by God. 

And that person would have been predestined by God because God had foreknowledge that that person would come to faith in Jesus.

But that is nonsensical. It is illogical. It is circular reasoning. It makes no sense to say that God saw into the future, obtained the knowledge that I would come to faith in Jesus, and so predestined, called, justified and glorified me. 

It is like saying, “I saw that you would return the book I lent you and so I predestined you to receive the invitation to borrow the book, subsequent to which you accepted the invitation, borrowed the book, read it and then returned it.”

The issuing of the invitation cannot be made contingent on its being accepted, which is how this view sees it.

Many Christians would readily see the logical failure of this argument. And they would propose that when Paul speaks of God’s foreknowledge, he is speaking of God’s foreknowledge not of the person’s accepting the invitation to believe the gospel, but of the foreknowledge that God himself would predestine certain people to be called, to believe, and to be eventually glorified.

But this too is ridiculous! It is like saying, “I saw that I would have bacon for breakfast. And so I predestined myself to go to the nice little breakfast joint, called our my order, received the order and ate it with glorious gusto!

Both these views are hugely popular. A staunch Calvinist would endorse the second view, making everything the decision of God. A semi-Pelagian would endorse the first view, making God’s initial act contingent on human response. And both views are illogical.

But both these views fail because they have been taken out of the context within which they appear. They are easily seen as illogical or inconsistent because they are trying to do with the text something that Paul did not intend. If you try hammering nails with a screwdriver or cutting paper with a power drill, don’t complain that it appears to be laughable.

The key here is the clause that is the most important and which is conveniently ignored by both views. Paul writes, “Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined – and here it is – to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”

Paul is not talking about predestination to salvation. He is linking our present sufferings with which he began the passage we looked at last week to the glory which we anticipate.

Earlier in the letter Paul wrote, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

Here Paul makes it more specific. The character that will be developed in a Christian by virtue of the sufferings he or she endures will be the character of Jesus. Paul is saying that every Christian is predestined to become like Jesus. And just as Jesus himself had to endure suffering, so also a Christian will endure suffering.

We make a category error when we view these verses as being directly spoken to individuals. Then we get into the logical inconsistencies of the semi-Pelagian and Calvinist views, either on the one had that God predestines to salvation those whom he foreknows will be saved or that God predestines to salvation those whom he foreknows he will save.

Rather, what Paul is saying here is that we Christians are not spared from sufferings. We endure every kind of suffering. We do so not because God predestined us to suffer or because God predestined our salvation. Rather we suffer because God has predestined, that is, decided beforehand, that everyone who is saved should become like Jesus. And the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus learnt obedience through his sufferings.

Those whom God foreknows will come to faith in Jesus, he has predestined to remain not mere believers, but to become Christlike.

And now we can see what v. 28 means and what I meant when I spoke of the idea that creation is working for our benefit.

Creation is groaning. We saw that last week. And it groans because it awaits its own redemption, which is contingent on our redemption. And so creation colludes with God. All things, every part of creation, works together as a unit, a team, to benefit those who love God. 

But how does it do this? It does this by providing for us the environment within which our present sufferings will enable us to be conformed to the image of God’s Son because that is the goal set by God for those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes.

So what we see till now in chapter 8 is not an ivory tower description of the process of salvation. Rather we are given a glimpse into the creativeness of God. Outside the Christian life suffering is meaningless. But in the Christian life, suffering is the means by which we become more like the one we love. This is the Divine Conspiracy.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A Creative Redemption [Romans 8.18-27] (10 June 2012)

Humans are strange creatures. We are prone to focusing on our own condition to the exclusion of any others. We often ask, “Why me?” when faced with difficulty. But we do not ask, “Why them?” when we see others suffer. Mind you, I am not saying that asking, “Why me?” is bad. Rather such questions reveal that we anticipate a better place.

However, this narrow focus on ourselves blinds us often to what scripture has to say. We focus on the trees and lose sight of the forest. As an example, consider John 3.16. Almost any evangelical Christian would be able to quote this verse from memory. And often when we witness to non-believers we may use this verse. We proclaim individual salvation because it says, “whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” 

But perhaps we forget the big picture, which is at the start of the verse. “God loved the world in this manner.” Somehow eternal life to the one who believes is a result of God’s love for the world. And we easily ignore this because it does not directly concern us.

As many of you already know, we are studying the last book of the bible in our weekly Wednesday bible studies. Quite naturally, as I prepare for these studies, I encounter people writing about how things will end. Phrases like ‘the last days’ or ‘the great tribulation’ or ‘the battle of Armageddon’ appear from time to time. And one finds oneself drawn willy-nilly into speculations about how things will end.

The movie industry mints millions by fanning the paranoia and fear that lives in the hearts of humans. All they need to do is present a larger than life source of evil and odds that would make a hardened war veteran cry.

I think of movies like Star Wars for one cannot get more evil than a Sith Lord such as Senator Palpatine. I think of The Matrix for to fight against the illusions one was brought up with is certainly a tougher battle than any. 

But movies aren’t the only medium to strike this chord with people. You can think of books like The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series. Immense evil, unthinkable odds and only a handful on the side of good. That just plucks at the heartstrings!

So what is it really that these movies or books are getting at? In my opinion, strange though it may seem, these stories are simply a symptom of what Paul writes about in our passage for today. So let us turn to our text.

Paul opens with a statement about suffering. Neither were the Christians at Rome who first heard this letter nor are we today unaware of suffering. It is something that pervades our lives. Loved ones are taken from us through illness or violence. Colleagues go behind our backs and make the workplace a tedious one to put up with. We read of murder and suicide, natural disasters and disasters created by humans. And students targeting exams in 2013 are aware of the suffering inflicted on them by Kapil Sibal.

And Paul encompasses all of this with his words ‘our present sufferings.’ But these, according to him, no matter how severe they may be, are insignificant compared to the glory we await, the glory that will be put on display in us when we ourselves are put on display as children of God.

But, lest we run amuck with this vision, he abruptly brings us back to the reality of the big picture. This glory that we await is something for which creation itself awaits. It is a strange thing for him to say. Why should creation wait for the glory to be revealed in us?

And Paul tells us, this is because creation itself is in a frustrating situation. Not by its own choice it finds its efforts yielding little fruit. In order to enable humans to truly obey God, God decided to place creation in this frustrating situation where everything is ruled by the sting of death.

I am reminded of the story The Little Prince. In the story we hear of the prince’s love for a flower on his little planet. But our experience is that a flower blooms and withers in a matter of days at most – not nearly long enough to love it. We may love the plant that produces the flowers and we may enjoy a particular flower when it blooms. But we do not grieve when it withers like we do when someone we love passes on. 

In the current state of affairs, creation is unloved. Unloved by humans who were created to tend to it and love it. And like anything created to be loved, it is in anguish because it is not loved.

And so creation waits for our glorification because that would mean we would once again be rendered able to care for it as we ought to.

Paul is setting our sufferings in the proper perspective, not the individual one, but the cosmic one. Our sufferings are a sign that something is very wrong with the way things are. And so we are not the only creatures who groan. We are not the only creatures who suffer. All of creation groans.

In our discussion of the doctrine of salvation and redemption, we hardly spare a breath for non-human entities. And that itself is a sign of how bad things are. It would be like parents not being worried if their child were starving. We jokingly talk about dog heaven and cat heaven without bothering to ask the question of what God’s responsibility toward them is.

Paul is ridding us of our anthropocentrism. He is telling us, “Yes, we suffer. But we suffer not apart from creation, but rather as a part of creation. Do not think that God is only concerned about humans, for all creation is groaning.”

Then Paul focuses on Christians. We groan because we are waiting for the redemption of our bodies. We have this hope not because we have actually seen someone with a redeemed body, but because the Spirit unsettles us.

We should avoid merging this image that Paul uses here with the image in John’s Gospel where the Spirit is more of a comforting, reassuring, strengthening presence. Here, we are brought to a state of dissatisfaction with the way things are as a direct result of the presence of the Spirit in our lives. 

Most people, even – perhaps especially – non-Christians, know that something is wrong. That is why we all, at some point or the other, say, “Why me?” Paul says, “All humans suffer.” We experience life, at many times, as though someone were playing a bizarre joke on us.

But Christians know something else as a result of the Spirit’s presence. We know that there is something far better to look forward to. 

But this knowledge is unsettling for we cannot escape the present condition of creation. Knowledge does not provide an escape. Knowledge only fuels a burning desire for things to be set right. We groan because we know that God intends for things to be set right, but that things are not set right yet.

And so we pray. Paul is not talking about praying for our daily needs or for God to heal someone who is sick or for God to give a couple a healthy baby. Those are necessary and important prayers. And we do know how to pray and what to pray for in these circumstances. 

But Paul is not focusing on the individual. His focus is cosmic. This is prayer for the redemption of all creation. It is prayer that would help bring about the cessation of groaning.

That is why he says that we do not know what to pray for. Our limited knowledge of God’s overarching plan is our weakness. And only God himself, by his Spirit, can lead us to those prayers that would bring about the end of groaning on the part of creation.

There have been historically two main ways of dealing with the world around us. The predominant way has been to deny that there is any intrinsic goodness in the world and to insist that our true destiny lies elsewhere. According to this view, the aim of human existence is to shake off the shackles of creation and exit to a realm of bliss and joy. Creation is seen as something that cannot be redeemed, but that must be destroyed. 

And unfortunately, this is how many of us Christians view creation. We believe that God will have to utterly do away with the world and universe as we know it. We see this kind of a majority view in The Chronicles of Narnia, where, in The Final Battle, Aslan destroys Narnia and takes the children and faithful Narnians away from that world.

But have we forgotten how our scriptures begin? God, after creating various things, declares that creation is good. If God is capable of redeeming the very humans who were the cause of creation’s groaning, is he so powerless that he cannot redeem creation itself?

Is he able to redeem those who willfully rebelled against him but can do nothing about the rest of creation which is in its current state because he made it so? The logical inconsistency is mind-boggling. 

We must remember that creation is not a display of God’s power. Rather it is an expression of his love. And love does not so easily part with the beloved. Love would rather die than see its beloved perish. We believe that easily about Jesus’ work as applicable to humans. But we stop there.

Paul, however, insists that creation is groaning because it waits for its own redemption. Creation waits in hope that God, who subjected it to futility, will not utterly forget and destroy it. 

And so we have a second, minority way of viewing creation. This is a holistic way, not an anthropocentric way. It insists that God is God not just of humans, but also of every part of creation and that God is deeply desirous of redeeming creation as well.

This is why the Harry Potter books struck a chord with so many young people. After taking them through seven books, after Voldemort is finally vanquished, J.K. Rowling ends with the simple words, “All was well.” Things were as they should be.

And this is why The Lord of the Rings strikes a chord. The Hobbits battle the forces of evil, not so that they can escape, but so that they can go back to the Shire they love. The story tells us that it is not okay for creation to become collateral damage in the process of our redemption. 

No! Rather, as Paul writes, “Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”