Theological Systems

I am a big fan of systematic theology.  God’s story of redemption is epic in its sweep and fitting His words and works into that epic is both intellectually satisfying as well as pertinent to how we live.  Proper theology casts a long shadow in our lives, especially as we understand all that came to us through Christ in the new covenant.  But I am not a fan of theological systems.

Our work, as theologians, is to prayerfully investigate the mysteries of God and explain such in an accessible format to our readers.  Accessible does not mean diminishing the grandeur.  It is more like being a bridge.  Just as many pastors are a bridge on Sunday morning taking the Word of God, recorded primarily in Greek, and making it accessible to an English-speaking audience while preserving its original meaning, intent, and nuance.

My concern is that in our zeal for understanding and accessibility, it is easy to cross the line and remove the mystery altogether.  At the risk of alienating half the audience, take the biblical concepts of election, grace, depravity, and atonement, for example.  These concepts are clearly contained in Scripture and referred to and explained in many passages.  But is it possible that the adjectives we add to these terms are not contained in Scripture but only exist to help us fit it all into a neat system that we can get our human minds around?  This isn’t an answer, just a question.

I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer summed up the mystery well in this advent reading.  “No priest, no theologian stood at the manger of Bethlehem.  And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of wonders:  that God became human.  Holy theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable.”

“Without the holy night, there is no theology.  ‘God is revealed in flesh,’ the God-human Jesus Christ – that is the holy mystery that theology came into being to protect and preserve.  How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason!  Its sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend, and glorify God’s mystery precisely as mystery.”

Celebrate the mystery!

The Power of the Resurrection

As much as we celebrate the power of the cross, we mustn’t neglect the power of the resurrection.  Many have died on a cross -though only one as the Son of God – but the spectacular coming-back-to-life is the experience of Jesus alone.  God the Father confirmed the power and sufficiency of Christ’s death to forgive sin and His identity as God’s Son, the sinless One, by raising Jesus from the dead (Rom 1:1-4).  The resurrection sealed the deal and confirmed our salvation won at the cross.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy had caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Pet 1:3).

In Philippians chapter 3, the apostle Paul writes, “Not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:9-11).

In one verse, Paul takes the power of the cross; “the fellowship of His sufferings” and “being conformed to His death” and puts it together with the power of the resurrection in his desire to know Christ in His fullness.  Paul follows a similar pattern in Romans 6:5, “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”  This hearkens back to the previous verse in chapter 6, “As Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

To walk in newness of life.  Somehow we have landed on my favorite word in the New Testament; the word new.  Nothing goes together better than the words “new” and “resurrection”.  We were raised with Christ to experience all the “new” that He has promised His children.  So as we approach this Resurrection Sunday, take a minute to thank the resurrecting Father for both the privilege and responsibility, and might I add the godly desire, to walk in the power of the resurrection.

The Power of the Cross

It is nice to talk about good communication in marriage, developing your family identity, and “building a cathedral,” but without the power to make this part of our daily experience these are just romantic notions.  Each of us carry inside a remnant of the old nature – somehow still active even though it’s dead – that seeks to thwart our godly efforts.  The Bible summarizes its manifestation as selfish ambition.  How do we find the power to overcome our nearest enemy:  ourselves?

In Luke 9:23, Jesus warns His would-be disciples, “And [Jesus] was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’ ”  The concept, taken from this verse, of “bearing one’s cross” is a prevalent theme in the literature of Christian discipleship.  We often take the term to mean putting up with some physical infirmity, dealing with a challenging relationship, or some other difficult situation.  But to Jesus’ first century audience the meaning of “bearing one’s cross” cut much deeper and was explicitly vivid.  Being 2000 years removed from the cross as an instrument of execution has so softened the intensity of this phrase for us that we almost miss its potency.

It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day for a convicted criminal to literally “bear his own cross,” carrying the crossbeam of his cross through the streets to the place of execution.  Jesus Himself suffered this fate.  When Jesus spoke these words, this literal “cross-carrying” was what his hearers visualized.  The equation of “cross equals death, not difficulty” was common in their experience.

I believe we can take at least three applications from Jesus’ command to take up our cross.  The most direct is this:  as a disciple of Jesus we must be prepared for physical death that may result.  This was not only the outcome for some of His listeners that day (nearly all of the apostles), but continues to be the experience of Christ followers in many places.  That Jesus had this in mind is clear from the verse that follows.  “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Lk 9:24).

Application two is hinted at in the preceeding phrase of verse 23, “He must deny himself.”  Similar to the cross representing physical death is the idea that the cross represents death to self, death to selfish ambition, death to your own hopes, dreams, and plans, even death to relationships that hinder one’s discipleship loyalty (Lk 14:26).  The word “daily” following the command also fits this application as it suggests this death is a continuous and ongoing aspect of discipleship.  Taking up our cross in this sense does indeed defeat our last enemy:  ourselves.  Our desires and agenda are now subservient to the call of Christ.

Application three moves beyond this specific verse to look at the over-arching message of the New Testament.  When we take up the cross, we are not only embracing its death-to-self message, we are also embracing its power.  We generally ascribe the “power of the cross” to the one time event of our justification.  We rightfully acknowledge that Christ’s death on the cross was powerful and sufficient to deliver us from the penalty of sin.  But could the power of the cross also be our ongoing experience?  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”  I refer you to the first several posts in this blog that examine the practical ramifications how Christ’s death ushered in everything new about who we are and empowers us to “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).

As our Good Friday remembrance approaches, may I encourage you to take a minute to thank our Savior not only for His one time gift of redemption but also for your new identity in Christ, your new nature, your new heart, and the ongoing presense of His Holy Spirit.  In these gifts we experience the power of the cross every day.