Friday, December 20, 2019


Just a quick note: I found a few days ago that a whole lot of comments were awaiting moderation, some going back almost a year. I'm very sorry: I didn't realize I had fallen down on the job.

I published all the comments that weren't obviously spam. Thanks, everyone, for your patience!

Best wine

John 2:1–11 tells the story of the first of the signs in John's gospel: turning water into wine. I've been thinking a lot about this story over the last several months, because it seems to me like it shines light very clearly on an error I fall into. This is a story we hear in connection with marriage quite frequently: the Lord attending a wedding, which we cite as evidence that marriage is endorsed by Christ Himself. I think that's a completely valid conclusion to draw from the story.

We remember the story: the Lord attends a wedding, and they don't have enough wine. A friend of mine said in a Bible reading, "'no wine' is a serious problem – not as serious as 'no water' – but serious nonetheless." I think that's a good summary. I'm afraid (having grown up among Canadian evangelicals) "no wine" doesn't strike me as very serious... but the Lord took it seriously, and so does John.

So the Lord has them pour water into six earthen vessels, and when they draw out the water, they find it's turned to wine. And then they take this new wine to the master of the feast, who comments that they planned the feast wrong: they ought to have served the good wine at the start of the feast, then they should have served the lesser wine after the guests have drunk enough (John 2:10). (Presumably the guests' drinking was supposed to have dulled their palates.) But at this wedding, they served the best wine last.

My buddy went on in that same Bible reading to say that we're going to taste that vintage, but we need to wait until the Kingdom. I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I'm looking forward to tasting that one.

I've been mulling over the fact that the Lord made the best wine. The feast master's appraisal doesn't actually add anything to the miracle: Christ shows who He is by turning water into wine. But the Scripture includes it anyway, which indicates there's a lesson to be learned in it. There is a point beyond the "mere" miracle of turning water into wine: it shows that the Son of God paid attention to something as frivolous as the quality of the wine at a wedding. He didn't take an austere position and tell them that too much wine is bad for them, He didn't tell them they should be grateful for any wine He gave them: He made the best wine.

I confess that my views on Christianity – on sanctification and salvation and manifesting the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies – can lead to a completely passive Christian life. It's not hard from there to fall into a sort of a Gnosticism, where the world around us is somehow irrelevant. And I'm sorry to say that I've known many believers who have fallen into this exact error: they end up almost enslaved to their theology, afraid to act lest they do so "in the flesh" and contrary to the work of the Holy Spirit. It's all too easy to take what Scripture says about "death working in us" to an idea where we strive to be nothing so that Christ can be everything. But as one friend said, "striving to be nothing isn't Christianity, it's Buddhism."

Francis Schaeffer warns in Escape from Reason that if we divorce "Grace" from "Nature", we end up with an autonomous "Nature" that will eventually destroy "Grace" (pp. 28–29). Of course his concern was mainly about humanist intellectuals starting with Thomas Aquinas, but I have fallen into the exact error he cautions against, and I'm not alone.

The problem is as simple as tunnel vision. The truth of our unity with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection is glossed over to the point of complete neglect in many Christian circles. So we end up with a glut of "ministry" that urges counterfeit spirituality, where men and women attempt to be made perfect in the power and energy of the flesh. And when someone sees the truth of their unity with Christ, and the freedom that comes from that, the natural tendency is to share that with everyone. And the more it's resisted, the more it becomes the focus.

So let's just say that our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ is the key to a godly life. There can't be fruit for God unless we have been made dead to the Law by the body of Christ (Romans 7:4).

But let's not lose sight of the whole counsel of God.

Consider 1 Corinthians 6:19–20; we're called to glorify God in our bodies. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:10–11; we're called to manifest the life of Jesus in our mortal flesh. Consider Romans 12:1–2; we're called to present our bodies as living sacrifices. We could go on, but the point is that we're not called to a hypothetical life. We're called to live the life of Jesus in physical bodies, in the physical world.

Yes, the creation is fallen. Yes, our bodies are fallen. Yes, we look for a new heaven and a new earth. But I can't find in Scripture where I'm allowed to treat this creation like it doesn't matter.

A while back, Rodger shared a quote where someone said that Scripture talks about the "new creation", but it never once mentions the "old creation". There's an "old man" and an "old covenant", but there isn't an "old creation" in Scripture, because God isn't finished with the first creation yet. God doesn't call something "old" until He's done with it.

But I have frequently fallen into the trap of calling this present world the "old creation", out of a desire to draw attention to the [Scriptural] idea of New Creation. And I'm not alone.

So let's go back to the wine at Cana... when the Lord Jesus made wine, He made the very best wine. That comment doesn't just give us a hint into the wedding customs of that day: it shows us that the Lord Jesus treated the first creation with dignity as being the work of God. It's fallen, but it's not nothing. It matters. And good wine matters: Christ didn't act like it's unimportant whether the wine is good. He made the very best wine.

And I'm having to remind myself that when I allow myself to divorce this life from heavenly truth, I end up with an autonomous view of this life that eventually overtakes and pollutes my view of the heavenly. It's not just a philosophical trick Schaeffer was playing: it was a very serious warning about a truly dire problem.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The wages of sin

Housekeeping Note: I just found a whole bunch of comments that were awaiting moderation, some from a very long time ago. If you've tried to comment and your comment just disappeared, that was probably my fault. I'm sorry. I've updated the comment settings to make commenting easier, while hopefully cutting down on spam.

I was listening to a preacher a few weeks ago, who said, "the wages for sin is death."

Of course that's not what the Scripture actually says... the actual quote is, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23, emphasis added). The idea here isn't that death is the reward for sinning – the idea is that sin is a master who pays his servants wages. The wage he pays is death.

At the simplest level, the two ideas seem very close, but when we give it some thought, we realize that there is actually quite a bit of difference between them.

We've already discussed the difference between sin and sins. Sin is the principle that lives in my [fallen] body (Romans 8:10), while sins are specific acts (Romans 4:7; 1 John 1:9). Scripture is careful to keep these two ideas distinct, although they do necessarily touch at times; for example, a single sinful act is "a sin". But there is a difference between the specific act and the principle that motivated it.

The difference is striking in Romans, where the first four-and-one-half chapters discuss sins, while the next three-and-a-half chapters discuss sin. The transition comes in Romans 5:9–12. Romans 5 starts out by describing the blessings of those who have been "justified by faith" (Romans 5:1), but continues on to discuss the deeper problem: that when Adam sinned, we all became sinners (Romans 5:19). We generally think the we are sinners because we sin, but really Scripture takes the opposite point of view: we sin because we [already] are sinners.

Let's take a moment to try and get our arms around that. There are those who believe that we're all guilty of Adam's sin, but I just can't find that in Scripture. Scripture doesn't claim we'll be judged for Adam's sin, but for our own (Romans 2:3–11). But Scripture does teach that it's on account of Adam's sin that we are sinners (Romans 5:19). So we're not guilty of Adam's sin, but we're fallen because of it.

But back to Romans 6:23... In Romans 6–8, we have the problem of sinfulness – not guilt exactly. The idea here isn't that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); the idea here is that all are sinners, and are thus slaves to sin. So in Romans 6–8, sin is a master we obey (Romans 6:6, 12, 16–17, 20). And so Romans 6:23 gives us a dire warning: if we obey sin, it'll pay us wages. Those wages are death.

Sin is present with us as long as we are in fallen bodies (Romans 7:17, 23; Romans 8:3, 10, 23). There will come a day when the Son of God will come from Heaven to change our bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:20–21), and we won't have sin anymore. But now we find it's a constant enemy, and it's an enemy we can't get away from: we carry it with us everywhere we go.

I can't find anything in Scripture that says God condemns us for what we are. He judges according to works. But at the same time, our works are really driven by what we are. This distinction is important in Romans, and it's important in the Christian life. God forgives the sins of those who believe (Romans 4:1–8). So there is no condemnation for them: the Judge has already declared "not guilty". But while that gives us hope in the next life (if I can say it that way), it doesn't do a lot to affect the quality of their life now. A forgiven sinner is still a sinner.

The good news for us in this life is that God has freed us through death from our master sin (Romans 6:1–11). As far as God is concerned, we have died with Christ. So we are now freed from sin (from sin's power, not its presence). Our responsibility is to accept what God says is true, even if it doesn't look true to us. And as we accept what God says by faith, we come into the good of it.

But that doesn't take us out of the bodies that are "dead because of sin" (Romans 8:10). Even though we are freed from the power of sin, we find its presence still with us. So we still look for the Son of God to come from Heaven and redeem our fallen bodies (Philippians 3:20–21).

And that brings us back to the misquoted verse about wages. Romans 6:23 isn't telling us about God's judgment for sinning. It's telling us about sin's role as a master. And it follows the warning that we, having been freed from sin by death, can still put ourselves under bondage to sin simply by obeying it (Romans 6:15–16). Notice the parallel to Romans 8:11–13. Both warn us that it's very easy for us to go from practical freedom from sin into practical bondage to sin in an astonishingly short time.

As much as I hate to say it, this is an area where J. N. Darby's ministry is somewhat weak. I respect Darby very highly, but I think this is an area where he was so careful to avoid the ditch on one side of the road, he almost ran into the ditch on the other. He does a good job describing this problem in "Deliverance from the Law of Sin" (Collected Writings, Volume 32, pp. 323–331), but he tends to gloss over this problem in his other writings. So let me pause and emphasize that it's entirely possible for someone to experience the liberty of Romans 6 or Romans 8, and still fall into a sort of a practical bondage to sin. It's possible to fall, regardless of how far down the path we've gone. As long as we're in unredeemed bodies, we need to watch.