Monthly Archives: December 2009

Jesus Christ, God Incarnate

I seem to notice that Christians seldom think about the birth of Jesus Christ as much as his death. Some might even accuse the Reformation of overemphasising the doctrine of justification by faith. But Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to meditate on the incarnation of Christ. That God would take on flesh and become a man is a mystery that we ought to grapple with, though we will certainly never fully plumb the depths of this mystery.

As a group from my church went caroling at several homes this Christmas, a truth I had been musing on gripped my heart forcefully. As a thought experiment, I had tried placing myself in the shoes of a non-Christian hearing about the birth of Jesus Christ for the very first time. I thought to myself: how would such a person understand the marvelous truth of God taking on flesh? This truth shatters our reality. It is all very neat to imagine God as some sort of  uninterested deity or some merry grandfather figure (in the sky of course), but to actually hear of a God who willingly becomes a man is absolutely puzzling. Why is it necessary for God to become a man? Why should he even condescend to do so?

I then wondered how best a Christian could explain this puzzling mystery of the incarnation. And as I pondered further, several things came together. First, there is a verse in the Christmas hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, which has the following lines:

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Second, John writes in his gospel: But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (1:12-13)

I finally settled on the following phrase: the Son of God was born a man so that men might be born again as sons of God.

The incarnation was necessary for our salvation. If Jesus Christ had not take on flesh, he could not die in our place. But because he is a man, he shares in our humanity and can be our representative. And yet as he remains fully God, he is the perfect sacrifice that forever takes away the sins of the world. As fully man and fully God, his death purchases the possibility of a ‘second birth’ for the ‘sons of earth’. Men who are dead in their sins can be born again as sons of God. Jesus took on our nature, that we might receive the right to become children of God.

How do we become children of God? As John writes, those who receive him and believe in his name are given the right to become children of God. Yet at the same time, they are born not of their own will but of the will of God. This is another mystery that I will save for a later date, but it is clear where our part lies. Receive Christ, believe in his name. Receive the gift of Christ that God gave to us on the very first Christmas, and still extends till today. Receive the Son who became a man and died for our sins, that we might become children of God. Believe that he has accomplished all this for us and take your place as a child of God. Then let the truth of your new identity sink deep into every fibre of your mind, heart and soul and let it transform your every thought, word and deed.

The Present Work of Christ

As Christians, we are people of the cross. We continually remember the accomplished work of Christ at the cross. By his death he satisfied the wrath of God that was on us. This marvelous truth of the substitutionary atonement constitutes our very identity. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians (2:20) – “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But this work is a work of the past. It is a finished work. I do not say this as a slight on what Christ accomplished at the cross. Rather, this past work lays the foundation for the present work of Christ. This present work of Christ is revealed in Hebrews 7. After establishing that Christ is our perfect and eternal high priest, the author says this: Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Christ is our perfect and eternal high priest, who has offered up the perfect sacrifice for our sins, namely, himself. Because of this, he now lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through him. The nature of his intercession lies in the words “he is able to save to the uttermost”. The key word here I believe is ‘uttermost’. We need to understand what being saved to the ‘uttermost’ involves.

It means when we were dead in our sin, God (the Father) made us alive with Christ. The miracle of regeneration, the new birth, was wrought in our hearts by the Spirit. And seeing Christ, we responded in faith, and entrusted our lives to him. Why does the Father do this? Because Christ lives to make intercession for us.

It means that when we are struggling in the fight against sin, God (the Father) supplies us with the strength we need to fight the good fight. He never allows us to be tempted beyond what we can handle. He lovingly disciplines us as a father, so that we might enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Why does the Father do this? Because Christ lives to make intercession for us.

It means that we will finish the race. We will persevere till the day we die or the day Christ returns. This is what it means to be saved to the uttermost. We are called, given new birth, justified, adopted, sanctified, and glorified. And all this is possible because Christ lives to make intercession for us.

Interestingly enough, I was once asked why Jesus did not remain on this earth to preach the gospel. Surely if he was preaching to people, they would believe! At that point in time, I answered this question in a negative manner by saying that people back in his day saw him and did not believe.

However, here, I can answer this question in a positive manner. Jesus did not remain on this earth because his primary work now is to make intercession for us. This is more important than anything else. Whenever we pray for anything in the name of Christ, we are granted it because Jesus is there at the Father’s right hand making intercession for us. The Spirit is at work in the lives of Christians and in the evangelising of non-Christians because Jesus is there making intercession for all of us, those who believe and those who will believe. It is a comforting and empowering truth to realise that the Son of God, the One in whom the Father delights, is on our side too. He lives to make intercession for us.

2009 in Retrospect, Books I Remember Reading This Year

It’s almost been a month since I’ve posted. For the first half of this month, I was rather busy. I spent the other half taking a break from things in general. However, having chosen to resume blogging at this point in time, I thought it would be fitting to look back on the year. For the first post, I’ve decided to do short reviews of Christian books I’ve read this year. More than anything, I’m doing this for my own benefit.

Christian Theology/Practical Living

1. A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D.A. Carson
The title’s rather deceptive, unless you’re the sort to read subtitles, but this is really just a book on prayer. In typical Carson fashion, he goes through each prayer and unpacks it in theological and practical ways. This book has been crucial in shaping my theology of prayer. This is a book I will return to time and time again, as there are many truths contained within that I have yet to apply in my prayer life.

2. The Cross and Christian Ministry, D.A. Carson
This book is really just a compilation of sermons on 1 Corinthians. But then if you’ve heard Carson preach, you’ll realise this isn’t a slight on the book at all. Again, like many Carson books, it is well written and easy to read but densely packed with much truth. I could barely absorb much of it in one reading, and yet it has left a distinctive impression on me. More than any other book, this book has firmly established in my mind the practical importance of keeping the cross at the center in Christian ministry. It is the cross that saves us, empowers us, unites us and transforms us.

3. Let the Nations Be Glad!, John Piper
I like Piper a lot. Outside of Christ, if there was a person I could say I was spiritually indebted to, it would probably be John Piper. His books have lifted my eyes to see the supremacy of God in all things and the equal importance of the mind and heart in the Christian’s life. As such I feel the need for a slightly extended review of this book.

Let the Nations Be Glad is often referred to as a must-read book on missions. This is not unfounded praise. Piper unpacks the theology of missions in a simple way. He begins by talking about the purpose, power and price of mission, namely worship, prayer and suffering. This section is brilliantly written; however many of the themes here are echoes of what Piper has already written in Desiring God. It was the next section, in particular the first part, that literally swept me off my feet.

Piper looks at the question of whether Christ must be the conscious focus of all saving faith. In short, yes! But an important truth I learnt here was that hearing the gospel of Christ is necessary for salvation. God doesn’t save people outside of Christ, except for children who are unable to grasp the gospel mentally (rather than morally). This has helped to firmly establish in my mind the importance of preaching the gospel as often as I can, because if people do not hear it, they will not be saved. And being saved is what every person needs most.

On an additional note, a third edition appears to be in the works, with an added chapter on the prosperity gospel. I’m rather keen to get hold of that chapter

4. God’s Big Picture, Vaughan Roberts
Very nicely written. A book I would recommend to many young Christians who wish to read their Bibles in a more informed manner. It unpacks the timeline of the Bible clearly, helping us to see how the story of God’s kingdom unfolds across history.

5. Dig Deeper, Nigel Beynon and Andrew Sachs
Another book I would recommend to many young Christians who are struggling with studying the Bible. The authors lay out 17 bible study tools that are immensely useful to students of the Word.

6. The Enemy Within, Kris Lundgard
Based on John Owen’s thoughts in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, it lays out practical strategies for the fight against sin and temptation. Another book I would recommend to the young believer.

7. The Gospel for Real Life, Jerry Bridges
This is a brilliant book. Every Christian ought to read it. And so should every non-Christian who wishes to understand what the gospel is about. This book, in the author’s words, is simply Gospel 101. But this shouldn’t put you off. I sincerely believe we all need Gospel 101 as often as possible, because we so easily forget what Christ has done for us. More than that, the gospel also shapes our lives. Therefore, if we wish to live holy and godly lives, we must return to the gospel as often as possible. If you were to read only one book next year (outside the Bible), read this book.

8. Respectable Sins, Jerry Bridges
I have a feeling this is a good book, as most Jerry Bridges books tend to be. However, I must admit I did not read this book too deeply. The main premise of the book is that while Christians easily avoid and condemn gross sins like drunkardness and violent behaviour, we are sitting neck deep in respectable sins like anger and pride. Of course, Bridges doesn’t stop at diagnosing the problem, but goes on to give wise counsel on fighting such sins. This is a book I believe I should spend more time in at some point in the future.

9. Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung
Kevin is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. While this is technically the first published book of his I have read, I also subscribe to his blog. He writes with clarity, is not afraid to tell the truth as it is, yet does so in a winsome manner, and I might add with a touch of appropriate humour (and humility). This book is a book on the will of God. It is short, but well-written. At the end of it, you learn two things. Stop seeking a will of direction from God. Be wise, trust God, and just do something with your life. This is a much needed remedy for many Christians today, either paralysed in their search of an explicit direction from God that will never comes, or easily blown to and fro by every ‘sign from God’.

10. 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, Mark Dever
This is the first book I’ve read from Dever. While I’ve known of his reputation, not just within Baptist circles, on matters of the church, I only recently got round to reading this well-known book of his. I think this is a book pastors and laypeople in the ministry should read. It helps to clarify what the key things that a church should focus on are. After that, every Christian ought to read it, to get a better idea of what a healthy church is like and how they can contribute to keeping their churches healthy.

11. Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis
Well-written and interesting. Not unlike Dever, they unpack what a biblical church should look like. It taught me that gospel community is just as important as gospel truth, and gave practical examples as to how the dynamic between truth and community has played out in their lives.

Apologetics

1. The Reason for God, Tim Keller
This is a well-written book, but to be  honest I don’t quite understand the hype surrounding this book (and perhaps Keller doesn’t quite understand why either). It simply addresses age old questions like suffering and evil in an orthodox philosophical manner. In this way it is quite a straightforward apologetic.

Except for a single difference. And perhaps the hype surrounds this single difference. While Keller devotes the first half of the book to rebutting the case against God, he devotes the second half of the book to the gospel. And in this sense, it is a shining example of what apologetics should set out to accomplish. The Bible does call us to play defense, always offering a reason for the hope we have, but it also calls us to share the gospel, as it is the only message that has power to convict the unrepentant heart. If you are looking for an apologetics book to give away to the ordinary individual, this is probably my go-to book for the moment.

2. Who Made God?, Edgar Andrews
This has proven to be one of my favourite books of the year. It is written by a prominent scientist for people who object to Christianity on scientific grounds. The writing is clear and engaging, the arguments are soundly put across, the book is well-paced and well-structured, laced with occasional British humour, and comprehensively covers nearly every area of science  I can think of. It certainly is a noteworthy accomplishment to be able to competently talk about quantum mechanics, string theory and information theory in a way that the untrained layperson (me) can also understand.  I feel much more equipped now to talk about science and Christianity. It is my new go-to book for the scientific skeptic friend.

Biographies

1. Portrait of Calvin, T.H.L Parker (republished by Desiring God Ministries)
A nice biography of Calvin. Helped to correct a few of my misperceptions of Calvin.

2. The Swans are Not Silent, Book 1 and 4, John Piper
This is Piper’s series of biographies on heroes of the faith. The first book was on Augustine, Luther and Calvin. The fourth book was on Athanasius, Owen and Machen. Both were well written and inspiring. The first taught me how central the Word of God is to our eternal joy, because it is only in God’s word that we are able to meet him and come to know Christ intimately. The fourth taught me that it is important to contend for the core truths of the gospel, despite any controversy it might raise. But to contend for the truth, we must first come to treasure the truth. We cannot champion in public what we do not treasure in private. And the contender of the Christian faith is to do so with humility and steadfastness.

3. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, D.A. Carson
This is Carson’s biography of his dad, who was a remarkably ordinary pastor. He never wrote a book, didn’t rise high up in denominational circles, wasn’t a renowned preacher or administrator, and never founded a national ministry or megachurch – he was in all respects the ordinary pastor most of us know of. But the faithfulness and godliness of the man, husband, father and pastor I met in this book served as a powerful reminder of what really counts for God in this day and age. God does not judge our success by earthly standards, but simply desires for us to be ‘good and faithful servants’. Tom Carson is a stellar example of a good and faithful servant who despite much discouragement fought the good fight, ran the race and poured out his life like a drink offering for his family and the church of God. I found the book inspiring, and couldn’t help but shed a tear or two at the remarkable legacy an ‘ordinary’ man like him left behind. I think this is a must-read biography for many Christians, and would be a generous gift to the ordinary pastor in your life.