The August Theologian: Terminal

No sooner do we begin to live in this dying body, than we begin to move ceaselessly towards death. For in the whole course of this life (if life we must call it) its mutability tends towards death. Certainly there is no one who is not nearer it this year than last year, and tomorrow than today, and today than yesterday, and a short while hence than now, and now than a short while ago. For whatever time we live is deducted from our whole term of life, and that which remains is daily becoming less and less; so that our whole life is nothing but a race towards death, in which no one is allowed to stand still for a little space, or to go somewhat more slowly, but all are driven forwards with an impartial movement, and with equal rapidity. For he whose life is short spends a day no more swiftly than he whose life is longer. But while the equal moments are impartially snatched from both, the one has a nearer and the other a more remote goal to reach with this their equal speed. It is one thing to make a longer journey, and another to walk more slowly. He, therefore, who spends longer time on his way to death does not proceed at a more leisurely pace, but goes over more ground. Further, if every man begins to die, that is, is in death, as soon as death has begun to show itself in him (by taking away life, to wit; for when life is all taken away, the man will be then not in death, but after death), then he begins to die so soon as he begins to live.  —Augustine, The City of God

Curse or Be Cursed (Galatians 1:6–9)

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” —Galatians 1:6–9

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The church is like a nuclear power plant. In his letter to the Romans Paul says, “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The church’s receiving and being entrusted with the gospel is like her being entrusted with nuclear power. To be clear, the church is not the power, but she is the authorized custodian thereof.

There are attacks against the gospel from without, and so we do well to build strong walls of defense around the church, but the greatest potential threat always lies within. It is the spy within the church, tampering with the nuclear core that can cause the greatest devastation. This is precisely the danger the Galatians find themselves on the precipice of—a nuclear meltdown of the church and their souls.

This is why Paul open this letter with rebuke instead of thanksgiving. In nearly every other letter Paul writes, thanksgiving follows greeting. Consider the following example from Philippians.

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3–11).

That letter, Philippians, written while imprisoned, is one of Paul’s warmest letters. The tone there is the complete opposite of Galatians. You may reason that this is because there are no serious errors being embraced by the Philippian church at this time. And this is mostly true, but, then what are we to make of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians?

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:4–9).

Is there any church to whom Paul writes that had such a diversity of problems as the one in Corinth? Among them were divisions, sexual immorality, failure to exercise church discipline, suing one another, syncretism, disorder in the church gatherings, perverting the Lord’s Supper, and a denial of the resurrection of the saints. All of this and Paul still says, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” 

With the Galatians, thanksgiving is not only absent but replaced with a scathing rebuke. Why? Because the very core is being threatened. They are on the cusp of the worst possible spiritual catastrophe, a Chernobyl of the church; and thus it is that Paul expresses astonishment at the Galatians and anathematizes the false teachers. Concerning his cursing the false teachers, no more severe statement could be made and no lesser statement could be justified. When heretics have made their way to the core, it is curse or be cursed. If false gospels are not damned, men are.

The August Theologian: The Good

Accordingly, we say that there is no unchangeable good but the one, true, blessed God; that the things which He made are indeed good because from Him, yet mutable because made not out of Him, but out of nothing. Although, therefore, they are not the supreme good, for God is a greater good, yet those mutable things which can adhere to the immutable good, and so be blessed, are very good; for so completely is He their good, that without Him they cannot but be wretched. —Augustine, The City of God

Fighting to Say ‘Grace and Peace’ (Galatians 1:1–5)

“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” —Galatians 1:1-5

In his letter to the Galatians Paul gives his typically untypical greeting untypically. Still with me?

“Grace and peace” are the standard fare of verbal appetizers to Pauline entrées. But Paul’s typical greeting is untypical. The normal Roman way of expressing epistolatory salutations was the word chairō, meaning “rejoice,” often limply “trans-interpretated” into English as “greetings.” It is used in two letters mentioned in Acts (Acts 15:23, 23:26), and James uses it in his (James 1:1). Paul, however, uses the related but distinct word, charis, and always marries it with “peace.” 

This is a distinctly Christian greeting that draws deeply on the Old Testament. John Stott writes, 

“Paul sends the Galatians a message of grace and peace, as in all his Epistles. But these are no formal and meaningless terms. Although ‘grace’ and ‘peace’ are common monosyllables, they are pregnant with theological substance. In fact, they summarize Paul’s gospel of salvation. The nature of salvation is peace, or reconciliation—peace with God, peace with men, peace within. The source of salvation is grace. God’s free favour, irrespective of any human merit or works, His loving-kindness to the undeserving. And this grace and peace flow from the Father and the Son together.”

Paul didn’t say “grace and peace” the way we say “Hello!” For Paul to say these words, Jesus had to give Himself for our sins.

The saints need rich ways to greet, bless, and speak to one another. There is nothing wrong with using the customary greetings of our day, James did, but we have the opportunity to communicate so much more. I’m afraid greetings and ways of addressing and speaking to one another like this have largely disappeared because in our childhood experience they were either a rote formality where the gospel depths underneath them were not celebrated and/or because the church didn’t want to look weird. We were told not to load our seeker services with language foreign to unbelievers. I’m glad Paul didn’t have these concerns.

When we fail to call one another saints, it’s just yet another way we fail to be the saints—those set apart by the gospel. When we fail to greet one another with “grace and peace,” we fail to enjoy God’s grace and peace as deeply and communally as we should.

But how is it that Paul gives this typically untypical greeting untypically? By all of the modifying phrases he attaches to it. Only in Romans do we see Paul elaborate so, but whereas in Romans he appears enraptured, in Galatians he is enraged. Why? Because the gospel that is the source of this grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ is being threatened in a most severe way. 

Paul viciously defends this grace and peace for there is no other. If you don’t have peace with God, you do not have peace. You may have a delusion, but you do not have peace. What peace can one have when they abide under the wrath of God Almighty (John 3:36)? The only place you can find refuge from God is in God. If you would have peace with God, you must find grace from God; and there is grace from God only as it is grace from the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins.

May we not only greet one another with these precious blood bought words, may we fight to do so.

Who not How (Psalm 24)

“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

The God of Israel is the God of all, and His majesty exceeds His domain, for His domain is finite, but His glory infinite. And thus the question,

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3).

Does the answer of the psalmist distress you?

“He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 23:4).

What of grace and justification by faith alone? Note that the question is not how, but who—same three letters, very different meanings. The grounds upon which the saints come before the Holy One ever remains Christ and Christ alone. But here we do not have an explanation of how we come before God, but of who comes before God.

The hill of Yahweh is Jerusalem and His holy place is the Tabernacle. God dwelt in the midst of His covenant people who He had redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Before bringing them into the promised land He brought them to Sinai to receive His law so that they might be holy as He is holy. The people of God are a holy people because the God of their salvation is a holy God. The saved are saints. We are not fit for His presence, but He is making us so.

Make no mistake about this, if you would see God, you must be holy. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3). Elsewhere we are instructed to “strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). J.C. Ryle warns,

“Most men hope to go to heaven when they die; but few, it may be feared, take the trouble to consider whether they would enjoy heaven if they got there. Heaven is essentially a holy place; its inhabitants are all holy; its occupations are all holy. To be really happy in heaven it is clear and plain that we must be somewhat trained and made ready for heaven while we are on earth.”

He continues,

“The favorite idea of many, that dying men need nothing except absolution and forgiveness of sins to fit them for their great change, is a profound delusion. We need the work of the Holy Spirit as well as the work of Christ; we need renewal of the heart as well as the atoning blood; we need to be sanctified as well as to be justified. …What could an unsanctified man do in heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face, and fairly answered. No man can possibly be happy in a place where he is not in his element, and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits, and character. When an eagle is happy in an iron cage, when a sheep is happy in the water, when an owl is happy in the blaze of noonday sun, when a fish is happy on the dry land—then, and not till then, will I admit that the unsanctified man could be happy in heaven.”

God saves none but sinners, but every sinner saved is a saint being sanctified. Sinners who come with open hands, claiming no righteousness of their own, will find those hands cleansed by the God they come to in the blood of the Lamb who is their righteousness.

The August Theologian: A Way for Man to Man’s God through a God-man

“For since man is most properly understood (or, if that cannot be, then, at least, believed) to be made in God’s image, no doubt it is that part of him by which he rises above those lower parts he has in common with the beasts, which brings him nearer to the Supreme. But since the mind, itself, though naturally capable of reason and intelligence, is disabled by besetting and inveterate vices not merely from delighting and abiding in, but even from tolerating His unchangeable light, until it has been gradually healed, and renewed, and made capable of such felicity, it had, in the first place, to be impregnated with faith, and so purified. And that in this faith it might advance the more confidently towards the truth, the truth itself, God, God’s Son, assuming humanity without destroying His divinity, established and founded this faith, that there might be a way for man to man’s God through a God-man.” —Augustine, The City of God