Rob Sturdy: What is abundant life?

29 02 2012

The term “abundant life” is something that gets bandied about a lot within the Christian world.  And though the expression is on the lips, t-shirts, and music albums of many Christians I’m afraid that it is a phrase without content.  By this I mean, if someone were to ask “what is the abundant life?” many would be at a loss for how to answer.  But merely defining the abundant life is not enough, we must also be able to answer the question “how might I acquire this abundant life?”

What is the abundant life?
The phrase comes from a story in John’s Gospel where Jesus is in a dispute with several Pharisees over the healing of a blind man conducted on the Sabbath (see John 9).  Doing work, even the work of healing was seen as a pretty severe no no by this particular religious group which is why Jesus is in trouble with them in John ch. 10.

Jesus doesn’t defend his actions, but rather tells a story which is self referential.  He says:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
(John 10:1-6 ESV)

The Pharisees shouldn’t be blamed for failing to understand.  After all, if you were having an argument with someone and they started speaking like this you would be confused too!  Noting their lack of understanding, Jesus continues this time connecting the dots in a more explicit way.

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  (John 10:7-15 ESV)

Jesus identifies himself as the door of the sheep.  This is complex and fluid imagery.  Some commentators suggest (i.e. Kenneth Bailey) that shepherds in the Middle East lie across the entrance to the sheep pen, thus they can be both shepherd and door.  D.A. Carson draws attention to the obvious difficulty with this, in that in Jesus’ first statement (10.1-6) there is a gatekeeper.  All in all, the simple answer is that Jesus is using a metaphor and all metaphor’s break down at some point.  To put it simply, Jesus is saying that if you want to go out into pasture, you will only go out in to pasture either by hearing his voice as shepherd and responding or by crossing through him as door.

There are other characters in this parable that want the attention of the sheep.  These are the “thieves and robbers” of vs. 8.  They are those who “came before Jesus,” possibly meaning those who came with claims to be the Messiah who led Israel in bloody and unsuccessful revolts.  I think contextually it almost surely means the Pharisees, who would deprive the blind man his sight simply because it was the Sabbath.  Thus in their religious zeal they are understood to “kill and destroy.”

Jesus contrasts this action of killing and destroying with his own action of laying down his life, the motive of which is that his sheep might have abundant life.  The actual phrase, “zoen exosin xai perrison exosin.”  For our purposes the interesting word is perissos, translated here as “abundantly,” but that doesn’t necessarily do the concept justice.  It certainly is “abundant,” but it could also mean extraordinary, unnecessary, and excessive.  It is then as if Jesus is saying, “I came that they might have life, and have it in unnecessary, excessive, overflowing abundance.”  Surely this is the kind of life that Paul has in mind when he says that the love of Christ “surpasses knowledge” and that God can do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph 3.29).  Note that what Jesus is not saying simply that he can do more than we ask or think, but that he came to give us more than we could ask or imagine.  He came to give us such a measure of life that could only be described as extravagant or excessive.

How might we go about getting this life?  Quite simply, there is nothing you can do to go about getting this life.  Rather, this life is a gift given to us by the Shepherd and it is intimately linked with the giving up of his own life.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

That is, our excessive, extraordinary, abundant life is bound up in the killing and destroying of Jesus own life.  Thus it is only in death of Christ as gift to us, which is another way of saying “Gospel,” by which this abundant life can be ours.

It is at this point that religious people, especially Christians need to be very careful that they do not wind up like the Pharisees, seeking to kill and destroy.  In a misguided attempt at “discipleship,” many will point unsuspecting sheep to works as a manner of achieving the abundant life.  “Do this, don’t do that,” is their mantra.  But of course, in our everyday experiences of “doing the things we ought not do and not doing the things we ought to have done,” this mantra becomes a means of killing and destroying our souls as we suffer under the weight of disappointment which leads to despair.

Rather than pointing people to works, which can only be a means of killing and destruction, we ought to point people to the shepherd, who was killed and destroyed that we might experience the abundant, unnecessarily excessive life which he desires to freely give us.  This life bound up in the death of the shepherd, leads us in hearing his voice and following, not as a work but as the natural response for sheep who wish to feast in the pasture of his worship, his word, and the fellowship of his saints.

May we all have such life within us!  Not because of anything we’ve done, but what has been done on our behalf through the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.

John Calvin: The spiritual comfort of the doctrine of God’s Providence

28 02 2012

Below is an excerpt from Calvin’s Institutes on the Christian Religion 1.17.10-11.  He explains the spiritual comforts associated with the doctrine of the providence of God, a doctrine which many times has calmed and quieted my own soul. Aside from the comfort so well exhibited, the first paragraph which details the dangers of life is quite unnerving and worth meditating on.

Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms. Not to go beyond ourselves, since the body is a receptacle, nay the nurse, of a thousand diseases, a man cannot move without carrying along with him many forms of destruction. His life is in a manner interwoven with death. For what else can be said where heat and cold bring equal danger? Then, in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger. If a sharp instrument is in your own hand, or that of a friend, the possible harm is manifest. All the savage beasts you see are so many beings armed for your destruction. Even within a high walled garden, where everything ministers to delight, a serpent will sometimes lurk. Your house, constantly exposed to fire, threatens you with poverty by day, with destruction by night. Your fields, subject to hail, mildew, drought, and other injuries, denounce barrenness, and thereby famine. I say nothing of poison, treachery, robbery, some of which beset us at home, others follow us abroad. Amid these perils, must not man be very miserable, as one who, more dead than alive, with difficulty draws an anxious and feeble breath, just as if a drawn sword were constantly suspended over his neck? It may be said that these things happen seldom, at least not always, or to all, certainly never all at once. I admit it; but since we are reminded by the example of others, that they may also happen to us, and that our life is not an exception any more than theirs, it is impossible not to fear and dread as if they were to befall us. What can you imagine more grievous than such trepidation? Add that there is something like an insult to God when it is said, that man, the noblest of the creatures, stands exposed to every blind and random stroke of fortune. Here, however, we were only referring to the misery which man should feel, were he placed under the dominion of chance.

But when once the light of Divine Providence has illumined the believer’s soul, he is relieved and set free, not only from the extreme fear and anxiety which formerly oppressed him, but from all care. For as he justly shudders at the idea of chance, so he can confidently commit himself to God. This, I say, is his comfort, that his heavenly Father so embraces all things under his power—so governs them at will by his nod—so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favour, and entrusted to the care of his angels neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except in so far as God their master is pleased to permit. For thus sings the Psalm, “Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust; his truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday” &c. (Ps. 91:2-6). Hence the exulting confidence of the saints, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me? The Lord taketh my part with them that help me.” “Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Ps. 118:6; 27:3; 23:4).

How comes it, I ask, that their confidence never fails, but just that while the world apparently revolves at random, they know that God is every where at work, and feel assured that his work will be their safety? When assailed by the devil and wicked men, were they not confirmed by remembering and meditating on Providence, they should, of necessity, forthwith despond. But when they call to mind that the devil, and the whole train of the ungodly, are, in all directions, held in by the hand of God as with a bridle, so that they can neither conceive any mischief, nor plan what they have conceived, nor how much soever they may have planned, move a single finger to perpetrate, unless in so far as he permits, nay, unless in so far as he commands; that they are not only bound by his fetters, but are even forced to do him service,—when the godly think of all these things they have ample sources of consolation.

John Bunyan: Christian’s burden loosed

27 02 2012

Below is the section from Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian sees the cross for the first time, and the heavy burden that has been plaguing him for three chapters tumbles off his back.  The story illustrates well precisely what is the mechanism for freeing us from sin and guilt, it is not effort or piety, but only looking upon the cross.  

Now I saw in my dream, that the highway up which Christian was to go, was fenced on either side with a wall, and that wall was called Salvation (Isaiah 26:1). Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run, but not without great difficulty, because of the load on his back.

He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.

Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still a while, to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden. He looked, therefore, and looked again, even till the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks. (Zech. 12:10). Now as he stood looking and weeping, behold, three Shining Ones came to him, and saluted him with, “Peace be to thee.” So the first said to him, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” (Mark 2:5); the second stripped him of his rags, and clothed him with change of raiment, (Zech. 3:4); the third also set a mark on his forehead, (Eph. 1:13), and gave him a roll with a seal upon it, which he bid him look on as he ran, and that he should give it in at the celestial gate: so they went their way. Then Christian gave three leaps for joy, and went on singing,

“Thus far did I come laden with my sin,

Nor could aught ease the grief that I was in,

Till I came hither. What a place is this!

Must here be the beginning of my bliss?

Must here the burden fall from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

Blest cross! blest sepulchre! blest rather be

The Man that there was put to shame for me!”

What is theology? A living toward God, a working toward God, a speaking and thinking about God

24 02 2012

William Ames writes in his famous Marrow of Theology:

This life is the spiritual work of the whole man, in which he is brought to enjoy God and act according to his will, and since it certainly has to do with man’s will, it follows that the first and proper subject of theology is the will…

Now since this life so wiled is truly and properly our most important practice, it is self-evident that theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one- not only in common respect that all disciplines have good practice as their end, but in a special and peculiar manner compared to all others.

Nor is there anything in theology which does not refer to the final end or to the means related to that end – all of which refer directly to practice.

This practice of life is so perfectly reflected in theology that there is no precept of universal truth relevant to living well in domestic economy, morality, political life, or lawmaking which does not rightly pertain to theology.

Theology, therefore, is to us the ultimate and noblest of all exact teaching arts.  It is a guide and a master plan for our higest end, sent in a special manner from God, treating of divine things, tending towards God, and leading man to God.  It may therefore not incorrectly be called a theozoia, a living to God, or a theourgia, a working towards God, as well as a theology. (1.9-13)

Get to know John Wycliffe

23 02 2012

Over the next several weeks I will be highlighting a section from J.C. Ryle’s Light from Old Times.  This book is a collection of essays about Christian men who made significant contributions towards a Gospel centered English church.  If you speak English and are a Christian, odds are these men contributed in no small way to your Christian life.  Take the time with me over the coming weeks to learn about these men, that you might be made grateful to God for them and inspired by their faithfulness.  And now…

John Wycliffe

Every wonder where that Bible on your shelf came from?  I’m not seeking to get us into heavy questions of inspiration, but rather, where did that English Bible come from?  That is, who took that wonderful Hebrew and Greek text and translated it into English so that we could read it?  Well, the first Bible written in English was translated by a man named John Wycliffe.  He was a remarkable man, who not only translated the Scriptures into English but he also used his spare time teaching illiterate peasants to read as well as training lay preachers to evangelize both Britain and the continent.  

Last in order, but first in importance, let us ever gratefully remember that Wyclif was the first Englishman who translated the Bible into the English language, and thus enabled it to be understood by the people.

The difficulty of this work was probably something of which we can form no conception at this day. There were probably few, very few, that could help the translator in any way. There was no printing, and the whole book had to be laboriously written in manuscript, and by written manuscript alone could copies be multiplied. To inspect the machinery and apparatus of our blessed Bible Society in Blackfriars, and then to think of the stupendous toil which Wyclif must have gone through, is enough to take one s breath away. But with God s help nothing is impossible. The work was done, and hundreds of copies were circulated. In spite of every effort to suppress the book, and the destruction of it by time, fire, and unfavourable hands, no less than 170 complete copies were found extant when it was reprinted at Oxford some 40 years ago, and no doubt many more are in existence.

The good that was done by the translation of the Bible will probably never be known till the last day, and I shall not attempt to form any conjecture about it. But I shall never hesitate to assert that if there is any one fact more incontrovertibly proved than another it is this, that the possession by a people of the Bible in their own language is the greatest possible national blessing.

J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times pg 26

If that whet your appetite, click here to read Ryle’s chapter on Wycliffe

Do I want God to give me GRACE or CUT ME SOME SLACK?

2 02 2012

Read honestly, the Sermon on the Mount is perhaps one of the most unsettling pieces of scripture in the entire Bible.  Who can come across such passages as those below and leave with a comfortable feeling?

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell.  (Matt 5.21-22)

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matt 5.27-28)

But I say to you that everyone who divroces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery (Matt 5.31)

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5.48)

Perhaps making these passages even worse, is that they are not spoken of by some Pharisee, or even by some uptight apostle.  The above verses were spoken by the Savior himself.  Who would’ve thought that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would have such harsh things to say to us?

Well, Jesus says such demanding things because this is the standard God himself has set for our lives.  He has set a standard of perfection, that standard being his own holiness and righteousness, by which all of humanity will be held accountable by.  “You must be perfect,” says Jesus, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Now I know very few people, if any, who would claim to be perfect in the sense that Jesus means perfect in Matt 5.48.  In fact, I think we would acknowledge that we are not perfect in this way, nor have we ever known anyone to be perfect in this way.  In this regard we are in agreement with the Apostle Paul, who quoting the Psalms reminds us:

None is righteous, no, not one;

no one seeks God.

All have turned aside; together they

have become worthless;

no one does good,

not even one (Rom 3.10-12 see also Psalm 14 and 53)

How then are we to live under these demands, which even the Bible agrees are impossible for us to satisfy?  Well the obvious answer is that we need grace.  But when we ask for grace, we need to make sure that we’re asking God to give us grace rather than cut us some slack.

Asking God to cut you some slack:

Parents will know the feeling well.  It’s past your child’s bedtime, he’s very tired, and he begins to act up in ways that he normally would not.  The parent says, “Johnny’s tired, it’s past his bedtime.”  What the parent just did was cut his child some slack.  There was an absolute demand, which might be something like “thou shalt not throw temper tantrums” which the child has transgressed.  But there were extenuating circumstances!  Little Johnny was tired, because it was past his bedtime.  Let’s cut him some slack!

Now this is not a parenting piece and I’m not advocating for any particular approach to little Johnny’s late night temper tantrums.  Rather I’m drawing an analogy to how some people think grace works.  For example you may find yourself directly implicated in some or many of the verses listed above.  What do you fall back on?  The truth is, many Christians trust in their extenuating circumstances rather than the grace of God.  “I was really tired and lost my temper,” some will say.  “We just fell out of love,” others will say.  “Young men have strong hormones!”  Indeed!  And many will say, “who can be perfect?”  God knows, he understands. Sure, Jesus said that those who call their brother a fool are subject to the fire of hell, but I don’t deserve that.  I was tired and cranky.  Cut me some slack!

This sounds gracious, but it is not grace at all but the very worst and most vicious form of legalism.  It’s the very worse form of legalism because you’re asking to get what you deserve.  The implication you’re making, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is that you still want God to judge you according to your works.  This is why we some times offer such a plethora of excuses.  We’re hoping to justify ourselves before God and man.  You want God to cut you some slack, but let us be very clear on this point, you have not requested that God give you any grace.  Quite the opposite!  You have asked him to judge you according to what you have done, according to your works, according to what you deserve.

Asking God to give you Grace:

How then do we confront such difficult passages as above without asking for slack, but for grace?  Well, we ought to begin by reading these passages honestly, without twisting their words to make us feel more comfortable.  Have you called your brother a fool?  You deserve the judgment of God, and more so!  The fire of hell.  Did you look upon another person lustfully?  You are an adulterer.  You’re not perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect?  Well then, you’re condemned.  You have no excuse.  You have no justification.  There is no argument or extenuating circumstance that can save.  You have nothing.

If you have any hope at all from this point forward, it is not that God will give you what you deserve based on some extenuating circumstances but rather that God will give you what you don’t deserve based upon his free grace.  Paul writes:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart form the law, although the law and prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction:  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3.21-24)

So when we fall short we don’t ask God to cut us some slack.  We don’t say to him, “well I was in a tough spot.”  Not only are you twisting scripture by slackening the demands of God, but you are blaspheming his grace! (Gal 2.21).  Rather we honor God’s grace by saying, “I have sinned.  I have no excuse.  Don’t give me what I deserve.  Give me what Christ deserves!”

To make this very simple, asking for grace consists consists mainly in two parts.  The first part is an unqualified confession and apology.  “I have sinned.  I am sorry.”  No excuses please.  This is followed by an appeal for God’s mercy, which we are assured to receive based solely and exclusively on the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Resolve today not to trust in your wavering commitments and extenuating circumstances, trust rather on the solid rock that is Christ.  His grace is unwavering, always available, always unconditional, forever free and eternally unchanging.  Here is something to stand on and believe in, and more so, to be transformed by.

Let’s not settle for anything less than grace.