Holy Conception

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

“who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you ever feel isolated from God?

This isolation is not an accident. In the absence of Christ, two gaps exist between God and humanity: a gap in being (infinite versus finite) and a gap in holiness [2]. Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (Holy Conception) to bridge both gaps (Matt 1:18ff).

The first gap requires that a mediator be both divine and human. In bridging the first gap, the Holy Conception introduces the divinity of Christ before his birth. He is then born by the usual means. Jesus could then serve as a bridge between an infinite God and finite humanity [3]. As the angel told Mary: “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

The second gap requires that any mediator between humanity and God be without sin—holy. Jesus also bridges the second gap by living a sinless life. This work starts when Mary assents to the angel’s request (Luke 1:38) and continues through Jesus’ lifelong work of teaching, healing, and reflecting God. Jesus’ work ended on the cross when he declared: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)

Jesus’ birth follows the promise-fulfillment motif in the Old Testament record. The prophecy—“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa 7:14)—reminds us of several miraculous pregnancies. The pattern of prophecy and pregnancy (e.g. promise-fulfillment) occurs again in births of Isaac (Gen 17:17), Jacob [4], the prophet Samuel and of John the Baptist [5]. However, in the case of Jesus, the role of prophecy was amplified.

For example, in the case of Isaac, both the timing and means (miraculous pregnancy) were prophesied. For Jesus, the instrumentality (virgin birth—Isa 7:14), his character (Isa 9:6), covenantal role [6], the place of birth (Bethlehem—Mic 5:2), and his lineage (House of David—2 Sam 7:12–16) were all prophesied. The elaborate birth narratives of Matthew and Luke testify to the reality of the humble nature of Jesus’ birth. The prophecies point to his divine nature.

The Holy Conception also reminds us of the absolute and creative sovereignty of God. When God creates the heaven and the earth, he creates them ex nihilo—out of nothing (Gen 1:1) [7]. The idea that Jesus is conceived ex-nihilo (without a biological father) at birth and then resurrected after death expresses God’s absolute and creative sovereignty. It also suggests that, through Jesus Christ, God remains actively present in our lives too. This is very good news!

Footnotes

[1] The references in this chapter to the Apostle’s Creed are all taken from FACR (2013, Q/A 23). Another translation is found in (PCUSA 1999, 2.1—2.3).

[2] The need for an intermediary is first articulated by the prophet Job: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25)

[3] Heb 2:14, 17.

[4] Gen 21:1–3, 25:21.

[5] 1 Sam 1:20; Luke 1:5–25.

[6] Deut 18:18; Jer 31:33.

[7] For example: Sproul 2003, 111.

References

Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online: https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=372.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Sproul, R.C. 2003. Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Also see:

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Purchase Book: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

 

 

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Almighty Creator

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”

God’s humility expressed through the incarnation in Jesus Christ shines a light on His sovereignty (Matt 21:5;2 Cor 12:10). Truly powerful people can be fearlessly humble—they have nothing to prove and no one dares to challenge their authority. Their inherent strength and self-confidence makes them easy to work for. By contrast, the second and third tier managers often compete for more authority and always have their knives out. By analogy, an almighty God is generous and can be approached easily. Why should we be any different?

When King David wrote—“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps 19:1), he did not just have creation’s beauty in mind. The order of the universe points to the glory and sovereignty of God. Everywhere that scientists have studied, the same laws of physics apply. Why should there only be one set of physical laws?

As David implies, the order and stability of the created universe testifies to God’s existence and sovereignty. Kurt Gödel, a Czech mathematician, who was born in 1906, educated in Vienna, and taught at Princeton University, is famous for his incompleteness theorem published in 1931. This theorem states that stability in any closed, logical system requires that at least one assumption be taken from outside that system. 

An example of such a system in economics is price theory. The U.S. economy requires one price be set outside the economy (in the world market) to assure stability. In the nineteenth century, that price was gold, and the system was called the gold standard. Every price in the U.S. economy could be expressed in terms of how much gold it was worth. Now, the dollar functions that way.

If creation is a closed, logical system (having only one set of physical laws suggests that it is) and exhibits stability, then it too must contain at least one external assumption. God, himself, fulfills that assumption (Smith 2001, 89).

God’s sovereignty anchors His goodness. Three reasons can be cited. First, because God’s authority flows out of his creative work (not out of coercion, deception, or random events), it is legitimate (Jer 18:4). Legitimate authority is inherently good. Existence is good so the authority that made it happen must be good. Second, God’s authority as law-maker implies that if God says creation is good, then it is—by fiat—good (Gen 1:10). Third, in a practical sense, God’s sovereignty reduces uncertainty and increases stability—absence of conflict. Stability is good.

As sons and daughters of God, we are to take comfort in His sovereignty because, as heirs to His kingdom, His image is also our image (Gen 1:27). Therefore, we can be confident in our ability to deal with life’s challenges because God is for us and with us (Rom 8:28). What greater blessing could there be?

References

Smith, Houston. 2001. Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief. San Francisco: Harper.

Almighty Creator 

Also see:

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Purchase Book: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

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Self-Care: A Prayer for the Little Things

Doldrums, Sand Dune in Ocean City, MarylandHoly Father,

I praise you for the quiet days, when I am able to practice self-care, my world seems peaceful, and my mind is at ease.

Forgive my selfish inability to focus on the noise around me, other people’s pain, wars around me, and the distress of so many others.

I give thanks that the weight of the world is on your shoulders,

because I cannot bear it—not today, not ever.

For you alone are God and I can never be.

In the power of the Holy Spirit, help me to be faithful servant in the ways that you made me to be.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Self-Care: A Prayer for the Little Things

Also see:

End Prayer Shaming

Prayer for Shalom 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Importance of Meta-Narrative

simplefaith_web_01172017A meta-narrative is a grand story which contains and explains the other stories that we observe. The meta-narrative of scripture, for example, is often described as a three-act play: creation, fall, and redemption.[1] Continuing the analogy to the theatrical model, Vanhoozer (2016, 98) argues for five acts:

Act 1: Creation, the setting for everything that follows (Gen 1-11)
Act 2: Election of Abraham/Israel (Gen 12-Mal)
Act 3: Sending of the Son/Jesus (the Gospels)
Act 4: Sending of the Spirit/Church (Acts—Jude)
Act 5: Return of the King/day of the Lord/consummation/new creation (Rev).

Other authors describe the meta-narrative of scripture in terms of covenants, such as the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, which provide insight into our relationship with God.[2] Each of these frameworks have a slightly different focus, but all serve to offer meaning within the narrative of scripture to the relationship between God and his creation.

The Book of Genesis begins with a picture of a creator God whose sovereignty rests on the act of creation and who creates us in his image as heirs to this created kingdom. Describing God as creator implies that he transcends creation where transcendence implies standing apart from (different than) and above (sovereign over) creation. This act of creation implies love because God allows creation to continue existing after the fall and even promises redemption (Gen 3:15).

This picture of a sovereign God is key to understanding both God’s role in our lives and who we are, especially in the postmodern age because God’s sovereignty depends on God transcending our own little personal worlds. When faith is viewed as a private, personal preference rather than as acknowledgment of our own place in the meta-narrative of scripture, then all meaning is lost. If God is not longer transcendent, God is also no longer sovereign. As the Apostle Paul writes: “And if Christ has not been raised [from the dead by a transcendent God], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14 ESV) Jesus’ resurrection validates God’s transcendence; if you do not believe in miracle of resurrection, then the rest of scripture is only of historical interest.

But you say—“that’s not true; we still worship God and still believe in his sovereignty.” Yes, but the words are hollow if Sunday morning worship serves only to jazz us up, but our Monday morning lives differ little from the atheist in the next cubical. If God is not transcendent, then he is also not immanent—not in our thinking, not in our daily lives. A Sunday morning god is no god at all.

This is not a new idea, as we saw above in the reference to the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 15:14). More recently, Phillips (1997, 7) wrote:

“The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static. It is obviously impossible for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, unless he is prepared to deny his own experience of life.”

While in modern age weaknesses in our spirituality were exposed to public ridicule, as when Dorothy pulled back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz (1939)[3] to find a white-haired, old man, during the postmodern age our modern institutions have begun to crumble as their Christian presuppositions have been removed and secular substitutions are found lacking. Modern institutions, such as the mega church, public schools, democracy, corporations, and professions, presume objective truth, personal discipline and integrity, and human rights—products of the Christian meta-narrative—and function poorly, if at all, in the absence of that narrative.[4]

In this sense, the postmodern age is in the middle of a transition when our culture no longer looks to our past to find meaning and a new age has yet to emerge on the horizon, giving our time an end-time feel. To use an Old Testament analogy, we find ourselves wandering in the desert having left Egypt, but not yet having entered the Promised Land.[5] The Good News is, however, that it is in the desert where the people of Israel truly came to know, experience, and rely on God.[6]

References

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Hahn, Scott W. 2009. Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Phillips, John Bertram. 1997. Your God is Too Small (Orig Pub 1953). New York: Simon & Schuster; A Touchstone Book.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2014. Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wolters, Albert M. 2005. Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformation Worldview. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[1] For example, see: (Wolters 2005).

[2] For example, see (Hahn 2009).

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wizard_of_Oz_(1939_film).

[4] Secular values are a poor substitute for a Christian character, in part, because they are lightly held, not deeply ingrained. It is like comparing a foundation of sand with one of stone when building a house on a floodplain (Matt 7:24-29). Jesus’ insight into housebuilding may sound cheeky, but secular society deifies the individual, which makes sense only in dealing with adversities that an individual can deal with. Once adversity grows to overwhelm the entire society, individual rights and problem-solving are ignored and irrelevant—only a society unified under God can withstand such a challenge. The image of an ant shaking a fist at a shoe comes to mind; united as an army of ants, however, the wise foot will forebear to crush the ant.

[5] Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

[6] As God tells Moses: “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod 7:16) In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this paradox of blessing through adversity must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16) After all, the entire sacramental system of the ancient world implicitly associated blessing with bigger sacrifices that only the wealthy could offer. And, of course, the wealthy were not inclined towards experiencing adversity!

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Packer Explains God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

J_I_Packer_review_06182016J. I. Packer. 2008. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Orig Pub 1961). Downers Grove: IVP Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

We live at a time of spiritual lethargy, which is often rightly equated with laziness. In part, this lethargy is the result of philosophical postmodernism that winsomely accepts ideas in obvious tension. Tension arises when my reality and your reality differ, but rather than work out the differences we just ignore the tension, as if it would just go away. But when the subject turns to God, this tension will not simply go away because God’s salvation is not defined by our convenient, custom realities; God defines the one reality that matters because he created it. If we are going to understand God’s reality, then we need to study theology.

In his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J. I. Packer addresses the question: “if God is in control, why should we do anything at all?” (8) Packer answers the question by first observing that the apparent contradiction between divine sovereignty and human response is just that “an appearance of contradiction” (24), not a real contradiction, which arises because God is both king and judge (27). As king, God makes the rules; as judge, he holds us accountable. Packer writes:

“What the objector has to learn is that he, a creature and a sinner, has no right whatsoever to find fault with the revealed ways of God. Creatures are not entitled to register complaints about their Creator.” (28)

Because we are created by God as moral agents, we must not be tempted neither to believe that we alone are responsible for the Gospel’s effectiveness nor that God will sovereignly bring the Gospel to everyone on his own (30-40).

Packer sees evangelism as “to present Christ Jesus to sinful men in order that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they may come” (44) to him in faith and as having only two motives—the love of God and the love of mankind (74).

The presentation of the Gospel message, according to Packer, has 4 parts: it is a message about God, sin, Christ, and a summons to faith and repentance (60-71).  Of course, the details here matter. For example, Packer see the true conviction of sin as having 3 aspects:

  1. Awareness of a wrong relationship with God;
  2. Conviction of sins always includes conviction of particular sins.
  3. Awareness of our sinfulness—complete corruption and perversity in God’s sight. (64-65)

Another obvious detail is that the person of Christ and his divine work should not be separated (66-67).

At the time of publication, J.I. Packer was a professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) and is best known for his book, Knowing God.  Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God is written in 4 chapters:

  1. Divine Sovereignty.
  2. Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.
  3. Evangelism.
  4. Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism.

These chapters are preceded by a foreword, preface, and introduction.

One of the more memorable points that Packer makes, is also one of his first:

“…what we do every time we pray is to confess our own impotence and God’s sovereignty. The very fact that a Christian prays is thus proof positive that he believes in the lordship of his God” (16).

Yes, yes, yes! Unfortunately, not everyone prays and prayer can be difficult in the absence of a clear theology to lead us. In a period of spiritual lethargy, when theology is held in contempt, this can clearly be a challenge.

As here in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, J.I. Packer is distinguished by his clear exposition of biblical truth. Oftentimes, his clarity makes the Gospel seem simpler than the many theological controversies would lead us to believe—thank goodness.

Reference

Packer, J.I. 1993. Knowing God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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