GCI Equipper

From Greg: Renewed in Christ

Dear pastors and ministry leaders:

Greg and Susan Williams

When it comes to renewal (the GCI-USA theme for 2017), knowledge of God (theology) is both our point of beginning and guiding light on the journey. This is true whether the topic is the renewal of our leadership (the theme for the February Equipper), or the renewal of our theological vision—the theme for this issue, featuring articles from Joseph Tkach and Gary Deddo launching a new series of articles titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision. In this series, we’ll be clarifying (and refining) some of the key terms and concepts we use to communicate the incarnational Trinitarian theology that has been vital to our journey of renewal. Please read these articles carefully—I pray they bless you personally, and through your preaching and teaching, bless many others.

Alan Torrance

Speaking of theological renewal, if you are like me, you need to be reminded daily of God’s lavish grace and love. Concerning that gospel message, I was blessed in my personal devotions recently by reading an article by Alan Torrance concerning his father JB. I was particularly moved by a paragraph that poignantly notes God’s heart and deep affection for all humanity. It moved me so much I just had to share it with someone (you!). Here it is:

For JB, Scripture witnesses to the good news that God created us to be his daughters and sons. Indeed, God’s primary purposes for humanity are filial, not legal. The Torah spells out the obligations of the God who, in love, delivered Israel from the land of Egypt to be his sons and daughters. It is when we discern that God’s purposes from beginning to end (old and new covenants) truly are “filial” that we are liberated to look away from ourselves (“excurvates ex se”) in joy and confidence to live in the light of the love by which God addresses each one in Jesus Christ as his beloved, forgiven children.

This affirmation of what the loving, relational God intends for all humanity reminded me of what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians. So I turned there and read this:

Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)

This passage is a profound reminder of the glorious truth that God the Father, in and through his incarnate Son Jesus Christ, and by his Spirit, has reconciled all humanity to himself. And now, through the church’s proclamation of the gospel, God invites all people to receive that reconciliation and thus be transformed. With that inspiring thought in mind, I returned to Alan Torrance’s article, where he goes on to say this:

For JB, God transforms sinners by presenting them with the gospel— the good news that the Son has taken what is ours in an act of love, healed and transformed it as a gift of pure grace. It is in and through the recognition, therefore, of the length and depth and breadth of God’s love and the extent of God’s forgiveness that the Spirit gives us the eyes to see that we belong to him by right of creation and by right of redemption and in and through this recognition brings about our transformation.

Alan’s and JB’s words, in harmony with those of the apostle Paul, convey a glorious and powerful gospel truth, which I summarize this way: Because of Jesus, you are reconciled to God; now live into that glorious, liberating reconciliation.

Because of what God has done, in Christ, for all humanity, there need be no fear of punishment or death. All have been reconciled to God (all have been included)—their sins forgiven, washed away by the blood of Christ. And now, as they turn to Christ with repentance, in faith, they receive that gift of reconciliation. The “old man” is cast aside in the watery grave of baptism and the “new man” rises up as the Spirit makes his home in them, going about his work of transforming them into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This renewal, in union with Christ, by the Spirit, is the life the Triune God intends for all people.

As we enter Holy Week and the season of Easter, let’s remember that our identity is in union and communion with Christ as God’s beloved children. Easter is a time for us to focus on renewal, for it reminds us that we have been and continue to be renewed by the Living Word Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I pray that in this season of Easter, your personal devotions and your participation in corporate worship will be filled with the joy and excitement of the gospel, leading to renewal of your commitment to sharing the good news with others. May the truth that God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ so permeate your life that you earnestly desire is to share that truth with others so they too may live in the righteousness of God that is theirs in union with Christ.

Easter blessings to you all,
Dr. Greg Williams
GCI Vice President and Director of Church Administration and Development

Clarifying Our Theological Vision, introduction

This is the introduction to Clarifying Our Theological Vision, an essay  by Gary Deddo, with the introduction from Joseph Tkach. It is being published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here.

Our journey of theological renewal

By Dr. Joseph Tkach

Joseph Tkach

The theme for Equipper in 2017 is GCI’s theological renewal—a continuation of the amazing journey God has led us on for several years. Those of us who have been members since the early 90s (or longer) have lived the journey, which began with the transformation of our doctrines. That transformation began with a new understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace that God, in Christ, has with all humanity, and how that covenant relates to the provisional Law of Moses and to what Scripture refers to as an “old covenant” and a “new covenant” (for an essay from Gary Deddo on the one covenant with multiple aspects, click here).

Recognizing that Jesus fulfilled the covenant on our behalf (as grace and truth personified), gave us a clearer focus both doctrinally and theologically, with the result being the transformation of our Christology (doctrine of Jesus Christ). By God’s grace we came to understand that Jesus is the center and heartbeat of God’s plan for humankind. In our minds and hearts, we became Christ-centered.

This renewal of our Christology led to asking and answering the vital question: Who is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ? The answer led us to embrace a theological vision that we now refer to as incarnational Trinitarian theology. That theology (with “theology” meaning “knowledge of God”) is incarnational in that it is Christ-centered, and Trinitarian in that the God who Jesus reveals to us is a Trinity (one God in three Persons): Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We came to understand that in the fullness of time, God the Father sent his eternal Son into time and space to become human, thus assuming our human nature as the man Jesus Christ. And when Jesus ascended, he raised human nature with him in glory and, with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to be with us in a new and deeper way. The self-revealing, sending God thus sent us both his Living Word and his Breath.

Our incarnational Trinitarian theology is rooted in Scripture (the New Testament writings in particular) and has been worked out in the writings of lead teachers in the early (patristic) church including the Didache (a 1st century church manual with instructions about baptizing into the one name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and the great Creeds of the church: the Apostles Creed (2nd century), the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (4th century), the Chalcedon Definition/Creed (5th century) and the Athanasian Creed (5th century). Our theology is thus biblical and historically orthodox.

Used with permission from A-Z Quotes

Our understanding of this theology has been greatly aided by the writings of several of the patristic fathers, including Irenaeus, Athanasius and the Cappadocians. We have also found helpful the writings of several 20th-century theologians who, in the providence of God, contributed to a resurgence of interest in this ancient Trinitarian theological vision in many parts of the body of Christ over the past six or seven decades. These theologians include Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, James B. Torrance and Ray S. Anderson—men whose faith and understanding traces back to the Bible and to the early Creeds of the church. Their understanding also aligns with the central concerns of the Protestant Reformation framed largely by Martin Luther and John Calvin, especially on the matter of grace. Within GCI, we have been (and continue to be) greatly aided in our journey of theological reformation by Dr. John McKenna and Dr. Gary Deddo, who both stand in this ancient and orthodox stream of theological renewal. We are blessed to have these two theologians on our Grace Communion Seminary faculty and, as you probably know, Gary serves as President of GCS and as my special assistant.

Over the last decade or so, as we’ve worked out the many details of our incarnational Trinitarian theology, we’ve used terms in varying ways to communicate its core concepts and precepts. At times, our use of a few of these terms was imprecise, leading to minor points of confusion, particularly in matters related to the nature of the church and the Christian life. For that confusion, we apologize, and now we seek to refine our terms and concepts so that there will be consistency and clarity in our communication. Please be assured that these refinements in no way amount to changes in our core theological convictions, nor do they amount to changes in the practices that flow from them. We are simply continuing to build on the solid biblical foundation that has been laid, with Christ being its living cornerstone.

To help in the important task of clarifying and refining our theological vision, a couple of years ago I asked Dr. Deddo, on behalf of GCI and with the cooperation of Grace Communion Seminary, to assemble an Educational Strategy Task Force (for a previous article about the ESTF from Greg Williams, click here). ESTF members are Gary Deddo (chair), Russell Duke, Charles Fleming, Ted Johnston, John McLean, Mike Morrison and Greg Williams. All have advanced degrees in theology or ministry, teach at Grace Communion Seminary and/or Ambassador College of Christian ministry, and hold administrative leadership roles in GCI.

As part of its ongoing work, the ESTF has identified certain problems with the way we currently articulate certain aspects of our theology, and so I’ve asked Dr. Deddo, on behalf of the ESTF, to author an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision. This essay will be published serially here in Equipper in order to help clarify our theological terms, and thus refine certain key concepts in our theological vision. The goal is greater consistency and clarity in our publications and in what we teach in our courses at GCS and ACCM. I also pray that the essay will help sharpen what we teach in our sermons and studies in our congregations.

This article introduces the essay, which will be largely completed prior to our Denominational Conference in Orlando, FL, in August. At the conference, Gary will conduct a seminar summarizing what the essay addresses, augmenting another essay of his, The Church and Its Ministry, being published serially in GCI Weekly Update.

I encourage you to read this essay, then, as you wish, add your comments and/or questions in the “leave a comment” feature at the end of each part. Then bring your comments and questions to the conference, where we’ll have further discussion. To read the first part of Gary’s essay, Clarifying our Theological Visionclick here.

I’m grateful for the journey God has us on and for where we now are. Have we arrived? No, our journey continues, with its ultimate destination being a new heaven and new earth in which there will be found a new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-4, 22-23). Thanks for being part of the journey, for your loyalty, patience and willingness to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks also for being a faithful teacher of the glorious gospel of Jesus.

Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 1

Here is part 1 of an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. The essay is being published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click on a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here.

Clarifying two key terms: “All are included” & “union with Christ”

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo

The goal of this ongoing series of articles is to clarify some of the key terms we use in communicating the wonderful truths of our incarnational Trinitarian faith. As Dr. Tkach mentions in his introduction to the series, though we’re not making significant changes, we are providing some clarifications to help us in our ongoing journey of theological renewal.

All are included

A key understanding of our theology has to do with what God has accomplished for all humanity in and through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. For many years, we’ve summarized that understanding with the phrase, all are included (and the related declaration, You’re included). By all we mean believers and non-believers, and by included we mean being counted among those who God, in and through Jesus, has reconciled to himself. We thus mean to say that God has reconciled all people to himself.

Logo for GCI’s online program, You’re Included.

This theological declaration is based on the biblical revelation that Christ died for all and that God has loved and reconciled the world to himself (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14; John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19, Heb. 2:9). Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), and he is the “ransom” for all (1 Tim 2:4, 6; 4:10; Matt. 20:28). Because this reconciliation is accomplished, and thus a present reality, God’s desire, which is fulfilled by the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is for all people everywhere to come to repentance and faith so they may personally experience (receive and live into) this reconciliation and so not perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:23, 32). Thus when we declare that all are included we are affirming several important truths:

  • Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humanity
  • He died to redeem all
  • He has atoned for the sin of all
  • Through what he did, God reconciled all people to himself
  • Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity
  • He has made all his own by virtue of his redeeming work
  • He is for all and against none
  • He is judge of all, so that none might experience condemnation
  • His saving work is done on behalf of all, and that work includes his holy and righteous responses to the Father, in the Spirit—responses characterized by repentance, faith, hope, love, praise, prayer, worship and obedience
  • Jesus, in himself, is everyone’s justification and sanctification
  • He is everyone’s substitute and representative
  • He is everyone’s hope
  • He is everyone’s life, including life eternal
  • He is everyone’s Prophet, Priest and King

In all these ways, all people in all places and times have been included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. In that we rejoice, and on that basis we make our gospel declarations. But in doing so we have to be aware of some potential for confusion. We must neither say too little or too much about inclusion (reconciliation). Perhaps, at times, we’ve said too much, making inferences concerning the reconciliation of all humanity that the Bible does not support—ones that are neither logically or theologically necessarily true.

It’s about relationship, which means participation

To avoid making unfounded inferences, it is important to note that when the Bible speaks about reconciliation (inclusion), what it is referring to is a relationship that God, by grace, has established in the God-man Jesus Christ between himself and all people. That relationship is personal in that it is established by the person of the eternal Son of God, and it involves human persons who have agency, minds, wills and bodies. This reconciliation involves all that human beings are—their whole persons. Thus this personal relationship calls for, invites, and even demands from those who have been included the response of participation. Personal relationship is ultimately about interaction between two persons (subjects, agents), in this case between God and his creatures.

By definition, personal relationships are interactive—they involve response, communication, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus, God has included all people everywhere in a particular relationship with himself for just these purposes so that what has been fulfilled for us objectively in Jesus by the Spirit, will then be fulfilled in us personally (subjectively) by the Spirit via our deliberate, purposeful participation (response) as subjects who are moral, spiritual agents. What Christ did for us, he did so that the Holy Spirit could work a response out in us.

When we understand that the person and work of Christ establishes or reestablishes a living, vital, personal relationship with all humanity, then the biblical teachings concerning inviting, admonishing, encouraging, directing, commanding and warning in regard to setting forth the fitting or appropriate response make sense. But if the gift of reconciliation (inclusion) is understood as merely a fixed principle, an abstract universal truth (like the sky is blue, or 2 + 2= 4), or as an automatic and impersonal effect brought about through a causal chain of events imposed on all, then the myriad directives in the New Testament concerning our response (participation) make no sense.

The indicatives of grace set us free to respond to the imperatives of grace

Many proclamations in the New Testament declare the truth of who God is and what he has done for us, including that he, in Christ, has reconciled all humanity to himself. These proclamations are the indicatives of grace, which, by their very nature, call forth and set us free for a joyful response to the imperatives of grace that are also defined in the New Testament. Here is a diagram showing how these indicatives and imperatives are related:

For more on this topic, click here to read part 5 of Gary’s essay on The Church and Its Ministry in GCI Weekly Update.

Our responses to the imperatives of grace, grounded in and thus flowing from the indicatives of grace, are made possible only because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who continues his work in the core of our persons (our subjectivities) in order that we might respond freely to God and his grace with repentance, faith, hope and love.


The Holy Spirit grants us this freedom to respond (even as we hear the imperatives) by releasing us from the bonds of slavery so that our responses are a real sharing in Christ’s own responses made on our behalf as our substitute and representative—our great and eternal High Priest. This indicative-imperative pattern of grace is found throughout the New Testament. For example, note Jesus’ first proclamation concerning himself and his kingdom (the indicative) followed by the imperative, which defines our response:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Note that the imperative,“repent and believe,” is based on and made possible because of the indicative that “the time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God has come near.” Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, people are given entrance into personal relationship with Jesus as their King and thus can respond by participating in his rule and reign.

At work here is a vitally important truth: because God loves us, he is interested in our response to him. He looks for it, notices it, even tells us the kind of response that is fitting to the relationship he has already given us by grace (through reconciliation). Moreover, by the Holy Spirit ministering to us on the basis of Christ’s completed work, our Triune God has even provided all we need to make that response. We never respond autonomously, simply on our own. Instead, by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to begin sharing in Jesus perfect responses that he makes for us as our eternal mediator or High Priest.

Avoid two errors

There are two common errors in thinking about the indicatives and imperatives of grace. The first is to regard the indicatives proclaimed in the New Testament as fixed, impersonal principles or abstract laws—general and universal truths operating like the mechanical, so-called laws of nature, or perhaps of mathematics.

The second error (which often accompanies the first) is to regard the imperatives mentioned in the New Testament as sheer, externally imposed legal obligations that indicate the potential ways we can condition God to act or react to us in some way. Embracing that false notion, we are tempted to think of the imperatives as setting forth terms of a contract with God: if we do certain things (fulfill certain contractual obligations) we will bring to pass the responses from God that we desire and to which he has contractually agreed.

Both of these errors presume legal, mechanical, cause-and-effect, force-vector-like actions and reactions instead of what is found in a real personal relationship. These errors reflect thinking that is not grounded in the covenant of grace by which God has freely established a relational reality with humankind for the sake of dynamic, personal and interactive participation, communication, communion, fellowship—what the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.

We err when we imagine we are somehow coerced slaves to God and to his imperious ways, or when we imagine we can manage a contract with God where we attempt to negotiate terms of mutual obligation agreeable to both parties. Such imaginings are not how God operates. He created us for real, personal relationship in which we participate, by grace, through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. All our responses are real participation in an actual relationship—the relationship God has established for us for the sake of koinonia (fellowship, communion) with him in dynamic, personal ways—the ways of freedom in love.

We did not establish this relational reality by our responses. Only God can create the relationship, and so he has, on our behalf in and through Christ. Note, however, that though our personal responses create nothing, they do constitute real participation in the relationship God has given us in Christ. These responses are made possible by the freeing and enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit, based on the vicarious ministry of Jesus. We have been included, through Christ and by the ministry of the Spirit, in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God—a relationship that calls for our response.

With this clarification in mind, we can see that we must not use the phrase all are included to say too little or too much—and perhaps, at times, we have said too much. Yes, all humanity has been included in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God (referred to in Scripture as reconciliation with God). But this particular kind of inclusion in Christ is not a fixed, impersonal, causal and abstract universal “truth” that is divorced from real relationship. In fact, reconciliation is specifically for the sake of our response, and so it is for real, personal relationship.

What we can say is that all have been reconciled (included) but not all are participating. The God-given purpose of this relationship, established through reconciliation, cannot be fulfilled in us as long as there is little or no participation in the relationship—if there is resistance to and rejection of the relationship that has been freely given to us. The full benefits of the relationship cannot be known or experienced by us if we do not enter into it—if we are not receptive to it and its benefits.

Thus we must account for the difference between participating in the relationship, according to its nature, and not participating, thus violating its nature and purpose. Non-participation does not negate or undo the fact that God has reconciled us to himself (that he has included us in the relationship he has established, in Christ, with all humanity). To deny this reality does not create another reality. Going against the grain of reality does not change the direction of the grain, though it might gain us some splinters! We have no power to change the grain.

A good example of the difference between participation and non-participation is the elder brother mentioned in the parable of the prodigal son. He refused to participate—to enter the celebration the father established and invited him into. Note also this example in the book of Hebrews:

For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. (Hebrews 4:2)

This personal and relational understanding of receiving the gift of grace freely given us by the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) helps clarify many things in the New Testament that otherwise would seem inconsistent or even incoherent. To think otherwise (in mechanical or causal ways) would be to ignore, or (worse) to dismiss, whole swaths of biblical revelation. A personal and relational understanding of God’s grace helps make sense of the proclamation of the indicatives of grace and the proclamation of the imperatives of grace, the latter being the call to receive and participate in the gift of the relationship established in Christ that is being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.

Union with Christ

Having looked at the term all are included (which pertains to the reconciliation all humankind has with God in Christ), we now can look at a related biblical teaching that also needs clarification—the term here is union with Christ. As with reconciliation, we err if we view union with Christ as a fixed, generic and abstract principle, rather than the dynamic, covenantal and relational reality that it is. In making that error it’s easy to erroneously equate the concept of the reconciliation (inclusion) that all humanity has with God in and through Christ with the concept of union with Christ.

Though some assume that all who God has reconciled to himself in Christ are automatically in union with Christ, there are significant problems with this assumption—problems that have become more apparent to us over the last four or five years as pastors have sought to teach about union with Christ and/or GCI members have tried to understand the concept. Because of these problems, we’ve spent time in further investigation of the biblical teaching and we’re now addressing those problems by providing this additional teaching (via this series of articles) on this important topic.

First, it’s important to note that the New Testament never equates reconciliation (universal inclusion) and union with Christ. The truth that Christ, who died for all, is everyone’s Lord and Savior, does not mean that everyone is united (by the Holy Spirit) to Jesus. Union with Christ, as that term is used in the New Testament, is limited to describing those who are receptive, responsive and thus participating by the Holy Spirit in the gift of relationship with God established by Jesus Christ. This delimited description of union with Christ also applies to other closely related New Testament expressions including being “in Christ” or “in the Lord.”

While God intends union with Christ for everyone on the basis of the atoning, reconciling work of Christ, not all have received that union or have entered into it. In that sense not all are united to Christ, not all are one with Christ, not all are “in Christ,” not all “have the Son” (1 John 5:12), and not all “have the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9).

None of this means that God is separate from, or has rejected non-believers. It does not mean that God is against them, has not forgiven them, has not accepted them, or does not love them unconditionally. It simply means that such persons are not yet participating in (or possibly are resisting) the work of the Holy Spirit, whose ministry it is to open the minds of non-believers to the truth of the gospel, unite them to Christ, and call forth a response of repentance and faith befitting that union. In the end, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13; Psalm 86:5), though not all (yet) are calling on the Lord.

In the New Testament, union with Christ cannot be separated from participation in Christ or from communion or fellowship (koinonia) with Christ. Union with Christ, understood properly, is about personal relationship, and is thus limited to those who are participating in the relationship God has given us by grace. As James B. Torrance used to summarize it: union with Christ cannot be separated from communion with Christ. These twin doctrines cannot be separated even though they can be distinguished.

We must not think of union with Christ in fixed, mechanical, objective and impersonal ways, assuming that non-believers are automatically united with God, in Christ, in the same way as believers (who by definition, are participating by their believing, their faith). To do so would be to separate union with Christ from participation with Christ. If we are to follow the mind of Christ as found in the New Testament, we should reserve “union with Christ” and being “in Christ” as ways of describing those who, by the Spirit, are participating, receiving and responsive to Christ and his word. Participation does make a difference, though it does not make all the difference. It doesn’t, for example, change God’s mind or his intention or desire. However, our way of speaking and our theological understanding ought to be able to communicate the difference participation does make, and do so in ways that match the biblical ways of speaking.

Faithfully and accurately proclaiming the gospel

Carefully and closely following the biblical patterns of speech and thought will help us communicate the truth and reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ with consistency, clarity and biblical accuracy. It will also help us avoid contributing, even inadvertently, to confusion or hesitation about the truth of union and communion with Christ by the Spirit.

We should avoid, therefore, using the term all are included as an umbrella phrase that tries to say everything there is to say about salvation. What Scripture consistently means when speaking of union with Christ is not the same as what we mean to say in using the phrase all are included, which as we’ve seen, pertains to the gift of universal reconciliation.

Though in Acts 17:28 the apostle Paul (quoting a pagan philosopher known to his audience) says that “in him [God] we [all humans] live and move and have our being,” he is referring to the created state of all humans and not to union with Christ—a concept he develops elsewhere to refer to the reciprocal, personal relationship that exists, through the Holy Spirit, between God and believers (Christians).

Not properly distinguishing between all humanity having been reconciled already to God in Christ (and thus included) and the believer’s union with Christ, confuses or conflates biblical terms and thus risks the following:

  • The loss of most or all of the full understanding of the personal, dynamic and relational nature of the gift of salvation in relationship with the living, triune personal God.
  • The loss of the fact that the gift of salvation involves the ongoing ministry of the whole God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Turning what is dynamic and relational into something non-relational, generic, impersonal, causal and a fixed fact or data point that does not necessitate (in a vital way) the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the members of the church, the body of Christ.

GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian faith is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not a gospel of universal inclusion (where “inclusion” is used as an umbrella term to speak of all aspects of salvation). We proclaim the good news about the relational nature of the gift of grace that God, in Christ, and by his Spirit, freely gives us. Inclusion is one aspect of that gospel, but not the whole of it.

Two related, but distinct unions

This brings us to another point that needs clarification, as it too has contributed to some confusion or hesitation. In accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we rightly distinguish between two types of relationship, which, theologically, have both been referred to as unions, but when carefully treated by theologians are distinguished by qualifying each with a different accompanying term. The problem here is not so much one of biblical usage as discussed above, but one of how union is used in theological formulations. In the latter case, many overlook the important theological qualifications made and assume all unions involving God are identical, when they are not. The problem is made greater when an improper notion of inclusion is conflated with either or both of these notions of union.

The hypostatic union

The first union pertains to what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. This is the union of divinity (divine nature) and humanity (human nature) in the one person (hypostasis) of the God-man Jesus Christ at his incarnation. It should be noted that this union does not amount to a fusion or confusion of these two natures, but a joining together that maintains their distinction while bringing about a true relationship and interaction between them under the direction of the subject of the eternal Son of God. (This theological understanding goes all the way back to the Chalcedonian Definition/Creed of the 5th century.)

The icon of Christ Pantocrator. The two different facial expressions on either side emphasize Christ’s dual nature as both divine and human (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This hypostatic union pertains to all people since the human nature Christ assumed is common to all humankind—both believers and non-believers. Human nature, with all its attributes (mind, will, affections, etc.) has, in Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, been regenerated, justified, sanctified and glorified. On that basis, God, in and through Christ has brought about the reconciliation of all humankind with himself. As a result, God holds nothing against humanity or human nature. In that way, Christ is the first-fruit or first-born from the dead and is the new head of humanity (the new Adam, to use Paul’s terms). Jesus has become the beginning of a new humanity. Thus we can say that there is a right way to say “all are included” meaning “all humans have been reconciled” on the basis of the renewal of human nature itself in Christ.

This understanding is why T.F. Torrance can assert that all are “implicated” (included) in what Christ has done, or that all humanity has been placed on a whole “new basis” in what Christ has done. Likewise, Karl Barth can assert that on the basis of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Jesus, all people are “potentially” Christians—“potentially” members of the church or body of Christ; or all can be considered “virtual” Christians (even if not actual Christians); or that all have been saved in principle by Christ (de jure) but not all are saved in actuality (de facto). These theological understandings parallel the New Testament understanding of Christ being all in all, but also recognizing that not all are participating in that relational reality—not all are believing, not all are responding to or are receptive of this reality. Not all are worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Not all are active witnesses to Jesus Christ. And in that sense, not all are actual Christians.

The spiritual union

The second kind of union of which theologians speak pertains to the spiritual union that, by the Holy Spirit, unites believers with God in a particular type of relationship. The New Testament refers to this kind of union as “union with Christ”—a union and communion with God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. In this kind of union there is an essential recognition of a distinct, though not separate, ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring it about. After the incarnation and the earthly work of Christ, the Spirit is sent on a special mission, or for a special ministry, that is only now possible on the basis of the completed work of Christ accomplished with or in our human nature.

By this follow-up ministry of the Holy Spirit, individuals and groups of persons are freed and enabled to repent, believe, have faith, love and hope. They are able to enter into a worship relationship with God “in Spirit and in truth.” By the Spirit, persons are incorporated into the body of Christ as they respond (participate), typically by baptism, confession of faith, participation in communion (the Lord’s Supper) and in Christian worship where they receive instruction and put themselves under the authority of the apostolic/biblical revelation. The spiritual union thus designates participation by the Spirit in the renewed human nature Christ provides for us so that we might participate in right relationship with God through him, by the Holy Spirit.

It is also important to note that in this union and communion with Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we do not become one in being with Jesus Christ—we do not become Jesus, and he does not become us. Union and communion with Christ is not a fusion or confusion of persons—it is a personal and relational union or unity, which necessarily includes a participation that maintains the difference of persons, the distinction of subjects (or personal agencies). While the work of Christ reaches the very depths of who we are (our being or ontology), the ontological difference of persons is not erased in our union with Christ. We are not absorbed into Jesus, nor into the being of God. Thus the relationship between the two persons at the deepest (ontological) level of who we are remains a real relationship, with real participation and fellowship maintained.


With these thoughts in mind, we now can summarize our key points:

  • God has reconciled all people (believers and non-believers) to himself in Christ. All people have been implicated in the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity brought about through the Incarnation of the Son of God.
  • Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, believers are brought into the spiritual union of God and humanity, and thus are “in Christ” by virtue of their positive, Spirit-enabled response to (participation in) the relationship created by the hypostatic union.
  • Not all are included in the spiritual union since not all are participating in the saving relationship. Not all are included in that sense, even though the hypostatic union in Christ was accomplished for the sake of the spiritual union that would be brought to fullness through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  • The goal of the hypostatic union is thus fulfilled in the spiritual union, brought about by the Holy Spirit as persons participate in the relationship begun in the reconciliation of all humanity to God in and through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • In our gospel declarations, we need to account for both types (or perhaps we could say both phases) of union, noting that both are aspects of the outworking of our salvation involving the work of the whole Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit).
  • We can rightly use the phrase all are included when referring to the hypostatic union (the first phase). In doing so we should note that human nature was joined (but not fused) to Christ, and thus included in his whole mediatorial ministry of learning obedience, overcoming temptation, ministering under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, submitting to the righteous judgment of God on the cross, and in the resurrection of our human nature with him in his resurrection and raised up to glory in his ascension.
  • As we use the term inclusion to refer to the hypostatic union, it’s vital to remember that the purpose of this inclusion is personal relationship. Via the hypostatic union, God, in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, has graciously reconciled all humanity to himself. All people (believers and non-believers) are, through the hypostatic union, included in a relationship with God for the purpose of personal participation—a personal response of repentance, faith, hope and love.
  • We should be careful to not talk about inclusion (which pertains to the hypostatic union) in ways that obscure or make seem minor the matter of the Holy Spirit’s ministry and the related matter of our participation and response to God, both of which pertain to the spiritual union.
  • The difference participation makes holds out hope of renewal and transformation for those who have not yet turned to Christ. It also provides insight and motivation for those who have begun to participate but who have grown weary or might be tempted to return to their old ways of non-participation. That’s the point of the many admonitions in the New Testament to continue living in relationship with and thus to turn back to Christ. That’s the point of its warnings to not resist the Spirit.
  • If we fail to uphold the differences that participation does make, we will be unable to talk accurately about the differences it does not make, namely that though we be faithless, God remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
  • In our preaching and teaching we must account for both types of union, carefully explaining the importance of participation which relates to entering into deliberate, personal relationship with God, since that’s what God has provided so richly for us. We need to preach and teach together both the indicatives of grace and the imperatives of grace that call for and enable our fellowship and communion (koinonia) with God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit.


Because our Triune God, who is love, is interested in us, he wants to have with us a real, actual, living, loving, vital relationship. Through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God reconciled all humanity to himself precisely so that humans may have a worship relationship with the Trinity. Now, God, in Christ and through the Spirit’s ongoing ministry, is drawing believers into a spiritual union (union with Christ) that involves participation (response, sharing in, living into, communion). In this koinonia there is a difference between those participating in God’s free gift of relationship (established in the hypostatic union) and those refusing to participate, or who have not yet begun to participate. That’s why, in the New Testament, the term “union with Christ” applies to persons in a posture of responding in the Holy Spirit, and not to persons in a posture of resisting or ignoring the Holy Spirit. That is why receiving what is freely given is often emphasized in Scripture, as seen in these verses:

[Jesus is sending Paul] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18)

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17)

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

Given this biblical emphasis and language, it would be unwise to equate the term inclusion (which speaks to the hypostatic union and thus to reconciliation) with the term union (as in “union with Christ” or being “in Christ” or “in the Lord”). Besides departing from the ways the Bible uses these terms, equating the two collapses the biblical distinctions between the hypostatic union and the spiritual union, thus leading to confusion, including obscuring or avoiding the personal and relational nature of salvation which calls for our participation by the Holy Spirit.

The hypostatic union in Christ is not the same as our spiritual union with Christ by the Spirit. Even though they cannot be separated from one another, they must be properly distinguished. Hopefully, it is now clear why, when speaking theologically of these two unions, we must carefully qualify each (as do careful theologians) so as to avoid confusion.

To reiterate this important point, in the New Testament, union with Christ (spiritual union) necessarily involves participation (koinonia, also translated communion or fellowship) with Christ. Why? Because the New Testament uses the word union to speak not of the hypostatic union (related to the vicarious humanity of Jesus), but of the spiritual union (union with Christ).

This spiritual union is not automatic—it is not impersonal or mechanically caused by the hypostatic union. If it were, that would make the full ministry of the Holy Spirit unnecessary, contrary both to how the New Testament depicts the Spirit’s ministry and how it describes the explicit purpose for which the Son sends the Holy Spirit in the name of the Father.

That being said, it’s important to note that the spiritual union is absolutely dependent upon the hypostatic union, wherein the eternal Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed to himself our human nature (the nature common to all humanity). However, the phrases “union with Christ,” being “in Christ” or “in the Lord,” being members incorporated into “the body of Christ” (the church), being “indwelt” by the Holy Spirit, and being “born again” as a “child of God” are all phrases or terms the New Testament uses in a way that includes (and thus presupposes) the idea of participation—that is, communion with Christ through the Spirit, which is about living in active personal relationship with Christ as a member of his body, the church. Said another way, these particular phrases are reserved in the New Testament for Christians (believers). In GCI, we believe it is important that we use these phrases in the way the New Testament uses them, not assigning to them different meanings (as do some Trinitarian authors).

We’ve raised several issues in this lengthy article, and we’ll add further detail as this series unfolds. Some of the issues that we will be addressing more fully are the vicarious humanity of Jesus, and what union with Christ entails. In the meantime, you might want to review a GCI.org article I wrote that addresses union with Christ and our participation in Christ’s ministry. You’ll find it at http://www.gci.org/christian-life.

We encourage you to submit comments and/or questions related to this article using the "leave a reply" feature below. If you prefer, you may post anonymously.

Resources for theological renewal

GCI provides many resources to help its members and others understand GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theological vision. Here are a few:

On YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKReP7aB2RgZyc967YlLN7Nz2EjZXHWq4.

On YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKReP7aB2Rga0TpUQ_bkWD2FlX_gg-r3_.

Kid’s Korner: object lessons for Easter

Children’s Ministry magazine recently published a helpful article with seven child-oriented practical object lessons to use in the Easter season. To read the article, click here.

There are a couple of statements in the article that sound like separation theology, so be sure to adapt them to our incarnational Trinitarian perspective (in that regard, be sure to read Gary Deddo’s article on our theology in this issue of Equipper).

Sermon for April 23, 2017

Sermon for April 23, 2017 (second Sunday of Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 2:14, 22-32; Psalm 16:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

By Ted Johnston


The news that Jesus had risen from the dead spread rapidly among his followers—at first with skepticism, then hesitation, but finally with enthusiasm and joy. At first, even his disciples did not believe the reports, and Thomas demanded proof. But wherever people were confronted with the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, lives were transformed. In John’s Gospel we find the unfolding of this transformation in three steps: 1) from fear to courage, 2) from unbelief to confidence, and 3) from death to life. May we too travel this journey, by the Spirit, in the presence of our risen Lord.

“Supper at Emmaus” by Bloch (public domain)

1. From fear to courage (John 20:19–23)

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

It was on Easter Sunday that the risen Lord first appeared to his followers: to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11–18), the other women (Matt. 28:9–10), Peter (1 Cor. 15:5 and Luke 24:34), two disciples walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–32), and the disciples minus Thomas (John 20:19–25). The following Sunday, Jesus appeared again to his disciples. This time Thomas was present (John 20:26–31). In these Sunday encounters, the Lord transformed his disciples’ fear into courage. What did he do to accomplish this? Four things:

a. He came to them

We do not know where these ten frightened men met behind locked doors, but Jesus came to them and reassured them. In his glorified human body he was able to enter the room without opening the doors. His resurrection body was solid—he asked them to touch him, and he ate fish (Luke 24:41–43). But it was a different kind of human body, one not limited by what we call “the laws of nature.”

It’s remarkable that Jesus’ disciples were afraid. The women had reported to them that Jesus was alive, and the disciples walking to Emmaus had given their personal witness (Luke 24:33–35). Moreover, it’s likely Jesus had appeared personally to Peter sometime that afternoon (Mark 16:7; Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5). No wonder Jesus reproached them at that time “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe” (Mark 16:14).

Nevertheless, Jesus’ first word to them was the traditional Jewish greeting, “peace be with you.” He could have rebuked them for their unfaithfulness and cowardice the previous weekend, but he did not, for the work of the cross is peace (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:14–17) and the message these followers of Jesus would soon carry to the world is the gospel of peace (Rom. 10:15).

b. He reassured them

Jesus showed them his wounds and gave them opportunity to discover that it was indeed their Master, and that he was not a ghost. But his wounds meant more than identification; they also were evidence that salvation had been accomplished and God had reconciled himself to all humanity, thus accomplishing “peace with God.” The basis for our peace with God, with one another, and within ourselves, is found in the person and work of Jesus. He died for us, rose from the dead in victory for us, and now lives for us and, by the Spirit, within us. In our fears, we must not lock him out! He comes to us in grace and reassures us by his Word.

c. He commissioned them

In the upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus had said in prayer to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Now comes their actual sending: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Since he is returning to the Father, Jesus’ mission in the world is now entrusted to his disciples—what a tremendous privilege and great responsibility that is! It’s humbling to realize that Jesus loves us as the Father loves him (John 15:9; 17:26), and that we are in the Father just as he is (John 17:21–22). It’s equally humbling to realize that he has sent us into the world just as the Father sent him. As he was about to ascend to heaven, he again reminded them of their commission to take the gospel to the world, thus multiplying his disciples (Matt. 28:18–20). It must have given these disciples great joy to realize that, in spite of their many failures, their Lord was entrusting them with his Word and work. They had forsaken him and fled, but now he was sending them out as his representatives. Peter had denied him three times; and yet in a few days, Peter would preach the Word and thousands would become followers of Jesus.

d. He enabled them

“And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Jesus’ action here reminds us of Genesis 2:7, when God breathed life into Adam. In both Hebrew and Greek, the word for “breath” also means “spirit.” The breath of God in the first creation meant physical life, and here the breath of Jesus Christ in the new creation meant spiritual life—spiritual re-birth. The believers would be baptized with the Spirit at Pentecost and be empowered for ministry (Acts 1:4–5; 2:1–4). This filling of the Spirit would enable them to go forth to witness effectively. The Spirit had dwelt with them in the person of Jesus, but now the Spirit would be in them (John 14:17).

By now, the fears of the disciples had vanished. They were now sure that the Lord was alive and caring for them. They had both “peace with God” and the “peace of God” (Phil. 4:6–7). They had a high and holy commission and the power provided to accomplish it. And they had been given the great privilege of bearing the good news of forgiveness in Jesus to the whole world. All they now needed to do was to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit would be poured out.

Some wonder if John 20:23 means Jesus has given his followers (or a select group of them) the right to forgive sins. But that is not what is happening here. A more accurate translation (and the similar text in Matthew 16:19) is “Whosoever sins you remit [meaning forgive] shall have already been forgiven them, and whosoever sins you retain [meaning not forgive] shall have already not been forgiven them.” In other words, the disciples did not provide forgiveness; their commission was to boldly proclaim forgiveness on the basis of the work of Christ. As the early believers went forth into the world, they announced the gospel—the good news that because of Christ and his saving work, they are forgiven and that this forgiveness may be received as they repent (turn to Jesus) and to accept that forgiveness in faith (trusting Jesus).

2. From unbelief to confidence (John 20:24–28)

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Why was Thomas not with the other disciples when they met on the evening of Easter Sunday? Was he so disappointed that he did not want to be with his friends? Perhaps Thomas was afraid. But John 11:16 seems to indicate that he was a courageous man, willing to go to Judea and die with the Lord. John 14:5 reveals that Thomas was a spiritually minded man who wanted to know the truth and was not ashamed to ask questions. There seems to have been a “pessimistic” outlook in Thomas. We call him “Doubting Thomas,” but Jesus did not rebuke him for his unwillingness to believe; rather he confronted his doubt and exhorted him to believe: “Stop doubting and believe!”

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio (public domain)

What was it that Thomas would not believe? The reports of the other Christians that Jesus was alive. The verb “told” in v. 25 means that the disciples “kept telling him” that they had seen the Lord Jesus alive. No doubt the women and the Emmaus pilgrims added their witness. On the one hand, we admire Thomas for wanting personal experience; but on the other, we must fault him for laying down conditions for the Lord to meet.

Thomas is a good warning to not miss meeting with God’s people (Heb. 10:22–25). Because Thomas was not with the others the previous Sunday, he missed seeing Jesus, hearing his words of peace, and receiving his commission and gift of spiritual life. He had to endure a week of fear and unbelief when he could have been experiencing joy and peace!

The other ten disciples had told Thomas that they had seen Jesus’ hands and side (John 20:20), so Thomas made that the test. Thomas had been there when Jesus raised Lazarus, so why should he question our Lord’s own resurrection? But he still wanted proof, for “seeing is believing.”

Thomas’ words help us understand the difference between doubt and unbelief. Doubt says, “I cannot believe! There are too many problems!” Unbelief says, “I will not believe unless you give me the evidence I ask for!”

Jesus had heard Thomas’ words; nobody had to report them to him. So, the next Sunday, the Lord appeared in the room (again, the doors were locked) and dealt personally with Thomas and his unbelief. He still greeted them with “Shalom—peace!” Even Thomas’ unbelief could not rob the other disciples of their peace and joy in the Lord.

How gracious our Lord is to stoop to our level of experience in order to lift us where we ought to be. There is no record that Thomas ever accepted the Lord’s invitation. When the time came to prove his faith, Thomas needed no more proof!

Our Lord’s words at the end of v. 27 can be translated, “Stop becoming faithless but become a believer.” Jesus saw a dangerous process at work in Thomas’ heart, and wanted to put a stop to it. The best commentary on this is Hebrews 3, where God warns against “an evil heart of unbelief” (Heb. 3:12). It’s not easy to understand the psychology of doubt and unbelief. Perhaps it is linked to personality traits; some people are more trustful than others. Perhaps Thomas was so depressed that he was ready to quit, so he “threw out a challenge” and never really expected Jesus to accept it. At any rate, Thomas was faced with his own words, and he had to make a decision. Verse 29 indicates that Thomas’ testimony did not come from his touching Jesus, but from his seeing Jesus. “My Lord and my God!” is the climactic one of multiple testimonies that John records to the deity of Jesus Christ.

3. From death to life (John 20:29–31)

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John could not end his Gospel without bringing the resurrection miracle to his own readers. We must not look at Thomas and the other disciples and envy them, as though the power of Christ’s resurrection could never be experienced in our lives today. That was why John wrote—so that people in every age could know that Jesus is God and that faith in him brings everlasting life.

It is not necessary to “see” Jesus in order to believe. Yes, it was a blessing for the early Christians to see their Lord and know that he was alive; but that is not what saved them. They were saved, not by seeing, but by believing. The emphasis throughout the Gospel of John is on believing. There are nearly 100 references in this Gospel to believing on Jesus Christ.

The “signs” John selected and described in this book are proof of the deity of Jesus. They are important. But sinners are not saved by believing in miracles; they are saved by believing in Jesus. Great crowds followed Jesus because of his miracles (John 6:2); but in the end, most of them left him (John 6:66). Faith in Jesus’ miracles should lead to faith in his Word, and to faith in him as Savior and Lord. Indeed this is John’s purpose in writing (John 20:31)—to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

“Life” is one of John’s key words; he uses it at least 36 times. Jesus offers eternal life to sinners through faith in him. Sinners need this life because they are spiritually dead: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” said Paul to the Ephesian Christians (Eph. 2:1).

Salvation is not mere resuscitation; it is resurrection (John 5:24). The lost sinner is not sick or weak, they are dead. Thankfully, the eternal life that comes by faith, in union with Jesus, is not merely “endless time” (though eternal length comes with it), it is “eternal life,” the very life of God—not experienced just “in the sweet by-and-by,” but right now. Eternal life is thus not merely about length of life, it’s about a quality of life—it’s the spiritual experience of heaven on earth today. Followers of Jesus do not have to die to have this life; they possesses it already, by the Spirit, in their union with Christ, and so shall they experience it forever.


The disciples were radically changed in the presence of their risen Lord. And now, John invites us to experience a similar transformation—it begins by receiving by faith the eternal life that is ours in Jesus. If you have already done so, give thanks to God for his precious gift! If you have never turned to Jesus in repentance, placing your trust in him as God’s Son and your Savior, you may do so right now. Jesus invites you to believe, and in believing to receive what is yours in him.

[Close with an invitation to come forward for prayer to receive Jesus, or pray that prayer while the whole audience is seated, with those who have received Christ invited to meet afterwards to discuss follow-up couseling.]

Sermon for April 30, 2017

Sermon for April 30, 2017 (third Sunday of Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Pet. 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

By Linda Rex

Today, the third Sunday of the Easter season, let’s look at encountering Jesus. In our reading in Luke’s Gospel, two disciples of Jesus, walking the road to Emmaus, don’t know who was walking with them. It can be like that for us—walking the road of life not aware that our ever-present companion is none other than the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ.

The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road by Tissot
public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus saw Jesus, but they didn’t recognize who he was. Either Jesus was disguising himself, or they were blinded by their own doubt and sorrow. In any case, they did not recognize this man for who he really was. Addressing Jesus, the men asked, “Don’t you realize what has happened?” They begin to describe Jesus as a prophet.

In our world today, we often meet non-believers who believe that Jesus was a prophet—a teacher. Perhaps they even respect him as a great teacher. They can believe that about Jesus without having faith in him—the faith that is a gift from God—the gift that involves the Spirit opening our eyes to see Jesus for who he really is and then trust him to be that for us.

This can be a struggle for us—in some ways we can believe Jesus is our Lord and Savior, yet not be aware of him being present in our daily lives in a powerful, personal way. We can even think of him as being absent or uninvolved and thus unimportant. We can be like these two disciples on the road to Emmaus: slow to believe.

In Romans 10:17, Paul says that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” So Jesus began sharing the message with these two down-hearted men concerning the identity of the Messiah. He did so by explaining what the prophecies about the Messiah, recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures actually mean: “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?,” he asks. Beginning with Moses and the other prophets, he talks about himself as he is revealed in Scripture to be.

Note, however, that these two men, despite what Jesus shared, at that point did not believe. Though they heard these words of life, they didn’t get it. But then, Jesus did something unusual—the two men invited him to eat with them, and at that supper Jesus breaks the bread—something, by custom, the host is supposed to do. Jesus takes on the role of the host at this meal, and breaks the bread and blesses it.

It is in this act of breaking bread that the eyes of the two men are opened to see Jesus for who he really is. Through Jesus’ act, they are given eyes of faith, of recognition, of belief. I think this is why communion is important for us—at the Table we can encounter Jesus and are thus invited to receive and believe, knowing it is Jesus who is the host at the Table.

Let’s look now at what Mark adds in Mark 16:9-11 (a passage apparently added to the original text, yet conveying the understanding of the early church):

9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. 12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

The two followers of Jesus reported to the others what they came to realize when seeing Jesus break the bread. Apparently it was at the Table that they came to belief. “Weren’t our hearts burning within us?” they asked (Luke 24:32). And how true that is—our hearts are warmed when we come to faith in Christ.

Note that it was Mary Magdalene who gave Jesus’ followers the words of life—the gospel: “Christ is risen”, “he’s our Savior and Lord.” Then the two disciples who ate with Jesus in Emmaus gave a similar testimony. But even after those eye-witness testimonies to the reality of Jesus being alive, notice what it says in Mark 16:14:

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

They would not believe because they could not see Jesus with the eyes of faith. There comes a time when, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, Jesus reveals himself to us. He opens our eyes to see and places in our hearts his faith, which enables us to believe, if we will. He doesn’t force belief, but he enables and invites it.

In his epistle known as 1 John, the apostle tells his personal story of coming to belief. You will recall that John was the one who, when told that Jesus had risen, ran with Peter to the tomb. And then going inside and looking around, seeing that the tomb was empty, John believed. Interesting, isn’t it? Others seeing the empty tomb did not believe. Some people need one type of evidence, and some another.

Note what John says in 1 John 5:1: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well.” Then John says this (1 John 5:4-5):

4 Everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. 5 Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Faith is assurance given us by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Son of God—the risen Lord, the Messiah. John continues in 1 John 5:10:

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony. Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son.

By denying the truth concerning Jesus, we make God out to be a liar—we proclaim untrue what God says about Jesus Christ, his Son through the testimony of many witnesses. Concerning that testimony, and the results of belief, John, in 1 John 5:11-13, says this:

11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

As we believe, we receive eternal life and we know it. This assurance—this belief, this faith—is God’s gift to us by the Holy Spirit.

Through the indwelling Spirit we know we are God’s child, that we have been born of God and thus have eternal life as a present possession. This is our identity—our reality—who we really are. I think the apostles and the other disciples had to go through a painful transition, from shock and disappointment, to initial awareness, to deeply settled belief—knowing beyond doubt that Jesus was alive, and thus knowing who they were and what their life’s work would be.

It was not easy for them, at first, to recognize the risen Lord. Perhaps his appearance in his now-glorified human body was different. It certainly was different to see him appear and then disappear. Much about Jesus was, for them, entirely new, and now they had to struggle to see themselves in light of that revelation—to see themselves, in Christ, in this new way.

United by the Holy Spirit to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, we are not God—we have not existed eternally as God has, and we are not fused with God. However, we truly are God’s children, and that means we have new life, a life that is eternal and is a reflection of the glorified human person, Jesus Christ. We have been born again to a new life in Christ. Because that is the truth, there is something going on in our lives that is much deeper than we sometimes relalize as we walk through the ordinary days of our lives. Sometimes we fail to see, through eyes of faith, what is actually going on—we fail to see Jesus there with us; we fail to acknowledge his presence.

Dear ones, Jesus is alive!! We need the eyes of faith to believe that—and God gives us those eyes, that faith, through the onoging ministry of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, uniting us to Christ. We’ll not get to that place of assurance if we begin with the proposition that God is not real unless proven real. Start there and that’s where you’ll likely end up—looking to yourself, and without faith.

But if we begin by admitting our own inadequacy, looking beyond ourselves to Christ, to the testimony of eye-witnesses to the real presence of the risen Lord, then we will end up where they did, albeit with some doubt and struggle—the place of faith.

So to receive faith, we begin by looking beyond ourselves to Christ, and when we do, the gift of faith is given to us. “He who seeks,” says the Scripture, “will find.” “To him who knocks, it will be openened.” That’s Christ’s promise to us. Let us look to him. Let’s pray:

I’m grateful, God, that you are very generous in revealing yourself to us. It’s not because somehow we deserve it, or have earned it, or have been wise enough or smart enough or diligent enough or faithful enough to achieve it. We don’t get it right. But you love us enough that you show yourself to us anyway. And I thank you that through your Spirit we are given eyes of faith to see you, Lord Jesus Christ, as our Savior, our Lord, as the Son of God and Son of Man you are—the One who took our place, who lived the life we need to live, who died the death we deserve to die, who rose from the grave and lives as ascended Lord, and in whom we have eternal life. We thank you, God, that we are born of you and are your children. Thank you for sharing your life with us. We give you praise, glory and thanksgiving. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for May 7, 2017

Sermon for May 7, 2017 (fourth Sunday of Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

THE GOOD SHEPHERD (John 10:1-10)
By Martin Manuel


On YouTube at http://youtu.be/Coq_grSFlNs

Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter, traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Its theme is Jesus the Shepherd of God’s flock and the blessings of being his sheep. Our passage today in John 10 uses the metaphors of sheep, shepherds and sheep-raising to teach us about Jesus and his relationship with his followers. Here we find Jesus’ description of the only legitimate pastoral ministry of humans—one centered on and totally immersed in him, and extended by him to his followers.

Overview of shepherding and sheep

“Lost Sheep” by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with permission)

Jesus, in line with the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, used sheep and shepherds in his teaching to refer to the people of God and their leaders. In ancient Israel, sheep were the predominant domesticated animals and owners of flocks derived income from their meat and wool. Lambs played a major role in temple worship, though they were expensive enough that poor people generally could not afford a lamb for sacrifice.

Sheep and shepherds make enlightening metaphors because their characteristics and relationships differ from those of other domesticated animals and their owners. Goats and sheep are similar, but sheep must be attended to and cared for, while goats are independent and robust. Unattended sheep can get into all sorts of trouble, including succumbing to falls, snakebite, poisonous weeds or exposure. They are easy targets of predators, and because they are valuable, sheep-stealing was widespread.

Note to preacher: these comments about sheep do not apply to wild sheep, such as those in the Rocky Mountains. The biblical metaphors and thus what is said in this sermon about sheep pertain to domesticated sheep, which were familiar to the biblical audiences.

As we saw in the video, sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. Not only do individual sheep respond to their distinct names, the flock responds to the distant call of the shepherd. This call can summon the whole flock from amazing distances — as far as the ear can hear. The sheep respond by running toward the shepherd, letting out loud baaahs as they come. Sheep distinguish other voices from that of their shepherd, and either do not respond, or run away. Sheep dogs can help gather flocks, but the shepherd’s call has a greater effect. The shepherd’s staff continues to be used for care, protection and management of the sheep.

 Reasons for Jesus’ statements

To understand Jesus’ statements in John 10, we must look back at what preceded them. Note the closing verses of chapter 9: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him…” Jesus was speaking to Pharisees, who were Jewish religious leaders with authority over the synagogues, and generally opposed to Jesus. Because a previously blind man insisted that Jesus had healed him, he had been put out of his home synagogue.

Examining John 10:1-10

Speaking to some of these Pharisees, Jesus said this:

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. (John 10:1)

Here Jesus was challenging the legitimacy of the Jewish religious leaders and teachers. He likens them to thieves and robbers breaking into sheep enclosures to steal the sheep. Think of your neighborhood: if you noticed someone prying open your neighbor’s window to enter the house, you’d call the police—righful owners don’t enter that way.

In making this statement, perhaps Jesus was indicting that it was the Levitical priesthood that had legitimate authority in Israel, not the Pharisees or Sadducees—those who had only implied authority, sitting as they were in “Moses’ seat” (Matthew 23:1). In the earlier incident of the blind man in John 9:28-29, the Pharisees ignorantly challenged Jesus’ authority: “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” They thought they had a valid argument, but they were dead wrong.

But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. (John 10:2)

Jesus alludes here to a legitimate leadership and teaching authority, fulfilling the role of shepherd. A true shepherd would have no reason to use inappropriate tactics to lead and thus care for the sheep. The Hebrew and Greek words for “shepherd” mean to feed or tend. The idea is very different than that of boss, supervisor, or owner. Jesus deliberately chose this idea to convey his relationship with his followers. Though he truly is their rightful Lord, he interacts with them in a far more gentle, sensitive, and caring way than “Lord” might connote. The term pastor is derived from the Latin word for shepherd.

To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3)

Large flocks of sheep kept in pens enclosed by fences or walls usually had someone assigned to watch the gate. When the shepherd approached, the gate attendant opened. Not only did he recognize the shepherd, so did the sheep, who respond to the shepherd’s voice.

When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (John 10:4)

The shepherd calls and the sheep come—he leads them to the pasture by talking to them as he goes out in front. They have both his words and example to follow. Jesus was implying here that he is the recognized and thus legitimate shepherd. His followers, such as the healed blind man, understand that there is something different about him from others who lay claim to spiritual leadership. This fact is clear in John 9, where the previously-blind man said this:

Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. (John 9:30-33)

This man could see what the Pharisees were missing. And now in chapter 10, Jesus is explaining this ability possessed by all his followers: they recognize him, he leads them, they follow. Augustine used the term “prevenient grace” (meaning “grace that goes before”) to describe the activity of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit in the life of someone before their baptism, going ahead in preparation of the mind for a life of faith. This man heard the Shepherd’s call in the voice of Jesus through this “grace that goes before.”

A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:5)

From the time the blind man experienced God’s grace in Jesus, he was convinced to become a follower. He was not about to be swayed by the arguments of false shepherds. Whether or not we accept Augustine’s terminology, Jesus made plain the concept: as sheep know their master, his followers instinctively know the difference between imposters and their legitimate Shepherd.

This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. (John 10:6)

Jesus often used figures of speech such as metaphors. He did not intend that those who heard him should think literally that he was talking about the business of sheep raising. Humans have sheep-like characteristics, and their leaders are shepherd-like. This enlightening metaphor explained the difference between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders of that day. We can understand it in a similar way as we distinguish between Jesus and modern religious leaders.

Picture of sheep in modern-day Israel (by Shirin McArthur)

Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. (John 10:7)

In addition to his role as shepherd, Jesus also fulfilled the role of the door or gate to the sheepfold. This fact implies that others can be legitimate shepherds as long as they enter through the legitimate (and only) door. Jesus chose his apostles, training them to be the first in the line of legitimate shepherds who would serve the flock of God in, by and through their relationship with the great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus. These “under-shepherds” would possess the same characteristic as Jesus in relationship to the sheep, who would then recognize and follow them.

 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. (John 10:8)

Remember that Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees. In saying “before me,” Jesus is not including all the Old Testament leaders who had preceded him. More likely, he is referring to this group of his contemporaries, though, perhaps, he was referring to all who ever came without being sent by God and his word. The point is that legitimate shepherds always come through the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.

I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. (John 10:9)

Just as the only legitimate way to enter into ministry is through Jesus, the only way to salvation and everything that goes with it is in and through Jesus, who is our salvation. Not only do servant-shepherds need to enter through the door (Jesus), so do Jesus’ followers. Going in and out through him results in finding the blessings of good (life-giving) pasture. It is in this pasture that the sheep reside safely and have all they need for nourishment. In the metaphors of sheep, shepherds, and sheep-raising, pasture represents the spiritually safe feeding and resting place that Jesus’ followers have in him.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Thieves are not good people. Anyone who has had their home broken into knows this. The same is true for illegitimate shepherds. Their intent toward the sheep is anything but good. The serpent in the Garden of Eden did not have the interests of Adam and Eve at heart. He was there to take something away from them, tricking them into believing that through following his advice they would gain something they did not have.

Through this act of thievery, Satan succeeded in taking away the trustful life-giving relationship Adam and Eve had enjoyed with their Creator. The serpent got them to join his rebellion against God, and the result for humanity was death. Now comes Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to restore humanity not only to life, but to “abundant” life—a reference to eternal life, to life of the eternal kind.

It should be clear that Jesus holds the shepherds of the sheep—the leaders of ancient Israel, and now of the church—to a very high standard. Jesus would never expect his sheep to tolerate leaders who are not endorsed by him; leaders who do not lead the way Jesus leads his sheep. However, it is sometimes not clear who is and is not from Jesus. But this instruction from our Lord gives us helpful guidance. False shepherds “steal, kill and destroy” through selfish action that reflect an “I am in this for me” mentality. False shepherds are in it to enrich themselves. Jesus calls them thieves. In Matthew 7:15-20, Jesus calls them false prophets—wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Jesus, the true and great Shepherd and his faithful under-shepherds come not to take from the sheep, but to give—especially to give abundant life—life forever, life unlike anything presently known, life with our Creator in paradise, life experienced at the grand conclusion of transformation into the likeness of Jesus, perfect in character, full of love, joy, and peace, life shared in reunion with precious loved ones and friends. This is the life the true Shepherd, our Lord, is and brings.


Let’s consider a few things this text teaches us as followers of Jesus. First, not all that is religious is valid and genuine. Even in the worship of the true living God, as it was in first-century Judea, it matters that the leaders are centered in Jesus Christ and serving for the best interests of the people being served instead of themselves. Beware of religious pluralism, the idea of alternative approaches to God other than Jesus. These ideas may appeal to a person’s desire to be open to diverse opinions, but keep in mind that accepting diversity is good only as long as it is in Christ. Remember, Jesus says, “I am the door.”

So how do we discern whether something that professes to have come through Jesus is authentic? The answer is more than can be covered in this sermon, but the first principle is that it starts with Jesus and continues with those who, as he said, “enter by me.” The apostles were first to be trained and sent by Jesus, and they passed on their valid and genuine pastoral ministry through and in the church. In explaining how this applies to modern followers of Jesus, Thomas Torrance wrote this:

The Church continues to be Apostolic when, resting upon Apostolic foundation and determined by the unfolding of the Mind of Christ within the Apostolic tradition, i.e. the New Testament, it continues throughout history to conform to the Apostolic doctrine. In the most concrete sense this means a succession of obedience to the Holy Scriptures as the source and norm of the Church’s continued existence.

An apostolic church is not a group with new ideas and teachings. Its ideas and teachings stem from the apostles and have their continuance in the church’s orthodoxy through the centuries, which remains faithful to Scripture.

The second principle in identifying something that is genuine has to do with us, his followers. Jesus expects us to trust him, to respond to his words, and to follow where he leads. Our relationship with him is daily and ongoing, not just an occasional worship event. We “go in and out” through him and with him “find pasture.” We live in and with him, by the Spirit, in every aspect of life. At the same time, we studiously avoid counterfeit, substitute imposters—false spiritual leaders and religious activities that hold out promises Jesus has not made, using tactics Jesus never uses.

The third principle is that we always consider the outcome. Followers of Jesus experience his grace instead of empty and fruitless religion. The abundant life that Jesus gives, which is relevant to everyone, is experienced by his followers. It involves freedom—specifically freedom from:

  • guilt because in Christ, who took on our sins, we are forgiven
  • emptiness and loneliness because we are loved by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and share that divine love with brothers and sisters of the same faith
  • the destructive effects of sin because daily we are being transformed through the Holy Spirit
  • religiosity because everything we have and do is in Jesus, who perfectly worships God on our behalf as our substitute, perfecting our imperfections
  • fear because he gives us hope for a fabulous future, devoid of pain, sorrow, and death.


Good Shepherd Sunday is a vivid reminder to us that Jesus was, is and always will be the good Shepherd of God’s flock. He also is the door through which servant shepherds, or pastors, serve his sheep, the church. Trusting and following Jesus is the only way to a life that is joyfully full, utterly secure, and forever free. Following Jesus results in receiving from him what he refers to as “life abundant.”

Sermon for May 14, 2017

Sermon for May 14, 2017 (fifth Sunday of Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Pet. 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

SHARING IN GOD’S COMMUNITY (1 Peter 1:22-2:10)
(a sermon about church unity and participation)
By Ted Johnston


The Christians to whom Peter wrote were facing the likelihood of increased persecution from the Romans. Knowing this, Peter urged them to “hang in”—to hold on to the true source of their unity, namely their sharing together in God’s divine nature.

From all eternity, God—Father, Son and Spirit—is a tri-personal (triune) communion of love. In Jesus, who is the union of God and humankind in one person, all humanity has been reconciled to God—accepted by God, forgiven, granted relationship with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. And now the Spirit calls people to live into that relationship as members of the church, which is called to proclaim that reconciliation to the world.

In order to exhort Christians facing difficulties to remain united in this identity and calling, Peter offers four vivid pictures of the church brought together as 1) God’s family, 2) God’s building, 3) God’s temple and 4) God’s nation. Let’s hear and respond to this exhortation to share actively and together in God’s community on earth.

1. We are members of the same family (1:22–2:3)

Copyright GCI

Peter first notes that our unity as the church is grounded in the truth that we are part of God’s family, knit together by one love, one birth, and one source of nourishment:

a. One love

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart. (1 Peter 1:22)

“Obeying the truth” refers to our participation in the reconciliation with God that humanity has in Christ (see 1 Peter 1:18)—a participation that involves sharing Jesus’ love—here described using two Greek words: philadelphia (brotherly love) and agape, (sacrificial love). In our union with Jesus, we share in his love for all humanity, including one another. This love, shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), is the visible evidence that we are indeed God’s “obedient children” (1 John 4:7–21; 1 Pet. 1:14).

Our love is “sincere” because it is “from the heart”—our sharing in Jesus’ heart for others. It’s a love that is never self-serving. Moreover, it is fervent—we “love one another deeply” (literally, “with all our energy”). We show this love to others as we treat them the way God treats us: God forgives us, so we forgive them; God is kind to us, so we are kind to them. This love is not a mere feeling, but a matter of a will formed in and flowing from Christ himself. We are one family grounded in and expressive of Jesus’ own love.

b. One birth

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:23-25)

We are one family through the rebirth of humanity accomplished in Jesus 2,000 years ago. Now, one person at a time, the call to participate in that family relationship goes out through “the word that was preached” (the gospel). Through the ministry of the Spirit, people are awakened to the gift that is already theirs in Jesus through repentance (changing their understanding about their identity), and faith (trusting in Jesus).

This radical change in perspective engenders a “new and living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3) and an active sharing in the “divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Through this participation, a person becomes part of a family of believers bonded together by a force stronger than any other—stronger even than death, and surely stronger than any persecution or other external force.

c. One source of nourishment

Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3)

God’s family, the church, is united as it is nourished together by “pure spiritual milk”—God’s word, which comes to us in Scripture, through the Spirit, and the teaching of the church. This word, which is Jesus and his gospel, has life and gives life. Our responsibility as Christians is to cultivate an appetite for what is called here “pure spiritual milk” and elsewhere “strong meat” for the mature (1 Cor. 3:1–4; Heb. 5:11–14), “bread” (Matt. 4:4), and “sweet honey” (Psalm 119:103). This word is indeed very good; and it is vital! Let us ingest it and then share it!

As we are nourished in the word, we will “rid” ourselves of and “lay aside” wrong attitudes of heart that undermine the unity of the church. Such harmful attitudes include malice, a reference to wickedness in general, and deceit, a reference to devious words and actions to get our own way. Such attitudes tend toward hypocrisy as we try to cover them up and often cause division in the church as an expression of envy that can result in slander—conversation that tears others down.

If these attitudes and actions are in our lives, we lose an appetite for God’s word. If we stop feeding on his word, we stop growing, and we stop enjoying (tasting) the grace that we find in Jesus. But when we are being nourished by the word, we grow as peacemakers who promote the unity of the church.

2. We are stones in the same building

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message–which is also what they were destined for. (1 Peter 2:4-8)

Here Peter notes that there is only one foundation of the church—the one “living stone” or “cornerstone”—Jesus. He builds us into one spiritual building, namely the church. Whether we agree with each other or not, whether we get along or not, the truth is that in Jesus, we belong to each other as “living stones” that he uses to build up God’s building.

Jesus is the ultimate living stone because, in him, all humanity is raised from the dead and ascended with him in victory. He is also the chosen, supremely precious stone of the Father. Peter here quotes Isaiah 28:16 and Psalm 118:22, noting that Jesus, though chosen by God, was rejected by humans. He was not the Messiah they were expecting, so they stumbled and fell over him. Jesus referred to this same Scripture when he debated Jewish leaders (Matt. 21:42ff; and see Psalm 118:22). People today still stumble over Jesus and his gospel (1 Cor. 1:18ff), but those who respond in trust and belief “will never be put to shame.”

Jesus compared his church to a building: “I will build my church” he said (Matt. 16:18). His disciples are living stones in that building, no matter where they reside (and remember that Peter was writing to Christians scattered across Asia Minor). Each time a person repents, believes and takes up their cross to follow Jesus as his disciple, the Spirit places them as a living stone into this building, the church. They are gifted and cemented there by grace.

It sometimes looks to us that the church on earth is a pile of rubble and ruins, but God sees the total structure as it grows (Eph. 2:19–22) and he sees ONE structure, one building, though it has many local expressions. What a privilege it is to be a part of this one church! Let’s strive to express the unity it has been given as God’s building built on the one cornerstone of Jesus Christ.

3. We are priests in the same temple

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:5, 9)

Next Peter notes that all in this building are part of a “holy” and “royal priesthood.” Why? Because we are all included in Christ, the one High Priest of God (Hebrews 7). In the Old Testament period, God’s people had a priesthood; but today, God’s people are a priesthood. United to Christ, each believer is seated with Christ in God’s presence (Heb. 10:19–25; 1 Tim. 2:1–8), with the privilege of joining with their Lord in his ministry of intercession. As co-ministers with Jesus, Christians are called and gifted to work together in his service. This service as priests is a fundamental part of what constitutes our unity-in-diversity within the church.

As priests with Jesus, we do not bring animal sacrifices as did Old Testament priests. Rather, we bring “spiritual sacrifices.” These include our bodies (Rom. 12:1–2), the praise of our lips (Heb. 13:15) and good works done in service to others (Heb. 13:16). We also present our money and other material goods (Phil. 4:10–20). And we also bring the people who turn to God as a result of our ministry (Rom. 15:16). What a privilege!

The fact that each of us is invited by God to offer spiritual sacrifices to him should not be taken as encouragement to selfish “individualism.” We are priests not separately, but together, serving together with the one High Priest, ministering in the one spiritual temple.

4. We are citizens of the same nation

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Peter’s description of the church here parallels the description of Israel in Exodus 19:5–6 and Deuteronomy 7:6. In contrast to the disobedient and rebellious nation of Israel, God’s people today are his chosen and holy nation. The church formed by the new covenant is now in the world what Israel was meant to be—God’s representative to declare to the whole world who God is and what he has done. The church has this role in three ways:

First, the church is a people belonging to God. This speaks to the grace of God in Jesus. God did not choose Israel because they were a great people, but because he loved them (Deut. 7:7–8). Now God’s choosing has broadened to all humanity in the person of Jesus, the God-man, purely on the basis of God’s love and grace. This election of all humanity in Jesus is being played out in the church, Jesus’ chosen instrument to proclaim this grace to the world: “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

Second, the church is a holy nation. It is set apart to participate actively in God’s holiness—his triune love and life. Our citizenship is with God in this divine relationship—this is where we have our allegiance (Phil. 3:20) and our true home. Israel forgot what God had made the nation and had called it to be, and so lost its place as the representative of God on earth to all humanity. Now this role belongs to the church—God’s nation sent to the whole world with the message of God’s grace in Jesus.

Third, the church is the people of God. The human race, because of sin, was cut off from God, but now in the person of Jesus, all humanity has been brought back (reconciled) to God. The church, God’s representative nation on earth, is sent to tell the world the good news of the home they now have with God.

With each of these three aspects of the church’s identity comes the responsibility to declare to all people the good news of what Jesus has done. We are to “declare the praises” (or “the mighty acts” NRSV) of God—his amazing grace extended to a world he already has reconciled to himself in his Son, yet one that continues to walk in substantial darkness because of ignorance of that reconciliation. We are called as God’s ambassadors to make known this grace, this “marvelous light” in Jesus. Our lives should radiate that light, and our mouths proclaim it, as together, we are a light “set on a hill” for all to see, a clarion call for all to hear.


As God’s family, building, temple and nation, we are one in Christ—he is our source of unity. This unity does not eliminate our God-given diversity. Not all children in the family of God are alike, nor are all the stones in his building identical. In fact, it is diversity that gives beauty and richness to the family and the building. Christians can and do differ, yet all who cherish the “one faith” of the church and who seek to honor the “one Lord” can love each other and walk together (Eph. 4:1–6) despite differences. God may call us into different ministries, or to use different methods, but we can still love each other and seek to present a united witness of God’s grace in Jesus to the world.

We face many challenges that threaten our God-ordained unity. Enemies of the grace of God abound, and chief among them is Satan. He seeks to silence our demonstration and proclamation of the gospel by seeking to persecute or otherwise nullify the church’s unity and thus its effectiveness. Let’s not fall prey to his tactics. Let us be the one church our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has made us to be.

Sermon for May 21, 2017

Sermon for May 21 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
Scripture readings:
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Pet. 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

By Martin Manuel


On the night before Jesus died, some 40 days before ascending to heaven, our Lord’s apostles were confronted with a troubling question: What would they do after Jesus was gone?

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Danedi (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

That night in the Upper Room, Jesus shared what was for his followers very distressing news—perhaps the worst of their lives. Jesus, their hero, leader and inspiration—their teacher, Messiah and Savior would be leaving. What would these disciples, who had left their homes, families and vocations to follow Jesus, do after his departure? Jesus had turned their lives around completely—giving them peace and joy; giving their lives purpose and value; giving them the hope of the resurrection and life everlasting. How could they possibly go forward without him?

That night Jesus answered that question. He promised that they would not be abandoned—that he would send them help to proceed forward—all the help they would need. Though they did not fully grasp what Jesus was promising until later, that night they learned that the first step forward for them into an uncertain future was to heed Jesus’ admonition to trust God and love one another. They also learned that Jesus would give them the help they would need, and that help would be the Holy Spirit who Jesus would send to fill the gap left by his absence.

Today, on this the sixth Sunday of Easter, as we approach our observance of Jesus’ ascension, these admonitions and assurances of Jesus apply to us as well. We have not been abandoned!

Words of encouragement

The disciples were deeply distressed upon hearing from Jesus that he would no longer be with them, as he had been for the past three years or more. Had we lived through that experience we, too, would probably feel the same way. In entering their lives as their Rabbi, Jesus had fulfilled their hopes and dreams for the Messiah’s arrival. The Deliverer was here! To them, that meant that freedom from Roman tyranny was right around the corner.

Not only had Jesus given them this great anticipation of a better future, he had meant everything to them. He was their advocate, their source of comfort; he was always beside them, helping them, no matter what they encountered. Whether in a furious storm at sea, or intimidated by the aggressive insults of Jewish leaders, they could always rely on Jesus for the help and guidance needed to get through life safely and peaceably.

To them, it had been worth it to leave their former lives to follow him. That night in Jerusalem, in the Upper Room, they were not expecting Jesus to inform them that his time with them was about up. He would soon be leaving them to return to the Father.

Jesus, of course, understood their consternation and fears. He realized they needed assurance that their sacrifices in following him thus far had not been wasted, and their hopes and dreams would not go unfulfilled. So Jesus spoke words of encouragement—assurance concerning their futures, and reassurance of his intentions to bring that future to pass.

Jesus explained that for that future to be fulfilled, he must leave them. But that explanation only magnified their concerns and fears.

“If you love me, keep my commands.”

Jesus responded to their fears and objections by helping them look into the future, and their part in it:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15-21)

“If, you love me,” says Jesus. Why the “if”—hadn’t these disciples proven their love for Jesus? Why now bring that into question? Jesus was using their unsettledness as a “teachable moment.” It was as if he was saying to them, “Capture this passionate love that you are feeling and expressing toward me, and let it always motivate you to observe carefully all that I will tell you to do.” Their motivation was the key issue here because Jesus was challenging them at a very high level—going forward, they must keep his commands.

Already he had shared his first, most basic command: “Trust in God; trust also in me” (John 14:1), and he had already made plain what was contained in the phrase “my commands.” After washing their feet, Jesus had said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

Jesus’ enigmatic statement “If you love me” was thus a firm reminder of what he had already commanded. These commands would, in some ways, serve as the standard in the minds of the apostles concerning what Jesus meant by love. They knew they loved Jesus, and they knew Jesus loved them. They could relate to the power and warmth of this love relationship. Thus they already had a mental picture of what such love looks like.

“Another advocate”

Jesus continued:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

Pulling out all stops to ease the tension, Jesus promised to send the disciples a replacement for his role as their “advocate,” meaning guide and counselor—their fearless leader. He understood the disciples’ concern and their need—they needed him to continue to be with them, to never abandon them. So he promised to ask the Father to send them another advocate. This advocate would be no less to them than Jesus had been. Jesus called this advocate “the Spirit of truth.”

Although the disciples were familiar with teachings about the Holy Spirit, this phrase introduced to them a new concept. “Spirit of truth” appears here in John’s Gospel for the first time and is used several times later in that Gospel by Jesus as this conversation continued. Although they had heard Jesus speak about the Spirit before, this was different because of the addition of the word “truth.” It pointed back to the same word “truth” Jesus had just used about himself, where in v. 6, he said “I am the way and the truth and the life.”

By saying, “Spirit of truth,” Jesus thus equated this advocate to himself. However, he distinguished between himself and this advocate by calling him “Spirit of truth.” Jesus was not a “spirit,” and so he adds that the world could not see or know this Spirit, although he promised his disciples that they would come to know him.

Jesus continues:

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:8)

That statement must have both comforted and confused. Unlike readers of John’s Gospel today, the disciples had no precedent for comparison. He is leaving, but will not leave. Heads must have been spinning. To us, with the New Testament available to explain, we realize what this means: after he left, Jesus would come to be with them but in a different way; this new way of being with them through the Spirit of truth would satisfy their need for Jesus’ presence.

Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. (John 14:9)

As was often the case with Jesus, his words were profound yet cryptic. Later, he was asked and did clarify this statement, but he continued here without leaving an opening for interruption. The disciples did not understand that evening what this statement meant, but after Jesus’ resurrection and post-resurrection appearances they began to understand.

In this sermon, we won’t dwell on the effect of Jesus’ resurrection on his followers. Instead, we’ll consider this immediate lesson—our need for the presence of Jesus.

Later in the conversation, Jesus says this;

 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:20)

Jesus knew that full understanding would come only later. Following his ascension and his sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, their understanding would grow concerning the astounding, startling, and marvelous truth of the reality of the communion of the Father, Son and Spirit, and the implications of that triune communion and their inclusion in it through Jesus, their Lord and Savior. Even after the dramatic events on Pentecost, they did not fully grasp all this, though their understanding, like ours today, continued to grow.

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)

Reminding them of his opening words in this passage, Jesus here restates the correlation between loving him and obedience to his commands. Jesus is not saying that obedience is a condition of his love. The Father, just like Jesus, already loves humanity (remember John 3:16!). What Jesus is referring to here is the reciprocal love of his followers—their love in response to the love already shown them by Jesus, the Father and the Spirit. To those who accept and respond to that love, an intimate, reciprocal relationship of love, somewhat like that between parent and child, exists, and the result is that Jesus’ presence is experienced by those who are participating in that relationship.

What about us?

So, what are we to do? What do we do as individuals when we feel alone? What are we to do as a church community when we know we need the leadership of Jesus, but feel alone? What are we to do when we feel abandoned in a world that is often hostile to all we believe and embrace?

Jesus has answered these questions. His exhortation is to trust in the unbreakable promises and commitments of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and to hold tight to the communion of love into which the triune God has placed us in and through Jesus and by the Spirit. Instead of withdrawing into lonely isolation, Jesus tells us to trust him—to be assured of his presence, and to hold on to love.

It is easy to preach this message, but it’s not so easy to live it! Thankfully, Jesus has taken care of that too. Jesus, with the Father, sends us the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth, to help us. Living in us individually and collectively, the Spirit is with us and in us always, serving as our Advocate. He is as much the truth as is Jesus and the Father, and he promises to always be at work in our lives personally and communally, leading us into the truth, the way and the life that Jesus is.

We are not to look at the Holy Spirit as something to add spark and interest to our meetings for our enjoyment. In the way Jesus led his first disciples, so the Spirit now leads us—purposefully, yet gently. Like Jesus, the Spirit does not force us, but he is persistent!

Prayer is an important factor in following the Spirit’s leadership in our lives. Indeed, in all good relationships there is communication. Prayer to the Father in Jesus’ name is helped by the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, we experience intimacy with the One who has not left us alone. Also, in prayer, we experience his guidance according to the will of God revealed to us by the Spirit in the written word of God, the Bible. In those words we are reminded of Jesus’ commands to trust (have faith) and to love. Last, but certainly not least, we experience the love of the Father and the Son through the indwelling of the Spirit who fills us with Jesus’ love, peace and joy, along with his perseverance and courage. The Spirit, our Advocate, knows what we need, and he provides.


Though upset at the time, the apostles remembered Jesus’ words to them that night in the Upper Room. After Jesus’ death, as our Lord had commanded, they waited patiently. They continued, though imperfectly, to trust him to lead them in taking the next big step into what surely seemed an uncertain future.

After they were sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the disciples continued to stick together in love for Christ and for each other, as they responded to the Spirit’s lead in all aspects of their lives and mission. Consequently, they rarely, if ever, gave in to the temptation to think of themselves as being alone. Instead, realizing that Jesus was present with them through the Holy Spirit, they pursued their calling and mission boldly. Today, we have Jesus’ words to remind us, and the apostles’ example to encourage us to go and do likewise.