GCI Equipper

From Greg: LEAD-P (priorities for pastors)

Dear pastors and ministry leaders:

One of the most frustrating things in any job is not having clear job expectations. I experienced that frustration during 15 years serving as a lead pastor—at times it felt like a 24/7 job that was not only a bit unclear, but never finished. Do I hear an “amen” echoing from the Atlantic to the Pacific?

In Church Administration and Development (CAD), we work to provide pastors with clear ministry expectations, then equip them to meet them. With those goals in mind, this issue of Equipper addresses the renewal of the pastoral priorities that are essential in our work as under-shepherds in the ministry of the great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

“The Good Shepherd” by Greg Olsen
(used with permission)

LEAD-P pastoral priorities

What are a pastor’s main responsibilities and thus what should be their principal priorities? That’s a question we seek to help pastors answer as they begin their ministry. One of the ways we do so is to include them in our New Pastors Orientation Conference held once every two years. At the most recent conference, CAD team member Ted Johnston shared five priorities for pastors. Because these apply to primary pastoral leaders (and also to ministry leaders), I want to share them with you here. To help us remember them, I’ll present the priorities using the acronym LEAD–P.

L: leadership

Pastors are called and appointed to lead—a role that’s largely about participating with Jesus in what he is doing to “equip his people for works of service” (Eph. 4:12) and then deploy them to join Jesus in the ministry he is doing, by the Spirit and through his church, to fulfill the Father’s mission to the world. Being effective in this leadership calling requires not only IQ, but EQ and PQ as well. What are these? Read Randy Bloom’s article in this issue, The priority of leadership: growing a strong leader CORE.

Used with permission, Leadership Journal cartoons.

I greatly admire the humility our pastors exhibit (men and women with a foot-washing attitude!). However, it’s important that they stay focused on their calling to lead. That means not taking on the role of deacons who were appointed by the apostles in Acts 6:3-4 to care for the needy so the leaders could focus on prayer and the ministry of the word (preaching). To accomplish these tasks well, pastors must be men and women of prayer and careful students of Scripture. Concerning both, I recommend Clarifying Our Theological Vision, the series by Gary Deddo (click here for part 2). I pray that this series enhances your theological renewal, bringing, in turn, renewed clarity and passion to all aspects of your pastoral ministry, including your preaching (the fifth pastoral priority, addressed below).

E: evangelism-outreach

The second priority for lead pastors is be sure the gospel is being proclaimed in word and deed—both within and outside the congregation. That doesn’t mean the pastor is the “lone evangelist,” or that he or she is the only one involved in community outreach. Instead, the pastor’s role is to model relational evangelism and then organize the congregation to ensure that relational evangelism (through meaningful outreach) is a key part of the congregation’s regular rhythms.

The best scriptural description of relational evangelism is found in 1 Peter 3:15, where the bold, impetuous apostle Peter gave this instruction:

In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Wow, what stellar advice! Let’s break it down:

  • Attend to your daily walk with Jesus as you go about making more disciples.
  • Be prepared to give an answer as to who Christ is, and how Christ impacts you personally.
  • Give this answer to those who ask. This implies ongoing relationships with people who will want to know about your faith. Where does the love, joy, peace, etc. come from that is displayed in your life?
  • Present your testimony concerning the difference Christ makes in your life in respectful, caring ways. Evangelism is about winning people, not about winning arguments.

For more about evangelism and outreach, click herehere and here.

A: administration

Contrary to what some think, administration is not a curse word! Granted, it’s not as “sexy” as the other priorities, but it’s equally important. Making schedules, conducting meetings, filling out reports, providing job descriptions for ministry staff (volunteer or paid), communicating through newsletters and other means, budgeting and basically being well-organized—these all may feel like the business side of ministry, but without prayerful thinking, careful planning and smooth execution, other aspects of ministry unravel. Several parts of administration can be delegated to others on the leadership team, but they must not be left undone. The lead pastor has ultimate responsibility.

For a helpful Ministry article on pastors as administrators, click here.

D: discipleship

The spiritual formation of members (old and new) must always be a top priority for pastors. The lead pastor is responsible to see that environments are provided to facilitate the growth of the flock in the grace and knowledge of Jesus. Though these growth-enhancing environments include the weekly worship service, more is needed if people are going to be well discipled. So ask yourself, what happens with the church between our Sunday worship services? Are other discipling venues available?—things like small groups, discipleship classes and Bible study tools. Are the members, their families and friends being given opportunities to have their lives knit together—fellowship meals, mission trips, etc. Remember, discipleship is a life-on-life endeavor.

For more about the priority of discipleship, click here and here.

P: preaching

Notice that the priority here is preaching rather than teaching. Though teaching has its place (delivered largely through Bible studies, discipleship classes and the like), preaching is different—it involves the inspired proclamation of the good news week in and week out in the sermon.

When the Bible speaks about preaching it’s referring to heralding the gospel. The message preached is primarily for conversion and conviction, whereas the message taught is primarily for exhorting and explaining, with an eye toward building Christians in the faith (discipleship). Can we all agree that we need to hear the gospel preached passionately every week? Let’s never bore people with the good news.

Note Paul’s exhortation concerning the priority of preaching:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:2)

To equip our pastors (and other preachers) to fulfill this priority, we provide resources (including sermons) to help preachers track with the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). For details, see Ted Johnston’s article in this issue, The priority of preaching: using the RCL.


As an international mosiac of churches knit together by the grace of God, GCI continues in a season of renewal. That renewal includes gaining greater clarity and thus alignment concerning our theology, doctrine and practice. All three must be fully Christ-centered and thus coordinated. One area where we seek that alignment has to do with our pastoral leaders being aligned with the priorities outlined in this letter and unpacked in this issue of Equipper.

We believe that the outgrowth of a lead pastor’s alignment with LEAD-P priorities will be a healthy church, no matter its shape or sizeBut a word of caution is in order here as we set our sights on living out these priorities: though the Bible tells us that we’re in a race, our race is a marathon, not a sprint. Pastors must be prepared for the long-haul.

Pastor, all of us on the CAD team pray for you and your congregation. Our continued focus and commitment is to pass along to you, and to the other leaders in your congregation, useful tools and other forms of support that make your work more joy-filled and productive. We are proud of you, and feel immensely privileged to run the race with you.

Easter-season blessings to you all,
Dr. Greg Williams
GCI Vice President and CAD Director

PS: I’m looking forward to seeing all of you in August at our Denominational Conference in Orlando, FL. If you’re not registered yet, please do so soon. For conference information and registration, click here.

The priority of leadership: growing a strong leader CORE

This article is from GCI-USA Regional Pastor Randy Bloom.

A current big push in exercise has to do with strengthening the body’s “core.” Doing so is viewed as essential to overall strength and health. As I’ll explain in this article, when it comes to strength and health in a church, it’s vital that pastoral leaders grow a strong leader CORE.

Leader development is a vital part of our calling as pastors to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12 ESV). CAD’s consultant, Tom Nebel, has been helping us grow our team’s leader CORE so that we, in turn, can help other leaders do likewise. In his leader development training, Tom often refers to the leader CORE diagram shown below. It has three key aspects: IQ, EQ and PQ. Let’s look at each one.

Used with GIANT WORLDWIDE permission (the diagram is based on one in the book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” by Bradberry and Greaves)


The first aspect of the leader CORE is the leader’s IQ. This involves the leader’s storehouse of knowledge and information along with the skills they have acquired (note that IQ, in this case, should not be confused with how “smart” the person is). With education, training, experience and credentialing, leaders develop this IQ in ways that others will take note of.


To be an effective pastoral leader within our current cultural context, much more than IQ is needed. Leaders also need EQ—the capacity for connectivity, which means an ability to be fully present with people in various social contexts (one-on-one, and in groups). EQ is about connecting relationally with the people we have contact with.


The third aspect of the leader CORE is PQ—the leader’s unique personality. This is the way they are “wired.” Knowing our PQ helps us answer several important questions: What is it like to be on the other side of me? Do I communicate well? Can others communicate with me? PQ helps us understand the impact our personality has on our interactions with other people.

Growing your CORE

Together, IQ (knowledge/information and skills), EQ (connectivity) and PQ (wiring) form the leader’s CORE. I think most of us are well-acquainted with IQ—in GCI we place value acquiring information and skills. We love to attend conferences, workshops and classes! But information is not enough when it comes to having a strong leader CORE. Because most anyone can gather information via the internet, pastoral leaders are no longer looked to as exclusive repositories of the knowledge people seek. Also, information, of itself, informs, but does not transform. Effective, healthy, transformational leaders not only know a lot and are skilled in many areas (IQ), they understand themselves (PQ), and are good at interacting with others (EQ)—particularly with those they have the greatest opportunity to influence (other leaders and members in the congregations they lead).

Perhaps some of you reading this are thinking, But I’m not a pastor! Or, I’m not a leader! But no matter how you view yourself, you do influence people around you. None of us lives in a vacuum—we all are connected, in Christ, with others around us. We impact them, whether we realize it or not, or intend to or not.

Growing a strong leader CORE—developing our intellectual (IQ), emotional (EQ) and personal (PQ) capacities—enables us to have a far more positive influence with our families, friends and the communities where we live. And isn’t that what we’ve been created and called to do—to witness to all humanity (in word and deed) concerning God’s grace and love; and to participate in unique, marvelous ways in the transformational work the Holy Spirit is doing in the lives of people around us?

Those of us on the CAD team are here to help you grow in Christ as the pastoral leaders he has called you to be. In future issues of Equipper we will share resources that can help us all grow a strong CORE as Christ-like leaders.

The priority of preaching: using the RCL

In the article below, GCI-USA Publications Editor Ted Johnston suggests ways to use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), including RCL-based sermons provided each month here in “Equipper.”

In one of his GCI Weekly Update articles on The Church and its Ministry, Gary Deddo says this about preaching:

The focus of preaching is to identify and remind ourselves of the nature and character of God as revealed in Jesus. The content of preaching will be Scripture as it points us to our Triune God and our life in him. Such preaching is not primarily about conveying information (as is the case with teaching). Preaching aims to strengthen and encourage in the hearers a response of faith, hope and love on the basis of who our Triune God has revealed himself to be: our Lord and Savior.

Note that Scripture should be the primary content of the message preached. A good way to ensure that this happens is to structure your preaching using the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). To help you do that, we publish each month here in Equipper four or five sermons that sync with the RCL. Here is some related information that we hope will both encourage you to use these sermons and assist you in doing so.

Leadership Journal cartoon, used with permission.

Seven benefits of using the RCL

  1. For each Sunday of the year, and for all special worship days in the Christian calendar that don’t fall on a Sunday, the RCL provides a list of Scripture passages to be read aloud in the worship service. Over three years, these lists take the congregation through the grand sweep of the Bible, thus exposing members to the “whole counsel of God.” Reading these passages aloud each week in the worship service is powerful (particularly when read well—choose your Scripture readers carefully!). There are multiple ways to integrate the reading of these Scriptures into the service, but, most often, you’ll want to have them read prior to the sermon, which will then expound on one or more of the passages read. Some congregations interject the readings between songs. Others do the readings in a stand-alone block. In others, the passage(s) being expounded on in the sermon are read by the preacher. There are multiple ways to handle these readings—choose one that fits your worship style and framework.
  2. The sermons we publish in Equipper are expository sermons, meaning that they expound on one or more of the RCL-specified passages of Scripture read that week. Some of these sermons unpack just one passage, others reference more than one. Since the congregation will have heard the passages read prior to the sermon, the preacher has the advantage of being able to reference back to the readings, thus transitioning smoothly from readings to sermon, keeping the focus on the Word of God.
  3. Though expository, a sermon is not a Bible study. Sermons should focus on the passage in a way that seeks transformation, not just information. In some cases, the goal will be inspiration, in others exhortation, but the goal is always to preach with passion and conviction. For that to happen, the Word of God must first get into the preacher! In that regard, one of the advantages of preaching the RCL is that you’ll know well in advance which passage(s) you’ll be preaching from, and that will give ample time to meditate on and pray about the passage(s), thus fueling your passion and imagination as the preacher.
  4. Most of the sermons we publish in Equipper provide more material than you’ll typically use in your sermon. We do this to provide background information to benefit the preacher’s preparation. So preachers, pare down the material to fit your time frame (length of sermons vary from place to place, culture to culture, but the trend is toward shorter sermons). In paring it down, remember that you don’t have to cover the entire passage that was read in the Scripture reading. Nor do you need to re-read what already was read—you can just comment (expound).
  5. Using the RCL has the advantage of giving you a preaching plan that stretches into the future. You’ll find the readings for the years ahead at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/. Note that the lections sync with the Western-Christian liturgical calendar.
  6. With this preaching plan in place, you can recruit a team of preachers (if that works for your congregation), with each team member knowing the passages that will be read the week they are preaching, and thus what passage(s) their sermon will address. They can utilize the sermons published in Equipper—we try to stay a full month ahead so preachers have ample time to prepare. For the benefits of having a preaching-teaching team, click here.
  7. Note also that having the preaching plan in advance helps other members of the worship team—worship leader, musicians, vocalists, Scripture readers, folks producing the bulletin, etc. It also can inform those who are teaching discipleship classes and Bible studies the same week—there is power in tying these pieces together with a common Scriptural focus.
Leadership Journal cartoon, used with permission.

Steps in using GCI’s RCL-based sermons

  1. Read the passages assigned for the week several times (preferably in multiple translations). Prayerfully bathe yourself in the Word, seeking to understand what these passages are saying—look for commonalities.
  2. Now read the relevant sermon published in Equipper, seeking to understand what the text it focuses on means. This is the exegetical step, and if you have time, you can also read commentaries on the passage(s). Note that the sermons provided in Equipper conform to GCI doctrine and incarnational Trinitarian theology. As you read, look for the following:
    • The Christ-centered (gospel) meaning (faith context)—concerning this issue, click here for a related Surprising God blog post.
    • The meaning of the text within the flow of the whole book (biblical context)
    • The meaning of the text to the original audience (historical-cultural context)
    • The meaning of the text in its literary setting (grammatical context)
    • The meaning of the text in light of our contemporary situation (application)
  3. Now determine what part of the sermon provided you want to cover in your sermon—you may want to pare it down or cover it all.
  4. A good sermon has a balance of the following parts:
    • A presentation of what the text says (thankfully, this is covered already by the Scripture reading).
    • An explanation of what the text means (be accurate, but careful not to turn it into a Bible study—a sermon seeks to deliver the true meaning with power, inspiration and dynamism; don’t get bogged down).
    • Application of the text to the audience. This is vital, for we preach not for mere information, but for life transformation. In the sermons we publish here in Equipper we sometimes provide applications, but usually not—this is where you must know your audience and relate the text directly to their life situation, but note what you’re relating is the text that has been read, not something else.

Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 2

Here is part 2 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.

Union with Christ, Christ’s vicarious humanity and the holy Spirit’s ministry

By Dr. Gary Deddo

This article fills out what we covered in part 1 concerning union with Christ and the vicarious humanity of Christ. It then looks at the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the related topic of the biblical distinction between believers and non-believers. These topics are of great importance to GCI’s understanding of incarnational Trinitarian theology.

“Take My Hand” by Greg Olsen (used with permission)

Union with Christ

As we noted last time, the New Testament uses union with Christ to refer exclusively to the relationship the Triune God has with believers. In GCI, we want to stick with that biblical usage, avoiding statements that imply that union with Christ pertains to non-believers. At times, we made that mistake, referring, for example, to the journey from non-believer, to new believer, to mature believer as progressing from union to communion with God. We also mistakenly said that all are in union but not all are in communion. Both statements are problematic for several reasons:

  1. The New Testament correlates union and communion so closely that they can be used interchangeably to refer to the same relationship. Although they can, and ought to be distinguished, they can never be separated.
  2. Though the New Testament declares that God loves all and is reconciled to all, it does not speak of all people as being in union with God in that particular way. The New Testament consistently uses union with Christ to speak exclusively of the relationship that believers have with God.
  3. The New Testament declares that, through his post-ascension ministry, the Holy Spirit frees and enables people to receive God’s gifts of repentance and faith (belief) and so to become believers. By the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, those who are believing begin to share (participate) in all that Christ has accomplished for all humanity, including his ongoing intercession for us so that we might share in the perfect responses he makes for us, in our place and on our behalf. The Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry is personal and relational, not mechanical or impersonal. It is not a causal fact, nor a general universal principle that is abstractly effective upon all equally. The Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ, incorporating them into the body of Christ (the church) for personal, relational participation (sharing) in the life of Christ.
Not a universal union

The mistakes we made in using the term union with Christ largely resulted from not realizing the potential for confusion when following the writings of some Trinitarian theologian-authors who refer to the Incarnation as creating, through Jesus’ vicarious humanity, a universal union of God with humanity in Christ (universal in the sense that it includes believers and non-believers). In their way of stating it, this universal union came about through what happened when the Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed human nature. They thus equate union with Christ with the uniting of human nature with God via the hypostatic union.

Unfortunately, this confusion of terms leaves the false impression that the Incarnation itself resulted in all persons having an identical relationship with God—one more or less automatic and causal (and thus objective, in that sense). But that is not what the New Testament teaches in using the term union with Christ, and it is not what GCI believes and seeks to teach.

Union with Christ (and related terms such as in Christ or in the Lord) as used in the New Testament, indicates a depth of relationship that, by the Holy Spirit, is reciprocal and interactive—a personal relationship possible for us individually only on the basis of the objective work of Christ who sanctified, personalized and brought into right, subjective, responsive relationship the recalcitrant human nature that he assumed, via the Incarnation, to himself.

The distinction between believers and non-believers

Misunderstanding union with Christ, some wrongly conclude that there is little, if any, difference between a believer and a non-believer, or at least that whatever we say of a believer should also be said of a non-believer (in the same way). For example, some conclude that all people automatically are united to Christ in the same way. But the New Testament consistently differentiates between those participating in (receiving, responding to, sharing in) the love and life of Christ (the New Testament calls them believers), and those who are not-yet participating (we call them non-believers, though we might appropriately refer to them as not-yet believers).

The erroneous conclusion that both believers and non-believers are in union with Christ results largely from not taking into account that the hypostatic union, which has to do with the union of divinity and humanity (two natures) in the one Person of Jesus, is not equivalent to or identical with, or does not automatically result in, the spiritual union brought about by the Person and work of the Holy Spirit (who ministers on the basis of the Person and work of God in Christ).

In all cases where the New Testament refers to union with Christ (and equivalent phrases) it is referring to this spiritual union, not to the hypostatic union. For our teaching and preaching to align with the Scriptural usage, it’s best we limit our use of union with Christ to refer to the spiritual union—the relationship between God and believers by the post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we must lead with and thus emphasize that non-believers are not yet united to Christ in the same way believers are. It also doesn’t mean we must try to figure out who is and who isn’t united to Christ, or determine where, on some kind of continuum, each person stands with God. These are not the reasons to hold to the distinction the New Testament makes between believers and non-believers. These would, in fact, be misuses of that distinction. Any distinctions we make must be made for the same reasons the New Testament makes them. Otherwise we fall into another error—an arbitrary, impersonal legalism.

The New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers for the purpose of holding out hope to those who are not yet participating, to warn those who are persistently resisting participation, to encourage those who have been participating to keep on, and to highlight all the benefits of participating as fully as the grace of God enables—benefits to oneself and to others, both believers and non-believers. Even more so, making this distinction gives God the glory for enabling us, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, to enter into a personal, dynamic, responsive and loving communion with him in a relationship of worship.

Our message and emphasis should always begin with and continue to emphasize who God in Christ is, and what he has done for all—what theologian JB Torrance calls the “unconditional indicatives of grace.” Building on that foundation, we can then spell out, as does the New Testament, the “unconditional obligations of grace.” Our message is thus Christ-centered and grace-based, not human experience-centered and law-based.

The vicarious humanity of Christ

Let’s now shift a bit to consider again the topic of the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is related to the hypostatic union but focuses on the essential purpose of Christ’s assumption of our human nature. Together, these truths tell us that Jesus, being fully God and fully human (the divine and human natures being united in the hypostatic union), is in his humanity (human nature joined to his Person) our representative and substitute—the one who, in his humanity, stands in for us. He acts in our place and on our behalf as one of us.

“He Wept Over It” by Simonet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

What Jesus did (and still does) in his humanity, he did (and does) for us, in our place and on our behalf as one of us. Jesus was baptized for us, overcame temptation, prayed, obeyed and suffered for us. He died for us, rose from death, and ascended to heaven for us—clothed, as it were, in our humanity. That is what Jesus’ vicarious humanity is all about. It’s a powerful, consequential truth—the gospel in a nutshell. However, it does not tell us everything about our salvation and our relationship with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. There is more to the story and so our preaching and teaching must tell the whole story, not just a part. And the parts should fit together, as they do in the biblical revelation.

Filling out the story in no way denies the reality of what can be called the cosmic (or universal, meaning everywhere throughout the universe) implications of the Incarnation, by which the eternal Son of God assumed human nature on behalf of all humanity, and through his vicarious humanity (representing and standing in for us all) reconciled all humanity in himself to God. Indeed, in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior of all, all have been reconciled to God—all have been forgiven, no exceptions. It is on this basis that we rightly declare that all are included!

The spiritual union involves participation

Though God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ, it is those who are participating in (sharing in) that universal, cosmic reality who are said in the New Testament to be in union with Christ—living in relationship with God in what we refer to as the spiritual union. The New Testament calls these believers children of God, noting that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit in a particular way, having been born from above (or born again, as some translations have it). This participation is the gracious gift of God, in Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and not something of our own making or something we have earned. Participation is not a way of qualifying for union with Christ—it is the way of receiving and sharing in the reconciliation we have already with God, in Christ.

This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that God has reconciled the world to himself, then immediately adds that those who are members of Christ’s body (the church) are ambassadors called to tell others to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Paul is not contradicting himself. Because God “has reconciled” all, then all are called by that fact to act, live and so “be reconciled.” Paul is revealing the full story of salvation, of our real relationship with God that involves receiving and responding by the Holy Spirit to the gift freely accomplished and given by God through Christ and personally delivered to us by the Spirit.

Three unions

In part 1 of this series, we mentioned two unions addressed in the New Testament: the hypostatic union (that unites divinity and humanity in the one person of Jesus) and the spiritual union (the believer’s union with Christ by the ministry of the Holy Spirit). We can now mention a third union that also is of great theological importance—theologians call it the ontological union (with “ontological” meaning “pertaining to being”). This is the union between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit by which the three Persons of the Trinity are eternally one in being (substance or essence). 

This ontological union of the divine Persons does not mean that there are no distinctions between them within the one being of God. The one God is not an undifferentiated ontological monad or lump. The ontological union is a unity of distinguishable divine Persons with distinct names and relationships with each other. As stated in the Athanasian Creed, God is unity in trinity and trinity in unity. C.S. Lewis put it this way: God is tri-personal. We could also say that the unity of God is a triunity.

This ontological union (explored in the excursus below) applies only to the Trinity. It is only in God’s being that there can be three distinct, divine Persons so related that they are one in being. This sort of unity of being is not found in the other two unions, which both involve human nature. In the hypostatic union, the human and divine natures are united in the one Person of Jesus, but those natures are not one in being, they remain distinct in their respective natures. In the spiritual union, human believers are united to Jesus, but the two are not one in being. We humans remain distinct persons. The ontological union is thus absolutely unique as noted in the excursus below.

Excursus on the ontological union 

Starting with the eternal Trinity, which Jesus tells us about, we recognize a kind of dynamic permanence, stability and faithfulness in our Triune God for all time. There never was a time within the eternal triune life of God when the Father did not love the Son, the Son did not love the Father and the Spirit did not love or indwell the love of the Father and the Son. Jesus says the same in noting that the Father and the Son know and glorify each other, which we can assume (based on other things revealed) involves the Holy Spirit. These are permanent relationships occurring within the one, Triune God. We can also say that the divine Persons share in one Triune mind and will. There never was a time when they were separated in mind or will, or a time before they came to agree, cooperate and become united in will or mind. 

These dynamic relationships constitute God’s eternal character, nature and being. God was Triune before there was anything existing other than God and would be Triune even if creation never existed. God alone is uncreated and has existence in himself. God is not dependent upon anything else to exist and to be fully and completely the God that he is---the "I Am" revealed to Moses. 

The triune God is loving in his being as a fellowship and communion that is eternal and internal to God. How that is so is something to ponder---a mystery we cannot ever get to the bottom of because God is the incomparable one---one of a kind. This being the case, we can only know God by his self-revelation and not by comparison with other created things (which would lead to idolatry and mythology). That means that when God acts towards that which is not God, namely everything else that exists, we cannot think of that relationship in the same way we think of the triune being and relationships within God. When God acts towards creation to create it or to save it, that act occurs by the gracious will of God---it happens by his choice, his election, in the freedom of his love. 

Nothing God does external to his being is necessary to God’s being. Creation and redemption are the free and gracious acts of God towards that which is not God, but which are the products of God’s free willing and acting or making. God acts towards creation not “by nature” but “by grace.” All such relationships are external to God (ad extra as theologians say). They are not eternal, not automatic, fixed, necessary or permanent. 

Some of the things God creates including impersonal things like rocks, are more fixed or static and law- or principle-like than are other things, such as human persons who are created in God's image. But none of these things are identical, and none exist on their own. Human persons are not emanations from (extensions of) or parts of God. Persons are works of God's grace, by creation and redemption, created as moral and spiritual persons for personal relations in fellowship and communion with God. As humans, we exist contingently and dynamically in personal relationship with God. We are entirely dependent upon God for our ongoing existence, though God is not dependent upon us (or any other part of his creation) for his ongoing existence. 

As human beings in relationship with God, we have the capacity to live in personal, moral, spiritual relationships with others, God included. In those relationships we can reflect something of God’s internal and eternal relationships---we can love. And so Jesus lays it out simply, maintaining the difference and similarity of relationships. His use of the word “as” indicates a certain comparison, but not an identity when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” This indicates the Triune relationship (the ontological union) and the hypostatic union and saving work of Christ. He then goes on to say, “As I have loved you, you ought to love one another.” This command speaks of our human relations being like or similar to Jesus’ relationship with us. 

The apostle John, speaking of our relationship to God, says this: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” He also says, “We love because he [God] first loved us” (1 John 4:10, 19). Note here that there is a difference of love, indicated by the order and priority of God’s love over ours. John is referencing the great asymmetry between God's love and our love, but in this asymmetry there is not a separation, a disconnection. Our love is dependent upon God’s love; our love has its source in God, who is love, and not in ourselves. We then say that our love is contingent upon God’s love, but his love is not contingent upon ours. 

If we make the error of thinking that we are somehow fused or one in being with God (even if that fusion were accomplished through some kind of fusion with Jesus), we would be wrongly concluding that our relationship to God is identical to Jesus’ internal and eternal relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit, rather than distinct and comparable. We would be wrongly imagining that our human persons are so fused with God or with Jesus that we would be esssentially indistinguishable as human persons from the Triune Divine Persons---we would thus be a sort of fourth member of the Trinity. 

Though failing to distinguish between the three unions and mistaking fusion for union may seem like only small technical errors, the reality is that they make total nonsense of the entire story of God’s salvation by grace, including the real relationship between God and human beings. And so we must carefully avoid making these errors.
Three moments of salvation

Understanding the three unions, and thus grasping that our relationship with God (the Source of our salvation) is in the Trinity, we can now fill out the story of God’s saving grace noting that the Bible speaks of the activity of all three Persons of the Trinity united to work out our salvation. This is also indicated by the fact that the New Testament says we have “been saved,” are “being saved,” and will “be saved.” These past, present-continuing, and future tenses speak of one work with three moments (see the note below)—three aspects of the one saving event.

Note: As in physics, a moment is not an interval of time, but is timeless. It is a moment in time, but has no duration itself. So by analogy, God works timelessly within our time. The one work of the Trinity seems to involve a time sequence for us who live in time, but the three moments of God’s work are not strictly separate or divided, rather they are united in the one saving activity of God. One day, even our view of time will be transformed when we participate fully in time’s perfection, when we have our being in the new heavens and earth and in a new and renewed time and space, in what we now call eternity.

These three distinct (though not separate) moments loosely correspond with the three distinct (though not separate) ministries of the Persons of the Trinity. In Scripture we find that one of the divine Persons is primarily, although not exclusively, associated with a particular moment. We might say that one Person takes the lead or makes a unique contribution to the one saving action towards his time- and space-bound creation and creatures. These distinct actions of the Persons then contribute to the three distinct moments in God’s united, saving work. But we must remember that all the Triune persons act indivisibly, in unity, as they each share distinctively in one Triune divine mind and will.

Note also that these three moments are not exhaustive descriptions of all that the whole God or the Persons do towards creation. They indicate distinct moments of ministry involving the central work of God’s saving activity. The first moment involves the ontological union of the Trinity in relation to salvation. The second, which pertains to the hypostatic union, involves the Incarnate Son’s relationship to our salvation. The third moment, which pertains to the spiritual union, involves the Spirit’s relationship to us in our salvation. These three moments can be summarized as follows:

  1. The moment of the Father’s decision—the decision to save, made “before the foundation of the world,” anticipating the involvement of the Son and the Holy Spirit by their being sent by the Father.
  2. The moment of the Son’s work—his saving work, accomplished through his incarnate life, including his earthly ministry, suffering, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The moment of the Holy Spirit’s work—a work involving bringing about, freeing, empowering and guiding the ever-growing participation of believers (via their personal response, receptivity, decision) to Christ’s work. This work of the Holy Spirit began with the formation of the church after Christ’s earthly work was finished, though it will be complete only with our glorification on the other side of our death.

It’s important to avoid reducing salvation to one of these three moments. Modern western churches tend to do that, almost to the exclusion of the other two. However, some make the opposite mistake of fusing (confusing or conflating) the three moments. We must be careful to uphold the truth that the one, indivisible work of God involves three distinguishable moments in God’s relationship to us in time and space, flesh and blood. We must be careful to uphold both their connection (unity) and their distinction (without any idea of separation).

Union of persons does not mean fusion of being

Now we need to note that it is a mistake to think of the union of persons as a fusion of being. In the ontological union of the Trinity, the three Persons are distinct without separation, but they are not fused. This distinction of Persons is essential to the oneness of being of the Trinity, because without distinction of Persons, there is no real eternal and internal relationships among the Persons. In the hypostatic union, the divine and human natures in Christ are distinct, but they are not fused. Likewise, in the spiritual union of believers to Christ, the believer’s person remains distinct and is thus not fused (conflated) with the Person of Christ.

Properly upholding this unity-with-distinction with respect to all three unions, along with upholding the corresponding three moments in salvation, helps us to avoid several common errors that have to do with fusing (conflating or collapsing) together what are distinct aspects of the reality of the three distinct unions (or we might say, three unities):

  • The error of collapsing our person(s) with Christ’s person.
  • The error of collapsing Christ’s two natures (divine and human) into one.
  • The error of collapsing Christ’s Person into his nature(s).
  • The error of collapsing our sanctification into our justification.
  • The error of collapsing our subjective (personal) responses into Christ’s objective responses (work) on our behalf.
  • The error of separating or collapsing the ministry and person of the Holy Spirit into the ministry and Person of the Son.
  • The error of confusing God’s uncreated Triune being with created being.

Not only must we avoid these errors of collapsing/confusing different kinds of relationship, we must also avoid the opposite error of entirely separating them. All these relationships involve a certain kind of unity-with-distinction and also coordination (co-action) in relationship all brought about by God’s grace.

Returning now to the three moments of the Triune God’s saving work, we can see how this is so. If we collapse the second moment (Christ’s incarnation and redemptive work) with the first moment (the Father’s act of decision and intention within the eternal life of God to will or decide to save), then there would be no need for the Incarnation—no need for the actual, dynamic interaction and relationship of God with his creation or his creatures to bring about his saving purposes.

With salvation without Incarnation, God’s mere thought or idea or intention would be all that was needed to bring about salvation. In that case, salvation would apply only to that which is internal and eternal to God, namely the Triune Persons who have no need for salvation. A creation external to God and distinct in being from God would then not experience God’s salvation except perhaps as having an abstract idea in mind. In that case, there would be no such thing as grace, since no benefit would freely go forth to that which is external to God and dependent upon God. The grace of God would thus remain locked up in God and establish no real saving relationship with that which is not divine, with what is created and fallen. Such a salvation would fail to amount to a real restored relationship with God. It would be personally meaningless to created personal beings. Furthermore, the death and evil that take place in creation would remain untouched.

Both the revelation of creation and the revelation of salvation through the incarnation of the Person of the Son of God (assuming to himself a created human nature, involving his bodily crucifixion and resurrection in history), unequivocally and undeniably indicate an entirely different relationship of God with creation through Incarnation.

Salvation in Christ, as depicted in biblical revelation, involves unique personal and dynamic interaction between God and creation. In that story, there was a time when there was no hypostatic union (even if it was anticipated by God from all eternity). God’s intention towards that which is not God (external to God) had to be actualized—realized by God, in and for God’s fallen creation. It required the voluntary condescending of the Son of God, “from above,” as Jesus says, taking on the “form of a servant” as Paul puts it. It required the Father’s willing, deciding and then actually sending of his Son. It required a real Incarnation, not just the appearance of Jesus looking as if he assumed a human nature when, in actuality, he did not!

God came in Christ, in our place and on our behalf, to actually undo what we had done (Ephesians 1:10). In that undoing, a real relationship (via the hypostatic union) between God and mankind was forged in the Son of God’s own person. How does this hypostatic union and the second moment of salvation fit into the overall story of our salvation? The union of the two natures in the one Person of Jesus does not create a oneness of being where the human and divine natures are fused into one nature—the divine ceasing to be divine, and the human ceasing to be human, thus turning into a third kind of thing, neither divine nor human. Nor do the two natures via this union turn into one another—one swallowing up the other.

The union of the two natures in Christ (via the hypostatic union) is a dynamic communion in personal relationship—a dynamic unity where the love of God for humanity and the love of humanity for God meet. The salvation worked out in Christ is the work of the Person of the Son of God bringing his human nature into right relationship with the divine nature, and so into reconciliation with the Father, thus making the human nature ready to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit in a new way—often referred to in the New Testament as being baptized by the Spirit.

Created humans are not God and they do not become God through Jesus. God is not a creature. But that does not mean there can be no real, dynamic and relational interaction between these two very different kinds of being (created and uncreated). However, in this relationship there is no fusion, confusion or conflation, instead there is gracious and saving relationship, which we see clearly in the earthly life of Jesus.

As one of us, Jesus was born, grew in wisdom and stature, learned obedience, overcame temptation, rejoiced in the Holy Spirit, suffered and submitted to the cleansing judgments of God on the cross. Jesus then died, was raised and ascended bodily. Especially in the Garden, we see the resistant human will of his assumed nature brought step-by-step into conformity with the will of God, finally exhibiting a perfect trust and love for God. We see this in Jesus words following a torturous internal battle: “Nevertheless, thy will be done” and, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.”

The human and divine natures are united in the one eternal Person of the Son of God Incarnate. But in that union there is no fusion, confusion or conflation of the natures. Had the natures been fused, there either would be no God to save humanity, or no humanity to be saved, since the one nature would have turned into the other, or both would have turned into a third that is neither divine nor human. Were the two natures fused, there would be no grace, no redemption of created human persons and thus no real ongoing saving relationship between God and humanity.

But the idea of a fusion of natures is not the gospel story of God’s grace. Being faithful to the gospel requires that we distinguish between the ontological union (and the moment of the Father’s decision with the Son to bring about our salvation), and the hypostatic union (and the moment of incarnation that united God with human nature in the Person of the eternal Son of God). It also requires that we distinguish between God and God’s creation of human creatures, even in the hypostatic union. The gospel declares that we were created for real relationship—a relationship that, as Calvin said, was healed, not only by Christ, but in Christ—in his Person.

But how are we personally involved in all this? To answer, we must (on the basis of revelation) distinguish between the second and third moments and so between the hypostatic and spiritual unions that correspond to these two moments. If we fail to do so, we get an erroneous result that similar to the fusion/confusion we examined above (except in this case, there is no need for the ministry of the Holy Spirit, rather than no need for the Incarnation). If fusion is the case here, once again the story of our salvation, as depicted in biblical revelation, makes no sense.

The essence of the Holy Spirit’s special ministry following Christ’s ascension, is to bring about personal participation (sharing) in Christ’s perfect relationship (as one of us) with the Father and the Spirit. If we think of moments two and three as being fused, we miss the importance of the Spirit’s gracious ministry, thus eliminating the third moment, which brings about the spiritual union. Envisioning the fusion of moments two and three means viewing the hypostatic union as accomplishing all that is involved in our salvation. But that can’t be the case, for the biblical story places great emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit as being essential to our salvation.

The Bible shows that the Holy Spirit works deeply within us to free and enable us to respond personally and grow up into Christ—a transformation that clearly is an essential part of God’s plan of salvation for us. This is made clear in Jesus’ directives (before and after his resurrection) that his disciples must wait for and receive the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ view, this third moment (the Holy Spirit’s post-ascsension ministry) is not optional—a view supported by the rest of the biblical story, beginning with the book of Acts.

By (wrongly) concluding that the hypostatic union fully accomplishes our salvation, one also concludes that there is no need for the participation brought about by the post-ascension ministry of the Spirit who indwells believers. There is not a real living, acting, responding, receiving relationship of saving grace. Instead, our relationship to God, through Christ, is fixed, automatic, impersonal and mechanical—an abstract fact that is generally and generically true—like a natural law, a forensic fact, or a universal principle that is accomplished by the mere fact of the hypostatic union.

When we regard the hypostatic union (rather than the spiritual union) as the final moment of our salvation, we are left with a salvation that is accomplished in Christ, but remains external to the individual human person, with no personal and transforming indwelling of the Holy Spirit that, according to the biblical revelation, is essential to our salvation.

Some might insist that the hypostatic union itself accomplishes everything needed at the ontological depths of our very being, and therefore is not merely external. However, without the personal, personalizing, and subsequent ministry of the Holy Spirit, such an ontological and objective union would amount to a mechanical, automatic and impersonal connection, not a relationship of personal participation, communion, fellowship and sharing that is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Without the spiritual union (which includes the ministry of the Holy Spirit), the dynamic, transforming personal relationship and responsive interaction of salvation is eliminated, replaced by an automatic, impersonal ontological effect that emanates to all from the hypostatic union.

Some might counter by arguing that the hypostatic union was personal because we are united to the Person of Christ. But without the ministry and moment of the Holy Spirit, who brings about personal participation and responsiveness in relationship, such a union with the Person of Jesus entirely effected by the hypostatic union takes us back to the problem of being ontologically fused in our persons to the Person of the Son. We would thus become Christ, and Christ would become us. As a result, real relationship would be eliminated and once again there would be a confusion of human persons with Christ’s person, making us identical in being with Jesus Christ and potentially members ourselves of the Holy Trinity. Union with Christ would thus be turned into fusion with Christ, and personal, dynamic relationship and communion would become optional to salvation.

Some may insist that the hypostatic union alone is sufficient to accomplish our objective salvation in a way that does not eliminate the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is needed to bring us to conceptually know or agree to the fact of the hypostatic union. However, this line of argumentation truncates the view of the Holy Spirit and his ministry that is presented in the biblical story of our salvation. This truncated view reduces the Spirit’s ministry to bringing about a mere cognitive change, rather than the fully human-relational change (a whole transforming and personal change by uniting us to Christ and incorporating us into the body of Christ) presented in Scripture. Such a reduced ministry of the Spirit would not bring about the participation—the dynamic fellowship that is a true sharing in the life of Christ with all we are and all we have—a participation that involves the receptivity and responsiveness of our whole persons to the Spirit—one expressed in confession of sin and the birth of faith, hope and love along with a life of growing up in Christ, being transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Were it true that the objective fact of the hypostatic union accounts for the entire work of salvation, our subjective participation would be swallowed up and disappear in a radically objective hypostatic union with Christ. In that case, our subjectivity would all but be lost in the objective work of Jesus Christ, rather than (as the gospel declares) being fully enlivened by the Holy Spirit who brings about our growing and transforming participation through a fully personal and personalizing relationship with God through Christ and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

A truncated view of salvation, does not align with what the Bible tells us about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and its fruits in the lives of those who belong to Jesus Christ and “have the Spirit of Christ.” It does not align with the personal, relational dynamic of relationship with God that the Holy Spirit brings about by enabling us who are distinct in person from Christ, to share in his sanctified and glorified human nature in right relationship with God.

When we fail to distinguish between the hypostatic union and the spiritual union, and the moment of the Son’s work from the moment of the Holy Spirit’s work, we lose the full understanding of the nature of our salvation, including the meaning of Christ’s vicarious humanity, which becomes, at most, something fused with our persons—his subjectivity fused with our subjectivity—the result being that the distinction of persons as subjects and agents is all but erased.

The ministry of the Holy Spirit

When we fail to make these critical biblical distinctions, the gospel of Jesus Christ is reduced to believing in the sending work of the Father and the hypostatic work of the Son, leaving out any vital, saving and relational work of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the completed work of Christ. Unfortunately, this is what some formulations of Trinitarian theology have done—they overlook (or at least deemphasize) the Person and ministry of the Holy Spirit by locating the saving union almost exclusively in the vicarious humanity of Jesus (the hypostatic union). But as noted above, our salvation is the work of the whole Trinity, and that includes the work of the Holy Spirit.

What Christ in Person and work accomplished for us in our human form (nature) was worked out in him in perfect fellowship and communion with the Holy Spirit. And now, what Christ accomplished for us in the power of the Spirit is being worked out for us and in us by the same Spirit who by indwelling us, unites us to the Person and saving work of Christ.

Throughout the New Testament, the ministry of the Holy Spirit is to unite us to Jesus in a dynamic, personal and personalizing way. By the Spirit we are set free to receive from and respond to Christ with all that we have and are able. It is the Holy Spirit who incorporates us into the body of Christ, with Christ as head, and those so incorporated are made to be members one of another in unity and distinction.

“Pentecost” by Restout (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In the biblical revelation, union and communion with Christ (the spiritual union) is not located primarily in the Incarnation, but in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, this union is, indeed, dependent upon the completed work of Christ—his life, death and resurrection and ascension as the Incarnate one, on the basis of his vicarious humanity. That is why Jesus promises, then sends the Holy Spirit—a glorious event we celebrate each year on Pentecost Sunday.

The Holy Spirit comes to humankind in this new, unique way on the basis of the finished earthly ministry of Jesus. On that basis, the Spirit brings about the moment of our response, our receptivity—our first and ongoing repentance, faith, hope and love.

In over one hundred mentions of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, the Spirit’s ministry is directly connected to our responses to God (to Christ, to God’s word). The Holy Spirit reveals, teaches, enables us to hear, to speak and proclaim, to love, to obey, to pray, worship, love, minister, rejoice, to confess Jesus as Lord, and confess Jesus has come in the flesh. He also leads, sends, guides, sanctifies, unifies and harmonizes the body of Christ, gives gifts of ministry and fruits of Christ-like character to the members of the body of Christ. In sum, he gives us new life in Christ so that we live in the Spirit (Rom. 7:6; Rom. 8:2; Rom. 8:5; 2 Cor. 3:6).

What Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works out in us on the basis of what Christ has done for us. This “outworking” involves relationship between Christ and us, through a relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. This coordination of the ministry of the Holy Spirit with the finished work of Christ is so close that believing persons can be said to be both in Christ and in the Spirit, and sometimes in the same breath (see Phil. 2:1; 3:3). But our survey of the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit demonstrates that participation and our union with Christ depend upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who brings about our spiritual union with Jesus Christ.

The hypostatic union of the Incarnation does not establish this spiritual union, which pertains to our participation and fellowship with Christ. That is the distinct ministry of the Holy Spirit. The ontological basis of that spiritual union and participation by the Spirit in Christ is the saving and reconciling work of Christ in the flesh as one of us, in our place and on our behalf. Without the hypostatic union and the vicarious mediatorship of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit alone could not bring about our union and communion with Christ. Because the work of the Holy Spirit is distinct, it should not be conflated with the Incarnation, though it is not separable from it.

Thus we understand that the Holy Spirit, who is united to the Father and the Son in the ontological union of the Trinity, has a ministry distinct from the Son, yet inseparable from the Person and work of the Son. On this side of Christ’s earthly ministry (post-ascension), the Spirit, who is sent by the Father and the Son, interacts with humans in new ways and at new depths. Why? Because of what Christ accomplished in his earthly ministry, which includes his life, death, resurrection and ascension.

This ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential for our participation in relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s ministry. The Spirit is the one who, in the proclamation and our hearing of the Word, gives us freedom to respond, who delivers to us the desire and willingness to repent, believe and trust Christ, and thus to receive the forgiveness God has, in Christ, already extended to us, and to receive the power to become and live as the adopted children of God that believers are.

The Spirit opens us up to receive all these benefits of Christ, which reach down to the roots of who we are and who we are becoming. Once again, all this saving work comes to fruition through relationship (participation, interaction, involvement). The work of the Person of the Holy Spirit results in our spiritual union with God, in Christ—a union that is manifested as we participate in the gift of reconciled relationship to God brought about by Jesus Christ through the hypostatic union and thus brings about an atoning union of God with all humanity.

Thus, as noted earlier, the saving union is distinct from, yet reliant upon the hypostatic union, and so upon the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. The distinction and proper ordering of the spiritual union to the hypostatic union no more denigrates the hypostatic union than the hypostatic union ought to diminish or dismiss the spiritual union.


With these thoughts in mind, we can now make this summary statement:

Without the distinct and inseparable gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit, we could not and we would not participate—we would and could not share in Christ’s own (vicarious) responses of repentance, faith, hope and love for God and receive his grace given to us. Our salvation requires the ministry of all three Persons of the Trinity and all three moments of God’s saving action towards us, each contributing to the one whole will, purpose and accomplishment of our salvation.

Kids Korner: Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (June 11) is a great time to teach kids about the Trinity. But how to do so? Here are some thoughts with related resources from Equipper Editor (and grandfather) Ted Johnston.

My older grandkids (now 11 and 8) have asked me on several occasions about the Trinity. Explaining to adults that God is one in being and three in Persons is challenging enough. But explaining that to kids?

One approach is to make use of illustrations. Though these can help, we have to be careful not to leave children thinking that God is like an egg, water, or a three-leaf clover! Perhaps the best place to start is to explain the truth that God is love, and that love involves the one who loves and the one who receives, then returns that love. We can then explain that the Bible shows that in the case of God, there are three who are forever united in a relationship of giving, sharing and returning love: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. To this explanation we can then add illustrations and additional insights, being careful not to make the ideas too complex and remembering that kids (unlike some adults) are OK with mystery (can an ant explain an airplane?).

Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Here are some resources you might find helpful. If you know of others, or have advice based on your own experience teaching kids about God, please share by posting in the leave a reply box at bottom of the page.

Sermon for May 28, 2017 (Ascension Sunday)

Scripture readings:
Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:1-9 or Psalm 93:1-5; Eph. 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

By Lance McKinnon


Many Christians, it seems, suffer from “ascension deficit disorder.” Perhaps that’s because few churches celebrate Jesus’ ascension, which occurred 40 days after his resurrection and 10 days before the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost. One of the benefits of following the lectionary in our services is it causes us to remember the important events of the story of Jesus, and his ascension to heaven is one of them. Today, in accordance with the lectionary, is Ascension Sunday (the Sunday following ascension day). And so today we’ll look at Luke’s account of that great event.

“Ascension of Christ” by Cavedone
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“Ascension deficit disorder” among Christians is the result of many causes. I mentioned how churches fail to emphasize Jesus’ ascension. There are two other causes that come to mind as well:

  1. The problem of philosophical dualism. The idea that a human, flesh-and-blood person would ascend to heaven (thinking of heaven now as the realm of spirit) runs against the grain of the western mind, which tends to see a radical separation and even conflict between what is spiritual and what is physical. Thus the idea that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven is viewed as fantasy, or perhaps some sort of metaphor.
  2. The problem of human rebellion. That Jesus has ascended on high is an uncomfortable reminder that we earth-bound humans are not in charge. Our rebellious human nature does not like that—we want to be captains of our own ship. But the gospel declares that Jesus has indeed ascended to the Father’s right hand—the place of all power and authority—and there Jesus is declared Lord of all! This person Jesus, who continues to be fully human (though now glorified) as well as fully divine (the “God-man” as we say), cannot be spiritualized away. He is in charge of the physical, here and now, whether we acknowledge that reality or not.

An encounter with the risen Lord

Let’s go now to Luke’s Gospel where in Luke 24:44-49 we find Jesus meeting with his disciples in the time between his resurrection and ascension. Note Jesus’ words to them:

This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Note how Jesus tells them that all of the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) point to him. The same can be said about the New Testament—the purpose of the written word of God (Scripture) is to point us to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is through Scripture that the risen Lord encounters us, as the Spirit opens our minds and hearts to understand who Jesus is and what he has done on our behalf. It is this encounter that fuels our proclamation. That’s true today as it was true for these disciples.

Notice how Jesus tells them to stay put in Jerusalem until he sends the promised Holy Spirit—the great event of Pentecost we’ll celebrate next Sunday. If the Spirit is not powering our proclamation of Jesus, we are left with an anemic “tooting” of our own horns. Notice too that Jesus does not send the Spirit until he first ascends to the Father.

The ascension of Jesus

Let’s go now to Luke 24:50-53:

When [Jesus] had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

There in Bethany, about a mile and a half outside Jerusalem, the disciples witness one of the great events in salvation history: Jesus’ ascension. Note here a key point: Jesus lifts his hands and blesses them. Also note an important detail—Jesus ascends while offering the blessing. Luke goes out of his way in many parts of his Gospel to show the universality of the gospel—and the ascension is no exception. When a priest of Israel would bless an individual, he would place his hands on that person. When blessing a group, he would naturally back up and raise his hands so as to cover the entire group. The larger the group, the further back and higher up he would stand to stretch his hands out to cover all for the blessing.

But now, Jesus, our High Priest, extends his hands and pronounces a priestly blessing while ascending “up into heaven.” He is thus extending the blessing to all humanity—all creation. No one is left outside our Lord’s blessing. All are included!

It’s important to note here that “heaven” is a reference to God’s presence. When we take seriously the union that we have with Christ which involves the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, we find Jesus and the Spirit working to bring us into the presence of God the Father. The statement “taken up into heaven” is not to be understood as Jesus leaving us to ourselves, but rather as what he, through the Spirit, is doing with us and for us to unite us with the Father in a new and fuller way.

The ascension of Jesus thus points to the blessing that is the work of both the Son and the Holy Spirit to bring all creation back to the Father. The ascension should not be viewed as the Father taking back his Son, or the Son “clearing out of town.”

The ascension of Jesus means that we are, in Christ and by the Spirit, forever in a face-to-face relationship with the Father. In the human person of his Son Jesus, the Father holds us all up as his precious and beloved children. As Karl Barth states, Jesus “returns to heaven, which is the dwelling of God in his creation.”

Let us not miss what Jesus brings us in his ascension—note Luke 22:52—the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.” They experienced that joy as they worshiped and so blessed the ascended Lord. As we read in Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan.” Seeing Jesus ascend reassured them that Jesus was Lord and thus in charge. That was a source of reassurance and thus joy for them. It is also a source of joy for us (and, indeed, for all creation).

Conclusion: yielding all to our ascended Lord

The good news of ascension Sunday is that the wicked rule of fallen humanity, which has produced such groaning, has come to an end. We experience the kingdom reign and rule of this Lord as we yield our all to him, and that includes all our space, time and matter:

  1. Yielding our space. Fellowship is a way we can worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over space. There is great joy as we live a life of shared space. Hospitality is inviting others into our space for the sake of relationship. This is the blessed life we see in the Trinity. Father, Son and Spirit have always lived in fellowship, sharing “space” together. We can now participate in that life of sharing as we fellowship with one another in our families, churches and communities.
  2. Yielding our time. Trust is a way we can worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over time. We trust Jesus with our time in the past. We trust that his rule extends to our past with his forgiveness and redemption. We trust our present time not to be absent from God’s presence. He is with us in every second of our day. We also trust Jesus with the future that he brings us into as he walks with us in the present.
  3. Yielding our matter. Gratitude is a way we worship and bless God as we come under Jesus’ lordship over matter. We can be thankful for all we have because we know God is with us. As we live in gratitude, we are taking a posture of receiving. In this posture we are able to receive all the blessings poured out to us in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you can think of other ways to worship and bless the Lord in all your space, time and matter. I encourage you to do so, and as you do, may the ascended Lord Jesus lift you in all your space, time and matter to receive his life and presence of overflowing love from the Father and through the Spirit. Amen!

Sermon for June 4, 2017 (Pentecost)

Scripture readings:
Num. 11:24-30; Psalm 104:24-35; Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23

By Michelle Fleming


Today is Pentecost, which marks the transition from the Easter season to what the liturgical calendar calls “ordinary time.” During the Easter season, we reflect on God’s redemption through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Following that, our focus switches to living out the mystery of the life of Christ. Doing so is impossible without what Pentecost commemorates—the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon humanity. Pentecost is the day on which we move from spectators in the gospel story to active participants. It is the day the church, the body of Christ, was born.

Pentecost is a day of fulfillment. The Jews celebrated it as Shavuoth (the Festival of Weeks) when they would wave the first fruits of the harvest in thanks to God. In Acts 2, we learn that the promise of Pentecost is fulfilled in the sending of the Holy Spirit, an event hearkening back to Jesus’ promise to his disciples recorded in Acts 1:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8)

Then in his sermon given to the assembled crowd on Pentecost, Peter notes that this outpouring of the Spirit fulfills Joel’s prophecy:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)

On Pentecost we celebrate God’s faithfulness and the fullness of life experienced in relationship with him, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. The account of Pentecost in Acts describes an exciting eruption of God’s wind and fire washing over the lives of those present. The disciples were blown from the Upper Room out into the streets, boldly declaring the good news of Jesus crucified and risen and the Spirit outpoured.

The Outpouring of the Holy Spirit by van Dyck
(public domain via Wikipedia Commons)

Today, the same vibrant Holy Spirit is our counselor and comforter, encouraging us and propelling us forward in the abundant life God has for us. John 3:8 compares the Spirit-filled life as one blown and controlled by a wind that one “cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” A life led and empowered by the Spirit requires a life of trust in the faithfulness of the Father to fulfill his promises and meet our needs. We set our sails, wait for the wind, and allow the Spirit to lead and unfold in God’s perfect timing.

Pentecost tells us that the power of the resurrection is not just for us—it is in us! We don’t have to be fearful and begin relying on ourselves. In the storms of life we don’t have to start powering and steering our own boat. Instead we trust the Spirit to both empower and guide us. We remember how the Spirit empowered and led those first disciples into the streets of Jerusalem and from there to the whole world, bearing the message of Christ.

The Holy Spirit’s outpouring on men and women, slave and free, to spread the gospel in all languages imparted the power of the cross in a personal, collective and universal way that both began and then sent the church on mission. The finished work on the cross assures us of eternal life, but it also impacts the way we live our temporal lives. As we transition into Ordinary Time, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make the gospel story our story. We are blessed to in turn be a blessing.

Our lives are shaped and transformed by the presence and power of the risen Christ, who sends the Spirit to empower and direct us. Let us receive motivation from this day to re-set our sails, to listen for and respond to the direction the Holy Spirit is pointing us toward for the season ahead. I invite you to take some time later today and over the next few days to pray and/or journal through three questions we’ll now take a look at. This will help you to experience a personal Pentecost—to discern how God is calling you to live out the gospel during this next season in your life.

The three questions follow the pattern of season now concluding: Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost.

1. Good Friday: name my deaths

Moving from Easter season, what must I leave behind in order to live out what God has for me in this next season?

In Philippians 3, Paul reassures us that the righteousness we receive through our faith is worth whatever we surrender at the cross.

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:8-11)

Saying yes to Jesus is the best decision we can ever make. But often we do not count the cost—we do not recognize that saying yes to Christ will mean saying no to some things that we are still holding in our hearts and with our hands. To experience the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we must also participate in his death. Dead to self, alive to Christ! Note Jesus’ words:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

Yes, we want the power of his resurrection, but perhaps we don’t think about what parts of our current lives must die so that Christ can mold us, through the Spirit, into new creations. So ask God—“Lord, what are you asking me to surrender in order to make room for the new life that you are cultivating in me?

Note to preacher: perhaps you can give a personal example here---the need to give up a bad habit like comparison or envy, attempts to control self and others, making better use of time, etc. Although many of us have given up physical things such as jobs in order to do what we thought Christ was asking, it is better to focus here on mental and relational changes, which are probably more immediately applicable to people in the audience.We need to take time to grieve what we are dying to and adjust to our new reality.

2. Easter Sunday: claim my births

Resurrection is not just an event—it is the answer to the problem of endings. The miracle of Easter is that God did not merely resuscitate Jesus into the same life. Jesus first experienced death, then received a new life. We are invited to share that new life—in Jesus’ resurrected, glorified humanity. Note Paul’s words in Romans 6:

We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:4-7)

We often want God to resuscitate what we have lost, rather than replace our human dreams with God-sized dreams. We want the solution to our longings to be a resuscitation, but what Jesus, through the Spirit, provides for us is a resurrection. Our hope is not merely to begin again (renewing old dreams), but to start anew—a new creation—the revealing of the kingdom of God in our lives.

So ask yourself, “What new life do I see rising up in my life?” Perhaps it’s a new habit, an opportunity to start a new relationship (or an entirely new chapter in an old one), new hopes, new dreams. Claim them!

3. Pentecost: listen for my direction

Ask the Holy Spirit to come close and give you what you need to step out into your next season—into the extraordinary life that is yours to live in ordinary time. Our life in Christ and by the Spirit is resurrection life. Jesus’ resurrection life is ours because the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ. Note what Paul declares in Romans 8:

This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him! (Romans 8:15-17, The Message)

As you reflect on these words and the promises made so clear by the season we’re now leaving, remember that on Pentecost the disciples of Jesus were sent out into the world. Where is the Spirit sending you? Where is he sending us? Is there a person or community you as an individual and we as a community are being called to connect with or invest in during this next season? Listen to what the Spirit is saying, then obey.


Sermon for June 11, 2017 (Trinity Sunday)

Scripture readings:
Gen. 1:1-2:4; Ps. 8:1-9; 2 Cor. 13:11-14; Matt. 28:16-20

(Ps. 8:1-9; Matt. 28:16-20; 2 Cor. 13:14)
By Ted Johnston


Today is Trinity Sunday—the first Sunday following Pentecost. It’s a day to rejoice in God, who is one in being and three in Person—the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is far more than a doctrine to be understood—it is the reality of the one, tri-personal God who is to be loved and worshipped.

Icon of the Trinity by Rublev
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Though it wasn’t until Jesus came that we learned in detail that the one God is one in being and three in Person, we find hints of God’s triune nature in the Old Testament. In today’s reading in Genesis we find God at work through his word and Spirit in creation. And it is this one God, the Creator, who David, in Psalm 8, extolls, remembering the majestic, all-powerful Lord of creation, who now works sovereignly through the powerless and downtrodden. Let’s unpack this psalm, line by line.

1. The Lord’s majesty (Psalm 8:1)

1 LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.

David begins and ends his psalm exclaiming God’s majestic name—his splendor and magnificence, which stands high above all creation (including David’s enemies!). The expression O LORD, our Lord makes this important point. The first LORD is Yahweh—God’s personal name. The second Lord is Adonai, meaning Sovereign or Master. Put them together and you have a personal, caring God who has complete dominion over his creation. Indeed, he is exalted (he has glory) high above the heavens. This is the God David addresses, and on that basis makes the claims and expresses the hope found in the rest of the psalm.

2. The Lord’s strength (Psalm 8:2)

2 Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

David marvels that the Lord God would use the “puny” strength of children (strength is the better translation of the Hebrew word translated praise in the NIV) to silence his enemies (and the foe and avenger). The point is that the Lord has set his incomparable strength on a sure foundation in these helpless children and infants. But does God literally silence his foes through children? Perhaps, but more likely, David is using infants figuratively to refer to what is tiny, weak and powerless. Clearly, David has experienced notable powerlessness in the face of powerful foes, and so he is comforted knowing that the sovereign, powerful Creator Lord works through the powerless and downtrodden.

3. The Lord’s creation (Psalm 8:3-8)

3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?

David’s thoughts now turn to the stunning truth that the sovereign, all-powerful God has graciously entrusted some of his dominion to humankind. He firsts observes the great work of creation (including the heavens…moon and…stars) as God’s finger work, and then is amazed that finite humans (the Hebrew word is ’ěnôš, meaning mortal, weak person) should have such a responsibility over it. The rhetorical questions in v. 4 emphasize that humans are insignificant creatures in the universe, yet God cares for each one immensely.

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.

God’s creation of man is described as one of power and dignity, for he was made…a little lower than the heavenly beings. In Hebrew, “heavenly beings” is ’ělōhîm, which, though it can refer to angels, perhaps should be translated here as God (see the NIV footnote). The sense is that humans were created as God’s own representatived on earth, over the creation, though lower than God. David is amazed that God would exalt finite creatures to such a place of high honor. Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes this psalm to contrast humanity’s failure with their exalted destiny. But all is not lost: Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45, 47) and all things have been subjected to him—a subjection that will come to fullness when he returns to earth bodily to usher in a new heaven and new earth, thus fulfilling God’s plan to exalt (glorify) humankind and all of creation.

6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: 7 all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, 8 the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

David here reflects on humanity’s position as God’s representative (steward) in his creation. After God made Adam and Eve, he commanded them to have dominion over all the earth (Gen. 1:28). All living creatures were to be under them. But because of sin, that dominion was never fully realized. Tragically and ironically, it was through a subordinate, the serpent, that humans rebelled against God’s order and rejected its God-given calling.

4. The Lord’s majesty (Psalm 8:9)

9 Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

David closes his psalm where he began—praising God’s majestic…name. Indeed, God’s majesty has been displayed in his care and design for finite, puny humans.

Conclusion (2 Cor. 13:11-14; Mat. 28:19)

The insights David had concerning God’s majesty come to fullness in the New Testament when Jesus shows us the Father and the Spirit, thus revealing the fullness of God’s nature, expressed in his love and care, through Jesus, for all humanity. This insight is about much more than a doctrinal formulation (as important as that is)—it’s about reflecting God’s triune nature in the way we live. That’s what Paul is emphasizing in our reading today in 2 Corinthians, where he admonishes the believers in Corinth (who were experiencing a lot of division) to aim for a spiritual maturity aligned with who God is as the triune God of unity, love and peace. He admonishes them to “strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Cor. 13:11). In 2 Cor. 13:12, he tells them to “greet one another with a holy kiss”—a common greeting in that culture—but one that within the church is made holy as a reflection of Jesus’ own holy love. Paul thus calls upon these Christians to treat each other with respect and affection. Then he closes his letter (2 Cor. 13:14) with a Trinitarian benediction:

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

This benediction is no afterthought—it summarizes Pauls’ entire letter, emphasizing who God is in his triune nature (Father, Son and Spirit) and the blessings that flow from him to us: grace, love, and fellowship. The divisions they were experiencing would end if they would depend on the grace of God, walk in the love of God, and participate in the fellowship they have with God and with one another through the Spirit. They will become a blessing (benediction) to one another. May that be true of all of us as well.

And let us not forget on this Trinity Sunday what Jesus, in our reading today in Matthew 28:19, said to his disciples as he commissioned them:

19 Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

Jesus, who calls us to participate in the mission from the Father, by the Son and in the Spirit, bids us to baptize converts in God’s triune name. That same Jesus is the Lord who presently reigns—a reign that will come to fullness in the future. What great comfort and hope there is, as David reminds us, in knowing that though we humans are puny and powerless (dwarfed as we are by the immensity of the universe) we are taken up by our sovereign Lord, to share in his work, and also to share in his glory—the glory he has with the Father and the Spirit. As the song goes, “Oh how he loves you and me!” [Or quote here the words to another song that you will sing following the sermon.] Amen.

Note: to set the tone for this sermon, you might want to introduce it by showing this video featuring Sandi Patty:

Sermon for June 18, 2017

Scripture readings: Gen. 18:1-15 and Ps. 116:1-2, 12-19 
or Ex. 19:2-8 and Ps. 100:1-5; Rom. 5:1-8; Matt. 9:35-10:8

Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matt. 9:35-10:8



Though Jesus tried to contain his popularity, his reputation spread like wildfire throughout Galilee and on into Judea. Wherever he went, crowds followed, many hoping to receive healing and help from this miracle-working rabbi. In chapter 9, Matthew cites case after case of Jesus acting on requests for help from people around him. Amazed crowds (Matt. 9:8, 33) gathered wherever he went. Desperate people flocked to him.

Jesus Traveling by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the backdrop of today’s Gospel lesson. We find Jesus recognizing a great, ripe, spiritual harvest field and sending his apostles out into it to reap. But what does this passage have to do with us today? In this sermon we’ll see that Jesus gives us the same invitation and challenge. May we have ears to hear.

1. Jesus cares and acts

Truly caring about the state of humanity, Jesus acts. Note Matthew 9:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35-36)

In this country beaten down by the Roman occupiers, Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God was relevant and attention-grabbing. But just as compelling was the compassion he showed in response to the people’s need, offering help and healing. Jesus viewed these “harassed and helpless” people as “sheep without a shepherd.” Other leaders might have seen this situation as an opportunity to grab a following, but not Jesus. Showing his compassionate heart for suffering humanity, he reached out to address their needs, both physical and spiritual.

2. Jesus assesses and prays

Then in Matthew 9:37, Jesus uses a metaphor to describe to his followers his assessment of the situation: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” It was as if Jesus was standing before a field, perhaps a large wheat field, ready for harvest, and having the frustrating feeling that although he desires that the harvest be brought in, the task of doing so is too great for one person.

Have you ever felt that way? Suppose your house desperately needs attention: repairs, cleaning, painting—months of work for one person, but you need it done soon. You’ll have to hire carpenters, electricians, plumbers, a cleaning service crew and a team of painters.

Seeing the enormity of the fields ripe for harvest, rather than heading out to hire a crew, Jesus turned to prayer, saying this to his disciples: “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt. 9:38). This is how Jesus thought—this is the prayerful, dependent posture by which he lived. Jesus’ first priority always was to pray, and here he shares that priority with his disciples. Whereas the natural tendency is to see prayer as the last resort, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer must precede any efforts of our own in the harvest field. Why? Because the field belongs to the Lord, who not only creates the fruit, but is able to supply the laborers needed to reap the harvest.

3. Jesus assembles and commissions

Jesus’ next step was to assemble a team of harvesters using resources God had made available. These resources were available because Jesus had followed God’s earlier instructions to call and equip a team for ministry. The time to send that team into the mission field had arrived:

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness (Matt. 10:1).

Jesus gave his team of followers authority. This was the extension to them of the authority Jesus possessed as Messiah. Note Isaiah’s prophecy:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Isa. 61:1)

This authority was not automatically conferred on the disciples when they began following Jesus. But now the time had come for them to be sent out bearing some of Jesus’ authority. Note that Matthew calls them apostles (Matt. 10:2), meaning “ones sent” (Matt. 10:5). Jesus was giving them a temporary commission to go to work in the harvest field.

As we know, no job of any significance can be done without instruction and training. Parents know that even the simplest tasks, such as making up a bed or cleaning a room, will be incomplete if attempted by untrained children. Children need to be trained; merely issuing orders will not get the job done. Wise parents often start by doing the task first while the child watches. Next, the parent participates with the child as the child tries to do the task, then they step back and watch the child do the task, giving both encouraging and gently corrective feedback. When the child understands, the parent can delegate the task to the child.

Jesus had been training his disciples for months before this commissioning. They had watched him work and had begun to participate with him. Now it was time for further training that involved a specific assignment, and so Jesus sent them out with these instructions:

Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. (Matt. 10:5-8)

Note that their primary task was to proclaim the gospel in a particular way that included words concerning the kingdom of heaven. These words were apparently specific to this mission—they are not included in the many examples of proclaiming the gospel elsewhere in the New Testament. The miraculous works of healing and exorcism were also part of this mission. Later examples of proclaiming the gospel—especially in the book of Acts—do not always include miracles.

4. The lesson for us

Though this particular assignment (commission) was temporary, its lesson is timeless, and certainly applicable to us today. The Son of God, sent by the Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit, saw humanity as lost sheep needing a shepherd. Jesus was moved by his compassion to send others, prepared by him to participate in the harvest. It’s important for us to realize that Jesus is alive—our ascended Lord has the same perspective on humanity and on the mission of the church today. With the same compassion, he sees humanity’s needs today. And all along, Jesus has been calling and equipping a team—it’s called the church—a team he sends into the harvest field with specific instructions. They are to go bearing Jesus’ perspective, including his heart of compassion.

Here’s what we can do to be faithful to who Jesus is and to the commission he has given to us as his fellow harvest workers:

Start with prayer. Jesus set a wonderful example for us in this. At all times, but particularly when the task seems overwhelming, we should pray. The challenges we face personally and as a congregation are bigger than any one of us and even all of us together apart from the Lord. We need his help!

Remember that Jesus said that the harvest has a Lord. Do we look at our tasks that way? Do we see what appears to be mountains before us and realize that there is a Lord of those mountains? When Jesus explained that the Lord of the harvest would send laborers, he implied that they would be given a heart like his—a heart of compassion for lost people. We do not need to try to work up that heart, but we can and should pray for it.

Get equipped. Jesus started with prayer, but he did not stop there. Our next step is to act according to our current abilities and training. As individuals and congregations this is a challenge. Jesus invested much time to train his disciples. In the same way, church leaders must train today’s followers of Jesus. Each of us has a role according to the gifts we have been given. Whatever the gift and role, whether participating in community service, giving personal assistance, telling people about Jesus, or being part of an outreach team, we must be receptive to the training opportunities available.

Get going. Finally, having been equipped and instructed, we go into the harvest field (where prayer and equipping continues). As in farming crops, each harvest field is unique, but some things apply to all.

Here is an example [the preacher may want to substitute an example more relevant to their congregation]:

A small North Carolina GCI congregation has been getting out into the “harvest field” that is their neighborhood. They received training and instructions from their pastoral team, but all they really needed to do was engage with the neighbors around their place of meeting. Through an open house, an outreach event to support families of school children returning after summer break, a fall festival, and other activities, the members started to get involved with the neighbors and that involvement continued to grow. Where needs arose, they helped. As a result, the congregation became known in the community as people who care and want to help in any way they can. As a result, a number of neighbors investigated the congregation more deeply and some began attending and some became members. The church members called their endeavors to be involved in the community “outreach.” The New Testament calls it “good works.” Jesus calls it going out into the harvest field to both sow and reap.

How a congregation obeys Jesus’ call to enter into his work in the harvest field will depend on the particular needs of the neighborhood and circumstances of the both the neighbors and the church members. In all cases, expressing the love of the Triune God for humanity as Jesus did is the key. Even where the gospel is not immediately embraced, a positive example of God’s love can move people to respond later. Even if people in the neighborhood do not attend our church but choose to attend elsewhere, we need not be disappointed. The important thing is that people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ and begin to entrust their lives to him. Any way or time that a person accepts Jesus Christ and enters a life of trusting the Father through Christ and by the Spirit, we can and should rejoice! We are participating with Jesus in what he is doing to express his heart of compassion for harassed and helpless lost sheep.


As Jesus looks at the world, he sees fields ripe for harvest. He wants his followers to see the fields around them, and participate with him in reaping the harvest near at hand. Are we moved with his compassion to pray for workers? Are we willing to be trained, instructed and sent?

Perhaps these questions should be in the forefront of our minds as we exit the powerful seasons of Easter and Pentecost and embark upon the period called in the Lectionary, “ordinary time”? As we’ve seen today, though it involves living day to day, there is nothing ordinary about it.

If you’d like to give your audience a look at a harvest, here are two videos:

Sermon for June 25, 2017

Scripture readings: Gen. 21:8-21 and Ps. 86:1-10, 16-17
or Jer. 20:7-13 and Ps. 69:7-10, 16-18; Rom. 6:1-11; Matt. 10:24-39

Sermon by Ted Johnston from Romans 6:1-4 
(drawing on John Stott's commentary)



In today’s reading in Matthew, Jesus declared that his first disciples were to take up their crosses and follow him (Matt. 10:38). We have the same calling today—this is the life to which we as believers are called, empowered by the Spirit. In our reading today in Romans, Paul addresses the topic of Christian living. The passage falls within a section of Paul’s letter where he addresses the unity believers have by virtue of their shared spiritual union with Christ. Chapter 5 presents that unity from the perspective of justification— the standing believers have with God apart from works or personal merit. Some were strongly objecting to Paul’s assertion. “If we are justified apart from the law,” they asked, “then what about Christian living?” What about that? Can believers do anything they want and expect future glory? Does Paul advocate continuing a life of sin?

Well, Paul anticipates these questions and objections, noting that some people already were “slanderously” misquoting him as saying, “Let us do evil that good may result” (Rom. 3:8). Up to chapter 6, Paul waived such accusations aside, but now he addresses them head on—pointing out that God’s grace not only forgives sin, it delivers from sin. Grace not only justifies, it sanctifies. This is because the Spirit unites us to Christ (Rom. 6:1-14), thus initiating us into a form of slavery—slavery to God and to his righteousness (Rom. 6:15-23). These two halves of Romans 6 closely parallel one another in upholding the grace of God, showing that grace does not undermine ethical responsibility, pointing to baptism and conversion in showing the radical discontinuity between our pre-baptism life in Adam and our post-baptism life in Christ.

In this sermon we’ll look at Paul’s argument in Romans 6:1-14, which explores the topic of Christian living as understood in accordance with the logic of our baptism.

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka (2005)
(used with Creative Commons permission)

Paul begins with a vehement rejection of the notion that God’s grace gives a believer permission to sin. “What shall we say, then?” Paul asks, “shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” His emphatic answer is, “by no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2). But on what grounds can Paul make such a statement? At first sight, logic seems to be on the side of the antinomians, since the more we sin, the more opportunity God will have to display his forgiving grace. But Paul counters that false logic with a seven-step argument related directly to the meaning of our baptism.

1. We died to sin (Rom. 6:2)

It may be true that some believers think that grace is permission to continue in sin. But Paul counters that false understanding by asking a question, which in literal translation from the Greek is this: “We died to sin (in the past); how then shall we live in it (in the future)?” (Rom. 6:2). Phillips translates it this way: “We who have died to sin—how could we live in sin any longer?”

What does Paul mean that we have “died to sin”? First, he does not mean that it is impossible for Christians to sin. Rather he is saying that for a Christian to continue to live a sinful life—to continue in the practice of sin—makes no sense. The expressions “died to sin” or “dead to sin” occur in this section twice of Christians (Rom. 6:2, 11) and once of Christ (Rom. 6:10). To say that Christ “died to sin” does not mean that it became impossible for him to sin, yet he never did sin. The meaning is that Christ bore sin’s condemnation, namely death. He met that claim, paid sin’s penalty, accepted its reward—and this he did “once for all.” In consequence, sin has no more claim or demand on him. “It is finished,” he said.

Paul’s point is that what is true of Christ is therefore true of Christians—those “in Christ.” By virtue of being united to Christ by the Spirit, Christians have “died to sin.” The New Testament tells us not only that Christ, in his vicarious humanity, died in our place as our substitute (so that we will never need to die for our sins), but also that he died as our representative, so that we may be said to have died in and through him. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). By being united to Christ, his death became our death.

To be “dead to sin” is not to be dead to or immune from sin’s power. As believers, we continue to be tempted and, in our weakness, to succumb. But, in union with Christ, we are relieved from the guilt of sin—and thus it makes no sense that we would continue in a life of sin. Paul next emphasizes this point by discussing our baptism by which believers, through the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ in his death.

2. We share in Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3)

“Don’t you know,” asks Paul in Romans 6:3, “that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” When people ask whether Christians are free to sin, they betray their ignorance of what baptism means. Baptism represents various things, including cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but its essential symbolism is the union of the believer with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection—and in this verse, the emphasis is on Christ’s death. To be baptized into Christ means to enter into relationship with him, much as the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” that is, into allegiance to him as their leader (1 Cor. 10:2). Christian baptism involves a signifying of a personal, vital identification with Jesus Christ—including with his death to sin on our behalf.

3. We share in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:4-5)

Just as our baptism signifies the believer’s union with Christ in his death to sin, it also signifies their union with Christ in his resurrection, in order that “we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4)—in order that we may share in the glorified, human resurrection life of Christ—a life that begins now and will be completed on the day of our bodily resurrection in glory.

Romans 6:5 drives the point home: “If we have been united with him like this in his death” (literally “with him in the likeness of his death”), “we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection,” or perhaps better translated, “with him in the likeness of his resurrection.” What is this “likeness” of Christ’s death and resurrection? This has puzzled Bible students throughout Christian history. It seems to refer either to baptism as representing death and resurrection, or to the fact that our death and resurrection with Christ are very similar to his, though not identical. Or, as commentator John Stott notes, it may be best to understand this verse in more general terms: “For if (in baptism) we have become conformed to his death, we shall certainly also be conformed (in our life here and now) to his resurrection.”

These verses seem to allude to the pictorial symbolism of baptism, where being plunged beneath the water is like a death, the momentary time spent under water is like a burial, and reemergence out of the water is like a resurrection from the dead. This outward symbolism pictures or signifies that by faith we are united by the Spirit with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and have thus come to share in their blessings. What these blessings are Paul now enlarges on, elaborating the significance of Christ’s death in Rom. 6:6-7 and of his resurrection in Rom. 6:8-9, bringing them together in Rom. 6:10.

4. We died with Christ (Rom. 6:6-7)

Romans 6:6 contains three closely related clauses. We are told that something happened, in order that something else might happen, in order that a third thing might happen: “We know that our old self was crucified with him (Christ), so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Perhaps the best way to grasp Paul’s logic here is to take these three stages in reverse order. God’s end-purpose, he tells us, is our freedom from sin’s tyranny: “that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” That is plain. But before our rescue from sin’s slavery is possible, “the body of sin” must be “done away with.” In short, conquest must precede deliverance.

What, though, is the “body of sin”? It is not the human body itself, which the Bible says is God’s good creation. Rather, the “body of sin” is the “sinful self” (REB)—our fallen, self-centered nature, which misuses and perverts the God-given use of our body. It is God’s will and purpose that this sinful self (body of sin) should be “done away with”—defeated, disabled and deprived of power in our lives.

To understand how this disabling happens, we come to the first clause of Rom. 6:6, which says that “our old self” (KJV “our old man”) “was crucified with him” (with Christ). This “old self” cannot be the same thing as our “body of sin” (sinful nature) or the sentence would make no sense. The “old self” is not our sinful nature that remains alive, but “the man we once were” (NEB)—the person we were in Adam who now has been put to death with Christ, the new Adam. What was crucified with Christ was not our sinful nature, but who we were as a person in our pre-conversion state. This is clear because the phrase “our old self was crucified” (Rom 6:6) is equivalent to “we died to sin” (Rom. 6:2).

There is some confusion concerning Paul’s use in v. 6 of the verb “crucified.” Many associate it with Galatians 5:24, where “those who belong to Christ are said to “have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” But Paul’s point in these two verses is entirely different. Romans 6:6 describes something that has happened to us (“our old self was crucified with him”), whereas Galatians 5:24 refers to something which we ourselves have done (we “have crucified the sinful nature”). There are in fact two quite distinct ways in which the New Testament speaks of crucifixion in relation to our sanctification: The first is our death to sin through identification with Christ; the second is our death to self through imitation of Christ. On the one hand, we have been crucified with Christ. But on the other, we have crucified (decisively repudiated) our sinful nature with all its desires, so that every day we renew this attitude by taking up our cross and following Christ to crucifixion (as we saw in our reading today in Matthew 10). The first is a legal/positional death, a death to the penalty of sin; the second is a moral/experiential death, a death to the power of sin. The first belongs to the past, and is unique and unrepeatable; the second belongs to the present, and is repeatable, even continuous. I died to sin (in Christ) once; I die to self (like Christ) daily. It is with the first of these two deaths that Romans 6 is chiefly concerned, although the first is with a view to the second, and the second cannot take place without the first.

But how has the fact that our former self was crucified with Christ resulted in the disabling of our sinful self and thus our rescue from sin’s slavery? Romans 6:7 supplies the answer. The NIV says it is “because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” “Freed” is from a Greek word that predominantly means justified. Thus a better translation would be: “he who has died has been justified from his sin.” But how are our death and consequent justification (Rom. 6:7) the basis of our liberation from sin (Rom. 6:6)?

The only way to be justified from sin is that the wages (penalty) of sin be paid. But the wages of sin is death and how can we die, yet live in liberation? The wonderful thing about Christian justification is that our death is followed by resurrection, in which we can live the life of a justified person, having paid the death penalty (in and through Christ) for our sin. For us it is like this: We deserved to die for our sins. And we did die, though not in our own person, but in the person of Jesus Christ, our representative and substitute, who died in our place, and with whom we have been united by the Holy Spirit through faith and baptism in a spiritual union. And by that union with the risen Christ, we have now risen again. So the old life of sin is finished, because we died to it, and the new life of justified sinners has begun. Paul’s point is this: our death and resurrection with Christ render it inconceivable that we should go back. It is in this sense that our sinful self has been deprived of power and we have been set free!

5. We live with Christ (Rom. 6:8-10)

Paul then continues discussing our new life in and with Christ: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). This “living with Christ” occurs now (following baptism) and comes to fullness in the future (following our bodily resurrection); or as Paul writes in Rom. 8:10, in consequence of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, “your spirit is alive” and “he…will also give life to your mortal bodies.”

The guarantee of the continuing and unfolding nature of this new life in Christ is found in Christ’s resurrection: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again” (Rom. 6:9). Jesus was not resuscitated (like Lazarus), but resurrected—raised to a new plane of living, from which there will never be any question of return: “Death no longer has mastery over him” (Rom. 6:9). Having been delivered from death’s tyranny, he has passed beyond its jurisdiction forever. As the glorified Lord himself declares: “I am the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18).

Next Paul summarizes Jesus’ death and resurrection in a short statement: “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God” (Rom. 6:10). Jesus’ death is a past event—“once for all,” which dealt with sin. His resurrection is a present (and continuing) experience to God’s glory. As believers, in our spiritual union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit, we died once to sin—it is finished; the debt is paid. And now, united to Christ in his resurrection we live in an unending life of service to God that will culminate in our bodily resurrection to glory.

6. We count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:11)

If Christ’s death was a death to sin (which it was), and if his resurrection was a resurrection to God (which it was), and if by baptism, signifying our trust in Christ, we have been united by the Spirit to Christ in his death and resurrection (which we have), then we have died to sin and risen to God. We must therefore “reckon” (AV), “consider” (RSV), “regard” (NEB), “look upon” (JBP) or “count” (NIV) ourselves “dead to sin but alive to God in,” or by reason of our union with, “Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).

This reckoning is not make-believe! It’s not a mind-game. We are not pretending that our old nature has died, when we know perfectly well it has not. Instead we realize and remember that our former self did die with Christ, thus putting an end to its career. We consider ourselves to be what in fact we are—“dead to sin and alive to God” (Rom. 6:11), like Christ (Rom. 6:10). Once we grasp this—that our old life has ended, with the score settled, the debt paid and the demand of the law satisfied—we shall want to have nothing more to do with it. It is not to a mind-game that Paul calls us, but to deep reflection and vivid recollection of reality. In short, he is calling us to preach the gospel to ourselves.

We have to keep reminding ourselves of who we are in our spiritual union with Christ. It is inconceivable that we should live as though our death and resurrection with Christ had never taken place. Can a married woman live as though she were still single? Well, yes, I suppose she can. But let her remember who she is! Let her feel her wedding ring, the symbol of her new life of union with her husband, and she will want to live accordingly. Can a born-again Christian live as though she were still in her sins? Well, yes, I suppose she can—at least for a while. But let her remember who she is! Let her recall her baptism, the symbol of her new life in union with Christ, by the Spirit, and she will want to live accordingly.

So the basis of Christian living is in knowing that our former self was crucified with Christ. It is in knowing that our baptism into Christ is a baptism into his death and resurrection. It is in knowing that through Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God. We are to recall, ponder, grasp, and register these truths until they are so much a part of us that a return to the old life is unthinkable!

Christians, who are alive to Christ, should no more contemplate a return to their old life than adults would contemplate a return to their childhood, married people to their singleness, or discharged prisoners to their prison cell. That is because our union with Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, has severed us from the old life and committed us to the new. Our baptism stands between the two like a door between two rooms—closing on the one and opening into the other. We have died, we have been buried, and we have risen! How can we possibly live again in what we have died to?

7. Conclusion: we must therefore offer ourselves to God (Rom. 6:12-14)

The word “therefore” in Rom. 6:12 introduces the conclusion of Paul’s argument and thus to this sermon. Because Christ died to sin and lives to God, and because through union with Christ by the Spirit we ourselves are “dead to sin but alive to God,” and we must “count” or consider ourselves so, therefore our whole attitude to sin and to God must change. We do not offer ourselves “to sin” because we have died to it; rather we offer ourselves “to God” (Rom. 6:13), because we have risen to live for his glory. This is the emphasis of these concluding verses.

Paul’s exhortation has negative and positive aspects that complement each other. The negative comes first: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal [i.e. physical] body so that you obey its evil desires” (Rom. 6:12). Not all our bodily desires are evil, of course, but sin can use our body as a bridgehead through which to govern us. So Paul calls us to rise up in rebellion against sin. Because we are “free from sin,” we have to fight against it—we are to “revolt” in the name of our rightful ruler, God, against sin’s rule. A second negative exhortation follows: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness” (Rom. 6:13). “Instruments” is a military term, the idea being that we are not to offer our bodies as military instruments in support of the wicked ways of sin. Rather (and Paul now turns to a positive exhortation), “offer yourselves to God as instruments [weapons] of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Whereas the command not to offer ourselves to sin was in the present tense, indicating that we must not go on doing it, the exhortation to offer ourselves to God is in a Greek tense that indicates deliberate, decisive, continuing commitment.

The ground on which these exhortations are based is that we “have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13). The logic is clear. Since we have died to sin, it is inconceivable that we should let sin reign in us or offer ourselves to it. Since we are alive to God, it is only appropriate that we should offer ourselves to him. This theme of life and death, or rather death and life, runs right through this section. Christ died and rose. We have died and risen with him. We must therefore regard ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. And, as those who are alive from death, we must offer ourselves to God’s service.

The apostle now supplies a further reason for offering ourselves not to sin but to God. It is that “sin shall not” (he is expressing an assurance, even a promise, not a command) “be your master.” Why not? “Because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). This is the ultimate secret of freedom from sin. Law and grace are the opposing principles of the old and new orders, of Adam and of Christ, the new Adam. To be “under law” is to accept the obligation to keep it, and so to come under its curse and condemnation (Gal. 3:10). To be “under grace” is to acknowledge utter dependence on the work of Christ for salvation, and so to be justified rather than condemned, and thus be set free from sin and its power. Those who experience freedom from condemnation have the freedom to resist sin’s power with strength and boldness.

Thus our passage today is wedged between two references to sin and grace. In Rom. 6:1, the question is asked whether grace encourages sin; then in Rom. 6:14, the answer is given that, on the contrary, grace discourages and even outlaws sin. While law provokes and increases sin (Rom. 5:20); grace opposes it. Grace lays upon us the responsibility and the ability to live a life that is consecrated to God—this is the Christian living to which we are called.