Original Opinion Piece for September 11 (’14)
Last week, I answered the question, “What does it mean to be Reformed?” In doing so, I started in an unusual place from others who are Reformed. But the starting point is important, and naturally leads to today’s post. What does it mean to be Reformed? Being Reformed means you embrace a particular revelation of God as Independent, Sovereign, and Good.
Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” As Bebo Elkin, a Presbyterian minister, likes to say, “In the beginning God created” are the five most important words in the English language. By them, we know whose we are and by what right we belong to him. Everything after this is elementary addition. Accepting this can be advanced Calculus.
“In the beginning God” reminds us that there was a time when we were not, but that God always has been. He has always been “there”, while we are Johnny-Come-Latelyes. In the scale of existence, he is off the scale and we are firmly planted upon it. He is uncreated and independent of us and everything else that exists. We, and everything else in our reality, are fully dependent upon him. Completely. As the Scriptures say, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:3) “In the beginning” puts God in his place and us underneath. Only he knows the beginning from the end and the story in-between. We could never glimpse a single chapter of the story of the universe unless he stoops down and reveals it to us. This Sovereign God is out of our league in every way, yet he came into ours, revealing his goodness. He is grand and independent in a way we cannot use language to capture, but can use to worship.
“In the beginning God created” triggers our worship of him as we realize our true nature as creatures and servants of the sovereign God who made us when he did not have to. You did not have to be born; your mother did not have to born; her mother did not, and so on. He owes us nothing, yet gave us life. The history of Mankind is a story of how we responded to this gift of life, and there are only two plots.
First, some of us hate the idea of being controlled by authority. We shout (or perhaps in hallways, whisper) pejoratives like “The Man” ain’t gonna get us down! We struggled against our older siblings when they were our babysitters; parents when they told us to clean our room and eat our vegetables; teachers when they gave us homework; principles who enforced discipline; police who write speeding tickets; judges who enforce the ticket and make us pay a fine or spend the night in jail; bosses who make us work on the weekends. To such folks, nothing is worse than a God who is over all the other authorities and is the boss of your time, electronic toys, eating habits, modesty and sexuality, job, your marriage and parenting, and even the cellular division taking place in your body allowing your life to continue as you read this paragraph. These kinds of people say, “In the beginning I“, but the Scripture says, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God” (Psalm 14:1). These kinds of people “refuse to acknowledge God as God, or give him thanks,” even when there is much for which to be thankful (Mt 5:45; Rom 1:21-22). It is not hard to tell God “thank you.” It says a lot about a cold heart that cannot warm to God.
Second, some of us used to hate the idea of being under authority. What was said of Israel during the time of the Judges was said by us, “There is no king in the land, so I’m going to do what is right in my own eyes.” As Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But no more. We have learned the lesson of every breath we take: “I am not so in charge as I presume, and God is not so distant as I pretend. I cannot even make my heart continue beating or my brain continue thinking. I need God, my authority and my creator, to keep me in his hand. He made me. I need him to keep me going. To worship him is better than death, and gives me life.” We have come to see that God’s authority and control as Creator is as comforting as the first warm Spring day after a long, cold winter. Who he is—really is—and who we really are is not in conflict unless we want to switch places with him, pretending to be in charge. But God is not our employee on payroll, staying late to mop up our messes and improve our lives.
We have come to embrace the truth that once we did not exist, but now we do because it pleased God to make us—and we’re thankful he did! “In the beginning God created” are the five most important English words because they act as the magnetic pole on the compass of our lives pushing us Due North to God our Creator, the one who can sustain us, save us, and make us whole again by bringing us back to Him. Otherwise, we’re fish out of water gasping for breath in a world where the daylight is always blinding yet never illumines. We exist most righteously when embracing our place as creatures before our Creator. There’s no sense in jumping out of the fishbowl; we’ll just suffocate.
But God, in the beginning, made everything including us and knows all things great and small, from the death of a sparrow in mid-flight to every hair on your head (Luke 12:7). We are glad that “In the beginning God created” because it means our source of knowledge, life, holiness, and authority is identified, confirmed, and promised forever.
The Reformed Faith moves from its humble position (with head bowed) to arms raised in worship at a God so grand, independent, sovereign, and other-than-us that he spoke all creatures and atoms into existence. He gave life where there was nothing, and then did so again by speaking new life into the dead hearts of his people (2 Cor 5:17). Such a God answers to no one and has no boss, but chooses to speak to his creatures with words of mercy, comfort, healing, and vindication and save us for himself. He is grand and powerful more than Oz, but he is also good.
Once we begin to see God as independent, sovereign, distinct, and other than us, we accept naturally his right to rule and judge us, to direct and determine our lives. When we see his goodness towards us, we gladly accept his right to rule us. And this, as said above, leads to elementary, logical, and biblical conclusions. We begin with heads bowed but quickly lift our voices and sing with Paul, You are “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To you be honor and eternal dominion! Amen” (1 Tim 6:15-16)!
Why should we be so humble? A corpse clothed in pomp and arrogance is dressed oddly, indeed. However, if it is given life again, it would be sheer madness for it to rise and proclaim, “I have given myself life!” The only sane move to make is to find the life-giver and thank him…profusely. Would a single “thank you” ever be enough? The dead cannot withstand the iron grip of death; the stench of necrosis eventually gives way to ash, then dust, then nothing. A corpse who has been given life has only one sentence to say, “What do I have that I did not receive as gift?” Corpses only receive from outside themselves. Otherwise, they grow fouler with time until they become nothing. So it is with us, and so we are humble at every point in our newly-birthed lives. “For in him do we live and move and have our being,” Paul wrote. He would know, for Paul was not only an expert in the Law, but also a man who excelled in obedience more than you. If a man could achieve his way to life in God, Paul could. Yet he couldn’t. He understood that salvation by achievement and salvation by grace are two separate highways with disparate and never-touching destinations. Paul leads us to the humility of new birth in his confession,
“I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order 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 comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that…I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:8-10).
From conception to burial, we are nothing but persons in actual absolute dependence of God. It is not enough to pretend or “feel” like we depend on God. We must realize we really do. In the beginning God created, and then he continues our lives without asking our permission. We have earned death—each of us—and we have inherited it from our father, Adam. But genuine thanks to God, for he has saved us in Christ. As Thomas Watson said, “When the heart has been made black with sin, grace makes the face red with blushing.”
What a gloriously Sovereign King we serve (1 Tim 6:15-16)—and full of goodness to his people (Ex 34:5-9)! What does it mean to be Reformed? It means you are (in theory, at least) humbly serving an independent, sovereign, and good God.