Christ Defeated the Monsters (A Meditation from Luther)

The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain
(Duccio di Buoninsegna ca. 1308-1311,

tempera on poplar panel)

Let us see how Christ was able to gain the victory over our enemies.

The sins of the whole world,
            and future,
     fastened themselves upon Christ
     and condemned Him.
But because Christ is God
            He had an everlasting
            and unconquerable righteousness.

These two,
            the sin of the world
            and the righteousness of God,
                                    met in a death struggle.
                        Furiously the sin of the world assailed the righteousness of God.
                                    Righteousness is immortal and invincible.
                        On the other hand, sin is a mighty tyrant who subdues all men.
                                    This tyrant pounces on Christ.
                        But Christ's righteousness is unconquerable.
                                    The result is inevitable.
                                                Sin is defeated
                                                and righteousness triumphs and reigns forever.

In the same manner was death defeated.
            Death is emperor of the world.
                        He strikes down
                                    all men.
                        He has an idea to destroy all life.
            But Christ has immortal life,
                        and life immortal gained the victory over death.
                        Through Christ death has lost her sting.
                        Christ is the Death of death.

The curse of God waged a similar battle with the eternal mercy of God in Christ.
            The curse meant to condemn God's mercy.
                        But it could not do it because the mercy of God is everlasting.
                        The curse had to give way.
            If the mercy of God in Christ had lost out,
                        God Himself would have lost out,
                        which, of course, is impossible.

                        the power of God,
                        grace and life,
                                    and destroyeth these monsters,
                                                                        and the curse,
                                    without war or weapons,
                                    in his own body
                                    and in himself.

'Christ," says Paul, "spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." (Col. 2:15.)
            They cannot harm those who hide in Christ.
                        the wrath of God,
                        the devil
                                    are mortified in Christ.

Where Christ is near the powers of evil must keep their distance.

--from Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians 3:13, a composite from the Watson and Graebner translations, line breaks and formatting are my own. 

Walking in the Way of Jesus

A few summers ago, my three oldest kids and I discovered a great hiking trail just a few miles from where we live. It’s a trail through the woods that winds in and out of several parks just on the east side of the St. Joseph River, complete with a river shelter and several picnic areas and playgrounds just off the trail. The kids were enthralled, and our little hike led into a natural conversation about walking the right path or way in life.

The word walk is one of the main biblical metaphors for living the Christian life. Sometimes I think its significance is lost on us today. In the ancient world, walking was the ordinary person’s primary mode of transportation. The best way to get from here to there was to walk. They didn’t have trains, planes, and automobiles—even the bicycle wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century! Horses, at least in ancient Israel, were scarce and primarily used in battle. So most journeys were taken on foot by walking. We see this especially in the life of Jesus. As someone once noted, Jesus is the most persistent pedestrian in the Bible!

So the idea of walking in a way was the perfect picture for an ancient person to understand the moral and spiritual life. We find the metaphor early in Genesis where God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8), picturing God’s active presence with humanity in their original created state. That fellowship was interrupted, of course, by the Fall. But as the redemption story unfolds, God once again walks with his people. “I will walk among you and be your God,” God says to Israel (Leviticus 26:12).

He not only walks with us, but we walk with him. Both Enoch and Noah are commended for walking with God (Genesis 5:22, 24; 6:9), and the Lord said to Abraham, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1). The New Testament has many instances of this imagery as well. John and Paul describe Christian behavior in terms of walking in light rather than darkness, walking as Jesus walked, walking in wisdom, walking in newness of life, walking in good works, walking in the Spirit, and so on.

But to walk, one must have a way, a road, or a path. The Scriptures are full of this imagery, and it is especially obvious in Old Testament poetry, wisdom literature, and the prophetic books. The first psalm contrasts the ways of the righteous and wicked, commending the man who “walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1:1). The first verse of Psalm 119 echoes that commendation, declaring the blessedness of “those whose way is blameless who walk in the law of the Lord,” while Proverbs 4:18 says that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” Later, Jesus taught about discipleship and salvation by contrasting the hard way that leads to life with the easy way that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13–14), and Luke describes the early Christians as followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22).

This brief survey of walk and way imagery in Scripture (and there are dozens and dozens of other texts—I encourage you to search them out!) suggests several insights about Christian living:

(1) First of all, it involves effort, movement, and action. Walking requires motion, and so does following Jesus. The Christian life is not a passive or static state. Ours is an active spirituality.

(2) But it also involves choices. You must choose a road, a path, a way in which to walk. The Scriptures variously describe this path as a way of life, light, love, truth, righteousness, etc. But what is clear is that there is a way that leads to salvation and a way that doesn’t.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory about the journey of faith, vividly captures this reality. I love this book and think it is worth repeated readings. Spurgeon reportedly read it over a hundred times! I haven’t read it a hundred times, but I do keep coming back to it. I recently realized that Bunyan not only describes the Christian’s journey through life with all its attending obstacles, detours, and dangers, but also provides a startling array of characters to illustrate defective faith. It’s a study in apostasy every bit as much as it is a portrayal of the perseverance of the saints. When we meet Obstinate, Pliable, Ignorance, Hypocrisy, Worldly Wiseman, Talkative, Formalist, Legality, and all the rest, we’re not just encountering transparent examples of unbelievers and apostates. We’re also seeing in detail the kinds of spiritual problems that get people off track. The one thing all of these characters have in common is that they didn’t continue walking in the way to the Celestial City.

(3) Therefore, we must keep walking in the right way. Whenever we realize we’ve gotten off the path, we must by God’s grace find the way back on. Bunyan’s Christian does this again and again, and he makes it all the way home only with dogged persistence. So must you and I. The most fatal thing is to stop walking.

(4) Finally, both Scripture and Bunyan remind us that walking often involves companionship. We must walk with the Lord (Genesis 5:22; Revelation 3:4), but we must also walk with others who follow him: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Christian met numerous cases of dubious character and doubtful faith, but he also had companions like Faithful and Hopeful who helped him in the journey.

Like Christian, we also need good spiritual companions, which reminds me to ask—have you found a good church yet? Don’t underestimate the importance of true Christian fellowship for your life. It will make a huge difference in your spiritual progress.

This post is a lightly edited excerpt from my book Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life.

Grace Restores Nature in the Theology of Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck towers head and shoulders above most theologians, though he is only beginning to be more widely read in English. His chief accomplishment was the four-volume masterpiece, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, originally published in Dutch from 1895 to 1899. The English translation, Reformed Dogmatics, was completed in 2008 and is a treasure-trove of theological reflection.  

The melody running through all four movements of Bavinck’s theological symphony is the happy theme that “grace restores nature.” In Bavinck’s own words, “Grace serves, not to take up humans into a supernatural order, but to free them from sin. Grace is opposed not to nature, only to sin . . . Grace restores nature and takes it to its highest pinnacle.”[1]

Bavinck understood that God’s ultimate purpose is not to rescue human beings from the created world by releasing us from our bodies and relocating us to heaven, but rather to renew the fallen creation and reestablish God’s kingdom on earth, with human beings as his restored image-bearers. The goal, then, is not escape, but recreation, renewal, and redemption.

The greatest proof for this claim is Christ’s resurrection. Bavinck said, “The bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead is conclusive proof that Christianity does not adopt a hostile attitude towards anything human or natural, but intends only to deliver creation from all that is sinful, and to sanctify it completely.”[2] Following Bavinck, the story of salvation might be plotted with several “form” words: “The form (forma) given in creation, was deformed by sin in order to be entirely reformed again in the sphere of grace.”[3]

Such a perspective will protect us from both worldliness on one hand and otherworldliness on the other. “We continually err on the side of the right or on the side of the left,” said Bavinck. “On the one side looms the danger of worldliness, on the other side that of otherworldliness. Often the Christian life lurches on an unsteady path between the two. And yet we hold fast to the conviction that the Christian and the human are not in conflict with one another . . . The Christian is the true man, on every front and in every domain. Christianity is not opposed to nature, but to sin. Christ came, not to destroy the works of the Father, but only those of the devil.”[4]

When it comes to eschatology, Bavinck looked for the “renewal of the world . . . [not] a second, brand-new creation but a re-creation of the existing world. God’s honor consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin. Just as anyone in Christ is a new creation in whom the old has passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17), so also this world passes away in its present form as well, in order out of its womb, at God’s word of power, to give birth and being to a new world.”[5] In fact, the final chapter of Bavinck’s four-volume project is entitled “The Renewal of Creation.”

Bavinck would have agreed with the hymn-writer Isaac Watts:

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.[6]

End Notes

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 577.
[2] Herman Bavinck, De offerande des lofs: overdenkingen voor en na de toelating tot het heilige avondmaal (Gravenhage: J.C. De Mildt, 1907), 52. Quoted by Jan Veenhof, trans., Albert M. Wolters, Nature and Grace in Herman Bavinck (Sioux Center, IA: Dordt College Press, 2006) 21. See also Dane C. Ortlund, ““Created Over a Second Time” or “Grace Restoring Nature”? Edwards and Bavinck on the Heart of Christian
Salvation” in The Bavinck Review 3 (2012): 9–29. Available online at: Accessed March 18, 2016.
[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) 574. 
[4] Quoted in Veenhof, “Nature and Grace in Bavinck.”
[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 717.
[6] Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” 1719.