Commentary Life

A Word from a Long-Dead Saint on Humility

I’m reading through 1 Clement, one of the letters from a first century church father, likely Clement of Rome (the guy in the mosaic above). The letter was written around AD 80-100.

The letter is addressed to the Corinthians—that same group of Christians we read about in the New Testament who struggled so much to love each other.

Much of Clement’s letter is focused on humility and peace. He writes, “Let [your children] learn of how great avail [of value, benefit] humility is with God.”

And “You see, beloved, what is the example which has been given us; for if the Lord has so humbled Himself, what shall we do who have through Him come under the yoke of His grace?”

And most pointedly, “Why do we rend and tear apart Christ’s members and raise a revolt against our own body? Why do we reach such insanity that we are oblivious of the fact we are members of each other?”

Sounds like Clement could have written this to us in the Church today, right?

To those of you who feel hopeless with the Church (this is where I find myself often) because of pride and division among Christians, take heart. This has been a struggle since the beginning. It doesn’t mean God isn’t working or doesn’t care. It means the human heart takes a long time to change and, God is very, very, very patient with us. Like every generation before, we have work to do.

To those of you doing the dividing (and I mean elevating politics or certain doctrines or preferred worship styles over Jesus…or calling other Christian names or questioning their allegiance to Jesus, etc.) remember that those who call Jesus their “Lord” are members of the same body with you. In Christ, we are organically connected to each other. 

I want unity in the Church. But I’m not immune to causing division either. It’s easy for me to look down on people who put those things above Jesus and his Church. So then I put my own perspective or “humility” above Jesus, doing the very thing I wish others wouldn’t.

We are all a work in progress, moving from one degree of humility to another, aren’t we?

This is not something to take lightly. Let’s not rend and tear it apart because of pride. As another church father put it, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility” (Augustine of Hippo).

This was a lesson the Corinthians needed to learn time and time again, it seems. 

And so do we.


Becoming Truly Human

In his work On the Incarnation, the 4th century church father Athanasius of Alexandria wrote, “He [Jesus] became what we are that we might become what he is.”

At first glance, it might be easy to think Athanasius means we become god–or a god. Certainly theologians over the years have argued that.

But that’s not quite right.

When we trust in Jesus, we don’t get to become a god.

We get to become truly human again.

You see, we were created in the image of God. That’s what it means to be human. But because of sin and its destructive effects, our image bearing is marred.

We were created to live in perfect, sweet fellowship with our Father in heaven. But we don’t. We can’t.

We are like cracked mirrors reflecting God’s glory and beauty. So, we are still image bearers, but the reflection is far from ideal. In a way, we can say that we are functionally operating as “less than human.” That’s what sin does.

Enter Jesus.

The Second Person of the Trinity took on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and lived a perfectly obedient human life, always walking in perfect, intimate fellowship with his Father in heaven.

When God gives someone new life by his Spirit, he begins to transform them to become more like Jesus–the perfect Human. The horrible effects of sin are being undone, as it were, and we learn what it means to truly be image bearers and live before God in constant fellowship.

This process isn’t ever completed this side of the grave. The cracks are still there.

But God is working (slow as it seems to us). And we’re becoming truly human again.

I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The full life is lived with, under, and before God. It’s what we were made for. It’s what it means to be truly human. And it’s only possible because the Son took on flesh.

Reviews Theology

Review: Awakening Faith

James Stuart Bell, with Patrick J. Kelly, Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. $18.68 (Amazon). 400 pp.

The average American evangelical knows little of church history. I am certainly no expert in this area, but I do feel the need and desire to be acquainted with the community of faith that spans the past two thousand years. For that reason, it is always a pleasure for me to read about the early church or read the words of the Church Fathers themselves. Therefore, I’m delighted to let you know about Awakening Faith by James Stuart Bell and Patrick J. Kelly. This new year-long devotional provides a simple, bite-size introduction to a number of spiritual giants in church history.

What’s intimidating about the early church writers is that their writing is heavy. There’s teeth to it. Reading the early church is not like picking up the latest Christian best seller at Barnes and Noble. These writers make you think because they are (1) not American and (2) lived outside our century. These two things make reading the early church valuable.

Yet you do not need to be intimated because in Awakening Faith you’ll get rich doctrine and wholehearted devotion in small bites. Each day has a simple layout. There is an introductory verse or two from Scripture followed by a few paragraphs from an early church pastor or theologian. There is a consistent focus on Christ, the gospel, spiritual formation, and the duty of Christians to be salt and light in the world–everything a good devotional should be.

Bell pens a helpful introduction to why the early church matters. Another particularly nice feature is the index of authors. The index provides the list of authors, which days contain their writings, and a short bio of their contribution in church history. I have one critique that is really a suggestion for future editions: I would like to know the source of each devotional. That would no doubt help curious readers who want to dig deeper into any particular author. 

In the end, I’m excited about this devotional. My caution when considering any devotional is to remind people not to let it replace regular Scripture reading. At the same time, if you are looking for a solid Christ-centered devotional as a complement to your personal worship in the word or if you want to introduce yourself to the early church, I would highly recommend Awakening Faith!

Reviews Theology

Review: Getting to Know the Church Fathers

Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction by Bryan M. Litfin. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007. 301 pp. $14.47 paperback.

Bryan Litfin (Ph.D., University of Virginia), associate professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, provides a much needed introduction to the church fathers for evangelical Christians. Burdened by the fact that many evangelicals lack any kind of connection to the rich history of the church, Litfin writes so that Christians will learn to think of the fathers as those who can play a guiding role for the faith today (p. 18). Every Christian should find himself on the path of orthodoxy—a path the fathers labored to create (p. 29). When Christians get to know the church fathers and what they believed, they will “begin to understand something of the grandeur of the community to which we belong…the ‘communion of saints’” (p. 29).

In his introduction, Litfin explains how one is considered a church father: he/she must be “ancient, orthodox in doctrine, holy in life, and approved by other Christians” (p. 19). He then highlights three common misconceptions evangelicals have about these giants of the faith: 1) the church fathers were not biblical; 2) the church fathers were Roman Catholics; and 3) the church fathers represent the “fall” of Christianity (pp. 20-27). Perhaps the second is the most widely held misconception. Unfortunately, evangelicals have equated “catholic” with “Roman Catholic” and have thus been robbed of their rightful spiritual heritage (p. 22). “Catholic,” as it relates to the fathers, writes Litfin, “referred to the unified community of all true believers in the world: those whose loyalty was given to the risen Christ” (p. 23).

In each of the ten chapters, Litfin covers the life and influence of a church father. It is difficult to coalesce the themes of the fathers (which rightly includes one woman, Perpetua), for each had many different themes associated with their lives and eras. Nevertheless, Litfin masterfully communicates his main idea: church fathers matter because they are people whom God used at a critical time in history to defend and continue the spread of the gospel. This means that present-day evangelicals are part of something much greater than their own relationship with God (p. 264).

Three areas of strength in Litfin’s book are noteworthy. First, Litfin’s writing style is engaging. He makes ancient history accessible and compelling as he begins each chapter with a modern story that will help connect the reader with the church father’s life and work. His devotional style moves the reader toward worshiping God for what he has done in history more than the average biographical work. Each chapter includes reflection questions and a few resources to “dig deeper” into the particular father’s life. Litfin also provides a select portion of writing from each father to close the chapters.

Second, modern day theological controversies continually rise to the surface in each chapter. This may seem obvious (there is nothing new under the sun), but Litfin helps today’s Christian understand where controversies came from, what the orthodox response was, and why it matters for today. There are an abundance of examples; a brief sampling will suffice.

Already in the first quarter of the second century, Ignatius fought two main opponents: legalistic Jews and Gnostics. Both had heretical views of Jesus. Litfin writes, “Both of these christological errors had harmful consequences: they located salvation somewhere other than the cross” (p. 45). Faulty christology has not been extinguished today, and the discerning Christian will detect where legalism and Gnosticism still rear their ugly heads. Ignatius is proof that theological battles can be fought on multiple fronts. Moreover, Ignatius reminds Christians to cling to the cross if they are zealous to authentically live out their faith. As Litfin says, “Understanding the doctrine of grace inevitably yields gracious people” (p. 46).

Irenaeus played a key role in determining what it meant to be orthodox in doctrine, thus establishing himself as one of the first to contribute to the emergence of catholic Christianity (pp. 77, 79). Irenaeus was also one of the first patristic writers to understand human history as the story of God’s redemption. Irenaeus also blessed the church with the “Rule of Faith.” The Rule is the basic synopsis of the Bible (pp. 90-91), and it helps believers to remember that, above all else, the Bible centers on what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring about salvation to sinful men and women.

Athanasius’s life can be summed up in the phrase de decretis (“Defending the Nicene Creed”). Athanasius’ main opponent was Arian, who charged that Jesus was not eternal but was created and therefore could not be God (p. 175). After Nicaea, Emperor Constantine tried to order Bishop Athanasius to readmit Arius to the church but Athanasius refused, for Arius rejected the Nicene principle of homoousios (the Father and Son were of the same substance), which Arian rejected (p. 178). For Athanasius, this was not simply a matter of semantics. “The Incarnate Christ had to be fully man and fully God in order to lift human beings back into God’s life” (p. 182). Orthodox evangelicals are indebted to Athanasius for articulate responses and tremendous courage as he stood against the world in the fight for truth (p. 183).

Third, Litfin winsomely expounds the events surrounding the lives of the fathers. Litfin details the nature of completing the canon when covering Tertullian (pp. 108-110). In the chapter on Perpetua, the reader can nearly feel the pressure of the Roman persecution that weighed down on the martyrs (pp. 132-135). Reading on Augustine, one can hear faint whispers of the Pelagian debate (pp. 226-230). Litfin also covers the rise of monasticism in Chrysostom’s chapter (pp. 192-197).

Weaknesses are hard to find in Litfin’s book; nevertheless a few must be mentioned. Some readers, particularly those in academia, may balk at Litfin’s use of informal writing (contractions, second person, etc.), but the devotional nature of the book justifies Litfin’s choices in these matters. What is of greater concern is Litfin’s glossing of some of the fathers’ character. At times, he paints the fathers more graciously than history has done, almost to a fault. Origen, for example, was later accused of heresy for his view of subordinationism, yet Litfin writes, “To be fair we must remember that the theological position of the Christian church on these points had not yet been firmly established” (p. 157). This seems to be a simplistic response to a very disturbing theology found in Origen. Litfin also fails to mention much at all about Tertullian’s involvement with the Montanists, which was considered a heretical sect by many orthodox believers.

One further suggestion, perhaps more for the publisher than Litfin, is that a Scripture index and glossary of terms would be welcome resource. Regarding the index, most foreign phrases are explained, but lay readers may find some terms distracting and lose track of Litfin’s point.

Overall, Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a helpful, lively, and accessible introduction to the early Christian church. This book will help evangelicals who are unfamiliar with patristic church history grow familiar with their spiritual ancestors and the issues, places, and events that shaped early Christianity. Litfin’s closing exhortation is a welcome one for evangelicals longing for a breath of fresh, ancient air to give life to a contemporary, and sometimes stale, faith: “Embrace your inner catholic, and see where it will take you” (p. 265).


How Did St. Augustine Get Saved?

St. Augustine of Hippo is a giant of the faith. He was monumental in helping the church establish a doctrine of grace against Pelagianism.  He also wrote many influential works, the two most famous being Confessions (his spiritual autobiography) and City of God. The story of how he came to Christ is marvelous and encouraging to all who are longing for true rest.

Augustine’s life can be characterized as a search for joy. His main pursuit was carnal pleasure, which left him empty. Augustine reflected on his search, “I did not ask for more certain proof of you, but only to be made more steadfast in you.”[1] Augustine did not want a water-tight argument for Christianity. He wanted a water-tight Person who would promise and deliver true joy.

His pursuit led him to sexual promiscuity. Aside from some very wild teen years, he lived with one woman (whom he never names) for a long time, though they never married. He admits that this experience helped him discover the difference between a marriage covenant with the purpose of raising Christian children and a “bargain struck for lust.”[2]

In search of deliverance from this lust, Augustine sought out his friend Simplicianus. Simplicianus told him the conversion story of Victorinus. Augustine remarks that the story “shows the great glory of your grace.”[3] Most likely, Augustine meant that the story shows God’s grace in Victorinus’ life, but also how God used it to change his own life.

When Augustine heard of Victorinus’ public profession, he “began to glow with fervor to imitate him,” which was precisely why Simplicianus told the story in the first place.[4] Mere imitation cannot change a heart, but what transpired after this encounter was that Augustine increasingly realized his depravity and need for a Redeemer.

Augustine describes his conversion in terms of being “released…from the fetters of lust.”[5] Another story brought that about. One day with his friend Alypius, Augustine was visited by a fellow-African named Ponticianus. Just like Simplicianus, Ponticianus shared a story with Augustine: this one about release from the world through monastic living.

Augustine realized God was using Ponticianus’ story to help him see “how sordid…how deformed and squalid” his heart was.[6] But Augustine prayed, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”[7] The Holy Spirit overcame such resistance and God drew Augustine to Christ. After Ponticianus left, Augustine was in the spiritual birth canal, as it were: “I was beside myself with madness that would bring me sanity,” Augustine wrote. “I was dying a death that would bring me life.”[8]

Augustine’s self-understanding heightened as he wrestled with his desire for holiness and carnal pleasure.[9] After a physical assault on his own body,[10] he isolated himself from Alypius and asked his soul, ‘How long shall I go on saying, ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’? Why not now? Why not make an end of my ugly sins at this moment?”[11]

As Augustine surrendered, he heard a voice saying, “Take it and read!” He returned to Alypius where Paul’s letters lay on the table. He read Romans 13:13-14 and embraced the call to clothe himself with Christ. Augustine wrote, “You converted me to yourself, so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world.”

Who saved Augustine? God did. But he did not use not water-tight, rational arguments to save Augustine. God used two stories that exposed Augustine’s desire for worldly pleasure and showed the glorious, eternal joy available when God is the object of pleasure.

[1] Augustine Confessions 8.1.
[2] Ibid., 4.2.
[3] Ibid., 8.2.
[4] Ibid., 8.5.
[5] Ibid., 8.6.
[6] Ibid., 8.7.
[7] Ibid., 8.7.
[8] Ibid., 8.8.
[9] In 8.9-10, Augustine enters into a fascinating reflection on the nature of the will.
[10] Ibid., 8.8.
[11] Ibid., 8.12.