In the beautiful 1965 movie The Sound of Music, Maria (Julie Andrews) and Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) sing “Something Good,” in which they say they must have done something good sometime during their childhood or youth, because they have found each other. What interests me in this song, however, is not their love story but this particular lyric:
“Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could”
When put into context, the line means that God has rewarded them for their good deeds in their childhood by bringing them together. But when taken out of context–although I normally don’t like doing it–it may lead one to the question of the origin of the universe. Although it is quite a leap to go from their love song to the origin of everything, the line pertains to one of the most besetting questions:
“How did the universe and everything in it begin?”
Roughly speaking, I think that there are two competing types of answers to that question. (* There is a mediating position called TE [Theistic Evolution]).
First, there is the God explanation. It depends on and trusts the Bible’s description of the origin of the universe: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Second, there is the No God explanation. This attempts to account for the origin of the universe without God. The American Museum of Natural History (amnh.org) gives an exemplary stance of this view: “Our universe began with an explosion of space itself–the Big Bang. Starting from extremely high density and temperature, space expanded, the universe cooled, and the simplest elements formed. Gravity gradually drew matter together to form the first stars and the first galaxies.”
This question concerning the origin of the world is important because it affects almost every aspect of one’s life. In fact, your answer to that question demonstrates your conviction of where you’re headed after death. For those who accept and believe in the God explanation, death means a passage to God their Maker. For those who resort to the No God explanation, death simply means the end of their existence.
Where do you stand?
It’s impossible to overemphasize the significance of Rom 1:16-17. Porter is absolutely right when he claims that Rom 1:16-17 is the “theme for the entire letter” (Porter, Letter to the Romans, 57). I read and re-read Rom 1:17a this morning to realize that this is one of the most complete and satisfying descriptions (or even definitions) of the gospel.
“For the righteousness of God is revealed in it [the gospel], from faith to faith” (Rom 1:17a). The gospel concerns, most of all, God’s righteousness given to us by faith.
(Photo: Codex Sinaiticus, 3rd Century AD)
It was a peaceful Friday afternoon before I accidentally backed into a car behind me at the gas station. My car hit the car’s front bumper. Not too hard, but the noise was undeniable. I immediately got off and approached the puzzled middle-aged man who was still sitting in his Mazda 3.
“I am so sorry, sir. It’s my fault. I am very sorry. Are you okay?”
I was impressed that the man mustered up a smile. “Yeah, I’m fine. But you scared me,” he said. I apologized again with all my heart when he got out of his car. He only gave a passing look at his front bumper and number plate. But he looked carefully at the scratch on my car’s rear bumper. To my surprise, he turned to me and said, “You know what? It’s alright. Don’t worry about it, my friend.”
I was, in fact, ready to cooperate. I thought he would take photos, demand my contact and insurance information with a stern face. Or he could’ve simply asked for a compensation for the damage incurred. But he defied my expectation completely by forgiving me and letting me go, and he did all this with a smile.
What the gentleman did to me is incomparable to what God has done for me. Driving back home, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about God’s forgiveness thanks to that man whose name I don’t even know. If a forgiveness of a small wrong gives me such joy and comfort, how much more will I rejoice over the indescribable forgiveness of all my sins by the blood of Christ?
“When God forgives us, we are forgiven. When God cleanses us, we are made clean. That is a cause for great celebration” —R.C. Sproul
My heart was deeply encouraged when we read QA 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism during Sunday worship service last week. It moved me because it powerfully describes how righteous I am before God: I am as righteous as Jesus Christ.
Q. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Even though my conscience accuses me of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless, without any merit of my own, out of sheer grace, God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me. All I need to do is accept this gift with a believing heart.
I finally got COVID-19 and lost four full workdays due to my severe symptoms. In fact, it was not just myself. Paul first got it somewhere, and my wife and I got it from him. I was mistaken because I simply assumed it to be like a cold or something like it. To some, yes, it’s like a light cold. But to me, it wasn’t. I was literally bedridden for the first three days because I couldn’t even sit for more than a minute. All my physical energy was drained due to a high fever, uncontrollably violent coughing, and the body aching in every muscle. I remember I went to sleep Sunday night with an ambitiously long to-do list in my mind for this week: my dissertation, MDC Press work, my GA work, my preaching responsibility for the coming Sunday, and some more. But a virus, which your eyes couldn’t even see, ruined everything. I only slowly began to return to work yesterday (Friday). Here are some of my thoughts:
- If God had permitted me to have COVID-19 in 2020 when the virus was unbelievably fatal, I may have lost my life.
- The human body, strong as it may be, is in fact so fragile; even a small invisible virus can quickly disarm it.
- All those usual moments of life are a gift from God.
- God makes it clear to us that he is with us even when we suffer in our sickness; we experience God’s shalom.
So, I am thankful that I am back in writing mode. I’ll close today’s post with a touching statement I found from this morning’s reading of The Wisdom of Solomon (14:3), an Old Testament apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) book:
ἡ δὲ σή, πάτερ, διακυβερνᾷ πρόνοια,
ὅτι ἔδωκας καὶ ἐν θαλάσσῃ ὁδὸν
καὶ ἐν κύμασι τρίβον ἀσφαλῆ
But, Father, your Providence governs
for you have given a path even in the sea
and a safe way through the waves
Eugene H. Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) is one of those books to which I keep returning to be challenged and yet encouraged. One of my favorite sections of the book is where he describes the novelist Chaim Potok’s (1929–2002) lecture at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s. Potok’s Jewish mother tried to make him a brain surgeon while he wanted to be a writer. Her logic was simple and clear: he could keep many from dying; he could make a lot of money, to which, however, Potok always answered, “No, mama. I want to be a writer.” Peterson writes that, according to Potok, the same conversation was repeated every time Potok came home for break from college. The climax of the story is worth quoting in full:
“The exchanges accumulated. The pressure intensified. Finally there was an explosion. ‘Chaim, you’re wasting your time. Be a brain surgeon. You’ll keep a lot of people from dying; you’ll make a lot of money.’ The explosion detonated a counter-explosion: ‘Mama, I don’t want to keep people from dying; I want to show them how to live!’” (47).
I appreciate that Potok was able to see that there’s something deeper, more profound, and even more urgent than keeping people from dying a physical death.
Heart surgeons–cardiologists; this word comes from the Greek καρδία [kardia] “the heart”–can save people’s lives (and, of course, make a lot of money), too. When I tried to see if there were useful and informative talks or lectures on regeneration or the regenerated hearts, YouTube gave me an interesting list of search results. See some of them below:
As you see, most of the clips concerned the physical heart, the fist-sized blood-pumping organ in your body. The first three videos captured above seem to argue that there is a way to regenerate the heart, which is fascinating.
But my concern was not about the physical heart (心臓) but about the different kind of heart (心[こころ]). The kind of heart that is not only foolish (Romans 1:21) but also unrepentant (Romans 2:5) unless the Spirit of God regenerates it. Acts 2 shows how regeneration can transform us. When the crowd heard Peter’s speech at Pentecost, they were pierced to the heart and cried “What shall we do?” (v. 37). The unrepentant (hence unregenerate) heart will never recognize its sinfulness and need for a Savior. But the heart that has been regenerated by the work of the Holy Spirit will accept the gospel, repent, and believe in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins (v. 38).
Although some cardiologists seem to be confident that they can “regenerate” the heart, the true regeneration of the “true heart” is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, without which no one comes to Christ.
Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Saturday (Jul 30, 2022). In this historic Canadian tour which he had named “a penitential pilgrimage,” he visited several regions apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in the ethnic “genocide”—the abuse, violence, and racism that caused countless deaths—in the Canadian residential school system.
The residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples in Canada. The system existed for over a hundred years between mid-1860s and the 1980s. It reached its peak in the 1900s–1960s. In the 1930s, about thirty percent of Indigenous children were attending residential schools. The number began to drop rapidly in the 1970s and the school system completely disappeared by the late 1990s. The Canadian government funded the residential school system, and it was managed by Christian churches (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian) to take Indigenous children away from the linguistic, cultural, and religious influence of their parents to assimilate them into the “better and more superior” Canadian culture. It was largely a Catholic-run system; they ran about seventy percent of those schools. Estimates suggest that around 150,000 Indigenous children went through the system, minimum 10,000 and maximum 50,000 of which never returned home to their parents. As of today, there are around 80,000 survivors living in Canada.
Several denominations have already issued a public apology in the 1980s and 1990s: the Anglican Church of Canada (1993); the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1994); the United Church of Canada (1986). I would like to call this Canadian papal visit, therefore, “historic” because it has finally brought the public apology of the Roman Catholic Church.
But the response of the Indigenous peoples is mixed.
Some are thankful and satisfied. Some, however, find the pontiff’s carefully crafted words to be lacking and hollow apologies and lip service. Murry Sinclair, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair, for example, does not hide his disappointment saying that the Pope’s apology “fell far short of acknowledging the church’s responsibility for abuses at the schools.”
The Pope also showed the typical we-will-look-into-it-and-get-back-to-you-sooner-or-later response to dodge the imminent task because he suggested that a serious “investigation” (or search) be done to see what took place, which surprises many because the Catholic Church already has “‘thousands’ pages of documents naming clergy who committed abuse against Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools” (Stephanie Taylor, CTV Edmonton, 8:17 am EDT, July 29th). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008–15) had interviewed more than seven-thousand survivors and thoroughly documented “how thousands of children suffered abuse, neglect and malnourishment” (S. Taylor). It was a truthful apology, therefore, that was expected, not another call for another investigation.
So, I suppose that the pontiff had two paths before him as he was preparing to come to Canada. One was a path of true repentance; he could openly mention the details of the Truth and Reconciliation’s findings, admit that the Roman Catholic Church—both at the individual and the corporate levels—has committed atrocious sins of abuse, violence, arrogance, and murder, repent, and ask for forgiveness. The other path was that of political maneuvering; he would not mention the details of the investigations, repent and ask for forgiveness in broad and abstract terms, for example, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.” I am afraid that the Pope chose the latter.
I wonder what made it so difficult for him to take the first path of true repentance. This was a ripe chance for the Catholic Church to wipe out the tears of the Indigenous people and be truly forgiven. Most of all, this was a wonderful chance for them to repent truly before God. While I am so thankful to him that he decided to come and visit the affected places himself even in his old age, I am saddened to see that the Roman Catholic Church’s “apology” is officially done and yet many are left wondering if the Church is really repentant.
Photo AP Photo by Eric Gay
- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s data (2011)
- Mansoor, Sanya. “The ‘Deplorable’ History Behind the Pope’s Apology to Canada’s Indigenous Communities,” Time, https://time.com/6200213/pope-apology-canada-history-indigenous-communities/.
- “Official Apology from the Anglican Church of Canada” (1993)
- “Official Apology from the Presbyterian Church of Canada” (1994)
- “Official Apology from the United Church of Canada” (1986)
- Taylor, Stephanie, “Translation Error behind Pope’s Call for ‘Investigation’ into Residential Schools,” CTV News, https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/translation-error-behind-pope-s-call-for-investigation-into-residential-schools-organizers-1.6007147
- “Pope Francis’s ‘penitential’ journey through Canada,” Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/07/29/in-photos-pope-franciss-penitential-journey-through-canada.html
- “Residential Schools of Canada,” Religion and Public Life – Harvard Divinity School, https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/religion-context/case-studies/violence-peace/residential-schools-canada.
I stumbled on this when I was casually flipping through the pages of Thaddeus Williams’s God Reforms Hearts: Rethinking Free Will and the Problem of Evil (Lexham 2021:152). Justification by faith means, as it were, that we are restored into a relationship of love with God. This relationship is only possible because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). God loved us and Christ died for us when we were not lovable at all (Rom 5:8). And Paul assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ our Lord (Rom 8:39). God does not lack anything, which means that he does not need our love; he is entirely sufficient in himself. But he brings us through Christ into this amazing relationship of love with him because he is love (1 John 4:8).
Do you love God? Are you enjoying him?
Gabriele Boccaccini is a University of Michigan professor teaching Second Temple Judaism and early rabbinic literature. He’s also a renowned Enoch specialist. I’ve been reading his 2020 book Paul’s Three Paths to Salvation (Eerdmans). I am planning to write a (very) critical book review soon and have it published somewhere. Today’s post only concerns a portion of the book.
Boccaccini calls Paul, most of all, an “apocalyptic” Jew (e.g., 89, 103). He then discusses, in chs. 6-9, Paul’s apocalyptic vision and ministry. Chapter 7 titled “Justified by Faith, Saved by Works” (105-30) is especially troubling to me. His contentions can be summarized as follows:
- Justification by faith does not mean salvation (121-24).
- Justification by faith is a “relief” or a “second chance” (119), so to speak, or an important beginning in our faith journey (122).
- Justification by faith is “not sufficient” for future salvation (123).
- Justification by faith is “not a guarantee for future salvation” (122).
- At the last judgment, “only deeds will be assessed” (122).
Boccaccini’s claim is that these were Paul’s teachings, which perfectly cohered with Second Temple Judaism. He maintains that the early believers did not consider their forgiven status to be eternally secured; i.e., it required good works for them to stay in (86-87).
I will critique his book in a scholarly way in the book review that I promise to write. I thought about this chapter a lot today, however, not because of its academic weakness–which is obvious–but because of its pastoral sterility. If my salvation is determined by my own works, not by the finished work of Christ, I am most certainly doomed. As the conservative pastor once said, if I could lose my salvation, I definitely would. Boccaccini’s message may despair our parishioner who is dying of leukemia. His book can terrify the couple in your church who just got a divorce. Boccaccini’s teaching might make the already miserable state of the alcoholic in your congregation even more forlorn. Most of all, it will deprive us of joy of fighting a good fight of faith because our good works are now something to be checked and measured to see if we’re qualified enough to stay in, not something to be received by God as a pleasing aroma coming from his struggling and yet persistent children.
I am a firm believer that Paul’s subversive gospel was not meant to cohere with Second Temple Judaism. The Pauline gospel strengthens and comforts us. It leads us to the life of hope and gratitude that yields fruits of good works, and never to a lawless and libertine life. Paul teaches that you’re eternally right with God by faith in Christ. Nothing–even if it means lack (or absence) of your good deeds–will be able to dislodge us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). This gives us believers true hope and strength for good works.
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:21-22, NIV)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, NIV)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) was going through a very difficult time when he penned Crime and Punishment in 1864. His first wife had died of tuberculosis and so had his brother Mikhail. Dead broke, and being chased by the collectors, he traveled (or escaped) in Europe, where he wrote Crime and Punishment, which was published in 1866. It was amidst the bereavement, debt, epilepsy, addiction to gambling, and despair that “his genius emerged in its purest form” (p. ix).
“Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, experiences a profound sense of alienation from humanity after his crime, and his isolation from society accentuates his moral dilemma. Embodied in this inward struggle is the notion of good and evil vying for supremacy of the soul, a recurring theme in Dostoyevsky’s novels, which finds its fullest and most powerful expression in this masterpiece of world literature” (p. ix).
I am very glad that my son Paul read the copy that I had bought at a bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg on Sep 10, 2010 (Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Constance Garnett. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2001), and wrote his review of this magnum opus. You can read it in his blog.
I’d also like to share some of the photos I took when I visited the Dostoyevsky Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2013.
The Dostoyevsky Literary Memorial Museum is located in St. Petersburg. It was the former apartment of Dostoyevsky. It was opened to the public as a museum in 1971. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov in this apartment.