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Christian reality in a world of unreality

October 2018 | by John J. Murray

The sovereign, triune God is utterly unknowable unless he reveals himself. He dwells in deep darkness and can be known only as he reveals himself through his Word.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). God is the supreme and ultimate reality; his speech not only defines reality, but in a very real sense made reality.

He created the earth as a theatre on which to display his glory. He made man as the crown of creation in his own image, ‘in knowledge, righteousness and holiness’, to articulate the praise due to the Creator.

Truth and reality prevailed in the created order at the beginning. The Word is, therefore, how God has chosen to relate to his creation. As he speaks creation into existence, as he supports it by the Word of his power, so the words become the means whereby he deals with people in general — and his special people in particular.

A change came about when Satan first cast doubt on the Word of God. He chose to attack the Word, for in so doing he was striking at the character and power of God.

Commenting on Genesis 3:1 Martin Luther says: ‘Moses expresses himself very carefully, and says, “The serpent said”, that is with a word it attacks the Word.

‘The Word which the Lord had spoken to Adam was, “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. For Adam this Word was gospel and law; it was his worship; it was his service and the obedience he could offer God in the state of innocence. These Satan attacks and tries to destroy’ (Lectures on Genesis, 1958, p.146).

Our first parents rejected the Word and fell for Satan’s unreality

Luther saw the serpent’s attack on God’s Word as attempting to create a new reality, an alternative to that established by God himself. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they accepted the serpent’s word as the true account of reality. They were rejecting God and claiming the creature can determine what is and what is not real.

The problem is, of course, that the reality they accepted was no reality at all. It was an illusion, a falsehood, and an immoral one at that. What they did was to reject God and a true definition of themselves. They attempted to make themselves into gods.

The rejection of God’s Word is a rejection of God himself and is of serious moral significance. Adam and Eve accepted the serpent’s word, not because they failed to understand what God had told them — they accepted the serpent’s narrative because they were acting wickedly.

God’s Word is not a morally neutral thing; it is the powerful speech of a holy and sovereign God. It can never be a morally indifferent force. It challenges us creatures at the most basic level of our being, in terms of our very identity.

God’s Word does not just tell us that we are not who we like to think we are — the masters of our own self-created identities and destinies — but instead creatures utterly dependent and subject to the Creator.

Christ the Word came to restore true reality

No sooner had man fallen than God revealed by his Word the way in which he was going to deliver the creation from the lie of Satan. He said to the serpent, ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’ (Genesis 3:15).

The promise was fulfilled when God sent his only begotten Son into the world. ‘And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

He came as the truth to counter the lie of Satan and so ‘destroy the works of the devil’ (1 John 3:8). He became the new representative Man to render obedience on behalf of the people given to him by the Father.

He engaged in the temptation with Satan in the wilderness (in contrast to a garden for the testing of the first Adam). There Christ was confronted with the lie, ‘All those things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me’ (Matthew 4:9). He resisted the temptation and gained the victory over Satan by the Word: ‘Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written’ (v.10). The Son of Man’s whole life was one of steadfast obedience to the will of the Father (Hebrews 5:8).

After his earthly life, death and resurrection, Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he received the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). From his exalted throne, Christ was, through ‘the other paraclete’ (John 14:15-18) and his Word, to bestow on wretched sinners all that he had purchased for them.

On the day of Pentecost, under the preaching of Peter, the hearers were convicted of their sin and the apostle exhorted them to ‘repent and be baptised’ (Acts 2:38). The good news was that salvation was all in Christ, ‘clothed with his gospel’. We are told, ‘Then they that gladly received the Word were baptised’ (Acts 2:41).

The preaching of the law exposed their sin and bondage under Satan (the unreality), and the gospel brought them into union with Christ (the reality), and they became in Him the new reality. They were united to Christ, who is ‘the firstfruits’ of the new creation. ‘Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The restored reality is sustained by the Word

It was the Word that continued to operate in the life of the early church. The new converts ‘continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’ (Acts 2:42). They were sustained by the preaching and teaching of the Word. In short, the church assembly was the place where God’s Word was spoken, and from which it went forth to the world.

The high calling of the preacher of the living Word of God is described by Carl Trueman as follows: ‘He is exposing a current reality (the human tendency to seek to be right with God through self-righteousness) and creating a new reality (where we are clothed with the crucified Christ’s righteousness).

‘Thus, he is to show people that all their righteousness is as filthy rags and as reliable a leaning post as a spider’s web; and that, as counter-intuitive and counter-cultural as it may be, true righteousness, mercy, and grace are to be found in the filthy and broken corpse of a man condemned as a criminal to hang on a cross.

‘This is the preaching of law and gospel, and it carries with it transformative power’ (Luther on the Christian life, 2015, p.89).

Here we see the absolute priority of the Word of God in the whole life of the church. We discover from Amos how God’s judgment comes on a people by removing his Word: ‘Behold the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the Word of the Lord and shall not find it’ (8:11).

The absence of the Word is the absence of God himself. People are left ‘to wander from sea to sea’, in a world of unreality, false religion and so-called spiritual experiences. It is the Word in the hands of the Spirit that alone can deliver us from this state. Luther said, ‘We must hold firmly to the conviction that God gives no one his Spirit or grace except through or with the eternal Word’.

No reality outside of Christ

When the Word comes to sinners there are only two possible reactions. Either it is received as it was by the converts at Pentecost, or it is rejected.

If God does not free the hearer from Satan’s power to believe the gospel, the hearer’s fallen will causes him to be hardened and to deepen his opposition to the God who confronts him in his Word.

Isaiah declares, ‘So shall my Word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void’ (Isaiah 55:11). The Word of God cannot return to him empty. In its saving power it creates a new reality, which is all in Christ and through him. Those who reject remain in unreality.

In the final chapter of his penetrating analysis of Luther, Carl Trueman speaks of how struck he is ‘by the confidence he had in the objective action of God in Christ’ and concludes: ‘And his emphasis on the objectivity of the action of God in Christ puts all in perspective, and exposes our lives outside of Christ for what they are: acts in a silly farce played out in the shadow of the beckoning grave’ (Ibid., p.199).