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God’s Handiwork

“For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand in order that we might walk in them.”

(Ephesians 2:10)

The word ποίημα (poiema) refers to that which has been made by another, more typically, a creation made by the hands of another. This is a theme that is present from the beginning of the Bible to the very end. God made Adam and Eve and God will remake us as glorified beings. God made the creation and God will remake the creation in the new heavens and earth. God is the potter and we are the clay. We are described as “new creations” in our regeneration as we are made believers and disciples of Jesus by the work of God’s hands.

There are two observations that ought to be driven home by these words. The first is that the created thing has no say over how it is created or what its purpose will be. The creator has the power and the right to make some items for honored use and others for dishonorable use. The clay has no rights over the potter but the potter has complete rights over the clay. We have talked a great deal about God’s sovereignty in election thus far, in the context of this passage, we can add to it the notion of God’s sovereignty in our sanctification. God has remade us and in that making, we are not our own. We belong to our maker and He and only He has the right to determine what we should or should not be doing. 

In a broad sense, it is good works for which we have been created. And you will notice that those good works were prepared for us beforehand. In other words, God does not create us and then say, “Hmmm…how shall I use this person?” God has a purpose and a plan and creates us with that purpose and plan in mind. To simplify the idea with an analogy, a regular screwdriver can be used for lots of things — prying open cans of paint, loosening jammed windows or doors, banging in a nail or brad. Yet, a regular screwdriver was not created to do these things; it was created to tighten and loosen screws whose slots match the slot on the screwdriver. When used that way, its function will be best served and it will last longer without being broken or otherwise damaged. yet, the company doesn’t just put material in a mold and wonder what is going to come out. They set forth to manufacture a regular screwdriver that can be used to tighten or loosen flat-head screws. God has made you and me in a certain way with certain purposes in mind. Our design is thus different and situated to our calling; we will live longer and more fulfilled lives if we live in accordance with that design. 

The second point that is worth noting here is that when God does a work of creating something anew, it is normally found in the context of redemption. God is redeeming the creation in the new creation to come. Even the remaking of the world as a result of the Flood is a kind of redemption — the land washed clean from the filth of sin. And, so when Paul is using this language, calling Christians a craftsmanship of God, a new creation, etc…, we should see this as a reference to redemption. Not just to our individual redemption but also to our redemption as part of the body of Christ. And so, as we think about the notion of being redeemed as a new creation for the purpose of good works, we ought to ask ourselves how we can best live out that role.

Imitatio Dei

Solomon wrote that there was “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The nineteenth-century theologian, W.G.T. Shedd, wrote: “Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one.” One pastor I knew while growing up used to say, “True genius is not creating something new, it is knowing what is good enough to steal (and improve upon).”

I am told that every combination of chords that can be played has been played. And thus, there are no truly original pieces being written — yet, people are still writing new music. It can be said that every possible combination of words has already been written, yet new books are still being written. There are only a finite number of possible plot lines in literature and all of them have been explored, yet new stories are still being told. You can see the shadows of previous designs in every invention, yet we are still trying to build a better mousetrap. And the ideas that seem new or novel to us only seem so because we are generally poor at teaching history. 

So, am I suggesting that we do not create? Not at all. In fact, I am suggesting just the opposite. One of the things that makes us human is the fact that we create new things, we learn from the things that others develop and we re-imagine those things to make them better, faster, more efficient, and more useful. It is this work of making new things that not only distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, but that reminds us that we are made in the image of a creative God. And so, as we imitate God, particularly in creative work, we grow in our reflection of His character, that is, so long as we create well.

There is a sense, particularly when it comes to artistic expression, of good creativity and bad creativity. Not every color blends together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not every chord progression is pleasing to the ear. There are things that belong together and things that clearly do not belong together. Not every alteration on a design is helpful or appealing. And, while certain things appeal to one person and not to another, there are still combinations and compositions that are more or less universally disconcerting and disturbing to the eye, ear, or mind.

C.S. Lewis called this a departure from “the Normal” or the “Sense of Normal.” For Lewis, there was a sense of color, sound, and design that is found in the created order that we humans are meant to imitate when we create things. When we go outside of that sense of “Normal,” we find things to be disturbing and aberrant. That, of course, does not mean that people do not sometimes try and produce art outside of the realm of “the Normal,” but it does mean that the art will tend to only appeal to a certain niche crowd that shares the artist’s disturbing perspective on the world.

I am reminded of my college years and an instance in a class where we were to write a fiction story. I had written a story where the murderous villain was caught but escaped trial on a technicality. The response of my classmates was to be appalled. The technicality was a legitimate one and certainly, people had been released from jail on that technicality before. There was nothing outrageous or unrealistic about the villain’s release. Yet, in the story, I had generated such hatred and disgust for the villain that, when he was not convicted of the murder of these women, my classmates left the story dissatisfied and angry. Or, to put it another way, the sense of “Normal” also includes a basic sense of justice that needs to occur in a plot line.

The challenge we face in society is that as the knowledge of God is attacked and devalued in the classroom, we more and more fail to see the value of this sense of the Normal, which originates and is given value by God’s design. We also fail to see the importance of creating things of interest and beauty to all. Until we really consciously recognize that we are engaged in the imitation of our creator, the motivation for creation will always be self-serving and limited in scope and value. It is only when God’s sense of “normal” is applied to our creation, that true value and aesthetic beauty will be visible.

Ex Nihilo: Everything from Nothing

One element of the Christian faith that makes it differ from religious and non-religious beliefs around the world is the idea that all of creation was created out of nothing by an eternal and changeless God. Pantheistic religions like Buddhism argues for a pre-existent natural realm that is an expression of the divine, Greek religions believed that the gods created all things out of pre-existing matter that was formed into the world around us, and atheistic groups hold to the position that matter is eternal. Christianity, though, takes a very different view.

In Christianity, all matter and all life was created out of nothing by divine fiat — God said, and it came into being. This makes all things to be dependent on God for their very existence. Were God to cease to exist, all matter would burst into an infinite number of particles. In philosophical terms, we would say that God is the only “non-contingent” being and all things apart from God are contingent — in other words, our existence depends on God’s, not the other way around.

Why is this important? If God is God…that is, if God is who he says he is…that means he is greater than any being in existence. Yet, to be “greater” or the “greatest” that means he must rely or depend on no one and nothing. Were God to rely on something else for his existence, then that something would be greater. 

Why can’t nature be eternal? The Greeks certainly taught that as do the atheists of today. It is primarily because nature is changing and thus contains the potential to not exist. Furthermore, if it cannot provide a first cause (what philosophers would call an “efficient cause”) that actualizes the potential. In other words, every effect must have a cause and that cause must in turn have a cause as well. At the very least, there must be an initial cause who needs no cause (in other words, that initial cause is pure actuality and has no potential). 

To some of you, that may seem like another language, but the heart of the matter is that the material world, according to logic, is dependent for its existence on a force or being that is independent or “non-contingent.” 

But, that is a broad, philosophical perspective. The more basic Christian perspective is that our Bibles teach that God created all things that are. In other words, prior to Genesis 1:1, nothing but God existed — He simply was and he existed in perfect harmony within his Triune Godhead. Genesis 1:1 begins the work of his created order…and thus it is His to be used as He intends — he governs and sustains it, in other words, but we get ahead of ourselves.

It has become popular in our recent age, to deny the historicity of God’s creative work recorded in Genesis 1-2. People often treat these chapters more as if they are a grand myth and not as if they were historical narrative. Of course, the whole Bible treats creation as historical narrative and the early church believed that a belief in the principle that God created all things was essential to the Christian religion (remember, in Heidelberg Question #26 we are dealing with the Apostles’ Creed). They would go as far as to say that you cannot even call yourselves Christians if you denied the principle that God created all things. Why do we think differently?

A Living Parable

It has disturbed me to see the attitude taken by many toward the creation account as rendered by Genesis One. Even within my own denomination, one which finds its theological moorings in the Westminster Confession of Faith, there are many who have accepted “alternate explanations” of the account. Some have gone as far as to say that those who hold to a literal, six 24-hour day reading of Genesis One are “trouble-makers” in the grand scheme of the theological conversation. Ultimately, people are choosing to interpret their Bibles on the basis of their science and not to interpret their science in light of the plain teaching of the Bible.

As we look at the life of Jesus, we find that he often told parables to communicate spiritual truths. These parables are not simply “earthly stories with heavenly meanings,” as my old Sunday School teacher used to say, but these parables were used, according to Jesus, to blind the eyes of the unbeliever while enlightening the believer at the same time (Matthew 13:11-15). While the parables themselves were not actual accounts of events that happened, the events taking place within the parable were certainly realistic enough that they could have been either true events or based therein.

Yet, Jesus, being the best of teachers, also taught truth through the events that took place around him. One day Jesus and his disciples were in the temple observing the line of people giving their gifts to the temple treasury and amidst the wealthy people who were there to offer great wealth there was a poor widow who gave her last two copper coins and thus Jesus used that historical event to teach the truth about what it really meant to give to God (Mark 12:41-44). Similarly, when Jesus goes to visit two sisters in their home, one is busily working to prepare the meal while the other simply sits at Jesus’ feet to learn from him (Luke 10:38-42). Again, Jesus uses this historical event to teach us the truth about what it looks like when we truly love God with our entire being and submit ourselves to His priority for our life. The fact that these events are recorded to teach us a spiritual lesson does not make them any less historical. In fact, since God has ordered all history (Ephesians 1:11), we should not be surprised to see such illustrations popping up regularly all around us.

And such brings us back to the creation account. There are a variety of objections to the literal ordering of the creation account, but these objections seem to be able to be broken down into two categories: those who reject a literal reading of Genesis 1 due to its conflicts with science and those who reject the literal reading of Genesis 1 due to a belief that its purpose is to teach spiritual truths and not historical truth. Yet, as with these “lived out parables,” the very fact that spiritual truth can be drawn from the account does not take away from its historicity. By teaching that Genesis one tells us of the divine origin of all things (which it does) does not mean that Genesis one is not telling us the manner and the timetable in which all things were created. Just as we should expect that the widow in Mark 12:41-44 really was a widow and that the details around her giving of the last two coins she had were historically reliable and accurate, there is no reason not to expect the same of Genesis one.

To those who complain that it is scientifically possible for the widow to give of her last two coins but not scientifically possible for the creation event to take place in the order or timetable as recorded in Genesis one, I think that the problem lies not with their faith in science (an ever changing field) but with their lack of faith in the miraculous. God does not present the creation as a result of natural events taking place, but as a supernatural work of creation without respect to contemporary scientific explanations. And if the miraculous is going to be rejected at the creation event, on what basis would the person accept other miraculous works: the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of the widow of Zarephath’s son, the Incarnation, or the Resurrection of Christ? If you would deny a miraculous creation, why would you accept the possibility of a miraculous re-creation at the return of Christ? The Bible affirms both without compromise.

I suppose that to be fair, there is a third group that would seek to interpret Genesis one as a non-literal account, and that is a group that fears being mocked and scoffed at by the world’s scientific community. They find themselves frustrated that holding to a literal reading of Genesis one causes them to be catalogued with fundamentalists and fundamentalists carry with them a stigma of being anti-intellectual (and to be fair, sometimes this is true). Yet, in compromising the natural reading of the Genesis one text, they undermine the intellectual integrity of their own scholarship. More importantly, by their compromise they fail to understand Paul’s words:

“But God chose the foolishness of the world in order the disgrace the wise, and God chose the weak things of the world to disgrace the mighty. God chose what is ignoble in the world and despised, that which is not, in order to invalidate that which is, in order that all flesh might not boast before God. From him you are in Christ Jesus, who has become wisdom for us from God—and righteousness and holiness and deliverance—so that, just as it is written, ‘The one who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”

(1 Corinthians 1:27-31)

In a very real sense, the creation of this world (and all things) is a lived out or historical parable told by God not to give us spiritual fiction, but to teach the believer spiritual reality within a historical event and at the same time, blinding the eyes of those who would seek to explain all things apart from God’s almighty hand. Thus, God has told us the historical reality, but has created in such a way to leave the eyes of the unbeliever perpetually closed largely as a judgment for their unbelief. It is not the praise of the world that we ought to be seeking, but the words, “Well done my good and faithful servant,” spoken by our God—remembering that a faithful servant believes and submits to the words of his master.

 

God’s Work of Creation

God’s Creative Work

 

The work of creation is a work that was engaged in by all three members of the Triune Godhead, thus it needs to be briefly treated here, as we discuss Theology Proper.  Within this category, there are four things that we must principally discuss:  The Setting of creation, the Act of creation, the Purpose of creation, and the Destiny of creation.

 

The Setting of Creation

When we speak of the setting of creation, we are speaking of the state of existence prior to creation from which God began his creative work.  In this case, there was nothing apart from God.[1]  All things that are were created by God and from nothing.  In other words, there was no preexistent matter from which God began his creative work.[2]  This fact rejects the Gnostic and Greek notion of the Pleroma, it rejects any sort of polytheism, and it rejects the notion of the universe being eternal[3] and ongoing.  In modern science, it also rejects the notion of the universe’s origin being a “Big Bang” as the theory hinges on the idea of a preexistent singularity from which the universe came.  Similarly, this rejects naturalism, as God is outside of and not bound within nature.  Simply speaking, God existed in perfect harmony and satisfaction in his Triune state for eternity prior to his work of creation; he is the self-existent being from which all that exists finds its origin.

 

The Act of Creation

There are several things that fall under this heading: first, the cause of the act; second, the means by which the act was performed; and third, the act itself.

First, we must note that there was no outside cause that brought about God’s act of creation, nor was there anything lacking within God that precipitated a need for him to create.  He made the decision to create purely for his own eternal purposes and to show his own glory.  There are some who would portray God as being needy without the praises of his people or as being desirous of a relationship that was outside of himself, yet this is not the Biblical presentation of God’s sovereign being or act of creation.

Second, we must address the means by which God created.  Scripture affirms that God spoke all creation into being[4] by the word of his power[5], which is Jesus Christ.[6]  Scripture does not portray God as creating through other powers, it does not portray God as creating by forming preexistent matter, nor does scripture present God as creating through an interplay with or against evil powers.  Instead, scripture presents God in the sovereign act of creating and then pronouncing that which he created as good.[7]

Finally, we see the act itself, by which God made all things.[8]  There is a great deal of debate as to the nature of this act.  Did God directly create all things by divine fiat?  Did God begin the work of creation miraculously and then guide the natural development of the world through secondary causes?  Did God begin creation and set the natural laws and then leave development to take place in a natural way?  Is the world relatively young of is the language of Genesis 1 metaphorical?

It is not possible, within the scope of this discussion to address all of these issues as much ink has been spilled over these debates.  The answer to this question falls largely into the question of which one holds to have priority.  Do we interpret scripture according to man’s reason and scientific understandings or do we submit our reason and scientific understanding to the authority of scripture?  We must ask, “which is translated by which?”  There are faithful Christians on all sides of this debate.  If one holds that scripture is primary, then science must be interpreted in light of the revelation.  If one holds otherwise, then one is free to hold various interpretations of Genesis 1.  See appendix for a defense of a literal (seven 24-hour days) position on the time and order of creation and the importance of holding to such a position.

The Purpose of Creation

There are really only two answers that can be given to the question of the purpose of creation.  The first is that God created to glorify himself[9] and that the second is to honor Christ.[10]  While there may be many secondary and subordinate plans and purposes that God has worked out in his world, like that of bringing us into a relationship with himself, the primary purpose of creation is to honor the one who brought it into being—to honor the one who rightly deserves praise and adoration.  Even in our fallen state, one thing that we understand well is that it is right and proper to honor the artist or maker of a great work of art.  Hence, names like Michelangelo and Rembrandt, Bach and Mozart, or Chaucer and Shakespeare are well known to us, though many years have passed since they created their masterpieces.  Even the most ardent unbeliever understands that it is proper and honorable to give words of acclamation to someone who is an accomplished musician, athlete, or painter.  Thus, when we see the created order and understand it to be the infinitely wonderful masterpiece that it is, how much infinitely more proper it is to praise its artist, God himself, for his work.  Even more so, how much more wonderful is the infinitely perfect character of God himself than the character of his creation, and how we should praise him simply for who he is even apart from what he has done!  Indeed, how much more rude and conceited it is when we refuse to honor God properly than when we refuse to give a human artist his or her due.  Likewise, Christ, as the radiance of God’s glory[11] and the perfection of God’s image[12] deserves our praise.[13]

 

The Destiny of Creation

The discussion of the end of the created order begins with God’s initial creation.  For God created all things and pronounced them to be very good[14] and gave mankind the responsibility of subduing it[15], essentially extending God’s garden of Eden—paradise—to the whole of the created order.[16]  In other words, creation, while very good in every way, needed to be given order and further cultivation.  Man and woman, in taking dominion over the world, were to imitate God in his gardening activity by making the planet paradise.  Yet, Adam and Eve fell and as the created order was under their regency[17], the created order fell with them.  Yet, God has promised through Christ that the created order will be remade perfectly at the time his Son returns[18], Jesus as King in Adam’s place, remaking the world into paradise.  Hence the language of Revelation picks up on much of the Old Testament imagery of the Garden of Eden.[19]  Thus, the destiny of the created order is never-ending paradise under the dominion of Christ.


[1] Genesis 1:1; John 1:1-2.

[2] See the unit on Symbolics for more on God’s creating ex-nihilo.

[3] Note that there is a difference between time and eternity: time being created and eternity being a state of timeless-ness, it simply is.  This is important to note, as Augustine points out in his Confessions, for otherwise we must ask why God waited “so long” to begin his noble task of creation.  Time is simply the measure that finite beings use to mark the sequential progression of their existence.  Eternity describes the state of God’s being.

[4] Genesis 1:3,6,9,11,14,20,24,26.

[5] Hebrews 1:3; Psalm 33:9.

[6] John 1:14.

[7] Genesis 1:31.

[8] Note that in the discussion of God creating all things, we are including the spiritual realms as well as the physical realms.  Though it is not entirely clear as to on which day God created the spiritual world and populated it with angels, given that God is the only pre-existent being, it is understood that they were created at some point within these seven days.  See appendix for more on angels and the spiritual realm.

[9] Revelation 4:11; Isaiah 43:7.

[10] Colossians 1:16.

[11] Hebrews 1:3.

[12] Colossians 1:15.

[13] Note that while some would consider God to be conceited and prideful for demanding our praise, we need to remember two principles.  First, conceit and pride come as a result of a disproportionate emphasis on self to the exclusion of the rightful honor of others, and certainly this is not so with God.  Secondly, praise is in our best interests, for when we praise that which is good, we find great joy.  Thus the greatest of joy can be found in praising that which is the most praise-worthy: God himself.

[14] Genesis 1:31.

[15] Genesis 1:28.

[16] Genesis 2:15.

[17] Romans 8:20.

[18] 2 Peter 3:10.

[19] Revelation 21:1, 22:1-3.

Bearing All Things: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 11)

also bearing all things in the word of his power;

 

What does it mean that Jesus bears all things?   The Greek word that is used here is the word fe/rw (phero), which is a fairly broad verb, but it typically carries with it the idea of carrying something from point “A” to point “B.”  Now, indeed, the writer of Hebrews is not trying to depict Jesus as carrying the universe around in a basket from location to location, but in the context of the passage, the writer is presenting Jesus as the one who carries all creation from time to time.  Earlier in this passage, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as being the means by which God created, but he does not leave the imagery there, instead, Jesus is also portrayed as being the one who is preserving the universe in an ongoing way, holding it and binding it together (Colossians 1:17), and literally bearing up the universe through time from beginning to end. 

There is an illustration that seems to be floating around Christian circles today for the purpose of illustrating God’s creative activity.  This is called the “Watchmaker” analogy, and it is a very old illustration that has come back into usage.  Essentially it poses the question of our innate expectations—when we see something that has a clear and orderly design, we expect that there is a maker.  When we see a sandcastle, per say, we do not wonder whether it was formed by the wind and tides, we know that there is design and hence a designer.  When we see a watch, we realize the same thing.  While this is a good reminder, in principle, of God’s creative activity, it has dangerous ramifications in our understanding of the nature of God’s providential care of his creation.  When a watchmaker makes a watch, he lets it alone after it is wound so that it will go on working as it was designed until it needs to be rewound.  This idea of a “hands-off” God is not Biblical and leads to Deism, not genuine Christianity.

The writer of Hebrews is saying that not only did Jesus form the clock, the clock is formed in such a way that it cannot run on its own and that it is Jesus’ hand that allows it to move on.  The second that Jesus withdraws his hand will be the second that the universe stops and dies.  The word of Jesus’ power of so integral to the creation’s very being, that the creation cannot be said to have existence without it.  It would be like being a human being trying to live and act without air or blood, it would be like an automobile trying to drive without fuel to run it or oil to lubricate its parts, and it would be like trying to turn on a light-bulb when there is not yet any power run to the house.  Nothing can be said to be or to be able to continue without the word of God’s power—without the work of Jesus Christ.

Loved ones, think of the ramifications of this principle.  Even the unbeliever needs Jesus, whether he likes it or not.  Without Jesus, the unbeliever and the believer alike could not walk, breath, have life, or even exist—we would be nothing and nothing would be.  That makes nonsense out of even the most ardent atheist’s rejection of God, for they could not reject were not Christ causing all things to be and were not Christ allowing them the setting and ability to reject.  What a wonderful reminder of how we ought to be bold in our evangelism, for we know and have a relationship with the one who holds the cosmos in its place and who will bring it into its logical judgment!  Oh, beloved, how our God did not create a clock to be wound and sit on the table, but instead, he created a machine that can do nothing on its own, but requires one to be ever moving and bringing it life—and the great promise is that Christ will not fail to uphold this universe, but will do so by the word of his power to its appointed time when it will be brought into judgment and remade free from the effects of the fall.

The Light of Creation: Hebrews 1:1-4 (part 8)

Who being the radiance of the glory…

Many people ask the question of those of us who hold strongly to the Biblical account of creation (God creating in a literal period of six 24-hour days, then resting on the seventh, literal, 24-hour day), “If the sun and stars were not created until day 4, how was there light on the earlier days?” While there are many pseudo-scientific answers that have been presented to address this question, we need not go beyond the scriptural texts, for in this passage, God gives us the answer. Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God. He is the effulgent splendor of God’s glory—of his greatness—of his “weightiness! What a wonderful thought, God’s glory cannot be contained or cloaked in darkness, but it must be seen, and who is the one who reflects that glory down upon the newly created earth? Jesus the Christ! And he continues to shine God’s glory down upon us for all time. Thus, when God the Father pronounced, “Let there be light!”, it was God the Son who revealed and reflected that light down upon a watching world. In addition, we are told that in the new creation that there will be no sun and no darkness, but the glory of God will be with our light we will exist to praise him and to glory in him.
Yet, the first line of this verse should not simply be seen in terms of creation, but in terms of all redemptive history! The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), believers are redeemed to the glory of God (Philippians 2:11), and Christ is the means by which God pours out and demonstrates that glory to his created order. Beloved, that ought to cause your heart to skip! The reason that we know of the sun is because it radiates its light and heat to us. The reason that we know that a flame is hot is because of the heat that radiates out from the flame. Beloved, the reason that we know of the glory of God is because God chose to radiate that glory to us in Christ. What a wonderful hope and promise, what a wonderful privilege given to him, and ought we not honor him appropriately? Ought we not pour out our praise for God the Son, not only for what he has done for us as believers, but for who he is. As Paul writes, there will come a time that even those who are eternally perishing will give Christ his due (Philippians 2:11), ought we not begin now? Loved ones, think through your days, your weeks, and your years; what does your private worship look like? Do we genuinely praise Christ in all we do and give him thanks for all we have been given? Do we praise him for who he is? Do we exalt him before a watching world with our words and with our lives? If not, what is holding us back? Jesus Christ is the very radiance—the effulgent splendor—of the glory of God; honor him as such.