One of the best-known lines from St. Paul is found at the beginning of his letter to the Philippians where he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). I think this was my life verse for at least a few years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I put the reference under my name in a handful of my friends’ high-school yearbooks. The problem, however, is that it’s never been obvious to me exactly what this verse means. I’ve known, of course, that it has something to do with Paul’s commitment to Christ. I just haven’t been sure about much beyond this. After all, Christ isn’t an obvious pair with gain. We’d expect something more like “For to me, to live is loss and to die is gain” or “For to me, to live is pretty good; it’s not terrible. But, to die—to rest with Christ, that is gain indeed.” Why does Paul use Christ here? What’s he trying to say?
The key, it seems to me, is found in the five verses that follow, which suggest that were Paul to continue to live, his ongoing ministry would benefit the Philippians (vv. 24–25; cf. also “fruitful labor” in v. 22) and, as a result, would benefit Christ (v. 26)—in an even greater way than would his martyrdom (v. 20). They’d be strengthened in their faith and would, therefore, boast in Christ as a result of Paul’s renewed ministry (cf. 2 Cor 1:11 with Phil 1:19, 26). So, we might restate what Paul says in v. 21 like this: For to me, to live is gain for you—and, thus for Christ—and, in at least one sense, loss for me (v. 23b), and to die is gain for me and loss for you—and, thus, in at least one sense, for Christ (cf. v. 20b with v. 26). Admittedly, stating it this way isn’t quite as elegant, but I think it captures what Paul is after.
What’s more, while Paul doesn’t quite say it, he gives the impression in vv. 24–26 that he’s chosen to live for the benefit of others rather than to die for his own benefit. This is, in any case, what he’s convinced God has decided. On this reading, then, Paul’s brief autobiographical reflection here plays a vital role in the letter, illustrating one of its central themes: Christians live worthy of the gospel when they, like Christ, put others’ interests before their own (2:4; vv. 5–11). The point of the reflection, then, is pretty clear, even if the logic of v. 21 is a bit compressed: Paul was willing to put others’ gain before his own. And the challenge for us, therefore, lies right on the surface: how can we, who are likewise called to imitate Christ’s selfless sacrifice—his loss, do anything less?
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about six reasons for prayer drawn from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.20.3). In addition to these reasons for prayer, and in fact immediately following them, Calvin also put forward four rules or guidelines for prayer. Here are those guidelines:
Calvin suggested, first, that those who pray “be disposed in mind and heart as befits those who enter conversation with God” (3.20.4). In other words, believers should approach God reverently. Although God has invited us to call him our Father, he is not one of our peers, much less our “buddy.” God is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Our prayers to him should never be marked by irreverence or a casual attitude.
Second, Calvin said that when we pray we should “ever sense our own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest—nay, burning—desire to attain it” (3.20.6). We should not pray out of mere habit or sense of duty. God is pleased when his children pray to him out of need. Our prayers should be marked by urgency and dependence. When we pray we are talking to the one who can do what no one else can do.
Third, Calvin suggested that in prayer we should put away all pride and self-assurance (3.20.8). God does not owe us anything. We should approach him as those asking for mercy, not our due.
And fourth, Calvin explained that having been “cast down and overcome by true humility, we should be nonetheless encouraged to pray by a sure hope that our prayer will be answered” (3.20.11). Although God does not owe us anything, he is a good Father who graciously gives good things to his children. We should approach God reverently, earnestly, and humbly. But we should also approach him confidently—not confident in ourselves, but fully confident in the fact that he is good, wise, and generous.
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:11)
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17).
“[A]n understanding of the Exodus is…essential for understanding and probing the theology of the Bible as it unfolds historically.”
Stephen Dempster makes this point in a recent article on the role of Exodus in biblical theology titled “Exodus and Biblical Theology: On Moving into the Neighborhood with a New Name.” Here I’d like to pass on two categories of observations Dempster makes in the piece that I found particularly helpful in thinking through Exodus’s role in the Bible’s storyline. I’m sort of cherry-picking, so, if you’re hungry for a bit more, you’ll just have to read the entire piece.
(1) The importance of the Exodus in the OT. The piece begins with a handful of notes about the pervasive influence of the Exodus in the OT. For starters, it’s referenced explicitly some 120 times—the sort of data one looks for, esp. when trying to discern the intention in narrative lit. (How else do we expect a narrator to make his point—John 20:31 is a bit unusual for the genre.) Beyond this, Dempster adds, the event fundamentally shaped Israel’s hymnody (see, e.g., Psalms 66:6; Psalms 74:13-14; Psalms 77:16-20), eschatological vision (see, e.g., Hosea 1:11 [2:2 MT (וְעָלוּ)]; Micah 4:6-7) and calendar (i.e., Israel’s new year celebrated the anniversary of Yhwh’s presence in the community; see Exodus 40:17)—to say nothing of its ethics, which Dempster intriguingly describes as rooted in the indicative of the Exodus (i.e., I am Yhwh your God who brought you out of Egypt therefore have no other gods before me…). (The Red Sea preceded Sinai, as Keller puts it in another place.)
(2) The role of Exodus in the OT. In his third (“The First-Paragraph—The Story of Exodus in the Context of the Story of Scripture”) and fourth major pts. (“Exodus—The Larger Structure: Deliverance, Covenant, Presence”), Dempster probes the role of Exodus in the OT. He begins with a reflection on the conjunction (“and”) that begins the book, observing that it leads the reader to expect that he’ll find in what follows a continuation of the narrative begun in Genesis. This expectation, he goes on to show, is confirmed in the book’s first paragraph, with its talk, e.g., of Jacob’s numerous family (see Exodus 1:5-7), a description that immediately recalls both humanity’s original mandate (Genesis 1:28) and God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:2; Genesis 13:16; Genesis 15:5). It is, in fact, this latter connection that suggests the story that follows will continue to reveal how God intends to use Abraham and his family to regain what humanity lost in the Fall (see, esp., Genesis 12:2-3). The connection with the Abraham narrative also helps explain Pharaoh’s (stubborn) fury, which plays such a large role in the subsequent narrative. After all, God’s original promise to Adam and its reiteration to Abraham came with an expectation of struggle: there would be opposition from the Serpent’s seed (Genesis 3:15), which is to say, there would be those who would curse God’s people (see, e.g., Genesis 12:2; also “enemies” in Genesis 22:17). It’s also the connection with the Abraham story that helps us understand the role God gives to his covenant people at Sinai. They were to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6). Israel, in other words, like Abraham, was created for the world. As Dempster notes, “Israel is called to be a community of priests whose congregation is nothing less than the globe. The end of the covenant is not Israel’s own salvation but the inclusion of the nations” (14). Her calling, as he says in another place, “is fundamentally missiological. [Israel’s] purpose for existence [is] the restoration of the world to its pre-Edenic state” (13).
Note: For a similar reading, see Wellum and Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant, 301–56 (esp. the convenient summary on 302–4).
From time to time, people assert that if a person believes God has predestined all things then that person will necessarily tend to downplay the importance of prayer. But is that really true? Granted, we all pray less than we ought, but does belief in divine foreordination actually cause one to minimize the value of prayer? Let’s look briefly at John Calvin (1509–1564) as a test case. Calvin’s belief in the foreordination of all things is well known, and this might lead some to assume that Calvin placed little emphasis on the need for prayer. But those who think such have likely never read Calvin at any length.
Of the eighty chapters which appear in the standard English translation of Calvin’s Institutes the longest chapter is actually his chapter on the topic of prayer (3.20, 71 pp.). In agreement with James 1:17, Calvin believed that every good gift comes from God “the master and bestower of all good things” (3.20.1), and he viewed prayer as the means by which believers can “reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father” (3.20.2). The image of God as a benevolent Father is quite common in Calvin. In fact, David Calhoun has suggested that “Calvin’s favorite picture of prayer is that of God’s adopted children calling upon him as their heavenly Father” (Calhoun, “Prayer,” in Hall and Lillback, eds., A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, 349).
But why should God’s children pray to their Father if he already knows and has predestined all things? As Calvin saw it, God has instructed us to pray “not so much for his sake as for ours” (3.20.3). In keeping with this, Calvin offered six somewhat overlapping reasons why believers should engage in prayer. He explained, believers should pray…
God is a good and generous Father. And as Calvin suggested, prayer is a means of reminding us of our dependence upon God and of his ability and willingness to provide what his children need.
Theologically Driven features insight on Scripture, the church, and contemporary culture from faculty and staff at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. DBTS has faithfully prepared men for gospel ministry since its founding in 1976. As a ministry of the Inter-City Baptist Church in Allen Park, Michigan, it provides graduate level training with a balance between strong academics and a heart for local church ministry.
Contributors to the blog include:
John Aloisi, Assistant Professor of Church History
Bill Combs, Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament
Bruce Compton, Professor of Biblical Languages and Exposition
Jared Compton, Assistant Professor of New Testament
Sam Dawson, Professor of Systematic Theology
Dave Doran, President and Professor of Pastoral Theology
Pearson Johnson, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Bob McCabe, Professor of Old Testament
Mark Snoeberger, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology
To find out more, visit Theologically Driven.