Take Heart

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of Westminster Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 1

G K Chesterton wrote with characteristic wit that Original Sin is “the only part of theology that can really be proved.” I believe what he meant to say is that it is the only thing that doesn’t need proving. It is everywhere an obvious fact of human existence.

       I thought of this while reflecting on Jesus’ words in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble.” This, too, seems a self-attesting truth, especially in The Year of Our Lord, 2020. But for those who need empirical verification, consider that ours is a time of extraordinary anxiety and tension, cultural and political conflict, protests and riots, a viral pandemic, and even a sudden invasion of “murder hornets” in Washington State!

       Moreover, the ground more broadly is shifting underneath our feet. In a nation long characterized as broadly Christian, vast numbers of people now identify as religiously unaffiliated. They mix, match, and re-mix a host of strange and diverse ideas as they self-curate their own bespoke pagan sensibilities. And, as a result, Christian virtues are widely viewed as fearful (phobic) and bigoted. Before our eyes history seems to be lurching into reverse, taking us all the way back to the second century when
Christ-followers were labeled haters of humanity.

       But Jesus’s warning about trouble comes not as a truism or to stir us to anxiety, but as an exhortation to be comforted. “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” In other words, whatever it is in the world giving us trouble, whatever the obstacle or challenge, Jesus has overcome it. This declaration is nothing less than the objective foundation of all Christian comfort: in his death and resurrection the Lord has overcome the world, which, in the context of John’s gospel, means the domain of darkness, Satan, sin, and death.

       No doubt these words made an impression on all the disciples, but they seem particularly meaningful to John. In his first epistle to the church he writes as though explicitly recalling these words from the upper room, only he gives them a startling twist: “[E]veryone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 Jn 5:4). Wait! Didn’t Jesus say “I have overcome the world”? Why is John saying that we—and “our faith”—have overcome the world? Hasn’t John turned a wholly Christ-centered promise into a human-centered one? There is no linguistic confusion to help us here. John is using the same word for “overcome” that Jesus did, the root of which is very familiar to us: Nike, or “Victory”!

       I suspect John remembers something else in Jesus’s words recorded in John 16:33 that we are very quick to overlook: “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.” There is something more than the bare objective reality of Christ’s victory over the world. His empty tomb is not just his empty tomb. We are invited into Christ, to be united to him, to have all of his blessings overflow to us, to have what is true of him become true of us, and we are thereby invited into his victory and into his peace. It is so easy to forget, but the Nicene Creed reminds us that “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” Jesus did not undertake his earthly work for himself, to win himself victory, as though to dwell alone in the house of the Lord forever while wistfully hoping that someone else might join him. He did it all as our substitute and representative. He did it for us! The objective reality of his work finds its necessary fulfillment in God’s people experiencing the Son’s blessing through the Spirit as a subjective corresponding reality. John is so bold as to seemingly alter Jesus’ words: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.”

“We are invited into Christ, to be united to him, to have all of his blessings overflow to us, to have what is true of him become true of us, and we are thereby invited into his victory and into his peace.”

       It is by faith that we are “in him,” by faith that we find peace there, and by faith that we are made participants of Christ’s victory over the world. John gets this idea too from the very words of Jesus. This entire train of thought in John 16 begins with Jesus exclaiming: “You believe at last!” (John 16:31)

       1 John 5:4b, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” was the favorite sermon text of Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, and, indeed, the text for the only sermon he ever published. In it he surveys the scope of world and all its treasures, identifying all the things in which people put their hope and trust in a world of danger and distress, and he is left with the horrifying reality that sin has corrupted everything. There is no ultimate hope in political power and coalitions, the beauty of art, or the brilliance of intellect or the academy:

      And precisely through this, sin taking all of God’s creations and gifts into its service, the world forms such an almost limitless power. Who is equipped to stand against its domination, to break free from its influence? Could a creature, walled in on every side by the world and bound in its snares, do that? Could a person, who belongs to this world with all his body and soul, with all his thought and desire, do that? After all, this world is not only external to us; it lives within us in the highest place, in our hearts, in our understanding, in our will, in all our affections. [1]

      There is thus no escape from the power of the world in its sin-corrupted dimensions. So, Bavinck, following the Apostle John, points the way:

See, beloved, as we people stand desperately and vainly look to creatures for salvation, John, the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, comes to us and holds God’s word before our eyes: this is the victory that has overcome the world—namely, our faith. Faith, the victory over the world! [2]

      Bavinck knows how foolish that sounds in an age where faith is understood to be something like an opinion or uncertain hope. But, Bavinck suggests, biblical faith is something else altogether:But it is firm certainty, unshakeable conviction, ineradicable confidence, not of blood or of the will of the flesh, not of the will of a man, but coming from God and worked in the heart by his Spirit. It is the bond that the soul binds to the Mediator and holds fast to him as seeing the Unseen. It is the power that transfers the person from darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of God’s love and gives him a point of support and rest in the world of immovable realities. It is the firm ground for the things that he hopes and the irrefutable proof for the things that he does not see. It is the courage by which he faces up to the whole world and rejoices: If God is for us, who can be against us? [3]

      In a world of tumult and turmoil, the gospel message of hope remains. “Take heart,” says our Lord, for “I have overcome the world.” And John tells us that by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ through faith—“You believe at last!—we have.

[1] Herman Bavinck, On Preaching & Preachers, James Eglinton, trans., ed. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2017): 73–74.

[2] Ibid., 74.

[3] Ibid., 78.

Brian Mattson is Visiting Adjunct Professor of Systematic and Public Theology at Westminster, and Senior Scholar of Public Theology for the Center for Cultural Leadership. He is the author of Cultural Amnesia: Three Essays on Two Kingdom Theology and A Smith River Journal: An Adventure of Faith, Fatherhood, and Friendship. He also publishes a weekly newsletter, The Square Inch.

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