Sunday, November 21, 2021

Perfect Law of Love; or, Lessons in Renouncing Satan

Instant #1: A flash of light and heat beyond comprehension. The skies unfurl in directions uncounted. The clock starts ticking. The universe is born. Now rewind the tape. Back behind Instant 1, before the beginning, peer behind the void and the silence, and behold only God. No space, no time, only God alone with God's own self. But God is Love, eternally surging forth in his own heart with a Loving Word of Wisdom, and back and forth between the two, again within God's own heart, there flashes a Spirit of Love flowing from God to Word and Word to God. In this X-ray of the eternal heart of God, an unchanging snapshot of infinite action and vitality, Love is all. Love is supreme. Love is complete. Because Love is Trinity. Now roll the tape again. It's love that surges, love that lights, love that heats, love that drives. Love unrolls and expands this invention called 'space,' love initiates the countdown called 'time,' love kisses the infant cosmos, yet a dot, and the kiss is matter and energy and physical law and all things. Love kisses realms unseen, and spirits are begotten, pure intellect and consciousness, none of like kind – the angels, the created sons of God, ready to shout for joy as stars coalesce and planets cohere and life begins to grow (cf. Job 38:7).

And all is well, for all is love. Until the day love first goes unrequited. Until the day, in the council God has with his heavenly sons, one flashes with envy and turns off the flowback of love to its Source. And from that one, the disease begins to spread, sweeping a third of every pure intellect into dysfunction and darkness. As a violent storm, see them fall like lightning from the highest heavens to the lower realms. Label that first one to disrupt the harmony for what he is: an obstacle, a poison, the corruption of the highest created good into the most hideous perversion of good. In that instantaneous and irreversible choice, all love drains away from it – or call it a 'him': Satan. Satan, in his rebellion against God's love, reveals the utmost antonym to God's name and nature. Satan is reduced to lovelessness, a bankrupted heart frozen at absolute zero. He seeks the good of no one, desires the good for no one, cherishes no one. In a steadfast and unbroken refusal of love, his sole aim is to annihilate love – including especially our capacity to love our Creator and his creation. And so Satan falls like lightning into a whirlwind of unloving behavior-patterns, and he wants to conform us to his example. He dominates us by deforming us. As one early Christian put it, “Unrighteousness is the disposition of an unjust and depraved work, which is detected first of all in the devil and then also in those who want to imitate him.”1

Above all else, Satan's pride and envy are directed against God with his Word and Spirit. Satan wishes he could tear God from his throne, rise and be his equal, replace and supplant him. “I will ascend to heaven!” the devil might vow. “Above the stars of God, I will set my throne on high.... I will ascend above the heights; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14). And so Satan yearns for us, God's created image-bearers, to turn our backs on God by worshipping Satan, knowingly or unknowingly, whether alongside God or in God's place: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours,” he whispers (Luke 4:7). Satan is willing to pay a considerable price to so distract us from God-love that we bend toward him as our petty fraud-god. When we withhold worship from the true God, as he does, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, though, puts him in a frightfully insecure position. He is, after all, waging war against an Omnipotent Opponent. Satan is matching his fool wits against the All-Seeing and All-Knowing. And so Satan fearfully clutches at any useful shield, to console himself in his futile struggle to wound his Invulnerable Maker. And Satan yearns to stoke that same panic and insecurity in creation, in us, prodding us to clutch onto worldly powers we can represent and control – in other words, idols. And through these, Satan can manipulate us. It isn't for nothing that Roman idol-shrines were termed “altars of the devil.”2 When we bow to an idol, cling to an idol, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness, his hate for God, makes him want to drag God's reputation through the mud. He hates the very sound of God's good name. So he empowers the great “scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names” (Revelation 17:6), which “opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling” (Revelation 13:7). One of Satan's chief motives for putting on persecutions is the perverse pleasure Satan finds in pressing God's people to blaspheme the God of Love. Always, “Satan strove to have some word of blasphemy proceed from their lips.”3 And out of the same motive, Satan loves to toy with and manipulate God's word, twisting scripture out of context. When we drag God's name through the mud or God's word out of shape, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness leaves his heart without peace, so Satan despises to see people enjoy any peace or rest. So as he goes to and fro in the world, he “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He's like the Pharaoh that held Israel in slavery: just so does Satan want to work us to the bone like slaves. Satan loathes our freedom and our rest, because he's seen the heaven it's for. He especially hates that freedom God calls holy. Satan doesn't know how to take a day off, is unable to sanctify time, so there's little he wants to rip away from us more than our Lord's Day and our feasts that fulfill the beauty of sabbath. When we work and work without sanctifying time with peace and rest and joy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness does more than that, though. It cuts him off from relationship and orderliness. Satan's only experience of a father is the God he dishonors by rejecting, and his only experience of fatherhood is as father of sinners whom he abuses and wants to make as miserable as himself. Among Satan and his angels, no honor is shown – not one demon actually respects the devil. So the devil despises the authority God institutes within creation. The devil wants always to pervert it or subvert it. From parenthood to the polity to the pastorate, the devil wants all bonds of honor severed and all authority overthrown. For that reason, early Christians observed that a refusal to honor church leaders, for instance, was tantamount to Satan-worship.4 That's how Satan likes it. When we withhold honor from those to whom honor is due, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan's lovelessness extends to our very lives. Life, just by being life, is a participation in the Living God. And so the devil is angry about life, any life, all life. “The devil has come down to you in great wrath” (Revelation 12:12). He's furious that anything lives – much less that we live whose lives are stamped indelibly with God's living image. Satan is determined to break life, end life, cut us off from life – so he introduced death into the world: “Death entered the world through the devil's envy” (Wisdom 2:24). Now, Satan is “the one who has the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). And he's desperate to employ it as devastatingly as he can – for, as Christ tells us, Satan “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). When we take any step in murder's direction, whether a big step or the slightest flinch of unjust anger, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Short of ending life, Satan's lovelessness wants to see it emotionally and physically broken. He knows how the creation is destined to be wedded to its Creator – and the devil'd do anything to break up or defile that love story of the ages. So he seeks to inflame and seduce us into ruining everything that reminds us of that destiny (1 Corinthians 7:5). No wonder early Christians declared that “adultery is the money of the devil, for the image and superscription of the devil is on it,”5 or that Satan is “a most evil husband” to the soul.6 When we take a step toward adultery or other forms of misuse of God's good gifts of sex and sexuality, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan so hates the love story of Creator and creation that his lovelessness loathes the lavish generosity by which God “has given the earth to the children of man” (Psalm 115:16). Satan wants to hoard all things for himself: he doesn't know how to give without plotting to take back. He sees us enjoying anything, or – worst of all, in his eyes – giving away anything, and it unsettles him. He wants us to grab as he grabs, hoard as he hoards, for on that field he knows he has the home advantage: he's the “thief” who “comes only to steal” (John 10:10). So when we hoard or swindle or steal or destroy, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

Satan knows, though, that he cannot ultimately end life, cannot prevent the marriage supper of the Lamb, cannot claim ownership of anything – and such knowledge sickens him. Satan's lovelessness, then, must rage against reality. All truth is fidelity to reality, reflective of the God who is Truth. Satan craves a fantasy world out of joint, where no one can tell which way is up. He yearns to plunge all things into a darkness of intellectual fog. So he'll tell any tale to get his way, admitting only so much of truth as will help to sell the delusion. Satan is the devil, which means 'the Slanderer.' He's “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Satan “doesn't stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him: when he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Especially does he want to snatch truth from our hearts and minds, like a bird pecking away scattered seed from the earth, “that they may not believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). So he wants us spreading confusion and suppressing the truth. When we get careless with the truth or (worse still) contemptuous toward the truth, then, just so we take a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

And Satan's lovelessness at last invites roaring passions. Disordered desires are all like his daughters.7 So he bends our desires out of shape, diverting them every which way to stop them from flowing clear and strong to the sea of glory that awaits us in God. And when we allow ourselves to be governed by the devil's daughters, by earthly craving and covetousness, just so are we taking a step toward bearing the devil's likeness.

To live in these ways, any of these ways, is to submit to the devil's false ten commandments, and thus deformed toward his likeness – which is the very last thing anyone should want. “Be converted, you who walk in the commandments of the devil, commandments that are hard, bitter, cruel, and foul!”8 It's no wonder, then, that from the very roots of our faith, part of the ritual of baptism involved exorcisms, spiritual warfare, and a person being baptized into Christ had to shout out something like these words: “I renounce you, Satan, and all your works and all your pomp!”9 Too often, it's easy for us to settle into our cozy materiality, neglect that we live in the crossfire of a cosmic war, that the darkness is real and personal and bent on our seduction to destruction – but it's real. And to that end, for our help, God met Israel at Sinai and had angels hand to Moses a Law.

And “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). How do we use it lawfully? Paul says we have to understand that the Law functions to correct those who are straying after Satan's example – it's a road block for those imitating the devil. “The Law isn't laid down for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, people who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to healthy teaching in accordance with the good news of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:9-11). Everything contrary to human flourishing as God defines it – those acts and attitudes are steps toward conformity with the devil, which is death. So God bellowed these commandments as fiery walls in our wayward tracks, lest we do Satan's works and march to hell among Satan's pomps. They're like guardrails and warning signs: “This way is Satan's likeness, these are Satan's works, do not approach, steer clear!” And to heed what we read, to keep the letter of the ten commandments and their corollaries, is a healthy thing.

But all these commandments – be they ten or a million – are, taken together in their spirit, a sketch of a portrait of practical love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor – therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law” (Romans 13:10). It isn't merely a keeping of the Law – that's good – but the fulfillment of the Law, which is deeper and better by far. “The whole Law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). “For the commandments 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not murder,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not covet,' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:9). “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law” (Romans 13:8). For “which is the great commandment in the Law? … 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind' – this is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

To read and heed the warning signs, back and front, and to breathe in their spirit, is to understand love. It's to train ourselves to love as God defines love, and that love inevitably spurns the devil's parade of woes. If you love God for who God is, then obviously you'll worship him, obviously you'll trust him and throw out your idols, obviously you'll speak well of him and honor his name, and obviously you'll give him what he asks of you, including your sanctified time of rest with him. Obviously, too, you'll honor the offices of authority he's placed in your life. And if you love your neighbors through God, then obviously you can't kill the neighbor you love, obviously you can't interfere with the marriage of the neighbor you love, or steal the property of the neighbor you love, or slander the neighbor you love, or even crave your beloved neighbor's life or family or goods. To love, to really love, is to rule all these out in advance, before even having to be told. That's why, as Paul said, “the Law is not laid down for the righteous,” not laid down to block the path to those whose love keeps them on the right way (1 Timothy 1:8).

So what must we do, to learn this love? “Let us walk properly as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13). “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12). “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). What does it look like when we put on the armor of light, put on the Lord Jesus Christ? It looks like looking like him. It means embracing by grace a share in his identity, his character, being conformed to his love. Jesus is completely devoted to and worshipful of God his Father, rendering perfect worship – so those who put on Christ will thirst to know God as fully as they can and will worship him through Jesus' high-priesthood as lived out in the Church. Jesus is completely reflective of and surrendered to God his Father, as “the Image of the Invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), so those who put on Christ will surrender themselves from God and reject idol-efforts to keep the world under control. Jesus is completely committed to vindicating God's good Name (John 12:28; 17:6), rendering perfect praise – so those who put on Christ will live and speak in ways that glorify God's Name in Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us all to his heavenly sabbath and to his new-creation feast beyond it, so those who put on Christ will sanctify time with the Church in ardent hope of what Jesus promises.

Jesus showed honor to all in God's name, so those who put on Christ will likewise treat authority with respect, especially those held to parental, pastoral, and political responsibility. Jesus is “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25) and came to give us abundant life (John 10:10), so those who put on Christ will likewise become givers and protectors of life, honoring God's image and God's artistry. Jesus is the Faithful Bridegroom who came to seek his Bride, so those who put on Christ will become lovers of chastity and fidelity, imitating this Bridegroom and his unwavering commitment. Jesus is a gracious and merciful King, so those who put on Christ will become just stewards and generous givers of things tangible and intangible. Jesus is the Truth, so those who put on Christ will become zealous truth-tellers careful about how they speak. And Jesus is the Desire of the Nations, so those who put on Christ will yield up their desires to be transformed and elevated.

In all these areas, the imitation of Jesus' love for God and neighbor will overflow everything the Law's letter ever asked of us – or, more to the point, the Law was always meant to slowly spell out the love of Christ. And so these Ten Commandments we've been talking about for the past seven months – they are fulfilled completely as we conform to the life of Christ, who is Light of Light and Love of Love. The Ten Commandments are simply ways in which we renounce Satan with his works and pomps, and ways in which we open ourselves more freely to the uniting grace of Christ, in whom we rediscover our first love, the love that made us and for which we were made. So arm yourselves with this perfect law of love – for “the Law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” from the ways of death and enlivening the heart for the adventure of true life (Psalm 19:7). “If you really fulfill the royal law” of love, “you are doing well” (James 2:8) – and the devil is doing poorly. Use this law lawfully and lovingly, to gain distance from the devil and to find yourself in Christ, crucified and risen and coming again. For in these his beautiful commandments, you will see and be trained in the love that leads to endless light. Amen.

1  Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans 3.1.9 (early third century)

2  Cyprian of Carthage, On the Lapsed 15 (mid-third century)

3  Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyon (late second century), as preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 5.1  (early fourth century)

4  Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrnaeans 9.1 (early second century)

5  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Exodus 6.9 (early third century)

6  Origen of Alexandria, Homilies on Joshua 13.2 (early third century)

7  Hermas, Shepherd – Mandate 11.2.2 (mid-second century)

8  Hermas, Shepherd – Mandate 11.4.6 (mid-second century)

9  See, e.g., Tertullian of Carthage, On the Crown 3.2 (early third century); Hippolytus of Rome, On the Apostolic Tradition 21.9 (early third century); Cyril of Jerusalem, Mystagogical Catecheses 1 (late fourth century); Ambrose of Milan, On the Sacraments 1.2 §5 (late fourth century).

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