Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Freedom: From What, To What?

Last week, one of the latest rising stars in Christian celebrity, Jen Hatmaker, wrote a piece on freedom that just made me shake my head for having a complete lack of direction.  But maybe that was the point of it.

Hatmaker opened the post with an anecdote about the chickens they are raising.  When the doors of the coop were opened, they would quickly escape the confines of the building, but after building a larger fenced-in area, these same chickens would not leave that area if the fence gate was left open: the chickens no longer craved freedom.  She followed this with the Christian-sounding teaching that God wants us free as well, citing:
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Concluding with
That first sentence is everything.  Why did Jesus set us free?  So we would be free.  That’s basically it.  He emancipated us from everything that imprisons because freedom is its own reward.  To hear the Bible tell it, Christians should be the freest, most unstuck, unrestricted, liberated people breathing air.  [Emphasis hers]
Do you see a problem?  She says that the first sentence is everything.  It all sounds pretty good because there is freedom in Christ, except she never does say what we are free from.  She simply sets up this esoteric, ethereal, vague conception of freedom that a person can apply howsoever he or she wishes within the current experience of life.

What are we free from?
Hatmaker goes on to explain that people enjoy remaining in bondage.  I can agree.  Old patterns are comfortable like an old pair of blue jeans: they just fit.  Even when destructive, patterns of conduct and thinking built up over years stay with us.  This is a demonstrable social phenomenon.  She continues:
Who told you imprisonment was your only option?  What narrative have you believed that keeps you trapped, forfeiting your own freedom?  And how long have you chained yourself inside?  The prisons, they are many: toxic relationships, abusive churches, soul-crushing jobs, addictions, sorrow, impossible expectations, deferred dreams, the lie of scarcity, fear, regret.
Her entire thesis is that God makes us free from societal ills to change our attitudes and actions.  Have you noticed what is missing from her comments?  There is nothing about freedom from sin.  The apostle she is quoting, Paul, seemed to think that freedom from sin was the vital element, but Hatmaker has ignored it, except to give minor credence to her argument, as she continues with
“…through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:[2]).
but then goes into a diatribe on how Christians love imprisonment and misery over freedom.  Why is there no instruction on those things we are now from to perform in Christ?  She advocates Christians to flee bondage and pursue freedom in Christ without ever telling us what we are free to do.  Isn’t that as important as knowing what we are free from?  All we get is:
There is so much life out there, so much to see, so much to experience, so much to enjoy, so much space to heal and find your legs again and run.
And this means what?  Chickens run like crazy when their heads are cut off.  Is that what she intends?  I rather doubt it, but there is nothing solid on which to grasp.  This is all emotional fluff.

What are we free to do?
Since Jen Hatmaker failed to provide any meaningful direction for believers, allow me to offer some.
We are free to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4).
Once we were dead, but now we are alive in Christ Jesus.  As a result, the life we live is lived in and through Him: it is His life lived through us.  We abide in Him, and He in us.  Having been brought from death to life, from slaves of sin to slaves of righteousness, we present our members as instruments of righteousness for Christ’s sake.
We are free to do good works (Eph 2:10).
This is more important than we realize, because we do not understand that good works are only truly good in Christ and that they are prepared by God Himself for us to do.  We have a stewardship that must used properly, for the kingdom and not handled lightly or selfishly.
To whom are we free to do these good works?
To our neighbor.  And who is our neighbor?  When a lawyer asked that question of Jesus, he got more than expected.
Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine.  Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”  (Luke 10:30-37)
That outcome was unexpected.  The Law and Prophets singled out widows and orphans to be given care because they were needy and defenseless, so the robbed and beaten man in the parable would have been acknowledged to be a neighbor.  This was easily grasped.  Jesus turns things, though, by pointing out that the outcast was also a neighbor.  Those who were once afar off are now brought near through the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13).
This list is not close to comprehensive, but I wanted to make the point that any attempt to give a biblical response about freedom in Christ can be answered with little attempt.  If an author is unable or unwilling to provide guidance to answer a question raised, then we must assume that person is either unqualified to teach or is attempting to subvert sound teaching.  In either case, we are free to recognize that person should be marked out and avoided.  Let us rather move on to maturity in Christ.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Christian Life: Cross or Glory? by Steven Hein – Book Review

The work of sanctification that God performs in the believer is important to grasp.  How does this process occur?  Assuming that God is active in our spiritual growth, to what extent are individuals active?  In order to answer these questions, Steven Hein has given the Church a help in understanding “the relevance of the crucified Christ for daily Christian living” (p. 1).  We will look at the book according to its three main sections.

The Cross Life of the Christian
The author begins by defining the difference between cross and glory in the Christian life by drawing from Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation wherein the reformer spells out his understanding of what living under the cross looks like in light of a proper distinction between God’s Law and God’s Gospel.  This Law/Gospel paradigm is necessary for developing the thesis, so Hein gives an illustrative parable involving the relationship of a married couple to make his point.  The illustration works well in conveying the how one acts and reacts by following rules versus acting from joyful gratitude and freedom.  From there, he moves to the demands made by God in His Law and the paradoxical problem that we are required to meet them but are completely unable—except in Christ who met them fully.  And even there we stumble because of sin working in us.  Finally, there are chapters on justification and sanctification wherein the author establishes that just as surely as salvation is the work of God by grace through faith, so sanctification is by grace through faith.

The Experience of Living in the Cross
This short section is rather important because of the principles they investigate.  First, there is the conflict the apostle Paul describes in Romans 7—the internal struggle between the Old Sinful Self and the New Self in Christ.  Hein points out the changes of priorities and desires in the life of the Christian that conflict with the desires of the flesh to act out.  These struggles are real, and if allowed to escalate, can cause the believer to doubt God and His promises.  Examining different bases from which doubt can arise, the author answers how one ministers to the doubt.

Second, there is the conflict from without—tribulation or what Luther called tentatio (Latin).  The constant barrage on the believer from the world and the devil wears on the believer causing a holy anguish or anfechtung (German).  This is a normal course of the Christian life as noted in the first epistle of Peter and that of James and should cause us to look even more to the Savior and cling to Him, though as with the internal struggle, doubts may arise.

Faithful Living in the Cross
This section deals with what the life of the cross entails as it is lived out.  What does it look like in regards to good works performed for our neighbors and operating within the Reformation understanding of vocation—not our occupations, but the offices we have in life (i.e., spouse, parent, child, employer, employee, etc., each operating within specific boundaries and for specific reasons)?  What is the relation of our freedom in the Gospel compared to our obligation of doing good for our neighbor?  These areas and questions are addressed in a practical and biblical way, finally looking at our eternal destinies (heaven and hell) in relation to our lives, with a unique consideration of their actual locations.

Dr. Hein is an engaging writer.  I enjoyed perusing this book, especially because he based his arguments on Scripture.  I raise this, because he wrote from a confessional, Lutheran (LC-MS) perspective.  Most LC-MS authors I have read tend to rely heavily or primarily on the Lutheran Confessions while using Bible passages as reference.  The author does the opposite, and I believe this makes the book more accessible to the reader who would insist on the biblical primacy and also to the person not having the background in Lutheran dogmatics.

Some will be puzzled by or disagree with the Lutheran understanding of the Sacraments, Means of Grace, etc. that the author works through, since they firmly within the boundaries of his confessions.  However, these inform rather than distract from the thesis, making this work a solid, useful read for the average reader.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free of charge.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why the Rage?

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lᴏʀᴅ and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”  (Psa 2:1-3)

As diverse as this world is, there is a definite unifying goal to which mankind is progressing.  Certainly, the tactics endorsed or implemented by the multitudinous nations and people groups vary, however they move with a singular purpose toward the elimination of biblical Christianity and the incarnate Christ by which it is named.  ISIS and other groups foment terror and murder in the name of Allah to eradicate the “stain” infecting Islamic countries.  In more civilized fashion, public interest groups apply political pressure and curry favor with the intent of marginalizing Christians and impeding the free proclamation of the gospel.  None of these events are news to the believer, since Jesus warned of this very thing.
Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.… A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.  It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.  If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.  (Mt 10:16-18, 24-25)
While we Americans are not accustomed to such open hostility, believers have been targeted over multiple generations in multitude places.  The early centuries of the church were especially difficult with both the ruling political and religious entities targeting the faithful.  Some became especially vociferous, as Arnobius of Sicca relates in Against the Pagans.
Christ alone you would tear in pieces, you would rend asunder, if you could do so to a god.  Indeed, were it allowed, Him alone you would gnaw with bloody mouths, and break His bones in pieces, and devour Him like beasts of the field.  For what that He has done, tell, I pray you, for what crime?  What has He done to turn aside the course of justice, and rouse you to hatred made fierce by maddening torments?  Is it because He declared that He was sent by the only true King to be your soul’s guardian, and to bring to you the immortality which you believe that you already possess, relying on the assertions of a few men?  (I.64)
The fierce attitude that he describes is shocking, but it was not the first against Christians as related in the canonical writings of Luke.
But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”  But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.  Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.  And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  (Acts 7:55-58)

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”  And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.  But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked the house of Jason, seeking to bring them out to the crowd.  (Acts 17:2-5)
Both Romans and Jews were intent on silencing the new sect for two major reasons.  For the Jews, this Man who claimed to be God would need to be recognized as the Messiah of God and be followed without reservation.  This the religious rulers were not willing to do en masse since such a move would mean relinquishing the sphere of influence and control built up over the years.[1]  Pagan religious authorities also resisted the Christians with their foreign concept of one God who died for His creation and was purportedly resurrected.  In a bit of irony, these two factions both appealed to Roman authorities to quell the movement spreading throughout the empire, proposing that the Pax Romana was being or would soon be threatened.

But What of Tolerance?
As has been noticed in recent American history, those who promote themselves as the most inclusive wage the most virulent opposition when faced with the truth.  An honest, candid inquiry into the facts of a matter, in accord with the virtues espoused, should bring the inquirers to the point of either demonstrating the fraudulent nature of the claims or claimants or appreciation and admiration for those qualities benefiting all mankind.  One might think that a late third-century polytheistic religious culture would be tolerant or accepting of this rather unique Jesus put forth by the Christians.  Arnobius writes that He should at least receive a fair listen.
But even if you were assured that He spoke falsely, that He even held out hopes without the slightest foundation, not even in this case do I see any reason that you should hate and condemn Him with bitter reproaches.  Indeed, if you were kind and gentle in spirit, you ought to esteem Him even for this alone, that He promised to you things which you might well wish and hope for; that He was the bearer of good news; that His message was such as to trouble no one’s mind, but rather to fill all with less anxious expectation.  (I.64)
Not wanting the cure for spiritual distress, indeed spiritual death, philosophizers and moralizers seek a humanistic solution for the problem, refusing to consider that they are unable to determine and address their condition.  Believing their spiritual needs can be met by intellectual or experiential stimuli, they reject the sure cure.  Arnobius points out that if the people received a visitor who was able to cure physical ills via medicinal potions, that one would be welcomed with open arms and given the greatest respect.
Oh ungrateful and impious age, prepared for its own destruction by its extraordinary obstinacy!  If there had come to you a physician from lands far distant and unknown to you before, offering some medicine to ward off from you altogether every kind of disease and sickness, would you not all eagerly hasten to him?  Would you not with every kind of flattery and honor receive him into your houses and treat him kindly?  Would you not wish that that kind of medicine should be quite sure, and should be genuine, which promised that even to the utmost limits of life you should be free from such countless bodily distresses?  And though it were a doubtful matter, you would yet entrust yourselves to him, nor would you hesitate to drink the unknown dose, induced by the hope of health set before you and by the love of safety.  (I.65)
If one is willing to trust himself to an unknown physician for bodily ills, why not trust the Physician of the soul who alone can heal the deadly malady of sin common to all humanity?  Instead of rushing to the light of God’s grace demonstrated on the cross, mankind turns away from that outrageous, scandalous display of redemptive love.  Rather than dealing with the claims of Jesus found in the gospel accounts, people remain consoled by the familiar, protective cloak of selfishness, covering the canker infesting their being rather than acknowledge the need.  Thinking it better to stop their eyes and ears from the truth, they pull down their hats and hoods to shield themselves from the One having eyes “like flames of fire” (Rev 1:14).  Arnobius continues:
Christ shone out and appeared to us as the herald of utmost important news, bringing an omen of prosperity, and a message of salvation[2] to those who believe.  What, I pray you, is this cruelty, what such barbarity?  Indeed rather, to speak more truly, what is this scornful pride, not only to harass the messenger and bearer of so great a gift with taunting words, but even to assail Him with fierce hostility, and with all the weapons which can be showered upon Him, and with all modes of destruction?  Are His words displeasing, and are you offended when you hear them?  Count them as but a soothsayer’s empty tales.  Does He speak very stupidly, and promise foolish gifts?  Laugh with scorn as wise men, and leave Him in His folly to be tossed about among His errors.  (I.65)
What great injustice had been done to mankind to engender such a vehement reaction?  Only exposing the great need of a Savior by willingly being the sacrifice for sin and destroying death itself in the process.  Had he accomplished any less, we perchance would have accepted Him with open arms, showing Himself to be something less than what and whom He truly was; but because He dared meet our need, rather than let us fumble for our own way to peace and immortality, this Jesus still needs to be handed over to lawless men for execution (Acts 2:23) and His followers persecuted or martyred into silence (Rev 6:9).
What is this fierceness, to repeat what has been said more than once?  What is the passion, so murderous, to declare implacable hostility towards one who has done nothing to deserve it at your hands; to wish, if it were allowed you, to tear Him limb from limb, who not only did no man any harm, but with uniform kindness[3] told His enemies what salvation was being brought to them from God Supreme, what must be done that they might escape destruction and obtain an immortality which they knew not of?  And when the strange and unheard-of things which were held out staggered the minds of those who heard Him, and made them hesitate to believe, though Lord of every power and Destroyer of death itself [2 Ti 1:10] He suffered His human form to be slain, that from the result[4] they might know that the hopes which they had long entertained about the soul’s salvation were safe and that in no other way could they avoid the danger of death.  (I.65)
The message of the cross is folly to those who are dying (1 Co 1:18), yet Jesus’ death and resurrection remain as the clearest attestation of all that is wrong with this world and how it was made right.  Men still pursue solutions to the world’s ills through pursuits of their own making; and even when they are self-contradictory or guarantee mutually destructive ends, still those plans are followed to their inevitable conclusions or averted at the last for an equally disastrous course—whatever avoids Christ and the cross.  As illogical as it may seem, this activity will only increase at an increasing rate until our Lord returns.  Until that time, we are called to endure the fiery trials that test us.  Let us rejoice in the suffering, not that we seek the grief as a road to higher spirituality, but knowing we go through it to show the Holy Spirit’s working in us as the elect of God (1 Pe 4:12-19).

[1]  Readers, no doubt, will notice parallels between the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day and modern politicians.
[2]  Salus means to have health or wholeness.  Here it is directed toward the health and wholeness of both body and spirit.
[3]  I.e., to friends and foes alike.
[4]  I.e., from His resurrection, which showed that death’s power was broken by Him.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Making the Good Confession

You are the Christ: this is a remarkable statement to make of someone.  Whichever form of “Anointed” is used—Christ (Greek) or Messiah (Hebrew)—what would cause belief that another person is the one of whom all your holy writings have spoken and in whom all your hopes have been placed to deliver a people and make all things right?  What kind of faith is required?  From where does that faith come?

Consider some of what describes the Anointed One of Israel and what he would be.
  • He is born but existed before his birth (Mic 5:2)
  • He is human but is called God (Is 9:6)
  • He is born of a woman (Is 7:14) but is God’s Son (Ps 2:7)
  • He is David’s son but is greater than David (Ps 110:1)
  • He is nobody special to look at (Is 53:2) but is the Great Prophet (De 18:18-19), teaching faithfully (Is 11:1-4) and healing many (Is 35:5-6)
  • He will die (Is 53:7-9) and that childless yet see his seed live and flourish (Ps 16:10; Is 53:10)
When we read of Jesus in the New Testament, there is no question that this carpenter from Galilee was and is the Anointed of God, however what would convince someone during His time on earth?

A preponderant, or at least evident, aspect of Jesus’ time on earth was His prophetic work.  He went out teaching the need of repentance (Mt 4:17), corrected misunderstandings of the Law and obfuscations built up by the Jewish rulers (Mt 5:21-48), and proclaimed the good news of God’s kingdom accompanied by healing of diseases (Mt 4:23; 9:35) as evidence to His message and claims.  A great many abandoned the Lord because of the difficulty in His teaching, but when Jesus ask the twelve if they wished, Peter responded, Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  (Jn 6:68)  Peter and the Twelve understood the authoritative nature of Jesus’ teaching in His earthly itinerant work, understanding that He was the source of revelation and truth.

Under the umbrella of Divine promise is another facet that was not immediately evident but was a latent understanding of the Scriptures—the final resurrection.  This theological point is made evident in an early work of the Old Testament.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
    and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
    yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
    and my eyes shall behold, and not another.  (Job 19:25-27)
This clear testimony shows that from the first days of mankind those who believed on the promises of God looked forward to a day after death, when they would be rejoined to their bodies and once again be complete.  This idea is carried through Israel’s history and is mentioned in the time of the exile.
Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead.  (Is 26:19)

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Da 12:2)
Where this was true of the faithful Israelite, it was most certainly true of Messiah.
Yet it was the will of the Lᴏʀᴅ to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for sin,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lᴏʀᴅ shall prosper in his hand.  (Ps 53:10)

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
    or let your holy one see corruption.
You make known to me the path of life;
    in your presence there is fullness of joy;
    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.  (Ps 16:10-11)
The promise of the final resurrection and victory of Messiah was alive and well in New Testament Israel and led Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, to make that great confession of faith:
Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.  (Jn 11:27)
Yes, this eldest sibling, who is typically regarded as overly concerned with earthly matters to sit at the Master’s feet like her supposedly more spiritually-minded sister, confesses who the Lord is at the tomb of her brother Lazarus.  She knew that Jesus had the power and authority of Messiah to heal her brother and keep him from dying.  She understood the promises of God to raise Lazarus on the last day.  What she does not quite understand is that Jesus is the resurrection and life incarnate?  He is the One who will raise the dead to life on the final day, and can do so now in calling Lazarus from the tomb.

Much is made of Peter’s confession (Mt 16:16), especially since he had previously made the same confession previously in different terms:
And we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.  (John 6:69)
And rightly so because of the looming work the Twelve would do.  Yet I find remarkable that Peter and the others had the benefit of intense instruction, while Martha would only be able to piece things together in ad hoc situations.  She was spiritually astute, putting the pieces together and recognizing Jesus’ office without the benefit of regular, personal interaction.

As amazing as Martha’s perception and Peter’s understanding might be, we today are no less well-off spiritually.  Though the centuries remove us from the immediate impact of what the Lord accomplished in making the Father known, we have more revelation than the early disciples first had.  Dare I say that they could be envious of the further revelation we were given through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit.  Because of this Peter could write years after the Ascension:
Though you have not seen him, you love him.  Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.  (1 Pet 1:8-9)
Those believers receiving the epistle never had the opportunity to walk with and hear Jesus, but they were no less blessed than the Twelve, and we even more so having the full revelation of God, and yet with all this knowledge made known to us, we still receive the understanding of Christ in the same manner as all believers: flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven (Mt 16:17).  May we continue to walk by faith in what He revealed and hold fast to what has so richly been given.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gentle and Lowly in Heart

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  (Mt 11:29)

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.  (Isa 53:7-9)

The reader of Isaiah 53 cannot help but stop in rapt attention and wonder that someone would willingly suffer and die for my corrupt nature without raising objections or claiming personal rights, but here such a person is described causing many to wonder, “Has such a man ever existed?  Could we hope that he might be real?”  Yes, such a man does exist, and as self-sacrificing as the Isaiah passage paints the circumstances, we do not really understand that the plan behind the sacrifice was more than we could conceive.  Arnobius of Sicca described it this way in Against the Pagans (I.63):
Do you then see that if He had determined that none should do Him violence, He should have striven to the utmost to keep off from Him His enemies, even by directing His power against them?  Could not He, then, who had restored their sight to the blind, make His enemies blind if it were necessary?  Was it hard or troublesome for Him to make them weak, who had given strength to the feeble?  Did He who bade the lame walk, not know how to take from them all power to move their limbs, by making their sinews stiff?  Would it have been difficult for Him who drew the dead from their tombs to inflict death on whom He would?
Every good that Jesus had done to man could have been reversed in some way to come upon those torturing and killing Him, yet He chose otherwise.  He had within Himself the capability to stop the proceedings, having the source of power and authority in His hands.
During the arrest –
Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?  (Matt 26:53)
Before Pilate –
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me?  Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?”  Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. (John 19:10-11)
Jesus withheld that power to serve ends beyond comprehension (Rom 11:33), which had been readied since the foundations of the earth.  Arnobius tried to relate this as he continued:
But because reason required that those things which had been foreordained should take place here in the world itself and in no other fashion than was done, He, with gentleness passing understanding and belief, regarding as but childish trifles the wrongs which men did Him, submitted to the violence of savage and most hardened robbers.  Nor did He think it worthwhile to take account of what their temerity had aimed at, if He only showed to His disciples what they ought to expect from Him.
Not only did Jesus follow through with the plan of redemption that led to the cross, He did it in such a way that we take note and emulate His humility in obedience (Phil 2:3-4; 1 Pet 2:21-23).

There remains a problem for all in that we deal with the sin nature.  The standard for holy life is set: “Be holy as I am holy;” but no one can attain this of personal volition.  We enter this world dead to spiritual things.  The apostle Paul points to the problem sin has worked in our lives: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10-11).  God gave the Law to demonstrate both His holy character and our sinfulness.  Sin is fully revealed, crushing us in our inability to keep it.  But that was the point.  Our sin needed to be made evident in order for God’s grace to be made known through the Jesus.  In his own words, Arnobius described to the pagans the same problem:
 For when many things about the perils of souls, and on the other hand, many evils about their tendency to vice, the Introducer, Master, and Teacher directed His laws and ordinances to the end of fitting duties, did He not destroy the arrogance of the proud?  Did He not quench the flames of passion?  Did He not check the craving of greed?  Did He not wrest the weapons from their hands, and rend from them all the sources of every form of corruption?  To conclude, was He not Himself gentle, peaceful, easily approached, friendly when addressed?  Was He not sympathetic to every human misery and to all in any way afflicted with troubles and physical ailments and diseases?  Did He not, pitying them with His unparalleled kindness, return and restore them to health?
How did the Savior conduct Himself upon coming into the world?
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
    and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
    and in his name the Gentiles will hope.  (Mt 12:18-21; cf. Is 42:1-3)
His endgame was to draw men unto repentance through His kindness (Rom 2:4) in the proclamation of the gospel.  Yet He was rejected, and our Lord allowed Himself to be crucified by sinful men.  Sinful men continue today to reject the gospel as it goes forth through His disciples.  The healing, life-giving message of free grace won by the Giver of life is still rejected.  No, those who refuse would rather kill both the message and the messenger than receive the gift that leads to eternal life.

We press on, then, sharing the gospel and doing good for our neighbors, looking always to the prize of the upward call in Christ Jesus, longing to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.… Enter into the joy of your master.”

Friday, October 9, 2015

Are We Missing Something?

I mentioned previously about our pastor’s current teaching series on prayer and the importance of beginning with God’s Word and incorporating worship.  Thinking more on these things, my mind returned to the general topic of worship, and how it, too, begins with God’s revelation of Himself.  Pulling out my copy of Worship: the Christian’s Highest Occupation, I noted that A. P. Gibbs gives seven characteristics of worship drawn from Genesis 22.
1.  Worship is based on a revelation of God.
2.  Worship is conditioned by faith in, and obedience to that Divine revelation.
3.  Worship involves a costly presentation to God.
4.  Worship necessitates a deliberate separation unto God.
5.  Worship predicates the absolute renunciation with self, in all its varied forms.*
6.  Worship glorifies God.
7.  Worship results in blessing to the worshiper.
Gibbs makes good points, but the list paints an incomplete picture.  Local assemblies to often have defaulted to the same general approach of worship: we perform rituals (singing, praying, giving money) to God to demonstrate our appreciation.  Those three rituals fall within the domain of worship, however they all are directed from man to God.  Scripture seems to indicate that the reverse direction is equally true.  To partially fill some missing gaps, we need to examine a portion of the Levitical system.

Moses gave a good summary of worship practice to the people of Israel before crossing the Jordan River:
But when you go over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lᴏʀᴅ your God is giving you to inherit, and when he gives you rest from all your enemies around, so that you live in safety, then to the place that the Lᴏʀᴅ your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, there you shall bring all that I command you: your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the contribution that you present, and all your finest vow offerings that you vow to the Lᴏʀᴅ.  And you shall rejoice before the Lᴏʀᴅ your God, you and your sons and your daughters, your male servants and your female servants, and the Levite that is within your towns, since he has no portion or inheritance with you.  (Deut 12:10-12)
God promised to meet with His collected people who will be engaged in sacrifices, offerings, and rejoicing very much like a typical evangelical church service.  The reader may assume, “See?  All this giving with no receiving.”  But that view demonstrates an important, but often forgotten, function of offerings and sacrifices in worship—atonement.  In a section on the correct procedures for dealing with the blood, Moses instructs that it is not to be consumed, because it serves a holy use.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.  (Lev 17:11)
By extension, then, all blood sacrifices make atonement.  This can be seen most plainly in the Guilt (Lev 4:1-5:13) and Sin (Lev 5:14-6:7) offerings, as well as the Day of Atonement (Lev 16).  Even the Burnt offering (Lev 1), considered the epitome of pure, costly worship, is an atoning sacrifice (Lev 1:4).  Our best is tainted with sin.  Over and again the instruction is given: the priest shall make atonement.

Our concept of the connection between atonement and worship is that sins are first covered, and then we are allowed to worship the Lord.  In a sense that is correct, because if no atoning sacrifice is given, no worship can be offered or accepted.  When the atoning offering is presented with the sin(s) of the person or people pronounced on the animal, it must precede the any other offering when they are brought together.  What we fail to apprehend is that offerings to atone for sin and transgression are as much worship as any other offering.  Through an understanding of guilt before God and the promise of His forgiveness, the sinner comes in an act of repentance with confession.  When forgiveness is pronounced, God has communicated His good gifts through the Levitical priest to the worshiper who, by virtue of his restored status before the Lord, is then allowed to present whatever other gift might be deemed appropriate for the occasion and to enter into the praise.

Jesus’ death on the cross fulfilled the need for further bloodshed by His final sacrifice for sin on the cross.  He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  That work is complete.  Sin is covered and guilt is removed for those who are in Christ Jesus.  That being said, is there a need for believers today to expect this atoning work to be accomplished in their lives as part of worship?  The atoning working work of Jesus, while completed, has eternal effects continually meted out, because He ever lives to make intercession.  I contend that God is still giving His gifts in worship.

When you go to worship, does sin interfere?  If you come repentant, desiring to confess because you bear a great guilt and can echo David's words:
For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. (Psa 32:3-4)
As you are present in worship, do you receive the Lord Jesus in the bread and cup of Communion?  Do you come under conviction as God’s Law is preached, seeing your great need?  Confess the sin, and receive the Lord’s sure forgiveness.  Do you come in assurance of comfort and grace bought by Jesus’ perfect sacrifice?  Worship boldly, knowing that your worship, though zealous and sincere, is imperfect.  In each case, atonement is received.

 In this world Jesus’ atoning work never stops.  We always need it.  We look forward to a day, when the Lord returns and makes all things new.  Until that time, praise God that our Lord ever lives to make intercession for us.  We are a needy people.

*  Some of my readers will quibble on the validity of this point since nobody can absolutely renounce self.  I think the post will help address that concern.

Monday, October 5, 2015

God's Unfathomable Goodness

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  (Rom 3:22-25)

And here pious Christian hearts justly ought to consider the unspeakable goodness of God, that God does not immediately cast from Himself into hell-fire this corrupt, perverted, sinful material, but forms and makes from it the present human nature, which is lamentably corrupted by sin, in order that He may cleanse it from all sin, sanctify, and save it by His dear Son.

Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration I.39

He Spoke. You Weren't Listening

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.  (John 1:14, 18)

“But,” say my opponents, “if Christ was God, why did He appear in human shape, and why was He cut off by death after the manner of men?”

Could that power which is invisible, and which has no bodily substance, have come upon earth and adapted itself to the world and mixed in human society, otherwise than by taking to itself some covering of a more solid substance, which might bear the gaze of the eyes, and on which the look of the least observant might fix itself?  For what mortal is there who could have seen Him, who could have distinguished Him, if He had decreed to come upon the earth such as He is in His own primitive nature, and such as He has chosen to be in His own proper character and divinity?  Therefore, He took upon Himself the form of man; and under the likeness of our race He enclosed His power, so that He could be seen and carefully regarded, might speak and teach, and without encroaching on the sovereignty and government of the King Supreme, might carry out all those objects for the accomplishment of which He had come into the world.

“What, then,” says my opponent, “could not the Supreme Ruler have brought about those things which He had ordained to be done in the world, without feigning Himself a man?”

If it were necessary to do as you say, He perhaps would have done so—because it was not necessary, He acted otherwise.  The reasons why He chose to do it in this way, and did not choose to do it in that, are unknown, being involved in so great obscurity, and comprehensible by scarcely any.  You might perhaps have understood if you were not already prepared not to understand them and were not boldly preparing yourself for unbelief before what you sought to know and to hear was explained to you.

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans, I.60-61

Friday, October 2, 2015

We Believe, Teach, and Confess

In the Lutheran confessions, The Epitome of the Formula of Concord regularly uses the phrase “we believe, teach, and confess” to explicitly state doctrinal points held by those within the Lutheran branch of the reformation.  The authors of the document are to be commended for the regular usage of these words as they give a threefold understanding of how we are to grasp the faith and make it known.  In this post I would like to examine what it means to believe, teach, and confess.

What we believe is based on the accumulation of facts and propositions.  As data are assimilated, adjustments can and will be made in order to properly categorize the input into relevant models for further mental processing.  When the data agree with already held views, the sorting process occurs rather easily, even subliminally.  Where conflicting, however, the individual must either abandon the new data as fallacious or make shifts in order to recategorize and reestablish systems of thought.  Even when no new fact becomes available, we review our understanding according to our environment and make adjustments accordingly.  Also, because belief is individual, there can be as many variations of comprehension and opinion as there are combinations of stimuli.  In order to establish a consistent system, a focused, disciplined pattern of instruction orients the person through a combination of truth claims and conclusions—one building on another.  As the individual grasps the concepts, the mind is ordered accordingly, so that new data and stimuli are more properly evaluated.

Belief systems manifest themselves in the way we order our lives and interact with one another.  The interactions teach, both implicitly and explicitly, what the beliefs are.  The setting is of no consequence.  Whether a teacher-student setting or a conversation, beliefs are communicated.  The instructor (i.e., the one communicating beliefs) will offer what has been learned through a combination of formal instruction and experience.  It is the former that should be prominent when laying down precepts, while the latter is useful for example or application.  This is an important distinction.  The reverse leads to unreasoned (and unreasonable) thinking, therefore instruction is be rooted in a framework serving as the reference point from which the data and concepts flow.  In a codified form, this framework digests and systematizes the body of knowledge from an objective base.  Multiple professional fields utilize such documents to standardize their bodies of knowledge for future instruction and reference.  These bodies of knowledge are created collaboratively by experts in their respective fields as standard works.

Christianity has a body of knowledge that is similarly assembled in that it has multiple writers that added their works over time, however a key difference is in the direct hand of God as Author and Editor overseeing the entire project.  The Lord revealed Himself at the beginning, and as time wore on, further revealed His nature, immediate plans, and future hope.  This historical backdrop,though appropriate for revealing the story of man’s redemption in Christ, requires those who understanding this unfolding aspect to accurately teach what the Almighty had given and to Whom and what He was pointing.  The final product is a largely narrative recounting of a Divine hand moving man toward a final end of full and complete reconciliation, restoration, and renewal of all things in Christ.

Because of Scripture’s narrative nature, men have attempted to assemble concise statements as useful tools for both learning and communicating the faith.  In the time of the early church, three were written that continue regular use today: Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.  These creedal formulae range in length depending on the degree of specificity needed to ensure understanding and clarity of the subject matter and would later be incorporated into larger confessional documents.  Over time, larger confessional documents (e.g., Augsburg Confession, Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], London Baptist Confession of Faith [LBCF]) were constructed, reflecting the framers’ understanding of Holy Writ within the context of cultural and theological struggles within the Church.  Even those denominational bodies with no stated confessional document (“no creed but the Bible” or “no creed but Christ”) operate in accord with the twentieth-century multi-volume work The Fundamentals, edited by A. C. Dixon and later by R. A. Torrey.

This does not absolve responsibility to know the Scriptures themselves.  Only by being constant and regular in their study do we maintain a steady course.  The Scriptures are the norm by which all confessions are normed (norma normans, Latin for “the norming norm”).  Confessional statements must be formed and checked against God’s word to ensure trustworthy transmission and correct understanding.  However, before the invention of the printing press, personal copies of the Bible were not available, therefore the creeds, along with liturgies and hymns, were invaluable to communicate Law and Gospel.  Even with the modern proliferation of Bible editions available today those ignorant or immature in spiritual matters need systematized collections to group the major truths of doctrine.  Similarly, those mature in the faith find the confessions and creeds useful for teaching the doctrines of God, aiding the ability to hold fast to and pass along the truth.

When Worlds Collide
While we order our belief systems to make sense of all we have received, there are times when logical contradictions arise.  Somewhere within the stream of Bible – Confession – Teaching – Belief there arises a disconnect, internally to the body of doctrine or externally through interrelation with the world, so that two or more held facts or conceptions come into conflict.  What should be a self-checking system of discipleship moves gradually off course, resulting in beliefs that do not adhere with what is taught, or teaching what is not confessed, or confessing what is not inscripturated.  Individuals and groups stray from the truth delivered to them, choosing to improve what has been given with input from paganism, naturalism, etc.  What remains is a fractured body of believers, each doing what is right in his own eyes.  While affirmations are given both to the Bible and confessional statements, individuals practice a personal religion.

In order to accommodate the individuality, denominational bodies shift their teaching to allow for the diversity of opinion.  Where a conflict arises with a confession, the document is relegated to an historical status much as a museum piece—interesting to look at, but irrelevant for the present—and where the conflict is with the Bible itself, interpretations are manufactured to soften the clear word of God in favor of the contemporary focus.  There is now no end of confusion and discord: Presbyterians jettison the WCF; Baptists ignore the LBCF; Lutherans cast off the Book of Concord; and Roman Catholics discard the canons.  This manifests itself with individuals and groups within a denominational framework advocating for positions opposed to the confessions they supposedly hold onto.

Peace for Our Time—Only in Christ
Read your confessional documents.  I am constantly surprised by those who refer to themselves as being of groups with well-defined confessions and catechisms but have never read any beyond what was required to be confirmed. Then abide by your confessional documents.  If you no longer agree, affirm the difference, leave that confessional stance, and find a group more aligned to your beliefs.  If you no longer believe in Reformed principles, go to the group most closely aligned with your principles.  Do not call yourself Reformed (or Lutheran or Baptist or whatever you are leaving).  Instead, people want to stay within their respective bodies, hoping to influence it away from its moorings.  This tactic has a storied history in Christendom.  Montanus, Arius, and Pelagius were early purveyors of new ideas within the Church who needed to be resisted.  And lest there be a bit of Pharisaical pride in the non-confessional camp for not being like “those groups” feuding over confessional statements—the “non-con” wing of Christianity seems more likely to be cock-eyed pragmatists, working toward Christian unity for the sake of unity regardless of harmful the instruction by wolves fomenting discord.

Regardless of our opinion towards confessions, read your Bible.  Listen to it being taught.  Study it in context.  Memorize it.  Bind God’s word as a sign on your hand, and let it be as frontlets between your eyes, and write it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:8-9).  The commands of the Lord should be ubiquitous—a lamp to your feet and a light to your path (Psa 119:105).  Shepherds, be faithful in leading the flock to green pastures and still waters.  Make disciples: baptize and teach all that the Lord  has commanded.  We have been given a sure standard.  Believe.  Teach.  Confess.