A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng

What Happens in Worship

Lutheran worship is primarily the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. As we gather together for worship, God speaks to us in his Word. Through the preaching of his law he crushes us with the stark and painful reminder of our own sin and unworthiness; he causes us to tremble at his holiness and justice; he speaks to us his urgent call to repentance. But in that same time of worship, a gracious God speaks to us words of full and free forgiveness. He points us to Christ and to the cross where his sacrifice paid the price of our sin, removed our guilt, and opened the door to heaven itself. In that same time of worship, we poor miserable sinners kneel side by side and receive the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. We commune with our God and with each other. In that same setting of worship, we witness how the power of the Holy Spirit, working through nothing other than his Word and simple water, creates new life and faith in the hearts of children and adults as they are baptized. And even when we join our voices to praise God in our words and songs, that praise is always focused on what God has done for us in Christ, adding our voices of gospel proclamation to the voice of the shepherd God has called to serve us.

If that is what happens in Lutheran worship, if the proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified is the center of what happens in our churches, then our worship services are not only times when God is nourishing the faith of believers; worship services also become a time and place where true evangelism and outreach take place. It is in that kind of Christ-centered and cross-focused worship setting that people hear not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It is then that people receive something effective and lasting—not the passing emotional high that soon fades outside the church doors, not the hollow recipes for happiness, worldly success, or outwardly godly living.

Mark Schroeder

from here

“Scripture Does Not Speak of Christ” by Pr. Peters

Our understanding of the Word of God (especially with respect to its reading as part of liturgy, public worship, and private devotion)  is absolutely paramount to our theology of worship, both corporate and private.  I have never read a short piece on the theology of the Word that is as succinct yet robust as this one by Pr. Peters on his Pastoral Meanderings blog.  I have republished this post below in its entirety, but please let the reader be reminded, these are Pr. Peter’s words and not my own…I emphasize that lest anyone give me any credit for this magnificent piece:

Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian now Roman Catholic, made the relevant point that Scripture does not speak of Christ but speaks Christ. Now this is not argument over terminology or semantics. This is the essential catholic confession — the Word of God does not speak of something the way, for example, I may speak of something I know or have an opinion about. Scripture is God speaking. When Scripture speaks, we hear the voice of God.

For most of Protestantism Scripture has become a book of rules to be followed, a set of principles to inform how we reshape the world, a set of practical tools to better your life, or a road map to lead you from here to eternity. But that is just plain wrong. Scripture is the voice of God. Scripture is the discourse of God in human words. This Word is powerful and can do what it claims and keep all its promises. This Word has the power to call and gather the Church.

On Sunday morning we often treat the Word of God as if it were nothing more than a book of wise sayings, some of which may be practical enough and pointed enough to make a small difference in the ordinary and mundane of our world. We treat so casually what is essentially the Voice of God who speaks to us and is speaking to us in Scripture.

We act as if the gems of Bible study were the hints or conclusions reached from that study — like a school child reads the encyclopedia for things he or she can use in a paper that is due tomorrow. Bible study is important because it is time with God, it is the conversation in which God is the speaker to us and we who have ears tuned in faith can hear Him speaking. It is not what we learn from Bible study but what we learn in Bible study as a people gather to hear every word and as a people who know that this every word is important.

Nowhere is that more true than in worship — the Word of God predominates not because we have found it useful but because it is Christ speaking to us. In this respect liturgy is the first real context for us to hear Scripture — everything else flows from this assembly and is not in competition with it or can substitute for it — as it was for those who heard Scripture first from the voice of the apostles.

This is what we need to rediscover – the urgency, the immediacy of God’s voice in our midst. In response to that voice, we come, we listen, we hear, and we grow. The distasteful practice of cell phones and watch alarms going off in worship is a sign that we have not understood that Scripture is God’s voice speaking to us — or surely we would shut those things off. The strange practice of people moving in and out of the Sanctuary as the Scriptures are read and preached is a sign that we do not understand that Scripture is God’s living voice speaking to us or we would find a way to fit our bathroom needs around this holy and momentous conversation in which God is the speaker and initiates the dialog that brings forth faith in us and bestows upon us all the gifts of the cross and empty tomb.

Instead of burying our faces in bulletins to read, we would raise our heads to listen. I am convinced that the reading of Scripture is heard differently than the reading of Scripture from a service folder page. We don’t listen to each other with our heads buried in a booklet. We listen to each other by looking at the point where the voice is coming from and by learning to tune out the distractions so that we might hear what is said. This is the discipline that is so missing on Sunday morning.

All because we think of Scripture as a vehicle that delivers something to us instead of the thing that is delivered — the voice of God speaking grace and mercy, conviction and condemnation, redemption and restoration, death and life… Wisdom!! Attend!!

The Beautiful Cross

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.

On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed!  Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit.  Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace.  Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God.  Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell.  It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross.  It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.

– C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)

All Saints’ Day?

For many Christians, especially those whose traditions do not observe the church calendar, the mere mention of “All Saints’ Day” sounds eerily Roman Catholic or taboo.  But what exactly is this feast day (i.e., church celebration) all about?  I have found no better short explanation than that in the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

This feast is the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of that great cloud of witnesss with which we are surrounded (Heb 12.1).  It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ–from every nation, race, culture, and language–who have come ‘out of the great tribulation…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7.9, 14).  As such, it sets before us the full height and depth and breadth and length of our dear Lord’s gracious salvation (Eph 3.17-19).  It shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him (Rom 6.3-8).  It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church catholic [i.e., 'universal church' not 'Roman Catholic church']–in heaven and on earth, in all times and places–in the one Body of Christ, in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Just as we have all been called to the one hope that belongs to our call, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4.4-6).  And the Feast of All Saints shares with the final Sundays of the Church Year an eschatalogical focus on the life everlasting and a confession that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom 8.18).  In all of these emphases, the purpose of this feast is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12.2-3).

Bonhoeffer on Church Growth

hillsongI’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism.  Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in.  Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity.  At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.

For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do.  That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here).  Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.

Bonhoeffer disagrees.  He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church.  Such growth is his work, not ours.  As he writes:

If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess–he builds.  We must proclaim–he builds.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church:  you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)

Justification in the NLT–A Final Look

nlt_logo

Over the past few months, I’ve been musing here and there about the way the NLT presents the doctrine of justification, especially in the Pauline epistles.  To be precise, I have been working through my understanding of the way the NLT presents the causality (i.e. by/through faith) versus the instrumentality (i.e. because of faith) of justification.  Two recent exercises have led me to believe that, on the main, I’ve been making a mountain out of a molehill.

First, I finally spent some time reviewing the notes and articles in the NLT Study Bible for the passages I listed in previous posts.  Most notably, I read through the article titled, “Righteousness By Faith,” which appears in Galatians.  This article unequivocably articulates the doctrine of justification by faith and says, “There is nothing people can or need to do. Only Christ could do—and has done—what must be done to make people acceptable to God. So we should simply receive his gift, gratefully thank him for what he has done for us, and trust in him” (emphasis mine).

Second, I talked with friends, co-workers, church members, and members of my Guard unit about the readings as presented in the NLT.  Essentially, I asked them to explain to me their understanding of the passages.  Though anecdotal, without exception, the people I talked to were able to articulate justification by faith because of Christ’s work on our behalf.

In sum, I am coming to think that my anxiety about how the NLT presents justification stemmed from my desire for more precision than the average reader brings to the text.  ‘By,’ ‘through,’ and ‘because’…for many folks, though not all…are essentially synonymous terms in the everyday usage of the language.  In preaching or teaching through the few passages where the NLT says ‘because of faith’ I will continue to be careful to articulate the instrumentality of faith over against the causality of faith in justification.  Will I be driving home a point that some or many will think is unnecessary?  Perhaps.  If it avoids confusion for anyone, however, it will be worth it.

Many continued thanks to the NLT team for a fantastic translation that I have used as my primary preaching and teaching bible for over a year now…with absolutely no regrets!  May God continue to use this translation to build his church!

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Justification in the NLT–A Broader Look

It has been over two months since my initial post on my struggles with justification by faith as presented by the New Living Translation, Second Edition (NLTse) in the book of Galatians.  In that time, I have broadened my reading to include most of the other NT references to justification traditionally rendered ‘by faith,’ as opposed to the NLTse rendering ‘because of faith.’  Specifically, I narrowed my list down to following 17 main occurrences (37 if you could numerous repetition in Heb 11):

  • Rom 1.17OpenBible
  • Rom 3.28
  • Rom 4.16
  • Rom 5.1
  • Rom 9.30
  • Rom 9.32
  • Rom 11.20
  • Gal 2.16
  • Gal 3.7
  • Gal 3.8
  • Gal 3.11
  • Gal 3.22
  • Gal 3.25
  • Gal 5.5
  • Heb 10.38
  • Heb 11.3 ff (20 total occurrences in chapter 11)
  • Jas 2.24

Of these 17 verses, the NLTse translates 12 of them ‘by faith,’ in agreement with the traditional Protestant understanding that by the instrument of faith we grasp hold of the justifying work of Jesus Christ, the cause of our justification.  The other five, however, are translated ‘because of faith,’ making our faith–not Christ’s work–the effective cause of justification.  For the statisticians and fellow engineers among us, that comes out 71% overall.  Looking book by book, which I think is fair way to approach it given the way books were assigned and translated by the translation team, this comes out to 75% for Romans, 57% for Galatians, 100% for Hebrews, and 100% for James.

Interestingly (to me anyway), none of these passages were changed from the original release of the NLT to the NLTse…unless I misread something in my quick study.  It surprises me that a doctrine as central as justification by faith would not receive more scrutiny by the translation and review team, especially where the NLT has departed so dramatically from every other major translation, historic or contemporary.  Let me restate my original three concerns:

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by” in almost every other English translation through the last 400 years
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

I still love the NLT and use it as my primary preaching and teaching bible.  It speaks the language of the folks with whom I live and work–at NASA, in the Guard, and in my neighborhood.  I am concerned, however, about how justification is sometimes presented.   Does anyone else share my concerns?  Is anyone cautious about the NLT for these reasons?  Has it ever been discussed to edit these passages in future releases?

I’d love to know!  I’d love to discuss it!

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Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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Justifying Faith? Luther on the Bronze Snake…

My recent post on justification by faith in Galatians has sparked some good conversation here, on Twitter, and via email…but it all begs the question, “What is this justifying faith in Christ?”  Not surprisingly, Luther asks and answer the question beautifully, illustrating it with the bronze snake in the wilderness:

Some people imagine that faith is a quality that sticks to the heart on its own, with or without Christ.  This is a dangerous error.  Christ should be placed directly before our eyes so that we see and hear nothing apart from him and believe that nothing is closer to us than Christ.  For he doesn’t sit idly in heaven but is continually present in us.  He is working and living in us, for Paul says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20).  He also says that you “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.27).  Therefore, faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone.  He is the conqueror of sin and death and the one who gives us righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.

This is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake, which points to Christ (Jn 3.14).  Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at this bronze snake with an unswerving gaze.  Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone.  In contrast, others who didn’t obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died.  So if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing by grasp Christ in faith and say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me.  In his wound and death, I see my sin.  In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  I see righteousness and eternal life as well.  I want to see and hear nothing except him.”  This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe. (26:356)

Amen.

Take that, all who accuse Luther of disparaging the Old Testament (grin).

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Justification in Galatians–Struggles with the NLT

Bible page photoLet me start by saying I’m a huge fan of the New Living Translation and have used it regularly, even if not as my primary bible for teaching/preaching, since shortly after its debut in the mid-90s.  Yes, even after pre-ordering my ESV back in 2001 (my primary bible for almost seven years), being shunned by ESV-only seminary types for years at Southern, and feeling indecisive about the whole formal v. dynamic equivalence bit…I still loved the NLT so much so that toward the end of last year I switched to it exclusively for preaching and teaching and relegated my ESV to the #2 spot.

(Perhaps I’ll write sometime about the reasons I made the jump, but that’s another post for another day.)

Today I write because I’m troubled by how the NLT renders some key verses on justification in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  By way of background, I should say that I’ve always looked to Galatians as ‘the’ treatment on justification by faith in the bible and, with Luther, I view justification as ‘the’ doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  With that in mind, my heart sank when reading through Galatians this weekend and realizing that the NLT makes faith the cause of our justification as opposed to the instrument of our justification.  Here is an excerpt from Galatians 3, the NLT in parallel with the ESV (the emphasis, of course, is mine):

New Living Translation (NLT) English Standard Version (ESV)
1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?
5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith
6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” 6 just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?
7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all the nations be blessed.
9 So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Some thoughts…

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by,” as shown in the ESV (NB, almost every other translation, contemporary or otherwise, follows the ESV here)
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

So how does this stand in relation to a Reformational understanding of justification by faith?  Here are some excerpts from classic Systematics texts or confessions in the Reformed, Lutheran, and contemporary Evangelical veins (again, the emphasis is mine):

  • Louis Berkhof (Reformed):  “Scripture never says we are justified dia ten pistin, on account of faith.  This means that faith is never represented as the ground of our justification.”
  • Wayne Grudem (Evangelical): “Scripture says that we are justified ‘by means of’ our faith, understanding faith to be the instrument through which justification is given to us, but not at all an activity that earns us merit or favor with God.”
  • Book of Concord, Epitome of the Formula of Concord (Lutheran): “We believe, teach, and confess that faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God, for whose sake this faith is imputed to us for righteousness”

It would seem here that the NLT’s translation is at odds with the traditional, Protestant understanding of God’s means of justification.  This saddens me a great deal and surprises me, given the NLT translation team for Galatians (one of whom I studied under at seminary and who I know firmly believes in justification by faith).

I’m looking for some interaction here, good readers…talk to me!

  • Do you think I’m making much of nothing?
  • Is my reading of the NLT not a plain, straightforward reading of the translation?
  • Is the NLT’s rendering here a deal-breaker for teaching justification by faith?

Update (6.3) — after being prompted by several of you, I emailed Dr. Tom Schreiner, who was on the NLT translation team for Galatians.  Part of his reply is included in the comments here.

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The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison

“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.’” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer's] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord's prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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The Essence of Salvation by Faith Alone

The Holy Scriptures undeniably describe faith as the only thing necessary for salvation.  They also teach that good works cannot justify a person before God or contribute in the least toward the attainment of salvation.  The Old Testament says that Abram ‘believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15.6).  Habakkuk testifies that ‘the righteous shall life by his faith’ (2.4), and Jeremiah cries, ‘Lord, aren’t You looking for loyalty?’ (5.3).

This doctrine stands in even stronger light in the books of the New Testament.  They remind us that faith, not works, is the way to salvation and blessedness.  Whenever a person sought help from Christ, we read that Christ looked only for faith. ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ (Mk 9.23),  Jesus told the father who needed help for his son and had failed to find it in the disciples.  To another father who had lost all hope for help with the report that his daughter was already dead, Jesus said, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’ (Lk 8.50).  When another suffering father directed his petition to Him, after seeking help from the disciples in vain, Jesus replied, ‘Let it be done for you as you have believed’ (Mt 8.13).  This was His usual answer to those who sought His help.  Therefore, the apostles’ Epistles speak in this manner: ‘And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom 4.5); ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apoart from works of the law’ (Rom 3.28); and ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2.8-9).  There is still more.  In John’s Gospel, we are told that the Jews once asked Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus replied by pointing to faith: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ (6.28-29).

Many are ashamed to seek salvation through faith in Christ, the Savior of the sinner, and instead they build their hope for eternity on their upright life.  They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works.  Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty.  If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses.  If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God hold before us.

Although our sin causes us to forfeit our claim to a blessed eternity, God once again opened to us the possibility of salvation through the offer of faith.  If He had not revealed this to us, all who had come to knowledge of their sinfulness would have had to live in despair and doubt.

May no one think that this doctrine is too holy for those who are weighed down by the knowledge of their sin.  However, it is dangerous to those who are happy in the midst of their sin.  Although love and good works save no one, both are still necessary as evidences that a person is truly standing in the saving faith.  Faith and love are related and inseparably connected like a father and his child.  Whoever says he is justified through faith before God must prove himself by his love before man.  Otherwise he is a liar, for faith works through love.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 235-6)

(Note:  I don’t normally just copy and post something in toto without any commentary or thoughts of my own, but piece surely stands on its own and needs nothing from me!)

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Luther on Faith and Works

Lutherans are often accused from without of being antinomian, in the pejorative sense, and teaching (formally or at least in practice) that God establishes no moral norms on the Christian believer.  This unfortunate reality is nothing more than the result of poor doctrinal instruction mingled with our uncanny sinful ability to rationalize sin.  Such a bastardized notion of “Christian freedom” may well be evident to some degree in American Lutheranism, but neither Scripture nor Martin Luther will have anything to do with it.

Luther properly understood and wonderfully articulated the distinction and close connection of faith and works.  Perhaps his most famous explanation comes from the opening pages of his work, “Concerning Christian Liberty,” where he writes, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  This pithy maxim holds in proper tension the freedom we have from works as a means of justification and the obligation we have to serve our neighbors by our works.  Luther brings out the practical difficulty of teaching these truths in preaching and teaching when he writes on John 15:

Jesus is saying, “You are in me and remain in my, so make sure you keep my commandments.  For I must give each of you a task as a sign to others that you are my true branches.  That task is to love each other.  I keep this command myself so that I can be an example and model to you.  And I remain in my Father’s love because I keep this command.  Therefore, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Earlier in this book, Christ also says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13.35).

So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily.  Neither faith nor works can be ignored.  For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works.  On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians.  These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

That’s why it’s so difficult to preach.  No matter how I preach, something goes wrong.  Someone always goes off on a tangent.  If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works.  If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works.  The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works.  So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works.  We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 24:249)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, by God’s grace, let us hold fast to our unwavering faith in Christ and let us put our faith into action as we live out our lives each day.  Soli Deo gloria.

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More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too...but that's another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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Luther on Living in Christ

There is no doubt that Martin Luther was tormented regularly by sin’s accusations against him, especially in his early years as a monk.  As mentioned previously, I share this struggle from time-to-time, which quite honestly was part of the initial enticement to read Luther.  Fortunately, Luther received some wise counsel from his Father Confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, who repeatedly pointed him back to the cross.  Luther ran with this advice and repeated it to his hearers again and again.

Luther asks, “What should you do when the thought of death frightens you and your conscience bothers you?”

Continue to live in Christ.  You must believe that you can accomplish nothing by your own works and that the only way is through Christ’s righteousness.  John 6.29 says that the work of God is believing in the one he has sent.  So when Nathan corrected David, and David confessed his sin, Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin.  You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12.13).  David simply lived in grace.  He didn’t even think about trying to satisfy God with his works.  When Nathan said, “The LORD has taken away your sin,” he was proclaiming the message of grace.  And David believed it.

After Adam sinned, he could do nothing that would bring him into a state of grace.  But God said that one of his descendants would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).  It was by this promise Adam was made alive.  Because he believed in this word, he was saved and justified without any works.  Our nature struggles fiercely against being saved without our works and tries to deceive us with a grand illusion of our own righteousness.  So we may find outselves attracted to a life that merely appears to be righteous.  Or because we know we aren’t righteous, we may be frightened by death or sin.  Therefore, we must learn that we should have nothing to do with any way of becoming righteous except through Christ alone.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 30:263)

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Luther on Pouring Our Sins on Christ

One of the greatest struggles in the Christian life is that against the torment and accusation of sin.  Those without a well-developed understanding of the great horrors of sin are sometimes free from this burden, but others can be tormented by their sins to the point of despair.  I admit, I tend to gravitate toward despair…and therefore, I find great comfort in these words of Luther.  Writing on 2 Cor 5.21, he says:

When you become aware of your sin and frightened by it, you must not allow the sin to remain in your conscience.  This would only lead to despair.  Rather, just as your awareness of sin flowed to you from Christ, so you must pour your sin back on him to free your conscience.

So be careful you don’t become like the misguided people who allow their sin to bite at them and eat at their hearts.  They strive to rid themselves of this sin by running around doing good works.  But you have a way to get rid of your sins.  You throw your sins on Christ when you firmly believe that Christ’s wounds and suffering carried and paid for your sins.  As Isaiah said, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53.6).  Peter said Christ himself “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2.24).  And Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5.21).

You must rely on these and similar verses with your whole heart.  The more your conscience torments you, the more you must rely on them.  For if you don’t do this and try to quiet your conscience through your own sorrow and penance, you will never find peace of mind and will finally despair in the end.  If you try to deal with sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you.  They will seem to live forever.  But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone.  Sin can’t remain on Christ.  His resurrection swallowed up sin.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 42:12)

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Why Do We Need Ongoing Forgiveness?

Over at Chaos and Old Night, Fraiser has a great post asking and answering the question, “Why do we need ongoing forgiveness?”  As another refugee from Evangelicalism, he eloquently points out the flaws in much of the contemporary Christian thinking about the necessity of confession and demonstrates the grace of God in action through our justification and sanctification.

Read it…mull it over…enjoy it…

Thanks, John!

Witherington on Piper…

Last Wednesday, Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) posting a very fine, interesting response to a John Piper interview about the perceived arrogance and negativity of Calvinists.  Having been raised in, studied in, and served in Calvinistic circles for many years before coming to Lutheranism, I found some of Dr. Witherington’s comments both striking and brilliantly perceptive.  He writes:

For whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

As an engineer, Air Force officer, and otherwise pretty anal-retentive and over-analytical person, the “intellectual certainty” was a very big draw of Calvinistic theology for a very long time.  I wanted answers.  I wanted precise answers.  I wanted a black-and-white, crystal clear understanding of not only the Bible but of God too.  Reformed theology offers just this sort of approach in many areas and really fit me quite well.  The trouble is, as Dr. Witherington continues:

But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.

As much as it hurts to admit it…I think Dr. Witherington is spot on.  Yes, the Reformed world does a marvelous job forming a precise, logically coherent, systematic theology, but it draws “the circle much too small” and leaves out “all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”  It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out.  I discovered this truth primarily while working on my ordination paper and personal confession of faith required for my Ordination Vicinage Board.  As I poured over the great Reformed confessions in order to style my own in a fashion similar to the WCF, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and others, I found that all too often, they simply failed to acknowledge passages that failed to fit into “the system.”

Does the Book of Concord provide a wonderful explanation of what it means to be Lutheran?  Yes.  Is it always tidy, neat, and logically coherent?  Not really.  That said, I’d rather hold to a confession that holds closely to the testimony of Scripture, even at the expense of 100% logical coherence.  As Dr. Witherington also writes:

While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on.

The best professors I had in seminary, Calvinists many of them, were humble enough to recognize this great truth and cling more tightly to their copy of Scripture than to their Confessions.  We would do well to be of the same mindset as these!

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Differences Between Lutheranism and Evangelicalism

This morning (here), Josh has made some keen observations on the differences between Lutheranism and contemporary American Evangelicalism. While he specifically points out the differences as those between Lutheranism and ‘what goes on at a megachurch,’ his points are spot on with respect to the larger world of Evangelicalism as a whole. He discusses the flawed notion that the differences are merely liturgical ones and goes deeper into sacramental nature of Lutheran theology and how it affects EVERYTHING. Read it, mull it over, digest it…it’s definitely worth your time! Thanks, Josh!