on dramatic conversions as the norm

One of my most negatively memorable times from seminary was when a well-respected professor questions the legitimacy of a student’s faith because he could neither remember the exact date of his “coming to Christ” nor could he describe it in dramatic detail like Saul’s conversion in Acts 9.  This particular student was foreign and not from a tradition so highly-influenced by American revivalism as the seminary where I studied.  I simultaneously felt embarrassed for the student and angry at this professor for having the audacity to question another believer’s faith because of these trivialities.  I wish I had these words so eloquently prepared that day:

Some interpreters treat Saul’s experience as a model for Christian conversion, as though every person has to experience a crisis in order to become a Christian.  This is misleading.  Though God can and does work in people’s lives through crises, conversion is always the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace…Let no one question your salvation because you came to faith quietly, without some dramatic experience.  What matters is trust in Jesus as the Savior, which is truly what made Saul a Christian.

The Lutheran Study Bible, note on Acts 9.3-9 (emphasis mine)

That conversion results in dramatic change to thought, word, and deed is a given.  That conversion necessitates a ‘Damascus road experience’ is foreign to the Gospel.

the real Evangelical disaster…

49 Van Ness

The great evangelical disaster is that evangelicalism has become synonymous with Republicanism rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

– Rachel Held Evans (read more)

Rachel’s post is right on target with respect to the wearying drone of Evangelicals who equate “conservative” and “Evangelical” with “Republican” rather than anything to do with theology or the Scripture.  Both the political right and left have long since abandoned any sort of Judeo-Christian ethic in their legislation.  If you don’t believe me, then you aren’t reading past their platforms to anything they’ve actually voted for.

Sadly, the president of my seminary alma mater is the loudest voice in the room recently on this subject.

When will American Christians figure out that Christianity has everything to do with Christ and nothing to do with politics?

photo credit: Creative Commons | David Gallagher

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

NLT Breakthrough to Clarity Contest and Giveaway

The great folks at Tyndale are having a contest, giveaway, sweepstakes with some AMAZING prizes available to those who enter.  In a word, WOW.  As if free paper copies of bibles wasn’t a fantastic prize for any believer, this contest really raises the bar…check out the details:

The New Living Translation Break Through to Clarity Bible Contest and Giveaway

Visit www.facebook.com/NewLivingTranslation and click on the tab that says “Sweepstakes”

Fill out a simple form, take a quick Bible clarity survey, invite your friends to join and you’ll be entered to win one of our exciting prizes.

With each fan number milestone a new prize will be given away.

Grand Prize

Apple iPad 64G and a Life Application Study Bible
Awarded when the NLT Fan Page hits the fifth milestone
Retail Value: $829.00

2nd Prize  – Already awarded

32G iPod Touch and a Life Application Study Bible
Awarded when the NLT Fan Page hits the fourth milestone
Retail Value: $300.00

3rd Prize – Will be awarded when fan count hits: 3500

Kindle DX and a Life Application Study Bible
Awarded when the NLT Fan Page hits the third milestone
Retail Value: $489.00

4th Prize Will be awarded when fan count hits: TBD

Apple iPad 16G and a Life Application Study Bible
Awarded when the New Living Translation Fan Page hits the second milestone
Retail Value: $499.00

5th Prize Will be awarded when fan count hits: TBD

Apple iPad 32G and a Life Application Study Bible
Awarded when the NLT Fan Page hits the first milestone
Retail Value: $599.00

Prize Eligibility – Recently updated to include more countries

Sweepstakes participants and winner(s) can be U.S. residents of the 50 United States, or residents of any country that is NOT embargoed by the United States, but cannot be residents of Belgium, Norway, Sweden, or India.  In addition, participants and winner(s) must be at least 18 years old, as determined by the Company.

Sweepstakes Starts

March 17, 2010 @ 10:24 am (PDT)

Sweepstakes Ends

April 30, 2010 @ 10:24 am (PDT)

Wait, there’s more!

Visit http://biblecontest.newlivingtranslation.com/index.php for a chance to win a trip for two to Hawaii!

Here are the details:

Choose one of six passages of Scripture from the New Living Translation and consider:
How do these verses encourage you to know God better?
What is God teaching you in this passage?
How does this passage apply to your life?

Submit your answer and you’ll be entered to win.

Just for signing up: Everybody Wins! Win a Free .mp3 download from the NLT’s new Red Letters Project. It’s the dynamic, new presentation of the sung and narrated words of the Gospel of Matthew. You win the download just for entering! Or choose to download the NLT Philippians Bible Study, complete with the Book of Philippians in the NLT.

Every day, one person will win the best-selling Life Application Study Bible!

The grand prize: One person will win a fantastic trip for two to the crystal clear waters of the Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore in beautiful Hawaii.

“What’s in the Bible?” Giveaway Winner

In a bizarre twist, of the nearly 100 people that viewed the “What’s in the Bible?” Giveaway post…only ONE person bothered to comment!  That pretty well clinches it for smiley671, who will get the episode of her choice for her daughters to enjoy!  In the spirit of spreading the word on this great new DVD series, I am going to send BOTH certificates to her–one to choose from for her family and one to pay forward to a friend/church member/etc. of her choice.

May God richly bless your family and another fortunate family through this gracious gift from Tyndale and Phil Vischer!

For the rest of you readers…shame on you for not taking time to register a comment.  I checked the spam filter, you’re not there!  Free stuff for the taking and no one willing.  You have not because you ask not!

“What’s in the Bible?” Giveaway!

Yesterday I posted a review of Phil Vischer’s new project, “What’s in the Bible? with Buck Denver.”  Today, as promised, here’s a video teaser of this amazing new creation:

Also, here is a link to download some promised coloring pages for the younger viewers in your household…

But, I know why you’re all really here–FREE STUFF!  That’s right, courtesy of the fantastic folks at Tyndale House, I have award certificates for free copies of Episodes 1 and 2 of the “What’s in the Bible?” series.  Episode 1 is titled, “In the Beginning,” and covers…well…exactly what you might think, Genesis.  Episode 2 is titled, “Let My People Go!” and examines the book of Exodus.

How do you win?  Simple.  Just leave a comment to this post as to WHICH episode you’d like to have and WHY (don’t forget to include your email address, which will NOT be published for the world to see).  Get creative–funny or serious–and my fair and impartial, but sometimes moody, 13 year-old daughter will choose the winners, who will receive a certificate that you can redeem at your local Christian bookstore.

Piece of cake, right?  Let the games begin!  You have until midnight on Monday, March 22nd, to leave a comment.  I’ll announce the winner on Tuesday.

DVD Review: “What’s in the Bible?” by Phil Vischer and Tyndale

“From the man who made vegetables talk (and sing and dance and tell Bible stories) comes an engaging new series that walks kids through the entire Bible!”

One of the most memorable scenes in Tyler Perry’s movie “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” depicts of of Perry’s many characters, Joe, complaining about how boring the Bible is and pretending to fall asleep as soon as the Bible is opened.  As funny as that scene is, unfortunately its humor stems from just how close Perry’s depiction is to real life for many, many people.  Phil Vischer has long sought to change that sad fact, first through the wildly popular “Veggie Tales” and now through his new project, “What’s in the Bible?” His goal?  To “see the world’s most amazing book come to life for a new generation.”

As I sat down with my two children, ages 13 and 6, to watch the first two episodes on a preview copy Tyndale House so graciously sent me, I honestly had no idea what to expect.  Within minutes, we were all hooked! Unlike “Veggie Tales,” which is an animated series, “What’s in the Bible?” uses muppets, which is at once unique for children and a bit nostalgic for parents.  Visher has combined his characteristic side-splitting humor with a level of depth and teaching never before seen in children’s productions.  For example, not far into Episode 1: In the Beginning, my 6 year-old was rolling on the floor laughing to a singing pirate while my 13 year-old was learning from that pirate about the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and why Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers have different numbers of books in their Old Testaments.  Later on in the same episode, Buck Denver and the other characters teach about some of the attributes of God (e.g., he is creative), the reasons God created us (e.g., to take care of the earth), and differing opinions about the age of the universe (old-earth and new-earth creationism).  There is no doubt that very few children will have had the benefit of being exposed previously to such a wealth of information about Scripture and God’s unfolding plan of redemption.  In short, “What’s in the Bible?” manages to be insanely funny while at the same time teaching at a depth that will doubtless make many parents blush as they learn alongside their children.

Lest my words lead you to think the material presented here is over the head of Vischer’s intended audience, let me assure you it is not.  All the teaching points presented are done so in manner and in such a way as to be understandable by children in the 8-12 year age range.  Younger viewers will be captivated by the music, muppets, and humor, even though they will probably not understand everything in the episodes.  Older viewers might initially be put off by the muppets, thinking them childish, but if they will give these episodes a chance, I have no doubt they will walk away knowing much more about the Bible than they did before.

All in all, the more times I watch these videos, the more I am amazed!  Phil Vischer has definitely hit a home run with “What’s in the Bible?”  I look forward to many more hours of going through the Bible with Buck Denver and friends!

Curious about “What’s in the Bible?” and want to find out more?  Check out the website www.whatsinthebible.com or www.tyndale.com to learn more.  You can also follow @whatsinthebible on Twitter or check them out on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/WhatsintheBible)

Stay tuned for more posts on Friday, including a video teaser, coloring pages for kids, and a chance to win one of two FREE “What’s in the Bible?” episodes (courtesy of Tyndale House)…be sure and check back then!

“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!!

Walther on the Prosperity Gospel

god_richesSadly, much of American Christianity is infatuated with the notion that, once I become a Christian, then God will order everything in my life such that I will be showered with material blessings galore–health, wealth, and prosperity of all kinds–even a hundredfold byond that which I give to the Lord.  The litany of charlatans posing as ‘pastors’ who proclaim such business is long and distinguished.  C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of American Lutheranism disagrees.  First he takes us to the words of Scripture…

So be careful how you live.  Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Eph 5.15-16, NLT)

Then Walther goes on to explain that this notion couldn’t be more untrue.

With the words in [Ephesians 5], Saint Paul warns all Christians that, in this life, they should never count on good, peaceful, and comfortable days, either for themselves or for their faith.  Instead, they should expect to exerience evil, dangerous, and woeful days.  Where Christ is, there is also the cross.  Therefore, as soon as a person has turned to Christ, he cannot think everything will go well with him as a child of God’s grace.  Rather, he must expect that the cross will now be his inseperable companion until his death. (God Grant It, 813)

His words are a far cry from those you’ll hear on any given Sunday around the country in some of America’s largest congregations and on TV; however, the words of Walther reflect the cruciform nature of the Christian life.  “Where Christ is, there is also the cross.”  Let these words of warning be also words of encouragement, for where the cross is, there is also the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Thanks be to God!

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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Not Observing Lent? Then Why Celebrate Christmas?

Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent.  As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles.  At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.

Am I overstating my case?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why…

First, considering history.  I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture.  The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century.  The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354.  Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]).  In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.

In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas.  In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today.  His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example.  Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance.  Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Second, considering theology.  Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example.  I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.

So, if you do not observe Lent, why not?  I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not.  I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.

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No Crucifix? Then Why a Manger?

Earlier this week, this post got me thinking about crosses and crucifixes…

As one recently come from mainstream Evangelicalism, one of stark contrasts of Lutheranism is the use of a crucifix (i.e. a cross with Jesus on it).  What is a bit of a paradox is that while Evangelicals of all flavors love to sing about the cross, they are amazingly quick to reject crucifixes outright.  What is more, some of the best hymns (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts) and worst hymns (“There is Power in the Blood,” Lewis Jones) sing of Jesus’ crucifixion…but in the same breath, Evangelicals can sing these words and then quip something along the lines of, “My Savior isn’t on the cross anymore!”

Call me crazy, but isn’t this just a bit inconsistent?  How is it perfectly suitable to sing of the cross again and again while so vehemently rejecting its depiction?

Some folks thoughtlessly reject the crucifix as being ‘too Catholic.’  Whatever.  Some argue that it violates God’s commandment against graven images.  Though this objection sounds plausible on the surface, I reject it too–another topic for another day.  What I think is at the root of our objection to crucifixes is the offense of crucifixion and the scandal of the cross itself.  No, we won’t admit to it, but deep down there is a part of us that recoils at the horror of crucifixion and wonders how and why a loving God could subject his own son to such a torturous death for crimes (sins) he did not commit.  The non-believing world rejects the Passion as folly or madness.  Unfortunately, many of us try not to think about it too deeply, lest we be taken aback as well.

The cross is not a thing of beauty, it is an item of torture and capital punishment.  What makes if ‘wonderful,’ to quote Watts, is that there is where Law and Gospel collided for all of time.  There is where the only sacrifice suitable for washing away the sins of the world was made, once for all.  It is scandalous…but it is also completely gracious.  The cross is our salvation.

Unfortunately, the folly of those who reject the use of crucifixes comes to the fore during the other major festival of the church, Christmas.  As pointed out here and here, why are those who reject Jesus’ depiction on a crucifix so quick to depict him in a nativity scene?  He is neither on the cross nor in a manger.  If we’re concerned about commandment breaking, both would equally violate God’s law.  I fall back on my position, stated above.  We reject crucifixes because we recoil from having that unimaginable pain and suffering displayed before our eyes–even that pain and suffering that wrought our very salvation.  A baby in a manger, on the other hand, is cute, sweet, and relatively tame.

May your Good Friday not be Christ-less but Christ-filled as we mediatate on the Passion of our Lord and our gracious salvation from sin and death!