the Church, a bride not a whore

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The Baptist had preached repentance, but it didn’t help. The Church has done the same for two thousand years, and it still doesn’t appear to have helped. It looks like other means are necessary to get people to listen. Shouldn’t we show others that we can do something really impressive? That’s a temptation that has pursued the Church throughout its history. Many times it’s been tempting for the Church to get politically involved or intervene in society in an effort to make an impression, create good will, gain sympathy, and win support.

–Bo Giertz, To Live With Christ

The Church is always tempted by the world to fall into the trap of relevance, felt needs, or some other buzzword to boost attendance and reach out to those around us. Much ink has been spilled and many dollars have changed hands in the name of church growth as pastors and congregations have chased after the next big thing to bring people in the door. Gun-infatuated Evangelicals in the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention are even raffling off rifles as “a surefire way to get new people through church doors.” I wonder if the sermon title that evening was something to the tune of “Win a ‘piece’ from the Prince of Peace”?

Did we ever stop to think that being an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor 5.20) doesn’t necessitate that we behave like a perpetually-awkward teenage boy who hangs out with the older guys who tolerate him just as long as he’ll do their bidding?

If it isn’t efforts to boost numbers, Evangelicals also play the whore to the American political Right. We sell ourselves out, cheaply, in the name of conservative values, traditional family values, America’s God-fearing past, or some other righteous-sounding slogan to gain political clout and power in corrupt, worldly system. So much for rendering Caesar’s junk to Caesar.

Did it ever occur to us that being all things to all people (1 Cor 9.22) doesn’t require us to act like a desperate, ignored teenage girl who craves the affection of the jocks on the football team and thinks nothing is too slutty to gain their attention?

All these stunts are a sham, a gimmick, and a joke. They are the antithesis of everything the Church should be about. Seriously.

What did Christ give his Church to attract sinners? Word and Sacrament. Our real need is for forgiveness, so he gave us absolution in response to our confession. To satisfy the hunger of our souls, he gave us his body and blood as nourishment. It may appear that other means and methods are necessary to bring people to Christ, but this is a lie. We are the Bride of Christ. We ought to be seeking him instead of the approval of the world, because honestly, the latter only lasts as long as the girl is willing to put out or the boy is willing to do others’ dirty work.

Lord, have mercy.

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tangible sin, tangible forgiveness

bread and wine #1

The Spirit of the Lord God is on Me,
because the Lord has anointed Me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and freedom to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of our God’s vengeance;
to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion;
to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
festive oil instead of mourning,
and splendid clothes instead of despair.
And they will be called righteous trees,
planted by the Lord
to glorify Him.

I greatly rejoice in the Lord,
I exult in my God;
for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation
and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness,
as a groom wears a turban
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth produces its growth,
and as a garden enables what is sown to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.1-3, 10-11, HCSB)

What is this good news to the poor and brokenhearted; to the captives and imprisoned? Quit simply this: that God in Christ Jesus has clothed us ‘with the garments of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness.’

This is not our doing, for we continually fall short. This is not our work, for our deeds are routinely sinful. No, instead ‘the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up’ where before our lives and works were barren and self-centered. This is God’s work of grace, freely given us on behalf and as a result of the Beloved.

In Christ our unrighteousness and sin is covered by his righteous perfection. Those sins and scars, no less real, are no more revealed and no more remembered. We are spotless, without blemish–beloved of God our Father.

How can we grasp so great a gift? Solely by faith.

But these truths are intangible and hidden, whereas the effects of my sin are tangible and ever before me! Take comfort. In the sacrament of the altar, God has–again in his mercy–given us something tangible upon which our weak faith can cling.

Hear the words of absolution.
See, touch, smell, and taste the bread and the wine.

Let all of your senses experience the promise of forgiveness in the body and blood of Christ.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

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clothed in righteousness: thoughts on moral trauma

In Cold Blood..

War is messy. It is a mess of dirt, sweat, blood, gunpowder, rubble, tears, death, and destruction unparalleled by anything else that comes about by the brute force of humanity.

Those affected by war as either its practitioners or its victims get this mess on their bodies, their lives, and their souls. Shrapnel tears through them physically with just as much power as their experiences tear through them spiritually. Its scars on our bodies and souls seem permanent. Unchanging. Indelible. Those scars may heal in time, they may lighten–better but never quite forgotten, or they may remain raw and painful. The holds true for the physical scars as well as the spiritual ones.

It has become routine to treat those spiritual scars under the umbrella of PTSD instead of what they really are, moral wounds or moral trauma. Describing trauma as ‘moral’ necessitates a judgment of right or wrong, good or bad, righteous or sinful. The trouble is, our society with its steady prescription of moral relativism is unable to cope with the objectivity required by this sort of judgment. As a result, our warriors go untreated. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are subjected to an ineffective regime of cognitive behavior therapy that might treat some of the symptoms but fails to offer a cure. As necessary as these therapies are for coping with PTSD, they focus primarily on desensitization, not complete healing. No amount of Cognitive Processing Therapy can heal a wounded soul. No number of sessions of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can restore a broken spirit. No dose of medication can regenerate a wounded conscious.

There is true healing for moral trauma. True restoration is possible. True hope is available.

Nearly 3,000 years ago the Prophet Isaiah declared:

I am overwhelmed with joy in the Lord my God!
For he has dressed me with the clothing of salvation
and draped me in a robe of righteousness.
I am like a bridegroom in his wedding suit
or a bride with her jewels.
(Isaiah 61.10, NLT)

Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul wrote:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (Gal 3.26-27, NLT)

True healing is found in Christ Jesus. In baptism, we are clothed in his righteousness, which covers us in his perfection. In him are we dressed with the ‘clothing of salvation’ and a ‘robe of righteousness’ which covers the stain, hurt, and mess of our own sin and experiences. All of them. Even war.

This prescription is not a ‘take two and call me in the morning’ sort of regimen. It is not an overnight cure free of struggle or pain. It is a long, hard road to recover from such wounds. But it is the path to true recovery and healing.

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exceptionalism and American Christianity’s love of war

American Christianity–especially American Evangelicalism–has a love affair with war, guns, ‘freedom,’ and the military. Christians in America are historically very supportive of our military, our various interventions around the globe, and all things pro-gun-related. This support is manifested in Evangelicals’ love for patriotic church services, their admiration and gratitude for those in the Armed Forces, their consistent support of hawkish political leaders, and their outspoken support of the NRA and other Second Amendment groups.

All this may sound great, but there’s a problem. The more I have traveled around the globe and interacted with Christians in other nations; however, the more I have consistently and sincerely been asked, “Why?”

Christians in other places around the world are not nearly so infatuated with war, guns, and violence (political or personal). In fact, many of them loathe such things and cannot fathom why American Christians believe and act like we do. They believe that war is antithetical to Christianity, that violence begets violence, and that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26.52, ESV). In short, their views are much the opposite of our own.

How can this be?

I think the answer lies more in the theology of American Exceptionalism than it does in the pages of Scripture. In his famous sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, Puritan John Winthrop first proclaimed the notion that America was somehow different, unique, and under the special watch care of God. While still on the seas from England, he taught his fellow passengers:

God Almighty, in his most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission…

From this beginning, Winthrop went on to encourage his shipmates in ways they might practically take care of one another, provide for one another, and forgive one another that their great journey of faith might be a successful one. Their success was important, because the world was watching, just as Egypt was watching Moses and the Hebrews when they were taken out to the wilderness:

We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.

Winthrop’s idea of America as occupier of a special place in the heart and plan of God runs deep in the American DNA. Jesus’ phrase about the ‘city on a hill’ has been invoked by Presidents Wilson, Kennedy, Clinton, Reagan, Bush (43), and Obama as evidence of America’s uniqueness in the world. And what is popular in the secular realm of politics is even more strongly emphasized and believed in American Evangelical churches, where American biblical heritage and our direct blessing by God are routine talking points–especially in election years.

With this in mind, doesn’t it only make sense that American Christians would believe and act the way they do? If America is indeed specially blessed and endowed by God as rich and powerful, doesn’t that translate into enforcing our version of liberty and justice for all around the world? If America’s heritage has been enabled (dare I say guaranteed) by its indelible roots in faith, family, and guns (a la Duck Dynasty), doesn’t a faithful Christian family need that same American trinity? If America’s foreign policy is deeply influenced by Christian ethicist Richard Land and those of his ilk, who single-handedly redefined the Just War tradition to include pre-emptive wars, isn’t America’s warmongering heritage morally defensible?

No. No. No. And NO!

America is a great nation. There is nowhere I’d rather live. But we are far from perfect. American Christians, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s time to seriously rethink some things many of us take for granted as right, reasonable, and true. Our views on these things conflict with those of our brothers and sisters around the world. More than this, our views conflict with those taught by our Lord Jesus whom we claim to follow above all else.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

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to the lowly, not the exalted

de profundis / the depths of sorrow

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.

Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.

To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.

Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)

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adoption always involves pain

adoption

Adding three children to our family through adoption has been one of the biggest blessings our family has ever enjoyed. Sound cliche? I know. It is also absolutely true. So are many of the other things you hear about adoption:

  • it can take a long time
  • it is an adventure of a lifetime
  • the bureaucracy (especially of foreign adoptions) can be exceedingly frustrating
  • it demands patience like nothing else
  • it is often expensive
  • it is absolutely worth it

One thing you rarely, if ever, hear about adoption is this: adoption always involves pain.

Not sometimes.
Not occasionally.
Not potentially.
Always.

For all the blessings it brings, adoption always involves pain because it always involves loss. Loss of a parent or parents. Loss of a family, immediate and extended. Loss of relationships. Loss of a culture (in international adoptions). Loss of a heritage.

All of those losses are eventually fulfilled within the adoptive family, as children are grafted into and become part of their new family, but none of them are ever completely replaced. This is obviously most true of children who are adopted when they are old enough to have memories of their birth families. It is also true of those adopted when they are too young to remember, because somewhere there are families with voids in them.

I write this not to discourage adoption or adoptive families. On the contrary, you know what tremendous God-given gifts are present during and after the adoption process! I write this that we might be mindful of the whole reality of adoption, not just the sugar-coated version we are likely to see depicted on TV or the web.

Like so many other blessings we experience and enjoy, in adoption joy and wholeness come through brokenness and pain.

‘impossible’ grace

Pescatore all'alba sulle foci del fiume Chidro - San Pietro In Bevagna - Taranto - Italy [ Explored Jan 4, 2013 #56]“Impossible.”

All too often that is our human response to the notion that God conveys grace through means like the sacraments. Perhaps, in America, we are too steeped in a Christianity influenced heavily by a Zwinglian flavor of Reformed thought or an overly-sensationalized, Pentecostal television ministries. Perhaps, in 2013, we are too intellectually-sophisticated to believe that God would choose to work through things as mundane as water, bread, and wine.

Such struggles are not new. Tertullian wrote about the human tendency to expect God to work only in the spectacular in the second and third century. In his work, On Baptism, he wrote:

There is absolutely nothing which makes men’s minds more obdurate than the simplicity of the divine works which are visible in the act, when compared with the grandeur which is promised thereto in the effect; so that from the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible.

Some things never change, do they? Neither our tendency toward disbelief…nor God’s condescension to lavish his grace upon us plainly and wonderfully.

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pursued by goodness (getting Ps 23 right)

You have a ways to go yet

This morning in church we read Psalm 23.

There is absolutely nothing even remotely odd about that.  After all, this is one of the most beloved and comforting psalms in the entire Psalter.  This morning our focus was on the first part of verse six, which is traditionally rendered:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6a, ESV)

This translation is well and good…except it is not nearly strong enough to describe God’s actions toward us.  Most English bibles have followed the tradition established by the KJV and translated the Hebrew word radaph (רָדַף) as ‘followed,‘ but a quick look at the standard lexicons shows that this word is more often understood aspursued.’  God’s actions here are better understood like this:

Only goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life (Ps 23.6, HCSB)

I don’t know about you, but being pursued feels a whole lot different than merely being followed.  God, in his goodness and faithful love, does exactly that–he pursues us…

Relentlessly.  Tirelessly.  Persistently.  Lovingly.  Mercifully.

Thanks be to God!

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morning prayer, Psalm 61

Aonach Meadhoin, Glen Shiel

God, hear my cry;
pay attention to my prayer.
I call to You from the ends of the earth
when my heart is without strength.
Lead me to a rock that is high above me,
for You have been a refuge for me,
a strong tower in the face of the enemy.
I will live in Your tent forever
and take refuge under the shelter of Your wings

Psalm 61.1-4, HCSB

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God working through suffering

Water for Sale

God works against evil and suffering. But God, in immense divine power and inscrutable divine wisdom, also works through evil and suffering.

- Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge

photo credit: Creative Commons | Hartwig HKD

heart trouble

All sorrows, all heartaches, all disappointments, all bereavements, and all heart troubles lose their bitterness in the sweetness of the Savior’s tender promise: ‘I will come again.’

– from Meditations on the Gospels

entirely for Him and Him alone

for_him_alone

When we think seriously about what it will cost others if we obey the call of Jesus, we tell God He doesn’t know what our obedience will mean.  Keep to the point–He does know.  Shut out every other thought and keep yourself before God in this one thing only–my utmost for His highest.  I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and Him alone.

Oswald Chambers

brass, worship, and death

brass

It is deplorable
   that the gracious gifts of brass and metalworking
are used both to fashion bells and trumpets
   to sing of the bountiful love and mercy of God
and to craft cartridges and artillery shells
   to take the lives of those fashioned in his image.

This thought struck me in worship this morning as we sang joyfully of Christ’s advent accompanied by trumpet, French horn, and bells then soberly pleaded with God to grant comfort, peace, and hope to those affected by the shootings in Connecticut.  How it made me long, more than usual, for the words of Micah to become reality.

[God] will settle disputes among many peoples
and provide arbitration for strong nations that are far away.
They will beat their swords into plows,
and their spears into pruning knives.
Nation will not take up the sword against nation,
and they will never again train for war.
But each man will sit under his grapevine and under his fig tree
with no one to frighten him.
– Micah 4.3-4 (HCSB)

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

photo credit: Creative Commons and AP

the suffering Christian

Broken Hallelujah

Suffering is inevitable.  Pain is unavoidable.  Life, quite often, hurts.

The litany of the agonies and struggles Christians face is no different than those of the rest of the world:

      • depression
      • substance abuse
      • cutting
      • work problems
      • suicidal thoughts
      • anger
      • dissatisfaction
      • eating disorders
      • body image / self-image
      • relationship problems
      • and on and on…

Contrary to what we sometimes hear or want to believe, the promise of Christ to his followers is not that we are immune or exempt from these.  The promise of God is that we do not face any hardship alone

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name; you are Mine.
I will be with you
when you pass through the waters,
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not overwhelm you.
You will not be scorched
when you walk through the fire,
and the flame will not burn you.

Isaiah 43.1b-2 (HCSB)

Read those words again.  “When” you face difficult, painful times…and they will come, it is certain…God says, “I will be with you.”   We would doubtless all love to avoid pain, I know I do.  The idea that we can do this, however, is both unrealistic and unbiblical.  When we cry out to Christ he may calm the storm–he has done it before and we will continue to pray that he does it again.  Whether or not the storm subsides is not the real point.

In the midst of suffering, God is there.

In the midst of pain, Christ is found.

In the midst of hurting, you are not alone.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Raquel Van Nice

Korah — Throwaway Lives?

With our Ethiopian adoption underway, I’ve begun researching and reading about this ancient nation–its Christianity, its heritage, its history, its people, its politics, etc.  I want to know whence our children will come and a bit of their background.  In so doing, I’ve come across recent blog posts by Michael Halcomb and Xavier Pacheco on the Ethiopian city of Korah.  As the title here indicates, Korah is a city of outcasts–lepers, prostitutes, orphans, HIV/AIDS sufferers, and others–75,000 people who live on the trash discarded by the nearly 2.7 million other residents of Addis Ababa.

In other words, Korah is seventy-five thousand people who have, themselves, literally been thrown away by society.

I encourage you to visit the Help Korah blog to prayerfully read and think how we, as the body of Christ, might come together, pool our resources, and address this horrific situation and others like it elsewhere in the world.  I am still mulling this over and trying to fully grasp the reality of the situation these many people find themselves in everyday–I will definitely be writing more on this later.

Let me leave you with two videos from Michael and Xavier.

  • Watch them
    • See the poverty like you’ve never imagined
    • See the smiles on these people’s faces
    • See the hope offered by those who have realized the need
    • Let your heart be broken
  • Forward them to others
    • Friends and family
    • Brother and sisters in Christ
    • Co-workers
    • Anyone
  • Let’s make a difference

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“The Blind Side” — Reflections on Adoption

Yesterday, we enjoyed our first free weekend afternoon in December by heading to the theater to see “The Blind Side.”  In case you are unfamiliar with the story, as I was before yesterday, here’s the summary from the movie’s website:

Teenager Michael Oher is surviving on his own, virtually homeless, when he is spotted on the street by Leigh Anne Tuohy.  Learning that the young man is one of her daughter’s classmates, Leigh Anne insists that Michael–wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the dead of winter–come out of the cold.  Without a moment’s hesitation, she invites him to stay at the Tuohy home for the night.  What starts out as a gesture of kindness turns into something more as Michael becomes part of the Tuohy family despite the differences in their backgrounds.

Through the course of the story (i.e., Oher’s real life), Michael journeys from a violent, drug-wracked upbringing — where he was in-and-out of the foster care system, attended eleven different schools in nine years, and entered his sophomore year of high school with a 0.6 GPA — to an All-American college football player for Ole Miss and a 2009 NFL first-round draft pick for the Baltimore Ravens.

Perhaps the best short summary is the movie’s trailer itself:

As I sat there in the dark, one hand holding the hand of my 13 year-old daughter and the other holding my 5 year-old son in my lap, the impact of this movie hit home like a freight train…in two ways.

For starters, our daughter has no real grasp of the reality behind the drug and poverty-related violence and lifestyle portrayed in Oher’s upbringing.  Talking about the movie afterward, I realized she had no idea that people lived in very similar circumstances only a few miles from our home.  While she knows intellectually about such things, she has (fortunately) never experienced them first-hand and didn’t really understand how physically close to home such suffering, pain, and hardship really exists.

In addition to my daughter’s epiphany, seeing the violence toward the end of the movie where many of Oher’s acquaintances are gunned down in various drug-related shootings made me hold on to my son even tighter.  In case you didn’t know, we adopted our son from Ukraine in 2007, just over two years ago.  Statistically speaking, like Michael Oher, if our son had stayed where he was, he didn’t stand a chance.  To put it into perspective, here are the statistics (from here):

  • Ukrainian orphans typically grow up in large state-run homes, which may house over 200 children.
  • Many children run away from these homes, preferring to live on the street.
  • Children usually graduate from these institutions between 15 and 16 years old and are turned out, unprepared for life outside the home.
  • About 10% of them will commit suicide after leaving the orphanage before their 18th birthday.
  • 60% of the girls will end up in prostitution. Those who run prostitution rings target orphaned girls, who are especially vulnerable due to their lack of options and lack of people who care what happens to them. Though promised good jobs, they end up on the streets and brothels of cities across Europe.
  • 70% of the boys will enter a life of crime. Many of these will die young of violence or end up in prison. Most inmates contract TB in prison.

The point of these statistics isn’t to pat ourselves on the back for doing something so noble as adopting, far from it.  The point is this:  there are hundreds of millions of children around the world just like Michael Oher and our son.  Some of them live five miles away, some of them live thousands of miles away.

How can we help them?  How could we possibly not?

(photo from https://www.4orphans.com)

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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).

“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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John Chrysostom Day

John Chrysostom was a presbyter and preacher in the fourth-century church at Antioch.  He eventually was made patriarch of Constantinople and was a revered preacher and teacher of God’s word.  His sermons are famously Christ-centered and wonderfully direct.  These words today come from a homily on First Timothy:

“He gave Himself a ransom,” he said, how then was He delivered up by the Father?  Because it was of His goodness.  And what does “ransom” mean?  God was about to punish them, but He did not do it.  They were about to perish, but in their stead He gave His own Son and sent us as heralds to proclaim the cross.  These things are sufficient to attract all and to demonstrate the love of Christ.  So truly, so inexpressibly great are the benefits that God has bestowed upon us.  He sacrificed Himself for His enemies, who hated and rejected Him.  What no one would do for friends, for brothers, for children, that the Lord has done for His servants; a Lord not Himself such a one as His servants, but God for men, for men not deserving.  For had they been deserving, had they done His pleasure, it would have been less wonderful.  But that He died for such ungrateful, such obstinate creatures, this is which strikes every mind with amazement.  For what men would not do for their fellow-men, that has God done for us!

Awesome stuff!  Our God in Christ is a “God for men, for men not deserving.”  Amen.

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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!

How Can I Find Peace With God?

“How are we made right in the sight of God?”  “How can I find peace with God?”  “How can I right the many wrongs I have done in my life?”  Left to answer these and similar questions from reason or some other faculty, man inevitably conjures up some sort of works, either to accomplish or from which to refrain, in hopes of finding peace with God.  All human efforts to find favor in the eyes of God surely fail, as we are all corrupt in heart and soul, word and deed, thought and desire.  Martin Luther rightly recognized from the Bible that the answer to all of these questions is found only in Christ Jesus, in whom (by faith) is our hope, peace, trust, joy, and salvation.  He writes:

As St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.

And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.  Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well.  We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true. (Smalcald Articles, XIII)

The simple truth of the Christian faith must never be obscured and can never be compromised.

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