prayer for Good Friday

INRI

And they crucified him…

– Mark 15.23a (ESV)

Almighty and everlasting God, You willed that Your Son should bear for us the pains of the cross, that You might remove from us the power of the adversary:  Help us to remember and give thanks for our Lord’s Passion that we may obtain remission of sin and redemption from everlasting death; through the sames, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Prayer for Good Friday by Veit Dietrich (friend of Martin Luther), Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary

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on Jesus’ baptism

jesus_baptism

This Sunday, January 12th, the church celebrates the baptism of Christ. This event is recorded in all four Gospels, which clearly points to its importance. Matthew’s account is given as the reading for this Sunday:

Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. But John tried to talk him out of it. “I am the one who needs to be baptized by you,” he said, “so why are you coming to me?” But Jesus said, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires.” So John agreed to baptize him.

After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

– Matthew 3.13-17 (NLT)

This passage is anything but unfamiliar to us, but what exactly does it mean? What is the point? Why was Jesus–the sinless Lamb of God–baptized? Whether one understands baptism as God’s work of grace (e.g., Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, Anglicans, etc.) or our own work of obedience (e.g. Baptists and other Evangelicals) makes no difference. That Jesus was baptized can be just plain confusing, especially if we get wrapped around the axle about Jesus’ baptism to ‘fulfill all righteousness’ or ‘carry out all that God requires.’

There are two facets to Jesus’ baptism for us to consider. First, he was baptized as an example for all of those who would follow him. Baptism is our visible entry to Christ’s Church. As Christ was baptized, so we also are to be baptized. As Luther pointed out:

Christ is baptized, not in order to be made righteous—for He is the Son of God and endowed with eternal righteousness so that we may be made righteous through Him—but as an example, so to speak, for us, in order that He may precede us and we may follow His example and also be baptized.

– LW 3:87

This is perhaps the more obvious reason Jesus was baptized, but it is not nearly the more important.

Jesus was also baptized not only to serve as our example, but to become one of us sinners. Clearly, Jesus did not become a sinner in actuality. He never sinned. But he became a sinner by association–in nearly every part of his life–beginning with his taking on humanity and ending with his death and resurrection. By descending into the waters of baptism, Jesus points out that he is like us, he is with us, he is us. Again, Luther:

He was entering into our stead, indeed, our person, that is, becoming a sinner for us, taking upon himself the sins which he had not committed, and wiping them out and drowning them in his holy baptism. And that he did this in accord with the will of God, the heavenly Father, who cast all our sins upon him that he might bear them and not only cleanse us from them through his baptism and make satisfaction for them on the Cross, but also clothe as in his holiness and adorn us with his innocence.

– LW 51:315

By becoming one of us, Jesus made possible what Luther called the ‘joyous exchange’–exchanging his righteousness for our ungodliness and vice versa. In his baptism, Christ takes on the sin of the world and drowns it in the waters–an act completed for us on the cross. And in return, instead of death and condemnation, which we deserve, we are clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ.

This he did; he took the sin of the whole world upon himself; he became a curse for us, and thus redeemed from the curse all those who believe in him.

Let us joyously celebrate Christ’s baptism as we remember our own and take heart in the knowledge that in it, we are united with Christ and shall live forever. Amen.

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on silence

snowy meadow

After posting this quote from Bonhoeffer, I couldn’t keep it from running around in my mind:

We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word

What was true in Bonhoeffer’s day is infinitely more true in our American society today. Walking around the office or on the street, it’s rare to spy someone who isn’t on the phone, listening to music, or talking to somebody else. At people’s houses I often notice they leave televisions on when no one is actively watching–my children are as guilty of this as anyone–leaving the TV on while doing something else. And when was the last time you drove anywhere without the radio in your vehicle?

We surround ourselves with noise, even noise just for noise’s sake.

We can’t stand silence, even for a few moments…much to our detriment.

As Bonhoeffer points out, silence often begets introspection–something we tend to avoid in our superstar-obsessed society that demands we always look and act perfect no matter how far this diverges from reality. Christians are no better than secular society here, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line even Evangelical culture became obsessed with putting on a veneer of perfection no matter our true condition. Jesus had a term for this sort of thing–’white-washed tombs.’ Looking at ourselves and our souls in the mirror is an idea we simply cannot stand, because such an exercise necessitates admitting our flaws, weaknesses, imperfections, and sin. Our culture–even our Christian subculture–will have nothing of the sort because we are consumed with showing our (apparent) perfection, (seeming) success, and (the facade) of never-ending happiness.

Silence also begets waiting–also something we dislike in our society. We wait for nothing, even though those things that are most truly satisfying are often gained through patient waiting. Waiting, especially a Christian form of waiting, can take many forms: prayer, fasting, and contemplation to name a few. As a rule, Evangelical Christians have a pretty poor track record of these sorts of disciplines. We dismiss them as ascetic, outmoded, or legalistic. Perhaps we commit an even worse foul and write them off as “Catholic” (or “Orthodox”) and then fail to give them a second thought.

Here’s a hard truth. Silence, and its subsequent introspection and waiting, forms an integral part of the biblical witness and nearly 2,000 years of Christian practice. As uncomfortable as this reality might be to our culture of the instantaneous, we are much the poorer for our neglect.

Create silence. Take fifteen minutes–or ten, or five, or even one if that’s all you can bear at first–and be silent. Be silent before the mirror of God’s law and your own introspection. Wait patiently for God. Use this time to “draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (Jas 4.8, ESV)

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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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Luther on prayer

folded_hands

None can believe how powerful prayer is, and what it is able to effect, but those who have learned it by experience.

It is a great matter when in extreme need, to take hold on prayer.

I know, whenever I have earnestly prayed, I have been amply heard, and have obtained more than I prayed for; God, indeed, sometimes delayed, but at last he came.

Martin Luther, Table Talk

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hiding behind Christ

Despite the pressures and external pressures to be more authentic or relevant, the Word that the pastor is given to speak is the objective certainty of a crucified and risen Savior of sinners.  It does not mimic the trends of the culture or emotion or entertainment. Most importantly, the Word proclaimed by the pastor does not depend on the man behind the collar.  For when a pastor wears the clerical collar of the Office into which he has been placed, his own individuality is covered in order to show Christ.

That is his vocation–to bring Christ to the people–such that when a pastor is praying with the hospitalized, communing the shut-in, comforting the bereaved or simply visiting with his flock, the collar he wears is an indication of the pure Gospel of Christ that he is given to bring.  As such, his collar is white, vesting his vocal chords from where the ear is filled with the Gospel and reminding the pastor and the people of the purpose of his ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry: to speak the word of God.

– Pr. Anthony Voltattorni, Lutheran Witness, Nov 2012

on good works

om10 - father forgive

It is the perversity of the world that, when we preach about forgiveness of sins by pure grace and without merit of man, it should either say we forbid good works, or else try to draw the conclusion that man may continue to live in sin and follow his own pleasure; when the fact is, we should particularly strive to live a life the very reverse of sinful, that our doctrine may draw people to good works, unto the praise and honor and glory of God.  Our doctrine, rightly apprehended, does not influence to pride and vice, but to humility and obedience.

Martin Luther, House Postils, Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Many non-Lutherans mistakenly believe that Luther was soft on sanctification, and many Lutherans proudly proclaim as much (implicitly or explicitly).  Both are wrong. Though lost on many contemporary, American Lutherans, Martin Luther was an outspoken champion of good works for the benefit and blessing of our neighbor.  Unfortunately, in reaction to anything that even remotely smacks of Pietism, American Lutherans especially recoil at the language of “works” regardless of context.

Truth is, it is impossible that the Christian life, forever affected by the unfathomable grace of Christ Jesus, could be marked by anything but a striving for good works.  Such efforts do not reflect a misguided attempt to secure the blessings of God but are the overflow of thanksgiving from a sinner whose life has been inexorably changed.

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our yes to evil

With each one of us there is a Yes to the evil that can be held back by God’s grace alone. But God is mightier than all evil in the world.

- Bo Giertz, Hammer of God

the love of God

religionSurely the whole world does not grasp the tiniest syllable of the statement that God is love. No human religion can hold its own in the face of the judgment, but it is solely in the blood of Christ that we have confidence on the Day of Judgment.

– Martin Luther

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the ‘problem’ with theology

Coffee Shop Study

I have been a student of Christian theology my entire adult life.  I have tested the waters or swum in many diverse Christian traditions from Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism/Congregationalism, Lutheranism, and Methodism/Wesleyanism.  I have well-worn, dog-eared, note-filled theology books from all those great traditions on my bookshelves.  Here’s the thing none of the most staunch devotees will typically admit:

In an effort to create ‘systems’ that are logical and comprehensible to man, all of these systems have nearly insurmountable problems.

So, do we throw our hands up and walk away, cynical of any systematic approaches to Christianity?  Do we take upon ourselves the impossible position of “no creed but the bible” or something similar?  No and no.

Here is what we must do…

Above all, we must recognize the difficulty in studying our infinite and wonderful God and approach our studies and those of others with the utmost humility.  We must be aware the difficulties in our own theological paradigms and be charitable in our discussions with those who hold differing views.  We must realize (to paraphrase Roger Olsen) that we ultimate decide on a theological system (consciously or not) because we can more easily live with its problems than we can with those of another system.  Finally, we must be aware the r considerable common ground with share with other orthodox Christians and admit that that which unites us is far greater than that which divides us.

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What Happens in Worship

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

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

Mark Schroeder

from here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

One of the Most Profound Things I Heard Today…Part 2

Referring to students of theology arriving at seminary:

“When they arrive at the university, they know everything. In their second year of study they become aware of some things that they do not know. At the close of their last year of study they are convinced that they know nothing at all.”  From C.F.W Walther, Law and Gospel

Alas, I confess I fit this paradigm quite well…unfortunately the first part too.

Salvation Unto Us Has Come

For starters, I cannot believe how busy the past few weeks have been!  It seems I came off of working STS-122 and never stopped in preparation for STS-123.  I am the lead from our group for this flight, and the compressed schedule has kept me more than gainfully employed…but onto more lofty things…

One of the joys (and challenges) of our foray into Lutheranism has been learning a completely new hymnody.  The lyrics are wonderfully rich, more so even than many of the Reformed hymns that I know and love from childhood.  The music has proven rather difficult to learn as I’m not that terribly acquainted with 16th and 17th century German tunes (Bach aside).  Overall, however, it has been greatly rewarding.  Not being familiar with the hymns has forced us all to slow down and actually read what we’re singing…even Ali has asked questions about some of the vocabulary, etc., which I think it great.

Anyway, yesterday we sang yet another unfamiliar song, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.”  It is one of the most eloquent short presentations of the whole story of the Bible–Christ-centered, cross-focused…teaching salvation by faith alone, demonstrating the distinction between Law and Gospel, etc.  Beautiful!  Theologically correct!  A magnificent work, indeed!  Where has this hymn been all my life?!  Here are all ten verses for your reading pleasure and edification.  Enjoy!

1. Salvation unto us has come
By God’s free grace and favor;
Good works cannot avert our doom,
They help and save us never.
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,
Who did for all the world atone;
He is our one Redeemer.

2. What God did in His Law demand
And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on every hand
For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires
The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.

3. It was a false, misleading dream
That God His Law had given
That sinners should themselves redeem
And by their works gain heaven.
The Law is but a mirror bright
To bring the inbred sin to light
That lurks within our nature.

4. From sin our flesh could not abstain,
Sin held its sway unceasing;
The task was useless and in vain,
Our guilt was e’er increasing.
None can remove sin’s poisoned dart
Or purify our guileful heart,-
So deep is our corruption.

5. Yet as the Law must be fulfilled
Or we must die despairing,
Christ came and hath God’s anger stilled,
Our human nature sharing.
He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.

6. Since Christ hath full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Thy grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Thy death is now my life indeed,
For Thou hast paid my ransom.

7. Let me not doubt, but trust in Thee,
Thy Word cannot be broken;
Thy call rings out, “Come unto Me!”
No falsehood hast Thou spoken.
Baptized into Thy precious name,
My faith cannot be put to shame,
And I shall never perish.

8. The Law reveals the guilt of sin
And makes men conscience-stricken;
The Gospel then doth enter in
The sinful soul to quicken.
Come to the cross, trust Christ, and live;
The Law no peace can ever give,
No comfort and no blessing.

9. Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone
And rests in Him unceasing;
And by its fruits true faith is known,
With love and hope increasing.
Yet faith alone doth justify,
Works serve thy neighbor and supply
The proof that faith is living.

10. All blessing, honor, thanks, and praise
To Father, Son, and Spirit,
The God that saved us by His grace,-
All glory to His merit!
O Triune God in heaven above,
Who hast revealed Thy saving love,
Thy blessed name be hallowed.