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Under lock and key

padlock     Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther was asked by his friends what they should publish of his works.  He told them that they should throw all of it on the rubbish pile save for two; the Small Catechism and the Bondage of the Will.

     If Luther’s wishes had been followed, the world would have been robbed of the rich treasure that comprise Luther’s music, commentaries and defenses of the Evangelical faith.  Yet, one has to wonder about the two works Luther placed above all of those.

The Bondage of the Will was written as a response in open dialogue with one of the greatest humanist minds, Desiderius Erasmus.  Erasmus argued for the “divine spark” concept in regards to salvation.  Luther argued that man has no free will in regards to salvation and that man has ‘apparent free-will’ in regards to things ‘below him’  So, it is said that Luther’s book “out-Calvins Calvin”.  In other words, Luther’s argument strengthens the concept of Election and irresistible grace, two important components of Reformed Christianity.

The human will is in bondage to sin, and cannot free itself.  However, this bondage takes different forms.  It is not as if people who commit gross sins (immorality) are the only sinners.  Luther asserted that it was those who committed internal sins who were the greater sinners, noting the opposition of the religious elites toward Jesus (some of the Pharisees) as well as their treatment of poor sinners (those who were societal rejects).

And so we come to pastoral practice.  The landscape of American Christianity has an abundance of concerns that are distilled into the preaching on Sunday morning (or, evening or once-a-month).  It is there that you can most clearly understand the doctrine of a church.  It is there that you can hear the approach to theology as well as the application of that theology to the life of Christians.  It’s not just what is said, it is also how it is delivered.

What I find most concerning in American Christianity is the final portion of the sermon.  The pastor has just spent the majority of the sermon explaining a passage of scripture.  He/she has also tried to put it into words that the congregation can relate to.  But, in the end, there are those inevitable ‘applications’.  How are they to be worked out in our lives?

It is actually the moment our flesh looks forward to the most.  The thing we can do.  The thing we can aspire to.  The thing we can evaluate ourselves and others by.  It is where ‘the rubber meets the road’.

A great author of Christian books, R.C. Sproul wrote a book entitled Pleasing God.  Now here is where it gets personal (or ‘bloggy’ if you prefer).  I read this book as I was escaping the theology of Lordship salvation.  R.C. does such a wonderful job giving examples of people in each chapter, then following it up with scriptural points in Law and Gospel.  If he just let the Gospel be the last part of each chapter, the impact on the bound conscience would have been greater.

Unfortunately, he added a few lines at the end of each chapter that were part of the Reformed ‘guilt-grace-gratitude’ model.  In other words, he left you with a little law to follow.

Fortunately, for me, I merely ignored those last few sentences and basked in the light of the clear Gospel clearly proclaimed.  It set me on a new foundation and set me free in Christ.  I never looked back 21 years later.

The binding of Christian conscience is the most damaging aspect of American Christian preaching.  Despite having peerless doctrine, a preacher can undo all of the good work that Christ is working in the lives of His people when the sermon ends with law.

Don’t think that I am picking on R.C. only.  Much worse than that are those who confuse the Law (demands, commands and expectations of God) with Gospel (the purely free and radically alien gift of forgiveness and righteousness earned for you by Christ alone).  I would take a Sproul any day over a John MacArthur.

Binding Christian conscience does not produce righteousness.  It is simply the replacing of ‘impossible demands’ with ‘applicable’ moral and behavioral expectations.  To the troubled conscience this serves to place them under the yoke of slavery they just escaped when you gave them the good news.

It happens in every denomination, every Sunday, everywhere.  Millions of Christians who are not living in the radical freedom and blessing that Christ has won for them.  What  a tragedy!  “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed!”  But the preaching leads one back to his/her own vomit.  It leads them back to their flesh to be ‘sanctified’.  The karmic cycle of spiritual death is perpetuated, and the Christian is left in burden, fear, anxiety and despair.  The assurance that Hebrews 11:1 is lost.

May God have mercy on us.  May He remind you that you are a new creation in Jesus Christ.  May you recall your baptism where your flesh was drowned and you were resurrected a new woman or a new man.  May God the Father keep you in the Gospel of His son who has already sanctified you.  Any remaining work is His to do.  Jesus Christ, after all, is the ‘author and perfector of [your] faith’.  He is your sanctification, justification, righteousness, living forgiveness and life.  He is the key to unlock your bound heart.

Christ have mercy.

Conflating the two kingdoms

There have been a couple of political “hot potatoes” that have been highlighted in recent weeks.  The first one is the immigration policy of the United States which includes building a border wall.  The second is the status of health care coverage for Americans.

In my home state of California, some have fused legal immigration with illegal immigration.  They have even started programs targeted to helping illegal immigrants.  When two different things are fused together like this, it is called conflation.

I support immigration to the United States, however, I don’t support illegal immigration.  There is a big difference.  My parents were immigrants, but they had to wait 3 1/2 years to get approved to come to the U.S.  My father even had to have a sponsor.  Both of my parents became citizens of this country in a legal manor.

To say that illegal immigrants are the same as illegal immigrants is conflation.  This undermines all of the efforts of those who have been waiting to enter the United States according to the law.

The other issue has become a bit of a firestorm lately, too.  There are numerous people who support universal healthcare (Obamacare).  There are numerous people who don’t support it and would rather it be repealed (especially of the penalties for non-compliance).  The latter group would call the penalties coercion.

Now, into the fray enter the Christians.  Some are for the gutting of Obamacare, including the funding of Planned Parenthood, which they believe has an immoral purpose in infanticide.  Others are convinced that it is scriptural to support one’s neighbors through providing them with health care coverage.  They are passionate about it, even quoting scripture.

Martin Luther, the 16th century German reformer made an important distinction which many have forgotten.  He described the two kingdoms of God.  There is a right-hand rule of God and a left hand rule.  The right hand rule is where Christ rules by Grace, mercy and forgiveness through His Church.  The left-hand rule is the power of earthly authority given to the government.

Some Lutherans hold the conviction that the Health Care Mandate is our responsibility as Christians to uphold.  Any opposition to this point of view is seen as heresy.  Unfortunately, these Lutherans are guilty of the most basic error; the conflation of the two kingdoms.

The church is to care for the poor, the aged and infirmed.  The government is to protect the populace and support a beneficial atmosphere in which people can earn a living.  The government is not the church.  And, this is where the conflation enters into the picture.

If our neighbor is unable to afford healthcare, then it is up to us (if we have such a conviction) to help them out.  But to coerce millions of people to bear the brunt of health care costs for millions of others is nothing less than using the left-hand kingdom for right hand kingdom purposes.

Each person has his or her own conscience.  In this we have freedom.  Binding other people’s political convictions and condemning their position (or them) are a gross violation of the Two-Kingdom doctrine.

Preservatives: the first ingredient

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[I don’t always have enough time to write and edit.  The thoughts expressed here are best seen as thought-works in progress.  If you have a thought to add, please make it constructive and to be understood in the light of the development of thought rather than a refined final product.  Grace!]

It seems that everyone nowadays is concerned with what is in the food they eat.  The words ‘all-natural’ and ‘organic’ function as green lights for those who are watching what they put into their body.  ‘Artificial preservatives’, though, serve as a red light and are to be avoided.

That makes a lot of sense.  After all, artificial preservatives don’t necessarily preserve your body.

Jacob was also interested in preserving his body (and his family).  The account is found in Genesis 32:

6The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; 8for he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.” (NASB)

Jacob had stolen his brother’s birthright by deception.  His brother Esau, 20 years prior, wanted to murder Jacob:

41So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27, NASB)

Usually, when a person is angry enough to want to murder someone, they grow in their need for revenge.  Jacob knows this, so when he encounters Esau after 20 years of working for Laban, he is ‘greatly afraid and distressed’.

Jacob then acts to preserve himself (his heritage) by dividing his family.

Jacob proves himself to be like Adam in the garden after he ate the forbidden fruit.  Adam, in an act of self-preservation hides from God:

8They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid [emphasis mine] because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Genesis 3, NASB)

We can look back through the complete records of these events and say to ourselves, “that was silly”, because we weren’t there at the time.  It’s easy to say to Jacob from the sideline, “You should have had more faith!”, or to Adam, “You should have come clean before God”.  Instead, they act to self-preserve.

Most of us are unaware of our own efforts to self-preserve.  It takes an outside and honest evaluator to reveal the edifices which a person builds to hide behind.

In current American Christian culture, I have seen the rise of writers and pundits who are Christians, but have decided to release themselves from the mooring of the church.  They see doctrine as confining and limiting.  They are elevated as authorities although they are under no authority themselves.  In fact, they have made great effort to release themselves and their audiences from the perceived millstone that is the church.  Their gospel is freedom from the church with all of its faults and dogmatism.

I can understand that.  Many churches go beyond the proclamation of the gospel and attempt to bind honest Christians with Law.  Grace is choked out by commands, demands and expectations of right behavior.  ‘Churchy people’ want more ‘Churchy people’ in church.  And, as a pastor, I am well-aware of the masks that people put on instead of being genuine.  Truth be told, I am not immune to wearing masks myself.  Yet, that is exactly why I go to church.

Before I expand on that notion, there is one question that needs to be answered; What are we acting to preserve ourselves from?  Better yet, what are we hiding from?

The simple answer is the cross.  We are afraid of the death of self it will bring.  We are afraid of giving up our opinions, positions and convictions.  In short, we want a Christianity of our own, without the Church’s authority.  We want Jesus without the church.

That sounds pretty good.  I can be set free to live as I want to without judgment or guilt.  Who doesn’t want that!

And, if I can justify the words of God in Scripture and say, “He never meant to say that”, then I can live as I please without ever coming to terms with my own sin.

But, sin is so insidious that it quietly replaces the Word with pseudo-common sense.  It replaces church with loose connections to thought leaders.  It replaces the cross with justifying God.

For all of its faults, for all of its sins (and there are many!), the church is not merely a ‘man-made institution’.  Instead, it is the God-man made institution.  Christ is not the cornerstone of alternative thought.  Christ is the cornerstone of the church.

Again, I grant that churches all over have done some very regrettable things.  Some have over-emphasized the law to the drowning out of the good news (Christ crucified for you).  That is unfortunate (it should be the opposite!).  Others are unwilling to receive people for external or internal differences.

To repeat myself, that is exactly why I go to church.  I find that in the hearing of God’s word (four readings from both Old an New Testaments), the hearing of the proclamation of Law and Gospel,  the hearing of God justifying me on the cross, and receiving Jesus’ body and blood at the altar, my own efforts of self-preservation are crucified, and I am renewed as a new creation.  It is there that I hear more than information about Christ.  It is there that I am buried with Christ as sinner and raised by His justifying work alone.  The church is God’s chosen place to continue the work of saving people.  It is where He placed His Rock, Jesus, who is the cornerstone.

I hope that as you read this blog, you will receive it as the pastoral care it was meant to bring.  The thought-leaders won’t save you from God.  Only Christ can do that.  And Jesus does that work through His church, which is the true life-preserver on this earth.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Shoot!

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord Shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord

Isaiah 11:1-2

It is hard to imagine what life was like in the time of Isaiah the prophet. The ten northern tribes of Israel had been taken to Assyria, never to return. Babylon was about to take Judah into captivity because King Hezekiah had foolishly shown Babylon Judah’s riches.

In other words, things were about to go downhill very quickly. Yet Isaiah was given some words to comfort those who would be taken away from their homeland. In the above passage, he tells them that ‘a shoot’ would ‘come forth’.

First, Jesse will become a ‘stump’. This means that Israel would be decimated. A once great tree is reduced to nothing. A great family tree, coming from Abraham is completely cut down. God exacted judgment on His own people for not following His Word. In our own time, this level of severity seems cruel and undeserved.

And, it was severe. Many were taken to Babylon where they lived for the next 70 years. Their circumstance caused them to redouble their efforts to be more religious. In fact, the Babylonian Talmud (a book which included an additional 600+ laws to the Laws included in the New Testament) was written at this time. This is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation.

Had they forgotten Isaiah’s prophecies? All of the promises of a Messiah written to them? Here, Isaiah had given the promise of a shoot coming from the stump of Jesse. If you needed something to hold on to, why wouldn’t you look to the promises of God’s word instead of trying to ‘get more religion’?

Yet, they went their own way, following the impulse to ‘do something’.

It is a little like this for the North American church, too. The numbers are dwindling. Attendance is spotty. Volunteers are few and far between. The situation looks dire for the next few decades. The vital tree which was modern American Christianity is shriveling.

Some have made dramatic efforts to attract people into their churches. They have giveaways, parent’s night out, free lunches and other offers to re-build their local body.

But, what if all of these efforts are merely an attempt to ‘get religious’? What if God is in the midst of the falling tides?

The most important thing to remember about the Babyonian captivity is that God never abandoned His people. That is, they were taken away from the Promised Land, but God never cut them off from Him. They still had the Torah and the Prophets. His promises were contained in the pages. They could read from them and receive encouragement. They could recall how He was with them during their first captivity in Egypt, and how He multiplied their numbers. They could look back at Genesis 3:15 and remember that a Savior was coming.

Isaiah was carrying on that tradition of a promise to come. He proclaimed the good news of a shoot. That shoot wouldn’t simply rescue them from Babylon, that shoot would rescue all people from sin, death and the devil. That shoot is Jesus.

Isaiah pointed toward the future to the first Advent for the people of Judah. We can look back at Isaiah’s prophecies and see that they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That gives us confidence to look forward to the second Advent, when Jesus will come again to redeem us and bring us to the promised land of His love and life.

God’s word promises the second coming of our savior throughout the New Testament. As we enter into this Advent season, remember that God promised a first Advent, and He fulfilled that promise to the letter. His promise of salvation can be found in His word. Look into that word to find the promise of life given to you through water and the Spirit. Look into that word to find your savior. Look into that word to find the family tree you have been grafted into through the shoot; Jesus.

In uncertain times, He is the rock of salvation and the cornerstone of the church. The gates of Hell shall not overcome it. That is God’s promise … in His Word.

To God be the Glory,

Pastor John

 

Surprise!

As I have been reading and preparing sermons from the Book of Luke, I have learned something about how God works.  More specifically, I have learned that God often surprises people with forgiveness and healing.

Take for an example the ten lepers Jesus encounters between Samaria and Galilee (Luke 17:11-19.  They appeal to Jesus to “have mercy on us”.  So, Jesus tells them to “Go and show yourselves to the priests”.  It is really the opposite of the way things should be done.  Leviticus 13:12-17 explains how a priest must proceed once leprosy has been healed.  He must examine the person and then pronounce him “clean”.  First, the person must be cured; then the person is directed to be examined by the priest.

In Jesus’ world, the unclean were sent to the priest.  Jesus didn’t perform a miracle right away.  The miracle of their cleansing happened on the road as they walked away from Jesus.  How surprising that must have been!  God ambushed them with healing.

Yet, only one of the nine recognized the depth of what had happened.  He returned, praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet and thanking Him.

People who hear God’s word are also surprised.  Romans 10:17 states: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ESV).  As the Word is proclaimed, faith is born in people.  They received atonement and salvation.  Some, like the other nine in Luke’s account, reject it.  Others receive it gratefully.

God surprised you with His salvation, too.  When you were an infant, Christ came down to you in the waters of your baptism.  God birthed you through H20 and the proclamation, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. 

God took the lead in saving you.  We received it even before we could say “yes” or “no”.  You and I didn’t take the first step.  Jesus came to us first.  He saved us, and then we came to realize what He had done.  In fact, our whole participation in church life is the ongoing work of learning about the fullness of what Jesus did for you before you made any kind of decision.

God continues to surprise us with His salvation and forgiveness on Sunday mornings through the proclamation of His Word  (namely Jesus) and Sacrament.  He doesn’t wait for you to make a decision.  He just invades your life and gives you grace … whether you want it or not!

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor John

Overlooked

‘Martin Luther was once approached by a man who enthusiastically announced that he’d recently become a Christian. Wanting desperately to serve the Lord, he asked Luther, “What should I do now?” As if to say, should he become a minister or perhaps a traveling evangelist. A monk, perhaps.

Luther asked him, “What is your work now?”

“I’m a shoe maker.”

Much to the cobbler’s surprise, Luther replied, “Then make a good shoe, and sell it at a fair price.”’ -Tullian Tchividjian

Isn’t it interesting how people want to do something big and extravagant for God?  They put off the small things that they could be doing for the potential of the monument they plan in their mind.  We reason, “I want to demonstrate my love for God in a grand gesture”.  We put off the little things we can do in favor of the greater gesture.

But, sometimes life erodes that grand gesture you were planning.  Other demands and obligations take away what you had been building.

So, when others give more money, or build some fantastic monument (of one type or another) to God, we look at our own meager offerings and feel a bit ashamed.

What is your grand design for God?  Have you been hoping to put in some big offering in the plate?  Maybe you are developing some other grand gesture.

Yet, God is often found in the small things … no, the smallest things that we do.  Making a child’s lunch before school.  Picking up a friend who has a doctor’s appointment.  Calling someone.  Sometimes, we are not even aware that these small things are the very things that God receives the most glory for.

When the Son of God became incarnate, He set aside His glory to do so.  He didn’t come in great pomp and celebration.  He came as a lowly baby born in a stable.  God became man.  Jesus talked to people, He touched people, He ate with people, He traveled with people, and He lived with people.  What’s more to the point, Jesus is one of those people, He’s one of us.

Then, He descended further into the inglorious muck.  He took your sin and mine on to Himself.  “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf”.  Only to be crucified on a Roman cross and be buried in someone else’s tomb.  He appeared lowly, weak and defeated.  Even any human glory that He may have had was stripped from Him just as His clothes were.  His shame was public.

There was no greater memorial ever built that could match Jesus’ body pierced, bleeding and hanging from the cross, though.

So, when Luther addresses the cobbler, he looks at it through Christ’s lowly work on the cross.  Although the cobbler thought he could glorify God by serving in a higher, ‘holy’ occupation, Luther saw that the man could glorify God in His mundane occupation.  There was no need for a life-altering career change.  He could serve God by … making a good shoe and selling it at a fair price.

Shielding ourselves from Adam

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From Romans 5:

13for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

I have been listening to the New Testament on CD in my car recently.  I decided to listen to Romans since I have been preaching out of the Gospels, and wanted a break.  This morning, I ran across the above portion of Scripture which gave me pause.

It’s a challenge to Christian thinking to say, “sin … was in the world before the law was given”.  Recall that Adam was given direction not to eat from a certain tree.  God gave Adam that “law” and Adam couldn’t abide by it.  He failed to keep “the law”.

This fits nicely into a theology which uses law as its framework.

I can’t help but wonder if something deeper isn’t at work here, though.  The talk of Adam being our “Federal Head” is intellectually satisfying, yet is that very same language shielding us from the reality of sin.  If we can categorize Adam, then we have a box to put him in.  We can coolly evaluate his standing since we are “outside the box”.  By establishing this safe distance, we can imagine ourselves on a much-improved footing compared to our ancestor.  We can escape the judgment which came down on him.

And, we can escape the consequences, too.  After all, It was Adam who sinned.  It’s his fault, not mine.  I inherited this problem.  I don’t really deserve it.

The author of Romans, Paul, doesn’t quite agree.  He makes the point that sin was in the world before the law.  From Adam down to Moses, there was no law.  Not to say that there was lawlessness.  It’s just that God hadn’t given a code of conduct for His people yet.

As a consequence of sin, Death reigned from Adam to Moses.  Why would death reign if there was no law?  Because, ultimately, it is not about breaking the law at all.  It’s about the relationship God had with Adam.  He expected him to stay away from that tree for his own good.  Adam failed to listen to God’s wisdom.  He rejected it, and with it, rejected God.

In a nutshell, Adam lost faith in God and His word.

So, His descendants try to put the broken pieces back together.  Like the Fairy Tale, Humpty Dumpty, we need to rescue the entire system from it’s fatal consequences.

Have you ever considered that the imposition of a Law framework is actually the sinful self’s efforts to restore ourselves?  You and I prefer an infrastructure which supports our efforts to become better.

We can shield ourselves from Adam and his foolishness.  Although the law looks like a life-ring which will keep us from drowning, it is actually a lead weight that drags us into the murky depths.

And once you turn relationship into a set of rules to follow, you no longer have a relationship, you have a contract with contractual obligations.  Law-keeping to restore oneself is fundamentally a lack of faith.

So, Christ came.  He came under the Law to fulfill the Law for us, thus setting us free from the Law.  It is not that the Law is not to be used; it’s that the law is to be used  lawfully.  That is, it is to be used to reveal God’s Holiness and our sinfulness, and to drive us to the one who came in love to restore us, Jesus.

Whether you are a law-breaker or a law-keeper (law-breaker under self-deception), Christ is your only hope of escape from both sin and death.  He restores faith and relationship.   Thank God for that!  Without Jesus, we would become slaves of law, sentenced to death.  Now, we have been set free in Christ, given his righteousness and sentenced us … to Life!

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