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Your own personal Purgatory

self-flagellation

 

“Necessity is the mother of invention”. War is a catalyst for innovation. In both of these statements, there is a truism; advances in technology do not come out of a vacuum. There must be some catalyst that starts the process.

This is also true of theology. The Nicene creed was a response to the heresies of Marcionism and arianism. Augustine wrote against Pelagianism. The five points of Calvinism were written to counter the five points of Arminianism. It was no different during the German reformation.

The catalyst for Martin Luther, though, was a Dominican prior named Johannes Tetzel. Tetzel was commissioned by the Pope to sell something called indulgences. They were kind of like a “get out of purgatory free card”, except you had to pay money for them. The entire system of indulgences played on the fears of people and gave them false comfort that some of their sins could be paid for so they would do less “hard time” in Purgatory.

Purgatory was first conceived by St. Augustine. It was an invention of his mind. Unfortunately, it isn’t found in scripture at all. So, when Johannes Tetzel came to sell indulgences near to Luther, Luther became unglued. He wrote the 95 Theses in response to this bad theology. It was also the spark that lit the German reformation of the church.

It would be hard today to find many people that believe in heaven and hell. The majority might acknowledge a heaven, but hell is too hard to consider. Purgatory wouldn’t even be on the map of our secular culture. Yet, you would never know this by how people live.

Society is busy. I mean, people are running around all the time. They move from one task to another breathlessly. Sometimes, this is to cover up or avoid some issue in their lives. The past hurts from high school, getting turned down for a promotion, failing to get a job that would have meant so much, are all scenarios that cause people to spiral downwards. Or, it could be that guilt or shame from a past event has cast a shadow over life.

Some will handle these disappointments and difficulties by telling themselves that there will be other opportunities. They take a positive mental approach. Others fall into a defeated response and spiral down to dwell in defeat. They banish themselves to a personal purgatory that has no clear end date. They are trying to pay for their sins of failure. They are trying to pay the price for guilt.

If you want to know where purgatory is located, you need look no further than your fellow man. Whenever a person cannot overcome guilt, failure(s), or shame (or all three), the knee-jerk reaction is to self-punish. The thinking is that sin can somehow be paid for if I just keep punishing myself long enough or hard enough.

And, purgatory on earth has no end date. The reason for this is that the human conscience continues to accuse long after the misdeed is over. It beats a person over the head and never lets forgiveness enter the picture. Why? Because the Old Adam in us wants to be the savior. And the Old Adam thrives on guilt. He thrives on shame. He thrives on failures or perceived failures. The Old Adam has something to do when there is sin to pay for.

But this is simply purgatory on Earth. It is never-ending. It gets nowhere. A person’s life becomes defined by either doing good works to pay for them, or living in self-condemnation. People dwell in personal purgatories.

At this Easter Season, we are called to return to the cross. It is there that Jesus took all of your sin. Not only your ‘acceptable sin’. Not just your imperfections. God’s Son was sent to take the deepest, worst and most vile of your sins and mine. He came to take the ones that are being recalled on a daily basis and destroying you from the inside. He came to take and be punished for all of the sins in your closet. And He paid for the closet, too. In short, there is no sin that doesn’t fall under God’s payment plan.

Your conscience will tell you otherwise. It wants to take back the sins that Jesus paid for so that the Old Adam has a self-redemption project. In the world of temptation, that is a doozy! Yet, you were baptized. You were washed clean in His blood. You were given His Spirit. You were welcomed and are welcome in His church. Even as a person who still sins. Why? Because the personal purgatory program has been successful? No, but because Christ was. He even died for your self-condemnation. He died for the sin of trying to take back your sin. He died for trying to save yourself through good works, piety, or strict and cruel self-treatment. He died for these because you cannot pay for your own sin. Only He can do that. Only He did that.

As a result, Romans 8:1 tells you, “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. Is that hard to believe? You betcha. That’s why God had to repeat it throughout the New Testament. Jesus came to die for sinners. The greater your sin, the greater your God. The greater your guilt, the greater the grace, the greater your self-condemnation, the greater your Justifier. Christ alone is your savior.

And because of this, there is no need for Purgatory; either personal or eternal. Remember, you have been crucified with Christ. You no longer live, but the life you now live, you live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who gave Himself for you. Guilt is crucified, shame is slayed and sin is done away with. Jesus is the God of your total forgiveness and resurrection. Abandon personal purgatories and look to the cross. Christ alone is your savior.

 

Amen

 

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Scandalous

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, Sebastiano Ricci, 1720’s

‘… but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’

  • 1 Corinthians 1:23

If you have been keeping up with the news, you know all about the College Admissions scandal that has shocked the nation. Allegedly, the rich and powerful were able to get their children into prestigious universities by directing money into a fake charity. Allegedly, coaches were bribed, private SAT and ACT proctors were bribed (and sometimes took the exam for the students), and involvement in high school sports was faked.

What a scandal! For those who have tried everything to get their child into one of these institutions, the injustice is enraging. Where is the fairness?

Such a scandal needs to be corrected. Heads have to roll. If they don’t, then the whole system of applying and getting accepted into universities will be meaningless. The integrity of the system appears to be broken. The only fix is to take all of this to court.

 

Paul uses the phrase, ‘stumbling block’ in 1 Corinthians 23. That phrase is only one word in the Greek. That word is Skandalon. In other words, the Jews who heard that the Messiah was crucified on the cross were scandalized by the notion of it. The Messiah was God’s chosen Savior. He was coming on a white horse with sword in hand to rescue God’s chosen people from oppression; especially the oppression of Roman rule.

And, they were right, in a sense. The Savior was coming to free them from oppression. But, He wasn’t coming in on a white horse with a sword in His hand and an army following. He was coming on the foal of a donkey with nothing but His hands to be crucified by members of the oppressing army. Defeated, lowly and weak, what kind of a Messiah was this?

The Jews were scandalized. They had forgotten all of the Servant Songs in the latter portion of Isaiah. They were indicted by their own scripture. Yet, gentiles don’t get off the hook in Paul’s estimation. They saw the crucifixion as ‘foolishness’ (the Greek uses the root of the word ‘moronic’ here).

Here is how Paul completes his thought in 1 Corinthians:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Paul, then, turns the whole thing upside down. It might even be a little bit scandalous. I don’t like to be called unwise or foolish. That’s offensive.

But the depth of the scandal is much deeper, ‘ … you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.’ Why is that scandalous? Because we are invested in our own righteousness, holiness, and even redemption. We have made our righteousness a project by which we prove to God that we deserve to be saved. We are invested in our worthiness; our enoughness.

When we place our faith in the ‘righteousness project’, we are actually denying Christ. Instead, look up to Christ who, as the author of Hebrews encourages us to, ‘… fix[ing] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith …’ That is, Jesus is both the one who birthed faith in you through the external word, and who completes the work through the external word. As Paul writes in Philippians 1:6:

‘… he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’

This might be the greatest scandal of all because there is no “lifting oneself up by the bootstraps”. Instead, from start to finish, Christ does it all. Even  more scandalous than that, Christ said from the Cross, “It is finished”. That is, before you were even born, before you great-great grandparents were born, Christ complete all the work at the cross for you.

Now, that scandal is your salvation. Abandon the self for goodness and righteousness before God. Look to the cross, and know that Jesus has done it all. For the scandalized, for the scandalous, for the cheaters, for those who play by the book, for the righteousness project managers, for the foolish, for the wise, for the Jew and for the Gentile. It is finished. For you.

Amen

 

‘The tiny ship was tossed’

The Tiny Ship Was Tossed …

seascape-with-sailing-ship-in-rough-sea-1844

Do you remember that show Gilligan’s Island?  The opening of the show explained how the shipwrecked group of people arrived on a distant tropical island;

The weather started getting rough,

The tiny ship was tossed.

If not for the courage of the fearless crew

The Minnow would be lost.

The Minnow would be lost.

Of course, we know that the Minnow was lost.  The premise of the show was to see if they could get off of the island and return to civilization.

John Mark wrote about a similar event in the life of the disciples of Jesus.  In Mark 4:35-41, the whole band of men were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee.  That Lake is 64 square miles, nearly the size of Washington D.C.  In other words, this wasn’t your average fishing hole.

It is shallow, too.  That means when there is a wind event, it is more violent than on a deeper body of water.

The disciples were in great danger.  They were subject to the winds.  They were subject to the waves.  They were subject to the cool night air.  Their lives were truly in danger.

Of the 13 men in the boat, four of them were experienced fishermen.  They had seen just about everything on the open water.  Although they tried will all of their combined strength and skill, they were overcome.  The last-ditch effort was to call on their master, Jesus.

Strangely, Jesus was asleep during this storm.  How could he be so relaxed when the ‘tiny ship was tossed’?  Who would be able to sleep in such life-threatening circumstances?

In fact, that strangeness affects the disciples, too.  They declare in their frustration, “Don’t you care if we drown?”

It is nearly impossible when you face life-threatening situations to have faith.  The heart drops and faith melts away at times of desperation.  We hope that when we go through times like this we will have friends to support our sagging faith and loss of courage.

But a weak faith and a lack of courage do not determine what God will do.  In fact, the disciples did have a little faith.  They called out for their Lord as the last option.  Yet, they should have called out for Him as the first option.
At that point, Jesus showed them and He shows us just exactly who He is;

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He has absolute authority to calm the winds and the waves.  In fact, all he had to do was say the word, and the wind and the seas obeyed Him.  How much more do they obey Him now that His Kingdom is established?  How much more now that He has ascended to the throne?

Then Jesus turns to the disciples,

He said , “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

Before, they had been terrified of natural events.  Now, they were in awe of this Lord who could command nature with three simple words.

Jesus didn’t always save the disciples.  But in this great demonstration of power, you can have confidence that He is more than able to rescue you.  And when rescue doesn’t come, He is able to calm the waves and the storms in your heart.  All you need to do is cry out to Him.  Search for Him in His word and receive comfort from the Savior who quiets storms and waves.  He is interceding before God the Father for you at this very moment.  Christ is in the boat with you and will not abandon you.

 

Amen

 

Conferred

graduation day

It’s that time of year again.  The ones who have worked so hard and diligently to complete years of study are graduating.  For mom and dad, it’s just a relief that their child has finally crossed the finish line.  No more tuition to pay for!

Seriously, though, graduation is a great event in the life of a student.  They celebrate the achievement of having persevered through progressively more challenging subjects and coursework to arrive at this day.  And the degree is well-earned.

In life, there aren’t many events that top this.  Graduation is one of those events that ranks just below getting married or having children.  You remember it for all of your life.  A sense of satisfaction and joy can be seen on the faces of all who have completed this journey.

That joy is amplified at the moment the student’s name is read.  The university president hands the student their degree, gives them a handshake and a photographer snaps the photo for posterity.  You can hear the relatives yelling for them from the crowd at that moment.

Not all people who receive degrees have worked for them, though.  Universities sometimes confer degrees on those who have never even set foot on the campus before.  These individuals might be a speaker at graduation who is given an ‘honorary doctorate’.  They didn’t work for it.  They didn’t stay up late at night cramming for exams.  They didn’t earn it.

In truth, people who receive such honorary degrees have accomplished something that the university staff believes is an important accomplishment that needs to be recognized.  The individual has struggled with great effort to achieve some great advancement.

Sometimes, you might think, “That person didn’t deserve it!”  Their achievements don’t deserve that recognition and degree.

It is true with the grace of God, too.  None of us earned Christ’s salvation.  None of us achieved anything remotely important enough to receive that kind of recognition.  Truth be told, even our best works are touched with sin.  If anything, we deserved to be kicked out of ‘school’ forever.

But God.  The Father recognized the dire straights you were in.  It wouldn’t have resulted in a great day of graduation, but the sum total of your life would have ended in permanent expulsion from God’s Kingdom.

So the Father sends the Son.  And the Son does everything the Father expects and demands of Him.  He follows Him faithfully in all things.  He follows His direction all the way to Golgotha.  And instead of receiving a justly-deserved crown, Jesus received your sin and a cross of death.

That death was your death.  He died it for you.  No one else could accomplish this.  Thanks God!

And on the third day after His death, Jesus Christ was raised.  This proved that God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for your sin and mine.  In this resurrection, you were conferred something greater than all of the honorary doctorates in the whole world; Justification.  God made the ungodly to be godly in Him.  That means that when God the Father looks at you, He sees His own son and loves you.

This Justification was conferred on you through baptismal waters.  You didn’t deserve it, you didn’t earn it and you didn’t achieve it.  All of it was accomplished by the savior who came to save sinners.  All of it was accomplished by Jesus.  He conferred upon you the righteousness of God.  What a great and humbling honor!  It reads, ‘Christ alone is my righteousness’.  Thanks be to God.

Pastor John

Disruptive Theology

Disruptive technologies are those that significantly alter the way that businesses or entire industries operate. Often times, these technologies force companies to alter the way that they approach their business or risk losing market share or risk becoming irrelevant. Recent examples of disruptive technologies include smart phones and e-commerce.’

Found at: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/d/disruptive-technology.asp

We live in a time of incredible technological innovation.  It used to be a rare thing to have a mobile phone.  Now, mobile phones can be found in the hands of 8 year olds.  And they are much more than phones.  They are cameras, video recorders, libraries of books and computers.  The mobile phone in your hand is more powerful than the computer that put men on the moon.

This disruptive technology has given power to individuals  that was out of reach forty years ago.

500 years ago, a German theologian was also seen as a disruptive force.  His personal and painful guilt led him to seek relief in a monastery as a Augustinian monk.  Unfortunately, he became more disturbed by the unswerving expectations of both monastic rules and God’s Holy Law.  He fell into despair.  No amount of self-punishment or confession could lift the weight of guilt from his heart.

He began to feel that God hated him.  Over time, he realized that he hated God right back for being so unmerciful.  It’s not that he wanted to feel that way.  Instead this was as a result of a sensitive conscience toward internal and external sins, and Law preaching without Gospel preaching.

Luther was then directed to teach theology.  He taught Romans and Galatians from 1515-1517 (See https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/luthers-breakthrough-romans/).  When he read Romans 1:17, it changed his perspective entirely,

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed–a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

From that time on, the Reformation that he began has had its center in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the only righteousness you will ever need.

Since the re-discovery of the Gospel was threatened the power structures of the medieval church of his day, Luther had to defend his theology.  A ‘Disputation’ or, debate was set up in the city of Heidelberg on April 26, 1518.  In this disputation, he laid out the difference between the only two theologies there are in the world; the theology of glory and the theology of the cross.

Here are some sample theses:

  1. The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

3. Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

26. The law says, »do this«, and it is never done. Grace says, »believe in this«, and everything is already done.

28. The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.

Talk about a disruptive theology!  Luther’s points were seen as undermining the authority of the medieval church.  And they were, only not in his favor, but in favor of Christ.

Few have read the 28 points of this disputation.  In fact, among Lutherans, few have even heard of it.  Yet, in the last 20 years, it has once again become a disruptive theology, and many are being exposed to it.

But, watch out!  If you read the short disputation, you might forever be changed by the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for you.

  • You can read the disputation here: http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php
  • Better yet, purchase the book, On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde.  It’s a little over 100 pages.

Come and be disrupted by the Gospel!

 

The Shepherd of shepherds

Martinus Antonius Kuytenbrouwer from Wikimedia Commons

The Lord is my shepherd  -Psalm 23:1

King David had come a long way.  From the obscurity of being the last son of Jesse living in the fields tending sheep, to the great halls of power as a military leader and King of Israel.  It was a meteoric rise.

Yet, from the beginning, he recognized God protection.  When David was told to bring food to his older brothers, he sees the Philistine giant, Goliath, mocking the troops of Israel.  When He tells King Saul that he could defeat Goliath, Saul is dubious.  David tells him how he defeated bears and lions with God’s help.  If he could defeat those, why couldn’t he take out a 9-foot giant? (1 Sam17:34-37).

Bears and lions are no laughing matter.  When you are alone in the darkness of an open field, you never know where they are coming from.  They are fast, powerful and vicious. And, David didn’t have a shotgun.  Instead, David had big cajones and an undeterred trust in God.  That faith was rewarded by God’s faithfulness to protect him.

Protection is just part of the role of being a shepherd, though.  There is so much more to this vocation.  Finding food and water for the flock, helping them cross hills, valleys and streams, checking them and taking care of injuries, and rescuing them when they got lost.  As if this wasn’t enough, it was a 24/7 job.

A shepherd can never let his guard down.

And so it was for David.  While He was tending to the sheep, all of his senses and attention were devoted to the sheep.  There was no ‘down time’ or ‘mental health days’.

I would hazard to guess that you are not a shepherd.  I’m not either, so it is hard to imagine the emotional, mental and physical strain it takes on a person.  However, if you are an overseer of staff, students, a congregation or children, you know the feeling of having to be responsible for the well-being of others.

After a while, it can take a toll.  You may not even be aware of the stress you are dealing with.  It is not just about taking care of yourself, but having concern for each of the people in your charge, as well.  Those people can be compliant, defiant, or wild in many ways.  Most people are a combination of these and other elements, too.

Although caring for people and straightening out issues is part of the vocation, you are also called to protect them.  You need to be aware of potential threats to their well-being from without.  This is most clearly seen in parenting.

You know what is bad for your child.  You are aware of the threats.  You do all you can to protect them from those threats.  It is on your mind day and night.  There is no break or rest from your job.  Even when you hand your kids over to family, there remains the concern because you don’t know what they may be exposed to.

There is no rest for the weary.

David knew that he needed sanctuary.  He didn’t have a vice-president that he could temporarily hand the reigns over to.  He didn’t have the opportunity to take a two-week vacation to Cabo to recharge his batteries.  He had to find relief elsewhere.

He found it in the Good Shepherd.  He found rest in the one who says “Peace”.  He laid his burdens before the Lord, and the Lord listened and carried those burdens:

1The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

2He makes me lie down in green pastures,

he leads me beside quiet waters,

3he refreshes my soul.

You see, even the shepherds need a Shepherd.  They need to find protection, rest and restoration for their souls.

Maybe you are reading this and feeling the need for rest, too.  This rest can be found in the one who entered into the locked doors of the room in Jerusalem and said, “Peace” to His frightened disciples.  This rest can be found in John 10, where Jesus declares, “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD”.  This rest can be found in His wounds where he bled for your sins and the sins of those in your charge.  This rest can be found in the communion table where God gives you himself to restore you and give you life.

Now, cast your cares upon Him because He cares for you.  Place all of your burdens into His nail-pierced hands and know that He’s got this.

Find yourself in the words of David who needed the Lord throughout his life.  Speak them out loud.  You will find that eroded faith can be rebuilt through the hearing of His word.

The Lord Jesus is YOUR Shepherd.  He has given His life for the sheep.  You are the sheep of His hand.  And, whatever circumstances you find yourself in, He will come, find you, and rescue you.  Because Jesus is the Shepherd of shepherds.

To God be the glory,

Amen

What’s left to do?

Galatians 3:

2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?  4Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Of all the multi-syllabic words used in theology, none is more controversial in the protestant/evangelical church than the word sanctification.  Although physical wars are not fought over it, thousands of pages have been devoted to arguing and defending positions.

For the Apostle Paul, Justification is the foundation of Christian living.  He argues in Galatians 2:16 that a man (read person) isn’t justified by works of the law, but by the faithfulness of Christ (read the Greek translation here: http://biblehub.com/interlinear/galatians/2-16.htm ) and by faith in that truth.  It is a crucial argument, because a group of people were attempting to enslave the consciences of gentiles under the Law of the Old Testament.  But Paul wouldn’t give an inch.

So, he continues the argument that it is not just that we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ Jesus (having faith in that promise), but  that we live in the Spirit by that promise, as well.  What else can produce love for our neighbor or love for God?  If behavior is dictated, then it is not empowered by Grace.  Instead it is coerced subservience.

God’s Spirit is given in the hearing of the Gospel.  We live by that Gospel because it produces faith.  And faith produces and empowers love and works of unconscious, selfless kindness.  The Law cannot do that.  It wasn’t built to:

10For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God …

and:

19Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.

The critical question then is, “Has the seed come?”

Paul argues that Jesus is Abraham’s seed.  The small, negligible mustard seed that has become a great tree of which you are a part.  We live on the sap of Grace running from the trunk of that tree into the branches to us.  We are the recipients of a Grace which is foreign and offensive to those who would live by works of the Law.  They must use another multi-syllabic word to describe those who would live in this freedom: anti-nomian.

The final question then, is, “Is it better to be anti-nominan or … Anti-Christ?”

May God have mercy.

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