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During the summer, many adult children are traveling back to their hometowns to visit parents and relatives.  They revisit the places and people who gave them their start in life.  Often, this experience re-kindles memories and dreams of the future which were lost under the layers of the years.

As we come up to the 500th year of the German Reformation, it is fitting to remember what we will be celebrating.  For the past few weeks, we have been reading snippets from the Book of Concord in anticipation of this event.  Some have never heard these words before, while the readings have re-kindled memories of Sunday school for others.  The words serve as a reminder of what we believe, teach and confess at Calvary.

Yet, at its core, the German reformation centered around one man.  Even more to the point, it centered on one man’s discovery.  What we will celebrate on October 31st, 2017 is the re-discovery of the Gospel by a monk named Martin Luther.

But, what is the Gospel?  Here is a quiz:

The Gospel is …

  1. The greatest commandment that Jesus gave — “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)
  2. Hearing the facts about Jesus and making a decision or praying a sinner’s prayer
  3. Surrendering your life to Christ fully
  4. Doing good works – Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
  5. God’s only Son became man, lived among us, bore all our sins as a perfect sacrifice, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day, He rose again.  By His work on the Cross, you have been forgiven all your sin, and been made right with God through His blood alone.

In the first four examples, ‘the gospel’ is contingent on my efforts.  You have to do something to earn God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.  They are pre-requisites to salvation.  Faith is a result of what you do (even in your heart).

In the last example, faith is a result of what Jesus has done.  It is not a proposition to be decided on (as if I am God).  It is not a work of Christian piety (living a ‘spiritual’ life).  It is not determining to clean up one’s life.  It is not obeying God’s commandments.

The Gospel is Jesus Christ.  He is the Good News that God has come to rescue us.  God the Father has provided Jesus as the scapegoat for all of our sins.  And, He has rescued us from sin, death and the devil by becoming a curse for us.  At the cross, He paid the full penalty for your sin and mine.  In Him alone, we have the righteousness of God.

In preparing this article, I read the effect Luther’s re-discovery (through his commentary on Galatians) had on one reader.  The individual (Mike) wrote:

@brilliant – … I first encountered Luther’s works at a secular university where all of his works were free in the library. I was so happy to randomly start reading Galatians one day. I got so excited I photocopied the whole thing and marked up each line with a worn out highlighter. – Mike Jul 31 ’12 at 7:49  [emphasis mine]

(http://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/8742/when-and-how-did-martin-luther-arrive-at-the-justification-by-faith)

Although Luther has been with Jesus for almost five centuries, his rediscovery of the gospel is still making an impact (even in a secular university!).  We are inheritors of this discovery.  A discovery which comforts troubled consciences.  A discovery which breathes life and faith into the hearer.  A discovery based on one man’s decision.

Christ made the decision: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

His Gospel cuts through the layers of man’s efforts.  In fact, it completely undercuts man’s efforts at rescuing himself.

Whether you are a rebel openly disobeying God’s Law or you are a pietistic saint who follows every jot and tittle, the gospel is wholly outside of you, hidden in Christ.  All of the benefits of His death and resurrection have been applied to you in the waters of your baptism, and He continues to sustain you through word and sacrament.

Jesus essentially cries out “Return to me.  Forget the other nonsense.  Abandon open rebellion.  Abandon pietistic law-keeping.”  Jesus says the following in John 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life.  There is no other way to the Father but by me.”

Later, John records Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” Christ is our life, our hope and our savior.  This is the Gospel we return to, reflect on, and make known to the world.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  What an amazing discovery!

Amen

Pastor John

 

Hide and go seek

I ran across a term that I hadn’t heard before in the book, “Left Behind and Loving It”.  The term was ‘epistemological crisis”.  It is when you learn something that turns your whole world upside-down.  It’s not just a paradigm shift, but it is a moment when your belief system is challenged by a truth discovery.

How do you respond in such an instance?  Perhaps the better question is, “How many time have you changed political positions, religious conceptions or intellectual positions when something challenging has been presented to you?”

The Scriptures can effect such a crisis.  Actually, that is what Scripture should do.  The individual should be confronted by issues, problems and confusing texts.

How do you respond to Scripture which challenge your belief system (even a ‘Christian’ belief system)?  Do you ignore it, shut it down, rely on cultural Christianity to save the day?  Or, do you just say, “That must be wrong”, and forget about it?

Maybe you decide to look for answers from someone else.  You look for someone who is ‘on your side’, and who you can trust.  You reinforce your beliefs to defend yourself against the troubling questions Scripture brings up.

These are simply the efforts of the Old Adam to avoid the onslaught of the challenging propositions in Scripture.  The Old Adam can hide behind ignorance, other people’s knowledge, avoidance, or changing the subject.  This is all rooted in fear.

We are afraid that God will kill the Old Adam.  We identify so closely with him, that we find fig leaves to protect our vulnerability from a God who is trying to expose it.  Ultimately, this means we fear the cross.

You see, the cross is not just for Jesus.  It is for us, too.  We use our strengths, resources or other means to defend us against a God who inspired the authors of Scripture to put some challenging things before our eyes.

However, once the text troubles us to our core, then God is able to make us new; to re-birth us through the process.  If you allow this to happen, it is scary.  You will have to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you understand the Scripture.  He will have to be your guide as you try to distinguish between Law and Gospel.  He will have to guide you to find Christ in the passage that troubles you.  He will have to be the one to hold your hand as you are transformed from arrogant to humble.

Church plays a vital role in this process of ‘letting go’.  You may experience a crisis of faith (this is not necessarily a bad thing).  Without the guidance of your pastor, you can end up in heresy or agnosticism.  The pastor is concerned with your eternal salvation, and can be a support as you struggle to understand, reflect, and ultimately, grow through the reading of Scripture.  Forsaking the assembling together would be foolish and dangerous.

May God keep you in His will,

John

To promote greater understanding

If you want to understand the differences between Arminian, Reformed and Lutheran Theologies, read the following book:

http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Spirituality-Five-Views-Sanctification/dp/0830812784/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414103229&sr=1-2&keywords=five+views+on+sanctification

That is all.

a season of death

Three people from my church have died in the past month.  One of my co-workers lost a close relative two days ago.  My neighbor, who is a wonderful person and a Christian, is dying.

I am grateful that my church follows the calendar of Christ’s life.  I am grateful that we talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection every week.  I am grateful that the gospel accounts are weighted toward the last week of Jesus’ life (especially Mark who devoted six of sixteen chapters on it).

Why am I grateful?  Because the culture I live in lives in denial about death.  Even some other Christian churches seem to side-step the issue, preferring a glorious performance over the grounded truth.

It’s the way of the world.

On the other hand, death is enough.  Romans 5:12 states,

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned … ”

We stand condemned.  The consequence of our sinfulness is death.  However,

18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. 20The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Jesus has no desire to see you or me die.  Yet, there is no chariot of fire coming to pick people up and take them home.  Instead, we get the ignoble burial that everyone else gets.  It’s final, sobering, and a buzz-kill.

But, when we continue reading the second portion of this chapter from Romans, Paul writes about the reign of grace.  And, not grace as a word only, but real grace.  The forgiving kind.  The dying kind.  The sacrificial lamb kind.

This only took place one time.  It was on a cross outside Jerusalem.  The righteous God-man was crucified for all sinful men.  Completely.

His death was not the end, though.  In the midst of this dying, God the Father poured out His wrath on His own Son.  Not because Jesus was so bad, but because we are so evil.  Why did God do this?

Because God loves you.  And, He loves me.

Death does not have the final word.  You and I can rest assured by hearing the words of Jesus, “It is finished“.  We can bet on these words.  Our death will actually be the birth of resurrection into an eternal dominion of peace, joy and total love.  Hope fulfilled.   And … the Glory of God.  Forever and ever.

Amen.

Meditatio

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Eugene Delacroix c. 1861

Jacob provides a good example of Christian meditation.  I don’t mean that he picked on angels in bar fights.  I mean he was willing to go to the mat with God until he received the blessing from the Angel of the Lord (see Genesis 32:26)

Christian meditation is reading, or listening to, or reciting out loud a particular passage of scripture expecting the Holy Spirit to give a person an understanding of the passage.  The Holy Spirit will show one who “wrestles” for understanding the Law and the Gospel in the passage.  This is what makes a true theologian.

Christian meditation is not sitting in some sense-deprived environment and emptying the mind to have an “alpha state” experience of God.  It is not employing the words of scripture as a mantra to repeat over and over again with a view to have an ecstatic experience.

In comparing Roman Catholic Lectio Divina “Four Moments” practice to Luther’s concept, Rev. Jeffrey Ware wrote:

“Luther also completely redefines meditatio.  Whereas in Lectio Divina meditation is focused on the human memory and its ability to make the text personal through the recollection of past events, Luther’s understanding of meditation focuses on God’s word.  For Luther, meditation is simply the continual study of scripture.  God’s word is not a mere sign that needs to be internalized in order to be heard properly, it is the very voice of God that comes with power both to kill and make alive” (A Lutheran Perspective on Lectio Divina, from SoundWitness.org)

As Luther noted:

Let him who wants to contemplate in the right way reflect on his Baptism; let him read his Bible, hear sermons, honour father and mother, and come to the aid of a brother in distress. But let him not shut himself up in a nook . . . and there entertain himself with his devotions and thus suppose that he is sitting in God’s bosom and has fellowship with God without Christ, without the Word, without the sacraments (The Kindled Heart – Luther on Meditation, John Kleinig).

What is the result of the type of meditation that wrestles with God through the word?  First, one is humbled through the working and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.  Second, one’s faith in Christ is deepened and grown.  Third, one serves others selflessly.  Fourth, over time, a desire and ability to teach is developed in the one who practices Christian meditation.  Fifth, one is brought into trials and temptations, which I will describe in my next article: Tentatio.

Working out your self-deification with arrogance and boasting

When I was in high school, I worked as a stage hand one semester.  I was in the background, helping to move stage elements.  We changed backdrops, moved furniture, and moved props.

We got to see everything back there.  The audience, though, was unaware of anything but what they saw in front of them.

This is true for our view of the world, too.  Most people are largely unaware of what “backdrops” are behind their thinking.  It’s too much work to figure it out.  It’s more fun just to watch the play.

Our view of the purpose of the Bible is also influenced by our background beliefs.  Everyone comes to it with beliefs/perspectives of what it’s about.  And, if they don’t have any prior experience with it, they soon become aware that it talks a lot about commands, God, promises, war, sex, death, resurrection, angels and other “religious stuff”.

This helps to explain the differences in denominations.  If you go to a church, you probably accept their “backdrop” explanation of the purpose of the Bible.

But, is it correct?  Have you ever considered that conservative Christians (not talking politically here) have legitimate and valid differences concerning the purpose of the Bible?

One of the current “backdrops” is called “Lordship Salvation”.  It assumes that the Bible is a book of rules that we must follow perfectly otherwise we are not true disciples.  Christians in these churches assume that their church is “Biblical”.  They assume that Christians in other churches are weak or disobedient.  They assume this because this is the result of what they believe about the Bible and the Christian life.

Where does this belief come from?  Why do people believe that once they “receive Jesus” or “repent and believe” (as the Lordship Salvation camp would say), they must “get to work”, “live obediently” and “put your nose to the grindstone”?  Why does the Christian life return to me and my works?

Simple.  This is the theology of the Old Adam.  It is a theology that denies  the Lordship of Christ.  The Old Man denies that Christ is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  He denies John 6:28-29 which the disciples ask, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” The Old Adam denies Hebrews 10:10 which states, “By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

And in so denying that these verses are for Christians, the Old Adam denies Christ, Himself.  The Old Adam replaces Jesus with his own works, effort and obedience.  The Old Adam works to keep himself alive rather than submit to the crucifixion of Jesus as both the one who births faith in us and feeds faith through the means of grace.

The Old Adam is busy keeping himself as god.  He is his own lord.  He lives a blasphemous life.

And because of the extreme moral demands of Lordship Salvation, Christians under this theology can go only three directions:

In the first option, they can become self-righteous, arrogant about their relationship with God, and in denial about the depth of God’s demands on their lives.  This person is willing to judge others harshly and never examine his/her own life in light of the “full thundering” of the Law.  They become deeply judgmental, lacking any love.

In the second option, the Christian of sensitive conscience is thrown into despair about their salvation.  Martin Luther, the great reformer, fell into this camp when the terrors of Roman Catholic theology scared him into a monastery to find peace.  Eventually, these Christians will either leave the church, or have their faith shipwrecked.  Some of these people become hopeless and becomes agnostics/atheists because of the lack of mercy in these church bodies.

In the third option, they can remain superficial, never taking any of it seriously, and covering up with a false edifice.

There is a fourth option, however.  Along with many other who have escaped the clutches of Lordship Salvation, I encountered a completely different backdrop when I read Martin Luther.  Because I had lived in both the first and second options, Luther’s Bondage of the Will was like a key to open the prison door I lived in.

His view was that we begin and end with Christ when it comes to the Christian life.  In Biblical terms, that means that Jesus retains His lordship as the Alpha and the Omega.  We are to come to church to hear “Christ crucified” rather than the “ten steps to overcoming sin”.

This is a theology of reception.  It is a theology that believes that God is at work on and in us, and that it is His pleasure to do so.

It is a theology that views the Scripture as the manger in which we find the Christ-child.  He is the heart of its meaning, purpose and proclamation.  Read Hebrews.  Is it about you or about Jesus?  Read the Gospel from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.  Is it about you or Jesus?

And, having this “cross theology” also means that we interpret the Bible as being Law or Gospel.  This means that God’s demands reveal our inherent sinfulness, but God has provided His own Son to fulfill ALL of these demands and cleanse us from ALL sin.  Even the sin of trying to be your/my own God.

Why does He do this?  Look at Romans 3:

 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

 Acts 4:12 states; “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” No other name, not even your own.

To the Glory of His Holy Lordship, Amen.

“Hidden” sanctification

“Put your nose to the grindstone”

“Pull yourself up from the bootstraps”

“Apply yourself”

“Try harder”

We may have heard these phrases when we were in school from our teachers or our parents.  They were attempting to get more “out of” us.  For most kids, this doesn’t work, because they are already trying as hard as they can.

As we grow into adulthood, however, there is no one looking over our shoulder to “keep us in line”.  In a sense, we are free.

For me, this began in college.  At first, I screwed around and didn’t put much effort into my studies.  Eventually, though, I went out of state and really excelled at the university I was attending.  I was internally motivated to succeed.

It’s rewarding to get good grades.

There are many people who believe that the Christian life operates on the same principle.  If I do X, then I am living like a Christian and being sanctified.  If I don’t, then I am not being sanctified.

Only one problem … it is a rejection of Jesus Christ.

One of the things I tell people when I discuss this topic is that if your work sanctifies you, then you are stealing the glory from Jesus who is the “author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Here is why I reject the idea of self-sanctification:

1. It is anthropocentric at its core.  That is, it rejects Christ’s work in favor of my own.  This is also idolatrous.

2. It is antinomian.  This means, a person who uses the commands of Scripture to sanctify themselves is actually minimizing the depth of God’s Law.

3. It is a return to R.C. beliefs on infusion of righteousness.

4. It falsely divides Justification from Sanctification (two big “churchy” words).  I will quote from Gerhard Forde who wrote that sanctification is “the art of getting used to . . . justification.

But, most Christians will not prefer this answer.  They would rather go to their church for the purpose of self-improvement.  They want to have something to do.  They become their own Holy Spirit, and their own “project”.

This is called “being curved in on oneself”

At the end of Matthew, we see two groups at the end before the Throne of Christ.  Here is the interaction He has with the righteous ones:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Were they aware or unaware of their works?  Were these works the effort of private morality, or public service?

So, at this point, you have a choice.  Is the Christian life a “DIY” thing, or is it a “He does it all” thing”?

I believe the latter.  Why?  Because He is the Author and Perfecter of faith, and He will not share His glory with anyone.  I am His work, from start to finish.  You are too, whether you believe it or not.

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