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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

 

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How to bind a human conscience

For all the pastors trying to get people to do what they should, here is an easy set of directions to follow;

Preparation:

In order to be truly effective, you must gloss over any scripture that speaks of the finality of Christ’s work, or the continued unconditional work of Jesus Christ in the life of the believer.  If you let them know this, what will be the motivation for sanctification?  For example, where it is written Jesus is the author and perfecter of faith (Heb. 12:2), add the idea ‘if you follow His commands faithfully’.  This will give you the entry to dictate what application points the congregation needs today.

Method:

1. Assume that All of Scripture has application points for believers.  They want something to do, and your job is to make the action points crystal-clear.  If you have difficulty finding application points, expand the amount of scripture you’re covering until you find some

2. Separate verses from their context to emphasize their importance.  James 1:22 reads, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”  This is ready for your application points to the congregation.  Don’t forget that these need to be tangible actions they can follow

3. Other verses don’t seem to be ripe for application, but you can overcome that if they are general.  1 Pet. 1:16 states, “Be holy for I am Holy”.  “Being” isn’t really doing, but you can expound on this verse and explain that this verse means we have to keep clean from sin.  Then, you can give them 5 or 6 ways to do this.  Philippians 2:12 states, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”.  Ignore the fact that this is written to a group (your is in the plural) and move right into private morality.

3. Do NOT preach out of the Old Testament!  Although there are many good rules to follow in the Old Testament, that part of the Bible does not apply to Christians

4. Give your sermon a catchy name like, The seven steps to a better prayer life, or Nine ways to overcome sin.  When people read the title, they know they are going to get some practical instruction.  This empowers them to believe they can do it

5. Remember, people are sheep.  They need to be directed at every turn.  Without the guidelines you give, they will end up outside the sheep pen

©John Dostal 2016

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

Lay your burdens upon Him

Bitterness is an expression of pain.  People who feel bitter have been wounded at some point in their lives.  When they talk about their bitter feelings, it may sound ugly and hateful.

I read a series of threads on this issue, and almost all of them recommended staying away from such people.  But, what are you to do if you have to counsel a person with this issue?

The complexity can be daunting.  Allow them to spew out their bitterness (as long as it’s not directed at you); it can be therapeutic.  Every once in a while, you can sympathize with a statement that you find true.  You can also say, “I can understand how you felt/feel!”.  If something has clearly happened to them that was someone else’s fault, you can acknowledge that, too (this is a little tricky because perceptions are not always reality).  It is a good idea to assume the positive about others instead of the negative, and a counselor can be drawn into the negativity.

After that individual has exhausted their bitter expression, and they appear more relaxed, they might be receptive to the gospel.  It depends who they are.

If they enjoy ‘wallowing’ in the bitter feelings, it may be a source of their identity, meaning and purpose in life.  In truth, all humans have a penchant to enjoy negative feelings.  If this is the case, you won’t make much ground in counseling such people.  All you can do is love them and pray for them.  In my church, I can continue to feed them communion and tell them that Christ is their mercy.

If they seem open to your input, then you have an opportunity to tell them … the gospel.  I think some counselors want such people to alter their behavior without addressing the emotional issues.  This is a mistake.  To give a law, command or demand is to add a wound to a wounded person.  This is the ministry of death.

Instead, the opened person wants to hear that they have not been treated well.  The wound they have is real.  The savior they have is a real savior for real wounds.  In fact, the Greek word in the New Testament for ‘save’ is also ‘heal’.  He alone is the great physician.

Sometimes, he uses human hands, like psychologists or psychiatrists to treat ‘soul wounds’.  At other times, we can bear each other’s wounds and take them in ‘pair prayer’ to the Lord.  It might take a while to overcome, but it is only the Gospel of the Christ wounded for us that will heal those wounded by the world.  Starting over is only possible at the hands of the Re-creator, Jesus Christ.

This is the ministry of reconciliation.

Devotional: Psalm 78

Devotional Psalm 78

This Psalm is a Maskil, which is a Psalm of instruction.  Some Psalms were prayers, others had liturgical applications.  Psalm 78 refers to the importance of instruction by instructing.

In our world, students are taught by rote memorization.  The better you memorize and can regurgitate facts, the better you will do in school.  This model begins in preschool and continues all the way through college.  By contrast, this method is not used past the 6th grade in Great Britain.

In ancient Israel, the Torah, or first five books of Moses, was the foundation for all of life in this world.

The Psalmist states that this is important stuff; that we should listen.  He tells us what he is going to teach starting in verse 2:

2I will open my mouth in a parable;

I will utter dark sayings from of old

Nothing is so intriguing as the unveiling of a mystery.  When I was a kid, we all watched while Geraldo Rivera opened a vault owned by Al Capone on live t.v.  There was nothing inside, but it was great television because of the anticipation from revealing a mystery.

Contrast the revelation of mystery to verse 3:

3things that we have heard and known,

that our fathers have told us.

Doesn’t it seem strange that the speaker in verse 2 is telling us he is going to reveal a mystery, and in verse 3 that we have heard and known it, and it is common knowledge?  Yet, this is the work of Philip as he speaks to the Ethiopian eunuch.  He reveals that Jesus is the Christ through Isaiah’s book.

We, too are called as future ministers of the Gospel to reveal the Christ hidden in the pages of the Old Testament.  We are called to teach as Christ did after his resurrection when he walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself”.

Luther once said that Christ can be found on every page of Scripture.  That may be stretching it a little, but it is the Holy Spirit’s work to reveal Christ in the Old Testament.  Additionally, we have the New Testament, much of which is a commentary on the Old.  It helps us to see Christ as the New Adam.  Christ as Melchizedek.  Christ as a new Moses, leading us out of captivity.

And this is how the Old Testament is used as parable: The account of Moses leading Israel out of Egypt is not merely historical record.  It is a parable of how we have been rescued from the slavery of sin into the promised land through the waters of Baptism by Jesus.

My brothers and sister, we have been called to do this for God’s people.  To find Jesus, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the Old Testament.

And, likewise, we can find the Torah in the New Testament.  Consider Hebrews.  The meaning of this book is greatly deepened by understanding the roles of a prophet, a priest and a king in the Old Testament.

There is an ongoing dialogue between these two testaments.  The thread that runs through both is Jesus Christ.

Begin with Moses.  Begin by reading the accounts of creation, promise to Abraham, exodus and David’s reign.  Read Hebrews simultaneously.  Draw comparisons.  See the contrasts.  Discover what Luther discovered, that there is more gospel in the Old Testament than in the New.  If and when you do, your sermons will fill the listeners with faith and rescue them from rote learning.

Unwilling

Tullian Tchividjian wrote a book called, “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”. I have taken a look at it on Amazon to see if it would be an interesting read. I began to look at the comments to see what others said about this book.

I looked at the lowest scores and saw that my former pastor, Michael Fabarez had critiqued the book. His criticism was a clear example of conflicting theologies. His comments attacked the type of sanctification Tullian proposed. Pastor Fabarez employed scriptural ‘proof texts’ to refute the non-‘biblical’ view of sanctification that Tullian was supporting.

To understand why Pastor Fabarez did this, one needs to explore the foundation of his thinking. He is completely invested in Lordship Salvation theology.

Lordship Salvation theology teaches that from beginning to end, our faith works synergistically with God’s grace in obedience so that we can be Holy Christians. The presupposition is that we have enough good in us to say yes to God by making a decision for Him. Our will has the ability to say yes to God. In fact, the human will is seen as a sort of ‘neutral agent’ or even a positive, sinless agent in relation to God. Thus, the synergy of human will and God’s demands in Scripture continues throughout the Christian life.

The reformers of the 16th century dealt with similar theologies. Luther used the term ‘Semi-Pelagian’ to characterize the Roman Catholics who held this view. Calvinists had to confront Arminians who held to the synergistic model, as well. Lordship Salvation may appear to be evangelical, but this is an illusion.  It is nothing more than a re-hash of the medieval ‘divine spark’ theology of the Roman Catholic Church.

With such a strong faith in human will, it is also a rejection of the biblical concept of total depravity as seen in the letters Paul wrote to the Colossians and Ephesians. What can this mean, ‘And you were dead in your trespasses and sins’ (Eph. 2:1) or, ‘And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses’ (Colossians 2:13). Neither of these verses supports the idea that we have the smallest ability to ‘repent and believe’ by an act of will.

The other significant issue is that of sanctification. This is where Lordship Salvation proponents really dig in their heels. Sanctification is a matter of total surrender and obedience to the commands in Scripture. The Reformed call these ‘imperatives’. These imperatives fit into a model of biblical interpretation.

Lordship Salvation adherents interpret their Bibles more than literally, however, they interpret their Bibles literalistic-ally. That is, everything, even poetry, analogies, metaphors and parables are bent into shapes they were never meant to hold. Anything that is not a command or directive is seen as secondary to the life of the believer.

Scripture is used aggressively within the church and against those outside of Lordship Salvation. Instead of examining the hermeneutics one uses, adherents simply assert, “the Bible says it”. Context, original purpose, audience, and the overall narrative of Scripture are minimized for the argument one makes from a single verse.

And, the overall narrative is misunderstood, as well. It is a narrative of Law as lord. It is important to remember that there was a 400+ year span between Abraham (faithful) and Moses (thus, the giving of the Law) when faithful people had no Law.

It is also lost in the discussion that Christ perfectly fulfilled the Law for you. Instead, the emphasis is on the ability one has to repent, believe, and obey. In short, Lordship Salvation is an invitation to centering your belief on … yourself. The reformers called it, ‘incurvitas en se’, or ‘being curved in on oneself’. It is the perfect theology for the self-centered people of our present-day culture. You are still in control. No need to be crucified and resurrected, just dusted off and shined up a little. No need for Jesus, just a strict moral adherence which will make you right as rain. The ultimate goal is the binding of the will to God’s commands.

The Law is not used properly in such a hermeneutic. Instead of being a mirror by which one sees his/her own sin, the Law is tailored and pacified into achievable goals to live by, instead of the raging lion that reveals our total sinfulness.

Contrary to Lordship Salvation’s foundational belief about the human will, the will is neither neutral nor good. Jesus says so in Matthew 23:37 and in John 5:40. Contextually, the latter verse is addressed to the ‘religious’ people of Jesus’ day (read Pharisees) who “… search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life …” However, they missed the point, “… and it is these that bear witness of me” (emphasis mine).

To believe that the will is somehow entirely sanctified after one repents and believes is to deny the reality of sinfulness. It is to say that when we sin, it is not sin, but just a mistake.

It is no wonder Pastor Fabarez must aggressively attack Pastor Tchividjian’s book. He isn’t just fighting for his ideas, he’s fighting to keep the Old Man (read ‘Old Adam’) in control. He’s fighting to keep the Old Adam alive. He’s fighting to keep the Holy Spirit’s work of magnifying Christ out of his church. He’s fighting to continue being god, as are all those who hold to Lordship Salvation.

rung out

Jacob's Ladder, sculpture by Eddy Gabriel for ...

Jacob’s Ladder, sculpture by Eddy Gabriel for Tempus Arti, LAnden, Belgium, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone who believes in God has a ladder theology.  Christianity utilitzes various ladders that have been developed over the centuries.  These emerged (either consciously or unconsciously) from a narrative in Genesis 28:

10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He [e]came to [f]a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it [g]under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood [h]above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your [i]descendants. 14 Your [j]descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will [k]spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your [l]descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have [m]promised you.”   (emphasis mine)

The idea that we can climb up to heaven to see God in all His glory is very attractive.  It has so enveloped some people that they actually gave up their “normal lives” to live in communes of one sort or another.  This was so they could pursue direct, unencumbered communion with the Almighty.  Adherents to this purpose developed what was called the “monk’s ladder” (From Guigo II, Scala Claustralium in Latin).  It included four rungs: 1. reading Scripture, 2. Meditating on the Scripture to find the hidden meaning (seeing all scripture as analogy; an error), 3. Prayer as response, and 4. Quiet contemplative living.

Others have developed ladders based not in a personal encounter with the Almighty, but on the personal effort of satisfying God’s moral demands.  Their ladder is a morality that was derived from Scripture and other sources, including socio-cultural norms.  Scripture is useful for becoming more like God.

Finally, the last group has developed a ladder that satisfies the mind and fills in the gaps of understanding that Scripture presents.  These people have developed a ladder based on speculation.  Disatisfied with the tensions of Scripture, they attempt to resolve these tensions through logical reasoning.  For the most part, they, like the other mentioned earlier are recipients of Platonic thought.  Their error is that they don’t take God at His word, but need to justify God’s words.  They climb the ladder of an intellectual form of Christianity that doesn’t need to wrestle with the self.  Instead of facing the crucifixion, they narrowly avoid it by rationalism.

All of these have inherited the disease of the tower builders in Genesis 11.  We all believe that we can reach God(hood) if we have the right method.  Only one problem: it’s idolatry of the self.

Into Babel, God brought the judgment of dividing people based on language.  Into our idolatry, he brings the curse of death.  And , in fact, these ladders are a proof that we are dead.  We need someone to descend into our burial hole to rescue us from the death we are in.

That person has already come.  His name is Jesus, and He has come to crucify our idolatry and utterly demolish our ladders.  In fact, He has come to replace these ladders with the original one promise from Genesis 28.  A very small reference in John chapter 1 will make this clear.  It is so brief that you have probably read over it:

51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”  Jesus, alone, is the Ladder who has come out of heaven and brought heaven down to earth.

Amen

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