Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Spirit of the Reformation

Happy Reformation Day!

As always for me, today is sort of a special day. It's not just that as a child I loved Halloween and all its spookiness. I was raised in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, and October 31 commemorates the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, thereby sparking what would become the Protestant Reformation.

Among the concerns of Luther and other reformers was the issue of justification, that is, on what basis we are set right with God and declared innocent of our sins. Taking St. Paul's testimony in Ephesians 2:8-9 to heart, the reformers' answer was this:

Sola gratia (by grace alone)
Sola fide (through faith alone)
Solus Christus (on the basis of Christ alone)
Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone)

Nearly five centuries later, the debate over justification still continues--only this time within the Protestant churches themselves. Are we justified though faith alone apart from works, or are we justified on account of the works produced by our faith? The latter has always been Rome's position, not Augsburg's or Geneva's. But even that is beginning to change. I think the debate itself is somewhat beneficial for the church, because it always forces us to go back to the God-breathed Scriptures as our ultimate authority for faith and practice, and not any church traditions, confessions, or creeds (sola scriptura). It is times of heresy, heterodoxy, or division which often enable the church to become more pure, more convicted, and more unified in her doctrine as she is forced to reckon with the whole of Scripture and not simple proof-texting. These times also are a proving ground for how well church leaders and laity of differing traditions and convictions can continue to love one another and promote brotherly unity while seeking fidelity to their Head alone, Jesus Christ.

In the end, when the dust settles and heads clear, I think that we'll have a fuller picture of God's covenantal relationships with mankind in history, his saving work in Jesus Christ, the nature of the church, the role of the sacraments, and the relationship between justification and sanctification in our union with Christ. And while the divisiveness is bitter for now, we must pray that God will be glorified by the truth and that the church will be strengthened and unified from it. Just as Jan Hus and Martin Luther and others never sought to split the church, but rather to correct her according to God's Word (while nevertheless standing firm in their convictions even in the face of death), so too must we do so today. That is the true spirit of the Reformation.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Grace Is NOT

Last night as I was waiting for our Bible Study Fellowship meeting to begin, I thumbed through the hymnal sitting on the chair next to me. I landed upon a hymn titled, "I Gave My Life for Thee."

I gave My life for thee, My precious blood I shed,
That thou might ransomed be, and raised up from the dead
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?
I gave, I gave My life for thee, what hast thou given for Me?

So it goes for three more verses.

Honestly, I don't think this hymn does Jesus much honor. God's grace--any grace for that matter--is not a quid pro quo, tit-for-tat transaction. Salvation is not an "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" affair. Now it's one thing to say that we ought to live grateful lives in thanks to Christ for his salvation. It's also true that by being transplanted into his kingdom we are called to live as strangers here, citizens of heaven longing for our future dwelling with God. But this hymn has a distinct air of needing to give something back to Christ for his humbling kenosis and death on our behalf.

Maybe I shouldn't be so harsh; after all, even some of the best hymns goof this up: "Oh, to grace how great a debtor / Daily I’m constrained to be!" ("Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing"). When God graciously and freely wipes away our sins, we're not debtors. We're free. Yes, the Bible speaks of our proper response as that of a volitional bondservant, but that doesn't mean an indentured servant. Indentured servants work for a fixed time to pay off a debt owed to their benefactor. But we can never pay back God for the inexhaustible riches of his love. Anyone who thinks he can do so has no idea of this "love that surpasses all understanding" (Ephesians 3:14-21). Such a person doesn't understand this love because he doesn't understand how tremendous was its cost. We're disconnected from the sufferings of God in the cross.*

We can't grasp grace, partly because we don't love this freely in our own lives nor experience it much, and partly because we don't understand (or accept) that God's deliverance was completely unconditional. No one in this created, contingent world makes choices as blatantly free as God. But the fact remains that "when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but because of his mercy" (Titus 3:4-5). God's grace is too radical to be anything other than free. We never put him in our debt to begin with, and we don't live a life in debt, either. God's grace in our lives is free because he simply loves us and chose to do so.

*This was, in part, the problem faced by the Judaizers and the Galatians influenced by them. Despite clearly having had the crucified Christ portrayed to them, they still thought that their salvation, begun by grace, now had to result in some sort of Jewified lifestyle (Galatians 3:1-3).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Christ Decides Our Doubt

Today during Communion we sung an old song by William Cowper called "Decide This Doubt for Me." (Cowper -- pronounced "cooper" -- had a life racked with depression.) The lyrics are about a man who feels lukewarm toward God, wishing to feel great emotion--whether contrition over his sin or joy over God's grace and abiding love--but feels nothing. So he feels confused, perplexed, in pain.

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

I hear but seem to hear in vain;
Insensible as steel,
Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, 'tis only pain
To find I cannot feel,
To find I cannot feel.

. . .

Oh, make this heart rejoice or ache;
Decide this doubt for me.
Decide this doubt for me.
And if it be not broken, break,
And heal it if it be,
Oh, heal it if it be.

This week I have been studying the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (Gospel of John, chapter 4). Jesus speaks of the living water he gives, a spring of water that overflows to satisfy our deepest needs and desires. I've read this story so many times it has become cliche. Of course Jesus provides this water, I thought to myself. But I began to feel disturbed inside over this yesterday morning. I knew so little of what Jesus was saying, as if I had never drunk these waters for myself, even though I know I have. But that's the problem--what does it mean for me to taste of his waters today, to drink the "good wine" he makes out of earthly water?

There I sat in my seat with a little plastic cup of wine in my hand and the Cowper hymn entering my ears from the atmosphere. Right as I put the cup to my lips and took in the wine, I heard the prayer: "Decide this doubt for me." And I knew right then that Jesus had indeed done so. Whether or not I had had any recent experience of or thirst for Christ's "living water" didn't matter. I could discount any emotions or feelings, or lack thereof, because in that cup I knew Christ had died for me. As surely as I drank that wine, so surely was my Savior with me, and the blood of his death was present and active for me to give me life by God's sure promise. But I don't mean this in any objective, I-memorized-the-Heidelberg-Catechism-Lord's-Day-28* sort of way. I knew it in my soul. I can't explain it or really put my finger on it, but I felt a deep peace in that moment: a peace that came from resting in the reality and surety of Christ's efficacious, atoning death and the presence of Christ with me and for me at that moment. In the words of the old rites, Communion truly remains a mysterious participation in Christ's blood and a fellowship with our Savior himself (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). I guess I had tasted his "good wine" after all!
*You can read it here.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Growing Pains

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.a]"

4"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"

5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." (John 3:1-8)

For years I thought Nicodemus simply mistook Jesus for speaking of a literal rebirth. Sure enough, Jesus did say cryptic things like, "You need to eat my flesh and drink my blood." (See John 6:51-56.) How could he not expect people to misunderstand him? But Nicodemus was no idiot; of course he knew no one could climb back in the womb. Jesus knew this too.* Was Nico asking something different? Was he instead acknowledging the great difficulty of a grown man changing his ways? Perhaps this is implied when he asks not, "How can a person be born a second time?" but rather, "How can a [grown] man be born when he is old?"

This made me think: If we're reborn by the Spirit into the new creation** and the kingdom of God, then that means we must, like little babes, relearn how to live. As babies acquire knowledge which shapes their worldview, values, and loves, so too must all who trust in Christ. As Switchfoot sang, there's "a new way to be human" which every Christian must learn. And that's tough, because it means we never really knew how to live in the first place. Being "born of water" means cleansing out the old self, washing away its dirt, even burial in a death-dealing flood. The entire you, at your very core, needs to be killed and reborn. And being born into a life of the Spirit, not of the flesh, means learning wisdom and life and worship according to God's terms, not our own natural ways to which we've grown accustomed. Jesus' resurrection by the Spirit brought about a "new world order" which we must learn to live by.

When I began to get serious about my relationship with Olivia, especially now that we're married, I realized how much of my old ways had to go. I had no idea what measure of independence I lived in until I had to start giving it up to consider her needs as well! Sometimes I don't want to change. Learning new ways is hard. It betrays our comfort and confidence, humbles us when we think we are wise, and crosses the grain of our natural selfishness. Maybe that's why Jesus said we had to receive the kingdom like little children, not like grown adults. And maybe that's why so few, as Nicodemus confessed, give serious attention to following Jesus. I think a lot of professing Christians are like a number of my students. They give little to no effort to their schoolwork because at least that way (in their self-defending logic) when they receive a poor grade, it's because they didn't try, not because they tried and were found wanting. Following Jesus does that to us: it exposes us as failing sinners in need of rescue and grace. (See John 3:19-21.)

But we are not left hopeless. This new birth is "from above" according to God's free will and grace (John 3:8). For those of us willing to admit our need, God's grace toward us in Christ exceeds our sinfulness, and there is mercy to cover every mar (Romans 5:20-21; 1 John 1:5-10). Jesus took the final exam for us and passed with an A+++++. Neither are we left alone. In our baptismal calling to repent and learn a new life we are given Christ's own Spirit, who himself cleanses out our old life and fits us for life in God's kingdom. We have dwelling within us the very power which raised our Lord from the dead, animating and renewing us as well. For us who believe, the power of the old self has already been broken, and we're no longer in slavery to sin (Romans 6:1-14). Will we submit to Christ the Lord and allow that power to work within us to teach us how to live, to teach us true wisdom, and to make us not just washed up, nice people, but entirely new people?


*We see here that this rebirth of which Jesus speaks is a human impossibility. He meant no less. It had to be a work of God. No human conceives himself in the womb, develops himself, or initiates his birth by his own actions and decisions.

**Notice that Jesus water-and-Spirit talk, while predominantly a reference to Ezekiel 36:25-27, echoes the creation account in which "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. . . . And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:1, 2). Jesus is speaking of a new creation that God's Spirit brings about and in which believers participate.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Big Answer to Prayer

"They will tell of the power of your awesome works,
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
They will celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness."
(Psalm 145:6-7)

In this spirit I want to make public a big answer to prayer for which my wife Olivia and I are really thankful.

Since moving to Richmond Olivia had not been able to find a full-time teaching job. She has begun working part-time at a local Christian preschool--a job which she enjoys a lot. But that wasn't elementary school teaching, what she really wants to do. Two months of job searching yielded no real fruit. But then a week ago she had interviewed for and was offered two jobs: (1) The first was a special education aide job for thirty hours per week all year long in Henrico County. The hourly pay wasn't stupendous, and Olivia wouldn't really be teaching per se, but it would be a consistent paycheck all year long. (2) The second was a two-week-long substitute teaching job for a friend of ours in Hanover County. This job was high paying daily and offered the possibility of find more work later in the year, but it was only two weeks' worth of guaranteed work. It would also allow Olivia to actually teach.

For us it seemed like a really difficult choice. Olivia had to make a decision by the next morning (Tuesday, Oct. 6). We were pretty stressed over it, but we knew we really needed to be thanking God for even having a stressful choice between two jobs in the first place! She had gone from total unemployment to a fun part-time job and two viable job offers in just a few weeks.

As we talked and prayed late into the night last Monday, what became increasingly clear to me was not that we should ask God for something to tip the scales in favor of one job over the other. Rather, we needed to pray in the knowledge that no job is a "guarantee," and having a stable budget is not what brings us security (Luke 12:1-34). God our Father is our sovereign provider, not any job or school. We decided to scrap praying for clarity regarding the job choice and rather for greater trust in God to be with us and to uphold us, for faith in and dependence upon him each day and week for our vitality. We asked God also that no matter which job we chose, that Olivia would work wholeheartedly and that I would support her as best as I can.

As we prayed this--which wasn't easy, but it's what we needed and what honored God the most--it also seemed clearer to me that God has given us our work as a vocation to enjoy. I wanted Olivia to have the freedom to do what she thrives at, which in this case we thought would be the long-term sub job. Plus taking this two-week job would both allow and demand that God open more doors for future jobs, rather than leaving us in a "secure" but inflexible position. So in the end this is what we decided upon.

On Tuesday morning Olivia accepted that job and then had another interview for a second long-term sub job in Hanover County: and this time a three-month-long one. She got offered that job, too! This is a huge gift from God, a big boost to our income, and a relieving confirmation to Olivia that she is a good teacher. God met our prayers and honored our desire to put trust in him to lead us through the dark instead of wanting to have all our circumstances organized and clear.

Thanks be to God for his lovingkindness toward us and his bereket in our lives!*

Our fascination with the will of God often betrays our lack of trust in God's promises and provision. We don't just want his word that he will be with us; we want him to show us the end from the beginning and prove to us that he can be trusted.

. . . We must renounce our sinful desire to know the future and be in control. We are not gods. We walk by faith, not by sight. We risk because God does not risk. We walk into the future in God-glorifying confidence, not because the future is known to us but because it is known to God. And that's all we need to know.

~ Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church,
East Lansing, Michigan

*Bereket is one of my favorite words. It's Turkish for "blessing," "fullness," or "abundance."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How To Avoid Jesus

"[T]he way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin."

~ Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood

Monday, October 5, 2009

Faith as a Gift

Some of you may have noticed in my previous post that I said faith itself--God opening our "clenched fist" to receive His gift--is itself a gift from God. This sounds crazy and controversial, because in the Bible we are clearly held accountable for disbelief. Here are a few straightforward examples from the Fourth Gospel.

"Whoever believes in him [Jesus the Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:18)

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)

"I [Jesus] told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24)

However, there is good evidence to believe that Scripture also teaches that faith itself is a work of God in a person, a gracious gift.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). What is the antecedent of "this" in verse 8? Well, there is only one noun in the preceding clause: faith. One way of rendering this passage is "and this faith through which you are saved is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

In the immediate context, Paul is teaching the Ephesians (Laodiceans?) how God, because of his great love and mercy, gave them life in Christ when they were spiritually dead toward God. Their salvation was a gracious work of God, not the result of their own efforts. But, as the ESV renders, this whole salvation-through-faith is a gift of God: "and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God . . ." Those who are spiritually dead and by nature children of wrath (2:3-5) do not exercise trust in God, love for him, and repentance. This salvation-through-faith is a gift of God.

"For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29). Paul says--and takes for granted that the Philippians already knew this--that "it has been granted to you [by God] that . . . you should . . . believe in him." The idea of a grant is that of a gift given to someone. This faith is a gift from God.

"Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:" (2 Peter 1:1). "Faith" here is not "the faith," the apostolic doctrinal deposit. It is trust in God's saving work through Jesus the Messiah, and the recipients of this letter, like Peter and the apostles, had also obtained such a faith. Notice that this faith is (a) received from without, not conjured up from within; and (b) it is procured solely through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Faith itself seems to be a gift obtained by Christ for his people through his atoning work on the cross.

"And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Here we see that not only faith, but also repentance is a gift from God. Paul says that Timothy ought to be gentle, and not quarrelsome, with his opponents because God might graciously give ("grant") them repentance and escape from Satan's snares.

"When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, 'So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life' " (Acts 11:18). Here again, repentance is a gift granted by God.

This is the reality of the grace of God, expressed so boldly in the words of John Owen: "To suppose that whatever God requireth of us we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect." Even the faith which God requires of us for justification and life is a gift from his gracious hand. The apostle Paul knew this, that the whole of his salvation was of grace, and not just the offering to him of Christ. Its reality burned in his heart, and it turned his life into a life of gratitude.

"For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Corinthians 4:7 NIV). Everything we have is a gift received from without, coming down from heaven (James 1:17). On this basis, Paul admonishes the Corinthians, who boasted of their spiritual superiority over others, because even their very own Christian spirituality itself was an undeserved blessing.

Later in this same letter, Paul expresses that only by God's grace is he a faithful apostle: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul knew that he didn't deserve to be a saved sinner who knew and cherished (believed in) Jesus; but he was such "by the grace of God." And this same grace is what turned him into the bold missionary he had become.

I know I haven't addressed how such a God-given faith can be required of us, nor how faith is still our own faith and an act of our own will and volition. These are tricky questions, but I believe the Bible gives an answer to both of them. But I hope you see that the very fact that you ever "made a decision for Christ" or "accepted Jesus as your Savior" or "committed yourself to Jesus as Lord" is itself a work of God's goodness and love in your life when you were dead in sin and alienated from him. It was God's arms reaching out to embrace you long before you ever reached out to embrace him. And because of such--because salvation rests not on the strength of your decisions and commitments but on the grace and saving purposes of God--you can rest secure in his love.