Monday, November 30, 2009

The Gospel Is the Power of God for Sanctification

As Olivia and I have been deciding upon which church congregation to call our family and home here in Richmond, we've been met with a bit of a strange phenomenon as we've worshiped in the Presbyterian churches here (West End, Stony Point, and City Church): Every week's sermon dwells largely on a message of the complete sufficiency of Jesus' death and resurrection to atone for our sins and bring us new life, and the freedom of forgiveness and sonship we find in him. In like fashion we are also called to leave behind our vain idols and our self-made attempts at righteousness to embrace alone this Savior. It's not that in other churches the gospel was merely something that "got you saved," and then you got busy doing other stuff for God. The other churches were really good at helping wandering sheep learn what a sanctified life looks like and how to practically live a life transformed by the Holy Spirit.

At any rate, this apparent dichotomy--or, perhaps more accurately, this change in emphasis--has caused Olivia and me some consternation over how someone really grows as a disciple who learns from Christ and submits his whole life to the Lord's reign. But whatever steps and teaching might be necessary to guide us in putting off the old Adam and putting on the new, and knowledgeably walking in fear-of-the-Lord, the wind in our sails to move us down the path of discipleship is clear. "The gospel," says the apostle Paul, "is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). Paul doesn't say this Good News is just the power of God for justification; it's the power for all of salvation--our freedom from God's wrath over sin (justification), our freedom from shame and for sonship (adoption), and our freedom from the reign of sin in our lives so that we become more truly human and alive to God (sanctification).

I mention this because Confessing Evangelical, a British Lutheran blogger, has put up a wonderful post about love for Christ, not the law's demands, being the power to change us. He quotes from a well-worn book among Lutheran pastors, Bo Giertz's The Hammer of God. Please take the time to read it; it's excellent.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Words of Thanks / The World Needs Mentors

With that said (see my previous post), I want to extend a word of heartfelt gratitude to those men who have graciously come alongside me at points in my Christian walk and have shown me, through the examples of their lives, through prayer, through God's Word, through counsel, and through excisive, challenging questions what it looks like to be a man who is also a disciple of Jesus Christ.* So if by chance you're reading this, know that I'm thinking of you with great fondness, thanks, love, and appreciation:

Greg King
Bryan Kulczycki
Lee Cogan
Tom Stark
Steve Van Sloten
Stephen Herwaldt
Men's small group at URC: Scott Lawton, Matt Herwaldt, Jon Ehrlich
Bros on STINT, especially Dan Tietz and Lucas King
Tom Wangler
John Spina
Phil Stowers
Brad Schreiner

Many of these are men older than me who in some way took me under their wing for a time and showed me the ropes of the Christian life. I really think that what young men need throughout their youth, their adolescent years, and into adulthood is the courageous care of older men. We need men who are willing to give their time, counsel, and prayers. We need men who will listen. We need men who will be mentors who bring us alongside them and share their lives. We need men who are bold enough to challenge us in the errors of our ways, yet who are able to do so with tenderness and compassion. We need men who, like Paul, can say, "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Likewise the world needs women who will mentor the younger generations, who will "train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God" (Titus 2:4-5).

Thank you to all the men and women who care enough.
*This is not exhaustive, and if you feel left out, please forgive me!


I remember hearing someone lament a while back that in present-day America, we no longer have any sort of rite by which a boy is declared a man (or, similarly perhaps, by which a girl becomes a woman). Perhaps this lack of affirmation or guidance has led many youth to find "manhood" in sexual exploits or gangs. In others it might be manifested in the continuation of adolescence well into one's twenties: still living at home, watching sports and movies all the time, playing video games, failure to hold a steady job; or wanting your whole life to look like some rapper's exploits on MTV.

A few themes have stuck out to me about what real maturity or adulthood is made of. These are things I've mostly learned myself as I've grown to my nearly twenty-eight years of age. Others I've learned from spending forty hours per week with teenagers who think they're mature and wise but are often far from it. So what makes an adult?

1. The willingness to do whatever is necessary right now, whether you like it or not. Getting up at 5:30 A.M. is not fun. Neither is cleaning the house or foregoing a television show for the sake of being prepared for the next day at school. It also might be inconvenient to have to drop everything and make an important phone call to the bank. But perhaps the biggest thing I've learned about being an adult is that when something's important and needs to get done, you just do it. No one is going to be watching your back, urging you, "Did you pay that bill today?" and no one is going to be there to clean up your messes. This is where the responsibility rubber meets the road.

2. The ability to think and plan long-range instead of seeking immediate gratification. It's common to view teenagers as reckless kids who think they cannot die; and perhaps that's true. But what is pretty evident to me is that many teens have little or no long-range vision for what they wish to do in life and how their decisions today will influence their futures. How many people would honestly pursue casual sexual relationships outside of marriage if they thought about what life would be like with an STD or with a child? How many kids goof off in school only to find that they can't get into college and can't get a job with a salary or benefits? How many would spend hundreds of dollars per month on clothing, food, or hairstyles instead of paying off debts, saving it, or investing it? We live seventy, eighty, or ninety years, and having to struggle for decades because of what seemed like a good idea for a moment is no wise way.

3. Finding internal pleasure and pride from long-term, patient achievement in the face of obstacles. In a culture that encourages immediacy in nearly all things (microwave ovens, high-speed Internet, "in-depth news coverage" that is little more than a headline with a few sound bites) it's nearly impossible for some people to imagine doing something that takes a long time. Television shows have shortened our attention span so that family problems are neatly resolved within the space of 23 minutes of programming. Everything is quick, and it had better be enjoyable right now (#2). This comes back to bite me every day in class when I hear students complain "This reading/writing/whatever is too much work!" or the teacher's worst nightmare, "When am I ever going to need to know this? I'm not going to be a scientist!" I love the challenge of learning. It sucks to feel like a failure or less than perfect in the middle of things--be it writing a paper for a class I'm taking, working out an issue with my wife, training for an 8k race, or figuring out how to improve my teaching--but knowing that I've accomplished something challenging provides a source of satisfaction. Many of my students give up when an assignment poses difficulties for them, or they put forth little effort so that it won't reflect poorly on their self-image when they fail. But not only are they missing out on a chance for pride and joy; they're also failing to develop the persistence and patient endurance that are necessary for the obstacles in life that will inevitably come: relational strains, arguments, poor working conditions or unemployment, financial duress, etc.

4. Acknowledging that you are not the center of the world, and that your well-being really demands that you seek the welfare and interests of others. Jean Piaget and other cognitive psychologists have long noted that greater awareness of other people and elements in the world is a factor that develops as one ages. This is only natural. But there's another type of awareness that demands accountability, respect, compassion, and love. Some people remain totally self-seeking, fixed on their own interests alone and indifferent or even callous toward others; others reach out but remain myopic in their worldview. Neither allows real maturity. The sooner we recognize that we really do depend on and benefit from others for life and happiness--others whom our words and actions can seriously grieve and injure--the sooner we can move on toward a healthy and whole life. I think this is why marriage and children really sober a person and knock him out of any delusion of independence. I've already become keenly aware of how little others factored into my decision making until I began dating Olivia. Now that we're married, that has been amped up several degrees. Everything I do and say affects her; we're "one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). I cannot even imagine what this will be like if and when we are blessed with children.

St. Paul said that when he became a man, he left behind his childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11). What else do you think makes for an adult? What are other "childish ways" to grow out of?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Capital Punishment

In just a few minutes, John Allen Muhammad, one of the two "D.C. Snipers" from the 2002 Virginia-Maryland killing spree, will be put to death by lethal injection. His ten-victim murder rampage was the hot topic at lunch today. One of the killing was just fifteen minutes north of Richmond, in Ashland, Virginia; and the killings ran up and down the I-95 corridor. My coworkers recalled how everyone was gripped with fear, refusing even to go out to get gasoline.

It's an eerie, unsettling thing for me to think about actually taking someone's life and what is involved in the whole process. Of course I have to wonder, Is taking Muhammad's life really the best way to make up for his crime? God perplexes me. Would not the One who creates life and upholds it value rather that the criminal live his life in a way that gives life back to those whom he hurt? This is, after all, the ethic of Zaccheus' repentance, and that of Paul as well (Luke 19:8; Ephesians 4:28). But what can a man give in return for ten lives--ten sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers?

Even today I think about what a life really is. This weekend two boys, one of whom was a student at my high school, died from injuries sustained in a house fire. Ashton Black and Aaron Brown were people with names, with histories, with stories. They were people looking for love and who loved others as well. Their loss leaves a real hole. Yesterday I saw it reduce some of the most hard-nosed kids to tears.

Nonetheless, the Lord of Life has apparently decreed that when a life is lost at another's hands, the only fitting recourse is the death of the murderer. When God blessed Noah and his kin and reissued the "creation mandate" after the Flood (in which God himself wiped out men's lives as a consequence for their wickedness), God told Noah this:

"And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
"Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man." (Genesis 9:5-6)

God made mankind in his image, and anyone who willfully kills another commits a hate crime against God himself--a crime worthy of death. This was no civil law that was to be embodied for a passing time in the Torah. This was God's establishment of the creation order, of the rules by which man would live in this new post-Fall, post-Flood world. Some say that with this fiat, God established the State--official government--as one of his governing graces in his "left-hand" kingdom. And that seems to hold in the era of the Gospel as well. In Romans 13 Paul says that Christians must submit to all governing authorities, for they have been appointed by God.
"Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." (Romans 13:2-4, emphases mine)

So when governing authorities, be they the Commonwealth of Virginia or, more likely, the State of Texas put a convicted killer to death, they're doing exactly what God has appointed them to do. But that's not to say that God condones zealous vigilantism. I can only imagine that the right spirit is a purposeful, tempered, somber and sorrowful one when a government must put a man to death.

Why is this God's choice? I don't know. Something about this makes God difficult for me. If he would at least wipe out all murderers and evildoers this way cart blanche, then perhaps I would then feel a bit more at rest knowing that all murderers and terrors are being snuffed out. But this life isn't that way. The tension of the psalmists' cries is the very tension of our own lives: "O God, why are you waiting so long to set things right? Your people are harrassed and put to death while the wicked get off Scott-free!" But he doesn't. And I know that he desires to uphold, preserve, and promote life in all its wholeness and fullness. I guess that's a tension I can only rest with for now until its secrets will be revealed in Glory.

Then again, maybe God has instituted capital punishment, a life for a life, precisely because he does value life. One life is being put down so that many others will be spared. As not only citizens of heaven but also citizens of the earth, removing a murderer really is a necessary act of love for our neighbors and fellowmen. (I believe this was the logic of the murder attempt on Adolf Hitler linked to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church.) And we all ought to be glad that's the way God works. As Caiaphas prophesied on that fateful day in A.D. 30, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50). Only on the day that criminal was put to death, it wasn't for sins he had committed, nor was it to save him from killing others. When Jesus was sentenced to death and nailed to a tree, he was dying for our sins; it was to save us from killing ourselves in this life and then to save us from being killed by God after that. And because "in our place condemned he stood," we are now free men. Thank God for capital punishment.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Gratitude vs. Payback

Halfmom asked me, in response to my post "What Grace is NOT," how I would explain the difference between gratitude to God and paying him back for his grace in our lives. There seems to be a lot of confusion over this, because some people's responses seemed to indicate that I was disavowing that the Christian life is one of reciprocal fellowship or obedience. Of course I am not saying this. What I am saying is that God does not seek "payback" for saving us.

Suppose you're ten years old, and your parents just bought you a shiny, brand new bicycle. You're absolutely in love with this bike; it's super cool, you know, black with some sweet flame decals. Of course you don't have $179 to pay them back. But they never expected that anyway. They also wouldn't say to you, "Hey, kid, we got you that bike you wanted. Now you'd better get busy taking out the trash and cleaning your room for us!" That's ludicrous. (Of course, such a child will often see that his parents love and value him and consequently wish to do his chores more wholeheartedly and willingly than before.)

What, then, do loving parents desire? They want their child to put that bicycle to use and enjoy this awesome gift. The way the child can thank his parents and show appreciation for that bicycle is none other than by riding it and enjoying it to the max. I assume the biggest letdown for parents is when, just two weeks after Christmas or a birthday, their children are tired of their new toys and want to move on to something else. In the same way, God wants us to keep returning to the fountain of his grace (1 John 1:9). He wants us to see and believe the freeness with which we're loved and to enjoy the relief of our total forgiveness. "How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me?" asks the psalmist in Psalm 116:3. The answer: "I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD." The way to honor God's grace is to depend upon it more and more in our life. And that means repenting of all our own efforts to do things our own way and to receive from him more and more. It's a prideless thing.

Of course, with that gift of the bicycle comes the parent's responsible guidance for how to use the bicycle: Don't ride it in the street, don't ride after dark, stay within ten blocks of home, etc. But even staying in those rules is their wise way of letting us enjoy it more freely and safely. (Think: We can actually enjoy bicycling more if we know we can ride flat-out without being in danger of cars or trucks.) In our own "wisdom" we may doubt or twist those rules. We think we know better, and our curiosity and independence prompts us to push the boundaries to see what would happen if we did, in fact, ride in the street. Would it be a rush, a thrill? So even though we possess a new kind of law, the "law of the Spirit" which actually corresponds to our life of freedom and blessing and enjoyment, we can twist it into sinful responses.

This is hardly an antinomian life. The Heidelberg Catechism, with its guilt-grace-gratitude framework, introduces the Ten Commandments as the way to exemplify a life thankful for God's gracious salvation. And that's how it works, too, in the New Testament; the apostolic imperatives are always founded upon who the believer is on account of what God has already done in making him a new creation. (Yes, the law is for lawbreakers, to silence them and fell their pride, but the law also functions in a new way for those who are redeemed and forgiven in Christ.) But as we trust our Father's goodness, his statutes for our life bring his blessings to us, and we are drawn deeper into our relationship with him. We thus feel more sure of his mercy and more free to come to him in need. Free grace does not undo the law, but rather brings out its real purpose in our lives: drawing men to God, who give glory to their Maker and Savior by honoring, trusting in, and delighting in him.

I hope this clears up what a life of gratitude looks like, one in which reciprocal love is in view but "payback" is not.