Thursday, November 24, 2011

No Thanksgiving without Grace

Today is Thanksgiving Day, a day where we are officially (in the words of institution by President Lincoln in 1863) to "set apart and observe the last Thursday of November . . . as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" for all his gifts in life. Lincoln rightly recognized that we are to be thankful to God for his grace--his unmerited kindness and favor toward us as sinners: "While dealing with us in anger for our sins, [God] hath nevertheless remembered mercy" (likely an allusion to Habbakuk 3:2).
Without grace, there is no thanksgiving. If our world were governed by an entirely quid pro quo system, tit-for-tat, where all was earned as payment for duty or obligation, we would have no reason to say "thank you" to anyone. All would be our just deserts. It is only when someone does something good for us that we really don't deserve, that we can say "thank you." (See Romans 4.)
At its very core, gratitude is rooted in grace. Our English "gratitude" and the Italian grazi ("thank you") come from the Latin gratias ("grace"). God has been good to preserve a fundamental, if flawed and feeble, recognition of this throughout the world. No matter where you may travel, sinful people are still bearing the image of their Creator, doing good to others and (sometimes) receiving replies of "thank you."
Paul's letter to the Colossian church demonstrates that among the chief Christian virtues is thankfulness. "We always thank God . . . when we pray for you" (1:3). "May you be strengthened with all power . . . , giving thanks to the Father" (1:12). We are to live our lives rooted in Christ Jesus, "abounding in thanksgiving" (2:7). "As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. . . . And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, . . . with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (3:13, 15-17).
We are to live "with thankfulness [charis] in our hearts to God." Charis is the Greek word used throughout the New Testament to refer to grace, God's love for sinners on account of Christ. We live with grace in our hearts. And the outflow of this is gratitude. Even the adjective "thankful" in verse 15 is eucharistos. We can be thankful only because we recognize God's grace and favor.
Without the compassionate, forgiving love of God rooted in his Son and poured out through his Spirit (Romans 5:5), we would live in a cold world of duty and wages. And if this were God's core modus operandi, our chief attitude should be one of fear, "for all have sinned," and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 3:23; 6:23). But we rather live in a world of a giving and forgiving God. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (6:23).
So don't forget that the food on your table today and the family or friends you're with are gifts. You didn't deserve them, you didn't earn them. The day off of work is a gift--and you should celebrate it with enjoyment and rest. And above all, today should be for looking to Jesus Christ on the cross, the very demonstration of God's goodness and grace toward us in this life and the next.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Strive To Enter Rest

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a strange and powerful thing, full of perplexing paradoxes. It declares that the righteous God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). The message that all our sins are forgiven in superabounding grace--past, present, and future--doesn't turn people into licentious sinners, but rather into loving, holy saints (Romans 5:20-6:23; Titus 2:11-14). And it calls us to work hard and exert effort in order to rest (Hebrews 4:11).
"So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience [as Israel in the wilderness]" (Hebrews 4:9-11).
Strive to enter that rest. It's so weird. Jesus' saving work is, in one sense, finished (John 19:30). "After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3). And if we share in Christ through faith, we too are assured of our final rest in the heavenly Zion (4:3). But the weird paradox is that for precisely this reason, we are to exert continual effort in the Christian life on our homeward pilgrimage.
The book of Hebrews is full of effort language. Christians are constantly encouraged to "hold fast" to Jesus in confident, confessing faith (3:6, 14; 4:14; 6:18; 10:23). We are called to press on to maturity in faith and doctrine (6:1). We are to "show the same earnestness" and "not be sluggish" (6:11-12). We must "run with endurance the race that is set before us" (12:1). We are commanded to "strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (12:14).
Far from creating spiritual and moral laxity, a true apprehension of the glory of God's Son and the "great salvation" he has achieved should stimulate great energy for God and great effort against sin. Yes, it's true that from the first moment we believe the good news about Jesus, we are irrevocably transferred into God's kingdom (Colossians 1:12-13). The promise of our rest is sure because our Savior is sure. But it's also true that saving faith is a working faith. It strives against sin in our hearts that causes us to drift away from the gospel in search of earthly, tangible pleasures and comforts (3:12-13). Someone with real faith endures hardship with patience and prayerful hope (6:11-12). If there were ever anything that is hard work and effort, it must certainly be prayer! (If you don't accept this, I wonder if you've never truly prayed!)
True faith is also a perservering faith. "We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end" (3:14). "You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised" (10:36). "These all died in faith" (11:13). Every day, as long as it is called "today," dissonant voices are beckoning for our allegiance. God's voice calls to us through the Word of his Son (1:1; 2:1-4; 3:7-4:12). But sin is right there with us to deceive us and call us away from Jesus, like the mythical Sirens. And every day presents opportunities to listen to Satan or listen to God. As long as we are alive, we live in "today." And each and every "today" God speaks to us--a chance to grow closer to him and enter his rest, or a chance to harden our hearts against him. Life's "todays" don't stop until we die. So faith must never stop either.
But if the future were really in question, in doubt, we'd give up. No one has the strength and will to keep up a battle like this for seventy years. But that isn't the picture painted by the author of Hebrews, either. We may be rowing against the tide, but the tide will never sweep us away. Those who belong to God's family have "a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf" (6:19-20a). Jesus is our anchor, and he has bound his brothers together with him, and he is towing us home. Even when our strength is flagging and we feel no faith and want to quit the race, Jesus never stops reeling us in. "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (7:25). The Son never stops praying for us to his Father, and the Father is delighted to give what his Son asks. Yes, we may have to "fight the good fight of faith," but it is Jesus--not us--who is "the author and perfecter of our faith" (12:2). He will surely bring us home to our eternal rest.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Simul Iustus et Peccator

I saw this shirt a while back on Old Lutheran and thought it was awesome. Then this weekend at diaconal training, we were talking about Luther's famous saying, simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time righteous (or justified) and a sinner." It describes the conundrum that while we ourselves are ungodly sinners, God views us as innocent and holy through the atonement of Christ, which we receive by faith.

"God . . . justifies the ungodly." (Romans 4:5)

"Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrouht in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone." (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 70)