Friday, June 11, 2010

The Limits of Human Will

"It is...taught among us that man [sic] possesses some measure of freedom of the will which enables him to live an outwardly honorable life and to make choices among the things that reason comprehends. But without the grace, help, and activity of the Holy Spirit man is not capable of making himself acceptable to God, of fearing God and believing in God with his whole heart, or of expelling inborn evil lusts* from his heart. This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, who is given through the Word of God..." (Article XVIII, The Augsburg Confession**)

*The term lusts refers to all our human impulses to violate the will of God, encompassed in the Ten Commandments, which Jesus distilled as loving God completely and loving others as we love ourselves.

**The Augsburg Confession, published in 1530, written primarily by Phillipp Melanchthon, it attempted to explain to the world what evangelical Christians--later referred to as Lutherans, believed. It has become a basic expression of the Lutheran understanding of Christian faith.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Want to Know What Most Harms the Church's Mission in the World?

"Nothing will so avail to divide the church as the love of power." (John Chrysostom)

This is cited in a wonderful new book by John H. Armstrong, Your Church is Too Small. No, it's not a church growth book. Rather, it's an impassioned call by one who has taken and is on a special journey of faith. Armstrong argues that as the blurb on the back cover of the book puts it, "Jesus' vision of unity is for all God's people across social, cultural, racial, and denominational lines." Unity, not uniformity, at both the congregational and macro-levels, strengthens the Church to pursue the Great Commission--making disciples of Christ--and helps validate the gospel message of God's life-changing love given in Christ.

The love of power, whether at denominational levels or in individual congregations where factions throw their weight around with no regard for the authority of Scripture or Christ's command that we love one another, invalidates the gospel message and capacity of the church to fulfill the Great Commission Jesus has given to us.

Read Armstrong's book, please.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

I Recommend This Book Highly

It's a non-partisan perspective on the need to extricate our children and future generations from all the risks associated with the national debt, which launched into the stratosphere starting in 2002. (Pass your cursor over the widget below to see my recommendation. Click to go to Amazon to buy it.)

When Tolerance Becomes Hate

A high school classmate just posted this quote from writer G.K. Chesterton over on Facebook:
Tolerance is the virtue of a man [sic] without convictions.
It was great seeing Chesterton's words. I love him anyway! He was a big joyous man who was loved even by the atheists with whom he debated.

But these particular words of Chesterton's relate to issues I've been thinking about a lot lately.

These days, we--Christians and non-Christians in the West--have elevated "tolerance" to the highest human virtue. So much so, in fact, that a member of one of my former parishes told me once that, so far as he could tell, the gospel message was, "Live and let live." I wondered what Bible he had been reading.

Christians should have no desire--any more than Jesus Himself did--to coerce people into repentance for sin or faith in Christ, of course. (That's why I oppose political involvement by the Church or by pastors.) No one comes to faith in Christ and no one places themselves under the pull of God's Holy Spirit toward holy living by coercion.

But a "live and let live" attitude is usually just another way of saying, "Live and let die." Or, "Live and ignore." For believers in Christ, when tolerance comes up against God's revealed truth, tolerance must give way to truth. It must also give way to love.

If a child has the notion that sticking her or his finger into an electrical outlet would be fun, the last thing a responsible parent would do is tolerate this impulse. The parent would do everything conceivable to prevent the child from harming himself or herself. Love and truth would trump parental tolerance.

Just so, the Church has a God-given responsibility to militate against a lazy, indifferent tolerance, to instead, opt for love and truth in warning people who ask us for an account for the hope that is in us through Christ, to make them aware of the destructive consequences of flouting God's will, whether it's expressed in materialism, injustice, egotism, lovelessness, covetousness, or sex outside of marriage.

If we claim to love family or friends, then to tolerate rationalizations for sin is to conspire in the deaths of those Christ calls us to love and with whom Christ commissions us to share the gospel.

Tolerance becomes hate when we refuse to speak the truth in love, when we fail to share the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.

An invitation: To believe that God isn't fair...

...and to thank God for that! 

If God were fair, I personally would be in an eternity of trouble. But God is patient with all of us. In the New Testament, the apostle Peter, writing to Christians anxious for Christ's return, talked about not just God's patience, but the purpose behind God's patience: not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:8-9)
Until Christ returns at the end of earthly history, God's patience with human rebelliousness, lovelessness, injustice, and immorality will continue. God is giving the whole Church on earth the opportunity to share the good news of Jesus with others, so that people have the chance to turn away from sin (repent) and to trust in (believe in) Jesus as God, Savior, Lord, and Messiah, the One Who destroys the power of sin and death over us.

Peter goes on to write though:
But the day of the Lord [the day when the risen and ascended Jesus] will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. (2 Peter 3:10)
The time will come when God the Father will send the Son to draw the curtain on the life of this world. Besides that, none of us can know when the curtain will be drawn on our own individual lives. We dare not presume on the merciful patience of God, as a world or as individuals.

Our call then, is clear: To repent and trust in Jesus while we can and then to live in that characteristic lifestyle of the Christian, as described by Martin Luther: "daily repentance and renewal," daily surrender to the will, lordship, and grace of God, given to all the world through Jesus Christ and His cross.

For the follower of Jesus Christ, self-righteousness will never do. My sins are as worthy of condemnation as any other person's. I am as worthy of everlasting separation from God--of hell--as anyone else. It's only by God's grace that I have hope.

I'm thankful that God doesn't give me what we deserve: First, God shows mercy by affording us the chance to know Christ; second, God passes over the sins of those who surrender to Christ, submitting to God's will for their lives.

Thank God that God isn't fair! But why keep presuming on God's unfairness when you can surrender to Jesus and His grace and begin savoring today, this very moment, an eternal relationship with your loving God.

Jesus said, "“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (John 3:16).

If you don't enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus Christ yet, I invite you to explore what such a relationship is like.

One good place to begin that exploration is to read the Gospel of John. You'll get to know Jesus there.

Then, you might want to consider continuing your exploration by visiting a church near you: go to worship, get involved in a Bible study or in Sunday School, make an appointment with a pastor or a priest who will pray with you and help you know Jesus.

Once you get to know Jesus personally, I'm confident that, as was true for me when I was in my mid-20s, you'll want to follow Jesus...and you'll thank God every day that God isn't fair!

Sunday, June 06, 2010


[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Galatians 1:11-24
One day, I received a phone call from an upset member of our extended family. She had just ended a phone call with a friend of hers. This friend had recently joined a church that required all of its members to tithe. Tithing, giving 10% from off the top of one’s income for God’s work in the world, is a great thing. It’s even Biblical! But what the friend of my family member said wasn’t Biblical. “Do you tithe?” the friend asked. “No,” said my family member, “we haven’t gotten to that point yet. But we’re moving in that direction.” Without pause, her “friend” said, “You’re going to hell.” A few more such “pleasantries” were shared, the conversation blessedly ended, and my relative, in a panic for her immortal soul, called me. She asked, “Am I going to hell for not tithing?”

I asked her to think of a few famous passages from the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark records only one sermon of Jesus and this is it in its entirety: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” No mention of tithing there as a condition for salvation, just repent, believe.

I reminded her of John 3:16, where Jesus says that everyone who believes in—entrusts themselves to—Him will have eternal life. Jesus didn’t say, “those who believe and tithe,” I pointed out.

I suggested that she also look in Romans, where the apostle Paul gives an extended--and not very flattering--catalog of the sins by which we violate the will of God and are separated from him. Paul talks about how we human beings think ourselves to be enlightened, yet do dark deeds condemned by God. Paul mentions—I’m using Eugene Peterson’s translation here—rampant evil, grabbing and grasping [that’s what we call covetousness], vicious backstabbing, envy, wanton killing, bickering, cheating, mean-spiritedness, fork-tongued God-bashing, bullying, swaggering, insufferable windbagging, sex outside of marriage, and men lying with men and women lying with women. And yet, Paul says, the power of all those sins to destroy our relationship with God can be erased. You don’t have to tithe. You don’t have to do proscribed religious acts. Paul says, “We hold that a person is justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the works prescribed by [religious] law.”

Turn from sin and believe in the Savior Jesus, Who did all that is necessary to free us from the death that we deserve because of our sin. Christ has done all to save us; we must repent for sin, believe in Jesus. That is the gospel—the good news--and there is no other.

Yet, as that frantic call from my relative shows, there are people who like to change this gospel with which Jesus has entrusted those of us who are part of His Church.

Some like to add conditions to our salvation. “You need to do good works to earn God’s favor,” they say. “You need to speak in tongues or you really aren’t a believer,” others will tell us. Or, as happened with my relative, some will tell us, “You have to tithe. Give more. Do more.”

There are other people who do something just as destructive to the gospel. They subtract from it and from the Word of God. “The Bible is passé,” they tell us, “we don’t have to listen to it when it tells us about things like, [pick your favorite sin]: sexual morality…or killing…or taking care of creation…or refraining from gossip…or paying our taxes.“ “Jesus died for all,” others will say, “Nobody has to believe in Him.” “The only gospel,” some say, “is the social gospel. We don’t need to tell others about Jesus. All we have to do is restructure the world’s social and economic systems.”

Yet the Bible says that the only way the world or any individual can be put right is for people to repent and believe in the Savior.

So, why is it that, in spite of the clarity of the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians are constantly dogged—and tempted--by those who either want to add to or subtract from that gospel?

I think it’s because this business of adding to and subtracting from the gospel appeals to our egos. Those who want to add more to what’s necessary for our salvation are looking for brownie points and bragging rights. Those who want to subtract from what’s necessary for our salvation are looking for either easy virtue, the applause of the world, or a sainthood of their own making.

In both cases, a different gospel, an alien, ungodly gospel, turns the true gospel on its head. In the true gospel God acts, we respond; God creates, we are made new; God dies on a cross, our sins are forgiven; God sends His Holy Spirit and we are empowered to have faith, empowered to live differently.

In the fake gospels of addition or subtraction, we human beings replace God’s truth with our puny wisdom. In the fake gospels, we are the subjects and God is a holy afterthought.

I say all of this by way of introduction to the New Testament book of Galatians, the subject of a sermon series we begin today. Galatians was written by the apostle Paul sometime between 49 and 56AD, to the Christian churches in Galatia, a region of central Asia Minor. We know Asia Minor today as Turkey. Some years before, Paul had started churches there.

Galatians is a call to the freedom that only comes from the good news of Jesus. But Galatians is also an angry letter. At its beginning, Paul dispenses with his usual expressions of thankfulness for the people to whom he writes, found in his other letters. Instead, he lets the group of Galatian churches have it. “I am astonished,” he writes early on, “that you are so quickly deserting the one [God] who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is a different gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” 

Paul is angry with an anger born of deep Christian love, because the all-Gentile Galatian churches—willfully ignorant, infantile, and lazy in their faith, apathetic, willing to go along with the latest theological craze—have allowed themselves to be beguiled by other preachers who swept into their churches following Paul’s departure.

These preachers of “another gospel” were what scholars today call, Judaizers. Judaizers said that non-Jews—Gentiles—who became followers of Jesus, had to first become Jews before they could claim the free gift of new life in Christ. The men had to be circumcised, the Judaizers said. Men, women, and children all had to abide by Jewish dietary laws. They had to observe Jewish religious days. What Jesus did through His cross and resurrection were all well and good, the Judaizers effectively said, but if the Galatian Christians didn’t jump through these old religious hoops, they would lose their connection to God, they would lose their salvation. The Judaizers were adding to the gospel.

Instead of challenging the preachers of this fake gospel, the Galatian Christians simply went along. Rather than knowing Christ and God’s Word for themselves, they dodged responsibility for their own eternal lives, deferring to "experts" happy to do their thinking for them. They allowed Jesus, His cross and His empty tomb, to be moved from the center of their faith and lives. The Judaizers convinced them to instead, put their own religiosity center stage. That was great for their egos, but as Paul points out repeatedly in his letter to them, it also took them away from God and God’s grace in Christ.

In today’s lesson, Paul contends for the one true gospel. He says that, contrary to what the Judaizers said, the gospel he had preached to them came straight from God and was affirmed by Old Testament Scriptures, by the scars he'd received for Christ, and by the agreement of the Judean churches, led by Peter and Jesus’ brother James, who had been around when Jesus lived, died, and rose.

The gospel of new life as a free gift for all who believe in Jesus needs nothing added to it or taken away from it. It’s the only way to the freedom to become our true selves in this life and in the next. Paul says that because followers of Christ are certain of their eternal destinies, they’re free to rely not on human additions to or subtractions from the gospel of Christ. He tells the Galatians not to fall back into slavery to the world, but to live and be free in Christ.

There’s a lot of anger in our world today, some of it founded, some of it not. But I think that in Galatians, Paul is telling us today that the only things truly worthy of our anger as Christians are the lies told by those, who, as was true of some in the first century, claim to speak in Christ’s Name, but by their additions and subtractions, put the eternal salvation of the gullible and the well-meaning in jeopardy.

Those who embrace the one true gospel, surrendering all to Jesus Christ, do not have trouble-free lives. But they do have free lives—free from sin and death, free from stewing over ourselves because we know we’re always in God’s hands.

In the next few weeks as we look at Galatians, we’ll consider Paul’s call to live in the power of the one true gospel. The way that life looks is well summarized by New Testament scholar Charles Cousar:
At the core of the Christian experience a centrifugal force pushes believers-sometimes successfully, sometimes not-beyond the temptation to tarry forever with their own problems or with preoccupation with Christ's benefits so that they may join God's work in convincing the world of his holy love.
Because of Christ, are you certain of your place in God’s kingdom?

Are you angry with those who add to and subtract from the gospel?

Do you want to convince your neighbors and friends of the holy love of God?

Then I invite you over these next few weeks to read Galatians on your own and to come to worship on Sunday morning to be fortified and empowered by this word from God and to be pushed by the centrifugal force of God—His Holy Spirit—into your daily lives to live and share the one true gospel, the new life with God that comes only through faith in Christ.

At the end of today's lesson, Paul says that as the first century churches in Judea heard reports about how we was sharing the gospel with Gentiles and they were coming into an eternal relationship with Christ, "they glorified God because of" him. My prayer is that, as was true of Paul, God will be glorified because we live and share the one true gospel of Jesus Christ! Amen