“There is no such thing as a Christian nation other than the body of Christ, which admits no distinctions of race, culture, class, or sex before God.”
“There is no such thing as a Christian nation other than the body of Christ, which admits no distinctions of race, culture, class, or sex before God.”
Here’s an interesting article on American Idol and last Tuesday’s episode where contestants were asked to sing a song from the Great American Songbook. It’s a thought provoking piece on how Idol militates against musicial subtlety, minimalism, or anything but musical pyrotechnics.
Perhaps the most controversial part (with which I am in complete agreement), comes when explaining how Harry Connick Jr. “made it clear why, despite the impressive vocal abilities of the four finalists — Candice Glover, Angie Miller, Amber Holcomb and Kree Harrison — they probably will never be truly great singers in the mode of those who came before, like Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Vic Damone and Billy Eckstein.”
So here goes my first substantial and theological post in a (long ) while:
In my experience, some of my strongest moments of sanctification come in the context of a profound experience of the love of God. That is, my strongest moments of loving God, of loving my neighbor, and of wanting to put to death my sin come in rare those moments when I realize even a bit of the depths of God’s love.
Oftentimes we motivate people to obedience with fear. And the Scriptures can use threats at which we are to rightly tremble. But the Scriptures also motivate us with the deep and exhilarating promises of the gospel, of forgiveness and grace. I don’t want to think through a full-scale theology of motivation for sanctification here (though I clearly need to do that), but I do simply want to note that oftentimes it is the risky love of God that truly changes us.
You see, so many times we take the gospel and pervert it by some sort of conditions. You are loved by God….if. We are so tempted to take the gospel and to make it dependent on our performance for it’s truth. We want to make the reality of God saving us dependent upon his work in us. Matt Chandler talks about his early experience of Christianity as being exactly like this. As he says:
See, they told me that I wouldn’t have those issues anymore once I got saved. I mean, that was the whole premise and framework of the gospel! “Get saved, because then you won’t….” And I got saved and kept on doing. So then where am I supposed to go? Because apparently, Jesus doesn’t work for me.
For the religiously sensitive person, when the truth of the gospel (of God’s justification of the ungodly) is made dependent on our perceived obedience (or lack thereof), this can only lead to despair. When the gospel is presented as condition, it is at this point that the perennial question of the Middle Ages reasserts its ugly head: “How do I know if I’ve met the condition?” aka “How do I know if I’ve truly believed?” or “How do I know if I’ve really loved God enough for him to love me?”
But this must not be the case. You see, when this happens the focus becomes once again on us and ourselves as we struggle to have “enough faith” or “enough love.” We steal the glory from God by again turning inward on ourselves and our own deeds. It is here that we run the danger of taking faith and turning it into simply another work. “If you only believe harder…” If, if, if, becomes the mantra of the Christian life.
But faith is not simply a different kind of work. It is not a new obedience we have to drum up. The gospel is not a new and modified law. No, quite to the contrary. What then is faith? The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 61, puts it well:
“God did not ordain faith to be the instrument of justification because of some peculiar virtue in faith, but because faith is self-emptying and has no merit in itself.”
Faith is not our new work or our new obedience. Rather, faith is the absence of works and the presence of trust in the promises of God in Christ (apart from works). And it only here that certainty can be found.
It is at this point of the self-emptying nature of faith, when we are led outside of ourselves and our own experience, that we can truly glory in the promises of God in the gospel. Martin Luther understood this well when he wrote that the gospel repudiates “the wicked idea of the entire kingdom of the pope, the teaching that a Christian man must be uncertain about the grace of God toward him. If this opinion stands, then Christ is completely useless.” Rather, he said, good theology “snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.” (LW 26:386-7)
And this understanding changes the entire structure of the Christian life. That is, justification by faith alone changes our entire worldview and approach to living. In the words of historian Carter Lindberg, “Justification by grace alone through faith alone thus is a metatheological proclamation. That is, it changes the language of theology from an ‘if…then’ structure to a ‘because…therefore’ structure; from a language of conditions to be fulfilled in order to receive whatever is promised, to a language of unconditional promise.” It is in this understanding that “salvation is no longer the goal of life but rather its foundation.” Christianity is always first (and foremost!) an external proclamation before it is an internal transformation.
This is where a soul can truly find rest in Christ. It is at this point that we can cry out with the apostle, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom 8:33-34)
When the gospel is dependent on our obedience for it’s truth then there is no assurance and no gospel. But when God’s word is allowed to stand as what it is, his promise outside of us, then certainty and assurance can be found.
In closing I offer some words from the Matt Chandler sermon linked above:
And so, I came up and I grabbed the hand and I repeated, “Dear Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner. Please forgive me. Amen.” and I was baptized. And I was loving the Lord. But what happens when you love the Lord and there’s still this lust in your heart that kind of haunts you a little bit? What do you do then? Because where I was, I didn’t even feel it was safe to talk about that because everybody was so busy pretending that they didn’t struggle with that. Like, everybody else just got saved and fluttered about in Shekinah glory all of the rest of the days of their life and I was all stuck in the mud. It’s like, “When do I get my wings?”
What happens when you fall in love with Jesus but there’s still some bitterness there? What happens when you fall in love with Jesus but you still have all these issues? See, they told me that I wouldn’t have those issues anymore once I got saved. I mean, that was the whole premise and framework of the gospel! “Get saved, because then you won’t….” And I got saved and kept on doing. So then where am I supposed to go? Because apparently, Jesus doesn’t work for me. Praise Christ for Romans 8. He goes, “Oh, no no no no. We’ll work through this, but I’m not letting you go in the meantime. Oh, we’ll get there. I started this; I’ll finish this….Don’t give up. Keep walking, keep pressing in, keep confessing. ….I won’t let you go. There is no one who can condemn you. I don’t, and if I don’t, no one can. Who’ll even bring a charge against you? You’re Mine. What court could they possibly charge you in? Everything’s Mine.” You know what He’s talking about? He’s talking about those voices inside of us that constantly condemn us. “Aw, you can’t love Jesus; look at this. Look at this lust you have in your heart that you can’t shake. There’s no way Jesus loves you and you love Him.” God’s here going, “You’re listening to him?
Words of J.C. Ryle that ring especially sweet this morning.
So long as his conscience is not hungry, any religious toy will satisfy a man’s soul and keep him quiet. But once let his conscience become hungry, and nothing will quiet him but real spiritual food and no food but Christ.
There is something within a man when his conscience is really awake, which whispers, “There must be a price paid for my soul or no peace.” At once the Gospel meets him with Christ. Christ has already paid a ransom for his redemption. Christ has given Himself for him Christ has redeemed him from the curse of the law, being made a curse for him (Gal 2:20; 3:13).
There is something within a man, when his conscience is really awake, which whispers, “I must have some righteousness or title to heaven or no peace.” At once the Gospel meets him with Christ. He has brought in an everlasting righteousness. He is the end of the law for righteousness. His name is called the Lord our righteousness. God has made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (2Co 5:21; Rom 10:4; Jer 23:6).
There is something within a man, when his conscience is really awake, which whispers, “There must be punishment and suffering because of my sins or no peace.” At once the Gospel meets him with Christ. Christ hath
suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, to bring him to God. He bore our sins in His own body on the tree. By His stripes we are healed (1Pe 2:24; 3:18).
There is something within a man, when his conscience is really awake, which whispers, “I must have a priest for my soul or no peace.” At once the Gospel meets him with Christ. Christ is sealed and appointed by God the Father to be the Mediator between Himself and man. He is the ordained Advocate for sinners. He is the accredited Counselor and Physician of sick souls. He is the great High Priest, the Almighty Absolver, the Gracious Confessor of heavy-laden sinners (1Ti 2:5; Heb 8:1).
The Christian knows this of himself:
Is he not naturally a poor, weak, erring, defective sinner? He is. None knows that better than he does himself. But notwithstanding this, he is reckoned complete, perfect, and faultless before God, for he is justified.
Is he not naturally a debtor? He is. None feels that more deeply than he does himself. He owes ten thousand talents, and has nothing of his own to pay. But his debts are all paid, settled, and crossed out for ever, for he is justified.
Is he not naturally liable to the curse of a broken law? He is. None would confess that more readily than he would himself. But the demands of the law have been fully satisfied, the claims of justice have been met to the last tittle, and he is justified.
Does he not naturally deserve punishment? He does. None would acknowledge that more fully than he would himself. But the punishment has been borne. The wrath of God against sin has been made manifest. Yet he has escaped and is justified.
Much evangelicalism has lost the belief in the complete bondage of the will and in the necessity of monergistic regeneration. We think man still has a reservoir of righteousness left within himself somewhere by which he can turn to God. Hear J.I. Packer:
Whoever puts this book down without having realized that Evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith alone, which became the storm center of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is not accurate. The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed by Augustine and others, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace. The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a more profound level still in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration.
If you think that the mercy of the Lord has not been given its due by showing how He justifies us through His own righteousness and how he did not shun marriage with sinners, you must realize that He goes even further. He makes our sins His own. Just as the Christian is just through the righteousness of Christ, so Christ is unrighteous and sinful through the guilt of the Christian. Whereas the Jew would say “blasphemy” and the Greek “madness” the believer says, “You are right.”
-Johann von Staupitz, December 1516
Only the man who follows the command of Jesus single-mindedly, and unresistingly lets his yoke rest upon him, finds his burden easy, and under its gentle pressure receives the power to persevere in the right way. The command of Jesus is hard, unutterably hard, for those who try to resist it. But for those who willingly submit, the yoke is easy, and the burden is light. “His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Have you seen Les Mis? If you haven’t and don’t know anything about it then this post won’t make sense. Otherwise, here are my short and as of now completely haphazard theological reflections on the movie. To make clear, I did like the movie, a lot. Here are some of the theological underpinnings it was making me reflect on though. Again, apologies for the haphazard nature of these, but hope you enjoy.
Valjean lives by grace, Javert lives the by the Law. Javert says something along the lines of “once a sinner, always a sinner” and recognizes that Valjean should be condemned. Most people see this as lacking in mercy and as Javert just being someone who is hardened by the law and his own self-righteous piety. While this is true, I think that there is also a strong sense in which Javert is right in this sentiment. Justice must be impartial.
But then what Javert/the story needs is a mediator who makes mercy possible by taking upon himself the punishment of justice. Valjean understands mercy; Javert doesn’t, but while the themes of grace and mercy and wonderfully presented, both characters fall short in respective ways. Javert lacks mercy (but has impartial justice), Valjean lacks true justice (but has mercy). There is no character who upholds them both (thus the bar of the law/justice is lowered and not upheld and mercy is thus in danger of being sentimentalized).
In the Bible/in reality, God’s justice is impartial and renders to each according to their works (Rom. 2:6). This is why the justice of God is revealed/displayed in his wrath being shown against the unrighteous (Rom 1:16-18). God is right to judge sinners (Rom 2:2) and thus uphold his justice, which is a part of his character. Both justice and mercy must be upheld, and having mercy without justice is in danger of sentimentalizing mercy at the expense of upholding justice.
Random other thoughts:
Javert: “You will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law.”
Valjean: “I know the meaning of those 19 years, a slave of the law.” Thus Valjean understands the Law experientially; Javert only gets it by thinking himself to have kept it.
Also, Javert=the Law embodied. Strict, never-ending justice must be shown. Again, he is in one sense a mean brute; but in a theological sense quite right here. (though he himself has of course not upheld the law). But he and the story lack a mediator who is both just and justifier and thus allows him to show mercy that is more than sentimental (Rom 3:26).
Alright, random thoughts are over. Agree? Disagree?
“Paul uses ‘works of the law’ and ‘law’ interchangeably because he sees the very essence of the law in its requirement of works.”
-Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics, 315 (italics original).
Glad there are still Pauline scholars out there who aren’t afraid to say that.