Posts tagged ‘Justification’

Baseball Scandals and Echo Chambers

It’s the biggest shakeup Major League Baseball has faced since the steroid scandal of the 90s. The Astros coming up with an elaborate system to steal opposing teams’ pitching signs got them all the way to the World Series, but it cost them their reputation and has left their franchise in shambles. Commissioner Rob Manfred’s comments strike me as especially insightful as their scheme continues to unravel:

The culture of the baseball operations department, manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other Clubs, and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic. At least in my view, the baseball operations department’s insular culture – one that valued and rewarded results over other considerations, combined with a staff of individuals who often lacked direction or sufficient oversight, led, at least in part, to…an environment that allowed the conduct described in this report to have occurred.

Mr. Manfred’s point is critical. Not only can people justify their own questionable actions, they can justify each other’s if the payoff feels high enough. This can create an echo chamber where, if one were to look from the outside in at what was happening, the problems would be obvious, but, from the inside, the compromises seem merely logical and at worst paltry. The Astros February 13 press conference, which was long on excuses and finger pointing and short on apologies, demonstrated just how easy it can be to convince ourselves of our own rightness even when everyone around us is shouting, “Wrong!”

The apostle John once wrote: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). The plural pronouns here are important. Not only can one person deceive him or her self about his or her personal sin, we can, together, John says, deceive ourselves about our corporate sin. This is why one of the fundamental assertions of Christianity is that we need someone outside of ourselves to tell us the truth about ourselves.

Theologians will speak of how salvation works extra nos – Latin for “outside ourselves.” We do not – indeed, we cannot – save ourselves. Christ must come in from the outside and do the work of salvation for us. The inverse of this is another Latin phrase, this one conceptualized by the church father Augustine: incurvitas in se, which means, “turned in on oneself.” This is the essential nature of sin. Sin draws us further and further into ourselves – our excuses, our half-truths, and our pathetic justifications. Christianity beckons us to turn from ourselves and toward Christ.

The crisis with the Astros Club does not just point to a problem with baseball, but to a larger broken condition in humanity. The question we must ask ourselves is this: where are we tempted to look to ourselves, rather than to Christ, to deal with our sin? When are we tempted to conceal, instead of to confess, where we have done wrong? The more we rely on ourselves to fix ourselves, the more damage we do to ourselves.

So, unlike the Astros, let’s not believe our own press. Instead let us press in to the One who is God’s Son.

February 24, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith and Morality

Right and WrongOn this blog, I have written at length on moral issues.  I believe, quite firmly, that morality has a helpful role to play in the public square and, therefore, moral questions should be discussed and debated and moral standards should be regarded as useful and necessary for and in society.  For all my support public morality, however, there is a part of public morality that I find terrifying.  Here’s what I mean.

There can be little doubt that the experiment of societal moral relativism has failed. Throwing off the shackles of a transcendent and traditional morality for a culturally conditioned and convenient one that ultimately assumes that there is only amorality never got us Thomas Hobbes’ Epicurean dream.  It just left us Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich nightmare.  Leviathan, it turns out, wasn’t nearly as competent to do its job as Hobbes thought.

Moral relativism, then, can be quite deadly.  It does no society any good because, by definition, it is utterly individualistic.  And individuals, left to their own devices, seem to come up with awfully immoral relative moralities.  A traditional and transcendent morality is needed to order society in such a way that we do not (A) wind up killing each other, and (B) actually do some things that are helpful for each other. For these reasons, as well as for many others, public morality is needed.

But at the same time a traditional and transcendent public morality is needed, it is also terrifying.

Once a month, I teach a Bible study at a local business.  This year, I am working through the book of James when, a while back, I came to these famous words:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

As a Lutheran, James’ trumpeting of moral works as important to faith can sometimes arouse in me an almost allergic reaction!  As an avid reader of all things Pauline, I know that works do not help faith.  Indeed, I know that works can actually be in opposition to faith:

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

“Faith” and “works,” Paul says, do not mix when it comes to salvation.

Of course, James’ point is not that works somehow help faith when it comes to salvation, but that faith results in works that flow from salvation.  A saving faith, James argues, is inevitably an active faith.  Indeed, James would go so far to argue that a saving faith that is not an active faith is not even faith.  To quote his brother’s words: “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16).  A faith that does not result in moral works does not exist.  Such a faith is a myth that belongs on the shelf with unicorns, leprechauns, and that time your mom told you that if you swallow your gum, it will stay in your stomach for seven years.

This is why, at the same time I believe public morality is needed, I am also terrified by it.  A faith without moral works is impossible.  James says so.  Christians should not be frightened, therefore, to declare moral works as “necessary” to faith.  What is frightening, however, is that the inverse does not hold true.  Moral works may be necessary to faith, but faith is not necessary for moral works.  One can be very moral and still be very damned.  And herein lies the good and the bad of public morality.  Public morality helps others.  It may even help you.  But it doesn’t help you before God.  Only faith can help you before the Almighty.

Even as I continue to argue for the merits of public morality if for no other reason than that I’m not a big fan of the Third Reich, I will continue to serve proudly as a pastor to point people toward faith in Jesus Christ.  I like morality that comes from faith a lot better than morality that is divorced from faith.  The second morality may be nice for society, but the first receives a “well done” in eternity.

March 7, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Righteous

Crucifixion 1This weekend in worship and ABC, we learned about the doctrine of justification which teaches that our righteousness before God is not a product of ourselves and our works; rather, it is a free gift from God, given to us by the work of Christ on the cross.  As the apostle Paul writes, “[We] are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

Throughout the history of the Church, some have tried to undercut this doctrine of God’s work with human works.  The Pelagians, for instance, taught that by obeying God’s commands, people could gain favor in God’s sight.  The Synergists taught that justification was not a gift of God’s righteousness exclusively, but a comingling of God’s righteousness with human righteousness.  In the face of such unbiblical teachings, Martin Luther offers this important reflection on justification as God’s work and not as ours:

The world wants to win heaven from our Lord God by right, although He is causing the message to be proclaimed aloud throughout the world that He wants to give it to us for nothing.  He says:  “I want to be your God; out of grace and for nothing I want to save you … I will not let you win heaven from Me.  Therefore make no other gods, do not invent things that you do for yourself … Do not begin with your good works; allow Me to have mercy on you.”  It certainly is a shame that people must accuse us being unwilling to accept heaven for nothing, nay, of actually wanting to earn it and of proposing to give to God, to Him who desires to offer everything to us in plenty.  Such fools are we:  we want to give what we ought to take.[1]

We bring nothing to our righteous standing before God – no good work, no pious thought, no warm heart.  Instead, God supplies any and all righteousness we need through His Son.  This is the doctrine of justification.  This is the promise of the gospel.  And this is the cornerstone of our faith.

May we never seek to add our works to God’s work.  After all, it is God’s work – and His work alone – that saves us.


[1] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, comp. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959), §2207.

July 8, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sermon Extra – The Heart of the Gospel

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

More magnificent words have nary been written. Paul’s words in these verses constitute the heart and soul of the gospel. Because Paul’s words are so foundational to everything we believe, teach, and confess as Christians, I thought for this week’s “Extra,” I would simply take some time to briefly unpack some key phrases, specifically in verse 22.

From God…

This phrase describes the source of righteousness. A Christian’s righteousness is not of his own making or doing. Rather, it is “from God.” A Christian knows that, apart from God, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Thus, in order for someone to be declared “righteous,” that righteousness must come from somewhere else, or, more accurately, from someone else. Paul declares that this “someone else” is God.

Through faith…

This phrase describes the application of righteousness, that is, how God’s righteousness gets from God to us. Some people try to apply God’s righteousness to themselves by ascending to God via nebulous mysticism or good works or deep knowledge. But Paul’s answer of how God’s righteousness gets applied to us involves no steep ascent to the Divine through various contortions of the soul, body, or mind. Rather, the way that God’s righteousness gets applied to us is through faith. And for Paul, faith is simple trust – trust that God is indeed righteous and trust that God indeed wants to share His righteousness with us as a completely free gift, apart from any merit or worthiness on our parts.

In Christ…

This phrase describes the object of righteousness. The object of righteousness – the One to whom we look to see God’s righteousness on display – is Jesus Christ. He is the epitome and the embodiment of God’s righteousness. Indeed, He is God’s righteousness come to earth. Thus, if we do not trust in Christ, we cannot receive God’s righteousness. Much debate has swirled around this phrase as it appears in Greek: dia pisteos Iesou Christou. Grammatically, this phrase can be translated in one of two different ways. One the one hand, it can be translated as above: “through faith in Jesus Christ.” This takes the phrase Iesou Christou as an objective genitive. In other words, Jesus Christ is the object of our faith. But this phrase can also be translated as a subjective genitive: “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Here, Jesus becomes the subject of the faith. Although grammatically, the former is probably to be preferred, theologically, both are important. For we must have faith in Christ for God’s righteousness to be applied to us. But God’s righteousness cannot be applied to us through Christ unless Christ is righteous, that is, faithful (cf. Hebrews 3:6)! Thus, we have faith in the faithful Christ.

To all who believe…

This phrase describes the destination of righteousness. That is, God desires that His righteousness find its destination in every person. It is important to understand that God’s righteousness is undiscriminating. He does not desire to give it to one person while desiring to withhold it from another. Thus, anyone can receive God’s righteousness, no matter how wicked, debase, or depraved they might be. No one need remain outside the grasp of God’s righteousness. This is why we share the gospel of God’s righteousness.

This, then, is the gospel: that God gives to us His righteousness through faith because of the faithfulness of Jesus to anyone who believes that His righteousness is for them. This is the gospel that the Christian church has stewarded for some 2,000 years. And who knows? We may be stewarding it for some 2,000 more. By God’s grace, may we steward it well. For it is the most precious treasure to humankind. For it is the message of our forgiveness, life, and salvation. And there can be no greater treasure than that.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Zach’s
message or Pastor Hower’s ABC!

August 16, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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