Posts tagged ‘Salvation’

Put Down Your Sword

When I was in seminary, I took a road trip with some buddies to the tiny west Texas town of Marfa, famed for its “mystery lights.” These lights appear regularly at dusk and before dawn on Mitchell Flat, just east of Marfa. Strange orbs hover in the night sky – joining with and separating from each other, appearing and disappearing, and changing colors. For decades, researchers, scientists, and curious onlookers have tried to figure out the mystery of the lights. Some say they’re a mirage caused by sharp temperature gradients between cold and warm layers of air. Others say they’re headlights from nearby U.S. Highway 67. Others have paranormal explanations.

The night I and my buddies saw the lights, we made it our mission to solve the mystery once and for all. We took my friend’s Camaro off-roading across the plain to catch the lights. Shockingly enough, we did not. We did, however, raise the hackles of some very annoyed locals who did not like us leaving tire tracks across their land. They let us know in no uncertain terms that the plain was off-limits and it was time for us to leave.

When Adam and Eve stray from God’s command to not eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and go off-roading into evil, God lets them know in no uncertain terms that the idyllic Garden of Eden in which He has placed them is now off-limits and that it is time for them to leave. In fact, just to ensure they never enter the Garden again, He installs what is quite literally a “flashy” security system:

He placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)

Adam and Eve were able to eat from the tree of life before their fall into sin because they were designed to live eternally. But now, that tree and God’s garden is blocked by a sword that will bring about their death if they try to breach it.

The night before Jesus goes to the cross, He, like Adam and Eve, finds Himself in a garden – the Garden of Gethsemane. After He spends some agonizing moments in prayer about His impending torture and death, a coterie of Jesus’ enemies comes to arrest Him and drag Him away to a series of show trials to try to convict Him of heresy against Jewish theological teaching and treason against the Roman government. Peter, who is with Jesus, boldly brandishes his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant, who is part of the seditious mob. But Jesus, instead of thanking Peter for his loyalty, rebukes him:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

It was a sword that once guarded Adam and Eve from a garden. But Jesus will not allow a sword to guard Him in a garden.

Jesus, it turns out, has come to cast out the sword from the garden. As He makes His way to the cross, He is systematically disarming the curse of sin that blocks us from eternal life and threatens our eternal death. The sword is disarmed. The garden is open. As Charles Wesley says in his great Easter hymn:

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!

Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!

Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!

Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

The paradise that was once closed by a curse to Adam and Eve has been opened to us by a cross. That most certainly deserves our hearty, “Alleluia!”

April 12, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Fig Tree Undone

Yesterday began Holy Week, which commemorates the final days of Jesus’ life along with His crucifixion and resurrection. On the Monday of Holy Week, Jesus performs one of His most puzzling acts:

Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to find out if it had any fruit. When He reached it, He found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And His disciples heard Him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree You cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

What an odd episode. Jesus fierily curses a fig tree for no apparent reason. What is going on?

When Adam and Eve fall into sin after disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Genesis records:

The eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

An old Jewish tradition claims that the forbidden fruit itself was figs, with a Talmudic rabbi writing:

That which caused their downfall was then used to rectify them.

In other words, Adam and Eve tried to use the fruit with which they sinned to cover their sin.

But Adam and Eve’s pitiful fig leaf getups prove useless. They cannot hide their sin from God. God confronts them in their sin, curses them because of their sin, but then blesses them despite their sin:

The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

God sacrifices and skins an animal to make a garment far better than anything they can make for themselves.

Jesus’ strange fig tree curse hearkens back to Adam and Eve’s fig leaf failure. Our pathetic attempts to hide our sin never work. So, on His way to the cross, Jesus graphically condemns every human attempt to fix ourselves in our sin when He curses a fig tree and its leaves. But in its place, God sacrifices His Son and gives us a garment infinitely better than anything we can come up with by ourselves – “a robe of His righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10)

Jesus’ curse on the fig tree undoes the curse of our sin and reminds us that there is a better tree – not a fig tree that brings death, but a cruciform tree that grants life.

March 29, 2021 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Jesus’ Love For Children Lost

Jesus Christ, Statue, Children, Catholic, Virginia
Credit: Pixabay

One of the most moving moments of being a pastor is sitting with a family who has just lost a child. Perhaps they had a miscarriage. Perhaps their baby never made it out of the NICU. Perhaps their child lost their life in a tragic accident. There are many questions that a family asks at a moment like this:

How could God allow this to happen?

Did this happen because we did something wrong?

But there is one question I want to focus on in this blog:

Is my child in heaven with Jesus?

This is a weighty question because it reaches beyond a parent’s present pain and cries out desperately for an eternal hope. It deserves our serious consideration.

There is a famous episode in Mark 10 that gives us a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for Him to place His hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, He was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And He took the children in His arms, placed His hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

There is an interesting debate over Jesus’ words in verse 14 when He says, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” What is the referent of “such as these”? Some say the referent is found at the beginning of verse 14 in “the little children.” This means that Jesus is not only welcoming a particular group of little children into His arms at this moment, but making a broader declaration about how the kingdom of God belongs to many other little children who are like these but who are also beyond these. The phrase “such as these,” then, reminds us that “Jesus loves the little children – all the children of the world.”

There are others, however, who argue that the phrase “such as these” is better informed by the word “anyone” in the next verse. In this interpretation, Jesus is not declaring that little children can enter His kingdom. Instead, He is only calling people in general to have a childlike faith. Though Jesus is certainly calling people to have a childlike faith in verse 15, syntactically, the specific referent of “such as these” is quite clear. In Greek, the word for the phrase “such as these” is tointoun, which is neuter. The word for the children who come to Jesus is paidia, which is also neuter. The word for “anyone” in verse 15 is hos, which is masculine. It is important to note that the genders of each of these words are incidental features of Greek syntax and not determinative of which genders of human beings can and cannot enter God’s kingdom. Syntactically, however, Greek pronouns and nouns do need to generally match in their genders. Thus, the first interpretation of which referent is the appropriate one for the phrase “such as these” is correct: it is children like the ones who are coming to Jesus in Mark 10 who can enter God’s kingdom. Age is no barrier to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Of course, I would not walk a grieving family who has just lost a child through the technicalities of the Greek syntax in Mark 10 like I did in this blog. But a careful consideration of the syntax is important for my pastoral ministry because it allows me to confidently proclaim:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

Just because a baby cannot intellectually assent to the great truths of the Christian faith does not mean they are barred from eternal life. Indeed, one of the reasons that adults can have a faith like a child is because there is such a thing as a faith of a child (cf. Matthew 18:6). Children – and even babies – can sing babbling praises to the Lord (Matthew 21:15-16). Babies – and even infants in the womb – can respond to God’s good news of a Messiah (Luke 1:41-42). A child lost to a parent does not mean a child lost to the Lord.

If you are reading this and you have lost a child, this I want you to know:

Jesus welcomes children into His kingdom.

You can have hope.

If you are reading this and you have a child or are expecting one, share with them God’s Word, even from the womb. Allow them to hear the voice of their Savior calling them. It’s never too early to teach the faith because it’s never too early for someone to have faith. And it is by faith that we live – and live eternally.

March 1, 2021 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sunshine & Branches

Tree, Aesthetic, Log, Branch, Winter Sun, Winter, Kahl
Credit: Pixabay.com

When an elderly priest named Zechariah is chosen by lot to burn incense at the temple in Jerusalem, it marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, there were around 20,000 priests serving at the temple in the first century. Many of them never got to bring such an offering before God. So, Zechariah, when his lot is drawn, is obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the moment. But an already overwhelming moment becomes even more potent when, in the middle of Zechariah’s liturgical service, an angel appears to him, telling him that he and his wife Elizabeth, both of whom could have easily qualified to be members-in-good-standing of the AARP by this point in their lives, will have a child who will, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, “prepare the way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). At first, Zechariah is skeptical of this angelic announcement, but his suspicion quickly melts into praise and hope, both at the promise that he and his wife will have a child and that his child will prepare the way for the arrival of God’s salvation. At the end of a song of celebration, he muses:

You, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heavento shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

In his song, Zechariah celebrates both his child and God’s Messiah. He describes the Messiah as “the rising sun” who will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

This picture of light was a common metaphor for the Messiah among the prophets:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

And:

For you who revere My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Malachi 4:2)

In a world full of the darkness of sin, the Messiah would bring the light of righteousness.

When Zechariah speaks of the coming Messiah as “the rising sun,” the Greek word Luke employs is anatole, a word which refers to the east, the place from which the sun rises. What is fascinating about this word is that it can also be translated as “branch,” as it is when God speaks through the prophet Zechariah, who lived over 500 years before the priest Zechariah did:

I am going to bring My servant, the Branch. (Zechariah 3:8)

God calls the Messiah “the Branch,” the Greek word for which is anatole. In a world full of death, the Messiah would be like a tree that sprouts and brings life.

This one little word speaks to who the Messiah is in multiple ways. He sheds light in the darkness of sin and he branches out from death with life. Though Zechariah, more than likely, did not understand the fullness of who the Messiah would be and what He would accomplish when he sang his song, we live in what the apostle Paul once called “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). In other words, we have the benefit of historical retrospection to understand more fully how Jesus changed the world – and how Jesus still changes lives. And because of this, we, like Zechariah, can have praise to offer and hope to hold this Christmas.

December 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 3 comments

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

Safety in a World Full of Terror

Police tapes off Parliament Square after reports of loud bangs, in London

Credit: Time Magazine

First came a ban on most electronic devices – including laptops and tablets – on flights into the United States and United Kingdom from certain Muslim-majority countries.  Then, last Wednesday, terror struck London as Khalid Masood, a British-born citizen apparently inspired by online terrorist propaganda, drove an SUV into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge, leaving four dead and forty injured.  After crashing his vehicle outside Parliament, he ran, fatally stabbing a police officer before he himself was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Certainly, weeks like these remind us of the fearful reality of the world in which we live.  With the continuous news of terror attacks and warnings, it is no surprise that when Chapman University surveyed Americans concerning their fears, 41% said they were afraid of terror attacks while another 38.5% admitted they were worried about being the victim of a terror attack.

It can be frustrating that, despite our best efforts, we cannot seem to make this world as safe as we might like it to be.  In a day and age that seems and feels scary, here are a few reminders for Christians about safety.

Safety is important. 

Mosaic law set up what were known as “cities of refuge” for ancient Israelites who stood accused of manslaughter.  The goal of these cities was “safety” for these accidental killers (Deuteronomy 19:4), because, if a man killed another man – even if unintentionally – the victim’s relatives might seek the killer’s life in revenge without due process.  Keeping people safe from those who would seek to unjustly harm them, then, was a priority in Israel.  It should be the same with us.

Whether it be the security of our homeland, or the plight of refugees halfway across the world, tending to the safety of others is part and parcel of having compassion on others.  Thus, we can be thankful for the intelligence agencies who seek to keep our nation safe along with the relief agencies who tend to the safety and even the basic survival needs of endangered peoples throughout our world.

We should pray for safety.

The biblical authors have no qualms with praying for their safety and for the safety of others.  The apostle Paul, for instance, knowing that he might encounter some opposition to his ministry in Judea, writes to the Romans, asking them to “pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea” (Romans 15:31).

Martin Luther, in his morning prayer, thanked God that He had kept him “this night from all harm and danger” and, in his evening prayer, thanked God that He had “graciously kept [him] this day.”  In the same vein, an alternate version of the famous children’s bedtime prayer reads:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
Wake me with the morning light.

Prayers for safety abound.  Praying for our safety, the safety of our families, the safety of our nation, and safety across the world is, at its root, a holy and righteous prayer for peace.  It ought to be a regular part of any Christian’s prayer life.

Safety cannot be our only concern.

As blessed a gift as safety may be, it cannot be our only concern.  Sometimes, we are called to surrender our own safety for the sake of the gospel.  This is why Paul and Barnabas, in a letter to the Christian church at Antioch, honor those “who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  This is why each of the Twelve disciples, save one, was martyred for what he believed.  A concern for safety that refuses to take a risk for the sake of the gospel does not treat safety as a gift from God to be celebrated, but as an idol that needs to be repented of.  The concern for our own safety must never become greater than our commitment to Christ.

Perfect safety is found only in Christ.

As each terror attack reminds us, we cannot ultimately ensure our own safety.  Only God can.  The Psalmist wisely prays, “You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8).   Paul similarly declares, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).  The Greek word for “safely” in this verse is sozo, the word for “salvation.”  As concerned as we might be with safety in this life, Christ is finally concerned with bringing us safely into the eternal life of salvation.  Thus, we should never become so concerned with temporary safety now that we forget about the perfect safety of salvation, won for us in Christ and given to us by the grace of Christ.  In the words of John Newton’s great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
 

The safety our eternal home is the safety we finally seek, for it is the only safety that can never be shattered.

March 27, 2017 at 6:18 am Leave a comment

Thoughts on Baptism

augustines-baptism

The Baptism of Augustine

Yesterday, I got to preach on an encounter that a disciple of Jesus named Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road.  Through Philip’s witness, this eunuch was moved to faith and to baptism.  In my message, I answered some common questions people have about baptism, but there was much I wanted to say about baptism that I didn’t get a chance to.  So, in the interest of further exploring the richness of what baptism offers, I figured I’d repost some thoughts on baptism that I wrote several years ago.  I hope you enjoy!

What is baptism?

Baptism is a divine ordinance, instituted by Christ Himself, whereby He makes disciples through water combined with God’s name.  Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  The participle “baptizing” can be translated as a participle of means.  Baptism, therefore, can be seen as a means by which disciples are made.

It is important to recognize that baptism is something God does for us and not something we do for God.  This is why Paul says of baptism, “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  Notice the passive voice of the verbs:  “buried,” “raised.”  These are divine passives, indicating that God is the One burying our old, sinful natures and raising us to new life in Christ.  We are passive in the matter.  This runs contrary to the teaching of some who describe baptism merely as an act of obedience while denying its divine power.  Consider this quote from a large denomination’s confessional statement: “Baptism is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”[1]  Two things are especially notable about this statement.  First, while obedience is emphasized, the blessings of baptism are not mentioned.  Second, this statement references Romans 6:4, but relegates Paul’s language concerning burial and resurrection to that of symbolism, emphasizing the believer’s faith rather than God’s action.  Paul, however, nowhere indicates that he is speaking symbolically in this verse.  Rather, his language indicates that he has a lively confidence in an actual new life, offered by God through baptism.

Does baptism save?

Yes, baptism does save.  Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).  Peter could not be clearer:  Baptism saves you.  However, it is important to note not only that baptism saves you, but how baptism saves you.  It saves you “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Without the resurrected Christ, baptism is emptied of its power and promise.

There are some who object to the teaching that baptism saves, saying, “Faith in Christ alone saves you!”  They often quote Scripture passages such as Romans 10:9:  “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They then argue:  “Paul says that faith in Christ saves you and nowhere mentions baptism in Romans 10:9.  Therefore, faith in Christ, and not baptism, saves you.”  This type of argument engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.”  In this game, people line up their favorite Bible verses to support their favorite pet positions and then, when shown Scriptural testimony which calls into question their position, rather than seeking to reconcile the verses and take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word, they simply declare, “Because my pet Bible verse is true, you must be incorrect!  My Bible verse sunk your Bible verse!”  We should never use Bible verses to “sink” other Bible verses.  Rather, we should assume that all Scripture speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith.  Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 1 Peter 3:21, we ought to take his words as complimentary, and not contradictory, to what Paul says in Romans 10:9.

So then, how do we understand Romans 10:9 and 1 Peter 3:21 harmoniously?  Like this:  baptism does not save simply because it’s baptism, but because it has the promise of Jesus’ presence attached to it (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).  This is why baptism is regularly referred to as a “means of grace.”  God works through simple things such as water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and words on a page in Holy Scripture to speak to, meet with, and provide gifts for His people.  Martin Luther explains wonderfully:  “Without God’s word the water [of baptism] is plain water and no baptism.  But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”[2]  Thus, to say that baptism saves you is simply to say that Jesus saves you because Jesus is doing His work in and through baptism!

Why do Lutherans baptize infants?

Lutherans are not so interested in baptizing infants as we are interested in baptizing all people in accordance with Christ’s commands to baptize “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  The Bible teaches that all are born into sin and deserve God’s condemnation (cf. Psalm 51:5).  Therefore, babies need the salvation Jesus gives in baptism just as much as adults do.  The Bible nowhere prohibits baptizing babies.  In fact, we are told specifically that the promise of baptism is indeed for children: “The promise [of baptism] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

There are some who maintain that a profession of faith must precede baptism.  And because a baby cannot profess his faith in Christ, he should not be baptized until he is old enough to make such a profession.  In response to this objection, I would point out three things.  First, I would question the assumption that a profession of faith is a necessary prerequisite of baptism.  It often happens that that a person in Scripture confesses his faith before he is baptized, but common occurrence doesn’t always necessarily indicate a divine mandate.  Just because the Bible offers a description of certain things and events (e.g., a person offering a profession of faith before baptism) does not necessarily mean that the Bible is mandating a universal prescription.  Second, I would question the assumption that children cannot confess their faith.  The Psalmist reminds us, “From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2, cf. Matthew 21:16).  Children can and do praise God, even if it is with broken grammar and babble.  Finally, from a historical perspective, from the early days of the Christian Church, it was common practice to have parents or sponsors confess the Christian faith on behalf of their children.  The Roman theologian Hippolytus writes this concerning baptism in AD 215:  “The children shall be  baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.”[3]

Baptism is a joyous gift from God.  For through it, God meets us with His gifts.  Luther sums up the joy and promise of baptism nicely when he writes:  “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”[4]  Thus is the blessing and gift of baptism!


[1]The Baptist Faith and Message,” VII.

[2] Luther’s Small Catechism, “Baptism,” 3.

[3] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.4.

[4] What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 61.

September 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge

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Baton Rouge police block Airline Highway after a sniper kills three and wounds three officers.  Credit: AP Photo/Max Becherer

Death is grimly efficient.

In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of a tree about which God had said, “You must not eat…for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17).  By Genesis 4, death has already had its way as Cain kills his brother Abel.

That didn’t take long.

The grim efficiency of death has loomed large over these past few days.  First, word came from Nice, France last Thursday that 84 people had been killed when a terrorist drove a large, white paneled truck at high speeds into a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day.  Then, on Saturday, we learned that around 290 people were killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now arrested over 6,000 people and has vowed to root out what he calls the “virus” that is plaguing his country.  Then, yesterday, tragedy hit Baton Rouge as three police officers were killed and three others were injured when a sniper ambushed and shot at the officers who had responded to a report of trouble near the Hammond Aire Plaza shopping center.

Three stories of death in nearly as many days.  And these come on the heels of another week before this last week that was also packed with three stories stories of death from Saint Paul, from Dallas, and, again, from Baton Rouge.  Yes, death is grimly efficient.

These are terrible times.  There was a time when weeks like these – with so many major stories of unrest and death – were nearly unthinkable.  But in the summer of 2016, weeks like these are becoming all too predictable.  Indeed, I can sometimes struggle with how to process all of these types of tragedies precisely because there are so many of these types of tragedies.

In processing this week’s worth of carnage, I would point to what I have already pointed to in the past.  After the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas, I pointed people to the importance of being empathetic with those who grieve, of receiving Christ’s peace in the midst of unrest, and, most importantly, of remembering that death does not have the last word.  Christ does.

As I look back on this week of tragedies, all of these reminders still hold.  And yet, I wish I didn’t have to remind people of these reminders – again.

Even though I feel a little overwhelmed by so much death in such a short period of time, I am not particularly surprised by it.  After all, death, as Genesis 3 and 4 teach us, is indeed grimly efficient.  It works fast and it works tenaciously.  And it has no intention of giving up on its prey.

What is most striking to me about Abel’s death in Genesis 4 is that even though God condemned Adam and Eve to death because of their transgression against His command, it was their son, Abel, who first suffered under the fruit of their sin.  It who their son, who, ostensibly, did nothing particularly wrong who dies.  Indeed, the reason Abel’s brother Cain kills him is because he did something right.  He made an offering that was pleasing to God.  Cain became jealous of that offering and murdered him.

The first death in history, then, was that of an apparently innocent person.  This is why, when God finds out what Cain has done to his brother, He is furious and asks Cain, “What have you done?” which, interestingly, is the same question God asks Eve when she eats from His forbidden fruit.  God continues by answering His own question: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

Ever since that moment, the blood that cries out to God has been getting deeper and deeper as death has been spreading farther and wider.  Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge have now added their blood to Abel’s.

Finally, there is only one way to stem the flow of death and blood. The preacher of Hebrews explains:

You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:23-24)

Just like Abel, there was a man who was not only ostensibly innocent, He was actually innocent.  Just like Abel, this was a man who did what was pleasing in God’s sight.  And just like Abel, this was a man who had His blood spilled by those who were jealous of Him.  But Jesus’ blood, the preacher of Hebrews says, is better than Abel’s blood.  Why?  Because Jesus’ blood did what Abel’s blood could not.  Instead of just crying out, as did Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood saved us.  By His blood, Jesus solved the problem of Abel’s blood…and Nice’s blood…and Turkey’s blood…and Baton Rouge’s blood.  For by His blood, Jesus said to death’s grim efficiency: “Your reign will end.  My blood will overtake all the blood that cries with a blood that can save all.”

In a week that has seen far too much blood and far too many tears, Jesus’ blood is the blood that we need.  For Jesus’ blood is the only blood that doesn’t wound our souls as we mourn loss; it mends our souls as we yearn for salvation.

July 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Common Question: What’s the Relationship Between Predestination and Evangelism?

Jesus LambI first encountered the question when I was in college. “If God is the One who chooses people for salvation,” a buddy asked me, “then why do we need to worry about spreading the gospel? Isn’t God going to save people regardless of whether or not we share our faith with them?”

At the heart of my college buddy’s question was the relationship between two important doctrines: the doctrine of predestination – that God does all the work for our salvation, even down to the level of our wills, by taking the initiative to choose those who are saved – and the doctrine of evangelism – that we, as God’s people, are charged with going forth and spreading the gospel to all the world so that people may believe and be saved.

At first glance, these two doctrines do indeed seem contradictory.  The apostle Paul writes of predestination:

[God] chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

If God has already chosen people for salvation “before the creation of the world,” as Paul says, then what is the point of sharing the gospel so people will come to faith in Jesus and be saved? Isn’t everything a done deal?

When seeking to explain how these two doctrines work together, two errors have regularly been made.

The first error is that of conditional predestination. This error posits that God only chooses people for salvation on the condition that they first choose to trust in Him. This belief was famously promoted by the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, which outlines the basic tenets of Arminian theology:

God has immutably decreed, from eternity, to save those men who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in Jesus Christ, and by the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end; and, on the other hand, to condemn the unbelievers and unconverted. Election and condemnation are thus conditioned by foreknowledge, and made dependent on the foreseen faith or unbelief of men.[1]

According to the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, God will not choose a person for salvation unless that person first chooses to have faith in Christ.  For the Arminian, then, the burden of sharing one’s faith with others is heavy. After all, how can a person choose to have faith in Christ if he is not given a choice? And how can a person be given a choice if someone does not share with him that there is, in fact, a choice? Presenting to people the message that there is a choice to be made to have faith in Christ is the foundation of evangelism in Arminianism.

But such a theological system is not without problems. First, Scripture does not present God’s choice of us as contingent on our choice of Christ. God’s choices are unilateral. Second, by making God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ, our salvation ultimately becomes dependent not on Christ Himself, but on our ability to choose Christ.  It should be noted that Arminians teach that our wills, before our conversions, are helped along by divine prevenient grace, which is supposed to enable and enliven our wills so they can choose Christ, but such a teaching does not comport with Scripture. Scripture clearly teaches that our wills are anything but enabled and enlivened, especially before our conversions. Paul says of his own will: “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). To make God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ is a recipe for disaster. We will inevitably choose poorly because our wills are broken by and enslaved to sin.

The second error that is often made when trying to explain the relationship between predestination and evangelism is that of conditional proclamation. In this error, predestination is rightly held up as God’s unilateral decision to choose people apart from and in spite of their fallen, sinful wills. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which forms the basis for Calvinist theology, outlines this view:

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature.[2]

This synopsis of predestination is certainly much more in line with how Paul talks about the doctrine in Ephesians 1, but even this understanding is not without its problems.

Calvinist theology runs quickly into trouble when it posits that God not only chooses people for salvation, but that He also chooses people for condemnation.  Again, from the Westminster Confession:

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[3]

This is most certainly not how Paul speaks of predestination in Ephesians 1 and must be rejected. Predestination is not about God’s condemnation.  It is only about His salvation.  In predestination, God rescues people out of their default destination of damnation by choosing them for salvation. Predestination does not work the other way around. God does not predestine people to hell.

Second, because their doctrine of predestination both to salvation and condemnation is so strongly held, some Calvinists can become hesitant to invite someone to believe in Christ because they do not know whether the person they are inviting has been predestined from eternity for salvation or condemnation.

Perhaps the most historically notable example of such reticence comes in one of the most famous sermons of all time:  Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ rhetoric is robust and his portrait of hell is horrifying, but his hope of salvation falls flat:

And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence … God seems now to be hastily gathering in His elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.[4]

Notice that Edwards is careful not to extend God’s promise of salvation to the whole congregation. This is because, in Edwards’ thinking, some are predestined for salvation while others are doomed for condemnation and Edwards cannot know for certain who is who. So he simply states the facts of predestination to salvation and condemnation as he sees them.

Such a way of presenting salvation and condemnation is problematic because it strips the Christian witness of its power. No longer can people be invited to believe through the hearing of the Word (cf. Romans 10:13-15). The proclamation of the gospel is simply a window dressing for what is a fait accompli in predestination.

Thus, in some manifestations of Arminian theology, predestination is stripped of its promise because it is made contingent on a person’s decision while in some manifestations of Calvinist theology, evangelism is stripped of its power because it has no real effect on what is already a foregone conclusion from eternity. So what is the way out of this conundrum?

Because predestination takes place outside of time and because we, as God’s people, live in time, God’s eternal decrees in predestination need a way by which they can delivered evangelically into our time and space. Theologically, the vehicle by which God’s eternal decrees are delivered into our finite world is His Word. When God’s people share God’s Word, which, by the way, is the soul and substance of the evangelical task, faith is awakened in hearts and God’s decrees from before time come to pass within time and, most importantly, within lives, as they do in Acts 13:48 when, after Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel to the Gentiles, “all who were appointed,” that is, predestined, “for eternal life believed.” Without God’s people evangelically sharing God’s Word, God’s choice of people from eternity cannot be known or believed. And where there is no belief, there is no salvation. Thus, it is not just that predestination and evangelism do not conflict with each other. It is that they need each other. Predestination must travel from the timeless to the temporal in order to deliver its promise. Speaking God’s Word evangelically is the vehicle by which this promise gets delivered.

Recently, I have heard some within my own confession of faith of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod criticize those who characterize Christ’s evangelical mission as “emptying out the future population of hell,” or as “building a bigger heaven tomorrow by reaching people today.”  They assert that such language undermines the doctrine of predestination by making our witness to the world, rather than God’s choice of His elect, responsible for people’s salvation.  They prefer to speak of Christ’s mission in terms of “reaching the elect.”  Though I understand their concern and share their aversion to making a person’s salvation in any way dependent on human effort, I am much more comfortable with the language of shifting populations of heaven and hell than they are.  After all, such language indicates that God’s eternal decrees in predestination have entered time and space through the evangelical proclamation of the Word and have actually accomplished something!  Real people are really being converted right here and now much to the real chagrin of the devil and his minions.

Those who criticize the language of shifting eternal populations would do well to remember that characterizing Christ’s mission as “reaching the elect”– even as it carries with it a clear and helpful confession of divine monergism – comes with its own set of pitfalls.  For one thing, it should be noted that, exegetically, Christ promises to gather His elect not so much in time missionally, but at the end of time eschatologically (cf. Mark 13:26-27).  The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30 makes this clear enough.  Such language can also mistakenly lead to the implication that no real conversion takes place in people in time because everything has been taken care of ahead of time in predestination. The Church is simply reminding those who are already Christ’s that they are already Christ’s. But if no real conversion takes place in people in time, then there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted. And if there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted, then there is no real need for a Savior to step into time to die and rise for sinners. It’s already all been taken care of ahead of time. Thus, the cross gets stripped of its power.

As it turns out, Christ’s incarnation becomes the proof in the pudding, so to speak, that what is before time in predestination doesn’t stay there. For Christ is not only the Word spoken to us evangelically, He is the Word who steps into time to die and rise for us salvifically. In a very real sense, then, the future population of hell is being emptied and the glorious population of heaven is being filled by Christ’s work as it is proclaimed by Christ’s people today. Real conversions are taking place. And what began outside of time – predestination – is coming to fruition in time and in Christ for us and for our salvation. Praise be to God for this indescribable gift.

____________________________________

[1] Five Articles of the Remonstrance (1610), First Article.

[2] Westminster of Confession of Faith (1647), III:5.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, III:3.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Enfield, CT (7.8.1741).

September 14, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Common Question: How Were People Who Lived Before Jesus Saved?

Credit: Anthony van Dyck, 1622

Credit: Anthony van Dyck, 1622

Last weekend at the church where I served, we talked about Jesus’ audacious claim that faith in Him and Him alone is the way to salvation. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

The truth that salvation is through faith in Christ alone raises a perennial theological question – one that, once again, came to my attention in an email I received after last weekend’s services:  If people can be saved only by faith in Christ, how were those people who lived before Christ saved?

At the heart of this question lies an assumption – that people before who lived before Christ were somehow saved in a different way than those who lived after Him. The apostle Paul, however, would beg to differ. He points to one of the most famous characters in the Old Testament, Abraham, and specifically asks the question, “How was Abraham saved?” His answer is unmistakably clear:

Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6-9)

Paul announces, “Here is how Abraham, perhaps the most famous character in the Old Testament, was saved: by faith.” How does Paul know this? Genesis 15:6, of course: “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” Importantly, Paul says that God “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.” In other words, before Jesus came to save sinners, God announced that Jesus would come to save sinners.  For example, the prophet Isaiah, some 700 years before Jesus’ advent, speaks of a servant who will be sent by God to take away the sins of the world:

Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

So how were people saved, forgiven, and made righteous before Jesus? By believing that Jesus would come to save, forgive, and make them righteous. How are people saved, forgiven, and made righteous now? By believing that Jesus has come to save, forgive, and make them righteous. In other words, people both before Jesus had come and now that Jesus has come are saved in the same way. They are saved by Jesus.

Oftentimes, people harbor a misconception that people who lived before Christ were saved by following God’s Law while people living after Christ’s advent are now saved through faith in Him. Nothing could be further from the truth. People have always and only been saved by Jesus Christ and His work, even as Jesus Himself says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” God’s gospel has always been the only plan for our salvation.

If your life is anything like mine, plans are constantly changing. While writing this blog, I had to move an appointment because things on my calendar changed. Last week, as I was coming home from a trip to Dallas with some friends, we got a flat tire and plans, due to circumstances beyond our control, changed – we got home later than we expected.  Plans are constantly changing. And oftentimes, it can be frustrating.

The promise of the gospel is that even if our plans change, God’s plans are sure and certain. The plan for our salvation always was, is, and will continue to be Jesus. There’s no need to look for another plan.

April 20, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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