Posts tagged ‘Salvation’

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

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 5.30.39 PM

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

In Response to ISIS

Credit:  Christian Post

Credit: The Christian Post

The video was titled, “A Message Signed With Blood to the Nation of the Cross.” In it, 21 Egyptian Christians, dressed in orange jump suits, were gruesomely beheaded by ISIS militants along a beach in Tripoli. One of the final frames of the video zooms in on the waters of the Mediterranean, red with the blood of these martyrs.[1]

Christians aren’t the only targets of ISIS’ rage. Just last week, ISIS released images appearing to show gay men being thrown off buildings only to be stoned after they fell to the ground. A statement released by ISIS explained that the organization is “clamping down on sexual deviance.”[2]

The reaction to such savage killings has understandably been one of untempered ire. Egypt’s president pledged retaliation against ISIS for the slaughter of its Christians. Indeed, Muslims and Christians together are raising a unified chorus of disgust at ISIS’ actions. Andrea Zaki, vice president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, noted, “With their blood [these martyrs] are unifying Egypt.”[3]

Though the slaughter of Egypt’s Christians has gotten more press than ISIS’ heinous injustices against gay people, both demand a response in addition to whatever political or military responses may be offered in the national and international arenas. Here are two responses that, I believe, are appropriate and important for a moment such as this.

First, we need an anthropological response. After all, whether we are Christian or Muslim, gay or straight, we are all human. Indeed, as Christians, we know and believe that we are all created in God’s image, which affords us not only a shared humanity, but a necessary dignity. This collective humanity and dignity, in turn, involves certain shared hopes and desires. We all desire safety. We all desire respect. We all desire love. When these shared desires are so violently violated, as ISIS has done, basic empathy leads to visceral revulsion. Thus, we can join the world in condemning these acts, if for no other reason than that we are all human.

Second, we also need a theological response. This response is especially urgent because far too many in the broadly secularized West have refused to admit that there are theological drivers behind ISIS’ actions. Writing for The Atlantic, Graeme Wood explains:

We are misled … by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic State’s medieval religious nature … The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.[4]

I should point out that parts of Wood’s history of ISIS’ theological origins – especially his claim that ISIS’ theology is of a “medieval religious nature” – are questionable and, thankfully, have been appropriately critiqued. Nevertheless, his basic premise still stands. ISIS is acting in a way that is robustly and rigorously driven by a certain religious understanding. For ISIS, theology is no mere veneer to cover up some naked ambition for power.   Theology is at the heart of who they are. Thus, it does us no good, for the sake of some self-imposed, naïve political de rigueur, to pretend that at least some of ISIS’ drivers are not theological.

This is where Christians are in a unique position to lend their voices to the challenges and crises presented by ISIS. For we can offer a better theology than ISIS’ theology. We can rebuke a theology that allows the slaughtering of people with whom they religiously and culturally disagree, as Jesus did with His disciples when they wanted to destroy the Samaritans because they were a people with whom the disciples religiously and culturally disagreed. And when a theology leaves room for stoning those who live outside of traditional sexual ethics, we can say with Jesus, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7).

Blessedly, the parts of this “better theology” I outlined above are ones with which the majority of the Muslim world would agree – because even though this “better theology’s” origins are explicitly Christian, its implications are broadly ethical.   And even if ISIS’ understanding of Islamic theology is real, it is certainly not catholic. Plenty – and, in fact, the vast majority – of Muslims share our higher ethical aspirations. Indeed, perhaps what was once a Judeo-Christian ethic can expand into a Judeo-Muslim-Christian ethic.

Ultimately, of course, although theology includes ethics, it is more than just ethical. It is finally soteriological. And this is good. Because this means that even as ISIS continues its campaign of terror, it cannot thwart the promise of God that the faithful who have died at ISIS’ hands are now safe under heaven’s altar.  For this we can be thankful. And because of this we can continue to be hopeful.

______________________

[1] Leonardo Blair, “Heartbreaking: Egyptian Christians Were Calling for Jesus During Execution by ISIS in Libya,” The Christian Post (2.18.2015).

[2] Cassandra Vinograd, “ISIS Hurls Gay Men Off Buildings, Stones Them: Analysts,” NBC News (2.15.2015).

[3] Jayson Casper, “Libya’s 21 Christian Martyrs: ‘With Their Blood, They Are Unifying Egypt’Christianity Today (2.18.2015)

[4] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic (March 2015).

February 23, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

You’re A Saint!

"The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico (1423)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Fra Angelico (1423)

This past Friday, Melody and I dressed up our daughter Hope as an owl and, with great anticipation of the delight we were about to see in her eyes, took her out trick-or-treating. It was a fun evening. She was grinning ear to ear. But as much fun as we had during our Friday evening excursions, the day after held an especially poignant place in my heart. Saturday, according to Church tradition, was All Saints’ Day, a day on which we both remember those saints in Christ who have gone before us and celebrate how we have been made saints through Christ’s death and resurrection.  When I think about all the saints who have gone to be with the Lord in glory this past year, my heart can’t help but be warmed even while my eyes get a little misty. It’s a special time of remembrance.

A traditional prayer for All Saints’ Day encapsulates the meaning of this day well:

O almighty God, by whom we are graciously knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, our Lord, grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who sincerely love You; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen!

I love this prayer for two reasons.  First, it appropriately reminds us that there is much to learn from the saints who have gone before us.  Their ways of “virtuous and godly living” ought to be celebrated by us and their insights into God’s Word and Christ’s gospel ought to be studied by us.  There is much to be said for remembering – and practicing – the ways of the saints of old.  At the same time, we must understand that we do not become saints by remembering and practicing the holy ways of these historic Christians.  Rather, we become “sainted” by being “knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ.” Everyone who is a member of Christ’s body is properly called a saint, even as the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  How are we made saints?  We are sanctified and called by Christ.  Who are the saints?  They are everyone, everywhere who calls on the name of Jesus.

It is this definition of sainthood that the Church has believed and confessed for millennia, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”

This phrase, “the communion of saints,” carries with it two meanings. On the one hand, this phrase refers to all Christians from all times in all places, both in heaven and on earth.  Nicetas, a fourth century Serbian bishop, explains:

What is the Church but the congregation of all saints? Patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, all the just who have been, are, or shall be, are one Church because sanctified by one faith and life, marked by one Spirit, they constitute one body.  Believe, then, that in this one Church you will attain the communion of saints.[1]

On the other hand, the Greek word for “saints” in the New Testament can be either masculine, referring to people, or neuter, referring to things.  Thus, “the communion of saints” can be taken to mean “the communion of sainted, or holy, things.”  This is the way that Peter Abelard, the great twelfth century French theologian, understood this phrase.  In this case, the phrase, “the communion of sainted things,” was understood to mean the holy things of God:  His Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  The Lutheran confessors incorporate both understandings of “the communion of saints” when they write, “The Church is the congregation of saints [sainted people], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered [sainted things].”[2]  Thus, the Church is made up of the sainted people of God gathered around the sainted things of God!

But there is even more to this phrase, “the communion of saints.”  The Greek word for “communion” in the Creed is koinonia, a term that, even in secular Greek, describes not primarily communion with other human beings, but communion with God.  For example, the first century Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of the noble man in his “poor mortal body thinking of his fellowship (koinonia) with Zeus.”[3] Even in the pagan mind, man desires to have koinonia with god, albeit with a false god.  This word koinonia was subsequently commandeered by Christians to describe communion with the true God:  “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  We have koinonia with Christ.  The phrase, “communion of saints,” therefore, refers not only to the communion we, as Christians, have with each other, but to the communion we have with Christ.

Finally, then, to say, “I believe in the communion of saints” is to say, “I believe that I have communion with Christ and with others who are in Christ.  I believe that Christ meets me by His Word and holy gifts, cleanses me by His blood, and sanctifies me by His Holy Spirit.”  But saying all this is a mouthful.  So we simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”  It’s a simple phrase that means so much.  For it describes not only who we are, but who we are with.  We’re with Jesus.  And being with Jesus makes me feel like – well – a saint.

____________________

[1] Nicetas in Charles Augustus Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 193-194.

[2] AC VII 1

[3] Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.27

November 3, 2014 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

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