Posts tagged ‘Sanctification’

Faith and Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practicing Patience

Patience 1The other day, I drove down to the Social Security office to apply to get a Social Security card for my daughter, Hope.  Because she is adopted, she did not get one issued to her at the hospital.  While I was on my way to visit my local friendly government agency, the skies opened up, thunder clapped, and rain poured down, slowing traffic to a crawl.

Now, usually, I hate being stuck in traffic.  I’m always looking for a way to weave in and out of traffic and find that elusive lane that is going 40 miles per hour faster than all the other lanes.  But not so on this day.  It was raining so hard that, quite frankly, I was glad traffic was moving at a snail’s pace.  I’d rather slosh down the road slowly and arrive safely at my destination than try to gun it and wind up in a wreck.

As I sat there contentedly in a sea of brake lights, my thoughts were drawn to the virtue of patience.  After all, for once in my life, I actually felt patient.  Here is what I realized in my moments spent reflecting: the virtue of patience leads to other virtues.  It is what I call a “funnel virtue.”  That is, if you practice patience, it will funnel you in to other important virtues.

For instance, take the virtue of responsibility.  At the end of the day, my wife directs Hope to clean up her toys.  But directing a one-year-old to clean up toys is never an easy – or a quick – task.  Hope will drop a toy in her toy basket only to immediately pull it out again.  But Melody knows it’s important to teach Hope responsibility.  But to teach the virtue responsibility, Melody first needs to exercise the virtue of patience (which she does marvelously, by the way).  Patience funnels into responsibility.

Or how about the virtue of joy?  The disease of road rage is well documented.  Drivers lose their minds because they feel the person in front of them is going too slow.  But what would happen if they were patient?  Perhaps they would rediscover the joy of a Sunday drive – motoring down the road more to take in the sights rater than to reach a destination.  Patience could funnel into joy.

Then, of course, there is the virtue of love.  There is perhaps no better expression of love than patience.  This is why the very first virtue that Paul uses to describe love in 1 Corinthians 13:4 is, “Love is patient.”  To be patient with someone teaches you to love someone because it forces you to put someone else’s pace and schedule above of and in front of your own.

Finally, patience also can serve as a funnel to fuller faith.  Right now, we are in the process of buying a new home.  I cannot tell you how many times I have prayed to God for an answer about something pertaining to this process…right now!  God is answering my requests in some pretty miraculous ways, just not according to my schedule.  And I am having to remember and re-learn that God really does have this all under control and I can trust Him to work things out.  But here’s the key:  the longer I have to wait on Him, the more I learn to trust Him.  Patience funnels into faith.

As it turns out, when I got to the Social Security office, I was not able to get a card for Hope.  The documentation requirements that I read in the Social Security brochure did not match the documentation requirements they had at the Social Security office.  I left empty handed with an errand list of other government agencies I had to visit to get the required documents.  I had wasted my time.  And I found I was not nearly as patient on the way back from the Social Security office as I was on the way to the Social Security office.

Perhaps my patience funnel still has room to expand.

June 30, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

#Blessed

Credit:  socialmediaexaminer.com

Credit: socialmediaexaminer.com

I don’t know how many times I’ve received the prayer request.  But it’s definitely more times than I can remember.  “Pray that God will bless my…” and then fill in the blank.  “Finances.”  “Job Search.”  “Move.”  “Golf Game.”  “Baby Shower.”  And the list could go on and on.

Now, on the one hand, I have no particular problem with these kinds of prayer requests per se.  Indeed, when people come to me with these kinds of prayers, I gladly oblige.  But on the other hand, even though we pray to be blessed, I’m not so sure we always understand what it truly entails to be blessed, at least not biblically.

The other day, I came across an article by Jessica Bennett of The New York Times chronicling all the blessings she has stumbled across on social media.  She opens:

Here are a few of the ways that God has touched my social network over the past few months:

S(he) helped a friend get accepted into graduate school. (She was “blessed” to be there.)

S(he) made it possible for a yoga instructor’s Caribbean spa retreat. (“Blessed to be teaching in paradise,” she wrote.)

S(he) helped a new mom outfit her infant in a tiny designer frock. (“A year of patiently waiting and it finally fits! Feeling blessed.”)

S(he) graced a colleague with at least 57 Facebook wall postings about her birthday. (“So blessed for all the love,” she wrote, to approximately 900 of her closest friends.)

God has, in fact, recently blessed my network with dazzling job promotions, coveted speaking gigs, the most wonderful fiancés ever, front row seats at Fashion Week, and nominations for many a “30 under 30” list. And, blessings aren’t limited to the little people, either. S(he) blessed Macklemore with a wardrobe designer (thanks for the heads up, Instagram!) and Jamie Lynn Spears with an engagement ring (“#blessed #blessed #blessed!” she wrote on Twitter). S(he)’s been known to bless Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with exotic getaways and expensive bottles of Champagne, overlooking sunsets of biblical proportion (naturally).[1]

Apparently, Bennett has a lot of extraordinarily “blessed” friends.  She even tells the story of a girl who posted a picture of her posterior on Facebook with the caption, “Blessed.”  Really?

The theology behind the kind of blessing Bennett outlines is shallow at best and likely heretical in actuality.  The so-called “god” who bestows these social media blessings is ill-defined and vacuous, as Bennett intimates with her references to “god” as “s(he),” and the blessings from this divine turn out to be quite petty.  Frocks that fit, birthday wishes on Facebook, and financial windfalls all qualify to be part of the “blessed” life.

All this leads Bennett to suspect that these “blessings” are really nothing more than people cynically

… invoking holiness as a way to brag about [their] life … Calling something “blessed,” has become the go-to term for those who want to boast about an accomplishment while pretending to be humble, fish for a compliment, acknowledge a success (without sounding too conceited), or purposely elicit envy.

That sounds about right.  “Blessed” is just a word people use to thinly disguise a brag.

True biblical blessing, of course, is quite different – and much messier.  Jesus’ list of blessings sounds quite different from what you’ll find on Facebook:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. (Luke 6:20-22)

Poverty, hunger, mourning, and persecution all qualify to be part of the blessed life.  Why?  Because true blessing involves much more than what happens to you in this life.  It involves God’s promises for the next.

All this is not to say that the good gifts we receive in this life are not blessings.  But such blessings must be received with a proper perspective – that they are blessings not just because we happen to like them, but because it is God who gives them.  Indeed, one of the most interesting features of the Hebrew word for “blessing,” barak, is that it can be translated either as “bless” (e.g., Numbers 6:24) or as “curse” (e.g., Psalm 10:3), depending on context.  What makes the difference between whether something is a blessing or a curse?  Faith – a confidence that a blessing is defined not in terms of what something is, but in terms of who gives it.  This is why when we are poor, hungry, mourning, and persecuted, we can still be blessed.  Because we can still have the Lord.  And there is no better blessing than Him.

Put that on Instagram.

__________________________

[1] Jessica Bennett, “They Feel ‘Blessed,’” The New York Times (5.2.2014).

May 19, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

More Than A Little

Apple 1I suffer from calorie creep.  It’s amazing.  If I wake up in the morning and commit to making wise food choices, staying away from sweets, and considering the calories of what I put in my mouth before those calories get there, I can usually keep the number of my calories down and the quality of my calories up.  But if I don’t…

It only takes a little.  “I’ll just have a little bit of ice cream for dessert,” I think to myself after lunch.  But it’s amazing how much ice cream I can cram into even a little bowl.  And by the time supper rolls around, a second bowl of ice cream begins to sound awfully enticing.  The more junk food I eat, the more junk food I want.  A little always turns into a lot.

“It’s just a little white lie.”  “We were just kicking back a little.”  “A little bit of fun never hurt anyone!”  It’s amazing how many times I have heard these statements or statements like these as excuses for sin.  How are they excuses?  They’re excuses because they sanction sin by arguing that what they’re supporting is only “a little” sin.  But a little always turns into a lot.

Solomon makes this precise point when he talks about the sin of laziness:  “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:33-34).  Solomon says that sin adds up faster than you think.  And this means that sin can wreak havoc in your life quicker than you think.

When the apostle Paul is writing to the Galatians, he warns them against tolerating even a little sin with a metaphor:  “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:9).  Paul says that just like it only takes a little yeast to make bread rise, it only takes a little sin to make wickedness rise.

The other day, I came across some thoughts from the Archbishop Chaput, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, worth citing here:

We live in a culture where our marketers and entertainment media compulsively mislead us about the sustainability of youth; the indignity of old age; the avoidance of suffering; the denial of death; the nature of real beauty; the impermanence of every human love; the oppressiveness of children and family; the silliness of virtue; and the cynicism of religious faith.  It’s a culture of fantasy, selfishness, sexual confusion and illness that we’ve brought upon ourselves …

As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observed more than a decade ago, “What was once stigmatized as deviant behavior is now tolerated and even sanctioned; what was once regarded as abnormal has been normalized.”  But even more importantly, she added, “As deviancy is normalized, so what was once normal becomes deviant.  The kind of family that has been regarded for centuries as natural and moral – the ‘bourgeois’ family as it is invidiously called – is now seen as pathological” and exclusionary, concealing the worst forms of psychic and physical oppression.

My point is this: Evil talks about tolerance only when it’s weak. When it gains the upper hand, its vanity always requires the destruction of the good and the innocent, because the example of good and innocent lives is an ongoing witness against it.  So it always has been.  So it always will be.[1]

His last paragraph is key.  A little bit of evil will ask you to tolerate it so it can get itself in the door of your life.  But once it gains access to your heart’s hallways, it will grow – gradually, perhaps, but inexorably.  And what it asked for itself in the name of tolerance it will not give to goodness.  For it has come to destroy goodness.  It has come to destroy you.  And that is why Jesus has come to destroy it.

Stand firm, then.  For even a little sin is a little too much.


[1] Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, “A Thread for Weaving Joy,” Voices Online Edition, vol. XXVII, no. 1 (Lent – Eastertide 2012).

August 12, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Luther on Romans 12

This morning’s text in worship is Romans 12. Paul opens this chapter, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.” Luther offers some great context on this verse – what comes before it and what follows it – in his commentary on Romans:

In the preceding chapters, the apostle laid “the true foundation which is Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11), or “the first rock,” upon which the wise man builds (Matthew 7:24), and he destroyed the false foundation, namely, man’s self-righteousness and merits, which are as “the sand” upon which the foolish man builds (Matthew 7:26). Here now he proceeds to “build upon this foundation gold, silver, and previous stones” (1 Corinthians 3:12). Good works, which are the building, must above all have a sure and dependable foundation on which the heart can purpose to stand and to rely forever, so that, even in the case that the site may not yet have been built upon, the site is ready to do so. The moralists do the opposite of this with their good works. They seek to put their trust in their conscience and, when they have performed many good works, they think they have done enough for themselves, so that they can feel secure. This is nothing else than to build on the sand and to reject Christ. The apostle tries hard to prevent this; this is the purpose of all his letters. To say, as is commonly done, that “sand” means the riches of the world is a superficial and weak exegesis. For Christ speaks here of the people who build (i.e., who do good) and not of misers and worldlings who rather destroy themselves than build up anything.

Hence, it is good works that the apostle calls “sand.” And it is upon this foundation that these people try to build their righteousness in order to obtain a dwelling place for the conscience and peace of mind. But, as a matter of fact, only Christ is this foundation – and before all good works. For even before we think of doing enough or building up, He has given us the foundation as a free gift, namely, a quiet conscience and a trusting heart. Has there ever been a builder stupid enough to lay also the foundation? Do not the builders look for the foundation that is already laid in the earth or do they not accept what is offered to them? So then, just as the earth offers us a foundation without our effort, so Christ offers Himself without us as our righteousness, peace, and security of conscience in order that from then on we can continually build upon Him in doing good. (WA 56)

January 23, 2011 at 7:35 am Leave a comment


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