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Ancient Paths: Means That Justify the Ends

Ancient Paths: Means That Justify the Ends
 As we “Ask For the Ancient Paths”, we will soon be speaking about the sacraments of the Christian Church.
It is my conviction that, for the past 500+ years of Early Modern history, the world has run roughshod over the means by which man is to engage with God. Many say, “One doesn’t have to be baptized, take communion, go to church or receive absolution in order to be a right Christian. The ends (being right with God) are independent of the means (the God-prescribed ways of communion with Himself).”
Yet, the scriptures are deathly serious about the means. Whether the ark of Noah, the circumcision of the Israelites, the bronze serpent in the wilderness, the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic Law, attendance at festivals, the prescriptions for both tabernacle and temple worship … God is abundantly concerned with the appropriate means. For God, the prescribed means cannot and will not be circumvented in the name of an alternative path to the desired ends.
So, I intend to turn the phrase: We want to see ourselves in appropriate relationship with our God. And the God-given means are non-negotiable for us to get there. The means DO justify the ends.
In a political sense, I would add this: For those who believe in the principles of democracy, it is not okay to get to desired conclusions through inappropriate means (e.g., good policies via the benevolent dictator). One cannot enjoy good “ends” if the “means” have been inappropriate. For those championing a political system, the means are pivotal to the justification of the ends.
But back to the church. God has always been one to give us means. Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, even the Syrian king Naaman … they were called not only to champion certain convictions and beliefs, but were given strict orders for carrying out their calls — means. This remained true with Jesus in the New Testament: His charge to the 70, his administration of at the Wedding in Cana and the feedings of the 4,000 and 5,000, His institution of the Lord’s Supper, and His great commission, where he charged us with means – to go, to make disciples, to baptize, to teach.
God has chosen to justify us through means. The ends don’t justify these prescribed means. They are justified because they are God’s dictates and they must be adhered to for us to have justified ends.
The means justify the ends.
More on this soon – especially how the rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are non-negotiable means for the experience of our justification before God! …
– E.O.
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Ancient Paths: The Nicene Creed

Ancient Paths: The Nicene Creed

Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, which most believe emerged organically in the life of the early church over several decades, the Nicene Creed was the product of a very specific action item, at a very extraordinary conference. You see, early in the 4th century AD, the church has significant internal conflict. (Can you imagine that? The early church … in conflict? I thought that was just for us contemporary, divisive people!)

 

The Conflict

See the source imageSpecifically, there was debate about the person of Jesus. The Apostle’s Creed had made statements about the historical person of Jesus: His conception, passion, crucifixion, ascension and return. It told us what He did, but didn’t tell us Who He was. A debate raged over whether Jesus was, in fact, God in the flesh. One group, whose chief spokesman was a winsome, brilliant pastor from Egypt named Arius, believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, and therefore less than God (called Arians, and Arianism). On the other side were those who believed that Jesus was wholly God – as God as the Father is God.

Each side turned to the Bible for their proofs. Both had articulate spokesmen. Heels were dug in deeply. You might ask, “why don’t they just let each other believe what they want?” But it’s not that easy. They certainly couldn’t worship together, because they couldn’t ascribe to Jesus the same things. Beyond that, if Jesus is less than God, it’s blasphemy to call Him fully God. But, if Jesus is fully God, it’s blasphemy to say He’s not! Both sides saw the other as not only a different opinion, but a heresy.

The Political Solution

Meanwhile, Constantine had become the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and had chosen to see Christianity tolerated in His realm. He saw the value in the people being united by a shared faith – but quickly learned that the Christians were not united among themselves. He decided to get the Arianism issue resolved. So it was Constantine who called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, only eight months after becoming the sole Roman Emperor (this was obviously a high priority item in his administration!). It’s a shame the church couldn’t get it together on its own, but we can still be glad that the government forced the church to make important conclusions about what it believes.

The Conclusions of the Council: The Nicene Creed

Many issues were discussed at Nicaea, but nothing as important as the person of Jesus. The conclusions hammered out at the Council are contained in what we now call the Nicene Creed. It is a thicker, meatier version of the Apostles’ Creed, which they seem to have used as their foundation for their new statements. Here are the key items they layered upon the Apostles’ Creed that have become what we today call “orthodoxy” (right belief):

  • Jesus is begotten of the Father, but “eternally begotten” – in other words, there was never a time when Jesus was not. He is eternal. Like God (because He is God).
  • This begetting does not make Jesus less than the Father. Rather, Jesus is God (from God), true God (from true God), very God (from very God). God!
  • The Father and Jesus constitute a single “being”, a single “substance”. Jesus is as God as the Father is God.
  • Both the Father and Jesus were behind the creation of all things. Again, this was to affirm that Jesus was in no way less than God.
  • The Holy Spirit is also God: “Lord”, “giver of life”, and to be worshiped and glorified (which only God should receive).

Does this really matter?

See the source imageYES!!!!! As the early church father Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 AD) famously said in the days after the formulation of the Nicene Creed, “What is not assumed, is not redeemed.” In short, Jesus had to be God, because only God can redeem man. And Jesus had to be man in order to be the “first-born from the dead” (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:4). Creator had to become creation to save creation, but had to remain God to remain the perfect sacrifice. As soon as you say Jesus is less than God, his sacrifice for our sin isn’t enough. As soon as you say Jesus is less than man, then He no longer represents us … He is no longer the “second Adam” (Rom. 5:12-19, 1 Cor. 15:45), but is some sort of hybrid human. Jesus saves what He becomes while remaining Who He is. Otherwise, all is lost.

(By the way, modern day Arianism is propagated and practiced by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientology, and some Pentecostal groups. Most liberal mainline denominations, including United Methodists, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Episcopalians, and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Lutherans don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, sinlessness, miracles, resurrection and ascension … so Jesus’ “divinity” may be considered, but it has nothing to do with redemption.)

So, despite the good, hard work done in Nicaea 1,693 years ago, the battle over the truth of Who Jesus was and is rages on. In our Lutheran tradition, on every Communion Sunday, we proclaim the Nicene Creed, anchoring our souls to this indispensable, pivotal, redeeming truth. God became man – my only hope of being reconciled to God!

A few words about the Athanasian Creed, coming soon.

– EO

 

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Ancient Paths: Apostles’ Creed

Just a few thoughts today about the content of the Ancient Path that is the Apostles’ Creed. What are the indispensable truths that all true Christians believe?

Let’s try this: Let’s look at the creed as a set of replies to a some of the beliefs held by many in our world today…

Apostles' CreedThere is no God. No, there is one. And only one.

“God” is just a universal force. No, He is personal.

God is not ultimately powerful. No, He is almighty.

There may be a God, but our world is the product of a cosmic accident. No, God made everything.

Jesus was just a good man. No, He is divine.

Jesus is one of many really good, spiritual men. No, He is qualitatively different … the only Son of God.

Jesus is just a good example for us. No, He intends and expects to be our ruler and master.

Jesus was born like any other man. No, He was conceived miraculously, as is befitting, even necessary, for an incarnation of God on the planet.

Jesus didn’t really exist in history. No, He did – in a real family, in a real place, in real political life.

Jesus’ “death on the cross” was a sham. No, He was really crucified, really died, and was really buried.

Since Jesus lived at a certain time in history, he is irrelevant to those who lived before his time. No, the truth of His life and message has been made known to all who have died in the past.

Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. Oh, but He did.

Jesus is dead and gone, and his remains are somewhere here on earth. No, He went to heaven directly after being resurrected.

Jesus led a nice life, but can’t be active in our lives now. No, He remains alive, in the presence of God His Father, hears our prayers, and acts on our behalf.

Jesus’ time in history is over.  No, He is involved now, and has promised to return.

Because of Jesus, everyone goes to heaven. No, Jesus is going to come and judge us, and not all will be found innocent.

When we die, we just vanish into nothing. No, both the believing and the unbelieving dead are going to be raised, and judged. Life is everlasting, with or without God.

The presence of God cannot be found or experienced on earth. No, God Himself, the Holy Spirit, is living and active through His people, the church.

I believe in God, but don’t think the church is important. No, the church is God’s idea, Jesus is it’s head, and every believer is a part of it.

Christianity is just for westerners – leave other cultures alone! No, Christianity is “catholic”,* meaning it’s for everybody in history, in every place, for every nation, and for every ethnicity.

Christians aren’t any different than anybody else. No, we have been “sanctified”, made holy, made “saints” – both those who have died as Christians, and those who live as Christians.

I don’t believe I’m a sinner. No, you are. All are. All need to be forgiven by God for our violations of His laws. And that forgiveness is made available by God, through Christ, by the Spirit, as proclaimed by the church.

That is a lot of truth in a concise creed! It truly is good news. So good to believe, so good to know, so good to use.

– EO

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod substitutes the word “Christian” for “catholic” in the Apostles’ Creed. Since the Roman Catholic Church uses the term “catholic” in its branding, using it in the creed led to confusion, and ultimately to the change. But, the word “Christian” simply isn’t the same as “catholic”. Some have encouraged the word “universal” as a synonym, but this limits the idea to geography. This Lutheran would be pleased to see our denomination reclaim the word “catholic” for our usage, because there’s nothing wrong with it, and there is no word like it – it’s the right word that our ancient forefathers selected and codified.

 

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The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

I was reminded today that … well, the fastest growing churches in our land are producing guilt-ridden workaholics rather than a community of men and women who believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls!” (1 Pet. 1:9). Rather than the celebration of peace with God, I fear we promote a spiritual anxiety in people who feel like, if they are following God the way they should, their lives should be fixed by now. 

LCoachI was reminded of this tension as I read this Facebook post today. It’s from an old friend, talking about his church’s upcoming weekend services. Needless to say, the names are fictitious:

Tomorrow is going to be an epic day at our Midtown Campus! John Doe, Jim Doe and Josh Doe combining on a message about Lazarus. Jessie Doe narrating. Jen Doe communicating. Jeremy Doe leading music. Our bulletins to take notes on… they are toe tags that read: Deceased: Lazarus. Physician: Jesus. Funeral Director: Martha. Case #: John 11. We’ll be looking at overcoming obstacles, trusting for miracles, and removing entanglements. I’m so excited for how God is going to use this in my life and in the lives of others.

It sounds like quite a production. There was a day when I would have been proud to be a part of such an “epic day”.

Now, there are a few things about this enterprise that make me squirm a bit, but aren’t that big a deal. All of the terminology is strikingly not-church (campus, communicating, leading music, bulletins). Jesus being termed as “physician” (only?). Playing into our culture’s CSI-enflamed media passion for crime dramas. It’s obvious that this service has been designed with seekers in mind … so the gathering seems produced to capture the fancy of non-Christians, more than to engage its own membership in the Biblically-prescribed worship of God through Christ.

LAZWhat I find most disheartening, though, is the hermeneutic of the “message”. The story of Lazarus is a narrative story that speaks of the grandness and glory of God, the power of resurrection, and the beauty-for-ashes reality of salvation! It’s about how great God is, and how we should praise Him, be assured by Him, and believe in Him. That’s why “these things were written” (John 20:31).

But, in true contemporary Evangelical fashion (and I say this with great warmth, since I, too, have been an Evangelical for so many decades), they’ve taken this glorious story, and turned it into a self-help seminar. Jesus is the one who can help us overcome obstacles and remove entanglements … perhaps even perform a miracle if we trust in Him correctly. The “gospel” behind this version of the story is: Incorporate Jesus into your life, and He will make it run more smoothly. Your life is what matters, and Jesus is here to help.

Again, I have to admit that I would probably have taken the same tack on this passage a few years ago. That’s before I was introduced to the classical hermeneutic of “law and gospel”. Preaching the law (telling people what they should do to be pleasing to God) is a painful-yet-necessary word for those who aren’t Christians. They need to know why they should repent of their sins, and seek to be forgiven by God. But, for the truly repentant, broken soul – the Christian – what’s needed is not the law, the but comforting assuranceget to work of the gospel: God’s love overwhelms your sin, so that you are at absolute peace with God. This gospel also serves as the greatest motivator to righteous conduct.

John 11 is, as much as any passage in the New Testament, a celebration of the completed work of Jesus – the gospel! To turn this around and use this text to instruct people how they should do their faith (appropriate the life-helps offered by Jesus … not in this passage, but perhaps elsewhere) lays burdens on the lives of believers from which Jesus came to alleviate! And, as we baptize our services in the trappings of contemporary culture, affirming to our world that you aren’t supposed to be like God, but that we and God want to be just like them … we fail to tell unbelievers that what they need most is a repentant heart, not the instructions of a life coach.

I’m so thankful for those who have recently nurtured me in classical understandings of the gospel. I wish I had known these things earlier. I am genuinely sad for the lives I’ve stressed out over the years of overemphasizing “practical application” (the “so what” and “now what”). Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer of repentance, and continue to lead me to an authentically redemptive proclamation of the gospel.

– EO

 

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Christianity and Patriotism

Christianity and Patriotism

The 4th of July is coming. In the life of the church, there is often tension associated with the holiday.

In the U.S.A., most in our congregations are citizens (though there are also immigrants, aliens and sojourners among us). Most of these are proud of their country. In many churches, the expression of that national pride has become a part of Sunday worship celebrations, and even special programming centered around our pride in, love for, and allegiance to the U.S.A.

Some cry foul. Others are ready to tar-and-feather you if you don’t enter in.

Recently, John Piper shared his thoughts about Christianity and Patriotism in an online podcast. I’d like to share my thoughts in relation to Piper’s in an attempt to set an appropriate course for churches.*

Piper points out that, in many churches, our Fourth of July celebrations seem “uninformed, unshaped by the radical nature of the gospel, and out of proportion to the relationship between America and the kingdom of Christ.” This is our big question: What is that relationship?

Piper: “We are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime. America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken.”

So far, so good. Unfortunately, for many church goers, it is their primary identity.  The Word of God does need to be spoken clearly into these idolatrous hearts, and a call to absolute allegiance to God needs to made. Still, being citizens of the U.S.A. is part of our identity. (I appreciate Piper using the the words “first” and “primary” above.)

Where I would veer away from Piper’s thinking is in his choosing to make such a vigorous demarcation between allegiance to God and allegiance to the state. “We swear absolute allegiance to him and to no one and nothing else. All other commitments are relativized … All of those authorities are subordinate and secondary to the authority of Christ and, therefore, all submission is qualified.” Piper draws a bold line between Christ as Lord and all other lordships.

ref-luthertours.jpgBut this approach and this rhetoric fails to give weight to the Biblical truth that the Kingdoms of this world are a divinely ordained extension of the rule and reign of God. For kingship belongs to the Lordand he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:28). “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15). And, the extension of God’s rule on the planet is delivered through human governments. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God … he is God’s servant for your good … he is the servant of God … the authorities are ministers of God … Pay to all what is owed to them … respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:1-7).

In short we have the tendency to pit God’s rule against the rule of governments — when the reality is that the state is an extension of God’s rule. This governance can and should be respected and honored by the church.

(I think it’s obvious, but I’ll say it anyway — this is true not just for the U.S.A., but for any believer in any country. This can be especially difficult when a government is plagued by dysfunction and injustice. Nonetheless, it is truth that calls all Christians to appropriate, faith-filled, disciple-like action.)

So, if I might take the liberty of reshaping Piper’s previous paragraph: “We swear absolute allegiance to him, and our allegiance to our country is an extension of our acknowledgement of His rule. All other commitments are contained in this over-arching commitment to God … All of those authorities, though subordinate, needn’t be considered “secondary” to the authority of Christ, but part of it. Therefore, all submission needn’t be qualified, except in instances when disobedience to Christ is mandated.

As to the question of patriotism in worship, I agree with Piper when he says “any pledge of allegiance –  like the one to the American flag – does not belong in a worship service.” But I disagree with his assessment that, when these emphases on country take place, “what is being highlighted and foregrounded is an earthly allegiance.” Again, this doesn’t need to be the case, and this hard line doesn’t need to be drawn. God’s rule through the Spirit/Word/gospel and His rule through governments can be celebrated together. But it’s God’s rule. And because it’s God we celebrate, the emblem of a particular state should not be the icon for our worship.

I had the privilege of serving as a pastor in The Netherlands. Needless to say, we didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July! More to the point, we didn’t celebrate specific national governances, not even that of the Dutch. You see, it was a strikingly international community. To celebrate one sister’s nation would make us feel obliged us to celebrate the nation of every brother and sister in the church. (Churches in the Southwest, where I live now, would probably not think of having a special September 16th service to celebrate Mexican Independence Day — even though many aliens and immigrants are a part of our number.)

Instead, we can take a day to focus on and celebrate the Lordship of Christ, which He exercises through all nations, including our own.

– EO

These thoughts are influenced by Martin Luther’s theology of the two realms/kingdoms, and by a desire to see these ideas once again fleshed out in the life of local churches, particularly Lutheran churches.

 

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1st Day of Christmastide

advent1“How can you believe in Jesus when there’s so much hatred in the world?”

Today’s Christmastide text is 1 John 4:7-16. All of these truths come from this passage:

  • if-god-exists-then-why-is-there-so-much-evil-in-the-world-todayThe Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Merry Christmas!
  • God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. The coming of Jesus is more than a sentimental idea … it’s a revelation of divine love, and is meant to change the way we live our lives.
  • Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. Right. 
  • In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son. If we want more love in the world, we need to realize it’s found in God, not in ourselves without God.
  • Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. An un-loving world is a godless world. Knowing God is the only genuine antidote for loveless living. Trying hard to be more loving, without God … well, it’s a cul-de-sac.
  • We have known and believe the love that God has for us. This is what’s critically missing in our world. Many don’t know about what Jesus means, and many who have heard don’t believe.
  • By this we know that we abide in him and he in us – he has given us of his Spirit … God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. God visited us in the person of Jesus that first Christmas – Emmanuel, God with us. Ever since, He has come to open hearts and minds by His Holy Spirit – the very presence of God, abiding in us.

love-is-possibleStrange that the world blames God for its lack of love. In Christ He came to show how we should live — and by our experiencing His Spirit, He empowers us to make it happen. In short – God has offered the solution to the hatred in our world.

So, who’s really to blame for our lack of love? To a degree, Christians … who have defaulted in our call to share the truths of Christmas, and encourage knowledge of and belief in God. But mostly, it’s our collective penchant for godlessness, which seems to be growing more every day in the Western world.

Lord, you have gifted the world with an amazing capacity to be loving and compassionate. Thank you that millions are receiving this truth around the world. I pray for our country, which seems bent on detaching from You, and trying to do our best without you. Please help your people to effectively live out Spirit-inspired love, and share the truths of Jesus boldly. Amen. 

– EO

 

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Why People Don’t Like Christians – Part 1

Christians aren’t very popular these days. Never have been, really. This is no mystery, for people who have called themselves Christians have given the world plenty of reasons for a less than favorable review.

ghandi-quoteOne of primary reasons people don’t like Christians is because they think us to be hypocrites. We regularly fail to live up to the high standards to which we aspire, and about which we preach. We compound the world’s frustration when we lobby to see those standards embraced by everyone (e.g., championing “family values”, even political legislation) when we do such a poor job of living them out ourselves.

Genuine Christianity, however, is not hypocritical. In fact, it is the only faith that isn’t.

You see, all other religions are built on the idea that we must muster up a righteous life in order to please God. In all other faiths, the assumption is a) we are good enough to live right, and b) we are committed to living right. I can, and will. If you truly can, then claim you will, and then don’t … that’s being a hypocrite.

(And some people think this is what Christianity is: A group of people who have decided to live as the Bible describes, and who tell others they should, too. Sunday services, then, are a combination ethics class/pep rally, designed to motivate people to get it together. Then, when they go out and live poorly yet again during the next week, the world brands this approach to religion as a failure. And they’re right.)

But genuine Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the other manning-quoteBiblical writers,is totally different.

We believe that man is not good enough to live right. God describes right living in the scriptures, and affirms in those same scriptures that it’s unattainable. Sadly (for us), He also said that only the righteous are compatible with heaven. We can’t, and won’t. Wait … we can’t do what we need to to get to heaven? What hope do we have?

This is where Jesus comes in: He lived among us as the one and only man Who lived a righteous life. (Have you ever heard someone say something bad about Jesus?) He then told us how if would be possible for us to be righteous (and get to heaven), too. Quite simply, He has to do it … in us. This is what Christianity refers to as the Holy Spirit – God Himself, living in us, being righteous through us. Jesus refers to this phenomenon as being born again in the Spirit. He can, and will. It’s the only way. And this is totally different than any other religion.

You may say, “so, if Christians have God living in them to be righteous through them, why are they still so lame?” You’ve got us there. We ought to be living our lives at a very high quality, but often look no better than our neighbor, and sometimes even worse. A few reasons why:

  1. Counterfeit Christianity abounds. As I already mentioned, there are many people practicing “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Sadly, they claim to be able to live well, but can’t. They’re hypocrites. I’m afraid this group makes up the majority of Christians in our churches today.
  2. Appropriating divine empowerment is a discipline. Theologian J. I. Packer says this: “The agent of [making us live well] is the Holy Spirit who works in us to make us will and act according to God’s good pleasure. Again and again we need to go down on our knees and admit our helplessness and ask to be empowered … If this sounds easy, it shouldn’t, because [it] is a battle. We never have our hearts entirely set on the things of God, so that even if our actions are right by external standards, our hearts are never quite right. It is struggle and conflict all the way.” The Spirit is available and willing, but we must “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff) in order to experience Him at work in us. And we often don’t.

This is why we are supposed to gather as a church. It isn’t primarily get a coffee, get emotionally “fired up” through faux rock-concert experience, and to recommit our hearts and minds to a series of best-intention propositions dispensed by a life coach. This approach to church will never fail to produce hypocrites.

No, church is so much more than that! We gather in the presence of God to recalibrate our spiritual relationship with the God Who can lead and empower us to live well. That’s why we confess our sins (primarily the sin of not living in the Spirit in the days prior), hear His Word (Heb. 4:12), receive empowering grace through His ordained sacraments, and experience the Holy Spirit through the yes-x-no-bettergiftings all our brothers and sisters around us.

People who practice this type of Christianity (e.g., real Christianity) are still fickle, still bumble, and will still likely disappoint the non-believing world by their less-than-Jesus-like lifestyles. But they’re not hypocrites — at least in the traditional sense. They know that they’re in a battle (“struggle and conflict all the way”), and they make no claims that they’ll bat 1,000%. They are not too surprised when they fail. Still, they forget yesterday, and press into today, prayerfully clinging to the God Who can bear the fruit of righteousness in them now.

On behalf of Christians everywhere, I apologize for the poor examples given by people who call themselves Christians, but are simply powerless moralists. I don’t like them either.

dont-like-selvesMy encouragement is for all to look beyond those poor representations of an incredible faith. See instead the real deal, the substance of genuine, classical Christian living. I am sure that, if our churches were full of these humble, prayerful, fruitful people, that Christianity would have a much better name in our world. You might even be interested in joining their ranks.

– EO

 

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