05 December 2008

Mercy Established

Master of Alkmaar, Seven works of mercy, ca. 1504, polyptych (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum)

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Heb. 7:26–28)
In this passage we see the importance given to the fact that Jesus identifies with those for whom he died by undergoing temptation. We are also made aware of the necessity that this high priest be sinless, or else he would not have been qualified to enter into the heavenly sanctuary on our behalf. The author of this epistle clearly assumes that this once-for-all sacrifice is enacted on behalf of individuals: “…since he did this [offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people] once for all when he offered up himself” (Heb. 7:27b). What wondrous love is this?

But while we may know well-enough about the personal benefits of Jesus’ atonement, how often do we think about its effect on the community at-large? How does this relate to the call of loving others through good deeds? Why is the task of outward reconciliation part and parcel of the Christian life?

Saint Paul wrote about this in his letter to the Colossians: Through Jesus, all things will be reconciled unto himself, “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (1:20).

Unfortunately, some theologians today take the apostle to mean that this outward peace ought to be the primary element of the atonement, that it is not so much concerned with the reconciliation of individuals but with the reconciliation of the entire world through works of mercy. But what makes up the entire world if not individual and particular living souls?

Attempts such as these offer an unworthy trade, not to mention a false dichotomy. If a community of individuals seeks to establish the good works of Jesus on earth (which includes both preaching redemption and meeting human needs) without first being a community that realizes the depth of their depravity before a holy God, then they are destined to promote an empty moralism, worth nothing, saving no one. We evangelicals cannot afford to let those who deny Paul’s message of reconciliation to individual sinners champion the cause of doing good through works of mercy in this world. We own it, properly speaking. The once-for-all sacrifice of the great high priest not only affects our individual lives at one particular instant in history, it affects the whole of our lives, and through us, the whole world.

Therefore, being in the world, as a community of atoned-for individuals, means having a righteous effect upon the world. Such a task could not be fulfilled if we were to withdraw out of the world, or if we were to succumb to the world, thus becoming of this world, or “worldly,” as the apostle John phrases it (see 1 John). The church’s mission is entirely wrapped up in Jesus’ work on the cross. We must see that it is because of the selfless, tortured, and crucified Son of God that the church is bound to the task of doing his work in every generation. Jesus intimately knew pain, hunger, mental anguish, death, and something this side of physical death no one has known — being forsaken by the Father. Jesus took that ultimate burden upon himself. Thus the cross, and the atonement procured for sinners therein, becomes the very reason we seek to establish righteousness here and now.

If Jesus had already returned (as certain end-time enthusiasts exclaim), there would be no need. But our time here is filled with tension, filled with the need to establish justice and righteousness. It is a tension that describes the kingdom as here but not yet fully. It is a tension that portrays the visible people of God as consisting of both wheat and tares. It is because of this tension that the church still seeks to fulfill her mission.

Stemming from God’s command to love Him totally, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christians are called first to the conversion of souls and then to works of mercy. It was no coincidence that Jesus inaugurated his redemptive ministry in Galilee with the following words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). Throughout his ministry, Jesus did just that. He preached repentance and reconciliation to the downcast, not to the “righteous” (Luke 5:31–32). He also healed the sick and fed the hungry (Matt. 15:32; Mark 1:41). As followers of Christ, then, we are to do the same. After reading about the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) or the king who divides sheep from goats (Matt. 25:34–40), who does not think part of the church’s mission is to meet human needs with mercy and liberality? Through this, the world will see the love of God and the authenticity of his good news — that saved sinners love God and their neighbors.

The final question we are left with is this: Will Jesus return to a world in shambles due to our neglect? Or, will he return to a church empowered by the life-giving Spirit, a church that has taken seriously her commission to train disciples in the kingdom of God?

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.5 (May 2004): 42–43}

05 November 2008

Righteous Freedom

{This originally appeared as an editor's Coram Deo (the only one I've written) in Tabletalk 28.4 (April 2004): 2}

The early sixteenth century witnessed a reformation regarding the role of Jesus’ goodness and faithfulness in redemption. But moments such as these — moments of clarity — rarely last that long. Within a generation, the righteousness of Christ was forced once again to share the stage with human goodness.

Such decline in doctrine is by no means remarkable, and it should serve to remind us of an unfortunate truism in this fallen world. John Calvin knew it all too well. Hinting at his anxiety over the future of his home church in Geneva, he wrote, “It is not strange that today the authority of God’s servants, whom he has furnished with excellent and wonderful gifts, protects and preserves the church. But once they are dead, a sad deterioration will promptly begin, and impiety now hidden will erupt without restraint.” 

Sad words, indeed. Today, we face this same dilemma, as there are those who place the proper emphasis on Christ’s righteousness, while at the same time many sneak a works-based righteousness through the back door.

For this reason, now is a good time to devote an entire month of
Tabletalk to this foundational and profoundly practical doctrine. From Christ’s humble service to his redeeming faithfulness, each article this month strives to direct us toward our only sure hope in redemption: the righteousness of the living Savior. Without his work alone on our behalf, we could not even cast a shadow upon the threshold of the invisible church, let alone cross it. 

Underlying this work of Christ in our stead is the inexhaustible grace of God. Redemption is not to be viewed as a single, specific instance of religious conversion. It is the whole Christian journey, and it is accomplished and applied by nothing less than the grace of our covenant Lord. 

Those who challenge this idea that God irresistibly draws believers to himself contend that he would not demand repentance from us if we were not already able to do it without special grace. Surely, they say, God would not hold us responsible for something we cannot do. The Reformers, however, taught differently. They, like Saint Augustine before them, entreated God to command whatsoever he will and grant whatsoever he commands. They recognized that their reliance, their sole foundation, rested upon sovereign grace.

Join in our study of this life-enriching doctrine as we seek to live
coram Deo and shake-off the cold, iron shackles of our churches’ Pelagian captivity. 

10 October 2008

Repentance from First to Last

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.3 (March 2004): 25}

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the academy bulletin board (which happened to be the church door in those days). Essentially, the theses rebuked church leaders for abusing indulgences. Indulgences, he argued, cannot forgive sins. Rather, they are in danger of bringing a false peace to the sinner’s conscience — a place reserved only for God’s once-for-all justification of His children.

Can anyone recall the first thesis, the one upon which all the others follow? True, it is not as bold as, for example, thesis 86, which chides the wealthy pope for not funding the building of Saint Peter’s Basilica with his own money. But on second glance, Luther’s first thesis is far more substantial than the eighty-sixth. It reads as follows: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Do sincerely repent,’ willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

This has less to do with that revivalistic moment of conversion so popular in American culture, and more to do with the perpetual call not to harden our hearts and neglect so great a salvation. Luther’s first thesis brings us directly to
Tabletalk’s Scripture texts for both Friday and Monday (Heb. 4:6–8). In the middle of his discussion about the promise of rest, the author of Hebrews quotes the words of David from Psalm 95: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (vv. 7–8). The covenant promise of rest still stands, but “today” we must respond.

This principle is not new in the new covenant; it can be observed throughout redemptive history. The patriarchs heard it loudly when circumcision was instituted (Gen. 17:9–14); the wandering generation heard it at the foot of Mount Sinai (Deut. 10:16); amid the Conquest, the Israelites heard it (Josh. 22:4–6); during the rise and fall of the Israeli kingdom, its prophets repeatedly declared it (Isa. 30:15; Jer. 5:3; Ezek. 18:30; Hos. 6:1; Joel 1:13); the apostle Paul described it (Gal. 2:20); and last, but not least, Jesus commanded it (Luke 9:23).

What this gives us today is a connection with those believers who have gone before us. For example, circumcision — just like baptism — was never intended to be merely an external act. Since the fall, God has called all people to turn to Him perpetually so that the promise of rest will not be missed. A one-time “sinner’s prayer” is nothing if not followed by an entire life of repentance, which comes from God from first to last (Rom. 2:4).

26 September 2008

Confidence in Christ

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 28.2 (February 2004): 26–27}

“Faith cannot be without a settled peace of mind, from which proceeds the bold confidence of rejoicing,” John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Hebrews in the mid-sixteenth century. This point is most striking, and mostly underplayed by many exegetes. How could Calvin write something so…insensitive? And again: “We hence conclude that those who assent to the gospel doubtfully and like those who vacillate, do not truly and really believe.”

Just as faith is the assurance of things hoped for, so, too, is faith the constant and confident hope of the believer (Heb. 11:1; cf. 3:6). For Calvin, then, faith necessarily includes a firm confidence in that which has been believed: “Besides, what firmness of confidence can there be when men know not what they ought to believe?” But again we must ask, did not Calvin see how unsympathetic this doctrinal point would be to the one who has doubt in his or her interest in the heavenly Jerusalem? How might Calvin respond to such an inquiry? Whether he anticipated this question or not, the truth is that the reader will not be able to simply skim his writings for an answer. It is there, but it is not all laid out in plain view, so to speak. One lyrical gem comes to mind that falls in line with his understanding that faith cannot be without a firm persuasion of the promises of God. Writing on predestination, Calvin quipped that if someone were to ask him how he is to know that he is elect, his answer would be “Christ is more than a thousand testimonies to me.” That is, being persuaded of the veracity of the promises of God made certain in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus provide a more substantial ground of assurance than a thousand outward attestations of faith (both in personal good deeds and in verbal compliments paid by our peers). In other words, man’s praise should be cast at the foot of the cross. What we see here is a bold affirmation of the supernatural gracious gift of faith over against a worked-for faith.

But this confidence of which Calvin spoke is not brazen; it is Spirit-filled meekness, and “meekness” here does not mean “timid” but “unpretentious.” As one version of the Bible translates it: “Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised!” (Matt. 5:5, TEV). It is no coincidence that Saint Matthew’s gospel and the letter to the Hebrews agree that receiving what God has promised comes as a result of being meek (or put differently, of having saving faith). Thus, the settled peace of mind attached to the faith of which Calvin spoke does not declare, “I’m so saved, I couldn’t go to hell if I tried.” Rather, it cries along with the tax collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (cf. Luke 18:9–14; see also 15:1–7).

To be sure, Calvin granted that absolute certainty in this life is unthinkable, given that one anxiety or another always assails assurance. But saving faith is not stagnant, nor does it endlessly embrace gross doctrinal errors (the two points against which Calvin’s argument is directed). This, then, is the context within which we must view Calvin’s statements about faith above. The Genevan reformer was a committed preacher and churchman, as the records of his persistent preaching and congregational and missional ministries show. He was not insensitive to his parishioner’s needs. And the need that he was meeting was the dispensing of all false notions of security. His opponents had posited the idea that a person could fail to grasp the content of the gospel and yet have faith. This had the unfortunate effect of sending many people through life wrapped in a false blanket of assurance. But passages like Hebrews 3:6 remind us, according to Calvin, that "we are always to make progress even unto death; for our whole life is as it were a race.”

In like manner, we must be equally concerned today with, for example, such mistaken conceptions as “carnal Christianity.” This is why we say that the believer’s sanctification necessarily flows from his or her justification. That is, good works in Christ Jesus follow from being saved by grace alone through faith alone. Such works are done in gratitude for salvation — not as prerequisites for salvation. Knowing this also helps us to understand what is happening when we see those who have but a transitory faith yield no lasting fruit. They are like the third seed in our Savior’s parable, the one that was sown among the thorns and eventually strangled by the cares of this world (Matt. 13; Mark 4).

The only certain ground of assurance, which the letter to the Hebrews makes clear time and time again, is the finished work of the risen Christ. A confidence based on anything less can only lead to a baseless faith. For this reason, let us “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1b–2).

10 September 2008

Sins of the Father

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 27.10 (October 2003): 43}

"Like father, like son" could very well be an appropriate superscription above 2 Samuel 13 in our English Bibles. In it, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of Nathan's prophecy of woes against the house of David (2 Sam. 12:10–12). The rape of Tamar by the crown prince Amnon (2 Sam. 13:1–22; cf. 11:1–13) provides us with the first parallel to King David, while the murder of Amnon by the hand of Absalom provides the uncanny second parallel to his father (2 Sam. 13:23–29; cf. 11:14–27). Chips off the old block, indeed.

Second Samuel 13:30–33 brings us to the final section of this story of rape and murder—an event that eventually shattered all stability within the kingdom. It is during this chapter that one flaw repeatedly comes into view: David's growing lack of discernment.

The king should have been off to war with his army in the early spring (2 Sam. 11:1) instead of actually looking for trouble. Now, the same lack of discernment manifested itself when the nagging Absalom requested the presence of his brother Amnon at his feast, to which David gave his acceptance (13:24–27). Despite his suspicion, the king gave in for want of godly acumen.

The same flaw appeared again after the murder, when "news" came to David that all of his sons had been killed. The king reacted like a broken man, but was quickly corrected by his nephew, Jonadab (vv. 30–32). What David should have known about Absalom and the rest of his sons, Jonadab knew all too well:  "Only Amnon is dead. For by the command of Absalom this has been determined from the day he forced his sister Tamar" (v. 32). In essence, the possibility existed that the nation would have been rescued from civil strife if David had not lacked the discernment to punish Amnon in the first place.

This portion of scripture, then, serves as one of the clearest description of the effects of sin. To be sure, every biblical book speaks of it, but none so strikingly as the latter half of 2 Samuel. The wages of David's sin actually brought physical death. Enigmatically, God's chosen king, whose kingdom marked great success early on, suffered horrible decline after his great sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. But in the end, it is not so enigmatic: While God's standards cannot be violated with impunity, he worked and continues to work through the most wretched of sinners.

04 September 2008

A Step Backward?

I've thought for some time that the previous design was a bit cheery for me, a bit too optimistic. The new subtitle says it all.

Both photographs, incidentally, were taken in Rothenburg ob der tauber. The header's a bridge into the town, and the statue (bottom right) is a pilgrim on the road to Santiago de Compostela, just outside of St. Jakob's (James') Church (wherein the famous "Altar of the Holy Blood" resides). 

27 August 2008

Peace: It's What's for Dinner (in both kingdoms)

IN THIS POST, on the good and thoughtful Faith and Theology blog, contributor Kim Fabricus writes of the ten most influential moments in his life that pushed him on toward pacifism. There's no reason to summarize it; go on, read it.

First, let's give the dictionary definition of pacifism: "Opposition to war or violence as a means of solving disputes." Now, the government's policing efforts will not be brought into question in this post. Such is not the focus here, if for no other reason than what Saint Paul writes about it in Romans 13:4:

   "The government is God's servant working for your good. But if you do
    what is wrong, you should be afraid. The government has the right to 
    carry out the death sentence. It is God's servant, an avenger to execute
    God's anger on anyone who does what is wrong."

The fact that this was written before any major persecutions against Christians is beside the point. The apostle in that case might have more fully explained the "wrong" he was speaking of (or he might have tweaked it in the direction Saint Peter does in 1 Pet 3:13–14; 4:12–19).

What I'm interested in is a small, yet misguided statement by Kim (and perpetuated by a few responders) encapsulated in the following:

   "I should say that at no time did I have any truck with two kingdoms
    doctrine, in spite of clarifications and fine-tuning by theologians like
    Pannenberg. My thoroughly Reformed understanding of the universal
    Lordship of Christ over church and world (or state) precluded any such
    Lutheran 'compromises.'"

I'm of the opinion that this is flat wrong, as it rests upon an oft-promoted, yet faulty, assumption. In brief, Martin Luther's articulation of the two-kingdoms model (a model that discusses the role of the church in the world) has been grossly distorted. Many think that Luther taught silent, supine submission to the absolute authority of the state and thereby liberated the government from any form of moral constraint from the church. Ernst Troeltsch's massive study The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches popularized the view that Luther promoted state absolutism and moral dualism while the Reformed offered a vital interrelationship between church and state. This inaccurate stereotype was perpetuated in the English-speaking world by Reinhold Niebuhr, along with a legion of others.

In popular history, this perversion became the widespread explanation for the rise of Hitler and the failure of German Christianity to recognize and resist the evils of Nazism (coveniently ignoring the fact that those in the Lutheran underground church were arguably more patriotic than the Lutheran state church). But in actuality it was Fredrick the Great (1712–1786), not Luther, who paved the way toward Nazism (it, of course, must be recognized that in his late life, Luther was no friend of the Jews; yet we are speaking here of the two kingdoms model and whether or not it's dualistic — that is, whether or not the state is to be governed by a
completely different ethic than the church. We're starting to nudge up against natural law here, but that's a discussion for another day).

Frederick eventually left his Lutheran roots and became Reformed (of the theology-of-glory stripe); he also found himself increasingly enthralled with the Enlightenment. The culmination of his (and others') subsequent ecumenicity was manifested in the Prussian Union of 1817 (decreed by King Frederick William III on the 300th anniversary of the Reformation), which unionized the Lutheran and Reformed churches, essentially decimating confessional Lutheranism and along with that, the two kingdoms model (N.B. this is when major Lutheran emigrations to the U.S. started, and the
LCMS finds its origins here). Herman Sasse, a faithful confessional Lutheran, who played a leading role in the German Church Struggle against Nazi coercion within the church contends:

   "No, it was not Lutheranism as such, but a sick Lutheranism that gave
    National Socialism an open door into the church. It was a Lutheran 
    Church which was no longer capable of standing guard over the souls of
    its people because it had fallen asleep itself. It had lost its power over 
    demons because it no longer possessed the power of distinguishing 
    between "spirits."...We have noble families in which the grandfathers 
    were conservative and confessional Lutherans, the fathers were German
    nationalists and members of the union church and the sons joined the SS"
    (Stewart Herman, The Rebirth of the German Church, 50–51). 

Those who cited Luther in favor of subservience to the state no matter what were guilty of abusing and distorting the reformer's true position. Sasse asserts: 

   "They picked out of Luther's teaching those phrases regarding govern-
    mental authority which were opportune and which people wanted to
    hear; phrases concerning the dignity of divinely ordained offices and 
    the duty of obedience to them. But what Luther said about the sins 
    of governmental authority; about the tyrannous murder of man's soul
    by the authority which goes beyond its limits or about the boundaries
    of obedience — all that was whispered very softly in the first years of 
    the Third Reich, or not mentioned at all. …They supplemented Luther 
    with Robespierre" (Herman, 52).

The reason for all this banter up to this point is this: to show that the two kingdoms model does not preclude pacifism. It's arguable as to whether it demands it, but it doesn't preclude it.

And now, Luther's own words:

   "In all his works [the Christian] ought to entertain this view and look 
    only to this object — that he may serve and be useful to others in all 
    that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and
    the advantage of his neighbor" (from Luther's On Christian Freedom).

This, arguably, puts duty to fellow humans before any other secular duty — even the obligation to one's country. It may be that pacifism is only implicit in Lutheran theology during the Reformation, but it nevertheless seems to be well-founded upon the non-dualistic two-kingdoms model. The model emphatically does not necessitate playing the part of judge, jury or executioner (as both Article 16 of the Apology and Article 12 of the Formula of Concord explicitly endorse). Alternatively, the two kingdoms model does, in fact, necessitate always carrying one's Christian faith everywhere, which frees the Christian up for positive ethical involvement (like pacifism) in the world. It is not a "confusing of the two kingdoms" to suggest this, as Gene Edward Veith asserts here. Remember, pacifism does not (cannot!) preclude the policing efforts of governments; it refuses to see war or violence as an option to resolve disputes. This message is the church's own, as it stands as prophet in this world. The church's business is not to promulgate some notion of a "Christian nation" or "christen-dom" (an oxymoron both in Lutheran and apostolic terms). It, in fact, needs to confront christendom with the ethics of the kingdom, the already/not yet, the paradox, far more than it currently does. The two kingdoms model enables and informs this work. And the reason why pacifism is a valid Lutheran position is both because pacifism is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and because there are no just wars, not now, and, arguably, post the resurrection of Christ (I have an eye on old covenant theocracy here), not ever. (Maybe the world's involvement in WWII could be pointed to as an exception. But it'd be just that — an exception.) So, the reason why it's best for a Christian to not be a soldier is precisely because of the inherent injustice of that vocation — both in christological and practical terms (remember the obligation of which Luther spoke quoted above). Some more Luther:

   "Beyond that, however, he [that is, the pastor] does great and mighty
    works for the world. He informs and instructs the various estates on 
    how they are to conduct themselves outwardly in their several offices 
    and estates, so that they may do what is right in the sight of God. …To
    tell the truth, peace, the greatest of earthly goods, in which all other 
    temporal goods are comprised is really a fruit of true preaching. For 
    where the preaching is right, there war and discord and bloodshed do 
    not come; but where the preaching is not right, it is no wonder that 
    there is war, or at least constant unrest and a desire to fight and shed
    blood" (from On Keeping Children in School).

You might ask, then, in light of this, what is the purpose of the two kingdoms model? Well, and this might surprise you, it's for the church's protection. It's to be held out in front of us so as to protect us from suffering under the delusion that even our best efforts here will produce some kind of golden age before the return of our king. This by no means is to be equated with that old cliché: "Why polish brass on a sinking ship?" The ship doesn't have to sink, and, indeed, it won't, as a result of the intervening and gracious hand of Christ our Lord. Our vocations as callings are clear: bring the future hope into this present darkness, whatsoever ye do. But the two kingdoms model takes seriously the collective sinfulness of nations, institutions and well-meaning Christian politicos, pundits and activists and guards them from perpetuating Constantinian notions of christendom.

Would you like a slice of pie with that? For what it's worth (and to calm my fellow two-kingdoms naysayers), peace will be served in God's coming kingdom, but he's apparently called us to start preparing the dish. Who knows? Maybe all he'll have to do when he returns is add some special sauce. But on the other hand, maybe he'll have to throw it all away and start from scratch. I really don't know, and, what's more, I don't think we can know. I just don't want to be standing there like an idiot when the head chef starts demanding ingredients I haven't prepared.

08 August 2008

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus

{This originally appeared as "Church Covenants" in Tabletalk 27.5 (May 2003): 48}

On a Lord's Day not too long ago, my wife and I stood in front of our fellow congregants to be received as members of the church we had been attending for more than two years. The pastor, smiling, yet with all seriousness, asked us the following five questions (and I paraphrase):
  1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners, justly deserving God's displeasure, without hope save in his sovereign mercy?
  2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and do you rest upon him alone for salvation?
  3. Do you now promise, relying upon the Spirit's grace, to endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
  4. Do you promise to support the church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
  5. Do you submit yourselves tot the government and discipline of the church and promise to study its purity and peace?
Publicly answering each of these questions served as our entrance into a solemn covenant with Christ and his church.

The only problem with this idyllic scene is that I failed this covenant miserably in the short time since I made the commitment. Sure, the first three questions are Sunday school no-brainers, but they are ironically no more important than the last two, for in them the first three questions are realized or lived out. That is, a life of grace that hopes in God's sovereign mercy, made available by Christ alone, and perpetuated by good works in the Spirit, manifests itself in a life that supports the church's worship and work, and that submits to the government and discipline of the church, and therefore promises to study its purity and peace.

Most important, whether other churches verbalize these five questions or not, this oath transcends denominational lines, thereby drawing our focus back to God's prescribed means for promulgating the gospel—the church. If the church is to remain true to her calling, membership in any local congregation must mean entering into covenant with God, simply because a congregant ought to be, by definition, a bond servant of Jesus in the family of God.

Since the church is the radiant bride of Christ, how much more should she expect the commitment of saints who are more concerned with worshiping the Almighty in Spirit and in truth than attempting to convince the world that church-goers are everyday, ordinary people?

31 July 2008

We're one, but we're not the same

You say: "love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law."
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can't be holding on to what you got, when all you got is hurt.

From the song "One." I've often thought about these lyrics, especially whenever I'm contemplating the inbreaking of the new covenant, in anticipation of the return of the crucified God, the risen Messiah.

Betraying more of my idiosyncracies than is probably wise, I fancy this excerpt to speak against much of the church at large. "Love," they say, "in this new covenant, is a temple, a higher law. Come. Enter your rest." (All this is true, of course.)

Yet it turns out to be anything but rest. Burdened with guilt and talmudic blue laws (fill in the blank here: drinking, homeschooling, what can and can't be done on the first day of the week, being forced to practice a limp-wristed tolerance, etc.) the forgiveness and thus the peace of Christ has all but vanished. 

Binding consciences with the word of man, not of God, such that the one enjoined to enter now must crawl under the oppressive thumb of he who has been called to shepherd the flock is a betrayal most insidious. If all you got is hurt, maybe you should rethink your ordination vows.

29 July 2008

Covenant Life

{This originally appeared in Tabletalk 27.3, (March 2003): 34}

The word covenant gets tossed around a lot—in Tabletalk and elsewhere. The difficulty lies in the fact that covenant remains a hard concept to comprehend, yet many theologians teach it to be a central interpretive principle of Scripture and Israel's history.

Simply put, God's covenant with man is gracious and everlasting, resting on his oath that should it fail, he will be torn in two (Gen. 15; cf. Jer. 34:18). However, this simple early covenant grows more complex as the biblical narrative continues. By the time we reach 1 Samuel 12, we see provisos upon which the fulfillment of the covenant seems to rest. How are we to understand God's conditions? We ignore them only at our peril. At the very least, covenant is not merely a hermeneutic principle; rather, it envelopes the believer's earthly pilgrimage (cf. Deut. 6:4–9). 

Herein lies the tension: If the covenant of grace is eternal, why does God impose stipulations? Is the fulfillment of the covenant at risk? One school of thought within orthodoxy suggests that the stakes are the very blessings of the covenant itself: "For Yahweh will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake…. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away" (1 Sam. 12:22, 25). Though the covenant will see its end (Gen. 17:7–8), we may not, for, as our Savior said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15; cf. v. 21). While we can be sure that God will complete his covenant, we have no right to such certainty if we practice lawlessness (Matt. 7:21–23).

Perhaps the greatest tension of all now comes to the fore—our inevitable failure to keep the conditions of this covenant. Who, then, "will put security for me?" (Job 17:3). Praise be to God there is an answer. Our security is in the risen Christ, who met all the conditions on our behalf with his perfect loyalty and obedience. Even further, his work established covenant living for us: we take seriously the conditions of the covenant and strive, not to gain salvation, but to live accordingly in covenant with the creator God.

Failing in this secures our citizenship in that dismal city of ruin where the Tower of Babel stands, where its kings exclaim, "Is this not great Babylon, that I have built…by my mighty power?" (Dan. 4:30), and its depraved inhabitants respond, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).

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