Deep cleaning

Our sermon for last Sunday was based on Mark 7:14-23, in which Jesus says that it isn’t what comes from the outside that makes us unclean  but what comes from the inside.  Pastor Douthwaite  first applied this to the Pharisees who were interrogating Jesus and then he started doing that Law & Gospel thing:

We see the same thing in our world today, whenever another shooting happens in a movie theatre or school or college or shopping center. Sometimes there were signs that something was wrong, but often times the news is filled with interviews about how the person seemed so normal, so good, so clean, and how shocking and surprising that such an awful thing could come out of such a good, clean-cut person, who smiles and is so friendly, who loves animals and helps little old ladies across the street.

And then there’s all the uncleanness in our hearts. The uncleanness that comes spewing out when someone cuts you off in traffic, or you don’t get what you want or think you deserve, or when you feel slighted or insulted by someone, the uncleanness that comes out when we know we can do something and get away with it. The thoughts that shouldn’t be there, the murder of someone’s reputation, the pride that wants others to change for me instead of me changing or helping them, the jealousy. The presumption of guilt when it comes to others but the presumption of innocence when it comes to me. The impatience, the condescending, the get out of my way. It’s all in there and more, isn’t it? And while it might surprise the person next to you if they knew all that was percolating in your heart, sometimes if even surprises us what comes out, the shameful sins and impulses deep down.

But Jesus is not surprised. It’s why He came. And not with gloves on, to protect Himself from our sins; but in our flesh and blood. And He came to fill not a bucket, but to fill fonts and chalices and pulpits with His blood to clean us. To clean us from the inside out. That in every baptism, every communion, every sermon and absolution, the Holy Spirit do His cleansing work and wash away the guilt of our sins. All of them. None hidden from His sight or too deep for his cleansing. Sometimes we may wish God didn’t know all our sins, but if He didn’t, how could we know they are all forgiven? But if He knows them, He died for them. If He knows them, He took them upon Himself and paid for them. If He knows them, He forgives them. From the littlest of them to the most shameful of them. All of them.  [Read more...]

Mormonism as the fourth Abrahamic religion

In a New York Times op-ed piece, David V. Mason admits to being a Mormon and most emphatically NOT a Christian:

I’m about as genuine a Mormon as you’ll find — a templegoer with a Utah pedigree and an administrative position in a congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am also emphatically not a Christian.

For the curious, the dispute can be reduced to Jesus. Mormons assert that because they believe Jesus is divine, they are Christians by default. Christians respond that because Mormons don’t believe — in accordance with the Nicene Creed promulgated in the fourth century — that Jesus is also the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Jesus that Mormons have in mind is someone else altogether. The Mormon reaction is incredulity. The Christian retort is exasperation. Rinse and repeat.

I am confident that I am not the only person — Mormon or Christian — who has had enough of the acrimonious niggling from both sides over the nature of the trinity, the authority of the creeds, the significance of grace and works, the union of Christ’s divinity and humanity, and the real color of God’s underwear. I’m perfectly happy not being a Christian. . . .

Being a Christian so often involves such boorish and meanspirited behavior that I marvel that any of my Mormon colleagues are so eager to join the fold.

In fact, I rather agree with Richard D. Land, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who calls Mormonism a fourth Abrahamic religion, along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Being set apart from Christianity in this way could give Mormonism a chance to fashion its own legacy.

Christianity, you’ll recall, had to fight the same battle. Many early Christians grew up reading the Torah, living the law, observing the Sabbath and thinking of themselves as Jews. They were aghast to find that traditional Judaism regarded them as something else entirely.

In addition, these Christians had to defend their use of additional scripture and their unconventional conception of God and explain why they were following a bumpkin carpenter from some obscure backwater. Early Christianity’s relationship with non-Jews was even worse. Roman writers frequently alluded to rumors about the cannibalistic and hedonistic elements of early Christian rites. One after the other, Christians went to the lions because they found it impossible to defend themselves against such outrageous accusations. They did eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday, after all.

Eventually, Christianity grew up and conceded that it wasn’t authentic Judaism. Lo and behold, once it had given up its claim to Judaism, it became a state religion — cannibalism notwithstanding — and spent the next 1,700 years getting back at all the bullies who had slighted it when it was a child.

Eventually, Mormonism will grow up. Maybe a Mormon in the White House will hasten that moment when Mormonism will no longer plead through billboards and sappy radio ads to be liked, though I suspect that Mr. Romney is such a typical politician that, should he occupy the Oval Office, he’ll studiously avoid the appearance of being anything but a WASP. This could set back the cause of Mormon identity by decades.

Whatever happens in November, I hope Mormonism eventually realizes that it doesn’t need Christianity’s approval and will get big and beat up all the imperious Christians who tormented it when it was small, weird and painfully self-conscious. Mormons are certainly Christian enough to know how to spitefully abuse their power.

via I’m a Mormon, Not a Christian – NYTimes.com.

Read what Justin Taylor has to say about this.

HT:  Paul McCain

The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

God’s conditional and His unconditional Words

More in our continuing series on non-Lutherans discovering Lutheran theology (while  many Lutherans throw it away).

Jono Linebaugh, New Testament Professor at Knox Theological Seminary, is working in the same orbit as Tullian Tchividjian, Billy Graham’s grandson and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, in their discovery, via Luther,  of the distinction between Law & Gospel.

Dr. Linebaugh has written a very helpful piece on that subject entitled “Luther on the Law.”  He underscores some aspects that we often miss:  how it’s God who uses the Law; how the Law is conditional and the Gospel is not conditional.

His discussion of the controversial “Third Use of the Law” is interesting too.  He is NOT denying that Christians must live a life according to God’s commands.  He is trying to work his way out of the Reformed position that puts so much stress on the Third Use that the Gospel can be forgotten.  His point is that God’s commands in light of the Gospel are not conditional either.

I’ll post excerpts to give you the flavor, but you should read the whole thing.  Tomorrow I post some of what he says on the Third Use of the Law, so hold that thought:

 The distinction between Law and Gospel is ultimately – that is, in reality – not a distinction between what is said; it is a distinction between what is heard. In other words, the difference between Law and Gospel is the difference between faith and unbelief. Thus, for Luther, the same words can encounter the human as either Law or Gospel. For example, the 10 Commandments are both the “hammer of God” that terrifies sinners with the “thunder of Mt. Sinai” and the pure promise that “I am the Lord your God.” Conversely, the beautiful and basic words of the Gospel – “Christ died for your sins” – can be, to the ears of unbelief, nothing but an announcement of the “enormity of God’s wrath” (Against the Antinomians 1539). . . .

Two important implications follow from this theological definition of Law. First, because Law is a way of identifying God’s action with words, talk about “uses” of the Law cannot be human uses of the Law but God’s use of his Law. In other words, God is the acting subject; he wields the words of death and life and the theological term Law is a way of pointing to God’s accusing, condemning, and killing speech. Second, because Law is defined in terms of its function and effect rather than simply its content, it is not, as noted above, reducible to a moral codex or a grammatical pattern.  . . .

God’s words that accuse and kill typically do their work of condemnation in the form of a commandment attached to a condition. So, for example, when Paul sums up the salvation-logic of the Law he quotes Leviticus 18.5b: “the one who does [the commandments] will live by them” (Gal 3.12). Here, there is a promise of life linked to the condition of doing the commandments and a corresponding threat: “cursed is everyone who does not abide in all the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them” (Gal 3.10 citing Deut 27.26). When this conditional word encounters the sinful human, the outcome is inevitable: “the whole world is guilty before God” (Rom 3.19). It is thus the condition that does the work of condemnation. “Ifs” kill!

Compare this to a couple examples of New Testament imperatives. First, consider Galatians 5.1. After four chapters of passionate insistence that justification is by faith apart from works of the Law, Paul issues a couple of strong imperatives: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore stand firm (imperative) and do not be subject (imperative) again to the yoke of slavery.” Here the repeated imperatives are emphatically not commandments with conditions. The exhortation here is precisely to not return to the Law; it is an imperative to stand firm in freedom from the Law. Or take another example, John 8.11. Once the accusers of the adulterous women left, Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Depart. From now on, sin no more.” Does this final imperative disqualify the words of mercy? Is this a commandment with a condition? Is this Law following the Gospel? No! This would be a conditional command: “If you go and sin no more, then neither will I condemn you.”  But Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The command is not a condition. “Neither do I condemn you” is categorical and unconditional, it comes with no strings attached. “Neither do I condemn you” creates an unconditional context within which “go and sin no more” is not an “if.” The only “if” the Gospel knows is this: “if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous” (1 John 2.1).

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell

A key named “Promise”

Matthew Block, editor of the Canadian Lutheran, makes good use of classic literature to demonstrate how despair is countered by the promises of God:

In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a spiritual epidemic spread across England, infecting Christians with the belief that God would not forgive them. They desperately wanted to be saved, but they believed they had been shut out from grace. This condition—”despair,” as it was called—robbed people of hope and drove many to commit suicide.

You see people wrestling with this issue in the literature of the day—in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the religious poetry of the Anglican priest and poet John Donne, for example. But perhaps we see it most clearly in John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here the character Christian is taken prisoner by Giant Despair, thrown into a dungeon, beaten daily, and goaded to take his own life—something he would, in fact, do if his friend Hopeful wasn’t there to keep him from self-harm.

This last tale is particularly moving because we know Bunyan himself struggled with despair. In his spiritual autobiography, he writes how, for two years, he suffered under the belief his sins were unforgivable. The Scriptures offered no relief; all he read was God’s anger at and condemnation of sin. For two years, Bunyan perceived nothing but “damnation, and expectation of damnation.”

But of course, John Bunyan did not stay forever in despair. The cure finally came when he learned to distinguish Law from Gospel. Bunyan learned at least some of this from Martin Luther himself, whose Commentary on Galatians happened to come into his hands. It was, Bunyan says, “most fit for a wounded conscience”—most fit, that is, for a conscience down in despair. So taken by the book was he that Bunyan would later say he counted it second only to the Scriptures themselves.

What Luther taught and what Bunyan had come to believe was that the Gospel offers the only answer to the accusations of the Law. Yes, the Law shows us our sin. Yes, we must accept the testimony of Scripture that we are sinful people deserving death and hell. But the Gospel, not the Law, gets the final word. The Good News is that Christ bore our sins on the cross. His death and resurrection set us free from the guilt of sin!

It was this Gospel that finally won Bunyan from despair. The Gospel prodded constantly at his heart, calming his fears. He recalls: “Scripture, in these flying fits would call as running after me, ‘I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins. Return unto me for I have redeemed thee’ (Isaiah 44:22).”

Bunyan could find no cure for despair in himself. No, the cure could only be found in the promises of Christ—in the Gospel. And so it is that, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian only escapes Giant Despair when he remembers he carries a key in his bosom. The key’s name is “Promise,” and it opens the prison doors.

Despair was not Bunyan’s problem alone. It existed long before Bunyan, and it continues to plague people long since. We see glimpses of it in ourselves when we worry that we have finally sinned too much. When we fear our faith is not strong enough to save. When we’ve let God down one too many times. But just as it did with Bunyan, Scripture comes running after us in these moments, reminding us of the promises of Christ. The Holy Spirit is at work in the Word, drawing us ever to Himself, opening our hearts to believe the promises of God.

via Canadian Lutheran Online » Blog Archive » A key named “Promise”.

Rev. Block goes on to explain how the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can help people out of the despair that comes from thinking their sins are unforgivable.

Notice:  John Bunyan was a Baptist who was helped by Luther.

Luther the detective: Getting your hands dirty

Luther is the acclaimed British crime drama now available to Americans on BBC America.  Here is the Wikipedia description of John Luther, played by Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba:

He is obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. But Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him.

Sound like any other Luther you know?  Sound like any doctrine you know?  Anyway, as we said yesterday, Jordan Ballor has an article in Cardus arguing that the series is, in fact, Lutheran.  I’ll let him tell you about a story line:

John Luther’s willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones’s mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father’s death has become addicted to drugs and a victim (“actress” seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) “removes” Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his “better” judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, “Go and sin no more,” and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

He ends up risking all three in Jenny’s case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther’s hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny’s transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther’s colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther’s friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther’s suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther’s fidelity. “There’s loyalty, and there’s naivety,” says Gray. Justin responds, “There’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty.” Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn’t hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther’s brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

In this difference between “getting your hands dirty and being dirty,” we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action and Luther’s idea of moral ambiguity. We don’t always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ’s atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

The series is on Netflix–instant play!  So I’ve seen the first couple of episodes.  Just as crime drama–in the genre of police procedural–the show is excellent.   It has everything you might like in Law & Order, NCIS, etc.–action, suspense, intriguing mysteries, ingenious police work–but it’s grittier, more textured, and better written.

I had assumed that the theology Jordan Ballor sees in the series is unintentional, as when an honest work of art  finds truth, which by its nature is going to be consistent with the truth of Scripture.  But the show is full of explicit Christian–yea, Lutheran–language:  talk about evil,  (sinful) human nature, nothingness, Bible quotations (“why do the wicked prosper?”), the devil, guilt, “your calling.”  Then there is the character’s name and business such as nailing his hand to the wall.  The creator of the show knows some theology.

The character of John Luther is complex and compelling.  He’s something of a rogue cop (think the protagonist of The Shield but more sympathetic), brilliant but tormented.  His estranged wife who left him for another man, which tortures Luther, defends his preoccupations with “life and love.”  This is not romantic love or the kind of love that solves all your problems.  This is love that multiplies your problems and makes them worse.  But love is absolutely necessary.  At one point,  Luther identifies who the murderer is because when everyone else yawns, but she doesn’t.  Being able to resist the contagious yawn, he says, means this person has no empathy, the sign of someone who could kill without mercy.  (And  that woman, Alice, what a piece of work!  Though the unwillingness to yawn is not evidence that will stand up in court, he knows she did it, and she knows he knows.  They get together to torment each other and discuss medieval philosophy.  The shows’ villains are as complicated as they are chilling.)  John Luther,  struggles with the conflict between his compassion and his own lawlessness (when a serial killer is hanging on for dear life, he is not above stomping his fingers).  He is simultaneously a saint and a sinner, but he doesn’t understand that yet.  He is Brother Martin before his conversion.  Sherlock Holmes is characterized by logical deductions; Adrian Monk by obsessive compulsive disorder.  John Luther is characterized by Anfechtungen.

 


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