Come, Lord Jesus

It’s Advent!   I love how the Advent hymns, Scripture readings, and sermons focus on all of the different senses of Jesus’s coming to us.  Yes, we look forward to His coming in the events of Christmas.  But we also study the Old Testament prophecies of His coming.  We also contemplate His second coming.  And we also reflect on the way He comes to us personally in the sacraments and in His Word.

Let’s do another sermon compilation.  What insights did you have about Jesus’s coming in the first Sunday of Advent?

In whatever you are going through in your life, may Jesus come to you!

Justification as inclusion

Might justification by faith end up as just another weird idea those Lutherans believe?  That teaching–that we are declared righteous because of the Cross of Jesus Christ–used to be common to all Protestants, but it is under attack today, not just by liberal theologians but by evangelicals.

I was at the Evangelical Theological Society convention very briefly to give a paper on vocation. The overall theme was justification.  The keynote speaker was N. T. Wright, the former bishop of the Church of England, who draws on “the new perspective on Paul” to put forward a new view of justification.  According to Wright, Luther got it wrong when he thought that we are justified by faith in the sense of being saved from our moral transgressions.

Rather, justification is not soteriological but ecclesiastical.  That is, it is not about salvation from sin but about the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church.  When Paul talks about the Law that Christ frees us from, he does not mean the moral law; rather, he means the Jewish ceremonial law.   Here is how Christianity Today summarized his position a while back ago:

Justification refers to God’s declaration of who is in the covenant (this worldwide family of Abraham through whom God’s purposes can now be extended into the wider world) and is made on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ alone, not the “works of the Law” (i.e., badges of ethnic identity that once kept Jews and Gentiles apart). . . .

Present justification is the announcement issued on the basis of faith and faith alone of who is part of the covenant family of God. The present verdict gives the assurance that the verdict announced on the Last Day will match it; the Holy Spirit gives the power through which that future verdict, when given, will be seen to be in accordance with the life that the believer has then lived.

My impression is that many and probably most of the papers at the ETS took the traditional stance towards justification and criticized Wright’s position, though Luther and Lutherans were largely absent from the program.  Still, I heard that Wright’s reading of Paul Epistles is becoming a settled issue in New Testament scholarship.

The Christianity Today piece linked above sets up a point/counterpoint between Wright’s position and the traditional position articulated by John Piper (again!), who wrote a book criticizing Wright’s view.  Would some of you read the whole article?  Does Piper get it right?  (His seems to be a Calvinist take on the issue, full of “God’s glory” talk, whereas Lutherans would put some of this quite differently.  Where do you note the differences?)

It seems to me that Wright’s view of justification makes salvation a matter of works.  It also seems to lead to some variety of the social gospel–that the purpose of Judaism and now Christianity is to improve the world.  As such, it eviscerates the Gospel.

The notion that Christianity is primarily about inclusion sounds like the language of the ELCA’s latest dictate on homosexuality.  Perhaps it lies behind the megachurches that want to include all the people they can, regardless of what they believe.

At any rate, if the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, as the early Reformers insisted, today’s Church is tottering.

Bringing the Reformation to Protestantism

The original Reformation, whose anniversary we mark on October 31, began in 1517 as an attempt to bring medieval Catholicism back to the Gospel, the Bible, and Vocation. It has occurred to me that today the various Protestant churches need that same Reformation.

THE GOSPEL. Luther nailed his theses on the church door to challenge the practice of selling indulgences. In effect, people were told to give their money to the church, whereupon they would get to go straight to eternal happiness in Heaven. Today, in many Protestant churches, people are being told to give their money to the church, whereupon they are told that they will get health, wealth, and temporal happiness in this world. But the Prosperity Gospel is not the Gospel!

Neither is the Social Gospel of the liberal mainline Protestants, which construe the Kingdom of Heaven as an earthly utopia. Neither is the Social Gospel of many conservative churches, which construe the Kingdom of Heaven as an American civil religion.

In sophisticated theological circles, both of mainline Protestants and among a surprising number of evangelicals, the Gospel has to do with inclusion, of being accepted into the church community. The “New Perspective on Paul” says that the Apostle did not teach justification by grace through faith apart from the Law, as Protestants used to all agree. Rather, by “Law,” he just meant the setting aside of the Judaic ceremonial law. He was concerned with inclusiveness, of allowing Gentiles to become full members of the church alongside of Jews. Not salvation from the guilt and sin that comes from violating the moral law. Similarly, the business of the church today should be including everybody, not proclaiming a supernatural salvation grounded in redemption from sin.

The actual Gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has, through His life, death, and resurrection, atoned for the sins of the world. The Protestantism that has drifted away from this Gospel is in need of Reformation.

THE BIBLE. Medieval Catholicism did believe in the Bible. They just didn’t use it much. Today’s mainline Protestants don’t believe in it at all. Many conservative Protestants believe in it–acknowledging its authority, inerrancy and all–but they have stopped reading it in their services and their sermons sometimes have not a shred of Scripture in them. Instead, the preaching is about self-help, pop psychology, politics, or generic inspiration. Sometimes the message is “believe in yourself” or even “have faith in yourself.”

The Reformers taught that the Word of God is not only authoritative, but a means of Grace. They preached the Law, to bring their listeners to repentance, and then they proclaimed the Gospel of free forgiveness in Christ. In the words of Walther, they preached faith into their listeners’ hearts.

The Protestantism that has drifted away from the Word of God is in need of Reformation.

VOCATION. Medieval Catholicism believed that the highest holiness required rejecting marriage, economic labor, and participation in the state. Instead, they required their clergy to take vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to church authorities (to whose laws they were subject instead of the laws of the land). The Reformation taught that God calls all Christians to love and serve their neighbors in the vocations of the family, the workplace, the state, and the church. God Himself is present in vocations. Vocation was the Reformation doctrine of the Christian life.

Today, many Protestants are torn between a hyperspirituality that denies the significance of earthly life and a hypermaterialism. They do not know how to express their faith in their vocation as citizens. In their work, they either try to formulate a distinctly Christian way of exercising their professions, or they consider their work to be nothing more than a way to keep themselves alive and prosperous until they can go to church and engage in “church work” through the week. Meanwhile, the Christian family is at risk, as the divorce rate is as bad or even somewhat worse than that for unbelievers, a clear sign that Protestants have forgotten the vocation of the family.

The doctrine of Vocation solves the Christian’s problems of cultural engagement, political involvement, and being “in, but not of” the world. It does so by affirming the spiritual significance of the “secular” order while preventing the Church from being secularized.

The Protestantism that has drifted away from Vocation is in need of Reformation.

The Four Gods

Baylor sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader have conducted research into people’s conception of God. They published their findings in a new book America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God — And What That Says About Us. They found that Americans have four different assumptions about what God is like. They also found correlations between the kind of God someone believes in and their political and moral beliefs. Here are America’s four Gods:

The Authoritative God. When conservatives Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck proclaim that America will lose God’s favor unless we get right with him, they’re rallying believers in what Froese and Bader call an Authoritative God, one engaged in history and meting out harsh punishment to those who do not follow him. About 28% of the nation shares this view, according to Baylor’s 2008 findings.

“They divide the world by good and evil and appeal to people who are worried, concerned and scared,” Froese says. “They respond to a powerful God guiding this country, and if we don’t explicitly talk about (that) God, then we have the wrong God or no God at all.”

The Benevolent God. When President Obama says he is driven to live out his Christian faith in public service, or political satirist Stephen Colbert mentions God while testifying to Congress in favor of changing immigration laws, they’re speaking of what the Baylor researchers call a Benevolent God. This God is engaged in our world and loves and supports us in caring for others, a vision shared by 22% of Americans, according to Baylor’s findings.

“Rhetoric that talks about the righteous vs. the heathen doesn’t appeal to them,” Froese says. “Their God is a force for good who cares for all people, weeps at all conflicts and will comfort all.”

Asked about the Baylor findings, Philip Yancey, author of What Good Is God?, says he moved from the Authoritative God of his youth — “a scowling, super-policeman in the sky, waiting to smash someone having a good time” — to a “God like a doctor who has my best interest at heart, even if sometimes I don’t like his diagnosis or prescriptions.”

The Critical God. The poor, the suffering and the exploited in this world often believe in a Critical God who keeps an eye on this world but delivers justice in the next, Bader says.

Bader says this view of God — held by 21% of Americans — was reflected in a sermon at a working-class neighborhood church the researchers visited in Rifle, Colo., in 2008. Pastor Del Whittington’s theme at Open Door Church was ” ‘Wait until heaven, and accounts will be settled.’ ”

Bader says Whittington described how ” ‘our cars that are breaking down here will be chariots in heaven. Our empty bank accounts will be storehouses with the Lord.’ ”

•The Distant God. Though about 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, Baylor found that nearly one in four (24%) see a Distant God that booted up the universe, then left humanity alone.

via Americans’ views of God shape attitudes on key issues – USATODAY.com.

Isn’t it true that none of these, in isolation, is anything like the Christian God?  Surely Christians believe that God has ALL of these qualities.  Christians believe that God is a Trinity, that He is complex and a mystery.  (And if natural laws, such as we are seeing with quantum physics are complex and mysterious, shouldn’t God be far more so?  And yet people insist on these simplistic, anthropomorphic, unitarian deities.)  While each of these deities can be adapted into an ecumenical paradigm in which all religions “have the same God,” the Christian God is completely different from these four, each of which is some variation of a transcendent deity looking down on the creation.  Notice that there is no category for God Incarnate.

No wonder churches are so weak and Christians’ faith is so anemic, if they don’t have the right God.

The rest of what I said: on religion & facts

There wasn’t room for everything that I said in that interview the Washington Examiner did with me. So as not to waste anything, I’ll post the outtakes here:

1. A recent Pew study found that atheists and agnostics scored higher on a religion quiz than did people of faith. How important are facts to faith? And/or can God thrive when his followers lack an understanding of the facts?

Some people think religion is just a matter of what goes on in their heads. They make up something that works for them, they think, selecting from the great cosmic smorgasbord to construct a kind of spirituality that makes them feel better. Though Christians are guilty of this too, Christianity does not work like that. It teaches that God became Man, that Jesus is literally God in the flesh. And that somehow when He was executed by torture He bore the sins of the world, taking our punishment and letting His goodness count as ours. And that He rose again, physically, from the dead.

The whole Christian faith rests on facts. We can theorize, we can intellectualize, we can debate abstractions. But what if these things really happened, as historical objective facts? Then the theoretical discussions don’t really matter.

One of my pet peeves in theology is the way many Christians approach the problem of evil, how a good God could allow all of these bad things to happen. That’s a profound question. But the answers given often assume that God is some abstract deity looking down on the world from above. But Christianity teaches that God came into this world of suffering, that He Himself not only suffered but took the world’s evil into Himself, and that He redeemed it!

Not that this answers all of the questions, but it certainly complicates the issue and underscores the difference between the Christian God and God as most people conceive Him.

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Those of us whose churches follow the three-year lectionary on Sunday heard  the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and very likely heard a sermon about it.  Last week we had what I found to be a very enlightening trading of notes on a rather challenging parable.  Let’s do that again with this parable.

Here is some of what our Pastor Douthwaite said about it.  (Read the whole sermon, which delves into some fascinating details in the text that are very illuminating.)

Don’t assume things about God, that you know what God is doing and why He’s doing it. That’s a dangerous thing to do, although (it seems to me), it’s done all the time. Don’t assume God is your friend because your life is good, and don’t assume God is against you because things are difficult and trials are many. The truth may be exactly the opposite. The man who had been so rich was now eternally poor, and the man who had been so poor was now eternally rich. . . .

Jesus has come to turn beggars into rich men. For He was the truly rich man who for our sakes became poor (2 Cor 8:9). Who came to all of us Lazarus,’ not to dip only the tip of His finger in water, but to give us the living water of His Word that we may drink and never thirst again (John 7:37-38). Who came not merely to soothe our wounds with the licking of dogs, but to wash and cleanse and heal us from the leprosy of our sin with His forgiveness. And who came to feed us not with crumbs from His table, but with the feast He has come to provide – the feast of His own Body and Blood. And these gifts He comes to give to all people, whether they be rich or poor on the outside, whether they be notorious or hidden sinners – for spiritually, we are all Lazarus’. Crippled and left to die by sin. Wholly dependent on the mercy of God. And so we pray: Lord, have mercy.

And He does. Always. Jesus is no rich man that bypasses, steps over, or ignores those in need. Who feeds the dogs and not His children. Never. For whether or not you have riches in this world, the Spirit, through the Word of God – through Moses and the prophets – directs our eyes where true riches are to be found. The riches that poured forth from the cross. The cross which shows us who God truly is, what God has done for you, and how much God loves you. So that we never have to guess or assume the mind of God – the cross is the mind of God. Who came for you, to die for you, to forgive you. . . .

But there is another clue to Lazarus’ faith, when Abraham told the rich man: “Besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” Now, it makes sense that those in torment would want to cross from there to the comfort of heaven; but who would want to cross the other way? Why would Abraham say that . . . unless, perhaps, it was Lazarus who was ready to do so. To comfort the one who refused him comfort. To serve the one who refused him service. To help the one who refused him help. For is this not the love of Christ, who did these things for us on the cross? Is this not the love of Christ living in Lazarus’ heart?

That is the love that has been given to you. By the one who did cross the chasm – the only one who could – and served you who were dead in your trespasses and sins, to raise you to a new life in Him. A new life of faith and forgiveness, and of love and service – even to those who sin against you.

For now, we bear the cross – but it will not always be so. A day of rest is coming for all who are in Christ.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 18 Sermon.

What did you pastor do with this (or, if you are a pastor, what did you do with it)?  What did you learn from this text?  How did it affect you?