Luther the detective: Vocation

There is a TV show on BBC called Luther about a British police investigator, a black man played by Idris Elba.  According to Jordan Ballor, Luther is also Lutheran, a dramatic exploration of vocation and what it means to be a little Christ to your neighbor.

I haven’t seen the show, but I’ve got to now.  Ballor’s essay is worth two blog posts.  First, I appreciate his explanation of vocation, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s application.  I’ll post that today.  Tomorrow I’ll post some of what he says about the TV show.

The reformer Martin Luther is justly famous for his doctrine of vocation, or calling, and its implications for the Christian life. Luther understood vocation as a Christian’s place of responsibility before God and for others in the world. One of the critical aspects of Luther’s view of vocation was that we represent God to others in our service to them. He said that Christians act as masks or “coverings” of God (larvae Dei), the visual and physical representations of God’s action on earth. In some real and deep sense, the hands of Christians serving others are the hands of God. Even non-Christians, in their roles in the social order, can be said to represent God’s preserving action in the world.

Luther also understood the ambiguity inherent in any action undertaken in a fallen world. His doctrine of justification made it clear that on no account might humans presume to stand before God with a presumption of innocence or merit based on their own works. No matter how faithfully a Christian might work, or what good things a Christian might seek to do, none of this can justify us before God’s righteous judgment. Our justification in this sense depends solely on the righteousness imputed to us on the basis of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. . . .

The Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer takes this Lutheran understanding of vocation and radicalizes it in his doctrine of “vicarious representative action” (Stellvertretung). In Bonoheffer’s view, we act as representatives of God to one another precisely in our ability to take on, in a limited and provisional way, the guilt of others. For Bonhoeffer this action means that we live “for others,” just as Christ lived, died, and was raised “for us.” As Robin Lovin puts it, “Responsible action is a true imitation of Christ, a willingness to be despised and abused for the sake of those who have themselves been despised.” This idea of vicarious representative action, of living for others in a deeply sacrificial way, is what animates the life and work of DCI John Luther.

via Get Your Hands Dirty: The Vocational Theology of Luther | Comment Magazine | Cardus.

Not knowing if you are a Christian

Picking up on some earlier discussion, I came across this list of ways that a person can know whether or not they have been truly saved.  They are from a book by Jim Wilson entitled (ironically, it seems to me) Assurance of Salvation:

1. The Holy Spirit seals, guarantees, and assures us (1 Jn. 4:13, Rom. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:13-14, 2 Cor. 5:5, 1 Cor. 2:11-16).

2. Change of Character: read the lists of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-25. Which list characterizes you? Jesus saves out of the first list into the second.

3. Confessing Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3, Rom. 10:9-10, Lk. 6:45).

4. Obedience: People who are saved obey Jesus (1 Jn. 3:6, 3:9-10, 5:18, 2:3).

5. Discipline: If you are getting away with disobedience, you are not a child of God. If you are being disciplined, pay attention and repent (Heb. 12:5-11).

6. Loving Christians: People who have passed from death to life love the brothers and it’s obvious to everyone (1 Jn. 3:14, Jn. 13:34-35).

7. Loving Enemies: Sinners can act with civility; saints are enabled to imitate their Father in heaven (Lk. 6:27-36).

8. Jesus said so: If you hear the word of Jesus and believe in Him, then you have eternal life, you have crossed from death to life (Jn. 5:24).

via Assurances of Salvation | Having Two Legs.

The poster, Toby Sumpter, to his credit, adds Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the list, but Heaven help us!   People aren’t sure whether or not they are Christians?   It’s not enough to, you know, have faith in Jesus?

I realize that Christians who don’t think the sacraments do anything have to make check -off lists, but how horrible!   I want to ask those who go by a list like this, how are you doing with these?  Has your character been changed enough?  How’s your discipline? How are you getting along with your fellow Christians?  How are you getting along with your enemies?

Doesn’t this circle right back to salvation by works?  Can this formula for attaining “assurance” do anything but drive an honest Christian to despair?

That can only be a good thing if it drives you to the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has done all of this for you!

The problem with such exercises is that they end up DESTROYING faith, whereas faith is exactly what those who are struggling with such questions need.  That is to say, MORE trust, confidence, assurance in the Gospel of what Christ has freely done for them.

TGTBL

The Juvenilization of American Christianity

The latest issue of Christianity Today has a brilliant cover story that accounts for much of what we see in American churches today.  A century and more ago, many Protestant churches adjusted their worship and their ministries to accord with something that at first was quite separate:  the revival meeting.  (My historical parallel.)   Now churches have adjusted their worship and ministries to accord with another separate activity:  youth group!  But, of course, there is more to it than that.  From the article by Thomas E. Bergler [subscription required, but here is the opening]:

The house lights go down. Spinning, multicolored lights sweep the auditorium. A rock band launches into a rousing opening song. “Ignore everyone else, this time is just about you and Jesus,” proclaims the lead singer. The music changes to a slow dance tune, and the people sing about falling in love with Jesus. A guitarist sporting skinny jeans and a soul patch closes the worship set with a prayer, beginning, “Hey God …” The spotlight then falls on the speaker, who tells entertaining stories, cracks a few jokes, and assures everyone that “God is not mad at you. He loves you unconditionally.”

After worship, some members of the church sign up for the next mission trip, while others decide to join a small group where they can receive support on their faith journey. If you ask the people here why they go to church or what they value about their faith, they’ll say something like, “Having faith helps me deal with my problems.”

Fifty or sixty years ago, these now-commonplace elements of American church life were regularly found in youth groups but rarely in worship services and adult activities. What happened? Beginning in the 1930s and ’40s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life that led to what can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for adults. It began with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young, which in fact revitalized American Christianity. But it has sometimes ended with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.

via When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Bergler goes on to document how that happened, including the larger cultural trend of American adults in general becoming more like adolescents.  The cover story  (who can identify who is pictured on the cover?) includes some responses by a megachurch pastor, a researcher, and a cultural critic (David Zahl of Mockingbird.com), all of whom say that Bergler’s thesis is basically right (though Zahl, being a Lutheran fellow-traveler, issues some caveats about definitions of spiritual “maturity”).

The article is adapted from Bergler’s new book on the subject: The Juvenilization of American Christianity.  It is a ground-breaking analysis, one of those explanations that accounts for virtually all of the phenomena and  that seems so obvious, once you hear it, though you had never thought of it before.

 

VeggieTales creator repents of moralism

More on our continuing series on Christianity & the Arts, how the Christianity part has to include not just law but gospel. . .

Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, went bankrupt in 2003, sold the franchise, and turned to other ventures.  In an interview with World Magazine, he says how he realized that the “Christian” message of those talking vegetables was not Christianity at all.  (This is from last Fall, but I appreciate Norm Fisher, via some other folks, for bringing it to my attention.)

I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality. . . .

And that was such a huge shift for me from the American Christian ideal. We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god. So I had to peel that apart. I realized I’m not supposed to be pursuing impact, I’m supposed to be pursuing God. And when I pursue God I will have exactly as much impact as He wants me to have.

via WORLDmag.com | Not about the dream | Megan Basham | Sep 24, 11.

Paul’s rebuke of Peter as argument for open communion

Reformed writer Peter Leithhart argues against the closed communion practices of Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans on the basis of Galatians 2:

The battle between Paul and the Judaizers focused on table fellowship. Initially, Peter didn’t require Gentiles to “judaize” but ate openly with uncircumcised Gentiles. Pressured by believers from the Jerusalem church, though, he withdrew and refused to share meals with Gentiles anymore. Whether these were common or sacred meals, the same logic would apply to both: If Peter wouldn’t eat common meals with unclean Gentiles, he certainly would have avoided the contagion of Gentiles at sacred meals. For Paul, this wasn’t a small or marginal issue. In Paul’s judgment, Peter was “not straightforward about the gospel” and his actions undermined justification by faith. Unless Jews and Gentiles share a common table, Paul insisted, the Gospel is compromised. . .

For Paul, Christians should share meals with any and all who confess faith in Jesus, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, and this unity should be especially evident in the Eucharistic meal that is the high point of Christian liturgy. One Lord must have one people sitting at one table. Any additional requirement beyond faith in Jesus betrays the Gospel.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Some profess Jesus but betray him with their lives. Jesus and Paul both teach that impenitent sinners and heretics should be excluded from the Church and from the table of communion. As Reformed Protestants say, the table must be fenced.

Even with that crucial qualification, Paul’s assault on Peter poses a bracing challenge to today’s church. It is common in every branch of the church for some believers to exclude other believers from the Lord’s table. Some Lutherans will commune only with Christians who hold to a Lutheran view of the real presence. Some Reformed churches require communicants to adhere to their Confessional standards. The Catholic Mass and the Orthodox Eucharist are reserved, with a few exceptions, for Catholics and Orthodox.

I cannot see how these exclusions pass the Pauline test. Catholics will say that they don’t add anything to Paul’s requirements. They exclude Protestants from the Mass because Protestantism is (at best) an inadequate expression of the apostolic faith; for Catholics, a credible confession of Jesus must include a confession of certain truths about the Church. Lutherans and some Reformed Christians will point to Paul’s warnings about “discerning the body” and ask Amos’s question: “Do men walk together unless they are in agreement?” All this avoids the central question: Do Catholics and Orthodox consider their Protestant friends Christians? Do Lutherans consider Reformed believers to be disciples of Jesus? If so, why aren’t they eating at the same table? Shouldn’t the one Lord have one people at one table?

via One Lord, One Table | First Things.

This strikes me as missing the point on many levels, but I’ll let you do the analysis:  What is wrong with this argument?

That God is love

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the traditional festival–now that Ascension and Pentecost are over–to honor and contemplate the one God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As we confess in the Athanasian Creed that is customarily confessed on that Sunday, God Himself is a unity of distinct persons.

That is to say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Love is a unity of distinct persons.  The doctrine of the Trinity shows how love is inherent in the very essence of the Godhead.

Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis’s friend, suggested that just as there are heresies in regards to the being of God, there are related heresies of love.  Some heretics affirm the unity of God and deny the distinctness of the Persons.  Similarly, in relationships, some, in the name of love, demand utter conformity, often manifesting itself in one of the lovers dominating or even obliterating the other person.  There is unity in the relationship, but no distinct persons.  This is heretical love.

Other  theological heretics teach the separateness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, denying their essential unity.  Similarly, in relationships, sometimes the people in them go completely in their separate ways.  The persons are affirmed, but not the unity that love needs.

Only God, of course, gets love exactly right.  And, indeed, His love is not just self-contained in the Godhead, but it extends to us.  And He doesn’t obliterate our persons, even as He brings us into a unity with Himself, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son.  May God’s love shape all of our loves!

 

 


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