Theological Reflection


Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

There is much talk today about the Christian doctrine of sin. A new book has just been released:

  • Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As a preacher in Churches of Christ, this book is a challenging read for me.

Many non-Christians in America are turned off by the Christian teaching on sin. Why would anyone want to go to church and sing about human failure, death, and dying?

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some Christians find the biblical depiction of human sin overly pessimistic.

  • When Scripture speaks of human corruption, some Christians speak of human potential.
  • When Scripture says “all have sinned,” some Christians say, “Yeah, but I have overcome all that now.”
  • When the Lord Himself says, “With men, [salvation] is impossible,” some Christians say, “Get over it—pull yourself up and let’s do this thing!”

In Churches of Christ, a movement born on the American western frontier and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the views of John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism, we deny the traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on “original sin.”

Many of our critics accuse us of being “Pelagian” in our view of human sin. Right or wrong, our critics do point out a serious issue in our theology, in our view of the human condition after the Fall.

My question to our people is, “What do we believe about sin and its effects on the human condition?” What did we inherit from Adam, if anything? What were the effects of “sin entering the world” through Adam’s disobedience? What is Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21?

As a man who makes his living preaching in and for Churches of Christ, I want to know what to teach about the ability of human beings to overcome sin by themselves. Do I go with Christian orthodoxy and risk losing my position of employment? Or do I go with the party line and, while retaining my job, run the risk of violating the overwhelming testimony of our Sacred Text? This presents quite a dilemma.

I have heard sermons within Churches of Christ, many sermons, which could be accurately characterized as Pelagian. According to these sermons, even after the Fall human beings at birth are, following the philosophical view of John Locke, a “clean slate.” According to these sermons, every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life. Our logic is, “Otherwise, God could not hold us accountable for sin.” Or, “How could God command us to keep a law that is impossible for human beings to keep?”

Fair enough, at least according to “common sense.” But what about Paul’s clear teaching–teaching inspired by God’s Holy Spirit–that it is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep the Law, or any law, perfectly? What about Paul’s teaching that it was never the purpose of the Law, or law, to produce righteousness but, rather, to expose human sin?

Furthermore, the other side of the question is, “If every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life, why did it take the miraculous birth of Christ—the incarnation of God Himself—to produce a human being who could actually accomplish that feat?” Surely if it were possible for every human being to live a perfect life, there would be at least one example from history. Heaven knows many have tried. The problem is that each and every one who has tried has failed, most failing miserably–except One, and He was God-in-the-flesh.

My present sermon series is an expository journey through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. In this hard-hitting letter, Paul is attacking the human tendency toward self-reliance head on. He is intense, he is angry, and he is pulling no punches. Why? Because Paul has discovered hope—true hope for the human condition.

And true hope does not come from the power of positive thinking. No! True hope comes from “the truth of the gospel,” which is: Christ and Him crucified is the ONLY cure for human sin. This truth is pessimistic to some, but liberating to those who see its power.

In his new book, Jesse Couenhoven makes some very insightful observations:

  • The Christian teaching on sin seems pessimistic only to those who think we ought to be able to justify ourselves, by ourselves.
  • The view that we can justify ourselves degrades the Bible’s teaching on human sin.
  • The belief that we participate in—or even contribute to—making ourselves righteous offends God’s claim that righteousness (justification, salvation) is a free gift, given by grace.
  • The Bible’s teaching that we are not masters of our own goodness and cannot justify ourselves is not a counsel of despair but testimony to our only true hope—Christ and Him crucified.
  • Freedom is NOT an autonomous achievement but, rather, a free gift. One that we ought to receive joyfully.

I am still wrestling with this mystery. Regardless of which view one takes, there remain unanswered questions. It seems to be impossible to tie up all the loose ends in this challenging debate.

After more than three decades of struggle, however, my conclusion is this: Regardless of “who made me do it,” I have personally participated in Adam’s rebellion—I am guilty of sin.

And so I do not need a self-help remedy for my sin problem. I need a Savior.

Praise God that He has provided One for me—and for everyone else who comes to Him in humility, repentance, and submission.

Image

Hand me a photograph with 100 people in it and what do I immediately do? Look for my ugly mug!

The shiniest (most used) key on my keyboard is the letter “I.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Why don’t they think of me? Because they are just like me—they are thinking of themselves instead!

This tendency of our fallen nature carries over into our understanding of salvation. Allow me one example that has always bothered me:

  • We sing the song, Create in Me a Clean Heart, especially at youth events.
  • The song is based on Psalm 51 and was originally composed by Keith Green.
  • Following his premature death in an airplane crash in 1982, Green’s widow Melody pulled together several previously unpublished songs composed by Green and released them on the 1984 album, Jesus Commands Us to Go! This song was included in that release.
  • We do not sing Green’s version of the song, however. The version that we most often sing was arranged by Kenny Lewis. Although I mean no disrespect to Kenny Lewis, I must assume that it was Lewis who changed the wording.
  • When we sing the now-popular version of this gorgeous song, what do we say about salvation?
  • “Restore unto me the joy of MY salvation” (emphasis added).
  • That is my point – everything is about me, even salvation!
  • When Keith Green originally wrote the song, he followed the wording of the Hebrew Bible. Green had a Jewish background; his wife Melody was also Jewish and converted to Christianity.
  • What did Green’s song originally say about salvation?
  • Precisely what the Hebrew Scripture says about salvation: “Restore unto me the joy of THY salvation” (emphasis added).
  • That is the point of our sacred text – everything is about God, especially salvation!

For the last several weeks I have been preaching a series of sermons on human justification—how does a sinner become righteous? This debate goes way back. In its present form, it began in earnest with the Protestant Reformation:

  • The Roman Catholic Church taught (teaches?) that salvation does depend on me to a certain extent—on my “works” if you will (I realize this is a gross oversimplification but I am trying to make a point so please indulge me here for the sake of clarity).
  • The Protestant Reformation responded, as is often the case in these types of debates, by swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme:  I am saved my faith and my faith ALONE. Works are completely irrelevant, including Christian baptism. (Allow me one more indulgence here please. Martin Luther DID NOT jettison baptism from the process of salvation. With the exception of his view of infant baptism, I dare say that most of us within the Restoration Movement agree with what Luther taught about Christian Baptism. If you are interested, see my sermon below entitled, “My Baptism – Christ’s Act” in which I quote Luther extensively on his view of baptism.)
  • The Restoration Movement, of which I am a part, tried to navigate some middle ground I suppose but still allows the emphasis to remain on the human side of the equation. In our tradition, “God’s Plan of Salvation” says very little about God at all! Instead, God’s plan of salvation is about me hearing, me believing, me repenting, me confessing, me being baptized, me doing church correctly for the rest of my days, etc.

In the last two series of sermons I have preached, I have tried to illuminate the emphasis that God’s word places on Salvation—how a sinner becomes righteous (is justified). Here is my summary in bullet points. I invite you to think about this and, if you have questions, to listen to my sermons on the subject.

  • I am NOT saved (justified, made righteous) by my works. This is an absolute no brainer. The only possible issue I face in adhering to this obvious biblical truth is knowing how to properly handle James 2:14-26.
  • I am NOT saved (justified, made righteous) by my faith.

This second statement is the sticking point for so many people. I have been studying this issue for over three decades and I am absolutely convinced that what the Bible is telling us, through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul, is that

  •  I AM saved (justified, made righteous) by the faith of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16, 3:22; Philippians 3:9).
  • To see the point I am making, you will need to read these passages either in the original Greek or in the King James Version. Most modern English translations obscure the subtle distinction being made in Paul’s theology of justification by faith. As I see it, there are two “kinds” of faith in Paul’s teaching: the faith of Jesus Christ and the faith of a penitent sinner.
  • Here is my summary of what Paul is teaching. I challenge you to study it for yourself and see if it makes sense:
  • The faith of Jesus Christ is what “reveals” God’s righteousness—makes it available to sinners, enables God to keep the promise He made to Abraham, to impute righteousness to rebellious human beings, etc.
  • My faith moves me “into Christ” where Christ’s faith makes me righteous.
  • Specifically, my faith moves me to repent, confess, and be immersed “into Christ” where God places my sins upon His cross, me into Him, and His righteousness into me.

Again, all of this is elaborated upon in two sermon series that I have preached in the last several weeks. Copies of these sermons are available on my church’s web page at http://www.3chopt.org – click on “messages” and look for the following sermons:

One Righteous Act:

  1. Love Me; Obey Me; May 5, 2013; John 14:23-24.
  2. My Baptism – Christ’s Act; May 12, 2013; Romans 5:18-19.
  3. The Exchanged Life (Part One); May 19, 2013; Romans 8:12-17.
  4. The Exchanged Life (Part Two); May 26, 2013; John 15:1-4.
  5. Moving From Head to Heart; June 2, 2013; Ephesians 1:15-23.

Freedom – Studies in Galatians:

  1. Freedom – An Urgent Plea; June 16, 2013; Galatians 1:1-10.
  2. Freedom – Ordained by God; June 30, 2013; Galatians 1:11 – 2:14.
  3. Freedom – The Grand Proposition; July 7, 2013; Galatians 2:15-21.*
  4. Freedom – It Comes Apart from Law; July 14, 2013; Galatians 3:1-18.
  5. Freedom – It is Lived Out in Christ; July 21, 2013; Galatians 3:19-21.
  6. Freedom – From Faith Unto Faith; July 28, 2013; Galatians 3:22-29.*

All of the sermons are addressing the question: how does a sinner become righteous. In other words, they are all addressing the issue of “justification” directly and only discussing “sanctification” secondarily. In all of them, I try to move the emphasis off of me and onto Christ.

In the two sermons marked with an asterisk (*), I deal specifically with Paul’s statement “the faith of Jesus Christ” and its implications for answering the question: how does a sinner become righteous?

In the sermons dealing with the faith of Christ, I mention an enormous body of literature on the subject. I have uploaded a Bibliography to this blog site that gives you the sources I have found that discuss and participate in this fascinating debate. You can find the link on the “Pages” section to the right.

I also refer to a “cheat sheet” that I created that quotes the eight Pauline passages that have this unique phrase. I have also uploaded this document for your use. You can find the link on the “Pages” section to the right.

Of course, I would love to discuss this further, as long as we can do that civilly and in a Christian way, either on this blog site or via email.

For two quarters, I have been teaching the Book of Isaiah to the adult Bible class. I covered the entire 66 chapters in one quarter and then rotated classrooms and repeated the same 13 lessons to a different group of adults. It has been a tremendous learning experience.

People unfamiliar with the nuances of the biblical text are often surprised at what the text actually says and does. Take Isaiah for example:

  • In chapters 1-39 we are rolling along discussing the world in the 8th century B.C. (740-701). Assyria is threatening, Israel is falling, Judah is being sacked.
  • In chapter 40 we are suddenly transported 200 years into the future. Babylon has conquered the world, the Jewish people are at the end of their captivity, and Cyrus, king of Persia, is about to take over the world.

What is amazing is that the text does not bat an eye. It simply makes the shift and assumes the reader will come along for the ride with no question.

However, careful modern readers have many questions. First, what happened and why was I not warned of this sudden shift in time and space?

Second, now that you have rocked my world, why is there no explanation of what just happened?

Third, how is it possible that the person who was alive to witness and report the events of chapters 1-39 now appears to be alive and reporting on events that are happening 200 year later?

To add to the mystery, Jesus cites Isaiah chapter 40, which is reporting events that are happening around 540 B.C., and ascribes that writing to “the prophet Isaiah” (Matthew 3:3). Is this the same Isaiah who wrote chapters 1-39, which describe events occurring 200 years earlier? How is that possible?

I am confused. Very confused.

More than confused, I am afraid to even ask the question. Why? Because I’ve seen people who point out these nuances of our sacred text accused of “not believing the Bible.”

Huh. I believe the Bible. I devoted my life to teaching and preaching our sacred text. I just believe the Bible is filled with mysteries that cannot be explained away with a simple, “says what it means and means what it says.”

It says a lot. It does a lot. And it does not always make perfect sense to my little pea brain. I have lots of questions – sometimes more questions than answers. But my questions relate to the nuances and mysteries of the sacred text, not the God who inspired the text.

The God who inspired the Bible is a glorious and worthy God. He has gone to extreme lengths to rescue me from my confusion and distress. He rescued Israel by sending His Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12) to accomplish His mission. And that rescue mission was for more than just the people of Israel – it was for everyone, me included!

For that I will always serve Him. I will always preach and teach His holy word. But be warned, as I labor in this earthly vessel, I may not be able to fully explain everything I know about the nuances of our sacred text.

Inside the New Jerusalem

My preaching ministry has me in the middle of a nine-sermon series from John’s Apocalypse–the Book of Revelation. My teaching ministry has me teaching Isaiah for the second quarter in a row.

Obviously, I have run up against the biblical teaching on “last things”–eschatology for the theologians and seminarians.

Many scholars assert that the Bible does not present a consistent picture of what will happen at the end of time.

  • Some argue that the gospels do not coincide with what Paul presents.
  • Others claim that John is in opposition to Paul.
  • Some even argue that Paul is not consistent with Paul! (e.g., his eschatology in 1 Thessalonians is different from his eschatology in 2 Thessalonians).

I can’t sort out all the nuances of each school of thought but this is clear: no consensus exists among biblical scholars regarding Scripture’s presentation of the end of time.

And this is equally clear: the average person sitting on the pew thinks very little about the nuances of the issue. The basic understanding of many Christians seems to be:

  1.  Christ will return,
  2. The dead in Christ will rise first,
  3. Then those who are left alive will be gathered together
  4. And all will be taken up “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1Thessalonians 4:17, NIV).

End of story. Seems pretty clear. What’s the problem?

Jesus confirms this in John 14:1-3 when he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Finally, Peter weighs in on the conversation to tell us what will become of the earth: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10, ASV).

So Plato and all those Greek philosophers were correct. Our bodies die, decay, and are never more. Our souls go to heaven to live with Jesus forever and this nasty ol’ material creation is disposed of as it should be. End of story; what’s the problem?

Well, the biblical story is not that clear cut.

First, according to the New Testament, our physical bodies are going to be raised from death, just as Jesus’ physical body was raised (1 Corinthians 15). Second, there are a number of passages that talk about a “new heaven and a new earth.”

Take the 2 Peter passage as an example—the classic proof-text for a “the world is going to be burned up” position on the matter. If we keep reading, just two verses later we see that “according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” (2 Peter 3:13, ASV).

Isaiah talks about a new heaven and new earth that follows God’s judgment (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).

John does too in his Apocalypse. In fact, the new heaven and the new earth is the precise climax to which John leads the reader of Revelation (see Revelation 21).

According to these passages, the hope we have is not to wind up floating around the clouds in a vaporous realm in the sweet by and by, but rather an entirely new creation in which God’s perfection finally prevails (“wherein dwelleth righteousness,” to quote Peter again).

So where do a new body, a new heaven, and a new earth fit into the mainstream Christian understanding that at the end of time our bodies go into the ground, our souls go to heaven, and all matter will be destroyed? That we go to live with God in a non-material realm and leave this terrible place in the far reaches of our memories?

And what exactly does Paul mean when he says, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”? (Romans 8:19-21, NIV).

That sounds a whole lot like a new earth following God’s judgment, which would be consistent with other passages on the subject.

At this point I have more questions than answers. And I have a much deeper appreciation for those scholars who wrestle with this and come away scratching their heads.

I remember a Bible teacher many years ago telling us his view:

  1. We will get new bodies at the resurrection
  2. In those bodies we will go to heaven to live with God forever
  3. God will then re-create the earth
  4. So we can all sit around in heaven and watch re-runs.

At the time I thought he was joking. Now I’m thinking, “Maybe not. Maybe he is on to something.”

Artwork by Pat Marvenko Smith, copyright 1992. From the series “Revelation Illustrated.” Used by permission. It is available in fine art prints and visual teaching materials. Call 1-800-327-7330 for a free brochure or visit her web site at http://www.revelationillustrated.com.

Providence is God’s invisible hand that He uses to guide all things to His predetermined conclusion. By definition, physical eyes cannot see Providence at work. And, as we’ve already said (Seeing God’s Providence, May 21, 2012), even the eyes of faith must rely on hindsight to see God’s Providence.

But there is still more to say about seeing God’s Providence. Here it is in a tweetable, bottom line:

Providence and Piety Go Hand in Hand.

Said another way, without piety as a developing character trait we will never see God’s Providence—hindsight or no hindsight.

Piety is an extravagant church word that I would never use except that it begins with “p,” which makes it easier to remember in a conversation about Providence.

Piety is our reverent, faithful, humble obedience to God. It is our self-emptying devotion to God, our self-denying submission to God, our unconditional compliance with His claim on us and on all of His creation. Piety expresses itself in a life of love for God above all else and a love for others.

Without piety, the Providence of God remains invisible. Without piety, life becomes raw survival. Without piety, I become the center of my universe.

As we navigate life’s curves and bumps and consistently refuse to look for Providence, much less trust it, our self-absorption and overpowering urge to survive  gradually edge God out of the picture. Too often, the self-directed person never thinks about God. And when she does, she concludes that God is either an absentee landlord at best or a vindictive tyrant at worst.

Bitterness, anger, and even hatred toward God rule the day.

But when piety is maturing within us, God’s goodness—His loving nature and compassionate character—become evident to us. As we trust Him we learn to trust Him more. As we love Him we learn to love Him more. In the end, He becomes the reason for our existence, the glorious end for which we strive.

And life becomes a thing of beauty as piety and Providence learn to flow together, hand in hand.

 

After relating the message on my heart from God to the church yesterday, a man approached me and said, “Bob, I don’t understand. You said Boaz was ‘poor in spirit’ even though wealthy in material goods. How can being poor in spirit be a good thing? I thought we were supposed to be rich in the Spirit.”

I used an expression and assumed people knew what I was talking about. I was wrong.

Poverty of spirit is different from poverty of Spirit. Being filled with God’s Spirit is the goal; emptying ourselves of our own is the means of getting there (if we properly define what we mean by “our own spirit.”)

I think those who suggest we translate this beatitude as, “Blessed are the poor in ego, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” are on to something. Several modern Bible students have suggested this translation but I think Rubel Shelly is the first person I ever read who did so. His thinking helped me understand what the Lord was getting at.

Ruth was poor in material goods—destitute, in fact. She had no resources to her name and nowhere to turn to obtain any resources, except God. And so she turned to God in humble, obedient faith and He came through for her.

Boaz was blessed with material goods—wealthy, in fact. He had all the resources he needed to live a comfortable, prosperous life. And yet he knew that nothing this fallen world has to offer could give him what he really wanted, what he really needed. And so he was spiritually destitute, spiritually poor, he was poor in ego. And so he turned to God in humble, obedient faith and He came through for him.

What do we mean by “ego?” That which edges God out. Reliance on self, dependence upon one’s own abilities, trusting in one’s own resources.

It is only when those things that edge God out of our lives have been eliminated that God can come and make His abode with us. It is only when I stop trying to save myself that God can save me in Jesus Christ.

God give me poverty of spirit today so that your Spirit might come and live within me and through me.

The parables that Jesus told are deceptively charming. At first blush they appear to be quaint little stories with a heavenly—highly moralistic—message. We most commonly use them to teach children.

Upon further reflection, however, we realize that these stories are power-packed. They change the world—they confront the world, challenge the world, subvert the world. Why is that?

Many of the parables come in response to questions from followers. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan is in response to the lawyer’s questions, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable of the Unmerciful Servant is in answer to Peter’s question, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

These stories subvert my world because they are stories about another world, God’s world—the kingdom. They teach me how things would be if I would get down off the throne of my world and allow God to run the show as He desires. These stories reveal a cosmic clash between the values of my world and Kingdom Values.

Take the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as an example (Matthew 20:1-15). Some were hired at 6:00 AM and promised a denarius—a normal day’s wage. Some were hired at 9:00 AM and promised that they would receive “whatever is right.” More were hired at 12:00 PM, another batch at 3:00 PM, and one final group at 5:00 PM. These final three groups were not told anything about their wages. They were simply hired and sent to work.

At quitting time the boss gathered all five groups together and began distributing their wages for the day. Shockingly, he began with those who were hired last—at 5:00 PM. Even more surprisingly, the boss handed these men a full day’s wage—a denarius. When those hired first saw this they expected to receive more. But, when they received a day’s wage they were outraged and grumbled against the owner of the vineyard.

Why did they grumble? Why were they so upset? Because from their perspective they had been cheated. “What’s in it for me” is the governing question (Matthew 19:27 puts this very question on the lips of Peter). My world is centered around me, myself, and I and for me, “What’s in it for me” rules the day.

But for God, His desire to give generously to all who choose to serve Him governs His world. He says, “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I give you” (Matthew 20:14). In God’s world when quitting time comes He will not be distributing wages based on justice. He can’t. Why? Because He wants to be good to all of us who have chosen to serve Him. And if He were limited by principles of justice, none of us would get all that God wants to give us.

And so God has dealt with the requirements of justice in His Son, Jesus Christ. Once that was accomplished, God is now able to do as He desires—to distribute blessings to His children according to His goodness.

“What’s in it for me?” It all depends. If I come to God as I would a profane business transaction—demanding that I receive what I have earned—then what’s in it for me is disappointment. Why? Because even if I could earn God’s blessing (even if I were one of the ones hired at 6:00 AM, which I am not) I would receive only what every other person in God’s Kingdom receives, regardless of when he or she was brought in.

But, if I come to God on His terms, allowing God to deal with justice at the cross so that He can distribute blessings according to His grace, then what’s in it for me is God’s goodness. And since I was not hired at 6:00 AM, I have received God’s goodness as an undeserving recipient.

What difference does it make whether I was hired at 9:00 AM, 12:00, 3:00 or 5:00 PM? The fact is that none of us deserve a day’s wage; but we all receive a day’s wage because that’s just the way God rolls. What’s in it for me? Pure goodness, that’s what.

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