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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  • Following his premature death in an airplane crash in 1982, Green’s widow Melody pulled together several previously unpublished songs composed by Green and released them on the 1984 album, Jesus Commands Us to Go!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.

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.

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          “The biblical concept of providence … signals a universally confident belief in God’s loving care and protection of the world. It is grounded in the belief in God as Creator, one who continues at all times to preserve and order the world, holding chaos at bay, and leading the world and all human history toward life and full happiness.”[1]

          Providence is often described as God’s invisible hand with which He guides events in the world. It is to be contrasted with God’s miraculous in-breaking, when the Creator uses his visible hand to make some adjustment to His creation.

          In order to see God’s miraculous in-breaking, one only needs a set of physical eyes. Even the most vicious of Jesus’ critics could not (would not) deny that a miracle had been performed (see Acts 4:16, for example). Seeing God’s providence, His invisible hand, requires something else, however.

          Nine times out of three in order to see God’s providence we must use hindsight. It is only after God has led us through a difficult phase of our lives that we are able to look back, reflect, and then see the hand of God at work.

          Many God-fearing followers of Christ describe this phenomenon: a woman describes her newly-found intimacy with God after several rounds of chemotherapy; a man shares his deeper appreciation for God’s loving kindness after finally kicking a life-long addiction; a man describes his confidence in the face of imminent death as a skill acquired after a 30-year walk with God as a wheelchair-bound paraplegic.

          Seeing God’s providence requires hindsight. But, trusting God’s providence is an act of faith. And often the faith that empowers us to face an uncertain future, trusting that God will see us through no matter what, is a faith that is built brick by brick as we periodically look back over our own lives and the lives of others and see that while God may not remove our suffering as we so desperately desire, He does walk with us through our suffering and sustain us in all ways.

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” (Hebrews 13:5b-6a).


[1] Barbara E. Bowe, “Providence,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1092.

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I’m starting a short series of sermons from the book of Ruth this Sunday. It is always a revelation to examine a familiar passage of Scripture again for the first time. What appears on the surface to be a sweet, moralizing, happy-ending story turns out to be a direct encounter with the Living God. May He never stop speaking to His people through Scripture.

I’m toying with what to title the sermon series. In 2007, Mark Driscoll preached a similar series and called it, Redeeming Ruth. I haven’t listened to all of his messages from the series but I understand where he got his title.

“Redemption” is the key concern in the story told. In its short eighty-five verses, the words “redeem” and its derivatives (“redeemer,” “redemption”) are used twenty-three times.

            The challenge is knowing who is redeemed. With whom am I to identify in the story?

            Most interpreters and every sermon I have ever heard or preached hold up Ruth as the model to follow. She is, as the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, an admirable character from an ethnic group despised and rejected by the “people of God” who trusted God and was rewarded for her faith. “Ruth believed, trusted, obeyed and was redeemed; therefore, go and do likewise.” Let’s stand and sing.

            That is a fine way to approach the book of Ruth. Indeed, that is the way many interpreters approach it and many preachers preach it, myself included. But, I think there is a deeper level of meaning here.

            I still have a lot of work to do—and a lot of praying to do—before I feel confident that I have heard the full word of God here, but here is my preliminary conclusion: the story is not about the redemption of Ruth. She maintains her integrity throughout the story. The story is about the redemption of Naomi. She is the one who turned bitter against God when He did not act as she thought He ought to act (see 1:19-21 for insight into her disillusionment with the goodness of God). And, surprisingly, she is the one—Naomi—who is said to have “received a son” at the end of the story (4:17).

            So, another deceptively charming little story from the Bible that carries a supernatural punch. I’ll have more to share as the series develops.

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.

There is a great tension within Christian discipleship. Eternal life is a free gift that costs us everything. Nothing we do can earn it; yet once we have freely received it, we ought to relinquish everything in reaction to it.

It is to revealing and clarifying this paradoxical balance that the gospel preacher must devote his energy. There are dangers on both sides of the equation:

  • Too much stress on the required human response and legalistic Pharisees are formed. Moralism, legalism, and sectarianism are just a few of the dangers.
  • Too much emphasis on divine grace and shallow, self-indulgent Christians are formed. Nominalism, cheap grace, and a fuzzy “we accept everyone and everything” attitude are often the result.

Perhaps no one navigated this delicate balance better than Martin Luther; perhaps no one experienced its absence as acutely as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

How could the church of Martin Luther align itself with Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany? By forsaking the true gospel, that’s how. By allowing the mainstream church to become polarized on the extremes of legalism and cheap grace nominalism.

Eric Metaxas has written a profound biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Timothy Keller wrote the Foreword and it says some things worth repeating:

We are saved, not by anything we do, but by grace. Yet if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.

[Many people understand] grace only as abstract acceptance—“God forgives; that’s his job.”  But we know that true grace comes to us by costly sacrifice. And if God was willing to go to the cross and endure such pain and absorb such a cost in order to save us, then we must live sacrificially as we serve others. Anyone who truly understands how God’s grace comes to us will have a changed life. That’s the gospel, not salvation by law, or by cheap grace, but by costly grace. Costly grace changes you from the inside out. Neither law nor cheap grace can do that.

We still have a lot of legalism and moralism in our churches. In reaction to that, many Christians want to talk only about God’s love and acceptance. They don’t like talking about Jesus’ death on the cross to satisfy divine wrath and justice. Some even call it “divine child abuse.” Yet if they are not careful, they run the risk of falling into the belief in “cheap grace”—a non-costly love from a non-holy God who just loves and accepts us where we are. That will never change anyone’s life.[1]

Of course the warning is to every generation: forsake the True Gospel and disaster is predictable. May God grant us the ability to see how we are allowing the true gospel to become out of balance in our generation. May God grant us the grace we need to navigate the paradoxical balance that is Christian discipleship.


[1] Timothy J. Keller, Foreword to Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2011).