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 • Following his premature death in an airplane crash in 1982, Green’s widow Melody pulled together several previously unpublished songs composed by Green and released them on the 1984 album, Jesus Commands Us to Go!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

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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).