Friday, July 31, 2015

Tullian and the (ongoing) Sanctification Debate...

   There’s a debate that has been raging in the world of Evangelical Christendom (the more “conservative” American Churches) concerning “sanctification” or the good works that result from our life in Christ. It started with mega-church pastor Tim Keller’s website “The Gospel Coalition” which has a number of influential Reformed pastors contributing. Most of them were from the Presbyterian Church in America, the conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church (the PCA is to the Presbyterian Church USA roughly what the Missouri Synod is to the ELCA). But a whole range of Reformed and then Lutheran and then non-denom and other pastors and theologians joined in the debate and it has consumed a lot of attention in the blogosphere especially among LCMS pastors. The debate has often been acrimonious and has caused a lot of contention.

   Basically, the debate is about how good the lives of faithful Christians should be, morally speaking, how much conscious effort we can or should devote to improving our conduct, how much we can measure our faith by our “sanctification”, what role faith plays in this, and above all, how much pastors, in their preaching, should exhort us to strive for good works, and how much preaching should simply focus on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Essentially the pronomians (“for the law”, Keller and others) advocate active, robust exhortation to good works, strong “third use of the law” (the law as good guide for Christian living) after a clear proclamation of justification by faith. Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham’s grandson and a prominent evangelical mega-church pastor from Florida and guest speaker at our Concordia Seminary in St. Louis recently) advocated a more passive, faith-based approach to sanctification, emphasizing the chief use of the law is to show our sin and drive us to find mercy in Christ by faith alone, emphasizing that God loves us as we are because our sins are always already covered entirely by the blood of Christ. This position was critiqued by pronomians as “soft antinomianism” (being against the law).

   The debate reached a new level of shrill last month when Tchividjian abruptly resigned as Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale (D. James Kennedy’s old church) admitting that both he and his wife had been guilty of adultery. He was kicked out of Keller’s Gospel Coalition network [a few months prior] and there was much “See! I told you! I told you being soft on the law would lead to mischief like this!” type of posts.

   Really, this debate about just how good we should be as Christians, morally, and how important that is to our faith and salvation has raged in the LCMS for decades. My own view is that, like most of the debates that come out of Reformed Calvinism, the terms are poorly framed so that both sides are failing to do justice to what the Scriptures actually teach. Luther framed questions about faith and good works, free will and sanctification in subtly, but importantly different ways than did Jean Calvin, though they often used the same terminology in an outwardly similar fashion. Lutherans have often been sucked into silly arguments about things like limited atonement, or total depravity (I say “anyone who believes in total depravity can’t be all bad”!), predestination, and assurance of salvation by accepting Calvinist debate terms. There is a thoroughgoing rationalism in all of Calvinism that is antithetical to Christian faith in the Word. Luther grasped that the revelation of Christ is ultimately wrapped in Mystery and paradox and that reason simply cannot grasp the deep things of God, like how the finite is capable of the infinite when God took on our flesh in Jesus Christ.

  I’m concerned that a Reformed rationalism has spilled into our church’s theology and practice. Personally, I think both Keller and Tchividjian are off-base, though, if pressed I’d say Tchividjian is a bit closer to getting it than Keller, despite his recent bad press. The problem with both sides in the debate is they want to take something that is essentially a Mystery and put it into rationally comprehensible and “programmable” terms so that 1, 2, 3 we can live holier lives by just following the right spiritual formulas, or alternatively 1, 2, 3 be able to forget about holy living entirely!

   When we think it’s our work and effort to try to “live more holy” we have separated ourselves from Christ and the power of His death and resurrection and are trusting to some degree in ourselves. When we think “I don’t have to worry about being good, I just need to believe in Jesus” we are mirroring the very same move—focusing on ourselves rather than on Christ Jesus. If you’re working at being holy, it’s too much about you. If you insist you don’t have to be holy, because you have faith, it’s again, too much about you!

   St. Paul says that when we were baptized we “put on Christ”. When you take this very, very literally a third alternative to the sanctification debate appears. Living a Christian life is not like an exercise program, nor is faith like a “free pass” to let you off participating in Christ’s holiness already in this life. Putting on Christ is like dressing up as your favorite super-hero when you were a kid. Mom didn’t have to tell you “Go out and spend 45 minutes pretending to be Batman. It will do you good.” No, when you had a spare hour or so, you’d pretend to be Batman because Batman is way cool, and you want to be like that yourself! And in the playing and the pretending, in the focusing on your hero’s traits and exploits, a little bit of his form of life starts to shape yours.

   Sanctification is not a program. It’s like a child’s game. It’s pretending to be something we know we’re not (yet, at least!)—Christ Jesus our Lord. He’s authorized us to play this game by our Baptism into His Name, and it is the best game in town. The more you take in His Word and Sacraments, the more you think on Him, “put Him on”—imaginatively at first, then spiritually, and finally, really and for keeps when He returns (or when we die, whichever comes first). The key to the game is focusing on Jesus and forgetting about ourselves and whether we’re good enough or just how good we have to be anyway to get to heaven. Like little children, if you really love your hero, you will emulate Him, and the more people try to stop you, the more fervently you’ll play the game. (One of my favorite quotes is from Luther who said “Even if God sends me to hell, I will still love Him and even in hell I’ll worship and praise him.” Which is awesome! Even if Batman won’t let me in the Bat-Cave I’m still having him for my hero.

   One of C.S. Lewis’ last books was “Till We Have Faces”. In the book, an ugly but well-intentioned queen of an ancient kingdom both loves her beautiful sister and is very jealous of her. She considers her own face so ugly, she wears a veil all the time to hide it. In putting on a mask though, the features of that mask eventually shape her in unexpected ways. I can’t think of a better book on the Christian life actually and the role that faith and love for Christ actually play in our earthly lives.


-Pastor Kevin Martin
 Our Savior Lutheran Church (Raleigh, NC)
 (permission granted)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Luther on Faith...



The great art and power of faith consist in seeing that which is not seen and in not seeing that which is nonetheless felt, aye, which oppresses and depresses a person; just as unbelief sees only what it feels and does not at all like to cling to that which it does not feel.

Therefore God does not confront faith with trivial things but with such things as all the world cannot bear, like death, sin, the world, and the devil. For all the world is not able to stand up against death but flees from it, is frightened by it, and is overpowered by it. But faith stands fast and battles with death, which devours all the world, and gains the victory over it and devours the insatiable devourer of human life.

Is not faith, which can hold its own against such mighty enemies and attain the victory, an almighty and unspeakably grand matter? Therefore St. John well says 1 John 5:4: "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." Not that this is done in peace and undisturbed quietness, for it is a battle that is waged not without wounds and blood. Aye, in this battle the heart feels sin, death, the flesh, the devil, and the world so severely that it thinks it is surely lost, that sin and death have won, and that the devil has gained the upper hand. It feels little of the power of faith.

—Martin Luther*


*Unsure of origin of source. Located on PrayNow application from Concordia Publishing House

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Impostors and Ragamuffins (or Simul Iustus et Peccator)

First, a selection of quotes from Brennan Manning from his chapter - Paste Jewelry and Sawdust Hotdogs - in his book, The Ragamuffin Gospel.

Impostors in the Spirit always prefer appearances to reality. Rationalization begins with a look in the mirror. We don't like the sight of ourselves as we really are, so we try cosmetics, makeup, the right light, and the proper accessories to develop an acceptable image of ourselves. We rely on the stylish disguise that has made us look good or at least look away from our true self. Self-deception mortgages our sinfulness and prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are - ragamuffins.

The noonday devil of the Christian life is the temptation to lose the inner self while preserving the shell of edifying behavior. Suddenly I discover that I am ministering to AIDS victims to enhance my résumé. I find I renounced ice cream for Lent to lose five excess pounds. I drop hints about the absolute priority of meditation and contemplation to create the impression that I am a man of prayer. At some unremembered moment I have lost the connection between internal purity of heart and external works of piety. In the most humiliating sense of the word, I have become a legalist. I have fallen victim to what TS Eliot calls the greatest sin: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.
The appeal of paste jewelry and sawdust hot dogs is powerful....[t]o the extent that I reject my ragamuffin identity, I turn away from God, the community, and myself. I become a man obsessed with illusion, a man of false power and fearful weakness, unable to think, act, or love.


I have a confession. My impetus for reading this chapter was to help me ponder why certain things other people do bother and disturb me.  Things such as posting photos on social media about how wonderful they are, and all their self-congratulating.

Then honesty and truth show themselves to me.  I ultimately realize this post may be more about me and my pretensions.  I like what I have heard Brennan Manning say in interviews and various lectures he gave - how he's broken every one of the 10 Commandments... 6 times on Tuesday.  I, too, am guilty in like manner.  And I'm positive that's not hyperbole.

Even after I came to this realization, my prayer was "Christ, have mercy." But even then I realized I was praying with a bit of self-righteousness.  Still angered by others, and just wishing some of those that share their public self-congratulations could get a hint of my apparent humbleness and piety.

And it's not just this time, but so many other times when I pray something as similar as "Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner." I ask myself, "Am I really asking for mercy and forgiveness, or am I really doing my own version of the humble brag?"

It's at these times I realize the truth of what Manning wrote earlier in The Ragamuffin Gospel:  "At the cross, Jesus unmasked the sinner not only as a beggar, but as a criminal before God."

There's no escaping this guilt as we are all not merely beggars, but absolutely guilty of our crimes.  Yet there is true redemption by the love and mercy of God.  We are truly forgiven. In Christ Jesus.

Lord Jesus, we are silly sheep who have dared to stand before You and try to bribe You with our preposterous portfolios. Suddenly we have come to our senses. We are sorry and ask You to forgive us. Give us the grace to admit we are ragamuffins, to embrace our brokenness, to celebrate Your mercy when we are at our weakest, to rely on Your mercy no matter what we may do. Dear Jesus, gift us to stop grandstanding and trying to get attention, to do the truth quietly without display, to let the dishonesties in our lives fade away, to accept our limitations, to cling to the gospel of grace, and to delight in Your love. Amen.


In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Jefferson and the Constitution

I like Thomas Jefferson. A lot. He was by no means infallible, but he is one of my favorite founding fathers to read.  Despite some of his serious flaws (especially on slavery), his thoughts on government are worth the read.

I am one of those folks who do not place the Constitution of the United States on the level of Holy Writ. This understated view of the Constitution seems to fly in the face of current day political views - especially those on right wing of the political spectrum.  The US Constitution, in my opinion, is merely a document prepared by some men who were admittedly wonderfully gifted, but were not sent from God on high as some may want us to believe.

So in this vein, I'd like to share a letter Jefferson wrote regarding what he believes to be limitations of such a document as US Constitution. This letter written to Samuel Kercheval - a fellow Virginian - is worth the read.

Here are some highlights from the letter:


"...Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment….

...Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors….

...Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness."


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Korah's Rebellion and God's Grace...

In reading through the book of Numbers (chapters 16 - 17) this morning, I was struck by how Israel's, yet more specifically, Korah's rebellion and how it goes hand in hand with worship and God's divinely established order.  Korah and his company ultimately thought they could do better than God.

Luther addresses God's graciousness after Korah's rebellion and how he is gracious to a sinful human race:

To grace all things are possible. Korah stirs up a great rebellion, and he himself perishes. But this great miracle follows. . .his sons are nevertheless preserved. Later they became renowned by reason of most excellent virtues, since they composed very beautiful psalms which can easily stand comparison and vie with the psalms of David. Yet they were descendants of Levi and Korah. . . Accordingly, God always observes this rule. He sets forth His threats; yet He chooses something good from evil men and sinners, just as He preserves some out of the whole human race, which is lost because of sins. (Luther's Works. American Edition. 8:227-228)

 God has set forth a divine service - the way He has chosen to deal with His Church.  Much of modern Christendom has gone the way Korah and thinks it can do 'worship' better - on it own terms.  This modern iteration of the church ultimately trusts itself than God's Word.

Yet God, in His mercy, has given us His Son.  And yet while we were still sinners, Christ died for us and has forgiven all our iniquities.