Categories
Theology

Three Brief Reflections on Reformation Day

Today is an important day. It’s Reformation Day, the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In fact, it’s the 500th anniversary of the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church, challenging several unbiblical doctrines and practices of the established Roman Catholic church in Europe.

The core issue of the Reformation, of course, was justification: how are people declared righteous before a perfect God? Luther argued it was by faith in Christ, as the Scriptures reveal, not our own works. The church needed this correction. We need to remember and embrace this today.

The Reformation has much to commend to it. But it also left much to be desired—at least from where I sit as a white, Western Christian man in a Protestant tradition. A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said something like this. But my journey as a pastor of a Protestant community-type church who has transitioned into a missionary role has brought me, I think, more balance in my approach to church history, theology, and where we stand today as a movement. Not perfect. Just more balanced.

With that said, here are three reflections on the Reformation. These deserve a post all on their own. However, at the very least, I hope they serve as great conversation starters at your Halloween party tonight.

Justification is Not Everything
Justification is central to biblical Christianity, but it is not the whole of salvation. An unhealthy obsession with justification as the marquee doctrine can lead to a transactional faith where we simply see God as a judge who declares us righteous. He is that and he does that. But biblical salvation doesn’t end there. Perhaps a greater biblical theme (in both Old and New Testaments) than the need for justification is that we are alienated and orphaned because of sin. Therefore, what we need is not just for the Judge to declare us innocent, but for the Judge to become our Father and welcome us home. This is the biblical teaching of adoption which is a God-given grace that goes beyond justification.

We must remember that the Reformation happened in a Western, European, white, and heavily institutional context that dealt with a single doctrinal issue: justification. Furthermore, Luther’s context tended to emphasize the transactional nature of relationships (e.g. judge to defendant) rather than the familial nature of relationships (e.g. father to son). A Native American friend, speaking about a different topic, said something that applies here: “Most white people’s relationships are transactional [as opposed to familial].” Unfortunately, most of our Protestant traditions here in the States see our relationship with God, and others, this way, too. What’s more, our churches in 2017 look more like the church of Luther’s day than the church in the beginning of Acts.

Another Sola?
The “Five Solas” of the Reformation attempted to summarize the biblical teaching on salvation: that we are justified by God’s grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, received through faith alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. This is glorious! However, is it enough? A friend once asked me, “I wonder what would have happened had the Reformers emphasized another sola: love alone?” That is, we are justified so that we might do something: love God and love people.

The Reformation did not emphasize much about our post-conversion life. Of course, the Reformation dealt with a single issue (a doctrinal one at that). But the Bible isn’t an academic, theological textbook (or glossary) where one doctrine stands in isolation to others. The Bible is revelation. The Bible reveals a God who calls a people to himself, saves that people through his Son Jesus, and commissions that people to a life of love and service to a dark world. If justification by faith is true—and it is—then a necessary outflow is that we are enabled, by grace, to obey the Great Commandment. Now, we love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. Be thankful for Luther’s course correction regarding justification. But we must remember, with deep sorrow, that he also despised the book of James, a love-in-action letter that takes justification to its practical outworking.

Read more about this.

Always Be Reforming
There is a saying among the Reformed that goes something like this: “Reformed and always reforming.” I believe in that motto so long as we reform not to a certain theological camp’s standards but according to the word of God itself. And reform to the word of God does not simply mean assenting to theological platitudes. Sound doctrine, certainly according to Paul, always leads to a life life of worship and obedience to Jesus. So yes, let’s keep reforming and becoming more holistically biblical. But let’s not be reductionistic nor “reform” to the mindset or methodology of the church of the 16th century.

Today, remember Reformation Day and be thankful for what it was. A hearty “amen” to that! But let’s also keep in mind that it was not everything, nor was it ever meant to be.

Categories
Ministry Theology

Three Brief Reflections on Reformation Day

Today is an important day. It’s Reformation Day, the day that sparked the Protestant Reformation in Europe. In fact, it’s the 500th anniversary of the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church, challenging several unbiblical doctrines and practices of the established Roman Catholic church in Europe.

The core issue of the Reformation, of course, was justification: how are people declared righteous before a perfect God? Luther argued it was by faith in Christ, as the Scriptures reveal, not our own works. The church needed this correction. We need to remember and embrace this today.

The Reformation has much to commend to it. But it also left much to be desired—at least from where I sit as a white, Western Christian man in a Protestant tradition. A few years ago, I probably wouldn’t have said something like this. But my journey as a pastor of a Protestant community-type church who has transitioned into a missionary role has brought me, I think, more balance in my approach to church history, theology, and where we stand today as a movement. Not perfect. Just more balanced.

With that said, here are three reflections on the Reformation. These deserve a post all on their own. However, at the very least, I hope they serve as great conversation starters at your Halloween party tonight.

Justification is Not Everything
Justification is central to biblical Christianity, but it is not the whole of salvation. An unhealthy obsession with justification as the marquee doctrine can lead to a transactional faith where we simply see God as a judge who declares us righteous. He is that and he does that. But biblical salvation doesn’t end there. Perhaps a greater biblical theme (in both Old and New Testaments) than the need for justification is that we are alienated and orphaned because of sin. Therefore, what we need is not just for the Judge to declare us innocent, but for the Judge to become our Father and welcome us home. This is the biblical teaching of adoption which is a God-given grace that goes beyond justification.

We must remember that the Reformation happened in a Western, European, white, and heavily institutional context that dealt with a single doctrinal issue: justification. Furthermore, Luther’s context tended to emphasize the transactional nature of relationships (e.g. judge to defendant) rather than the familial nature of relationships (e.g. father to son). A Native American friend, speaking about a different topic, said something that applies here: “Most white people’s relationships are transactional [as opposed to familial].” Unfortunately, most of our Protestant traditions here in the States see our relationship with God, and others, this way, too. What’s more, our churches in 2017 look more like the church of Luther’s day than the church in the beginning of Acts.

Another Sola?
The “Five Solas” of the Reformation attempted to summarize the biblical teaching on salvation: that we are justified by God’s grace alone, on the basis of Christ alone, received through faith alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. This is glorious! However, is it enough? A friend once asked me, “I wonder what would have happened had the Reformers emphasized another sola: sola amare, love alone?” That is, we are justified so that we might do something: love God and love people.

The Reformation did not emphasize much about our post-conversion life. Of course, the Reformation dealt with a single issue (a doctrinal one at that). But the Bible isn’t an academic, theological textbook (or glossary) where one doctrine stands in isolation to others. The Bible is revelation. The Bible reveals a God who calls a people to himself, saves that people through his Son Jesus, and commissions that people to a life of love and service to a dark world. If justification by faith is true—and it is—then a necessary outflow is that we are enabled, by grace, to obey the Great Commandment. Now, we love God with everything we have and love our neighbor as ourselves. Be thankful for Luther’s course correction regarding justification. But we must remember, with deep sorrow, that he also despised the book of James, a love-in-action letter that takes justification to its practical outworking.

Always Be Reforming
There is a saying among the Reformed that goes something like this: “Reformed and always reforming.” I believe in that motto so long as we reform not to a certain theological camp’s standards but according to the word of God itself. And reform to the word of God does not simply mean assenting to theological platitudes. Sound doctrine, certainly according to Paul, always leads to a life life of worship and obedience to Jesus. So yes, let’s keep reforming and becoming more holistically biblical. But let’s not be reductionistic nor “reform” to the mindset or methodology of the church of the 16th century.

Today, remember Reformation Day and be thankful for what it was. A hearty “amen” to that! But let’s also keep in mind that it was not everything, nor was it ever meant to be.

Categories
Life

Bo Pelini, Self-Deception, and the Gospel

 

In a closed-door meeting just a few days after he was fired as head coach at Nebraska, Bo Pelini addressed the Husker players. On Thursday the Omaha World Herald released an audio recording of that meeting. (Warning: the audio on this link contains extreme profanity.) Pelini spoke with the team for about 30 minutes and insulted Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst several times. Pelini did not speak well of the university, the administration, or the leadership culture in the athletic department.

If you know anything about Nebraska football and Bo Pelini (and I don’t expect readers of this blog to know anything), you quickly realized that this audio only confirms the exact reason why Pelini was fired: he had an arrogant, unprofessional, disrespectful, and vulgar disposition.

A member of our church (a Texas A&M fan) said to me before Pelini was fired, “He’s a jerk. Your fans are so nice. You don’t need a guy like that.” Yes, Pelini lost some big games by a lot of points. Coaches can’t do that and live to tell about it. But more than that, Pelini does not reflect the type of person an institution of higher education wants to employ, even a football coach.

This brings up an important point. Pelini was known not only for drama on the sidelines, but for crafting a dramatic (and well-rehearsed, it seemed) “us-against-the-world” plot-line throughout his tenure. This post-firing speech, no doubt taken to heart by so many impressionable student-athletes in that room (and for good reason: they loved their coach), was simply the narrative’s denouement. To change the metaphor, it was the Mt. Everest of the Bo Pelini experiment at the University of Nebraska. Mountain top experiences are usually good things. But this final climb to the summit had all the ice and frost bite and anger and heartache of Everest without any of the glory.

But this was about more than a frustrated former employee. It was about more than a coach who blows a gasket every now and then and has a bit of vitriol for his ex-boss. It was about more than approaching sports and coaching with an “us-against-the-world” attitude (which is a bad way to approach sports and coaching but that’s another post).

This was about the “exceeding sinfulness of sin,” as the Puritans used to say. Sin is horrific in its power to deceive the one it devours. Sin is blinding and the more one is entrenched in sin, the harder it is to see that you are actually blind. Pelini had opportunity in front of his players to say, once and for all, he screwed up. That he had not lived up to his own values of class, professionalism, accepting personal responsibility, and so on. That he had not treated people—superiors, referees, players, and others—with honor, dignity, and respect. But he did not. He blamed others. He defended himself. He exaggerated his virtues. He exaggerated the faults of his foes. He did whatever he could to protect and justify himself. Pelini couldn’t see what, it appears, everyone around him had been seeing for years both on and off the field.

Pelini provides us with an extreme case study of how easily and powerfully we can be deceived. We miss the point if we read or hear this and say, “I can’t understand how he didn’t see this! He got what was coming to him.” Instead, this case study should teach us. It should expose our own self-deceptiveness and tendencies to self-protect and self-justify. What would an audio recording of your thoughts sound like? You might not have as many expletives as Pelini, but no doubt there are voracious and dastardly self-defense strategies and tactics being developed and implemented every hour. No doubt you are deceiving yourself and loading up ammo ready to aim and fire on whoever will challenge you in order to justify yourself and dish out judgment and condemnation. Your spouse. Your child. Your boss. Your neighbor. Your small group leader. Your sibling. Your therapist. Be thankful you don’t have a platform like Pelini and a hundred college students with smart phones inside your head.

The only answer—and this is not a trite answer—is the gospel. Through God’s grace in the gospel, I see myself for who I really am. The layers of sin’s deception start to peel back. I realize that my biggest problems are inside of me, not outside of me. The gospel tells me I am more flawed and broken than I ever dared believe. How do I know this? The gospel tells me that God’s own Son, Jesus, died for me. He died for me not as an example but as a substitionary sacrifice. I would have no hope without his death. He died in my place because I deserved to die. I—you—deserved to die because I—we—assaulted God by trying to be God. You see, when we deceive ourselves into believing that our problems are outside of us and not inside of us, and that others are to blame and we are justified in our thoughts, words, and actions, we play the role of God and judge. One of the prime hallmarks of sin is that it deceives us to believe we are our own god.

The gospel shows us that we cannot be our own god and we’re doomed if we try. The gospel shows us that it is not “us-against-the-world” but rather “God-against-the-world.” In our attempts to justify ourselves, we have rebelled against God and find ourselves at odds with him.

But there is also good news in this gospel: we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope. The gospel reveals that God is not only against the world, but that he loves the world and he sent his only Son into the world to die for us. Jesus was willing to die and he died because we deserved it. On the cross, Jesus bears the entire punishment we deserve for our self-deception—our playing God. And he also provides the perfection you and I—and Bo Pelini—need for true and lasting justification. Jesus gives us all his beauty and goodness and obedience in return for all our ugliness and badness and disobedience. Astonishing.

What does this do in my life? It frees me from having to protect and justify myself. Why? Because in God’s eyes, I’m justified. There’s no more need to defend myself. The Creator loves and accepts me! Now, I’m free to admit my faults because they are ultimately not a threat to me anymore. God has forgiven me and is in the process of changing me and will one day bring final deliverance. Now, I’m also free to cry out with the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). I can admit I don’t know myself as well as I should. There are hidden sins in me that want to stay covered. In fact, I’m partly blind to some of my worst sins. That’s how sin works. But as the gospel takes deeper root in my life, these “hidden faults” become more evident. As the gospel goes deeper and I actively seek out areas of self-deception in order to put them to death, self-deception begins to wane. Slowly, but surely, by God’s grace, it wanes.

This 30-minute audio recording is about Bo Pelini, sure. But it’s also about you and me. It’s about self-deception. It’s about the gospel. Let this final, tragic episode in Pelini’s time at Nebraska help you see that sin is exceedingly sinful because it inclines us to self-deception. Even more, let it help you see that the gospel is exceedingly good because it opens our eyes to who we really are, who Jesus really is, and what he has done to provide us true, lasting justification.

Categories
Theology

Does Our Effort Nullify God’s Grace?

There has been quite a bit of debate lately, particularly in Reformed Evangelical circles, about the relationship between God’s grace and our effort in sanctification. A while back, there was quite the conversation on The Gospel Coalition blogs about this relationship. I’ll spare you the details, but check out the roundup of the debates if you have time.

God demands that we pursue holiness after being saved. We are not saved to “let go and let God.” Rather, by grace we strive to flee from sin and strive to pursue holiness. This past month, my morning devotions in 1 Timothy have made this clear. In chapter 1, Paul says that all of our effort in the Christian life is by God’s grace. Effort is not equated with earning God’s love; effort simply works out what God has worked in (Phil. 2:14). (For one of the best sermons you will ever hear on grace and effort, watch Doug Wilson’s sermon “Grace and Sweat.”)

Notice how Paul links grace (God’s sovereign role) and effort (our responsibility) in 1 Timothy 1:1-14.

  • Faith is a gift of God (1:6).
  • God gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-control to overcome fear (1:7).
  • We endure suffering by the power of God (1:8).
  • We are saved by God’s purpose and grace, not our works (1:9).
  • We have life through the gospel, not in our own selves (1:10).
  • God guards the deposit in us until we obtain full possession of it (1:12).
  • We guard the “good deposit” of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, not our own power (1:14).

We are called to holiness, but God is the one who ultimately does the work. Yet, God works through means: our willful choices. Throughout 1 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy  to appeal to his flock to believe in gospel truth and live in gospel-shaped ways because of grace. Therefore, the motivation for our “sweat,” as Wilson puts it, is not to be loved and accepted by God. We have gospel motivation: we are already accepted by God in Christ. We have the power of Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit who enables to obey. Our obedience is done out of gratitude for who God is and what he has done in the gospel. Obedience is not done out of a desire to “get God in our debt” or “get him to love us.” And when we fail, we repent, knowing our assurance with God is not based on our performance, but on Jesus’ performance for us.

In saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), Jesus bought all the graces of God that I mentioned above with his blood. God justifies us by grace and sanctifies us by grace. Therefore, knowing we are already loved and no longer have the weight of the law bearing down on our shoulders, we are free to pursue holiness. That is why Paul can say to Timothy at the end of his letter, “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things [false teaching and wickedness]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called” (6:11-12, emphasis added).

These are commands to be active. How does this all happen without believing effort is the root of our acceptance with God? Four words: “Grace be with you” (6:21b). Timothy can flee evil and pursue righteousness because God’s grace is with him. Grace brings joy-filled effort and heart-level obedience that arises from the fact that our standing before God is secure in the strong name of Jesus. That is incredibly freeing, and it always produces a holy sweat.

Does our effort nullify God’s grace? Not one bit. In fact, our pursuit of holiness—even our desire for it—proves that God is the one who gets all the glory. Our pursuit of holiness exalts God’s grace. It exalts the cross because it shows us that we need the gospel—Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us—more than we ever imagined. When we put for gospel-motivated effort, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus become that much sweeter: “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).

Categories
Life Theology

Why is it important to understand the difference between justification and sanctification?

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:5-8)

Justification involves God forgiving sin. Some would argue that it does not, but without the forgiveness of sin, we cannot be made right with God.

In Paul’s magnificent treatment of this doctrine in Romans 4, he points to David as proof that justification is by faith alone, when he wrote in Psalm 32, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.”  Forgiveness happens when one person says to another, “I won’t count this against you. I choose to forgive, rather than condemn.”

Justification and forgiveness change the way one person is viewed by another.  When God justifies a person, he makes a legal declaration about them. He makes them right in relationship to himself.  But this does not change people in a practical way.  There is no change in our thinking, behavior, or attitude.  Justification is not sanctification, for when God sanctifies a person, he actively does something in them.

You might think, James, why are you writing this? What’s the big deal? Why do I need to know the difference? After all, as long as you read the Bible and love Jesus, you don’t need to know these theological definitions, right?

Wrong.

If you think justification and sanctification are the same thing, then the very foundation of  your standing with God will shake beneath you.  You will despair of God’s love after that lonely late night affair with pornography.  You will doubt that God is for you when you yet again blown up at your children for running around the house.  You will wonder if God will ignore your prayers after you have neglected sharing the gospel with your neighbor. You will wonder if God will abandon his commitment to you after you have spoken harshly to your spouse.

If, to you, justification and sanctification are the same, you will always wrestle with whether you are enough for God. The truth is, you and I will never be enough. But Jesus is. So praise be to God that because of Christ “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).