Commentary Life

A Word from a Long-Dead Saint on Humility

I’m reading through 1 Clement, one of the letters from a first century church father, likely Clement of Rome (the guy in the mosaic above). The letter was written around AD 80-100.

The letter is addressed to the Corinthians—that same group of Christians we read about in the New Testament who struggled so much to love each other.

Much of Clement’s letter is focused on humility and peace. He writes, “Let [your children] learn of how great avail [of value, benefit] humility is with God.”

And “You see, beloved, what is the example which has been given us; for if the Lord has so humbled Himself, what shall we do who have through Him come under the yoke of His grace?”

And most pointedly, “Why do we rend and tear apart Christ’s members and raise a revolt against our own body? Why do we reach such insanity that we are oblivious of the fact we are members of each other?”

Sounds like Clement could have written this to us in the Church today, right?

To those of you who feel hopeless with the Church (this is where I find myself often) because of pride and division among Christians, take heart. This has been a struggle since the beginning. It doesn’t mean God isn’t working or doesn’t care. It means the human heart takes a long time to change and, God is very, very, very patient with us. Like every generation before, we have work to do.

To those of you doing the dividing (and I mean elevating politics or certain doctrines or preferred worship styles over Jesus…or calling other Christian names or questioning their allegiance to Jesus, etc.) remember that those who call Jesus their “Lord” are members of the same body with you. In Christ, we are organically connected to each other. 

I want unity in the Church. But I’m not immune to causing division either. It’s easy for me to look down on people who put those things above Jesus and his Church. So then I put my own perspective or “humility” above Jesus, doing the very thing I wish others wouldn’t.

We are all a work in progress, moving from one degree of humility to another, aren’t we?

This is not something to take lightly. Let’s not rend and tear it apart because of pride. As another church father put it, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility” (Augustine of Hippo).

This was a lesson the Corinthians needed to learn time and time again, it seems. 

And so do we.


Another Sola?

During the Reformation, there were five “solae” (sola is Latin for “alone”) that attempted to sum up the doctrine of salvation. To the reformers, salvation is:

by Grace alone
through Faith alone
in Christ alone
as revealed in Scripture alone
for the Glory of God alone

This is right and good. But is it enough?

Several years ago, a mentor posed the question to me: “I wonder how history would have changed had the reformers included another sola: for love alone.”

There should be another. After all, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).

Think about it. How might church history, or even world history, be different if the reformers had been absolutely focused on ensuring their theology so transformed people it made them into the best lovers of God and neighbor the world had ever seen?

Reformed theology is a beautiful thing. I’ve benefited from it so much. But as I continue to grow older, I’m not so naïve to believe it alone (see what I did there?) has all the goods. Love, like we see it in the life of Jesus, simply was not emphasized by the reformers or their pupils as it should have been.

Reformed theology has too often trained many of its students, including me, to embrace and practice a faith that seeks to be right rather than get it right. Being right is nice when you’re having a debate with your buddy. Getting it right? Love is getting it (aka “life”) right.

And that’s the exact thing Jesus told us really matters to God. I want that to matter for you and me.

We need good theology. Obviously! But let’s be honest: knowing good theology without real, true, Spirit-empowered love makes us, as someone once put it, good for nothing.

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.


Heaven, a World of Love

Jonathan Edwards is often referred to as one of the greatest minds America has ever produced. He was a theologian and philosopher, yes. But most of all, he was pastor. His writing and and speaking and ministry did not happen in a classroom or an ivory tower. His sermons prove this.

He is most famous for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But Edwards didn’t only preach on God’s anger. Far from it. He talked more about God’s glory, the beauty of Christ, and love. One of the better Edwards’ sermons I have read is “Heaven, a World of Love.”

What comes to mind when you think of heaven? Harps? Clouds? Singing? Standing around doing nothing for eternity?

Does love make the cut? Have you ever considered that heaven is a world of love?

That’s Edwards’s main point. Heaven is the perfect society we were made for and long for, even if we don’t know it. Edwards makes several profound statements about what heaven will be like and they shatter our (pop)cultural expectations

In heaven, love casts away fear:

“No inhabitants of that blessed world will ever be grieved with the thought that they are slighted by those that they love, or that their love is not fully and fondly returned.”

In heaven, love is perfectly enjoyed:

“Heaven itself, the place of habitation, is a garden of pleasures, a heavenly paradise, fitted in all respects for an abode of heavenly love; a place where they may have sweet society and perfect enjoyment of each other’s love.”

In heaven, love is pure and genuine:

“Every expression of love shall come from the bottom of the heart, and all that is professed shall be really and truly felt.”

In heaven, love means everyone’s satisfaction will be in the holiness of others:

“Those that are highest in glory, are those that are highest in holiness, and therefore are those that are most beloved by all the saints; for they most love those that are most holy, and so they will all rejoice in their being the most happy. And it will not be a grief to any of the saints to see those that are higher than themselves in holiness and likeness to God, more loved also than themselves, for all shall have as much love as they desire, and as great manifestations of love as they can bear; and so all shall be fully satisfied; and where there is perfect satisfaction, there can be no reason for envy.”

While I am not an expert on Edwards, I can’t help but wonder if he is not at his pastoral best in this sermon. Why? Because the sermon creates a longing in the soul of the hearer (or reader in our case!) for heaven. Edwards shows us that the dissatisfactions and longings we feel in this world are little reminders that we were made for another one. A world of divine love!

But we do not long for heaven simply because it’s great real estate (i.e. not hell), but because it’s the only place where we can experience perfect relationship with God and others. I’m not very old and I have suffered little compared to most people. Yet with each passing month and year, I’m finding myself longing for heaven more and more.

What about you?


Why Must God be a Trinity?

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love. 

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Yesterday I did my best to briefly summarize why Jesus must be God. Today, I want to do the same with the question, Why must God be a Trinity? 

If we are honest, the Trinity seems, at best, a math problem or a religious puzzle to solve. At worst, it is a man-made construction not supported in the Scriptures, as many in history, and still today, have proposed. But before trying to figure out how God is one-yet-three and three-yet-one (and you won’t figure that out!), I suggest we ask why God must be a Trinity.

The easiest way to summarize the answer is this: God must be a Trinity if he is to be a God who is love. This means the Trinity is good news! God does not just love (a verb), though he does do that! But he is more than doing. His very essence is love (a noun). God can love because he is love. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The three persons of the Trinity exist in perfect loving relationship with each other. This loving community of persons are united in their being and purpose, yet diverse in their roles, responsibilities, and functions.

If God is merely one–individual, solitary, and alone, in relationship with no one–he can be or create many things. But he cannot be love. To be love, by very definition, requires relationship with someone other than yourself. The alternative is called vanity.

Allah, the god of Islam, for example, can be many things. He may even have the capacity to love. Yet, he cannot be love. Love can’t be his very essence. If love is not a god’s essence, it can be created and, therefore, destroyed. If love is not a god’s essence, then something else must and will be. This is not good news.

If we reflect further on God as Trinity, there are numerous applications. Here’s two:

  • Human beings are made in God’s image. Thus to be human means we are communal beings designed to live in loving relationship with each other.
  • The church is to be a diverse unity of persons, who together have a common faith, identity, and mission, yet individually have differing gifts, roles, functions, and activities.

Ultimately, because God is a Trinity—because he is love—the Father can, out of his great love for us, send his Son to atone for our sin and appease his holy wrath. The Father pours out his wrath on his own Son on the cross. The Son completely satisfies God’s wrath, paying the debt we owe with his blood. And in his resurrection, he conquers death so that all who repent of their sin and trust in the Son, are welcomed by the Father into this loving, harmonious, diversity unity of three through his giving us his Spirit. Do you see what this is? It is a Family working in unity, with complementary roles, to rescue lost, rebel orphans and bring them into the Family.

And this is good news. For you, for me, and for the world.

Scriptures to consider: Genesis 1:1, 26-27; Psalm 110; Matthew 3:17-18; Matthew 28:19-20; John 15-17 (esp. John 17); 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:1-7; 1 John 4:7-21