An Unhealthy Preoccupation with Sin

I’ve often said that the Church has this weird preoccupation with sin. I don’t mean that the Church should ignore sin or be afraid to talk about it. What I mean is that the Church treats sin like the boogie man. Desperately trying to find where it’s lurking, attempting to uncover it’s mysterious presence. Frantically wracking our brains to decipher if this activity is sinful or if this endeavor is holy. What we create by doing so is not a people who are set apart from the world, but neurotic saints who are afraid to do anything so they remain stunted unsure of who they really are. Martin Luther called us “cows staring at a new gate.” Our inner dialogue goes something like, “Can I really go through it? Is this really open? Am I really free? No it can’t be…this must be a trap.”
For all of our focus on sin, we’ve left people powerless to find victory over it and without any assurance that they’re actually forgiven for it. There is very little absolution in the Church…sure there is plenty of talk about forgiveness of sins in general but there remains a serious vacuum of the specific promise given to the sinner, “you are forgiven”…or “I forgive you on account of Christ.”
Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Paul told the Romans that it was impossible for the regenerated, baptized saint to go on sinning that grace might abound (Romans 6:1-4). Too often these passages are used as a weapon to guilt Christians into “repentance” and “obedience”…to shape up or ship out. But I don’t think that what’s being communicated here. The Christian has been given the very life and nature of Christ…his victory, his obedience, his righteousness. It’s this nature that becomes, for the Christian, a new reality, the truest thing about us…”if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17). Our old sin nature (the old Adam) no longer defines us…it still has a presence but he’s dead. Any preoccupation with sin (whether it’s giving into it’s demands or focusing on it instead of Christ), is an affront to the cross and a failure to recognize who we truly are in Christ. Like people who suffer with Stockholm’s Syndrome we can easily fall victim to the deception that we’re still under sin’s power, and that we’re not really free(1). But Jesus says something very different…”whom the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36). We’re no longer slaves (to sin) we’re blood bought, adopted sons and daughters who no longer have to live under sin’s tyranny, which frees us to live our lives with confident joy, not an unhealthy fear that has us looking over a shoulder wondering if the boogie man is going to pounce. We needn’t fear my friends, for Jesus pounced first and drove a spike right through his heart. Herein, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom. 8:37), for the battle was won before it even started.
(1) – Steve Paulson, Lutheran Theology, T&T Clark, 2011
Photo Credit  – Martin Yee

God in a Box

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “You can’t put God in a box”

It usually means, “don’t limit God” or “God can do whatever he wants”, which in premise I absolutely agree with.

I have been thinking about this ubiquitous statement of late. I’ve been thinking about it in light of what Martin Luther calls, the hidden and revealed God. The hidden God is the mysterious God for whom Moses only saw his backside. The hidden God is the God who smote Uzzah for touching the ark of the covenant, the hidden God is the God who is, “holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty.”(Rev. 4:8) Because we are sinners, we are constantly trying to relate to God on our terms; meeting God in places where he’s chosen to remain hidden. We are, to quote Luther, “always trying to look up God’s skirt.”

“You can’t put God in a box”..except when God puts himself in a box. Which is exactly how he comes to us, by clothing himself, hiding himself behind his humanity so that we can know him without being destroyed by him.

God puts limits upon himself so that we can relate to him. Jesus, the NT tells us, set aside some of his divine privileges (Phil. 2:7) as he walked the dusty streets of Galilee. God hides himself so that he can reveal himself. That means, however, the way in which we know and experience God is limited. It means that we don’t get to reinvent ways to hear from him. Jesus is the revealed God, he is the hidden God (in all of his majesty) come to us in a way in which we can know him.

We come to God through Word (Jesus) and sacrament (gospel). The written word of God, albeit large and difficult to understand at times, is all about Jesus, everything points to him. The sacraments — baptism and communion are physical demonstrations of God’s grace given to us in and through Jesus Christ. He baptizes us into his death and life and he speaks his word of forgiveness (I forgive you) to us over and over again through communion. There are no other ways to approach God. Some want to find God in creation; but the God you find in creation is the naked God in all of his holiness and perfection. Others attempt to know God by their good works; wrongly thinking that they can earn God’s favor and blessing by their piety. This too is a futile attempt, a fly pooping on the ocean of God’s holiness hoping to make an impression.

This isn’t to say that knowing God is impossible, it’s to say that knowing God is limited…it’s limited to the way in which he designed. Throughout the OT we find God revealing himself in very limited ways: through a specific nation (which he created), in very specific locale (the Tabernacle or Temple), in a specific manner (through blood sacrifice). When you read through this section of the Bible it can seem like an overwhelming amount of detail is being given. But it’s all pointing to something greater, to someone who would come through Israel but create a better nation (the Church), someone who would be the better Temple, and would offer himself as a sacrifice once for all — Jesus. Jesus is God in human flesh, the naked God clothed for all humanity to see. Yes, God can be put into a box. A box that looks a lot like a manger, or carpenter’s hammer, or a cross.

This is Christianity…it’s beautifully simply and yet extremely complex.

Law/Gospel by Forde

I saw this posted on Facebook by one of my virtual friends, Martin Yee.

Gerhard Forde drops some gospel bombs as he distinguishes law and gospel in a series of theses:

Thesis I. 

The Gospel does not tell me what to do to be saved. It tells me that I do not need to do anything to be saved. The Gospel doesn’t tell me what to do to get God to accept me. It tells me that God accepts me as I am.

The Law does not just make me try harder. It reveals the futility of my trying at all.

Thesis II. 
The Gospel does not demand a response of faith. It creates a response of faith. The Gospel does not demand anything. It is not a demand but an offer.

The Law is not just scolding. It is knocking the props out from under all my idols, especially the “god” of self.

Thesis III. 
The Gospel does not command me to be active for God. It invites me to be passive toward God.

The Law does not strengthen my defenses. It cracks them open and exposes my need of grace.

Thesis IV. 
The Gospel does not demand that I decide for Christ. It invites me to live in the decision God in Christ has made for me.

The Law does not impose some morality on me. It exposes the immorality and mortality within me.

Thesis V. 
The Gospel does not tell me that God will love me if I repent and have faith. It tells me that I can repent and have faith because God loves me.

The preaching of the law is not just talking about the law. It is thrusting a sword through the proud defender within me.

Thesis VI. 
The Gospel does not just lead me into self-examination or self-assertion. It leads me out of myself into self-forgetfulness and self-surrender. The Gospel does not cause me to look more at myself. It directs my attention to Christ and frees me to see my neighbor.

The Law does not show the way from me to God. It declares that there is no way from me to God.

Thesis VII. 
The Gospel does not offer grace on certain conditions to be met. Grace is received when I quit trying to meet conditions and start trusting God’s promises.

The Law does more than reveal that I’m sinful. It also reveals my inability to be anything else.

Thesis VIII. 
The Gospel does not offer cheap grace. Cheap grace is no grace. It is only conditional grace offered at low price. Grace is so precious it cannot be bought at any price. It can only be received as a free gift.

The Law not only reveals that I’m a sinful creature, it confronts me with the sin, and the stupidity of “playing creator” when I’m only a creature.

Thesis IX. 
The preaching of the Gospel is not only to convert pagans once-and-for-all into Christians. It is also to reconvert pagans again and again into Christians.

The preaching of the Law is not just for pagan non-Christians. It is also for non-Christian pagans within all Christians.

Thesis X. 
The preaching of the Gospel is always necessary. Whatever else I need, including the Law, I also need assurance of God’s love.

The preaching of the Law is not always necessary. There is no need to kill the dead; they need to be raised to new life.

Total Depravity and Dostoevsky

I am nearly done with my last class in the Christian and Classical Studies program at Knox Theological Seminary. This capstone course takes a brief look at Nietzsche and spends a great deal of time with Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. In fact the final paper pulls all of the voices we have interacted with throughout the program together, asking us to read and interpret The Brother’s K in light of the Great Conversation.

As I have been reading and studying Dostoevsky’s magnum opus I have been continually struck with how his highly developed characters all seem to be looking for self-atonement. Often through self-loathing and destruction. A seeming fixation on what theologians call “total depravity”. A theological construct that says while you are not as sinful as you could be, you are born in sin and you actually sin because you are a Sinner. This sinfulness by nature is what separates us from a holy God making us incapable of having right relationship with Him apart from His intervention, in Christ. So my problem is not with the concept of total depravity, it is what some seem to do with the discovery of their brokenness.

Could it be that an over-emphasized doctrine of total depravity could actually be detrimental to one’s faith, leading us away from Christ toward ourselves?

A continual theme of the novel is the concept of “laceration” — a soul that is torn apart and misshapen, a person who is less than whole. Each of the characters manifests proclivities of the lacerated soul (because this is a human condition) but Dostoevsky makes it clear that if a person in this condition turns away from their Creator looking inward toward themselves, or outward toward humanity, to find rescue, will ultimately only find despair.

Some might argue against Alexey fitting into this paradigm but even the “hero” of this novel seems to be seeking a kind of inward absolution through his piety in the monastery, and ultimately leaving the monastery to perform good works, in the real world, in obedience to his father, Zosima.

This brokenness that Dostoevsky describes, while not a philosophical essential to humanness, is indeed something that every post-fall human experiences. What we find in Dostoevsky (and certainly the Bible) is that what we do to find “wholeness” in our soul is paramount to finding meaning and purpose in this life.

Many people when struck with the brokenness of the world and the sin in their own lives begin, through a myriad of means, to attempt to save themselves. This human quest for self-justification, an attempt to assuage one’s existential crisis, does nothing to actually bring the wholeness we are so desperately seeking. In fact it only serves to further tear asunder our already broken soul.

While this tendency most certainly exists in the world outside of Christ. It is my belief, that it is also very much alive and well within the lives of those who have placed faith in Christ.

It seems that the Church in general and Christians in particular can become so enamored with “total depravity” (a doctrine that affirms the sinfulness of each person) that they lose sight of Christ. Putting so much of their focus on their sin and sinfulness that they forget who they are or who they could be in Christ. In the Classical tradition this is what is called, “having no comedic vision.” A woe is me mentality that echoes Eeyore more than it does the gospel.

Here the doctrine of total depravity can easily morph into the self-loathing that we observe in so many characters in the Brothers K. A hatred of self that actually drives one further into self and despair rather than toward Christ and the joy that comes with His redemption.

What I have come to observe is that this quest for finding justification (and sanctification) outside of Christ does not only exist in those who have outright rejected the gospel; it is actually quite prevalent amongst those of us who believe and preach the gospel. Causing us to return to the cave of our own depravity desperately attempting to find some kind of holiness by our own merit, wrongly believing that Christian progress, growth, and fruit bearing is something that we must attain through our works or concerted effort. Here the Church (of every stripe and flavor) has done its people a great disservice by continuing to turn people in on themselves (what Augustine called the very essence of sin) to try to find some holiness in themselves but like the characters in the Brothers K, what we find there is a soul irreparable damaged. Which, when continually focused upon (even for seeming good) can have only one of two outcomes — pride or despair. Pride that deceives us into believing that we can actually save ourselves or become holy and whole through our own efforts. Despair that can actually lead one to seek their own destruction because of their self-loathing. The only hope for the transformation that we sinners so desperately long to see is Christ. He is not only our hope for the forgiveness of sins, he is our only hope for seeing any kind of lasting change in our lives. He is in fact our holiness, and our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30).

May our theology of total depravity, and our awareness of the brokenness of this world, and the darkness that exists in our own heart, lead us past ourselves to the One who exists outside of us, the Philosopher-King who came to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Finding God Where You Least Expect Him.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the world and forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:24-26)

I remember when I first read this many years ago. It struck me as completely backwards. Of course it is backwards, or upside down, or counterculture, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. I pretended to understand it but I had no clue what Jesus was talking about. Even years later when I preached this verse, the meaning of it was still lost on me.

I was looking for God in all the wrong places.

I grew up without much of a father figure, my biological father chose a life of booze to a life with his son, and my step-father who raised me spent most of his time working on projects in the garage. This vacuum of male affirmation created in me a longing to feel valued, to believe that my life mattered.

At the age of 15 Jesus rescued me and baptized me into his family. For the first time I heard I was loved unconditionally, and that I was accepted apart from my performance. But I didn’t believe it. Not fully anyway.

In fact I spent the next 20 years clawing and scratching my way into acceptance. I entered the pastorate because I wanted to help people, but it was really me
who needed help. I had believed the gospel to secure my salvation in the future, and I was preaching the gospel to save people from their sins, but I was rejecting the gospel in my own life. The gospel was having little to no impact upon me as a man. The gospel was an abstract truth that I truly believed was real, but it was doing little for me existentially.

Then around 2010 my life, and my ministry began to unravel. My family had moved to a new place, we had no friends, and we were experiencing significant failure. After our first church plant failed we were left with little money, and even fewer people. I tried to start a business…it was a disaster. We were broke, and the dream that I had clung to for so long had turned into a nightmare.

It was in this place that I found Jesus. Of course I knew him before this, but it wasn’t until I had nothing that I really found him…or that he found me. It was here that I discovered his beauty and power in a way I had never known. I didn’t know how much I needed Jesus, until Jesus was all that I had.

Jesus was no longer a commodity to sell to those who needed to be fixed, Jesus was God in human flesh. The God who meets us where we least expect to find him; in a manger, with the marginalized, on a cross.

The God I was trying to find in all the wrong places (my efforts, my performance, my success) was revealing himself to me in a place I least expected to find him, my failure. I had believed the lie that God reveals himself in our strength and success and for the first time I truly understood what Paul meant when he said, “my grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Of course this shouldn’t come as a surprise, Jesus said he would reveal himself by the cross, through his death, but like Peter, we as his followers desperately want to find him somewhere else. Like Moses and Philip we want to see the Father in all his glory, and God keeps pushing us back on Jesus…his death, his resurrection. This means that we too must die, that we must allow him to kill us in the waters of baptism.

This doesn’t sit with us very well. At least it didn’t with me. So I kept trying to find God in other ways, mostly through my efforts to impress him, to perform for him, to make him see that my life had value.

It wasn’t until everything I had attempted to accomplish came crashing down in failure that I finally understood what he meant when he said, “if you want to find true life, you have to give up yours.”

If we want to see God, which I believe we all do, then we have to find him where he’s revealed himself…in death, at the cross.

Will you meet him there? You won’t find him anywhere else.

“If you seek God outside of Christ all you will find is the devil.” — Luther

Stop Judging Me

We all do it. In fact you probably did it today. You judged someone. Making a judgement is not always bad. In fact it’s often good and necessary. When you heard about today’s mass shooting in San Bernardino you probably judged that to be a terribly tragic event. However our judgement of individuals is usually quite different. We’re judging them for things like their outward appearance, their speech, how their children behave, or some other noticeable trait that may or may not be within their control to change. 

One of the most destructive things we can do to another person is to look down on them in judgment and scorn; it’s demeaning and dehumanizing. 

It’s something we all do almost on a daily basis however. So how do we stop?

It’s not enough to be determined to stop doing it, we have to look past the sinful fruit to the root cause of our behavior. Our actions are not done in a vacuum, there is always a why behind the what. Getting to the why is the key to finding victory over our sin. So why do we wrongfully judge and despise those around us? Because when our value and worth are not coming from Jesus and what he says about us, it has to come from somewhere/someone else. In this case we’re attempting to find life by stealing it from others. When Jesus isn’t enough we find people for whom we feel superior and we begin receiving artificial life from them and their failures, their poor decisions, their place in life, or sadly even their skin color. This hateful dehumanizing behavior can only be stopped when we understand that the life Jesus provides is better than any life we can rob from someone else.

Lipstick on a Pig

The Reformation succeeded to rescue justification from the grip of human merit and place it where it should be, in the hands of a gracious God who has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. However, sanctification, that is a Christian’s holiness, is in many ways still having the life choked out of it by the strong hands of man’s insistence to save himself.

Very few Protestants argue for man’s good works having anything to do with justification but many will argue vehemently for their involvement in a Christian’s holiness.

Here is my contention.

No where are we called to fix, improve, or even change the old man. We are given one directive when it comes to our old Adam…put him to death.

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20)

Of course this “death” is not final and complete…it is an ongoing process whereby we “reckon” (Rom. 6:11) our sin nature to be dead and we identify with our new nature in Christ. We are, as Luther said, simultaneously saint (holy, and justified) and sinner (in bondage to our sin nature). In Latin “simul justus et peccator” or simply known as the simul. The Christian has two distinct natures living within him; our new nature in Christ whereby we are made a saint, and our old nature in ourselves whereby we are a sinner desperately incapable of pleasing God. These natures are at war with one one another (Gal. 5:17) and our only hope for victory is in identifying with our new nature and putting our old nature to death.

It’s this reckoning where we find “holiness” or “sanctification” or “Christian growth”…it’s not in conforming the old man into the likeness of Christ by adherence to the law…this is an exhausting and futile effort for the law can never achieve what it sets forth.  So if progressive sanctification does exist, it only exists when we die to self and identify with who we in Christ.

Attempting to improve the old man, or make the old man holy is like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress it up all you want but it’s still a pig.

Let’s use another metaphor.

Sanctification is not about fixing up the junker in the garage, it’s about enjoying the brand new car that Jesus has gifted to us. Too often we view Christianity like partnering with God to fix up the old car in the garage. We wrongly believe that with God’s help we’re going to get the clunker going. With a little more elbow grease and the pennies I’ve been saving we’re going to get this thing on the road in no time. This, however, is not a project that God is interested in pursuing. He’s already provided a perfect new car for us to drive on a daily basis.

Therefore in the same way that believing we can justify ourselves by good works is an affront to justification by faith; so too is living as though we can sanctify ourselves with God’s help. Jesus is our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30) so any Scriptural call to live a holy life (for which there are many) is a reminder to identify with who we are in Christ instead of who we are in ourselves.

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)




What is Christian Growth?

I’m not a proponent of progressive sanctification. I think the doctrine has done incalculable damage, placing burdens on people that Jesus never intended them to carry.

So what is Christian growth? What does progressing as a Christian look like? For many today it looks like doing good works, becoming more pious, getting better day by day. But is this biblical?

Paul, writing to the Ephesians, said “to me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…” (Eph. 3:8). This letter was written toward the end of Paul’s life and ministry and he readily admits that he’s “least of all saints”. It seems to me that Paul’s understanding of sanctification was very different than many teachers today. If sanctification is about getting better then Paul wasn’t progressing in his sanctification very well. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes that Jesus is not only our justification (righteousness) He is our sanctification (1:30). Here it seems that sanctification is not a thing, or a goal, it’s a Person, and His name is Jesus.

I believe that Christian growth happens when we understand the “for me” implications of the gospel and allow them to turn our eyes off of ourselves and our constant need for self-justification and turn them to Christ who alone has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. It’s about recognizing our new identity in Christ. Instead of attempting to fix up the old clunker (our old Adam) in the garage, we enjoy the brand new car (new creation in Christ) that Jesus has gifted to us by virtue of His perfect life and sacrificial death. Augustine defined sin as “man curving in upon himself”…ironically much of what is called Christian growth is simply a turning of the Christian in upon himself, constantly fretting over his growth and progress. No, this isn’t growth, this is an impediment, the very antithesis of growth.

So do I think that Christian growth is important? Yes. But once we begin to define it or quantify it we’ve already said too much. Do I think that good works are good and necessary? Yes. But they are not our good works, they were created by God and given to us to walk in by faith (Eph. 2:10). Furthermore our good works are not for God, they are for our neighbor. If God created the good works and gifted them to us, why would he want them back? The good works we walk in by faith are not for God they are for our neighbor because as Luther said, “God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

So before you call me an antinomian or a purveyor of “cheap-grace” please know that this is the very opposite of what I’m saying.