Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What’s Law Got to Do with It?

In explaining the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel last week, I made the claim that the law does not show us what we can do; it simply shows us what we ought to do. Since that is a controversial statement, further explanations are in order.

It is easy, and even logical, to assume that if the law only tells us to do things we cannot do, the law is meaningless. It only mocks us and makes light of our condition. That is the stance I had for most of my life, actually. Only when exposed to the keen Biblical insights of Martin Luther did I realize the fallacy of my reasoning.

The law does not mock a person who is incapable of obeying it. In fact, by commanding the impossible, the law helps him. How? To answer, let me paraphrase an argument from Luther’s Bondage of the Will: Imagine a man with his hands bound behind his back, but who clearly and fully believes he can move his hands in any direction, whenever he wished. How could you best help this person? Well, by pointing out the fallacy of his delusion—that is, by telling him to move his arms. Only then would he have hope to change his assumptions. This is exactly how the law treats all of us.

Some argue that we are capable of obeying the law, or that we are already aware of our inabilities. But Luther disagreed. He argued that a man who is either capable of keeping the law or aware that he cannot “is nowhere to be found. If there were such, then, in truth, either the commanding of impossibilities would be absurd, or the Spirit of Christ would be in vain. But the Scripture sets before us a man who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick and dead, but who, through the operation of Satan his lord, adds to his other miseries that of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, possessed of liberty and ability, whole and live” (Bondage of the Will, eds. Packer and Johnston, 161-162).

When we grasp this truth, the Bible explodes with new meaning. It starts to make sense how God can command something in one place and promise it in another; instead of contradicting Himself, He is simply speaking with the different voices of law and gospel.

Let’s look at a few specific distinctions:

A Circumcised Heart
  • The law: “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer” (Deut. 10:16).
  • The gospel: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).

A New Heart
  • The law: “…get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Eze. 18:31).
  • The gospel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Eze. 36:26).

Fear of the Lord
  • The law: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut. 10:12).
  • The gospel: “I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me forever, for the good of them and their children after them. And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from doing them good; but I will put My fear in their hearts so that they will not depart from Me” (Jer. 32:39-40).

The law is contingent on man’s performance, whereas the gospel is contingent on Christ’s performance. When we fail to recognize this distinction, we create a perverse hybrid in our minds: We combine the main principle of the law (by works you will be saved) with the main principle of the gospel (by grace you will be saved). And what we end up with is a humanistic and performance-oriented gospel—which, in the end, is no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-7).

photo credit: SalFalko via photopin cc

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lutherans Know Something We Don’t Know

A Charismatic, a Presbyterian, and a Lutheran walk into a bar. Okay, that probably would never happen, but if those three people were to somehow enter a bar, coalesce, and emerge from the establishment as one man (who realized he wasn’t too fond of beer to begin with), that one man could possibly be me.

Yes, many denominations have made an impact on my spiritual development. And while I could possibly be labeled as something of a Reformed Charismatic (which, I assure you, is not a contradiction in terms), I have also been heavily influenced by the teachings of Martin Luther. One Lutheran doctrine in particular has been especially helpful—the paradigm-shattering distinction between law and gospel.

As any Lutheran worth his salt will tell you, this distinction is critical for properly understanding the Bible. The law is defined as any imperative statement—i.e, a command to do (or not do) something. The gospel, on the other hand, is an indicative statement—a promise that God has accomplished (or will accomplish). Throughout Scripture, God speaks with the voice of either the law or the gospel, and we need to discern which voice is speaking whenever reading a verse or passage. Pretty simple, right?

While the concept itself is simple, understanding and believing and applying it is not so simple. We must understand that the law shows us what we ought to do, not what we can do. God designed the law to act as our tutor—to show us just how wide a gap exists between what we must accomplish and what we cannot accomplish. Then, when we see our plight for what it truly is, the gospel steps in and promises that God has done what we could not. If we interpret the law of God as being attainable through human effort, we will misinterpret countless Scriptural passages.

Or think about the gospel—a word that, in the Greek, literally means “good news.” As has been explained by men much wiser than I, there is a big difference between good news and good advice. The gospel is the former, not the latter. It is the story of the finished work that God has accomplished on our behalf, apart from our help or assistance or merit. The gospel is not a command, but we often interpret it as such. Just the other day, I heard a lady describe the gospel as being about what we should and shouldn’t do. That’s good advice, not good news—and good advice has no power to save a sinner trapped by the condemnation of the law.

One particular aid I have found for discerning law/gospel distinctions is the Lutheran Study Bible. Released in 2009, it has significantly affected my communion with God during Scripture reading. Throughout the entire study Bible, each section—or, at the very least, each chapter—is accompanied by a “Law and Gospel Application.” As the study Bible explains, “These notes summarize sections of Scripture, applying both Law and Gospel for the reader and providing a petition or praise to guide the reader into prayer, since studying the Bible is always a devotional act for Lutherans.” If you’re looking for a new study Bible, this is the one I would recommend most highly.

Regardless of our denominational upbringings, we have all interpreted commands as promises and promises as commands. We need humility, wisdom, and grace in order to rightly divide the word of truth. The Lutherans have been a means of such humility, wisdom, and grace in my life.

And now, since I’ve opened a can of, among other things, a Diet of Worms, I think we’ll need to take a closer look at the distinctions between law and gospel. We’ll check out some specific examples next week.

photo credit: Nick in exsilio via photopin cc

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Finding God’s Favor without Doing Anything

Some Bible verses are almost impossible to interpret properly—on the first read-through, anyway. Take Malachi 3:18, for example: “Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.” When I read this verse, I practically can’t help but think only of intrinsic righteousness—that is, a righteousness that is mine by effort. I can only be considered righteous if I serve God—that is, if I somehow merit God’s favor.

It is tempting to make this assumption when reading a plethora of Bible passages, including the stories of Noah and Mary. Both of these individuals received the Lord’s stamp of approval. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). It is easy to translate this favor as resulting from their righteous lifestyles. But in both of these cases, the words translated as “favor”—one Hebrew and the other Greek—literally mean “grace.”

By definition, grace is God’s favor to those who have not earned it. Otherwise, it would not be grace (Rom. 4:4). If a person could attain God’s favor through merit, God would, in essence, be giving him something that He owed him. But God owes us nothing because He already owns everything that exists (1 Chron. 29:11; Job 41:11; Ps. 50:12).

God wasn’t rewarding Noah or Mary for human righteousness. He was simply giving them favor they didn’t deserve. That is what grace is. That is how God works.

God chose the Israelites as His special people, not because they were mighty and prosperous, but because He is loving and faithful (Deut. 7:7-8). Similarly, Paul shows us in 1 Corinthians that God shows His grace, not to the strong and powerful, but to the weak and lowly (see vv. 26-31). Angels announced the arrival of the Son of God to shepherds, not royalty. Over and over again, we see God bestowing favor on the undeserving.

Even in cases where a person exhibits a certain level of verifiable righteousness, it is still ultimately God at work in that person’s integrity. For example, when Abimelech took Sarah to be his wife, he did not know that she was actually Abraham’s wife. He was, to a certain degree, innocent. So when God came to him in a dream and threatened him for taking a married woman to be his wife, Abimelech responded by saying, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? . . . In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:4-5). After acknowledging this integrity, God revealed that it was actually the result of His restraining grace: “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (v. 6).

It is easy—and common—to see obedience as the key to God’s favor. In contrast, Scripture points us to saving faith, which connects an unrighteous person to the righteousness of God. Once this connection is made, then obedience follows. A sinner is first declared righteous through faith before he demonstrates righteousness through obedience. So when Malachi 3:18 references the righteousness that serves God, we know that something else has already taken place—the scandalous righteousness that consists of nothing more than believing God when He makes a promise.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

“I Need to” vs. “God Is”

When it comes to the Christian life, our minds can be filled with a myriad of “I need to” thoughts: “I need to pray more,” “I need to spend more quality time with the Lord,” “I need to grow in loving my neighbor as myself,” and so on. In many cases, this tendency can be a sign of something Scripture warns us against: thinking that we are saved by works and not faith.

Saving faith isn’t anything we do. It is accepting God’s work on our behalf. Saving faith is a gift from God so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

We may say we believe that saving faith is not a work, and that we are not saved by our works, but our inner monologue—filled with “I need to” statements—may reveal a heart that easily turns the walk of faith into a work of human effort. When we treat Christianity as moralism, we reduce it to a means by which we feel good—or bad—about ourselves based on our performance.

The good works performed by the Christian reveal the fruit of Christianity—not the root of Christianity. We work because we are saved, not in order to be saved. Confusing the fruit and the root is spiritual suicide.

Noticing this tendency in myself, I’m praying that God will help me replace my “I need to” thoughts with “God is” thoughts. Knowing God is what truly makes us more like Him. For example, after reading through an Old Testament story such as Daniel’s three friends and the fiery furnace, I shouldn’t jump to the question, “What does this story tell me about what I need to do?” The more important question is, “What does this story tell me about God?” After all, if I am going to have a faith as unshakable as that of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, I will need to have a firm grasp on how unshakably powerful God is. In fact, that is exactly what gave teeth to these young Israelites’ faith—they had a firm conviction about who God was (Daniel 3:17ff).

Do I want to love other people more? Only as I see God’s love for me more clearly will I be able to genuinely display that love toward others. (Otherwise, I’ll try to muster up something that Scripture says only God can give me through His Spirit.) Do I want to spend more time with the Lord each day? Only as I see the beauty of God’s holiness more clearly will I be able to seek His face more earnestly. (Otherwise, I’ll treat my communion with God as a duty and not a delight—and that doesn’t really glorify God or benefit me.) If I can look beneath the surface of the “I need to” statements, I will better discern the fruit from the root.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

History-Making News

In the past several days, we have been exposed to some incredibly controversial and history-changing events. I think it’s fair to say our world has been set on a course that cannot change. Like it or not, we will never be the same again.

Yes, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases related to the issue of same-sex unions, but I’m actually referring to something that is far more controversial and life-altering. What many of us were exposed to this Easter was the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection.

And yet, in hearts across America, the good news of the gospel is increasingly met with apathetic agreement or numb indifference. If we took a vote, I’d wager that our emotions were more caught up in last week’s U.S. Supreme Court cases than they were in the events celebrated during Easter. Why is this the case?

Part of the answer is that we are not seeking our all in the gospel.

I experienced this myself the last time I sang an old hymn: “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” To my surprise, I found my heart arguing with the truth contained in the lyrics. I became freshly aware of how easily I pursue thoughts of love, justice, hope, and virtue apart from God. Pretty soon, without even meaning to, I think we can construct a Fountain of Life of our own making and ignore the only true life-giving fountain known to humankind: the blood of Jesus.

Look with me at just four short lines from the hymn and see how we all might be tempted to place our hope in substitute fountains.

What can wash away my sin?
Possibly self-atonement, which can seem an attractive, or even a necessary, option. It is good when we sense the need for our sins to be atoned, but we err when we attempt to provide that atonement ourselves through penance. We also err when we interpret present trials as God’s punishment for past sins, as if our suffering could somehow pay Him back.

The truth is that no amount of self-punishment can make up for our failings. No self-inflicted wound can heal our damaged relationship with a holy God. No, it was Christ who was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities,” and it is “by His stripes [that] we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). We are sufficiently washed only by the blood of Jesus.

What can make me whole again?
Maybe time or distance can bring restoration. If we give God enough space and let enough time pass, our sin might possibly disappear from view. After all, there is a statute of limitations on certain crimes. Once a long enough period has elapsed, victims lose the ability to sue the perpetrator.

Sins against a timeless God, however, cannot be erased by the mere passage of time. Every sin not dealt with is a sin stored up for the day of wrath (Eccles. 12:14; Rom. 2:5). Furthermore, our restoration is accomplished by running to God, not from God. Indeed, because of Christ we are urged to approach God’s throne boldly so we might “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). We are made whole only by the blood of Jesus.

This is all my hope and peace.
Right now, I think a lot of us are placing our hope in the potential for change to take place in our society. The upcoming decisions of the Supreme Court will result in our jubilation or devastation. The United States stands at a crossroads, and the path it chooses seems tied to the salvation or ruination of us all.

Not to discount the importance of this moment in history, but the waves of public opinion are not where we find our hope or peace. Societies and nations come and go, as do their value systems. Christ Jesus, on the other hand, is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). It is His finished work that gives us a timeless hope—a hope that will never fade or pass away. Our hope and peace are found only in the blood of Jesus.

This is all my righteousness.
We might seek an advancement of our own righteousness. If we can increase our good works, we might possibly end up on top. Striving harder in our devotional life or dedicating more time to prayer and fasting may be enough to tip the scales and put us in God’s good graces.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it actually treats the gospel as unnecessary. If our efforts are what ultimately makes things right, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21). In truth, even our best efforts amount to nothing more than “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). But thanks be to God, who, through Christ, has become our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). The believer is united to Christ in such a binding way that Christ is his righteousness (Philip. 3:9)! And we inherit this righteousness by—you guessed it—nothing but the blood of Jesus.

The Most Precious Fountain

We were not redeemed by something cheap and corruptible. No broken cistern, no dripping well can compare to this perpetual fountain. Rich stores of blessing are contained in the glorious flow of God’s redeeming love: Cleansing from sin. Complete restoration. Full hope and peace. Perfect righteousness. All ours, full and free, by the precious blood of Christ.

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.