Thursday, August 4, 2011

Long Overdue!

***Warning!  My Own Private Opinion Follows!***

Pastor Harrison, President of the LCMS, announced on Issues, Etc that the synod will be ending its joint chaplaincy commitment with the ELCA.  In my personal opinion, this is long overdue.  We needed to make our chaplaincy effort consistent with the altar/pulpit fellowship policy of our church body.  I am sure that the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" drove the majority of this decision, but it should have been made even if the possibility openly homosexual ELCA chaplains was not an issue.

As a service member who is a member of the LCMS, I stand whole heartedly behind this decision.  It is hard enough to get quality Lutheran chaplain support.  It is even harder when the quality of ELCA chaplains has been -- quite frankly -- rather poor in my own personal experience on several occasions (with the exception of one ELCA chaplain who I met at Ft. Hood as we both were passing through mobilization).  I will be charitable and not share any of my "horror stories" on my blog.

In contrast, I have yet to meet an LCMS chaplain that is anything short of exceptional.

The LCMS is losing very little by this move.  It is good to see the synod standing on principle on behalf of its members who are in uniform.

***End of Private Opinion***

Thursday, July 28, 2011

You are the Christ!

First we have this message from the angel of the Lord to Abraham on the mount where Isaac was to be offered up but God provided a ram as a substitutionary sacrifice.  Clearly this is a typological reference to Christ.  Pay particular attention to the promise [hearkening back to the Genesis 3:15 promise made to Eve] which is now made to Abraham:

"By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you [Abraham] have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies.  In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice."
-Genesis 22:16-18

Clearly a Christological reference.  Now read here where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ:

"He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.  I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
-Matthew 16:15-19

...Just let that sink in for a little bit.

Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Deep stuff.  :)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Why are so many Lutherans Seemingly at odds with Good Works? Part 2

Question:  Why are so many Lutherans Seemingly at odds with Good Works?

Answer 2:  Because, as Lutherans, it is often fashionable to trash talk good works.

In any group, it is a goal of its members to conform to the group.  There have been studies that illustrate that this need to go with the flow is so great that individuals will override what they know to be true in order to go along with those that they are associating with.  Lutherans are not immune to this by any stretch of the imagination.

In most circles within Lutheranism that I have encountered, it is fashionable to bash good works.  Its a good way to earn points in Bible Class and appear pious in front of your friends.  After all, if someone trashes the idea of good works and claims that he doesn't do any good works ever, then he must be really pious... maybe even a theologian.  So the key to being a really popular Lutheran is to be a really hopeless case and make sure that everyone knows it.  This is where recognizing your own sinfulness and inadequacy kind of branches out and strays into reveling in your powerlessness to establish your Lutheran authenticity.  After all, Luther really slammed himself alot in public... that must be what it means to be Lutheran!

This is more of a psychological behavior than one informed by theology in many cases.  I think that if it was fashionable for Lutherans to sing badly, you would run across people in church who were intentionally singing off key... and choir practice would be absolutely unbearable.  So when some well-meaning brother is sitting in Bible Class (which is a good work btw) and remarks about how he doesn't ever do anything God pleasing or good, I start to wonder if he is just not paying attention to his actions or if he is trying to cement his Lutheran street cred.  After all, isn't the only true form of Lutheran humor the self-deprecating kind?

Of course talking about what a horrible sinner you are is true and appropriate... but a Christian is also a new creation in Christ that is redeemed and restored who will naturally do good works as a living tree naturally bears fruit.  As a believer, your sinful state does not render that second part impossible.  Yes, your Old Adam still clings to you and you still sin, but you are not JUST Old Adam anymore.  Half of the truth is not the whole truth.  Read St. Paul about the will of the Spirit set against the will of the Flesh.  There is an actual battle going on there... but listening to some well-meaning Lutherans you would think that there is no battle at all because sin and despair always win all the time.

Trust me, it is possible to despair of your own abilities as a poor miserable sinner while fully believing in Sola Fide (which is true) and still not take it to the point that you think that you perform absolutely no good works ever (which is false).

Why are so many Lutherans Seemingly at odds with Good Works? Part 1

Question:  Why are so many Lutherans Seemingly at odds with Good Works?

Answer 1:  Because the pietism expressed in American Evangelicalism causes Lutherans to flee to the opposite extreme (which is also wrong).

From rehashed social justice liberalism to Rick Warren to the charismatic movement to church growth to the Emergent Church, it is clear that many of the large movements within the modern American church all seem to be trending towards moralism and legalism.  It seems right and good to oppose these movements with a different stance and approach.  While this instinct is correct, the answer many Lutherans come up with is not the Biblical one and actually avoids the left ditch in the road by swerving to the opposite extreme and landing in the right (and equally incorrect) ditch of antinomianism.  If legalism is wrong then anti-legalism must be the answer to it.  This approach creates a false dichotomy which forces an either or choice where other alternatives exist.  The truth is that neither of these extremes are true.  The solution to both of these problems is the proper distinction between law and gospel as it is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

To compound this problem, many converts to Lutheranism have been so hurt by being brought up in a brand of Christianity that seems to "take with one hand what was given with the other" where the gospel is offered and then it is taken away with works righteousness in the next sentence.  This also appears when the gospel is given as a conditional reward for past service or as a down payment on future service to God.  Neither of these are correct teachings of sanctification.  For those who have been hurt by these false teachings that the entire topic of sanctification has become a deadly third rail where many are made hypersensitive to works because of bad preaching and shoddy theology.  Anyone who begins talking about good works is instantly suspect.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Changing God's Name is an Insult

Recently, the United Church of Christ modified its bylaws and constitution which weakened or removed Trinitarian language and references to the "Heavenly Father".  This is all part of a long standing trend in liberal denominations to eliminate the gender-specific references to the Triune God (i.e. "Father", "Son", etc).

You will find absurdity at the radical edge of this trend.  The feminist fringe will replace it with alternate language like "Mother" or "Daughter".  Most rational people can easily see why this move is simultaneously inaccurate, politically motivated, and offensive.  The problem is that in this modern age of compromise, we are tempted to strike a middle ground to please everyone.  A popular blending of this radical trend and historically Biblical references to God is to replace His name with the roles or attributes of the persons of the Trinity.  So instead of "Father" you say "Creator".  Instead of "Son" you say "Redeemer".  Instead of "Holy Spirit" you say "Sanctifier".

At this point, it is very easy to slide into Aristotelian philosophy in talking about natures, essences, and accidents... forms and modes... blah blah blah...  The truth is that most people don't care about philosophy and even fewer really understand it.  (And almost no one can remember how to spell "Aristotelian" off the top of their heads!)  So here is my attempt to plainly explain why "Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier" is unacceptable and insulting as an alternate Triune name.

1.  In every other aspect of life, replacing someone's name with their function is considered an impersonal insult.  You don't refer to your Mother as "The Cook".  You don't refer to your kid as "Potential Organ Donor Match".  If you are in court and you want to win you say "Your Honor" to the guy with the gavel and not "Hey Judge".  In the military, I can refer to an individual who is not in the military as "You there, Civilian."  All of these qualities may be true.  Your mom cooks.  Your kids might be able to give you a kidney some day.  The man who passes sentence is the judge.  Civilians are civilians.  There are cases where using the description is apprppriate in a given context, but to constantly use the function or role of a person as a name communicates a kind of impersonal distance which can also imply disrespect.  In some cases, you can get away with this... but a refusal to use personal names with those to which you have a personal relationship would indicate bizarre antisocial behavior.  Why do we want to treat God this way?

2.  The fact is that God has told His name to us.  It is the name by which we are saved.  It is clear and nonnegotiable.  He has said about Himself that He is "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" and that is the name in which we are baptized.  When someone introduces themselves and you call them by another name, you communicate an even greater disrespect than my first point.  It is such a culturally understood faux pas that comedy writers us as a standard tacitc the inability to get someone's name right as a way to show the audience that a given character is either a moron or an egotistical jerk.  If a girl says that her name is "Stacey", I suggest that you start calling her "Jane" from that point forward and see how far you get with her!

Better yet, when she says her name is "Stacey" tell her to her face: "I don't see you as a Stacey.  I will call you Jane.  You are more of a Jane to me."

...again... Why do we want to treat God that way?

Monday, July 18, 2011

There was the True Light Which, Coming into the World, Enlightens Every Man.

You know that you have finally communicated the gospel in its full sweetness when...
...the person you are talking to interrupts you and says:
"What? Wait... that's it? .......well then what is the point of trying to be good if everything has been done for me already by Jesus?"
Praise God who tears down barriers and the false edifices of fallen man through the power of His pefect and eternal Word!
...And what deeply profound conversations that question leads to! Great fun. Nothing encourages me more than to see the Spirit going about His profound and mysterious work.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Directing to Christ 101: The Realist

I can't tell you how many times I have found myself listening to some well-meaning brother spout off what amounts to a bunch of legalism. It's pretty easy to detect, but it sounds good to our ears so it can be pretty hard to refute at times. The problem with pietism is that it has homefield advantage in the blackness of our corrupted, sinful natures. As usual, the temptation is to try to dazzle him with brilliance (and a healthy dose of Luther quotes) to put him in his totally-depraved place. Sadly, I have found that this almost never works. What does work? The Realist.

Approach 2: The Realist

William F. Buckley, Jr. once said, "Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive." The applications for this profound statement are limitless... in this case we're talking about the naive idealism regarding the capability of sinful man in his fallen state. The problem with every legalist is that he thinks people can and should pull off the Law's demands by pulling himself up by his bootstraps.
This approach slaps that idealism with a cold dose of reality... and it is best if you start out in a self-depricating manner so as not to offend to quickly (oh, but you will almost assuredly offend eventually!) The goal of anyone pushing legalism is to motivate the unmotivated. It's a delicate dance of encouragement and threats... which is as painful to watch as it is to participate in. What the Realist does is come in and throw a huge monkey wrench into this delecate legalist machine.
Example: You got invited to some pan-denominational Bible study in which the teacher is taking the "fruit of the spirit" and beating people over the head with it as if it is some kind of sanctification check list. Just looking around the room you can see how distressed people are getting... facial expressions of guilt and frustration mixed in with copious note-taking on strategies for overcoming personal struggles etc... no mention of grace or forgiveness or any words of comfort.
The Execution: I always wait until the "go around the circle and share time" so I don't speak out of turn, but executing The Realist is really easy. State the hard facts. It goes something like this:
"I look at this list of works and I get depressed and frustrated." (Which is true!) "I know, being brutally honest with myself, that I do not do these things at all." (remember: self-depricating at first to soften the blow that is to come.) "I really want to do better, but I know that I am going to leave this study and go and do the same things because I am a horrible sinner and a hypocrite. These tactics work sometimes, but life is messy and these strategies will fail. We shouldn't pretend like they won't. If I had to guess, I'd say that everyone in this room struggles with most of these things on this list on at least a daily basis. We don't love God as we ought and we don't love our neighbors as ourselves. Thank God that Jesus has already done these good works for us! He lived a perfect life in our stead and died a sacrifical death on the cross so that all of our sins would be covered...."
BOOM! We're talking gospel, substitutionary atonement, and both active and passive obdience of Christ now. When you start talking the gospel in this case, you can see the look of relief on people's faces around the table. From this point, you can keep driving home the gospel or, if you are more advanced theologically, you can talk about the proper interpretation of the fruit of the spirit and about how the good works of a Christian are God's works through us and not our works for Him. The "Fruit of the Spirit" example is one that I have personally used, but it can be adapted to any works-righteous sales pitch... cause there are a ton of them out there.
The problem with this tactic is that it can really ruin all of the works-righteous study materials that people paid good money for. I have been asked to not come back to a Bible Study for being disruptive after doing this one. That's a small sacrifice to proclaim the gospel!

Directing to Christ 101: The Kid

Alot of times you find yourself in a conversation with another believer who is... a little... wonky on doctrine and is a little... weak... on the gospel. One is automatically tempted to engage in rhetorical gymnastics and great feats of apologetic magic to teach them properly. Often times, however, the simplest approaches are the best and perhaps the most elegent. Most of the time, people try to defeat someone they think is wrong. In reality, this kind of approach almost never works. What does work is a careful redirection that causes the other party to come to the right answer on their own. This sounds complex, but it's actually alot easier than one would think.
Approach 1: Playing the Kid
Do you know what's really annoying about little kids? They are honest. They haven't figured out the joy that comes with being arrogantly clever and so they just ask questions that are directly on their minds. You know what? Most of the time, these questions are obnoxiously concise and expose the weakness of unsupported opinions.
Example: You have someone talking about the Christian faith but their description of it is totally cross-less. There is no talk of sin or grace, etc. It's all about prosperity junk, or purpose junk, or other nonsense that only adults find important. At some point, the ubiquitous "Lord and Savior" title comes across (probably in some kind of decision for Jesus appeal).
The Execution: You are the kid. Your annoying little radar instantly grabs a hold of the one thing that suddenly interests you and does not fit in to the rest of the boring grown-up conversation. "Savior". There it is. ...and like an annoying little kid, you ruin the flow of the adult's thought by asking the inconvenient question at the right moment.
You say: "Savior? Savior.... from what exactly? What do we need to be saved from?"
Boom! No matter how they answer that one, we are at least on the whole sin, hell, cross issues. Flawless rhetorical redirect from pointless speculation to an actual Biblical truth... easily executed by asking the simple question.
***Another really great kid tactic is judicious use of "Why?", "How?", "Where does it say that?" If someone is making up theology as they go along, make them work for it. If they believe extra-biblical teachings regarding the sacraments... make them prove it by the book. Why should you have to do the work. They are the ones with the outlandish claim. When in doubt, ask probing questions. Most bad theology can't withstand the slightest probing.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

American Idol

I have learned that the preaching office is alot like American Idol:
The overwhelming majority of people who really really really want to go far have no talent at all and are actually painful to listen to.
Would that every seminary had a Simon Cowell conducting evaluations!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Damage Control Time!

A severe onset of schadenfreude sent me over to (which had billboards up in my town for months) just to see what they have to say for themselves now that it is waaay past Rapture Day. No change yet... The headline of the page still says that the apocolypse will come on May 21, 2011. They must be either taking a few weeks off or scrambling for face-saving explinations.

I did notice that their "doomsday clock" in red in the upper right hand corner is suck on 0 Days, 0 hours. Shouldn't that thing be in the negatives? Hmmm?

“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." Matthew 24:36

Monday, May 2, 2011

So a Lutheran, a Calvinist, and a Roman Catholic run into each other at a tobacconist...

...and have a heady theological conversation that ruins the atmosphere. Sorry, the title was not the set up for a really great joke. It's just a typical Friday.

Here's an excerpt as presented from my memory:

Me: "Listen, God doesn't grade on a curve."
RC: "Oh yes He does!"
Me: "Be ye perfect as My Father in heaven is perfect."
RC: "......"
Me: " looks like that curve is infinitely straight and infinitely high."
Calvinist: "hehe...."

If you guessed that the Roman Catholic then brought up the topic of Purgatory you win!

If you guessed that the Calvinist later shifted the covernsation away from Purgatory then wanted to slam prayers for the dead using purely philosophical arguements, you win again!

If you guessed that they both wanted to talk about the Joint Declaration on Justification, you win extra credit! :P

A Few Thoughts on the Death of Osama Bin Laden

We will never know the number of innocent human lives that have been saved through this action all across the world. Bin Laden will never plan another terror attack on civilian men, women, and children; of that we can be certain. Terrorism remains alive and well, but its chief celebrities have been killed or captured and the myth of Al Queda’s invulnerability has been almost completely destroyed in the last decade.

What has taken me aback is the surprise in the minds of many who have approached me about the subject today--as if this was a completely unexpected turn of events. The man was not immortal or invisible. He had managed to hide in some of the most remote and lawless tracts of land in the entire world, but he had the full weight of the United States military and her allies against him. His death was only a matter of time… one way or another. Without him here, a significant blow has been struck against those who allied with him to do us great harm.

The work of preserving peace, safety, and justice remains unfinished and we have people of valor and determination both here and abroad who have sworn to carry out that dangerous and woeful work. These tasks will continue to be unfinished until Christ returns in glory and we continue in the ages-old struggle against the wretched curse of sin that infects and effects all of us.

One does not rejoice in death (not even this death though it does purchase us some releif and closure).

Instead, one rejoices in victory… and the greatest victory--the one secured by Christ Jesus who died for our sins and rose from the dead so that death is swallowed up in victory for all who believe--that greatest victory of all victories is both now and not yet.

Lord, come quickly!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Well-Beaten Path to Universalism

I've noticed a trend among the public statements people who progress towards Universalism (of which Rob Bell is the most recent and sadly not the last.) This seems to be a predictable path down which one trods to end up at this error.

At this point, I'm not drawing any kind of conclusions here. It is just an observation from watching enough of these over the last several years:

Step 1: Mysticism. They start out in a place where feelings and philosophy are in a place that is clearly above the authority of the texts of Scripture.

Step 2: They begin downplaying the seriousness of sin, its effects, and corruption.

Step 3: They make God exactly like us and describe Him as having human perspectives, attitudes, and methods and judge His will based on what sinful humans consider to be good or bad.

Step 4: They engage in topics with deconstrucitonism and logical fallacies.

Step 5: They downplay or voice serious questions regarding the truth of the penal substitutionary atonement on the cross for our sins (a result of Steps 2-4.)

Step 6: They begin to express appreciation and affinity for other religions and "moral" non-Christians (see Step 2 and 5).

Step 7: By now they have been accused of Universalism (which may be premature, but is certainly on the horizon). They respond by denying Universalism, but they state that God certainly has the power to do anything He wishes.

Step 8: They continue to deny Universalism, but very emotionally state that they personally hope that it is true and that God's mercy might win out in the end.

Step 9: They stop denying Universalism. They publicly wrestle with the scriptural teaching of eternal torment in hell for those who are outside of the faith in Christ.

Step 10: They publicly agree with all the classic teachings of Universalism (perhaps using a different term) and they continue to claim that they are still wrestling with these things... and continue to ardently teach and advance Universalism even while they "wrestle with it".

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why Satire can Hurt Your Fealings Without Being Mean-Spirited or Evil

As is so often the case, Wikipedia provides an excellent clear definition of true satire which I will post here in support of my point:

"Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon." (my emphasis added)

If a harsh remark or insult is like shoving a knife in someone's gut in order to do them harm and cause them pain, true satire is more like a surgeon's scalpel which must inflict harm with the intent of doing a greater good. Satire seeks to cut out the tumors of ignorance, abuse, folly, and other ills. It must do this because, in the estimation of the author, all other tactics have failed. The perpetrators of the wrong that a particular satire seeks to address have closed their ears to polite criticism and humble encouragement. The patient is too far gone for mild treatments. It is time to operate... always with the intent of forcing change, improvement, and awareness.

No doubt, people considered Jonathan Swift cruel and wrong for suggesting infanticide and cannibalism in "A Modest Proposal" as a way to deal with poverty, over-population, and hunger in 18th century Ireland. I'm sure the rich English establishment did not like the implication that they were being hard-hearted.

No doubt, people considered Mark Twain's portrayal of Huck Fin's moral guilt over betraying his southern upbringing by being racially tolerant to be offensive and mean-spirited.

No doubt, people even today hate to even read George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" because they don't like to encounter such direct, dystopian, and derisive analysis of modern culture. Portraying socialists as pigs and comfort-addicts as brainless, spiritless, and heartless is not a way to win friends. It is a way to get your point across when people otherwise will not listen.

That brings us to the knee-jerk defense when you find your faults cornered, exposed, and ridiculed by satire. You want to call the author out for being mean... or at least being unfair. Are they being mean or unfair? Is the author just being a jerk who unnecessarily tears down his opponents? Does the author have a point or is he just being overly critical to different poitns of view? These are important questions. They are important enough to warrant serious evaluation and application instead of just an uninformed and emotional denial.

There are alot of jerks out there who hide their bad attitudes and offensive sense of humor under the label of "satire". There are alot of bad examples of satire where it falls flat on its face. But it is easy to answer these questions on a case by case basis by just looking at the individual piece itself. Satire isn't about tearing people down in order to be funny. It uses humor and wit to tear down bad ways of thinking in order to build people up and improve their situation if they would just abandon the folly that the author is pointing out.

So when a Christian creates true satire in speaking about the church with the intent to address and correct public matters of doctrine and practice, is he sinning against his neighbor? I don't think so. Individual cases vary, but one should not jump to the conclusion that the strategy is inherently evil especially when the intent is to bring about a greater good and all nice approaches have failed time and again.

...especially when the Prophet Nathan uses a satirical parable in 2nd Samuel 12 to rhetorically corner King David and call him to repentence by turning his own words against him: "You are the man!" If David was a fool, he would ignore his sin and accuse Nathan of being mean and trapping him. David was not a fool. He saw the point of the exchange and recognized it for what it was: a harsh, direct call to repentence.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Causing Offense with New Age Jargon

If you want to win me over to your cause, do not use the word "tribe" to describe some non-tribal group. Using it in this way is a weasel word, a piece of jargon made to manipulate people while obfuscating the details of the actual truth.

Examples of this include calling Lutheranism the "Lutheran tribe" or calling the Jews in the New Testament the "Jewish tribe" (which is properly called a culture that happens to contain 12 actual tribes if you know anything at all about the subject) or the "Gentile tribe" (which is the biggest abuse of the word "tribe" thus far). None of these groups are tribes in the sense that the word tribe has ever been used in the history of the English language. Stop it. You might as well call a group of cats "a fleet", or a collection of books "a herd", or the whole human body "an organ", or two boats "an armada", or the State of Alabama "a county".

It makes you sound stupid and ignorant. It makes you sound like you are putting on heirs. It tells me that you are the kind of person who can't use words properly or is just not honest and precise enough to call something what it actually is. It tells me that you are a parrot who picks up things that sound interesting and repeats them without true understanding or analysis. Parrots are annoying.

Most of all this artistic use of the word "tribe" is very offensive to people who have actually interacted with real tribal groups and all the complex community-based interactions that go along with it. If you have lived with, worked along side, or known people who actually have true tribal ties you realize that Lutherans are not a tribe. The whole Jewish culture is not a single tribe. Everyone who is not Jewish is not a tribe. That's just silly and wrong.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Few Lessons That I have Learned by FAILING at a Fast

Now is the time of year when everyone wants to talk and read about successful fasting techniques and the kinds of lessons you learn while fasting. I'm going to engage in the exact opposite discussion by talking about some of the things that I have learned by unsuccessful fasting and what can be learned after you fail at it. :P

1. Your inability to keep your outward disciplines has no effect on your eternal standing before God... and neither does your ability to temporarly obserive such disciplines. On account of Christ, you remain an heir of the Kingdom of God by grace alone through faith alone. You have failed in even the simplest things and remain His beloved child in spite of what you do or do not do rather than because of it. Even when you fail in greater things, the promise of the forgiveness of sins and heaven are not denied to you. At the point of failure is where the Gospel is at its clearest.

2. Your fallen nature is such that you cannot keep this simple devotion for a short period of time... where then is your boasting in things which are far more difficult or impossible? If any man boasts, let him boast in the Lord.

3. While you were being successful at your fast, you felt pride at your accomplishment which was replaced by disappointment and shame when you failed. That entire time while you fasted, you habitually engaged in sins far more heinous and injurious to faith. Why do you not lament them as severly as this abandonment of your simple outward training?

4. Your lack of dedication has not cut you off from God's revelation to man. You have made a concerted effort to exercise a discipline and failed... and yet God continues to speak to you in His Word and from the mouth of your pastor, God continues to give you the forgiveness of your sins in His word of Absolution, and continues to draw you to Himself through the mysteries of the Holy Sacraments. He remains steadfast and true to His promises to you even when you cannot keep the promises and resolutions that you make to yourself. Contrast this assurance with the vein worship of the mystics who wrongly think that they must prove themselves worthy before they can be truly enlightened and uplifted by the Holy Spirit.

5. God's loving blessings to you in this world are so complete, lovely, and abundant that even His gift of daily bread is a precious thing to you that you hardly call to mind... a gift that you do not realize how much you enjoy until you attempt to do without it. It is hard to understand the great hights of blessing that God has given you in this life until you attempt to forgo a few of them. You are so blessed that you have food and simple delights that you must constantly ignore in order to observe any kind of fast. God's bountiful riches are given to you in such abundence that they bombard you like an annoyance when you attempt to forego them. How can you then complain about your lot in life with such profound and bountiful gifts from the Heavenly Father?

6. You could not do without a few meals by choice. Imagine the suffering of those who involuntarily go without food on a regular basis through poverty or famine. Imagine the horror you would know if you could not end your fasting as easily as you did. Realizing this, you can now recognize that you have the power in this modern age to help your fellow man to feel as physically satisfied as you do now... through charity and the feeding of the poor around the world.

7. The hunger that you suffered during the fast is nothing compared to the hunger of the soul who desprives himself of God's Word and Sacraments. You cannot experience the former for a few days without great suffering, but--in your sin--you can ignore the latter for extended periods of time and actually feel better about yourself and your situation. You are hard pressed to ever skip a meal, but skipping church or family devotion is no big deal at all. When you are starving for food it as though no feast is large enough for your eyes... and yet the spiritual feast which God offers to halt your spiritual starvation quickly becomes tiresome, boring, repetitive, and too much for your tastes.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Thing Most Needful

The church will always have weaknesses and fall short this side of Glory. There will always be room for improvement as we toil and wait for what is to come.

But if the church is to be found wanting... let it be in anything but fidelity to the Word of God and the declaration of the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus Christ.

The pure and true Gospel of Jesus Christ is the one thing that is most needful.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Solution for a Church Full of Hypocrites

This was actually one of a couple dozen theses that I penned while trying to list some points on another topic, but I have come to realize that it is significant enough to deserve its own blog post apart from the issue that brought it up so that I can expand the thought and broaden its scope.

The Solution for a Church Full of Hypocrites:

A "hypocrite" is someone who says one thing but does the opposite. He is an actor who portrays something that he is really not. The church is full of hypocrites. This is a very, very bad thing. Christ hates hypocrites and specifically warns against hypocrisy when dealing with the Pharisees. It is a charge that is levelled against the church quite often. This charge is unfortunately true and has an endless string of examples to prove its veracity. I have heard wrong-headed people suggest that the church is supposed to be full of hypocrites. They will even respond to the charge by saying something to the effect of, "certainly the church is full of hypocrites... and there is room for one more!" NO!!! That is wrong! The church is not supposed to be hypocritical at all. Thankfully, the people who actually think the church is okay being hypocritical is relatively small.

The problem comes when people aim to fix this issue of rampant hypocrisy among "Christians". Everyone knows that they way to do away with hypocrisy is to make some one's words and public face match who they are and what they do. So one must ask, "Why is the church full of hypocrites?"

Answer: The church is full of hypocrites because it is full of people who claim to be pulling holiness off when they are not. A "Christian" is a hypocrite when he claims to be righteous when he is in fact a wretched example of horrible thoughts, emotions, and behavior. He proclaims the changed life when he appears completely unchanged and lives as bad as the pagans.

The history of the church is filled with heretics, pietists, legalists, and plain ole erring leaders who have sought to rectify this problem... but went about it the wrong way. Without a proper understanding of man's sinful condition this side of Heavenly Glory, they seek to motivate, cajole, encourage, and threaten men into acting in accordance with the high principles of the Law. They wrongly believe that, if they can just reform people's behavior, the whole hypocrisy problem will be resolved. They foolishly think that, if they can just fix enough people, the church as a whole will improve itself and finally live up to expectations. They wrongly believe that the reason why this has not happened yet is because the right methodology has yet to be applied and set out to finally institute the purification of the church. This is not possible because the sinful flesh still clings to our mortal bodies. It will never work.

This will sound pessimistic, but the only feasible way to remove "Christian" hypocrisy is to lower the person's self-concept, words, and public face down to the level of his poor behavior and spiritual depravity. One must bring a person's words in compliance with his bad behavior through the power of the Holy Spirit by teaching him to always pray "God be merciful to me, the sinner!"

In light of God's Law, which demands perfect and sincere obedience in every way at all times, a hypocrite who tries harder is still a hypocrite no matter how successful he thinks that he has become. He will always fall short of the glory of God. There is none righteous. Not even one.

A sinner who claims the title of "sinner" is no longer being hypocritical. His self-perception and behavior finally agree. He finally sees himself for what he is: a fallen creature in desperate need of a savior because he cannot free himself from his sinful condition.

And here is where the Law has finally done it's great work by driving desperate men to the cross. Here is the place where the sinner encounters the God-Man Christ Jesus, the Great Physician, who declares, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." Here is where the diagnosis finally fits the symptoms and the holy imputed righteousness of Christ is administered to him through the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with Christ's institution. Here is where the sinner finds healing, wholeness, and unity in the Body of Christ as a fellow beggar among brothers rather than just a puffed-up, lying failure in the company of other puffed-up, lying failures.

Here is where the Law is completed in the death and resurrection of Christ and the freedom of the Gospel liberates the sinner from all of the Law's threats and demands. This is where the public perception no longer matters and the man abandons boasting in himself and begins to loudly boast in the only thing that he truly has to boast in: the Lord God Almighty. This is where the light yoke of Our Savior is found as He, the blameless and spotless sacrifice, assumes our burden of guilt before God the Father and becomes a perfect advocate on our behalf. This is where the Holy Spirit does a mighty and mysterious work within the regenerated soul of the Christian in accordance with His perfect will and bestows upon him diverse and new gifts filled with pious passions as a gracious free treasure of matchless worth. This is where the threatening veil of God's wrath is pulled away and, through the mediation of Christ Jesus, the true face of our merciful God of love is found.

In this freedom that only the Gospel can give, the Christian is finally free and empowered by God Himself to do truly good works which God had predestined before the foundation of the world for His purchased servant to walk in by faith. Free from the burden, despair, and compulsion of obligations, the sinner is supernaturally conformed to the image of Christ through sharing in His cross. He stops toiling in the vain hope of favor from God and the approval of men for all his hard efforts and finally begins to work for free in selfless holiness because God has shown him that Christ has already earned his heavenly wages on his account. It is then that the Christian is able to achieve by faith the truly God pleasing works which no external source on earth--not even the church herself--could compel him to do through human machinations and the exhortations of the Law.

In the gratitude of his salvation and with the secure knowledge that his eternal destiny has already been won completely by Jesus so that there is not even one single thing that could even be added, the Christian gladly and joyfully undertakes the work of a servant to his fellow man as a holy act of true, genuine worship. Freed from despair and guilt, the Christian recognizes that his imperfect obedience in this new life is covered and perfected by Christ's imputed righteousness just as his disobedience was when he was born again by water and the Spirit.

He is finally no longer loathed to contend with the imperative force of the Law's demands but finds himself living freely in the Spirit and walking in God's ways as a new creation in Christ. He can now see his lingering sinfulness for what it now is through Christ: the vestigial Old Adam which clings to him for a short time but will be done away with when this life of tears comes to an end and God rescues him from this body of death. He no longer resists sin because he fears as though he "has to or else" but rather he resists sin and wages war against it on all fronts because his regenerated spirit actually wants to walk in newness of life. He no longer simply fears his sinfulness as an eternal liability but comes to hate his sin as a contagion and detestable thing of which he desires no part according to his regenerated spirit.

The Christian no longer lives in a state of hypocrisy where his words and ideals do not conform to his heart and actions. Instead he lives honestly as a sinner redeemed by grace whose life is one of constant combat between the right spirit which was given to him by the Holy Spirit and the sinful flesh which still clings to him with all its temptations and faults. Rather than attempting to reform his sinfulness through legalistic new measures, he seeks to kill it daily through repentance and enjoys the gift of the forgiveness of sins given in holy absolution and the Lord's Supper with his church family.

In jubilant praise and compassionate concern for his fellow sinner, he finds that the Holy Spirit has given him a voice of expression which helps the church on earth proclaim the very saving message that had won him back from that liar the devil and the gaping jaws of hell itself. Rather than forcing himself to be the greatest among his peers and struggling to fit in, the Christian settles into community with his fellow sheep and peacefully lives out his life in the Body of Christ in accordance with his various callings, vocations, and stations in life.

This is how true disciples of Christ are made and this is how those disciples are kept steadfast in the faith. This is where the Kingdom of God is at hand and made manifest: in Christ Jesus Our Lord. This regenerative act of salvation is where Jesus Christ exercises His power of kingship and how the church of God is brought into being, preserved, sanctified, and eventually glorified on the Last Day.

And so the health of the church is never measured quantitatively or even qualitatively according to humanly conceived standards but is measured Christologically according to its faithfulness to her Savior through the clear preaching of the Divine Word and the proper administration of the sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ.

Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who Invented Your Means of Grace?

There is no such thing as a church without sacraments.

I'm serious. Every church has them. They may call them different things and they may morph and change on a whim, but no church is devoid of some kind of sacrament. The reason for this is that you cannot avoid it. You have to answer the question, "How does an individual receive the objective promise of the forgiveness of sins?" You can't ignore that question because even a young child will hear John 3:16 and impertinently ask "But how does that happen to us?"

Every church body that still remains remotely Christian explains how this objective promise is applied to the individual through some kind of "means". There is always a "Means of Grace" whereby you are given access to forgiveness. The reason for this need is the simple fact that you are separated from the cross by 2,000 years and over 2,000 miles. It's a fundamental question that must be answered. "How do I get this forgiveness of sins?"

Scripture is clear and the early church fathers confirm its truth: The means by which an individual encounters the forgiveness of sins are found in those times and places where God has promised to do so. He calls the shots, remember? These means are in those places where the Word is applied to poor miserable sinners by the power of the Holy Spirit. Where you find the gospel preached, the Sacrament of the Altar celebrated, Holy Baptism applied in the triune name, and the proclamation of Absolution, there you will find the means of God's grace. This revelation is supported by similar types and forms found in the Old Testament as God's chosen people await the coming messiah and are pointed towards His supreme and all-availing sacrifice on the cross. The Old Testament is filled with typological sacrafices and signs that reveal that this is how God choses to interact with His chosen people. In this way, the ways of God are consistant so that He--and He alone--declares His promises to us and gives them as gifts to His people all the way from Adam up to the present day.

There are churches that claim that they have no sacraments. This is not true. In fact, they simply ignore the means of grace that God instituted in favor of a man-made means that has no Scriptural support. They point you to "your decision" to "make Christ your personal Lord and Savior" as the means whereby the objective promise of the forgiveness of sins is applied to you specifically. That's important. It's not the Gospel that does this. Nor is it the Holy Spirit. Nor is it those things that God instituted in His Word that have His promise for the forgiveness of sins.

It's your decision that makes this forgiveness happen for you. That's what gives you access.

You do it.


Christ promises forgiveness, but you bring it into effect by your conscious effort. Grace is not given to you as a free gift and imparted to you through the means that God instituted. Instead, you summon grace to yourself by the power of your own independent, autonomous will. Of course you are saved by faith... it's just that this faith is something you muster up from within yourself and are expected to maintain through discipline, mysticism, and forced zealotry.

That is significant. That is an amazing, bold, and dangerous claim. It smacks of the Garden of Eden where the devil entices man with the promise that we, the creature, will "be like God". The Scriptural supports to defend such an unfounded invention are weak at best. Do the research and you will find that the "proof texts" are taken wildly out of context and interpreted broadly with sweeping assumptions and mental leaps read into the actual texts. In contrast, the sacramental proof texts are starkly clear and unmistakably obvious. The fact that this debate still continues is a testament to the strength of fallen human pride and ignorance.

Many people who have not really looked into decision theology with any honest analysis (and probably never had to tortuously labor under its unpredictable and tyrannical yoke) will dismiss opposition to it by saying that we are splitting hairs.

This isn't hair splitting. This is the difference between searching the Scriptures to believe and practice what they clearly say...... and gross, man-centered idolatry. It is the difference between pointing a sinner to Christ and turning him back in on himself.

There is no other way to put it. It really is that crass. It really is that important.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Continuing Luther's Work....... By Undoing It?

History is full of people (past and present) who have said a great many good things about Dr. Luther.

Quite often, I come across theologians who have found themselves in the 500 year wake of the ongoing Lutheran Reformation who make magnanimous-sounding statements that all can be summarized as:

"What Luther did was a great start with the right intentions, but he just didn't go far enough."

Red flag. Right there. Run away. You can tell this is going to end badly. It's one thing to respectfully disagree with Luther... I just get really nervous when someone seeks to out-Luther Luther.

It never fails. As soon as they get that sentence out of their lips, every single one of them then proceeds to outline their doctrines and "fixes" that are intended to continue what Luther started... AND COMPLETELY UNDO EVERYTHING LUTHER STOOD FOR AND PROFESSED! What you end up with is not a continuation and perfection of Luther's work... but a complete repudiation of his ideas that would turn us back towards the very medieval superstitions that Luther sought to combat.

Look... either you're down with Luther's work or you're not. Please don't try to co-opt him for your own purposes in order to drape your shabby ideas in the regal robes of a true theologian.

Monday, January 31, 2011

God Did Not Design You This Way

It is a gross and blasphemous error, when people equate God's perfect creative work with the world in its current fallen state without qualification. Sin has corrupted what God called "good" in the first few chapters in Genesis (remember the Father's regret at the start of the story of Noah's Ark which prompted him to destroy the world He had made?). This world is not as it was designed or as it should be. By the same token, while man was created in the image of God, he is also corrupted and enslaved by sin: a aberrant spiritual disease which God did not make.

God did not design you with your various sinful habits and opinions. He did not place your sinful condition and sinful impulses in you.

God is not the author of sin.

Our purpose and condition must always be viewed through the lens of the Fall from Grace. You are a sinner who is enslaved to rebellion against Him by your sinful nature. You are allied with the devil against Him. God, in His perfect justice and purity, does not "love you just the way you are" and your sinful condition is not "part of His plan for you". Death is also not a creation of God and the fact that things die is not "part of God's circle of life".

This is why Christ had to come and die for your sins so that you can be redeemed back from death and hell. This is why this world and all of its corruption will pass away and give rise to a new creation on the Last Day.

It is not God's fault that you are this way and living in the world that you are living in. Please stop talking and thinking like this. It is as incorrect, dangerous, and ignorant of the facts as it is offensive.

Theological Assertion

I am a big believer that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Theological Assertion - The modern Christian quest to discover, quantify, and actualize one's live purpose is a kind of crypto-holiness movement that (1) promises the unattainable (in this life at least), (2) gives Christians a distorted view of vocation, (3) obscures the Christian doctrines of repentance, hope, and suffering, and (4) presents a shallow do-it-yourself message of life change to unbelievers that is not evangelism in any true sense.

I welcome discussion on all points.

First, there can be no doubt that the therapeutic desire to realize the Christian life as defined by purpose is really a modern slant on good ole methodism. I recently heard something brilliant and entertaining from the brilliant and entertaining Rev Jonathan Fisk (who unanimously would win the Lutheran Blogosphere "New Internet Theologian of the Year Award" if such a thing ever existed... seriously, go watch his videos.) He correctly identified that the American church is overwhelmingly Baptist in its theology, Methodist in its practice, and Charismatic in its worship (thank you John Wesley and Charles Finney).

This holiness movement influence in terms of practice has given rise to all sorts of purpose-oriented books, bible studies, and even churches over the last several decades. Rather than see this as an improvement in the life of the church, discerning Christians should watch these aberrant developments with alarm once they realize the unintended consequences of such teachings.

1. Purpose promises the unattainable (in this life at least)...

Simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously justified by the imputed grace of God on account of Christ. While we are a new creation in Christ Jesus [2 Corinthians 5:17], the old sinful nature still clings to our mortal flesh [Romans 7] in this life so that the life of the Christian is one of internal and external spiritual warfare [Ephesians 6; 2 Corinthians 10] that is only ended when the perishable passes away and we rise again in new life with imperishable and perfected bodies [1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3].

Perhaps due to an improper appreciation for our fallen condition, obsessively chasing after purpose in this life gives the false impression to hearers that this perfected, fundamentally God-pleasing nature as a human being is attainable in the life of the Christian through discipline rather than through the death and resurrection of Christ. Sloppy preaching and teaching in this area strays dangerously into the theology of "infused grace" which is unbiblical and a Roman Catholic error that many synergistic Protestants seem to be out doing the papacy on in their zeal to realize the Baptist formal principle of "The Changed Life" and this Charismatic drive to perform mystical worship practices.

In this way, many protestant (and incorrectly named "non-denominational" churches) put the Bible and the Reformation aside and follow Rome down it's path of "Jesus saved you so that you can work harder to please God and either earn (in the hard form) or reimburse God (in the soft form) for your eternal salvation." The Bible does not speak this way. Instead, the good works for which Christians have been set aside to perform are actually the works of God through the Christian by faith [Philippians 2] for service to our neighbors. This principle of being "God's workmanship" stands directly opposed to the purpose-seeking idea that, while we are God's creation, we are fundamentally our own workmanship and we have just been not doing a very good job.

This distorted view of sanctification takes away with one hand what is only occasionally given with the other as legalism snatches away the sweetness and freedom of the gospel in favor of a new enslavement. To paraphrase Rev. Fisk: it falsely teaches that we have been set free so that we can be enslaved. This in itself is gross false doctrine that is dangerous to faith and injurious to eternal salvation because it places the trust of the believer back in his own works rather than pointing him to the cross and the hope that comes in our eventual perfection on the last day.

2. Purpose gives Christians a distorted view of vocation...

The doctrine of vocation is probably one of the most under-taught and misunderstood doctrine in all of Christendom. I submit that the void left by a true Christian understanding of what the Christian is to do and how he is to see his good works after conversion is what allows wrong-headed opinions like methodism and purpose to swoop in and take root. Christians have a legitimate need for training in a proper understanding in righteousness and good works. The faith within them cries out for this holy and practical teaching. When it is not given, well-meaning Christians seek anything that looks like it can fill that hole.

...but purpose is not the proper fit. Where a right view of vocation teaches the Christian to understand his place in the world wherever he may find himself at any given moment, "purpose" teaches him that his place in the world is some hidden mystery of God that must be sought out and discovered through all manner of mystical and rationalistic approaches. Purpose, calling upon mankind's natural desire to answer the question "what am I going to do with my life?", wrongly teaches you to look past the objective reality of where you may find yourself and who your neighbor is so that you can sink deep down within yourself to hear what God really wants you to do.

The reality is that God has already told you very clearly what he wants you to do: it's called "The Ten Commandments". They're written down in the book of Exodus so that you can look them up and apply them to every aspect of your life. Unfortunately, purpose distracts you from such pious self-examination and improvement in piety because, while the world moves on around you with ample opportunities to do God-pleasing works by faith, you sit and stew in your own egotistical juices as you try to discern what grand design awaits you in the kingdom of God.

The mother will ignore the rearing of her children as she sits in her bedroom praying for insight. The student will disregard his teacher's instructions as he wracks his brain over where God wants him to be. The worker will ignore the poor and needy all around him as he wonders what in the world he has been put on this earth to do. The pastor will skip proper sermon study and preparation in favor of spending hours contemplating whether God wants him to open an new ministry across town. Most tragically, churches will shelve the proclamation of the only Gospel which saves sinners from hell in order to help the above people find answers to their navel-gazing questions. It's all a horrible mistake. The military calls this "paralysis by analysis": you think so much about your actions that you fail to act and it is as if you never even engaged the problem at all.

3. Purpose obscures the Christian doctrines of repentance, hope, and suffering...

All one has to do is read the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes in order to learn that, yes, this life is full of meaningless vapor and pointless striving after ephemeral nonsense. It's a real problem that is a natural consequence of man's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. This world is a pretty horrible and futile place and all of creation groans in anticipation of being destroyed and made anew. Because the law is written on man's hearts, everyone (Christian and pagan alike) is consciously aware of this threat of pointlessness. The entire field of philosophy is consumed with man's attempt to answer these fundamental questions: "Why are we here? What are we doing? How do I achieve meaning?"

Christ came to earth and preached the answer to these questions: "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" (The kingdom of course being Christ himself.) Later, his own apostles preached the same answer: "Repent and be baptised everyone of you for the forgiveness of your sins" and "Repent and believe the Gospel." The holy spirit revealed this same answer to Martin Luther when he wrote: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ("do penance" or "repent"), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."

Here we see the true "purpose" of fallen man in this world in view of the Theology of the Cross. Do you not know what you should be doing? Look to Christ hanging on the cross. Repent and believe the Gospel. The devil encourages us to obsess over the question rather than looking to the answer and the quest for purpose that is being carried out by the church is a tool whereby many well-meaning believers are directed away from the cross so that they can curve in on themselves. This is where the rubber meets the road in the ages-old battle between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. Is this all about the redemption won for you and all mankind on the cross by Christ? ...or is this about you and what you need to be doing with the 80 or so years you may (or may not) have on this earth.

We live in a fallen world. Corrupted and fallen from the original goodness that it once possessed at its divine creation, the child of God will always feel out of place here. He will always feel as though he (along with the rest of the world) is falling short of expectations. This place will always feel futile, sinful, and devoid of eternal meaning. You will always feel imperfect, partially blind, and wayward as you journey through a world that is not your true home. The Christian church tells people truthfully that these feelings of ache and homesickness are valid and good.

Do you feel like you are not living up to God's will? Of course! It's because you aren't! Do you feel like you do not pray as you ought? Of course! It's because you aren't! Do you feel rejected? Of course! As a Christian you will face rejection! These identifications and feelings of heartache are the law of God working in your own heart as it faces the assaults of your sinful flesh, this sinful world, and that liar: the devil. The living faith within you that clings to the perfect will of God and at least partially recognizes how the world should be but isn't can clearly see that these things are not taking place around and within you. It's easy to see how the world is failing.

But "purpose" does not say these things because legalism tells only a half truth. Instead of telling you the truth about your situation and pointing you to Jesus, purpose makes the sufferings and crosses that Christ Himself said that we will bear into a flaw in your faith and an oversight in your practice. Purpose peddlers do not speak as Paul does who tells his sheep things like:

"Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."


"Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."

Instead, purpose looks at your suffering and tells you that you are just not being Christian enough. Purpose does not point you to the only true hope which rests beyond the grave in a glorious resurrection. Instead, purpose mangles law and gospel by telling you to get to work because Christians shouldn't feel this way after all that Jesus has done for them. If you feel out of place and inadequate, the real problem is not your fallen condition: the real problem, in the sophists' estimation, is that you are living outside of God's true plan for your life. Once you discover and live your purpose, these feelings will subside.

I'm here to tell you that they will never go away this side of glory. Purpose is selling you a bill of goods. Your hope is not in yourself and what you could be doing. Your hope is in Christ and what He has done, what He continues to do, and what He will do on the Last Day. You feel this way because you are a fallen creature who is sinning and living in a fallen world filled with sinners. Your answer is not "try harder and conform better to God's unknowable will".

Your answer is "Repent and believe the Gospel."

4. Purpose presents a shallow do-it-yourself message of life change to unbelievers that is not evangelism in any true sense.

Since the completely erroneous teachings about repentance, hope, and suffering are believed by many American Christians, this is the "evangel" that they take to the lost. They preach the "changed life through better living that makes you feel better" because that is the message which has been given to them. The seed they cast falls on hard ground and in the weeds because it appeals to man's sinful need for autonomy and earning salvation rather than delivering the Holy Spirit through the clearly preached Word of God. It is not "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" but is a pseudogospel of Oprah do-goodism and sentimentality. It is a message that does not save. It makes people feel good... but the feeling does not last because the human invention of purpose, like all things under the sun, is vanity and a meaningless chasing after the wind.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In Christ, "Taps" is not the Final Trumpet

Today a loving family, the Holy Christian Church, the United States Army, and a grateful nation laid Private First Class Rob Roy Certain to rest who passed away at the age of 83. I had the profound privilege of folding the American Flag for his funeral as part of the Military Funeral Honor Guard which Mr. Certain had purchased decades ago through blood and sweat during the Korean War. He was a combat veteran and, based on the medals displayed at his funeral, a three time Bronze Star recipient.

In my short Army career thus far, I have probably conducted 60-70 such funerals. While individual military honors funerals vary greatly on many peripheral matters, there are three things that are constant: The ceremonial folding of an American Flag, the presentation of that flag to a surviving loved one, and--before those things--there is the playing of a short horn piece known nearly to the whole nation as "Taps".

As with most military customs, it is not entirely clear how this piece came to be played at funerals though most apocryphal accounts place its use in funerals during Civil War at the latest. Regardless of it's origins, "Taps" is played at military funerals. This event with this song has been played thousands of times at actual funerals and has been immortalized in so many film recreations of the ceremony that the American psyche cannot help but equate "Taps" with "Death".

This connection between "Taps" and "Death" is so strong in the collective memory of American citizens, that the start of "Taps" is usually when the sobbing and wails of mourners greatly increase in volume and intensity. They have held their composure for the entire service in relative silence with little more than red eyes and a few silent tears... ...but, simply at the first few notes of this horn, the entire audience tends to break down. It is as though this music piece firmly declares to all who hear it "Yes, they really are dead." It is an iconic message that is almost universal in its impact across the nation. Next time you are at a military funeral, pay attention and you'll notice it, too.

But "Taps" is not just the "He's dead, Jim" funeral music as most civilians know it. Military personnel know all to well what its true meaning is because, when living on a military base, they hear it played late into the night... each and every night... like clockwork. Why? Because it is clockwork. In the days before the point where every soldier in camp had reliable watches, radios, alarm clocks, and email, a whole slew of bugle calls were created as part of the larger set of trumpeted commands to broadcast across the entire base what time it is, what is going on, where people should go, and what people should be doing. Where a runner could deliver a message to a few through great effort, a bugler could almost effortlessly deliver a message instantly to the ears of the whole camp. It is just part of a much greater tradition of sounding trumpets to signal messages to masses of people... dating all the way back to all ancient civilizations.

While civilians equate "Taps" with "Death", military personnel know that "Taps" actually means "Lights Out" or "Time to Sleep". That's when it's played and that's what it is for. It's time to sleep. On a military base, you hear taps play across the parade grounds and you know what time it is: It's time to hit the rack. It's that simple; almost mundane in its function. It's use at funerals is secondary to this original purpose and pours out of this utilitarian meaning. "Lights Out".

What a fantastic Christian metaphor! That is what death is for those who die in the faith: a time of sleep and waiting for a new dawn. A trooper in a camp here's "Taps" with relief knowing that the day's work is done and that a new day will break with the sounding of the opposite twin for "Taps". Where "Taps" signals the night, the call of sunrise is known as "Reveille" which is a French word that literally means "Wake Up".

The "Taps" at night is always answered by the new day's "Reveille". And for those who die in the faith of Jesus Christ, their peaceful slumber will be ended at the anouncement of a blessed new day. After the long night, there will be a sounding of a magnificent heavenly trumpet that will loudly declare to the entire world that the new dawn of the Second Coming of Christ is at hand!

"I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

"Death is swallowed up in victory."

"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."

-1 Corinthians 15:50-58

So when you are at a military funeral for your Christian brother or sister, contemplate the true meaning of "Taps" and let the music remind you of what I have pointed out here... and the words of Christ:

"The child is not dead but asleep." [Mark 5:39]

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Achilles Heel of Contemporary Worship

As a former contemporary worship guy, I can tell you what the Achilles Heel of Contemporary Worship is. (If I really think about it, there are a whole host of weaknesses to the format, but this is the one that prevents its spread, exposes its folly, and severs its hold on people.)

The Achilles Heel: Contemporary Worship is not about content. In order to emulate the broad-base contemporary music that it is mimicing, it has to be intentionally vague, emotional, existential and subjective.

By applying strong didactic text standards to all songs performed in church (something that no one can openly oppose without sounding anti-discipleship), you remove all of the "really good songs" in the genre. This isn't a cynical trick at all since weak song texts (in praise songs and hymns) have been a major contributor to the rampant Biblical illiteracy in this country. This is what is not understood by Contemporary Worship leaders. They know that music manipulates people, but they do not understand that it teaches things as well... even though every one of them learned their ABCs by singing it as a kid.

Also, when a song teaches false doctrine, bring that individual song up and measure it against God's Word and have it removed. What most people don't realize is that "no content" and "bad content" is the overwhelming majority of contemporary worship song texts. This puts a praise band up against a tough challenge because the few doctrine-rich praise songs that remain are further widdled down by what is easy enough to play and what songs transition well into each other. In order to conform to Lutheran doctrinal standards, you pretty much end up with a couple old praise songs from the 1950s - 1980s (most already in the LSB) and about five songs from Chris Tomlin.

To further thin the herd, all songs must have been composed by Christians or individuals whose orthodoxy is not in dispute. This sounds odd, but when you consider how many Oneness Pentecostals and anti-trinitarians are in the Praise Band scene, you can cut out some popular--even award winning--artists (Phillips, Craig & Dean and The Katinas are modalists for example.)

In the final talley, the number of acceptable songs that eventually survive the cut is so small that a praise band just can't perform week after week with such a limited repertoire. In order to fill its sets without being too repetitive, it would have to serve the congregation a set that would contain the religious musical equivelant of garbage.

So instead of cutting down a dead tree that people love for some odd reason, you agree to prune off the dead branches one by one. By the time you are finished, you have virtually no tree left and everyone says, "Okay... just cut it down... we see your point." At the worst, you end up with a blended service where one or two contemporary songs get played or hymns are played with contemporary flavoring.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Witnessing (Part 2) - Turning a Mouse into an Elephant

Towards the end of my favorite book that seeks to analyze the War on Terrorism so far (a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to actually learn something meaningful and academic about the subject of counter-terrorism), Dr. Kilcullen talks about "turning a mouse into an elephant". In the context of terrorism, this means turning a group that is globally insignificant and marginalized (like Al Qaeda) into something that seems far more powerful and dangerous than it actually is simply by the extreme force of your response to it. After all, if you are really devoting so much time and effort to destroy something, it has to be a great threat to humanity at large, right? Well what if you are over-reacting? What if you are making a mouse look like a elephant simply by the way you frame the discussion?

This is what the church has done to witnessing. It has turned what is essentially a tiny squeaky mouse that the smallest child can defeat and made it out to be a huge, rampaging bull elephant in the minds of many Christians. Even the bravest among us are leery about facing a charging elephant. But what if witnessing is really the mouse that the Bible describes it as?

We have taken all kinds of thorny subjects like financial issues, church membership numbers, community involvement, cultural issues, synodical politics, and even sanctification only to lump them under the one big banner of "missions" so that many individuals feel the weight of all these issues on their shoulders when they talk to their cousin about why Jesus was hanging on the cross. Even the term "evangelism" is so misunderstood that it defines the act of bearing witness to the gospel as something that no Christian feels qualified to do. Let's break it down:

Evangel (n): 1. The Christian Gospel. 2. Good News.

-ism (suffix): 1. the act, process, or characteristic of the root word (ex: patriotism is the act or characteristic of being a patriot). 2. the condition of or property of the root word (ex: barbarianism is a property of a barbarian). 3. Adherence to a system of principles or beliefs. (ex: Buddhism is the system of belief for a Buddhist.)

Evangelism: 1. the act of the good news. 2. the property of the good news. 3. Adherence to belief in the good news.

So at least the modern evangelicals come by the horrible phrases of "being the gospel" and "doing the gospel" honestly. It is practically written in the English term so often used for reaching lost people. Historically, the term has not been understood as a legalistic human undertaking, but the modern church treats this as the work of men (thank you revivalism!). This is where the mouse becomes an elephant. It becomes something I'm supposed to do or become because I am a Christian and I can't let God down... I can't allow people to slip into hell...

I'm told that time is short and hell is hot. I'm told that I don't want to face the people that I failed to witness to on the Last Day only to have them ask, "Why didn't you tell me?!?" as they are flung into hell. (And, yes, I heard that second one several times as a kid from the pulpit during sermons! One time it was described as a criss-cross of escalators like at the mall where I was going up to heaven and I met a friend of mine that I never witnessed to on his way going down.)

But is that really what the Bible teaches? What if the Bible doesn't frame witnessing in these "elephant" terms but in "mouse" terms? What if the church, as an institution, is so busy legalistically driving people to be better evangelists that it fails to paint the act of witnessing as the simple act that it really is? Why has the church decided that the way to solve the fear of witnessing is to present it as a do-or-die mission of such urgency that no one would ever want to even think about it?

Matthew 28:18-20: "And Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"

Did you see what Jesus said there? Ignore the middle part that the church beats everyone over the head with. Right there at the start and the end of the "Great Commission" Jesus takes on all of the elephant tasks that we concern ourselves with. Christ has all authority. Christ is with us always. Our "mouse" tasks in the middle there are surrounded by Christ, His work, and His promises. If anything, that middle part describes how we will be used as His instruments. Do you really think that our incompetence can impede the will of God? The witnessing issue is so charged with guilt-trips that many people who have extreme anxiety about witnessing fear that this is exactly what is happening. God wants to save people but can't because we are failing Him... and our neighbors. No wonder people are hiding from evangelism! And yet, within this envelope of divine care, Scripture clearly shows that we are free to declare the word, baptize, and make disciples. We are shown that this authority that we burden ourselves has been given to CHRIST. Why do we make this seem harder than it really is?

1 Corinthians 3:5-7: "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth."

Just ask around and you will observe an inferiority complex within the Christian community regarding giving public testimony. Some of this is good ole honest stage fright which is understandable because religion can be a contentious thing. Most of it is an overwhelming sense of inadequacy to the task. The mistake many leaders make is that they confuse these feelings of inferiority and unpreparedness with timidity. Not understanding the problem, they try to build up enough courage and confidence in the hearts their people to take on that elephant!

The inferiority will not be overcome. Why? Because it's true! We are all unworthy sinners who are not even worthy of being saved ourselves let alone having the privilege of sharing the good news of salvation with others. You don't overcome that with a few powerpoint slides and some good motivational speeches. Instead you embrace it!

You do as Paul did again and again and point out everyone's inadequacy and listen to the collective sigh of relief in the room. Rather than despair, people will be free to admit their own fears and reservations regarding witnessing in an environment free of judgement and condemnation. In my own experience, being shown that everyone is inadequate to the task is met with a universal, "Oh, thank God! I thought it was just me!" Then you take that elephant and reduce it down to a mouse by pointing out that "evangelism" is not really our work, but God's! If you frame witnessing properly, people will see it for the mouse that it is... a mouse that is much less terrible than the elephant that they are used to.

The unpreparedness should not be ignored and it can't be addressed with a few workshops and some pre-made religious tracts. This problem is a diagnosis of the poor job the church is doing in training its people. If you really get to the heart of it, most people don't witness because they don't feel confident in the subject matter. They don't know the issues well enough and they don't trust themselves to do a good job. This is made worse by directing people to talk about their own personal testimonies. Personal testimonies look good on paper because they are essentially immune to apologetic arguments. They are subjective so they cannot be argued and people already have their own histories memorized. How can I tell you that God didn't do something subjective to you when it happened in your life?

...but this misunderstands the critical weaknesses of personal testimonies:

1. Some people don't have them. Some people have never had anything impressive happen to them. They have been blessed with quiet lives and have nothing to share that would emotionally appeal to anyone. In our "personal testimony" culture, they wrongly assume that have no witness and so... they don't witness.

2. While it is impossible to debate a personal experience it is still just a personal experience. Your personal experience has no sway over me. So what if Jesus rescued you from a life of drugs and prostitution? I hate to be insensitive, but what does that have to do with me? Even if I have a similar situation, does that mean that I am supposed to be impressed by this Jesus?

3. Which leads into our next problem: personal experiences can be duplicated by non-Christian sources. Jesus got you off of drugs? Well, rehab did it for me and I got to stay a hedonistic pagan. Jesus fixed your family? Well, I went to this family counsellor and my family is doing fine? Jesus got your finances in order? Well, I did that myself with a little self discipline and Quicken on my PC.

4. Which leads into our next problem: personal experiences are not indicative of future results. Jesus got you off of drugs? Well, I can show you tons of Christian who still struggle with that. Does that mean that Jesus loves them less than you? Jesus fixed your family? Well, I can show you tons of broken families and a huge divorce rate within the church. Your personal testimony could prove insulting to those you witness too. This isn't just because your success may actually be the exception rather than the norm, but it is inherently dishonest. After all, you are implying that Jesus could do the same good things for the person you are witnessing to... which does not always happen... but no one ever says that during witnessing. It's a bait-n-switch. A con. A scam.

5. Every Christian is still a sinner. The problem with a personal experience is that your experience has to live up to the hype of your pitch. If you are going to tell people that Jesus got you off of drugs, what happens to your witness when you stumble and use drugs again? If you talk about how Jesus fixed your family, what happens when that affair you had becomes public knowledge? ...this is a major reason why people don't witness. They are afraid of letting Christ down in the eyes of the lost. Why? Because we tell Christians that they are supposed to live better than other people. All this law talk only creates two groups of people: secure hypocrites and sinners full of despair. It's no wonder that modern evangelism is largely made up of these two groups.

6. Most importantly, a personal experience is about you. Are we talking about you and what has happened to you or are we talking about Christ and the work that He did on the cross? The more you talk about yourself the less you will actually talk about Jesus.

So let's turn this elephant back into a mouse. Do you want to witness? Just tell people about Jesus and what the Bible says He has done for sinners on the cross. Share the small catechism and the creeds with people. When someone misrepresents the Christian faith or quotes the Bible out of context, be bold and correct the record. Be open and honest. Be willing to talk about this important part of your life with others to the best of your ability knowing that the Holy Spirit will guide you and that Christ is with you always. All of the hard work has been done and is being done by Christ and He has given you the privilege of sharing this great news with others. You don't have to do anything but bear witness about Jesus and His saving work... and all a witness has to do is tell people the truth about what happened. All you are doing is planting and watering... those are almost menial tasks when you get down to it. The growth? That's not your job.

Witnessing - Setting Our People up for Failure

Has someone ever "set you up for failure"? This is when they train you or prepare you in a particular task... but fail to give you a complete picture with all of the information that you need in order to be successful. It can also happen when you are properly trained, but you are sent into a no win situation where your efforts are totally wasted. In either case, you walk right into the task so unprepared that you are almost doomed from the very start.

In retrospect, you can look back and see that the fault did not lie with your effort but with the one who sent you on this foolish mission. In my experience, church evangelism programs (with very rare exceptions) do this horrible deed almost better than anyone. It's no wonder then that well-meaning Christians hate the idea of sharing the faith and live in constant anxiety about it. This is why they will tell 40 people about the great new pizza place that just opened up in town, but choke and sputter at the thought of talking about how Jesus delivers sinners from eternal damnation. I'm here to tell you that it is not their fault. This is just a classic case of "live and let live".

In World War I, the generals charged with overseeing and conducting the war ran across a problem that became known as "live and let live". The idea of trench warfare had proven itself to be so futile and abhorrent to the trench fighters on both sides that a spontaneous spirit of co-operative non-aggression became rampant. In simple terms, everyone got it in their heads that there was no reason to climb out of a trench and die when one could just sit in a trench and do nothing. We live. They live. Everybody wins.

In many ways, this was the inevitable response of bad command decisions. The tactical blunders of WWI that pitted ancient military tactics against modern weaponry forced both sides into a protracted, horrible war of unending static misery. This analogy fits well with modern evangelism because--if you ask enough individual Christians--you will find many who describe witnessing in ways that are shockingly similar to a WWI trooper getting up out of the safety of his trench and running across the bomb-scarred no-man's land only to gain a few feet of actual territory for his side at best or get mowed down by raking machine-gun fire at worst. Is this what Our Lord's Great Commission is about? Really?

The initial response to "live and let live" was equally foolish and counter-productive. Generals in the rear instinctively accused their soldiers of cowardice and dereliction of duty. This could not have been further from the truth in most cases. The truth is that every man has his limits and those limits are reached far quicker when there is no clear objective or hope. Based on this false assumption, the planers and decision makers addressed the problem in the only way they knew how: through ineffective and institutional means. Propaganda and motivational training was ramped up. Several countries turned to harsh treatment, intimidation, and guilt to try to push the Soldiers back into line. Raids and assaults against the enemy were institutionally planned and carried out in order to keep up the offensive spirit in the ranks and discourage sedentary behavior when there was a perfectly good war to be fought. These measures met with mixed success and never actually got rid of the "live and let live" mentality which survived all the way through the end of the entire war.

It got so bad that the commanders in the trenches (themselves firm advocates of "life and let live") would send detailed false reports back to the rear of attacks against the enemy that never happened. There is a historical account of one British general who sought to deal with this particular problem using an institutional metric (physical evidence) to authenticate his previous metric (the report)... an approach which seems to be the only managerial solution these days! He required that every report of an attack that was sent from the front include a little bit of German barbed wire to prove that the unit had actually gotten out of the trench, crossed no-man's land, and reached the enemy line. It was from this enemy trench that the German wire could be recovered. The general confidently reported that this would help him prove the veracity of the reports he was getting.

...but metrics don't solve all problems. There is another historical account of British troops going out into no-man's land and finding an entire spool of German barbed wire. They took it back to their position in the trench. Each time the frontline troops had to send a false report to the general, they would snip off a piece of their stolen German wire to send it with their reports.

The reports were still false. The attacks still never happened. "Live and let live" was still in place. Only this time, the general's own solution had blinded him to the continued existence of the problem and further obscured the actual cause: the failure of the war itself to create a climate where individual Soldiers could actually win and survive.

I submit that the Christian church in America, as an institution, is setting Christians up for failure in a very similar way when it comes to witnessing to the lost. It is clear that the bad tactics and training that we are receiving in the trenches are not working. As the mission field becomes increasingly static and individual congregations begin digging trenches, the institutional leadership from all kinds of denominations and sects is turning to the only thing that it understands: propaganda, guilt, increasingly outdated advertising strategies stolen from secular business, and (of course) unverifiable metrics. "Go cut off some some barbed wire for me as proof of the execution of your duties and send it in with your report."

In response, the "generals" at the institutional level are increasingly coming into contact with the Christian version of "live and let live" which is further exacerbated by a culture that encourages everyone to just stay out of people's personal business. The zeal of the individual witness is draining and everyone can see the Christian soldiers just sitting in their trenches. People feel as though they have reached their limits. They have no hope of success. They know that what they are being told to do and how they are trained to do it just does not work in the real world. They sit in their trench and "live and let live". They send less and less money back to the rear to support a tactical engagement that they no longer believe in for a spiritual war that they honestly just don't want to be a part of anymore. They are tired. They just want to go back to "normal"... which they define as a life which does not involve slogging it out in this horrible trench with this horrible burden of witnessing.

What is the solution? It is certainly not collecting barbed wire or pushing exhausted troopers even further beyond their breaking point. The church as a whole needs to go down to the trenches and identify the source of the problem. The policy of "live and let live" is a response to being "set up for failure". Our training is wrong. Our tactics are wrong. Our metrics are wrong. We are metaphorically sending individual Christians out to the mission field to die and we don't want to admit that problem lies with the institutional paradigm that the church has bought into.

We need to go back to the drawing board. We need to evaluate these problem areas of training and tactics. We need a new approach--a soldier centric approach--that equips individual Christians with proper apologetic and proclamation tools and points them in the right direction: the places where they can do the most good and observe the most success for their effort.

Going back to my pizza example at the start of this long diatribe, the pizza place has no institutional system for setting up its customers as witnesses and yet the word of mouth takes care of itself. Why? Because no one needs to be exhorted to tell their friends about a place to get a good bite to eat. It's just common sense. Why doesn't the gospel translate to the same "good advice" that you tell a friend about because you care about them? There are a whole host of reasons, but chief on the list is the fact that the church has psyched Christians out by making witnessing out to be some daunting chore instead of a simple, clear, and blessed message of "good news" which is a Christian's privelage to joyfully share with others in the freedom of the gospel and not from the threats and demands of the law. In over thinking the problem, we have approached the issue from the wrong direction with the wrong set of presuppositions for so long that whatever witnessing does take place in the public square is happening in spite of our efforts rather than because of them.

You can be sure that I am going to be thinking about this topic through the Epiphany season. Expect more posts on that analyze various aspects of this problem... a problem that I, myself, have been a victim of for far too long.