A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng
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Walther on the Prosperity Gospel

god_richesSadly, much of American Christianity is infatuated with the notion that, once I become a Christian, then God will order everything in my life such that I will be showered with material blessings galore–health, wealth, and prosperity of all kinds–even a hundredfold byond that which I give to the Lord.  The litany of charlatans posing as ‘pastors’ who proclaim such business is long and distinguished.  C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of American Lutheranism disagrees.  First he takes us to the words of Scripture…

So be careful how you live.  Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Eph 5.15-16, NLT)

Then Walther goes on to explain that this notion couldn’t be more untrue.

With the words in [Ephesians 5], Saint Paul warns all Christians that, in this life, they should never count on good, peaceful, and comfortable days, either for themselves or for their faith.  Instead, they should expect to exerience evil, dangerous, and woeful days.  Where Christ is, there is also the cross.  Therefore, as soon as a person has turned to Christ, he cannot think everything will go well with him as a child of God’s grace.  Rather, he must expect that the cross will now be his inseperable companion until his death. (God Grant It, 813)

His words are a far cry from those you’ll hear on any given Sunday around the country in some of America’s largest congregations and on TV; however, the words of Walther reflect the cruciform nature of the Christian life.  “Where Christ is, there is also the cross.”  Let these words of warning be also words of encouragement, for where the cross is, there is also the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Thanks be to God!

Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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Not Observing Lent? Then Why Celebrate Christmas?

Growing up in the Reformed tradition, we did not observe the season of Lent.  As with crucifixes, vestments, and other traditions within the Christian church, Lent was simply ‘too Catholic’ to be observed within our circles.  At first blush, I suppose such an objection may seem valid, but it really won’t hold up to any scrutiny, especially if we, like many, reject Lent but accept Christmas as a valid Christian observance.

Am I overstating my case?  I don’t think so.  Here’s why…

First, considering history.  I am not aware of any scholars or writers who would deny the impossibility of accurately determining the exact date (day/month) of Christ’s birth from Scripture.  The oldest dates for the observance of Jesus’ birth appear to be in the Spring, only changing to December, in the West, under the rule of Constantine during the mid-fourth century.  The first ‘hard evidence’ for the observation of Christmas on December 25th comes from a Roman calendar called the “Chronography of 354,” dated AD 354.  Prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, any celebration of Christmas as a church holiday was at best sporadic (cf. Clement of Alexandria) but, more commonly, not mentioned (cf. Tertullian) or simply rejected outright as a pagan notion (cf. Origen [mid-3rd cent] and Arnobius[early 4th cent]).  In short, the celebration of Christmas was not widely observed until the mid-fourth century.

In contrast, the history of the observation of a period of fasting, repentance, and preparation prior to the celebration of the resurrection (i.e., Easter) is much older than the history of Christmas.  In the late 2nd century, Irenaus of Lyons wrote of just such a season, though it was not the 40 day season we observe today.  His mention of what we now call Lent is not a remote example.  Tertullian, who failed to mention any celebration of Christmas, wrote of a forty day period of fasting similar to what we now observe, though even here there seems to be widespread variation on the exact length of the time of preparation.  There was such a wide variation in tradition, in fact, that the Council of Nicea (AD 325) expressly mentioned forty days as the suitable practice for this pre-Easter observance.  Unlike Christmas, a Lenten-like period of preparation was so widespread in the early church that the Council felt it necessary to weigh in on the discussion.

From a purely historical perspective, then, Lent predates Christmas as a widely observed church season.

Second, considering theology.  Any celebration of Christmas at all as a Church holy day (holiday) comes solely from tradition, as there is no express biblical warrant, command, or example.  I mention this point only in response to those who reject Lent and other Christian traditions because they ‘aren’t in the Bible’ or should not be considered permissible under the Regulative Principle of Worship.  Quite honestly, you cannot have it both ways, rejecting one tradition over another on what I would argue are purely subjective grounds. To reject one and retain another is inconsistent.

So, if you do not observe Lent, why not?  I’m not trying to suggest that Christians must, but I’m also poking a little at those who suggest that Christians may not.  I should think we would all benefit from a deliberate season of preparation for Easter–reflecting upon our own sins/need for a Savior as well as preparing ourselves to be of further service to our merciful God.

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“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.'” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer’s] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord’s prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too…but that’s another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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Why Do We Need Ongoing Forgiveness?

Over at Chaos and Old Night, Fraiser has a great post asking and answering the question, “Why do we need ongoing forgiveness?”  As another refugee from Evangelicalism, he eloquently points out the flaws in much of the contemporary Christian thinking about the necessity of confession and demonstrates the grace of God in action through our justification and sanctification.

Read it…mull it over…enjoy it…

Thanks, John!