Time of joy, good tidings, and doing good

We subconsciously pickup from Santa songs that we get gifts according to how naughty or nice we’ve been.  If there were such a list, our gifts would be something we earn for doing good things (not totally free without strings attached).

Don’t we give with the intention that it’s a free gift without strings attached when we make donations to charities (e.g., Salvation Army bell-ringers, pack Christmas shoeboxes, etc.)?

In a letter to Titus, Paul speaks of doing what is good (Titus 3:4-5; 8),

“But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.”” (NIV)

Regarding salvation, thank God there isn’t a naughty and nice list.  If God were to really keep a running list of all the naughty things and nice things that I have ever done throughout my life, I might be ashamed of the imbalanced tally of certain unnamed things. Following such a list can steal the joy that Christ gives because we have to work too hard to earn God’s approval.

Christmastime is all about the joy that Christ came to give us free, un-earned acceptance from God.  For Christians, our joy comes from knowing that God’s righteousness and mercy has made us righteous in God’s sight.  So spread the joy!  Donate to your favorite charities.  Serve in church.  Give of your service all year-long to your non-profit organizations. Freely give.




Advent: Hope and peace for humankind

My parents gave me a maxim to live by that I never forgot: “As being human, be a better human being.” Being a good human being is not so easy when anger and resentment gets in the way.

The Apostle Paul said in Titus 3:11-12,

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age…” (ESV)

Christian spirituality exhorts us to live godly and upright lives which Paul the Apostle told Titus.  Religion says I have to do it.  I know that in my human power, I cannot do it.

The good news is this: the grace of God (gift of Jesus Christ himself) has appeared to usher in salvation for humankind.  Paul said, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.”  In Jesus, this grace of God comes to us despite our failures and guilt.  We don’t earn it. It’s a free gift.  We are no longer condemned by our personal failure to live out the law.  Shame and guilt no longer controls us.  God has now given all humankind a new hope.  This is why this Christian/Advent message of peace also comes with a hope-filled exhortation.

The Holy Spirit invites us to take a step to welcome Jesus into our imperfect lives.   God has called you into his spiritual calling.  As for me, answering his call has given me hope for a peace-filled life, knowing that I have made peace with God, and God has made peace with me. This is God’s solution for me in becoming a “better human being.”

Jesus’ sermon on the mount

I was recently reading Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7). This thought crossed my mind once again. Each time I read it, I ask myself: “Can I achieve what Jesus just taught?”  If I answer, “Yes, by the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, I can do it”, then to me, this is ‘prescriptive’.  If I answer, “No way Jose! Honestly I can’t remember when I fulfilled everything Jesus just taught here”, then what Jesus is teaching is law to me, and is a ‘description’ of who I am: a sinner saved by grace… but still a sinner nevertheless.

Most of the time, I feel the Sermon on the Mount is describing who I am, a person who fails at achieving what Jesus sees as the ideal.  Thankfully, I have Jesus who tells me his grace is sufficient for me when I fail to measure up.  But when Christians present Jesus’ teachings from the mount as what I need to do in order to be a righteous Christ-follower, I feel like I’m being set up for future failure.

Do we have to take a position of Jesus’ teachings being 100% descriptive or 100% prescriptive.  Is there room for middle ground or even least 95% descriptive? Personally, I see Jesus’ teachings to be hugely descriptive but I cannot deny that he also prescribes for his followers a way to live that is alignment with his ideals of righteous behavior and personal piety.  The New Testament has some prescriptive laws as taught by Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

The challenge for us as good theologians and thoughtful Christians is to try to find law and gospel in what we teach.  The world is hungry for a gospel that clearly spells out God’s free gift of forgiveness motivated by unconditional love.  It is a mystery hidden behind religion; but when it is uncovered, it can be a newfound revelation because it can lead a person into an experience of spiritual freedom in Christ out from a slave-mentality under rules and laws.

Are we treating the Law like Gospel?

Personally, it took me a while to understand Law and Gospel, but once I got, I got it.  Using some descriptive examples, Law and Gospel can be distinguished like this.

The Law: demands everything but gives nothing.
The Gospel: demands nothing but gives everything.

The Law: shows us what godliness looks like but it cannot transform the sinner
The Gospel: is alone the power of God to salvation and transforms the sinner.

The Law: accuses and exposes our sins.
The Gospel: acquits and exonerates us of our sins.

The Law: diagnoses sinners.
The Gospel: delivers sinners.

The Law: is for those who think they’re good.
The Gospel: is for those who know they are sinners.

Understanding the difference helps to set the good news apart and allows God the work through the message of the good news.  But it requires revealing the law first (which some churches either ignore or over-emphasize).  I don’t know about your own church but I’ve heard some people confusing the Law by treating as if it were like the Gospel (or as if it had the power to transform a sinner from committing their wrong which the law cannot do). The law can only show us what godliness is and that we fall short of righteousness.  But some people put so much faith in the law because they believe it has the power to scare people from committing wrongs and doing what’s right.  Truth is that the law is incapable of doing this. Only the gospel can do this.

Maybe we should get back to the basics of teaching/preaching Law and Gospel, which has the power to transform sinners into believers. This is the authentic evangelical message of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Billy Graham.  Law and Gospel is why great ol’ preachers of yester-years were so effective.

Have you ever treated the Law like it were the Gospel or vice versa (i.e., what I call law or gospel)? Or do you make a proper distinction between Law and Gospel?

Pastor Tullian Tchividjian (of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church) lays out these distinctions of Law and Gospel in a very simple way. This will bless and inform you. [ watch more, 40 min.

What’s Law and Gospel

Rich over at “believe, teach and confess” blog has started blogging on how to apply Law and Gospel in real life situations.  Most of us non-traditional evangelical Christians have no idea what this even is.  Knowing how Law & Gospel can work in our lives can make a huge difference.  Check it out.

Law and Gospel keeps me on the straight and narrow

Have you ever wondered why the Christian life can be joyless, ineffective and lacking in meaning?  It might be that Law and Gospel is missing from the pulpit.  When Law passes for Gospel, and Gospel passes for Law, it begins to sound more like “Law or Gospel” rather than “Law and Gospel”.  As a result, you get a wishy-washy kind of preaching that even infrequent church goers might be able to unconsciously or subtly pick up.  They will exit church the same way they walked in–unchanged, and so they don’t come back.

I love what Michael Horton (a Reformed evangelical theologian whom I respect) speaks about the state of “Law and Gospel” in today’s preaching.

Luther made this hermeneutic central, but both traditions of the Protestant Reformation jointly affirm this key distinction. In much of medieval preaching, the Law and Gospel were so confused that the “Good News” seemed to be that Jesus was a “kinder, gentler Moses,” who softened the Law into easier exhortations, such as loving God and neighbor from the heart. The Reformers saw Rome as teaching that the Gospel was simply an easier “law” than that of the Old Testament; that instead of following a lot of rules, God expects only love and heartfelt surrender. …Full article here (from The Resurgence)

Most Christians haven’t heard of “Law and Gospel” as much as “law” and “gospel”.  These are two different things.  Christians who want to learn how to live out their Christian lives in the joy of the Lord need to hear the Word properly distinguished in the preaching of Law and Gospel.  If Christians want to be theologically grounded, a steady diet of “Law and Gospel” is an important part of one’s spiritual diet. It is food for the soul; it can be transformational and bring joy into one’s walk in the Christian faith.

In my personal discovery of how “Law and Gospel” connects with the preaching of the Word, I have had to redefine my understanding of Law and Gospel and how it is practiced.  What I learned in seminary didn’t align with much of the preaching I heard–even in some Lutheran churches.  This profound the0logy has, some how, gone missing in many churches today.

Note: For pastors, this may be a good book to pick up from a solid Lutheran perspective: Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible by C. F. W. Walther, Concordia Publishing House, 2010. 592 pp.

Connection between Law and Gospel

I love this quote of Hermann Sasse (HatTip: Paul of CyberBrethren)

Whenever the Law and the Gospel are separated from each other, wherever the connection between the Law and the Gospel is lost, then what Luther said proves itself to be true: Where either the Law or the Gospel is lost, then the other is also thoroughly destroyed. Every form of antinomianism necessarily destroys the Gospel. Where the preaching of the Law does not work the recognition of sins, how is it possible to experience or understand the forgiveness of sins [Gospel]?

This is something I’ve learn to apply in my preaching.  It’s part of old-fashioned preaching but it’s what makes the gospel effective in the penitent sinner.