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.

Roman Catholic bishop facing child-pornography charges

Rev. Father Raymond Lahey, a Roman Catholic Bishop from Nova Scotia, Canada, was caught with child pornography on his laptop computer by RCMP officers.  They searched his home and office.  He’s now facing charges.  Child pornography is a big no-no everywhere, not just in the church.  I wonder if Bishop Lahey will still be considered a bishop by the Roman Catholic Church?

If the Roman Catholic Church knew about this for 20 years, why isn’t its leadership more transparent and pro-active about this stuff, especially when he was around vulnerable young children? I’m glad my church makes Lutheran ministers go through police checks and sit through a sexual boundaries workshop–even before ordination. But of course, we know that these do not guarantee any safety.  Still, “we are poor miserable sinners” as Luther would say.

When sins like this happens in our church leaders, it causes a person to become more aware of how our human nature is untouched by the prevalence of sin (keeping in mind our paradoxical nature of saint and sinner (simul justus et peccator).  Luther wrote in his lecture on Romans:

The saints in being righteous are at the same time sinners; they are righteous because they believe in Christ whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them, but they are sinners because they do not fulfill the law and are not without sinful desires. They are like sick people in the care of a physician: they are really sick, but healthy only in the hope and insofar as they begin to be better, healed, i.e., they will become healthy.

It is ironic that it is precisely because of these weaknesses in our human nature that we, as saints, are able to minister to others with the same weaknesses.  The writer of Hebrews says: “A high priest has weaknesses of his own, and he feels sorry for foolish and sinful people. That is why he must offer sacrifices for his own sins and for the sins of others” (Heb.5:2-3, CEV).

Living godly lives through law and gospel

On a pastoral note, I wish to blog about law and gospel.

Our biblical and civil laws call us to live holy lives, as separate from the world’s standards of righteousness. The gospel of Jesus tells us that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). As sanctified Christians, we are called by the Lord Jesus and given the gift of the Holy Spirit so that we can live righteous lives. But what does it mean to be sanctified? The word for sanctify or sanctification is not much heard these days but it means we are to be “separate”, “to set apart”, or “a being set apart”. We, as Christians, are called out of this sin-filled world to be God’s children forgiven by God. A godly life is the trait of genuine Christian behaviour.

So how do we live godly and sanctified lives as Christians? Often we try to force others, and even ourselves, to live by God’s law in our civil realm. This may work to a certain extent but it is not the way we are called to live out our Christian faith. Our laws, though established by God, calls us to live righteously in the civil realm (left-hand kingdom), rather than in the spiritual realm (right-hand kingdom). Luther said that God’s left-hand kingdom is established and ordered by God; but it is ruled by power rather than by God’s grace. The law of God is only meant to guide or rule us as “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path”.

Without all our human laws and rules, it may seem impossible to live godly and do good works all the time. But the truth is that it is impossible even with all our laws and rules. However, we are blessed that it is God who lives in us who enables us to live in righteousness. If it were not for the grace of God and the Holy Spirit of God, we would never be able to do this on our own strength. The Holy Spirit has made us holy by bringing us to faith in Jesus Christ, redeemed us, forgiven us, and enabled us to lead godly and righteous lives.

Allow Holy Spirit to lead us into his righteousness rather than into human righteousness. The power of the gospel is enough to justify us and sanctify us. God’s Holy Spirit then lives in us to give us new life, transform our lives, energize us, enlighten our understanding, and strengthen our spiritual lives. Then we may be able to live godly Christian lives.

Romans 7: What good is the law?

Sometimes the law can seem to be a hindrance to achieving our personal desires. Most of the time, the law can actually be a good thing. I have heard some people say that the law is bad but this is not biblical. Evangelicals, pentecostals, and pietistic Lutherans and Reformed are sometimes criticized as preachers of law. Christians of this side of the law and gospel, one of which is myself, have heard many sermons about the law and the depravity of our sins. We are criticized for not preaching more on grace. Christians on the other side of the theological spectrum who are of the antinomian persuasion tend to despise the law and see it as a bad thing and prefer to hear sermons on grace. Sermons about sin are generally not a big item on their diet of sermons. These may sound like two extremes but they help to illustrate a need for balance between Law and Gospel.

Paul’s theology on the law does not condemn the law. He does not see the law as a bad thing, rather, what he condemns is sin itself, not the law. In Romans chapter 7, Paul mentioned the law in a positive manner three times.
7: 12“So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.”
7:14a“We know that the law is spiritual.”
7:22“For in my inner being I delight in God’s law.” (TNIV).

How do we reconcile Paul’s positive mention about the law when he says it is holy, righteous, good and spiritual? Perhaps the law isn’t so bad after all.

“Third use of the law” versus antinomianism

Antinomianism seems to have taken a stronghold in some Christian circles. Antinomianism drives the social-gospel movement and it fears that Christians have become indifferent to ethical issues. It seeks to bring about God’s kingdom on earth through social action. It teaches that the love of Christ must constrain the Christian and that we can experience and manifest this love if we have come into a saving relationship with Christ who “first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and gave himself for us on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). The motivation of love is the only thing that seems to distinguish between a Christian ethic and the non-Christian. It assumes that if the Christian has experienced God’s love, one is in a position to makes decisions in one’s world based on this love. In other words, one is free to choose to love. Thus, antinomianism stands on the fringe of saying that “anything goes” because each existential decision is unique and without precedent. However, I do not believe it has the answers to help us make existential decisions in life.

The Lutheran Confessions teach that the law has three functions: 1) the political (as a restraint for the wicked); 2) the theological (as a paidagogos to bring us to Christ—Gal. 3:24); and 3) the didactic (as a guide for the regenerate). This Third Use of the Law can be thought of as God’s merciful help in the performance of the works which are commanded. The first two uses of the law are generally undisputed by all Christians. However, the Third Use of the Law is disputed by some Christians of antinomian persuasion today. They purport that the law should not be used to guide the regenerate person. They argue that it is only love that guides them. They believe that love is enough. But is love really enough? My answer is: “No, love is not enough.”

I myself believe that they third use of the law is necessary in the Christian’s life. This is state in the Lutheran Formula of Concord (Art. VI) and also in Calvin’s Institutes (II,vii, 12 ff). Luther most valued the first use of the law but Calvin placed emphasis on this third use of the law. Nevertheless, this third use of the law is a threefold concept in the church of the Reformation. I would argue that Christians, filled with the love of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, still need the law to teach us. One should ask the question: even though love motivates us to make ethical decisions and actions, does it necessarily inform the Christian of the proper content of that action?

Horatius Bonar writes in God’s Way of Holiness:

But will they tell us what is to regulate service, if not law? Love, they say. This is a pure fallacy. Love is not a rule, but a motive. Love does not tell me what to do; it tells me how to do it. Love constrains me to do the will of the beloved one; but to know what the will is, I must go elsewhere. The law of our God is the will of the beloved one, and were that expression of his will withdrawn, love would be utterly in the dark; it would not know what to do. It might say, I love my Master, and I love his service, and I want to do his bidding, but I must know the rules of his house, that I may know how to serve him. Love without law to guide its impulses would be the parent of will-worship and confusion, as surely as terror and self-righteousness, unless upon the supposition of an inward miraculous illumination, as an equivalent for law. Love goes to the law to learn the divine will, and love delights in the law, as the exponent of that will; and he who says that a believing man has nothing more to do with law, save to shun it as an old enemy, might as well say that he has nothing to do with the will of God. For the divine law and the divine will are substantially one, the former the outward manifestation of the latter. And it is “the will of our Father which is in heaven” that we are to do (Matt. 7:21); 50 proving by loving obedience what is that “good and acceptable, and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Yes, it is he that doeth “the will of God that abideth forever” (1 John 2:17); it is to “the will of God” that we are to live (1 Peter 4:2); “made perfect in every good work to do his will” (Heb. 13:21); and “fruitfulness in every good work,” springs from being “filled with the knowledge of his will” (Col. 1:9,10).

Futhermore, this doctrine of the Third Use of the Law also preserves the doctrine of sanctification. As a result of justification, a person receives the Spirit of God, therefore, one’s relation to the law is also changed. Yes, one does remain a sinner (1 John 1:8), therefore, the law will always accuse him; however, one will begin to see the biblical law as the manifestation of God’s loving will and will delight in the law of the Lord. This Third Use of the Law (the law of Christ—Gal.6:2) helps us to take regeneration seriously. I support the Third Use of the Law in the Christian life and do not believe that antinomianism has the answer. I do not believe that “love is enough” for the Christian. Love is a motivator but does not give us answers. We still need the law to guide us.