Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Gospel is not a New Law

One of the things I am convinced of is that we don't really "get" the Gospel, and we don't often see how we don't get it.

We incorrigably miss out on the real-ness of the Gospel is by smashing it through the lens of our human systems.  It is like stuffing the proverbial square block through a round hole.

First, as Gerhard Forde pointed out in his book "Where God Meets Man", the problem begins with how we view the Law.  We tend to view God's Law as a "ladder" to heaven.  If I can just climb the ladder, I'll be alright.  I'll get to heaven.  If I don't climb the ladder, I'm done for.  This is the essence of all human religion -be "moral," and you'll get to heaven or get some kind of blessing.

Pretty much all Christians would agree that we can't climb the ladder to the top ourselves.  We can't climb perfectly.  We won't get there.  And that is why, we postulate, we need a Savior.  That is where the Gospel comes in and fixes our problem.  Jesus came to "buy off" God and get us to the top of the ladder.  It is all about how what Jesus did here, on earth, fixed something in the secret, hidden realms of heaven... "way up there."  That is why, we say, He died for us.  All we have to do is "believe."  "Belief" or "faith" becomes the requirement. 

But this is how the Gospel becomes a new law, a new legalism.  The Gospel becomes a "repair job" for our current system of things, our fallen attempts to continue to climb a ladder, just with a newer and easier way to get to the top.  We just have to "have faith."  And like with all forms of legalism, the results split into two directions.  On one side, you have people who become self-righteous about their "faith", and subsequently about their Christian-ness and morality and piety.  The slope is slippery.  But on the other side, you have people who never feel like they have enough "faith."  They worry if their faith is good enough or strong enough.  They become like Martin Luther's protege, Melanchthon, who once wrote to Luther wondering if his faith was good enough.  Thus, with legalism the focus inevitably is upon *me*, upon what *I* do.  That may feel good, if I think I'm pulling it off, or that may feel terrifying, if not.

What was Luther's response to Melanchthon?  "...The whole Gospel is outside of you."  What did Luther see that Melanchthon was still stuck about?

Luther saw that there is no "ladder" to heaven.  The Law is no ladder.  The "law" is essentially a voice that speaks against all of humanity in this age, hounding us in our isolation and rebellion against God, demanding that we fulfill our humanity, summarized ultimately in the commands to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  It does not call us heaven-ward.  It accuses.  It haunts.  It says "this is a dead end, and the end is only death."

The cross is the loudest proclamation of this "voice."  For in the cross we see that the Son of God had to die for our sins.  It is there, just like in my experience, that the scales fall off our eyes and we see that we are not "good."  I saw that my "I'm a good person" idea was my own making.  If Jesus had to die for me, then I'm woefully mistaken about who I am in this world and where I stand with God.  In a real sense, I "died" that day... or part of me did.  I died with Him.

But it is also at the cross, and then at the empty tomb, where this voice is silenced.  The only thing powerful enough to silence this haunting voice is the Gospel.  It does not come to repair.  It comes as something entirely different, to bury the old and raise the new.  At the cross, the voice kills our pride while the news of what Jesus did for us, taking that curse on Himself and then rising in victory over it, over the grave, to a new creation, ending the reign of the voice, raises us up new in faith.  The new has come.  The new age, where the voice is no more, has come.  And so I rose, I rose anew with Him.  Hope.  Acceptance.  Peace with God.  Adoption as sons...

Inclusion into this new age, this salvation, is through the frail instrument of faith... through seeing what was done for us and, as our trust in ourselves is killed at the cross, as we embrace it with our feeble and empty hand.  The Word of the cross claims us.  It kills and raises up.  The old in us is laid flat, shown to be a fraud -the "ladder" shown to be a delusion of our own prideful making.  And the new is risen up in us -the new which comes back down to earth as a human and relies once again upon the grace and goodness of God.

Why, some ask, would God use faith as the instrument through which we are saved?  It is such a weak and imperfect thing.  To me it is clear that it could only be this way, for it is only through faith that we will give up trust in ourselves, in our own efforts, in the idea of the "ladder" we can climb, and thereby we depend on Him who is unseen and uncontrolled -who lived and died and rose for us.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


Yesterday, on February 7th, I turned 36 years old.  For some reason, turning 36 has hit me hard.  Maybe, for the first time, I really sense that time is shortening.  I no longer have that sense of, "Well, I can just do it later," or, "Well, we'll see how things work out in time.  What's a couple years, if things don't work out?"  Time is starting to have more value to me as I see my youth slipping away.

Thirty-six years old isn't old.  I know there are probably older people out there reading this and chuckling to themselves.  But my skin is starting to show its age -it doesn't slap back into shape when pulled on.  I see more wrinkled and smile lines.  I have much less hair than I did at twenty-six.  Stress seems to take a greater toll on me than it did in the past.

But I'm thinking this is a good thing.  I think it is a good thing to start to think about why I procrastinate or why I wait so long and hold on so long to things, waiting for something to pan out better at some point in the future.  Both of those assume a lot.  They assume that my time is either endless or not valuable.

I can no longer hide behind the truth of God's sovereignty.  I discussed this in a post a few days ago.  God's sovereignty does not imply that we live life passively.  It never has and never will.  Am I taken by the waves of life, using the idea that "God is in control" as a crutch to avoid actively engagine life, or am I standing on my own two feet and prayerfully charting my own course and making my own decisions and walking and moving and living?

Can I look back at the last ten years of my life with pride in what I have accomplished?  Can I look back and feel good about the decisions I have made?  Can I look back and say, "I did not waste it?"

I want to be able to say that ten years from now.  I want to be able to say that on the day when I take my last breath.  I want to be able to look back and know that I did not waste it.  Regrets?  Sorrow and pain?  I don't know how you can live in this world and not have any of those.   But I think there may be little worse than the harrowing, hollow feeling of knowing that you may have skirted by in life through avoidance and playing it safe, or that you may have, on the opposite extreme, done everything you ever wanted at the expense of those who love you, leaving a train wreck in your rear-view mirror, but that you may just stand there some day very soon and realize you wasted your life.

Monday, February 06, 2012

What is "Christian?"

What is "Christian?"  What does being a "Christian" look like?  You can ask different people and you will get different answers.

There is a "look," though.  There is an ideal in the minds of people of what "Christian" looks like.  "We will take God's opinion, not man's," is the cry of many Bible-thumping Christians, who would readily confess proudly that they thump-away.  "God's Word defines what is and what is not."  I agree.

That sounds really good, but we need to be careful of something.  We need to be careful of how our thinking is influenced by our culture, our biases, and our traditions -and I don't mean American culture but the Christian culture we live in.  Notice I did not say, "We need to be careful if our thinking is influenced..."  To me, all of us have biases.  All of us live in a collective faith-culture that forms an impression, an image of what "Christian" looks like.  All of us have an ideal, an idea in our minds, that is shaped by a combination of facts merged with biases, assumptions, impressions, and ways of looking at things that are given to us as truth.  When we are not aware of these things, and worse -when we think we don't have any of these things influencing us, we are simply blind.  We can think and speak the words and ideas and opinions of man and think quite confidently, "This is what God thinks."

Again, what is "Christian?"  For lots of people, a "real Christian" goes to church every week, doesn't go out drinking, tithes regularly, is very active in evangelism, and doesn't watch R-rated movies.

I remember a conversation with someone where we were talking about a particular movie.  He would not watch it.  He felt it was sinful and evil.  I asked him why.  He said, "Hey, if I would not feel comfortable watching it with Jesus right there, I will not watch it."  That is a fair answer.  But it begs another question: what do you think Jesus is like?  Is He really like what you think He is like?
With some folks, you get this impression that Jesus must have been dour, no fun, always walking around pointing out the sins of other people, always calling people hypocrites... covering his eyes and ears to anything profane, too pure to step his big toe into the cesspool of this world that is going to hell in a handbasket.  In other words, Jesus was a Bible-thumping fundamentalist and wants us to become one, too.
To be sure, Jesus wasn't into pornography and orgies and drunkenness like one would find in the Roman culture.  But he wasn't into the religiosity of the Jews, either.  That is what is so interesting.  Jesus didn't fit.  The time and place Jesus lived in had a very clearly pagan, secular realm to it mashed right on top of a staunchly religious, ultra-serious-about-God-and-morality realm to it.  And Jesus stood apart from both of them, but in different ways.  In fact, one could argue very easily that Jesus' biggest beef was with the blindness of moralistic, self-righteous, gotta-police-the-world-and-show-sinners-they-are-bad religiosity of the Pharisees.  Some of his greatest parables demonstrate a greater danger for the blindly religious.
Where am I going with this?  I guess I am hoping that anyone reading this will seriously challenge their own assumptions, their own image of the "Christian ideal."  I am hoping that you will become aware that they exist and be willing to put yourself and your assumptions and presuppositions an biases at least into view. 
Why wouldn't Jesus watch this R-rated movie?  Too violent?  Well, have you read the Bible lately?
Why wouldn't Jesus drink alcohol?  His first miracle was at a wedding, after everybody drank all the wine.  Are you trying to tell me people weren't buzzed?
Would Jesus go to a night club?  Why not?
Would Jesus go to a bar?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Faith, Passivity, and Self-sufficiency

Psalm 23 is a favorite for many.  It paints a vivid picture of the Lord as our Shepherd and us as His helpless, dumb sheep.  He leads us.  He protects us.  He guides us.  He cares for us.  Beautiful.  Comforting.  Calming...

I remember listening to a lecture by a Christian counselor who used what he called the "anti-Psalm-23" to illustrate our sinful tendency toward self-sufficiency.  "I am my shepherd... and I shall want..."  It didn't sound too good.  It sounded very painful.

Yet I have learned much in the past years.  Troubles in life are great teachers.  I have learned that just as it is painful to try to be your own shepherd and take life on by yourself, it is also painful (and disillusioning) to live passively -sitting there in a slump, begging God to break in and do something, to change something, to make all the bad things go away, to clear up all the dysfunctional situations, and to zap me and make me feel like a strong, able person with hope.

What I realized is that both avenues are really attempts to control things, and both are destructive.  The self-sufficient person takes everything he wants and lives as though there is no god.  He sacrifices his heart and becomes a narcissistic despot of his own realm.  This is pretty easy to see, especially for Christians.

But the passive person appears more "spiritual" while treating God like his mommy.  He takes no responsibility for his life.  He sits back and sucks his thumb, waiting for God to make everything better, secretly demanding that God take care of it all, and resenting God when God doesn't fix everything... or even seem to answer at all.  He lives in doubt, wondering if God is even there, wondering how to piece reality together, wondering how God could let his life get so bad.  He gets to blame God while avoiding making difficult decisions and living with the consequences, good or bad.  He gives up life in order to live in a prison of his own making and secretly blame God and others.  It is his veiled protest of rage against the life he has, which he cannot control in all its deep pain and trouble, and it is ironically his curse.

Could it be that what we need is both prayerful, trusting dependence on God and an active stance towards life an people -like Jesus, *"taking this sinful world as it is", and yet taking responsibility for our life and decisions and facing life as autonomous creatures in this world, yet knowing that we do not face these things alone and that one day all will be made right?  Yes, I think so.  Self-sufficiency is not the answer.  It is foolish to live like there is no God.  Yet passivity is not the answer, either.  It is just as foolish, and defeated, to live as though we can abdicate responsibility for our lives to our big Mommy in the sky.  God wants us to be prayerful, trusting creatures who also stand on their own two feet and take life as it comes to them.

*from the "serenity prayer"