Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. Continue reading

Communion in Giving

Text: Philippians 4:10-23

As we come to the end of our study of Philippians, it is interesting to note that we come back to where we started. In these final verses, Paul returns to his very first point—communion and real unity in the Spirit. All Christians share their lives together, including ministers, laypersons, and missionaries. This doctrine of communion sits before and after the letter’s central point of submitting to others and the mind of Christ, and there’s something to learn just from that. We can only properly submit to one another when we understand our unity. But here we also see a particular expression of Christian partnership, and it is a very important one. We share even in our finances. Our money is an extension of ourselves and our service, and that means it is involved in Christian communion. Paul is calling us to communion in giving. Continue reading

Miraculous Contentment

Text: Philippians 4:10-13

This morning we come to one of the most misunderstood verses in the whole Bible. Philippians 4:13 is definitely the favorite verse of Christian athletes everywhere, and a quick Google search will reveal it is also a favorite script for tattooing. The verse has even made its way onto Tim Tebow’s famous eye-blacks. But there’s only one problem. It’s almost always taken out of context and misused.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” does not actually mean that if Christians keep faith they will be able to win the basketball tournament, ace the final exam, or land that dream job. While it is true that God blesses hard work and faithful preparation, it is also true that He allows Christians to fail from time to time for their own sanctification. Suffering and chastisement is a somewhat ordinary aspect of the Christian life. So what does Philippians 4:13 really mean? If we read it in connection with the verses which come before it and with the argument Paul is making, we will see that he isn’t talking about great and fabulous achievements so much as he is talking about contentment. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content… I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound… I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” When we read these verses together it becomes clear. The miraculous grace of Jesus Christ allows us to be content in whatever comes our way. Continue reading

Prayer and Meditation

Text: Philippians 4:8-9

About a week ago, one of my friends posted something on facebook that struck me as a profound piece of deep moral philosophy. It was a quote from Anne of Green Gables. In it, Anne said, “It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly.” This is an important bit of advice for young children trying out new things, but it also applies in all sorts of different ways to all of us. It isn’t only the case that you can enjoy things if you make up your mind, but you can also bear things if you decide to. You can typically talk yourself either into or out of a bad mood. This is also true, with God’s grace, when it comes to spiritual contentment and peace. What you set your mind to do is usually what you end up doing. The question, then, is what do you really want?

This concept ties directly into the topic of spiritual peace which we discussed last week. Last week’s conclusion had to do with prayer and meditation. We were able to discuss prayer in some detail, but meditation had to wait for this week, and that’s what we will be talking about today. Meditation means “to think on” something, but it also has the added connotation of “taking into account.” Before you pray, as you pray, and after you pray, you ought to think of God and His mighty acts, and you should take them into account when you consider your own situation. In addition to this, Paul here lists six kinds of things you ought to meditate on. The kicker is that if you do meditate on these things, then you will have peace and you will end up modeling that peace to those around you, giving them an example of how to pray and find peace. And so, very simply, what you think about matters. Your thoughts dictate your overall state of mind and spiritual disposition, and they always manage to come to the surface. When this happens, it shows the world what it is that you really believe and what ii is that is really in your heart. It shows them your gospel. Continue reading

Peace of God and Peace of Mind

Text: Philippians 4:1-7

Do you worry? There is so much to worry about, of course. The economy, foreign wars, a collapsing culture, your mother-in-law, his mother-in-law!—there’s no shortage of problems. How do you handle this kind of anxiety? Do you ever worry that you might be worrying too much? Anxiety is everywhere we turn.

Anxiety

Anxiety has been defined as “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Anxiety has been with us since the Fall, but the aspect of anxiety that is particular and noteworthy today is precisely that we have named it and identify it even among very privileged and otherwise comfortable people. It makes good sense, we say, to be anxious when running from wild beasts or struggling to find the next meal. It strikes us as odd to continue to be anxious when we have a steady a job, a family, and plenty of toys. Of course, this new twist really just shows anxiety in a clearer way. It isn’t simply an estimate of risk and probability. Instead, anxiety is a deep longing of the soul. It is the photo negative of romantic sentimentalism. Just as people can project all sorts of hopes and dreams onto the future, anxiety projects fears and dreads. And both anxiety and sentimentalism, being connected in this way, share the same problem. They look to find satisfaction for the soul in the wrong place. Instead of saying “In Thee, my soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness” (Psalm 63:5), we find ourselves constantly seeking, searching for more, but with no idea of where to look. Continue reading

Citizens of Heaven

Text: Philippians 3:15-4:1

What do you think of when you hear the word citizenship? Is it voting rights, the ability to participate in civic and political activity, or perhaps loyalty in times of war? Perhaps you think of it more along the lines of values and ideals: the American way. In the ancient world there were various understandings of citizenship and different demonstrations and festivals to impart a sense of admiration of one’s city or state. There were those who viewed their citizenship as a mark of honor, virtue, or civilization. They were Roman or Greek rather than a barbarian. Aristotle even thought that the Northern tribes were incapable of civilization. Anyone with red or blond hair, and especially someone with freckles, was thought to be outside the bounds of reason and domestication altogether. You can’t work with those people. Other views of citizenship were more philosophical but they all shared the concept of uniting different people together as one. Citizens were all on the same team, so to speak.

Paul, understanding the importance of this theme, picks up on the idea of citizenship in Philippians, and he applies it to the church. The church, he says, is the gathering place of the citizens of heaven. Heaven was the true homeland, and wherever the Christians might currently find themselves was a sort of outpost or colony. This gave the church a new kind of citizenship ideal. They were to think of themselves as a community of friends with specific concepts of justice and mutual support. In a certain sense they were exactly backwards from the ways of the world, then and now, in that they were people who did not “stand up for their rights” but rather voluntarily relinquished those rights for the good of those around them. This is, again, what Paul calls the mind of Christ, and we can’t understand heavenly citizenship without first understanding the shared mindset that heaven’s citizens must have. Continue reading

When Jesus Lays Hold of You

Text: Philippians 3:8-14

This morning I want to talk about finding Jesus. I suppose this might sound a little bit like trendy spiritualism or even like that old time religion, and it might be a little of both, but it is, nonetheless, one of the most basic issues in any Christian’s life. We not only have to seek after Jesus, but we have to lay hold of him. We have to grab Him and never let go. But there’s a bit of a twist to this.

You see, woven into the Apostle Paul’s message in this section of Philippians is the somewhat topsy-turvy point that you don’t actually find Jesus. He finds you. In fact, what you find is yourself as Jesus finds you. Indeed, you find yourself in Jesus as He lays hold of you and brings you into the fellowship of suffering and conformity with his death. This is the mode of communion with God which we must all realize, and it is the necessary precursor to being able to obey Christ and walk according to His rule. Continue reading

Pastor, Are You Talking About Me?

This post is a sort of detour from the game plan laid out at the end of my last post, and there will be at least one more detour on the way, but it isn’t actually changing the topic at all. You see, I’m not only talking about politics. I have been talking about Christian anxiety and the need to make Jesus your soul’s satisfaction. This whole series is secretly about pastoral theology. I’m trying to sneak soulcare into a conversation about worldview. Don’t tell anyone. And so, to the question at hand. Have I been talking about you?

This is something that pastors actually experience frequently. In sermons or other writings we use illustrations or we praise or critique something by description, and so the question arises, “Is he criticizing one person in particular?” I am not here talking about academic, formal, or legal cases. It is appropriate and necessary to name names and cite sources in those instances. But in pastoral contexts, things are different. We aren’t making charges against someone. We aren’t writing a book review. We are using illustrations and examples to prove a more general point about sin and righteousness. These can be tricky and even dangerous occasions, and they are why we have the expression “bully pulpit.” Using a sermon or pastoral essay to “go after” someone is a sort of power-play, and it is hurtful and unfair. Continue reading

Putting Politics in Its Place: Vocation and Dominion

I’ve been talking about politics lately. I know that it appeared like I was talking about not talking about politics, but to do that is to still talk about politics, and so, yeah, anyway, here we are, politics. I got a fair amount of responses to my post Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction, some of them rational and some of them not, and so that gives me a good opportunity to say more. It would be a mistake to assume that I was talking about a kind of theology per se in that post. I singled out “political talk” as the thing under critique, and I highlighted the immoderate consumption and use of “TV news, talk radio, and online media.” I cannot see how this applies to a specific school of theology directly, but I suppose that if someone wishes to volunteer their feeling that the shoe fits, then I won’t be able argue too much against them. Perhaps some theologies do actively promote such immoderate consumption as a key commitment. Still, we shouldn’t confuse experiential memory and reflex with faithful interpretation of text. What I was addressing was not a theology at all, but rather a pathology– giving the discussion of politics, usually a fairly medium-to-low level discussion at that, a totalizing control over your life and, especially, allowing it to dominate your church and family. That was my actual target, and that is what any responsible reading of my words will substantiate.  

Also, my concluding three points were not presented as an alternative political theology but instead as a pre-political theology, or as a way to “put politics in its place,” as I said in the immediate context. If you understand justification by faith, the biblical doctrine of dominion, and the role of vocation in your life, then you will be free to engage in politics appropriately. But if those things are out of order, as they so often are, then you will be unable to resist a totalitarian political theology. It will fill the void of those more basic things, and you will find yourself enslaved. 

But what of politics itself or political theology? Can we say specifically “Christian” things about it? Yes. But before we get there we need to define our terms. Continue reading

The Righteousness From God By Faith

Philippians 3:1-11

This morning we appear to shift gears a bit. We have been talking about relationships within the church, like-mindedness, and the proper perspective on leadership. Here in the beginning of chapter three, however, Paul seems to revert back to the theological controversy which characterizes his letters to the Romans and the Galatians. He says that he is going to “write the same things to you” implying that this is a topic he has talked much about in the past and one that is familiar to the Philippians. And that topic is, of course, justification by faith alone. It is Paul’s chorus, and even here in this letter to the Philippians which seems to not be interested in theological controversy, the bedrock doctrine comes out.

Now, this observation itself is important. You see, justification by faith alone isn’t so much the center of an axle, with all other doctrines ultimately leading back to it. No, that way of approaching things, though popular in many Reformed circles, is actually a little too simplistic and tends to run roughshod over the particularities of much of the New Testament concern. Every verse isn’t actually trying to get back to that one doctrine, and Paul doesn’t literally repeat it all the time. But, nevertheless, justification by faith alone is a foundational doctrine. Continue reading