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 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 →
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the kind of book that should be read several times throughout one’s life and for a variety of reasons. Most people who read it do so as assigned reading in High School or College. They then apply it to history and politics, respectively, seeing the themes and connections that Huxley is presenting throughout the story. What I would propose, however, is applying it not simply to politics, but to society itself and indeed ourselves, to human nature. While a much better book, Brave New World is less iconic than Orwell’s 1984 and so it does not contribute to our common parlance in quite the same way. Everyone knows what “Big Brother” is, but hardly anyone in the general population would know what I meant if I referred to soma, Fordianism, or “the feelies.” This is too bad, because Huxley much more accurately foresaw the condition of the middle-to-late 20th century, and what he saw continues today. In fact, I think it is a book with immense pastoral value. (Pastors: read it next to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos and for the same reason.)
The difference between Huxley’s vision and Orwell’s lies in the nature of coercion and repression. Orwell’s presentation is of the classically totalitarian sort: traditional-style propaganda, the military-industrial complex, and top-down control. Huxley sees things from the opposite direction. True, there is still a “program” which is enforced on society, but in Brave New World, the powers that be have figured out how to make the people impose this program on themselves, voluntarily and without ever feeling discomfort. This is achieved through a strict class stratification, the disestablishment of the family, free sex, ubiquitous prescription drugs, and an entertainment industry which keeps everyone constantly distracted. Where Orwell depicts the old-style statism of Nazis and Soviets, Huxley captures liberal-progressivism of the sort that the modern West, including the US, embodies today. We have largely entertained and distracted ourselves to death. Continue reading →
What does it take to keep people together? This question lies behind a good marriage, but it is also the key to deep and lasting friendships, as well as business ventures, political alliances, and even healthy and successful churches. What causes some folks to stick together and other folks to split up and go their own way? Sometimes people try to answer this with the general notion of “compatibility.” Some personalities just “click,” they might say. Others appeal to shared values. The answer is actually both more specific and more basic. The key to sticking together is having a shared desire, a larger goal which everyone wants to realize. It’s having the same mission.
But how do you get that? Now, that’s the really tricky question. It isn’t enough to take the desires we already have and then go look for others who happen to have the same ones and pair up with them. No, for Christians, we have to critically examine our desires and submit them to the mind of Christ. In fact, it’s even more extreme than this. We have to give up our own desires completely. We have to surrender them to Jesus, along with our whole life, and we have to find our new life in Him, seeing His life in us and in those around us.
This all brings us to our sermon text today. The Apostle Paul says that “to live is Christ.” And he means just that—his life is for a purpose, the purpose of being like Christ and having Christ live in him. In fact, his life is not his own. It is Christ’s. This conviction is what drives his entire ministry, his sense of mission, and his philosophy for life in the church. It allows him to be content in the face of pressure, persecution, and suffering, and it gives him confidence to take pious risks, to rush into dangerous situations for the sake of the gospel. He knows that to die is gain, and so whatever life he lives must be the life of Christ. And so this is true for us as well today. Jesus calls all men unto Himself. He calls you to give up your life and follow Him. And for those of you who have placed your trust in Him, this means that your life is not your own. Your life is now Christ’s life. Continue reading →
O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.
Psalm 51 is King David’s famous prayer of repentance after Nathan the prophet convicted him of his sin with Bathsheba. The psalm is an important penitential prayer, but it also provides a very important observation about the true understanding of the old covenant worship. David clearly states that the true worship of God and the true sacrifices are not the external forms and offerings of bulls and goats, but rather the sacrifice of praise coming from the human heart. “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom” (vs. 6). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (vs. 10). “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise” (vs. 16-17).
Those last lines about brokenness are what I wish to discuss with you now. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and a contrite heart. This is how we must come to God. As strange as it may sound, we have to learn how to be broken and contrite. We must cultivate a sense of brokenness in order to worship God in the only way that He finds acceptable, with true sacrifices. Continue reading →
Our text today is a beloved Advent prophecy. Isaiah foretells the great restoration which the Messiah will bring, and yes, this is one source for the famous Christmas hymn Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming: “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing.” We are told that the messiah will bring about a great reversal, turning the desert into a garden, the desolate place into a new Eden. But it is very important to see that this great reversal does not come about in spite of the judgment of the Lord but precisely because of it. Indeed, these blessings are the result of divine judgment.
The first question we should ask is what this text meant originally, in Isaiah’s own context. It very clearly fits in with the larger message of Isaiah that the Lord is bringing judgment upon Israel and upon the world. This will eventually result in a worldwide transformation, with all things being healed and made holy. All of Israel’s enemies will eventually be put down. But this will begin with Israel itself being judged, and the judgment of God which falls upon Israel will be the very instrument of Israel’s salvation. Continue reading →
This Sunday is sometimes called “Christ the King Sunday.” It commemorates especially the kingdom of God and the kingship of Christ. Originally it was meant to emphasize the unique nature of Christ’s kingdom. That kingdom is not of this world, and thus it transcends racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. All Christians have a shared citizenship, the citizenship which is in heaven. But this can be and has been misunderstood over the years. What does it mean for Christ to be our king? Does it mean that we cannot have any other earthly kings? What does it mean for our citizenship to be in heaven? We will turn our attention to this question with our text this morning, and we will see that the apostle Paul connects our heavenly citizenship with the future resurrection of the body and glorification of all things.
Our Citizenship is in Heaven
The Apostle Paul says that the Christian has an alternative citizenship to that of this world. This alternative citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. “For our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). Earlier in Philippians he had also said, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). The English expression “let your conduct be” is a translation of a Greek variation of the term πολιτευμα which means citizenship. He is thus telling us to live like a citizen of the gospel, like a citizen of heaven. Continue reading →
Today we come to one of those passages which all respectable pastors try their best to avoid. The biblical teachings on matters relating to the end times are tricky enough on their own, but these days bible teachers have to overcome the sensationalism of Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, and, believe it or not, Nicholas Cage. It would be so much easier (and better for my ego) to just not talk about this kind of thing.
But alas, if one commits to preaching through the Bible and not simply skipping the verses he doesn’t like, then he is going to have to talk about these sorts of things from time to time. Now, contrary to many folks’ assumptions today, the Bible does not say all that much about “the antichrist.” The word itself only appears 4 times, always in John’s writings, and while the concept is a little broader, it only occurs a handful of times. It is certainly not a major theme. Still, it does appear, and our sermon text happens to bring us to one such instance. John says that he is writing in “the last hour,” and just as his audience has heard that the Antichrist will come, he is telling them that many antichrists have already come. Continue reading →
Earlier we mentioned that John’s epistle is characterized by its steady critique of false teachers. These false teachers denied that Jesus was God incarnate and they denied that Christians needed to live holy lives and to put away sin. If these false teachers were indeed gnostics, then they also would have taught that only those especially enlightened Christians, possessing secret knowledge, could be saved. In the second chapter, John seems to critique this notion as well, saying that the only true knowledge of God is that which brings obedient love and the only people who should have assurance of their salvation are those who love God by obeying His commandments.
How do you have assurance?
John begins this section with the topic of assurance. He calls this “knowing God.” To know God is to both know about God and to experience Him in your personal spiritual life. And John tells us how we can know that we know God (vs. 3). We can have assurance if we keep His commandments:“Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments” (vs. 3). Continue reading →
1 John is written by John the beloved disciple, one of the original 12 Apostles and the same author as that of the Gospel of John and Revelation. His writings are some of the most theological in the New Testament, by which we mean they have direct statements concerning the deity of Christ, his incarnation, and the implications of that for Christian living. Some even believe that 1 John was written with the primary goal of rebutting an early church heretic, one of the first Gnostics. Whether or not this is the case, it is clear that the Church was confronted with heresy and false teachers from very early on and that John is attempting to rebut them in his letter. We will see him write about “antichrists” in chapter 2. These antichrists “went out from” the apostles, but were never truly apostles. John does not want Christians to listen to the false message of these antichrists nor to be led astray into sin or idolatry. Throughout 1John, the Apostle directly criticizes the views of these antichrists and explains the true Christian gospel and its implications for righteous living.
Incarnation and Fellowship
To begin, John reminds his audience about the incarnation. This is an essential part of his gospel. “That which was from the beginning… the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (vs. 1-2). On this point there can be no innovation. Any denial of the person of Christ will necessarily involve a denial of his work. Continue reading →