Righteousness—by working or through faith?

An insight from tonight’s Bible study on Romans 4:

It’s not just that we can’t work our way to righteousness by perfect law-keeping. Moreover, the sort of relationship that comes by working is of a different kind from a relationship based on faith.

A servant works for wages, and the relationship depends on the work of the servant. A child is in a relationship prior to any behaviour on its part.

So although God does demand perfect law-keeping, He wants something even better than perfectly obedient servants: children who will allow Him to be their Father.

Hearing Is Believing

Sermon preached on Quasimodo Geniti (Second Sunday of Easter)
Text: John 20:19–31 (Ezekiel 37:1–14  1 John 5:4–10 )
15 April 2012
Our Saviour Lutheran Church
Fareham

It’s one of my favourite paintings, and as far as I know one of the best known of Caravaggio’s many masterpieces: Doubting Thomas. Jesus is revealing the wound in His side, with an expression of patient endurance, with perhaps a tinge of pain. Thomas has his forefinger in the wound, with a look of utter astonishment painted with perfect realism on his face, while two other disciples look on. Caravaggio captures with extraordinary skill the moment of belief, when Thomas is forced to believe against all his better knowledge what the other disciples had already told him: Jesus really is alive. But he would carry forever the title of Doubting Thomas, because it is more blessed to believe when you haven’t seen, yet he only believed when he saw.

But as I have often said, the epithet ‘Doubting’ is not really fair on Thomas. It makes it sound like he is somehow inferior to the other disciples, a lesser apostle, perhaps even a deficient sort of man. There are those good people who believe without seeing, and then there are the thomases who need evidence. When in reality he wasn’t Doubting Thomas but Everyman Thomas. He really believed, as we really believe, that seeing is believing. That, if in doubt, you need to verify what you hear with the other four senses.

Now, this may be a sound principle in some situations, but it makes for very poor theologians—and under that heading, I include all who claim to know anything about God. Indeed, the very misery of mankind for which Christ died and rose again began with seeing as the instrument of believing. God had said to Adam that he may eat of every tree in the garden, but on the day that he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would surely die. But because the snake promised Eve that her eyes would be opened by the eating, Eve looked at the tree and she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate”.

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Believing is seeing

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Quinquagesima Sunday, 19 Feb 2012 (typos and all).

You can listen to the sermon on the Our Saviour website.

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Seeing is believing. So we are told, and so we feel. We find it easiest to believe that which we can see, because who could doubt what is before their own eyes. That’s why there are some areas of human knowledge that are more frequently disputed than others. No one is capable of doubting the roundness of the earth these days, since we have all seen the photos from space. On the other hand, when it comes to the theory of evolution or man-made global warming, we have to rely on the word of scientists, since the evidence is not something we can easily verify by our eyes. And so there are sceptics as well as believers. Because seeing is believing.

But in order to see properly, you need the right kind of eyes looking at the right thing. Faulty or impaired vision prevents you from seeing things as they are, and you are left in ignorance. Likewise, even with 20:20 vision you can be left in the dark if you don’t know what to look for, or if you are looking at the wrong thing. How many people have suffered needlessly when physicians have failed to diagnose correctly their illness, not from any incompetence but because they were looking for the wrong thing? How many scientific discoveries were missed or delayed because the scientists failed to recognise the facts that were staring them in the face? Or in more mundane settings, how many times have you failed to recognise a friend simply because you didn’t expect them to be there at that time? If it is true that seeing is believing, it is also true that much of the time we see what we expect to see. That’s the secret behind the art of magicians and camofleurs alike.

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Faith

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the feast of the Holy Innocents, 2 January 2011, by Pastor Charles Varsogea.

Text: Matthew 2: 13-23

I’m not from here. Which means that I need you to answer the following question for yourselves. Do you think of yourself as a country at war? You’re shrinking the Ministry of Defense and your Navy has given up fixed wing aviation for now, which aren’t the kinds of things warring nations do, yet Herrick 14 is about to begin. In a few months Royal Marines, young Englishmen, people, are going to begin dying. At home the death toll is a constant presence. The names of the dead are solemnly read on the news at the end of each week and yet we Americans still need to be reminded that ours is a nation at war.

This has been such a long war and so unusually fought that we’ve begun to get used to it. My youngest children have never known even a day during which their country was not at war. They have no idea whether peace is any different. They have to take it on faith that there is something other than war, some other way to exist. The same is true for many children in the world and for most of those children it is a much more personal and terrible experience. The war is waged in and around their homes and they are far too often casualties themselves. Once you get used to waging war though it is easy to forget what your goals are. It can be difficult to remember what victory is. All you want to do is get through the current misery and find some comfort before the next wave of fighting starts.

We’ve gathered here this morning, a bunch of nice people with kind hearts, to encourage one another and to worship God. This hall belongs to the Boy Scout, the very epitome of neighborliness and helpfulness. We’re all busy trying to stay well and pay our bills and keep our families together. It doesn’t feel like were at war. But even if the Taliban were to suddenly blink out of existence and all of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines could home we’d still be at war. Today’s Scripture lessons all serve to remind us of the endless war that the devil, the world and our flesh wages against God , His Word and, alas, His people.

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Faith-work

“And at the heart of [the] contrast [between Jesus and Moses as new vs. old] are the different functions assigned to obedience under the two mediators. ‘For the Law was given by Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (Jn. 1:17). From the perspective of the first Moses, the question, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ is a perfectly valid question (Jn. 6:18; cf. Ex. 18:20, 36:1-7, etc.). But when the new Moses has come, the question cannot be posed in the same way. There is now one work which is to be done—to believe (Jn. 6:29) —which is unique among works in that its efficacy depends, not on its activity, but precisely on its passivity (Jn. 1:12, 3:14—17, etc.).”
Karl T. Cooper, ‘The Best Wine: John 2:1–11’, Westminster Theological Journal , 1997, p. 373

Spiritual eating: Taking issue with Chemnitz

Thus in these latter words concerning the salutary use of the Supper there is a description of the spiritual eating of the body of Christ which takes place by faith. And just as the substance of the Supper and the salutary use of the same are distinguished, so it is one thing when Christ says: “Take and eat; this is my body,” and another thing when He says: “This do in remembrance of Me,” which takes place by spiritual eating through faith. Thus the sacramental and the spiritual eating are dealt with and described separately. For there is a distinct and clear description of how the substance of the Supper, which consists of the bread and the body of Christ, is received,namely, in the mouths of the participants. This is the sacramental eating … And then there is also a distinct and clear description of how those who participate in the Supper receive it and use it in a salutary way, namely, by faith. This is the spiritual eating. (‘The Lord’s Supper’ [CPH, 1979], 112-113, underlining added)

This is an unhelpful distinction. Or rather, the categories are unhelpful.

To refer to the anamnesis (‘do this in remembrance of me’) as “spiritual eating” has the tendency to drive a wedge between physical and spiritual eating, despite Chemnitz’s eloquent and earnest efforts to the contrary.

Presumably the category of ‘spiritual eating’ as distinct from ‘physical eating’ derives from John 6 where, according to traditional Lutheran (and Reformed) exegesis, Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood refer to spiritual eating in the form of receiving Him and His words in faith.

This category of ‘spiritual eating’ has here been transposed onto the Lord’s Supper, even though I’m not aware of New Testament references to the ‘spiritual eating’ of the Supper.

Is it not the case that Jesus’ words instruct the disciples concerning how they are to eat (physically) His body and blood, namely in faith (“in remembrance of me”)? This is not a twofold eating—physical and spiritual—but a single eating with one of two effects.

The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is not that one eats physically and spiritually while the other eats physically only. The believer eats physically with faith, thereby receiving grace through the physical eating. The unbeliever also eats physically but without faith, thereby receiving condemnation through the same eating.

So there is only one category of eating: physical eating. But there are two categories of reception: in faith to salvation, and without faith to condemnation.

By avoiding the misapplied category of ‘spiritual eating’, we can make a clean break from those who deny the physical eating of the Lord’s body and blood, as well as avoid all sorts of ecumenical ambiguities when dealing with those who thrive in the blurring of lines (e.g. mainstream Anglicans).

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Am I missing the mark here?

Knowing Jesus

Jesus with ChildrenThis morning, the teacher of the Sunday school at my congregation reported the following conversation she had with one of the children, a 6-year-old boy:

Teacher: Why do we read so many different stories about Jesus in Sunday school?
Boy: So that we get to know Jesus.
T: What do you mean?
B: Not just know about Jesus, but to get to know Him.

Couldn’t put it better myself!

How often do people — both Christians and non-Christians — criticise the notion that being a Christian is about holding certain facts about Jesus in your head, rather than, say, living a certain kind of life? And often they do it with considerable justification, when theologians, individual Christians, and whole churches reduce the Christian faith to the facts of the faith. To knowing about Jesus.

The key to being a child of God is not knowing about Jesus, but knowing Him. What in some circles is called a “personal relationship with Jesus”.

However, this relationship with Jesus is not distinct from facts about a person. No sensible person would go about human relationships that way. Can you imagine it? “I don’t know the slightest thing about my fiancée. For me that’s not important. What matters to me is to know her.” What sort of odds would a marriage based on that sort of foundation get from a bookie, I wonder.

No, the aim is to get to know Jesus. But we only get to know Him by finding out about Him. As we read and hear about Jesus speaking and acting, we get to know Him as He is. The dogmaticians have referred to these two facets of the faith fides qua and fides quae, the “faith which” is believed, and the “faith by which” one believes. The former informs and creates the latter, the latter receives what the former states.

As Martin Luther might have put it: Thank God that even a six-year-old child knows what the proper relationship between propositional truth and personal faith is!

Faith, grace, merit

Whenever we speak of justifying faith, we must keep in mind that these three objects belong together: the promise, grace, and Christ’s merits as the price and atonement. The promise is received through faith. Grace excludes our merits and means that the benefit is offered only through mercy. Christ’s merits are the price, because there must be a certain atonement for our sins. Scripture frequently cries out for mercy; the Holy Fathers often say that we are saved by mercy. Therefore, whenever mercy is mentioned, we must keep in mind that faith, which receives the promise of mercy, is required there. Again, whenever we speak about faith, we want an object of faith to be understood, namely, the promised mercy. For faith justifies and saves, not because it is a worthy work in itself, but only because it receives the promised mercy.

Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions, Edited by Paul Timothy McCain, 89 (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

The Futile Church

The Baptist had preached repentance, but it didn’t help. The Church has done the same for two thousand years, and it still doesn’t appear to have helped. It looks like other means are necessary to get people to listen. Shouldn’t we show others that we can do something really impressive? That’s a temptation that has pursued the Church throughout its history. Many times it’s been tempting for the Church to get politically involved or interevene in society in an effort to make an impression, create good will, gain sympathy, and win support.

Jesus again answered from Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord Your God to the test”. God knows what He wants. He has His boundaries. There are things He keeps for Himself. His thoughts are far beyond ours and can’t change them. That’s why Jesus abstained from doing a lot of the things His disciples and His adversaries thought He should do. His friends weren’t allowed to fight when He surrendered to His enemies. He commanded Peter to put his sword away. He didn’t step down from the cross. He didn’t ask His Father for legions of angels that would have gladly hurried to His rescue. Even Christ’s Church has to continue to preach repentance and faith, although the world says it should take the completely different position that it’s better to get with the times and engage all resources in a cause they say is closer to the hearts of the people than the salvation of their souls.

Bo Giertz, To Live with Christ, CPH 2008 (translated by Richard Wood and Bror Erickson), pp. 197–198.

John the Baptist, faith and doubt

John the BaptistThe Gospel reading for this Sunday, Luke 7:2–20, includes John the Baptist’s famous sending of his disciples to ask Jesus whether He “is the one” or whether they should wait for someone else. From time immemorial, scholars and other theologians have debated over the question of whether this is an indication that John the Baptist was himself beset by doubt about Jesus’ identity.

There are, broadly, two views:

(1) John had no doubts about who Jesus was. He was simply performing his last teaching duty to his disciples by sending them to Jesus and having them ask Jesus effectively to confirm that He is indeed the Messiah. Thus, John ensured that these disciples severed their exclusive attachment to himself and re-attached themselves to Jesus instead. In other words, their mission from John was an acted out version of his words in John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

(2) John did indeed doubt Jesus. Despite having borne witness to Him and pointed others to Him, while in prison John began to wonder whether in fact Jesus wasn’t the real deal after all. Perhaps he shared the narrow and mistaken expectations of Jesus’ disciples and rightly recognised that Jesus didn’t fit that pattern.

The attraction of the first view is obvious. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus Himself, the greatest of the prophets of the Old Covenant. To have a record of His final words being those of doubt seriously tarnishes the reputation of the great prophet, which fits ill with the whole story of John’s life to that point, especially in Luke’s Gospel, where Luke so clearly points out the parallels between the annunciation and birth of the two cousins, John and Jesus.

However, there are difficulties with this view. First, the plain sense of the text gives the impression that John was asking the question, not merely asking the disciples to investigate for themselves. Moreover, we have the disciples returning to John to report Jesus’ reply—something they wouldn’t have had to do unless they thought that John was asking them to inform him of the answer. Thirdly, John up to this point has been preparing for Christ. Surely he would have pointed them to Christ himself, and sent the disciples merely to see for themselves what he had told them already—in which case they wouldn’t have had any need to report back to John. This is further underlined by the fact that Luke tends to minimise John’s role of pointing to Jesus, rather than preparing for him. John isn’t even explicitly mentioned at Jesus’ baptism.

On these grounds, the second option seems more likely: that John himself began to waver while in prison and had to be reassured by Jesus via the testimony of his (John’s) disciples.

However, I like to follow the advice I received as an undergraduate from one of my teachers: “Whenever possible, avoid the either-or in favour of the both-and.” In the case of Luke 7, this principle applies, at least homiletically.

Option 1: John remains steadfast in faith

John is in prison, aware that the time of his ministry is over. Jesus must increase, he must decrease. However, many of his disciples remain loyal to him and, unlike Andrew and Peter, have not begun to follow Jesus. Therefore, John completes his God-given ministry by sending them to Jesus with the question: Are you the Christ. He knows the answer, and he knows that once they get to Jesus, they too will find the answer. As they do. John’s job was to point people to Christ, and he did so even from his incarceration. And as Pastor Larry Peters preaches so well, in this he is an example for us to emulate, and an encouragement to remain steadfastly Christ-focused in all our life—thinking, doing, witnessing.

Option 2: John wavers

The great prophet—the greatest of all the prophets according to Jesus—had completed his task of preparing Israel for the coming of the Messiah. Yet when Jesus did come, and John rightly identified him as that Messiah, his faith wavered. Like the disciples of Jesus, like the crowds, like the Pharisees and the scribes, John too expected a different sort of Messiah from the one Jesus turned out to be. John, too, succumbed to the temptation to be a theologian of glory. And so he sent the disciples to ask Jesus for reassurance. And, ironically, this fact can be a reassurance for us, too: like Moses, like Jeremiah, like the dim-witted disciples of Jesus—and like us—John too wavered in his faith. But if that’s all, it’s still cold comfort in the end. “You aren’t the only one” may be some consolation to someone struggling, but in the end the problem remains unsolved. However, John is a man of the Word to the end. Instead of speculating, or examining his own faith in the silence of his dungeon, he goes to the object of his faith: he sends his disciples to Jesus to find reassurance, to have his faith strengthened. And it is this, rather than the strength of his faith, that makes John the true example for us to emulate: when he was in doubt, when his faith wavered, he went to Jesus to be strengthened.

So which is it? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. For this is not really a story about John, but a story for us. Whether it is for the strengthening of one’s weak faith, or for leading others to faith, there is only one option, only one method: go to Jesus. As Horatio Bonar put it in his beautiful hymn on discipleship:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.

(Lutheran Service Book 699:1)