Wednesday, July 27, 2011

John Stott, R.I.P. - By Michael Potemra - The Corner - National Review Online

John Stott, R.I.P. - By Michael Potemra - The Corner - National Review Online

The first book I read after being brought to faith in college (1972) was John Stott's "Basic Christianity. He was a man of the gospel of Christ in the Anglican Church which over the last fifty years has had few such men of God.

Almighty God, we do thank you for this Thy servant and shepherd of Thy people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Faith, Law, Gospel...

As you surely know, often throughout a church service, and specifically in the sermon, one hears the word faith. The faith of the gospel, faith in God, faith in Jesus, our faith... This word is central to what a Christian is, yet oddly enough not always clearly understood nor explained. What does faith mean? How is it found? How is it nourished? Faith in his grace? Faith in Jesus... his example? Faith in the power of the Holy Spirit? These questions are more important than might otherwise seem apparent. The references to faith most often seem to come in the appeals and exhortations to godly living, finding the blessing of God, and other admonitions to obedience. One may, not surprisingly, come to think, "I need to have more faith so that I'll be more obedient to God." Thus faith becomes a means of climbing the ladder of obedience to God's law.

Coming to faith in Christ and growing in that faith is a work of God's Spirit. It, initially and always, is linked to God's law - his holy commands, our utter sinfulness as exposed by that law and its terrible judgment, and the unmerited, gratuitous remedy secured by Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. Apart from the intersection of God's law and God's good news in Christ there is no Biblical faith.

A little book, not well known except in some Reformed circles, is "What Is Faith" by J. Gresham Machen. Some selected excerpts:

In the Bible, then, it is not merely God as Creator who is the object of faith, but also, and primarily, God as Redeemer from sin. We fear God because of our guilt; but we trust Him because of His grace. We trust Him because He has brought us by the Cross of Christ, despite all our sin, into His holy presence. Faith in God depends altogether upon His redeeming work. (p 87)
... it is impossible to have faith in a person without having knowledge of that person; faith is always based upon knowledge. (p 88)
We are committing to Him the most precious thing that we possess--our own immortal souls... It is a stupendous act of trust. And it can be justified only by an appeal to facts. (p 93)

From Chapter IV: Faith Born of Need -
... if we are to trust Jesus, we must come to Him personally and individually with some need of the soul which He alone can relieve.
That need of the soul from which Jesus alone can save is sin. But when I say "sin," I do not mean merely the sins of the world or the sins of other people, but I mean your sin--your sin and mine...
The true conviction of sin appears as the prerequisite of faith in a verse in the Epistle of Galatians, which describes in briefest compass the true Christian way of approach to Christ. "Wherefore," says Paul, "the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." No doubt Paul is referring specifically to the law of Moses as the schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ; but we are fully justified in giving the verse a far wider application....
The law of Moses, according to Paul, was a schoolmaster to bring the Jews to Christ because it produced the consciousness of sin. But if so, it is natural to suppose that any revelation of the law of God which, like the law of Moses, produces the consciousness of sin may similarly serve as a schoolmaster unto Christ... However the law is manifested, then, whether in the Old Testament, or (still more clearly) in the teaching and example of Jesus, in in the voice of conscience, it may be a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ if it produces the consciousness of sin...
Certainly if there be no absolute law of God, where can be o consciousness of sin; and if there be no consciousness of sin, there can be no faith in the Saviour Jesus Christ. It is no wonder that many persons regard Jesus merely as the initiator of a "Christ life" into which they are perfectly able, without more ado, to enter; it is no wonder that they regard their lives as differing only in degree from His. They will never catch a real glimpse of the majesty of His Person and they will never understand His redeeming work, until they come again into contact with the majesty of the law. Then and then only will they recognize their sin and need, and so some to that renunciation of all confidence in themselves which is the basis of faith...
No man can call Jesus friend who does not also call Him Lord; and no man can call Him Lord who could not say first: "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord." At the root of all true companionship with Jesus, therefore, is the consciousness of sin and with it the reliance upon His mercy; to have fellowship with Him it is necessary to learn the terrible lesson of God's law...
... putting into practice "the principles of Christ" by one's own efforts--these are merely new ways of earning salvation by one's own obedience to God's commands. And they are undertaken because of a lax view of what those commands are. So it always is: a low view of law always brings legalism in religion; a high view of law makes a man a seeker after grace.

Is the lesson of the law that we should obey (which of course we should)? No, rather the law exposes our utter inability to meet its demands as well as our enmity with God in that we are inherently inclined toward disobedience. The lesson of the law (thankfully) is to convince us that we are indeed miserable offenders, to bring us, again and again, to an end of trust in ourselves and cause us to flee to the grace of God in the gospel of Christ. It is faith that receives the gift of forgiveness of sin and justification offered in Christ and it is faith that holds it. As the old hymn states, "all other ground is sinking sand."  I like to think of this as something like the liturgy of the Christian life: law, guilt, repentance, faith in Christ alone, grateful renewed direction in godly living. And it is in this liturgy of life that faith grows as it increasingly apprehends its object, Christ crucified.  All glory and thanks thus be to God, by the merits and mediation of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Food For Thought on Preaching Christ as Food for Weary Souls

Following up on my two posts (here and here) concerning feeding the sheep through word and sacrament, I want to present a couple of imperfect analogies to hopefully amplify what I think is lacking in much of the preaching found in churches today.

As a thumbnail sketch, most pastors preach from the Bible.  There is usually a text upon which the sermon is based.  The passage is often presented in terms of its historical, doctrinal, and character settings.  As one listens, he may hear that God is loving, gives grace, and that there is much to be thankful for as a believer.  The listener is encouraged to trust in God's faithfulness as lessons are drawn from the verses.  The believer is admonished to go forth with renewed obedience trusting in Jesus and the ever-present grace and help of the Holy Spirit.  In the same way God was faithful to [list any number of Biblical characters], he is faithful to you, the present day believer.  As the song says, "trust and obey - there's no other way..."  What is missing?
Analogy #1:
Imagine you are plagued with a failing heart, one riddled with disease.  You have an operation scheduled with a skilled surgeon.  You go to the hospital.  You're taken into the operating room and the doctor enters.  From his scholarly medical books he begins laying out before you the procedures that have been developed over many years that have been shown to be successful in curing heart disease.  He explains in detail the countless individuals who have benefited from these amazing techniques.  Step by step and precept upon precept the medical procedure is detailed.  He concludes by explaining how one can go forth and live a normal life as a result of this amazing wonder of medicine.  He smiles, shakes your hand, gives you a bill,  and then leaves having finished what he came to do.
Analogy #2:Imagine that you and many others have been invited to a dinner party hosted by a highly-trained chef.  You arrive at the restaurant in a very hungry state.  Upon entering the reserved dining room you observe an elaborately prepared setting.  The finest linen, expensive china dinnerware, sterling silver utensils, and fine crystal glasses adorn the table.  Everyone sits down.  The chef enters.  Appetites are whetted and hopes run high for a much anticipated and needed satisfying feast.

The chef then opens his cookbook and spends the next forty minutes describing how the meal is prepared.  He shows pictures of each course of the dinner while reciting all the ingredients with their proportions and nutritional values.  Most of all, he stresses how delicious, healthful, and sustaining the food is.  He then thanks everyone for coming, bids them farewell until the next dinner party.  The people leave, duly impressed and yet wondering what the aching, empty feeling in their stomach could mean.  You think to yourself, "if only I can remember these recipes and apply them better to my life..."
Preaching is more than good scholarly biblical exegesis. Sheep need to hear why they are hungry, that they are prone to look for food in all the wrong places.  This the Bible identifies as sin.  "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13) and "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal." (John 6: 27).  Yes, even as Christians we all too often trust in our own judgments and seek our own misguided paths of self-righteousness.  Or even more often, we settle into the dull despair of guilt and condemnation, wondering whether there is just something uniquely wrong with me (unlike other Christians!), keeping me at a distance from the blessings of God.  In this life the believer will always be in the default position of sinner/saint.  He believes in Christ, seeks to be faithful, and yet often wanders in the fog of his own failed devices.  He senses something is wrong within him, determined efforts to obey often plant him in Romans 7.  Exhortations to "trust and obey" only exacerbate the feelings of failure and spiritual hunger.

* Pastors, identify what is going on in your sheep.  Diagnose it for what it is... our sinful natures that still wage war against the spirit.  Though saved by the grace of God, sheep come to the church service wearied and dirtied with the dust of the week's past sojourn.  And then having thus rightly diagnosed the inward reality of doubt and self-directed ways of the sheep, wash their feet by once again dispensing the heavenly food that is the message of God's righteousness which comes by faith.  Proclaim the cleansing and refreshing Good News of Christ crucified which proclamation renews, sustains, and nourishes the believer's faith:

Oh people of God, what you have failed to do as directed in this passage; i.e. to faithfully trust and obey in thought, word, and deed, to live righteously... Jesus has done for you by his perfect obedience.  And even more!  Jesus, by his shedding of blood in his death on the cross, cleanses you from all the filth of all your sin (past, present, and future) which sins so stubbornly assails your conscience.

In a nutshell, Christians need to hear that even after having become believers, the sin with which they are so easily entangled, that which in their minds and according to the Law disqualifies them, is in fact that which qualifies them for one glorious thing - the measureless grace of God displayed in Christ, the food of heaven.  So then their eyes may be turned again away from themselves, from their Failures and lack of consistent faithfulness, unto the crucified Christ's all-sufficient sacrificial love and triumphant resurrection that assures our righteous standing before our holy Father now, tomorrow, and forever.  This message of God's good news, this food of  the Gospel feeds faith and does truly bring forth the fruit of righteousness through faith, though still imperfect in this life.  This leads to grateful obedience to Him (not in order to bolster my standing in my own eyes, God's or others) as taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:
                                                      XII. Of Good Works.Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
Believers-still-sinners are fed through the Gospel preached which nourishes and fortifies a true and lively faith.  Good works do necessarily follow as fruit of that faith, yet not as evidence of our own goodness but of the grace of God through trust in Christ alone.  Thus Christians are encouraged to go forth and live for Christ - not looking intospectively to themselves, but with eyes of faith fixed on Christ Jesus - resting and trusting in God's amazing love and grace.
And I will bring Israel back to his pasture and he will graze on Carmel and Bashan, and his desire will be satisfied in the hill country of Ephraim and Gilead.  In those days and at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for the iniquity of Israel, but there will be none; and for the sins of Judah, but they will not be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.’ (Jer. 50: 19-20)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5: 6-10)