Thursday, June 27, 2013

Preaching: Potent Law and Gospel...

A few things to kick around regarding the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of preaching: If preaching the Word of God is to declare to sinners (unbeliever and believer alike) the free offer of God's righteousness which comes by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ, how does it happen that sinners would embrace this message as truly life saving, i.e. really Good News? How is it that unbelievers will believe and believers will increase in faith?  Well, by the message of the Gospel and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Amen! And how is that to be accomplished except a sinner be convicted of his sinfulness by the Holy Spirit through the Word?  And how is this to occur without the clear presentation of the Law of God through preaching (for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin - Rom. 3:20), effectively diagnosing that corruption and sinfulness so natural to us (for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbour; HC -QA 5); thus convincing us, again and again, of our desperate need for a powerful remedy - a powerful Gospel?  Warning: to steer clear of potent Law in preaching is to weaken the relevance and potency of the Gospel in the lives of those that hear.

Law-Lite leads to Gospel-Lite leads to a watered-down Faith in the very potent mercy of God in Christ. With that in view, I thought this bit of commentary of John Calvin's on John 16 was relevant:
8.  And when he is come, he will convince the world of sin, and of   righteousness, and of judgment... It ought to be observed, that in this passage Christ does not speak of secret revelations, but of the power of the Spirit, which appears in the outward doctrine of the Gospel, and in the voice of men. For how comes it that the voice proceeding from the mouth of a man penetrates into the hearts, takes root there, and at length yields fruit, changing hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, and renewing men, but because the Spirit of Christ quickens it? Otherwise it would be a dead letter and a useless sound, as Paul says in that beautiful passage, in which he boasts of being a minister of the Spirit, (2 Corinthians 3:6) because God wrought powerfully in his doctrine. The meaning therefore is, that, though the Spirit had been given to the apostles, they would be endued with a heavenly and Divine power, by which they would exercise jurisdiction over the whole world. Now, this is ascribed to the Spirit rather than to themselves, because they will have no power of their own, but will be only ministers and organs, and the Holy Spirit will be their director and governor.
9. Of sin, because they believe not in me... It now remains that we see what it is to convince of sin Christ appears to make unbelief the only cause of sin, and this is tortured by commentators in various ways; but, as I have already said, I do not intend to detail the opinions which have been held and advanced. First, it ought to be observed, that the judgment of the Spirit commences with the demonstration of sin; for the commencement of spiritual instruction is, that men born in sin have nothing in them but what leads to sin.  Again, Christ mentioned unbelief, in order to show what is the nature of men in itself for, since faith is the bond by which he is united to us, until we believe in him, we are out of him and separated from him. The import of these words is as if he had said, "When the Spirit is come, he will produce full conviction that, apart from me, sin reigns in the world;" and, therefore, unbelief is here mentioned, because it separates us from Christ, in consequence of which nothing is left to us but sin. In short, by these words he condemns the corruption and depravity of human nature, that we may not suppose that a single drop of integrity is in us without Christ.
10. Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and you see me no   more... We must attend to the succession of steps which Christ lays down. He now says that the world must be convinced of righteousness; for men will never hunger and thirst for righteousness, but, on the contrary, will disdainfully reject all that is said concerning it, if they have not been moved by a conviction of sin. As to believers particularly, we ought to understand that they cannot make progress in the Gospel till they have first been humbled; and this cannot take place, till they have acknowledged their sins. It is undoubtedly the peculiar office of the Law to summon consciences to the judgment-seat of God, and to strike them with terror; but the Gospel cannot be preached in a proper manner, till it lead men from sin to righteousness, and from death to life; and, therefore, it is necessary to borrow from the Law that first clause of which Christ spoke.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"This is the very heart of the gospel."

" In order to get into heaven, will I be judged by my righteousness or by the righteousness of Christ?  If I have to trust in my righteousness to get into heaven, I must completely and utterly despair of any psossibility of ever being redeemed.  But when we see that the righteousness that is ours by faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ, we see how glorious is the good news of the gospel.  The good news is simply this:  I can be reconciled to God.  I can be justified, not on the basis of what I do, but on the basis of what has been accomplished for me by Christ." (p. 44)

- Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R.C. Sproul

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Calvin and the Gospel...

When the words Calvin and theology come up in the same sentence one often thinks first of the doctrines of predestination, election, or the Genevan polity and worship of the church.  More generally, to those less familiar with John Calvin, vague images of a strict and rigid Christianity erroneously come to mind.  Because his theology was so comprehensive, as laid out in his Institutes of the Christian Religion and his commentaries on various books of the bible, its easy to zero in on any number of important doctrines and somehow lose sight of the overall focus and heart of Calvin's religion.  And that focus was indeed the centrality of Jesus Christ, the good news of God.  This is clearly seen in the following excerpts from his preface to Pierre Oliv├ętan's French translation of the New Testament (1534).  Calvin focuses like a laser on the gospel:
Scripture is also called the gospel, that is, new and joyful news, because it is declared that Christ, the sole true and eternal Son of the living God, was made man, to make us children of God his Father, by adoption. Thus he is our only Savor, to whom we owe our redemption, peace, righteousness, sanctification, salvation, and life; who died for our sins and rose again for our justification; who ascended to heaven for our entry there and took possession of it for us and [it is] our home; to be always our helper before his Father; as our advocate and perpetually dong sacrifice for us, he sits at the Father's right hand as King, mde Lord and Master over all, so that he may restore all that is in heaven and on earth; an act which all the angels, patriarchs, prophets, apostles did not know how to do and were unable to do, because they had not been ordained to that end by God...

... Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom, folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God.  But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinners justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free.  The gospel is the Word of life and truth.  It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe; and the key to the knowledge of God, which opens the door of the Kingdom of Heaven to the faithful by releasing them from sins, and closes it to the unbelievers, binding them in their sins.  Blessed are all those who hear the gospel and keep it; for in this way they show that they are children of God.  Woe to those who will not hear it and follow it; because they are children of the devil.

O Christians, men and women, hear this and learn.  For surely the ignorant man shall perish in his ignorance, and the blind who follows another blind man will fall into the ditch with him.  But there is one way to life and salvation, and that is faith and certainty in the promises of God which cannot be had without the gospel; for by hearing it and knowing it living faith is provided, together with sure hope, and perfect love for God and a lively love toward our neighbor.  Where then is your hope, if you contemn and scorn to hear, see, read, and retain this holy gospel?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Christ will do everything or nothing..."

We ended the last post with the words of Martin Luther from his Galatian's commentary:  "This allegory teaches that the church should do nothing but preach and teach the Gospel truly and sincerely, and by this means should produce children... Everything is done by the ministry of the Word."

Let me ask - why is it that the gospel is so infrequently proclaimed from Scripture in a clear and unambiguous manner when the church gathers?  Is it that the content of God's good news in Jesus Christ is not really understood?  Is it that its regular proclamation is not considered central to the sanctification of the Lord's people?  Is it that the gospel is obscure in too many parts of Scripture?  Though indispensable to becoming a Christian, maybe the gospel is thought to be, more or less, an elementary or introductory aspect of the Christian life.  After all, at some point believers have professed belief in the gospel!  The gospel gets us in the door, so to speak.  Been there, done that...  let's move on to the how-to parts of living the Christian life.  Studying Scripture, praying, trusting God for situations in my life, witnessing, learning to love my neighbor as myself (talk about needing a lifetime or two...).  All godly things, things to be found in a Christian's life.  But it overlooks one great big thing, the thing most common in Christians' lives - sin, i.e. our falling short of the mark in everything that we ought to do and ought not to do.

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Scripture teaches that believer's do remain very much sinners:
6.5 - This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin; and 13.2This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh. 
Though pardoned through faith, we remain sinners who sin.  And united to Christ by faith, the dominion (reigning power) of sin has been overthrown.  Yet we still remain sinners who still sin, though now as new creatures we have entered the battle.  Having indeed received a new heart and new will, we now embrace God's law and are now children of our Father in heaven.  So now it distresses us deeply when we see our sin, which is often... an evidence of God's work in our lives.  Opening our eyes to see our sin is very much at the center of the Holy Spirit's's work in us.  And hand in hand with the Spirit's diagnosis and exposure of sin in our lives is also the work of God's remedy.

And what is the remedy for sin but the gospel of Jesus Christ?  The gospel is the divine means by which the Holy Spirit creates and increases faith in the Savior in the hearts of those that hear.  The gospel is the only power given by God for the forgiveness of sin, the only heavenly weapon supplied by God with which to diminish sin's power and defeat it. The apostle Paul, again and again, stresses the power of the gospel to save from sin.  Not just once upon first belief, but continually throughout our lives we are being saved by the gospel:
And I make known to you, brethren, the good news that I proclaimed to you, which also ye did receive, in which also ye have stood, through which also ye are being saved, in what words I proclaimed good news to you... (1 Cor. 15:1-2a) YLT.
J. Gresham Machen stated it this way:
"Christ died for our sins," said the primitive disciples, "according to the Scriptures; he was buried; he has been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." From the beginning, the Christian gospel, as indeed the name "gospel" or "good news" implies, consisted in an account of something that had happened. And from the beginning, the meaning of the happening was set forth; and when the meaning of the happening was set forth then there was Christian doctrine. "Christ died"--that is history; "Christ died for our sins"--that is doctrine. Without these two elements, joined in an absolutely indissoluble union, there is no Christianity (Christianity and Liberalism).
Can we say with Luther that "the church should do nothing but preach and teach the Gospel truly and sincerely?"  Some might ask, is Christianity to be reduced to simply proclaiming and hearing the basic message of the gospel?  Paul again,
For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God... it was God's good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe... Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1: 18, 21b-24) ASV.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1:16) ASV.
Here's a suggestion for a new church growth program:  more workers who are willing to become foolish and preach a foolish message, a message that presents the Scriptural record of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, the One who is the complete and perfect satisfaction for sins and fulfillment of God's law; the One who is the ever present and eternal righteousness, sanctification, and redemption of sinners.  Again from Machen's book:
If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. The guilty soul enters again into the hopeless reckoning with God, to determine whether we have really done our part. And thus we groan again under the old bondage of the law. Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all.
We continually need to be taught this and pointed to Christ alone.  To close with Martin Luther:
Here I must take counsel of the gospel. I must hearken to the gospel, which teacheth me, not what I ought to do, (for that is the proper office of the law), but what Jesus Christ the Son of God hath done for me: to wit, that He suffered and died to deliver me from sin and death. The gospel willeth me to receive this, and to believe it. And this is the truth of the gospel. It is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consisteth. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Church, Growth, and the Gospel...

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

How to grow the church?  What methods and programs are most effective?  How to shepherd visitors into becoming church members?  How to keep members active?  

I have to admit that these questions, as I type them, sound off-key.  It's like the Christian who, introspectively self-focused on his growth, is asking questions like, "How can I become more spiritual?  What are the best methods I can employ in order to become more sanctified?"  It's usually the one most focused on his personal progress who is least likely to be growing in true godliness.  Yet in both instances (church and individual Christian) growth is meant to occur.  And in both cases that which is central and indispensable, though too often assumed or ignored, is the same one thing.

From Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians:

But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is our mother. (Gal. 4:26) ASV
26.  The spiritual Jerusalem corresponds to Sarah, the true lady and free woman who is the mother of us all, bringing us into liberty, and not into slavery as Hagar does..The heavenly Jerusalem is the church--that is to say, the faithful scattered throughout the world, who have one and the same Gospel, one and the same faith in Christ, the same Holy Spirit, and the same sacraments.
The word above should not be understood of the church triumphant in heaven, but the church militant here on earth. Godly people are said to be citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), but Christians are in heaven when they believe and lay hold of those inestimable, heavenly, and eternal gifts (Ephesians 1:3).  We must distinguish heavenly and spiritual blessing from the earthly.  The earthly blessing is to have a good civil government, to have children, peace, riches, fruits of the earth, and other physical things.  But the heavenly blessing is to be delivered from the law, sin, and death; to be justified and brought to life; to have peace with God; to have a faithful heart, a joyful conscience, and spiritual consolation; to have the knowledge of Jesus Christ; to have the gift of prophecy and the revelation of the Scriptures; to have the gift of the Holy Spirit and to rejoice in God.  These are the heavenly blessings that Christ gives the church.
Therefore, the Jerusalem that is above--the heavenly Jerusalem--is the church that is in the world now, not the city of the life to come or the church triumphant.  She gives birth through the Holy Spirit, by the ministry of the Word and sacraments, and not physically.
So Sarah, or Jerusalem, our free... mother, is the church itself, the spouse of Christ, of whom we are all born.  This mother gives birth to free children unceasingly, to the end of the world, as long as she preaches the Gospel, for this is truly to give birth.  She teaches the Gospel in this way:  we are delivered from  the curse of the law, from sin, death, and all other evils, by Jesus Christ, and not by the law or by doing what it commands.  Therefore, the Jerusalem that is above--that is to say, the church--is not subject to the law and its obedience, but is free and a mother without the law, sin, and death.  That is the sort of mother she is, and that is the sort of children she bears.
This allegory teaches that the church should do nothing but preach and teach the Gospel truly and sincerely, and by this means should produce children.  So we are all fathers and children to one another.  I am born of other people through the Gospel and now give birth to others who will also give birth to others later on, and this will continue to the end of the world. Everything is done by the ministry of the Word.  (Galatians - Luther, edited by Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer; pp. 230-231)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Redemptive-historical preaching...

From Dennis Johnson's book, Him We Proclaim - Preaching Christ From All The Scriptures:
Christians are united to Christ by faith, both representatively and vitally.  Our representative union with the Savior entails the objective gospel truths that he obeyed God's law for us, suffered the law's curse for us, and was raised and vindicated for us.  Therefore we have obeyed, been condemned, and been vindicated in him, our covenant head.  Our vital union with Christ entails the subjectively applied gospel truth that he imparts his resurrection life to us by the Holy Spirit, initially and invincibly drawing us out of death and into the life of the new creation and subsequently producing covenant faithfulness - the fruit of the Spirit - in us...
... Christ's saving work is not only forensic, outside of us (justification, adoption) but also dynamic, within us (new creation, regeneration, sanctification) - and the two strands will converge in glorification on that day, when our lowly bodies are transformed to be like Jesus' glorious body (Phil.3:21), our resurrection not only will be the public demonstration that God has declared us righteous and adopted us as his children through faith in Christ (Rom. 5:17-18; 8:23), it will also complete the project of subjective vivification and conformity to Christ's holiness that the Spirit began in our regeneration (Rom. 8:10-11, 29-30; 1 John 3:2-3).  So redemptive-historical preaching, as the apostles practiced it, addresses not only what Christ has done for us as the faithful covenant Servant but also what Christ is doing in us to make us into faithful covenant servants. [p. 237]

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sanctification and Repentance...

Many times when sanctification in the lives of believers is discussed the emphasis is on doing what we should and on not doing what we shouldn't in relation to God's' law, which is all well and good. Yet, when it comes to sanctification I find an emphasis among the reformers such as John Calvin that is too often hard to find in today's churches:  Repentance.
Moreover, as hatred of sin, which is the beginning of repentance, first gives us access to the knowledge of Christ, who manifests himself to none but miserable and afflicted sinners, groaning, laboring, burdened, hungry, and thirsty, pining away with grief and wretchedness, so if we would stand in Christ, we must aim at repentance, cultivate it during our whole lives, and continue it to the last. Christ came to call sinners, but to call them to repentance. He was sent to bless the unworthy, but by “turning away every one” “from his iniquities.” The Scripture is full of similar passages. Hence, when God offers forgiveness of sins, he in return usually stipulates for repentance, intimating that his mercy should induce men to repent.  “Keep ye judgment,” saith he, “and do justice: for my salvation is near to come.” Again, “The Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob.” Again, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him.” “Repent ye, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” Here, however, it is to be observed, that repentance is not made a condition in such a sense as to be a foundation for meriting pardon; nay, it rather indicates the end at which they must aim if they would obtain favor, God having resolved to take pity on men for the express purpose of leading them to repent. Therefore, so long as we dwell in the prison of the body, we must constantly struggle with the vices of our corrupt nature, and so with our natural disposition. Plato sometimes says, that the life of the philosopher is to meditate on death.  More truly may we say, that the life of a Christian man is constant study and exercise in mortifying the flesh, until it is certainly slain, and the Spirit of God obtains dominion in us. Wherefore, he seems to me to have made most progress who has learned to be most dissatisfied with himself. He does not, however, remain in the miry clay without going forward; but rather hastens and sighs after God, that, ingrafted both into the death and the life of Christ, he may constantly meditate on repentance. (Calvin's Institutes 3.3.20)