Add to your faith…

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 2:3, 4)

The call of God unto salvation not only carries with it the justification of the sinner before God because of the (imputed) righteousness of Christ, but also the divine nature which enables that forgiven sinner to live a holy life. In other words, the same grace that saves us is the same grace that empowers us to grow in our life of faith. While we are saved by faith alone (without any merit of our own), it is not a faith that remains alone, but one that blossoms with the fruit of obedience. (1 John 2:3)

And so, Peter continues (2 Peter 2:5-9), For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.

Peter sounds very much like James when he says we cannot be content with sitting back and resting on the laurels of a faith that is not being diligently worked out in our attitudes and behavior. However, it makes us a little nervous when Peter says “add to your faith” because it sound like faith in Christ is not enough. The context will reveal that Peter is not talking about salvation, but productivity and usefulness in the Christian’s life.

William Barclay points out that the word translated “add” is epichoregein and comes from the Greek theater where a wealthy benefactor (choregos) paid for all the expenses of a particular play. Thus the actors, the chorus, and all who produced the play by using their own skills and talents were seen as doing so out of the rich resources provided them by the benefactor. It was seen as an act of cooperation rather than a contribution or donation to the show. And so, Peter says that we are to diligently cooperate with God who as our Benefactor has provided everything we need in order to produce these virtues or characteristics in us.

Virtues such as goodness (lit. excellence- a Christ likeness), knowledge (greater experiential knowledge of Christ), self-control (submission to the indwelling Christ), perseverance (patient endurance knowing that Christ can be trusted), godliness (a practical awareness of Christ in everyday life), brotherly kindness (a patient acceptance of one another in Christ), and love (a loving commitment to one another, as Christ has loved us). These are very similar to Paul’s fruit of the Spirit in Galatian 5:22, 23 which are the characteristics produced in the believer by the Holy Spirit.

Peter goes on to explain that this character formation is a progressive thing, ever-increasing in its measure. And such a process will ensure that we will not become barren or unfruitful in our discipleship. He further warns that if a Christian does not manifest these qualities, s/he is blind (tuphios) and nearsighted (muopazon). This latter term can also be translated “to blink or shut one’s eyes,” which makes more sense. If a person is blind why would they be called nearsighted? But if one blinks or shuts his eyes to something, they become blind to it. And so the Christian who fails to “add to their faith,” out of the rich resources that God has provided, closes their eyes to the transforming nature of God’s grace and deliberately forgets the reality of their own forgiveness from sin. All you need to do is read the rest of 2 Peter and you will see examples of how some of these “blind” Christians were engaged in behaviors unbecoming of the gospel and leading others astray.

Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10, 11)

Tune in next week as we look at these two verses.

All we need for life and godliness

In my last blog, The Monster of Uncertainty, we saw that Martin Luther came to the place of certainty in his faith by acknowledging that his salvation was based upon the completed work of Jesus Christ and not upon any meritorious good works of his own. The Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s position on justification by faith alone “a legal fiction.”

RC Sproul once explained the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification as “analytical.” It is a position that believes God will only declare a person just when, under God’s perfect analysis, there is found an inherent or infused righteousness within that person. This righteousness is present in the soul by the grace of Jesus Christ through baptism.

In contrast, Sproul defined Luther’s understanding as “synthetic” justification. By this he meant that something new has been added. When God declares a person justified, it is not because God sees righteousness within that person, but that God adds something new—the righteousness of Christ. This is why Luther called it extra nos (alien, outside of us) righteousness not something inherent.

Sproul summarized his thought: . . . the Roman Catholic idea is that grace is infused into the soul of a person at baptism, making the person inherently righteous . . . . But the Reformers insisted that we are justified when God imputes someone else’s righteousness to our account, namely, the righteousness of Christ.

Thus the Roman Catholic Church called Luther’s view a legal fiction because it seemed to undermine the integrity of God by calling a person righteous when they, in themselves, are unrighteous. Luther’s responded that just as Abraham was counted righteous because of faith (Rom 4:3), so God imputes (counts) a person righteous because of the real righteousness of Jesus Christ appropriated by faith. There is nothing fictional about Christ’s righteousness, and there is nothing fictional about God’s gracious imputation of that righteousness. (quotes and ideas taken from RC Sproul’s article “The Very Heart of the Reformation,” ligoner.org)

Given the Reformation understanding of justification based upon an imputed righteousness, we are still left with the question of how to understand the obvious emphasis of the New Testament on transformation and the necessity for righteousness and good works to be demonstrated in the Christian life. Is justification by faith merely a “bar code system” where God scans us to see if the “appropriate amount of righteousness has shifted from Christ’s account to our own in the bank of heaven and then we are saved? . . . . where transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p 37-41)

In other words, why are so many Christians ineffective and unproductive? Is it really due to a problem with our understanding of justification by faith as some kind of legal fiction or heavenly bar code? Perhaps, but I would agree with Paul David Tripp that the real culprit here is “a Gospel Gap.” It is a failure to recognize that the same Gospel that saves us is the same Gospel that sanctifies us. It is failure to articulate that the Gospel includes a new nature placed within us by the Holy Spirit that enables us not only to believe in Jesus but also to grow to be like Jesus. “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

Thus faith in Christ justifies (in a moment) and sanctifies (over our life-time) and glorifies (in heaven, when we will be transformed into his likeness). In short, there should be no Gospel gap between our understanding of justification by faith and our being made holy, ultimately into the very likeness of Christ.

If any doubt remains whether the Gospel includes this kind of transformation, one only need look at 2 Peter 1:3, 4 – “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption of the world caused by evil desires.”

In my next blog I would like to look more closely at these verses and the stunning verses that follow to gain a clearer picture on what the Christian life should look like. Stay tuned, and be sure to check out my daily devotions for Lent.

From Ashes to Fire

The two great seasons of the Church year are from Lent (Ashes) to Good Friday and from Easter to Pentecost (Fire). The first emphasizes repentance and the sharing in the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. The second portrays the dynamic impact of the resurrection upon the disciples and the fire of the Holy Spirit that birthed the Church and sent it on a global mission. 

The first daily devotional guide that will be published weekly (beginning today) focuses on repentance, and the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus. It is my hope that as you use this devotional guide you will, by God’s grace, experience the spiritual impact of this solemn season, and that it will help strengthen your faith and renew your worship of our great God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You will find these daily devotions on the menu portion (see above) of my blog.

The Monster of Uncertainty…

Is it true that the only things that are certain are death and taxes? It would seem true in every age, but especially in the Middle Ages. It was a time where traditional values and certainties were being questioned. Where wars, plagues, famine and economic issues also contributed to the instability of the times—not unlike our own era.

Then there was the Church whose teachings did little to give certainty, in fact, they only added to people’s insecurity and fear. Many believed that this was deliberate so that people would become more dependent upon the Church and what it offered in order to gain salvation. Thus attendance at mass, confession and penance, the buying of indulgences, the adoration of relics, and the joining of monastic orders offered ways by which someone could increase devotion and gain sufficient merit for obtaining eternal life. But how much was enough?Where was the certainty?

Dr. Richard Bucher, in a message titled “Joyful Certainty in an Age of Uncertainty,” mentioned a popular catechism of the day first printed in 1470. Derek Kolde’s “Mirror of the Christian Man” went through 19 editions before the Protestant Reformation and was probably the most popular catechism of its time. Kolde said, “There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I will have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all; I do not know where I will go.” In a nutshell, these three things exemplified the uncertainty of the age and the struggle that confronted Martin Luther and everyone else who desired to obtain a gracious God.

Luther was a type-A personality who could not be satisfied with just doing the best he could. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or a rocky relationship with a demanding father (or both), he always questioned whether his best was good enough. He certainly did not feel righteous and the more he evaluated himself, the more sinful he felt and the more terrified he became of the wrath of God. Luther’s monastical superiors saw that while he exceeded all the requirements and became a priest in record time, yet this terrible uncertainty about whether he was truly acceptable to God was not normal. He was repulsed by himself; even his confession and penance were self-centered, designed to save his own skin from hell. So his superiors suggested he begin to study theology, which took him to the Scripture.

His study of the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ultimately brought him to a place summarized by Romans 1:17: “The righteous one (the justified one) shall live by faith.” Luther began to grasp that St. Paul used a legal term “to justify” in order to describe what happens when a sinner exercises faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner receives a righteousness that is not his own, but is the very righteousness of Christ accepted by God as a substitute for the sinner’s unrighteousness. While the Church called this a legal fiction, Luther called it a sweet exchange; “Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou has taken on thyself what thou wast not, and given to me what I am not.”

Herein lies Luther’s certainty, and mine as well. When I believe my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship with God depends on my own efforts, the less certainty I have of my acceptance by God. Have I done enough? How can I be certain?

Listen to Luther: I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for certain whether he is in a state grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life. This statement, widely accepted and believed, was a principle and practically an article of faith throughout the papacy. With this wicked idea of theirs they utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences, abolished Christ from the church . . . If everything else were sound there [in the papacy] still this monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters. (Luther’s Works, 26:377, 386)

And this is our foundation: the Gospel commands us to look, not to our good deeds or perfection but at God himself as he promises, and at Christ himself, the Mediator . . . And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our strength, conscience, experience, person, works, but depend on that which is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God which cannot deceive. (LW, 26:387)

If [a person] senses that he is in doubt, let him exercise his faith, struggle against the doubt, and strive for certainty, so that he can say: “I know that I have been accepted and that I have the Holy Spirit, not on account of my worthiness or virtue but on account of Christ, who subjected himself to the Law on our account and took away the sins of the world. If I am a sinner, and if I err, He is righteous and cannot err.” (LW, 26, 379)

Thus I believe that the Christian can be certain of salvation when that certainty is founded on the promise of God and the work of Jesus Christ! I hope you believe that.

Next week we want to look at where good works fit into the life of the Christian. It may surprise you what we find!

The Silence of God

I preached a sermon 45 years ago on the Silence of God. After 3 yrs of pastoral ministry under my belt I came to the conclusion that God’s silence was never due to indifference, but always to higher thoughts or greater purposes. “For as the heaven is higher than the earth, so are my thoughts than your thoughts, and my ways than your ways, says the Lord.” Not a bad conclusion for a young greenhorn pastor who was trying to be faithful to God’s Word without a lot of experience in ‘applying it.

Today, after 48 yrs of pastoral ministry experience, I am still and will always remain a greenhorn at trying to figure out the ways of an eternal God. I still believe that God’s silence is one of higher purpose, but I would state it differently now. I would say, God is never silent. We could cite Psalm 19 where we read that the heavens are declaring the glory of God—that God is speaking in creation, loud enough to hold us accountable for not believing that he exists (Romans 1:18-20). Also, we could go to Hebrews 1 and read that God has spoken in the past through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken through his Son, Jesus, the Word of God (John 1).

That God is never silent can also be seen from the few notable occasions in the Gospels when Jesus was silent in the present of someone. He was silent when the Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter (Matt 15:21-28). He was silent before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin at the kangaroo court hastily convened to accuse him of blasphemy on trumped up charges (Matt 26:59-63). He was also silent before Herod who saw him as a bit of a curiosity (Luke 23:9).

I would submit to you that in each of these situations Jesus was shouting in his “silence.” To Herod, whose only interest was to see Jesus walk across his swimming pool (if you are familiar with the Rock Opera, Jesus Christ Super Star), Jesus was shouting “I will not be trivialized!” His silence was a judgment against the spiritual shallowness of Herod. His “silence” before the Sanhedrin was a shout against their spiritual hypocrisy and their self-interest in preserving their own place and ambitions. Finally, in his “silence” before the Canaanite woman he was shouting out “trust me, trust me!” He was drawing out of her a faith born of desperation. She knew who he was and had heard of his compassion, and so in the face of his silence she casts herself upon his mercy and says, “Lord help me!”

We find a parallel between the “silence” this woman confronted and the greatest Silence in all of scripture; the Silence of the cross. In that Silence, Jesus himself cried out “My God, Why have you forsaken me!” In that Silence, the disciples ran away and the women were in despair. And yet…And yet…just a few days latter it became clear that in the midst of this great “Silence” God was doing his greatest work. In the Silence, God was shouting, “I love you!”

Helmut Theilicke wrote a book The Silence of God at the height of the darkness of WW2. In it he said this: “Even when we thought He did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love. We live in the power of this Golgatha night of silence. Where should we be without the cross.”

Thus as we face the life-dominating issues which seem to render silent God’s voice, let us hold on to the theology of the cross. Let us remember that even in his silence, God is not silent—he is speaking, he is working, he is fulfilling his higher purposes of a grander plan than we can ever imagine. He is shouting for us to trust him because he loves us. HE WHO HAS EARS TO EAR LET HIM LISTEN!

Greed! (a confession)

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Jesus spoke a lot about money. In fact, he spoke more about money than he did about love, sex, heaven, or hell. In just a sample swath of the book of Luke (chapters 12-16), he told the parable of the rich fool; admonished the disciples not to worry about what they were going eat or wear; challenged his followers to be wise and faithful managers of what they had been given; spoke about counting the cost of following him; told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the son who squandered his money; and he also told stories about a shrewd manager, and the rich man and Lazarus.

Money can be a dangerous thing because it pushes our greed button more than any other factor. The Greek philosopher Plato said that “Poverty [the feeling of] does not consist in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.” The last commandment of the moral law, “Thou shall not covet,” addresses the underlying motive for keeping/breaking all the other commandments which precede it. Money is also dangerous because it reveals that greed, like ice cream, comes in all kinds of different flavors. Jesus told us to “guard against all kinds of greed.”

The kind of greed that I struggle with is what I call “religious greed.” It is most clearly exemplified in those hypocritical Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They loved to announce their charitable donations with trumpets (Matt 6:2) instead of the anonymous giving of most people. They would tithe even the smallest things, like the spices they used on their food, while completely ignoring the weightier matters of the law (like justice and mercy- Matt 23:23). They would pronounce the word “Corban” (devoted to God) over all their possessions, so they could keep them for their own selfish ends rather than using them to provide for their parents in old age (Mark 7:11). Hypocrites!

We can also see this religious greed evidenced in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). They were Barnabas “wanabes” who sold a piece of property for a certain amount as a gift to the church. Such an act was indeed generous, but they did so under the pretense of donating the entire amount from the sale while keeping back part of the money for themselves. They lied to the church and before God, and lost their lives because of it. Liars!

It is so easy for me to see religious greed in others and pronounce judgment upon them while being blind to the greed in my own heart. I am saying all of this as a confession. We recently sold our house and purchased a new one and made a profit. We have designated a portion of that profit as a tithe. We haven’t even given it yet and already I feel the urge to announce how generous we are (like the Pharisees). I also feel the Ananias and Sapphira chronovirus coming on. The strings of greed are starting to creep over my heart like weeds trying to choke out the thanksgiving and praise that I want to give to my God for being so generous to me. And then there are the whisperings of the Tempter. Can you really afford this? What about your grandkid’s future education? What if you have to go back on chemo? This could pay for it. Isn’t that good stewardship? Arrgh!

I need to go back to where we started with the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12. Jesus concludes the story with these words (v 21), “So is the one (the one who is a fool) who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” This isn’t an encouragement to give God more of my money—he doesn’t need it. Being rich toward God means that I consider God as my greatest Treasure. And the way I handle my money should be done in such a way that shows that I am free from the tentacles of greed precisely because God is my greatest Treasure—he is my true Wealth, my Reward, my Inheritance. In him, I am rich no matter how little money I have at the moment, and without him I am poverty-stricken regardless of how much worldly wealth I possess. C.S. Lewis nailed it in his Weight of Glory when he said, “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” And before Lewis, St Augustine framed it like this: “He who has God has everything; he who has everything but God has nothing.”

We Christians, of all people, should be the least greedy and most lavish givers in this world because the Lord is our Wealth, our Treasure, our Shepherd, and in him we shall not lack for any good thing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share this with you.

OK—now, just write the check Mac and stop talking!