Love and Justification

Theologians are always debating the righteousness of God in justification.  Is it imputed?  Is it infused?  Is it forensic?

I can’t tell you the torture I put myself through for decades over this kind of stuff.  Like a navigator who knows if his calculation is off by the slightest degree he will miss the mark, I constantly feel like I have to get these formulations down at the outset, forgetting that all I really have to do is follow the One who not only knows but is the Way.  I swear Christians make this so hard, though.

I could and perhaps will say more about that, but I have to be gone the next couple of days, so for now, just this.

From Lewis, a close paraphrase: God does not make us good [righteous] so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He makes us good [righteous].

Not a righteousness [goodness] that comes through the law, be it God’s covenant law (e.g. circumcision, Sabbath keeping, dietary, etc.), like the arguments of the New Perspectives on Paul, which make a lot of sense to me, nor by the law as in moral laws, but by His grace.

Nouwen: “God’s love does not depend on our repentance or inward or outer changes.”

While I want to be one of those who repents and changes inwardly and outwardly, and believe I am, even if I’m not God loves me.  This is not the message I have heard from the church, but the deficiency may be in me.

I have either heard wrongly many evangelical and/or reformed writers, teachers and preachers, or they have not said it in a way I could hear well.

God’s love precedes his imputed, infused or forensic righteousness in each of us.  His love precedes creation, and creation flowed out of it.  His love precedes the Fall.  His love preceeds the Incarnation and is the very reason for it.  God’s love precedes the cross and made the cross itself inevitable.

Intentional or not the Calvinist/Reformed tradition has taught me that unless I am among the elect I am not and never can be righteous.  It has followed in my mind that if I am not among the elect, therefore righteous, God does not love me.  No matter what they say, one can not know with certainty, I don’t believe, if one is elect.

I don’t care how much good fruit you produce in keeping with righteousness, you’re going to sin, and we are never going to be certain if our motivations are right, and they never will be completely pure.  If our motivations are not right, our actions can’t be fully right-eous.  It produces an effort to prove one’s righteousness to one’s self, so that one can be assured of God’s love and forgiveness.

So, how do I ever know I am really being Christ to other’s, really being transformed, really putting on Christ and not trying to prove to myself and others I am among the elect out of fear of damnation rather than love of God and neighbor?  I don’t see how, but maybe that’s because I’m not elect.

Maybe the elect all have specific, dramatic conversion experiences and are then perpetually filled with peace, joy, gratitude and contentment, never stop growing, love selflessly and sacrificially and forgive everything all the time.  Maybe the elect know they are elect and those who think they are elect and don’t know it are deceived and it’s impossible for one to be among the elect and not know it. It’s a nightmare of a labyrinth.

Yesterday I heard a radio preacher I like.  I’m not going to mention names because it’s a distraction.  I went to his web site and was reading the days devotion.  There’s a line in it I heard countless times in the Evangelical circles in which I ran in college, and to whom I owe a great debt:

“The Holy Spirit…tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

Indeed, Christ is all in all.  However, the message I heard over and over is that I am nothing or I am worthless.  The fact is that we elevate Christ so high that we forget what all the bother was about.  Christ is exalted; He is supreme; all creation will bow before His majesty, glory and power when it is made His footstool.

No question, no doubt, but is it possible that in the way we do, we corrupt even that to the point that we claim for Christ something He never claimed for himself: that God bounded Himself in flesh, space and time, suffered and died for…nothing?  That’s the word I hear all the time.  Not ‘nothing’ as in for “no reason,” but ‘nothing’ as in “worthless,” the other word I hear all the time.

Like Jeremiah’s potter, God is reshaping spoiled vessels.  Spoiled is not the same as nothing; it’s not the same as worthless.  The misshapen vessels have such infinite value and worth that even if they are not usable in their current distorted shape, the Potter loves them so much, that rather than just discarding them and starting over, He reshapes, remolds, restores, recreates them.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To preach Christ and Him crucified is to preach his radical, all-encompassing, unalterable love for us.

I suppose the concern, as it has been for me often, is that if we preach this love to ourselves and others it might lead to encouraging sin to abound so grace can abound even more, or it might make us think there is to be no striving or pressing on towards the goal.

If that is what we or others hear it is not the Good News because the Good News is that because God loves us we can be recreated, not stay the same miserable, spoiled vessels and the Potter merely says “Yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to begin with.  It will look lovely in this spot or I can just use it for this purpose instead.  Silly me.  What was I thinking?”

The full quote above from the devotion, which was adapted from Spurgeon, is “But the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self: he tells us that we are nothing, but that ‘Christ is all in all.’”

I’m not at all certain the Holy Spirit turns our eyes entirely away from self.  Away from false self, fallen self, sinful self, but not true self.  Paul spends much time in 1 Corinthians 15 expounding on the resurrection of the body.  We must avoid a purely spiritualized theology.  Theology is incarnational and embodied. The Word made flesh and the risen Christ.  We can not stop at the cross for all it’s majesty and glory.

There IS a me, a true me, a me crafted, knit together and wonderfully made. God does not want me to forget this self, but to become it.  To remember it, not as though I have a memory of it, but His memory of it.  His memory of ME.

We live in a self-absorbed, self-fulfillment, self-obsessed me-driven world in the grip of relativism.  Be that as it may, like with everything else, it’s not purely and solely a lie.  All good lies have an element of the truth, and the truth is that there is a me for God to love.  Distorted, warped, and idolized though self-love may be in this world does not mean the solution is the forget self; it’s to remember our true self.

God is not running an assembly line in which we turn to Him, climb on the conveyor belt and God stamps out a Jesus such that when we stand before Him all He sees is His Son.

In The Wrinkle in Time, Meg defeats the lies of the enemy with this truth: “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”  Because I am clothed in Christ does not mean there is no me to be clothed.  Because I am made like Jesus does not mean I am the same as Jesus.

I don’t know how many times I have heard “When God looks at you on Judgment Day, He will see Jesus.”  When I stand before God He will see the true me I can only be IN Christ.

Heaven will not be populated with a bunch of Jesus clones.  Only Jesus is Jesus, thanks be to God.  Heaven will be populated with resurrected, unique, infinitely  precious, incalculably valuable people of inestimable worth, spoiled vessels recreated.

God does not make us good so that He can love us.  Because He loves us He is making us good.

To me, it makes all the difference in the world.

10 Commandments and Hubris

I was in Ex 20 this morning.  Besides the fact that I have broken every one of the 10 in so many ways except the obvious ones people think of.

I often put myself as a god before God.  I have used His name in vain.  Even when I remember the sabbath (most weeks in worship) my whole day is not spent in sabbath rest.  I have murdered in my heart,  Stole, even if time from my employer daydreaming. I have coveted. I have not always honored my parents.

The point is humbling.  Sure, we say, I h’ain’t killed no body.  I ain’t never cheated on my wife.  I ain’t  never made a false image.  Yup.  I gots ’em all covered, ‘ecpt-in maybe that parents thing, but boys is wild.  Everbuddy knows this.

It was good to be reminded.  Not much later while driving I had a thought about someone and I immediately started exhausting myself, and was just on the verge of creating a fantasy about how I could do this or do that and show the other up.  It felt like God snatched the hair off my head getting in there to root it out.  The whole process from think to repent was less than a second, and then I told God: Go head, snatch it out.  I’m sick of it everytime I think about doing something good.  I was yelling and realized it.  I apologized to God for raising my voice to Him but explained it was me I was mad at.  So the 10 are good to read often. I think Luther tried everyday.  Yes, the rediscover of grace through faith studied the Law, hard.

The main thing that stuck me, though, was this:

“An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25 If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.”

Just before this I had read Psalm 24:

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof [sometimes translated and all that fills it)
the world and those who dwell therein,

Here’s the key to Hubris, and we see it everyday.  God made the stones; they are part of the fullness of the earth which belongs to Him.  They would change His creation by hewing them.  He forbid this.  “They’re MY rocks.  Why would I want your pathetic hands trying to shape them?  They’re perfect the way I made them.”

But how often do we apply ourselves to a task thinking we are the creators, the builders, the movers and shakers, the ones the world need in order to “Get ‘er done!”?

Shear Hubris!  Even when we are doing good it is often according to our plan.

We are stone stackers of the alter of God.  The only thing He wants is our obedience.  Not our leadership.  Not our creative designs.  Not our tools.  Not our organizational charts and flowchart plans.  He wants us to pick up the rocks he created and place them where He wants them to go.

God’s Faithfulness or My Faith

Our views of God are critically affected when, in an attempt to understand Him and know Him, we make Him into our image so we can relate better.  We are people made in the image of God, so we look at ourselves like shadows on Plato’s cave wall, instead of looking at the one who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3)  Yes, “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14), but we are only broken images, not “exact imprints.”

Gideon’s story in Judges 6-8 reflects this well.  I think it’s possible that the angel who appeared to Gideon might have been a manifestation of Christ prior to His incarnation (like perhaps with Jacob) because Gideon actually makes an offering to him and then feels doomed when he realizes who it is.  The angel does not tell Gideon not to make a sacrifice or build an alter after, as one might suspect and angel would, and the angel touched the sacrifice with his staff and it was consumed.

It is not instrumental to the story nor is it a matter of doctrine to believe one way or the other, but I find it intriguing, and like to think of the story this way because it shows God’s extraordinary faithfulness in the face of our lack of faith, so I will write as if it was a non-material manifestation of our Lord even though if it was a messenger it was still God speaking.

Gideon had his strengths, to be sure, but he also made those from Missouri look like pure mystics in comparison. Like usual, showing He can use the “weakest member from the weakest clan,” God called Gideon.  Gideon shows how corrupted Israel had become (his father even had an alter to Ba’al) by saying “If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us.”

This is actually encouraging to me.  While I don’t like it when I too feel that way, God demonstrates it’s not Gideon’s faith but His faithfulness that matters.  He doesn’t consume Gideon on the spot, as He could and would be just and right in doing, as with any of us.  The Lord actually addressed Gideon as “Mighty hero,” and when Gideon showed his doubt, God didn’t rebuke him; he actually commissioned him: “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites.  I am sending you!”

Incredible!  God says “Mighty hero, the Lord is with you”–perhaps even as the one uttering those very words.  Gideon basically replies “Yeah, right.  You say so, but it’s obvious to any rational person He’s not.” And God’s response is to commission him!

It gets better.  Gideon then whines like Moses and Pigglet “Bbbb-but, I’m too ttttt-timid.” (I’m not mocking the man, but Moses stuttered, too, right?)  With infinite patience, the Lord says “I’ll be with you.”  Gideon b?n Missouri says “show me.”  “If you are truly going to help me, show me a sign.” So he runs home, whips up some tasty goat and bread and rushes back.  Then after the Lord consumes the offering Gideon has what might have been the granddaddy of all “Oh, crap!” moments in history.

So now he’s on board, kinda, sorta, at least for a while.  God tells him to destroy a pagan alter and a pagan pole, build a true alter and sacrifice a bull.  Well, OK, Gideon does it, but he takes 10 servants with him and “did it at night because he was afraid.”  He almost gets killed again, this time by the people, but his father grows a pair and defends him.

Is Gideon ready to go up to the big leagues, get in the Show.  Nope.  Basically he’s still going with “the strength he has,” which is just fine because it’s God’s faithfulness that matters and not Gideon’s weak faith.  Gideon still wants to be sure God really wants him to actually go into battle against the allied armies.  So this time he asks God for a sign, and then when he gets it replies like a Teletubbie: “Again, again!”  (OK, I’m missing my children’s childhood.  I loved Pooh and hated the Teletubbies, but I have a fondness for them now.)

God gives Gideon the back-to-back signs he asked for.  He roust the allied armies with 100 men, kills their leaders and then kills the town people who refused to help him.  He refuses to be king and tells the people “The Lord will rule over you.”

<<Fade to Black>>

But wait!  It’s just a “Return of the King” type long pause to make you think it’s over.  This man who had just been used by God to rescue his people now asks them all for a gold earing from the plunder which he uses to make a sacred ephod and place in his hometown.  According to the Talmud, the wearing of the ephod atoned for the sin of idolatry on the part of the Children of Israel.  Yet, they had just days before been rescued from years of immersion in a pagan, idol-worshiping culture.  So what did they do?  “The Israelites prostituted themselves by worshiping it, and it became a trap for Gideon and his family.”

It’s no where indicated God told him to do that, and wisdom would have dictated not creating something so like an idol in that culture and climate because, as you say “He is not made with human hands” and they still were acculturated after years of living within that worldview to think He was.

Idolatry, weak faith, making God into our image, cultural conditioning, pagan warriors, fear, uncertainty, doubt.  Through the whole story, again and again, God proves Himself faithful.

I am like the weak parts of Gideon, Jim, and we live in a pagan culture (no sense pretending we don’t) but you know what?  God is still God and He loves me.  “All the promises of God have their Yes! in Christ Jesus” my Lord.

Faith alone?  I wonder sometimes.  James actually says “Not by faith alone.”  However, I don’t ever wonder if it’s Faithfulness Alone.  Whatever else this new life is, surely it’s grounded on God’s faithfulness.  By His faithful mercy and grace, He’s taking me along for the ride.  From my perspective it is a scary ride.  Sometimes we’re lost in the jungle, sometimes caught in raging waters, sometimes doingImmelmann’s in a dogfight, sometimes crawling through a desert.

Thanks be to God it’s not dependent on my frail faith but on His Glorious Faithfulness.  Thanks be to God that He is not made in my image.

Good Gifts: Children and Communion

Well, I’m down to one, one child at home.  Nicole just started at UNC and David just went to Job Corps.  It hasn’t been easy.  In addition to the bittersweet joy and sadness, moment-by-moment mood swings, I suppose it’s natural to have moments of regret; at least I know I do.  “I could have done more.”  I could have done what I did good even better.”  “I did things wrong.”  “If I could do it again, I’d…”

Last week, I was reading in Matthew 7, and verses 9-11 took on a radical new meaning for me.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

As a father, I have reflected on this passage often over the years.  Of course, we sometimes get confused about what “good gifts” are and focus on giving things to our children which may be ‘good’ in one sense, but perhaps not the best sense, but I think most Christian parents understand “good gifts” to be: food, nurture, spiritual formation, acceptance, love, shelter, medical care, character, education, and the like.

Sinners that we are we often fail to give the good gifts in good measure and unfortunately we sometimes give ‘stones,’ though I hope I’ve never given a ‘snake!’ 🙂

What struck me the other day as I reflected on this in light of children leaving home and some of the regret one naturally feels about not having given good enough gifts often enough–and all parents have to face this, but it doesn’t mean wallow in it or think one can’t continue to give good gifts–was this insight from God.

What is the best gift?  What meets the true definition of Good each and every single time without fail?  Jesus Christ, of course.  That’s when, for the first time, I linked the above passage with Communion.

In John 6:48-51, Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

In Luke 22:19 we read these words we hear proclaimed each Sunday:  “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’”

Even before they know it, our children ask us for bread.  Even when they don’t understand what they are asking for, they ask us for bread. This includes the literal  nourishment of food and drink, of course.  A baby’s first cry after “Whatever that was that just happened to me, it hurt like crazy,” is “I am hungry.” Nor do I believe it is a coincidence that the last words the Incarnate Son of God spoke on the cross before he said “It is finished” were “I am thirsty.”

But like so many things in the flesh, our children’s first cry for food and drink points towards God and a spiritual hunger and thirst.  They are also asking for the true Living Bread of Life and the Living Water.

I often tell people about how I loved feeding my children their bottle when they were babies.  When I did that I knew with absolute clarity and certainty that that was exactly what I was supposed to be doing at that moment.  Nothing else had a claim on my time.  Nothing else could take priority.  It was the perfect peace of knowing that whatever else in life was confusing or stressful or conflicted, this moment was pure.

As I reflect on my children growing up and leaving home, I now know that when Kerri and I brought them to church, when we brought them to the Lord’s Table, we were still giving them their bottle–which is both food and drink.

There is no better good gift we can ever give to our children than to take them to worship and celebrate the sacrament together.  As God’s child, when I have asked my Father for good gifts for my children, He, as always, has faithfully responded by giving them Himself, even when I haven’t seen it because I was looking for a different answer.

I give thanks to God that whatever else I might do differently if I could do it over again, this one thing I would never change.  Like us, they are really His children anyway.  The best good gift we could ever give to them is Him.  When I take them to worship, it is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.  Perfect clarity. Perfect certainty.  Perfect peace.