We must be careful not to confuse the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life. The former is a gift of grace through the imputed righteousness of Christ making us right before God, the latter is the fruit or results of one who has been born-again, justified and adopted as God’s child. Paul writes to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12). While we must avoid the error of legalism, a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works which is an obedience-based acceptance, it is equally important that we avoid the error of antinomianism, a system of belief that says one doesn’t need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified, an obedience-free acceptance. The grace of God does not exclude the Christian from obedience to God’s moral commands. Instead, in the gospel, our new motive is to eagerly desire to live righteously so that obedience becomes the natural expression of our grateful hearts, an acceptance-based obedience. Only in the gospel can we actually give complete loyalty and obedience to Christ and live a life of faith expressing itself through love.
I have recently discovered a theologian who beautifully communicates this careful balance in his classic work, True Christianity. He was often referred to as “the second Luther” by his contemporaries and yet another well-known theologian called him, “the prophet of interior protestantism.” Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was the first Luther scholar to see that “justification by faith alone” does not preclude doing good works but actually unleashes good works in the Christian. He has said,
“Many think that theology is a mere science, or rhetoric, whereas it is a living experience and practice. Everyone now endeavors to be eminent and distinguished in the world, but no one is willing to learn to be devoted. Everyone now seeks out men of great learning, from whom one may learn the arts, languages, and wisdom, but no one is willing to learn, from our only teacher, Jesus Christ, meekness and sincere humility, although his holy, living example is the proper rule and directive for our life…Everyone wishes very much to be a servant of Christ, but no one wishes to be his follower… He who loves Christ will also love the example of his holy life, his humility, meekness, patience, suffering, shame, and contempt, even if the flesh suffers pain…True Christianity consists, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”
Arndt is regularly careful to avoid the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Here is an example:
“You must take care that you do not connect your works and the virtues that you have begun, or the gifts of the new life, with your justification before God, for none of man’s works, merit, gifts, or virtue, however lovely these may be, count for anything. Our justification depends on the exalted, perfect merit of Jesus Christ, received by faith…Take great care, therefore, not to confound the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life, but make a clear distinction (between them), for here is the whole foundation of our Christian religion.”
The Gospel says that you are deeply loved, completely forgiven, fully pleasing, totally accepted and significant in God‘s eyes through the merit of Jesus Christ. Nothing you ever do will cause Him to love you any more or any less. He loves you strictly by His grace given to you through Jesus. Encountering God‘s free and sovereign grace is supposed to lead us to an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a complete willingness to give everything to God who has given us everything in His Son.
Of course, free love and grace have led some to licentiousness (license to sin) assuming unearned acceptance gives a new freedom to do anything they want. Paul anticipated this question after explaining that we are justified (made right with God) not by our works but by grace through faith:
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2).” He taught Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).” After 11 chapters of explaining the gratuitous nature of salvation and mercy He explains to the Romans, “Therefore I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God– this is your spiritual act of worship.” Similarly after 3 chapters of describing the work of Christ to call us into God’s family, Paul exhorts the Ephesians, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called (Ephesians 4:1).”
Recently I have been attempting to teach my daughter how to drive a car. I’ve found that one of the more important principles of driving is actually avoiding the ditches and staying on the road. But sometimes, because of our backgrounds, when we encounter the gospel and feel its freedom from rule-keeping, we can ride down the gospel road as if there is only one ditch. The ditch that we are most often aware of is the Legalism Ditch.
Legalism is a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works. Legalism is a works-based, conditional acceptance by God which, if fulfilled, places God in the position as the debtor, the one who owes. Legalism is mechanical because it will only do the absolute minimum of what is absolutely required. This leads to a joylessness in life where we perform burdensome duties as a down payment for heaven. But legalism will never get anyone into heaven because it is impossible to be good enough. It is Obedience-based Acceptance.
The other ditch of which we are often not aware is the Antinomianism Ditch.
Antinomianism is system of belief that says one does not need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified (made right with God). Antinomianism is a perversion of Paul’s teaching on grace and actually mocks the holiness of God and the spiritual law that He gives us as a guide to holy living. Antinomianism teaches that grace means that I am freed from morality and freed from adhering to any moral law leading many back into bondage to sin. Antinomianism rejects the very notion or expectation of obedience as legalistic. It is Obedience-free Acceptance.
But the Gospel Road teaches something different than Legalism and something other than Antinomianism. The Gospel is an Acceptance-based Obedience. This means that if I know that I’m loved apart from how I perform, I will give my all. Now because we are justified by Christ, we are free to fulfill the Law by Loving God, and Loving Others, though we won’t do this perfectly. In the gospel, our new motive is to want eagerly to live righteously so that obedience becomes a natural expression of our grateful hearts.
Martin Luther clarified the gospel road in this way,
“Whoever he be that is assuredly persuaded that Christ is his righteousness, doesn’t only cheerfully and gladly work well in his vocation…but submits to all manner of burdens and dangers in his present life, because he knows that this is the will of God, and that this obedience pleases him… No one should think we reject the importance of good works or of obeying the law. When we receive the Christian righteousness, we consequently can live a good life, naturally, out of gratitude.”
Throughout my years of ministry I have entertained not a few questions from Bible readers about the doctrines of predestination and election. Romans 8:28-30 is one of the several places in the Scriptures where these doctrines are mentioned, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (ESV)”
Predestination and Election are true, biblical and mysterious and refer to God’s ancient choice of His family whom He marked out before hand to eternal life. The Scriptures tell us that:
- God elects according to his eternal purpose which means that He’s a God who plans and does what He wants.
- God elects according to the counsel of His will like a Sovereign King who has every right to develop his own military strategy influenced by no one, receiving no advice or input outside of His Triunity.
- God Elects for His own glory which means that He’s the One who gets all the credit and congratulation and through those whom He elects to salvation everyone will see How Great He really is.
On an experiential level, Christians can rest in the fact that the God of Creation has set His affection on them before the world began. There is no deeper love and affirmation, no greater freedom and courage, than resting in the fact that God loved you before your days on the earth even began, before you had the opportunity to do anything good or bad.
I can comprehend this in small degree as a father who recalls loving my first born child before she was born, even before we saw an ultrasound image of her inside of her mother’ womb. No parent waits to see what the child looks like or how she will behave to decide whether they would choose to love or not. Predestination and election are then God’s Plan of Love; His method to apply His grace.
So those whom God elects, He also calls as calling is the effect of election. Calling not like an invitation to a birthday party where you can choose to say yes or no. It is more like a Royal Command by which we must say “Yes.” Though it never feels authoritarian it is authoritative. In His calling, God’s Spirit convinces of our sin and misery. And yes, we have to be convinced that we’re miserable. There are many happy pagans around who frankly just don’t realize that they are miserable in their sin. God then imparts spiritual light to our minds in the knowledge of Christ, renews our wills, which have not been free but are in bondage and His Spirit irresistibly persuades us to embrace Jesus who is freely offered to us in the gospel.
Before the foundation of the world, by His Grace He made a covenant of Redemption with the Son and Spirit. The Father was the architect of the plan who set His decree which included the elect on whom He had set His affection. The Son, the builder, would take the plans and do the work of redemption then by His Grace would send the Holy Spirit, the real estate agent, to call the elect by chasing them down in time and space to seal the deal. Apart from such a plan of grace and love, Heaven would be empty and Hell would be bursting at the seams because men and women are not righteous and do not seek God without the gift of the seed of God in a regenerated heart and the gift of faith. People on their own are therefore unable to make the most righteous decision man could ever make: to choose to follow the Righteous One.
Though still these doctrines are hard to understand and maybe even harder to accept. We raise questions like:
- “Why not them?” – by which we charge God with unfairness because He doesn’t choose some others or demand that He choose everyone.
- “Why not me?” – by which we somehow wrongly feel that we are worthy in ourselves of being among the elect. But really the only question we are allowed to ask is…
- “Why me?” – by which we rightly look at ourselves and see not only an undeserving sinner who is not entitled to heaven but an ill-deserving sinner who has fairly earned hell. In this we marvel at God’s grace and mercy.
Ultimately the first question “Why not them?” is often compassionately motivated as we don’t want to see anyone enter into an eternity apart from God. But taking that question too far puts us in a position far above our pay grade. We can take it too far and by the implcation, “God, I would do a better job at being God than you are doing.” In the movie Rudy, which is based on a true story of a young man whose lifelong dream was to play football at Notre Dame but lacked the size, speed and ability. As he wrestled with the lack of fulfillment of his dream he confided in Father Cavanaugh who shared these immortal words,
“Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.”
The words are so simple they are profound. When it comes to life and difficult doctrines we just simply need to trust God with His Godness.
Holy Saturday is the time in between John 19:41-42 and John 20:1: Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there…(INSERT HOLY SATURDAY HERE)…Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb…
Holy Saturday is the day between the Good Friday Dusk and Easter Sunday Morning Dawn. It consists of over 30 Sabbath hours of time between Friday Sunset and Sunday Sunrise in which the gospel writers give us no details, it is just EMPTY SPACE and DEAD AIR. We know what Good Friday feels like: despair, darkness, defeat and hopelessness. We know what Easter Sunday feels like: joy, light, victory and hope. But does Holy Saturday have a feel?
Recognizing that the Passion Week represents a continuous historical narrative, churches typically pause to enter into emotion of Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae) and some pause to remember the journey of our Lord on the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday. But then we enter into Holy Saturday, a time when the sanctuaries of the old churches are stripped bare and lay in darkness. No services are scheduled, no sermons are preached, no one gathers for fellowship and there is no Lord’s Supper in order to commemorate the non-event of Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday is a dead intermission, an empty void between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ when His body lays in the tomb. I’ve never heard a message preached about Holy Saturday and I don’t recall singing a Hymn where Holy Saturday is given more than a sentence. But in the sentence of Holy Saturday (or more accurately, the parenthesis) there is an eerie feeling of familiarity to me.
I see that we live every day in a similar yet post-resurrection tension as we wait for the King to come back to consummate the Kingdom he inaugurated 2000 years ago. In between His two advents, we sin, we feel guilt, anxiety, shame, restlessness, we deny Him, sometimes betray Him, life sometimes feels dark and we often wonder what to do next just like the disciples on that First Holy Saturday. The difference living parenthetically on this side of Easter is that we can always turn back with understanding to the significance of the Cross to find forgiveness and mercy and embrace the life and certain hope imparted to us through the Resurrection.
(Inspired by Alan E. Lewis: “Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday“)
Jesus riding in Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on a borrowed ass is a visually irreconcilable scene where he displays an “admirable conjunctive or diverse excellencies,” a praiseworthy joining of almost paradoxically supreme qualities. This scene encapsulates the picture of His entire ministry. He has walked a long way, but now on the outskirts on Jerusalem, He must RIDE into the city of David. Why? Because this is a show! A solemn performance of the Nature of His Kingdom. Until now, he would not accept the title of King, but now He at length openly declares himself to be a King, even the King of Kings. Only Kings and dignitaries ride into Jerusalem with such pomp and circumstance. This is a Victory Parade culminating with the humiliation and death of the King. Jesus is the Picture of the Ideal King triumphantly riding into Jerusalem with transcendent majesty, but on the back of a borrowed donkey like a poor man or a child reminding us that he takes the path of weakness and service. He embodies otherwise irreconcilable qualities: transcendence & immanence; royalty & modesty; Boldness & Humility; Toughness & Tenderness. He is the Sovereign Creator King who came not to be served but to serve. He sits at the highest place in the heavenly places but the Son of Man has come to lay down his life. He exudes Royal Humility, a supremely confident weakness because He has come to bring peace not war, He has come to save not destroy. During His first advent, the Great King will not ride a war horse but a young donkey, a beast appropriate for a child.
The Middle Ages gave us the image of the Ideal Man exhibited in the Medieval Knight (not that Medieval warfare was ideal or virtuous). The Ideal Knight was a combination of Toughness and Tenderness and the greatest of all of the imaginary knights was found in Sir Thomas Malory‘s 1485 compilation of the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table called Le Morte d’Arthur. The ideal knight, was a man named, Lancelot and in one scene when he heard himself pronounced the best knight in the world, “he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten”. We are amazed at the sensitive heart of this fierce warrior. Upon his death, Sir Ector said to the dead Lancelot, “Thou were the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.” This ideal creates an almost paradoxical image rarely exemplified in any human being. CS Lewis wrote,
“The Knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped off limbs; he is also a demure, almost maiden-like, guest in a hall ,a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness, he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth degree.” ~ Present Concerns, “The Necessity of Chivalry” (1st published in Time and Tide, Aug. 1940)
Admittedly, this ideal knight is only found in the stories of men, but its inspiration is found in Jesus Christ. The medieval ideal brought together seemingly irreconcilable qualities of which we see best portrayed in the person of Christ: He is transcendent and immanent; He is royal and modest; He is bold and humble; He is Tough and Tender, each to the nth degree not a balance between each opposite. The image of the ideal Knight came from christ whose power was expressed in weakness, whose triumph was to be dragged away and killed. He showed that it takes courage to serve, it takes power to submit, to be first you must be last, and to be great you must be humble. This is what Jonathan Edwards meant when he wrote that “there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ.” How does it strike your heart as you find this ideal in your Savior?
Don’t we all need a second chance and even a third chance; do I hear seven? How about seventy times seven? When the Savior disrupts our failure, misery and self-pity with mercy, forgiveness and a second chance it is not a decision He makes on the fly nor a reaction in real time but instead our failure was anticipated, even expected. In fact, ALL of our failures, those before and after we met Christ were absorbed in the sacrifice of the cross. Our failure is the backdrop of the God’s sweet plan of Love, Grace, Redemption and Restoration. And while we might be surprised that we’ve blown it again, He’s not. He is a Savior who has planned to absorb our failings before they occur in real time.
When Jesus uses the repetitive phrase, “Truly, Truly” He is declaring something to be a certainty: “It’s going to happen, bet the farm!” This is the exact phrase Jesus uttered when He anticipated and predicted Peter’s terrible failure, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” Peter couldn’t imagine that he would ever deny his association with Jesus though the Savior predicted His fall with absolute certainty down to the minute details. It is easy to understand what Peter did. He and Jesus were going places together. They were defeating the bad guys and now the bad guys were winning. His Hope of Salvation was betrayed by an insider, who afterward seemed even more powerful than the Savior Himself. And when the Savior was whisked away by wicked men, Peter bailed. Our journeys are not much different than Peter’s. We too invest an inordinate amount of our hopes and dreams in specific, imagined future scenarios for how our lives will play out and when our dreams don’t come true, we get disoriented, become vulnerable to temptation, find ourselves compromising our faith and then realize a deep emptiness inside of us. We’re like Peter in the sense that we imagine that the gospel is the way to happiness, success, popularity, status, control and blessing. We wrongly believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ will provide us with what we really want in addition to placing us in right, loving relationship with our Heavenly Father. And so when God doesn’t come through on fulfilling our dream, we think He’s abandoned us and we’re ready to abandon Him. Though God is jealous of our heart attitude which says, “I love you but I must have this other thing too,” He extends his hand of mercy and consolation to draw us back to be satisfied in His love.
While our adversary the devil is a formidable foe who will use any allowable means necessary to opportunistically attack faith in the most vulnerable moments of life, take heart because Jesus prays for you! Jesus sought to prepare Simon Peter for the imminent moment of the Shepherd being snatched away, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Take courage because Jesus’ intercession is the guarantee that your faith, though shaken will not fail. When Jesus says, “I’ll pray for you” this is not the meaningless human resignation uttered when we don’t know what else to say or do for a struggling friend as if to say, “I pity you, good luck with all that!” Unlike my prayers, when Jesus prays, All of His Prayers are Answered, YES! So Christ guarantees victory for Peter, the Disciples and all who believe. The prayers of Jesus give us assurance that God’s grace will be victorious. Paul reminds us in Romans 8,
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. …nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Because you are among the elect, Jesus has been condemned for you and the Father has Justified you through the righteousness of His Son. This Son is risen and now sits at the right hand of the Father always praying for you as your great sympathetic high priest. Because He always has the Father’s ear and His prayers are always answered, YES, you will be a conqueror! Even more than that! Your faith will persevere to the end and you will always BE LOVED! And not only that but through the process of having your faith sifted coupled with Jesus prayers for your perseverance, when (not if) you turn back to Him you will become stronger so that you may help strengthen others.
A 2008 U.S. survey of unchurched adults found that 72% of them believed that the church ‘is full of hypocrites.’ I blogged yesterday, (see The Church is full of Hypocrites) that the design of the church is a “mixed body” consisting of both the righteous and the unrighteous like wheat and tares growing and coexisting side by side in the same field (the church) that will ultimately be separated from each other at the time of harvest (judgment). But the charge given by the 72% in the survey is still unfair for lots of reasons. Here’s one:
While some in the church are pretending to be something they’re not, others are just a “work in progress” like me and perhaps like you. I am under no illusion that I am perfect and am quite aware of my shortcomings and my need to grow into the image of Jesus Christ who saved me. While my goal is to be like Christ, He is engaged in this chiseling, refining work on me that takes a lifetime and is not completed until glory. I often tell friends that there should always be a circumference of orange cones and yellow warning tape surrounding me with a sign saying, “Pardon My Progress,” for the snapshot reality of my life is actually quite messy. I am a “work in progress” but not a hypocrite.
Charles Spurgeon commented,
The Church is faulty, but that is no excuse for your not joining it, if you are the Lord’s. Nor need your own faults keep you back, for the Church is not an institution for perfect people, but a sanctuary for sinners saved by Grace, who, though they are saved, are still sinners and need all the help they can derive from the sympathy and guidance of their fellow Believers… The Church is the nursery for God’s weak children where they are nourished and grow strong. It is the fold for Christ’s sheep—the home for Christ’s family.
What a startling statement it was! Jesus sat was with His twelve best friends in the world. They had been together for three years, they ate together, they slept together, they walked mile after mile together. They sat under His teaching, saw Him perform countless miracles and were so excited about being a part of His Future Kingdom that they argued about who among them would be the greatest in it. They knew Jesus and they knew each other. And once again they came together for an evening meal, relaxing together at the table and eating when the words came out of Jesus’ mouth, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.”
His words were puzzling, cryptic, surprising and even shocking. Yet they knew that His words were always True, so they began to weep. How could it be that one of this inner-circle would betray their Lord, their Savior, their Friend? After initial abhorrence and disgust at the idea they moved with eagerness to clear themselves of suspicion, to judge their own consciences and defend themselves declaring, “Surely Not I?” One by one each man declared his innocence; thoughts of betrayal were far from their hearts. Even Judas spoke up saying, “Surely Not I?” The disciples were often in the position of overestimating themselves and failing to see their capacity for rebellion and betrayal. In fact, later in the evening they would all abandon Him.
I remember when I was a new believer attending a holiday conference for college students when a speaker asked a section of 100 students to stand and then preceded to ask 50 of the number to sit back down. He then made a startling prediction, “In ten years, half of the 100 will no longer be walking with the Lord!” His prediction was not based on any specific knowledge of the sample group, but on anecdotal evidence of working with young people who declared themselves to be “on fire for Jesus” in their youth but later would show no evidence that they ever truly believed. Ironically, the thoughts that penetrated my mind and heart on that evening were “Surely Not I?” Then looking at my friends and thinking, “Surely not them either, right?”
The Apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.” A regular call to look within ourselves to discover Christ and Faith is not a harmful thing for the Christian to do. Jesus makes this startling prediction of his closest friends, “One of you will betray me,” because He knows they have overestimated their commitment to Him, that their faith is not mature and their foundations will soon be rocked. He wants all of them to do a heart inventory and by doing so reminds His disciples and us that we are chosen but we are not choice. He wants us all to see our capacity for rebellion and to see our great need for His grace and mercy. He wants us to ask ourselves, “Are we following Him because the crowd follows Him?” and “Are we following Him because of the nice gifts He provides.” If we follow Him because of the crowd or the gifts, it is likely that one day we will walk away from Him. There will come a time in our earthly lives when we feel alone in our faith and the crowd is not following. There will also come a time when His gifts momentarily cease, when our faith will be tested with the question, “Do I love the Giver or do I love the Gifts?”