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.”
Do you find it easy for your heart to lose its focus on Christ and doing His Will? I think there is natural drift in all of our hearts especially when our little worlds feel chaotic and our eyes attend to circumstances rather than remembering the generosity and grace of our Lord. And sometimes we forget that Christ’s design in coming into the world was to reform the world and in doing so, He expects that His followers would be radically identified with Him. As we identify with Him and follow Him, we seek to cooperate with the work of His Spirit in the reforming of our hearts and lives. Thankfully even as we make a mess of things, He still remembers His gratuitous covenant which He has made with us through His Son.
The prophet Malachi writes, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.” Take a moment with the following prayer:
Grant, Almighty God, that as Satan strives to draw me away from my full attention in serving You through the circumstances of disorder and confusion in my world; — O grant, that I may know that You still have a tender affection for me; and if I perceive that you don’t by what I find in my world, may I rely on Your Word, and not doubt that You always watch over my safety; and being supported by this confidence, may I always continue in the path of my calling: and as You have designed to make me a partaker of the greatest evidence of Your favor in being reconciled to You through Your only-begotten Son; and being made one with Him, may I never hesitate to cheerfully offer my services to You, however defective they may be, since You have once promised to be a generous Father to us, so as not to rigidly test what I offer to You, but so graciously to accept it, that we may know that not only my sins, which justly deserve condemnation, are forgiven and laid aside, but that You also bear with my infirmities and my defects in my imperfect works, that I shall at length receive the reward which You have promised, and which I cannot attain through personal merits, but through the sanctification of Your Spirit, and through the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. — Amen.
(paraphrased from Calvin’s prayer at the end of his commentary on Malachi)
The prophet Zechariah wrote from Jerusalem around 520 B.C. about the Necessary Divine Intervention for a full restoration of the people of God. This full restoration and redemption would be initiated by the Son of God coming in the flesh to inaugurate His Kingdom. Zechariah would hear from God and write, “Say to the daughter of Zion,’Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.'” John Calvin comments, “This would have been a ridiculous display, if it had not been in accordance with the prediction of Zechariah regarding the Coming of the King of Zion.”
In the scene of the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, we find that Jesus is in complete control as He perfectly fulfills even the strangest prophecy regarding the coming of the Promised Messiah. Jesus shows his Commitment to Scriptures, as He brought every part of his life under it, always fulfilling and quoting Scripture. The word was at the center of his heart and mission. You can’t say you love Jesus but you don’t read, study or follow the Bible. He completely trusted the Scriptures.
To fulfill this Prophecy, Jesus lays claim to the honors of royalty as Zechariah prophesied that all Hope is built on The Coming of the Redeemer King on a donkey and when He comes, He will bring Joy to your hearts! This is Good News of Great Joy and means that God is reconciled to man through His Mediation. It means you will be delivered from your sin and your trouble. This King is just but comes carrying salvation! He will mediate the very presence of God back to earth. He will be the door to God, the final temple. You now have access to God through the coming of God to Man! And what a magnificent scene it was!
A.W. Tozer said, “We weren’t given the Bible as a substitute for God; rather it is supposed to lead us right to the heart of God.” And God’s heart is one that woos us back to Himself to give us the Second Chance. He holds out mercy and forgiveness to us continuously while calling us back to a lifestyle of repentance, holiness and love and His Heart is on display in His Word. The Psalms have a unique quality in that they display the heart of God while simultaneously they become windows into our own souls. As John Calvin comments “we are certain that God puts [His] words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.” The Psalms of Repentance (aka The Second Chance Psalms) is a name designation dating from the sixth century A.D. given to Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143 which are specially expressive of godly sorrow for sin and rich in God’s heart of mercy and consolation to draw us back to be satisfied in His love.
Psalm 130 is one of these Second Chance Psalms and was probably Martin Luther’s favorite. Here the Psalmist finds himself overwhelmed with adversity and passionately begs the Lord for deliverance. As he prays, he acknowledges that he is being justly chastised by the hand of God. He doesn’t innocently find himself in trouble instead, he is in a mess of his own making. This is not a trial which came out of nowhere. Conventional wisdom and sadly even many churches would say to him, “you’ve made your bed and now you have to lie in it.” He passionately begs the Lord for deliverance and finds hope because God is the everlasting deliverer of His people and has always shown Himself ready to extend mercy and rescue even from the worst of self-inflicted circumstances. Take a moment to savor this Psalm.
A Song of Ascents.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.
We translate the greek word, koinonia using words that have become almost meaningless to us today. We use words like “fellowship” “participation” or even “partaking.” Sometimes we will use an even more ambiguous word, “communion” These words don’t really do justice to the meaning. I have attempted in the past to draw attention to the word and even attempt to re-define it as “communion by intimate participation,” which might temporarily arrest us to look again but I admit that my definition has only minimal impact on how we could view our connection with God and each other.
But the Biblical writers intended a greater inter-connectedness and mutual experience for us in the use of this word. And to a world that experiences life, relationship, connection and even church from behind a firewall, grasping the intended experience of koinonia with God and each other is crucial lest we continue down a path to a surrogate society of isolation where we are only virtually connected to God, church and others. We are living in a reductionist society of ideas and virtual realities and while we can explain our realities better than we ever could we have a lesser experience of them.
Julie Canlis in her book Calvin’s Ladder cites Owen Barfield in saying,
“When a Greek person living in the classical world experienced the world around him, he did not do so via a system of ideas about his experience but instead felt an “extra-sensory link” between what he saw and his own self… The participation of the ordinary man was a livelier and more immediate experience… . This was due to the koinonia-consciousness of the classical world (which persisted in varying forms right up until the scientific revolution).”
To the Greek world of the first century, Koinonia was the way to experience the world now. Koinonia was originally understood in the context of a historical setting when individuality and the boundaries of self were not harshly drawn and we cared more about what we experienced than merely about the ideas that described our experience. George Hunsinger underscores the importance and elusiveness of koinonia for us today.
“Koinonia means that we are not related to God or to one another like ball bearings in a bucket, though a system of external relations. We are rather, something like relational fields that interpret, form, and participate in each other in countless real though often elusive ways. Koinonia both as a tern and as a reality, is remarkable for its range and flexibility and inexhaustible depth.”
The presence of the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper is real though spiritual and mysterious. This koinonia, communion by intimate participation (Cf.1 Cor. 10:15-17), with the body and blood of Christ is not a mere object lesson or heightened remembrance about a gift, it is the body and the blood.
When we gather for Lord’s Day worship, we have a mystical experience with our union with Christ. In worship we are ushered into the heavenlies by the Holy Spirit having come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem where innumerable angels gather festively, this is the assembly of all who are enrolled in heaven (Heb 12.22-24). This is not a spatial transportation of our disembodied souls into heaven, but a breaking in of the age to come upon this present age by the Holy Spirit who indwells and maintains our union with Christ in heaven. Already we are mystically united to the body and blood of Christ through faith so our participation in His body and blood in the supper is an experience of this mystical union.
In the Lord’s Supper, we feast on Christ by the person of the Holy Spirit, partaking of Him not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith. But make no mistake, we really are partakers of His true body and blood by the working of the Holy Spirit. Now you might ask, how does this exactly happen? Well, with John Calvin, we will say, “It’s a mystery. We cannot explain it, but we believe it.” Our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a spiritual connection with the past work of Christ on the cross but also with the present spiritual work of Christ, alive in Glory. So while Christ is not bodily or locally present in the Supper (His Body is only locally in heaven since His Ascension), the entire person of Christ is yet spiritually present and His Body and Blood are enjoyed in true fellowship with Him.
The Lord’s Supper is a life-giving, grace-imputing influence to the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit which is accessed by the believer’s faith recognizing the Body of the Lord in the elements and accompanied by real cautions against a casual or indifferent attitude (cf. 1 Cor. 11:27-29). While it is quite a mystery something very real, spiritual and efficacious is happening in the grace received in the Supper of an ever closer fellowship with Christ and ever increasing assurance of Salvation.