Saturday, August 16, 2014

Anything else is self-deception and a denial of the Word of God

God is holy and punishes sin, but He is not some vengeful judge standing far above us eager to condemn and destroy.

Instead, He is the One Who became flesh, died for the sins of the world, rose again, and stands alongside us now in our sufferings, struggles, burdens, temptations, and fears. He is not the "friend" that so many imagine Him to be -- as if He's some kind of semi-divine coffee buddy. The Son of God is our gracious Lord (and Brother) Who bears our weaknesses in Himself.

Christians often misinterpret God's Law and Gospel to their own great harm, denying themselves the comfort for which Christ paid with own blood. Following are some of those recent misunderstandings.

I. Who's the buyer?

In the parables of the Treasure in the Field and the Pearl of Great Price, who is the actor? Christ or man?
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Matthew 13:44-46 ESV).
It is tempting to think that we are the one who finds, sells, and buys. (So much of what passes for modern "evangelicalism" comes down to this error.) But that would require us sinful, selfish, sick souls to be a whole lot stronger, mature, and holy than we really are. Than Scripture shows us to be. We're dead in our trespasses and sins, and "every intention of the thoughts of [our] heart[s are] only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5 ESV).

Christ Himself tells us over and over again that it is God Who seeks and saves the lost. What a comfort it is to know that even though we've earned His wrath, God seeks desperately for us wretched sinners not to destroy us, but to save us!

II. Choosing life?

What about Moses' command to "Choose life"? Christians turn this into a slogan, as if they somehow actually do it. Here's what Moses wrote (emphases added):
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them" (Deuteronomy 30:16-20 ESV).
Did Israel keep God's commands and thereby "choose life"? No, they violated them and so chose death. And what was God's answer to His people's wickedness? He became flesh and died for the sins of the world.

III. Fear whom?

When Christ commanded His people, "do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28 ESV), to whom was He referring?

Not the devil, for where does God ever say to fear the enemy? But He does say over and over and over again to fear Him:
"Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 41:14 ESV).
"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight" (Proverbs 9:10 ESV).
(Besides that, the devil does not rule in hell. He and his fellow fallen are "cast [...] into hell and committed [...] to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment" (2 Peter 2:4 ESV). They're on short leashes until their final, eternal punishment where they "will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night [...]" (Revelation 14:10-11 ESV).

Don't fear that.

IV. Our utmost?

What about the popular book, "My Utmost for His Highness"? The idea is not a Christian, since God calls our good deeds "filthy rags" (and that term is itself a heavy-duty euphemism).

We have nothing to offer God. Our "utmost" is worthless. We're beggars. Christ Himself told His Apostles -- the Apostles -- that, "So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'" (Luke 17:10 ESV).

And I've never yet met anyone who's done "everything."

V. A final note

In judging a sermon -- or any other "Christian" message -- ask yourself: Who is the actor, God or man? On whom is the focus, us or Him? Is the speaker's interpretation consistent with what Scripture actually says? It is Gospel?

In other words, is the message essentially, "Christ for us," or is it something else? When the "greatest man born of women," John the Baptizer called the people of God to repentance, to whom did he point? Did he cry out, "Behold yourselves, contributors to your own salvation! Do your utmost!" or was his message, "Behold! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!"?

And did the Apostle Paul proclaim, "you have been saved through faith; you're on your own for the rest"?

It is human nature to want to play a part in our own salvation, even when we say we don't. Man either turns Gospel into Law, waters-down the Law, or denies his sin, all of which rob the believer of the comfort for which the Son of God paid so great a price.

Christ is Life, and He showed us the way:
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:10-14 ESV).
The only time we should focus on ourselves is when we use the Law to evaluate our own thoughts, words, and deeds, an exercise which shows us only our sin and our need for the Savior. 

Anything else is self-deception and a denial of the Word of God.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Prelude to sacrifice or Sacrament?

One of the truly divine aspects of traditional, orthodox Lutheran liturgy -- and therefore, Biblical, Apostolic worship -- is the proper understanding of what actually occurs during a church service. So many Christians of various stripes look at the service as something we do (sacrifice), but that is completely inconsistent with -- and contrary to -- the Word of God.

Rather, worship is Christ's service to us (sacrament).

I. The Divine Service

Church is not a fitness club where we struggle and strive to improve. We're miserable sinners. What can a dead man do to make himself alive again? What can beggars do before a holy God that He would want it highlighted during His worship?

A better analogy is that church is a hospital in which the Great Physician Himself tends to our sin and sickness. That is what the Divine Service is. Christ comes to us sinners with His mercy through His Word (read, sung, recited, and preached), His "Washing of Rebirth and Renewal" (Baptism), and the feeding of God's people with His own Body and Blood (Communion).

Because we're such wicked sinners, because we're so given to self-aggrandizement, because we so easily lie to ourselves, each other, and God, every word, act, and symbol in worship has special import. So, we must ask ourselves: Does a particular element of the Service focus on Christ, His sacrifice for the life of the world, and His ongoing, unfathomable mercy (and our utter depravity and helplessness, as necessary), or does it focus on what we do to, for, or toward God?

In other words, is it Christ-centered, Christ-on-the-periphery, and Christ in-between, or does it focus on man? Who acts and who receives?

II. The Sacraments

And there's a categorical difference in the Divine Service between a purely-symbolic act and an actual practical function that may or may not have symbolic meaning.

For example, when the offering is brought forward, there is a lot of symbolism. The congregation offers its "firstfruits" for God's work, expresses gratitude for His blessings, and offers itself symbolically to God. But there is also the practical matter of the church needing money to carry on its work.

But what of bringing the elements of the Lord's Supper to the altar during the Offertory?

Thinking it was just a bit of "high church," it was surprising to hear last night that the bringing forward of the bread and wine (with the offering and prayer requests -- completely appropriate, by the way; God invites us graciously to pray on all occasions) during our service is a presentation of our firstfruits, an offering to God.

That's a problem because in the Lord's Supper, the Son of God gives of Himself freely to all. He does the work. We have nothing to contribute to it. Suggesting otherwise resembles strongly the Roman Catholic (mis)understanding of Communion as (in part) our sacrifice.

Considering the less-than-charitable (reductio ad absurdum is not very nice!) and unsatisfactory explanation offered for this practice, I began doing some research. It turns out that out of several pages of search results, all but one or two were links to Roman Catholic sites.

Now, just because something is Roman doesn't mean that it's wrong. But the Church of Rome's understanding of Communion as something in which we play a part (our "sacrifice") is inconsistent with the Gospel. (Don't worry; "evangelicals" deny God's grace also, but they do it by removing Christ and His promises from Communion entirely.)

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in part (emphases mine throughout):
God has first blessed us with the gift of creation. Humans take those gifts given, wheat and grapes, and, using our creativity, make bread and wine. Then, we bring those gifts we have received and labored over to present them at the Altar / Table that they might be transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Finally, we receive them back in communion. The procession of the gifts says, in essence, “Behold the gifts God has given us!” The priest says the proper prayers aloud [...] the only prayer that is usually audible at this part of the Mass is the invitation of the presider, “Pray my brothers and sisters…” followed by response of the faithful, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands…" The rite closes with the Prayer over the Offerings.
So, what is the Lutheran understanding of bringing forward the Bread and Wine? According to this article, the bread and wine are "your own [God's] gifts," an interpretation consistent with the Lord's Supper as sacrament, not sacrifice:
Remembering, therefore, his salutary command, his life-giving Passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and his promise to come again, we give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, not as we ought, but as we are able; and we implore you mercifully to accept our praise and thanksgiving, and, with your Word and Holy Spirit, to bless us, your servants, and these your own gifts of bread and wine; that we and all who share in the + body and blood of your Son may be filled with heavenly peace and joy, and receiving the forgiveness of sin, may be + sanctified in soul and body, and have our portion with all your saints.
But is that definitive? It is Wikipedia, after all. (Yes, I know.) The official Lutheran (LCMS) explanation of the Liturgy clarifies:
There is, however, an offering that we do make, both now in our worship and one day in heaven itself. It is the sacrifice of thanksgiving as we call on the name of the Lord (Ps. 116:17). In the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Article 24), this eucharistic sacrifice is carefully distinguished from the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice for sins belongs to him alone. Every time we try to grab that honor for ourselves, we come up short--very short. But when we recognize our rightful place--that we are on the receiving end of God's merciful goodness--then the sacrifice of thanksgiving cannot help but pour forth from our lips as we give our thanks to the One who gave everything for us.

The giving of our firstfruits, whether it is money or possessions, time or talents, is also a part of this sacrifice of thanksgiving. Our mouths cannot remain separated from the rest of our bodies. If the thanksgiving is flowing from our lips, then it will also find expression in the giving of our very selves for the sake of Christ and the neighbor.
So, we do give something to God at this time: Our thanks in the form of our words and our "firstfruits" -- "money or possessions, time or talents." No mention of bread or wine. (Unlike today, the first Christians had to bring bread and wine to worship for the Lord's Supper, or there wouldn't have been any for Communion.)

What, if anything, did Luther have to say on the subject?

Communion has been called, "Holy food for holy people." Because Christ declares us holy, we are. But we are also sinners prone to self-deception. As long as we're on this side of Heaven, it might be better to refer to The Lord's Supper as "Holy food for wicked people."

Perhaps then pastors, Catholics, and Evangelicals will stop thinking of themselves as meritorious enough on their own to either contribute to the Lord's Supper or deny its power.