Saturday, September 16, 2017

I’ve got the love of Jesus down in my heart. It has nothing to do with knowledge.

A young fellow went fishing with his buddies. As they loaded their poles and tackle boxes into the pickup truck, conversation came around to the girl he was dating. His buddies asked him all sorts of questions. “What family does she come from?”  “Who are her parents?”  “What do they do?”  “Does she have brothers or sisters?”  “What church do they attend?”  “What did she study in school?”

His buddies were a little surprised at first. By the time they reached the river, they had passed from surprise to frustration to skepticism. He could answer none of their questions.

“How long have you been dating her,” asked one of his fishing buddies. “Four years,” the young fellow said. “How can you be dating a girl for four years without knowing who she is,” his buddy demanded. “I know what I need to know,” the young fellow said easily. “But if you love her, don’t you want to know more about her?”  “Who said anything about love?  It’s not like we’re going to get married. We’re just having fun for awhile. We go out on a date, then we go our separate ways. She’s a lot of fun. That’s all I need to know.”

That young fellow’s level of interest in his girlfriend seems so wrong that you’d never meet anyone like that in real life. But you already have – the church.

Many in the church are just dating God. Who said anything about loving God?  It’s not like we’re married to Him. We know what we need to know to have a good time. We’re enjoying church, Bible study, praise and worship, and the assurance that we are headed to heaven. We’re having so much fun we don’t want to be bored with unessential details and technicalities.

Who cares about which parts of Christ’s life are his state of humiliation and which are his state of exaltation? That is just academic theological gobbledgook. It has nothing to do with me enjoying salvation. Who cares whether baptism is a sacrament? Whatever it is, I am baptized, so I’ve got it. It has nothing to do with the quality of my faith.

I love Jesus just fine without pursuing any more knowledge of him.

What is Jesus doing in retirement?

Sidney Herald religion column published March 5, 2017
Retirement affects people differently. One friend worked 50 years, got his gold watch, retired, and died less than a year later. Someone said he died of not having enough to do. Another friend said he had to retire to have enough time to get all his work done. He is busier now than when he was working. Another friend served to retirement in the military, and then started a second career teaching English.

During his earthly ministry, Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” (John 5:17) On the cross, “He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:30) The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty. (Mark 16:19; Romans 8:34; 1 Peter 3:22)

So, what is Jesus doing now? It sounds like He finished his career, went into retirement, and is just sitting. What does sitting at the right hand of God mean?

To be “seated at the right hand” is a rich figure that the Bible uses many times. It means Jesus shares the power and glory of God the Father, rules over all things for the benefit of the Church, prays for us, sends us the Holy Spirit, protects his kingdom from its enemies, and acts as mediator and advocate for sinners with God.

Jesus has not gone into retirement. He has gone into another part of his career. Every day, He is working for your salvation.

Jesus today makes constant intercession for us. “Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us.” (Romans 8:34) “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1)  “Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) “For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” (Hebrews 9:24)

Dr. Martin Luther says Christ comes forward daily for us before God “as a faithful, merciful intermediary, savior, and unique priest and bishop of our souls.” Because He “offers and shows His body and blood … before God daily, on our behalf, we may obtain grace.”

Christ’s sacrifice is not just in the past. It protects us still, in the here and now, from the accusation of God’s holy law. It opens for us free access to God’s fatherly heart. It does this now, by means of confident prayer. It will do this in the future, when by sight we will offer up our adoration.

As exalted high priest, Christ provides protection from the divine wrath of the holy God for all who believe.

Friday, September 15, 2017

"You don't understand what you read," she said

Sidney Herald religion column published April 30, 2017
Our fourth grade teacher gave us reading comprehension tests. We read compositions and answered questions. My grade was a shock. One little letter said the same thing as my teacher. “You don’t understand what you read,” she said.

Literature was a locked book, and I did not have a key.

This afflicted me especially with the Bible. Jesus was hard to understand. He is not like us. His Middle Eastern culture is not like ours. Conversations with him take twists and turns that were not easy to follow.

Even some smart people have the same trouble. The Apostle Philip heard the treasurer of Queen Candace reading the Bible. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

The Church has provided many pastors and teachers to guide me. They give us some keys. Here are a couple that unlock the Word of God. For one, the Bible is a book about Jesus. For another, God speaks basically two words to us, his Law and his Gospel, which are two different kinds of messages.

What good do these keys do? In a given passage, they help us see Jesus rather than missing him, and they help us hear both words God is speaking, not just one or the other.

Consider the well known parable of the Good Samaritan. If we want to refresh our memories, we can read it again in Luke 10:29-37. What does it mean?

Often it is taught that it means we should love our neighbor as ourselves, and that our neighbor is whoever needs our help. We should be like the Good Samaritan and help the man wounded and left half dead. That certainly is true. That is God’s Law, where both Moses and Jesus teach that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39)

But the keys my pastors and teachers gave make us ask, “Where is Jesus in this, and where is the Gospel?” So far we see the Christian but not the Christ, and the Law but not the Gospel.

Here is the Gospel: Jesus is the Good Samaritan. It is we who are like the man wounded and left for dead. We are wounded by our conscience which rightly accuses us of sin. We are wounded by Satan and the world that beat up on us. We are wounded by the Law which is spiritual when it says we have not kept the Law as we should. We are the ones who need to be rescued. Jesus comes along, finds us, and does everything for us to save our lives.

Jesus obeys the Law perfectly for us and dies on our behalf the death for sin that the Law demands. Jesus washes away our sin in Baptism. Jesus gives us true food and drink to sustain us, his own body and blood with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gives us the word of the Gospel saying, God for Jesus’ sake forgives you all your sins.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Escaping a prairie fire on burnt out ground

Sidney Herald religion column published July 23, 2017

Drought and fires this year recall memories of prairie fires in homesteading days. In high winds, fires moved rapidly, burning grass, crops, livestock, wildlife, buildings, and people.

One time a homesteading father saw a fire fanned by winds toward his farm. He realized he and his family could not run away from it. He sent his son to the house for a box of matches and gathered his family together. He struck a match and set a fire. In the wind, the fire rose rapidly and began to burn across the farm. After only a few minutes, he led his family onto burnt out ground. Minutes later, when the prairie fire reached the farm, the flames came to the burnt out ground and found no fuel there to burn. The prairie fire skipped around the burnt out ground, and the family standing on it was saved.

The cross of Christ is the burnt out ground. It is the ground of safety from the judgment of God upon sin. When the fire of judgment reaches the cross, there the wrath of God on sin already has been exhausted on Christ, who suffered judgment in our place. The consuming fire of judgment is itself consumed by the holiness and magnificence of the person of Christ.

The idea of God’s wrath on sin is out of fashion. In many places, the impression people have of Jesus is a nice, marshmallow of a swell fella who surely did away with any need to think about sin or judgment. Actually, it was Jesus who revealed hell.

We can’t learn much about hell in the Old Testament. There is some talk about a place called Sheol. It is a shadowy place. The description is sketchy. We don’t learn much about it.

We can’t learn much about hell in the New Testament except in the words of Jesus himself. Jesus is the revealer of hell. He uses a word that pictures eternal fire. The word is geenna. This is the name of a valley on the south side of Jerusalem. It was the town dump. The garbage and dead animals were thrown there. It burned and burned constantly. Jesus chose this word to reveal hell. This is the word we see translated as “hell” in our English Bibles when Jesus speaks.

Sometimes when people find out it was Jesus who revealed hell like this, they are tempted to stop liking him. It can’t hurt to remember, though, that at the same time He revealed hell fire, He came to save us from it, by suffering in our place.

As Dr. Luther explains the Second Article of the Apostles Creed, Christ “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death, that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity.”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Antinomianism and Legalism: Three Streams of Confessional Lutherans

Three streams.

There are three streams that have flowed into current confessional Lutheranism. (There are more, but for present purposes, these three are sufficient to consider.)

Stream One.

Those born, baptized, raised, confirmed, and still living in confessional Lutheranism.

Stream Two.

Those born, baptized, raised, and confirmed in Lutheran synods that went antinomian. Examples would be the ALC, the LCA, and the ELCA. In those synods, there have been teachings like Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics and 1622 other forms of antinomianism.

Stream Three.

Those born, dedicated, raised, rededicated, rededicated, and rededicated until their rededicators broke in the Evangelical denominations. In those denominations, there have been teachings like Keswick Theology and 1622 other forms of legalism.

Now the pool of confessional Lutherans are having trouble understanding each other. Those who have come out of Evangelicalism have difficulty understanding why other Lutherans would want to let legalism take over their current confessional synods. Why would they want the LCMS, WELS, ELS, TAALC, and other confessional synods to become Evangelical? It is an existential threat, because the Law was killing them in Evangelical churches, and if the Law destroys confessional Lutheranism, there will be nowhere to go.

Those who have come out of apostate Lutheranism have difficulty understanding why other Lutherans would want to let antinomianism take over their current confessional synods. Why would they want the LCMS, ELC, TAALC, and other confessional synods to become like the ELCA? It is an existential threat because, under Situation Ethics and the like, doing away with the Law also did away with the Gospel, and if the antinomianism destroys confessional Lutheranism, there will be nowhere to go.

Much of the debate takes the form of pin-balling between the bumpers of personal experiences. Those in Stream Three form their current theology partly from the corpus of Lutheran doctrinal literature, and partly from reaction to Evangelicalism. Too large of a dose of the new mixture is simply reactionary against Evangelicalism, which takes the form of reacting against the Law.

Those in Stream Two form their current theology from their Lutheran homes, confirmation studies, lives as life-long Lutherans, and their reaction against Situation Ethics and the other forms of antinomianism that destroyed their childhood synods.

Each of those streams has gone through a destruction. The former ALC-like types have gone through the destruction of their childhood synods and have had to leave their families for the faith. The former Evangelicals have gone through the destruction of their inner lives as they tried and failed to reach the mirage of the deeper spiritual life.

It is hard for former Evangelicals to understand that to have experienced the destruction of one’s synod is as devastating as to experience the destruction of one’s inner life. But, because the Lutheran faith is extra nos, when you take that destruction on its own terms, it is every bit as devastating.

I am in both Stream Two and Stream Three. I was born and baptized in the Danish Lutheran Synod. I was confirmed in the American Lutheran Church. My confirmation pastor, Rev. Dr. Casper B. Nervig, was the last confessional pastor of my childhood congregation. Immediately following my confirmation and his retirement from the ministry, Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics, Paul Tillich, and 1622 other forms of antinomianism took over, and today my baptismal and confirmation congregations are in the ELCA. While in post graduate studies, I finally departed my beloved and destroyed synod and went looking for Christianity that affirmed the doctrine of Scripture, since the denial of that doctrine is what lay at the root of the antinomian destruction. After bopping around in several denominations, I found a high view of Scripture in the Christian and Missionary Alliance. There I found a beautiful spiritual home for a period of decades. The Alliance and its people have been so good to my family and me that I am in no mood to say anything against the Alliance. It is not a monolith, but Keswick Theology is present in parts of the denomination.

One day, someone invited me to a Confessional Reading Group. Soon I was attending a weekly group Tuesday at noon, and a monthly group on a Wednesday evening. Aside from my Dad’s and Mom’s instruction in the home and the church’s instruction in Sunday school and confirmation, this was the most evangelistic thing anyone ever did for me. By a series of steps from there, I am back in a confessional Lutheran congregation and synod.

I am tempted to form my theology as reaction to Situation Ethics and antinomianism. I am tempted to form my theology as reaction to Keswick Theology and Evangelicalism. The thing I must remember, and that I wish we all could remember, is that neither reaction is Lutheran, and neither is Christian, because neither is sola scriptura. We are not letting Scripture form our theology. Experience is forming it. We are so far down into the weeds of our personal experiences that we cannot see we are living reactionary lives.

We cannot hear what others say. We hear our experiences instead. When some Lutheran says we should teach or exhort the Law and tell people the Gospel does not make us free to hate our neighbors by breaking the commandments of the Second Table, we hear Evangelicalism, Keswick Theology, and 1622 other forms of legalism, even though no one said keeping the Law is necessary for justification. We then go on to refute something they never said, and the conversation, like ships passing in the night, never makes contact.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

How did he become the person to tell the whole community what to name their children?

It all started with that one editorial in the local newspaper. The editor wrote about the current fad in naming children. He probably was right that over half the popular names started with the letter J (Jason, Jared, Jennifer, and so on). I only read to the end because I figured he was bound to ridicule me too. My children’s names are Leif Eric, Cedric Arthur, and Haans Jorgen. Common Italian names that don’t stand out. The editor was not married and had no children.
How did he become the person to tell the whole community what to name our children?
Starting from there, I began to notice that in many different contexts and applications, this same social phenomenon recurs. There are people who ridicule and judge others in an area that, after you have been ridiculed long enough, one day you wake up and say, “Hey, who is he to be telling everyone?”
Lutherans have gotten to be as good at this as anyone. We have many pastors now who put down others for being mean or unloving or not very good at getting along with others. After you hang around and watch some good people take a beating from these folks for quite awhile, all of a sudden one day you wake up and say, “Hey, why are so many divorced pastors telling others how bad they are at relationships?”
And if you ask, the answers you get sound almost like they are saying, we are qualified because of our divorces. We have learned from them, and now we know what grace really is and how your marriage can be as great as our new marriages. As if our 40 and 50 year happy marriages were graceless chopped liver. As if staying taught us less than their leaving did.
Yeah, I am just not too sure that everything called grace really is.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Shack: Rejection of the Chief Article of the Christian Faith

This article condenses a series of articles previously published on Brothers of John the Steadfast. That series has been transformed into a free book. Information about the free book is available in the post titled, “Multiple Distributors and Formats for The Shack: A Journey from Pain to Truth to Error."

The novel, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, has come out as a movie. It is time again to have discernment about its message.

Many worthy critiques address a catalogue of problems and are worth reading. This article focuses on the chief article of faith upon which the church stands or falls, which is justification and the redemption we have in Jesus.[1]

The theology and the story of The Shack arise from two pressures:
  • Pain, tragedy, loss, trauma, and suffering.
  • Perceived inadequacy of traditional American Protestantism to heal pain.
The author, Wm. Paul Young, had a severely abusive childhood. It is a painful story. Mackenzie (Mack) Phillips, the main character in The Shack, had a severely abusive upbringing by his hypocritical Christian father. It is a painful story that Young tells very well. Traditional Protestantism could not heal Young’s pain, he says, and in The Shack, it cannot heal Mack’s pain. Mack’s seminary training and standard Christianity do him no good.

The pain of Young’s upbringing cause him to enter what he calls “the Great Sadness.” Parallel to his great sadness, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a “renaissance of Trinitarian theology.”[2] This happened around the world, across denominational lines, and across disciplines and fields of study. A piece of this renaissance provided Young with his healing and healing for Mack in The Shack.

As it relates to The Shack, the British setting of this renaissance is significant. In Britain, the revival of interest in the Trinity was much influenced by the Study Commission of the British Council of Churches on “Trinitarian Doctrine Today.” This commission met between November 1983 and May 1988. John Zizioulas presented the seminal paper to the commission. His paper delineated the commission’s task and defined its agenda. He agreed with Karl Barth and Karl Rahner that the doctrine of the Trinity has become marginalized in the church. This had happened in both the East and the West. It had happened not only in matters of doctrine, but also with regard to the devotional life of Christians.

The commission published its report titled The Forgotten Trinity. With the report, the commission published a selection of papers and a study guide for local churches. The study guide related the Trinity to worship, Scripture, tradition, our relationship with God, human relationships, and society.

The joint chairs of the Commission were Costa Carras and James B. Torrance. James, his brother Thomas Torrance, Zizioulas, and theologians like them became prime influences on Young. That influence led to the core of the message in The Shack.

A second book, The Shack Revisited, by F. Baxter Kruger, is a more or less authorized commentary on the theology of The Shack. Young himself writes the foreword for The Shack Revisited, saying, “If you want to understand better the perspectives and theology that frame The Shack, this book is for you.”  He describes Kruger as “A Mississippi theologian who cut his intellectual teeth in Aberdeen, Scotland with the Torrance brothers.”

This school of thought, this type of Trinitarian Theology, is not easy to summarize briefly. It draws from many sources in church history including the Cappadocian Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Farrar Cappon, George MacDonald, James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, Kallistos Ware, Richard Rohr, and John Zizioulas, to name a few.

For our purposes here, we can summarize Trinitarian Theology this way:
  • First, we begin with a concept called perichoresis as the essence of the Trinity.
  • Second, perichoresis expands to become a theory-of-everything.
Young and Kruger really do mean everything. Confining ourselves to theology, however, for the sake of this article, perichoresis conditions all other doctrines. It becomes a hermeneutical principle that governs how Scripture is interpreted. What we are to believe about creation, law, fall, sin, wrath, promise, faith, repentance, conversion, justification, atonement, sanctification, adoption, testament, new covenant, reconciliation, eschatology, holiness, and more is subject to what fits with the perichoretic Trinity.

As Roderick T. Leupp says, “If today's devotees of trinitarian theology learn only one technical term, perichoresis should be it.”[3] Kruger describes perichoresis this way:

The sharing between the Father and Son in the Spirit is so deep and genuine, the intimacy so real and personal, that our minds are forced to move even beyond the rich notion of face-to-face fellowship into the world of mutual indwelling and union. The relationship of the Son and the Father in the Spirit is a living and unobstructed fellowship of love of the deepest order. They know one another fully. They live a fellowship of unqualified personal interchange and communion in the Spirit, which is so flawless, so rich and thorough and true, that there is literal mutual indwelling. The Persons pass into one another and contain one another without losing themselves. When one weeps, the other tastes salt, yet they never get so entangled or enmeshed that they lose themselves and become one another. The beautiful word perichoresis (peri-co-ray-sis), my favorite theological word, says both things at once.(6) Perichoresis means mutual indwelling, or interpenetration, without loss of individuality: “The doctrine of the perichoresis links together in a brilliant way the threeness and the unity, without reducing the threeness to the unity, or dissolving the unity in the threeness.”(7)[4]

There is much good in the renaissance of Trinitarian theology. Pain brought Young to it, and that was a journey from pain to truth.

Tragically, however, the specific vein adopted by Young in real life and Mack in the novel gets carried away and falls into error. Based on perichoretic speculations, The Shack teaches that God never had wrath on sin. The perichoretic nature of love forbids it. God is not allowed the complexity or mystery of simultaneous wrath and love. For as lofty and dazzling as it sounds, Trinitarian Theology really flattens God to a cardboard cutout of humanly manageable proportions.

The Shack expressly and purposely contradicts the historic Christian understanding of this compact confession of the Gospel:

How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14)

This verse shows the actions of each person of the Trinity. Christ offers himself as a blood sacrifice. He offers himself through the Spirit. God receives and accepts Christ’s sacrifice.

By these actions, the Triune God worked for us “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood.” (Romans 3:24-25) In his Incarnation and state of humiliation, Christ was “made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

The Shack teaches that none of that work of God to save us was necessary. We just got psyched out by the fall into sin and projected a notion of wrath onto God. That was just in our insane minds. Jesus went to the cross not to actually bear the wrath of God on sin, but to clear up our distorted perception of God, showing that because of perichoretic love, this whole wrath deal with just a big boogeyman man of our own making.

And there it goes, the chief article upon which the church stands or falls. The doctrine of justification and the redemption we have in Jesus is tossed out. Instead of putting our confidence before God in the blood of Jesus, The Shack teaches us to trust that perichoresis means there never was any wrath.

In The Shack, the shack comes to symbolize the mess inside ourselves. Supposedly, the perichoretic theory is going to heal that mess. The problem historic Christianity thought sees with The Shack is that it fails to deal with the shack – the shack of actual sin, wrath, and forsakenness, which Christ bears in the place that was mine, the cross. The Shack leaves us in our sins. It leaves us in the shack.

Besides the catalog of problems noted in other critiques, a central error of The Shack is its rejection of atonement and justification. This is not a small problem. This pretty much eliminates the point of the Christian religion. To believe The Shack is to disbelieve Christ.
[1] Luther called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (‘article of the standing and falling of the church’): ‘…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.’  In XV Psalmos graduum 1532-33; WA 40/III.352.3. In the Smalcald Articles, he said:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ... Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].
Smalcald Articles, The Second Part, Article I, The Chief Article, ¶¶ 1-5, in McCain, Paul Timothy, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).p. 263.
[2]  Christopher Schwöbel, ‘The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks,’ in idem, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), pp. 1-30.
[3] Roderick T. Leupp, Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 71-72, quoted in James D. Gifford, Jr., Perichoretic Salvation: The Believer's Union with Christ as a Third Type of Perichoresis, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 15.
[4] Kruger, C. Baxter, The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream FaithWords. Kindle Edition., pp. 112-113, (citing at n. 6, Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 168ff, and quoting at n. 7, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), p. 175. Perichoresis is to dance or flow around, mutual movement, mutual indwelling.  Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. See Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (New York: Penguin Group, 208) p. 215.