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Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Christian and Nationalism: Examining Bonhoeffer’s Anti-Nazi “Bethel Confession”

“Right-wing populist parties in European national parliaments (March 2016).” (see here) Support for far-right parties has increased across Europe since 1999, per British journalist Nafeez Ahmed…

God brings His Kingdom in Jesus Christ, so what is His attitude regarding earthly nations, or, “ethnos” (from where we get the word “ethnic”)?[i] Just what should the Christian think about a phenomenon that appears to be rapidly emerging once again: nationalism?

Christian commentator Al Mohler: idolatries of globalism…and nationalism…

This week, Albert Mohler devoted almost a whole show to stories related to the topic[ii], where he argued that in Europe there are “two forms of nationalism” – one healthy, concerned with matters of subsidiarity, and one unhealthy, “often reduced to a form of racism.” And when it comes to our own American context and concerns about movements on the increasingly “non-religious” political right (note Ross Douthat), look at what Pastor Todd Wilken tweeted out a little over a year ago:

At the time, I responded to Pastor Wilken’s tweet with some mild pushback, including the words “Just seems to me like all sense of proportion is lost with stuff like that” (he disagreed). A week later I followed up with a tweet (not only responding to Pastor Wilken!) that he also took issue with: “Anti-Trump postings & articles I see increasingly seem less measured/honest & more hysterical/overstated. Doesn’t serve #NeverTrump well.”

In any case, with the recent failure to pass the Republican’s health care bill, Dilbert creator and cultural guru Scott Adams contends that the media Narrative about Trump has now changed: he is not Hitler, but incompetent.

Incompetent?: “Trump hollowed out the GOP and he’s wearing it as a skin” — Scott Adams

Even if it is the case that we will now hear less of the Trump/Hitler comparison, it is, of course, still informative to think about nationalism – and the response of faithful German Christians to it as it occurred in their homeland in the 1930s.

First of all though, we should take a look at what the Bible has to say.

Paul says that God’s “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two.” Is this not why the early Christian apologist Aristides said that Christians were now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks?[iii] (apologia 2). This is the core thing that we as Christians want to communicate: the newness that we all have in Christ.

Christians are now a “Third Race,” set apart from both [unbelieving] Jews and Greeks… – Aristides

That said, when it comes to politics in this world, there are other things we must keep in mind. Not long ago, I tweeted the following: “We will be infected with sin until Christ returns. We will be many nations until the One Kingdom of heaven.” When I wrote that I had in mind what is said by the Apostle Paul in Acts 17:26: “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands,” as well as the harrowing words spoken by Jesus about the Last Days from, e.g. Matthew 24:7: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

And of course, even in heaven, we evidently will not lose the ethnic diversity that is a part and parcel of the traditional notion of nations (again, “ethnos”) – and which evidently emerged after the fall and the tower of Babel. For Revelation 7:9 gives us this amazing picture:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Therefore, while uniting all persons in Christ, Christianity, counter the Left, also gives us a favorable picture of what we call ethnicity – a term that has both culture and family ties in mind. The fact that mothers have a natural inclination – and equipment – to nurture their young[iv], that we might speak of our “fatherland,” and that “Nature produces a special love of offspring” (Cicero) – these are all good things. The cultural Marxist Left, on the other hand, hates the natural family – and hence nations[v] – for the same reasons it hates marriage: these are living icons of the church.

Our marriages are living icons proclaiming Christ and His bride, the church…

I had in mind these kinds of things when I declared some months ago that I was, in a sense, embracing identity politics and labeling myself a “Liberal Christian Nationalist” (yes, I know that sounded frightening to some people).

….And our families, living icons of the Church: our common Father – Jesus’s to – protects us!

With this said though, I wondered how this view would stack up vis a vis the response of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the other Christians who penned the Bethel Confession penned in 1930s. As we take a look, keep in mind that it was written to help the church theologically counter Hitler’s efforts to appropriate the church for his own racial program (the Bethel Confession never gained wide acceptance and the Barman Declaration become the document of choice for most who resisted ; you can read more about the Bethel Confession in Lowell Green’s book Lutherans Against Hitler: the Untold Story)

According to the Bethel Confession:

  • Jesus is “a member of the Israelite nation from the family of David…. All nations and races, also the noblest ones, are also guilty of his death and daily become guilty of it anew, when they insult the Spirit of grace (Hebr. 10:29).”
  • “God chose Israel to be his people among all the nations of the earth. He did this only in the power of his word and for the sake of his mercy, by no means for the sake of some natural prerogative (Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:7-11).”
  • “Struggle is not the basic principle of the original creation, and a fighting attitude is therefore not a commandment by God established by the original creation.”
  • Christians “must reject all attempts to place the natural phenomenon of race on the same level as the institutional orders that are grounded in a direct divine commandment to man.”
  • “God’s Holy Spirit alone works faith in man. He alone creates the fellowship of confessing rightly. The fellowship of such confessing is never coextensive with the boundaries of a certain ethnicity.”
  • “We oppose the teaching that it belongs to the essence of the church to be a national church [“Volkskirche”]. The church is free to be national church, so long as this form is a means to carry out its commission.”
  • The church can live even where there is no nation, for “where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:20].[vi]

In a core passage, we read that the church rejects the view that “the church is the religious organization of one nation,” and that “it should give religious support to ethnicity; that the boundaries of the church and the nation should be identical (religious nationalism).” (italics in B.C.)

An alternate view: “[Religious] identity endures through change. Indeed… it only endures by change….
I think we should be masters of [all] our identities and not let them master us.” (listen here)

“God’s kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus informs us, and therefore two realms must be kept in mind.

The role of the government, of the fatherland, of the nation, on the one hand, is ultimately to bear the sword to punish the evildoer and enact justice. This is not the proper role of the church, and therefore, “[we] reject the false doctrine of a ‘Christian state’ in every form.”

On the other hand, the realm of the church is to share God’s forgiveness in Christ through the means of grace, His Word, come to us in the Scriptures, and His sacraments.

“Behold the man.” His Kingdom is not of this world.

A longer section goes into some great detail providing guidance as this regards the church vis a vis diverse ethnic groups and “nations” that are held together more by force than culture. There is much nuance here, and so I quote in full not to miss any of it:

Christ is sent as the Redeemer of the whole world. This is why he commissions the church to bring the gospel to all nations. As it carries out this commission, it enters into the forms and structures of the nations of their time. It can live among a multitude of nations as the one church regardless of political boundaries. It can be a national church within the boundaries of a realm regardless of ethnicity. It can be church within a certain ethnicity while transcending political boundaries. It can be church within a certain ethnicity without transcending political boundaries, but within the boundaries of this ethnicity. Its external form is not subject to duress, but is determined by the only rule, namely, “by all means to gain some” [1 Cor. 9:22]. This is why it becomes a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, a Chinese to the Chinese, a German to the Germans. The manner and extent of such entering into time can be determined only based on the commission of the church.  The proclamation of the church always remains the alien grain of seed that is planted in the ground. Where the content of a specific time becomes the content of the proclamation the gospel is betrayed, because it is no longer said to the time, but absorbed by it….

We reject the false doctrine that the church belongs to the nation, or that it is there for the nation. The church does not belong to the nation, but to Christ. He alone is its Lord. Only in intrepid obedience to him it truly serves the nation in which it lives. It is there for every member of the nation, to gain it for the congregation of Jesus (italics in actual document).

All, in all, after reading the Bethel Confession, I find myself saying “Amen!” and marveling at its confession of Christ and His Church. I come to the conclusion that it is indeed fully compatible with my thoughts about Christianity and nationalism.

Can you have America without Christian influence?

One more very interesting thing. Taking a turn that would be considered very politically incorrect this day, the Bethel Confession also says the following:

No cultural or political considerations can liberate the church from the duty to call Israel to repentance and to baptism. Just as little can the Gentile Christians separate themselves from the Christians out of the nation of Israel. Their fellowship in word and sacrament is the sign for the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is the heir of Abraham’s promise. This is why the church must resist every secularization of the mission to the Jews which views the reception into the Christian church only the sign of the reception of the Jews into Western civilization.[vii]

This brings me to my closing thoughts.

As best I can tell, the rise of Nazism, a race-based ideology, was more theological than anything else. Hitler’s desire was not only to destroy the Jews, but eventually, Christianity as well. In sum, those who the Bible says were God’s chosen people by grace were to be replaced by the race that Nature had chosen. Its winners.

Most all of us are rightly horrified by the thought (though listen to this). Now without losing any of that horror, listen to the popular novelist Andrew Klavan, who says the following about his own conversion from Judaism to Christianity:

The Holocaust was the crucifixion compulsively reenacted on a grand scale: an attempt to kill God’s people in order to extinguish the Light of the World that shows us who we are…There are some people who say that an evil as great as the Holocaust is proof there is no God. But I would say the opposite. The very fact that it is so great an evil, so great that it defies any materialist explanation, implies a spiritual and moral framework that requires God’s existence. More than that. The Holocaust was an evil that only makes sense if the Bible is true, if there is a God, if the Jews are his people, and if we would rather kill him and them than truly know him, and ourselves. (Chapter 12, emphasis his, The Great Good Thing)

Worth pondering? I think so.[viii] God cares deeply about all people, all nations – even if here we need eyes of faith to see. His love is why in Christ He unites Himself together with us, first as regards the Jews, and then as regards the Gentiles – and promises them that in Him, we are a part of the family that will never perish.

FIN

 

Images: Right wing parties in Europe ( Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license) ;  Al Mohler, James Thompson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0; Donald Trump Arizona, by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Aristides public domain ; Kwame Anthony Appiah, by David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Christian flag from Pixabay (free use).

Notes:

[i] As will be seen below the biblical idea of “nation” has more in common with the idea of “people” or “people group” than it does “country with borders” or modern “nation-state”. That said, during the era of Romanticism there was in Europe, starting in Germany (and here with strong anti-semitic overtones and undercurrents), a strong backlash against the universalistic project of the Enlightenment. It would no doubt also be a good idea to explore further just how the notion of “people” and “nation” we find in the bible may have shifted in meaning during the last few centuries.

[ii] Relatedly, he also spoke about the secularization of Europe, where Christianity is seen as an embarrassment, evidenced by efforts to expunge Christianity from the record of how Europe came to be.

[iii] Biblically, earthly nations are inseparable from the concept of “ethnos,” from which we get “ethnicity”. In like fashion “genos”, from where we get “genes,” can be translated as offspring, family, race, nation, kind, or even sex. We see that both of these terms involve notions of blood and parentage, even if “ethnos” is more closely connected than “genos” with our notions of culture.

Christians are first and foremost citizens of heaven, not earth. In, but not of the world, their “dual ethnicity” means that they belong first to the kingdom of heaven, and are members of “God’s chosen ethnos” (I Peter 2:9). Though all are one “in Adam,” God has, post-fall, also ordained a diversity of nations (see Acts 17:26), from whom He will obtain worship (Rev. 7:9). Ultimately, the Church is a new Nation that re-unites, by faith in Christ, persons not just from this or that race, tribe, or nation, but from the entire human family – making one Nation, or more accurately, Kingdom.

[iv] For more along these lines, see my satirical article here.

[v] Note that Karl Marx was in favor of free trade, largely because of the effects he said it would have on families and nations. Ideological forms of capitalism do not get a pass here either (see this from Chesterton). Steve Keen’s work, Debunking Economics, is worth noting here.

[vi] Also from the Bethel Confession: “We reject the false doctrine that the existence of the nation is presupposition for the existence of the church, or that the existence of the church is presupposition for the life of a nation….

A nation can live and have a grand history, even where there is no church. Nations live within the natural world and have incurred the law of death that reigns over all creation. This is why a nation as a whole cannot be redeemed, for redemption is always God’s act upon an individual. However, the church, grateful to God, always lays hold of the assistance offered to it in the ethnicity or other natural orders for the execution of its commission.”

[vii] I think what the Jewish conservative writer Ben Shapiro says here really does not evince the proper kind of nuance:

“For folks who don’t know what the alt-right is, it might be worthwhile to just sort of start at the beginning and talk about what the alt-right is—because there are a lot of these various definitions floating around, nearly all of which are wrong.

Basically, the alt-right is a group of thinkers who believe that Western civilization is inseparable from European ethnicity—which is racist, obviously. It’s people who believe that if Western civilization were to take in too many people of different colors and different ethnicities and different religions, then that would necessarily involve the interior collapse of Western civilization. As you may notice, this has nothing to do with the Constitution. It has nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It has nothing to do actually with Western civilization. The whole principle of Western civilization is that anybody can involve himself or herself in civilized values. That’s not what the alt-right believes—at least its leading thinkers, people like Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and Vox Day. Those kind of folks will openly acknowledge that this is their thought process.”

I do not believe that the beliefs and moral values, influenced by Christianity, that many civilizations have are “inseparable from European ethnicity”. On the other hand, we do call Western civilization “western” for a reason (and some have argued that this simply became an appropriate way [code!] of talking about Christianity in recent years… whereas “Christendom” was the term that said much the same thing before that), and I do not think that the beliefs and values they possess—even though they are not necessarily tied with ethnicity—are easily transferable or guaranteed transferable in any sense (hence appropriate and measured concern about immigration issues). Finally, of course, I also think that ethnicity needs to be distinguished from ideas of biological race (see note 3 above).

[viii] Please note that in favorably quoting Klavan I am not saying that those who do not trust in Jesus Christ will be saved (nor do I believe he is saying this).

 

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Posted by on March 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Millstones, Judas Iscariot, and the Little Ones

“If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” — Matthew 18:6

As I hope you know, despite what you might hear from your Calvinist friends, Lutherans (and Luther) do not believe in double predestination. Even for Judas.

So, what should we think about Judas’ tragic demise? What lessons can we gather from it? The season of Lent is a good time to think about this. Years ago, I wrote this short piece, which I’m republishing at this time…

Thanks be to God that the Church is called to administer the His Word and Sacraments – and not millstones.  With relief, we leave that job to God, in the mystery of His Providence.  The Church does things like judge (like your dentist judges) – and sometimes even “hands members over to Satan” (!) – only so that they may be saved – to turn from their sin to Christ and His forgiveness, life, and salvation.  In fact, we are told that God desires all people to be saved (I Tim 2:4, II Peter 3:9, Romans 11:32).

But when it comes to this salvation, what about Judas, one of the 12 disciples – chosen by Christ Himself (see John 6:70,71)?

That this is such a common question should not surprise, given his very tragic and sad story…

Lutherans believe that God’s Word is “efficacious“, meaning He creates faith in the hearts of people when and where He pleases.  But, one may ask, if He really desires *all* people to be saved, why did God allow Judas, whom He chose, to damn himself?  Why did He not turn him again (presuming Judas at some point believed), as He did, for example, King David?  After all, one may argue, if I have no intention of acting to prevent a murderer from utterly deceiving, maiming and destroying the one I say I love – or if I have no intention of acting to save the one I say I love after they have destroyed themselves – when I am the only one who has the power to do so – what kind of lover would I be? (see I Cor. 13 here)

Really now, if Judas really was truly sorrowful and broken by his sins (“I have betrayed an innocent man!”) – as he certainly appeared to be – why did God allow those to whom he confessed to say “that’s your problem” (i.e. “its not our burden” – see Gal. 6:2)?  And if none of those who sat in “Moses’ seat” (Mathew 23) were willing to lift a finger to offer Judas any words of comfort, why did the Lord not save Judas like he did Paul – by perhaps at least sending an angel?

Ah, the mysteries of God, who yes, really does desire all men – even the one Jesus called “a devil” – to be saved.  In one sense, such questions: “Why are some saved and not others?”, cannot be answered.  We can say that God gets all the glory when someone is saved, and that a man gets all the blame when he is not – but that is about all we can say with certainty.  This is commonly called the “crux theologorum“, or the cross of the theologian.

But still, as ones who follow the One who said “Father forgive them….” must we not wonder about – and mourn for – this man, who God created in His image?  Why… why then did God not just turn Judas to Himself – creating faith in him where and when He pleased?  (like He restored Peter or converted Paul, the persecutor?)

I tread lightly here, but I suspect it is because God means for us to see Judas as a sign against spiritual apathy.  When we sin, it is God’s Spirit who turns us again, convicting us, breaking us, and leading us to Christ (see John 16).  We would not do this apart from Him.  And yet – we dare not presume on such kindness and grace… God may not renew.  While God’s redeeming grace is always free and unearned, there is indeed a “cutoff” point… we must all face our final judgment or the Final Judgment…  Therefore, we disciples must be wise about how we walk, so a loss of faith does not result – we walk in danger all the way.  Don’t say of sin “its something I want… yeah, I know its wrong, but…”.   Instead, always huddle close by the Shepherd!  Could Judas be a sign that God may indeed, at some point, give us over to the un-Life we, in our flesh, are prone to seek?

But do you say “Why?” again?  Consider this: when we seek un-Life, we become the odor of death, devoid of the Gospel and its power.  We rob God, rejecting His will for us and our neighbor.  “God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you”, Paul asserts, echoing the Old Testament.  Understandably, God desires that His people to point to Him.  He desires that we be hot or cold, not lukewarm.  “Why” again?  Perhaps for the sake of our neighbor?  He desires that they to be saved, for they, like us, are among “the whole world” for whom He died for, and is, in fact, already reconciled to.  As those who are either “hot” or “cold”, we can be seen as “clearly with Him” or “clearly against Him” – for the sake of the world.

Judas was not damned because God didn’t deeply care for him.  The Son of God wept over Jerusalem, and I believe He weeps for Judas – for He never desires the death – especially the eternal death – of the wicked.  God takes no pleasure in the millstones administered for the sake of the children, but perhaps, He simply does what He needs to do.

So perhaps, for the sake of the children, God administers not only millstones, but Judas’ fate as well.

In which case, better to have never been born indeed.  May this not be the case with us.  Lord have mercy.

FIN

 

Images: Millstone: “This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Cdogsimmons” ; Judas: Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Annonciation de Moulins; vitrail néogothique du XIXe siècle. La Cène. Détail: Judas.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

“This is Not a Story of Jesus Reaching Out to the Marginalized”

I’ve been looking closely at commentaries about the story of Jesus and the Canaanite in Matthew 15:21-28. This is an absolutely fascinating — and I think very important — story, from Matthew’s Gospel. To re-fresh your memory, here it is:

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.[a]

I’m trying to do a rather exhaustive search of the commentaries on this passage. One very interesting take comes from Grant R. Osborne (Matthew, 2010), who points out 3 core themes found in this passage (on pp. 594, 595)

  • Persistent faith and humility
  • Place of Israel and Gentiles in salvation history
  • Jesus’ authority over creation

In addition, he notes that Matthew calling the woman a Canaanite and mentioning Tyre and Sidon is meant to “highlight the negative connotations behind the woman’s ethnic origins”. People would expect, Osborne contends, “the rejection of the repugnant unclean Gentile” (597), for she “represents everything reprehensible about Gentiles to Jews” (Osborne, 597-598). This makes me want to read more about what we know about the Jewish treatment not only of Gentiles in general, but also proselytes and “god-fearers”.

Even though Matthew does indeed set the stage this way (to some degree, at least), Nolland (Gospel of Matthew, 2005) points out that “[t]hough occasionally construed so, this is not a story of Jesus reaching out to the marginalized.”

His comments are certainly thought-provoking:

“As with all forms of particularism, the affirmation of Jewish privilege here sits uncomfortably with postmodern sensibilities (or even modern sensibilities!). The woman is not being treated with dignity. We would be deeply offended if a doctor refused to treat a child because the mother was of the wrong race or religion. The biblical tradition, however, while not without sensitivity to such concerns, is committed to a metanarrative that inevitably involves particularity. We do not have to face the full impact of particularity in this story because it has a happy ending. But the initial failure to answer in v. 23 implies that, had the action developed a little differently, there would not have been a happy ending. Important questions of theodicy surface here….

The woman accepts that she has no claim to be put on a par with the Jewish people in benefiting from God’s present intervention for the sake of his people, but even the dog get scraps, and that is all she asks for. This is likely to seem very demeaning to present sensibilities, but not to Matthew and not to the Jewish tradition more broadly. In the biblical materials they saw Gentiles, when beneficiaries of God’s activity, as fringe beneficiaries (footnote: “E.g., Is. 2:2-4; 14:1-2; 45:14; 60:10-14; Je. 16:19; Mi 4:1-4; Zc 2:11; 8:0-23; 14:16-19. There is a wider vision in Is. 19:18-25; 49:6; 56:3-8, etc) Mt. 28:19 breaks through, not the sense of Jewish privilege, but the marginality of Gentile involvement. The existence of such Gentiles as this woman prepares the way, but despite the popularity of the view that this is a story about how Jesus changes his mind, the present episode can in no way be represented as a breakthrough. Jesus does not change his mind at all (vv. 24, 26 are in no way retracted, even by implication); what becomes clear to him is what is appropriate in the case of this particular woman.”

In a footnote, he shares related thoughts:

“G. Jackson, ‘Have Mercy,’ maintains that Matthew’s account is informed by traditions of Gentile women becoming converts to Judaism as proselytes. Though there are some similarities, the case is not strong, and even if such traditions are being echoed, the image of dogs eating the crumbs suggests, contra Jackson, that, despite her very Jewish faith, the Canaanite woman becomes a beneficiary of Jesus’ ministry not as a freshly made Jewess, but as a Gentile (pp. 635-636).

Keep in mind, that at this point, to say this is to say that she was still, to some degree, on the outside. People who would have been ideal believers at this time in Israel’s history were persons like Jesus’ parents, who valued and followed the ceremonial practices of the Jews (circumcision, food laws, sacrifices, Sabbath), even as they also, like the “true Israelite” Nathaniel, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. While Jesus gave very clear hints that the Pharisees had wildly misunderstood the point of the Jewish ceremonial practices (particularly the Sabbath and the food laws), it is not until Acts 15 and Paul’s epistles where we see a more definitive understanding of these practices, that is, as their being shadows that were to fade and disappear (at least insofar as they were in some sense required of believers to perform) once the Messianic Age had been inaugurated.

God willing, more thoughts on this story in the future. Its making me think and pray a lot these days.

FIN

Image: http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/did_jesus_lie_to_the_canaanite_woman

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Hollywood Moral Awareness vs. Christian “Ash Wednesday” Moral Awareness

Irving: Be intolerant of intolerance.

Irving: Be intolerant of intolerance.

“The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame” Prov. 19:3

As Albert Mohler reports in a hard-hitting Briefing today, prior to the Oscars last Sunday night the Hollywood Reporter published an article titled “Oscar Winner John Irving Urges Hollywood to Get Political With ‘Outright Bias'”. In the article, Irving, echoing the 1960s philosopher Herbert Marcuse, pushes for his “artist community,”  to be “intolerant of intolerance”. “In our community”, he said “tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable”. Of course persons like Irving certainly have their own kind of morality. As sociologist Jonathan Haidt points out, they are like any other human being in that they have their list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

Why they are so confident of their specific lists may be in question — just how does what they push for not simply amount to saying “You disagree with me and so I’m tolerant and you’re not”? — but we can even say that persons like Irving, like Christians, may be capable of getting a bit “meta,” speaking of things like “honest hypocrisy”.

That said, enough about Hollywood “moral awareness,” which, frankly, leaves much to be desired. Let us explore the Christian position, which, in addition to promoting specific ideas of what virtue looks like (from things like the 10 commandments) recognizes that, ultimately, there is a distinctive kind of “meta” life to be lived in this world.

In our Christian life, the layers go deep. As God works us over, transforming us into His own Christ-image, there is a lot that we go through. Romans 7 shows us the struggle of Paul as a Christian, a “sinner-saint” we Lutherans like to say – he speaks about not understanding what he does, not wanting to do what he does, and doing that which he hates – there is clearly a difficult and sometimes bewildering battle raging within him.[i]

All this means that we — in spite of understandable desires for simplicity — can get rather “meta” very quickly.

For example, often we have no desire to do a wrong thing until someone tells us we should not do it – sin “deceives us” in this way. Another example related to this is that the law can exacerbate the sin of [religious] pride and self-righteousness: even if being told “don’t look down on others” does not create a desire in us to do so, we may become proud of being unlike those who look down on others – or even take pride in realizing that we are proud of being unlike those who look down on others![ii]

metaThe main point is not to spend our time digging to get to the bottom of it all — or to come to the conclusion that acts of repentance are futile (otherwise what are customs like Ash Wednesday and Lent for?) — but rather to realize that human beings are thoroughly infected by sin — sin which will not be fully irradiated until the Last Day.

In short, self-obsessed persons all, pure love for God and neighbor evades us and opportunities for “false humility” abound! We have begun to know what goodness is in the deepest sense (Christ and His love!) but we are nevertheless deeply wrong, even if the Lord is often exceedingly gentle with His children in revealing this to them.

What follows is a short reflection along these “meta” lines when it comes to the question of the proclamation of God’s law – His word of judgment based on what we have failed to be, say, and do[iii] – and His Gospel – the giving of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus for those needing and ready to hear this word. This dynamic is often captured in the shorthand phrase “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” (note, interestingly, that this concern also has to do with why Lutherans, for example, treat the topic of predestination much like St. Prosper of Aquitaine did).

Recently, I heard an argument something like this:

“Even though we sin, God always considers us worth loving – and He will always continue to love us no matter what we do or don’t do.”

Elder Sophrony: “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation... Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

Elder Sophrony: “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation… Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”

When it comes to issues like this, there is always a Law and Gospel answer – should one aim to afflict, to comfort, or to do both? And what if instead this person had, terrified by the Law of God, asked: “Does God consider us worth loving despite our sin and will He continue to do so whatever we do or don’t do?”

A statement like that coming from such a person would surely have been worth paying close attention to! That said, that is not the kind of thing I heard. Rather than getting such a question I heard a blanket assertion. Furthermore – to offer more context – this person was actually dismissing, and evidently opposing, a solid Law and Gospel answer I had previously given, and went on to say something like this: “[After all,] you just said this [yourself], and are you going to dispute the judgment of God?”

How to respond?

First of all, we affirm this truth: just because God continues to love us does not mean that we will not be judged in hellfire, which Scripture clearly affirms. The “hard” way of putting matters here is that if we deny Christ or even embrace false doctrine about Christ, we will be damned. A “softer” way of saying this is that even if we embrace some kind of view of Jesus, if we have a “different Jesus” and thereby reject the true One, good and strong enough to save, we reject God’s salvation.

Second, regarding the one who asserts something like the above, it might seem that I am missing something critical: after all, are they not emphasizing grace? Not necessarily – and it actually may not difficult to diagnose that this is the case. What often happens in situations like this is that a person, bolstered by hereitcal things like antinomian tendencies, universalist tendencies, and/or a faulty view of predestination, is attempting to rationalize sins, and therefore, ultimately sin.

I think it does us well to recognize that all of us, devout Christians included, are not excluded from being tempted by these tendencies.[iv] The question however, is what we do with them when we face them – what teachings curb, guide and comfort us in the midst of them? This is of critical of course, because when a person excuses their sins (and thereby their sin), they often find themselves simultaneously reflecting on their lives but not in a good way: they rationalize, telling themselves “rational lies” ; they are, in fact, attempting to justify themselves according to what they have done (but we want to flee from this danger — even at the level of our felt desires and thoughts).

"The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector." -- Luke 18:11

“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector.” — Luke 18:11

In short, in spite of their “wicked intention to persevere and continue in sin,”[v] or to bolster those who do, they want God to pay attention to the good they are sure they have done. They might say something to the effect that God always looks for the best in his children because of who God is and because His creation was originally created good, but that is really a cover for their evil. What they really mean is that God is obligated to accept them because if He were really loving, He would see the best in them. He would see that there is real goodness in them.

To this, there can only be a….

Law answer:

Maybe we even have the nerve to say something like “God hates the wicked. God damns the unrepentant. Here, there is no equality before God, except in that all are fallen.”

Or, maybe we, noticing an extreme stubbornness, relay to them that God demands perfection from them. After all, we do preach the law to the impenitent. As He spoke through the prophet Jeremiah: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”

Perhaps though, we determine that our opponent is not so hardened. In which case, we might say something like:

“God can’t not hate those who oppose the whole creation He loves (Psalm 145), particularly those who fear, love, and trust in Him. If we are not with Him, we can certainly expect to get run over in His judgment. He will not hesitate to run us through.

And yet, the prophet Isaiah says to “Seek ye the LORD while he may be found”. He also continues to show love to all His offspring, born of Adam (see Acts 17), by doing good to them: giving the righteous and the wicked rain (Matthew 5) and even filling all of their hearts with joy (Acts 14). For He loves us not because there is anything that we have done in the body that makes us acceptable and worthy before Him – able to stand in His holy presence – but because He is good to deeply evil persons. Period!

In sum, God loves His concrete enemies. The concrete wicked. The concrete rebels. Those specific persons – everyone – who have made themselves worthless. He comes for concrete sinners only. Hence, He dies for them all in Christ, taking their evil and the results of their evil into Himself, abolishing sin and death.”

True enough, right!? (yes, yes, I know I got the Gospel in there to!) So we say this to those who think that by their own deeds – or even acts of grace-filled faith, decisions they have made as a result of their own impulse – God will be obligated to receive them.

On the other hand: what if a believer genuinely fears that God will not give them perseverance? In this case, we give the…

Gospel answer:

Saint Augustine, devastated by his sinfulness, even stealing pears just to be evil...

Saint Augustine, devastated by his sinfulness, even stealing pears just to be evil…

“Do you not want to know and love Him more? Do you not desire to hear His word, love His word, and to even run after His word? And then, in your heart of hearts to run the way of the commandments of your Lord? How do you despise the Word and Sacraments meant to sustain you in your earthly journey? You don’t, for you have known, and know, the forgiveness, life, and salvation granted to you in Christ!”

In like fashion, Saint Augustine, keeping in mind Paul’s statement, “What do we have that we have not received?” also encouraged us by pointing out that it was God Himself was always making the first move:

“God brings it about that we act. The Psalmist says to him: “set a guard, lord, upon my mouth” [Ps. 140:3 (141:3 rsv)]. This is to say: bring it about that I set a guard upon my mouth. The one who said “I have set a guard upon my mouth” [Ps. 38:2 (39:1 rsv)] had already obtained that benefit from God.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here)

…but now, perhaps you say:

But that shows that we have a role to play in our perseverance of faith! This shows that our will and our works do matter!

Actually, according to the Psalms, echoed by the Apostle Paul, there is a sense in which all are worthless.

Actually, according to the Psalms, echoed by the Apostle Paul, there is a sense in which all are worthless.

Well, no one ever said that spiritual justification before God did not simultaneously take place among other human persons, in our variety of circumstances, and completely separated from the fact that we perform all manner of actions in the world! In like fashion, as Luther put it in the “Disputation Concerning Justification”, trying to thread the needle, good works are not necessary for salvation, but to it.[vi] The point, however, is that, by the grace of God given us in Christ, we are justified in the law, in our works, and not by them. We are justified by faith in Christ, which is the thing that makes us want to love his law, run in the desires, thoughts, words and deeds it commands… exist in a life that is wholly godly… (as Luther put it in his Genesis commentary).

For the Lutherans, the point, over and against their Roman Catholic opponents, is that it is a child of God – at real peace with the forgiving King – who does these things.[vii] And it is precisely because of the peace and joy that they have in the Lord that they do these things, all the while saying “‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.

For the 16th century Reformers like Martin Luther, being fully dependent on God does not mean being under God’s thumb and an unbearable loss of personal freedom! Rather, it means we can trust Him and His intentions because of the spiritual security we have that He is good – particularly seen in the promises that He gives us (ultimately, embodied in Jesus Christ and His mercy – all God’s promises are “yes” in Him!).

Fallen man, and wayward theologians, hate this message. They do not want to be reduced to nothing — to utter ashes.

"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” -- Genesis 3:19

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” — Genesis 3:19

They ultimately want God to answer to them, as they stubbornly and doggedly make their case for why He should accept them and those they desire to associate with.

No. Jesus doesn’t play that game. He rather says to us” Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

FIN

 

Images: John Irving pic by Elke Wetzig Elya, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; “Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged” by KAZ Vorpal,CC BY-SA 2.0 ; Elder Sophrony, by Jack1956, CC BY-SA 3.0 ; Pharisee and publican, public domain ; Unworthy but not worthless, from http://marieldavenport.com/unworthy/ ; Ash Wednesday by Jennifer Balaska, public domain

Notes:

[i] And although he is writing about his struggle as a Christian, many have noted that even unbelievers feel the conflict between the standards they hold to and their actual practice of those standards (see the “Honest Hypocrisy” article quoted above).

[ii] Another example: In my own life, I have realized that sometimes, I just start praying what really are good words in a rather uninvolved, “going through the motions”… mechanical way – kind of like a mantra or maybe even “magic words” (At the same time, this Lutheran will insist that there is real importance behind Robert Louis Wilken’s statement that “There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing…”) For me, I am quite sure that even asking God for help can be an unreflective reflex which actually amounts to me indirectly accusing God of not having already helped – of not having given me the impulse, will, or power to simply do what I should. I recognize that we are urged to pray without ceasing (see I Thes. 5:16-18) and that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus, under great duress, prayed the same thing three times, for example – but I also recognize that my prayers, even if they aren’t “set prayers” can actually be me being lazy, stupid, and even “passively aggressive” towards God. (I’m also alternatively feeling pretty good about noticing that stuff above, and, when I proofread this, wondering if it’s somehow an indirect form of bragging about my prayer life…. yes, I’ve got issues!).

[iii] As Augustine put it: “…under [the Law] are those whom [God] makes guilty by giving his bidding without giving his assistance.” (On Grace and Free Choice, see p. 161 here).

[iv] Ambrose’s words here come to mind:

“…our heart and our thoughts are not in our power. When they flood in unexpectedly, they confound the mind and spirit, and drag you elsewhere than you intended to go: They call you back to worldly things, they entangle you in earthly matters, they suggest voluptuous pleasures, they weave their allure, and, at the very moment when we are getting ready to raise up our mind, we are entangled in vain thoughts and often thrown down into earthly matters…” (quoted in Augustine, On Perseverance, see p. 231 here)

[v] http://bookofconcord.org/sd-goodworks.php#para15

[vi] From “The Disputation Concerning Justification,” LW, 165:

“I reply to the argument, then, that our obedience is necessary for salvation. It is, therefore, a partial cause of our justification. Many things are necessary which are not a cause and do not justify, as for instance the earth is necessary, and yet it does not justify. If man the sinner wants to be saved, he must necessarily be present, just as he asserts that I must also be present. What Augustine says is true, “He who has created you without you will not save you without you.”1 Works are necessary to salvation, but they do not cause salvation, because faith alone gives life. On account of the hypocrites we must say that good works are necessary to salvation. It is necessary to work. Nevertheless, it does not follow that works save on that account, unless we understand necessity very clearly as the necessity that there must be an inward and outward salvation or righteousness. Works save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous and that there is faith in a man which saves inwardly, as Paul says, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” [Rom. 10:10]. Outward salvation shows faith to be present, just as fruit shows a tree to be good.”

This, of course, would sync with what is found elsewhere in the Lutheran Confessions, namely that

“…until the Last Day, the Holy Spirit remains with the holy community of Christendom, through which he heals us and which he uses to proclaim and propagate his Word, whereby he initiates and increases sanctification so that we grow daily and become strong in faith and in its fruits, which he creates” (italics mine, Luther, Martin, Book of Concord.  Ed. Theodore Tappert.  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959; Solid Declaration, Article II, Free Will, quoting Large Catechism, Pt. II, Art. III)

Luther has not only the believer’s active sanctification but passive sanctification in mind here, i.e. justification. In this way our salvation is certainly dependent on, and bound up with, our neighbor’s, as is his with ours – for God has arranged things in just such a way.

[vii] This is why we read in article IV of the Solid Declaration of The Formula of Concord on good works:

“Since, then, it is manifest from God’s Word that faith is the proper and only means by which righteousness and salvation are not only received, but also preserved by God, the decree of the Council of Trent, and whatever elsewhere is set forth in the same sense, is justly to be rejected, namely, that our good works preserve salvation, or that the righteousness of faith which has been received, or even faith itself, is either entirely or in part kept and preserved by our works.

For although before this controversy quite a few pure teachers employed such and similar expressions in the exposition of the Holy Scriptures, in no way, however, intending thereby to confirm the above-mentioned errors of the Papists, still, since afterwards a controversy arose concerning such expressions, from which all sorts of offensive distractions [debates, offenses, and dissensions] followed, it is safest of all, according to the admonition of St. Paul, 2 Tim. 1:13, to hold fast as well to the form of sound words as to the pure doctrine itself, whereby much unnecessary wrangling may be cut off and the Church preserved from many scandals.”

(see quote in context here)

After all, just prior to this passage, the following was said:

“But when and in what way the exhortations to good works can be earnestly urged from this basis without darkening the doctrine of faith and of the article of justification, the Apology shows by an excellent model, when in Article XX, on the passage 2 Pet. 1:10: Give diligence to make your calling and election sure, it says as follows: Peter teaches why good works should be done, namely, that we may make our calling sure, that is, that we may not fall from our calling if we again sin. “Do good works,” he says, “that you may persevere in your heavenly calling, that you may not fall away again, and lose the Spirit and the gifts, which come to you, not on account of works that follow, but of grace, through Christ, and are now retained by faith. But faith does not remain in those who lead a sinful life, lose the Holy Ghost, and reject repentance.” Thus far the Apology.

But, on the other hand, the sense is not that faith only in the beginning lays hold of righteousness and salvation, and then resigns its office to the works as though thereafter they had to sustain faith, the righteousness received, and salvation; but in order that the promise, not only of receiving, but also of retaining righteousness and salvation, may be firm and sure to us, St. Paul, Rom. 5:2, ascribes to faith not only the entrance to grace, but also that we stand in grace and boast of the future glory, that is, the beginning, middle, and end he ascribes all to faith alone. Likewise, Rom. 11:20: Because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Col. 1:22: He will present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in His sight, if ye continue in the faith. 1 Pet. 1:5. 9: By the power of God we are kept through faith unto salvation. Likewise: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.”

 

 
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