Mar 19 2019

Foreword

If I were to write another book, it could be another, even clearer, presentation of the gospel.

If I were to write another book, it would be because my wife told me I should, because the good news is way better than even I thought it was a couple of years ago.

If I were to write another book, this could be the Forward.

Foreword

It is coincidental that here, in mid-Lent, I have just finished reading my fourth book in a row on the atonement, besides listening to various sermons and lectures online. It’s not that unusual for me to lock onto a subject, but I don’t think I’ve ever locked on to something this meaningful and relevant, for it relates to everything (if you happen to be a spiritually-minded person). For that matter, it’s relevant even if you’re not, but that’s a topic for another time. It’s relevant to everything because at the heart of the atonement issue—and the larger issues of life, death and everything—is the nature and character of God.

At this point in my studies, I am more than ever convinced that a majority of evangelicals around the world have been taught things about the atonement—and subsequently the nature of God—which are heretical. In this, I am in line with most of the church throughout history. It is unfortunate that so many church attendees will have to listen to sermons about justice and wrath and how God abandoned Jesus on the cross because He couldn’t look on sin, about how we are all worms saved only because God poured his wrath on Jesus instead of us.

This kind of thinking not only portrays God as being not at all like Jesus (and somewhat schizoid), but pits God against Jesus, antagonist versus victim, dividing the Godhead. This thinking, by the way, came from Calvin, who was forced to this conclusion to make sense of his other heretical ideas.

This is not good news. If anything, this should cause us all to wind up on Easter with a case of PTSD. Even after being saved by the skin of our teeth, we still have to deal with the fact that our God would have crucified us, and will still go on to throw most of the world into hell for all eternity. This is supposed to make us happy? Rejoice! We’re saved, but the rest of the world will burn forever!

With this kind of thinking, it’s no wonder that some of evangelical Christianity (if it can be called that) has turned into a kind of war-mongering hate group, fostering various “us against them” mindsets and acting not at all like Jesus (who, by the way, is not coming back on a white horse to smite anybody).

Thankfully, none of this wrath-based thinking is true. It doesn’t even make sense. (Part of the problem is that words like wrath, ransom, and hell have been mistranslated and the English words mis-defined.) If God was paid off by Jesus, that’s not really forgiveness, is it? If someone else pays off my mortgage, the bank hasn’t forgiven the loan; it was paid in full. Calling it forgiveness is not being very honest. Plus, it makes God into someone other than who Jesus said he was.

The Good News is so much better! Here’s a basic outline of the true story, which (with various nuances) has been believed since the early Church (if I were to write another book, these are topics that I would explore in depth):

• God is exactly like Jesus (the Bible tells us so).

• God is love. Period. (It’s all about the love, ‘bout the love, no wrath…). The wrathful God is a myth.

• There is no original sin/guilt as invented by Augustine/Calvin. Mankind is not totally depraved. Sin is a plague, and we are victims.

• God never wanted sacrifices. (This was news to me, but a couple of later OT writers—and Jesus—make this point.)

• Jesus was born (incarnated) to join man back to God.

• Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in Jesus (they are not like Legos that can be pulled apart).

• God forgave us apart from Jesus’ death. He forgave us without payment or incentive. (There’s no forgiveness if payment was required.)

• God did not turn away from Jesus because of sin; God looks at sin all the time. The verses in Habakkuk need to be read in context, which actually is making the point that God does indeed tolerate sin. 

• Jesus died to save us from sin (the plague) and death. He basically blew death up from the inside when he rose on Easter.

• Jesus died “for the sins of the world.” Yeah, that’s everyone.

• We don’t become saved to get into heaven or escape hell; we are saved from sin and death so that we can become one with God (at-one-ment is an English word made up by translators to try to capture this meaning).

• God is not sending anyone to hell (which is nothing like Dante described it). 

• Jesus is not coming back to destroy anything (forgiveness and wrath don’t mix). Revelation is not meant to be read literally. And those looking forward to future violence are more apt to tolerate it on Earth now.  

• God is good. Always.

• God is love. Always. No qualifiers.

Now isn’t that so much better? It should be, because this is what the Bible actually teaches, if we really look at it apart from those screwy notions we’ve accepted as truth.

The Good News is that God loves [all of] us and forgives [all of] us because that’s who God is; exactly like Jesus showed us.


Jul 3 2016

Grace is still the thing

Recently I attended a local church service and heard a sermon on sex that was bad on so many levels–structurally, logically, factually, and theologically.  (The entire experience was redeemed by the worship band having done possibly the best arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision” that I have ever heard.) And, to wrap it all up, the pastor ended with an exhortation to resist sexual sins by “exercising your holiness option.”  

Excuse me?  Then he said it again; I hadn’t mis-heard. “Exercise your holiness option.”  It was like they had a booster switch they could flip to throw them into light speed. 

So now we have another whole slough of errors.  First, I recognized that he was using the bad English definition of “holy” as meaning pure or sinless, rather than the definition of the Greek word, which essentially means “different.” It makes sense for God to say, “Be different as I am different,” rather than “Be sinless as I am sinless.”  But, the latter is the interpretation I usually hear.   

Can we choose to be sinless?  I think the vast majority of theologians would answer “no.”  We can desire to be sinless (I myself desire to be sinless, sometimes),  but if the Bible is to be believed, getting there is beyond our grasp. The two main schools of thought are that 1) we can cooperate with God to become more Godlike; and 2) our wills are bound by our sinful nature and we depend entirely on God’s grace.

Paul, as well as Jesus (read through John),  seem to lean towards the latter.  I completely reject the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity as mischaracterizing both God and humanity.  We are created in God’s image, destined for glory.  “Total depravity” doesn’t fit into that picture.  If you read through the Gospel of John, you may be struck by the fact that Jesus treats sin the same as a physical disease.  Just as our bodies are subject to failure, we are also afflicted by the disease of sin.  Not totally depraved, but afflicted and in need of grace and healing.   

Paul made it clear that sanctification (holiness to some), just as with salvation, is a product of grace. In Galatians 3:3, he asks rhetorically, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  To the church in Corinth, he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification, “holiness,” theosis, or becoming more Christ-like–whichever term you prefer–is a product of grace, of God’s direct work in us. It is not a matter of “exercising the holiness option.”

Grace matters.  It is still a concept which many churches prefer to hold at arm’s length, as a church under grace tends refuses to fit in nice, neat boxes. 

A few years ago, I took what I had found to be the best teaching on grace I had ever encountered and turned it into a book, The Gospel Uncensored. I still believe this to be the best book on grace that I’ve seen.  It’s fairly short, easy to read, and directly to the point, primarily using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the outline.  People have told me how it’s changed their lives, how it’s their favorite book, and that they periodically re-read it.  It’s that good (you can trust me, my name is on the cover).  

There is no “holiness option.” The only 2 options are self-righteousness, and grace.  I highly recommend grace. 


Feb 4 2014

More about worship

Go here for part 1.

If the main purpose of Lutheran worship is to receive God’s gifts, then it follows that Lutheran worship is Christ-centered. Just take a look at the liturgical orders of service in either of our two hymnals. Everything said and done is filled with His Word. Why? Because our focus is on Christ and His work, that’s why. The focus of Lutheran worship is on Christ, not man. Therefore, Lutheran worship is always Christocentric-Christ-centered-and never anthropocentric-man-centered.  ~A.L. Barry, as quoted by Matt Richard in part 2 of his series on Lutheran worship

The heart of worship

In my opinion, the greatest statement on worship (as well as on faith) is Peter’s statement as recorded in John 6:68:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69, ESV)

“Where would we go? Only you have the words of life.”

Our word “worship” means to give something or someone great value or worth. Peter’s statement is really the ultimate worship statement, as he is not just saying that Jesus’ words are better than the Rabbis down the road. Peter goes so far as to say, “only you.” There are simply no other options. There’s life here, and anywhere else is death. This attitude, I think, is the true heart of worship.

Note that Peter doesn’t say anything about himself.  He doesn’t talk about what he has to offer, and he doesn’t say anything about how being with Jesus makes him feel. In fact, given Jesus’ recent teaching topics, Peter may have even been somewhat perturbed with Jesus due to the loss of followers. This is, rather, a clear-cut statement that Peter acknowledged that only Jesus had what Peter needs to survive. As someone once put it, Peter’s statement was one of “enlightened self-interest.”

Christ-centered worship

Mr. Barry goes on to say

… Lutheran worship takes our eyes and sets them firmly on the cross of Jesus Christ, for there the Lord of the Universe suffered and died for the sins of the world. Lutheran worship points us to the Resurrected Lord who lives and reigns to all eternity, and promises us everlasting life. Christ-centered Lutheran worship lifts our hearts and minds to the things of God and helps us to understand our place in Christ’s kingdom better as His redeemed people. Yes, Lutheran worship must always be Christ-centered.

When we say Lutheran worship is Christ-centered, this is not to say that those who gather for worship are mere blocks of stone. Our worship focuses on Christ, who is present for us and with us in His Word and Sacraments. He is truly among us. We are not contemplating a far-off Christ, or meditating on abstract ideas. Lutheran worship is not like going to a self-help group or a therapy session. It is God who gathers us for worship around the gifts He gives to us through Word and Sacrament. We are worshipping the One who is very near, as close as the preaching of the Word. We are worshipping the One who is actually present under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He promised, “I will be with you always.” In our worship service He fulfills that wonderful promise. He is living and active among us, right here, right now, where He has promised to be-in His Word and Sacraments. Therefore, it is important to say that while our focus is on Christ, His focus is always on us! Thanks be to God that this is true!

Now, I don’t mean to say that only Lutherans worship correctly, or that all Lutherans necessarily worship correctly.  I think the principles here transcend Lutheranism, although Lutheran incarnational theology is very intertwined with Lutheran thoughts on worship, and contemporary evangelicalism tends to downplay concepts such as Christ’s real presence.

One of these things is not like the other

My point, rather than to necessarily champion Lutheran worship, is to point out the differences between this philosophy of worship and other worship philosophies which are to varying degrees influenced by Calvinism and Arminianism, both of which can have a very man- and works-centered focus.

I am also not emphasizing one style over another (although I have thoughts there, too). It is entirely possibly to be involved in a very emotionally-oriented style of worship and still be aware that the whole point is to receive from Christ.

This, by the way, is what the Lutherans mean by “Christ-centered,” which is also a term used by everyone else; no one would say that their worship is not “Christ-centered.” The difference is whether or not we are looking solely to Christ as our source for righteousness and holiness as we worship.

 

 

 


Feb 2 2014

About Worship

What is worship?

As my 11 faithful readers know, I was raised Lutheran. When I was in high school, I remember having friends from more, shall we say, emotional denominations and groups, and remember hearing teachings about “worship” and “praise,” things that we didn’t have to teach about in the Lutheran church. (Seriously. Keep reading…) I remember being quite confused, trying to figure out when I was praising as opposed to worshiping, etc.

Now, years later, most of us have gotten familiar with the 20-30 minutes of singing mostly vague, repetitious, elevator-rock music that has become known as “worship” where, in a manner of speaking, we try to reimburse God for what He’s given to us. Many churches also point out that collecting the offering also falls under worship, for the same reason.

At the very least, contemporary worship is a subjective exercise, where we are kind of on the honor system as to whether we actually “entered in” to worship, or just enjoyed the music.  Many people leave feeling some amount of guilt for either not feeling anything, or not being able to conjure up the same kind of emotional energy that the people around us seem to have, not realizing that many of them share the same feelings.  It’s true.  Chances are, you are one of those guilty worshipers.

Today in the church we attended, we were exhorted to focus on “entering in” to worship and giving to God.  I tended to critique the music, being a musician. I can’t help it. But, I don’t feel guilty, because I no longer believe that worship is about my emotions, or my ability to commit and focus and ignore the really terrible-sounding acoustic guitar and very awkward rhythm used on “Why I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in an attempt to make it sound more contemporary.

Worship, Lutheran-style

As providence would have it, this morning I read a great reminder about worship on the blog of a Lutheran pastor I’m Facebook friends with, entitled “”  The title aptly spells out the difference between the above-described contemporary concept of worship and Lutheran worship.  We are not talking about differences of style, such as singing choruses over hymns and liturgy, or the use of guitars and drums as opposed to organs and choirs.  I happen to think liturgy is quite important and useful, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The difference between the 2 philosophies of worship are striking; in fact, they are direct opposites. In contemporary worship, as with much of contemporary evangelical theology, the key is what we do for God, or do to become more spiritual, or holy, or whatever. On the other hand, Lutheran worship simply where we make ourselves available to receive from God, through the truth in the liturgy, the hymns, the Scriptures (which are read for their own sake, not as preaching texts), the sermon, and Communion. It’s not about our giving—in fact, the thought is quite ludicrous—worship is about receiving.

If we’re emotional, it’s because we are the recipients of grace, forgiveness, healing, love, and acceptance. There’s nothing for us to feel guilty about, because our performance is of no consequence. We are free to enjoy the music (the Episcopal church I like to attend has an amazing music program), even if we forget to listen to the words.  We are reminded that we are God’s—not because we “have decided to follow Jesus”—but because He chose us.

Our part, as worshipers, is to be there to receive. As the author of the article states, “The purpose of worship, therefore, is to be gathered by God around His gifts.”  He goes on to quote from the Lutheran Worship book:

Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges  the gifts, received with eager thankfulness and praise.  Saying back to Him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure…  The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him. He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them. We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Lutheran Worship, p. 6).

Whether or not we worship “Lutheran-style,” I believe that worship has nothing to do with our emotions (they simply are what they are) or our efforts (which are of no benefit) or how “holy” we are. Worship is not our “job” or “where we give back to God.” Worship is simply to be gathered around God and to receive his gifts.

I am looking forward to parts 2-7 of the article on the Lutheran understanding of worship, and will possibly post more here on the series.