Friday, May 30, 2008

Concerns for a friend

Following is a correspondence to a friend describing some of my concerns about her local congregation while documenting the true Christian faith. I though you might find this helpful.

Specific to the Trinity Sunday sermon was the explanation of the last part of the Athanasian Creed which talks about being judged for our works. Apparently the explanation was given that being Christians our works are good works because we have been changed and so God judges our works as good because they are good. This is false, because in this life we are both saint and sinner. We have current possession of the forgiveness of sins which means all our sinful works are seen or declared by God to be good. We also still retain our sinful nature that leads all our works to be evil. So, our works are evil but God declares them to be good. The sermon was suggesting that as Christians we are saints in the sense that we do works which are good apart from God's declaration. So, the false idea is: God changes us as Christians so that what we do are good works that do not need to be forgiven or cleansed. The true idea is: We are sinners in this life who keep on sinning by doing evil works but at Judgment Day God will declare that our works are good as a result of Jesus Christ's sacrifice.

The false idea above is called Semi-Pelagianism and that is exactly where the Roman Catholic church has been for a long time. That false idea is one small step away from another false idea that those good works we do qualify us for heaven. It is the thinking that God gets us started and then we do the rest in order to save ourselves. In fact, these ideas are so close, that I think that many might naturally jump to the second one when presented the first. Our sinful nature is always looking for ways we can contribute to our salvation so it is natural to make the jump.

This is all a part of a wider problem of confusion of justification and sanctification. Justification is the action by which we are granted life in heaven and how we are brought to be in a right relationship with God. Sanctification (in this context) refers to the matter of how we should live our lives, that is, in how we might seek to follow God's directions in this life. When justification and sanctification are confused, the idea of how we live our lives crosses over into being granted life in heaven. This confusion I have seen happen in explicit teaching but it is also a problem when members express this sort confusion in what they say and the spiritual leaders do not correct it. It also happens as a consequence of a second situation of concern: the overemphasis on sanctification. People see where the attention is directed in teaching, preaching, publications, etc. and they naturally assume that the subject upon which most of the time is spent is the most important.

The overemphasis on sanctification means constantly speaking about the works we should be doing, and speaking in such a way as to lead people to believe that they can do what they should in a perfect fashion. The primary message of your congregation and all Christian churches ought to be the law and gospel. The law showing us how we are sinful and the gospel show us how Christ saves us. I've heard more than a hundred sermons at your congregation which highly diminished the law and gospel and instead focused on sanctification. It is deadly to faith. Our faith needs to be built up by seeing that we do fail to keep God's law and thereby deserve punishment but then also seeing that Christ paid the price to take away our punishment. If there is one member or visitor who leaves your congregation without being reminded of that and understanding that on a Sunday morning, then the work of your congregation is a failure. If the teaching and preaching leads people to reach some of the false ideas above, then your congregation is not just a failure but it is a source of spiritual damage.

When sanctification is taught, God's law is being taught in a way that encourages us to go out and try harder to follow that law. However, whenever the law is preached it always shows us our sin. If I am encouraged to stop telling lies, then at the same time I am being told that I am guilty of lying. This fact about the preaching of sanctification was summarized by Martin Luther by saying "the law always accuses." In the numerous sermons I heard in which sanctification dominated, I also noted that the sermon ended with the sanctification part. It never came back to the gospel part. So, the law with sanctification always accuses me of sin but the gospel as the solution to that situation was not then presented. I actually found myself preaching gospel to myself after each sermon because the burden of the law is heavy. I wondered how many other folks did this for themselves. I wonder how many leave with the idea that Christianity is mainly about how I live my life and that I better just focus all my efforts to try to be good enough to be saved. In fact, the idea that Christianity is mainly about sanctification is very widespread among Christians, in media and in many other ways by which people are regularly influenced outside of your congregation. The overemphasis on sanctification at your congregation does nothing to combat this false idea that people get from the outside and in fact, it tends to confirm that false idea. It is really bad. In fact, your pastor believes that the Bible is mainly teaching us about sanctificiation. He thinks you can find sanctification on every page (in a strange twist of Martin Luther's statement that you can find Christ on every page). So, your pastor is doing something that he acknowledges and it is something he believes is right because it "follows the Bible." The consequence is that the message of Jesus Christ and the Gospel is being surpressed at your congregation.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Thought for Ascension Day

Today is the celebration of the day Jesus ascended into the sky and disappeared from his disciples sight. Here is a question for you to ponder:

If Jesus primarily came to be an example to us,
why didn't he stay with us and continue to be an example?

The answer is that Jesus did not come primarily to be our example, but instead to be our substitute. He took our place on the cross. He then promised that the Holy Spirit would come to guide His followers "into all truth".

"However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide
you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority,
but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you
things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is
Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are
Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it
to you. A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a
little while, and you will see Me, because I go to the Father."
-- John 16:13-16

The Holy Spirit guides us into the truth that Jesus was our substitute. He confirms in us a faith that trusts that Jesus has done all that was needed to pay for our transgressions.

Even the disciples of Jesus needed to be guided into truth. Just prior to Jesus' ascension, they asked Him:
"Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" -- Acts 1:6. They were still quite confused. However, the Holy Spirit came to them, inspired them to write down the books of the New Testament and now the Holy Spirit works through the written word of the Bible to bring us into all truth.