Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Saved" from what (or from whom)?

Recently I was surprised to hear someone say that he thought we were saved from God. I think that portraying God as the problem undermines the good news at its very foundations. If God is the problem, then should he get any credit for the solution? And if God is the problem, why would he need to provide a solution? Wouldn't it be simpler to just stop being the problem? Or does he have a contradiction within himself, so that he is both for us and against us?

If someone believes that God is basically the problem, we might look at what John the Baptist said, "Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Luke 3:7) There's no doubt that John the Baptist means God's wrath. And yet the idea of salvation is only possible because God's wrath is the smaller part of the story, and God's love is the larger part -- and because the destruction is only for what is evil. We'll come back to that after looking at a more complete picture.

So from what does Jesus save people? This is a brief review of the passages where the four Biblical gospels comment not just on salvation in general, but specifically discuss from what Jesus saves us.
We are saved from our sins
"You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1:21)
"Your sins are forgiven. ... Your faith has saved you; go in peace." (Luke 7:48,50)

We are saved from death
"Lord, save us! We'll die!" (Matthew 8:25)
"Lord, save me!" (Matthew 14:30)

We are saved from the evil one
 "Deliver us from the evil one" (Matthew 6:13)

We are saved from illness, disease, and disability
"Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil? To save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9)
"Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you." (Luke 18:42)

We are saved from being lost"For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost." (Matthew 18:11; Luke 19:10)

We are saved from our enemies
"That we should be saved from our enemies, and the hand of all who hate us." (Luke 1:71)

We are saved from God's wrath
"Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?" (Luke 3:7)

When John the Baptist asked who warned them to flee from the coming wrath ... actually, John the Baptist did when he called the people to repent and be baptized. Not only did John warn them, but so did Moses and all the prophets. And all that John the Baptist said was "repent" (it might be more understandable to translate that as "reform" or "renew a right spirit") -- and be cleansed / baptized. Because "the coming wrath" is only for what is evil, and people can flee from it just by abandoning the evil. When Jesus saves us from doing evil, he saves us from wrath by that same act. But in this picture, God is not the problem. He is truly the solution.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What is the purpose of the New Testament writings -- and how do we know it?

When people write a book or a long work, the last thing that the author says is often the conclusion, or the main point. While an author may have a number of points, there is a single basic motive, the purpose for writing, which helps us make sense of all the other points along the way. Even in a letter, the last thing said may tell us the reason for writing: it is often "Love" or "Best wishes". Generally, everything in a personal letter stems from that love or those good wishes, and they are the true reason for writing anything at all. I'd like to apply that thought to the writings of the New Testament.

The letters and the book of Revelation

Consider the closing words of the epistles in the New Testament, and the book of Revelation:
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. Now to him that is of power to establish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made known, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith:  To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ for ever. Amen. - Romans 16:24-27
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen. - 1 Corinthians 16:23-24
  • The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all. Amen. - 2 Corinthians 13:14
  • Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen - Galatians 6:18
  • Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity. Amen. - Ephesians 6:23-24
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - Philippians 4:23
  • Grace be with you. Amen - Colossians 4:18
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen  - 1 Thessalonians 5:28
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. - 2 Thessalonians 3:18
  • Grace be with you. Amen. - 1 Timothy 6:21
  • The Lord Jesus Christ be with thy spirit. Grace be with you. Amen. - 2 Timothy 4:22
  • Grace be with you all. Amen. - Titus 3:15
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.  - Philemon 1:25
  • Grace be with you all. Amen.  - Hebrews 13:25
  • Let him know, that he who converts the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.  - James 5:20
  • Peace be with you all that are in Christ Jesus. Amen.  - 1 Peter 5:14
  • But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.  - 2 Peter 3:18
  • Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.  - 1 John 5:21
  • The children of your chosen sister greet you. Amen. - 2 John 1:13
  • Peace be to you. Our friends salute you. Greet the friends by name. - 3 John 1:14
  • Now unto him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,  to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. Jude 1:24-25
  • The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.  - Revelation 22:21
We see a few writings that have a different pattern than the common pattern: some close with a caution, an encouragement, a greeting, or the praise of God. But the general pattern remains: the typical conclusion is a blessing. Specifically, it is the blessing of God's grace or favor through Jesus.

The Biblical Gospels

How do the gospels end? Let's look at each of the four Biblical gospels in turn.

Matthew ends with these words:
  • Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you. And I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen. - Matthew 28:19-20
The book does not end with the writer's personal thoughts, but what the writer says are Jesus' own final words to his disciples. Those words include instructions, but finish with a promise that he is with them. We have seen the same parting thought at the end of most of the epistles, with different forms of the blessing "The Lord be with you" or "The grace of the Lord be with you". Here we see what may be the original behind them: "I am with you." It is a blessing. It may be the blessing on which all the other blessings are based.

We will not be able to form conclusions about Mark for this purpose, since the ending text of Mark is too uncertain for us to draw conclusions based on exactly how it ended.

In Luke, the writer separates the last time Jesus spoke from the end of his own narrative. The last time Jesus spoke to them is summarized rather than quoted:
  • And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he was parted from them. - Luke 24:50-51
As I've mentioned before, Luke says Jesus left while blessing them, and it leaves room to wonder whether he stopped. 

The end of Luke shows the disciples waiting as Jesus had previous instructed them. Their wait was not an empty wait. (We may even take it as an example for ourselves, during our long wait.) 
  • And [the disciples] were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen. - Luke 24:53.

If we take the last words of the Gospel of John, we have this conclusion:
  • And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen. - John 21:25

Is that meant as an explanation that a writer has to stop somewhere? If we take the end of the previous chapter, which many scholars take for the ending of the original work (or the ending of the first draft before it was circulated, depending on your school of thought):
  • These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life through his name. - John 20:31

From that, we see that knowing Christ is meant to be a blessing to the reader, and so reading about his life is meant to be a blessing to the reader. It is something all of us would do well to remember when we think of telling other the good news: knowing Christ is a blessing, and showing Christ to another person should be a blessing to them.


If a writer's last words show the purpose for writing, what does it mean that most of the writings in the New Testament end with a blessing? If we are to believe the New Testament, then the purpose of the New Testament, and the purpose of Jesus, and the purpose of God is to bless us. If we take the New Testament as our starting point, then the purpose of religion is to bless us with the presence of God, as a foretaste now, and as completely fulfilled in the world to come.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book review: "Blessed Assurance" by Eric Douglas

I'd like to thank Eric Douglas for sending me a review copy of Blessed Assurance. He may not have known it when he sent me the copy, but I'm probably fairly far from his intended audience, which makes it a good test for whether his writings have appeal outside of his denominational circle. Douglas is a pastor with an education that is thoroughly Baptist, and he writes from a recognizably Calvinist perspective. His background is in the revivalist tradition, where people often speak of a particular conversion experience and spend much time agonizing over whether they are saved. So what does his book say for a Christian from a different tradition, a Lutheran like me?

He writes for those asking the question, "How can I know that I am saved?" What follows is a readable booklet that can be comfortably finished in one sitting. Using the framework of John's first letter, he structures his writing around three tests (no spoilers here but I'll say he stays Biblical in choosing his tests). He does a good job of walking the reader through the reasons to trust in God and to hope in Christ. While he addresses the people who have false security, I thoroughly welcomed the much-needed words for people who have false doubts. There are many people who should truly have more confidence in Christ's promises than they do. His may be the clearest words of comfort and assurance they have heard. He does a capable job of directing people to Christ for their hope. He also does a solid job of tackling the confusion that causes some people to avoid their own questions. He lays to rest their fears that acknowledging their questions or seeking the answers will undermine their faith. Those who have never given themselves permission to address their doubts may find boldness here, and may find their faith grow deeper and surer as they pursue understanding. He strikes a good balance when talking about the tension between faith and doubts. He addresses how we can make sense of a changed life and and still struggle with the remnants of sin. He makes a calm case for the work of the Spirit in spite of the roller-coaster of human emotions. In one of his strongest contributions, he strikes a balance on all of these without going wishy-washy, as is far too common among authors dealing with those topics. Instead, he retains the sense of having a clear direction forward, along with grace for our weaknesses.

The book's best pull-quote, in my opinion, is Douglas' comment on faith and works. He sums up many Bible passages memorably and vividly when he says:
A change in your life is never the cause of your salvation. But it is a reliable reflection of your salvation. (p.27)

As with any human work, this book is not perfect. I found the occasional grammatical problems to be easy enough to overlook, and did not materially interfere with the author's point. My larger areas of discomfort come from my different Christian background: Lutheran rather than Calvinist or Arminian. I could not help but shake my head in sadness at the tale of the seven-year-old child having sleepless nights in fear of what eternity would bring him. What unhealthy or unwise things would lead up to a tragic situation like that? And I could not help but be angry when God was portrayed as the problem: "Unless we are saved from Him, we will perish" (p.2, emphasis added). I wrote the author and asked if he'd really meant it; he doubled down on how he believes that God is in fact the problem ... and the solution. (Too often I have heard that exact viewpoint from ex-Christians who have lost their faith, who have stopped believing that He is good and trustworthy if He is the problem in the first place.) And I should caution the reader that the author sows seeds of doubt rather than faith again when he repeats the Calvinist preaching that God's promise is not really for all. That teaching is an underlying cause of why certain groups tend to doubt their own salvation so often, and why they need so much reassurance. If they do not believe God's promise is for all the world, how can they believe it is for them?

Still, Douglas spends more time focusing on Christ and building faith, rather than tearing it down. "How can I know that I am saved?" Lutherans like me are not, in general, angsty hand-wringers over this question, on the view that enough Christ-centered preaching will put our minds at rest. Those who are prone to doubt may find hope here as we are directed to Christ. Those who are not prone to doubt may still find cause for gladness. As the author reminds us, the disciple John wrote his letter so that our joy may be complete. Douglas' book should be a solid help and true comfort to those who are in fear for their salvation (or over-confident of it) for all the wrong reasons. And it can be a cause for renewed thankfulness to God, even for those who are at peace.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lent Anti-Virus Report 2014

In a recent year, I ran something of an "anti-virus" scan on my thoughts during Lent. This year, some similar things have come to light. I mention them in case it is helpful to someone else:
  • One of my tasks is to cultivate love for the people I know and meet. To borrow the Bible's imagery of thinking of our spiritual lives like seeds that grow into plants and then produce -- then Paul's instructions to get rid of all bitterness, malice, rage, envy, jealousy, factions, discord, strife, etc - is like getting rid of the pests, weeds, and even poisons that sap the strength from our growing love, or kill it outright so that it has to be planted all over again.
  • Sometimes people say nasty things to me, and it sometimes happens that I don't think of the best thing to say until later, after the moment has passed. It's a common enough human experience. But if I find myself rehearsing a nasty speech in retaliation -- even if I may never say it -- then that probably falls under the warnings about not lying on our beds plotting evil at night. That kind of thing needs to be added to my mental 'anti-virus' watch. 
  • An even better comeback might actually help the other person. To say, "That's mean" can easily make things worse. To say, "I'm surprised that a kind-hearted person like you would say a thing like that" is worth a try, in some of the cases that come to mind right now.
  • Planting a seed of love can be as simple as noticing any honest effort the other person makes. It's particularly important when that honest effort is rare or feeble -- something about not breaking a bruised reed, or not snuffing out a smoldering wick.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

And the biggest temptation is ...

Today's Bible readings in church were largely focused on temptation: Eve in the garden, Jesus in the wilderness. And during the readings it struck me that the common temptation in those readings was about ego (status, pride, that kind of thing). "If you really want to be like God ...", or "If you really are the Son of God ...", was the basic weakness to exploit.

During the week, I'd done a day where I tried to keep note of things that tempted me to become impatient or short-tempered, so that I could look at the causes. I made up my mind in advance that I didn't get to leave things off the list just because I kept a professional exterior, but I wanted the true internal picture of everything that had made me struggle to keep that professionalism going. Call it good or bad timing if you will, but the day turned out to be a particularly rough day, almost designed to test the nerves. The character of the "list of things that tempted me to be short-tempered" surprised me a little. At the end of the day, the list contained only one thing that was about my convenience. The rest of the list, when I reviewed it, described things that had the potential either to embarrass me or otherwise make me look bad, if things went wrong. I found myself wondering how much of my "conscientious, detail-oriented, diligent, hard-working" persona at work was motivated by a fear of being wrong, or of being embarrassed by a mistake. It made me wonder how much was the need to be respected or valued. Is my life really focused on that? (On reflection, I wonder how many of the impatient, short-tempered people I was dealing with that day were short-tempered because they were in a situation that made them look bad,or had that potential.) I'm sure "do unto others" would lead me to make sure the other people weren't seen in a bad light.

I don't have all the follow-up meditation and thinking done yet, but today's Bible readings again seemed fairly instructive: at the end of the gospel reading, Jesus has stated that his actions will serve the Lord. I could use that perspective.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Thoughts about fasting

There are those who fast regularly from certain foods, and those who fast occasionally from all food. I think in the Protestant cultures, fasting itself is suspected as being some kind of odd and unhealthy discipline, or a misguided attempt to earn God's favor. (It's sometimes seen as a doubly-misguided effort, if the ultimate fast that God desires from us is justice.) So is there any value at all in fasting?

The New Testament records that Jesus fasted -- and that while he was fasting, he was tempted. Fasting and temptation generally go together ... but I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. If there were no value in fasting, Jesus would not have fasted, so we should look deeper there. If there is nothing wrong with food, why give it up? Food is a blessing for which we give thanks -- so why not simply give thanks and never go without?

One valuable thing about fasting is the practice and experience of mastering our appetites. Our body has appetites, and in a healthy person we find healthy appetites. Why set aside a healthy appetite? It helps us to know -- not just in our minds but to know by experience -- that even a healthy appetite which is genuinely necessary for life can be safely set aside for a time. We may fast for a meal, or for a day, and on the next day we find that there was no harm done at all. Our appetites are not eager for us to find out that we can safely ignore them for a time. Our habits feel the threat that we were able to set them aside for a day.

Fasting does bring on temptation. It deliberately challenges our appetites and our habits, and without some practice, those are enough to give us a struggle. We read that when Jesus was tempted during his fast, the first temptation involved feeding himself. If you've never tried fasting, consider it -- and watch how the simple act of considering it causes your mind to fill with thoughts of whether you really need to do so such a thing, whether a little food would be so bad, how there's nothing wrong with food. Do you talk yourself out of it before your appetites have led you to insult some random medievals or Roman Catholics? (And of course there's nothing wrong with food. If it were a bad thing, we shouldn't let ourselves think of it as a sacrifice to give it up for a time. It's a false argument, of the "straw man" type, to say that fasting implies there is something wrong with food.)

We can practice these small and safe tests of our self-control with our desire for food -- an appetite that really is necessary to survival. If we can master ourselves for a time with an appetite that is so very necessary, how much more can we master ourselves with appetites where our personal survival does not depend on them. If we can see there is no harm done to ourselves or our appetite by this exercise in self-control, we will be more willing to restrain ourselves in other things, more able to see the line between what is a healthy appetite, and what is self-indulgence trying to masquerade as health.