October 28, 2007 Commentary:
"The 490th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation"
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn, and this isn't just any broadcast this is Reformation Sunday, the 490th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In previous programs of this series we've walked through the history of the heresy known as Pelagianism, so we won't belabor the point a lot. Named after the fifth century British monk, Pelagius who locked horns with Church Father Augustine over salvation, Pelagianism denied original sin, that is that we're born into this world dead in trespasses and sins, and so Adam affects us only as a bad example and Christ affects us as a good example. If we just use our free-will properly we can follow Christ's example and attain eternal life. This is a heresy that has crept up again and again in church history. Already laurelled in his native land and university Thomas Bradwardine expressed what he described as a "conversion." "Early in his studies" he writes, "The school of Pelagius seemed to be the nearest the truth, what I heard day in and day out is that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or vices, and much more along this line." Every time I listen to the Epistle reading in church and how Paul magnified grace and belittled free-will as is the case in Romans 9, it is obviously not a question of human willing or effort, but of divine mercy and its many parallels, grace displeased me ungrateful as I was. " And then he goes on to say that when he began to study this ninth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, "The text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and captured by a vision of this truth it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all works. That is why I express my gratitude now to him who has given me this grace as a free gift."
As a result of this shift, Bradwardine wrote a provocative little book, the Case of God against the New Pelagians. His jeremiad against what he regarded as the creeping moralism of his day, wasn't written recently however, nor was it written by a cranky paleo-Calvinist as many today would put it, it was an Oxford don in the 14th century and Bradwardine was Archbishop of Canterbury when he wrote it. Other Medieval churchman fought valiantly against the spread of Pelagianism, including the head of a monastery in Germany Johanne von Staupiz who had a very important impact on one of his monks, Martin Luther. Less than two centuries after archbishop Bradwardine, Martin Luther and John Calvin could not help but see their battle in similar terms of Jesus versus the Pharisees, Paul versus the Judiazing party, and Augustine versus Pelagius. At the same time as the Reformers themselves recognized the Pelagianism of their day was more the practical, working theology although it remained officially condemned. Today, most Evangelicals would probably not sign off on Pelagianism if they saw it written down on paper, and yet it seems to be the assumed working theology of our day.
Benjamin Franklin's line, "God helps those who help themselves" receives an approving nod from a majority of Evangelicals, in fact a majority of the Evangelicals said in a recent survey that it was a quotation from the Bible. This is where we are today, Evangelicals are known for their interest in the Gospel. The very name itself comes from the Greek word for "gospel." Getting that gospel right and getting it out has been the hallmark of any genuinely Evangelical Christianity. But the movement in America that goes by the name "Evangelicalism" is much more diverse, and this is the situation in which we find ourselves today. The diversity that has led to the point where in many instances it seems the light from the Reformation seems to be burning very dimly. In his visit to the United States, Dietrich Bonheoffer, described American religion as Protestantism without the Reformation. As Bonheoffer elaborates, "God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong Revivalist preachers, churchman, and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the word of God. In American theology Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics. Because of this, the person and work of Christ, must for theology sink into the background and in the long-run be misunderstood because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness."
And so this is a very good time for us to remember the 490th Anniversary of the Reformation. Not in order to celebrate the work of individuals, but for us to thank God for that great work and the body of writing concerning the Scriptures that is still available to us today, in the hope that we will be liberated from our American counter-reformation and have a new Reformation by God's Word in our day.
October 14, 2007 Commentary:
"Faith & The Gospel"
Welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. Joel Osteen in his bestselling book Your Best Life Now, Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential writes, "Don't sit back passively, hey I'm just looking out for you own happiness when I say, "You do your part and God will do his. Sure we have our faults, but the good news is God loves us anyway." Instead of accepting God's just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification Osteen counsels readers to just reject guilt and condemnation all together. "If you will simply obey his commands he will change things in your favor. God is keeping a record of every good deed that you have ever done. In your time of need because of your generosity God will move heaven and earth to make sure that you are taken care of." It may be "law-light", but make no mistake about it, behind that smiling baby-boomer evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God's wrath or justice there's a determination to assimilate the Gospel to law: an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, "good news" to "good advice." The bad news may not be as bad as it used to, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news. The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy not to measure us against God's holiness. So while many supporters offer testimonials to his "kinder, gentler" version of Christianity than the legalistic, scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that he smiles when he says it! In its therapeutic milieu the sins we need to avoid are failing to live up to our potential, and failing to believe in ourselves, and the wages of such "sins" is missing out on our best life now.
But it is still a constant stream of exhortations, demands, burdens, follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed. If you simply follow his commands, God will change things in your favor. It is still a message of God keeping a record, and if you follow my steps you are sure to be blest. This is what we might call the gospel of "God loves you anyway." There's no need for Christ as our mediator since God is never quite as holy, and we're never quite as bad as to require nothing short of Christ's death in our place. The harsh version of "works righteousness", legalism, is do all these things and you will go to heaven. Fail to do these things and you will go to hell. The kinder, gentler version is, "try harder and you will be happier. Fail to do them and you will lose out on God's best." One's greatest problem is loneliness, the good news is that Jesus is a reliable friend. The big problem is anxiety, the good news is that Jesus will calm us down. Jesus is the glue who holds our marriages and families together, gives us purpose for us to strive for, wisdom for daily living. And there are half truths in all of these pleas, but they never really bring hearers face to face with their real problem that they stand naked and ashamed before a holy God and can only be acceptably clothed in his presence by being dressed, head to toe, in Christ's righteousness. "How can I be right with God" is not longer the question, when the real question is not my holiness in God's presence, but my happiness for myself. And that puts it, I realize, in stark terms the issue that is before us, namely, faith and the gospel.
October 7, 2007 Commentary:
"Justification & Imputed Righteousness"
Welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn. We are continuing our series going through the great "onlys" of the Reformation as we continue to discuss what it means to be justified by Christ. God justifies the wicked. Now as counter-intuitive as that sentence is that's the claim that lies at the heart of the "good news" that has brought immeasurable blessing (and trouble) to the church and world throughout history. It's not the Pharisee, confident in his own righteousness, who went home justified in Jesus' parable, but the bartender who couldn't even raise his eyes to heaven but cried out "Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner." It was this simple claim "God justifies the wicked" that caused the Apostle Paul to look back on all of his zealous obedience as an observant Jew, and call it dung in order he says, "that he may gain Christ and be found in him not having a righteousness that is of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ - the righteousness from God that depends on faith." As the revelation of the righteousness of God, the Law condemns us and leaves no one standing and yet the gospel is a revelation of the righteousness from God the good news that sinners as Paul says, are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith. Therefore, he also adds, "since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul considered this doctrine to be so central that he regarded its explicit denial as anathema, that is, an act of heresy that the Galatian church itself was on the verge of committing. For Paul, a denial of justification was tantamount to a denial of grace and even to a denial of Christ for as he puts it in Galatians, "if justification were through the Law, then Christ died for nothing."
So God justifies the wicked, not those who have done their best yet have fallen short, who might at least be judged acceptable because of their sincerity. But those who are at the very moment of being pronounced righteous, in themselves are in fact unrighteous. And as Paul adds, "to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works."
In this program, since we have already talked about justification in its other aspects, we are really going to get to the heart of the definition of justification namely the question of the imputation or crediting of Christ's righteousness to the ungodly.