Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Faith & Deeds: Your Window to the World of Works

I am preparing this week to teach on the much debated passage, James 2:14-26. As I come to the text looking for God to show me what He has to say (and not what my own theological bent has to say) on the topic, the first thing that He has made clear to me is that my window on the world is--as everyone's--tinted.

If I ask a room full of evangelicals, "What do you have to do to earn justification through Christ?" There will come a swarm of answers affirming that I must "do" nothing but rather I must merely believe. The mantra of "grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone" would no doubt be touted, perhaps while fists pound in palms (ok, maybe not that extreme). Yet, it's clear that this passionate stance against works-based salvation is a product of our window on the world (and of course the baited way in which I formed the question [grin]). The shaddow from which we in the Evangelical movement are fleeing includes puritanism, fundamentalism, and a unique flavor of late-modern legalism that all amount to a great distaste for "works" emphases.

Martin Luther, too, rose against the "works" emphasized gospel of his day with a similar passion. So much so, in fact, that he is on record as calling the book of James an "epistle of straw" and perhaps even challenging its canonization. Luther was surrounded by a type of Pharisee-like legalism so strong that he polarized to the other extreme. That theme has been a back-bone of protestantism in general that sticks with us today.

Even more important to understanding the scripture at-hand, however, is not our own tinted windows on the world, but that of the Biblical authors that stand seemingly at odds: Paul and James.

Paul, a pharisee by training, faced largely the false-teaching of Judaisers and addressed those fallacies head-on in his epistles. This is made especially clear by his emphasis on the Law and circumcision. When we read Paul's words, "not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:9), bear in mind the boasting he describes in Romans 3:27, "Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith." In fact, Paul's opposition to the legalism of the Judaisers is very closely paralleled to Luther's opposition to the Medieval Catholicism of his day.

James, however, peers through a very different window on the world and on the Church(es) which he oversaw. Likely a carpenter like his father, uneducated, and close companion of Jesus during His earthly ministries, James (in exact agreement with Paul) saw the transformed life a crucial aspect of a justified person's faith. James faced a movement of apathy and intellectualism in the church--one that disregarded the actions of the body and focused on the knowledge of the mind. This is made especially clear by the works that James cites in his discourse on faith and deeds in chapter 2: giving to the needy (verses 15-16), surrendering all to God (verses 21-22), and trusting the Lord (verse 25). James does not enforce that justification is by works in the sense that Paul defined works--following the Law and being circumcised. In fact, James is recorded in Acts 15 as speaking out against legalism for the converted Gentiles.

So, getting back to our own window on the world, ask yourself: what positions does this "works based salvation" that I oppose really include, and what might it not? More importantly, what is James really telling his readers in their day and in their context... and what is he not?

Oh, and just so I don't leave a loose-end untied, Luther himself later resolved that "Faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is never alone" as he came to understand that faith in Christ will certainly manifest in works.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

A Lengthy Response - RE: Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up

If you've been following the comment string of my previous article: Will the Real Messiah Please Stand Up, you may have noticed an escalating string of comments from an anonymous reader. I admire the thought and clarity with which he/she has responded and I think there are valid questions raised worth addressing, so I have decided to create a lengthy response to the most recent comment in this new post.

In an item-by-item fashion, allow me to reply...
1. Christianity is not a divine religion. It is a political creation of the Roman Empire designed to control the Jews.
Yes, and Judaism is not a divine religion either, it's the syncretistic product of an Egyptian outcast fascinated with the Messopotamian mythologies and Semitic culture... fooey. To establish a pacifying religious figure-head amid the rebellious Jewish people may seem a plausible scheme of the Romans, until you consider: just how big of a threat were the Jews to Rome? Did they merit such an outlandish ruse? If they could pull off such a covert operation with such success that nobody diverted from the political line for centuries, maybe they should have dreamed up such a plan for dealing with the Visigoths?

What's more is the the Biblical writings don't support the notion at all. Yes, as mentioned before, it may seem appealing to invent a character such as Jesus who may pacify the Jews, but it's obvious from the beginnings of the Gospels that the Jews rejected Christ. If the intent in creating a false religion was to win over the rebellious Jews to follow their pacifist leader, would the gospels and Acts have portrayed Jewish rejection of Christ so clearly?

No, this is not a valid approach to history.

2. There is no place in Judaism for a messiah that does part of his job, then dies, then comes back and finishes the job.
Well, then it appears the Romans didn't do their research before defining this character that they invented, eh? Oh, sorry... I digress. We're on the 2nd point now. Right.

Could it also be said that there was no place in Judaism for God to make Abraham into a great nation... destroy it... and then do it all over again? Actually, my friend Anonymous, I agree with you. Inasmuch as Judaism had become by the 1st century more of a pattern of traditions than (as you called it) a "divine religion," there was no place in their tradition for a Messiah such as Jesus was and is. You are quite correct.

However, I believe what you may have been trying to say is that there is no place in the divine Hebrew texts (our "Old Testament") for such a Messiah. I confess that I'm not as well versed in Old Testament theology as I should be, so I won't dare venture into a passage-by-passage discourse of how each prophecy can be reconciled. However, I would like to submit that Hebrew writings were never very exact when it came to chronology and continuity (except in cases when they expressly aimed to be, such as Jonah's 3-day visit to fish gut).

By way of example, I'll offer two: first, Adam was told not to eat of the tree for, "when you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen. 2:17). Yet, he did not die... at least not "when" he ate of it. Secondly, consider David's anointing (Messiah) as King. In 1 Samuel 16, David is anointed as king by the prophet of God and Saul is proclaimed to no longer be king. But, David is not king for another 30 years. He was king already, but not yet.

I will, again, reiterate my agreement with Anonymous that this sort of "already but not yet" messianism has no place in traditional Judaism. But it is nonetheless a hermeneutically sound approach to the Messianic prophecies.

3. There are 5 or 6 things that the Jewish messiah must do in order to qualify. These include (off the top of my head) - gather the exiles, build the temple, usher in an era of peace (perhaps preceded by a large war according to some people's interpritation)... and there are others I can't remember right now.
Ahh, and there lies the real issue. All of the items cited herein are a part of traditional Jewish Messianism. On these grounds, the earlier point that Jesus did part of His job, died, and will later return to finish it is actually misrepresented. Jesus did not do any part of this "job" according to the Jewish Messianism. He promised it. He predicted it. But he left every ounce of it undone at His death. In fact, it should interest Jewish readers that the New Testament writings from Acts through Revelation (especially Revelation) express a burning desire to see all of the traditional Jewish Messianic prophecies fulfilled.

However, Jesus' first trip to this terrestrial ball had other goals in mind. He was fulfilling Jeremiah 31:31 before Isaiah 11:6. Christianity does not claim that Christ has already fulfilled all of the Messianic roles. The chief difference in a Christian's present anticipation of a future Messiah and the Jew's present anticipation of a future Messiah is that Christians already know Him by name.
4. ...The Christian interpritation of the messiah involves supernatural stuff, the Jewish messiah is an emancipated empowered mortal human being who brings about real dramatic change to the real world...
How sad a prospect to think that God cannot accomplish the "supernatural." What do Jews do with the "supernatural" elements of their own cherished scriptures? Which is easier, to part the red sea or to raise a man from the dead? And, if you cannot trust that God really parted a sea, then why would you believe his promise to send a peacemaker in the future--mortal or otherwise?
Jesus was a great man... to be denied messiahship is not an insult, it is a great credit to him that he was a contender.
Ah, yes, just as it was an honor for Yahweh to be a 'contender' for the Israelite's worship, right up there with all the other gods... oh, wait, that's not how God thinks at all. "I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another" (Isaiah 42:8).

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Devil Made You Do What?

This Sunday, I have the privilege of teaching from James 1:13-18. The title that was assigned to my lesson is "The Devil Made You Do What?" Although culturally iconic, I'm not sure it accurately represents the dilemma represented in the text. To anyone who has ever noodled on the topic of God's sovereignty, the issue that James addresses here could be more aptly stated as, "God made you do what?"

Having just introduced in the previous verses a counter-intuitive approach to trials in which the suffering reader should rejoice that God is producing character in such a way, James now moves on to a very strongly related matter. It's no accident, in fact, that the same word translated as "trial" in verse 2 is also translated "temptation" in verse 13.

In the many character-building experiences we endure through life, we have two options: follow Christ or follow our sinful nature. To react to any situation in a way unworthy of Christ is to sin. So, naturally, if God sends trials, is it God who tempts us to sin? James addresses this misconception head-on: NO!

As many of us logical creatures might desire a well-developed explanation of how this can be so, James instead appeals to a different argument: the character of God. He does not delve into dangerous re-definition of terms or create slithery distinctions of the permissive vs. active will. To James, there is no need. God's character alone answers the question, all that's left is our faith to accept it. Faith, that is, in who God has revealed Himself to be, not in how God has (or hasn't) revealed Himself to perform.

Once we accept God's character as the under-girding principle that answers our question, we're left with one shameful realization: who we are in contrast to His revealed character. The very next verse draws the damning conclusion that temptation does not, in fact, come from God but from our own sinful natures. We men, the ones created pure and yet determined to spoil it, stand inquiring of God, "why did you put me in the situation where I could sin?" when all along the ONLY one in the entire universe that is totally undeserving of any allegations is God Himself.

The fact is, we can't even face good times, let alone trials, without burning with sinful desires. We don't need God's help to find excuses to sin. It's not as though the trials that He brings us in any way deepen the effect of the fall in our lives. No, in all situations we are damned to sin. Praise be to God, the Father of the heavenly lights, who gives us a good and perfect gift in His Son.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Nuptial Gospel

By now, the term "social gospel" is pretty widely known, but what's the nuptial gospel? I'll tell you... it's a made up term I just invented. Or at least I think I did. Although I haven't done my due diligence in a trademark and patent search, it was new to me when I thought of it last night.

The social gospel, stripped of it's theologically debatable earmarks and connotations, is at it's heart the principal that THE gospel can (or should, depending on who you ask) be conveyed in the genuine care for those socially needy. This is a Biblical concept, no doubt. "Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it" (James 2:15-16)?

In an opportunity that the Spirit created and led me through last night, I found a similar connection between the familiar (felt needs) and the unfamiliar (the gospel to non-believers) that proved very useful. What can a man understand and relate to the love of God if he is not "socially needy." In this case, the married man struggling in his marriage could relate to the covenant love that God has modeled for us.

"Why does she need to deserve your love?" I asked. He didn't quite know what to say. The answer was exceedingly obvious to him, doesn't everyone need to work to deserve love? I explained that her attitude and actions toward him would be more positively effected if he focused less on correcting her (or "parenting" her as he put it) but simply on loving her unconditionally and caring for her. From a psychological standpoint, it made sense to him how this was sound advice.

With that established, I decided now would be a good time to break all social etiquette and bring God up in the midst of a perfectly good normal conversation. "You know, that's what God does for us," I said. His blank stare let me know I had the opportunity to say more. I explained how marriage isn't just something we invented. If we (men, that is) made it up in our own wisdom, we wouldn't have chosen to be monogamous nor would we reserve sex for marriage. To this observation, I received a glowing agreement and buy in... the Spirit was moving.

"So, who made it up? God did. And He told us that, when it's working well, it mimics the way He loves us." Now we're getting somewhere. I was able to make the correlation between his appropriate love for his wife and God's love for his people. "It's nice for me to know that when I screw up, divorce isn't an option for God. That's why it's not an option for me and my wife."

Did He get on his knees and convert? No. But for the first time in a long time I was able to engage this friend in an overt and open discussion about God, His Son, and man that didn't end in a scoff at my faith or an awkward lack of response. So, am I ready to formulate the "nuptial gospel" as a church-wide strategy for conversions? No. But I did find it's effectiveness very moving, and I was grateful to God for giving me the words. I share it today because perhaps your looking for that open door with someone you know. Are they married? Give it a shot.

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