Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Theology: The Art of Making Distinctions

Pastor Tom Baker has a daily radio show at KFUO called Law and Gospel. He has many sayings he loves to use, but perhaps the most insightful (inciteful?) statement he makes is "theology is the art of making distinctions". In a post just three spots down from this one, I wrote a piece about The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr. and his statements about genetic reasons for homosexuality and curing it if such a thing were possible. That's fine. He can make his distinctions if he wants to, although there are a lot of people who disagree with the distinctions he makes.

But that's not what this post is about. I have some great teachers, not the least of which is the Holy Spirit, but both Pastor Tom and Pastor Gary (of Risen Savior Lutheran Church and School in Palm Bay) have been challenging me to make fine distinctions. I tell them, "hey, I'm an artist. Asking me to make fine distinctions in theology is a bit like asking Botticelli to paint one thousand songbirds on a one inch canvas". I'm game for trying, always, and ready to be corrected if necessary, but I do like to try.

Another blogger asked me in the comments to the Mohler post the following:

I would like, however, to explore this statement regarding "not for the sake of Christ's work alone." When you say "work" do you mean the work of Redemption, or are you referring to the work that God does in the sinner? If the latter, then I agree with your statement. Faith can never be in what God accomplishes in us. But if the former, I would like you to elaborate more. In once sense is our faith not also in the finished work of Redemption? That is a fine edge indeed, and I am not sure where you are going with it (if that is indeed what you meant). Perhaps that could be the subject of a new blog entry.

I promised him I would, so let me get out my tiny little one-hair brush and get to painting those songbirds.

The Bread King?

Crazy sounding statements like "salvation is by Grace alone, through Faith alone, for the sake of Christ alone, Not for the sake of Christ's work alone" jar people, and I'll admit that part of the reason I make them is to make people stop and do a double take. This one in particular is becoming a favorite of mine because it helps people (lutherans especially) understand how weird the statement "faith alone" must sound to Roman Catholics. The word "alone" makes Christians crazy, and sometimes the hearer is thrown into a fitted battle between his old man and his new man.

Let's consider Jesus' actions in John Chapter 6 when the people wanted to make him king by force. "Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." (John 6:15) It's interesting that Jesus would do that. Why wouldn't he want to be king? That was part of his mission on earth, wasn't it? Was it because he didn't want to be king? Was it because the people had missed the point of his miracle?

The problem with talking about Law and Gospel is twofold in this current culture (there's actually more, but we'll stick with two for time being). Because it's pretty much unique to Lutherans, the evangelical on the street has no idea what you're talking about beyond maybe a old testiment/new testiment dichotomy. But even once you've dispelled that view, usualy what comes up next is "works vs. faith", which isn't necessarily true all the time either. The discussion I had (and am sure to have again in the future) ended up in a question, "When you say "work" do you mean the work of Redemption, or are you referring to the work that God does in the sinner?"

Answer? Both.

THE way, THE truth and THE life.

Ok, I've only painted half the birds, so let me continue. In John 6 starting with verse 25, the people have followed Jesus to Capernaum and he told them, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill." I can hear them saying to themselves even, "well, duh!" So he says, "work for food that endures to eternal life". They immediately ask, "what must we do to do the works God requires". Then Jesus says, "the work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent".

Then what do they do? Demand a miracle from him so they can believe. They are right back where they started, wanting more miraculous signs. "Feed us more bread and fish" they might say. "Raise a man from the dead" they might say. They might even say, "die on a cross and then be raised from the dead yourself so that we can believe in you." In fact, if Jesus wanted to have maximum marketing effect to draw more people into his church on earth then he should have opened up in Jerusalem playing three performances per night at the temple. "Come one, come all and see the Amazing Jesus of Nazareth and his performing 12. Be amazed at the spectacle of people raised from the dead! Watch as the deaf hear, hear as the blind see, jump as the lame walk." In fact, it could have been the beginning of the election campaign of all time. "Cast your vote for Jesus for King of Israel. Free bread and fish and wine in large jars provided at no charge." The Herods wouldn't have stood a chance.

Does all that sound right? After all, the people with Jesus bring up the point that their forfathers ate manna in the wilderness and that was a miraculous sign. God gives signs and commands the people to remember the things that he's done, repeatedly saying to them, "I AM the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt", and one could add the rider, "with no help from you people, thankyou very much". What Sign indeed? What sign will wicked people accept?

No, Jesus dropped a bombshell on them. "The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." When they demand that he give them this bread he says... "I AM the bread of life." Why they didn't try to kill him right then and there is a mystery. They grumbled about it. They wanted a sign, but all Jesus seemed to want to talk about was himself. In fact he get's more and more explicit as time goes by, talking about flesh and blood in a way that's strangely intimate. No signs, no wonders, just eating flesh and drinking blood. True food and true drink. In fact, Jesus puts himself on the scene in the wilderness as the giver of life, as does St. Paul, when he wrote in 1 Corinthians, "They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ."

But before the conversation was over with, all of the disciples left save the twelve. I mean, Jesus can give you just about anything and everything you could want, right? Bread for the feast, and turn water into wine. Outcast? Jesus can fix that. Dying? Jesus can fix that too. Lame? Deformed? Blind? Deaf? He can fix all of that, and more! He can even die and rise again! Amazing! Where do I sign up? I believe! I believe in Jesus.

Thing is, there are a lot of people who believe in Jesus who aren't saved at all. And I don't mean the backslidden Christian, the carnal Christian, or any of that. No, they believe everything the bible says. They believe the miracles happened. They believe Jesus died and rose again from the dead. They believe it all. What they don't believe is the promise. Jesus kept coupling the promise of eternal life with a kind of intimacy with himself that is both strange and yet familiar, even to my own ears even today. "I will raise them up in the last day"... "Eat my flesh and drink my blood"... "The words I speak to you are spirit and they are life"...

"...and I will raise you up in the last day". Luther said that, in the Lord's supper, the most important words in the institution is "for you". Because if you don't believe that all of this is "for you", you have nothing. How many times did Jesus say that? "...and I will raise you up in the last day". Four times. Remember also, what St. Thomas had to say about this, silly though it was. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it (he rose from the dead)." Jesus pretty much "nails" Thomas after that. "Because you have seen me you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen and believe". In fact, if you stop and think about it, this stuff about Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life is preposterous. This whole thing is too loopy to believe. In fact, even if Abraham Zapruder (famous for his film of JFK's assasination) had been on the scene with his camera filming the Jesus' death and resurrection... People still wouldn't believe. CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, and MSNBC could have been camped around the place of the skull broadcasting the event to the world with commentary and interviews with the Caiphus and the others, even Pontius Pilot could have been soundbyte of the week: "What I have written, I have written."

Thankfully, Salvation is by grace alone (God has created a way to be overtly overgenerous to sinners), through faith alone (the tool that God provides to grasp and hold onto the promise), for Christ's sake alone (grounded in the person and work of Christ himself), for the glory of God alone (He alone has done this, at great cost). What we have in Christ is not just a miraculous sign of resurrection, but a living Christ who serves himself up to us in a way that's as startling as it is intrusive in our faithless world. It's not just Christ's work that saves, but his presence, "the word of eternal life", as Peter put it. The word that is spoken that is spirit and life. The Word made flesh.

So it's sort of a trick saying. "...For the sake of Christ alone, but not for the sake of Christ's work alone". That very fine edge, especially during this time of lent, is a fine thought indeed.


I would like to thank each person who's responded to this blog. One thing I'm certain of, God wont let me run to far astray, mainly because of the great people He's put nearby me to act as shepherds in his stead. This was by far one of the hardest and scariest posts I've done so far. Hard, in that I'm being made to reach out hard for things I don't fully understand yet, and scary in that I don't want to lead people or myself out into weird places.


the big test

Since someone, somewhere, has seen fit to deprive the world of Issues etc and take a huge bite out of confessional Lutheranism at the same time, I will not take up the mantle of working to see that those who did it answer for their actions.
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