Pastor Peter Burfeind (pictured right) recently asked me to do an interview for his blog Gnostic America. I accepted his gracious request. The fruit of said interview can be found here. Pastor Burfeind also recently released his book “Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion According to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy.” This book is quickly climbing its way up my to-read list and I would encourage you to also pick up a copy. You can find it here. In addition, Pastor Burfeind is a solid confessional Pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church and Student Ministry which is a campus ministry at the University of Toledo. If you are a person who likes the idea of a solid confessional ministry for college students, then I would encourage you to consider supporting this important ministry. You can do so here .
This week will begin a series of interconnected parables that build upon each other. The series will start with Chapter 1a, The Parable of the Lost Sheep which is found in Luke 15:3-7. In the preceding text (Luke 15:1-2) Jesus finds himself preaching to sinners and tax collectors while the Pharisees looked on with scorn and ridicule as they attempt to condemn Jesus simply for ministering to these outcasts. Jesus, knowing the hearts of all men, begins to tell a series of parables that masterfully minister to both crowds simultaneously. The first parable he tells is that of the lost sheep.
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Addressing the full crowd, Jesus asks “What man of you…” This question sets the stage to be answered individually by all. The answer had to be “yes” from all in attendance as this was standard practice for those who owned sheep. It was common practice to leave the flock in an open field to find the one that strayed. Jesus’ implication is that as they do for lost sheep, how much greater is it that he does for lost men. Much ink has been spilled reading all sorts of theological ideas into this parable that simply are not present in the text. Many stories are told about an arduous journey that the shepherd makes through canyon and summit to find this poor little sheep. That idea is simply adding to the text. The better analogy is found in Genesis 3:9 where God calls to Adam “Where are you?” Equally so, it has often been suggested that the shepherd bears great pains and severe burden to carry the lost sheep back to the flock. This too is implied as the parable merely says that the shepherd lays the sheep on his shoulder, rejoicing, and thus carries him back to the flock. This parable makes a better case for the shepherds heart being more burdened by the realization that the sheep is lost than by the physical burden of carrying the sheep back to the flock. The parable ends by likening the straying sheep to a heart of unrepentance.
The most difficult part of the parable to understand is the phrase “99 righteous persons who need no repentance.” Precisely who is Jesus talking about here? Is he saying that the Pharisees are indeed righteous and need not repent? The key to understanding this is found in the beginning of his declaration. Jesus says “…there will be more joy…” This is important because it points to the fact that there is also celebration for the 99 that did not stray. As pointed out, straying is likened to unrepentance, and therefore staying is likened to repentance. Thus the 99 do not need repentance because they already have it. This declaration was directed at the hearts of the undesirables and Pharisees alike. The Pharisees sought righteousness by strict adherence to the law, but Jesus is calling that idea into question by saying that repentance is actually what delivers righteousness; not works. This picture would have cut the Pharisees to the quick.
This leads to the necessity of setting an objective definition of “repentance.” Repentance has two parts; contrition and faith. Webster defines contrition as “the state of feeling remorseful and penitent.” Therefore, repentance begins with the realization of being lost without anyone else to blame.
It is God’s call to each of us as if we were Adam in the garden.
It is God saying “Jonathan, where are you?”
It is the reckoning of a righteous God.
It’s knowing that I messed up and that I am responsible.
Contrition prepares the heart to receive faith. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” True contrition cultivates the heart, plowing the way of salvation and planting faith. Faith always has an object and therefore looks to Jesus as the assurance that contrition hopes for. Thus faith is the passive hand of a beggar that passively accepts the gifts of Christ as a passive response to what contrition has wrought. John 1:13-14 says…
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Faith is a gift born from the will of God. Ephesians 2:8-9 carries this forward giving the reason “…so that no man may boast.” This all fits precisely within the parable. The sheep doesn’t realize that he is lost of his own accord, nor does the sheep desire to return to the flock on his own accord. The sheep is simply lost. The sheep’s owner finds the sheep and carries him back to the flock. The only role the sheep played was getting lost. All the work was done by the sheep’s owner and therefore what does the sheep have to boast about? If the sheep must boast, let him boast in his master (1 Corinthians 1:31).
The Greek word that is translated as repentance is μετάνοια (metanoia) which means “change of mind.” Repentance is simply that. Contrition forces realization of the dire circumstances of the soul and gifted faith grasps the promises of grace purchased by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sadly, our sin nature is ever present as long as we inhabit these earthen vessels. All of us are prone to wander and will continue to forsake our gracious heavenly Father each time that we give into our sinful flesh. It was by no coincidence that the first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not a one time deal in the Ordo Salutis, but is exemplary of the new life in Christ. Thanks be to God that he calls each of us to repentance and by thus, restores us to his flock. Therefore let us look upon repentance as the great and gracious gift that it is.
Tune in next week for “The Lost Coin (Chapter 1b)”
I am a sinner. Just ask my wife…or my family…my friends…or my pastor…
I may seem like I have it all together, but I can assure you that I do not. It’s merely a facade to get through this life as best as I can and if you know me well enough, you’ll see glimpses, if not outright effects, of my own brand of sinfulness. I lust, covet, wish bad things upon people, gossip, get unrighteously angry and the list doesn’t stop there. You name it and I’ve at least thought about it. It was only about a year ago when I truly began to figure things out. To best explain my discovery, I think it best to start with a little biographical information.
I’ve grown up in various Christian denominations over my 35 years of life.
I was born a Methodist and remained one until age 5.
My dad took a job transfer that moved us to the big city where we spent 8 years in a conservative nondenominational Christian church.
At age 13 my dad was once again transferred and we moved north. I spent the first 5 years, up north, in a Nazarene church before transitioning into a Christian & Missionary Alliance church for the following 16 years.
I guess one could say that I was an American Evangelical Mutt.
Each denomination had varying degrees of legalism, but ultimately all taught that in some sense obedience to the law is where one looks for assurance of continuing salvation for the Christian. The old question of “How’s your walk going?” Throughout my life I was taught to “trust and obey for there’s no other way.” The concept was sure enough easy to grasp. Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for my sins gifted me salvation, but continued obedience was what Jesus really wanted and if I obeyed I would not only stay in his good graces but continue to seal my salvation and ultimately end up in heaven.
It seemed legit.
The Gospels are full of lists of sin that should be avoided. The Apostle Paul was also quite the list maker when it came to sin. This all seemed well and good even though something inside tugged hard in opposition to this idea. I was perplexed because even though I tried really hard to obey my parents, my teachers and Jesus, I always failed. When I was caught in sin I expressed remorse and was typically asked what would Jesus think if he was sitting next to me? I for sure let him down…again. He must really be frustrated with me! I was typically encouraged to just do better. Try harder. Make Jesus proud. The problem was me. I just needed to let go of the wanton desires of my sinful flesh and really give it a go with Jesus. Next time will be better. Next time I will succeed.
Next time around I usually did succeed, for a time, only to eventually fail again. A pattern was forming. I was aware of this paradigm at a rather early age. I remember realizing early in my childhood, around age 5 or 6, that obedience was really hard. I remember reasoning that if I try really hard to obey, but keep failing, I might not be good enough to make it to heaven. That would result in me not only going to hell, but more than likely I’d end up being the lowest on hell’s totem pole (as if there was such a thing). Human reason kicked in and I contemplated the thought of being really bad. I thought if I tried to be bad instead of good, that would ultimately be easier, and maybe then I could climb hell’s corporate ladder. I mean I didn’t like the thought of hell and any picture of the Devil, no matter how cartoonish, scared the crap out of me, but I was shooting for the best position within grasp; not my ultimate preference. I told myself that maybe, if I was just bad enough, the devil would take kindly to me resulting in better hellish amenities such as cooler flames, flesh eating worms that took work breaks and maybe even getting awarded regional supervisor of sector 6. That sure sounded easier than trying to be fully obedient only to constantly fail. This good versus evil struggle often crossed my mind. The bar of expectations was always so far out of my grasp that I could certainly relate to a rabbit chasing after a carrot on a treadmill. I was plagued with thoughts about whether I’d end up in heaven or hell. I remember practicing basketball in my driveway as doubting thoughts reeked havoc in my mind. Thoughts like “if you make this next shot, you’ll go to heaven, but if you miss, then who knows?” I was internally consumed with assurance and instead of church delivering the healing salve of the gospel that my soul so desperately needed, it became the catalyst for what troubled me most. Even though these thoughts attacked me like arrows from the quiver of Olympic archers, I knew that they weren’t rational. I never spoke of my issues to anyone. Maybe it was because they seemed insane. Or perhaps I didn’t want to let my parents down. Or possibly I feared my spiritual superiors and youth leaders might confirm my worst nightmare and condemn me or say that I had a demon or something. So I kept quiet, continued to play the part of the normal, good kid while a battle raged within.
I continued contemplating these thoughts through my teenage years and into my adult life. In scripture, I was always drawn to the book of Revelation. It seemed so veiled and mysterious. I also reveled in the fact that my parents nor leaders at church could really explain it with any certainty. I enjoyed the salvivic images and overtones strewn throughout the book and I began to search for assurance there. This indeed would have been a fine plan had the churches that I attended not been premillennial dispensationalists. This led me to always be on guard for the rapture. If my parents were supposed to be home and didn’t answer the phone…maybe the rapture got them and I was left behind. If my mom ran to the store without telling me and I couldn’t find anyone home…maybe the rapture took them. You can see how this supposedly comforting doctrine of the rapture is really anything but. It was even reinforced when my mom would catch me watching something on TV in which she didn’t approve. I remember once while watching the Simpsons, my mom exclaimed “Is that what you want to be watching when Jesus comes back?” Once again, assurance was questioned. The excruciating part was not being able to honestly talk with anyone about these fears. Not because my parents were bad people, they are in fact great parents. Neither was it because my youth leaders, or pastors were especially terrible either, they were generally nice folk who cared for their flock (some much more than others). The issue from my perspective was that if I told them that I feared I didn’t make the rapture cut, then that would spark their curiosity about what kind of sins I was involved in. The microscope of failure would be zooming in on me with its lights on highest magnification. This added a new dimension to lack of assurance because now I only confessed to sins in which I was caught in. Anything else was left for internal deliberation as to not let anyone down or avoid damnation talk. Therefore, I was constantly looking inward to see if I was meeting the requirements and for the better part of my life I knew that I was triumphantly missing the mark but didn’t really know what to do about it. All of the youth conferences that I attended just tried to answer my questions with endless lists and sermons about detaching from society, being a world changer and a light to those in darkness. This was all well and good, but how do I become a light to others when I know my own heart is as black as coal?
There were several times that I almost hung it up. I was tired of putting on the mask and playing the role of the prototypical conservative Christian evangelical…Mr. Everyday Goodfellow. But something wouldn’t let me go through with it. That something was the word of God. There were months upon months that I failed to read my bible and there were also months that I read it every day. Every time that I tried to give up on Christianity, scripture always reeled me back. Each time that I willingly entered into sin, my conscience would toss scripture my way and leave me with overwhelming guilt. While this was ultimately good, the only tool that I thought I possessed in my spiritual quiver was obedience. Thus, the old try harder next time, read your bible more, pray more, go to church more, volunteer more attitude was the same old snake oil that failed to fix me every time. I ultimately discovered that I wasn’t fed up with Christianity after all, but was merely tired of the snake oil that obedience was selling me in the name of Christianity.
I was about 30 when things truly started to change. After a couple trying years dealing with financial problems and job loss, I had a new job and thanks to my wife, finances were in much better order. My new job had a 50 minute commute each way. I began to use that time to listen to sermons and podcasts. This lead to a desire to search out theology with a great fervor. Questions began to arise deep within my soul.
What did I truly believe?
Could I defend my faith?
What would I teach my kids (if and when I had kids)?
My prayer life began to change. I stopped asking God for favors and temporal desires and began asking him to strengthen my faith and to help me fight against the sin that was entrenching my life. I asked him to cut away all of the junk-pop-theology and help me figure out what his word truly says as revealed instead of just taking my parents, pastors, and pseudo-Christian teachers word for it. I was beginning to see progress in all areas of my life, but still continued to struggle with obedience and sin. I remember thinking that God is helping me to clean up my life, my prayer life is better, my scripture reading is better, I have a desire to study like never before, but…I still struggle with obedience and sin. Every time that I read Romans or Corinthians, I saw myself in the lists of sin that Paul called out by name. How could I truly be improving if I still identify with the worst of sinners?
As I continued to read my bible alongside many notable theologians I began to realize that while obedience is found in the Christian life, it is not where I was supposed to be looking for assurance. Obedience has an object, which is God’s law. God’s law can be simplified into two commands. Love God and love people. This was the heart of the problem. In church, Sunday school and small group I was commanded to love God and people as if that was the gospel message. It was the imperative that supposedly defined the Christian life. It was the litmus test to determine whether one was truly a Christian or not.
I would often hear the question “Are you loving God and people?”
The answer, more times than not, was an emphatic no. I heard many lessons and sermons throughout my life encouraging me to do more, pray harder, read more, serve more, love more. The problem is that none of these “actions” are the gospel message. This confusion was at the heart of all of my problems. The gospel message is not an action at all. It is simply good news. One cannot “do” good news. One can only receive good news. This was the message that I desperately needed, not just once at my conversion, but constantly. I needed to hear it not only in my personal study, but on Sunday mornings from the lips of the pastor. Week in and week out I needed to hear the ridiculously good news that “All have sinned (Romans 3:23), and the sin of all has accrued a debt that no mere man could ever pay (Matthew 18:21-35). God, in his great mercy and love, sent his willing Son to take on flesh (John 1:14), live a sinless life in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21), die on the cross and rise again for our justification (Romans 4:24-25) and that all of this is secured by gifted faith alone (Ephesians 2:8 & Romans 3:28). That is the gospel. There is nothing that I must do in any of that. God has even taken care of gifting the faith necessary so that no man may boast. It is totally and exclusively God’s grace apart from my works. The command to Love God and people is merely condensed law that Jesus uses in Luke 10:25-29 to show that we are completely incapable of fulfilling! That is why he fulfilled it in our place. Therefore, since Christ has fulfilled the law, it is no longer a burden to us, but a joy. It allows for order in the world through the rule of law, exposes our sin which produces the fruit of repentance, and gives us a target to shoot for. The great blessing here is that our assurance is not tied to how many times we miss the target or fall short, but to Christ’s objective work on the cross. The best way to remember the three uses of the law is…
Curb – 1st use – The general revelation of rule of law that is written on the hearts of man and dispensed through civil and governing bodies. This is how sin is curbed in the world (Romans 2:15).
Mirror – 2nd use – The law mirrors Christ’s will for each of our lives. It shows us all the places that we each fall short. This is blessing as it leads us to repentance (Romans 1:18-32 & 3:23).
Guide – 3rd use – The law gives us a guide to strive toward in Christian living. The striving is fueled by the gospel message, not by a meritorious method of obedience. This is also a blessing because it shows us what God desires, but deals no condemnation to those in Christ (Romans 8:1).
This means that we can, as King David says, delight in the law (Psalm 1:22). By it, God gave us a picture of his perfect will and thus we should strive for it solely because of the grace he has dispensed to us. The spiderweb that often catches us is when we attempt to look to our obedience (or lack there of) for assurance. For those in Christ, meaning those with faith in Christ, the law is a guide alone, not a means to salvation. This can be said confidently because Christ fulfilled the law for us, in our place, and therefore we have been freed from the burden of the law. The law no longer has condemning power for those in Christ Jesus. Therefore the gospel, not the law, gives us the desire to strive forward.
This is where the legalistic majority will retort “So you’re saying that we can do what ever we want and retain salvation!?! You’re an antinomian!” Although logical, this is a false dilemma. The person asking this question isn’t someone who believes the gospel too much, but sadly someone who doesn’t have any grasp on the gospel message at all. Paul is asked the same question in Romans 6 and what was his response? He preached more gospel. He pressed the gospel message in further as the fuel to fire the new gifted desire of obedience. If someone thinks that the gospel gives them a free pass to sin, they really don’t realize the unfathomable debt their sin has charged to their account. They don’t fully understand the weight of the law. They don’t see their sin as really that bad. They don’t understand that every single seemingly microscopic sin was fuel for the arm that pounded the nails into the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. They don’t understand the full ramifications of the sermon on the mount. They don’t truly see their lust as adultery. They refuse to see their anger as murder. They don’t see their parking ticket as damning. They don’t see their A+ as justification for Pharisaical self righteousness and people pleasing or their F as slothful laziness. Until a person comes to grips with the full weight of their motives and sin, they will never understand the magnificence of the grace of God.
The argument can be reduced to a proper understanding of love. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian gets is exactly right when he says “It is forgiveness that motivates and generates love. It is love that begets love. The law cannot beget love. Nowhere, and I challenge anybody out there to find a place in the bible that actually says the law, in and of itself, has the power to produce love. Preachers and parents make a huge mistake when they assume that simply telling people what to do will change their heart and make them want to do it. Nowhere does the bible say that!” Only the gospel can change the desires of our heart and give us the motivation to strive toward obedience. Pointing out our complete inability to adhere to the imperatives of the New Testament does not imply that the imperatives lack importance or should be ignored – all Christians should be encouraged to good works – but let’s not make the mistake of believing that simply telling someone what to do instills the power for them to do it. Even worse, don’t insinuate that failure to meet the demands reduces ones favor in God’s eyes. The law shows us our sin and gives us a guide to strive after. The gospel is the news of forgiveness that instills both the means to strive and a heart of repentance. I had this backwards for 34 years and it nearly made me walk away from the faith altogether.
There is a dialogue in the third novella of Bo Giertz’s “The Hammer of God” that has been very helpful to me. It’s between young Pastor Torvik who resides in Odesjo, Sweden and old Pastor Bengtsson from Ravelunda, Sweden. Pastor Torvik experiences an intense awakening to his sinful nature through a dream and thus he begins to make amends with those in his congregation whom he has wronged. This realization of sin results in legalistic preaching that is void of the gospel. His church sees a moral revival take place, but soon after everything begins to fall apart. In the midst of trying to discover what went wrong, Torvik receives a visit from Pastor Bengtsson. Pastor Bengtsson questions Torvik on the current condition of his congregation. Torvik honestly replies that things are not going well at all. Pastor Bengtsson’s response is invaluable.
“Let me teach you what you ought to have known long before you stepped into the pulpit. When an individual has been called through the power of the word – in other words, the very thing that has been happening in this congregation of yours – that person is first enlightened by the law. He understands that there is something called sin that he must be careful to avoid. He becomes obedient, you see. That is the first awakening. Thus far it has perhaps come here and there in Odesjo by now. But then comes the second awakening by the law, when one sees the miserable condition of one’s heart. I am going to preach about that tonight. Then one understands that, with all one’s best deeds, one is and remains black as a chimney sweep. Then the danger is really serious. A person will the say, either, ‘If my condition is so terrible, I may as well wallow in the dirt,’ and go away and sin again. Or he will say, ‘I am after all not as black as Karlsson or Lundstrom and their card playing cronies, since I do not sin intentionally, and surely the Lord must make some distinctions on the last day,’ and he goes away and becomes a self righteous Pharisee, and all is lost. Or his eyes are turned from his own miserable condition and he catches sight of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for such black rascals as himself. And he hears that it is faith that makes righteous, and not works. That is the enlightenment through the gospel. Therefore everything here in Odesjo depends on whether you can rightly preach the gospel and guide souls to the redeemer.
Looking back, I am thankful for God’s protection from apostasy as well as his grace along my path. I’m eternally thankful that I didn’t pursue evil just because because I was
clever foolish enough to convince myself of false hope in hell’s corporate ladder. God has always sustained me through both tumultuous and simplistic times. It was never a mystical reading of the tea leaves type journey, but simply a remembrance of scripture when I needed it most. I am ever grateful for the upbringing that my parents gave me and even though we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on all things theological, the biblical foundation they gave me was strong enough to persevere against the rocky seas of life. At age 35 I can certainly relate with Pastor Torvik as he is representative of how much of my life was spent. The counsel that Pastor Bengtsson gave him also pulled at my heart. I had experienced both of the negative paths that my awakening to the law had yielded. I was internally miserable and defeated by sin as I secretly wallowed in the dirt while externally playing the part of the Pharisee as I tried to obey my way into temporal favor as I attempted to secure my standing before a righteous God. The motivation was all wrong. I didn’t try to obey out of love for Christ, but out of fear of the law and a perverse desire for approval. I am eternally grateful that through word and sacrament, God has brought me to the place, through his Son, that I can freely confess…
Most merciful God, I confess that I am by nature sinful and unclean. I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved You with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of your Holy Name. Amen.
Praise be to God!
The Hammer of God is a little known classic within Christian literature and the fact that it flies under the radar is indeed sad. The book consists of three novellas, all which paint the picture of church life from a pastoral perspective. In the first novella, titled “The Hammer of God”, Giertz introduces the reader to a young curate named Savonius. Savonius preaches the law with great ferocity, but fails to ever comfort souls with the healing salve of the gospel. This results in a reduction of sinful living within the community, but also begins to breed an air of self righteousness in many congregants and an internal sense of overwhelming desperation within Savonius as he begins to realize the depths of his own depravity. One day a cobbler named Anders visits Savonius to seek counsel about his brother who lives with him. Anders is angry that his brother is drinking whiskey in his home and desires Pastor Savonius to give advice on how to coerce his brother to stop. Savonius asks if his brother is in the habit of being a drunkard. Anders says no, but expresses anger that his brother has the audacity to openly drink in front of him. Sovonius replies by asking if Anders would prefer his brother to drink alone where temptation could more easily overtake him? Anders, frustrated that he isn’t getting anywhere with the pastor, abruptly storms out. Savonius’ questions were purposefully pointed to show Anders that the true problem didn’t lie with his brother or the whiskey, but with himself. Self righteousness is synonymous with unrepentance and this is what Savonius attempted to help Anders realize. Todays biblical text is Luke 13:6-9, “The parable of the barren fig tree.” The contextual setup for the parable is found in Luke 13:1-5 and is remarkably similar to the dialogue between Savonius and Anders.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In these opening verses, Jesus finds himself in the midst those reporting the atrocity of Pilate desecrating the temple sacrifices. At this time Pilate was fighting against the Galilean zealots. These zealots were top priority for Pilate as their motivation was to promote unrest in gaining support to rally the Jews toward insurrection against Rome in an effort to ultimately gain full independance. Pilate was consumed with ridding these zealots from his territory at any cost. In seeking shelter from Pilate, some zealots sought safe haven in the Jerusalem temple, a place they assumed Pilate would not dare go out of reverence for Jewish religious laws. Not only did Pilate pursue the zealots into the temple, but also slew them in the temple, thus mixing their blood with the blood of the sacrifices (which were for atonement from sin). This was a terrible act of desecration which nullified the sacrifices that were tainted with human blood. Jesus’ response to the report is very insightful. Throughout the gospel accounts, Jesus knows the heart of his questioners. His questions are motivated by a desire to aid the questioner in their understanding, not because he is looking for the answer. Jesus knows that these reporters are telling him this story out of self righteousness instead of remorse. This is why he responds by asking them if they thought those slaughtered by Pilate in the temple were worse than all other Galileans. He knows their heart and thus calls them to repentance saying that apart from repentance, they will die in like manner. This statement is fascinating when understood in the context of what happened concerning Pilates desecration of the sacrifices. Self righteousness always looks both inward, to prove that we are checking things off of our list, and downward, at others when their sin is exposed. Repentance comes through the realization of our sinful state by resting in the person and work of Jesus. Thus, if these reporters reject repentance and cling to self righteousness instead, they are ultimately choosing to rely on their work rather than on Jesus’ salvivic work alone thus desecrating the sacrifice that Jesus will earn for them by his death and resurrection. Jesus continues to press this issue further by speaking of a tragedy that killed 18 people when the tower fell at Siloam. Jesus is saying that it is not the manner in which one dies that matters, only the condition of their heart. Whether a person dies in a car crash, is murdered or succumbs to cancer is spiritually immaterial. The only thing that matters is where their faith rests. Saving faith always rests in the person and work of Jesus and always bears the fruit of repentance. Saving faith is the antithesis self righteousness.
To further paint this picture to the reporters, Jesus tells them a parable in verses 6-9.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Some theologians attempt to divorce this parable from the previous 5 verses because on the surface, the narrative in verses 1-5 seems detached from the theme of the parable. However, a careful study will prove their theories incorrect. The parable begins with a man who owns a vineyard and plants a fig tree in the vineyard. The owner planted the tree with the purpose of bearing fruit, but each time he checks on the tree, he sees that it fails to bear fruit. The owner then contacts the vinedresser, explains the situation and tells him to cut the tree down as it is merely wasting profitable space. The vinedresser petitions the owner to wait it out the rest of the year so he can once more give the tree the best opportunity to bear fruit, but that if tree continues to be barren, he will then cut it down. With this understood, it is now time to reveal the parable cast.
The Man…..God the Father
The Fig Tree…..Jerusalem
The Vinedresser…..Jesus Christ
The 3 Years…..The collective ministry of the preparatory work John the Baptist and the fulfillment in Jesus Christ
The current year…..Extension of grace that carried through from the time of this parable through Jesus’ death and glorification.
God the Father owns a vineyard. This vineyard was initiated by God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15 and realized through Jacob and his 12 sons in Genesis 32 when God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. After many generations of nomadic living and temporal instability, God then plants his presence, through the building of his temple in Jerusalem which makes it the spiritual center of the Jewish faith. Eventually through sin, Israel breaks into two kingdoms and only a remnant is faithful. The remnant is taken into Babylonian exile with God’s promise of rescue after 70 years. After 70 years, God keeps his promise and rescues the remnant, however, their spiritual exile continues until the Messiah comes. This prophecy is consumated in the preparatory work of John the Baptist and completely fulfilled in the redemptive office of Jesus Christ. John comes preaching repentance, and Christ, at his Baptism, engulfs John’s ministry and propagates it. Christ continues to preach repentance. This means that the vinedresser (or the one who cares for, nurtures and inspects both the condition of the tree/vine and its fruit) is Jesus Christ and the fruit that both he and The Father are looking for is repentance. The collective ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ was 3 years up to the point of this parable and the remaining year carries forth until Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus is most concerned with the unrepentant hearts of these Jewish reporters. He is seeking the fruit of repentance, but they are yielding none. Jesus will continue to preach repentance to them until his time comes. This understanding adds all the more meaning to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus says ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is the picture of the vinedresser talking to the fig tree at the end of the final year saying that he cared for and nourished it as much as he was given time to do, but that it ultimately refused to produce fruit and thus must be cut down. Ultimately, this picture is not reserved just for Jerusalem alone, but is a picture of our sinful, hardened, self righteous hearts. Repentance is the fruit that Jesus looks for in each of us. Repentance is not self righteous, but instead is naked agreement with our righteous God as we turn from sin and admit His ways alone are right and true. Repentance also is not something that is done once, but is continual in the life of the Christian. Just as the fig tree continues to bear fruit until death, so too will the Christian. This fruit is not something that is forced, but comes out of our new nature which was gifted to us. Therefore repentance is ultimately a gift.
As the first novella in “Hammer of God” comes to a close, the reader is never told what becomes of Anders. Did he eventually recognize his self righteousness and repent or did he continue down the road that leads to hardness of heart? I suppose we will never know and while Anders is merely a fictional character in a book written long ago, the hardened heart he displayed is alive and well in each of us from Adam forward. Each time the sun breaks the plane of a new day, the battle once again rages. Self righteousness is our natural, fleshly preset. So although Anders may have never existed, his attitude is all too familiar. The call to repent is not only to the Galilean reporters, Jerusalem or to Anders. The call to repent is directed to each of us as we go forth in this life. The first of Luther’s 95 Theses says it best. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said “Repent” (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In 1 John 1:8-10 the Apostle writes…
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Let us therefore confess our sins daily with great eagerness. This is the perfect picture of a fig tree that is no longer barren.
I’m thankful that I’m married.
Watching my single friends run through the gambit of 21st century dating etiquette allows me to feel all the more blessed.
The onslaught of what is considered culturally acceptable on social media platforms boggles the mind as many freely expose the dark taboo-ish corners of their lives in an effort to gain attention through individualism and avant garde living. I’m amazed at what is considered “commonplace” in the arena of social media. Passive aggressive girlfriends who, with their forked tongues, speak slander and praise as an attempt to manipulate their way through relationships. Misogynist man-boys who’s goal is to mark their territory and expand their imaginary empires by the means of lies, deception and emotional thievery. This formerly sealed off corner now has the spotlight through the likes of reality TV and no-holds-barred social media. The landscape is hostile, lawless and ultimately narcissistic.
This paradigm shift makes me all the more satisfied that I not only have a wife, but that I love her and find security and assurance in our relationship. Sure neither of us are close to being perfect and our relationship has its ups and downs, but as I watch while others openly live their lives in the public forum, I began to entertain a thought. What would the bride of Christ, which is the church, look like within the confines of modern day social media? Do we look passive aggressive? Do we jump into the relationship just to strip-mine the benefits for ourselves and then bail? Are we emotionally unbalanced? What is our current mental state? I recently read an article on “Ask Men” titled “10 signs she’s crazy.” In the article the author lays out 10 signs that you might be dating someone who is crazy and when I compared the list to the current state of the Church, the results were scary.
10. Controls Narrative
We like to be the one that controls the narrative. So often, God’s word is conformed to our worldview instead of our worldview being conformed to God’s word. We control this narrative through many ways such as the purpose and direction of the church service, how worship is viewed and a strange view of what prayer actually is. I could spend much time delving into how the modern church is embracing culture instead of maintaining its position as counter-cultural, but for the sake of time I’m going to focus on prayer. Prayer is often viewed as a literal conversation between us and God. In the personal setting many are instructed to find a quiet room, talk to God and wait in silence until he answers. This is the perceived “conversation” that many Christians expect. However, this is not the biblical definition of prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God, through Jesus. The perfect picture of this is found in the Old Testament where the high priest would offer prayers for the people and would burn incense to represent the prayers ascending to God. Interestingly enough, the smoke never descended back to the people. Nor did it change back to incense and audibly reply. This is because prayer is not like our earthly conversations. We should not expect an answer directly from God, but instead should seek answers in his word. That is how God speaks to us. Prayer is not a conversation. Look at the Psalms. David was a prophet and how many of his prayers were conversational? Jesus is God and taught us how to pray in Matthew 6 and Mark 11. Jesus’ prayer doesn’t end “…and deliver us from evil and answer me back to let me know if I should date Cindy.” The Lord’s Prayer was given because it shows God’s precise will for each of our lives. It’s not that Cindy doesn’t matter, but that if you are honestly praying the contents of the Lord’s prayer, then you will trust that his will be done. I am not saying that God could not talk directly to us, only that direct revelation is not normative. The modern church correctly takes its every need and desire to God, as directed through scripture, but controls dialogue when answers are sought outside the appropriate method of response, given by God, which is through his word. The answers to our prayers will ultimately be answered as God perfectly reveals his will in his perfect time.
9. Self Aggrandizing
There is so much self importance placed upon the individual that Christ is left as a supporting cast member instead the lead actor. This happens often as many sermons are set up to make us feel important. These days, it’s more important to make people feel like they have purpose than to show them they are a sinner in desperate need of salvation. I mean, who wants to feel bad about themselves? Many pastors subtly engage in this behavior by reading themselves into the biblical texts. When the narrative of David and Goliath is the Sunday text, the pastor compares the congregations life to that of David and accordingly asks them to identify the “Goliath” in their lives. This belittling of the biblical narrative not only takes our eyes off of Christ and his scarlet thread through the old testament, but feeds our inner narcissist as we suddenly have the power to slay our giants of guilt, debt or anger. The problem is that Goliath was a real Philistine giant not a projection of our problems. The bible is not about us. The bible is about Jesus and what he has done FOR us. All things point to him and we can rest in what he has accomplished in our place. The bible isn’t a self help book that leads us on a path to self actualization, but instead is a book enables us to die to self as we place our faith in Christ Jesus, Emmanuel, that came, bled, died and rose again for our justification. The church should be aggrandizing it’s groom, Jesus, not itself.
8. Hates other women
How often do Christians look down on unbelievers living in exposed sin? How often are our lives lived as if we are sinning less and less while the world around us are way worse sinners than we are? Have you ever caught yourself feeling pretty good on the inside when a person that annoys you gets caught in sin? Have you ever had a person tailgate you for 10 miles until you move over and let them pass only to think “I hope there’s a cop up there waiting to give them a ticket” as if you never speed? How about realizing that you are sinning by not speeding because your motive for driving under the limit is fueled by greed instead of a desire to serve Christ through obedience? How often do we look like Pharisees on both the inside and out. This attitude against unbelievers is true hatred. Love would come along side them. Love is not haughty. Love would not discount the damage and and ugliness of their sin, but would point to Christ as the one who died and rose again for those sins. Love would point to repentance, not as a process to perfection, but as a realization of complete inability to please God apart from the work of Jesus Christ. True love doesn’t hate others through haughty eyes that see the spec in their neighbor’s eye while missing the plank in their own. We often harbor hatred for others because of our own insecurities. We may have been deeply, personally hurt by a particular sin of others and now paint those with even a hint of that sin with the broad brush of reprobation. We often hate because we see what we don’t like about ourselves or our experiences in others. That sin is just as damning as the sin committed against us because both sins are in opposition to God. This is precisely what 1 John 4:20 is talking about.
7. Isolates herself
How many times do we like to hang out in our comfortable groups, speaking Christianese as a way to protect ourselves against the trials and tribulations of this world. This is not only unhealthy for us, it is also hypocritical. Hanging out with “only” Christians as we isolate ourselves not only implies superiority, but also projects an unloving attitude. This attitude will reveal itself in the places in which we are in contact with the largest population of unbelievers…which is usually our work environments. Our unbelieving co-workers are curious as to why we claim to be Christians, but fail to show them any love or always turn them down when they extend an invitation. The mission field is wherever our vocation is. Every time we head into the office, job site or the onto the production floor we carry the torch of Christianity through our thought, word and deed. The same goes for when we visit others work places as we dine in restaurants, pick up our children at daycare and interact with others at the grocery store. The world doesn’t need to see us in our collective groups of dissociation. The world needs to hear the comfort of the full proclamation of the gospel message. The world needs to know that we struggle just as they struggle, but that our faith and hope lay in the one who came and died for the sins of the world instead of faith in our works. Isolation is not an adjective that defines the Christian life.
6. Weird about Exes
We are pretty weird about our exes. Our exes in this case are the idols that we used to (and continue) to exalt in place of God. These idols could be food, comfort, luxury, pietism, other people…really anything. As Calvin famously said, our hearts are idol factories. This being the case, we are weird about them. We struggle to call them what they are. We often run back to them in an attempt to satisfy the longings of our sinful flesh. It’s a weird coping mechanism. On one hand we hate and renounce them while on the other, we secretly love and cling to them. Our God is a jealous God who doesn’t desire to interact with our former crushes. He wishes to exterminate them and call them out for what they really are…false securities of our sinful flesh.
5. False Accusations
Many times in an effort to comfort ourselves, we project our shortcomings onto our loved ones. When we see the things that we hate so much about ourselves in other people we tend to harp on it. This is an interesting paradigm when compared to our relationship with Christ. How many times, in our sin, have we said “Well you made me this way.” How often to we project our shortcomings onto Christ as if he is responsible for our condition. The interesting twist is that even though he is not responsible for our condition, he did willingly and actively take our place on the cross. He bore each and everyone of our sins that we falsely blame him for to earn our pardon. He defeated death and the false accusations which to him were very real, true and painful as he suffered and died only to rise again for our justification.
4. Shaves her head
We are attention seekers. We really love attention even if it’s negative. We do weird things in order to steal the spotlight. Many times these weird things are a blemish to the name of Christ. We do many of these attention seeking acts in the name of relevance with the tag line “If it could only save one person…” as our qualifier. We shave our heads by attempting to make the worship service “entertaining.” This could be as ridiculous as an arena rock service with smoke machines and laser lights or as head scratching as a Mixed Martial Arts Fight Church (I am not lying. This is a real thing). This is akin to the girlfriend that always acts outrageous as a means to gain acceptance, while her boyfriend stands at the side shaking his head in disgust. Once again the church is and always will be counter-cultural. It’s not counter-cultural to draw attention to itself because it’s an attention seeker, but because we have been given a true picture of what the church should look like in scripture and it’s never been bright lights and parties to draw in unbelievers. For 120 years Noah preached the word to all who would hear. Scripture doesn’t tell us that Noah offered free drinks, a rock concert and a MMA fight to get people into the Ark. He simply preached the word. Sure the Ark was a spectacle. A spectacle of ridicule instead of relevance. The same Ark that he was ridiculed for building, is the same Ark that God used to save him and the only 7 others in the world that believed God’s word, which were Noah’s family. We shouldn’t figuratively shave our heads to focus the attention on us, but instead should stay with the outline that Scripture gives us and focus the spotlight on Jesus Christ. Anything we do to steal the spotlight, will take our eyes off of him.
3. Hits below the belt
This can either be a literal kick or an verbal spar. Either are equally painful. Angry and hateful comments about our family or lack of success should be off limits to our spouses, but sometimes find themselves fair game in the heat of battle. The church utilizes these cheap shots against our Lord and Savior when we deny the efficacy of the sacraments. Jesus, through his word, promises to be present and offer gifts through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution of sin. When the church, through many denominations, deny what Jesus proclaims using arguments of fallen reason, it is a hit below the belt. Jesus offers to meet us and give himself to us through these particular means and many reject them because it doesn’t fit within their comfort zone or desired understanding. I am sure that some will take exception with this, but think about it for a moment. If the sacraments are truly efficacious, as I believe the word clearly proclaims, then rejecting them on any basis would be a supreme low blow to the one offering his presence and gifts.
2. Contradicts herself
This deals with the sad fact that many Christians that I run into, couldn’t explain their faith if their life depended on it. Jay Leno used to have a segment called “man on the street” where random tourists outside his studio would be asked insanely simple questions and fail to give the correct answer. If we did a similar experiment in many of our churches, I hypothesize that the results would be similar. This is a major issue because those participating in Jay Leno’s segment aren’t making a knowledge or affiliated claim before being subjected to the simple questions whereas those in the church are claiming fellowship and thus should know something substantive about what they believe. This does not mean that each and every Christian should be able to succinctly wax eloquent on the hypostatic union, but should at minimal, be able to defend the faith they claim to lay hold of. When we don’t know what we believe, we become walking and talking contradictions. These contradictions are easy to spot and make us easy picking for false teachings and teachers who will gladly guide us to apostasy. Could you imagine a marriage where the wife has only superficial knowledge of her husband? Could you imagine the confusion and utter amazement of the husband for how clueless his wife really is? It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the relationship is based off of what the bride can “get” instead of actual genuine, sacrificial love.
1. Other crazy people think she’s crazy
Atheists and agnostics are quick to point out all the craziness that was pointed out in the previous 9 signs. While I am fine with a self-proclaimed atheist or agnostic calling me crazy if I am proclaiming the truth of the gospel, (1 Corinthians 1:18 tells us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing) it’s a whole other story to behave in the fashion of the “signs” listed above and be justly labeled crazy. There is a difference. Accept the label of foolishness for the message of the cross, not because you exhibit behavior found in the above “signs” of craziness.
Is this what the true bride of Christ looks like or is this some doppelganger infiltrating the ranks of Christendom? As much as I would like to lay the blame on an evil twin, scripture gives us picture of what we look like and it’s messy. Throughout scripture the church is compared to a prostitute. Our story is more desperate than we’d like to admit. This doesn’t mean that we are supposed to give up and give into our sin nature as scripture also gives us a picture of what we should strive to look like. We will continually fall short of the goal, but his grace gifted to us is what gives life to the striving. We have been redeemed. Purchased for a price. Bought and freed from the bounds of sin, death, and the devil. Our groom is the text-book example of loving and puts up with our garbage as he continues to strengthen and encourage our faith in him through word and sacrament. So yes we have many problems and need counseling. Yet, even though we are trapped in these earthen vessels, we can look forward with faith, hope and love to our wedding day when we are finally united with our groom who gave it all for us so that we can have freedom in him. We are the treasure in the field.
This is a common question these days.
Interestingly enough, it usually comes with presuppositions.
Much can be said about ones theology by not only how the question is answered, but more importantly, how the question is phrased. This question/answer paradigm, in general, is a personal pet peeve and the primary reason I’m penning this post.
The common American Evangelical answer spans a variety of possibilities, but most involve a personal experience had by an individual that enlightened them to the reality of their sinfulness and newly realized need for a savior. These experiences materialize through a variety of ways including altar calls, youth retreats, and conferences. These are only a few examples as the list goes on. The problem with this answer is that it responds to the wrong question. The response above actually answers the question “When did you come to faith in Christ for the forgiveness of your sins?” The English language is eroding due to a toxic mixture of laziness and post-modern language deconstruction. This devaluation of language carries forth into our speech, thoughts and theology. Therefore, the primary issue with the question “When did you get saved” is that it asks the wrong question for the desired answer. This misunderstanding of the proper “question/answer” paradigm as it pertains to salvation has allowed theological language to erode to the point of accepted inconsistencies. The second issue comes by way of allowing the initial “When did you get saved” question to stand, instead of correcting the inquirer. As a result truth is subjected to experience. When the question of salvation hinges upon our experience with God instead of absolute truth as revealed by God, errors will abound. While I agree that God can work through experience, I am concerned about where the assurance of salvation for those asking and answering the question “as posed” rests. In reality, no one is, was or ever will be “saved” at any of these events in particular. The word spoken at these events may allow one to realize their sin and subsequent need for salvation by grace through faith in Christ, but nonetheless, their salvation was bought, purchased and paid for at Calvary’s cross nearly 2,000 years ago and rightly proven on the 3rd day when Christ rose again for our justification (Romans 4:25). This is when and where salvation happened for all people.
The problem with looking to my conversion story as the defining point for salvation rests in who did the work. When pressed, many will readily confess that Christ actually did the work, however, that is not what the question or the answer implies. The implication is that the experience is the foundation for their personal salvation even if the individual fails to realize it. The essence of what is being said is that “I got saved at this particular event and therefore I know I am saved because of that experience.” Thus Christ’s atoning work on the cross plays second fiddle in assurance . Assurance is first identified with experience and secondly identified with Christ.
This may seem nit-picky to some, but I find it a grave misunderstanding that can lead to an incorrect understanding of God for both the believer and unbeliever alike. All hope and assurance that we have rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is our salvation. Rest in him instead of experiences. It may seem like I am opposed to “experience”, but in all truthfulness I’m not in the least. Experiences are great. I still get the “tinglies” when my wife smiles at me. I cherish hugs and playtime with my 3 year old son. I enjoy the way music makes me feel and there’s nothing quite like the sun coming up on the horizon as winter gives way to spring. These experiences are all fantastic; but they aren’t truth. Truth may be found in bits and pieces of these experiences, but these experiences in an of themselves are not truth. Simply put, don’t let experience trump truth, but instead let truth define experience.
Therefore, going forth…
…if someone asks, “Hey, when did you get saved?”
Either correct the question or truthfully answer “Nearly 2000 years ago when Christ died for the sins of the world.”
…if someone asks “Where were you when you got saved?”
Either correct the question or truthfully answer “Hidden in the wounds of Christ.”
First of all, thank you for continued interest in this blog!
Thank you for the support through views, likes, comments and follows. Going forward, I thought it best to come up with a plan to aid continuity of content so that readers can understand the direction.
The following list will hopefully shed some light on what to expect…
Christian Baptism Series
The first 3 posts are up in this series and there will be 4 more which will make this a 7 week series. I plan to continue posts from this series on Mondays.
Introducing the Church Fathers
The first 2 posts in this series are live (Gregory of Elvira & Melito of Sardis). I plan to continue this series for the life of this blog. There are many church fathers that all Christians should be acquainted with. I find it troubling that culturally, more is known about national history (be it ever so slight) than our Church history. I plan new posts in this series on Thursdays. The focus of this series is not to provide an exhaustive biography, but to give a short introduction to the person and then let them speak for themselves through their surviving writings. It is also very possible that some church fathers will be revisited as many have insights on a variety of Theological topics rarely seen in the modern era.
I will continue to season the blog with topical content on occasion. I hope to do this more often than not. Some examples of my topical posts are “Baptism & the Fountain of Youth”, “Can I Lose My Salvation”, and “Sacraments for those who don’t believe in Sacraments.”
Mining the Parables
This is a new series that I am currently working on. This series will take the place of the Christian Baptism series once it completes. The plan is to exegete the parables of Christ. I find much misinformation regarding the parables and hopefully this series will be a helpful resource for those seeking to understand them in an exegetical, historical and contextual fashion. This series will begin on Monday June 16th.
Once again, I’m very grateful for your interest in this blog. Please don’t be a stranger. If there are any topics that are of interest to you, I’m certainly open to suggestions. Feel free to contact me on twitter @JonRodebaugh or by email at email@example.com.
Thank you all and have a blessed weekend!