Wednesday, April 10, 2013
What Now? Jesus. That's What.
Over the past several months, I've started many posts here, but lacked the the desire and stamina to finish and post them. Call it a pessimistic laziness; a combination of "Who cares?" mixed with a heavy dose of "Why bother?"
But, enough of that. I can think of few things more boorish than explanations from a blogger about why he hasn't been blogging. Let's just say that I took a long break, and leave it at that.
This morning, I read a couple of recently posted reviews of Pr. Jonathan Fisk's excellent book, Broken. The first was written by David Snyder, a Southern Baptist. Not surprisingly, Snyder is not a big fan. Besides the obvious, namely that he doesn't "believe in baptismal regeneration, a 'true presence' in the Lord's Supper, or a hard dichotomy between law and gospel," Snyder believes that Fisk fails to develop three topics throughout the book: 1) Empowering Grace, 2) Obedience to Christ, and 3) The Local Church. Um, no. Fisk doesn't fail to develop these topics. He writes against the false understandings people like Synder have of them. It's kind of what the whole book is about. Each of these topics is thoroughly covered in the book.
What Snyder sees as "empowering grace" is mysticism, since he views grace as some sort of infused mystical power in the Christian to stop sinning. He acknowledges that the Christian will always struggle with "indwelling sin" in this life, but God's grace empowers the Christian to grow and give glory to God by exercising his power to refrain from sinning (or, at least, to keep the sin dwelling within to come out). Thus, for Snyder, growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ is measured by the Christian's growing ability to keep himself from sinning in this life. Good luck with that!
This mystical and false idea of grace naturally leads Snyder to moralism, which is really what he means by "obedience to Christ." Snyder sees the Christian's obedience to the "moral imperatives" put forth by the apostles as the very mark of being a Christian. When you treat grace as a mystical infused power, this makes perfect sense, of course. Grace supplies the power to obey, and obedience to Christ means one can be sure he is a Christian. The real point, goal, and purpose of the Gospel, then, is to empower Christians to obey. That's Moralism 101 stuff.
Snyder's third criticism, namely that Fisk failed to develop the importance of the "local church," is as silly as it is absurd. I think Synder needs to read again what Fisk wrote. Never does he disparage the local congregation in order to elevate some sort of "nuanced spiritual individualism," as Snyder suggests. I almost spit my coffee out when I read that. Talk about totally missing the point! What Fisk is addressing is the never-ending search for the "Real Church;" the false belief many have that the real, true, authentic Church is lost, but out there somewhere, and, if we can just find her, we'll be unable to handle the innumerable blessings that would flow our way. He's right to address this, since it is this faulty view that dominates most of Americanized Christianity, which is always coming out with the new and greatest claims to have finally found the real Church, only to come out with new and greater claims months later. Fisk's point is that the real, true, authentic Church is not lost, but is readily found, and always present, wherever the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Sacraments are administered to Christ's institution. Far from suggesting some sort of "nuanced spiritual individualism," Fisk directs the reader to the font, pulpit, and altar of local congregations, which bear the marks of the Church. Of course, all of this is lost on Snyder, who doesn't believe in those marks, but, in true Southern Baptist fashion, sees the very organization and structure (polity) of the local congregation as something commanded in Scripture and, thus, to be obeyed. It always comes back to obedience, which leads me to ask: From whence comes this infused mystical power of grace that enables the Christian to stop sinning and to start obeying?
I would imagine that Snyder would answer this question by saying, "The Bible, silly man." As a Southern Baptist, he believes that the Bible is a guidebook, or instruction manual, given to Christians by God Himself to show them how they are to live and obey, i.e. be Christians. And, to be Christians is to be like Christ. Christians are changed people, after all. They have the power of grace now to stop sinning and start obeying. Jesus becomes an example to follow. He did His part; now it's up to you to do yours.
Snyder ends his review by stating, "Broken does a great job of exposing false gospels, but also tends to underestimate the power of the true one." It's sad, really. The poor guy doesn't realize that what he believes to be the true Gospel has been exposed by Fisk in Broken to be a false gospel. His false gospel is a mixture of mysticism, moralism, and pragmatism, all of which flow from his false understanding of grace. Grace is not a mystical infused power; grace is the undeserved favor of God imputed to sinners for the sake of Christ. Grace is the Gospel, not the power to obey. Grace is a Divine Gift, not a Holy Spark to ignite the flame of obedience. Grace is forgiveness, life, and salvation. Grace is undeserving sinners being clothed in the perfect holiness and righteousness of Christ.
From whence does true grace come? From the very means of grace God Himself has established, namely His Holy Word and Sacraments. God delivers His grace to sinners through Holy Baptism, where He washes away all our sin, gives us faith in Christ, adopts us as children into His Divine Family, and clothes us in Christ's perfect holiness and righteousness. That baptismal grace continues to flow from God to us via Holy Absolution, Holy Preaching, and the Holy Supper, as He continually feeds and nourishes us with Christ Himself, that we remain clothed in His holiness and righteousness. Grace is never, ever - no, not ever! - a power infused into us, but always an undeserved gift given to us by God. Grace never stops being grace. It is not as though grace starts out being undeserved favor, but then becomes deserved power. Grace is always grace, and grace is always needed by the Christian this side of glory. Thus, Christian obedience is not the mark of a Christian; Jesus is. A Christian is one who has been, and remains, marked by the sign of the holy cross as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified; one who has received the Seal of the Holy Spirit and remains clothed in Christ.
But, the Gospel is radical stuff. It flies in the face of everything we have come to believe through our sinful human reason and our experience of living in this sinful world. The Old Adam in us hates the Gospel, and is always trying to get in on the act when it comes to our salvation. The Old Adam wants to play a role. He'll settle for a small role, but he will not be shut out completely. So it is that even Lutherans, who should know better, struggle with the Gospel, which brings me to the second review of Fisk's Broken I read this morning, a review written by Anthony Sacramone here.
I like funny, and I certainly enjoy a well written anything, what with all the poorly written everything out there today, but Sacramone's humor and writing skills, exemplary as they are, cannot save him from inadvertently expressing his dissatisfaction with the Gospel. Sacramone hones in on what he perceives to be the main deficiency in Broken, namely Fisk's failure to answer the question, "What now?" In fact, he finds merit in the criticisms lobbed at Fisk by Snyder.
Sacramone initially reviewed Snyder's review here, before going on to provide his own review of Fisk's book. In both of these posts, he is very sympathetic to Snyder's discomfort over the radical nature of the Gospel, and uses Synder's conclusions as a spring board to express his own discomfort. Sad, that. I can certainly understand why a Southern Baptist would cringe at our Lutheran understanding of the Gospel (which is the Biblical understanding, by the way), but it is disheartening when I see Lutherans cringing at the same.
The best part of Fisk's book is the way he ends it. What now? Jesus. That's what. End of story. Period. Satis est. Fin.
This longing desire for more than Jesus reveals itself in the various "rules" Fisk does a superb job of tackling throughout the book, all of which are just different guises the devil uses to peddle the same old lie he's been telling since Eden. The old evil foe wants us to want more than Jesus. He knows that, if he can distract our attention away from Jesus and get us to focus on ourselves, we'll start believing that there is something more than Jesus. We'll start believing that the mark of a Christian is obedience. We'll start believing that Jesus did His part and now it's up to us to do our part. We'll start believing that Jesus is nothing more than a mere example to follow, or a life coach or cheerleade rooting us on in our quest to live the truly Christian life.
Sacramone longs for a sequel to Broken. He imagines that Fisk has left us hanging. What now? What comes after the Gospel? He even suggests a title for a sequel: Risen: Living the Gospel Life Like Only a Lutheran Can. Cute and clever (it would have been cuter and cleverer to have "Fixed," instead of "Risen," but I digress), but, given his review, I shudder to think of what one might find in this longed-for sequel. What comes after Jesus? Is there something more?
But, Sacramone is not alone. There are lots of Lutherans today struggling with trying to answer the question, "What now?" There are charges of antinomianism and legalism being hurled to and fro in the never-ending debate of how to deal with this question. Justification and sanctification are pitted against each other in a wrestling match akin to Jacob wrestling the Lord. Dead Lutherans are quoted ad nauseum (and almost always completely out of context) to suggest that our understanding of the Gospel does not match theirs, that when we preach Christ and Him Crucified for sinners, but fail to spur Christians on to holy living through the follow-up of moral imperatives, we are robbing them of the Gospel (or, at least of Gospel living). There is a very real fear that we have an aversion to good works or sanctification, and that many of us are so in love with Romans 7 that we completely ignore Romans 6 and 8. Jesus is not enough for some, it seems. There must be more. We've heard the Gospel. Now what?
Jesus. That's what. More Jesus. Jesus now and always. Only Jesus. Nothing more. Jesus fulfilling the Law and living the perfect life in our place. Jesus bearing our sins all the way to the Cross. Jesus Crucified to pay the full price for all of our sins and finish the work of our salvation. Jesus Resurrected as validation of the victory He won for us on the Cross and as proof positive that He has opened to us the way to everlasting life. Jesus Ascended to be our Mediator, constantly interceding for us before the Father, bearing before Him the holy scars of our salvation. Jesus fulfilling His promise to be with us always in the Divine Service, where the water and blood that poured forth from His pierced side fills our baptismal fonts and chalices. Jesus forgiving our sins in the Holy Absolution. Jesus preaching to us from our pulpits, where His sheep hear the voice of their Good Shepherd. Jesus bestowing His peace and blessing upon us. Jesus strengthening and preserving us through His divine gifts to sustain us as we make our way through the wilderness of this sinful world. Jesus, our holiness and righteousness. Jesus, our justification. Jesus, our sanctification. Jesus, our forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Jesus. He's what sinners need. To preach Jesus rightly is to preach the Law in its full sternness and the Gospel in its epic sweetness. To preach Jesus rightly is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His Name. To preach Jesus rightly is to preach repentance and faith into sinners. We do not preach about repentance or about faith - we preach repentance and faith.
But, what about the the Christian life? Silly goose, repentance and faith IS the Christian life.
But, don't Christians need to know how to live? Yeah. Repent and believe. Abide in Jesus. He's your only hope.
But, won't Christians become comfortable and lazy if we don't encourage them to holy living? Um, preaching repentance and faith in Christ's Name is holy living encouragement.
Look, I get it. The Gospel is radical stuff. It's downright scandalous. It makes no sense to our sinful human reason. It's completely backwards from our way of thinking, and from the way things work in this sinful world. And, as I mentioned above, the Old Adam in us hates the Gospel. The Gospel is too good to be true. There must be something more. But, there isn't. Adding anything more is a departure from the Gospel. Jesus really has done everything necessary for your salvation. Everything. Not one jot or tittle of anything is left undone. What's more, He does everything necessary to apply the salvation He won to you. It's all His work. You get none of the credit. Sorry. He baptizes you. He absolves you. He feeds you. He blesses you. He brought you into His kingdom and He keeps you in His kingdom. He creates and sustains faith by the power of the Holy Spirit through His means of grace. The Gospel is all about Jesus. He is your justification, and He is your sanctification.
Whoah, whoah, whoah! What about the fact that, after conversion, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our sanctification? Yo do. You heed the Holy Spirit's prodding to return to Jesus. You know where to find Him. You know where His voice is heard, where His gifts are distributed, where your faith is sustained and preserved. However, this cooperation comes only through the power of the Holy Spirit, and only as He rules, guides, and leads you to . . . wait for it . . . Jesus. So, yeah, you cooperate with the Holy Spirit after conversion, but you do so in great weakness, because, while you now have a New Man in you, the Old Adam remains. It is no mistake that our Lutheran fathers were sure to include Romans 7 as part of their discussion on cooperating with the Holy Spirit in sanctification. No amoung of "holy living preaching" will ever change the fact that you are, and will remain, at one and the same time, a sinner and saint (sinful and righteous) this side of glory. In fact, "holy living preaching" will always land you back in Romans 7, because the fact is, you both never and always live a holy life. Makes no sense, I know, but 'tis true. The Old Adam in you is 100% sinner. He always hates the Gospel. He wants nothing at all to do with Jesus. He is in constant rebellion, always seeking to rebel against God. The New Man in you is 100% righteous. He loves the Gospel. He wants everything to do with Jesus. He is holy through and through, always seeking to please God. You can tell the Old Adam what to do and what not to do until you're blue in the face. He's not listening. He doesn't care. He's gonna do what he wants to do, and it ain't what you want him to do. He needs to be killed, not coerced. At the same time, you need not tell the New Man what to do and what not to do; he already knows and already does it. He is in Christ, united to Him in a perfect communion.
Your problem is not that you don't know what you should or shouldn't do. Your problem is that you remain infected with sin, so that you do what you know you shouldn't and don't do what you know you should. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. You need Jesus. You needed Jesus before the Holy Spirit worked faith in you, and you need Jesus to sustain you in that faith. Growth in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ is not some sort of progressive growth in sanctification, so that you gradually become less and less sinful and more and more obedient. It is, rather, remaining aware of your sinfulness and need of a Savior through the ongoing preaching of Law and Gospel, rightly divided and proclaimed. A steady diet of slaying your Old Adam and enlivening your New Man keeps you hungering and thirsting for the forgiveness, life, and salvation that comes only through the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus. But, even this growth is not measured in some progressive way, as if you will gradually become more and more dependent upon Jesus from infancy to your departure from this veil of tears. You dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, after all. You will experience times of tribulation and times of prosperity, periods of suffering and periods of blessing, defeats and victories, sadness and happiness, etc. So, you will wax and wane. The irony is that when you are weakest, then you are strongest in Christ. When you are brought low, then you are exalted in Christ. It seems backwards, but everything seems backwards in Christ's kingdom, where the first are last and the last are first, the mighty are humbled and the humble are exalted, the wise are foolish and the foolish are wise, the weak are strong and the strong are weak, and so forth. Suffering precedes glory in Christ's kingdom, which is established by a King who wears a crown of thorns and is enthroned on a Cross.
So, what you need, O sinner, now, and for as long as you remain in this sinful world, is Jesus. Do not long for something more. Do not seek after instructions on how to live the Christian life. You already know. Go to where Jesus has promised to be for you. Go to hear your Good Shepherd's voice declare your sins forgiven. Go to hear Him preach His Word to you. Go to where He restores and renews you in the grace you received at Baptism. Go to the Table He has prepared for you and feast on His very Body and Blood, which He Himself distributes to you. This, my friends, is holy living - returning continuously to where Jesus is for you, that you abide in Him and He in you.
What now? Jesus. That's what. Fisk nails it! If he wants to write another book, great. But, he need not write a sequel to Broken. He ends it with Jesus. It is finished.