Archive for the ‘Grace’ category

Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night of the Soul”

August 28, 2007

I know far too little about Mother Teresa. I have no pronouncements to make about the state of her soul. I cannot see around or through or under or beyond her crises of faith. God surely can.

I do know that true, faithful saints can experience long dark nights. Though the cry “Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22) was ultimately owned and redeemed by Jesus Christ, it was a true Davidic expression.

But in all the discussion and debate I have read over the last few days I have two other concerns; both of which point, I believe, to our tendency towards self-righteousness or gracelessness. The first concern has already been discussed many times: there is the loud cry of many that Mother Teresa must have been a true Christian, because look at all the amazing self-sacrificing work she did.

Forget about how this relates to any particular individual, including Mother Teresa. Simply look with me at where that statement points. We are pointing at her work. Her labor. Her sacrifice. Her earnestness.

Her merit.

The Gospel points us to Christ’s work, Christ’s sacrifice, Christ’s merit. There is a great difference.

Jesus told us to “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good work and glorify your Father who is heaven”. So we do draw attention to our deeds (they see our good work). Well, then, how do they glorify our Father, and not us, for the good work? There must be words accompanying our workings, words full of the gospel, words full of how our work is a response to his work, how our faith is a response to his Promise, how our fruit is the fruit of the cross and the resurrection and the hope brought to birth and life in Jesus Christ. If, at the end of our lives people are amazed at our endless self-sacrifice and pouring out of ourselves for others, and this what they see and talk about… we will have failed the gospel.

The second concern is perhaps even more serious: there is a tendency in us — if we are honest — to rejoice in the weakness and failings of others. There are some that are quick to draw attention to this soul-struggle that is highlighted, and to say, “I told you so.” We spend our lives comparing and contrasting our standing with that of others. Pastors look at other pastors leading bigger churches and having a “more successful” ministry, and privately think “I’m actually better than he is, if only I had an opportunity to preach to thousands, they would know that. But I face evil opposition instead. My people don’t realize how blessed they are.” And with that mindset, we actually have inner rejoicing when that “more successful” pastor is caught in a scandal. “See, I knew I was better all along. Now maybe my people will appreciate me more.” Others must fall if we are to be raised. And our masks and robes must be carefully worn so that the status we have achieved is not defaced or lessened.

Our merit must be recognized.

I know all too well of what I speak.  It’s the idolatry that has run amok in my own life and soul, causing so much destruction; the idolatry that still visits far too often.

It is Pharisaism, pride, and self-righteousness.

Our people need to appreciate Jesus more. His merit. His grace. Not us, not me, not you…and not any other saint. And there is no joy in the sorrows of others. The fact that Mother Teresa struggled in her faith says nothing about the quality, for good or ill, of our own doctrine or the positioning of our ministry. Do those who encounter our ministry encounter the God of mighty works who defeats all our idols and draws all our love? This is the question for us.

Draw attention to the gospel, to the God who is with us in Jesus Christ. Draw out the redemption, the Rescue, that is achieved for souls in darkness when Christ calls from the cross, “Why are you so far from saving me?” and thus achieves for his people the sure hope that they are heard, they cannot be forsaken, they are transplanted into the kingdom of light.

Praise Jesus!

Part of it is Joy

August 16, 2007

I’ve been “going on” for a few posts now about legalism, and there’s more to come. I realize it’s easier to point out wrong thinking than it is to describe right thinking. A friend once described it as trying to describe a cow for an infant, as you drive the countryside. You can point at anything and say, “That is not a cow.” Horse, sheep, dog, donkey…”that is not a cow.” But the lesson won’t really be grasped until you can point at a cow and say, “That is a cow.”

Wow, I start early with the deep, profound thinking, don’t I?

Yesterday’s post, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, was hard for me to write, and is the kind of thing I think and pray about often. I described behaviors that could be achieved by legalistic, moralistic thinking. But aren’t those very behaviors still very much to be desired? Don’t I want her to act exactly that way?

I don’t really care.

O, don’t get me wrong. I’m a real Dad, and she’s on a pretty tight leash. I enforce consequences for her behavior. Just ask her. And since she’s a pretty wonderful kid, I’m also pretty often taking pride in her behavior.

Remember, I’m a recovering legalist.

It’s not the behavior, the actions, which should be the prime focus of our attention. Our behaviors can change while our underlying and motivating idolatries remain untouched. For example, if I lie, it might be because I live for approval, and am afraid the truth will make me less likable. But if I am convinced that being a liar will make me less likable still, I will give up lying forever — and the Temple of Fearing Men becomes even more central in my life’s worship. Our efforts at defeating sin succeed only in making us more accomplished sinners.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger-management classes help us keep our anger — and the lusts and idolatries that produce it — intact, but in “acceptable” ways. Take murderous anger on one hand, and marry it to the lust of man-pleasing on the other hand, and the offspring is a better sinner. Better at sinning.

So what does the gospel produce? If moralism and gospel can each produce behavior that looks the same, how can we tell the difference, even for ourselves?

Part of the answer, we’ve already given — what produced the behavior? Is it a response to Jesus Christ and the work he has done for us? Or is it a response to the pressures of law or fear or guilt or lust?

A while back, I wrote about the illustration (original (I believe) to Lloyd-Jones and used by Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in May; Justin Taylor took good notes on the whole thing) of a king battling an invading army outside his city. If he wins, he sends back news and people (and soldiers) respond with joy. Jesus sends news; every other religion sends advisors. Then Keller said this, and it’s key: in the short term, the activity looks the same (troops heading to the battlefield), but the reality is much different — celebration and joy, or fear and desperation.

When you look at your own behavior, you can ask: is this motivated by joy, carried forward in celebration of the hope bought in Jesus Christ? What “pressure” do you seek to apply in your battle with a particular sin? Do you seek victory in discipline, accountability, determination; do you go about it in loathing and guilt and fear? Or do you see and rejoice in the victory that has already been achieved in Jesus Christ, and exulting in that and taking confidence and assurance from it, say “No” to ungodliness and worldy lusts, with your heart’s motive displaced unto a new affection and a blessed hope?

One thing I noticed some time ago, in a time of wrestling with my own sin and practical denial of the gospel: it was a time when my own family said I appeared to have lost all joy. I responded then that I had been robbed of joy, and I blamed others. But the reality is that my heart had turned aside from the gospel, and though I struggled and cried and vowed and prayed, I was unsuccessful in breaking the grip of idolatry, and I was captivated by fear, and utterly joyless.

When the gospel broke in, joy returned. And captivity was broken. And the desired behavior followed — in thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Such has ever been the case. It’s because our Jesus is great and gracious and triumphant and merciful and sweet — o so sweet! — to the taste, and powerful in his work and in the Spirit to change us, grow us, sanctify us.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

3 kinds of legalism

August 12, 2007

I don’t know anyone who cheerfully says, “I am a legalist”. I don’t know anyone who admits, “I really like Pharisaism.” And I don’t know any Christians who dismiss the gospel with, “We don’t need so much of Jesus.”

But I know a boatload of legalists who would be happy to raise Pharisee children and who don’t see the need of the gospel or Jesus in normal living. I meet them everywhere, I hear their preaching, I read their books, and I converse with them daily. I find them in prayer meetings, on “family radio”, in Christian bookstores, on the Internet, and in the pew next to me at church.

Too often, I even find one in the mirror.

Over the next few posts, I want to examine the assertions made above, and the concepts behind them.

First, let me talk about some ways of using the terms legalist and legalism. A Christian can sincerely denounce legalism in the same breath they practice it. I’ve seen this countless times, and done it myself. A part of the problem is that there are at least three different kinds of legalism, three different ways we could use the term.

1. The first way we use the term is to speak of salvation by law-keeping, or by “good works.” We denounce legalism of this variety as opposed to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We cannot live in such a way as to merit salvation, and we cannot be saved except in the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

On this first point, all evangelicals agree. Evangelicals denounce “works salvation”, and the legalistic thinking that produces the concept.

2. The second way the term is used is in speaking of the heaping up of rules for living, especially rules that go beyond Scripture. This is altogether common in some circles of evangelicalism. People long for someone to “tell me what to do.” Parents believe that “life within the rules” will keep their children safe in the world of sin. Rules are equated with holiness. A dear friend once said to me, when I challenged some rules he had given his teen children, even that “our standards have to be higher than the Bible’s.” It sounds horrible, but he was most sincere; for him, the Bible lays a “lowest common denominator” of Christian living, and the more rules we can add, the more holiness we can have.

Along with this kind of rule-orientation come generous helpings of guilt, manipulation-by-guilt, judgmentalism, and self-righteousness.

An examination of this mindset has recently been well-written by Scott Kay.

3. There is a third type of legalist in evangelicalism – the most common of all. This 3rd-type can be found practicing his brand of legalism at the same moment he is earnestly speaking against legalism of the first or second type. He is devout and sincere and honest, and yet regularly practices and proclaims a legalism that is just as Christless and self-righteous as the legalism that grieves his heart. Any attempt to direct or live the Christian life that does not flow out of the gospel of grace, is legalism. Any ethical teaching or “moralizing”, even that uses Scripture as a framework, that calls upon us to wield our utmost strength towards righteousness but does not ground itself in the work of redemption, the kept promises of God, and the news of our great rescue in Jesus Christ – is legalism.

I want to explain and illustrate this, and outline the alternative, in posts to follow. Some of them in the pipe include “Niké theology and the U.S. Army way of holiness”, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, “Why family-values radio can be destructive”, and another “Dr. Crane and the Rabbi” post.

The injustice of grace

June 28, 2007

One of the coolest things about the gospel is that through the life and death and life of Jesus, God creates a way to be simultaneously just and gracious (Romans 3:23-26). I don’t think this concept staggers us nearly so much as surely one day it will.

On one level, we seem to prefer justice to grace. Look at your children. Joey and Jordan take turns clearing and loading the dishwasher; one day Jordan clears and then Joey loads, the next day Joey clears and Jordan loads. Today Jordan is loading. He opens the dishwasher door and finds a single fork in the tray, left behind by Joey; what is his reaction? Justice demands that Joey leave, immediately, whatever he is doing, and march in here and remove the offending fork! Grace isn’t even in the picture.

So we begin to think that justice is ingrained, and only grace needs to be learned with gospel attention.

But the problem is actually worse than that. In the above example, if we’re Joey, we’re not too happy with “justice” either. In fact, its application to us seems a tad unjust. The justice we love is only the justice that serves our love of ourselves. We’re quick to point out that we’ve faithfully cleared much bigger loads than Jordan has had to clear, and that since we had KFC tonight he has hardly anything to do, and that he’s being waaaay unfair. Note that we’re not asking for grace — no, grace, which requires us to be unworthy, is still not our friend. We’re asking for Joey Justice, as opposed to Jordan Justice. Justice my way.

It’s self, really, that is the god we will serve. Both grace and justice are welcome, but only on the condition that they worship with us in this same temple.

Take the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). At the end of the day, all the workers were paid the same amount, the amount that had been agreed to for an entire day’s work. Those that worked all day received exactly what they had contracted for — a just wage. Those that had worked only an hour received the same amount — a gracious gift. Guess who complained, and complained loudly? In this context, grace served the 1-hour workers, but not the 1-day workers — so that’s not, for them, good grace. It would appear, then, that they wanted only justice — but there was nothing unjust in the employer’s treatment of them. They got what they had contractually earned. Still they were unhappy and bitter! It was neither grace nor justice that interested them. What was it? They weren’t harmed by the windfall the 1-hour workers received…were they? But it seemed to them that others were being more highly valued than they were. This is the crime. If you value them more, you thereby undervalue me — and that’s an assault on my religion (my idolatry). When “value me” and “applaud me” are the hymns of worship in our temple, this behavior introduced blasphemous lyrics, sung out of tune. Neither justice or grace is keeping time.

This all comes to one of its worst representations in the life Jonah. God sent him to preach to Ninevah, a wicked city, and Jonah tried not to go — because he was afraid God would be to them, not just, but gracious. Jonah was all about justice if it came to fiery judgment on these wicked people, but could also become very angry with God if God decided to give them grace — which Jonah expected was the whole point of sending him there. Jonah considered such grace unjust.

This brings me, finally, to two strands I want to tease out. The first is one that takes us back to Job, his friends, and the lessons about justice and grace that are being worked out in that book. The second strand is directly gospel centered: how does this work out in our own responses to Christ and the gospel preached?

So we’ll tackle them next…