Repentance is not a work of the Law

Repentance is not a work of the Law.  That thought came to me today, and I’ve been mulling it all afternoon.  Repentance isn’t something we do as a duty to meet the requirements of the Law.  True repentance, which involves a change of behavior, isn’t something we can do entirely in our own strength.  Repentance doesn’t earn us forgiveness.Read more

Until something do us part

David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values offered an observation eighteen years ago which is just as true, and just as important, today.

To understand why the United States has the highest divorce rate in the world, go to some weddings and listen to what the brides and grooms say.  In particular, listen to the vows:  the words of mutual promise exchanged by couples during the marriage ceremony.  To a remarkable degree, marriage in America today is exactly what these newlyweds increasingly say that it is: a loving relationship of undetermined duration created of the couple, by the couple, and for the couple.

Our tendency may be to shrug off the significance of formal marriage vows, viewing them as purely ceremonial, without much impact on the “real” marriage.  Yet believing that the vow is only some words is similar to believing that the marriage certificate is only a piece of paper.  Both views are technically true, but profoundly false.  Either, when believed by the marrying couple, is probably a sign of a marriage off to a bad start.

In fact, the marriage vow is deeply connected to the marriage relationship.  The vow helps the couple to name and fashion their marriage’s innermost meaning.  The vow is foundational:  the couple’s first and most formal effort to define, and therefore understand, exactly what their marriage is.

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About that first Thanksgiving . . .

I had been wanting to post on this yesterday, or this morning at the latest, and to do so at greater length.  Unfortunately, life did not cooperate.  Even so, I couldn’t let Thanksgiving pass without at least noting an excellent column in the Boston Globe from eight years ago titled “The Opposite of Thanksgiving.”  I also want to give my own thanks to my colleague the Rev. Winfield Casey Jones, who brought this piece to my attention.  The column is by Eve LaPlante, who puts the point starkly in her third paragraph:

This modern version of Thanksgiving would horrify the devout Pilgrims and Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century. The holiday that gave rise to Thanksgiving—a “public day” that they observed regularly—was almost the precise opposite of today’s celebration. It was not secular, but deeply religious. At its center was not an extravagant meal, but a long fast. And its chief concern was not bounty but redemption: to examine the faults in oneself—and one’s community—with an eye toward spiritual improvement.

A thanksgiving day, as actually celebrated by 17th-century Americans, was a communal day of fasting, meditation, and supplication to God.

LaPlante centers her account on the story of Samuel Sewall, one of the nine magistrates who presided over the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.  In 1697, Sewall publicly repented of his part in those trials.  After telling his story, she closes her column with this telling comment:

The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has also retreated.  It’s hard to imagine, for example, that this Thursday a powerful leader will stand before the nation and admit to a disastrous mistake—or say, quoting Samuel Sewall, “I desire to take the blame and shame of it, asking your pardon, and especially desiring prayers that God would pardon that sin and all my other sins.”

I can actually imagine President George W. Bush doing so, or having done so.  He’s about the only powerful politician of whom I can say that, though.  “The belief in repentance—and its power to improve the American experiment—has . . . retreated,” and we are much the poorer for it.


“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914, Jennie A. Brownscombe.  Public domain.

Doers of the word

Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

—James 1:22 (ESV)

When it comes to the Christian life, what matters most isn’t how much we know (or think we know), or how good we are at saying the right things.  It isn’t how much of God’s word we’ve read, or how much we’ve studied, or even if we have a degree in it.  What matters is how much the word of God has changed us and how much God’s character and will are expressed in our lives.  Are we people who just hear the word of God and then go on about our business, or are we doers of the word?Read more

Law is easy (just find the right law)

The view that Christianity is all about following a set of rules—the only thing that matters is that you do x and don’t do y—has always appealed to a great many people.  After all, if all God wants us to do is meet a particular standard of behavior, then it’s easy to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t.  More than that, it’s easy to look at yourself and tell how you’re doing.  One nice thing about a fence is that you always know which side of it you’re on.  The other is that you know exactly how far you can go before you’ve crossed it.  The fence tells you what you can get away with as much as what you can’t.

As I’ve said before, my time in pastoral ministry has convinced me that on the whole, people really don’t want grace, and we don’t want to live by grace.  We may say we do, and we may sing about it, but when you get down to brass tacks, we’d rather live by some form of law.  If you ask the law, “How many times do I have to forgive somebody before I can give them the punishment they have coming,” the law may tell you, “Three times,” or it may say “seven times,” but it will give you a standard you have a chance to meet.  Ask Jesus the same question and he says, “Seventy times seven”—once you lose count, you’re just getting started.  Law gives you a limit to what you have to do.  Grace calls us to keep going, and going, and going, long after we want to quit.

Whatever version of law we come up with, if it’s our idea and our standard, we will find ways to make it something we can live up to in our own strength.  In comparison to the holiness of God, we will inevitably make it far too small a thing.  For instance, many people say, “Christianity isn’t about believing certain things, it’s about living a life of love.”  That sounds very pious, unless we stop to ask a basic question:  how do we know what love is?  How do we know what it means to live a life of love?  To answer that question, we have to believe certain things, and what things we believe will determine the answer we give.

The classical Christian answer is that we know what love is because God is love, and God has revealed himself to us in his word.  He has shown us himself in his living Word who is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the words of Scripture, which he inspired by his Holy Spirit.  Scripture shows us the truth of who God is, and thus what love is.  We take our definition of love from these pages.  If we set Scripture aside, we’re left to define love for ourselves, according to our own preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas.  We’re free to tell ourselves that all God wants from us is whatever we’ve already decided we want from ourselves.  It’s a lot easier to call ourselves followers of Jesus if we claim the right to plan the itinerary for ourselves.

(Excerpted, edited, from “The Heart of the Matter”)


Photo of the Reichsgerichtsgebäude Zwölftafelgesetze, Leipzig © 2010 Andreas Praefcke.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

To be the church, you have to be the church

During our time in British Columbia, the governing party—a socialist labor party called the New Democratic Party—held a leadership race.  The provincial premier, a deeply unpopular little mountebank called Glen Clark, had a neighbor and friend who was under investigation for running an illegal gambling operation.  Said neighbor was also a contractor who had built a sundeck for the Clarks at their main residence and another at their vacation home.  Together, they added up to about $10,000 worth of work.  When the news broke that Clark was the subject of a criminal investigation, he abruptly resigned from office.  (He would be indicted on two felony charges; he was ultimately acquitted on both counts, though not without being admonished by the judge for his bad judgment.)

The race to succeed Clark was a circus, as BC politics tended to be, and produced some truly funny moments. One of my favorites came from the Agricultural Minister, Corky Evans.  Evans had a country-bumpkin image which he liked to play up for comic effect. In announcing his candidacy for party leadership, he told the story of the time he had decided to build a house for his family.  Being impatient, he hadn’t wanted to take the time to put in a foundation, so he just built the house right on the ground. It seems to have come as a surprise to him when the house began to sink. As he told the crowd, this left him with two choices:  either tear down the house, or lift it up and put a foundation under it. Either way, it was going to be a very messy business.

Corky Evans used this to describe the state of his party, but it applies just as well to the church.  There is and always has been the tendency to try to build the church with, on, and out of human efforts.  Some churches are built with music.  Some are built on the charisma of the leader.  Some are built out of programs.  Some are built by spending lots of money on advertising and entertaining Sunday services.  All of these are accepted methods for church growth.

The problem is, to build a church in such a way is to do what Corky Evans did:  it’s to build a house without a foundation.  If you try to build a church on the most popular music, or the most entertaining preaching, or the most exciting service, or the best structure, or any other worldly foundation, you may appear to succeed for a time.  You may well produce a large organization that has lots of members and money and a high profile in the community.  What you will not have in any meaningful sense is a church, and so it will not endure.  Sooner or later, it will begin to sink, leaving you with only two options:  either tear the whole thing down, or try to lift it up and put a foundation under it, because without the proper foundation the building cannot stand.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, the only foundation on which the church can be built is Jesus Christ.  It must be built with the truth of who Christ is and what he taught if it is to last.

(Excerpted from “The Glory of the Truth”)


Photo:  Foundation framework and reinforcing steel for 150-ton permanent cableway hoist house.  United States Department of the Interior, 1933.

Keeping victory straight

I’ve argued before that the Christian life is lived in the victory of the gospel.  Life in Christ is the victory of Christ overcoming the sin in our hearts by the power of his Holy Spirit.  If we don’t understand that, we end up with a vision of Christianity that amounts to little more than being nice, moral people and upstanding citizens who work hard and go to church regularly.  On the other hand, if we misunderstand it, we’re likely to think Christianity means “your best life now.”

We often run into trouble with biblical words like “love” because we unreflectively assume they mean what the world uses them to mean.  “Victory” is no different, and so there are plenty of peddlers like Joel Osteen around to tell us that God has promised us worldly victory full of worldly rewards.  That’s dangerously wrong.  The victory of Christ in us isn’t our victory for our purposes, it’s God’s victory for his purposes.  He has shared it with us not for our glory but for his own.  His victory is not about us getting what we want, or making us look good, or keeping us from hard times and pain—no matter how much we want it to be.

For me, the great exemplars of this mistake continue to be the pastors who prophesied in the fall of 2008 that John McCain would win the election.  They were so sure they knew what God’s victory had to look like, they were willing to stand before a microphone and declare their vision to be God’s vision.  When they were proven wrong, it shook their faith, because they had more faith in their own ideas about how things had to be than they did in God.  They thought Sen. McCain would be a better president than Barack Obama, and they thought that was all that mattered.  They might well have been right on the first point, but that’s not the victory God intended—and we don’t get our victory, we get God’s.

Again and again, we name our agenda as God’s agenda.  We think that God’s glory requires that we get rich or that our church have more people.  We forget that America is not the kingdom of God to which we pledge our highest allegiance.  We assume that God’s victory has to mean the fulfillment of our own worldly ambitions.  Inevitably, we’re disappointed.  As long as we keep making that mistake, we’re going to keep meeting those disappointments, because we’re going to build up expectations that have nothing at all to do with what God’s actually on about.  God may be intending to do what we want him to do; then again, he may not.  Even if he is, it might not come the way we expect it to come, or look the way we expect it to look.  He doesn’t promise to fulfill our expectations, he promises to glorify his name, and what glorifies him in our lives isn’t always what we think of as glorious.  Sometimes it even means our suffering.

(Excerpted, edited, from “To the Glory of God”)


Jan van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece:  The Adoration of the Lamb, 1425-29.

Suffering and the glory of God

One of the uncomfortable truths of the Christian life is that it’s often in our suffering that God is most glorified in our lives. John Piper captures this well in this full-throated assault on the so-called “prosperity gospel”:

God wants us to know, even in moments of the deepest agony our hearts could ever conceive, that he is enough for us.  He wants us to be able to affirm, even through tears and pain, that he is good and he will take care of us.  As Piper says, it is that more than anything else that makes God look glorious “not as giver of cars or safety or health” but as God, because that shows his real power in our lives.  The gods of this world can give us prosperity, though they are hard and demanding and fickle and can take it away again just as quickly.  They cannot sustain us in times of pain.  Only God can do that, and so only our times of suffering fully show the reality of our faith to a skeptical world.  As Howard Vanderwell of the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship put it in discussing 1 Peter 1:1-9, “God had in mind to use [our trials] as an exhibit of genuine faith.  The exhibit of such genuine faith lifts others, defeats the schemes of Satan, and brings glory to Christ.”Read more

A crisis Pope for an age in crisis

Elias Isquith of Salon recently interviewed the Rev. Dr. Chris Hedges, the Minister of Social Witness and Prison Ministry at Second Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, NJ (PCUSA), the author of several books, and a former reporter for the New York Times.  Hedges is sounding a clarion call of warning which I’m interested to hear coming from a self-described socialist.  When Isquith asked him, “Do you think we are in a revolutionary era now? Or is it more something on the horizon?” Hedges responded,

It’s with us already, but with this caveat:  it is what Gramsci calls interregnum, this period where the ideas that buttress the old ruling elite no longer hold sway, but we haven’t articulated something to take its place.

That’s what that essay I quote by Alexander Berkman, “The Invisible Revolution,” talks about.  He likens it to a pot that’s beginning to boil.  So it’s already taking place, although it’s subterranean.  And the facade of power—both the physical facade of power and the ideological facade of power—appears to remain intact. But it has less and less credibility.

There are all sorts of neutral indicators that show that.  Low voter turnout, the fact that Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent, that polls continually reflect a kind of pessimism about where we are going, that many of the major systems that have been set in place—especially in terms of internal security—have no popularity at all.

All of these are indicators that something is seriously wrong, that the government is no longer responding to the most basic concerns, needs, and rights of the citizenry.  That is [true for the] left and right.  But what’s going to take its place, that has not been articulated.  Yes, we are in a revolutionary moment; but maybe it’s a better way to describe it as a revolutionary process.

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The battle belongs to the Lord

President Obama declared on national TV that “we have contained [ISIS]”; within hours of the broadcast, ISIS struck Paris, following hard on the heels of attacks in Beirut and Baghdad.  Burundi, which not so long ago was sending peacekeeping forces to Somalia, is descending into a whirlpool of violence and nightmare.  It’s easy to look around at the world and wonder, “Where is the hope?”Read more