Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Joy to the World and Why Original Intent is Sometimes Best Ignored

When it comes to creeds and confessions original intent is always important. When they become a wax nose they lose all meaning and become useless. But when it comes to hymns, original intent is sometimes best left behind. The hymn Faith of Our Fathers was originally written by a Roman Catholic about the persecution of Roman Catholics and the desire to win the world back to Roman Catholicism but it's found in many Protestant hymnals. The third stanza is omitted in Protestant hymnals for obvious reasons:
Faith of our fathers, Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to Thee;
And through the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.
The argument could be made that we should have nothing to do with these heretical hymns but it seems to be a wiser choice to recognize the quality of the hymn while editing it to improve the theological accuracy. If our hymns depended upon the orthodoxy of the composer we would constantly be left in doubt as to what hymns we could sing, wondering exactly how orthodox someone must be in order for us to sing their hymns. Many "Christian songs" aren't worthy of correction but many others are.

In some cases unfortunately the strong and clear doctrinal statements in hymns are corrupted when they make their way into particular hymnal. Liberal, mainline Protestantism often does this. I even came across an old Baptist hymnal that omitted the words "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" from "Holy, Holy, Holy" and replaced it with something else. In an attempt to have a repeating chorus many hymnals have removed the references to the crucifixion in "What Child is This?"

Isaac Watts wrote a number of well-known hymns such as "Joy to the World." What many people are not aware of are the heretical views of Isaac Watts. He held to a heretical Christology in which "the human soul of Christ had been created anterior to the creation of the world, and united to the divine principle in the Godhead known as the Sophia or Logos (only a short step from Arianism, and with some affinity to Sabellianism); and that the personality of the Holy Ghost was figurative rather than proper or literal." He also held to a rather strange form of premillenialism. Isaac Watts wrote his hymns at a time when Calvinists would not allow man-made hymns. In order for his hymns to be accepted, Watts published some pretty extreme paraphrases of Psalms. He would replace Israel with Britain based on his eschatological views. "Joy to the World" is half of his paraphrase of Psalm 98. The reign of Christ in "Joy to the World" as originally intended by Watts was a literal millennial reign. Yet, there is nothing heretical about the words of "Joy to the World" in themselves. In fact, when viewed from an orthodox lens it does a great job of combining both the Nativity of Christ and the second coming of Christ 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The O Antiphons

A few years back, Pastor Bill Cwirla posted a very helpful resource for the use of the O Antiphons in the days leading up to Christmas. There are always lots of reasons to pray for the coming of Christ when we will experience our full salvation. The shooting in Connecticut is a horrific reminder of the sinful world that we live in and that peace and safety can only be found in Christ. I hope that the families of the victims are able to look forward to the resurrection of their children. I don't put any hope in the Mayan calendar but the return of Christ on December 21 would be a wonderful birthday present for me. My own sinful nature is revealed in the fact that my own back pain has caused me to pray "Come Lord Jesus" more than the shootings have. I am curved inward both spiritually and physically.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Connecticut Shooting and Christian Response

Following the horrific events in Connecticut I've been disturbed by the response of many Christians on Facebook. Not only did the shooter lack love for others but the love of many Christians seems to have grown cold. Rather than mourning with those who mourn, many have chosen to use the opportunity to advance a particular political agenda whether it be pro or anti gun. Some have said the incident is the result of the removal of "God" from public schools. This is all idolatry whether it's the idol of guns or the idol of a Utopian society without guns. It is idolatrous to think that the government could solve the problem by placing Bibles in classrooms and/or get public schools to engage in god-talk.

Our old Adam is obsessed with coming up with rational explanations that are somewhere outside of ourselves to explain both the cause and the subjects of evil acts. We make a gods of ourselves and think that if everyone followed our instructions the world would be a safe place. But the truth is that the cause of these evils is the sin within ourselves.

Our calling as Christians is to mourn with those who suffer great evil, not to provide theoretical explanations. Our calling is to bring them the love of Christ whether the victim is a believer or unbeliever. Christ did not come to die for those who could invent magical, sinless utopias. Christ died for the sinners and the ungodly. Christ did not bring explanations for suffering. Christ suffered for the suffering even the most evil who suffer.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sin and Sinlessness in 1 John

In 1 John, John makes seemingly contradictory statements by stating that if we say we have no sin we are calling God a liar (1 John 1:8) and that the one who is born of God does not sin (1 John 3:9). There are countless papers written on this topic and a wide variety of opinions. Some have dealt with this passage by claiming that 1 John 1:8 is speaking of the non-Christian and 1 John 3:9 is speaking of the non-Christian. But the context does not support this view because in 1 John 2 John talks about how Christ is the propitiation of the Christian's sins.

Another popular view supported by the ESV focuses upon the present tense of the verb in 1 John 3:9. The ESV translates 1 John 3:9 as, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning..." The idea found both in the ESV and the Concordia Commentary is that the Christian still sins but does not engage in a life of habitual sin and his life is marked by a general trajectory of getting better. It relies heavily upon the use of the present tense in verse 9. This is a convenient way to resolve the paradox but doesn't seem to be what John is actually trying to communicate. The present tense does not denote a habitual action but an action in progress. The same tense is used in 1:8 which says, "If we say we do not have sin" The ESV is a revision of the RSV and the RSV seems more honest when it translates the verse as "No one born of God commits sin..." If the verse contained something other than "sin" I doubt that the ESV would have translated the verse in this way. If the verse had said, "No one born of God eats bacon," I doubt that the ESV would have translated the verse as, "No one born of God makes a practice of eating bacon." John's point in using the present tense is not to give someone an out who dabbles in sin from time to time. To translate it as "practicing sinning" seems to weaken the intentionally harsh statement that John is delivering.

Some commentators such as Rudlof Schnackenburg, see an eschatological tension at work here where the Christian is already and not yet sinless. This would fit nicely within the simul justus et peccator framework that exists in the Pauline letters and I think there is some validity to that method of interpretation.

I also think that the particular sins that are being addressed should be considered. From the rest of the Epistle it appears that there are false teachers who left the church after their ideas were not accepted and set up their own competing church. The false teachers are walking in darkness and claiming to be sinless. They are denying that Christ has a true human body and that He is the Christ and that He is the Son of God. John refers to the denial of Christ having a real human body as being antichrist (4:4).They are denying the true Christ. They are showing hatred towards their brothers in Christ by separating from them (2:19). They are not providing for the needs of their brothers and not united in doctrine. John implies that they are not helping their brothers in their physical bodies because they deny that Christ had a physical body. They are engaging in immoral behavior but claiming that it is not truly sin because it is only done in the body and the body isn't important. Those who are in the light hold fast to Christ's commandment. The commandment is to confess the true Christ and to love the brothers.

Those in darkness appear to be denying the sacraments as well which is pretty common throughout history among those who deny that Christ had a physical body. In typical Johannine fashion because of the persecution that the church was suffering, John speaks in code about the sacraments. He speaks of the "anointing" (2:27) that those in the light had received. In ancient practice anointing occurred just after baptism. This seems to imply that that those in darkness denied baptism. The references to "love" also seem to be a reference to the Lord's Supper. In John 13 the commandment to love one another is closely tied to the Lord's Supper. John is the Apostle whom Jesus loved and at the beginning of chapter 13 this love is extended to all the Apostles. In John 5:6, John speaks of Jesus and says "This is the one coming through water and blood." Most translations say something like, "This is He who came by water and blood." But the verb is in the present tense (practicing coming probably wouldn't be a good translation either). Jesus comes to us in water and blood. Jesus comes to us in baptism and the Lord's Supper. There are three that testify--the Spirit, the water, and the blood. They are all in agreement in their testimony. The Spirit is not contrary to the water and the blood. The Spirit is not contrary to the physical. You do not attain some higher level of religion by freeing yourself from the earthly elements but rather end up denying the testimony of the Spirit. This statement is closely tied to John's Gospel where Jesus' side is pierced and blood and water flow out (John 19:34-35). John makes quite a deal about this fact. It not only shows that Jesus truly died as a real human being with a real human body but also shows the source of the church's life which is drawn outside of the side of Jesus just as Eve was created from the side of Adam.

Another relevant but difficult passage in understanding how the Christian can be both confessing sins and sinless is found in 1 John 5:16-17. John instructs the congregation to pray for those who have sinned but not if the sin is unto death. John speaks of this sin unto death in a roundabout way. I'm not entirely sure as to exactly what is meant here. The "sin unto death" seems like it must correspond in some way to the sins already described, especially the denial of Christ as He comes to us as the Son of God and Messiah in His human body. It seems like it would have to refer to those who were once part of the church in some way and who have left. It doesn't refer to those who were never a part of the church. Is this judgment reserved for leaders of the movement or maybe even to those who have died in their denial of Christ? I'm not sure.

I think the best way to understand John's statements about the Christian as sinner and as sinless is similar to that of what we find in Romans 7 but from a different angle. The Christian who confesses that Jesus is the son of God, the Messiah who has paid the price for his sins, and who has a real human body is truly sinless according to his new nature. All of his sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. The person who denies that he is a sinner does nothing but sin and remains in the dark.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Work Out Your Salvation With Fear and Trembling

The half-verse "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" is used by some to teach that our good works contribute in some way to our salvation and used by others to teach that sanctification is a synergistic process. But when examined in context neither is true. The Bible is not a collection of random statements like the Qur'an. The half-verse is taken from Philippians 2:12. God did not write verse numbers. Philippians was originally intended to be read as a single sermon. The meaning must be derived from the context or a meaningless phrase that you can use to tell people they must do almost anything. Do your good works outnumber your bad works? If you're really "saved" why aren't you out there winning people for Jesus?

The letter/sermon begins by addressing the "saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philip pi." Paul says that God is the one who started the work in Philippi and that God will bring this work to completion when Christ returns (1:6, this verse also gets taken out of context for various purposes). Paul prays for that the church would grow in love with knowledge and discernment and filled with the fruit of righteousness. In his letter/sermon to the Galatians Paul distinguishes between the fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh. Fruit naturally springs up out of the Christian because of the work of the Holy Spirit while our old Adam continues to produce the sinful works of the flesh. There are similarities here as well to Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. The goats bring their good works before God but are cast away. The sheep didn't even realize that they were doing good works.

Paul then goes on to talk about his imprisonment and the preachers who have appeared at the church of Philippi in his absence (1:14 ff.).. These people are trying to gain financially in Paul's absence. In a very pastoral way Paul directs the Philippians away from trying to determine motivations and instead directs them to examine the message that is preached. If they preach Christ all is well and good but as we find later there are some Judaizers among them trying to preach a works based salvation. These Judaizers seem to be saying that Paul's suffering is the result of his false teaching but Paul says that the Christian life is a life of suffering. He calls the Philippians to remain united and not be divided by the Judaizers. By remaining united in the Gospel they will be sign of the destruction of the Judaizers and a clear sign of their own salvation which is from God and not the result of gaining notoriety among men (1:28-29).

In chapter 2 Paul argues that if the Philippians have faith in Christ and communally participate in the Holy Spirit (most likely a reference to the Eucharist), they should be united in doctrine and love and be serving one another in humility. Let the same mind be in them that was also in Christ. They are to share the same way of thinking that Christ had when He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant even though He is God. Christ did not come to be served but to serve. He humiliated Himself by being crucified by a world that hated Him. He has been exalted but his exaltation will not be realized on earth until the second coming. The Christian has also been called to suffer and in act in humility toward his enemies. The Christian is exalted but that exaltation will not be realized until the second coming. After saying all this, Paul says:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.(Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)
Paul is not calling for inward navel gazing to determine if good works outnumber bad works so that we can determine if we are really Christians. The "therefore" signals that what follows is a conclusion drawn from the previous section. He says "my beloved." It is a call to the church as a whole. It is not individualistic. It is call to remain obedient to the Gospel and not to listen to the Judaizers. They are to work out their salvation in fear and trembling because it is God who works in them both to will and to work for His good pleasure. They shouldn't loose fear of God and start thinking that they're good works are something to boast about that make them better than others and earn them salvation. Their truly good works are not their own but are worked in them by God. Even their good desires are the work of God. If they start looking towards their good works they have reason to fear and tremble. If they present their good works before God when Christ returns they will be damned. Salvation is found in Christ alone.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The War on Advent

This is the time of year when Christians in America feel that they are being persecuted because the cashier did not wish them a Merry Christmas. The fact of the matter is that it's not even Christmas. It seems like they should be upset that they are not being wished blessed Advent. The Christian celebration of Christmas begins on December 25th and lasts for 12 days. The secular celebration of Christmas seems to start earlier every year. It used to start right after Thanksgiving but now seems to start some time before Halloween. The secular celebration of Christmas is not about the celebration of the birth of Christ but about the buying of merchandise, Santa Claus, family get-togethers, snow, and sentimental songs about the season. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these things but there's nothing inherently Christian about them either. The retailers make most of their money during this time and so it makes sense that they would want to extend the season prior to the time on Black Friday when Americans follow their "Thanksgiving" by trying to kill one another for a television set or gaming system. When the retail store says, "Merry Christmas" it means the same thing as when it says "Happy Holidays." Both phrases translate to, "Have a great time buying lots of stuff."

In America, the problem as far as Christmas goes is not with the retail outlets. The problem is with the church following the lead of the retail outlets. The church may say, "Merry Christmas" but it often means little more than family get-togethers, snow, and thinking about how cute baby Jesus is. Much of American Christianity is anti-liturgical and does not follow the liturgical calendar. There is no command in Scripture to follow the liturgical calendar. But things seem to go terribly wrong when churches decide to not follow the liturgical calendar except for Christmas and Easter without celebrating Advent or Lent. The penitential seasons are done away with. People may agree that Jesus was crucified but they worship the resurrected Christ never mind what Paul said about preaching nothing but Christ crucified. The significance of Christmas and Easter are both diminished without Advent and Lent. People sing empty and meaningless carols and think about how thankful they are to be with family. Those who have lost family members who are suffering from tragedy feel left out Some churches will have special programs to try to lure people into the church through a play that makes them feel good.

Rather than complaining that the retail outlets are taking Christ out of Christmas, why not call upon the church to stop taking Christ out of Christmas while it wishes you a Merry Christmas? The one year lectionary starts Advent by telling about Jesus' entry into Jerusalem where He went to be crucified for you. Jesus was born to die for you. He wasn't born so that you could stand around and talk about how cute He is and tell people that we give gifts just like God gave Jesus to the world. He wasn't born so that your church could put on Christmas plays to lure people in. If your church celebrates Christmas, ask them why they don't celebrate Advent. Advent not only anticipates the birth of Christ but the second coming of Christ. It doesn't look in the headlines trying to find some hidden code to show we are living in the end times. It is a realization that we are already in the end times and a call to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. It doesn't look for the coming of a Jesus who is absent but a Jesus who has promised to be with us until the end--a Jesus who gives us His very body and blood in the Lord's Supper. Demand that your church put the Mass back into Christmas and give you Christ's body and blood on Christmas and every Sunday. Demand that your church give you a real Christ who did not come to set an example but came to do what you cannot do and died for you. If they will not give you these things, find some church that will and stop caring about the greeting the guy gives you at the retail store.