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The Foundation of Our Faith

October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door at the church at Wittenberg that launched the Protestant Reformation. If you are a Christian and belong to any church other than the Roman Catholic Church, then you can trace your spiritual lineage back to this pivotal moment in history.

When Luther nailed his theses to the church door, he was engaging in open revolt against the dominant religious system of his day. It was a system that had been crushing Luther for years. As a Catholic monk, Luther believed that he could never be certain of his righteous standing before God. According to Catholic doctrine, God would judge Luther’s righteousness based on his sin (which decreased righteousness) and his religious works (which increased righteousness). And it was Luther’s religious works, such as attending the Catholic mass, confession and acts of penance, that created a lot of insecurity in him. If he failed to confess his sins thoroughly enough, or if he failed to accumulate enough meritorious works to offset his sins, then he would be obligated to spend time in purgatory after his death to atone for his sins. Rather than being a source of comfort and assurance, Luther’s faith was a source of torment. Luther began to hate God because all he knew was God’s judgment for his sins.

Then Luther began to study the book of Romans, and God opened his eyes to the true Gospel, not the man-made religion he had been living. What Luther “discovered” was the truth of Scripture that had been lost to the church for hundreds of years. God was not a judge who expected man to redeem himself, but instead, through the work of Christ, God was a gracious savior. Romans 1:17 became especially meaningful to Luther:

For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Through this passage of Scripture (and so many others like it) Luther began to see a way out of his torment. The righteousness of God that is revealed in the Gospel is not focused on the punishment of sinners but rather is focused on God’s rescue of sinners through their faith in Jesus Christ.  This rescue is accomplished because the righteousness of God himself is given to sinners through faith in Christ. Luther no longer needed to look to himself to see if he was good enough for God (which was impossible!), but instead could now “live by faith” that the goodness of Christ was enough for him. This seems so simple to us today, but it was revolutionary in Luther’s day. Later, Luther would declare that this doctrine of justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ was so important that without it the whole of the Christian faith would be lost.

Five hundred years after Luther nailed his theses to that door, is there any debate about how we are justified before God? Yes, there still is. First, for Catholics, the doctrine of justification is largely what it was 500 years ago. They are in the same position that Luther was in. But I would also argue many Protestants are confused about justification as well. Here’s what I mean by that.

Many Christians today deny the power of the Gospel in their lives because they believe that God still looks at their sin to determine their standing before him. They are not living by faith in Christ, but based on their own “works.” For some, like Luther, they see how much they sin, feel shame for that, and then project onto God the view they have of themselves. They believe that God rejects them because of their sin. This belief denies the wonderful truth that they are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Does their sin matter to God? Yes, it does. God wants all of us to be holy so he will discipline us through the consequences of our sin in order that we will turn away from sin and turn back toward him. But our sin does not determine our standing before God, and God does not punish us for sin. Christ was punished for our sake so that we would not be.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Romans 8:1

But there are many in the church today who have the opposite problem. They believe that God looks at their works and likes what he sees. They believe the righteousness that is in them was put there themselves through their own hard work. While they may profess to be Christians on one hand, with the other they deny the faith by denying their own desperate need for the Gospel. They think God’s view of them is generally positive because they live moral lives. They work hard, try to parent well, and generally avoid the “felony” sins that everyone loves to talk about. But of course, they forget that it was plain, old, everyday spiritual pride by Adam and Eve that introduced sin to our world.

The hard truth for us all can be found in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one.” If there is anything good in any of us, we did not put it there. Christ did. It is his goodness that clothes us and humbles us. No one can ever boast before God.

Today as we consider our standing before God, let’s give thanks for a certain German monk who turned the world upside down by reminding everyone what the Gospel really is. God loves you not based on what you did or did not do, but based on your faith in what Christ accomplished for you. You cannot improve on that nor can you take that away. God is not against you. He is for you. For eternity.

The Gospel & How We Grow

Our culture has lots of approaches to helping people change. Pick a topic, do a quick search online and you will see thousands of suggested ways to overcome a struggle. We all have our approaches. Do you want to know what your own personal “theology” of change is? Easy. When you see someone caught in a struggle, how do you complete this sentence: “If only they would __________”? Whatever you fill in the blank with exposes how you think people change.

Many of us fill in that blank with something like “try harder.” This is essentially the morality-based approach to change in which discipleship strategies are aimed at equipping us to understand God’s commands to live rightly, and then we should simply do what is expected of us. In fact, the word “should” shows up a lot in this approach. Growth is equated with obedience and measured based on performance (usually in pass/fail terms). The role of a disciple-maker in this strategy is similar to being a boss – communicate expectations and point out needed correction. The Gospel rarely shows up in this approach beyond a type of gap-filler that bridges the difference between our performance and God’s expectations. This try harder strategy often leaves us utterly defeated and ashamed.

Others embrace the therapeutic approach to how people change. In fact, this may be the most popular model for our churches today. Under the therapeutic approach we try to understand how our life experiences shape or misshape us and contribute to our own dysfunctional behavior (which is rarely called sin). Our role in the therapeutic model is to apply wisdom principles (usually a blend of man-centered approaches and biblical proof texts) to enable us to overcome our problems. Growth comes about with “break-throughs” and deeper insight into you, with our disciple-makers acting like quasi-therapists (or the more popular term “life coach.”). The therapeutic model focuses on felt needs and wants you to become a better you. It tends to celebrate confession without ever leading to repentance. Like the morality-based approach to change, the therapeutic model puts you in the driver’s seat. The Gospel is applicable only in a general sense. We have the good news of God’s love but no bad news that brought about our need for good news in the first place.

Still another other approach calls into question the very idea of spiritual growth, seeing growth as something that may or may not even happen. This is the hyper-grace “let go, let God” approach. The focus here is on God’s unconditional approval of us as we are, without regard to whether we ever change. This approach may mention the grace of God, but it is a very anemic grace that rarely calls a man or woman to come and die. It espouses a half Gospel that justifies but never empowers us to be sanctified.

Each of these approaches has some parts that are true. God’s Word does indeed give us a template for living, and throughout scripture there are numerous exhortations for us to engage in personal effort to live rightly. And it is also true that the wounds we receive from the sins of others affect us and can shape our own sin tendencies. And it is also true that, in Christ (an important qualifier), we are loved by God independent of our growth as a Christian.

Yet all of the above approaches to growth are incomplete and, at some level, plain wrong. If we have the ability to overcome sin only through our own effort, then Jesus died for no reason. And our wounds are not our greatest problem – it’s our own sin. No wisdom of man can overcome that problem. And God clearly cares about our growth. In fact, Romans 8:29 says that he has predestined us to be conformed to the image of his son. Because sin causes so much suffering in us, it would be unloving of God to not care about our daily fight against sin. God loves us, and he wants us to grow and to experience victory in our fight against sin. In fact, the Bible says he wants us to be dead to sin (Romans 6:11).

So what then is the distinctly Christian model for how people change? One that is built around and upon the Gospel. Only the Gospel provides us with practical, effective and God-glorifying means to change. The Gospel is the good news concerning all that has been accomplished for you through the life, death, resurrection, ascension and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ and applied to you through the regenerating and indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. And because of the good news we have the heart and the means to be changed.

As disciple-makers we constantly toggle our conversations between Gospel need and Gospel provision. The fact that sin is our fundamental struggle in this life is our most basic Gospel need. It is sin that causes brokenness in us and chaos within the rest of creation. We lack any real power on our own to control our sin, just like we lack any real power to undue the futility that sin has caused in creation. The same dark force that makes you want to look at porn is also what causes tornadoes to rip through subdivisions and tsunamis to submerge islands. No part of the created realm has been untouched by sin. A disciple-maker is clear that the fight against sin is a spiritual battle that requires spiritual weapons. We cannot use our self-will to overcome sin.

For the person who does not have saving faith in Jesus Christ, who does not have the Spirit of God living in them, the greatest Gospel need is for conversion to occur. Any discussion of change which side-steps this most crucial need deprives a person of our greatest advocate (Christ) and the only means by which we can truly change (his grace). So a disciple-maker begins the change conversation with this fundamental need.

But believers also have an ongoing Gospel need. Yes, because of our faith in Christ, we have been brought from death to life and the Spirit of God now lives in us. We are no longer enemies of God, but have been reckoned righteous by the goodness of Christ himself. The Apostle Paul sums this up by declaring that because of the work of the Gospel we are now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Yet, we still have old sin tendencies as well. The “flesh” still inhabits us and leads us astray. Believers, therefore, have not moved past their need for the Gospel. But many Christians struggle to see how the Gospel plays a practical role in their ongoing growth.

Here’s what I mean. Christians share a confessed hope that, after we die, on some glorious day in the future Christ will return and he will instantly bring our dead, decayed bodies back to life into a glorious state. We know it sounds far-fetched. But we believe it by faith and are certain it is true. If we don’t believe it, Paul says we are to be pitied the most. But IT IS TRUE!

So, knowing that we have already believed what may seem the hardest to believe, what if I were to tell you that the same Gospel which assures you of a bodily resurrection also promises you the means to fight against every day sin? Do you believe that is true in the same way you believe the resurrection is true? Sadly, too many Christians would say that the God who resurrects dead bodies offers no practical help with porn, broken marriages, anger, alcohol abuse, etc.

But what does scripture say about God’s willingness to meet your Gospel need to fight against sin? Paul writes this is in Ephesians 1:19-20:

“and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.”

Paul is telling us that the same power that resurrected Jesus and vindicated him before God and seated him at God’s right hand is now available to us. The power of God, his grace, brings the dead back to life and enables the believer to fight against sin and to grow up into the image of our savior. God graciously meets our Gospel need with Gospel provision. As disciple-makers, that is the primary content of our proclamation. “Your needs have been met in Christ Jesus – all of them.” Denying that truth leads to sin.

Fundamentally, our role as disciple-makers is not to be a life coach or a therapist; it is to be evangelists. We share the good news with those who have never heard it, but we also remind those who have received it that they must never move on from it. We must stress the need to repent of all of our ways that we reject God’s promises to us and to once again have faith that all we need for life and godliness has been given to us in Christ (2 Peter 1:3).

That is how people really change. And that glorifies God.

Lent, Gospel Need & Gospel Provision

“For you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

These are some of the most sorrowful words recorded in scripture. They were spoken by God to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:19 following their disobedience and fall into a state of sin. God had made Adam from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7), and it was God’s preserving grace that kept Adam from turning back into dust. Now, because of sin, God withdrew that preserving grace causing Adam and Eve to one day die. And, because you and I are “in Adam”, we too will eventually die (1 Cor. 15:22).  That is the tragedy of the Fall – we were meant to live with God and one another forever, but sin robbed us of that.

When God pronounced curses on Adam, Eve and the rest of creation, he was vindicating his holiness and declaring that sin must not go unpunished. But God’s judgement was also gracious to Adam and Eve (and us!) because it taught them that sin was destructive to God’s created purposes and therefore harmful, especially to them. By seeing sin as something that is offensive to God and harmful to us, it makes us hate sin and desire something better.

Embedded in the curses of Genesis are promises of something that is better – the Gospel. In Genesis 3:15 God says to the serpent that he will put enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent and that “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This is a foreshadowing of Christ’s battle with Satan and his ultimate victory over him. But we also see in verse 21 a hint of the price of that victory. God made clothes for Adam and Eve using animal skins to comfort them in their shame. Animals had to die because of their sin. This points to the death of Christ on the cross whose blood atones for our sin and covers over it. Our redemption from sin came at the awful price of the Son of God’s life because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

It is for our good that we regularly look at the reality of sin in our lives and all the havoc it wrecks on us and in the world.  It reminds us of our need for the Gospel. That is the purpose behind Lent, the forty-day period (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter.

During Lent, we spend a season examining ourselves and confessing the sin that we find there. We don’t do this to shame ourselves before God or to somehow motivate ourselves to behave better. Looking at our sin is the first step toward repenting of it and embracing the grace of Jesus. A season of staring at our sin during Lent ensures that when we come to Good Friday our hearts will cry out “Worthy is the lamb who was slain!” In being reminded of death at work in us because of sin, we see the empty tomb on Easter as a promise that our dead bodies will one day be resurrected into something glorious. Lent screams out “we need the Gospel!” Good Friday and Easter assure us that we have indeed received the Gospel.

The slow march toward Holy Week begins today, on Ash Wednesday. It is a worship service focused on a time of examination, confession, mourning and hope. The mourning is expressed in the ashes we will wear on our forehead, in being reminded of that awful curse – “we are made of dust and to dust we shall return.” But we do not mourn as those without hope. In receiving the assurance of pardon for our sins and celebration of sacred communion, we are also reminded that we are children of the resurrection who have received Good News. Because of all that has been done for us in Christ Jesus, the curse has been lifted and we are now being made new.

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