Judge not

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2).

Some people use these words to escape any criticism from others. Even if they are doing something wrong or believing something contrary to the Bible, they still claim to be free from judgment because of these words of Jesus.

But Jesus did not say “judge not” to silence Christians and their rebukes of sin. Jesus tells us to “watch out for false prophets,” saying, “by their fruit you will recognize them.” Elsewhere in the Bible Christians are told to encourage, exhort, and correct one another by the teachings of Scripture. If someone is doing something that God says is wrong, Jesus calls upon his people to respond. If someone believes something that God says is untrue, Christians are told to respond with the truth. In neither case should we ignore the problem.

When Jesus tells his people not to judge, he makes a distinction between present behavior and eternal existence. Jesus gave us a set of rules, describing the lives he wants us to live. Jesus said do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love your enemies, give to the needy, pray, forgive, fast, do not be anxious. Jesus does not want us to use these commandments as weapons against one another. We all have sinned; we all have broken these commandments. We all need a Savior. Yes, we should use these commands to encourage one another to do right. We should use these commands to explain to one another why we all need a Savior. Jesus forbids us to use these commands to distinguish genuine faith from hypocrisy. He does not want us to use these rules to decide who is saved and who is lost. If we try to judge other people according to these teachings, we will end with the realization that all of us are lost according to these standards.

To remind us that his Law condemns all of us as sinners, Jesus threatens to judge us by these standards if we use them to judge others. Measuring our lives by these standards, we see how badly we have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We desperately need his gift, his blessings, his promise to rescue us. This is true for each of us; therefore, it is true of our fellow Christians.

Christians frequently fall into the trap of the Pharisees, thinking that obedience to God’s Law makes us better than other people. We persuade ourselves that our obedience makes us good enough to inherit a place in heaven. Anyone who judges by the Law, without the blessing of the Gospel, will see failure and condemnation in every life, aside from the life of Jesus. When Jesus says “judge not,” he means this: Do not use the Law alone to measure a life, but see it through the Gospel promise. See that those who trust in Jesus are those forgiven by Jesus, credited with his goodness and therefore counted worthy of heaven. Measure your fellow Christians this way, and also measure yourself this way. Trust the promises of God—not the commandments—to rescue you from evil and to shape your life. J.

Practicing righteousness

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).

To this point, Jesus has discussed prohibitions found in God’s Law: do not murder, or even surrender to anger; do not commit adultery, or even surrender to lust; do not resist an evil person. Even the positive commandment, love your enemies, is largely a prohibition against treating people in response to what they have done in the past or what they might do in the future. Each of these commandments relates to our neighbors, the people we encounter in this world.

Jesus now speaks of positive things and of things pertaining to our relationship with God. He describes three things God expects us to do: giving to the needy, praying, and fasting. Jesus does not question whether we will do these things—he firmly says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” These are positive actions, but Jesus adds one prohibition: we are not to do these things in a way that calls attention to ourselves from other people.

In this tightly-knit set of teachings, Jesus repeats a refrain. He says that what we do to impress people here on earth will be ignored by our Father in heaven. Only the things we do secretly, thinking about God and not about other people, are seen and rewarded by God. Our relationship with him is an inner relationship, a matter of the heart. When we start trying to impress people—when we want to be recognized on earth as holy, religious, spiritual, or good-hearted—we omit God from our spiritual life.

Other religions know this as well. What matters most in many religions is a relationship with the divine. Things done for attention here on earth are ignored in heaven. God is our first priority; everything else is forgotten as we draw near to God.

Many teachers would frown even at Jesus’ mention of a reward from our Father in heaven. If we do holy things to earn a reward, we are not really doing them for God. What sounds like a paradox is actually sensible: Whatever we do on earth to earn a reward earns no reward; whatever we do to serve God without seeking a reward will be rewarded.

Jesus plainly says that God rewards those who seek him. His reward is not measured in worldly ways—in money or influence or even good feelings. We are not invited to tell God what reward he should give us. God chooses the rewards he gives. He has already given us gifts and blessings, including the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in the new creation. We have the kingdom of heaven. We will be comforted. We will inherit the earth. We will be satisfied. We will be shown mercy. We will see God. We will be called sons of God. What reward do we need or want beyond these gifts? God chooses fitting rewards for those who seek him. He has selected rewards for all those who set aside the things of this world because their hearts already are in the kingdom of heaven. J.

Salt and light

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Salt and light are both good. The chief value of salt two thousand years ago was that salt preserved food. Jesus suggests that his people have value by preserving this world and enlightening it.

Jesus also warns that we are capable of failure. Salt in his day was not bought pure from stores. Salt came with impurities. As Jesus remarks, if the true salt leaches out of the mixture that is labeled salt, what remains is only gravel. When a lamp is lit and then hidden, that lamp also is useless. God wants us to be useful, not useless. He wants us to benefit the world.

These verses about flavorless salt and hidden light are reminders that Christians can lose their faith. The teaching “once saved; always saved” is not Biblical. (See Ezekiel 33:12-13 and Hebrews 10:26-31.) The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to call us to faith and also to keep us in the one true faith; but when people spurn the Word of God, they starve and destroy the gift of faith. God does not want Christians to live in fear that we might someday lose our faith. The Bible frequently speaks of election—that our salvation depends upon God’s infinite power, not on our weak human powers. But Jesus calls one sin unforgiveable: the sin against the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit calls a person to faith and that person refuses the Spirit’s call, that person has rejected the gift of salvation by grace through faith.

Dead people cannot make themselves alive. Resurrection depends upon a miracle of God. Living people can damage and destroy their lives. We were dead in our trespasses and sins. Through the Word, the Spirit calls us to life. Now we retain our saltiness and keep our light unhidden as we continue to draw strength and power from the Word of God.

We are already blessed. The rewards earned by Jesus belong to us as a gift. We do not have to try to earn them by being good. Why, then, should we bother to do good things? We want to be good so we can be useful to God and can benefit the people around us. As Paul wrote, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Now that we have been rescued from our sins, we are able to accomplish God’s plan for our lives. We also want people to praise the God who has saved us. When we harm others, we bring shame to the name of our Father. If we, as Christians, have a reputation for doing what is wrong, we bring shame to the name of Christ.

Instead, we want to glorify God. We want to be the people we were meant to be. Therefore, we study God’s commandments. We see the things we are told not to do—for example, we are not to murder, we are not to commit adultery, we are not to break our oaths. We see the things we should do—we should give to the needy, we should pray, we should fast. All these things we do, not for ourselves, but to bring glory to God.

Other religions teach the same positive and negative commandments. People all over the world value the same virtues Christians value, because the Law of God is written in their hearts. Mohandas Gandhi agreed with the ethical teachings of Jesus, but Gandhi remained Hindu. He chose not to be a Christian; he did not see Jesus as the unique Son of God or as a Savior. Since the ethical teachings are consistent throughout the religions of the world, we see that we cannot remain salt and light simply by doing the good things Jesus commands and not committing the sins he condemns.

We are not saved by our good works; we are saved by the grace of God. That is not permission to sin. Even though our good deeds do not earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven—even though nonChristians may equal or surpass us in doing good things—we still have a blessing. We belong to Jesus. Therefore, to bring honor to his name, we try to imitate him. To help other people in this world, we try to obey God’s commandments. To try to be the people we were created to be, we try to live up to the high standards of Jesus our Lord. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

The limitations of science

I am a fan of science. I was a boy at the time of the Apollo missions to the moon, and I watched full coverage of them on television. Over the years, my parents bought me a telescope, a microscope, a chemistry set, and a 100-project electrical kit. I got As in science all through school. I still keep up with the latest discoveries, from the exploration of Mars to the particles detected from split atoms.

Science provides many benefits. Science gives us longer and more productive lives, thanks to expanding knowledge about nutrition, sleep, exercise, medicine, therapy, and the battle against pests, from viruses and harmful bacteria to fleas, ticks, and tapeworms. But science cannot help us beyond death. Science cannot tell us whether any part of our being survives death. Nor can science reveal the destiny of that surviving entity, whether it will go to heaven or to hell.

Science is limited to studying the physical world. It can measure and describe matter and energy, but science cannot observe anything that does not consist of matter or energy. Science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, angels, demons, or the human soul. It is not scientific to say that science disproves those entities, because the rules of science do not permit science to determine anything about the nonmaterial world.

Therefore, anyone who puts his or her faith in science is as mistaken as someone who puts his or her faith in money, or in political power, or in one’s own good deeds, or in Baal or Zeus or Thor. Money and politics and good deeds all have value; they each have a place in our lives. But none of them can take the place of God. None of them can do what God does for his people.

One of the benefits of science is that it changes. New discoveries invalidate prevailing theories and force the creation and testing of new theories about the material world. Isaac Newton applied mathematics to science. He found the equation that describes how gravity works. After Newton, science grew more and more mechanical, with the hope that one day science could explain everything in the universe. But Albert Einstein and other twentieth-century scientists showed that Newton’s mathematical and mechanical universe only describes matter and energy of moderate size. The rules change with the very big, the very small, and the very powerful.

Because science changes, it is unreliable. One researcher says coffee is good for people; the next researcher says coffee is bad for people. Efforts to eradicate the spread of disease and improve the cultivation of crops have damaged the environment by killing off insects and poisoning the creatures that eat insects. Food additives, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and perhaps even life-saving vaccinations can have damaging side effects, which may explain the increase in recent times of autism, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and intolerance of one another. The poisonous social atmosphere in which we live may literally be poisoned by the same scientific advancements that were intended to improve our lives.

The person who relies on science and scientists to provide all Truth is missing a great deal. The knowledge that our souls will spend time elsewhere when we die—a better place or a worse place, depending upon who we know and trust—and that our bodies will be raised to eternal life at the dawn of the new creation—this knowledge shapes much of what we choose to do today. Knowing the Creator of the universe is far more important than knowing when and how the dinosaurs lived. Knowing that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus provides forgiveness of sins, fellowship with God, and victory over all enemies is far more important than encyclopedic knowledge of all the chemicals or all the planets and planetoids or all the subatomic particles.

One reason science seems to be more valuable than religion is that science has, over the years, provided material explanations for phenomena (such as thunderstorms and epileptic seizures) that were formerly attributed to spiritual causes. One might chart the number of phenomena that are explained by science and no longer attributed to spirits and assume that the need for religion will disappear. But even though science can improve our lives in this world, it gives us no reason to go on living. Nor can science guarantee eternal life in a better world after death in this world. Science cannot lift the guilt of a person who knows that he or she has done wrong. Science cannot teach people how to forgive one another and live in harmony. Science is beneficial, but it cannot replace religion. A life based on science is as empty as a life based on money or politics or entertainment.

I remain a fan of science. But my faith is in God. Science studies the things God made. Theology studies God. God is not too small for science; he is too big for science to grasp, too powerful for science to measure, too grand for science to explain. I thank God for all the things science has discovered about his creation. I praise God for who he is, information which science cannot supply. J.

Baptism

InsanityBytes wrote a charming piece on baptism which you can (and should) read here. As I commented to her, I agree with most of what she wrote. Many of the other comments began to head in several different directions. There are some more things I want to say about baptism, but rather than trying to say them all in her comments section, I decided to say them here.

First, Christians can disagree about baptism without condemning one another. We can have different opinions about what baptism is, what it accomplishes, where and how it should be done, and so on. To use technical language, each Christian believes that he or she is orthodox (or correct) and that Christians who disagree are heterodox (or incorrect), but we do not accuse the heterodox of being heretics, hypocrites, or unbelievers. We have the same Lord and Savior. We will meet in the same new creation, where we will know and understand all truth and will be able to identify (without shame or embarrassment) who was wrong about what teachings in this world.

Why then continue to discuss baptism? Why not “agree to disagree” and remain silent? Because those Christians who misunderstand baptism are missing the fullness of a blessing God intends them to enjoy. Because of their misunderstanding, they are missing the peace and comfort that comes to them through their baptism.

The key question is: is baptism something we do for God or is baptism something God does for us? If baptism is a work we do for God, then it cannot be involved in our salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21). On Pentecost, to answer the question “what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (pardon a little throat clearing at that last phrase) (Acts 2:37-39). Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Can God save people apart from baptism? Of course; God can do anything. Unbelief condemns; lack of baptism does not condemn. But God links salvation to baptism for a very important reason. Even the most faithful Christian sins, and we all need assurance of forgiveness that goes beyond our repentance and our faith. We all have bad days when we wonder if we have repented correctly and sufficiently; we all have times when we wonder if our faith is strong enough for us to be saved. If we were left only to measure our repentance and our faith by the way we feel or by the good works that we do, we would be left in doubt.

To rescue us from doubt, God gave us the gift of baptism. When the devil and the sinful world and the sin still within us accuse us and make us doubt our faith and our salvation, baptism is our escape. Because God has linked the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to the blessing of baptism, we use baptism as our defense when we doubt or when others attack. The correct attitude is not, “I was baptized on a certain day,” but, “I am baptized.” Baptism is a state of grace under which each Christian lives in this world while looking forward to the life to come.

Earlier this year I wrote more about baptism, which you can read here, here, here, and here. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part five

Training and discipline must have a purpose. Earthly fathers, teachers, and coaches do not put children into difficult situations for no purpose. They seek to develop good characteristics, preparing the children for life’s upcoming events. If God permitted Satan to test Job, God was not being arbitrary toward Job or using Job to win a bet. God had a good reason to allow the testing, and Job somehow was improved by the experience. If God permits you and me to struggle in our lives, he is not being arbitrary toward us. He has a good reason to allow the testing, and we somehow are improved by the experience.

God’s training and discipline are not responses to our sins, because God has forgiven our sins and remembers them no longer. What, then, is God seeking to accomplish by our hardships? The answer can perhaps be found in the way Jesus reacted to his chosen apostles. He chose them—they belonged to him—they were covered by his forgiveness as surely as any Christian is covered by his forgiveness. But it appears that Jesus sometimes lost patience with his apostles. As God he is all-knowing and all-powerful, eternal and unchanging. At the same time, Jesus is human. He is like us every way, except that he never sinned. The sins of others angered him. He cleared the Temple of those who were misusing it. He lectured about the shortcomings of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught God’s Law clearly to all who would listen. But what about times when his chosen and forgiven apostles aggravated Jesus? Here are five examples:

“Behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but [Jesus] was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” (Matthew 8:24-26)

“Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:28-31)

“When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive?’” (Matthew 16:5-9)

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:21-23)

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and kneeling before him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.’ And Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.’ And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith.’” (Matthew 17:14-20)

If anything frustrates Jesus, he is frustrated to see his own chosen people fail to exercise their faith. Jesus grants faith to his people, but he also expects us to exercise that faith. When we fear and doubt, when we lose sight of the cross and try to belong to Jesus without it, when we try to serve him by our own power rather than his power, then we fail. We do not lose our forgiveness—not unless we completely lose our faith. But Jesus wants us to be focused on him, not on ourselves. He wants us to measure his power, not our faith.

This is not to say that the wrath of God falls upon Christians when our faith is too small. Just the opposite: we are saved from God’s wrath by even the smallest faith, provided that our faith is in Jesus Christ, who drank from the cup of his Father’s wrath toward sinners until the cup was empty. But God, in loving discipline and training, gives us faith-lifting exercises even as coaches assign weight-lifting exercises to athletes. Even if Jesus is frustrated by our little faith, he also loves us and wants to see that faith grow—not for his benefit, but for our benefit.

God trains us through adversity, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). For this reason we rejoice, because our sufferings draw us to the cross of Christ, where all our sins are forgiven, and all our enemies are defeated, and we are claimed as God’s people forever. J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part four

Hebrews 11 is often called the Honor Roll of Faith. Great believers of the Old Testament are mentioned along with the obstacles they faced and overcame through their faith in the coming Savior. Verses 35 to 38 particularly focus on believers who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because of their faith. All these faithful believers are summarized in Hebrews 12:1 as a great cloud of witnesses watching us run the face, and the culmination of this list is Jesus himself, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The transition to God’s discipline follows from this mention of Jesus and the cross: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). Notice the progression: the saints of the Old Testament suffered, sometimes violently, from the attacks of enemies to their faith. Jesus suffered and died at the hand of such enemies also. We can expect opposition of the same kind, even if it has not yet become as violent as that which Jesus and other servants of God faced.

From this perspective it appears that the discipline of God comes through the enemies of God, which are also our enemies—namely, the devil, the sinful world, and the sin still within each of us. Job was tested by Satan, even though he did not deserve to suffer. God permitted the testing but also limited it. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to harass me” (II Corinthians 12:7). Jesus once said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).

Every setback and disappointment that a Christian faces is not discipline from the hand of God. Some burdens we bear in common with all people, believers and unbelievers alike. Colds, allergies, diabetes, cancer, anxiety, depression: these are not crosses we bear for Christ, nor are they discipline from God. They are part of the result of living in a sin-polluted world. When the car stalls in traffic, when rain falls on our picnic, when an unexpected bill comes in the mail, God is not calling us to examine our lives and determine which sin he wants us to quit. God does not want us to sin at all, but our sins are forgiven. Christ was beaten as he did not deserve to rescue us from discipline we deserve.

On the other hand, we are being trained to live as God’s people. When our faith and obedience annoys God’s enemies, we must be doing something right. God allows us to experience their resistance to strengthen our faith. Whatever difficulties we face are good for us, as they direct our attention to the price Christ paid to redeem us. The devil wants us to struggle so he can convince us that God does not love us or is not taking care of us. When our struggles remind us of the cross of Christ, of all that he paid to make us his people, then the devil loses in his opposition and we share once again in the victory Christ has won.

Guilt is good when it brings us to the cross. Guilt is bad when it drives us to examine our sins and try to fix our own lives to please God. The devil uses our sense of guilt as a weapon against us. When trouble strikes and the question arises: “What did I do to deserve this?” we usually can think of answers to that question. But no discipline from God is a response to our sins. God has blotted out all our sins with the blood of his Son. He sees each of us now through his Son’s righteousness. God does not want us to sin, but he also does not want us to focus all our attention on our sins. He wants us to set our eyes on Jesus and to find strength and comfort and hope in him.

To be continued…. J.

Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

Early medieval Christian writers

Pseudo-Dionysius; John Scotus Eriugena; John Climacus: the names may be unfamiliar, but the writings of these men have shaped the course of Christianity from the earlier Middle Ages to the present.

Western civilization in general and Protestant Christianity in particular perpetuate an image of Europe’s Dark Ages—the Roman Empire fell, and until the Renaissance a thousand years later, Europe stagnated in a miasma of superstition and barbarianism. This myth was encouraged by thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment (a label they chose for themselves); following the religious wars of the Reformation, Europe was allegedly ready to abandon the blind prejudices of religion and emerge into the light of science, reason, and humanistic philosophy. Because of this attitude, many of the treasures of the Middle Ages were buried in libraries and museums. Condemned with labels like “Gothic,” the advances of European civilization during these centuries were all set aside as a bypath to oblivion, barbarism from which the fragile flame of the Renaissance and the more robust furnace of the Enlightenment rescued western civilization.

Even the Great Books of the Western World series acknowledges only three writers from the Middle Ages—Chaucer, Aquinas, and Dante. All three are undeniably great, but they could anchor a new set of books that might be called Great Books of the Western Middle Ages. That set would also include Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus Eriugena, and John Climacus.

Pseudo-Dionysius is an anonymous writer of the fifth or sixth century who represented himself as the man named Dionysius who heard Paul preach in Athens and became a Christian (Acts 17:34). His surviving writings include “The Divine Names,” “The Mystical Theology,” “The Celestial Hierarchy,” and “The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.” As these titles suggest, the writer organizes the known universe into levels of power and authority, reaching from the lowest forms of created being to the one Uncreated Being, God Himself. Pseudo-Dionysius is known for organizing the angels of heaven into nine levels—three sets of three—and also for describing the levels of church leadership that existed in his time and place. More important, Pseudo-Dionysius recommended humility in the believer who would approach God. The Lord of the universe is far beyond human understanding, and we know him only through what He has told us about himself in the Bible.

Pseudo-Dionysius wrote, “Let us hold on to the scriptural rule ‘not in the plausible words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the power granted by the Holy Spirit’ (I Corinthians 2:4) to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from that the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor.”

John Scotus Eriugena was a theologian, philosopher, and scientist of the early ninth century who lived in the British Isles. He preserved and commented upon the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius, and also wrote a  profound commentary on the Gospel according to John. As a scientist, Eriugena continued the tradition of ancient Greek and Roman science, bridging the time between ancient civilization and the scientists of the High Middle Ages such as Roger Bacon and Nicholas of Cusa. The work of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their heirs would have been impossible without the contributions of men like Eriugena and Roger Bacon. Yet medieval European science was always grounded in the truth of God’s Word, finding meaning and purpose for all creation in the messages from God which communicate the thoughts he wants known by human beings.

Commenting on the opening verses of the Gospel according to John, Eriugena wrote, “When humanity abandoned God, the light of divine knowledge receded from the world. Since then, the eternal light reveals itself in a two-fold manner through Scripture and through creation. Divine knowledge may be renewed in us no other way, but through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature. Learn, therefore, to understand these divine modes of expression and to conceive their meanings in your soul, for therein you will know the Word.”

John Climacus was a monk who lived in a monastery near Mount Sinai at the beginning of the seventh century. His last name refers to his most famous writing, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” which describes the Christian life in terms of gaining virtues and dispelling vices. One of the virtues recommended by Climacus is apathy or dispassion, detachment from the things of this world. This may reflect a Buddhist influence upon Christian monasticism in west Asia, unsurprising in the centuries before the rise of Islam in that part of the world. John’s description of the ladder, based loosely on Jacob’s dream, was a deep influence on the writings of the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches, lasting until the present. John was himself deeply influenced by the Desert Fathers, the early monks of Egypt and the surrounding area, extending back in time to Saint Anthony. While John’s writings appear to tilt toward legalism, he was more interested in prescribing rules for life in a monastery than he was in speaking of the grace of God and the unearned redemption that belongs to all Christians.

John wrote, “We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, pleas from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance…. In this world, when an emperor summons us to obedience, we leave everything aside and answer the call at once without delays or hanging back or excuses. We had better be careful then not to refuse, through laziness or inertia, the call to heavenly life in the service of the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the God of gods…. Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living among public cares aspire to the monastic life?’ I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies. Show compassion to the needy. Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives can provide you. If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven.’”

Far from being mired in any dark ages, these writers show themselves to be as intelligent and as relevant as any of our contemporary Christian authors. J.