Predestination According to Pascal

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“It thus follows that God is never obligated to extend grace except to those who ask for it, and not to those who do not ask for it. And since no one can ask for the grace to pray unless he has it, then obviously God is never obligated to give anyone the grace to pray, since no one would persevere in asking for it unless it was continually given to him.

But because God has bound himself by his promises to give to the children of promise, before they ever request it, he has bound himself to give them the grace to pray so that they might thereby attain the grace to live well; but since the obligation only follows his promise, he is only obligated to those to whom he promised it—in other words, only to the predestined.”

Joint Declaration quotes

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The following are a few quotes from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church agreed upon in 1999 and subsequently adopted by the World Methodist Council as well. While it does not by any stretch put to rest the theological differences between the Catholic church and Protestantism, it does offer a new paradigm through which to view inter-church relations.

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. (15)

Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith. (16)

Our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way. (17)

We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation, for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. (19)

When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated, for persons are by faith united with Christ, who in his person is our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30): both the forgiveness of sin and the saving presence of God himself. (22)

When Catholics emphasize the renewal of the interior person through the reception of grace imparted as a gift to the believer, they wish to insist that God’s forgiving grace always brings with it a gift of new life, which in the Holy Spirit becomes effective in active love. They do not thereby deny that God’s gift of grace in justification remains independent of human cooperation. (24)

We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it. (25)

We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God’s unconditional justifying grace. (28)

We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace. (34)

When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace. (38)

What About Guilt

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It seems to me that there are two kinds of guilt. The first kind is the guilt of breaking God’s law. It’s like a judge in a court room that says “you’re guilty” whether you actually feel like your guilty or not. You just are because you broke God’s law. The Old testament often talks about this because God would command people to go make a sacrifice in the temple if they had sinned. Then they would not be held guilty for their sin. These sacrifices were a picture of Jesus Christ. He sacrificed himself for all sins that we have done. So it’s covered. Even though you are guilty of sinning God doesn’t hold you guilty; he puts the guilt on Jesus on the cross.

The second kind of guilt is what I would call psychological guilt. When you sin there is a voice in your head that says “that was bad.” It’s a good voice because you’re supposed to listen to it and stop doing what you were doing. But guilt happens when that voice keeps saying it over and over: “that was bad, that was bad, that was real bad.” And before long it starts saying “you’re bad because you do bad things”. When it says starts to say this, you start to feel trapped: “If I’m bad, then all I can do is bad.” Do you see what has happened? That voice–or rather, listening to that voice–has effectively taken the cross back out of your life.

Remember, Jesus actually took the guilt for your sins on himself. But that voice keeps on accusing you! What’s up with that? This voice is telling a half truth. It is true that you are a sinner and that you do bad things, but this does not determine your identity; it has no more power to define who you are because you do not belong to yourself anymore.
You are forgiven. That is what you are. You are in Christ, you are a new creation, you are clothed in righteousness. But this voice would have you think about the old self, the one that died with Christ. That is why the voice of guilt is what we call the accuser, or Satan. Jesus shows us the way to combat Satan: you tell him what God says about you. Some of the best passages for this are Romans 8 and Ephesians 1.

When you tell the accuser that you now belong to Christ and are a new creation, freed from the accusations of your sin, you are not merely playing mind games with yourself in order to promote positive thinking. God’s word has power for salvation. That means it has the power to actually change you. So when you rebuke the accuser and tell him that God’s word says you are forgiven, that same word can change you and your behavior. That’s what repentance is. It is an actual change. God’s truth causes you to turn away from sin and toward the the life of doing what it good. Notice: this change is not what makes you forgiven! You are forgiven when you are made one with Christ: you and I ARE forgiven. The work is done; Christ’s promise assures it. Repentance is tyour response to that truth. If you really receive the forgiveness of Jesus, then you don’t want to throw that in the trash by sinning more! In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul says “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?…Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

We see this beautifully demonstrated in the story of Zacchaeus. When the Word of God comes walking by in the flesh and blood of Jesus he immediately receives him saying “Come to my house!” then he responds to that Word with repentance, turning away from a life of fraud by giving half of his possessions to the poor. That was great, but he did one more thing, and it is very instructive for us.

Zacchaeus is now a forgiven man; he is repentant, having turned away from his sin by God’s grace, full of good works. Now when he thinks upon the sins he has done previously he knows that his sin does not just hurt himself, but it also hurts other people. So he does something that we call “making restitution”, or making things right. He says: “If I have defrauded anyone I will restore it four times over.” I repeat, Zacchaeus is already forgiven; this act is not earning his salvation. But the point of being a follower of Jesus is not just being forgiven, but living the good life! That is what Jesus wants for us. The good life is a life of love for others, and you can start with the ones you’ve wronged. You may be sure that the accuser had no power over that man.

So after you have spoken Christ’s truth to the accuser and have turned away from your sin to a life of doing good, the surest fire way to be done with guilt is to go make restitution. Anything less would have you mired in a fog that falls very short of the life Christ has for you. Restitution has many different forms. If you have spoken with anger, tell that person that you are sorry and seek their forgiveness. If you have stolen, go pay it back. If you have acted indecently toward a young woman or man, you go tell them that you have sinned against them and commit to purity. Be very specific. If you have looked at things that draw your mind away from the love of Christ and focused on lust or greed or coveted what you cannot or should not have, then you take your Bible to a quiet place and take a long time to talk to and listen to the True Lover of your soul. I will say it again: none of this will get you forgiven; YOU ARE FORGIVEN! Restitution puts you back in a place to be living free of the accusing lies of guilt. It allows Jesus to take you to more beautiful places.

Fiat Mihi

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“Let it be according to your word” are the words of Mary when the Angel announced to her that she would bear a son who was to be great, and would be called the son of the Highest. These are also the words of the church. God has a plan for the church: to bring Christ to the world. So the church’s reply: “Let it be according to your word.”

This reply of Mary brought with it a world of suffering, as Simeon told her, “a sword will pierce through your own soul.” So also this means suffering for the church. When the church bears Christ and brings him to the world she is persecuted and mocked; she suffers enormously.

As the church reads about the life of Mary, she can find in her a reflection of herself. Mary is the first church, who first was the temple of Jesus Christ in her very flesh. Because of her obedience the church itself was born—or reborn rather, adopted by God so that Jesus is the first among brothers. In this sense Mary is the mother of the church, the first church who set the example that we might walk in.

The apostles tell us to follow the example that they left. In this sense they are our spiritual fathers. Mary leaves us not many words, but her example is indeed one to be followed and emulated by the church.

First, God’s word came to her. She did not understand it first saying “How will this be since I am a virgin.” When the angel assured her that God was accomplishing his plan of salvation for Israel she submitted, received God’s word by faith into her very body, incarnate as Jesus Christ. Here she becomes to exemplary mother of the church: she receives God’s word and accepts it by faith. The power of God’s word planted in her the Word Incarnate for the salvation of the world.

It is true to say that because of Mary’s obedience we received life. Furthermore we might say that Mary herself birthed God’s salvation into the world by her submission to God’s will. In this way also she is our mother. While the apostles teach with their words, Mary teaches by her example. As her children we do well to emulate her.

To Make a Good Confession

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We are in the midst of an unambiguously pagan world.

How then should we act?

I Timothy 6:13-16 “I Charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”

This pagan world speaks of spiritual evolution. They speak of the Universe as a cosmic energy which can be affected and influenced by the energy one puts out through thoughts and feelings. Light is something that is deep in the heart of every individual—if that individual can learn to discern it. This pagan world seeks to immortalize the human spirit through its own recognition of its own innate power. Each person is sovereign over his or her own destiny, directing it by thoughts and feelings; the energy that one puts out. They shrink from any idea of spiritual imperative; what is true and right is determined by each individual, as long as that person does not hurt ones neighbor.

This is what our fellow Americans believe. They are articles of faith that are simply assumed to be correct. Feeling determines reality for them.

We speak of spiritual death to our own desires in order to have spiritual life. We speak of God as the source of all life and the sustainer of all things. We believe that when we are submitted to the will of God, then we are truly fulfilled. We believe that we lose ourselves and our own opinions to the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his commandments. We believe that Jesus is sovereign over the universe and over our lives. What is true is determined by the person and character of the Triune God: love in relationship. This is what we believe. This is the good confession. If Jesus could make it before Pontius Pilate we can make it before this world without apology or qualifiers. Early Christians were called “atheists” because they rejected the Roman pantheon of gods. Today Christians are called “narrow” and “bigoted” because we reject the premise that all spirituality leads to God.

Nothing has really changed. We have a hope in a life to come, not this one. Our hope is sure. If our generation rejects us, then we wait for our Vindicator. Meanwhile we make the good confession and seek to be “free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To him be glory, honor and dominion forever…even in the 21st Century.

Compare: Baptism to Circumcision

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Colossians 2:11,12

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Notice that baptism is only compared with circumcision that circumcision might serve as a picture to show how different baptism is from circumcision:

–circumcision is made with human hands; baptism is done “without hands”.

–circumcision removes the “body of flesh”; baptism puts to death the man of flesh, “buried with him…”

–circumcision does not bring eternal life; baptism causes one to be “raised with him”.

–circumcision is a work of the law, baptism is the “powerful working of God”.

–circumcision is a work of the law, baptism’s power is “through faith”.

God’s Name in Baptism

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Beginning with the birth of Seth’s son Enosh we hear of “calling on the name of the Lord” to communicate a growing sense of relationship with God. Upon Enosh’s birth the scriptures say that “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.” During Abraham’s wanderings in Canaan, we hear of calling on the name of the Lord as the form of worship. Wherever Abraham went he called on the name of the Lord when he built an altar. Thus from the beginning of redemptive history God’s name, or at least calling on God’s name, is understood as a relationship between God and humanity.

This is beautifully expounded in God’s meeting with Moses in the burning bush. In Exodus 3 beginning in verse 13 God has a conversation with Moses about God’s name. First his name is “I AM WHO I AM,” indicating that God’s true essence is being itself–and even beyond human comprehension. But then he brings it down to earth and explains:

“Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”

So in this text is dictated succinctly how we are to understand God’s name. First his name is I AM. His name is himself, not just his title. Then, he is for his people. He is the God of our spiritual fathers. That is his name and that is who he is. Thus God’s name: HE IS and HE IS for us. This is succinctly the gospel. When God speaks of proclaiming his truth in the context of the Old Covenant he speaks of proclaiming his name (Ex 9:16).

This is made even clearer in Chapter 6:

“God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD.'” Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery.”

While Abraham called on the name of the Lord in worship God did not reveal his name to him; he promised an intimate relationship with Abraham’s descendants, but he did not realize that promise to Abraham. But now that God is ready to redeem his people from the land of Egypt and make them a people for himself he reveals his name as the LORD (YHWH) and expounds upon it: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” Again, God’s name is in reality the gospel: it is the good news of the salvation of his people. It is in itself the proclamation, as God says to Pharaoh: “But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Following the Exodus God then establishes his covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai. In the Ten Commandments he commands that his people should not take the name of the LORD in vain; that it is holy. Indeed, this follows from the proclamation to Moses that I AM WHO I AM, setting God’s name apart from all other things, defining it as the most holy of anything that humans ever hear or know. But he does not leave his name in that fearsome status, he then graciously gives his name to his people in Numbers 6:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

Here God goes a step further than before and applies his name to his people for their blessing. This is a precedent that will be seen throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s name is holy because it is his very being. Not only is it his being in the abstract, but more precisely when God reveals his name to his people it is a revelation of the gospel: it is what and who God is for them. And he gives himself to his people by putting his name on them.

This is beautifully portrayed when the birth of Samson was announced to his parents in Judges 13. The “angel” announces that the child who would be born to Manoah’s barren wife would in fact save Israel from its oppressors. This is a picture of Jesus who would be born later; the news that is being told to Manoah and his wife is a proto-gospel or a gospel type. The angel is the bearer of that gospel. When asked what his name is he answers “Why do you ask my name, seeing that it is wonderful?” and he does not give his name. Another way to look at this is to say that his name is Wonderful–as is the news he brings. The name is in fact the news: God is doing wonderful things for his people. Here again, the name is the abbreviated gospel. Even if we understand “Wonderful” not to be his name but rather an adjective describing his name, it begs the question: why is his name wonderful for Israel? The answer to this question is the gospel.

When David has in his heart to build a temple for God, he is told to wait and let Solomon build the temple. During this discussion and the subsequent building of the temple God speaks of this temple as the place where he will put his name (I Kings 8:16-30). Indeed he placed his very presence in that temple in the Holy of Holies. But the way that God describes his presence with his people in the temple is by saying that he will put his name there.

In Psalm 115 the psalmist places even salvation in the God’s name: “Then I called on the name of the Lord: “O Lord, I pray, deliver my soul!” Calling on God’s name is in fact to call on his salvation. To have God’s name is to have God and his saving presence. In Isaiah 43:6,7 God’s sons and daughters are those who are called by his name. Those who are to be saved by them are ones who will “know my name” (Isaiah 52:6).

Lest we think at this point that God’s name is a rubber stamp that gives someone unconditional communion with God, we must pay heed to the sobering voice of Jeremiah in 7:11-14:

“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.”

While God’s name is salvation to a people who receive him it is anything but salvation for those who have been given his name and yet rejected him in their hearts and actions. God’s punishment of the Israelites is not in spite of his name, it is because of it. God’s name is pure and holy and it must be defended. But what does it mean that God’s name is holy? We don’t put it in a shrine, or write it in special ink on holy paper. No, God’s name is the relationship, revealed successively through time according to his plan, that God desires to have with his people. His name is that relationship in the Godhead that he extends to his people through his covenants. His name is himself, his character, and love. So if those who bear his “name” only in a declarative sense and not in their actual relating to God, then they reap their own fruit; they do not obtain love and joy and peace and all the gifts that are the bounty of God. They get punished and cast out.

God does this precisely so that he can accomplish his plan for the fullness of time by purging his people of lies and sending his Truth, his Name in human form. If God’s name were only his reputation over and against anyone else, then destroying humanity wholesale would be the way to protect the holiness of his name. But because his name is the relationship, being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for their salvation, then defending his holy name means punishing his people in order that they might be restored to him in that relationship of love. This is how closely God has tied his own self to the fate of humanity: the holiness of his own name depends on saving them.

Fast-forward to the New Covenant. There is an anointed Savior to be born and he will come from God. And his name is “Emmanuel” or “God With Us”. Given the prophetic implications of God’s name as his saving presence with his people, we can understand: Jesus is quite literally God’s salvation with man. His name is who he is for his people. This God With Us is then baptized into Israel’s repentance by John the Baptist. Again God truly becomes solidary with his people and binds himself to the fate of his people. In the waters of baptism he, declared to be God’s Son by the voice from heaven, takes onto himself the sin of Israel by submitting to her same baptism.

Jesus then speaks of his name as God speaks of his name to the Israelites. In Matthew 18:20 Jesus says “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Clearly Jesus’ name is Jesus’ presence. This is not in a sort of incantation or a summoning of Jesus merely by speaking his name. If we understand that God’s name is who God is for his people, then God’s name is his relationship with his people. Thus to be gather in Jesus’ name is to be gather in the context of and for the purpose of relationship to him by faith, as were Abraham Isaac and Jacob to the God whose name had not yet been fully revealed.

Thus when Jesus teaches us to pray he begins with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” This opening petition bases our prayer to God on our relationship with him: his name. This begs the question: on what basis do we claim to have God’s name?

When Jesus left his church with his baptism, he commands that it be done in his name–the name of the Trinity. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer shortly before he was crucified. In it Jesus prays: “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Clearly God’s name is still understood to be God’s relationship with his people, given to Jesus in his own name, and extended to the disciples with the gift of Jesus’ name. He further explains the gift of his name in verse 26: “I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Therefore being one with the Father comes by remaining in his name given through Jesus. John does not record the Great Commission, but this statement can be seen as relating to baptism: one is baptized in the name of the Trinity. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 is in fact the only place in the New Testament where Jesus tells us explicitly how we get his name: we are baptized. Jesus also says that his name brings the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) who is the very Trinitarian relationship of love. Thus baptism gives the Holy Spirit because Jesus has placed his name–God’s name–in it: “…Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

We cannot regard baptism then as an incantation, invoking the divine name and thus affecting his presence. No, his name is himself and his relationship to his people. It’s a package deal; when a person rejects the relationship, then the name also is rejected and does not benefit that person. But because of the aforementioned promises we must confess that his saving name is given in baptism along with the Holy Spirit when it is received in faith. The Apostle Peter extended this promise to the crowds gathered at Pentecost when he said in Acts 2 “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Just as promised, Jesus was giving his name–his gift of Trinitarian salvation and love–in his baptism through the accompanied Holy Spirit.

When a person is baptized she then receives God’s name and with God’s name is the promised Holy Spirit. Another way of saying this is that when a person is baptized she receives God himself; his presence for her salvation. This must be as real and powerful as the presence of God on the mercy seat in Solomon’s temple. Indeed it is more; for now the presence of God is in the heart of the individual and no one need say to his brother “know God” for each baptized person knows God when his faith receives God’s salvation, wrought by Christ, in his name.

With this historical understanding of God’s name and its gift of salvation, from Genesis through the gospels, the following passages from Acts and the epistles concerning baptism should be understood:

I Corinthians 6:11 “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Acts 19:5,6 “On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.”

Acts 22:16 “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

Galatians 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

Romans 6:3-5 “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Colossians 2:11,12 “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

I Peter 3:20,21 “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

These passages show a perspective on baptism as being the ritual that encompasses all the Christian life, causing our life to become one with the story and power of Jesus’ life by giving us his name.

Post-Christmas Reflection

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God sends His Son–here lies the only remedy. It is not enough to give man a new philosophy or a better religion. A Man comes to men. Every man bears an image. His body and his life become visible. A man is not a bare word, a thought or a will. He is above all and always a man, a form, an image, a brother. And thus he does not create around him just a new way of thought, will and action, but he gives us the new image, the new form. Now in Jesus Christ this is just what has happened. The image of God has entered our midst, in the form of our fallen life, in the likeness of sinful flesh. In the teaching and acts of Christ, in His life and death, the image of God is revealed. In Him the divine image has been re-created on earth. The Incarnation, the words and acts of Jesus, His death on the cross, are all indispensable parts of that image.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Cost of Discipleship”

Anyone Want a Taste?

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Sometimes we taste what we expect to taste. When we were first offered a taste of fine armagnac, if the person giving it to us had said that it was some evaporated concoction of rotten grape juice, we likely would have found nothing pleasant in it at all. It’s harshness and its strange complexity would have been thought almost toxic! But when we are told that this glass of cognac contains the labors of centuries; the distilled product of humanity’s most exacting palates, resulting in a tried and true beverage of bliss, well, then we’re apt to taste something quite different–and cherish every drop! If at first it seems bitter and harsh, we are likely to judge our own self as inexperienced in such sublimity of the senses and give ourselves more time to learn the joys of fine alcohol.

The early church referred to the teachings of the Christ and the sacraments as “mysteries”. They were only revealed successively to those inquiring into the faith, i.e., catechesis, and finally in baptism and the Eucharist. At this point the Christian was not thought to have “attained” knowledge, but would continue to grow in sanctification through the reception of these mysteries in the body of believers. And however long the church examined and experienced these gifts, they never ceased to be mysteries.

There is something very humbling about such view of Christian initiation and discipleship. Something that all ancient Christians have known, and many sections of Evangelicalism seem to have lost, is that things pertaining to God are wonderful, beyond human searching, and received only insofar as God gives them.

The liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (347-407) has this prayer before the celebration of the Eucharist:

“Again, we bow before You and pray to You, O good and loving God. Hear our supplication: cleanse our souls and bodies from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and grant that we may stand before Your holy altar without blame or condemnation. Grant also, O God, progress in life, faith, and spiritual discernment to the faithful who pray with us, so that they may always worship You with reverence and love, partake of Your Holy Mysteries without blame or condemnation, and become worthy of Your heavenly kingdom.”

While the believers are gathered together in joy to receive the promised salvation of God, there prevails an attitude of supplication and reverence, regarding the mysteries of God as something to of awe that the individual receives with trembling.

Conspicuously absent is the triumphalism prevalent in Evangelical liturgies. It may be observed that the attitude of joy found in American Evangelicalism is indeed a fruit of the gospel, allowing the soul to rejoice in God’s goodness. However, with this advent of triumphal liturgies has also come the loss of the appreciation of mystery that the church had for so long cherished.

The Apostle Paul viewed the stewardship of the mysteries as a responsibility that came with the judgment of God on how faithful one is at that stewardship. Since God is that judge, I have no place to judge any particular steward. But as a Christian who desires to be guided and discipled by one who cherishes God’s gifts of word and sacrament as indeed mysteries of God and is himself submitted to them, I am given the responsibility of finding such a servant of Christ to whom I can entrust the shepherding of my soul.

I have to think that there are others like me. And I have to wonder, if the “accessibility” of the gospel and the success of emotional worship experiences come at the loss of appreciation for the mysteries, has the church gained anything?

Perhaps our perspective would be matured if we understand that grapes grown on the hills of the Cognac region of France two hundred years ago, are only now being bottled and sold in the Richard Hennessy line. If you think my analogy irrelevant to the gospel, consider rather two thousand years instead of two hundred. This is the amount of time that God passed over “former sins” in order to “show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). Somehow God does not view ministry method with the same marketing strategy inherent in our worship experience design of today. If this generation has a liturgical sweet tooth, are they significantly different from the “evil and adulterous generation” that seeks signs and wonders? (Matthew 16:4)

True, it is easy to criticize the efforts of godly people seeking to preach the gospel to our times. After all, is not this our call? Now the mystery is revealed! Indeed, and it remains a mystery. If we expect sincere persons to desire a taste let us tell them of what a marvelous mystery it is, incomparable in all the world and unsearchable but for the gifts of Jesus Christ. Then they’re likely to taste again, submitting their experience to the judgment of the divine mystery rather than submitting the church to the judgment of the emotions.