Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Reformationstag!

Hey at least they still care in Deutschland. Unfortunately, I am willing to bet that most American protestants either don't even know or care that October 31st is the day marking the nailing of the 95 theses to the Castle Kirche in Wittenberg in the year of our Lord 1517 by a Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, thus unwittingly sparking the protestant reformation. Rather than giving the usual finger wagging screed as to the pagan nature of Halloween and why Christians should be non-participants in the worldly "holliday", (If you don't already have this conviction no writing of mine will help no doubt) I shall go into a description of a day worthy of commemoration by believers.

In 1517 Martin Luther took particular umbrige with the sale of indulgences by the Roman Church, seeing the sale of indulgences as giving false assurance to the purchasers while satisfying the avarice of the gluttons in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Indulgences were basically get out of purgatory for a price certificates. Disgusted with such a patently repugnant appeal to the most superstitious vices in man, Luther penned the 95 theses, which in modern parlance could be seen as 95 sentences/reasons why the sale of indulgences is wrong.

Some of the most stinging theses' read as follow:

"32. They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon."

"36. Every truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of pardon."

"52. The assurance of salvation by letters of pardon is vain, even though the commissary, nay, even though the pope himself, were to stake his soul upon it."

"62. The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.

64. On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is naturally most acceptable, for it makes the last to be first."

"75. To think the papal pardons so great that they could absolve a man even if he had committed an impossible sin and violated the Mother of God -- this is madness."

(Note on 75, it was reported that Tetzel the indulgence seller went this far in attempting to display the efficacious nature of indulgences, also note Luther is still rather Catholic in his view of Mary)

"76. We say, on the contrary, that the papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as its guilt is concerned.

77. It is said that even St. Peter, if he were now Pope, could not bestow greater graces; this is blasphemy against St. Peter and against the pope."

"79. To say that the cross, emblazoned with the papal arms, which is set up [by the preachers of indulgences], is of equal worth with the Cross of Christ, is blasphemy."

"82. To wit: -- "Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the
latter is most trivial."

"86. Again: -- "Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?"

"88. Again: -- "What greater blessing could come to the Church than if the pope were to do a hundred times a day what he now does once, and bestow on every believer these remissions and participations?"

We can see from these statements the seed of protestantism. Modern protestant readers may be surprised at how Catholic this document still is considering it is the spark that flamed into the protestant reformation. However, Luther is not far from stabbing right into the heart of that beast of Romanism. Forgiveness of sin lay not in some sort of incantation from the bowels of Rome in the form of an indulgence certificate, rather, it lay in the posture of the individual before Christ, namely faith laden repentance.

This is indeed the heart of the Roman antichrist system, the Church, priests, and Pope have replaced Christ. Rome has claimed powers to herself that reside in Christ and His gospel alone, and the benefits of these blessing are delivered to the individual by faith alone in Christ alone. That last sentence is the deathblow to Romanism, there is no need of priest or Pope as these offices usurp Christ.

It must also be noted that Luther was not the first to take issue with the blasphemous Roman hegemony on salvation, others like John Wycliffe, and Jon Huss also in studying the scripture saw the unbiblical nature of the Roman system. The latter, Jon Huss, went to the stake for this truth, that man only needs Jesus Christ. Luther simply was by providence the right man at the right time of history, the advent of the printing press spread Luther's writings throughout Germany, winning him and the christian gospel many a friend as well as enemies.

Luther spent much of his life under the threat of execution from Rome. The famous climax that has been often been similarly repeated by saints throughout history was Luther's stance before the Diet of Worms. Many a man of God has faced a similar ultimatum, and like Luther many have stood unwavering before devils. This Diet Luther faced was intended to be a kangaroo trial in which a conviction would be found and Luther executed. Luther wrote of his going to Worms:

"The papists do not desire my coming to Worms, but my condemnation and my death. It matters not. Pray not for me, but for the word of God. . . . Christ will give me His Spirit to overcome these ministers of error. I despise them during my life; I shall triumph over them by my death. They are busy at Worms about compelling me to retract; and this shall be my retraction: I said formerly that the pope was Christ's vicar; now I assert that he is our Lord's adversary, and the devil's apostle."

Luther was ready to die for what he knew to be the truth and fully expected such to be his end at Worms. Well might modern Christians follow such examples, rather than conceding to the cries of "Intolerance!" or "Narrow Minded", as narrow is the way that leads to life and oh how few are there that find it and oh how many trod the well worn way toward destruction bidding us join them. Luther at Worms put his life into the hands of the enemies of the gospel as he refused to recant and rather stated in contra mundum fashion:

""Since your Imperial Majesty and Lordships demand a simple answer I will do so without horns or teeth as follows[140]: Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Scripture (Jh. 8:9) or by evident reason - for I trust neither in popes nor in councils alone, since it is obvious that they have often erred (Num.15:22; Ps. 119:110; Isa.28:7; 1Tim.6: 20,21) and contradicted themselves -

I am convicted by the Scripture which I have mentioned and my conscience is captive by the Word of God (2.Cor. 4:2). Therefore I cannot and will not recant, since it is difficult, unprofitable and dangerous indeed to do anything against one's conscience, (Mt. 25:30). God help me. Amen." (Isa. 50:9)"

It is by no means my intention to elevate a man named Martin Luther to a level of undue respect as Luther was a man, he had his faults, many of them great. What I wish to highlight is a man of conviction, Luther was no Mr. Looks Both Ways as Bunyan described, he was a man captivated by the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, it was the blessings conveyed upon him from this Galilean that made him so rich as to look upon the pope as a poor man indeed.

Oh that we would do as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." (Heb 13:7) What is it worth imitating in Luther? I would say a being so overjoyed with the blessings of Christ and the age to come that we count this age as vanity in comparison. I believe that to be the essence of one whose life is no longer his own.

What then are we today to make of the reformation, is it just some trinket of antiquity from 500 years ago that we dust off and say "Boy that was a neat time, that Luther sure was something! Oh to live in such times!"? No, that in reality is to be captivated by our own age and fail to see the continuity between the reformation and today.
(Pictured is Lucas Cranach's "Saxon Princess" many believe this to be a portrait of Luther's daughter Magdalena, after whom we named our 2nd daughter)
What then is the inheritance which we have reaped from the reformation? Here are but a few:

I. Freedom of Worship

The reformation paved the way for the freedom of the individual to worship as dictates his conscience. This in most cases came at the cost of the blood of many men of whom the world was not worthy, whether it was the French Calvinists butchered in France, the Anabaptists, the Scottish Covenanters, or the Puritan non-conformists, this gave rise to the search for a land where individuals could worship freely without a state church. Thus, America became the bastion of religious freedom, imperfect as it was.

Prior to this time the Roman Church had the imperial hegemony on worship, their inquisitors would, like the East German Stasi, seek out violators to persecute mercilessly. The Pope had kings march to Rome barefoot in the snow to plead for their kingdoms back after the Pope had imposed the interdict on said kings. All were required to bow before Rome.

II. Individual Freedom

From the reformation the individual regained importance, as Christ died for individuals, and individuals came to Christ by faith. This developed into the social contract theories of government as no individual had any more inherent value than another, which resulted in the Lex Rex concept or law as king.

America's declaration of independence traces its foundation directly back to these principals, and the checks and balances system we once enjoyed was based upon the Calvinistic principal of total depravity, as no man or men should be trusted with unbridled power as all men are corrupt. See America's bill of rights as an example of how government is to be restrained.

III. Truths To Treasure

Lastly, I want to highlight that the protestant reformation has blessed the church of Christ with an inheritance of truth. Paul urged Timothy to "guard the deposit" not once but twice in separate epistles (1 Tim 6:20, 2 Tim 1:14). Well might we take heed to the importance of doctrine in an age where the mere word "doctrine" provokes sneers and disapproval not only in the world but much of the visible church.

By in large evangelicalism has fallen prey to a sort of anti-intellectualism, as though our inward feelings, intuitions, and impulses were to be given credence. We have fallen prey to the worldly messages of "Have your best life now" or a crass Jesus in a bottle theology where Jesus just wants to give us all our hearts desire. We have lost sight of what Paul saw as important, namely right doctrine.

By bathing ourselves in the lives and writings of those who have gone before us we surround ourselves with a "great cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1) and afford ourselves with they eyes of foreigners to our age allowing us to see a bit clearer. We need to gaze upon the redwood trees of Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, and Edwards, as frankly, in comparison we live in an age surrounded by cattails and superficiality.

The deposit the reformation has left us with can by summed up in the 5 Solas which are as follows:

Sola Gratia-

By grace alone are we saved, man can do nothing to make himself right with God, God must first act to awaken those at enmity with God (Rom 8:7) who are dead in sin (Eph 2:1-8).

Sola Fide-

By faith alone in Christ, which is the result of grace working in the heart of the sinner, is a sinner saved. No works to commend the sinner to God. (Rom 3:28)

Sola Christus-

By Christ alone, the work and person of Christ alone is what can save the sinner. (John 3:36)

Sola Scriptura-

Scripture alone, the inspired word of God in the scripture is the sole and final authority in all matters of doctrine and life. (2 Tim 3:16-17)

Sola Deo Gloria-

To the glory of God alone, the goal of all of history and creation is to glorify God. (Isa 24:15) Therefore we also so ought to conduct our lives with this singular aim in mind(1 Cor 10:31).

Rome has no problem with these 5 principals, it is the sola aspect that destroys Rome's superstitious hegemony, as it strips her of the stolen attributes she has self attributed and puts them back where they belong.

May we guard and treasure these truths as we treasure the Truth Giver (we are commanded to do so), and may we apply them to our lives, with the end of the glory of God as our chief aim.

Happy reformation day!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What are Christians to Make of Israel?

Christian Nationalism/Zionism
"I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 12:3)

As a young Christian I was brought up under the well nigh standard rubric of dispensational theology. Part of this includes the view that the end times are upon us and the nation of Israel needs the support of Christians as part of their duty to be obedient to Gen 12:3. This is coupled with the principal that the Israeli people by virtue of their Jewish ancestry are the special chosen people of God.

I heartily imbibed this sort of thinking, saw nothing amiss about churches having Israeli flags alongside American flags within their sanctuaries, I thought it to be quite fine for gentilic believers waving around shofars, stars of David and prayer shawls in an attempt to be "messianic believers". I further found it appropriate to be in constant prayer and supplication for the current nation of Israel. I also saw believers of Semitic ancestry to be a sort of believer worth of "double honor" by virtue of the blood in their veins.

I had the sort of notion that for me as a gentile my relationship to the covenant keeping God of the Bible to be on a sort of long distance phone plan, whereas, for individuals of Semitic extraction it was akin to a sort of a local calling plan.

Note that I use the past tense for the above verbs, I cannot and do not think like this anymore.

The main reasons I have had a change of mind are: 1.) An understanding of the covenants of scripture, as well as 2.) The doctrine of election, and lastly in reference to the nation of Israel itself 3.) I find a non-interventionist foreign policy for America to be most conducive to liberty at home and abroad.

I. The Nature of the Covenants

What are we to make of the promises of Gen 12:3, or the exhortation to "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! May they be secure who love you!" (Psalm 122:6)? I think the answer to this is found in the Person of Christ.

Christ is the fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham in Gen 12, through Him all nations are blessed, and truly through Him Abraham's descendants are as the stars in the sky. Galatians chapter 3 is rather unambiguous on this very issue as it states:

"Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (Gal 3:7-9)

Furthermore, Paul explicitly makes clear that the culmination of the Abrahamic covenant is in Christ as he states:

"Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ." (Gal 3:16)

Paul flushes this concept out and its implications at the end of chapter 3 as he writes:

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise." (Gal 3:27-29)

The context of Galatians is further illuminating as its original recipients were Gentile believers being taken in by Judiazers. We further see Peter rebuked in chapter 2 for treating the Gentiles as inferiors and refusing to share fellowship with them. So what we see here is Paul's God inspired explanation of the nature of the new covenant in relationship to the old, as he tries to disentangle these believers from the legalistic pitfalls that others were seeking to impose upon them.

Paul is saying to these Gentiles, you are the true children of Abraham if you have the same faith as Abraham. Ethnicity is not the issue, nor was it ever, the issue always was trust in the promises, and in the New Covenant trust in the Promised One. Paul is ripping down the Jew Gentile distinction, whereas many modern Christians find it appropriate to erect yet again this distinction.

This strongly parallels Paul's exposition in Romans 9 which reads:

"But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring." (Rom 9:6-8)

Paul could not be more clear, the promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, and the descendants of Abraham are those with the faith of Abraham in the Christ. Again ethnicity does not matter, the Israel of God are those who are in Christ by faith. It is here we see the continuity between the old and new covenants, it was always based upon faith not ethnicity. This is why even in the Old Covenant we see believers like the mixed multitude coming out of Egypt, Rahab, Ruth, and others. It never was an ethnic based promise but one of faith, the ethnic aspect, as already quoted, had primarily to do with Christ, Abraham's seed/offspring (singular).

This is not replacement theology as the Gentiles never have replaced the Jewish people, rather, this is a continuity between the covenants which inclusion within has always been based upon faith. The problem is that dispensationalism has coarsely divided the covenants with the precision of a rusty and dull hacksaw, and for whatever reason this rather new thinking has gained ascendancy within evangelicalism.

There are indeed differences in the covenants but at the center the essence has always been faith in the Promise of God, and this was and is open to Jew and Gentile alike (Take all the rules in dealing with "strangers" or "foreigners" in the law of Moses for instance).

This is how Paul can both say that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile (as in regards to justification by faith there never was), and remind the Jewish people that the promise remains for them in Romans 11, God has not replaced the Jews with the Gentiles. But rather, all are one in Christ through faith.

In short, the only special people of God are those who have been brought out of the miry clay of unbelief and been set upon the Rock by faith. (Psalm 40:2, Eph 2)

II. Election

Romans 9 has already been cited, however it needs to be highlighted that individuals are chosen by God not ethnic groups or nations. This is abundantly clear for those willing (no pun intended) to see:
"And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad--in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call-- she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth."

So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?"
(Romans 9:10-24)

One of the things that has always amazed me about this passage is the fact that Paul anticipates and rebuts the standard objection to the doctrine of election. He would not anticipate these objections had he not indeed been talking about what he is obviously talking about, namely that God elects individuals for salvation without regard to any inherent virtue in the individual (as there is none).

Christians who have problems with these implications have done all sorts of acrobatic tricks to avoid the clear implications here so much so that PT Barnum would be not a little impressed. The trickery of men knows no bounds (Eph 4:14), the most often invoked explanation I have heard to diffuse this bomb of a sovereign God is that the passage is really talking about nations not individuals.

Even if we accept such a sottish interpretation are not nations made of individuals? Furthermore it is clear that nations are not implicated as Paul had stated "they are not all Israel who are of Israel". Also, last I checked Esau, Jacob, and Pharaoh were all individuals who existed in time and space, no to mention pronouns like "us" and "whom" to say this is all allegorical and references nations is to do violence to the text.

My point in all of this is simple, as God has chosen individuals by election, these individuals come to Christ by grace through faith, faith is something only individuals can do not nations which is just a human category or grouping. God elects individuals not groups, which is why Paul can say "They are not all Israel who are Israel" which can be rendered, "They are not all the chosen people of God who are ethnic Israelites."

III. Application- A Christian Foreign Policy

If the promise given to Abraham in Gen 12:3 extended beyond Abraham's earthly lifespan does it apply to the modern Israeli state? I answer with scripture emphatically "NO".

The promise applies to Abraham's seed, which is Christ. There is one body, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (Eph 4), it is here that the promise resides, with those of the faith of Abraham, Abraham's offspring. Abraham's offspring is not a nation or ethnic group but those who have faith in the Seed of Abraham, this is the Church of Jesus Christ. There are not two peoples of God but one, and it is not a nation or an ethnic group, but extends to all nations and all ethnic groups (Rev 5:9).

The application of this above truth of God's work of redemption for foreign policy is tremendous, we ought to treat all nations equally and, as our founders argued, we ought not to have entangling alliances. Unfortunately, evangelicals if they even agree with the founders (most have embraced an imperialistic foreign policy in the name of "spreading freedom") will make an exception for the nation of Israel.

This can be seen as Ron Paul was frowned upon at the Christian values voter debate during the 2008 presidential selection. Ron Paul declined to give an affirmative answer to continue to fund Israel with American tax payer's money. Paul, who is a Christian, was not only in line with the founders but a Biblical worldview that sees the people of God as neither a nation nor an ethnic group.

I am sure these same Christians would heartily support the removal of US foreign aid to the Islamic nations that "threaten" Israel. Ron Paul is simply consistent, a rare anomaly these days, and calls for us to treat all nations equally and stop robbing from the American people to prop up dictators across the globe.

I have had trouble seeing how Christians can continue to support the jingoistic foreign policy of a nation that by and large rejects Christianity, and subdues large portions of people groups in a garrison like police state. The only rationale given for such a see no evil hear no evil attitude on behalf of American evangelicalism toward Israel is based upon Gen 12:3, which as I have argued has nothing to do with ethnic extraction.

I simply do not know how you can be "God's people" and reject Him as Lord. Yet, this does not stop evangelicals from seeing Israel as some sort of special nation fulfilling prophecies as she subdues with an iron fist those who have been displaced by Israeli expansion. I suppose this has more to do with slapdash eschatology, and books in the family of "Left Behind" (an apocalyptic version of "The Hardy Boys" series).

This is why at one time I would have thought it great for American and Israeli flags to drape the backdrop of a church and now I find myself repulsed by any flag as the backdrop of a Church, Christians are not to be nationalistic, as the Church of Christ knows no borders nor national allegiances.

For instance, the other week I visited a local church with my daughter, as my wife was sick so we didn't take our usual 40 minute trek to our home church, right in the foyer was a 2' x 5' map of Israel. this was not Israel in the time of Christ, the time of David, or the 12 tribes, this was modern Israel in satellite form. The message was clear, Christians have some sort of link or duty to fulfill to that nation.

I would say as Christians we do not owe that nation any more deference than we owe to any other nation composed of individuals made in the image of God. Sure it would be neat to walk and see the sights where Christ and the apostles also walked, but there are no pilgrimages in biblical Christianity as Biblical Christianity has no holy shrines or sites. There are no virtuous effects of bathing in the Jordan that eclipse the virtues of bathing in the Mississippi, nor does the mount of Olives grant the pilgrim with any special grace which Pikes Peak lacks.

The virtue of the land itself lay in giving a picture to the student of scripture to go with the history of redemption rendered to us in God's word. This indeed is a wonderful blessing. To go beyond this is to flirt with Romanism and the reasoning that blessed the world with the crusades.

IV. Conclusion

How do I draw this to a close?

Firstly, that the promises made to Abraham were not nationalistic nor ethnic, the promise transcends these categories as Christ's work of redemption transcends these categories.

Secondly, the election of God Biblically is the election of individuals, not nations nor ethnic groups.

Lastly, given the above reasons, Christians should pursue a humble foreign policy in dealing with nations. Imperialism is simply out of step with Biblical Christianity.

To conclude by answering the question entitling this write up, "What are Christians to Make of Israel?"

I would answer that we should be appreciative and conversant in the biblical history and biblical culture of the Jewish people as their history is our history, they were the saints of old (Eph 2:19). I would add the caveat that we should not make an idol of Jewishness as the Galatians were tempted, and as much of evangelicalism today is tempted if not outright guilty of. We need to recall that as Paul declared there is no special ethnic people of God, there is one people of God, those in Christ by faith.

If we apply these truths we should treat the current nation of Israel as any other nation, one with whom we seek to trade and pursue peace with. We should treat her as any other nation created by the United Nations rather than one fulfilling the unbridled fantasies of the latest prophecy buff.
(Most of the pictures in the blog are from Christian ministry web pages)