Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Saint or Sinner or both?

One thing that caused me to leave American Evangelicalism in search of a true Bible-based church was my utter despair at realizing that I was not becoming the kind of Christian that Ted Haggard and Bill Bright said I should be. I was being taught that after several years of Christianity, that sin in my life should be decreasing. In fact, I was taught I was no longer a sinner; I was saved! Something magical should have happened to me, if I was truly saved, and I should look more like a saint at my age.

Thankfully, God had still planted the seed of faith in me and I did not give up. Increasingly strange doctrinal changes at my former church basically forced me out of the door and we were without a church home! Interestingly, we had put our daughter in a private school the year before and did know of one place to turn: the confessional Lutheran church that ran the school. My daughter had been bringing home strange ideas (Bible is God's Word, women are not called to be pastors, Jesus is really present at communion, baptism saves even infants, etc) from her teacher, Mr. Olmanson, for a year and I decided to turn to his church for help. I had been reading the WELS Q&A site during that year to learn more about those strange ideas that were being taught to my daughter. Obviously, God's Holy Spirit spoke to me through God's Word and reassured me that my daughter was being taught scriptural truths.

Over the course of the next couple of years, three resources helped me understand what scripture truly teaches regarding justification and sanctification, beyond the Bible instruction classes taught one-on-one by my pastors, were offerings from Craig Parton and Rev. Todd Wilken .

One on one (or group) Bible instruction classes can be found at any good confessional Lutheran church; it is their hallmark. The classes are really a condensed version of catechism. In our church, even catechized parents take the classes to refresh their memories and be the lead teachers of their own children. As it should be! Luther himself said that it is the head of the family's responsibilities to instruct the children in the faith.

As the head of the family should teach them in a simple way to his household.

Craig Parton's article on the teaching of Bill Bright in his latter years, From Arrowhead to Augsburg: Bill Bright in the Light of the Lutheran Confessions, classically illustrates the common journey from saving yourself to being saved by God.


Recently, Mr. Bright informed those who read his "Bright Side" newsletter that he and others in the Crusade leadership would embark on a forty day vigil of fasting and prayer. Friends and supporters were urged to send prayer requests.

After forty days of denial, the long expected report came. Others within the circle of Campus Crusade leadership, such as Vice-President Steve Douglass, according to the "Bright Side," got "into the Jet Stream of what Bill was praying for...." And what did the "Jet Stream" of the Lord reveal to Dr Bright?

Well, I'm personally still a bit unclear what the Jet Stream did say, at least initially. Of greater importance is what the God of the Burning Bush, who terrorized Moses, Isaiah, and Luther with His holiness, whose Word leveled Saul of Tarsus to the ground, whose law demands perfect obedience to all His commandments, did not say to Bill Bright. The Jet Stream did not speak to Bill Bright about his sin. Didn't need to. As Bright put it in the "Bright Side, "Since I learned how to breathe spiritually many years ago, I frankly do not have that much to confess."2

Let me see if I've understood correctly. After enough years of "spiritual breathing" your sins decrease. One enters an experience where sins of heart, word and deed (of both commission and omission) are numerically reduced.

Bill Bright's approach to the Christian life appears to be, strangely enough, classically medieval. Only certain terms are altered; the content remains thoroughly Roman. The "ladders of ascent" (prayer, fasting, penance, etc.) developed by the monastic orders in great detail during the Middle Ages (and which were well known and practiced aggressively by the young Luther) now reappear in our day under different phrases like "spiritual breathing."

Luther, however, provided an entirely different answer to questions of sin:

Thou, my Lord Jesus, art my Righteousness; I am Thy sin. Thou has taken from me what is mine and hast given me what is Thine. Thou has become what Thou wert not and madest me to be what I was not. Beware of your ceaseless striving after a righteousness so great that you no longer appear as a sinner in your own eyes, and do not want to be a sinner. For Christ dwells only in sinners. See C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law & Gospel, trans. W. H. T. Dau, p. 110 (St Louis, 1929).

Bill Bright and other victorious life teachers of the past century say that over the course of your life you should succeed in slaying more and more sins through "spiritual breathing" and other such ladders. Luther, on the other hand, came to actually welcome his sins, in one sense, allowing them to drive him daily to Christ, the "only ladder to God." (See Luther, Against the Heavenly Prophets, St. Louis ed., XX, esp. p. 199 ff.). The Christian life, wrote Luther, is a life of continual repentance. Luther's search ended with finding a Christ ready to save even the sinning Christian. Luther discovered that Christ had no interest in, and offers nothing to, righteous people. It is not surprising then that the old Lutheran service of the Divine Word requires the confession of sin in the first sentence of public worship In the service. Well, second sentence really. "Amen" is the first sentence.
The Issues, Etc. interview by Pastor Todd Wilken of Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of the 12,000 member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO was a most insightful listening experience! In the interview, Ted Haggard had much to say about how true Christians should be sinning less and less as they mature. He also openly ridiculed families who, as part of family prayer or table grace, ask for forgiveness for unknown sins. The Original broadcast was on 9/12/05.It was repeated on 9/13/05 with added commentary and listener call-ins. It was rebroadcast with commentary - part I and part II

Finally, from the WELS website comes this helpful question and answer post:

Question: My question is about sanctification. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says that we "are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" and the confessions state that the work of the Holy Spirit is to "begin and daily to increase holiness on earth" through the Christian church and the forgiveness of sins. (from the third article of the Creed). The Bible also says though that if you break only one of God's laws you are guilty of breaking them all. How can we be increasing in holiness if, while we still have our earthly bodies, we still sin and each sin is like breaking all of God's commandments? Doesn't each sin we commit set us right back to square one? Is there really anything other than "square one" on this side of heaven?

: Just as the Apostle Paul stated so passionately and eloquently in Romans 7, this side of heaven I will always have my sinful nature rebelling against any inclination to serve my Savior. That sinful nature prevents me from offering perfect love to God and neighbor. And, as you (and the inspired author James) mentioned, since any breaking of the law of love in effect shatters the whole package of the law, that just proves the utter futility of any idea of working my way into God's favor. If the purpose of my sanctified life were to make God love me more or to earn - even in the minutest detail - my salvation, it would be a hopeless failure. Then indeed with every sin I would be back to square one - day after frustrating day! How thankful we can be that we don't have to earn our way past "square one," but our justification is absolutely perfect and complete in the substitutionary life, death and resurrection of Jesus. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). When it comes to our standing before God, we are way past "square one." We are to the finish line in absolute perfection because the perfect righteous life of Jesus has become our record. We have nothing to prove to God!

Nor is that the purpose of my life of sanctification. It isn't to prove anything to God or to achieve some degree of perfection this side of heaven. The purpose of sanctification is simply to let our light shine to the glory of my Father and to the service and salvation of my neighbor. It is the freely offered love by which we seek to delight in our Father just as in Christ he delights in us. In that, I can grow - even though I will certainly be dragging along my sinful nature kicking and screaming in opposition every step of the way. If I cannot grow in such sanctified living, then the following encouragement Paul gave to the Thessalonian Christians is meaningless. "Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more" (1 Thessalonians 4:1).

So, to answer your question, we can indeed grow past "square one" in sanctified living - even though our fruits of faith will forever be imperfect because of our sinful nature. But just as with all our sins, the imperfections are forgiven in Christ. God therefore chooses to delight in the thank offerings of his children. Moved and empowered by the gospel in Word and Sacraments, we can grow in such sanctified living day by day.

So, now I know that I am both a saint and a sinner. I find great comfort in knowing I am still a sinner. It helps me both laugh at myself and take my sins very, very seriously. I have never felt freer in Christ, knowing that I am a sinner, will be on my deathbed and that Jesus Christ paid the price for my sins. Operating from this point of view is my only hope at being a saint. Only by clinging to the cross of Christ as a sinner can I hope to do anything resembling a saint.

No comments: