Saturday, December 14, 2019

Not Carnality but Christ

Daughter of Zion, behold thy salvation cometh. The Lord shall cause
His glorious voice to be heard and ye shall have gladness of heart.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel: Thou that leadest Joseph like a flock.
Saturday after Populus Zion

If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Colossians 3:1-11).

Paul continues his familiar call for Christians to live in accordance with their new nature, rather than according to their old, sinful nature. The one who has been baptized has been buried with Christ, and he has been raised with Christ through faith.[1] He is a new creation, though he will indeed fight with his flesh and its evil desires all the days of his life. Paul encourages us to seek those things which are above. We are to set our minds on things above, not the things on the earth. This is not a call for Christians to isolate themselves from the world, and live in a cave constantly chanting only prayers. No, as he writes elsewhere, we are called to deny the lusts of the flesh and walk in the Spirit, i.e. act according to our new man, since we now live in the Spirit, and those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.[2] In our baptism we died. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. In short, we are called to act like it.

We must understand, however, two things. First, this putting to death of our members is a process; it does not happen instantly upon our conversion. Paul demonstrates this when he writes, in his distress, the words of Romans, chapter seven:

I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.[3]

Second, our justification comes first, and then our sanctification. That is just a fancy way of saying that God saves us by grace, through faith in Christ first, and then we work to deny the desires of our flesh. We do not try to do good, to clean ourselves up, to make ourselves holy so that we are acceptable to God, and He then saves us. We must pay attention to the order of things. Paul tells the Colossians to put off anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language, lying, and the entire “old man with his deeds,” after he declares to them that they are raised with Christ. He does not tell them to put off these things to become raised with Christ, for it is by grace you are saved, through faith, so that no man can boast.[4]

It is because of these deeds, Paul says, that God’s wrath will be poured out on the earth, on the sons of disobedience. We are no longer son of disobedience, though we once walked according to the course of this world as they did. Since we are a new creation in Christ, we ought to act like it. Peter writes:

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?[5]

We ought to be the kind of people who repent of our sin; who strive to put to death our old man; who seek to love and serve our neighbor; who walk carefully, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.[6] This is the purpose of Advent: that we may prepare ourselves for Christ’s return, waiting, ready for Him, with girded waist and burning lamp.[7] Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.[8]

[1] Colossians 2:12
[2] Galatians 5:16-17, 24-25
[3] Romans 7:21-23
[4] Ephesians 2:1-10
[5] 2 Peter 3:10-12
[6] Ephesians 5:15-16
[7] Luke 12:35
[8] Luke 12:37

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Good Works and Light Bearers

December 12, 2019 - Thursday after Populus Zion

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain. Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me (Philippians 2:12-18).

It is tempting to take Paul’s words here, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” and make them say something which they do not. If the passage stopped at that point, we could hardly be faulted for thinking that Paul was instructing the Philippians, and us, to do good works to merit our salvation. He commends them for having always obeyed, and he continues on by telling them to keep obeying, and to work out their salvation. Perhaps whomever said that Noah was saved, not by grace, but rather by obedience, had a point.

But the passage does not stop there. Paul continues on to reveal just who it is who is doing the work: “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” Paul is indeed calling the Philippians, and all Christians, to do good works; but, he immediately explains that it is not actually we who are doing the works. It is God. In fact, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.[1] God has made us into good-works-producing machines; He has created the good works for us to do. He calls us now to walk in those good works, i.e. to produce them, not unlike a tree produces fruit. The tree can’t help producing the fruit, it is the tree’s nature to do so, because of how it has been created. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the works we do are accomplished because of us. The works are God’s works. As a new creation in Christ, it is our nature to produce good fruit.

This is why Paul wants us to do all things without complaining or grumbling. God is doing the work. He is the catalyst that causes us “to will”, i.e. to want to do good works, and “to do”, to actually carry them out. In that situation, how could anyone other than God claim credit or responsibility for any of the good works that we do? This is the mistake Sacramentarians[2] make with the Sacraments of Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. They call them works, which indeed they are. And, they say, since we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and not by works, as Paul writes to the Ephesians, those sacraments are nothing more than symbols of God’s promises, and acts of obedience by which we demonstrate to God our faith. If the Sacraments were our works, this would be true. They are not. They are God’s works; they are sacred acts, instituted by God, in which God has joined His Word of promise to a visible element (e.g., water, bread and wine), and by which He offers, gives, and seals the forgiveness of sins by Christ.[3]

In Baptism, it is the Triune God who washes away sins; it is God the Holy Spirit who works faith in the heart by water and the Word; and it is with Christ’s own righteousness we are clothed, and to His death and resurrection we are joined, even though it is a man who applies the water to us. When we eat the Lord’s Supper, we are not simply acting out a memorial play to demonstrate our obedience to Christ and proclaim His death (though that is certainly part of what is happening); in the Lord’s Supper we receive the very body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins: “For My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”[4] Who is the one who is active, who is doing all the work in the Sacraments, man or God? If we are honest with ourselves, and we let Scripture speak for itself, the answer is obvious.

And when we walk in these works, prepared beforehand by God for us to walk in, we shine as lights in the world. Paul here echoes Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”[5] The amazing thing is, that God has created us in Christ for these works, to be lights in the world in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Paul is encouraging us to act according to the new creation we have been made in Christ, rather than according to the sinful desires of our flesh. He is basically telling us not to be a tree that tries to produce bad fruit. And, if we resist the desires of our old sinful nature, our Old Man, we effectively drown him in the waters of our baptism, and we will shine brighter amidst the darkness of this crooked and perverse generation.

[1] Ephesians 2:10

[2] Sacramentarian: One who holds the sacraments to be simply symbols; a name given to Zwinglians and Calvinists. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary . Third Edition of the Merriam Series. The Largest Abridgment of Webster's New International Dictionary of the English Language. 1700 Illustrations. Published by G. and C. Merriam, 1919.

[3] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small Catechism: with Explanation. Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

[4] John 6:55-57

[5] Matthew 5:14-16

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Reconciled in Christ

December 4, 2019 - Wednesday after Ad Te Levavi

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:19-23).

One of Paul’s purposes in writing here is to emphasize that Christ is first and foremost in everything because He is God in human flesh. He wants the Colossians to be rooted in Christ, the head of the body, the church, rather than in hollow and deceptive philosophy. Based on the focus of his letter, Paul may have been aware that the Colossians were struggling with false teachers, who were denying the deity of Christ, and teaching the Colossians to trust in their own works and minds as a means of making a right relationship with God. Paul, however, continues to proclaim the Gospel he always proclaimed: that mankind is reconciled to the Father by Christ’s sacrifice, through His blood shed on the cross, and that Christ gives this gift of reconciliation to us individually by creating faith in us through the Word - the hope of the gospel which we heard preached.

He writes, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell.” That is, God the Father wanted Jesus to be both 100% a human being, and 100% divine, God in human flesh, no mere created being or demi-god. Nothing short of the substitutionary death of God could atone for the sin of mankind.

And it isn’t only mankind who needed saving from sin, death, and the devil. The entire creation was placed under the curse because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. The blood of Christ atones for our sin, and by it, all of creation is restored to friendship and harmony with God. This peace which Christ has made with us through the blood of His cross will only be fully realized on the Last Day. He has reconciled the world, that is, all creation, by His death and resurrection; make no mistake, that also includes the Christians in Colossae, you, and me, as individuals - all who were baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, washed clean of sin by Water and the Word.

The thing that actually does the reconciling is the actual death of an actual Jesus, who is actually God in human flesh, as the actual propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Paul does not mean this in some figurative sense. Christ presents us holy by cleansing us, as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “with the washing of water by the word.” It is this way that baptism, as Peter says, saves us: by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This water, in Holy Baptism, is bound and connected to the promise of forgiveness and life by Jesus Himself. It is a way He has ensured that all people, old or young, simple or educated, can receive His Word and promise. He binds the promise to a physical element, water. This should not surprise us, since God has a history of connecting His promises to physical things, such as when by God’s promise the ordinary water of the Jordan River had the power to cure Naaman of leprosy.[1]

Moreover, Paul warns that this gracious gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation can be lost, if one does not remain firmly fixed in place on the basis for our faith, which is the Gospel: Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, He was buried, and rose again on the third day for our justification, according to the scriptures; that He ascended into Heaven, and will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead, something which could happen at any time. There is no prophecy left to fulfill which is holding Jesus back. God the Father has appointed the day, and He alone knows it. Everything has been done that was to be done, including the preaching of the Gospel to all nations before the end, which Paul confirms when he writes, “...which [the Gospel] has come to you, as it has also in all the world…” and also here in this verse, “...which was preached to every creature under heaven…”

He comes to judge the nations,
A terror to His foes,
A Light of consolations
And blessed Hope to those
Who love the Lord’s appearing. 
O glorious Sun, now come,
Send forth Thy beams most cheering, 
And guide us safely home.[2]

[1] 2 Kings 5:1-27

[2] Hymn 58, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee”, The Lutheran Hymnal, stanza 9. Author: Paul Gerhardt. Translation: Composite.