Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sola Fide and Baptism

This is a really good paper. Phillip Cary contrasts the "standard Protestant syllogism" with the Lutheran syllogism.

Here's the standard Protestant syllogism:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Here's Luther's syllogism:

Major premise: Christ told me, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
Minor premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

There is a huge practical difference between these two syllogisms. The first focuses on my subjective faith. If I question my subjective faith, then I question my salvation. If I see that my faith is weak, then my salvation is in doubt.

Luther's syllogism, on the other hand, focuses on Christ's trustworthiness or faithfulness. If my faith is weak, I look to Jesus on the Cross rather than to my own faith. For on the Cross God superlatively demonstrates his trustworthiness, going to his own death in order to keep his promise.

This is also why the question of whether Gal 2.16 (and 2.20) should be translated as "faith in Christ" or as "the faithfulness of Christ" takes on added significance. One translation points to our own faith, the other points to Christ's faithfulness.

There's a good discussion of this point in Concordia Seminary Professor Arthur Just's paper here.

The upshot, though, is that it is through the sacraments that we receive the blessings of God's faithfulness in Jesus Christ. Our trust in Christ only reflects Christ's trustworthiness. So when I doubt, I need simply took to Christ and his work to strengthen my faith.

In contrast, when "faith" is an act of will, as it is so often presented among other protestants -- and superlatively so in the prosperity gospel, but more generically throughout almost all of non-Lutheran protestantism -- then my salvation stands on the strength of my will rather than on the strength of Christ's faithfulness.

Further, as Cary points out, in the standard protestant view, assurance requires not merely faith in Christ, it also requires that we have knowledge of that faith. As Cary explains:

"Indeed, because the content of the promise is conditional, explicitly making everything conditional upon faith, I am in no position to say the Gospel promise is about me until I can say, 'I believe.' For most Protestants, this is a really big deal. The hour I first believed, the moment when I can first say 'I truly believe in Christ' is the moment of my salvation, of my conversion and turning from death to life. What matters is that moment of conversion, not the sacrament of baptism, because everything depends on my being able to say 'I believe.' For only if I know that I truly believe can I confidently conclude: I am saved."

In contrast, for the Lutheran, the Gospel promise is about me because "I" have been baptized. That is the condition of my salvation. My faith that I am saved through baptism only reflects the character of my God, who never lies.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Presidential Election

Contrary to a lot of (quite respectable) opinion, I don't think that this next presidential election can already be called for the Democrats. To be sure, I agree entirely that the GOP is limping along, mainly because of self-inflicted wounds. (The behavior of the now past GOP majority in Congress was shocking -- and I don't shock that easily.)

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom suggested that Gore, not Bush, should have won the election in 2000. To be sure, Bush did not win a majority of the popular vote, but that misdirects our attention: Voting models, which are based on past voting behavior, predicted that Gore should win 55 percent or more of the popular vote. That Bush kept Gore within a few tenths of a percent of his own vote total means that voters were not voting as they had in the past. Plus, Bush won in 2004 while leading an unpopular war.

Further, we should remember that Bill Clinton never received a majority of the popular vote. (The Democrats have not received a majority of the popular vote in a presidential election since Jimmy Carter received 50.1 percent of the vote in 1976.) Hillary Clinton's support seems to have a ceiling at around 48 percent.

To be sure, the structure of Electoral votes seems to favor the Democrats; a shift of a few thousand votes in a few key states would presage a reversal of Bush v. Gore in 2008, in which the Democrats lose the popular vote but win the Electoral college.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the 2008 election is far from over for the Republicans. But whom to nominate?

I have yet to figure out the popularity of Giuliani among Republicans. I saw a poll recently where even among "religious voters," Giuliani drew a large plurality of support. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, but I can't figure out what it is about his behavior during the 9-11 crisis that qualifies him to be president. I think I could pull the lever for Giuliana against Clinton, but that would be in an admittedly vain hope that he'd do as he says he'll do, and appoint judges like Roberts and Alito to the Supreme Court. While I recognize that there are a few politicians who are politically in favor of abortion, yet who oppose Roe v. Wade as bad law, I don't see Giuliani being as principled as all that. Nonetheless, I'm sure of the justices that Clinton would appoint. (Although, truth be told, Bill Clinton's appointees tended to be more moderate than the justices they replaced, and tend to vote more moderately than Souter.)

So, too, I expect that Giuliani would be better on most domestic issues than Hillary Clinton.

Nonetheless, at bottom, I don't really trust Giuliani to do the right thing on foreign policy, which is supposed to be his big selling point, and I don't agree with his liberal social views. Further, I don't think that Giuliani can beat Hillary. While I doubt that a third-party candidate by social conservatives would gain more than a few percentage points (although those may be pivotal in a close election), I think the bigger threat is that rank-and-file conservatives would just abstain and stay at home.

I've liked what little I've of Huckabee, and have thought about sending him a campaign donation, but he's still definitely a second-tier candidate. I can imagine reasonable scenarios in which he could move up to the front tier, but it's still a long shot.

I was open to Fred Thompson, and still am for that matter. Still, Thompson ain't no Reagan. Sure, Thompson is genial, although he hasn't yet proven to be a particularly good communicator on the stump. But people who make this comparison tend to forget that Reagan spent almost 20 years as a movement conservative. While I disagree with the position Reagan took on the Panama Canal Treaty, he was actively engaged in big issues of the day prior to his run for president (and after he was California's governor). After Thompson left office, he went back to acting. I have no problem at all with his choice, but it doesn't suggest that he has a set of public-policy issues that he personally thinks are important enough to engage when he's not in office. I have little doubt that he's reflectively conservative, but I have yet to sense that he has a set of core beliefs that he's willing to fight for politically. That, combined with his lack of executive experience, makes me cautious about Thompson.

And finally there's McCain. McCain has proven himself a dependable conservative on social and economic issues. He's been engaged on foreign policy and defense issues. He has a compelling personal story, and he's polling within a couple of points of Hillary Clinton, which is as good as or better than Giuliani.

To be sure, there's McCain-Feingold, but I think the bruhaha that's made among rank-and-file conservatives does more to demonstrate their dependence on conservative opinion makers than it does their principles or their independence of mind. While I opposed McCain-Feingold, it is extremely easy to make a conservative case for limiting campaign contributions -- just think about "faction" and The Federalist #10. Don't get me wrong, I don't think the law was wise policy. But it's ridiculous to think that it was some huge sell out of conservative principles. I think this is one area on which K Street "conservatives" have lead conservatives in the wrong direction largely out of their own self interest.

I also think that McCain was entirely correct on the immigration issue. Sometimes I don't understand my fellow conservatives. Aside from immigration laws being government regulations that prevent people from seeking economic prosperity -- and when did support for regulations like that become a "conservative" issue? -- America is about immigrating to seek a better life. I say we should welcome everyone, provided that they are willing to join in the American project as well. Besides, I can't help but think that the conservative anti-immigration position will do for the GOP nationally what it did for the California Republican party -- move it into a permanent-minority party. McCain is absolutely right on on the immigration issue, for both principled and tactical reasons.

Finally, there's McCain's mixup with the religious right in the 2000 election. Whatever. The Bush campaign was playing hardball, and some Christian groups got on board with Bush. McCain got mad, and slapped them on the nose. So don't come crying to me when you're trying to beat up on someone and he happens to punch back. Truth be told, I find most religious-right organizations (as opposed to individual Christians who are conservative) mostly to be embarassments to Christianity. They confuse the left hand with the right hand.

So I guess I'm a McCain guy. I am concerned that he may be feeling his age more than I'd prefer in a president. But I think that he can defeat Hillary Clinton and, in doing so, would pursue largely prudent foreign and domestic policies, and keep the Court moving in the right direction. Further, I think he'd avoid pulling out of Iraq too early, thereby compounding the mistakes made by the U.S. there. So Meg and I sent him a $100 this last summer -- which is the first campaign contribution we ever made to an individual candidate. And we'll probably send him another contribution later this fall. Quite honestly, he may be too far behind now to catch up and win the nomination. But I don't really see a viable alternative at this point.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Joy and Delight

"Serve the LORD your God with joy and a glad heart, for the abundance of all things," Dt 28.47.

"Delight yourself in the LORD," Ps 37.4a.

More than just about anything, this is what I want in a church. At its dead center is the Cross and the type of people whom the Cross creates -- people who delight in Jesus, and in each other, and who serve Jesus with joy and a glad heart.

There's a winsome piousness in people like this. Like infants in a wading pool, splashing about and delighting themselves in the Lord, their delight can't help but splash onto others, inviting them in as well.

I think this is one reason I find worship services in prison so compelling -- the joy and delight on the part of the guys in coming together as a forgiven community is almost palpable. They act as men who have lost almost everything, including their dignity, and then gained the world in gaining Christ. And they act like it. They delight in recognizing that they had nothing at all, and now they have everything.

God spare us all from having to learn the lesson in as costly a way as they learned it, but it's important to learn the lesson nonetheless. As members (mainly) of respectable, middle-class churches, we often do not realize that, despite our external affluence and our external dignity, we have nothing truly in this world. Looking at our external affluence, our eyes deceive us, blinding us to the fact that, in truth, we are "wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked" (Rev 3.17).

Not realizing that we have nothing, we then also neglect to realize the fullness of what we gain in Christ. And not realizing the fullness of what we gain in Christ, we do not have the same joy and delight that the prisoners have, even though we have truly gained as much as they, truly having lost as much as they. He who thinks he is forgiven little, after all, loves little in reply.

Respectable, middle-class churches nonetheless need to break through the patina of respectability that holds back expression of our joy and delight at having nothing of value in this world, but being given everything in Christ.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An Abrahamic Echo in the "Gates of Hell" Promise to the Church?

In Gn 22.17, God promises Abraham that his seed "shall possess the gates of his enemies" (see also, Gn 24.60).

I wonder whether this promise provided any of the backdrop for Jesus' promise in Mt 16.18 that "the gates of Hades will not overpower" the church?

God Walks Among His People

Throughout the Scriptures God draws the picture of redemption as one in which "I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev 26.12, 2 Co 6.16, Rev 1.12-13, 20-2.1).

But this was always the promise, even before redemption was necessary. God came to walk with Adam and Eve in Gn 3.8, but sin interfered, and they fled from God rather than have fellowship with him. The rest of the Scriptures are about what it takes to restore humanity to the position that we may have fellowship with God (Rev 21.3-4).

That God seeks to walk with humans in the first instance is a concession, a testimony to God's love and humility. That God then pursues a humanity that fled from him in sin, ultimately giving his own life to restore what humanity threw away is mind-boggling.

If this were a person pursuing a lover, or a parent pursuing a child, which one of us wouldn't tell him to get a grip and let them go. We'd say that he's just embarrassing himself by seeking to maintain a relationship with someone who obviously doesn't want a relationship. Just let them go.

But God doesn't let us go. Instead he embarrasses himself to the point of hanging on a Cross for all to see. The Lord of Creation hanging on a Cross, naked and dying, for a humanity who rejected him and fled from him. Has he no shame?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


I'm sure everyone knows this already, but it never ceases to amaze me.

When a friend you trust pays you back money he owes you, you do not need to count it in order to know that it is paid back. Your friend is trustworthy, so you know that all of the money is there. You have faith in your friend because he is faithful; you trust your friend because he is trustworthy. Your faith in him, or trust, is a response to your friend’s character.

The Bible does not focus on people who have great faith constantly and therefore who receive life and blessing because of that faith. Indeed, the Bible catalogues human faithlessness from Adam, through Israel (including acts of faithlessness by Abraham, Moses and David), up through Peter and beyond.

If we don't catch the point, then we can come away from the Bible thinking that it's little more than a compilation of what miserable creatures we are (which is all true enough). But that's not the overarching point. The big point is that, in spite of all this, God remains faithful to his promise; he remains faithful despite our faithlessness. In fact, God is so faithful -- so righteous and trustworthy -- that, in order to keep the promise he made to (faithless) humans, he sacrifices himself on the Cross.

The Bible focuses on God’s character – on his faithfulness in spite of human faithlessness – and thereby invites our faith as a reflection of his faithfulness and righteousness. Indeed, his faithfulness is all the more pointed precisely because he continues to be entirely faithful to us and to his promise in the very teeth of our faithlessness.

The Psalmist says that a righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change his mind” (Ps 15.4).

God swore to Abraham that he would bless the world through him (Gal 3.8). God swore to his own hurt, and he kept his promise at the cost of his own life (Acts 20.28).

God’s righteousness -- the length to which he will go to keep his promise -- is displayed par excellence in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. And so because of the cross we know we can trust him (Ro 1.16-17, 3.24-26, 1 Jn 1.8-9). Because God did not spare his own son, despite our abysmal faithlessness, then we do not need to doubt that he desires to save us. That he gave up his own life to save the lives of his enemies - namely us - means that he is a faithful God. A person who keeps a costly promise to his enemy his indeed trustworthy.

It focuses on the wrong person to admonish people who are weak in faith to make their faith stronger by an exercise of their own wills. Rather, direct them to the Cross to see God's righteous character displayed there. And in seeing God's trustworthiness manifested on the Cross, in seeing the extreme lengths to which God goes to to keep his promises, faith is evoked.

"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration of his righteousness at the present time, that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Ro 3.23-6).

Jesus endured the shame of the Cross to demonstrate the righteousness of God. We trust God because he has proven himself superlatively trustworthy in circumstances under which no one else would have kept his promise.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Master Serves His Servants - Lk 12.36-38

I just noticed the pronouns in Lk 12.36-38 a few days ago.

"Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them. Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves."

It's clear, although it hadn't registered with me before, that the master who finds his servants waiting for him when he returns then turns around and serves his servants. I guess I shouldn't be surprised -- Jesus certainly says the same thing elsewhere -- but the humbleness of my Lord in this and other passages always staggers me.