Monday, February 27, 2017

Baptism and Sanctification

In our theological survey of Colossians 2 and 3, one of the truths we discerned together was this: Baptism is a gracious initiation into and resource for growing in holiness. Let me unpack this a bit. 

Baptism as Gracious Initiation 

To understand what Paul is teaching in Colossians 2 and 3, it is helpful to remember our definitions of justification and sanctification. Justification is God giving a new name to the Gospel-believing sinner. In other words, the moment we believe the good news of King Jesus’ death and resurrection we are declared faithful members of the people of God. Did you catch that? The Gospel teaches that God forgives and gives a new status to Gospel-believing sinners while they are still sinners. 

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.” Now to the one who works, pay is not credited as a gift, but as something owed. But to the one who does not work, but believed on him who declares the ungodly to be righteous, his faith is credited for righteousness (Rom 4.3-5, CSB). 

Sanctification, on the other hand, is God the Spirit shaping the Gospel-believing into the image of his/her new name. While sanctification and justification are closely related (both are by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), it is important to remember how they are different. Justification is a one-time declaration. Sanctification is a life-long process. Justification is God’s gracious declaration of faithfulness to the Gospel-believing sinner. Sanctification is God’s gracious shaping toward holiness for the Gospel-believing sinner. 

For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Rom 8.29-30, CSB). 

In the words above Paul brings the two together. The ones God justifies, God will also conform into the image of his Son. 

What do justification and sanctification have to do with baptism? Baptism is the initiation rite that welcomes Gospel-believing sinners into the family that is being conformed into the faithful image of Jesus. This is where it’s important to recognize the order of things. First, sinners believe the Gospel. That means we trust in the death and resurrection of King Jesus for our salvation. Second, Gospel-believing sinners receive baptism as an earthly drama that reflects the heavenly reality. Finally, the process of being conformed into the image of Jesus begins. In other words, we are welcomed into the Church family where everyone believes the Gospel and strives together to respond to God’s gracious work in our lives to make us holy. It is critically important that we not confuse the order. Jesus himself confirms the above order in what we know as the great commission to make disciples of all nations. 

Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28.17-20, CSB). 

Step One: We go and proclaim the good news to sinners and by God’s grace some respond to the invitation to follow Jesus. Step Two: We baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This step welcomes them into the family God is saving. Step Three: We teach them to obey Jesus. Notice this step only comes after baptism. Sometimes people think they can only be baptized if they have learned to control the sin in their lives. Brothers and sisters, this is a distortion of the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word. Only the grace of God in Jesus Christ can defeat sin. We are hopelessly unable to do anything to overcome sin in our lives, but the good news is this: “While we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5.6, CSB). Indeed baptism is a gracious initiation into the process of holiness. This leads us to our second truth. 

Baptism as Gracious Resource 

Baptism is also a gracious resource in the process of holiness. You see, God loves sinners so much he works on their behalf to transform them. Furthermore, baptism is one resource through which we are reminded how God goes about making us holy. Here’s what I mean. Often when sin is being addressed in Scripture, the Bible reminds the readers of their baptism. In Romans 6, Paul is addressing the possibility that a misunderstanding of grace will lead to more and more sin. Notice how Paul responds. 

What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply?  Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin,  since a person who has died is freed from sin (Rom 6.1-7, CSB). 

When his readers were tempted to sin, Paul reminds them that is not who they are anymore. He recalls their baptism and invites them to live out the implications of it. Likewise, when we are tempted to sin, we must remember who we are by recalling our baptism. Baptism is a gracious resource in the process of holiness. 

In Galatians 3-4, the readers are tempted to exclude Gentile Christians much like Peter was in Galatians 2.11-14. Notice how Paul responds. 

For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.27-29, CSB). 

When the Galatians are tempted to segregate the Church based upon ethnic identity, Paul reminds them of a greater more significant identity and this identity was conferred upon them at their baptism. Likewise, when we are tempted to segregate or show favoritism to people more like us, we must remember who we are by recalling our baptism. Baptism is a gracious resource in the process of holiness. 

In Colossians 2.8ff, the readers are tempted to turn their backs on Christ by turning to philosophy and human tradition that is based on worldly principles. Notice how Paul responds. 

You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2.11-12, CSB).

When the Colossians are tempted to root their identity in anything other than Christ, Paul again reminds them of what their baptism reveals. They are yoked to Christ in whom the “entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily” (2.9). They have been united to Christ in whom “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2.3). They are one with Christ who “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (1.15). Brothers and sisters, when we are tempted to treasure anything more than Christ - when are lured away to false identities, we must recall our identity is in Christ and who he is and what it means to be united to him, are all called to mind, when we remember our baptism. 

Brothers and sisters, in order to start doing the right thing more often, we must remember who we are. In order to grow in holiness we must learn to live out of our new identity in Christ. This is the ethical message of the New Testament. Remember who you are. And the best way to do that is to remember your baptism. 

Baptism is a biographical fact of life. A change has happened. God has done something to you. … All of us must take our cue from baptism and do less talking about what people ought to do or be and do more proclamation of who people are. (Will Willimon).  

Monday, February 13, 2017

Holiness and the Spirit: Part One (Galatians 2)

When was the last time you spoke TO someone ABOUT a difficult person? Maybe your supervisor spoke disrespectfully to you in front of your colleagues and during lunch that day you had several conversations ABOUT your supervisor instead of speaking WITH your supervisor. Perhaps you had a strong disagreement with your spouse and instead of working things out WITH your husband or wife, you hashed it out with a friend. Edwin Friedman calls this "an emotional triangle" - speaking ABOUT a difficult situation to an uninvolved person rather than speaking to the actual person in a way that could lead to resolution. These triangles form because we are uncomfortable with one another and this discomfort MUST work itself out in some way. In families, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses these "triangles perpetuate treadmills, reduce clarity, distort perceptions, inhibit decisiveness, and transmit stress." Triangles may feel good for a moment, but they are bad news. They will not make the situation better. In fact, triangles affect communities like a virus. They attack. They spread. They compromise the health of the entire system. Likewise, a virus was threatening the church in Galatia and Paul's letter is medicine that is designed to boost the Galatians' immune system so the virus can be eliminated. This virus was a distortion of the Gospel as it required Gentiles to submit to Jewish Law in order to be fully accepted members in the Christian community. Interestingly, in his book A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman argues that to remain immune to emotional triangles, what a leader needs is a healthy sense of self. This is exactly what Paul helps us build in Galatians - a Gospel sense of self that is rooted in the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah (Galatians 2.162.20). This message speaks directly into our exploration of Holiness. We will realize a Gospel kind of holiness, only when it is rooted in the faithfulness of another, namely, Jesus the Messiah. Here's how Paul's message of Gospel holiness works.

The Gospel is about our sense of self.         

Peter's sense of self was wobbly and this is understandable. When we follow Peter's story in the book of Acts, we notice that Peter had a number of run-ins with Jewish leadership (see Acts 4 and 12). What's more, this conflict always surrounded how the Apostolic Gospel welcomed Gentile believers. Peter's conviction regarding the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God was rooted in the word of God that was spoken to him in Acts 10.9-16. Not too long (God had to say it three times!) after the vision, Peter visited a Gentile man named Cornelius.  Peter had this to say. 
You know it's forbidden for a Jewish man to associate with or visit a foreigner, but God has shown me that I must not call any person impure or unclean. That's why I came without any objection when I was sent for (Acts 10.28-29a, CSB). 
This was quite a transformation of identity for Peter who had previously responded when God was telling him to eat something that used to be considered unclean: "No , Lord! I have never eaten anything impure and ritually unclean" (Acts 10.14, CSB). It took a while, however, for Peter's identity (his sense of self) to be fully overwhelmed by the Gospel. Paul records Peter's struggle in Galatians 2.11-14. Peter was faithfully obeying the Gospel and did not have any objection to regularly eating with Gentiles (2.12). He wavered, however, when pressured by Jewish leaders who came from Jerusalem and objected to Peter's new found identity. In this moment, Peter forgot what the Gospel says about him and others and out of fear "he withdrew and separated himself." Because Peter's identity was not strongly rooted in the Son of God who loves Peter, who gave himself for Peter, and who was faithful unto death on Peter's behalf, Peter forgot who he was and listened to others' evaluation of him rather than the evaluation of God. Paul calls this heresy. Indeed they were deviating from the Gospel. Tom Wright's translation is helpful. He writes: "When I saw that they weren't walking straight down the line of gospel truth." Did you catch that? Prejudice and favoritism are gospel issues. RACISM IS NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE GOSPEL! Prejudice is a denial of orthodoxy! Brothers and sisters, may the voice of God drown out the loud competing voices that try to make us forget that the Son of God loves us (and them), that he gave himself for us (and them), and was faithful unto death on our behalf (and their behalf). What gospel consequences will God produce through this truth in our lives?

Two Gospel Consequences

First, the gospel will necessarily create hospitality in us toward those who are different from us. What is your posture toward those who are clearly different from you? What about the person whose yard hosts a political sign for a cause or candidate you do not support? What about the cashier or waitress who just seems too different from you to establish a connection? What about the person at work with whom you just experienced conflict this morning? What about your infuriating spouse? If we have truly been changed by gospel, we will find ourselves supernaturally drawn to connect with these people. This is why "welcoming the stranger" is one of the things that will distinguish between sheep and goats "when the Son of Man comes in his glory" (Matthew 25.31-46).

Secondly, we must return, again and again to who the gospel says we and others are. A good summary of the Gospel is found in Galatians 2.20. "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (NET). When the world seeks to name us - that is, when the world seeks to give us our core identity, we must remember that we are not who the world says we are. We are not first and foremost, American, Republican, Democrat, Married, Single, Divorced, etc. We are first and foremost the ones in whom Christ lives because he loves us and gave himself for us. One of my favorite films is The Help. In this movie, Viola Davis plays Aibileen, a Nanny to "little white girls" who are mostly neglected by their mothers. Aibileen loves these girls like her own and wants to "give them a chance." At pivotal moments in the story, Aibileen will repeat these words to these neglected children: "You is kind. You is special. You is important." Aibileen understands the good news. She grasps what Peter was failing to grasp and what had turned Saul of Tarsus' life upside down. In order to become what God has gloriously planned for us, we must have a Gospel sense of self. We must believe a different self-narrative than the world is giving to us. Beloved, if we are in Christ, we live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us. Nothing else matters! Thanks be to God. 

Click to here download and listen to our message, Holiness and the Spirit: Part One  

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Holiness and Hope: 1 Peter 1

1 Peter 1 describes one primary way God develops holiness among his people. Hope. Hope is one of the principal means by which the Spirit of God does his sanctifying work. At this point, it is important to understand what the New Testament means by the word often translated, hope. Some difficulty is found in the fact that our English word, hope, does not carry the same meaning as the Greek word often translated, hope. In English, hope necessarily implies uncertainty. I hope New England doesn't win another Super Bowl. I hope the Bears find a good quarterback. I hope the milk isn't sour. I hope I find my wallet. In each of these sentences, uncertainty is assumed. In the New Testament however, the idea of uncertainty is NOT present in the Greek word. In fact, the standard New Testament lexicon defines our word as "The looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfillment" (BDAG). When we take a long drink of milk that doesn't quite taste right, and we respond: "I hope that milk wasn't sour," we are implying that there is a reasonable chance this experiment might not end well. This is exactly what the New Testament does NOT mean when we see the word, hope. Notice the element of confidence in 1 Peter surrounding the concept of hope.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:3–4, NIV) 
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (1 Peter 1:13, NIV)
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:21, NIV)
Brothers and sisters, our hope is our confident expectation. It is an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. Our hope is guarded in heaven for us. The New Testament doesn't teach us to think Jesus will probably return, but he might not. No! The one who was raised from the dead will come back to earth and raise all who are in him. Beloved, this is our hope and we confidently expect it to happen.

What's more, the Scriptures teach that when we confidently expect Christ to appear again, this confident expectation makes us holy.
Dear friends, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when he appears, we will be like him because we will see him as he is. And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself just as he is pure (1 John 3.2-3, CSB).
Did you catch that? When we confidently expect to see Jesus again, we will be like him and this hope purifies us. Expecting to see Jesus in the future and expecting to be transformed when we do, has a purifying effect in the present. The New Testament is calling us to imagine the holiness of Jesus, and the holiness we will then experience, and the Gospel promise is that we will begin to develop holiness now.

One of my first non-Chicago baseball memories was game one of the 1988 World Series between the Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Oakland was heavily favored to win the World Series and the lowly Dodgers weren't even expected to put up much of a fight. It was the bottom of the ninth and the A's were leading 4-3 with Dennis Eckersley on the mound, who was at that time the best closer in the game. With a runner on first and two outs, Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda rolled the dice and called Kirk Gibson to pinch hit. Kirk Gibson was the leader of that team, but was also dealing with severe injuries - a bum knee on one leg and a pulled hamstring on the other. With the count 3 balls and 2 strikes, Gibson launched Eckersley's back door slider into the right field bleachers to which Vin Scully responded: "In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!" Jack Buck's call was even better: "I don't believe what I just saw!" Oakland never climbed up off the mat and the Dodgers won the Series in five games. In an interview shortly after his iconic home run, Kirk Gibson described his approach. "I mentally imagined hitting a home run and it happened just like I imagined." Gibson had hope. He confidently expected success and success was his. Likewise, we are called to hopefully imagine the holiness that will be ours in the age to come and by the Spirit, holiness will become ours.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV)
Click here to download and listen to this morning's message, Holiness and Hope.