Swiper, No Swiping!

Swiper the Fox has a problem.

For those of you who do not what I am talking about, Swiper the Fox is a character on the popular Nick Jr. television show, Dora the Explorer. Dora and her monkey friend, Boots, go on many adventures together, aided by a talking map, a hungry backpack, and by many of their animal friends. However, one animal is not part of Dora’s inner circle. That animal is Swiper the Fox.

As I mentioned above, Swiper has a problem. He is a habitual criminal. Swiper, as his name suggests, likes to swipe things. He is a thief, albeit not a very good one. I don’t know if Swiper has ever successfully swiped anything from anyone. But he certainly does try to swipe things from Dora and foil her adventures. Dora, not being a typical innocent child but portraying the street smarts of hardened teenager, is not amused or fooled by any of Swiper’s attempts at thievery. When Swiper makes his move, Dora and Boots (and you, the audience!), tell him over and over again, “Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping! Swiper, no swiping!” Swiper eventually realizes that he is about to be caught red-handed, and he responds with his classic quip, “Oh man!” as he snaps his fingers and darts off the screen, no doubt planning his next attempt to impede Dora and Boots from attending Benny the Bull’s birthday party.

I feel bad for Swiper the Fox. I don’t feel sorry for him because he is never successful at swiping. Stealing is wrong, boys and girls. I feel bad because he is doomed to repeat the same pattern over and over again, not just because he is stuck in a formulaic kid’s show, but because he never hears anything but the law.

That’s right. I am about to make a theological point based off of a cartoon character on Nick Jr. This is my life now.

This is an important note for preachers and for parents and really for all Christians: Believing that simply saying “No” or that by forbidding an activity has the power to exact lasting change is completely unrealistic.

God’s Law, as revealed in his Word, is good and necessary. I am certainly not implying that the law is a bad thing. Rather, it is the perfect will of God. However, God’s Law, ever since humankind’s fall into sin, has one primary purpose: to show us our sin. From Romans 7:7- If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

swiper 2

No one likes a bossy-pants, Dora!

God’s Law tells us what sin is and says “Don’t do it!” Dora and Boots serve this purpose well in their interactions with Swiper. “Swiper, no swiping!” Stealing is bad. Do not steal.

But because of our sinful nature, we humans are not able to produce the good works that the Law demands. In fact, the Law actually produces the exact opposite reaction from us than it intended. Paul continues in Romans 7- But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.

What is Paul saying? He is saying that when we are confronted by the Law, sin actually increases, not decreases like we would expect. The Law does not and cannot produce its intended effect. The Law cannot produce in us the very goodness that it demands. Rather, it only increases our bad behavior. Perhaps you have heard the expression about tasting the “forbidden fruit.” When we humans are told we cannot have something or do something, we immediately want to have it or do it. The Law might be able to curb our sinful desire for a time, but it is unable to actually make us good or even inspire goodness. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says this well in his excellent book, One Way Love:

We make a big mistake when we conclude that the law is the answer to bad behavior. In fact, the law alone stirs up more of such behavior. People get worse, not better, when you lay down the law. This isn’t to say the Spirit doesn’t use both God’s Law and God’s Gospel in our lives and for our good. But the Law and the Gospel do very different things. The Law reveals sin but is powerless to remove it. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. As Martin Luther wrote, “Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.” (From his commentary on Galatians) The Law apart from the Gospel can only crush; it cannot cure.

Doomed to repeat the same mistakes

Doomed to repeat the same mistakes

This brings us back to our poor friend Swiper the Fox. Swiper hears nothing but the law. Swiper knows that swiping is wrong and hearing the law stops him from swiping…for a little while. But sooner or later, Swiper is back at his old antics, trying to swipe everything in sight. The law can curb his behavior, but it cannot change his heart. It cannot produce the desire to do the right thing. It can only condemn and accuse.

We often do the same thing with other people. Parents do this with their children. Preachers do this with their congregations. They hammer them with the law over and over again. Don’t do this! Stop doing that! Do better! Try harder! The problem with this method is that we cannot do it. We can try as hard as want, but we will never be able to achieve the goodness, rather, the perfection, that the Law of God demands. We may stop for awhile or even for good, but it doesn’t mean that we have been changed. Outwardly, we may look cleaned up while our heart is still corrupt.

The Law does not and cannot reform the sinful nature.  Rather it reveals our sinful nature. It exposes us as sinners, and it drives us to the Good News found in Jesus! Only the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners can transform lives and give people (or foxes) the desire to do good. Only the Gospel can change your heart.

So preachers, preach the Law, but let the Gospel dominate. Don’t just stand up there and say, “Sinner, no sinning!” Preach the shed blood of Jesus which alone can cover their sinfulness. Connect the branches to the true Vine and see the good fruit which is naturally produced.

Parents, tell your children when they have done something wrong but always speak to them a word of forgiveness. Your unconditional love and forgiveness reflects their heavenly Father’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Let God’s love and mercy transform their sinful, selfish nature.

And let us always remind each other of Paul’s words in Romans 8:1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me! What was your favorite part?


Happy Reformation Day!

For your reading pleasure on this Reformation Day I give you a wonderful quote from Martin Luther himself:

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins.

It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent.

But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.


Don’t Look At Me!

Alright, this is my last post reflecting on Tullian Tchividjian’s book Jesus+Nothing=Everything. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as evidenced by the four posts dedicated to it. It was neat to read how a popular Evangelical pastor rediscovered the true Gospel message and how it has changed his life and his ministry. Many of the people who influenced him in his journey were Lutheran theologians, and as I read his book, I could see the Lutheran influence in his discoveries. (The only thing he is missing is Lutheran sacramental theology, but I can’t ask for everything.)

Tchividjian’s main purpose in this book is to recover the true message of God’s Word from a person-focused center to a Jesus-focused center. He recognized that much of popular evangelical theology focuses on what Christians must do and how they can improve instead of focusing on God and what He has already done through Jesus. Tchividjian refers to this teaching as “performancism” which is just another word for “legalism.” Legalism has been present in the church ever since Bible times. One of the temptations in legalism is to read yourself into all the Bible stories and make them about you.

For example, in the story of David and Goliath, a “me-focused” interpretation would be to place myself in David’s shoes and talk about how I can defeat my giant enemies with God’s help. To take it even further, the five stones all represent some sort of spiritual attribute that I can use to knock down giants. A proper, Jesus-focused interpretation of this story recognizes that David defeating Goliath points forward to Jesus’ battle with sin, death and Satan. Like David, Jesus stands in the place of His people and takes on the enemy that we could never defeat by ourselves. David caught off the head of Goliath. Jesus crushed the head of Satan. Just as David was chosen and anointed by God to be the leader and king of his people, Jesus was chosen and anointed by God to be our Savior and King.

A proper understanding of Scripture means that we will come to realize that the Bible is not primarily about me and what I must do, but rather it is about God and what He has done and continues to do for me. That doesn’t mean that we cannot learn anything about ourselves and the Christian life through stories like David and Goliath. But these stories are first and foremost about God, specifically God the Son, Jesus Christ. Tchividjian gets at this in his book:

The gospel doesn’t take you deeper into yourself; the gospel takes you away from yourself. That’s why Paul reminds the Colossians (and us), ‘You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3). The gospel frees us to realize that, while we matter, we’re not the point…The gospel causes us to look up and out, away from ourselves. It turns our gaze upward to God and outward to others, both to those inside the church and to those outside it. The gospel causes us to love God and to love others, which of course is how Jesus summed up the entirety of the law.

And some more from Tchividjian:

Reminded of the gospel, we’re reminded that sin enslaves by making us big; the gospel frees by making us small. Our self-esteem culture would have us believe that the bigger we become, the freer we’ll be. But the gospel turns that on its head- the smaller we become, the freer we will be. We begin to decrease; Christ begins to increase. The world says the more independent you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be; the gospel says the more dependent on God you become, the freer and stronger you’ll be.

This is true freedom. A proper understanding of the Gospel means that we do not have to be plagued by guilt as we look inside ourselves and see, not moral improvement, but sin. The gospel points us away from ourselves and toward Jesus. Legalism and “performancism” leaves us open to accusations of hypocrisy because we point to ourselves and pat ourselves on the back at the improvement we have made. When we grasp the true Gospel message, we can take comfort in the fact that it isn’t up to my performance. We can tell Satan who wants to accuse us in our sin through other people “Don’t look at me! I am not the standard. Look at Jesus! I am perfect because of Him only.” And when God looks at you, He sees you through the lens of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t see your works or your lack thereof; He sees Christ’s works, his life, death, and resurrection, for you.

What a great promise! I encourage all of you to read Tchividjian’s book and rediscover the Gospel message for yourself. I will leave you with one last quote.

Now you can spend your life giving up your place for others instead of guarding it from others, because your identity is in Christ, not in your place. Now you can spend your energy going to the back instead of getting to the front, because your identity is in Christ, not in your position. You can also spend your life giving, not taking, because your identity is in Christ, not in your possessions. All this is our new identity- all because of Christ’s finished work to us in the gospel.

Grow Up!

I used to think that growing as a Christian meant I had to somehow go out and obtain the qualities and attitudes I was lacking. To really mature, I needed to find a way to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, and so on…What the Bible teaches is that we mature as we come to a greater realization of what we already have in Christ. The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation but about Christ’s external substitution. From Jesus+Nothing=Everything by Tullian Tchividjian

What is the life of sanctification all about? How do Christians mature in their faith? How exactly do you measure spiritual growth? These are important questions because there are so many wrong answers out there. Actually, there is probably only one wrong answer, but it takes many different forms. The wrong answer is legalism or to borrow from Tchividjian again, “performancism.” The idea is that justification is all about what God does and sanctification or spiritual growth is all about what I must now do.

Sanctification according to legalism focuses on my actions, on my need or desire to get better. Legalism ignores the cross and what Christ has done. It pushes the cross into the past and focuses on the present and what you are doing to stay in God’s good favor.We get fooled into thinking that we have to earn our keep in God’s good graces. Remember how Tchividjian  puts it: I have to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, more sincerity, more love, more (insert Christan attribute here) in order to prove that I am a Christian and that I am growing.

Now don’t get me wrong. Having more joy, more patience, and more faithfulness are all good things. But these are natural fruits that are produced from a life connected to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are not some measuring stick in order to keep your room  in heaven. You aren’t gaining any favor with God by gaining new abilities. Actually when we think this way we are putting all the attention on ourselves. We are putting ourselves back under the law of Moses from which Jesus died to free us! As Tchividjian puts its,

Ironically, when we focus mostly on our need to get better, we actually get worse. We become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our effort instead of with God’s effort for us makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective.

So what is the life of sanctification really about? It’s about Jesus’ death and resurrection. How do Christians truly mature in their faith? By relying on Jesus.

Think of it this way: sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification. It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day. Or, as Martin Luther so aptly put it in his Lectures on Romans, ‘To progress is always to begin again.’ Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards. Tchividjian

God's grace is a vast, endless ocean

Sanctification is still about Jesus’ work! Jesus has set you free from the Law! Yet we constantly try to get back under it because we are so trained in the mindset that we have to do something, we have to earn our keep, we have to make the grade. Real Christian maturity and spiritual growth comes with a deeper realization that we by cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him or get any better. Real Christian maturity and spiritual growth comes with a greater understanding that we must decrease, and Jesus must increase. The truly mature Christian plunges into the deep ocean of God’s grace. Spiritual growth occurs when we stop trying to please God by our efforts and realize that God has already given us his approval through Jesus. Once we’re already approved and accepted by God in Christ, we can freely follow God’s lead and grow in doing his will out of genuine gratitude for his amazing grace and without any fear of judgment or condemnation when we fail. And you will fail. Over and over again. Every day of your life. But your failures have been overcome by Christ’s death! “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” 1 Corinthians 15:57

Faith: My Work or God’s Gift?

We Lutherans are very good at avoiding works righteousness. We know that we are saved not by any good work that we do but solely by the grace of God through faith. However, the temptation to insert even a tiny amount of our own human effort into our salvation is very strong. Deep down, our human nature resists the idea of a completely free gift that we have to do nothing to earn or deserve. We think, “Surely we have to do something!”

The temptation is to turn faith into a work that we do. After all, we believe, don’t we? Isn’t that something that we do? Many other reformed churches fall into this trap. They affirm Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” But then they tell people that they need to make a decision for Christ. They need to ask Jesus into their hearts. But that’s a work. That’s something that I could potentially boast in. In fact, many of them might even ask, “When did you give your heart to Jesus (aka the day you were saved)?” They boast in that day, the day they decided to follow Jesus.

I don’t even remember the day that I was saved. I was only a week old when I was baptized. It’s hard to boast in something that you do not even remember happening. But that’s the good news. I didn’t have to do anything. Jesus did it all. The Holy Spirit gave me faith that day. Faith itself, the ability to believe and confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, is a gift, not a work in which we can boast. In fact, the fruits of our faith are not even something that we can claim as our own to boast in. Faith in Jesus naturally produces good works in a Christian. So, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17), Paul says. And in Galatians 6, he reiterates that saying, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let me end by sharing with you a quote by Martin Luther, from his introduction to Romans. This quote is really the catalyst behind today’s post.

Faith is not the human notion and dream which some regard as faith. And  when they see that it is not followed by an improvement in life and by good works and yet still can hear and talk much about faith, they fall into the error of saying: Faith is not enough; we must do good works if we are to become godly and be saved. The reason for this lies in the fact that when they hear the Gospel, they go to work and by their own powers form in their hearts an idea which says: I believe. This they then consider a true faith. But being a human figment and idea which never reaches the depths of the heart, it is inoperative, and no betterment follows.

Faith, however, is a divine work within us. It transforms us and gives us a new birth wrought by God. It slays the old Adam, makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind, and all powers, and brings with it the Holy Spirit. Oh a living, energetic, active, mighty thing is this faith! It is impossible for it not to do good incessantly…

Faith is a living, daring confidence in the grace of God. It is so certain that a man would die for it a thousand times over. This confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes a person happy, bold, and of high spirits in his relation to God and all his creatures. The Holy Spirit creates this attitude in faith. Hence a person, without constraint, becomes willing and eager to do good to everybody, to serve everybody, to suffer all sorts of things for the love of God and to the praise of Him who has shown him such grace. So it is impossible to separate works from faith, indeed just as impossible as it is to separate hear and light from fire.