I’ve been following a dispute that has broken out among some of our Calvinist brethren about the definition of the relationship between the 3 persons of the Trinity. It’s kind of technical, so I won’t bother to deal with it here–there probably aren’t too many people who would find it much more interesting than watching paint dry.
But the dispute made me think about the variations and varieties of Christian theology and what that means for those of us who are followers of Jesus. I am a Lutheran. I am a Lutheran because I believe that the Lutheran Church has the purest expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you. But I also recognize the many commonalities between Lutheran theology and Calvinist theology. Indeed–I go so far as to say that John Calvin was Martin Luther’s best student. Still, we do have differences.
And then there are our brothers and sisters who have an Arminian theology–the Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, etc. I have more areas of disagreement with them. And don’t start on the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian Churches. And yet, we are all indeed brethren if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, for we are then saved. (Romans 10:9)
You see, friends, when Jesus is in the mix, those things that separate us from one another cease to seem very important. Just look at the Lord’s disciples. We have Matthew, a tax collector for Herod whose operation encouraged gouging as many people as possible. And then there is Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a radical group opposed to Roman rule and to everyone who collaborated with the Romans. Yet here they were, following the same Lord, trusting the same Savior. And Simon didn’t even try to stick a knife in Matthew’s back. There’s something about Jesus that changes us, isn’t there.
I sometimes tell my congregation that American Christians have more in common with a Christian in Tanzania who lives in a mud hut than with the unbeliever who lives next door. When the Lord comes again and the world is remade that guy from Tanzania might very well be your next door neighbor.
In the presence of Jesus everything is different. Everything is better. Everything is forever.
I read something this morning that struck me as something I should have seen on my own but never did. A writer was commenting on the 10 Commandments. Now amongst Lutherans we tend to speak of Law and Gospel as separate things, each of which has it’s own purpose in God’s design, but they are not to be confused. Martin Luther said you weren’t a real theologian until to could rightly divide the two.
Typically we say the Law has 3 purposes. First, it shows us God’s will. I like to compare this to a curb in the street–it shows us where the edge is and we know if we go over it we’ve messed up. You can’t drive on the sidewalk. The second purpose or use of the Law is that it is a mirror. When I look into it I see myself as a sinner for I have violated every one of God’s commandments. And the third use of the Law is that it is a guide for our lives. Not only do we where the edge is, we are also told how to move and live in the area between the curbs.
All of that is pretty standard stuff among Lutherans. But this morning I learned something new about it. God does not give the Law to the people of Israel until after He has rescued them from slavery. First He saved them, and then He gave them the Law. Salvation first, then duty, if you will.
For those who do not know Jesus as Lord the Law is a daunting thing. It seems merely to tell us what we can’t do and, stubborn and self centered as we are, we recent that. So while we might give lip service to the Commandments as good things, we actually don’t like them. But when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Law we [secretly] hated now seems beautiful to us. Now we don’t grumble about what God wants of us, we are overjoyed that we get to follow His will.
When we apply that insight to the situation of the giving of the Law we see that God’s work in the desert foreshadowed the work of Christ for us. First we are saved–then we love the work God prepared for us to walk in before time even began.
Without God’s antecedent work of salvation the Law is our enemy, but afterwards we can see it for what it truly is–a gift from God to His people.
A few years ago the talking heads on television were all debating who was responsible for the recession and the collapse in housing. Some said it was greedy bankers. Others said it was the fault of government policies that encouraged the greedy bankers to make bad loans. Everybody had a villain in mind–except the blame was never directed at the real culprits–us. You see people in this nation had amassed an unsustainable amount of debt and when the least little fluctuation happened it all fell apart. As Pogo once said, we have met the enemy and it is us.
Debt is never our friend, it is always our enemy because as long as it exists we can be called to account. It is, I fear, what awaits our nation in not too many years.
There’s another type of debt that all of us owe. That’s the debt we owe for being poor sinful beings who have sinned against God in thought, word and deed without any excuse. If you default on your mortgage, you can walk away from your house. But there is no walking away from the debt sinners who to God. It must be paid in full. The only way we could pay that debt on our own is to endure the eternal wrath of God.
But God, pure and holy, perfect and just, had mercy upon us and sent His Son to bear our punishment. We didn’t have to pay what we owed. Jesus paid that debt. We didn’t have to suffer for what we have been and done. Jesus suffered for us. We didn’t have to see the grim visage of an angry God. Jesus did that when He cried out on the cross, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
This was far better than having someone pay off our mortgage for us. This was life eternal in the presence of the divine. We owed a debt that we couldn’t face paying. Now we owe a debt that we could never pay and so we cling to the cross, where we meet the God who saved us.
Have you seen the pictures of how bad the air pollution is in parts of China? Everyone seems to be walking around with surgical masks on and you can see, even in a photograph, particles floating in the air. If you breathe that in, you are not just pulling in the life giving oxygen and other gases natural to the world, but the evil and potentially deadly result of mankind’s mindless misuse of God’s world.
One thing I’m pretty sure of–when Christ comes again and His people live for eternity in a remade world, there won’t be any air pollution. Everything will be perfect and all of His people will receive nothing but benefit when we fill our lungs with the air of glory.
In a way, though, we sample that pure air when we come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus. For at that point we aren’t standing in the middle of a smoggy metropolis, our feet aren’t searching for a foothold on soil made unproductive by the sin which distorts all of God’s good creation–for at that point, we are standing right on the dividing line between this world and the next. As we breathe we breathe in a whiff of the pure air of heaven. We smell, ever so faintly, the beauty of glory. Our eyes see as in a glass darkly, but still we see the beauty of what God wanted for us. God’s people walk, as the old hymn tells us, on the verge of Jordan and we see afar, but yet we see all we have ever hoped for.
The title of this message is an old English phrase for what pastors do in the congregation. In modern parlance, we would say the care of souls. You don’t hear this much anymore and that’s a terrible shame. You see the pastor’s primary responsibility is not luring more people into the sanctuary, being up on the latest cultural fads in order to be “relevant” or any of the 100 or so things that people seem to think it is. The primary responsibility of any pastor is to care for the souls God has called him to serve.
A few years ago I was rather horrified to see an article listing the most popular topics pastors were reading about. The first two were church management and leadership. Theology was way down the last and soul care wasn’t even in the top 10. It only solidified a view I already had–the Church in this country has lost its way and it won’t get back on the right track again until those called by God to be spiritual leaders get their thoughts straight about what a pastor is and what he should do.
Why do we need to worry about, talk about and pray about the state of people’s souls? Because their souls, just like mine, are sin-sick and the only cure for that disease is Jesus Christ. There’s an old spiritual that has the line in it, “there is a balm in Gilead to heal a sin-sick soul.” And Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the Cross is that balm. If it is not applied, and applied regularly, the pull of sin in our lives grows just like a virus in your body. The pastor’s task is to find ways to apply this balm and to bring to the people God has put under his care refreshing of their souls.
Friends, I want to ask you if you have that refreshing in your soul now? Has Christ’s sacrifice washed you clean and can you tell the difference? Are you now, this very minute, living with the assurance of your salvation and finding the peace that passes understanding? If you’re not, you need to speak with your pastor and he needs to work with you so that the message of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you sinks deep into your soul and changes you from creature that sin has distorted into the person God wants you to be.
God Himself instituted the office of pastor. Men often mess it up. But it’s God’s work we are to do. Let your pastor do it for you.