Posts Tagged ‘imputation’

Psalm 20: Dear Christian, here’s what God wants to do for you!

January 26, 2019

Psalm 20:1-4:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
    May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!
May he send you help from the sanctuary
    and give you support from Zion!
May he remember all your offerings
    and regard with favor your burnt sacrifices! Selah

May he grant you your heart’s desire
    and fulfill all your plans!

From the notes of my ESV Journaling Bible:

The “you” in these verses is Israel’s king, his “anointed” (v. 6). Look at what the psalmist asks the Lord to do for the king: answer his prayers, send help, give support, “remember” his acts of worship and, on that basis, show favor, grant his heart’s desire, and fulfill all his plans.

Do we read this and think, “Of course these petitions are appropriate for the king of Israel, but who am I compared to him?”

Who are you? You are God’s child, holy and blameless, highly favored (Luke 2:14), anointed by the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20), loved by your Father every bit as much as the Father loves his only begotten Son (John 17:23, 26). Because of the precious blood of Jesus, our position in Christ is even more exalted than David’s, or any sinful human king! Do we dare believe this? Do I? “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b) Our Father wants the exact same good for you.

The doctrine of imputation is still on my mind, obviously, as it has been for a while. But am I wrong? Am I applying this psalm incorrectly? After all, if we believe the New Testament’s many words about our position in Christ (not apart from Christ, mind you), then so many of the Old Testament’s promises to Israel, or even Israel’s anointed, also belong to us.

Reading the Psalms with the doctrine of imputation in mind

January 21, 2019

Psalm 118 was written by David, who, according to the God-breathed words of its preface (i.e., the preface is part of the original Hebrew text), “addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.”

It’s a psalm that ought to greatly encourage those of us who are united by faith with Christ. David affirms that God is our protector, defender, and place of refuge. He rescues us when we cry out to him in fear. In fact, God becomes angry on our behalf, when we are mistreated. He will avenge us; he will vindicate us.

Why does God do this for us? Because, as verse 19 says, he “delights in us.” In my Christmas Eve sermon this year, I connected the angel’s words to the shepherds, “and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14) to the Father’s words to his Son Jesus during his baptism: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The Greek root underneath the English words “pleased”  and “well pleased” is the same: Therefore, if we are in Christ, our Father is as pleased with us as he is with his own Son, not on the basis of who we are and what we’ve done, but who Jesus is and what he’s done for us.

So when David describes what God has done to rescue him from his enemies, and all the trouble that his enemies caused, everything he says about God’s actions toward him are at least as true for us. He’ll do the same for us but even more so—because God has imputed to us the gift of Christ’s righteousness.

Apart from our understanding the doctrine of imputation, the words that David writes in verses 20-24 ought to depress us:

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.

Why should these words depress us? I wrote the following in my ESV Journaling Bible:

These could be among the most discouraging words in scripture, when we consider our sin. Indeed, the psalmist in Psam 130:3 recognizes the universal problem of sin: “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Not to mention Paul’s words about the war within us: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). So if God’s protection, defense, and vindication of us depend on “my righteousness” or “the cleanness of my hands,” then we’re all in trouble!

But here’s where we need the good news of the gospel: the favor that we enjoy in God’s eyes is based not on our righteousness but the righteousness of Christ. For all of David’s words about his personal righteousness, we can substitute “Christ’s righteousness on our behalf”: For us, in other words, Christ has perfectly “kept the ways of the Lord”; Christ has not “wickedly departed from my God”; Christ did not “put away” God’s rules and statutes; Christ was “blameless” and “kept [himself] from guilt”; God has “rewarded [us] according to [Christ’s] righteousness, according to the cleanness of [his] hands in his sight.”

So for those of us who are united with Christ through faith, all of the positive outcomes that David describes are now ours—only better!

Do you see the logic of imputation? There are few doctrines more glorious, more reassuring, than this one.

With this in mind, how can I not heartily endorse a tweet like this from Joel Osteen, with only a small qualification?

We can be confident that what God ordains for us is good. How could it be otherwise, given our new identity in Christ?

Make me your prisoner, Lord, because “free will” isn’t working for me

December 19, 2018

Yesterday, when journaling through Zechariah, I came across this evocative verse: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zechariah 9:12). In context, the prophet is speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon. But that phrase, “prisoners of hope,” inspired me to write the following:

9:12 “O prisoners of hope”: Imprison me in this same way, Lord. Make my heart captive to your Word and your gospel, such that I can never leave. If you capture me against my will (which is true by definition), then please transform my will. Change my desires so that I desire only you. Make me a prisoner of hope, rather than a prisoner of despair, or bitterness, or resentment, or fear, or vainglory. I’ve been a prisoner to those things too long!

The older I get, the lower my anthropology becomes, which is to say, the less optimistic I am about human nature. (Maybe I know myself too well?) Regardless, my “free will” isn’t working for me, let’s face it. I want too many things that are bad for me. So now I’m pleading with the Lord to make me want him and his kingdom: Make me your prisoner, Jesus. It’s the only way I’ll stay close to you! And in my best moments, when I am sufficiently under the influence of your grace, I want to be close to you more than I want anything else. And I am happy.

Sometimes when I say or write things like this, which cut against the grain our culture’s “moral therapeutic deism,” some of my well-meaning fellow Christians try to comfort me: “There, there,” they say. “You’re not so bad.” But I am! Besides, when I begin to think otherwise, I’m tempted to climb back on the hamster wheel of self-improvement that too many Methodists call “sanctification” and make myself miserable all over again.

No, I like being reminded that my standing before God doesn’t depend on me. That is incredibly good news!

And don’t forget: the gospel is, first and foremost, news. Pastor Tim Keller puts it like this:

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.[1]

The gospel is not what we do; rather, it’s what’s been done for us. Rest in this thought for a moment. Refresh yourself with this good news. Hear Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

By the way, Joel Osteen’s Twitter game has been on fire recently. When I first read this tweet, my heart objected: “No way! It’s too good to be true!” But then, this is the way the gospel ought to strike us, right? We ought to be amazed at what God has done to save us. This tweet gets to the heart of the gospel, the meaning of justification, and Christ’s imputed righteousness. As Fleming Rutledge (in case you need  a more “respectable” source than Osteen) says in her book on Atonement, sanctification means “becoming what you already are.”

Regardless, this tweet is music to my ears!

By all means, find something to disagree with here. I can’t.

“Wait, wait… This grace can’t apply to addicts!” No, God’s grace is for them, too. “But not until they’ve cleaned up their acts a little bit first!” No, God sent his Son because none of us sinners is able to clean up our acts, a little or a lot. “But God doesn’t show favor to the really bad sinners!” I don’t know… Paul called himself the “foremost” of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), and look at the favor God showed him! “But what about repentance?” By all means, we must repent! But what is repentance? Confessing to God that we are utterly helpless to solve the problem of our sins. “But we must do something!” Well, yes… because faith without works is dead (James 2:20), and our “doing” is a means of testing the authenticity of faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). But our “doing” plays no role in saving us, nor by doing can we claim credit for any subsequent change in our hearts that the Holy Spirit accomplishes. Christ saves us entirely. Solus Christus!

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21-22.

Sermon 04-08-18: “No Other Gospel”

April 19, 2018

Like a former addict who suffers a dangerous relapse, the Christians to whom the apostle Paul is addressing today’s scripture are themselves facing a kind of relapse—only one that is far more dangerous than a relapse to illicit drugs. Because this “relapse” risks destroying not merely their bodies but their very souls as well… for eternity! And it’s a dangerous threat for us present-day Christians, too! What am I referring to? Listen to the sermon and find out!

As I said last week, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached.

Sermon Text: Galatians 1:1-10

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Back in 1985, when I was 15, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Omni in Atlanta. Do you remember the Omni? It was one of the first concerts I went to, and I became a lifelong Tom Petty fan. So, like many of you, I was deeply saddened when he died late last year. The initial report was that he suffered cardiac arrest. Then about a month later, a medical examiner reported that he died of an opioid overdose. He had broken his hip while on tour last year, and—because the “show must go on,” he was prescribed a powerful narcotic called fentanyl, which is, like, 50 times more powerful than heroin.

Petty confessed in a recent autobiography that he became addicted to heroin in the mid- to late-’90s. But he got clean. So his addiction to this latest opioid represented a tragic relapse.

In a way, this is what Paul is dealing with in Galatia—a relapse of a sort. Except a relapse into opioid addiction would be far less harmful, from Paul’s perspective, because it could only destroy the body. Whereas the relapse that the Galatians are facing could potentially destroy their souls!

So what do I mean when I say “relapse”?

To answer that, we need to ask ourselves: What did Paul preach to the Galatians? What ideas did he build his ministry on? What message was Paul willing to suffer and die for? He tells us in the greeting of letter, verses 3 through 5: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

This is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell! Let’s look at some of the key words and phrases.

“Grace”: The free gift of God. We can do nothing to earn it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. “Peace”: This is the end result of receiving this gift. Prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross—and our faith in it—we were not at peace; we were incapable of achieving peace; there was a state of enmity between us and God. Paul says in Romans 5:10 that we were “enemies… reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But the end result of Christ’s death is described in Romans 5:1: “[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Read the rest of this entry »

Imputation: God’s Word has the “power to create what it requires”

March 22, 2018

In yesterday’s blog post, I talked about the Protestant doctrine of imputation and the the way in which the idea is found in the Greek word logizomai, translated “reckoned,” “counted,” and “credited,” as in, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).

In her book on the Atonement, Fleming Rutledge prefers a more literal translation of logizomai: “worded.” (You can see the Greek root logos in the word.) God’s Word alone, she writes, has the power to create what is lacking in us:

The way that “wording” works can easily be illustrated. We tend to become what we are “regarded as.” Here, for example, are two scenes. One is a first-grade schoolroom in East Tennessee in the mid-1960s, recently integrated. Three small black boys, looking miserable, are separated from the others (all white) for special remedial attention from the white teacher. After working with them for a while, she rises from the table and says to an observer, in a  stage whisper that the children surely hear, “How does anyone think they can ever learn anything?” The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” was invented for a situation such as that. The second scene occurs two decades later, in a  supermarket in a suburban New York town. A mother is bending over a stroller containing her child, no more than two years old. With great intensity she is saying, over and over, “You’re bad! You’re bad!” What can the child have done, at that age? What grave sin had he committed? Spilled his drink? Snatched candy off the shelf? Cried from frustration? Who can doubt that the child will grow up with those words ingrained in his psyche? “You’re bad!” Words have great power. Imagine, then, the power of the Word of God saying Shamed! Condemned! Rejected!

But those words are not the Word spoken against us, for indeed the Word is not spoken against us but for us. “He has not reckoned our sins against us” (II Cor. 5:19)… When we understand the words “not reckoned” or “not counted” are from the root logizomai, however, we can fill in the rest of the picture. The “not reckoned” is the other face of “reckoned as righteousness.” Again, God’s Word is performative; it has the power to create what it requires. When God regards one as righteous, a true metamorphosis is occurring.[1]

To illustrate this metamorphosis, she offers the example of Gideon in Judges 6. When the angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor” (Judges 6:12), he is threshing wheat in a winepress—for fear of being seen by the Midianites.

This is really quite amusing; Gideon is not even remotely a “mighty man of valor” at this point. Nor does he flex his muscles and step into his role as an “alpha male” would; indeed, his behavior immediately following the appearance of the angel is timid and cautious. The Lord, however, keeps on “wording” him: “The Lord turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?'” (v. 14). Again, this makes us smile; the Lord is even willing to suggest that it actually is Gideon’s own might; but the reminder comes quickly enough: “Do I not send you?” Gideon continues to protest: “Pray, Lord, how can I deliver Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (v. 15). His protestations are swept aside by the empowering Word: “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you, and you shall smite the Midianites as [though they were] one man'” (v. 16). Thus God creates valor where there was no valor.[2]

To say the least, I am no better than Gideon. Because of my own insecurities (which only years of therapy have helped me untangle—thank you, Jesus!), I often wake up feeling like a beaten man—as if a voice in my head were saying words like, “Hypocrite!” “Worthless!” “Sinner!

If I understand the doctrine of imputation, however, I find in it the power to change this script. I am not the man I used to be. The “old man” was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). God is “wording” a new man into existence, and he is doing so with sweet words like, “Beloved child!” “Apple of my eye!” (Psalm 17:8) “Righteous!

Listen to that voice, Brent!

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 333-4.

2. Ibid., 334-5.

“Christ the bridegroom takes a wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His”

August 30, 2017

This past Sunday, to begin our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, I preached the first part of a new series on the Reformation’s five core convictions, often called the “Five Solas.” Part One was on Sola Fide, justification by faith alone. While I didn’t use the word “imputation,” I described it. But here’s a nice description of it from one of my favorite Christian thinkers (and pastors), Paul Zahl, from a 1991 article in First Things.

Moreover, the atonement has to be substitutionary, to use the classic language, or I fail to see how it can ensure the being forgiven. We need God’s substituting Himself into our frail, contingent world of judged living. We require a substitute, the deepest form of empathy, the “I’ll go in your place” quality of advocacy. The metaphor of God’s substitution is the only one of the familiar theories of atonement that provides for the full failed weight of human aspiration.

Moreover, substitutionary atonement has to be imputed. Imputation means the regarding as righteous of one who is not intrinsically righteous at all. It covers over the conflicted ambivalent character of human personality with a seamless robe, and gives us authentic security in the encounter with God.

Imputation is described tersely and truly by an English historian of the Reformation, Patrick Collinson: “[It is] a transaction somewhat like a marriage, in which Christ the bridegroom takes to himself an impoverished and wretched harlot and confers upon her all the riches that are His . . . . Therefore, the justified Christian man, in himself and of his own nature a sinner but not seen as a sinner by God, brings forth those good works which consist in the love of God and neighbor, not slavishly to win any reward but gladly, that service which is perfect freedom.” Imputation as an experienced principle is poignantly needful for a striving world.

Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!

January 26, 2017

A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook last week:

pope_francis_quote

I hated to be an ecumenical wet blanket, but I thought the last part of Pope Francis’s quote was overly optimistic. If there’s something about our “alliance” with Christ that “makes” us live without sin—indeed, to be “far away from” it—I haven’t discovered it. So I quoted Luther’s maxim concerning our nature as Christians: In Christ, we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”

My friend, a Methodist pastor, demurred:

Is your assumption that the pope is referring to some before justification or after? I take his meaning to be at the moment of or after. At the point of justification one would then be simultaneously progressing in a state of sanctifying grace. That would be most Wesleyan. Otherwise it’s purely Lutheran and therefore holiness or justification has little if nothing to do with your progress in holiness since it doesn’t require your participation, i.e., it’s all imputed.

To which I replied:

But suppose you die moments after being justified and born again. On what basis are you fit for heaven other than Christ’s righteousness—imputed or not? Certainly not your own “holiness,” such as it is. I don’t think the imputed righteousness of Christ negates personal responsibility. But I also don’t think that sanctification is ever more than our saying “yes” to God’s grace, just as we do when we are justified. Grace is still grace. Our participation, whatever it is, isn’t something of which we get to be proud. Sanctification isn’t “we do a little, then God does a little,” although I agree that’s how it’s popularly understood.

The truth is, I have become slightly more Lutheran and more Reformed in my theological perspective. (Of course, I had already been indoctrinated in Augustine by Candler’s only conservative professor [at the time], Lewis Ayres, so I wasn’t far from this perspective—at least as soon as I started believing the Bible again). If that makes me less comfortably Wesleyan, so be it. But Wesley wasn’t too far from this. Didn’t he compare sanctification to respiration: God breathes in, we breathe out? What we do is very small compared to what Christ did and the Holy Spirit does.

So twice my friend referred to our “progress” in holiness and implies that it’s something that we do, or something for which we’re (mostly? 50-50?) responsible. From my own experience, talk of “progress” in the Christian life makes me nervous. We are not sanctified by what we do! God is going to have to do the sanctifying in our relationship with him, or it won’t happen at all! 

While I don’t think my friend accurately represents John Wesley’s thinking on the subject, who cares what Wesley says? We have to contend, as always, with the Bible. Like Wesley, “I am a man of one book”—or I strive to be. We are saved by grace from first to last. Our cooperation in this salvific process, while not nothing, is minimal—certainly in comparison to what God does. It’s never something about which we get to boast and say, “Look what I’ve done!”

All that to say, I embrace the Reformation affirmation of imputed righteousness. As a result, these words by Matt Johnson from the Mockingbird Devotional are sweet music to my ears:

In reflecting on the temptations we’ve faced and the the sufferings we’ve undergone, no doubt we’ve been faithless amidst life’s domestic complexities. Juggling home, career and family; coming to terms with illness, debt, death—it hasn’t gone too well. We’ve not laid our burdens down like we should have. And with this failure comes shame…

We often have similar experiences where we feel this close. We had great plans, and we almost got there, but now the hope of deliverance seems too good to be true—and now it’s back to the old life.

In those moments of regress or failure, nothing quite pegs our identity like shame does. It becomes the way we self-describe. The “Who am I?” framework only shows us what we aren’t: an ineffective employee. A failed father. A basket case. A pervert. Your shame has the power to terminally name you. Sure, Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know and all that—but what about here and now? What about this sea of shame?[1]

Let me interject here to say that my clergy friend’s notion of “progress” as something we accomplish, even in part, does nothing but contribute to this “sea of shame”—at least in my experience. (His mileage may vary.) I need to be reminded again and again of God’s grace.

Johnson continues:

In Christ, you are God’s treasured possession. As part of His family, you are the beloved first-born son. Rather than receiving the wrath of Pharaoh, the chaos of the sea is the moment of His salvation. Naturally you’ve forgotten that and have placed an old shame back onto your shoulders again, but it was never yours to lug around in the first place. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In Christ, you are clothed in righteousness and when God sees you, there is nothing more to be ashamed of. He sees the perfection of Jesus.[2]

1. Matt Johnson, “January 24” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 53.

2. Ibid.