Sunday, October 31, 2010

Faith Alone

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved
- Sts. Paul and Silas (Acts 16:31a)

A classmate and I have been meeting with a group of unchurched kids from San Bernardino for Bible studies for almost two years now. It has been a challenging and rewarding ministry. Recently we discussed a passage from the Gospel of Luke which gives me much joy and hope. It is a passage that speaks strongly against those religious people who would add in various works or rituals or ceremonies as prerequisites for salvation in Jesus Christ.
The passage we talked about was Luke 23:39-43. This passage recounts the crucifixion of our Lord and it is here in Luke's gospel that we get some added details about Christ's interactions with those who were also crucified near Him.

As we've done this Bible study with these kids it has been our goal to preach the gospel every time we meet. We aren't trying to give them some kind of Sunday school style moralism where we just tell them they should obey their parents because the Bible says so or something like that. Of course we encourage them to be good people and to do the right thing but we also try constantly to convey the truth that we can never live up to God's standards and that we are all guilty sinners, deserving of hell, before His perfect holiness.

This is where we tried to start when we discussed this passage from Luke. We actually started in Isaiah, with the prophet's vision of God in Isaiah chapter 6. We read Isaiah 6:1-5 and tried to convey a sense of God's greatness and holiness. We were on a large hill, overlooking Loma Linda, Redlands and San Bernardino when we did our study so we asked these kids to imagine looking out at an enormous throne of God, larger than the San Gabriel Mountains to the north, with angels encircling it, shielding their faces from His glory. After talking about Isaiah's fear before the throne of God where he said, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! (Isaiah 6:5)," we asked them to imagine standing alone before God's throne, being judged. We pointed out that Isaiah, who said, "Woe is me!," was a "good guy" when compared to most people. He was a prophet of God. He wrote a book of the Bible. We asked them, "if Isaiah (a "good" guy) was fearful before God's throne, what hope would a man who had been a criminal his whole life have before the throne of God?" I don't remember their answers but it was at this point that we had one of them read the passage from Luke 23.

After reading the passage, ending with verses 42 and 43, "And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And he said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise,'" we asked them, at this point what did the thief have to do to get to heaven? The obvious answer to this question was "nothing." We then asked, after this thief died and he was standing before God's throne, what would have been his hope of salvation? We asked specifically whether some good deed he had done in life would be his hope for salvation when he stood before God's throne. Their answer was that Jesus said he would be in paradise that day and because we have taught them that Jesus is God, obviously His word is trustworthy, therefore Christ's decree would be the thief's hope. We next asked whether the thief had to pay for his sins or be punished by God for his sins. It is true that he was being crucified for his crimes but I think they realized that if this thief was going to be in paradise that day then he was not going to pay for his sins or be punished by God. We then asked if someone else payed for the thief's sins or if someone else suffered in his place. I think no other place in Scripture illustrates more vividly the substitutionary atonement, "and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him (Isaiah 53:6b and 10a)." At this point we again shared the gospel with them.

In our study we did not forget that "we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10)." I used our taking time weekly to lead a Bible study as an example of obedience to God. But I said that this obedience to God was only out of gratitude for the cross and His grace and had nothing to do with any hope of earning or contributing to my salvation. And I think the same is true for that thief on the cross who was saved by grace alone through faith alone. Had he somehow been taken off of that cross prior to his death but after putting his faith in Christ, I certainly believe he would have been baptized, he would have participated in the Lord's Supper and he would have led a life characterized by repentance. But it would have been clear that none of these works had earned his salvation. They would have been things done in love for God in response to his salvation and because he was a new creation in Christ.

The fact that some who claim to follow Christ debate about whether we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone versus being saved by our works or some contribution of our works amazes me on the one hand but doesn't surprise me on the other. It amazes me because I think this truth, of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone is essential to the gospel and is expressed so clearly by the apostle Paul, "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 (Eph. 2:8-9)." It doesn't surprise me though, that this would be controversial, because the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone runs so contrary to the natural way of thinking according to our sin nature. I think this is evident in the fact that every other world religion, as far as I know, is some form of works-righteousness and this heart of the gospel is under constant attack even within Christendom and has been since Pentecost. This heart of the gospel which is, "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes," that salvation is by God's grace alone through faith in Christ alone and purchased for us by His atoning death, has even been mostly lost at times in the history of the Church. This was the case prior to the Reformation, that great outpouring of God's grace which we celebrate today. And I think that today even in so-called Evangelicalism most churches assume that everyone already believes the gospel and consequently the true gospel is rarely preached. But I also think the simple heart of the gospel is such a tremendous and glorious truth which we are so prone to forget or underestimate that it is something we can never get past and must constantly hear preached.

When I first started thinking about this text from Luke as a defense of salvation by grace alone through faith alone I wanted to make sure that other Christians had seen the same thing in this passage. So it was a great joy to read commentaries on this passage by two men of God, both of whom I respect greatly. The first I read was by John Calvin. Calvin wrote:
And this confirms more fully what I formerly suggested, that if any man disdain to abide by the footsteps of the robber, and to follow his path, he deserves everlasting destruction, because by wicked pride he shuts against himself the gate of heaven. And, certainly, as Christ has given to all of us, in the person of the robber, a general pledge of obtaining forgiveness, so, on the other hand, he has bestowed on this wretched man such distinguished honor, in order that, laying aside our own glory, we may glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone.
Calvin calls us all to follow in the path of the robber and glory in nothing but the mercy of God alone. Calvin has many other wonderful things to say about this passage in his commentary and, Lord willing, I will quote some more of what he wrote in the coming week. The second commentator I ran into, which in some ways brought me even more joy than Calvin's writing, is a great Patristic voice, John Chrysostom who lived between 349 and 407 A.D. Chrysostom was the Archbishop of Constantinople and writes with great clarity on the subject of salvation through faith alone. Chrysostom in his Sermon 7 on Genesis writes:
Let us see, however, whether the brigand gave evidence of effort and upright deeds and a good yield. Far from his being able to claim even this, he made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone...
I'll also post a longer and more complete quote from Chrysostom in the coming week.

Happy Reformation Day!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Honor of Estes

My last post about my old seminary chapel at Asbury started me reminiscing about the blessings of being able to worship there. One of my favorite hymns to sing in that chapel, packed with seminarians and our professors and with Albin Whitworth playing the pipe organ, was Charles Wesley’s And Can It Be.

The lyrics of this hymn are very rich and I always loved singing the very monergistic recounting of Charles' own conversion:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Importance of a Chapel

In recent days I've been reading on a couple of Anglican blogs about the fire and destruction of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary. Many commenters reflected on their experiences in that chapel and how it was an important place for them. Reading these comments made me realize how much of a loss I would feel if I heard that the chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary, Estes Chapel, was destroyed. Estes Chapel is a very significant place for me when it comes to God's work of grace in my own life. The stained glass portrait of Christ on the upper right-hand corner of this blog is the stained glass window at the front of Estes Chapel. In my house in Loma Linda I have a picture of Estes Chapel hanging on my wall as a reminder of my two years at Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky. I pray for the Lord to comfort all of those who feel a great loss in the destruction of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary and I thank Him for the blessing He's given me in also knowing a seminary chapel which is such an important place for me.

Estes Chapel at night.

Inside of Estes, that circular window in the front is the same as the picture in the upper right-hand corner of this blog.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


For the last two weeks I've been back in Loma Linda completing my required Emergency Medicine rotation of 4th year. It has been an interesting change of pace from the last 6 months which was filled with Internal Medicine and IM related fields. The pace of the first day in the ER was a bit of a jolt but it's been a good two weeks. I've seen quite a few interesting patients. The first patient I saw was a pretty classic presentation of acute appendicitis. CT confirmed the appy and he went to surgery that night. Some of the other stuff I've seen in the past two weeks includes...

1. Multiple fractures including a patient who had a complete transverse femur fracture.
2. Multiple patients with chest pain, none of whom were having a heart attack.
3. A patient without chest pain who was having a STEMI (heart attack.)
4. Parkinson's disease decompensation
5. A needle stick injury to a healthcare worker
6. Crohn's disease exacerbation
7. A kid with the flu
8. Cervicitis
9. A kid with an asthma attack
10. A kid with croup
11. DKA
12. A good number of patients with various pains without obvious diagnoses.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Burning trust in the mercy of God

There is also the passage in James 2:17: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." He did well to say this, for he was reprimanding those who thought that faith is merely a historical opinion about Christ. For just as Paul calls one type of faith "true," and the other "feigned," so James calls the one kind "living" and the other "dead." A living faith is that efficacious, burning trust in the mercy of God which never fails to bring forth good fruits. That is what James says in ch. 2:22: "Faith was completed by works." Likewise, because his works declared that Abraham had this living faith, Scripture was fulfilled where it says (v. 23): "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Therefore, the whole point that James is making is that dead faith, that frigid "opinion" of the Parisian theologians, does not justify, but a living faith justifies. But a living faith is that which pours itself out in works. For he speaks as follows (v. 18): "Show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you my faith." But he does not say: "I shall show you works without faith." My exposition squares most harmoniously with what we read in James: "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Therefore, it is obvious that he is teaching here merely that faith is dead in those who do not bring forth the fruit of faith, even though from external appearances they may seem to believe.
- Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Loci Communes Theologici

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Therefore, we are justified when:

Therefore, we are justified when, put to death by the law, we are made alive again by the word of grace promised in Christ; the gospel forgives our sins, and we cling to Christ in faith, not doubting in the least that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, that the satisfaction Christ wrought is our expiation, and that the resurrection of Christ is ours. In a word, we do not doubt at all that our sins have been forgiven and that God now favors us and wills our good. Nothing, therefore, of our own works, however good they may seem to be, constitutes our righteousness. But faith alone in the mercy of and grace of God in Christ Jesus is our righteousness.

- Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Loci Communes Theologici

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Precious Blood

Blessed Lord Jesus,

Before thy cross I kneel and see
the heinousness of my sin,
my iniquity that caused thee to be
'made a curse',
the evil that excites the severity
of divine wrath.

Show me the enormity of my guilt by
the crown of thorns,
the pierced hands and feet,
the bruised body,
the dying cries.

Thy blood is the blood of incarnate God,
its worth infinite, its value beyond all thought.

Infinite must be the evil and guilt
that demands such a price.

Sin is my malady, my monster, my foe, my viper,
born in my birth,
alive in my life,
strong in my character,
dominating my faculties,
following me as a shadow,
intermingling with my every thought,
my chain that holds me captive in the
empire of my soul.

Sinner that I am, why should the sun give me light,
the air supply breath,
the earth bear my tread,
its fruits nourish me,
its creatures subserve my ends?

Yet thy compassions yearn over me,
thy heart hastens to my rescue,
thy love endured my curse,
thy mercy bore my deserved stripes.

Let me walk humbly in the lowest depths
of humiliation,
bathed in thy blood,
tender of conscience,
triumphing gloriously as an heir of salvation.


From: The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions

Saturday, October 9, 2010


Last weekend I made it to the last location I had planned to see while at Ft. Bliss. I headed out to Carlsbad Caverns on Saturday but upon arrival found that the elevators were malfunctioning and they weren't letting anyone down. I elected to stay in Carlsbad, New Mexico with the hope of seeing the caverns the next day. I was disappointed not to be back in El Paso for church on Sunday as I had been very blessed to worship at the Anglican Church of St. Clement on my first Sunday in the city and had hoped to return there. But on Sunday they were allowing people to hike in and out of the caverns as the elevators were still not working. I was not disappointed by what I saw upon descending 750 ft below the ground.

The entrance to the caverns

Carlsbad Caverns

Ansel Adams described the caverns more eloquently than I ever could. He described the caverns as, "something that should not exist in relation to human beings. Something that is as remote as the galaxy, incomprehensible as a nightmare, and beautiful in spite of everything."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No angel in the sky can fully bear that Sight

Crown Him the Lord of years
The Potentate of time
Creator of the rolling spheres
Ineffably sublime!

Monday, October 4, 2010

When we stand before Him - Part 2

Over the weekend I found myself with some unexpected free time without any of the books I had brought along to read. I stopped at a bookstore and picked up one of the few C.S. Lewis books I hadn't previously read, a collection of essays called The Weight of Glory. As I read the first essay I was surprised to see that Lewis was dealing with many of the same issues I wrote about in my last blog post. I think some of what Lewis wrote might serve as a bit of a corrective to the attitude I wrote with in that last post. I don't disagree with anything I wrote, at least not at the moment, but I think Lewis makes a good point about the glory that the Christian can hope for in heaven. Lewis writes:
. . . And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex forever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero's book. Perfect humility dispenses with modesty. If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself; "it is not for her to bandy compliments with her Sovereign.". . .
. . . It is written that we shall "stand before" Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God.
Lewis' Arminianism perhaps comes out in his line about anyone who "really chooses," and that is a whole other debate I don't mean to touch on here. But when it comes to a redeemed person pleasing God, "only possible by the work of Christ," I think Lewis' thoughts in light of the rest of his essay are well argued from Scripture. It's been a blessing to read Lewis', as usual, amazing thoughts in this essay and it's helped me to think more about how I should understand good works.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

When we stand before Him

I heard something the other day that really didn't sit well with me. It's a sentiment I've heard expressed on other occasions. In this recent situation, a person was talking about tithing. She was encouraging Christians to tithe or to offer a proper amount of money to God. In an attempt to be encouraging she made reference to the last day when we will stand before the Lord. She basically said that when we stand before the Lord we don't want to be ashamed of ourselves because we didn't give enough. When I heard this my stomach kind of turned. By this line of reasoning she was implying that instead of having something to be ashamed of when we meet our Lord (not having given enough money), we should strive to have something to be proud of (in this case having given enough money). If we have something to be proud of when we meet our Lord that means we have something to boast of. I think if a person can make a statement like this they have either forgotten, misunderstood or never really believed the gospel. I think this kind of thinking also stems from a popular misconception where people are seen as not really being as bad off as the Bible says we are without Christ. Instead of being spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). Instead of believing what David, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote about mankind, "there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They all have turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one(Psalm 14:1-3)." Instead of the total depravity of man which is revealed in Scripture, mankind is viewed as being injured or weakened. In an injured or weakened state we could contribute something, we could do something in obtaining salvation which we could boast of. But Paul clearly condemns all boasting about human ability or merit in light of the gospel. Paul writes, "Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Romans 3:27-28)." Paul also writes, "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)."

But this woman was not speaking specifically of gaining salvation. She was speaking of a work done by a Christian who has already received salvation in Christ. It could be argued that this case is different from salvation where it is obvious that boasting is excluded. But boasting about our works before the Lord, even if we have been born again and are new creations in Christ, seems also to be excluded. Paul, speaking of his apostleship and his works wrote to the Corinthians, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1st Cor. 15:10)." So Paul gives the credit for his good works to the grace of God.

As I was thinking about this issue, two parts of Scripture came to mind. One from the 18th chapter of Luke's gospel and the other from the 119th Psalm. In both places a man speaks of his works or his obedience to God. In one place, in Luke, a man is condemned and in another place, the Psalm, we see worship acceptable to God. To be honest it was difficult at first for me to compare these two portions of Scripture and determine exactly how they differed. In Luke 18, in a parable of Christ, we find a pharisee who prays, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." The pharisee goes on to list his good deeds and also to compare himself to a tax collector who is also seen praying. This tax collector, "would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'" Jesus teaches that it was the tax collector who went away justified, not the pharisee (Luke 18:9-14). The introduction to the parable reveals the sin of the pharisee, for we are told that Christ told this parable, "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt (18:9)." In Psalm 119 verse 56 we find the Psalmist praying, "This blessing has fallen to me, that I have kept your precepts." I think the difference between these two men, both of whom appear to be doing something similar, that is, thanking God for their obedience or good works, is the attitude of their hearts and their motivation for thanking God for their good works. The pharisee sought to be glorified. He wanted to be compared with those who on the surface appeared more sinful than he. The Psalmist, I think, has the same attitude as Paul which was expressed in 1st Corinthians where Paul implies that it was not him who should get credit for his good works but the grace of God that was with him. Paul and the Psalmist who wrote, "this blessing has fallen to me," direct all of the glory and the credit to God and away from themselves while when the self-righteous pharisee prays, he seeks to glorify himself. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches something similar about what the result of the good works of His followers should be. Jesus taught, "... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16b)." If God is getting the glory for the good works of the followers of Christ the implication is that God is ultimately responsible for those good works.

When we stand before the Lord it will not be for us to be proud of any amount of money or time we gave or any amount of good works we ever did. On the contrary we will only be able to thank the Lord for any good work we ever did because the only way any truly good work ever occurred was by His grace, purchased for us when He shed His blood on the cross and died for us. If we ever truly worship God, if we ever serve Him or desire Him or preach His gospel it is not for us to be proud of our actions. Instead we can only thank Him that He has given us the grace to do such a thing.

In Scripture there is talk of rewards and crowns which those in Christ might receive. Calvin, commenting on 1 Thessalonians 2:19 writes, "We must, however, infer from this, that Christ's ministers will, on the last day, according as they have individually promoted his kingdom, be partakers of glory and triumph." I know the redeemed can also look forward to on the last day hearing the words from our Lord, "well done, good and faithful servant." But when the redeemed stand before Him I think the last thought in our minds will be about whether or not we are proud or ashamed. When we stand before Him we will not be thinking about ourselves. Instead we will only want to cry out, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" We'll cry, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! (Rev. 5:12-13)." As the hymn says, we'll see, "those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified." If we ever give any thought to our sins or our good works we'll know that those wounds were for our transgressions and we'll also know that it was those wounds which purchased any victory we ever had. The same hymn also says, "No angel in the sky can fully bear the sight, but downward bends his burning eye at mysteries so bright."