Suffering for the Sake of Righteousness

This is my sermonon 1 Peter 3:8-18, preached on the 6th Sunday of Eastertide (Rogation Sunday), 21 May 2017.

Introduction: Receiving Good & Evil from the Lord

“Satan said the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life.  But put forth your hand now, and touch Job’s bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”  And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.  And Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.”  But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” – Job 2:4-10

The blessed Job, often considered the most patient man in all of biblical literature, understood a profound truth about God that is difficult to grasp even now: God is in charge.  What he gives to us, he gives to us.

Sometimes we receive from the Lord things that we would consider good: a friend, a spouse, an income, a home, health, prosperity, a family, times of leisure.  It is for things like these that we pray during Rogationtide, these days of special prayer for a prosperous season.  Originally days to pray for the newly-planted harvest, the Rogation Days are now also opportunities to pray for our businesses, industries, and all the other forms of labor that we undertake for our private and public livelihood.  We pray that God will shower down his blessings.

But we also receive from the Lord things that we call evil: loneliness, loss, suffering, pain, sickness, destitution, unemployment, or its opposite, a schedule so dominated with work that we have no Sabbath at all.  Job certainly underwent a great many trials and experienced a great range of evils through the course of his story.  Although we do not pray for evils from God to descend upon us, we are taught in the Scriptures that it does happen, and that there is a blessing for us in the midst of them.

 We are not alone; Christ suffered too!

Before we dive into this subject too deeply, though, I should note two common knee-jerk reactions that we tend to have toward suffering: “Why me?” and “It isn’t fair!”  Both of these reactions betray an inadequate perspective on life.  The reaction “why me” reveals a heart that is not fixed upon Christ, for Christ also suffered.  The reaction “it isn’t fair” also reveals a heart that is not fixed upon Christ, for Christ never even did any wrong that he should deserve the least bit of suffering.  We do not believe in karma, but if we did, all we’d deserve is the greatest evils upon our souls, considering the fact that we are all sinners.  If the world really was “fair,” we would suffer and die, and Christ would live untouched for ever.

But thanks be to God, the world is not governed by such a notion of “fairness.”  The justice and wisdom of God is far greater than anything we could have ever conceived, let alone achieved.  According to his own secret counsel, God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to live as one of us and die on our behalf, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.  This is the critical point that puts all our sufferings and trials into their proper perspective.  This is also the climax of our Epistle lesson this morning.

1 Peter 3:8-18 deals with the issue of Christian suffering, and, as I’ve just quoted, it ends by grounding our experience in the experience of Christ himself.  More specifically, verse 18 puts suffering for righteousness’ sake in the context of eventual glorification – the final blessing!

It’s interesting to note that so far 1 Peter has only dealt with Christ’s sufferings and vindication (that is, his resurrection), which matches the present liturgical context: Christ is risen, but has not yet ascended to the right hand of God.  The book will get to that glory in due time, just as the Church will be celebrating that ascension on Thursday.  (Or in our case, on Wednesday evening.)

As verse 18 specifically brings to our attention, though Jesus was put to death and was resurrected – the emphasis is on its historicity and passivity.  These things did happen, and they were done to Jesus.  Sometimes the scriptures speak of Christ “laying down” his life of his own volition, but Peter is careful to use the passive tense in this instance: he wants us to know that his suffering was both real and uninvited.  With this foundation and lynch-pin in mind, let us proceed through this text.

1 Peter 3:8-18: Suffering for Righteousness’ Sake

Verse 8 calls us to be “same-minded,” which is to include our sentiment, aim, and purpose.  This draws a picture of noteworthy unity!  When we are united with the Body of Christ, the Church, our tendency toward self-centeredness is kept in check.  When we pursue the same ambition and goal – to be one in Christ – we strengthen the ties that bind us one to another.  This is critical for what is to come, both in this text and in the Christian life.

Verse 9 instructs us to bless others continually.  This teaching is echoed throughout the New Testament: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt. 5:44-45).  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (Rom. 12:14).

The reason that we are called to bless others is because of God’s blessings upon us.  Jesus himself illustrated this in his Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21-35).  In that story, a lord forgives a servant of an enormous debt, but that servant does not extend the same mercy to someone else who owed him much less.  The story ends like this: “Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?  And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”  This idea continues into the next three verses as well.

Verses 10-12 essentially quote Psalm 34:12-16a, and we can see them as an exhortation against being like that unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:32-34).  Love life & have good days is a wish to enjoy life’s fruitfulness (the results of Rogationtide blessings, as it were).  Stop the tongue from evil is, like last week, considered the starting point for various and sundry forms of sin.  We are also commanded here to move from evil toward good, where we can find peace in the fullest sense (shalom).  The Psalm quote ends with a double reference to God’s attention: God’s eyes are upon describes the blessing connotation of his face, and God’s countenance is against refers to the cursing connotation of his face.

Verse 13 begins the next major section of the book: how to deal with the new situation of persecution!  Even though it’s a new section, it’s still closely tied to the previous verses; it’s on the heels of these calls to unity and perseverance and holiness that Peter now turns to the specific issue of persecution.  This simple sentence in verse 13 packs a great deal of wisdom.  Think about it, who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right?  As one early 20th century Lutheran commentator observed, “It is mighty hard for anybody to mistreat people who are zealots for goodness, i.e., for doing what is beneficial to others” (Lenski, page 146).  He adds, “Despite all the good which Christians may do, the world does not really like them and is on occasion bound to vent its hatred.  What Peter says is that zealousness for the good robs opponents of any real reason for mean treatment of the readers; as in the case of Jesus, who constantly went about dispensing good, some other reason for mean treatment will have to be trumped up” (Lenski, page 147).

Verse 14 deals with suffering in a conditional sense: we “might have to be suffering.”  In other words, Peter hopes these trials will quiet down.  Suffering is not a guarantee.  We could paraphrase this verse to say: Don’t let them scare you, neither be disturbed (in mind or conduct).

Verse 15 gives us our priority, whether under persecution or not: sanctify the Lord, Christ, in your hearts.  In order to do this properly, we must be holy, or sanctified, or set apart, as he called us to be.  In order to do this properly, we must fear him alone, above all earthly powers.  In so doing, we nurture a “living hope” for which we can give account in testimony at a moment’s notice.  But our apologia must be made in meekness, not roughness, to keep a clear conscience (as verse 16 adds).

Verse 16 also points out that our good behavior will contrast with the wickedness of our accusers.  And that is true whether they respond to our meekness or not.  Sometimes people are shamed or inspired to repentance by the meekness of those they persecute.  Sometimes their hearts are hardened.  We pray for the former, but it ultimately isn’t up to us.

Verse 17, finally, admits that it is potentially God’s will that we suffer even for doing good.  Suffering for doing wrong, as Peter writes both here and in a previous section, is entirely out of the picture.  If you sin, and suffer for it, that’s justice.  It’s suffering for doing no wrong that is the issue his original readers were beginning to face, and the same issue that persecuted Christians have faced in many other times and places since then.  It might seem crazy to imagine that suffering just for being a Christian should ever be allowed under God’s permissive will, but that’s why we started at the end, at verse 18 – Jesus also suffered, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.

Jesus says, “follow me.”

Suffering for doing good is following the path of Christ, so it’s just as much a blessing as is a peaceful life.  There are false teachers out there, preaching what we call “the health-wealth gospel” or “the prosperity gospel.”  They teach that God only wants to bless you with good things.  Therefore, they say, if you’re suffering, it’s because you don’t have enough faith!  These wolves in sheep’s clothing have obviously never understood the story of Job, nor studied 1 Peter, let alone understood the glory of the Cross.

Yes, the glory of the Cross!  We sang an excellent hymn a few minutes ago that draws together this glory with other themes we’ve dealt with this morning.

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed, Great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed, His reign on earth begun!”

Notice here that the reign of Christ has already begun.  Jesus is King, not just will be in some distant future.  Our faith is not built upon the promise of Christ’s return, but upon Christ’s completed work on the Cross.  We do indeed wait with a true and “living hope” for the fullest glory of his return, but we do so only because of the confidence we gain in what he has already done.  On the Cross, Jesus made his full sufficient sacrifice, satisfaction, and oblation, cancelling the hold of the Devil over we poor sinners.  There, he set us free.  There, he seized the throne back from the Evil One.

And then we sang another verse:

“He comes with succor speedy To those who suffer wrong,
To help the poor and needy, And bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing, Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying, Were precious in his sight.”

This is his ministry both on earth and in heaven. He continues to provide help to we who suffer, and are poor, and needy.  He still strengthens we who are weak, turning our sighs into songs, our darkness into light.  In the midst of the “evils” that we have received, God effects blessings.  And thus, verse 3:

“He shall come down like showers Upon the fruitful earth,
And love, joy, hope, like flowers, Spring in his path to birth:
Before him on the mountains Shall peace, the herald, go;
And righteousness in fountains From hill to valley flow.”

Earthly blessings are used here as a metaphor for spiritual blessings.  Just as we seek a good season for the prosperity of our crops and other works during these Rogation Days, we also seek a good life for the prosperity of virtues like love, joy, hope, and so forth.  Sometimes our work is beset with thistles and thorns, blight and blunder, just as our lives are best with sin and suffering and spiritual stagnation.  These trials and tribulations do not mean that we have spurned God’s grace.  More often than not, they are opportunities direct from our Lord himself for us to learn, to grow, to prove and demonstrate our faith in his sight and in the sight of “those who would call us to account”.

May the light of your faith so shine in your works and your forbearance that even the most hardened of sinners may sit up, take notice, and glory God on the day of his visitation!

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Who is God? – summarizing Articles 1-5

The 39 Articles of Religion begin with the absolute basic questions of reality: who is God?  This is the heart of the definition of theology, explaining who and what God is.

The liturgy of the Anglican tradition, as ordered in the Prayer Book, is an excellent companion to such basic statements of theology as are found here in these five Articles.  The doctrine of the Trinity (spelled out Article 1) is expressed in nearly every prayer and collect in the liturgy.  The doctrine of Christ being both entirely God and entirely Man (spelled out in Article 2) is described especially in the collects associated with the days and week abutting Christmas and Easter.  His descent and resurrection (as taught in Articles 3 and 4) are affirmed in prayer and worship throughout Holy Week.  The doctrine of the Holy Spirit (as put forth in Article 5) finds its particular echoes in the prayers associated with the Day of Pentecost.  Thus, these first five Articles do not stand in a vacuum of dry intellectual teaching, but are closely linked with the life of worship as well.

Furthermore, the teaching of these Articles on the basics of God’s identity is affirmed universally among Protestants and Papists alike.  None of these beliefs were of real controversy during the Reformation, and they all remain cornerstones of fundamental agreement among all Christians.  Together, they also summarize the majority of the content of the Creeds, which are also believed by all Christians.  Thus, Articles 1 through 5 are especially valuable for identifying the true faith from counterfeits – all Christians affirm these teachings; thus all who reject them are deceivers or deceived.

The only possible exception in here is the phraseology in Article 5, that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father and the Son.”  The original text of the Nicene Creed says only that the Spirit proceeds “from the Father,” and that is what the Easter Orthodox Church teaches to this day.  Depending upon how this distinction is understood, there can be some sharp disagreements between East and West.  Further discussion of this issue is addressed in my comments for Article 5, though a thorough analysis is beyond the scope of this project (and, indeed, outside of the purpose of the Articles).

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Article 18: In Christ Alone

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 18 states:

XVIII. Of obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ

They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

On the surface this Article seems very simple, very obvious, perhaps even a little bewildering as to why it even needs to be said.  The truth is, although this Article is indeed as simple as it sounds, it shakes to the core the false notions that many well-meaning Christians cling to.

Taking the oft-repeated New Testament doctrine, that Christ Jesus is the only way to the Father, and the only name by which we may be saved, Article 18 spells out the converse: every alternative to the way of Christ is a false hope.  We are not saved by the “Law or Sect” that we profess – being a committed Anglican or Presbyterian or Lutheran is not what saves us, only in the name of Christ are we saved.  This rules out the sin of idolizing our church, tradition, or denomination (though it does not give us carte blanche to ignore theological disagreements with others, either).

This applies to other faiths: people are not saved by adhering to other religions even if they are “diligent to frame [their] life according to that Law, and the light of Nature.”  Being a committed Jew, a committed Muslim, a committed Buddhist, a committed Mormon, a committed Atheist, doesn’t count as “good enough” or “close enough.”  Only in Christ is eternal life to be found, for Christ is the only true God.

This Article, perhaps a no-brainer in terms of understanding historical Christianity, has turned out to become one of the most obvious lines of defense against excessive liberalism in the churches.  Many have begun to preach that Christ is a way to God; Article 18 binds us to hold that line: Christ is the way to God.

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Eloquence is Only a Tool

Fine style does not make something true, nor has a man a wise soul because he has a handsome face and well-chosen eloquence….  He seemed to them prudent and wise because he charmed them by the way he talked.

Saint Augustine of Hippo was a well-educated man.  Before he converted to Christianity, rhetoric and public speaking formed a sort of idol in his life.  He loved listening to good speakers, he constantly sought to be a better speaker, and he valued eloquence so highly that he didn’t always care what was actually being said, as long as it was said well.  And yet, he was also aware that eloquence does not make something true.  His quote, above, may be an obvious truth, but it’s prudent wisdom for us today, too.  How often we follow someone because of how they look and how they sound.  If we like a person, or a person’s style, we find ourselves much more apt to accept what they have to say.

This is an issue for many Christians today, especially in the revivalist and megachurch movements, and the many churches affected by them.  There is an idea, in many people’s minds, that a good gospel preacher is loud, engaging, enthralling, captivating.  A good preacher will “blow the doors down” and people will come flocking to hear him.  This is an appeal to eloquence or emotionalism (or both), which easily ends up overlooking substance and content.  As long as people come forward at the altar call to “give their lives to Jesus”, the preacher has done his job.

There is a shallowness in our attention and our desires that is very easy to give in to.  Augustine grew painfully aware of this in himself, leading up to his conversion to Christianity, and he found this lesson an important consideration throughout his Christian life and ministry as well.

Interestingly, there are also people who realize this shallow tendency to follow blindly a good and polished speaker, and react to it in the opposite extreme, actually mistrusting eloquent speakers.  In Augustine’s day, there were some Christians who thought that preaching and teaching should be simple and straight-forward.  Eloquence was an idol and a distraction, these people asserted.  But Augustine recognized eloquence and style as tools that could be used for good or for ill.

Already I had learnt from you [God] that nothing is true merely because it is eloquently said, nor false because the signs coming from the lips make sounds deficient in a sense of style.  Again, a statement is not true because it is enunciated in a an unpolished idiom, nor false because the words are splendid.  Wisdom and foolishness are like food that is nourishing or useless.  Whether the words are ornate or not does not decide the issue.

This is the balanced lesson, I think.  Wisdom is nourishing food; foolishness is useless food.  If we proclaim the Gospel with simplicity, God’s wisdom is there.  If we proclaim the Gospel with eloquence, God’s wisdom is there.  Eloquence is only a tool; we may use it or not, but we can never celebrate it as an end unto itself.

If your pastor is an exciting and engaging speaker, listen carefully to what he actually teaches.

If your pastor is kind of a boring preacher, listen carefully to what he actually teaches.

 

Both quotes above are from the Confession of Saint Augustine, book V section vi.(10), which is on page 78 in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, 1998.

 

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Article 17: Predestination & Election

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 17 states:

XVII. Of Predestination and Election

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

When people ask me if I believe in Predestination, I like to answer “Yes of course, all Christians believe in Predestination.  It’s in the Bible!”  Of course, the challenge is what people actually mean by “predestination,” and how it links up to other biblical doctrines concerning our salvation.

At the most basic level, predestination is the act of God’s calling upon people before they’re born to come to salvation; election is God’s actual decision.  One of the major sources of this teaching in Scripture is 2 Timothy 1:9, which says God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago.”  Ephesians 1:4-6, also, teaches that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.  He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

On one level this is a very simple concept and teaching.  On another level, what you make of it can have massive implications for the entirety of Christian teaching about salvation, the human condition, and even evangelism.  There can be said to be three categories of Christian views on predestination: Calvinist, Arminian, and Lutheran.

Calvinist theology sets predestination in the context of God’s sovereignty.  In his sovereign power, God the Father elects some people for salvation, God the Son suffers and dies for them, and God the Spirit sanctifies them throughout their lives.  All this takes place through God-given means: preaching the Gospel, ministering the sacraments, and so forth.  Some Calvinists will take this a step further with the doctrine of “Double Predestination,” asserting that God not only elects some to salvation, but also elects the rest of mankind to die in their sins.  God’s supreme lordship over all creation and his perfect and wise eternal purposes are the overarching paradigm holding this together.

Arminian theology sets predestination in the context of God’s foreknowledge.  With a nod to human free will, God the Father elects those for salvation whom he foresees will put their faith in him.  Some Arminians take this a step further and assert that if someone abandons their faith in God, then God’s election of that person is also undone – someone can be in a state of grace, but later abandon God and be consigned to Hell.

Lutheran theology sets predestination in the context of God’s merciful love.  In grace, God the Son died for the sins of the whole world, making redemption available to everybody.  And yet, by way of a divine mystery we cannot untangle, God the Father also only chooses certain people ahead of time for salvation.  God’s will or wish for universal salvation is upheld alongside the fact that he doesn’t elect everyone for salvation.

When it comes to Anglicanism, one finds that all three views of Predestination can fit into the language of Article 17.  Each viewpoint may latch on to different phrases therein.  Calvinists may emphasize the phrase “everlasting purpose of God” to highlight God’s perfect sovereignty.  Arminians may emphasize the phrase “those whom he hath chosen in Christ” to highlight that their election is linked to faith in Christ.  Lutherans may emphasize the phrase “decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation” to highlight the mystery of God’s predestinating will and desire to save sinners from eternal death.

There are, however, certain aspects both of Calvinism and of Arminianism that fall outside of Anglican teaching.  This is not to say that Anglicans cannot be Calvinists nor Arminians, but that certain forms of those theological systems do not fit in with the totality of Anglican teaching.

One Calvinist teaching on Predestination that is not mentioned one way or the other is Double Predestination (that God chooses who goes to heaven and who goes to hell).  Although repugnant to most Anglicans throughout history, our foundational documents neither teach nor condemn this point.

One Calvinist teaching that is ruled out, however, is the doctrine of Limited Atonement.  This is the idea that Jesus died only for the Elect – that is, those whom God the Father first predestined.  While fitting together in a logical system, Scriptural evidence for this position cannot be proven against the default belief that Christ died for the sins of all.  The Anglican Catechism of 1662 also denied this Calvinist teaching.

One Arminian teaching on Predestination that does not fit into Anglican doctrine is the claim that human free will is sufficiently free to choose Christ.  Sometimes called “Decisionism,” this is a view popular among Methodists and Revivalists, claiming that we are saved according to our own decision to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.  Article 10, On Free-Will, upholds the classical reformation teaching that the human will is so tainted by sin that it is unable to choose the good – to put faith in Christ – without God’s grace preceding us.  Thus, the Arminian doctrine of Predestination based on God’s foreknowledge of human faith must maintain a doctrine of God’s Prevenient (that is, preceeding) Grace enabling that faith to come about, in order to fit into Anglican teaching.

A positive and comprehensive Anglican teaching on Predestination, based on Article 17, is (as far as I can tell) essentially on the same page as Lutheran (and historic Christian) teaching.  First, we affirm not only God’s foreknowledge of those who would be saved, but also God’s fore-decision (or Predestination).

Second, God’s grace upon his elect moves us through a sevenfold process of growth in Christ.  Article 17 describes the process to be election, obedience, justification, adoption, made like the image of Christ, good works, and finally, everlasting felicity [joy].  This is essentially a paraphrase of Romans 8:29-30.  Noting how obedience follows election, we must note that although we cannot say “yes” to God without his “yes” to us (that is, Election), we can, however, say “no” to God, rejection his election.  We cannot lose our election, but we can reject it.

Third, Predestination and Election are to be understood as “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons” (echoing Romans 8:31-33).  This sets up a distance from the extremes of the Calvinist view which tend to depict God as cold and arbitrary.  Rather than focusing on God’s sovereign choice by itself and worrying whether or not someone is elect, we are to see Predestination as God’s commitment to us undergirding the evidences of salvation that we see in ourselves.  We can look to the Fruits of the Spirit within ourselves as subjective signs of God’s election, as Article 17 implies.  We can look to Holy Baptism as an objective sign of God’s election (Romans 6:1-4, Mark 16:16).  In short, Predestination is the truth of God’s commitment to his people, not a bludgeon of fear.

Fourth, as Article 17 concludes, “we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed.”  This is a warning against taking a biblical teaching and running with it to an inappropriate extreme, such as living in fear over whether one is Elect or not.  This is also an exhortation to an obedient response to God’s Predestination.  Since he calls us to be Christians, we are bound to believe and live as Christians.  In God’s Election and through Holy Baptism we have been given the gift of faith; it is our part to receive it with joy and grow in love for God and neighbor, that we might be the more zealous to confirm our call and election, for if we do this you will never fall (2 Peter 1:10).

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Faith and Faulty Science

Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote one of the earliest “personal testimony” autobiographies that we still have today among our Christian literature.  In roughly 300 pages, he walks through his life from infancy to his present day, detailing the state of his soul, examining how and when and why he strayed from Christ (as best as he could remember), as well as noting both God’s punishments and God’s protection upon him leading to his eventual conversion to the faith.

St. Augustine was one smart cookie.  He was well educated in literature and rhetoric, as well as the rest of the “liberal arts” of classical education.  He held multiple teaching positions in in Carthage, Rome, and Milan in his late 20’s, and was conversant with many of the great Greek and Latin writings of his day.  And yet he was also deeply religious throughout his life.  For most of his 20’s, he subscribed to Manicheanism, a heretical offshoot (or imitator) of Christianity that had grown very fashionable in his day.  But over time, as he learned more from the writings of other philosophers (or scientists, we might better translate in some cases), he found the writings of Mani increasingly lacking when it comes to accurate explanations for natural phenomena.  For example, there was already knowledge of astronomy accurate enough to track and predict the time and location of lunar and solar eclipses, yet the Manichean texts insisted on a mythological explanation for them – that the moon was hiding a celestial battle between light and dark from earthly eyes.

Later, as a Christian bishop and theologian, Augustine continued to pay attention to the discrepancy between the claims of “faith” and the observations of “science” (to use modern terminology).  Unlike in his earlier days as a heretic, he no longer held religious people with erroneous scientific views with contempt, though he was still concerned about false scientific claims made in the name of faith.

When I hear of this or that brother Christian, who is ignorant of these matters and thinks one thing the case when another is correct, with patience I contemplate the man expressing his opinion.  I do not see it is any obstacle to him if perhaps he is ignorant of the position and nature of a physical creature, provided that he does not believe something unworthy of you, Lord, the Creator of all things.  But it becomes an obstacle if he thinks his view of nature belongs to the very form of orthodox doctrine, and dares obstinately to affirm something he does not understand.

As long as the false scientific opinions didn’t get in the way of their faith, or take center stage in their worldview, Augustine figured that was alright.  People get stuff wrong all the time, and as long as we don’t cling too closely to opinions we can’t entirely defend or understand, we’re in good shape.  Nevertheless, he did hope (or perhaps even expect) people to grow over the course of their Christian lives:

But such an infirmity in the cradle of faith is sustained by mother charity, until the new man ‘grows up into a mature man and is no longer carried about by any wind of doctrine’ (Eph. 4:13).

“Mother charity” is simply Augustine’s personification for a spirit of love, particularly in the ministry of the Church and the Christian community, helping people to deepen in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.  It only really becomes a problem when people insist on asserting erroneous teachings:

But in the case of that man who dared to pose as a teacher, an authority, as a leader and prince of those he persuaded of his ideas, so that his followers thought themselves to be going after not a mere man but your Holy Spirit, who would not judge that, once he had been convicted of purveying falsehoods, such folly should be detested and put wholly aside?

As he was writings this, Augustine seemed particularly to have in mind Mani, the so-called prophet for whom Manicheanism is named.  That heretical sect taught as religious doctrine things which were patently false, according to the plain observation and study of philosophers (or scientists, as we would say).  But the implication of this warning applies to Christians also.  To use an easy example today, there are people out there who, in the name of biblical Christianity, believe that the earth is flat (or at least a sort of dome).  The earth has edges, corners, boundaries, and (so they claim) the Bible tells us so.  To such people, affirmation of the earth to be a globe is a rejection of the authority of the Bible.  Saint Augustine would have no patience for such assertions.  If someone innocently or passively believes in a flat earth, that’s alright; but if someone teaches it as a religious authority, “such folly should be detested and put wholly aside”.

Augustine also believed that a six 24-hour day creation narrative was also a faulty interpretation of Scripture, though he does not get into that in this part of his Confessions.  He would be tolerant of those who prefer to believe it (which we normally today call Young Earth Creationism), but he would not be tolerant of those who teach it as “the authoritative” interpretation of Scripture.

In short, teachers of religion, preachers, Bible scholars, etc., should take care not to overstep our field of expertise.  It is one thing to hold unconventional opinions on scientific matters, but it is intellectually dishonest and spiritually presumptuous to teach or preach as doctrine something that we cannot properly defend in further discussion.

 

All three quotes are from the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo, book V, section v (9), which is pages 76-77 in the Oxford World’s Classics edition, 1998.

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Article 16: Sin after Baptism

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 16 states:

XVI. Of Sin after Baptism

Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Where several of the previous Articles, especially the ones dealing with “good works,” put forth a theology in contradiction to the extremes of the Roman Church, Article 16 stands against one of the extremes of the radical reformation.  Some, zealous for holiness in the church, eager to obey the teachings of Christ faithfully, and confident in the power of the Holy Spirit, came to the conclusion that “real Christians” don’t sin anymore.  They got carried away with Bible verses like Hebrews 6:4 – “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.”

To such extremists, a prayer of confession and repentance was only necessary once, at the beginning of the Christian life, and was thereafter unnecessary.  Although the full force of this false teaching is not common today, its effects are still felt in many Protestant churches that never offer prayers of confession and declarations of forgiveness (or “absolution”) in their liturgies.

But, as Article 15 teaches, drawing from verses such as 1 John 1:8-9, the fact is that faithful baptized Christians are still sinners.  There is indeed a biblical mandate to strive for perfection in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, but there is no indication that full sanctification will be achieved in this life.  Only in death will we be free from sin completely.

Thus, as this Article explains, when Baptized Christians sin, “the grant of repentance is not to be denied.”  This position is bolstered in Anglican liturgy by including a Confession of Sin in both the Daily Office and the Holy Communion liturgies, as well as provisions for the making of private confessions to a priest.  The ministry of reconciliation, the declaration of God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners, is a vital part of the Church’s role in the life of each and every believer.  Nobody can claim that “they can no more sin” in this life.  And the Church dare not “deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.”  So we believe, and so we practice.

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