Psalm 1 – Two Different Ways

Oh, the joys of those who do not
    follow the advice of the wicked,
    or stand around with sinners,
    or join in with mockers.
But they delight in the law of the Lord,
    meditating on it day and night.
They are like trees planted along the riverbank,
    bearing fruit each season.
Their leaves never wither,
    and they prosper in all they do.

But not the wicked!
    They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.
They will be condemned at the time of judgment.
    Sinners will have no place among the godly.
For the Lord watches over the path of the godly,
    but the path of the wicked leads to destruction. (New Living Translation)

Today’s psalm presents us with two differing ways we can choose to shape our lives: The way of the upright and virtuous, or the way of the unethical and depraved. 

The way of the right and just person leads to human flourishing and life – whereas the way of the wicked and unjust person leads to human degradation and death. 

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks.

Only at the end of the age, when the Day of Judgment comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

The magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther, contrasted these two ways with his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Luther called the way of the wicked a theology of glory – and described the way of the righteous as the theology of the cross.

The cross of Christ, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. Christ’s death is central to Christianity, and one must embrace the cross and rely completely and totally upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. Through being crucified with Christ, we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

Conversely, the theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of outward sinning and heinous acts. The worst of sinners do good works.

Specifically, the wicked person is the one who does all kinds of nice things – yet does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting this: The wicked person is one who seeks to gain glory for self, rather than giving glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness.

It is far too easy to place faith in our good works done apart from God, rather than having a naked trust in Christ alone. And it is far too easy to do good things for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner is one who lives apart from that cross, trusting in self so that people can recognize and give them their perceived due respect and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

We are not to avoid good works but do them from the good soil of being planted in the law of God and connected to the vine of Christ. When the psalmist uses the term “law” he is referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s big world.

The righteous are those who immerse themselves in the law; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately pour over Scripture’s message and pray to put it into practice because they want to delight in God. Their fruit will be abundant and sweet.  

The wicked, however, are simply too busy to take note what the law says; only serve to be seen; and publicly desire to be recognized for their charity and works. Such works will not stand when Judgment Day comes.

You’re nothing but show-offs. You’re like tombs that have been whitewashed. On the outside they are beautiful, but inside they are full of bones and filth. (Matthew 23:27, CEV)

Truly righteous people have a humble sense that they could easily drift from God, if not staying connected and rooted in Jesus and the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless, and not adding value to anything. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention that God rightly deserves. The wicked have nothing to contribute to God’s kingdom. They hinder the harvest of souls God is working toward with their irritating attitudes.

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious.  Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is the result of a righteous relationship cultivated with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of such persons.

The way of the wicked will perish.

We have sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness.  And the wicked turn out to be God’s covenant people, because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. They withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or their personal goals.

God desires genuine spiritual growth for us. That will only happen if we avoid the theology of glory and embrace a theology of the cross – delighting in God and the law.

Every day, we have a choice to make: The way of connection and life, or the way of disconnection and death. 

Look here! Today I’ve set before you, life and what’s good versus death and what’s wrong. If you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I’m commanding you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws, then you will live and thrive, and the Lord your God will bless you…. But if your heart turns away and you refuse to listen, and so are misled, worshipping other gods and serving them,I’m telling you right now that you will definitely die…. I have set life and death, blessing and curse before you. Now choose life—so that you and your descendants will live—by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by clinging to him. That’s how you will survive and live long…. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, CEB)

The idols of our hearts can so easily draw us away from God so that our own good works are done for an audience who will recognize and affirm. Instead, our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. 

What will you choose this day?

Romans 5:6-11 – Christ Died For Us

“Golgotha” by Edvard Munch, 1900

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (New International Version)

In Christianity, there is only one way of approaching God: Through the death of Jesus Christ. That means we cannot approach God by our good works, doing things right, or by our spiritual pedigree. We are justified and declared righteous by grace alone through faith in the cross of Christ.

Back when my youngest daughter was still living at home, sometimes I needed to go into her room to get something. More often than not, it ended up becoming an archaeological dig. I had to wade through layers of stuff. I didn’t always find what I was looking for, and other times I discovered things I didn’t know I had even lost. 

When the magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) went digging into the Bible, he found he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost. Luther rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us. Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin. Luther discovered we all have layers of stuff that has grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives. 

The Reformation has taught believers that apart from Christ, we are addicted to ourselves. The cross is the intervention we need to help us confront our constant me-ism.

We might justify ourselves with the fact we do good works. However, one of the legacies of the Reformation, coming from the book of Romans, is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin. In fact, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ. 

So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell. In other words, good deeds can be deadly, if they are done as a means of approaching and appeasing God. 

It is through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved. 

“He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people who are under God’s wrath! God can only be found in suffering and the cross. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness but in our ugliness and sin.

While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us. We spend too much time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God. 

But that is the very sin that sends people to a hellish existence. The hottest places of damnation are actually reserved for outwardly pious persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought, at all, about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace.

It is a totally human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins. The Apostle Paul was really hard on his fellow Jews in the book of Romans because they tended to place their trust in who they were and what they did – being the covenant people and practicing all the good things a good person does. And Paul says the wrath of God is reserved for them. 

The way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ. We are justified by and reconciled to God because of Jesus, and not for any other reason. A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.

“Jesus Carrying The Cross” by Olga Bakhtina, 2017

When Christians grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our sinful good works (yes, sinful good works). Wherever there is humility that leads to a complete turning to Jesus, there is revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.

We, then, as Christians, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet. We have deliverance from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ. Apathy and lethargy to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.

There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying God’s own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us. The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name “Brennan.”

While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly, a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

Later in life, when Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name “Brennan.”

Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder: Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me? We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand with God.

No matter how bad or how good you are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.

Week after week for the past two-thousand years, God’s people have gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross. The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him.

While we were still sinners, enemies, estranged, hopeless, lost, despondent, proud, and stained by sin, Jesus died a cruel death on a cross to wash away your sins with his blood. It is my hope and prayer that today you are rediscovering the great Reformation truth that we are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone, and the life of unbounded joy in knowing that we have now received reconciliation with God in Christ.

Lord God Almighty, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. We need you, Lord Jesus, and come to you on the basis of nothing else but your shed blood. I pray for all those who are wrestling with you right now. Oh, that you would revive those that need new life, that you would renew those who have become cold, and that you would reform all of our hearts so that our lives would completely be devoted around the person and work of Jesus Christ! 

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for dying for us while we were still powerless, sinful, and ungodly. Thank you for saving us from God’s wrath. Thank you, God Almighty, for reconciling us back to yourself through the cross. There are those needing you to break through their stubborn hearts; and those who need peace to their troubled hearts. O God, save us from ourselves, whether it is from our trust in our own perceived goodness, or our sense of shame and guilt. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Luke 10:25-37 – The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Good Samaritan by He Qi

A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Common English Bible)

In Christianity, no one justifies themselves. The kingdom of God turns on grace, and not with us working more or harder. As we anticipate Reformation Day, Christians remember the famous posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. 

Justification by grace through faith, apart from human effort, is the great theological emphasis and legacy of the Reformers. I suppose one would expect to look at the New Testament books of Romans and Galatians when it comes to dealing with justification. However, there might just be a better place to go….

Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan is a famous and familiar story to many people, even for those outside of the Christian faith tradition. The parable is likely not the place one thinks to go when considering the Reformation. Yet, this parable is just the right place for considering the grand Reformation doctrine of justification.

“Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

The Gospel writer, Luke, gives us insight into the thought process of the person for whom Jesus told the parable to. That man sought to justify himself. 

When we view the parable from the angle of justification, we see the perspective of the wounded and hapless man, the victim of robbers. He was left for dead, and, indeed, in the story we know that he would die apart from help – the kind of help the man could not do for himself. He was completely dependent on someone to rescue him from his plight.

The Samaritan, the Christ figure in the story, comes and shows the man mercy. This grace was free, lacked any sort of favoritism, and was full of sheer kindness. Without the Samaritan’s actions of binding up the man’s wounds and getting him to a safe place, the victim would have died.  

Reformation Day, and every day, is a good day to celebrate the wonderful and glorious reality that Jesus Christ saves people from their terrible plight. 

Christ’s mercy is not dependent on what kind of people we are but is simply based on need. God graciously gives us the gift of faith and the mercy of deliverance. By Christ’s wounds we are healed. 

Take some time today to reflect on this most gracious of biblical truths: We do not need to justify ourselves. As Christians, we already possess justification by grace alone apart from human effort. 

Read the parable of the Good Samaritan carefully and slowly, absorbing it from this angle of the inability to justify ourselves and the incredible mercy of Christ. Let this wonderful truth sink deep in your soul to bring increased awareness, emotional wholeness, and spiritual healing.

Lord God, heavenly Father, you did not spare your only Son, but gave him up for us all to be our Savior, and along with him you have graciously given us all things. We thank you for your precious, saving gospel, and we pray that you would help us to believe in the name of our Savior faithfully and steadfastly, for he alone is our righteousness and wisdom, our comfort and peace, so that we may stand on the day of his appearing, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, our Lord. Amen. – A Lutheran Collect of Thanksgiving

Two Ways of Living: Blessed or Cursed

Blessed is the one
    who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
    or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law, day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
    They are like chaff
    that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psalm 1:1-6, NIV)

The Righteous and the Wicked

This psalm presents two ways we can choose to shape our lives: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, blessed or cursed. The way of the righteous leads to human blessing, flourishing, and living. The way of the wicked leads to human cursing, degenerating, and dying.

Distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked is not always as easy as it looks. Only at the end of the age, when Judgment Day comes, will we know for certain the righteous and the wicked.

To discern the difference between the two, let’s refer to the Reformer, Martin Luther, to help us. You might be familiar with Luther’s 95 Theses posted on the door of the Wittenberg castle church, sparking the Reformation of Christianity. Less familiar is the theological meat of Luther’s reforming spirit, his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, written the year following the 95 Theses.

Theology of the Cross and Theology of Glory

Like Psalm 1, Luther contrasts two opposing ways. He calls these two ways the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. The cross, as expressed by Luther, is God’s attack on human sin. It is the death of Christ which is central to Christianity. Therefore, one must embrace the cross and rely solely upon Christ’s finished work on the cross to handle human sin. It is through being crucified with Christ we find the way to human flourishing and life. In other words, righteousness is gained by grace through faith in Christ.

The theology of glory is the opposing way of the cross. It’s important to understand Luther because he has a key which helps us unlock Scripture by not walking in the way of the wicked, as expressed in Psalm 1. For Luther, the wicked person, and the vilest offender of God, is not the person who has done all kinds of readily observable outward sinning. You, perhaps like me, have an idea in your head of what the worst of sinners is like. My guess is that it probably has something to do with certain lifestyles or evil acts. 

“Good” Works?

Luther, however, insisted the worst of sinners are people who do good works. Specifically, the wicked person is one who has clean living and does nice things but does them disconnected from God by wanting others to see their good actions. Another way of putting it: The wicked person seeks to gain glory for themselves rather than give glory to God.

Our good works can be the greatest hindrance to righteousness and living the way of the cross. It is far too easy to place faith in our good works, done apart from God, rather than placing complete trust in Christ alone. It can be too easy, doing good things, for the primary purpose of having others observe our goodness, rather than do them out of the good soil of being planted in God’s Word. 

The remedy for sin is the cross, and the sinner lives life apart from that cross, trusting in self, so that people will give personal recognition, respect, and accolades.

“It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther

Delight, or Not

The answer to this problem of doing good works to gain glory for self is not to avoid good works, but to do them from the good soil of being planted in God’s law and connected to Christ’s vine. The psalmist uses the word “law” in referring to Scripture as a whole, to all the acquired wisdom about how life is supposed to be lived in God’s world.

People who yield juicy abundant fruit have immersed themselves in the law. Because they delight in God; secretly rise early to meditate on God’s Word; privately read the Bible’s message; and pray to put that message into practice. They will be blessed. 

The wicked are too busy to notice the law. They serve to be seen and desire public recognition for their charity and works. But those works will not stand in the Judgment. Jesus described them this way:

“You are like white-washed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean….  On the outside you appear to people as righteous, but on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:27, NIV)

Which is Which?

Identifying the righteous and the wicked is not as simple as saying the wicked are “those people” out there, and the righteous people are in here. The truly righteous person delights in God through the law. They have the humble sense they could easily drift from God if not staying connected, rooted in Jesus, and grounded in the way of the cross. 

The wicked, in contrast, are like chaff – worthless. They are arrogant and annoying – wanting all the attention which God rightly deserves. When I was a kid, I always wore a mask during the corn harvest because of the chaff and corn dust. Every year, from the time I was seven years old, I had the job of taking the tractor out and hitching up the wagons of corn and bringing them back. Then, I unloaded the wagon of corn into the auger which sent it up and into the corn bin. The corn dust flew everywhere. It was annoying and could easily take over my lungs if I weren’t masked up.

The wicked have nothing of substance to contribute to God’s kingdom – they add no value to what is going on. In fact, they are a hindrance to the harvest of souls God is trying to accomplish. Conversely, the righteous do good works which sprout from rich Iowa-type soil, producing a harvest of righteousness. 

The righteous person takes the time to know God’s law; satisfies the needs of those who are not able to pay them back or give them proper recognition; and cultivates relationships with those they help. The righteous are relational.

Righteous Job

The biblical character, Job, is an example of a righteous person. Job did all kinds of good works. And he did them because of his close walk with God. Job persevered through intolerable suffering and grief because he knew God. Job assisted the needy; helped others no matter their situation; championed the less fortunate; and gave glory to God even amid terrible trouble. Job did not throw in the towel when his reputation, his family, and his wealth were completely taken away. Instead, he said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing. (Job 1:21-22, NIV)

Generosity marks the righteous because God is generous. Grace defines the righteous because God is gracious. Gentleness is the way of the righteous because Christ is gentle. Spiritual prosperity is born of a righteous relationship with Jesus Christ. The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.

Injustice and Judgment

However, the wicked perish. There are sixteen prophetic books in the Old Testament, all given to a single message: Judgment is coming because of wickedness. And the wicked turn out to be some of God’s covenant people. That’s because they selectively did their good works to gain glory for themselves. And they withheld the good they could have done because it did not add any value to their reputation or personal goals. 

For example, prophesying to those who fasted so that others would see their spirituality, the prophet Isaiah communicated God’s message:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loosen the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7, NIV)

God desires genuine spiritual growth. That happens when we eschew a theology of glory, and embrace a theology of the cross, which delights in God and God’s law, meditating on it day and night.

A Choice

We always have a choice between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked, to embrace a theology of the cross or a theology of glory. Here is how that choice is framed in the book of Deuteronomy when the ancient Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land:

See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess….

I have set before you: life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20, NIV)

The idolatry which can easily seduce us are our own good works done for a human audience who will recognize and affirm. Jesus said we must play to the audience of one:

But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:3-4, NIV)

Our daily choice must be to love God supremely and give God glory for everything good in our lives. Perhaps Christianity needs another Reformation – one in which we do not just uphold the authority of Scripture, but reform our habits by loving God through basic disciplines of Bible-reading and simple obedience; and by loving our neighbor through giving them time and attention, the gift of relationship and friendship.

What will you choose this day?