Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Chapter 6: Orientation

Of late my schedule has been quite the obstacle course, with extra lessons to plan for our Lenten series on "Churches in America," trying to work in a routine for weekly preparations for the Mainline Church Project (including scanning, digital editing and dressing up Luther's sermons in powerpoint,) with the PLU Young Adults group meeting in the UPenn area again and seeing some new membership and growth as we march through St. John's Apocalypse, experiencing the joy of engaging a young pastor-to-be (an Ethiopian named Tesfaye) with the fullness of our Lutheran confession, trying to stay on top of reading such books as "Your Jesus is too Safe" and "At Home in the House of My Fathers," (without neglecting daily time in the Greek NT and the Book of Concord,) prepping bulletins for Holy Week. being a guest on Issues, Etc twice (and winning sound byte of the week,).......So many good things (and there are more of them, believe you me!)

Amazingly, in the middle of it all, I also was able to polish off what I think is a decent chapter of "The Wisdom of Foolishness," the practical book on Christian systematics which I was sharing with you this past fall and winter. I say "amazing" because most of the time writing is tremendously painful work. It requires a great deal of energy to plod out all the right words in all the right order, and then to go back and read and edit them again, and then again, and then again - purging the places that fail to communicate clearly, striving to bring understanding and meaning to the forefront. But this chapter felt like it flew out of the pen (figuratively, that is, ...I typed it.)

Of course, my seminary mentor Dr. Jeff Gibbs once quipped that, "Any time you feel like that, it means its probably worthless." True enough. I can't say the number of times I've "caught the muse" and flourished off pages of "great stuff" - you know, world-shattering, epic-level writing that is both entertaining and deep - only to go back later to read it and exclaim, "What on earth does that mean?"

That being said, I hope this weeks chapter fits the special bill of those times when the gears really did just click. Focused on "Orientation" we finish up our imbibing of the Biblical theology of Election and Predestination, letting the reality of original sin rise to the surface in order that the reality of our Lord's crucifying of that sin in himself also comes to the fore.


The perilous danger of evil is that once it exists, it is it's very nature to never be good again. Evil hates good. That's what it does best. When Scripture teaches us that Adam decided to be evil by going against God's Words to him, he changed the very ethos of what it means to be human. It's not that once he jumped into evil, neither he or I or you “could” ever choose to be truly good again. It's that we never would choose to be truly good again.1

This is
Sin as the Bible teaches it. It is much bigger than the little rights or wrongs we might or might not choose every day. Sin is your bound commitment to your own will, your inbred affection for yourself, your standard deviation of all things back to you.2 You never once in your entire life have sinned “against your will.”3 It is your will that is always the problem.4 You inherited an orientation towards “not good,” which bends your every thought, word and deed.5 This is the fundamental root of every problem, not just in your life, but in the history of the entire world.6


While the entire world runs around in a kind of sick madness, either trying to escape the jaws of death or affecting that it does not mind death, (but all the while trying to make some kind of goodness capable of overcoming the obvious threat of death,) all we ever actually manage to do is compound our error over and over again.7 We are deceived (and work hard at deceiving ourselves) into thinking that if we just try hard enough, we can make some kind of actual “goodness.” To be a sinful human is to believe that somewhere deep within still lingers the innate ability to become good in the most unique way, to reach enlightenment or holiness, to become capable of fixing all of our own problems.8

But this
is the problem. The original sin which Adam created was crafted in his own image, an attempt to divine a private, personalized, one-of-a-kind, like-god “goodness.” What he achieved was truly something new, something uncreated by God, but it was hardly worth the trouble. For all the effort, all that he did was conjure up the terribly useless attribute of doubt. Doubting that God is the only source of real goodness is the only original thing humans have been able to manufacture by our private, spiritual efforts. Unbelief in the Godness of God is our one creative legacy.9

The devil once convinced Adam that he would be “free” to do a new “good” which was completely independent from God. This ingenious ploy not only worked on him. It works on us. Every day. The greatest proof is our own warrior-like insistence on keeping some toe-hold at all costs in the exercise of our wills.10 The best of us, even Christians, daily succumb to this ambush. Every time you are hurt, every time something makes you angry – when you get cut-off in traffic or spill a glass of milk – that boiling rage that wells up so naturally from within you does so because
your will has not been done. For a brief moment, it is clear that you are a slave to some power beyond yourself, the universe, another driver, chance circumstance, and there is almost nothing worse than this in the entire world than that. Nothing matters so much as that your will be done. You are bound to this. It doesn't matter what the difference between good and evil is. It doesn't matter who gets hurt, or what stands in the way. You want to be the one who gets to decide that difference. You want to be the one who chooses what is and is not the right way to respond. Depending on what you choose to do, in all natural normalness, you will defend and justify your choices till you are blue in the face.

This is
your ongoing original sin. This is your orientation. You want to be the one who makes justice. You want to define it from your gut, with your own heart smack in the center. This native doubt in the Godness of God is a reality that breeds from the core of your soul, a natural belief in self which is a supernatural unbelief in God. And, it is the root of all evil. It is original sin.

Turned Around

Our desire to be the source of goodness is a pipe dream. A false hope. The root of all evil is trying to make anything but God the source of goodness. Being the source of goodness is what God does. It's his day job. It's his self-definition. Our belief that we can change this, while perhaps never confessed with the mouth, is lived out with the heart and hands through the annals of the catastrophe that is human history. Leaving behind the passive gift of original goodness that comes from God alone in search of our own actively-created original goodness, we have become actively and originally evil. Our compasses are all messed up. Our orientation is unnatural twisted about. We are poor, miserable sinners.

It is really quite amazing. We are so infatuated with being capable of creating our own goodness that we've developed countless religions and spiritualities to try to help us do this. Even within Christendom, the grand bulk of teachings have tended toward setting up yet one more system for working our a way into pleasing God with some internal goodness born from the power of the human will. The superfantastic irony is that, anything but actually good, this is a double sin.11 It's an attempt to out-God God right under God's own nose, an expecting God to be happy about it. A man says, “I want to please God,” and then he goes about trying to “be good,” as if this could created the goodness that only God has and that God himself wants to give.

The deep reality is that man does not want to please God.12 He wants to be pleasing to God by means of his own self-defined, self-willed “goodness.” He says, “I want to please God,” and then he sets about trying to please himself. He doesn't want God's will to be done – not if it gets in his will's way. He doesn't want to be saved – not if it means being saved from himself. He doesn't want to be fixed – not if it means being fixed means he won't be able to improve himself any more, and doubly so if being fixed means getting killed so that God can start and finish the project with his own blueprints once and for all.

Because of what the Bible describes in Genesis chapter 3, it is a high and central teaching of all real Christianity that ever since the fall, “free will” has only existed as an empty concept, like an old bone for junkyard dogs to fight over. What really matters to humanity is “your will,” and this orientation has bound the you into self-separation from God. It's not that you “cannot” unite your will back to God's. You will not. It would be “free will” suicide.13

All of this, audacious as it may seem, horrible as it is (and has proven itself to be in the actions of our race,) remains a high and central truth of authentic Christianity because it is the dark prelude to the epic Answer. Man can only choose evil. So, God is faced with saving man against man's own will. We're so bad that even in this we still think we would be better off if he left us a choice in the matter. But that didn't dissuade God. Before we could think to pray (and we never would have prayed for the right things anyway) the answer was already on God's lips. He elected it upon himself to save mankind, even if it meant getting his hands a little dirty in the process. Even if it meant becoming one of us and taking the punishment we had chosen for ouselves.

Original Salvation

In Jesus Christ, God elected to save mankind, every man, woman and child.14 He chose his creation, picked it up again, and bound it to his own will in himself, in a new Man to be its Head, in a new will to be its source of re-orientation.15 He decided to save the world, (and that includes you,) and neither you nor I nor any one else really has any choice in the matter.16 It's already done.17 If we had had a choice, we would have turned the offer down.18 Either we would have killed him before he could do what needed to be done, or we would have prevented him from dying (which is what needed to be done) as if our life depended on it!19

Ignoring our own wills in the matter, Jesus came and saved the world.20 He didn't just come to give us information about God, or to show us a way to work out a goodness that was worth having. He came to take mankind into his own Godness in order to do what needed to be done with it: kill it, and raise it anew. Take the breath out. Let the sin die. Force the devil's laws to release their hold. And then, breath the life back in, leaving the sin in the grave and the devil powerless.21

Salvation means being born again, and Jesus did it first, for all of us, because none of us could have managed it coming out of the womb a second time. Before you were even born the first time, before you had done either good or evil, before any of your decisions, actions, thoughts, words or deeds, God chose to save you, and he sent Jesus Christ to get it done.22 This is election. It is your pre-destination. It is the saving of the ones who would never have allowed salvation to happen if God hadn't simply decided to do it first. It is your own death and resurrection in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Not just all men, not just all women and children, but mankind himself has become a blessed elite, a chosen people, an atoned for creation, saved.

The Problem of the Cross

But not all men (and women and children) will be saved. Scripture speaks this way as well. Because of the great binding of the human will, some will resist God's grace even to the point of perdition. Worse yet, some will believe in the Christ only to throw it all away. Some will trample on their Lord and deny the Savior who bought them. Some will crucify the Son of God all over again.

Much ink has been spilt over this Biblically unanswerable question, the “why some, not others,” dilemma that bubbles to the surface whenever God's predestination runs into man's interminable will. When we see what the Bible says about how God desires all men to be saved, and compare it with what the Bible says about how not all men will be saved, we run into a profound mystery over which even the Apostles themselves could only marvel, and, eventually, ignore in faith. “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he might have mercy on all. Oh! The depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.23

After eleven chapters written to Rome, detailing God's plan of salvation in the one man Jesus Christ, and after two chapters wrestling with this paradox of “why some, not others,” eventually the Apostle can only throw up his hands and say. “Jesus is risen! Praise God and believe it!”24

It is like one has who found a coin with one side heads and the other tails. No matter how hard you try, you can never look at both sides of the coin at once. Taken separately, they are utterly contradictory. They don't paint the same picture. They are different faces. But they are the same coin. If you were to find a mirror, you might be able to hold it up and “see” both sides of the coin, but at that moment it would not be the same coin. It would be a false construction used to help you understand something which is beyond your nature to achieve.

In the history of theology on this point, this mirror is what the two great camps have used to draw their lines around the Scriptures. Whether we call it “Calvinism vs Arminianism,” or “decision theology vs. predestination,” it doesn't matter. Both systems ways of thinking about God are fabrications that use a mirror to avoid the full mystery of simply holding the coin in your hand. The coin is what happens when a God presdestined by himself to have mercy, save and give goodness comes upon an irredeemable man who is self-destined to have enmity, die and make evil. The real answer can only be believed on in the literal body of the redeeming man Jesus Christ, in the Words about him and from him sent to be preached in the nations, and in the mysterious rituals he has left as hallmarks of what he has done for the sake of the life of the entire world.

If we let ourselves get trapped in the mirror, one way or another our theology will get trapped in the image we see – not the real coin, but our own face looking intently at the coin. Our own nature will distract us again, pull us away from the fact that we are actually holding the coin in our hands to begin with. He is ours! He is risen! It is done!

If we begin trying to dissect what this means beyond what has been clearly revealed, we are bound to start asking the wrong questions all over again: we are bound to start doubting. “But who then can be saved?” we will say. If, as Scripture teaches, we are bound to resist God's grace and actually have the power to do so, what is left for us to do in ourselves to make certain we are saved after all? The answer to that is the entire point.


You deserve to be damned and should be. There is nothing you can do about it. But Jesus can and has done something about it.25 Period. Believe it. You are freed to do so by the very promise he worked by achieving it on the cross. There is no question. There is no “how do I know” or “are you certain” or “but don't I have to.” There is only God who has elected you in Jesus.26 God is preaching this to you right now.27 These Words are the Holy Spirit.28 The promises of God remain steadfast even when we are unfaithful.29 “Baptism saves” even when an entire world drowns because they refuse to believe it.30

In upcoming chapters we will spend more time letting Scripture speak where it has long been silent on the assurance of election we have received in the instituted rituals of God Almighty. For now, just enjoy the Gospel side of the coin: even thought your stubborn will could and would reject salvation (tails), Jesus isn't going to let that happen (heads). God has already
justified you.31 He did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all. How will he not also give us all things?32 He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.33 That's his purpose.34 That's his point. That's his job. He's God.

So rejoice and be glad.35 You're still reading. You're ears have heard. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, even when we are not. His steadfast love endures forever.36 It wasn't even a small step, but it is the greatest step in all of mankind. God has oriented himself toward you in the insurmountable person and work of his only Son, and in that Christ, crucified for your sins and the sins of the entire world, he has re-affixed your orientation to himself with a promise that's purer than gold.37

The greatest beauty, the freedom in it all, is that thanks to Jesus you never even had to have a choice.38

An Endnote on the Lonely Way39

An Endnote Brief Review40

1 Genesis 8:21 “The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth.

2 Titus 3:3 “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.”

3 James 1:14 “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.

4 Matthew 23:37 “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!

5 Romans 1:22 “Claiming to be wise, they became fools.

6 Romans 1:21,24 “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. … Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

7 Revelation 18:7-8 “Since in her heart she says, I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’ For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”

8 Isaiah 14:13 “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God.

9 Hosea 6:7 “Like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.

10 Acts 7:51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.

11 Romans 8:8 “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

12 Romans 8:7 “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.

13 Matthew 13:15 “For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

14 Whether or not every man, woman and child will believe this salvation is a different question, and a difficult one. First, it is important to recognize the central promise: Jesus came to save you.

15 Colossians 1:18, 20 “He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent ... and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

16 Luke 9:53 “The people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

17 John 19:30 “He said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

18 John 1:11 “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.

19 Mark 15:31-32 “The scribes mocked him to one another, saying, 'He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.'”

20 Matthew 16:23 “He turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.'”

21 Romans 7:1 “Do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”

22 Romans 9:9, 11 “This is what the promise said: ...though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls.

23 Romans 11:32-36

24 Romans 12:1

25 Matthew 19:25-26 “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, 'Who then can be saved?' But Jesus looked at them and said, 'With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”

26 2 Corinthians 1:19 “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes.”

27 1 Corinthians 1:21 “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

28 John 6:63 “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

29 2 Timothy 2:13 “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.

30 1 Peter 3:18, 20-21 “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, … because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

31 Titus 3:7 “Being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

32 Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

33 Philippians 1:6 “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

34 Ephesians 1:5 “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.

35 Matthew 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.

36 Jeremiah 33:11 “The voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord: “‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

37 Numbers 6:23-27 “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, 'The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.' So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

38 John 15:16 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

39 Rare, indeed, has been the theological system or movement that has attempted to walk the lonely way between these two factions. Some sections of Lutheranism, particularly as confessed in the Book of Concord of 1580, have made the effort, although we have used the mirror in our own way. So long as one wants to talk “about” election, predestination and salvation, rather than experience it through the pure hearing of the Word of God that comes only when Scripture left to do its organic and whole work, our systems will usually serve to remove the offense, whether it is predestination, the resistibility of irresistible grace, the ability of the root of faith to starve to death or the simple fact that a dead man on a cross is the salvation of all mankind. The strength of the Lutheran tradition, for all its own failings, has been its insistence that whatever Scripture says, it is best to believe it, even if, at the moment, it leaves some questions unanswered.

40 Both/And – a Brief Review of the Doctrine of Election

The last two chapters have dealt largely with the difficult paradox of salvation that is at the center of the Christian faith. For millenia theologians have disputed it. For centuries it has been called the crux telegorum, or, “the Problem of the Cross.” “Why some, not others?”

It is a matter which cannot be simply resolved in the human mind without denying large portions of Scripture. The human will is depraved (Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:18, etc.) Only God can save us (Isaiah 45:21, Hosea 13:4, Luke 1:47, 1 Timothy 2:5, etc.) God saves those he elects/chooses to save (Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 8:29-30, 9:10-18, etc.) But those men and women who will receive damnation receive it because they have elected that destiny for themselves (Matthew 16:27, 25:31-46, Romans 2:6-16, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 1 Peter 1:17, Revelation 20:12, 22:12.)

God saves by grace alone (John 3:16.) Man damns by unbelief alone (1 Corinthians 16:22.) God is transcendent. Man has a will. This is the Word of the Lord revealed to his elect in Holy Writ. To try to resolve the crux he has given us, to make the cross go away, to hide the scandal in terms which our minds can understand only eventually serves to keep the resurrected man buried from our sight. It is to try, once again, to assert our will over God's, to limit the infinte wisdom of God to our finite reason, to say that we can make a good which is better than his.

True Christianity is always in accordance with the entire revelation of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 4:12, Proverbs 5:30, Psalm 18:30.) False teaching will arise and has always arisen, but it will never prevail (Proverbs 21:8, 2 Peter 2:1.) Salvation by grace through faith in the work of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, will go forward through its confession/preaching, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it any more than the gates of hades prevailed against the body of our Lord (Matthew 16:16-18.) It is good to tremble in humility before this reality, both our utter inability to be saved, and in the goodness of Jesus who promises that he has saved us anyway (James 4:10, Acts 2:37-38, 16:30.) the Lord is good, and his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 106.) So good and so forever that he didn't even ruin your chances by leaving you even a hint of a choice in the matter.

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