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Theology of the Cross Thursdays - Thesis 4

We continue looking at the “appearance” theses with Thesis 4, this time looking at when things look bad but are actually good.

Heart ripped out Indiana Jones

Thesis 4 - Although the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless eternal merits.

In thesis 3, we talked about how the seeming good works of humans are tainted mortal sins, today we flip our instruments around and take a gander at how God’s works, according to Martin Luther, “always seem unattractive and appear evil.”  Yikes! Always?

We’re not used to that kind of talk about God, especially in Evangelical America.  We’re used to a God of power, and awesome God (who reiiiiigns, in heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love…).  We’re used to a God of blessing, especially when those blessings roll out upon those whom we think they should roll out upon - namely, me, and maybe people who think like me…maybe.

So when Luther says that God looks evil and unattractive, we’re not quite sure what to do with that. Besides, what is an evil and unattractive God anyway?

Let’s take a look at “evil” gods first.  When I think of “evil” gods, a short list pops up into my head of at-least-semi-divine creatures from literature and culture:  Satan, Voldemort from Harry Potter, Kali Ma from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  What makes these “gods” evil?  Kali Ma gets humans (especially their hearts) sacrificed to her, Voldemort is a power hungry murderer, and Satan…well…there’s a lot to Satan, but traditionally we’ve affixed to him a lot of the power of temptation (oh, look at that! Somebody’s actually using the Bible…)

So, if those are “evil gods”, are we to deduce that Luther is trying to tell us that God is good, despite looking like Kali Ma, Voldemort, and Satan all rolled into one? Well, sorta. I mean, we’re talking about God’s works and not God Himself…but there’s still some lines to be drawn.

Luther also tells us that God’s works appear unattractive. Now before you start thinking about the ugliest person that you know and how God’s works might look like that person, hold on a sec and look at the word “unattractive”.  Unattractive means simply “not attracting,” not “bringing closer.” Biblically, this matches what we find in Isaiah 53, that the Messiah “had no form or majesty that we should look at him.”

When Jesus loses something like 1500 followers in one day when He tells the disciples that “My blood is true drink”, that’s not “attractive”.  When He says that He speaks in parables specifically so that some people won’t get it, that’s not “attractive”.  God’s work, therefore, is not attractive.  But it IS inclusive.  God is not seeking people who will, of their own volition and precept, be attracted to Him.  He is seeking people that He can include. 

But what about the “evil” stuff? Well, Luther’s definition of “evil” has less to do with Kali Ma than mine does.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “evil”, has a less sinister tone to it than our normal hearing of the word.  We hear “evil” and think “villain”, but the Bible writes evil with more of a “cataclysm” notion to it.  Something bad happening that is fully outside of the realm of our control or anyone else’s.  So earthquakes and hurricanes are “evil”, as are terrorist attacks. They are transcendent experiences because they make us ask the “Why God?” questions. Why did God do this? allow this to happen? etc.  So when God’s works are appearing evil, they are appearing to be cataclysmic events that cause us to transcend ourselves and ask, “Why God?”

Luther points to the Cross here.  Crosses are unattractive things. Sure, your grandmother has that pretty ceramic cross in her kitchen, but just ask her how attractive the notion of “pick up your cross and follow Me” is, even if it is a pretty ceramic one.  Crosses are instruments, and you can bedazzle a noose, but it’s still going to be a noose. Nobody looks at a cross and says, “Yep, looks like fun.” Crosses are also evil things - as are most instruments of death.  They are cataclysmic devices that take people’s lives.  We don’t necessarily say that they are villainous devices, but rather that they are simply devices that do unspeakable acts.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer opened up his seminal work, “The Cost of Discipleship” with the jarring line, “when God calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”  Evil? In the way that we’ve defined? Yes. Attractive? No. God’s way of working with a sinful world? Yep.

Join us every Thursday as we tackle more Theology of the Cross. In the meantime, Tweet, Facebook, and comment away!

Posted on Thursday, April 17th 2014

On this day, 20 years ago, I was confirmed. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Rev. 2:10

On this day, 20 years ago, I was confirmed. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Rev. 2:10

Posted on Saturday, April 12th 2014

Theology of the Cross Thursdays - Thesis 3

Week 3 of Theology of the Cross Thursdays. Today we’re hitting up thesis 3, the first of two theses about appearances.

Thesis 3 - Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.

Appearances matter. There’s no question about it. Appearances, those surface level signifiers, help us in our day to day lives.  We can use appearances to help us begin to make certain quick judgment calls about everything from choosing a mate (helloooo online dating) to throwing away the milk in the refrigerator. But the thing to remember about appearances is that they are estimations - and estimations aren’t always correct.

In thesis 3 and the upcoming thesis 4, Luther shows us that the estimations gathered from our surface level understanding of the human heart and God’s holy will are often off.  In fact, our estimations are going to be way off. What we might assume is an “attractive and good” work may actually be a horridly awful sin that will kill us. 

So going to church, helping out at the local food pantry or homeless shelter, or getting married to your high school sweetheart - all of these things might actually be dangerous.  I think the difficulty in this is to show how these things might be dangerous, because after all they LOOK like they’re good and attractive. 

There are probably a couple of general ways in which human works can be understood as being mortal sins even though they appear to be good and attractive:

1. They are committed by sinners - As tough as it might be to swallow, the simple fact that a sinner is doing the work, makes it a sinful work. It’s like you have the reverse Midas-touch or soot all over your hands. Even if it’s a good thing, if you’re touching it, it’s going to be tainted.

2. They are committed with wrongful intent - Now it is certainly not the case that every sinner does good works without at least meaning to do something good. However, sometimes we do actually do “good” things for bad reasons. Like, are you going to church because you know it will get you that job promotion you want, or are you helping out at the food pantry because you know that it’ll get that cute girl to sleep with you? If you are, then it’s easy to see that the thing that you’re doing shouldn’t actually qualify as “good” because it has evil intent.

3. They are committed outside the will of God - This one is difficult, but is best expressed in the story of Uzzah (cool name, huh?) in 2 Samuel 6.  Uzzah is part of a procession that is bringing the ark of the covenant back to Israel after having been stolen. Basically, someone trips and the ark of the covenant is going down in classic slo-mo football-fumble style. Uzzah reaches his hand out to keep the ark from falling to the ground, which most of us would say is a stand up move, most of us. However, God isn’t very pleased, in fact, His anger burns against Uzzah and God strikes Uzzah dead. How come? Because Uzzah was acting outside of the will of God, which is basically the definition of sin.

So now you’re probably terrified to do anything at all. That’s where most Lutherans live. I think we get this theological concept pretty well actually, if not too well.  We begin to think, “Holy moley, I can do nothing right, so the right thing must be to do nothing at all.” Of course, Thesis 3 applies to doing “nothing” as much as it applies to doing something.  So you’re a dead Uzzah either way. 

That is actually the brilliance of this Thesis in showing us who Jesus Christ is.  We’re dead Uzzahs because 1. we’re sinners, 2. we sometimes come with the wrong intent, and 3. we would exist outside of the will of God if it weren’t for the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, however, 1. was not a sinner, 2. since He wasn’t a sinner, didn’t come with the wrong intent, 3. was familiar with and was a part of God’s plan and will. Jesus = not an Uzzah.

But Jesus still dies? Hmnn…that’s a topic for the next thesis. See you next week.

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear from you here in the Disqus comments, on Twitter (@jwinterscom) or facebook (facebook.com/jwinterscom).

Posted on Thursday, April 10th 2014

Theology of the Cross Thursdays - Thesis 2

Hey, it’s week two in our 28 week exploration of Luther’s theology of the cross. Welcome back.

Thesis 2 - Much less can human works, which are done over and over again with the aid of natural precepts, so to speak, lead to that end.

In order to understand what Luther is saying in this thesis, you have to take a look at Thesis #1 where he says that the Law of God is “the most salutary doctrine of life” but that it still doesn’t help human kind on the way to righteousness, but rather hinders.  Basically, Luther is saying that you can be slavish to trying to follow God’s law and have that turn out to be a negative thing - not because God’s law is bad, but because you’ve turned a good thing (God’s law) into an ultimate thing which exists over and above God in your pantheon of gods.  Don’t make the Bible into a god, because it isn’t.

Likewise, don’t make your habits into a god. That’s more of what Thesis 2 is about: Human works, done over and over again.  Luther was probably specifically citing the repetitive actions of the monks and nuns of his time with this one, but we all get into habits that can become “godlike” to us.  We can begin to confuse God with the ways that we serve God. 

Here’s an example. Every Wednesday night, just about, I get home from church and pour myself a bourbon and coke. It’s a habit of mine that I’ve even given a name to: “Bourbon Wednesdays”.  Essentially it gives me a weekly opportunity to have a bourbon and coke, which - at least in my estimation - is not a bad thing.  However, let’s say that something important came up on a Wednesday and I couldn’t have my bourbon and coke, or even that nothing important came up on a Wednesday but I just didn’t feel like having a bourbon and coke and would prefer a hot chocolate or something. If I still went ahead and had a bourbon on those nights, I would know that there was something wrong with me and that maybe I should stop “Bourbon Wednesdays” all together, because I would no longer be in control, instead, the habit would be in control.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t times to be disciplined and to develop habits that go against the grain of what you normally would be inclined to do.  Spiritual disciplines like tithing, praying, and doing good works are all things that are hard habits to develop (hint hint: that’s why they’re called disciplines), and are all things that we are encouraged to do over and over again.  Like in Thesis 1, the issue is not the goodness of the subject of the thesis (the Law of God, human works).  The subjects are both good things, but trying to achieve our own righteousness through them ruins them and makes them worthless. 

I love Luther’s little inclusio, “so to speak”.  What he’s trying to get across there is that your human good works are actually not of your own precept - they’re not yours, they belong to the Holy Spirit. When you try to wrestle them away from the Holy Spirit, you end up getting sick. 

When I was a kid, I loved cake icing/frosting.  Ok, I STILL love cake icing/frosting. But back then, I remember that my mom was making a cake and she had left some frosting in a little bowl.  I then stole that bowl and brought it to my room, where I went about playing and eating icing. I got SIIIICK.  It wasn’t because cake icing was bad, but it was because I had stolen it and abused it. 

Likewise, we try to steal all manner of things from the Holy Spirit. We make His prayers our own, we make His interpretation of Scripture our own, we may His leading to worship our own, we make His good works our own.  And usually, we do exactly what I tried to do with “my” icing - we retreat with His gifts in our grabby hands and go someplace private to abuse them while amusing ourselves.

Instead of that, look at those habits and things that the Holy Spirit is giving to you as a gift that is flowing out of Jesus’ righteousness.  When you get the urge to worship or pray, or be disciplined about something - don’t pat yourself on the back because you’re such an awesome rock star, but rather give thanks to God that He has given you the righteousness of Christ and that Jesus’ own righteousness is beginning to take hold and take form in your life in small but observable ways.

See you next week! In the meantime, you can communicate with me here using the Disqus commenting system, or via twitter or facebook. 

Posted on Thursday, April 3rd 2014

Apologetics Engagement - 4 ways to engage your campus

Out of “Four Ways to Engage Your Campus”, we’re going to take a look at the ideas and methodologies around engaging your campus through apologetics.

Apologetics is a funny sounding word, which means that the people who want to rename your campus ministry “Imago Dei” or “campusgeistlicheit” are going to fawn over the idea of doing apologetics.  The people who couldn’t care less about Greek, Latin, or any other foreign sounding word, are going to wonder why you’re signing everyone up to “say sorry” on campus. This means that you will have to be the one who explains what the word means: “defense” or speaking in defense of something. It is essentially the act of attempting to show your belief’s legitimacy.

Apologetics has taken on a life of its own on many campuses throughout the United States, sometimes even outside of the normal bounds of the church. Here at University Lutheran, we have a group that comes in and uses the building called “Ratio Christi” which is an apologetics group (see? I told you, funny sounding word people…).  They don’t consider themselves a church, just a group that “does apologetics”.  Similarly, a number of campus ministries around here get together and put on an event called “Veritas Forum” (part of a national organization, sort of a Christian TEDx).  Still other campus ministries focus on apologetics as a Christian discipline or understand themselves as the first line of defense.

By now you might be wondering, how does one “do apologetics”? Is it like doing pilates? Well, I’ve never done pilates, so I couldn’t tell you….but it does look less painful…at least most of the time.

Everything that you do in a campus ministry has an internal side and an external side.  That means that the stuff that you’re planning to engage campus with is going to engage the students that you are already in community and communication with.  Let’s start with the internal side of apologetics engagement.

Internal factor for apologetics engagement - Serious Study

Another field of “defense” that you can find at your university or college is the law school or pre-law students.  These folks study, and study, (and drink), and study.  There’s a reason for that.  You don’t want to hire a lawyer who hasn’t engaged in serious study because that lawyer isn’t going to know the law well enough to work around the nooks, crannies, and other problematic areas of the law.  If your lawyer hasn’t worked through these things, your lawyer is going to be caught off guard by a question or concept that he or she wasn’t planning for.  Ditto with apologetics. 

If you’re going to send your students into campus with the goal of engaging with campus in a way that legitimizes that rationality of your faith claims, you don’t want to send someone who hasn’t done some serious study. This means that as much as you may feel fervently that your students should be young earth creationists or adamantly pro-life, if your students don’t understand how to argue either of those view points with a normal undergrad biology student, you should spend some more time training.  This training should basically come under three headings: a.) Biblical knowledge b.) Critical thinking skills c.) Resource identification - where to find answers that they need.

External factor for apologetics engagement - Polished presentation

Remember, apologetics engagement is aimed at trying to prove the legitimacy of your belief.  Nothing eats away at that legitimacy like people who think that their jobs as apologists are “to win fights”.  Unfortunately, the “I want to win fights” people are usually the ones who are most attracted to this form of engagement. Sigh.

To be clear, there is a “fight” here, but the fight isn’t against flesh and blood (Eph 6).  The fight is against the ideas and beliefs that accuse Christianity as an illegitimate choice because it believes in silly things and/or dangerous things. So if you send out students who are going to make Christianity look silly or dangerous, your apologetics are working against themselves.  Instead, your students should be able to address questions about the Christian faith with the same sense of poise and confidence that a professional speaker has during a Q & A session.

There are 3 other ways to engage your campus!  Visibility, Commitment, and Event. Join us over the next coming week as we take deeper looks into them.  In the meantime, please bring up questions, comments, and whatever else in the Disqus comments below, on Facebook, or Twitter.

Posted on Tuesday, April 1st 2014

Some days I wish I had a machine that recorded all of the thoughts in my head. Most days I’m glad such a machine doesn’t exist.

Posted on Friday, March 28th 2014

Theology of the Cross Thursdays - Thesis 1

Today I’m embarking on what should be a 28 week long excursion into Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, look at what this document holds in terms of relevance to the Church today and how we might see the Spirit working in these theses to call us to repentance and the Gospel. Hope it turns out ok.


Thesis 1 - The Law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.

Every now and again I hear someone say that “the Bible is the instruction book for life.”  And while I can probably empathize with the sentimental notion that God left us “an instruction book” (albeit at times it seems like an instruction book written backwards and in Chinese), I don’t know that I can’t say that the other books that I’ve read have been any less “instruction-y”. 

In Tom Wolfe’s novel, “A Man in Full,” the protagonist, a man named Conrad, finds a book about Zeus and decides that he is going to eschew with the normal religions of his day, and set out to follow Zeus as someone would follow Jesus.  Eventually Conrad finds that his “following Zeus” is more or less textbook stoicism, and that it is probably not as helpful as he thought it would be when he began his religious quest.

I’ve run into Christians and ex-Christians who have had this same experience with a Christianity that is based on “instructions”.  They have either thrived in living out the instructions, only to find that they are not really necessarily better or happier, or they have found that the instructions are relatively impossible to keep —- sort of like how I feel when I look at my to-do list, or all of the things that I might do good in this world.  We’re either overwhelmed or underwhelmed when we look at God’s Law as if it were an instruction book.

Likely, this is why Martin Luther starts off his theses on the Theology of the Cross with this thesis.  The instruction book metaphor is valid, but it’s not helpful.  God’s Law is “the most salutary doctrine of life,” but just having the right doctrine of life isn’t the whole enchilada.  If you’re just following instructions, then you’re not being Christian.  If you’re just saying the right stuff and doing the right stuff, you might actually find out that those things aren’t really transformative. 

I used to act (like, on stage). What I noticed about the process of acting was that it would occasionally have the effect of transforming me. But it wouldn’t always.  Sometimes I could approach a character and say all of the lines and follow all of the blocking, and nothing about me was different.  I imagine that is probably what it must feel like to be a prostitute.  You’re having the same sex that couples in love are having, same movements and thrusting, but nada - nothing when it comes to the real power of sex.

The power of Christianity is something more than the instructions. The transformation of Christianity comes with this supernatural experience of grace and the Holy Spirit who begins to change you - not from the inside out, but from the outside in.  The Law is helpful because it shows you were you’re resisting that change - holding it in, like when you have gas at that dinner party you went to last week.  That power is what is elucidated in the further theses of the theology of the cross.  

See ya next week! In the meantime, please tweet me (@jwinterscom) or facebook me (facebook.com/jwinterscom) or just use the comments below to tell me what you thought, ask me further questions, or just to say hi.

Posted on Thursday, March 27th 2014