Saturday, September 24, 2011

He took it away, nailing it to the cross

My wife and I have had a little bit of playful banter going over the years. I’m fairly well known in some circles as an apologist who opposes Roman Catholicism. But not only has she always regarded herself to be a Roman Catholic, she’s told me, too, that I’ll be one until I die. In response to that, I’ve told her that, if I were on my death bed, it would be my dying wish not to see a Roman Catholic priest. Of course, I’m not dying, and now she could be. So we have a real test of what someone’s dying wishes might be.

For a while, I had a pretty good job, and so I had a steady flow of books coming into the house – mostly things like commentaries and systematic theologies. She would tease me about what I was reading, and so I’d quote Alister McGrath back to her: “Christian theology is one of the most fascinating subjects it is possible to study” (from his Christian Theology, An Introduction: Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©2001, pg xxv).

But getting a diagnosis of leukemia has the effect of focusing the mind. Early on, during her first hospital stay, she turned down a request from my pastor to visit her, though she asked a priest to come in. But over the summer, she not only started going to church with me and the kids, but she’s become a regular attender, leading the charge not only to get us to the service on time, but to get us to Sunday School early enough to get the good seats in the front.

The catalyst was a sermon series on Isaiah 36 and 37, regarding the LORD’s defeat of Sennacherib king of Assyria.
“Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.
Sennacherib is, of course, well-attested not only in various books of the Old Testament (2 Kings, Isaiah, 2 Chronicles), but in Assyrian texts and archaeology as well. Kenneth Kitchen (Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, © 2003) notes that “with careful observance of the features of both the Assyrian and Hebrew texts, a coherent picture of the whole episode emerges.” For some reason, Assyrian military history, especially their interactions with Israel, fascinates her.

Our Sunday School lessons are being taken in part from the CCEF program (“Restoring Christ to Counseling and Counseling to the Church”), and here’s what she wrote:
Christian Life: My life growing in Christ with thanks and praise
With joy I am a new creation in Christ. With humility I still have sin in my heart and need God’s grace today as much as I did when I first believed. The Spirit overpowers the things that once dominated my life. I am in Him, but not yet completely like him, so I commit myself to the ongoing heart change that is God’s loving focus.
We were talking about this – in the context of “Union with Christ,” justification and sanctification. And she told me, “Roman Catholicism has really missed something very important.” What they’ve missed is God’s legal declaration of “not guilty” as foundational for everything else that happens in the Christian life. What she wrote above is a bookmark at page 54 (she is further along in the book) where Paul to the Colossians is quoted at length. Here she has highlighted, “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

11 comments:

  1. I'm glad to hear that, John. Your persistence is bearing good fruit. You and your family are in my prayers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. John,

    I hope very much that your wife's health is improving, and pray that her cancer is cured.

    Catholic teaching does not remove God’s legal declaration of "not guilty;" it grounds that declaration in what Christ did and in what the Holy Spirit did in us when we came to living faith. Through Christ's work, all our past sins are forgiven, and by the infusion of sanctifying grace and agape we are instantly made righteous, such that God (who is Truth) can (and does) truthfully declare us not guilty. In this way He doesn't have to say that we are innocent while knowing that we are not.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

    ReplyDelete
  3. This was a touching post, John.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bryan, I did not say Roman Catholic teaching removes the legal declaration of “not guilty”. Roman Catholicism teaches that you get that declaration at baptism. But then, because as you say, it only forgives "past sins", the Roman Catholic is then put on the sacramental treadmill, and yes, while you have God’s help, you’re really dependent on your own efforts to maintain yourself in a “state of grace”.

    What my wife is finding out is that, just as when God said, “let there be light,” and there was light, when God says, “you’re forgiven,” he doesn’t give with one hand and take away with the other. God is there, to actually make you righteous, and to uphold you in that righteousness. Once God gives you the gift of “eternal life,” it is not lost with a “mortal sin”. The Christian does not have to live in fear of somehow inadvertently drawing God’s anger upon himself, by, say, stepping off that treadmill.

    ReplyDelete
  5. John,

    I won't quibble over the distinction between "missing" and "removes." And of course it is possible to caricaturize a position by using terms like "sacramental treadmill," though one could also describe it as "the race that is set before us" that we are supposed to run with endurance. (Heb. 12:1) But mere caricature does not do any argumentative work. However, the notion that "you’re really dependent on your own efforts to maintain yourself in a “state of grace”" is misleading. Yes, our real choices matter; we can choose to commit mortal sin and fall from grace. But, no, it doesn't depend only on us, as though once we are baptized we then bootstrap our way to heaven. God is always working in us, to will and do His good will. Even our obedience and perseverance is a divine gift. But if your point is that there is a difference between Reformed theology and Catholic (and Orthodox) doctrine concerning the real possibility of apostasy, then I agree with you. My point is that the legal aspect is not missing from Catholic doctrine; rather, what is declared to be true by God as Judge agrees with what is actually true in the hearts of regenerate men through the work of Christ on the cross and the infusion of grace and agape by the Holy Spirit.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

    ReplyDelete
  6. Bryan: I won't quibble over the distinction between "missing" and "removes."

    It was missing from her life; in reality, it IS missing from the life of every cradle Catholic. It is hidden in that pre-historic period (for most Roman Catholics) called “Baptism”, and then it goes away, never to be seen again. Oh yes, it’s in the “teaching,” but once you’re baptized, that legal, forensic declaration goes away, and you are all on your own. You, and of course, if you stay on the “sacramental treadmill,” you can get through it, with the loving help of “Mother Church”. Which has created all of those non-biblical rules.

    It’s no wonder she never heard it. A lifetime of Roman Catholic teaching, and she always felt guilty. The forensic “not-guilty” goes away with your first sin, which, of course has no “legal, forensic” justification. Then, the Roman Catholic God does not forgive, except through the loving absolution of “Mother Church”.

    Bryan: And of course it is possible to caricaturize a position by using terms like "sacramental treadmill," though one could also describe it as "the race that is set before us" that we are supposed to run with endurance. (Heb. 12:1)

    What I call a “sacramental treadmill” is certainly not “the race that is set before us”. It is ancient Roman “busywork” and superstition, re-branded as “tradition”, that bears no resemblance to the true race that true saints are called to follow.

    Bryan: But mere caricature does not do any argumentative work.

    Correct. But it is your version of things that are the caricature. Your characterization in your first post, “[according to the Roman doctrine God] doesn't have to say that we are innocent while knowing that we are not” – is the caricature. It is your failure to see the implications of Calvin’s doctrine of “Union with Christ” where the caricature comes in.

    more

    ReplyDelete
  7. Bryan: However, the notion that "you’re really dependent on your own efforts to maintain yourself in a “state of grace”" is misleading.

    It certainly is not. I lived it, the “Roman faith” which lasted centuries, in which Roman Catholics did have to get to Mass, get to Confession, and not doing so was held over their heads like a weapon in many cases. The power of “Mother Church” to control. Whereas, you’ve got some imagined, ethereal, sanitized version of what the Roman Catholic faith had been for centuries.

    Yes, our real choices matter; we can choose to commit mortal sin and fall from grace. But, no, it doesn't depend only on us, as though once we are baptized we then bootstrap our way to heaven. God is always working in us, to will and do His good will.

    I am talking about not only the mere “ability” to choose and commit mortal sin and fall from grace. It is the fear that you live with, that you will commit one. Consider, again, my wife’s life-long fear that she wasn’t “doing enough”. That’s the fear of about 15 centuries-worth of Roman Catholics.

    Even our obedience and perseverance is a divine gift.

    Yes. But your God is too weak. He relies on you to get to Mass and to Confession (i.e., to stay on the treadmill). If you’re not gonna do that, then he can’t help you. I’m not even talking about not killing or not committing adultery.

    But if your point is that there is a difference between Reformed theology and Catholic (and Orthodox) doctrine concerning the real possibility of apostasy, then I agree with you.

    Good. My wife is off the treadmill, she is certain she was missing something genuine all these years, and she has no fear of having offended a bankrupt “Church” authority. She never had “the peace of Christ” as a Roman Catholic. You may say you have it now, but it is only dependent on you patting your own self on the back for being a good Catholic boy.

    Bryan: My point is that the legal aspect is not missing from Catholic doctrine; rather, what is declared to be true by God as Judge agrees with what is actually true in the hearts of regenerate men through the work of Christ on the cross and the infusion of grace and agape by the Holy Spirit.

    And as I said, God declares us righteous now – for all time. And he makes us that way, along with it, according to his Word and his power.

    What you say is “true in the hearts of regenerate men” is not true in your heart right now. You don’t have that squeaky-clean, state-of-grace soul, and you know it. Your system of beliefs is the fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  8. The beauty and power of Christ's own words cannot be surpassed:

    “All that the Father gives me will come to me and I will not lose one.”

    There is an inevitability in the saving work of Christ not conditioned on human choices.

    “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but to do the will of Him Who sent me.”

    It is the Will of God the Father, who gives His chosen to His Son, who cannot lose even one.

    “And this is the will of Him who sent me. That I shall lose none of all that He has given me.”

    You see there is no human interaction. God the Father wills the saving of His elect and by giving them to His all-powerful Son, guarantees, in the most powerful way, that His will be done. Praise and glory to Him!

    (John 6:37-40)

    Blessings to you and Beth, John. We are in prayer for you.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks Constantine.

    By the way, regarding Bryan's first comment, Beth's cancer is not "cured". The leukemia process is "controlled", but her bone marrow is damaged, and the only possible cure is through the bone marrow transplant that is being planned right now. In that process, her existing marrow will be destroyed, and new adult stem cells implanted, which, it is hoped, will create new marrow. It's a long process, and there are many pitfalls along the way. But we believe we are in very capable hands.

    ReplyDelete