gospel

Jesus: the True Victim (pt. 3)

Last season, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee rather than stand during the national anthem, as a protest against racial inequality. His actions sparked controversy across the NFL, and now the President has drawn even more national attention to the protests, saying those players who protest ought to be fired.

i.jpeg

Whatever you believe about the propriety of the players’ (or the President’s) actions, I think this presents us with a foil to talk about victim culture, real injustice, and our response as Christians.

In the last post, we looked at the gospel story as applied to victim culture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. As I close this short series on Christ & Victim Culture, I want to look at real injustice, identify fake injustice, point out a tendency toward in justice that all of us have, and remember that, ultimately, Jesus is the true victim.

Christ+&+(victim)+culture-2.jpeg

Real injustice.

Justice means giving someone else their due. If you owe someone something, and you don’t give it, you are committing an injustice. Thus, you’ve suffered a real injustice if…

  • …you are denied dignity and equality on the basis of skin color, gender, etc.
  • …you were denied love, affection, care, and the presence of your parent(s)
  • …someone has taken something from you that they have no right to
  • …someone made a promise to you that they then broke
  • …a friend or loved one betrayed your trust

The list could go on. But by this reckoning, all of us have suffered injustice at one time or another in our lives. But sometimes we cry wolf. Sometimes we are victims of fake injustice.

Fake injustice.

crying-wolf.jpeg

We make ourselves victims of fake injustice when we believe we are entitled to something we don’t get, but were never entitled to it in the first place. Examples of fake injustice include:

  • Discomfort – I am not owed comfort. I might expect a comfortable life because of my socio-economic status, my upbringing, beer commercials, or jealousy of my neighbors. But my expectations do not obligate the universe—or anyone else—to meet them.
  • Disappointment – I am not owed a disappointment-free life. Wishing for something good does not mean I will get it. Wish-fulfillment is not what the universe—or the God who created it—is about.
  • Disagreement – I am not owed a frictionless life. If someone disagrees with me, it doesn’t mean they are judging or oppressing me. It could simply mean that they have a different opinion. Or that I am wrong.
  • Honest mistakes – People make mistakes. Dealing with others’ imperfections is part of living in a community filled with other humans. Since the Fall, a world without mistakes is a world without real humans.
My expectations do not obligate the universe—or anyone else—to meet them.

In my own heart and life, I see too often this tendency to blow fake injustice out of proportion. I use these and other examples of it to make myself out to be a victim. But as we said before, when I illegitimately make myself a victim, I am actually trying to grab power. Playing the victim card puts others at my mercy. Rather than humble submission in Christ, I lift myself up as someone whose needs must be met.

Jesus is the true victim.

He was the victim of the greatest injustice in history.

  • He was without sin: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).
  • He was despised by people He had loved and served: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:23a).
  • He didn’t even defend Himself when accused: “[W]hen he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23b).
  • He suffered willingly for US: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Christians suffer. It’s what we do.

We should expect suffering because our King was the True Victim. And because of that, we are blessed when we suffer injustice: “[T]his is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.… For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you” (1 Peter 2:19, 21).

In fact, now we can “count it all joy” when we suffer because “the testing of [our] faith produces steadfastness” which in turn makes us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

Suffering is God’s tool in our sanctification. Rather than bemoan our victimhood, we should rejoice in trials. They make us look like Jesus.

How many fingers…?

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.
— Martin Luther

There aren’t many movies from my childhood that hold up. I’ve tried watching several late 80s/early 90s films with my kids, only to have them quickly lose interest… or to be totally ashamed of what I once thought was cool. 

(Ahem… Space Jam.)

But I was pleasantly surprised when the family gathered round recently to watch The Mighty Ducks. Yes, it’s campy, complete with feel-good roller blade sequences and token representatives of minority communities. But it was genuinely fun, and it did my soul some good to watch my kids leap up and cheer when Charlie scored the winning goal in the final scene. 

In one scene, a player is hit in the head with a hockey puck. While lying on the ice, Coach Gordon Bombay rushes over and asks, “How many fingers am I holding up?” (To which Goldberg the goalie replies, “He wouldn’t know that anyway.”)

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

"How many fingers am I holding up?"

Grace Alone and Seeing Straight

When it comes to the truth about God and ourselves, it seems like our culture has been hit in the head with a hockey puck. We’re dazed, bewildered, unable to see straight. We’re trying to figure out who God is, who we are, what the truth is, but we can’t quite make it out. It may be true that we “wouldn’t know that anyway,” but it’d be a lot easier if the picture weren’t moving around. 

In the teaching of the Reformation, grace alone goes hand in hand with faith alone. In order to understand faith alone, we have to understand that we cannot earn God’s favor by our works. In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly. We have to focus in on what Scripture teaches about our sinfulness and our need before a holy God. 

In order to understand grace alone, we have to see ourselves clearly.

Who better than our friend Martin Luther to play Emilio Estevez and ask, “how many fingers am I holding up?” 

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther as Emilio Estevez?

Beating the Gospel into Our Heads

Luther was a firm believer in our inability to please God. Our sinfulness makes us wholly incapable of earning His love. 

The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Law is about doing. Grace is about receiving the righteousness of Christ for us. We can’t do what the law requires. 

No man can make any advance towards righteousness by his works.

This last quote is from his landmark book, The Bondage of the Will, in which he argued against one of the leading thinkers of the day, Erasmus of Rotterdam, who said we could please God by doing what lies within us. To this, Luther gave a resounding, “No!” Using the example of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he wrote, 

But look at the endeavor whereby he found grace! Not only did he not seek grace, but he received it through his own mad fury against it!

Later he writes,

[G]race is given freely to the undeserving and utterly unworthy, and is not attained by any of the efforts, endeavors, or works, small or great, of even the best and most upright men who seek and follow after righteousness with flaming zeal.

We can’t see straight because we're broken by sin. Grace alone can set us right and heal us. And to set our vision right, we need God to hit us over the head with His grace: 

Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.

Faith Alone: No Church Without It

If the doctrine of justification [by faith] is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost … if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything.
— Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians

Justification by faith alone was the central doctrine of the Reformation. Martin Luther said it is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” In other words, a church isn’t a church (or won’t be for long) if it doesn’t have this central doctrine. Like a basketball team with no hoop or a marriage with no love, is a church without justification by faith alone. 

Like a church without justification by faith alone. 

Like a church without justification by faith alone. 

You Can’t Justify Yourself

In the film Chariots of Fire, British runner Harold Abrams, is driven to win gold.  In the lead up to the final race of the Olympics, he realizes his drive to win is rooted in his need to prove himself and his worth. “[I]n one hour's time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I? I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.” 

He knows he needs to be justified, to have ultimate worth and value, but he realizes he has spent his whole life trying to get it through his own work. And now that he is about to accomplish that work, he sees it’s not enough. His work won’t do it. He can’t justify himself. 

Faith Alone (= Faith, NOT Works)

One of Martin Luther’s greatest theological breakthroughs was the realization that he could not justify himself by his own works. In The Freedom of a Christian, he writes:

Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.

None of his works could make God accept him. It wasn’t up to him to make himself acceptable to God or others. God had to do the justifying for him. Only trust in God’s grace in Christ can make us right with God. Faith alone justifies the sinner. 

It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law. 

He isn’t claiming a Christian does no works or that we don’t obey God’s law. Instead, our works are done from God’s acceptance, not for it. Having been justified by God, we are free to worship Him and love others.

So also our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.

Get Drunk on Justification By Faith Alone

Faith sets the Christian free. Justification by faith frees us from any need to earn approval from God or others. We have everything in Christ! We can now rest in these riches and enjoy life in Him forever! Luther's passion for faith alone stemmed from the joy and peace it brought him: 

[H]e who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it.

[T]rue faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison which brings with it complete salvation and saves man from every evil. 

[T]hrough faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true, peaceful, and free, filled with every blessing and truly made a child of God.

By faith we have “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). If we have everything in Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23), what more do we need? And when you realize the magnitude of God’s grace given to us through faith, you can’t help rejoicing:

Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.

Luther said we should get drunk on faith! This doctrine is so glorious, this promise so wonderful, that we can become intoxicated with it! The freedom faith brings should make our spirits sing. 

Why I'm Nerdy for the Reformation

Nerds are passionate. Really, nerdiness is synonymous with passion. But the nerd label sticks when a person’s passion falls outside the mainstream. When you’re passionate about a football team, you're a fan. When you’re passionate about Dungeons and Dragons or hair metal or sci-fi, you’re a nerd. I didn’t make that rule; I’m just acknowledging it’s there.  

The face of passion.

The face of passion.

Most people don’t care much about the Reformation. So my passion for it can legitimately be called nerdy. And I’m ok with that. I’ll say it loud: “I’m nerdy for the Reformation.” I said in my last post that the Reformation changed the world. But that’s not why I’m nerdy for it. I’m nerdy for it because it changed my life.   

Hearing the Wrong Story

I heard a lot of stories growing up in church. David and Goliath. The battles that Gideon or Samson fought. Daniel and the Lions Den. Those stories created a framework for my understanding of God and the Christian gospel. And the way the stories were told to me, the gospel I heard sounded something like this: “God blesses good boys and girls.” 

That version of the gospel makes a lot of sense to all of us. When you do something good, you expect to get something good in return. When you do something bad, you expect something bad will happen as a result. What goes around comes around. Christian karma

But Christian karma never lit my heart on fire. There wasn’t much to be passionate about in that understanding of the Bible. “I am a good boy; God should bless me.” If I was passionate, it was usually because I didn’t think I was getting the good I deserve. 

The 56th of Martin Luther's 95 Theses says, "The treasures of the church… are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ." Nearly 500 years later, in a church that could trace it's roots to Luther’s teaching, this was all too true. The treasure of the church—the gospel of Christ Jesus—was hidden from me. 

The treasures of the church… are not sufficiently discussed or known among the people of Christ.
— Martin Luther

I heard the wrong story in church every Sunday. I heard, “God blesses good boys and girls.” But the gospel story is this: “God saves sinners.” 

Getting the Story Right

“God blesses good boys and girls,” means I have to be good to get blessed. Whether the blessings I want are material, social, or spiritual, the responsibility for acquiring them is mine. My good works earn God’s blessings. And if I worked hard enough, kept enough rules, didn’t get into trouble, and used my money responsibly, Christian karma would work in my favor.

When I moved to New York City in 2004, I became part of a small church plant. I think I was member #15. There was a lot about the church that was messy and hard. But through the ministry of that church, God unearthed the treasure of the gospel in my soul. He revealed the good news that “God saves sinners.” 

Unearthing the treasure.

Unearthing the treasure.

God.” Not me. I’m not the one who is responsible for getting blessed or finding God. I don’t find God. God finds me. 

Saves.” God doesn’t just bless. He doesn’t improve, or lend a helping hand, or help those who help themselves. He saves. Redeems. Rescues.

Sinners.” Spiritually, I was lost, blind, broken, dead. I was separate from God and deserved to be eternally so. And through no amount of effort on my part, according to nothing that was good in me, for no reason other than sheer love that I could never have possibly deserved—grace—God saved me. He took me from death and brought me to life. 

That is the gospel story. And it had become MY story! Once I realized how good and glorious it was, I began seeing everything in light of it. Life was like a Magic Eye poster for me: once it was all just a random assortment of colors and shapes; now I knew those colors and shapes came together to form something real and good and true! I wanted everyone to discover what I had, to share in that hidden treasure that had now been revealed as the gospel of Christ Jesus. 

"Just stand really close to it and then back away slowly…"

"Just stand really close to it and then back away slowly…"

How I Began to Be Nerdy for the Reformation

Naturally, I began wondering why I hadn’t come to this truth sooner. I discovered there was this thing called “theology” that some pretty important people in history really cared about. I read my first meaty Christian book (J.I. Packer’s Knowing God), and it made mention of this theology thing and this other thing called the “Reformation.” And that’s how my minor obsession with the Reformation began. 

In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, people used to leave old books out in front of their homes for anyone to take. I began combing through these piles looking for something about the Reformation. I remember going into all the used bookstores in the area, looking for books about Martin Luther. I wanted to know all I could about him and his movement. I thought I’d struck gold when I found one copy of a book on the Reformation at Barnes and Noble.  I would ask myself questions like, “Why aren't there more books on this? Why don't more people care?” I crossed from interested to nerdy very quickly. 

Over a decade later, I am still fascinated by Luther’s story. The theology of the Reformers still feeds my soul. And I do my best to believe, live in light of, and preach the gospel they rediscovered. I don’t want this blog series to be about nerding out (though I plan to do that a bit). I want it to show the beauty of the gospel. And hopefully it will inspire some nerdiness in the process.