Monday, March 29, 2010

Words and Propositions Transform Lives

In “The Future Lies in the Past,” Chris Armstrong (Christianity Today, Feb. 2008) writes,

“For the younger evangelicals, traditional churches are too centered on words and propositions…The younger evangelicals seek a renewed encounter with God beyond both doctrinal definitions and super-successful ministry programs.”

But “words and propositions” do matter, profoundly. I was about to graduate with a bachelors in social work, and went to visit our venerable department head for some parting words. After a few exchanges, her face deepened and she stated with some hesitation,

“I don’t know if I should say this, but I think you’re going to have problems wherever you go.”

Her words knocked me off my seat. I thought I had been a good student and couldn’t understand what her words meant. However, before I could ask, her phone rang. I waited a good half an hour, but finally had to depart without ever having resolved my discomfort. I was so deeply stung, and by someone I had respected, that her words remained with me as an arrow, which could not be removed without tearing the surrounding skin. In fact, the arrow remained imbedded for years.

“Words and propositions” are soul food, but they can also seem irrelevant to our lives, which often feel like a “groan” (Rom. 8:22-23; 2 Cor. 5:2). It’s therefore understandable that we’d crave a “renewed encounter with God,” and we should! But how? Through spiritual disciplines?

Martin Luther had been tortured by doubts about his worthiness before a just and punishing God. Despite the severe spiritual disciplines to which he subjected himself, he couldn’t find any peace with God. In his Commentary on the Book of Galatians, he wrote,

“Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would satisfy Him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather murmured against Him.”

What made the difference for Martin? “Words and propositions!” He continues,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement, ‘The just shall live by his faith’ [Rom 1:17]. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Therefore I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the doors into paradise.”

God’s words can lead us to the threshold of paradise, although we might have to ponder these words “night and day” (Psalm 1). The Cross of Christ liberated me. It informed me that I was free from needing to prove and obsessively justify myself. It freed me from denial, guilt and shame. It liberated me to attend to others’ needs and to laugh at my own problems, now beholding my glorious life in my Savior.

Although this generation might have a postmodern distaste for words and propositions, it’s better to teach them the virtues of a healthy meal than to indulge them their Big Mac.

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