Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Deliverance from Enemies by Grace: Evidence of Divine Monergism in the Pattern of the Kings of Judah (Part 1)

Paul says to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NASB) If one is not careful, it can be easy to mistakenly fall into the thinking that this is a New Testament innovation—something started after Jesus death, a new idea started by Paul, or a change in God’s way of dealing with man. For many Christians, there is a division in their mind that God saves by Grace in the New Testament and by Works in the Old, or that he forgives sins because of Jesus in the New Testament, but because of sacrifice in the Old. To do this sets up a scenario where we see two radically different Gods, or at least a God with two radically different personalities. This view makes Old Testament a story of a God who hands out rewards and punishments based on human works—a complete Theology of Glory, as if the Theology of the Cross did not exist before the cross itself.

This misunderstanding of God’s nature does not limit itself to the interpretation of the Old Testament. The same people who read the Bible in the way described above also continue this Theology of Glory into their application for the life of the modern Christian. While they might give acceptance on paper in official documents to the teaching that man is saved by grace through faith, they undermine this teaching with the way they apply God’s Word in their preaching, teaching, and writing. Here, they teach that if you just follow these steps, God will bless you, or if our country would just do this thing, God would bless the nation. Contained in the book of Chronicles are the occasions for two prevalent examples of this misapplication of God’s Word that occurs when reading the scriptures from an outlook of the Theology of Glory by those who follow American Popular Christianity.

The Prayer of Jabez
The first of these examples is the Prayer of Jabez. In this work, the author uses 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 to demonstrate what he claims is God’s desire for people to do and for people’s lives to be like. The prayer reads, “Oh that Thou wouldst bless me indeed, and enlarge my border, and that Thy hand might be with me, and that Thou wouldst keep me from harm, that it may not pain me!” (1 Chronicles 4:10, NASB) If the reader will just repeatedly pray this prayer persistently enough, the author claims that God will have no choice but to give them great earthly blessings. Prayer is used by the Christian to manipulate God in a way more fitting of paganism than Christianity. This prayer is effective, not because of God’s grace or Christ’s work, but because of the earnestness and persistence of the person praying it. Prayer becomes a work by which the one praying earns God’s favor and earthly wealth.

This reflects the Theology of Glory that underlies all of American Popular Christianity. According to the author and most English Bible translations, Jabez is blessed by God because he is “honorable.”[2] In reality, the Hebrew word is a Niphal participle and should be translated passively as “honored,”[3] since the Niphal normally indicates a passive translation. This correct translation would point to God’s grace in favoring Jabez, where the common translation points instead to the character of Jabez, as if anything in him merits the favor God showed to him.

2 Chronicles 7:14
The second example of this misapplication of scripture in the practice of American Popular Christianity is the frequent usage of 2 Chronicles 7:14 applied to the United States of America as a political nation. ”[If] My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” This passage may be one of the most familiar and often cited verses of Chronicles,
[4] and is unique to the Chronicler along with the surrounding verses. This verse can be seen displayed regularly on T-shirts and bumper stickers as an exhortation to the general public around the one displaying it that America had better get its act together and how it should be done. Type the reference into Google along with terms like “devotion,” “sermon,” or “and an abundance of websites will be found which expound on this verse. Sermons have such titles as “God's Recipe for Power in His Church”, and devotional responses include such comments as “It tells us that we personally (and as a Nation) must turn to God, change our ways, and take a stand in our land to continue to enjoy the Lord's protection.”[5] and “It tells the steps one must take (humble yourself and pray and seek God) to walk closely with God.”[6]

The abuse of this verse shows most clearly the works-righteous theology of Glory in American Popular Christianity, which seeks to have the favor and punishment of God rely on the merits of men. They transform a passage in which God is giving a divine promise and comfort into a command where God requires men to seek him and humble themselves in order to receive healing and forgiveness. One commentator sees this verse in Chronicles as a key verse in explaining the remainder of the book because it shows the Chronicler’s “theology of immediate retribution.” He claims “’Seeking God’ becomes a touchstone for weal or woe; similarly ‘humbling oneself’ or the failure to do so determines the divine response. Prayer and ‘turning’ occur at critical junctures in the narrative.”[7] He continues by saying “God does indeed bless or judge each generation in terms of its own response to his commands…Acts of piety and obedience are rewarded with success and prosperity…Conversely, disobedience and infidelity bring military defeat, the dissatisfaction of the population, and illness.”[8]

Those who use this verse as a kind of give and take relationship between God and man where man does some work to merit God’s forgiving response could better interpret this verse if it were not removed from its surroundings. Reading from verse 12, we find that God is speaking here to announce to Solomon that he has chosen the temple as a place to dwell. God then promises in verses 13-14 that even though Israel will fall into wicked ways and need correction, that when the correction has worked repentance in the hearts of the people, that he will heal the land. God is the active one here, not man. God chooses, God corrects, and God forgives. In verse 15-16, God promises that the temple will be his dwelling. This applies both to Solomon’s Temple, and encourages the Chronicler’s readers that the rebuilt temple is God’s dwelling place as well. Much like we have the sure promise that God comes to us through the Word and the Sacraments, this promise assures Israel that the temple is the place where God will come to them.

This verse is spoken by God for Israel as a promise, but many would recast it as spoken to America as law. Teachers who still look to Israel for the fulfillment of eschatology take a promise spoken to Israel and inconsistent with their own teachings, apply it to America instead. Additionally, why do the translations render the Niphal verb in verse 14 reflexively as “humble themselves” instead of passively as “be humbled”? It seems this would reflect better the truth that even when man repents, even that repentance is a gift of God as well as being the simpler and more common translation of the verb.

These two passages, used by many in separation from their context, serve as perfect examples of the misapplication of Scripture by American Popular Christianity. Both the story of Jabez and God’s promise to Solomon regarding the temple are packaged and marketed to law-loving Americans who consider themselves Evangelical Christians. This is our inclination as humans to run to the law. We seek to find what we can do, how we can earn right standing with God. We cannot accept that it is as simple as Grace, so we search for something to return the focus to ourselves instead of God and thus satisfy our selfish sinful hearts.

Luther on these Two Theologies
Martin Luther writes to admonish the Church against this tendency in his Heidelberg Disputation, which is the place where he begins to speak of the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. He demonstrates that salvation does not and cannot come by works of the law, but only by the Grace of God.

16. The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.
17. Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.
18. It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
25. He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
26. The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.

Luther’s language here in 17 regarding “humbling oneself” is more closely related to what God speaks to Solomon about in 2 Chronicles 7:14. To humble oneself is not to do some work to appease God. It is not to “decide to follow Jesus.” It is to despair in one’s own works which can earn nothing toward salvation, but know that God is gracious and forgives the sins of those who trust him.

According to the Theology of Glory, humans merit rewards and punishments by their actions. God rewards good behavior and punishes bad. When God’s grace in introduced, it is in the sense of a synergism where “I do my best and God will do the rest,” and Jesus death is only to make up the difference. On the other hand, the Theology of the Cross trusts completely in Jesus merits and God’s grace for salvation. In the Theology of the Cross, not only do good works merit nothing, placing any trust at all in works increases one’s guilt before God and separates the person from God’s grace.

This is the pattern we see played out in the story of the kings of Judah in Chronicles. A faithful king who trusts in God has long life and a prosperous reign, not because he merits it by believing, but because he knows God’s grace and is given His gifts. A king who is spiritually adulterous and seeks after other gods is corrected or destroyed and brings danger and difficulty to God’s people. A king who relies on his own works instead of depending on God for victory finds himself defeated, even though he has the superior army, but the king whose forces are outmatched by the enemy is given victory because God fights on their behalf.

[1] Wilkinson, Bruce; The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking through to the Blessed Life; Multnomah, 2000.
[2] Gard, Daniel, “The Prayer of Jabez”, Class Handout.
[3] Lange, John Peter; Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, vol. 4, tr. Philip Schaff; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1960, pp. 54-55.
[4] Dillard, Raymond B. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 15, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN, 1987, p. 58.
[5] http://www.apibs.org/serm/s359.htm
[7] Dillard, Raymond B. and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1994, p. 176.
[8] Ibid. p. 177.
[9] Lull, Timothy, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1989, p. 31.
[10] Ibid. p. 32.

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