Church Write-Up: Surprised Not Shocked; Imputed or Practical?; Avoiding Hell by Productivity?

Last Sunday, I went to what I call the “Word of Faith” church, and also the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.  Here are some notes:

A.  There is a new sermon series at the “Word of Faith” church.  It is about being surprised by God.  The pastor was saying that we can either be surprised by God, or we can be shocked, which leads to emotional pain.

I am not sure what entirely the pastor has in mind when it comes to the latter (shock leading to emotional pain).  But he cited Zechariah in the Gospel of Luke as an example of the latter.  Zechariah in Luke 1 was told by an angel of God that his wife would bear John, even though she was barren and elderly.  Zechariah, out of disbelief, asked for a sign, and the angel told him that the sign would be that Zechariah would keep his unbelieving mouth shut until John was born (or so the pastor paraphrased the text!).  The pastor said that Zechariah, had he been allowed to speak, would have talked his wife Elizabeth out of having sex, and John never would have been born.  Whereas Zechariah doubted God and experienced shock, Mary was surprised by God, but she still believed that God could do what God said and assented to what God wanted to do.  The pastor was likening that to God using us, with our limitations.

Do I want for God to surprise me?  On the one hand, I would love to be assured that God knows my address and would use me for something important.  I would feel validated.  Plus, adventure sounds appealing, on some level.  On the other hand, I would like a quiet, predictable life.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church commented on Luke 1:6, which says about Zechariah and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (KJV).

I had not thought about this verse for a while.  I called Harold Camping (remember him?) on his radio show over a decade ago and asked him about it.  “How can this say that Zechariah and Elizabeth kept the commandments and were blameless, when Paul says that there is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10)?”  Camping replied that Zechariah and Elizabeth had imputed righteousness: God reckoned them as righteous, even though they (like all people) were sinful, because they had faith in the Christ who was to come.  In short, they were justified by grace through faith, not works.

Over the past week or so, I have been listening to a Lutheran podcast that goes through the Bible.  The hosts were talking about II Peter 2:8, which says regarding Lot from the Book of Genesis, as he dwelt in the wicked city of Sodom: “For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds” (KJV).

The hosts struggled with the reference to Lot as righteous.  They rejected the idea that Lot was righteous on account of his good works, for they believed that Lot, like everyone, had to be justified by grace through faith.  Plus, when one reads the Book of Genesis, one reads that Lot did things that we might consider unrighteous: he selfishly picked the better land for himself, he dwelt in wicked Sodom, and he offered his daughters to the wicked Sodomites.  Righteous Lot?  For these hosts, Lot’s righteousness was imputed: it was not something that he possessed on account of his good works, merit, or lack of sin, for he was sinful; rather, God reckoned him as righteous on account of his faith.

The hosts made a similar point about Noah.  Genesis 6:5 states regarding the antediluvian people: “And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV).  The hosts were saying that such a description fits, not only the pre-Flood people, but every human being.  That would include Noah.  According to the hosts, Noah was saved, not because he was righteous in his deeds or merited salvation, but because he found grace in the eyes of the LORD (Genesis 6:8).  Noah had faith: he believed God.

Getting back to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the pastor at the “Word of Faith” church was interpreting Luke 1:6 to mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were connected to God and were comfortable in their own skin in that relationship.  “Blameless” means this, the pastor said, not that Zechariah and Elizabeth were morally and spiritually perfect.

I have problems with the idea that these biblical figures’ righteousness was imputed rather than practical.  II Peter 2:8 highlights Lot’s righteous soul and how it was grieved over the sinfulness of the Sodomites.  Luke 1:6 focuses on the religious walk of Zechariah and Elizabeth: they walked in God’s commandments and ordinances.

Yet, they obviously were not perfect.  Lot had his character flaws.  Zechariah stumbled in his faith.  Plus, even though Luke 1:6 states that Zechariah and Elizabeth walked in God’s commandments and were blameless, Luke in Acts 13:38-39 depicts Paul saying that forgiveness comes through Christ, and that the Jews could not be justified through the law of Moses.  The law of Moses was a dead end, in terms of becoming righteous.

Perhaps one can say that these figures had faith, and good works flowed from it.  Their faith was what saved them and led to their righteous status before God.  Maybe.  I will not deny that they had faith, even though they stumbled over it quite a bit (and the hosts of the podcast had an interesting discussion about why it is wrong to make faith into a law, for most of us fall short of even the mustard-seed faith that moves mountains or trees, a la Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6).  Faith probably formed the basis for their works.  Still, the biblical passages seem to focus on their deeds or attitudes (i.e., love of righteousness and hatred of wickedness) when it calls them righteous.

C.  The theme at the Missouri Synod Lutheran church was Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, which is found in Matthew 25:14-30.  You can read the parable here.

I liked how the speakers were conceptualizing the lesson of the parable: we should make use of the gifts that God gave us to help others, or to accomplish something good.  And we all can give something, even if it’s just a smile.

The Parable of the Talents troubles me because the servant who hides his talent in the ground is sent into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The place of weeping and gnashing of teeth is arguably hell (see Matthew 13:42, 50; Luke 13:28).

I would say that I am a productive person.  I am not a people-person, but I try to do something.  Getting back to that Lutheran podcast, the hosts said on one episode that there is such a thing as passively serving one’s neighbor: a sick person in the hospital is serving the doctors and nurses by giving them the opportunity to use their gifts.  By that standard, I serve others by being a consumer: by watching TV, reading books, etc.

Maybe I am not like the unprofitable servant who does absolutely nothing with the talent that is given him.  Still, I think it is wrong for the master to cast him into hell.  Should heaven-and-hell decisions be based on a person’s productivity or accomplishment?  That strikes me as rather grisly.  What if a person cannot do anything?  What if he or she is blind and cannot read?  What if he or she does not feel like smiling?  What if I do not feel like blogging?  And, before I had Internet connection, there were times when I did not interact with human beings.  Did God condemn me as an unprofitable servant in that time?  Can’t God just let me be (by which I don’t mean leaving me alone, but accepting me even when about the only thing I do is exist)?

I have had a similar issue with Jesus’ statement that God will not forgive us if we do not forgive others (Matthew 6:15; 18:35; Mark 11:26).  Lately, I have done better in the forgiveness department than I usually do.  A resentful thought enters my head, I think to myself “I forgive that person or that deed,” and the resentment fades.  I am not sure how long this will work, but it works for now.  Still, I have issues with God conditioning God’s forgiveness of people on their forgiveness of others.  I think that God should cut people more slack than that.  “But how canst thou expect God to cut thee slack, when thou wilt not cut slack unto thy neighbour?” (I am watching the American Experience documentary on the Pilgrims as I write this.)  Because he’s God.  I am just a human being.

D.  I will leave the comments open, in case someone wants to shed light on these issues.  Just please don’t get into lewd or controversial territory.

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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