Don’t Do Your Best

Psalm 103

God doesn’t want your best. Don’t think it. Don’t believe it. Don’t say it. God doesn’t want your best. He’s not your Little League coach. There is too much at stake here. And your best stinks. It’s not that good. Oh, relatively speaking I suppose there is some truth to this. We can compare ourselves to others. We can rank each other. My putting is the best at the office golf outing. The best student. The best BBQ. Fine. Seems a little childish for God talk though. God doesn’t want your best. Your best stinks.

And this is not a cranky theologian getting worked about semantics. I can do that too, but not here. This is important. It is at the heart of the Reformation. If you wade through all the theological jargon of the late medieval church (transubstantiation, venial sins, mortal sins, condign merit, congruous merit), if you fight your way through it all to arrive at the core, there is this phrase that stands out; facere quod in se est. Do what is in you. Do your best. Do your best and God will love you back. He knows that you cannot be perfect but there is something in you, a little, tiny, minimal good. God just wants your best and he will not deny grace to those who just do what is in them. As if Christ’s cross had nothing to do with our salvation.

Luther was fond of saying that we owe nothing to God, only faith. Good thing because what is in us is rotten. It’s not worth, even a little bit, parading around before God or man. I don’t care how good your putter is or your grades or your BBQ. At least not in the sake of your value to me or to God. There is too much at stake here to play this game.

This little phrase, “Do what is in you”, is devastating, absolutely devastating. It puts us back into a business relationship with God. I do this for him (as small as it might be) and he will do this for me. It’s not love. It’s not grace. It’s crushing because only an arrogant fool looks inside and declares, “This is good.” Despair is the only honest conclusion. Be very careful then where you throw this law. It might hit an honest person.

I don’t know why we try to put ourselves back under this curse. We are free from that. God demands nothing from me because it has already been given to me in Christ. I don’t have anything to offer him. Nothing at all. And I don’t have to, on account of Christ. Only faith and my faith stinks too, so the Spirit turns my sorry heart around in faith. He does it all. It’s the only way I have peace and security in all of this. It’s the only way I know the love of God. Even my repentance is a part of faith that God works in me. I owe God nothing.

I owe my neighbor everything. So my growth, my plan, my career, my ministry, my, my, my. Who cares? My life is now about something so much bigger than “my”. It’s about divine love. And how freeing that is. This was never about what is in me, my best, ever. How insulting it is to a gracious God to think so. “Here is what I have for you, O God.” Rather, he makes me a partaker of mercies more than I dare claim.

Luther contemplated what this meant when we take stock of our lives. He concluded what the Psalms and Paul and all the rest concluded, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I should always have this fear that my life is nothing before him. Only in that fear (as opposed to the hubris of “I got something to offer him”), only in this fear am I ripe for mercy and love. Mercy from him and love to others. So as we sing Psalm 103, notice there is no “Do my best.” There is only a healthy dose of fear, only a marveling at his grace (he doesn’t treat us as we deserve but much better), only a wonderment at forgiveness and mercy.

God does not return grace to those who try their best but rather shows compassion on those fear him, that is, who know, by the Spirit’s work, that they have nothing to offer and only hold out there hands to receive.

Michael Berg

Together with our colleague and a guest on the show, Kerry Kuehn, Mike is offering a practical apologetics course, open to all, in the summer of 2019. You can learn more and register here.

For more content like this, check out the podcast, blog posts, and devotions at www.LetTheBirdFly.com.

You can listen to our latest episode here. You can find our latest installment in the Wingin’ It series on Luther here

Philip Melanchthon

Today the Lutheran Church commemorates Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague in Wittenberg. I debated whether or not I should even add that last part, “Luther’s colleague in Wittenberg.” Melanchthon was more than that. And yet, fair or not, this is how we know him. To be honest, too, I think that appendage, “Luther’s colleague,” is not a diminishment of his work or genius. Rather, that was a very important choice he made, and that in very dangerous times. Philip chose to work with Europe’s greatest theological outlaw and stuck with him, through the darkest of times, and often when Luther made it rather difficult personally—great as he was, the great reformer was not the easiest colleague or friend.

Philip Melanchthon has been called “praeceptor Germaniae,” the teacher of Germany. It’s a title he earned. He shaped higher education in Germany like few others in its history. He shaped the curriculum in Wittenberg, which shaped generations of pastors, lawyers, teachers, and a host of other professions. Melanchthon, beyond a doubt, was a brilliant and influential man.

My students seldom get this reference anymore, but Melanchthon was a Doogie Howser of sorts. He progressed quickly through his education. He graduated young with about every degree he ever received. He was a prodigy, and sometimes suffered for that, being denied admission to at least one program because there was a fear he might become too arrogant progressing so quickly so young. He earned all the letters after his name, though. His mind was a gift from God and he was gifted with a work ethic to match it.  

Frail in build, Melanchthon had powerful ideas. Unlike Luther, though, he did not have a powerful personality. He was an intellectual, and a public intellectual, but he didn’t have the demeanor of a prophet. He was thoughtful to the point of being tentative. And that is fine. And the church needs such men. It wasn’t his fault he was cast in Luther’s role after Luther’s death. It was thrust upon him, perhaps unfairly. He was who he was, and his demeanor served him well in many ways, even if it wasn’t suited for the prophet’s task and for the challenges piled upon him with Luther’s death and the great Interim Crisis (which is a post for another day and the main focus of my books An Uncompromising Gospel and The Devil behind the Surplice).

Melanchthon’s great-uncle was the renowned scholar Johannes Reuchlin, famed for his work with Hebrew and the trouble that got him into. Reuchlin had overseen Melanchthon’s education. And yet the relationship between the two soured because of Melanchthon’s loyalty to his colleague and friend, Martin Luther. Melanchthon refused to take a position elsewhere when things heated up with Luther’s Reformation, as we refer to it now. He was committed to Wittenberg, and more importantly to the Scriptures and justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. In fact, Melanchthon supplied much of the language we use now to express that as clearly as possible.

Today we give thanks for the life and thought and confession of Philip Melanchthon. Those of you who know me and my work know that I work especially with the life and thought of Matthias Flacius Illyricus, a student of Melanchthon’s who later became an opponent. I’ll admit to sharing much in common with both the demeanor and the theological emphases of Matthias Flacius. I will also say, though, that through my work with Flacius I have grown in my appreciation for Melanchthon. This was a man who sacrificed for the Lutheran Reformation. This was a man who put his time and health into the study of God’s Word and into the instruction of its preachers. This was a man, too, who bore a heavy cross especially after Luther’s death. Like all of us, he struggled under it. And yet, I pray, like all of us, he kept his eyes on Christ, even as he wavered. We do well, then, to give thanks for him and to learn from him, especially from works like the Augsburg Confession and its Apology, his 1521 Loci Communes, and other theological treasures. This was a man who knew Christ and knew Paul, and in that faith, rooted in Christ and shaped by Paul’s beautiful teaching about Christ, he departed, weary from years of theological struggle. God grant us all the same!

If you want a short and accessible little book on Philip Melanchthon, I highly recommend Meeting Melanchthon by my friend and Melanchthon scholar, Scott Keith

Wade Johnston

For more content like this, check out the podcast, blog posts, and devotions at www.LetTheBirdFly.com.

You can listen to our latest episode here. You can find our latest installment in the Wingin’ It series on Luther here

For more writing by Wade, you can find his books here and more blog posts here. You can visit his faculty page, which lists other writings and projects here.

Our Someone, Treasure, and Pearl

Matthew 13:44-46                                          

If you come by my office, a lot of times you’ll hear me playing Counting Crows. There’s a simple reason for that. Dr. Berg’s office is next to mine and he can’t stand Counting Crows music. Sometimes I play other stuff, though. I think my colleagues will say my choices are pretty eclectic. One of my favorite bands is the Avett Brothers. They have one line in one song that I really dig. It goes like this: “If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected” (“Road Full of Doubt, Head Full of Promise”). These parables get at that. “If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected.” Continue reading “Our Someone, Treasure, and Pearl”

Salvation That’s Not for Sale (And thank God for that!)

Luke 5:1-11

There’s a reason why we get uncomfortable around salespeople. For the most part, we know that they aren’t really interested in us as human beings. We know that they’ll forget our names after a few days. We realize that the “special discount” which they offered to us is the same one that they offer to every single person who comes in. And deep down, we know that we may be nothing more than another tally in their Salesperson of the Month competition with their peers. It can be very dehumanizing (no offense if you’re in sales, but you know what I mean).

I wish I could say that the church treats people differently. I wish I could say that as a public minister of the gospel, I’ve always treated people differently. But I can’t. Whether it’s been to make ourselves look competent or successful or whether it’s because the glad tidings about Jesus have become nothing more than a stale presentation of what we’re supposed to say, the church on earth has a confession. Sometimes we dehumanize other others with our sales pitch for Jesus (or for us?). Lord, have mercy!

As we continue our walk through the season of Epiphany, Jesus reveals his glory in the way he deals with people. But he does it, as always, by making us small. After Peter had spent the whole night on the water, casting and pulling…pulling and casting, he must have been exhausted. And all he had to show for it was an empty boat. It’s not an easy thing to clean cast nets. So when somebody tells you to go back out after pain fills your shoulders, you’ve failed to bring home a paycheck (again), and you’re almost finished packing things up for the next go round, they may as well be the devil himself.

But Peter told Jesus, “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.” I’m willing to bet that he was mumbling something else under his breath. His response after the miraculous catch seems to suggest that he was. “When Simon Peter saw [that his clean nets were breaking and boats were sinking from all the fish], he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; for I am a sinful man.’”

But as pious as it sounded and as accurately as it may have captured the fear that Peter was experiencing, requesting that Jesus depart because of our sin is quite foolish. Because if anyone can do something about it, it is “God with us”. And if God’s presence is what purifies us from all unrighteousness, then a place near Jesus’ feet is a great place to be. “Don’t be afraid,” the Lord said to Peter. “Don’t be afraid,” the Lord says to you. “Your guilt is taken away, your sin is atoned for” (Isa 6:7). God took it all away by taking it into himself. And on the third day, Jesus rose again from the dead.

In the letter to the Hebrews, we hear that a high priest is “able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray.” In other words, he cares about people and deals with them in such a way that draws them in. What an accurate description of Jesus “who is a priest forever” and deals with us according to his tender mercy. So don’t be afraid. You may just find yourself leaving important things behind because you see someone else suffering…someone who is trembling with fear or at the end of their rope. And you’ll know how they feel. And without thinking, you’ll actually care. For Christ has made you a fisher of people…and he’s shaping you according to his good and perfect will.

“For where two or three come together in my name, there I AM with them.” Amen.

Ben Zak

For more content like this, check out the podcast, blog posts, and devotions at www.LetTheBirdFly.com.

You can listen to our latest episode here. You can find our latest installment in the Wingin’ It series on Luther here

Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinner…

Isaiah 6:1-8 and Luke 5:1-11

What a story Isaiah had to tell. The story of a vision from God and a vision of God. And he was terrified. Why so scared? You heard him – I’m unclean; I am sin. Sin and holy don’t mix.  Think of a sinner dressed in coveralls that have been doused in gasoline. Think of God as a blazing torch – mix the two and the sinner would be ruined, burned, consumed. Isaiah was out of place near the presence and power of God Almighty.

That’s how it is. The closer one comes to God’s power, the more that soul becomes aware of just how unworthy and out of place it is. Isaiah was frightened to death. Continue reading “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinner…”

The Lord’s Glory in Grace

Exodus 32 and 33

Do you remember the account of the golden calf? The ugliness of the human heart! To take gold and fashion it into an idol is one thing; but then to bow down and praise it as the one who had delivered them out of Egypt, isn’t that an entirely different level? And do you remember, Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments in his hand, and smashes the two stone tablets in righteous anger? And what about the calf? He burns in the fire and grinds it to powder, scattering it on the water and making them to drink it? Drink your sin! Continue reading “The Lord’s Glory in Grace”