St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:17-26
July 27, 2014
In the old testament, whenever anyone was going to draw near God in worship, he had to be clean. The priests had to wash themselves and put on clean robes before going into God’s house.
But even though they followed the prescribed rules for cleanliness, that did not necessarily make them clean in God’s sight. In fact, God rebukes the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah [chapter 1]:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says the Lord…
Bring no more vain offerings…
When you spread out your hands
I will hide my eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
Your hands are full of blood.
Make yourselves clean;
Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes…”
Now the Israelites were not going into the temple with their hands bloodstained from murder. They were outwardly clean. But the law of God was never only concerned with outward cleanness and outward righteousness. The law of God is spiritual and commands inner, spiritual cleanness of the heart.
This is what Jesus is teaching in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. “Unless your righteousness surpasses the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The scribes and Pharisees insisted on the law of God as the guide to God’s holy will and righteousness. And they were right to do so. The ten commandments show us what we must do and be if we are to receive God’s approval, if we are to be righteous.
(Seckendorf Hymnbook) (Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz)
Good Jesus, by Your grace I have prepared and fit myself to come to private confession [zum Beichtstuhl] for the forgiveness of my sins. But I remember that You earnestly commanded: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, then leave your gift there before the altar, and first go and reconcile yourself with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Unfortunately, now I have fallen into misunderstanding and disagreement with my neighbor. Therefore grant me your grace and govern me, so that my heart lets itself be found willing to be reconciled.
I recognize the hardness of my heart and confess that it is difficult to force flesh and blood and to let go of all anger and vengefulness. But I hope, yes, I pray, that You, Lord, would take from my flesh the heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh—that is, a heart rich in love and willing to be reconciled—and that you would make me a person who loves his enemy, blesses those who curse him, does good to those who hate him, and prays for those who insult and persecute him.
Ah! Let me think on the judgment and strict accounting that I will have to give [one day], that I may let go of hostility (which seeks only death and destruction), and be reconciled with my adversaries while I am still on the way with them, according to Your command, and never again let the sun go down on my anger.
And as I pardon and forgive all those who have offended me, so also let me find those whom I have grieved and angered to be submissive to Your word, so that they for Your sake also forgive and pardon me for all the ways I have offended them.
Oh Jesus, forgive all our sins and govern our hearts, that we may live peaceably as Christians with one another, and praise Your name together here in time until there in eternity we laud You forever. Amen.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 5:1-11
July 20, 2014
“Christ’s Word Catches us Out of the Deep”
Listen to Elijah’s distress as he talks with God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of armies.” But the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets. Now I am the only one left and they’re trying to kill me, too.
What good had all of Elijah’s jealousy for the Lord done? It hadn’t done anything to turn the tide of God’s people abandoning God. All Elijah could see was that the true public worship of God had been wiped out and the preachers of God’s Word had been killed.
Even though Elijah’s zeal and strength didn’t seem to win any battles, the mighty word of God Elijah preached was working—unseen by him. It had preserved a little remnant within Israel that had refrained from making sacrifices to false gods, giving worship to demons. And it was about to raise up kings and prophets who would destroy the powerful people who had taught the Israelites to worship Baal.
We are sunk in the depths of futility and death, but Christ’s word brings us up from the deep.
A couple of months ago Logia (a Lutheran theological journal) published an article I wrote about the faith of infants prior to baptism. Readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of its content, but I’m grateful to Logia and especially its editor, Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer, for publishing it and working to get it ready for print. The article’s topic is one that I think needs wider exposure among Lutheran pastors. First of all, it gives profound comfort for Christian parents who lose children prior to Baptism. Secondly, it sheds light on theological controversies that have arisen among confessional Lutheran pastors in the past few years—in particular, the nature of infant faith and the question of infant communion. Finally, it challenges us, through the example of one particular question in pastoral care, to evaluate the degree to which contemporary confessional Lutheran theological assumptions diverge from those of the first generation of the Reformation.
The article examines a little book by Johannes Bugenhagen, a reformer who was also Luther’s pastor at the church in Wittenberg. The book, called On Unborn Children, seems not to have been widely known among Lutheran theologians in the last century or two. In it Bugenhagen sets out an argument for infant faith and infant baptism against Anabaptist objections. Then he turns to discuss the faith and salvation of infants which die before baptism.
Briefly, Bugenhagen argues that infants have the promise of salvation given to them by Christ when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” On the basis of that word we are required to bring our infants to Christ in Baptism, since in Baptism Christ receives them and gives them faith and brings them into the kingdom of heaven.
But what happens to those who are not baptized? Bugenhagen argues that the promise of Christ—“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” still applies to unbaptized infants. They are brought to Christ and offered to Him through the prayers of parents and the church. And Bugenhagen’s contention is that such children, when they die prior to Baptism, are certainly saved and should be treated that way. Bugenhagen’s view was apparently also the view of Luther, who appended his more famous“Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage” to Bugenhagen’s book.
Bugenhagen’s approach to the question comes as something of a surprise to some confessional Lutherans. First of all it seems to imply that infants receive faith in Christ apart from the external Word, at least in the case of unbaptized infants. And that view, that unbaptized infants receive faith apart from the means of grace in response to the prayers of the church, was not only the perspective of Bugenhagen but also stated explicitly by the great theologian of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, Johann Gerhard (see his A Comprehensive Explanation of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, published by Repristination Press).
Secondly, Bugenhagen’s approach seems largely unknown to confessional Lutheran pastors, who typically will point parents of unbaptized infants who die to the Word they heard while still in the womb instead of to the promise of Christ regarding little children and the efficacy of prayer.
Why does Bugenhagen’s book merit wider attention? First of all because of the comfort it gives grieving parents. Bugenhagen provides a certain comfort instead of a vague hope. He doesn’t tell grieving parents “Your miscarried child might be in heaven because you went to church and had family devotions and they might have believed what they heard in utero.” He says: “Your child is certainly with the Lord, because Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ And you brought your little child to Christ in your prayers. Besides this the church also interceded for your little one. And the Holy Spirit prayed within you with inexpressible sighs. And so your child was most certainly brought to Christ, who has promised that the kingdom of heaven belongs to infants who are brought to Him.”
Secondly, confusion about the nature of infant faith has been behind some theological controversy among Lutheran pastors in recent years. Relatively recently some furor erupted on the internet as liturgically-minded, confessions-subscribing pastors argued about the validity of infant communion. Neither party denied the reality of the faith of infants. But the failure of some pastors to understand the reason the reformers did not institute infant communion has something to do with this lack of clarity on how infants receive the Word of God and faith in Christ. According to Bugenhagen, infants receive Christ and the Gospel although they are not capable of being taught or understanding the contents of the Gospel. They are received because Christ promises to receive them, not because they have the same capacity for a faith that is capable of self-examination as adult Christians.
Finally, it invites us to look at the ways in which contemporary confessional Lutheranism may be narrower than the Lutheranism of the reformers and of the period of orthodoxy. Bugenhagen does not seem to understand the Smalcald Articles’ dictum No Spirit apart from the Word the same way many of us do. Moreover, he ascribes a great deal more to the prayers of believers than many contemporary Lutherans seem to find comfortable. Finally, his insistence that the purpose of theology is for the comfort of the afflicted consciences of believers challenges our tendency to simplify theology into slogans designed to easily identify heresy.
Bugenhagen’s book opens up a number of discussions it would be useful for confessional Lutherans to have. But my main hope in writing the article was and is that his approach to the comfort of parents who have lost children before baptism would become more widely known among Lutheran pastors.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546
from Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
Lord Jesus Christ, please hurry and bring the blessed day when the hope of our glorious redemption shall be fulfilled. For you have called us to pray for this in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come! Then, since you have commanded us to pray this, so also give us grace and help that we do pray it and in addition that we firmly believe that we will finally come to such glory. Grant also that the same joyful, blessed day of our redemption and glorification come soon, and that we may experience all that we now hear and believe in the Word. Amen.
This prayer was written in the 1600s, but it sounds like someone wrote it yesterday. From the Gebets-Schatz.
Lord Jesus Christ, though no one knows the hour of your appearing, not even the angels in heaven, but only the Father, who has reserved it for His power—still there will be an end to this world and its form will pass away. You will come with flames of fire to take vengeance on those who do not know You, God, and are not obedient to Your gospel. And so that we do not doubt this, You have allowed faithful hearts to know the signs of Your appearing and identified them. The world is now pregnant with these signs, giving certain proof that the end of all things is near. Great signs happen in the sun, moon, and the stars, which fall from heaven and lose their light. One hears of wars and rumors of wars. One nation is incensed with another and kingdom rises against kingdom. There are earthquakes in various places. It is a time of rising prices and famine. Unrighteousness more and more gets the upper hand. The brotherly love of many has grown cold. The times are so terribly wicked that the people are fearful and anxious. They faint and almost perish because of the tribulation and distress that is in the world.
In the church many people have risen up who speak perverted doctrine and falsify Your Word, and Your Word must still endure being called heresy by many. In the secular government power often passes for righteousness. Right is turned into gall and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood; evil is called good and good evil, black must be called white. In the household estate is great unfaithfulness, disobedience, disunity, discord, quarreling, and strife. Even though everyone in common leads a godless life, no one regards it as sinful. These are all signs of the approach of the last day.
Since these are all now hanging before our eyes, graciously help us, Lord, that we take it to heart, and not be secure, or be rash and have our lamps fail like the foolish virgins. Grant instead that we always be brave and pray, do good and not grow weary, that we might thereby escape Your strict judgment and sentence, and might be worthy to stand before Your holy face, when You will come in the clouds with great power and glory, and send Your angels to gather Your elect from the four winds, and from the end of the earth to the end of the heavens. Lord, we wait daily for Your salvation. Come now, O Lord Jesus. Make an end of all our misery and take us poor wretches, together with all believers, to paradise. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. Georg Schimmer, 1652-1695
Oh my God, even though I am without doubt a poor sinner, nevertheless I am no sinner. I am a sinner in myself and outside of Christ, but in my Lord Christ and outside of myself I am no sinner. For He has paid for all my sins with His blood, as I firmly believe. I also have been baptized and received in it the true mark of Your salvation. I have been absolved of all my sins through God’s Word and declared free of sin, loosed and unbound. I have also been fed the true body and given to drink the true blood of my Lord Jesus Christ, as certain signs of grace. I have received forgiveness of sins, which my dear Lord Jesus Christ merited, won, and received for me through His precious blood. For this I thank Him in eternity. Amen.
Martin Luther 1483-1546
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz