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Trinity 12, 2017. The Glory of the Ministry of the New Testament. 2 Corinthians 3:4-11

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

holy-apostles-icon12th Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

2 Corinthians 3:4-11

September 3, 2017

“The Glory of the New Testament Ministry”

Jesus

 

In the vestry behind me there is a desk with a glass cover.  When I began here there was a cartoon cut out of a magazine or a newspaper between the glass and the desktop.  In the cartoon an old bald preacher is staring out from the pulpit over the rims of his spectacles.  In the pews there is a skeleton in crumpled dress clothes, with cobwebs growing on it.  And in the caption on the bottom the preacher was saying something like: “Did I preach too long?”

 

One might think that killing your hearers with your preaching is something a preacher would want to avoid.  But according to the Epistle, a preacher who leaves skeletons in the pews has done the work of God.  That is the proper work of preaching the Law of God, what Paul refers to as the letter: The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).  A preacher who stares out of the pulpit over his spectacles and sees skeletons, or at least dead people, could say to himself, “I have done God’s work.”  But if he wants to be a minister of the New Testament, he would also have to say to himself, “I have not preached long enough yet.”  Because though it is the work of God to work death through the preaching of the Law, the work of God in the ministry of the New Testament is to give the Holy Spirit who gives life to the dead.

 

This week a preacher made the news.  This preacher is probably the most popular, the most famous preacher in the United States.  His church used to be a sports arena.  It seats 16,800.  Every Sunday he fills this cavernous building.  Untold thousands more watch his sermons on television.  And judging from the sermons he has on the internet, he seems to preach just around 27 minutes each Sunday.  I noted this with interest.  You may be surprised to learn that every once in a very great while someone voices to me the complaint that my sermons are too long.

 

You don’t look surprised!  Well, because of this occasional criticism I am very conscious of how long I am preaching, at least until about 7 minutes in.  Then, when I become conscious of the time again, I usually think, “Well, I can’t leave off here, otherwise the dead will not be raised.”  And then, when I do quit, I always make a note of the time I stopped.  And for a long time now, it is almost always 25 to 28 minutes.

 

So that’s my response to those very rare complaints I get about the length of my sermons.  Joel Osteen fills a stadium every week preaching 27 minutes, so it can’t be the length of the sermons alone that’s the problem.

 

But Mr. Osteen took flak in the media this week because, they say, he did not fill his former stadium up this week with those who had been driven from their homes by the terrible floods in Texas.  I don’t know what to say about that.  I didn’t have time to read carefully to find out what his explanation was for why the church wasn’t opened and look into whether his explanation made sense.

 

What I do know and can say confidently is this: if the people of Houston understood what Joel Osteen was doing to his hearers in his 27 minutes in the pulpit each week, they would thank God anytime they heard that he kept the church’s doors shut, and pray that he would do it more often.  Or do it once more and never open them again.

 

Mr. Osteen’s ministry is certainly not a ministry of the New Testament, because he seldom, if ever, has anything to say about Christ crucified for sinners.  Nor is it a ministry of the Old Testament, because though he does preach God’s commandments, at least sometimes, his message can be summarized like this: If you trust God, if you obey God, God will bless you and give you prosperity in this world.  That is a complete falsification of God’s Law.  God didn’t give His Law as a guide to earning His blessing, certainly not in this world.  His Law, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3, has this purpose—to kill and to condemn.  Paul refers to it as the ministry of death and the ministry of condemnation.

 

In this world, Joel Osteen has as much glory as a preacher could ever hope for.  He has made millions and millions in selling books.  Thousands upon thousands listen to his preaching.  He lives in a multi-million dollar mansion.

 

But he has no glory from God.  In his ministry he does not minister in God’s name.  God’s power does not attend his preaching and teaching, no matter how many people listen to him—except perhaps insofar as he speaks the words of Scripture that he contradicts.

 

On the other hand, the genuine preaching of the Law does come with God’s glory.  When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments with His finger, his face shone so that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory (2 Cor. 3:7).  Looking at Moses’ face was like looking into the sun.  You couldn’t stare directly at it, not for very long.  God was showing that the Law Moses brought down came from Him.

 

That may be perplexing to us when we consider that Paul says that the ministry of the Law, the correct preaching and teaching of God’s Law, brings death.  It kills.  Moses didn’t come up with this.  God did.  God gave him a law and told him and those who came after to preach it, knowing that when it was preached it would kill those who hear it.  That was what He wanted.

 

The Law brings death because it awakens and uncovers sin.  Paul writes in the 7th chapter of Romans: Apart from the law, sin lies dead.  I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died (Rom. 7:8-9)  People are born in sin and are totally corrupted by it, but they do not know it until they hear the commandments of God proclaimed.  Then we begin to realize that we are not basically good, like Osteen and others imply when they say that all we need to do is know what God wants from us and then try our best and He will bless us.  The Law reveals that God is angry not only with our conscious rebellion against His commandments, but with the natural impurity of our hearts.  The world sees us not murdering people and approves.  God sees the anger, the desire for revenge, the grudges that linger in our hearts even when we try to make them go away, and judges us murderers.  Joel Osteen says that God is pleased when we put our faith in Him as best we can, but God says You shall have no other gods before Me…You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me (Ex. 20: 4-5).  You shall not worship anything else as God by fearing or loving or trusting them more than Me, God says—by bowing down to them, by offering them sacrifices, or by simply clinging them in Your heart more than Me, for I am jealous.  I do not tolerate any trust in anything in heaven and earth above Me—not your money, your parents, your senses, your mind.  To trust anything else more than Me, ever, is idolatry.  Partial worship of Me does not earn my blessing but My wrath.

 

When we hear the Law explained this way, it doesn’t make us better.  It makes us worse.  It stirs up sin in us.  We find that we immediately begin to rebel against God.  “Why does He threaten us with hell when He knows we can’t keep these commandments?”  We desire the very things He forbids.  This is why the Law of God is the ministry of death.  It reveals the sin that lives in us.  It stirs it up.  And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

 

Yet God’s glory comes with this preaching that stirs up sin and puts us to death.  That is because He preaches the Law whenever it is preached and taught rightly.  He kills us.

 

But Paul says that he has another ministry, the ministry of the New Testament that God made with human beings through His Son.  He calls this ministry the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  It’s called that because this ministry gives the Holy Spirit, who is, as we confess in the Creed “The Lord and giver of life.”  The Creed is right to call Him that.  He was hovering over the waters of creation when God’s Word came and brought light out of darkness, dry land out of the waters, living creatures out of the dust of the ground, and made man in the image of God.  And in the Baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descended on Him visibly to show that He was offering Himself as a sacrifice to God for our sins not by human wisdom but by the wisdom and in the power of God.  Then when Jesus had offered Himself for our sins and was buried, the Holy Spirit gave life to Him, quickened Him, so that He arose, descended victoriously into hell, and emerged from the tomb to proclaim victory over death for us.

 

When Jesus is preached to those who have been killed by the Law, He comes and gives life to the dead.  He rebirths us.  He raises us from the dead with Jesus.  He makes us a new creation, not subject to death.  He makes us innocent before God, applying Jesus’ innocence to us and purifying us from sin with the blood that He shed to atone for it.  And then we have God’s favor and blessing, because we are regarded as having fulfilled God’s Law.

 

 

This is why Jesus ascended into heaven and poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit on the disciples.  Through their ministry—their preaching His word and deeds, their baptizing according to His command, their celebration of the supper of His body and blood, their absolution—the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, would come and give life to those who heard with faith.  Just as the Law of God stirs up sin and reveals it, so that we are convinced that we are God’s enemies, under His judgment, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Gospel comforts the heart stirred up by the Law, and reveals our righteousness and life.  Our life is not from us and our works.  It is in Jesus, who cancelled our sins and our death in His death, who delivered us from them and made us free by suffering death on the cross for them and rising again to life, leaving them buried.

 

And the Holy Spirit raises up a new man in us in the image of Jesus.  He makes us a new creation that is innocent and without sin, that is not condemned by the Law because it gladly wills, thinks, and does what God commands.  We still have the old man fighting against the Law of God, but Christians also are a new man.  We rejoice in God, love and trust Him.  We are open to God’s Word, able to hear it, rejoicing to hear it instead of hiding from it as Adam did after his sin, as the deaf man Jesus healed must have rejoiced when his ears were open and he heard, for the first time, the voices of God’s creation that were created to sing His praise.  The Holy Spirit creates new life in us, restores God’s image to us, so that we begin to crucify our old nature, and in the joy of His gift of salvation we begin to gladly and spontaneously live according to His commandments, in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward our neighbor.

 

Paul uses another set of terms for the ministry of the Old Testament and the ministry of the new.  He calls the first the ministry of condemnation, the second the ministry of righteousness.  They both have God’s glory; both come from God.  When they are carried out God is doing His work.

 

The ministry of the Law not only kills by stirring up sin.  It condemns.  It damns.  When you come to church and hear the Law of God preached rightly, you hear His sentence of condemnation to death and hell.  If you hear that from a preacher, you are not hearing the devil but God.  The devil’s trick is to only preach condemnation—to remind you of the Law’s condemnation, but to keep you from hearing about God’s righteousness given to sinners.  But a person must be condemned before he is justified.  Without the preaching of condemnation of sinners, fallen human beings believe that they are already righteous, or that it is within their grasp.  But in the ministry of the Law, the ministry of condemnation, God declares His verdict on you.  Your slackness in prayer makes you a blasphemer; your laxness in hearing and learning His Word makes you a Sabbath-breaker, a despiser of His Word; your lust makes you an adulterer, your hard work for your own wealth or honor instead of His makes you a thief, your failure to defend your neighbor and your gossip makes you a false witness.  Your sentence is His displeasure in this life, to be followed by death and hell, and there is no appeal, no way to change or reduce your sentence.

 

But Paul boasts of his ministry, the ministry of the New Testament, which He calls the ministry of righteousness.  The ministry of condemnation came with glory, he says, but the ministry of righteousness will have much more.  It is a glory that will overflow and that will endure forever.

 

When Paul or faithful ministers who follow him preach Christ crucified for you, they administer the righteousness of God to you.  All who believe it, with nothing but condemnation in themselves, are justified before God.  He counts them righteous.  The perfect satisfaction for our sins is given in the Gospel.  Our sentence of condemnation, which Jesus paid, is fulfilled.  The Law has no further say over us because we who believe the Gospel have fulfilled it through faith in Jesus, given to us by the Spirit in the Gospel.  We are not condemned, but declared righteous. This is what is given to you by God through the ministers He sends when they baptize you, when they give you the bread and wine with Jesus’ Word.  Through them God buries you with Jesus and raises you to live before Him forever with no condemnation.  Through them God gives you His Son’s body to eat and His blood to drink; He gives you a part in Jesus’ death that wipes out the sins of the world.  Through them God absolves you; He declares you free from guilt and condemnation, saying, “I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

This is the glory of the ministry of the New Testament.  The glory of false preachers is that they can pack a house.  They may have many followers.  They may look and be regarded as successful by the world.

But the glory of the ministry of the New Testament is that God works through their ministry.  He puts sinners to death and condemns them through the Law.  But through the Gospel He makes those skeletons in the pews live.  He gives them His life-giving Spirit and the righteousness that stands before Him.

 

Paul boasted about having this ministry.  So should we.  It may not have the glory of the world, but it has the glory of God.  And not only the ministry has it—but all who receive this ministry  have it now and forever.  That is, all who, condemned and frightened by God’s Law, believe and find comfort in the free forgiveness of sins that God announces for Jesus’ sake in the Gospel.  You who believe, even in great weakness, longing for assurance, participate in the glory of the eternal God, who has worked death and resurrection in You through His Word and Sacrament.

 

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

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Absolution Hymn–Missing Stanzas

 

absolution according to jack chick

Don’t put words in God’s mouth that He doesn’t say!  That’s a bad move. God actually says the exact opposite of the “god” in this comic.  Men can and do forgive sins when God has authorized them to do so, even if it bothers the Pharisees: Cf. John 20: 22-23; Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18: 18, 20; Matthew 9:1-8

People at my congregation know this hymn, although in a different translation, but there are some stanzas that sadly aren’t in our hymnal.

On this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one of my chief prayers is that God would cause people to recognize the gift He preserved in the Lutheran Church of the practice of private confession and absolution.  This is a gift that exists in no other church as it does in the Lutheran Church (except where they have learned it from us), and is one of the key examples of how the church of the Reformation differs in spirit from those of other protestant churches as well as from the church of Rome.  You get a glimpse of these different spirits in action when you read the sentiment expressed in the Jack Chick tract above and then compare it with the stanzas of the hymn below.  This is clearly not a minor issue.  The tract shows how fundamentalists (and American evangelicals typically) think: to trust in absolution leads to damnation.  Contrast this with the scriptural faith of the reformation that breathes in the stanzas below:

1.Yea, as I live, Jehovah saith,

I would not have the sinner’s death,

But that he turn from error’s ways,

Repent, and live through endless days.

 

2.  To us therefore Christ gave command:

“Go forth and preach in every land;

Bestow on all My pard’ning grace

Who will repent and mend their ways.

 

3. “All those whose sins ye thus remit

I truly pardon and acquit,

And those whose sins ye do retain

Condemned and guilty shall remain.

 

4.  What ye shall bind, that bound shall be;

What ye shall loose, that shall be free;

Unto My Church the keys are giv’n

To ope and close the gates of heav’n.”

 

5.  They who believe when ye proclaim

The joyful tidings in My name

That I for them My blood have shed,

Are free from guilt and Judgment dread.

 

7.  However great our sin may be,

The Absolution sets us free,

Appointed by God’s own dear Son

To bring the pardon He has won.

 

9.  This is the pow’r of Holy Keys,

It binds and doth again release;

The Church retains them at her side,

Our mother and Christ’s holy Bride.

 

–Nicholas Herman, 1560.  Trans. M. Loy, 1880.

Testing Fruit. 8th Sunday after Trinity, 2017. Matthew 7:15-23 (Romans 8:12-17)

wormy fruitEighth Sunday after Trinity

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Matthew 7:15-23

August 6, 2017

“Testing Fruit”

Iesu iuva

 

A guy was sitting on the couch watching television.  His wife came in and said, “I’m going to make a fruit salad.  Do you want some?”  The husband looked up at her and said, “Sure!  Thanks.”  So she went back into the kitchen.

 

A little while later she returned with two bowls.  She handed one to him and then sat down with her bowl, eating.  The man’s eyes were glued to the tv.  He reached into the bowl and put pieces of fruit into his mouth without looking down at the bowl.  After a couple of bites he gagged and spit out the fruit onto the carpet.  Looking down into the bowl, he saw something that did look like a salad made out of fruit.  There were pieces of orange, lemon, and lime.  There were apples, strawberries and pears.  There were crabapples from the tree in the yard and some berries that looked like they belonged on a shrub or a hedge.  It even looked like his wife had cut a monkey brain fruit into pieces and thrown that in.  Then there were mushy brown bananas, half dried grapes with bugs on them, wrinkled, moldy blueberries, pieces of melon that let off a strange odor.

 

The husband looked at his wife.  She had the spoon halfway to her mouth and had stopped it there when her husband spat out the bite of fruit salad.  He said to her, “What is this?  Why did you put crabapples and moldy fruit in this salad?”

 

His wife said, “I couldn’t find enough normal fruit to put in there.  Then I figured, it’s close enough.  Fruit is fruit, right?”

 

Have you ever met a person like that, who figures all fruit is basically the same and you can just eat it all without worrying about it since it’s all going to the same place, whether it’s sweet, sour, or rotten?

 

Probably not.  Getting a fruit salad like that would be a sign you were dealing with a crazy person.

 

When I was a little kid and had to go grocery shopping with my mom, I remember her showing me how when she bought eggs she opened the carton up and examined each egg to make sure she didn’t accidentally get a bad egg or one with a crack in it.

 

We take such care to make sure that the food we put on our tables is wholesome!  Animals do this too.  When your nose smells rotten meat or vegetables, your body reflexively seizes up, pulls away; your face tightens.  We are wired biologically to run away from bad food; our nervous system knows before our brains do that bad meat, bad eggs, bad fruit have the power to kill us.

 

I think it was this week that I was walking into a nursing home to give someone the Lord’s body and blood, and I had a conversation that reminded me of this. I think it was this week, but it could have been almost any week, because this kind of thing happens to me so often.  A bunch of folks were sitting in wheelchairs outside by the door.  A lady said, “Hi, father!”  I said, “Hi!”  She said, “I noticed the Roman collar,” pointing to my neck.  I said, “I always thought it was an Anglican collar.”  She said, “You’re a Catholic priest, right?”  “No, a Lutheran pastor.”

 

“Oh,” she said.  “That’s really close.”

 

Someone says this to me almost every week, if not every day.  People from other churches say it; people from St. Peter say it.  As if the reasons the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church or the other protestant churches are minor and obsolete.  I often just smile in response.  If I start to disagree, people quickly get a faraway look in their eyes that I know very well—the look that is probably saying, “It’s close enough.  After all, fruit is fruit.”

 

The Lord and teacher of Christians is not silent about this, though.  Don’t worry too much about false prophets; you can’t tell them by their fruit, because it’s all basically the same.  You might think that’s what Jesus taught from the way those who claim His name talk and behave today.  But actually the shepherd’s voice calls to His sheep: Beware of false prophets.  They are coming to you dressed in sheep’s clothing, when inside they are savage wolves.  You will know them by their fruit.

 

If you are like me, you might not see at first how this applies to most of the preachers you see, since most of them don’t claim to be prophets.  When we hear “prophet,” we think of a man who can see the future, who can probably work miracles, who knows things hidden from normal people.  A biblical prophet is different from a pastor in that God speaks and reveals things to him directly.  He doesn’t only learn his message from studying the Scriptures and having it passed on to him by others, like pastors today.  Often God will reveal to him something that is going to happen in the future.  But prophets and pastors have the same calling in the sense that they are called not to proclaim their own thoughts and dreams but only the Word of the Lord, so that they are like mouthpieces of God, if they are faithful.  And pastors, like prophets, also proclaim things that are hidden, that people cannot discover unless it is revealed by God.

 

When we learn the basic parts of the Christian faith and come to the second article of the Creed, one of the things we learn about Jesus is that He is called “Christ” because He was anointed by God with the Holy Spirit as our priest, as our king, and as our prophet.  Jesus is the great prophet who proclaimed and revealed in His own life what people could not discover on their own.  He revealed that God is triune—one God, yet three distinct persons. He proclaimed the true way to salvation—not a set of practices or a form of meditation that promised to unite you with God, like the Buddhists—He taught that human beings are so corrupted by sin that there is nothing good left in us.  We have no desire to come to God or know Him, and no ability to do so, and no righteousness with which to stand in His holy presence and plead our case.  And Jesus, the true prophet, revealed how we are saved, which human beings could not know unless He revealed it.  He taught that we are saved by God’s grace alone, who provides the righteousness that covers our sin.  And He revealed that righteousness in Himself—in the way He lived, with perfect love toward God and our neighbor, and in the way He died as a curse for our sins, covering our guilt and removing from us God’s just condemnation.

 

Jesus is the true prophet; all other true prophets are reflections of Him.

 

And the wonderful teaching tucked away in the questions and answers our synod adds to the Small Catechism of Luther is that Jesus continues to be our prophet.  He continues to proclaim the Word of God to us today from heaven, so that we might know the truth, and the truth might make us free.  You and I have never seen Jesus’ face, but you have heard His voice, because Jesus continues His prophetic office from heaven by sending ministers who proclaim not their own words, but His.  When a minister absolves you of your sins, it is not him loosing you from them—it is Jesus your prophet; and when a minister faithfully proclaims the Word of Jesus recorded in Scripture, it is not him you hear, but the same Jesus who taught in the synagogues, the temple, in the wilderness among great crowds.  When the pastor baptized you, Jesus called, “Come, follow me,” just as He said to Peter and Andrew as they mended their nets on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

 

Jesus speaks through the ones He sends who are faithful to His call, whether they are apostles, prophets, evangelists or simply pastors, teachers.  Apostles were called directly by Jesus, and prophets receive a direct revelation from God.  Pastors are called to their ministry indirectly; God calls them through people.  Yet all are called by God.

 

But there are preachers and prophets whom Jesus calls false.  They may be called by God, or they may pretend to be, claiming a vision and deceiving people.  Either way false prophets and false teachers come with a word that is not God’s.  And Jesus warns to beware of them, be on guard against them, because they are like greedy wolves, although they look like they are sheep of Christ’s flock.

 

This year as we commemorate the 500th year of the Reformation, we cannot avoid the painful reality of what the Reformation represents.  The Roman Church at that time regarded Luther as a false prophet who led entire nations away from the true Church, and away from Christ and the possibility of salvation.  On the other hand, we regard Luther as the reformer of the Christian Church, raised up by God to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that we are justified and saved not by works, but solely by God’s grace, solely through faith in Christ, who alone atoned for our sins.  But if we are right, it means that for centuries the true Gospel of Jesus was buried under false teaching.  It might have been taught here and there by laypeople or priests who told troubled dying people to look to Christ crucified and trust Him alone for salvation.  But the official teaching that the Church proclaimed, taught the priests, and that the priests taught the people, was that Jesus did not do enough to save us.  We must contribute our obedience and good deeds if we want to please God.  If what we believe is true, then for hundreds of years even in the visible Church most people were damned and lost, because false prophets had suppressed the truth.

 

If that is true—and it is—we cannot afford to fall asleep, or let the clergy worry about doctrine.  We must watch out for false teaching and false prophets.  You must watch and be certain that what I or any other pastor preaches to you is not his word but God’s in every part.

 

You must examine the fruits of those who preach.

 

You can’t tell a wolf if it looks like a sheep until it eats you.  But you can tell what kind of a tree you have by the fruit it bears.  Nobody gets clusters of grapes out of a thicket of thorns and briars, Jesus says.

 

You can’t tell whether a preacher is faithful by his life, unless he is an obvious unrepentant sinner.  But if he is imperfect, that is no different than every Christian.  You have to examine his fruit.  The fruit of a preacher is his teaching.

 

I am always amazed at how some people can go into a grocery store and pick up a plum or a mango or an avocado and determine by touch and maybe by smell whether it is too ripe, too underrripe, or just right.  To me, you know a fruit is good when you bite into it.  The problem with this method is obvious.  And the same thing is true with testing the fruit of preachers.  You don’t want to eat the fruit of a false prophet—to hear it, take it into you, believe it, live according to it.  Sometimes people say that they listen to preachers who teach false doctrine, like just about every preacher on the radio and television, and discern the good from the bad.  It may be a useful way to practice discernment occasionally.  But would you eat an apple that is full of worms and try to eat around the worms?  Jesus doesn’t say, “Listen to every preacher and take the true and throw out the bad.”  He says a prophet or preacher is either false or true, good or bad.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Good fruit is not when a pastor preaches some of God’s Word purely with only a little error.  Teaching is either God’s Word or it isn’t.  If I tell you everything in the Bible is true except for the part where it says God created the world in 6 days, I am telling you the Bible is not true.  A false prophet bears bad fruit even when some of what he preaches is true and seemingly just a little is false, just like a beautiful, sweet apple with just a few little worms in it is no longer a good apple.

 

But just like you can’t tell a false prophet by how they seem or how they make you feel, you can’t tell their fruit by how they make you feel either.  In the grocery store, people test fruit with their nose or their fingertips, but a preacher’s fruit is tested by God’s Word.

 

This is why we learn the catechism, and why we need to keep it in front of us.  The catechism is a summary of the Bible.  But the catechism is not the Bible; its authority comes from being faithful to Scripture.  In order to be able to recognize the bad fruit of false prophets, we need to know the summary of the teaching of Scripture in the Catechism, but we also need to constantly hear and read the Scriptures.  A preacher is not only false when he teaches against the main doctrines of the Bible, but when he contradicts it at any point, because when a preacher does this he contradicts God.  He is no longer acting as God’s mouthpiece and saying the Words of God, but adding his own words.  Similarly, a preacher is not true and faithful if he holds back part of the teaching of God’s Word and never talks about certain doctrines.

 

Even though a true preacher must faithfully teach all of the doctrine in God’s Word just as God gives it—and that means you must know that doctrine and grow in the knowledge of the Scripture if you are to guard against false teachers—all good fruit, all faithful teaching shares certain things in common, and so does all bad fruit and false teaching.

 

To see this, consider with me please the preaching we have recorded in Scripture of the man Jesus called the greatest of all the prophets who came before Him.  That is John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin.  I refer to him because a few chapters before the Gospel reading in the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear John use the exact same words Jesus uses in this reading when He says: Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (v. 19)

 

In chapter 3, Matthew records that John appeared in the wilderness of Judea, preaching.  His message was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.

 

Matthew tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (3:4)  John does not have the pleasing appearance many people probably expect from a preacher.  His way of life is a little frightening, off-putting.  If a man wearing a camel hair garment in the desert, eating only grasshoppers and wild honey came and preached to you, besides thinking that he was crazy, you probably would also be afraid that he might call you to live a similar kind of life, where you have to give up all kinds of comforts.

 

Nevertheless, we are told Jerusalem and all Judea…were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

 

Then we hear that the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the normal religious leaders in Israel that people normally listened to, also came out to John’s Baptism.  John does not smile and feel flattered about this, or try to thank them for coming, or even welcome them.  He says You generation of vipers?  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  (3:7-10)

 

Finally, John’s sermon ends with another proclamation different than his strict call to repentance that we have heard up until now.  He says, I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  (3:11)

 

John is a true prophet.  He bears good fruit, even though one can hardly imagine him smiling a lot, even though his message is strict, even harsh.  He is not polite and nice like we expect preachers to be, welcoming and sweet.  He is strict in his preaching and strict with himself in his mode of life.  He doesn’t fit in in society.  These are not necessarily qualities a true preacher must have—but they show that common expectations of preachers among us are not proofs that a prophet is true or false.  If John is any indication, a preacher can be what we would call “mean”, “harsh”, and yet be a true and faithful prophet.

 

But John’s fruit is his teaching.  What do we hear him teach?  What is the pattern of his preaching?

 

First, he calls people to repentance, to a change of mind.  He preaches that people are by nature children of the devil, even the people that seem most religious and good.  Faithful preaching does not build up people’s trust and confidence in their own goodness; it doesn’t make them feel good about themselves and tell them that the way to have a blessed life is to follow a few rules from the Bible.  Instead, faithful preaching confronts us with God’s judgment that is upon us and destroys our sense of ease and comfort with the way we are.  It tells us, Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Faithful preaching calls us to repentance, which means not merely that we recognize that nobody is perfect; it means that we hear from faithful preaching that we must become good in God’s sight, that we must do not only outward good things, but that these must come from a clean heart that loves God in reality and truth.  Faithful preaching makes it clear that this repentance, this fear of God’s wrath, this wholehearted turning away from our love and trust in ourselves, is not just a matter of the mind and understanding.  Faithful preaching tells us our whole selves must change from pride to fear of God, from self-will to fear of God, from self-love to love of God and our neighbors, and this cannot just be a matter of talk, but must show itself in our lives.

 

But John also preaches something else as well.  He baptizes those who are trembling over their sins with the promise that they are cleansed and forgiven.  And he proclaims one coming after him who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  He points them to the one whose power and glory will come to help them.  He preaches Jesus, who gives us not only outward cleansing, but the Holy Spirit, who imparts true righteousness, holiness, who renews us, and as Paul says, does not make us slaves of fear but makes us confident that we are children and heirs of God.

 

False prophets, on the other hand, teach people, one way or the other, that there is good in them, and that they must contribute something besides Jesus to their salvation.  This is why on that day, the day of judgment, many will say to Jesus, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons, and do many miracles?  And Jesus says, I will say to them, I never knew you.  Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness!  False prophets on the day of judgment will try to tell Jesus how much they have done for him, because they do not know him, nor He them.  We know Jesus when we know ourselves, when we see that his suffering and agony was the price to redeem us from sin; and then we know Jesus, not as the one who we do things for, but as the one who has done everything for us.

 

Our time is full of doctrinal indifferentism.  That means people think it doesn’t matter much what doctrine you hold.

 

But our Lord is not indifferent.  He is full of zeal for our salvation.  In reality and truth He bled and died for our sins.  In reality and truth He feeds us with His own body and blood.  He does not trade in lies or appearances, but realities and truths.  He feeds you the body and blood that cancels your sins and in reality and truth pours out His Spirit on you, the Spirit who cries out, “Abba, Father” not out of sentiment, but because He has made it so.   And because He is not indifferent to our well-being He tells us the truth and tells us to avoid the lies false prophets tell in His name.  He tells us the truth of our helplessness in sin, and He tells us the wonderful truth, sweet and blessed, that we are sons and heirs of God through His pain and agony alone.

 

Just as Jesus wants you to be certain of your salvation, He also wills that you be certain that you have the truth of His Word, and that the one who preaches to you speaks not the words of men but only the words of Jesus.  He doesn’t want you to eat rotten fruit, pick it from a rotten tree, or treat the savage wolves who come from Satan to destroy you as though they’re no different from His faithful servants.  May God work in us this certainty during this year of the reformation, and give us zeal to know the truth that makes us confident that we are not lawless but righteous and heirs of His kingdom.

Amen.

 

The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 

Soli Deo Gloria

The Word of God Absolutely Pure and Unadulterated

Let us, therefore, bless all the faithful champions who have fought for every point of Christian doctrine, unconcerned about the favor of men and disregarding their threatenings. Their ignominy, though it often was great, has not been borne in vain. Men cursed them, but they continued bearing their testimony until death, and now they wear the crown of glory and enjoy the blissful communion of Christ and of all the angels and the elect. Their labor and their fierce battling has not been in vain; for even now…the Church is reaping what they sowed.

Let us, then, my friends, likewise hold fast the treasure of the pure doctrine. Do not consider it strange if on that account you must bear reproach the same as they did. Consider that the word of Sirach, chap. 4, 33: “Even unto death fight for justice, and God will overthrow thy enemies for thee,” will come true in our case too. Let this be your slogan: Fight unto death in behalf of the truth, and the Lord will fight for you!—

We now take up a thesis for study which tells us that, since the two doctrines of Scripture, Law and Gospel, are so different from each other, we must keep them distinct also in our preaching.

Thesis II.

Only he is an orthodox teacher who not only presents all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture, but also rightly distinguishes from each other the Law and the Gospel.

 

This thesis divides into two parts. The first part states a requisite of an orthodox teacher, viz., that he must present all the articles of faith in accordance with Scripture. This, in our day, is regarded as an unheard-of demand. Even in circles of so-called believers, people act as if they were shocked when they hear some one say: “I have found the truth; I am certain concerning every doctrine of revelation.” Such a claim is considered a piece of arrogance…

Scripture requires that we have the Word of God absolutely pure and unadulterated and that we be able to say when coming down from the pulpit: “I could take an oath upon it that I have rightly preached the Word of God. Even to an angel coming down from heaven I could say: My preaching has been correct.” That explains the paradox [sic] remark of Luther that a preacher must not pray the Lord’s Prayer when coming down from the pulpit, but that he should do so before the sermon. For an orthodox preacher need not pray after delivering his sermon: “Forgive me my trespasses,” since he can say: “I have proclaimed the pure truth.” In our day, men have become merged in skepticism to such an extent that they regard any one who sets up the aforementioned claim as a semilunatic.

The Word of God tells us in a passage where the Lord is introduced as speaking, Jer. 23, 28: He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? Saith the Lord. Our sermons, then, are to contain only wheat and no chaff.

The Apostle Paul warns the Galatians, chap. 5, 9: A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. He means to say: A single false teaching vitiates the entire doctrine.

The warning with which John concludes the last book of the Bible is sounded as far back as in the days of Moses, who says, Deut. 4, 2: Ye shall not add unto the Word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it.

 

It is, then, a diabolical teaching to say: “you will never achieve the ability to give a Scriptural presentation of the articles of faith.” Especially when students hear a statement like this, it is as if some hellish poison were injected into their hearts; for after that they will no longer show any zeal to get to the bottom of the truth, to have clear conceptions of the truth.

C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, pp. 29-31.

Luther’s Handbook for Parenting and Spiritual Warfare

April 11, 2013 2 comments
Title page of the Large Catechism of Martin Lu...

Title page of the Large Catechism of Martin Luther, printed in Leipzig in 1560 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is the Book of Concord study at St. Peter where we read the Lutheran Confessions.  A long time ago we started reading the Augsburg Confession and finally got through it.  Earlier this year we started Luther’s Large Catechism.

 

I have to say that teaching the Catechism this year has become one of the most rewarding things I’ve gotten to do in teaching.  The reason is that topical bible studies I’ve done are usually limited by my own areas of familiarity.  This year, preaching on the Small Catechism’s section on Baptism during Lent and doing short catechetical sessions with the Ladies’ Aid and with the catechumens and parents on Wednesdays, along with working through the Large Catechism, I’ve started to see things in the catechism I never saw before, or grasp them more fully.

 

One of the things that strikes me about the Large Catechism is the multitude of practical suggestions Luther drops constantly.  On the one hand he shows constantly how the parts of the catechism apply to daily spirituality, or “lived faith.”  I’ve read the Large Catechism before—particularly in my early twenties in college.  But a lot of the things Luther had to say about the life of prayer and of combat with the devil I just didn’t really grasp.  He means them quite literally.

 

At the same time, thus far in the Catechism (we’re doing the 3rd and maybe 4th commandments today), Luther constantly makes mention of how to teach the commandments to children.  Of course it should be obvious that he would do that, since a catechism is supposed to give the essentials of the faith in such a way that a parent can teach his children.

 

But today when the church is experiencing a crisis of losing members precisely because parents don’t know how to catechize their children, it’s kind of a slap upside the head.

 

People, in America anyway, like practical books on Christianity that tell you how to have a more meaningful life, or how the theology you learn helps practically in keeping your family together or in dealing with stress, anger, etc.

 

But the Evangelicals have generally done a better job at addressing that felt need, whereas Lutherans have struggled to teach “practical Christian living” while at the same time keeping the attention on the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake.

 

But Luther doesn’t have that problem.  After he talks about what a commandment means, he inevitably goes on to talking about how we should use the commandment in raising our children.  In raising them, not simply “teaching them the information they need to know about God.”  He doesn’t separate teaching children how to live from teaching them Christian doctrine.

 

Also Luther inevitably talks about the commandment’s relation to our battle with Satan—how the devil wars against the assurance of faith, and how the ten commandments point us toward very practical defense against the evil one.

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Baptism: God stakes His honor, power, and might on it. Lenten Vespers Sermon Feb. 20 2013

February 20, 2013 6 comments
Don't get any funny ideas like Jesus' baptism has any similarities to yours!

Don’t get any funny ideas like baptism unites you to Jesus!  (cf Romans 6:1-4, Colossians 2:8-12 f.  Galatians 3:26-27, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3, etc.)

Wednesday after Invocabit-Vespers

St. Peter Lutheran Church

Small Catechism—What is Baptism?  Where is this written?

(Matthew 3)

February 20, 2013

Jesu Juva

INI

Dear Christians:

 

Baptism is necessary for salvation.

 

Can we really say that?  Yes, because Jesus says it.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  (St. John 3:5)

 

As a member of this congregation you already say it, because the Lutheran Confessions say it in agreement with the Word of God.  If you’re a member of St. Peter, you’re a member of a congregation that says that the Book of Concord, the Lutheran Confessions, are faithful explanations of Scripture.  And the Augsburg Confession says:  “Of Baptism [our churches] teach that it is necessary to salvation…”

 

Obviously, if something is necessary to salvation, it’s a big deal.  And to go to a church where they say it isn’t necessary to salvation would be a very bad thing.  Right?

 

That’s why later on the Lutheran Confessions thank God that the Anabaptists had made no headway in the Lutheran churches in the 1530’s.  Anabaptists said that infants should not be baptized, that babies went to heaven without baptism.  And for adults, when you were really saved was when you understood God’s Word as an adult and made a decision to follow Jesus.  Then you would be baptized again.  The confessions make this boast:

…we confess that Baptism is necessary to salvation, and that children are to be baptized, and that the baptism of children is not in vain, but is necessary and effectual to salvation.  And since the Gospel is taught among us purely and diligently, by God’s favor we receive also from it this fruit, that in our churches no Anabaptists…[have gained ground], because the people have been fortified by God’s Word against the wicked and seditious faction of these robbers.

 

Notice how seriously the Lutheran Confessions take the teaching about Baptism.  They are thankful that the rebaptizers have not succeeded in bringing their doctrine into the churches or in taking many sheep.

 

Unfortunately, we can’t make the same boast.  Those who say that Baptism is just water and that it doesn’t benefit babies have made inroads in our churches.  Thank God, we don’t have any pastors in the synod yet who deny that Baptism saves.  But we have lost lots and lots of our sheep to churches who tell people that Baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.  I was one of those lost sheep for awhile; I almost was rebaptized.  Many, many sons and daughters of this congregation, baptized and catechized by Rev. Frenk and Rev. Martin, have gone on to join churches who say that infant baptism is invalid and that baptism is just water.  I hear that at least one of the children I catechized has received so-called “believer’s baptism”, which is called that because the churches that practice it say that babies who are baptized do not believe in Christ.

 

Baptism is necessary to salvation.  Jesus says so.  In the great commission verse we said in the catechism today Jesus says, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Why didn’t Jesus say what the so-called “bible-believing Christians” say—“Go make disciples of all nations, preaching to them and telling them to accept me as their Lord and Savior?”  Because that is not how disciples are made.  They are made through Baptism, and then they are instructed in all of Christ’s teaching.

 

So why have the churches that teach that baptism is an empty sign made such inroads into the Missouri Synod?  There are two glaring reasons.

 

First of all, so many of us have convinced ourselves that it’s not that big a deal to deny baptism or to believe and teach wrongly about it.

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Ghosts, Haunted Houses, Prayer to the Dead, and Pastoral Care

December 27, 2012 2 comments

Spirits of the Departed, Ghosts, Prayer to the Deadancestor worship2

I’ve noticed a strange thing in the time I’ve been in the ministry that I didn’t notice before.  Maybe you’ve noticed it too. 

Kids believe in ghosts and spirits much more than they did when I was a kid.  People pretended to believe in ghosts when I was a kid, but I don’t think that many people really believed in them.  Certainly not that you could communicate with them.  We believed in demons—at least, Christian kids did—but it was kind of an esoteric thing.  I played with a Ouija board once, but I was just messing around.  And there was also this superstition that if you went into a dark room and looked at a mirror and said, “Bloody Mary” a certain number of times you would see a demon or a spirit.

 

Times have changed.  I’ve met a lot of kids who not only believe in ghosts but claim to have seen them, or communicated with them.

 

And demons are much less esoteric.  A few months ago a bunch of pastors were up in Wisconsin listening to Dr. John Kleinig talk about the ministry of deliverance from demons, about the increase in overt demonic oppression encountered by pastors in Australia (and the United States). 

 

But what seems to me the strangest of all is the prayer to the dead engaged in by lifelong American Lutherans who are sixty or seventy or eighty years old. 

 

The reason this is so strange is because, typically, Lutherans who are above age 50 or so hate everything that smacks of Catholicism.  Yet I frequently hear parishioners speak of dead loved ones as if they continue to communicate with each other.  The loved one is spoken to in prayer, and sometimes speaks back by phenomena in the physical world—lights flickering, changes in the weather.

 

This less rationalistic take on the souls of the dead is I think quite different from what pastors a generation ago encountered.  In his Church Postil sermon for Epiphany, Luther has an eye-opening digression where he talks about the souls of the dead and what to make of spirits claiming to be the souls of dead loved ones, as well as spirits that haunt houses or cause strange noises.  This would probably have been a section of the postil where in previous generations we would have simply assumed that Luther lived in a more superstitious age, and these things just don’t apply to us.  But if you have experienced your parishioners praying to dead relatives or communicating, supposedly, with ghosts, then this section of the sermon will be enlightening.

 

This openness toward communication with the dead has some positive implications.  It means that the rationalism that controlled so much of our thinking is mostly dead.  People are able to conceptualize the ongoing existence of souls whose body has died.  They are able to think of invisible spirits continuing to exist without being utterly divorced from us.  This is positive.  It means that when we speak of the communion of saints we will not meet the same wall of resistance.  If people think dead loved ones can be spoken to, it means that they are not closed to the idea that the angels and the holy, departed souls are present with us together with Jesus.  And it also means that the Calvinist notion that Jesus and the saints are somehow locked away in another plane of existence called heaven no longer has a death grip on people.

 

But unfortunately the superstition about the dead that I keep encountering has a lot of negative ramifications as well.

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