Archive for the ‘The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel’ Category

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”



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.




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


Soli Deo Gloria

The Effect of Preaching God’s Law

What is the effect of the preaching of the Law? It is threefold. In the first place, the Law tells us what to do, but does not enable us to comply with its commands; it rather causes us to become more unwilling to keep the Law. True, some treat the Law as if it were rule in arithmetic. However, let the Law once force its way into a person’s heart, and that heart will strain with all its force against God. The person will become furious at God for asking such impossible things of him. Yea, he will curse God in his heart. He would slay God if he could. He would thrust God from His throne if that were possible. The effect of preaching the Law, then, is to increase the lust for sinning.

In the second place, the Law uncovers to man his sins, but offers him no help to get out of them and thus hurls man into despair.

In the third place, the Law does indeed produce contrition. It conjures up the terrors of hell, of death, of the wrath of God. But it has not a drop of comfort to offer the sinner. If no additional teaching, besides the Law, is applied to man, he must despair, die, and perish in his sins. Ever since the Fall the Law can produce no other effects in man. Let us ponder this well.

C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, pp. 13-14.

Before You Leave Seminary

September 20, 2013 Leave a comment

walther pointing to bibleThis is a passage to read, read, and read again.  I am grateful for the education I got at seminary.  But some of the pastoral wisdom Walther displays here would have been very helpful.  And the assertions he makes about hermeneutics at the end…some of my professors would have argued with them.  But I think Walther is right.  Ambiguity and failure to distinguish law and gospel clearly is responsible for so many failures in caring for souls.


Twentieth Evening Lecture

(February 27, 1885.)


My Friends:–

            When a place has been assigned to a Lutheran candidate of theology where he is to discharge the office of a Lutheran minister, that place ought to be to him the dearest, most beautiful, and most precious spot on earth…  Do not the blessed angels descend from heaven with great joy whenever the Father in heaven sends them to minister to those who are to be heirs of salvation?  Why, then, should we poor sinners be unwilling to hurry after them with great joy to any place where we can lead other men, our fellow-sinners, to salvation?  

            However, though great be the joy of a young, newly called pastor on entering his parish, there should be in him an equally great earnestness and determination to do all he can to save every soul entrusted to him.  Frequently it may seem to him that the majority, if not all members, of his congregation are still blind, dead, unconverted people.  That observation must not make him morose or discourage him, but rather fill him with an ardent desire to rouse them out of spiritual death through the divine means of grace and make them living Christians.  Spite of the devil he should take up his work in the power of faith.  If he observes that some members of his new charge are even living in manifest shame and vice, he must not despair, but bear in mind that he has a powerful Word by which he can make an effort to liberate these slaves of sin.  If he observes that his congregation is on a low level as regards the knowledge of salvation, that his people are still sadly ignorant of what the Gospel really is, he must cheerfully resolve to take up the task of instructing the poor, ignorant people with patience and zeal, until they will see the light.  Or he may notice that there are people in his congregation who are sincere, but disposed by their Pietistic schooling to be legalistic, who, therefore, regard some things as sinful that are not sinful.  In that case he must resolve to forego exercising his Christian liberty lest he offend souls that regard as sin something that he feels free to do.  On the other hand, he may discover in his congregation members of an Antinomian tendency, who are inclined to go too far in the exercise of their Christian liberty, because they are not accustomed to have the Law preached to them in its severity.  In such a case he must not decide forthwith to oppose them with all his force and preach nothing but the sternest Law to them for a whole year.  No, he must go after them gently and gradually make them see the stern demands of the Law.  For the Apostle Paul says concerning himself: “I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some.”  1 Cor. 9, 22.  This statement he wants every servant of Christ to take to heart.  Its import is that a minister must not be satisfied merely with proclaiming the truth; he must proclaim the truth so as to meet the needs of his people.  He may have to defer saying many things until his people have gained confidence in him and his teaching and he knows that he may frankly tell them anything without fear of repelling them.  Briefly, he must resolve to turn his congregation from a dreary desert into a flourishing garden of God.

…Blessed is the minister who starts his official work on the very first day with the determination to do everything that the grace of God will enable him to do in order that not a soul in his congregation shall be lost by his fault.  Such a one resolves that by the grace of God he will do all he can, so that, when the day comes for him to put down his shepherd’s staff, he may be able to say, as Christ said to His Father: Here I am and those that Thou gavest me, and none of them is lost.  Even the blood of those who shall stand on the left side of the judgment-seat, he resolves, shall not be on his hands.

            But now the question arises: What is the matter of chief concern to a minister who wants to attain this glorious object?  He must approach the Lord with heartfelt prayer and earnest entreaties in behalf of his congregation and, when preaching the Word of God with great zeal publicly and privately, jointly or severally, rightly divide the Word of Truth.  For that is what Paul demands 2 Tim. 2, 15, saying: “Study to show thyself approved unto God a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”

            During your present year at the Seminary this very thing, you know, is the subject of our study—the proper division of the Word of God, of Law and the Gospel.  These two are the cardinal doctrines of all the Holy Scriptures, which are made up of these two.  Any passage of Scripture, yea, any historical fact recorded in Scripture can be classified as belonging either to the Law or to the Gospel.  No one should be permitted to graduate from a school of theology who is unable to determine whether a given passage of Scripture is Law or Gospel, or whether in any compound clause of Scripture the protasis is Law and the apodosis Gospel, or vice versa.  It is your duty to become perfectly clear on this subject.


C.F.W Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, pp. 207-210.

Kebab, Compassion, and Christian Liberty


For freedom Christ has made us free; therefore stand firm, and do not again submit to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

 These two theses seem to contradict each other…Both are Paul’s own statements, who says in 1 Cor. 9, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,” and in Rom. 13, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved.  So Christ, although he was Lord of all, was “born of woman, born under the law”, and therefore was at the same time a free man and a servant, “in the form of God” and “of a servant.” [Philippians 2:6-7] 

Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian”

If you don’t believe in your values enough to say “no” when other people try to insist that you give them up, you will lose them.  The only question should be whether your values are right.

It’s one thing to be sensitive and hospitable to Muslims who live as foreigners in your country.  But when they reject the law of your country and begin to implement their god’s laws in defiance of you, to continue to show kindness is to give in to them, and to allow yourself to be enslaved by them.

The same thing is true for Christians.  We should love and pray for the enemies of the church and also unbelievers, and make whatever concessions we can out of love for them.  We should bear with weaker Christians in the Church out of compassion for them.

But when enemies of the church, unbelievers, or people in the church who seem to be weak say that we can’t preach or practice some part of the word of God because it is offensive and unloving, we can’t submit to them.  To do that is to say that the Word of God can only speak as long as it does not violate human rules.

It’s a good thing, I think, that the Europeans wanted to welcome people from other countries and respect their traditions.  But it’s not a good thing to confuse the lawful use of authority with oppression.  It was a bad thing that the company sold meat labeled “Halal” even though it had traces of pork in it.  But in Denmark people are not summarily beaten or executed for eating pork or for selling it or for lying about selling it.

In the Church we have a similar problem.  In our society there are few things that will get people all riled up like it will rile observant Muslims if you mislead them to eat pork.  But among the few things that are likely to cause that kind of upset is to be “hateful,” which has become a very broad kind of crime.  It’s considered hateful, for the most part, to tell someone that they do or have done something that was not just “a bad choice” but actually evil–sin.

In the Church it is not hateful to tell someone they sinned.  We are commanded to do that, but to do it in love for the other person.  So if we let it stand that a person in the church is doing wrong when they rebuke another person we end up allowing it to happen that God’s Word is not allowed to be heard in the Church.  At least in some areas.

So as Christians we must be ready to sacrifice our own comfort for the sake of weaker Christians, the enemies of the Church, and the world outside.  We have to give up legitimate things that cause unnecessary offense, and we should spare ourselves no trouble to do so out of love.

We spare ourselves no trouble, but we also cannot permit the Word of God to be bound or limited, even if people accuse us of being proud, arrogant, loveless, etc.  That is because it is not our Word.  It is God’s.  To take anything away from it is to agree that it is not God’s Word; and to allow it to be silenced at all in the Church is to allow it to be taken away from us.

Since the Word of God is the only power on earth by which God gives us salvation and protects His Church, we can’t allow it to be silenced in any part or forced to follow the rules of human propriety or “political correctness”.  If we do that we trade in the righteousness of God, which God counts as ours through faith in the message of the cross, for the righteousness of the godless world, which consists in telling everybody that as long as it works for them, that’s good, no matter what they feel like doing.



Eating Garbage…and the Holy Ghost’s Tail-Feathers

April 20, 2013 9 comments

garbage eatersSwallowing the Holy Ghost, Feathers and All…or, “How I Almost Became a Garbage-Eater” (part 1)

For freedom Christ has made you free.  Therefore, stand firm and do not again become subject to a yoke of slavery.  Galatians 5:1

When someone hears himself being admonished by these glorious words, with the salvation or damnation of his soul at stake, he becomes frightened and makes a commitment immediately, unless he is well armed and well grounded against this. For it cuts like a sharp razor and penetrates body and soul.  Luther, The Sermon on the Mount.  Luther’s Works: American Edition, vol. 21, pp. 252-253.

When I left home, I was 17.  I moved as far as I could away from the Chicago suburbs.  Then I came back and went to the University of Illinois for a year.  Halfway through the second semester I decided that the reason I was so miserable was because I lived in Champaign, Illinois.*

*for further information on this you can begin your research here:

So after no small amount of mental and emotional anguish for both me and my family, I dropped out of U of I and ended up back in Seattle.

Strangely enough, I did not end up happier in Seattle.  In fact I was more depressed and miserable.  I would get into why, but that would take a long time.  The point of this story is not to tell you about how bad I used to be (or still am) but about the way the devil can destroy a person who has become convicted of sin.  That is, if the gospel is not preached to the convicted person immediately.

The Lutheran Confessions talk about this.  But it takes experience to understand what the Confessions are talking about.  And even if you’ve experienced it, it takes the Holy Spirit to give wisdom to you so that you don’t hammer and crush people who are already convicted of their sins.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (On Justification, parts 36f.):

Lastly, it was very foolish for the adversaries to write that men who are under eternal wrath merit the remission of sins by an act of love, which springs from their mind since it is impossible to love God, unless the remission of sins be apprehended first by faith. For the heart, truly feeling that God is angry, cannot love God, unless He be shown to have been reconciled. As long as He terrifies us, and seems to cast us into eternal death, human nature is not able to take courage, so as to love 37] a wrathful, judging, and punishing God [poor, weak nature must lose heart and courage, and must tremble before such great wrath, which so fearfully terrifies and punishes, and can never feel a spark of love before God Himself comforts].


English: C.F.W. Walther was the founder of the...

English: C.F.W. Walther was the founder of the Missouri Synod. There are four known photos of him in existence. This one was not previously on Wikimedia Commons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C.F.W. Walther, the “founding father” of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, quotes Luther to this effect in The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel:


“The doctrine of the Law, then, was given for this purpose, that a person be given a sweat-bath of anguish and sorrow under the teaching of the Law. Otherwise men become sated and surfeited and lose all relish of the Gospel. If you meet with such people, pass them by; we are not preaching to them. This preaching is for the thirsty; to them the message is brought: ‘Let them come to Me; I will give them to drink and refresh them.’ ”


“The Law cannot restore the soul, for it is a word that makes demands upon us and commands us to love God with our whole heart, etc., and our neighbor as ourselves. The Law condemns every person who fails to do this and pronounces this sentence upon him: Cursed is every one that doeth not all that is written in the book of the Law. Now, it is certain that no man on earth is doing this. Therefore, in due time the Law approaches the sinner, filling his soul with sadness and fear. If no respite is provided from its smiting, it continues its onslaught forcing the sinner into despair and eternal damnation. Therefore St. Paul says: By the law is only the knowledge of sin. Again: ‘The Law worketh nothing but wrath.’ The Gospel, however, is a blessed word; it makes no demands upon us, but only proclaims good tidings to us, namely, that God has given His only Son for us poor sinners to be our Shepherd, to seek us famished and scattered sheep, to give His life for our redemption from sin, everlasting death, and the power of the devil.”


After almost becoming a garbage-eater and swallowing the Holy Ghost, feathers and all, together with food out of a dumpster, I read Walther’s book, and that was what made sense of things for me and brought me back to the Lutheran Church.  You can imagine my surprise and dismay upon going to seminary and hearing Walther ridiculed on a regular basis.  But that’s another story.

No one is able to learn theology without experience, i.e. suffering.  So it’s no surprise if aspiring theologians at seminary, having not been through enough of a sweat-bath yet, do not appreciate the importance of the distinction between law and gospel.  That’s why I’ve managed to portray Jesus as a terror to already repentant sinners—even after having experienced the misery of seeing Christ as a “new Moses.”

Anyway, back to the garbage eaters.

Suffice it to say that during this period I was far from God and entangled in a lot of delusions and lies.  And I was suffering.  Towards the end of this I started to think that I was going to lose my mind permanently.

Somewhere in this time period—it would have been in the spring—March, April, early May, 1998, I was walking down Broadway in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.  This is where I was attending Seattle Central Community College.  I went there for a year so that I could get residency in Washington state and begin the following year at the University of Washington without having to pay out of state tuition.

That’s when I ran into this really nice guy who had a long beard and a bicycle.  He started talking to me about God or Jesus.  Now I was not particularly interested in talking about God or Jesus, and I let him know.

In fact, I was pretty annoyed that everywhere I went, it seemed like people always started talking to me about God or Jesus.  Or they would act like I was a Christian.  I remember I was in some class where we had to write a paper describing some painting of our choice in the Seattle Art Museum.  For some reason, I decided to do mine on a painting of the flagellation of Christ.  I was talking about it with some girl from the class, and she said something like, “You’re kind of obsessed with Jesus.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I mean, that’s just you.”

That really bugged me.

I didn’t want to talk about Jesus or God because, very simply, Jesus got in the way of me doing and being what I wanted.  It wouldn’t have bothered me if Jesus had been just one god among many, or offered one more cool form of spirituality as an option among the many that were on sale in Seattle.

Seattle was not an atheist, secularist place.  Hippies and dreadlocked rastafarians were everywhere.  They were all “spiritual.”  Neo-paganism and Wicca and shamanism were everywhere.  Hare Krishnas were regularly on the sidewalk handing out literature.  Scientologists stood and offered to give free personality tests.  (I took one.  They said I was too screwed up to be a scientologist.)  Buddhist temples were not hard to find in Seattle (although the real Buddhists didn’t advertise as much.)

Then you had nearly every church on every corner with a rainbow flag out in front and a sign that said “Open and Affirming,” letting you know that the Christian churches by and large were just presenting themselves as one more option in the religious smorgasbord.  They were cool with alternative sexualities and didn’t want to be associated with the patriarchal, exclusivist Christianity of the past.

Even Muslims had their niche.  At the one place I went to get gyros all the time, they always had signs up decrying the abuse of the Palestinian people by the Israelis and advertising invitation to Islam classes.  And even though Islam really is exclusive, it too was acceptable in Seattle, because it had the cache of being foreign.  Or not being Christian.

But Jesus was not acceptable in Seattle, unless He was an icon or an image associated with another time and place.

If He was proclaimed as He is, someone who speaks to us today and makes claims upon us, He was laughed at at best.  If you gave away that you actually believed in Him, you became a strange creature.  Lots of people would hate you.  Others would look at you with pity or disdain or strange fascination.  This was in about 1997, 1998.  At least among the people with whom I hung out.

But Seattle’s issues with Jesus were one thing.  The issue was—I was hostile to Him.  I wanted to be left alone.  Jesus made claims on me.  That was the real issue.  I knew Jesus would not permit me to act as if He was one God among many.  He could not be a deep religious thinker whom I, as an intellectual and a poet, chose to follow as someone whose teaching suited my taste.

It wasn’t just moral restrictions that were the issue. Primarily it was that Jesus claimed exclusive access to God.  Salvation came only through Him.  And that meant it wasn’t that I just wouldn’t be able to do this or do that if I was a Christian.  If I was a Christian, everything would belong to Jesus.  I would depend on Him completely and belong to Him; I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t believe in Him when He would have been an embarassment.  If people hated Him, I would have to be hated.  And that was most of the people I hung around with.

If people I didn’t like were Christians, I would have to love them and be associated with them.  (And there were hardly any Christians I liked.)

It wasn’t any one particular thing that I didn’t want to give up.  It was that I would have to give up everything; whatever Jesus wanted me to keep I would keep, whatever He wanted me to lose I would lose.

I didn’t want this and couldn’t tolerate it, and yet it still bothered my conscience somewhere that Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  (John 14:6)

So, as I was saying, this hippie-looking guy with a long beard and a bike, wearing what appeared to be an apron, was talking to me about Jesus.  Somehow I gathered that he had left all of his possessions behind with a group of other people in order to follow Christ.

Now this, I thought, was cool and worthy of respect.  At least if the guy was going to be a Christian, he wasn’t going to be a bourgeois, fat, materialistic, Republican “Christian.”

I told him something to the effect of, “Well, when I was a kid I was raised to believe in Jesus.  But I don’t want to follow Christ. “  Maybe I said something like, “Maybe one day I’ll want to.”  And then the man, who, I emphasize at this time seemed extremely genial and kind, said something like, “Well, there’s a lot of heartache found in pursuing the world.”

That stuck with me.  I was living that.  Consciously, it seemed like nothing was more unlikely than that I would ever be a Christian.  .

Fast forward to the summer.

During the summer quarter I started taking classes at the University of Washington.  During this same period I had undergone a radical change in direction that might be described as a “conversion experience.”  [Not that a “conversion experience” is necessarily the same as actual conversion to Christ.]  What this amounted to for me was that I quickly and drastically changed direction.  I started reading the bible and praying zealously.  I quit hanging around with my old friends, started going to church, and trying to engage with what I was studying and writing as a Christian.

It was a period of high anxiety.  I was by no means stable and I had doubts about how this was going to turn out.

Key to all of this was the conviction that the reason I had been so depressed, so close to nervous collapse, and had such difficulty functioning, because I had been running my own life instead of doing God’s will.

How did I come to that conclusion?  Because I was desperate.

I figured that the reason Christianity had not “worked” before was because I had not been fully committed.  Now I tried on a daily basis to have a will completely committed and surrendered to Christ.

I still remembered—and believed—the doctrine I was taught as a kid—at least that part that we are justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

However, I reasoned that if I had wandered from Christ so far as to deny Him, that proved that the faith in Him that I thought I had as a child was not saving faith at all.  Works don’t save, but they prove that faith is living.  I also remembered and believed that from my childhood religious training.

Because I had experienced and lived the outright hostility toward Christians that was common among people I hung around, I thought about martyrdom.  I wondered whether I would be able to be faithful to Christ even if I faced death for it.  My constant question to myself was, “Am I ready to forsake everything for Christ?”  If I could answer “yes,” to the question, then I could be assured that I had true faith in Christ.  If there was hesitation, then it was to be feared that my faith was not real, saving faith.

Right around this time I was walking through Red Square on the UW campus.  It was a bright sunny day.  Suddenly I looked and saw the same bearded guy who had talked to me a few months earlier.  Surely that was providential!  I went over to him and said, “Hey, do you remember me?  I became a Christian since we talked last.”

Then he stared at me and said with a completely different demeanor than he seemed to have had the first time we met:  “Have you gotten involved with the worldly church?”

Just as Luther describes in the quote up at the top—those words cut me “like a razor.”  I felt cold fear, like he had just uncovered the truth about me.

More later…

The Lord’s Salvation is Outside Us. Christmas 1 sermon.

December 30, 2012 5 comments

simeonFirst Sunday after Christmas

St. Peter Lutheran Church

St. Luke 2:22-40

December 30, 2012

“The Lord’s Salvation is Outside of Us”


Jesu juva.


In the Name of Jesus.


On Christmas Eve the epistle reading from Titus said that “the grace of God” trains us to renounce “ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness, and to purify for Himself a people… who are zealous for good works.”  (Titus 2:11-14)


The proper fruit of receiving God’s grace and salvation is a godly life.  Jesus died for us not so that we could sin without worrying about it, but so that we would be a people who are zealous to do good.


It is a great error that is causing incredible destruction in the Church to think that Jesus’ death for our sins means we now no longer should insist on any rules or standards in our homes, in society, and in the Church.  It is true that religious people who are good about following the rules can easily become judgmental and self-righteous, like the Pharisees.  But that does not mean that the rules should be gotten rid of. 


You should go to Divine Service and hear God’s Word every Sunday and at other times when it is offered where your calling does not prevent you—that should be expected, while at the same time we do not look down on our brothers who falter in this area, but instead seek their blessing.  You should learn your catechism by heart. You should have regular prayer and meditation on God’s Word in your homes while not despising and alienating brothers who have not yet learned to do this. It isn’t wrong for the church to set standards like this.  In fact it is loving.


The church is not sinning when it requires you to behave with reverence in church.  It wasn’t a sin a few decades ago when Missouri Synod churches expected people who wanted communion to announce and be examined by the pastor beforehand.  This was not legalism.  It was discipline.  Our fathers in the faith knew well that outward discipline did not save people.  But they also knew well how easily order in the home, state, and church could be destroyed by people claiming the freedom of the Gospel as their license to ignore good works and live in sin.


The gospel reading shows us today how the godly people who were waiting for the Messiah lived.  They kept the requirements of the law, like Mary and Joseph, even though the baby in their arms was the Lord of the law who fulfilled the law and who would make the law’s requirements for purification after childbirth unnecessary.  They continued in their lowly callings in Nazareth as carpenter, husband, wife, and mother, even though they were told by the prophets in Jerusalem that their child was the glory of Israel—that is, the Lord God in the flesh.  Simeon spent his life watching and praying for the Lord to send His salvation.  Anna lived as a widow for over 80 years and spent her life in the temple, constantly praying and fasting.  Why did they go to all this trouble?  Not because they were trying to save themselves, but because it was God’s will that they walk in His commandments.  And because they believed God’s grace would come and that God therefore forgave all their sins, they gladly sought to live in the righteousness that He had given them in His Word.


This needs to be said because we live in a time where many people think the grace of God is license to sin and live an undisciplined life.  How wicked our old Adam is, that he would try to use the grace of God as license and freedom to sin! 


But at the same time we have another temptation.  When we recognize our sin and ungodliness we begin to say to ourselves, “I’ll just try harder.”  Or we see our continual failures in leading a godly life and we begin to despair and think that we are not saved or perhaps were never saved.


You should indeed repent of your sins and seek to do them no more.  Wherever you neglect prayer, you should repent and seek to do so no longer.  If you have been negligent in hearing and learning His word, you should turn away from your sin.


But fear of God’s wrath and the desire to turn away from sin and live a new life will not save us, nor will it in the long run enable us to change sinful habits—to become diligent and blameless in our callings, to pray and learn God’s Word.  Only faith in the Savior does that.  And that is not something human beings can do.


For this reason Simeon’s song is full of comfort for us who have tried to amend our sinful lives but remain sinners.  The Nunc Dimittis, which we sing after communion each week, proclaims


            The Lord’s Salvation is Outside of Us.


  1. 1.        Jesus is God in the flesh—the glory of Israel, the light for revelation to the Gentiles—and He alone is the Lord’s salvation.

The glory of Israel—the promised one—and the glory in the cloud and fire


A light for revelation—again, Simeon is saying that this baby is God.


Simeon is ready to die because he has seen the Lord’s salvation.  He has God’s Word.  This child is the Lord God in the flesh.

  1. 2.       The Lord’s salvation is an accomplished fact given in this little child.


He speaks of salvation as something done.


He undertakes a great exchange,

Puts on our human frame

And in return gives us His realm

His glory and His name.


My flesh is not completely renewed in me.  But in Him it is perfectly renewed.

In Him it is finished.

  1. 3.       Therefore devout Christians pray and watch and look only for Him, and thus participate in His kingdom and do good works.


“This is the work of God—that you believe in the one He has sent.”  (John 6)


“The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will make known to them His covenant.”  (Psalm 25?  91?)


Why did Simeon pray and watch for God’s kingdom to come, if God had promised it?


When He gives us salvation, God invites us to participate in His kingdom and act as His friends—to pray for Him to fulfill His promise and do His work.


Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus and spoke about his exodus  at the transfiguration.


We don’t know all that God has planned, so we can’t see in the things that He brings about in our lives how he means to do us good or accomplish His purposes. 


We do know that this child will be a sign that is spoken against, and that a sword will pierce the souls of those who love Him.  He is spoken against because we say to trust Him alone and not our works.


When this happens, we pray, knowing His ultimate purposes even if we don’t know what is happening in our lives, what his purpose is there.  Cf.  mary and Joseph, who didn’t really understand how this was all going to work out.  There was no coronation ceremony; they went back to Nazareth.


Like Simeon, He takes us into His counsel.  Like Moses, sometimes he gives us a glimpse of the promised land.  Like Anna, He uses us to bear witness and encourage and to bring blessing. 

Like Simeon, we take up the Lord’s salvation physically.  He comes to us in His body and blood, according to His Word. 

And then even if we do not see how all the Lord’s plans work together for good for those who love God, we see His salvation–the glory of Israel in our human flesh–our righteousness and holiness, given into death for our sins, given to us Christians to eat and drink under the bread and wine.


Not Very Good At Being Christians

August 6, 2012 12 comments


When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” And he said, “No. But I am the commander of the armies of the Lord.” Joshua 5:13-14

Ouch.  This picture stings. 

It’s easy to start thinking of all kinds of probably valid rebuttals.  People always think Christians should just feed the hungry and be nice and not stir up trouble.  Especially people who aren’t Christians think that.  And a lot of Christians think it too.  They forget some of Jesus’ other words, like, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth.  I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  (Matt. 10:34)  Whenever conflict arises because of theology or for the sake of the confession of the Gospel, there are lots of Christians who think you shouldn’t get into fights if you are a Christian.  Such Christians become a great source of pain for their brothers who stand up and bear the hatred of the world.  Then the world accuses them, and meanwhile brothers in the church also say, “You’re not really confessing Jesus.  You’re just being a jerk.”

I’m assuming Jack is not a Christian.  I haven’t read the rest of the blog.  But Jesus didn’t say, specifically, that Christians should serve at soup kitchens or homeless shelters.  He did say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  And, “If someone takes your cloak, offer your tunic also,” and, “give to the one who asks of you, and the one who would borrow from you do not turn away.”

But then again, it was Judas who was annoyed when a lady poured expensive perfume on Jesus; he said, “Why wasn’t that sold and given to the poor?”  And Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me.

But here’s the thing, even though you could argue with this meme and get annoyed with it, it really should provoke our repentance.

The folks who went to Chik-fil-a and stood in long lines—isn’t it fair to assume that most of them were Christians?  And isn’t it fair to assume that most of them are probably committed and  conservative Christians, or more committed than many?  It takes some commitment to stand up and be counted in the culture war, not to mention spending an hour in a line in order to protest something.

What made all these committed Christians come out?  A business owner says that he opposes homosexual marriage and that he considers his company a Christian company.  Then he is boycotted and picketed by homosexual activists. 

In order to show the world how many conservative Christians there are who agree with the owner of Chik-fil-a, we have this massive turnout of people to spend their dollars in the store.  “We’re not going to be intimidated.  We’re going to let business owners who are vocal about their Christianity and their opposition to gay marriage know that they can continue to be so and they will still continue to be able to run a profitable business.”  That seems to be the message, or at least some of the message.

I have no problem with the owner of Chik-fil-a saying what he said.  Christians should vocally oppose homosexual marriage.  I’ve done the same, and every time I do something painful happens.  I keep doing it not to bash homosexuals but so there are still some voices telling kids, “No, not everyone agrees that homosexual marriage is right, and they aren’t all stupid, or Nazis.”  So that Christians will not be intimidated into denying the truth or believing lies.  So that there will still be space in public discussion for those who dissent from what is being rammed down our throats by the media.

I think Christians must do this.  But the problem is that if all we do is oppose moral drift in our society, that isn’t Christianity yet. 

Christians aren’t supposed to be known simply for rigor.  The light that is supposed to shine in us is not simply defining the moral law or preaching the law’s condemnation, or voting to uphold the moral law.  The light of Christ is not “family values,” even though it’s vitally important for our country and our churches to see “family values” come back, because our country and our churches are falling apart due to the decline of the family.

But Jesus didn’t come to preach the law of God.  He did preach it, but that’s not why He came.  Family values refers to the law of God concerning marriage and sexuality. 

What Jesus came to preach is the Gospel.  The good news.  What is the good news?  That because “there is no one righteous, no, not even one” (Rom. 3), God has provided a righteousness accomplished by Him on behalf of the unrighteous.  God assumed our human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary, assumed responsibility for the sin of Adam and all his children, and received the wrath of God against sin in our place on the cross.  Therefore everyone who believes that Jesus paid for sins with His suffering and death is counted righteous; God counts this faith that He receives us for Jesus’ sake as righteousness.

This good news means that all who believe in Christ are no longer condemned, even though sin still lives in them.  And if they are not condemned, they can live in this world without fearing their enemies—they can even love those enemies—because their enemies cannot harm them.  If you hate my guts because I’m a Christian, all you can do is cause me pain temporarily.  But Jesus will be with me and will enable me to bear it and to rejoice in it, because just as He was in this world, so am I.  And then, when I die, I really have lost nothing but gained everything, because Jesus rose from the dead after bearing my sin; and if He has borne my sin and it has died, then God no longer counts my sin against me and will raise me too.

Christians fight, but they fight a different kind of battle with different enemies.  The world fights with those who oppose their interests.  Homosexual activists fight those who oppose their agenda.  Lobbyists fight for their interests in congress. 

Christians’ enemies are God’s enemies—namely, the devil and demons.  But human adversaries?  God will ultimately decide who is to be cast away forever.  We may note when someone is not a Christian, but they don’t become our enemies even though they may hate us and Christ.  Jesus judged no one, but entrusted Himself into His Father’s hands.  He took no vengeance on earth, but only did good to His enemies.

Christians should be known for the gospel.  And even if the world doesn’t understand the gospel (which is likely), or if they slander us, Christians should have lives that reflect this love of God toward His enemies, which caused Him to humble Himself and die on their behalf, even while they fought Him, dishonored Him, or denied Him. 

Thank God that He did that toward His enemies?  Because in the flesh I am His enemy.  And my flesh has dishonored and hated Christ all my life.  I would not believe in Him now unless He was willing to endure abuse from His enemies.

In the verse I quoted way up at the top of this post, Joshua goes over and says, “Are you for us or our adversaries?”  And the guy with the sword says (by the way, that guy is the Son of God before the incarnation, I’m pretty sure)—“No.”  No, the Lord when He was about to go in with Joshua and slaughter the idolaters in Canaan and put the Israelites in that land—He was not fighting on the side of the Canaanites or the Israelites.  He was doing what He was doing for His own Name.

God is on the side of Christians when Christians are on His side.  God is on the side of repentant sinners.  God is for me in Christ, but that doesn’t mean God is on my side in the culture wars. 

He wishes to save sinners, whether the sinners are clinging to very ugly sins, or whether they are repentant and have the Holy Spirit beginning to destroy the old man within them.  Either way, we do not fulfill the law of God.  So Jesus seeks both.

He seeks to bring the unbelievers to repentance and faith in Him, so that they begin to keep His law.

He seeks to bring the true Christians again and again to faith in Him, so that they grow in holiness.

Our critic is right.  How much we lack in holiness, that you can find conservative, consciously committed Christians waiting in long lines to do what—stand with a man who confessed that homosexual marriage is wrong.

Good!  But even the pagans know that.  Muslims know it.  Hindus know it.  People who worship their ancestors also know it.

Where Christians should be conspicuous is in their pity toward the wretched, helpless, damned.  And toward their enemies.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?  Do not even the publicans the same?  And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others?  Do not even the publicans so?  Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”  [St. Matthew 5:43-48]

Yes, if only we were as eager to pray for our enemies and to bear the suffering of the poor or endure the pain of trying to help a person caught in sin get free from it as we are to buy fast food in the name of Jesus, or condemn homosexual marriage in the name of Jesus!

Don’t misunderstand; it is necessary to say it clearly.  But at the same time the mercy of Christ that extends to us in the black hole, the depths of hell in which we were born in Adam, ought to move us to show the same compassion to those who are no different than we are by nature. 

If I hurt sound critical of anyone who was at Chik-fil-a, I promise you, all these things are preached to myself too. 

You are doing right to uphold the Law of God which worketh death.  It is necessary.  But when I hear it from someone who I cannot believe has struggled with sin and hopelessness in the way that I have, I am crushed into despair.  That’s what the Pharisees did to the sinners. 

I’ve been a Pharisee.  So was St. Paul.  St. Paul found—and so–that when we put all we have into serving God and are zealous and rigorous in the name of God–it’s then that we commit the greatest sins.  Unless the Spirit converts us, we can only do evil.  And even after we are converted, even when it is the Spirit who does the works in us, even then our works could not stand before God apart from His gracious covering of the sin in them.

That is how helpless we are in the flesh to please God.  And the worst is that after a person believes in Christ, our flesh and the devil often trick us into doing worse than we ever did apart from Christ–because now, so easily, the evil in our flesh is cloaked by the name of Christ.

let the recognition of every such attempt in the flesh which we have committed pierce our hearts, so that we are constantly driven to the pure mercy of God to us in Christ, for there is truly nothing good in us.  May Christians in this country carry weight in our society not so much for their capacity to buy things, but for their wealth of compassion, grace, and love for their enemies.

Jesus: Not a Part of Your Complete Breakfast

July 21, 2012 3 comments

CS Lewis, back when Anglicans were English and Christian; apparently now they are almost always one or the other.

“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” C. S. Lewis

I love that quote by Lewis.  All too often church members have the idea that Christianity is supposed to be “moderate.”  Or that you are able to be a Christian without ever appearing to be a fanatic to the world.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that as true as this is, there are also those in the church who understand this and want to be fully devoted, passionate, and “sold out for Christ,” yet feel that they are not, and perhaps even are afraid about it.

They have good reason to feel that way, because God not only commands that we recognize Him as having chief claim on our lives.  He commands us, “You shall have no other gods.”  Jesus unpacks the first commandment this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and with all your soul.”

In the Small Catechism, Luther gives us a helpful summary of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.  What does this mean?  We should




in God above all things.”

It’s important to say what Lewis said.  Christian congregations seem to have many members who sleepily think that being a Christian is supposed to fit into their lifestyle, instead of their lifestyle being altered [or completely re-styled] by their discipleship of Christ.

“Christianity is either of infinite importance or no importance.  It cannot be moderately important.”  That is a word that must be preached, clearly and often.  It can be a comforting word, because we are set free from the impossible burden of trying to be a Christian and also be pleasing to our unbelieving peers and friends.

However, left there, it is the law, and “the law worketh wrath.”  When it has its full effect, it will not produce truly passionate disciples of Jesus.  It will either produce self-righteous hypocrites who terrorize the sheep of Christ.  Or it will produce broken sinners who dangle over the precipice of despair, recognizing that Christianity is of ultimate importance while remaining unable to “fear, love, and trust” in the true God above all things.

It needs to be preached to contented and satisfied sinners.  But to terrified sinners, who realize that they are not as fully committed to Christ as they ought to be (even if they are more committed than other people)–the Gospel needs to be preached.  To them it needs to be said, “Your passion for Christ is insufficient.  He knows that even though you believe in Him and love Him, your flesh prevents you from doing what you would, from loving Him as you ought to.  But His passion for you is perfect and it is sufficient.  He has loved you with perfect love, and His love made Him so dedicated and wholehearted about you that He suffered the death of the cross and the wrath of God and merited for you the full pardon of your sins.  Even though the flesh prevents you from keeping the first commandment even now, you stand before God as having fulfilled it, because Jesus Christ, who feared, loved, and trusted God with His whole heart, and offered Himself to bear God’s terrible and righteous judgment.”

Evangelicals often fail to preach the second part clearly.  Lutherans, in reacting against it, inadvertantly often make provision for the flesh of members who want Christianity to be part of  a balanced, healthy American life in the 21st century, the way that sugary breakfast cereals were always “a part of this balanced breakfast” in tv advertisements when I was a kid (even though they had nothing in common with the healthy food they were placed next to.)

I stumbled on this book in a box at my dad’s house when I was twenty; my pastor gave it to me when I was 13. I read it in my early twenties, when I was being destroyed by the terrors of the law, and I was comforted. This was the first time Christianity made much sense to me.

Lutherans are blessed to be aware of the proper distinction between law and gospel, which is vitally important when it comes time to motivate Christians to good works, as well as when it comes time to proclaim the Gospel of Christ.  Lately, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian church, who is somehow related to Billy Graham and is therefore twice over Evangelical royalty, has been posting on his blog about the distinction between law and gospel and the theology of the cross, which are distinctive motifs in Lutheran theology… [  ]

He is a teacher at a reformed seminary, so we might take exception to some of what it says, and yet I think we can thank God that these treasures of the Gospel are being articulated outside of Lutheran enclaves. [It may well be that he is unpacking the distinction between law and gospel better than many Lutherans can–including myself!  I haven’t read them in depth but just been pleasantly surprised to see so much by him on it.]

However, I think we Lutherans often forget the reality that many of our members are not troubled, contrite sinners.  Then unfortunately the Gospel is used as an anodyne to excuse the fact that I am not a follower of Christ. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was describing in the beginning of The Cost of Discipleship: forgiveness of sins as an a priori theory which makes discipleship and the following of Christ unnecessary.

No, the Gospel is for terrified sinners.  This is why Luther got so upset with the antinomians who arose among the Lutherans after they had forgotten what things had been like before 1517.   Luther realized that within a few years of being set free from the papacy, most of the people had forgotten what it was to be terrified of God’s law and judgment, and therefore needed sharp preaching of the wrath of God so that they would be contrite and ready to listen to the Gospel.  If that happened so quickly in Luther’s day, we should to recognize that human nature today is the same, and now it is aided by a culture that has largely traded in moral judgments for therapeutic explanations.

No, evangelicals are right when they say, “Moderate Christianity is not really Christianity at all.”  The death of Jesus on the cross is not a part of this balanced breakfast.  The cross of Jesus is the tree of life.  All our spiritual food and life and health come from it.  The forgiveness of sins and eternal life won on the cross are given to us in the Word of God, Baptism and the true Body and Blood of Jesus in His supper.

At the same time, the death of Jesus on the cross for my sins is not a part of my salvation, of a balanced salvation consisting of God’s grace and work, along with a dash of my free willed choice to serve Him.  Jesus’ death on the cross, God’s gracious will to save me, the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in the means of grace to convert me and renew me; my salvation, my creation, my preservation in earthly life and the new life in Christ–they are all solely God’s gracious work.

So, don’t simply attempt to commit yourself to Jesus.  To be sure, shake off your sloth and preach the law to yourself with its terrors.  But more importantly, listen to His Gospel in which Jesus gives Himself to be our all in all–our wisdom, our justification, our sanctification (1 Cor. 1).

“But you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins, He made alive together with Christ–it is by grace you have been saved.  And He raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”  (Ephesians 2:1-9)

“Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, you also will appear with Him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, your members which are on the earth…” (Colossians 3:1-5)

Do I have true faith? Thoughts on Announcing For Communion, Self-Examination, and Infant Communion

June 28, 2012 8 comments

Yeah, yeah, I know; you told me I wasn’t the fairest of them all 30 years ago when I was confirmed. But since I stopped looking at you I feel much prettier!

A couple of different American Lutheran groups have put out a “Beichtspiegel”–“confessional mirror.”  These apparently were fairly common in Lutheran Germany, at least at one time.  They are generally questions applying the ten commandments to one’s life which a person can use in examining himself before going to confession and Holy Communion.

At one time you generally didn’t go to communion, if you were a Lutheran, without first going to private confession and absolution.  Even in America we still had the custom into the 1970’s or so where a person would “announce” before going to communion.  Originally, at least as I understand LCMS practice, that is started out not necessarily as “private confession” per se, but when you came into the pastor’s office and said, “I want to commune,” he would ask you a variety of questions to ensure and assure that you were ready to receive Christ’s body and blood.  By the time they phased it out it had essentially devolved into a phone call to the pastor on Saturday night.

At seminary they advocated the attempt to restore practices that American Lutherans had lost–weekly communion, individual absolution, chasubles…but I never heard a single professor suggest that we might want to bring announcement back.  I found an article about the practice of “announcement” in an old German “Lehre und Wehre” and I kind of think it would be an interesting topic to research.

If we were able to reinstate announcement in a non-legalistic way, I think it ultimately could be very consoling to people, and it would help to assuage people’s concern that if we have the sacrament too often people will abuse it.  This complaint does have a certain validity.  What does the Augustana say?  “No one is admitted to [Sacrament of the Altar] unless they have first been examined and absolved.”  Luther says the same type of thing either in the Smalcald Articles or one of the Catechisms…we don’t intend to give the Sacrament to people who can’t tell you what it is or why they want to receive it.  Well, that would also help us with teaching people what the ministry really is–namely an office set apart to represent Christ in preaching His Word, absolving, baptizing, giving the sacrament, exhorting, rebuking, etc.

Originally I started this post because I translated part of the old LCMS “Gebets-Schatz” Beichtspiegel, except it’s not called that in the Gebets-Schatz.  They’re called Pruefungsfragen, rougly translated “self-examination questions” or “proving questions.”

Sometimes I think if I had had access to questions like these in response to my anxiety about salvation when I was confirmation age, and if I had had a pastor with whom I could have talked and who could have examined me in this way, I would never have fallen away.

Sometimes Lutheran laymen get very passionate about how private confession is unlutheran and they’re free in Christ not to do it.  I think the reason I’m so passionate about it in the other direction is that I think in part that I fell away from Christ because although I knew private confession existed for Lutherans, I just thought that to go to it meant you were somehow failing as a Christian.

As a final point…I remember debating with about three men at seminary who were smarter than me about infant communion.  As on most things at seminary, I gave sort of the standard dead orthodox Missourian Lutheran response: well, don’t people need to examine themselves before communion?  To which one guy (who, along with the other guy, is a pastor in the LCMS) said, “They’ve already examined themselves and desire it!”  I left the discussion feeling stupid and angry because I was silenced in the argument.

Later, I asked Prof. John Pless about it and he said, “Paul is clearly talking about a noetic self-examination in 1 Corinthians.”  I liked that answer because saying, “Noetic” has a way of making people circumspect about arguing further.

I don’t know who reads this blog.  But if anyone from my church read it, I would feel bad now if I used words or arguments that made them feel stupid, as though you have to be a genius to come to the right answer in theological questions.  Prof. Pless wasn’t doing that because he was talking to a seminary student and not to a congregation.  But, it might be a good thing for seminarians to practice as they argue theology–not only learning theology by debating, but also how to discuss it with someone who disagrees with you without trying to make them feel stupid, since that is a completely destructive tendency when you actually start shepherding souls.

Actually this debate is fairly easy to understand.  The guy who told me that “babies have already examined themselves and desire the sacrament” was referring to Lutheran baptismal theology.  We don’t say that babies are baptized in their parents’ faith, or the sponsors’ faith, or the church’s faith.  We believe that they have their own faith…either before Baptism or after receiving it.  This is why one of the prayers in the LCMS alternate rite for Baptism (I’m pretty sure from Luther) says something like: “we bring this child to you, desiring the forgiveness of sins.  Open to him knocks, grant that he who seeks finds…etc.”

(This is also connected to the paragraphs from Bugenhagen I translated a few weeks ago about what happens to babies who are not baptized because they die before they can be…)

So, my colleague was saying, “Babies have living faith in Christ…they are baptized into Christ.  Therefore” [I think this was his argument], “since they have real faith in Christ, they also examine themselves and desire all of Christ’s gifts, including the Lord’s Supper.”

On the other hand, Prof. Pless was saying that when Paul talks about self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11 and elsewhere, he is talking about a conscious self-examination.

I think the passages from Paul become nonsensical if they aren’t interpreted the way Prof. Pless does.  Also, it’s simply impossible to square a different reading with the Lutheran Confessions.

Luther’s theology about right reception of the Lord’s Supper is this:  What makes you worthy is:  1.  believing that it

Luther communing John the Steadfast.

Luther communing John the Steadfast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

is Jesus’ body and blood.  2.  hunger and thirst for the benefits conferred in the Lord’s Supper, namely forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  3.  This presupposes contrition–i.e. fear of God’s wrath.  It presupposes also the desire for the forgiveness of sins and comfort and faith that Jesus gives or will give me what I desire in the Lord’s Supper.  4.  Finally, Luther teaches that Christians should examine themselves to see whether or not they will receive the supper worthily.  Even more he insists that people need to be examined by the pastor to see whether they are ready.

I frankly believe that our present practice of examining people once, at confirmation, is a bad practice, out of step with our theology.  There are many members of our congregation who come to church regularly enough not to get dropped from membership.  Yet they come so seldom that one is forced to conclude that they are either extremely ignorant about the nature of saving faith, or else they simply despise God’s gifts.  Yet they are never examined, because people have come to think that reception at the Lord’s table is a right conferred forever by virtue of your confirmation.  People tend to think this even after they or their children have left the church and become Baptist.  But if they’re still on the books at an LCMS congregation, people don’t think anymore question should be raised.

I guess the conclusion is this, and then I’ll post the examination questions (it may have to be later this evening now.)  If there are still high church confessional Lutherans who sympathize with infant communion, this should not be coddled by LCMS confessionals simply because they’re our type of guys and they agree on the liturgy.

Infant communion is an attack on the article of justification, and therefore an assault on the pure Gospel and the heart of the Lutheran Church.  If I’m goring your ox, I probably don’t know who you are, so I don’t say this with anger against you, but out of concern that Satan doesn’t play little games in the backyard of those who want to see the pure Gospel alone confessed in the Missouri Synod.

It’s an attack on the article of justification because while faith can be living and can justify while a person is not conscious of it, and while it is true that true faith in Christ believes against the feelings and perceptions of the old Adam, it is also true that we are able to “test ourselves” to see whether we are in the faith.

The tendency that leads toward infant communion–it seems to me–teaches falsely about the nature of saving faith.  While faith that saves is not “faith in faith,” and while saving faith can exist in those who aren’t aware of it (people who are sleeping; people in a coma; people with Alzheimer’s; babies), we are also commanded in scripture to “test ourselves” and “to make our calling and election sure.”  It is certainly not the case that Christians are being presumptuous when they are assured of their salvation or of being in a state of grace.

This assurance is not always felt; the assurance is found in God’s promises.

Yet experience plays a role in this.  Does it matter if my heart doesn’t feel love for God, doesn’t feel like praying, doesn’t really care whether it receives the Sacrament?  Of course it does!  It’s sin that I don’t desire the sacrament very much, or don’t feel like praying, or would rather watch TV than hear God’s Word.

That awareness of the sin that lives in me is the very thing that should direct me to my need for Christ and what He gives me in the Holy Supper–his true body and blood.  And if I feel that I am not sufficiently repentant or hungry, then I should mourn over that and go to communion asking God to renew my sick heart.  But I shouldn’t say, “Oh well, it isn’t necessary to feel anything to be a good Christian.  After all, babies have faith even though they don’t act like it.  Our spirit prays even when our lips and minds are doing something else.”

No, instead I should go mourning the ungodliness of my flesh, that it despises God even after all that He’s done for me.  But with assurance I should go to the altar with the horrible wickedness of my heart, because Jesus receives sinners there and gives them His body and blood.

All around in Lutheranism, among laity and pastors, you see this idea that we can be Christians and agnostics at the same time.  It is true that we doubt.  My life is a big billboard of that.  Christians doubt and are weak in faith. That’s because sin still lives in us.   And yet Christianity is marked by certainty, assurance, because the Spirit works in us by the Word.  I think in Pieper I remember reading that faith “IS assurance.”  or “The assurance of

English: Franz August Otto Pieper

English: Franz August Otto Pieper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

salvation is faith.”  I didn’t like that at the time, because I didn’t understand it.

When I get out of the pulpit, how do I know that I preached God’s Word and not my own?  Should I just say, “Ah, whatever…it could be I preached God’s word, it could be I just poisoned everyone who heard me–whatevs”?

How do I know that when I am judged God will receive me?  I know because His Word tells me.  How do you know that You rightly interpret His Word?  I know because the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture unfolds it, and He has revealed it to me.  It’s not that I always feel it or that I don’t doubt.

But like the hymn says:

God’s Word is all-sufficient

It makes divinely sure

And trusting in its wisdom

My faith shall rest secure.   Erdmann Neumeister, “I Know My Faith is Founded.”

Or like my favorite hymn says:

And to this our soul’s salvation

Witnesses Your Spirit, Lord,

In Your Sacraments and Word. 

There He sends true consolation,

Giving us the gift of faith

That we fear not hell nor death.  Johann Olearius “Oh, How Great is Your Compassion”

How is it that people who want to be confessional Lutherans could get this confused?  In our efforts to avoid the subjectivism of the evangelicals, some of what is called “Confessional Lutheranism” sounds an awful lot like removing faith from the article of justification.

Where did this come from?

Again, to reiterate: faith can exist where someone is unconscious of it.  But the person who’s worried about whether or not he is really a Christian doesn’t need to hear, “Don’t worry about it.  It’s not necessary that you feel anything.” Instead they need God’s law and gospel applied to them.  If they are really troubled  because they are willfully sinning, then they need to hear that repentance does not include hanging on to sin but wanting to be free of it.  (Then proclaim the Gospel).  If they are troubled because of their ongoing struggle with sin and lack of sanctification, they need to be told that is the reason why the Lord’s Supper was instituted–not for those who have already overcome sin, but for those who are burdened by it and fear that they will be damned because of it.

That kind of certainty would be more common, I think, if instead of the protestant “every man his own priest”, we recovered the Lutheran understanding of the Church as the “communion of saints” and the “mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” as a means of grace.  I think assurance of salvation is tied to confession of sins before men–whether or not that is done formally.  When church people don’t deal with one another as lost sinners who need the other members of the body…and when we hide our sins from each other, it causes the whole church to lose the joy of salvation.

“Restore to me [and all Lutheran congregations] the joy of Your salvation, and grant [us] a willing spirit…”

I am carnal

May 27, 2012 1 comment

Frequently a Christian may act in a very unchristian manner.  Rom. 7, 18 Paul says: I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not.  It is plain that in this passage the apostle describes a Christian.  How a person becomes a Christian he had described before.  Next, he proceeded to show how a Christian ought to walk and to please God.  In the section of his epistle from which the above passage is taken he begins to discuss the doctrine of spiritual tribulations in which Christians frequently are merged, in order to comfort them.  He describes a Christian as a double being.  The true Christian, he says, always desires what is good, but frequently he does not accomplish it.  Now, then, if a preacher describes a Christian in such a manner as to deny that, unless he accomplishes all that is good, he does not really will what is good, the description is unbiblical.  To will what is good is the main trait of a Christian.  Frequently he does not progress beyond the good will to do something.  Before he is aware of it, he has gone astray; the sin within him has come forth, and he is ashamed of himself.  But for that reason he has not by any means fallen from grace.


Rom. 7, 14 Paul says: For we know that the Law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin.  He means to say: “Who would not gladly be rid of sin?  As for me, I am like a slave sold to a master.  I cannot get away from him; I am always being tyrannized by him.”  That is the condition of a Christian: he feels like a slave, with this difference, however, that he does not obey his master gladly as a Christian slave must obey.  He renders obedience with the utmost reluctance.  Accordingly the apostle cries in v. 24, “O wretched man that I am!  Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”  Remember this, partly for your own comfort, partly for the task of comforting the members of your future congregation.  The prevailing spiritual malady of our time is lack of assurance on the part of Christians.  This is because they are not given any reliable teaching.  Now, when a real Christian is shown what a miserable sinner he is, he clings to Christ all the more firmly and spurns the whispering of the devil, who tells him that he is fallen from grace and has lost God.


CFW Walther, Law and Gospel, p. 309.

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