18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 25, 2016
“A Church Loses Its First Love”
There is a reason why so many songs and poems speak about the experience of falling in love. Love is powerful, intoxicating. It almost makes someone new. It changes the expression of a person’s face, gives light to their eyes. It gives people courage and zeal to do things they would never otherwise have tried.
But the ecstasy of falling in love has to be followed up by action. People who fall in love but don’t make a pledge to one another to forsake all other loves, or who don’t follow through on that pledge by continuing to give themselves to the other, find that their love grows cold. Instead of first love growing into a deeper and more mature love, it gradually dies.
In the first letter to the churches in Asia Minor, our Lord Jesus Christ writes to the church in Ephesus that it has lost its first love for Him.
The church in Ephesus was the oldest of the seven churches to which Jesus told John to write. It had been founded by the apostle Paul about 40 years before the writing of the book of Revelation. He wrote the Ephesian church a letter while he was in prison in Rome that we still read today because it is holy Scripture. Later, tradition tells us that the apostle John lived in Ephesus and taught there into his old age.
Being the oldest church in the region, and having had two apostles dwell there and teach them, the church in Ephesus might have been proud of their history, boasted of what God had done for them. That boasting and pride would have been no sin if it was pride in the goodness and love of their Lord, who made them first among the seven churches solely out of His grace.
But something was wrong in Ephesus. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches. “I know your works,” He says. And the works He mentions He is pleased with: the Ephesians have toiled and worked hard as a church to spread the word of God. They have been patient and endured suffering and hostility in the world for their faith and their toil to make Christ known. And they could not tolerate false teachers. They tested those who claimed to be “apostles”—people sent by Christ—and when the supposedly God-sent men didn’t preach what accords with Christ’s doctrine, the Ephesians threw them out as false apostles and refused to hear them.
In addition, Jesus commends them because they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, a group that claimed the Gospel made them free to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That was like receiving communion from an idol—participating in its worship, and proclaiming fellowship with the idols worshippers.
So the Ephesian church was exemplary for its orthodoxy and its willingness to work and suffer for Christ.
But for all this apparent faithfulness, the Lord finds something lacking, something so important that it invalidates all the good things about the church in Ephesus. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first—“ or, “You have let go of your first love.”
“You don’t love me like you once did.” When two people are in love, those are among the most painful words one could speak to the other. They signify that love between two people is no longer strong and certain; love is passing away, the way everything beautiful in this world fades, grows old, and dies.
Hearing Jesus say, “You have lost your first love for me” would pierce the heart of anyone who loves Him like a dagger. After He rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, where He first called Peter to follow Him. Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter was full of grief that Jesus had to ask if he still loved Him.
If Jesus asked you, St. Peter, “Do you love me?”, would you grieve? Would you get angry? Do you think, maybe, He does ask us that?
But Jesus doesn’t say the Ephesian church doesn’t love him anymore. He only says they have lost their first love. Their love toward Jesus has cooled.
They still love Jesus in Ephesus. They just don’t love Him as much as they used to. Or rather, they just don’t love as much—Jesus or other people. Yet just this—the cooling of love, the decline of love—is enough to draw this severe threat from the Lord of the Church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5) In other words, Jesus will bring the church in Ephesus to an end because they have lost their first love. He will cause this church to cease to exist.
Eventually what Jesus warns of here happened to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major city as well as a major center of the early Christian church. But it was destroyed by an invasion of Germanic tribesman in 263 A. D. After being rebuilt by a Roman emperor, throughout the 700’s it suffered from raids by Muslim armies. Meanwhile, its harbor gradually filled with silt. It lost trade as a result, and its standing as a center of commerce declined. By the time Muslim Turks conquered it about 1000 years after the writing of the book of Revelation, it had become a small village. In another four hundred years it was completely abandoned. Whatever remained of the Church of Ephesus, which had once been first among the churches of Asia, was taken away.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet has several things in common with the church in Ephesus. We were the first Lutheran Church in Joliet. Most of the other Missouri Synod congregations for miles around were birthed by St. Peter. No apostles ever occupied the pulpit of St. Peter, but God blessed it with at least three gifted pastors in its 159 years. There have been others who have perhaps not had as many gifts, but they were faithful in teaching God’s pure Word and administering His Sacraments.
Yet today we have declined to a shadow of the church’s former strength. Many of us wonder how many years St. Peter has left.
Like the Church in Ephesus, a lot of earthly factors have contributed to our declining attendance. Although the city of Joliet has grown numerically it has declined economically, causing many of the sons and daughters of our congregation to move elsewhere. Then there is the decay of the neighborhood from a prosperous area to a slum with the reputation of being dangerous.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say that the decline of the city of Ephesus will cause the Ephesian church to disappear. He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” If the Ephesians in fact did not repent, then it wasn’t the invasions and earthquakes and the filling in of the harbor that caused the church in Ephesus to disappear.
Rather, Jesus caused those calamities in order to remove their lampstand from its place.
And if this is what happened, it was all because they had lost their first love. So as we see our church on the verge of being removed from its place, what should we be asking ourselves except, “Has St. Peter lost its first love?”
If we look back at our history, we can see evidence of St. Peter’s love for Christ, His Word, and those who do not know and believe it.
In 1870, St. Peter called a pastor from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At that time the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was only 23 years old. St. Peter was only 13 years old. The young bearded pastor that came fresh from the seminary, the Rev. Carl Rothe, spent 8 years here—and only at the end of his ministry did the congregation make its first steps toward becoming a confessional Lutheran congregation, when it accepted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a summary confession of the faith held by the congregation. Prior to that, for 25 years, St. Peter had “Lutheran” in the title of their name, but apparently was not clear on what they meant by saying they were Lutheran. By accepting the Augsburg Confession, they publicly confessed the doctrine of the early Lutheran reformers as their own.
Pastor Rothe was followed in office by his brother-in-law, Pastor August Schuessler, who had been pastor in a small town south of here. Some time in the 1880s, St. Peter became a member congregation of the Missouri Synod, after it embraced the entire Book of Concord of 1580 as its confession of faith.
What does this show about St. Peter in those days? It shows that they had a love for Christ and His Word and were willing to be instructed from it. They went from being a congregation that called itself “Lutheran” in a generic way to being a congregation that received the entire doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
St. Peter then was a congregation that loved Christ. As a result, it was willing to test whether its faith was in line with God’s Word. And when they found that it was not, they were willing to repent and receive the full teaching of God’s Word.
St. Peter also had a desire to see Christ’s Kingdom extended on earth. They loved their neighbors and were willing to work to see the Gospel spread and bring people to faith in Christ. In the early part of the 20th century, for many years, St. Peter not only maintained a Sunday School for its own children, but operated one on the other side of town. They called it “the mission Sunday School.” One imagines that the “mission Sunday School” ministered to kids whose parents were not willing or able to bring their children up as Christians. St. Peter didn’t simply expect that parents be responsible to bring their children to Sunday School and church—they actively sought out the children who, for whatever reason, were not being taught the Scriptures at the age when it is most critical that children learn them. That was a measure of their faith in Christ’s Word and their love for those who were separated from it.
How do we measure up to the “first love” of our congregation?
The love that St. Peter showed in its early years for the word of God, evidenced by their willingness to grow in it, to learn from it and acknowledge when their knowledge and confession of it had been deficient—is that still present among us? By no means. As your pastor for ten years, I can bear witness that many of St. Peter’s members—most—do not remember the basic teachings of God’s Word found in the Small Catechism. It’s not simply that they no longer remember the words of the catechism—which itself should not be; it should not be that a congregation that says it adheres to the confessions of the Lutheran Church does not remember the simple form of the faith that “the head of the family should teach…to his household.”
But not only do very few remember the words of the catechism; very many also have forgotten the content of the catechism. Forgotten that the church of Christ is not everyone who can be enticed to show up to worship, but “the communion of saints…[that] those who believe in Christ…but only believers, are members of the church.” Forgotten that a person cannot become a believer in Christ by their “own reason or strength”, much less by means of techniques designed by men to appeal to unbelievers, but that the Holy Spirit must call a person by the Gospel, enlighten him with His gifts, sanctify and keep him in the true faith. Forgotten that when a person visits St. Peter with a different confession of faith than the one taught by the Holy Spirit, we are not permitted to share the body and blood of Christ with that person, but invite that person to first be instructed and confess with us God’s Word in its purity.
Yet not only have many people at St. Peter forgotten these teachings that they once learned and confessed, they have often responded to them with anger when they were presented to them again. But even where this is not the case, the majority of members of St. Peter have proven themselves less than eager to re-learn or to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word.
The love St. Peter had at first for God’s Word is not here anymore.
For the last ten years, I have conducted these series in the fall, in which I exhorted those who came to devote themselves anew to the Christian life, to Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. I pleaded with the congregation over the years to come to Bible Class during these weeks, if at no other time during the year, so that we could come together and examine ourselves as a congregation. To repent where we had been negligent in these things. To hear God’s pardon for our sin through the death of His Son. To encourage one another to grow in these things that are fruits of faith in Christ.
Early on, I sent out mailings and letters trying to gather the congregation together. In more recent years I begged and pleaded with those who were present in the Divine Service to come to Bible Class. And for ten years there has been little to no response. Those who didn’t come at all didn’t come. Those who do attend the Divine Service but not Bible Class, with few exceptions, ignored my pleading.
And even this year, when the church is in critical condition, and everyone knows it, there is no increased sense of urgency—at least no sense of urgency to turn to God and His Word. The love St. Peter once had amongst its own members is not like its first love. If this love still exists, it is not the love that recognizes that our mutual well-being as a church depends first and foremost on our listening to God and, believing His promises, walking in the ways of prayer, giving, serving, and witnessing.
Finally, what about St. Peter’s love for the lost outside the Church? Is there an earnest love that compels us to bring the Gospel outside of the walls of our congregation, like that which once drove St. Peter to start a mission Sunday School?
There is a zeal among some, to be sure, who devote countless hours to Vacation Bible School every summer, and others who have tried in various ways to bring God’s Word to the youth and to the families at Evergreen Terrace. But the congregation as a whole does not work as a body to reach out and to welcome in those who are outside. And that is what we need. How difficult a stumbling block we place in front of our new members when, after undergoing catechesis for several months, they join the church, and find so many members who have so little interest in what they spent the last several months learning, and who seem to have little joy about someone else confessing that faith and doctrine as their own!
What I am saying is very difficult to hear. It may make you angry to hear it. Perhaps you think I’m not presenting the whole story.
Yet I doubt that there are many who will dispute that St. Peter as a congregation has lost its first love. We can see clearly enough by their absence that in many people this love—for Christ, for His Word, His people—has died completely. And certainly in some, if not many of us, it has died or grown very cold.
The loss of their first love meant the removal of the church of Ephesus. And as we see our lampstand being removed, we should hear clearly Jesus’ words to them in our ears: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5)
Why did Jesus threaten to take away the church in Ephesus because they had lost their first love? Because faith and love are always together. We say correctly that “faith alone saves,” that “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) But faith that saves, faith in Christ, is always followed by love. Because faith in Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit, who at the same time renews our heart, so that it is not the selfish, cold heart of the old Adam only. Instead, Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17)—the same Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Yes, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). So where love is on the wane, faith in Christ is dying as well.
If only you would hear Jesus and not cast these words behind you! That you would realize the terrible seriousness of this, that Jesus truly and earnestly threatens to close a church because it abandon[s] the love [it] had at first! (Rev. 2:4) He threatens this to us not out of spite or vengefulness, but because He desires our salvation! When a church loses its first love, there will be members of whom this is not true. Those members Jesus will not abandon. But those who have fallen away or who continue on the path of falling are not simply in danger of seeing their congregation close, but of seeing themselves shut out of the Church of Christ in heaven. Jesus warns us so that this may not happen to us—not only the tragedy of Him removing a congregation like a branch on a vine that bears no fruit—but the tragedy of the members of that congregation individually being removed and cast into the fire and burned (John 15:5-6).
He warns so that there may be a change of heart—a repentance, in individuals, and in the congregation as a whole.
He says “Remember from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Then He will not remove your lampstand from its place.
That means that we return to St. Peter’s first love—to an eagerness to hear, learn, and grow in God’s Word; an eagerness to abide in all Christ’s teaching; an eager desire to proclaim and spread this Word. To return to newborn love for Jesus and the souls He died to save, inside and outside the Church.
It is not enough that we repent of our failure to hear God’s Word and spread it simply because we don’t want to see our congregation die. Repentance means to recognize our sin against the Lord who loved us, and to trust in the blood He shed to cancel that sin and purify us of it. And then, out of that faith and trust, to do the works of love the congregation once did—to gladly hear God’s Word and gladly proclaim it to the world.
Those who have not fallen from their first love repent of those inclinations and impulses they see in themselves that would dampen their love for Christ and His Word. Those who are growing cold turn again to Jesus with their dying love with sorrow. And those whose love has died fall at the feet of Jesus who is able to raise the dead.
You may rightly sense the difficulty of this—indeed, its impossibility. How can we restore love for Christ? Even human love is something difficult to keep, and difficult to revive once it has decreased—much less when it has died completely. But the love of God is not within our power to establish in our hearts. It must be poured out into them by the Holy Spirit.
All this is true, and there is no escaping it. Love is from God (1 John 4:7) says John in his first epistle. Just as the faith in Christ that saves us is not from ourselves but is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9), God also must work His love in our hearts, or we will remain cold and loveless. Yet God desires to work both faith and love in the hearts of all people, because Jesus has redeemed all people through His suffering and death. And so God appointed means by which He gives the Holy Spirit and gives the gift of faith and the love that follow from it.
Those means are the Word and the Sacraments; if we are to regain our first love and the faith that produced it, God must do it. But He has promised to do it by means of the Word and Sacraments. Which means the salvation of our souls and of our congregation is to be found in the Divine Service and in Scripture.
But we have already had those things, and we still ended up where we are now!
That is true. But if the means God appointed to work faith and love in our hearts haven’t worked, it isn’t because those means are not effective, or that God only works through them sometimes. The fault is with us. Too often we have neglected the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the reading of Scripture. We have received them a couple of times a month, or less. We have not read the Scriptures in our homes or been willing to study them in church. And even when we were present to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, we did not really receive.
We didn’t listen. Maybe you didn’t think that preaching is God’s Word—you thought it was just the opinion of whoever occupied the pulpit. Or when you listened to the reading of Scripture you tuned it out because you figured you had heard it before. You came to the divine service, and particularly the Lord’s Supper, without preparation—not examining yourself to see whether you repented of your sins and believed what Jesus said He was giving. You came to church half-asleep because you were doing other things the night before. Or you came without prayer and readiness to hear God speak and work in you because you didn’t realize how badly you needed Him to do so. You came but got annoyed if you didn’t get to sing the right hymns, were irritated if I didn’t conduct the service as you thought it should be done. You had expectations of how the service was supposed to go and were certain of the rightness of your indignation if those expectations weren’t met.
You did not realize that you were closing your heart to the Holy Spirit who desired to work in you. Whether you neglected opportunities to hear or read God’s Word, or whether you physically presented yourselves but did not seriously listen.
Once a month for several years I have been teaching a class on the Book of Concord, the confessions of the Lutheran Church. One of the documents in the Book of Concord is called The Formula of Concord, written about three decades after the death of Martin Luther to settle certain controversies that arose after his death. It has a wonderful section in which it talks about how God always wills to work through His Word, preached, read, or taught, to bring about faith and love in those who by nature are without both.
It says, “We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals His will through it, namely, that he wills to work through His Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word through which we are called is a ministry of the Spirit. It ‘gives the Spirit,’ or through it the Spirit is conferred (2 Cor. 3); it is a ‘power of God’ that saves [Rom. 1]. Because the Holy Spirit wills to be efficacious and to give strength, power, and ability through the Word, it is God’s will that we accept the Word and believe and follow it…
Therefore, if people wish to be saved…they should listen to Christ…He testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that they may be given rest and be saved.
According to Christ’s teaching they should abstain from sin, repent, trust the promise, and rely completely upon Christ. Because we are not capable of doing this by our own powers, the Holy Spirit wills to effect to repentance and faith in us through the Word and the sacraments. And that we may complete this and persist and remain faithful in it, we should call upon God for his grace, which he has promised us in Holy Baptism, and not doubt that in accord with His promise He will convey it to us, as He has promised…
Next, the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have believed as He dwells in His temple and is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues…and should diligently seek to “confirm their call and election” [2 Peter 1:10], so that the more they recognize the Spirit’s power and strength in themselves, the less they doubt their election…
According to His normal arrangement, the Father draws people by the power of His Holy Spirit through the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, through which the elect are snatched out of the jaws of the devil. For this reason every poor sinner should act in such a way as to hear the Word diligently and not doubt that the Father is drawing people to Himself. For the Holy Spirit wills to be present with His power in the Word and to work through it. This is the drawing of the Father.
The reason why not all who hear the Word believe it (and thus receive the greater damnation) is not that God has not allowed them to be saved. Instead, it is their own fault, for they heard the Word not so that they might learn from it but only to despise, revile, and ridicule it; and they resisted the Holy Spirit, who wanted to work in them through the Word… (FC SD XI: 29, 70-73, 76-78)
The Holy Spirit will restore all who have fallen and those who have faltered to their first love through His Word and Sacraments. So we should attend to them the way we would attend to medicine that would save our lives on earth, because indeed there is no other medicine to restore faith in Christ and love to our congregation.
Those who do this will rise from their fall to conquer their sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And Jesus holds out a great promise to the ones who conquer by faith in Him—He will give them to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
You may remember how in his final hours a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus turned to Him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The man, dying on the cross for his own sin, under the judgment of God, nearing the final minutes of a life spent in wickedness, arose and conquered. Jesus promised him the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Why? Because through His Word, Jesus brought this man to faith in Him. With this faith came love; in his final minutes He spoke in defense of Jesus. He loved the man he rebuked and sought to bring him salvation even while both were dying condemned for their sins. He loved Jesus and confessed the truth about Him—that He had done nothing to deserve crucifixion, nothing sinful at all. He loved Jesus because He believed Jesus’ word, that the suffering He endured was to redeem even the criminal from his life of disobedience to God.
We may be at the end of the road as a congregation. It may be that even with repentance and renewal we are not to continue as a congregation, for some reason known only to our Lord Jesus.
Yet the reward of conquering with Jesus is not our congregation’s future on earth. It is the right to eat from the tree of life and dwell in the presence of God in paradise. The fruit of the tree of life, however, begins for those who repent and believe the Gospel today. To eat that fruit, to taste and see that the Lord is good, is to believe in the Son of God, who came that we might have life, who came to bear our offenses. Whoever believes in Jesus “eats His flesh and drinks His blood” (John 6), receiving life from His sacrificial death. As they go on eating from this tree of life, they are transformed by Him; they taste His love, and desire more of it. And the more they receive it, the more they love Him in return, the more they love those that He loves.
You are about to come eat this fruit of paradise, the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your salvation. Let us come with repentance for all the times we have eaten this fruit and not come forth from this altar to conquer with Jesus our natural lovelessness. Let us come with the bitter taste of repentance that we may begin to taste the sweetness of His love toward us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
20th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 11, 2015
“God’s Thoughts—Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer”
“Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near;
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him,
And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Is. 55:6-7
From these verses you can see why it is so difficult for the wicked man to return to the Lord. “Let the wicked forsake his way.” That means that a sinner must give up the course he is on; he must turn and walk on a new road, the way of righteousness. Instead of lying he must learn to tell the truth; instead of hatred and anger he must learn love and forgiveness; instead of cheating and stealing he must learn to give. Instead of seeking his own good and honor he must learn to seek the glory and honor of God and the good of his neighbor. It’s hard for the wicked to forsake his way and walk in the way of the Lord. Even if it was just a matter of changing his outward behavior it would be hard.
But it isn’t just a matter of changing behavior. The Holy Spirit goes further: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” To return to the Lord, the wicked person not only has to forsake his way of life, but his thinking. He has to have a new mind. The mind and heart of the wicked is the source of his evil manner of living, because the wicked man does not seek the glory and honor of God but his own self. He seeks his own happiness and pleasure and not the glory of God and the well-being of his neighbor. That is what God saw about human beings a long time ago, before He flooded the earth to destroy wicked men: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5)
The description of the wicked man’s thinking strikes home with you, doesn’t it? The wicked man thinks about himself—how he can be happy and have what he wants—and not about the glory of God or our neighbor’s needs. Does that mean you are wicked and unrighteous if you are self-seeking? Yes. It means that you have an unrighteous and wicked nature. You must forsake that nature if you want to be saved.
But who can forsake his own nature? Who can change his way of thinking, so that he goes from seeking himself to seeking the glory of God and the good of his neighbor? People spend millions on therapists trying to get help to change their thinking in earthly things, but we are supposed to forsake our selfish way of thinking and become concerned only with glorifying God? How are we supposed to do that?
It is impossible. It is like asking the dead to raise themselves or asking the leopard to change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23). That’s why Jesus, when His disciples asked Him, “Who then can be saved?” said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) God must miraculously “change our minds”; He must give us the miraculous gift of repentance, so that we become like little children, forsake our thoughts, and “trust in the Lord with all (our) hearts, and do not lean on (our) own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
How does God do that?
Have you ever noticed that in seeking our own happiness first we seldom become happy? And even when we do find happiness it only lasts as long as circumstances favor us. When we put our trust in earthly things and seek our happiness in them, our happiness vanishes as soon as the earthly things are taken away, whether those things are wealth, honor, health, or love. Earthly things can’t satisfy us and give our souls what they really need. So God asks us, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:2) Our fallen minds think that we will be satisfied if we could just have one more thing, and so we work to get that one thing more. But we remain unsatisfied, empty.
“Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (verse 2). We find what satisfies, what enables us to forsake our futile, self-seeking thoughts, in “listening diligently” to the Lord. The words of the Bible, of Holy Scripture, are not the thoughts of men but the thoughts of God. They are the thoughts of the eternal God, the creator of heaven and earth. So they are higher than our thoughts, as the heavens are higher than the earth.
In His Word God makes an everlasting covenant with us. When we follow the thoughts of our unrighteous hearts, there is nothing sure, certain, or everlasting about our happiness. Everything is uncertain and temporary. “If I perform well enough I will get what I want, or at least some of what I want,” we think. But in His Word God is freely pledging His steadfast, sure love forever. He promised David that unchanging love despite David’s sins. He promised that one of David’s offspring would reign as king forever and ever, and that David’s royal line would be established forever. God would not take away the kingship from David and his descendants because of their sin, like He did Sau. His love toward David would be steadfast and sure forever. That same steadfast love God promises to us in His Word.
He fulfilled His promise to David when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb. He sent Jesus to reign on David’s throne forever. Jesus didn’t come as an earthly lord and king but as King and Lord over sin, death, and the devil for us. He came and atoned for David’s sin by His suffering and dying. He won God’s steadfast, sure, and unchanging love for David because He atoned for David’s sin. And what Jesus did for David He did for you. He atoned for your self-seeking and your love of yourself more than God. As a result God’s unchanging, unwavering, certain love is for you as it was for David.
This is the thought of God’s heart that He makes known to us in the Scriptures and the preaching of the Word. By revealing this thought of His heart to us He enables us to forsake our own thoughts and return to Him. Through communicating His thoughts to us He “renews our minds” (Romans 12:2) so that we forsake our self-seeking, sinful thoughts and “return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on us, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. Our thoughts are self-seeking by nature and our ways are crooked as we go through the world trying to make things go the way we want. God’s ways are holy and pure, with no unrighteousness in them. His thoughts are not lies and self-seeking but truth and righteousness. And yet God plans not for our just punishment, but for our pardon. He bears the penalty for our self-seeking Himself, atoning for our sins through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death.
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” This is why the first two things in our fall series after Christ are the Divine Service and Scripture. In the Divine Service we receive God’s Word. He puts His thoughts into our ears. He provides the bread and wine that satisfy us and make our souls live—the body and blood of Jesus. Receiving His Word and Sacrament in faith, we forsake our own thoughts and return to the Lord, who pardons us and delights us with rich food. In reading the Scripture with our families and in private we practice “listening diligently” to God that we may eat what satisfies.
Our hearts are by nature self-seeking and wicked, but we receive the Lord’s thoughts, the mind of Christ, in the Divine Service and in study of the Scriptures. There He reveals His thoughts toward us—to give us steadfast, sure love through His Son’s suffering in our place. If only we listened diligently to the Lord! If only the majority of the members of St. Peter came to the Divine Service not once every couple of months or every other week, but every time the Lord gathers us! If only those who were here every week also diligently listened to the Lord when the Scriptures are opened in Bible Class! If only those who came to Bible Class were opening the Scriptures every day in their homes, with their families and alone! Why do I wish that? So we can be extra-holy, self-righteous people? No, but because in the Word which is given in the Divine Service and in the Scriptures the Lord promises to satisfy our souls and renew our minds. He promises to renew our minds there, and where individually our minds are renewed, the Church is renewed. Then we would not only find satisfaction for ourselves, but others would come to us to receive the Lord’s thoughts.
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters,
And he who has no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.”
Let everyone who is hungry and thirsty at St. Peter come to the Divine Service, open the Scriptures together and at home, and diligently listen to God in His Word. He will not fail to satisfy your hunger and thirst.
Soli Deo Gloria
13th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 10:22-37; Galatians 3:15-22
September 14, 2014
“Writing the Promise in our Hearts: Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer”
You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, not written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. 2 Cor. 3:3
Jesus is writing a letter on our hearts.
What is the letter about? It’s a promise.
A promise of salvation.
Of salvation from sin and its dreadful curse—death and hell.
How the world needs to read this letter that Jesus writes on our hearts!
Because the world only knows one way out of the curse of sin. That is to pursue it by works, by law.
But there is no loophole in the law of God wide enough for us to squeeze through. Not even an expert in the law can find a way. The judge can’t be fooled.
The lawyer asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, “You know the answer to that question. What does the law say?”
Well, it says You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Right, says Jesus. Do that, and you will live.
Well, now, but who is my neighbor? Do I have to love just my close relatives as myself? Or all of my countrymen?
No, not just your relatives, says Jesus. Not just your friends. Not just your countrymen. But love sees an enemy in misery, suffering and doesn’t stop to ask, “Do I need to help him?” Love just loves. It takes the enemy, shreds its clothes to bandage him, pours its own medicine and balm on his wounds, puts him on its own animal, spends its own money to nurse him back to health. Love is love. It’s not bookkeeping. It’s generous, spendthrift, because it’s rich. Love never fails.
Love like that and you will live.
Isn’t it pretty that Jesus says to love like that?
Not if you’re going to be judged by that law. The lawyer finds no loopholes with Jesus. The door to eternal life through the law has just been shut in our faces.
Because we don’t love like that. We’re out in the cold, or out in the fire and darkness. How often do you really take on the pain and grief of other people as your own? Maybe your children, your siblings, your parents. But as the circle widens the warmth of our love begins to cool. It’s tiring to pour yourself into the bottomless pit of people’s need and misery. We run out of love and life long before people run out of needs. And when it comes to our adversaries, the thought of stoking the fire of love to warm those who take our compassion as weakness and folly—our hearts freeze up completely.
But without that kind of love we are under the curse of God’s law. Death and hell are our lot. Because that, after all, is the way God loves us. Unceasingly, overwhelmingly, gratuitously, not taking account of the cost or our worthiness but only our great need. And then we turn around and withhold love. His great love pours through us like a sieve. It’s wasted on us. We neither love Him nor our poor neighbor in return.
That is the problem for us with God’s law. It’s not that God’s law isn’t beautiful and good. It commands what is beautiful and good—heartfelt, generous love and kindness toward our neighbor. But we don’t have this love in us, and the Law of God does not have the power to create it in us. Paul says in the Epistle reading, If a law had been given that could give life, righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin. The law is not able to give us life so that we love like it commands. It shows us what is beautiful and good, but we are not able to do it.
That’s why Jesus writes His letter in our hearts. It is a letter containing the promise of salvation. It is not a law that commands works of love but a pure promise of salvation. Paul says that God did not give Abraham the promise that He would inherit eternal life by a law but by a promise. He did not tell Abraham what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He freely and unconditionally promised eternal l life to Abraham.
Salvation from sin and everlasting death comes to us in the same way. God does not give it to us by a law, but by a promise. He freely and unconditionally promises eternal life to sinners for the sake of Jesus’ death and merit.
Jesus is the good Samaritan to us. He finds us dead in trespasses and sins. We do not have love. We are dead. Not just half-dead; completely dead. So the Son of God becomes man and lives in love, fulfilling God’s law, meriting eternal life. Then He lays down His meritorious life and its reward so that it will be ours. Like the good Samaritan made bandages out of his own clothes to wrap the wounds of the man who fell among robbers, Jesus gives up His righteousness to clothe us and dies a sinner. He covers us with His wholeness and His perfect love and gives Himself up to taste the wrath of God which belongs to us.
And He promises us eternal life on the basis of what He has done. It is an unconditional promise of eternal life, just as the Samaritan unconditionally nursed the man who was beaten half to death to life.
This is the promise that God writes about in the letter He writes on our hearts. It is not a tale about our love, how we have sacrificed ourselves for God or other people and made ourselves worthy of heaven. What God writes on our hearts is the promise of salvation through His Son, who unconditionally died for our sins on the cross.
How does God write this promise on our hearts? In the Divine Service and through Holy Scripture.
We need Him to write this promise on our hearts. Otherwise we remain like the lawyer, searching around desperately for a way to be justified by the law. But when we are under the law, we do not find life; only death. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” When we are under the law, we are under a covenant that produces death. It commands us to love freely and spontaneously and generously without asking who we should love or how much. And we can’t do it. We remain locked up and condemned by the law’s curse.
And that is the only way we know apart from God writing the free promise of salvation through His Son on our hearts.
But when God proclaims His promise of the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake, He is writing this promise in our hearts and making them a joyful letter that contains the promise of salvation. That’s why if you want to grow as a Christian and if the Church is going to grow spiritually it only happens through the Divine Service and the Scripture.
In the Divine Service God proclaims through the preacher that Jesus’ holy life of love is for you . He writes that promise on your heart by His Spirit. He does it by proclaiming Christ’s righteousness and death for you in the sermon. He does it by loosing you of your sins in the absolution.
Then He proclaims that Christ’s death is for you at the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” You come and eat and drink the very body and blood that Jesus gave and shed on Calvary to free and cleanse you of sin and its curse.
These are the ways the Spirit writes the promise of salvation on your hearts. You become a living letter testifying to the promise of God that He has freely pardoned the world of its sins in the death of His Son.
As you read the Scripture during the week, the Holy Spirit continues this work of writing on you. His writing is living writing—the very life-giving breath of God. It not only inscribes the letters of the promise on your heart, but it is living writing that frees you from the old writing of the law and its bondage to death. You begin to spontaneously love your neighbor as the law commands, like the good Samaritan.
Then after God writes on us in the Divine Service and through the Scripture, we pray. We ask God to keep writing. We take His promise which He has put in our hearts and we use it to call upon God to fulfill His promise, to keep writing on us so that the living letters in which He writes on us will become more clear and distinct to the world.
Often Christians try to get by with a minimum of Divine Service, Scripture, and prayer. They don’t realize that the promise of God in Christ, which He writes on our hearts, is our life. We have no life at all apart from that promise that our sins are forgiven because of the blood of Jesus. In that promise stands all our life. Without it we are dead, condemned by the law.
If we lack anything—good works, faith, assurance of salvation, confidence in the face of death, joy, peace, self-control—these things only come to us in the Scriptures and the Divine Service. And where the promise of God in Christ is received, prayer rushes forth and cries out that the Lord would continue to write His promise on our hearts and bring it to its fulfillment in eternal life.
Yes, the unconditional promise of salvation in Christ is our only life. In the Divine Service and Scripture God is writing this promise on our hearts for us and for the world. Nowhere else do we get life, forgiveness of sins, salvation. In no other way than through the Divine Service, Scripture, and prayer, do our lives become living letters in which people can read the promise of salvation in Christ.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 7:15-23
July 29, 2012
“Recognizing the Wolves and Your David”
Beloved flock of Jesus:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ve never seen a wolf catch a sheep. I’ve never seen a sheep slaughtered either. But I killed a bluegill a couple of weeks ago. And even though it was tasty, I felt a little sorry for it. See, that fish really wanted to live. It put all its strength into trying to flop out of my hand and get back into the water, even though it couldn’t breathe. But it was at my mercy. And I didn’t give it mercy. I cut it apart and cooked and ate it.
Well, that’s the way the world is, and meat is tasty. No sense feeling bad about it, especially when God gave human beings permission to kill and eat animals after the flood, in Gen. 9.
But it is useful today for us to try to imagine what it would be like to be the fish dragged out of the water by a hook in its mouth, or to be a lamb in the jaws of a wolf, or in the hands of a slaughterer.
Because Jesus tells you today: You are the sheep. You are the prey. The wolves that come to devour you won’t stop to think about your pain because they are starving.
If you are really a sheep, that’s bad news. It’s not like you can fight the wolves. You can’t outrun them. You definitely can’t outsmart them. You’re like the fish hanging on the end of my fishing line. All your flopping around will accomplish nothing.
There’s only one hope for sheep who are marked out for slaughter by wolves. Their only hope is that they have a shepherd who will protect them, who says to the wolf—“These sheep are mine, so you won’t be eating them.”
If they have that kind of a shepherd, then the sheep can run to his voice. Then they will be safe.
Thanks be to God! You do have that kind of a shepherd in Your Lord Jesus Christ!
In the Bible, when David was about to plant a rock from a sling into the skull of the giant Goliath, he tells a story about his days as a shepherd. When he is asked how he thinks he will defeat this warrior when he is just a kid, David says, “When I was alone in the hills with my father’s sheep, I fought a bear and a lion and killed them. And this godless Philistine isn’t tougher than them.”
Where did David get the boldness to fight a giant, a bear, a lion? He believed that almighty God would fight for him. But what is more amazing is that he would be willing to take that risk for sheep. That was David’s preparation for becoming the King of Israel. For Him to shepherd God’s people would be just like that—risking his life to save a flock of sheep that didn’t know its right hand from its left.
You have a greater and more perfect David. Your shepherd is the Son of David, the King of the Jews, Jesus Christ. He fights heroic battles, trusting in the Lord, risking His life to save—His father’s sheep.
It’s Jesus, the shepherd, who warns His sheep today: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
Jesus’ warnings to the sheep are not just talk. This is the voice of Your God, but also of the David who loves you and defends you. He says: Beware!
He doesn’t say, “There are fierce wolves coming, but forget about it. Take a nap. I’ll handle everything.” He says “Beware!”
These wolves don’t come looking like wolves. If they did, you’d run!
Instead they come looking like sheep, that is to say, like Christians…They come saying, “Lord, Lord!” Doing miracles, maybe! Casting out demons, maybe! Doing great works in Christ’s name.
They don’t come looking like Satanists, but like Christian teachers or pastors. They come with smooth words to Christians who have been carrying the cross and they preach a Christianity that looks like it will be easier than the way of Jesus. And they say, “See, this is actually what the Lord taught. What you believed before is not God’s Word. Or at least it isn’t the whole truth. You were missing something.”
Now how can you defend yourself against wolves that dress themselves like sheep—against false prophets who dress themselves up in the Name of Jesus and claim His Word? How can you recognize them and flee?
Here is the answer: Jesus’ Word unmasks the false prophets and calls You to Jesus and to safety.
[1. Does Jesus really want false prophets exposed and recognized?
2. How false prophets are recognized.
3. Jesus’ word calls you to Himself, His true flock, and to safety.]
- 1. Does Jesus really want false prophets exposed and recognized?
Yes. He says so clearly in this verse.
He does not want us to befriend false teachers and false teaching, much less support them.
False teaching comes from the devil. False teachers do the work of the devil.
The devil destroys with false teaching. He tempts us away from Christ to put our trust in something else.
Romans 16:17 : Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve.
By “the doctrine you have been taught” Paul means the pure doctrine that was taught by the apostles, not that you should necessarily stay with the religion you grew up with.
False teachers are not those who make small mistakes, but they profane the name of God. So to support or give aid or play down the differences between true doctrine and false is to participate in profaning God’s name.
Catechism: 2nd commandment, 1st petition of the Lord’s Prayer.
You tell me: is it a minor matter to preach and teach something different from God’s Word, as long as the teaching is a minor thing?
Is there anything that God says that is “minor”? “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same…” Matt 5…not one jot or tittle can pass from the law until all is fulfilled.
Christians—pastors and the royal priesthood—are to test teachers and teachings and avoid false teachers.
Refusing to do this profanes Christ’s name and endangers the church.
When congregations refuse to distinguish between true and false doctrine, true and false teachers, true and false fellowships, they do not confess Jesus.
When pastors fail to preach against false doctrine and even name false teachers, they dishonor Jesus, profane His name, and do not guard the sheep
I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. Acts 20.27-28
We profane God’s name whenever we are embarrassed of His Word, or refuse to distinguish between His word and the devil’s word, when we do not confess Him before the world.
- 2. How to recognize false prophets.
The false prophets who would destroy your soul are known by their fruits.
But Jesus doesn’t say—does the fruit look good? He says: Look at the tree!
Good trees bear good fruit, bad trees bad. Bad trees don’t ever bear good fruit, and good trees don’t ever bear bad.
What is a good tree?
Teachers are likened to trees.
With fruit trees, we have some experience, so we know—apple trees have good fruit. Crabapple trees—not good fruit.
With teaching, it’s not exactly like that. It can’t be discerned with the senses or the emotions or the brain.
Example of Eve—the fruit looked good, desirable for wisdom.
That is what Satan does—turns eyes from the Word to our own experience, feeling, thought.
We must shut our eyes and listen to the Word only.
You will know a tree by its fruit because every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire.
Yet we don’t see false teachers thrown into the fire.
Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in Him is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of his one and only Son. (John 3)
Whoever, whatever, does not confess Jesus only is condemned already. You judge a bad tree in this way: this teacher does not hold to Christ alone. He does not give praise to Jesus alone.
When John said “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” who can keep that word? When you look at the list of the fruits of the Spirit, don’t you come up not doing too well?
Good trees are defined by the word of the Lord.
The word of justification. You are just, not because you have kept the law, but because Christ has fulfilled the law for you; God credits this faith as righteousness.
In baptism. You are washed and clothed with the righteousness of Jesus and named with the name of God. The washing with water by the word was God’s promise that Christ’s death for sinners cleanses you.
God’s word prescribes the works.
False teachers create all kinds of works apart from the ten commandments to do. They may say, “Faith in Jesus alone,” but really they mean something else.
The good work of having the experience of choosing Jesus—if you can’t say you’ve had that experience, then you’re not saved.
But usually they don’t say “Faith in Jesus alone.” They say, “Changed life.”
They reject Christ’s works—Baptism, the Word—in favor of their own.
The spirit of Antichrist. Jesus warns of the wolves because the spirit of antichrist is at work in the church…the devil sends false preachers in order to turn the church into the mockery of the bride of Jesus. Any teacher who denies the Gospel is influenced by the Spirit of Antichrist. The Spirit of Antichrist finds its full embodiment in the papacy, which claims to be the authority over the whole church by God’s command, and thus “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming that he is God.”
Does not confess Jesus.
Joel Osteen. (Is Osteen’s preaching really about Jesus’ death on the cross for your sins? Is that even in his sermons most times? Osteen’s doctrine is not about Christ. It is about you and changing your thinking. He does not confess Christ’s coming in the flesh—his gospel is about something other than Christ coming in the flesh.)
Papacy. (Christ alone is not your righteousness; you are righteous before God by faith and your regenerated heart and good works. And since Scripture is not clear, you must depend on the authority of the true church to defend you from wolves. Thus the pope becomes your god; Christ’s word is determined by the authority of the church and the pope, instead of Christ’s word judging the fidelity of congregations and pastors.
3.Jesus Your David, reveals Himself to you and calls you to safety in His Word.
Your David who fights against the wolf—he doesn’t choose the easy path. He goes the way the Father wants him to go regardless of the consequences.
You don’t get to go an easy path either. You go in this way—faith in Jesus, love to your neighbor where God has called you to serve.
It’s easier to escape into holy stuff that we make up.
To follow Jesus is to lose everything. You can’t escape that.
Not, “Lord, lord,” and then you create your own destiny. You receive it all. Your sins are forgiven, not because you feel it, but because of the Word, baptism.
You are a husband or wife, not because you feel like it, but because the Word says so.
It is pleasing to God because the word says so, because you are a good tree, not because you feel like it.
You are pleasing to God not because you’ve accomplished your dreams, but because God says you are pleasing to Him in Christ.
But you’re safe: see how Jesus has gone before you and finished it.
And if you’re afraid and faltering, don’t think that you will make it because you follow him anything like perfectly; you’re saved because of Him. You just do what he’s called you to do go where he’s called you to go; but when you fail you live by faith. And when you don’t want to do it, you live by faith.
This is where Jesus is; here in the word and sacraments,
In your bodies,
With you in your daily life.
The wolves lead you away from Jesus to your own works, to your damnation.
Jesus leads you to death and resurrection.
The peace of God, which passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
- Stupid Sheep (menofmud.org)
The distinction between law and gospel is a particularly glorious light. It serves to divide God’s Word properly [cf 2 Tim. 2:15] and to explain correctly and make understandable the writings of the holy prophets and apostles. Therefore we must diligently preserve this distinction, so as not to mix these two teachings together and make the gospel into a law. For this obscures the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of the comfort that they otherwise have in the holy gospel when it is preached clearly and purely. With the help of this distinction these consciences can sustain themselves in their greatest spiritual struggles against the terror of the law…
Therefore, the Holy Spirit must perform (as the prophet says [Isa. 28:21] …an alien work–which is to convict–until he comes to his proper work–which is to comfort and to proclaim grace.) For this reason Christ obtained the Spirit for us and sent him to us. That is why he is called the Comforter [John 14:26; 16:7], as Dr. Luther explained…
“Everything that proclaims something about our sin and God’s wrath is the proclamation of the law, however and whenever it may take place. On the other hand, the gospel is the kind of proclamation that points to and bestows nothing else than grace and forgiveness in Christ, even though it is true and correct that the apostles and those who proclaim the Gospel confirm the proclamation fo the law (as Christ himself also did.) They begin by proclaiming the law to those who still do not recognize their sins and feel no terror in the face of God’s wrath, as he says in John 16, ‘the Holy Spirit will reprove the world because of its sin, because it has not believed in me.’ Indeed, what could be a more sobering and terrifying demonstration and proclamation of the wrath of God against sin than the suffering and death of Christ, his Son? But as long as these things all proclaim God’s wrath and terrify…it is still not the proclamation of the gospel or of Christ, in the strict sense. It is instead the proclamation of Moses and the law to the unrepentant. For the gospel and Christ are established and given not to terrify or to condemn, but rather to comfort and console those who have felt its [the law’s] terror and are fainthearted…”
Human beings have not kept the law of God but have transgressed it. Their corrupted human nature, thoughts, words, and deeds battle agains the law. For this reason they are subject to God’s wrath, to death, and all temporal afflictions, and to the punishment of the fires of hell. As a result, the gospel in its strict sense teaches what people should believe, namely, that they receive from God the forgiveness of sins; that is, that the Son of God, our Lord Christ, has taken upon himself the curse of the law and borne it, atoned and paid for all our sins; that through him alone we are restored to God’s grace, obtain the forgiveness of sins through faith, and are delivered from death and all the punishment of our sins and are saved eternally.
For everything that provides comfort–everything that offers the favor and grace of God to those who have transgressed the law–is and is called the gospel in the strict sense. It is good news, joyous news, that God does not want to punish sin but forgive it for Christ’s sake.
Accordingly, all repentant sinners should believe in, that is, place their trust alone in, the Lord Christ, who “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25]…He was made our righteousness [1 Cor. 1:30], and his obedience was reckoned to us as righteousness before God, according to his strict judgment. To summarize, the law, as explained above, is a ‘ministry that kills by the letter’ and that ‘proclaims condemnation’ [2 Corinthians 3: 6, 9, according to the translation of Luther’s German Bible]; the gospel, on the other hand, is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ [Rom. 1:16], a ministry of righteousness [2 Cor. 3:9] and of the Holy Spirit [2 Cor. 3:8]. For this reason Dr. Luther emphasized this distinction with particular diligence in nearly all his writings and specifically emphasized that there is a vast difference between the knowledge of God that comes from the gospel and that which is taught and learned through the law. For pagans had something of a knowledge of God from the law of nature, but at the same time they did not truly know him nor did they truly honor him (Rom. 1)…
We believe and confess both these teachings. Until the end of the world they must continually be taught int he church of God with all diligence and with the proper distinction, so that in the ministry of the New Testament that proclamation fo the law and its threats may terrify the hearts of unrepentant people and bring them to a knowledge of their sins and to repentance–but not in such a way that they give up hope and despair. Instead, ‘the law is a disciplinarian, toward Christ, so that we might be justified through faith’ (Gal. 3) and therefore the law does nto point and lead us ‘away from Christ’ but ‘toward Christ,’ who is the ‘end of the law’ (Rom. 10). Therefore the law is proclaimed so that people may be comforted and strengthened through the proclamation of the holy gospel of our Lord Christ. This gospel proclaims that through Christ God forgives all the sins of those who believe the gospel, accepts them for Christ’s sake as his children out of sheer grace, and makes them righteous and saves them…
Accordingly, the two teachings of law and gospel dare not be mingled with the other and mixed together, and the characteristics of one dare not be ascribed to the to the other. When that happens, the merit and benefits of Christ are easily obscured, and the gospel is turned back into a teaching of law, as took place under the papacy. This robs Christians of true, proper comfort against the terror of the law that they have int he gospel and reopens the door in the church of God to the papacy. Therefore the true and proper distinction between law and gospel must be advocated and maintained most diligently, and anything that might give rise toconfusio inter legem et evangelium(that is, through which the two teachings, law and gospel, would be confused and mixed together in one teaching) must be diligently prevented.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration V: 1, 11-12, 20-22, 24-25, 27
- When the BOOM and FLASH of your testimony is remembered more than the gospel. (atwistedcrownofthorns.com)
- Chapter 1 Part One: The Law-Gospel Distinction (greenbaggins.wordpress.com)
- What is the Mission of the Church? Straightforward, God-dependent Proclamation (crt010304.wordpress.com)
- Walking After The Flesh (answersfromthebook.org)
- Can We Stop the Sin Cycle? (helpmeunderstandall.wordpress.com)
- Law and Grace (ptl2010.com)
- What the Law Could Never Do… And Still Cannot Do (Michael Horton) (kirkmillerblog.wordpress.com)
- Holy Absolutions (donegality.com)
- Pray for your pastors (christianpf.com)
- “Perception Is Reality” NOT! (pastorron7.wordpress.com)
- Ten Arguments Against Duty Faith (5ptsalt.com)
- Creation and the Nature of Man (signposts02.wordpress.com)
- How not to rush your children to recite the “sinner’s prayer”. (atwistedcrownofthorns.com)
- Don’t play cute with sin (johnmeunier.wordpress.com)
- Easter 4 – “Prophet, Priest and King” (John 10:11-18) (revtucher.com)
- Who will roll away the stone… (thehandmaid.wordpress.com)
- The Cultural Vocation of the Church (palamas.info)
I’m probably really never going to get back to writing about this conference until after Christmas, when no one will care.
Anyway, this weekend Prof. John Pless graced us by preaching for Populus Zion and showing a full bible class a little of his work in Africa. (I was proud to have bible class so full. I have to say thank you to St. Peter and to God that attendance at Bible Class has increased so much over the past couple of years.)
John told me he thought Steven Paulson’s paper in response to Dr. Brug was a highlight of the conference. Looking at it, I can see why he felt that way. I only caught the tail end of it because I showed up late that morning. But here are a couple of quotes from it, which are useful just for preaching and pastoral work, never mind his diagnosis of the ELCA.
” Luther clarifies this subtle, but crucial, point in the Antinomian Disputations against Agricola’s musing question: “I wonder whether the law is necessary for justification? “ Luther’s answer initially worries us: “the law is by no means necessary for justification.” (p. 75 1st Disputation, 14th Argument).
1. The law does not justify, but constitutes us as sinners. It does not vivify, but mortifies and kills. There is no teleology or common goal that law and gospel are moving toward together.
2. When Agricola heard Luther speak like this, he ended up defending the law’s place in God’s plan of justification—against Luther—saying that If you don’t humble people, then they can’t be justified! That’s Agricola!
3. Luther’s answer: “No, He who is made humble by the law is far from reaching grace; he rather goes farther away from it.” Preaching law is necessary, but it does not help, it does not point you in the right direction, or get you started or even guide you. To the contrary, The law causes you to run from God’s wrath—but in the wrong direction!
4. If there is not a preacher sent who runs to get such a person, the person is lost. But even when such a preacher arrives, the law did not contribute to his righteousness at all, but simply destroys.”
Those are just footnotes! The rest of the paper is here, and also Prof. Brug’s paper, which I am still reading:
I kind of wonder whether I haven’t been guilty of teaching, implicitly or explicitly, that the Law somehow helps save us, if nothing else by preparing us for the Gospel.
Interestingly, Luther has this to say in the Church Postil for this Sunday:
“22. Despair follows when man becomes conscious of his evil motives, and realizes that it is impossible for him to love the law of God, finding nothing good in himself; but only hatred of the good and delight in doing evil. Now he realizes that the law can not be kept only by works hence he despairs of his works and does not rely upon them. He should have love; but he finds none, nor can have any through his own efforts or out of his own heart. Now he must be a poor, miserable and humiliated spirit whose conscience is burdened and in anguish because of the law, commanding and demanding payment in full when he does not possess even a farthing with which to pay. Only to such persons is the law beneficial, because it has been given for the purpose of working such knowledge and humiliation; that is its real mission. These persons well know how to judge the works of hypocrites and fraudulent saints, namely, as nothing but lies and deception. David refered to this when he said, “I said in my haste, all men are liars,” Ps. 116, 11.
23. For this reason Paul calls the law a law unto death, saying, “And the commandment, which was unto life, this I found to be unto death,” Rom. 7, 10; and a power of sin. I Cor. 15. 56: “And the power of sin is the law,” and in 2 Cor. 3, 6 he says, “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” All this means, if the law and human nature be brought into a right relation, the one to the other, then will sin and a troubled conscience first become manifest. Man, then, sees how desperately wicked his heart is, how great his sins are, even as to things he formerly considered good works and no sin. He now is compelled to confess that by and of himself he is a child of perdition, a child of God’s wrath and of hell. Then there is only fear and trembling, all self-conceit vanishes, while fear and despair fill his heart. Thus man is crushed and put to naught, and truly humbled.
Inasmuch as all this is caused only by the law, St. Paul truly says, that it is a law unto death and a letter that killeth, and that through the commandment sin becomes exceedingly sinful, Rom. 7, 13, provoking God’s wrath. For the law gives and helps us in no way whatever; it only demands and drives and shows us our misery and depravity.”
Luther says both here: the law humbles us, but also does nothing whatsoever to help us. It “drives us”–in other words, it hounds us and impels us to further sin, because we flee from God and His judgment. Definitely I think it’s easy to give people the impression that the Law helps save us, or to forget that when you are preaching the law you are taking a sword in your hand against the old Adam who hates God. So if you aim to just stab people a little bit in a fleshy area instead of cutting their throat or stabbing them in the heart, you’re going to be in deep doo doo.
A little more from the body of Paulson’s paper:
“7. The problem is deeper than inerrancy. The chief article is confused here since we are justified by faith, not by love.
a. Once love becomes the chief article, the gospel is confused for a law. For love is the fulfillment of the law.
b. In order to disentangle this Gordian knot, we need the proper distinction between the two words of God, law and gospel. Walther is of much more use to us here, even than Calov, or Pieper. That is why Luther said, “When I discovered the distinction between law and gospel, I broke through.” This is the nuclear core of the evangelical teaching, and what various Lutheran institutions routinely get wrong.
8. So let me conclude with two observations:
a. We object to the Calvinist notion that if “Christ is the Word” then there really is only One Word of God, whose necessary form is the law, but whose content is grace; Instead, we say: there are two words of God, not one—This is why, as Dr. Brug noted, Luther is careful to deal with John’s very special language: in the beginning was the Word….”
i. Further, the relation of Christ to the two words of proclamation are decisive—Christ is the end of the law (and nothing else is), and he is the mercy seat, by whose blood, at great cost, we have been redeemed.
ii. Law and gospel do not work together toward a common end—the law is not pointing out the problem, and the gospel giving the solution. Fanaticism wants to align law and gospel as two steps in a process, or as two mules pulling in the same direction.
iii. But the two words don’t work together—they oppose one another, and yet they are necessarily both divine—from the one and only true God.
iv. We must let the letter of Scripture kill. Then the Spirit will give life—but not as an addition to Scripture or an adjustment of the law from wrath to love.
v. But of course this then means we must teach the proper distinction for all theology: that distinction between unpreached God and a preached God. [And you know that means also teaching correctly about election or predestination].
b.i. The devil always wants you to think that the law, in some new form, will free you.
ii. The only answer to this bewitchment is to divide the words rightly, and so adhere to the chief article, justification by faith alone—apart from works of the law, specifically of love.
9. Lutherans everywhere are confused about unconditional love , and so they have made of themselves churches of the law either in its conservative or progressive forms as if that were the fulfillment of Christ’s mercy and grace. So our first assignment is to so “no” to love, and give faith alone its proper place. But this is deeply offensive to piety and the Zeitgeist. As offensive as it was in Luther’s Day when love was dethroned as the highest Christian “virtue.” ”
I feel strangely warmed by Dr. Paulson’s high regard for the proper distinction between law and gospel. It was a sad thing for me when I went to Fort Wayne to hear so many people speak snidely about Walther and his famous book. For me, Law and Gospel was also what caused me to begin to understand the Gospel and have a conscience that was not terrified. It was why I became a Lutheran and ultimately a pastor. I agree with Paulson completely that the proper distinction is vital. The point that Walther makes–that the distinction must be learned by experience from the Holy Spirit–is itself the corrective to the common criticism of Lutheran orthodoxy–that it becomes a matter of memorizing the right doctrinal formulae. That can only happen when the proper distinction becomes theoretical instead of practical: when Lutherans say: “we’re all sinners and can’t keep the law, Jesus died to take away sins,” but meanwhile never go to church and hear the word or do go but never believe that their sins are surely forgiven. It’s easy to talk about the proper distinction and to talk about Walther and love the book and still completely fail to make the proper distinction. Anyway, yes to Dr. Paulson on this.
With regard to Calvinist/Barthian understanding of the Word, Dr. Paulson makes a good point and causes me to think about some ways in which I may have not have properly handled the Word:
God does not have one Word which is always law in form but grace in content. Rather, he speaks two words, law and gospel. If I am understanding Paulson correctly, when we say that Christ is the Word/Logos, we have to be careful that we don’t imply that Christ is both law and Gospel…Christ is the fulfillment of the law or the end of the law. The law also works at cross purposes with the Gospel. The two do not work hand in hand, both working together for the salvation of sinners. Instead the law works wrath, condemnation, and increases sin.
It is easy enough to see that the Zeitgeist in general, and the ELCA and other liberal protestant churches in particular, confuse “unconditional love” with the Gospel. In other words, what people expect to hear (in my experience also in Missouri Synod churches) is non-killing law. Forgiveness of sins, no. Telling me that I have not really sinned enough to be condemned–yes. As Paulson says, this makes the gospel into law. People like the law. I like the law. I just want a law that justifies me. People also like it when you condemn in strong terms someone else’s sin. Some people in the pews want you to say that the times have changed and now we should be gracious to those who cohabitate or engage in homosexuality. Others want you to lambast the sins that secular society has approved. Either way, we don’t want to be the damned sinners who need to be released from the law.
This reminds me of when I first got to my congregation–I had some people tell me a couple of years in that I preached too much law, but before that I had somebody say “You preach forgiveness of sins too much. I already know I’m forgiven! Quit preaching that every week!” Then I got mad about it. I didn’t realize that it was quite possibly true that hearing “Your sins are forgiven” made them realize that they were indeed truly captives of sin, since nothing except forgiveness was going to free them.
Finally, it seems to me that Paulson affirms inerrancy in this paper–maybe I missed something–but emphasizes something that I think is vitally important for Lutherans to get straight again. To stick with the words and letters the Holy Spirit has given is tied to rightly distinguishing law and gospel. Certain of my professors criticized the proper distinction because it has, in their opinion, been misused and become an exegetical straitjacket which prevents us from actually adhering to the words of Scripture. Maybe they’re right about its having been misused. But it seems to me that when some students at Fort Wayne run around mocking the proper distinction, it shows that they have not yet experienced that the law kills and damns. Anyone who has experienced terrors of conscience understands why the distinction is so important–unless the person has relapsed again into slavery and no longer has the Holy Spirit.
If Luther says we learn theology through oratio, meditatio, and tentatio, and that the person who can properly distinguish law and gospel gets an automatic doctorate in theology, then it follows that a Lutheran cannot discount the importance of what Walther lectured about.
When I think back, I had several friends at seminary who had a problem with the proper distinction. Some mocked it. Others privately asked me, “Where is the proof for this distinction in Scripture?” I tried to point to some proof texts that I knew from Walther, but obviously made no impression on them. So of these friends–some have gone East, some have embraced church growth methodology (and, while they still believe that the sacraments “do” something, their theology seems to revolve around sanctification and union with Christ); still others have gone to the Atlantic District. And in spite of myself, I think I’ve done more than my share of attempting to “reform” my congregation by means of law or legalism. So, Satan is sneaky, and he hates the proper distinction between law and gospel. Pless was right. This paper is good.
A pastor must not simply regard it as a good way to relax from his official duties when he can on occasion, in moments of leisure, engross himself in Scripture and theology. No, here he has God’s command. The apostle of Jesus Christ makes the demand of every Christian bishop that he occupy himself constantly with doctrine and Scripture . . . . This quiet, solitary work in his study does not have the same glamour as other portions of his pastoral activity, as when the pastor has direct contact with the congregation and it’s members, and is more tedious, demands more exertion and mental effort than any other official act. Therefore, a pastor is well nigh tempted to dispense with this duty and labor much more easily and much more quickly than with other official duties. But there he had better consider that the apostle, where he begins to set forth the real work of a bishop, mentions continuing pursuit of doctrine, of Scripture, as the main duty of a bishop and as a necessary basis and requisite for all wholesome speaking, teaching, exhorting, and rebuking.
George Stoeckhardt, quoted in “Karl Georg Stoeckhardt: His life and labor to preserve Walther’s legacy” by Dan Woodring