Reflections on Faith

A New Year

Scripture says, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 21:5 – ESV). Wouldn’t that be nice? We read passages like this, particularly when our old, sinful world seems to be a bit depressive, if not oppressive, especially when facing tragedy or death. Would it not be grand if everything were new, fresh, and pristine? Think of a world without distress, disease, hunger, pollution or the like. Imagine what kind of a song John Lennon might compose on that notion. Why do people of all times, nations, and religions seem to share this same dream of all things being new?

Plainly, we all learn very early in life that there is something wrong not just with our planet but particularly with us human beings. On the lighter side of things, children or siblings are heard very often to complain, “It’s not fair!” to which the reply is often, “Life’s not fair.” So, why is life not fair? On the more heinous side, some children are abused and killed before they have the words to utter, “It’s not fair,” because someone no longer wanted to hear them cry. “Luckily” for many or most of us, we are oblivious to the suffering that so many in our world endure until they cannot endure any longer. In relation to the massive plight of so many at any given time in human history, complaining that “it’s not fair” seems trite, if not self-absorbed at best.

In light of, or in the shadow of, our sinful human reality, the juxtaposition of “I am making all things new” and “these words are trustworthy and true” seems to underscore our human experience that nothing is new or true and thus that neither statement is much more than “pie in the sky.” Such is the criticism of those who discount the Bible and the Christian faith. This disregard, if not disdain, seems to arise from the discrepancy between these words and our reality. Such critics, however, fail to understand our human reality. Although they seem to recognize the symptoms of humanity’s plight, they fail to grasp that humanity’s primary predicament is not merely symptom but sin, something over which critics of the faith have no power either to address or remedy. It would be interesting to research whether and why critics of scripture and the Christian faith make “New Year’s resolutions,” and if so, whether they are any better than the rest of the world at keeping them? Even if they are better, are they able to keep all of them all the time? Even the idealists fall into the reality and hypocrisy of human sin, whether or not they can or will acknowledge it.

As most of humanity cannot grasp the reality of human sin, they are not only unable to address it but even more unable to grasp or believe that God has done exactly that. Viewed more broadly, the modern day rejection of Christians and their faith is nothing more that the continuing rejection of Jesus Christ. By disregarding and disdaining the Son of God, sinful human beings triumphantly declared that they had solved a problem, but in reality they only demonstrated again that they had failed to understand the problem or even its symptoms. More poignantly, they failed to understand that the crucifixion of Jesus is God’s solution to human sin. How so?

As indicated above, when human beings think of making “all things new,” we imagine everything to be new, fresh, and pristine. For that to happen, though, everything existing would been to be destroyed in order to give way to the new. Instead of destroying all, or nearly all like in the flood in Noah’s time, God instead sent his Son, the word made flesh, into our human sinful existence to call us out of the darkness and destructiveness of sin and death. Taking on human flesh, God let darkness and death overshadow the light of his word in Jesus on the cross. Three days later, God called for the darkness of sin and death to be obliterated by the light of the word of Jesus’ resurrection. The juxtaposition of the cross and the resurrection comprise and compose the words which are trustworthy and true. The proclamation of these words makes everything new because it creates in sinners dead to God a living faith in the living God. That is not something which the human mind can grasp. Instead, with these words God grasps the human heart and holds it fast in his love and forgiveness forever. The faith created by this word in us sinners is not merely to mimic a resolution for a new year, but rather this faith is a whole and holy new way of being every minute of every day until time passes away.

For the Love of … !

In the church, one hears a lot about the topic of love, and with good reason. In the Old Testament, one reads, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy, 6:4-5). This verse is repeated with slight variations by Matthew (22:37), Mark (12:30), and Luke (10:27). In John’s gospel, Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment” that they love one another not just as they love themselves but as Jesus loved them (13:34). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul famously says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”( I Corinthians 13:13). In that light, it would seem that love is the be all and end all, or is it?

In his lectures on Galatians in 1535, Martin Luther rather surprisingly writes,

“Thus there are many others today who want to be counted as evangelical [i.e. Protestant] theologians and who, so far as their words are concerned, do teach that men are delivered from their sins by the death of Christ. Meanwhile, however, they insult Christ most grievously by distorting and overthrowing His Word in a villainous and wicked manner. In addition, they teach faith in a way that attributes more to love than to faith; for they imagine that God regards and accepts us on account of the love with which we love God and our neighbor after we have already been reconciled. If this is true, then we have no need whatever of Christ. In this way they serve, not the true God but an idol of their own heart—an idol which they have made up for themselves. For the true God does not regard or accept us on account of our love, virtue, or newness of life (Rom. 6:4); He does so on account of Christ. But they raise the objection: “Yet He commands that we love Him with all our heart.” All right, but it does not follow: “God has commanded; therefore we do so.” If we loved God with all our heart, etc., then, of course, we would be justified and would live on account of that obedience, according to the statement (Lev. 18:5): “By doing this a man shall live.” But the Gospel says: “You are not doing this; therefore you shall not live on account of it.” For the statement, “You shall love the Lord,” requires perfect obedience, perfect fear, trust, and love toward God. In the corruption of their nature men neither do nor can produce this. Therefore the Law, “You shall love the Lord,” does not justify but accuses and damns all men, in accordance with the statement (Rom. 4:15): “The Law brings wrath.” But “Christ is the end of the Law, that everyone who has faith may be justified” (Rom. 10:4)” (LW 26:398).

You may need to read that through a second time. After being reconciled to God it is “villainous and wicked” to teach that our love for God makes us acceptable to God. In fact, to teach and to do so serves “not the true God but an idol of [one’s] own heart,” an idol made up by oneself for oneself. But, but, but … On second thought, who does Luther think that he is to contradict the Bible?

All appearances aside, Luther does not contradict Scripture. He merely does what few before and few after him seem insightful enough to do on a regular basis. He views Scripture as the word of God given in both law and gospel. The law tells sinful human beings what they must do to avoid sin and tells that they have sinned after the fact. In the end, the law convicts and condemns guilty sinners before God, declaring them unredeemably unrighteous. As Romans, 3:23 says, “… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, …” The gospel, however, promises the forgiveness of sins by faith alone in the crucified and resurrected Christ, the son of God. The proclamation of that promise creates faith in the hearers. That faith is the restoration of the broken relationship with God, which brings this discussion to the nature of relationships.

Love, as either an emotion or an action, is not the basis for or foundation of a relationship. It may be the driving force and manifest expression thereof, but love is only the materials and energy, so to speak, to build the bridge. The bridge itself is trust or faith. It is possible to love someone deeply, but not trust him or her. Without trust, a relationship is at best impaired. The bridge is weak and wobbly, unable to hold or support those wishing to traverse it. Although it is true that “God is love” (I John 4:8), when Adam and Eve stopped trusting God and his word as much as they trusted the serpent, their relationship with God was not only impaired. It was broken. Theologians call this condition “Sin” followed by ungodly deeds called “sins.”

In contrast to Luther’s day, it is increasingly the case today that “evangelical [i.e. Protestant] theologians” cite “love” as the reason to excuse or to justify or even to celebrate just about any or every human sin imaginable, despite being contrary to God’s will as clearly given in the Bible. If “love” is the reason, some argue, then whatever sinners do must be not only acceptable but right, right? What, however, do sinners love to do more than sin? In the end, the vague, carnal notion of “love” propounded by sinners is just another idol of the human heart, better known as lust in all its expressions.

So, commanding sinners in a broken relationship with God to love God with their whole being, or commanding them to love one another as Jesus loved them simply does not make it happen. It expresses wishful thinking and wastes breath. In reality, such commands only show how much we sinners love neither God nor one another either as we love ourselves or as Jesus loves us.

“When God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, …” (John 3:16), he entrusted the love of his life (and the life of his love) into the hands of sinners unable and unwilling to love him in return. It was, thus, a gift of love unto certain death. At his incarnation, Jesus stepped into the breach, and that he was broken on the cross, to be laid in a tomb forever.

Nonetheless, God the Father’s faithfulness to God the Son remained whole and thus holy. By entering into the depths of death in humanity’s broken relationship with God, Jesus filled the void with an eternal life-giving power and promise able to create anew the light of life in the darkness of sinful human hearts. The word of this promise creates the faith needed to heal humanity’s broken relationship with God. Believing (trusting) that we sinners are accepted and forgiven by God for Christ’s sake becomes our new relationship with God because God so loved the world, and “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Does the Devil Have a Theology?

Does the devil have a theology? Why would anyone pose such a question? The devil is supposed to be the antithesis of God. So, it would seem unlikely that the devil would have a “theology,” a word which stems from “theos” meaning god and “logos” (-ology) meaning word or study. Rephrasing the question in that light, does the devil have a word of or from God? It seems like an absurd idea, does it not?

As silly as the question might be, in Genesis the serpent “said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?’ 2 And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ 4 But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. 5 For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis. 3:1-5).

Similarly, Matthew depicts how the devil tempted Jesus in the desert using biblical passages:

“5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ [Psalm 91:11] and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” [Psalm 91:12] (Matthew 4:5-6).

These two examples indicate that the devil will use scripture to tempt both man and the son of man. It is a clever ploy. On the one hand, believers like to describe scripture as the word of God, with some saying that it is inerrant or infallible or both. So, if the devil quotes the Bible, is he using God’s word, and is what he says inerrant or infallible or both? Plainly, this is not the case. Misusing or misinterpreting God’s word is certainly demonic. So, what does it mean when human beings do the same? It means that sinful human beings misuse or abuse God’s word to suit their own sinful purposes, just like the devil. So, if theologian after theologian throughout history has mixed his or her own teachings with God’s word for their own sinful purposes, wittingly or not, should one not thus conclude not only that the devil is a theologian but the father of all theologians? If that is the case, would this not also mean that all theologians are of the devil?

Luther writes, “From these and many similar sayings it has been clearly and convincingly enough proven that God has strictly and sharply forbidden the doctrines and works of men in the church, as being contrary to faith and leading men away from the truth, that is, they are sheer lies and fraud before God. And where the devil has gotten involved—that one embellishes them with God’s name or the apostles’ names, and sells them under these names—then they are no longer simple lies and fraud, but also horrible blasphemy, idolatry, and abomination. For then the devil makes God a liar and deceiver, as though God had spoken such lies or done such works; and the people fall for it, believe it, and depend on it, as if God had said and done it, and thus they give their trust and honor, which is due to God alone, to lies and to the devil” (LW 41:302-303).

Nowadays, people are not so forthright, or perhaps so condemning as Luther. Today, we live in an “inclusive,” secular society and in an ecumenical age when we agree that our disagreements are declared to be no longer church-dividing disagreements. Ecumenists call this “differentiated consensus.” In plain English, that means talking out of both sides of one’s mouth hoping that no one will notice or take offense or, if they notice, will not call us duplicitous or liars or idolaters or blasphemers or demonic. Instead, such churches and their leaders arrogate to themselves the right to devise and to implement all manner of human doctrines and works in God’s name but without God and even contrary to God, just like the devil. When this happens in Protestant churches, it means that the Reformation has been thrown out with the baptismal water. For Luther, following scripture, one cannot serve two masters.

So, are you a theologian of God or a theologian of the devil? Do you read your Bible, or do you not? When you interpret the Bible, do you seek to know and communicate God’s word and God’s will or to effect your own in God’s name? How can you recognize the difference, or do you just happily mix a few words from scripture with your ideas and decree it all to be simply divine?

Unfortunately, we sinners mix and mash God’s word with our sinful words and ideas all the time. In the cauldron of our devoutly self-righteous religiosity, we brew and stew the best of intentions (WA 46:789.16–27 = LW 22:274), adding a little folk religion, a little superstition, a few Bible verses, and a whole heap of unbelief to conjure up a concoction of pious and prayerful platitudes which plainly perpetuate the seemingly all-pervasive power of paganism.

St. Luke’s Theological Academy (SLTA) was founded in part to address this very human, very mundane, very demonic tendency in all of us. A faithful, mission-minded church needs to be full of the faith in Christ which only comes from the word of God, purely taught and proclaimed in both law and gospel. As Luther says, “Whoever knows how to distinguish the gospel from the law may thank God and know that one is a theologian (WA 40, I:207.17–18 = LW 26:115).

By that criterion, the devil is no theologian, but what about you as a member of the priesthood of all believes? Contrary to much of church life, it is not enough for any of us to quote a few Bible verses to undergird our opinions and positions as divine decree. The devil does that, routinely! Instead, a faithful church needs to be strategically theological and theologically strategic. That means always led by the word of God in all things. That comes not only from knowing the word of God in the Bible but also knowing what that word means by differentiating the law properly from the gospel. Only then can a faithful church communicate God’s word theo-logically according to God’s will as revealed it in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If this concept seems new or foreign to you, it may be time to take a course or two at SLTA.

Independence and Freedom

Americans like to think of themselves as free. The first verse of the USA’s national anthem describes the “ star-spangled banner” waving “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The US Declaration of Independence states that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Likewise, the Declaration’s conclusion calls for the united Colonies to be “Free and Independent States.” For Americans, the words “independence” and “freedom” seem to go hand in hand. How could one exist without the other?

Whereas Americans pride themselves and their nation on freedoms, most people are aware that freedom is a relative matter. It is often stated that freedom comes with responsibility. Every group, community, and country has limitations on unbridled individual freedoms (complete anarchy) for the sake and safety of both individuals and the group. For example, one is generally not free to inflict harm on oneself or others, to steal, and so forth. With the gradual dissolution of Judeo-Christian norms in western society, however, balancing individual freedoms while dissolving established norms has increased conflict and courtroom battles.

As may are aware, the understanding of freedom in the USA and in western society generally has shifted. Secular society’s understanding of freedom seems to concentrate on giving human beings the “right” to be free from religion; in other words, to be as sinful as they desire by dissolving norms, laws, and even opinions which “get in the way” of such “freedom.” Viewed biblically, the marginalization of Judeo-Christian societal principles through the so-called separation of church and state has effected an unbridled collapsing of the spiritual into the realm of human flesh. It seems as if human sin now holds dominion even over the realm of God.

This so-called separation of church and state can be espoused because most people mistakenly believe that we human beings live on middle or neutral ground from which we are able to choose between good and evil. This mistaken notion is as old as the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve (Genesis chapters 2 and 3). Borrowing from pagan philosophy, the early church theologian, Origen, held that the human being is composed of three parts, namely the “flesh, soul, and spirit, with soul standing in the middle and being capable of turning either way, toward the flesh or toward the spirit” (LW 33:275). In secularized society today, the spiritual has been asphyxiated, and the soul has been trampled under foot. So, all that remains is the flesh and its claims to be right. If anyone should intervene or interfere, the flesh self-righteously seeks revenge and retribution, as a matter of “human rights,” of which the secular media and the courts of law are full.

In light of the Declaration of Independence, why does it seem that it is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for US Christians, to practice their constitutionally given religious liberty? Are not all human beings, whether religious or not, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” like liberty? What happens, however, when secular government has effectively replaced the Creator in granting such rights? That said, what kind of freedom and rights free from sin can sinful, human beings offer or guarantee to human society? Are such freedoms not just another reincarnation of the story of Adam and Eve whenever human beings apart from God claim to know good from evil?

Luther knew well the dynamics between the spirit, the flesh, the law, and God. In his treatise on The Bondage of the Will, Luther writes,

“Scripture, however, represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to retain a single one of them in his kingdom, because God could not but at once pity and succour them in their acknowledged and crying wretchedness, seeing he is so highly extolled throughout Scripture as being near to the contrite in heart [Ps. 34:18], as Christ too declares himself according to Isaiah 61, to have been sent to preach the gospel to the poor and to bind up the brokenhearted [Luke 4:18]. Accordingly, it is Satan’s work to prevent men from recognizing their plight and to keep them presuming that they can do everything they are told. But the work of Moses or a lawgiver is the opposite of this, namely, to make man’s plight plain to him by means of the law and thus to break and confound him by self-knowledge, so as to prepare him for grace and send him to Christ that he may be saved. They are therefore not absurd but emphatically serious and necessary things that are done by the law” (LW 33:130-131).

As is increasingly apparent in society around us, those who propound and promote the freedom of the flesh are not only blinded by sin but also seek to avoid knowledge of sin by dissolving any and every rule or law or person or belief which may expose their sin. According to Luther, however, human freedom to wallow in our flesh of sin and in our sins of the flesh is nothing other than a self-delusional existence in bondage to the demonic. Such “freedom” is literally a devilish, dead end. “Original sin itself, therefore, leaves free choice with no capacity to do anything but sin and be damned” (LW 33:272). The freedom which secular society espouses is, paradoxically, an unbridled freedom to be enslaved in sin. That human freedom is necessarily bound in sin makes one wonder what the phrase “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” means at all.

The freedoms which many Americans still hold dear were once asserted in the belief that a “Creator” endowed his creatures with “unalienable rights.” Today, like the King of England, the “Creator” has also been deposed, and “unalienable rights” are increasingly granted only to the flesh by the flesh for the flesh in the service of “freedom” for human sin. Having succeeded in dispensing with the divine, the power of the flesh now dominating society, and many governmental agencies and bodies, increasingly seeks to silence (to crucify) anyone who is, instead, held captive by the word and spirit of the living Christ.

Over against this prevailing predicament of human servitude to sin stands the author of all liberation movements. The God who brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land is the God who brought home the exiles held in captivity in Babylonian. Moving beyond the temporal and political, this is the same God who sent his son in human flesh into a world bound by human sin to proclaim in word and sacrament a gospel of liberation from the powers of sin, death, and the devil. As Luther writes, “Thus we see what a great and excellent thing Baptism is, which snatches us from the jaws of the devil and makes God our own, overcomes and takes away sin and daily strengthens the new man, and always remains until we pass from this present misery to eternal glory” (Large Catechism, 4.83, Tappert, 446).

Although the flesh always seeks to silence this gospel, God raised the crucified Christ from the dead. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the life-giving power of God for the salvation of all sinners who believe (Romans 1:16-17). Contrary to human understanding, this freedom comes not by independence but instead in total dependence on the living word of the God revealed to us sinners in Jesus Christ. For Christians, Independence Day is actually Easter Sunday, celebrated every week, every Sunday, in churches throughout the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not parish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

The Treasure

In his Large Catechism, Luther writes about a great treasure:

“In Baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings — victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In short, the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true. Suppose there were a physician who had such skill that people would not die, or even though they died would afterward live forever. Just think how the world would snow and rain money upon him! Because of the pressing crowd of rich men no one else could get near him. Now, here in Baptism there is brought free to every man’s door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.

“To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, “But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.” This is the reason why these two things are done in Baptism: the body has water poured over it, though it cannot receive anything but the water, and meanwhile the Word is spoken so that the soul may grasp it.

“Since the water and the Word together constitute one Baptism, body and soul shall be saved and live forever: the soul through the Word in which it believes, the body because it is united with the soul and apprehends Baptism in the only way it can. No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than Baptism, for through it we obtain perfect holiness and salvation, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire” (Book of Concord, Tappert, 441-442).

We all have been given this “priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves” humanity for free. It sometimes makes one wonder why we have so much difficulty parting with our temporal “treasures,” i.e., personal resources,  in support of the mission of the gospel. So, what in our lives is more important and more valuable than this gift?

The treasure which God has given us in the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not hidden. We do not need to “hunt” for it. We cannot earn or buy it. Instead, through Christ, God has revealed his boundless love for us sinners. In Christ, God wrapped himself in human flesh to find us sinners wherever we may be found. On the cross, Christ redeemed us sinners from the power of sin and death, and in the resurrection, Christ clothed us in newness of life. This treasure is given to us in baptism.

There is a trendy phrase in American English these days called “pay it forward.” In Christ, God has given us the gift of himself. In “return,” God calls all priests ordained through the sacrament of Holy Baptism to “pay it forward” in the lives of those whom we are called to serve. How are you called to “pay it forward” in the lives of others?

Get to Works, or Not

In 1521, Luther listed and defended statements which the church of his day denounced. The resulting treatise was entitled Defense and Explanation of All the Articles. In relation to one of his statements, “A righteous man sins in all his good works,” Luther comments,

“This article annoys the great saints of work-righteousness, who place their trust not in God’s mercy, but in their own righteousness, that is, on sand. What happened to the house built on sand in Matt. 7[:26] will also happen to them. But a godly Christian ought to learn and know that all his good works are inadequate and insufficient in the sight of God. In the company of all the dear saints he ought to despair of his own works and rely solely on the mercy of God, putting all confidence and trust in him. Therefore we want to establish this article very firmly and see what the dear saints have to say about it” (LW 32:38).

It is highly likely that this article also annoys most lesser saints because most of us consider our “good works” to be good! When we do good works, we often feel “good,” but that, of course, depends on the good work. Raking leaves for hours in the hot sun to assist someone unable to do so, and especially for no pay and possibly no thanks, would probably not qualify as a “feel good” experience. Instead, we prefer to do “good works” when and where it suits us, especially “good works” which require little effort and receive some type of recognition or praise and, perhaps best of all, some monetary or material reward.

Paradoxically, we do not view our “good works” as sinful because of our human sin. Human sin blinds us to our sinful nature. In that sin, we believe that we are not sinful, or not very sinful, even when we do “bad things,” because doing something “bad” does not make us “bad,” or so we reason. On balance, most people would probably think that their 85% good deeds compared to their 15% not-so-good deeds is pretty good. Of course, one should especially remember that not-so-good deeds are not the same as bad deeds, or so we reason.

When was the last time that you gave much thought to why you do any “not-so-good” or even “bad” deeds at all, and if you have contemplated this, why did you do them in the first place? Furthermore, why would you even want to do them? Worse yet, why did you not refrain from doing them? Conversely, why would you not want to do “good” and “godly” deeds all the time? Well? What kind of a person are you?

So, we defend ourselves with the feeblest of defenses, like “nobody’s perfect” or “to err is human,” seeking in yet another way to place ourselves in the mostly good category, and if God does not like it, then God can just go to hell, right? Such is the state of sinful humanity, particularly our clever, atheistic humanity which exonerates itself with all manner of anti-religious self-righteousness. That is perhaps a little better, in their eyes, than being like “those hypocritical Christians” who cloth themselves in religious self-righteousness. Either way, the cross of Christ is the human attempt to tell God to go to hell for no liking our sinful self-righteousness.

All this makes one wonder which is more difficult, believing in God or believing in sin. In fact, theologically, the two are one and the same because the subject matter of theology pertains to the justifying God (deus iustificans) and the sinful human being (homo peccator). Physiologically or medically, we often know that something is not quite right with our bodies, but none of us likes to be told that we are terminally ill, especially when we generally feel “pretty good.” With time, however, the terminal condition becomes decided final, against our will and choice. Such is the consequence for all human beings because of human sin (Romans 6:23). Likewise, although we generally feel good about ourselves, even our sinful selves, and out “good works,” nonetheless our impending death is remains unimpeded because of our sin, our broken relationship with God, and our futile attempts to justify ourselves by our own efforts. Luther is basically saying that not a single good work on our part can stave off death. That is why in relation to our salvation our “good works” are at best good for nothing.

So, if our good works are no good, why do them at all? What is to be gained? The questions themselves reflect our selfish, sinful nature. In reality, which means solely from God’s perspective, any good works which we do are gifts given by God to others through us. Our “good works” are not our gifts to give. Instead, they are God’s gifts given to fellow sinners in need. That is exactly what Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection demonstrate, teach, and proclaim. Through Jesus Christ, God has given the gift of salvation, i.e. justification by grace alone through faith alone, to sinners as a gift, even if they are oblivious to this gift. This one good work promises to give death-bound human beings eternal life, at least to those human beings who believe that their innate sinfulness is forgiven by God’s overwhelming graciousness.

Easter Fool’s Day

That Easter Sunday this year falls on April Fool’s day will probably create considerable amusement to non-believers, but that is nothing new. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“18 For the word of the cross is foolishness (moria in Greek) to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish (moraino) the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the foolishness (moria) of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness (moria) to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness (moros) of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

The cross and resurrection have proven to be a great source of confusion to Christians and unbelievers alike. Despite Jesus having foretold his impending death and resurrection, his disciples did not grasp what he was saying. How could one who proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and who worked so many miracles as signs thereof die like that? It seemed impossible, but as Scripture says, his own disciples helped make it happen through betrayal, denial, and abandonment of Jesus. Judas thought that Jesus needed to be saved from himself, and when Judas started to make that happen, Jesus’ disciples only wanted to save themselves instead. From their fearful perspective, even Jesus’s arrest seemed unlikely to end in crucifixion.

Christians spend considerable amounts of time and effort trying to explain Jesus. How was he incarnated? Why was he crucified? What is the resurrection? How could he be truly God and truly human? What is the Trinity, and how does Jesus fit into that idea?

Scripture gives us some answers, and sometimes it does not. Theologians, mistakenly, often look for answers through philosophical methods and concepts, hoping that somehow the pagan wisdom of sinful unbelievers will come to their aid. For Jesus’ fellow Jews, the cross could have been no more a sign from God and of God’s kingdom than the desecration of their temple by pagan rulers to be used for their gods. That Paul could describe the cross as communicating something other than total failure is, from a worldly perspective, pure nonsense, if not plain old crazy talk.

So, why would Paul talk such crazy, foolish nonsense? To add indignation to insanity, Paul was encountered by the risen Christ himself to become one of Jesus’ proponents. While hunting down Christians for violating Paul’s faith and spreading heresy, Jesus presented himself to Paul, and from that point onwards, Paul’s life was irrevocably changed. The word of God incarnated, crucified, and resurrected does that to people. Why that happens, however, is as much a mystery as that it happens. Despite that, we do know that God makes it happen as the Holy Spirit uses that word in Christ to invoke and to evoke faith in those who hear it.

We have been given that word in Scripture and also wherever that word is purely proclaimed in law and gospel. It is the source of our faith, our life, and our eternal life. It raises us up daily to live in that word and to share it with others no matter how foolish or weak non-believers think that word is. Like Paul, Jesus has encountered us with that word in preaching, teaching, baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. Thereby and therein Jesus is really present giving himself to us in both his cross and his resurrection so that we may be part of his eternal life already in this life, called to use our time and resources to present Jesus’ word as a pure gift for the salvation of the world. So, let’s have some fun on Easter Sunday confounding the unbelieving world with the power of God’s word in the hope that some will believe.

What Now?

What to do when things seem like they are falling apart? In our human world of human sin, we encounter no shortage of difficulties. In times of overwhelming adversity, we often recall the verse, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13 – ESV).

This is a complicated verse when applied to the complications of life. We often do not think of adversity as temptation. The Greek verb peirazo means “to test,” “to be put to the test,” or “to tempt.” So, this is not so much being tempted to do something contrary to God’s will but to be confronted with situations which test our faith. Sometimes those tests are mundane, and other times they seem to call our whole understanding of life into question. We Christians know, however, that as the verse says, we are not subject to anything that other human beings are not. We face illness, family difficulties, financial trials, and eventually death, for our loved ones and for ourselves.

Congregations also find themselves put to the test. Many face dwindling membership, financial difficulties, a loss of purpose and mission, internal strife, and at times death. Like individuals, these are trials to which other organizations are also subject. Nowadays in society, there is no shortage of organizations, particularly volunteer, which are confronted and confounded by these dynamics.

The disjointed nature of so many families provides barren ground compared to a life raised in a supportive, caring environment. These experiences leave many disillusioned about being able to find such in larger groupings of people, under the adage “once bitten, twice shy.” On the other hand, if one plucks up the courage to join, say, a church, the sense of loss of control in smaller groupings can then be played out in larger groupings which can lead to tensions and discord which only seem to reinforce negative experiences already gathered earlier, elsewhere in life.

In these situations, for Christians though, this verse offers great promise. In the faith and in congregations of faith, there is the promise that “God is faithful.” This is not just an illusionary statement but the reality of a God who has come to us in human form, who experienced our trials, and who died on a cross. God proved his faithfulness to Jesus and to sinful humanity in Christ’s resurrection. Even though Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” God raised him from the dead. That faithfulness and that resurrection were the way not of escape but of deep identification and love for each and every human being lost in the battles of sin and death.

When we are baptized, God seals our lives in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God assures us by his life-giving promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. We are thereby not shielded from life’s adversity. We are not thereby not afflicted by sinful, human reality. We are promised that everything transient in life has nothing to offer in comparison to God’s gracious will for our salvation.

That assurance comes to us only in God’s word, the word made flesh and the word of God in scripture. This word as God’s gift is the very presence of God’s healing, forgiving, life-giving love in our broken humanity. As part of the body of Christ, we are called in baptism with the help of Christian education to speak that word to each other, especially when presented with all those experiences which seem completely devoid of God. In creation, God said, “Let there be light,” and in the resurrection, God said, “Let there be love.” The light of that love is the word of God, and the darkness of our world of human sin shall never overcome it (John 1:5).

New Year! New Life?

St Paul writes to the Romans:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:1-4).

In Christianity, there has always been a tension between the spirit and the flesh, the new man and the old man, the life in Christ and the life in the world. Things would be simpler if that tension did not exist in each of us and if we could somehow gain the upper hand. When western society generally followed basic biblical morals, things seemed easier in that corresponding societal and legal restraints and consequences helped sinners from straying too much. That is the right and proper function of the first use of the law.

That outward guidance and at times coercion, however, masked the sinner lurking in all human beings who was sinning in thought, even if not so much in word and deed, as we regularly confess. If one was fortunate, one also had enough familiarity with the Bible to have been given a healthy conscience instilled by its teachings. This biblical foundation could help with knowing which thoughts were leading one astray.

St. Paul was not, however, talking to people in a Christianized society. May of Jewish background had familiarity with the scriptures, but Bibles were not readily available for everyone to read. Those converted from paganism had little or no understanding of biblically based morality. Additionally, neither group had any knowledge of the new life in Christ because it was new!

Two thousand years later, biblical ethics and morality are very much on the wane in western societies, and the hostility to such seems to increase daily. What was once good, is now bad, and vice verse to the point that being versed in vice is apparently virtuous. Fascinating and tragic at the same time, many Christians who view Jesus as being counter-cultural have turned against basic biblical values in order to be part of paganism’s attempts to counter Christianized cultural values.

These dynamics often interact in a legalistic way, and the courts are increasingly occupied by those who wish to take legal action against biblically minded Christians. As important as legal rights and battles may be, none of that has much to do with the new life which only Christ and his gospel can bring. If the law could do the trick, then just about any society or religion or mixture of the two would have a good chance of making sinful human beings good. History, however, shows no examples of that having happened, and even the people of the Old Testament failed miserably time and again. The law cannot cure, but it can and does kill.

So, the only possibility of true life comes from the new life in Christ because only he has been raised from the dead and thus only he has conquered sin, the law, and death. This new life only comes from the pure proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that gospel says that there is nothing that we can do either to effect our salvation or to improve ourselves. Instead, preventing ourselves from sinning is about the best that we can do, but even that does nothing for our salvation.

This leaves human beings often feeling very dissatisfied. Restraining sinfulness does nothing for salvation, but not restraining sin, i.e. acting upon it, can undermine one’s salvation. That hardly seems an equal playing field. In a sense, one “is damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” If it were any other way, then humanity would not need a saviour but merely a helper.

So, which kind of death would we prefer, death according to sin, the law, and the flesh, or death to sin, the law, and the flesh as granted through the new life in accordance with the gospel and baptism of Christ? The choice is not ours to make. Instead, it is God’s alone who has already made it in Christ. If that notion grates, then the sinner in you is alive but sadly very unwell. Who will save us from these bodies of death? None other than the one who died and was raised to save us from our inability to save us from ourselves. That does not happen with a new year, but instead it happens daily by virtue of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.

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All Saints, All Souls, Alright Already

“For whom the bell tolls” is not just the title of one of Ernest Hemingway’s books, which he borrowed from a line in one of John Donne’s meditations, but it is a practice at St. Luke’s on All Saints Sunday as the nearest Sunday to 01 November, which is All Saints Day. On that Sunday, the names of persons deceased in the previous year related to the congregation are read, and at each name a bell is sounded. This type of ceremony has crept into Protestant churches because All Saints Day is observed in many liturgical calendars, even though Protestants no longer observe All Saints Day in the Roman Church’s way.

In the early church, it became common place to pray for the dead, to give alms to the church on behalf of the poor to assist the dead, and to say masses for the dead for their salvation. In other words, the church quickly became interested in helping God look favorably on Christians after death, despite God having raised Jesus from the dead once for all for all humanity. Sadly, this practice meant that early on the church had already deviated from the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This practice, and so many others, like a cancer eventually took its toll on the life and vitality of the church to the point of near spiritual death.

So, what is the history of this apparent problem. “All Saints’ Day was formally started by Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs on May 13 in 609 AD. Boniface IV also established All Souls’ Day, which follows All Saints. The choice of the day may have been intended to co-opt the pagan holiday ‘Feast of the Lamures,’ a day which pagans used to placate the restless spirits of the dead. The holy day was eventually established on November 1 by Pope Gregory III in the mid-eighth century as a day dedicated to the saints and their relics. The May 13 celebration was subsequently abandoned. In Ireland, the Church celebrated All Saints’ Day on April 20, to avoid associating the day with the traditional harvest festivals and pagan feasts associated with Samhain, celebrated at the same time. Following the establishment of the Frankish Empire, and following the reign of Charlemagne, the holy day, which was already celebrated on November 1, became a holy day of obligation by decree of Pope Gregory IV and Louis the Pious, who was king over a portion of Charlemagne’s former empire. [Roman Catholics must attend mass on a day of obligation.] Following the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants retained the holy day, although they dismissed the need to pray for the dead.”*

In the Roman church, if the First of November commemorates the dead saints, then the Second of November concentrates on the non-saintly dead. “According to tradition, a pilgrim returning from the Holy Land took refuse on a rocky island during a storm. There he met a hermit, who told him that among the cliffs was an opening to the infernal regions through which flames ascended, and where the groans of the tormented were distinctly audible. The pilgrim told Odilo, Abbot of Cluny, who appointed the following day (2 November 998) to be set apart for ‘all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.’ The day purposely follows All Saints’ Day in order to shift the focus from those in heaven to those in purgatory.”**  [So, who really established All Souls Day, Boniface IV, Gregory III, or Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny?]

Both All Saints and All Souls days, however, have no biblical foundation. First, as the New Testament makes clear, all those who believe, i.e. those Christians who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are considered to be not only priests but are also declared by God to be “holy” or “saints.” The gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works of the law done either by ourselves or by others on our behalf, makes sainthood happen when this faith-creating gospel is purely proclaimed in word and sacrament. The word creates the faith by which we sinners are made saints. Second, because “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:28-29), those who believe in Jesus Christ are already and remain forever part of Christ’s body by virtue of their baptism. This makes the notion of individual souls being shunted off to purgatory after death to face untold torments not only contrary to scripture but diabolically contrary to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In light thereof, what is the biblical and theological rationale of naming those for whom the bell tolls on All Saints Sunday? Even if it is not a complete resumption of old, unscriptural practices, is it alright or not? Or is it more of a slippery slope?  With that question in mind, consider this remarkable development in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA):

On All Saints Day, 2010, the results of the eleventh round of U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, entitled The Hope of Eternal Life,*** were published, and sixteen months later, “[d]uring their meetings at the Vatican [held 14-16 February 2012], … ELCA leaders presented ‘The Hope of Eternal Life’ … to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”**** On purgatory, among other matters, this dialogue document states,

“The complex network of beliefs and practices surrounding the relation of the living to the dead – purgatory, masses offered for the dead, indulgences applies to the dead, prayers for the dead – were seen by the Reformers as deeply antagonistic to that evangelical proclamation.”

Just a few pages later, however, in the document’s concluding commentary lurks one seemingly innocuous sentence which reads,

“Ecumenical rapprochement requires, however, that Lutherans not condemn Catholic teaching about the practice of indulgences as inherently contrary to the Gospel.”

Is this alright or not, or is it a slippery slope? John Donne’s meditation coining the phrase “for whom the bell tolls” means, according to some, that humanity is interconnected, like all members in the body of Christ. With that in mind, because the ELCA no longer rejects purgatory and thus no longer rejects the need for indulgences, the ELCA has apparently not only ecumenically removed itself from papal condemnation issued at the Council of Trent, but it has biblically and theologically removed itself from the Reformation’s understanding of salvation. The results are not just slippery but sinister.  Such ecclesial capitulation on the part of so-called Lutherans is taking its toll not only on the integrity of the gospel but thereby on all the souls of all the saints populating vast swathes of world Christianity.

So, should we ring the bell on All Saints Sunday to commemorate the dead within the church or should we do so to warn the living that the spiritual death of the church comes from within?


Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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