Archive for December, 2020

Christmas and Coronavirus Spacing and Stress

Well, the Advent and Christmas seasons have arrived, and this year promises to be a little different from previous years. The whole world seems to be caught between Christmas and the Coronavirus. Will the governmental grinches allow Christmas? Who in the Whoville knows? If Christmas is allowed, will the Whos in Whoville be allowed to be loud and to gather or to feast or to sing? What about the Whos who will not be allowed to travel to Whoville? Will those Whos at least get to be on First, or is such a hope simply off-base? How would the good Dr. Seuss diagnose the situation, a situation characterized by confusing, constantly changing rules, regulations, recommendations, political recriminations, and cannabis recreations? Speaking of which, why is the media abuzz about the high time which the Governor of California had at dinner in a French Laundromat with indoor-outdoor carpeting?

In times like these, people need to turn to their Bibles. The Bible tells the story of Joseph, not that Joseph but the other one. Joseph was a nice Jewish boy who was engaged to a young Jewish girl who claimed to have seen angels and got herself mysteriously pregnant by the “Holy Spirit.” Quite understandably, Joseph thought it best to get out of that relationship before things got really cuckoo. Sadly, poor Joseph himself started hearing voices and seeing angels. Then, on what seemed like a bad trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, in the St. Nick of time Joseph came to his census, and that is what really counts. Suffering from hallucinations meant that both Joseph and his princess bride would not be accepted by the inn crowd. So, they were forcibly “social distanced” in an animal shelter where the baby Jesus was born into stable family environment.

In “normal” times, Christmas is stressful enough. One needs to write Santa, buy and wrap presents, procure and prepare the food; all done in the pursuit of gathering with loved ones whom we often do not like. Somewhere along the line we might go to church, if we have time and if we have not had too much to drink.

This year, however, things will be different, but no one really knows how different. Will “social distancing” prevent Santa from delivering his wares? Will the reindeer herd be culled if they become infected? If so, will Amazon jump in the breach and wrap and deliver the presents for Santa? Following the hoarded paper products out the door, will the shops be pilfered of poultry, potatoes, and pumpkin pie? If so, will we at least be spared having to mingle with our less than liked loved ones? Thank God that the liquor stores and “dispensaries” will be open (and that most churches will be closed). It gets so annoying when the Spirit of the latter interrupts the spirits of the former.

Nothing, however, seems to interrupt the omnipresence of coronavirus, nor its deleterious effects on our lives. When we are not being divided and conquered, we are being watched, counted, regulated, and controlled. For the well-being of all, we are told not to gather with subversive groups, like friends and family, whom we cannot not trust and thus must fear. If we do not comply, then we just might die. So, shamed or bullied we comply.

Social distancing is now our Saviour, and the ubiquitous, controversial face mask has become the hallmark of loyalty and compliance to the Saviour’s science. Once innocuous, face masks have now become ominously omnipresent, something akin to the “mark of the beast” in the Book of Revelation. This beast “forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, …” (Rev. 13:16-17). Who can buy or sell without a mask? Who can do just about anything anywhere without a mask? Such enforced facelessness is not social distancing but socially dehumanizing. It isolates, alienates, ostracizes, and abandons, not just physically but also psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. As a result, some of our most vulnerable members of society have been left to wither and die at our new Saviour’s behest.

The above is the narrative dictated by those who live their lives in service to the fear of disease, doom, and death. The following is the narrative of the God who gave his son’s life in service to those who live in fear of disease, doom, and death.

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them (Luke 2:1-20).

Those are two diametrically opposed services. On Thursday, 24 December, St. Luke’s has scheduled two very similar services, one at 6:00 pm and the other at 8:00 pm. Hopefully there, the people will also hear God’s angel again say, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”

Coronavirus and Confirmation

In March, the Catechism II class and I were planning to spend a Saturday afternoon together for a special catechism session. The nascent coronavirus was starting to gain ever increasing attention of the media and the medics. Like the virus itself, fear of the unknown was infecting society. The governor of California prophesied that 25.5 million Californians would have the coronavirus by mid-May. So, our catechetical afternoon together got postponed and then shutdown. It was a great disappointment because it is not everyday that one gets to eat exceptionally good pizza and talk theology with hungry, young theologians.

At that same time, other church activities were grinding to a halt under state and county directives contrary to the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Arguably at a time when people needed to be in church the most, many politicians and heath officials in California had decided that church was too great a threat to public health and well-being. In contrast, crowding into supermarkets in search of quickly dwindling stocks of toilet paper was, strangely, not a problem, although the lack of toilet paper was a problem for those without. The politicians and health officials were plainly on a roll, flushed with excitement, or something like that.

In the course of time, legal challenges put pressure on the governor of California to loosen restrictions on constitutionally protected but apparently easily suspended religious rights. By the end of May, churches could again hold in-person services indoors, but quickly that became only outdoors, which after about six weeks became indoors again. To facilitate all these changes, the church council considered installing revolving doors on all entrances to assist church attendance and to symbolize the various officials’ predilection for having the citizenry go round and round and round in socially distanced circles separated by plexiglass.

With autumn approaching, worship services moving back indoors, the school on campus holding in-person classes aided by a waiver, and some other schools returning to in-person instruction either partially or fully, the resumption of in-person catechism was proposed and agreed. There had been helpful and hopeful suggestions of holding catechism via other methods. For example, using Zoom was one idea, but unfortunately that would have mistakenly given the impression that catechism moves quickly with excitement! Of course it doesn’t.

More importantly, resuming catechism in-person (not rezooming in cyberspace) has been very important because it reflects the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the word made flesh who came to dwell among us. When Christ took on human flesh and entered into a world racked with human sin and death, the second person of the Trinity entered into our time and into our space in-person to be with us as one of us in the midst of our sinfully sick, fallen lives. With each passing day, Jesus seemed to become ever more enmeshed and mired in our human failings, but rather than recoiling therefrom, he reached out to others. He healed the sick and broken, welcomed the outcasts and unwanted, he challenged the authorities, he raised the dead, he forgave their sins, and with his word and example he gave those whom he met and touched new faith, hope, and love; things which the government of his day wanted to deny its citizens. Eventually, Jesus went way out on a limb (of a cross) and risked his life to bring God’s love and the gift of eternal life to people like us, locked down in the woeful uncertainty of our world.

In comparison, holding in-person catechism classes, socially distanced with other hygienic precautions, carries virtually no risk to life or limb. It seems almost trivial, but it is not. The word of God and its resultant Christian faith have very real, life-giving power. Since their earliest days, Christians have risked everything to gather, to teach, to learn, to sing, to pray, and to care in the same way that Jesus the Christ had embraced death so that others could embrace the promise of life which only he can give. Taking risks to share the gospel of Christ with others is thus essential and integral to being part of the body of Christ, i.e. the church. For us Lutherans, learning how Martin Luther defiantly risked his life to give us a pure proclamation of that same gospel has been figuratively and literally exemplary for the past five centuries.

All going according to plan, on Sunday, 29 November, St. Luke’s four catechism pupils will be confirmed. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to confess the faith publicly which was given to them in baptism. In so doing, they will confirm that they wish to continue to live as part of the body of Christ whose members they became in their baptism. In so doing, they will take on new responsibilities and new risks by living the miracle of faith which confesses Luther’s interpretation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Lutheran Freedom

The 31st of October is Reformation Day. As I have explained more times than people may want to hear, Martin Luder changed the spelling of his surname to Luther to reflect the Greek letter theta (θ = th) in Greek words referring to being free (eleutheros). As a prelude to Reformation Sunday, I thought it appropriate to hear something from Luther himself. The following excerpt is from Luther’s commentary on Galatians 5:1. Luther writes:

“1. For freedom (eleutheria) Christ has set us free (eleutheroo); stand fast therefore.

That is: “Be firm!” Thus Peter says (1 Peter 5:8–9): “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” “Do not be smug,” he says, “but be firm. Do not lie down or sleep, but stand.” It is as though he were saying: “Vigilance and steadiness are necessary if you are to keep the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Those who are smug and sleepy are not able to keep it.” For Satan violently hates the light of the Gospel, that is, the teaching about grace, freedom, comfort, and life. Therefore as soon as he sees it arise, he immediately strives to obliterate it with all his winds and storms. For this reason Paul urges godly persons not to be drowsy and smug in their behavior but to stand bravely in the battle against Satan, lest he take away the freedom achieved for them by Christ.

“Every word is emphatic. “Stand fast,” he says, “in freedom.” In what freedom? Not in the freedom for which the Roman emperor has set us free but in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. The Roman emperor gave—indeed, was forced to give—the Roman pontiff a free city and other lands, as well as certain immunities, privileges, and concessions.1 This, too, is freedom; but it is a political freedom, according to which the Roman pontiff with all his clergy is free of all public burdens. In addition, there is the freedom of the flesh, which is chiefly prevalent in the world. Those who have this obey neither God nor the laws but do what they please. This is the freedom which the rabble pursues today; so do the fanatical spirits, who want to be free in their opinions and actions, in order that they may teach and do with impunity what they imagine to be right. This is a demonic freedom, by which the devil sets the wicked free to sin against God and men. We are not dealing with this here although it is the most widespread and is the only goal and objective of the entire world. Nor are we dealing with political freedom. No, we are dealing with another kind, which the devil hates and attacks most bitterly.

“This is the freedom with which Christ has set us free, not from some human slavery or tyrannical authority but from the eternal wrath of God. Where? In the conscience. This is where our freedom comes to a halt; it goes no further. For Christ has set us free, not for a political freedom or a freedom of the flesh but for a theological or spiritual freedom, that is, to make our conscience free and joyful, unafraid of the wrath to come (Matt. 3:7). This is the most genuine freedom; it is immeasurable. When the other kinds of freedom—political freedom and the freedom of the flesh—are compared with the greatness and the glory of this kind of freedom, they hardly amount to one little drop. For who can express what a great gift it is for someone to be able to declare for certain that God neither is nor ever will be wrathful but will forever he a gracious and merciful Father for the sake of Christ? It is surely a great and incomprehensible freedom to have this Supreme Majesty kindly disposed toward us, protecting and helping us, and finally even setting us free physically in such a way that our body, which is sown in perishability, in dishonor, and in weakness, is raised in imperishability, in honor, and in power (1 Cor. 15:42–43). Therefore the freedom by which we are free of the wrath of God forever is greater than heaven and earth and all creation.

“From this there follows the other freedom, by which we are made safe and free through Christ from the Law, from sin, death, the power of the devil, hell, etc. For just as the wrath of God cannot terrify us—since Christ has set us free from it—so the Law, sin, etc., cannot accuse and condemn us. Even though the Law denounces us and sin terrifies us, they still cannot plunge us into despair. For faith, which is the victor over the world (1 John 5:4), quickly declares: “Those things have nothing to do with me, for Christ has set me free from them.” So it is that death, which is the most powerful and horrible thing in the world, lies conquered in our conscience through this freedom of the Spirit. Therefore the greatness of Christian freedom should be carefully measured and pondered. The words “freedom from the wrath of God, from the Law, sin, death, etc.,” are easy to say; but to feel the greatness of this freedom and to apply its results to oneself in a struggle, in the agony of conscience, and in practice—this is more difficult than anyone can say.

“Therefore one’s spirit must be trained, so that when it becomes conscious of the accusation of the Law, the terrors of sin, the horror of death, and the wrath of God, it will banish these sorrowful scenes from its sight and will replace them with the freedom of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, life, and the eternal mercy of God. Although the consciousness of these opponents may be powerful, one must be sure that it will not last long. As the prophet says (Is. 54:8), “In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid My face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” But this is extremely difficult to bring about. Therefore the freedom that Christ has achieved for us is easier to talk about than it is to believe. If it could be grasped in its certainty by a firm faith, no fury or terror of the world, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., could be too great for it to swallow them up as quickly as the ocean swallows a spark. Once and for all this freedom of Christ certainly swallows up and abolishes a whole heap of evils—the Law, sin, death, the wrath of God, finally the serpent himself with his head (Gen. 3:15); and in their place it establishes righteousness, peace, life, etc. But blessed is the man who understands and believes this.

“Therefore let us learn to place a high value on this freedom of ours; not the emperor, not an angel from heaven, but Christ, the Son of God, through whom all things were created in heaven and earth, obtained it for us by His death, to set us free, not from some physical and temporary slavery but from the spiritual and eternal slavery of those most cruel and invincible tyrants, the Law, sin, death, the devil, etc., and to reconcile us to God the Father. Now that these enemies have been defeated and now that we have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, it is certain that we are righteous in the sight of God and that all our actions are pleasing to Him; and if there is any sin left in us, this is not imputed to us but is forgiven for the sake of Christ. Paul is speaking very precisely when he says that we should stand in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Therefore this freedom is granted to us, not on account of the Law or our righteousness but freely, on account of Christ. Paul testifies to this and demonstrates it at length throughout this epistle; and Christ says in John 8:36: “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” He alone is thrust into the middle between us and the evils that oppress us. He conquers and abolishes them, so that they cannot harm us any longer. In fact, in place of sin and death He grants us righteousness and eternal life, and He changes slavery and the terrors of the Law into the freedom of conscience and the comfort of the Gospel, which says (Matt. 9:2): “Take heart, My son; your sins are forgiven.” Therefore he who believes in Christ has this freedom.

“Reason does not see how great a matter this is; but when it is seen in the Spirit, it is enormous and infinite. No one can realize with language or thought what a great gift it is to have—instead of the Law, sin, death, and a wrathful God—the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, eternal life, and a God who is permanently gracious and kind. The papists and all self-righteous people boast that they also have the forgiveness of sins, righteousness, etc.; they also lay claim to freedom. But all these things are worthless and uncertain. In temptation they vanish instantly, because they depend on human works and satisfactions, not on the Word of God and on Christ. Therefore it is impossible for any self-righteous people to know what freedom from sin, etc., really is. By contrast, our freedom has as its foundation Christ, who is the eternal High Priest, who is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Therefore the freedom, forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and life that we have through Him are sure, firm, and eternal, provided that we believe this. If we cling firmly to Christ by faith and stand firm in the freedom with which He has made us free, we shall have those inestimable gifts. But if we become smug and drowsy, we shall lose them. It is not in vain that Paul commands us to be vigilant and to stand, because he knows that the devil is busily engaged in trying to rob us of this freedom that cost Christ so much, and to tie us up again in the yoke of slavery through his agents” (LW 27: 3-6).

What Now?

It is not uncommon as of late to hear people say, “We are living in unprecedented times,” or “These are very uncertain times.” To say the least, the times are certainly unusual. To borrow a phrase from the internet, the world has really “gone viral.” Except, instead of people referring to online cat videos or come other cute internet clip or quip, one is actually referring to humanity in living in the shadow of the so-called novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, are these really “unprecedented times” or are they perhaps just inconvenient times?

If one views the reactions to the coronavirus locally, nationally, and globally, these reactions and overreactions provide an interesting reflection of humanity. When one compares these reactions with previous epidemics and pandemics, it seems striking that humanity seems to have lost a considerable capacity to confront illness and death. On the brighter side, modern medicine has become very good at curing or at least at treating an unprecedented number of ailments. To “get better” is the expectation, not the exception.

In comparison to the miracles of modern medicine, society as a whole seems to be heading in the opposite direction. The disintegration of the family, of neighbourhoods, of common values and morals, and even of the common sense of being a nation is evident everywhere. Many call this disintegration “progress,” but it needs to be asked to what is this progressive disintegration leading? To what are we supposed to be progressing? How will we know when we have arrived?

The church throughout history has fallen into the same trap. For most of the church’s history, even into our times, the church has been dogged by the idea that we sinful human beings should and can make “progress” in or towards our salvation, in or towards our relationship with God. According to this thinking, if one just attends church enough, follows the rules enough, prays enough, reads the Bible enough, and gives enough money, one will get closer and closer to the kingdom of God, the pearly gates, etc., but how much is enough?

These hopes are all based on the notion that one can somehow get one’s sinful human “flesh” to improve. If the church can just motivate sinners to be more church-going, more rule-following, more God-fearing, more Bible-reading, and more holy all around, then in time the whole world will become a better place to be. Sadly, like the rest of society “church people” seem to be getting worse rather than better at these things. In contrast, non-churched people seem to think that the world is actually getting better by not doing these things. Maybe “church people” are getting worse at these things because they believe that non-churched people are actually right.

In light of the coronavirus, how do non-believers gauge what is saving for them? Do they even care? Some do, and some do not. For those who “care,” protecting themselves and others from the coronavirus is a moral duty. It is represented in all manner of ways, like lockdowns, face masks, hand washing, hand wringing, closing gyms, restaurants, schools, churches, etc. Not that those are bad things if necessary, but are they and when are debated? Where are the studies to support some of these measures? Scientific or not, the prevailing rationale in all this seems to predicated on the notion that it is “good” for humanity to put life on hold in order to save lives. That seems to be a contradiction in terms, one designed more to avoid litigation than actually saving lives. By the way, what does saving a mortal life actually mean?

Across the board regardless of the category or crisis, human efforts of the religious and non-religious, of believers and non-believes, of the churched and the non-churched seem hell bent on making things better, on progressing to some better point, all in the hope at some point eventually to defy death through human determination. All these efforts and all this energy and all the associated exertion and expenditure, however, seem to have overlooked the fact that at best we may or may not be delaying death in a significant way.

In relation to what can and cannot be achieved by our sinful, human efforts, God has already done what none of our efforts could ever do. When God the Father sent God the Son into our broken, sinful world to be broken by our sin and killed on a cross, God did not proclaim the merits of human progress. Instead, the cross reveals the reality of all human efforts to achieve or acquire eternal life. In other words, all such human efforts are a dead end.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection have revealed to sinful humanity that God is not interested in progress, in us getting better bit by bit. Instead, God has delved into death to conquer death itself. In the cross, God put an end to all human efforts to better their lives in pursuit of eternal life. In the resurrection, God takes dead sinners and creates them anew and thereby grants them the image of his Son. This begins now in baptism, being killed and raised already in this life. The promise of the resurrection means that regardless of what happens in this life, we do not need to put life on hold. Instead, we are called to live life here and now to the fullest, as a gift, believing that something better, something more fulfilling, something more living has already been given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of the word made flesh, of Jesus Christ.

Keep Your Clothes On!

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians:

“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (II Corinthians 5:1-5).

As is common in the Bible, Paul is speaking in metaphors. We human beings often use figurative language to communicate complicated ideas. When we do so, however, the images which we use sometimes bring along with them connotations which are not helpful.

For example, in the passage above Paul talks about having a “building from God” which then becomes a tent which then seems to become clothing. The building is “eternal in the heavens” but is a tent in which we dwell without which we would be naked! That said, neither the building nor the tent nor the tent become clothing, if worn on earth, would prevent us from being naked in an earthly sense. If you think that this is all too risque, keep your clothes and your hat on too!

In a passage like this, Paul is speaking metaphorically chiefly about baptism. As Paul says in Galatians 3:27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Does that mean through baptism that Jesus could launch home, camping, and clothing produce lines and secure a tidy prophet?

The Bible is full of ways of trying to describe and define the seemingly improbably if not impossible with pictures. How can one adequately or even rationally talk about the idea of God becoming a human being? How does one convincingly describe the Trinity, one God in three persons? What does it really mean in baptism when we say with Scripture that we have died and are raised to newness of life when it only appears that we are just a little wetter? Furthermore, Lutherans say that no matter who appears to be performing the baptism, it is really Jesus who is doing it. How can that be?

Similarly, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Lutherans confess that the bread and the wine are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Even though the bread and wine remain bread and wine, Jesus promises to be present in the bread and wine forgiving our sins. Furthermore, regardless of who is speaking the word of institution, i.e. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed …,” Lutherans say that Jesus is saying those words. How can that be?

In Matthew 10:40, Jesus says, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” In other words, or perhaps better, with the words from the Word incarnate, Jesus’s words create their own reality, just like the words of God at creation. When God speaks, it is true. It happens. God’s word by nature is promise, is reality.

This concept is very difficult for us to grasp because we know that human words are so often frail, fallible, and false. To confuse matters even worse, the same mouth which can speaking fallacies one moment, might be speaking God’s truthful promises the next. So, how do we know which words to believe and which words to reject? Sadly, we don’t, but God does.

In the his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Luther writes,

“I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church he daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers, and on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Look at that opening line, “I believe that … I cannot believe…” All by ourselves, our own faith is at best a faith in our faithlessness – such a contradiction in terms! Luther continues, “But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … just as he calls … the whole Christian church on earth…”

This is part of the good news, God calling us through the gospel. It is all God’s doing, done for us by God as a gift. In spite of ourselves and our sin, God brings Jesus’ words to us sinners through us sinners to proclaim his forgiveness of sins to us sinners. The Holy Spirit takes what appear to be human words and through them creates a divine, living faith in our dead hearts through our deaf ears. How does God make this happen? As Luther explains,

“It is God’s nature to make something out of nothing; hence one who is not yet nothing, out of him God cannot make anything. Man, however, makes something else out of that which exists; but this has no value whatever. Therefore God accepts only the forsaken, cures only the sick, gives sight only to the blind, restores life only to the dead, sanctifies only the sinners, gives wisdom only to the unwise. In short, He has mercy only on those who are wretched, and gives grace only to those who are not in grace” (WA 1:183-184). To which we can only, say, “Amen!” or maybe even, “Hallelujah!” That, however, might be just a little too exuberant for us Lutherans!

Luther on Law and Gospel

[The following paragraphs are taken from Luther’s 1535 Commentary on Galatians 2:14]

“Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. I admit that in the time of temptation I myself do not know how to do this as I should. The way to distinguish the one from the other is to locate the Gospel in heaven and the Law on earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and divine and the righteousness of the Law earthly and human, and to distinguish as sharply between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law as God distinguishes between heaven and earth or between light and darkness or between day and night. Let the one be like the light and the day, and the other like the darkness and the night. If we could only put an even greater distance between them! Therefore if the issue is faith, heavenly righteousness, or conscience, let us leave the Law out of consideration altogether and let it remain on the earth. But if the issue is works, then let us light the lamp of works and of the righteousness of the Law in the night. So let the sun and the immense light of the Gospel and of grace shine in the day, and let the lamp of the Law shine in the night….

“In society, on the other hand, obedience to the Law must be strictly required. There let nothing be known about the Gospel, conscience, grace, the forgiveness of sins, heavenly righteousness, or Christ Himself; but let there be knowledge only of Moses, of the Law and its works. When these two topics, the Law and the Gospel, are separated this way, both will remain within their limits. The Law will remain outside heaven, that is, outside the heart and the conscience; and, on the other hand, the freedom of the Gospel will remain outside the earth, that is, outside the body and its members. And just as soon as the Law and sin come into heaven, that is, into the conscience, they should be promptly ejected. For then the conscience should know nothing about the Law and sin but should know only about Christ. On the other hand, when grace and freedom come into the earth, that is, into the body, you must say: “You have no business here among the dirt and filth of this physical life. You belong in heaven!”

“Peter had confused this distinction between the Law and the Gospel, and thus he had persuaded the believers that they had to be justified by the Gospel and the Law together. This Paul refused to tolerate. Therefore he rebuked Peter. He did not want to put him to shame, but he wanted to separate these two very sharply again, namely, that the Law justifies on earth and the Gospel in heaven. But the pope has not only confused the Law with the Gospel; but he has changed the Gospel into mere laws, and ceremonial laws at that. He has also confused secular matters and church matters, which is really a satanic and infernal confusion.

“The knowledge of this topic, the distinction between the Law and the Gospel, is necessary to the highest degree; for it contains a summary of all Christian doctrine. Therefore let everyone learn diligently how to distinguish the Law from the Gospel, not only in words but in feeling and in experience; that is, let him distinguish well between these two in his heart and in his conscience. For so far as the words are concerned, the distinction is easy. But when it comes to experience, you will find the Gospel a rare guest but the Law a constant guest in your conscience, which is habituated to the Law and the sense of sin; reason, too, supports this sense” (LW 26:116-117).

Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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