the economics of Christ (link)

Dirty Money

justifiedandsinner has some remarkable thoughts on luxury, simplicity, and our idols to ring in the new year. They are hard words to read but ones we must nonetheless take to heart:

The Gospel that talks of our being freed from idolatry, as we are united with Christ, as we walk with Him.  As we put things into an eternal perspective and we don’t cling to that which can be destroyed, When we realize that freed from such economic idols, we can show love to those who are our neighbors, without evaluating the economic impact on us and our family. The gospel that exchanges false gods for a God who comes to us, setting aside His riches, because of the love He has for us, who were not part of His family, but now are.

Such a detachment isn’t easy, we like being comfortable, we enjoy our flat screens and cars, we like seeing the work of hands rewarded with accomplishments and being assured that everything will be there.   But now we are going back to valuing an idol more than a real God.  It’s hard for me, even as I write this, to not hear it speaking to me.  To find oneself detached from things, and freer to love and to care and to serve. Able to use the resources God gives us, for that which would being Him glory, as we live like Christ.  It doesn’t change our work ethic, in fact, knowing we can help others may drive us to work harder, sacrificing more as we see the eternal rewards of people coming to know God’s love. It is a higher calling a higher purpose, a reason to invest ourselves in, this detachment that frees us from idols, and helps us imitate Christ as we find ourselves putting others before ourselves.

I encourage you to read the rest here.

photo credit: Creative Commons | Caro Wallis via Compfight

to the lowly, not the exalted

de profundis / the depths of sorrow

Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety–that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

This single paragraph by Bonhoeffer contains so many deep truths about God, it requires reading slowly, thoughtfully, and more than once. In it, hope is born of the ashes of anguish; self-righteousness is destroyed; arrogance is dashed on the rocks of humility; and everything our culture trumpets about what we ought to be and whom we ought to honor is proven false.

Bonhoeffer’s words drip with the sweet truths of the Gospel. In the midst of our brokenness, God is for us. In the midst of our loneliness, God is with us. In the mist of our weakness, God is our strength. In the midst of our rejection, God loves us.

To the proud and self-exalted, these words are senseless. To those who ‘have it all together,’ such talk is foolishness. To the rest of us, however, these words are a balm to the soul.

Praise the Lord!
For he has heard my cry for mercy.
The Lord is my strength and shield.
I trust him with all my heart.
He helps me, and my heart is filled with joy.
I burst out in songs of thanksgiving. (Ps 28.6-7, NLT)

photo credit: Creative Commons | Eddy Van 3000 via Compfight

A Church of Mercy

(cross-posted from simplyxian.com)

Protestants, especially conservatives and/or Evangelicals, are often hesitant to champion social causes or acts of mercy…typically equating them with the ‘social gospel’ of the early 20th century and its associated liberal theology. The connection, however, is clearly unwarranted and unscriptural.  Hopefully that incorrect connection will soon fade away into memory as more and more Christians get involved in reaching out to help those in need, as Jesus did.

Richard Stearns’ Hole in Our Gospel is a powerful antidote to this kind of thinking.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  You won’t be able to put it down, and then you won’t be able to get it out of your head.  Also, Jeremy Tate has just written a wonderful post of being a Church of mercy.  While I don’t agree with his conclusion that her consistent acts of mercy show the Roman Catholic Church to be the one true church, the example set by Catholicism in this respect is definitely humbling and worthy of others’ imitation.

read: A Church of Mercy

photo courtesy of stock.xchng

What Happens in Worship

Lutheran worship is primarily the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. As we gather together for worship, God speaks to us in his Word. Through the preaching of his law he crushes us with the stark and painful reminder of our own sin and unworthiness; he causes us to tremble at his holiness and justice; he speaks to us his urgent call to repentance. But in that same time of worship, a gracious God speaks to us words of full and free forgiveness. He points us to Christ and to the cross where his sacrifice paid the price of our sin, removed our guilt, and opened the door to heaven itself. In that same time of worship, we poor miserable sinners kneel side by side and receive the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. We commune with our God and with each other. In that same setting of worship, we witness how the power of the Holy Spirit, working through nothing other than his Word and simple water, creates new life and faith in the hearts of children and adults as they are baptized. And even when we join our voices to praise God in our words and songs, that praise is always focused on what God has done for us in Christ, adding our voices of gospel proclamation to the voice of the shepherd God has called to serve us.

If that is what happens in Lutheran worship, if the proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified is the center of what happens in our churches, then our worship services are not only times when God is nourishing the faith of believers; worship services also become a time and place where true evangelism and outreach take place. It is in that kind of Christ-centered and cross-focused worship setting that people hear not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It is then that people receive something effective and lasting—not the passing emotional high that soon fades outside the church doors, not the hollow recipes for happiness, worldly success, or outwardly godly living.

Mark Schroeder

from here

“Scripture Does Not Speak of Christ” by Pr. Peters

Our understanding of the Word of God (especially with respect to its reading as part of liturgy, public worship, and private devotion)  is absolutely paramount to our theology of worship, both corporate and private.  I have never read a short piece on the theology of the Word that is as succinct yet robust as this one by Pr. Peters on his Pastoral Meanderings blog.  I have republished this post below in its entirety, but please let the reader be reminded, these are Pr. Peter’s words and not my own…I emphasize that lest anyone give me any credit for this magnificent piece:

Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian now Roman Catholic, made the relevant point that Scripture does not speak of Christ but speaks Christ. Now this is not argument over terminology or semantics. This is the essential catholic confession — the Word of God does not speak of something the way, for example, I may speak of something I know or have an opinion about. Scripture is God speaking. When Scripture speaks, we hear the voice of God.

For most of Protestantism Scripture has become a book of rules to be followed, a set of principles to inform how we reshape the world, a set of practical tools to better your life, or a road map to lead you from here to eternity. But that is just plain wrong. Scripture is the voice of God. Scripture is the discourse of God in human words. This Word is powerful and can do what it claims and keep all its promises. This Word has the power to call and gather the Church.

On Sunday morning we often treat the Word of God as if it were nothing more than a book of wise sayings, some of which may be practical enough and pointed enough to make a small difference in the ordinary and mundane of our world. We treat so casually what is essentially the Voice of God who speaks to us and is speaking to us in Scripture.

We act as if the gems of Bible study were the hints or conclusions reached from that study — like a school child reads the encyclopedia for things he or she can use in a paper that is due tomorrow. Bible study is important because it is time with God, it is the conversation in which God is the speaker to us and we who have ears tuned in faith can hear Him speaking. It is not what we learn from Bible study but what we learn in Bible study as a people gather to hear every word and as a people who know that this every word is important.

Nowhere is that more true than in worship — the Word of God predominates not because we have found it useful but because it is Christ speaking to us. In this respect liturgy is the first real context for us to hear Scripture — everything else flows from this assembly and is not in competition with it or can substitute for it — as it was for those who heard Scripture first from the voice of the apostles.

This is what we need to rediscover – the urgency, the immediacy of God’s voice in our midst. In response to that voice, we come, we listen, we hear, and we grow. The distasteful practice of cell phones and watch alarms going off in worship is a sign that we have not understood that Scripture is God’s voice speaking to us — or surely we would shut those things off. The strange practice of people moving in and out of the Sanctuary as the Scriptures are read and preached is a sign that we do not understand that Scripture is God’s living voice speaking to us or we would find a way to fit our bathroom needs around this holy and momentous conversation in which God is the speaker and initiates the dialog that brings forth faith in us and bestows upon us all the gifts of the cross and empty tomb.

Instead of burying our faces in bulletins to read, we would raise our heads to listen. I am convinced that the reading of Scripture is heard differently than the reading of Scripture from a service folder page. We don’t listen to each other with our heads buried in a booklet. We listen to each other by looking at the point where the voice is coming from and by learning to tune out the distractions so that we might hear what is said. This is the discipline that is so missing on Sunday morning.

All because we think of Scripture as a vehicle that delivers something to us instead of the thing that is delivered — the voice of God speaking grace and mercy, conviction and condemnation, redemption and restoration, death and life… Wisdom!! Attend!!

The Beautiful Cross

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.

On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed!  Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit.  Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace.  Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God.  Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell.  It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross.  It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.

– C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)

All Saints’ Day?

For many Christians, especially those whose traditions do not observe the church calendar, the mere mention of “All Saints’ Day” sounds eerily Roman Catholic or taboo.  But what exactly is this feast day (i.e., church celebration) all about?  I have found no better short explanation than that in the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

This feast is the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of that great cloud of witnesss with which we are surrounded (Heb 12.1).  It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ–from every nation, race, culture, and language–who have come ‘out of the great tribulation…who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7.9, 14).  As such, it sets before us the full height and depth and breadth and length of our dear Lord’s gracious salvation (Eph 3.17-19).  It shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him (Rom 6.3-8).  It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church catholic [i.e., 'universal church' not 'Roman Catholic church']–in heaven and on earth, in all times and places–in the one Body of Christ, in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Just as we have all been called to the one hope that belongs to our call, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4.4-6).  And the Feast of All Saints shares with the final Sundays of the Church Year an eschatalogical focus on the life everlasting and a confession that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom 8.18).  In all of these emphases, the purpose of this feast is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12.2-3).

Walther on the Prosperity Gospel

god_richesSadly, much of American Christianity is infatuated with the notion that, once I become a Christian, then God will order everything in my life such that I will be showered with material blessings galore–health, wealth, and prosperity of all kinds–even a hundredfold byond that which I give to the Lord.  The litany of charlatans posing as ‘pastors’ who proclaim such business is long and distinguished.  C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of American Lutheranism disagrees.  First he takes us to the words of Scripture…

So be careful how you live.  Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Eph 5.15-16, NLT)

Then Walther goes on to explain that this notion couldn’t be more untrue.

With the words in [Ephesians 5], Saint Paul warns all Christians that, in this life, they should never count on good, peaceful, and comfortable days, either for themselves or for their faith.  Instead, they should expect to exerience evil, dangerous, and woeful days.  Where Christ is, there is also the cross.  Therefore, as soon as a person has turned to Christ, he cannot think everything will go well with him as a child of God’s grace.  Rather, he must expect that the cross will now be his inseperable companion until his death. (God Grant It, 813)

His words are a far cry from those you’ll hear on any given Sunday around the country in some of America’s largest congregations and on TV; however, the words of Walther reflect the cruciform nature of the Christian life.  “Where Christ is, there is also the cross.”  Let these words of warning be also words of encouragement, for where the cross is, there is also the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Thanks be to God!

Bonhoeffer on Church Growth

hillsongI’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism.  Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in.  Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity.  At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.

For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do.  That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here).  Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.

Bonhoeffer disagrees.  He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church.  Such growth is his work, not ours.  As he writes:

If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess–he builds.  We must proclaim–he builds.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church:  you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)

Justification in the NLT–A Final Look

nlt_logo

Over the past few months, I’ve been musing here and there about the way the NLT presents the doctrine of justification, especially in the Pauline epistles.  To be precise, I have been working through my understanding of the way the NLT presents the causality (i.e. by/through faith) versus the instrumentality (i.e. because of faith) of justification.  Two recent exercises have led me to believe that, on the main, I’ve been making a mountain out of a molehill.

First, I finally spent some time reviewing the notes and articles in the NLT Study Bible for the passages I listed in previous posts.  Most notably, I read through the article titled, “Righteousness By Faith,” which appears in Galatians.  This article unequivocably articulates the doctrine of justification by faith and says, “There is nothing people can or need to do. Only Christ could do—and has done—what must be done to make people acceptable to God. So we should simply receive his gift, gratefully thank him for what he has done for us, and trust in him” (emphasis mine).

Second, I talked with friends, co-workers, church members, and members of my Guard unit about the readings as presented in the NLT.  Essentially, I asked them to explain to me their understanding of the passages.  Though anecdotal, without exception, the people I talked to were able to articulate justification by faith because of Christ’s work on our behalf.

In sum, I am coming to think that my anxiety about how the NLT presents justification stemmed from my desire for more precision than the average reader brings to the text.  ‘By,’ ‘through,’ and ‘because’…for many folks, though not all…are essentially synonymous terms in the everyday usage of the language.  In preaching or teaching through the few passages where the NLT says ‘because of faith’ I will continue to be careful to articulate the instrumentality of faith over against the causality of faith in justification.  Will I be driving home a point that some or many will think is unnecessary?  Perhaps.  If it avoids confusion for anyone, however, it will be worth it.

Many continued thanks to the NLT team for a fantastic translation that I have used as my primary preaching and teaching bible for over a year now…with absolutely no regrets!  May God continue to use this translation to build his church!

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Justification in the NLT–A Broader Look

It has been over two months since my initial post on my struggles with justification by faith as presented by the New Living Translation, Second Edition (NLTse) in the book of Galatians.  In that time, I have broadened my reading to include most of the other NT references to justification traditionally rendered ‘by faith,’ as opposed to the NLTse rendering ‘because of faith.’  Specifically, I narrowed my list down to following 17 main occurrences (37 if you could numerous repetition in Heb 11):

  • Rom 1.17OpenBible
  • Rom 3.28
  • Rom 4.16
  • Rom 5.1
  • Rom 9.30
  • Rom 9.32
  • Rom 11.20
  • Gal 2.16
  • Gal 3.7
  • Gal 3.8
  • Gal 3.11
  • Gal 3.22
  • Gal 3.25
  • Gal 5.5
  • Heb 10.38
  • Heb 11.3 ff (20 total occurrences in chapter 11)
  • Jas 2.24

Of these 17 verses, the NLTse translates 12 of them ‘by faith,’ in agreement with the traditional Protestant understanding that by the instrument of faith we grasp hold of the justifying work of Jesus Christ, the cause of our justification.  The other five, however, are translated ‘because of faith,’ making our faith–not Christ’s work–the effective cause of justification.  For the statisticians and fellow engineers among us, that comes out 71% overall.  Looking book by book, which I think is fair way to approach it given the way books were assigned and translated by the translation team, this comes out to 75% for Romans, 57% for Galatians, 100% for Hebrews, and 100% for James.

Interestingly (to me anyway), none of these passages were changed from the original release of the NLT to the NLTse…unless I misread something in my quick study.  It surprises me that a doctrine as central as justification by faith would not receive more scrutiny by the translation and review team, especially where the NLT has departed so dramatically from every other major translation, historic or contemporary.  Let me restate my original three concerns:

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by” in almost every other English translation through the last 400 years
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

I still love the NLT and use it as my primary preaching and teaching bible.  It speaks the language of the folks with whom I live and work–at NASA, in the Guard, and in my neighborhood.  I am concerned, however, about how justification is sometimes presented.   Does anyone else share my concerns?  Is anyone cautious about the NLT for these reasons?  Has it ever been discussed to edit these passages in future releases?

I’d love to know!  I’d love to discuss it!

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Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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The End Times?

So…are we in the end times?  What do you think?

According to the testimony of the Word of God, the closer we come to the end of all things, the greater the world’s security and lust will become.  As the terrible hour nears, an hour in which all things visible and all the glory of the earth will suddenly be swallowed up, more and more people will, as the prophecies of Scripture inform us, immerse themselves in worldly good.  The more signs God sends to His children, warning that the world will soon be destroyed and the Judge of the living and the dead will soon appear in the clouds of the heavens, the less people will believe them.  Everything will continue secure and carefree, as if the world were to stand forever and the Last Day were nothing more than a fairy tale.

Our present age seems to fit perfectly the descriptions of the last days found in Scripture.  All of the signs in nature, in the kingdoms of the world, and in the Church which, according to biblical prophecy, must precede the end of all things, have taken place during the past centuries and especially in recent years.  By the most terrible events, God has loudly proclaimed the imminent destruction of the world.  But what has been the response?  With each passing year, the world sinks deeper and deeper into false security.  At no time has the notion of the Last Day appeared to be more laughable than it is now.  Almost universally, people have denied the Christ who has already come, and they greet with even greater mockery the preaching that says He will return soon.  Even those who believe God’s Word consider those who preach the nearness of Christ’s return to be fanatics.  We have obviously entered that midnight hour when even the wise virgins sleep.

What does Peter say in cautioning Christians about such a time?  He says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”  This does not mean that when the end of all things is near, Christians should no longer make use of the world, that they should deprive the body in self-chosen spirituality and humility and not provide for the necessities of the flesh.  Nor does it mean they are not allowed to rejoice in the bodily refreshment God gives them in this last time.  No, says the apostle, we should be serious and watchful only in our prayers.  Even in the nearness of the Last Day, we can eat and drink, but we should not weigh down our hearts in these pursuits.  We can like something in this world, but we must be prepared to sacrifice it readily to God.  We can have and continue to accumulate gold and silver, but we should not attach our heart to them, not rely upon them, and not mourn when we lose them.  We can build dwellings for ourselves, but they must be considered as lodgings for the night from which we will set out on the following morning (in other words, we must always prefer to go to the house of our heavenly Father than cling to our earthly abodes).  We can continue to plant and sow in the face of the Last Day, but we must be prepared not to reap the harvest, if that is what the Lord desires.  we can also care about the future, but only in such a way that our heart does not become burdened with worry.  We are serious and watchful in prayer when our heart is not trapped by any earthly thing.  It must always be free to be lifted up to God in prayer.  In the midst of the things, business, cares, goods, and pleasures of this world, our deepest desire must be for salvation and heaven.  We must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  And we must pass through this world like strangers and pilgrims, pausing here and there to rest and refresh ourselves, but soon thereafter hastening on toward our heavenly goal.  Our entire life must be, as Luther expressed, an eternal Lord’s Prayer in which our principal desire is for God to deliver us from evil.  And we may add, “Come, Lord Jesus, take us out of this evil world, and take us to Yourself.”
(C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It, 445-447)

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Justifying Faith? Luther on the Bronze Snake…

My recent post on justification by faith in Galatians has sparked some good conversation here, on Twitter, and via email…but it all begs the question, “What is this justifying faith in Christ?”  Not surprisingly, Luther asks and answer the question beautifully, illustrating it with the bronze snake in the wilderness:

Some people imagine that faith is a quality that sticks to the heart on its own, with or without Christ.  This is a dangerous error.  Christ should be placed directly before our eyes so that we see and hear nothing apart from him and believe that nothing is closer to us than Christ.  For he doesn’t sit idly in heaven but is continually present in us.  He is working and living in us, for Paul says, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2.20).  He also says that you “have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3.27).  Therefore, faith is an unswerving gaze that looks on Christ alone.  He is the conqueror of sin and death and the one who gives us righteousness, salvation, and eternal life.

This is beautifully illustrated by the story of the bronze snake, which points to Christ (Jn 3.14).  Moses commanded the Israelites, who had been bitten in the desert by poisonous snakes, to look at this bronze snake with an unswerving gaze.  Those who did so were healed, simply by steadily gazing at the snake alone.  In contrast, others who didn’t obey Moses looked at their wounds instead of the snake and died.  So if you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing by grasp Christ in faith and say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me.  In his wound and death, I see my sin.  In his resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  I see righteousness and eternal life as well.  I want to see and hear nothing except him.”  This is true faith in Christ and the right way to believe. (26:356)

Amen.

Take that, all who accuse Luther of disparaging the Old Testament (grin).

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Justification in Galatians–Struggles with the NLT

Bible page photoLet me start by saying I’m a huge fan of the New Living Translation and have used it regularly, even if not as my primary bible for teaching/preaching, since shortly after its debut in the mid-90s.  Yes, even after pre-ordering my ESV back in 2001 (my primary bible for almost seven years), being shunned by ESV-only seminary types for years at Southern, and feeling indecisive about the whole formal v. dynamic equivalence bit…I still loved the NLT so much so that toward the end of last year I switched to it exclusively for preaching and teaching and relegated my ESV to the #2 spot.

(Perhaps I’ll write sometime about the reasons I made the jump, but that’s another post for another day.)

Today I write because I’m troubled by how the NLT renders some key verses on justification in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  By way of background, I should say that I’ve always looked to Galatians as ‘the’ treatment on justification by faith in the bible and, with Luther, I view justification as ‘the’ doctrine by which the church stands or falls.  With that in mind, my heart sank when reading through Galatians this weekend and realizing that the NLT makes faith the cause of our justification as opposed to the instrument of our justification.  Here is an excerpt from Galatians 3, the NLT in parallel with the ESV (the emphasis, of course, is mine):

New Living Translation (NLT) English Standard Version (ESV)
1 Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. 1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
2 Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
3 How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
4 Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain, was it? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain?
5 I ask you again, does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard about Christ. 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith
6 In the same way, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” 6 just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness?
7 The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God. 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would declare the Gentiles to be righteous because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.” 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, In you shall all the nations be blessed.
9 So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Some thoughts…

  1. Again and again, the NLT translates the Greek preposition ἐκ as “because” where it is traditionally rendered “by,” as shown in the ESV (NB, almost every other translation, contemporary or otherwise, follows the ESV here)
  2. Intentionally or not, the NLT reading makes faith causative in justification, i.e. we are justified because of our faith, instead of understanding faith as the instrument by which we receive Christ’s merits, i.e. justified by means of our faith.
  3. The NLT reading opens the door to the synergistic idea that our faith is itself meritorious, a “good work” that is at least partly responsible for our salvation.

So how does this stand in relation to a Reformational understanding of justification by faith?  Here are some excerpts from classic Systematics texts or confessions in the Reformed, Lutheran, and contemporary Evangelical veins (again, the emphasis is mine):

  • Louis Berkhof (Reformed):  “Scripture never says we are justified dia ten pistin, on account of faith.  This means that faith is never represented as the ground of our justification.”
  • Wayne Grudem (Evangelical): “Scripture says that we are justified ‘by means of’ our faith, understanding faith to be the instrument through which justification is given to us, but not at all an activity that earns us merit or favor with God.”
  • Book of Concord, Epitome of the Formula of Concord (Lutheran): “We believe, teach, and confess that faith alone is the means and instrument whereby we lay hold of Christ, and thus in Christ of that righteousness which avails before God, for whose sake this faith is imputed to us for righteousness”

It would seem here that the NLT’s translation is at odds with the traditional, Protestant understanding of God’s means of justification.  This saddens me a great deal and surprises me, given the NLT translation team for Galatians (one of whom I studied under at seminary and who I know firmly believes in justification by faith).

I’m looking for some interaction here, good readers…talk to me!

  • Do you think I’m making much of nothing?
  • Is my reading of the NLT not a plain, straightforward reading of the translation?
  • Is the NLT’s rendering here a deal-breaker for teaching justification by faith?

Update (6.3) — after being prompted by several of you, I emailed Dr. Tom Schreiner, who was on the NLT translation team for Galatians.  Part of his reply is included in the comments here.

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The God Who Uses Means, Part 2

My last post took a quick look at God’s providential use of means in the life of Israel during the wilderness wandering and in our lives each day over against idleness in the name of ‘faith.’  My point there was that we mustn’t use faith as an excuse for inaction when God has clearly provided means by which to accomplish his promises.  On the contrary, in faith, we utilize these plain, ordinary means God has graciously given us instead of expecting (or dare I say demanding) God to respond through some extraordinary means.

Is this a real shift in thinking for us?  For many of us it is not.  For some, however, especially in the Word-Faith movement, this might be a huge shift in understanding.  While I appreciate their openness to God’s extraordinary means, i.e. miracles, there is much in the movement that is deeply troubling–from the pragmatic problem of expecting  God to heal by miracle in lieu of seeking medical care to the theological problem of turning God into a jinn/genie at our beck and call.  While God certainly can and does use extraordinary means, they are just that, extra-ordinary.

Back to my focus…more from Luther on God’s use of means, plain and ordinary, to accomplish his will:

We aren’t supposed to question if God in his unchangeable wisdom is willing to help us and give us what we need.  Instead, we should say with conviction, “I believe that God will take care of me, but I don’t know his plan.  I don’t know exactly how he’s going to fulfill his promise.”

So we must take advantage of the opportunities we have at hand.  We have to earn our money through hard work and diligence.  In order to stay alive, we have to have milk, food, clothes, and so on.  This means we have to cultivate the fields and harvest the crops.  Providing for ourselves is a God-given responsibility.  We can’t use God’s promise to take care of us as an excuse for not working diligently.  That would be wrong.  God doesn’t want us to be lazy and idle.  He tells us in Genesis, “By the sweat of your brow you will ear your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken” (Gen 3.19).  He also says of the ground, “It will produce thorns and thistles for you” (v.18).

The Lord is saying, “I promise that I will take care of you and give you food.  But to the best of your ability, I want you to take advantage of the opportunities I have made available to you.  Otherwise, you will be testing me.  However, if you are in need and have nothing available to you, at that time I will take care of you and give yo food in a miraculous way.  But keep this in mind: if any opportunities aren’t available to you, don’t forget that I am the one who gave them to you so that you would be able to take care of yourselves.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:219)

field_grain_j0377876_wide

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The God Who Uses Means

hands_holding_worldLast night during family devotions, we studied Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4).  As we were reading and discussing this passage, I saw that the NLT Study Bible contains the following note regarding Jesus’ first temptation, “Israel complained constantly about hunger in the wilderness, but Jesus depended on God’s strength to sustain him.”  While I agree with what the writer says in contrasting Israel and Jesus, if not careful, one could take this notion of God’s providence to the extreme and arrive at a completely unbiblical passivity.  Such thinking goes well beyond any scriptural description of providence and preservation into the realm of a radically unscriptural fatalism and determinism.

Our faith in God and his providential care for us should give us great comfort in the face of any and all situations.  We mustn’t let our ‘faith’ paralyze us or lead us to inaction where God has provided a clear avenue to accomplish his ends.  In other words, we must realize that God is a god who uses means, both in the ‘big things’ and in the ‘little.’  As Luther writes:

Those who assume God will take care of everything and don’t think it’s important to make use of what’s available should carefully note this example [of Rebekah and Jacob in Gen 27].  These kinds of people sometimes don’t take any action, because they believe that if something is meant to happen, then it will happen with or without their help.  They even put themselves in unnecessary danger, expecting God to protect them because of his promises.

But these kinds of thoughts are sinful, because God wants you to use what you have available and make the best of your opportunities.  He wants to accomplish his will through you.  For example, he gave you a father and mother, even though he could have created you and fed you without them.  This means that in your everyday life, you have the responsibility to work.  You plow, plant, and harvest, but God is the one who provides the outcome.

If you stopped giving a baby milk, reasoning that the baby could live without food if the baby were meant to live, then you would be fooling yourself and sinning.  God has given mothers breasts to nurse their babies.  He could easily feed children without milk if he chose to.  But God wants you to use the resources he has provided.

So we plan diligently and labor vigorously, all the while knowing that our Heavenly Father is working his will in and through our efforts.  “So don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters.  Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens” (Jas 1.16-17, NLT)

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A Communion Hymn–”What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

The Future of the Lutheran Church

If the Lutheran Church has a future, it will be as the Lutheran Church. It will not be as imitation Baptists, Presbyterians, or anything else. If people are to become, remain, and rejoice in being Lutheran, it is because they understand the distinctively Lutheran way of being Christian. Being Lutheran is an evangelical catholic and catholic evangelical way of being in unity with the entire Church of Christ.  The present state of American Lutheranism is not just “not satisfactory.” It is a sickness unto death. The alternative is not beating the drums to revive flagging spirits, nor is it to move evangelism a few notches up on the bureaucratic agenda.   The alternative is renewal — theological, pastoral, sacramental, catechetical.  The alternative is to be something that others might have some reason to join.

Richard John Neuhaus, 1986 (quoted in Forum Letter March 09)

HT: Pr Matt Harrison

Luther on Courage and Comfort

Where do you turn in time of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty?  The world tends to turn to their accomplishments, their bank accounts, their talents, their vocations, their friends/family, their government, their (fill in the blank).  At face value, these sorts of things might seem to make sense until we realize that someone can always do some things better than we can, our bank accounts can bottom out in no time, someone else will always be more talented than we are, our jobs can be gone in a flash, our friends/family can forsake us, our governments can fail, and so on.  In a nutshell…there is absolutely nothing, inside or outside of us, we can depend on to ease our anxieties, fears, and uncertainties…not our accomplishments, our bank accounts, our talents, our vocations, our friends/family, our governments…even our faith.  There is nothing, that is, except Christ.  Speaking on John 14, Luther writes as eloquently as ever:

Christians can depend on nothing except Christ, their Lord and God.  For the sake of Christ, they surrender everything and declare, “Before I deny or leave my Christ, I will abandon food and drink, honor and possessions, house and property, spouse and child–everything.”  A Christian’s courage cannot be fake or weak.  It must be genuine and certain.  For Christians cannot encourage themselves with any temporary thing on this earth.  Instead, they cling only to the Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified and died for us.  So Christ will say, as he promises in this passage [Jn 14.16-17], “Because you acknowledge me, you have this advantage and this comfort.  Your courage won’t mislead you, for your Helper is the Spirit of truth.”  All other courage comes from the spirit of lies–a false spirit that cannot please God.  But whatever Christians do, or suffer, for their faith in the Lord Christ is done for the truth.  They have done what is proper and right.  They can boast truthfully and joyfully that what they have done is pleasing to God and the angels.  Christians can feel so confident that they don’t have to fear the devil or the world.  They don’t have to be afraid of any threat or terror.  Let this encourage you, for nothing on earth can comfort you more during times of need than a confident heart.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:119)

The anxiety, fear, and uncertainty of this present day is unlike any faced by many of us before.  While economic downslides, job losses, foreclosures, etc. certainly pale in comparison to the suffering and hardship faced by countless millions around the world every day, for many around the world, these days are grim.  Let us not cling to “any temporary thing on this earth,” for if we do we shall surely find ourselves disappointed.  Let us instead “depend upon nothing except Christ” and realize that in him we truly have nothing to fear.

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“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.’” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer's] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord's prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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The Essence of Salvation by Faith Alone

The Holy Scriptures undeniably describe faith as the only thing necessary for salvation.  They also teach that good works cannot justify a person before God or contribute in the least toward the attainment of salvation.  The Old Testament says that Abram ‘believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15.6).  Habakkuk testifies that ‘the righteous shall life by his faith’ (2.4), and Jeremiah cries, ‘Lord, aren’t You looking for loyalty?’ (5.3).

This doctrine stands in even stronger light in the books of the New Testament.  They remind us that faith, not works, is the way to salvation and blessedness.  Whenever a person sought help from Christ, we read that Christ looked only for faith. ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ (Mk 9.23),  Jesus told the father who needed help for his son and had failed to find it in the disciples.  To another father who had lost all hope for help with the report that his daughter was already dead, Jesus said, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’ (Lk 8.50).  When another suffering father directed his petition to Him, after seeking help from the disciples in vain, Jesus replied, ‘Let it be done for you as you have believed’ (Mt 8.13).  This was His usual answer to those who sought His help.  Therefore, the apostles’ Epistles speak in this manner: ‘And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom 4.5); ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apoart from works of the law’ (Rom 3.28); and ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2.8-9).  There is still more.  In John’s Gospel, we are told that the Jews once asked Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus replied by pointing to faith: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ (6.28-29).

Many are ashamed to seek salvation through faith in Christ, the Savior of the sinner, and instead they build their hope for eternity on their upright life.  They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works.  Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty.  If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses.  If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God hold before us.

Although our sin causes us to forfeit our claim to a blessed eternity, God once again opened to us the possibility of salvation through the offer of faith.  If He had not revealed this to us, all who had come to knowledge of their sinfulness would have had to live in despair and doubt.

May no one think that this doctrine is too holy for those who are weighed down by the knowledge of their sin.  However, it is dangerous to those who are happy in the midst of their sin.  Although love and good works save no one, both are still necessary as evidences that a person is truly standing in the saving faith.  Faith and love are related and inseparably connected like a father and his child.  Whoever says he is justified through faith before God must prove himself by his love before man.  Otherwise he is a liar, for faith works through love.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 235-6)

(Note:  I don’t normally just copy and post something in toto without any commentary or thoughts of my own, but piece surely stands on its own and needs nothing from me!)

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Luther and Lutherans aren’t exactly known for being bold or fervent prayer warriors, which is unfortunate.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  We are scorned by many Evangelicals for our prepared collects and carefully crafted prayers…though clearly the Holy Spirit is more glorified by extemporaneous prayers, right?  Sarcasm aside, Luther was a bold warrior in prayer, and he has much to teach us if we will only listen.  It is well known that he wrestled constantly against the Devil, but he was one also to wrestle with God in prayer…boldly.  As he says:

We should pray with confidence, knowing that God will answer our requests without delay.  It’s impossible for sincere, persistent prayer to remain unheard.  But because we don’t believe, we aren’t persistent enough and don’t experience God’s goodness and help.  So we must become more enthusiastic about faith and prayer, knowing that God is pleased when we persevere.  In fact, God ordered us to be persistent in prayer:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7).

Our prayers are answered much differently–actually, more generously–than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).  Paul says, “In the same way…” (Rom 8.26-27).

We always ask for less than we should and don’t even think God is willing to give us what we ask for.  We don’t ask the right way.  We don’t understand that what we pray about is more important than we can comprehend.  We think small, but the Lord is great and powerful.  He expects us to ask for great things.  He wants to give them to us to demonstrate his almighty power.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 6:158)

Let our own prayers be emboldened, and “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Heb 4.16 NLT).

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Luther on Faith and Works

Lutherans are often accused from without of being antinomian, in the pejorative sense, and teaching (formally or at least in practice) that God establishes no moral norms on the Christian believer.  This unfortunate reality is nothing more than the result of poor doctrinal instruction mingled with our uncanny sinful ability to rationalize sin.  Such a bastardized notion of “Christian freedom” may well be evident to some degree in American Lutheranism, but neither Scripture nor Martin Luther will have anything to do with it.

Luther properly understood and wonderfully articulated the distinction and close connection of faith and works.  Perhaps his most famous explanation comes from the opening pages of his work, “Concerning Christian Liberty,” where he writes, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”  This pithy maxim holds in proper tension the freedom we have from works as a means of justification and the obligation we have to serve our neighbors by our works.  Luther brings out the practical difficulty of teaching these truths in preaching and teaching when he writes on John 15:

Jesus is saying, “You are in me and remain in my, so make sure you keep my commandments.  For I must give each of you a task as a sign to others that you are my true branches.  That task is to love each other.  I keep this command myself so that I can be an example and model to you.  And I remain in my Father’s love because I keep this command.  Therefore, if you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Earlier in this book, Christ also says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13.35).

So there are two parts of Christian teaching that we must emphasize daily.  Neither faith nor works can be ignored.  For when faith isn’t preached–when no one explains how we are joined to Christ and become branches in him–then everyone resorts to their own works.  On the other hand, when we teach only about faith, this lopsidedness leads to false Christians.  These people praise faith, are baptized, and even call themselves Christians, but they don’t show any fruit or power.

That’s why it’s so difficult to preach.  No matter how I preach, something goes wrong.  Someone always goes off on a tangent.  If I don’t preach about faith, the result will be useless and hypocritical works.  If I only emphasize faith, no one does any good works.  The result is either useless, faithless do-gooders or believers who don’t do any good works.  So we must preach the message to those who accept both faith and works.  We must preach to those who want to remain in the vine, put their trust in Christ, and put their faith into action in their everyday lives.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 24:249)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, by God’s grace, let us hold fast to our unwavering faith in Christ and let us put our faith into action as we live out our lives each day.  Soli Deo gloria.

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More Luther on Youth Ministry

Martin Luther’s ideas shook up the mid-sixteenth century Roman Catholic Church, and they continue to shake up the Christian world today.  That said, no one that I know of looks to Luther often for progressive ideas about youth and children’s ministry, which is a mistake.  For those who aren’t familiar with Luther’s basic writings, his exposition of the Fourth Commandment in the Large Catechism provides wonderfully wise counsel to all those disciplining children and youth (cf. this post).  This morning, I found this jewel of a passage that speaks to youth ministry, children’s ministry, and how we all think about discipling our little ones.  Luther writes:

When children are old enough to begin grasping the concepts of faith, they should make a habit of bringing home verses of Scripture from church.  They should recite these verses to their parents at mealtime.  Then they should write the verses down and put them in little pouches or pockets, just as they put pennies and other coins in a purse.  Let the pouch of faith be a golden one.  Verses about coming to faith, such as Ps 51.5, John 1.29, Rom 4.25, and Rom 5.12, are like gold coins for that little pouch.  Let the pouch of love be a silver one.  The verses about doing good, such as Mt 5.11, Mt 25.40, Gal 5.12, and Heb 12.6, are like silver coins for this pouch.

No one should think they are too smart for this game and look down on this kind of child’s play.  Christ had to become a man in order to train us.  If we want to train children, then we must become children with them.  I wish this kind of child’s play was more widespread.  In a short time, we would see an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.  They would make more of these pouches, and by using them, they would learn all of Scripture.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW53:66)

The first paragraph speaks to those whose model of youth or children’s ministry focuses on entertainment to the exclusion or neglect of discipleship.  Entertainment as ministry, unfortunately, is probably the dominant practice in much of American Evangelicalism.  My experiences across several denomination lines show that a great majority of youth/children’s ministry tries at all costs to be hip, flashy, cool, engaging, relevant, etc. at the expense of any truly substantive teaching, catechesis, or discipleship.  [Unfortunately, this accusation could be leveled against much of what passes for ministry aimed at adults, too...but that's another subject entirely.]  Luther, however, will have none of it.  His emphasis on the importance of the Word of God in the Christian’s life begins at the very dawn of awareness.  Anyone with children or who has worked with children has seen first hand the incredible ability of children to memorize vast amounts of information.  Luther encourages us to take advantage of that great ability in our discipleship of these little ones.  And while rote memorization of Scripture must surely not be equated with true faith, let us not deny the admonition of Scripture to store God’s Word in our hearts (cf. Job 22, Ps 119, etc.).  We should be ashamed of the entertainment-obsessed but content-deprived nonsense that passes for youth and children’s ministry in many of our churches.

But wait!  Before you trendy, hip types get all riled up and you pious, catechetical types get all self-righteous…keep reading!

The next paragraph speaks more, in my experience, to those steeped in the more confessionally-minded traditions that emphasize the importance of catechesis.  Here the tendency toward rote memorization of potentially large amounts of information can be approached in such a manner as to be just plain boring and genuinely non-engaging to heart and mind.  Luther reminds us that we must become child-like to train children, which means our approaches need to connect at a child’s level…this may involve upbeat music, faster-paced interactions, multimedia, etc. as part of our catechesis and teaching.  Whatever it does look like, as we ‘become children with them’ we can rejoice in the eventual fruit of our labors, seeing ‘an abundance of Christian people rich in Scripture and in the knowledge of God.’

Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth here?  Absolutely not.  To condescend and be child-like by using pedagogical methods that truly allow our children to hear and learn (the second point) does not necessitate being childish by our neglect of teaching (the first point).  The difficulty comes in balancing the two, something that is honestly much more difficult than both parties usually wish to admit.  Entertainment-driven approaches historically tend to be weak on content, resulting in a failure to engage the mind and a lack of true instruction in the doctrines of the faith.  Catechetical approaches historically tend toward monotony, resulting in a failure to engage the heart and a lack of sincere devotion to Christ.  While both approaches are utilized in great sincerity, both extremes are failures for one reason or another.

Doing youth and children’s ministry/discipleship/catechesis well and doing it faithfully a difficult and oftentimes thankless endeavor.  Thanks be to God for our many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who labor in this vitally important ministry area!   May Christ never cease to grant you the strength to be faithful!

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More Thoughts on Vocation

As I’ve written about before here and here, one of the great contributions of the Lutheran wing of the Reformation to Christian theology was the emphasis on vocation and the normalcy of the “ordinary” Christian life.  While Luther wrote on this quite a bit, the emphasis on the theology of vocation did not die within Lutheran circles.  This excerpt comes from the pen of C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  His take on vocation has a different emphasis from Luther’s and focuses on the Christian living out his or her life and vocation as a testimony to our faith:

We see that Christians should justify their faith before the world, above all, by conscientiousness and faithfulness in their offices and callings.  Unfortunately, many who show themselves as zealous Christians in pious exercises are slow, careless, and unfaithful in their callings.  They think the essence of Christianity consists of diligent praying and reading and churchgoing, of refraining from the vanity of the world, of pious speech, and of the holy appearance of many works.  When the world sees that those who boast of faith are indeed diligent in such seemingly holy exercises but are unfaithful in their work, as well as terrible spouses, parents, and workers, the world concludes that the faith of the Christians is an idle speculation, making people useless for this life.  In addition, it views Christians as either poor beggars or hypocritical deceivers.

Therefore, whoever wants to be a Christian must justify his faith before the world by the manner in which he conducts himself in his vocation.  The faith of a husband and father leads him to care for the temporal needs and the eternal salvation of his family, to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and to raise his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  The faith of a wife and mother prompts her to be subject to her husband in all humility, standing at his side as a true helper, caring for her children with tenderness, and teaching them the first letters of saving knowledge.  The faith of a businessman results in good work for his customers; if he works for himself, he does not enrich himself from the sweat of the poor, but rather regards his poor workers as better than himself.  The faith of the servant or day laborer is revealed in work that is performed, not for the sake of mere wages or for display before the eyes of men, but to serve men as Jesus Christ Himself.  The faith of those who work in churches, schools, and communities causes them to act out of love for their Savior rather than for financial or other worldly gain.

In all our pursuits, let us demonstrate that faith makes us the best we can be.  In this way, we justify our faith before the world.

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John Chrysostom Day

John Chrysostom was a presbyter and preacher in the fourth-century church at Antioch.  He eventually was made patriarch of Constantinople and was a revered preacher and teacher of God’s word.  His sermons are famously Christ-centered and wonderfully direct.  These words today come from a homily on First Timothy:

“He gave Himself a ransom,” he said, how then was He delivered up by the Father?  Because it was of His goodness.  And what does “ransom” mean?  God was about to punish them, but He did not do it.  They were about to perish, but in their stead He gave His own Son and sent us as heralds to proclaim the cross.  These things are sufficient to attract all and to demonstrate the love of Christ.  So truly, so inexpressibly great are the benefits that God has bestowed upon us.  He sacrificed Himself for His enemies, who hated and rejected Him.  What no one would do for friends, for brothers, for children, that the Lord has done for His servants; a Lord not Himself such a one as His servants, but God for men, for men not deserving.  For had they been deserving, had they done His pleasure, it would have been less wonderful.  But that He died for such ungrateful, such obstinate creatures, this is which strikes every mind with amazement.  For what men would not do for their fellow-men, that has God done for us!

Awesome stuff!  Our God in Christ is a “God for men, for men not deserving.”  Amen.

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The New Iconoclasm

Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the theology behind them, and a brief outline of the history of iconoclasm (“icon smashing”).  Though he doesn’t develop the point further, as it does not pertain to the thrust of his article, one line has been running around my mind since I read it.  He says:

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).

Throughout history, but especially since the time of the Reformation (at least in the West), people have reacted violently against icons and have worked themselves up into a frenzy at times to destroy them with great violence and rage.  This iconoclasm, Fr. Stephen writes, is “a spirit of hate and anger…[mistakenly] attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance.”  It is a sad testimony to Christian history, that brothers and sisters in Christ have reacted so violently against one another, especially in the name of piety and purity.

As unfortunate as religious iconoclasm is, my contemplation has not focused on God’s work and iconography but on God’s work and humanity.  Judaism and Christianity have always maintained that men and women (i.e. all of humanity), are wonderfully made in the image of God, the imago Dei.  In Genesis 1, we read:

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image.
In the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.  (Gen 1.26-27, NLT)
God is the original icon maker, and the original icon (image) of God is humanity.  Sadly, our society reacts toward these icons created of flesh and blood in exactly the same way as the Iconoclasts reacted against the icons created of gold and paint–with violence, hatred, and rage.   Murder, abortion, rape, verbal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, hatred, racism, genocide, pornography, and violence / abuse of all kinds…these are the “new iconoclasm.”
The legacy of religious iconoclasm, according to Fr. Stephen, is secularization.  But what of the legacy of this “new iconoclasm”?  May God have mercy upon us…
Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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Luther on Living in Christ

There is no doubt that Martin Luther was tormented regularly by sin’s accusations against him, especially in his early years as a monk.  As mentioned previously, I share this struggle from time-to-time, which quite honestly was part of the initial enticement to read Luther.  Fortunately, Luther received some wise counsel from his Father Confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, who repeatedly pointed him back to the cross.  Luther ran with this advice and repeated it to his hearers again and again.

Luther asks, “What should you do when the thought of death frightens you and your conscience bothers you?”

Continue to live in Christ.  You must believe that you can accomplish nothing by your own works and that the only way is through Christ’s righteousness.  John 6.29 says that the work of God is believing in the one he has sent.  So when Nathan corrected David, and David confessed his sin, Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin.  You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12.13).  David simply lived in grace.  He didn’t even think about trying to satisfy God with his works.  When Nathan said, “The LORD has taken away your sin,” he was proclaiming the message of grace.  And David believed it.

After Adam sinned, he could do nothing that would bring him into a state of grace.  But God said that one of his descendants would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3.15).  It was by this promise Adam was made alive.  Because he believed in this word, he was saved and justified without any works.  Our nature struggles fiercely against being saved without our works and tries to deceive us with a grand illusion of our own righteousness.  So we may find outselves attracted to a life that merely appears to be righteous.  Or because we know we aren’t righteous, we may be frightened by death or sin.  Therefore, we must learn that we should have nothing to do with any way of becoming righteous except through Christ alone.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 30:263)

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Luther on Hard Sayings of Scripture

When it comes to God’s Word and how God deals with us, we shouldn’t worry whether or not it makes sense.  If you want to be a Christian and understand the teachings of the Christian faith, you shouldn’t judge the Christian doctrines with your mind to find out whether or not they sound correct.  In stead, you should immediately say, “I’m not asking how it all makes sense.  All I need to know is whether it is God’s Word or not.  If God said it, then that decides it.”  Often I have warned you not to argue about lofty, spiritual matters or try to figure them out.  For as soon as you try to make sense of them and put them in terms you can understand, you slip and fall…These teachings transcend our reason.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 23:78)

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Luther on Pouring Our Sins on Christ

One of the greatest struggles in the Christian life is that against the torment and accusation of sin.  Those without a well-developed understanding of the great horrors of sin are sometimes free from this burden, but others can be tormented by their sins to the point of despair.  I admit, I tend to gravitate toward despair…and therefore, I find great comfort in these words of Luther.  Writing on 2 Cor 5.21, he says:

When you become aware of your sin and frightened by it, you must not allow the sin to remain in your conscience.  This would only lead to despair.  Rather, just as your awareness of sin flowed to you from Christ, so you must pour your sin back on him to free your conscience.

So be careful you don’t become like the misguided people who allow their sin to bite at them and eat at their hearts.  They strive to rid themselves of this sin by running around doing good works.  But you have a way to get rid of your sins.  You throw your sins on Christ when you firmly believe that Christ’s wounds and suffering carried and paid for your sins.  As Isaiah said, “The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53.6).  Peter said Christ himself “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2.24).  And Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5.21).

You must rely on these and similar verses with your whole heart.  The more your conscience torments you, the more you must rely on them.  For if you don’t do this and try to quiet your conscience through your own sorrow and penance, you will never find peace of mind and will finally despair in the end.  If you try to deal with sin in your conscience, let it remain there, and continue to look at it in your heart, your sins will become too strong for you.  They will seem to live forever.  But when you think of your sins as being on Christ and boldly believe that he conquered them through his resurrection, then they are dead and gone.  Sin can’t remain on Christ.  His resurrection swallowed up sin.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 42:12)

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Why Do We Need Ongoing Forgiveness?

Over at Chaos and Old Night, Fraiser has a great post asking and answering the question, “Why do we need ongoing forgiveness?”  As another refugee from Evangelicalism, he eloquently points out the flaws in much of the contemporary Christian thinking about the necessity of confession and demonstrates the grace of God in action through our justification and sanctification.

Read it…mull it over…enjoy it…

Thanks, John!

Still More Luther on Prayer

For the Christian, prayer is part of what we are.  It should be more than second nature, it should be first nature…and yet, for many of us, we struggle throughout our lives trying to develop our “prayer life” to the point of our own satisfaction.  Many times, especially in times of backsliding, we often hesitate to pray, thinking that our prayers will not be heard on account of our complete lack of personal righteousness.  This line of thinking, however, is incorrect.   Our prayers are never heard because of anything inherent in us, but are heard and answered solely because of the faithfulness and mercy of God.  As Luther says, writing on Luke 18.9-14:

Some say, “I would feel better about God hearing my prayer if I were more worthy and lived a better life.”  I simply answer:  If you don’t want to pray before you feel that you are worthy or qualified, then you will never pray again.  Prayer must not be based on or depend on your personal worthiness or the quality of the prayer itself; rather, it must be based on the unchanging truth of God’s promise.  If the prayer is based on itself or on anything else besides God’s promise, then it’s a false prayer that deceives you–even if your heart is breaking with intense devotion and you are weeping drops of blood.

We pray because we are unworthy to pray.  Our prayers are heard precisely because we believe that we are unworthy.  We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.

As usual, Luther totally nails this, “We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.”   Yes!  Prayer is risky business, not because of our unrighteousness but because of our complete and utter dependence upon God!

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Luther on the Danger of Public Praise

In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye.  He writes:

By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.  This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14).  Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.  If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips.  He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.

Many things can keep our lips shut:  the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.  The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life.  And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…

Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous.  This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil.  For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned?  All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)

While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky,  I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc.  And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here.  For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).

It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!

Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross.  Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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How Can I Find Peace With God?

“How are we made right in the sight of God?”  “How can I find peace with God?”  “How can I right the many wrongs I have done in my life?”  Left to answer these and similar questions from reason or some other faculty, man inevitably conjures up some sort of works, either to accomplish or from which to refrain, in hopes of finding peace with God.  All human efforts to find favor in the eyes of God surely fail, as we are all corrupt in heart and soul, word and deed, thought and desire.  Martin Luther rightly recognized from the Bible that the answer to all of these questions is found only in Christ Jesus, in whom (by faith) is our hope, peace, trust, joy, and salvation.  He writes:

As St. Peter says, we acquire a new and clean heart, and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator. And although sin in the flesh has not yet been altogether removed or become dead, yet He will not punish or remember it.

And such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins is followed by good works. And what there is still sinful or imperfect also in them shall not be accounted as sin or defect, even [and that, too] for Christ’s sake; but the entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ.  Therefore we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord, namely, that he has a gracious God. For thus all is well.  We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true. (Smalcald Articles, XIII)

The simple truth of the Christian faith must never be obscured and can never be compromised.

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Luther on Christ’s Victory

Peace is something for which we all strive, hope, and long.  A lack of peace from physical troubles, emotional troubles, and spiritual troubles is something that plagues each of us from time to time or season to season.  Jesus spoke of giving us peace–peace that was possible because of his victory over the world; victory that came as the cost of his perfect life, suffering, death (cf. Jn 16.33).

His victory is our hope.  Luther writes:

We should learn to remind ourselves of Christ’s victory.  In Christ, we already have everything that we need.  We live only to spread this message of victory to other people.  With our words and example, we tell them about the victory that Christ secured for us and gave to us.  Christ, our victor, accomplished everything.  We don’t need to add anything to it.  We don’t need to wipe away our own sins or try to conquer death and the devil.  Everything has already been done for us.  We’re not fighting the real battle.  We’re only suffering now in order to share in Christ’s victory…The battle must have been won already if we are to have any comfort and peace.  Christ says, “I have already won.  Accept my victory.  Sing about it and glority it.  Take comfort in it.”…

May God help us to hold onto to Christ’s victory during our troubles and when we’re dying.  Even though we don’t understand these words of Christ completely, we can still believe in them in times of trouble and reassure ourselves: “My Lord and Savior spoke thse words to my heart.  In Christ I have a victor over the world, death, and the devil.  It doesn’t matter how small and weak I am.  Amen.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:421)

Let us comfort ourselves with these words…we have a victor in Christ Jesus, no matter how small and weak we are!   Amen.

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Luther on Vocation

As mentioned previously here, Luther possessed a revolutionary understanding of individual vocation that ran counter to the medieval understanding of his day.  For his contemporaries, some callings, jobs, positions, etc. were inherently more holy and/or pleasing to God than others.  A priest, for example, was held in higher esteem in the Christian community because of his overt service to God, while a housemaid would have been looked down upon as a merely common. 

Though separated by several centuries, this same sentiment is alive and well in some circles of Christianity today, including some parts of Evangelicalism.  How often do we speak of those who have ‘surrendered to vocational ministry’ as though they are somehow living lives that are more pleasing to God than, say, a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and care for her children?  Why is it there such great pressure in some circles to steer young people towards missionary work, full-time church work, or other ministry-related vocations?  Is this phenomenon truly the result of a clear need within the church, or is there some part of us that still thinks like our medieval predecessors?  Luther will have none of this thinking!  He writes:

Everyone has a calling in life.  Believers serve God when they whole-heartedly take care of their responsibilities.  An official who governs well serves God.  A mother who cares for her children, a father who goes to work, and a student who studies diligently are all servants of God.

Many overlook this God-pleasing lifestyle because they consider simple, day-to-day work insignificant.  They look instead for other work that seems more difficult and end up becoming disobedient to God…God requires that believers work hard at their callings without worrying about what anyone else is doing.  Yet few people do this…

Few people are content with their callings.  However, there is no other way to serve God except simply living by faith, sticking to your calling, and maintaining a clear conscience.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 3:128)

Are you a mega-church pastor, small-church parson, unappreciated youth minister, or some other church worker?  Great–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you an engineer, factory worker, retail sales associate, or fast food server?  Wonderful–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you ‘just’ a father, mother, or single-person seeking to honor and glorify God in your daily walk?  Thanks be to God–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

See the similarities?  I hope so.

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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On Loving Our Neighbors

Loving our neighbors is one of the greatest challenges in both the Old and New Testaments.  Our sinful nature and selfishness make us naturally put ourselves first, in direct contradiction to the command of God.  Added to this, our contemporary American culture and its infatuation with the supremacy of the self has lessened any cultural emphasis on selflessly helping others in need.  Sadly, contemporary American Christianity is following our culture’s emphasis on the infatuation with self and has done little to sound the clarion call to love and serve our neighbors.

Historically, however, this self-centered approach is foreign to a Christ-centered understanding of Christianity (and a conservative approach to Judaism).  Writing on Galatians 5.14, Luther says:

No one should think they fully understand this command: “Love your neighbor.”  Certainly this command is very short and very easy as far as the words are concerned.  But where are the teachers and learners who actually practice this in life?  These words, “Serve one another humbly in love,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are eternal words.  No one can think about, urge, and practice them enough.

Tuesday and Wednesday, I had the wonderful opportunity to head to Galveston with several other members of the Texas Air National Guard and help serve lunches at Moody Memorial UMC.  The church, together with Lighthouse Charities, has been preparing and serving lunches free of charge to anyone in town since folks were let back on the island after Ike.  Though we still have a ‘blue roof’ and much of our fence blown down in the back yard, our lives have largely returned to pre-storm normal.  Going to Galveston, however, I was reminded that a great number of people will be feeling the effects of Ike will be felt for many, many months to come.  This was my first post-Ike trip to Galveston and the devastation, though expected in my mind, was still shocking.  As resiliant as folks on the island are, it will still be a long, long time until life settles into a “new normal.”  Until then, as everyday if we will simply look around, there are countless opportunities to love and serve our neighbors…if we will only practice the words we know so well.

A new friend, Randall, going through the damage in Galveston after Ike.

 

Luther on God’s Ways

Anyone who has been a believer for any time at all will soon come to a point in life where they simply wonder why God has acted the way he has or allowed things to play out the way they did.  I suppose there is comfort in knowing that, “Why?” is one of the universal questions of the Christian life.  Luther says:

God leads and directs his people in mysterious ways.  In the Bible, we read, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (Ps 77.19).  Christ himself told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (Jn 13.7).  Christ seems to be saying, “You want to see me and want me to do what seems good and right to you.  But I will act in a way that will make you think I’m a fool rather than God.  You will see my back, not my face.  You won’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.  Then I’ll be able to mold you and remold you the way I would like.  My methods may appear as foolish to you as if they were from the devil himself.”

We need to learn how God guides his people as they grow and develop.  I too have often tried to dictate to our Lord God a certain way in which I expect him to run things.  I have often said, “O Lord, would you please do it this way and make it come out that way?”  But God did just the opposite, even though I said to myself, “This is a good suggestion that will bring honor to God and expand his kingdom.”  Undoubtedly, God must have laughed at my so-called wisdom and said, “All right, I know that you are an intelligent, educated person, but I never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else to teach, inform, rule, or guide me.  I am not a God who will allow himself to be taught or directed by others.  Rather, I am the one who leads, rules, and teaches people.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:103)

Oh, how often have I prayed in this way?!  “God, please make this happen in just this way…”  Why must I need reminding that my seeming intellect is foolishness in the sight of an omnipotent God?  There is some consolation that, just as God never needs me to enlighten him, so too he “never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else.”  At least if I’m getting a great lesson in humility, I can enjoy good company!

In all seriousness, when events play out exactly opposite of the way they think, why do I question God, his goodness, or his wisdom?  Should I not be reminded that even Job, who was “blameless and upright…who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1.1) did not receive an answer when he asked God, “Why?”  What should I, a much greater sinner, expect when asking the same question?  Should we not be reminded that God has said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55.9, ESV)?  There are times when I need to be reminded more personally that God has spoken these words to me, “So are my ways higher than T.C.’s ways and my thoughts than T.C.’s thoughts.”  As much as anyone, I need to be reminded that those pieces of paper on the wall that the world puts so much faith in are really laughable in the wisdom and sight of God…

True wisdom comes not from education or the reading of many books (or blogs!) but from humbly walking with Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Luther on Hard Questions

One of the areas I wrestled with most over my years in Reformed theology was its insistence on not only asking but attempting to answer some very ‘hard questions’ about God, his will, and his ways.  As much as the hidden will of God was discussed, there was always lots and lots of speculation about the hidden things of God, especially among contemporary Reformed types.  For example, these often unanswerable questions are invariably raised in discussions about the Fall (Gen 3).  As usual, Luther brings his wise counsel to the table:

This passage (Gen 3) raises a lot of questions.  Some people become curious and ask, “Well, why did God permit Satan to lute Eve into sin?  Why did Satan appear to Eve in the form of a serpent instead of some other animal?”

No one can explain why God permits things to happen.  No one understands what he does or why he does it.  So we should remember the lesson that Job learned: no one can summon God into court to account for what he does or allows to happen.  We might as well argue with him about why the grass and trees aren’t green all year long.  It’s enough for us to know that all these things are under God’s power.  He can do as he pleases.  Idle curiosity causes guessing and questioning…

As much as there is still a part of me that wants to answer these sorts of difficult “Why?” questions to vainly prove my mastery of theology and philosophy (read with a great dose of sarcasm), I’m reminded by my son that “Why?” is often an immature response to situations we dislike.  Very rarely, even (or perhaps especially) in the area of theology, do we attempt to ask and answer “Why?” questions out of a spirit of humility and childlike wonder.  Instead, we concoct great speculations which often serve only to puff up.

Added to this, in times of great personal tragedy, there really is no good pastoral answer to the question of “Why?”  Then is not the time to speculate on the mysteries of Providence.  Instead, it is the time to grieve and pray with our hurting brothers and sisters in Christ.  “No one can explain why God permits things to happen,” Luther writes.  We can, however, surely know how God feels about us, his children–one glance at the cross yields the unmistakable answer!  Amen.

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Worthless Things

I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest!  This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.

In Psalm 119, I read:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.  (Ps 119.37, ESV)

That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important.  Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom.  Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.

Then in Matthew, I read:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 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,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)

No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ!  Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:

  • Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
  • Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
  • Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means

To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.

Sure, it’s simple.  Sure, we’ve heard this countless times.  Sure, we know these things to be true…

…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often.  Thanks be to God for his grace!

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Luther on Crying Out to God

In my little corner of the world, there has been much talk recently about calling on God for help in times of trouble.  While many want God to come to their rescue at a moment’s notice, few seem willing to struggle and wrestle in prayer…instead praying haphazardly or ‘as if you’re shouting into the wind.’  “In this case,” Luther says, “it would be better not to pray at all.”  Instead, teaching on Psalm 118, Luther says:

You must learn to call on the Lord.  Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you.  Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are.  Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum!  Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven.  Read a psalm.  Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.”  This passage [Ps 118.5] teaches us to call on him.  Similarly, David said, “I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble” (Ps 142.2).  God wants you to tell him your troubles.  He doesn’t want you to keep them to yourself.  He doesn’t want you to struggle with them all alone and torture yourself.  Doing this will only multiply your troubles.

God knows you will be too weak to overcome your troubles by yourself.  He wants you to grow strong in him.  Then he will be the one who receives the glory.  Out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.  Without troubles, people talk a lot about faith and the Spirit but don’t really know what these things are or what they’re saying.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 14:60)

The point is quite simply this:  In his great mercy, through Christ Jesus, God has provided us:

  • An ear for our complaints
  • Companionship in times of loneliness
  • Strength in times of weakness
  • Perseverance in times of impatience
  • Help when we are overwhelmed
  • Growth in times of struggle
  • Relief in times of inundation

That said, as earthly fathers often restrain themselves from helping their children until asked in order to teach their children trust, reliance, and hope, so our Heavenly Father teaches us to cry out to him in our time of need.  And he will answer us through reassurance from his Word, a gentle word from others, physical aid from others, the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7), or another means.  Even if he delays, we may continue to hope, knowing that “out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.”

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Luther on Hurricanes (and Trusting God)

By no deliberate choice of my own, I read the following words from Dr. Luther the morning after Hurricane Ike had ravaged our part of the world between Galveston and Houston.  In fact, while reading this, the wind was still blowing, our roof was still leaking, and shingles occasionally left their happy abode on our roof and drifted to the ground.  Writing on Matthew 6, Luther says:

We can’t seem to let go of our anxieties and worries as long as we live.  Yet God gives us everything we need hour by hour, without needing any assistance from us.  So why do we keep on having foolish fears and anxieties about trivial little needs, as though God can’t or won’t supply us with food and shelter?  We should hang our heads in shame when people point out this foolishness to us.  Yet foolish is the only way to describe those rich, well-fed people who are always worried about having a full pantry.  They have plenty of food on hand to serve nourishing meals, but they never share a meal with anyone or invite dinner guests.  They have empty beds but never ask anyone to spend the night.

Accordingly, Christ is plainly telling us what foolish people we are.  It should be enough to make us want to spit on ourselves in utter disgust.  Still, we continue to grope along in our blindness, even though it’s obvious that we’re incapable of providing for our basic needs without God.  This alone should be enough to make us Christians and to keep this thought in mind: ‘Undoubtedly, I never held in my own hands even one fleeting moment of my life.  If I must trust God for my very life and limb, why should I worry about how I’m going to find nourishment from day to day?’  Not trusting God for our daily needs is like having a wealthy father who is willing to lavish thousands of dollars on us, yet not being able to trust him for money in an emergency.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 21:195)

There have been only a few times in my nearly 35 years when I have been totally conscious of my utter dependence upon God “hour by hour” for not only ‘the big things’ but for my very existence.  The evening Ike made landfall and plowed up Galveston Bay was one of those times.  For the span of what seemed like days, the wind howled in anger, rain pounded our house trying (not entirely in vain) to get inside, trees bent over prostrate in deference to the tempest, and shingles beat continually against the roof before their silence betrayed their absence.  The experience was a twelve-hour long total sensory overload intensified by the fact that it all occurred at night, which denied me the ability to see what was happening as it also denied me the ability to sleep for almost 40 hours.

It has been years since I have been acutely aware that, “Undoubtedly, I never held in my own hands even one fleeting moment of my life.”  If you have never been in such a situation, be it from disaster, combat, illness, accident, etc., unfortunately I can neither adequately describe it to you nor can you truly completely comprehend (beyond theological or mental assent) the truth of Luther’s statement.  For those who have been here and returned to the normalcy or ‘new normalcy’ or life post-event, you know exactly what Luther is saying.  Even when losing the entirety of our material possessions, as so many in this area have…or perhaps I should say especially when losing our possessions, we can answer in faith Luther’s rhetorical question, “If I must trust God for my very life and limb, why should I worry about how I’m going to find nourishment from day to day?”  The answer, of course, is quite simply this…in my own words:

I should not worry.  My God, who provides us life and existence from moment to moment will not fail to provide us everything we need.  His provision may not come in ways we expect, ways we are accustomed to, or ways that we necessarily enjoy, but his provision will come.  Of these things we can be sure.  He has proven himself faithful time and time again.

Thanks be to God for his great faithfulness, mercy, and grace in Christ Jesus!

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Writing on Matthew 6, Luther says:

You might wonder, “Why does God insist that we pray to him and tell him our problems?  Why doesn’t he take care of us without our having to ask?  He already knows what we need better than we do.”  God continually showers his gifts on the whole world every day.  He gives us sunshine, rain, good harvests, money, healthy bodies, and so on.  But we often neither ask God for these gifts nor thank him for them.  If God already knows that we can’t live without light or food for any length of time, then why does he want us to ask for these necessities?

Obviously, he doesn’t command us to pray in order to inform him of our needs.  God gives us his gifts freely and abundantly.  He wants us to recognize that he is willing and able to give us even more.  When we pray, we’re not telling God anything he doesn’t already know.  Rather, we are the ones gaining knowledge and insight.  Asking God to supply our needs keeps us from becoming like the unbelieving skeptics, who don’t acknowledge God and don’t thank him for his many gifts.

All of this teaches us to acknowledge God’s generosity even more.  Because we continue to search for him and keep on knocking at his door, he showers us with more and more blessings.  Everything we have is a gift from God.  When we pray, we should express our gratitude by saying, “Lord, I know that I can’t create a single slice of my daily bread.  You are the only one who can supply all of my needs.  I have no way to protect myself from disasters.  You know what I need ahead of time, so I’m convinced that you will take care of me.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 21:144)

“You know what I need ahead of time, so I’m convinced that you will take care of me.”  In the path of the storms of life, even the literal ones (i.e., Ike), we can take great comfort in these words!

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

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Counting the Cost

iMonk has written a powerful piece on the true cost of discipleship for some of the students to whom he ministers.  As I read and re-read his words, I could not get some of his pointed words out of my head…

As I am standing in front of this young woman, and I’m thinking how easily we present Christ to these students; how we sing songs and have fun; how our biggest obstacle is boredom; how we never give a thought to real persecution; real cost or real suffering.

How true!  How often do we bicker, argue, or even change congregations because we are bored?!  Bored with the preaching.  Bored with the teaching.  Bored with the fellowship.  Bored with the worship.  Though there are real problems with many churches, many times we are quick to ‘jump ship’ or even imagine (i.e. rationalize) problems are more serious than they really are, to the point where we break fellowship without giving it a second, or first, though.  We can come up with many, many excuses, but they all fall short and ring hollow in the face of real crises of faith.

You never thought about it, because it never cost you much to follow Jesus, but that’s because you are following Jesus in the world of the comfort addicted, tolerance intoxicated west, not the world where parents and family can justify your exile and even execution for being a Christian.

Amen.  Many of us in the West would be hard pressed to truthfully say we had given up anything to follow Christ.  Maybe we’ve suffered some ridicule.  That’s probably about it.  Big deal.  The notion (let alone the reality) that following Christ may result in family ostracism or death is as far-fetched to us a science-fiction novel.

We should follow Michael’s lead in praying for those who live in need of Christ as well as those who believe at great personal risk to family and self.  We should also pray for those of us who are so woefully naive and detached from the reality facing our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

Kyrie eleison; Christe eleison; Kyrie eleison.
Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
Lord have mercy; Christ have mercy; Lord have mercy.

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Luther on the Genuine Gospel

In a word directed to preachers/pastors, Luther provides some wonderful counsel we can all use to evaluate the content of the sermons we are hearing and books we are reading.  The touchstone?  Jesus Christ, of course:

The book of 1 Peter is a wonderful letter and a model for us.  Peter begins by explaining who Christ is and what we have received through him.  he says that God has given us a new birth to a living hope through Christ’s resurrection.  Likewise, the Father out of pure mercy has given us everything, apart from our merit.  These are genuinely evangelical words that must be preached.

May God help us.  How little of this message we find in other books!  Even among the best, such as those written by Jerome and Augustine, we find hardly anything.  Therefore, we must preach about Jesus Christ, that he died and rose from the death and why he died and was resurrected.  We must preach so that the people will believe in him and through faith be saved.

This is what it means to preach the true gospel.  Any preaching that is different than this is not the gospel, no matter who preaches it.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 30:9)

If, in our churches, devotional lives, and personal reading, we find that our preaching/teaching centers on anything other than Christ crucified and risen for us…we would do well to seek out the genuine gospel elsewhere!

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More Luther on Prayer

Writing on Psalm 51, Luther says:

I have learned from my own experience that praying is often the most difficult thing to do.  I don’t hold myself up as a master of prayer.  In fact, I admit that I have often said these words coldly: “God, have mercy on me.”  I prayed that way because I was worried about my own unworthiness.  Yet ultimately the Holy Spirit convinced me, “No matter how you feel, you must pray!”  God wants us to pray, and he wants to hear our prayers–not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:314)

“…not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful”  Beautiful reminder!

Luther on Making Time for Prayer

More good advice from Dr. Luther:

It’s good to let prayer be the first thing you do in the morning and the last thing you do at night.  Be on guard against false, deceitful thoughts that say, “Wait awhile; you can pray in an hour  First, you must finish this or that.”  For with such thoughts, you turn away from prayer toward the business at hand, which surrounds you and holds you back so that you never get around to praying that day.

Of course, some tasks are as good as or better than prayer, especially during an emergency.  Nevertheless, we should pray continually.  Christ says to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking (Lk 11.9-11).  And Paul says that we should never stop praying (1 Th 5.17).  Likewise, we should continually guard against sin and wrongdoing, which can’t happen if we don’t fear God and keep his commandments in mind at all times.  In Psalm 1 we read about the one who is blessed: “His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night” (v.2).

We shouldn’t neglect the habit of true prayer and get caught up in necessary work–which usually isn’t all that necessary anyway.  We can end up becoming lazy about prayer, cold toward it, and tired of it, but the devil doesn’t get lazy around us.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 43:193)

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Luther on the Prosperity Gospel

It’s no secret that American Evangelical Christianity is obsessed with prosperity, health, wealth, material blessing, and positive self-image.  (Your honor, exhibits A, B, and C:  TBN, Joel Osteen, and Lakewood)  That statement isn’t even scandalous enough to draw a reaction on the blogosphere…it won’t even raise the readership of this post.  Unfortunately, such heresy is not new.  Preaching on John 6 and Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, Luther said:

Christ tells the people that they’re following him, not because of his teaching, but because of their stomachs, which they hold dear.  They were thinking to themselves, “Jesus is a great teacher for us!  He’ll give us freedom.  We will all be full and satisfied, getting whatever we want.”  In this passage, the Lord reveals what type of followers the gospel will attract.  Even today, the gospel attracts people who think it will fill their bellies, satisfy their desires, and help them here in this life.

This idea is so common today that I have almost become tired of preaching and teaching it.  People, pretending to be sincere disciples, come to hear a sermon.  But under this guise, they come only for personal gain.  However, the gospel wasn’t sent from heaven in order to allow people to fill their own bellies, take whatever they want, and do whatever they please.  Christ didn’t shed his blood for this purpose!
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 23:5)

Woe to us for focusing on solely material aspects of the abundant life (Jn 10.10) instead of recognizing the plentiful abundance we have at the cross through the complete forgiveness of our sins in Christ!  Let us not be blinded by the selfish desires of our sin but focus on the true mercies our Father showers on us each day through our brother and Savior, Jesus Christ!  Hallelujah!

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Luther on Ordinary Life

Luther’s understanding of vocation was revolutionary in the face of the medieval monasticism that surrounded him.  In contrast to the prevailing wisdom of the day, which held that some activities/vocations/callings were inherently more holy than others, Luther maintained that the seemingly ordinary life to which most believers were called was, in fact, a God-honoring calling.  Commenting on John 15.5, he writes:

False Christians cannot understand what Jesus is saying in this passage.  They wonder, “What kind of Christians are these people?  They can’t do anything more than eat and drink, work in their homes, take care of their children, and push a plow.  We can do all that and better.”  False Christians want to do something different and special–something above the everyday activities of an ordinary person.  They want to join a convent, lie on the ground, wear sackcloth garments, and pray day and night.  They believe these works are Christian fruit and produce a holy life.  Accordingly, they believe that raising children, doing housework, and performing other ordinary chores aren’t part of a holy life.  For false Christians look on external appearances and don’t consider the source of their works–whether or not they grow out of the vine.

But in this passage, Christ says that the only works that are good fruit are those accomplished by people who remain in him.  What believers do and how they live are considered good fruit–even if these works are more menial than loading a wagon with manure and driving it away.  Those false believers can’t understand this.  They see these works as ordinary, everyday tasks.  But there is a big difference between a believers works and an unbeliever’s works–even if they do the exact same thing.  For an unbeliever’s works don’t spring from the vine–Jesus Christ.  That’s why unbelievers cannot please God.  Their works are not Christian fruit.  But because a believer’s works come from faith in Christ, they are all genuine fruit.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:231)

Thanks be to God for the blessing of our ordinary lives and his pleasure with all of our labors that spring from the vine of Christ!

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Luther on Testing God

On the subject of testing God, Luther writes:

Deuteronomy 6 teaches us to trust that God will take care of us in good and bad times.  We shouldn’t become overconfident in times of plenty, but we also need to patiently endure times of adversity.  God will never leave us.  He will be near us in our troubles.  Unbelievers don’t have this confidence in God, because they put their trust in earthly things.

If what we need isn’t available to us, we have to rely on God’s promises.  If we don’t rely on God, we are testing him.  This is what Moses was writing about when he said, “as you did at Massah.”  At Massah, Israel complained and asked, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Ex 17.7).  The people didn’t trust God’s promises because he didn’t fulfill them in the time, place, or manner they expected.  Therefore, they gave up and stopped believing.  When we try to dictate to God the time, place, and manner for him to act, we are testing him.  At the same time, we’re trying to see if he is really there.  When we do this we are putting limits on God and trying to make him do what we want.  It’s nothing less than trying to deprive God of his divinity.  But we must realize that God is free–not subject to any limitations.  He must dictate to us the place, manner, and time that he will act.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 9:74)

When we talk, think, and write about testing God, we generally think along the same lines Luther discusses here.  At the same time, however, we usually fail to draw the conclusion that Luther rightly draws.  “If what we need isn’t available to us, we have to rely on God’s promises.  If we don’t rely on God, we are testing him” (emphasis mine).

In other words, testing God and/by relying on ourselves is, at its core, a manifestation of the sin of unbelief.  We usurp God’s throne, make ourselves out to be God, and attempt to take control because we do not trust God…we do not believe as we ought.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9.24, ESV)

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Luther on Trusting God

In times of “dark providences” (as a former pastor used to call them), many times our circumstances seem to be in complete contradiction with what we think they ought to be, or even what we have read as promises to us by God in Scripture.  No one, I think, experienced this more than Jacob.  If there was ever anyone certain to inherit blessing, he was one–child of Isaac, grandchild of Father Abraham, benefactor by faith of God’s promises (even as the younger son…remember the whole Esau episode?).  Yet just when he is seemingly about to marry and settle down within the land, Isaac kicks him out, sending him to Paddan-aram under orders not to marry a Canaanite (Gen 28).

At first blush, especially as those reading from the other side of history who know just how wicked those nasty Canaanites were, this request doesn’t sound too horrible…unless we stop to think about all that Jacob had to leave in order to marry a woman (actually women) who were simply different kinds of pagans than the Canaanites!  He left his family, his household, his inheritance, his means of support, his God (seemingly)…essentially everything he knew and had…and would not return for nearly 80 years.  Surely Jacob must have asked God, “Why me?  How can this be?  What about your promises?  What’s the deal!!!”

Writing on this account in Genesis, Luther has some wonderful words of counsel for any of us who face circumstances where it seems God has forsaken his promises…or even forsaken us.  In a nutshell, this lengthy and wonderful passage exhorts us to believe God’s Word, trust in his invisible work, and cling to him by nurturing our faith in Word and Sacrament.  It is definitely worth reading in its entirety:

This, then, is one of the wonderful examples of the divine government by which God shows that He requires confidence in His Word and promises, even if the opposite of what is contained in the promise happens. He does so in order that we may accustom ourselves to trust in God in things that are absent and are placed far out of our sight. For Jacob has the promised blessing, but he has it in accordance with faith, which is a matter of things that are hoped for, not of things that are visible (cf. Heb. 11:1). Thus I believe that God, who promises, loves me, has regard for me, cares for me, and will hear me; and this I regard as something present and at hand, although it is not visible. Therefore Jacob lives in faith alone. He is wretchedly cast out, is lonely and destitute, and has nothing in his hand but a staff and a morsel of bread in a little sack.

This is the beginning of the blessing, for what is begun through faith is not yet in one’s possession but is hoped for. Thus God has promised us eternal life and has given absolution and Baptism. This grace I have at hand through Christ; but I await eternal life, which is promised in the Word. Those who live by this Word are saintly and blessed; but the godless live only by bread, not by the Word. Therefore they do not believe and do not wait for eternal life. Jacob waited 77 years for the blessing that was to come. Now, after he has obtained it, he is forced to go into exile and begins his rule and priesthood with a very great cross, with a very great calamity, and with extreme poverty. He is forced to be cut off from his very dear parents, and his parents are cut off from their dearly beloved son for such a long time.

If a person looks at and hears this only in passing, he considers it unimportant and easy. But one learns by experience how difficult and full of trials it is to leave parents, a blessing, and an inheritance, and to flee to a place of wretchedness and poverty. This is the wonderful government of God which the flesh can by no means bear, for it is a government that consists in faith. But this is written as an example for us in order that we may learn to depend on the invisible God and to be satisfied with the fact that at all events we have the comprehensible Word of this invisible and incomprehensible God. And let us order our lives in such a way that we have nothing from our invisible Creator but the Word and the sacraments, likewise parents and magistrates, through whom this life is governed in accordance with the Word. And let us wait for the promise itself in hope and long-suffering, for God will not lie. Nor will He deceive us. To be sure, the flesh believes with difficulty; for it is accustomed to things that are at hand and is moved by the things it feels and sees. But the flesh must be crucified and mortified; it must be withdrawn from the things perceived by the senses and must learn, in order that it may be able to live and act in accordance with the things that are invisible and are not perceived by the senses. (Luther’s Works, 5:183)

Amen!  Thanks be to God!