Posts filed under ‘Common Questions’

Why Didn’t God Do A Better Job?

Thomas Aquinas

“If…then why?”  I have been asked many a question about God which involved these three words.  “If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to eat the forbidden fruit, then why did God put the tree there in the first place?”  “If God knew some people were going to reject Him, then why did He even create them?”  “If God is so good and loving, then why do so many bad things happen?”

Truth be told, there are no easy or complete answers to these questions.  Indeed, all of these questions have behind them the problem of “theodicy,” a term borrowed from Greek meaning, “the justice of God.”  Theodicy describes the struggle to reconcile the perfect justice of God’s character with the sinful injustice in the world He created.

I have blogged about the problem of theodicy before.  And yet, it is impossible to address this troubling issue exhaustively, for no human understands it completely.  So, there is always more to say.  Thus, I thought it might be helpful to interact with this problem once again from yet another angle.  This time, Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth century theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, gives us some keen insight into theodicy.

Aquinas, in his seminal work Summa Theologica, makes a distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power.  God’s absolute power refers to the nearly infinite number of possibilities which God could conceivably bring to pass while His ordained power describes what God actually does.  Aquinas writes of God’s absolute power:

Now God cannot be said to be omnipotent through being able to do all things that are possible to created nature; for the divine power extends farther than that. If, however, we were to say that God is omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible to His power, there would be a vicious circle in explaining the nature of His power. For this would be saying nothing else but that God is omnipotent, because He can do all that He is able to do. It remains therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject…and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject.[1]

Interestingly, even within the realm of God’s absolute power, Aquinas allows that there are certain things which are “absolutely impossible.”  That is, there are certain things not even God is able to do – not because they fall outside of the purview of His power, but because to demand them is utterly nonsensical.  For instance, the old cliché question “Can God make a rock so big He can’t move it?” is impossible to answer not because it exposes some hidden limit to God’s power, but because it doesn’t make any sense.  To answer this question with either a “yes” or a “no” is to compromise God’s omnipotence in some way.  In this sense, then, this question is not “possible” of God.  It is not possible at all.

Aquinas then goes on to speak of God’s ordained power:

We must say that God can do other things by His absolute power than those He has foreknown and pre-ordained He would do. But it could not happen that He should do anything which He had not foreknown, and had not pre-ordained that He would do, because His actual doing is subject to His foreknowledge and pre-ordination, though His power, which is His nature, is not so. For God does things because He wills so to do; yet the power to do them does not come from His will, but from His nature.[2]

This is heady stuff, but it is nevertheless important.  Aquinas explains that though there are many things God could do according to the omnipotence of His nature, there are many things God does not desire to do according to the foreknowledge of His will.  If God were to do these “other” things, these would be in contradiction to His perfect foreknowledge, thus compromising the integrity of one attribute of God – His foreknowledge – for another – His omnipotence.  And if God’s foreknowledge is compromised, ultimately, so is His omnipotence.  For then God is not powerful enough to figure out even what He Himself is doing!

Thus, the only way we can understand the power of God is in what God actually does, not in what we wish He would do.  This means, much to our chagrin, our many “If…then why” questions and accusations of God are futile.  For we cannot deal with God theoretically and abstractly in His absolute power, we can only deal with Him realistically and concretely in His ordained power.

We are not the first generation to speculate concerning the possibilities of God’s absolute power over and against the realities of His ordained power.  The fifteenth century Roman Catholic Desiderius Erasmus found many of the speculative questions the armchair theologians of his day were asking to be deplorable:

  • Can God undo the past, such as making a harlot into a virgin?
  • Could God have become a beetle or a cucumber, instead of a human?[3]

And you thought we had tough questions of God!  Although the questions we ask concerning God’s absolute power may strike us as slightly less silly, they are nevertheless of the same ilk as the questions of Erasmus’ day.  For they are conjectures based on nothing more than the supercilious speculations of our fertile imaginations.

So what does all this mean?  On the one hand, it means that questions concerning why God created human beings if He knew they were going to sin and make a mess out of His world are not only unanswerable, they’re foolish.  Alternate scenarios of the way God could have done things can be multiplied ad infinatum.  The problem with these scenarios is that just when someone imagines one scenario that is better than the one we currently have, someone else imagines yet another scenario better than the already imagined one.  Thus, even if we had another scenario, we would likely be imagining still other scenarios and asking God why we did not have those!  To speculate about other scenarios that ask God “Why didn’t You do things this way?” is only to lead us down a careening path of theoretical improvement that ultimately leads and ends nowhere.  On the other hand, we can also rest assured that, according to God’s ordained power, it’s not as if God doesn’t know what He’s doing.  After all, everything is here and is the way it is according to God’s foreknowledge.  In other words, He knew things were going to turn out this way all along.  The question is:  Do we trust that God knows what He’s doing in His ordained power, or do we belligerently complain to God, explaining how we could have done a better job than He?

Finally, speculation about the way things could be or the way we think things should be leads only to frustration.  We have what is; not what is not.  But we also hope for what will be.  Though there is sin and despair in this world right now, it will not be this way forever.  God has promised to us perfection at the Parousia.  And His foreknowledge is immutable.  This assures us that this perfection will come to pass.  Thus, when we are content with what is while also looking forward to what is to come, we find true fulfillment.

So, frustration over what isn’t or fulfillment from trusting in a God who has created what is and will ultimately bring righteousness to reign – which would you rather have?


[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.3.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.25.5.

[3] Erasmus, Opera Omnia, 6.927 B-C.

June 11, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Pastoral Statement on President Obama’s Endorsement of Same-Sex Marriage

Dear Friends in Christ,

The issues of same-sex marriage, or gay marriage, and the broader topic of homosexuality are not only “hot” topics in our society, they are also tender issues that reach to the heart of many families and individuals.  These are issues laced with personal and familial experiences that strike at the basic need we all share to love and be loved.  As a result, it is difficult to discuss these matters objectively.  Our desire is to do that very thing – to present these issues from a loving and compassionate perspective that seeks to share Biblical truth without compromising our desire to love all people (as Christ has loved us) without regard for their sexual orientation.

The Christian Church is often painted as “the enemy” of homosexual people.  Unfortunately, this picture has often been exacerbated by poor and confusing communication from the Church. We, however, see this characterization as a misunderstanding of the Church and its role.  Christian people are called to commit themselves to God and His Word.  In doing so, we are called to love all people unconditionally while also standing firm on the truths expressed in the holy Word of God.

In response to many questions and concerns expressed over President Obama’s recent statements regarding gay marriage, we have prepared this statement.  On the surface, this may seem a clear-cut issue to people on all sides of the argument.  However, it is our belief that this issue is complicated and worthy of careful consideration.  As a result, this statement is lengthy.  Please take the time to work your way through each of the topics and consider each point.  Please also, as time allows, take the time to consider the additional resources listed at the end of this document.

Finally, as you read this statement, know that we, your pastors, love you and your families.  Our passion to share God’s love and encouragement with you, your families, and all people is deep and compelling in our lives.  If you have concerns or questions about this document, please contact us.

God bless you!


Bill Tucker, Senior Pastor
Concordia Lutheran Church, San Antonio, Texas
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com

A Summary of the Statement

This past Wednesday, in an interview with ABC News, President Obama expressed his support of same-sex marriage. In response to the widespread questions over the president’s comments, we thought it would be helpful to address the biblical stance on same-sex marriage in a four-section statement, prepared by the pastors of Concordia Lutheran Church.  Because we know that not everyone will have the time or the inclination to read the full statement, what follows is a brief summary of the major points of the paper.

Compassion and Conviction
As Christians, we are called to address every sin and every sinner with both compassion and conviction.  This is also true when it comes to the sins of homosexual activity and same-sex marriage.  We must speak compassionately to those in homosexual lifestyles, calling to their attention Jesus’ offer of salvation for those trapped in sexual sin (cf. Matthew 21:31).  At the same time, we must also speak with conviction concerning the sinfulness of homosexual activity specifically and all sexual immorality generally (cf. Romans 1:25-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-12).

The Marriage Model
Our society is losing respect for the biblical model of marriage as a lifelong covenant relationship between one man and one woman until death parts them (cf. Matthew 19:4-6).  The passage of no-fault divorce laws in many states, the prevalence of adultery, pre-marital sex, pornography, and marital abuse all demonstrate this.  President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is merely the latest example of an affront against the biblical model of marriage.

Civic Policy and the Divine Order
Christians can stand against same-sex marriage not only on the basis of the Scriptural witness, but also on the basis of natural, moral law.  Because certain moral mandates are written on the heart of every human being (cf. Romans 2:14-15), our society adheres to a broad moral standard, derived from the natural order of things in our world.  This is why murder, stealing, lying, and the like are punishable by our civic system.  If we follow the natural order of things on these moral issues, why would we abandon this order when it comes to same-sex marriage?

Authority and Autonomy
Our society has a tendency to make moral judgments based not on absolute truth, but on shifting popular opinion.  President Obama himself exemplifies this method of moralizing when, in his interview, he references practicing homosexuals he knows and has known as justification for his endorsement of same-sex marriage.  As Christians, however, we cannot embrace the shifting sensibilities of our culture or our personal preferences to form our moral stances.  Instead, we must turn to the one and final standard of morality and goodness:  God Himself, revealed through His Word (cf. Luke 18:19).

We encourage you to read the full statement to learn more.  As Christians committed to the witness of Scripture, this is most certainly an issue worthy of our time, attention, and thought.

A Pastoral Statement on President Obama’s Endorsement
of Same-Sex Marriage

This past Wednesday, in an interview with ABC News, President Obama expressed his support of what is commonly referred to as same-sex marriage, or gay marriage:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.[1]

President Obama’s comments mark a major milestone in presidential politics.  Never has an incumbent president called for the transformation of one of society’s foundational institutions.  Not surprisingly, a fury of political, sociological, and theological punditry has erupted around the president’s statements.

In response to the widespread questions over the president’s stance, because of the rampant confusion over homosexuality and its morality, and because this issue is not merely theoretical, but also relational and personal for many people, we thought it would be prudent to briefly address the biblical stance on this topic in four sections.  These sections include:  (1) The importance of speaking with both compassion and conviction about homosexuality and to homosexuals; (2) Reiterating the biblical model for marriage; (3) Understanding the interplay between the civic, political realm and the natural, moral realm; and (4) Submitting to Scripture’s authority while recognizing the dangers of our rampant cultural autonomy.  Let’s address each of these areas briefly.

Compassion and Conviction

Holy Scripture is clear in its command:  we are to show compassion to those caught in sexual sin, including homosexual sin, and we are to show and share the hope and forgiveness of the gospel with all sinners.  Indeed, Jesus was known for His compassion toward those mired in sexual sin and even opened His kingdom to them.   He says to the religious leaders of His day, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).  People caught in sexual sin are included in God’s kingdom through faith in Christ.  Such is the compassion and grace of our God.  When a woman is caught in the act of adultery and the religious leaders seek to stone her, Jesus sends her accusers away and says, “I [do not] condemn you…Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).  In an act of extravagant compassion and grace, Jesus forgives this woman’s sin and saves her life.  It is important to note, however, that while Jesus offers His deep compassion, at the same time, He refuses to compromise His core conviction concerning the immorality of sexual sin.  He calls this woman to repent of her sin and not to return to it.  Thus, Jesus holds His compassion and conviction in perfect tension.  This is why the Bible says that Jesus comes to us “full of grace [i.e., compassion] and truth [i.e., conviction]” (John 1:14).  Both conviction and compassion are needed in a Christian’s response to homosexuality.  This means that our homosexual neighbors, friends, and family members deserve both our love and kindness as well as our candid thoughts and concerns.

With this in mind, just as we are compelled by Holy Scripture to show compassion toward those trapped in homosexual sin, we are also compelled by Holy Scripture to state our conviction that homosexual activity is sinful.  The apostle Paul writes pointedly:

[People have] exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:25-27)

Please notice two things about Paul’s statements, inspired by the Holy Spirit, concerning homosexuality.  First, at the root of the sin of homosexual practice is the sin of idolatry.  The apostle argues that homosexual relationships exchange “the truth of God for a lie” and worship “created things [i.e., sexual desire] rather than the Creator.”  Sexual sin, along with every other sin, tries to do no less than dethrone God and crown our own desires as supreme, regardless of and in contradiction to God’s will!  It is an affront against the First Commandment:  “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3).  Second, Paul clearly sees homosexual activity as morally unacceptable.  Words such as “indecent” and “perversion” in verse 27 make this clear enough.  Moreover, in verse 24, Paul calls homosexual activity a “sinful desire,” “sexual impurity,” and “degrading.”  Scripture’s conviction on the practice of homosexuality is unequivocal:  it is sinful.

The Marriage Model

President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage is merely the latest in a long line of attacks resulting in the slow erosion of respect for the biblical model of marriage.   Skye Jethani of Christianity Today explains:

The church was silent when state after state passed no-fault divorce laws.  These bills essentially removed the state from any interest in preserving or defining marriage.  No fault divorce laws defined marriage as an agreement between two individuals that may be entered or dissolved as the individuals desire without state interference or prejudice.[2]

The final sentence is key.  For if marriage is defined civically as merely “an agreement between two individuals that may be entered or dissolved as the individuals desire without state interference of prejudice,” the state is stripped of its ability to offer any definition of who those two individuals are and the kind of commitment those two individuals make.  Is marriage between a man and a woman?  A man and a man?  A woman and a woman?  Is it entered into under the assumption that it will be a lifelong union?  None of this is defined à la our states’ no-fault divorce laws.  Thus, so-called gay marriage is merely a consequential progression of the ambiguous marriage laws already on the books.

The Bible is not nearly so ambiguous.  Its stance is clear:  marriage is meant to be a life-long covenant relationship between one man and one woman until death parts them.  This is part and parcel of God’s created order: “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).  This created order is reiterated and reinforced by Jesus Himself:  “Haven’t you read…that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

The desire of Christians, then, should not be only to stand against same-sex marriage while loving homosexual people, but to stand for biblical marriage, being defined as the union between one man and one woman.  This means that we ought to raise the alarm not only over same-sex marriage, but over adultery, pornography, divorce, abuse, and anything else that impugns the biblical model of marriage where one woman and one man commit to each other, become one flesh through sexual intimacy, and serve, honor, and love each other.  Indeed, every married Christian should strive to attain this model in his or her marriage.  Marriage is God’s gift to us, bestowed in love, and is intended to be both an example of His love for us (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32) and an opportunity for us to experience the blessing and joy of loving each other.

Civic Policy and the Divine Order

When President Obama made his comments supporting same-sex marriage, more than one evangelical Christian rushed to his defense.  Consider this from an evangelical blogger:

Supporting gay marriage is not supporting sin. I know it is hard to grasp, but this matter has nothing to do with whether or not homosexuality is a sin. If it does, then you are probably being inconsistent since there are lots of things that Christians consider “sinful” that they do not legislate against. For instance, if God wants us as a nation to live by His laws, why are we okay supporting the freedom of religion? Shouldn’t we be out trying to ban other religions? If we are okay with freedom of religion, which is a law that basically mandates that our country allow for idolatry (according to the Christian), aren’t we being hypocritical?[3]

At first glance, some may find this argument compelling.  If we support legislation against gay marriage because of our Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin, what other legislation are we required to support?  Is insisting on a federally mandated Christianity an inextricable consequence of supporting a traditional definition of marriage in our civic law as this blogger suggests?

It is important to understand that legislation supporting traditional marriage is not theologically identical to federally mandated Christianity.  The difference between the two can be found in the distinction between general revelation and special revelation.  General revelation is that which can be known apart from Holy Scripture simply by observing God’s created order and the moral implications of this created order.   Another name for this is “natural law.”  Many of the Ten Commandments fall under this category of natural, moral law.   For instance, our society still recognizes that murder runs contrary to natural, moral law.  Likewise, lying, stealing, and (before the no-fault divorce laws cited above) even adultery has been considered by society-at-large to run contrary to this law.  Thus, one does not have to be a Christian to accept and adhere to natural, moral law because this law is written on the hearts of all people apart from Scripture and faith in Christ (cf. Romans 2:14-15).  In light of the universal character of this law, there are (and always have been) legal consequences in our civic system for actions which contradict natural law.

Homosexual practice and its immorality fall squarely within the realm of general revelation and natural, moral law.  Consider again Paul’s argument against homosexuality in Romans 1:

Women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1:26-27)

Once more, note Paul’s language.  He speaks of “natural” and “unnatural” relations.  “Natural” relations are those within heterosexual marriage while “unnatural” relations are those that are homosexual.  In this passage, then, Paul does not argue against homosexuality using a divine command, but using creation’s natural order.  Thus, same sex marriage is contrary to natural, moral law.  And if we as a society honor natural, moral law in instances such as murder, stealing, lying, and the like, why abandon such a precedent when it comes to marriage?

Special revelation is a different matter.  Special revelation refers to that which can be known only through the Bible and has to do with God’s specific and special plan to redeem humanity from its sinful condition.  General revelation, then, encompasses all people while special revelation is found exclusively in the Old and New Testament Scriptures and declares a specific message of salvation through Christ.  Thus, though Christians can support legislation that is broadly moral and applies to all according to the divine ordering of creation, we put ourselves in a precarious position when we demand civic laws that are specifically Christian in nature because faith in Christ cannot be coerced by legislation, it can only be shared by our witness.  This is why, while standing against same-sex marriage, Christians do not demand legislation that forces people to worship the Triune God.  Worship of the Triune God can be brought about only by faith in the gospel and not an edict of the government.

Authority and Autonomy

The way in which the news media has reported President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage has been quite telling concerning the way many of us often craft our moral views.  Consider the following from CNN:  “A Gallup Poll released Tuesday indicated 50% of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be recognized by law as valid, with 48% saying such marriages should not be legal.”[4]  Many will cite polls like this one to make the case for the moral acceptability of gay marriage, making morality a mere function of democratic enterprise.  Indeed, President Obama even cited a democratic acceptance of homosexuality, albeit in an anecdotal way, as part of his reasoning for endorsing same-sex marriage.  Consider again his statement:

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.[5]

President Obama’s reasoning for same-sex marriage is simply this:  because he knows many people who are practicing homosexuals and are in committed relationships, same-sex marriage must be allowed!

As Christians, we must recognize this kind of reasoning for what it is:  the expression of an individual moral autonomy that has influenced the thinking of President Obama as well as many in our society.  This autonomy refuses to believe in any authority outside of itself.  Blogger Rod Dreher summarizes:

This is the fundamental problem we face when we argue over gay marriage, abortion, contraception, and so forth. It’s not about rights, not really; it’s about what it means to be a person, and what is the ultimate source of morality.[6]

The fact of the matter is, for many people, “the ultimate source of morality,” as Dreher calls it, is nothing more than an individual’s own sensibilities and sensitivities.  In other words, there is no standard of morality external to each individual.  All morality is merely a personal construct, erasing absolute truth.  This view of morality, of course, runs directly contrary to the Christian moral imperative which sees moral standards as external, rooted in the divine order and, finally, in God Himself!  As Jesus says, “No one is good – except God alone” (Luke 18:19).  God is the one and final standard of goodness and morality.  And He reveals His standard to us through His Word.

Moreover, when our culture’s autonomous morality is coupled with a selfish hedonism, the results are predictable.  Many people cannot imagine a God who would not want them to be happy.  If homosexual activity brings them such happiness, the argument runs, such activity cannot be wrong.  Statements such as, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for Me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25) are either ignored or rejected as impediments to personal fulfillment and happiness.  Denying personal and sinful desires in deference to Christ and His call is clearly out of step with our prevailing culture autonomy.

As Christians, we are called to witness to the vanity of such hedonistic pursuits.  Even when denying oneself is difficult – especially in the arena of sexual desire, be that heterosexual or homosexual desire – we are called to declare the message that pursuing any desire in a way that is not consistent with God’s design will ultimately lead a person into choices that violate both divine law and basic moral constraints.  True fulfillment and satisfaction, along with the strength to overcome our old, sinful nature, can be found only in Christ.  As Paul writes, “My God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).  And as Jesus promises, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  Everything we need for fullness of life is found in Christ!

It is our prayer that this statement serves as a guide to clarify both the biblical record and its natural, moral law corollaries on same-sex marriage.  We believe such a stance is foundational and necessary to the decent order and function of society-at-large.  We hope, as well, that this statement can be of help to those seeking to share with others a charitable Christian perspective on this issue.  We remain committed to both the biblical conviction against same-sex marriage and the biblical mandate to compassionately share Christ’s love with all people regardless of sexual orientation.

Additional Resources

If you would like additional resources which address President Obama’s statement endorsing same-sex marriage from a Christian perspective, you can consult the following:


[1] Rick Klein, “Obama Declares Support for Gay Marriage” (5.9.12), http://news.yahoo.com/obama-announces-his-support-for-same-sex-marriage.html.

[2] Skye Jethani, “Obama Endorses Same Sex Marriage – Now What?” (5.10.12), http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/05/obama_endorses.html.

[3] Jared Byas, “I Still Stand as an Evangelical for Gay Marriage” (5.9.12), http://jbyas.com/2012/05/09/i-still-stand-as-an-evangelical-for-gay-marriage/.

[4] Phil Gast, “Obama Announces He Supports Same-Sex Marriage” (5.9.12), http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/09/politics/obama-same-sex-marriage/index.html.

[5] http://news.yahoo.com/obama-announces-his-support-for-same-sex-marriage.html.

[6] Rod Dreher, “Same-Sex Marriage & Post-Christianity” (5.8.12), http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/2012/05/08/same-sex-marriage-post-christian/.

May 11, 2012 at 4:11 pm 2 comments

Common Question: What’s up with Lutheran worship?

One of the highlights of my week is weekend worship at Concordia.  It is very moving for me to gather with the people of God and sing praises to God, hear God’s Word, witness a baptism, and receive Christ’s body and blood in Communion.  Lutherans worship in a unique, yet thoroughly theological, way.  In fact, more than one person has asked me, “Why do Lutherans worship the way in which they do?”  It is with this question in mind that I write today’s blog.

First, it is important to understand there are two definitions of worship – one that is broad and one that is narrow.  Worship in the broad sense includes any way which we hail something or someone as god, either implicitly or explicitly.  This definition of worship is part and parcel of the First Commandment:   “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-5).  According to this definition of worship, we are all worshipers, whether or not we worship the true God, for we all worship a god.  Everyone has something or someone which holds prime place in their life and, as such, they worship this something or someone, for they hail it as god.

Worship in the narrow sense describes an activity that is distinctly Christian.  Perhaps my favorite definition of worship in this sense comes via the introduction to the hymnal, Lutheran Worship:

Our Lord speaks and we listen.  His Word bestows what it says.  Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise…The rhythm of our worship is from Him to us, and then from us back to Him.  He gifts His gifts, and together we receive and extol them.[1]

With this definition of worship, we learn three important things.  First, we learn that worship begins with what God gives to us and not with what we bring to God.  This is why, for instance, the highest holy day of worship in Israel was the Day of Atonement – a day not about what Israel brought to God, but about the forgiveness God gave to Israel (cf. Leviticus 16).  Second, we learn that after and only after God gives to us His gifts, can we respond to God with thankfulness and praise.  This is why, for instance, psalm after psalm celebrates and extols what God has done for His people (e.g., Psalms  107, 118, 136).  Third, we come to realize that worship can happen anywhere and at any time.  For God continuously bestows His gifts of grace and, as such, we can continuously say, “Thank you.”  Martin Luther colorfully quips:

The worship of God is the praise of God.  This should be free at the table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times.  Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself.[2]

The heart and soul of worship, then, is this:  God meets us with His gifts at all times and places and we respond in turn with thanksgiving at all times and places.

The above theology of worship is what guides and informs weekend worship at Concordia Lutheran Church.  It is worth it to briefly outline the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia and consider how each element in one of our services reflects this broader theology of worship.

Invocation

Each service opens with the name of God:  “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  This Invocation is meant to orient us around the reality that worship does not begin with us, but with God.  Indeed, our whole life in Christ begins with God, for the same name that marks the beginning of worship also marked us in our baptisms.  This is why we baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Further, this name reminds us that we are bound together in Christ, for we call upon “one Lord” and share together “one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).  Luther Reed sums up the beauty of the Invocation nicely when he writes:

[With the Invocation], we formally express our “awareness” of the Presence of God, we place ourselves in that Presence, and invoke the Divine blessing upon the service which is to follow.  We confess our faith in the Holy Trinity, for whose worship we are assembled.  We solemnly call God to witness that we are “gathered together” in His name (Matthew 18:20) and in that name offer all our prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (John 16:23).[3]

Confession and Absolution

Part of the reason worship must begin with God is because we would be hopelessly lost if worship began with us, for we are sinners, completely unworthy to somehow storm the gates of God’s presence.  Confession reminds us of this.  It calls us to believe that, in light of the sin which we admit to in Confession, if we are to be in God’s presence in worship, God must come to us!  We cannot go to God.  Absolution, then, provides us with the assurance that God has indeed come to us in the person and work of Christ and still dwells with us according to His promise: “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Music

Luther famously says of music:

I am not satisfied with him who despised music, as all fanatics do; for music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a gift of men.  It also drives away the devil and makes people cheerful; one forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride, and other vices.  I place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.[4]

Throughout a worship service, we sing.  We sing because we believe music is a gift from God.  We sing because many fine hymns and songs have been written which confess the gospel of God and express our praise and thanksgiving.  In these ways, God gives to us through music.

Scripture Reading

As the Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Our Lord speaks and we listen.”  Worship would be void and tragic if we did not hear from God!  Because Scripture is God’s Word, we can be fully assured that when we hear Scripture, we hear God.  This is why, at Concordia, we place such an emphasis on being in God’s Word.  From our Word for Today Bible reading program to our Memorize His Word Bible memory program, we want people to listen to the Lord!  And we know people can and will hear from God wherever and whenever Scripture is read.

Apostles’ Creed

The Introduction to Lutheran Worship says, “Saying back to God what He has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure.”  The recitation of the Apostles’ Creed allows us an opportunity to do just this.  Because this creed is thoroughly biblical, we can be assured that we are confessing what God has first said to us.  Because this creed is blessedly universal and historical, we can revel in the fact that we join a chorus of Christians all over the world and throughout the ages who confess this same true, holy Christian and apostolic faith.

Children’s Message

The Scriptures are clear on the responsibility we have to share with the next generation the works of the Lord: “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, His power, and the wonders He has done” (Psalm 78:4).  In one of Israel’s creedal biblical chapters, we read, “These commandments…are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).  The goal of a children’s message is to take seriously Scripture’s call to share the gospel with all – old and young alike.  The children’s message, then, is catechetical in nature, teaching children the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Offering

One of my favorite hymns declares:

We give Thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is Thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from Thee.[5]

This is a wonderfully succinct synopsis of the Christian doctrine of stewardship.  God is the owner of everything, even as the Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1).  Out of His grace, however, God graciously shares what is His with us.  The Offering, therefore, is a time to give thanks to God for what He has given us by offering it to Him, for it belongs to Him in the first place.

Prayers and Lord’s Prayer

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians prayed.  Talking to God is part and parcel of being a Christian.  At Concordia, we include with our prayers the Lord’s Prayer because we believe it to be the perfect prayer.  After all, it was taught by our perfect Lord!  One of the beauties of the Lord’s Prayer is that it is a prayer God is guaranteed to answer with a “Yes!” for the prayer is based on God’s promises.  For instance, when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we know that Scripture promises, “God does not tempt anyone” (James 1:13).  Thus, we know God will gladly not lead us into temptation, for this is His very promise!

Communion

The Lord’s Supper is a weighty moment.  Indeed, it is so weighty that Paul rails against the Church at Corinth when they misuse and abuse this precious meal from God (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34).  Communion calls for both repentance and faith.  As Scripture directs, we are to “examine ourselves” (1 Corinthians 11:28) before partaking of the Lord’s Supper and repent of our sins.  We are also to believe that, in the Supper, Christ offers the remedy for our sins as He gives to us His own body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins (cf. Matthew 26:26-28).  Christ’s presence in this meal is His simple, yet profound, promise.

Sermon

The sermon serves four main functions:  to convict, to comfort, to call, and to catechize.  In a sermon, first and foremost, we ought to be convicted of our sins and comforted by the gospel.  The sermon also ought to call us to walk according to God’s way of righteousness as well as catechize us in, or teach to us, Christian doctrine and biblical theology.  In this way, we can “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Benediction

Just as the service begins with the name of God, the service ends with the blessing of God.  After all, after being forgiven for our sins, hearing God’s Word in Scripture and sermon, approaching God through prayer, thanking God for what He has given us, and receiving Christ’s body and blood in Communion, how could we not be blessed?  The Benediction, then, is an affirmation of everything that has taken place in the worship service.  We have been blessed by the Lord, and as we go forth from weekend worship, we will continue to be blessed by the Lord.  At Concordia, we include with the Benediction a Commissioning, drawn from Philippians 2:15-16, where we exhort worshipers to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life.”  As we have been blessed in worship by God’s gifts, our call is to be a blessing to others by sharing with them these same gifts.  As God says to Abraham:  “I will bless you…and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

So there it is.  This is the shape and scope of a worship service at Concordia.  As the service moves from element to element, two things are clear.  First, it is clear that God is meeting His people with His gifts.  Second, the only appropriate response to such a monumental meeting is, “Thank you!”  May you offer God a “thank you” today – and every day – in worship!


[1] Lutheran Worship, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1982) 6.

[2] What Luther Says, Ewald Plass, ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 1546.

[3] Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy (Philadelphia:  Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 241.

[4] What Luther Says, 980.

[5] Lutheran Service Book, Prepared by the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2006) 781.

March 12, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Common Question: What’s the deal with the Lutheran doctrine of baptism?

"Baptism of Neophytes" by Masaccio (15th century)

“Why can’t women be ordained in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod?”  “How does evolution square with the biblical record of creation?”  “We confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Christ ‘descended into hell.’  Where does it teach that in the Bible?”  I receive questions such as these – as well as many others – about why Lutherans believe and teach what they believe in teach.  So periodically, over the course of the next several weeks and months, I will be taking some time to answer some of the most common questions I regularly receive about Lutheran doctrine.

Today, we begin with a question that is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all:  “What’s the deal with the Lutheran doctrine of baptism?”  Before we dive into this doctrine, it is important to clarify two things.  First, I believe the Lutheran doctrine of baptism is the Christian doctrine of baptism.  That is, I believe that the Lutheran doctrine of baptism is what Scripture itself teaches.  Second, I am fully aware that many sincere and godly Christians differ over the doctrine of baptism.  As I discuss this doctrine, then, I do so in a spirit of humility, respecting and loving those with whom I disagree.  I do not, however, discuss this doctrine with a spirit of relativism, believing that different teachings on baptism are equally true or that what we believe and teach about baptism makes no difference.  Quite the contrary.  If the doctrine of baptism matters to the authors of Scripture, it should matter to us.  Therefore, we should consider carefully what they teach.

What is baptism?

Baptism is a divine ordinance, instituted by Christ Himself, whereby He makes disciples through water combined with God’s name.  Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).  The participle “baptizing” can be translated as a participle of means.  Baptism, therefore, is a means by which disciples are made.

It is important to recognize that baptism is something God does for us and not something we do for God.  This is why Paul says of baptism, “We were therefore buried with Christ through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).  Notice the passive voice of the verbs:  “buried,” “raised.”  These are divine passives, indicating that God is the One burying our old, sinful natures and raising us to new life in Christ.  We are passive in the matter.  This runs contrary to the teaching of some who describe baptism merely as an act of obedience while denying its divine power.  Consider this quote from a large denomination’s confessional statement: “Baptism is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”[1]  Two things are especially notable about this statement.  First, while obedience is emphasized, the blessings of baptism are not mentioned.  Second, this statement references Romans 6:4, but relegates Paul’s language concerning burial and resurrection to that of symbolism, emphasizing the believer’s faith rather than God’s action.  Paul, however, nowhere indicates that he is speaking symbolically in this verse.  Rather, his language indicates that he has a lively confidence in an actual new life, offered by God through baptism.

Does baptism save?

Yes, baptism does save.  Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).  Peter could not be clearer:  Baptism saves you.  However, it is important to note not only that baptism saves you, but how baptism saves you.  It saves you “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Without the resurrected Christ, baptism is emptied of its power and promise.

There are some who object to the teaching that baptism saves, saying, “Faith in Christ alone saves you!”  They often quote Scripture passages such as Romans 10:9:  “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They then argue:  “Paul says that faith in Christ saves you and nowhere mentions baptism in Romans 10:9.  Therefore, faith in Christ, and not baptism, saves you.”  This type of argument deeply disturbs me because it engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.”  In this sad game, people line up their favorite Bible verses to support their favorite pet positions and then, when shown Scriptural testimony which calls into question their position, rather than seeking to reconcile the verses and take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word, they simply declare, “Because my pet Bible verse is true, you must be incorrect!  My Bible verse sunk your Bible verse!”  We should never use Bible verses to “sink” other Bible verses.  Rather, we should assume that all Scripture as speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith.  Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21), we ought to take his words as complimentary, and not contradictory, to what Paul says in Romans 10:9.

So then, how do we understand Romans 10:9 and 1 Peter 3:21 harmoniously?  Like this.  Baptism does not save simply because it’s baptism, but because it has the promise of Jesus’ presence attached to it (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).  This is why baptism is regularly referred to as a “means of grace.”  God works through simple things such as water in baptism, bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and words on a page in Holy Scripture to speak to, meet with, and provide gifts for His people.  Martin Luther explains wonderfully:  “Without God’s word the water [of baptism] is plain water and no baptism.  But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”[2]  Thus, to say that baptism saves you is simply to say that Jesus saves you because Jesus is doing His work in and through baptism!

Why do Lutherans baptize infants?

Lutherans do not baptize infants.  Rather, we baptize people in accordance with Christ’s commands to baptize “all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  The Bible teaches that all are born into sin and deserve God’s condemnation (cf. Psalm 51:5).  Therefore, babies need the salvation Jesus gives in baptism just as much as adults do.  The Bible nowhere prohibits baptizing babies.  In fact, we are told specifically that the promise of baptism is indeed for children: “The promise [of baptism] is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

There are some who maintain that a profession of faith must precede baptism.  And because a baby cannot profess his faith in Christ, he should not be baptized until he is old enough to make such a profession.  In response to this objection, I would point out two things.  First, I would question the assumption that a profession of faith is a necessary prerequisite of baptism.  It often happens that that a person in Scripture confesses his faith before he is baptized, but common occurrence doesn’t always necessarily indicate a divine mandate.  Just because the Bible offers a description of certain things and events (e.g., a person offering a profession of faith before baptism) does not necessarily mean that the Bible is mandating a universal prescription.  Second, I would question the assumption that children cannot confess their faith.  The Psalmist reminds us, “From the lips of children and infants You have ordained praise” (Psalm 8:2, cf. Matthew 21:16).  Children can and do praise God, even if it is with broken grammar and babble.  Finally, from a historical perspective, from the early days of the Christian Church, it was common practice to have parents or sponsors confess the Christian faith on behalf of their children.  The Roman theologian Hippolytus writes this concerning baptism in AD 215:  “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so.  Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.”[3]  I have written more about infant baptism here: http://bit.ly/qHp97b.

Baptism is a joyous gift from God.  For through it, God meets us with His gifts.  Luther sums up the joy and promise of baptism nicely when he writes:  “We see what a very splendid thing baptism is. It snatches us from the jaws of the devil, makes us God’s own, restrains and removes sin, and then daily strengthens the new man within us.”[4]  Thus is the blessing and gift of baptism!


[1]The Baptist Faith and Message,” VII.

[2] Luther’s Small Catechism, “Baptism,” 3.

[3] Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 21.15.

[4] What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 61.

January 30, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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