Posts filed under ‘Theological Questions’

Thoughts on Baptism

augustines-baptism

The Baptism of Augustine

Yesterday, I got to preach on an encounter that a disciple of Jesus named Philip had with an Ethiopian eunuch on a desert road.  Through Philip’s witness, this eunuch was moved to faith and to baptism.  In my message, I answered some common questions people have about baptism, but there was much I wanted to say about baptism that I didn’t get a chance to.  So, in the interest of further exploring the richness of what baptism offers, I figured I’d repost some thoughts on baptism that I wrote several years ago.  I hope you enjoy!

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, can be seen as 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 engages in what I call “Bible Verse Battleship.”  In this 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 speaks with one, harmonious, voice concerning the one, true Christian faith.  Thus, when Peter says, “Baptism now saves you” in 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 are not so interested in baptizing infants as we are interested in baptizing all 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 three 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:  “The children shall be  baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.”[3]

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, 21.4.

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

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September 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Private Conversation and Public Rebuke

Bible 1When I was in college, I had a professor tell me that if you get five churchmen in a room to discuss a particular issue, they will have six different opinions. It’s true. Disagreements – especially in ecclesiastical contexts – arise often. Offenses against others are committed often. Jesus, as Lord of the Church, knows this. This is why Jesus gives us instruction on how to address disagreements and offenses among us:

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

Jesus is clear. Disagreements and offenses are best and first addressed privately before they are addressed publicly. Sadly, in the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have seen Jesus’ pattern disregarded again and again.

Over the past few months, I have been able to attend two conferences hosted by different congregations of my church body. During these events, some took to social media to malign these conferences – often in acerbic and sarcastic ways – over differences they had with the presenters and presentations. When confronted about these uncharitable comments in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 18, some of the people posting these comments maintained that because the teaching at these conferences was public and, in their opinion, false, the rebuke of these teachers was also appropriately public. They cited Martin Luther’s words: “Where the sin is public, the rebuke also must be public, that everyone may learn to guard against it.”[1] These people saw no need to have a private conversation with those with whom they disagreed.

Because my church body is doggedly committed to properly and carefully interpreting Scripture, I believe it is worth reminding ourselves what Scripture says concerning how to address disagreements among us. For I believe that those who argue for public rebuke apart from any private conversation are either misled, or perhaps even misleading.

First, it needs to be said that sarcasm that only attacks instead of seeking to correct is always wrong. As Solomon sagely warns, “Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense” (Proverbs 11:12). In our disagreements with each other, we must be careful never to be belittling of each other.

Second, it is important to note that the Scriptures – and especially the Pauline letters – are full of public rebukes. For instance, Paul rebukes a member of the church at Corinth for his gross sexual immorality, of which the Corinthians were foolishly approving (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-2). He also rebukes his fellow apostle Peter for refusing to eat with Gentile believers (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). Then, in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, Paul provides his young pastor protégé with some guidance on how to publicly rebuke false teaching:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.

Two points are worth noting in this passage. First, accusations of false teachings are not to be made ad hoc. Just because one person sees false teaching in someone’s ministry does not mean that there is, in fact, false teaching. False teaching must be discerned corporately; not individually. After all, an accuser may himself turn out to be a false teacher – or, in some instances, a false accuser! Second, the primary reason for a public rebuke is “so that others may take warning.” In other words, public rebukes are for those who are in danger of being swayed by false teaching. They are not for the false teacher.

But what about the false teacher? How does one deal with him? Here is where Jesus’ words concerning private conversation commend themselves to us. For they are meant to help a false teacher see the error of his ways and, by God’s grace, come to repentance.

This leads me to my concern with much of the discussion surrounding public rebuke in my church body. There are some who use Paul’s words concerning public rebuke as an excuse to not heed Jesus’ words concerning private conversation. But both private conversation and public rebuke are needed, for both false teachers and those who are falsely taught need help. Public rebuke cannot be used to supplant private conversation.

I know that, sometimes, private conversation is impossible. Indeed, I have warned against false teachers and teachings on this very blog. False teaching is worthy of a warning! But if we can have private conversations with teachers about whom we have concerns, I see no reason not to have these conversations. Scripture commands it. The integrity of our consciences demands it.

Allow me to offer one final distinction as a kind of postscript. When confronting false teaching, we must be careful that we don’t characterize a person’s unintentional misstatement as a malicious falsehood. Malicious liars are very different from unclear communicators. One needs to be firmly rebuked. The other needs to be gently corrected. May we be wise enough to know the difference – and pastoral enough to care both for those who teach and for those who are taught.

__________________________

[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, Paul McCain, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 391 (LC 284).

March 9, 2015 at 4:15 am Leave a comment

Adam Is For Real

Adam and Eve 1 editIn 1906, theologian and philanthropist Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, surveying theologians’ attempts to understand who Jesus was historically apart from what Schweitzer thought to be the layers of mythologizing that had been overlaid on Him by the Bible.  Schweitzer finally concluded that Jesus saw Himself as One whose suffering and death would bring in the Parousia, or the final appearance of God.  In Schweitzer’s own words:  “He must suffer for others…that the Kingdom might come.”[1] But Jesus proved mistaken in His imminent expectations of God’s Kingdom and Christianity has been grappling with Jesus’ failed apocalyptic expectations ever since:

The whole history of “Christianity” down to the present day, that is to say, the real inner history of it, is based on the delay of the Parousia, the non-occurrence of the Parousia, the abandonment of eschatology, the progress and completion of the “de-eschatologising” of religion which has been connected therewith.[2]

Interestingly, Schweitzer later abandoned his quest for the historical Jesus, considering it futile.  After all, reconstructing who Jesus was apart from and skeptical toward the record of Jesus in the Bible is a tall order!

Over one hundred years after Schweitzer’s quest, Christianity Today published an article titled “The Search for the Historical Adam.”[3]  Much like the quest for the historical Jesus a century earlier, this quest seeks to reconstruct who Adam was quite apart from the biblical record of him.  But this quest questions not only what Adam did and did not do – for example, “Did he really eat some forbidden fruit?” – this quest questions whether Adam even existed.  The argument against Adam’s existence, which is where the shining stars of this quest have broadly landed, runs thusly:  because evolution is true, a historical Adam cannot be.  Instead, the human race emerged out of the chaos of natural selection, albeit this natural selection was guided by the detached hand of theism, rather than according to the simple and succinct word of the personal Creator.

It is important to note that cries to dispense with a historical Adam are not few and far between, nor are they outside the mainstream of Evangelical Christianity.  Consider this argument against the existence of a historical Adam:

What is a “given” for Paul is the saving event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The other things he says, especially about sin, the Law, and eschatology, are reinterpretations that grow from the fundamental reality of the Christ event. Recognizing this relieves the pressure that sometimes builds up around a historical Adam…We can now recognize that Adam is not the foundation on which the system of Christian faith and life is built, such that removing him means that the whole edifice comes crashing down. Instead, the Adam of the past is one spire in a large edifice whose foundation is Christ. The gospel need not be compromised if we find ourselves having to part ways with Paul’s assumption that there is a historical Adam, because we share Paul’s fundamental conviction that the crucified Messiah is the resurrected Lord over all.[4]

From where does such an argument against the historicity of Adam arise?  From J.R. Daniel Kirk, and associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, a one-time bastion of classic evangelical orthodoxy.  Denying the historical existence of Adam has gone mainstream.

Contrary to the sentiments of many, I would argue that it is theologically and logically necessary for the historical Adam to have existed.  It is theologically necessary because no mythical character can account for real sin.  And the apostle Paul identifies Adam as the original sinner:  “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  It is logically necessary because it is incoherent to make an argument for Christ’s death and resurrection, boldly contradicting the consensus of the scientific community that dead people do not come back to life, on the one hand while arguing against the historicity of Adam because of the general consensus of the scientific community concerning evolution by natural selection on the other hand.

What Professor Kirk engages in is nothing less than a full on gospel reductionism.  That is, Professor Kirk is willing to cede the integrity and veracity of the biblical record on whether or not Adam really existed as long as he can hold on to the gospel that Christ died and rose again.  But once one lets go of what the Bible says in general, he will not be able to hold on to what the Bible says about the gospel in specific for long!  The church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, has explained it this way:

The Gospel is not normative for theology in the sense that beginning with it as a fundamental premise, other items of the Christian system of doctrine are developed as provisional, historically conditioned responses to a given situation which will need to be revised for another situation.[5]

This is precisely what Professor Kirk does in his article.  He assumes that we can reinterpret the historicity of Adam for our situation because Paul’s insistence on a historical Adam was only a “provisional, historically conditioned response to a given situation.”  But this false view of Adam can only lead to a false view of the gospel.  In the words of G.E. Ladd, who was addressing those who were undermining the historicity of the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ life:

Jesus was a historical person.  His words were historical events.  His deeds involved other people; but they were far larger than the boundaries of personal existence.  His deeds included interpersonal fellowship, healings of bodies as well as minds.  His mission created a new fellowship of men; and this fellowship after the resurrection because the Christian church which has become one of the most influential institutions in Western culture.  All of this happened in history; and it is only because certain events first happened in history that other results were experienced in their existential dimension.  Existential import results only from historical event.[6]

What is true of Jesus is true of Adam.  The existential reality of sin can only be meaningfully explained by an existentially historical Adam.  Evangelically orthodox Christians must settle for nothing less.


[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Mineola, Dover Publications, Inc., 2005), 387.

[2] The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 358.

[3] Richard N. Ostling, “The Search for the Historical Adam,” Christianity Today (6.3.2011).

[4] J.R. Daniel Kirk, “Does Paul’s Christ Require a Historical Adam?Fuller Theology News & Notes (Spring 2013).

[5] The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, “Gospel and Scripture” (November 1972), 9.

[6] G.E. Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1968), 64.

May 13, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Theological Look At Suicide

It’s never easy to lose a loved one.  Whether it’s an illness when someone is middle aged, a tragedy when someone is young, or even a so-called “natural” passing when someone is old, death brings tears and mourning.  People may sometimes quaintly call a funeral a “celebration,” but if it is, what a strange way to celebrate – with lowered heads and furrowed brows and muffled sobs.  Truth be told, death is sad.  And death is heartbreaking.

Death becomes especially heartbreaking when it is the result of suicide.  We will often speak of “preventable deaths” – those that could have been avoided if only he wouldn’t have gotten behind the wheel when he was drunk, or if only she would have gone to the doctor sooner after feeling a lump.  But suicide seems to be the ultimate example of a “preventable death.”  After all, the person who lost his life is the same person who took his life…voluntarily.  He held in his own hands the power to choose life or the power to choose death.  And he chose the unthinkable.

When suicide strikes, many questions inevitably arise.  People ask everything from, “How could he be so selfish?” to “Is killing oneself the unforgivable sin?”  Because of the many questions connected to suicide, I thought it would be worth it to take a look at suicide broadly from a theological perspective and seek to clear up some of the persistent misperceptions that surround this heartbreaking act.

In order to understand the Bible’s estimation suicide, we must begin a fundamental observation:  suicide is tragic.  Though this may seem self-evident to many, the reason this observation is necessary is because not everyone has believed this, nor does everyone now believe this.

The most famous suicide of the ancient world is that of Socrates.  After being convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens by criticizing the city’s democratic government, the town’s officials sentenced Socrates to death by poisonous hemlock.  Plato, his close friend and pupil, recounts Socrates drinking the lethal cocktail:

[Socrates] took it, and very gently…without trembling or changing color or expression…Said Socrates, “But I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.[1]

Notice how nobly, stoically, and even, as Plato says, “cheerfully,” Socrates drinks his poison, more in control of his life – and death – than those who handed down his capital sentence.  It is this stately picture of Socrates’ suicide that gave rise to the opinion of the ancients that it is perfectly acceptable to take one’s own life.  Seneca, a well-known Stoic philosopher, says of suicide, “The best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed to us one entrance in life, but many exits…This is one reason why we cannot complain of life; it keeps no one against his will….Live, if you so desire; if not, you may return to the place from whence you came.”[2]  More recently, suicide has made headlines because of those who support “Death with Dignity,” a movement which maintains that doctor assisted suicide, in cases of grave and terminal illness, is justified and, yes, even dignified.[3]  For some, suicide is moral and noble.  The Bible, however, paints a starkly different picture of suicide.  Suicide, according to the Bible, is unambiguously proscribed.  Consider the reasons why below.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in death.  Death is deeply evil.  Indeed, the apostle Paul calls death “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26), ultimately to be defeated at Christ’s Second Coming.  Death is so evil because it is utterly incompatible with God’s original creative intent.  As we confess in the Nicene Creed, our God is “the Lord and giver of life.”  God is in the business of life, not death!  However, sin introduced what God never intended.  Therefore, we are to hate death rather than embracing it as suicide does.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in murder.  Most famously, murder is prohibited by the Fifth Commandment:  “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).  But long before Moses delivered the Ten Commandments to Israel, murder was outlawed as a heinous ill.  Immediately following the great flood of Noah’s day, God commands, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6).  Notice the general nature of both of these prohibitions.  Moses’ prohibition against murder is a blanket one without so much as a direct object to specify who should not be murdered.  God’s prohibition to Noah does contain a direct object – “man” – but this direct object is a general one, referring to mankind.  The killing of humans by other humans, then, is clearly and consistently forbidden in the Scriptures.  Thus, even the killing of oneself breaks the command of God.

The Bible prohibits suicide because it results in abuse.  It is difficult to think of a more dire abuse of one’s body than the taking of one’s life.  Because God created our bodies, redeems our bodies through His Son Jesus Christ, and will raise our bodies on the Last Day, our bodies – and what we do with them – matter to God!  As Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  Killing one’s body can hardly be considered an honorable way to treat one’s body.

It is important to note that honoring God with one’s body precludes not only suicide, but anything that damages the body.  There are many people who refuse to honor God with their bodies in countless ways and for countless reasons.  Some do not eat well.  Some do not exercise.  Some do not visit their physicians.  When these people sometimes die prematurely, they do so to everyone’s sorrow, but not necessarily to everyone’s shock.  After all, we know that abuse can eventually result in death.  So often, we confine our definition of “suicide” to a one-time act that ends in the loss of life.  But far too many people are willing to commit what I call “slow-motion suicide” by abusing their bodies over months, years, and decades.  This too is prohibited by Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6.

Though the Bible flatly condemns suicide, even something as seemingly final as the taking of one’s life is not unsalvageable for the Christian.  People will sometimes refer to suicide as “the unforgivable sin.”  The thinking goes like this:  because a person who commits suicide cannot repent of his sin, he cannot be forgiven and will therefore be eternally damned.  This thinking, however, is flawed on two counts.  First, this thinking does not take into account the extenuating circumstances that often accompany suicide, for a person who takes his own life often does so during a moment of deep despair, depression, or even insanity.  This can hardly be considered to be a belligerent and unrepentant sin against God.  Rather, the person who takes his life in this kind of an instance may not even understand what he is doing.  Second, the thinking that calls suicide “unforgivable” assumes repentance is a cognitive act of sorrow that feels remorse over a specific sin and that this remorse is necessary to offset a sin’s damnable effect.  This, however, is not a true picture of biblical repentance.  For if a person had to feel cognitive remorse for every sin specifically, none could be saved, for we all commit sins that we either do not remember or do not even notice in the first place.  This is why the Psalmist pleads with God, “Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression” (Psalm 19:12-13).  Notice that the Psalmist makes a distinction between “hidden faults” and “willful sins.”  The “hidden faults” are those sins unknown to the Psalmist whereas the “willful sins” are those sins which the Psalmist has intentionally and knowingly committed.  The Psalmist believes that God will forgive both types of sins – both his known and unknown sins.

Martin Luther says of repentance, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Repent, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[4]  Like the Psalmist, Luther believes that repentance is more than just specific remorse over a specific sin; rather, repentance is part and parcel of the posture of a Christian’s heart, for a repentant Christian continually believes that he is a person who continually sins and is thereby continually in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.  Thus, just because a person does not express remorse for committing suicide specifically does not mean that he is not living a life of repentance generally.

Some people may still ask, “But what about Judas?  Didn’t Judas commit suicide and didn’t he go to hell?”  Though it is true that Scripture implies Judas’ ultimate eternal damnation (cf. Acts 1:25), we must understand that Judas did not go to hell because he committed suicide, but because he refused to trust in Jesus to forgive his sin.  Matthew tells us, “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse” (Matthew 27:3).  The Greek word for “remorse” is metamelomai. Though there is some semantic overlap, this word is nevertheless distinct from the Greek word for “repentance,” which is metanoia.  Thus, even though Judas seems to experience some level of remorse over his terrible wickedness, he does not seem to repent of his sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness.  Tragically, Judas’ remorse leads only to despair which leads only to his eventual suicide.  The stain of human sin cannot be absolved by feeling bad about oneself through remorse.  It can only be absolved by turning to Jesus in repentance.

Finally, it is important that we support and encourage those who have lost loved ones to suicide and seek immediate help for those who may be considering suicide.  As Christians, we are called to remind everyone that, through faith in Christ, despair and death do not need to have the final say.  God’s plan of eternal, joyous life for us can ultimately prevail.  As the apostle Paul exclaims:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:51-57)

Despair and death are no match for the victory and life that Jesus brings.  Of this we can be sure!  And in this we can take comfort.


[1] Plato, Phaedo 117b-117c.

[2] Seneca, Epistulae Morales 70.

[3] In 1994, Measure 16 established the state of Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.”  This allows terminally ill Oregonians to end their lives by means of a doctor-assisted suicide.

[4] Martin Luther, “95 Thesis,” Thesis 1.

August 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Christianity in a Culture of Narcissism: From Descartes to Kant

René Descartes and Immanuel Kant

It began in the Garden.  When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they became history’s first narcissists.  Narcissism is defined as “a consuming self-absorption or self-love; a type of egotism. Narcissists constantly assess their appearance and desires.”[1]  Adam and Eve assessed their desires and decided that their desires trumped God’s command.  Theologically, then, narcissism is as old as history itself.  Philosophically, however, narcissism’s origin – or at least its willing sanction – is slightly more modern.

Narcissism finds its philosophical roots in the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes.  In 1637, he published his seminal work, Discourse on Method, in which he undertook to find something concrete on which to rest his life – a point of certainty in an illusory and shifting universe.  How would he discover such a point of certainty?  By doubting everything he possibly could.  He writes, “I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that which was wholly indubitable.”[2]  Descartes trumpets methodological doubt as his mechanism to discover certainty.  For doubt and certainty are inimical to each other.  This means that if Descartes can find something which he cannot doubt, then this thing must, by antonymic reasoning, be certain.

So what does Descartes doubt?  Pretty much everything.  He doubts human intelligence and insight.  After all, Descartes says, there are a great “number of conflicting opinions touching a single matter that may be upheld by learned men.”[3]  Thus, how is one to know who holds the correct opinion?  We are left only with uncertainty.  And where there is doubt, we must throw it out.  Societal norms and traditions must also be doubted.  For different societies have different and conflicting opinions and customs:  “A person brought up in France or Germany exhibits [a very different character] from that which, with the same mind originally, this individual would have possessed had he always lived among the Chinese or the savages.”[4]  Not even one’s own senses can be totally trusted, for “our senses sometimes deceive us.”[5]

So are we left with anything which cannot be doubted?  Descartes says there is one indubitable thing:

Whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and I observed that this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it.[6]

Here we have perhaps the most famous words spoken by any philosopher in any age:  “I think, therefore I am.”  This is what Descartes can know for certain:  He exists.  How does he know this?  He thinks.  Consciousness, in Descartes’ scheme, becomes the cause of one’s existence, for the very certainty of a person’s very existence is based on nothing else than that person’s very thinking!  Everything a person can know, experience, or be certain of is found in nothing other than the person who is knowing, experiencing, and being certain.  A person, then, is a completely self-contained and self-absorbed entity.  And this, by definition, is narcissism.

It is important to note that, no matter how egocentric Descartes’ dictum may be, the philosopher styled himself as a committed Catholic and finally, at the end of Discourse on Method, seeks to make an argument for the existence of God.  But consider how he fashions his argument: “I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself; and I clearly recognized that I must hold this notion from some nature which in reality was more perfect.”[7]  Descartes argues that because he can think of a being more perfect than himself, there must indeed be such a being!  In other words, Descartes thinks of God, so there is God.  He thinks, therefore God is.

Though Descartes ultimately exercises a certain amount of restraint in Discourse on Method, trying to steer clear of the unabated egoism that his philosophical system inevitably brings, Descartes’ “I” was quickly marshaled by other less scrupulous philosophers to plunge into a pool of silly solipsism and self-regarding subjectivism.  The next century saw the rise of Immanuel Kant who championed the distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon.  The noumenon is what Kant referred to in German as the ding an sich, “the thing in itself.”  That is, the noumenon is that which is outside of us.  The phenomenon, conversely, is our personal experience, roughly analogous to the Cartesian “I.”  Kant argued that a person has no access to the noumenon apart from the phenomenon.  In other words, it is impossible for us to get outside of our phenomenal selves to directly observe the noumenal world.  Kant asserts, “We cannot know these objects as things in themselves” (ding an sich).  Thus, we are stuck in our hopelessly subjective phenomenal perspectives.  Lest one believe that subjectivity is all there is, however, Kant quickly qualifies:  “Though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.”[8]  Notice how closely Kant’s apology for the existence of the noumenon mirrors Descartes’ apology for the existence of God:  “I can think it, so it must exist!”

With such a rosy view of the human intellect, it is no wonder that subsequent generations have quickly left behind Kant’s noumenon – since it was ultimately inaccessible anyway – in favor of the egoistic phenomenon.  That is, what is “out there” noumenally no longer matters to many people.  Some have even gone so far as to deny the existence of the noumenon altogether.  It is only what is “in us” phenomenally that counts.  This, in turn, has led to obsessive and unyielding introspection – a tell tale sign of narcissism.

Christianity, of course, tells a different story.  We should not bow to what is “in us” as the ultimate grounds for our existence.  Indeed, what is “in us” is suspect at best and, more realistically, downright evil.  The prophet Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?  Our ability to understand even our own selves (not to mention the rest of the world) by ourselves is fatally flawed.  Understanding must start from outside of us;  not from inside of us.  This is why, according to Scripture, wisdom and insight are finally gifts from an external God and not functions of an internal human intellect (e.g., 1 Kings 4:29).

Perhaps Descartes’ dictum would be better reversed:  “I am, therefore I think.”  Or, even better, “I am created, therefore I think.”  In this dictum, creation – the mechanism by which we exist – precedes deliberation.  We can only think because we have been endowed with an intellect by a loving Creator.  He is the center and superlative of our being, for He is the source of our existence.  Our narcissistic “I” must yield to His perfect glory.


[1] “Narcissism,” The American Heritage Dictionary, dictionary.com.

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (Forgotten Books, 2008), 28.

[3] Discourse on Method, 7.

[4] Discourse on Method, 14.

[5] Discourse on Method, 28.

[6] Discourse on Method, 28-29.

[7] Discourse on Method, 30.

[8] Vincent G. Potter, Readings in Epistemology: From Aquinas, Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant (Fordham University Press, 1993), 198-199.

July 2, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Common Questions: Lutherans and the Lord’s Supper

"Last Supper" by Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret

A couple of weeks ago, a man came into my office wanting to know what Concordia Lutheran Church was all about.  My answer?  “Concordia is all about the gospel – that Jesus died on a cross in our place to forgive our sins, and there is nothing we can do to earn this forgiveness.  Rather, it is received only by faith.”  He seemed satisfied with my answer.  But he had a follow up question:  “I’ve heard weird things about what Lutherans teach about the Lord’s Supper.  What does Concordia teach?”  I surmised that this question was the real reason he stopped by my office.  And I was happy to share with him what we teach about the Lord’s Supper.  After all, this is not an uncommon question.  Indeed, because it is so common, I thought I would address it in the “Common Questions” feature on my blog.

What do Lutherans teach concerning the Lord’s Supper?

Martin Luther himself summarizes the nature of the Lord’s Supper when he writes: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and drink, instituted by Christ Himself.”[1]  In other words, we believe that when Jesus breaks bread and takes a cup of wine and says to His disciples, “This is My body” and “This is My blood” (Matthew 26:26, 28), Jesus means precisely what He says – the bread and wine are His true body and blood.

The classical term for this teaching is the “sacramental union.”  Again, Luther clarifies this term well:

Out of two kinds of objects a union has taken place, which I shall call a “sacramental union,” because Christ’s body and the bread are given to us as a sacrament…Therefore, it is entirely correct to say, if one points to the bread, “This is Christ’s body”…Thus also it is correct to say, “He who takes hold of this bread, takes hold of Christ’s body; and he who eats this bread, eats Christ’s body; he who crushes this bread with teeth or tongue, crushes with teeth or tongue the body of Christ.” And yet it remains absolutely true that no one sees or grasps or eats or chews Christ’s body in the way he visibly sees and chews any other flesh. What one does to the bread is rightly and properly attributed to the body of Christ by virtue of the sacramental union.[2]

Thus, the sacramental union refers to the fact that Christ’s true body is present “in the bread, under the bread, with the bread”[3] and likewise with Christ’s blood and the wine.

What the sacramental union is not…

Because so many Christians teach so many things concerning the nature of the Lord’s Supper, it is important to briefly touch on some things which the sacramental union is not, lest there be any confusion.

The sacramental union is not transubstantiation

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper cease to be bread and wine and instead become the body and blood of Christ.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes transubstantiation:

By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ Himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: His Body and His Blood, with His soul and His divinity.[4]

Central to the doctrine of transubstantiation is an Aristotelian distinction between the “substance” of a thing and its “accident.”  The “substance” of a thing is its fundamental essence.  It is that which, if it ceases to be, the thing loses its identity.  The “accident” of a thing is an attribute which may or may not belong to a substance without affecting its core essence.

The doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that, when a priest recites the Words of Institution at the Lord’s Supper, the substance of the bread and wine transform into the substance Christ’s body and blood and the bread and the wine are no longer essentially present.  They are only outward, “accidental” forms.  In this sense, then, the forms of the bread and wine are “faking us out,” for they are not really, essentially there.  All that is there is Christ’s body and blood.

Luther responds to the doctrine of transubstantiation thusly:

The Evangelists plainly write that Christ took bread[5] and blessed it, and when the Book of Acts and the Apostle Paul in turn call it bread,[6] we have to think of real bread and real wine, just as we do of a real cup…Therefore it is an absurd and unheard-of juggling with words to understand “bread” to mean “the form or accidents of bread,” and “wine” to mean “the form or accidents of wine”…The church kept the true faith for more than twelve hundred years, during which time the holy fathers never, at any time or place, mentioned this transubstantiation (a monstrous word and a monstrous idea), until the pseudo philosophy of Aristotle began to make its inroads into the church in these last three hundred years.[7]

The sacramental union is not symbolism

There are many church bodies which teach that when Christ said, “This is My body” and “This is My blood,” what He really meant was, “This symbolizes my body” and “This symbolizes My blood.”  For instance, “The Baptist Faith and Message” confesses, “The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.”[8]  Notice that this confessional statement refers to the Lord’s Supper explicitly as “a symbolic act” and does not even make mention of Christ’s body and blood.

There are some who, holding to a symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, accuse Lutherans of being anachronistic when we insist that the word “is” when Christ says “This is My body and “This is my blood” indicates that Christ’s body and blood are truly present with the bread and wine.  One friend made this argument to me: “When I show you a picture of my family and say, ‘This is my family,’ I mean, ‘This is a picture of my family.’  When Jesus held up bread and wine, He meant to say the same thing: ‘This is a picture of My body and blood!’”  I’ll grant that it would strain the bounds of good exegesis to base the doctrine of the sacramental union entirely on the word “is.”  But Lutherans do no such thing.  Rather, we take into consideration three additional factors.  First, we take into account who is speaking these words.  Because Christ is speaking these words, it is of no difficulty for Him to make His body and blood miraculously present in, with, and under the bread and wine.  The difference between me saying, “This is a picture of my family” and Christ saying, “This is My body and blood” is the speaker!  One speaker can work miracles and speak truth into existence.  The other cannot.  Second, we take into account how Scripture itself interprets these words.  The apostle Paul indicates a lively confidence in the sacramental union when he asks, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16)?  Paul believes that when we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we are actually participating with the body and blood of Christ.  This hardly leaves room for a symbolic reading.  Negatively, Paul warns, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).  Paul warns that partaking of the Lord’s Supper without self-examination and repentance (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:28) can lead to sin against Christ’s body and blood.  How can such thing happen?  Because in the Lord’s Supper, we actually receive Christ’s body and blood.  Third, we take into account how the church has interpreted these words throughout the centuries.  The Lutheran Confessions, in their defense of the sacramental union, cite the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr:

This we receive not as common bread and common drink.  We receive them as Jesus Christ, our Savior, who through the Word of God became flesh.  For the sake of our salvation He also had flesh and blood.  So we believe that the food blessed by Him through the Word and prayer is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.[9]

Taking these three factors into consideration, then, Lutherans believe that we have solid Christological, exegetical, historical, and ecclesial grounds for interpreting Jesus’ words as we do.

The sacramental union is not just a spiritual presence

Calvinists will regularly teach that Christ’s body and blood are present in the Lord’s Supper, though only in a spiritual sense.  Consider, for instance, this passage from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:

The presence of Christ in the Supper we must hold to be such as neither affixes Him to the element of bread, nor encloses Him in bread, nor circumscribes Him in any way (this would obviously detract from His celestial glory); and it must, moreover, be such as neither divests Him of His just dimensions, nor dissevers Him by differences of place, nor assigns to Him a body of boundless dimensions, diffused through heaven and earth.  All these things are clearly repugnant to His true human nature.  Let us never allow ourselves to lose sight of the two restrictions.  First, let there be nothing derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ.  This happens whenever He is brought under the corruptible elements of this world, or is affixed to any earthly creatures.  Secondly, let no property be assigned to His body inconsistent with His human nature.  This is done when it is either said to be infinite, or made to occupy a variety of places at the same time.[10]

Calvin’s argument for a spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper is this:  Christ had both a human nature and a divine nature.  His human nature is circumscribed by the normal spatial restriction that a person cannot be physically present in more than one place simultaneously.  Therefore, Christ’s body, as part of His human nature, cannot be present in the Lord’s Supper, for Christ’s body is in heaven, seated at the right hand of God.  Jesus can only be spiritually present according to His divine nature.  Luther responds to such an argument thusly:

We merge the two distinct natures [of Christ] into one single person, and say: God is man and man is God…[You] will not and cannot prove that the two propositions, “Christ is in heaven, and His body is in the Supper,” are contradictory. So the words, “This is My body,” remain to us just as they read, for one letter of them is better and surer to us than the books of all the fanatics, even if they should fill the world with the books they write.  Again, since they do not prove that the right hand of God is a particular place in heaven, the mode of existence of which I have spoken also stands firm, that Christ’s body is everywhere because it is at the right hand of God which is everywhere, although we do not know how that occurs. For we also do not know how it occurs that the right hand of God is everywhere. It is certainly not the mode by which we see with our eyes that an object is somewhere, as the fanatics regard the sacrament. But God no doubt has a mode by which it can be somewhere and that’s the way it is until the fanatics prove the contrary.[11]

For Luther, then, the sacramental union of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper is a Christological issue.  The question Luther would have us ask is:  “Do we believe that Christ’s body can be present in more than one place simultaneously, or do we insist on circumscribing His human nature by the space-time restrictions of our world?”  How you answer this question reveals what you believe about what Christ, as both God and man, can and cannot do.  If Christ from rise from the dead in both His human and divine nature, it is certainly not too difficult for Him to be present in the Lord’s Supper in both His human and divine nature.

Finally, Luther would remind us of the blessing of the Lord’s Supper:

The Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself…For the devil is such a furious enemy.  When he sees that we oppose him…he prowls and moves about on all sides.  He tries every trick and does not stop until he finally wears us out, so that we either renounce our faith or throw up our hands and put up our feet, becoming indifferent or impatient.  Now to this purpose the comfort of the Sacrament is given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heaven, so that it may gain here new power and refreshment.[12]

May you gain such power and refreshment from the Lord’s Supper, for in it, Jesus gives His body and blood – His very self – for you!


[1] SC VI

[2] AE 37:299–300

[3] FC SD VII:38

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1413

[5] Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, Luke 22:19

[6] Acts 2:46, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11:23, 26–28

[7] AE 36:31

[8] The Baptist Faith and Message, VII

[9] FC SD VII:39

[10] Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.19

[11] AE 37:212–214

[12] LC V:26-27

February 13, 2012 at 5:15 am 4 comments

A Pastoral Response to Mormonism in the Public and Political Square

With the election cycle kicking into full gear, politicians, pastors, and pundits are beginning to offer endorsements with regard to who they would like to see elected President of the United States.  At the Values Voter Summit, in an endorsement for Rick Perry, a Republican candidate for president, Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, asked, “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?”[1]  Following his remarks, Pastor Jeffress was asked to clarify his comments and explain specifically what he thought of Rick Perry over and against another frontrunner candidate, Mitt Romney, to whom he seemed to allude when he spoke of a “good, moral person.”  The pastor replied, “Rick Perry’s a Christian.  He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ.  Mitt Romney’s a good, moral person, but he’s not a Christian. Mormonism is not Christianity.  It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”[2]  These remarks sparked a firestorm, with many voters and reporters alike indignant that the pastor would designate Mormonism as a “cult.”

Because of the attention and ire that Pastor Jeffress’ comments have drawn, we have received many questions concerning the Mormon Church[3] and its relationship to mainstream Christianity.  In light of these questions, we thought it would be appropriate to briefly address the teachings of Mormonism theologically, the status of Mormonism religiously, and the duty Christians have as voting citizens vocationally.  Here is a broad overview of what is to follow.

First, we will discuss how Mormonism cannot be considered a part of historic, orthodox Christianity.  Its teachings concerning the Trinity, the nature of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are far removed from biblical and historical Christian teaching.  Mormonism does not confess the Trinity nor does it believe that a person is saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone.  Rather, Mormons believe they are saved by grace and their works.

Next, we will tackle the question du jour, “Is Mormonism a cult?”  Theologically, we can say that Mormonism is a cult, for it claims new, advanced, divine revelation in addition to the Bible. Psychologically and sociologically, the validity of calling Mormonism a cult becomes less clear.  A cult, as the word is used in its secular sense, denotes a body which is explicitly psychologically and sociologically subversive.  Mormonism does not necessarily bear this hallmark of a cult.  Thus, when we call Mormonism a “cult,” it is important that we define the term.

Finally, we will ask the question, “May Christians vote for a candidate who is not a Christian?”  In this section, we will discuss how because those in political offices rule in the kingdom of the world and not in the Kingdom of God, they can be competent to rule even if they are not Christian.  Christians are free to pick the most competent candidate, even if he is not a Christian candidate, for political office.

With this overview, we now move to discuss each of the above points in more depth.

The Teachings of Mormonism

First, we turn to the teachings of Mormonism from a theological perspective.  As stated previously, theologically, we must understand that Mormonism cannot be considered a part of historic, orthodox Christianity.  Indeed, Mormonism explicitly rejects claims that it is part of the Christian tradition.  Mormonism teaches that before May 15, 1829, there was no true Church on earth.  It was on this day that John the Baptist allegedly visited Joseph Smith and conferred upon him and his friend, Oliver Cowdery, the Aaronic priesthood.  Before this prophetic encounter with John the Baptist, Mormons claim, “There was no one living in mortality who held the keys to this Priesthood.”[4]  In other words, before this time, Mormons teach that no one had the priestly pedigree to be a part of true Christianity.  It had been completely lost from the days of the apostles.  Thus, according to their own statements, Mormons claim to be the restoration and repristination of Christianity and not a part of the history or orthodoxy of the Church over the past two thousand years.  Therefore, we should take Mormons at their word and not call them “Christians” in any historic or orthodox sense.

A brief survey of Mormon beliefs reveals that Mormons are indeed far removed from traditional and foundational Christian doctrines.

The Trinity

To begin with, Mormons reject the doctrine of the Trinity which states that there is one God, consisting of three co-equal and co-eternal persons:  “Latter-Day Saints reject the doctrines of the Trinity as taught by most Christian churches today.”[5]  Mormons also have beliefs about the individual persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that are at wide variance with traditional Christianity.  For instance, they teach, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s.”[6]  It should be noted that this flatly contradicts the Scriptural witness that “God is spirit” (John 4:24)[7] and “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).  Moreover, Mormons teach that God was once a man:  “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!”[8]  This, of course, denies the immutability and the eternality of God (cf. Malachi 3:6, Psalm 90:2).

Christology

As for Christ, Mormonism teaches that Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer.  Mormons espouse that when the world was in need of a Savior, both Jesus and Satan presented their cases before the Father as to who would make the better Redeemer.  Then, “after hearing both sons speak, Heavenly Father said, ‘I will send the first.’ Jesus Christ was chosen and ordained to be our Savior.”[9]  Certainly this fanciful meeting between the Father, Son, and Satan is far outside the pale of biblical Christianity.  Jesus is consistently referred to as God’s “only Son” (John 1:14, 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9) and, as such, was not chosen to be the Savior over any other Messianic contenders, especially Satan.  Instead, God planned our salvation in Christ from “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).  Salvation in Christ was God’s original and eternal plan.

Salvation

With such a skewed Trinitarian theology and Christology, it is no surprise that the Mormon gospel of salvation is really no gospel at all.  For Mormons, salvation is two-fold.  First, salvation is a person’s personal progression to divinity.  That is, Mormons believe humans can become gods.  Joseph Smith explains:  “Here, then, is eternal life – to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves…To inherit the same power, the same glory and the same exaltation, until you arrive at the station of God, and ascend the throne of eternal power.”[10]  This is not only an untrue statement, but resonates all the way back to the Garden of Eden where Satan tempted Adam and Eve to believe they could usurp God’s position and prerogative.  This is why he says to Adam and Eve, when he is trying to entice them to eat God’s forbidden fruit, “You will be like God” (Genesis 3:5).  Mormons jettison a fundamental distinction of Christian theology:  the distinction between the created and the Creator.  They imagine that creatures can become like the Creator.  This is flatly false.

Second, Mormons teach that salvation is ultimately a product of a person’s moral progression.  Though Mormons believe that humans are saved by grace, they do not believe they are saved by grace alone.  A famous and oft-quoted passage from the Book of Mormon makes this clear enough:  “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”[11]  Contrast this with the apostle Paul’s famous words concerning God’s grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this isnot your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  Jesus’ work on the cross for our salvation is complete.  There is no work we can do to contribute to our salvation.

This is only a small sampling of the false teachings promulgated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Other teachings, as well as the historical and moral veracity of Mormonism’s sacred writings, are highly suspect as well.[12]  Therefore, whatever one may believe about Mormonism’s moral value or theological worth, it cannot be said that Mormonism is “Christian” in any traditional sense of the term.  Albert Mohler summarizes the problem with Mormon theology well:

Mormonism borrows Christian themes, personalities, and narratives. Nevertheless, it rejects what orthodox Christianity affirms and it affirms what orthodox Christianity rejects. It is not orthodox Christianity in a new form or another branch of the Christian tradition. By its own teachings and claims, it rejects any claim of continuity with orthodox Christianity. Insofar as an individual Mormon holds to the teachings of the Latter-Day Saints, he or she repudiates biblical Christianity.[13]

In short, Mormonism is not Christianity, nor is it a branch or part of Christianity.  If you’d like to learn more about Mormonism and its theological teachings, you can find a wealth of resources at http://www.evidenceministries.org.[14]

The Status of Mormonism

Having addressed the teachings of Mormonism theologically, we now move to discuss the status of Mormonism religiously.  Pastor Jeffress called the religion a “cult.”  Is it?

In its original context, the word “cult” did not carry with it the negative connotations it has today.  The word comes from the Latin cultus, originally describing merely the worship of a deity.  Today, however, this word carries with it a wide variety of definitions, many of them sounding sinister.  For the sake of brevity, we will examine two definitions of this word – the first being theological in nature and the second being psychological and sociological in nature – and evaluate the status of Mormonism as a cult accordingly.

Theologically, a good definition of a “cult” can be found in the book, The Future of Religion:  Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation.  In this work, sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge define a “cult” thusly:  “The cult is something new vis-à-vis the other religious bodies of the society…The cult adds to that culture a new revelation or insight justifying the claim that it is different, new, ‘more advanced.’”[15]  According to this definition, Mormonism clearly qualifies as a cult.  It is a new revelation and religion which objects to the historic, orthodox Christian position as something corrupt and apostate.  Indeed, the very byline of The Book of Mormon, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” is a claim of additional, peculiar, and advanced revelation.  In this sense, then, Pastor Jeffress is correct.  Mormonism is considered to be a cult by most major evangelical denominations and is often called a cult within our own church body, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.[16]

Psychologically and sociologically, we can use a definition of a “cult” from Louis Joylon West:

A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.) designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders.[17]

According to West, a cult is that which is explicitly psychologically and sociologically subversive.   It brings to mind people such as Jim Jones and David Koresh and their movements rather than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.[18] Much of the outrage in the media over Pastor Jeffress’ words calling Mormonism a cult would seem to stem from defining the word “cult” psychologically and sociologically rather than theologically.

As Christians, who are called to think theologically about issues such as this, we can indeed call Mormonism a “cult” because of its claim to additional revelation apart from and outside of Holy Scripture which results in the maligning of Christian theology.  This designation, however, does not necessarily imply that Mormonism has all the psychological and sociological hallmarks of a cult.  A Christian’s designation of Mormonism as a cult is primarily a theological rather than a psychological and sociological one.

Our Duty as Christians

Lastly, we move to consider how we, as Christian citizens, can respond to this controversy vocationally.  The word “vocation” is from the Latin vocatio and means “calling.”  The doctrine of vocation states that all Christians have been called by God to serve in different stations in life – whether that be the station of an employee, an employer, a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, a child, a volunteer, etc.[19]  One of the vocations, or callings, God has given to Christians is that of “citizen.”  On the one hand, we are citizens of God’s Kingdom by faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:19).  On the other hand, we are also citizens, either by birth or by naturalization, of a particular country.  This earthly vocation of citizen, in turn, comes with both duties (e.g., Luke 20:21-25) and privileges (e.g., Acts 22:25) as determined by governing authorities which are themselves instituted by God.[20]  One of the duties and privileges United States citizens carry is that of voting for the country’s president.  As Christians, the question arises: “How can I vote in a way that is faithful to God while also seeking to elect a person who will do the best job leading the country?”

It must be noted that there is no easy – or singular – answer to this question.  Nevertheless, there are some guiding principles which can help us cast an informed vote.

First, it is important to understand that, while we, as Christians, live in two kingdoms – the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man – the leaders we elect rule over only one kingdom – the kingdom of man.  Thus, our primary concern should be with their competence to lead in this kingdom.  This means that when we vote, we should consider a candidate’s familiarity with our Constitution and laws and his ability to navigate the intricacies of our legislative process.  If he is inept in either of these areas, this should give us pause.  A public official’s inability to operate effectively inside our nation’s governmental system can spell disaster for our public policy and welfare, for the official will be unable to execute the demands of his office.  Competence is key.

Second, we must also understand that some of the spiritual concerns of the Kingdom of God are part of the natural, moral law which God has placed in this world and thus pertain to the political and public policy making of the kingdom of man.[21]  Issues such as abortion, which pertains to the natural, moral duty we have to uphold human life (cf. Exodus 20:13),[22] homosexuality, which goes against the natural design of creation (cf. Romans 1:26-27), and care for those who cannot care for themselves, to which we are naturally inclined despite our depravity (cf. Matthew 7:9-11), ought to be taken into consideration as we decide for whom we will vote.  If a candidate runs a platform contrary to natural, moral law, this too should give us pause, for this candidate can potentially do harm to our nation’s citizens.

With these two criteria in mind, then, we have a Christian duty to vote for candidates who, on the one hand, are capable and competent to rule in the kingdom of man, for this is what they are called to do, while, on the other hand, are at the same time aligned with those concerns of the natural, moral law of God which pertain to the political and public policy making in the kingdom of man.

All of this is to say that a candidate does not have to be Christian to be a suitable candidate for public office, though we can certainly be thankful that there are Christians in public and political offices. Ultimately, Luther would advise us to vote for a competent candidate, even if he is not personally moral or Christian:

The reasonable question has been put whether it is better to have a good but imprudent ruler…or a prudent but personally bad one.  Moses here certainly calls for both [ref. Deuteronomy 1:13-16]: a good and prudent ruler.  However, if both qualifications cannot be had, a prudent ruler who is not personally good is better than a good one who is not prudent, because a good one rules nothing but is only ruled – and only by the worst of people.  Even though a prudent but personally bad ruler may harm the good people, he nevertheless rules the evil ones at the same time; and this is more necessary and proper for the world, since the world is nothing but a mass of evil people.[23]

Because a politician rules in the kingdom of man, his competence to do so should be the primary criterion used in discerning his fitness for office.  If he is a Christian, great!  If not, it is better to have a competent ruler who is not a Christian than an incompetent ruler who is a Christian.

Finally, Christians, out of theological conviction and consecrated consciences, can and do vote for different candidates.  Because we live in a sinful and fallen world and, as such, we vote for sinful and fallen candidates, Christians come to differing conclusions as to which candidate would best serve in a particular public office.  Christians’ consciences need not be unduly bound in such decisions.  The pastors of Concordia believe that, given the choice between two candidates of equal competence, if one is a Christian and the other is not, wisdom instructs us to vote for the Christian candidate because he will not only serve his country skillfully as a politician, but faithfully as a Christian as he seeks God’s guidance.  This guidance will make his leadership in public office all the more effective.

Pastor Jeffress has endorsed Rick Perry for President of the United States.  As a citizen, he is certainly free to make this endorsement.  As a pastor, however, he must be careful speaking on behalf of a political candidate in a public forum such as the Values Voter Summit.  For his primary vocation as a pastor is the faithful stewardship of the gospel.  Anything that jeopardizes this stewardship is to be rejected.  The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod explains: “The church is a precious institution for us, which dare not be jeopardized by immersion in secular politics.”[24]  We, as Christian citizens of this country, are also free to endorse and vote for our preferred candidates.  However, our preferred candidates need not be the same as Pastor Jeffress’.  Each Christian can come to his own conclusions concerning for whom he will vote.

As citizens of this country, we are free to vote for whomever we want.  As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we are free to vote in accordance with our consecrated consciences.  Thank God for both freedoms.


[1] Robert Jeffress at the Values Voter Summit, October 7, 2011, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700186158/Video-of-Pastor-Robert-Jeffress-at-Values-Voters-Summit.html.

[2] Associated Press, “Perry Backer: Romney in a ‘Cult,’ Not a Christian,” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/10/07/perry-backer-romney-in-cult-not-christian/.

[3] “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” is the official and legal name of what is colloquially called “the Mormon Church.”  Both names are used interchangeably throughout this statement.

[4] Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1922) 68.

[5] Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, “Comparing LDS Beliefs with First-Century Christianity” (March 1988) http://lds.org/ensign/1988/03/comparing-lds-beliefs-with-first-century-christianity?lang=eng.

[6] Doctrine and Covenants, 130.22, http://lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/130?lang=eng.

[7] Scriptural citations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[8] Achieving a Celestial Marriage: Student Manual (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1992) 129.

[9] Gospel Principles, Chapter 3, http://lds.org/library/display/0,4945,11-1-13-6,00.html.

[10] Joseph Smith cited in R. Philip Roberts, Mormonism Unmasked (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1998) 55.

[11] The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1981) 2 Nephi 25:23.

[12] For instance, The Book of Mormon makes an inaccurate historical claim that Jesus was born in Jerusalem (Alma 7:10).  He was born in Bethlehem.  The Book of Mormon becomes morally suspect when one realizes that Joseph Smith plagiarized large portions of the King James Version of the Bible and inserted them wholesale into his work (e.g., compare Moroni 10 with 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, 2 Nephi 14 with Isaiah 4, and 2 Nephi 12 with Isaiah 2).  Moreover, Joseph Smith claimed to have translated The Pearl of Great Price, part of the Mormon canon of scriptures, from Egyptian scrolls which he explained, “Contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.” (History of the Church 2:236).  Egyptologists have since found that these papyri are nothing more than standard Egyptian funereal documents, speaking of Egyptian gods and goddesses (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Abraham).  Richard John Neuhaus says of Mormonism, “There is…the surpassingly awkward fact that not a single person, place, or event that is unique to the Book of Mormon has ever been proven to exist. Outside the fanum of true believers, these tales cannot help but appear to be the product of fantasy and fabrication” (http://www.irr.org/mit/neuhaus.html).

[13] Albert Mohler, “Mormonism, Democracy, and the Urgent Need for Evangelical Thinking” (October 10, 2011) http://www.albertmohler.com/2011/10/10/mormonism-democracy-and-the-urgent-need-for-evangelical-thinking/.

[14] If you would like to know more about the religious worldview of the Mormon Church, click the third slide on the Evidence Ministries home page. This article was written by the Mormon Church and appears in one of their official teaching manuals. In the opinion of Evidence Ministries, it is the best thing a Christian can read in order to understand the clearly non-Christian nature of Mormonism.

[15] Rodney Stark & William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion:  Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985) 25-26.  Surprisingly, the authors later assert that Mormonism is not a cult, even though they admit that, according their own definition, Mormonism qualifies to be classified as such: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presents problems of classification.  Clearly it is not just another protestant sect….The Mormon Church has added so much novel doctrine to the Christian-Judaic tradition that it represents a new religious tradition in its own right, and there can be no doubt that this tradition is deviant….Clearly, Mormonism fits our definition of a cult.  However, because the Mormons succeeded in building their Zion in the empty deserts of the West, most Mormons do not experience life as members of a religious minority.  In Utah, Mormonism is the dominant religious tradition, and this feeling sustains Mormons in nearby states as well.  For this reason…we classified schismatic Mormon groups in Utah as sects, coding such groups as cults only if they developed outside of Utah” (245).  Stark and Bainbridge do not classify Mormonism as a cult simply because of the number of Mormons in some western parts of the country.

[16] For instance, Edgar P. Kaiser’s short book, How To Respond to the Latter-Day Saints, is filed under “Cults” in Concordia Publishing House’s cataloging system.

[17] L.J. West & M.D. Langone, “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers. Summary of proceedings of the Wingspread conference on cultism, 9-11 September” (Weston: American Family Foundation, 1985).

[18] It should be noted that Joseph Smith was known to be quite coercive, threatening damnation on young ladies so that he could procure them as his wives (http://www.irr.org/mit/neuhaus.html).  In this sense, Mormonism, during its formative stage, displayed some cult-like tendencies as they are defined above.

[19] For more on vocation, see Gene Veith, God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in all of Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002).

[20] Lutherans have always affirmed a legitimate role for government in the kingdom of this world.  Accordingly, we ought to pray “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2).  For a good discussion on the government’s role in the Christian’s life, see Render Unto Caesar…A Lutheran View of Church and State, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (September 1995) http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=465.

[21] Whether or not a person is a Christian, the Bible reminds us that God has instilled in each human being a natural, moral compass:  “For when Gentiles [i.e., pagans], who do not have the law [of God], by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:14-15).  These verses remind us that there are basic moral strictures incumbent on every human being whether or not they are Christians.

[22] Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder,” is one of the Ten Commandments.  Lutherans have classically understood the Ten Commandments to be an expression of natural, moral law.  “The Ten Commandments had spread over the whole world not only before Moses but even before Abraham and all the patriarchs” (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 47, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999] 89).   “In some way human reason naturally understands the [Ten Commandments] (for it has the same judgment divinely written in the mind)” (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Paul McCain et al, eds. [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005] Ap IV 7).

[23] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald Plass, ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959) 582.

[24] Render Unto Caesar…A Lutheran View of Church and State, 91.

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