Posts tagged ‘Heaven’

You’re A Saint!

"The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs" by Fra Angelico (1423)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Fra Angelico (1423)

This past Friday, Melody and I dressed up our daughter Hope as an owl and, with great anticipation of the delight we were about to see in her eyes, took her out trick-or-treating. It was a fun evening. She was grinning ear to ear. But as much fun as we had during our Friday evening excursions, the day after held an especially poignant place in my heart. Saturday, according to Church tradition, was All Saints’ Day, a day on which we both remember those saints in Christ who have gone before us and celebrate how we have been made saints through Christ’s death and resurrection.  When I think about all the saints who have gone to be with the Lord in glory this past year, my heart can’t help but be warmed even while my eyes get a little misty. It’s a special time of remembrance.

A traditional prayer for All Saints’ Day encapsulates the meaning of this day well:

O almighty God, by whom we are graciously knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ, our Lord, grant us so to follow Your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those unspeakable joys which You have prepared for those who sincerely love You; through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen!

I love this prayer for two reasons.  First, it appropriately reminds us that there is much to learn from the saints who have gone before us.  Their ways of “virtuous and godly living” ought to be celebrated by us and their insights into God’s Word and Christ’s gospel ought to be studied by us.  There is much to be said for remembering – and practicing – the ways of the saints of old.  At the same time, we must understand that we do not become saints by remembering and practicing the holy ways of these historic Christians.  Rather, we become “sainted” by being “knit together as one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ.” Everyone who is a member of Christ’s body is properly called a saint, even as the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified by Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).  How are we made saints?  We are sanctified and called by Christ.  Who are the saints?  They are everyone, everywhere who calls on the name of Jesus.

It is this definition of sainthood that the Church has believed and confessed for millennia, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed when we say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”

This phrase, “the communion of saints,” carries with it two meanings. On the one hand, this phrase refers to all Christians from all times in all places, both in heaven and on earth.  Nicetas, a fourth century Serbian bishop, explains:

What is the Church but the congregation of all saints? Patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, all the just who have been, are, or shall be, are one Church because sanctified by one faith and life, marked by one Spirit, they constitute one body.  Believe, then, that in this one Church you will attain the communion of saints.[1]

On the other hand, the Greek word for “saints” in the New Testament can be either masculine, referring to people, or neuter, referring to things.  Thus, “the communion of saints” can be taken to mean “the communion of sainted, or holy, things.”  This is the way that Peter Abelard, the great twelfth century French theologian, understood this phrase.  In this case, the phrase, “the communion of sainted things,” was understood to mean the holy things of God:  His Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.  The Lutheran confessors incorporate both understandings of “the communion of saints” when they write, “The Church is the congregation of saints [sainted people], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered [sainted things].”[2]  Thus, the Church is made up of the sainted people of God gathered around the sainted things of God!

But there is even more to this phrase, “the communion of saints.”  The Greek word for “communion” in the Creed is koinonia, a term that, even in secular Greek, describes not primarily communion with other human beings, but communion with God.  For example, the first century Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote of the noble man in his “poor mortal body thinking of his fellowship (koinonia) with Zeus.”[3] Even in the pagan mind, man desires to have koinonia with god, albeit with a false god.  This word koinonia was subsequently commandeered by Christians to describe communion with the true God:  “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).  We have koinonia with Christ.  The phrase, “communion of saints,” therefore, refers not only to the communion we, as Christians, have with each other, but to the communion we have with Christ.

Finally, then, to say, “I believe in the communion of saints” is to say, “I believe that I have communion with Christ and with others who are in Christ.  I believe that Christ meets me by His Word and holy gifts, cleanses me by His blood, and sanctifies me by His Holy Spirit.”  But saying all this is a mouthful.  So we simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints.”  It’s a simple phrase that means so much.  For it describes not only who we are, but who we are with.  We’re with Jesus.  And being with Jesus makes me feel like – well – a saint.

____________________

[1] Nicetas in Charles Augustus Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), 193-194.

[2] AC VII 1

[3] Epictetus, Discourses 2.19.27

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November 3, 2014 at 5:00 am Leave a comment

They Need Someone To Tell Them – How About You?

This past weekend, we finished our series at Concordia titled “Heaven.”  For the final Sunday of this series, Pastor Tucker and I answered some of the most common questions people have about heaven, hell, and eternity.  One of the questions I tackled was, “What about people who have never heard about Jesus?  What happens to them?”  This question is not a new one.  Indeed, questions about how God can consign certain people in certain circumstances to hell or judge them in His wrath are as old as Scripture itself.  Already in Paul’s day, people were asking, “Why does God still blame us” (Romans 9:19)?  Some people cannot fathom a God who will call to account every sin in every situation.  Surely there are instances, these people clamor, where God will just let sin slide.  Surely God will not blame us for our sins – at least not all of them.

As I explained this past Sunday, the truth of God’s judgment is this:  God will hold someone accountable for every sin in every situation – either you or Jesus.  Those are the only two options.  There are no others.  Thus, one cannot be saved apart from Jesus even if one has never heard of Jesus.  For apart from Christ, you will be held accountable for your own sin in hell.

This being said, we also learn that God does not want to hold us accountable for our own sin in hell.  He does not want us to perish (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).  This is why the task of evangelism is of inestimable importance.  For it is through people preaching the Word to other people that God normally reaches out with His love in Christ.  As the apostle Paul says, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them” (Romans 10:13-14)?  People need someone to tell them about Jesus so they have the opportunity to believe in Jesus!  This is where you come in.

The other day, I stumbled across an article by the president and CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, Thom Rainer, titled, “Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make about Christians.”[1]  The last of the seven comments jumped off my computer screen at me:  “I really would like to visit a church, but I’m not particularly comfortable going by myself. What is weird is that I am 32-years old, and I’ve never had a Christian invite me to church in my entire life.”  Here is a comment from a person who wants to learn more about Jesus – who wants to hear from His Word.  All he needs is an invitation to a place where that Word is preached…maybe your invitation.

Thom Rainer concludes:

Non-Christians want to interact with Christians…It’s time to stop believing the lies we have been told.  Jesus said it clearly: “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few.  Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest” (Luke10:2).

Satan is the author of excuses.  There is no reason to wait to reach those who don’t know Jesus Christ.  We must go now.  The harvest is waiting.  And the Lord of the harvest has prepared the way.

I couldn’t agree more.


[1] Thom Rainer, “Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make about Christians,” www.thomrainer.com (9.15.2012).

October 8, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Some Thoughts On Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

I was curious, so I checked.  It’s number one in Amazon’s “Religion and Spirituality” section and number three in Amazon’s overall list of the top 100 books.  To say Rob Bell’s newest opus, Love Wins, has made a splash is like saying our recent recession was an economic hiccup.  Both are understated.  Because of its meteoric rise to the top of national book sales, the pastors at Concordia feel it is important to address what Rob teaches in this book.  Here is what you need to know upfront:  Concordia’s pastors do not believe that Love Wins presents true biblical or Christ-centered doctrine.  In fact, we believe it presents false doctrine that is dangerous and confusing, leading people away from Christ rather than toward Him.  If this is all you want or need to know, there is no need to read the balance of this blog.  If you want to know why we believe this book presents false doctrine, read on.

The blogs and reviews of Rob’s new book are legion, and so my goal in this blog is not to try to break through the cacophony of clamor surrounding the book’s release.  That’s a far too ambitious – and, I might add, unrealistic – goal.  But neither do I intend my review to simply be another voice added to the many shouts either celebrating or decrying Rob’s book.  Instead, my review is more of a personal sort.  I am a pastor.  And already, I am receiving questions from people I know and love about Rob’s book.  And I am concerned.  I am concerned about Rob.  I remember him in his earlier years.  To this day, I have never heard a finer sermon on Leviticus 16 than the one he preached.  And the picture he painted of Ephesus, the Roman emperor Domitian, and John’s Revelation still grips me – and gives me hope – every time I think about it.  In fact, I still have a copy of that sermon…on cassette tape!   I’m having a hard time understanding what happened to Rob theologically.  I am concerned about him.  But I am also concerned about the people with whom I am talking.  The people who are questioning.  The people who are confused.  The people who are wondering, “Is this book true?”  If this is you, then I mean this blog for you.  And though my words may be pointed, they are not meant to be vicious.  Rather, they are written in love and a concern for the truth, for “love rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).  And I believe that, finally, the truth will carry the day.  For I, like Rob Bell, believe that love wins.

Deconstructing theology is dangerous business.  And yet, it’s something people – especially so-called “postmodern” thinkers – love to do.  After all, it’s fun to pile on top of certain theological presuppositions and assertions and expose the discontinuities in them, especially if these presuppositions and assertions are widely regarded as traditional and orthodox.  And it is this is this deconstructionist method that Rob employs in Love Wins. Consider this quote:

Millions have been taught that if they don’t believe, if they don’t accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever.  A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.

If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities.  If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we could contact child protective services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good. (pages 173-174)

The logic seems, well, logical enough.  If God loves us and wants salvation for us, how could He abandon his pursuit of us upon our deaths and consign us to eternal torment?  That’s not a loving God!   Therefore, goes Rob’s argument, God must allow people the opportunity to repent (though he never uses the word) even, perhaps, after death.  Or at least that’s what he tantalizingly infers!

But let’s apply Rob’s same deconstructionist enterprise to his own argument.  Rob solves the difficulty of the God who pursues us in the life and judges us in the next by appealing to God’s generous love – a love generous enough to allow for our free will, now on earth and then in eternity:

To reject God’s grace, to turn from God’s love, to resist God’s telling, will lead to misery.  It is a form of punishment, all on its own.

This is an important distinction, because in talking about what God is like, we cannot avoid the realities of God’s very essence, which is love.  It can be resisted and rejected and denied and avoided, and that will bring another reality.  Now and then.

We are that free. (page 176)

So, Rob says I am free – free to “trust God’s retelling of my story” (page 173), as he puts it, and free to reject it.  And not only am I free to trust and reject now on earth, but “now and then,” even into eternity.  On the one hand, this is quite an enticing prospect because it allows me to trust in God’s retelling of my story even after I die.  So if I mess it up here, I need not worry.  I get another shot at trusting God on the flipside.  It is important to note that Rob’s concern here is fundamentally a therapeutic utilitarianism.  The kind of God who would do something as psychologically stressful as consigning people to an eternal hell simply won’t work!  Indeed, Rob states this explicitly: “This is the problem with some Gods – you don’t know if they’re good, so why tell others a story that isn’t working for you” (page 181)?  The problem is that Rob’s version of God and the gospel doesn’t work either!  After all, what happens if I mess up on the flipside?  What happens if I trust God’s retelling of my story in this age, but then use the generous freedom that Rob claims love requires to reject God’s retelling of my story in the age to come?  Do I slip the surly bonds of heaven and wind up in a hell of my own making?  And what if I trust in God’s retelling again?  Is it back to heavenly bliss?  And then what if I reject it…again?  And then trust it…again?  Am I stuck in a vicious volley between heaven and hell for all eternity?  That certainly doesn’t sound very “heavenly.”  In fact, that sounds like what I struggle with right now!  That sounds like Paul’s exposition on every Christian’s age old struggle:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  Where’s the hope in that?

The freedom that love brings is only good if it is exercised with the sovereign prerogative that God has.  In other words, love without God’s sovereign prerogative is impotent.  It cannot do what it desires.  It cannot, to use Rob’s book title, “win.”  And indeed, love that allows this kind of freedom isn’t even really love.  For it simply allows us to do what we please.  Who actually loves like this – even here, even now?  Love demands that when you see a child chasing his ball onto the interstate, you curb his freedom and tug him back.  Love demands that heaven is an age when we are not only free to live with God, but have also been tugged, or, more biblically, “chosen” by God (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14).  Love and freedom are not synonymous nor are they inextricable concomitants of each other.  That is why God does away with people who persistently demand their freedom.  For they cannot demand their freedom to God without demanding their freedom from God.  These are the people who go to hell.

To allow me the eternal freedom to trust or reject God’s retelling of my story is only to allow me the eternal opportunity to make myself unspeakably miserable.  And I’m not sure that’s a good opportunity. Because I already know what I’d choose…again and again and again.  For I’m not truly free.  I’m a slave to sin.  And so I will always choose wrongly.  As the Reformers put it, “We are unable to stop sinning.”  I will always fall for the illusion that freedom from God presents rather than the joy that freedom in Christ brings.  This is why God coopted my slavery to sin and set me free, only to make me a slave again, this time to righteousness – not out of some sort of sinister divinely wrought determinism, but for the sake of Christ:  “Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18).  This is the good news – that God does not leave things up to us.  No, He loves us far too much to do that.  And so He conquers sin, death, and the devil, and gives us His righteousness, apart from and in spite of our terrible choices.

Whatever so-called “problems” and questions Rob Bell may try to solve and answer in his book, he only succeeds in creating more problems and begging more questions.  Not only that, but he finally replaces the good news with something that is neither good, for it leaves us in an eternal state of struggling against our own wills, nor is it news, for this struggle is much older than any twenty-four news cycle.  So, whatever supposed “problems” my “traditional” story of the gospel may have (which I am not convinced there are problems, just paradoxes), this I know:  When it comes to a love that is broad enough to allow me my own, dangerous freedom, “the good news is better than that” (page 191).

March 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm 6 comments

ABC Extra – Many Workers, Same Denarius

One of my favorite parables is that of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  Jesus says:

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing.  About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.” The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” But he answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:1-15)

This is a parable, of course, about how all who believe in Christ, whether they have come to faith through baptism as an infant and have labored in the vineyard of Christ’s Church all their life, or whether they believe on their deathbed, finally receive the same heavenly reward.  This is what the “denarius” stands for:  eternal life.  And Jesus’ point is that eternal life is a gift of God’s grace.  It cannot be merited by our piety and works.

In verse 2, the landowner agrees “to pay them a denarius for the day.”  The NIV here makes it sound as though the workers are somehow meriting their award of a denarius because they are getting paid for what they do in the vineyard.  However, in Greek, the word “pay” never appears.  The ESV does better: “After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”  There is no notion of payment, only a predetermined agreement.  Finally, we learn that the denarius was not a payment at all, but a gift.  After the laborers who began work at the start of the day begin to grumble because they receive the same denarius as those who began work at the end of the day receive, the landowner asks, “Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.”  (And again, the word “pay” does not appear in the Greek.)  “I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous” (verses 13-15)?  It is the generosity of the landowner that leads to the gift of the denarius, not the work of the laborers.  For eternal life is a gift of God’s grace.

Luther explains this well when he writes that in eternity, “In his person none shall be more or have more than the other, Saint Peter no more than you and I.”  Even the most notable saints on earth finally all receive the same heavenly reward.  For, “in short, all are to be alike before God in faith and grace and celestial bliss” (St. L. VIII:1223).  It is important to note that Luther goes on to say that we are indeed recognized with differing degrees of glory for our good works (cf. Luke 19:12-19, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Galatians 6:8-9), but the reward of eternal life itself is universal for all who trust in Christ.

Thus, all Christians are all on their way to the same destiny:  eternal life in, with, and through Christ.  And when the days in the vineyard of this earth get long, that is a great hope.  So lift up your eyes to the heavens!  Your denarius awaits.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

November 22, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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