Posts tagged ‘Martin Luther’

Resurrection Hope

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Credit: Burne Jones, 1890 / Picture by Martin Beek / Flickr

Christ is risen! These words are needed now more than ever in our world. As the death toll continues to climb from COVID-19 and the virus continues to spread, although thankfully at a slower pace than it has, we need to be reminded that no affliction or adversity, no trial or torture can put Christ back in the grave. The grave is empty and, because it is, our hope is secure.

In one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, the apostle Paul speaks about the hope we have because of Easter:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:17-20)

Paul refers to Christ’s resurrection as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” In other words, those who have died or will die in Christ have the assurance that they too will one day be raised to live with Christ forever. Christ’s resurrection on Easter is a preview of our easters when He returns.

Martin Luther, in a series of seventeen sermons he preached in 1533 on 1 Corinthians 15, offers these comments on Paul’s words:

Because Christ is risen and gives us His resurrection against our sin, death, and hell, we must advance to where we also learn to say: “O death, where is thy sting?” [1 Corinthians 15:55] although we at present see only the reverse, namely, that we have nothing but the perishable hanging about our neck, that we lead a wretched filthy life, that we are subject to all sorts of distress and danger, and that nothing but death awaits us in the end.

But the faith that clings to Christ is able to engender far different thoughts. It can envisage a new existence.  It can form an image and gain sight of a condition where this perishable, wretched form is erased entirely and replaced by a pure and celestial essence.  For since faith is certain of this doctrine that Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, it must follow that this resurrection is just as effective in us as it was for Him – except that He is a different person, namely, true God.  And faith must bring it about that this body’s frail and mortal being is discarded and removed and a different, immortal being is put on, with a body that can no longer be touched by filth, sickness, mishap, misery, or death but is perfectly pure, healthy, strong, and beautiful …

God did not create man that he should sin and die, but that he should live.  But the devil inflicted so much shameful filth and so many blemishes on nature that man must bear so much sickness, stench, and misfortune about his neck because he sinned.  But now that sin is removed through Christ, we shall be rid of all of that too.  All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on earth. (AE 28 202-203)

Luther’s final words beautifully summarize the hope of Easter: “All will be pure, and nothing that is evil or loathsome will be felt any longer on the earth.” As we continue to struggle through these evil and loathsome days of pandemic, I’m looking forward to that day!

Christ is risen! Nothing can change that and no pandemic can outlast that.

April 13, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Reformation of the Church

Luther95theses

Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

Tomorrow, many corners of the Christian Church will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  And though the Reformation of the Church was larger than any one event and any one man, the beginning of this grand theological and historical watershed is traditionally traced to October 31, 1517, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, outlining his grievances against some of the abuses that were rampant in the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

At the heart of Luther’s protest was the Church’s sale of indulgences.  Indeed, in his 95 theses, Luther uses the word “indulgence” some 45 times!  An indulgence was a partial remission of punishment for sin, issued by the Church, and could be used either to lessen a person’s future penalties in purgatory, or to shorten a deceased loved one’s current intermediate period in purgatory.   Indulgences took both the form of personal good works, such as pilgrimages and acts of devotion, as well as the form of a payment to the Church by which, it was said, one could have some of the good works of one of the Church’s canonized saints imputed to him to counterbalance his sin.

In Luther’s day, a preacher named Johann Tetzel shamelessly peddled the second type of indulgence, claiming that paying for an indulgence could breezily and easily excuse a sin for which one would otherwise have to suffer terribly in purgatory.  With clownish flamboyance, he declared:

Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in purgatory.

How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of purgatory.

But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you …

Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue of which you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul, safe and sound into the land of paradise?

According to Tetzel, one sin buys a person seven years of suffering in purgatory.  If a person commits only one sin a day, which, according to Tetzel himself, who invites his hearers to ponder “how many mortal sins are committed in a day,” is an unrealistic underestimation, this would mean that, for one year’s worth of sins, a person would spend 2,555 years in purgatory.  If a person lived to be 75, they would have to endure 191,625 years of suffering in purgatory.  But, Tetzel continues, “for the fourth part of a florin,” one can purchase an indulgence letter, which allows the bearer to “obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed on you.”  A florin was an Italian gold coin worth around $144 in today’s currency.  A fourth of a florin, then, would be worth around $36.  Thus, Tetzel’s message was this:  for $36, your sins can be taken care of, and you can enter effortlessly into paradise.  What a deal!

The problem with Tetzel’s deal, of course, is that, ultimately, he cheapened both the penalty and the payment for sin.  As harrowing as 191,625 years in purgatory may sound, the true penalty for sin is even more terrifying, for it is not a finite time in purgatory, but an infinite eternity in hell.  And the true payment for sin that rescues us from this eternity in hell is certainly more than a measly $36.  The true payment for sin is nothing short of priceless.  As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Without money you will be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3).  The true payment for sin is nothing less than the priceless blood of Christ.

The truth Luther rediscovered is that the penalty for sin is much steeper and the payment for sin is much deeper than an indulgence preacher like Johann Tetzel ever let on.  And this is the truth that launched a reformation of the Church.

Tetzel passed away in 1519, only two short years after the Reformation began.  By this time his ministry had been discredited, and he had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child.  When Luther heard that Tetzel was near death, he wrote his old theological sparring partner a kind note, begging him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”

Luther was known for preaching grace as a theologian.  It turns out that, for all his protestations against and sometimes harsh critiques of the Catholic Church of his day, at times, he was also gracious as a person.  And grace is better than any indulgence.  This was Luther’s message – and, most importantly, this is the gospel message.  And that’s a message worth celebrating, which is why the Reformation is worth celebrating, even 500 years later.

“Indulgences are in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.” (Martin Luther)

October 30, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Finding Our Place: Navigating Unionism and Sectarianism

Marburg ColloquyLast week, I was answering some questions for a friend who is studying to become a pastor. His professor had given him two questions for me to answer as part of assignment. One of the questions really struck me: Where do you think Lutheranism fits within the wider Christian community?

This is an important question. After all, for some, it is not evident that Lutheranism does fit within the wider Christian community – at least in a way that encourages engagement with and learning from that community. Last week, I watched with an aching heart as some of my Lutheran brothers in ministry harshly and sometimes sarcastically criticized some of my other Lutheran brothers for engaging with and learning from people outside of my Lutheran community. These criticisms reminded me of how important questions about where Lutherans fit in the Church with a capital “C” really are.

In order to explore these questions, I think it’s important to note the Lutheran identity at its best is a confessional Lutheran identity. The word “confessional” is rooted in the Greek word homologeo, which means, “to say the same thing.” To be a confessional Lutheran, then, means to say the same thing as Jesus and His Word. It means to be devoted to a clear and accurate declaration and explanation of the gospel and sacred Scripture, which, I should point out, can be found in our community’s confessional documents.

When engaging the Christian community at large, this devotion to the gospel and Scripture means two things. First, it means that Lutherans eschew unionism. Unionists are those who conceal differences between Christian communities and pretend that all – or most all – Christians say the same thing about Jesus and His Word. At the same time confessional Lutheranism guards against unionism, however, it also stands against sectarianism. In other words, though Lutherans do not paper over differences between their confession of faith the confessions of other Christian communities, they also celebrate and affirm areas of agreement. Thus, Lutherans are very much a part of the wider Christian community, for they share many of the same theological commitments.

The most famous historical test case for the kind of confessional Lutheranism that abjures both unionism and sectarianism came in 1529 when Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli met at Marburg to discuss areas of agreement and disagreement between their two reforming movements. At Marburg, they discovered they agreed on fourteen articles of faith spanning from the nature of the Trinity to justification by faith to the role of governing authorities. But they could not agree on one point: the character of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. The dispute was formally summarized like this:

We all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.[1]

This is a masterful statement. Luther and Zwingli carefully avoid unionism by clearly, winsomely, concernedly, and lovingly explaining where they disagree, but are also in no way sectarian, for they commit themselves to “show Christian love” and “diligently pray to Almighty God that through His Spirit He might confirm us in the right understanding.” In other words, they unreservedly confess their positions while humbly asking the Lord to show them if and where they could be out of step with His Word. Here is confessional Lutheranism at its finest.

In a culture where truth is often either relegated to relativity or regarded as unimportant, confessional Lutheranism has not only much to say, but a time-tested strategy to offer. The ability to stand up for truth against error while also standing with the truth wherever it can be found is sorely needed not only in the Church, but in our world. So, as a confessional Lutheran, I will continue to be honest about areas of disagreement. But I will also never forget to look for areas of agreement. Finally, I will pray that those areas of agreement would continue to increase among others and myself until we all agree with Jesus. For agreeing with Him is what matters most.

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[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 38, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 88–89.

September 29, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

It’s Time For A Change

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Credit: Mateusz Stachowski

Periodically, I receive email solicitations encouraging me to “take a stand.” I need to “take a stand” against abortion. I need to “take a stand” against sexual immorality. I need to “take a stand” against poverty. There is a whole myriad of things against which I need to “take a stand.”

Now, on the one hand, it is important to stand for truth in a world full of lies. The apostle Paul makes this clear enough when he writes of the armor of God: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist” (Ephesians 6:14). Indeed, I have written about the importance taking a stand elsewhere. On the other hand, if all we’re doing is standing against sin in our world, we are falling woefully short of our calling as Christians.

When Martin Luther sparked a reformation of the Church by posting 95 theses for discussion to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, his first thesis described the heart and soul of what it means to be – and for that matter, to become – a Christian: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[1] The Christian life, Luther asserted, is grounded in repentance.

In Greek, the word “repentance” is metanoia, which is made up of two parts. The prefix meta means “to change” and the noun nous refers to the mind. To repent, then, means “to change your mind.” For instance, if a husband wants to divorce his wife because he is no longer happy in his marriage, for him to repent would mean that he stop thinking his marriage is all about his happiness and instead see it as a reflection of the commitment that Christ has to His bride, the Church. Repentance requires a shift in one’s worldview. It asks a person to stop thinking the way he used to think.

When Christ launched His ministry, He launched it with a message of repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Christ’s desire was not just to take a stand against sin, but to change people’s minds about sin. He wanted people who looked at infants as disposable entities who could be left outside to die – which many in the ancient world did – to change their minds and believe that every life is precious to God. He wanted people who believed it was fine to sleep around – as many in Jesus’ day did – to change their minds and instead be faithful and tender to their spouses. He wanted people who looked past the impoverished – as the rich man in Jesus’ story about the beggar Lazarus did – to change their minds and offer what they could in Jesus’ name.

I have heard many a discussion about the sins that beset our culture and how the Church should respond to these sins. Sadly, more often than not, people want the Church only to “take a stand” while ignoring the fact that, first and foremost, the Church is to help “make a change.” The Church is to call people to repentance.

How can the Church do this? By making two shifts.

First, we must stop looking at people who are far from God as merely evil and start looking at them as lost. Looking at people who are far from God as merely “evil” incites our indignation. Seeing them as “lost” arouses our compassion.

I heard a story last week at a conference I was attending about a man who was at the deathbed of his brother. His brother was a recalcitrant non-believer. He refused to trust in Jesus, even as he was drawing his final gasping breaths. As this man stood by his brother’s bedside, trying to comfort him, the thought passed through his mind: “This is the last time my brother will ever experience any comfort. After this, it will only be eternal separation from Christ.” If that doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

There are millions of people headed for the same destiny as this man’s brother. How can we only get angry at them as evil without caring for them as lost?

Second, we must stop playing only defense when it comes to evil and start playing offense. I get the impression that some people think if we could just outlaw certain evils, our problems would be solved. But legislation against evil only defensively curbs it. It doesn’t offensively change people’s mind about the fundamental nature of right and wrong. This is why legislation passed in one Congress is so easily reversed by the next Congress. As Christians, our legislative efforts need to take a backseat to our desire to understand and empathize with how our culture thinks so we can winsomely respond to what our culture thinks. If you need a good place to start learning how to do this, I would recommend reading The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. I would also add that changing people’s minds takes time. Sometimes, it takes lots of time. So be patient! A mind changed is worth the wait.

“Taking a stand” may reveal the sin in our world. However, “making a change” – repentance – conquers the sin in our world because it leads people to Christ. And I’d much rather win against sin instead of just complaining about sin.

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[1] Martin Luther, “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” (October 31, 1517).

September 22, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Divorce, Remarriage, Communion, and the Catholic Church’s Existential Crisis

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

I have to admit, I’d be in awe if I got the phone call Jaqui Lisbona did.  On a Monday, a couple of weeks ago, Jaqui’s phone rang.  Her husband picked it up and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Father Bergoglio.  You may know him better as Pope Francis.  He asked to speak with Jaqui.  Apparently, several months back, she had written a letter to the pontiff asking him if she could take Communion even though she was divorced.  Apparently, her priest had been refusing her Communion for some time now according to the provisions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions … The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.  If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.  Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists.[1]

In contradistinction to her priest’s ban, The Washington Post reports that the Pope told Jaqui “‘there was no problem’ with her taking Communion, and that he was ‘dealing with the issue’ of remarried divorcees.”[2]  Predictably, this set off a firestorm of controversy with the Vatican ultimately having to respond:

Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.

I like Ross Douthat’s analysis of this response:  “This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in ‘private’ conversation, the Pope is, well, the Pope.”[3]  Exactly.  You can’t claim the Pope is the vicar of Christ on the one hand while having him contradict what other vicars of Christ before him have taught on the other.

With that being said, there is something to be commended in the stance that The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even this woman’s priest, has taken with regard to remarried divorcees and Communion.  In a world that all too readily sanctions divorce and remarriage for reasons as debase and selfish as “I’m in love with someone else and I want to marry them,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps to remind us of the gravity of divorce as a sin in God’s eyes.

Still, it has been interesting to watch Catholics struggle to respond to this situation.  They are struggling with how to make a proper distinction between, oddly enough, the Law and the Gospel!  Consider this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

The question of the divorced-remarried and the sacraments is taking up a lot of our time. How should we look at this?

One of the many confounding things about the Jesus of the Gospels is that He fulfills the law, even strengthens the law, and yet extends mercy to literally anyone who wants it, no matter how deep their transgressions, and adopts a resolutely passionate attitude with sinners. This is encapsulated by His words to the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

As with all aspects of our faith, structured with paradox as it is, the temptation is always to strengthen one side of the “equation” too much at the expense of the other … Jesus says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” One camp will say, “He said ‘I do not condemn you’!!!!!” One camp will say, “He said ‘Go and sin no more’!!!!!” …

It seems to me that the excesses go in these ways. The progressive excess is to use mercy as a (however well-intentioned) pretext to amend the law. The conservative excess is to use the law as a (however well-intentioned pretext) to refuse mercy.

Yes, God lays down the law. But God provides infinite mercy.[4]

It sounds to me like Gobry is having the existential crisis of a Lutheran and he doesn’t even know it!  He is taking seriously the full weight of God’s law against divorce on the one hand while leaning on His sweet mercy for divorcées on the other.

Gobry even seems to suspect that the partaking of Communion to a divorcée’s blessing and benefit is not as simple as a humanly contrived promise to sin no more based squarely in a person’s will:

The juridical Gordian knot here is the necessary “firm resolve” not to commit the sin again. But it is not licentious to note that for all of us this firm resolve will be imperfect. Obviously, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if we search our hearts, do we not find that “firm resolve” is drawn in shades of gray, rather than black or white? …

God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

Gobry knows that rooting anything salvific and divinely beneficial in our actions or will is a fool’s errand.  It’s not just that we aren’t righteous, it’s that we don’t even want to be righteous.  Indeed, any righteous desire in our will is doomed to an infinite regress, rendered impotent because of sin.  We only want to want to be righteous, or even want to want to want to be righteous.  And even this is giving us too much credit.

So, what is the way out of this morass over who may worthily partake of Communion?  Martin Luther would say, “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”[5]  Our worthiness to partake of Communion is not and cannot be based in our freedom from sin, our reparations for sin, or the fullness and genuineness of a promise not to commit more sin.  With regard to the Catholic Church’s current quandary over divorce and remarriage specifically, worthiness for Communion cannot be the result of trying to fix the sin of divorce by, after remarrying, getting another divorce, for this is also a sin.  No, our worthiness to partake on Communion can only be based on faith in the One who gives us His body and blood to remedy our unworthiness.  Our worthiness must be based in Jesus because our worthiness is Jesus.

Existential crisis…remedied.

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[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1994), § 1650.

[2] Terrence McCoy, “Did Pope Francis just call and say divorced Catholics can take Communion?The Washington Post (4.24.2014).

[3] Ross Douthat, “The Pope’s Phone Call,” The New York Times (4.26.2014).

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “On Divine Mercy Sunday, Some Thoughts On Communion And Divorced-Remarried,” patheos.com (4.27.2014).

[5] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Section 1.

May 5, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

You Don’t Want To Be Number One

"Moses with the Tablets of the Law" by Rembrandt, 1659 Credit: Wikipedia

“Moses with the Tablets of the Law” by Rembrandt, 1659
Credit: Wikipedia

Idolatry is rampant in our society.  And this is no surprise.  After all, people have loved to worship, serve, and trust in gods of their own making for millennia now.  From money to sex to power to education to an obsession with whatever rights we think we’re supposed to have, we have no shortage of gods on hand and in our hearts.  And idolatry begins when we are young.

I remember a chapel service I conducted for a childcare center at the church I used to serve.  I was talking to the kids about the First Commandment, which I paraphrased like this:  “God is number one.”  It was with this paraphrase that I heard a little two year old voice pipe up from the back of the room:  “No!” the voice protested, “I’m number one!”  I was taken aback.  So I tried to clarify:  “You are special and important,” I said, “But God is number one.  He’s number one over everything.”  The voice, however, wasn’t buying it.  “No!  I’m number one!” it fired back.

By the end of my chapel message, it was almost comical.  Whenever I said, “God is number one,” this little voice would respond, “No!  I’m number one!”  It seems the idolatrous desire to take God’s place is ingrained in us from the earliest of years.

Martin Luther comments on the First Commandment:

Now this is the work of the First Commandment, which enjoins, “Thou shalt have no other gods.” This means, “Since I alone am God, thou shalt place all thy confidence, trust, and faith in Me alone and in no one else.”[1]

I love how Luther describes the spirit of the First Commandment not in terms of obedience, but in terms of faith.  In the First Commandment, Luther explains, God invites us to trust in Him rather than in the idols we make for ourselves.  Why?  Because the idols we make for ourselves take from us, hurt us, and condemn us. The true God, however, gives to us, blesses us, and saves us.  Idols pain us.  The true God comforts us.

The pain of idolatry becomes especially acute when the idols we make for ourselves happen to be ourselves.  When we are our own gods, we are inevitably left disparaging and hating ourselves, for we fail ourselves and find that we are not the kinds of gods we need ourselves to be.

The First Commandment, then, is not just a dictate, but a promise – a promise that we do not have to worry about running everything as number one gods.  The real God already has that number one spot – and all the responsibility and peril that comes with it – covered.  So don’t just obey the First Commandment, have faith in the One who issues it.  For it is only by faith that this commandment is kept.


[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 44, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 30.

October 14, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Righteous

Crucifixion 1This weekend in worship and ABC, we learned about the doctrine of justification which teaches that our righteousness before God is not a product of ourselves and our works; rather, it is a free gift from God, given to us by the work of Christ on the cross.  As the apostle Paul writes, “[We] are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

Throughout the history of the Church, some have tried to undercut this doctrine of God’s work with human works.  The Pelagians, for instance, taught that by obeying God’s commands, people could gain favor in God’s sight.  The Synergists taught that justification was not a gift of God’s righteousness exclusively, but a comingling of God’s righteousness with human righteousness.  In the face of such unbiblical teachings, Martin Luther offers this important reflection on justification as God’s work and not as ours:

The world wants to win heaven from our Lord God by right, although He is causing the message to be proclaimed aloud throughout the world that He wants to give it to us for nothing.  He says:  “I want to be your God; out of grace and for nothing I want to save you … I will not let you win heaven from Me.  Therefore make no other gods, do not invent things that you do for yourself … Do not begin with your good works; allow Me to have mercy on you.”  It certainly is a shame that people must accuse us being unwilling to accept heaven for nothing, nay, of actually wanting to earn it and of proposing to give to God, to Him who desires to offer everything to us in plenty.  Such fools are we:  we want to give what we ought to take.[1]

We bring nothing to our righteous standing before God – no good work, no pious thought, no warm heart.  Instead, God supplies any and all righteousness we need through His Son.  This is the doctrine of justification.  This is the promise of the gospel.  And this is the cornerstone of our faith.

May we never seek to add our works to God’s work.  After all, it is God’s work – and His work alone – that saves us.


[1] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, comp. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959), §2207.

July 8, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Questions God Won’t Answer

Questions 1It had to be a frustrating experience for the disciples.  They wanted Jesus to answer what they thought was a perfectly appropriate and critically important question:  “Lord, are You at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6)?  This question seemed fair enough.  After all, when the disciples pose this query, Jesus has already risen from the dead and has been periodically appearing to His in a dazzling demonstration of His dominion over death.  And now that Jesus has conquered death, the only thing left for Him to do is to usher in the utopia of God’s kingdom.  But Jesus gives His disciples a less than satisfactory answer to their question about God’s kingdom:  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).  Jesus says to His disciples, “God’s kingdom is coming, and My Father knows when it’s coming.  But He’s not going to tell you.  It’s not for you to know.”

The refusal of God to provide satisfactory answers to all the questions Christians ask has been a conundrum that has frustrated the faithful for millennia.  Questions that range from the mildly curious – “When did the dinosaurs go extinct according to the Bible?” – to the direly critical – “Why does God allow evil to continue to rage in world?” – are left unanswered, at least in toto – by what God reveals in holy Writ.  Yes, there are partial answers these questions and to others like them, but there are not complete answers.  And this leaves many discouraged and despondent.

Like many other countless Christians throughout the ages, Martin Luther too struggled with why God did not answer everything everyone might want to know.  After much reflection, Luther came to this conclusion:  “Whatever God does not tell you, or does not want to tell you, you should not desire to know.  And you should honor Him enough to believe that He sees that it is not necessary, useful, or good for you to know.”[1]  Luther was willing to trust that God knew – and knew how to manage – what Luther himself did not.

Perhaps the reason God does not tell us everything we might like to know is this:  a lack of knowledge compels trust.  In other words, when we do not know something that God knows, we are compelled to trust that God knows what He’s doing even if we happen to be left in the dark.  Our lack of a comprehensive answer to every question we might have can actually be used by God to increase our faith!  And growing in faith is far more important than growing in mere knowledge.

And so, what would you like to know about God?  God may not give you every answer to every question, but you already have His answers to the questions that matter most.  Does God love you?  Yes!  Can you be redeemed by the blood of Christ?  Yes.  Can you trust that God knows what He’s doing and has your best interest at heart?  Yes.

How much more do you really need to know?


[1] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, comp. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1959), §209.

March 11, 2013 at 4:15 am Leave a comment

When A Little Is A Lot

Mustard SeedIt has long struck me how God can do so much with so little.  A little bit of water and the name of God spoken over us in baptism – and we are brought into the family of Christ.  A little bit of bread and a little bit of wine – and we receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  It doesn’t take much for God to do great things!

I was reminded of this point once again as I was teaching Daniel 10.  In this curious chapter, Daniel receives a vision of “a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around His waist.  His body was like chrysolite, His face like lightning, His eyes like flaming torches, His arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and His voice like the sound of a multitude” (Daniel 10:5-6).  The characteristics of this man are strikingly similar to those used to describe Jesus in Revelation:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.  And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to His feet and with a golden sash around His chest.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like blazing fire.  His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and His voice was like the sound of rushing waters. (Revelation 1:12-15)

Daniel, it seems, is having an encounter with the pre-incarnate Christ.

What is Christ doing before His incarnation?  What He does after His incarnation:  fighting the forces of evil.   He says, “I will return to fight against the prince of Persia” (Daniel 10:20).  Many scholars take this reference to “the prince of Persia” as a reference to a fallen angel and not to the human leader of Persia at this time, Cyrus.  After this prince of Persia, Jesus says, will come the king of Greece.  And then, Jesus ends the chapter by saying, “No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince” (Daniel 10:21).

It is verse 21 that especially struck me.  It is just the Son of God and His archangel Michael against the many and varied forces of darkness and evil.  Daniel 11 goes into detail concerning those many and varied dark forces.  It’s two forces for good marshaled against a countless number of forces for evil.  It’s a little against a lot.  And yet, good carries the day:

At that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered.  Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:1-2)

Evil is consigned to everlasting contempt.  The redeemed of the Lord enjoy everlasting life.  The seemingly little forces for good defeat the massive forces of evil.

Throughout the Bible, evil constantly seeks to gain power using sheer numbers.  The Psalmist writes about how “the kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One” (Psalm 2:2).  But no matter how many forces evil may be able to marshal, evil is no match for the goodness of God.  The quantity of evil foes is no match for the perfect quality of God’s goodness.   As Luther writes in “A Mighty Fortress” of God’s power against the devil and minions:  “One little word can fell him.”  One little word of God can destroy vast army of evil.  And that little word has already by spoken from the cross:  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  From the cross, Jesus sealed Satan’s fate with just a little word.  For “It is finished” means “Satan is finished.”  This little word defeated great evil and saved us.

So never overlook the little things of God.  A little can do a lot.  After all, what the world thought was nothing more than an insignificant execution on a cross wound up offering salvation to all humanity.  From a little cross flows big hope.

February 18, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

From CBS News: “An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012.”

Libya.  Yemen.  Egypt.  Last week was a rough one on the other side of the world.  First, in an attack deliberately timed to correspond to the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, Libyan Islamists staged a military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans.  On Thursday, Islamist protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.  Riots also erupted in Egypt, with people climbing into the embassy compound in central Cairo and ripping down the American flag.

One of the inciting factors of these protests is an obscure movie with a less than positive portrayal of the Muslim prophet Muhammad titled, “The Innocence of Muslims.”  Clips from the low-budget film have been making their rounds in cyberspace for weeks.  In the movie, Muhammad is portrayed a womanizing, homosexual, child-abuser.  For many Muslims, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous – hence, the reason for these violent protests.

As I have watched these protests unfold, two things have struck me.  First, I have been struck by the fact that our Constitutional right to free speech does not carry with it a guarantee that such speech will be charitable or even accurate.  As Christians, we are called speak charitably and accurately to and about others not because our Constitution legislates it, but because Holy Scripture commands it.  As the apostle Peter reminds us, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).  Patently offensive and inflammatory caricatures of other religions, though not civically illegal, are certainly theologically sinful.  After all, we, as Christians, do not appreciate having our faith lambasted by flimsy straw-men half-truths.  So we ought never do the same thing to other faiths nor should we encourage others who do.

Second, I have been struck by the intolerance – in fact, the violent intolerance – of these Islamist protesters.  These protestors breach embassies and kill ambassadors who have no relation whatsoever to those who made this outlandish film except that they all happen to be citizens of the same country.  This makes no sense to me.  And yet, for a few too many people, it seems to make all too much sense.  The headlines tell the story.

In the face of such intolerance, it is important to remember that Christians uphold the value of tolerance and its significance in public life.  Granted, the Christian conception of tolerance is not that same as its secular counter-conception.  Christians consistently do and have accepted the existence of different points of view.  We know that not everyone believes as we do.  Moreover, in general, we do not support the suppression – especially the violent suppression – of different points of view.  In this sense, then, we believe in “free speech.”  What is troublesome for Christians is not tolerance in this sense, but the secular conception of tolerance which not only advocates for acceptance of the existence of different views, but demands the acceptance of the truthfulness of these different views.  D.A. Carson explains this tolerance well:

The new [secular] tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own.  We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid.[1]

Of course, the great irony of this tolerance is that if one refuses to accept this definition of tolerance or play by its rules, that person will not be tolerated!  As Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ottawa, wryly noted, “Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.”[2]

One of the most striking lessons in true tolerance comes from Jesus in His Parable of the Weeds.  Jesus tells of a master who plants some wheat.  But while everyone is sleeping, the master’s enemy sneaks in and sows weeds with the wheat.  When the master’s servants see what has happened, they ask, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”  But the master replies, “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:28, 30).  The master in this parable, of course, is Jesus.  The wheat are those who trust in Him while the weeds are those who reject Him.  But rather than immediately destroying those who reject Him, Jesus is tolerant:  He allows the weeds to grow with the wheat.  Martin Luther comments on this parable:

Observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do.[3]

Violent oppression of those with whom we disagree is not an option for the Christian, Luther asserts.  He goes on to state that if we violently deal with someone who is not a Christian and kill him or her, we take away that person’s chance to trust Christ and be saved by Him.  We thus work against the gospel rather than for it.  This echoes Paul’s sentiment in Romans where he speaks of God’s tolerance as kindness which leads to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).

Finally, Christianity teaches an even higher virtue than just tolerance – it teaches love.  And after a week that has seen so much hatred, perhaps that is what we need to share with our world.


[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), 3-4.

[2] Cited in D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, 12.

[3] Martin Luther, The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House 1906), 100-106.

September 17, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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