Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Have you stopped beating your wife? or…Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

When you testify in court for the prosecution, it is important to remember that the defense attorney is trying to discredit you. The better ones know how to back a witness into a corner without them realizing it. That’s why the witness should always remember, whenever possible, to give short, direct answers, which are unambiguous. Along with that, the witness should not immediately rush to answer the question. Defense attorneys will sometimes ask a series of short, simple questions, for which they want either a “yes” or a “no,” in rapid succession, in order to get the witness to feel comfortable answering quickly and without thinking. This is a set up for the last question in the series, which is a “gotcha.” Your name is Officer Klotz? Yes. Your badge number is 140? Yes. You’re working day shift now? Yes. You were working day shift when you stopped my client for speeding? Yes. You had your radar unit repaired before going out on the street that day? Um…

The scenario is awkward and contrived but serves to make the point. The question being asked isn’t really the question being asked. It’s like asking someone if they have stopped beating their wife. If you answer yes, you have just admitted to beating your wife. If you answer no, well, you are an actively abusive husband. It’s better not to assent to the premise of the question. In the scenario, that would be the time for the witness to pause and look to the prosecutor to raise an objection.

Is baptism necessary for salvation? [Pause]

Scripture and The Confessions say yes.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).

Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16) and that God’s grace is offered through Baptism (Titus 3:4-7). They teach that children are to be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God’s grace (AC IX).[1]

But first, I think we have to make sure we know precisely what question is being asked before we begin the discussion. What does the questioner mean when he asks, is baptism necessary for salvation? This, as does every question regarding baptism, boils down to what you believe baptism to be. Is baptism God's work, or man's? In other words, who is doing the baptizing? Is it God? Is it the minister? Is it the person being baptized? If baptism is the work of man, then it is by no means necessary. If baptism is done as a result of a man's decision, it is nothing more than a good work, and good works are not necessary for salvation. Indeed, we know that scripture teaches that it is impossible to earn our salvation through our own works. If baptism is, as scripture describes it, a life-giving water of regeneration that saves us by washing away our sins, then it is absolutely necessary. As always, most of these issues are made clear when we see who is doing the verbs.

So, does the questioner mean to ask, "Is baptism, which is a human work of obedience, done after making a decision by a man's will, necessary for salvation?" Or, are they asking, "Is baptism, which is a work begun and completed by God, as a means of delivering to man the gifts faith and forgiveness God has promised him, necessary for salvation?"

American Evangelicals mean the first thing when they ask this question. Confessional Lutherans mean the second. It is a little like comparing apples and asteroids, though. American Evangelicals see baptism as something they do. First, you are convinced to make a decision to accept Christ into your heart. After you have done that, you do the work of obedience of being baptized. Your baptism is a public confession of your decision to become a Christian. It is purely symbolic, and there is no supernatural aspect to it.

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It 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. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper.[2]

Confessional Lutherans are diametrically opposed to this view of baptism. It is clear that Confessional Lutherans do not view Baptism as a human work. The men who wrote the Book of Concord and said that Baptism is necessary for salvation spent a lot of time explaining, from Scripture, how man is not justified by doing good works, and how good works, when connected with justification, are harmful.

A disagreement about good works has arisen among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession. One side uses the following words and way of speaking: “Good works are necessary for salvation; it is impossible to be saved without good works.” Likewise, “No one has been saved without good works.” They say good works are required of true believers as the fruit of faith, and faith without love is dead, although such love is no cause of salvation. The other side argued that good works are indeed necessary – however, not for salvation, but for other reasons. The expressions mentioned above are not to be tolerated in the Church. (They are not in accord with the form of sound doctrine and with the Word, and have always been and still are used by the papists to oppose the doctrine of our Christian faith, in which we confess that faith alone justifies and saves.) This is argued in order that the merit of Christ, our Savior, may not be diminished, and the promise of salvation may be and remain firm and certain to believers (FC SD IV 1-2).[3]

Baptism is not something a person decides to have done to them; rather, it is something God does to a person. Rather than being a reaction to conversion, faith, and repentance, it is the means by which those things are given to a person by God, because Baptism is a means by which God delivers his saving word. Scripture says that baptism is a life-giving washing of regeneration that imparts the Holy Spirit, and saves us by washing away our sins.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’…Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life...For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:1-8; 1 Peter 3:18-22).

Sure, one might say, babies don’t decide to be baptized. This is true. Isn’t that, however, what those people are doing when Peter tells them to repent? Aren’t they making a decision to turn away from their sin and accept Christ? Not quite. As Jesus instructs us, baptism and teaching go together.[4] So, if we are dealing with a baby, we baptize first, and teach for the rest of his life. If we are dealing with an adult, we begin teaching, and then baptize, and continue teaching for the rest of his life.

You see, faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.[5] It is the Holy Spirit, working through the word, which works faith and repentance in an unregenerate person. God, in his infinite wisdom, had provided multiple ways for that word to get to those who need it, e.g. all mankind, from infant to aged. We have pastors who preach the word. We have Bibles in which we read the word. Can’t read, or hear and understand preaching? We have Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper so that the word can be delivered to us and received by us in connection with physical elements – water, bread, and wine – since we are physical beings who live in a physical world. It is God who converts us. It is God who “repents” us.[6] It is God who gives us faith.[7] He does these things through the word, and He uses means to deliver that word to men.

If that is what Baptism is, then it is most certainly necessary for salvation.

What about the thief on the cross? Wasn’t he saved without being baptized? Yes, he was. He also had Jesus, the Christ, God in human flesh, hanging on a cross next to him, telling him, in person, that He would save him. What the thief on the cross had, is what Baptism delivers to everyone who didn’t have the benefit of hanging next to Jesus at their death. Moreover, Jesus had not instituted Holy Baptism yet. That would come upon his ascension into Heaven. As John the Baptist is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets, I look at the thief on the cross as the last of the Old Testament saints. He was looking forward to the promise of Christ’s death and resurrection, just as Abraham and all the other Old Testament saints did.

The issue here really isn’t one of a person dying after conversion, but before being able to be baptized. After all, Scripture teaches us that only unbelief condemns a person. The issue is can a person who claims faith in Christ, continue to reject Baptism. The explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism explains that faith cannot exist in the heart of a person who despises and rejects Baptism against better knowledge. But those who believe the Gospel, yet die before they have the opportunity to be baptized are not condemned.[8] I am put in mind of the Ethiopian eunuch who, after reading of the Messiah in Isaiah, and being catechized by Phillip, says, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”[9]

Finally, we must consider infants who die in the womb, or after being born but before being brought to the font. This is always a difficult subject because we have no scripture passage to which we can point, that says unequivocally, “Unbaptized babies automatically go to Heaven.” I must, however, rely on the fact that 1) God is love, 2) Scripture tells us that only unbelief condemns, and God is responsible for gifting man with repentance and faith, and 3) while God has bound us to the means of grace exclusively, he is able to do whatever he wants. In other words, God has commanded us to Baptize and to teach. He may save the unbaptized child in some other manner, but we have no promise in Scripture. It is certainly in His loving nature.

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. All people, from conception, need the new life God offers in Christ. Again, we go back to St. Paul, who writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.”[10] Adults who can hear and understand that spoken or written word receive the faith promised by the working of the Holy Spirit, when and where God wills. Praise be to God that he has also provided a means for his grace to reach all people, even infants, in the Sacrament of Baptism. For God has connected his promise of redemption in Christ with the waters of Baptism; Through Baptism, in a way that human minds cannot conceive, he delivers that word to infants, and to adults, by the same Holy Spirit. Baptism, as defined by Scripture, and not human reason, is certainly necessary for salvation.


[1] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[2] "Southern Baptist Convention." Southern Baptist Convention > The Baptist Faith and Message. Accessed August 01, 2017. http://www.sbc.net/bfm2000/bfm2000.asp.

[3] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[4] Matthew 28:19-20

[5] So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

[6] And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Paul instructs Timothy to be patient and to teach, hoping that God would grant repentance to Timothy’s opposition. It is God who “repents” a person, not a person who decides to repent.

[7]  If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:17-18). Peter explains that God granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles; who was he to argue with God? The others then acknowledged that God granted the Gentiles the gift of repentance. Repentance, contrary to being something a person decides to do, is something God does to a person.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1986), 204-207.

[9] We can save the discussion on Acts 8:37 for a separate article.

[10] Romans 10:17

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Confess With Your Mouth, or...The Last Time I’m Going to Argue with Gideons

If there is one thing that I have learned over a lifetime of dealing with people, it is that they are seldom predictable. In particular, it is devilishly difficult to predict how people will react to things one says, or writes. I’ve said it before: As someone who publishes his writings on the Internet, it is generally advisable for me to grow a thick skin and ignore the bulk of the criticism of that comes my way. After all, someone will always disagree with, or be offended by, something.

I remain stunned, however, by the response that my article, “Why I Quit the Gideons,” received when I published it, and still continues to receive. Reading many of the comments, it is clear that some of the more outraged critics did not read, or properly understand, what I wrote. I continue to receive, from time to time, thoughtful, and respectfully written comments which I think need to be addressed, and can be debated to the edification of all. This is now the second time I have endeavored to address concerns raised by my critics on The Gideon article. I recently received this comment from David Crow:

In the following statement you said “Among the issues I ran into were Pelagianism, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and the idea that people are converted by your testimony rather than by God working through means as he has promised (the means of grace – Word and Sacrament)” [sic] I have been a Gideon since 2005. My experience in this organization has been totally opposite of your statement and find it a FALSE Statement. I don’t think there is enough space to point out other falsehoods in why you are not a Gideon. In fact, your statements do not line up with the basic application form and the 3 theological statements you put your name too. 1. Jesus is who he said he was, 2. The Bible is inherent [sic] word of God, & 3 – There is a lake of Fire for unbelievers as mentioned in Revelation. After that, we are not supposed to discuss theological doctrine. If you were in a camp that did otherwise, I highly suggest you report them to Gideons International in Nashville, TN.

Or this one from Estudiante:

Hi. I stumbled on this page looking for something else, but read through your post. It seems worth noting that the experience you’ve had within your immediate circle/chapter of Gideons may not be representative of most chapters around the country/world. Also, of course there are misuses of prescribed prayers and “decision cards” in evangelistic settings. But, the Gideons aren’t saying “repeat this sinners prayer and welcome to God’s family!”. [sic] Thy are merely providing suggested prayer language to help someone express in prayer what is in their heart, which is not per se wrong (and a “staple” of confessional Lutheran worship practice!!). And marking a significant day in one’s conversion to Jesus by having and signing a spiritual “birth certificate” in the back of a New Testament isn’t per se wrong either. It’s not really different than the certificate of baptism a Lutheran parent receives when their child is baptized. My grandmother doesn’t believe she is saved just because she has a signed certificate from the Danish Lutheran church. It’s not fair to make that accusation against someone just for holding a “decision card”. I mean this constructively because you seem like you might have an at-least-mostly-correct understanding of God’s Word and it seems like you want to persuade people toward the truth about Jesus. But, seriously, if you want to persuade thinking people toward the truth, then jumping to unsupported conclusions just isn’t going to work; you’re going to lose them right out of the gate. Maybe there’s unshared information from your experience or from elsewhere that would support your accusations that many or most in the Gideons organization are are [sic] Pelagians or prosperity gospel types. But your post only jumps to these conclusions. Another bit meant constructively…If your “camp leader” is in error regarding matters of salvation, don’t write him a letter, definitely not one that sounds like an over-zealous confessional Lutheran elevator speech. Meet with him to read the Bible and pray. I mean, you believe he’s off about SALVATION, right?

There are many similar comments on the post, which one can peruse at one’s leisure. They all end up making the similar points: 1) You shouldn’t worry so much about doctrine, because the Gideons are doing a good thing, 2) You’re hindering God’s work, and causing division, by pointing out what *you* think is error, and mischaracterizing the Gideons, and 3) You do make a decision to believe in Christ.

Before I continue discussing those three overarching issues, common to most of the dissenting comments I have received, I must point out the following, in response to Estudiante’s comments: Never do I ascribe the doctrinal errors I encountered in my personal experience with pastors who attended my local camp’s functions, to all Gideons, with the exception of Decision Theology. In fact, I praised the organization for its high esteem of God’s Word. I would encourage those who think otherwise to carefully reread the original article. Also, the decision page on the back of the PWT does much more than provide suggested prayer language. It is called “My Decision to Receive Christ as My Saviour.” It says, “Confessing to God that I am a sinner, and believing that the Lord Jesus Christ died for my sins on the cross and was raised for my justification, I do now receive and confess Him as my personal Saviour.” That, my friend, is the definition of Decision Theology, and is as different from a Lutheran baptismal certificate as night is from day. As for the quotation marks around “camp leader,” and the reference to my “letter” to him, I can only assure you that this letter was indeed written, and sent to the gentleman who led the Gideons Camp of which I was a member, with the intention of opening a dialog. I earnestly desired to sit down with him and discuss this matter face to face. Unfortunately, I never received a response from him. By the way, Confessional Lutherans don’t do elevator speeches. From our very beginnings in the 16th Century, we have desired dialog, and real fellowship and doctrinal unity, with those groups with which we disagree. This is evidenced by our confessional writings, as contained in the Book of Concord. They were all written to explain our theology, and to debate and dialog with our Christian brothers, some of whom misunderstood or mischaracterized our theology, and to combat doctrinal error.

In answer to the three general concerns raised in objection to my article, I would offer these three points: 1) Holy Scripture calls Christians to teach right doctrine, 2) It isn’t mean, or un-Christian to point out doctrinal error, 3) Decision Theology is contrary to God’s Word.

And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen (Matthew 28:18-20).

Christians, in general, and pastors in particular, are called to teach right doctrine. In this final passage from Matthew, Jesus, as he ascends into heaven, commands his disciples to teach and observe, “all things that I have commanded you.” It isn’t enough for Christians to simply agree to disagree about difficult doctrinal points. Christ’s command is clear. We are to teach and observe all the things he has commanded. We must, acknowledging Holy Scripture as the only rule and norm for discerning doctrine, search it diligently, reading God’s Word in its proper context, and rightly dividing Law and Gospel. Indeed, pastors dare never forget that their paramount business is to preach doctrine, the divine doctrine of Holy Scripture.[1] This is such an important point that St. Paul takes great care to warn Timothy to give attention to right doctrine, and to be careful to continue in it:

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you (1 Timothy 4:12-16).

St. Paul is preparing Timothy to be a faithful pastor who contends against the doctrines of demons (v. 1). Nowhere in 1 Timothy chapter four, does St. Paul give the slightest impression that it is alright for Timothy to not discuss certain difficult teachings, or to “agree to disagree” for the sake of unity. No, he is commended for carefully following good doctrine, and instructed to reject the profane. St. Paul understands that doing so runs counter to the spirit of this present age, and will win Timothy no admirers, but will instead bring reproach. The footnotes to this passage in the Lutheran Study Bible adds the following:

Pastors are to command and teach true doctrine, while condemning doctrine that is false and deceitful. This runs counter to the spirit of the present age, which downplays the importance of true doctrine and avoids condemning all but the most extreme examples of false doctrine.[2]

In his second letter, St. Paul tells Timothy the same message about sound doctrine. He encourages him to stand fast in sound doctrine, even though there will come a time when the world will not endure it, and Timothy will be faced with affliction for his stance:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4: 1-5).

To teach sound doctrine, and to rebuke the false, St. Paul tells Timothy, is to do the work of an evangelist, and fulfill his ministry. This is quite a contrast from the attitude of the Gideons International organization, which, as the commenter rightly points out, discourages the discussion of doctrine beyond the “big three” points listed on the membership application.

As for being nice: St. Paul certainly didn’t worry about offending anyone when it came to teaching sound doctrine, or rebuking error. He spoke boldly to St. Peter, when he was in error concerning the Judaizers:

Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:11-21).

St. Paul says here that St. Peter’s hypocrisy in the matter of observing the traditions and laws of the Jews, was him not being straightforward about the truth of the Gospel. But what does it matter, if they think they have to keep Jewish traditions, if they believe in Christ, one might argue? St. Paul says it makes all the difference in the world. It means that the law, the thing that they *do*, is the how they are seeking to be justified; and by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. He doesn’t chalk it up to a disagreement. He doesn’t let it go for the sake of superficial unity. He confronts the false teaching (another word for doctrine, by the way), and strongly rebukes it, because it obscures the Gospel. He doesn’t care if he sounds “mean.” This method of confronting false doctrine, as opposed to ignoring it, is the more loving response to the Christian brother in error.

I have spent many hours writing against Decision Theology, and will not reproduce all of those writings and arguments here. In my first “reader comments” article (In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments), I summed up the problem with Decision Theology like this:

If mankind is the actor in conversion, by doing the work of making a decision, or anything else, then salvation depends on man. If this is the case, a man must be convinced, and in many cases manipulated, to commit an act of will and declare himself for Christ. I understand how we can be seduced to believe such a thing. It seems logical. As logical and reasonable as this may seem, however, Scripture says otherwise. To maintain this Pelagianism is to take Christ’s work away from him. If, however, God is the one who does the verbs – who chooses, who converts, who saves, who declares righteous – we can have tremendous comfort.[3] 

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.[4] Therefore, in order for one to “confess with their mouth” they must first be made to “believe in their heart,” by the working of the Holy Spirit. Confessional Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that man cannot, by his own reason, or strength, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him, because it is what Holy Scripture teaches. Mankind, by his very nature, is spiritually blind and dead.[5] Natural, unregenerate man, is God’s enemy.[6]

These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2: 13-16).

In 1 Corinthians chapter two, Paul is describing spiritual wisdom. He contrasts spiritual wisdom (summarized by the phrase “Jesus Christ and Him crucified”), with worldly wisdom. He says that he came to them in weakness, preaching a wisdom, Christ crucified for them, which was revealed to them by the Spirit of God (vv. 3, 11). He says that they listened to him, not because he convinced them by the “excellence” of his speech, or “with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (vv. 3-5).” St. Paul continues to explain that, the wisdom he was teaching the Corinthians was foolishness to the natural man (v. 14); it was understood by them because they, possessing the Holy Spirit, have the mind of Christ (15-16). The reason they – and we – can receive the things of the Spirit of God, is because the Spirit of God makes us able to receive them. We make no decision to believe. We are incapable of making such a decision before our conversion, as Scripture plainly teaches. He converts us, and not randomly, out of nowhere, but through the preaching of God’s Word (His means of grace) by sinful human beings like St. Paul, or your parish pastor.

Adding your decision to believe to Christ’s work of redemption on the cross (Christ’s death, and…) makes your decision the basis for your salvation. Decision Theology, the doctrine that man must be convinced to make a decision of his own will to believe in Christ to be saved, is unscriptural. As much as our rational mind might want to reconcile the conflicting ideas that 1) God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and 2) not all men will be saved, it is impossible. I am confident that these things fit together in a way which God understands perfectly. Perhaps, when we are in eternity, we will understand as well. For now, I shall repent and believe the Gospel[7], things which I would not be able to do, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, while working on this article, I received another comment from Glenn Dowling, which I will reproduce here, only in part:

Abraham Lincoln had a story which ended in the point, “When a feller doesn’t want to do something, any excuse will do.” Joseph, no one is walking around the perfect knowledge [sic] but the Bible provides God’s inspired word and the Holy Spirit is the teacher. What, brother, are you doing to further God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I struggled with this comment, because it asks a good, and valid question. In fact, that question is partially what spurred me on to want to join the Gideons in the first place. Christians are called to do Good Works.

Then they said to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (John 6:28-29; Ephesians 2:10).

In the first passage from John, Jesus says that *the* work of God, that is, the thing that saves us, is to believe in Him. This, as discussed exhaustively above, and in other places, we cannot do by our own reason, or strength. The passage from Ephesians, however, explains that, our purpose after conversion is to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do. From beginning to end, conversion, repentance, faith, and good works, all these things are done by God and given to us as gift. Of course, the Confessions teach this as well:

I do not know how to change in the least what I have previously and constantly taught about justification. Namely, that through faith, as St. Peter says, we have a new and clean heart (Acts 15:9-11), and God will and does account us entirely righteous and holy for the sake of Christ, our Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). Although sin in the flesh has not yet been completely removed or become dead (Romans 7:18), yet He will not punish or remember it. Such faith, renewal, and forgiveness of sins are followed by good works (Ephesians 2:8-9). What is still sinful or imperfect in them will not be counted as sin or defect, for Christ’s sake (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 4:7-8). The entire individual, both his person and his works, is declared to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us and spread over us in Christ. Therefore, we cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy. As it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31); namely, that he has a gracious God. For with that, all is well. We say, besides, that if good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true (SA III XIII 1-4).[8]

So, the question remains: What am I doing to further God’s Word, and the Gospel of Christ? The answer is, nothing…at least in the sense that the question is asked by Glenn Dowling. No, I am not going out on mission trips. I no longer stand on the street corner offering New Testaments to passers-by. By those measures, I am a piss-poor Christian, and those Gideons who devote their time and effort to doing such things have far surpassed me.

The Church’s existence and growth, however, doesn’t depend on us. It depends on Christ. The Church is His body. We should maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support, but we must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills.

So, faith must be lacking in me, because I don’t do good works, right? Well, that’s not exactly true either. What are good works? They are what a child of God does in faith. We know that we can’t do the work that saves us, but we can, after conversion, by the power of the Holy Spirit, do the works God has prepared in advance for us to do. We are given these works to do in our various vocations. He has called me into the vocation of Husband, of Father, of Citizen, of Employee (bond-servant, if you will), of Parishioner, of Friend, among others. In Christ, God regards all of our works done in faith, living out our vocation, as pure and holy.

While some are called to be missionaries and pastors, others are not. We are called to strive to overcome sin, and do good works. We who are not called to the vocation of missionary or pastor, however, are still called to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified among those with whom we have a relationship, according to our vocations. We must still, as St. Paul tells Timothy, hold fast to sound doctrine, and we must teach all that Christ commanded us. We must do all this, knowing that it is not our works, which remain tainted by sin, that advance the Gospel, or grow the Church, or convert the sinner. After all, he who plants and he who waters are nothing. God gives the increase. And God’s word, as Mr. Dowling points out, will not return to him void, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. This is why I expressed my love and admiration for the men who pass out Scripture to the public, as brothers in Christ. I do so now again.

For their theological faults, one of the redeeming characteristics of the Gideons organization is the thing for which they are best known – placing Bibles, and distributing New Testaments to the public. In the end, the Gideons, at least the ones I met, all believed that the Bible is the divinely inspired, inerrant Word of God. And, while I can’t associate myself with them because of their doctrinal error, I pray that God will continue to use the scriptures they disseminate, to regenerate people who are dead in their trespasses and sins.[9]

As a Lutheran pastor once said, “God doesn’t need your good works; your neighbor does.”



[1] Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Volume I. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.
[2] Engelbrecht, Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009
[3] Klotz, Joseph D. “In Response to Hans Bischof Regarding Decision Theology and Silly Arguments.” The Hodgkins Lutheran. http://hodgkinslutheran.blogspot.com/2016/04/in-response-to-hans-bischof-regarding.html (accessed July 13, 2017).
[4] 1 Corinthians 12:3
[5] Romans 8:7-9 – For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.
[6] Romans 5:6-11
[7] Repentance and faith both being gifts of the Holy Spirit, through the means of God’s Word. See 2 Timothy 2:25, and Ephesians 2:1-10.
[8] McCain, Paul T., et. al. “Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord.” Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.
[9] Klotz, Joseph D. “Why I Quit the Gideons.” The Hodgkins Lutheran (June 5, 2015). http://hodgkinslutheran.blogspot.com/2015/06/why-i-quit-gideons.html (accessed July 13, 2017). 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Liturgical Worship...Also Not Fit for Lutheran Consumption?

I am a high-church weirdo. I like the “smells and bells.” I like incense. I want my pastor to wear vestments…Lots of vestments. I think genuflecting is neat. If I were the king of church, things would look a lot different. Worship in the Lutheran Church – Joseph Synod would look a lot more like the 16th century than the 20th century. And the chanting…there would be sooooooo much chanting. Some of the chanting might be in English, as a good-will gesture to some of my more low-church friends…but not much.

Those who know me are rolling their eyes, chuckling softly to themselves now (I hope), and offering a silent prayer that there are, as of yet, no plans to elevate me to the throne. While they may not wish to return to a chanted Latin mass, my friends do know that my respect for our Lutheran liturgical heritage, as rooted in the western catholic liturgy, is genuine. In fact, though I may be decried as a filthy papist by some, I do not advocate “high-church” forms as necessary, or view them as good works. I do not, in reality, wish to exchange Wittenberg for Rome. Perhaps it is simply the result of my conservative inclinations to resist the novel. It is in keeping with the spirit of the Reformation to retain that which is beneficial, and to dispense with that which is harmful and contrary to God’s Word. Maybe my attraction to ancient liturgical forms is even a bit reactionary, considering the trends in modern Christianity to absorb as much secular culture as possible in an effort to simplify, and make people feel comfortable. Pastor Benjamin Mayes describes it this way:

“Within the last two decades, the Lutheran Church in the United States, and perhaps all Christendom in North America, has seen two tendencies in worship. One tendency is to make worship as accessible as possible to modern man, for the sake of mission. This tendency has led to wholesale or partial abandonment of historic western liturgical forms and has often neglected liturgical song, making worship music the business of a band or song leader. Music and text have striven for simplicity[1].”

This trend of modernizing worship for the sake of mission, and abandoning traditional forms and practices, is readily apparent, even to the most casual observer. The mission doesn’t even have to be legitimate. There are people who have made these changes for well-intended reasons, and there are those who have made them so as to tickle as many ears as possible, for the sake of filthy lucre. All you have to do is tune into TBN to see a parade of prosperity preachers promising you your best life now, if only you send in your seed offering. Mega churches like Willow Creek are trying to make “seekers” more comfortable, so that they will be persuaded to enter the church and, once inside, have their felt needs met. Not that I would necessarily call mega church worship “simple.” It takes a lot of time, money, equipment, planning, and personnel to pull off what goes on there, if it is to have the intended revivalist effect. From the worshipper’s point of view, however, it is somewhat passive. You sit, you listen, you repeat words and phrases as instructed by the leader. Maybe you sing, if you know the words to the latest CoWo rock song. But mostly you just “be emotionally manipulated” into making some kind of decision, or reaffirmation. This is much simpler than worshiping by using an archaic liturgy printed in some moldy old hymnal, or engaging the text of a Paul Gerhardt hymn.

While we (particularly we Confessional Lutherans) may see the danger of modernization and simplification easily enough, we often miss the dangers which approach us from the other direction. Our direction. Well meaning people – people like me – who love and respect our Lutheran liturgical heritage, and wish to preserve it, also are in danger of worshipping the form for the sake of mission, rather than Christ, who ought to always be the object of our worship.

What I’m saying is this: Sometimes we traditional types fall into the same pit as the contemporary worship types; We come to rely on our form and style of worship to draw people into the church and, to save them.

I believe wholeheartedly that “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” is true. I believe that the traditional liturgy, developed over the course of 2,000 years, is the best vehicle for delivering God’s gifts to his people gathered together as the church. I believe that the traditional liturgy is the type of worship most harmonious with Christian doctrine as presented in Scripture, and taught in the Lutheran Confessions. I do not believe, however, that Christ ceases to care for his people, or is hampered in his work, when we “don’t do church well.”

It is wrong to adopt contemporary worship practices in order to get people into the church, and keep it from closing. It is equally wrong to practice the liturgy in order to do the same.

This phenomenon may be explained like this: Our church is “dying,” and we want people to come and support it, so that we don’t close our doors, and so the Gospel continues to be proclaimed in this place. We know that the mega church model is contrary to Scripture and our confessions; what we will do instead of abandoning the liturgy, is embrace it…so tightly that we strangle it to death. We need the perfect pastor…one who has an excellent singing voice so that he can chant the liturgy perfectly. We need the perfect organist…what is E. Power Biggs up to these days? Dead, you say? See if we can get a hold of that Hector Olivera guy then. We have to have an organist who won’t detract from the worship experience with his bumbling mistakes. Speaking of worship experience, let’s see if we can get an acting coach for the new pastor while we’re at it. His sermons are orthodox, but he’s driving people away because he’s so boring. The liturgy, after all, is a play, and in order for it to be as effective as possible we have to make sure the pastor doesn’t screw it up by his mediocre performance skills. Did you hear how flat and monotone he delivered the Prayers of the Church last week? So distracting…And what’s with that choir?! Maybe we can find some ringers from some other church to help them out with their intonation. After all, we don’t want them to detract from the worship experience and drive people away. One more of those out-of-tune Graduals and the whole place will be empty.

It is frighteningly easy to develop the attitude that, if any one of a number of factors is missing or done “incorrectly” during the course of the worship service, then “church” has not been properly achieved. I know, because I was there.

The problem is that these aren’t really the things that drive people away from the church. The reason people stay away from church is because they hate Jesus.

Repent.

People are drawn to contemporary worship and the mega church because it focuses on them. It meets their felt needs. It enshrines their contemporary culture, which makes them feel comfortable. On the other side of that coin, people aren’t pushed away from the liturgy because the pastor has a nasal singing voice, or a dry delivery, or because the organist pumps out a few clinkers during the Te Deum (though this can be annoying). They walk away because, enshrined in the liturgy is Law and Gospel. People are told that they are sinful and need to repent. They are confronted with their sin and their need for a savior, week after week, and they don’t like it. Heck, I don’t like it. But, I know I need what Christ provides for me there – repentance, faith, and the forgiveness of my sin. And the people who remain know that as well.

So, how do we keep our churches open? We don’t. Jesus does that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, working through the means he has appointed – Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

The response I have most often received to this concept from many of my concerned brethren is something like, “Yes, yes, I know…Holy Spirit, and all that, but…” Or, “With all due respect to Word and Sacrament ministry, and the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish great things through them, I believe…” What this has in common with the contemporary worship mistake is that it focuses us, on us. Any time you add a “something” as necessary, you negate the sufficiency of Christ, even if that something is one of the liturgical bells/whistles we like. At that point, whatever that something is, it has supplanted Christ.

So, is it still church if we don’t have incense? How about if we don’t process? What if we don’t have kneelers, and my pastor doesn’t genuflect? What if we don’t have a choir? Or an organ? What if we only speak the liturgy, rather than chant it? Can we still worship in line with our liturgical tradition, in a way which teaches Christian doctrine as taught in the Scriptures and affirmed in the Confessions, without these things? I, at one time, would have answered no. History, and Holy Scripture, however, says yes.

“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:18-20).

Christ, in this passage from Matthew 18, teaches the church how to deal with a sinning brother. He is not here referring to the universal church, but the congregation[2]. Jesus emphasized his point that the gathering of Christians (the congregation), no matter how large or small, has the power to come together to bind and loose by using the phrase, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name.” Luther explains:

“Here we hear that also two or three assembled in Christ’s name have the same power over everything which St. Peter and all the Apostles have. For the Lord Himself is present, as He says, too, John 14:23: ‘If a man love Me, he will keep My words, and My Father will love him, and We will come unto him and make Our abode with him.’…We here have present the Lord himself, the Lord of all angles and creatures; it is He who says that all are to have equal authority, keys, and office, even two common Christians by themselves, when gathered in His name. Of this Lord the Pope and all devils shall not make a fool, liar or drunkard, but we will trample on the Pope and declare that he is a confirmed liar, blasphemer, and idolatrous devil, who under St. Peter’s name has arrogated the keys to himself alone, while Christ has given them equally to all in common.[3]

The thing that makes church, according to Christ, is the gathering of Christians together in his name. Where two or three are thus gathered, there he is with them. The Augsburg Confession explains that, where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel, there is the church[4], whether there are two Christians present in a dark basement for fear of persecution, or 2,000 in an ornate cathedral. The Church’s existence and growth doesn’t depend on us, but rather on Christ, whose body the Church is. We should, as the Catechism explains, maintain and extend God’s church by telling others about Jesus Christ, by personal service, and by prayer and financial support[5]. We must ultimately, however, recognize the truth of St. Paul’s words:

“I [Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor" (1 Cor. 3:6-8).

God will increase his Church as he sees fit, working by His Holy Spirit, through the means he has provided, when and where he wills. In the words of the Small Catechism:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives me all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true[6].”

It doesn’t matter if your church is large or small. It doesn’t matter if your church performs the liturgy perfectly, by the outward act. You can’t grow the church by catering to people’s inclinations. Christ must grow his church. Leave it to him. Plant. Water. Let him worry about the increase. Your method – whatever it might be – may get more bodies inside the building, but they will, most likely, be worshiping an idol. Stop worrying; Preach Christ crucified. 



End Notes

[1] Mayes, Rev. Benjamin T. G. The Brotherhood Prayer Book. 2nd ed. Kansas City, KS: Emmanuel Press, 2007.

[2] The Smalcald Articles do not, of course, refer to the Church Universal, scattered over the whole world (ecclesia universalis), with the phrase “given to the Church,” but to the congregation (ecclesia particularis), as the passage added indicates: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” For the Church possesses all spiritual treasures and privileges, not inasmuch as it is large or small, but inasmuch as it consists of believers (Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452).

[3] Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publ. House, 1953. p. 452

[4] AC VII 1

[5] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 159.

[6] Luther, Martin. Luther's Small catechism, with explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1991. p. 15.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Luther's Sermon for the First Sunday After Trinity

In a sermon on 1 John 4, Luther addresses those pastors and people who wrongly imagine that they can preach and listen only to the Gospel apart from the rebuke and admonition of the Law:

YOU have often heard and are now hearing the complaint, which is universal in all the world, that when human beings hear the preaching of faith about the remission of sins, they embrace it, because it is a delightful preaching: God has sent His Son for you. But when it is said that you must adorn your faith to the praise of God, and sins are rebuked, no one wants to hear anything more.

In towns everywhere, people distinguish among preachers. “This one is a fine preacher, who talks about grace and mercy; and what is even finer, he does not scold anyone or frighten people.” That is the way people commonly talk and act. If he does rebuke [sins], they undertake to have him removed. Therefore, many [of these preachers] have returned to us.

When you are scolded as a usurer, adulterer, or whatever kind of swine you are, or [it is said] that a peasant, a townsman, or a nobleman is godless, no one will suffer that. “But if I am a usurer, adulterer, swindler, and [the preacher] does not scold me, ah, what a pious man he is!”

[Are you] really righteous because I [do not] rebuke your vices? Then let the devil be [your] preacher. If I see peasants, townsmen, noblemen and do not chastise them, then I will go to the devil along with you. For [God says in] Ezekiel 3 [:18]: “I will require [their] blood at your [hands],” and they themselves will go to the devil. You shall give an account of yourself. I will not be responsible for that in the hour of death or of judgment. Rather, I shall declare what is contrary to the commandment, and then if you do not obey, you do it at your own peril.

. . . Surely an upright [Christian] gladly hears an admonition to faith, not to be greedy or a usurer, and he amends himself. I would want a brother to admonish me when I go astray. But they refuse to tolerate anyone who rebukes them [even] in general. When I say that usurers belong to the devil, why do you cry out? It is because you yourself are guilty. If you want to know which dog has been struck, it is the one who cries out.8 Therefore, you are accusing yourself, if you grumble, and are defaming yourself. As Cicero says, when vices are rebuked in general terms, whoever becomes angry at it shows himself to be guilty.

Whoever cannot bear it when unbelief is rebuked along with the fruits of unbelief, he is most certainly the dog who has been struck. But this is the purpose for which they want to misuse the Gospel: that they may do whatever they want, and the preachers should confirm it and so be cast down to hell along with them, or else we should nullify the Gospel and the ministry [of the Word], etc., [saying,] “Oh, it is all the same; do whatever you want and you will be saved!”

The Word must be unbound [cf. 2 Tim. 2:9]. It must be freely preached. Human nature has been corrupted by unbelief, which brings its fruits along with it. Therefore, sins must be rebuked, as in the Ten Commandments, etc. If you don’t want to listen to God, then don’t!

Luther, Martin. “Sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity, 1 John 4:16–21.” Luther’s Works: Sermons V. Ed. & trans. by Christopher Boyd Brown. Vol. 58. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, pp. 234–235.