Friday, September 22, 2017

Prayer, Enthusiasm, and Vain Repetitions

Joel Osteen in "prayer."
A friend once took me to a Bible study many years ago. It was quite different than any other Bible study I had ever been to, for two main reasons. First, while we talked about “spiritual things”, there was no actual studying done of God’s Word. The scripture passage to be discussed was read, and we spent a long time going around the room, talking about what the passage meant to us. Second, near the end of the meeting, we engaged in a form of prayer that was exceedingly strange to me. The leader said that it was time to join together in prayer. He dimmed the lights, and as the group moved in closely enough to put their hands on each other’s shoulders, another member grabbed his guitar.

When everyone was in position, the guitar man began to strum out his chord progression. The leader began with his petitions, mostly centered on the greatness of God’s glory. When he finished, other members of the group would randomly offer their petitions, in unctuous voices, trembling with spiritual emotion. All this was accompanied by the soft strains of the guitar, and the spontaneous ejaculations of “Amen!” and “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” While swaying. In the dark. For about half an hour.

I was caught by surprise. Never before had I experienced such a thing in a church setting. I got the vague sense that I did upset the apple cart to some degree. During the periods of silence between random petitions, several people cast a furtive glance in my direction; I suspect to see what I, the new guy, was going to offer. I offered nothing but silence. The space between prayers gradually became longer and longer. Eventually the guitar man changed his progression, cadenced, and the prayers were concluded.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, such mystical prayer practices are, in American Evangelicalism, standard operating procedure. To the American Evangelical, prayer is not simply asking God for things. Prayer is a two way line of communication, and a way in which we come into God’s presence.

Prayer is the practice of the presence of God. It is the place where pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, and supplication is made. Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon God... Prayer changes the one praying because in prayer, you are in the presence of God as you lay before Him your complete self in confession and dependence. There is nothing to hide when in quiet supplication we are reaching into the deepest part of ourselves and admitting our needs and failures. In so doing, our hearts are quieted and pride is stripped and we enjoy the presence of God.[1]

We get in the right emotional state, tell Him how great He is, and God will speak to our hearts. The idea that prayers would be composed prior to the act of praying, let alone written down, is bad, and to be discouraged. Spontaneous prayers uttered from the heart are more authentic than reading written prayers, or reciting memorized prayers by rote:

Like turning to the right channel, God speaks to individuals who are ready and prepared to listen. A friend once put it this way: A Christ follower who builds the following four habits in his life will be in a good place to hear from God... A Christ follower should spend daily time reading the Bible, mulling over the message, and praying for ways to make scripture’s lessons into a lifestyle.[2]

Prayer, in and of itself, has power which the Christian can wield to get God to bring blessing into their lives. This is from Joel Osteen Ministries:

We Believe in the Power of Prayer: The Bible says the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective, yet something extraordinary happens when two or more agree together in prayer. In Matt. 18:19, Jesus said, “If any two of you agree touching any matter on this earth, it shall be done.” Post your prayer request below and believe that God is going to move mightily in your life as others from around the world pray in agreement with your request![3]

In short, the complete opposite of the way we Confessional Lutherans pray.

Is this really the right way to pray? Many people, even some Confessional Lutherans, seem to think so. I hear Lutherans complain all the time about how boring their pastor is when he prays; or, how we need to spice things up when we pray. We can’t just keep using that stodgy old General Prayer in the liturgy, Sunday after Sunday. People stop paying attention after a while. Our pastors need to do more extemporaneously, and come up with their prayers on the spot from their hearts. Those prayers will be more interesting and meaningful.

This is nothing more than Enthusiasm. Luther used the term Enthusiasm, or enthusiast (in the German, Schw√§rmer, which means one who swarms, like a group of buzzing bees on a hive), to describe those who sought God through their feelings and spiritual experiences, outside of, and apart from, God’s Word. We know, however, that Scripture teaches that God does not want to deal with us in any way other than through Word and Sacrament.[4] Therefore, as Luther says, whatever is praised as from the Spirit, without the Word and Sacraments, is from the Devil himself.[5]

The American Evangelical view of prayer turns us away from the Biblical teaching on prayer, and makes us into Enthusiasts and magicians. Through prayer, rather than through Word and Sacrament, we would seek to come into God’s presence, commune with Him, and receive His instruction. This view turns prayer into a means of grace. Satan loves this, since it diverts our focus from the actual means of grace God has given us, and renders useless our prayers by turning them into mystical experiences and incantations, rather than petitions to the Almighty God. 

Likewise, to believe in, and rely on, the “power of prayer” is dangerous. If, by the phrase one means that prayer is powerful because Almighty God has promised to hear us when we pray, and to answer our prayers, then yes, prayer is powerful. If one believes that, simply by repeating a certain prayer, or “declaring” to inanimate things such as storms, diseases, your job, etc., you can change reality because God is obligated to give you what you have declared for, then no. Prayer has no power in and of itself or, as the Lutherans would say, by the outward act. That isn’t even praying. That is saying a magic incantation, and makes you some kind of witch or sorcerer. When explained like that it may sound silly. Who would ever do such a thing? This is the next step down the road of the misuse of prayer, and it is taught by all the beloved American health and wealth prosperity gospel heretic preachers.

What does God say prayer is? It’s pretty simple: Prayer is speaking to God, in words or thoughts.[6] The Bible is filled with good examples of what prayer is: Abraham praying for Sodom;[7] Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane;[8] St. Stephen praying for those who were murdering him,[9] among many others. Scripture tells us that we should make our requests of Him in thankfulness, in the name of Jesus, and in accordance with His revealed will:

Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus... “And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full... Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him (Philippians 4:6-7; John 16:23; 1 John 5:14-15).

We should pray for ourselves and for others, including our enemies, everywhere, regularly and frequently:

Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence...“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust... I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting...Then He [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart... pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Timothy 2:1-2; Matthew 5:43-45; 1 Timothy 2:8; Luke 18:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).

Jesus even gives us a model prayer, recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen (Matthew 6:9-13).

And also in St. Luke’s:

Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” So He said to them, “When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done On earth as it is in heaven. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, For we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one (Luke 11:1-4).

In this, the Lord’s Prayer, we find, as Luther observes, seven petitions that include every need and never cease to apply to us.[10] So, if we find ourselves at a loss for what we should pray, we have Jesus’ own instruction to guide us. But don’t ignore, as many do that St. Luke is quoting Christ when he writes, “When you pray, say...”

But, in the same sermon, Jesus tells us to avoid vain repetitions! Wouldn’t reciting the Lord’s Prayer, or the General Prayer from the Divine Service, over and over, week after week, be the definition of vain repetitions?

“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words (Matthew 6:5-7).

In short, no. He’s talking about using repeated prayers as a sorcerer uses incantations, or as one who prays using the same words over and over, thinking that his mere act of praying causes his prayer to be effective, apart from it’s content. Stated another way, Jesus condemns the idea that the “power of prayer” is in the performance of the outward act. To the contrary, Jesus himself used repeated prayers:

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless[a] I drink it, Your will be done.” And He came and found them asleep again, for their eyes were heavy. So He left them, went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. Then He came to His disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going. See, My betrayer is at hand” (Matthew 26:36-46).

He does not merely give us a model prayer; he also gives us a prayer to pray at all times, in the Lord’s Prayer. When we pray this prayer, we can be sure that we are praying according to His will, and therefore that He hears us. It also shows us that, while extemporaneous prayers “from the heart” are not necessarily always bad, God encourages us to pray following guides which He provides, and using prayers that have been previously composed is acceptable. The Jesus who prayed “from the heart” in Gethsemane is, after all, the same Jesus who gave us the Lord’s Prayer, and prayed the “written prayers” of the Psalms “by rote” as he hung on the cross.


[1] Slick, Matt. "Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry." What is Prayer? July 01, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017.

[2] Burns, Tim. "How Can I Hear God Speaking to Me?" How Can I Hear God Speaking to Me? May 27, 2016. Accessed September 21, 2017.

[3] "We Believe in the Power of Prayer." Pray Together. Accessed September 21, 2017.

[4] Hebrews 1:1-2

[5] SA III IX 10

[6] Luther, Martin. Luther’s Small Catechism, with Explanation. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2005.

[7] Genesis 18:22-23

[8] Matthew 26:36-44

[9] Acts 7:59-60

[10] LC III 34

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Knocking on Doors

An article from Kentucky Today found it’s way onto my Facebook news feed called, “Mythbuster: Louisville pastor triples attendance in 6 months by knocking on doors.” The article features Pastor Mark Bishop, and his efforts for the last six months at Highview Baptist Church – Valley Station Campus, in Louisville, KY. The article read, in part:

“I think soul winning is easier caught than taught,” Bishop said, referring to the newfound evangelical fervor at the church. “When they see it working it becomes contagious.” Knocking on doors has also had a [sic] impact on the friends of new believers who, after seeing a change in their acquaintances, are crossing a church threshold for the first time in their lives.[1]

Regarding evangelism, the article describes Bishop’s efforts in light of the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s efforts and evangelistic philosophy:

“There is nothing better than one-on-one contact when sharing Jesus,” said Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood. “While I am a firm believer in mass evangelism and pulpit evangelism, both will almost always involve one-on-one evangelism.” Chitwood said plans are underway for a similar evangelistic outreach held in conjunction with this year’s Kentucky Baptist Convention annual meeting in Louisville. Crossover Louisville will involve a massive door-to-door campaign with members of KBC churches across the state coming into city days in advance of the Nov. 14 meeting to share the gospel. The event is a partnership between Louisville Regional Baptist Association, Highview’s Valley Station Campus and the evangelism team of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. “Every Christian isn’t called to preach to the masses,” Chitwood said, “but every Christian is called to share Jesus at every opportunity.”[2]

There are some good things going on here. It is certainly the Christian’s job to “share Jesus” (more about that presently). I’m happy that people are, apparently, becoming Christians. With such fantastic results, it seems as though all the small, struggling LCMS churches should give this pastor a call, pick his brain, and begin their own front porch evangelism efforts.

There was a time when I would have agreed with the evangelism philosophy described in this article as “front porch evangelism.” This is no longer the case. I have come to the opinion that...

Door-to-Door is not the Answer

Door-to-door evangelism goes hand in hand with the concept of the seeker sensitive church. The church that practices these things might not resemble a Willow Creek mega church in outward appearance, but they are much closer to them philosophically than they are to the types of churches Christendom has known since Pentecost. Door to door evangelism isn't actually evangelism. It assumes that the actual evangelism takes place at the church on Sunday morning. The meeting of people on their doorsteps is actually the pre-evangelism. It's the advertisement for the evangelism that they will get if they should accept your offer to come to church. There is no real relationship made, only a pitch. And real evangelism isn't dependent on the quality of the pitch. It is dependent on the working of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. 

Real evangelism is done through our vocation. Real evangelism consists of the Christian, in his vocation as husband, father, worker, citizen, etc., living their daily lives serving their neighbor, doing the good works which God has prepared before hand for them to do. Through their time living out their vocations, the Christian will make relationships with the people around them. They will talk to these people about God's word, and preach to them Law and Gospel. God will use this to make Christians, according to his will. This is what we think we're doing when we are knocking on doors and giving elevator speeches, but that is not the case.

The Willow Creek study shows that their model doesn't work

Willow Creek conducted a study of their evangelism model, which was published several years ago, called “Reveal: Where Are You?” The study is an interesting read. Christianity Today summarized the findings this way:

The study shows that while Willow has been successfully meeting the spiritual needs of those who describe themselves as "exploring Christianity" or "growing in Christ," it has been less successful at doing so with those who self-report as being "close to Christ" or "Christ-centered." In fact, one-fourth of the last two groups say that they are either "stalled" in their spiritual growth and/or "dissatisfied" with the church.[3]

Russ Rainey, Ph.D., of The Christian Coaching Center, pointed out the following about those dissatisfied members of Willow Creek:

Those who admitted to being dissatisfied seemed to come from the most “Christ-focused” segment of the church.  “They are active evangelists, volunteers and donors to the church.”  They are “also the ones most likely to report that they are considering leaving the church.”  In fact…the higher the level of engagement, the more likely it is that satisfaction with the church will be lukewarm.”  This group makes up about 10% of the total church.  The researchers made two important observations: 1) this mature group of believers were dissatisfied that their church did not “keep them on track” as they tried to lead a Christian life and 2) they were disappointed that the church had not “helped them find a spiritual mentor.”[4]

The study revealed that the vast majority of the people who were brought in the front door of Willow Creek, ended up leaving quietly through the back door a relatively short time later. There are a lot of reasons for this, as the study indicates. A major contributing factor, however, is the fact that once a person has become a member of the church, they are effectively abandoned. More from Rainey’s summary:

The study found that those who were in the first two categories (exploring and growing – the least mature attendees) actually did benefit more from the church’s programs and ministries.  However, those who were more mature (the close to Christ and Christ-centered members) were often “stalled” in their spiritual growth or “dissatisfied” with what the church was doing to help them grow.  When the stalled and dissatisfied groups were combined, they totaled over 25% of the total membership of the church. Those who admitted to being stalled seemed to come mainly from the “close to Christ” category and they appeared to be “holding back or…somehow blocked from spiritual growth and progress”.[5]

Since, in American Evangelicalism, the church gathering exists primarily to emotionally manipulate people into making a decision to accept Christ, the care and nurture of the Christian through Word and Sacrament becomes of secondary importance. Once they have you, they forget about you, because they're only worried about making the convert.

Door-to-door, or “front porch” evangelism and the American Evangelical view of the church gathering go hand-in-hand. They also don’t work, unless the only thing you’re worried about is getting people’s butts into the pew (or, rather, the stadium-style seats).

I'm reminded of when mega church pastor Perry Noble incredulously “preached” about how the jackass in the church is the person that always wants to go deeper, or wants to worship more.[6] He ridicules that jackass; these are the things that the early Christians, and most Christians throughout the ages, have focused on. The problem is, you can’t go deeper. They are done with you, once you’ve made your decision. Now it’s time to do your work of listening to self-help philosophy sermons, devoid of Gospel, and doing good works to prove to yourself that your conversion was genuine. And giving money. Lots and lots of money. There is not time for growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, continued repentance, and the receiving forgiveness. After all, as Perry Noble concluded, you are only as deep as the last person you served.[7] Since Pentecost, however, we see that the church, the local congregation (the ecclesia), was for Christians, not non-Christians. That is because...

The church is not primarily for evangelism.

The primary purpose of the gathering of Christians on Sunday morning is not the evangelism of non-Christians. The primary purpose of the gathering which we call “church” is the gathering around Word and Sacrament to receive the forgiveness of sins, won for us by Christ. Secondly, as Luther explains, the Christian Church, and therefore our individual congregations where the Word is rightly taught, and the Sacraments are rightly administered, are the vehicle through which Christ sanctifies Christians:

“But how is such sanctifying done?” Answer, “The Son receives dominion, by which He wins us, through His birth, death, resurrection, and so on. In a similar way, the Holy Spirit causes our sanctification by the following: the communion of saints or the Christian Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. That means He leads us first into His holy congregation and places us in the bosom of the Church. Through the Church He preaches to us and brings us to Christ.” Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ, or believe on Him, and have him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 4:6).[8]

Luther continues:

Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered toward this goal: we shall daily receive in the Church nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here. So even though we have sins, the grace of the Holy Spirit does not allow them to harm us. For we are in the Christian Church, where there is nothing but continuous, uninterrupted forgiveness of sin. This is because God forgives us and because we forgive, bear with, and help one another (Galatians 6:1-2). But outside of this Christian Church, where the Gospel is not found, there is not forgiveness, as also there can be no holiness. Therefore, all who seek and wish to earn holiness not through the Gospel and forgiveness of sin, but by their works, have expelled and severed themselves from this Church (Galatians 5:4).[9]

This has been the way Christians have understood the function of the church since Pentecost. They were not knocking on the doors of random, unknown pagan Romans, making some doorstep presentation, and inviting them to come to their next communion service. This model of “church” was unknown in Christendom until the rise of revivalism. No, Christians from the very beginning were gathering around Word and Sacrament, not to serve God, but so that He could serve them with the gifts he had promised – the forgiveness of sins won by Christ. Hear how a puzzled Pliny the Younger described Christians and their worship to the Roman Emperor Trajan:

However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this:-That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill: but that they would commit no theft, or pilfering, or adultery; that they would not break their promises, or deny what was deposited with them, when it was required back again; after which it was their custom to depart, and to meet again at a common but innocent meal, which they had left off upon that edict which I published at your command, and wherein I had forbidden any such conventicles. These examinations made me think it necessary to inquire by torments what the truth was; which I did of two servant maids, who were called Deaconesses: but still I discovered no more than that they were addicted to a bad and to an extravagant superstition.[10]

Justin Martyr describes Christian worship in his “First Apology”, which is the oldest non-New Testament record extant with such information:

On the day called Sunday there is a gathering together in the same place of all who live in a given city or rural district. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then when the reader ceases, the president in a discourse admonishes and urges the imitation of these good things. Next we all rise together and send up prayers. When we cease from our prayer, bread is presented and wine and water. The president in the same manner sends up prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people sing out their assent, saying the “Amen.” A distribution and participation of the elements for which thanks have been given is made to each person, and to those who are not present they are sent by the deacons. Those who have means and are willing, each according to his own choice, gives what he wills, and what is collected is deposited with the president. He provides for the orphans and widows, those who are in need on account of sickness or some other cause, those who are in bonds, strangers who are sojourning, and in a word he becomes the protector of all who are in need. We all make our assembly in common on Sunday, since it is the first day, on which God changed the darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead on the same day. For they crucified him on the day before Saturn’s day, and on the day after (which is the day of the Sun) he appeared to his apostles and disciples and taught these things, which we have offered for your consideration.[11]

The Scattered Seed and the Pelting Rain

All of this reminds me of the parable of the Sower, and something Luther said about how we see the Gospel working in this world:

Then He spoke many things to them in parables, saying: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”...“Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23).

But we don't know what kind of ground people are. We don't know how God is going to work on them. We don't know all kinds of things, and we don't need to know. That is God's job. 

Kretzmann, commenting on this passage, says that God, once the seed is planted, sends his sun of righteousness to warm and nurture the seed, causing it to grow:

Only the fourth class of hearers present soil ready for a crop and fruit that is well-pleasing to the Lord. They are they who hear and heed the Word in fine and good hearts. In this instance the soil of the hearts has been well prepared by the plowing of the law, which incidentally weeded out all earthly love and care of this world, and selfishness and self-righteousness. Then the Master has sowed His good seed, the Gospel of His mercy. He also sends the fountains of his grace and the sun of his righteousness. And, behold, there is good fruit, though the measure depends upon differences of gifts, of disposition, and of the capacity for receiving and spreading the kingdom of God.[12]

Luther observed that the Gospel appears to us as a pelting rain storm. It sweeps in, saturates the ground, and sweeps out again. And just like we can't make the rain come, or go away, neither can we do so with the Gospel. Furthermore, the same sun which warms and nurtures the seed to grow and produce good fruit, will also, once the rain has passed, dry and parch the ground:

Secondly, he indicates the danger of neglecting the grace of God. Thereby he certainly intimates that the preaching of the gospel is not a constant, permanent, and continuing proclamation. The gospel is rather like a pelting rain that hurries on from place to place. What it hits it hits; what it misses it misses. But it does not return nor stay in one place; the sun and heat come after it and lick it up. Experience also teaches us that in no section of the world has the Gospel remained pure and unadulterated beyond the memory of a man. On the contrary, its stood it's ground and flourished as long as those who remained who had brought it to the fore. But after they had passed from the scene, the light also disappeared. Factious spirits and false teachers immediately followed.[13]

No one likes to see any institution of which they are a part fall to pieces. The sad reality, however, is that they sometimes do. Church denominations, as institutions created by man, are no exception. My family has been a part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod since they arrived here from Germany in the 19th century. My grandfather was the sixth baptism at Immanuel evangelical Lutheran Church, Hodgkins, Illinois. My family has worshipped at that place since it's founding in 1911. In addition to the all important gathering around Word and Sacrament, most of the parishioners at Immanuel have strong emotional ties to that place, because their family history is similar to mine. They want Immanuel to continue to exist as a beacon of light in their little corner of this dark world just as much as I do. And, they are willing to do what is necessary, so long as it is in their power, to keep the doors of the church open.

The issue is, however, it is not within their control. It is in God's control. We are called to be salt and light, and we do that, as previously discussed, through our vocations. We watch our life and doctrine closely. We gather around Word and Sacrament. We call faithful pastors to preach, teach, and administer those Sacraments. We raise our children so that they grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We do good works for our neighbor, especially those of the household of faith, because we have been crucified with Christ in our baptism and made a new creature. God uses these things how he wills. There is no magic formula for us to say, or work out, that will ensure we are always successful in converting people to Christ, or in keeping our parish doors open. Those things are up to God, whether we wish to acknowledge it, or not.

So, I think it is important to ask ourselves: are we concerned about The Church, or are we concerned about our church? If we are concerned about The Church, we can be certain that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, no matter how bad things may look to us.[14] If we are worried about our church, there are some things we are called to do, in our vocation as parishioner: We should pray for it, attend it faithfully (because that is where we receive what Christ has promised us - the forgiveness of sins), and give of our time, talent, and treasure for its upkeep. We should encourage our fellow parishioners to do the same. If you want to knock on doors, visit those friends and family members who don’t understand the importance, and the benefits, of gathering regularly with their fellow Christians around Word and Sacrament. But remember: You are not in control of the outcome, God is. The Lord may bless our work and cause it to grow; He may cause the rain to move on.

[1] Cornetet, Robin. "Mythbuster: Louisville pastor triples attendance in 6 months by knocking on doors." Kentucky Today. August 27, 2017. Accessed September 02, 2017.,8782?preview_key=8c0393d24c442eb881a27022a602b525&ts=1503858541.

[2] Cornetet, Robin. "Mythbuster: Louisville pastor triples attendance in 6 months by knocking on doors." Kentucky Today. August 27, 2017. Accessed September 02, 2017.,8782?preview_key=8c0393d24c442eb881a27022a602b525&ts=1503858541.

[3] "Editorial: What Willow's Reveal Reveals." February 27, 2008. Accessed September 02, 2017.

[4] Rainey, Russ, Ph.D. "Willow Creek Reveal Study - a Summary | The Christian Coaching Center." The Christian Coaching Center. Accessed September 02, 2017. All quotes in this summary are from Reveal: Where Are You? and Follow Me: What’s Next for You?, Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Willow Creek Resources,

[5] Rainey, Russ, Ph.D. "Willow Creek Reveal Study - a Summary | The Christian Coaching Center." The Christian Coaching Center. Accessed September 02, 2017.

[6] Vimeo. 2014. Accessed September 02, 2017.

[7] Vimeo. 2014. Accessed September 02, 2017.

[8] McCain, Paul Timothy., ed. Concordia: the Lutheran confessions: a readers edition of the Book of Concord. Translated by W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. LC II 37-38

[9] McCain, Paul Timothy., ed. Concordia: the Lutheran confessions: a readers edition of the Book of Concord. Translated by W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005. LC II 55-57

[10] "Letters of Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan." PBS. Accessed September 02, 2017. From The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, 1987

[11] "How We Christians Worship." Christian History Institute. Accessed September 02, 2017. Translation and Commentary by EVERETT FERGUSON Dr. Everett Ferguson is professor of Bible at Abilene Christian University and editor of Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (Gardland, 1990).

[12] Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular commentary of the Bible. Vol. 1. New Testament. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

[13] Luther, Martin, and Ewald M. Plass. What Luther says: a practical in-home anthology for the active Christian. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

[14] See Matthew 16:18; John 16:33. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory, or...How We Are Justified by Grace through Faith in Christ

Read how Roman Catholics and the ELCA have "moved from the divisions of
Martin Luther's 95 theses to 32 statements of agreement" in this
National Catholic Register story by Peter Jesserer Smith from 2016.
With all the talk of Lutheran/Roman Catholic unity going on out there, one might get the impression that the Reformation is obsolete. It was an important part of the history of Western Civilization, but the curtain has closed on that scene a long time ago. Today, we can look back at the Reformation as a period during which medieval people argued about medieval issues, and sometimes tried to kill each other as a result (not that we modern, enlightened people could relate to that situation at all). Indeed, this why the Vatican is commemorating the Reformation – because it is dead. It is over. Finished. Kaput. You don’t commemorate something that is still alive, vital, and relevant. You celebrate that. You commemorate something that has passed away, like the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

The reason this is such a big deal now, is because 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. This is because history has chosen to designate the date that Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, as the official beginning of the Reformation.[1] For the last year, and even longer, Christians of all stripes have been getting ready for 2017. Confessional Lutheran groups, like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have been preparing for the anniversary by emphasizing the things that were taught during the Reformation: That man is justified before God by grace, through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Liberal Lutherans, like those in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have chosen a different path. These Lutherans have been working for unity with the Roman Catholic Church. These two churches have been meeting, issuing statements, and signing declarations since at least 1999 to achieve this end.[2] The Vatican has even issued a commemorative Reformation stamp.[3]

Not that I’m against unity. I am not. I would love nothing more than for Christendom to be truly united in one church body, under its head, Christ. I am against a false and contrived unity.

As much as some groups might try to say that the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Confessional Lutheranism (what resulted from the Reformation, and is codified in the Book of Concord) are now so insignificant that we could join together in communion, it simply is not the case. Theologically liberal Lutherans who disregard the Lutheran Confessions may like to hold hands with theologically liberal, academically enlightened, Roman Catholics, stroking each other’s feelings, and cooing to each other in the language of Higher Criticism about how Holy Scripture is faulty. Their confessional counterparts, however, have made no such concessions. The argument between Wittenberg and Rome – or Augsburg and Trent, if you like – is about how man is justified before God. It has not yet been resolved, and is not likely to be, in my opinion, before Christ returns.

The main issue surrounding the posting of the 95 Theses, in a nutshell, was that of purgatory and indulgences. Luther wanted to debate the subject, so he posted the Theses, written in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This was not some act of defiance or vandalism. Lacking the modern means of communication, this was normal practice at the university. The Theses were quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. Luther addressed the issue of indulgences from a number of angles[4]: The Pope doesn’t have the power he claims over the souls in purgatory; The Pope can only release people from punishments that he has imposed; Every truly penitent Christian already has pardon for his sins; Indulgences discourage works of mercy. Probably most famously, Luther talks about the Pope’s claim to control the so-called treasury of merit,[5] by asking why he does not simply grant indulgence to all the souls in purgatory:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.[6]

While this may have been a pressing issue in the 16th Century, the selling of indulgences isn’t really a “thing” anymore, right? Well, yes and no. The Roman church doesn’t actually sell indulgences in the way they did when the Pope was trying to raise money for building St. Peter’s basilica. There is no man like Johannes Tetzel, wandering the countryside, frightening people with the prospect of thousands of years of torture in purgatory, to get them to part with their money. Indulgences, however, still play a large and important role in the Roman Catholic religious system. The system of indulgences was modified in 1968 from a system of specific time periods (hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc.) to one of “partial” and “plenary” indulgence.[7]

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.[8]

This isn’t simply some forgotten dogma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that goes untaught. There are scores of pamphlets, popular books, and devotionals written about the souls in purgatory, and how to gain indulgence for them, and for one’s self. In one such booklet, Maria Simma talks about what Purgatory is, how she has been visited by souls being purified there, and what she does to gain for them indulgence:

What exactly is Purgatory? I’d say that it’s a marvelous invention of God...Suppose that one day a door opens, and a splendid being appears, extremely beautiful, of a beauty that has never been seen on earth. You are fascinated, overwhelmed by this being of light and beauty, even more so that this being shows that he is madly in love with you – you have never dreamed of being loved so much. You sense too that he has a great desire to draw you to him, to be one with you. And the fire of love which burns in your heart impels you to throw yourself into his arms. But wait – you realize at this moment that you haven’t washed for months and months, that you smell bad; your nose is running, your hair is greasy and matted, there are big dirty stains on your clothes, etc. So you say to yourself, “No, I just can’t present myself in this state. First I must go and wash; a good shower, then straight away I’ll come back.” But the love which has been born in your heart is so intense, so burning, so strong, that this delay for the shower is absolutely unbearable. The pain of the absence, even if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, is an atrocious wound in the heart, proportional to the intensity of the revelation of the love – it is a “love-wound.” Purgatory is exactly like this. It’s a delay imposed by our impurity, a delay before God’s embrace, a wound of love which causes intense suffering, a waiting, if you like, a nostalgia for love. It is precisely this burning, this longing which cleanses us of whatever is still impure in us.[9]

Maria goes on to describe how, when she was a little girl, she saw visions of people in her bedroom at night. She told her priest about the occurrences, and he confirmed to that she was being visited by the souls in purgatory. Maria described the reason for their visits:

In most cases, they ask to have Masses celebrated and that one be present at these Masses; they ask to have the rosary said and also that one make the Stations of the Cross...We must do a great deal for the souls in Purgatory, for they help us in their turn. We must have much humility; this is the greatest weapon against evil, against the Evil One. Humility drives evil away.[10]

This teaching about how the guilt of sin is remitted by our human works is contrary to God’s Word. God the Father, out of his mercy, and because of the death of Jesus on the cross, forgives sinners. We have redemption through the blood of Christ. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace...And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 2:2).

In fact, Scripture teaches that God declares sinners righteous for Christ’s sake. Our sins have been “credited” to Christ, and his righteousness has been credited to us. When we believe the Gospel, this message of reconciliation, our faith is credited to us as righteousness.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek...Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law...But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Romans 1:16; 3:28; 4:5).

The Lutheran Confessions boldly confess the Scriptural teaching on man’s justification, the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls:

Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received in to favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness (Romans 3:21-26; 4:5).[11]

This is what the Roman Catholic Church has to say, officially, about the doctrine of Justification:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.[12]

The canons on Justification  from the Council of Trent make for some interesting reading. They systematically anathematize the Gospel. That word anathema, incidentally, means “cursed”. So, what Canon IX, quoted above, is saying, is that anyone who believes that they are justified before God by faith alone, without an act, or movement, of their own will (works), is cursed. This is official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and has never been modified, or rescinded.

The only Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have come to agreement on the doctrine of Justification are the Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have abandoned Holy Scripture and the teachings of their churches.

[1] The Augsburg Confession, not the 95 Theses, is the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church and one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation. The Augsburg Confession was written in both German and Latin and was presented by a number of German rulers and free-cities at the Diet of Augsburg on June 25, 1530. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had called on the Princes and Free Territories in Germany to explain their religious convictions in an attempt to restore religious and political unity in the Holy Roman Empire and rally support against the Turkish invasion. It is the fourth document contained in the Lutheran Book of Concord. Central to the document and its subsequent Apology is its explanation of the Biblical doctrine of Justification. Confessional Lutherans teach forensic, or "legal", justification. This means that God declares the sinner to be "not guilty" (justified) because Christ has taken his place, living a perfect life according to God's law and suffering for his sins. For Confessional Lutherans justification is in no way dependent upon the thoughts, words, and deeds of those justified through faith alone in Christ. The new obedience that the justified sinner renders to God through sanctification follows justification as a consequence, but is not part of justification. For these reasons, if I were in charge of picking a date for the start of the Reformation, I would choose June 25, 1530, rather than the conventional October 31, 1517. Joseph Klotz, “Augustana,” The Hodgkins Lutheran, April 25, 2013,

[2]The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) is a document created, and agreed to, by the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It states that the churches now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” “Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification,” Wikipedia, accessed August 22, 2017,

You can read the document here:

[3]Jan Bentz, “Breaking: Vatican to issue stamp featuring Martin Luther,” LifeSiteNews, January 17, 2017. The Vatican office charged with issuing stamps, known as the Philatelic and Numismatic Office, confirmed Tuesday to LifeSiteNews that Luther, who broke away from the Catholic Church in a schism 500 years ago, will be celebrated with a postage stamp in 2017. The office is in charge of the annual commission of stamps, coins, and other commemorative medals.

[4] Martin Luther, Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, trans. Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry E. Jacobs, et. Al., (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38. Accessed August 22, 2017.

[5]  The Treasury of Merit, as concisely defined by Merriam Webster, is the superabundant satisfaction of Christ for human sins and the excess of merit of the saints which according to Roman Catholic theology is effective for salvation of others and is available for dispensation through indulgences. “Treasury of Merits,” Merriam-Webster, accessed August 22, 2017.

[6] Theses 82, ibid.

[7] “The Divine Mercy Devotion,” EWTN, accessed August 22, 2017,  A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church. New Hope, KY: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994.

[9] Medjugorje, Sister Emmanuel. The amazing secret of the souls in purgatory. Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Pub. Co., 2005.

[10] ibid. p. 7-8, 14.

[11] AC IV 1-3.

[12] “On Justification,” The Council of Trent, accessed August 22, 2017,