Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Circumcision of Christ

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of you flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:11-14).

A rite of passage is generally defined as a ritual marking a person’s coming-of-age in a culture, or marking one’s passage from one phase of life or status into another. There are many rites of passage in our modern society. When you’re five years old, you get to go to Kindergarten and begin your formal education. Many parents become misty-eyed when they take their child for his or her first haircut. I don’t know a mother who does not choke up just a little bit when they talk about when their baby lost that first tooth. Some of them even still have that memento secreted away in a memory box somewhere as a reminder of when their baby was a “baby”. In the United States age 16 is marked by many teenagers’ most important coming-of-age ritual – the driver’s license. At 18 years we take a couple more important steps down the road to adulthood when we become eligible to vote and boys are required to register for the draft (though that particular rite of passage is significant only with previous generations of Americans). In America, however, the magic age is 21. That is when our society finally views people as an adult. At 21 a person can drink alcohol, they can drive a car (preferably not at the same time, or in close proximity with one another), and they can enjoy most all the privileges of a full-fledged adult in our society. At 21 you are an adult, though there may still be quite a bit of maturing to be done.

There are many religious rites of passage as well. In Judaism, boys (at age 13) and girls (at age 12) reach bar/bat mitzvah. Prior to bar/bat mitzvah, a child’s parents are considered responsible for their child’s actions. After this age, children bear their own responsibility for Jewish ritual law, tradition, and ethics and are able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life (Bar and Bat Mitzvah, 2012). Some Christian denominations equate Christian baptism with bar/bat mitzvah. Many denominations believe that baptism should only be administered to those individuals who have reached what is generally termed as an age of accountability, when the child has matured to the point that they have become morally responsible and are able to profess their faith in Jesus. Consequently, a child who has not reached the age of accountability is not capable of sinning, and thus not guilty of sin. Only after a child has become morally accountable is a child able to commit actual sins; that is when they become guilty of sin. Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, wrote the following:
It is believer’s baptism, however, that provides the most significant reason to affirm the “age of accountability.” Believer’s baptism is a core belief of Baptists (there’s a reason that we are called Baptists!). The early Baptists were called “Anabaptists” because they believed that the infant baptism they had received was unscriptural, and they were baptized again upon their profession of faith in Christ. The denial of infant baptism has been a defining issue for Baptists throughout their history… Baptist confessions tend not to use the term “original sin” (it is in none of the versions of the Baptist Faith and Message), and two early Baptist confessions explicitly deny it. Baptists do believe that we children of Adam “inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin,” but it is not until we become “transgressors” ourselves that we come under guilt and condemnation (Baptist Faith and Message, Article 3). So while we believe in an inherited sin nature, we do not believe in inherited guilt. It is the belief in inherited guilt that leads those in the Reformed tradition toward the necessity for infant baptism (Lemke, 2010).

Baptism is thus likened to a rite of passage into moral accountability for denominations who believe similarly, not unlike the Jewish practice of bar/bat mitzvah. Scripture does compare baptism to an ancient practice of Judaism. Baptism is not, however, compared to bar/bat mitzvah in the Bible; it is likened to the practice of circumcision. St. Paul, in the passage from Colossians quoted above, calls baptism, “the circumcision of Christ.” In good Lutheran fashion I ask, “What does this mean?” To understand what St. Paul means by his comparison, we have to know a little bit about circumcision as it is presented in the Old Testament.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Genesis 17:9-14).

Today in the United States circumcision is performed routinely in hospitals when a male child is born. The practice has little to do with religious faith, and is heavily debated between those who support the practice for medical and hygienic reasons, and those who decry the practice as mutilation and an infringement on individual liberty. The purpose of circumcision as instituted by God in the book of Genesis, however, was to be a mark of his covenant with Abraham. God had promised to send a savior to redeem mankind after the Fall, and he promised that savior would be the seed of Abraham. By the removal of the foreskin, males received a visible sign of this promise that God would send a Savior, born of a woman. No Hebrew male could live a day without being reminded of the promise God had made long before, and every conjugal act between a husband and wife would illustrate the hope that God was working to restore creation and redeem all people (Engelbrecht, 2009). As a pledge, or sign, of the covenant, circumcision pointed to something greater than merely the act itself. The Word – the promise of God – not the mere removal of flesh from the body, was the chief thing in circumcision (Engelbrecht, 2009).

St. Paul is correct in correlating baptism with Old Testament circumcision. As a covenant sign, circumcision physically established the covenant and pointed to what God was doing in order to redeem us to himself. In Christ, however, the purpose of the covenant with Abraham (i.e. to be a blessing to all the families of the earth) was fulfilled. The new covenant is established with a different kind of circumcision – baptism (Engelbrecht, 2009).
As the Bible sees it, baptism is not primarily a sign of repentance and faith on the part of the baptized. It is not a sign of anything that we do at all. It is a covenant sign (like circumcision, but without blood-shedding), and therefore a sign of the work of God on our behalf which precedes and makes possible our own responsive movement (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999).

Certainly, based on what the Bible tells us about the nature of circumcision, and St. Paul’s correlation of circumcision with baptism, one is certainly justified in concluding that there is a Biblical basis for baptizing infants. This rite was performed on infants eight days old. It would be odd to refer to Baptism as the “circumcision of Christ” if Baptism of infants was to be forbidden while circumcision was given almost exclusively to infants. However, this is by no means the only reasoning for infant baptism. Babies, even before they are born as evidenced in the case of John the Baptist, are capable of faith by the working of the Holy Spirit. The work of God’s Holy Spirit is not limited by age, or anything else. The Holy Spirit works when and where he wills.

For he [John the Baptist] will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother's womb…When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy'" (Luke 1: 15, 41-44).

Children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom, and are not merely some sort of amoral being until they reach a nebulous “age of accountability”. Being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature. Along with that corrupt nature comes the inclination and desire to flee from God, and they therefore need the forgiveness that Christ offers in baptism, just as an unregenerate adult does. Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth[1]. St. Paul tells us in Romans 3: 23-24 that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism, by the working of the Holy Spirit, and makes it possible for us to respond to him, though feebly[2]. In this way baptism is not unlike the defibrillator used by paramedics on a person whose heart has stopped beating; such a person is technically dead, and is powerless to make themselves alive again. Someone – a paramedic – must do something to them without their help to get their heart beating again. St. Paul tells us that we are dead in our transgressions[3]. Through baptism, God takes us who were dead in our transgressions, and makes us alive in Christ.

Additionally, there are several reports in scripture where people bring their children to Christ to have him touch and bless them. Jesus warns against the danger of offending against little ones that believe in him, and in the same context says that to be Christians we have not to become adults but to become as children (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999). One such passage is in the Gospel of St. Mark:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10: 13-16).

St. Luke also writes:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them (Luke 18:15).

On the contrary, there is a long tradition in the church of baptizing children, derived from Scripture, dating back to apostolic times. Infant Baptism was common practice in the early church. Scripture lends support to this when it reports that the Apostles baptized entire families – some of which, at least, would normally include children[4]. When entire families, and all indeed who belonged to them were baptized, it is probable that if there were a number of children in these families, the Apostles did not exclude them. More importantly, the Apostles could refer Jesus’ command to “let the little children come to me,” to the rite of circumcision from the Old Testament. The fathers of the early church certainly debated the subject of infant baptism. However, the volume of writings in favor of infant baptism far outweighs those in opposition to the practice, from the second century to the time of the Apostolic Constitutions:
He came to save all persons by means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God – infants, children, boys, youth, and old men[5]…Even to the greatest sinners and to those who have sinned much against God, when they subsequently believe, remission of sins is granted. Nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace. How much more should we shrink from hindering an infant. For he, being lately born, has not sinned – other than, in being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth. For this reason, he more easily approaches the reception of the forgiveness of sins. For to him are remitted – not his own sins – but the sins of another. Therefore, dearest brother, this was our opinion in council that no one should be hindered by us from baptism and from the grace of God[6]…Baptize your infants also and bring them up in the nurture and admonition of God. For He says, “Allow the little children to come unto me and do not forbid them[7],” (Bercot, 1998).

Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word (Luther, 1986). Through baptism, God receives people into fellowship with himself. Babies are to be baptized because they are included in the Savior’s command to baptize all nations[8]. And, like all of mankind, a baby is, by nature, an object of wrath, prior to regeneration through faith in Christ[9]. Thanks be to God that he has provided for mankind this means of grace by which he works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare[10].

Works Cited

Bar and Bat Mitzvah. (2012, April 27). Retrieved April 27, 2012, from Wikipedia:

Bercot, D. W. (Ed.). (1998). A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Lemke, D. S. (2010, July 26). Age of Accountability. Retrieved April 26, 2012, from Southern Baptist in NC:

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Psalm 51:5

[2] 1 Corinthians 6:11

[3] Ephesians 2:5

[4] Acts 16:15, 33

[5] Irenaeus (c. 180, E/W), 1.391

[6] Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.354

[7] Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E), 7.457

[8] Matthew 28:19

[9] Ephesians 2:3

[10] Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3, 5; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 1:13-14; Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Age of Accountability

Caitlyn's Baptism - St. John's Lutheran (Mayfair), Chicago, IL

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Romans 5: 1-5).

The words of St. Paul in the fifth chapter of Romans could not be clearer. St. Paul assures the Roman readers of his epistle, and us as well, that it is not through any deed we do with our hands that God forgives our sinfulness, but through faith in Christ Jesus, the Son of God.

Some Christian denominations teach that children are not accountable for sin until they reach what some have called an “age of accountability”. This means, briefly stated, that children are not morally accountable until they are capable of moral action. In other words, some Christians believe that children, until they have matured to the point that they can make a conscious moral decision to sin, are not guilty of sin. Dr. Steve Lemke, Provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, writes:
We all know that individual children mature at different rates than do others, so it is difficult to establish a specific age at which all children become morally accountable. It is therefore more accurate to speak of a “state” of being accountable rather than an “age” of accountability. However, apart from mentally challenged individuals, this state of accountability is normally associated with a “coming of age” sometime in adolescence. The life transition from childhood into adolescence and early adulthood is recognized with some form of celebration in almost every culture. In Jewish culture, this coming of age is celebrated at the age of twelve or thirteen with bar mitzvahs (for boys) and bat mitzvahs (for girls). While this recognition is prompted by age rather than personal spiritual maturity, the term “mitzvah” literally means “one to whom the commandments apply.” After their mitzvah, children are held to be morally responsible for their own actions and accountable to follow the Jewish law. This coming of age is hinted at in Jesus’ life in His visit to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve[1] (Lemke, 2010).

This view of baptism highlights a debate among Christian denominations regarding sin – what sin is, who is guilty of it, and how that guilt is remedied – going back to the time of the Reformation, and even earlier. Is there such a thing as original sin, and does God hold mankind accountable for it? What role does mankind play in his own redemption, if any?

The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Most people, even non-Christians, are familiar with some aspect of the concept of sin. It is general knowledge, albeit at a rudimentary level, that the Bible says man should not sin – do bad things – and that he should instead do good things. Along with that, it is generally understood that if one sins, God becomes angry and punishes that person for sinning; if he does good, God rewards him for his good works…at least that is how our popular, secularized culture has streamlined the teaching of this important Biblical concept. God, who has told us in his word that he is holy, cannot, by his very nature, tolerate sin[2]. And, as St. Paul quite bluntly writes, God punishes sin harshly. The wages of sin is death. So who, exactly, is guilty of sin?

Evangelical Lutheranism teaches that Scripture presents two aspects to sin – original sin, and actual sin. Actual sin is a fairly simple concept to understand. It is defined as every act against a commandment of God committed by a person in their thoughts, words, or actions. Original sin is the total corruption of mankind’s nature, which we have inherited from Adam, through our human parents. Lutherans maintain from Scripture that all people are sinful from the beginning of their existence because of this corruption of their human nature. In other words, when Adam and Eve willfully disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, man’s nature was irreparably damaged and corrupted, and mankind’s perfect relationship with God was broken[3].

The Bible tells us that, when they ate the fruit, “their eyes were opened”. Their disobedience resulted in the breaking of the union they had with God. This act of willful disobedience – this actual sin – corrupted the very nature of man, as evidenced by the “opening” of their eyes. This episode is commonly referred to as the Fall of Man. Because Adam willfully chose to turn away from God and disobey him, this inclination to flee from God was inscribed on mankind’s nature and it was passed on to Adam’s descendants like a disease. From that point onward, all human beings would be tainted by Adam’s sin. Our hearts, from birth, would be inclined to turn away and flee from God. The book of Genesis records this idea in chapter eight:

And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma [of Noah’s sacrifice], the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done (Genesis 8:21).

God here acknowledges that mankind’s nature is no longer in the state it was when God created Adam and Eve. Mankind is now, after the Fall, inclined toward evil, and away from him. This corruption of our nature, this inclination toward evil, has left all mankind spiritually blind and dead and, because of it, we are enemies of God. The sinful mind is, therefore, hostile to God, and is utterly incapable of submitting to God’s law[4]. Consequently, since we all are inclined toward evil, this inclination in us causes us to commit all kinds of actual sins – thoughts, words, and deeds contrary to God’s commandments[5].

Some Christian denominations do not view this inclination of the human nature away from God, called “concupiscence” by theologians, as sin in and of itself. Many teach that this inclination to evil will eventually cause a person to sin, at which point they will be guilty of sin. Some even go so far as to say that it is inevitable that all people are bound to eventually commit acts of sin, due to this corruption of the human nature. If this is true, however, it means that there is a time after a person is born, and before they are morally accountable, when they are sinless – not guilty of sinning.

By its very definition, though, this inclination toward evil and away from God in our nature means that we, due to our nature, lack the fear, love, and trust in God that he commands. Scripture says that the human heart is in this dreadful state from birth[6]. If that fear, love, and trust in God is lacking in the sinful human nature, it is lacking in the sinful nature of all human beings, regardless of whether they are one day old or 100 years old. The fact that children die shows that they are subject to sin just like adults since, as St. Paul wrote, the wages of sin is death. The Bible does not teach that there is an age of accountability. Instead, it teaches that the whole world is held accountable to God[7] (Engelbrecht, 2009). Echoing St. Paul’s charge that no one is righteous[8], the Lutheran reformers described original sin as “the absence of original righteousness”:
We deny to human nature the ability to fear and trust in God…original sin contains these diseases: ignorance of God, contempt for God, not having fear and trust in God, the inability to love God. These are the chief faults of human nature because they conflict with the First Table of the Ten Commandments[9], (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

Children clearly have a part in God’s kingdom, as evidenced in part by the fact that Jesus himself rebuked the disciples for not allowing children access to him[10]. Not only that, though, being born in the flesh, children have a sinful human nature. Having a sinful human nature and the “lack of original righteousness” that comes with it, they need the forgiveness that Christ offers just as an adult does. They receive that faith and forgiveness, as a gift, through baptism.
Baptism removes the guilt of original sin. However, the material, as they call it, of the sin (concupiscence) remains. He also adds that the Holy Spirit, given through Baptism, begins to put to death the concupiscence and begins to create new movements within a person[11], (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

Scripture tells us that all people are sinful from the time of their birth, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”.[12] Christ distributes this grace to us in the sacrament of baptism. The psalmist also tells us:

Emma's Baptism - Immanuel Lutheran - Hodgkins, IL
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

Those that would argue that children are not sinners but are righteous and innocent, and that as long as they have not achieved the use of reason they will be saved in this innocence without baptism, not only reject the idea of original sin, but also teach contrary to the Word of God.

Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Mark 8:37).

In asking this question, Jesus makes it painfully obvious that there is nothing that we can give to ransom our soul from damnation. There is no other pathway into God’s righteousness than the one he has given us, and that is faith in Christ Jesus. This is the idea that St. Paul echoes in verse six of Romans chapter five when he writes, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

St. Paul describes us as “ungodly” and “powerless”. Because of our sinful disobedience, we are ungodly. When Adam and Eve knowingly chose to disobey God, in order to obtain knowledge they sinfully thought God was denying them, human nature was corrupted. Our parents had lost the ability to know and please God, and this corrupt nature has been passed on to us.

Jesus, however, “spoke plainly” (Mark 8:32) to his disciples about how he would pay for humanity’s sinfulness:

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31).

Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation to the disciples and they, yet again, fail to understand it. Peter has the dubious distinction of rebuking the Savior later in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Doubtless the disciples, who, at least at this point, saw Jesus as a political Messiah who would lead the revolt against Roman oppression, were greatly shocked to hear Jesus say that he must be killed and rise again after three days. St. Paul, again in the fifth chapter of Romans, sums up Jesus’ teaching:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him (Rom 5: 8-9).

The blood of Christ shed on the cross has justified us. We did not participate in Christ’s saving work one bit. There was also no time in our life when we were righteous – free from sin. God’s demonstration of his love for us happened, as St. Paul wrote, “While we were still powerless.” There is nothing we have to offer, no work we can do, to merit God’s forgiveness. God has given us forgiveness as a gift, and he sends His Holy Spirit to us to create faith in our hearts and enable us to do works that please him – not in order to earn his grace – but to glorify his most holy name.

You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1: 18-19).

Through his suffering, death and resurrection, Christ has triumphed over death. He has acted as mankind’s substitute, taking the punishment for sin that mankind deserved. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have been given the gift of eternal life.

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. There is no age limit set in the Bible for Baptism or salvation. All people from birth need the new life God offers in Christ. St. Paul writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ[13].” 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, and through Baptism, in a way that human minds cannot conceive, he delivers that word to infants by the same Holy Spirit. However, many reject the Word and resist the work of the Holy Spirit. On Calvary’s cross Jesus, God in human flesh, stretched wide his arms to embrace mankind. Do not turn a blind eye to his sacrifice and a deaf ear to his call – what He did, He did for you, and for all mankind, young and old.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Lemke, D. S. (2010, July 26). Age of Accountability. Retrieved April 26, 2012, from Southern Baptist in NC:

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Luke 2:41-50

[2] Leviticus 19:21; Psalm 5:4-5; Isaiah 6:3

[3] Genesis 3

[4] Romans 8:7

[5] Matthew 15:19; James 1:15; 4:17

[6] Genesis 8:21; Psalm 51:5

[7] Romans 3:19

[8] Romans 3:10-18

[9] Exodus 20:3-11; quoted from Ap II 14.

[10] Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15

[11] Ap II 35

[12] Romans 3:23-24

[13] Romans 10:17

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The First Sunday after Easter; Exegesis and Sermon

John 20:19-30 (ESV)

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you." 22And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."

 Jesus and Thomas

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe." 28Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

The Purpose of This Book

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Historical and literary context

The events recounted in this pericope, commonly used on the first Sunday after Easter,1 occurred the evening immediately following Christ's resurrection.2 This is St. John's account of these events; a parallel account of the first part of this pericope appears in St. Luke's gospel.3 In St. John's Gospel, this account follows immediately upon the Resurrection narrative;4 St. Luke interposes the account of Jesus' appearing to and accompanying two of the disciples to Emmaus.5

These events occurred in a time when the disciples were in great fear. Not only one door but all the doors to the place where the disciples met were locked “for fear of the Jews.”6 This fear of the Jewish leaders was entirely justified, as can be seen from St. Luke's various accounts of Jewish persecution of the Church for considerable time after the Crucifixion and Resurrection7 and, from a secular source, Suetonius' reference to Jewish riots because of “Chrestus” in Rome, sufficient that Claudius Caesar expelled the Jews, or at least their leaders, from the city.8

The second major part of the pericope9 occurred a week later, when Thomas, who had not been present on the previous occasion, was skeptical of the Resurrection and insisted on touching Jesus' wounds to see that this was indeed Jesus. The final verse of the pericope appears to be the original end of St. John's gospel, as it sets forth that Jesus did other things not enumerated in the book and then states St. John's purpose in writing the book. There is every indication that the 21st chapter which follows was added thereafter.10

Text issues

Most of the few differences in the available Greek texts are extremely minor (e.g., “where the disciples were” vs. “where the disciples were gathered,”11) and hence do not require discussion. There are three worth mentioning. The less significant is when, in verse 22, most translations I have consulted say that Jesus breathed “on them.”12 The Vulgate, on the other hand does not include “on them,” though the word St. Jerome uses, insufflare, is ambiguous—it could mean to breathe into, but also to draw a breath. Leon Morris cautions that “on them” is not a part of any very early text except Tatian's Diatessaron D syr, and says that these words “should not be read.”13

The relevant Greek verb in that verse is enefushsen, a past active indicative of emfusaw, meaning “to breathe on”, with the further connotation of transmitting the Spirit, according to Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich.14 Other examples of the verb being used to mean to transmit life and the Spirit to humans can be found in the Septuagint.15 Given that this verb is not used otherwise in Scripture, whatever ambiguity may exist in Latin, that ambiguity does not exist in the Greek. He breathed upon someone with the purpose of transmitting the Spirit, and that someone is those who were present there.

There is no conflict between this transmission of the Spirit and the events at Pentecost or in any of the other accounts in Acts.16 Morris points out correctly that there are differing gifts of the Holy Spirit, and they need not all have been conferred simultaneously.17

A fine grammatical point that raises a broader theological argument is in verse 23. The ESV has the verse: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld."18 The texts that were used in older translations say, for forgiven, afientai19—a present passive translating “they are forgiven.” However, the UBS text has afewntai20—a perfect passive translating “they have been forgiven.” The dogmatic implication is this. If the forgiveness is delivered in the present, then the administration of the keys is simultaneous with the minister's pronouncement of absolution, the Lutheran and Roman view.21 Compare the use of afientai in Jesus' forgiveness of the man with the palsy in Matthew, where there is no question that the forgiveness is delivered at that moment.22

On the other hand, if the perfect passive indicative is the correct text, there is at least some argument for the Reformed view that God does not communicate to His Church the power to bind and loose sins. Rather, there is simply an announcement of the grace already given, apprehended without means through the indwelling Spirit, who needs no vehicle.23 To that, the Lutheran response is that the use of the perfect means no such thing, but only that the forgiveness is done; the matter is ended before God.24

The perfect makes more sense textually, in terms of parallel structure. In the second half of the verse, on the retention of sins, the verb kekrathntai is in the perfect. Hence, it is probably, but not certainly, the better reading. Lenski comments that there is no inconsistency if forgiveness and retention are in different tenses grammatically. “They have been held, from the moment of their commission onward. Jesus has already held them, the disciples join Jesus in this, add their verdict to his, and so for all time to come (this is the force of the intensive perfect), they continue to be held.”25

The perfect is by no means a settled question; texts with the present passive indicative go back to Chrysostom and Eusebius, and if Eusebius is correct, to Origen, well before the manuscripts on the basis of which the perfect passive has been used in more recent Greek texts.26 Certainly there is not enough in this change in the text from that which was received before to cause a Lutheran pastor, in preaching this text, to veer away from established Lutheran dogma.

Jesus' statement that if the disciples forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if they retain them, they have been retained27 is similar to a promise made by Jesus to Peter recounted by Matthew that “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”28 That promise is then repeated to all the disciples a little later in Matthew.29

The verbs used in Matthew are different ones, “bind” and “loose” (dew and luw), but it can hardly be doubted that what is meant there is different from what is meant in John by “retain” and “forgive” (kratew and afiemi). In both cases one means to release and the other means its opposite.30 The use in Matthew of the future passive to say that these things shall be bound or retained in heaven (estai dedemena en ouranw … estai lelumena en ouranw), suggests that the “high” view of ministry, that the present pericope tells of an actual authorization of the disciples to be Christ's agents of forgiveness or retention of sins and not merely the announcers of something already done, is correct.31

It may be significant that when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” he is not addressing Jesus. He is stating a fact. This is his Lord and his God. That is evident from the Greek. He does not use the vocative, the form of address, but the nominative. He is naming who is standing before him. Theodor Zahn says that Thomas is saying, “You are my Lord and my God.”32

There are no major textual issues in the rest of the passage. There is a suggestion that the plural pronoun as to whose sins are forgiven means that this excludes individual confession and absolution..33 That conclusion is unwarranted. The plural includes the singular. There is nothing in this language to exclude the singular and to mandate that it be only in the case of the collective body.

Literary structure

While the text is in three parts, the pericope is a whole. Verse 24 shows that the Thomas account is a completion of the story already begun. He “was not with them when Jesus came.” (ouk hn met autwn ote hlqen IhsouV).34 The repetition of the word hlqen in this verse, which was also used in the first verse of the account,35 is a parallel suggesting that this is part of the story already begun and should be read together with it. The self-revelation of Christ to His disciples is not complete until He has shown Himself to all of them.

Thomas' incredulousness stands out in this account because the problems of other disciples in recognizing that Jesus had returned are not mentioned. In this account, we hear only that they said upon seeing, “It is the Lord.”36 The structure of this account does not include what Luke tells us of the other disciples' difficulties—that when He walked with two of them and ate with them at Emmaus, they did not even recognize Him until they received the bread,37 and that when He first appeared in the locked upper room, they thought He was a ghost until, as John does tell us, He showed them His hands and feet, and as John does not tell us, He took a piece of fish and ate it to show that He was not a ghost.38

The impact of John's not including the incredulousness of the other disciples makes Thomas's stand out, and can only be assumed to be intentional—John is making a point about skepticism, and it becomes more vivid by being separated out and emphasized. Jesus' words to Thomas mirror exactly what Thomas has said to the other disciples. By doing so, Jesus, gently but firmly, is making Thomas recognize his error, which He emphasizes again by telling him that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”39

The conclusion is a part of this story in that we, too, who have not seen, are blessed because we believe. Reading or hearing the words of not only this story but the entire book, we believe and we through that belief have eternal life.40

Significance of the pericope for today's Church

The Church receives its Savior as the risen, glorified Lord. He is no longer bound by the grave or by any other physical barriers. The grave could not hold him, nor could locked doors keep Him out. He will come to His Church no matter how it is persecuted or driven into hiding. But His return is only made real to us when we believe. We, in hearing the Word, as it has been written down for us, come to believe and are blessed. It is when we believe that we can say, and mean it, “My Lord and my God.” That blessing is eternal life.

Thomas' exclamation is the one time in the Gospels when someone is directly quoted saying that Jesus is God. In the gospel's original form, it is at the end of the last narrative of the book which began with the first naming of Christ as God in the New Testament: “and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”41 Ultimately this is the testimony of John—that Jesus is the Word made flesh, our Lord and our God.

The conclusion is important to our understanding of why the Scriptures exist and their power to convert. They are not simply a history. They are capable of leading us to belief.42 This is not, as some would have it, only as the Gospel is preached by an ordained minister, but as every Christian, reading John's account and the other Scriptures, receives the Gospel.43 With these Scriptures, we can believe without putting our fingers or hands into Christ's hands and side. We have believed without seeing, and we are blessed.


Bible versions used


Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossways Bibles, 2001) (primary text used)

Tyndale's New Testament, tr. William Tyndale (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

New International Version, New King James Version, King James Version, all available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Luther-Bibel 1534, vol. II, tr. Martin Luther (Wittenberg: Hans Lufft, 1534), facsimile edition (Cologne: Taschen-Verlag, 2003).


Latin Vulgate, tr. St. Jerome, available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Aland, Barbara, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini and Bruce M. Metzger, ed., The Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2005).

Stephanus 1550, Westcott-Hort 1883 and Scrivener 1890 versions, all available, accessed February 20-21, 2010.


Bauer, Walter, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., ed. Frederick W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979). (The second edition is used in intentional preference to the third because of philosophical difference with the nature of the revisions in the latter.)

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 11 vol., tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976).

Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged ed., tr. Geoffey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985).

Other Sources

Bruce, F.F. , The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).

Gerhard, Johann , Theological Commonplaces, vol. I, On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, tr. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).

Lenski, R.C.H., The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).

Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).

Melanchthon, Philip, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XI, F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed., Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921).

Pieper, Franz, Christian Dogmatics, vol. III, tr. John T. Mueller (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953).

Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1928).

Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius, The Twelve Caesars, tr. Robert Graves, rev. ed. Michael Grant (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003).

Theodor Zahn, Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1912).

Zwingli, Ulrich, “Ulrich Zwingli's Antwort, daß diese Worte: Das ist mein Leichnam, ewiglich den alten einigen Sinn haben werden”, Johann Georg Walch, ed., Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, vol. XX, Reformationsschriften, Zweiter Teil, Dogmatisch-Polemische Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890), 1122-1473.


On that first Easter night, the disciples were at dinner. We have another account of this dinner in the gospel of St. Luke. Some of what St. John tells us about is also in that account, but what does not appear there is an important part of what happened that evening. It is the night of the beginning of Christian ministry, when the disciples became apostles. The significance of this new name for them will become clear in the course of this sermon.

St. John tells us that the doors--plural--were closed. This doesn't mean that the room had French-style double doors. What it means is that not only were they in a locked room, they were in a locked building. Why? St. John says, "For fear of the Jews." The Jews have, only two days earlier, taken Jesus and had Him crucified by the Romans. Now the disciples are afraid that the same will happen to them as Jesus' followers. We know from the account in Acts that there was an ongoing persecution of Christians by the Jews for a long time thereafter. This is why all of them except John ran away in the night that Jesus was betrayed, and only John was present under the Cross at the Crucifixion, together with Jesus' mother and a couple of other women. They are afraid. They've locked the outside door and then locked the room. Nobody is coming in there who isn't supposed to be there.

Suddenly, there stands Jesus. He shows His hands and side, and says, "Peace be with you." Why do you suppose He showed His hands and side? Everyone knows that Jesus died Friday afternoon. Everyone THINKS he knows that dead people don't really rise from the grave, unless maybe some kind of apparition like a ghost is possible. Jesus is removing all doubts. This is He. This is not a ghost. This is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God whom they had followed, alive and risen again.

He greets them, "Peace be with you." We say that frequently in our liturgy: "The peace of the Lord be with you always." "And on earth peace, good will toward men." "The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace." All those lines are familiar to you. You have either said, sung or heard those words so many times that you may be inclined to take them as a matter of form, just something we say in church. When Jesus said it to His disciples, it was so much more than a pro forma greeting. He was truly pronouncing His peace upon them, the peace only God can give, peace with God and with ourselves. When the pastor says these things to you, that peace is also being given to you.

What is that peace? It is the peace of knowing that you are part of His Church, that He has died and risen FOR YOU--not for some abstract mankind, but really for you--and that He has risen again. The grave could not hold Him and it cannot hold you. When Jesus says that to His disciples, He is making that promise to them. Through them, He says it to you and to me.

For them it was also an absolution. Absolution is the pronouncement of God's forgiveness on the one to whom it is said. Why do the Apostles really, really need an absolution right now? Think about the last time they saw Him. Peter drew his sword, and he knocked off a servant's ear. Later he denied that he knew Jesus. All the other disciples except John ran away, and John followed only at a safe distance.

They would not confess Him before mankind. Remember, Jesus said that He would confess before His Father those who confess Him before mankind. They are guilty of a dreadful sin here! They need His forgiveness, and His declaration of peace to them is that forgiveness.

Jesus could have appeared in the room in a flash of lightning and a blast of thunder, roaring at them, "You faithless servants! You abandoned Me; now I shall surely abandon you!" Some of our friends in the Roman Catholic church think that He will be like that, a terrible Judge, on the last day with us and that we have to count on His mother Mary to ask Him to be more merciful to us.

Jesus is not like that. Jesus comes to the disciples, as they cower in that locked building, and says simply, "Peace be with you." He comes to you that way, too. That same peace brought by Jesus to them comes to you today, as it does every time you come here. It was His peace then; it is His peace now.

Jesus tells them, "As my father has sent me, so I send you." The Father sent Him bearing the Gospel of our salvation. He sent Him with the Sacraments to give us. He sent Him with all the means by which we are saved. God sent His Son to the world irrespective of whether He would be popular, whether His ministry would be profitable, or whether it would even be dangerous.

That is how the Father sent Jesus, and it is how Jesus sends His Church. We are not here to be popular. You see and hear about churches that are just rolling in money. These churches often tell you that it is "God's plan" for your life for you to be rich, successful and popular, with a great home life and everything you want. They have not been sent the way God sent His Son, or the way Jesus, through His Church, sends His ministers. They are not bringing the Gospel that you are to confess and proclaim to those around you.

Long before, Jesus had promised to give His apostles the keys to His kingdom and told them what those keys do--the forgiveness or binding of sins, the giving or the withholding of God's grace. You'll find it in Matthew 16. In today's Gospel, He gives what He promised--His Holy Spirit through whom we can receive His grace, His forgiveness. The keys by which the Church gives His grace to us are the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through them, the Holy Spirit creates faith in us. He teaches us to believe. The Holy Spirit came to the Church that night.

One of the apostles, however, wasn't there that night. Thomas did not see Him or have the Holy Spirit given to him that night. Now he has to see for himself. He is like all of us. He is skeptical. We still say "doubting Thomas" to mean anyone who has to have everything proven to him. He's like what they say about people from Missouri--you have to show them or they won't believe you.

You may be wondering, "If the Holy Spirit was given to the Church that night, what's Pentecost about?" The answer to that is that what the Holy Spirit worked in them that night was the power to proclaim the Gospel and to forgive sins. The gift of language, to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, would be given several weeks later, at Pentecost. On Pentecost, the ears of those who would hear were opened. The Church was planted the night after the Resurrection in the locked room. It would begin its growth on Pentecost.

This story is your assurance that when you hear preaching, you are not just hearing some man talking. You are hearing the Word of God itself, explained through the one called to preach it. That breath of Christ, that statement, "Receive the Holy Spirit," is still with all faithful preachers of the Gospel today. It is also Jesus' promise to you that when you hear a pastor's absolution--or even your fellow Christian's absolution in the private context--you hear God's own word of forgiveness to you. Absolution isn't really coming from the one speaking to you--it is coming from Jesus Himself.

The other apostles originally thought, when they saw Jesus, that they were seeing a ghost. Now Thomas thinks the same thing. He is apparently not even going to be convinced the way the other apostles were. St. Luke tells us that Jesus convinced some of the other apostles when He gave them the bread to eat at Emmaus and the rest of them by eating a piece of fish in front of them. Thomas is a tougher sell. He wants to put his hands in Jesus' wounds. Jesus lets him do just that. At that point, as he touches the body and blood of Christ, Thomas believes. "My Lord and my God," he says. There is no more doubt.

You, too, should have no doubt. He is risen, and you have the testimony of those who saw Him. You do not have to have your hands in His side or on His hands to believe. You need only have His Word in your ears and His Body and Blood in your mouths. Jesus promises you that you are even more blessed than Thomas for believing on that basis. So believe, and rejoice to say, with him, "My Lord and my God."

The bread and wine at Emmaus; Christ's very body and blood personally present in that locked house in Jerusalem--it is through that means that the Apostles are persuaded, that they have confidence that Jesus is truly risen. It is through the Body and Blood of Christ joined to the bread and wine that you, too, are strengthened in your faith, first begun as you heard the Gospel of Jesus and were washed in Baptism. In His Body and His Blood, they, and you, have peace.

That Gospel, Baptism, and Communion are given to you by the successors of those first men whom Jesus called, sent, and entrusted with them the keys. Those are the ministers of Word and Sacrament, your pastors. They are carrying out the task set for them, and for the whole church, by Jesus. Today you have heard the story of how He first ordained His ministers. You have heard how the Church was born.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in +Christ Jesus. Amen.


1E.g. Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), xxi; Book of Common Prayer (New York: Seabury Press, 1928), 171.

2John 20:19.

3Luke 24:36-49.

4John 20:1-18.

5Luke 24:13-35.

6John 20:19.

7Acts 4:1-21; 5:17-41; 6:8-7:60, etc..

8Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, tr. Robert Graves, rev. ed. Michael Grant (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2003), 200.

9John 20:24-29.

10John 20:30. See R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 1399; see F.F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), 398.

11John 20:19.

12John 20:22 (ESV, NIV, NKJV, Tyndale 1534); also in Luther 1534 (“blies er sie an”-- “he blew on them.”).

13Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 747, n. 60.

14Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick Danker, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 258.

15Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 37:5,14.

16E.g. Acts 2, 10:44, 11:15, 4:8.

17Morris, 747-748, citing 1 Cor. 12:4.

18John 20:23.

19Stephanos at John 20:23.

20Aland, 402.

21See Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Art. XI, F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau, ed., Concordia Triglotta (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 248; Franz Pieper,, Christian Dogmatics, vol. III, tr. John T. Mueller (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 191, n. 90.

22Matt. 9:5.

23See Ulrich Zwingli, “Ulrich Zwingli's Antwort, daß diese Worte: Das ist mein Leichnam, ewiglich den alten einigen Sinn haben werden”, Johann Georg Walch, ed., Dr. Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, vol. XX, Reformationsschriften, Zweiter Teil, Dogmatisch-Polemische Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1890), 1131.

24Pieper, 191.

25Lenski, 1376-1377.

26See Aland, 402, n.

27John 20:23.

28Matt. 16:19.

29Matt. 18:18.

30Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, 125, 177-178, 448, 483.

31See Pieper, 191; Francis J. Hall, Theological Outlines, 3rd ed., Frank Hudson Hallock, ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1933), 235.

32Theodor Zahn, Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1912), 683. See Morris, 753, n. 81; Lenski, 1389, says that though the form is nominative, we should understand the vocative.

33See Morris, 750.

34John 20:24.

35John 20:19.

36John 20:20.

37Luke 24:16-25.

38Luke 24:36-43.

39John 20:29.

40John 20:31.

41John 1:1,14.

42John 20:31.

43Johann Gerhard, Theological Commonplaces, vol. I, On the Nature of Theology and Scripture, tr. Richard J. Dinda (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 331.

Original Sin

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Sin is more than simply doing wrong things. Sin is a condition of human kind; it is a disease that permeates and contaminates the human nature to its deepest levels. St. Paul says that we, mankind, are dead in our trespasses and sins – the unrighteous acts we have committed. However, St. Paul goes on to explain that we, human beings, “were, by nature children of wrath.” Because of the total corruption of our human nature which we received from our first parents Adam and Eve, we were counted as “children of wrath” – as sinful.

St. Paul does not write that God reckoned mankind as children of wrath because every human being who would be born would be unable to resist the desire to temptation produced by our fallen sin-nature and would eventually commit actual sins; St. Paul writes that because of our nature, which was created as perfect by God and corrupted utterly by the willful disobedience of Adam and Eve, mankind is under condemnation. The initial state of mankind upon his entrance into this world is thus one of sin. The unregenerate man is, because of his corrupt nature, a slave to sin. And, while our human nature is not in and of itself sin, the disease which permeates it is.
“The main NT [New Testament] words [in Greek] for sin are hamartia, “a missing of the mark, sin”; adikia, “unrighteousness”; anomia, “lawlessness”; asebiea, “impiety”; parabasis, “transgression”; paraptoma, “a fall,” indicating disruption of the right relationship to God; poneria, “depravity”; epithymia, “desire, lust”; apeithenia, “disobedience” (Harrison, Bromiley, & Henry, 1999).

One aspect of sin certainly is the commission of actual acts that God has commanded us not to do. It is sinful to steal. It is sinful to murder. Certainly sin, Scripture teaches us, does not encompass only overt “physical” acts, but also words, thoughts, and intentions of the heart as well. Not only have we been commanded not to hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, God has commanded us not to bear false testimony against his as well. Not only are we not to steal our neighbors possessions, but we are also not to desire and scheme to get our neighbor’s possessions. Even though no physical act may be done, to covet is an actual sin; to slander is an actual sin. Jesus tells us so in his sermon on the mount:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:27-29).

Of course, by telling us to pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin, Jesus is showing us that it isn’t our members that cause us to sin. Sin comes from inside us because of our corrupt nature. In fact, our every natural inclination is to turn away from God and what he commands, and to embrace the acts of sin[1]. So, is this inclination of man’s heart to evil itself sin? Does this condition into which we are all born condemn us? This concept is called original sin, and Christianity has taught from its very beginning that this powerfully strong tendency in us to sin does indeed condemn mankind.

Let’s take a look for a moment at the first commandment – You shall have no other gods. In good Lutheran fashion I ask, “What does this mean?” Every Lutheran out there in the blogosphere should be reciting these words at their computer screen – We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things (Luther, 1986). In the first commandment God forbids idolatry, and requires that human beings fear, love, and trust in Him above all other things. He commands righteousness; he commands holiness. We are told in Scripture to be holy, because he, God, is holy[2].

If you look back to the list of Greek words used for “sin” in the New Testament, to be sure you will find words that mean overt acts of thought, word, and deed such as “a missing of the mark,” “transgression,” and “a fall.” However, the majority of the words used in the New Testament to describe sin are intangible concepts. They are states of being or existence such as “unrighteousness,” “lawlessness,” “depravity,” and “disobedience.” The use of such terminology suggests strongly that sin is more than simply a disobedient or lawless act of thought, word, or deed against God’s command; it is also a state of being unrighteous. Sin is also a state of being depraved. Original sin is, “the absence of original righteousness and the root cause of all sinful thoughts, words, and deeds” (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005). St. Paul writes to the Romans:

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).

Certainly St. Paul is describing actual sins of thought, word, and deed as he quotes the Old Testament Scripture to describe the fallen state of man. However, in the last verse of this passage, St. Paul makes clear that this corruption of the human nature is not simply “tinder” which stokes the fire of sin, and thus is not actually sin itself. That idea was taught by Rome and became a major issue between the Lutheran reformers and the Roman theologians during the Reformation (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005). We believe, teach, and confess that, in fallen and unregenerate man there is no fear of God.

Because of our corrupt nature, there is no fear of God in mankind; we are incapable of it because of our disease. From the beginning of our mortal existence in our mother’s womb, we have no fear, no love for, and no trust in God. If nothing else, this is a breach of the first commandment, and we are guilty of it by virtue of our very existence. Further, it is certainly the wellspring from which actual sins of thought, word, and deed arise. And, left in this, our natural state since the fall, we have no hope for a right relationship with God. Our sinful nature puts us into a state of unrighteousness from the get-go. Indeed, I believe this is what the psalmist means when he writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me…Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.[3]

Original sin is born in us because of the sinful seed and is a source of all other actual sins (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005)[4]. This is why we need some other outside force to create in us clean hearts and right spirits. We are, as St. Paul described, dead in our transgressions; and not simply our actual transgressions of thought, word, and deed, but because our nature is diseased with sin. We are so blind, so corrupt, that we cannot help but choose evil. We are hostile to God[5]. We are enemies of God[6]. Indeed, St. Paul writes again:

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Such was the state of mankind after Adam’s fall. Praise be to God that he has rescued us from this sorry state through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. While we were still his enemies, Jesus took on human flesh and became a man. He emptied himself of his divine power and glory as God the Son[7]. He lived a sinless and perfect life keeping God’s law, doing for us what we were by our very nature unable to do. And when the time appointed by the Father came, he bore the guilt of all of mankind’s sin on the cross. He stood in for us and received the punishment for sin - death - that all mankind deserved. And when he rose from the dead that first Easter Sunday, his victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil was completed. Through faith in Jesus the Christ, created in us by the working of the Holy Spirit, through God’s means of Word and Sacrament, we are regenerated. We are made into new creations. We are adopted into God’s family as sons and daughters. All this is done, not by any power, work, or inclination of our own, but purely by the grace and mercy of God alone.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-2).

Works Cited

Harrison, E. F., Bromiley, G. W., & Henry, C. F. (Eds.). (1999). Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Luther, D. M. (1986). Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Genesis 6:5
[2] Leviticus 20:7
[3] Psalm 51:5, 10
[4] FC Ep. I 12
[5] Romans 8:7-8, Colossians 1:21
[6] Romans 5:10
[7] Philippians 2:5-11