Thursday, February 21, 2013

God's Long-suffering

The Fall - Lucas Cranach the Elder

But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promises as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up (2 Peter 3:8-10).

St. Peter writes these words to encourage those who were being mocked and persecuted by those around them. St. Peter calls them scoffers. In the beginning of chapter three of this, his second epistle, he tells those Christians to whom he writes not to let the mocking of those who do not believe, those scoffers, get to them and shake their faith. Nothing is any different than it was before, claim the scoffers. "They say, Where is his [Jesus] coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:4).

And, taken on its face, that argument could give the Christian pause. After all, it has been 2,000 years-and-some-change since Jesus died on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Jesus did tell his disciples, also, that he would return quickly. One might begin to think that these scoffers have a point. 2,000 years is a long time to wait. Perhaps all of this waiting is a waste of time.

St. Peter, however, tells us God's reason for his perceived delay. He is being long-suffering toward us. God, being merciful, and not wanting anyone to be lost eternally, wants to give as much time as possible for people to repent of their sin.

It's kind of like when a young child does something that they are not supposed to do and their parent tells them to stop. They continue on after the admonition, and the parent tries again, this time with the threat of punishment. Many is the parent who has given "until the count of three" for their little darling to stop their disobedient behavior.

The thing is, that three-count is rarely a legitiment and even count. How many people have ever heard a parent say something like, "One...two...two and a half...two and three quarters...” with longer and longer pauses between each successive number? Why do those parents do such a thing? The answer is an obvious one - they want their child to repent so that they do not have to administer the threatened punishment. They are being long-suffering with their child who would, left to himself, continue in whatever bad or destructive behavior in which they were engaged.

This is how our father in heaven is dealing with us human beings right now, according to St. Peter. What those who have no faith call God's slackness, St. Peter tells us is actually God's mercy. He is taking his time counting to "three", extending the opportunity for mankind to repent of their sin and be saved through faith in Christ for as long as possible because, as St. Peter writes, "[The Lord] is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18).

Since Adam and Eve's disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden, mankind has fallen from our perfect place in God's perfect creation. By their willful act of disobedience, sin was introduced into God's creation. Creation, along with the very nature of mankind, was utterly corrupted. Adam and Eve lost the ability to fear, love, and trust in God above all things and, because this corruption of sin permeated their very natures, the deficiency of faith and disease of sin would be passed on to all their descendants[1]. The will of mankind would henceforth be bound to sin. Man would be inclined to flee from God and to fear, love, and trust in himself, and his own works, above all things.

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).

This total corruption of man’s nature – called original sin – has left all people spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God (Luther, 1991). St. Paul points this out to the Ephesians when he writes that they (and we as well) were dead in trespasses and sins. Because of this the Bible says that, from the time of our youth, man is inclined toward every evil. We do not accept the things that come from God because, St. Paul says, those things are spiritually discerned, and we are, by nature, spiritually dead[2]. Our sinful minds are hostile to God and, not only are we disinclined to submit to God, we are incapable of doing so. St. Paul writes to the Romans:

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6-8).

From the time of our conception we human beings are “in the flesh” and, therefore, unable to submit to God. We are his enemies[3]. The intellect, heart, and will of the natural, unregenerate person in divine things are not only turned entirely away from God, but also are turned and perverted against God to every evil (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005)[4].

For this reason God, all the way back at the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden, promised Adam and Eve that he would send a savior, one of Eve’s descendants, to crush the head of the serpent – to defeat Satan and reconcile mankind to himself[5]. Adam and Eve did nothing to merit God’s mercy here. Quite to the contrary, both Adam and Eve tried to shift the blame for disobeying God from themselves; Adam tried to blame Eve, and Eve tried to blame the serpent. The reality of the situation was, however, that our first parents chose to disobey God, seeking after some knowledge which they had been persuaded by the devil that God was hiding from them. Satan got Eve to doubt God’s word, implying to her that God was being selfish[6] (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). This sin, to distrust God’s word, is really the beginning of all sins. Luther writes:

All this is the old devil and old serpent, who also turned Adam and Eve into enthusiasts. He led them away from God’s outward Word to spiritualizing and self-pride. And yet, he did this through other outward words[7] (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

Because this is the state of human nature, all human beings are sinful from birth, incapable of truly fearing, loving, or trusting in God, and inclined to flee from him. And, because our sinful nature has been thus corrupted, we commit all kinds of actual sins (Luther, 1991). We need no one to describe with constitutes an “actual” sin; we know that well enough from living in the fallen world and working diligently to actually commit them. St. Paul, however, puts pen to paper once more:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

In his law, God condemns and punishes sin, and he commands mankind to do good works of thought, word, and deed. When God created Adam and Eve, he wrote his law on their hearts; God’s law written on our hearts – our conscience – is a built-in feature of humanity[8]. The main function of God’s Law is to show us our sinfulness. The Law, in Luther’s words, “…shows us how very low our nature has fallen, how we have become utterly corrupted” (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005)[9]. Jesus summarized the Law like this:

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40).

Adam and Eve were comforted by God’s promise, but they did not know who this savior would be. In fact, some theologians believe that, when Eve gave birth to Cain, because of the way he was named, she thought he was the fulfillment of God’s promise (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009).

We, in contrast to Adam and Eve, are not looking forward to the coming of the promised savior. We look back, instead, at the fulfillment of God’s promise. Holy Scripture tells us that Jesus of Nazareth was that savior of mankind. The Bible teaches that Jesus is man’s only savior from sin, death, and the devil and, that through faith in him, we receive eternal life (Luther, 1991).

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (John 17:3; 3:36).

While we were still at enmity with God Jesus, true God begotten from all eternity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, becoming also truly a man. He took on human nature and lived a sinless life, keeping the Law that we were unable to keep. And, in the fullness of God’s time, Jesus went to the cross to die. Sinless Jesus, the God-man, went to the cross and bore the guilt and punishment that, according to God’s justice, belonged to man, so that man might be reconciled to God. He died on the cross and was placed in the tomb. Three days later he rose from the dead, defeating the power of sin, death, and Satan. He graciously gives us this gift of salvation through faith in him. Luther writes, regarding the Gospel, in the Smalcald Articles, Section III, Article IV:

God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through the spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world. This is the particular office of the Gospel. Second, through Baptism. Third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourth, through the Power of the Keys. Also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren. “Where two or three are gathered” (Matthew 18:20). And other such verses (especially Romans 1:12) (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005).

By faith we receive the righteousness of Christ as a free gift. When a person is made aware of their sinfulness by God’s law and is sorry for their sins and they, in turn, believe in the Lord Jesus as their savior, God credits that person with the righteousness of Christ. God uses his means – the spoken Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper – to come to us and create faith in us. And, after one is converted, good works – the fruits of repentance – will follow in the life of the believer[10].

This Lenten season we should take the time to look at ourselves through the lens of God’s Law and repent of our sin. As we repent we should also thank God that he has provided for us a savior who bore the punishment we deserved and credits us with his righteousness. And, as we fast, repent, and pray in preparation for the remembrance of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection, we should also thank God that he is long-suffering. Recognizing the reason for his delayed return, we should, by God’s power, continue to serve him faithfully in our vocations, proclaiming Law and Gospel to those around us while he tarries.

Works Cited

Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Luther, M. (1991). Kleine Katechismus, English. (C. P. House, Trans.) Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (W. H. Dau, & G. F. Bente, Trans.) St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.



End Notes

[1] Psalm 51:5; John 3:6; Romans 5:12; Ephesians 4:22

[2] 1 Corinthians 2:14

[3] Romans 5:10

[4] FC SD II 17

[5] Genesis 3:15

[6] Genesis 3:1


[8] Romans 2:14-15

[9] SA III II 4

[10] AC XII 6