Saturday, June 27, 2015

Losing Faith and Falling Away

This is kind of an addendum to “Three Examples of How Lutherans Deny Justification by Faith Alone: A Response, Part Two of Two.” Here are a couple other verses I thought were good examples of how 1) conversion is entirely God’s work, 2) faith comes to us a gift from God through the Word, and 3) that faith can be lost by a person’s rejection. - THL

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter [whether it was necessary for Gentile believers to keep the Law of Moses]. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:6-11).

What do we learn from Peter’s address to the council? First, faith is created by means of the Gospel (v. 7). Second, the Holy Spirit is, “given by God,” working when and where He will, not according to the will of man (v. 8). Third, Peter says that God cleansed the hearts of the Gentile believers by faith, showing that faith is a gift from God (v. 9), rather than through works of the law (or by any other work, including “deciding” to believe by reason), which is impossible to achieve (v. 10). Fourth, this faith is given out of his unmerited good disposition toward those on whom he bestows this gift – i.e. out of his grace – and everyone who is saved, is being saved this way (v. 11). Whew!

And you [the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae], who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (Colossians 1:21-23).

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Paul is writing to believers at Colossae. He tells these people, whom he counts as believers, that they have been reconciled in Christ’s body of flesh by his death, “…if indeed [they] continue in the faith…” He continues on, warning them not to shift from the hope of the gospel of which he was a minister, because if they shift from that hope, if they do not remain stable and steadfast in that hope, they will no longer be reconciled. They will go back to being alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds. They will no longer be able to be presented as holy and blameless and above reproach before Christ because they will have no faith. They will have fallen away. Faith in Christ must continue, just as it began – by hearing the Gospel[1].

[1] Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Three Examples of How Lutherans Deny Justification by Faith Alone: A Response – Part Two of Two

Rev. Dr. Robert Preus

3) Loss of Salvation: Lutherans do not believe in eternal security. They correctly read the warning passage of Scripture as being addressed to believers, but they incorrectly believe that those warnings concern the possibility of losing our eternal salvation. If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would know that losing our salvation is impossible. The fact that they teach eternal salvation can be lost, shows that Lutherans do not really believe in salvation by faith alone apart from works.


The fact that confessional Lutherans teach that believers can fall away from the faith, while at the same time teaching that God earnestly desires all men to be saved, shows that confessional Lutherans confess what the Bible teaches, even when we cannot reconcile those teachings through the use of our human reason. Holy Scripture most assuredly teaches that God wants all men to be saved:

I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live… [God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth…The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).

Holy Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that not all men will be saved. To add another wrinkle, the Bible also teaches that those who are saved are saved by the grace of God alone, through faith (not, as the author repeatedly writes, by “faith alone”). We return once again to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Those who are lost, however, are lost through their own doing. I suppose one could think of it as Salvation by grace, through faith; Damnation by will, through works:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing…You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit (Matthew 23:37; Acts 7:51)!

Luther certainly understood this concept. 

He [Erasmus] argues that there is something in men that responds to the gospel. But this will not do, because even if God shows the gift of his own Son to ungodly men, they don’t respond unless he works within them. Indeed, without the Father’s inward working, men are more likely to persecute his Son rather than follow him (Luther and Pond 1984).

So, there you have it. The Holy Spirit wants to convert all people and bring them to salvation and everlasting life, but many reject the Word and resist the Holy Spirit. They, therefore, remain in unbelief and under Gods’ judgment by their own fault (Concordia Publishing House 1991). God gets the credit for the saving; man gets the blame for the damning.

This very issue comes into play when St. Paul discusses with Timothy the case of Hymenaeus and Alexander.

This charge [Timothy’s duty to order certain teachers not stray from pure doctrinal teaching] I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:18-20).

St. Paul is not saying here that Hymenaeus and Alexander will be judged in the temporal realm, by dying or some such thing, and suffer a loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ on the Last Day, but still march into the New Heavens and New Earth, “as through fire[1].” He is saying that the very thing through which they would be saved, their faith, has been “shipwrecked.” It has been destroyed. The faith, which they once had as members of the Ephesian congregation, is no more. They have passed from life to death, so to speak. 

Hymenaeus and Alexander rejected this precious gift of faith graciously given to them by God the Father, through the Word, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. St. Paul recognized this and disciplined them by, “handing them over to Satan,” or as we would say today – they were excommunicated. They were expelled from the fellowship of the Christian congregation so that they would, “learn not to blaspheme.” In other words, the goal of their excommunication was not punitive punishment, but rather proper exercise of the Law, the function of which is to show men their sin. St. Paul wanted them to be led to repentance and be restored to the faith they previously confessed (Engelbrecht 2009). The beauty of the Gospel is that Christ died even for the sin of Hymenaeus and Alexander. We are not told what happened to them in Scripture. If they repented of their sin God, who is faithful and just, forgave them and cleansed them of all unrighteousness. St. Paul similarly warns the Corinthians not to fall away from their faith into idolatry.

Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

The, “therefore…” at the beginning of the verse indicates that St. Paul just finished explaining some really important concept to the Corinthians. In verses 1-11 his entire point can be summed up in one statement – You shall have no other gods. St. Paul makes the comparison between the people of Israel leaving Egypt and wandering for 40 years in the desert, and the congregation at Corinth. Just as the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” by passing through the water of the Red Sea and coming out a new, free people on the other side, so have the Corinthian believers been baptized into Christ and his death, and are a new creation. St. Paul, however, goes on to explain that, “…with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness[2].” The reason St. Paul gives for God’s displeasure is idolatry. They did not fear, love, and trust in God, who had delivered them, above all things. Rather than repenting of this breach of the First Commandment, they continued in unbelief, and were lost:

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come (1 Corinthians 10:6-11).

It is revealing that St. Paul uses the words “fell” and “destroyed” when describing what happened to those who continued in their unbelief. Again, he is not describing merely a temporal consequence of sin. Scripture tells us that these people, who were graciously delivered from bondage, persisted in unbelief. They resisted the working of God the Holy Spirit and eventually fell from the faith they had been given and were destroyed. Why does St. Paul recount this to the Corinthians? It is to be an example to them so that they do not similarly fall into sin, away from God, and be destroyed. Knowing our hearts as only we can, it may seem impossible for any one of us to remain in the faith. As Christ told his disciples, however, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

It isn’t that Hymenaeus and Alexander, or the Israelites who died in the wilderness, committed the “wrong” sin, or too many sins, and were ultimately rejected by God as the author claims Lutherans teach. Rather, it is that they rejected the faith they had been given, and persisted in unbelief and unrepentance. Luther makes this observation regarding repentance, and in so doing demonstrates just how Law and Gospel work:

When holy people – still having and feeling original sin and daily repenting and striving against it – happen to fall into manifest sins (as David did into adultery, murder, and blasphemy [2 Samuel 11]), then faith and the Holy Spirit have left them. The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so that it can be carried out, but represses and restrains it from doing what it wants[3]. If sin does what it wants, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present. For St. John says, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning…and he cannot keep on sinning[4].” And yet it is also true when St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us[5]…We will now return to the Gospel, which does not give us counsel and aid against sin in only one way. God is superabundantly generous in His grace: First, through spoken Word, by which the forgiveness of sins is preached in the whole world[6]. 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[7]” and other such verses, especially Romans 1:12 (McCain, et al. 2005)[8].

Confessing my sin, I say along with the father of the demon-possessed child, “I believe; Help my unbelief[9]!” I know that, even as I now believe in Christ my Savior, I also know that I have been chosen to eternal life out of pure grace in Christ without any merit of my own and that no one can pluck me out of His hand (Concordia Publishing House 1991). When the Devil calls my sin to mind and shows me how unworthy I am to enter into eternal life, I can point to God’s promise which he delivered to me in my baptism and say, “I am baptized.” I can receive the pardon and peace which Christ delivers to me in His Supper when I eat His body and drink His blood which was given and shed for me on the cross, since His body is true food, and His blood is true drink[10]. From these places, the means of God’s grace – Word and Sacrament – come my assurance as a believer and not from any decision I make, or any other work I do. Thanks be to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that I am saved by His grace, through faith in Christ Jesus.

Works Cited

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Luther, Martin, and Clifford Pond. Born Slaves. Edited by J. P. Arthur M.A. and H. J. Appleby. London: Grace Publications Trust, 1984.

McCain, Paul Timothy, Robert Cleveland Baker, Gene Edward Veith, and Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Translated by William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

End Notes

[1] 1 Corinthians 3:15 
[2] 1 Corinthians 10:5 
[3] Psalm 51:11; Romans 6:14 
[4] 1 John 3:9 
[5] 1 John 1:8 
[6] Luke 24:45-47 
[7] Matthew 18:20 
[8] SA III III 43 - IV 
[9] Mark 9:24 
[10] John 6:55

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Timothy Joins Paul and Silas: A Comment on Acts 16:1-5

St. Paul, and his big knife.
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily (Acts 16:1-5). 

Ok, so we just finished reading in Acts 15 about how the Jerusalem Council came to the conclusion that it was not necessary for Gentiles to obey the Mosaic Law and be circumcised to be Christians. What is the very next thing that we read about Paul? He circumcises Timothy, “because of the Jews who were in those places.” How is this different from what Paul describes Peter doing in Galatians, when he stops eating with the Gentiles because of the Judaizers[1]? And, why does Titus get a pass[2]? If I were Timothy, I might be a little perplexed – not to mention slightly upset – with Paul at this point. Perhaps this is the reason Paul is often depicted holding big knife… 

Evidently, the Jews whom Luke mentions in Acts 16 are different from the Judaizers Paul writes about in Galatians. Luther writes: 

When [Paul] encountered the stubborn Jews who insisted upon circumcision and the law, he took delight in teaching and doing the every opposite; he would not be coerced. But when he came to the weak and simple people he even practiced circumcision and let the law stand, until such time as he might strengthen them and deliver them from the law (Luther and Lehmann 1959)[3]

When a work, such as circumcision, is commanded by anyone to be performed as a requirement for salvation, it must be resisted, which was the case with Paul and Titus in Galatians 2. As a matter of Christian freedom, however, it (circumcision, or any other work) may be practiced in ways which are beneficial to the faith, as Paul does in this case, so as to facilitate his outreach to the Jewish community[4]

End Notes

[1] Galatians 2:11-14 
[2] Galatians 2:3 
[3] Luther, Martin, and Helmut T Lehmann. Luther's Works. Vol. 36. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1959. 
[4] Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Three Examples of How Lutherans Deny Justification by Faith Alone: A Response – Part One of Two

Rev. Dr. Robert Preus
This blog article, “How Lutherans Implicitly Deny Faith Alone in Christ Alone,” showed up in my Facebook news feed a couple days ago. I usually allow things like this to drift past without a second glance. This one, however, I thought merited a response because the author – whether intentionally or not – seems to be presenting a bastardized version of confessional Lutheran theology. I have no idea what “Free Grace Theology” is. I am merely a layman with no formal theological training. I have simply extracted the author’s three points and attempted to answer them from the confessional Lutheran point of view. The first two points regarding baptism are dealt with below. The third, how Lutherans deny justification by faith alone by teaching that a believer can lose their salvation will be dealt with in a separate article.

The photo of Robert Preus has been included, as the author of the offending article used it, and that irritated me. - THL

Unfortunately, unlike Free Grace theology, the Lutheran tradition has not kept to faith alone in Christ alone, despite their stated intention. Indeed, I believe the Lutheran tradition has adopted a number of doctrines in direct opposition to justification/eternal life by faith in Christ apart from works. Let me give three examples:

1) Infant baptism: The fact that Lutherans baptize infants denies justification by faith alone. Infants cannot believe and yet Lutherans claim they are justified in the act of water baptism. By baptizing people who do not have faith, the Lutheran churches effectively teach that justification is apart from faith, not by it. Some Lutherans will respond by saying that infants can believe and be justified by faith apart from works, and so are the proper subjects of baptism. If so, that leads to an obvious problem. If infants can believe, they can also disbelieve. How can you tell the difference between believing infants and non-believing infants? How can you tell a difference between infants who believe in justification by faith alone and those who believe in salvation by works? You can’t. Indeed, the whole idea is quite silly, and yet that very argument is often made by Lutherans. I have heard a Lutheran dismiss the problem as being “rationalistic,” whatever that means. In reply, it seems like special pleading of the worst kind to insist that infants can believe, but deny that we would be able to tell whether they do or not.

If Lutherans held consistently to justification by faith in Christ alone, they would not baptize infants. They would only baptize believers (however old they may be).


Let’s forget for a second that infants are included in the phrase “all nations[1].” Let’s set aside for the moment that St. Peter explains that a) baptism now saves you[2] and b) is for you and for your children and all those who are far off[3]. Let’s even ignore for the moment that St. Paul equates baptism with circumcision by calling it a circumcision of the heart[4] not made by hands[5], and circumcision was mandated for infants eight days old (all those things will be dealt with in greater detail later)[6]. Leaving all that aside, let’s focus our attention on the idea that infants can’t believe. Such an idea is totally, completely, and utterly true. Infants cannot believe…and neither can adults. We are all, by nature, objects of God’s wrath. In fact, let’s take a look at St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. No one can explain it better than him.

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. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing[7], the sinful mind is hostile to God[8], and we all – every single human being since The Fall – have been born dead in trespass and sin. We were all born with a mind hostile to God, and with a heart inclined to evil[9]. Left on our own to make a decision using our reason, whether or not to put our trust in Jesus, we would all choose “not Jesus” every time.

The analogy of a dead body is often used, but for good reason: Just as a corpse has no power to raise itself to life, so the spiritually dead person has no power to raise themselves to spiritual life, as St. Paul explicitly says in Ephesians 2. It is the Holy Spirit who calls people by the Gospel when and where he wills. And we know, from Christ’s institution of the Lord’s Supper and from what is normally known as “The Great Commission” – not to mention the rest of Holy Scripture – that God works through means. Christ has specifically commanded his Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to observe all that he has commanded. So, it doesn’t matter if an unregenerate person is nine seconds old, nine days old, nine years old, or nine decades old because, as St. Paul writes, no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit[10]. That faith by which they are saved comes from God as a gift through the Word. So, to be accurate, man is saved sola gratia, sola fide – by grace, through faith. That Word – God’s promised redemption – comes to an adult through preaching, or reading; that same word comes to an infant through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, which leads to the next point of contention.

2) Baptismal regeneration: Paul chastised the Galatians for thinking that circumcision was necessary for our salvation. And yet Lutherans insist that we must be baptized in order to be saved. Water baptism was as much a work of the Law as circumcision (Lev 16:23-24). How can Lutherans teach that making circumcision a condition of salvation is legalism but making baptism a condition of salvation is not? Some Lutherans will respond that baptism is not a work like circumcision, but the Gospel promise put into visible form. It is a work that God does to us, not something that we do for God. But this same reasoning could also apply to circumcision. Infant boys certainly don’t circumcise themselves. It is something done to them. And yet Paul denounced this practice as seeking to be justified by works of the law. What if the Galatians had said to Paul: “Paul, this isn’t legalism. It isn’t the boy’s work. This is God’s gift to the boy—a circumcised heart!” Apparently, Paul did not take that view. Adding any requirement to faith was a form of salvation by works, and another gospel.

If Lutherans held consistently to faith alone in Christ alone, they would not make baptism a condition of eternal salvation.


The author of this article seems to be confused about the Lutheran position regarding baptism. He certainly doesn’t understand what St. Paul writes regarding baptism’s relationship to Old Testament circumcision. It isn’t a condition of eternal salvation in the way the author suggests. Baptism is the vehicle through which God’s promises are delivered. I guess baptism is a condition of eternal salvation in the same way that going through the front door is a condition of entering a house. You can try to crawl in through the mail slot, but the blessing is available by the means through which the homeowner has provided access. Baptism works the forgiveness of sins[11], rescues from death and the devil[12], and gives eternal salvation[13]. It is a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

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 correlates 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 and Henry 1990).

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[14]. 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[15]. 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. 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 and Henry 1990).

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. 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,” and 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[16]…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[17]…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[18],” (Bercot 2002).

Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word (Concordia Publishing House 1991). 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. And, like all of mankind, a baby is, by nature, an object of wrath, prior to regeneration through faith in Christ. 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.

Stay tuned for part two.

Works Cited

Bercot, David W., ed. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Concordia Publishing House. Luther's Small Catechism. Translated by Concordia Publishing House. Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1991.

Engelbrecht, Rev. Edward A., ed. The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 28:18-20
[2] 1 Peter 3:21
[3] Acts 2:38-39
[4] Romans 2:29
[5] Colossians 2:11-14
[6] Genesis 17:12
[7] 1 Corinthians 1:18
[8] Romans 8:7
[9] Genesis 6:5; Psalm 51:5
[10] 1 Corinthians 12:3
[11] Acts 2:38; 22:16
[12] Romans 6:3-5
[13] 1 Peter 3:21
[14] Psalm 51:5
[15] Galatians 3:27; Colossians 1:13-14; 1 Corinthians 6:11
[16] Irenaeus (c. 180 E/W), 1.391
[17] Cyprian (c. 250, W), 5.354
[18] Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390, E) 7.457

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why I Quit the Gideons

When I was a little kid, I found the pocket-sized New Testament that my father received from a Gideon when he was drafted. I used to carry this King James New Testament around with me and read it constantly, even though I found the language to be awkward and had difficulty understanding a lot of it. That was the first Bible that was really “mine.” I had other Bibles, but they sat on the shelf. This pocket New Testament went with me everywhere. It fascinated me that I was reading that particular New Testament because a Gideon gave it to my father in 1965.

My next encounter with the Gideons was when I was in college at Murray State University. They did a “blitz” on campus. One day in the fall of 1995 the Gideons took up their posts on campus and began handing out their green PWT’s (personal worker testaments). There were several students, friends of mine among them, who made a game out of collecting as many of the pocket-sized books as possible. By the end of the day, there were dozens of the testaments strewn about the lobby of the Fine Arts Building (which is where I spent most of my time). While walking across campus I spotted many more in trash cans. This didn’t sit well with me so I began rescuing the New Testaments. I also began to look at the men who gave up their free time to pass out New Testaments and endure ridicule from college students with more respect. It was at that time that I thought I would like to be a Gideon one day.

It just seemed, however, that I could never connect with them. Either I couldn’t find an active chapter, or I didn’t meet the membership requirements. The one time I did manage to get in touch with someone, our meeting ended up getting cancelled and never rescheduled. Then one day my cousin introduced me to a friend of his who attended The Moody Church. He just happened to be a Gideon. Long story short – he was my “in.” I was finally a Gideon and would get to go out and put God’s Word into people’s hands.

After attending the meetings for a while, though, I knew that I couldn’t stay. Despite their claims of being a non-sectarian para-church organization, the nature of the organization lends itself to certain idiosyncrasies of American Evangelicalism which are, at best, suspect. Among the issues I ran into were Pelagianism, the prosperity gospel, works righteousness, and the idea that people are converted by your testimony rather than by God working through means as he has promised (the means of grace - Word and Sacrament). 

At camp meetings, there were a lot of heart-wrenching stories of how this-or-that person’s life was changed for the better after they received their PWT. It was also sobering to hear the accounts of Gideons in other, more hostile parts of the world, enduring great hardship in order to get Bibles and New Testaments into the hands of Christians who desperately needed them. 

What we never really seemed to talk about was Jesus. Well, Jesus was mentioned a lot. We just never seemed to talk about His death and resurrection as our atoning sacrifice, repentance, or the forgiveness of sin. We certainly never talked about our need for those things. I heard people discuss how they had been terrible sinners before their conversion, but that was the end of the talk of sin After all, we were already Christians. Now that we were saved, it was our job to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, right? To many in the organization, I’m afraid, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” translated to, “Live your best life now.” Knowing what is in my heart, however, I also recognized my need to repent and receive forgiveness for my sin constantly. It didn’t take long for the tension level to rise.

Jesus was there, to be sure, but he wasn’t the focus – D.L. Moody was. The important thing was the presentation – how being a Christian will make your life better, how to package this message in the most effective way to reach the unchurched. That may sound strange, but it was my experience.

After one particular fundraising luncheon last year, I knew that I couldn’t remain. The function involved a number of rather peculiar “pastors” who seemed to me like second-rate, charismatic, prosperity-preaching, TBN rejects. I decided (no pun intended) that I just couldn’t stick around any longer. This is the letter I wrote to my Camp Leader (the names have been removed):

February 28, 2015

Dear Brother,

Greetings to you in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! I hope this card finds you well, I am writing in response to your previous message regarding my membership renewal in the Gideons. After much thought I have decided that I will not be renewing my membership. This is not a decision I have made lightly, and I continue to admire my brothers in Christ who continue doing the work of the Gideons. There is, however, a difference in theology between the organization and myself which causes me too much cognitive dissonance for me to ignore any longer.

As you are well aware, our pocket sized New Testaments contain a decision page on the back cover, with a space for a person’s signature and date for the purpose of recording when that person made their decision to accept Christ. This indicates to me that, while the Gideons International intends to be an organization which is pan-denominational, it maintains a definite theological stance regarding conversion, free will, and grace. This stance is in direct opposition to that which I have learned from Holy Scripture.

Scripture teaches that man cannot, by his own reason or strength, come to our Lord Jesus Christ, or believe in him. Conversion, faith, and even the “drawing” of man to Christ are all God’s acts, which man is powerless to initiate or complete. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (Ephesians 2:1-2).

The unregenerate man is spiritually dead. He is as powerless to make himself spiritually alive as a corpse is to raise itself from the dead. Indeed, the restorative action comes from outside of man – from God – who makes the unregenerate alive in Christ. This undeserved mercy is the grace to which St. Paul refers:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgression – it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5).

Paul continues, emphasizing that we are saved by the unearned, undeserved favor of God toward us (Grace) through faith in Jesus.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by work, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10).

St. Paul says that we are God’s handiwork. He granted us the repentance and faith, through His Word by the power of His Spirit, which made us alive when we were dead in our transgressions. Even the good works which we are called to do as regenerate Christians, St. Paul says that God has prepared for us. We play no part in our conversion, aside from simply being the person God converts. Consequently, far from making a decision for Christ, Christ made a decision for us:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

God provides the gifts Jesus won for us on the cross through the means of his Word and Sacraments – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. If it were left up to our own decision and act of our will, there would be no hope for conversion. The mind of the unregenerate man is incapable of making such a decision:

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, or can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God (Romans 8:6-8).

Indeed, St. Paul was right when he wrote, “…the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” Therefore, before anyone decided to sign the back of their PWT and to accept Jesus, he had already been converted by the Spirit’s power through the means of the preached Word. It isn’t until after a man’s conversion that he has free will, and is able to act according to God’s will.

The problem with the idea of decision theology such as that which is promoted by the Gideons International is that it puts the decision in man’s hands rather than God’s. It gives people the false idea that their own work of making that decision is what saved them, rather than Christ’s holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.

We are certainly called to proclaim the Gospel. Men, however, are not converted from unbelief – they are not raised to newness of life in Christ Jesus – by some clever apologetic we might make, or by some heart-wrenching emotional experience which they will constantly seek to replicate in order to confirm their justification before God. God’s gift of salvation doesn’t depend on our work, but on God’s grace from beginning to end. The work was accomplished for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, while mankind was still His enemy; it is given to us by the grace of God through faith in Christ. That gift of faith is given to us also by God through his means of Word and Sacrament.

I shall maintain a warm place in my heart for the Gideons in general, and my fellows from my former camp in particular, especially you. I love you all as brothers in Christ. I continue to admire you for bringing God’s word – his means of grace – to the lost. I cannot, however, continue to be a member of the Gideons International, while it promotes the pelagian heresy that is decision theology.

Brother: If you would like to discuss this further, and in person, I would be open to meeting you at your convenience. I wish you and all the brothers, and their families, God’s richest blessings in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.


The Hodgkins Lutheran

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

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