Saturday, December 31, 2022

Thoughts on Christian Preaching

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).

A lot of pulpits in American churches have been replaced with the stage, the riser, and the lectern. Regardless of whether or not the pastor speaks from behind a traditional pulpit, or walks around in a cloud of smoke-machine vapor, a lot of different things happen in that place from which he addresses the assembled gathering (which I will collectively refer to as the pulpit). Theological essays on fine points of theology are read. Political rallies are led. Self-help lectures are spoken. People claiming to hear the voice of God speak dubious prophecies, and utter gibberish as though it were the miraculous gift of tongues.

Theological essays are fine. If I didn’t think so, I would stop writing them. Speeches urging Christian men to do their civic duty are important. Men must all, from time to time, be reminded that the things we claim to believe are connected to the world in which we live; and we ought to conduct ourselves in the world according to those beliefs. That means refusing to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar, even on pain of death. It also means peacefully but firmly resisting when secular society urges, or tries to force us to do and affirm things which are contrary to Christian teaching. Speeches of such a political and social nature, in my opinion, should not happen in the pulpit. They should happen at the gatherings outside of worship: the men’s group, the women’s group, the coffee hour after church, the Sunday school, the confirmation class, the youth gathering, and the gathering of friends and family in and outside of the home. As Christians, we should want to spend a lot of time talking with each other about how God’s Law applies to us, and to what we say and do. Our pastors should want to encourage us to do this, and to guide us in it.

Needless to say, the false prophesying of modern-day prophets has no place either inside or outside of the pulpit.

What should be happening when the pastor ascends the pulpit on Sunday morning? The pastor’s job is to make disciples of Jesus by baptizing and teaching. He should, therefore, proclaim the Gospel. That seems too simple. The people in church have already heard that and believe, right? These people sitting in the pew need life-application, don't they? If we don't think we need to be called to repentance we are wrong. If we think we don't need to hear the preaching of sin and grace in Christ we should, to borrow from Luther, touch our bodies to see if we still have flesh and blood, and then believe what scripture says of them. 

Or, we might think, as I did for a long time, that the pastor should engage in a verse-by-verse, word-for-word exegesis of the appointed Biblical text for the day. If you want that, go to his Bible study. If he doesn’t do that at his Bible study, encourage him to.

We might want our pastor to organize our congregation into a community activist group that publicly protests injustices. We might want him to tell us what to think about various political issues, and to tell us which politicians to support to save western civilization. If you want that, go to a political rally. Don't be too surprised, though, when the movement, the party, or the politician lets you down. This type of thinking suggests that we are not relying on Christ and His power to save us, but rather the power of the government. I suppose the Lutheran way to say this might be that we are violating the First Commandment, since we would seem to be not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things.

The Bible tells us not to trust man’s power to save, because he hasn’t any. It tells us that this world is the domain of the prince of the power of the air, who is Satan. Here in this present world, the Bible tells us, the Christian has no continuing city. We look toward that which is to come. That is the reason we can be so bold as to refuse to worship Caesar even when his henchman has the knife at our throat. He may kill us, but Jesus has already made us alive in Him. We will awaken on the day of resurrection and enter into the new and perfect creation to live there forever with Christ.

That is not to say that we should completely abandon the world and the society in which we live. If that were so we should retreat to the monasteries and shut ourselves away as Christians have tired in the past. I am simply saying that we should keep two things in mind. First, the world in which we live is passing away and we are looking forward to the new world which is to supplant it. Second, the purpose of we Christians gathering together - or as we Lutherans might say, gathering together around Word and Sacrament - is not the same as any of those other types of gatherings mentioned previously. The purpose of the gathering we call church is to receive God’s gifts that were won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. Those gifts are the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. God gives them to us, primarily, in two ways. One way is through the preaching of His Word. The other way is through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we call sacraments. In a way, preaching and administering the sacraments are the same thing, because they are both ways that God delivers His Word to us and creates faith in us. Right now, however, I want to focus on Christian preaching.

The main purpose of Christian preaching is to deliver to men the thing which God uses to make Christians. That is God’s Word. In Christian preaching, the preacher is to proclaim the two great teachings of God’s Word: Law and Gospel. The Law tells man what he must do for God, how he cannot do it, and the condemnation he deserves. The Gospel tells man what God has done for him; how while we were God’s enemies Christ died to redeem the world. In Christian preaching the preacher proclaims that, becoming man in the person of Jesus, God suffered and died on the cross to bear the guilt of our sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. Such Christian preaching brings men to faith. It crushes men under the weight of God’s Law. It shows men their sin and makes them sorry for their sins. It delivers to those so brought to repentance the promise that, for the sake of Jesus those sins have been removed; it tells them that this is true not only for them individually, but also for the whole world (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, 1951).

Through the preaching of the Gospel, God the Holy Spirit creates faith in men’s hearts. The Gospel is the mechanism by which God tells us what He has done for us in spite of the fact that we did not deserve it: that at just the right time, while we were still God’s enemies, Christ was born according to the scriptures, died as the sacrifice for the sins of the world, and rose again for our justification. He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953).

The reason that church is different from, for example, a formal presentation of some theological points in a lecture hall is this: the preacher isn’t trying to convince the people listening to him to believe in Jesus. He is simply discharging his duty to proclaim the message he has been given. No one can be convinced into the Christian faith by rational arguments alone. The natural man cannot receive the spiritual things or know them (1 Cor. 2:14; 1:23). It is the Holy Spirit who will prove the truth of Law and Gospel to those who hear. The man who hears God’s Law and is crushed by it into contrition does not need proof that what the Law says about mankind, and about himself individually, is true. He knows his sin when it is exposed. When he hears the Gospel proclamation of how Christ died to take away that sin, he will rejoice without the aid of scientific demonstration, or apologetic explanation of why the Gospel is true. He will be happy to be out from under the weight of condemnation and death (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1, 1950).

That isn’t to say, however, that the only place from which the Gospel can be heard is the pulpit. The Holy Spirit works how He wants to, when and where it pleases Him. He may very well use the Gospel spoken in that theological lecture, or in that conversation with colleagues in the lunchroom, to cause someone listening to come to faith. The same thing goes for all the other gatherings where Christians are present. All Christians are, in fact, called to preach the Gospel. Every person who confesses Christ is member of the priesthood of all believers. Every Christian is called to preach and teach those in whose midst he finds himself according to his various vocations (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953).

The general call of the Christian to preach the Gospel, however, is different from the call to the public ministry. The call to the public ministry, that is, to serve as a pastor in a Christian congregation, is one to preach and teach in the gathering of Christians of a specific place and time (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3, 1953). This is not a matter to be taken lightly for either the congregation, or the pastor who is called. He will be, as James writes, held to a higher standard on Judgment Day. So, where Christians are gathered together they are to choose men to administer God’s word and sacraments to them according to the guidelines set forth in Holy Scripture. This is because God is a God of order, and not of disorder (Ap AC XIV). The man whom they call is to proclaim God’s Word boldly, and in its purity, and to administer the sacraments rightly according to Christ’s institution.

Finally, Christian preaching should proclaim the hope of glory. This is nothing other than proclaiming Law and Gospel, but from the angle of Christ’s return. Preaching the coming of Christ’s kingdom of glory was something the Apostles did from the beginning. The eyes of the early Christians were constantly directed upwards in anticipation of Christ’s return. Christian preaching should give the Christian comfort in the midst of suffering by reminding him of the fulfillment of the promise of the resurrection, and of eternal life with Jesus and all the saints in the restored creation (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, 1952).

The more purely and boldly preachers proclaim the Gospel, the more the Holy Spirit will do His own work of making Christians. Those saints who are regularly fed with Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, and by hearing their faithful pastors preach, will be sustained and grow in the faith by the miraculous power of God. Indeed, as Paul wrote, how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? They will then go out into the world to be salt and light. They won’t be able to help it. Their good works will just proceed forth from them as apples proceed forth from an apple tree. They will be bold to say, as Peter and John did, we must obey God rather than men, when confronted with ridicule and persecution. If, however, our pastors give us essays, pop psychology, seminars on positive thinking, mystical gibberish, and lies, we will begin to believe in those things instead of Jesus. ###

Works Cited

Pieper, Francis. 1950. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 1. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Pieper, Francis. 1951. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Pieper, Francis. 1953. Christian Dogmatics, vol. 3. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Rocky Places: Thoughts on Election, and Falling Away

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one,” (John 10:27-30).

In John 10, Jesus explains to the people that He is the Christ. He says,

“...but you did not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”
We can, however, walk away. We can follow false teachers. We can reject the truth and make shipwreck of our faith. God’s word tells us plainly that we can fall away from the faith.

Jesus gives us the most compelling reason to believe that believers can fall away from the faith. He says it in two very important places: His explanation of His parable of the sower, and just before He goes off to the garden of Gethsemane to be arrested.

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root...Listen then to what the parable of the sower means...The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away (Matthew 13:5-6; 18, 20-21).

In His parable of the sower, Jesus describes the different places where the farmer scattered his seed. The farmer scatters seed all over the place: on the path, on the rocky places, among the thorns, and on good soil. The first instance of the seed on the path cannot refer to believers. Indeed, Jesus says that this is a picture of what happens when a person hears the word but does not understand it. The devil snatches away what was sown in that person’s heart. The seed sown among the rocky places, however, grows. It produces fruit. Jesus says this is the man who hears the word and receives it with joy. This person has faith. As soon as the going gets a bit rough, he abandons it. Jesus says that he falls away. It is indeed possible to receive the message of the Gospel at first with joy, but to then later fall away from that faith. You can’t fall out of something you are not in.

Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered,” (Matthew 26:31).

Just before Jesus was arrested, He told His disciples that they would all fall away. Peter and the others deny this, of course. They are, after all, His disciples, the ones who believe in Him. They are the ones who confessed Him as the Christ, the Son of the living God. After all the others abandoned Jesus because of what He said about eating His body and drinking His blood, they are the ones who remained. They are the ones who said that Jesus has the words of eternal life and believed that He was the Holy One of God (see John 6). In Matthew 36:31-35, we have two choices: either the disciples weren’t really believers at that time, contrary to what scripture presents, and Jesus said something He didn’t really mean; or Jesus’ statement about His closest followers falling away should be understood according to its plain meaning.

But what about baptism? Baptism seals us in the faith and sets us apart (Ephesians 5:26; 2:3). The Bible says baptism connects us to Christ, and to His death, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5). In our baptism God washes away all our sins and saves us (Acts 2:38-40; Titus 3:5-8; 1 Peter 3:18-21). The food of our Lord’s body and blood feeds and sustains our faith as we grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Surely if God does this work in a man through these means of water, bread, and wine connected to His promise of life and forgiveness, it must be effective. It is certainly effective. Baptism, however, is always presented alongside teaching, and that is important to remember.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus sends out His disciples saying:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20a).
When the Bible presents the stories of Jesus’ disciples carrying out His great commission, baptizing and teaching always go together. The newly baptized are not left to find their own way after being baptized; those who are taught first, like the Ethiopian eunuch, desire to be baptized after they are taught, because of the working of the Holy Spirit on their hearts. The point is that there is no static position in Christianity. There is either a progressing forward, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus, or a gradual hardening of the heart. A man who is baptized into Christ but is neither taught to love Him nor fed by His word will eventually starve and die. He will fall away.

Both Sts. Peter and Paul use the picture of an infant growing and maturing to describe a Christian growing and maturing in the faith. The implication is that if one stops growing, he may be in danger of falling away entirely. Peter compares us to newborn babies “who crave pure spiritual milk to sustain them and help them grow” (1 Peter 2:2). If we don’t get that pure spiritual milk by gathering around God’s word and sacraments, and gladly hearing and learning His word, we will starve. We certainly will not grow into more mature Christians who can eat and digest the solid food of more sophisticated theology.

St. Paul scolds the Corinthians for being worldly, but he counts them as Christians. They are concerned with divisions, and with quarrelling with one another over which teacher is the best to follow. Paul says he had to give them milk rather than solid food because they were infants (1 Corinthians 3:2). He means that he has to once again teach them elementary truths of the faith. They are infants in that they still need this remedial lesson. They are still drinking milk. He wants to give them meat. He wants them to progress in the faith so that they can distinguish good and evil for themselves. The point is that, though the Corinthians are infants indeed, they were still a part of the body of Christ. They were believers, even if they were immature. If, however, they continue along their present path, Paul implies, they will spiritually die and fall away from the faith.

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, and the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so. It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace (Hebrews 6:1-6).

The author of the letter to the Hebrews explains that someone who believes and falls away won’t be brought back to repentance. He is describing a Christian in danger of becoming apostate. He is describing a man who wilfully rejects the faith. It is the equivalent of not acknowledging one’s sin. If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Someone who won’t acknowledge their sin and repent continues to reject God’s gift. Moreover, that man hasn’t been snatched out of Jesus’ hand. He crawled out of Jesus’ hand willingly. He left under his own steam.

If, when we read these texts, we are concerned about where we stand it would be good to consider some other words that Jesus said: But unless you repent, you too will perish (Luke 13:1-9). Then, we should remember that while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of Jesus (Romans 5:10); when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, Jesus made us alive in Him by our baptism (Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6: 3-5).

The question, however remains: If God is working in us to will and to do, as Paul says, how is it possible that anyone in whom God does such work could either resist it, or fall away? If God does a thing, how could He not be successful? This is just another variation of a thing called the theologian’s cross (or Crux Theologorum). Why are some saved, but not others? The short answer is: We don’t know because God hasn’t told us. That may seem like a cop-out, but it really isn’t. We can only safely confess what God has revealed to us, and no more. Everything we come up with regarding “why some and not others” is speculation into God’s hidden will. That’s a dangerous no-no.

One of the themes of the Lutheran Confessions is saying only what God has revealed to us in His word. We are to speak where scripture speaks. We are to remain silent where scripture is silent. There is no use or benefit in investigating God’s “secret counsels”, particularly in these matters of election or predestination. God’s word teaches us that all men, in our natural state, are fallen and lost. We are by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). We have been consigned to disobedience, so that God could have mercy on us all in Christ (Romans 11:32). God the Father calls all sinners to Him in Christ (John 12:32). He wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-3). He doesn’t want men to despise preaching and His word. The fact is that some men do despise it. They plug their ears and refuse to take it seriously. They reject God’s gift in Christ. How this works on the cosmic scale, God does not explain to us. It remains a mystery.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will - to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (Ephesians 1:3-6).

Again, the key to all this is the phrase, in Christ. Those who are in Christ are secure. The idea of eternal election in Christ should be a comfort tot he Christian, not something that causes confusion or worse yet, fear or despair. Jesus promises that no one can snatch those who are His out of His hand. As long as we remain in Him, He will not abandon us. And, when we abandon Him by our sin, He calls us to repentance and will restore us, just like He did with Peter. Because, if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from unrighteousness.

The wondrous thing isn’t that believers can fall away from the faith. The wondrous thing is that Jesus comes to us and restores us to life and faith when we fall, just as Peter and the other disciples were restored.

The bottom line of all this is that, ultimately, we must trust in the mercy of Jesus. We are beggars relying on the mercy of God. We can do nothing to earn the gift we seek, nor are we worthy of it. We must rely on the goodness and faithfulness of the giver. ###

Friday, December 2, 2022

For You Will Answer Me: Thoughts on Psalm 17

I call on you, O God, for you will answer me; give ear to me and hear my prayer (Psalm 17:6).
Psalm 17 is a lament and prayer of David. In it David anticipates the joy of being in Yahweh's presence. David prays for God's help; for the defeat of his enemies, who are wicked and unfaithful, confident that God will hear and answer him.  
David prays for deliverance from his enemies. These are the ungodly men who do not have faith in God, nor keep His covenant. David is confident that God will answer him for three reasons: David is faithful, keeping God’s covenant; God is loving; David's enemies are ungodly and evil (v. 1-5). 
David prays that he has kept himself from the ways of the violent. He is free from the kinds of wicked and unjust deeds that his enemies are committing. He is inviting God to see that because of his faith, David is a good tree that bears good fruit. He isn't claiming to be without sin. David's confidence is based on his own faith that God will keep His promises, not on how good David’s own works are.
In reality it isn’t David who does the works he calls God to examine anyway. David say that it is by God’s word that he is blameless. David writes, “As for the deeds of men - by the word of Your lips I have kept myself from the ways of the violent” (v. 4). 
Paul makes this same point when he writes, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose,” (Philippians 2:12-13).
David knows that God's love will not allow Him to be indifferent to the suffering of His people. God is compelled by His very nature to come to the aid of His people. Indeed, God has rescued His people from our true enemies of sin and death by Jesus' death on the cross and His resurrection. 
Then come David’s petitions. He prays that he would be protected from his wicked enemies (v. 6-9). He prays that those callous and arrogant men who seek to destroy him would themselves be destroyed. He calls on God to rise up and confront his enemies, and to save him (v. 10-14). 
Wicked men seem to prosper. That was as frustrating to David as it is to us today. Their end, however, is eternal punishment. While God may not strike down every enemy of His people during this present age, they will suffer eternal punishment and separation from God. They receive their reward in this age. God's people get the fullness of their reward in the age to come. 
God provides for the needs of His people. He directs us to seek first the kingdom of God. He gives us daily bread. He tells us not to worry about material wealth. He will make sure we have all the things necessary to support this body and life, about which the pagans spend day and night worrying about. Not only will He meet our physical needs, but the greatest blessing possible already belongs to us in Christ: forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God. 
As with all the Psalms, it is important to consider them from the perspective of Christ. David is a picture of the promised Savior, a promise that God fulfilled in Jesus.
Jesus knows that God the Father will hear and answer Him when He prays for the same reasons as David. Jesus is faithful, even to suffering death on a cross, doing the will of the Father. God is love, and Jesus is the personification of that divine love. Because of that love God took on human flesh and rescued His people from our true enemies of sin and death. 
Jesus, who is God incarnate, came into the flesh to bear our sin. He suffered at the hands of wicked and evil men. He, who had no sin became sin for us. By His sacrifice on the cross, sinless Jesus reconciled mankind to God. So, not only is this a prayer of David, it points to what God would do for mankind in Christ. He would rise up, confront our ultimate enemies of sin, death, and the devil, and rescue His people from the wicked by His sword (v. 13).
This prayer will come to ultimate fulfillement when Jesus returns on the Last Day. At His coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that, like David, by their faith in Christ have done good will go into life everlasting. They that have, like David’s wicked enemies by their faithlessness done evil will go into everlasting fire.
In the meantime, God indeed stills the hunger of those He cherishes (v. 14). He prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. While we live in this fallen world He sustains us by giving us His very body and blood to eat and to drink. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we will see His face in righteousness. And when we awake we will be satisfied with seeing His likeness (v. 15).

Friday, November 25, 2022

Thoughts on Psalm 69

You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed; all my enemies are before you. Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst. (Psalm 69:19-21)

Psalm 69 is a messianic psalm. It prophesies of Israel's King who was to come and rescue them. It is both a prophecy and prayer of Jesus, the true savior-king of which David was a foreshadowing. This Psalm of David is rivaled only by Psalm 22 in terms of its messianic character.

In the Psalm, the Messiah cries out to God that He is stuck in the miry depths. He laments that the deep waters are engulfing Him. The imagery of mire, mud, and deep waters is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the bond of sin. (Brug, Psalms 1, 1992) It is like quicksand. It is a peril from which the man in it cannot extract himself. The more one struggles to release himself, the deeper he sinks into it until he is finally destroyed. He needs someone to pull him out.

This is just what the Messiah was supposed to do. He was supposed to come and rescue God's people. Only He didn't do it the way everybody thought He should. He did it by taking our place in the mud. But why was that necessary? When one man rescues another from drowning in quicksand he doesn't have to crawl into it and die in his place. Quite right. But when you remember that sin is like debt, a better picture of our circumstance emerges. It isn't something we can be plucked out of. It requires something of the one who would save us. When you spend too much on your credit cards so that you can't pay it back, the friend or family member who bails you out must pay the debt for you. And doesn't owing all that money that you know you can't pay back cause you to have a constant anxious feeling? A feeling like you are drowning? That is the feeling the psalmist is trying to evoke in these verses. That is the feeling of Jesus under the weight of our sin.

If you continue on through verse 5 this becomes even more true:

“You know my folly, O, God; my guilt is not hidden from you.”
This talk of the psalmist being caught up in sin, and God knowing His folly and His guilt does not seem to fit into the messianic character of this Psalm. Isn't Christ sinless? How can He be foolish? Even more, how can He say that He is drowning, being deluged by sin?

Though some theologians see these verses as evidence that this Psalm primarily refers to David, they can rightly be applied to Jesus, who is their fulfillment, as well. (Brug, Psalms 1, 1992) St. Paul wrote that the message of the cross is foolishness (folly) to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). Jesus' folly is indeed known to God the Father. It was His will that Jesus engage in it; it is Jesus will to obey the Father. It is the folly He who Himself is sinless, being made to become sin for us on the cross so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was cursed, for as it is written, “cursed is every man who is hung on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13-14). It is, therefore, quite appropriate that these words be applied to Jesus. You see, where we could not overcome sin and death, He could because He is God.

Theologians also point to verse 21 as further evidence that Psalm 69 is foremost a messianic prophecy. There is no direct parallel in David's life for, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” These specific things do, however, happen to Jesus and are recorded in the accounts of His crucifixion – when He was hung on the tree.

Some people also have a problem with the imprecatory prayer found in verses 22-28. An imprecatory prayer is a prayer to God against one's enemies. It is asking God to punish them, to literally call evil on them. There are entire psalms which we call imprecatory psalms. Most of the time we just ignore them because they make us feel uncomfortable. I suspect it is why they were left out of our Lutheran hymnals. The reason for the difficulty is understandable. It is hard to think that Jesus would pray for His enemies to be blotted out of the book of life (v. 28).

Jesus is indeed the one who lamented over the faithlessness of Jerusalem. He wants to gather us all like a hen gathers her chicks. He wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. Most, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, would not (Matthew 23:37). Those who will reject Jesus will be damned. They will be cast into hell, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, since it is their wish to push away God and flee from His presence. This is on them, not Jesus.

The last section of the Psalm (vv. 29ff.) is a prayer of deliverance and thanksgiving. Here Christ talks about how God will save Zion, His people. He prays also that God's salvation would protect Him in His pain and distress. God the Father does this by delivering Him from the grave and raising Him from the dead on the third day. By this work, Jesus saved His people, personified in the Psalm as Zion.

Zion will be saved. Her cities will be rebuilt. The land will be inhabited by the faithful, those who love the name of Jesus. The ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy will come on the Day of Judgment when Christ returns. On that day, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Daniel 7:13-14; Matthew 26:62-66; Philippians 2:10-11). ###

Works Cited

Brug, John C. People’s Bible Commentary: Psalms 1. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1992.

The Advent of Advent

I know that it won't officially be Advent until Sunday, but I didn't want to wait to change the colors. Perhaps we can think of this as a couple days of "pre-advent" (LOL).  

For those of you who wonder why we've gone purple instead of blue, read this:

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Thoughts on Psalm 44

Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love (Psalm 44:23-26).

Psalm 44 is a community lament. It is Israel recalling her past victories, and lamenting that she has been forsaken by God. Luther called it a “sighing of the spirit”.

The psalm's context is debated by theologians. It could have been written in response to some defeat of Judah during Hezekiah's time. It could be from an early period in David's life when Saul was still king. There isn't really any hard evidence for either hypothesis, though the psalmist does not specifically mention David or any of his accomplishments.

The defeats that the psalmist describes are not punishments for the faithful. They are punishments for the unfaithful; those who were idolaters; those who did not keep the covenant. For the faithful who had to endure those sufferings, they were sufferings for the sake of Yahweh. This is suffering which we are to learn patiently endure and "rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed," (1 Peter 4:13). It is the refiner's fire, so to speak. The faithful, suffering because of the name of Jesus, are the silver and gold being refined.

And no suffering or defeat can separate those faithful to Yahweh from Him. Paul writes this to the Romans, and he quotes this very Psalm:

"Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: 'For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.' Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:33-39)

The Psalm also applies to the true Israel, the Church. Idolatry is always present with us, as it was with ancient Israel. Victory over ancient Israel's enemies was not earned by wielding the sword, but rather it was given by the grace and power of Yahweh. Likewise, victory over the ultimate enemies of sin and death is not something we can earn. It is won for us, and given to us by Jesus, Yahweh in human flesh.

Psalm 44 gives us shadows of Jesus. He was rejected for us; made to become sin for us so that we could become the righteousness of God in Him (v. 9). Christ was sold for a pittance (v. 12), betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver. Christ was made a reproach; He endured scorn while hanging on the cross (v. 13-16). All these things happened to Him because it was the Father's will to redeem mankind. It was Christ's will to obey the Father, in spite of the fact that Jesus had not been false or unfaithful (v. 17-19).

Psalm 44 is a prayer of the Church as long as she is in the fallen world. It is St. John's prayer in Revelation: Come, Lord Jesus. It is the voices of those suffering for the name of Jesus: do not reject us; do not forget us; rise up and help us; redeem us. God has answered this prayer already. He has redeemed us, and that redemption belongs to us right now. Christ has won that redemption from sin, death, and the devil by dying as our substitute on the cross. We will fully realize that redemption when Jesus raises us from the dead. ###

Works Cited

Brug, John F. People’s Bible Commentary: Psalms I. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1992.

Reading the Psalms with Luther. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Old Glory Lutheran Church: A Diatribe on Flags in the Sanctuary

A few weeks ago I noticed that the flags were missing from the sanctuary of my church.

I was happy about this. I don't think either the American flag, the so-called Christian flag, or any other political symbol has any business being displayed in the sanctuary. I think it is a bit like if the early Christians would have displayed a Roman standard in their worship spaces to witness to everyone how much they loved Rome and the emperor, so they could avoid being fed to the lions. That's not the witness they gave.

We pray for our country and our leaders. Scripture tells us to do so. God commands us to obey those authorities which are over us because He has established them, unless they tell us to do something contrary to God's word. But, we are supposed to know that this world and its kingdoms are passing away. We are supposed to understand that here, in this fallen creation, we have no continuing city. We are pilgrims, looking forward to when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of Our LORD, and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

Then the flags came back. Apparently, there was some outrage expressed. It was coming up on Veteran's Day, after all. This is not surprising.

Why is this issue a hill upon which so many people are willing to die? Why are people so adamantly in favor of having an American flag inside their church sanctuary?

This genuinely is confusing to me. Whenever I look forward toward the chancel, the American and Christian flags book-ending it seems to me awkward and out of place. Standing among the other artwork, architecture, and sacred furniture are these two oddities: a symbol of political power and authority, and a symbol of 19th Century American ecumenism of which the LCMS was not supportive.

There is no surer way to cause controversy in your LCMS congregation than to remove, or even suggest the removal of the flags from the sanctuary. A possible exception to this is perhaps the suggested removal of delinquent members from the church membership rolls. The difference, however, is that despite the grumbling of the odd distant relative, I have been a part of congregations that have successfully removed names from their rolls. I have never personally seen a congregation successfully remove an American flag from a sanctuary. I hear tell that such places exist, though.

The most common argument against removing the flags that I have encountered is that the flags are there to show our patriotism and love of country. They show that we want God to bless our country and its inhabitants. They express our belief in the idea of the Two Kingdoms: Just as God is at work governing the Church, He is also at work governing our nation, so it is appropriate to display the flag.
That last one's a stretch.

I suspect that the real reason has more to do with our genuine love and respect for our friends and neighbors who are veterans of the US armed forces, and the patriotism instilled in an older generation of Americans according to what I call the American Civil Religion (God and Country).

If you have the unmitigated gall to oppose the display of the American flag in church, however, people get angry. You are denying God's sovereignty. You are denying that America is a Christian nation (which I do, but that's a whole different story you can read here), and you are a filthy anti-American pinko-commie rat bastard.
But I'm not a commie rat bastard. I love the US Constitution, and the principles enshrined therein. The place for showing that love of country, however, isn't inside the sanctuary. It is at the ballot box. And those principles certainly aren't our ultimate hope for salvation. Jesus is.

The sanctuary is the place where we gather to hear God's word preached. It is where we receive God's gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life won for us by Jesus' death on the cross, particularly in the sacraments. It is our heavenly embassy. It should look, sound, smell, and feel different than the secular world. It should direct our focus to Christ and what He does for us. When we include secular politics in the sacred space, the best-case scenario is that we confuse and diminish this function of the sanctuary. The worst-case scenario is that we are actually setting up other objects of worship next to Jesus.

Saying this, however, apparently means that I do not love America.
How did the flag get in the sanctuary in the first place? The common myth is that the American flag came into the sanctuaries of LCMS churches during World War I. That's not entirely true. It was, rather, a process that happened over a long period of time stretching back to the 1890s.

In the 1890s the Grand Army of the Republic (the precursor to the modern American Legion) began promoting the patriotic display of the American Flag. The GAR, and other patriotic civic organizations, purchased and donated flags to private and public institutions alike, including public buildings, libraries, and even churches (immigrant and native congregations alike). By the time of the Great War, churches displaying the American flag - though not in their sanctuaries - was becoming a common practice. (Nickodemus, “The History of the American Flag in Missouri Synod Churches.”)

But the official story goes that, during the Great War, German-speaking Lutherans were suspected of not being loyal to America, but rather to their ancestral home. Being targeted for persecution, we filthy, backward, non-English-speaking immigrants nervously began displaying the flag to show that we were not subversive, and to better fit into American society and culture.

By the time we were getting ready to make the world safe for democracy by entering the Great War, churches displaying the American flag were becoming the norm. The magazine The Lutheran Witness documented the patriotism of German Lutherans in America during the war by showing how proudly they displayed their flags. But, it wasn't a reaction to wartime persecution as much as it was a positive response to community activism, and an effort to blend in. (Nickodemus, “The History of the American Flag in Missouri Synod Churches.”)

Most importantly, in the examples cited by The Lutheran Witness, the flags weren't inside the sanctuary. That didn't happen until after World War II.

When the LCMS was actually being persecuted during World War I because she was a German-speaking church, and her pastors preached in German, there was a huge fight over whether the Synod should abandon German for English. We seem to never have fought about the flags. (Nickodemus, “The History of the American Flag in Missouri Synod Churches.”)

In the end, demographics decided the language question in favor of English, but there doesn't seem to have been a similar debate over the flag. Everyone just seems to think displaying the flag was a good idea.

By the 1950s the LCMS was publishing guides to show congregations how to properly display the flag inside the sanctuary. To this day the Synod officially treats the issue of displaying the American flag in the sanctuary as an adiaphoron. (Nickodemus, “The History of the American Flag in Missouri Synod Churches.”)

To me, that is just a pious way to avoid making a decision that the important people know will upset the wrong group of laymen too much. The men in charge all know that the American flag, or any other political symbol, doesn't belong in the sanctuary. No one wants to bother with the argument.

Displaying the American flag in the sanctuary confuses our worship. It makes it look like we are worshiping the State. By the way many people react when one suggests moving the flags out of the sanctuary to a more suitable location, I'm beginning to think that maybe we do worship the State.

We did, after all, follow the edict of the governor (here in Illinois) and suspend worship at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, offering very little resistance. Between March 16 and May 31, I think we can be a little charitable. We were still trying to figure out just what we were dealing with; we didn't understand how deadly the virus was (or wasn't), or whom it affected the most; many of us (myself included) still believed that our government was acting in good faith during that time.

Then came the protests.

When politicians and news reporters began to encourage the “mostly peaceful protests” in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, their lie was exposed. They said people should protest because systemic racism was a bigger public health crisis than Covid-19, but they still worked to keep Christians from gathering together to worship. (Bernstein, “De Blasio: Black Lives Matter Protests Exempt from Large-Event Ban.”) Even after this blatant display of the government's agenda, many church members continued to shout “Romans 13! Romans 13!” and advocate for online worship. Many others were just too timid to say anything. (Klotz, “Civil Disobedience.”)

The point is this: most people were willing to trust the government when the government ordered us to wear masks, even after there was evidence that masks did little to stop infection. People were willing to trust the government when they forced us to stop going to church for our own safety but said it was safe to protest the police, or go to Walmart, Target, or other essential (read corporate) businesses.

Meanwhile, many of us Christians (myself included at the beginning) didn't trust Jesus enough to say that we must obey God rather than men and, willing to accept the temporal consequences, gather in spite of the government ban.

We didn't trust Jesus enough to obey Him, to gather around Word and Sacrament, and to eat His body and drink His blood as He told us to. We were afraid that Jesus would kill us, and we trusted the government to save us. It should be the other way around. In fact, we should trust Jesus so much that, even if He does kill us, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.

Maybe it's more accurate to say that we were more afraid to disobey the Government than we were to disobey Jesus. If that's so, we would do well to remember what Jesus said about fear: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

That's Jesus, God in human flesh, not J.B. Pritzker.

So, perhaps we do worship the government. Perhaps it would be more appropriate, and cause less of a furor to remove the crucifix from above the altar and keep the flags. We could maybe replace it with a picture of an American Bald Eagle. We could worship our idol by eating apple pie instead of the Lord's Supper; the Scriptures could be replaced by readings from the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers; preaching by telling people to be good citizens.

Our transformation into adherents of the American Civil Religion of generic “god” and Country would be complete.

Or, we could confess our sins, and God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. For the part I played in our unfaithfulness, I repent.

And then, maybe also at least move the flags to the fellowship hall. ###

Works Cited

Bernstein, Brittany. “De Blasio: Black Lives Matter Protests Exempt from Large-Event Ban.” De Blasio: Black Lives Matter Protests Exempt from Large-Event Ban. Accessed November 15, 2022.

Concordia Historical Institute. “US Flag in Missouri Synod Churches - Concordia Historical Institute.” Accessed November 13, 2022.

Klotz, Joseph. “Civil Disobedience.” The Hodgkins Lutheran: Civil Disobedience, November 26, 2021.

Nickodemus, Ben. “The History of the American Flag in Missouri Synod Churches.” Historical Footnotes, 2017. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

Saturday, November 5, 2022


We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come. Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name (Hebrews 13:10-15).

We watched Thor: Ragnarok the other day, and it got me thinking about Western Civilization, which was in the not-so-distant past referred to as Christendom.

It would be hard to look at the violence and depravity present in much of the modern post-Christian West and believe that society isn't going to hell in a handbasket. But isn't that the story of human society? I mean, human societies are full of humans, and humans are sinful and imperfect. There are ebbs and flows. There have been times of moral decay and moral awakening. But generally speaking, things get worse, and not better. And Jesus said they would get worse.

Maybe we need to stop worrying about these things as though our life depended on them. Maybe we need to let it go.

Paul didn't try to save western civilization as he preached and taught in Athens. He didn't tell them how great their society used to be, and that they needed to do a lot of things to make it great again. He instead preached Christ. He called those pagans to repentance and faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. He didn't have a First Amendment to protect his freedom of speech or his free exercise of religion. Ultimately, he got his head chopped off for his preaching. He was, nevertheless, fearless because he had Christ. He knew that even if they killed him, Jesus would make him alive again.

In the movie, as Asgard is about to be destroyed, Odin explains to a dejected Thor that Asgard is a people, not a place. Thor wants to save Asgard from destruction, but Odin basically tells him to just let it go. It's the people that make the kingdom. Wherever they are, that's where Asgard is.

In the past, Christendom has generally been defined as the Christian world. Some people include the United States. Certainly, many American Christians believe the United States to be a Christian nation, even if they don't refer to it as a part of Christendom. More broadly speaking, the word Christendom can refer to Christianity in general, but it has most commonly been thought of as a political division or entity in distinction from, as my 1921 Webster's Dictionary puts it, "heathen or Mohammedan lands."

But, like the fictional Asgard, Christendom is, in reality, a people, not a place.

Christendom is not a physical community or kingdom. It is all the pious, believing Christians assembled by the Holy Spirit who, working through the Word, creates faith in the hearts of men (Pieper, 1953). But it isn't a human organization, political entity, or a specific geographical location.

This does not mean that Christ's kingdom will always remain spiritual, however.

Christendom will not always be without physical substance. Our Christian hope is not limited to disembodied existence in Heaven for eternity. Our hope is in Christ. By being baptized into Him, our sins have been washed away. We are connected to Him and His resurrection. We confess that when Christ comes in judgment on the Last Day, He will call all believers from their graves and raise them to everlasting life. We will live with Him in the new creation, free from sin, death, and the devil forever.

That ending is way better than what happened to the Asgardians in the movie.

We have the same hope as Paul. We can be fearless like him because we know that, even if they kill us on account of Christ, He will raise us up on the Last Day. Maybe we need to worry less about trying to save our so-called Christian civilization by voting for the right secular politicians. Maybe we should instead repent of our sins and believe the Gospel, and call others to repentance and faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. Maybe we should embrace the fact that here on this earth, we are pilgrims and have no continuing city instead of becoming more and more comfortable in this fallen and sinful creation. In Christ, we are subjects of a kingdom that is not of this world.

Not yet, anyway.

Works Cited

Pieper, Francis. 1953. "Christian Dogmatics," vol. 3. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Thoughts on Ephesians 4:19

Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more (Ephesians 4:19)

Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that they must no longer live as the Gentiles do. What is Paul talking about? Who are these Gentiles?

Sure, Paul might be talking to a gathering of people made up of both ethnic Jews and Greeks. Paul, however, means something different than race when he uses the term Gentile here. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul made it clear that neither ethnicity, bloodline, social standing, nor anything else mattered where God was concerned. Faith in Christ is what makes a child of Abraham. Faith is what takes hold of God's promise of the forgiveness of sins in Christ.

So, who is he talking about, then?

He describes the Gentiles as futile in their thinking. He says they are darkened in their understanding. They are separated from the life of God because of their ignorance. Their hearts are hardened. The result of this situation is that their condition is manifest in how they live. They are given over to sins of the flesh with a continual lust for more. One gets the impression from Paul's writing here that this appetite for sensual sins is meant to be understood as unquenchable.

In short, they are people who are not Christians.

He also talks about this in his letter to the Romans. At the beginning of that letter, Paul describes how mankind rejected God and was given over to sinful desires, shameful lusts, and ultimately to a depraved mind. Paul writes, "Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them" (Rom. 1:32).

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Location, language, culture, technology, and time might separate us from the Ephesians of the Roman Empire, but our culture is just as depraved as theirs seems to have been. The reason: their society, just like our society, was filled with fallen sinful human beings, living in a fallen creation.

Paul calls us out of the world just as he called the Ephesians to come out. He calls us to put off the old way of life and put on the new man. The old man is corrupted by deceitful desires. The new man is created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Paul says to be made new in the attitude of our minds. How do we do that?

This is not a command for us to do so that we become better Christians. It is not a positive affirmation. It's more like Jesus' command to Lazarus to rise from the dead and come out from the tomb. The Word of God is the very thing that brings about the new attitude, just as it was efficacious to raise the dead. It is this renewing of the mind that transforms one into the new man who does not conform to the pattern of the world.

Ultimately, Paul is calling the Ephesians, and us all, to repentance. That is the concept behind his imperative "to be made new in the attitude of your minds." He's talking about a change of heart and life that is affected in us by God's Holy Spirit working through the Word.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The LORD Shall Judge the Peoples: Thoughts on Psalm 7

The LORD shall judge the peoples; judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness, and according to my integrity within me (Psalm 7:8).

This verse frightens me every time I pray it.

I suppose that sounds strange to many ears. Our instinct is to think that reading the Bible is supposed to comfort us, not make us afraid. God’s word should make us feel good.

Perhaps that is what mainstream American Christian-style religion would teach. We like to mine verses for our comfort. The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. We repeat them to ourselves as though they are true out of context.

The LORD is indeed my Shepherd. We cannot, however, ignore that something called the valley of the shadow of death is also involved. We aren’t afraid because Yahweh is with us, but we walk through the valley, nevertheless.

The Law is supposed to make us afraid. It should terrify our consciences. Jesus summarized the Law in two parts: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. That should make us afraid. Only someone who is tremendously naïve would think they could keep this law perfectly. Only someone who was delusional, or lying to himself would claim that he actually kept it.

So, when in the course of my prayers I pray verses like Psalm 7:8, it frightens me. It is the Law which terrifies the conscience and drives me to repentance. The last thing I want to do is to ask God to judge me according to my righteousness and my integrity. I know precisely how righteous I am because I am with me 24 hours a day. I am aware just how flimsy my integrity is.

In his immediate context, the psalmist is writing a prayer for deliverance from the physical danger which threatens him. He’s pleading with God to save him from their wickedness because David trusts in Yahweh, and his wicked persecutors do not. So, when he writes that he is righteous, it is like when Job is described as blameless. To say Job is blameless isn’t saying that he was without sin. It is saying that Job was an outwardly good man. He is a believer. He is a Christian.

That isn’t the only context, however. The Psalm is also gospel.

These words of David are also Jesus’ words. When you understand the Psalter as the prayer book of Christ, these verses that sound like harshest law are also sweetest gospel. If the law is what God requires of us, the gospel is what God has done for us. And since I am baptized into Christ, and His righteousness is now my own, I can be bold to pray, “Arise, O LORD, in Your anger; lift Yourself up because of the rage of my enemies; rise up for me to the judgment You have commanded (v.6).”

My defense is of God, who saves the upright in heart. The upright in heart is me, because of Christ. He became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. Because we are in Him, because He has given us His righteousness and taken away our sin, we can pray His prayer and know we have what He promises. ###

Monday, June 27, 2022

Nitpicking Hymns: Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart

I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1-3).

So, I took a quick look at the first three lines of TLH 429, “Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart.” After studying the German translations of other hymns, I wasn’t surprised to find, what is to me, a significant discrepancy between the author Martin Schalling’s German text, and the altered translation from Catherine Winkworth. As in every case, the German text is much more orthodox than its English counterpart.

In the first stanza, we sing:

Lord, Thee I love with all my heart;
I pray Thee, ne’er from me depart,
with tender mercy cheer me.

This raises the question for Lutherans: Can I love the Lord with all my heart? We are certainly commanded to do so. God commands His people to love Him will all their heart, soul, strength, and mind. Jesus tells the Pharisees that this is the greatest of God's commandments. 

Just because we are commanded to do something, however, does not mean that we are able to do it. 

In our fallen state, our sinful hearts are inclined away from God, not toward him. We cannot, by our own reason or strength, believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ, or come to Him. 

For theological traditions which believe that they cooperate in their conversion and salvation, this line poses no problem. If I can decide to have faith in Christ by an act of my own free will, why wouldn’t I be able to decide to love Him with all my heart? It’s the same thing, isn’t it?

For the confessional Lutheran, however, we must take issue with this translation. There is no scriptural basis for saying that we regenerate humans, who are simultaneously sinner and saint, can love the Lord our God with our whole hearts. Indeed, we confess weekly that we have not loved Him with our whole hearts, and that we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.

Putting the best construction on the text, one could look at it as an expression of overwhelming thankfulness and joy. However, making such an expression is equivalent, as one of my pastor friends put it, to receiving a million dollars from a billionaire and then offering to buy him lunch as an expression of gratitude. 
Saying that I love the Lord with all my heart is a bit like deciding to respond to an altar call. Without the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word, you would not have been able to decide to follow Jesus, nor would you want to do so. The Holy Spirit already made you a Christian before you stood up, walked down the aisle, and said the Sinner's Prayer. You didn't decide to believe in Jesus. He chose you, even though it may look like you made a decision by an act of your will.

This issue, however, does not exist in the original language. This is what the author wrote originally:

Herzlich lieb hab' ich dich, o Herr,
Ich bitt' woll'st sein von mir nicht fern
Mit deiner Güt' und Gnaden.

Translated, this would be something like:

I love you dearly, oh Lord;
I beg you not to be far from me,
with your goodness and grace.

This is a much more orthodox, confessional Lutheran, English rendering of Schalling’s original text, though not poetic and singable.

According to the Handbook for the Lutheran Hymnal, “This hymn, a prayer to Christ, the consolation of the soul in life and death, after Psalms 18 and 73, is a treasure bequeathed to the Church from the heart of Schalling.” Indeed, the beginning of Psalm 18 sounds similar to the first stanza of the hymn:

I will love thee, oh Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my buckler, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower. I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised: so shall I be saved from mine enemies (Psalm 18:1–3).

David writes that he will love the Lord. He does not write he will love the Lord with all his heart.

One argument could be that the new man we are in Christ certainly loves the Lord with all his heart. It is the old man, whom we fight against daily, drowning him in the waters of our baptism, who doesn’t.

The idea that the new man cooperates with God, and does good works, while the old man remains is not contrary to scripture. It is affirmed in the Lutheran Confessions. All of Paul’s epistles recognize this tension between the Spirit and the Flesh, the chief passage being Romans 7. Paul continually exhorts Christians to abandon their pagan ways. He calls us to stop gratifying the flesh and its desires. He calls us to walk in the good works God has prepared for us to walk in. He calls us to walk according to the Spirit, to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit, and to turn away from the acts of the Flesh. Paul calls us to the lives of Christians, the new creations into which Christ has made us, by doing good. The good we do is not ours, nor does it save. It is a natural outgrowth of our faith in Christ and our regenerate state.

The good works which God gives us to do to benefit and serve our neighbor, as Schalling writes in stanza two of his hymn, praises God’s grace to us.

This is how David can say that he will love the Lord. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this is how we can say we love the Lord. It may not be right, however, to say that we love the Lord with all our hearts. We can only do so properly if we project this phrase into the future. After Christ returns, and He destroys sin and death forever, and we live with Him with glorious bodies like His, in the new creation free from sin, we will indeed love him with all our hearts.

Personally, I would much prefer a more accurate poetic rendering of Schalling’s first three lines. That way, this whole issue is moot. 

In the meantime, in this fallen creation, while our new man struggles with our flesh constantly, we must be content to say by the Holy Spirit, as David did, “I will love thee, oh Lord, my strength.”

Regardless, this still remains one of my favorite hymns. ###