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).