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. ###

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