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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Babies in Church (part VII): the “Church-speak” that we need

Here are the preceding posts in this series: I, Can adults be saved? ;  II, Word or the Church? ; III, The unattractive body, IV, Miraculous, ordinary, conversational experience ; V, The arrogance of the infant (a) ; VI, The arrogance of the infant (b)

Can one that believes the Creeds but say they don’t adhere to a Lutheran understanding of the faith be a member of the true visible Church on earth

Not the kind of question many Christians are used to (some reject the idea of a visible church altogether)!  Let’s look at another question first that may be easier to identify with:

If an unbeliever hears the Word of God, confesses Christ, and plans to be baptized, is that person already “truly Church”, a living member of the “One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” (the earthly, or militant, manifestation, as opposed to the triumphant one)?

Well…if a person who hears the “pattern of sound words” trusts God’s Promise in Christ in child-like faith (and hence really knows Him), we know that such a person would certainly be a part of the Church (triumphant) were they to die in faith.  They will be recognized in heaven as being “truly Church” – even if they die before being identified with the Church in baptism.  So can’t we say that they were necessarily a part of the Church during their earthly life?

Yes, but only because we are not speaking about a concrete individual: speaking generally, a person who truly believes is necessarily – in God’s view – “truly Church”.  But since the Church on earth is both hidden (only God knows with certainty who is His – truly “hid in Christ”, and hence, incorporated into his body) and visible, the answer to our question must be: while all who truly believe in the Lord Jesus will be saved, we aren’t called to know and proclaim any actual unbaptized person as being “truly Church”.  While we may strongly feel that we know (or “intuitively or subjectively recognize”) where a certain person stands in regards to God (even calling them “Christian”) we are only called to consider and proclaim those in the baptized fellowship with us to be “truly Church” (and yes, admittedly, some we consider to be this more than others!).*** 

But this doesn’t seem very simple (like a child) – after all, don’t we say some of the baptized are actually “false believers”?

Yes.  According to their Confessions, Lutherans talk about the church “properly so called” and “loosely so called”; also of being the Church or being in the Church “in name alone” or “in fact and in name”.  Nevertheless, on earth we must still publicly acknowledge (or “formally or objectively recognize”) as being “truly Church” those who fully participate in worship (i.e. in baptism and communion) where the Word and Sacraments are given in their purity.  The Eastern Orthodox say things like “We know where the Church is but not where it is not” or “We know who is in the Church but we cannot be sure who will not be”.  And yet, though the word “invisible” may be anathema to them, they nevertheless trust that some who are really in the Church on earth will not be in heaven (though they, unlike Rome, would not say that these were “dead members” of the Church).

All this said, I believe the key to this question of “are the yet-to-be-baptized Church?” – and our responsible answer – is found in Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde’s dictum that “all theology is for proclamation”. 

Finally, this is something infants would get: for ultimately, words are meant not to extract, freeze, abstract, and control life, but rather to lovingly respond to one’s concrete neighbor with God’s concrete and loving purposes in mind.

In other words, in regards to the yet-to-be-baptized, we know we are called to urge them to be formally recognized with assemblies that we see recognize the Shepherd’s voice – those we have every reason to believe recognize that Christ has tenderly and lovingly reconciled them to God through His Word!  We may not know with surety if the yet-to-be-baptized person is already “truly Church” here on earth (although again – if they truly believe, they would be members of the Church triumphant were they to die now), but we do know that such a person, confessing Christ rightly with their lips, is to be baptized by those who do the same – that is, to be formally recognized as a member of His Church!  Ecclesiology is simply Christology (Kurt Marquart), and so trusting in Christ is necessarily “baked in with” trusting the visible Church’s wisdom in this matter (despite understandable pastoral-evangelistic concerns to separate faith in Christ from a connection with the visible Church).  And baptism – which can both create (via the “liquid word” heard) and nurture faith – is the Church’s glorious and beautiful “official adoption ceremony”.  This rightly proclaims to everyone all that God does in Christ – before, during, and after this moment. 

As the new Lutheran Study Bible notes, “God’s kingdom is plainly visible because its citizens live in the world as living signposts pointing to Christ Jesus by what they say and do.”  The reign of God is among us in these!  Likewise, here true Gospel proclamation, recognition of what such proclamation creates – and the corresponding recognition of those who also recognize this Gospel and its effects – is made visible in the glorious institution we call God’s One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. 

…even as we still walk by faith, and not by sight, for only God truly knows those who are His.

So what then is the answer to the first question above?  I hope to tackle this one in the future – stay tuned. 

*** At the same time, speaking more broadly, we can’t be sure exactly where the entire Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is – even as we can say exactly where it is not (for example, it is *not* where the words “Jesus did not come in the flesh” are confessed, taught, and freely received [believed] without exception).

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Self-made men vs the greatest men

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”–Luke 9:47

Building off of this post

A prominent EO blogger recently repeated himself, saying  “Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology.” 

Of course, I agree.

The Gospel Word of forgiveness that enacts life and salvation is utterly personal, and it cannot be systematized.  It obliterates our earthly categories, for as soon as we categorize the certainty of salvation that it brings, an uncertainty born of our flesh is introduced.  Interestingly, in the synoptic Gospels, the account of the children receiving Jesus – “let the little children come to me” [Matthew 19, Mark 10, Luke 18], and “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” [Luke 10:21]) – is always back-to-back with an account of the respectable person of some repute who comes asking what he must do to be saved, looking to justify himself (the desire to do this is explicitly mentioned in Luke 10).  I submit that the Christian is not the “self-made man” who counts, measures and appraises His works or activity as the determining factor which brings security in his relationship with God.  Rather, he is the one, who like the simple child, unpretentiously and unreflectively banks on the Promises of God.  The Christian ultimately depends not on any kind of systematic theology (especially one enslaved by this or that abstract philosophical conception removed from the “rough-and-tumble” of everyday life), but on that word – that doctrine – that is primarily a pledge, “an enacting word that works the certainty of salvation” (Gottfried Martens).

Receive it [like a] baby!

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Babies in Church (part VI): the arrogance of the infant (b)

Part V (a) is here.

Some might say:

Lutherans spend much time talking about how God comes to us “extra nos”, or from outside ourselves – and yet, they certainly put a lot of emphasis on their own certainty of faith!  Really, how much can we even know our own hearts?  Wasn’t the tanner that St. Anthony found in the city right?   Is it not presumption and arrogance to think otherwise? 

On the contrary: infants are simple, unassuming, unpretencious, and unreflective: they, in direct faith, receive persons and their good gifts freely, and allowing these to form them wholesale.  The child does not doubt the Promise that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation – but rather rejoices in it, assumes that all should possess it, and, as their faith grows, even desires that they themselves might be damned (Rom. 9:1-5) that others might have the surety – peace with God (Rom. 5:1), knowledge of eternal life (I John 5:13) – that they have in Christ Jesus. 

Even “if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things” (I John 3:20).  While we may, upon reflecting on our faith, be attacked by doubt, He knows that we, as simple children, weakly keep His commandment: “that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (I John 3:23) – and He seeks to strengthen us in this stumbling faith, that His love may ever flow with greater ferocity in and through us.     

Martin Luther said that he called, regarded, and believed others to be the Church of God – but “by the rule of love, not the rule of faith”, because “faith calls no one a saint unless he is declared so by divine judgment, because it is in the nature of faith not to be deceived”. (LW33:88)  And yet, because “ecclesiology is Christology” (Kurt Marquart) those in the Church have faith in God through the Church (if not directly, then indirectly).  For cradle Lutherans, faithful saints gave them the life-creating Promise from their childhood.  And yet, in “Cretan’s paradox” fashion, as we grow, we ultimately become more and more aware that “all men are liars” (those passing on the Promise to us may have even emphasized this point to us: that they, as lying sinners, must depend on Christ!), but that God’s grace still breaks through in the midst of all of this.  Christ is in our midst!  In fact, He comes precisely because of this work of Satan: namely, the problem of original sin that infects us all!  So indeed, here we have a great paradox: as we grow in our faith, we become more certain regarding the Promise itself – the Promise Himself – than the love and integrity of any man – and of anything else in the whole creation.      

The believer therefore fears no kind of interrogation, observation or evidence.  For God’s love sustains us in the knowledge that we have nothing to fear from the truth, all of which is His, the Truth’s.  Everything that is found, when seen in the proper context, can only affirm the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who would have all persons know true life in Him. 

Those who know the true visible Church discern this, as faithful confession always trumps institutional loyalty and forms.  It is only in this way that the faithful, though perhaps seeming very “individualistic” in their beliefs, can hope to exist in peace and concord with one another.

Luther notes how Noah’s sons covered him when he became drunk, and by analogy says we must at times cover the ancient fathers of the Church.  So, just as we must cover St. Ignatius of Antioch when he pursues his martyrdom in a rather unbiblical fashion, we to must cover St. Anthony when he gives the impression that the tanner’s faith is something to be emulated (just as we must cover Luther when he goes too far in covering Anthony!)

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

Walking with babies, law and gospel

I went for a walk with my kids to the park a few months back.  On the way back, the youngest (then 20 months) got out of our wagon and the two oldest got in.

As I was walking with the little guy, I noticed that he wasn’t really holding my hand, but I was holding his.  On his part, I’m guessing he was just aware that he was walking with his dad, enjoying the sights.

At one point, he pulled away, and I wondered if he was getting irritated with me.  I don’t think so, because as we were coming up to a street we had to cross, I grabbed his hand, paying attention to whether he would resist at all, and he didn’t – he just let me save him from the danger and guide him by holding his hand tight once again. 

As we walked on, I noticed that as I had loosened my grip, he had started to cling to a couple of my fingers.  Once again, I’m thinking it’s a fair guess to say that he didn’t really notice this difference between my grasping his hand tightly from the fact that he was now clinging to me. 

When we came to a long straight away from any intersections, I asked him if he’d just like to walk with me, without my holding his hand.  He smiled at that idea, and upon release merrily strolled along, enjoying the walk, much as he had been doing before. 

Of course, perhaps he got too comfortable with that after a while, as he got a better feel for the landscape – and sensed a new level of personal control and independence.  This seems a fair guess, as when we came up to the next intersection and I grabbed his hand, he made it clear that my paternalism was pure oppression.

I let go of his hand again after we had crossed the street, and eventually, as we got closer to our house (and he had taken pleasure in crushing a hapless ant), I asked him if he’d like me to pick him up and carry him the rest of the way (he’d gone about 1/2 a mile I’d say).  He put up his hands and let me take him.   I took this as a sign of repentance for his previously rejecting my guidance.  🙂 

There are all kinds of analogies to be drawn here between us and our heavenly Father, but I’ll just focus on one aspect.  Lutherans talk about the distinction between Law and Gospel.  The Law is tells us what we are to do, and when it shows us our sin, we sense conviction in our conscience.  The Gospel, on the other hand, tells us what Jesus has done for us to save us from our sin.  This distinction is critical when it comes to the matter of confessing and forgiving sin: for we must always be reminded that it is God who continually takes the first step, as he convicts, forgives, renews, and guides time and again.  As we live day by day however, enjoying His Presence, the conscience awareness of who is doing what does not necessarily play a large part nor does it need to, so long as we remember that we have nothing that we have not received.     

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

From despair to joy

In response to a commenter on this blog, I am posting the following piece I wrote sometime ago.  Pastors often say that they write the kinds of sermons they need to hear.  That is basically what I did here…

On any given Sunday, I will occasionally utter the words, “I am by nature sinful and unclean…I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…I justly deserve your present and eternal punishment”. 

Some people might consider this a little bit extreme. 

Do I myself really believe this?  Do I believe that God, in light of His Law, determines this about me?  Indeed.  I share the view of Eastern Orthodox Christian writer Elder Sophrony, who talks about how “a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation.  This consideration sears humility into his soul, as he finds himself utterly unable to lift his eyes toward the face of God.”

God created us as persons who would freely and joyfully represent Him – who is Love and Life – to our neighbor.  But then came the Fall into Sin.  Now, due to the infection that rages within me, there is a sense in which I, like Satan, am a masterful destroyer of relationships.  When I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone.  I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled.  I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world.  My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation.  How little I must know my God!  In short, because of my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – I have caused my neighbor to perish.  They have not seen the love of God in me. 

This is crucial because the ultimate purpose of God’s Law – seen in its most simple form in the Ten Commandments – is not, as Lutherans like to point out, to reveal our sin and slay our self-justifications (Rom 3:20), though it is certainly about this.  Rather, it is to point to the Law’s fulfillment in love.  Said differently, it is to clearly communicate to one’s neighbor God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.  For He is love, Love incarnate.  Therefore, it is simply impossible that there would be any “Christless” fulfilling of the law in love, removed from Gospel praise and proclamation (and since “grace” is not something that can be strictly separated from “nature”, nor is it something that is really added to nature, Jesus Christ is, in one manner of speaking, the “Natural Law”, i.e. the way love is manifested in a fallen world).  Further, we know that though our visible words and works may well justify us in the eyes of men – even other believers – such is not the case before God.

It is undoubtedly true, as Lutheran theologian David Scaer has said, that in some sense, “works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.”  And yet – when it comes to salvation, even if I must not rely on my good works, others must.  After all, we have been given a “cruciform life” that is “being given over unto death” for the life of the fallen world.  This form of life is one of steady cross-bearing, of being where Jesus is, of prayer, fasting, and [alms]giving.  Thus, in the same way that Christ was poured out for our sakes, we receive the bounty of God from one another, and can truly say “what do we have that we have not received”?  When it comes to giving Himself and His gifts to others, God has freely chosen to work through us, the means of the means of grace.  And this, because of our lack of trust in Him, we damnably reject.   

“Vengence is mine, I will repay” says the Lord.  Simply put, the reason we face God’s judgment is because He cares about human beings.  He cares that we are free to continually receive Him or reject Him.  That we are free to receive the only love and life there is or to reject it.  And, at the same time, He cares about those who are oppressed when we freely make the wrong choices.  All persons are not only victims, but oppressors, for “there are none that are righteous, no not one”.  This is finally why, only “those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” – because God’s children need Him, and He defends them by vindicating those who rescue them, who show kindness and mercy to them.  He “upholds Zion’s cause.”  St. Ephrem the Syrian says of God, “Thy blows are filled with love. Thy punishment burns with compassion. In accordance with Thy love, even when Thou punishest Thou strivest only for good”, and this statement is certainly true in the context we are discussing, for there can be no salvation without judgment…

But woe to me – woe to you – for this means that when Christ comes in glory He will root out everyone who does evil, as St. Matthew reports.  It is true that each one of us ultimately believes or disbelieves in the Triune God – at our core, we are either for Him and His people or against them – and yet, when we are truly honest about the evil in our lives, this truth simply can not bring comfort! Certainly, we realize, for the sake of the little ones that we daily cause to stumble, millstones are in order for it all. 

Still, the concept of eternal punishment and suffering for those enemies of God who are finally unrepentant, is admittedly, rather difficult to take.  In times of war, for example, most Christians do not think it an honorable and glorious thing to torture our enemies or cause them to suffer – for practical purposes in the temporal realm, much less no imaginable purposes in the eternal realm.  By the accounts of some Reformed thinkers however, we ought not be ashamed of this, but rather glory in God’s righteous decision that unrepentant sinners suffer eternally.  This is jarring, to say the least.  It seems to strongly mitigate our concept of the God of love whom we serve.  

I think that these Reformed writers are right in that we do not understand the stakes involved here, for we seem to forget that we are at spiritual war.  We have a serious tendency to mitigate the horrible effects of our sin.  As T.S. Elliot said: “our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge”. On the other hand, I would contend that it is because we have lacked serious reflection over God’s concept of love, and that correspondingly, we have neither understood nor appreciated what His glory means.       

For unlike us, God is not a destroyer of relationships.  For example, even as a Christian delegated to do so administers the violence necessary to protect his neighbor, he is also to desire the ultimate salvation of the one being executed.  Even if a person does not have repentance, this does not excuse us from forgiving him in our own hearts before God.  Failing to desire that one’s relationship with the other would be rightly restored beyond the grave is a matter of grave consequence.  “Why will you die, O house of Israel?” is not a rhetorical question for the one receiving God’s sword of judgment, but is meant to lead the sinner home.  There is a good reason why his anger lasts only for a moment – it is because he came not to judge, but to save – mercy triumphs over judgment, indeed.  Perhaps there is no chapter in the Bible that gets to the real crux of the matter as well as does Hosea 11, where God contends that he cannot help but seek out his beloved – yet again – precisely because He is God and not man.  Herein lies the core of the word “holy”, and with it, honor and glory.  

The reality of Christ’s cross ultimately reveals the content of what love means in the fallen world: it is all at once a “making right” of the creation (Christ’s body and spirit enduring man’s guilt and consequences), an earnest call to repentance (a showing of humanity’s sin, therefore Law), an actual granting of the forgiveness of sins (Gospel absolution), and an invitation to that trust in the Father’s love which ushers one’s neighbor into the new creation, first for all people, and then for the whole creation.  God’s greatest good is for humanity to “speak” this word to one another – only this fulfills the law in love, first for Christ, then for the Christian. 

First the Christ cries out “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.  Next Stephen, the Christian, in glorious imitation. 

In the presence of their Father, they forgive their enemies fully from their hearts, even if directly absolving such unrepentant men is not possible.   

In light of this, our mouths are shut.  We are unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful (Rom. 1:30), but He, most emphatically, is not.  He is not the destroyer of relationships.  He absorbs all the destruction that we have to give, and covers over a multitude of sins, reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.  Jesus Christ endures the relationship-destroying power of sin that separates us from God and one another on the cross, yet cries out in sin-defying trust “My God, My God – Why have you forsaken me?” (see Psalm 121).  Years later, a saintly woman in Calcutta calls out in Christ-like imitation: “I want God with all the power of my soul — and yet between us there is terrible separation.”  Elsewhere, Mother Theresa wrote: “I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”

Hell, or eternal separation from God, is indeed a place of fire and torment, but when Revelation 14 talks about persons suffering forever “in the presence of the Lamb”, I take comfort in knowing that He takes no joy in the death of the wicked… He would stand by them forever even if they would always reject Him.  For this is the God who, in Christ, wept over Jerusalem before its destruction. 

Again, we, not He, are those who destroy relationships.  Rather than seeing others as those whom we can welcome and share life with – and who have significance outside our own desires and pursuit of happiness – we, often, would rather they simply not exist (for ours is not so much the age of anger and hatred, but apathy and indifference).  Men might enjoy using this or that “God” for their own self-centered pursuits, but the flip side of this is that oftentimes, man, the fool, wishes the jealous and zealous God of Israel out of existence (Psalm 14:1).  Perhaps this explains why there is eternal punishment with God, and not annihilation (the cessation of all personal existence, popular in Eastern conceptions such as Nirvana).  Though God certainly expressed regret in the O.T. at creating man, He emphatically can not be said to “take life”, or “snuff out life” in order to be rid of relationships forever, dePersonalizing reality.  Said differently, it is man who desires that God not exist, not God who desires that man not exist.  Is man really so foolish that he would tell God what love is – namely treating others as if they do not exist, disregarding their presence, and ultimately destroying life, destroying relationships?  Evidently.  “Would you condemn me [to non-existence or otherwise] that you may be justified?” (Job 40:8).  Indeed this is our problem.

Back to Elder Sophrony, mentioned above.  In speaking of the modern Eastern Orthodox saint St. Silouan, Elder Sophrony emphasized the life-giving potential of the word believed to be given by Christ to him: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.”  Continuing the quote from above, we read that “…grace enables one to fend off temptations to despondency.  One’s wretchedness before God is excruciatingly and unremittingly apparent, and yet in that very moment joy is born into the soul as the supreme love of God is revealed as the vanquisher of sin, rescuing him from the abyss of despair.”

“Nice”, we might say.  But practically speaking, what shall we do that we might work the works of God?  That we might be saved?  In a word, to be new before God, we must forget what we “do”, and as Lutheran theologian Norman Nagel says, “be willing to be nothing but given to.”  For we must become like little children and be born from above, not below.  Just as the completely unpretentious and unreflective infant freely receives his parent’s love and kindness, spontaneously erupting with smiles and squeals of acceptance, so it must be with us.  Only in this way, through receptive trust alone, do we return to the Source of forgiveness, life and salvation.  God has reconciled the world to Himself in Christ.  He has done it all.  Be reconciled to God!  When you, broken in your sin, hear the comforting Word that Christ has forgiven you, cling to that Word and do not delay in coming to the feast. 

For this is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He has sent.  

* When my perishing pagan neighbor senses that something good and wonderful has transpired though him, his reflection before his God ultimately reeks of self-glorification and a veiled ingratitude: “I’m a good person”, “I have done it”, “I must have done something good”, “What a good boy am I”…  

** Christians do little better of course.  We often strive to follow God’s Law as we understand it for the eyes of our neighbor, while forgetting our vital relationship with God, lest we become too uncomfortable.  This is no doubt preferable to completely rejecting God’s pattern for our lives.  And yet, when we seek to fulfill the Law in our own strength, we are at inevitably at odds with God’s purposes.  For there can be no fulfilling of the law in love by us (Rom. 8:4) in regards to the second table of the Ten commandments at the expense of the first table – which involves deep personal trust in, and reliance on, God.  

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

A child of the Reformation

In my admittedly small mind there is really only one question about the validity of the Reformation of the Western Church:

Are God’s commands, threats, and punishments – His Hammer which shatters – to be proclaimed so that persons may see themselves as sinners – sinners who should then be given the confidence of faith – i.e. be actively persuaded via the Promise (Christ) that they have God’s forgiveness for all their sins (and hence, life and salvation) – even as they tremble?

Is this to continually occur in the life of the Christian, until death comes, or not? Is this pattern of “Law and Gospel” to be that which the heralds of God’s Word bring – or not? This, in my mind, is *the* question for the Church posed by the Reformation – and everything else flows from this.

 
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Posted by on October 20, 2009 in Uncategorized

 
 
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