Monthly Archives: February 2020

Is it Arrogant to Believe that We “Know” the Real God and the Rest are Unaware?

He spoke with authority….



A student writes:

“[W]hen I read “Jesus died for the whole world” it made me wonder how that works for people of other religions.  Do we as Christians believe that Muslims who pray to Allah, are really just calling our God by the name Allah?  What about Jewish people who, from what I know about that religion which is very little, don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God.  Is that a little arrogant to believe that we “know” the real God and the rest are unaware?”

I reply: Great question, and a very common one… Here’ a clip from an old post of mine:

Authority.  If a person believes that they should give serious attention to religious and spiritual things – perhaps asking questions like “has God spoken?” –  they will, sooner or later, realize something….  Yes, Jesus spoke with real authority.  And yet, so, evidently, did Confucius.  And the Buddha.  And Mohammad.  And even Joseph Smith.

And while there might be some overlap here and there, the teachings of these men also contradict one another wildly at important points.  If and when we become aware of this – particularly in this pluralistic day and age – many of us might find ourselves asking: which of them speaks the truth – or at the very least, gets closest to the truth?  How to really know?

“God cannot be impersonal, personal, transcendent, polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, able to beget, not able to beget, relevant, and irrelevant all at the same time… Irreconcilable data gives us no knowledge of God whatsoever.” – Francis Beckwith (see here for more)


Things become more complicated when we come to understand that many of these teachers often talked about how people could know that what they said was true by an internal self-attestation of sorts.  In other words, when listening to their authoritative-sounding words – words often later put down in authoritative writings – one will feel it in one’s heart.  That is how the truth will be known.  Some of these teachers – even Jesus Himself – add that one can know whether the teaching is from God when one puts it into practice (see John 7:17).

Regarding the self-attestation of the truth, Christians talk about something like this as well – with a basis for such thought being found in the Scriptures.  “Taste and see tha the Lord is good!”  “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free!”  And, perhaps most importantly, “I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me” (II Tim. 1:12).  They talk about the “self-authenticating” nature of the Christian message in general, and the Christian Scriptures in particular.  More specifically, this is seen to be a work of the Holy Spirit, and it is called the “testimonium Spiritu Sancti internum” or internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. We can call that TSSI for short.

“The Word of Scripture, being the Word of God, is an object of perception that creates its own organ of perception, faith, and thus Scripture itself bears witness to its divine authority.” — Lutheran theologian Franz Peiper on TSSI


We will look at that in the next post, but permit one more brief note at this point: even many Christians here might ask “but what about our own capacity to verify what authorities might be telling the truth”?  This is a good question, and we can briefly address it at this point.  First, it is helpful to look at an interesting illustration demonstrating the stakes of what is involved.

“Suppose someone is running from an island volcano to a harbor, and sees a large fleet of boats.  He has been warned before that many of the boats have terrible holes and cannot be trusted on the open sea.  If this person hopes to escape the coming wrath, he will surely be concerned with which of the crafts is seaworthy.” (Angus Menuge, p. 252, Reformation and the Rationality of Science, Theologia et Apologia)

Which boat will you take when she blows? — Lutheran apologist Angus Menuge


Going along with this, another good question is “which boats should I look at first”?  Here, one notes that of all the religious leaders in the world’s history, there is only One who is claimed to still live – not only spiritually, but physically.  Might this not be highly significant, given that one of the most significant man’s great questions is “Why do we die and what follows death?” Of course the Christian faith is unique in this claim of its founder’s overcoming of death – and His claims to have its final answer – and also opens the way for historical investigation into the matter (see Acts 2, 17 and 26 regarding this matter).  As Jesus’ disciples said concerning him: “Come and see”.  While the Scriptures would assert that you are not able to give yourself true spiritual life, you certainly can decide to put yourself in the path of the One who can.


From here I’d point you to this post first:

And then this one next, if you are interested:

As you can see, this question has multiple layers.

It gets to the heart, also, about what I said [earlier in class]: for Christians, faith is not blind or unconcerned about material and historical evidences. Those things are part and parcel of it.


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Posted by on February 28, 2020 in Uncategorized


Luther: You Must Get Angry Where Your Office Requires It


“…anger is sometimes necessary and proper. But be sure that you use it correctly. You are commanded to get angry, not on your own behalf, but on behalf of your office and of God; you must not confuse the two, your person and your office. As far as your person is concerned, you must not get angry with anyone regardless of the injury he may have done to you. But where your office requires it, there you must get angry, even though no injury has been done to you personally. For example, a pious judge gets angry with a criminal, even though personally he wishes him no harm and would rather let him off without punishment. His anger comes out of a heart where there is nothing but love toward his neighbor. Only the evil deed is punishable and must bear the anger; without it there would be no anger or punishment. But if your brother has done something against you and angered you, and then begs your pardon and stops doing wrong, your anger, too, should disappear. Where does the secret spite come from which you continue to keep in your heart? The deed that caused your anger is gone, and in its place have come other deeds, which show that the man is converted and has become a completely different person, a new tree with new fruits. Now he gives you his love and his highest esteem, he blames and reproaches himself on your account. If you do not give him another chance and cordially forgive him, you must really be a scoundrel before both God and the world…” — Martin Luther, AE 21, 83

“We must be ready to live among wicked people, and there everyone must be ready to prove his holiness instead of becoming impatient and running away” — Luther

More on anger (old post): In a Fallen World, Anger is Meant to be a Good Thing


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Posted by on February 20, 2020 in Uncategorized


The Un-human Expectations of God? (sermon text and video)


“….anyone who is angry with a brother or sister… will be subject to judgment…. anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” — Matthew 5: 21, 28

These are our texts for this morning, from Matthew chapter 5, in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.


In Proverbs 19:3, we read something very interesting: “The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame.”

What might that be getting at? 

Well, I promise we’ll get back to that…

First though, what do you know about St. Augustine? (or, Augus-teen? Who knows how to pronounce it!?)

He is truly a fascinating figure.

Did you know he was born into a Christian family yet fell away from the faith? And that his mother, Monica, poured out her heart for him in prayer and was told by her pastor “It is impossible for a son of these tears to perish.”

Are you aware that he was an influential Christian in the city of Rome as it began to fall to the Barbarians which overtook it in the year 410? You can read the reflections this cataclysmic event stirred him on to in his classic book, “The City of God”….

Did you know that as the Western church blew up during the time of the 16th century, with the Lutheran Reformation, that most all of the fractured parties involved were keen to lay claim to St. Augustine, saying that he, in fact, agree with them?

Or that he basically got the Nicene Creed changed? (“and the Son” was added to “the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son…” in part, because of his influence).

Have you heard of the famous prayer that he prayed before returning to the Christian faith?: “Lord, make me chaste — but not yet…”?

That famous quote is from the world’s first autobiography, which he wrote, his Confessons

And it originally came out in regular installments in what was basically the top elite magazine of his day…

And to end our game of Augustine Jeopardy… have you heard about the story of him, his gang, and the pears?

Its from book 2 (more like chapter 2 for us) of the Confessions:

Basically–and I’m quoting much of this from a helpful blog post I found online

“St. Augustine ran with a sketchy crowd as a teen, the[ir] name was something like ‘The Destructors.’ One night, after the gang had finished playing sports in the streets of their neighborhood, their attention turned to a pear tree that was heavy with ripe fruit. The tree did not belong to any of their families, but it grew on a plot adjacent to that of Augustine’s family. The boys did not find the pears tempting in their color or flavor.

Nevertheless, they wanted to steal them. They went to the base of the tree and shook down the ripe pears. Augustine relates:

‘We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart–which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself.’

Writing in his mid-40s, Augustine looked back on this theft and was struck by the fact that he did not even want the pears. Yet, he knew the pears were not his. The natural law that he should not steal the property of others–this is what pushed him to steal the pears. He took a pear merely to throw it to the pigs, not for the pigs’ sake, but for the sake of his own desire to disobey.

[Augustine, in one of his confessions from the book, The Confessions] explains the act this way:

‘It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error–not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.'”

The commentator goes on to share this thought:

“St. Augustine does not appear to be infatuated with the idea of punishing himself in these passages. He begins from a place of wonder and fascination, a self-astonishment that many of us share….

The majority of our sins are not…. complex. We often choose incorrectly between short-term and long-term goals, we sacrifice a value we hold for a lesser good. Most who steal money, for example, desire the money. Things are different with St. Augustine’s example. He enters into the realm of Pure Sin. This is the sin that enjoys that it’s a sin. This sin does not want a forbidden fruit. It does not even desire a Knowledge of Good and Evil, as with Eve’s sin. Augustine’s sin just hopes to be a sin…”

So, where are we going with all of this?

Well, all of this ties into all the things we read this morning in our readings about God’s law, particularly in the parts that we read in the Gospel of Matthew from the wildly controversial Sermon on the Mount.

Now, why do I say “wildly controversial”?

Well, some talk about how this sermon is the essence of Chrisitanity. From the perspective of our nation’s very own Thomas Jefferson, who certainly claimed to be some kind of Christian, the Sermon is “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered.”

On the other hand, years ago an English literature professor had her students read the sermon and comment on it and some of their assessments were as follows:

  • The stuff the churches preach is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun without thinking it is a sin or not.
  • I did not like the essay ‘Sermon the Mount.’ It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.
  • The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery? That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.

It is interesting to note that, because of cultural currents you will find here and there, many are not so inclined to believe the Bible today.

They don’t have supports around them that would bolster the idea that the Bible should be taken seriously, much less considered a revelation from Almighty God.

If this were the case, it seems people would be more likely to take Jesus’ hard words seriously….

….and one can’t help but wonder if that means their reaction might be more obviously like that of Augustine’s than Thomas Jefferson’s…

“What’s the point? That stupid fence just makes me want to sin more….”

Why? Well, sin is not rational — nothing could be more irrational!

Nevertheless… that Proverb with which I led this sermon might come to your mind again…:

“The folly of a man perverts his ways, and in his heart he holds God to blame.”

There is often a debate about the Sermon on the Mount among Lutheran theologians.

Is this sermon simply the law to the nth degree, given by Jesus in order to convince every human being that they cannot measure up to God’s standards?

That they cannot be justified by their works?


I believe it was the theologian Dr. Lloyd Jones who said: “If anyone has ever read the Sermon on the Mount with an open mind, they would fall down and cry out, ‘God save me from the Sermon on the Mount!’”

So there is definitely something about that — and more on that in a minute…

At the same time, some Lutheran theologians have also said that things like the Sermon of the Mount just might make persons want to rebel all the more!

“….anyone who is angry with a brother or sister… will be subject to judgment…. anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Hasn’t Jesus heard of the 1960s? What, in part, made so many music stars so appealing if not the attractiveness of rebellion?

Hasn’t he heard of human nature?

Well, of course He knows what He is doing. And so to those Lutheran theologians!

Here is where a passage like Romans 7 can really help us to understand. In the first part of Romans 7, the Apostle Paul talks about what it was like for him before Christ knocked him off his horse:

For when we were in the realm of the flesh,[a] the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. 6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”[b] 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting…

I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death….

This is what the law, when heard and taken seriously, always eventually does in those who are not Christians.

There may well be no desire to do a wrong thing until someone tells us that we should not do that specific thing…

And so, they get angry about it, find themselves wanting to sin even more, and then, in the end, if they do not hear a word of God’s grace, end in a kind of worldly despair….

…Alternatively, they rationalize. Perhaps, like Thomas Jefferson, they convince themselves they are a “good Christian”.

They convince themselves the laws are real but that they are pulling them off!

Surely, with the scales God will use…. my good will certainly outweigh my bad…

That said, don’t think for a minute that God is not intent on rescuing all these folks through the Word that has been given to Christians… that we carry and bring.

Even those, who, in this Enlightened Age (things are changing, but it’s still kicking), aren’t so inclined to take Him seriously.

As C.S. Lewis put it, really describing how he converted from atheism to Christianity…

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back – I would have done so myself if I could – and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’ – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?


If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call ‘nature’ or ‘the real world’ fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?

This kind of experience Lewis describes takes me back to that other quote we heard: “God save me from the Sermon on the Mount!’”

God is too holy for us… but this, by His grace, is just what He calls us to…

No doubt, the Sermon of the Mount certainly does show us the futility of trying to be justified before God by our own good behavior, and yet nevertheless it also does give us a blueprint of that which we were meant to be.

In other words, this is the “form of life” that we have been baptized into and that God would have us grow into… the only paths that ultimately, result in blessing for us and all those we know.

True human flourishing!

I’d say we see a bit of this also from the Apostle Paul this morning:

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?”

Paul evidently thinks we should improve. That we might grow in our understanding of who God is and who we are. Do we “get” His law and Gospel?…

Speaking of which, let’s again remember and highlight Romans 7, as he gives us a picture of what this process is like not just for one who rejected Christ, like before, but this time for a Christian. It’s his confession….:

14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

As a believer, you are not only just a saint now, but a sinner, for sin remains…

So you will have experiences like those that Paul describes…. Or maybe even Augustine!

And believers might also be more apt to notice peculiar struggles. For example, you see that the law can actually exacerbate the sin of [religious] pride… self-righteousness.

Even if being told “don’t look down on others” does not create a desire in us to do so, there is nevertheless the temptation to become proud of being unlike those who look down on others – or even take pride in realizing that we are proud of being unlike those who look down on others!

All this goes to show that even if we are Christians we are still beings who are thoroughly infected by sin — sin which will not be fully irradicated until the Last Day!

And you will not only have experiences like those that Paul describes, but your old Adam will even, on occasion, fight back so that the law not only reveals sin you want to confess and fight, but even energizes the sinfulness that remains in you… so that you begin to feel overwhelmed by temptation, by evil desires….

And that is when, like Peter sinking in the sea, we, remembering our Lord’s goodness and compassion, should cry out “Lord, save me!”

For this is precisely why Jesus came to earth and did all that He did…

For each one of us….

Even when we go all the way under…

Micah 7:19 would be comforting words for Peter…. and for us:

“He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You [Lord,] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Psalm 103:12 expresses the thought in yet another way:

“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

Back to Augustine.

Because of such precious promises like this from our Lord Jesus Christ, this online article I found concludes….

“Augustine does not wallow in his guilt. He does not rest in shame and self-loathing. Rather he uses this to kindle within him a Divine Restlessness–or even a Divine Un-Ease—that drives him close to the Lord. This restlessness makes him seek for greater perfection….”

An interesting ending to the article to be sure.

And truly, when Jesus goes on in the Sermon on the Mount to say “Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect”, what is the context there?

What is the ultimate picture of that perfection to which He calls us?

Why, like Him, to delight in showing mercy, even to one’s enemies….

As God has and will be merciful to us in Jesus….

Again and again and again.



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Posted by on February 17, 2020 in Uncategorized


Freed to Free (sermon text)

“…to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free…”



Epiphany 5, Series A


5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,

    only a day for people to humble themselves?…. 

6 Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free…”

— Isaiah 58: 5a, 6



One might think that anyone showing humility should gain our appreciation.

And yet, external shows of humility may well be odious before God…

Jesus tells us the story about a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders in his day, who looking at the tax collector in the temple, prayed:

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men…like this tax collector… I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:11-12)….

And yet, Jesus goes on to say:

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

And some of us might remember that the Bible tells us about another famous tax collector, Zachheus. Upon the grace shown to him by Jesus, he exclaims:

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Zaccheus knew that he had wronged others. Abused his position, his power, his privilege.

These tax collectors in the Gospels seem to “get” something about themselves and Jesus that folks like the Pharisee were missing…

Those who follow Jesus are called to be those who, like Him, “do away with the yoke of oppression….”

What does this mean?

First and foremost, this means that we recognize that Jesus Christ frees us and others from sin, death, and the demonic! Salvation for all–for you, for me–is the most serious of matters.

This is the core thing, the foundation, from which all else flows.

And things flow like this… Being sons of daughters of the light, being those who are in the world but not of the world, we are certainly not indifferent to the world and its ways, its “structures”, as well…

God’s ways, we read elsewhere in Isaiah, are not our ways! What is wise to the world, He tells us, is foolishness to Him…

And so, we cannot remain children of the light, those who are in this world but not of it… unless we are inclined to “push back,” as they say today…

This is why we hear these words in the book of James:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (Jas. 4:4)

And what is the immediate context of this passage?

Humanity’s unbridled passions, greed, and pride:

You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (4:2-3)

James goes on to say…. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble…” (4:6)

Finally, let us never forget that the Apostle John also tells us,

“For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 Jn. 2:16).

Christian people, all of the gifts of the Lord, all of the material blessings He gives to us, are good!

And yet, the gifts that God has given us in the world are so often so wrongly used. They become the things to which we bow, frustrating God’s purposes among us.

How will we ever experience what our God promises in Isaiah?:

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness[a] will go before you,

and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, “[w]e cannot be religiously committed and at the same time socially indifferent” (Lessing, 152)

Our God, we must know, dwells with the crushed and the lowly… He hears their cries…

And what of His cry… His voice?

He says through his prophet:

“To listen [to God’s voice] is better than sacrifice; to hearken [is better] than the fat of rams” (I Sam. 15:22, in Lessing, 149)….


So just what is going on in our passage from Isaiah today?

Are we here dealing with a situation just like the one with the Pharisee?

Not exactly: we really do need to read it in the larger context to begin to understand it… Even if we just look at all of chapter 58, for instance, we might get the idea that he doesn’t approve of any personal fasting and that He’s upset because they are breaking and not respecting Sabbath laws.

That however, would be a very surface way of looking at things. Because, you see, the people Isaiah is talking about have a much deeper problem.

It starts at the top. Their watchmen, or shepherds — that is their priests — have become “blind” and devoid of “understanding” (56:10-11)

Isaiah calls them “animals” (56:9) and “mute dogs” (56:10-11) more intent on the next party then fulfilling the function God gives them (Lessing, 147).

We might compare these folks with the Pharisees, but the Pharisees at least had the pretence of goodness and righteousness.

No, we are far from that… God’s chosen people, Isaiah tells us just a few chapters earlier, are “burn[ing] with lust among the oaks under every green tree” for the false gods of the nations. In other words, they are committing spiritual fornication with those gods….

And not only do they oppress those under their power, as we read in our text today, but they are also literally “slaugher[ing] their children in the valleys”… offering such a horrid sacrifice to their false gods…

Their community is characterized by violence, slavery, accusations, and libel (58:4,6,9).

Captivated not by Yahwwh, the true God, they are serving their false gods, and so… they have false understandings of who the True God is. What He is like…

Things being warped like this, when they do think of their heritage and tradition–they can really only go through the motions…

It is not that the Lord is against fasting, its just that He will not be one of many gods…

The highest worship of the true believer is to confess “Amen. God is right and true” Convicted and led by the Spirit of God through the Word, the believer confesses sin and receives grace.

On the other hand, the one who does not have the beginnings of true faith sees God as a Cosmic Butler (see also Malachai 3:13-15) or, alternatively, an Angry Tyrant to be appeased.

But getting the imagined Cosmic Butler (or perhaps Divine Vending Machine, or Supernatural Sugar Daddy) on one’s side or satisfying His anger though one’s actions… though one’s outward shows of humility…–not to mention outright ignoring things He’s actually commanded!–

…is not, to say the least, a characteristic of the true believer.

This is sheer unbelief.

Now, they really do have some concern about what this God of Israel might do to them.

So… they are hedging their bets and doing works they think might win God’s favor in case he is the real or stronger God… In case there is anger to be appeased….  (Cyril of Alexandria)

This is not only sheer unbelief, but sheer paganism.

These whoring hypocrites should know that they can have no other gods before Him. 

So later Isaiah speaks for the Lord:

2All day long I have held out my hands

to an obstinate people,

who walk in ways not good,

pursuing their own imaginations—

3a people who continually provoke me

to my very face…


Again, they have a heart problem. They have no true faith.  

All their words about being shocked and surprised at God’s unresponsiveness to their fasts and their “worship”– “daily” or not–are not a lie. 

They are surprised….

For without a true knowledge of God, they are going through the motions for a reason….

To use a very weak but easy to understand illustration…. they are like the web page on your computer that has lost its vital connection to the internet — to that which provides its power, and makes it “fresh”.

Such is the situation of this wayward people that will not listen to Him when He calls out….

“Cry out to me!”

That is “Trust in me. For all your needs. Depend on me… Look to me…  I will make you what it was I had in mind from the beginning. Your delight in me will be contagious. I will make love flow like a river from you…


So where can we find such a faithful people?

Well, some times and places are better than others, but in truth, none on earth will fully know the blessings of which the Psalmist writes….

Blessed are those who fear the Lord,

who find great delight in his commands.

2 Their children will be mighty in the land;

the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches are in their houses,

and their righteousness endures forever

Again, none this side of heaven will really know these blessings.

This goes for every culture that has existed since the fall in the Garden of Eden…

Sin is not the way it is supposed to be, but it is all around us.

And sin is just not all around us. It is in us. For Christians, God has created a new man in them by His Spirit, and so Christians fight.

But it is not easy….

This is why, a few chapters earlier in Isaiah, we hear that, in death “the righteous man is taken away from calamity” and “he enters into peace…”

Again, even the very best societies, even the very best Christian societies, have been tied down by not only the individual sins committed but the very structures that have come to characterize those societies.

And each time period and culture is often blind to its own kinds of selfishness, its transgressions and faults.

We should all be aware that our consciences can become “seared” where they fail to function properly, where it cannot accurately judge our own actions or those of others…

So, we might talk about the faults of people from the past: “They were men of their times…”

And what might they say about us?

Even in our day, many can see the problems…

Some speak much of “the culture of death,” “the sexualization and pornification of society,” “the culture of victimhood,” “the culture of dependency,” “the feminized society…”

Others worry more about “the commodification of society,” “the exchange society,” forms of “toxic masculinity” and the “the racialized society…”

And let’s admit it: even in our own day, we are often blind or don’t want to look too deeply into many of the problems we are dealing with….

And so, we have huge political problems. There are good points to be made about greed, living wages, the power and dangers of sex, the rule of law…

But we can’t handle it all, don’t want to deal with it all…so divide to the left and the right…

And never the two shall meet?

And yet, into this breaks our Lord with His words about His ways not being ours. His grace freeing men and women from themselves, from evil entrapments and systems that enslave…

That truly is the feast that pleases Yahweh….

We should not fail to speak the truth about any matter, no matter where our culture or political party of choice stands on it.

The truth is, we will not find such a faithful people anywhere….

But wait! I’m wrong!

Think of our Old Testament reading today…

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

…and then think about Jesus, when He attends the Synagogue in Nazareth, reading very similar words from Isaiah just a few chapters later:

18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” f

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” He goes on to say to them…

Do you see?

Jesus performs the perfect fast!

He is the one who faithfully serves as “a light for the nations/Gentiles”

His obedience to the point of death brings perfect freedom from all oppression!

In His person and in His perfect life and innocent death He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life….

He has come that we might have life and have it abundantly, and that starts by receiving His gifts!

It is as the great hymn says:

“For us baptized, for us he bore

His holy fast and hungered sore;

For us temptation sharp he knew;

For us the tempter over threw.

For us he prayed; for us he taught;

For us his daily works he wrought,

By words and signs and actions thus

Still seeking not himself but us.

He is ultimately why, as Isaiah goes on to argue, the proper observance of the Sabbath will bring rest and freedom for all! (Lessing)


I hope you see what I am saying here.

In the ancient world, this kind of love and concern by a deity, a god, was unknown… unprecedented!

Who was this God of the Chrisitans?

This is the core reason why the earliest Chrisitans were known for the mercy they had for the poor and the weak.

They were intoxicated with His love…

“Look how they love one another!” we are told they said… One early critic of the faith said “Those Christians! They’ll take anybody!”

I am greatly challenged when I read these old words from the church father, Jerome:

“When you see people freezing outside the church in the frigidity of unbelief, without the warmth of faith, impoverished and homeless, lead them home into the church and clothe them with the work of incorruption, so that, wrapped in the mantle of Christ, they will not remain in the grave.” (ACCS, 211)

Or, from the 4th and 5th centuries, St. Augustine:

“[God here in Isaiah] is finding fault… with the fasts of the quarrelsome; he is looking for the fasts of the kindhearted. He is finding fault with those who oppress others; he is looking for those who give relief. He is finding fault with those who stir up strife; he is looking for those who set free…” (211)

The light that is in conflict with the darkness of our world comes in a limited and hidden way now, carried out by imperfect ministers and servants.

At the same time, how can we not get ready, even now, for the greater light which will dawn upon us?

How can we not start to show now that God’s way, His plan, His future… is different?

Maybe when I say this, you get a little angry. Martin Luther said: “When the preacher begins to preach concerning another life about which we should be concerned and for the sake of which we should not behave as though we wanted to stay here forever, then arguments and battles begin.”

That could be the case.

On the other hand, perhaps your feeling upon hearing this is not anger, but glad assent… while you also have some questions and confusion about what it means to be in but not of the world…

Maybe, like that man in the Bible said: “Lord, I believe, but help my unbelief?”

Always remember Jesus does not break the bruised reed, snuff out the flickering wick, give a yoke which is heavy and burdensome.

This morning, your Lord does not mean to condemn you, but rather lead you into a deeper understanding of the love that He has for you and all persons….

That we might read these words from Isaiah this morning and take delight in the picture it paints!

Does this sound right to you, like it does to me, but you often just don’t know how to put it into practice? That is often me too… And I don’t know your circumstances, but I’ll make some attempts anyways…

What could you do to renew relations with family? Not only not “hiding from your own flesh and blood” as Isaiah puts it, but increasing the joy and love found therein?

Are you one who gives employment? What steps could you take to be even better to your workers …really assure them of their worth… and not just with words?

Are you blessed with good quarters or extra property? What ways could you be more hospitable to those you know around you who are in need?

A man I follow on the internet recently said “I began to truly listen and submit to those who suffered under everything I had earlier claimed was their own fault.”

Even when it sometimes seems like being a victim has become a badge of honor today–and even if we might want to clarify the kind of and reason for the submission of which he speaks–is it possible we might learn that we have not always been good at discerning what is oppressive?

Do you help plan worship? What could be done to enrich that worship?

In the architecture, the art, the arrangements, how could the proclamation of the Gospel be lifted up even more?

As God looks to extend His tent, what are some things I can do that would signal, herald, the greatness of God’s Kingdom to come?

Brothers and sisters, we know Christ!

May God’s house be made beautiful! (60:7)

May justice never be far from us!

May righteousness overtake us and go before us! (see Isaiah 59:9)

For, as He says “the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations”! ((61:11)

May we always remember these words, which give salvation to all people… Even us….

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

That is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for us!

May the Almighty and most Merciful God bless and preserve us…





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Posted by on February 14, 2020 in Uncategorized


“Synergism”: What Does This Mean?

“With this Word the Holy Ghost is present, and opens hearts, so that they, as Lydia in Acts 16:14, are attentive to it, and are thus converted alone through the grace and power of the Holy Ghost, whose work alone the conversion of man is.” — Epitome, Formula of Concord



If you hang around with theologically astute Lutherans long enough, one of the words that you will hear is the term “synergism”. We see the term used around 2 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6:

…we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

When Paul says “working together” there, the greek word is Συνεργοῦντες, which comes from συνεργέω, which means to cooperate or “work together”. This is why the announcer in the NBA 2K 13 game I like to sometimes play on an old Nintendo Wii gets all excited when a team “synergizes…”

Well, in Lutheranism, there is almost nothing worse that you could be than a synergist!

It is basically a bad Lutheran curse word! As in, “man believes that he can cooperate in his own salvation!” (i.e. justification before God).

In other words, synergism as defined by Lutherans has to do not with not human cooperation with God when it comes to our being increasingly transformed (technically, our “active sanctification”), but human cooperation with God when it comes to one’s regeneration or conversion.

We don’t ever go there.


Well, note that it is He who finds us, particularly with the parable of the lost sheep where he even puts us on His shoulders…

Luther: “In His small flock He has poor and weak consciences that are easily hurt and are not easily comforted…”


It is certainly true that the Christian is one who exercises a living faith in God. And it is likewise true that we can choose to reject His work. But note John 6:44 where Jesus says that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws Him”! Also note not just John 1:12, which many quote, but John 1:13 as well! Jesus’ words in John 3:6-7 are also very clear: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

Given that the Scriptures not only say that we were born and conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5), but also are “dead in sin” (!), it makes sense that if we are going to come to God, it is He who creates cooperation – faith! – in our hearts!

Going along with this, I recently heard a person say that the key to understanding synergism–as Lutherans in the past understood it–is that it only asserts man’s will after the fall still has the ability to aid in conversion. In other words, it is fine to say that grace adds the ability for man’s will to cooperate in conversion. Hence, “He gave them power to become sons of God!”

What should we think about that? What does the 1580 Book of Concord, which all Lutherans subscribe to, say?

Most certainly true? “Since the promise of God is universal and there are not in God contradictory wills, there must be in us a reason for the discrimination by which Saul is rejected and David received.” — Melanchthon, 1543



First of all, in the section that we call the Solid Declaration, part 2, it makes it very clear what is being spoken about:

2] For since man with [respect to] his free will is found and can be considered in four distinct, dissimilar states, the question at present is not what was the condition of the same before the Fall, or what he is able to do since the Fall and before his conversion in external things which pertain to this temporal life; also not what sort of a free will he will have in spiritual things after he has been regenerated and is controlled by God’s Spirit, or when he rises from the dead. But the principal question is only and alone, what the intellect and will of the unregenerate man is able to do in his conversion and regeneration from his own powers remaining after the Fall; whether he is able, when the Word of God is preached, and the grace of God is offered us, to prepare himself for grace, accept the same, and assent thereto. This is the question upon which, for quite a number of years now, there has been a controversy among some theologians in the churches of the Augsburg Confession.

Later on in the document, it even addresses synergism directly, saying the following:

77] …Fourthly, the doctrine of the Synergists, who pretend that man is not absolutely dead to good in spiritual things, but is badly wounded and half dead. Therefore, although the free will is too weak to make a beginning, and to convert itself to God by its own powers, and to be obedient to God’s Law from the heart, nevertheless, when the Holy Ghost makes a beginning, and calls us through the Gospel, and offers His grace, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation, that then the free will, from its own natural powers, can meet God, and to a certain extent, although feebly, do something towards it, help and cooperate thereto, can qualify itself for, and apply itself to, grace, and apprehend accept it, and believe the Gospel, and can also cooperate, by its own powers, with the Holy Ghost, in the continuation and maintenance of this work.

78] Over against this, however, it has been shown at length above that such power, namely, facultas applicandi se ad gratiam, that is, to qualify one’s self by nature for grace, does not proceed from our own natural powers, but alone from the operation of the Holy Ghost.

And then, we also read this in paragraph 44:

44] In these words Dr. Luther, of blessed and holy memory, ascribes to our free will no power whatever to qualify itself for righteousness or strive after it, but says that man is blinded and held captive to do only the devil’s will, and that which is contrary to God the Lord. Therefore there is here no cooperation of our will in the conversion of man, and man must be drawn and born anew of God; otherwise there is no thought in our hearts which of itself could turn to the holy Gospel for the purpose of accepting it.

At this point, none of what has been said seems to necessarily contradict what I recently heard, that is, again, that grace adds the ability for the will to cooperate in conversion. As long as that will is something other than the natural powers of our fallen and evil will, that is….

Still, look what goes on to be said immediately afterward in paragraph 44:

Even so Dr. Luther wrote of this matter also in his book De Servo Arbitrio, i. e., Of the Captive Will of Man, in opposition to Erasmus, and elucidated and supported this position well and thoroughly, and afterward he repeated and explained it in his glorious exposition of the book of Genesis, especially of Gen. 26. There likewise his meaning and understanding of some other peculiar disputations introduced incidentally by Erasmus, as of absolute necessity, etc., have been secured by him in the best and most careful way against all misunderstanding and perversion; to which we also hereby appeal and refer others.

So, like it or not, the Formula of Concord sees itself as being in harmony with the thrust of Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Given what is elsewhere says about its relation to Luther’s theology as a whole, this should hardly be surprising.

“…just as a sword does not co-operate toward setting itself in motion, so the will does not co-operate towards its willing. This willing is a motion which the divine Word produces. It is merely something that is done to the will.” — Luther


Things go downhill for the position stated above in sections 14, 36, 38, 42, 65-66, 87, and 89-90. If you like, scroll through these paragraphs (all in blue) and go to the summary below.

The carnal mind, or the mind of the natural man, is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the Law of God, neither indeed can be. And, in a word, it remains eternally true what the Son of God says, John 15; 5: Without Me ye can do nothing. And Paul, Phil. 2:13: It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure. 14] To all godly Christians who feel and experience in their hearts a small spark or longing for divine grace and eternal salvation this precious passage is very comforting; for they know that God has kindled in their hearts this beginning of true godliness, and that He will further strengthen and help them in their great weakness to persevere in true faith unto the end.


36] In the Large Catechism of Dr. Luther (the Third Article of the Christian Faith) it is written thus: And I am also a part and member of the [gift of repentance], a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses, brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Ghost, by having heard and continuing to hear the Word of God, which is the beginning of entering it. 37] For formerly, before we had attained to this, we were altogether of the devil, knowing nothing of God and of Christ. Thus, until the last day, the Holy Ghost abides with the holy congregation or Christendom, by means of which He brings us to Christ, and which He employs to teach and preach to us the Word, whereby He works and promotes sanctification, causing [this community] daily to grow and become strong in the faith and the fruits of the Spirit, which He produces. 38] In these words the Catechism does not mention our free will or cooperation with a single word, but ascribes everything to the Holy Ghost, namely, that through the office of the ministry He brings us into the Christian Church, wherein He sanctifies us, and brings it about that we daily grow in faith and good works.


42] These testimonies state that by our own powers we cannot come to Christ, but God must give us His Holy Ghost, by whom we are enlightened, sanctified, and thus brought to Christ through faith, and kept with Him; and no mention is made either of our will or cooperation.


65]as soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness. But this [that we cooperate] does not occur from our carnal natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun in us in conversion, 66] as St. Paul expressly and earnestly exhorts that as workers together with Him we receive not the grace of God in vain, 2 Cor. 6:1. But this is to be understood in no other way than that the converted man does good to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God. But if this were understood thus [if any one would take the expression of St. Paul in this sense], that the converted man cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the manner as when two horses together draw a wagon, this could in no way be conceded without prejudice to the divine truth. (2 Cor. 6:1: Sunergou’te” parakalou’men: We who are servants or coworkers with God beseech you who are God’s husbandry and God’s building, 1 Cor. 3:9, to imitate our example, that the grace of God may not be among you in vain, 1 Cor. 15:10, but that ye may be the temple of God, living and dwelling in you, 2 Cor. 6:16.)

“…after such conversion in the daily exercise of repentance the regenerate will of man is not idle, but also cooperates in all the works of the Holy Ghost, which He performs through us.” — Epitome, Formula of Concord, in the Book of Concord.



87] For the conversion of our corrupt will, which is nothing else than a resuscitation of it from spiritual death, is only and solely the work of God (just as also the resuscitation in the resurrection of the body must be ascribed to God alone), as has been fully set forth above and proved by manifest testimonies of Holy Scripture.


To close this article, it says the following:

89] So also when Luther says that with respect to his conversion man is pure passive (purely passive), that is, does nothing whatever towards it, but only suffers what God works in him, his meaning is not that conversion takes place without the preaching and hearing of God’s Word; nor is this his meaning, that in conversion no new emotion whatever is awakened in us by the Holy Ghost and no spiritual operation begun; but he means that man of himself, or from his natural powers, cannot do anything or help towards his conversion, and that conversion is not only in part, but altogether an operation, gift, and present, and work of the Holy Ghost alone, who accomplishes and effects it by His power and might, through the Word, in the intellect, will, and heart of man, tamquam in subiecto patiente, that is, while man does or works nothing, but only suffers; not as a figure is cut into stone or a seal impressed into wax, which knows nothing of it, neither perceives and wills this, but in the way which has been recounted and explained a short while ago.

90] Since also the youths in the schools have been greatly perplexed de tribus causis efficientibus, concurrentibus in conversione hominis non renati, that is, by the doctrine of the three efficient causes of the conversion of unregenerate man to God, as to the manner in which they, namely, the Word of God preached and heard, the Holy Ghost, and the will of man, concur, it is again manifest from the explanation above presented that conversion to God is a work of God the Holy Ghost alone, who is the true Master that alone works this in us, for which He uses the preaching and hearing of His Holy Word as His ordinary [and lawful] means and instrument. But the intellect and will of the unregenerate man are nothing else than subiectum convertendum, that is, that which is to be converted, it being the intellect and will of a spiritually dead man, in whom the Holy Ghost works conversion and renewal, towards which work man’s will that is to be converted does nothing, but suffers God alone to work in him, until he is regenerate; and then he works also with the Holy Ghost [cooperates] that which is pleasing to God in other good works that follow, in the way and to the extent fully set forth above.”

Is the Formula saying that a longing for divine grace and eternal salvation is something less that true faith? Is this something less than a true resuscitation from spiritual death? Something less than a “conversion” or “regeneration” that “counts” (i.e., is salvific) unless the will cooperates?

Not at all! These longings which the Formula of Concord calls “this beginning of true godliness” are the sheer gift of God. They can offer us confidence that God will “further strengthen and help them in their great weakness to persevere in true faith unto the end.”

We should not think for a minute that true Christians will not need to hear these comforting words. The other evening we were doing family devotions and I read the following bit from a neat little book of Lutheran missionary stories, Food from Ravens: Stories of God’s Power & Provision Through Prayer:  

Food from Ravens
by Jan Tollefson (Editor),
Wanda Manson (Editor)


“Now, in the dark of night, doubts about my own salvation haunted me. Being a missionary didn’t make me immune. I woke my husband. ‘Kris, this morning I told Ruth’s neighbors that she knew and loved Jesus. I believe she did. But how do I know that I do?’ Kris asked me what John said about it. As I read the fourth chapter of First John, a happy peace immediately replaced doubt when I came to verse six: ‘Whoever knows God listens to us.’ I realized that I had just turned to God’s Word in full trust to find truth – and doing that, in itself, was evidence that I know and love Jesus… (26 and 27)”

(incidently, I could tell for the first time in a long time, the resident 15-year old really appreciated the devotion… )

To make this very clear: What is being talked about above is certainly not just a will that is something other than the natural powers of our fallen and evil will. We can and must say more. What is being spoken about is a Christian’s will, a new will, that exercises the true faith that it has been given.

Right from the beginning, a new man has been created. We have, as Luther would say, a truly free will:

“People say: ‘Yes, certainly, God has given us a free will’. To this I reply: ‘To be sure, He has given us a free will; why then will you not let it remain free but make it your own will. If you do with it what you will, it is not a free will. It is your own will. But God has given neither you nor any man your own will, for your own will comes from the devil and from Adam. They made the free will which they received from God into their own will. For a free will desires nothing of its own. It only cares for the will of God, and so it remains free, cleaving and clinging to nothing.”


Again, does grace simply add the ability for the will to cooperate in conversion? Or is it something more?

“…before the conversion of man there are only two efficient causes, namely, the Holy Ghost and the Word of God, as the instrument of the Holy Ghost, by which He works conversion.” — Epitome, Formula of Concord (Martin Chemnitz, ones of its authors, pictured).


If you think that this is true in spite of the passages above from the Formula of Concord, I submit that it is more or less inevitable that this will also affect how you understand election.

You may very well conclude that since God desires all to be saved, the difference of why some are elect and not others must ultimately be in each person!

Luther’s partner Phillip Melanchthon ultimately ended up believing this, throwing the Reformation into question after Luther’s death. Interestingly, in Melanchthon’s 1543 Loci Communi, three years before Luther died, he speaks about predestination in term of God’s plan to save all persons, something Melanchthon himself seems to take real comfort in… So why did he, and not Martin Chemnitz and the Formula of Concord, feel compelled to assert that “it is certain that the cause of reprobation is the sin in men who do not hear or receive the Gospel or who reject the faith, even before they have departed from it”? (173, 1992 J.A.O Preus edition)[i]

For some reason, Melanchthon had to go there. And he believed, ultimately, that there must be in man a cause of discrimination why some are elected and others are rejected.

The proponents of the “intuita fidei” position believed the same at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in the predestination controversy, even as they vigorously contested the charge that they were reaching for human merit.

That said, given what we have seen above, how can one avoid concluding that something else besides the grace of God is involved? The true Christian view is simply to assert that it is from causes outside of one’s self by which we are saved and elected. Only when this is the case can any among us come to a knowledge of the truth and gain salvation.

God’s Holy Spirit operates through His Word and Sacraments—calling us, justifying us, and sanctifying us through the Gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The crucial question for each of us who is in Christ then is how we should live in that knowledge.




[i] Also: “As a certain synergism on man’s part is not to be excluded from the means of grace prior to the inward, godly activity of grace, so a synergism of the human will and divine grace occurs not only after the completion of conversion but also during the act of conversion itself.”


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Posted by on February 8, 2020 in Uncategorized