Monthly Archives: September 2020

How to Think Straight When God is Punishing Your People

Perhaps you did help make him, and yet….

“18 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel….

 The one who sins is the one who will die.” – Ezekiel 18:1-3


I remember years ago working at a church and having an interesting discussion with a colleague about a movie she’d seen.

She shared how much she’d appreciated the theatrical remake of the Dr. Seuss story “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” starring, at the time, the popular actor Jim Carey.

I don’t remember many details about the conversation but one thing still stands out in my memory:

She was very impressed with the compassion and understanding the movie showed for the Grinch.

Sure he was a nasty, greedy, selfish character – no doubt about it.

At the same time, I was told that the movie was thoughtful in that it helped the viewer understand why the Grinch was the way he was.

It gave some of his “backstory” as some like to say today, showing that he had indeed had a very hard life, a life full of abuse and suffering, and so it only made sense to recognize that he was a monster, yes – but an understandable monster.

Others had created him.

We have the same kinds of discussions today don’t we? Perhaps in these increasingly difficult days, more and more so…

As a matter of fact, these kinds of thoughts are now increasingly dominating our world.

When others do bad things, when they covet, commit adultery, steal, kill… we should realize that we helped make them who they are. In some very real way, we, too, are responsible…

Sinning against them, we made them.

Not too long ago, I had a discussion with a friend about these kinds of things as well. We were talking about rates of violent crime being higher among certain groups of people….

My very intelligent friend this:

“Some people choose to steal. What leads them to it? Thrill seeking, peer pressure, and/or economic necessity among other things. Can anything be done to reduce thefts by thrill seeking people? Maybe but probably not. However, there are things that can be done to reduce economic insecurity by societies, communities, organizations, or individuals. Taking action in this way does not reduce the agency of an individual as (s)he could still choose to steal but people’s choices are both constrained and colored by their circumstances and past experiences.”

In other words, it doesn’t only matter that someone else is stealing… You, also, are the man!

Long live the Grinch re-make, right?

I jest a bit here, but is there not truth in what my friend says?

While we shouldn’t ever let such things become our identity, must we not admit that we, each and every one of us, are both victims and victimizers?

This is why I told my friend:

“Your view, I’d argue, is really the only sensible way of looking at the issue. The difference, of course, will often lie in the details of any proposed solutions, as people who genuinely want to make things better will come to have different emphases based on views of human nature, history, and such…”


Now, what am I saying?

Am I encouraging all of you, even indirectly… subtly… to embrace the arguments in the popular new book In Defense of Looting?

Not at all!

May it never be! : )

No, what I really looking to say is this:

While we would be fools to think that we will not be held accountable for the ways that we have caused others to sin, or even been complicit… involved… entangled, in how the society we live in has caused others to sin, this is also often something that only God can sort out, and will.

The fact of the matter is that we do not always understand the real, underlying causes about why people do bad things.

We do not even understand why we ourselves desire, think, say, do the evil things we do.

We do know, however, that sin is in all of us….

And God means for each and every human being not to focus on locating the problems and sins we have outside of ourselves but to keep on asking: How have I displeased the Lord? In what ways am I responsible here?

For ultimately, when it comes to the matters of living this life on earth, every person must blame no others for their sins but embrace full accountability for their own thoughts, words, and deeds…

And this is also a sign for us about how that accountability – and that real corresponding guilt – holds true before God as well.

That is what our text makes very clear this morning:

Each of us must stand naked before God, with all our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds…

Without excuse.

As David put it in a prayer, kindly aiding us today:

“Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge….”


Now before we get into our text from Ezekiel more, let’s talk about its surrounding context.

If you read the first 18 chapters leading up to this, for example, you will see that God does not begin by addressing each individual person.

Rather, we see that there is definitely something we might call corporate sin…

This, in fact, early on, seems to be largely what the book of Ezekiel is about… They, as a people, a communal group, have “not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules…”

They have gone whoring after other gods.

Now, let’s remember: the Israelites that Ezekiel is pummeling here had been through a lot!

First, they had been surrounded by their neighbors, the Canaanites, who worshipped false gods, going so far as practicing temple prostitution and offering their own children as sacrifices.

Second, Israel had been invaded by these neighbors time and again, and had experienced much abuse, hardship, and suffering… The ones Ezekiel is talking to in fact had been taken as slaves, carried off into exile in Babylon…

Therefore, many in this time had concluded that God had abandoned them – or that He had no power – and so turned to their neighbor’s false gods and goddesses for relief…

Now one might think, especially if we are living in America today, that all of this might be somewhat understandable, much like my colleague thought the Grinch had been shown to be “understandable”…

After all, hadn’t their neighbors—the nations around them—been at least one of the reasons why they fell into sin… they fell so dramatically way from the Lord?

Well, strictly speaking, the Bible doesn’t deny the nations around Israel are a part of this story.

And yet, as the same time, that doesn’t mean that Israel’s sin, to God, was in any way “understandable”… (air quotes)

God, in fact, would seem to have very little patience for such a sentiment, for He addresses the matter of their fear head on:

“…you have feared the sword, and I will bring the sword upon you”, the Lord says…

In chapter 7, for example, we read this:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Disaster! Unheard-of[a] disaster!
See, it comes!
The end has come!
The end has come!
It has roused itself against you.
See, it comes!
Doom has come upon you,
upon you who dwell in the land.
The time has come! The day is near!
There is panic, not joy, on the mountains.
I am about to pour out my wrath on you
and spend my anger against you.
I will judge you according to your conduct
and repay you for all your detestable practices.

I will not look on you with pity;
I will not spare you.
I will repay you for your conduct
and for the detestable practices among you.

“‘Then you will know that it is I the Lord who strikes you.” (Ezek. 7:5-9) (see also 7:26)

While God makes it clear in the preceding chapters that He desires “that they may be my people and that I may be their God,” it also clear that punishment must come…

“Though they escape from the fire, fire shall yet consume them…” (Ezek. 15).

He also repeats three times that even if Noah, Daniel, and Job themselves were in the city of Jerusalem, “they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness”.

If it were the case, that these three righteous men were in the city, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. [Noah, Daniel, and Job] alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate” as “sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence” came (Ezek. 14).

As we hear the rhetorical question elsewhere, “can [one] break the covenant and yet escape?”[i]

And yet, at the same time, the book is not without hope.

Also in these chapters, there are great promises to God’s people as a whole – not just those who have been faithful, practicing daily repentance.

In spite of all the fierce judgment that is coming – and I have given you only a taste of what is in the book… – the Lord will “atone for all that you have done” and, He says:

19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezek. 11)


And now, these verses:

“18 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?”

This proverbial saying was evidently quite popular in Israel at this time. Also quoted in the book of Jeremiah, it meant just this:

The children are experiencing trouble or discomfort for something their fathers had done.

So what is going on here with this question?

Well, the question from God is rhetorical of course.

This means that “Ezekiel is not asking for a direct answer,” rather he is “challenging his audience to defend their shallow attempt to deny their [own] guilt.” (Lutheran Study Bible)

You really think you can blame your parents for what the disaster that is coming upon you now?

No way.

In the book of Jeremiah, when that prophet speaks of the restoration of God’s favor, we are told that those redeemed by the Lord will no longer quote this saying or “shrug of personal responsibility for their misdeeds” (Lutheran Study Bible).

In other words, locating problems and faults outside of themselves might be as natural as gasping for breath when oxygen is taken away, but they will nevertheless come to realize that I, and I alone, “am the man.”

So it is by God’s rejection of this common saying or proverb, in both the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, that we get to the matter of each individual person.

Each one who must, taking account of their own sin, stand before God alone.


Again though… at the same time though…on the other hand though… books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel also force us to recognize that we may indeed be parts of larger groups that are enmeshed in all manner of sin and sinful habits.

…and that this deeply matters to God and should to us as well.

In fact, it is critical for us to recognize that those who stand up against the world and His ways – who resist its allure and influence – are a critical part of God’s plan!

This is why, for example, when the Apostle Paul is encouraging spouses involved in marriages, he says this:

“And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”


And so… we see again that while each individual must stand before God alone[ii], the corporate aspect, “the collective,” the community, the group, “the people” – matters.

….and particularly when it comes to things like marriages and families. And this, of course, should raise another question:

“If we today are being punished by God… if we are experiencing His wrath in our lives….

Does this mean that it is not because of the sins of our ancestors, but because of the sins of the present group of people of whom we are a part?”

Does this mean that the past—other than the sin of Adam and Eve which we know got the ball rolling—doesn’t matter?


Well, not exactly, for here we must speak of a distinction between “generational guilt and generational corruption…”

Generational guilt, or as some might call it, “transgenerational accountability,” (Block, 558-559), would mean that God holds you responsible for the sins of your ancestors, and punishes you on earth accordingly for those sins.

But generational guilt does not exist.

God is even irritated with those who would suggest it does exist by uttering that proverb about the sour grapes…

And yet, insofar as you do not renounce and avoid, the sins of your ancestors… the sins of your parents… you are indeed guilty of generational corruption.

After all, in our text today we see that it is not generational guilt that Israel is being punished for.

It is their present corruption. They have continued in… they have been permitted by God to continue in… the corruption of their parents.

This is what the Lord means when He continuously talks about how He “visit[s] the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…”

When God said this in the book of Exodus and later on, it was meant as a “warning to adults to guard their conduct because of the implications for their children” (Block, 55). It is not about generational guilt.

We can see this elsewhere in the Penteteuch, for example, the first five books of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, for example, Israel’s civil law says this:

“Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” (24:16)

And later on, Jeremiah helps us see what is going on more clearly when he says:

“We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,

and the iniquity of our fathers,

jfor we have sinned against you.” (14:20)

Or, as Ezekiel quite simply puts the whole matter, “like mother, like daughter…”

“The apple doesn’t far from the tree…” we might think.

And yet again, we see that while this might “make sense,” it doesn’t render things “understandable” (air quotes).

For in our text, God is essentially saying:

“Stop blaming your parents for the disaster that is coming upon you now!”

So… as unfair as all of this may seem to us, God really does expect you to overcome the circumstances that you are born into, and to resist what is wrong in the world you are born into…. The world you know….

So what is wrong in your world?


That brings us to today then, doesn’t it?


Our time.

What can we, do we, know about our sin, about the sins of our group, or the groups we are a part of?

We know that we have the very clear word of God. God has told us clearly in His Word the kinds of things that merit His punishment. We also know from Jesus (in Luke 13:1-5) that whenever evil men or calamity strike, it is a reminder for all people to repent.

We also know from Scripture what sins God held against Israel in the days of Ezekiel:

“He eats at the mountain shrines.
He defiles his neighbor’s wife.
12 He oppresses the poor and needy.
He commits robbery.
He does not return what he took in pledge.
He looks to the idols.
He does detestable things.
13 He lends at interest and takes a profit.”

We also know that today we do not have a clear word from God about when a specific people is being punished for specific sins.

That said, this is not to say that many of us might not come to a rather solid conclusion, have some real confidence… that we, as a people, we as a church, we as a nation, are experiencing punishment from God…[iii]

What sins do you think we have committed which anger God?

Can you know which sins we have committed which anger God?

What about all of the things people in the world, those in the media, are complaining about now?

  • is it because cops tend to pull over black people disproportionately we are being punished?
  • is it because of what some are calling the “scourage of police violence”? (Breonna Taylor is on the minds of many…)
  • is it because of the overly harsh “war on drugs”?
  • is it because white people have not acknowledged, or not sufficiently acknowledged, their guilt over race-based chattel slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crowe?
  • is it just because those with riches have not taken adequate account and care of those without them?
  • is it because of cuts in welfare or health care programs?
  • is it because of a disrespect and disregard for the environment?
  • is it just because of institutional forces that have a negative impact on minority groups — even if bad intentions are not present?[iv]

Now, in mentioning all of these things I do not mean to suggest that exploring and understanding these topics is not worth our time.

I think responsible and reasonable people should try to do what is best as regards each one of them. They all matter.

At the same time, many of these are highly complicated issues… and few of them seem to offer obvious answers.

People will often disagree – and disagree strongly – about matters such as these.

Perhaps, not even all devout Christians will be able to come to a consensus about which sins in America today are angering God the most…

For my own part, I personally take to heart the words of a friend, who said this to me….

“There is a real tough preaching about the Christian Hope not being in this world, but in the coming fullness of the Kingdom. One can lawfully seek address of grievances, but the second your hope moves to this world (Liberation Theology, Social Gospel) you’ve lost the gospel…The Christian case for reparations is really the one for a Jubilee. Debts forgiven, land returned. It will never happen. But even that just points to what is missing, the true judge who would render true judgements…  “The real problem is the loss of the eschatological vision and [help]. This world is a both our Father’s good creation and veil of tears. It owes us nothing. But the Kingdom is near. When that collapses to just this world ‘Grab what you can by any means necessary becomes the rule.’”

I believe with all my heart my friend is wise.

I also believe that even if others don’t think he is wise, there are other things we can know, namely:

God means for us not to focus on our rights, but our responsibilities.

Wherever we are in life, He means for us not to point the fingers at others first, but to self-examine…

Also, I would suggest taking a much more serious look at the basics, the 10 commandments – and judging our current worlds’ circumstances according to these….

Why should this not always be the place we start?

Now, I realize that for many today, even these basics – taught to us from the times we were little imbibing Martin Luther’s Small Catechism – have been thrown into confusion, but that is precisely why they are so important right now.

There is also another thing that we who believe in Jesus Christ can be very, very sure about…

Things can be even more basic.

Have no other gods before him? St. Augustine even said that this commandment, this first commandments, was the key to all commandments. “Love God and do what you will….!”, he said.

Luther agreed, noting that all of our other sins against God’s commandments come from a failure to keep the first. As he put it in the Large Catechism:

“…where the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is observed, all the others follow.”

This is why, for example, in the book of Revelation, God calls the church back to its First Love.

Don’t let the flame go out, your love grow cold…


Again, in a way, the Grinch movie was right.

We help make others. And we are responsible for all the sins that we have committed against others. For all the ways that we have caused them to sin.

No one, really, could have put it more forcibly than Jesus:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”

And yet, note this also: the kinds of evils that we are to be accused of are not always going to be the ones that the world might pick, call evil.

Does the world still agree that child and sex trafficking are evil? It seems so…. It seems like most can all get behind a fight this – for the time being, at least….

But what about the sin that God says Ezekiel will be guilty of if he does not take courage in the Lord and get over his fear over the mad crowds?[v]

What about the church’s call to tell the world to repent… to turn to the One True God in faith? As Luther said, what about “picking a fight with the world”?

The world doesn’t want to be told it is wrong. Many Christians do not want to tell the world it is wrong….

But take courage and stand, lest you not stand at all!

And so, as the opportunities approach you, don’t hesitate.

We can’t hesitate.

Because people, deep down, know they are wrong, even as some more violently suppress the truth than others….

And keep in mind this too: Satan—even as he delights to lead men into selfish pleasures—doesn’t just do that.

He will even at times proclaim God’s law Himself. Though with the intent of destroying men’s souls.

How so? By endlessly accusing us of failing to be good Christians… or even of failing to be good humans… Until he drives us to despair, guilt, and death.

No forgiveness or relief at all… he wants a world without such things.

Such is the god of this world!

Only our God, who alone is both strong and good, is different!

Provides and is, in fact, the Way.

God, again, is the One who desires that none should, enmeshed in sinful families and neighbors, perish but eternal life….

Again, as God puts it in Ezekiel:

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord… For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”

And so hear the Apostle Paul again, this as he encourages his young charge, Pastor Timothy…!:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. 23Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. 24And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

As the 16th century Lutheran pastor Martin Chemnitz put it:

“In Christ a person does not bear the iniquity of the father, because it has been taken away…”

And so again, I say to you:

“In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for His sake God forgives you all your sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.”



[i] God is not saying that these three men were sinless. He is saying that they were righteous by faith, and that they lived by faith. Repentance was indeed something that characterized their faith…

[ii] “….when many of the old bonds of family, community, and so on disintegrated, the environment of ‘every man for himself”…. (speaking of the Exile, Diaspora) – Hummel, 533

[iii] And here, when it comes to very earthly concerns, these questions naturally arise:

Who do we think are our people?

Who should we think are our people?

Nationally, if we do not think we are really one people, what do we do?

[iv] An idea not worthy of consideration, to be sure: I used to respect Tim Keller a lot but things like this have changed that.

[v] From Ezekiel 3: “I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself…”

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Posted by on September 28, 2020 in Uncategorized


A Critical Review of John Pless’ “Handling the Word of Truth”



We all expect our most respected professors to be very well-read individuals and fluent in their disciplines. The Fort Wayne theology professor John Pless, however, goes beyond even this expectation and has a reputation for encouraging his students to read some of the most creative and unconventional minds in academic theology, particularly Lutheran academic theology. And how many professors do you know who can admit to having a Facebook group dedicated to them like “Would would Pless read”? (you know, playfully imitating the “WWJD” fad of the early 2000s). And this, to be sure, has its merits…. For example, even though I have not read Oswald Bayer’s book Promissio (I think it is only in German now), as best I understand it, his thesis about confession and absolution being the heart of the Reformation[i] is essentially correct even if it is not wholly in line with the traditional story that has been told…

Long live the Reformation!


That said, my reaction to the book I’m reviewing in this article is pretty much the opposite. And, interestingly, although this was not the intention (this was written weeks ago), the criticisms made of Dr. Pless’ book below can also basically be applied across the board to the latest Thinking Fellows podcast, entitled, “The Telos of the Law”.

Luther says that the law’s accusation ceases and that Christ
is the end of the law for righteousness.


Of course, it is not possible that John Pless’ 2004 book Handling the Word of Truth – making the effort as it does to sum up C.F.W. Walther’s greatest work – could be all bad. Indeed, there is much in this book that I found edifying (more of this at the end of the review). Nevertheless, in reading it I also came across a number of things which concerned me at best and caused me to cringe at worst.

For instance, we learn that the law cannot be presented as good news in preaching (21, 47) and, it seems, offers no hope or sweetness in any context (35, 36). In spite of Walther himself (“We do not by any means reject cooperation on the part of man after his regeneration; we rather urge it upon him lest he die again and incur the danger of being lost forever…”) — the man whose great work this book is summarizing — cooperation in sanctification also dare not be talked about without damaging Christian proclamation (50).

And while it is true that the law must sometimes be abandoned completely (23), Dr. Pless’ explanations fall short of Luther’s full understanding of this. As Luther makes abundantly clear in the Antinomian Disputations, the law must be abandoned completely when the Christian’s conscience is under vicious attack from the law of God as wielded by Satan, who does this specifically in order destroy our souls. In addition, the good Dr. never talks about the kinds of attacks weak and poorly-formed consciences might undergo from popular man-made expectations that are contrary to God’s law (is this because, as Radical Lutherans like to imply or assert, no one person or people, at bottom, is an antinomian?[ii]). In fact – in statements which carry particular weight in the dark days we are experiencing today – Pless insists that the Bible teaches that knowledge of the Ten Commandments would only make things worse for public morality, not better (15, though see 29 as well). “Why though,” one might ask, “say this if ‘without the true God, man will always attempt to create a substitute deity’”? (31) Is it because, in spite of the fact that “virtues may be praiseworthy and beneficial when it comes to life in human community,” (76) God has no desire for the nations to deeply study, understand, and learn His law? (also, does the specific public religion make any difference when it comes to how a people lives? One is left wondering…)

The book also talks about just how very different the Law and Gospel are: the “clash” between Law and Gospel “puts faith itself on trial,” causing us to wonder if there is something we must do if we are to have peace with God (24). At the same time, just because the uses of Law and Gospel by some might put Christian faith on trial in this particular way (hint: see above paragraph), does this mean that this is God’s intent for the doctrines (Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 23)? In the end, for the author of this book, the only change the law can work in us is death. If Christ is not the end of the law – not the end of the law for righteousness, as Luther taught – the law will lead either to a pride or despair focused on external works – the “Turk’s faith”… (8, see also 38-39).

In Handling the Word of Truth one gets the impression that the law’s only function is, in Sartre-esque fashion, to “post[] a ‘No Exit’ sign over every doorway we go through to try and meet God on our own terms” (32). And so what then would be the theological implication of the things we have spoken about above when it comes to preaching? It seems that the only way a Christian can learn from the law is that he is to die or must, somehow, learn to die… Even if Luther and Walther might have spoken of times where it is appropriate to attenuate the law for believers or even encourage them to do God’s commandments, the author repeatedly states, in a number of ways, the following: “[u]nrelenting in its demand, the Law can only make sin manifest for what it is and crush the sinner with its death sentence” (40). Faith in the Gospel, however, frees us from the ongoing death that is our own self-justification (48)….

In sum then, one is left with the distinct impression that if the Christian is ever being told to do something it is necessarily because he is a self-justifying sinner (perhaps I, holding the contrary view, am addicted to “lawfulness” [16]!) and he needs to be put to death (he can’t, after all, no matter how good he is, do anything perfectly). To complicate these matters all the more, we are not only given the impression that the law merely “imposes itself ‘out of the conditions of creaturely life’” as James Nestingen says (37), but also that the moral teachings of all non-Christian religions are essentially the same (see 12-13 ; see 54 as well though). Of course this is hardly true, for it is clear that the law was given Israel to proclaim the identity of the only true God whom all men are called to worship.

Speaking of matters of identity, it is good and necessary to know the Christian Gospel in its narrow sense, where Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from sin, death, and the devil and “gives… rest in Christ” (33). At the same time, the Formula of Concord also speaks about the Gospel in the wider sense, and here it no doubt helps us to understand ever more deeply whose we are and what we are called to do as children of the household of God (see FC SD V:5 and the Small Catechism: “That I may be his own…”). So there is a real connection here with the law: the first table of the Law commands us to do something of the first importance… fear, love, and trust the one true God. One cannot help but think about the implications of this vis a vis Pless’ assertion on page 69 that faith can never be described as “our commitment, duty, decision…”. Why, specifically? Would that perhaps introduce the sin of people “motivated by the Gospel” (35) and a “theology of glory” (76)? For the author, “[w]hat law requires is freedom from the law” (quoting Leif Grane approvingly, 40). And yet, if freedom is “found only in the Law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ” (40), how are we to also ponder God’s law as “the perfect law of liberty”? (see the book of James).


I should add at this point that one of the consequences of the author’s approach seems to be one of the very things he warns about happening actually happening: “When antinomians ancient or modern try to make the Law go away by theological quackery, they only succeed in relocating the Law. They end up inserting it into the Gospel” (44-45, see also 74). I see this among many of those who appreciate and follow Dr. Pless. For example, it is thought by some that the new law Christ gives — “love one another as I have loved you” — really does differ from what the 10 commandments mean to get at in some very significant ways!

Not long ago, I heard a highly intelligent pastor (this is Pastor John Drosendahl, who told me to feel free to use his name here) who appreciates the good doctor say: “…if my member according to their new self desires good works, I’ll direct them to ask [‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’] so that they will realize that the Gospel alone produces good works.” First of all, this is better than the response I once heard from another highly intelligent Pless-following Confessional Lutheran pastor, basically “If someone is wanting help from me to become a better father or husband, for example, I know I am dealing with someone who is trying to save himself.” Second, my response to the pastor’s claim that this will make the member realize the Gospel alone produces good works is “Why would helping them to say ‘Is this the loving/caring thing to do?’ necessarily cause them to realize this?” I cannot understand why this distinction – this different way of saying what is in fact the same thing (Luther’s explanation of the commandments in the Small Catechism!) – is somehow the thing that pastors should be doing. What I think this pastor does not see is that this could be just as much a word of condemning law as simply urging someone to do their duty (the loving thing) by saying “God commands this [because he loves you and them].” The pastor says “…our attempts to ‘follow God’s commands’ do not result in doing the loving thing,” but that just is not necessarily the case. For instance Adam, in the Garden, didn’t need to ask himself the question about the “loving/caring” thing. Adam just needed to recognize that God was love, loved him, and desired him to follow His commandment for his and Eve’s own good for that very reason. And, as Luther says, the Tree was meant to increase Adam’s knowledge about God’s loving will.

Regarding this confusion about Jesus’ new commandment, my pastor talked to me about this years ago:

“Jesus said that He was giving the disciples a new commandment. First of all, why would they need a commandment? Secondly, is the new commandment for them to love? Well, if it is to love, than how is it new? Certainly the 10 commandments requires such love, as Jesus Himself taught. So it just must be that the love the disciples were to express had been modeled by Jesus, and so what was new, was that the love they were to express would be expressed by imitating Jesus.

So: Jesus fulfilled the law; the disciples imitated Jesus. In other words, the law was fulfilled by imitating Jesus who fulfilled the law.

But if there is no third use [of the law], then love must somehow be juxtaposed over against the law. So: either follow the commandments (the law) OR be loving…”

In other words, if there is no third use — or the third use is just the first or second use applied to the Christian — then the door is open for love to somehow be juxtaposed over against the law (because law which forces compliance might serve a salutary function in keeping order and peace without true justice which goes hand in hand with love)… Perhaps, in the end Jesus is *justly accused* as a violator of God’s own law so that all sinners may have assurance of eternal life? (Forde) In violating the law, for example, Jesus Christ is actually being faithful to his Father’s mission to save the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt 10:6) and those from the other sheep pen? Think, for example, how Jesus *presumably* breaks the Law by, for example, dining with sinners! See what is happening here? Or, at least, how the door is opened up for this to happen?


What to make of all this? I’ll give you my own view. Many of the men whom John Pless touts like Bayer, Paulson, Forde, and Elert — and who it appears he has at times publicly touted without any warning or reservation – also reject the 3rd use of the law. For folks like me – who believe that a denial of the true definition and intention of any use of the law is a denial of the whole law – this is serious business.

Dr. Pless, as best I can tell, basically agrees with the substance of the critique of these men, which appears to be what he means when he talks about the “so-called third use of the law.” It is unclear, in my mind, for example, how his position would differ substantially from that of John Hoyum, who, I believe is more or less defending the Confessional Lutheran status quo when he states:

“Confessional Lutherans more positively disposed to the Formula of Concord (FC) than [Gerhard] Forde was might be more inclined to retain the category of the law’s third use. Even so, Forde’s rejection of the third use need not be especially upsetting at this point, since he affirmed that the law is used with regard to the old creature still captive to sin. In no way did he deny that the Ten Commandments are normative for the conduct of the Christian….while Forde rejects the FC’s designation of a third use, he upholds the position of the concordists and Luther’s antinomian disputations in specifying that the law must be applied to Christians who struggle against the old nature that remains bound in sin. Even while Forde disagrees with the decision to identify––in a titular sense––a third use of the law, it would be hard to demonstrate that Forde’s teachings on the law contradict the actual doctrinal content of FC VI. Forde’s criticisms of the development of the lex aeterna in later Lutheranism are fair game, and remain a convincing indictment of much orthodox Lutheranism and how it went on to deploy the doctrine of the law after the period of reform––regardless of how else that episode of Lutheran history might be rightly admired…”

I know I can’t be the only one who finds this kind of thinking to be both confusing and tragic. What if someone in the Confessional Lutheran house spoke about the “so-called doctrine of justification” — you could bet that every head would turn!

To me, it seems as if many among us are incapable of reading Paul’s epistles and Luther’s sermons at face value, even as they look askance at those who would attempt to sound like them today! I can’t emphasize how important I think this kind of shift really is, and Hoyum, at least, tips his hand about what he thinks this means vis a vis the LCMS: “[with Forde] a refreshing alternative to a fundamentalist construal of inerrancy comes into view…”[iii]


One final issue to address directly here: a common complaint is that Confessional Lutherans like me say people should not read teachers who speak error. That is really an unfair accusation, and strikes me as more of a rhetorical move which ignores the truth of the matter. I will again assert that there is much in Pless that is interesting, good and edifying (most all the stuff that is not in this blog post, especially all the quotes from the Bible, Luther, Walther, the Confessions, and Bo Giertz that I am not sharing…) – and he is far more careful in the way he talks about Law and Gospel as it relates to the content of the Bible as a whole than men like Forde and Paulson (see 19-20). I especially appreciate and take seriously the warning of Craig Parton that he quotes on page 56 about how the Christian continues to need to hear the narrowly preached Gospel (forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ for you!) his entire life. This is indeed the great treasure that Luther and those following in his train preserved and delivered more clearly than ever before in the church’s history! (chapter 6, by the way, along with the appendix [one of Luther’s sermons] is the best and most edifying part of the book).

That said, I find the book to be severely deficient on several fronts. If it is not clear from what has already been written above, consider the following: First, as Walther says, “’What he said was the truth,’ and yet you do not feel satisfied” (quoted on 21): the problem is often not what is said, but what is left unsaid (for example, how did Luther treat passages like Romans 5:20 about the law causing sin to abound? – see 72 ; didn’t Walther also talk about the “true visible church”? – see 88). And this brings me to my second reason. As a friend recently put it in a conversation we were having:

“If the Lutheran Confessions are the apex of Luther, and Lutheranism is the apex of Scripture, then what else do we judge the Confessions on but Scripture? If we must read the Confessions in the light of Luther, and Luther in the light of Scripture, then we must read the Confessions in the light of Scripture as the source of Truth.”

And if that is true for the Confessions – and it is (though how many in the Confessional Lutheran world today could even articulate this?) – how much more so for teachers like John Pless!

Finally, upon finishing this review, I came to realize that the book I was reviewing was not the most up-to-date version. The book was revised in 2015, and so I look forward to seeing if any improvements were made in that edition. I promise, God willing, to post on it too.



Update: An earlier version of this post had a caption under the picture of the book. That quote did not belong there, as it was from a previous post that made use of the quote in a different context.

Update 2: A sentence in the above review has been changed above to increase clarity. From “which, interestingly, Pless gets close to saying given his comments on page 23” to, instead: “Pless himself also gets close to saying that this is not God’s intent, but does not quite get there — see page 23”

[i] Steve Paulson also notes this in the interest of promoting his own work and ideas. See the Outlaw God podcast as well as my own critiques of Paulson’s theology.

[ii] Note, for example, what John Hoyum says about American culture and ask what this necessarily has to do with God’s law: “I myself am highly skeptical that the ideology of modern, western liberalism is especially antinomian. Indeed, it represents a ruthlessly legalistic construal of human life in terms economic performance, the security of the self against death in a technologically reshaped world, and the chaotic embrace of alternative sexual moralities (not the rejection of sexual morality altogether).”


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Posted by on September 21, 2020 in Uncategorized


Is Forgiveness Required of Christians?


“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:35


Many years ago, after I left for college, my parents welcomed some foreign exchange students into their home.

Now, one of these students had absolutely no trouble “making himself at home.” It soon became obvious how if there were special snacks or treats in the cupboards or refrigerator, those snacks would disproportionately end up in his stomach at a remarkable speed…

In short, the student would not be shy about taking what he wanted when he wanted it. He wasn’t asking anyone for any favors – he was creating a “new normal” for the year.

Again, this was all very much out in the open…

And it drove my brothers, of similar age to the student, just a bit crazy. What they perceived as his sense of entitlement got to them….

It is an interesting question, isn’t it?

What, do we think, should we expect from others?

Perhaps, more specifically, what do we think we are owed? What do we think we deserve from others?

Should we perhaps think that we, being poor and miserable sinners, are not really owed anything by anyone?

I mean, after all, this is the meaning of mercy and grace right? Mercy is not getting what we deserve and grace is getting what we don’t deserve.

And yet, because God is so surprisingly good, we get God’s grace, sometimes understood as the acronym, G.R.A.C.E. – God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense……

My family’s foreign exchange student aside… and the truth about our being undeserving of God’s grace aside… these questions, really, are not an unreasonable thing for us to ask….

In last week’s Epistle readings, for example, we learned that earthly rulers who know the Bible might come to expect, for example, that Christians will endeavor to be those who obey government authorities…

Part of what God says to Christians in the book of Romans, after all, is this:

6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor….

And although the first part of this passage is about how to treat governing authorities, Paul goes on to talk about something with even broader implications, the debt of love:

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” a and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” b 10Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Here we see that Christians should see themselves as having a metaphorical debt of sorts. Their duty…responsibility, obligation before God is to love their neighbor!

Since their only “debt” is to love as Christ has loved, they aim to do just this – this is what God desires and how Christians glorify Him, that is, by loving their neighbor in word and deed!

So again, generally speaking, in light of all of this, what do we think we should come to expect from others? And again, perhaps, what are we owed? What do we think we deserve from others?[i]


That passage from Romans 13 can help us begin to answer this question: we should expect Christians – and really all people, frankly, to live in accordance with the 10 commandments….

That said, in the Bible, there are matters having to do with the way believers treat one another which are, to say the least, a bit more nuanced…

For example, in our passage from Romans 14 this week, we also hear the following:

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

What Paul is saying here is this: the 10 commandments, while covering a vast array of the situations that we will find ourselves in on earth, are not all we need to be aware of…

We also need to realize that, in some cases, there are indeed situations that can go either way…. Where there is, as we have often heard: “More than one way to skin a cat…”

Dishonoring your father and mother is always a sin. Murder, Adultery, Robbery, False Testimony, and Coveting what is not yours is always a sin, but the same doesn’t hold for every situation in life in which we might find ourselves disagreeing….

And here, in this passage, as Paul helps the Roman Christians to understand how to live in light of social and cultural differences, he zeroes in on the importance of faith…

So while Martha slaves away in the kitchen, Mary chooses the better thing.

So while Frank gets married, George, who has the gift of celibacy, chooses to forego marriage and decides to basically devote His life to the mission of Christ’s church wherever the Lord might chose to send him…

So while Jane’s husband cheats on her and she, devastated by his infidelity, divorces him, Miriam finds the strength to forgive her wayward spouse, even as both he and she know he deserves no such thing….

Again, note that even if a choice that you might make in this or that particular circumstance is better, the other choice might not be evil but simply not as good.

And here, Paul counsels patience, as both the weak and the strong in faith patiently try to come to a common solution in love….

One might look at the matter this in this simple way. There is nothing wrong with a man regularly going to a pub after work to enjoy the company of his friends. At the same time, once that man is married, once he is in a very different kind of relationship than he was previously… he will no doubt want to think about the amount of time and money he spends there in relation to his wife and family.

And….when it comes to how Christians should live – 10 commandments, the weak and strong… matters can become more nuanced still…

For example, think about what the Paul does in 2 Cor. 9. There, he is collecting money to help the struggling Christians in Jerusalem. Now, Paul certainly wants the Jerusalem congregation to be on the receiving end of much generosity.

As he says, he wants a kind of equality where, specifically, “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little…”

And note how he makes his appeal to the Corinthian Christians. He appeals to the idea of charity:

“….whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully[d] will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency[e] in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work….”

10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Now, even here… not all of our Christian giving is produced in the same way, on the same basis.

In the book of James for example, we are warned — perhaps with things like the Old Testament gleaning laws in mind – not to tell our concrete brothers and sisters in Christ to keep warm without providing a jacket for them.

Be that as it may, we must also recognize that the New Testament also appeals to people on the basis of “charity” as Paul does here, in this passage.[ii]

And at this point we can also get to the real challenge that we have been building up to… Let’s speak about how all of the things we have been talking about relate to the topic of forgiveness…


We know that we are called to forgive.

Also, we know that we cannot live without forgiveness…

And yet, is forgiveness the kind of thing we should think we are owed?

That we should think we can demand?

One of my favorite Christian commentators recently said very something interesting about forgiveness….

“I don’t think we can require forgiveness, as in the church that accepted back a philandering husband because he said he was sorry, while excommunicating the aggrieved wife because she would not forgive him. Forgiveness is always a free gift… [and] the grace to forgive someone is a beautiful thing to behold and is the one way forward.”[iii]

Let’s unpack this a bit…. Frankly, I think this commentator is dealing with a bunch of difficult issues and tangling them all up in a not-so-helpful way… but I really want to focus on these statements in particular…

“Forgiveness is always a free gift…” and “I don’t think we can require forgiveness…”

On the one hand, if we say that forgiveness is not something that we are owed, that we deserve… I think he is on to something.

At the same time, it also raises the questions:

Is forgiveness from others then something to be appealed for much like charity?

Should we encourage people to be forgiving on the basis of charity?

Perhaps, like charity, one should forgive as much to the extent their heart is telling them to forgive?

Can we say this?

Now… we do need to acknowledge that sometimes forgiveness is extremely difficult.

And pastors, in dealing with certain sins of their people, talk about the critical difference between a person defiantly saying “I won’t do this…” vs. desperately saying “I can’t do this…”

I think that is all well and good.

The Scriptures, after all, speak again and again about the patience and forbearance of God… In fact, even in the parable which we heard this morning, the King has shown great forbearance when it comes to the debt of his servants…

All that said, there are also times when passages like Matthew 18 – and the words about not forgiving that immediately follow the Lord’s prayer in Matthew chapter 6 for example – must be looked at straight in the eye and addressed… dealt with… taken seriously.

Is not God here requiring actual forgiveness on our part? That we actually forgive?

Perhaps a certain kind of Lutheran then replies though…: “Isn’t this justification by works?”

No, it’s not – even if some theologians get confused here.

To cut to the chase: if you think you can be justified by what you can do before God, you have actually declared war on God….[iv]

Let’s look at what we really see in Matthew 18 again….


When Peter asks his questions at the beginning of the Gospel reading here about how many times we should be willing to forgive…

He is following up on what Jesus says in verse 15 about going to one’s brother who sins against you.

And if, as in Jesus’ telling, you go to your brother with the hope of being at peace with him, with the hope not of winning but of “winning him”… what that means is that the matter of forgiveness is not an issue with you.

You have, so to speak, already released your fingers from their throat and desire reconciliation….

Again, in Jesus’ telling, the hesitancy is not on your part.

We can also see this in how our text for today closes. There we learn that the forgiveness of sins that is expected from us is not only some formal, external act that we are to go through – but is something that will come from our heart… (Lenski: no pretense is satisfactory! ; 725)

Any hesitancy… any question about this reconciliation… comes in whether or not the brother recognizes that you have basically already forgiven him once he hears about, and understands, that he has in fact sinned…

No, even if the brother who is approached does not see his sin, the one who approaches him does so not to confront him in hot anger, but with a different attitude.

(of course, none of that means hot anger at ones’ being wronged has not occurred, but that, at the time we go to the brother, we do so wanting to win him back…)

For the one who is righteous ultimately does not desire condemnation… even if condemnation is deserved… One instead aims to be like the God who has been merciful to them… for whom “mercy triumphs over judgement….” (James)

And does God want this forgiveness not to be forced but to come about without pressure and threats?

Of course – and here we might well think about how the Apostle Paul appeals to charity. How he tries to encourage believers to be generous in their gifts for the Jerusalem church… “[everyone] should give in one’s heart that which one feels one should give….”

And yet, there is a critical difference here to be sure!

In attempting to encourage persons to be generous, God has the Apostle Paul appeal like this. On the other hand, when it comes to promoting forgiveness among His people, God responds to Peter’s question about how much we must forgive precisely as He does….

As one commentator puts it about Jesus’ purpose here:

“Every time Peter has any doubts regarding the number of times he is to forgive, let him think of this parable and the king it pictures, and all his doubts and hesitations will disappear…” (Lenski, 710)

Cue nervous laughter right?…

No doubt about it…. With this heavy parable – perhaps, you say, this heavy-handed-parable! – the critical point is driven home in an unmistakably clear way that the Christian will forgive….


And thank God!

For even if we are the kind of person who cannot imagine doing an act which is so horrible that it would be condemned by all of our brothers and sisters in Christ…

Would we not, nevertheless, desire forgiveness, reconciliation and “a new lease on life” from others if we did do such a thing?

…Even as we were convinced that no one should forgive us?

So… is something like this parable not as simple as the Golden Rule?

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you…


The servant is said to have a wicked and unforgiving heart…

The 10,000 talents he was forgiven – the debt that was “remitted” or “dismissed and sent it away” – was a crazy sum….[v]

And when this servant than in turn withholds mercy from his own servant, the 100 denarii are a trifling amount.

The difference of unpayable vs easily payable? It evidently doesn’t matter. He grabs him by the throat, and choking him, yells “pay up!”

And God says this: “Wicked servant”.

As the commentator Lenski says “…our many sins deserve hell and, when these include the sins committed against divine grace, they deserve the worst penalties of hell.”

And think about this: the servant does not just show He is unmerciful, ungracious… The servant also shows that he is unjust.

How so? He does not live in accordance with the love and compassion that the law itself points to and demands.

Even the Christian judge (that is a Christian who is a judge), who, in accordance with the law of God, sentences a murderer to the death penalty… to the death penalty…

…that judge nevertheless will be pleased when the murderer repents and, through the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, has the promise of eternal life before him…

This however, is not the way that most human beings are thinking about forgiveness.

No. Sadly, if we do forgive, we are often far more self-centered in the way we see and go about this….

If we do venture to talk about forgiving our neighbors – even those we should love the most – we might see it from a purely selfish perspective:

“I did it for my sake; psychologically, it helped me.”[vi]

No, there is no virtue whatsoever in realizing the truth that unforgiveness, resentment, and a thirst for revenge will destroy us.

…If we think that we deserve some credit for coming to this realization that by itself is fully and completely damnable. 

There is nothing noble in such a self-centered-focus… devoid of any real concern for what forgiveness means for one’s neighbor…

There are more problems with our forgiveness. Often, if we do look outside ourselves to others here, it is because we want to show patience towards, and bring comfort, to the persons who we find pleasing, or continue to find pleasing….

Genuine and authentic? Sure. Christian? No.

And, to top all of this off, even if by His grace He would help us to see and live the wisdom of the Golden Rule in a more fulsome sense, without the clear word that Christ is our Life – who indeed forgives all our sins – we may very well even be prideful of this knowledge and life we “possess”

…to take at least some very real credit for our goodness.

At the very least, we are proud of being humble. Or we are proud of realizing we are proud of being humble, etc. etc.

At bottom, we know ourselves to be good persons with good hearts. There are perhaps some truly bad persons, but we are not among them…


Is it not clear that man perpetually underestimates the depth and seriousness of the sin within him that leads to all manner of actual sins?

Is it not clear that a “Great Divorce” on His part would actually be just!?  In spite of the fact that this thought does not seem to occur for many modern persons claiming Christ?

We sophisticated modern persons often seem to think we are more loving and forgiving than God himself!

No one deserves mercy, but if we could speak that way surely God – who does not need the Golden Rule – would be more than just in withholding it from us.

And before any accuse Him of not following His own Golden Rule here (!) let us realize that He does not need our mercy and forgiveness.

No, He is the Perfect One and the creator of and enforcer of the Golden Rule.

Again, if we were the murderer, shattered by our sins, would we not long for mercy? What this means is that the law — especially understood in terms of the Golden Rule – is born out in this very parable today.

But… just like the end of Romans 1 says, in our heart of hearts, we reveal ourselves to be persons “without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Romans 1:31, NASB).

And, as those who show ourselves to be violators of the Golden Rule, here “the anger or wrath of God is the reaction of his holiness, righteousness, and justice against all sin and above all against obdurate and unyielding sin” (Lenski, 722)

In spite of the fact that we are all one in Adam, we deny that we are our brother’s keeper.

In the realm in which we live, we must not avoid – and cannot avoid – making judgments about what is right and wrong.  That said, only sinless ones are entitled to cast the first stone – that judgment that seals the final cutoff and great divorce, or eternal separation.

But look what even the only Sinless One does instead!

He is merciful.  He takes the harsh blows meant for us!

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

I hope you can join with me in saying to this Lamb: “Lord have mercy!  Hosannah! (that is “save now”)”


So here, in today’s Gospel lesson, we see that God’s law means to shatter us again.

As believers in Christ, we are now truly capable of grasping the “weightier matters of the law” – true mercy, justice and faithfulness (Matt 23)  – and it demands we forgive as one has been forgiven…  

To be sure, this is not like Paul trying to encourage us to be charitable….

And yet, at the same time, just like no one has a “right” to demand “charity” from another person, no one who needs forgiveness has a right to demand it from another either….

So how does this work?

Well, even as we assert that no one who needs forgiveness has a right to demand it from another, we must simultaneously insist that, in general, all Christians must urge their brothers and sisters to live as God’s forgiven children and to forgive!

We often, struggle to make all of these things work together. We, wrongly, demand forgiveness from others when we, personally, have sinned against them.

….a pastor tells a woman that she can’t divorce her adulterous husband because to do that would necessarily mean that she wasn’t forgiving him.

No… forgiveness does not mean that justice completely disappears or that the consequences of our sins will cease to exist in this earthly life…

Our ancestors Adam and Eve broke this world, and, now wholly imperfect, it continues to disintegrate under our watch. In trying to deal with all of these matters practically, our wisdom… and our strength… often fails….

You say you can’t forgive? It is too hard – it involves too much pain, and suffering…your blood, sweat and tears?

In a sense, you are right. You can’t.

You see, only Jesus can ultimately make this work.

And only He has, and gladly so….

For He is the One who both does not desire the death of the wicked and yet enacts the death of the wicked. Only He, you see, perfectly just.

And as the prophet Hosea tells us, in being as compassionate and as faithful as He is, He is this precisely because He is God and not man…

And so only He is able to perfectly sum up our issues here in His own body on the cross… As the book of Romans puts it, “He is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ….”

And that, my friends, is what He does for us. What He has done for us again, even in this very morning…

The One who died for our sins while we were yet sinners, while we were yet enemies of God, forgives us all of our sins.

On the cross, in fact, the Apostle Paul tells, us, He was taking our sin on Himself, become a sin offering for us… that we might become the righteousness of God….

The hesitancy is not on His part.

The hesitancy is never on His part!

So let us be like the servant in the parable who sees His great debt!

Let us all be reconciled with God!

And to go in peace….

And, unlike the servant, let us listen and take to heart to the tender and heartfelt appeal our Father in Heaven makes to us through His Apostle Paul:

Forgive one another….

Just as Jesus Christ has forgiven you….




[i] Consider also what we read in I Cor. 7 about the marital duties husbands and wives have towards one another:

“….since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

A few observations: first, it is clear that Paul does expect fallen human beings in marriages to take his advice. Why “advice”? Well, we note the differences in this passage: here Paul explicitly says that what he says here is a concession and not a command per se. Furthermore, note that later on in I Cor. 7, he goes on to say: “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” Luther handles the passage this way:

“Christians should treasure that eternal blessing which is theirs in the faith, despising this life so that they do not sink too deeply into it either with love and desire or suffering and boredom, but should rather behave like guests on earth, using everything for a short time because of need and not for pleasure. This would mean having a wife as though I did not have one, when in my heart I would rather remain unmarried but in order to avoid sin have found it necessary to have one. But he who seeks not necessity but also desire, he does not have a wife but is himself possessed by a wife. A Christian should hold to this principle also in all other things. He should only serve necessity and not be a slave to his lust and nurture his old Adam.”

In any case we know, questions like these in families, churches, and jobs – regarding this or that context – are often the source of conflict and difficulty….

For the fact of the matter is that often we know we should be treated by someone in one way, but they treat us in another. Examples:

…My boss should pay me more. He knows that we have three small children and really can’t support a family with the wages I’m being paid. And I certainly am not doing the kind of job a high school student might be expected to do!

…She really shouldn’t talk to me like that, show disrespect to me like that… especially in front of the children… Just a little bit of appreciation would be nice…

….I’ve tried to please him in most every way. I’ve cooked the meals he enjoys the most… I haven’t deprived him of intimacy. I’ve spent years of my life raising our children. And yet, he’s going to divorce me.

…James says “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” I’ve been a member of this church a long time and I sometimes often get the sense that people around here, in spite of their “niceness” and support of missions in Africa, don’t really understand at all the struggles people like me have…

[ii] So, let’s ask the question again.

In light of all of this, what do we think we should expect from others?

Or again: what do we think we are owed? What do we think we deserve from other Christians?

Perhaps at this point some of you have become quite aware of something.

You have noticed that so far in this message, I have been framing things in a certain way… Even though in all of these passages Paul is writing to Christians and telling them how it is they should live, I have been talking it terms about what we think we should be able to expect from Christians…. (note the Bible also speaks vs. bribes, false scales, and exploitation — not paying people enough and things like this – for example. And here especially we note that sometimes, it is not hard to determine what is good, and what is equitable… fair and reasonable…. and other times it is much more difficult.)

And I am certainly not saying that there is not a time and a place for this kind of discussion. At the same time, it does us well to note that, generally speaking, the Bible talks more in terms of responsibilities than it does rights

And not only this but the Bible, if we let it, will often shock and offend us in the way it works. For example, while slavery was not in Eden, God permitted slavery not only in the Old but the New Testament!

Therefore, when Christians freed slaves in the ancient church, they didn’t encourage any to rise up like a demanding Spartacus, but rather did so by buying slaves from their masters –yes, by compensating the slavemasters who had the power of life and death over them! – and then setting them free….

Was this the move of people who were weak in faith – or perhaps strong? And what about the Christians Paul wrote to who owned slaves? Don’t answer too quickly….

Does anyone’s neighbor, for example, have the “right” – should they think that before man and God they have the right – to all the things they feel they “need” which have not been granted to them due to “inequitable distribution”?

I submit that one cannot maintain that the Bible says “yes”.

Perhaps, instead, like in the Old Testament, God is calling someone to lend to them without interest, or even to take them on as their own long-term worker….

(On the other hand, “charity” is always encouraged in Scripture… and it is always good to be more and not less generous… (appealed for much like how Paul does in 2 Cor. 8 when taking up a collection for the Jerusalem church).

In like fashion, it does us well to note that as regards these responsibilities, these go beyond “not doing harm” to one’s neighbor. God did not just rely on what we might desire in our heart to give in charity, but He also established, for example, gleaning laws, lending laws (vs. usury) and other laws protecting the weak and poor…

Some of these things we can do too… in line with passages like Romans 14 in particular, we can agree together that this or that thing based on this or that biblical principle it is a good thing to do…  But stuff like this as regards the particulars can never really be a “thus saith the Lord”…. Even as, if things are imposed on us that we think are grossly unfair, we may or perhaps should still be willing to put up with quite a bit… (not calling this or that Christian socialist or democratic socialist a communist for example!))

We should think long and hard… be quite prayerful… about just what it means for Christians to be “salt and light…” for Christian yeast to work dependably, yet perhaps slowly, through the dough of this fallen world…

We remember that we are first and foremost those who appeal for mercy, not what we are owed… In fact, when the Bible speaks in terms of us “holding God accountable” – it is to His promises.

Promises of His to show us compassion and mercy, not promises to give us what we deserve…

And so we beg, we plead, we implore… Not demand.

Even as, yes, we also pray for Him to vindicate us and save us from those who treat us — and Him and His word — wrongly…

Even here though, this desire is to be tempered with Christian compassion… God does not want us to ever be full of resentment for the way that others have treated us, but to be full of the love of God

(Again, the fact of the matter is that even as we demand nothing from God, we know God does expect us as Christians to treat each other in love as our conscience dictates, and also – importantly – to do so while also upholding as binding on all things like the 10 commandments….)

Ideally though, it would be nice if we didn’t have to harp on about our own individual “rights” so much….but if all of us could instead learn to be those who would advocate for others on their behalf….

As they, in turn, would advocate for us…

How willing are you to *help* in that way… even if it isn’t always seen as help?… On behalf of your neighbor….

So, for example (following up footnote 1):

…I think you should perhaps pay him more. You know he has three small children and really can’t support the family with the wages he’s being paid. He does very good work for you doesn’t he? He is certainly not doing the kind of job a high school student might be expected to do!

…It disturbs me that you talk to your husband like that, show him disrespect like that… especially in front of others, including your children… I don’t imagine you want to give the impression to others you take him for granted?

….Well, you have admitted that, in spite of her flaws, she’s tried very hard to please you in most every way: cooking meals you enjoy the most… not depriving you of intimacy, spending years of her life raising your children. Divorce? How could you do such a wicked thing and sin against God?

I know this all sounds like it might be beyond reach. That is might invite more, not less conflict….

But I am convinced that this kind of thing – a love for others that desires what is good for them, that desires what is best for them… is exactly what the Lord calls us to….)

… where we are eager to love, to forgive, and, in our humble and simple circumstances, to help make things right as we can….

[iii] Full quote from Gene Veith:

“I don’t think we can require forgiveness, as in the church that accepted back a philandering husband because he said he was sorry, while excommunicating the aggrieved wife because she would not forgive him.  Forgiveness is always a free gift.  So I’m not saying that the Black Lives Matter protesters should forgive the slave owners and racists.  I’m just saying that the grace to forgive someone is a beautiful thing to behold and is the one way forward.

See Mark Tooley’s account, reflecting on this article, of the arch-segregationist George Wallace seeking and receiving forgiveness from the late Civil Rights activist John Lewis.”

[iv] Sometimes I get the impression contemporary Lutheran theologians – even the more conservative ones! – think they know how to properly divide law and gospel better than Jesus and the Apostle Paul (and Martin Luther too, for that matter).

Re: this passage, here is what Luther says (quoted in Lenski): “For by nature I am thus minded as also I was accustomed in the papacy, that I would gladly do good works to pay for my sins….”

Luther, however, realized this was to declare war on God, as it, in effect, would not trust God’s faithfulness or His righteousness.  In other words, to not trust His very real promises to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

What part of not by works do we not understand? What part of His heart – which certainly itself forgives 70 x 7 and more, releasing us from the guilt we incur because of our sins before God and man – do we not understand?

[v] Lenski: verb indicates “he remitted” (afeken) the debt, literally, “dismissed and sent it away.” (noun is the sending away) (afesis)

[vi] In the end, maybe it is all about us making the subtitle of the book “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus our God” our god, that is, “how to get what you want out of relationships”.



Posted by on September 14, 2020 in Uncategorized