Monthly Archives: January 2023

Clinging to Christ, the Power and Wisdom of God

Magdeburg Days

Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Jan. 29, 2023.


“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe..”

– 1 Corinthians 1:21


Do you believe the book of Genesis is a true historical account?

Do you believe that, years ago, God destroyed the entire world in a flood?

At the beginning of 2 Peter 2, the Apostle Peter wrote:

“Beloved, [my letters to you] are reminders to stir you to wholesome thinking by recalling what was foretold by the holy prophets and commanded by our Lord and Savior through your apostles.

Most importantly, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. “Where is the promise of His coming?” they will ask. “Ever since our fathers fell asleep, everything continues as it has from the beginning of creation.”

But they deliberately overlook the fact that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world of that time perished in the flood. And by that same word, the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”

Brethren, let us be humbled.

Let us remember that is not only men today, our contemporaries living in the last days, who scoff at those who believe the Bible records man’s true history…

The 16th century church reformer Luther reminds us that

“…when Noah built the Ark and said the world would be submerged, this was foolish talk in the eyes of men. Likewise, Lot had to be a fool for saying that Sodom and Gomorrah would perish. Moses and Aaron were fools in the eyes of King Pharaoh. In short, God‘s word and his preachers must be fools, as Saint Paul says” (WLS, 3728).

My friends, do not be fooled by those who think the church’s highest purpose is to contribute to a sense of self-empowerment or some semblance of morality in civil society….


It is about believing the message of man’s sin and God’s grace from the beginning of time.

The church’s highest purpose is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Crucified, risen, and ascended so that all men, blind and wallowing in their own corruption, might be lifted from the pit up to God once again.

And so know for certain how God will be pleased with you:

Hearing and believing the word of God is the highest form of worship!


But what are these wild words that we hear from the Apostle Paul in this week’s Epistle reading?

In sum, it is saying that it is God’s intention that worldly wisdom – even the best wisdom this world has to offer – should not and in fact cannot be the means of knowing God (from the Concordia Self-Study Bible)!

If you know God, you know God because He brought You to Himself, revealed Himself to you, and enlightened your heart with the message that you are a silly, stupid, and straying sheep and that Jesus Christ is your Good Shepherd who put Himself between you and the Wolves that would steal and kill and destroy your soul.

Again, the world’s wisdom should and in fact cannot be our means of knowing God. It doesn’t matter if that wisdom comes from Oprah, Joel Osteen, or Jordan Peterson – nobody is going to cut it.

This is why just a chapter later, the Apostle Paul will go on to make the point that

“the natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Alternatively, the spiritual man has the mind of Christ, and does not attempt to instruct God, but rather is instructed by Him.

Now, again, Paul’s words in our Epistle lesson this morning – and really in the first 2 chapters of I Corinthians – is not saying that preaching is actually foolish or unreasonable but that it is viewed by the world as foolish and unreasonable…


And let’s be honest.

I know, we know, this is hard.

The world is never going to see real Christians, that is those who keep His word, as anything other than foolish and unreasonable.

For they see the cross as foolish and unreasonable…

Just like they have always seen God’s commanding circumcision in the Old Testament for all his people – even 99 year old Abraham – as foolish and unreasonable.

Just as they see God’s underwhelming – at least to the naked eye – gift of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are foolish and unreasonable.

Just the other day I ended up in a discussion with a wonderful Christian colleague at work about the Lord’s Supper. He essentially said that because I took Jesus’s words “This is my body” and “This is my blood” in a simple and child-like sense – and that I said this was the Biblical teaching and historical teaching of the church – that I was being unnecessarily divisive…

Well, God often strikes us as unnecessarily divisive, doesn’t He?

I mean, should we closely examine again the way that Jesus treats the Canaanite woman?

Should we explore the practice that the Apostle Paul says exists because of the angels?

Should we closely look at and ponder just what the Bible teaches about nations, races, slavery, hierarchy, and men and women – and how what He says should impact our lives today?

Do we, like Paul – though in an opposite sense – want to cry out “May it Never Be!”

Don’t say that!

For in doing that, can one even call one’s self a Christian?


My friends, value every word of God.

Wrestle with them if you must.

Pray over them if you must.

Directly address and complain about them to God if you must…

Confess your ignorance and lack of understanding before Him.

Ask Him for help…

In that spirit let us examine our very striking text for today…

Here, we hear about how both the Jews and the Greeks reject God…

The Jews represent those religiously favored by God.

They still reject Him.

The Greeks represent the intellectual elite of the world – the best of the best.

They still reject God.

…God still rejects them.

How can anyone know the truth about God?

Some will point to having religious experiences, particularly those experiences that deeply impact us in our feelings and emotions…

In America in the 19th century, this came to be the case so much so that religious revivalists actually put together methods for bringing people to certain emotional states so that their wills would then freely choose to embrace God…

In other words, these feelings and emotions could be led, manipulated, to do the right thing.

All for the good, of course!

The problem though is that a life based on feelings and experiences such as these, will often, or at least will finally, make one wonder if one is any real Christian at all…

The experience that you need – which the world will not really consider an experience – is the one of hearing and believing the Word of God.

Trust it.

Trust the law.

The Gospel.

All of it.

God’s Spirit desires this for you now!


The classical world was wiser than us experience-obsessed Americans of the early 21st century…

You see, they realized that the best mankind had to offer would involve not just feelings or experiences, but what one could know: in other words using the intellect, the mind – and not being willing to shun all of the important facts and evidences around them…

This explains the immense popularity of, and respect for, philosophers like Plato and Aristotle – and the Stoics like the Roman statesman Cicero…

These men – like the Pre-Socratric philosophers before them – were not wrong to think that the mind deeply appreciating and noticing and studying a common world was meant to play an important role in nature, or better, the creation (many of these believed some kind of Divine Mind was at bottom of things….)

They were wrong, however, to allow their concerns and insights to be isolated from a consideration of history – particularly from the most important historical circumstances testified to them by men…

…like the creation story in Genesis…

…and the story of the worldwide flood…

…and of Babel…

…and of the Exodus…

…and of the promised Redeemer of the people Israel –

… thereby, in effect making their philosophy, their “science” as they called it, the only thing…

…basically implying that men should give heed to their considered views above all else…

…and indirectly demanding – for that is just what is happening here – that the Creator be taught by them… responding to the vain imaginations of their hearts.

Which, as God’s word could have taught them, were utterly soiled and infected with sin…


On the other hand, man’s abilities to explore and understand the world, to use logic and his reasoning abilities, certainly should play a role in the Christian’s life…

In the 13th century, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas did his part to make a strong case for reason’s use – largely holding up the example of Aristotle – in the Christian’s life.

Maybe nowadays some like C.S. Lewis, Norman Geisler, Francis Schaeffer, and John Warwick Montgomery can help you out here a bit…

For there is certainly value in what these Christians do!

We call them Chrisitian apologists. It is not because they are apologizing about Christianity or being Chrisitians.

It is because they defend the faith not only with Scripture, but with reason, evidences, and careful argumentation…

There is much to be appreciated in, valued in, and encouraged by in their work.

When I was a young man in my late teens, I was experiencing all kinds of doubts about my faith. I wanted Christianity to be true, but heard so many conflicting messages and wondered what was really real…

I believe Christian apologetics played a role in saving my life.

I picked up my first apologetics books, some by a man named Josh McDowell. He penned a good Question and Answer book and a book about Jesus Christ called “More Than a Carpenter” that spoke to me about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and why He was truly God in a fresh way!

Sill, not everyone’s world is rocked like mine was. Not all are persuaded to become Christians…

At the end of a great sermon that the Apostle Paul gave to the propagators of Greek philosophy in Athens he says:

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

But then what happened?

“When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others…”

So some agreed with Luke about these “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1) and what Paul said elsewhere when he claimed being persuaded of Jesus’ resurrection was “true and reasonable” (Acts 26)… (and hence knowing His identity as God’s Son and Messiah is true and reasonable)…

Martin Franzmann however is correct to emphasize that:

“…when Paul speaks of God‘s judgment in the resurrection of Jesus [here in Acts 17] the Greeks are no longer interested.”

Perhaps their philosophy played a role in getting in the way of their hearing and believing?


What does reason mean?

The simplest definition of this is to give reasons to another person for why you believe or do what you do.

But according to Paul, what did it mean for the Greeks and Jews to be reasonable?

For the Greeks it meant putting God on the stand, judging him in their court: basically, at worst, not being willing to hear Him speak outright, or, at best, requiring Him or those who would defend and promote Him to convince them according to their own satisfaction.

Not even the best of the world’s philosophers could have foreseen the cross… and how a forgiveness that gives us the certainty of heaven right now could be ours…

That God wanted us to have this kind of peace with Him whatever our status or circumstances in the world!

For the Jews, it means doing the same – putting God on the stand, judging Him in their court – in a somewhat different way. According to them, in order for them to embrace the words of God’s prophet or even Messiah, the one making the claim would need to perform particular acts that they said that person should do.

In other words, they were so intent on making God dance to their particular tune that they missed all the ways He did in fact fulfill the Old Testament prophecies or predictions through His miracles.

Miracles which often did not impress people, as they lacked a certain “fireworks” quality, but were rather done because they were simple acts of love God showed to “the least of these”…

The poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those seeking to know true righteousness….


God upsets the Greeks and Jews.

God upsets us too.

We are inclined to want to run with the high-rolling rich and the powerful. Or the famous, the popular, the “influencers” as many put it today.

And then God leads a saint to reach out to those in less-than-impressive parts of town, and perhaps lend to some of them without interest…

We tend to respect those who have a special charisma and/or have a kind of magnetic attractiveness, often involving very attractive physical form or beauty….

And then God puts it in a pastor’s heart to go to the nursing home to find out if just one person there wants the Bible read to them.

We tend to defer to the person who can speak well, who speaks with winsomeness, confidence, and seems able to quickly reframe the objections of others or even quickly puts them in their place… 

And God blesses the man or woman who is pulled by those who are simple, who simply receive God’s word with thankfulness, who perhaps the world simply dismisses as mentally retarded, and even tries to search and kill before they see the light of day.

We are deeply concerned about matters of place. Not just in a good sense where we deeply respect our family and home, our homeland, but in a sense in which we find ourselves seeking, or jealous, of the status that others possess in the world.

And Jesus picks up the Little Child and says that if we even want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must become like one of these…


My friends, the world is not reasonable. Much of what you hear, much of what they claim, much of the activity they are invested in, is B.S.

And even when it’s not, when some seek for genuine signs from God and others seek the best that wisdom has to offer…

…there is much that is left to be desired….

And here, we might think those who de-emphasize both feelings and reason and say the real key is to “just do it”!… are really the ones who are wise.

Just do the right thing!

Just do good.

What would Jesus do? Be like Jesus!

You can find God, come to know God, that way….

I am tempted to say this does not sound so bad. After all, if one really did try to do this, would they not, at the very least, almost certainly find themselves in touch with, among, participating with, Christians?

Christians who could share with them the forgiving Gospel of Jesus Christ that could enlighten and transform and embolden the hearts?

I’d caution against this, to say the least!

Because today so few Christians know the word of God well.

Because consciences in our day and age are malformed.

Because we have all learned to put up with and even get used to so much that is deeply evil.

Because the moral messages that the world now gives are often deeply contrary to the good and truthful guidance that one will often find in the Word of God….

My friends, Paul says:

“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast in His presence.

It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God: our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

My friends, learn to be content to not matter.

Be content to be nothing.

A nobody.

One that “is not” in the language of the Apostle Paul.

Because when you find yourself thinking that this is, in fact, in some sense you…

…are very close to the Heart of the Matter, to the Kingdom of God, to the Eternally Good and Loving One who Changest Not.

Jesus Christ has been crucified for you.

And hence – with the forgiveness that He offers and delivers to you even at this very moment…

You will truly live, and live forever!


Image credit: Ryan Turnipseed.

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Posted by on January 29, 2023 in Uncategorized


A Critical Review of John Pless’ “Handling the Word of Truth” (Updated for 2015 edition)

2015 edition.


Preface to updated post:

This post originally was published on September 24, 2020. At the time, I did the review on the first edition of this book from 2004. Since that time I have now read the later 2015 edition. The text below is mostly the same with a couple textual additions and all of the page numbers from the original review have been updated to reflect the 2015 edition. As I suspected, none of the problems that I identified and dealt with in the original edition were corrected in the 2015 edition. One can only hope and pray that the book will be substantially revised if a new edition is in the works. 

Better yet, one can hope, pray, and work so that Dr. Pless — who has also strongly supported ELCA theologian Steve Paulson — will be relieved of his duties at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne (fortunately, another one of the “big brains” behind the now infamous 2023 Large Cataclysm, Jack Kilcrease, is not teaching there). While I know this sounds harsh, I am also confident he can find other good work and know his family will be provided for.

This is a deathly serious spiritual matter. Pless’s friend Steve Paulson — in talking about his friend the late James Nestingen — said that at some point the “pious” would come for persons like him. When I tried to be generous to Paulson — leaving his name off of blog posts critiquing and asking questions about his theology — and asked him if he could explain his teaching in more detail, Paulson personally called me [Johann] Eck (one of Luther’s main theological opponents).

Make no mistake about it: Pless and Paulson certainly consider themselves pious Lutherans in their own way — and with this edition of the “Large Catechism” (Cataclysm) they came for you.

They started the fire. Let’s be dead clear about that.


Here’s the updated review:

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 groups dedicated to them like “Theological works of Professor John T. Pless” or “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’ 2015 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 (36, 65) and, it seems, offers no hope or sweetness in any context (53, 54). 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 (68).

And while it is true that the law must sometimes be abandoned completely (38), 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 (29, though see 45 as well). “Why though,” one might ask, “say this if ‘without the true God, man will always attempt to create a substitute deity’”? (47) Is it because, in spite of the fact that “virtues may be praiseworthy and beneficial when it comes to life in human community,” (96) 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 (40). 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 38)? 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”… (25, see also 56-57).

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” (48). 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” (58). Faith in the Gospel, however, frees us from the ongoing death that is our own self-justification (66)….

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” [31]!) 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 (55), but also that the moral teachings of all non-Christian religions are essentially the same (see 29 ; see 92 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” (49). 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 87 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” (53) and a “theology of glory” (96)? For the author, “[w]hat law requires is freedom from the law” (quoting Leif Grane approvingly, 58). And yet, if freedom is “found only in the Law-free Gospel of Jesus Christ” (58), 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” (62, see also 94). 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. I will heartily admit that recently I did stop listening to Steve Paulson, for the sake of my own soul. That said, overall 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 38). I especially appreciate and take seriously the warning of Craig Parton that he quotes on page 74 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! (the chapter “Looking in All the Wrong Places,” 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 36): 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 92 ; didn’t Walther also talk about the “true visible church”? – see 108). 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!


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 January 25, 2023 in Uncategorized


The Wages of Sin is Death and Divine Blood is the Payment

Sermon preached at Clam Falls Lutheran Church, Jan. 15, 2023.


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…


While all Scripture is inspired by God, not all things it says are as important as others.

In our Gospel reading today we hear one of the most profound and important statements from all of Scripture:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

What does this mean?

First and foremost, most study Bibles in their notes will make an immediate reference here to Exodus 12, where we read about the Passover event that finally caused Pharaoh to let God’s people go.

Here, the Israelites were commanded to paint the blood of a lamb over their door, and when God’s Angel of Death passed over them that evening, their firstborn sons would be spared.

Unlike the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. They, alternatively, would pay the price for their sins against the Lord and His people.

To put it bluntly, God would demand their blood.

Cue Isaiah chapter 43, as God speaks to His chosen people Israel:

“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life…

Likewise, Proverbs 21:18: “The wicked become a ransom for the righteous, and the unfaithful for the upright…

Throughout the Old Testament in fact, God is often reminding the Israelites that they were saved in part through the loss of the Egyptians’ firstborns.

In short, their firstborn children were sacrificed that the Israelites might have life!

God’s justice here is truly a help to the oppressed godly ones – a balancing of the scales weighed against them!

Their vindication!

Their protection!

Their preservation!

Defeat to those who rebel vs their God and His eternal will!

To them, God’s righteous anger, born of His Father’s heart for His children, is Gospel.

Come quickly Lord Jesus!   

Yes, God desires all – without qualifications – to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 

Pharaoh’s stubbornness aside, the Lord really would have His Word be preached to all, and means that it would be effective (or efficacious) when and where it pleases Him… as the Christian faithful have always insisted. 

And God gets all the glory for this! 

That said, the road is narrow. Not all will be saved, and those who aren’t get all the blame for this.  

During the course of time, some who resist Him, in fact, will perish that others will live…

Salvation and damnation go hand in hand, and one will not be had without the other… 

And believers will rejoice in God’s good victory. 


Still, the Exodus passage might seem like an odd passage to think about when hearing “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

While it is true that Jesus Christ, being the Lamb of God, is the fulfillment of the lambs that were sacrificed so that the Angel of Death would pass over homes covered with animal blood…

…the flip side of that is that the Lord does not appear to be taking away the sins of Israel much less the world here!

Rather, again, we see here that the sins of the world demanded blood… their own blood… the blood of their firstborns. 

Some real violence was involved…

So should we really be thinking of this in regard to the Lamb of God passage in John?

Perhaps we might find some more understanding by looking at passages from Leviticus 16:21-22?

This is the passage about the “scapegoat”.

Here, Moses’ brother, the High Priest Aaron, laid his hands on the head of a live goat, confessed over its head all of Israel’s sins, and simply sent it into the wilderness.

The goat, then, took away, carried away, all of Israel’s sins…[1]

And yet today many people talk about scapegoating in an interesting way, bringing violence back into the picture.

This culminates in scapegoat theory, featuring the “scapegoat mechanism”.

The idea here is that when things get hard and people are in denial of their own role in said difficulties, they, unconsciously or unknowingly, shift the blame onto innocent victims.

As a definition of “scapegoat theory” puts it: it is an

“an analysis of violence and aggression in which individuals undergoing negative experiences (such as failure or abuse by others) are assumed to blame an innocent individual or group for causing the experience…”

One passage from an encyclopedia I looked at explains this theory – articulated most fully by the French Christian philosopher Rene Girard – in the following way:

“When violence is at the point of threatening the existence of the community, very frequently a bizarre psychosocial mechanism arises: communal violence is all of the sudden projected upon a single individual. Thus, people that were formerly struggling, now unite efforts against someone chosen as a scapegoat. Former enemies now become friends, as they communally participate in the execution of violence against a specified enemy… The person that receives the communal violence is a ‘scapegoat’ in this sense: her death or expulsion is useful as a regeneration of communal peace and restoration of relationships.”[2]

While there are certainly all kinds of things to question in Girard’s thought, we certainly can see that there is at least something to it.

We might think, for example, of what actually happens later on in the Gospel of John. In John 11, right after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, we read:

“Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man[, Jesus,] is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

Very interestingly, the Gospel of John goes on:

“Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one.

So from that day on they plotted to kill Him….” 

So, yes, violence is certainly back in the picture here…[3]

Even if the Bible’s picture of the scapegoat is a bit different – and does in fact seem to be a great candidate for just what the Baptist had in mind when he exclaimed what he did about Jesus – it is truly interesting the parallels that one can find in the world that seem to go hand-in-hand with the “Scapegoat Mechanism “idea…

I wonder if we could possibly say that even some of the best of fallen people… those of us who do less evil than most… nevertheless are at times at least unconsciously tempted to resort to scapegoating…

…in efforts to keep or restore power, privilege, and/or peace…


Anyway you slice it, ritual acts of violence, ritual acts of sacrifice have always been a part of our world.

Sometimes it is quite overt. God consistently warned the Israelites to avoid the pagan nations around them who sacrificed their own children to their gods such as Molech…  

Ever since the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, all animal sacrifices were swept away in the Western world’s major cultural centers…[4]

And so, some one thousand years later, when the Conquistadors of Spain came to the Americas and encountered a massive system of human sacrifice among the Aztecs, they were absolutely horrified and shocked by the unimaginable things they discovered.[5]

And even when it is not so overt, the reality of the need for sacrifice and atonement – for blood – is always at least just above or below the surface of man’s life.

In his book The Revenge of Conscience, explaining that “[t]he need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid” and that the conscience can go very wrong (being wrongly formed), J. Budziszewski shares one jarring example of this from many he learned about.

A woman had two abortions. The first was to punish her husband who had an affair. The second she said was to punish herself for taking the life of her first child. Trying to atone for her sin apart from God, she said she wanted to be able to hate herself more for what she did to the first baby. [6]

In addition to all of this, animal sacrifice has been a part of Hinduism for thousands of years. While cows are sacred, goats, chickens, sheep, water buffalo, and many other animals are sacrificed to Hindu gods and goddesses.

In Orthodox Judaism and Islam today, sacrifice remains a critical component of their religion. Concepts of forgiveness and God’s favor are tied up with the meritorious sacrifices that are offered by those seeking to be justified by the Divine.

And not just to gods. Lutheran missionaries in Madagascar today will talk about in the animist religion that remains there, men and women will often offer sacrifices to their dead ancestors, in order to appease them and get them to be favorably disposed to them.

None of this is what God desires…[7]

However, on the other hand, perhaps many in these cultures and communities understand something that Christians often forget:

When we feel like we deserve earthly blessings and are entitled to them, we are less apt to be thankful, and then find ourselves getting caught up in things that take us away from the things that matter most, like attending to God’s commands….

…not primarily out of some servile fear, of course, but out of genuine love for Him and all the goodness He has shown us… who don’t deserve any of it. 

A pastor friend of mine put it this way in one of his sermons:

In [non-Christian] cultures, religion is more about giving and sacrificing. Yes, it’s a worship driven by fear not love. But there is a sense, in the best versions, that the creatures owe the creator worship and praise; and he owes them nothing. Theoretically, even if there wasn’t an afterlife, it would still be worthwhile going to the temple, to pay respects, give thanks and adore God…”


Again, all of this also relates to the Christian religion as well.

Unlike the pagan counterfeits that have mimicked the true God and true faith since the time of Babel, Christianity never promoted human sacrifice.

And, of course, the blood of bulls and goats and lambs was never supposed to be a way to get an angry deity on your side – it was rather the means that God provided to bless and forgive the sins of His people, to connect with them, to dwell with them.

So with that in mind, there are a few more aspects of sacrifice from the Bible that we should mention, things that our text for this morning should make us think about: The Day of Atonement and the daily sacrifices…

The Day of Atonement was a key festival in Israel’s life. On this day, the High Priest would offer a sacrifice for the nation’s sins, as they repented with fasting, dust, and ashes…

And not only this, but sacrifices involving lambs were also performed daily at the temple in Jerusalem… Every morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people (see Exodus 29:38-42, for example)…[8]

All of this is why a friend of mine, in his role as a religion teacher at a Lutheran High School, would annually take his classes to a farm in order to witness an animal being slaughtered.

He had the right idea.

It is critical that we understand the cost of life, the weight and the heaviness. And that the life is in the blood – and that there is likewise no forgiveness of sins without the corresponding shedding of blood….

For as the book of Revelation puts it, the Lamb of God was slain from the very foundation of the world.

God instituted the sacrificial system in the Old Testament for a reason.

Even though it, like the indulgences racket in Reformation times, was abused and became a massive system willing kill even thousands of animals a day and take advantage of the common people in its efforts to perpetuate itself… (see Jesus’ anger in the Temple Courts) it was nevertheless originally set up by God to comfort His people and to point them and us to the the True Lamb of God….

And again, the Lamb of God was slain from the very foundation of the world…

God foresaw Adam and Eve’s fall into sin and before they were even actually created decided to go forward with His project, with the Lamb of God slated to come on the scene, clear up the mess…

…and bring not a good creation to maturity or perfection or completion, but a fallen creation suffering and groaning immensely from its sin to maturity or perfection or completion….


So we see through all of this though that it is not only that the blood of God’s enemies must flow because of their sins….

The sins of God’s people themselves have always needed to be dealt with, and they are definitively dealt with in the death of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who is not only the Savior of those who believe, but of all men.

When the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:23 writes that the wages of sin is death, he does not mean that these are the wages for some men, but all.

And all of a man’s sins – by which God demands their blood, their life – are finally committed against God alone.

David writes in the Psalm a line that I am sure most all of us here know well:

“Against You, You only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in Your sight…”

He goes on to say, however:

“…so that You may be proved right when You speak

and blameless when You judge.”

So David confesses as he does primarily because matters pertaining to our accountability ultimately lie in the Lord’s hands and judgements…

And, of course, the Lord judges that when people sin against His people, they sin against Him as well!

So, one would be reading this passage incorrectly to conclude from it that since every sin is really finally against God… that the sins that we commit against others do not matter!

Oh, they do. They certainly do.

When we do not treat others the way that God commands that we treat them, we hurt them.

Yes, sin hurts people. And when we think about hurting others, we can and should think about wounding them, physically or otherwise. 

This really is not just a metaphor I am using.

Of course, the most graphic picture of this is the blood that flows because of the wound, because of the hurt. And of course, given that the life is in the blood, with the loss of blood is the loss of life, resulting in death…

These terrible wounds that cause this terrible spiritual bleeding and imminent spiritual death are not, however, always so clear.

For the trick is that when we talk about sin and the hurt it causes, sometimes people know with confidence they are sinning vs. others, transgressing vs. others, and sometimes they do not.

Sometimes people know with confidence they are being sinned against, transgressed against, and sometimes they do not.

Still, God’s Law accuses and condemns our sin, not just subjectively, but objectively.

And it is not the law that makes us objectively guilty, but the law rather reveals our sin, which, again, we may or may not experience guilt about subjectively.    

If we do not expose our children to the Word of God, for example, we really and truly do hurt them, regardless of how we or they feel.

For we all find life in the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ.

And His Words are Spirit and life. All truth is God’s truth (Justin Martyr), and we are all meant to live from truth, from true words, from true teaching… we are to live from every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth.

If we do not give the young what they truly need we stunt and even diminish the growth in grace that God means for them to have.

And, this, of course, is the underlying cause of all of the problems, the hurt, the blood, the death, in this world. 

And since the Fall into sin, it has ever been such, world without end…

But there is redemption as well, so that this world without end will be renewed, and be a place truly worthy of God’s and our eternal dwelling…


How is all of this made new?

Because of the Lamb sacrificed on the Altar.

The Cross….

God allows, and Jesus embraces, being punished in our place.

Being crushed for our iniquities.

Being pierced for our transgressions.

All as Isaiah prophesied.

How does all of this work? Why does this happen?

Some Christians shy away from these questions. They want to simply talk about how Christ’s death removes sin, but not really go further.

The vicarious satisfaction for sin?

Propitiation of God’s wrath?

Many balk.

And yet, there are many atonement passages from the earlier church fathers (which Eastern Christians respect) that go hand-in-hand with the concerns that Western Christians typically focus on:

  • John Chrysostom talking about the punishment we deserved.
  • St. Cyril of Jersualem talking about how Jesus “staved the wrath of God”
  • And [even] Gregory Palamas states how a sacrifice was needed reconcile the Father on high with us… the human race.[9]    


Why does Christ die?

It is because sin kills Him.

Our sin kills Him.

We, in our sin, blindly kill the One who loves us more than anyone!

And more: we kill our Perfect King and Master!

Our Leader who shows us strength, courage, humility, and a steely kindness that is known to all…

And yes, injustice abounds! Therefore, in this, we actually bring more sin – and punishment – on ourselves.

Sin increases. The cup is filled to the brim with sin, as God’s wrath is satisfied in this truly unique way.

What do I mean? In effect, the following occurs:

God “gives us over” to our evil (look at Romans 1) to the nth degree.

Through us, the King who takes all the evil that we have to offer – collecting all of our evil into Himself – is executed according to God’s will.

He dies the shameful death of a criminal on a cross, being numbered among the transgressors.

Nevertheless, God can rightly accuse us through His apostle “You did this!”

Again, God gives us rebels over to our sin, allowing us to do our worst… to kill our own good King, the new Adam and Head of the human race!  

And yet, we do not despair about this.


Because as “new creations in Christ” (see 2 Cor 5) we realize that He — the Enduring Love — would not have us actually bear the guilt and punishment due to us for our sins against His law, even for our role in His unjust crucifixion!

For Love for us it at the bottom of all of this! Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God…

…our Scapegoat…

…our Sacrifice…

– who has drunk the cup of wrath for all our sins – and come out alive! Death could not hold Him.

In fact, amazingly, we are forgiven because of the crucifixion!

For again, the Lamb of God is, after all, “slain from the foundation of the world.”

God is so good and strong and wise that He finds a way to clean our slate even for the crucifixion – by the crucifixion!

We are justified (Rom 4:25)!

We are healed (Isaiah 53, Matthew 7)!

Because of Christ’s completed work—cross and resurrection—we can now even say the cross is good news!

Behold the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world indeed!

Again, the fact of the matter is that nothing impure will finally enter the Kingdom of glory: we sinful men not only need Christ, but the whole life of this just and innocent and pure Lamb of God—to stand before God.

One is holy!

One is worthy!

See me, O Lord, in Him alone!

This is all that we can claim, and He gladly gives us the right to claim it.     

We now live by grace through faith in Christ.

Go in peace, the true and enduring peace that only the sacrifice of the Lamb of God can give.



[1]This action went hand in hand with other actions performed on the Day of Atonement (along with the daily sacrifices), where burnt offerings of bulls and goats were offered for the nation’s sins… 

Also, Benson’s commentary notes: “ the reader must observe that, when a sacrifice was to be offered for sin, he that brought it laid his hand upon the head of the victim, according to the command of God, Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 3:2; Leviticus 4:4; (where see the notes;) and by that rite was supposed to transfer his sins upon the victim, which is said to take them upon itself and to carry them away. Accordingly, in the daily sacrifice of the lamb, the stationary men, says Dr. Lightfoot, who were the representatives of the people, laid their hands upon the lambs thus offered for them; and these two lambs offered for the daily sacrifice were bought with that half shekel which all the Jews yearly paid, εις λυτρον της ψυχης αυτων, εξιλασασθαι περι των ψυξων αυτων, as the price of redemption of their souls, to make atonement for them, Exodus 12:3; Exodus 12:14; Exodus 12:16….”

[2] More key info: “Girard considers it crucial that this process be unconscious in order to work. The victim must never be recognized as an innocent scapegoat (indeed, Girard considers that, prior to the rise of Christianity, ‘innocent scapegoat’ was virtually an oxymoron; see section 4.b below); rather, the victim must be thought of as a monstrous creature that transgressed some prohibition and deserved to be punished. In such a manner, the community deceives itself into believing that the victim is the culprit of the communal crisis, and that the elimination of the victim will eventually restore peace.”

[3] See footnotes above.

[4] Peter Leithart, with some provocative thoughts: “Yoder thinks. He says that the project of Christianizing the state is doomed. The time when that could happen has long ago passed away. If he is right, we are facing nothing short of apocalypse. I believe that here too Yoder is wrong, and that we can escape apocalypse. But this can only happen on certain conditions: only through reevangelization, only through the revival of a purified Constantinianism, only by the formation of a Christically centered politics, only through fresh public confession that Jesus’ city is the model city, his blood the only expiating blood, his sacrifice the sacrifice that ends sacrifice. An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward to be baptized. (342)”

[5] See:

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy talks about Girard’s interesting claims here:

“Girard considers rituals the earliest cultural and religious institution. In Girard’s view, ritual is a reenactment of the original scapegoating murder. Although, as anthropologists are quick to assert, rituals are very diverse, Girard considers that the most popular form of ritual is sacrifice. When a victim is ritually killed, Girard believes, the community is commemorating the original event that promoted peace.

The original victim was most likely a member of the community. Girard considers that, probably, earliest sacrificial rituals employed human victims. Thus, Aztec human sacrifice may have impacted Western conquistadors and missionaries upon its discovery, but this was a cultural remnant of a popular ancient practice. Eventually, rituals promoted sacrificial substitution, and animals were employed. In fact, Girard considers that hunting and the domestication of animals arose out of the need to continually reenact the original murder with substitute animal victims…”

[6] “The need to atone arises from the knowledge of a debt that must somehow be paid. One would think such knowledge would always lead directly to repentance, but the counselors whom I have interviewed tell a different story. One woman learned during her pregnancy that her husband had been unfaithful to her. He wanted the child, so to punish him for betrayal she had an abortion. The trauma of killing was even greater than the trauma of his treachery, because this time she was to blame. What was her response? She aborted the next child, too; in her words, “I wanted to be able to hate myself more for what I did to the first baby.” By trying to atone without repenting, she was driven to repeat the sin.” See also:

[7] Still, it points to this need: “The thing that the world wants is to have sin dealt with-dealt with in the way of conscious forgiveness; dealt with in the way of drying up its source, and delivering men from the power of it. Unless you do that, I do not say you do nothing, but you pour a bottle full of cold water into Vesuvius, and try to put the fire out with that.” (Maclaren)

[8] It is very likely that when the sinner of Luke 18 stands in the court of the temple and will not even lift his eyes before God, beating his chest and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” that he is saying, “Oh Lord, let these sacrifices be for me!”

Gill’s exposition: “the Jewish doctors say (d), that “the morning daily sacrifice made atonement for the iniquities done in the night; and the evening sacrifice made atonement for the iniquities that were by day…”

More, from an older sermon, dealing with the Old Testament sacrifices and other ceremonial processes originally given through Moses:

“But when Jesus comes, no sacrifice for sins is left, as the shadows recede! If it helps, think of shadows like these as the temporary scaffolding for the real Sacrifice, Priest, and Temple, Jesus Christ…

Not only this, but we should also realize this: In the Old Testament, these sacrifices provided safe access to a Holy God.

Sins of course were always an issue here, but then there is also original sin — the sinful infection that we all share from birth. It is like a spiritual leprosy.

Gasoline burns in the presence of fire – God’s holiness is gracious but also destructive. He cannot abide the sin – the leprosy, the uncleanness – within us (Kleinig).

This is why in the Old Testament we see so many of these signs, these shadows, these “divine object lessons”.

Finally, these externals are often “typological” of the internals of human life.

Therefore, with leprosy, for example, even the external signs of leprosy/infection, like corrupted clothing, are a sign of the *real* inner infection that infects us all and causes the outer infections. The leper or menstruating woman is “unclean” and “unworthy”, but this is really meant to serve as a symbol for the greater uncleanness and unworthiness that infects us all.

For we all, in our fallen nature, are the contaminated who contaminate… And this also, of course, is why we die. The wages of sin is death…

While we are at this stuff, let’s go on. Unclean animals also serve a similar function as a divine object lesson – spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection, not oddities. (what one author called the “no oddballs allowed” principle).

One biblical scholar, Gordan Wenham, expands on the matters these object lessons point to, putting it like this:

Imagine two poles of existence, there is the positive and the negative. The positive has to do with God, life, order, normality and being clean… The negative has to do with chaos, death, disorder, deformity, and being unclean….

So, what finally, to take away from all of this? God’s overall message here, in the Old Testament but especially in the New Testament is this:

I am not like the Gods of the other nations. I am holy. Do not get excited because of your blood descent, ethnic pride, success, or your righteousness…

Instead, be glad because I really am concerned about you – I am yours and you are mine and I desire that you would know true joy and peace in true justice, true mercy and abundant life.

Be invigorated because I want you to be holy as I am holy! Through the pardon and power I give you in the blood of my Son, Jesus, I am separating you out – making you distinct!

You will not, like the nations, sacrifice your infants, partake in ritualized temple prostitution or disregard the elderly and the poor…

You will live as people who live according to and by my word — because I love you even as you continue to have sin…

Instead, come out and be separate! Be holy, and not unclean!

As the old hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” says:

“Love to the loveless (i.e. because of the leprosy of sin, the uncleanness of sin) shown that they might lovely be”… ]”  


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Posted by on January 15, 2023 in Uncategorized


Who are You? A Christian Identity Politics?

Sermon preached at Christ the King Lutheran Church, Waseca, MN., Jan. 8, 2023


“I will keep you and will make you

    to be a covenant for the people

    and a light for the Gentiles.”

– Isaiah 42:6b


The first time Jesus is mentioned in the Book of Luke, when the angel speaks with Mary, we hear:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”[1]

Our Gospel reading for the day ends with the baptism of Jesus. Is it related to what the angel tells Mary here?

Jesus tells John the Baptist that He should be baptized by him at that moment “to fulfill all righteousness”…

…heaven opens up…

…the Spirit of God descends like a dove and settles on Him…

and, finally, a voice from heaven says “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased….”

Again, is this related to the angel’s announcement?

Well, if you are one of those who managed to pay particularly close attention to the morning’s Bible readings, you might have noticed that this sounds a lot like the beginning of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 42 – which has a wonderful testimony to the Gospel, to the work of God’s Messiah, or Christ:

“Here is My Servant, whom I uphold, My Chosen One, in whom My soul delights. I will put My Spirit on Him, and He will bring justice[, or righteousness,] to the nations…”

The slight difference here is that in the Isaiah reading, God the Father is said to delight in His Servant; not His Son or the “Son of the Most High”.

What is really interesting though is that in Psalm 2:7 – which is also all about God’s Messiah and His anointing – the anointing of the King who would reign in the line of David, we read:

“You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.”

So for the attentive Bible-reader or listener then, the message of all these things – which we can see culminating at the end of our Gospel reading – could not be more clear:

After years of being without a King, Israel has their kings back (Wendt). Specifically, their King back.

And not only this, this Man is a Servant King who is also calling the Nations, or the Gentiles, to Himself…

And, lest there be any confusion about the nature of this kingdom coming to earth, the deeper spiritual message for all of those nations is this:

The New Covenant, Testament, comes in this Kings blood!

The blood of bulls and goats and lambs ultimately could not save, even as Israel’s appointed sacrifices pointed to the Answer:

He is the Messiah, the Christ, not only of Israel, but the whole world!

He is the Perfect Suffering Servant King who, ultimately, sheds His own innocent blood to pay the price for our sins…

…giving us forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil, the Prince of this World.


All of this this can be learned – all these dots connected – by the  serious Bible reader…

Perhaps a bit of a harder challenge though comes from a contrast we see between our reading from Isaiah and the chosen Psalm for the day, on this second Sunday of Epiphany….

[One thing that is interesting to think about is why the readings for the day were chosen….[2]

Sometimes it is obvious, but not all the time!…]

For example, our Psalm for the day, Psalm 29, appears for the most part to be provoking us to awe of God… and even terror.

In it, again, we hear that “the voice of the Lord:

-breaks the cedars”

-“strikes with flashes of lightning”

-“shakes the desert”

-“twists the oaks…

…and strips the forests bare!”

Such awe-inspiring strength and power…

…and from only speaking no less!

It seems perfectly understandable that all in his temple would cry, “Glory!”

But then, on the other hand, in our Old Testament reading, what do we read?

In particular, this:

“He will not shout or cry out,

    or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

    and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…”

What does this mean? It means that while God has the power and authority to rightly judge, this is what happens when He first comes on the scene in human flesh – prior to His second coming…

His work takes place like yeast working through the dough… subtly… subtly…

It means that he will not break those who, like reeds that grow in the marshes, have been bruised, damaged, or even trampled on… as if by the trials and difficulties of life…

…it means that He will not snuff out the candle wicks that are His people who are flickering with doubt and weakness…

And again, the Gospel writer Matthew also claims these words as being fulfilled in Jesus’s ministry…. Chapter 12 and verses 20 and 21 say:

“A bruised reed He will not break,

and a smoldering wick He will not extinguish,

till He leads justice to victory.

In His name the nations will put their hope.”[3]

One old Bible commentator, Barnes, explains an interesting little detail there more…

[The Isaiah passage says, ‘bring forth justice faithfully or “in truth”, but] Matthew 12:2[1] renders this, ‘unto victory.’ The meaning in Isaiah is, that [the Servant of the Lord] shall establish his religion according to truth; he shall faithfully announce the true precepts of religion, and secure their ascendency among mankind. It shall overcome all falsehood, and all idolatry, and shall obtain a final triumph in all nations. Thus explained, it is clear that [the Apostle] Matthew has retained the general idea of the passage, though he has not quoted it literally…”


In any case, the real point I want to make here is that some see a major contradiction here between the focus of our Psalm and the focus of the Isaiah reading… God’s terror-provoking wrath and power vs. this patience and tenderness.

And some will insist that this is not just some apparent contradiction.

They will say that it, in fact, is not logical or rational:

God is indeed contradictory within Himself!

Conflicted inside, it is God vs. Himself!

His law and gospel are in fact violently opposed to one another…

They are polarities, and can never be reconciled…

On the one hand, there is the power of God, the judgment of God over the world… that crushes and destroys it, with His law always and only accusing…

Here, in this sense, the law of God is actually seen as the opposite of God – as not representing who God really is at all! 

God’s law, they say, is only present where Christ is absent and is the opposite of the Holy Spirit![4]

The law has absolutely nothing to do with sharing God’s grace and mercy, or really… what life will be like in heaven at all!

God does not finally mean for Christians to walk in His eternal law and hence fulfill it!


All of this, however, is not true!

True, the law and gospel must be distinguished: the law shows us what we must be and what is required of us, even if, in our sin, we cannot do it. 

And the gospel reveals to us not what we must do, but all that God has done in Jesus Christ on the cross for us and freely delivers to His people!

Still though, in the end, both “the law and gospel – not against but with God’s Holy Spirit – reveal an important truth which is exactly the same: God has an overriding desire to do good to all men (even, finally, desiring that each person not despair but be saved in Christ).

And when we become new creations in Christ, we agree all the more that the law is indeed good![5]

We especially understand when in Matthew 23 we are told that the weightier matters of the law, the heavier matters of the law, deal not just with justice and – but mercy or compassion as well![6]

Love, after all, is the fulfillment of the law… and I Cor. 13:7 reminds us of the “suffering of love, which bears all things (I Cor. 13:7).”

Hence, it was completely necessary for our salvation to have the Messiah’s, the Christ’s… full obedience to every jot and title of God’s law (Matthew 5), through the Holy Spirit…


In his 1977 book A Guide for the Perplexed, the philosopher and conservationist E.F. Schumacher said the following:

“Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind. — Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

Jesus Christ is the One who answers Schumacher’s dilemma.

He is the Wisdom of God who reconciles justice and mercy! (see Romans 3:26-27)

As Hebrews 1:9 proclaims, explaining precisely why God elevates the man Jesus Christ as the world’s King and Savior:

“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions.”

Did you hear that? Did you get that?

Jesus Christ hates. He hates wickedness.

And Jesus Christ is always the One who perfectly distinguishes God’s law and gospel, showing us both tough and tender love as he rightly directs and orders our lives….

Like men such as Job, Jeremiah, Shadrach, Meshac, Abendigo, and Habakuk before Him, He also embraces God’s will even when it is most difficult to understand…

He “fulfills all righteousness” by gladly embracing His Father’s will, fearing, loving, and trusting Him.

And doing so perfectly – even through the ultimate of struggles…

For it was His Father’s will that He be crushed, that is, to pay the debt for our sins, and to bring many sons to glory…[7]

And because of Jesus’ faithful work for our salvation, paying for all our sins which alienate us from God! – and defeating Satan through the cross! – we can truly understand why our Psalm – our Psalm which appeared to terrify us with God’s wrath – ends by saying:

“The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace…”


And with this peace, my friends, this righteousness our Lord gives to us is what we are called to as well….

When Jesus Christ gets a hold of us, when He unites Himself with us and incorporates us into His life, we too, can hear the voice:

“This is my Son; I delight in Him…”

And this is where our Epistle reading from Romans this morning rounds out what this all means for us… We are baptized into Christ and now, no longer slaves of sin, have this new life![8]

So, my fellow heirs of God, my fellow heirs of God, remember our Father in Heaven, Who being the One who is Love, is also the One who is Rich and Powerful in the truest and best sense of those words!

And you, you also, bear a family resemblance…

So, be little Christs!

In Christ we are at peace with God and He works in us to cause us to grow in holiness… to be glorified, to be saved to the uttermost…

Lord, help us not to resist you!

Recently, I read something that I agreed with from a Roman Catholic author. He said:

“Two thousand years after Christ, our definition of goodness hasn’t changed. We all know what virtue looks like. People who aspire to be good must strive to be Christ-like. It’s as simple as that. Eternal, objective truths don’t change. The world, however, is unrecognizable from the time of Christ—more of an obstacle to our salvation in every conceivable way. Our societies may look sophisticated, well fed, and comforting at first blush. That’s only because we’ve exchanged readily visible plagues and poverty for more insidious forms of disease. Beneath the surface, most of us are miserable.

Through consumerism, compound interest, prescription drugs, sex-saturated culture and other addictions, America keeps its people isolated, anxious and compliant. We feel lonelier, poorer, and more anxious, and we are more dependent on substances, self-harm and sin, than at any time since Jesus walked among us. Surely in human history it has never been more difficult to hold on to grace, walk the narrow path, and proceed from charity and kindness in our dealings with others…”

This author, who goes on to talk about how tough love is in fact charity and kindness, isn’t wrong about how failing to follow in the Lord’s way will bring misery.

Even if I have heard some over the years insist, rightly, that God did not come to make us happy but rather holy…

…it is also at the same time true that there is nothing that will bring more lasting joy than recognizing that God has made us holy – that is, set apart in Christ – and calls us to walk in His ways and paths for His glory.

Arguably, no one put this better than Martin Luther in his Small Catechism. In explaining the parts of the Apostle’s Creed he speaks not only about how God richly and daily provides us with all that I need to support this body and life and defends us against all danger and evil.[9] He also shares this exceedingly precious summary of our Christian faith:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.”


Our world, though, is deeply confused and sick…

Forms of what people are calling “identity politics” now reign.

One definition of this is “a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities…”

Again, our world is confused and sick. Sometimes deeply, deeply evil.

Despite forms of identity politics, it, finally, does not know what to believe about who it really is.

It denies its own Creator even at times asserting there is no God!

Why is this happening? Well, sin, yes… but there’s more. While there is nothing new under the sun, certain ideas, good and bad, indeed gain in popularity in this or that time and place…

Have you heard of Rene Descartes?

He was a 17th century French mathematician and philosopher who perhaps has had the biggest impact on all the key thinkers in the Western world who came after him than anyone else.

He made knowledge primarily something about the self.

He said, “I think, therefore I am.” In other words, I can’t doubt that the thing I call me is really thinking, so I know for sure I exist.

Most people don’t have struggles like this.

That said, it did not stop an early nineteenth century German philosopher who would become very influential – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel – from expanding on what Descartes said, saying that we can say we are real for a certain reason.

Why? What reason? Because we are creatures and because this is obvious?

No, that would have been the right answer.

Rather, Hegel said we are real because we are conscious that we are real… (and we are conscious of the vast reality we are not, to get into Hegel’s dialectical thinking about how identity is transformed, or becomes…[10])

When I realize that I am real, after all, I cannot doubt that I doubt, for example… I am real.

(And then Hegel was off to the races with his philosophy, even talking about God Himself learning about Himself which I believe is finally why some see law and gospel as polarities…)

As you can see, this becomes all about not what is true out there and that we all share, but what I, I, I, experience and feel… it becomes about the self, in fact, hopelessly and endlessly focused on the self and the self’s perceptions![11]

So turned in on self God becomes invisible…

So when we think about identity politics, we think of people who are, like Descartes and Hegel, relentlessly self-focused and also relentless in determining who is in and who is out, who are finally ruthless…unforgiving and unmerciful (see Rom. 1:31).[12]

But can we as Christians deeply understand why questions of identity, now so twisted and energized by man’s sinful nature, are so important to our contemporaries?


We can.

In Christ, the Father delights in you, a royal priest, as well.

We who are Christians should realize more than most that what is most true is deeply bound up with who God is and who we are.

We get a sense of deep cohesion and direction from an identity which derives not only from above, but from a common historical account – of who God is, of who you are, of what He has done, is doing, and will do, with you as an important part of that!

And this has implications.

Take, for example, the Apostle Paul’s heartfelt words in Galatians 6:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

One can see how here we imitate, in a less than complete way, the kind of goodness Jesus showed to us, where love – sacrificial actions which bear real costs – covers over a multitude of sins.

And regarding temptation, by the way, remember that while God Himself tempts no one, He at the same time does actually allow them and uses them for our good…

The 16th century church reformer Martin Luther said: “God loves and hates temptations. He loves them when they provoke us to pray to him and trust in Him; He hates them when we despair because of them.

So, Christian, things are really are different for you, aren’t they?

You, my friend, are not the Christ, but you are, like Him, the Lord’s servant…

Again, as Martin Luther would put it, you are a “little Christ…”

Again, we bear a family resemblance…

This is who we are.

This is our truest and most enduring identity.

Our royal calling!

The Name of the Holy One, the Living God who both strips the forests bare and won’t snuff out flickering wicks is upon our heads!… placed upon our heads in our baptism!

It is not so much that we were baptized, like a man and woman were married…

It is that we are baptized, like a man and woman are married!

And as far as marriage goes, let us also never forget that every marriage we see on earth is meant to point us again to who we are as well!

For we are united to the true King of all nations, Jesus Christ, with He being our Head and we His bride!

Again, this is who you are, Christian!

Wherever you are in your awareness of this fact, this is the thing that ultimately matters for you!

So rejoice evermore!

Pray without ceasing!

And in everything give thanks!

Go and live – and live more and more abundantly – in all the good gifts of your God!



[1] And in the Old Testament reading this morning, from which I chose our text, has a wonderful testimony to the Gospel…:

…To the work of the world’s Savior or Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Let’s repeat some of that key reading one more time:

“I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness;

    I will take hold of your hand.

I will keep you and will make you

    to be a covenant for the people

    and a light for the Gentiles,

to open eyes that are blind,

    to free captives from prison

    and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.

I am the Lord; that is my name!

    I will not yield my glory to another

    or my praise to idols.

See, the former things have taken place,

    and new things I declare;

before they spring into being

    I announce them to you.”

Because Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God’s promise to send His Messiah, He is the One who brings the New Covenant, the New Testament, in His blood.

The blood of bulls and goats and lambs ultimately could not save, even as they pointed to the Perfect Suffering Servant King who, ultimately, would shed His own innocent blood to pay the price for our sins.

This is why Jesus Christ in the Gospels identifies Himself as the fulfiller of this prophecy in Isaiah, the One who definitely deals with man’s sins…

  • He is the One who opens the eyes that are blind…
  • …brings out the prisoners from the dungeon…
  • …and from the prison those who sit in darkness!

[2] Wikipedia: “This [Revised Common L]ectionary was derived from various Protestant lectionaries in current use, which in turn were based on the 1969 Ordo Lectionum Missae, a three-year lectionary produced by the Roman Catholic Church following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.”

[3] Barnes Notes on the Bible:

“He shall bring forth judgment – (See Isaiah 42:1). The word ‘judgment’ here evidently denotes the true religion; the laws, institutions, and appointments of God.

Unto truth – Matthew Mat 12:29 renders this, ‘unto victory.’ The meaning in Isaiah is, that he shall establish his religion according to truth; he shall faithfully announce the true precepts of religion, and secure their ascendency among mankind. It shall overcome all falsehood, and all idolatry, and shall obtain a final triumph in all nations. Thus explained, it is clear that Matthew has retained the general idea of the passage, though he has not quoted it literally.”

[4] Nicholas Hopman, Lutheran Quarterly, Spring, 2016. From his article:

“[T]he content of the commandment/law is always a weapon attacking human sin” (159).

“Where there is no accusation, there is no law” (164)

“Only where there is freedom from law… can there be love of the law” (167)

“[T]he law and delight in the law are two mutually exclusive realities” (167)

“The Christian, in faith alone, is beyond the law” (160)

The Christian is successful vs. sin because the Christian and Holy Spirit are not law (171)

“[The] law is present only where Christ is absent” (164), and the Holy Spirit is “the opposite of the law” (166)

“[T]he fulfillment of the law actually empties the law of all its content, namely, its threatening teeth” (160)

Some among us “traditional” Lutherans might have the absolute temerity to suggest:

That sin is not to be understood as anything said, done, or thought against the law of God.

That the Holy Spirit is the opposite of the law and the law is only present where Christ is absent.

That any attempt to find a positive role for the law in the lives of Christians inevitably leads to self-justification.

That “nothing [is] more damnable than someone choosing to act how they think a Christian should behave…”

That God does not finally mean for Christians to walk in His eternal law and hence fulfill it.

That with God’s eternal law behind us, because of the Gospel which frees us… it would be impossible for us to sin, no matter how hard we tried.

That the law “does not give,” but actually “removes faith in God’s word.”

That God did not punish His Son on the cross for our sins.

And, perhaps worst of all, that Jesus Christ commuted His own personal sin….

“Relevant” and culturally compatible indeed!

[5] Again, if Luther is right when he says “[t]he law does not want you to despair of God… it wills that you despair of yourself, but expect good from God…” (SDEA 367, 369), how can we not conclude this? The Holy Spirit brings God’s good law!

[6] To seek the weightier matters of the law apart from the complete obedience of Christ—perfectly exemplifying to the world the fulfillment of the eternal law of God in every facet—is indeed, as Andrew Preus clearly sees, “to create justice, mercy, and faithfulness in one’s own image”.

Previously, I have said: “Understood most simply, legal righteousness, or righteousness according to the law, specifically in the Ten Commandments, proclaims an imperfect picture of what must be done, what is prescribed. Even better, given that it is from God, reflects God, and is for man, legal righteousness simply proclaims what real righteousness looks like. And it does us well to note here that legal righteousness involves both justice and compassion (see, e.g., Matthew 23:23).”

[7] For in the end, not just trust but strong trust in God’s loving and redemptive Providence – sometimes against all appearances to the contrary – is in fact the will of God.


Because not only our Lord Jesus Christ, but saints like Job, Shadrach, Meshach, Abendego, Jeremiah, and, of course, Habakkuk – who ultimately live to testify of Christ – are also to be held up in honor as existing for the life of the world, fallen in sin and cursed.

So our Lord Jesus, although standing out above all others, follows in a long line of the Lord’s servants who realized and enacted God’s will through their suffering.

It is not difficult to see how the faithful words of the prophet Habakuk, in his own circumstances, mirrored our Lord Jesus’ own trust in God:

“I will wait patiently for the day of calamity

to come on the nation invading us.

Though the fig tree does not bud

and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails

and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen

and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;

he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,

he enables me to tread on the heights.

(Habakkuk 3)

[8] Some of you may have winced when I said God looks at you and also says “This is my Son…”  After all, some of you are not men you might say!

The language here is important. In Scripture, it was the firstborn sons who were to be the heirs. When the Bible says that those who have faith in Jesus are all sons of God, it is saying that all of us, male and female, are to be the recipients of the great inheritance that He brings…

[9] “All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

He also talks about how the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith”, “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers” and raising us all from the the dead to give us eternal life…

[10] See here for more:

[11] See more in footnotes here:

[12] Joshua Mitchell: “Man (the servant) does not wish to live in this mixed world, and conceives of a plan to distinguish and separate the wheat from the tares. Identity politics is that plan….”  From here:

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Posted by on January 8, 2023 in Uncategorized