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Author Archives: Nathan A. Rinne

Trying to Get as Many Heavenly Rewards as You Can

I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

– Matthew 25:23

 

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In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus indicates to His disciples He might be a while in getting back to them. We hear, in part:

After a long time the master of those servants returned…”

It’s hard for many of today’s disciples to wait for their Master’s return.

For Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and as such, Christians desire to be where He is in utter fullness.

For to Whom else should we go?

He is the Light on the darkened paths of the fallen world which does not recognize Him, and in Him, we are the light as well – the light for the life of the world, a city on a hill…

Where He walks, we walk – and the beginnings of the world’s transformation and the ushering in of the new Creation follow in our wake.

Planting the seeds of His Word, new communities of worshippers are created, joining the heavenly chorus from ages to ages.

This too, is His gift to us. This is our inheritance. This is our calling.

For we are the maidens to whom our Faithful One is betrothed – awaiting the final consummation of all things and the great wedding feast with people from all tongues, tribes, and nations!

This is our Christian faith!

And two of the men in Jesus’ parable seem to get this, seem energized by this

According to the text they get to it immediately!

They leap into their work with true vigor, as indicated by the verbs that describe their actions…

We might compare their energy to a couple young Wall Street sharks eager to get out into the world and make millions under their mentor’s profit-seeking eye…[i]

But not all those we find in the church we see with our eyes feel this way. Some, for example, are like the man who says in our parable, “I knew that you were a hard man…”

I wonder if Judas, though being as close to Jesus as He was, also thought Jesus was a hard man.[ii]

“Jesus, I know you have your mission, your purposes, your goals…. But, be reasonable. You are tearing the world apart…”[iii]

If he did, he would not be unlike a great many “wise” men and women outside the church either, would he?

“Jesus… please. Can’t we just try to allow for people to ‘be authentic’ and ‘be who they are’ as much as possible? Can’t we just look to have human progress and flourishing the way that we think it should be done? Can’t we just focus on ‘peace, peace…’ and ‘safety’? Be reasonable! You are being much too hard… Difficult…”

And so we read, also in the book of Matthew, in the chapter right before this one: “the Son of Man will appear in the sky…! [excitedly]

…and all the nations of the earth will mourn…” [sadly] (24:30).

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We are told in the Bible that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

And we see this morning that in our Lord’s parable, the slave says:

“’Master… I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you….”

Now, it might sound like this man did act out of fear – but is this really the case?

On the one hand, it might seem to be… Several Bible commentators think so. When I was young man, I often thought that this is what was happening when I heard this parable…

…and then I often wondered why the Master did not have some pity on His servant…

After all, didn’t Jesus say that He did not come to damage those whose faith was weak? You know, He said of Himself: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…”?

“Why doesn’t this guy qualify?”, I thought…

On the other hand, does it not seem just a bit odd that this servant actually has the nerve to speak such words to the one he says he fears?

Has he just all of a sudden, after being fearful all this long time, just now gotten his courage up when He faces His Master?

And not only this, if he’s really as fearful as he says he is, why would he have buried the talent in the first place?[iv]

No, things are not always as they initially seem.

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I no longer think that this servant was living in fear.

At all.

That’s not why he buried his talent in the ground, and hence, the Lord calls his bluff:

“Oh, you knew I was a hard man? Well, if that is the case, why didn’t you…?”

As one commentator puts it: “Wickedness always argues like a fool when it dares to open its mouth.”

It does us all well to remember that when the Bible speaks of sinful or wicked men and fear, it speaks about them having a lack of fear (Psalm 36). Rom. 3:18, for example, makes the accusation that “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Paul is saying man knew God but have abandoned Him. And man knows the truth about God, but suppresses this truth.

Therefore the real issue, I submit, is what it always is.

This:

The Master is truly patient, kind, good, and especially, generous.

Fallen man is not…

Jesus Christ does not come to make unrealistic and unreasonable demands, but “to serve” and “give his life as a ransom for many.” And the greatest of His followers are those among them who serve, who have begun to give like He does! (Matt 23:11)

He says to all that He comes to offer a yoke that is easy, and burdens which are light….

He even tells us that we who have will receive even more, “and [we] will have an abundance”! (Matt 25:29)… giving us both grace and responsibilities that bring joy, love, and life.

And yet…

…when He comes bidding the world to repent, bidding both “good and bad” to “come to the feast!”

…it is people like the tax collectors and prostitutes who repent, believe, and embrace “the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32).

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Perhaps though, we might think that this servant, while not afraid, was just being lazy. This, however, is not necessarily correct either (the NIV translation here is questionable).

Again, Jesus Christ is the one who at the eleventh hour hires extra workers for His vineyard, making them His servants in good standing as well!

Generous! And making the last first, and the first, last.

….and, as Jesus explicitly points out in Matthew 20:15, people are envious… envious…

…Because He is generous…

Envy, again, is the “desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to another…”

It really comes down to this: people, being envious, ultimately want to see goodness being done to their neighbors according to their own way, and not the Lord’s way…

If they “bless” other people, they want it to be in accordance with their will, their standards, their purposes… their own conceptions of what is just and fair…and just and fair for them.

And Jesus, frankly, ruins all of that…

As we see in the Gospels in fact, His chosen people, the Jews, have very, very little time and/or patience for the heralds who come announcing the good news of the Kingdom.

So it is not that the servant in the parable is necessarily lazy… It is that he simply had other things that he would rather be doing, that were more important to do. 

This man, a member of the church outwardly, is much like the Jewish rulers.

You see, pre-Jesus, things were going pretty well in their world.

They were quite comfortable, they were governing things just fine, and most had the respect of the common people. They liked how people saw them, viewed them… They had the kind of status and commendation from the world that gave them a sense of purpose and meaning…

So this man is not necessarily lazy in that he is unwilling to act or participate in any kind of work. It’s just that when it comes to this work, the purposes of the Master, he is not only unambitious but wholly disinterested…

As the sixth century preacher Gregory the Great put it:

Hiding a talent in the earth means employing one’s abilities in earthly affairs, failing to seek spiritual profit, never raising one’s hearts from earthly thoughts. There are some who have received the gift of understanding but have a taste only for things that pertain to the body. The prophet says of them, ‘They are wise in doing evil, but they do not know how to do good…’” (224)

This man who buries his talent, like the Jewish leaders, didn’t need this Radical Carpenter from Nazareth coming on the scene and turning over everyone’s tables…

On His own mission of love and in effect accusing everybody else of being the bad guys…

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And, again, note that it is evidently not only the Jews, God’s chosen people, who are made miserable by Him – but the whole unbelieving world.

…when “the Son of Man will appear in the sky… all the nations of the earth will mourn…” (24:30).

Well, what should God expect if He makes people feel bad? (see John 7:7).

What should He expect if He breaks into everybody’s world and upsets their apple cart? Knocks their ducks out of the “proper” rows?

I mean, if you are God, you should just understand when people say

“Hey… thanks for the invitation to the Wedding Feast, but I’ll pass”

or

“It’s not like I took the talent you gave me and spent it on my own pleasures… I only buried it after all…”

God, you should just “get it” when people say…

“Look, I didn’t squander the gifts I was given on riotous living, like the prodigal son did… I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m a good person. Ask my peers…”

God, maybe you should just take it a little bit more lightly when people say:

“We don’t really want you here. We don’t need you…Well, maybe we could make something work. What’s in it for me?”

I mean, right?

God, you need to have a “come to Jesus” moment!

Get with the program!

Or maybe, understandably, you as the Master on a Mission get enraged at your useless servants and you throw that worthless and wicked lot outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…

(this what happens in this parable, and it also happens in the parable of the wedding feast to the person who gets into the feast, but isn’t wearing the right clothes…).

Or maybe, you as the Master send your army to destroy those who murder your servants and burn their city down…

(this is what Jesus says will happen to those who not only ignore the invitation to the wedding feast, but kill the servants who bring the message).

And then, of course, the world accuses this Master, the one who served in love, who paid for the sins of His rebellious people with the price of His own blood… of being the worst of impatient and authoritarian monsters…[v]

At the very least, this is what they do in their hearts… the heart which will be fully unveiled, laid bare, at the time of the final judgment…

Where their “accounts” will be settled and individually scrutinized (Origin).

They only condemn themselves here. They only show how they are “projecting,” as we say today… revealing their own hearts as they do.

As the commentator Lenski puts it about the man who buries his talent…

“This fellow imagines his great and generous lord to be as envious and as self-seeking as he himself is…” (980)

And as Martin Fraanzman put it, talking about not only this parable but the message of God’s judgment of the sheep and goats which immediately follows:

“The unmerciful had committed themselves to the unmerciful enemy of God[, that is Satan,] and share his doom (the eternal fire which God did not design for man[, but the demons])” (39, CSSC, 1979).

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So what is the contrast?

The wise, the righteous, are those who are about their master’s business, and will be found about such when He returns…

Let’s talk a bit more about some of the details of this parable, and some of its more challenging aspects.

Who is the wealthy man? The wealthy man in the parable is Jesus. Again, He is getting ready to leave His disciples and to go into heaven, where He will be for a long while before returning… (Lenski)

Servants/Slaves? Yes.

And slaves in the ancient world were teachers, accountants, and even treasurers of a kingdom. In other words, not just household slaves or agricultural workers but highly skilled business experts. (Osborne, 923)

What are the talents? Money. A silver talent might be worth 7,300 denarii (and a denarii was a day’s wage). A gold talent could be worth 30 times as much…. And just one gold talent would approximately 800,000 dollars in today’s money! (Osborne)

R.T. France says “the ‘talents’… do not represent… individual ability but are allocated on the basis of [individual ability].” (951) That’s true, though even as this parable deals with money, it also does bring our attention to the abilities of the servant. This then, is where we get the metaphorical interpretation of “talent”, and, in fact, our modern word “talent”.

The text says: “The man…went at once and put his money to work…”

Yes, and “use it or lose it” as they say, right?

Do you have wealth? Use it.

And, also, we should not assume that those who have more talents, and hence more responsibilities, could also not prove unfaithful.

This parable is not teaching that only those with the fewest talents might prove unfaithful in their abilities. Instead, we see clearly that this parable contains a warning for all of us…

It will not do at all for any of us to say, ‘I can’t do much, so it is all right if I don’t do anything. It won’t really make any difference.” (Albrecht).[vi]

Or as St. John Chrysostom put it 1,600 years ago: “Let no one say, ‘I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.’”

Do you have diligence? Can you teach? Speak? Sing? Add and subtract? Negotiate? Are you a good protector or care giver? Do you listen well?

What kind of abilities, what kind of gifts, what kind of material and technological means do you have that you could be generous with as well?

It is better to give than receive! This is the life that Christians have been blessed with!

The wise and righteous do good works, because they have oil, faith, in their lamps!

They notice the signs of the end, and they keep watch for their Master’s return!

They have and will be given more, having an utter abundance!

And this, by the way, goes along with Matt. 13, fourteen chapters earlier, where we read the following:

“The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables…”[vii]

Maybe that is, finally, the most profound way of understanding what the talents represent: the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.

Above all, you have the simple and humble gospel which penetrates this world like yeast through the dough!

What is the world to me!
My Jesus is my treasure,
My life, my health, my wealth,
My friend, my love, my pleasure,
My joy, my crown, my all,
My bliss eternally.
Once more, then, I declare:
What is the world to me![viii]

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The talent-burier in our parable today really thinks that he is a believer… but his understanding of who his Master is is dead wrong.

So do not be like the false believer, who has a fake Jesus. Do not be like Judas who asks “Is it I Lord?” (namely, I, who will betray you?).

Let your understanding of Christ, the generous Master, be true!

Be the one who has boldness and joy as the second coming approaches!

See His great generosity… His death on the cross for even your sins! Even today!

You too can hear “Well done!” Fine! Excellent![ix]

“You were faithful with a few things, over many will I station you…”

“Enter into the joy of your Master!”

He has prepared a place for us. There are many mansions there.

You see, our Lord Jesus is eager to comfort His people with the messages about our heavenly dwellings, and yes, even our heavenly rewards.[x]

We see here, in the parable, what He says about new “stations”. This should perhaps cause us to recall Matthew 19:28 also, where He says to His disciples:

“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

I think at this point, in this day and age, it’s also important for us to say how wrong the ideas of some self-proclaimed “Christian socialists” are.

One for example, in an article I read, says this:

“Our struggle is not to raise ourselves above our enemies, but to love them fully [good so far…], because to abolish class means abolishing what makes them our enemies at all.”

Thinking like that is disastrously wrong.

Actually, as I noted last time I spoke with you, God appreciates hierarchy. And He ranks and rewards accordingly. We can even see that there will be different classes or “statuses” in heaven….

There just won’t be envy any longer, like there is so much of it here….

Had the servant with only one talent fulfilled his responsibility, there’s no doubt he would have been equally commended by His Master.

He would not, however, have received all of the exact same rewards as his fellow believers…

And not only this, but all of us, and any “Christian socialist” friends we might have in particular, should see that Christ’s message is not about attaining absolute economic equality on earth or in heaven but is ultimately about the joy of simply being in good relationships with the others God blesses us with…

All faithful servants will enter into their Master’s joy, with Him being their true Wealth.

For the greatest of the gifts God gives is love, and God Himself is love….

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So, here, for example, we should think of Paul, who says these tender and powerful words to the Thessalonians:

“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” (I Thess. 2:19)

So again, take into account and do not be like Judas who asks “Lord, is it I?,” but trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and His plans for you!

You, who reach others with the joy of this message, and they, who reach you with the message of Christ!

And may we, may all of us, like the good servant go forth in God’s work and be confident: “Master, you delivered to me five (or two, or one) talents; here I have made five (or two, or one) talents more…”

And let us do so always keeping in mind that the good works we do are never meant to be for our own salvation – Jesus has fully won this for us – but for the benefit of our neighbor to our Lord’s glory.

Hence, the Apostle Paul also says:

“Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load….”

Before we say “Paul, that’s not Lutheran!”, let’s realize that he is writing this in one of his greatest epistles explaining justification by grace through faith… the book of Galatians…

So, why would anyone, particularly a Lutheran…

[Try] to Get as Many Heavenly Rewards as [They] Can?

Well, why would we not want our own rewards to be greater and greater?

Such a thought need not be for selfish or evil reasons, but can indicate proper self-interest and concern.

For if our rewards are greater and greater, what does this really mean?

It means that God and His Christ, His Gospel, have been glorified in the world through us all the more. And even though this is not our main priority, this also means that we too will be blessed to know the joy of serving our God all the more in this life….

Just like a man kissing his wife experiences pleasure in that “good work”…[xi]

Our Lord is good. For we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are unworthy of all of the great love He has for us.

“We are unworthy servants” but of Christ we sing “love to the loveless shown that we might lovely be…”

And so, we are compelled by this love and strive. The Apostle Paul puts matters well:

“My dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

We will never get beyond the fact that it is only in, with, through, and by our Lord Jesus Christ that we inherit—not merit—any and all of these blessings.

And… our efforts will not be in vain…

Amen

 

Notes:

[i] Luz, per Osborne: “The best way to make money quickly in the antiquity was dealing in commodities or speculating in land” (924). The talents, do, after all, literally mean a large sum of money. “[T]his [parable] is not about domestic management, but about high-level commercial responsibility…” “The ‘talents,’ however, do not represent that individual ability but are allocated on the basis of it.” (France, 953, 951). The mood of the parable is definitely far from the reasoning found here: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/09/was-jesus-a-socialist. Also vs. Carter and Reid. Carter specifically, per France, “criticizes the parable for taking ‘the perspective of the wealthy elite’ and ‘punishing the one who subverts the system…” The third slave should be commended “for not adding to the master’s wealth by not depriving others”. He is the “honorable one because he unmasks the wickedness of the master.” Matthew is “a creature of his cultural context.” (p. 951)

[ii] BAGD (756) says this means “hard, strict, harsh, cruel, and merciless” (Osborne, 926). One commentator I looked at said this could also mean “strong” as in “powerful”. In other words, it could be a complement of sorts. Perhaps the servant is being deliberately ambiguous.

[iii] Or maybe, as some have suggested, Judas belonged to the party of the Zealots, and he would have been upset that Jesus wasn’t tearing the world apart the way He should have been doing it to counter Rome.

[iv] France: It’s about self-interest and slave perceiving he would not get much out of the deal. “He may also have been afraid of how such a master might react if his commercial venture failed, but, if so, he has chosen his words badly…” (France, 955).

[v] And in order to get the evil authoritarian, who serves us so that He actually can rule us, to try and trick Him… to undermine Him… to subvert him…. some try to crash the feast.

Jesus tells this parable in Matthew 22 – right after telling the momentous parable of the tenants where the tenants kill the Master’s own son. In the wedding feast parable, they are actually going to pretend, in spite of their faithless hearts, that they actually belong there in the same arena with Jesus (related to this, note also what they do next: first, in chapter 22, the Pharisees go on to ask about taxes and Caesar, the Sadducees about marriages and the resurrection, and the Pharisees again about the greatest commandment ; finally, Jesus asks them about “whose son is the Christ”… and goes into the “Woes!” in chapter 23. Chapter 24 begins to get into the “Signs of the end of the age”…).

They don’t realize that they need the wedding clothes though, and face the consequences, as so many do in these chapters where we read of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”…

Again, as noted above, “it really comes down to this: people, being envious, ultimately want to be “good to their neighbors” in their own way, and not the Lord’s way… If we “bless” other people, we want it to be in accordance with our will, our standards, and our own conceptions of what is just and fair.

Jesus, frankly, ruins all of that…His chosen people, in fact — have little time for the heralds who come announcing such good news…

They, after all, have other things to attend to: one “his field, another… his business” (Matt 22:5)

So, naturally, they kill the heralds, including the Master’s own son.

[vi] Most of us would place ourselves in the category of the servant who received only one talent. That may be where most of us belong. But that surely is no excuse for being unfaithful with the talent God has given us. It will not do at all for any of us to say, ‘I can’t do much, so it is all right if I don’t do anything. It won’t really make any difference.” (Albrecht, 364)

[vii] “Those who have accepted Jesus’ gift will receive revelation in abundance; those who have rejected it (the Jewish people) will lose even what they have, namely, their place as the recipients of divine truth. Here it has the broader sense of the reality of the kingdom. He followers of Jesus will have the kingdom in abundance, while the leaders and the Jewish people who have opposed Jesus will lose it…” (Osborne, 928)

[viii] 1 What is the world to me
With all its vaunted pleasure
When You, and You alone,
Lord Jesus, are my Treasure!
You only, dearest Lord,
My soul’s delight shalt be;
You are my peace, my rest.
What is the world to me!

2 The world seeks to be praised
And honored by the mighty
Yet never once reflects
That they are frail and flighty.
But what I truly prize
Above all things is He,
My Jesus, He alone.
What is the world to me!

3 The world seeks after wealth
And all that mammon offers
Yet never is content
Though gold should fill its coffers.
I have a higher good,
Content with it I’ll be:
My Jesus is my wealth.
What is the world to me!

4 What is the world to me!
My Jesus is my treasure,
My life, my health, my wealth,
My friend, my love, my pleasure,
My joy, my crown, my all,
My bliss eternally.
Once more, then, I declare:
What is the world to me!

[ix] Fine, Excellent (Lenski) “No higher commendation can come to any believer from the lips of Jesus…”….

[x] Sometimes, we are afraid to talk about rewards, but as he gives to “each according to his ability” he is also ready to “reward accordingly” (Fraanzman). As Gregory the Great put it:

“All the good deeds of our present life, however many they may appear to be, are few in comparison with our eternal recompense. The faithful servant is put in charge of many things after overcoming all the troubles brought him by perishable things. He glories in the eternal joys of his heavenly dwelling. He is brought completely into the joy of his master when he is taken into his eternal home and joined to the company of the angels. His inner joy at this gift is such that there is no longer any external perishable thing that can cause him sorrow…”

Finally, it is not reading too much into the parable to see heaven as a state “not of indolent pleasure,” as one man put it, “but of active cooperation with the purpose of God as well as enjoyment of his favor” (see France, 955).

[xi] Rev. Christopher Jackson: https://twitter.com/revcjackson/status/1309155090792681473

 

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Is Democracy Dead in America?

“…those who once cared about election interference must now allow the investigations to play out, because this is bigger than any candidate.” — Gen. Michael Flynn

 

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I have particular Bible verses that come to mind here, but its probably best right now to keep those to myself. I’ll stick with political commentary.

From where I stand, from all I’ve read, it sure looks to me like there is massive evidence of election fraud. So far, I haven’t found the rebuttals that I have seen about this or that complaint, incident, believable.

Again, other Western democracies, as best I can tell, do not have these problems. Up until about five minutes ago, non-Trumpy sources like the N.Y. Times were telling us that mail-in ballots were a decidedly bad idea. It is not Trump who is making America look bad now, it is certain American cities and media elites that have made us look bad.

Of course I don’t believe a word the media or the politicians say about their denials. What are, to some, “one-off” incidents of problems here and there in these places are just evidence of a “tip-of-the-iceberg” for some of us. The media and politicians both lie for a living, and they have only become that much more brazen, “out in the open,” about everything in recent years.

Isn’t that what Trump is saying too Al?: “The most important principle that I defended 20 years ago, that Joe Biden and many others are defending tonight is: Let’s count every legally cast vote and obey the will of the American people…”

 

Trump gets lots of traction with “Fake news” for a good reason.

Right now, it seems like Trump and the people around him are fighting hard, and accumulating more and more evidence of fraud moment-by-moment. Despite articles like the NY Times piece the other day saying how hard it would be to pull fraud off, the key matters are this:

-Politicians have successfully been pulling off voting fraud in certain areas for hundreds of years (there are even some well-documented accounts of how this is done).

-Certain areas are known for this kind of thing, they have a culture of fraud.

-It would have been much, much easier to cheat in this election given the presence of so many mail-in ballots, “software glitches” here and there.

-Again, the media and Democrats have only been getting more brazen, out in the open, with their lying.

-Finally, they face no consequences for any of their actions. Of course it is reasonable that many of us feel like they think they can get away with it (not all Democrats).

So… I hope Trump and those fighting with him manage to secure whatever evidence of fraud is available to him. It would hardly surprise many of us if much of that evidence has already been buried, but I hope they find whatever is there.

I might end up agreeing with them now!

 

And I do want and hope Donald Trump continues to be President. However, given that votes that should not have been counted are not counted and he does not reach the vote total that he needs, what if more and more people believe that there was enough funny business going on not to trust the process (for whatever reason). Then what?

One thing Trump might be able to do is make a deal. I’ll stop fighting only when we get national election reform that ensures that this kind of fiasco can never happen again, that use best practices and methodologies of places that do not have these kinds of problem, that make it impossible to cheat, and that make it as easy as possible to detect fraud in the system when it does happen.

And if this is rejected? If the Republicans at large won’t fight for this? Or if there seems to be no reason to think that the conditions of such a compromise deal would be adhered to?

At best, I’ll probably be a member of the Solidarity Party in the future if I vote at all. And I’ll pick up and loudly promote as true the Washington Post’s tagline that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” And that I do not accept Joe Biden as a legitimate President of the United States of America.

And at worse, I’ll fully expect the strongmen and kings to arise in an already fractured, broken, and increasingly unsure and unsafe country.

“….networks called the election for Gore as early as 8:00 P.M. E.T. on election night.” — multiple sources online

 

FIN

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Can Christians Legitimately Justify Voting for Joe Biden/Kamala Harris?

And this means what? “On abortion, there is only one Christian position.” – Laurence White

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There have been a lot if very interesting articles written in the past couple weeks from well-known evangelical leaders addressing the issue of voting in the upcoming Presidential election. I am thinking about pieces by John Piper, Al Molhler[i], Wayne Grudem, and Doug Wilson (these last two responding to Piper and his concern about the character of Donald Trump).

One of the most challenging articles that I’ve read though came from Felix James Miller, who write a very thoughtful piece at Public Discourse titled “Why Voting for Biden Isn’t Necessarily a Sin—And Why That Matters”.

“I am adamant that a Christian may in good conscience vote for [Joe Biden] so long as it is not because of the evils he supports.” — Felix Miller

.

Miller himself is not a Biden voter – he thinks “his presidency would do untold damage to our nation and the world” and that voting for him would be “foolish”. He also does not say that he is a Trump voter, but rather shares thoughts like these:

“Joe Biden and Donald Trump both clearly possess great vice and little virtue. There is no getting around that. While we cannot judge a person’s culpability (that is, whether they are accountable for their sins), we should pray for both Trump and Biden to repent from their publicly sinful lives.”

In the article though, he is specifically countering Roman Catholic voices who insist that “any support for pro-choice candidates is always wrong for Christians” (the position recently taken by one Father James Altman, in a very popular You Tube video), and defends a certain kind of person who votes for Joe Biden.

Sit down Father Altman!: “There will be sixty million and counting aborted babies standing at the gates of Heaven barring your Democrat entrance, and nothing you can say will ever excuse you for your direct or indirect support of that diabolical agenda. Period. The end.”
Father James Altman

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At the same time though, he makes a number of statements that, were they to be taken by themselves, might lead a person to think that he believes voting for Joe Biden is necessarily sinful. For example, he says:

  • “Any person who has freely committed, or even ‘formally cooperated’ in, either [abortion or euthanasia] is not to present himself for communion until he has repented and been forgiven by Christ through His mystical body, the Church.”
  • “To cooperate in a sin… is to support in any way (whether by guidance about, assistance in, or providing material for) another person committing a sin.”
  • “Biden is a vicious man who consistently supports abortion at all stages of pregnancy, while Trump is a vicious man who has taken action throughout his presidency to protect not only life, but religious freedom, marriage, and myriad other socially conservative issues.”
  • “Joe Biden, if elected president, intends to support laws that allow for the murder of innocents. This is evil.”
  • “By casting a vote for Biden, a person is cooperating with evil.”
  • “Biden’s campaign is heavily tied to a number of grave evils, and thus showing public support (e.g. by wearing a Biden t-shirt) would likely cause scandal to others.”
  • “Joe Biden… should be understood by Catholics to have excommunicated himself through his public support for abortion.”

So how does Miller get to his conclusion – that a Christian may vote for Joe Biden and not be wrong in doing so – in his article? The following paragraph is probably the most important piece of information you need to understand his argument:

“In formal cooperation with evil, a person either participates in the object, agrees with the intention, or both. Material cooperation, on the other hand, occurs when a person does not participate directly in the object of the evildoer’s act—namely “what the person is doing”—or agree with the intention of the evildoer—“why he is doing it”—but still contributes in some way to the act. If a woman purchases a latte at a coffee shop that donates money to Planned Parenthood, she is materially cooperating with the company’s evil practice, but she is not formally cooperating with it so long as she does not specifically intend to support abortion.”

Miller briefly concludes that “one may cooperate with evil only if that cooperation is material, mediate, and remote [(not formal, immediate, and proximate)] and if there is proportionate cause for doing so.” He explains the distinctions that he is using by saying, in part, “[a]n example of someone materially cooperating in evil in a way that is mediate and causally distant is a bus driver who unknowingly provides a ride for a woman on her way to have an abortion.”[ii] And the “proportionate cause” he mentions is people who believe in their conscience that only a vote for Biden (or is it Harris?) will avert the scandal[iii] of Donald Trump (“the belief that President Trump has a corrosive impact on society, America’s constitutional order, and the world”) — and  this the danger of increased chaos and civil war (and with this, of course, the opportunity for no improvements on the pro-life front).[iv]

His final paragraph is a call of unity of sorts among Christians struggling with these matters, and sounds a bit like Albert Mohler’s concerns to maintain good relations between Christians of different races[v] when it comes to political issues (see footnote 1 below):

What the Christian call of unity does demand is that we never allow earthly cares and worries to separate us. When we do, we lose moral credibility and increase fragmentation in the church. We are mistaken if we claim that those Christians who make different legitimate political judgments of prudence are rejecting the call of Christ. In fact, by accusing them of sin, we ourselves are acting against one of our Lord’s final earthly wishes.

My initial impression upon reading Miller’s pieces was that, on the face of it, his argument was strong, even if it bothered me.

At the same time, truth be told, I was kind of happy that the argument seemed so strong because I don’t like the idea of thinking that people I know and love voting for Joe Biden might be putting their souls in peril (yes, I think there are dangers involved voting for Trump as well, though please see this article by Carl Truman addressing that matter).

At the same time, however, I wondered how “air-tight” the argument really was and so I asked a couple of really smart Christian brothers whose opinions I respect a lot. Here is what they said.

“[A]midst the nuances of formal/material, mediate/immediate, and proximate/remote *cooperation*, his analysis completely overlooks blatant *negligence*.” — Matt Cochran

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Matt Cochran:

It’s very thorough and methodical in the one facet of the situation it focuses on–cooperation with evil–but it also misses the forest for the trees, in my opinion.

As voters, we shouldn’t be looking at ourselves as merely cooperating with candidates, but also as delegating our authority over the nation to candidates. He’s not thinking in those terms. You can even see it in his illustrative examples, which are all matters of being a consumer or an employee. It’s the thinking of a subject rather than a ruler. So amidst the nuances of formal/material, mediate/immediate, and proximate/remote *cooperation*, his analysis completely overlooks blatant *negligence*.

The perspective of a ruler isn’t how much to cooperate with evil, but rather how much to tolerate evil. He must tolerate some, for he will have neither perfect subjects nor perfect servants. But what he puts up with will depend on how much evil will be caused or goodness damaged by refusing to tolerate any particular evil. As Luther put it, “One must go by the proverb, ‘He cannot govern who cannot wink at faults.’ Let this be the rule: Where wrong cannot be punished without greater wrong, there let him waive his rights, however just they may be.”

As voters with authority, Christians must vote as ones under Authority ourselves. We have a responsibility to oversee the various tasks of government, and protecting our own people from wanton murder is right up at the top of such a list. If we refuse an opportunity to take an action on their behalf that will not lead to an even greater harm, then we have neglected our responsibilities and will need to answer for that. The greater such a failure to condemn evil is, the greater our negligence. And honestly, given the scope of the evil of abortion, a greater harm against which it can be justifiably balanced is really hard to come up with in our present context. (Though I won’t discount the possibility altogether.)

The Priest and the Levite who passed by the man on the side of the road might have been able to quibble about their level of cooperation with the robbers who beat him, but they overlooked the more important point: how loving their neighbor meant taking action to help him. There’s something similar going on with the article’s analysis of voting.

Now, the more cynical one is about American voting, the less relevant that line of thinking will be. Also, the less you believe that any available candidate can protect the unborn, the less relevant it will be. But even so, it’s hard for me to find a way to countenance a Biden vote, as those other lines of thinking would lead to refraining from voting altogether.

“It’s not my job to pontificate with a myriad of distinctions in order to find them loopholes.” — Pastor Andrew Preus

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Pastor Andrew Preus:

Very well thought-out, he makes some good points. Here are my two points:

First, I would apply this more often to paying taxes, not so much voting. I do believe there is such thing as a protest vote for someone who you know is not as sound as you would want. For example, I disagree with Trump on his program to extend maternity leave. I don’t believe it is wise to incentivize multi-income families, as this continues to keep people enslaved to corporate greed. And yet, I can see voting for him in spite of this, since he is not by such policy directly attacking the home. He just isn’t helping it. Perhaps it would be material cooperation with evil on his part. One could make the same argument about unwise foreign policy, although I refused to vote for the neo-cons in 08 and 12.

Second, the reason he gives for people to vote for Biden with a good conscience is almost never the case. Christians who vote Democrat almost always do so because they buy into the propaganda, and they care more about their pocket book than about the status of the family, the church, and unborn babies. That’s just a fact. They mostly vote Democrat because of their loyalty to the party. If someone were to follow his logic and vote for Biden, then I suppose I would call it foolish and a sin of weakness. But honestly, I think birth control is also a sin of weakness, at least often. The elect are deceived. I warn them against being deceived. It’s not my job to pontificate with a myriad of distinctions in order to find them loopholes.

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At this point, I’m going to just respond specifically to one other thing that Miller says:

“When our moral witness becomes entirely tied to prudential political judgments, we swap our faith in a transcendent redeeming God who offers us salvation for a politician or party who promises to create heaven on earth.”

I think I understand Miller’s concern here, but who, finally, evaluates, or should help us evaluate, when our “moral witness” has become “entirely tied to prudential political judgments”? I don’t really know any people who think they are going to get heaven on earth or utopia by voting for Donald Trump. The impression I often get is that you tend to get people who think Utopia is obtainable via politics and political action the further to the left (or “Left”) you go.

On the contrary, is wanting more jobs for Americans seeking work – particularly for the poorest Americans — necessarily seeking heaven on earth? Even if one does not vote for President Trump primarily because of his pro-life commitments, the increasing amounts of employment under his term in minority communities, for instance, seems like a mark in his favor that should also be recognized. Also, the socialist / communist alternatives facing us. Even if someone reasonable like Andrew Sullivan were right about Joe Biden, he clearly is not going to be running the Democrat party. People know what they are getting with Donald Trump, and not the alternative.

FIN

Notes:

[i] Mohler says that Christians should vote for Trump, but also says of the black community in America: “I also recognize that I know brothers and sisters in Christ who see this differently. The vast majority of Black voters in America vote regularly and predictably for the Democratic ticket, and have since 1960. Like the pattern of white evangelical voting, this is not a surprise. There are long historical reasons why both are so. With my black brothers and sisters, I make my best case for how I see the issues. They have every right to do the same. We each have a vote. Both of us will answer to God for that vote. We earnestly seek to persuade the other. We will likely vote differently in the end. We remain brothers and sisters in Christ.”

[ii] What Miller means by mediate/immediate, and proximate/remote:

“There are two more distinctions that are useful in a fine-grained consideration of this issue: namely, the distinctions between immediate and mediate material cooperation and between proximate and remote cooperation. Immediate cooperation is when a person commits an act that, although not wrong in itself, helps the evildoer in some way to commit sin. Mediate cooperation occurs when a person does something that paves the way for an evil act or helps it to occur (for instance, providing funds that help make it possible for someone to commit an injustice). Mediate cooperation in evil is acceptable so long as it is remote cooperation (which means that evil effect is not brought about directly by the cooperating person’s action, and thus the cooperating person’s action is “causally distant” from the evil) and there are proportionate reasons to cooperate in this way.

(It is worth noting that the question of how voting fits into the distinction between mediate and immediate cooperation leads a small minority of Catholic philosophers and theologians, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, to argue that we cannot in good conscience vote for either major party, a position recently argued in Public Discourse by Brandon McGinley.)

To put it briefly, one may cooperate with evil only if that cooperation is material, mediate, and remote and if there is proportionate cause for doing so. This means that the person does not intend the object (the evil act itself) or agree with its intention, does not cooperate with the evil act itself but only provides something that allows the evil to occur, and is acting in a way that is causally distant from the evil action. An example of someone materially cooperating in evil in a way that is mediate and causally distant is a bus driver who unknowingly provides a ride for a woman on her way to have an abortion. For a visual representation of these concepts, this chart may be helpful.”

[iii] “There is a final consideration when choosing whether or not to materially, mediately, remotely cooperate with evil even when there are proportionate reasons for doing so: whether or not such action is likely to cause scandal. Scandal is defined by the Catechism as “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” Thus, if the bus driver’s company began advertising his route as “the most affordable way to get to Planned Parenthood,” continuing to drive that itinerary would likely cause scandal. The bus driver should therefore resign from his route in order to avoid committing the sin of scandal.”

[iv] “If these arguments convince a pro-life person, it seems he potentially has proportionate reason to cast his vote for Biden. One could think that support for Trump will likely, whether immediately or over time, lead to descent into a state of civil war that will be so harmful to our body politic that the possibility of pro-life legislation (or any legislation at all) seems nonexistent. A vote for Biden, according to this logic, is a vote for living to fight for life another day.”

More:

“…a pro-life person who chooses to vote for him does not participate in the evil object (i.e., the person is not casting a vote for or in support of abortion, but is casting a vote to preserve the nation) or agree with its intention (the person does not actually intend abortion), and thus the person cooperates in evil only materially and not formally. Additionally, the voter does not cooperate with the evil act of advocating abortion but only provides something that allows the evil to occur (namely a vote that helps Biden take office), and that act of voting is not itself evil. Finally, Biden’s support for abortion is not the direct means to the voter’s end (preventing another Trump presidency) since the voter is voting specifically to prevent the breakdown of society, civil war, etc., which would presumably also make stopping abortion impossible. Such a vote, then, is remote mediate material cooperation with evil done for proportionate reasons, and is thus morally acceptable.”

[v] Note my concerns about the modern use of the term race: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2020/08/03/the-apostle-paul-and-love-for-ones-race/

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Shows With Matthew Garnett on Popular Critical Race Theory Approaches

I do not think I mentioned these shows on my blog, but the honorable Matthew Garnett had me on his podcast a couple months back. You can listen to the shows here and here.

We discuss, in part, my post “Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of “Institutional Racism”?“, and so wrestle with the ideas of Baylor scholar George Yancey and the now quite popular Critical Race Theory scholar, scholar Ibram X. Kendi.

These videos are also up on You Tube as well:

 

And, btw:

FIN

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Should the Church Repent for Not Calling America to Repent?


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Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

–Matthew 22:21

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Certainly, one of Jesus’ most well-known sayings – besides “love your enemies”! – is “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” (NASB)

This story in our Gospel reading this morning immediately gets our attention because in it we see how Jesus deftly thwarts the trap the Jewish religious leaders set for him.

But there are much deeper levels to this too!

Did you know, for example, that Jesus said this in an Empire ruled by someone who claimed to be the Divine Son of God? That someone being Caesar? And that Caesar claimed to bring “Good News,” that is, “Gospel,” to the world?

Instead of supporting Caesar then, it does sounds like Jesus is actually being a bit of a revolutionary, doesn’t it?

Indeed, unlike the religions of Islam and Judaism–and basically every religion in world history for that matter–Christianity is utterly unique in the highly consequential distinction it makes between God’s government and man’s government.

At the same time, a lot has happened since Jesus re-oriented the world with these words…

Have you heard of “Christendom”?

What is that? Well, I checked the oracle that goes by the name of Google, and this is what I was told:

The term Christendom refers to the impact of Christianity on the world. … Christendom is the impact of Christianity on the Roman Empire, moving through western Europe and on into areas of Scandinavia.

Also, and this is key…:

“The word “Christendom” [can be] used… to frame true Christianity [– the whole of the “body of Christ”.] A more secular meaning [though] can denote the fact that the term Christendom refers to Christians as a group, the ‘political Christian world’, as an informal cultural hegemony that Christianity has traditionally enjoyed in the West.”

Now, first of all, don’t be thrown by the use of the word “secular” here.

Even as today this word often seems to mean “anti-God,” historically it has simply meant, “of, or pertaining to, the world”.

In other words, it distinguishes the spiritual realm and the matter of men’s souls – that which is unseen – from more earthly, temporal, and bodily matters – those things which are seen.

The main point here is that “Christendom” is a term that has historically meant quite a lot in the Western world, the lands of Europe, and the English speaking nations, of which ours is but one example.

“Christendom” is the secular influence of Christianity…

Let me tell you a story from the beginnings of Christendom… about St. Ambrose, the author of the Christmas hymn “Savior of the Nations Come”.

St. Ambrose was a bishop in the Christian church in the fourth century, right when Christianity was beginning to gain great influence in the Roman Empire following the life of the first Christian Emperor in Rome, Constantine.

About the later years of his life we learn that he refused to turn one of his city’s[i] churches over to the Arian Empress and Emperor, her teenage son Valentinian II, even when threatened with capital punishment.

“I cannot think of abandoning the Church, for I fear the Lord of the Universe more than any earthly Emperor. If the Emperor acts as sovereigns are wont to act, I am prepared to suffer what bishops are wont to suffer!”

The Emperor surrounded Ambrose’s church with Arian soldiers. The people sang hymns while under this siege.

The rulers gave in and called off the soldiers.

Here is another story about Ambrose related to our topic for the day:

“St. Ambrose, through his influence on emperors, was also instrumental in overthrowing (by then still widespread) paganism and having Christianity replace it as the official religion of the Empire.

One of the most famous scenes of St. Ambrose’s life is his confrontation with Emperor Theodosius when the latter’s command ended in a massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica. Ambrose openly threatened the Emperor (whose faith and loyalty to the Church were not in doubt) with excommunication and forbade him to receive Holy Communion until he had done sufficient public penance. Only after several months of penance did Ambrose let Theodosius receive the Sacrament. This event – the monarch humbly submitting to a Church authority he publicly acknowledged to be higher than his own – marked the start of a new relationship between the Church and State.”

Now all of this is rather dramatic, but more simply, how does Christendom, or at least a “Christian political influence,” happen?

Those who might be tempted to think or even assert that this was all about earthly power plays – even if without a sword like the one Mohammad wielded – certainly do not have an accurate picture.

And even as only the Lord is ultimately in control, I don’t think that God would take offense at me saying: “we can definitively answer this question and a major clue is in our Epistle reading!”

In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians this morning, we read:

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.

What are the implications of this? Well, it is like this: God Himself has taken the punishment for our sins on the cross. He did it to be just and the justifier of the wicked person who has faith…And so when it comes to us… the implication is that we, regardless of our cultural and political context, have – and increasingly create – spaces and places where this message can be heard, believed and lived.

This means that a Christian people will create a Christian culture…

Now yes… it is true that at times Christendom relied on earthly force.[ii] And yet, the faith did not get its start that way, nor did it gain its early influence in that way.

Instead, Christianity – the Kingdom of God ushered in through Jesus Christ – was a revolution of divine love… as opposed to a revolution of earthly power…

And it all happened just like Jesus said!

The yeast working slowly through the dough… The birds building nests in the trees…

And, for our own personal context, the cultural writer Matt Cochran put it this way: The positive forms of secularism and religious liberty that [have] been enjoyed in America grew out of the specifics of Christianity.”[iii]

This is in line with what the as the well-known and highly respected Roman Catholic priest, the late Richard John Neuhaus, said as well: “Culture is the root of politics, and religion is the root of culture.”

Now we as Christians know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ – salvation not ultimately from men but from our sin, the curse of death, and the devil and his demons! – is what God’s people should ultimately be about…

And yet, at the same time… should we be relatively unconcerned about matters of this world? …its cultural practices, and the political structures that arise from them?

Not at all. It would seem this all goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors after all! So, we all will inevitably need to think about the church’s relationship to politics…

But just how should we do this?

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Well, what do we already know?

Is Christianity “all in,” for example, when it comes to democracy?

Is American government God’s favorite kind of earthly government?

Well, I like democracy, or at least the idea of democracy, as much as the next American…

Few of us, I’d venture, really like the idea of a King! In fact, it’s been said that in America “the people” are King!

Well, here, I submit, is the key: In spite of the fact that people often use the Bible to support their favorite ideas about earthly government, we really must admit that God’s priorities often seem different from ours….

For example, not long ago, on social media (Twitter), I saw that one of the men I follow recommended the book: “Discovering Biblical Equality- Complimentarity without Hierarchy.”

I know what a book like this is getting at. The Economist [Milton] Friedman for example, “[made] the commonsense observation that ‘coordination without coercion’ is preferable to principles of social organization that require coercion.” (R.R. Reno)

Still, I sometimes have a habit of poking hornet’s nests, and asking disconcerting questions, and so I said to this man:

“[H]ow do you feel about hierarchy overall [though]? [It] seems to me there are even kinds of hierarchy in heaven… If we imitate the life of our Rabbi whose love for all was not in doubt, for whom the dignity of all was not in doubt, is not hierarchy a great thing?”

He replied: “Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?”

Now, I suspected I knew what this man was thinking. Perhaps he thought I had shown myself to be a backwards rube of sorts, with my questions seemingly defending any notion of hierarchy!…

Hadn’t Jesus said, after all, that the disciples were all brothers?

That the church’s rulers would not be like those of the world who lorded it over their subjects?

Hadn’t Jesus emphatically pointed out that “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”?

Indeed, Yet, here is what I said to him:

“Who did the rabbi say would be at the top of the hierarchy?” With the disciples, Peter. With the heavenly courts, the 24 elders sitting on their thrones. With the ones to whom he gave the minas, the ones who had gained more with them. Am I doing alright? : )

Then, I said this:

I’ll be dead honest. I simply have a hard time trusting people who downplay hierarchy at best or disparage it at worst. Hierarchy is an amazing gift from God. I personally love being under [good and] competent men. [Yes,] I get it can be abused more than most things too…

So, I get what that man was saying. I too, believe that Jesus in some sense upends the systems of the world. The “orders” of this present age. Jesus’ own mother after all, Mary, sang the following in Elizabeth’s presence:

50His mercy extends to those who fear him,

from generation to generation.

51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

52He has brought down rulers from their thrones

but has lifted up the humble.

53He has filled the hungry with good things

but has sent the rich away empty.”

When we Lutherans confess that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings forgiveness, life, and salvation, we are right to put the accent on those things.

And it does us good to remember there that the “life” we speak of, while being the “eternal life” which culminates in heaven, ultimately starts right now. Ways of the Kingdom of God among us start now….

And, we also remember that while we are not “of this world” we are “in it”. We do indeed pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread…” As Luther put it, this has to do with “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body…”

+++

But – and here is an extremely interesting question related to our topic – who should be giving us our daily bread? The things economic that we need in this world?

Americans have traditionally thought that that really should not be our rulers, the higher forms of government. Government should provide some protection, but not necessarily provision – the government in the family, the government of the family, should take care of that!

And even if we think that, ideally, Kings and Governors and Presidents are really there for our protection, that doesn’t mean in each and every earthly circumstance submission is called for.

For example, in regard to the recent looting, a friend recently wrote:

“Romans 13 does not require Christian men to cower inertly and hope it all passes by just because that’s the course chosen by the governing authorities. On the contrary, their vocations require them to find the best way they can to protect their households and livelihoods. It’s entirely possible that picking up your rifle to defend your neighborhood may be the right call sometimes.”

In any case, back to the matter of providing, provision…

America is no doubt changing here, and I don’t think that should really surprise us given world history. In Luther’s times, for example, but also after that — it was not uncommon in the “German lands”[iv] for the coat of the arms of the rulers, of the nobles, to contain an image of bread… An image of bread.

The reason for this was because that was seen by all as an important function of the ruler. Their rulers would, much like our own fathers might, look to provide not only protection but provision for their people….

And, of course, in Rome, they spoke about how the good ruler provided not only “bread” but circuses” to keep the people, the “masses” or “hoi polloi,” content and happy…

And finally, with all of this focus on what the rulers must do, can do, for us… this can lead to some rather dark pictures of what can go wrong…

Some for example, speaking about the dangers of Totalitarian rulers, have painted a frightening picture of the people being crushed by their power-hungry rulers, under the foot of a forceful jackboot and mind control. This was the picture pained by George Orwell in his class book 1984.

Others envisioned a different kind of Totalitarianism. In his book Brave New World, written a few years before George Orwell’s, Aldous Huxley imagined a world where the physical needs and desires for personal pleasure of all were increasingly met by the elites of society.

People would not have to be forced to comply, but would gladly comply….

Lost in the process, of course, would be notions of personal responsibility and agency. With their most basic needs and more met, men and women would no longer struggle to survive. And a decrease in religious belief would be a natural result….

This reminds me of some of Jesus’ harrowing words about the Last Days: “the love of many will grow cold, but he who endures to the end will be saved,” and “when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?”

The Christian author and cultural guru Rod Dreher, in his most recent book “Live Not By Lies” warns about a kind of “Woke Totalitarianism” that he says is arising in our country.[v]

He points out how not only politicians, but big businesses so quickly adopt the moral and social trends and popular causes of the world, and do so not under any political pressure, but because they believe, at worst, that the world is right in its way, namely, its pressing for a nebulous and in the end deceptive “equality” or “equity” in all things…

At best, perhaps, they must go with the flow, to keep up with the currents of what is happening in the world.

And hence, by careful tracking of our internet habits and more – as it is happening in China right now – more and more subtle influence can be exercised on the population, applying pressure on us by limiting our opportunities to attain particular kinds of work and status if we resist…

Convincing us that we too should be on the “right side of history,” should change…. lest we be left behind in the dust…

Stronger measures, like those used by the Totalitarian regimes of the past, would only be necessary for the few holdouts that remain…

+++

Is that what is happening now?

Perhaps we in America, arch-individualists all, are particularly susceptible to the world’s currents, as the Apostle John put it: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life…”

Sure, we like to hear the story of Ambrose!

We like to hear that through him and others, the world was impacted… transformed… in a positive way by the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!

At the same time though, we don’t we definitely don’t like what the Roman Catholic Church was doing 700 years ago…when they claimed veto power over all earthly rulers even as corruption claimed them….[vi]

Really, because of this, we are still quite skeptical of nearly all authority in the church today…. We might have trusted the leadership of the Apostles, but those who followed them?

This comes out strongly in the 20th century German theologian Werner Elert’s words here, from 1953:

“The medieval church… laid claim not only to the position of religious mediator between God and men. She is, in her intention and in her structure, a creation resembling the state with a central authority (head) — the prototype of a totalitarian and authoritarian imperialism. She is authoritarian, because she tries to direct all the areas of life — political events, the entire social and economic order, and the family even on down to its most intimate transactions. She lays claim to compulsory power over all who want to be Christians, and she puts this into practice against all those who oppose her. She lays claim to a cultural monopoly and to a great extent she has it. Her goal is to rule the world. The Reformation was unsuccessful in completely setting aside this system, but it did succeed in cracking it open and making it null for a broad portion of Christianity (1953 Elert essay in Seminarian: https://crossings.org/lutheranism-and-world-history/)

For Elert, the only good church, it seems, was a very weak one. But there is also a problem with this…

What is that problem? Well, even as we know it makes sense in one regard to talk about the church as hidden or invisible, it also is true that the church is indeed visible. It too is an earthly institution established by Christ among us.

And being an institution of our Lord on earth, it is critical that the church embodies the will of its Master. That His voice might be ours. That we might be ambassadors of His will.

That we must call people to repent, to trust in the Lord Jesus, and to walk in His ways…indeed, down to our most intimate transactions…

But there is the rub. Nobody wants to be told what to do such that they actually have to do it. Nobody wants to be “managed,” much less controlled…

We don’t like it with our friends. We don’t like it with our spouses. We don’t like it with our government!

And, here’s the key… frankly, we don’t like it with our God… Maybe this is why even a theologian like Elert contradicted Martin Luther, saying of the 10 commandments that they offered us no real practical guidance about how to live….[vii]

And when the church doesn’t hold the line, when the church cowers before the opinion-makers of the world, this will, of course, have implications…

In fact, as Rod Dreher, that Live Not By Lies guy,  recently put it

“[T]here is a significant element in progressive Christianity in America that in years to come will be leading the charge to punish traditional churches and individual believers, to prove their loyalty to the [Woke] regime and its ideology.”[viii]

And so, this kind of thing leads that friend I mentioned to say:

“American Christians: Be wise. Be vigilant. Be prepared. Pray for God’s guidance. Remember the ones for whom you are responsible. The time will come when you’ll need to make a hard choice. Make the best choice you can according to the wisdom given to you, and lean on Christ’s forgiveness for the rest.” (Cochran)

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Can one still believe that America is still, in some way, a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation?

The naysayers will come at you fast and furious:

“Don’t worry about the nation, focus on the church’s wrongs!”

Well, yes. We always should start in the church, get our own house in order first!

So… if you get connected with a pastor who will never confront you, not take a stand on the word of God, not say “no” to you…not actively and lovingly work to change the direction you or your loved one is going in…

Then you won’t have much of a pastor…

I’m not talking about tying heavy burdens on peoples’ backs such that they are not able to stand up. I am talking about brothers in the faith who will take seriously the call to “Carry each other’s burdens… in this way…[fulfilling] the law of Christ…” (Gal. 6:4)

So with that out of the way, know that the naysayers will continue to come at you…

  • “There is freedom of religion in America, which is a pluralistic nation.”
  • “[The] right to free exercise of religion should end when one crosses from private life into the public sphere!”
  • Jesus Christ is not mentioned in our founding documents. It is in God we trust!”
  • “Christianity does not work for politics. It won’t work.”
  • “Friend, we are not in medieval times any more…”

I’d content that these objections, spoken or unspoken, don’t ultimately matter.

You can still believe that America is a Christian nation or should be a Christian nation[ix] – and, for example, vote accordingly.

Certainly, to say the very least, our nation’s founding documents and laws would not have been possible, thinkable, conceivable, without the influence of Christianity!

In order to respect the notion of the “separation of church and state”, this doesn’t mean that you:

  • Must condemn the preference for one religion over another
  • Or express the irrelevancy of religion for civic standing
  • Or contend for all manner of religious neutrality in American civic life…[x]

Not at all – you should trust, in fact, that only the One True God can make us all live in peace with one another…[xi]

And you can pray accordingly for, hope for, work for, Christian faith to continue to be a part of—and hopefully a stronger part of—our nation’s heritage, customs, and laws…

We will never be able to fully avoid suffering in this world — and really, this should never be our goal. Rather the point here is that it is indeed a good thing – it is in fact a great thing! – to have a desire to see the way of the Lord honored among one’s own people and all nations!

And of course, God’s good gifts to all people – not worldly successes, but the very real blessings of things like family, a home, and the love that can be found therein, for instance, are things that we should want all people to be able to experience….

And yet, again: that is not even the main thing.

The main thing is that the message that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all, and gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all – it the message that we must make known and make known increasingly…

And keep this in mind as well: If we lived in a nation that explicitly called itself a Christian nation in its official documents and official ceremonies, we would still not be without problems.

England and Sweden, after all, are both explicitly Christian in their founding documents, and yet today, in those lands, few hold to the Word of God, still believing that it endures forever.

Again, even if a country like America had a government which explicitly acknowledged its Christian heritage… Even if it defended it and perhaps embraced it… Acts 5:29 would *still* apply to each individual believer.

Until the end comes, all of us must always say “We must obey God rather than men.”

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Christian men and women: have you not seen? Have you not heard?

The Lord’s Apostle and good Ambassador Paul, formerly called Saul, says this:

“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Again,

“If we endure, we will also reign with him.”

And also:

“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”

Again,

“Do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world?”

Do you understand what he is saying here? Do you get what this means? Yeah, it’s kind of offensive to the world…

It means that when Jesus Christ comes again, descending from the clouds to judge the nations of the earth…[xii] that we too, His sheep, will be by His side doing so in some capacity.

We will pronounce judgment upon this world.

Again, we must obey God rather than men.

Which means that we must call America to repent and turn not just to God in general[xiii], in some God whom we trust, but the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.[xiv]

I get that this is not what is on everyone’s – even Christians’ – minds these days. We have an election coming up after all!

Still, if you have a chance to talk to someone about who to vote for[xv], that is much less important than talking to them about Jesus Christ….

And again, not only just individuals but whole nations as well!

As the Psalmist says:

“Be warned, you rulers of the earth.

Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.”

“Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.”

Part of being a Christian is calling your nation, and the nations, to repentance and faith in His Name.

What kinds of politics might result from that – or perhaps what political consequences might result from that – we can’t necessarily know.[xvi]

But again, this is emphatically true:

All nations – whether they be those who value freedom of religion, speech, and assembly or not – must kiss the Son lest He be angry.

He is not just our King, but the King of All.

And so, I don’t know about you, but here, I have had to repent about not telling America to, yes, “Come to Jesus…”

And, by God’s grace, I will continue to repent.

Long live King Jesus!

…the Only One who freely gives forgiveness, life, and salvation to all.

Amen

Notes:

[i] Milan.

[ii] Rulers of tribes used to convert, and the whole of their tribe, or nation, would convert as well…

Sometimes this was forced by external threat, other times the pressure was only cultural ; or perhaps in some cases the influence was seemingly without any pressure – and most all were happy to follow in their ruler’s train in their newfound Christian faith…

One pastor I respect has said:

“In order for lives to change, hearts must change and with this change must come the willingness to suffer for the sake of doctrine and practice of the faith. The heart does not have to change if behavior is enforced by fear of punishment.  So the path of Puritanism ended up with laws ruling but hearts still filled with wrong desire.”

I’d suggest that, as I put it in a past blog post responding to this pastor,

“All of us need to recognize that people in the 16th century were more right then we are about how politics and religion should go together. Leaders of the earth should indeed be challenged to kiss the Son, lest He be angry.

…Before the Gospel can take root, the Law must do its work. And does not the Law speak of the worst punishment of all? And to bring up the Puritans as a foil is also to set one’s self up to fall off the other side of the horse. None of this is to say that I support things like Charlamagne’s forced baptisms, but I also am not going to say that the practice of people following their nation’s leaders in Christian conversion was unfortunate, or less than Christian. While ultimately only God knows the hearts of each, both individuals and peoples, tribes and nations can convert to God. If you disagree with that, speak with the prophet Jonah.”

[iii] More from Matthew Cochran:

“It’s not some stroke of blind chance that lead to religious freedom in the Christian West—it was, in fact, due to our Christian faith… our religious liberty never proceeded from attempts at religious neutrality. It came precisely from the privileged position that Christianity has historically held in America and in the West….”

[iv] Germany as a nation, meaning a modern “state,” did not yet exist.

[v] Interestingly, even though Christians know that external compliance is ultimately not all that God wants – He wants people’s hearts – it seems that Christian rulers, often ruling in what we would call an “authoritarian” manner, knew they could not force people to believe things they did not want to believe.

Today’s main players however, are not merely authoritarians however, modeling Christian authoritarians of the past – they are soft totalitarians….This is something new. What you believe, think, is now a political issue…

Why is that the case? It is because in many ways this soft totalitarianism is a Satanic mimic of Christianity. No, God is not a soft totalitarian, but it is easy to see why a Satanic mimic of godly rule would think that he is…think that He is a hard man, as the Gospel put it. He does, after all, not only care about what people do outwardly, externally…. He cares about what you think and believe… In some circumstances to us Christians even, that doesn’t strike us as good news!

Hence the “Woke Menace” with their “Woke Church” and “Woke Capitalist” friends are going to make sure you don’t only act a certain way, and do not speak out against what they are doing…. you must fully conform in thought and desire as well…

Perhaps Christopher Hitchens was right. Only a Christian culture could have made a Marx, Lenin, and Stalin… Maye, we should just cut to the chase? In a sense, are Christians are kind of like “soft totalitarians” as well?

Well, as I like to say, we are all, in fact, idealogues, it just depends on what kind of idealogue you are…

Are we also all just soft totalitarians down deep? And that it just depends on what kind of soft totalitarian you are?

Even God, after all, does not just demand your external conformity. He demands your heart. He wants not just your actions and words, but your thoughts and desires to be in total conformance to your will. Don’t Christians want this for others as well, even as they want it not to crush others, to destroy them, but so that all might, in fact, know the love of God?

And so, pastors, knowing personally how good this God is, are His ambassadors, His emissaries, His deputies… (like a sheriff? An enforcer? Well, a deputy simply means someone who is authorized to proclaim and carry out the will of another…)

In any case, God, it turns out, is really loving. And patient. Even tolerant…. One can’t not think about tolerance and patience here, which we all need.

*Who* are we patient with?

[vi] In the 1530 Augsburg Confession the Lutherans confessed:

“[E]cclesiastical and civil power are not to be confused. The power of the church has its own commission to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. Let it not invade the other’s function, nor transfer the kingdoms of the world, nor abrogate the laws of civil rules, nor abolish lawful obedience, nor interfere with judgements concerning any civil ordinances or contracts, nor prescribe to civil rulers laws about the forms of government that should be established. Christ says, “My kingdom is not of this world” [Jn. 18:36] and again, “Who made me a judge or divider over you?” [Lk. 12:14]. Paul also wrote in Phil. 3:20, “Our commonwealth is in heaven,” and in II Cor. 10:4,5, “The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy arguments,” etc.

In this way our teachers distinguish the functions of the two powers, and they command that both be held in honor and acknowledged as gifts and blessings of God (see Tappert, p. 83, The Book of Concord, bold mine).

The duties of Christian clergy and secular rulers were certainly very distinct (note that secular here means “of the world” or “of the earth,” not “opposed to God”).

In many ways, this description of the two kingdoms sounds a lot like the modern American concept of “separation of church and state,” but there are significant differences.

[vii] “…even if we could elicit from the Decalogue the desired information on all the practical questions of our life, the practical conclusions which we would draw form them would still be human conclusions, burdened with the same dubious character as all human decisions.”

[viii] The Roman Catholic writer Anthony Esolen rhetorically asks, in response to a Facebook post:

“Which party is dead set to persecute the church?

Which party is committed to the evil un-definition of marriage?

Which party is full of people who will ruin your life if you say, “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman?”

Which party is full of people who want to criminalize the expression of a wide range of opinions?

Which party wants to keep enshrined in constitutional law the “right” to dismember your unborn child?

Those things are enormous. What weighs in the favor of that party? Their rather lackadaisical immigration policy? The endless wars for no clear objective? The ceding of national sovereignty to international ideologues and bureaucrats? The nationalization of medical care? What is in their FAVOR? They have long ceased to be the party of farmers and tradesmen….”

For another respective (or perhaps not?) see the article: “Why Voting for Biden Isn’t Necessarily a Sin—And Why That Matters.”

[ix] Do we think that this kind of commentary is out of place or unhelpful? Well, before you assert that too strongly, please also consider how persons looked at this kind of thing in the past, particularly those whose nations had adopted Christianity, like the nations in the Middle East (before Muhammad begin to change that around the 7th c. A.D.) Rome, and many European nations as well…

Particularly interesting here are the views of the Christian theologian Martin Chemnitz, who, many years after the rise of Christianity in general and Lutheranism in particular in his native Germany, wrote the following in his Loci Theologici (late 16th century) regarding the fourth commandment, “honor your father and your mother”.

It is fascinating reading from a day gone by….

Regarding “the duties of government officials”, Chemnitz says of them:

  • Their first concern must be for the religion of the people: they should make sure their people can “live in godliness,”
  • They should make sure that “the true doctrine…be taught to the people and they may be instructed in the true worship” ; also “kept from outward blasphemies and godless forms of worship and whatever else is a detriment to piety.”
  • it is the duty of government officials to be supportive of churches and schools, to provide for them and protect them, cf. Ps. 2:11-12; 47:9….”
  • “let him rule according to the Decalog” and “let him rule according to the ordinance of men,” that is, in keeping with laws which are favorable and which are keeping with the law of nature.”
  • “defend the bodies and properties of their subjects against the violence and injustice and thus protect the peace” ;
  • the ruler is to “execute wrath upon evildoers,” ; “…he is to execute judgement.”

For Chemnitz, who lived in a Christian nation, these kinds of commands by rulers were not only critical for Christians but non-Christians as well….

“[N]o person should be encouraged to sin and it is a sin to ignore discipline in the unregenerate.”

“[T]he doctrine of the Word of God cannot be taught when crime rules. …outward discipline instructs us to find out where righteousness comes from…”

One is taken aback with how much religious duties – nay particularly Christian responsibilities – fall on the shoulders of the secular ruler.

And he is only following Luther, who said that the If a pastor says to kings and princes…. ‘Consider and fear God and keep his commandments’ he is not meddling in the affairs of secular authorities, and also that “God intends the secular Regiment to be a model of… the kingdom of heaven”.

As I said in a past blog post:

“The Western world at large, and America in particular, honestly need to come to grips with its Christian heritage in some way, shape, or form,[vii] and to give thanks to God–to Jesus Christ–for its true blessings (no, “Judeo-Christian values” will not cut it).

Obviously, this is going to be more difficult to do–and yes, perhaps it is impossible to do–when Christian influence and true faith has waned as much as it has…”

[x] References from Matthew Cochran’s article in the Federalist about Christian nationalism: https://thefederalist.com/2019/08/13/need-christian-nationalism-religious-neutrality-failed/

[xi] I am reading the book by the black American sociologist George Yancey, Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach, and one of the things that he points out is the importance of any functioning nation having a “cultural core”. There can be differences between groups, he says, but there must also be this cultural core. He asks what it is though, suggesting, on the basis of serious sociological studies he has done, the notion of freedom… while also pointing out the way that this idea is understood varies widely…. (for more on that hear this podcast: https://newbooksnetwork.com/annelien-de-dijn-freedom-an-unruly-history-harvard-up-2020/)

In another book I read the authors emphasize those things found in the Constititution’s “Bill of Rights”: freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly ; the right to bear arms and not be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure… How convinced are most Americans, much less those who immigrate here, that these are definitive to being an American today?

And of the United States Constitution, George Washington said: “The Constitution which at any time exists, ’till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole People is sacredly obligatory upon all.” Most of us are aware of the statements made by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made for a religious people ; it is wholly inadequate for any other…”

What unites us, can unite us today?

The late Aaron Wolf stated the following:

“In Federalist 2, John Jay argues for the ratification of the Constitution on the basis of nationalism: ‘Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people.’ He did not imagine that the ‘people’ were united under an idea, or around a Constitution. For Jay and the Federalists, the Americans were ‘a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs… and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence. This country and this people seem to have been made for each other… and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.’

This was their case against the Antifederalists. The idea was that, being one people of blood and custom, they must have a strong central government to preserve the people’s liberties against the threat of foreign invasion. So the debate was ‘whether it would conduce more to the interest of the people of America that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one federal government,… or that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to the head of each the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national government.’ Clearly with regard to Jay’s list of criteria that makes ‘one united people,’ the ship has sailed. We can debate whether Publius was right to suggest that national interests were more vital than local and regional ones. (Well, not really: Even that debate is poisoned by cries of ‘Neo-Confederate!’ and ‘racist!’ whenever the Antifederalist side is defended.)

But anyone looking honestly at the original debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists would have to admit that neither side would recognize the United States as she currently exists. On what basis, then, does one argue for American nationalism today? We can hardly say that the ‘nation’ is ‘descended from the same ancestors’; professes ‘the same religion’; is ‘attached to the same principles of government’; or is ‘very similar in their manners and customs.’ As for ‘speaking the same language’—se habla español.”

Matt Cochran, though, says America is, and can continue to be seen as a Christian nation:

“…until ‘Christian nationalism’ coalesces into something more definitive, in my experience the phrase best describes something much simpler:  a rejection of the religious neutrality of the late 20th century in favor of 1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called ‘American’ in the same sense as before. Although more general than what the statement condemns, this understanding would actually encompass many Americans, whether they accept the label or not.”

Again, John Adams said that our Constitution was made for a religious people and that it was wholly inadequate for any other…

And of course, most all the other founding fathers of this country, even a man like Thomas Jefferson who believed not in the Christian God, but a more impersonal God who nevertheless would judge men and nations, agreed…

So what then, really unites us? Can unite us?

Should not God come into the mix? And Jesus Christ specifically?

[xii] There will be nations in the plural, even if that is not what all want to see in the future, as they press or larger “nations” en route to Utopian visions of “one nation”: “The EU has a flag, an anthem, its own currency and bank, laws, taxes, a vast governmental bureaucracy, and power over even the local laws of the member states.  On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the Union (“Brexit”) became effective, as the UK became the first (and still only) state to withdraw from the Union.” (Larry Beane)

[xiii] And is saying something like that compatible with a recent article at Public Discourse reviewing David VanDrunen’s Politics After Christendom. Here is the end of the article, titled “Conservative Liberalism” after Christendom :

“Because VanDrunen sees the administration of justice as government’s sole responsibility authorized by the Noahic covenant, he advances an especially limited vision of the role of government. He suggests, for instance, the privatization of roads, and the potential exclusion of government from education and healthcare, and he also questions the validity of state-funded aid to the poor. Each of these may be scrutinized as to whether their existence is a matter of “justice.” But a critical element seems to be missing from VanDrunen’s entire discussion of such matters.

For any government to function, even in a limited capacity, any administrative efforts to promote or uphold justice necessarily entail the function of “ordering” the common life of the people within its jurisdiction. And whether government acts to recognize and codify or to establish new norms to regulate the activities of citizens, the task of ordering common life among the people is not only fundamental to the project of government but will likely exceed the narrow conception of administering “justice” put forward by VanDrunen. While it is true that governments naturally seek to increase the bounds of their authority, it is also true that any meaningful attempt to order the common life of a political community will require more substantive activity than the mere punishment of the wicked. It seems unnecessary, therefore, to argue for the privatization of roads or to question the validity of a social safety net in order to affirm the modest nature of a Noahic political ethic as the proper foundation for political life. In fact, further discussion of how a limited, justice-oriented vision of government rightfully goes about the work of ordering life in the polis would prove beneficial.

Apart from his defense of the Noahic covenant and natural law as foundational for political theology, the real strength of VanDrunen’s project is its utility for contemporary political engagement. The work presents a robust framework for politics after Christendom. And for VanDrunen, this is because Christendom itself was essentially a mistake. “Christians do not need a new and special kind of political theology for life after Christendom,” VanDrunen writes at the book’s opening, because Scripture “never hints that Christians ought to seek the kind of integrated Christian society that Christendom represented.”

VanDrunen recognizes the reality of pluralism not just as a matter of sociology, but of theology itself—beginning with the “common” nature of the Noahic covenant. No meaningful society enjoys uniformity in terms of religious identity and beliefs. And there is no need to pretend otherwise or to use the state to coerce specific beliefs. Instead, as VanDrunen argues, what is needed is an approach to government that recognizes the built-in moral fabric of the universe, yet refrains from exercising too much ambition in telling people how they must live their lives.” (emphasis mine).

Would VanDrunen say that Christianity has not been the privileged religion in America, even if other faiths have been tolerated (perhaps Christianity has something to do with the particular kinds of toleration we have seen in America)? Would he say that we should not hope that Christianity would be the privileged religion in America?

[xiv] Even though it might sound crazy, I think this will likely be interpreted as “White Supremacy.”

No, faithfulness to the will of God as revealed in the Bible, particularly in things like the 10 commandments and especially the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not white supremacy.

I am tempted to say that if that is white supremacy, so be it!

That however, would be to fall into their game… Seeing anything cultural and political through the lens of race is, I believe, the height of foolishness.

Another question: In hoping for something like a “Christian nationalism” are we just trying to avoid suffering? After all, as one pastor put it:

“If we have a society in which common values and goals are shared between church and state, then it is less likely we may be asked to give up anything for the sake of faithfulness or sacrifice anything for the sake of a larger good.  But a culture in which ‘Christianity’ dominates through force and majority rule may not be one of great virtue but merely a reflection of the ordinary truth that the strong rule the weak.”

Again, it seems to me in saying something like this, we are just one step away from saying that we are trying to prop up “white supremacy”. The pastor would most likely not go there, but the world certainly will….

Why not suggest that a majority, i.e. the strong, ruling, is not bad in itself, but rather say that it behooves a majority to rule well? Regardless of what “color” this or that group is? Here, I am speaking of calling the Christians in a nation to really be Christians, that is, to love and honor the Word of God. To represent Him well by always thinking about just what it means to be in, but not of, the world…

Even if the avoidance of suffering is “in part, the reason why we seek a ‘Christian’ society or nation in which morality has the force of law,” what about the desire to see the way of the Lord honored – and the blessings of love and family, for instance, that He really does mean for His people to know?

And of course, even if Christianity was more a part of our government and its externals more respected by our leaders this doesn’t mean Christians would not be persecuted. The life experience of Old Testament believers living in an honest-to-God theocracy also show us that we’ll probably always be persecuted for upholding the Word of God – either externally, from other nations, or internally, from within.

[xv] And, in the event that it does not look like a peaceful transfer of power can happen, these words from Matthew Cochran are important to keep in mind:

“Even in times of chaotic transition, there is always a higher authority which we can be absolutely certain is there: the father’s authority over his household. We know it’s there because it’s explicitly established by God in the 4th Commandment. As I’ve pointed out before:

In Luther’s analysis of the Fourth Commandment, all temporal authority penultimately proceeds from parents by way of God’s explicit command to honor our fathers and mothers. And, of course, though we loathe to think of it in our feminist culture, that parental authority is most properly paternal authority—for God has explicitly established the husband as head of the wife and instructs the wife to be submissive to her husband. So in sum, whatever governing institutions we may be under, they exist because somewhere along the line, our forefathers delegated their own authority over their households to others in order to assist them with specific tasks.”

[xvi] To the nations, to their governments, we can say this:

The point is that the church has a responsibility to proclaim the Gospel to all — and this includes, perhaps especially, you. And when you convert, it is your responsibility to protect the church and not interfere in its doctrine even as you also should be supportive of the Word of the Lord in whatever ways you can. If you want to protect other religions too, all well and good, though here harmony and order are no doubt a concern (like when multiple languages cause issues) and no doubt should be for any nation… (Maybe we need more nations? More fences?)”

But should we coerce others then?

When Dr. Gregory Seltz of the LC-MS says “The problem doesn’t lie with Christians in the public square forcing their view of marriage or sexual practice on others” that is, clearly, not the full story. The secular world is right to think that Christians believe that all cultures must honor marriage and that this really, is not something that any society can fail to do and avoid consequences and God’s judgment. Perhaps they better understand the significance of things that we like to suppress. In fact, I am quite sure they do know better. This being the case, they also are quite intentional about what they are doing (even if they “know not what they do”), which is why they must lose this war.

Marriage should be upheld by Christians among the peoples that they inhabit and be urged on them – even to the point of establishing these things in law when the opportunity presents itself to do so. We should then, in a sense coerce. We should try to do this in ways that are kind, “soft,” but we should nevertheless try….

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

My MTS Treatise: The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism

Paul on Mars Hill: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” — Acts 17:30

 

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In the past on this blog, I had mentioned my MTS Treatise written for Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary at St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada in 2002.

As a “Metadata Librarian,” of course I appreciate the catalog record…

 

I recently was able to get a PDF copy of it (the librarian there had asked me if they could make a scan of it for a student and also passed on the scan to me).

It’s 76 pages, and might give you an idea of how much I have mellowed over the years. : ) Here is a quote from it that I put in a blog post a few years ago:

“The idea that “it is wrong, always and everywhere, for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” or to say that “Christian belief is unwarranted in the absence of supporting argumentation” would be characteristics of rationalism (Kelly Clark and William Craig, in Cowan 268, 174). Therefore, although a Christian has their trust in the true Person of Jesus Christ, it does not necessarily follow that “there is a requirement for people to understand and assent to theistic proofs or evidence of the resurrection before they can be rational in holding their Christian beliefs” (Kelly Clark in Cowan 364). At the same time, most would undoubtedly agree that religious terrorists, for example, rely too much on passion and do not sufficiently consider their beliefs and ways. Discernment is called for here.” (me, The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism, pp 11-12)

Enjoy!:

Rinne, Nathan, The Holistic Relationship Between Apologetics and Evangelism, MTS, 2002

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I have also written a number of other posts on this blog specifically about Christian apologetics. What follows are some of those posts (the first one in the list helps explain the topic of my Master’s treatise):

FIN
 
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Posted by on October 14, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

What More Could I Have Done for My Lutherans?

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“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?” – Isaiah 5:4

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So, this parable in Isaiah about the vineyard… what to say?

Well, if we pay attention, we see that God talks like this elsewhere in the Old Testament as well. In Jeremiah, he says…..

21 I had planted you like a choice vine
    of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
    into a corrupt, wild vine?

And here I’ll just note at this time that, being someone who was always really interested in the hard sciences – and being a college instructor for beginning Christianity classes – I have met quite a few atheists in my day…

And I have noticed that when passages like these come up, their cynicism and unbelief really starts to show…

Oh, God is talking again about how He creates everything good, huh?

Well, what about that forbidden fruit in the Garden?

And of course Adam and Eve sinned… what, did he set them up? Was he running a scientific experiment with them?

And by the way, Christians say there won’t be the possibility of sin in heaven, so why did the possibility have to exist in Eden? Huh?…

Why did God even allow any temptation at all?

What was the point of letting that snake in there?

Oh, he’s Satan, huh? And Satan fell too, I guess. Sure seems like these good creations aren’t so good.

Why did God allow Satan to fall? Why allow for that possibility?

At the very least, couldn’t God have given them a bit more help?

Sent them an angel or something?

Is this “God” you worship really good? Pilate said what is truth and I’m not saying that, but I am saying “Where’s the proof?”

Why don’t you prove it!? Why doesn’t your God prove it?

+++

Well, truth be told, if you really know your Lutheran theology, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to suspect some of those questions might have occurred to you too…

And so maybe, there have been times in your life, you have prayed:

“You say you did enough for your vineyard God? You say you planted ‘a choice vine of sound and reliable stock’”?

God, how can you say that you did everything if man is “dead in sin” If sinners cannot do anything of true spiritual value? If they cannot, by their own power, even begin to fear, love, and trust in God?

I’m only saying what your word says God! Does not your word, after all, say:

  • That which is born of the flesh is flesh (John 3:6a).
  • I was sinful from birth ; in sin my mother conceived me (Psalm 51)

Does not your word say that:

  • All of us [Christians] also lived among [the unbelievers] at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Eph. 2:3).

And also that…

  • No one understands; no one seeks for God (Rom. 3:11).

+++

These things are indeed true.

And it is true that because the Bible says things like this, many will make a number of excuses:

“What do you expect from me, God?”  

“If you made me this way, and there’s nothing I can do, isn’t it all on you? Make the first move and prove yourself then!”

“You seem to me like a hard master, reaping where you have not sown…”

Again, it is not only those who are not Christians who might say this, but some Christians as well… particularly when we start to think our lives have taken a bad turn, our fortunes decreasing….

“Maybe if you had done more for us God… made us love you more! Made us more filled with passion and spontaneity… things wouldn’t have turned out this way…”

Interestingly though, even as someone like Martin Luther believed all of these things about original sin – about the absolute incapacity of any sinner to do any good for the right reasons — He still didn’t view matters this way.

When he read those passages, he didn’t find reasons in them for making excuses….

He viewed matters primarily in terms of God’s original creation…. In fact, in his day, he said this about those who insisted that God’s commands were impossible to do:

“It is said improperly, that is, not rightly and not fittingly, that we are obliged to do what is impossible by the law. When Adam was first created, the law was for him not only something possible, but even something enjoyable….”

The significance of this kind of thing should not be lost on us. Adam and Eve were not created “halfway there” ; they were not created to earn their place with God. They were created to be with God from the beginning, and to live from a place of total peace with him…

And what about that tree of knowledge of good and evil by which they fell?

Well, they were meant, with the help of God who gave them strength, to conquer that problem, no problem….

And thereby, continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God….

Adam, in the Garden, just needed to recognize that God was love, loved him, and desired him to follow His commandment for that very reason. This would be for his and Eve’s own good…

As Luther put it, the issue of the tree, the struggle around the tree… was meant to help increase Adam’s knowledge about God’s loving will… A will, that, in truth, is so amazingly good and beyond anything that our wildest dreams could imagine…

If only our sinful nature would know its place and get out of the way…

+++

It really is a big problem… and one with massive consequences…

Many Lutherans today – even many who are relatively serious about their faith — do not follow Luther here….

One truth the 16th century Reformation got right was that man could not save himself. Man could not earn his salvation. Man could not rely on or put confidence in His own works to get him to heaven…

In essence, it is true, to do this is to declare war on God.

You, without Him, have absolutely nothing to offer Him.

And even with Him, what you have to offer is a gift from Him alone, and never to be offered with the intent of earning your place in heaven!

For the Christian is one who works from a place of salvation, who does the good works he does because of a place of peace with God….

Thank God for the Reformation!

And yet, this is all often misunderstood. The truth that works cannot save us is turned into the idea that if we think we could do more and better works… or if we think that we should attempt to please God by the actions we consciously take… then we are necessarily trying to be saved!

So, you might even hear this kind of thing from some respected Lutheran pastors and leaders:

  • You don’t have to try to do good works–they flow naturally from faith.
  • If you’re making an effort at being good, you’re enslaving yourself to the Law; let the Gospel set you free from this burden.
  • Let yourself be nourished by Word and Sacrament and good works will just take care of themselves.
  • Our attempts to ‘follow God’s commands’ do not result in us doing the loving thing.
  • Actually trying to be Christ-like leads to self-righteousness and should be avoided.[i]

This, to say the least, is messed up…

Now it is true that if we are not a Christian — or even if we are a very misinformed and/or very weak Christian who is just hanging on by a thread[ii] — what these people insist will happen here may well be the case:

….that is, we might, if we examine ourselves truthfully, find that we are, even if only at certain times, trying to earn our place in heaven….

All that said, none of this is a reason to allow for traditional Lutheran theology to fall by the wayside, and to insist that pastors today, for example, should not basically sound like the Apostle Paul in his epistles, or even Martin Luther, for example, in his sermons…

+++

So, with that important bunny trail out of the way, back to Isaiah – what is really going on in this passage?

Well, interestingly, the whole vineyard idea is mentioned already in chapter 3, and there Isaiah makes clear that Israel’s leaders have ruined it by plundering the poor and grinding their faces!

Again, and again, in these early chapters He makes their oppression of the poor clear…[iii]

Is this the key then?: We Christians, particularly we Christian leaders, should help the contemporary equivalents of the “fatherless and the widow” more, and not rely on our works and never think of earning anything… Maybe God will then be merciful. And then maybe we can make it…?

Not at all!  May it never be!

First of all, remember what I said before. God really does desire for you to know you have peace with God in Jesus Christ. If you confess your sin, calling it “sin”, and call His grace “grace”, you can be assured of His favor through Jesus Christ.

Anyone who gives you the opposite impression is in fact preaching another Gospel to you.

Second, this statement is also not true because there is more to say from the book Isaiah than the bits about the poor and oppressed.

It is critical that we understand exactly what is going on here, to hear the full message God wants us to hear….

The Lord promises that while He is going to judge His people a smaller group, a faithful remnant, will be spared…

And initially, from the passages above from the first several chapters of Isaiah we might get the impression that that remnant is more or less the same as, synonymous with, the poor, the innocent victims… the righteous ones…

And then you have those with means who are the wicked and the oppressors…. It is really they who are the sinners here….

Well, you might think that, but you need to notice what is also said in chapter 4….

…those of high rank will die of hunger
    and the common people will be parched with thirst.14 Therefore Death expands its jaws,
    opening wide its mouth;
into it will descend their nobles and masses
    with all their brawlers and revelers.

Or, especially, this in chapter 9:

Those who guide this people mislead them,
    and those who are guided are led astray.17 Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men,
    nor will he pity the fatherless and widows,for everyone is ungodly and wicked,
    every mouth speaks folly.

So, in sum, it looks like no one gets out of this situation unscathed….

This, then, appears to be the key….  God is saying that judgment will indeed occur, is going to come upon them… because “those who guide this people mislead them…”

Might something like this be happening in our day as well?[iv]

+++

All of this also brings to my mind a critical passage from Hosea 4:6:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.”

This is what true prophets like Hosea had to say to God’s people.[v]

Not only had the self-appointed “sent ones” – the “prophets”, failed…  God’s appointed priests had failed as well, as they also failed in the day of Jesus.

It is not like this ever changes. It is not like the “remnant” theology we find throughout the Old Testament has no relevance for today.

Have Christian teachers and pastors in our places and spaces really presented the word of God to their people faithfully?

Have they preached God’s law and His gospel, and dealt with the hard truths of the Scriptures… tried their best to sound like the prophets and apostles do? 

Or have other priorities been foremost on their minds? Crowds, numbers, health and wealth…?

Have they preached from the Scriptures, expounded on them, urged their people to dwell in them?

Have they called them, urged them, to grow in the grace of Jesus Christ, to pursue the better and higher things… at the expense of even good things, much less things that are base and purile?

And, when they might fail, do you pick up the slack or do you “go with the [world’s] flow”?

I would also point out that we laymen should not think that we are not accountable as well….

James says that the teachers of the church… those who lead in the church…. will be held more accountable.

He doesn’t say the laymen will not be accountable….

+++

Again, God rhetorically asks:

“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
    why did it yield only bad?” – Isaiah 5:4

God is “appea[ing] to [us]” given “the circumstances of the case,” “to determine that he had done all that could be done.”[vi]

And yet, perhaps you might still want to ask: How is this fair? 

How are we supposed to have this knowledge… to live and grow in this knowledge… if we have had bad teachers, bad guides….?

Again, God makes it very clear they are going to held to an even stricter standard of judgment. And yet, we laymen, even those who do not publicly teach! — should not think that we will not be held accountable as well….

How can I be so sure? Well, God even expects the unbelievers, as dead in sin as they are, to seek Him!

Even as in one place the Apostle Paul quotes the Psalm insisting that no one seeks God, he elsewhere encourages even non-Christians to seek God. When preaching to the philosopher-types in Athens Greece he says:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Is Paul contradicting himself here? No. The real point is this: unbelievers do seek wrongly, but even seeking for the wrong reasons can be beneficial when it leads to Christians… to good churches… to hearing God’s Word which transforms us!

And so, here is the kind of question we should think of:

Is attending a worship service, for example, where the Scriptures are read and preached, better than not attending at all?

The answer to this question is definitely yes!

Seek the Lord while He may yet be found! Strive to enter God’s Kingdom by the narrow gate – with all your wrong reasons in tow!

And so unbelievers might seek God, in a church for example, for a number of reasons that are off, to greater or less degrees:

  • To please a family member
  • To get connected with the Big Sugar Daddy in the clouds
  • To get on the Big Man’s good side.
  • To make connections, maybe business connections, with those in a community…
  • To join in acts of social justice with others from a community
  • Simple curiosity!
  • To be a better person than my neighbor
  • Because one likes to listen to the preacher, like Herod did John the Baptist, or St. Augustine did St. Ambrose[vii]

Christians might come for a lot of those wrong reasons too, by the way.

After all, we are still sinners, and we do still have an old Adam who often will want us to, and will lead us to, do right things for wrong reasons.

In sum, fallen man, our old Adam who remains, is spiritually dead indeed. He will indeed come to church for all the wrong reasons. And yet, what if a person comes especially for reasons like these?:

  • The idea that one ought to do something like this in order to be a good person
  • Guilt, underlying fear of judgment and punishment
  • Terror of the possibility of the God who just might judge the world, as evidenced from His raising Jesus from the dead (see Acts 17:30-31)

Would those reasons for coming be even better than the other reasons we mentioned?

Yes. Because if a person is an unbeliever, reasons like these really can help make something clear:

There is only one thing a person can do in regards to God internally that is “salutary”… beneficial (its only “good” though in a fallen world…)…

Be terrified.

Indeed, better reasons for seeking God in church do in fact exist, and might very well result in better listening…

The commentator Barnes nailed it when, discussing this passage from Isaiah, he said:

“[What more could I have done for my vineyard?]…the same appeal may now be made to sinners everywhere; and it may be asked, what God “could” have done for their salvation more than has been done? “Could” he have given them a purer law? “Could” he present higher considerations than have been drawn from the hope of an “eternal” heaven, and the fear of an “eternal” hell? Could he have furnished a more full atonement than has been made by the blood of his own Son?”

Our friend Martin Luther put things a bit more delicately when he[viii] said this…:

“God… uses the law to show us the disease, not to kill us, not that we pine away under the law, not to cause disease, but so that we, having recognized the disease and in humility, would learn to seek the word of grace….”

+++

Again, those who have failed to teach the Word will all be held accountable. And yet again, even without good teachers, we will still be held accountable.

It like I insisted on last week:

“God really does expect you to overcome the circumstances that you are born into, and to resist what is wrong in the world you are born into…. The world you know…”

And don’t doubt that God is just!

“What more could have been done for my vineyard
    than I have done for it?”

What more could God have done?

Nothing.

Not for Israel back then, not for the world today…

Our Lord is not, as one accused Him of being in a parable, “a hard master, reaping where he had not sown…” (Matthew 25:24)

No, God was right then, and He is right now… This is the truth ; and God has supplied the proof…[ix]

Christianity is true and sure and proven.

It is made sure in the hearts of men by God creating faith in them through the loving power of His forgiveness-life-and-salvation-bringing, history-telling-and-making words, making plain and testifying in particular to the One who was to come – and has come….  

This is what distinguishes the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit from other religions’ claims of self-authenticating truth.   

While all men, including Christians, struggle with doubts, no one can claim that God has not proved this message to them, particularly because of the relentless fact of Jesus’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Given the presence of miracle claims that are said to authenticate the teachings of other religions, God has lifted up biblical prophecy and prophecy-fulfilling miracles in particular as those things that demand most forcefully that His messengers be paid attention to….

…even as persons are still culpable before God when they have not witnessed or heard of these kinds of things – or for that matter, any miracles or Christian preaching….

As passages like Romans 1 says, even the person who is fully without God is said to know there is a God…

There is such a thing as a “famine of the word”. That is, “the removal of his gospel from places which have long been a reproach to it.”[x]

We pray that this would not be the case for places like our own nation.

Or our own church body.

Our own congregation.

Our own families.

I, myself….

And so, as the Scriptures say, to us who have the Spirit, and to all: listen attentively, and seek the Lord while He may be found!

Today! And always!

Look no further than the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever!

For Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again!

Good News.

Amen

 


[i] Most of these examples are pulled from Matt Cochran’s post here: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=227

[ii] “For by nature I am thus minded as also I was accustomed in the papacy, that I would gladly do good works to pay for my sins….”

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

[iii] Excised beginning of sermon:

“Rirst, let’s tackle this:

What is the context for the text I chose this morning? At first, looking at verse 7…:

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress

…I wondered if I that was a clue as to what it  was all about.

That hunch was right. As a matter of fact, the first time Isaiah mentions the idea of the vineyard is in chapter 3 of his book, and he says the following:

The Lord enters into judgment
    against the elders and leaders of his people:
It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
    the plunder from the poor is in your houses.
15 What do you mean by crushing my people
    and grinding the faces of the poor?”
declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.

Then one sees that in the first several chapters of Isaiah, this is a major theme…

Right away, chapter 1 of the book announces that the Lord is entering into judgement against His people:

Woe to the sinful nation,
a people whose guilt is great,
a brood of evildoers,
    children given to corruption!

They have forsaken the Lord;
    they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
    and turned their backs on him….

Shortly thereafter, he goes on:

Your hands are full of blood!

16 Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
17 Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.[a]
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

And things proceed like this…. We learn about how Israel’s rulers are rebels… partners with thieves who all love bribes and chase after gifts.

Their land is full of silver and gold; “there is no end to their treasures,” and they all participate in idolatry in their gardens by the “sacred oaks”.  

And so, they have become fully corrupt.

Like locusts, they “add house to house and join field to field till no space is left” and “[they] live alone in the land…” Later he states they “make widows their spoil and plunder the fatherless…”

Oppressors all, they “do not defend the cause of the fatherless” and “the widow’s case does not [even] come before them….” In fact, they even “acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.”

They do all this, feathering their own nests through their injustice…. simply because they can.[iii]

They have, Isaiah insists, rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel…

And so, among other things, he cries out:

Stop trusting in mere humans,
    who have but a breath in their nostrils.
    Why hold them in esteem?”

[iv] I, by the way, want to make something clear: I am not a pastor. I am a vicar sure, but I am also a librarian.

And in truth, I am not sure I want to be a pastor, and not only because I wonder how I could support my large family on a pastor’s salary…. 

Pastors also have to watch what they say, so that they do not upset powerful people in their congregations and communities. Pastors have a lot of responsibility, and not an easy responsibility. 

For that reason, I am glad to be a laymen…  No one has called me. No one has ordained me.

Maybe that is best….

James 3:1 says:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly….”

[v] Comp. 2 Kings 17:13 and 2 Chronicles 36:15, where God is shown to have done all that was possible to reclaim his people: “Yet the Lord testified against Israel, and against Judah, by all the prophets, and all the seers, saying, Turn ye from your evil ways, and keep my commandments and my statutes, according to the Law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants the prophets;” “And the Lord God of their fathers sent unto them by his messengers, rising up early, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling-place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, until there was no remedy.” From https://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/isaiah/5.htm

[vi] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/5.htm

[vii] Bigger list:

  • To please a family member
  • Because you live in “Christendom,” and that is what the baptized citizen does (oops – wrong century!)
  • To be seen as a person who upholds traditional values (wrong century again?)
  • To get connected with the Big Sugar Daddy in the clouds
  • To get on the Big Man’s good side.
  • Assuming “knowledge is power,” to become a more well-informed and intelligent person
  • To make connections with those in a community
  • To join in acts of social justice with others from a community
  • To learn more about the topic ; to get information (for whatever reason)
  • Simple curiosity!
  • To confirm one’s biases against the faith and its followers
  • That one may boast of one’s extensive knowledge of the Scriptures ; to satisfy one’s own pride
  • To be a better person than my neighbor
  • To find support for one’s sectarian or heretical opinions
  • Because one likes to listen to the preacher, like Herod did John the Baptist, or St. Augustine did St. Ambrose
  • To find meaning, direction, and growth in life

[viii] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/5.htm

[ix] From an old post: “I do not think that we can start being “neutral” towards Christian claims upon hearing them.  They demand to be taken seriously and demand our full attention and engagement.  Why these claims over the claims of any other world religion?  Why should Christianity and the truths it purports to preach get our attention?  Well, does any other religion claim to vindicate its founder – who incidently, claimed to be God, via a resurrection from the dead? (not to mention all the miracles leading up to that final, crowning miracle – ponder, for example, Mark 2:9-11 here).  Does any other world religion claim to offer proof, assurance, “faith” – that we can know who it is who will in the future judge the world? (see Acts 17).  None.  Therefore, anyone who does not take these things seriously – is, by definition, not being rational.  Would most philosophers agree with me?  I don’t think so.  And even if some found it to be an intriguing argument, perhaps they may say, after looking at things, that there is “insufficient evidence” for what Christianity claims.  Then what?  Well, do they get to decide what sufficient evidence is?  Might they be under any obligation to reconsider and look again?  Who charges them to do so?  How deeply did they look into it?  Did they do so prayerfully?  At this point however, they might say “it sounds to me like you are saying I need to ‘let go’ and become a believer in order to do this process correctly!”

[x] https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mhc/isaiah/5.htm

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

How to Think Straight When God is Punishing Your People

Perhaps you did help make him, and yet….

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others had created him.

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

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

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

Sinning against them, we made them.

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

My very intelligent friend this:

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

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

Long live the Grinch re-make, right?

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

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

This is why I told my friend:

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

+++

Now, what am I saying?

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

Not at all!

May it never be! : )

No, what I really looking to say is this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what our text makes very clear this morning:

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

Without excuse.

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

They have gone whoring after other gods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In chapter 7, for example, we read this:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And now, these verses:

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

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

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

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

So what is going on here with this question?

Well, the question from God is rhetorical of course.

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

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

No way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But generational guilt does not exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,

and the iniquity of our fathers,

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

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

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

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

For in our text, God is essentially saying:

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

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

So what is wrong in your world?

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

Now.

Our time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe with all my heart my friend is wise.

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

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

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

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

Why should this not always be the place we start?

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

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

Things can be even more basic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can’t hesitate.

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

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

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

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

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

Such is the god of this world!

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

Provides and is, in fact, the Way.

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

Again, as God puts it in Ezekiel:

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

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

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

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

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

And so again, I say to you:

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

FIN

Notes:

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

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

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

Who do we think are our people?

Who should we think are our people?

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

[iv] An idea not worthy of consideration, to be sure: https://twitter.com/WokePreacherTV/status/1306604750188818432 I used to respect Tim Keller a lot but things like this have changed that.

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

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

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

 

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

Long live the Reformation!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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]

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

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

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

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

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

FIN

 

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).” https://thejaggedword.com/2020/07/23/on-radical-lutheranism/

[iii] https://thejaggedword.com/2020/07/23/on-radical-lutheranism/

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Is Forgiveness Required of Christians?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is an interesting question, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

We know that we are called to forgive.

Also, we know that we cannot live without forgiveness…

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

That we should think we can demand?

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

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

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

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

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

At the same time, it also raises the questions:

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

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

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

Can we say this?

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

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

I think that is all well and good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As one commentator puts it about Jesus’ purpose here:

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

Cue nervous laughter right?…

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

+++

And thank God!

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

And God says this: “Wicked servant”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genuine and authentic? Sure. Christian? No.

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But look what even the only Sinless One does instead!

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

So how does this work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a sense, you are right. You can’t.

You see, only Jesus can ultimately make this work.

And only He has, and gladly so….

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hesitancy is not on His part.

The hesitancy is never on His part!

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

Let us all be reconciled with God!

And to go in peace….

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

Forgive one another….

Just as Jesus Christ has forgiven you….

FIN

 

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As they, in turn, would advocate for us…

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

So, for example (following up footnote 1):

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

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

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

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

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

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

[iii] Full quote from Gene Veith:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2020 in Uncategorized