Tag Archives: Holiness/Sanctification

We have come to believe that it is somehow the height of piety to say, “I can’t obey.” “I cannot be virtuous.”

Matthew Garnett, rolling over Fake Lutheranism. Listen to his podcast here.


So sayeth Matthew Garnett, in the Facebook group Confessional Lutheran Fellowship (which, if you are on Facebook, you might want to check out).

Matthew is a relatively new Lutheran, and as far as I’m concerned, is like the kid in the Emperor’s New Clothes. Breath of fresh air for me.

More from Matthew:

“Duty”, “obedience”, “obligation”, “discipline”, “virtue”, “effort”, “striving” …..these seem to be un -Christian, or at least un-Litheran words to us. They are certainly not positive words in our culture today. But I think these are very human words, especially for men. Men are attracted to these words.

However, sometimes life can wrestle us down to the point where we hate these words. Indeed that is precisely the state we find ourselves in without the gospel…..wanting to be these things, but having no power to do them. It’s a terrible and dark place to be sure.

But with the gospel – and all its gifts – I believe it is a great benefit to us to be restored to a state where men can be men again. We can love these words again. We can begin to be men marked by these words.

It seems most tragic to me when, especially we men, use the gospel, not as a power source to be dutiful or virtuous or obedient, but as an excuse to give up and check out of life. Having been so beaten down by life – mostly by our own sin – all we want to do is not try any more. And we think that part of the gospel is we get to stop trying to be men. That in fact, other men who still embrace their vocations in this regard fully, are just suckers who don’t really get it.

And, while, words like “defeat”, “despair” and “weakness” may have marked our lives thus far, we begin to embrace these words as some kind of new virtue. We have come to believe that it is somehow the height of piety to say, “I can’t obey.” “I cannot be virtuous.”

Men, this attitude is neither Christian nor Lutheran.

Consider the words of St Peter once again.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice though now for a little while if necessary you have been grieved by various trials so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”

“For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue and virtue with knowledge and knowledge with self control and self control with steadfastness and steadfastness with godliness and godliness with brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”


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Posted by on November 29, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Yes David French, We Should Seek Certainty in an Uncertain World

National Review writer David French


In an article published in National Review, “The Enduring Appeal of Creepy Christianity,” David French uses the news surrounding Judge Roy Moore to make some critical points about American Christianity.

The sub-title of his article — which definitely caught my attention — provocatively reads “the desire for certainty in an uncertain world yields terrible results.”

French states that Christians have two temptations rooted in the fear of men. One is the path that liberal Christians take: to “forsake Christian doctrine to seek the approval of a hostile culture.” The other path — which French distinguishes from the first by calling it “pernicious” — appeals to the “theologically orthodox: “the temptation to run toward a form of hyper-legalism as a firewall to protect your family from the sins of the world.”

He writes:

“Mothers and fathers are desperate for a way to guarantee that their children will grow up to love the Lord. They want to build high walls against sin, so they seek to create distinct communities that are free of the world’s filth and moral compromise.”


“Theologically, [this temptation] fundamentally denies a very uncomfortable scriptural truth: that this side of heaven we can’t eliminate uncertainty or temptation. We “see through a glass darkly.” We simply don’t have all the answers — for raising children, for sustaining a successful marriage, for thriving in our careers, or for responding to sickness and adversity.

The scriptural response to this fundamental uncertainty is unsatisfying to some. Faith, hope, and love are vague concepts. The Bible doesn’t have a clear, specific prescription for every life challenge. But rather than seeking God prayerfully and with deep humility and reverence, we want answers, now. And thus we gravitate to those people who purport to offer more than the Bible.”

The thrust of French’s article is that there is much that is wrong with American evangelical Christianity, and that unless it “end[s] the cult of the Christian celebrity and the quest for certainty,” this world is “destined for ruin, and before it goes down, it will consume and damage the most vulnerable among us.”


I see much that is true in French’s article. His warnings about Christian celebrity are apt. As friend of mine says: “I am so done with celebrity pastors, so called “Christian” leaders, and pop-Evangelical Christian politicians.”

My friend goes on:

“I’ve made a couple of rules for myself.  1) Don’t trust any “Christian” leader who has a New York Times best seller.  2) Don’t attend conferences that attract more than 500 people in attendance or follow speakers that appear at that conference. And maybe 3) any “Christian” leader that appears regularly in the news.”

Perhaps a bit extreme, but he makes a great point.

In like fashion, even though I have not experienced them myself, I understand that there are communities of Christians who have a poor understanding of the law of God and who demand more from Christianity than it gives.

A more sophisticated “seeker-sensitive” attempt.


Another friend who read the article had some very challenging thoughts expanding on this:

“I think that the article is largely on target when it comes to the misguided quest of many Christians for certainty on worldly matters. God’s promises are absolutely sure, but they do not include children who will grow up to love the Lord, communities that are free of the world’s filth and moral compromise, successful marriages, thriving careers, proper responses to sickness and adversity, etc. For me, this is one of many manifestations of Western society’s embrace of technical rationality (techne) at the expense of practical judgment (phronesis); we want formulas and procedures with guaranteed outcomes for all aspects of life, but things just do not work that way within our fallen existence.

French quotes Ecclesiastes, which I consider to be the greatest philosophical treatise ever written, since it is the only divinely inspired one. My summary of its overall message is, “Your time is short, your understanding is shallow, and your control is shaky (at best). So fear God, because He rules all; keep His commandments, because He knows best; and enjoy His gifts, while you still can.”

There is much to take in here! Is it really true that the Lord does not promise us, e.g. successful marriages and children who will grow up to love the Lord? I hesitate to go so far in saying this, for it seems to me that passages like Proverbs 22:6 can definitely be taken as promises from the Lord. I know what my friend says above is meant to comfort, but such words make me very sad to. If God desires all persons to be saved, and I can’t be a conduit for His grace to efficaciously reach the flesh and blood who are under my own roof — especially when I beg Him for such mercy! — well, it is something I don’t even want to think about (….and I think, going to I Cor. 10:13 and John 16:12, that God knows what I as a father can bear!)

My kids with Jesus. More.


In any case, I think my friend’s words are wise words…(even as I supplement them!).

So David French is touching on some really good stuff.

At the same time, there is also something about the article that really made me uneasy. Maybe it’s this: when French says “[t]heologically, [this concern to protect one’s family] fundamentally denies a very uncomfortable scriptural truth,” I can’t not stop thinking about the following passage from 2 Corinthians (the end of chapter 6 and beginning of 7):

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”


“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”


“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”

Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”

It seems to me that a lot of persons outside the church might read something like that, and think, “Yep, the enduring appeal of creepy Christianity.”

That, however, would be terrible way to read the Apostle Paul. After all, who among us has not identified with what the church has said about the world — namely, that it is a “vale of tears”? And what if there is indeed — as the Apostle insists — true “higher ground” to be found? (see Colossians 3:1-4)

A taste of heavenly fellowship, of un-fallen love… (The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Gerard van Honthorst, 1623)


The overall message? Christ is the light of the world, and therefore the church, His bride, is the light of the world.

Even if the light doesn’t look so much like a City on the Hill these days as a candle – maybe even a flickering candle — in the darkness.

I take great comfort in the way Paul begins his letter:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,  who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

Yes! And note — this is the kind of certainty we are meant to have. He has loved us with an everlasting love in His Son Jesus Christ.

Exulting in this certainty, I certainly will come out and be separate!



Image: David French pic: CC BY-SA 3.0 ; by Gage Skidmore. 


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Posted by on November 22, 2017 in Uncategorized


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Should the Christian Live in Fear of God?

Luther, driven by a "terror of the Holy One"

Luther, driven by a “terror of the Holy One”


Intro: The Fear-Invoking Athanasian Creed?

The Christian – who is justified by God’s grace in Jesus Christ though faith – should be at peace with God and not live in fear of him, correct?

This would seem to be logical consequence of a message like that of Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And yet, for confessional Christians who recite the Athanasian Creed once a year (as we did a few weeks ago), the end of this creed might, on occasion, cause one to doubt and wonder:

“…At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.”

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. -- Matthew 7:17

A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. — Matthew 7:17

And here, as when reading passages like John 5:28 and 29 and Revelation 20:12, the doubts might encroach at a fast and furious pace! How can we not be terrified? We might wonder: “Do words like these work against salvation by faith by declaring a salvation by works?” And even if they don’t cause us wonder about this, still, what does this mean for me? Me, whose love for God and neighbor often seems so poor? Can I be sure I am even a Christian?

A few responses here, to counter this doubt and, possibly – terror!*

I. Fear God? In the first place “no”.

We need to recognize that the Athanasian Creed is thoroughly biblical. In addition to the verses noted above, Romans 2:13, for example, says: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” There is a very real sense that these words mean exactly what they say. Simply put, at the last judgment, those who have shown fruits of repentance and good works according to the 10 commandments (even if it is just the first of the ten!) will be revealed by God to all persons to be His faithful, thankful, and loyal children. No one will doubt Him.

The fruits of repentance and faith are even seen imperfectly prior to the final judgment in persons like the sinful woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears (see Luke 7). “I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown“, Jesus says to the Pharisees (before turning to the woman and assuring her that her sins are forgiven and her faith has saved her!).

When if comes to what these good works look like, they include both the fulfillment of the first and second table of God’s Ten Commandments. For the first table of the Law, this means fearing, loving, and trusting God alone, gathering for worship frequently with His people, and praying, praising, proclaiming and singing His Name and deeds. When it comes to the second table of the law, it means not only restraining from sins towards one’s neighbors, but works of love and mercy shown towards them, starting with the family of God. This also includes the kind of forbearance and mercy that God undoubtedly showed the sinful woman of Luke 7 and shows us in His Son (“Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”).

“works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.” -- David Scaer (picture of final judgment before the world)

“works have no standing before God and faith has no standing before the world.” — David Scaer (picture of final judgment before the world)


These are those who reveal themselves to be the “true circumcision” (Rom. 2:29), those whom God knows according to faith. That said, this does not mean that the end of the Athanasian Creed is the kind of message that a doubting Christian and/or terrified sinner needs addressed to him! After all, the default orientation of our “Old Adam” – who remains even in regenerated believers! (see Gal. 5 and Rom. 7) – is not only to get away with whatever sin we can, but also to believe that we can be justified not only before men but before God by our good actions and words (and perhaps even thoughts and desires!). If you try to earn grace by your works, you make everything worse, because you are a bad tree, Luther said. This inevitably plays itself out in the dual extremes of either pride (I’m doing it ; I’m making it) or despair (there is no way I can do this, make it).

In short, words about the final judgement according to works – or even words explaining how this final judgement fits with our understanding of the judgement of each individual alone before God by faith alone! – can either stoke our pride, or leave us relentlessly accused – even unto despair.

[I felt I] "was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates . . . that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise." -- Martin Luther, on coming to understand Romans 1:17.

“[I felt I] was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates . . . that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” — Martin Luther, on coming to understand Romans 1:17.

The person who is feeling such hopelessness does not need to hear an explanation of how the end of the Athanasian Creed is biblical but rather to hear “200 proof Gospel”: Christ has covered and covers all your sins! Today and forever, you are, in a sense, with Him in Paradise!

II. Fear God? In the second place, “yes” – some fear, not terror.

…with all this said, ongoing accusation has its place in the Christian life as well – for damnable pride, sloth, and other sin always remain. Does this mean living in fear – or even terror, of God? The Eastern Orthodox Christian writer Elder Sophrony, for example, talks about how

“a person who ‘keeps his mind in hell’ is ever aware that only one fate is appropriate for his deeds, eternal damnation. This consideration sears humility into his soul, as he finds himself utterly unable to lift his eyes toward the face of God.”

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not,” he counseled.**

This is something I can identify with. On any given Sunday, for example, I will utter the words of our church’s liturgy:

Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.

Is that right? Or is that a bit extreme?! In the rest of this short article, I want to try to address this question in some detail, talking in particular about how it relates to fearing God.

Regarding that topic, I have been asked some very good questions lately about what this means or should mean. And this, in turn, has helped me to better formulate my own thoughts to more effectively answer the students who have been asking me about it. Now, when I get comments like “I am not sure why we are to fear God”, I talk about things in the following way…

To begin, we were not created to fear God in terror, but rather in a childlike awe and reverence. Of course, then there is Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. Hence, the Bible notifies us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and therefore, an even genuine terror of the Holy One is wholly appropriate for those opposed to God. But then there is the redemption through the blood of Christ, and here we recall the words of I John 5: perfect love drives out fear! This would mean that the love of Christ drives us not to fear in terror, but to go back to Eden: reverential awe and wonder.

"...when God is angry at someone, that person is not holy and accepted with Him..." -- C.F.W. Walther, 19th c. Lutheran theologian

“…when God is angry at someone, that person is not holy and accepted with Him…” — C.F.W. Walther, 19th c. Lutheran theologian


So why then, those words from the liturgy? The fact of the matter is that we have only experienced the firstfruits of the new creation. We are new men in Christ, but again, Galatians 5 and Romans 7 indicates that there is also an “old man”, or “Old Adam”: something inside us that by nature desires and pursues things that are wrong. Here we see the ongoing infection of sin and its power in us. This has sometimes been expressed in this way: Christians are sinners and saints at the same time (simul), possessing both an old and new nature (perhaps analogous to the divine and human natures of Christ – see my old post “Not Radical Enough: the Problem with Radical Lutherans Like Gerhard Forde”).

Christians, insofar as they are new creations in Christ, need not live in fear, but our old man does (though often not directly through fear of God – Old Adam suppresses his knowledge of God!). And Christians, again insofar as they are new creations, are pleased when the old man they know is still within and can’t ever shake – their “imposter self” as one put it – is afraid of God. The Christian can know that God is not angry with them, even as they are often angry with themselves! And this is good, for the old man is to be driven out of us more and more with the Word of God*** – even as this will finally occur en toto only on the last day!

That said, perhaps we can say that while the Christian may fear God in two ways (reverential awe and wonder according to the new man/saint, genuine fear of the holy according to the old man/sinner), he, unlike the unbeliever, need not be terrified, because the fear of God is tempered by three facts:

  • Sin is not imputed to the believer because of Christ’s fulfillment of the law and His sacrifice
  • Accordingly, the Christian, insofar as he is a new man, does not have a desire to sin and in fact fight against it****
  • God does not act to punish His children (act punitively towards us on the basis of strict, retributive, justice) but rather disciplines those He loves

This means He is always looking to not only forgive our sin, but lead us into a better and more appreciative understanding of who He is, who we are, and who He has called us to be.

These are the kinds of things I tell my students.

III. Fear God? In the third place, “no”.

All this said, it does a Christian well to ponder that our best actions – even though good works are most definitely not needed to earn God’s approval but rather to serve our neighbor in genuine love! – truly are worthy not just of cleansing fire but hell-fire. God created us as persons who would freely and joyfully represent Him – who is Love and Life – to our neighbor. But again, then came the fall into sin and things have gotten very nasty (and are always getting more so,it seems). Now it is as C.S. Lewis and T.S. Elliot, respectively, have said:

“For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me: a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion


“our offenses, infidelities, greed, lust, and violence ripple through families and communities, affecting people unto the third and fourth generation. We spend much of our time, both individually and corporately, protecting ourselves against this knowledge”

Christ embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, at the point of death confessed: "I have wasted my time, because I have lived a waster's life."

Christ embracing St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who, at the point of death confessed: “I have wasted my time, because I have lived a waster’s life.”

And these quotations can be viewed as understatements! In the third chapter of the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul quotes the Psalmist who accuses humanity of making itself “worthless”. Jesus Christ also reminds us that “whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Socrates could not have been more wrong when he claimed that those who know the good will do it – even those who do do it know their best deeds need to be washed.

For me, also speaking personally as a Christian, there is a sense in which I, like Satan, am a masterful destroyer of relationships due to the infection that continues to rage within me. When I stand naked in the midst of a holy God I know that I am undone, for the meaning of God’s eternal law – His 10 commandments – goes deep. I have denied him before men, and in the name of “justice” refused to turn my cheek, refused to forgive from the heart 70 x 7, constantly mixed dung with precious perfume, ignored the unfortunate and outcasts who sense their need for Him more than most, lived as if this world is all there is, failed to heartily do my duties for His glory, failed to see all disasters (man-made or not) as calling all to repentance, put up fronts of righteousness, and hated my enemies for whom Christ bled. I have refused to recognize marriage – my own marriage and resultant family – as a crucial sacramental sign of God’s presence in the world. My actions – or inactions – have served as an acid that dissolve the Gospel proclamation that brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. How little I must know my God! In short, how can I be certain that my lack of trust, confidence, and reliance on God – and hence, love – has not caused my neighbor to perish? *****

All of this said, God has chosen to love me – all of us! – in spite of our sin, taking these sins upon Himself and bearing their cost that we might have life eternal in, with, and through Him. Through God’s love alone, ultimately revealed to the nth degree in the work of Jesus Christ, we are, indeed, restored to peace with Him! It is because of the fact of this relationship that when He calls us “sinners” and calls our desires and actions “sins”, we are able to not only bear with this, but actually able to exult and glory in His companionship! Even when we realize, and are saddened by, the fact that our actions do not deserve such kindness on His part… Nevertheless, He goes on to look us in the eye with love and tender mercies, and causes us to rise again in joy, and to go forth in His pardon and power! (being able to talk like this, by the way, is why the 16th century Reformation of the church was necessary).

For this our earthly journey we live – always – by His tender mercies and grace!



Image from Wikipedia: Sir Joseph Noel Paton, “Dawn: Luther at Erfurt” which depicts Martin Luther discovering the doctrine of Justification by Faith ; Original hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, United Kingdom ; bad fruit image from ; The Martin Luther window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC by Cadetgray ; 19th-century photograph of a young CFW Walther; originally from (public domain) ; Christ Embracing St Bernard by Francisco Ribalta

*An additional post I’ve done on this topic, “Unchildlike Reformation Eve” is here.

**C.F.W. Walther, pictured above, wrote something similar as he reflected on Luther’s experience: “Luther contends that the testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s children is accompanied with strife. There must be confidence in the Christians and at the same time fear and trembling. This is possible. I can cross an awful abyss, trembling at the thought that I may be hurled into it; but seeing a barrier erected on both sides of my path I gather confidence and cross over, confident of safety. That is the strange paradox of the heart of a Christian: he fears and trembles and still is assured.” (200, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, 1897).

***Regarding the Christian’s “Old Adam”, an LC-MS pastor colorfully put it this way: “[After believing the Gospel that saves me], I look back at the law that corals me, that pulls me in and says “you will not go past this line, this boundary” and the old Adam starts digging, and starts trying to figure out an escape plan. And the new man in Christ is like “Come here. We gotta kill you. We gotta kill you more because you are getting in the way of me being with Christ.”

****Luther writes that to the extent that a believer is “actively” righteous, the law’s accusatory office has ceased. Under the accusatory law insofar as they are sinners, Christians are also “without the law” because Christ’s fulfillment of the law is imputed to them and insofar as they battle sin in their lives in the power of the Holy Spirit (see p. 16-17 here)

****We are reminded that “God’s Kingdom comes without us”, as Luther said. That said, God chooses us to be the vessels who communicate His message to others, and so I would only assert: “You should not think you are indispensable. The Kingdom of God comes without any person in particular.”

Also, most of this paragraph was taken from an old, heartfelt post I did here – which I think this most recent post tempers a bit, and puts in a more helpful context.


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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Uncategorized


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If Christians Enjoy Making Assertions, Why Speak with Them?

Asserting the Source of goodness for all: "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."

Asserting the Source of goodness for all: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”


“…and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” – Philemon 1:6

Christians, as the 16th century reformer Martin Luther liked to remind us, are those who assert things and even enjoy doing so! So how can this play out in our relationships with others without our being totally obnoxious or even dangerous? (OK, I’ll admit, as someone who has at times alienated family and friends, maybe I am not the one to be writing this). Especially when we increasingly live in a world where there are non-Christians who also are very forthright that they assert, and others who shy away from the fact and even deny that they do this (they are not ideologues like you!), preferring to talk about approaching everything in terms of being “working hypotheses subject to testing” (think of that most amiable of atheists, Steven Pinker).

You know, “truth”, but never truth and especially not Truth.

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague about… conversation. During it, I had basically asked him whether he thought it was ever appropriate to go into a conversation quite sure that you are right and the other persons is wrong, and with a desire to help that person “see the light”. He said, in part, that the main purpose of going into any conversation is to learn something, and that this is a “newly developing paradigm” which is opposed to what he sees as the predominant way of communicating: conversation at someone with the intent to change minds which are seen as pliable and weak (to illustrate his point, he talked about war propaganda in the West – things like this).

Here is what I said in reply:

I see the purpose of conversation, in general, as being to love my neighbor, who bears the image of God. This means, in general, not going into a conversation to learn something for myself, but to listen to them and to respond accordingly in love. If I learn something – or if I am able to more explicitly articulate the nature of God’s love for them – that is an added bonus.

Of course, we are still attracted to certain persons and want to start conversations with them because of our curiosity to learn – true enough. Other times, we are happy to have other “excuses” to start a conversation with this or that person we find attractive (and here, having a dog or a baby can help). But the Christian “stand” is to realize that God, in the midst of all of this, throws all our “conversation partners” into our path, and we dare not discriminate against any human being.

Thanks for helping me to realize that, to articulate what I know (for what I know is what I have yet to be shown is false).

The answer I gave here dovetails with another conversation I had this past week with a student, which kind of expands on the “posture”, or “stand”, I describe above. Stacie said the following:

This last week of class was interesting for me.  I work in child protections which in its self can be heart wrenching.  Thinking about government and God was something that I have always learned to separate.  However, I do my job because the love that God gave me for children and families; well I guess people in general.  Many times when walking downtown and seeing an elderly homeless man I see the eyes of Jesus. That may sound strange but I feel that it’s my responsibility to help these individuals.  I think that it’s important for us to get back to the basics.  Christianity is something that needs to be lived on the inside and outside.  I think that if we follow in God we will be better leaders and be better equipped to handle the situations that seem hopeless.

Holding the urge to speak here about how “social justice is not the Gospel” (believe me, in the class I do talk again and again about how the Gospel is first of all about what I Corinthians 15 says it is… Christ’s rescue of sinners from sin, death, and the devil through His death and resurrection) here is how I answered her:

I agree with you. Christ is in all. He is distinct from us, as He is our Creator, but He is in you and me and everyone else. In Him, we are told, “we live and move and have our being” (see Paul in Acts 17). That does not mean that all believe and are saved, but that His love moves all of us and anything that is good in life is to be attributed to Him.

I think my default orientation should be to be a “little Christ” to my neighbor. To come to them and love them with His strong love. I am to imitate Christ and to be Christ’s hands and feet and mouth to them. This responsibility starts with my own church, which, I thank God, includes my immediate family. It then means my friends and closest neighbors, particularly those who are fellow believers, and radiates outward – to include the whole world. Still, love is concrete and should start closest to home. It is easy to “love” my abstract “neighbor”. Love should never be content to have loved enough, in terms of the intensity of our love or the number of those we love.

Why such an active orientation? It is better to give than to receive, Jesus said. This is the kind of person that we want to be. All this said, we must receive! There is a time to realize we must just stop, shut up, and receive. We must receive from our neighbors, as they love us – with material and emotional assistance, but particularly with spiritual assistance – as they give us God’s life-giving word. If we are not first receivers we not only have nothing to give, but we die. It is really good to receive Jesus through words – and a big part of this is receiving these words from the saints of old as well – particularly those saints who God used to write the Bible.

With all of this said about being an active giver I note that I don’t feel like I excel at this by any means, even sadly, with something as simple as “lending an ear” (my wife will tell you…). And there are even some times I feel like I can basically only receive… and cry out: “Lord save me/us!”

And by your pulling me aside and reminding me – asserting to me! – that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!” you love me.

That is why I need you to speak with me – and to me.



Image: Christ True Vine {PD-1923}

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Posted by on May 5, 2016 in Uncategorized


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Christians are Evil Hypocrites Who Always Need Threats from the Law

Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” (Proverbs 27:6)

First things first: I’m not anti-Christian and the “Law” in the title is referring to God’s law. If you’re disappointed though, please stick around.

In the online Merriam Webster’s dictionary hypocrisy is defined as “the behavior of people who do things that they tell other people not to do: behavior that does not agree with what someone claims to believe or feel.” Another definition found online puts it this way: “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.”

I think a hypocrite is simply someone who lets others know that they should behave a certain way, whether they do this directly or indirectly (even if they only “virtue signal”, in effect saying “this is right and I am right… you should be right to… like me!”), but then does the opposite themselves. For example, I’m guessing Fox news anchor Megyn Kelly is thinking twice about the kinds of photo shoots she will do in the future (see here).*

So I suggest the first definition, as well as mine, comports more closely with how most persons in the West have traditionally understood this word.** The second definition seems lacking to me in that it implies that if one’s behavior does not conform to one’s stated standards or beliefs, one cannot, in any sense, actually hold or want to hold those standards or beliefs (hence, “pretense”).

On the contrary, I suggest that we not only can do this, but that we all do. All persons sometimes act like hypocrites (even if it seems the elite world usually only detects this in more traditional folks who are vocal about their standards and beliefs). Better: all persons act hypocritically because all persons, even Christians, are sinners, infected with the venom of Satan’s lie (if you think I am projecting this because I, as a father of five 3-13 year-old boys, can’t fail to be well acquainted with my own hypocrisy, I consider but ultimately reject your point).

adam_and_eveTherefore, when popular Lutheran pastor Jonathan Fisk says, in a recent You Tube video, that:

“…it is only the hypocrite who would hear such good news about the forgiveness of sins [in Jesus Christ] and say ‘Thank goodness! I am now free to be as evil as I want ; I can throw away God’s law.’”

…I know what he is getting at, but, on the other hand, Satan’s temptations are never quite that crass, right?

I teach a beginning Christianity class online at the university level. Not long ago, one of my students, a theologically astute and fine Christian women judging from all available evidences, privately shared the following with me (now shared with permission):

“I want to talk about [what Philip Yancey says in his book What’s So Amazing about Grace] on page 184. “But why don’t I just go ahead and do it anyway? I can always get forgiveness later.” This is powerful because when I sin I know that it’s wrong before and during the act…yet I do it anyway. This is tough because I know that God will forgive but I’m sure He must get annoyed when I constantly commit the same sin and keep coming back to Him with guilt.”

I took that to be some serious and authentic stuff. And yes, I understand if some reading this might wonder whether or not a Christian can talk this way! Consider, however, that there is big difference between telling God “I will not!”, on the one hand, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by one’s passions and ingrained habits, on the other.

Here I how I responded to her:

Yes – [this] is bracingly honest. Even believers, can, and do, abuse grace (in spite of the Apostle Paul’s heartfelt cry “may it never be!”).

First of all, let me say that you don’t need to be concerned about God forgiving you only reluctantly. He urges us to forgive seventy-times seven because He does the same! His mercies are new every morning! He remembers our sins no more! He buries them in the ocean forever! The blood and righteousness of His Son avails for sinners!

Peter: Preaching Christ - and the virtue that comes from Christ! (2 Pet. 1:5)

Peter: Preaching Christ – and the virtue that comes from Christ! (2 Pet. 1:5)


Second, the Bible does tell us that there is a worldly sorrow that is not in line with true repentance: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (I Cor. 7). This kind of remorse does not look to Christ, but elsewhere – or perhaps to a Christ of its own making (I Cor. 11). But to say all this does not mean that Christians – those who bear the fruits of true repentance (godly sorrow) – will not struggle with sin in the way you describe… See Romans 7, for example!

And the Apostle Peter tells us that we are to live “As free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.” (I Peter 2:16)

A Lutheran theologian by the name of Adolph Köberle said:

“…unrestrained roving thoughts never remain confined to the hidden chambers of the soul, but they crowd out into the open and display themselves in words and actions, that enslave, burden and shape the future of their author…”

I especially like what Yancey says in that book a few pages earlier than the quote you mention:

“Forgiveness is our problem, not God’s. What we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God – we change in the very act of rebellion – and there is no guarantee we will ever come back. You ask me about forgiveness now [as in: “Will God forgive me for what I’m about to do, namely leave my wife for another”], but will you even want it later, especially if it involves repentance?” (180)

Challenging words indeed! But he knows our struggle, and is ready to give us help in overcoming it – again, His mercies – and His humble and steady power – are new every morning. Here is another post I did on a related topic, which you might like. It talks about the effects of the actual sins [not just the original sin infection in our heart] we commit not only on ourselves, but also our neighbor as well! This is important, because the Christian is the person who is being increasingly transformed by God to show Christ-like concern for one’s neighbors. The Apostle Paul gives us a startling picture of what this looks like in Romans 9:1-5, as he mourns for those from whom he has come by blood, the Jewish people:

“I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”

…I appreciate your honesty – I think many Christians feel the way that you do.

Back to the video mentioned earlier…

Yes, the church is full of them. And there is always room for more.

Yes, the church is full of them. And there is always room for more.

I would change the pastor’s statement “it is only a hypocrite who would hear…” to “only a person who is being hypocritical who would hear …” Why? Because I would not want there to be any chance I might give the impression that hypocrites like myself cannot be Christians – in fact, it is precisely because Christians remain hypocrites that we continue to need God’s law and gospel.

Pastor Fisk defines legalism as “trust in the law”, or believing that “the law has the power to regenerate fallen man into keeping it”. I think these are good definitions (though I would emphasize that the legalist believes he is saved by his law-keeping). He also goes on to say that Gospel creates a love for the law without needing to remind the Christian of the law – and that this is something that “legalism never seems to believe”.

Given our fall into sin, I certainly agree with Pastor Fisk that the Gospel alone is able to create a love for the law of God. And I would also say that we do not need to be reminded of it – to a point.

Sometimes, after all, even if we have begun to know it (10 commandments and the like), it seems we don’t really know it as well as we should (it’s not quite “in our bones” as it should be!) and need to be reminded. Pastor Fisk, for example, goes on to do this himself in his video, pointing out that we continue to have a sinful nature (our “Old Adam”) that needs to be compelled and threatened daily to do the right thing. How is this done? By the Christian’s Spirit-driven new man, who is eager to love and wield the law to be who he is – and who he is growing to become more of – in Christ. Pastor Fisk calls this activity on the part of the Christian “the work of the law” – even as he is eager to add that this work is neither the “meaning of Christianity’s center” nor is it empowered by the law itself.

christSo do believers, created to be law-lovers, ever need to be reminded of God’s law? Like I did with the student above – and like Pastor Fisk did as well?

I think he is certainly saying, given what he talks about here, that we sometimes do – even as he wants us to know that he is not a legalist who will never let the Gospel have the last word!***  So, perhaps we do need to be reminded of the law… insofar as its content is not deeply internalized in us?

For those however, who insist that we do not need to be reminded of God’s law, consider this: What is the Apostle Paul doing, for example, when he seemingly endeavors to guide, exhort, and encourage Christians in his letters with commands other than “believe the Gospel”?

If I even ask this question am I going back to legalism? Not letting persons rest in the Gospel? Not “getting the Gospel” myself?

May it never be!

None of this activity on Paul’s part means to say that the Gospel itself – the fact that Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone frees us from sin, death, and the devil – is not the sole reason for the Christian to uphold the law of God, battle his sinful flesh, and to serve his neighbor.

On the contrary, it should be our only reason and motivation. It is only the Gospel that “fleshes out” for us the love of God – and can inspire us to say “Amen!” when we hear the beauty that is God’s law/will. In fact, with the Gospel ringing in our ears, the law can sometimes remind us of who we want to be – and who we have already begun to be in Christ.


For more thoughts on this see:


Images: “Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged” by KAZ Vorpal. and “a hypocrite” by romana klee.


*Rod Dreher has recently brought attention to an example of the unapologetic hypocrisy of the religious left here.

**Digging deeper of course, one finds that the word hypocrite comes from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “stage actor, pretender, dissembler.” So when Jesus uses the word he seems to be saying that a hypocrite is a person who pretends to be a certain way, but actually acts and believes in a contrary manner.

***Nowadays, might one be forgiven for having the impression he must be considered a legalist if he asserts, for example, that pastors are not simply “above reproach” by faith alone – but that the Apostle Paul truly means for them to have this and other qualities, before men, in order to qualify for the pastoral office?


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Posted by on March 24, 2016 in Uncategorized


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The First Table of the Commandments’ Relationship to the Third Use of the Law (Part II of II)

Tullian T. basically says that he does believe in “the third use of the law” – he just doesn’t want to have to qualify things all the time. Amen! Period. So why do some still have problems?

Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian Tchividjian says that he believes in “the third use of the law” – he just doesn’t want to have to “qualify things all the time”. And all the Lutherans shout “Amen!” So what’s the real issue with the “third use”?

I really don’t want anyone to feel like they should read this post. Truth. I would simply prefer that they read part I, say “Amen”, and “rejoice evermore” (I Thes. 5:16) with me. I think the words I shared there cover the topic of this article well and are reliable and life-giving words – they basically should not need to be supplemented.

But that, sadly, has not been my experience. Hence this part II, which gets into some very painful and even annoying detail in order to counter the objections that come up to the content of part I (again, if you gave a hearty “amen” to part I, I am totally serious: I really don’t think it is necessary for you to the rest of the article). For there is much confusion about God’s law today, and my “Steadfast Lutheran” tribe is no exception when it comes to this. Many of the problems though, I think, can be cleared up for persuadable folks by Pastor Todd Wilken’s compelling new article, “Is the Law Bad?” – see here. I get the impression that his article has been generally well-received and I promise you that it is far more interesting than this one.

So, what am I insisting needs to be said about the law – at least for some? Here are my core points:

  • Indeed, the law never completely ceases to accuse even the most mature Christian in this life (Romans 8 follows Romans 7, but Romans 7 is Romans 7, period – and thank God). That said, the problem with much theology today is what it does not say, either intentionally or more innocently: the law is God’s eternal will.
  • The Christian, according to his new nature, does indeed do the law motivated by the gospel and not by the law. That said…
  • We should also add here that the law is being done by the individual agent who is the Christian, not by Christ or the Holy Spirit bypassing the Christian’s will. Further…
  • Assent to the law is an act of the Christian’s will, empowered by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, and the same holds true for saying no to sin and fighting temptation. Also…
  • If we don’t want to say man had a ‘free will” before the fall – because of concerns about misunderstandings – we need to at least say something like “unenslaved will”.*
  • For His part, God desires not to coerce according to truth, but to woo according to truth. Satan, now enslaved in himself to the bitter end, desires to coerce, but under God’s coercion is only permitted to seduce by lies. These distintions should affect how we see the Christian life. Finally….
  • We can even say that from the perspective of the law, faith in God’s merciful promises – whether we are talking about passively receiving them or actively pursuing them (by pursuing Him and His words to us) – is an act of one’s will commanded in the First Commandment!
  • Hence what Luther says about the conclusion of the Ten Commandments in his Small Catechism** is not primarily meant to “break us” with the law, but is, in fact, describing things as they are.
Norman Nagel: Romans says we are justified by faith and that we are justified by the blood. If you ask faith, it has nothing to talk about... it points to the blood....

Norman Nagel: The book of Romans says we are justified by faith and that we are justified by the blood. If you ask faith, it has nothing to talk about… it points to the blood….

“Radical Lutheran” brethren… you who truly believe the Scriptures are the word of God (and you who don’t also : ) ), stay with me here. Let me first re-assert: The law cannot motivate or empower! But with the Gospel ringing in our ears, it does remind us of who we want to be – and who we have already begun to be in Christ, correct? Hence we all shout “Amen!” when the Apostle seeks to exhort us and guide our consciences in, for example, I Thes. 5:16-18. Second, when it comes to fighting for the faith, I also would prefer to have to defend God and His will to justify (I think all Christians should be tempted by Radical Lutheranism) and not issues pertaining to man’s will, for “Thy will be done” (i.e. focusing on His will!) indeed. Nevertheless, I not-so-humbly (because yes, I am, in my old Adam, a jerk and contribute my own sin to this process) suggest the integrity of your confessional subscription – and with that the good Christian confession – depends on your willingness to agree with those points above.***

So hear me now – this indeed follows!: all this said, we should not, in general, focus on our Spirit-inspired ability to [weakly] cooperate when it comes to our being progressively sanctified. We should simply recognize it, affirm it, and look continue looking to Christ for all good things! The reasons for this are that Radical Lutherans are right to emphasize these things: a) our real and constant need for the forgiveness we get when we are with Jesus and b) even though the Christian is motivated primarily by the Gospel, we are sinner-saints, and as such our “old man” is still motivated by the law (which, by the way, can be very good for my neighbor to, but not all the time). We constantly fall into the trap of living in terms of carrots and sticks, even of wanting to justify ourselves and our worth before God by our own actions! – this is the “opinio legis” within us.

Hence, again, we look to Christ for all good things – and like Mary, run to His feet! – realizing that He is the primary actor here who is constantly at work purging the evil that remains within us. This means that we have perpetual pardon, power, and progress – because the Scriptures say so – in Him . The habitual sins that beset us cannot change God’s work to transform us!

“[The Apostle’s Creed] is intended to help us do that which according to the Ten Commandments we ought to do... increase in us faith and the fulfilment of the Ten Commandments, and that He would remove everything that is in our way and opposes us therein” -- Luther

“[The Apostle’s Creed] is intended to help us do that which according to the Ten Commandments we ought to do… increase in us faith and the fulfilment of the Ten Commandments, and that He would remove everything that is in our way and opposes us therein” — Luther

How to explain all this a bit more, theologically? We can say that the righteousness of Christ that the Christian receives from the outside, and by which a person is justified by faith (we are put “in Christ”!), is the same righteousness that the Christian seeks to have in himself (because of Christ in him!), and by which he is progressively sanctified (see Luther’s Works, v. 1, p. 64, for example). As the great Epiphany hymn “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” puts it:

“Grace to imitate thee now

And be pure, as pure art thou

That we might become like thee

At thy great epiphany…”

In other words, there is not only a “positional” sanctification (us in Christ – this goes with justification) but again, what we may call a “deepening” and progressive sanctification (Christ in us!).

More specifically though, how does this happen? Here, we must look at God’s larger purposes, which can be realized through a careful study of Scripture.

A goal of the Gospel is for us simply to be loved by God in Christ, and to grow in that understanding – even in the midst of great suffering… To sit at Christ’s feet and simply be blessed to learn as His pupil and even friend (and bride, brother, and child)!

Another goal of the Gospel, which really flows from this first goal, is for us to love our neighbor in Christ and to grow in fruitful service (often very simple and unspectacular acts). In fact, secure in God’s love, all our actions and sufferings are ultimately to be neighbor-directed – in fact, not only our sanctification but also our justification is for the neighbor (and yet, of course, where Christ is there is forgiveness, comfort, etc. for us to!). After all, the Apostle Paul, writing under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, would even give that up.

And perhaps here, another question arises: how can we train ourselves to focus on and serve our neighbor, as we should? I argue that this difficult question is particularly appropriate today for Christians in the West. And more so now because we live in a society that is “always on” and fills our life with things to distract us from the things that matter most – the “one thing needful” as the hymn writer put it. For example, in their book, One Moment Please: It’s Time to Pay Attention, Susan Pearse and Martina Sheehan cite a study seemingly showing that persons would rather even have a mild electric shock than be alone without any electronic devices for 15 minutes!

We fear having to simply be… to be silent… to reflect…

So let us Christians in particular not only remember who we are in Christ, but reflect personally about our lives in Him. This has the potential to be a very selfish process to be sure, but our neighbors need us to do this in Christ and for Christ – for He is for them as He is for us! Here, we can say that the Christian, according to the new man, is often aware or  the good works that He does in Christ (unconsciously or more consciously). And yet, none of this work is an opportunity to take pleasure in himself, boasting in what he has done – but rather to see and pay attention to the P/person(s) for whom the work is done.


As Luther said, echoing St. Augustine, sin means that we are naturally turned in on ourselves – “incurvatus in se” in the Latin. And again, we continue to have the opinio legis (the opinion of the law) – by which we would, in our pride, justify ourselves before God!**** – raging within us! This, to say the least, means that according to our old man, or Adam, who remains, the Christian is aware of the work but is pridefully seeking his own glory and crowns rather than the “crown” for whom the work is good – that is the neighbor loved by God (see I Thes. 2:19 and Philippians 4:1).

And here proper self-reflection, i.e. the examination of conscience – empowered and guided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is also desirable: we should not only seek to counter our evil desires and thoughts, but also, knowing we sin in all of our good works, increasingly be willing to examine these for wrong motivations***** (and yes, you will find them and throughout your life have plenty to repent for) – even if these won’t be fully purged until the life to come.

We who are justified by faith are His precious children! And so, He looks not only to clean us again and again, through His Word and Sacraments, but also to simply love us with the result that we increase in faith and love! Thus we continually look to Christ, whom we are in! For us, He – even without sin! –  “became perfect” on earth, according to His human nature. In short, God became a son of man – and learned obedience, grew in favor with God, and became perfect (complete) – that we might become a son of God.

And we who have heard and believe are indeed this. Do you doubt your sanctification? Go forgiven… go in peace…. and look again to the only One who can lift you up – again and again and again, unto the world without end:












Images: Tullian T. (Wikipedia), Norman N. (


*Thinking about the possible meanings of words, and how misunderstandings can often occur, it’s understandable some might react against the statement “man, prior to the fall was ‘free to sin'”. That might make it sound like God was indifferent to what they did. We, of course, want to say that man was able to sin, that is “capable of sinning”, but even here it might seem to make more sense to focus on the positive: “man was able not to sin”. On the other hand, saying we were “able to sin” might also help because it, unlike “man was able not to sin”, suggests there should have been nothing likely at all about this possibility, which is certainly the impression given by the text: man caused the greatest of tragedies through his unimaginably stupid and ungrateful deed.

**”God threatens to punish all who transgress these command­ments. Therefore we should fear His wrath and do nothing against these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. There­fore we should also love and trust in Him and willingly do ac­cording to His commandments.”

What, this side of heaven, is the most consequential and important command we will hear? That we believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Note I John 3: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” (love is there to be sure, but the order is not unimportant here).

***Or do you think the way I am framing things here is somehow less than fully Christian? If that is your evaluation, what do you think about the following?:

“Preachers should be diligent not to preach in generalities, but always to arrange the material according to these parts: sin; God’s wrath and punishment of sin; contrition, remorse, anxiety of the conscience, etc.; the resolve to abandon and avoid sin; the person of Christ; His office and merit; God’s grace; the forgiveness of sin; faith; the good fruits of faith, such as the good resolve to do better, good works, patience in suffering, etc. This is done so that in the sermons, the teaching may always have its application or accommodation to use, as the doctrine should be used in the best way.”

That is from two of the main contributors to the Lutheran “Book of Concord,” Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae, giving a clear explanation of what sermons should be all about “in our Lutheran congregations”.

****Even as he also looks to get away with whatever “sin for a season” he thinks he can get away with.

*****We should always be aware that the non-Christian’s love for others is severely deficient because….

a) it is not bolstered and informed by an underlying love for the Triune God, and hence its ultimate hope and expression does not mirror God’s: the salvation of the whole world through the gifts of His word and sacraments – i.e. people’s rescue and growth in eternal life, that is, knowing God through His Son, Jesus Christ (John 17:3), and

b) of a lack of purity or holiness in fulfilling their love – which of course is supposed to flow through them unhindered from God and be for their neighbor.

Insofar as Christians remain sinners b) is true of our love because a) is true of our love.

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Posted by on February 9, 2016 in Uncategorized


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The Confession of a Bad Boy Christian

confessionforrestNo, this post is not about me – I’m not what we call a “bad boy” today, though I am, like the Apostle Paul, a person who does find himself thinking, saying and doing evil things (more on that kind of thing here).  The reason for the title of this post will become clear by the end.  Stay with me.

Recently, I have been studying the issue of confession and absolution in the church. One of the interesting books I have taken a look at is “Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness” by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2002). Forest is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and so his account is a nice introduction to the topic for those of us who may only be familiar with the Western forms of the tradition.

The last chapter of the book is titled “True Confessions”, and is made up of a number of shorts stories about confession. Most of these stories, anonymous in the book, were solicited by Forest from his friends, and come from several lay people, nuns, monks and priests.

As someone who is eager to uphold and promote the practice of private confession and absolution in the church (literally a matter of life and death, as this short clip from the old TV show “ER” shows), it was heartening to read these accounts, even if occasionally some of the theology they contained made me wince a bit. Here is an excerpt from a rather self-reflective story that I found to be refreshing and worth noting:

“I must admit there is a feeling of companionship somehow, even as we sit separately in the darkened chapel. There is not a lot of contact or talk as we wait. And when glances do meet on occasion, usually the slight smile of acknowledgment fades as your eyes fall to the floor. I sit in my chair, hands folded nervously on my lap. There was only one time I just couldn’t face the process and left. It had been raining and as I sat watching I tried to talk myself out of staying because if I missed my bus, I’d miss my subway train, and on and on, until I got up and walked out the door. But as I walked in the rain to the corner, I realized it wasn’t the commute I dreaded but confession.

I have problems with trying to know what to say. It’s not that I don’t recognize that I’m a sinner, but I seem to accept sin as part of human nature or personality, which makes it something that is not going to really change very much or go away. Thinking like this kind of normalizes relations with sin while at the same time ignoring the darkest consequences or source of sin. It’s like favored nation trading status with a dictatorship. We want all the benefits of trade but overlook the violations of human rights and integrity.

There are a lot of problems with this, I realize, but in some ways I’ve used sin to define myself and not necessarily in a negative light. I’ve noticed that when my old friends and I get together and talk we spend hours laughing and retelling stories about our wild youth. It seems, however, that those stories are in many ways stories about how much we enjoyed committing sins. Maybe that’s where the expression “sins of youth” comes from. Sin is expected in the young. Of course we’re not talking about major crimes against people, but when I stop to think about it, they may be crimes against God and certainly the teachings of the Church.

I still have a tendency to see the wild side as freer than the temperate, and to see rebellion as much more positive than negative and a way to distance oneself from the banality and mediocrity of mass society.

My impatience and temper, my sarcasm, my so-called “biting wit” are ways I define “me as me” in the world. Of course, those somehow become translated and calculated in a vast personal algebra of character and predisposition.

Unfortunately, I have a tendency to reduce those traits into a continuum of understandable explanations and excuses for my personal behavior and relations to others and the world. I weave stories and reasons into a systematic construction that leads me to conclude that what I have done is generally acceptable given the circumstances of my life. I reduce my sins to a group of personality traits.

As I sit waiting for our priest to complete hearing the confession of the person before me, I consider what I will say. I think about my actions during the period since my last confession and sort out what a sin is from what is not. It’s not hard to recall my anger or sharp words. It’s not hard to recall my foul mouth and quick temper. It’s not hard to recall too many vodkas. I count and measure, divide by time and guilt, and usually come up with a list of behaviors I’m not proud of. I guess being ashamed about something is a pretty good sign that some definition or variable of sin may be involved. A guilty conscience was the first compass I had in learning how to recognize sin.

Though I don’t like doing it, and I don’t do it well, there is a great respect and intimacy in the act of making confession and that seems understood and respected by everyone in the church. There is a quietness in waiting that surrounds us in our quandary and distress.”

As a Lutheran, I am eager to not only talk about confession, but the issue of absolution (our churches do not require private absolution, even as it is encouraged – see Luther’s Small Catechism on the topic and  here for more). As pertains to confession, there are surely times, when, reflecting on the ten commandments, we will be very aware of our specific sins.  And at the same time, there will surely be times we may wonder whether or not a particular action that we did – even if the action itself is unobjectionable* – showed a lack of true love (“Should I have spent time with the kids helping them with their latest project instead of the ‘me time’ I took yesterday?”). And of course, it is no surprise that Martin Luther, always eager to point out that sin touches all of our actions, takes us deeper into the meaning of confession. Here is one of his key writings on the topic (the Smalcald Articles), where he also highlights for us the importance of the absolution, or Gospel, as well:

This, then, is what it means to begin true repentance; and here man must hear such a sentence as this: You are all of no account, whether you be manifest sinners or saints [in your own opinion]; you all must become different and do otherwise than you now are and are doing [no matter what sort of people you are], whether you are as great, wise, powerful, and holy as you may. Here no one is [righteous, holy], godly, etc.

Here Luther, eager to share the biblical themes of deep sin and deep grace, is putting forward something like this provocative and well-intentioned blog post – but without the real measure of offense which that post contains. He goes on:

But to this office the New Testament immediately adds the consolatory promise of grace through the Gospel, which must be believed, as Christ declares, Mark 1:15: Repent and believe the Gospel, i.e., become different and do otherwise, and believe My promise. And John, preceding Him, is called a preacher of repentance, however, for the remission of sins, i.e., John was to accuse all, and convict them of being sinners, that they might know what they were before God, and might acknowledge that they were lost men, and might thus be prepared for the Lord, to receive grace, and to expect and accept from Him the remission of sins. Thus also Christ Himself says, Repentance and remission of sins must be preached in My name among all nations.

But whenever the Law alone, without the Gospel being added exercises this its office there is [nothing else than] death and hell, and man must despair, like Saul and Judas; as St. Paul, Rom. 7:10, says: Through sin the Law killeth. On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and remission not only in one way, but through the word and Sacraments, and the like, as we shall hear afterward in order that [thus] there is with the Lord plenteous redemption, as Ps. 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin.

Read more of this from Luther here.



*The author of this account discusses the actual sins and sinful habits (activities that are objectively evil) that he feels guilty about. Luther also makes some comments about confessing actual sins in the Smalcald Articles as well:

“And in Christians this repentance continues until death, because, through the entire life it contends with sin remaining in the flesh, as Paul, Rom. 7:14-25, [shows] testifies that he wars with the law in his members, etc.; and that, not by his own powers, but by the gift of the Holy Ghost that follows the remission of sins. This gift daily cleanses and sweeps out the remaining sins, and works so as to render man truly pure and holy…

It is, accordingly, necessary to know and to teach that when holy men, still having and feeling original sin, also daily repenting of and striving with it, happen to fall into manifest sins, as David into adultery, murder, and blasphemy, that then faith and the Holy Ghost has departed from them [they cast out faith and the Holy Ghost]. For the Holy Ghost does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so as to be accomplished, but represses and restrains it so that it must not do what it wishes. But if it does what it wishes, the Holy Ghost and faith are [certainly] not present. For St. John says, 1 John 3:9: Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin, … and he cannot sin. And yet it is also the truth when the same St. John says, 1:8: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

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Posted by on November 13, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Is a Faulty Understanding of Sanctification at the Root of the Worship Wars? (part VIII of VIII)

Worship as Repentance?!

Worship as Repentance?!

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII


in their new book, Christian Worship: the Apology of the Unchanging Forms of the Gospel, Pastors Paul Strawn and Holger Sonntag give current examples of “When Different Ceremonies Give the Appearance of a Different Theology”:

What instances of current worship practices did we have in mind when we wrote that changing the forms, rites, and ceremonies gives the appearance of a different theology? Obviously, there are first and foremost the divinely instituted forms, rites, and ceremonies: If these are changed, then definitely the appearance of a clearly different theology is given. Examples include women’s ordination; open communion (often made worse by weak or wrong communion statements in the worship folder); “lay ministers;” the use of juice in the sacrament; changes in the formulae of administration of the sacraments; the omission of the words of consecration in the Lord’s Supper; the mere “blessing” of infants; a service without preaching.

Then there are ceremonies that in and by themselves militate against the humble nature of the means of grace by offering a dazzling spectacle to those in attendance. Here one might think for instance of major musical productions during the service (regardless of the preferred style used) that for some, at least in part due to the major emotional “lift” derived from them, have come to be the only reason why they attend church, and have come to be what they seek in a church, regardless of that church’s actual teaching and confession (which is then why they, when they move away, do not necessarily rejoin an LCMS congregation). Furthermore, the usage of praise choruses to begin the service, or to introduce a sermon, “to pump up” the crowd.

Then there is also the usage of “worship leaders” who do not simply sing, or lead singing, but must speak as well. And these “leaders” (they are not pastors) and musicians – all of them preferably young and esthetically pleasing to the eye to communicate the vitality and viability of a given congregation to prospective new members – are placed in the front of the church to be seen by all (and thus quite in keeping with Luther’s diagnosis of the appealing services of the papacy that belong to the visual kingdom of the world, not to the aural kingdom of God). However, one also needs to include elaborate vestments at variance with the customarily simple ones in current use among us as another example.

What perhaps best captures this “progress” from simple and insignificant to elaborate and pompous is the simple yet odd example of the simple hymn, which was first sung from memory, then from a hymnal, then printed in a bulletin, then projected on a screen, then projected line by line on a screen, then projected line by line on a screen in front of a beautiful picture. And now it is displayed on a large digital television line by line in front of a movie or video of whatever else is deemed to capture the attention of those singing long enough to get them to the end of the hymn. In keeping with this visualization of the hymn’s words, a more emotionally appealing arrangement of the hymn’s tune is often used as well.

Clearly, these and other things seem to be introduced mostly with the casual visitor or the lukewarm Christian in mind, not with what Christ has given his church in the means of grace as standard. At any rate, the impression is given that a different theology is driving these decisions: After all, why do other pastors / congregations not do things in this way? Perhaps because the changes betray a different theology not shared by those other pastors and congregations?

There are other ceremonies that, today, have taken on the character of “confessional ceremonies,” that is, of ceremonies that, while free in and by themselves, have come to be perceived as being associated with a certain controversial theological position. Observing them or not observing them is a case of confession, as outlined in FC X. Examples include the omission of the general confession and absolution at the beginning of the service; the removal of the pulpit and preaching from the aisle; the removal of a fixed altar; the removal of a baptismal font; the refusal by the pastor to wear any traditional vestments. Again, the impression of a different theology is given, here even to the point of suggesting far-reaching agreement with those who clearly do not believe as we do.

Then there are, as a general violation of Christian love, major changes that are introduced here and there without seeking agreement with (at least) the neighboring congregations of our Synod. Is this not also indicative of a different theology, one which no longer teaches, let alone practices, loving concern for the fellow believer?

Given that for Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, doctrinal agreement should ordinarily be expressed by uniformity in worship, it seems to us that the burden of proof lies with those who wish to deviate from the once-enjoyed uniformity in our Synod. They need to show not just that doing things differently is theologically possible (the Theses do offer a rationale for this), but that what they are doing differently is actually theologically warranted, i.e., necessary and not just possible. And if they are right, then all of us should do likewise! In most cases, however, a clear public theological justification is not provided. Requests for such are regularly denied with an attitude of “well, who made you my keeper?” or “the Confessions aren’t the Bible.”

In summary, it is clear that the technological possibilities that are readily available at the local parish level today (internet, computers, printers, copy machines, large screens, projection devices, stage lighting, etc.) facilitate and accelerate change in an unprecedented way. However, this acceleration is not just a result of technological change. To us, it appears to be driven chiefly by a theology that is markedly different from that of our father and mothers in the faith. Having pondered these issues for several years now in light of the Scriptures, the Confessions, and Luther’s pertinent writings, it seems to us that one of the major factors in the current proliferation of change is indeed a lack of understanding of the importance of love when it comes to worship in particular and being the church in general.

In this, to be sure, our time is no different than Luther’s or Paul’s: we know freedom but we, puffed up by this knowledge, do not use it properly in our relationship with fellow Christians, that is, tempered by love and for their edification.

We believe, however, that the problem today does not simply lie in not translating what is clearly confessed and believed by all into an equally clear practice. Lutherans have always acknowledged that there will always be unfortunate shortcomings of this practical kind in this life (cf. only AE 41:216-217). Consequently, also the uniformity in our worship practices will never be complete on earth.

Yet when reading through various materials on worship, the glaring absence of any mention of love in this context (that is, on a theological/doctrinal level) points to a different theology that is afoot among us. This theology allows the resultant absence of uniformity in worship to be affirmed. In this sense, then, we must say that the Theses, even though there naturally was “no desire” to do so, do provide or at least strongly endorse “a new theology of worship.”

They then immediately go on to say, in the following section, “The LCMS Orders of Service Are not the Only Christian Forms of Worship”, that:

It is a standard concern that is raised with regularity against this position by some: “I am not sure if you are saying this but some seem to be saying that the liturgy as it is expressed in the current or former hymnals of the LCMS is the only proper form of worship for Christians.” We are not sure why this concern is expressed. For if we said or believed that, why would TUFOTG contain a lengthy section dedicated explicitly to “devising new ceremonies” (p. 76-86, emphasis in original)? Since this speaks for itself,  this cautiously voiced concern almost sounds like the “concern” voiced by others who assert that our emphasis on distinguishing orthodoxy from heterodoxy or our practice of closed communion somehow means that we believe that LCMS Lutherans will be the only people in heaven….

(pp. 70-73, all unitalicized words italicized in original ; all bold mine)

To close this series, I will leave you a couple final important thoughts from Pastor Sonntag:

In other words, only if we properly love the members of the household of faith who believe as we do and present a unified “front” to those on the outside can we also properly love those who are not yet members of our churches and call them to repentance, without giving them some mixed message culminating in “open communion.”….

… some might think today, if we could only go along with what everybody, or at least almost everybody, else is doing in worship, would we then not have ended the “worship wars” in our denomination? We might have done so but, according to the Christian Book of Concord, we would also have betrayed Christian faith and Christian love. Both faith and love compel us to express simply, clearly, and accurately our Christian confession by means of our worship service for the glory of Christ our one Redeemer and for the salvation of those who believe like we do and of those who believe differently.

(From materials received at the 27th Annual Lutheran Free Conference: “The Character of Christian Worship: It May Not Be What You Think”, which took place on Saturday, October 25th, 2014 at Redeemer Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, MN (full audio available here) ; pp. 102, 103 ; all unitalicized words italicized in original ; all bold mine)



Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Is a Faulty Understanding of Sanctification at the Root of the Worship Wars? (part II of VIII)

Picture of the Pantocrater…. “Christ in worship became less the Lamb of God, and perhaps, more, Christus Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), Christ the “All-Powerful” or “Lord Almighty” (Cf. 2 Cor. 6:18) or “Ruler of All”.” – Paul Strawn

“Christ in worship became less the Lamb of God, and perhaps, more, Christus Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), Christ the “All-Powerful” or “Lord Almighty” (Cf. 2 Cor. 6:18) or “Ruler of All”.” – Paul Strawn

Part I

Part II

The following quotation shared is from Paul Strawn, as he speaks about the profound influence the Emperor Constantine had on Christian worship. Here, we can see a clear move away from the humility and simplicity of the primitive Christian worship described by men like Justin Martyr:

“With the advent of Constantine in the 4th century, and consequently, the governmental and public support of Christianity, what had been occurring in private homes, could now occur publically and in a much grander scale. In that Christ was believed to have brought Constantine to power, Christ in worship became less the Lamb of God, and perhaps, more, Christus Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), Christ the “All-Powerful” or “Lord Almighty” (Cf. 2 Cor. 6:18) or “Ruler of All”. Depictions of Christ, his chest and his head with right hand raised symbolizing his right to speak, his left hand holding the Scriptures, would come to dominate the half-domes of the apses of the churches in the eastern Roman Empire. In the west, in Rome, Majestas Domini, “Christ in Majesty”, Christ sitting on his throne as the ruler of the world, would become similarly ubiquitous. The effect on worship must have been dramatic, as the government-backed bishops, standing in front of and under the image—reminiscent of the images of Greek gods and goddesses in pagan temples—would have been view as possessing much of the authority and power represented by it. In the East, the concept of Christ as the not just the power of God, but also the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24,30) would also gain import, as the church in Constantinople would be named “Hagia Sophia” “Holy Wisdom” referring to Christ himself as providing true knowledge of God. This occurred as the Eastern Church took a decidedly mystical turn in the 6th century due to the popularity of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. In the west, the image of Christ as judge emerged at the end of the Middle-Ages, sitting on a rainbow, the sword of Revelation 1 protruding from his mouth. It is this image in part, that caused Martin Luther to seek the righteousness of God in Scripture. And not surprisingly, the worship of Luther’s day had become one of appeasing the righteous judge Christ. Mass was attended, but being in Latin, not understood. The Lord’s Supper was received, but as the highest and best work for which man could gain credit before God. Supplication was made to the saints for their good favor and credit, while their bones—relics—were venerated for the same purpose. All was overseen by priests, making sacrifices—the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ on the cross.

The argument could be made, that the gutting of the churches during the Reformation of such images of Christ provided a proper corrective, of ridding the churches of images of Christ which were accurate, but came to overshadow the proclamation of the gospel itself. But in view of Christ, what ultimately did barren worship spaces represent? What was proclaimed to the Christian in a room where no image of Christ was present? Well for the followers of Calvin in Geneva and Zwingli in Zurich it was clear: Christ was not present within them, at least, according to His human nature—the nature that could be represented artistically. Christ was, after all, in heaven. The only representative of the Christ was the Christian. And the only way that the Christian, who had been directly illuminated by God, could be known, was by 1) how they lived, or 2) how they felt. So the two strains of Calvinism that dominate the Evangelical (Baptist) mega-churches devoid of any images of Christ, offer (almost in gnostic type fashion) assurance through the action of a Christian (Calvin), or assurance through the feeling of the heart (Arminius). Worship services therefore concentrate not on preaching and sharing Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, but right-action (by doing the right thing) and right feeling (through the usage of music, and light, and now modern imagery!). Eastern orthodoxy has gravitated somewhat away from Christus Pantokrator just as Rome has moved away from Majestas Domini, “Christ in Majesty,” embracing instead Mary, who since the Vatican I council of 19th century is proclaimed to have ascended into heaven. Anglican worship seems to take place in ornate settings, often void of images of Christ, presumably evoking the idea of a realized presence in heaven by the congregation. And of course, Pentecostal worship hearkens back to that of Montanus, of the awaiting of divine utterances from inspired leaders in barren facilities.”

(Strawn 46, 47, bold mine, non-italicized words originally italicized)

Read along with this what Pastor Sonntag had talked about earlier in their presentation, about the real focus of Christian worship:

“Simple words are spoken: “Your sins are forgiven.” And it is so – by virtue of Christ’s institution. Simple words are connected with simple visible, every-day elements, with water, bread, and wine: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He who believes and is baptized will be saved.” And it is so – by virtue of Christ’s institution. “Take, eat. This is my body which is given for you. Take, drink. This is my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And it is so – by virtue of Christ’s institution.

As we know, just from the history of the means of grace within the church itself – this earthy simplicity is perceived by a vast majority of Christians as scandalous and foolish. There are the fast growing churches that are growing on the anti-creational heritage of Zwingli and Calvin, ranging from Congregationalists and Presbyterians to “flaming” Pentecostals. They all uphold Zwingli’s assertion that the Spirit needs no created vehicle, that it is, in fact, “below” the Spirit as uncreated God to use created stuff to accomplish his saving purposes.

Yet, also those churches we typically describe as having “sacraments” as God’s tools in this world – we typically feel some affinity to them, especially when confronted by massive amounts of folks getting their marching orders from Zurich or Geneva. But, really, what do we see there? Some type of operation by God through these means, even some sort of “presence” of Christ in these means is affirmed. However, this presence is no longer affirmed as a gospel presence, but only, in the case of the Lord’s Supper, as something to heighten the value of our sacrifice to God. This turns the whole purpose of the means of grace on its head.

Full pardon of all sins, even salvation itself – the near-total agreement in Christendom seems to be that these precious gifts must not be contaminated by being issued by God through such humble means of grace. It can’t be that easy. It can’t be that simple. It can’t be that humble. After all, then everybody could get saved!

Apparently not everybody will get saved – not those who maintain: salvation needs to be a more glorious, less mundane, more complicated process that involves feelings of rapture, hard labor, or something similar on man’s part – something that all world religions could identify as “religious” or having to do with God.

This “something” would be something the old Adam, religious as he is in the ways of the law, could identify as such. The history of Christian worship can also be described as the attempt to cover up, make palatable to natural man the very gospel Christ established in an embarrassingly simple, “unreligious” way.

The bible never said the gospel would be, or should be, recognizable to natural man without the Spirit. It does say that the gospel in the humble forms in which Christ willed and instituted it would be foolishness to those without the Holy Spirit (cf. AE 5: 42-43; 36:336-337; 40:197, 258-259), that it would be known as gospel only by the Spirit working through that very gospel – that only the new man would know: While the external form is humble, simple, mundane, here the almighty, living God himself is at work, rescuing sinners from the depth of hell…..”

(pp. 36-37, bold mine, non-italicized words originally italicized)


Part III

Image, Jesus Christ Pantocrator (Detail from deesis mosaic) from Hagia Sophia: Wikipedia


Posted by on January 8, 2015 in Uncategorized


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More sanctification means more justification preaching

lutherpreachingchristThat’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Of course the opposite is true as well: more justification preaching means more sanctification.  But this statement needs to be qualified while the other one does not.

The fact of the matter is that all confessional Lutherans want Christ to be proclaimed.  And we want the message that God justifies the wicked in Christ to be heard more and more – and for failing Christians more and more.

That takes more sanctification.  And I think all of us know it.

I know people balk here, so please listen to what I recently told someone: when I make statements like “all of us judge some to be more holy than others” I am thinking about others, not myself.  I am a complete and total mess.  My pet sins and terrible attitude (I am the father of 5 boys under 10 and I don’t handle it very well, I think) disqualify me from any serious consideration of being highly sanctified.  I am not consistently driving old Adam out, in the power of the Holy Spirit, like I should be.  Somedays it is like I’m just a sleepwalking old Adam, permeated by original sin, unable to shake the bad attitudes and habits, and seemingly unable to look to God for help in overcoming the sin that seems to utterly possess me.

So what to say?  Perhaps this: Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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Posted by on July 23, 2013 in Uncategorized


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