Reflections on the Proclamation of the Gospel and the Reformation

The Reformation of the Church, ignited in 1517 by Martin Luther’s posting of the Theses on Indulgences, is and always has been about the proclamation of the pure Gospel as set forth in sacred Scripture.  The “Treasury of Daily Prayer,” from Concordia Publishing House had as part of the readings for today a paragraph from Martin Luther’s sermon on John 1:29 – Behold the Lamb of God.  The pure Gospel, as Lutherans and orthodox Christendom proclaims it – we have strayed from time to time from this proclamation – is and always has been Christ and Him crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.  It is not an intellectual concept that can be grasped by man with his own faculties.  Instead it is something that can only be received by faith, for faith, through faith.  For Christ draws us into His story of the cross.  His story becomes our story.  His life, our life.  His death, our death.  His resurrection, ours too.  His freedom, our freedom.  For if the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.  It is our eternal hope, and a promise to which must cling.  It is Christ Himself.

I give thanks to God for the faithful who have gone before us to pave the way for the freedom we have in Christ.  He gives His saints the courage to stand before kings and princes, in the face of great persecution to bear witness to the hope we have in Christ.  I give thanks to God that He used Martin Luther “to hatch the egg that Erasmus laid,” and I pray that you do too.  If you have not read any of Luther’s sermons, you should.  Do not form your opinions of Lutherans on any crass opinions you have heard about Luther’s physical infirmities, or other fantastic insights into his psyche.  Instead, read what he has to say for he points to Christ.

In the Sermon on John 1:29, Luther reflects on John’s proclamation of the Christ who approached the river Jordan to be baptized:  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Here Luther gives the Gospel, the pure Gospel proclamation of Christ:

May you ever cherish and treasure this thought. Christ is made a servant of sin, yea, a bearer of sin, and the lowliest and most despised person. He destroys all sin by Himself and says: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). There is no greater bondage than that of sin; and there is no greater service than that displayed by the Son of God, who becomes the servant of all, no matter how poor, wretched, or despised they may be, and bears their sins. It would be spectacular and amazing, prompting all the world to open ears and eyes, mouth and nose in uncomprehending wonderment, if some king’s son were to appear in a beggar’s home to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth, and do everything else the beggar would have to do. Would this not be profound humility? Any spectator or any beneficiary of this honor would feel impelled to admit that he had seen or experienced something unusual and extraordinary, something magnificent. But what is a king or an emperor compared with the Son of God? Furthermore, what is a beggar’s filth or stench compared with the filth of sin which is ours by nature, stinking a hundred thousand times worse and looking infinitely more repulsive to God than any foul matter found in a hospital? And yet the love of the Son of God for us is of such magnitude that the greater the filth and stench of our sins, the more He befriends us, the more He cleanses us, relieving us of all our misery and of the burden of all our sins and placing them upon His own back. All the holiness of the monks stinks in comparison with this service of Christ, the fact that the beloved Lamb, the great Man, yes, the Son of the Exalted Majesty, descends from heaven to serve me.

Such benefactions of God might well provoke us to love and to laud God and to celebrate this service in song and sermon and speech. It should also induce us to die willingly and to remain cheerful in all suffering. For how amazing it is that the Son of God becomes my servant, that He humbles Himself so, that He cumbers Himself with my misery and sin, yes, with the sin and the death of the entire world! He says to me: “You are no longer a sinner, but I am. I am your substitute. You have not sinned, but I have. The entire world is in sin. However, you are not in sin; but I am. All your sins are to rest on Me and not on you.” No one can comprehend this. In yonder life our eyes will feast forever on this love of God. And who would not gladly die for Christ’s sake? The Son of Man performs the basest and filthiest work. He does not don some beggar’s torn garment or old trousers, nor does He wash us as a mother washes a child; but He bears our sin, death, and hell, our misery of body and soul. Whenever the devil declares: “You are a sinner!” Christ interposes: “I will reverse the order; I will be a sinner, and you are to go scotfree.” Who can thank our God enough for this mercy?

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 22 : Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Jn 1:29). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House (1999).

The Duties of a Local Congregation

19th-century photograph of a young CFW Walther...
Image via Wikipedia

If you have ever wondered what the function of the local church or congregation is, we have the answer.  CFW Walther, first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, wrote a piece entitled “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State.”  In it he notes that each congregation has six duties as follows:

Of the Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Local Church Independent of the State

6. It is the duty of the congregation carefully to see to it that the Word of God may richly dwell and have full and free scope in its midst. Col. 3:16: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly,” etc.

7. It is the duty of the congregation to care for the purity of doctrine and life in its midst and to exercise church discipline in these matters. Matt. 18:15-18: ‘If thy brother shall trespass against thee, . . . let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” Rom. 16:17: “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them.” 1 Cor. 5:1-13: “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? . . . Put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” 1 Cor.6:1-8; 2 Cor.2:6-11. Gal. 6:1: “restore such an one in the spirit of meekness.” 1 Thess. 5:14; 2 Thess. 3:6,14,15. 2 John 10,11: “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed,” etc.

8. It is the duty of the congregation to concern itself also with the temporal welfare of all its members that they may not suffer want of the necessaries of life nor be forsaken in any need. Gal.6:10: “Let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Deut. 15:4. Rom. 12:13: “Distributing to the necessity of saints.” Gal. 2:9,10; Jas. 1 :27; 1 Thess. 4:11,12.

9. It is the duty of the congregation to see that in its midst “all things be done decently and in order,” 1 Cor. 14:33, 40, and to “provide for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord but also in the sight of men,” 2 Cor. 8:21. Col. 2:5.

10. It is the duty of the congregation to be diligent “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” also with all parts of the orthodox Church, Eph. 4:3; 1 Thess. 4:9,10; Rom. 15:26, 27; 2 Cor. 8:19.

11. It is also incumbent upon the congregation to do its part in building up and promoting the welfare of the Church at large. Amos 6:6; Acts 11:21-23 (“Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem; and they sent forth Barnabas that he should go as far as Antioch,” etc.); 15:18.

The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation, by Dr. CFW Walther, translated by Dr. Th. Engelder, from “Walther and the Church” by Dau, Engelder and Dallman, (1938 Concordia Publishing House).   The full text of the theses can be found at the following website:  http://www.reclaimingwalther.org/articles/cfw00005.htm

Simple, Scriptural, to the Pointe.  Every local congregation has the responsibility to   Continue reading “The Duties of a Local Congregation”

Recovering the Lost Symbols of the Church — Holy Cross Day

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 marks the celebration of Holy Cross Day in the church.  Sadly, across Christendom, we are abandoning our symbols and reinventing ourselves so as not to offend those outside the church.  Campus Crusade for Christ dropped “Christ” from its name because research showed that 9% of Christians and 20% of non-Christians were offended or alienated by the name of Christ.  His NAME was getting in the way of accomplishing their mission.  Christ Community Church in Spring Lake Michigan removed its cross and changed its name to C3 Exchange to be more inclusive.  Click here to read the story and see the video of the cross being removed.  The cross, according to C3’s pastor, has become a negative symbol for people.  He compared to the church’s use of the cross to remember the work of Christ akin to using a bullet to remember Martin Luther King, Jr.  A British church removed a 10 foot tall crucifix from the outside of its building a couple of years ago because it was scaring young children.  It was considered a horrifying depiction of pain and suffering and putting people off.  You can read the story here.

It used to be that we proudly displayed the symbols of our Faith.  Often these symbols draw us closer to the Faith and the story of the cross.  That is how the Feast of the Holy Cross began for the church.  It is traced back to Helena, mother of Constantine the Great who made it safe and legal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire.  His mother was a devout Christian.  Around 320 A. D., Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to recover the holy sites of Christendom.  She began an excavation around the site of what she believed to be the tomb of Christ.  It was rumored that the true cross had been buried in a ditch.  One of the few people who are said to have known exactly where the cross was buried, a man named Judas, coincidentally, was inspired to point the location out to Helena.  Not one, but three crosses were found in the excavation.  Pilate’s inscription was not on any of the crosses.  To determine the true cross, people who were sick were brought to the crosses to touch them.  It is said that when they touched what was believed to be the true cross, they were made well.  One report states that a dead man was brought back to life.  Upon this discovery, Helena commissioned the construction of the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands in that spot to this day.  Holy Cross Day was instituted as a Feast Day in the church to commemorate the dedication of the Holy Sepulchre which is said to have occurred on September 14, 335 A. D.

There was a time during the course of Christian history when our symbols, our heritage inspired us to do great things.  They moved Helena to find the holy spots where Christ walked and lived and mark them for all time.  To this day what she did lives on and provides us with the opportunity to visit places where God Himself incarnate walked the earth, where He lived, and where He died. Certainly, pious superstitions and cult like rituals and observances grew up around the stories of our holy symbols and have littered the path through time.  Yet there is fact that anchors these stories, and makes them timeless.  That fact is the fulcrum around which all of human history turns:  Jesus Christ, God’s one and only Son, became flesh and blood like you and me, lived on this earth, died on a cross, and rose from the dead.

The Cross will always be a scandal for humanity, the worst scandal in history.  For with the bloody Cross, we physically nailed the Christ to a piece of wood and killed the God of the universe.  One cannot deny that death is man’s reality, for it is certain that this life on this earth will end one day.  Yet for the Christian, the True Christian, the Cross is our reality.  For it is there that God meets man in death.  The Son of God died in the flesh and, in that death, unites our flesh to His, leading us into life eternal.  The Cross is and always will be the symbol of Christianity, defining who and what we are.

There are NO Seekers in the Church

A couple of months ago I posted an article entitled “Do We Miss the Point of Worship?  Is it for Seekers and Evangelism?” I have been thinking about that article quite a bit lately in the context of the worship life of the church. Seekers are generally thought to be unchurched persons who have a desire for things spiritual.  They know there is something more, they are just trying to find it.  They are said to be seeking God, looking for Him.  We are told that our services need to be user friendly, non-threatining, not offensive, and accessible so that unchurched visitors — seekers — will not be turned off to our message and will return.  Listening to an Internet radio program the other day — Chris Rosebrough on Pirate Christian Radio —  the commentator observed that there are no seekers in the church.  As the basis for this statement, he referred to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 3:9-12:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one; 
 no one understands; 
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

Paul quotes Psalms 14 and 53 here, for the proposition that no one seeks for God, that we have all turned aside, becoming worthless, pursuing what pleases us.  This recognition that there is no one who seeks after God, therefore, has ancient authority as the Psalmists attest.  Paul says elsewhere in Ephesians that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Continue reading “There are NO Seekers in the Church”

Christ in King Ahab of Israel — Sermon from Rev. Jonathan Fisk

I have become a sermon junkie of late, seeking out good preaching to fill in quiet times.  Preaching that tells us the whole story of God — the law and the Gospel — wrapped up in Christ.  A couple of week’s ago, my wife shared a sermon from Rev. Jonathan Fisk of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania with me on 1 Kings 22.  This is an example of expository preaching on a particular text, preaching that is designed to draw out the meaning of particular passages of scripture and throw a clearer light on the meaning of the passage.

In this text, Ahab of the northern tribes of Israel meets with Jehoshophat, King of Judah to talk about joining forces to go to war with Syria to take back the land of Ramoth-gilead.  Before doing so, Jehoshophat tells Ahab to inquire of the Lord whether they should do this or not.  Ahab gathers his gaggle of prophets together, 400 of them, and they all support the king and his plan.  One prophet is left out, Michaiah, because he does not tell Ahab what he wants to hear.  This sets up an interaction between the false prophets of Ahab and the true prophet of God, Michaiah.  Michaiah tells Ahab that he will be killed in battle.  What makes this sermon so compelling is that it takes you where you do not expect.  Normally, you would think that the lesson to be learned here is listen to the Word of God and do what it says.  Ahab did not listen to God’s Word given through the prophet, he was killed in battle, and the northern tribes were thrown in disarray.  Ahab listened to false teachers who led him astray, therefore, beware of false teachers.  Not so fast.  Rev. Fisk takes the listener through the story straight to Christ and shows how Ahab — yes Ahab — and Micaiah prefigure or are types of Christ in this story.  The layers to Scripture are deeper than we can ever imagine.  Scripture is broader than we can conceive.  But it all, in the end, talks about that one thing needful, Jesus Christ.  Click the link below to listen to the Sermon, you will not be disappointed.

Pentecost 6 — 1 Kings 22

Lutheran Satire and Creative Evangelism Strategies — Mixed Martial Arts?

Pr. Hans Fienes has a great satire on creative evangelism and outreach ideas.  The MMA outreach activity has been done before.  There is a with MMA apparel called Jesus Didn’t Tap.  This stuff is out there just be aware.  Check out the Lutheran Satire video:

The Gospel is For Proclamation By YOU and ME

“Where Christ is not preached, there is no Holy Spirit to create, call, and gather the Christian church, apart from which no one can come to the Lord Christ.” Large Catechism II.45 (Kolb/Wengert, 436)

“Wherever there is God’s Word, no matter whether it is in Baptism, in Absolution, in the Sacrament [Lord’s Supper] there God Himself speaks to us. In the Absolution, He Himself absolves us from [our] sins. In the Sacrament or the Lord ’s Supper, Christ Himself feeds us with His body and blood. We thus have God’s Word in the church, indeed, in the home. Whenever the pastor speaks to us in the church or the father in the house, then God Himself speaks to us.” Luther, sermon on Luke 18:31-43 (1534). Quoted in J.T. Mueller, “Notes on Luther’s Conception of the Word of God as the Means of Grace” in CTM 20 (August 1949), 588.

“The Lutheran assertion that…preaching, in so far as it is Lutheran preaching, is God’s own speech to men, is very difficult to maintain in practice. Instead, it is very easy to slip into the idea that preaching is only speech about God. Such a slip, once made gradually alters the picture of God, so that he becomes the far-off deistic God who is remote from the preached word and is only spoken about as we speak about someone who is absent.”

Gustav Wingren, The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1960), 19.

“It is remarkable that during his sojourn in Corinth, Paul was day and night wrestling with the problem how to bring Christ into people’s heart and how to lay a solid foundation for their faith in Christ and their joy in Him. Jesus Christ was the marrow and substance of all his preaching, the golden thread that ran through all his sermons.” C.F.W. Walther, 39th Evening Lecture in Law and Gospel (CPH, 1929), 405.

Quotes taken from Faithful and Afire, Participant’s Guide, Rev. Dr. Peter Nafzger, www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=1161.

I am amazed at the excuses we make for not using words, more specifically, THE WORD, to proclaim the Gospel.  I have heard it said, “I do not know the Bible as well as others do.”  Or, “I am not a good speaker.”  Or, “Evangelism is not my ‘Spiritual gift.'”  Or, “I am not a preacher.”  Or, “We just need to model Christ, be a good example.”  The apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!”  He also writes to the Romans:

“For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”  But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  Romans 10:5-17, ESV.

This faith that we are given, this faith that we live is more than simple belief and trust.  That is what it is in its most basic form.  Yet this faith is more than simple belief and trust, it is living, breathing.  It is made alive by the very Word of Christ.  In us, it is like the mustard seed that, although it is the tiniest seed of the garden plants, grows to be the biggest.  Not because of any work or obedience on my part, but because of the working of the Word that quickens my soul.  So it is with the Word of God that is sown in us, it produces tremendous yields of fruit working in and through us.  It is the Word acting, working, producing yield beyond our wildest imaginations.

This Word is not just in our hearts so that we can be an example for others.  It is, as Paul says, in our mouth — your mouth, my mouth.  Ezekiel and St. John give us pictures of eating scrolls containing the Word of God, something that we can chew, taste, ingest, absorb.  But the Word is placed in our mouth, not simply for our own personal benefit, to nourish only me — the Gospel must be proclaimed.   It is the Word of faith that we proclaim.  We confess — that is we, publicly declare, praise, give thanks, declare, speak with another to a reasoned conclusion — with our mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Greek — and I am no scholar — always seems to have a deeper connotation than our English.  This confessing is more than simply saying I believe.  It is coming together with another person and speaking to them the Good News of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.  For if the Gospel is not spoken to another, they cannot hear, and so cannot receive the faith that comes from Christ.

But you say, I can lead a godly life and provide a Christ-like example for others.  They will know Jesus, by seeing the Jesus in me.  All I need to do is share the love of Jesus with others, and those who are speakers will do the rest.  God will take care of that.  We must, certainly, lead a godly life and be an example for others — our actions must show that we are followers of Christ.  A good tree bears fruit, while a bad tree bears no fruit or, even worse, bad fruit.  But our deeds MUST match our confession — there must be a profession of the faith we have been given.

Christ Himself tells us that we must proclaim Him before this world.  In Matthew 10, He speaks of persecution that will come to His followers.  He tells us that we will be called to bear witness of HIM before this world, its kings, princes, and rulers.  Our Lord tells us not to worry about what to say, that we will be given the words at that time.  If He promises to give us words to speak when we are called before great and mighty people, how much more so will He give us words to speak to the least of this world?  Do not be afraid, speak Christ!  Proclaim the Gospel!  A city on a hill cannot be hidden;  do not put the light of the Gospel under a bushel!  It is meant to be seen!  Christ issues a stern warning to those who would hide Him, when He has made Himself known to us:  “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”  Matthew 10:32-33, ESV.

Hide who you are, who Christ has called you to be, remove references to Scripture in your print materials, provide a different face than who you claim to be at your core, and you are hiding Christ.  You are, in effect, denying Him before men.  Whatever the reason — marketing decision, attempt to appeal to the world, self-preservation, not a good speaker, more of a behind the scenes person — there is a deception involved when dealing with others.  More importantly, there is a failure to trust in the God who comes to you in your Baptism, and in the very Word we are called to proclaim.  Just as you do not get the full import of God’s saving message by reading only bits and pieces, for the Gospel encompasses all of God’s story (you cannot have the Law without the Gospel), so too the Christian life is not complete without confessing Christ before men, sharing the Word verbally with others.  Moses was not a good speaker and God found a way to use him and his voice.  But what if he only led by example?  What if Moses never proclaimed the salvation of Israel before Pharaoh?  Better yet, what if Jesus said nothing?  No, the good news is always proclaimed before men by divine imperative.  God’s Word never returns to Him void, in spite of our attempts to circumvent His plan for us.

The next time you are tempted to make an excuse as to why YOU cannot share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, why you can only be an example by sharing the love of Christ, remember our Savior’s parting words to us:  “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”