Monday, November 30, 2009

Gospel without Law = Law

OK I should probably expound on this...

Law without Gospel = Law.

Gospel without Law = Law.

This is my shorthand way of expressing one of the dangers of an improper distinction of Law and Gospel.

C.F.W. Walther, the founder of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and an expert in Luther's teachings, said, "Paging through Scripture before we know the difference between Law and Gospel makes us think it contains nothing but contradictions, even more than the Koran" and, "properly to distinguish Law and Gospel is so difficult and such a high art for the preacher as a Christian. In fact, this is the greatest skill a human being can acquire."

So first, maybe some working definitions:

"Law" is that category of Scriptural teaching which shows us the rules. It tells us what to do and not to do. It shows us, also, that we fail - constantly - to measure up to God's perfect standard. It has to do with punishment. The Law is the "bad news" of Scripture. The Law shows us our sin, always.

"Gospel" is the category of Scriptural teaching which stands in opposition to the Law. The Gospel, strictly speaking, is the good news of Jesus Christ and all he has does for us. But chiefly it's about his death and resurrection to pay for our sins. This strict Gospel plays out into and is connected with many of the other "good news" passages and promises. But all those are, ultimately, rooted in Jesus and his saving work for us.

We Lutherans understand the extreme importance of maintaining both Law and Gospel in all our preaching and teaching. We take great pains to distinguish and divide them, exploring the relationship between these two great teachings of Scripture.

But some take no such care. Some even teach, falsely, that we should not carefully balance and maintain the tension between Law and Gospel.

Some tilt to the Law. We might call this "works righteousness" or "legalism". The good news of what Jesus has done for you is minimized, or not even mentioned. Jesus becomes an afterthought to the real business of what YOU need to DO. Taking Jesus out of our preaching and teaching makes Christianity into nothing more than a religion of the Law... just like every other false religion of man. For with the Law alone we cannot be saved.

But some tilt to the Gospel. And while Walther rightly states that the "Gospel should predominate", that doesn't mean we shouldn't preach the Law, and forcefully so. A particular abuse here is anti-nomianism, or a teaching that the Law doesn't matter, or that it shouldn't be preached. That Christians don't need to hear the bad news, the condemnation, the stinging rebuke of God's Law. It's too much of a "downer". Some seek to preach and teach "only the good news", and divorce Law from Gospel.

So now to my point: When you remove the Law, you are not simply left with Gospel. For the Gospel apart from the Law is meaningless. "Jesus has forgiven your sins" means nothing without you knowing that you are a sinner, or what sin is. It's a solution to a problem we wouldn't understand. We need both the diagnosis AND the cure. We need to be shown our sin, to know our sin, to know our forgiveness.

But it's worse than that. The Gospel without Law is not just meaningless; it changes. No one would preach a bunch of nonsense about forgiveness while the question begs, "forgiven for what?" No one would talk about Christ crucified for sinners when there's no need for such a thing. So in churches where the true preaching of the Law is absent - a preaching of the Law with an eye toward the Gospel - in those churches, the Gospel becomes something else.

If Jesus didn't come to forgive sins, because there's no law, and no sin.... then why did he come? As an example for me to follow? That's just more Law. That's telling me what to do. Or some make him into a new law-giver. "He shows us the law of love". He said, "Love your neighbor", "turn the other cheek". He told us to care for the poor and downtrodden. Jesus is about social justice! And so the lack of Law leaves us not with the Gospel - but a meaningless gospel. And guess what fills the vacuum? More Law!

Our sinful nature loves the law - in a way. And so anytime we can migrate to it, dwell upon it, our Old Adam is happy. But it's usually a warped law. A law that leaves us with a false sense of security. A law created in our own fashion just so that we can fulfill its demands. We convince ourselves, like the rich young man, "all these I have kept from my youth".

But a true view of the law leaves us in despair. It pulls our spiritual pants down and embarrasses us with our total helplessness. We can't save ourselves. We can't do anything right. We sin ALL THE TIME. Poor, miserable sinners.

And then, and only then, are we ready for the true Gospel. What unspeakable joy to go from the depths of the Law's despair to the heights of the Gospel's grand promises. We've all heard about people who have a close shave with death, or a terrible disease from which they recover. They have a "new lease on life". That's what happens, in spiritual terms, with Law and Gospel. Only when brought low by the Law can we be raised by the Gospel.

While Jesus certainly did speak the Law, and raised the bar in many ways, his main message was one of forgiveness for our sins. Jesus preached and taught BOTH Law and Gospel, too! So should his faithful pastors and teachers. So should his faithful church. So should his faithful people believe his words of both Law and Gospel, never compromising or diminishing either.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gospel Without Law

If you take away the Gospel, you have only the Law. (Legalism)

If you take away the Law (Anti-nomianism), you have only.... Law.

In other words, Gospel - Law = Law.


Sermon - Thanksgiving Day - Matthew 6:11

Thanksgiving Eve & Day – November 26/27, 2009
Matthew 6:11
“On Daily Bread”

Christians pray the Lord's Prayer as Jesus taught us to do. In that model prayer, we pray for many things – none of which we deserve. We pray that we may keep God's name holy, that his will is done in our lives, that his kingdom would come. We pray for forgiveness of trespasses, for strength amidst temptation and deliverance from evil. But we also have this little petition we'll concentrate on today. “Give us this day our daily bread”

We've already read aloud Martin Luther's brief explanation from the Catechism, “What does this mean? - God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people,but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving”.

And then he goes on to define daily bread including “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body”. Or to put it another way, all our physical blessings.

As I've discussed this petition with various people over the years, I find that many who think of daily bread think first about The Lord's Supper. The bread that is also Christ's body in the sacrament. And while it's true that God gives us this bread freely and it is a great gift – here in the Lord's Prayer we're talking about the broad category of physical, earthly blessings – the “Things” God gives us every day.

It's worth taking some time to stop and count these blessings. It's good to set aside a day for Thanksgiving. But it's better to be thankful every day. Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, to recognize that God blesses us richly – first of all with daily bread.

Some people would forget that's it's God who gives it. Our sinful perspective warps our understanding of God's gifts. We think we've earned them, that we deserve them. That I have good things in life because I am good. If we have a nice house or car or job, if we achieve some great task or possess some great talent – we feel it's because we are something special, and God must be rewarding us in kind. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Luther makes it clear. Daily bread is a gift. That means it is given, not earned. If we deserved or earn it, it would be a wages. And the only time Scripture talks about our wages – it's the wages of sin we deserve – death. Punishment – temporal and eternal. That's the daily debt of sin we incur. That's the tab we run with all our sinful and corrupt actions and thoughts and words.

Thanks be to God, first and foremost, that he doesn't count our sins against us, or treat us as we deserve! Because of Jesus Christ, the great redeemer, we are given what we DON'T deserve – the riches of his grace! Salvation! Forgiveness! Life – temporal and eternal! Because of his bloody self-sacrifice on the cross, we have the ultimate reason to give thanks! We have abundant spiritual bread for the hunger of our souls – our thirst for righteousness is quenched and we are sustained by him. But there's even more!

God's mercy and grace is so abundant that he adds to all this physical blessings – even for the wicked. Yes, the non-Christian, the unbeliever who lives and breathes and eats – does so only by the mercy of God. Their lives depend on him too. They don't know the hand that feeds them, but we do. The same hand that created and sustains us all – and feeds us daily bread.

Here, as he teaches us to pray for daily bread, Jesus also teaches us to trust. To trust him, and the Father, to care for us always. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus gives the Lord's Prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mt. Where he also teaches us not to worry:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is note life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

These may be hard words for us to hear in times like these. When the economy is uncertain at best. When people lose their jobs, or have pay cuts. When it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet – our natural sinful reaction is to worry. How will I pay those bills? When will things get better? Will our family ever recover? How can Jesus say, “do not be anxious”?

Trust. Trust in his promises. Work, yes. But don't worry. Labor but do not be anxious. God will provide your daily bread. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”.

Oh it may not be easy. Jesus acknowledges that today may bring trouble. He knows it well. He lived an earthly human life. He knew poverty and temptation and hunger and thirst. And yet, God provided for him. And God will provide, does provide, for you.
Look at the birds of the field and the lilies of the field. God provides for them. Look at the evil and wicked people of the world, even those who hate God. God provides for them. So you, his child, don't you see, won't you trust, that God will provide for you?

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not along with him graciously give us all good things?

God knows what you need. He's your loving heavenly Father. And he blesses you according to His grace, in his time, for his purposes. Not only the spiritual, but also the physical.

No, it's not that if you pray hard enough, or trust deeply enough, or do enough good works that he will provide what you want. But he will provide for you what you need, according to his grace. Just because he's good.

Faith which clings to these promises is also thankful. What's the opposite of anxiety? It just might be contentment. What's the opposite of greed? It just might be gratitude. The recognition that God gives us daily bread, brings about in us, an attitude of gratitude. We know and trust and believe and recognize the giver of all good things. From the grand spiritual blessings of eternity, to the mundane and minuscule – the daily bread. Give thanks for daily bread, be content. And trust in the giver of all Good things, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 13:1-13

Pentecost 24 – November 15h, 2009
Mark 13:1-13
“Seeing the Signs”

Hollywood is at it again. There's a new movie called 2012, and it taps into the apocalyptic fears of end-of-the-world disaster. Maybe you've seen the previews: explosions, earthquakes, buildings collapsing and people narrowly escaping the destruction.

Much of the hype surrounding such events comes from what the Bible teaches about the end of days. Jesus himself spoke of the end times frequently, as in our text today. But we must rightly understand his teaching on it – teaching which speaks both terrifying law, and comforting Gospel for those who have ears to hear.

The disciples were awestruck by the beauty and grandeur of Herod's magnificent temple. It was considered a wonder of the world – huge marble stones, precious metals, elegant decor. One of the disciples makes an offhand comment about how it was all so impressive, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus uses this as an opportunity to teach, and to prepare the disciples (and us) about the end.

“Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus minces no words, sugarcoats nothing when he tells of the destruction that is to come. He surely spoke of the doom that was at hand for the city of Jerusalem. For just 40 or so years later, the Romans would come and lay siege to the city in a terrible war that would leave the Jewish people decimated and their beloved Jerusalem destroyed. Even the mighty temple would be brought down, never to be rebuilt again. But that's just the beginning.

Jesus tells of wars, earthquakes and famines. Natural and man-made disasters. Surely each will bring its share of suffering and woe. Surely each will seem like the end of the world to those involved. But these are just the beginning.

He goes on to describe the persecution the church will face from the enemies of the faith. Beaten in the synagogues by Jewish opponents, dragged before Gentile governors – tried and convicted for believing in Jesus. Already in the New Testament we see these events unfolding, as the infant church faced martyrdom and persecution. Even within families, Christians will be accused and abused by those who are against Christ.

But it got worse, and it's still getting worse. There have been wars somewhere in the world almost every year in history. We still have quakes and tsunamis, hurricane Katrina, famines, diseases, economic crisis, terrorism and the war on it.

And the claim is made that in the 20th century more Christians were martyred – killed for their faith – than in all the previous centuries combined. And that kind of persecution continues.

Looking at the signs, we can see Jesus is right. The creation is in birth pains. And like a woman in labor, the pains get worse closer to the end.

We know some of those pains in our own lives. Sometimes on the grand scale, sometimes on the small scale. But all of life's troubles and disasters are used by God to call us to repentance. They are reminders that sin and death are non trifling matters. Seeing the signs of the times, signs of the end, reminds us that there is a conclusion to this world, and without Christ we would be lost to the destruction.

But there's also good news in Jesus' teaching about th end. He says the Gospel will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. That's happening here today. Right here at Grace, and in so many Christian congregations – every Sunday – the message of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners is proclaimed. We hear again and again how his blood covers us, his sacrifice atones for us. With his stripes we are healed. We proclaim and teach and preach that his life and death and resurrection are the basis for our salvation – and though we can do nothing to earn it, though we don't deserve it, his love, mercy and forgiveness are a free gift of God's grace.

This message, this sweet comfort of knowing God sent Jesus for you and that because of Jesus, you are right with God – this good news is also a sign of the times. It is a sign of God's love for us. It is a sign reminding us to stand firm in the faith, throughout all the chaos that may surround us. In the midst of disasters natural and man-made, the Christian has the comfort of the Gospel. In the midst of persecution and trial, we have the sure word of God on which to stand.

The impressive temple was a spectacle for the disciples, but it was nothing compared to the destruction Jesus foresaw. But even that destruction, even as we live through it in part or in whole, is nothing compared to the treasure of the Gospel. For this promise is given by our Lord, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” There is a hope and promise for us, God's people, in Jesus Christ. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Salvation awaits us.

By ourselves we cannot hope to endure. All the disaster and persecution and trouble would be too much for us. But we have God's promises that he will never leave us or forsake us, that he is with us always, and that his power is made perfect in weakness.

By ourselves we cannot know what to even say, but Jesus encourages his disciples that they will be given the words, that the Spirit will speak for them. Today it is much the same. We do well to rely on the words of the Spirit – written for us in Holy Scripture. When we speak and live by God's words, we have trustworthy words indeed.

So let Hollywood make its spectacles of destruction and disaster. We know we are secure, no matter what trouble comes. The signs are all around us. But we know our salvation is sure in Christ. And let all the wonders of this world, the spectacles of man's greatness, be kept in their place – for when it all comes tumbling down, faith remains. The Word of God remains. And in Jesus Christ, we will remain, forever. Amen.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Stand Firm on BRTFSSG

Scott Diekmann has an excellent post on the LCMS BRTFSSG proposals. These are the proposals for changing the structure and governance of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod which will be put forward at the 2010 convention.

Stand Firm should be required reading for all 2010 LCMS convention delegates!

"Remnant" Diagram

Have you seen this helpful little diagram? I took it out of the CTCR report on Eschatology, from the LCMS website.

"Close Enough" Communion

Paul McCain has an extensive post regarding the LCMS' historical practice of Closed Communion.

I added the following comment:

Quite common in our LCMS are the churches that practice a form of open communion which goes something like:

As long as you can agree with this statement:
(Apostles Creed)
(Something about the Real Presence)
(Sometimes something about being "Lutheran")
then you are welcome to commune....

People who support this type of practice are vehemently opposed to denominational membership holding any sway in the question of who may commune. They sometimes sarcastically refer to an "LCMS ID card".

Granted, this is a "closer" communion than the ELCA's "Y'all come", or "If you commune at your church you are welcome here" or sometimes "Baptized Christians". But it's still not what the LCMS officially teaches and has historically practiced.

I'd call the alternate LCMS approach "Close as in Close Enough" communion. Many call it "Open". Many who practice it call it "Close" or "Close(d)". But it is the main reason I prefer the term "Closed" for the historical and on-paper position of the LCMS.

I'm curious where this alternate, yet very common LCMS approach (that I described above) comes from. Does anyone know where or how?

Sermon - Pentecost 23 - Hebrews 9:24-28

Pentecost 23 – November 8th, 2009
Hebrews 9:24-28
“A Great High Priest”

Some people seem to think that sin and forgiveness are just words. That they are ideas or concepts which are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant, even if they ever applied. For the unbeliever, God's law doesn't matter – each is a law unto himself. And so forgiveness doesn't matter, because sin's not a problem.

And let's face it, even we Christians sometimes act as if we feel the same way. We act like sin's not something that matters, at least not all that much. Sure nobody's perfect, but no big deal right? Our reading from Hebrews today might make us think differently.

We don't know exactly who wrote the New Testament book of Hebrews. But we do know it was a letter written to Christians of a Jewish background. They would have been familiar with the priesthood of the Levites, the sacrificial system from the time of Moses, and all that went along with it.

Once a year, the High Priest would enter the holiest part of the Tabernacle. Only the High Priest could enter, and only once a year. And as he brought the blood of an animal which had been sacrificed, he would sprinkle it on the Ark of the Covenant. All this he did as a representative, on behalf of the people. And all this was according to God's instructions, by the way.

So what was the point of all this? And what does this all have to do with you and me, who aren't ancient Israelites? Nor are we Jewish Christians from the first century. But we have one thing in common with them – the need for forgiveness, atonement, someone to make satisfaction for our sin.

None of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was by accident. God was very specific in his instructions on what was to be done, and when, and how. It was, first of all, a way he provided the people to deal with their sins – to have the assurance that their sins were atoned for. Those sacrifices and rituals weren't just for show – they really counted! God so promised.

But they were more. They pointed to more. They were a foreshadowing of something and someone greater which was to come. Something more perfect and fulfilled. The priests, the sacrifices, the Tabernacle, the Day of Atonement... all of these were shadows of the salvation of God that came in Jesus Christ.

The book of Hebrews goes to great lengths to show us that Christ is the great High Priest. He is the fulfillment and apex of all priesthoods. He makes the best and the most perfect sacrifice. A once-and-for-all-time shedding of his blood, a laying down of his life, for all the sins that ever were or would be.

That Day of Atonement was a shadow of what was to come. When the REAL High Priest would enter the true heaven (as Jesus is now ascended there for us). And before God, he makes his case for us – he shows God the basis for our salvation. It's not the blood of a goat or a bull, but his own blood.

No we're not ancient Israelites or early Jewish Christians, but we have the same problem of sin, and the same solution in Jesus. They could no more approach God without a mediator than we can. They needed a go-between, an intercessor. But even the High Priest could only do what he did on the basis of the coming Christ. All the blood of beasts, all the rites of priests, it all pointed forward to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Any forgiveness they enjoyed was won at the cross of Christ, and so too for us.

You see, Jesus is the center of all history, of all Holy Scripture, and of God's perfect plan for our salvation. The creation was made through him, redeemed by him, and will one day answer to him. We confess in the creeds that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It's why all this business of sin and forgiveness really matters. There will be a final judgment day, and woe to those whose sins are counted against them! God doesn't simply look the other way when it comes to sin. There is blood to be paid in this serious business. And for those that reject the free gift of Christ's blood, they have only their own to pay – eternal punishment and separation from God awaits. God does not mess around with sin, he is deadly serious about it.

But, we read here in Hebrews that, “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” There are no second chances on that judgment day. Jesus has already dealt with sin. But for us who receive his gifts in faith, for the believer, his day of return is a day to eagerly anticipate. There is no fear for us whose debts have been paid, whose sins have been forgiven, for whom only life and victory await.

Sin brings death. And death comes once. For Christ, and for us. He died once for all, and we will die once in him. But just as he lives and reigns to all eternity, so too is our day of resurrection on its way, and our eternal life in him assured.

What a comfort to know that our great High Priest has shed his own blood to make us right before God. What a blessing to know that our Great High Priest has fulfilled all requirements of sacrifice by his own perfect death on Calvary. What a hope we have in his resurrection – that we too will conquer death through him, and live and reign with him for eternity. And what a promise that he will return at the appointed time to make it so, when his day of final salvation arrives, when he comes again in glory, and brings us home.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Sermon - All Saints' Day - Rev. 7:9-17

All Saints' Day – November 1st , 2009
Revelation 7:9-17
“All the Sinners and Saints”

Greetings in Christ, you saints of God. Children of God. Redeemed of God – holy people. Saints. Not of yourselves, but in Jesus Christ. We are all saints. And this All Saints' day, we follow in the long tradition of Christians who have recognized this, as well as remembered all the saints that have gone before us. Here at Grace, we toll the chimes for the dead in Christ who have gone before us this past year. We sing songs about the faithful of generations past. And we think about the glories of heaven, when on the last day we are all reunited with the Lord and with each other.

Revelation 7 helps us to do this. If you sat down to read through the first six chapters of John's vision, you would have just finished a terrifying description of the 7 seals, and of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. War and bloodshed, famine and pestilence, and persecution of the saints. Pretty much all of the things that scare the socks off of people in the book of Revelation have just been described.

And in a sense it should scare us – for trouble and suffering are what we deserve as sinners. There's a part of us that always fears that we will be exposed as the frauds that we are. The thought that we will have to face God's wrath – that He will finally have enough of us sinners and our wickedness, that he will come in judgment and make us all pay. Many people, many Christians, read Revelation like a sort of Halloween scare story, or refuse to read it at all because they are so terrified by such thoughts.

Still, these visions are not meant to terrify us. They are more of a description of what troubles we already have. It's a vision of all the calamity and trouble that the church has faced, still faces, and always will face living in a sinful, fallen world. It's as if Jesus is saying to us, his people, “I know what it's like. I know how when a loved one dies it feels like the end of the world. I know what it's like to have your friends desert you and betray you. To be accused falsely. To hunger and thirst, to be imprisoned and reviled. I know when you suffer, and fear, and face persecution – for I faced it all too. I know what you're going through”

We are living in the end times, already, right now – also called, “the great tribulation”. We know is that there will be increasing trouble in these times – as Paul compares creation to a woman groaning in labor pains – and this trouble will continue until our Lord comes again to rescue us. And he will.

But let's not forget that there's more to the story. There's more to the vision of Revelation. God's word to us is not, finally, a word of judgment, but of mercy, salvation, and peace.

Through all of the troubles and plagues, God protects his people. And so we get to chapter 7, where a beautiful and comforting vision greets us – the great multitude in white. “These are they that have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. These are all the saints in glory. These are all those who have been cleansed and forgiven, made just and righteous by the blood of the Lamb – Jesus Christ our great sacrifice.

Here is a picture of the church and the angels in the final kingdom of glory! Here is a wonderful and powerful vision of the final and unending triumphal victory song. Here we meet “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” and “laud and magnify His glorious name”. Here the singing of praises never ends.

God does not hold our sins against us, or make us pay for them. He doesn't punish us as we deserve, or smite and strike us as he could. Jesus took all the punishment. He paid the debt. He was striken, smitten, afflicted, for us. He sacrificed himself, the perfect Lamb of God without spot or blemish. He shed his holy, precious blood to redeem us. Our robes, even our very souls, are washed clean and lily white in that blood. A striking paradox that red could make white – but no more than that life comes by death.

So look into that great multitude of white-robed saints, and see your believing loved ones who have died but live eternally. Look and see the saints of old – Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Moses and Aaron, David and Solomon. The Apostles and Prophets, our forefathers in the faith – Martin Luther, C.F.W. Walther, Herman Bartz and Gerald Martin. Look and see those who have gone to be with the Lord this very year from our congregation....

And look and see yourself. For one day you will join that great crowd in victory and celebration. One day you'll be waving a palm branch and singing a new song of praise to the Lamb who was slain. In fact, that song has already begun here on Earth. We anticipate the final celebration each time we sing, “This is the feast” and each time we come to the Lord's table, “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven”.

And what a beautiful promise, that there in His presence, God's people are free of suffering and pain, and God himself wipes every tear from their eyes. From our eyes.

We are all sinners. We all deserve the plagues of Revelation and more. But we are all saints. Made clean and holy by the blood of the lamb, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.