More than Forgiveness

From Luther’s Epistle Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter (1 Peter 2:11–20):

We have heard above that the two parts are to be together in a Christian and emphasized in Christan teaching. The first part is faith, that we are redeemed from sin through the blood of Christ and have forgiveness. The second part, after we have [faith], is that afterward we should become different people and live a new life. In Baptism, or when we begin to believe, we receive not only the forgiveness of sins (which is the grace that makes us God’s children) but also the gift that must do away with the remaining sins and kill them. Our sins are not forgiven so that we would continue in them (as St. Paul says in Romans 6), as the insolent spirits and despisers of grace allege. Rather, even though sins have been blotted out through Christ’s blood, so that we do not need to pay or make amends for them, and we now are children of grace and have forgiveness, yet that does not mean sin has been entirely done away with and killed in us.

The forgiveness of sins and the killing of them are two different things. Both of them must be proclaimed against those who confuse and turn things upside down with false doctrine. Against the first, the pope and many others have taught that the forgiveness of sins is to be obtained through the trickery of their own self-chosen and invented works and their own satisfactions. This error always continues in the world from Cain at the beginning to the end. Then, when this error has been put down, there are again false spirits on the other isde, who have heard the preaching about grace and boast about it and yet produce nothing more from it, just as if that were enough, and forgiveness should do nothing more in us than that we remain as we were before. Afterward, there were just as many as before, when we still knew nothing at all about Christ and the Gospel.

Therefore, those who want to be Christians must know and learn that, since they have obtained forgiveness without their own merit, they must from now on not allow or indulge in sin, but rather oppose their former, evil, sinful lusts and avoid and flee their work and fruits. That is the summary and meaning of this Epistle reading.

Luther’s Works, Vol. 78: Church Postil III (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), 154–155

The entire Gospel embodied and presented to us

Grunewald: LambTherefore also it is vain talk when they say that the body and blood of Christ are not given and shed for us in the Lord’s Supper, hence we could not have forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament. For although the work is accomplished and the forgiveness of sins acquired on the cross, yet it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word. For what would we otherwise know about it, that such a thing was accomplished or was to be given us if it were not presented by preaching or the oral Word? Whence do they know of it, or how can they apprehend and appropriate to themselves the forgiveness, except they lay hold of and believe the Scriptures and the Gospel? But now the entire Gospel and the article of the Creed: I believe a holy Christian Church, the forgiveness of sin, etc., are by the Word embodied in this Sacrament and presented to us. Why, then, should we allow this treasure to be torn from the Sacrament when they must confess that these are the very words which we hear every where in the Gospel, and they cannot say that these words in the Sacrament are of no use, as little as they dare say that the entire Gospel or Word of God, apart from the Sacrament, is of no use?

via The Large Catechism – Book of Concord (V.31–32)

Beauty, not relevance

Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians

“Relevant” is another word to put in scare quotes when talking about sermons. For just as I think “practical” sermons do little practical good, I think the attempt to make the gospel “relevant” is irrelevant to someone who knows Christ. It’s boring, because it’s about an imaginary Christ designed for those who define themselves in consumerist terms. It doesn’t make much of an impression on those who are learning to understand themselves in light of the gospel’s account of who Christ really is.

The alternative to demanding “relevance” is the willingness to learn. It’s like when you really start to get a new kind of music, maybe classical or jazz, that at first seemed boring or intimidating or irrelevant. When you begin to see the beauty and power in it, you stop asking how it’s relevant to your life. Instead, you acquire a new ability to hear, new powers of perception, as you begin to understand more clearly what’s really there. Learning to perceive this reality enhances your life, makes you a richer person with a deeper understanding of the world. Similarly, the Holy Spirit teaches us to understand the gospel like a kind of divine music, not making Christ relevant to our lives, but reshaping our lives so taht we perceive the beauty of Christ, which captivates our hearts.

The underlying concept here is not relevance but beauty. If you’re a preacher or teacher, you don’t need to do anything to make beautiful things relevant to us. They wouldn’t be beautiful unless they already had the power to move our hearts, stirring us up to love. And from love comes eagerness and diligence in the works of love —all the things that sermons telling us what to do can’t give us.

Phillip Cary, Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Pracitcal Things You Don’t Have to Do (Brazos, 2010), p. 164.

If you’re a young Christian, read this book. If you deal with young Christians, read this book. If you live and work in contact with any form of modern evangelicalism, read this book.

What do you do?

Sermon on Reformation Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 30 October 2011

Text: Romans 3:19–28
To listen to the sermon, click here.

We live in a world that is obsessed with doing. When forced to talk to new people, most people in Britain will first talk about the weather and, if the conversation needs to take a more profound turn, the next question is bound to be:
“What do you do? ”
What do you do? We like to define ourselves and one another by what we do. I’m a banker, I’m a teacher, I’m a soldier, I’m an accountant. That’s what I am, and that’s who I am.
For some, that can cause a problem. What do you say if you are unemployed and all you “do” is fill in job applications? What do you say if you are a pensioner and don’t officially “do” anything anymore (even though you are just as busy as ever)? What do you say if you are a housewife, a mother at home, and society doesn’t recognise your very busy life as official “doing”, since you are only at home?
But really, it’s a problem for us all. Because the moment we start defining ourselves by what we do, rather than who we are, we cast ourselves at the mercy of our capabilities and our opportunities—at the mercy of the varying circumstances of our life.
In fact, this whole way of thinking is an invention of the devil. He invented it to draw us away from the Triune God, away from dependence on Him, life as His image and in His service, to defining ourselves. “Just do this, and you will be like gods.”
And so all human religion, like much human culture, defines itself by it own activity, by its doing. And from the very beginning, this devilish doing has been creeping into the Christian church, to replace the Gospel. It’s there at the Fall, and throughout the history of God’s Old Covenant people, who are determined to do stuff. It’s in the New Testament, where false apostles are working hard to add things to do to the good news of Jesus Christ. And the history of the church is really the history of a battle against doing trying to take the place of the Gospel. Every heresy, every false doctrine, every false practice, really stems from this intrusion of doing into the body of Christ.
Of course, there is an awful lot of doing in the Gospel. But the question is, who is doing what. And so it is that true Christianity is all about grammar. More specifically, if you want to know what the Gospel is, look at the verbs: who is doing what.
So, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let’s do just that. Our Epistle reading on this Reformation Festival is that great clarion call of the Gospel from Romans 3: the justification of the sinner.
Up to this point in Romans, Paul has painstakingly demonstrated that all people, whether Gentiles or Jews, are sinners under the wrath of God, whether through ignorance, weakness or just plain rebellion. And then come those two little words that changed the history of the world, and the destiny of everyone who hears them: “But now.”
You were dead in your trespasses and sins. You were labouring to ward off death, to appease the gods, awaiting the crushing judgement of the one God.
But now. Everything has been changed. You are no longer unholy but holy. You are no longer under God’s wrath as an unrighteous sinner but a righteous, justified child of God.
And how has the change come about? Who does what.
Look at the verbs:
“God’s righteousness has been manifested … through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” That’s right; our Bible translation is almost certainly mistaken at this point. God’s righteousness—his holy, unimpeachable character and His holy, unimpeachable conduct towards His creation, has been manifested through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
“All … are justified by His grace as a gift.” All are made righteous, as a gift—not a reward, not as part of a deal. A gift, His gift.
“Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.” Christ Jesus is our ransom and the mercy seat whom God put forward to deal with our sin.
And why did God do this? “To show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Do you see what’s going on here? God is the one who is doing all the doing: the Father sending Jesus, Jesus remaining faithful as the ransom for us. God, God, God. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Doing all the doing.
So what’s left for us to do? What are our verbs?
For starters, there are the verbs with a no attached: “righteousness … apart from the Law.” “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” “By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.” “One is justified … apart from the works of the Law”.
What then? What are we to do?
Well, we have done more than enough already. There is just one pair of verbs in the whole passage in which we are the doers: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That is your contribution to your own salvation: you, by your actions, make it necessary for God to send a Saviour. He does the rest.
This is the great doctrine of justification, which the Reformation re-published to a world where it was in danger of being drowned out: that we are set free from our slavery to sin by the Son, and by Him alone. God presented His Son to be the Saviour of all, who by His perfect faithfulness and innocent death ransomed us who were slaves to sin and now presents us to the Father as His innocent, righteous brothers and sisters: righteous because we have been justified, declared righteous and gifted with Christ’s perfect righteousness.
A pure gift. A gift to be received through faith, that is by simple trust in the work of Christ. When you had done your worst, Christ came and did His best. And He asks that you do no more, but simply sit back and receive what He is giving you.
He did this once for all for the whole world on the cross of Calvary, before you were born. He did it for you in the waters of baptism, which was poured on you by another. He does it for you in the word of the Gospel through the voice of another. And He comes to you in the Sacrament, to offer you again fruit of all that He has done for you on the cross.
So when you come to the pearly gates and you are asked, “What did you do? ”, please answer: “Me? Oh, nothing at all. Christ did it all.”

The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church — Free Download

New Reformation Press has made the classic Rod Rosenbladt lecture, The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church, available as a free download (it used to be for sale only). You can get both the audio (mp3) and the text (pdf) from here.

Later this year, the lecture will also become available as a HD video. Watch this space.

A Tale of Two Sinners

Homily on the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, 13 June 2010, at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham (UK).

Text: Luke 7:36—8:3

Knowing Jesus

Jesus with ChildrenThis morning, the teacher of the Sunday school at my congregation reported the following conversation she had with one of the children, a 6-year-old boy:

Teacher: Why do we read so many different stories about Jesus in Sunday school?
Boy: So that we get to know Jesus.
T: What do you mean?
B: Not just know about Jesus, but to get to know Him.

Couldn’t put it better myself!

How often do people — both Christians and non-Christians — criticise the notion that being a Christian is about holding certain facts about Jesus in your head, rather than, say, living a certain kind of life? And often they do it with considerable justification, when theologians, individual Christians, and whole churches reduce the Christian faith to the facts of the faith. To knowing about Jesus.

The key to being a child of God is not knowing about Jesus, but knowing Him. What in some circles is called a “personal relationship with Jesus”.

However, this relationship with Jesus is not distinct from facts about a person. No sensible person would go about human relationships that way. Can you imagine it? “I don’t know the slightest thing about my fiancée. For me that’s not important. What matters to me is to know her.” What sort of odds would a marriage based on that sort of foundation get from a bookie, I wonder.

No, the aim is to get to know Jesus. But we only get to know Him by finding out about Him. As we read and hear about Jesus speaking and acting, we get to know Him as He is. The dogmaticians have referred to these two facets of the faith fides qua and fides quae, the “faith which” is believed, and the “faith by which” one believes. The former informs and creates the latter, the latter receives what the former states.

As Martin Luther might have put it: Thank God that even a six-year-old child knows what the proper relationship between propositional truth and personal faith is!

Proclaiming and bringing

Saint Luke iconWhile reading Luke 8 with my wife last night, I noticed something that had passed me by before:

Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1)

Proclaiming and bringing. That’s a lovely summary of how the Gospel works: Jesus proclaims and brings the good news, all in one. The proclamation brings what it proclaims.

Or looked another way: preaching is at its heart spiritual care, because preaching is a public exercise of the office of the keys. The preaching of the Law brings about guilt, because it proclaims the condemnation of God on sin. And the preaching of the Gospel brings about absolution, because it proclaims the forgiveness of sins.

All in one neat pair of verbs: proclaiming and bringing.

Preaching the Gospel without words

HT: Cyberbrethren

Saying “Preach the gospel; if necessary use words” is like saying “Tell me your phone number; if necessary use digits.”

A Season of Receiving

GiftI was planning to write a short post on why it is better to receive than to give at Christmas. However, a far more professional and prolific blogger beat me to it. Read it.