Holy Communion (part three)

The Bible says: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:26).

Luther explains, “How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things? Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, along with the eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament. Whoever believes these words has exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’”

Salvageable adds: Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something we do for God; faith is something God does in us. Faith is a relationship that trusts God’s promises. Without God’s grace, our faith would be pointless. Without faith, God’s grace does not reach us and we remain in our sins.

Our faith comes to us through the Word of God. Whether that Word is spoken as an absolution or read from the Bible, whether it is accompanied by water in Holy Baptism or by eating and drinking in Holy Communion, this Word creates faith and strengthens faith. These ways of delivering the Word of God are the gifts of the Holy Spirit by which he enlightens us and brings us into Christ’s kingdom.

A mental illness called anorexia causes a person to deny himself or herself of nutrition needed for the body. This disease is devastating toward the person who suffers from it, and his or her condition is agonizing for family and friends to see. We take spiritual anorexia far more lightly. A person says, “I’m a Christian—I believe in God. But I don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church. God understands. I don’t need church to be a Christian.”

Luther wrote about such a person this way: “But what should you do if you are not aware of this need and have no hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood. Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it… Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say… Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering day and night will let him have no peace, within our without, as the Scriptures picture him….”

Because we sin often, we need forgiveness often. We eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, receiving his body and his blood from the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. The Ten Commandments tell us why we need forgiveness. The Apostles’ Creed expresses our faith in the forgiveness of sins. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask for forgiveness and promise to share forgiveness. The Christian Church is all about forgiveness, and the Sacrament of Holy Communion is likewise all about forgiveness. J.

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The Office of the Keys

Jesus says: “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19), and, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Luther explains: “What is the Office of the Keys? The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. What do you believe according to these words? I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Salvageable adds: Who has the power to forgive sins? As the Pharisees said to one another, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7) Jesus has authority to forgive sins because he is the Son of God. Moreover, he has authority to forgive sins because he sacrificed himself on a cross to purchase forgiveness for sinners. When Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, he was granting Peter authority to forgive sins. With that came authority also to withhold forgiveness from sinners who do not repent.

Who exercises the office of the keys in the Church today? Some say that the keys belong to one person at a time; they say that the head pastor in Rome, the pope, is the only person who has those keys. Others say that all the apostles were given the same authority in Matthew 18:18 and in John 20:23. They suggest that church workers—especially pastors and ministers—hold those keys. On Easter night, though, when Jesus repeated his authorization to forgive sins or to withhold forgiveness, he preceded that by breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” From this, I conclude that every Christian has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. When the congregation gathers, the pastor exercises that authority. The keys are given to the pastor by Jesus through the call of the congregation. Outside the gathering of the congregation, every Christian possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Every Christian can use God’s commandments to warn sinners of their need for forgiveness. Every Christian can use God’s promises to share forgiveness with sinners.

When would a Christian, especially a pastor, withhold forgiveness? When a sinner does not want to be forgiven. When a sinner loves the sin more than the Savior. When a sinner clings to a sin and does not repent. Jesus gave a four-step process for dealing with stubbornly unrepentant sinners: deal with them first one-on-one; then raise the matter again with one or two witnesses; then tell it to the church; and if they will not listen to the church, treat them as pagans and tax collectors.

Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors as mission opportunities. In fact, the only Gospel that contains that passage about how to treat stubborn sinners is the Gospel written by Matthew, the former tax collector. When Christians share God’s commandments, their goal is to share forgiveness. When Christians warn sinners to repent, their goal is to share forgiveness. But Jesus also tells Christians not to cast pearls before swine or to give dogs what is holy. Announcing forgiveness to a sinner who loves the sin more than the Savior is casting pearls before swine. Promising forgiveness to a sinner who does not want God’s forgiveness is giving dogs what is holy.

Jesus spoke far more often about bringing forgiveness to sinners than he spoke about making disciples. In his model prayer, he told his followers to promise to forgive trespassers, but he did not have them promise to make disciples. The Great Commission is best accomplished through the Office of the Keys. When Christians use the commands and the promises of God to bring God’s forgiveness to sinners, they are fulfilling the purpose for which Jesus came and the purpose for which he established his Church. J.

Holy Baptism (part two)

Jesus says: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Luther explains: “What benefits does baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.”

Salvageable adds: That triple blessing of forgiveness, rescue, and eternal life were won by Jesus on the cross. He shares those gifts with all who believe in him. Baptism is a means of grace because it conveys those gifts to each individual Christian. God’s promise is made personal through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

Baptism is also an adoption ceremony. No one is a child of God through being created by God. All of us have strayed like wandering sheep, forsaking the God who made us. None of us deserve to call him Father. Jesus claims us for his Kingdom and makes God our Father by his sacrifice on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus pays the full price for our adoption. Holy Baptism is the ceremony that applies that payment personally to each Christian. Even Jesus was baptized. He did not need to be baptized. He is the true Son of God and does not require an adoption. He is sinless and needs no forgiveness. He overcame death and the devil and already possess eternal life. Yet Jesus was baptized to (in his words) “fulfill all righteousness.” His baptism grants power to our baptisms. Through the adoption conducted by Holy Baptism, the Father of Jesus Christ sees each of us as his Son. He says to each of us what he said to Jesus: “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Mark 16:16 clearly says that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. It also clearly says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. Whoever has been baptized but does not believe remains condemned. Baptism did not fail that person, but that person failed to remain in the faith given by God.

The verse does not address the question about someone who believes but is not baptized. God does not want us to live in doubt. He prefers that whoever comes to faith should be baptized as soon as possible to remove any doubt about God’s promise. Likewise, Christian parents arrange for their children to be baptized at the first opportunity. Trusting the promise of God and the power of his Word, they seek his guarantee, just as Peter said on Pentecost: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children…” (Acts 2:38-39). J.

Doxology

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

These words are not included in the earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel, nor does Luther comment upon them. Many Christians pray them, though, as a hymn of praise—a doxology—which matches the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s name be hallowed.

The kingdom is God’s. He rules over everything that he created; he is Lord of all that exists. The Church in particular is his kingdom, and his will is to increase that kingdom so more people will dwell in his new creation. That new creation is also his kingdom, which he will rule eternally.

The power is God’s. He is almighty; he can do whatever he chooses. God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, what he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven. He says, “Your sins are gone,” and they are gone, removed as far from us as the east is from the west. He says, “You are my child, and you will live with me forever in a new and perfect creation,” and we know that all these things are true.

The glory is God’s. In the presence of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—Jesus once shone with light while visiting with Moses and Elijah. Yet to Jesus, his true glory is not that he can shine with light or be counted with the heroes of God’s people. His glory far transcends those accomplishments. For Jesus, his true glory is expressed in love, making himself vulnerable on behalf of his people, offering himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

The kingdom and the power and the glory are his forever—or, as some Christians pray, “forever and ever.” The original Greek expression translates literally as “from the ages into the ages.” God’s kingdom and power and glory never end. They endure into the new creation, and we will experience them fully at the resurrection of the body, when we inherit the fullness of what we already have now: the life everlasting. J.

 

Forgive us our trespasses

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.”

Salvageable adds: Repentance is not something a Christian does once in a lifetime and then never has to do again. Even the best of us sins every day. Therefore, we repent every day, and we remember how God forgives us through the work of Christ every day. The Lord’s Prayer gives us an opportunity to confess our sins, listing those we remember and also asking forgiveness for those sins we have forgotten and those we never noticed.

Along with this prayer of repentance, we make a promise in the Lord’s Prayer: we promise to forgive those who have sinned against us. As we make this promise, we remember that God goes first. Jesus purchases forgiveness for all people on the cross. Having received that forgiveness ourselves, we now share that forgiveness with other people, especially with those who have sinned against us. We do not begin the process of forgiveness, nor does God limit his forgiveness of our sins to the level of our forgiveness for other sinners. The ransom Christ paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of every person who ever lived or will live, including our sins. When we fail to share forgiveness with another sinner, we cast doubt on the extent of Christ’s ransom and God’s forgiveness. Therefore, Jesus teaches us to pray daily that we will forgive the sins that were committed against us.

Two versions of the Lord’s Prayer contain different pictures of sins. One speaks of trespasses—people going where they are not supposed to go. The other speaks of debts—something that is owed to another person. Our sins are trespasses, for we have gone where God told us not to go. Our sins are debts, and we owe God a penalty of debt we can never pay. Jesus went where he should not have gone—to a Roman cross meant for criminals, and to hell itself, where his Father abandoned him for a time. Jesus went there so we do not have to go there. Jesus paid our debt by his ransom, so we are no longer in debt to God.

Jesus went there for us and for all people. Therefore, when people trespass into our lives and fall into debt to us by their sins, we forgive them. We forgive, not from the goodness of our hearts, but from the wealth of God’s goodness. No act is more Christlike than to forgive someone who has hurt you. No witness of Christ is more dramatic than to forgive as Christ has forgiven. We forgive by the power of God’s forgiveness that has already been given to us. J.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”

Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.

The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.

As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.

Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.

When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.

In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.

 

 

I know something God doesn’t know

God is omniscient. That means that he knows everything. God is also omnipotent—that is, almighty. There is nothing God cannot do. God is omnipresent. If any place exists, God is there. God is holy, just, and perfectly good. All goodness is measured by God’s will—if he approves of something, it is good; if he disapproves, it is not good.

People sometimes question God’s omnipotence with logical puzzles. They ask, “Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it?” or, “Can God make a circle that is also a square?” Since God, by his very nature, violates the laws of mathematics, I would not consider him incapable of doing things that are logically impossible. For God is three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and yet he is one God, not three gods. The Son of Man became human. Jesus Christ is one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, yet he is one Being, not two beings.

The Bible does mention one thing that God cannot do. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He cannot lie, not only because he is so good, but also because he is so powerful. When God speaks, what he says is invariably true, because nothing in the universe can resist his will. God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. God says, “Let the waters be gathered together and let dry ground appear,” and it happens. God says, “Let the land be covered with vegetation,” and it happens.

Therefore, when God says, “Your sins are forgiven,” your sins truly are forgiven. When God says, “You are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven,” you are a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. When God says, “I have made you a member of my family,” we are indeed members of his family.

“As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103: 12). Send one traveler to the east, ands however long and far the traveler goes, there continues to be more east. Send another traveler to the west, and however long and far the traveler goes, there continues to be more west. The Earth has a North Pole and a South Pole, but east and west are infinitely far from each other. That is how far our sins have been removed from us—infinitely far.

Seen another way, our sins were nailed to the cross with Christ and killed with Christ (Romans 6:6). When Christ rose, he left our sins behind in the tomb; they remain dead and buried to this day. When God looks at me, he sees no sin. He sees perfection, for I have been clothed in the righteousness of Christ (Galatians 3:27).

Therefore, God no longer sees my sins. Jesus has taken away my sins, and God has deliberately forgotten them. As Jesus could deliberately forget the day and year of the Day of the Lord (Matthew 24:36) during his time on earth, so God purposely forgets our sins and treats us as worthy of his kingdom.

God has forgotten our sins, even though we remind him of those sins. We confess our sins to God and ask for his forgiveness, even though he has already promised to forgive and forget those sins. God does not need our confession, but we need confession. We need to remember that we are sinners, saved from sin only by the life and death of Jesus Christ. We need to remember the reason for his sacrifice, even though his sacrifice is sufficient to make our sins disappear from God’s memory, which means that they are truly gone.

John Chrysostom said it this way: “He that is penitent ought never to forget his sin, but on the one hand, to beseech God not to remember it; while on the other, he himself never forgets it. If we remember it, God will forget it.” God is so powerful that, when he forgets something, it no longer exists. In this way, each of us knows something that God no longer remembers. J.

Busy times

The last couple of weeks have been busy. Most of the busy-ness was unavoidable, but the net effect has felt (at times) overwhelming.

Most important, of course, were Holy Week and Easter. Special services for Good Friday and Easter are to be expected. We observed the anniversary of the Lord’s death in our place, conquering death and granting forgiveness and eternal life. Then we celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, announcing his victory and establishing the guarantee of our resurrection to live in a new and perfect world.

On the morning of Good Friday, a member of the congregation died. He had been ailing for some time; given his faith, it even seemed appropriate for his to die on such a day. He was seventy-three years old, a lifetime member of the same congregation. One of the other members called him “a pillar of the church.” After the funeral service, one of his sons remarked to me, “Finally Dad got to fill the church.”

On top of that, a historical exhibition that I was assigned to create and assemble opened at my workplace the night of Good Friday. As soon as I realized that the opening date was a holiday, I alerted the other people involved that I would not be present for the opening. For them the date was set—the second Friday of the month is a given for such events, because of other plans involving the place where I work and its neighbors in the community. With help, I put together the elements of the exhibit on Monday afternoon, and a “soft opening” was held Wednesday night prior to the official opening. A “soft opening” is only advertised within the workplace, and there are no refreshments. Four people came into the exhibit during the hour of the “soft opening,” and two of them were casual visitors unaware that there even was a “soft opening.”

I had decided in March that my First Friday Fiction would be a story taken out of a novel which I started writing more than thirty years ago. When I made that decision, I did not realize that I would end up posting the story in six installments, bleeding into Holy Week. Nor did I anticipate that typing and updating the story would inspire me to complete it in two more parts. My draft of the six installments actually ended with discussion questions, intended to gather responses that might shape the rest of the story. Instead, I began answering the questions myself, which led to writing the final parts of the story.

Embedded in these busy times were three landmarks for this Salvageable blog. I passed the second anniversary of the beginning of the blog on April 14. Somewhere in there I published my four hundredth post (one of the story episodes—I haven’t bothered to see which of them was #400). Around the same time, I reached one thousand different visitors who have looked at least once at Salvageable.

That mark of one thousand different visitors might not seem impressive, but I am happy about it. After all, writing anonymously, I have not promoted the blog on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. In the past two years I have made many good friends, even though we know each other only through WordPress. I am grateful for all my readers, and I also enjoy reading your writings.

Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come! J.

More about the last enemy

One week ago I attended the funeral of a friend. He had battled severe mental health issues for the past ten years. In the end, he ended his life by his own hands.

The church was filled to capacity. Like most of the people who came, I tried to say a few words of comfort to the family of the deceased. His father remarked to me that they had nearly lost him this way on two earlier occasions. I think that, even in his shock and his sorrow, the young man’s father was able to treasure the time the two of them had shared.

What does one say at the funeral of a person who has committed suicide? The preacher was magnificent. He began his sermon by expressing his own regrets, his own fears that he had not been a good enough pastor, not persistent enough in reaching out to the deceased. He went on to say that he expected that many of us—family members, friends, co-workers—felt the same sense of guilt, of not having done enough. He assured us that whatever mistakes we had made, whatever sins we had committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He then also assured us that the same is true of the man whose death we mourned. Whatever mistakes he made and whatever sins he committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He reminded us (and quoted to us) the Scripture promises of unconditional forgiveness and of a resurrection to eternal life in a better world—a perfect world.

Christians find it hard to talk about suicide. We never want to appear to approve of suicide, to treat it as less than sinful. We want to discourage any person from committing the sin of murdering one’s self. At the same time, we want to be careful not to speak of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. The only unforgiveable sin is refusing to repent and rejecting God’s forgiveness. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God and his blessings to bring people to repentance and to faith.

How can one repent of suicide after succeeding in the act? God’s forgiveness is not limited to the sins we remember to list when we repent and confess our sins. Like the Psalm, we pray, “Forgive my hidden faults.” In the model prayer Jesus taught, we pray for forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness, won for us at the cross, covers all our sins.

God’s forgiveness and our faith are not a series of events. They are a continuing relationship. A Christian who dies in his or her sleep is not lost because of the inability to confess faith while sleeping. A person who slips into senility is not lost, no matter what words or actions occur during the months or years of sickness before death. A Christian battling mental illness who, in a minute of weakness, causes his or her own death is not lost to God forever. The act of suicide is a sin, but Jesus paid for even that sin by offering his own life as a sacrifice on the cross. As the letter to the Romans assures us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning of the sermon to the end of the service, tears welled out of my eyes. (I cannot remember the last time I cried in public—it was a long time ago.) I grieved, but not like those who have no hope. Death is our enemy, but death is already a conquered enemy. Jesus has defeated death, and he shares his victory with us all. I will see my friend again at the resurrection on the Last Day, and both of us will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.