Two plans: creation and salvation

              A story is told about a father and his son who took a donkey to town to sell it at the market. When they left their home, the father and his son walked alongside the donkey, one on the right and the other on the left. But the father overheard some people along the road commenting, “What a waste of a good animal, to carry nothing while both of them walk.” So the father told his son to ride the donkey. Soon he heard another group of people saying, “What a thoughtless boy, to ride the donkey while his father walks.” So the father had his son get off the donkey and instead he rode. But then he heard other people saying, “What a mean father, to make his son walk while he rides the donkey.” So the father told his son to get in front of him on the donkey so both of them would ride. But then the father heard some people say, “That poor donkey! How cruel of them to make it carry all that weight.” The father finally decided that he and his son would carry the donkey to town. Finally, they heard no more comments, because people were laughing too hard to say anything. Finally, the donkey lost patience, struggled, and ran off across the fields, and the father had no donkey to sell in town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well not try.

              Even the Almighty God cannot make everyone happy. The message of his Bible contains two simple plans that relate to us, his people. Lutherans call these plans Law and Gospel. They have many other names. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we might call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation. Even with two simple plans, God often finds his people confusing them, mixing them, and misunderstanding how those two plans relate to our lives. Even among Christians who trust the Bible and believe that it is true, a trustworthy message from God, we still find many differences relating to these two plans and what they mean for our lives as God’s people.

              Why were you born? Why are you here on this earth? What is the purpose of your life? Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand. God is love, and we were made in his image. We are created to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s Ten Commandments tell us how to love. If ten commandments are not enough for you, more than six hundred more commandments can be found in just the first five books of the Bible. All of these commandments are about love. They tell us how to love God. They tell us how to love our neighbors. They tell us how to be the people God had in mind when he created us in the beginning.

              God’s perfect world has become polluted by sin and evil. We are frequently tempted to sin, and every day we surrender to temptation. We rebel against God. We fail to love. We fall short of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin, God’s plan of creation cannot rescue us from evil. We are like the victim of robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. God’s good commandments, like the priest and the Levite, walk past us without stopping to help. Only a second plan can save us. This second plan is God’s plan of salvation. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who stops to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us. Whoever believes in him will not perish. Instead, through the plan of salvation, we receive eternal life. We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works. We are snatched out of the clutches of evil. Our sins are forgiven, and the sins committed against us are likewise cancelled. We belong to God, and no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

              These two plans of God are vitally important. They are also fairly simple. God created us to do good works, to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives. God loves us and rescues us by grace through faith when we sin and when we are hurt by evil in this world. When we want to know why we are here, we consult the plan of creation, the commandments of God, the Law. When we want to know how to be forgiven, how to have life, how to be free from evil, we consult the plan of salvation, the grace of God, the Gospel. Both plans are God’s plans. Both plans are important. Both plans give meaning to our lives. But even Christians who know both plans sometimes go off course when we start confusing these plans and mixing these plans and muddling the messages God has given us about these plans.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because we try our best to do what is good. Our best efforts are not good enough for God. God has zero tolerance for sin and evil. He hates sin because it hurts the people God loves. We cannot contribute anything to God’s plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work to rescue us. When we think that we are helping Jesus to save us, we are only getting in his way. We insult God by suggesting that he saved us because of good things we were doing. Even seeking God, even giving our hearts to God, even inviting Jesus to be our Savior, even these are not good works that contribute to our salvation. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks us and finds us; we do not find him. Jesus claims our hearts, even though our hearts are stained and corrupted by sin and selfishness, hardly worthy of being gifts to him. Our decision to be God’s people means nothing: God’s decision to rescue us is the only decision that matters in God’s plan of salvation.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because of the good things we will do for him once we are saved. God’s grace restores the image of God that we had because of creation, the image of God that was damaged and lost through sin and rebellion. We are not yet perfect and sinless: we sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. God made us so we would do good works; God does not save us so we do good works. God saves us because he loves us. God gives his Son out of love. God rescues us by grace through faith, not because of works. Being forgiven, being rescued, we begin to be transformed into the image of Christ. His love enters our lives so we love God more and we love our neighbors more. But the good things we do are caused by the plan of salvation; they are not the reason for the plan of salvation. We cannot repay God for saving us, any more than we can purchase his salvation in the first place. Being saved by grace through faith is the result of God’s love, not a result of our love.

              Therefore, we cannot measure our salvation by the good things we do for God. We cannot be sure that we are going to heaven because of the good things we do for God. Other people see the good things we do out of love and recognize us as saints. Seeing our good works, they praise our Father in heaven. Our good works testify to others about God’s goodness, but they do not testify to our hearts. For one thing, we know our sins, our darkness hidden in our hearts from the rest of the world. We know how far we still remain from the perfect love God planned for us. We know our mixed motives for doing good, the times that we do the right things for the wrong reasons. For another, because we are Christians, our eyes and our hearts and our minds are to be focused on Jesus, not on ourselves. If we want to measure salvation, we look at the Savior. If we want to be sure that we belong to God and his kingdom, we reassure ourselves by God’s promises and not by our good works.

              We do not live up to the plan of creation. God’s Law guides our lives, but it does not lead us into heaven. When we have sinned, when we are victims of evil, the Law cannot help us. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. We confess our sins and ask him to forgive us. We call out to God for help, trusting his promises. We turn to the plan of salvation, setting aside the plan of creation so long as we need to be rescued from evil and restored to the people that belong to God.

              Jesus helps us. God gave his only Son. Jesus became human, became one of us, so he could accomplish the plan of creation in our place. He obeyed all the commandments of his Father, and he gives us the credit for his goodness. He trades places with us, letting us be blessed as he deserves while taking the blame for our sins. He clothes us in his righteousness, putting instead on his shoulders all of our guilt. On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. He accepts the wrath of his Father at sin and evil so he can give us instead the grace of his Father, bringing us his victory over sin and evil and death.

              Jesus fights the war against sin and evil and death, and Jesus wins the victory. He is the light shining in darkness, the light that the darkness can never overcome. On his own, Jesus defeated all the forces of darkness. He defeated all the sins ever committed, including my sins and your sins. He defeated the devil and all the evil forces that work against his plans. He defeated death—the wages of sin, the result of rebellion against God, the end of all that fails to match God’s plan of creation. Jesus proves that love is stronger than hate, stronger than pride, stronger than selfishness. Jesus loves, and so he sacrifices himself to rescue the people he loves. To the forces of evil, love is weakness. To Jesus, love is strength and glory. Love prevails; love triumphs; love never fails. We belong to him because of his love, which is bigger than all our failures and shortcomings.

              Therefore, Jesus gives us the gift of faith. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith cannot save us unless it is faith in Christ and him crucified. If we put faith in ourselves or in our good works, that faith cannot save us. Only God’s grace saves us, but that grace saves us through the faith God has given us. Faith is nothing we do for God—not a good work, not a gift, not even a decision. Faith is the relationship God has established with us. Faith is our confidence that the promises of God are true, and that confidence could not exist if God had not given us his promises.

              Therefore, God delivers those promises to us in ways that we call the Means of Grace. He speaks to us in the Church, promising us forgiveness. He speaks to us in the Bible, telling us his plans and bringing us his promises. He speaks to us in Holy Baptism, washing away our sins and adopting us as his children. He speaks to us in Holy Communion, bringing the body and blood of our Savior from the cross to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory over all evil.

              None of these Means of Grace are good works that we do for God. We do not come to Church to earn forgiveness; we come to receive it as a gift. We do not read the Bible to earn forgiveness; we read it to gain faith in God and to strengthen that faith. We are not baptized to earn a place in God’s family; we are adopted by the price Jesus paid for us on the cross. We do not eat and drink at God’s table to earn his blessings; we receive those blessings by God’s grace as Jesus serves us his body with the bread and gives us his blood with the wine.

              The plan of creation is restored in our lives by the power of the plan of salvation, the grace of God. Being adopted as his children, we are transformed into the image of Christ, learning again how to love God and how to love our neighbors. We walk in the light, not in the darkness. We look to Jesus, putting our faith in him, and being saved by him we also are changed by him so we can be the faithful people of God.

              This salvation rests on God’s love. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God’s grace rescues us and claims us forever for God’s kingdom and his family. We were in sin and darkness and death, but God has made us alive through Jesus. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and glory and praise and honor, now and forever.                   Amen.

A sermon on the Ten Commandments

              God created us. God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ redeemed us. We do not belong to ourselves; we were bought with a price. Again, Jesus has the right to tell us how to live. The Holy Spirit guides us to be the children of God, telling us what to do and what not to do. But does God obey his own rules? Does God do everything he tells us to do? And is God careful not to do any of the things he tells us not to do?

              God commands, “You shall not covet.” We are not to want the things that belong to other people. But God says of himself, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Can God be jealous when coveting is wrong? Or are coveting and jealousy two different things?

              In modern English, we often use the word “jealousy” to mean the same thing as “envy” or “coveting.” But jealousy has a second meaning which is more appropriate to describe God. A jealous person wants to keep what belongs to him or to her. God commands us not to commit adultery—if a woman appears guilty of breaking this commandment, her husband might be jealous. God commands us not to steal. A jealous person might be angry when someone steals things from him or from her. This kind of jealousy is different from envy and from coveting. Wanting to keep what belongs to you is not a sin. Since God made us and God redeemed us, we belong to him. God says, “I am the Lord your God.” All his commandments tell us how to remain in a right relationship with God, how to remain God’s people so God does not have to be jealous about losing us.

              Therefore, God gives us ten commandments to tell us how his people act. We all agree that there are ten commandments, even though we do not all number them the same way. Lutherans combine the commandments about having no other gods and about not making and worshiping idols. Other people divide those two commandments and combine the commandments against coveting. For this reason, if you mention the sixth commandment to a group of Christians, some will think you are talking about adultery, but others will think you are talking about murder. Some people even make both combinations. They say that the first commandment, the most basic commandment, is the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God.” Those words tell us the reason we try to obey all the other commandments. As Luther pointed out, our obedience to all the commandments of God reflects back to our relationship with God. We obey his commandments because we fear God and because we love God.

              We know, of course, that we should love God. God is love. He made us in his image. We are meant to love—we are meant to love God with our whole hearts, and we are meant to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our love was perfect, we would need no other commandments. Because our love is imperfect, God needs to tell us how to love. At Mount Sinai, he delivered these commandments along with fire and smoke, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, and the blaring of trumpets. We hear these commands and sing about them in more subdued circumstances, but God means these commandments for us as seriously as he meant them for his chosen people centuries ago.

              We should have no other gods. Nothing should matter to us more than God. Not only should we love God more than anything else; we also should fear God more than anything else. Our fear of God is not meant to make us run away and hide from God. We love God and trust God. But, remembering that God is always with us—that he sees everything we do and hears everything we say and even knows our thoughts—we guide our lives by his commandments. Even when we fear other powers that want us to break God’s Law, our love for God and our fear of God guides us to do what is right instead of wandering into sin and shame and guilt.

              Therefore, we have no other gods. We do not create idols and images to worship. God is not opposed to religious artwork. The same God who spoke the Ten Commandments also designed the Ark of the Covenant, topped with two angels. But our artwork does not replace God. We cannot control God by capturing him in a piece of art. We keep God’s name holy and we give God his holy time, but we never let his name or his time or anything else that belongs to God take the place of God himself.

              Holy things belong to God. His name is holy. His day is holy. This church is a holy place, because we have dedicated it to God. We are holy people, because God has chosen us for himself. God hates it when we misuse holy things. He takes it as a personal insult when we take what is holy and try to use it for our own purposes. Our Gospel reading for this morning shows how Jesus reacts when holy things are misused. Because we love God, we will respect everything that belongs to him, everything that has become holy because it is the property of God.

              We respect authority in this world because of God. Whether we agree or disagree with our rulers, we treat their authority is holy, as something that comes from God. This holiness begins in the family, where we honor father and mother as pictures of God the Father. This holiness continues in the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Parents and teachers and managers and government officials are sinful human beings like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they can be wrong. Yet we respect their office of authority, because all authority comes from God. We honor and serve our parents and others in authority to show our honor and respect for God.

              We also love our neighbors. We respect their lives, so we do nothing that harms their lives. Even selfish anger toward another person is sinful. Instead, we help them to care for their lives and preserve their lives. We respect their marriages. Those of us who are married love our husband or wife and remain faithful; and all of us help our neighbors to do the same by respecting marriage and the privileges of marriage. We respect our neighbors’ property. We take care of what God has given us, and we help our neighbors take care of what God has given them. We respect our neighbors’ reputations. We speak the truth in love, and we correct others when they say things we know are not true.

              God has given good things to our neighbors. He has also given us good things. Because we love and fear God, and because we love our neighbors, we remain content with those good things God has given us. We are happy for our neighbors when they have good things. We do not covet our neighbors’ house, or anything our neighbor has that can be bought with money. We do not covet our neighbors’ husband or wife, our neighbors’ workers, or even our neighbors’ animals. If they belong to our neighbor through love and loyalty, we respect that relationship. Like God, we can be jealous, wanting to keep and protect what is ours. But we never covet; we never resent our neighbors for having good things we do not have. Our contentment comes from loving and trusting God, who takes care of us and of our neighbors in all the things we need.

              We know, of course, that the Israelites who heard these commandments from God did not obey them. Forty days after they heard these commandments, they had already built a golden calf and started to worship it. Through the history of Israel, they broke these commandments repeatedly. God had to discipline his chosen people, sending Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment upon his people. But, because they broke the covenant God made with them, God also promised a new covenant that would be based on grace, not on obedience.

              We know that we have sinned. We have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We sin. If we still lived under the old covenant, we would also be subject to judgment. We have joined the rebellion against God; we have cooperated with God’s enemies by doing what we want instead of doing what God wants.

              God hates sin. He does not hate sin because he is selfish and wants all the attention on himself. God hates sin because it spreads. It pollutes the good world he made, and it hurts the people who live in that world. When we sin, the evil we commit does not lie just between us and God. It hurts other people. Sin lingers in the world. The third and fourth generation still carry the burden of sins committed by their ancestors. Every act of disobedience adds to the pollution of sin in this world. God is jealous; we does not want us to rebel, and he does not want us to hurt the other people that God loves. Therefore, God still threatens judgment on all those who sin, on all those who break even the smallest of his commandments.

              But we live under the new covenant. The thunder and fire of Mount Sinai has been taken away because of a different mountain, a mountain found in Jerusalem. There the Son of God endured all the judgment that the old covenant threatens. There he received the penalty for our sins so we could receive instead the blessings and steadfast love of God. The cross is the power of God to rescue our lives, to transfer us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The cross is the power of God to restore the fundamental truth of the old covenant, in which God says, “I am the Lord your God.” Because we belong to him, we are no longer victims of evil and shame and guilt. We are no longer threatened with death and eternal punishment. Jesus has traded places with us, taking upon his shoulders the wrath of his Father so we could receive instead the grace of his Father.

              In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God tells us the consequences of being his people. After saying, “I am the Lord your God,” he says, “you shall have no other gods… you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal….” These words of God do not say, “Try your best to have no other gods; try your best not to murder or commit adultery or steal.” These words of God do not say, “you shouldn’t do these things” or “you’d better not do these things.” They are firm statements, statements of fact. Because he is the Lord our God, we will not have other gods. We will not murder or commit adultery or steal. We will not covet. God made us. God redeemed us. We belong to him. We are holy people, and holy people do not do such things.

              Under the old covenant, God rejected and destroyed sinners. Under the new covenant, God does not see our sins, because Jesus paid in full on the cross for all our sins. God looks at us, and he sees the righteousness of his Son. From what he sees, God can say that we have no other gods, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or even covet. He accepts us because Jesus has traded places with us, covering us with his righteousness and paying the full price of all our sins.

              This transfer happens at the cross, but it is made ours personally through the means of grace. The Bible delivers to us the news of the new covenant and gives us faith in those promises. The Church delivers forgiveness to us so God sees us as his children and not as rebellious sinners. Holy Baptism washes away our sins and covers us with Christ’s righteousness. Holy Communion brings us the body and blood of Jesus to guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life.

              But God is not merely blind to our sins because of the cross. His forgiveness changes us. We are being transformed into the image of Christ because of the power of the cross. We are not perfect and sinless yet. The transformation has not been completed. But God already sees us as we will be in the new creation, totally transformed so that no sin remains. We will be like Jesus. We will live with him in perfect joy and peace forever.

              Sin and evil have power. God’s grace has more power. Sin and evil corrupt what is good. God’s grace restores what is good. Sin and evil bring damage to the third and fourth generation of God’s enemies. The power of the cross brings grace and peace to thousands of generations of those who love God and cling to his Word. From the creation of Adam until today, not even one thousand generations of people have lived in this world. The power of the cross, the power of God’s grace and mercy and love, overwhelms all of history, because he remains what he always has been. He is the Lord our God.

              Jesus, the only Son of God, has brought us this grace of God. He has given us life in the new covenant. He keeps us safe in that new covenant by the power of the cross. Therefore, we are able to live as his people, content in his peace today and forever. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer be honor and praise, now and always. Amen.

(sermon delivered March 7, 2021; shared with permission. J.)

Leviticus

People trying to read the Bible cover-to-cover in one year have probably long since moved beyond Leviticus. (Or they gave up before they finished Leviticus—the string of chapters from mid-Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is difficult to navigate, second only to the series of chapters from the beginning of Isaiah to the end of Ezekiel.) My personal plan for reading the Bible alternates between different books, helping to add understanding while reducing repetition. So in January I read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Solomon. Finishing Leviticus yesterday, I moved on today to Jeremiah, with Lamentations and Philemon to follow. Next month I will start with Numbers, then will read Galatians through Titus.

Either way, completing Leviticus is an accomplishment. The details of animal sacrifices and of holy living under the old covenant scarcely seem relevant to today’s Christians. Remembering, though, that the entire Bible is about Jesus, important lessons can be gathered, even from the book of Leviticus. Pictures of Jesus are present, although some of them are like photographic negatives; they require a reversal of perspective to illuminate the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. A good commentary helps readers to understand difficult books like Leviticus, and I have access to a very good commentary: Leviticus by John W. Kleinig (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 2003). But the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews also provides much helpful context to understand the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

Leviticus begins with details of various animal sacrifices. Hebrews emphasizes the fact that all Old Testament animal sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Old Testament sacrifices brought forgiveness of sin, not simply by being done, but by being done with faith in God’s promises. Therefore, in Genesis 4 Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Likewise, in some writings of the prophets and some Psalms, God says that he hates the sacrifices of his people and will not accept them. (I particularly like Psalm 50:9, which in the Revised Standard Version is translated, “I will accept no bull from your house.”) God hates it when people go through the motions of worship without faith, without focus on the work of Jesus. He loves and blesses the worship of people who come to him through faith in Christ. Like Paul, every Christian must “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Because of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice, we are acceptable to God. Without them, we are lost.

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests in Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9. They became pictures of Christ, the great High Priest. But when two of Aaron’s sons offered to the Lord fire that was unauthorized (“strange” or “foreign”), their gift was rejected and they were killed. Under the old covenant, nothing could be substituted for the Word of God. Even under the new covenant, nothing can replace Jesus Christ as Savior. Coming to the Father through him, we are blessed; attempting to come to the Father by any other means leads to death rather than to life.

The following chapters of Leviticus deal with impurity and uncleanness. Examples include leprosy, mildew, and non-kosher animals. In each case, that which is not holy contaminates that which is holy; the effort to remove contamination and restore holiness is extensive. In these examples we see the high cost of sin; we learn why God must reject anything that is even lightly touched by evil. Modern examples of medical sanitation, including our efforts to escape COVID contamination, are relevant here. But when Jesus came with the new covenant, he reversed the process of contamination. He removed leprosy and other contamination with a touch or a word. Contact with Jesus made people pure and holy, acceptable to God. Under the new covenant, no food is contaminated or unclean spiritually; all food is kosher, because Christ has redeemed the world from sin and evil.

In the old covenant, even priests and offerings could be contaminated by uncleanness and evil. In the new covenant, Christ’s grace and his victory over evil overwhelm all contaminations. Yet Christians are not free to do whatever our sinful hearts desire; we are still expected to shun evil and to imitate Christ. In Acts 15, the first generation tried to find a balance between obedience and freedom—they forbade some foods, including the blood of animals, as well as sexual impurity. Paul later wrote that all foods are clean, but he continued the prohibition of sexual immorality. Food cannot come between us and God. But, because God is love, our love should be pure; marriage should be a picture of God’s perfect love for us. Christ is the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Law for all people. Christ’s people live in freedom and are not burdened by the Law. But, imitating Christ, his people continue to love God and to love each other, which restricts our freedom to do all things. We are transformed by the Gospel, living as Jesus would live, walking in the light and not in the darkness.

In Leviticus 23-25, rules are given about the holidays of God’s people—the weekly holiday of the Sabbath, and annual holidays such as Passover and the Day of Atonement. All these old covenant holidays were pictures of Christ which were fulfilled by Christ. He is the Passover Lamb; he is the High Priest who provides atonement for all people. His rest on the Sabbath—his body in the tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father—fulfilled the Sabbath. Christians are free from these laws. Many have moved the Sabbath commemoration from Saturday to Sunday; some continue to gather on Saturday, and others find another time during the week most convenient. We are free to gather when we choose. We now have Christmas and Easter to celebrate, but we are free in these matters also. Paul wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). We learn the laws of old covenant holidays to see pictures of Jesus, our Savior. We establish new covenant holidays as pictures of Jesus, our Savior. These are no longer matters of Law; they belong to the Gospel, to grace and freedom.

The end of Leviticus establishes the old covenant, which is described in more detail in Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant, God blesses those who obey his commands and punishes those who disobey his commands. This also has been changed by Christ. We read the histories in the Old Testament, seeing how God treated his chosen people according to this old covenant. In both Testaments, we find the promises of the new covenant. God forgives the sins of his people. He transfers their guilt to his Son, who pays the debt for sin in full on the cross. His perfect righteousness is transferred to all who trust in him, adopting us into his Family and making us acceptable in his Father’s sight. We read the words of the old covenant to see what is fair and just; we read the words of the new covenant to discover God’s mercy, grace, and love. The warnings of the old covenant bring us to the cross of Christ in repentance; the promises of the new covenant flow through the cross to remove our sins, to give us life, and to share with us Christ’s healing and cleansing power, his victory over all evil.

The value of Leviticus is to give us a different perspective of Christ. Seeing the old covenant at work, we value the precious new covenant all the more. We rejoice that Christ has given himself for our salvation, acting as our great High Priest. We rejoice that Christ has removed all evil and contamination from our lives, making us pure and holy, fit to live forever in his kingdom. We rejoice that the new covenant claims us for God’s family so we belong to him and with him forever. J.

Church and state and God’s wrath

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-5).

Americans sometimes speak as if we invented the separation between church and state. That separation already exists in the Bible. Early Israel—under Moses, Joshua, and the judges, including Samuel—was a theocracy; God was ruler over Israel. But already in his farewell sermon (the book of Deuteronomy), Moses guided by the Holy Spirit anticipated the time when Israel would be ruled by a king. The ultimate king is, of course, Jesus, but the kings of Israel and Judah were pictures of Jesus, preparing the way for his coming as surely as priests and prophets prepared the way of the Lord.

Only Jesus is permitted to hold the two positions of priest and king. Saul and Uzziah were both punished by God when they attempted to do tasks assigned to the priests. Likewise in the New Testament, God’s work is done by church leaders and by human governments, but the work they do is carefully distinguished.

Church leaders proclaim the commands of God largely to diagnose sin, to call for repentance, and to offer forgiveness to sinners. Preachers must speak of the wrath of God, but they do not exercise the wrath of God. Human governments pass laws that regulate behavior to protect citizens from sinners. Governments enforce penalties for murder, robbery, false witness, and other sins, declaring them crimes against the state and punishing people convicted of such crimes.

When the church tries to punish sinners, it steps on the government’s feet. Aside from excluding obviously unrepentant sinners from the blessings of the church, Christian leaders can do little with churchly power to overturn evil in the world. We call upon Christians to do good works, to imitate Christ, but we do not convey God’s wrath when Christians fail. Instead, we continue to call for repentance and continue to promise forgiveness through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the government tries to forgive sinners, it steps on the church’s feet. Governors and Presidents have power to pardon criminals, but a governmental pardon is not forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the cross of Christ through the work of the Church.

Christians have a dual citizenship. We are loyal to human government and take part in its actions. We also belong to the kingdom of God, and our first loyalty is to Jesus. When the government opposes God’s ways, we follow God’s ways, as Daniel did in Babylon and as Peter and John did in Jerusalem. But—even though Christians are called to reach out to their neighbors with the good news of forgiveness through Christ—it is right and not sinful for Christians to report a crime to the police. It is right and not sinful for Christians to testify truthfully in court about crimes they have witnessed. Christians may serve as police officers, jurors, judges, and even executioners. When these actions bring punishment to sinners, the wrath of God is being exercised. The final wrath of God will be expressed on the Day of the Lord, but his wrath works through human government today to limit sin and evil in the world and to protect all people from sin and evil.

Faith in Christ spares sinners from the wrath of God on the Day of the Lord. Faith in Christ does not spare sinners from the wrath of God exercised by human government. Prison officials do not witness to prisoners, but they permit Christians to enter the prisons and witness to prisoners. If a criminal comes to faith in prison, that criminal is a forgiven sinner spared God’s wrath on the Last Day, but that prisoner must continue to serve his or her sentence in the world under the authority of human government.

Human governments consist of sinful humans. They sometimes make mistakes and do what is wrong. In a democracy, Christians are free to vote for the leaders they expect to make the fewest mistakes. They are free to send messages to their leaders, advising them to do what those Christians, informed by the Bible, believe to be right for the government to do. Christians even have freedom to gather together and protest wrong decisions made by the government. Christians remain subject to human government, which represents the authority of God. We owe our leaders honor and respect, even when we feel that they are mistaken—even sinful—in what they say and do.

Church leaders describe the wrath of God to warn sinners of the coming Day of the Lord, the punishment that will be dealt to sinners. But we do so to call for repentance. Rather than constantly preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God, Christians should be known for pointing to the cross, showing how Christ consumed the wrath of God to spare us the punishment we deserve. Christian leaders should be known for proclaiming the love and mercy and grace of God, not only his wrath.

Church leaders often call believers to discipleship or to holiness. We remind people why we were made—to love God and to love our neighbors—and we encourage one another to do good works. But the commandments of God do not cause sinners to do good works. The commandments do not create discipleship or holiness. The commandments describe what Christians should do, but the forgiveness of God gives Christians power to do good things. The commandments describe the perfection of Jesus, but the forgiveness of God transforms us into the image of Christ, changing sinners into saints. Knowledge of the wrath of God does not, by itself, redeem sinners; knowledge of the wrath of God moves sinners to repentance, opening their minds and hearts to hear and believe the good news of redemption through Christ.

In this way the Bible distinguishes between the functions of God’s wrath under human governments and in the Christian Church. J.

The wrath of God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18).

About a month ago, my friend and fellow blogger InsanityBytes and I had a conversation at her place (See, there’s this thing called biology) about the wrath of God. IB was speaking against “Christian wrath-mongers,” those who emphasize the wrath of God to such an extent that they scarcely leave room for his love and mercy and forgiveness. In particular she has been disturbed by another blogger who persistently describes the cross of Christ in terms that smack of violence, hatred, and abuse. While I agree with her that the third blogger has badly misstated his description of our redemption at the cross, I also found it necessary to reply to her suggestion that the wrath of God is not real, that it does not exist.

Now, had IB said, “The wrath of God no longer exists for Christians because it was consumed at Christ’s sacrifice on the cross,” I would have joyfully agreed with her. To negate the wrath of God in its entirety is to drain the cross of its power. Granted, other descriptions of the cross still have power: that Christ paid the debt of sinners, that he offered a ransom to reclaim sinners from the enemy, that he fought the enemy (the devil, evil, sin, and death) and won. Any single description of redemption is incomplete. To remove God’s wrath from the equation, though, is not a valid option, since the Bible clearly teaches about God’s wrath.

I promised to study the Bible and report upon the wrath of God. I found that—depending upon which English translation of the Bible one uses—the word “wrath” appears roughly 200 times in the Bible. “Anger” and “angry” show up another 275 times, and “fury” is mentioned 70 times. The Hebrew and Greek words translated as wrath, anger, and fury are correctly translated; the various words all have the meaning of “anger, fury, indignation, ire, wrath.” While they are sometimes used to describe the anger and wrath of humans—and, in some cases, even warn against those qualities—by far the larger number of instances attribute wrath to God. Often that wrath is reserved for the Day of the Lord (Judgment Day), but frequently God’s wrath is a response to sin happening in the present world. Sin makes God angry.

When I sin, I hurt myself. When I sin, I harm my neighbor. When I sin, I damage God’s creation. When I sin, I defy God and declare independence, as if I could rule my own life. For all these reasons, God is right to be angry at sin.

Someone might counter that God’s nature is love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness—and God never changes; he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. All that is true. But God is also holy and good, and a holy and good God must respond to sin because of his love for all that he made. When my sin harms my neighbor, God is angry; when my neighbor’s sin harms me, God is angry. A holy God cannot let sin and evil go without atonement; evil must be countered and not merely ignored.

Because Christians are holy people, we also should be angry about sin. For a Christian to shrug and say, “Oh, well, another mass shooting; another child abducted; another fatal overdose; another person abused. There’s so many problems, it just doesn’t matter any more”—that would be cold hearted, unholy, and not like God. Sin should offend us. Evil should anger us. Like God, we should feel righteous wrath toward those who do wrong in this world.

But the Bible does warn Christians against anger and wrath. Wrath is included in lists of sins that God does not accept. Jesus equates anger—anger that causes us to shout insults—with murder. How do we reconcile these teachings with righteous wrath?

The Bible advises us, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger can be a powerful temptation to sin. God cannot be tempted and never sins; his wrath is always righteous. Our wrath can push us into sin, which is why we need to handle wrath with care. When anger is selfish, when it comes from inconvenience to us and not from rejection of evil, such anger is sinful. Jesus calls that kind of anger murder. God’s wrath toward sin is never murderous anger; it is always holy, righteous, and just.

When the Israelites at Mount Sinai had Aaron build them a gold calf to worship, God was angry. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.’” (Exodus 32:9-10). Moses interceded for the people, and God relented from his wrath. The intercession of Moses is a picture of Christ’s intercession; what Moses did was only possible because of what Christ would do. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:6-9).

God’s eternal and unchanging nature is love. In love he responds to sin and evil with anger; but in love he also finds a way to rescue sinners from his anger. On the cross, Christ faced the wrath of God, consuming it fully so no wrath is left for sinners who trust in Christ.

(To be continued) J.

Authority

“And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).

The scribes and Pharisees, writers of the Talmud, constantly quoted one another to establish authority for their positions. No one wanted to take a stand on something that never had been said before. No teacher would dare to proclaim, “I say to you,” without first having the backing of other great teachers in the form of quotations supporting what the current speaker said.

As the Son of God, Jesus had authority to say, “Moses said… but I say to you….” He did not fear using that authority. Such straight-forward teaching amazed the people that heard Jesus teach. They were astounded to hear him speak, without quoting any other teacher, and to listen as he said, “This is what the Bible really means.” Knowing Jesus as we do, his authority does not startle us as it startled his disciples then.

Jesus went beyond contradicting the teachers of God’s Law. He also contradicted the sinful human heart in all its religious manifestations. We want to find in ourselves a goodness that will win God’s approval for us. We seek goodness in ourselves that can help us find our way to God. Jesus preaches the Law in all its severity to show us that we cannot work our way to God by means of the Law. At the very same time, Jesus also describes the gift, the blessing, the way God forgives our sins and opens his kingdom to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

It is both tragic and comic to hear religious leaders—both Christian and non-Christian—pledge allegiance to the moral standards preached by Jesus. These leaders cannot see that these standards are unobtainable to humans who already have sinned; nor do they comprehend that Jesus offers a better way. Some seek loopholes in his teaching to make us seem good enough for God. Others claim that, so long as we sincerely strive to meet his standards, God will accept us as we are. Neither loopholes nor compromises exist in Jesus’ teaching. He speaks only the Law—which tells us we are deeply in trouble and need help—and the Gospel—which tells us how we have been helped by Jesus.

Jesus is unlike other teachers. He teaches both Law and Gospel, using the Law to show us why we need the Gospel. Unlike teachers who appeal to us to be good, Jesus tells us to be perfect. Other teachers encourage us to live up to God’s moral code. They promise rewards to follow our efforts, and perhaps forgiveness when we try our best and still fall short. Jesus presents instead a message of blessing. He calls the kingdom of heaven a gift given to those who do not deserve it. This gift is given to the people who know that they do not deserve it. Anyone trying to earn this gift is trapped in sand. Anyone who knows Jesus—truly knows him as the one who rescues us, not merely the one who teaches us how to live—stands on the rock. Jesus teaches with authority. He has authority to forgive sins, to rescue sinners, and to give blessings. This authority of Jesus is amazing and wonderful. J.

I never knew you

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that Day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Jesus’ words seem harsh and frightening, warning that it is possible to call Jesus Lord, to do miracles in his name, and still not be known by him! How then can we be sure that he knows us and will claim us as his people on the Last Day?

Jesus wants us to do the will of is Father. His Father’s will is not just the Law—not just that we do not hate, do not lust, do not swear oaths, do not resist an evil person, love our enemies, give to the needy, pray, fast, forgive, and do not worry. Yes, that is the Father’s will for our lives; he created us so we would live that way. But if perfect obedience to this Law is the only way to earn a place in heaven, we are in desperate trouble. Our righteousness is not good enough; we are not perfect like God.

The Father’s will is to change us, to make us perfect. His will; is to give us the kingdom (Luke 12:32)—he gives the kingdom as a gift, a blessing, not a reward for good deeds. Those who come to Jesus on the Last Day boasting of the things they have done for him will show that they did not truly know him. Even if they call him “Lord” and worked miracles in his name, so long as they boast of their accomplishments, they demonstrate that they never knew Jesus. They failed to know him because they looked at themselves and at the things they did. Their treasures are on earth, in their own good works; their treasures are not in heaven, in the righteousness of Jesus. Because they did not know Jesus—because they did not seek God’s kingdom and righteousness in Jesus—Jesus will say that he never knew them.

Not only do we call Jesus Lord; we also believe his promises. We seek his kingdom and his righteousness, not in our good deeds, but in his blessings. We build our lives on him, not on ourselves. Because our lives are built on him, we do not need to fear that, on the Last Day, Jesus might say to us, “Go away—I never knew you.” J.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-20).

Jesus blends two metaphors—the wolf in sheep’s clothing and the tree identified by its fruit. Both metaphors warn us of false prophets. Certainly we must judge other people! We must use good judgment to determine who is telling us the truth about God and salvation and who is misrepresenting the truth. (Some Christians would substitute the word “discernment” for judgment in this context.) When we judge, we do not consider only outward appearances, which can deceive us. When we judge, we look at the results of a life—its fruit. Thus we see whether the person we are judging—the person who claims to be leading us on the paths of Jesus Christ—is faithful to Christ.

Many false religious leaders have fallen victim to temptation. Their sins are known, and we can avoid their false teachings. What should happen, though, if a teacher contradicts God’s Word and yet appears to be moral and upright? Must we accept them as genuine even if their message differs from the Bible? In Deuteronomy, two kinds of false prophets are rejected (and executed): those whose words do not come to pass, and those who preach in the name of false gods—even if their words do come to pass. Jesus teaches nothing different. False teachers may be able to exhibit the outward appearance of virtue, but if their words do not match the words of Jesus, their fruit will be bad. We do not need to wait for the fruit to ripen before we judge it; we already know that the fruit will be bad when we see that the tree is bad.

We judge teachers by their fruits to know which teachers to follow, but we do not judge ourselves this way. We know our hidden sins too well to be convinced by our fruits that we are holy enough for God. When we try to measure our faith and our salvation by our good deeds, we always see ourselves falling short. Instead of measuring ourselves by what we do, we trust what God says about us: we are forgiven, our sins are washed away, and we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The promise of Baptism says that we have been washed clean and adopted into God’s family. From this forgiveness and adoption, good fruit follows. Others may see our saintly fruit and know that we belong to God’s kingdom, but we continually place our confidence in the promises of God and not in our own fruits.

But anyone who teaches a religion of Law, a message consisting only of ethics and morals and doing the right thing, is teaching an incomplete religion, a false religion. Anyone who omits the Gospel promise of forgiveness through Jesus is a bad tree, a wolf in disguise. We judge them by their own teachings, for we already know that no one but Jesus can fulfill the Law perfectly. Those who affirm God’s Law and also share the promise of forgiveness through Jesus are presenting the true message of the Gospel. They are good trees, and they will bear good fruit. We will recognize them by that fruit. J.

The narrow gate

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Robert Frost wrote about taking the road less traveled; “and that has made all the difference,” he assures us. Jesus also seems to recommend the road less traveled rather than following the crowd. The majority of people are entering the wide gate and are following the road that leads to destruction.

What is this wide gate and this easy road? Some might think this describes worldly living, being concerned about what to eat and drink and wear, having treasures and hearts on earth rather than in heaven. Based on this interpretation, they might say that the narrow gate is the moral life, the ethical way, the paths traced by Jesus in his commands as Jesus explains God’s Law.

But even the ethical way is not good enough for God. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. We must be perfect. Earthly treasures include the good works that we do on earth. Heavenly treasures consist only of God’s blessings—his gifts—which he gives to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

All the religions of the world know that it is wrong to kill, wrong even to hate. All the religions of the world oppose lust and revenge and injustice. All the religions of the world recommend a relationship with the divine, one based on prayer and fasting and other good works. All the religions of the world warn their followers not to impress the people living here on earth, but to pursue instead a single-minded love for the One who is in heaven.

All the religions of the world tell us to be more concerned with God than we are with ourselves and with the things of this world. But the religions of the world are still trapped in this world. They tell us how to live in this world, offering a promise that if we live right in the present world we earn rewards for the future.

This urge to earn rewards for the future is the log in our eye, the log which blinds us. We want to live up to God’s standards and earn his favor. Even though this is a holy desire, it also becomes the broad way that leads to destruction. The secret of the kingdom tells us that Jesus is the narrow gate. We enter his kingdom, not by our efforts to obey him and imitate his goodness, but by his gift, his blessing, the things Jesus has done for us.

God himself mourns that so few people find this gate, that so many follow the broad way of trying to be good enough for God—a road that leads, not to perfection, but to destruction. God speaks to the sinners of the world through his apostles and his prophets. He sends the members of his Church to share the good news that we are rescued from evil and reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus told his followers to make disciples of all nations, to share the Gospel with all creation; he said that repentance of sins and forgiveness must be proclaimed in all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. The Bible was written so we would believe in Jesus; and believing, we have life in his name.

Many people who claim to be sharing the teachings of Christ speak only about the rules and commands, neglecting to share the promises and blessings. Jesus wants us to know the rules so we understand why we need a Savior. Because we are rescued, forgiven, and blessed by God, he expects us to use his power to do what is right. The road to the kingdom of God still does not include our obedience. Jesus is the way. Jesus is the gate. Only through Jesus are we rescued and brought into God’s kingdom. J.

The Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

The Golden Rule is one of the basic principles of God’s Law—so basic, in fact, that it is found (in one form or another) in every religion on earth. Even most atheists and agnostics favor this rule (with a few exceptions such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand). Most people agree with Jesus that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. We love our neighbors when we care as much about them as we do about ourselves, when we are as concerned about their wants and needs as we are concerned about our own wants and needs.

Because this maxim is so basic, we sometimes treat it as a stand-alone saying. Bible verses always have a context; they draw meaning from the verses that precede them and the verses that follow them. But this saying appears to be misplaced. It stands between a promise of gifts from the Father and an admonition to choose the narrow gate. Did Jesus want to connect this verse to either of those teachings, did it slip into this place by accident, or did Matthew jumble the teachings of Jesus, throwing together a few pithy sayings near the end of the Sermon on the Mount?

The Bible is God’s Word. Nothing written in the Bible was placed there by accident. The organization of thoughts presented in the Bible matters to God, so it matters also to God’s people. Jesus was making an important point about the Law and the Prophets. He spoke the Golden Rule at just the right time in his sermon.

Jesus had shown the strict demands of God’s Law, the Law which tells us to be perfect. His promise that God answers prayers was spoken in a context of promised forgiveness and rescue, a promise tied to the blessings of the kingdom of God. Jesus now appears to be saying, “The Law is simple. Just treat other people the way you want to be treated. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.” The Golden Rule is not the narrow gate to heaven. The Golden Rule is the wide gate, known to everyone. Seen as the road to heaven, this commandment is on a path that is completely wrong. It summarizes the Law and the Prophets, because everything God expects us to do is included in this simple command. Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; he came to fulfill them. He came to do for us those things he wants us to do. The sinless life of Jesus is God’s answer to our prayers as we ask God for his kingdom and his righteousness.

We cannot rescue ourselves by obeying God’s commands. Not one of us is perfect; only Jesus is perfect. Jesus credits us with his righteousness. He does everything that he wants us to do. In this way he answers our prayers. He forgives our sins. He adopts us into God’s family. He calls us “sons of God.” This blessing, this gift, is given to us, but not because we deserve it for our efforts to be like him. It is given because Jesus loves us and because he has paid to claim us for himself and his kingdom.

Now that we are rescued, Jesus still wants us to obey his commands. He wants us to love God and to love one another, because love is the nature of God. We were made to be loved and to love. Jesus still wants us to do for others what we would have them do for us. He expects this from us. Although this commandment is not the gate to God’s kingdom, we live according to the Golden Rule. Our proper treatment of our neighbors is a result of being forgiven, being adopted, and being called sons of God. J.