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 message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.

The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.



“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Salvageable adds: The second article of the Creed distinguishes Christians from nonChristians; the third article distinguishes some Christians from others. From the Bible Luther learned that not all people will be saved; only those who believe God’s promises, fulfilled in Christ, will be saved. Luther also learned that God does not want to condemn anyone and that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to atone for every sinner who ever lived or who ever will live. But Luther found other verses in the Bible that say that people cannot come to Christ unless God draws them to himself. Jesus is a Shepherd going into the wilderness to find lost sheep; he is not waiting for the sheep to find him. Therefore, Luther credits God the Holy Spirit with giving him faith and with keeping that faith alive in him.

Luther’s gifts of the Holy Spirit are not those listed in I Corinthians 12, nor are they the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Instead, the fruits that enlighten God’s people include the Word of God, that which was preached and written by apostles and prophets as guided by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God grants faith and helps that faith to mature. Other gifts of the Holy Spirit that enlighten Christians are the Holy Christian Church, where forgiveness is proclaimed, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

Jesus died on the cross to purchase forgiveness for all sinners. The Holy Spirit brings forgiveness to sinners through those gifts. The Church which gathers around that forgiveness is kept together by those gifts. When God looks at his people, he does not see them gathered in many separate buildings, each with different labels on the front doors. God sees one Church, united by his Son and his Spirit, some waiting in Paradise for the resurrection of the dead and some still alive on earth.

When Jesus is seen in glory on the Day of the Lord, all the angels of heaven will be with him, along with all the saints. The bodies of everyone who ever lived will be raised and gathered for judgment. This judgment will be a verdict announced by Jesus, welcoming the saints into his kingdom but sending unbelievers to join the devil in his prison. The saints in Paradise today are not yet enjoying their final reward. Though they are away from the body, in the presence of God, a better world is still coming. The resurrection of the body is the beginning of life everlasting. Christians have that life today, but not in its fullness. On that Day we will truly be in heaven, as all the glory of heaven comes to renew this earth. J.

Seven Mysteries of the Christian Faith–Chapter four: the mystery of faith and the means of grace

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ. Romans 10:14-15, 17

Christians do no work to earn God’s forgiveness and redemption. Jesus Christ has done all the work necessary to save the entire world from sin and evil and death. If someone tries to purchase God’s love and forgiveness, that person is insulting God by trying to pay for the gifts that God has already given for free.

Yet the preaching of Jesus was summarized with this sentence: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The prophets and the apostles also told people to repent and to believe. The Bible repeatedly warns that no one can be saved from sin and death without believing in Jesus Christ. The mystery of faith, quite simply, is that we must have faith to be God’s people, yet nothing we do causes us to be God’s people.

Repentance and faith are not our gifts to God; they are his gifts to us. Repentance and faith are the result of God the Holy Spirit working within us. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3). Paul is not describing the sounds made by our mouths, for any person can utter either sentence. Paul is describing the absence or presence of faith. If a person has faith in Jesus, that person has been given faith by the Holy Spirit. Christians cannot take credit for their own faith; only God deserves credit for the faith of his people.

Repentance and faith require no effort. They are not work done by Christians. If you believe that two plus two equals four or that Tokyo is in Japan, you trust the truth of those statements. You trust the people who first taught you those facts. Even though some facts are harder to learn than others, believing what you already have learned is never hard work.

Repentance and faith are more than mere facts, though. A person might say “Jesus is Lord” in twenty different languages and still not believe that it is true. A person might be able to recite long statements of faith from memory without agreeing with that faith. Repentance and faith involve knowledge, but they also involve a relationship with that knowledge. Repentance and faith require a relationship with Jesus Christ. That relationship happens, not when we find him, but when he finds us. He is the Shepherd who has gone out into the wilderness to bring his wandering sheep back to the fold. He is the Priest who sacrificed himself on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. He is the Savior who rescues sinners through his own life and death and resurrection.

Repentance and faith are not things that Christians do once and then never have to do again. Because they both involve a relationship with Jesus, both are ongoing parts of a Christian’s life every single day. If a Christian were to say, “I already repented—I don’t have to repent anymore,” or, “I already came to faith—I don’t have to believe anymore,” he or she would be badly mistaken. Christians constantly repent and constantly believe. Even while they sleep, Christians are still in a relationship with Jesus. They have faith both awake and asleep. If the brain of a Christian is damaged by injury or illness, that Christian might lose many things—the ability to talk, the ability to walk, or even the ability to think clearly. That Christian would not lose his or her faith, because Jesus and the Holy Spirit remain unchanged; and the relationship of faith is their work, not a Christian’s work. By the same token, even little children too young to walk or talk can have true Christian faith. John the Baptist had not been born when he leapt for joy at the sound of his Savior’s mother (Luke 1:44). Jesus spoke more than once about the faith of little children. (See Matthew 18:2-4 and Matthew 19:13-15 for two examples.) Repentance and faith do not require intelligence, because they are mysteries. They happen even without being understood.

Jesus commands us to repent and to believe. We could not do these things without his help. Jesus often works this way. A paralyzed man was brought to him, and Jesus commanded him, “rise, pick up your bed, and go home” (Mark 2:11). This man wanted to do these things, but he could not do them until Jesus gave him that command. When Jesus gave the command, the words that he said made the man able to do those things. On another occasion, Jesus visited a grave and commanded, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Lazarus came out of the grave. He would not have been able to leave the grave without the command of Jesus, for he was dead; but the words of Jesus gave him the ability to do what Jesus commanded. Lazarus left the grave alive because Jesus, by calling him, made him able to obey.

In the same way, when Jesus tells people to repent, he gives them the ability to repent. When Jesus tells people to believe, he gives them the ability to believe. The Holy Spirit works through the words of Jesus so that people can do what Jesus wants them to do. The Word of God has great power to do marvelous things. God created the world by his Word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Paul wrote that God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). That is true, not merely because God is so good that he would never lie, but because God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, God’s Word makes things happen. Whatever God says is true because, by saying it, he makes it true.

Repentance is the awareness that we are sinners who need a Savior. When we repent, we acknowledge that we have done wrong (or failed to do right) and that we cannot fix that problem. Repentance can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the repentance. Repentance is that part of our relationship with God that moves us to throw ourselves on his mercy. When we repent, then, we are responding to God’s commands. He has told us what to do and what not to do. The Holy Spirit guides us by comparing our lives to God’s commands and showing us our guilt. This awareness of guilt is good when it brings us to God for forgiveness. Awareness of guilt is bad only when it stands between ourselves and God, keeping us from knowing his forgiveness.

Faith is the awareness that we are sinners who have a Savior. When we believe, we acknowledge that Jesus has rescued us from our sins. We acknowledge that his life and death and resurrection guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life. Faith can sometimes be emotional, but the feeling is not the faith. Faith is that part of our relationship with God that trusts his mercy and all his promises. When we believe, we are responding to the gospel. God sent his Son to be our Savior, and now God tells us what Jesus has done for us. Awareness of Jesus and his rescue mission is always good. Without this faith, no one can be saved.

Some people claim that “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you have faith.” That claim is nonsense. Believing in Jesus as Savior is not the same as believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Nor is it the same as believing in yourself. Believing in Jesus means knowing and trusting his promises. Believing in Jesus is an ongoing relationship that was started by Jesus and is continued by Jesus. He gives us faith as a gift, not as something we deserve. He gives us faith because he loves us and wants to bless us.

God could bestow repentance and faith any way he wants. He wants to give those gifts through his Word. He created the universe through his Word, and now he creates new life in us through his Word. That Word comes to us in several different forms. These forms are sometimes called the means of grace. That label applies to them because, in each of these forms, God’s Word brings grace to his people so we will repent and believe. God does not intend for any Christian to choose just one of the means of grace and neglect the others. He wants his people to be strengthened by all the means of grace. Trying to be a Christian without regular use of the means of grace is like trying to survive without eating. The means of grace are not optional; they are God’s way of keeping repentance and faith alive.

Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish what I purpose and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God accomplishes its purpose when it is spoken. Moses, the prophets, and the apostles all spoke before they wrote. Their spoken word had as much power to save lives as does their written word. When they delivered God’s commands, the Holy Spirit used those commands to cause people to repent. When they delivered God’s promises, the Holy Spirit used those promises to cause people to believe. Moses and the prophets spoke about a Redeemer who would come, and people were saved by believing that he would come. The apostles spoke about the same Redeemer but said he had already come, and people were saved by believing that Jesus had come as promised.

Christians have several names for the means of grace that is spoken. They call it mission work, evangelism, witnessing, outreach, and sharing the faith. Jesus specifically gave this power to his apostles and to all Christians. To Peter he said, “I give you the keys of 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). Later he said almost the same words to all the apostles: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). This gift was so important to Jesus that he said it a third time just hours after his resurrection: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23).

Keys are powerful. They lock and unlock doors. Who has the keys to the kingdom of heaven? Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just missionaries, and not just preachers. Every Christian has those keys. Just before giving the keys to his apostles on Easter night, we are told that Jesus “breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). Anyone who has received the Holy Spirit has also received the keys to heaven. As Paul indicated to the Corinthians, anyone who believes in Jesus has received the Holy Spirit. When a Christian announces forgiveness, that message is as sure and certain as if Jesus stood there himself and said, “I forgive you.”

Generally when Christians gather together for services, one Christian (or sometimes more than one) has been chosen to lead the services as a pastor or minister or preacher. In those gatherings, that minister speaks the words of forgiveness. When the service has ended and the Christians go home, each one of them carries the same keys.  No one who believes God’s Word is lacking the power to share God’s Word with others.

Sharing God’s Word includes warning sinners that they need a Savior. The message, “God loves you, he forgives you, and he wants you to live forever with him in heaven,” will be misunderstood by any hearer who thinks he or she is pretty good, deserving God’s love and a place in heaven. The mystery of redemption has no meaning to someone who does not understand sin. When Christians speak God’s commands and apply them to the lives of others, the Holy Spirit works through those commands to guide people to repent. Christians do not talk about sin to make other people feel bad. Christians do not talk about sin to show that they are better than other people. Christians do not talk about sin to try to control other people. The main reason we share God’s commands is that we want also to share his promises. We want people to repent because we want them also to believe the gospel.

Speaking the commands without the promises, then, is even worse than speaking the promises without the commands. We cannot make anyone believe in Jesus. We cannot even make ourselves believe in Jesus. When we describe his promises to other people, though, we are using the keys to the kingdom of heaven. As the Holy Spirit uses the commands of God to guide people to repent, so he uses the promises of God to guide people to believe. Christians are blessed by Jesus with the opportunity to bring his treasures to the people we know.

God’s spoken commands and promises are powerful. His written commands and promises are also powerful. The Bible describes itself as the Word of God, but believing it is so because the Bible says it is so is circular reasoning. The Bible conveys God’s power because it was delivered through the prophets and apostles, God’s authorized messengers to the world. The word “apostle” means “messenger,” not in the sense of a mail carrier, but in the sense of an agent who has power to speak for the sender. An agent representing a corporation or an ambassador representing a government is an apostle. Therefore, when the apostles wrote letters to churches and to individuals, their letters were considered messages from the one who sent the apostles; namely, Jesus.

Odd conspiracy theories have been invented to explain the origins of the Bible. The truth is far less dramatic than the theories make it seem. As Christians gathered the writings that are now known as the Bible, they asked three questions about each writing. They asked: Does it come from a prophet or apostle chosen by God? Does it agree with the message that is being taught in all the Christian Churches? Is it known to most Christian congregations? Books that did not meet these three requirements were not included in the Bible.

Some books were easily included: Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Psalms, Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other prophets; likewise the four gospels, the thirteen letters of Paul, and the letters of Peter and John. Although Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two books were not written by apostles, their association respectively with Peter and Paul earned them approval. The anonymous letter to the Hebrews, the letters of James and Jude, and the book of Revelation were questioned by some Christian leaders, as was the Song of Solomon. Because these books were well-known to Christians and agree in content with the rest of the Bible, they were eventually included. Many books were omitted—the Gnostic writings because they disagreed with Christian teachings, and letters from other Christians such as Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, because they were not written by apostles.

Christians disagree with each other about the authority of the Bible. Some say that the prophets and apostles were just writing their own opinions about God, his commands, and his promises. Such Christians consider themselves free to disagree with any part of the Bible they do not want to believe. Other Christians picture God dictating the words of each book of the Bible to the various writers. Such Christians know that, when they disagree with the Bible, they are disagreeing with God himself.

The Bible is a mystery, though, because it comes entirely from God and yet comes entirely through ordinary human beings. Every word of the Bible is God’s Word, yet every word of the Bible is also of human origin. The Bible might be compared to Jesus, who is completely God and completely human all the time. The Holy Spirit guided the writers, but he did not dictate to them. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote accounts of Jesus that were shaped by their own personalities. John and Paul have noticeably different writing styles. The Bible can be studied with all the techniques used to study human literature, because it is human literature. The Bible can be trusted as a true message from God, because it truly is a message from God.

As literature, some statements in the Bible are straight-forward while others use figurative language. When the Bible says God “will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4), the Bible does not teach that God has wings and feathers. The statement is true—that God protects his people—but it is written as poetry and must be read as poetry. Many of the significant disagreements about what the Bible means in various places is a disagreement about whether a statement is literally true or telling the truth with poetic imagery. The best way of handling such disagreements is to interpret the difficult passages of the Bible by comparing them to clear passages about the same topic.

Some people read the Bible as nothing more than literature. It is, of course, literature, but it is also far more. Some people read the Bible for information about history. The Bible contains information about history, but it is far more than a history book. Some people read the Bible looking for God’s commands. The Bible contains many commands from God—experts have identified more than six hundred commands in just the first five books of the Bible. God’s commands tell people why they were created and what they are meant to do. Merely reading the commands does not make people able to do what God has commanded.

Along with literature and history and the commands of God, the Bible also contains God’s promises. Even the commands help to emphasize the promises, since the commands of God show where we have sinned, and the promises of God show how we are saved from sin. The Bible, as a means of grace, has the power to shape lives. The Holy Spirit through the Bible tells people to repent and believe the gospel, and it also causes people to repent and believe the gospel. The Bible describes itself as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16), but the Bible’s main purpose is “to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (II Timothy 3:15).

Whether God’s Word is spoken or read, it changes lives. Through its message, God’s Word brings the mystery of redemption, causing faith in Jesus Christ and strengthening that faith. Sometimes believers are not sure of their faith. If they would look at their Redeemer, they would be confident they have been rescued and redeemed. Instead, they look at themselves and ask, “Is my faith strong enough? Do I believe as much as I should believe? Can I be sure that the message of the Bible really is meant for me?”

To answer those questions, God combines his Word with basic elements of the world he created, bringing us the power of his promises in ways that do not rely only on words, even though the Word of God is the only power that gives the elements any power. Even before Jesus was born, God had ceremonies for his people to observe, promising them forgiveness and a place in his kingdom through these ceremonies. He commanded that every boy born to a family among the people of God be circumcised. If a man wanted to join the people of God, he also had to be circumcised. Circumcision happened once in a lifetime, but it was a reminder to a man for the rest of his life that he belonged to God. God also commanded that various animals be sacrificed in specific ways. The sacrifices were given often, according to the commands of God, but through them God promised forgiveness of his people’s sins.

Jesus was circumcised a week after he was born. He was obedient to all the commands of his Father, including that of circumcision. For the first time in his mission of redemption, Jesus endured pain and shed his blood. Through his obedience and through his blood, he was rescuing sinners. Now that Jesus has completed his mission, God no longer requires the ceremony of circumcision. Before the work of Jesus was finished, circumcision was very important. Now it does not matter whether or not a believer has been circumcised.

The system of sacrifices that God commanded was very important to God. All those sacrifices were pictures of Jesus and of his mission of redemption. As animals shed their blood and died, forgiveness was conveyed to the people of God because they were foreshadowing the suffering of Jesus and his death on the cross. For this reason, the sacrifices required faith to bring the forgiveness of sins. When God’s people went through the motions of sacrifice without thinking of his promises of redemption, God hated the sacrifices they offered (Isaiah 1:11-14 and Psalm 50:8-11). Yet when the same sacrifices were offered in faith, God accepted them and kept his promise to forgive the sins of his people. Like circumcision, though, the system of sacrifices ended when Jesus offered himself on the cross. Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice, and now God’s people are no longer required or expected to offer animals to God. After all, the animals were only pictures of redemption; the death of Jesus on the cross accomplished real redemption.

Even without circumcision, God has a ceremony that declares that certain people belong to him. This ceremony is called baptism. It involves water, although different groups of Christians apply the water in different ways. More important, it involves the Word of God, the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Through this ceremony people are claimed for the kingdom of God. Some Christians baptize children, even infants, just as boys were circumcised when they were only a week old. Other Christians have children wait until they are old enough to say that they believe in Jesus and want to be baptized. In either case, baptism is a mystery. How can some water and a few words mean the difference between belonging to God and not belonging to God?

Baptism must be important, because Jesus commanded baptism. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” he said (Mathew 28:19), and he added, “Whoever who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Paul linked baptism to the death and resurrection of Jesus, saying that a baptized Christian takes part in that redeeming work that Jesus did, the work that brings forgiveness and eternal life (Romans 6:3-6).

Paul was also thinking of baptism when he wrote about the “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Jesus spoke the same theme when he said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).Peter also wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this” (the flood in the days of Noah) “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (I Peter 3:21).

Baptism saves people. It regenerates people. It brings people the forgiveness that Jesus guaranteed by dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. Baptism does not save because the water has magic power. It does not save because it is obedience to a command, a good work that buys love from God. It saves because of the Word of God. It saves because of the promise of God. It saves as an adoption ceremony, one which brings people not only into God’s kingdom, but even into God’s family.

Jesus was baptized. He had no sins for which he needed to be forgiven. He had no need to be adopted into God’s family—he is already the only-begotten Son of God. One could say that Jesus was baptized to show how important baptism is to him. He commands us to be baptized, and so he obeys his own command. More than that, the mystery of baptism is the promise of adoption, which is linked to the mystery of redemption, particularly the Great Exchange. A Christian who is baptized is seen as clean and new, no longer stained by sin. The sins do not merely disappear; they go to the cross, where Jesus pays for them in full. When Jesus takes those sins, he replaces them with his perfect goodness. Through baptism, God the Father now looks at a Christian and says what he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). For whenever God looks at a baptized believer, God is seeing Jesus his Son.

For this reason, a Christian declares, not “I was baptized” on a certain day, but “I am baptized.” Baptism is a ceremony that happens once in a lifetime, but baptism is also a continuing relationship with God. Of course this relationship is still centered on Jesus Christ. A person without faith in Jesus is not saved, even if he or she was baptized. To the Christian who believes in Christ, though, baptism is a personal guarantee from God. It answers the question, “Do I have enough faith?” It answers the question, “Can I be sure that the messages of the Bible are really for me?” Baptism is God’s “yes” to those questions. It is his assurance that his promises are true and will not be broken or rescinded.

Another mystery is known by several names, including Communion, the Eucharist, and the Lord’s Supper. By any name, this meal in miniature is something that Jesus told his people to do often. His establishment of this meal is recorded four places in the Bible (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, I Corinthians 11:23-26). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes additional comments about this mystery, calling it “participation” in the blood and the body of Christ (I Corinthians 10:17).

Jesus established this mystery during the Passover meal just a few hours before he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he would begin the final steps on his way to the cross. Jesus took a piece of Passover bread, made without yeast. He prayed a prayer of thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” Later in the meal, he took the cup of thanksgiving—the third of four cups of wine traditionally drunk during the Passover meal. When he had given thanks, he gave the cup to his disciples, saying, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” He then added, “Do this often, remembering me.”

Christians have struggled to understand this mystery. Some say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the bread, it actually changes into the body of Jesus, although it still seems like bread to all the senses. They say that, when the words of the Bible are spoken over the wine, it actually changes into the blood of Jesus, although it still seems like wine to all the senses. Other people say that the bread is only a reminder of the body of Jesus, given on the cross, and that the wine is only a reminder of the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. Some, embracing the mystery, say that the bread remains bread but is also the body of Jesus. They say that the wine remains wine but is also the blood of Jesus. They compare this paradox to that of Jesus himself, who is entirely God and entirely man at the same time.

Jesus did not give this mystery so that his followers would have a reason to argue among themselves. Nor did he give it as an empty ceremony, something to be done just because he said so. Jesus told his disciples to remember him when they ate and drank of the mystery. Specifically, they are to remember that the body of Jesus was given for them on the cross to remove all their sins. The blood of Jesus was shed on the cross to take away all their sins. Jesus was not being morbid or gross when he spoke about eating his body and drinking his blood. He was speaking of an intimate relationship, more intimate than we can have even with any other human being. As Christians, we want to be close to our Redeemer. By this mystery, Jesus comes closer to us than any of us would have imagined possible. He actually serves himself to us in order to remind us of how he sacrificed himself for us.

Jesus serves this meal of mystery to his people to bring them the same blessings that come through the spoken Word and the written Word. He brings the same blessings that come through the Word with water in baptism. Now, through eating bread and drinking wine, Christians are blessed with forgiveness, with redemption, and with victory over all their enemies, even death itself. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a good work that earns any blessing. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is not a favor we pay to him. Eating and drinking what Jesus serves is an opportunity to receive the good things that Jesus wants to give. It is time spent with our Redeemer, participating in what he has done for us so we can receive the benefits of what Jesus has done.

This mystery sometimes is compared to the feast promised to God’s people in the new creation.  There once again Jesus will serve his people, inviting them to join in the victory celebration that marks his victory. On his own, Jesus has conquered sin and evil and death. He does not want to celebrate alone. All his people will be with him forever in that new creation. Aside from a few scattered verses in the last book of the Bible, eternal life in the kingdom of God is not described as wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, or playing harps. Instead, it is described as an enormous party—the best of foods, the best of wines, music, dancing, and the company of all our best friends. When Jesus invites us to his house to share a meal today, we remember the invitation he has given us to the great unending celebration in the world to come.

The means of grace are the spoken Word of God, the written Word of God, the Word of God with water in baptism and the Word of God with eating and drinking in Communion. The mystery of the Word of God in each of these forms generates in every Christian the mystery of faith. Jesus commands us to believe, but the Word that commands us to believe also causes us to believe. By this mystery, we are redeemed.