Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

Camel versus needle

              Some preachers say that the city of Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle. Other gates were high and wide, but this gate was low and narrow. People could pass through the gate and enter the city if they went single-file and crossed through the gate one at a time. But for a camel, the gate was almost impossible to navigate. To get a camel through the Eye of the Needle, one first had to remove all the packs from the camel’s back. Then the camel had to be forced down to its knees. On its knees, without any baggage, the camel could pass through the Eye of the Needle and enter the city of Jerusalem.

              Now that I have painted this picture in your minds, I have to work to erase it again. Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of the Needle. Even if it had such a gate, no sensible person would have tried to get a camel into the city that way. There were plenty of other gates one could use to enter Jerusalem without forcing a camel to its knees. I can see why a preacher might think that Jesus was pointing to a gate called the Eye of the Needle when telling his disciples how hard it is to get a rich person into the kingdom of heaven. But the preachers who make a metaphor about removing the baggage from a camel and forcing the camel to its knees are preachers who do not understand Jesus and the message he was sharing.

              Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of a Needle. If Jesus had been pointing to such a gate as a metaphor, his conversation with the disciples would have been very different. If the disciples had seen a camel removed of its baggage and forced to its knees, they would not have asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Nor would Jesus have answered their question with the words, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

              Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible. Rescuing a sinner from evil in this world is also impossible. Our possessions, our burdens, our attachments to worldly things all make it hard for us to find our way into the kingdom of heaven. Like camels, we simply cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Any effort of preachers and teachers to change the message of Jesus, to make the impossible merely difficult, misses the point. We cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life. We cannot defeat our enemies—the sins we have committed, the sinful world around us, and the devil who masterminds the evil that exists in God’s creation. All things are possible for God; but I am not God, and you are not God. We cannot do the things God does. Things that are possible for God remain impossible for you and for me.

              We know that good deeds cannot earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven. From childhood we have been told that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Some people who were wealthy might give away all their possessions. Others might use those possessions to do great things for the poor in this world and for the work of the Church. Some people commit their lives to work in the Church; other people have different callings, but they give their spare time to serve the Church. Some sinners have turned away from their sinful ways and are trying their best to imitate Jesus. We salute their good works and rejoice in the good things they are accomplishing. But we remind them—and ourselves—that those good works are not good enough to earn God’s love and approval. Like the rest of us, they are forgiven by God and granted eternal life as a gift. Heaven is not a reward for their goodness; heaven is a benefit they receive because of the good things Jesus did for them.

              While we know that we cannot earn a place in heaven, many Christians still confuse their good works with the gift of forgiveness. After all, they want to be certain of their salvation. How do you know that you have enough faith to be saved? How can you be sure that the promises of God are true for you? Some preachers fall into the trap of saying that, when you come to faith, your life is changed. You turn away from sin; you become better at imitating Jesus. They tell Christians to look at the good things they are doing and to be confident of their salvation because they have been changed, because they are acting like Christians and no longer acting like sinners.

              Jesus never said that. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles never said that. They said that our good deeds would be signs to other people, but they did not tell us to measure our good deeds. We teach other people about Jesus by trying to imitate Jesus, but we cannot prove to ourselves that we are Christians. The more we measure ourselves, the more we realize that we still fall short of the kingdom of heaven. We still sin every day and need a Savior every day. Our lives as Christians are a paradox: at the same time, we are saints and sinners. We belong to God, and we know that he has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. But none of us has arrived yet at perfection. No matter how hard we try, we still are not pure and righteous. Measuring our good deeds honestly shows us that we still are not good enough for God and for the kingdom of heaven. Left to our good deeds as proof of our salvation, we must despair. We still fall short of saintly lives. We are still stained by the sin and evil of this wicked world.

              We can be saved from our sins and from the evil in this world only by God’s gift of grace. This gift enters our lives through faith. Many Christians are confused about faith. They treat faith as a work, as something we do for God. They measure faith the way they measure works: do I have enough faith? Is my faith strong enough to save me? When we think of faith as something we do for God, then we are certain to conclude that we do not have enough faith, or that our faith is not strong enough to save us. We know that we must believe. But when we treat that requirement as a burden placed upon us, we are forgetting God’s grace. God’s grace rescues us from sin and evil; God’s grace also gives us the faith we need to be saved. We come to Jesus, not by our own reason and strength, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us, purifies us, and keeps us in the true Christian faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and even the faith that saves us is God’s work in our lives, not our work for God.

              “But we have to repent,” someone might say. “We have to say we are sorry, or God won’t forgive us.” Even when we understand that grace and faith come from God, we still think of repentance as our responsibility, something we do for God. After all, the sinner who refuses to repent is a sinner who cannot be forgiven. The sinner who loves sin more than he or she loves the Savior cannot be brought into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we are back to the camel that must get rid of its baggage and drop to its knees before it can enter the gate. We are creating that false picture of a camel at the imaginary gate to Jerusalem whenever we say that something must be done on our end before the gift of salvation and eternal life can belong to us.

              If we had to do anything to enter the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom would be a reward and not a gift. We must repent and believe the Gospel. But repenting, as well as believing, is work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. God’s Word changes us; it gives us the ability to do what was impossible for us before God spoke. Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand and walk, to carry his stretcher home. That man stood and walked and carried his stretcher. The Word of Jesus made him able to do what he could not do earlier. Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus could not have left the grave without that Word of Jesus. Lazarus was dead, and dead people do not move. But when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus was no longer dead. He was alive, able to obey the command of his Lord. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to repent and to believe, we can repent, and we can believe. His Word changes us, making us capable of doing what once was impossible for us because we were sinners trapped in a sinful world.

              With God all things are possible. When Jesus acts, we are no longer sinners trapped in a sinful world. Jesus enters this world as one of us to do the things we have not done. He obeys the commandments of God and earns his rewards; then he passes those rewards on to us as a gift. In exchange, he takes on himself the burden of our sins. He pays our full debt on the cross. He battles our enemies and defeats them, and he shares with us his victory. The only-begotten Son of God pays to adopt us into his family so that we also are children of God. His kingdom is our home, not because of anything we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

              With God all things are possible. Jesus dies and is buried, but he returns to life and leaves the grave. He also promises us a resurrection like his. Even if we die, we will not remain dead forever. Jesus will appear in glory and will call us out of our graves as he called Lazarus from his grave. We too will answer his call and will rise, healed and able to live forever in the kingdom of God. Because we belong to his kingdom, we possess eternal life. We will be with Jesus and with all his saints forever in a world without sin or evil or death.

              That guarantee belongs to us today, even though we remain sinners living in a sinful world. We are not trapped; we are already free because of what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us faith; he also gathers us into the Holy Christian Church. His gifts are found in the Church, because his gifts create the Church. We gather in the name of Jesus—we gather around that Word that causes us to repent and believe, to be his people and to have life in his name. The work that Jesus did for us, dying for us and rising again for us, is transferred into our lives through Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ and are buried with Christ; in Baptism, we rise with Christ. We leave behind our old sinful lives, and we rejoice in our new holy and purified lives. Jesus feeds us at his Table. He shares with us his body and his blood, welcoming us into his kingdom and guaranteeing us forgiveness and eternal life with him and with all his saints.

              Because we are given power to repent and to believe, we also are transformed. We can imitate Jesus now, because he has changed us. We are not perfect yet, but other people can see our good works and know that God is shaping our lives. Peter could boast of all the worldly things he had left behind to follow Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter (and the rest of us) of the things we gain by God’s grace through faith. While we measure the burdens we have left, we are not yet focused on the kingdom of God. When we measure the blessings we receive by grace, we no longer care about the burdens we have lost. Belonging to God matters more to us than any worldly riches and wealth. We can be poor in spirit, using what we have today to serve God. We can be good stewards of our worldly blessings while we focus our attention on the heavenly riches that we possess. Those heavenly treasures are not earned by works we do in this world. The heavenly treasures are gifts. But their existence changes how we see the things that God has given us for this lifetime in this temporary world.

              With Jesus, everything turns upside down. In this world, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; but in eternity, the wealth we have today is nothing compared to the treasure already stored up for us in heaven. In this world, the past shapes our present and the present shapes our future. In eternity, our past is erased and has no effect on our present, and our guaranteed future shapes the lives we live today. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of God, makes himself last, suffering and dying on the cross for our redemption. He moves us to the head of the line where we are given as a gift the rewards Jesus earned. J.

When I find myself in times of trouble

John Cassian (360-435) wrote that times of trouble come to the Christian from three causes: as a result of that Christian’s sin, as an attack from Satan, and as testing from the Lord. Regretfully, Cassian did not offer any clues how to discern which of these three is the result of any particular trouble. Moreover, he did not address the likelihood that a trouble may come from two of these causes or even from all three at once.

The best defense against the first source of trouble is a life of continual repentance and faith. Repentance is not a practice that can be accomplished once and concluded; repentance is an ongoing condition, a continual element in the Christian life. In his model prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray “forgive us our trespasses” immediately after praying “give us this day our daily bread.” Like our need for food, our need for forgiveness comes each day. Each day we sin and need a Savior; each day our Savior is present for us, removing all our sins by his work. Each day we turn to him in faith, trusting his promises. Each day he keeps his promises. Therefore, if trouble should come because of our sin, the work of Christ removes that sin and ends that trouble. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we have is not a result of our sins—because those sins are already forgiven and forgotten by God. Our daily repentance and faith assures us that any trouble we face must be an attack from Satan (or from the sinful world around us) or a test from the Lord, or (most likely) both at once.

In today’s world, tests are seen as examinations in school, exercises in which the teacher discovers how much each student has learned. God does not have to test us in this way; he already knows what we believe and the strength of that faith. The origin of the idea of testing, and its meaning in Biblical times, comes from refineries. Metals are tested by enduring heat: impurities are burned away, so that the surviving metal is more pure. So God permits Satan and the sinful world to test his people, putting us through the heat to purify our faith. God does not test us because he hates us, and God does not test us because he doubts us; God tests us to strengthen us and to purify our love for him.

Job was tested by Satan. Satan was permitted to strip away Job’s wealth and to kill Job’s children. He then was permitted to strike Job with a disease along the order of chicken pox or shingles. Job’s wife told him to reject God, but Job continued to trust God. Job’s three friends visited Job and sat with him in silence. (Their presence during his trouble was supportive friendship, a model that should be imitated.) Job endured depression, part of the test, and Job spoke about his problems. His friends tried to answer his questions, becoming part of his affliction and part of his test. They told Job that God does not make mistakes, that Job deserved whatever was happening to him, and that Job could end his trouble by identifying his sin, repenting, returning to God, and trusting God. Even in his depression, even in his questions, Job had not stopped trusting God. He rejected the suggestion of his friends that he deserved to suffer. In the end, God vindicated Job, telling his friends that they were wrong, but offering to forgive their sin against God when Job interceded for them.

God never answered Job’s questions about why Job was suffering. God did not tell Job that Job was being attacked by Satan (although God’s allegory of Leviathan, the sea monster, was a huge hint about Satan and his opposition to Job). Following the test of Satan’s attack, God restored Job’s wealth, giving him twice as property as he had lost. Ten more children were born to Job. They did not replace the ten children who had died; Job was now the father of twenty children—ten alive with him on earth, and ten alive with God in Paradise, waiting for the resurrection.

Job suffered, even though he did not deserve to suffer. His troubles were not caused by his sins; his sins were removed by his Redeemer and could not bring trouble to Job. Job became a picture of the Redeemer, of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Jesus also would suffer without deserving to suffer. He would endure the cross, not because of his own sins (for Jesus never sinned); he would endure the cross on behalf of all the sinners of the world, including Job, his children, his wife, and his friends.

In times of trouble, Christians can be pictures of Jesus, as Job was a picture of Jesus. We accept trouble, not because we deserve it, but because we are living on a battlefield. Satan and the sinful world attack the children of light. We respond by trusting God, the Source of life and light. Instead of examining ourselves to see what we have done to deserve trouble, we repent of our sins and trust God’s promises that all our sins have been removed. Testing strengthens us, burning away impurities, drawing us closer to God. Whatever hardship or loss we endure, we can use it to remind ourselves of the cross of Christ and the victory he has already won on our behalf. J.

Tearaway stabilizer

Originally, I was going to call this post, “Things Other People Have Already Said.” But this weekend, while I was having a conversation with a member of my family who sews, when she repeatedly spoke about “tearaway stabilizer,” my first thought (in the spirit of Dave Barry) was, “That would be a great name for a rock band.” My later thought was, “that would be a great name for a post I keep not posting because it does not contain a single original thought.” So, here we go:

  • It is very strange to put on a mask to walk into a bank in order to deposit a check. Something seems entirely backwards about that procedure.
  • Social distancing is a fine idea, one which I wish would have caught on years ago. When I shop at Walmart, I would prefer to maintain a six-foot distance between me and any other customer. Of course, many customers do not even try to let that happen—especially in the produce section. Someone could devise a great video game in which a shopper tries to acquire five items from the fresh produce section without coming within six feet of other shoppers.
  • Walmart has tried to make their shopping lanes one-way by posting stickers on the floor and signs at the end of aisles saying, “Do not enter—one way” and “enter here—one way.” Many people fail to notice these signs; or, if they fail to notice them, they fail to obey them. My son pointed out that, if the problem were that some customers were not noticing the signs, no more than half of them would be going the wrong way. When—as often seems the case—roughly two-thirds of the customers are going the wrong direction in any given aisle, some other factor appears to be in play.
  • Self-quarantine and social distancing are not, as some people have suggested, the fulfillment of introverts’ dreams. For one matter, many introverts have been confined along with family members or roommates who have no understanding or sympathy regarding an introvert’s need for quiet time and personal space. Many introverts have been deprived of shelters outside the home which met their need for time and space reserved for themselves. For another matter, constant exposure to news items about the virus, about social distancing, about wearing masks, and about political connections to the virus and responses to the same exhaust introverts, particularly when seemingly every family conversation diverts within a few minutes to those same few topics.
  • Any grand conspiracy theory that tries to put blame on the virus, its spread, or the economic and political consequences of virus and response, overlooks the clear evidence that human beings as a whole are incapable of forming and maintaining such conspiracies. The Watergate scandal is a perfect example of how self-interest and incompetence combine to destroy any grand conspiracy. The virus is nothing more than a pandemic comparable to bubonic plague in Asia and Europe six to seven hundred years ago, smallpox and measles in the western hemisphere four to five hundred years ago, and influenza around the world one hundred years ago. The potential for pandemic exists every year, and the last fifty years have been remarkable for the ability to contain and control potential pandemics as they made their appearance in the world from time to time.
  • For Christians, COVID-19 is a pestilence like those described in the Bible, a call from God for sinners to repent and to turn back to him for protection and salvation from evil. Unfortunately, many Christians have been quicker to identify and repent of the sins of their neighbors rather than identifying and repenting of their own sins. One Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon anti-life measures, anti-family measures, confusion of the two genders established by God in creation, and other “liberal” sins. The next Christian calls this pestilence God’s judgment upon racism, intolerance, failure to assist and protect the oppressed and the poor, and a power structure which continues to favor the rich and powerful while victimizing widows, orphans, and foreigners. In other words, even while identifying pestilence as a judgmental act of God, a great many Christians see the specks in their neighbors’ eyes and disregard the 2x4s protruding from their own eyes.
  • For atheists, COVID-19 is a mirror reflection of the human/animal’s reaction to infection. As we develop antibodies to resist bacterial and viral infections, so the world around us develops “antibodies” such as bubonic plague and COVID-19 to resist humanity and its scourge upon the world as a whole. When an animal population becomes too numerous in a particular region, illnesses combine with predators and food shortages to thin the population. The current pandemic is Mother Nature at work, and nothing about how it happens should surprise us.
  • In either case, basic compassion for one another and care for humanity as a whole call upon our brightest thinkers to seek immunizations and cures for this virus. Trying to resist the pestilence, whether natural or God-sent, is no worse than putting a broken arm in a cast or wearing glasses to improve eyesight. As people disagree among themselves about the details of a proper response—and many responses to the virus have been counterproductive and even harmful—we seek to work together and to communicate with one another for our common good. The enemy is the virus; we are dangerously mistaken when we turn against one another and treat our neighbors as our enemies.
  • Finally, removing and destroying statues because they depict people whose opinions were common in their lifetimes but are rejected today—including opinions regarding slavery, race, and justice for some rather than for all—misses an opportunity to educate ourselves and our children about history and about human nature. All our heroes (aside from Jesus Christ) have been sinners who were faulty in some areas. They were right about some things and wrong about others. Interpretative panels next to such statutes, panels that identify both the accomplishments and the failings of the people represented in these statutes, would accomplish far more good than removing these statues. And the panels can be updated from time to time as opinions about right and wrong, good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable continue to change.
  • J

Day of Prayer

Our governor has declared today, March 29, to be a special day of prayer for our state and for our nation, particularly in regard to the current virus pandemic. In response, I offer three timely prayers as written in The Lutheran Hymnal (published in 1941). I considered modernizing the pronouns and verbs, but chose to leave them as written.

Prayer for the sick: “Almighty, everlasting God, the eternal Salvation of them that believe, hear our prayers in behalf of Thy servants who are sick, for whom we implore the aid of Thy mercy, that, being restored to health, they may render thanks to Thee in Thy Church; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

A second prayer for the sick: “O Lord, look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve Thy servants for whom we offer our supplications; look upon them with the eyes of Thy mercy; give them comfort and sure confidence in Thee, defend them from the danger of the enemy, and keep them in perpetual peace and safety; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

This third prayer might spark some thought and conversation: In time of great sickness: “Almighty and most merciful God, our heavenly Father, we, Thine erring children, humbly confess unto Thee that we have justly deserved the chastening which for our sins Thou hast sent upon us; but we entreat Thee, of Thy boundless goodness to grant us true repentance, graciously to forgive our sins, to remove from us, or to lighten, our merited punishment, and so to strengthen us by Thy grace that as obedient children we may be subject to Thy will and bear our afflictions in patience; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.”

I posted these on Facebook an hour ago. It will be interesting to gauge the reactions. J.

You will know the truth

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Why do Christians who read the same Bible and trust the same Bible have different versions of the truth? I’m not asking about people who read the Bible and purposely edit what they read to suit their purposes. I’m asking about people who expect to find the truth in God’s Word, yet disagree with each other about what that Word says and means.

For fans of big words, the answer to this question lies in hermeneutics. In simpler terms, even faithful Christians may approach the Bible in different ways, having different assumptions about what the Bible contains. One Christian may treat the Bible as a rulebook and may search the Scriptures looking for rules and regulations. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as examples of what happens when one person obeys God’s rules and when another person breaks God’s rules. Another Christian may treat the Bible as a set of promises from God. That reader sees the historic accounts of the Bible as people acting out God’s plan of salvation. To the first reader, Genesis 22 (Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac) shows a believer giving his best to the Lord. To the second reader, the same chapter shows Abraham and Isaac acting out the drama of Good Friday, as a father is prepared to sacrifice his son.

How do we know which approach is correct? The best answer is, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When a reader is confused about one passage in the Bible, that reader searches for other parts of the Bible that address the same topic. The other passages add clarity to the message of the confusing passage. To understand the apocalyptic language of the book of Revelation, a reader should be guided by the clear teachings of Christ in Matthew 24 & 25 and those of Paul in I Thessalonians 4 & 5.

Of the various mistakes that many Christians make while reading their Bibles, the two most common (at least in western culture) is to trust their reason and to trust their feelings. Both reason and feelings (head and heart) are important when reading the Bible, but reason and feelings should both be shaped by the words of God, not the other way around. Reason is a tool that helps the reader to interpret the Bible correctly; it assists in leading to other passages that provide clarity. Feeling is a tool that helps to apply the message of the Bible to a person’s life. God’s commandments can prompt a sense of sorrow which leads to repentance; God’s promises can prompt a sense of joy which accompanies faith. But so long as we live in this sin-polluted world, both reason and feeling are tainted by sin. Our heads and our hearts, even after we come to faith, are unreliable guides to truth. Both should be placed under Christ’s Lordship; both should be ready to surrender to the Bible’s message even when that message seems wrong to the head or to the heart.

Reason rejects paradox, but many of God’s truths are paradoxes. God is one, but he is three Persons. Christ is entirely God and entirely human, yet he is one Person, one Christ. The Bible is God’s Word, entirely trustworthy and true, yet God delivered that Word through human individuals who each had his own style of writing. Every attempt to make these teachings reasonable results in false teaching. One Christian makes the Father, Son, and Spirit sound like three gods rather than one God. The next Christian reasons that the three Persons are simply the same God under different names—that Jesus is the Father and the Spirit as well as the Son. Both approaches sound reasonable; both are wrong.

Feeling can carry a Christian many directions away from the truth. One Christian reads the commandments, begins to repent, and is overcome by sorrow and guilt which blocks true repentance and keeps that Christian from hearing the promises of God. Another Christian, having felt the joy that accompanies faith, yearns to continue in that joy. That reader avoids the passages that speak of sin and judgment and so avoids the guidance that God’s Law provides for our lives on earth.

Everything should be judged by the Bible, the messages God delivered to the world and to his people through Moses, the prophets, and the apostles. Any dream, any vision, any message that claims to come from God (whether audible or heard only within) should be compared to the Bible, which we know comes from God and is trustworthy and true. A message that seeks to change the message of the Bible—whether by direct contradiction or by subtle reinterpretation of the Bible—is not a message from the God who gave us the Bible. Even if that message makes sense to our heads or feels good in our hearts, the Christian must still “test the spirits” (I John 4:1-3) to be certain that the message is not false.

Head and heart are important parts of our beings. They were created by God and have been redeemed by Christ. We use them both to find God’s Word in the Bible and apply that Word to our lives. But, until Christ appears and makes everything new, neither can be trusted in the same way the Bible should be trusted. Scripture interprets Scripture—only by this rule can we come to know the truth and to receive freedom through that truth. J.

Dogs and pigs

“Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).

After telling us not to judge, Jesus adds a statement that calls for judgment. What is our holy treasure, our pearls? Who are the dogs and the pigs? What is Jesus warning us not to do?

Our greatest treasure is the Gospel, the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, given to sinners through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. God wants us to share this good news with everyone we know. He wants the whole world to know what he has done, so everyone can take advantage of his blessings. When Jesus tells us not to judge, he warns us not to live by the rules only and not to force others to do the same.

But when Jesus speaks about dogs and pigs, he is warning us against the opposite extreme. We are not truthful when we tell a sinner, “God loves you just the way you are.” A more accurate statement would be, “Jesus loves you in spite of the way you are, and for that reason he is going to change you.” When we speak only of God’s love to sinners who are resisting God’s rules for their lives, they might reach the conclusion that God does not care what they do. In the end, they will reject God’s promises along with his commands. If they do not understand the high cost of their sins again God, they cannot comprehend the meaning of the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross. He paid the price for all sins. Some sinners, though, reject his forgiveness and turn away from him because they do not realize how desperately they need God’s gifts.

Jesus gave us a thorough look at God’s high standards. As he tells us the rules—do not hate, do not lust, and so on—he describes to us our need to be rescued. He diagnoses the fatal illness from which he can cure us through his life and death and resurrection. We see the beauty of his promises, how precious they are, when we first see the diagnosis of our desperate need, our inability to rise to the required level of righteousness and perfection on our own. Without this understanding of our need, we too would be dogs and pigs.

We do not ignore the dogs and the pigs. We gently and respectfully share God’s rules with them, working to help them gain an understanding of the treasure they need, the good news of the Gospel. We do not withhold this good news from any sinner who realizes his or her need and wants to be rescued. Such a sinner is a repentant sinner, not a dog or a pig. Like us, they can comprehend the depth of the riches of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

But, to the sinner who prefers his or her sin to the Savior, we must be careful not to share our sacred treasure. The sinner who does not repent is a sinner who cannot be absolved of sin. Even though Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, some people reject his grace and gain no benefit from his promises. If we keep speaking of God’s love and forgiveness to a sinner who does not love God and does not want to be forgiven, we waste our breath and we invite their attacks upon us. Jesus does not forbid every kind of judgment. He wants us to judge who has repented and should be told of Christ’s forgiveness and who refuses to repent and should only be warned of the penalty for sin. J.

Those who mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

We want to be happy. That desire is natural. Mourning is our reaction to things that have gone wrong; when we mourn, we are not happy. The world will not trust any teacher who connects mourning with blessings; the two are opposites and might cancel each other, or at least be incompatible, as far as the world is concerned.

Christ’s blessing, though, is comfort. People who are always happy do not need comfort, but Jesus promises the blessing of comfort. He knows that we will not always be happy in this sin-polluted world. We face our own sins and the sins of other people and the results of sin in this world. If we can be happy about the world the way it is today, we are not like God. God is displeased with sin and evil in the world. Sin and evil cause God to grieve.

Jesus taught people to “repent and believe the Gospel.” To repent is to seek a change. Martin Luther wrote, as the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “When our Lord Jesus said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We cannot repent once and be done repenting. We do not repent only on special occasions. Every day we sin, and every day we are sorry. Every day we need a Savior. Every day we want to change ourselves and the world around us, making ourselves and the world better.

We are not satisfied with the condition of the world. That is good: God is not satisfied with the world either. We try our best to change things, to be like Jesus, but we always fall short of his standards. For this we are sorry. For this we repent. For this we mourn. Christ’s blessing belongs to us, though, because his comfort has already entered our lives. “Believe the good news,” Jesus says. He came to change us, to pay for our sins and remove our guilt, to make us his forever. His life and death and resurrection bring us comfort, good news, the guarantee of a better life today and forever. These are the promises of Jesus, promises that he delivers to us every day.

We do not earn comfort by mourning. We do not earn forgiveness by repenting. Comfort and forgiveness are gifts from Jesus, bought by his blood and given to us free of charge. Without his love, we would have to lower our standards—we would have to accept our sins, accept evil in the world, accept eternal condemnation. We would have to despair and live without hope. Because of the work Jesus has accomplished, we have hope and comfort. Now we can mourn without despair; now we can repent every day, because we turn to God and receive his blessing of comfort every day. J.

Christ’s Sermon on the Mount

“Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).

Today teachers generally stand to lecture. Preachers stand to preach their sermons to the congregation. When Jesus taught, he sat on a mountain (probably more of a hillside), and his listeners spread out around him. As Moses received the word of God on Mount Sinai and shared it with the people of Israel, so Jesus shared his word with his disciples on a mountain.

In this outdoor classroom, the closest disciples sat at the feet of the teacher. They had committed time to follow him; they wanted to hear every word. More casual followers and the merely curious were in the back of the crowd. If they had made no commitment to Jesus but were just stopping by to hear him for one day, they could not be as close to him while he taught.

Customs have changed. People from the first century, if they could visit a twenty-first century American congregation, would be astonished to see the back pews filled and the front pews empty. They would think that most American churchgoers have only a shallow commitment to the Lord, a passing interest rather than true discipleship. I know one pastor who even rotated the hymnals, moving the worn volumes to the front pews and putting the pristine hymnals taken from the front in the back pews of the church.

Now, when Jesus taught, Matthew was one of the front-row students. He would be named as one of the twelve apostles, which means that he would be sent out to tell others what he had heard Jesus say. He memorized the preaching of Jesus and repeated it often, so we can trust his account to be accurate, a true record of Jesus’ sermon. To be a disciple means more to love Jesus: being a disciple means listening carefully to Jesus and repeating what he says for the benefit of others. Disciples learn by imitating. Even today, God calls us to imitate Jesus.

We have a problem: the standards Jesus sets are too high for us to achieve. We can sit and listen, we can repeat his words, but we cannot fulfill them. Only Jesus can fulfill the Law. Only Jesus can offer the promises of the Gospel. In the end, “repent and believe” is the genuine reaction a disciple has to the words of Jesus. Anything more is really less. When we struggle to be like Jesus, we fall short. When we repent of our sins and believe his promise to rescue us, we are rescued.

More than rescued, we are transformed, being shaped to resemble Jesus. We will not resemble him in height or skin color or any outward appearance; in those, we remain diverse, just as God created us. But in mindset, in attitude, in behavior, we become more like Jesus—not by the power of his commandments, but by the power of his forgiveness. As we see his blessings at work in our lives, we know the truth about Jesus and about ourselves. That truth sets us free. J.

Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.