Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.


Forgive us our trespasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know your enemy–the flesh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ in Genesis: “Am I in the place of God?”

After Jacob died, his sons feared that Joseph may have been delaying his vengeance until that time. Their guilty consciences made it hard for them to believe that Joseph sincerely and whole-heartedly forgave their sins. Therefore, they sent a message to Joseph. They claimed that, before he died, Jacob had demanded forgiveness from Joseph for his brothers. We cannot tell whether or not Jacob said such a thing. No record of Jacob’s message about forgiveness appears in Genesis, aside from the quote given by Joseph’s brothers. Their guilt and fear may have tempted them into lying to their brother. It did not matter, though, because Joseph had already forgiven his brothers all their sins.

Before he died, Jesus commanded his followers to forgive those who sin against us. He even put into his model prayer a promise to forgive those who sin against us. Jesus spoke so firmly about forgiveness that some Christians believe that forgiving those who hurt us is a requirement for salvation. They think that the Bible says that we must forgive first so that God will forgive us. They forget that God always goes first. We forgive others only because of the forgiveness of God. We forgive others, passing along the forgiveness won by Jesus on the cross. Refusing to forgive someone who has hurt us calls God’s complete forgiveness into question. If a sin against us is too big for God to forgive, how can we be sure that he has forgiven all our sins? But we do not forgive sinners out of the goodness of our hearts. We forgive sinners because Jesus has already purchased their forgiveness by his blood, his suffering, and his death.

Why does God allow sins to happen, knowing that we will be hurt by the sins of others? In the abstract, Christians can find answers to that question. Dealing with a specific sin, we do not always know which answer applies. In the case of Joseph, he was allowed to know the answer to that question. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph reports, “You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, so that many people are alive today.” God permitted the sin of Joseph’s brothers so Joseph could sit at the right hand of Pharaoh and run Egypt, saving the lives of the Egyptian people and of their neighbors, including Joseph’s family.

Sometime God allows sin and evil so we can see the true nature of sin and evil and reject them, preferring what is good. Sometimes God allows sin and evil because he has a way of turning them into a greater blessing, as he did in the case of Joseph. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to provide an opportunity for his people to do good things, forgiving the sinner and helping the victims of sin. Sometimes God allows sin and evil to remind his people of the suffering of Christ on the cross. The devil persecutes God’s people, intended to make us doubt God’s goodness or love or power. When our troubles remind us how God saved us through the suffering of his Son, the devil is thwarted and God’s Kingdom remains victorious.

God does not cause evil, although even evil things come from his creation. Evil is not equal to good; evil is good that has been twisted and misused. God placed metal in the ground and gave skill to a craftsman who makes a knife from that metal. When that knife is used in a murder, God is not at fault. He permitted that sin for a reason, and he provided the ways that sin could take place. If he allowed that sin and did not intervene to prevent that sin (and only God knows how many times he has intervened to prevent evil), then he had a reason to allow that sin. God is under no obligation to tell us all his reasons.

“Am I in the place of God?” Joseph asked his brothers when they came to Joseph looking for forgiveness. The way he phrased the question, he expected the answer to be “no.” Yet as a picture of Christ, his forgiveness was Christ’s forgiveness. He had authority to punish his brothers or to forgive them. He was indeed in the place of God, and his forgiveness was a vivid picture of God’s forgiveness given freely to sinners.

When Peter declared his faith that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, Jesus congratulated Peter on that declaration and added, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven, and whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19). Later, Jesus said the same words to all his apostles (Matthew 18:18). After he had died and had risen from the dead, Jesus said the same thing a third time. John says that Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whatever you forgive on earth is forgiven in heaven, and whatever you do not forgive on earth is not forgiven in heaven” (John 20:22-23).

Who has the keys to heaven? Who has the power to forgive sins (or to withhold forgiveness)? Everyone who has received the Holy Spirit has this power. Since we know that “no one can say Jesus is Lord apart from the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12: 3), everyone who confesses faith in Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Everyone who, like Peter, knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is able to share his forgiveness with sinners.

Why would Jesus also give the power to lock heaven, to refuse forgiveness to sinners? He tells us not to give dogs what is holy and not to cast pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). We do not speak words of forgiveness to people who boast of their sins, who refuse to admit that what they are doing is wrong, who do not want to be forgiven. God calls sinners to repent. Because we have the keys to heaven, we also call sinners to repent. Our goal is always to lead sinners to repent so we can forgive them. Yet our words of forgiveness would have no meaning if we said them to everyone, even to sinners who proudly continue to sin and who do not care whether or not God has forgiven them.

“Am I in the place of God?” Since he was a picture of the Christ, Joseph should have been answered “yes.” “Am I in the place of God?” Jesus says, “Yes, you are.” He could bring forgiveness to sinners any way he chose. After purchasing full forgiveness on the cross, Jesus chose to bring forgiveness to sinners through the work of his Church. Every member of that Church has the power to share Christ’s forgiveness. Every person on earth is either a missionary or a mission opportunity.

Like Adam, like Abel, like Abraham and Isaac and Esau, Joseph was a picture of Christ. Today, in a different way, every Christian is a picture of Christ. (That is why we are called Christians.) God wanted ancient people to know his plan of salvation, and he wants people today to know the same plan. He chooses to work with us–his will be done. J.

Happy Reformation Day

On Halloween, 1517, Martin Luther changed the world.

Actually, that’s a pretty silly sentence. World-changing powers do not rely upon one person or one event (aside from the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ). What Luther did on October 31, 1517, was one step in the reformation of the Christian Church in western Europe, a reformation that would have enormous consequences in the Americas, in Africa, and in many parts of Asia and of the Pacific Ocean lands. His action that day was a response to a long-standing misunderstanding in European Christianity about God’s forgiveness. To explain that misunderstanding–involving repentance, penance, purgatory, and indulgences–would stretch this post far beyond one thousand words.

But Luther wanted to talk about forgiveness. As a university professor and an Augustinian monk, Luther wanted to bring about a debate among the scholars of the Church. He wrote ninety-five sentences (usually called “theses”) and posted them on the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught theology. The ensuing discussion would bring about Luther’s excommunication (kicking him out of the Roman Catholic Church–in the opinion of the Roman Catholics, denying that Luther was a Christian) and his condemnation as a heretic and an outlaw. Those who agreed with Luther–labeled “Lutherans,” although Luther preferred the label “evangelical”–had sufficient strength in numbers and in political power, to survive these accusations of heresy. They presented a description and defense of their beliefs to the Emperor, Charles V, in 1530. Over the next century they survived two major wars which ended in treaties which allowed them to remain in the Empire (although, once again, the details of these wars and these treaties would stretch this post to unwieldly length).

Why did Luther choose to post his ninety-five sentences on Halloween? All Hallows Eve came just before All Saints’ Day, a day when many people would visit the chapel in Wittenberg to view the relics collected by the Elector, Frederick of Saxony. Viewing these holy items (which were said to include a twig from the burning bush wherein God spoke to Moses, a scrap from the clothes in which the newborn Jesus was swaddled and a wisp of straw from the manger, thirty-five fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and one of the nails which held him to the cross, a thumb of Saint Anne the mother of Mary, a tooth of Saint Jerome, and numerous parts of other saints and mementos of other Biblical events) was said to reduce the time a Christian would spend in purgatory before rising to Paradise. Luther’s challenge to the system of penance and indulgences was timed to gather much attention to his ninety-five sentences for debate.

Luther began, “When our Lord Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers was to be one of repentance.” Luther thus distinguished between true repentance and acts of penance. Luther assumed that the pope, Leo X, would be shocked by the outrageous claims of the sellers of indulgences. Yet Luther’s sentences involved further shocking remarks, such as Number 82: “Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there” rather than “for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Western European Christianity was ready for these kinds of challenges. Growing nationalism caused resentment against the political claims of the pope and of the Holy Roman Emperor. Preachers who were Biblically illiterate left their hearers hungry for the truth of God’s Word. Then as now, many Christians resented the appearance that the Christian Church was focused more on money and on political power than on rescuing sinners, healing broken lives, and establishing a genuine connection between God and his people. Luther cared little for the political implications of his sentences. He deeply cared about sinners who were being pushed away from God’s grace by the Church rather than reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Luther himself had faced turmoil in his earlier years. He hated God, thinking of God as a cruel judge who wanted to torture sinners and who demanded good deeds to pay for sins. Luther became an Augustinian monk because of his fear of God’s judgment and his hope to perform enough good deeds to please God. His superior in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to believe the Bible’s message of God’s love and mercy. Staupitz wanted Luther to find comfort in the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Knowing that we learn best the things we need to know by teaching others, Staupitz arranged for Luther to teach classes on the Bible. Had Staupitz been more open about his convictions, today there would be Staupitzian congregations instead of Lutheran congregations. Yet Staupitz was content to deal one-on-one with desperate men like Martin Luther. Luther was bold enough to challenge the authorities and the system for the good of the Church and for its eventual reformation.

Luther could have been killed for his beliefs. Other men were killed for preaching the same message they had learned from Luther. But Luther lived until 1546. He married a former nun, and they had six children. Luther wrote hymns that are still sung today, and he wrote teaching materials for children and for adults that are still used today. He wrote many significant theological essays during his career, and the notes of his university students have been preserved and published, as well as many of Luther’s sermons. Even though Luther is best remembered for ninety-five sentences, his bold action one Halloween pales in comparison to Luther’s entire contribution to Christianity. J.

Noah, the ark, and the Flood

Noah, the ark, and the Flood are familiar to almost every person living in western culture. Efforts to recreate this account for movies inevitably bring new details into the story; the description in the Bible does not provide nearly enough material for a feature-length movie. Many people probably think that they know about Noah, the ark, and the Flood, but much of what they know might be fiction that has been added to the Bible’s account.

Noah is easily seen as a picture of Jesus. Noah is a savior, obeying the commands of God and—through his obedience—rescuing and preserving lives from God’s wrath and judgment. From the time Noah began building the ark until the time rain began to fall, 120 years passed, according to the usual understanding of Genesis 6:3. During this time, by his words and by his actions, Noah was able to warn his neighbors of the coming destruction, warning them to repent before it was too late. By the same token, Jesus spent about three years teaching in Galilee and Judea and the surrounding area, calling upon people to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The structure which Noah built to save lives was made of wood; the cross where Jesus suffered and died to bestow eternal life was also made of wood. Those who were to be saved entered the ark through an opening in its side, faintly echoing the Bride of Christ coming from his side as Eve came from the rib of Adam.

Those who accept the premise, based on John 1:18, that God the Father is revealed only through Jesus—and that, when God speaks or is seen in Genesis, Jesus is present among his people—will picture Jesus visiting Noah and giving him detailed instructions about how to build the ark. We are told that Noah was righteous and blameless, but we also know that only Jesus is without sin. Noah was made righteous and blameless through his faith in the promised Savior. All believers, from Adam and Eve until the glorious appearing of Christ, are saved in the same way—by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus.

Often the Flood is seen only as an act of wrath, God’s judgment on a sinful world. The water of the Flood also had a cleansing action, washing away sinners and the consequences of their sins. The apostle Peter wrote about the time “when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you….” (I Peter 3:20-21). The water of the Flood lifted Noah and his family out of a sinful world and carried them safely in the ark until they landed in a new world, a world which had been washed clean by water. Likewise, Christians are carried through this sinful world by the work of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit until we land safely in the new world God has promised us—a world won for us by the work of Christ.

Peter stresses that eight persons were saved by the Flood and by the ark. He stresses this number, so it must be significant. God created the world in seven days, establishing the length of the week. Sets of seven in the Bible often represent completeness. The eighth day is the beginning of a new week. Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on the eighth day, Easter Sunday—the day that Jesus rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory over sin and death, the day that promises his people new life in a new creation. Like Peter, early Christian writers often associated the number eight with a new beginning, as they also associated Baptism with a new beginning. The apostle Paul wrote, ”Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

When Noah and his family exited the ark, Noah offered sacrifices to God, continuing the tradition of “pre-enacting” the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Afterward, he planted a garden. This garden is no minor detail; it reinforces the concept of a new beginning, since Adam and Eve began in a garden. Yet, as Adam and Eve sinned and were driven from the garden, so Noah’s garden also became his downfall.  He drank wine, made from the grapes of his vineyard, became drunk, and lay naked, uncovered in his tent. In spite of his new beginning, Noah was no longer clothed in righteousness. One son laughed at Noah’s nakedness, bringing trouble upon himself and his family. The other two sons covered Noah’s nakedness, bringing blessing upon themselves and their families. In the same way, Christians today should not rejoice in the wrongdoing of others, but instead should seek to share the good news of Jesus with sinners, hoping to clothe them in his righteousness by the power of his Word. We do not desire to humiliate them over their sins or condemn them, but we hope instead to call them to repentance and faith.

God promised Noah that he would never again flood the world to destroy it. He established the rainbow as a sign of that promise—a reminder to God of the promise he had made. Rainbows mean different things to different people today, but they remain to God a reminder of his mercy upon his creation. Light shines through the clouds, and through the drops of water they produce, to display a rainbow upon the earth. God’s light comes through water to his people to display God’s promise of new and eternal life for all those who trust his promises.


Christ in Genesis: Confession and Promise

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” This sounds so pleasant, Jesus taking a walk in the garden. (How do we know it was Jesus? “No one has ever seen God [the Father]; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known”–John 1:18.) I don’t know the history of the translation of this verse, but the original Hebrew has a different tone. The word translated “cool” is ruach, the same word that means breath or wind or spirit; and I do not think “cool” is used to translate this word anywhere else in the Bible. In the first Greek translation of Genesis (in the Septuagint), the translators chose to render the word “fear.” Jesus approached Adam and Eve in the spirit of the Day–that is, the Day of the Lord, the Day of God’s wrath at sin, Judgment Day.

No wonder Adam and Eve tried to hide from Jesus. They had sinned, dying spiritually, rebelling against God. They were guilty. They were ashamed. They tried to cover their shame with fig leaves, but human works cannot cover our sins. Jesus called them: “Where are you?” When Adam confessed his shame, Jesus asked him, “Did you eat the fruit I told you not to eat?”

The Lord gave Adam and Eve an opportunity to confess their sin–to repent. The topic of repentance can be confusing. On the one hand, God wants us to repent and calls upon us to repent. On the other hand, nothing we do earns God’s forgiveness. There is nothing you have to do for God to forgive your sins. The best resolution of this seeming contradiction is to know that, when God commands us to repent, he also gives us the ability to repent. (Compare this to Jesus telling a lame man to walk, or telling a dead man to come out of his tomb.) Repentance (like faith) is something God does in us, not something we do for God.

Adam tries a sly sort of repentance. He says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He points a finger of blame at Eve, and subtly even tries to blame God. (“If you hadn’t made this woman, we wouldn’t have this problem.”) If Adam had been thinking more quickly, he might have added, “She gave me fruit from the tree you made. Why did you make it if you didn’t want us to eat it?” Many of Adam’s descendants have tried the same sort of escape from guilt, blaming God for making sin possible.

When God questions Eve, she shows herself to be a quick learner. She also points a finger of blame, this time at the snake. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The poor serpent has no fingers to point, and Jesus does not give him the opportunity to make excuses. Knowing that the serpent is Satan in disguise, Jesus essentially says, “You chose that form for your rebellion–now accept the consequences. You are going to crawl on the ground. You are going to eat dust.” In other words, “You are the loser in this contest.”

Jesus adds that there will be enmity between the woman and Satan and between their offspring. This means more than that women generally fear snakes. It means that the devil did not gain allies in his rebellion against God. He merely broadened the battlefield. When the key battle in the war between God and evil would be fought, a descendant of Eve would win, and the devil would lose.

“He shall bruise your head.” Those words promise victory over Satan. “You shall bruise his heel.” Those words speak of the pain the Savior must bear while defeating the devil. The cross of Christ is described with these words. God is addressing the snake, but his message is for Adam and Eve. Through their descendant, God will win the war against evil, reversing the consequences of their sin. God’s words to the snake are the first preaching of the Gospel.

Meanwhile, the consequences of their sin remain. Family relationships are distorted because of sin. Work in the world is hard labor (whether physical or mental, whether challenging or boring) because of sin. Physical death is a consequence of sin. Jesus created Adam from dirt. Through physical death, Adam will return to the dirt. The ground itself is cursed because of the sin of Adam and Eve.

Yet, as God curses the snake and curses the ground, he does not curse Adam and Eve. He has promised victory through the cross; even the promise itself reverses the curse of sin. Adam and Eve did not have to wait for Christ to be born, to suffer, to die, and to rise again, before they could be spiritually alive again. Believing the promise of the coming Savior and the coming victory, they were already given saving faith. Even though their bodies would die, they already had eternal life.


One question–three right answers

Two teenaged girls visited my house one Saturday. They were from a large church in a nearby town, and they were doing door-to-door evangelism work.

Of course I invited them inside. I always enjoy conversations about religion, and when people come to my house for that purpose, I can’t say no. I enjoy witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter Day Saints, showing them from the Bible that Jesus truly is the Almighty God and the only Savior. This conversation, though, would turn out differently.

We began talking about God, and we agreed about God. We talked about Jesus as the Son of God and the world’s only Savior, and again we completely agreed. We talked about the Bible as the Word of God, true and reliable, and still we agreed. All of us were having fun talking about our common faith as Christians.

“Tell me, J., when you became a Christian,” one of them urged me.

“It was a long time ago,” I answered. I became a Christian on a Friday afternoon. It was the Friday afternoon when the Son of God sacrificed his life on a Roman cross. His sacrifice made me a Christian.”

They couldn’t deny the truth of that, but they weren’t done asking the question. “When did that sacrifice become personal for you?” one of them asked. “When did you enter his Church?”

“I was about a month old,” I told them. My parents had the pastor come to the house, and he baptized me. My Baptism makes the cross of Christ personal for me—that’s when I personally became a Christian.”

“But you can’t remember something that happened when you were a month old,” one of them protested. I agreed that I didn’t remember the event of my Baptism. “When did you confess to Jesus that you are a sinner and invite him to be your Savior?” they asked.

“Oh, that,” I said. “I do that every day.”

Amazingly, the two of them left my house convinced that I am not really a Christian. We agreed about God, about the Savior Jesus Christ, about the Bible, and still they doubted the truth of my faith. Because I could not remember a single, emotional, overwhelming event which was the beginning of my faith, they could not accept that I really believe.

I do not doubt that some people become Christians in a sudden and dramatic way, one which they remember for the rest of their lives. Many Christians, though, grow up in the faith. They cannot remember a time when they did not belong to Jesus. They know they are sinners, and they know that they are forgiven and redeemed by Jesus Christ. As I would not doubt the faith of someone who dramatically came to Jesus, I cannot see why anyone would deny my faith because it does not have a dramatic beginning.

My third answer was honest and true. I do confess my sins to God every day. I do ask Jesus to forgive me every day. I do invite him to guide my life every day. I know of nothing in the Bible that says these things should happen only once in a lifetime. The daily life of a Christian, in fact, contains the cycle of repentance and faith. I would no more want to spend a day without deliberate repentance and faith than I would want to spend a day without breathing.

Jesus is my Savior, not because I gave myself to him, but because he claimed me. His righteousness and his sacrifice are my reason for confidence in my eternal home in heaven. I do not have to invite him to rescue me because he has already rescued me. He never needed my help. J.


Sin, sacrifice, forgiveness

“If God is Almighty,” the question is raised, “why does he demand a bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Why does he not simply forgive without any sacrifice being made?”

God is Almighty and can do whatever he chooses to do. God created the world and everything in it, and when God was finished creating, what he had made was very good. God told people how to live in his world, to take care of the world and to take care of themselves and one another. People chose to do things their way instead of God’s way. Because people rebelled against God, evil and wickedness and death entered the good world God had made. Because of sin, the world was no longer very good.

God could have created a world in which sin and rebellion were impossible. If he had done so, then love and obedience would be meaningless, because people would be forced to love and obey God. God could have created a world where forgiveness of sin was immediate and without cost. If forgiveness was cheap, then sin and wickedness would also be cheap. Rebellion against God, and damage of the good things God made, and harm to the people God made and God loves: all these things would mean nothing if the cost to repair them was nothing. Because God is good, and because the world he made is good, and because he loves the people he made, God places a high price on thoughts and words and actions that damage the world and harm people. When damage is done, a high price must be paid to fix and restore what is broken. That high price shows the value of the people and the world created by God.

God could have created a world of perfect justice, in which each sinner paid and suffered for his or her own sins. In a world of perfect justice, I could not hurt you and you could not hurt me. Each of us would suffer for his or her own sins. In such perfect justice, rescue would not be possible. No one could reconcile another person to God; even God could not provide reconciliation, because of perfect justice. Instead, God created a world in which justice is overpowered by love. Sin and evil have victims, but God Himself is able to be a victim of sin and evil in order to rescue all the victims of sin and evil.

The Almighty God entered creation and became a man, as human as any of us, except that he never sinned. That man obeyed all the commands of God, doing what all people were created to do. He then offered his life as a sacrifice, becoming a victim to rescue victims. He was abused and tortured, he bled, and he died. From the horrors of the cross, we learn how costly our rebellion truly is; but from the horrors of the cross we see the love of God, that he was willing to pay the price to restore us and to restore the world he created.

Having entered time and space to restore the world, God then moved backward in time to communicate what he had done to previous generations. He required the sacrifice of animals and the shedding of their blood as pictures of the price God would pay to rescue victims of sin and to restore creation. In the account of Adam and Eve, animals died so that Adam and Eve could be clothed in their furs. Adam and Eve had tried to hide their nakedness with fig leaves, but such clothing quickly disintegrates—it has no lasting value. All the good things people do to try to cancel their own sins are ineffective. Only God can pay the price of reconciliation, as Jesus gives his life on the cross to clothe his people in his righteousness.

The price Jesus paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of history. No sin is bigger than the payment made by Jesus. For that reason, Jesus directs his people to share forgiveness with all sinners. He teaches his people to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). His apostles instruct us, “as the Lord forgives you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). To treat any sin as unforgiveable calls all of God’s forgiveness into question—how can you be sure that all your sins are forgiven if you regard another person’s sin to be beyond forgiveness? Jesus compares our sins, forgiven through his sacrifice, to ten thousand talents—hundreds of millions of dollars in American money. He compares the sins committed against us by others to one hundred talents—enough to buy a used car, but tiny compared to ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:23-35). When he was asked how often should a Christian forgive a brother—is seven times enough?—Jesus invented a number. Sometimes it is translated “seventy-seven” and sometimes “seventy times seven” (490), but the actual word that Jesus spoke does not exist as a number. God’s forgiveness never ends, and our forgiveness never ends.

When we forgive, though, we are not generating forgiveness from the goodness of our own hearts. We are passing along the forgiveness provided by Jesus in his sacrifice. If we had to forgive others first to earn God’s forgiveness, not one of us would be forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for all sins. The forgiveness of Jesus runs through our lives, reconciling us to God and delivering the same reconciliation to other sinners. Therefore, when Peter had confessed his faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus celebrated the faith of Peter and added, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, my paraphrase). He said similar words to all his followers (Matthew 18:18), and he said them again the night after his resurrection: Jesus “breathed on” the disciples “and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23).

The same keys lock and unlock heaven; the same power grants forgiveness and withholds forgiveness. When would a Christian withhold forgiveness from a sinner? Forgiveness is withheld from the sinner who does not want to be forgiven. A sinner who does not acknowledge his or her sin and need for forgiveness should not be told he or she is forgiven anyhow. A sinner who thinks forgiveness is earned by his or her own good works should be told that forgiveness is withheld. Offering forgiveness to a sinner who does not want to be forgiven is giving dogs what is holy and casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus wants his people to warn sinners of their sins and to call them to repent. Those who refuse to repent should not be told that they are forgiven.

Repenting and believing are not good things Christians do to earn God’s forgiveness. Repenting and believing are changes God makes in the lives of people. Forgiveness is available to all people—no sin is bigger than the payment Jesus made on the cross—but it does not come to anyone who refuses to repent and refuses to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. Repenting and believing are not things Christians do once and then never have to do again. Repenting and believing are part of daily life for a Christian. Each day a Christian confesses sins to the Lord and rejoices in the Lord’s forgiveness. Each day Christians share the good news of forgiveness with one another and unlock the kingdom of heaven for each other through the forgiveness of sins.

I am delighted that the opponents of Christianity are asking questions about forgiveness and sacrifice. Debates about science and archaeology and history are distractions, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. I do not have to believe in Adam or Noah or Moses to be reconciled to God, but I must believe in Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God. Believing in Jesus, I accept what he says about Moses and the prophets; but salvation is found in no one but Jesus. Noah and Moses are pictures of Jesus, but he is the fulfillment of everything they said and did. 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.