The Beautiful Cross

The crucifixion, which ended with the triumphant cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30), was the offering of the all-sufficient sacrifice for the atonement of all sinners.  The Man on the cross was the Lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world to carry them away from the face of God.  The salvation of the whole world once hung by those three nails on the cross on Golgotha.  As the fruit from the wood of the forbidden tree from which the first man once ate brought sin, death, and damnation upon the entire human race, so the fruits of the wood of the cross restored righteousness, life, and blessedness to all people.

On account of this, the cross is both holy and blessed!  Once nothing but a dry piece of wood, it was changed, like Aaron’s staff, into a green branch full of heavenly blossoms and fruit.  Once an instrument of torment for the punishment of sinners, it now shines in heavenly splendor for all sinners as a sign of grace.  Once the wood of the curse, it has now become, after the Promised Blessing for all people offered Himself up on it, a tree of blessing, an altar of sacrifice for the atonement, and a sweet-smelling aroma to God.  Today, the cross is still a terror–but only to hell.  It shines upon its ruins as a sign of the victory over sin, death, and Satan.  With a crushed head, the serpent of temptation lies at the foot of the cross.  It is a picture of eternal comfort upon which the dimming eye of the dying longingly looks, the last anchor of his hope and the only light that shines in the darkness of death.

— C.F.W. Walther (quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, p. 622)

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Adoption and Baptism: A Real-Life Illustration

Last night, my son and I were enjoying our nightly ritual of reading books and bible stories before bedtime.  The bible story we were reading was the birth of Jesus–yes, he’s in the Christmas spirit early–and we paused at the end on a picture of baby Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by animals, Joseph and Mary.  As a good young boy is wont to do, he started asking questions:

“Who is that?” he asked, pointing at the baby.

“Baby Jesus,” I replied.

“Isn’t he God?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“And when he got big, he died on the cross, right?” he asked, pointing to his baptismal cross on the wall.

“Yes, you’re right,” I said.

“Why did I get baptized?” he asked again, stream of consciousness kicking into high gear.

“That’s a great question!” I told him.

At this point, I had to come up with an illustration of what baptism is all about and what God does in baptism.  For those who don’t know, we adopted our son from Ukraine a little over two years ago, when he was three.  Though he doesn’t remember a lot about when he was “a tiny baby,” he remembers many details about our initial visits at the orphanage, our days of playing with him in the orphanage before we could bring him home, and the adventurous trip back to Texas.  With those things in mind, our conversation continued…

“Remember when Mommy and I came to get you in Ukraine?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You were very little then, but we still loved you.  Could you have found us and come home all by yourself?”

“No way,” he said with a laugh.

“Well baptism is kind of like that. God comes to get us when we can’t come to him.”

“Oh!” he said as his eyes lit up with understanding.

“And now, you’re our son, right?” I asked.

“Yes, Daddy.”

“And just like you’re our child, you’re God’s child, because he came to get you just like we did.”

He paused for a minute and then said, “Jesus loves us a lot, right, Dad?”

“Yes he does,” I said with a smile. “Yes he does.”

The whole conversation was a joy, but it was most fantastic to watch my little one, who had never heard the name of Jesus just over two years ago, connect the dots in such a way as to realize–quite tangibly, since he remembers his baptism–how great is God’s love for us!

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All Saints’ Day?

For many Christians, especially those whose traditions do not observe the church calendar, the mere mention of “All Saints’ Day” sounds eerily Roman Catholic or taboo.  But what exactly is this feast day (i.e., church celebration) all about?  I have found no better short explanation than that in the Treasury of Daily Prayer:

This feast is the most comprehensive of the days of commemoration, encompassing the entire scope of that great cloud of witnesss with which we are surrounded (Heb 12.1).  It holds before the eyes of faith that great multitude which no man can number: all the saints of God in Christ–from every nation, race, culture, and language–who have come ‘out of the great tribulation…who have washed their robes and made them white in the allsaintsglassblood of the Lamb’ (Rev 7.9, 14).  As such, it sets before us the full height and depth and breadth and length of our dear Lord’s gracious salvation (Eph 3.17-19).  It shares with Easter a celebration of the resurrection, since all those who have died with Christ Jesus have also been raised with Him (Rom 6.3-8).  It shares with Pentecost a celebration of the ingathering of the entire Church catholic [i.e., ‘universal church’ not ‘Roman Catholic church’]–in heaven and on earth, in all times and places–in the one Body of Christ, in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Just as we have all been called to the one hope that belongs to our call, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph 4.4-6).  And the Feast of All Saints shares with the final Sundays of the Church Year an eschatalogical focus on the life everlasting and a confession that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us’ (Rom 8.18).  In all of these emphases, the purpose of this feast is to fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, that we might not grow weary or fainthearted (Heb 12.2-3).

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Walther on the Prosperity Gospel

god_richesSadly, much of American Christianity is infatuated with the notion that, once I become a Christian, then God will order everything in my life such that I will be showered with material blessings galore–health, wealth, and prosperity of all kinds–even a hundredfold byond that which I give to the Lord.  The litany of charlatans posing as ‘pastors’ who proclaim such business is long and distinguished.  C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of American Lutheranism disagrees.  First he takes us to the words of Scripture…

So be careful how you live.  Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise.  Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. (Eph 5.15-16, NLT)

Then Walther goes on to explain that this notion couldn’t be more untrue.

With the words in [Ephesians 5], Saint Paul warns all Christians that, in this life, they should never count on good, peaceful, and comfortable days, either for themselves or for their faith.  Instead, they should expect to exerience evil, dangerous, and woeful days.  Where Christ is, there is also the cross.  Therefore, as soon as a person has turned to Christ, he cannot think everything will go well with him as a child of God’s grace.  Rather, he must expect that the cross will now be his inseperable companion until his death. (God Grant It, 813)

His words are a far cry from those you’ll hear on any given Sunday around the country in some of America’s largest congregations and on TV; however, the words of Walther reflect the cruciform nature of the Christian life.  “Where Christ is, there is also the cross.”  Let these words of warning be also words of encouragement, for where the cross is, there is also the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Thanks be to God!

Bonhoeffer on Church Growth

hillsongI’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism.  Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in.  Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity.  At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.

For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do.  That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here).  Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.

Bonhoeffer disagrees.  He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church.  Such growth is his work, not ours.  As he writes:

If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess–he builds.  We must proclaim–he builds.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church:  you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)

Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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The End Times?

So…are we in the end times?  What do you think?

According to the testimony of the Word of God, the closer we come to the end of all things, the greater the world’s security and lust will become.  As the terrible hour nears, an hour in which all things visible and all the glory of the earth will suddenly be swallowed up, more and more people will, as the prophecies of Scripture inform us, immerse themselves in worldly good.  The more signs God sends to His children, warning that the world will soon be destroyed and the Judge of the living and the dead will soon appear in the clouds of the heavens, the less people will believe them.  Everything will continue secure and carefree, as if the world were to stand forever and the Last Day were nothing more than a fairy tale.

Our present age seems to fit perfectly the descriptions of the last days found in Scripture.  All of the signs in nature, in the kingdoms of the world, and in the Church which, according to biblical prophecy, must precede the end of all things, have taken place during the past centuries and especially in recent years.  By the most terrible events, God has loudly proclaimed the imminent destruction of the world.  But what has been the response?  With each passing year, the world sinks deeper and deeper into false security.  At no time has the notion of the Last Day appeared to be more laughable than it is now.  Almost universally, people have denied the Christ who has already come, and they greet with even greater mockery the preaching that says He will return soon.  Even those who believe God’s Word consider those who preach the nearness of Christ’s return to be fanatics.  We have obviously entered that midnight hour when even the wise virgins sleep.

What does Peter say in cautioning Christians about such a time?  He says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”  This does not mean that when the end of all things is near, Christians should no longer make use of the world, that they should deprive the body in self-chosen spirituality and humility and not provide for the necessities of the flesh.  Nor does it mean they are not allowed to rejoice in the bodily refreshment God gives them in this last time.  No, says the apostle, we should be serious and watchful only in our prayers.  Even in the nearness of the Last Day, we can eat and drink, but we should not weigh down our hearts in these pursuits.  We can like something in this world, but we must be prepared to sacrifice it readily to God.  We can have and continue to accumulate gold and silver, but we should not attach our heart to them, not rely upon them, and not mourn when we lose them.  We can build dwellings for ourselves, but they must be considered as lodgings for the night from which we will set out on the following morning (in other words, we must always prefer to go to the house of our heavenly Father than cling to our earthly abodes).  We can continue to plant and sow in the face of the Last Day, but we must be prepared not to reap the harvest, if that is what the Lord desires.  we can also care about the future, but only in such a way that our heart does not become burdened with worry.  We are serious and watchful in prayer when our heart is not trapped by any earthly thing.  It must always be free to be lifted up to God in prayer.  In the midst of the things, business, cares, goods, and pleasures of this world, our deepest desire must be for salvation and heaven.  We must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  And we must pass through this world like strangers and pilgrims, pausing here and there to rest and refresh ourselves, but soon thereafter hastening on toward our heavenly goal.  Our entire life must be, as Luther expressed, an eternal Lord’s Prayer in which our principal desire is for God to deliver us from evil.  And we may add, “Come, Lord Jesus, take us out of this evil world, and take us to Yourself.”
(C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It, 445-447)

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