Confessions of faith: Todd

After trying out a variety of religions and practices in a search for contentment, a dog trainer finds that God’s Word alone fills his soul.

Rachel Hartman

Buddhism, Mormonism, and Episcopalian teachings. West Todd has experience with all of them, and many more. “I constantly tried to find something that made sense and that I could hold to,” he recalls. Nothing stuck.

When he came across WELS during his adult years, however, a long pattern was broken. “The fact that I don’t have to be 100 percent perfect to be a child of God was the most wonderful message to me,” he says. “The peace of forgiveness came shining through.”

A LARGE SAMPLING

Todd grew up in Virginia. As a child, he spent a lot of time with his grandparents, who attended a Southern Baptist church in the area. He became particularly close to his grandfather during this time. “My grandparents were very religious, and I went to church with them almost every Sunday,” says Todd.

He also went to other churches with his father. “Dad was always looking for God,” he recalls. With his dad, he attended a Methodist church and an Episcopalian church for a while. But even though he went to church services, Todd found it difficult to connect to a particular religion.

When he was in high school, Todd’s father and stepmother at the time became Mormons. Todd did too. He was even called to go on a mission as a Mormon, but he declined. “I didn’t think it was the right thing,” he explains.

Finding what was right proved to be difficult. Todd was active in theater during his high school years and loved singing too. He grew attached to these activities and not to anything related to the church. “I memorized poems and plays, but not spiritual things,” he says.

Then, when Todd was in college, his grandfather passed away. “I took it really hard,” he notes. Overwhelmed with grief, Todd searched for something to help him feel better. “I tried everything, drugs, alcohol, to feel whole,” he says. Instead of healing, he sunk down further. “I felt worthless and guilty and that I had made so many mistakes I wouldn’t be able to get out of this hole.”

HITTING BOTTOM

Todd’s life continued to dip into a downward spiral. He says, “I realized if I continued on that track I would kill myself.” Finding a solution seemed impossible. Todd turned to Eastern religions for a while and delved into Buddhism. “Everyone seemed so happy and peaceful, but even with meditation and yoga and trying to find myself, I never felt peace and never felt good enough.”

The rocky path kept going. Todd entered into a marriage that soon failed. “After that, I worked with a therapist for quite a while,” he recalls. Together they came up with a list of ten things that Todd’s future wife would have to have. “The list was so long I thought, ‘There’s no woman in the world that can meet all these things,’ ” says Todd.

At the time, Todd was working for a company in Virginia. He earned an award at the company and was invited to attend an event to receive it. The event brought in employees from a number of different states. During the event, Todd met another employee, Jennie, who was from Wisconsin. She was there to receive an award as well.

The two hit it off right away. “I grilled her for six hours and couldn’t find a single reason not to like her,” Todd remembers. She met all of the criteria he had mapped out with his therapist, and there was another interesting fact about her: she was Lutheran. “I loved the fact that she was religious, it was very grounding to me,” says Todd. “She told me church was important to her, and I said, ‘Not a problem. I’ve been to church before, and I can learn.’ ”

The two began dating, and Todd soon moved to Wisconsin. He took Bible instruction classes and became a member. Then, in 2007, West and Jennie got married.

GROWING IN FAITH

Todd’s initial impression of WELS was that it focused on truth. He appreciated that its stance on certain issues, such as creationism and homosexuality, was based on the Bible. “I had seen other religions that followed the Bible but pretended parts of it didn’t exist if they didn’t fit with an issue,” he says.

At the start of their marriage, West and Jennie continued to attend a WELS church. Then their daughter was born, and the couple knew they wanted her to attend a Lutheran school.

When his daughter turned 3, Todd went to sign her up at a nearby WELS school for preschool. While there, he began chatting with the pastor. “Pastor Marggraf asked me, ‘What spiritual things do you do with your daughter besides pray at the table and pray at night?’ ” The question struck Todd to the core. “I wasn’t doing anything more than that and thought I was doing a great job,” he says.

That conversation did more than just take Todd aback; it made him think about what he was doing in the home for religion. He started more daily activities, such as reading from a children’s Bible and sharing Bible stories with his daughter. “She was still really young, but it started me on the right track,” he explains.

Not long after, the family moved because of a promotion Jennie received. At the time, the couple had a daughter and a son and a baby on the way. The shift took them to South Carolina. “We started our home search by looking at where the churches were,” says Todd.

With the help of the WELS locator, the family found a church, Hope, Irmo, South Carolina, to attend. When they arrived, without any family in the area, they were immediately welcomed with open arms by the congregation.

And they, in return, found ways to help out. Todd taught a class to the teens at church, an activity he grew to love. “I told them about my past and let them know God will always be there for them,” he states.

Thirteen months later, the family moved to Michigan, again due to Jennie’s job. They were able to find a house that was close to a WELS school and church.

After 10 months, the family relocated once more, this time to Indiana. As before, with the help of the WELS locator, they found a congregation and school in the city of Granger. Now Todd stays at home during the day with the family’s three young children. He works as a dog trainer in the evenings and on the weekends. He and Jennie are active in church.

Getting into the Word and learning about Jesus’ amazing forgiveness has motivated Todd to show love to others. He is involved in the “Please Open the Door” initiative, which looks for ways to reach out to Mormons. “When I was a Mormon, no one pointed out to me where I was wrong in the Bible,” he explains. “I want to help plant the seed and try to help others see how happy they can be too.”

Rachel Hartman and her husband, Missionary Michael Hartman, serve in León, Mexico.

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Author: Rachel Hartman
Volume 102, Number 4
Issue: April 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Confessions of faith: Baptist

A burnt-out Baptist searching for the truth discovers the gospel message in the Bible.

Ann M. Ponath

“You were a Lutheran before you knew you were a Lutheran,” Pastor Jon Scharf told Bob Finch.

Led by the Spirit, Bob was searching for the truth. But Bob turned out to be hard to find after his visit to the new church in town. Scharf also had to search for him.

The search

Bob, a purchasing manager, lives in Conyers, Georgia, 23 miles outside of Atlanta, where he was born and raised. He has been married to his high school sweetheart, Cindy, for 32 years; the couple is blessed with three children. Bob spent 49 years in the Baptist church, but he says, “As far back as I can remember I always knew Baptism was more than just for joining the local Baptist church and the Lord’s Supper was more than just something to do four times a year. I was seeking what the Holy Spirit had revealed to me from reading the Bible and letting the Word lead me, not man.”

Bob was searching the Scriptures, but he was also “nosy about the new church that was just being built.” He visited Abiding Grace, Covington, Ga., one Sunday, but he didn’t want anyone to know who he was or where he lived. Bob didn’t reckon with the friendship register.

Scharf recalls that the first time Bob visited he “snuck in right at the bell and out the same way, not giving much chance to talk other than a handshake and ‘Good morning’ on the way out.” He signed the register with only “Bob.” The second time it was “Bob . . . Conyers, Georgia.” The third time it was “Bob Finch . . . Conyers.”

“At that point, I did a quick Google search and found a couple options and picked the most likely,” says Scharf.

Abiding Grace uses the friendship register as one of its key ways to connect with visitors. “We encourage everyone to fill in all their info, hoping that guests will follow their example,” says Scharf. Once the registers are collected, Scharf highlights first-time visitors for the “mugging coordinator.” She assigns mug visits to volunteers who live near the visitor, and they drop off a thank-you package Monday night, including a coffee mug. “I then go and visit on Thursday night and try to have a conversation about the worship experience and their church background—hopefully leading into a ‘what do you believe?’ question which I can answer by taking them through a law/gospel presentation,” says Scharf.

The discovery

Scharf usually shows up unannounced for the first visit—something he also did at the Finch household. “The best part of [his] showing up at my house the first time was that I was out of town on business and my wife got to meet him for the first time because she had told me when I started to visit that she didn’t want to have anything to do with ‘that church,’ ” says Bob.

Scharf returned to the Finch home once Bob was home. “My wife still had not visited the church when Pastor came to visit, and I had to really convince her to sit in the meeting, and she did,” says Bob. “I had printed information from the different Lutheran [church] bodies. I told [Pastor Scharf] that I wanted to go over what the Lutherans are teaching.

“That opened up all kinds of discussions and questions, and my wife got in on it. The best part about talking with [Pastor Scharf] was that he never made us feel like we had been misguided, but [he] let the Word do the talking. In all the main areas I had questions, when the pastor explained them, I said, ‘That is the way I understand it too!’ ”

Scharf invited the couple to Bible information classes. Cindy joined Bob for a worship service the following Sunday, and after a couple of weeks, Bob began the 12-week class. Cindy joined later, and the couple was confirmed on Christmas Day 2011. “I remember them both really struggling getting past things they had heard all their lives and then seeing in Scripture the truth—it was fun to see the lights go on,” says Scharf. “It was interesting that the light didn’t go on at the same time for both of them on each topic. Some of the things I thought they’d wrestle with were no problem because they had already realized the false teaching they had been hearing previously. It was also so refreshing to see how passionately they wanted to get into the Word and the way that rubbed off on the whole class.”

Since that time, Bob says, “Our total outlook did a 180. I start my day with a reminder of my baptism and what Christ did for me for the forgiveness of my sins. Now for the first time in my life when someone asks me where I will go if I die today, I can say with full confidence, ‘Heaven.’ All praise to God for that!”

The opportunities

The Baptist church is a “huge” part of the church population in the South, says Scharf. “The 25- to 50-year-olds all seem to have grown up going to church on the Baptist church buses—often without parents,” he says.

But God’s Word has such grace to offer the struggling Baptist. “[Baptists] have been reminded again and again that they must be obedient—God will love them if they choose him and obey him. When God’s law proves that they are helpless in that and the gospel shows them Jesus as their substitute (not just their example)—wow!” says Scharf. “It’s fun to watch, and the energy is contagious even for someone who doesn’t know a day in his life he didn’t get that.”

Now the Finches are active members at Abiding Grace. Bob has been an elder and is now serving as secretary/treasurer, teen Bible study leader, and teen activities assistant. And things have gone full circle as Bob makes follow-up prospect visits. “His outgoing personality and her quiet faithfulness pair perfectly as they do a great job of helping other burnt-out Baptists come to grips with the fact that things they’ve thought their whole life don’t agree with Scripture, and then celebrating together the freedom of the gospel that isn’t based on our sufficient obedience,” says Scharf.

Our Spirit-led story has a happy ending: Scharf found the Finches, and the Finches discovered God’s comforting truth. Scharf says Bob’s reaction to hearing the pure Word of God was “like a breath of fresh air. He seemed so relieved that his battle with false teaching, his search for finding the truth, was finally bearing some fruit.”

Bob adds this encouragement: “Be bold in what you believe and trust daily in Christ. Always remember that the gifts God has given you need to be used for his glory and work only. We all have a daily fight with sin, but don’t forget what Christ said on the cross as he was dying for our sins, ‘It is finished!’ Amen!”

Ann Ponath is a member at Christ, North Saint Paul, Minnesota.

 

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Author: Ann M. Ponath
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Light for our path : Christian fasting

I hear a lot about Christian fasting programs. Should I be participating in them?

James F. Pope

You’re right. Christian dietary programs have been growing in popularity. It would be worth our while to see what the Bible says about fasting and Christian freedom.

Rare requirement

In Old Testament times mandatory fasting was uncommon. The Mosaic Law called for Israelites to fast on only one day of the year—on the great Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; 23:27).

Of course people were free to go beyond that requirement, and some did just that. Without being compelled by any divine directive, individuals like Hannah, David, Ezra, and Nehemiah—just to list a few—fasted. People often fasted in times of sorrow, repentance, and intense prayer. After Jonah’s reluctant missionary work in Nineveh, the Bible tells us that the king of Nineveh decreed a fast for all inhabitants— including animals (Jonah chapter 3). Eventually, Jews like the Pharisees fasted twice a week to make plain their claims of spiritual superiority (Luke 18:9-12).

Fasting freedom

In the New Testament, Paul wrote, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink. . . . ” (Colossians 2:16). When Jesus completed his redeeming work and abolished the ceremonial laws, the number of required fasting days for God’s people decreased from one to zero.

As was the case in Old Testament times though, Christians today are free to fast if they like. To help people who wish to fast, there are programs like The Daniel Fast, among others. Programs like this are popular in the season of Lent and throughout the year.

Prudent participation

So, should you fast? It is entirely your call. That is the freedom of adiaphora—those activities that God has neither commanded nor forbidden. Of course, you will want to understand what the programs are about. Do the fasts deprive you of food and/or water for extended periods of time? Are there health risks associated with them? Are there spiritual concerns of any kind? A physician can help you with the first two questions; I can help you with the last.

As is the case with any adiaphoron, motives for fasting can be important. Some of the literature I have seen speaks of fasting serving the purpose of “assisting and enhancing” our prayers. In view of that, you may want to ask yourself: “Am I thinking in any way that God is going to hear and answer my prayers because of something I am doing? Am I fasting like the Pharisees—thinking that fasting will put me in a better standing with God and make me superior to non-fasting Christians?” Any thoughts like these would rule out fasting.

On the other hand, are there thoughts of controlling the body and its desires—not being mastered by anything, even food (1 Corinthians 6:12)? Are there thoughts of taking good care of your body in which God lives (1 Corinthians 6:19)? Are there thoughts of eating to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)? Thoughts like these can exemplify good motives for fasting.

Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that “fasting and other outward preparations may serve a good purpose” in preparing ourselves to receive the Lord’s Supper. But the best preparation, he said, is believing Jesus’ words. Fasting—prior to the Lord’s Supper or any time—can be a beneficial practice, but there is no substitute for faith.

Contributing editor James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

James Pope also answers questions online. Submit your questions to fic@wels.net.

 

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Author: James F. Pope
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

God’s love and repentance

God’s love and repentance

God loves sinners. His love is undeserved and extends to all sinners of all kinds for all times. He loves the ungodly, the degenerate, and the unwilling—like Paul, who considered himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15)

God’s love has a purpose. He loves to claim sinners and change their lives, bringing them into a close relationship with himself and altering their behavior. We don’t change in order to earn our acceptance from God. No, while we were still sinners Christ died for us. That love from God prompts us to follow his path, not our own. We are changed to love God and our neighbor—the two great commandments that summarize all of God’s commands (Matthew 22:37-40). We become new creatures and abandon our old sinful ways.

We understand the simple principle. But so many others do not understand either God’s love for sinners or the way it changes sinners. God loves all sinners just as they are—unbelievers; atheists; murderers; thieves; idolaters, including those who persecute and slaughter Christians, children, and families; homosexuals; adulterers; witches; violent disturbers of the peace. All of them. You can add to the list from any newspaper or discussion you encounter.

But God’s love is not tolerance. He does not pat sinners on the head and say, “There, there, I love you. It’s all okay.” He loved us sinners so much he gave his Son so we will have eternal life. But his love does not enable us to continue in our self-destructive ways. We don’t treat our children that way. We love them unconditionally, but we don’t stand by and allow them to continue in behavior that will bring them trouble or pain. We don’t let them attack their siblings or neighborhood children and say, “I love you, and it’s okay to do it again.”

We shouldn’t mock God by suggesting that he accepts and condones all behavior and all opinions. He has said something much different. When Jesus began his ministry, Mark and Matthew both identified his message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17; see also Mark 1:15). Repentance is always turning away from a wrong path to God’s. His path of gracious love and forgiveness brings change, but the path away from God’s leads into the abyss of self-destruction. So we turn toward what God wants by the very power he gives in the gospel.

It’s a simple principle even if our sinful natures want to distort and dilute it. Love is not tolerance. It does not excuse what is wrong. It does not enable the sinner to continue in sin. Does God love the murderer? Yes. It murder acceptable? No! When he says that sexual perversion is wrong, does he love those who participate? Yes! Does his love become only a bland and blind tolerance that enables it to continue? No! Does he love the domestic abuser? Yes. Does he excuse the violence? No! He threatens to punish all who transgress, but even that threat is a loving rebuke to lead to repentance and change.

We are to love God in gratitude that he first loved us and gave himself for us. We are also to love others—sinners of all kinds—just as he did but without enabling them to continue in sin and rebellion. Be ready, as Peter says, to respond with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). We seek to bring others to know Jesus so they may proclaim his light by their confession and by the way they live. It is God’s plan for us and for all sinners.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
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We believe as all believers have: Part 2

“We believe in . . . the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen”

Joel D. Otto

For the fourth-century writers and confessors of the Nicene Creed, this statement was not very controversial. There was no dispute among Christians that God was the almighty Creator of the universe. Even heathen unbelievers accepted that some divine being or force was the cause or “prime mover” of the universe.

Yet, those early century Christians thought it was important enough to clearly confess that God created all things. They were blessed with foresight because today this is an extremely controversial issue both inside and outside of the church.

Public education has long accepted the theory of evolution as the “scientific” explanation for the origins of the universe. But many Christian churches, in an attempt to appear intellectually acceptable to the secular culture, have compromised the creation account in Genesis. Some claim that God got things started and used the evolutionary process to bring the different species into existence. Others dismiss Genesis chapters 1–2 as myth. They say it was simply the way primitive believers tried to explain the origin of the world. Since scientific discoveries, they claim, have progressed so much, we have to get away from such myths.

The problem is that every attempt to diminish or compromise the Genesis creation account diminishes and compromises the power of the one true God. If he is truly “the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” as the church has been confessing for centuries, then by all means he has the power to call into existence this entire universe by his spoken word in six 24-hour days. Consider the intricacies of the human body, the orderliness of the orbit of the planets, the fact that our planet is the right distance from the sun and rotates at the right angle and at the right speed.

Finally, however, it is a matter of faith. We can study God’s creation and marvel at it. We can attempt to debunk evolutionary theories. In the end, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe what the Bible says: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).

Believing that our heavenly Father has created this universe gives us additional confidence that he has the power to help us. Even when the world appears to be falling apart, even when our lives might seem to be unraveling, we remember that by faith in Jesus we are children of the heavenly Father who in love and power called all the heavens and earth into existence, “seen and unseen.” He lives and rules all things for the good of his children.

So we can echo the confession of the psalmist: “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).


 

EXPLORING THE WORD

1. We often marvel at what we can see of God’s creation. Describe as many of the “unseen” things of God’s creation as you can.

There are many answers. Here are just a few: air (consider how it contains just the right amount of oxygen), gravity (consider that the earth rotates at the right speed, on the right axis, at the right distance from the sun and moon), sound waves, heat/light/energy (we can’t usually see this, but we often see its source or feel the results), angels. One might also consider the way God makes the crops grow. We observe it happen, but it happens in such a way that it is hard for us to see. One might also think about the internal workings of the human body. These things are unseen unless we get an X-ray, MRI, or have surgery or some traumatic injury.

2. Read Psalm 139:13-16. How does an understanding about God’s creative activity help us view our bodies, intellect, and abilities?

It is true that sin has marred God’s perfect creation. That is why, for example, there are genetic defects. However, because we are knit together in our mother’s womb by the almighty God, the different look of our bodies, the different skills and abilities we have, and the different levels of intellect and understanding we possess, all are used by God to make us the unique people that we are. And God uses the uniqueness of each one of us for his good purposes and for our spiritual and eternal good. So we can view our bodies, intellect, and abilities as gifts of God’s power and grace, knit together to make each of us a unique blessing in his world and in his church to serve him and others, even if sometimes we might see what we consider to be defects and deficiencies.

3. Read Genesis 1:2,26; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17. While we usually confess that the Father is Creator, how do these passages inform a complete picture of creation? What does this tell us about the Trinity?

Both the Son and the Holy Spirit were also involved in the work of creation and continue to be involved in the work of preserving creation. The Bible does ascribe specific tasks to a particular person of God. For example, only the Son became flesh and was crucified. And we will often delineate certain titles for the persons of God based on the tasks typically ascribed to them (for example, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier). However, when it comes to creation, all three persons were active. The three persons of the one God take counsel together and work together to care for us and save us.

4. In what way does your view of the origin of the universe affect your worldview and purpose in life?

If you hold an evolutionary view of the world where the world’s existence is a result of change, accident, or survival of the fittest, then your worldview is focused on yourself, and your purpose in life becomes personal survival and advancement in life and/or a pursuit of personal pleasure. There is no accountability toward something or someone higher than yourself. There is no Creator to honor and glorify, so you end of glorifying humanity and humanity’s achievements. Or people might turn creation itself or created things into “god.” Consider the way some people refer to “Mother Earth” or the way different civilizations have worshiped the sun, planets, or animals (cf. Romans 1:18-32).

On the other hand, if you believe that God created the universe, gave us life, and provides all that we need, then you also recognize that you are accountable to that Creator. Adam and Eve recognized that they were accountable to God for their disobedience, even though they tried to hide from him (see Genesis 3). Your worldview is focused on your Creator, and your purpose in life becomes obeying his commands; glorifying and honoring him in attitude, word, and action; and serving others (1 Corinthians 10:31; Deuteronomy 10:12). There is an accountability and responsibility to the God who gives and sustains life. Luther brings this thought out in his explanation to the First Article. After reviewing all that God has done to create us, provide for us, and protect us, he writes, “All this God does only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserved it. For all this I ought to thank and praise, to serve and obey him.” While ultimately we worship, honor, and obey God in gratitude for his saving works, his creating work also elicits our praise and forms our worldview as one where we strive to glorify our Almighty Maker in all that we do.

Contributing editor Joel Otto, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee.

This is the second article in a 13-part series on the Nicene Creed.

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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 101, Number 12
Issue: December 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Don’t give thanks

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” Luke 18:11

Steven J. Pagels

Did the title of this devotion grab your attention? Maybe you were thinking to yourself, It must be a typo or Whoever proofreads these articles needs to do a better job of editing. Don’t give thanks? That doesn’t make sense. That advice doesn’t agree with the many Bible passages that encourage Christians to thank God for their many God-given blessings.

Actually it isn’t a typo, and those words do make sense if you look at them in the context of Luke 18. Jesus found himself in a gathering of people who thought very highly of themselves and very little of others. To take these self-righteous people down a notch, the Lord told them a parable about two men. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.

WITH A PROUD HEART

The Pharisee was a respected religious leader. People looked up to him, and probably plenty of people were looking at him when he stood up in the temple and began to pray: “God, I thank you . . . ” It was such a good start, a good beginning to any prayer a believer might pray. But as the Pharisee continued, the self-righteous words that came from his lips revealed that something was wrong inside his heart.

“God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evil doers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” The Pharisee wasn’t really interested in giving thanks to God. He was more concerned about drawing attention to himself, to how good he was, to how much better he was than all the wicked people in the world.

My guess is that you have never prayed a prayer like that, that you would never imagine praying a prayer like that. I wouldn’t either. But we don’t have to repeat the Pharisee’s words to have the same kind of self-righteous attitude. Instead of letting God know how good we are in our prayers, we can communicate the same idea in the prayers we choose not to pray. Why should I be thankful? I had to work hard to get the things I have. It was my effort, my determination, the decisions I made that got me where I am today.

BUT WITH A HUMBLE HEART

The other man in the parable wasn’t interested in telling God how good he was. He couldn’t even bring himself to look up to heaven. Instead he beat his breast and bowed his head and pleaded: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” What a dramatic contrast to the Pharisee’s prayer, and what a beautiful prayer it was!

The tax collector didn’t get into specifics, and he didn’t have to. He knew that God was aware of his many sins. He knew that he had no right to ask God for anything, but he did anyway. He asked God to be merciful, and God was. At the end of the parable Jesus explained that this man went home with his sins forgiven and his head held high.

The best part about this story is that it’s not just a story. It’s a true story. It is our story. We have a merciful God who lifts us up when we are weighed down by guilt. We have a living Savior who has forgiven all our sins. Because we are so blessed, because God has given us so much, we will do what comes naturally. We will do what grateful Christians do. With our lips and with our lives we will say, “Thank you.”

Contributing editor Steven Pagels is pastor at St. Matthew’s, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

 

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Author: Steven J. Pagels
Volume 101, Number 11
Issue: November 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

John 3:16: Part 12

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Joel S. Heckendorf

Grandpas carry them in pockets. Restaurants stock them next to the cash register. A peppermint candy swirl is one of the most mouth-refreshing candies. Yet it poses a problem. It’s too easy to chomp down. Instead of lasting 10 minutes, you devour it in 30 seconds. Soon you wish you had a new piece of candy so you could savor its sweetness again.

John 3:16 is one of the sweetest pieces of gospel candy. Because of its familiarity, it’s easy to chomp this verse down without considering its meaning. Slow down. Let it sit in your heart and steadily send sweet sensations to your head and life. Savor the sweetness each layer of this verse offers.

GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONE AND ONLY SON

The first sweet taste comes in the key word love. The original language of the Bible employs numerous terms for love. Agape, the term used here, is the sweetest and richest. Agape is a special kind of selfless love. It’s an attitude that results in action. Look at the action love prompted our Father to do—he gave his one and only Son.

Savor that sweet truth. God gave his Son. Relationships are strengthened by shared experiences. Think about the experiences the Father shared with his Son. Sitting in the heavens, they could recall the day of creation when they said, “Let’s make man in our image.” They could reminisce about their rescue effort of Noah or how they led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They had an eternity of experiences together, and yet God gave his one and only Son for you.

THAT WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM

The Bible clearly teaches that no one can believe on his or her own. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Savor the sweetness of this verse that subtly points to the miracle of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. Also, savor the sweetness of the seemingly insignificant word whoever. Whoever assures us that we don’t need a special pedigree to be part of God’s family. We don’t have to live in a certain era or location. The gospel spans cultures and classes. Savor the sweetness of the unity the Spirit brings to “whoever believes.” And you can’t earn the status God freely gives to “whoever believes.”

But it’s not just belief in anything. It says, “Whoever believes in him,” which brings us to the core of this piece of gospel candy:

SHALL NOT PERISH BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE

To savor the full flavor of this sweet message, we need to grasp that hell is real. Hell is suffering. Hell is anger. Hell is pain. Hell is separation from God. Hell is where we were headed. But just as hell is real, so is heaven. Heaven is joy. Heaven is peace. Heaven is contentment. Heaven is seeing God face-to-face. Heaven is ours because Jesus rescued us by living a perfect life and dying an innocent death in our place. Through Jesus, God places the sweet taste of eternal life on our tongues. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Savor the sweetness.


 

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

1. What was the most difficult “good-bye” you ever had?

Answers will vary. Usually, the longer you are with someone, the more difficult it is to say good-bye. I think of my grandparents. Having been married for 68 years, my grandfather touched every pillow in the funeral home because he wanted the softest pillow for his now departed bride. Having lost the one who shared his life’s experiences threw him into a tailspin so that he died of a broken heart. The fact that we can witness such closeness in imperfect, human relationships makes us marvel at the love of the Father that he was willing to give his Son for us, the Son with whom he had a perfect relationship.

2. Describe a time when you most appreciated your unity with other believers.

Answers will vary. Examples may include a time when you were traveling. When Christians find one another in a heathen-dominant country or area, there is great joy in the bond of faith. Cherish the miracle that the Holy Spirit can make many “whoevers” believe.

3. Why do we often fail to celebrate the miracle of faith in our hearts?

We all are born with an attitude that I can do something to earn salvation. Or, we believe and live in a culture that promotes we are inherently good. Until we realize with the apostle Paul that each of us ranks as the “chief of sinners,” we will fail to fully celebrate the miracle of faith.

4. How does a declining belief in the reality of hell impact the sweetness of this verse?

Readers may want to check out this USA Today article: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-08-01-hell-damnation_N.htm. Five years ago, only 59 percent of Americans believed in hell. If hell is nothing to worry about, the need for a Savior diminishes. On the contrary, when we realize hell is where we were headed, our appreciation for the Son is magnified.

 

Contributing editor Joel Heckendorf is pastor at Immanuel, Greenville, Wisconsin.

This is the final article in a series on the 12 most popular Bible passages accessed in 2012 through Bible Gateway, an online Bible resource.

Scripture references in this study are taken from the New International Version 1984.

 

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Author: Joel S. Heckendorf
Volume 101, Number 10
Issue: October 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Vacation with Jesus : Plocher

With Jesus, family vacations are full of blessings and memories.

Matthew J. Plocher

The summer of 1984 was an epic vacation year for my family. We drove with two other families from Saginaw, Michigan, to California—5 adults and 18 children in two suburbans and a van, towing a camper. We stayed in campgrounds and cabins along the way, ending our vacation by overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

For my family, it was an escape. My father had been sick for years, finally dying that February. We were getting away from doctor’s visits, ambulances, medications, hospitalizations, nursing homes, and finally a funeral home and cemetery. While it was a difficult journey, Jesus, our Savior and our Lord, walked every step with us.

We had the time of our lives on that vacation. But the trip presented some difficulties as well. While the sights were fantastic—from Mt. Rushmore to Wall Drug, from the Great Salt Lake to sunsets over a Pacific beach—there were trials too. We experienced vehicle breakdowns, mosquito swarms, snowstorms, and flooding rainstorms. In addition a newly single mom with her six boys struggled with the thought of moving ahead in life without a husband and without a father. Thank the Lord we took Jesus with us on that trip.

Even though we were on vacation, the route was planned around Sunday services. The first Sunday we pulled into the parking lot of a hotel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, at 2 a.m., in a torrential rainstorm. Our original campground was flooded out, so we packed up and drove the few hours to Cheyenne. All the hotels in town were full with construction crews, so we slept in a hotel parking lot in our vehicles. At church, the pastor and congregation members arrived to find a caravan in their parking lot, with sleeping bags, clothes, and tents hung on fences and side mirrors to dry. We changed clothes in the church, then went in to worship our Lord.

The next Sunday we attended a mission congregation in California. We were late getting to the storefront location and came in during the Scripture readings, right before the sermon. The 18 or so in attendance set up 23 chairs for the late-arriving guests, and then they restarted their service from the beginning. They were so grateful to worship their Lord in a full church with cramped, shoulder-to-shoulder seating. The music swelled as additional voices boomed out hymns of praise and adoration to God in gratitude for his saving grace.

Even though we were on vacation, we weren’t on vacation from God. After all, we had watched Jesus our Savior fulfill his promise of salvation and take my father to be with him in heaven. We had also watched Jesus our Lord fulfill his promise of always being with us as he took care of a new widow and her six boys.

How could we skip church? After all, we served a God who “made [mankind] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5), then watched that jewel of his creation turn his back on God and fall into sin. This same loving God knew that all people were utterly and completely lost. But this great God that we serve, out of his great love, became a man like us in order to pay a terrible price for our salvation. He turned death from a punishment into a gateway, a gateway through which we can enter to live as his children in full joy and perfect peace. Forever.

Vacation from God? Never.

Matthew Plocher is a member at Grace, St. Joseph, Michigan.

 

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Author: Matthew J. Plocher
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
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Philippians 4:13: Part: 10

“I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Joel S. Heckendorf

“I think I can . . . I think I can . . . I think I can.” Author Watty Piper geared the book The Little Engine That Could for children. First released for publication in the United States in 1930, the classic’s optimistic message has climbed its way into a mountain of self-help books, motivational speeches, and personal mission statements.

Similarly, so has the Philippians passage. PHIL 4:13 appears on the eye-strips of athletes, and it’s inked on arms, engraved in rings, and printed on posters to motivate people. The reference is a visible reminder to never give up and to aim for success. To many, Piper and the apostle Paul were working with the same concept: “I think I can” = “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

But what happens when cancer isn’t beaten, even though Philippians 4:13 was the patient’s mantra? What happens when the PHIL 4:13 quarterback throws a game-ending interception instead of the game-winning touchdown? What happens when “I think I can” is traded for “I see I can’t”? It’s then, when the mountainous challenges in front of us seem impassable, that we need the intended comfort of Philippians 4:13.

Context is crucial when it comes to understanding this popular passage. Paul was in prison when he penned these words. With chains around his wrists, the likelihood of throwing any missionary touchdowns was slim. Yet he could confidently write, “I can do everything.” What did he mean? Back up a few verses, and we see that Paul is not screaming out a vein-bulging, locker-room pep talk in this verse. Rather, he is whispering the secret of contentment. “No matter the situation, whether it’s bleak or bright, you can face it. You can endure it because you are living in Christ. He will provide the strength. Even if you’re running on empty, the Holy Spirit has poured Christ into your tank. You’ll have all the fuel you will need for the journey ahead—the journey to our destination with the Lord.”

Paul’s final words (2 Timothy chapter 4) assure us that he applied Philippians 4:13 to his life. Facing his death, he looked back and was thankful that the Lord stood by his side as he fought his fight and ran his race. He knew that the goal of life was not about climbing the mountain of earthly success. It was to ascend the throne of the Lord. And he knew the strength to make that climb didn’t rest in himself. If it did, he’d only be able to chant, “I think I can.” Rather, Paul knew his climb to heaven’s mountain depended on Jesus. Because of Jesus, Paul lived with an I know I can confidence. So can you, because of Jesus.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

1. Context. Context. Context. List ways you have seen or heard this passage applied. How does the context of the original passage compare to the way it is often applied?

Example of Philippians 4:13 is often used by athletes, politicians or in the medical field. Philippians 4:10-12 shows that this is more about contentment and strength to endure all situations and not the ability to do all things.

2. What do you consider to be the top three things that rob us of the secret of being content?

Answers may vary. Examples include commercials, instant gratification/information, lottery/gambling, the de-Christianization of the world which places self at the center.

3. Instead of thinking of negative situations, why is it important to remember that even positive situations are possible through the strength that God gives?

It helps us to be humble and not rely on ourselves.

4. “Who gives me strength.” While not always translated as such, this concept appears seven times in the New Testament. After comparing Philippians 4:13 with the following passages, explain what it means to have strength from God: Acts 9:22; Romans 4:20; Ephesians 6:10; 1 Timothy 1:12; 2 Timothy 2:1; 2 Timothy 4:17.

To be strong in the Lord emphasizes a reliance on him and a zeal to do his will no matter the cost.

Contributing editor Joel Heckendorf is pastor at Immanuel, Greenville, Wisconsin.

This is the tenth article in a series on the 12 most popular Bible passages accessed in 2012 through Bible Gateway, an online Bible resource.

Scripture references in this study are taken from the New International Version 1984.

 

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Author: Joel S. Heckendorf
Volume 101, Number 8
Issue: August 2014

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2021
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

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