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Christ, the center

John A. Braun

Over the past few years, I have grown closer to Luther than I ever imagined. Research, reading, writing, research again, reading more, and writing again have brought Luther into focus more clearly for me than ever before. For that I am grateful. I don’t consider myself a Luther expert, but the focus I have acquired is important. 

I think that the greatest clarity comes from understanding the central principle Luther found in the Scriptures and on which he stood. It was Christ! He said and wrote as much often.  

When he learned that so many of the common people in the churches in Saxony, had “no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine,” he wrote the Small Catechism which has one of the greatest confessions of his faith in Christ: “I believe that Jesus Christ . . . has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.” Luther captured the central message of the Bible. For Luther it was never a dry academic principle. Luther wrote personally; he said “me.” That’s the beauty of Luther. He points us to Christ because he treasures Christ. We too have come to treasure Christ. 

This wasn’t an isolated incident. At home in Wittenberg, boarders, friends, and relatives often joined Luther at the supper table to listen to him and learn. Once he said, “If anybody strays from the center, it is impossible for him to have the circle around him, he must blunder. The center is Christ” (Luther’s Works [LW], Vol. 54, p. 45). Again Christ and, therefore, faith and forgiveness. 

Luther had to struggle to discover the greatness of God’s grace in Christ. He was tormented by his unworthiness before a holy, just, and omnipotent God. When the Holy Spirit opened his eyes and enlightened him, he confessed it was as if paradise was opened for him. Then the words of Scripture became a clear message of Christ that Luther was not willing to abandon, no matter what the cost. 

Perhaps we may consider Luther a kind of idol when we consider all that God brought to pass because of him. But human idols are not perfect, and neither is Luther. He was a sinner whose flaws are easy to discover. But Christ was his treasure and hope. He said, “The Christian faith differs from other religions in this, that the Christian hopes even in the midst of evils and sins” (LW, Vol. 54, p. 70). 

Rather than  being an idol to whom we give blind reverence, Luther is a signpost, pointing us to the Scriptures and to the message of the Scriptures—Christ.  

In the past few months I also have read comments by my brothers and sisters in the faith about being Lutheran. A few of those comments are included in this issue. Some of them are in the special insert, and another page shares thoughts from confessional Lutherans around the world. As I read all of these comments, I stand in grateful praise to God for what he has done in bringing them also to be signposts pointing to Christ. As you read them, I suggest you consider how many times they point to the certainty of salvation in Christ.  

Not only are they all signposts, but they are also examples that encourage us all to share our faith and to point others to Christ. For Luther, for these believers, for all of us, Christ is the center. Christ is still the message the world desperately needs. 


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 10
Issue: October 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Your kingdom come

John A. Braun

Believers have always longed for the Lord’s kingdom to come. The Old Testament believers, like Abraham, were “looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). We also pray for its coming the way John ends Revelation. When the Lord promises, “Yes, I am coming soon,” believers respond, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

Our prayer is a longing for the perfect kingdom Jesus promised, a place where there is no more death, sorrow, pain, or crying. It springs from hearts that daily endure the harsh realities of life in the trenches of unrest, anger, immorality, addiction, and all that comes with them. Here we have nothing perfect. We anticipate something much better because Jesus, our King, has promised it will come.

But Jesus reminded his disciples that the kingdom of his Father is more than a distant hope. It already exists (Luke 17:21). All those who listen to the gospel and believe become citizens even though they must wait for its glorious coming. The glory waits, but not the love and care of God.

Our Father placed all things under the power and authority of Jesus (Ephesians 1:22). Now Jesus rules his kingdom so that all things work for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). That’s the kingdom we pray will continue to advance.

Perhaps we need to remember that our King came here and lived with us as a poor, humble servant. He stood accused of treason and bound before Pilate. In his interview with the Roman official, Jesus maintained he was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world. It was different.

When we remember Jesus before Pilate, we begin to understand how different the kingdom of God is. It is not kingdom of power, borders, armies, decrees, or legislative action. It is a kingdom of God’s action on behalf of his people—quietly, relentlessly, efficiently carried out by an unseen and unnoticed almighty God who loves his own.

Our great King now rules even in the presence of his enemies. Today, the headlines announce how often the enemies of Christ seek to destroy his kingdom and belittle or even persecute his people. They almost always seem to be more powerful, more successful, and more important than Christ’s kingdom. But Jesus reminds us that even hell itself cannot overcome his kingdom (Matthew 16:18).

The gospel of Jesus had called, gathered, and enlightened sinful humans like us. We are his kingdom waiting for the glory to come. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we recognize that we are citizens of his kingdom and pray that he will keep us as his subjects.

We could say that Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of words because his power is in the words of the gospel of forgiveness. That power not only sustains us as his own, but it also brings others to treasure the grace of God. In spite of attempts to wipe Christians from the face of the earth, the kingdom of God continues to claim new believers and to sustain all those who trust in him. Your kingdom come, Lord.

Sometimes we need to remember that the kingdom is his, not ours. This is a prayer to “our Father in heaven,” and we pray, “Your kingdom come”—not mine or ours. We are challenged to see that we do indeed contribute to the rule of Christ our King, but we serve him. We pray that God would keep us focused on his kingdom and our humble service to him while we are here waiting for his glorious kingdom to come.


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Hallowed be your name

John A. Braun

I think the only time I use the word hallowed might be when I say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not that I don’t understand what it means. It’s just a word that doesn’t come up in conversation—with one exception. It is an important part of my conversation with my heavenly Father.

So I often use hallowed when I pray, “Our Father, hallowed be your name.” I ask for God’s name to be honored, appreciated, or set apart for special reverence. Of course, we cannot make it any more special or holy than it already is. His name is forever connected to what he has done for us. That God has sent his Son to redeem sinners is a glorious and profound truth. God has given us forgiveness, life, and salvation through Christ. What greater reason to treat his name with respect and honor.

Jesus invited believers to pray that his Father’s glorious work of saving us be honored and revered among us. “Hallowed be your name.” When we come together, we need to hear the gospel, the news of God’s gracious work for us. We know the gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16). It is vital for our spiritual life and our eternal future. We honor God by proclaiming what he has done.

To proclaim something different from the gospel of Christ dishonors our heavenly Father. It diminishes him. John reminds us that when we say something contrary to God’s Word we make God a liar (1 John 5:10). When our works, our thoughts, and our efforts take center stage, we move God to a secondary role as a supporting actor instead of the main attraction. His name is not hallowed.

So we pray that God our heavenly Father would keep our attention on the main thing: Christ. Our regular prayer is necessary because of the temptations we encounter almost every day. In our world, God’s name is used for almost everything but proclaiming Christ crucified. Even in churches the message is distorted and altered to create a kind of Christianity of feeling good without Christ.

With my fellow believers, I ask that the Lord’s name be revered, honored, and held in a special place among us as God’s children. After all, he has placed his name on us. We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That name along with the water has washed our sins away and made us children of God. We are clothed with Christ’s perfect life so that all blemishes and faults are covered. And we have become his children, destined to inherit all our Father’s rich blessings.

What troubles me is when God’s children bring dishonor to the Lord Jesus. When I hear that Christians have stumbled into great public sin, my heart sinks. I know sin still lives within us. So when I pray, “Hallowed be your name,” I’m asking God to strengthen both me and my fellow believers so that we do not disgrace our heavenly Father by our behavior.

In a positive way, we pray that God would strengthen and direct us all so that we show more kindness, patience, gentleness, love, joy, and peace as we deal with each other. Those qualities are important in his church. They are also important in our dealings with those who do not know Jesus yet. We ask the Lord to help us honor him in every situation of life. When we are insulted, when the world speaks well of us, when we suffer, when we rejoice and are happy, we pray, “Hallowed be your name, heavenly Father.”


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Our Father in heaven

John A. Braun

“Our Father in heaven.”

How often have you said those words? How often have you said them without thinking what a marvelous truth Jesus taught us? Each of the petitions of this prayer gives us something important to ponder.

I want to spend a few months thinking through what the Lord’s Prayer means for us as Christians and specifically how we can pray this prayer for our needs as a church. My reason is that first word “our.”

Jesus taught his disciples that this prayer included them all together. They asked him to teach them how to pray. Then with the first words of the prayer, he invited them to consider they shared a Father in heaven together.

Most often when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I pray it personally and think, My Father in heaven. That’s okay because it has much I need to bring to my Father in prayer.

Yet, I should not forget the words Jesus used. It starts with that word “our.” When we gather in worship, we speak the prayer together. Jesus encouraged me to look down the pew at the people who are saying the prayer with me as well as those in the pews in front of me and behind me. We address our Father together.

I think that little word “our” is significant because it reminds me that I’m not the only one in the Lord’s church. Peter was not alone, nor were any of the other disciples. Even later when they went their separate ways to share the gospel with all nations, they were part of the Lord’s church. The Holy Spirit brought new people to faith in Jesus who together would begin their prayers, “Our Father.” In another way, even when they were separated there was still the “Our Father.” A thousand miles away, Christians were saying the Lord’s Prayer. They were in his church and part of the “our” of communion and fellowship with each other.

Believers, the church of Christ, often said this little prayer together over the centuries, just as Jesus taught it. Sometimes the words tumble from lips of family, friends, or a pastor gathered together around a bedside. At other times we mumble them together when facing great trials. “Our Father.” We are not alone. Certainly, our Lord is with us, but this is a reminder that so are other Christians. Together we pray for each other.

Jesus wants our prayers to be addressed to our Father. Luther reminds us that our relationship with God is the relationship of an ideal tender father with his dear children. God’s love has removed what makes us rebellious and infuriating. He sent his perfect Son, Jesus, to be our substitute. Our Father sees us as brothers and sisters of the One whose blood atones for our rebellion. Our Father loves us and wants us to bring our cares and concerns to him in our prayers.

Jesus adds that our Father is “in heaven.” These aren’t just words to fill a sentence or address! No, our Father is powerful and understands our challenges. He does not sit in heaven oblivious to what happens here and unable to help us. He listens and has the power to help in every need and every situation.

And the world seems to spin out of control. We all sense it happening. We are concerned about the believers we know from our regular worship and the believers we read about worldwide. Jesus encourages us to take those concerns to “our Father.” What a wonderful opportunity to pray for each other as dear children, brothers and sisters together.


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Coming to church

John A. Braun

“If I believe in Jesus, why do I have to come to church or even belong to a church? Isn’t it enough that I believe?” Those questions are among the questions asked by people who check “None” when asked about their church preference.

The “Nones” have concluded that the organized church is just too difficult for them. Perhaps they have had a bad experience with a pastor or priest. Perhaps they have listened to or sat through too many meetings that go nowhere and may have been filled with too much bitterness, anger, or squabbling. It may, of course, be simpler than that. They just want their freedom.

I suppose that there’s another group of people who ask those questions or at least variations of them. We call them delinquents—members who stay away from worship. Pastors and elders in our congregations spend time in prayer and use energy trying to connect with them and encourage them to come to church.

In either case, they don’t come to church—at least very often. Perhaps they come for Christmas and Easter—the “C and E” Christians. Some may actually be quite devout—reading their Bibles and even attending a Bible class hosted by a neighbor. But coming to church is another story altogether.

We might imagine the reasons they don’t come and the rationalizations they adopt to justify staying away. Services are boring? Too much emphasis on money? Church people are hypocrites? Pastors are unfriendly, pompous, or whatever? So many people and so many excuses!

Why do we come to church? Perhaps we have as many answers to that question as others have excuses not to come. Let me suggest a few reasons to come to God’s house.

I come to sing God’s praises with others. Yes, we are a flawed assembly with all kinds of people from a great spectrum of personalities and backgrounds. We may not be friends with everyone at worship, but we are all children of God by faith in Jesus. That draws us together, and our love for Jesus helps us put aside our differences. We sing together—even if some can’t sing a note. Our hearts are joined to praise God for his grace in Jesus.

I come for the forgiveness of sins. Martin Luther mentioned something that I think is remarkable. Luther reminds us that when we come to the Lord’s Supper God places the forgiveness there on the table for us. That’s true whenever we hear the gospel. God places forgiveness in front of me—in front of us all—as his gift. We accept his gift by faith, and we take it home, wrapped up in our hearts, for comfort and strength. Whatever lies ahead during the week, we have what is important.

I come for instruction. The daily tasks and weekly worries wear down our resolve to remain faithful. We come together to listen to God’s Word to sharpen our faith, correct our wayward tendencies, and steel our commitment to Jesus.

I come to share a portion of the income God gives me. The collection plate is a welcome opportunity. We bring our offerings to maintain the building we use for worship, to support the servants we call to teach us and our children, and to spread the message of Jesus through our mission efforts.

I’m also there to smile and encourage others who come. I don’t always know the challenges they face every day, but our time together includes prayers for each other—some spoken and others unspoken. Part of coming together is the joy of seeing other disciples of Jesus worship.


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Christ crucified

John A. Braun

I need to hear the gospel—Christ crucified for me—regularly. It’s why I go to church on Sunday. It’s not that I’ve never heard the gospel before. I simply need the reminder. Three reasons to hear the gospel often loom in my life and, I think, in the life of every Christian.

The first is the unwelcome guest that lives within my heart. It’s my old self, the sinful nature that persists even after I know the love of Jesus. When the gospel works within us it is the power of God. The gospel nourishes my faith and strengthens my desire to do as the Lord wills in joy and in gratitude for his love.

But I don’t lose my sinful nature in the joy of Christ’s love. No. His love creates a struggle. The good that I want to do, often I do not do (Romans 7). Then comes guilt when I fail. I try to change, but failure comes so often. I need to hear that Jesus loves me and forgives me. I need the gospel often.

The second reason is more subtle. Sometime my sinful nature is so sneaky that it will turn the gospel into something about me. That’s a common fault of human nature. All too often it becomes all about me. I begin losing sight of Jesus, and I say how proud I am to be a Christian. I stop thinking like the poor publican. Instead, I focus on all I’ve done; I only wish others would notice more often. I become the Pharisee!

Making Christianity all about me instead of about Christ is a temptation that infects so many Christian churches. The message of Christ and his forgiveness shrinks in importance. In its place, the message of Christ changes. It is no longer about Christ crucified for me, but Jesus becomes an example for moral behavior. Hope, joy, satisfaction, and comfort rest not on Christ but on how well one lives as a Christian. That old sinful nature shifts the focus on me and away from Christ who was crucified for me, an unworthy sinner.

In addition, the shift away from Christ to “me” comes with the temptation to take a small step toward thinking I’m a better Christian than others and that others are missing something. That’s a virus that infected the Galatians. They were taken in by those who thought they needed Christ and works. Paul chided them, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). In our age, it becomes a dominant focus on the obedience of a Christian to the law of love. Sounds good, but where is Christ crucified? All too often he must take a back seat to “me,” my obedience, and my effort. It becomes Christ and works not Christ alone.

That’s the third reason I need to hear the gospel of Christ crucified. The second reason is that the gospel is the antidote to the temptations I feel inside. The third reason? The gospel is also the antidote to the temptation to satisfy my itching ears with a message my sinful nature wants to hear—a message that is different than Christ crucified for me.

A friend recently said, “If you think you are someone special, put your hand in a bucket of water and pull it out. How much of an impression have you left?” My sinful nature recoils at that reality, but my spirit rejoices that God loved such a good-for-nothing. Christ was crucified for me and for all other sinners. May God nourish our spirits with the message of Christ crucified.


John Braun is executive editor of Forward in Christ magazine. 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Ricochet

John A. Braun

The bullets always ricocheted off the boulders protecting the hero. When he popped up his head and raised his gun to shoot at the bad guy, he rarely missed. I grew up with that firmly in my mind as I watched the Westerns of my day. Sound effects and that puff of debris from where the bullet hit the rock made it all the more believable.

Most people do not remember the television shows I watched years ago, but they still see the same thing happening in the movies today. In some movies the bullets still fly, but in others it’s the flash of light from the lasers or blasters. Either way the bad guys still miss more often than they hit the hero. The special effects and the surprising escapes still keep our attention. The hero survives to achieve his mission and save the day, the world, his friend, or the nation.

I sometimes wonder if my idea of rescue and protection is shaped by what I saw on TV or in the movies. Do I consider my prayers answered when I escape danger or disease? Then the threat only ricochets away harmlessly. I’m safe and so is the one I prayed for. Yes, my prayers are answered, and I thank God for his protection and, in some cases, his modern miracles. The bullets have missed.

But sometimes the bullets don’t miss. Our heroes get wounded and suffer. At times they also die in the face of disease or accident. They are not just our heroes; they are also our friends, loved ones, and colleagues. Then there is the temptation to think that God has not answered our prayers. We need to hunker down and rethink things.

God always has in mind what is best for us and all his people. He does what is best, just as he promised. But he does not simply preserve our life as it is and keep us going ahead without trouble. He will challenge us to remember that heroes (read friends, loved ones, and colleagues) don’t always live as they have or live to fight another day. He strategically changes our lives in many ways for our good.

Before we go too far, we need to be a bit introspective about our own situation. We like to think about those other heroes we know but in the comfort and security that we are personally safe and the bullets of disaster have whizzed over our heads. We breathe a sigh of relief, but we ought never ignore the reality that our journey through this life follows a narrow path to heaven. That path has hardships, pain, and misery for us too.

Like soldiers in the midst of battle, casualties and death are realities we cannot prevent. Sometimes they do just miss us. But whether we are counted among them or not, whether we have escaped difficulties or been stopped in our tracks by them, we have a hope from a God who loves us. He, at times, will challenge us by turning our world upside down, but he does not desert us.

That hope grows large as we remember the empty tomb in Joseph’s garden. The Lord Jesus is alive. Death could not hold him. It can’t hold any of his disciples either. Easter is our sure hope on the battleground of life.

The bullet with our name on it is out there somewhere, but Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25,26 ESV).


John Braun is executive editor of the Forward in Christ magazine.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

The fool

John A. Braun

Psalm 14 begins, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ” The atheist is a fool? God thinks so. The evaluation is repeated in Psalm 53.

Such judgmental pronouncements, however, are not welcome in our world. And from the perspective of atheists, of course, it’s not true. They would think of Christians as fools. For the atheist, nothing exists but what can be proven, observed, and documented. Science is the standard of what is and what is not. Believing in God and especially trusting in a crucified and resurrected Savior make Christians fools. The message of the cross is just so much foolishness to the world’s wise and intelligent (1 Corinthians 1:23).

If you do any reading of atheistic thought, it doesn’t take very long to hear the utter disdain for religious people who accept the concept of God. Their view of God may be that he is a cruel jerk who promises a boring existence in heaven. I’ve read that assessment by one atheist. He discards all ideas of such a god. But the god he rejects was created according to his own intellectual assumptions. Of course, he would object to my critique. To his way of thinking, I am a fool and accept foolish things.

Reading some of their literature means reading claims of their superior intellect and a belittling of anyone who thinks differently. Those who accept the concept of God are naïve, superstitious, and deluded. Some have even concluded that the “religious” are social misfits who need a crutch to get through life. It’s a kind of arrogance and superiority that borders on intellectual bullying. In effect it comes across as, “You are not as smart as I am because I don’t believe in God.”

What makes this so frustrating is that the human mind is an amazing organ. The contributions of great minds over the course of human history is long and impressive. Beginning with the simple wheel down to the latest discoveries in all scientific fields, the list is nothing short of amazing. Who knows how much more there is yet to come? I confess to meeting and talking with men and women who surpass my intellectual gifts.

While I marvel at those accomplishments, I do not measure things by human standards that are limited and changeable only to deny that God does not exist. One silent and relentless witness to the limitations of human thinking is that every one of us grows old and deteriorates. Atheists too. Intelligent. Poor. Cognitively limited. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalm 2:4).

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20). God’s thoughts and God’s ways are higher than mine or any of the greatest minds the world has ever seen or will ever see. Our human standards are too small to judge him, our human thought too limited to contain his thoughts. Profound humility in the face of God is an appropriate response and cancels any arrogant bravado.

Who would have ever imagined that God would send his Son to endure crucifixion for those who could not even grasp his greatness? That’s foolish to atheists and most of the intellectual world around us. But “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

Lent beckons us again. Be bold in trusting God’s foolishness in Christ crucified. Remember God’s critique of those without God, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ ”


John Braun is executive editor of Forward in Christ magazine. 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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

 

Weary and burned out

John A. Braun

Spiritual life can seem like a wasteland sometimes. We might imagine that we’re standing on the edge of a vast landscape of sand dunes with no clear path to follow. The longer we stand there and ponder what to do, the worse it gets.

I’ve been there, and I find company there. The people who come are weary and tired. Some have labored long and hard at life’s challenges and living as Christians. They’re burned out. I even find Elijah there, who wondered if he was the only one who was still faithful (1 Kings chapter 19), and Jeremiah with his Lamentations.

We all come here from time to time. A parent confronted with challenges posed by a child’s dangerous choices becomes weary and drained by the effort to do what is right. A spouse sits helpless as life and vitality creep away from a beloved partner. We all have our own journeys and stories of how we came to the edge of the wasteland.

Exhausted by our struggles, we seem to have lost our enthusiasm for Christ and our energy for the next challenge. We anguish over what we sense is a drop in our intensity and a sign of weakness. The dents in our armor are difficult to repair sometimes. After the struggle,

it seems like we will never be able to attain the same level of commitment, strength, and vitality.

But let’s be careful as we join the company of those other weary believers. What we are experiencing is not so much a wasteland but a sign of spiritual maturity. We’ve come through troubles. The Lord has given us all we need to come to a place for rest. We have endured. The maturity comes in recognizing that the Lord has trained and molded us in the exertion—even given us a time to reflect.

We should remember that all our tri-als and challenges do not leave us the same as we were before. Even if we don’t realize it, we have grown to a new level of spiritual maturity, that is, if we have turned to the Lord’s Word for strength, comfort, and encouragement. He has led us to deeper prayer as well. Even if God seems to be silent after our repeated cries for help, he sharpens our vision of his will and leads us away from our will. Wait. Trust. Hope. That’s part of spiritual maturity.

At those moments of spiritual weariness, we may be tempted to do something to breathe vitality back into our spiritual life. I know some have sought a solution in another church or even another church body, hoping to recapture some of what appears lost. Temptations await us in these places. But our spiritual health does not depend as much on our efforts as it depends on God’s power in the gospel. Don’t be too quick to find a path away from his grace and love.

Instead, take the time to rest, reflect, and return to God’s rich promises. The path ahead becomes clear as we listen to God’s instruction in his Word. The gospel assures us of God’s love in Christ and promises he will never desert us. Perhaps his new role for us is to stand quietly as one of God’s guideposts for others to follow. Mature and sure of his love, we point to Scripture and the cross it reveals. For those troubled by their journey, our spiritual depth assures them in their own spiritual weariness.

There’s more to do, and God may open new pathways for any of us to follow. In the meantime, wait for the Lord and sink yourselves into his promises.

 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Change

John A. Braun

When we are comfortable and everything is smooth and happy, we don’t want anything to change. Decisions, our actions or failures, and painful events many times must precede the calm and peace that follow. But once we arrive at that spot of tranquility, we don’t want it to change. But it does.

Forgetting the past is part of our resistance to change, but we also do not want to face the challenges and discomfort of adjusting to a new path and a new direction. But the road we travel is most often an exploration that changes from day to day and not a wayside for us to stay.

Each mile requires something a little different from us. Without thinking about it, we make the necessary adjustments and follow the path that seems so clear before us. Many of the changes don’t alter our paths dramatically. Yet every day brings new challenges, and we adjust.

Some changes we initiate in the hope of preserving our spot of tranquility or improving it. An example is relocation and all the changes that brings. Or marriage. Children. A new job. Education. Our personal daily lives illustrate that change is good, at least if the changes only alter our course slightly or they improve our pathway.

Other changes are uncomfortable and unwanted. They lead us down dark, unexpected, or painful paths. They come from many sources: politics, health, relationships, family. We resist those changes when they come from things we cannot control or prevent. That may be the key to understanding our resistance to change. We resist because we have no control. We must travel the dark valley from time to time. And we don’t like it.

As believers in Christ, we have learned to turn to the Lord and trust his direction though we “walk through the darkest valley” (Psalm 23:4). The painful losses we experience—spouse, child, parent, financial security, health—have taught us that the Lord gives strength, comfort, and courage to move forward. We lean on his staff for support to step into the unknown and unwelcome. In addition, we know that the darkest valley is temporary. The end of our journey is the absence of tears, sorrow, pain, and misery in the eternal home Jesus has prepared for us.

Perhaps in the small changes of life, we forget such comfort. Certainly the Lord hasn’t disappeared or abandoned us. We just don’t think about his constant love for us. That thought struck me recently as I was driving to work at sunrise. The traffic was backed up and there was a pause—perhaps a little frustration within. Then I looked at the horizon and noted the golden sun kissing the tops of the low clouds.

I’ve seen sunrises and sunsets many times before. I can’t even count how many I’ve noticed. But every one was different. Every day the sun greets a changed sky. And at night again it sets and sends its diminishing light through a different set of clouds. We see change every day, actually every morning and every night. Yet the sun remains constant. You know the lesson: God remains beautiful and glorious no matter what the changes may be.

As we face the days ahead, we are easily filled with anguish over what changes await us. But remember: God still sends the sun to shine every day. He is in control. We cannot alter that and would only mess it up if we could. His love is undeserved and deep. He has given us his only Son. He will continue to love and care for us through all the changes ahead.

 


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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A beautiful Bible teaching

John A. Braun

“Do you actually believe this?” The question often comes when we confess our faith. Sometimes we wince at the question. When we confess that we are sinners and deserve God’s rejection and punishment, it’s hard for someone else to grasp the reality of sin that exists within us all.

But there are other occasions for the question. “Do you actually believe that God will reject the good people of this world?” The thinking persists that all good people deserve special consideration from God. Yet we confess what the Bible says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

“Do you believe in sin, judgment, God’s wrath, and all those bad things? They kill our self-esteem and mentally cripple our children.” With that thought, the teachings of the Bible are to be rejected as too unrealistic, harsh, or intolerant—too ugly.

But one beautiful incident from the Bible’s pages defies that perception. Yes, some will simply think of it as a myth or fictional story, but it brings us the beauty and purity of God’s love for the foul mass of humanity.

One quiet night in a small town in Judea, a mother gave birth to a son we know as Jesus. She was in Bethlehem because the Roman government required her and Joseph to register for taxation purposes. Interestingly, the people mentioned in Luke’s account are all real people verified by historical research. Mary delivered her son under difficult circumstances, wrapped him, and placed him in a manger. The story still touches our hearts and the hearts of many. It’s simply beautiful.

Then the night sky awoke to the brilliance of angels. Their brilliance terrified the shepherds but also announced the birth of this child who was Christ the Lord. The shepherds went to find the child with Mary and Joseph and told all who would listen about the beautiful event they had just witnessed.

When the baby is identified as Christ the Lord, the beauty transcends every human imagination; it is magnificent. The Lord is a baby in Bethlehem. Where is the ugliness of sin and judgment so many expect from God? It’s a baby instead. This baby is God’s love for ugly human sinners who deserve to be dismissed from his presence.

A glance at any newspaper or history book reveals the corruption and filth that pollutes our world—abuse, violence, greed, lust for power, rage, envy, discord, and immorality. These things find their way to the highest levels of our society, and they are also evident in every human heart and relationship. It’s as the Bible says, “All have sinned.”

The beauty is that God chose to provide a solution—an undeserved alterative. “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” (John 3:16). That baby in Bethlehem is a treasured example of God’s love for a world so filled with ugliness.

“Do you actually believe this?” Yes! Then I have questions: Why does this beautiful truth become so unattractive to so many? Why do some decide it is just a nice myth? Why do they seem to prefer a Christmas without the baby? Why persist in creating and perpetuating a world without the love of God for unworthy sinners?

Ah, God’s beautiful wisdom is foolishness and remains so to those who do not and will not see. But the rude manger in Bethlehem holds a beauty that surpasses the most profound thoughts of all those who have not embraced the baby: Christ the Lord. It’s no wonder we sing “Joy to the World.”


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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No longer captive

John A. Braun

Our human minds are wonderful and fascinating organs. Creative thought lives in even the most humble of humans. Great works of art, medical breakthroughs, and computer technologies cause us to marvel. They are not the products of common, ordinary humans. But I can marvel at the way my neighbor, after careful thought and planning, landscapes his yard or the way a family manages its finances to squeeze out enough for vacation or education.

As fascinating as it is, there is a ceiling to all human effort and creativity. We are captive to the here and now. Well, it might be better to say that we are captive to the horizontal. That doesn’t mean we can’t explore the heavens above and the universe that surrounds us. It only means that we are bound by what we see, know, and understand.

We can add to our knowledge as we explore, imagine, and experiment, and we can come to new understandings and thinking. But like those who explored centuries ago, we go off in a ship or vessel designed and made by a human mind. We still venture out into the unknown as horizontally limited humans. We want to poke holes in the ceiling to know God, heaven, and what is beyond human horizontal thinking, but we are limited by the way we think.

I know some will object to my suggestion that we are captives of our own human thoughts, and I can understand the objection. I’m not saying we cannot expand our horizons. We absolutely should explore, experiment, and imagine, but it will only be an expansion of our horizons, not a vertical breakthrough. By our own efforts, no matter how creative and interesting, we cannot know God, who exists beyond human horizons.

God himself must reveal what we cannot possibly know. And he’s given us a peek, even through our horizontal world. Paul says it this way, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Yet when we speculate about God, even as we see his majesty in the sunset, the oceans, or the mountains, we cannot conceive anything beyond what we have seen, heard, or observed. We are captives in the ship we sail—horizontally limited. We watch the sky but are unable to penetrate the heavens and know fully about the God who made us.

God’s wisdom concerning the horizontally limited is a mystery—but it’s not unknowable. Paul reminds us, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9,10).

While we cannot penetrate the ceiling from below, God himself has penetrated the ceiling from above by the revelation of Jesus Christ. God has sent his Spirit to bring us understanding beyond anything we will know on our own. Paul again reminds us the Spirit is from God, “so that we may understand what God has freely given us” (v. 12). How did God do that? We are not taught by human wisdom, “but in words taught by the Spirit” (v. 13). We understand God’s gifts of love, joy, peace, grace, forgiveness, and eternity only in Christ because God has opened our minds by his revelation—the Scriptures—to see and understand what human thinking can never imagine.

Let’s not forget to take his Word along with us on our journey. We are no longer vertically challenged.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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A parable for the ages

John A. Braun

Why should anyone become Christian? We would point to the Savior Jesus as the only real reason. He came to earth from the throne of his heavenly Father to accomplish what no human could accomplish. He assumed our place, suffered, and died, but rose again. He paid the full penalty for all human sin and failure and demonstrated his accomplishment by rising from the dead.

The Holy Spirit convinces doubting, uncertain, and opposing hearts to trust that Jesus has accomplished what the Scriptures tell us. We speak, write, sing, and live as disciples of Jesus here and now. Our witness gives the Holy Spirit opportunities to change hearts.

So many still have difficulty with the story of Christ. It has been so throughout the ages.

Over one thousand years ago a king was confronted with the Christian message. His wife was a Christian and urged him to become a Christian, but he still doubted and remained unconvinced. So he convened a meeting of his advisors in the grand hall to ask for advice. Huddled around a warm fire, they talked far into the night. As they talked, a bird entered through one of the windows. They grew quiet as they watched the bird. It flew around the hall and left through another window.

One of the king’s advisors proposed a reason to adopt the Christian message. He adapted the flight of the bird into a short parable. We enter this world, he said, but we don’t really know where we come from. We enjoy the company of our friends and the warmth of life here, but we all must leave this world again. And we don’t really know where we will go once we fly away and return to the unknown darkness. If this Jesus can help us understand what we cannot know about our flight out of life, we should listen to him. (Adapted from the account of the conversion King Edwin by the Venerable Bede.)

We all wonder about what will happen when we fly away at the end of life. Jesus has always been the answer. He was the answer when Luther was troubled by a bolt of lightning on his way back to the university at Erfurt. Luther worked hard to prepare himself to stand before God at life’s end, but he never could do enough. After years of anguish, he found the Bible’s answer: God himself gives us all we need. Jesus gives us his perfect life as a beautiful robe to covers all our sins. When our days “quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10), God welcomes us because of Jesus. Then he allows us to perch in the branches of the tree of life. His resurrection is our assurance and comfort.

Christianity has always been about Jesus. It has never been about what we do, think, or feel. We treasure the message of Jesus because it tells us where we are going. Those who walked and talked with Jesus have left us the New Testament, and we trust it because it tells us about Jesus.

The Savior himself designated those apostles to leave behind what we needed to know and promised that they would tell us the truth. Anything else is just speculation told by men and women who enjoy the warm fire and the company of friends. They cannot know what lies outside the window when we fly away. That’s a message only God knows, and he has made it clear to us in Jesus.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Achievement

John A. Braun

How many medals did we win? Which athletes won? It is exciting to watch the struggle and triumph of the Olympic Games. Victorious athletes might crow that they knew if they worked hard in training and kept at it, they’d win. But I know that for every single gold medal, thousands of hopefuls have also trained hard and kept at it. They have no medal to polish and display.

Sometimes we measure value by championships, medals, and public acclaim. In one sense, we need goals to motivate us, whether in politics, athletics, business, finance, the arts, or life in general. But like in the Olympics, thousands do not achieve great status and acclaim. Measuring greatness or even value is often harder than receiving acclaim, awards, or even notice.

Perhaps I should add one more category to the list of areas in our lives—the church. One of the recurring arguments among the disciples was which of them was the greatest. The discussion followed them to the upper room on Thursday of Holy Week. How shall we measure greatness? Jesus on more than one occasion corrected them. Great meant taking the lowly position of a child (Matthew 18:4); great meant being the servant of all (Mark 9:35); the one who was least among them was the greatest (Luke 9:48). And in that upper room, though he was Lord and Master, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (John chapter 13). Humility and service are the traits of true greatness.

Both often are in short supply in all areas of life, even in the church, where we measure value and importance by completely different standards. Yet God does say that those who “direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). He also warns about pride and encourages humility.

As Lutheran Christians we have abandoned the idea that clergy—whether pastors or teachers in our context—are a step closer to heaven or better than the people in the pew. Before God, we are all equal in grace and value to the Lord. Leaders in the church are worthy of double honor not because they are better but because of their service: They bring the gospel to God’s people. Paul quoted Isaiah when he wrote, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” (Romans 10:15).

But I want to turn to the value of every Christian. What makes Christian people so important? They often do not have any medals nor do they get a moment in the spotlight. Instead, they quietly serve others. They fulfill the second most important commandment of the Lord, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). And much of the time they do it without even recognizing their own value.

Is this not a great disciple? A believer who quietly cares for her family. Another who works to supply food, clothing, and shelter for his family. One who takes time to show a son or daughter how to do math or encourages them to read. Another who puts food on the table to nourish the family for the next day’s challenges. All who teach respect for others and instill a desire to help. Those who teach the young how to manage their money or work faithfully at a job. Those who help with prayers and share God’s love in Christ. These may seem like little things, but they are so important and valuable. What is God doing with these works but holding our world together.

Maybe we should remember that God is polishing their medals.


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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 9
Issue: September 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Violence

John A. Braun

With cell phone cameras available in almost every situation, we get pictures of unguarded moments in the lives of many people. Some of those moments are funny, like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Others are embarrassing, but maybe that’s the same thing. Still others reveal the dark side.

More than a few of the dark videos make their way to television news departments. We see road rage, fights, protests turned violent, and a lot more. Sporting events turn into brawls, and not just in professional sports where a lot of money complicates the conflict. Too often it includes Little League games, which are supposed to be fun and learning experiences.

Then add guns, and disagreements aren’t just hostile, aggressive confrontations—they suddenly destroy life. Often we hear that the absence of guns will stop the violence, but I think that the violence stretches beyond guns. As a society, even if we would outlaw all guns, the violence will continue. It might be a little like Prohibition in a previous era of our American history. Banning alcohol solved very little. We sometimes only grasp for solutions so it seems like we are doing something to bring safety.

On the issue of gun control, there can be some spirited debate and disagreement. No matter what one’s opinion, all want brutal outbursts to stop. Yet road rage; violent protests; domestic disturbances; brawls; and bloody, unexpected shootings persist. So where does all this come from?

When children sit with their devices and improve their score by increasing the body count, are we encouraging or discouraging peace and safety? When movies become box office successes because, at least to some extent, they are bloody and violent, what’s the lesson? My grandmother sent her sons off to war and never let us play with guns—even pretend guns—but we played with them anyway. My rifle sticks of the past have become realistic toys with a small bright orange mark somewhere to indicate it is a toy. Have we blurred the boundary between pretend and real? Where does that lead?

Bursts of violence and confrontation are everywhere—in our competitive business practices, in our entertainment choices, even in the way we respond to disagreements in marriage. Some control the bursts of anger before they turn to violence. They exercise self-discipline in contentious exchanges. Others channel their competitive impulses to outlets that do not bring pain and bloodshed. I like to think that my grandmother’s aversion to guns was a warning for my budding personality.

I also heard a better voice. His voice warns not just about violence, but also about the source of violence and all evil. Jesus says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). His thought stretches back to the beginning when God observed that “every inclination of the thought of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). But his words seem to have little value today when we deny the evil that sits in a corner of all our hearts, something we think is a little thing. It’s not. It remains powerfully violent, easily provoked.

His diagnosis is painfully noted, not embarrassingly and angrily dismissed!

Then I hear his voice again. He does not leave me only with the violence and evil within identified. He creates something new within me. His love forgives. It makes me want to be like him. The new forces within motivate me to work toward “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).

When we fail to understand the source of the problem, we can only treat the symptoms.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 8
Issue: August 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Dust and ashes

John A. Braun

The cities nestled comfortably in the valley. The green meadows stretched out almost as far as one could see. A short time before, he and his nephew had looked at the same valley where the Jordan turned everything so beautiful. Lot chose the rich pastures in the Jordan valley. Abraham went the opposite direction to avoid quarrels over grazing rights.

Then the Lord chose to visit Abraham and confirm his wonderful promise. Abraham’s descendants would fill the land that now provided a meager pasture for his flocks. Sarah would have a child in her old age. That son would confirm the promise that from those descendants a Savior would come—a great Son in the future who would redeem the world from its folly and sin and death.

Abraham could see the place Lot had chosen from where he was. Yes, the green meadows still stretched out beautifully along the river. But what God saw was not the beauty of the valley. He saw cities filled with sin and wickedness. He told Abraham that the outcry of their sins was grievous and that judgment was coming (Genesis 18:20,21).

God doesn’t often share information about his timetable. But he does warn us of the trouble that will come and has come in this perverse world. Like Lot, we become comfortable with sin and wickedness. We live side by side with it. We learn to adapt so we avoid evil as much as we can. We accommodate.

Will disaster come unexpectedly in some limited way and wipe away our green valley of prosperity, comfort, and beauty? The next day Abraham saw dense smoke rising from the land. The beautiful valley was changed.

But what lessons can we learn? First, God doesn’t share the reasons for the sudden destruction that comes from time to time. But we do know that even these things will somehow serve his believers. Perhaps they are reminders of what is essentially important for us—family, health, and Savior—all from a God who loves us more than we deserve. Perhaps it’s a call to repentance or a reminder of the final destruction of this world.

Second, I hear the words of Abraham when God told him what was about to come. He prayed for the people, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18:23). It was a bold prayer from a man who confessed he was “nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). He knew that he was no better than those in the valley cities, but he also knew that his nephew Lot and his family were among them.

His boldness in prayer came from the promise God had made: A Savior was coming. That assured Abraham of God’s boundless love. So he prayed to God for those he knew and loved as well as for those he did not know.

Where are we? Are we at some advantage point where we can see a society that has abandoned morality, common sense, decency, honesty, and dignity? Do we wonder if judgment is only a night’s sleep away and we will awake to destruction and chaos?

Like Abraham, we are “nothing but dust and ashes.” God doesn’t owe us anything, but he graciously gives us everything in Jesus—a Savior born in the land where Abraham tended his flocks. So we pray both for those we know and love and those we do not know—even our enemies.

Then we let God be God. He decides what’s best. We are only dust and ashes, but we know how deeply God loves us whether we live in the green valley or we’re digging out of the rubble.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 7
Issue: July 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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For people

John A. Braun

Confessional Lutherans are principle and concept people. They talk in language that reflects their perspectives—and think in that way too. I confess to be one of them. I have learned the language through my training, and I also have learned to treasure its precision and value.

I can discuss concepts of law and gospel and treasured concepts with others who share the same beliefs and the same language. But that discussion does not connect with those who do not share my confessional Lutheran vocabulary. Words like incarnation, justification, conversion, real presence, close communion, good works, and redemption require a glossary or dictionary for many. Almost the entire list of confessional Lutheran concepts doesn’t resonate with people who haven’t learned the language and the concepts.

Sometimes I wonder if we are guilty of only speaking to the choir when we try to share our faith. Of course, on issues of doctrine we want to be right and precise. It is important for us to adhere to the truths God has revealed to us and we have grown to treasure. But when we share those truths with others outside of confessional Lutheranism, there’s a danger that, as they listen, their eyes will take on a distant glaze of disinterest. We want to talk doctrine, but they have absolutely no interest in the concepts, distinctions, and what they consider the “fine print.”

So how do we make connections with those outside the sphere of our language of comfort and familiarity? I’d suggest two principles that I think are important. The first is that we live our faith and show what Christianity means to us. Jesus suggested this approach when he said, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

But we don’t always live as we should, and neither do other Christians. That too is an opportunity to show forgiveness, support, and understanding. On some occasions, the temptation is to become quite self-righteous—a definite turn off to others! Peter suggests that gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:16) can temper the temptation. And a little humility goes a long way.

The second way is to avoid getting dragged into a discussion of doctrine and what we are against. All the doctrines we treasure are for us and for all other people. A discussion of Christ’s incarnation may bring up proof passages, what our church teaches, and what’s wrong with the teaching of others. But there may be an opportunity to focus on the importance of that doctrine for people—like you, me, and all others.

Jesus became flesh, that is, he was incarnated, to take our place. He loved us enough to come here to rescue us from our own failures and sins.

Talking about justification also provides an opportunity to do more than repeat the Lutheran language of grace and faith. Simply direct your attention to what it means to people like you and those who know you. Then justification becomes clear to others. It is simply shorthand for saying that we cannot be good enough for God by our own efforts. Yet God sent Jesus to overcome sin and death and declare us right and good in his eyes. Faith accepts God’s undeserved gift.

The entire body of doctrine has Jesus at its core and the people of this world as the target audience. It’s hard work finding the spot to apply Jesus to the wounds and pain of another person, but he is the healing balm for all people. We will stumble, but the Holy Spirit promises to use our awkward, sometimes bumbling, efforts to share Jesus with people.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 6
Issue: June 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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His presence

John A. Braun

It started already on Easter Sunday. Jesus was not with the disciples as they were huddled in a room behind locked doors. He had been absent from them on a few occasions before. But this was different. This time Jesus had been crucified.

Then suddenly that night behind closed doors in the midst of their fear, doubt, and confusion, Jesus stood among them. “Peace” he said. After the shock, they knew it was Jesus. He wasn’t really gone. He had left Joseph’s new tomb empty. But he did not stay with them that night in the upper room.

The disciples who were there tried to convince Thomas, but he would not believe. A week later Jesus appeared again. Thomas believed, and another lesson began to dawn on the disciples. Not only was Jesus alive, but he had heard their conversation with Thomas even when he was not present.

For 40 more days, Jesus taught that lesson. The disciples needed to get used to the idea that Jesus was there even if they couldn’t see him. They had grown familiar with his touch, his words, his face. The presence of Jesus would be different now. It would no longer be a presence of flesh and blood in space and time. Now it would be a presence of spirit and power beyond space and time. Physics can’t explain that, but the disciples learned the lesson over those 40 days.

When Jesus ascended, he made sure they knew the lesson: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). They began a new chapter without being able to see Jesus with their eyes as they had for the past three years.

But how would they know what to do and what to say? Jesus also helped them understand this new chapter. He promised to send them aid: “When the Advocate comes . . . the Spirit of truth . . . he will testify about me . . . Because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer . . . he will guide you into all truth” (John 15:26, and 16:10-13). The Spirit would help them be accurate witnesses of what they had heard and seen.

So here we are almost two thousand years later. We have not seen Jesus and can only imagine what he looked like, the tone of his voice, and his physical touch. But we see him through the eyes of those who saw him—the eyewitnesses. While Paul was not in the upper room with these 11 men, Jesus also appeared to him.

All of them are eyewitnesses, with Christ’s stamp of approval and the Spirit’s assurance of authenticity. Peter reminds his readers, “We were eyewitness of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). Luke also assures us that he checked with the eyewitnesses and had “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (1:3).

For us, what better place to be! The chapter that records the events of God’s people after his Ascension is still being written. We do not know how many pages are left in the chapter. We know that our stories are being written. We do not see Jesus, but we have the reliable and inspired words of the eyewitnesses to guide us. We cling to those words, because Jesus also warned about distortions, additions, and subtractions to their record.

We might like to see how the chapter ends, but we have to trust that Jesus is with us as he promised—a presence of spirit and power not confined by space and time. We might not know exactly when this chapter ends, but Jesus has given us a peek at the next chapter: “I will come again.”

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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You haven’t changed a bit!

John A. Braun

Life takes us on different paths, and sometimes those paths recross after a few years. Then we see the faces and eyes of former friends we respect and care about. After looks of recognition and warm smiles, one or the other says, “You haven’t changed a bit.” We sometimes respond, “Neither have you.” Sometimes those comments cannot stand the test of truth. Instead, it’s wishful thinking or a sincere compliment that comes close to meaning, “It’s so good to see you.”

It’s different than seeing someone daily or even looking at ourselves in the mirror every day. We don’t notice the little changes that take place. The person staring back is the same person who was there yesterday and the day before. But seeing someone after a long absence is different. That person is the same person, but at the same time that person is not the same. Paths lead through time, and time changes us all.

We might hold on to the illusion that we haven’t changed a bit, but, if you want a dose of reality, jar your memory with photos taken a few years ago. I’ve done it. I can do that because it’s been a few years since I was a young father and pastor. Looking at the photos, I become aware that I’ve changed. Go back and look at your own pictures. It doesn’t have to be a long time ago. Just a few years. It’s not an exercise only for senior citizens.

Whether we admit it or not, we don’t think the way we used to either. Life has brought lessons that altered the way we look at things. But the daily, monthly, and annual lessons somehow get mixed into the large pot of our experiences. We taste the new ingredients, but the soup remains pretty much the same.

So we change. We don’t always notice until we try to match our youthful memories with the faces that have grown old over the years. Maybe it’s just that we get too busy with life that we don’t notice the changes. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to admit we are changing and growing older. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Whether we want to admit it or not, every day is a day closer to the end of our days. The faces we see—our own and those we care about—are all headed in the same direction. We can’t change that stark—and sometimes harsh—reality. Is it possible that we are so busy denying the end of our lives that when we think about it we somehow think life will go on just as it has? We won’t change a bit; we’ll just go on.

Not so, of course. But that’s why Easter is so important. Here on Earth, we change, grow old, and eventually are included in the obituaries. Medical science may cure diseases but cannot cure death. But because of Jesus we have a cure for death. He willingly died to bring us forgiveness and peace with God. But he did not stay dead. He rose and promised that because he lives so will we (John 14:19). That’s our hope, based on the empty tomb and the words of the One who overcame death.

And change. Think about the promise we have about how we will change. We will rise from our graves, and Jesus “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).

Then we can say, “You have changed for the better.”

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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One real champion!

One real champion!

John A. Braun

I read the comics when I was younger: Superman, Batman, and others too. Now I even confess an addiction to reading Prince Valiant in the Sunday papers. I always want to know how he will vanquish new enemies and return to Camelot victorious, waiting for the next challenge.

Movies have taken things a step farther. New heroes have emerged: Thor, Flash, the Hulk, Spiderman, Captain America, and others with special powers. They seem invincible, but they are not. Superman has always had to worry about kryptonite. But in the fantasy of the superhero they are ageless. Prince Valiant hasn’t grown one grey hair in all the years I’ve been following his adventures.

With special effects the movies make sure that the heroes defeat their enemies even though the enemies are menacingly evil and also have special powers. The world seems to teeter on the brink of tyranny and evil until the final battle or struggle. Then all is back to normal. Peace reigns. Joy fills every heart. We can go on with our lives safe from threats, at least until the next episode or movie.

We cheer for these heroes. The stories of their exploits are distractions that imply that all will turn out in the end. I’ll spend a few dollars for a couple of hours of fantasy that allow me to dream of the ultimate success. Of course, it’s not real, and the solutions offered are only the creation of someone’s imagination and dazzling and exciting special effects.

When I come home, I face the reality of another day, sometimes without realizing two important shortcomings of these distractions. First, they change nothing. Yes, they are only imagination. When the smoke clears and the explosions disappear, everyone is back to the same world with its evil, sorrow, pain, and misery. They simply wait for the next evil to arise. Then another hero—or the same one—must arise to meet the next challenge. Prince Valiant just keeps going on and on, and when they threaten to remove him from the comics a storm of protest arises.

Second, the superheroes are often quite limited. Some disguise themselves as normal humans and cannot confront every problem. They only wait for the worst of the problems. But even then they sometimes need the help of other superheroes to be victorious. And the problems and challenges they face are themselves a distraction from the larger problems we face in this life—death, sorrow, pain, evil. Those problems remain after the credits of every tale.

Now you know where I’m going, I think. It’s Lent, and soon it will be Easter. One real hero emerges from the pages of Scripture—Jesus. He has become like us—actually, one of us, true human—but he is also true God. His mission was to take our place and overcome our worst enemies. He did that. He changed the forever. He changed the world of every sinner from an endless procession of guilt and death to forgiveness and life. He took away sin with his bloody sacrifice and smashed death with his triumphant resurrection. No other hero has come close.

It’s no surprise that so many people spend money to go to the movies as entertainment. But should these distractions and so many others keep anyone from taking the real Hero—this Savior—seriously? Maybe this Hero is dismissed because there are no special effects. Perhaps some would rather be entertained and distracted than forgiven and filled with hope. I’ll go to the movies and read the comics, but I will not forget to honor and worship the one true Champion who is not a fantasy.

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 3
Issue: March 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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God’s language of love

John A. Braun

Gary Chapman wrote about the five love languages. His insight came from careful study and counseling experiences. Many couples benefited from his insights and improved their relationship. Perhaps you have benefited as well.

Another love deserves our attention—God’s love. His love for us is communicated in the gospel that proclaims Christ crucified. That is his language of love. We don’t understand and appreciate his love on our own. It is foolishness and weakness. The Holy Spirit must bring us to see that it is wiser than human thought and stronger than any human power (see 1 Corinthians chapters 1 and 2).

I’d like to use five adjectives to help us appreciate God’s love. God’s love is perceptive, sacrificial, personal, powerful, and persistent.

When I say that God’s love is perceptive, I think of the way God viewed the helpless lot of his fallen creatures. By nature humans are locked in a prison of guilt, shame, rage, jealousy, and arrogance. The prison has only one door—death. That’s what God perceives of our human existence.

God’s love took one more step. God found no human who could change what he saw (Isaiah 59:16). He knew he was the only one who could change things. He chose to act in love, and his love was sacrificial. He entered human history and became a human for no other reason than that there was no other way. Jesus came and sacrificed himself to pay for all human faults, sins, and errors. While we were powerless and enemies of God, he demonstrated his love for us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

His love was personal because he knew every sinner and included all sinners in his sacrifice. God knows us so well that he has an accurate count of the hairs on our head and knows where we are and what we experience each day. In love he knew us long before we were even born.

This is all a mystery to our natural human thinking. We would not know any of this unless God revealed it to us and gave us power to believe it. So God’s love is  powerful. It has changed us in two ways.

The proclamation of God’s love in the gospel is the power of God, as Paul reminds us (Romans 1:16). The Holy Spirit uses the gospel to change our hearts from stubborn unbelief to faith in Jesus. That is the first way God’s love shows its power. We don’t call Jesus Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

God’s love is powerful in another way too. The gospel continues to shape and mold us as children of God. We are compelled by God’s love not only to love him but also to serve him. We are different from those who do not understand God’s great love. That love motivates us to praise, worship, and obey him and to love others as he loved us.

The love of God operates through the gospel in Word and sacrament—the means of grace. As we take steps in our earthly journey, we recognize that his love is persistent. It does not change or waver. It remains constant; it does not give up on us. When we falter, God does not abandon us. When we grow weary, his powerful love persists in giving us strength.

I can do no better than pray, with the apostle Paul, that “you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17-19).

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 2
Issue: February 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Death, terror, justice

Death, terror, justice

John A. Braun

The tragedy that erupts at the end of a pistol or Kalashnikov stains us all with blood and sorrow. These things ought not to be, but they are. Bouquets of flowers, makeshift memorials, and notes of sympathy grow in Paris, New York, Boston, and many other cities. They sprout where blood stains the place of sudden death.

We have not yet seen the end of such scenes. They will be repeated because we are all human and live in a world flawed by human depravity. We are all infected by a virus that tilts us toward evil. Brutality and violence flow from that virus. We see it not only in the attacks of terrorists. We also see it in domestic violence, bullying, destruction of property, and a wanton disregard for anything or anyone else. In other words, we may point a finger at the worst outbreaks of the virus, but we are also infected.

One of the greatest tragedies is to inflict pain and misery in the name of God on those who do not share our beliefs. We might ask, “Is our concept of God so bankrupt that we believe that he needs our bullets to enforce his will?” Other questions also come to mind: Do we have such a small capacity to love others and see value in them? Do we have a too large and arrogant opinion of ourselves that we can inflict death, pain, and misery on others? Do we value human life only when it belongs to those who think as we do?

We pause at the memorials that suddenly appear at scenes of tragedy. We pause. We shed tears for the victims. Our tears concede that some have a profound lack of consideration, respect—yes, a lack of love. In our tears we mourn for those who have lost faith in a loving God and disregard his will. Through our blurry eyes we catch a glimpse of the flawed world in which we live. Perhaps when our vision clears, we long to see the perfect world our Savior has promised after we leave tears and sorrow behind.

To shed a tear at another’s loss is not a hopeless desperation, a resignation to the victory of that human virus. The tears demonstrate compassion for others, whether or not they agree with our convictions and orientation. I hope they help us see our purpose here. Compassion. To hold the hand of another sobbing human in silent support makes us God’s instruments. Compassion for another human in pain is not an exclusive Christian virtue. Others have it too. It is human. Such kindness is an end in itself. It helps another. It should have no ulterior motive but to show respect, love, and concern for another.

Yet as children of God we sense another purpose. God may turn tears and pain into an opportunity to share the reason for the hope we have. Then, humbly, we may also speak with gentleness and respect about our Savior (1 Peter 3:15).

When we raise our eyes from the sorrow, dry our tears, and look forward, we sense a need for justice. But we may not take vengeance on our own no matter how deep the pain. God grants the sword of justice to governmental power to protect those remaining after tragedy and to make it difficult for brutal slaughter to reoccur. Such justice here on earth curbs the worst outbreaks of the virus within. But it will not eliminate every sorrow. That remains for God to administer when he brings absolute and perfect justice to all. Then believers will have no tears.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 103, Number 1
Issue: January 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Look, the Lamb of God

The words of John the Baptist echo from the shores of the Jordan River to our Advent season. Seeing Jesus, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

His words bring to mind a couple of things to remember at Advent and long after Advent. The first is that John points to the Savior “who takes away the sin of the world.” I think that’s important because all sinners are included. Jesus did not come just for those who flocked to hear John’s announcement. Jesus came also for those who did not come to hear John.

John said, “the world!” His political sight included the Romans who occupied Judea and perhaps those who visited Judea from other nations. Of course, the world was more than what John saw. It included those he could not have known in parts of the world far away—India, China, what would become the New World. I think he did realize the world Jesus came for included people yet unborn.

That’s important to us all because God’s plan included every soul who would inhabit this world. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of all people. All sins are taken away! In grace and mercy, God declared all humanity righteous and forgiven for the sake of this Lamb of God. It’s a gift of his grace to all. No exceptions. No exclusions. The sins of the world are taken away.

No one else, except a perfect loving God, can do this. No man, woman, or child is free from sin. And not one citizen of this world is able to do enough good to remove sin. No one can remove his or her own sins, let alone the sins of another person. And certainly not the sins of the world.

Taking away sins is a gift God freely offers to any and every sinner. It can’t be earned. Faith in Jesus simply accepts God’s forgiveness. Sadly, many refuse to receive God’s loving gift. They remain in their comfortable homes in Jerusalem, New York, Rome, Singapore, or your neighborhood. They don’t have time to be bothered. But those, like you and me, who turn to Jesus trust God’s promise of forgiveness and find in his promise peace, joy, and hope.

The second thought connected to John’s proclamation comes from an observation of Christian churches and their leaders. It frustrates me to see Christian leaders with high profile media presence fail to do as John did—point to Jesus. All too often the message is about social issues like global warming, refugees, tolerance for all, terrorism, and immigration. Not a syllable about Jesus. All these issues are important, but missing an opportunity to say, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” is inexcusable.

Long after all of us are gone, a new generation will face other social issues. Our issues will seem old-fashioned. Only one thing remains—the Lamb of God. He is loving, kind, and generous to sinners.

But a word of warning: Advent reminds us that the Lamb will return. Then he will invite those who trusted his promises to shout, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12). The others will be removed from his presence; they did not accept God’s gift and must go on without it as they did while they were here.

John reminded the people on the banks of the Jordan—and us too—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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Thanks for rest

John A. Braun

Augustine of Hippo died in A.D. 430—too long ago for most of us to care. Many years ago I read his Confessions with college students, some who were headed off to the seminary. Several passages from his work still linger in my memory. Among them is a sentence perhaps familiar to many who may never have read the full text.

Augustine’s paragraph begins, “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning.” It concludes with his famous sentence, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” As believers, we long to praise God because we have found our rest in him.

I am not ashamed to stand with Augustine 1,600 years later and offer my own thanks and praise to God. He also has led me to his rest. I am but one believer among the believers God has called by his grace. The ages are filled with them. Luther found special value in Augustine and also praised God for his grace. I’m not an Augustine or a Luther, but I know the same grace of God in Jesus.

I invite you to join me in praise and thanks to God, who has brought us all to his deep and satisfying rest. Consider the contrast. Those who run away from God looking for solace find none. They want their own way contrary to God’s grace, and that often means contrary to God’s principles. Anguish, turmoil, worry, dread, frustration, endless struggle, chasing after what never satisfies—all are captured in the word restless.

But we are at rest. By the grace of God we heard the invitation of Jesus to come, lay aside our heavy burdens, and receive the rest he gives. That grace in Jesus has shaped and molded us in ways we often don’t always think about. Who we are is written in the language of God’s grace and the red ink of Christ’s blood.

We are different. The full, thorough forgiveness of Jesus gives us peace the world does not understand. As a matter of fact, the world, in seeking its own version of peace, remains a troubling and boiling pot of unrest. We praise God, who gives us peace that transcends the world’s perceptions and moves us to love and help others. Grace has made us loved children of God and salt in our families, communities, and nation. Grace makes us different.

Augustine was no dreamy-eyed, ivory tower Christian. He experienced his own unrest without God. He knew sin and the bondage of the human heart to what is contrary to God’s will. His praise flowed from the changes God’s grace had made in him. Luther discovered the same grace of God, and it changed him as well. They both exalted in their praise of his grace.

Take your place with them and with me. We know and confess that we are “altogether sinful from birth,” but with hungry and eager hearts we long for the reassurance of God’s grace and the rest it gives. Grace has changed us too. Praise God that he has given us such rest. It allows us to close our eyes in death and consider it only a sleep. He will awaken us in glory.

Knowing his wonderful rest, we can count the many other blessings God has given us: family, friends, food, and all the things for which we are thankful. But, most important, we thank and praise God for his grace. He has made us his children and given us the confidence to trust he will care for us no matter what happens.

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 11
Issue: November 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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How do you know?

How do you know?

John A. Braun

Who is God? What, if anything, does he expect of us? What does he think about us?

The questions have a variety of answers: “I think that . . .” or “I feel that . . .” or even “A lot of people say . . .” or “My pastor says . . .”. But does anyone actually know, or are they just as much in the dark as everyone else?

I would like someone to ask, “Well, how do you know that what you think and feel or what others say is true?” The answers can’t be based on personal experience. The people we talk to have never met God face-to-face. I’m pretty sure that they haven’t discussed their opinion with God the way we discuss the best grass seed to buy or what car to drive.

Of course, one way to answer those questions is to say that no one knows the answers so everyone’s opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s. But what if we are all in the dark and we’re just speculating about what we can’t know by science, research, or even meditation? Where is the standard for us to determine which opinion is right or if they are all wrong or all right?

Another way to respond to the questions is simply to ignore them. The job, the family, the lawn, the football game or soccer match, and then the vacation all need attention; there’s just no time to think about these things. The paycheck matters; questions about God don’t rise to importance. Is that okay? Who says so? Is that approach all there is to life? Maybe that person is just as much in the dark as everyone else.

When life comes to an end, we’re left with the same dilemma: What happens when we die? We all go to heaven, right? Says who? How do they know? Is there some standard to know what we’re getting after this life is over? Is there some way even to know that we get something after this life? Where’s the research? The proof? And can we measure those things with technologies, probes, and observations that only measure atoms, molecules, and physical forces? How do we know if any opinion about these things is true?

Has God given us answers? If he has, where will you go to learn them? Will you climb the mountaintop to talk to the hermit that lives there? Is there anyone closer to consult and listen to? We believe there is. Someone who is God himself and came to tell us what we need to know—Jesus. God asserts quite boldly that “he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). When the disciples were a little confused about God, death, and all the things they could not know, they asked Jesus. Jesus reminded them that his words were not just his own but his Father’s and that if they saw him they saw the Father (John 14:8-14).

Of course, not everyone believes that Jesus is the standard for truth. But how do they know he is not? It’s a big gamble at the moment of death—or anytime for that matter—to say, “I think that . . .” or “I feel . . .” or “everyone says . . .”, and then ignore what Jesus says. “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” (John 3:16). Knowing Jesus is knowing that God cares for us, loves us deeply, and wants us to live with him eternally. God’s directions and standards are intended for our good. Jesus knows. We listen.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 10
Issue: October 2015

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