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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
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

 

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
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

 

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
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

 

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
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

 

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

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 heart of Abraham

Abraham had just received the assurance that he would have a son in his old age. His joy was not just that he would have a son to fill the empty spaces of his life with Sarah. It was also the assurance that this son pointed to the coming of a greater Son who would bring forgiveness, life, and salvation for all humanity. It was God’s promise.The heart of Abraham

Abraham had just received the assurance that he would have a son in his old age. His joy was not just that he would have a son to fill the empty spaces of his life with Sarah. It was also the assurance that this son pointed to the coming of a greater Son who would bring forgiveness, life, and salvation for all humanity. It was God’s promise.

Abraham’s heart was filled with peace and joy, but God also pointed Abraham to the judgment that would come on the cities in the valley. Abraham’s heart broke with the news of such judgment, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 19:23).

Made bold by the promise of a Savior, he bargained with God. If there are 50 righteous in the city, will you destroy the city? Then with respect and deep humility he asked again and again. For 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it,” the Lord said.

We live in a world of believers and unbelievers. Daily we interact with those who are righteous by faith in Christ as well as with the unrighteous—those without any understanding of Christ and perhaps even animosity toward him and his followers.

Abraham came to mind as I thought about the direction of the world in which we live. He had a deep concern for the believers—the righteous—who lived among the unrighteous. He knew that before God he was as unrighteous as anyone else, including all those who lived in the cities facing judgment. But he also knew that God had credited his faith to him as righteousness. God declared him righteous by faith in the promise of God. Outside that promise, all were unrighteous.

So Abraham prayed for them. Yes, first he prayed that the righteous be protected from the judgment to come. But consider that his prayer was also for the unrighteous. The unrighteous would be spared for the sake of the righteous. Therefore, they would still have time to know God’s promise of righteousness through the Messiah.

Are we looking at the cities in the valley today? What do we do in a world that turns away from the Lord of grace and his will? Pray with the heart of Abraham. Like him, our prayers first consider God’s people. Protect them from difficulty and from any judgment God has in store for those who reject him. Also like Abraham, we pray for all others as we do in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We plead for God to lead people to repentance and entrance into his kingdom like the thief on the cross.

But we also realize that our society’s laws allow us all to live together—righteous and unrighteous—safely and in tranquility, in spite of our differences. Those laws, however, do not make right what is contrary to God’s will, even if the highest courts claim so—abortion and distortion of marriage included. We have the example of the disciples arrested in Jerusalem for proclaiming Christ crucified for sinners. Another example is Daniel who continued to pray to and worship his Lord knowing the dire consequences of his action.

The hearts of Abraham, Daniel, and the disciples were centered on the promise of forgiveness and life eternal through Jesus the Messiah. Our hearts should be as well. Everything else is rubbish, as Paul reminded the Philippians (3:8). Such hearts then pray for all others and treat them with respect and dignity.

Lord, give me a heart like Abraham.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 9
Issue: September 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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You hypocrite!

We are familiar with the word hypocrite and the condemnation that comes with it. More than others, we know the harsh and critical words of Jesus: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! . . . You snakes! You brood of vipers!” (Matthew 23:13,33). Brutal words. They should strike our hearts as well as anyone who does “not practice what they preach” (23:3).

In recent days, the accusation of hypocrisy has been leveled at some Christians who have stumbled and fallen in their journey of faith. We can expect two reactions. First, the accusers want to proclaim that all Christians are essentially hypocrites. You see, they say, here’s just another example. The second reaction is from Christians who grow defensive and see the accusation as a threat.

But let’s explore the issue a bit. Christians stumble and fall. It’s a daily occurrence. Some fall in public while watched by non-Christians looking for an opportunity to discredit Christian morality and faith. Others fall in public, watched only by their fellow believers and friends. Still others fall privately, hidden from the eyes of others while the Lord’s eyes are fully on them. If every one of them is a hypocrite because they fail to live up to the demands of God’s law, then all Christians are indeed hypocrites.

But that’s not so! Hypocrisy is not stumbling. If I should fall and disgrace my Lord, my fellow believers, and the name Christian, I may have to endure the charge of hypocrisy. But then, by the grace of God, I will go into the corner, too embarrassed to raise my eyes to heaven, and plead, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

The Christian message does not exclude the fallen. Christianity is a loving and comforting hand of forgiveness that lifts us up to do better. Repentance—turning away from sin and turning toward the Lord Jesus who offers that hand of forgiveness to penitent sinners—is a daily activity of Christian faith. Churches—true Christian churches—are full of sinners. Churches are not shrines where the good are on display.

What is hypocrisy then? Jesus says it is not doing what you preach. In our daily lives that means professing one thing and doing the opposite. “You hypocrite!” applies then to all who live and profess Christianity but hide a completely different life and profession.

Consider the public fall of David—murder, adultery, and cover-up. He was a hypocrite as long as he kept up the charade. Nathan exposed his hypocrisy and assured the penitent David of forgiveness. Like Nation, there are times when we must judge and call sin a sin. That approach, as Jesus outlined, is to win your brother or sister back to the Savior’s forgiving hand, not to puff out your chest in arrogant indignation (Matthew chapter 18).

Some will remain hypocrites—unexposed—because they are good at hiding their duplicity. We will not be able to identify them. No one can perceive the heart of another. We can only make assumptions on the basis of a person’s confession of words and deeds. Beyond that we have to wait for the behavior of hypocrites to give them away or wait even longer until the Lord reveals the truth at the end of time.

So maybe from time to time the behavior of Christians will be viewed as hypocrisy—perhaps even correctly. But perhaps those leveling the charge of hypocrisy should be a bit more careful. Jesus suggested that we ought not point out the speck in the eye of another and ignore the log in our own (Matthew 7:3). Imagined superior moral ground is a dangerous place from which to judge.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 08
Issue: August 2015

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

 

Getting past denial

Getting past denial

John A. Braun

Some news and some messages are difficult to hear. In fact, some of them are so disturbing that we deny them. Denial is our built-in defense. Some cancer patients deny the diagnosis at first. It allows them time to adjust to shattering news. All of us may have first responded to bad news by saying, “No! That can’t be.” We continue to deny bad news until the truth becomes undeniable and inevitable.

God also has a message we do not want to hear. His bad news is that we are hopeless and helpless sinners. That’s brutal. God’s prophet Isaiah describes our situation, “We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away” (Isaiah 59:11). It’s painful to read most of that chapter. We might even put it aside or skip to a more pleasant section.

I wonder what visitors to our worship services think when, with others, I stand to confess, “I am by nature sinful and . . . have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions. I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good.” Together we go on to say publicly that we deserve God’s punishment.

We have come through denial to that confession. The Holy Spirit has broken our self-assurance and pride and brought us a better confidence and sense of worth in Christ’s forgiveness and love.

Is it possible that visitors will not listen to the bad news we confess? They have come for some uplifting news that makes them feel good. As they look over their lives, things are pretty good. Job, family, children all are normal and happy. Sinful? Deserving God’s punishment? No, that can’t be.

Should we change the message? Should we hide it under a layer of “happy church talk”? Some suggest that is exactly what we should do. Others have already done it. They have never gotten past the denial of sin residing in all human hearts.

But even those of us who attend services and confess our sins regularly have a tendency to minimize sin. Our sinful nature concludes that such a grim and harsh assessment is true for everyone else but not for us. Like others, that part of us rushes to hide behind the good we do.

Yes, many do positive things in this world. Law-abiding citizens of all kinds make commendable contributions to the world, assist the poor and helpless, and seek to make society a better place. They should be honored for their contributions and receive the benefits of their efforts.

But before God we cannot deny his assessment: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away” (Romans 3:10-12).

If we deny our sin, our helplessness, and our inability to please God by our own efforts, we will not be ready to hear the good news. It’s like the sick patient denying the diagnosis. As long as the denial persists, the patient is not ready to hear the remedy and cure. The good news for sinners is that God loves them and has declared them right and holy because of Jesus. If we deny sin, we miss the depth, width, length, and height of God’s love in Jesus. We remain in denial and without God’s hope and love.

That’s why the announcement of God’s mercy in Christ follows our confession, and we are ready to sing, praise, listen to his Word, and live as his people.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 7
Issue: July 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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The Christian church

The Christian church

John A. Braun

I anguish often over the plight of Christians. Some of them I know. They are friends, family members, and neighbors facing challenges. Some of those challenges are difficult. But I also anguish over other Christians I do not know personally. That group includes people far away who tell stories of faith, perseverance, toil, and even persecution. What catches my eye is their confession of faith in Jesus.

These Christians are not always WELS and some of them don’t wear the label Lutheran, but they are a cause of some of my prayers for the larger invisible church of Christ. They are also a source of encouragement. They have bravely faced what I have not and confessed their faith in Christ.

I anguish over the Christians killed by terrorists or others and pray God will keep all his faithful in his strong hand. He will; it’s what he has promised. My prayers hold God to his promise. I wonder whether widespread persecution of the church by enemies of Christ will disrupt the relative peace we have here as believers. Yes, we still are ridiculed and persecuted in many ways, but we don’t have to face the barrel of a loaded AK-47 in the hand of someone intent on using it. I leave that in the Lord’s hands to solve according to his will.

Reading the headlines carrying such news sometimes clouds my thoughts with worry and dread. Then I have the privilege of preparing Forward in Christ each month. It brings me into contact with the thoughts of believers who trust the Lord of the church as I do. I worship with them and share the work of the Lord with them. It’s a joy to be tied together with them in our beliefs in Christ.

Each month I read their confessions and encouragement as we prepare another issue. At times I am moved by their words long before any of you read them. I praise God for what he has done in their hearts, and that boosts my spirit.

What we publish may represent one small voice in a world that despises the gospel and believers. So many Christians will never read any of the articles into which our writers put their Christian faith. But it is a witness and a confession. We trust that the Holy Spirit will use our pages to bring comfort, strength, and courage to some.

On another level, our confession that we are saved by God’s grace in Christ through faith is a defiant message hurled against the gates of hades. All the forces against Christians are unable to prevail against the church founded on Christ. But Satan takes no notice of us, thinking it only a little scratch in his vicious onslaught against Christ’s church. But rage as Satan has and will, in Christ we have victory. Satan may win battles and all may appear to be lost for us believers here on earth, but we need to stand tall and confess our faith in our powerful Lord.

The great truth is that the power of the gospel sustains us because the Holy Spirit works through it. The writers who share their faith in the words you read are assurances that he has not withdrawn his presence or failed to work on human hearts through the gospel.

Read on. Take a deep breath of God’s grace. Count your wonderful blessings. Pray for Christians around the world. And let that prayer include not just those in our own missions but all the other Christians the Holy Spirit has called, gathered, and enlightened in the whole Christian church on earth.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 6
Issue: June 2015

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

 

An age of conflict

An age of conflict

John A. Braun

How many words for conflict do we have in English? Do we have more in English than others have in German, Farsi, or Chinese? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that conflict is universal.

We don’t like conflict and seek to avoid it at all costs. It’s not just global or national conflicts on a large scale. We don’t relish conflict even on the personal level of our daily lives. Yet conflict plagues us like the symptoms of a deadly disease.

What do we find about conflict in our own families? Children are pitted against parents. Husbands and wives against each other. One household against another to the point that they refuse to be in the same room at family gatherings. Domestic violence remains a challenge for victims and those who try to intervene, including the police.

And, of course, the pictures of conflict in our society is even more brutal. Drive-by shootings. Road rage that escalates into gunfire and death. Bombings by those who hold to ideas different from their targets. In-your-face standoffs marked by a chorus of chants and taunts over political differences.

What is the source of all this conflict? The easy answer for us Christians is that the deadly disease that infects us is sin, and that’s true. Yet that seems like a pat answer that requires no real thought and leaves us with no chance to bring peaceful solutions.

In this world of conflict, Jesus places his disciples to be “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). What is a peacemaker to do in this age of conflict? The first thing is to recognize the disease within. Our sinful nature persists even after we know Jesus. It will become angry and push us toward violence. Turn back. Repent. Remember how Jesus was wronged and yet did not retaliate. None of us is very far from being carried away by our anger. Let his peace flow from you rather than your anger.

A peacemaker also understands that violence is not a solution. In a marriage, in family life, with siblings, or in a dispute over even greater issues, violence is not an answer to conflict. When Jesus talked about peacemakers, he also suggested humility, a desire for righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart. Seek those qualities, and, I believe, it will help provide an atmosphere to find a solution.

The vision of a peacemaker is also broader than church and family. God directed Jeremiah to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29:7). Our attitudes tempered by the love of God in Christ make us citizens who not only want peace for ourselves but also for others, even those who disagree with us. Oppose violence. Let the love of Christ be your beacon in this world—a light that others can see.

So the solution to conflict is not destroying or intimidating those who think differently nor is it creating an equality of opinions. Ideas are not all equal, true, or valuable. We simply cannot give up our Christian convictions. I have some strong positions about moral and religious issues. I will not give them up unless, as Luther said before the Diet of Worms, “I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason.” But I will not use violence to advance any of those convictions. Some of Luther’s early followers felt that they should advance the cause of the Reformation by force, but Luther corrected them. He reminded them that they were not to use force in spreading the gospel (cf. Luther’s Invocavit sermons).

It’s a tall order, but be peacemakers.

 

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 5
Issue: May 2015

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

 

Breaking the barriers

Breaking the barriers

John A. Braun

Most of the time we think of life with two barriers. The first is birth or conception. Life begins. Before that we do not exist and may only be a vague notion in the mind of our parents. A child! A new person! From the moment we have life and then onward each day we collect our identity and wrap memories around that identity until we reach the second barrier. Death ends the journey of life.

From all our experiences we do not know anything different. Each one of our obituaries sees life in this way. We are born and have a birthday we celebrate year after year. Then we have a date of death when birthdays cease and we have achieved the measure of our days marked by years, months, and days. There is nothing more, at least from all human perception and experience.

But Easter removes one of those barriers. Jesus arose from the grave; he came back to life. His enemies would not believe it; they had never experienced the breaking of that barrier. The evidence they had witnessed said it couldn’t happen. Death has no exceptions.

Even the disciples of Jesus had difficulty believing that Jesus had come back to life. The women trembled and were bewildered (Mark 16:8). When they told the disciples what they saw and heard, “their words seemed to them like nonsense.” (Luke 24:11). Thomas needed proof. But soon they all were convinced that Jesus had shattered death’s barrier to life. Life stretched beyond the burial.

The comfort and hope of the resurrection remains the message of the Christian church. Christians see more than life between birth and death. In Christ we see beyond death to resurrection and life forever with him. It’s a message that’s tied to Jesus. He is the only one who has the power to carry any human through death to life.

What about that first barrier? God tells us that even birth is not a barrier to his care for his people. He comforts us with the assurance that even before we were born, he knew us. “He chose us, in Christ, before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Where we are today and who we are today God saw before we were born. God chose us before we were even that vague notion in the minds of our parents. We were loved before we entered life at birth.

The wonder of God’s love is that there are no barriers to his thoughts about us. He knew us before we were born and sent his Son to break the barriers that would keep us from life with him.

When we travel our short journey from birth to life’s end, God sees things differently than we do. He does not see only the 70 or 80 years we live here on earth. Our trials, our joys, our pains have all been considered in terms of our eternal life. That’s God’s vision. We don’t think that way very often. We’re lucky if we can see ourselves to the next birthday sometimes only to the next day, the next paycheck, or the next weekend. That vision is too short and narrow. We are God’s children adopted from eternity and bound to live in his presence eternally.

Does that take your breath away? It should comfort you no matter what temporary challenges or pain you have. It also changes the way we think about God’s promise that everything will work out for our good. He’s always had us in his mind and heart. Through Christ we are visitors headed for a long, long victory lap.

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 4
Issue: April 2015

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

 

Ordinary power

Ordinary power

It’s not surprising that the world doesn’t think much of Christians or their churches. They observe that people come to a building, sometimes an imposing one and sometimes one used for another purpose during the rest of the week. Those people sit together, sing songs, and listen to a speaker. Not much excitement there! No interactive games to play, entertaining dancing or singing to enjoy, or contest at which to cheer for a victory. In some houses of worship, monitors display attractive images: helps for the message, the liturgy, and the songs. In others, none of that exists.

So we come to sit and listen. It’s sort of like going to school again or attending a lecture. That’s okay if you are interested in either the content or the speaker. But in a world that measures importance by visual interest or dynamic sensory impact, it’s boring. It seems unnecessary, unimportant, and unproductive. Many conclude that they would rather be somewhere else than sitting in church.

We are, of course, interested in the message presented in those gatherings of Christians. We come to hear of Christ crucified. But Paul reminds us that the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others (1 Corinthians 1:23). Coupled with the very nature of how it’s presented, even in the best of situations, we need not wonder why so many find other things to do at the time of worship.

This all may seem too much pessimistic anguish. Paul tempers our dismal assessment and suggests we remember that the message of Christ crucified is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). The message of the gospel, Christ crucified, communicates how God in his love gave us the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. That’s not part of the vocabulary of our world.

You may never hear it while seated in front of your television watching almost all network programing. It won’t be there as you play games on your phone or computer. And you probably won’t encounter it attending most other events outside the doors of your church. So without that church service, you will miss the wisdom of God. Paul says that he did not come to Corinth with eloquence or persuasive words. He came with one message, the wisdom of God in Christ crucified. That’s why we reach to open the door of our church and to find a seat to listen.

I think sometimes we think that if we’ve heard that wisdom once or twice, we don’t need to hear it again very often. But Paul suggests another important reason for regularly stepping into assemblies where we can hear Christ crucified. The message of the cross is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). God doesn’t promise to impart spiritual power outside the presentation of the gospel. We call it the means of grace because it is the way God creates, nourishes, and sustains our faith.

We might expect that God would work in some spectacular way. But, no, he works in an ordinary way when we sit and listen to the gospel. I’ll admit it may not seem like much, but hearing the gospel is our connection to the Holy Spirit and the spiritual power he gives. Without it we become like the seeds that fall among the thorns and are choked by the cares of life, the seeds that fall on the harden path and are devoured by Satan, or the seeds that fall on the rocky places and wither because they had no depth. Sitting and listening to the gospel of Christ crucified is simply receiving God’s amazing power and his wisdom, in an ordinary, regular way.

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Author: John A. Braun
Volume 102, Number 3
Issue: March 2015

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

 

God’s love and repentance

God’s love and repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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