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Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 5

Alone and guilty, we need the assurance of God’s love in Christ, just like Jacob.

Samuel C. Degner

Have you ever felt so alone that it seemed even God was far away?

LOOMING LONELINESS

Jacob was a long way from his home in Beersheba, far from his mother and father. He was on his way to his uncle’s house in Harran. When the sun set, he had to stop right there on the road, somewhere near a place called Luz. There, all alone, he lay down for the night (see Genesis 28:10-22).

Making matters worse was the reason for his solitude. Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing from his twin brother, Esau. Now Esau, the hunter, had his sights set on Jacob. Jacob chose to run from Esau.

Imagine the loneliness that must have settled on him along with the darkness as he laid down his head on a stone. He had deceived his father and enraged his brother. He had also failed to trust God’s promises. Had he alienated his God too?

Loneliness is bad enough, but guilt adds to the pain like a stone under the head. We have all been there. Your sibling won’t talk to you because of an argument you started. Your friends stop calling because you let them down. Sometimes it can even feel like you’ve driven God away.

CONSTANT CONNECTION

In those rock-bottom moments, look up!

Look up with Jacob as he dreams. See a stairway resting on the earth and reaching into heaven. Watch the angels ascending and descending. Jacob was not alone! God’s messengers attended to him. God himself spoke—and not a word of condemnation. To the homeless one, he promised the land on which he lay. To the one who fled his family, he promised descendants like the dust. To the one traveling alone, he promised his presence and protection. He even promised to use someone from this guilty one’s line to bring blessing to the whole world. God assured Jacob of his forgiving love—the same love he promised to his grandfather, Abraham, and his father, Isaac.

Just what Jacob needed to hear!

Just what we needed too. When we were lying in guilty solitude, God sent that descendant of Jacob to us. Though he was one with the Father and never wandered from him, Jesus lay his head down on a piece of wood and felt what it was like to be truly estranged from God. He suffered that loneliness so that we never would.

Jesus once told Nathanael, “You will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (John 1:51). Jesus is that stairway, our bridge between earth and heaven. He is our constant connection to God. Because of him, our cries of loneliness rise to heaven and God sends down his comfort: He will not break his relationship with us.

When Jacob woke up, he seemed surprised. “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Genesis 28:16). He took the stone on which he slept, set it upright, and anointed it. He renamed the place Bethel, “house of God.” He still had many miles to go and many years before he would see his family again. But he knew that, wherever he was, God would be with him.

Let his simple monument be a lasting reminder to you too. No matter how isolated you may feel, you’re never alone. Your God is always with you.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin.


This is the fifth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: God’s different work in two kingdoms

Joel D. Otto

There has always been tension between the church and government. At various times and places in history, the government has tried to wipe out the church. At other times, the government has tried to use the church for its purposes. Eventually, the church started carrying out a governmental role and even tried to bend the government to its will, attempting to use the government to carry out the church’s work. Popes crowned emperors. Kings vowed to defend the church. Popes and bishops ruled territory and led armies. Conflicts arose over who should appoint church leaders: the church or the government. The result was confusion between the church’s work and the government’s work.

Martin Luther and his fellow reformers went back to the Scriptures to sort out this confusion. God carries out his work for the benefit of his believers and for the good of his whole creation in two different kingdoms or realms.

On the one hand, God has established his church, and through the church’s work he cares for our souls (Matthew 16:17-19; Hebrews 13:7,17; Acts 20:28; 1 Timothy 4:15). He brings people to faith through the Word and sacraments (Romans 1:16; Romans 10:17; 1 Peter 1:23; Titus 3:5; Ephesians 5:25-27). He strengthens his church and comforts his people through the work he has given the church to do (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:46-48; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21).

On the other hand, God has established government, and through the government’s work he cares for our bodies (1 Peter 2:13,14; Romans 13:1,2). He maintains peace and order in society through laws; he protects people’s physical well-being through the enforcement of laws (Romans 13:3-7).

True Lutherans have historically tried to avoid using governmental force to further the cause of the gospel, while also recognizing that Christians may serve in the government and be served by the government. True Lutherans have also attempted to avoid the confusion of the two kingdoms. The church and the government each have their own distinct mission and distinct ways to carry out that mission. As God’s children, we live in both kingdoms and strive to be obedient servants in the church and to the government.

The Augsburg Confession stated it well:

Now inasmuch as the power of the church . . . bestows eternal benefits and is used and exercised only through the office of preaching, it does not interfere at all with public order and secular authority. For secular authority deals with matters altogether different from the gospel. Secular power does not protect the soul but, using the sword and physical penalties, it protects the body and goods against external violence.

That is why one should not mix or confuse the two authorities, the spiritual and the secular. For spiritual power has its command to preach the gospel and to administer the sacraments. . . . It should not annul or disrupt secular law and obedience to political authority. It should not make or prescribe laws for the secular power concerning secular affairs. . . .

In this way our people distinguish the offices of the two authorities and powers and direct that both be honored as the highest gifts of God on earth. (XXVIII:10-13,18)


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

1. List at least five blessings we receive from God through the church’s work and through the government’s work.

 Blessings through the church’s work include the following:
● The forgiveness of sins.
● Strengthening of faith.
● Comfort in the face of temptation, doubt, guilt, or trouble.
● Encouragement from fellow believers.
● Opportunities to serve.
● Opportunities to carry out the church’s mission.
Blessings through the government’s work include the following:
● The freedom to worship (in some nations).
● Safety and security (police and fire departments; court system).
● Peace and order.
● Military protection from enemies.
● Roads and other infrastructure.
In both of these lists, there are others that you may think of.

2. Explain and apply Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:15-22.

 During Holy Week, the “Herodians,” men who supported the Roman government,
presented Jesus with a question intending to trap him. Should the Jews pay taxes to the Roman government? If Jesus said, no, they could arrest him on charges of sedition and treason. If Jesus said yes, they hoped that this would discredit him with many of the Jews who despised Roman rule.
Jesus’ answer demonstrated how Christians live in two kingdoms. We owe obedience
to God. We also owe obedience to the government. By obeying the government, we are
obeying God since he has commanded such obedience (see Romans 13:1-7).
How does this apply? For example, as Christians, we know that God owns everything
because he created all things (Psalm 24:1). In loving thankfulness, we give generous
offerings as a sacrifice of praise to our gracious God. But we also owe taxes. We pay our taxes honestly. This is obeying the government. It is also giving “to God what is God’s,” since God has commanded that we pay the taxes we owe.

3. Read Acts 5:17-42. What circumstances demand that Christians disobey the government? What should such disobedience look like?

 The high priest and a segment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, had
arrested the apostles because they were speaking about Jesus. They had ordered the
apostles not to preach the gospel. The apostles refused to comply. They were flogged,
but they kept preaching and teaching the good news about Jesus.
Christians must disobey the government when the government gives a clear
command to do something that violates a clear command of God. In the case of the
apostles, Jesus had commanded them to preach the gospel. The order of the high priest
clearly contradicted the Great Commission. Thankfully, at least in the United States, the government has not placed such a burden on us.
But if the government does command us to disobey one of God’s clear commands, we
must disobey the government. Like the apostles, we must be ready to suffer the
consequences for such disobedience. We may need to leave the country. We may resort
to passive resistance. But such disobedience should not take the form of violent
rebellion. We never see the apostles arming themselves with swords.


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


This is the 12th article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through the Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Sept. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 9
Issue: September 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 4

As an altar reminded Abraham of a death that didn’t happen, so a cross reminds us of how our Savior saved us from eternal death.

Samuel C. Degner

It’s not hard to find memorials that mark the place where someone died. White roadside crosses sit at the spot of a highway fatality. A new tower rises over the place where thousands lost their lives on 9/11. A makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, photos, and teddy bears crops up at the site of the latest tragedy.

But have you ever seen a monument to a death that didn’t happen?

A sacrifice God demands

Abraham was a nomad. He was used to walking for days at a time. But the three-day journey he undertook from Beersheba to Moriah must have felt like the longest of his life. It wasn’t just the distance; he was on a mission to sacrifice his son, his only son. He had God’s promise to bless him—and the whole world—through Isaac; he also had God’s command to kill him. How his confidence and confusion must have struggled with every step!

And what about Isaac? What was behind his question, when he noticed that they had all the materials needed for a sacrifice except the sacrifice itself? What was going through his mind when his father tied him up and placed him on top of the altar?

The Bible answers none of these questions. But perhaps it’s good to ask them because, whether you realize it or not, you were once in Isaac’s place.

You were bound guilty and laid out on the altar of God’s justice. You belonged there for all the times you disobeyed your heavenly Father. His wrath was about to come down on you and end your life eternally.

A substitute God provides

Abraham’s reply to Isaac echoes down through the centuries: “God himself will provide the lamb” (Genesis 22:8).

Who do you think was happier to see that ram caught in the thicket of Moriah—father or son? What a relief to know that another would die in Isaac’s place! Isaac’s hands and feet were untied, and he came down off the altar. He was safe! He would not die at Moriah that day. The stones stacked there were finally stained with blood, but not his. They stood as a monument to one death—and to another that didn’t happen.

Two thousand years later, not far from that very place, God once again provided a Lamb. The innocent Son of God was bound and laid onto a cross-shaped altar. The Father in heaven “did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). The perfect Lamb spilled his innocent blood for our disobedience. The sacrifice is over . . . and we get to live. We’re safe!

Today, we have reminders of that Substitute’s sacrifice all around us—in our sanctuaries, on our steeples, around our necks, on our walls, in the sign the pastor makes at the start of the service, on the stones that mark our final resting place. Each cross is a memorial to the Lamb’s sacrifice in our place. Each cross is a reminder that, because he died for us, we will not die forever but live with him.

Cherish that cross—a monument to a death that happened and to one that never will.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the fourth article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Vocation: Serving God and others

Joel D. Otto

Monasticism received a lot of attention from Luther and his fellow reformers. They saw that the church promoted this “religious” way of life as the best way to improve a person’s chances to get to heaven. It was an example of salvation by human effort.

The reformers also criticized this life of poverty, chastity, and obedience because monasticism confused what it really meant to serve God and others. People were led to believe that you had to live as some kind of “super Christian” to really serve God. Luther said that Christians serve God in their everyday lives when they serve their families and neighbors. But it is hard to serve your family and neighbor if you are sequestered behind the walls of a monastery.

God gives us opportunities to live our faith (Ephesians 2:10). Luther described these opportunities as a Christian’s “station” in life or a “vocation” or “calling.” We have numerous relationships in our daily living: families, communities, schools, workplaces, the marketplace, friendships, churches, government. Each of these provides opportunities to serve God by serving others and by contributing to the welfare of the larger society.

In fact, God provides what we need to help us carry out our vocations. In Luther’s explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in his Small Catechism, we notice how many different aspects of “daily bread” intersect with our service to God and others. “Daily bread includes everything we need for our bodily welfare, such as food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and cattle, money and goods, a godly spouse, godly children, godly workers, godly and faithful leaders, good government, good weather, peace and order, health, a good name, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” God gives us the opportunities and the means to help others.

Luther especially noted the value God places on the simple, everyday ways that Christians live out their various vocations. Yes, we are serving God. We are doing all things to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). But God is also acting through us. He is working through us to care for others. Luther wrote, “God’s people please God even in the least and most trifling matters. For he will be working all things through you; he will milk the cow through you and perform the most servile duties through you, and all the greatest and least duties alike will be pleasing to him” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 6, p. 10).

When we think in those terms, we can see how what seems like an ordinary life is elevated in God’s eyes. We don’t have to be “religious” or “super Christians” to serve God. True Lutherans understand that we serve God when we serve others through our various vocations in life.


Questions to consider

1. Read Colossians 3:12–4:1. How do these verses demonstrate attitudes Christians display in their vocations? How do these verses give specific direction for living out our vocations?

Every attitude that Paul lists in these verses—compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love—are all critical in fostering relationships. So many of our vocations, if not all of them, involve living out relationships with others in our family, workplace, school, neighborhood, community, society, and church. All of these attitudes are part of obeying the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For us to live out our vocations in a Christian manner, we need the peace of Christ ruling in our hearts. We need the peace of forgiveness for the times we fail. That peace rules in our hearts when the message about Christ is dwelling in us richly.

These verses give specific directions to various areas of family life and the workplace. There’s also an overall motivation that is present in these verses. Remember who we are. We are God’s chosen people. He has made us holy. He dearly loves us. He forgives us. So whatever vocations we have, the way in which we carry out those vocations should reflect a thankful heart. We live out our vocations in the name of the Savior whose blood bought us and in whom we trust for our salvation.

2. How might we fall into “Lutheran monasticism” today?

None of us will probably be taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience or establishing monasteries next to our Lutheran churches any time soon. But we can fall into a “Lutheran monasticism” when we give the impression that things done in connection with the church are better or godlier than living out one’s vocation in the home, workplace, and community. The unintended message of church leaders can be, “You’re only really serving Jesus if you’re volunteering on the evangelism committee or singing in the choir or serving on the church council.” We are in danger of a “Lutheran monasticism” when some people volunteer so much at church that they are rarely at home to live out their vocations as parents or spouses. They’re so busy at church that their family life suffers.

We even are in danger of a “Lutheran monasticism” if we give the impression that serving in the public ministry is a holier calling than “just” being a lay person. It is true that whoever desires to serve in the public ministry desires a noble task (1 Timothy 3:1). Making the preaching and teaching of the gospel one’s vocation in life is a wonderful calling. We even can call it a high and holy calling. You get to tell others about Jesus as your life’s work. The church needs people to serve in the full-time public ministry of the gospel. But we must always beware that we don’t make it sound like service in the public ministry puts someone on a higher level than everyone else or that being a pastor or teacher will somehow bring a person closer to God. Service in the public ministry is another way to do all things in the name of the Lord Jesus.

3. List specific vocations you have in your life. How have they changed over the years? Choose one vocation and think of ways you serve God and others in that calling.

Answers will vary, but think about the different vocations one has in family life, community, workplace, church, school, etc. Consider how those vocations, especially in terms of relationships, change over the years. For example, your relationship to your parents is different when you are 7 years old than when you are 27 or 57. As you choose a vocation on which to focus, think of attitude, words, and actions you might want to display in that specific calling that will allow you to serve God and others.


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


This is the 11th article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after August 5.


SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 8
Issue: August 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 3

As pilgrims in this world, we need to stand out in our worship of the true God, just as Abram did in the land of Canaan.

Samuel C. Degner

There must have been no shortage of shrines in Canaan. The land we now call “holy” was filled with unholy sites dedicated to pagan gods.

An altar to the Lord

But this new altar was different. Its builder was a foreigner named Abram. He came from Ur of the Chaldeans, a people with their own gods. But it wasn’t for one of those gods that he stacked these stones. It wasn’t for one of Canaan’s gods either. In the ancient world, it was common for immigrants to adopt the local religion, not just because they want to fit in but also because they believe that each place had its own deity that had to be pleased.

Not this migrant. Abram knew that the God who had called him in Ur was still with him in Canaan. He trusted that his God could and would bless him in this new land, just as he said.

So, at his first recorded stop in Canaan, at the great tree at Shechem, Abram built an altar to the Lord. When he moved on to the hill country between Bethel and Ai, he built another altar, and “called on the name of the LORD” (Genesis 12:8). This was a public act of true worship right in the heart of pagan country! These altars were beacons of light in the darkness.

Worship of an outstanding God

What’s the land of your pilgrimage? What god do the people there worship? In secular schools, Reason or Science may be the local deities—and their followers surely are persuasive. In the workforce, many people worship Money—and seem to be rewarded handsomely. Popularity has a devoted following, and people offer great sacrifices to Sports. The rituals in the religion of Pleasure seem quite appealing.

But you, dear pilgrim, were called to be different. That’s not easy, but it’s good, as Abram would tell you.

He and his family were vastly outnumbered in their new land. Other than the mysterious Melchizedek (Genesis 14), we are told of no other true believers there except those with Abram. Yet Abram trusted the Lord’s promise that one day the land would belong to his people. After just a few centuries, Abram’s descendants covered that land like sand on the seashore.

Several more centuries passed, but the Lord also kept his ancient promise to bless the world through Abram’s family. His Offspring was born and made his pilgrimage in the same land Abram once roamed, the only Holy One in a world full of sinners. In place of our crumbling and misdirected altars, Jesus sacrificed himself on a cross to please God on our behalf.

The same God who kept his promises to Abram and the world has kept the promises he made to you when he called you to faith. He has been with you everywhere you have gone. He has blessed you with more good things than you can count. He has reserved a place for you in the eternal land of his people.

Aren’t you glad to stand out in your worship of such an outstanding God? A word of kindness in a negative discussion. A tournament game skipped because it’s Sunday morning. Words that bring honor to God. Actions that reveal godly priorities. These are all acts of worship! With them we raise a beacon in a dark world that needs his saving light.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the third article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Faith-produced good works

Joel D. Otto

One of the sharpest criticisms of Lutheran theology revolves around the subject of good works. The argument is directed against the teaching that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone. Some object saying, “If salvation by grace is true, then no one will do good works. The incentive to live a godly life is gone.”

Luther was sensitive to this criticism. That’s why he went out of his way to show that he encouraged Christians to do good works. But he was careful to put good works in their proper place. Good works neither earn grace and forgiveness nor are they somehow combined with faith to win heaven. Rather, good works flow from faith. Good works are what Christians who have been saved by grace through faith naturally do. Good works are done not to earn heaven but to thank God for his gift of heaven in a tangible way.

In his preface to his commentary on Romans, Luther stressed this truth about faith producing good works. “O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. . . . Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, pp. 370,371).

To be truly Lutheran is to put good works in their proper place. Yes, we’re saved by faith alone in Jesus alone. But faith is never alone. It always produces good works. If there are no good works, faith is non-existent (see James 2:14-26). Faith rests in the promises of God and receives the blessings of God’s love. Then faith responds by loving God and living for Jesus (see 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). Luther stressed this truth in the opening words of explanation to each commandment in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God that we . . .”


Questions to consider:

1. Explain this apparently contradictory statement of Luther: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, p. 344).

Christians are free from having to do anything to have forgiveness, life, and salvation (Galatians 5:1). These are free gifts from God, received through faith (Ephesians 2:8,9). Christians are set free from the demands of the law because Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly in our place (Romans 5:19) and suffered the curse of the law in our place (Galatians 3:13). We are children of God and heirs of eternal life. We can freely approach God our Father. We are no longer slaves to sin, death, and hell (Galatians 4:4-7).

Because Christians are perfectly free, forgiven children of God, we desire to serve God and follow his commands (Titus 2:11-14). We are called to serve God by serving others (Galatians 5:13). In our various callings in life, we love our neighbors as ourselves. We serve one another in love.

To summarize, when it comes to our justification, we are completely free—free from having to do anything to earn God’s favor, free from the curse of the law, free from death and hell. When it comes to our sanctification, our lives of good works, we are to live as the people God has made us. We are slaves of righteousness, bound to do good works, and serve the people in our lives (Ephesians 2:10; Romans 6:15-19).

2. Describe how each of the following passages, in a unique way, demonstrates the place of good works in the life of a Christian: Luke 19:1-10; John 15:1-8; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 2:20,21; Ephesians 2:8-10.

● Luke 19:1-10—Zacchaeus demonstrates the spontaneous response and change of life from a Christian when he has been brought to faith. He wants to make amends. He wants to be generous. He wants to help others.

● John 15:1-8—Only Christians can do good works because only those with faith in Jesus can do works that are good in God’s sight. Christians can only do good works because they are connected to Jesus by faith, a faith worked and sustained through the gospel. Like branches connected to a vine, we are called to bear fruits of faith, good works. They are “good” because we are covered with the forgiveness and righteousness of Christ by faith. These fruits of faith give glory to God and are evidence of our faith.

● Romans 6:1-14—Our sinful nature may be tempted to think that because we’re saved by grace alone we can live any way we want; we have a license to sin. But that would be misusing and cheapening God’s grace. We were baptized into Christ. We were buried and raised with him. We are now to be dead to sin and slaves to righteousness. Because of our baptism, we have a new life.

● Galatians 2:20,21—By faith in Christ, he lives in us. He loves us and gave himself up for us. Therefore, we strive to life for him, even as he lives in us. We live for him not to gain righteousness but to reflect Christ’s love.

● Ephesians 2:8-10—Our salvation is entirely God’s gift of grace. We receive this salvation through faith in Christ. This faith is also a gift of God’s grace. God has saved us for a purpose. We are God’s workmanship, his handiwork, created in Christ to do good works. And God puts opportunities to do good works in front of us every day.

3. Read Matthew 25:31-46. How might someone think Jesus is teaching salvation by works in these verses? How do we know that is not what Jesus is teaching?

It can seem like Jesus is teaching salvation by works because the King highlights all the good things that the sheep, the believers, did for the King. He points out the good things the goats, the unbelievers, failed to do.

This is not teaching salvation by works. The King gives to the sheep the inheritance of heaven. An inheritance is not earned by those receiving it but by someone else. This inheritance has been prepared for them by God. They receive it by faith. The good works that the King highlights are evidence of the faith in the hearts of Christians. Since this is a public judgment, he points to the public evidence. The sheep are even surprised that they were doing anything for the King. They were not doing these good things to earn anything. It is simply what they did as his believers. The unbelievers are condemned and cast out because of their unbelief, as evidenced by their lack of good work done for the King. Jesus is still teaching salvation by grace through faith; fruits of faith always follow as the evidence of faith in the heart.


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


This is the tenth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after July 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 7
Issue: July 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Living a life of repentance

Joel D. Otto

When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, he was seeking a debate on the issue of indulgences, especially as they related to the repentance of the Christian. He emphasized this in the first thesis. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 31, p. 25).

The problem is that the Roman Catholic Church had turned repentance into a work the believer had to do to merit God’s forgiveness. At least once a year, the believer had to confess all his sins to the priest. This act of confessing—aloud—all the sins that could be remembered merited forgiveness. But for the forgiveness to truly take effect, the believer also had to do certain acts of penance, or “satisfactions.” Since most people could not remember all their sins or do all the works of penance, most people had to spend time in purgatory before they could be allowed into heaven. Indulgences were a way to shorten the time in purgatory or remove the burden of some of the “satisfactions.”

Luther was rightly concerned that this was leading people to either uncertainty or complacency. On the one hand, how could they know if they had remembered all their sins? On the other hand, if they had paid for indulgences, they really didn’t need to be repentant. Why bother, if a piece of paper said they were released from purgatory?

Instead, Luther defined repentance the way the Bible does. There are two parts. The first is that we confess our sins; we acknowledge that we are guilty and deserve God’s judgment; we are sorry or contrite. The second is that we receive the forgiveness Jesus has won for us; we believe that God forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake; we are comforted (1 John 1:8,9). The Augsburg Confession summarized it this way. “Now properly speaking, true repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror about sin, and yet at the same time to believe in the gospel and absolution that sin is forgiven and grace is obtained through Christ. Such faith, in turn, comforts the heart and puts it at peace” (The Book of Concord, p. 44).

Being truly Lutheran—and truly Christian—is to live a life of repentance; to daily confess our sins and rejoice in the forgiveness of sins; and to plead for God’s mercy, trusting that he is merciful. That’s how, in the face of our sinful nature and the devil’s attacks, we live in the confidence of God’s grace.


Questions to consider:

1. Consider the account of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel chapters 11,12). What lesson does this incident teach us about the importance of being confronted by God’s law?

David was piling one sin on top of another and refusing to acknowledge that he had sinned against the Lord. When Nathan confronted him with God’s law, which led David to convict himself, David was quick to confess his sinfulness and sorrow. Nathan was quick to proclaim forgiveness, but until David was confronted by the law, he was living in impenitence. Without the law convicting us of our sinfulness, we will continue to live in impenitence and deny our need for God’s forgiveness.

2. Read Psalm 32:1-5 and Mark 2:1-12. Why is it so important to be regularly comforted by God’s gospel of forgiveness?

As David relates in Psalm 32, the burden of guilt can weigh us down. It can be easy to focus inward on what we have done wrong, the problems our sins have caused. It can lead us to wonder if God could possibly forgive those who have done the horrible things we’ve done. Likewise, when health problems or other difficulties strike, we can easily start to think that this is the punishment we’re getting for something wrong we did. I would imagine that the paralytic had a lot of time to think about such things as he lay on his mat day after day. Jesus proclaimed forgiveness to him before he healed his physical ailment. The devil would like us to look inward or focus on the circumstances of our lives and see in them just judgment for our sins. The regular comfort of God’s gospel of forgiveness is essential to assure us daily of God’s grace.

3. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), compare the attitudes of the two men. Why is it easy to gravitate to the attitude of the Pharisee? What lesson does Jesus teach about repentance?

The Pharisee points to his accomplishments and compares himself to others. The tax collector humbly acknowledges his sinfulness and pleads for God’s mercy, trusting that God is merciful. The default attitude of our sinful nature is that of the Pharisee. I’ve done a pretty good job. At least I’m not as bad as an alcoholic or drug addict or murderer. We rationalize that God must be happy with us because we’re not as bad as other people. Jesus’ lesson about repentance is that we’re all like the tax collector. We’re all sinners in need of God’s mercy. The proper attitude of repentance confesses the need for God’s mercy and trusts that God is merciful and forgiving.

4. Read Romans 6:1-4. Describe how repentance takes us back to our baptism.

Paul begins this chapter by addressing the argument raised against salvation by grace through faith. If salvation is free, then we’re free to live how we want. We can sin as much as we want. Paul answers that objection by pointing us back to our baptism and what happened when we were baptized. We were buried with Christ and raised with him. We died to sin. But because our sinful nature doesn’t go away, we need to repent, which is really dying to sin and rising to life again. It’s a repetition of the death and resurrection we first experienced when we were baptized. That’s one reason the pastor’s announcement of forgiveness often includes the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a way of reminding us of the connection between Baptism and our ongoing reception of God’s forgiveness through the gospel. We need that regular proclamation and reception of forgiveness because “we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Fifth Petition). Luther put it well in the catechism. “Baptism means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and that all its evil deeds and desires be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Fourth of Baptism).


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


This is the ninth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after June 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories – Part 2

The Tower of Babel was a tribute to humans’ own arrogance. But instead of honoring ourselves, we need to work together to make a name for Christ.

Samuel C. Degner

They intended it to be the original skyscraper, “a tower that reaches to the heavens” (Genesis 11:4). Engineered with the latest technology—bricks and tar instead of stones—it would showcase their skill and ingenuity.

A monument to humankind

That didn’t sit well with the One who had formed man from the same earth they used to form those bricks. Their stated goal was to make a name for themselves, not for God. They were planning a city where they could all stay together instead of spreading out and filling the earth as God had commanded. This structure stretching heavenward was a giant fist in God’s face.

Understand how potent pride is. It sets us up against God. It seeks our glory at his expense. It convinces us that we can defy God’s commands. Yet when we build and improve and accumulate with the purpose of making a name for ourselves, these things become tributes to our own arrogance.

Want to know where that leads? Travel to the Middle East and look for the tower our ancestors undertook at Shinar. You won’t find it. Perhaps a few rows of bricks are there somewhere, buried under centuries of sand. Maybe they were scavenged long ago for another purpose.

What you will find there are people you probably don’t understand. Like anywhere else in this world, you’ll find human beings whose differences put them in constant conflict with each other—a reminder that here we have no perfect society and no enduring city (Hebrews 13:14).

A continual reminder of God’s judgment

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:6,7). The Lord saw humankind’s prideful defiance. He came down and put an end to their vain ambitions.

Yet even in this act of judgment, we see God’s mercy. United by one language around one sinful purpose, what would have become of humanity? By frustrating their purposes, the Lord granted them an opportunity for repentance. Moreover, he had a gracious plan to fulfill. He had a Savior to send, who wasn’t going to be born in Babel. Humans could defy God to their own peril, but they could not thwart his loving blueprint for this world.

Centuries later, with humans still busy exalting themselves, the Lord came down again. Only this time, he came not to judge but to save, not to scatter but to gather.

“And I,” Jesus said, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). This was the fulfillment of the Lord’s plan for all people. Human efforts could never reach heaven, so God’s Son came down to us. He humbled himself to die for our pride and disobedience. He rose to guarantee us a place with all his people in the eternal city built by God himself.

Now we have a new purpose. We work together to make a name for him, not for ourselves, to highlight his accomplishments, not our own. We strive to raise up the cross of Christ for all peoples and languages.

A monument to our Savior God.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the second article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 6
Issue: June 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Lord’s Supper

Joel D. Otto

Teachings about the Lord’s Supper separate most of the various branches of Christianity. When true Lutherans accept this teaching of the Scriptures, they stand apart from other Christians.

Roman Catholicism confesses that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ when the priest speaks the words of institution. This becomes an unbloody sacrifice which the priest offers to earn “grace” from God. This “grace” is then distributed to the people to help them live more God-pleasing lives. Catholicism turns the sacrament from gospel into law. The unbloody sacrifice performed by the priest becomes a human work offered to God for sin.

Most other non-Lutheran churches deny that Christ’s body and blood are really present with the bread and wine. They might speak about a spiritual presence of Christ, but the bread and wine merely represent Christ’s body and blood. They do not believe that God gives any blessings in the Lord’s Supper. Rather, Christians observe the Lord’s Supper as an act of obedience to remember Christ and his death. This rejects the words of Jesus and turns the sacrament from gospel into law, from God’s gift into a human work of obedience.

True Lutherans teach what Jesus clearly said on the night he was betrayed. “This is my body. . . . This is my blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:26,28). We do not deny what Jesus said. We do not try to explain how Jesus can be present with his body and blood under bread and wine. Martin Luther wrote, “Why do we not put aside such curiosity and cling simply to the words of Christ, willing to remain in ignorance of what takes place here and content that the real body of Christ is present by virtue of the words?” (Luther’s Works Vol 36, p. 33).

We believe that Jesus’ body and blood are really and truly present in the Lord’s Supper. And we believe that Jesus is giving real and true spiritual gifts to us through this eating and drinking: forgiveness, life, and salvation. It is pure gospel for our comfort and spiritual strength. We simply hold to Jesus’ words. This is what true Lutherans do, as Luther emphasized in the Large Catechism. “We speak about the bread and wine that is Christ’s body and blood and has the words attached to it. That, we say, is truly the treasure—and nothing else—through which such forgiveness is gained. Now the only way this treasure is passed along and made our very own is in the words ‘Given . . . and shed for you.’ For in the words you have both truths, that it is Christ’s body and blood, and that it is yours as a treasure and gift.”

Questions to consider:

1. Read 1 Corinthians 10:16. Explain how this passage helps us come to a proper understanding of Jesus’ words of institution.

Jesus’ words in the Gospels are clear and simple: “This is my body.” Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:16 back up what Jesus said. The bread is “a participation in the body of Christ.” The cup is “a participation in the blood of Christ.” The Greek word translated “participation” is the same word we also translate as “fellowship.” Paul is saying that there is a union, a “communion,” between the bread and Christ’s body and the wine and Christ’s blood. There is a close association and connection between the earthly elements of the Lord’s Supper and Christ’s body and blood. Paul is saying the same thing as Jesus, just in different words. We really and truly receive Christ’s body and blood when we eat the bread and drink the wine in Holy Communion.

2. List at least five doctrines that are interconnected with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

The following doctrines are interconnected with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. One could perhaps think of others as well.

● The true nature of sin—we need the forgiveness Jesus gives in the Lord’s Supper

● Jesus’ incarnation—the reality of the incarnation is evident in the fact that Jesus is giving us his very body and blood; he became flesh and gives me his body and blood in the Sacrament.

● Jesus’ resurrection—if Jesus had not risen, he would not be able to continue giving us his body and blood

● Two natures of Christ—Jesus can be truly present in the Lord’s Supper with his body and his blood because his human nature has received the divine characteristics of omnipotence and omnipresence from his divine nature; he remains true God and true man in one person.

● Vicarious atonement—Jesus is the sacrifice in the place of all sinners; he is now giving me personally his body and blood which were sacrificed for me. This is also what we remember and proclaim as we receive the Lord’s Supper

● Justification—by giving us the price of our salvation, Jesus is forgiving my sins; he is applying what he did for the world to me individually

● Faith—we trust what Jesus promises in the Lord’s Supper; we trust his words when he says that his body and blood are truly present, that he gave his body and poured out his blood for us, and that he is giving us the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper. We simply trust what we do not see because Jesus said so (Hebrews 11:1).

● Means of grace—through the Lord’s Supper, God gives us the forgiveness of sins; it is one of the ways that he gives us the blessings of the gospel

● Preservation of faith—through the Word of the gospel in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit strengthens faith

3. How does the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper help provide comfort to you when you receive the Sacrament?

Jesus is coming to me in a very personal and tangible way in the Lord’s Supper and giving me the price he paid for my sins. That price is his true body and his true blood, which he gave into death and poured out on the cross. That price is what won for me the forgiveness of sins, which he now actually gives to me through his Word and his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. I hear the words. I receive his body and blood under the bread and wine. This is not a mere symbol or representation. It is not another sacrifice for my sins—that Jesus did once and for all on Good Friday. Through this Sacrament, in a miraculous and supernatural way, Jesus is giving me—yes, me, a lost and condemned sinner who struggles daily with the temptations of Satan and the guilt of my sins and the desires of my flesh and the pressures of this sinful world—his very body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins.

Lord Jesus Christ, you have prepared

This feast for our salvation;

It is your body and your blood,

And at your invitation As weary souls, with sin oppressed,

We come to you for needed rest,

For comfort and for pardon (Christian Worship 312:1).


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


This is the eighth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after May 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

Monuments: Lasting memories

Noah built an altar as he stepped off the ark to show his gratitude because God kept his promises.

Samuel C. Degner

For 375 days, Noah and his family lived on a boat. People who spend a week on a cruise ship sometimes say they feel cramped. Noah and his family spent over 53 weeks on a vessel half that size! For a whole year plus ten days they were confined to that space—together with the animals. Finally, the Lord gave the green light to disembark.

Noah’s gratitude

What would be the first thing you would do if you were Noah? Roll around on the ground just to feel some earth on your skin? Run as fast and as far as you could to stretch your legs and fill your lungs with fresh air?

Noah stooped over and started picking up stones.

Picture him there on the slopes of Ararat. The world must have looked so different since he had seen it last. The force of God’s watery wrath had changed things.

But there stood Noah, safe and dry, surrounded by his family and the beginnings of new life. God had protected them from the waters that engulfed everything and everyone else. He had rescued them from a godless world that had threatened to swallow up their souls. Most important, he had preserved his promise to send a Savior.

So, Noah gathered some dry stones and stacked them into the first recorded altar (Genesis 8:20). Perhaps he laid some driftwood on top. Then he sacrificed some of the clean animals he had brought with him on the ark. It was an act of dedication that sprang from a grateful heart as eagerly as Noah must have jumped off the ark.

Our thankfulness

Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. What was true before the flood is true after it: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). Our tendency is to be quicker to enjoy the good things in front of us than to praise God for them. We step out of bed and hit the ground running without thinking to dedicate the new day to the Lord. We sprint past our morning devotion into the day ahead. We dive into a delicious meal without giving thanks. We spend the paycheck before we can offer any of it to God.

Stop and look around you. Everywhere you see signs of destruction—not past but future. You see an ungodly world reserved for judgment, not by water but by fire (2 Peter 3:7). But not you. The Lord lifted you up and out of harm’s way by the waters of your baptism. For Jesus’ sake, he rescued you from a fate far worse than drowning in a deluge. You’re safe!

Now in your new heart rises a thankfulness that won’t be contained. So, before getting on with the new life that lies before you, spend a few moments picking up stones. Gratefully offer this day, this life, to the God who saved you—then run out and enjoy it.

Oh, do you need a reminder from time to time? Noah’s physical monument on the mountain has been lost to history, but God gave us a lasting memorial: his rainbow (Genesis 9:13). Whenever he sees it, he remembers his promise not to destroy the earth in a flood again. Whenever you see it, remember to thank him for keeping all his promises.


Contributing editor Samuel Degner is pastor at Bethel, Menasha, Wisconsin.


This is the first article in a nine-part series on Old Testament monuments and what they mean to us today.


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Author: Samuel C. Degner
Volume 104, Number 5
Issue: May 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

The ripple effect: Erastus

After Jesus’ ascension, the believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

Modern pavement often bears the name of the finisher who poured and smoothed the concrete. Before the concrete hardens, a stamp presses a logo and sometimes a date into the still soft surface. Once hardened, the pavement records a bit of history.

Historical records

An old paving stone in Corinth bears a similar mark. There in 1929, archeologist T. L. Shear found a long limestone block into which had been chiseled seven-inch-tall letters spelling out in abbreviated Latin, “Erastus, for his office of city manager, laid this pavement at his own expense.” The inscription sparked a conversation that continues to this day.

That stone is worth talking about. Among the apostle Paul’s fellow Christians in Corinth was a man named Erastus. In his letter to the Romans, Paul included him among those sending greetings to the believers in Rome. He identifies him as “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works” (16:23).

Archeologists agree that the inscription dates from the first century, but that doesn’t settle the question as to whether the Erastus who proudly paid for pavement in Corinth is the Erastus Paul mentioned. And that is a fair question. Erastus (“Beloved”) was a common Greek name in the Roman world. There might have been more than one public official in first-century Corinth named Erastus.

Moreover, the Greek word Paul uses to describe Erastus’ job does not match precisely the corresponding Latin word carved in Corinthian pavement. The essence of the Greek word is “manager” and involves especially money management. We might call Erastus a “treasurer”; many English translations do. The Latin word implies a higher office with oversight of public buildings and projects. Scholars debate whether the words refer to the same office. It might also mean that Erastus had different offices in his governmental career.

So, should we claim that the man whose name is etched in municipal stone is the same man Paul mentions in Romans? Let our answer settle thoughtfully somewhere close to “possibly.” We can’t prove it; we can’t rule it out.

God’s records

And in the end it doesn’t matter. Our confidence in the Bible does not rest on archeological discoveries. Are these discoveries interesting? Yes. But our faith is not strengthened. Only the gospel can do that. We stand on what we know. For our learning, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to mention a man of status and responsibility who believed in Jesus. He apparently fell outside Paul’s earlier description of the Corinthian Christians, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26).

This Erastus might be the one whose inscription in stone has endured for two thousand years. More significant—and of greater honor—is that his name is inscribed in the Word that will stand forever. But even more important is what we glean about him. Despite worldly success, civic honor, and material wealth, Erastus had become a baptized child of God. God’s Spirit had brought another camel through the eye of the needle.

And that brings us to the most important inscription of all. “Written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27) with his Savior’s blood is the name “Erastus.”


Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.


This is the final article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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What it means to be truly Lutheran: Baptism

Joel D. Otto

Most American Protestant Christians have views of Baptism different from Lutherans. Some see Baptism as little more than a dedication ceremony where the parents are promising to raise their child as a Christian. They don’t think Baptism has the power to do anything. Others think infants should not be baptized. Still others believe that Baptism is something believers do to show their commitment to God. They turn Baptism from gospel into law.

That is not how true Lutherans view Baptism because that’s not what the Bible teaches. In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote that “baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.” He could say this because the Bible says that in Baptism God forgives our sins (Acts 3:28; Acts 22:16) and saves us (1 Peter 3:20,21; Mark 16:16). Luther wrote that Baptism is “a gracious water of life and a washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit.” He could say that because the Bible says that the Holy Spirit is given in Baptism (Acts 2:38) and that through Baptism the Spirit works rebirth and renewal (Titus 3:5).

Baptism seems so simple—a splash of water and a few words. Those who deny the power of Baptism often point to the fact that it is just an outward ceremony. In the Small Catechism, Luther rightly points out that “it is certainly not the water that does such things, but God’s Word which is in and with the water and faith which trust this Word used with the water.” God’s Word is powerful. It was powerful enough to call the universe into existence. It is powerful enough to give the spiritual and eternal blessings God promises through Baptism (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Following Luther’s example, true Lutherans find great comfort in Baptism because Baptism is God’s work for us. Paul wrote that we are clothed with Christ through Baptism and made children of our heavenly Father (Galatians 3:26,27). We are connected to Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). Everything Christ won for through his death and resurrection is given to me—personally, individually—through my baptism.

In a sermon, Luther explained, “Holy baptism was purchased for us through this same blood, which [Christ] shed for us and with which he paid for sin. This blood and its merit and power he put into baptism, in order that in baptism we might receive it. For whenever a person receives baptism in faith this is the same as if he were visibly washed and cleansed of sin with the blood of Christ. For we do not attain the forgiveness of sins through our work, but rather through the death and the shedding of the blood of the Son of God. But he takes this forgiveness of sin and tucks it into baptism” (Luther’s Works 51:325).


Questions to consider

1. What Bible passages would you use to defend the biblical teaching and practice of infant baptism? Explain how you might use those passages.

The first place to start is Matthew 28:19. Jesus said to make disciples of “all nations” by baptizing and teaching. Infants are included in “all nations.” That’s an inclusive term, and there is no reason infants are not part of “all nations.”

While some people say infants do not need Baptism because they are born innocent or morally neutral or not guilty of sin, Psalm 51:5 points out we are sinful from the time of conception. God says in Genesis 8:21 that “every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” Infants need the cleansing of sin which God gives in Baptism.

At the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, he encourages the crowd, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38,39). The promise of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit that God gives through Baptism is not limited by age.

Some also will argue that infants cannot believe in Jesus. Therefore, Baptism is useless for them, if Baptism even gives faith. Jesus, however, talks about the seriousness of not causing “one of these little ones—those that believe in me—to stumble” (Matthew 18:6). Jesus says that little children can trust in him.

Jesus desires children to be brought to him so that they can be blessed by him (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). The Greek word used in Luke’s gospel is for “infants.” He desires that all of us receive the kingdom of God like a little child, humbly and unquestioningly trusting in him.

2. When Luther was battling temptations to doubt his salvation, he would remember, “I am baptized.” Why is this better than saying, “I was baptized”? How can this truth strengthen you in times of doubt?

“I am baptized” stresses the ongoing identity we have as a result of our baptism, while “I was baptized” can make it sound like our baptism was a past event with no current benefit. Remembering that we are baptized can strengthen us when we doubt that we are forgiven or that eternal life is secured for us or that God still loves us. God has connected us to Jesus’ death and resurrection through Baptism (Romans 6:3,4). We can silence Satan’s accusations because in Baptism we’ve been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26,27); God has rescued us from our sins (1 Peter 3:21), He has promised forgiveness and the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38,39), and he has cleansed us from our sins (Ephesians 5:25-27). The Holy Spirit has given us a new birth and made us heirs of eternal life through Baptism (Titus 3:4-7). These blessings are ongoing because of what God has accomplished for us in Baptism. “I am baptized” can be our battle cry and a source of great comfort because that is our new identity: baptized children of God (see the hymn, “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It,” Christian Worship: Supplement 737).


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


This is the seventh article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after April 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 4
Issue: April 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: The means of grace

Joel D. Otto

As Martin Luther carried out his reformation, there were other reform movements at work throughout Europe (Anabaptists, Zwinglians, Calvinists). He was often critical of these other movement. He opposed them for their lack of trust in the power of the Word and sacraments to give and sustain faith. He used a term to describe them: Schwärmer. Literally, the word means “one who buzzes about.” In English, the word is usually translated as enthusiast. These were people and groups who “buzzed around” looking for the Spirit in their own feelings or thinking. They denied the power of the gospel, especially in the sacraments.

Luther recognized that God is very clear how he works to create and strengthen faith in the hearts of people. Faith comes from hearing the good news about Jesus (Romans 10:17). This gospel gives salvation by bringing people to believe in Jesus (Romans 1:16). The gospel message is in the form of both the Holy Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:15,16) and the sacraments (Ephesians 5:26). Through these tools, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of faith in Jesus (2 Thessalonians 2:13,14; Titus 3:4-7). The gospel is the means through which the Spirit pours out God’s grace on individuals.

Luther trusted that the means of grace has the power to work the needed change in people’s hearts. He once preached: “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything” (Luther’s Works Vol. 51, p. 77).

True Lutherans continue to trust in the power of the means of grace. We don’t look for the Spirit to somehow zap faith into people’s hearts without the gospel. We don’t try to force people into “deciding for Christ” or attempt to argue people into heaven. We trust that the Holy Spirit “calls me by the gospel” (Small Catechism). The Augsburg Confession states: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when he wills, in those who hear the gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (Article V).

For true Lutherans, the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is at the heart of the Christian’s life and the church’s work because the means of grace is how the Spirit changes hearts.

Questions to consider

1. List at least five examples from Bible history that demonstrate the power of the means of grace to give faith or strengthen faith.

Countless examples can be mentioned. Here are a few:

● Adam and Eve responding in faith to God’s promise spoken to them (Genesis 3:15).

● Abraham believing God’s promises after they were proclaimed to him (Genesis 12:1-8; Genesis 15:1-6).

● David repenting and believing God’s promise of forgiveness after his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:1-25; Psalm 51).

● The people of Nineveh (Jonah 3).

● Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10).

● The calling of some of Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-51).

● The conversion of the crowds at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41).

● The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38).

● The conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-19).

● The jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:16-34).

2. Since true Lutherans believe that the Spirit works through the gospel in Word and sacraments, how will this affect the following areas?

a. Worship

The proclamation of the Word, especially the good news of Jesus, and the administration of the sacraments will be what worship is all about. Everything—from preaching to liturgy, from hymns and music to architecture and art—will be focused on the Word and sacraments so that the Holy Spirit will do what he has promised through the gospel.

b. Christian education

Christian education is a priority in the ministry plan of a truly Lutheran church. Because the Spirit works through the Word, we want to have the Word taught to children. The faith created in Baptism is nurtured through the Christian education that goes on in the both the home and the church. And Christian education doesn’t end at confirmation. Christian education is a lifelong endeavor. So a truly Lutheran church will emphasize adult Bible study as well.

c. Mission work/evangelism

The focus of mission work and evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. Humanitarian aid and social programs are not an end of themselves when it comes to mission work and evangelism. They serve to open the door for the proclamation of the gospel. That alone is how the Spirit brings people into his family of believers. That is the goal of mission work.

d. A Christian’s daily life

Devotional Bible reading will be a priority in a Christian’s daily life. Only through the gospel does the Spirit continue to strengthen faith to face the challenges of everyday life as a Christian in a world hostile to the gospel. In addition, worship and Bible study will be priorities in the weekly schedule of a Christian.

3. Read Isaiah 55:10,11 and John 3:8. How do these passages give us confidence as we carry out the mission of the church to proclaim the gospel of Jesus?

First, we have God’s promise that when the gospel is proclaimed God is at work to accomplish his purposes. While it is true that people can reject the Word, that does not diminish the fact that the Spirit is working when the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments are administered. Our task is simply to proclaim the Word and to administer the sacraments faithfully. We can do so with the confidence that the Spirit is working.

Second, we don’t have to worry that the results hinge on us. The Spirit does his work “where and when it pleases him in those who hear the gospel” (Augsburg Confession V). The Spirit has his own timetable. Again, this gives us the confidence to go about the task of proclaiming the gospel—diligently, faithfully, making the best use of our time and abilities—without worrying that our mistakes or frailties will result in someone not coming to faith. That doesn’t mean we are to be lazy or not give our best effort. Rather, we rejoice that God uses us in his glorious work of bringing people to faith in Christ and giving them the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life.


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


This is the sixth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after March 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

The ripple effect: Lydia

After Jesus’ ascension, the believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

It was a vision of a man from Macedonia that prompted Paul to carry the gospel for the first time into Europe (Acts 16:6-10). But it was women who first heard the good news at the apostles’ initial stop of Philippi.

A woman’s saving faith

Paul’s habit in a new city was to begin his outreach in the local synagogue (14:1; 17:2). The synagogue offered a logical point of contact. Paul and his companions met Jews who knew the Old Testament and to whom they could show Jesus was the Messiah God promised. But Philippi apparently didn’t have a synagogue. Ten Jewish men were needed to form a synagogue, and Luke mentions only women (16:13) gathered at a “place of prayer” at the Krenides River, probably outdoors. Paul began with them.

Among them was a businesswoman who dealt in purple cloth. She came from Thyatira. History’s record, though likely incomplete, offers an impressive list of goods manufactured there: pottery, leather products, clothing, woolens, linens, and bronzeware. Thyatirans traded in these things as well as in slaves. The region also produced purple dye, using a labor-intensive process that made anything tinted purple expensive. It was high-end cloth that the businesswoman sold in Philippi.

The businesswoman’s name was Lydia. Luke describes her as “a worshiper of God” (16:14), in other words a devout convert to Judaism. Lydia was a Gentile who had come to faith in the prophecies of a Messiah. Though not obligated to follow all of the Old Testament ceremonial law, Lydia believed in a promised Savior. Paul and his coworkers told her all about him.

“The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (16:14). Hearing the gospel, Lydia’s faith refocused on the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises—Jesus. She and members of her household were baptized.

A woman’s generous offer

Out of thanks to Jesus, Lydia extended an invitation to Paul and company: “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house” (16:15). That invite hints at her success in the purple cloth trade. First, she had a businesswoman’s cordial assertiveness, and here it met success (“she persuaded us”). Second, she owned a house that could indefinitely accommodate four men as guests, besides the members of her household. Her home became a base of operations for outreach in Philippi.

The Holy Spirit blessed this gospel effort. Acts 16:16-40 records the exciting story of the conversion of the warden of Philippi’s jail along with his household. A broader sense of the Spirit’s success one gleans from references Paul makes in his letter to the Philippians. Writing about a decade later from prison in Rome, Paul does not once chide or correct the Philippians for error. Moreover, Paul addresses “all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (Philippians 1:1). That sounds like a good-sized group. And he thanks them for a gift of money and for the encouragement of Epaphroditus, the Philippian who had brought it (2:25-30).

That gift was characteristic. The Philippians, alone among the congregations Paul had served, frequently shared their money to help Paul proclaim the gospel (4:15,16). Not a surprise from a congregation whose first member had thankfully insisted, “Come and stay at my house.”


Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.


This is the 11th article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 104, Number 3
Issue: March 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

The ripple effect: Simon the tanner

After Jesus’ ascension, the believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

It was just an address where the apostle Peter was staying. In fact, it was less of an address than a description. An angel shared it with a God-fearing Gentile from Caesarea. The angel told Cornelius, a Roman centurion, “Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea” (Acts 10:5,6).

An unusual address

Joppa was a port city in Judea, about 40 miles south of Caesarea. People looking for Peter in Joppa would look for the house on the coast, but they might have been able to find Simon’s house by its smell. Tanneries were notorious for their stink. That odor hints at what made Simon the tanner’s address significant to gospel outreach.

From Simon’s name we gather that he was Jewish. From his hospitality to Peter we conclude that he was also a Christian. At first glance, Peter’s stay with Simon may appear no different from Paul’s staying with Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16:15) or with Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth (Acts 18:3)—simply an apostle finding necessary and practical support in the work from fellow Christians.

But Peter at Simon’s house was unusual. People avoided tanners. Ancient zoning laws often put tanneries at the edge of town or beyond, at a site dictated by the prevailing winds. A tanner treated animal hides with foul mixtures of animal or human waste or with harsh chemicals. Sometimes what flesh remained on a hide was allowed to rot. It was a hands-on trade, and the stench would permeate the clothes, skin, and house of the tanner.

Jews ordinarily shunned tanners. Tanning was not forbidden in the Old Testament. Leather was used for clothing, packs, saddles, sandals, and tents—including the Tabernacle, for centuries the hub of Israel’s worship life. But dead animals and other features of the work left a tanner dirty, smelly, and often ceremonially unclean. By custom, tanners came to be treated as outcasts from polite society and were pushed to the fringes of Jewish religious life.

A significant stay

So Peter’s stay with Simon the tanner ran against the norm. Peter was obviously not out for personal gain or comfort. Maybe his room had a view of the sea, but it surely had a whiff of the tannery. Peter had found a way to let Simon the tanner, despite his status, help spread the gospel. Most important, Peter’s choice of accommodations helped signal that the gospel is meant for all.

God made that clear. A delegation

of Gentiles came to fetch Peter. They arrived just after the Lord by a vision had directed Peter that it was no longer necessary to keep Jewish dietary laws. God’s Spirit then told him to go back to Caesarea with the delegation from Cornelius. There Peter preached the facts of eternal life to the centurion’s household and baptized them. Jewish Christians, who had come with Peter from Joppa, marveled at the evidence of faith among Cornelius’ household.

Then Peter the Jew stayed a few days at Cornelius the Gentile’s house, another address with something important to say about the good news of Jesus.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the tenth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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What it means to be truly Lutheran: Faith alone

Faith alone

Joel D. Otto

How does a person have a right to stand before God and obtain eternal life? The Bible presents two answers. Perfect obedience of all the commandments is one answer. Jesus once gave that answer to an expert in the law (Luke 10:25-37). But no one can do this. The other answer is faith, belief, and trust in Jesus. We read it in the most well-known passage in Scripture (John 3:16). Paul also expressed it clearly: “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

This teaching that we are justified by faith alone has been obscured, even in the church. At the time of Paul, some tried to say that faith was not enough. You also had to obey certain Jewish customs to be a good Christian. Paul had an answer: “[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).

By Martin Luther’s day, the church

was teaching a similar combination of faith and works. Faith had to be completed by works. But whenever works are added, you cannot be certain that heaven is secure. How do you know if you’ve done enough works or the right works?

Luther was led to rediscover what the Scriptures had always taught. Only by faith in Jesus do we receive the blessings Jesus won for us through his life, death, and resurrection. The Augsburg Confession states concisely, “It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3[:21–26] and 4[:5]” (The Book of Concord, IV, pp. 38,40).

True Lutherans believe that we have a right standing before God through Christ alone by faith alone in Jesus. True Lutherans understand that it is all by grace and that faith is not a decision we make or the one work we must do but simply the hand that receives the gifts God gives through the gospel. To be truly Lutheran means to have the confident certainty of eternal life because faith holds on to Jesus alone.

Questions to consider

1. Read Romans 4:4-8 and Ephesians 2:8,9. How do these passages help answer the idea that faith is the one work we must do?

In Romans chapter 4, Paul contrasts faith with doing something that earns a wage. Faith is not working to earn a wage. Instead it is receiving a gift already completely purchased and earned for us by Christ. In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul says that the whole concept of being saved “by grace through faith” is God’s gift; nothing about it is a work in which we can boast. Both passage clearly show that faith is not the one condition we have to meet or the one work we have to do in order to complete our salvation. God freely gives us the completed work of Christ, and the gospel works faith in our hearts to receive it.

2. Luther emphasized that we are saved by faith alone, but he also frequently said that faith is never alone. Read Romans 3:28 and James 2:20-24. How do these passages seem to contradict each other? Describe how they do not contradict each other.

At first, these passages seem to contradict each other because Paul excludes works from justification (“apart from the works of the law”), while James says the opposite (“faith without deeds is useless”). But they are writing from different perspectives. Paul is considering justification before God. If we are to receive the “not guilty” verdict from God, it has to be a gift of God’s grace, received by faith, because our works are always incomplete; we are all sinful and fall short of what he demands (Romans 3:23,24). James is considering justification in the context of the world and what people see. Others cannot see faith in our hearts. They can only see our faith in action. James is speaking about the fact that our faith in Jesus naturally produces good works to thank and glorify Jesus for what he has done for us. These good works are evidence of the faith in our hearts. If there are no good works, faith doesn’t exist.

To put it another way, Paul is speaking about how we are saved (justification), while James is speaking about how the saved person lives (sanctification). The good works James is speaking about do not save us, but they are evidence that we are already saved.

3. Which is more important and why: the act of believing or what we believe?

Faith, or the act of believing, is trust in something. If a person believes the wrong thing or trusts in someone who isn’t trustworthy, that can have disastrous results. For example, if you believe that a ladder is sturdy and well-constructed, you’ll climb up the ladder to clean out your gutters. If it turns out that the ladder has faulty construction, you could end up with serious injuries. That is why the content of what we believe, the object of our faith, is more important. For example, if someone believes that their good lives will earn them heaven, the object of their faith is wrong and useless. No matter how firmly they believe such a thought, it does not save them. The correct object of our faith is Jesus and his work of redemption. When we believe in Christ, we receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation he has won for sinners like us.

The wonderful way God works is that the gospel, the good news about Jesus which reveals how God saves, is not only what we are to believe (the object of our faith) but it is also the tool the Holy Spirit uses to bring us to believe (the means of grace). Read more in Romans 10:17 and Romans 1:16.

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

This is the fifth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Feb. 5 at wels.net/forwardinchrist.

 


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Author: Joel D. Otto
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

 

The ripple effect: Silas

After Jesus’ ascension, believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

The leaders of the early Christian church must have thought highly of Silas. They kept choosing him for important work.

We first meet Silas just after the council in Jerusalem settled an important issue for the early church: Must a Christian keep the Old Testament cer-emonial law? Some said yes. Jewish Christians had gone from Judea to Antioch with the argument that circumcision was required for Christian males. They said it this starkly, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

It’s hardly a stretch to suppose that other Old Testament regulations were being imposed as well. But Antioch’s pastors, Barnabas and Paul, argued sharply against such teaching. Souls were at stake. To decide the matter, the Antioch community sent a delegation—Paul, Barnabas, and others to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem council

What followed was as important to the church as anything that happened after Pentecost. In the assembly of leaders and other believers, Christians who were Pharisees by background argued, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (15:5). Discussion followed, until Peter spoke against adding the ceremonial law to the gospel. He said, “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that [Jews] are saved, just as [Gentiles] are” (15:11). Barnabas and Paul told of the miracles God had done through them among the Gentiles. James, “the brother of the Lord” and a prominent leader, quoted the prophet Amos as further proof that God intended Gentiles—without the trappings of Old Testament law—to be part of the church. So both Jews and Gentiles were part of the church by faith with or without the Old Test-ament ceremonies.

As “leaders among the believers” in Jerusalem, Silas and Judas Barsabbas were picked to go back to Antioch and “confirm by word of mouth” (15:27) the written decision of the Jerusalem council. In Antioch, Judas and Silas as “prophets”—spokesmen for God—encouraged their fellow believers and then returned to Jerusalem.

With Paul and then Peter

Silas’ next assignment, as recorded in Acts chapters 16–18, was as Paul’s coworker. After Paul and Barnabas disagreed over personnel for Paul’s second missionary journey, they decided to work separately in different regions. Paul chose Silas to travel with him on the second journey. They shared the routine and the risks of that trip. Early at Lystra they added Timothy to their team. For a time, Silas and Timothy worked independently and distant from Paul, as need and danger dictated. Silas evidently had the knack of knowing both how to lead and how to follow.

Silas did not travel again with Paul once this journey reached its end. Yet his service to God’s church was not over. We find him next at the side of another giant, Peter, serving somewhat like a proofreader for Peter’s first epistle. It seems that Peter used him—and God had provided him—to polish Peter’s Spirit-inspired Greek prose. Peter makes clear (1 Peter 5:12) that he had written the letter “with the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother.”

As had Paul. As do we.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the ninth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.

 


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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Daniel N. Balge
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

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Grace alone

Grace alone

Joel D. Otto

Grace is one of those big, beautiful Bible words. As with all big, beautiful Bible words, while it is an immensely comforting concept, it has also been misunderstood and misapplied throughout history. Roman Catholicism has traditionally taught that grace is a quality that God injects into people so that they can obey his will and earn his blessings. Others try to limit the power of grace, teaching that grace can only get a person so far; we have to apply ourselves to doing acts of love or making the right decision for Jesus to finish the job.

Grace, however, is a quality in God. In fact, it defines who the true God is and what he does. Throughout the Old Testament, when God’s characteristics are listed, grace is usually near the top of the list. For example, when God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai, he declared, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The standard catechism definition of grace is “God’s undeserved love.” Yet grace is deeper than that. It is the love that moves God to act for those who cannot act for themselves and need his loving action. God acts in grace simply because God wants to act in grace. That is who God is and what God does. Martin Luther defined grace this way: “Grace means the favor by which God accepts us, forgiving sins and justifying freely through Christ” (Luther’s Works Vol. 12, p. 376).

True Lutherans confess that it is by grace alone that we have been rescued from the curse and condemnation of sin (Romans 3:23,24). It is by grace alone that we have been given new life as one of God’s children (Ephesians 2:4,5). It is by grace alone that we have been given the gift of eternal life (John 3:16). The Formula of Concord states this clearly and precisely. “We unanimously believe, teach, and confess the following about the righteousness of faith before God. . . . A poor sinful person is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and is adopted into sonship and inheritance of eternal life, without any merit or worth of his own. This happens without any preceding, present, or subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone” (III:9).

This is what makes grace such a big, beautiful, comforting Bible word. Our forgiveness, our right standing before God, and our eternal home in heaven are certain and secure entirely “out of pure grace.” That pure grace is centered in Jesus’ completed work for us. Grace alone means that our salvation, from beginning to end, is accomplished. True Lutherans understand this, proclaim it, confess it, and find comfort and confidence in grace alone.

Questions to consider

1. Read Roman 11:6 and Galatians 2:19-21. How do these passages help us understand the true definition of grace?

In Romans 11:6, Paul sets grace and works as opposites. If something can be gained by works, then grace is no longer in the picture. Paul makes a similar point in Galatians 2:19-21. Here he brings in the activity of God’s grace in Christ. Christ’s death is everything. Even the Christian life is only possible by faith in Christ who gave his life for us. If people think that good works get them somewhere with God, then Christ isn’t needed and even pointless. Grace is set aside.

Both passages show that grace is something that comes from God; it is not a quality in us. It is an action love: In love, God acts by sacrificing his Son for us.

2. Read Ephesians 2:1-10. Using these verses, describe the need for God’s grace and how God’s grace is the cause of our salvation.

By nature, we are dead in our sins. We are spiritually lifeless. This means we cannot, in any way, approach God or obey his commands. We demonstrate this deadness by living lives of disobedience, giving in to the devil’s temptations, and adopting the mindset of the sinful world. We live to gratify our sinful desires. Therefore, we deserve God’s wrath and judgment. We need God to act for us because we are powerless to have “true fear of God and true faith in God” (Augsburg Confession, Article II).

God took pity on us. Because God is love, he acted in love to save us. His grace moved him to act; nothing good in us moved him to save us. Even when we were still spiritually dead in our sins, God acted to make us spiritually alive. He gave us the gift of faith in Jesus. By faith, we receive the incomparable riches of his grace. This is entirely a gift from God to us; it is not earned by us in any way. He has even made us people who can do good works. From beginning to end, God’s grace is the active agent.

3. List at least five ways God’s grace is evident in your life.

Among others, one might consider the following:

  • God created the world in which we live, a world perfectly suited for human life to exist.
  • God gave me life.
  • God provides what I need for daily living.
  • God protects me from harm and/or works trouble for my good.
  • God blessed me with a wife and family.
  • God sent his Son in human flesh to be my Savior.
  • Jesus lived a perfect life in my place.
  • Jesus suffered the punishment for my sins on the cross.
  • Through Baptism, God made me his child and gave me the gift of faith in Christ.
  • I was born into a Christian family who had me baptized and taught me about Jesus.
  • God continues to preserve and strengthen me in my faith through the Word and sacraments.
  • God has prepared a place for me in heaven.

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

This is the fourth article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Jan. 5 at wels.net/forwardinchrist.

 


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Author: Joel D. Otto
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

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Original sin

Original sin

Joel D. Otto

“There’s a little bit of good in everyone.” “Such a cute baby . . . so innocent.” “Everyone’s got the choice to be good or bad. We just have to put people into the right environment so they’ll make the right choices.”

We have all heard such thoughts. It’s the prevailing view today. It is also the view of every non-Christian religion and even many Christian denominations. It’s nothing new. Throughout history, people have believed that they are not that bad, that they can do enough good to earn heaven—or at least make some kind of contribution.

The Bible, however, says the opposite. The Bible teaches that every person who is born of a mother and father inherits a corrupt sinful condition, going all the way back to the first sin of Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12; Psalm 51:5). Of all Christian denominations, true Lutherans believe, teach, and confess this more clearly than most. The Augsburg Confession states: “It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God” (II:2).

The Formula of Concord explains in even more precise language. “In spiritual and divine matters, the mind, heart, and will of the unreborn human being can in absolutely no way, on the basis of its own natural powers, understand, believe, accept, consider, will, begin, accomplish, do, effect, or cooperate. Instead, it is completely dead to the good—completely corrupted. This means that in this human nature, after the fall and before rebirth, there is not a spark of spiritual power left or present with which human beings can prepare themselves for the grace of God or accept grace as it is offered” (II:7).

That is a far cry from believing that we enter the world morally neutral or possess some spark of goodness. That is recognizing and confessing that from the moment of conception we are lost and condemned creatures. We are incapable of taking the first steps toward God. We cannot by our own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus.

The problem with denying the totality and severity of original sin is that people imagine they can do something to earn God’s favor. But how could anyone ever be certain they have done enough? When we confess and understand our absolute helplessness and hopelessness, we can see that salvation has to be entirely, from beginning to end, the work of God for us. And it is. Of that we are certain.

Questions to consider

1. Read Ephesians 2:1; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14. How do each of these passages describe our natural spiritual condition?

  • Ephesians 2:1: We are spiritually dead by nature. This means we are incapable of doing anything positive in a spiritual sense (a corpse cannot do anything except be lifeless). We do not have the power, for example, to make a decision for Jesus.
  • Romans 8:7: We are enemies of God, actively hostile to his will. We fight against his will. Not only are we incapable of obeying him; we do not even want to. This is even stronger than the description of spiritual deadness.
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: Unbelievers are incapable of understanding what God reveals in his Word. Without the Spirit’s work, the gospel remains foolishness; it makes no sense. It should not surprise us that people reject the good news about Jesus. We should be amazed and rejoice that we (and anyone) believes in Jesus.

2. Why is it so difficult for people to believe the Bible’s teaching about original sin? Why do you think this might be an especially “American” problem?

By nature, people think that they have the capacity to do what God says, at least to the extent that God will be pleased. Or people think they can accept Jesus on their own. No one wants to think that they are spiritually dead, enemies of God, and blind to spiritual truth, which is how the Bible describes them. No one wants to believe that they are as powerless as the Bible says. This is an especially “American” problem because the American dream and mindset is that if you just set your mind to it, you can be anything you want. You can succeed. You can climb the ladder of success. The American mindset thinks that you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and get things done. This kind of attitude especially makes the biblical teaching of original sin difficult to accept because this teaching leaves no room for human contribution in salvation.

3. Read Psalm 51:1-12. Explain how the teaching about original sin fits into this psalm of repentance. Why is confessing that we are “by nature sinful” so important in our regular confession of sins?

David wrote this psalm after Nathan confronted him about his sins of adultery and murder involving Bathsheba and Uriah. David was brought to repentance and expresses that repentance in this psalm. The first part of repentance is acknowledging our sins and turning from them. David confesses his natural sinful condition. That’s where actual sins begin. This is so important in our regular confession of sins. In our minds, we might be able to minimize and even excuse some of our sinful behavior. But we cannot get around our natural sinful condition. And because this condition is universal and makes us so spiritually powerless, we come to see and appreciate even more the grace and mercy of God in blotting out our transgressions and washing away all our iniquities. This is especially important in the corporate Confession of Sins in worship. Certain sins may not apply to some members of a congregation. But all of us are “by nature sinful.” Therefore, all of us equally need to hear and receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ has earned and which the Word and sacraments proclaim and give.

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

This is the third article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find this article and answers online after Dec. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 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

 

The ripple effect: Rhoda

After Jesus’ ascension, believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

Imagine having news so good that no one believes it. That was the predicament of a servant girl named Rhoda.

A bleak future

Rhoda worked in the Jerusalem household of Mary, the mother of John Mark. That household was apparently a hub of activity in the early church. Mark—despite once badly disappointing Paul (Acts 13:13, 15:38)—was “helpful to [him] in [his] ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). Mark became also a close associate of Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and later wrote the gospel that bears his name. But all that lay in the future. Until Rhoda’s wonderful news, the future looked bleak.

Acts 12:1-5 records that the church had just suffered a terrible blow. James—he, with Peter and John, was once of the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples—had been beheaded by King Herod, the grandson of Herod the Great. Because James’ execution had pleased Jewish enemies of the church, Herod had now imprisoned Peter to await trial. Herod put Peter in maximum security. Four squads of four soldiers each took turns guarding him. Two soldiers guarded the cell door; two were chained to Peter’s wrists. He slept between them. Meanwhile, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (12:5).

On the night before Peter’s trial, many of the believers were praying at Mary’s house. Even as they did, their prayers were being answered (12:6-19). An angel appeared in Peter’s cell, forcefully woke him, and commanded him to get up and dress. Peter’s chains fell away. At the angel’s direction he wrapped himself in his cloak and followed the angel past guards and through the main gate. A block from the prison, the angel left him, and Peter found his way to Mary’s home and to the servant girl Rhoda, whose duties included answering the door to the courtyard of Mary’s house.

Amazing news

Peter knocked and said something to Rhoda, enough that she recognized his voice. She was so happy that she forgot to open the door and ran back to tell those praying for Peter, “Peter is at the door!”

“You’re out of your mind,” they replied, rejecting the idea that God would answer their prayer so wonderfully so soon (vv. 14,15).

But she kept insisting and Peter kept knocking, and at last the courtyard door was opened to great celebration. Peter signaled for quiet and told the group to get word of his freedom to the other leaders of the church. Then he changed locations. Herod still wanted to kill him. After a strenuous search for him, Herod executed the guards on whose watch Peter had escaped.

Scripture records nothing further of Rhoda. But let’s not remember her only for leaving Peter at the door. Consider this detail: In the dark of night, through a thick door, in a time of danger to Christians, she recognized Peter’s voice when she was not expecting to hear it. It says something about Rhoda that she knew Peter’s voice that well. That voice had told her—maybe many times—something far better than even her news of his escape. That voice had told her the good news of Jesus. Such joy!

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the eighth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 103, Number 12
Issue: December 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

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: The distinction between law and gospel

The distinction between law and gospel

Joel D. Otto

A question asked in almost every Lutheran catechism class is: “What are the two main teachings of the Bible?” Sometimes, a student might be confused and say, “The Old and New Testament.”

The correct answer is the law and the gospel. One of the unique emphases of being truly Lutheran is the understanding of the distinctive content and functions of these two main teachings of the Bible.

In a sermon, Martin Luther noted the different content of the law and the gospel. “Everything that proclaims something about our sin and God’s wrath is the proclamation of the law, however and whenever it may take place. On the other hand, the gospel is the kind of proclamation that points to and bestows nothing else than grace and forgiveness in Christ” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article V:12). These contrasting messages are evident throughout the Bible. For example, numerous psalms preach law and gospel in the same psalm (Psalm 32; 51). Paul’s letters often place law and gospel side by side (see, for example, Romans 3:23,24).

God has a grand purpose for these distinctive teachings of his Word. In the same sermon, Luther preached, “[The apostles] begin by proclaiming the law to those who still do not recognize their sins and feel no terror in the face of God’s wrath. . . . The gospel and Christ are established and given not to terrify or to condemn, but rather to comfort and console those who have felt its terror and are fainthearted.” The law and gospel have distinctive functions. God uses the law to bring people to see and believe the depth of their sins and helplessness. God uses the gospel to bring people to see and believe the heights of his love and power to forgive.

Law and gospel can be easily confused. Our natural sinful condition wants to turn the law into something that saves us. “Tell me the things I need to do so God will love me and give me heaven.” Or it makes the unconditional gospel conditional. “Jesus died and rose again. If you only turn your life over to Jesus, then you’ll be one of his blessed children.” Being truly Lutheran means that we do not give the impression that God’s love can be earned by our obedience to the law. Being truly Lutheran means that we do not undercut the good news of God’s love by adding conditions. Instead, we let the law thunder its commands and drive people to see their need for God’s mercy. It also means that we let the gospel be the good news of Jesus to comfort sinners with the love and forgiveness of our gracious God.

Questions to consider:

1. List at least five verbs that describe what the law does. List at least five verbs that describe what the gospel does.

Law: commands, demands, accuses, curbs, convicts, exposes, condemns, guides

Gospel: gives, forgives, justifies, redeems, saves, motivates, strengthens, encourages, comforts, assures

2. Compare Jesus’ use of law and gospel in helping the paralyzed man in Luke 5:17-26 with how Jesus addressed the expert of the law in Luke 10:25-37.

Jesus could see that the paralyzed man (Luke 5:17-26) had already been crushed by the law. Perhaps his paralyzed condition left him a lot of time to think about this sinfulness. So Jesus is quick to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness. The expert in the law (Luke 10:25-37), on the other hand, clearly thought that through his obedience of the law he could attain eternal life. He needed to hear what the law really demands. He needed to hear the accusing voice of the law so that he could be convicted of his sin.

Because we still have an old sinful nature, we regularly need to hear the accusing, condemning words of the law. We need to be convicted of our sins. We need our sinfulness exposed. The stinging, condemning words of the law lead us to turn from our sins. That’s when the comforting, forgiving message about Jesus lifts us up and strengthens us. At other times, we may already be feeling the weight of our guilt. So the gospel needs to be applied.

3. How do these incidents and the list of verbs help us understand how the distinctive messages of law and gospel function in the lives of people?

The gospel also motivates us for Christian living; we want to thank God for his forgiving love. The law guides us so we know how to live lives of thankfulness.

The messages of law and gospel are distinct with distinct purposes. But they work together in the lives of God’s people so that we remain and live as his people.


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

This is the second article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 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

 

The ripple effect: Epaphras

After Jesus’ ascension, believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

It is a blessing of sharing the gospel that—by the Holy Spirit’s power—the work produces more workers. What other human endeavor can claim that? Sharing the gospel adds miles and years to the ripple effect that Pentecost set in motion.

The apostle Paul’s work produced many more workers, among them Epaphras of Colossae. We don’t know much about him. The Bible mentions him only three times. But from those few words we get the impression of a man of action.

A slave for the gospel

Under God and as Paul’s representative and colleague, Epaphras founded the Christian congregation in his hometown (Colossians 1:7). We don’t know how this Gentile first heard the gospel, but reasonable speculation puts him in Ephesus (more than 100 miles east of Colossae) during the time of Paul’s residence in that major trade center. Paul spent the better part of three years there. At the very least, Epaphras and his work in Colossae underscore what Luke meant when he wrote that during Paul’s time in Ephesus “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia [the western third of modern Turkey] heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). Paul couldn’t get everywhere, but Ephesus was well connected by land and sea to just about everywhere.

Epaphras toiled in a tri-city area—in Colossae of course, but also in Laodicea, 10 miles to the west, and Hierapolis, 13 miles to the northwest (Colossians 4:13). The Greek word summing up his ministry there implies hard work and mighty labor. Epaphras prayed the same way. Paul reported to Epaphras’ Colossian congregation that “he is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (4:12). For Epaphras, these prayers for his congregations meant exertion and strain. It’s no surprise then that when Paul calls Epaphras a “fellow servant” (1:7) and a “servant of Christ Jesus” (4:12), the words are strong and emphatic. The Greek means “slave.” Epaphras worked like a slave for the gospel, like Paul himself (Romans 1:1).

An encourager in faith

Epaphras spared no effort for his tri-parish. He traveled some 1,200 miles—a bit less if he made part of his journey by ship—from Colossae to Rome to visit Paul. The apostle was under house arrest and Epaphras’ visit encouraged him (Colossians 1:8). But that was not the main reason Epaphras had come. He was there for advice and instruction on how to deal with false teachings that threatened his congregations.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians addresses those problems, though without labeling the heresies. It’s from Paul’s answers that we deduce the questions disturbing the faith of these fairly new Christians. The issues were mostly familiar, local recipes of doctrinal poison that had hurt other young congregations: confusion of law and gospel, misunderstanding about who Jesus is, and claims of a better knowledge than the foolishness of the pure good news. Paul also needed to condemn the worship of angels (2:18).

Paul’s letter went back to Colossae ahead of Epaphras. Epaphras sent greetings with it (4:12) and lingered for a time as Paul’s “fellow prisoner” (Philemon 23). Apparently there was work for him in Rome too.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the seventh article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 103, Number 11
Issue: November 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

 

The ripple effect: Onesimus and Philemon

After Jesus’ ascension believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

The ripple effect of Pentecost meant that the gospel spread not only across land and sea to Jew and Gentile but also up and down within society. Soon the good news of Jesus converted an Ethiopian government official; reached a businesswoman in Philippi; touched a centurion in Caesarea and elite soldiers in Rome; instructed Jewish craftsmen like Apollos (tentmaker) and Simon (tanner); and brought both Zenas, a lawyer, and Dionysius, a member of Athens’ court, to faith. Jailers and sailors heard God’s truth.

The slave-master relationship

So did slaves and masters. This is not surprising, since about a third of the people in the Roman Empire of Paul’s day were slaves. Enough slaves and masters became followers of Jesus that Paul addressed the slave-master relationship in his letter to the Ephesians (6:5-9).

This was not an endorsement of slavery but an application of Christian living to a reality of the Roman Empire. When Paul had written to the Galatian Christians that under Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28), he did not do away with slavery. He dealt with the facts as he met them. Within the Christian church there were still slaves and masters, just as there were still men and women and people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Paul’s point was that such human distinctions of sex, race, or status meant nothing before God.

Moreover, the circumstances of slavery under Rome could be different from what we commonly think. Roman slavery was not race-based. Slaves were not kidnapped into servitude, though peoples conquered by Rome’s legions were sometimes used as slaves. Similarly, some slaves were prisoners of war. Others were convicts. Still others went into slavery to pay off debt, essentially mortgaging their time, skills, and strength. There were both privately and publicly owned slaves. The latter worked for the state. Slaves might do hard labor, practice trades, or be clerks and record keepers. By law slaves had some rights. They could earn money, acquire property, and buy their freedom, even become citizens. Still, on average their life was harder and shorter.

Christ’s love for slaves and masters

Against that backdrop Paul asked a favor of a Christian slaveholder, Philemon. Paul appealed to Philemon to take back a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had become a believer while on the run. “Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains . . . welcome him as you would welcome me” (Philemon 8-10,17).

Paul asked a favor, confident of Philemon’s love for him. Let’s share Paul’s confidence. It rested ultimately on Christ’s love—a love that Onesimus would reflect as he worked faithfully in Philemon’s household, a love that Philemon would reflect in forgiving Onesimus and treating him kindly, a love that—they all knew—caused Jesus to die to set both slave and master free.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the sixth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Author: Daniel N. Balge
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 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

 

What it means to be truly Lutheran: Scripture alone

Scripture alone

Joel D. Otto

What was the Lutheran Reformation all about? Was it merely that we Lutherans don’t pray to Mary and our clergy can get married? What does it mean to be truly Lutheran? Is it all about having a German or Scandinavian background and enjoying potlucks?

While the Reformation changed the way most people view the church, Luther was not interested in starting something new. He only wanted to bring the church back to its origins. Yes, we certainly may enjoy our potluck suppers, but that’s not what it means to be truly Lutheran. What made the Lutheran Reformation different from many other efforts to reform the church and what distinguishes true Lutherans today is doctrine—what we believe, teach, and confess.

It starts with the source of what we believe, teach, and confess. Unlike Roman Catholicism and other churches which rely on the Bible and tradition, other writings, or the decisions of church leaders, true Lutherans look to Scripture alone where God reveals what we are to know, believe, and do.

The introduction to the Formula of Concord, one of the Lutheran Confessions, states:

We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone, as it is written, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps. 119[:105]), and Saint Paul: ‘If . . . an angel from heaven should proclaim to you something contrary, . . . let that one be accursed!’ (Gal. 1[:8]).

Unlike many churches that try to adjust the Bible to human thinking, true Lutherans accept what God reveals in his Word, even if it doesn’t make logical or reasonable sense. The Formula of Concord also states: “Although these answers are contrary to reason and philosophy in all their arrogance, nonetheless, we know that ‘the wisdom of this ‘perverted’ world is only foolishness in God’s sight’ [cf. 1 Cor. 3:19] and that only on the basis of God’s Word can judgments on articles of faith be made” (Article II:8).

This is comforting for us. In Scripture alone God himself reveals to us what he wants us to believe and proclaim. We are not at the whim of changing interpretations or newly discovered traditions. The Word of God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:25). It is the truth (John 17:17). God does not, cannot, and would not lie to us (Numbers 23:19). Therefore, we subject our faulty human reason to the Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:5; Colossians 2:2-8). And we confidently trust that what we believe, teach and confess is divine and powerful truth (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2 Timothy 3:15,16).


Questions to consider

1. Read 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16. Define “verbal inspiration.” What are the implications of this doctrine?

Verbal inspiration means that the Holy Spirit gave (literally: “breathed into”) the human authors the words he wanted them to write down in the Bible. We do not know exactly how the Holy Spirit did this in every case. In some way, he guided those human authors so that what they wrote is what the Spirit wanted them to write.

Implications of this doctrine include:

● The Bible is God’s Word, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

● Since God cannot and does not lie, the Bible is absolutely true in everything. It does not contain any errors.

● Every promise of the Bible has been or will be fulfilled.

● We should not add to, subtract from, or change the meaning of the Bible’s clear words; this is God’s Word.

2. List at least five scriptural teachings that defy human logic. Why is it comforting that many of the Bible’s teachings cannot be completely comprehended by human reason?

Below are just some of the teachings that defy human logic:

● Trinity

● Creation

● The person of Christ (God and man in one person)

● The incarnation (how God became man)

● All of Jesus’ miracles

● Jesus’ resurrection

● The real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper

● Salvation by grace alone

● The conversion of anyone to faith in Christ

The fact that so many doctrines cannot be completely comprehended by human reason just demonstrates how big God is. God and the way he deals with us cannot fit into our little human box. It means that God can and does do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20,21). That is comforting when we are at a loss as to what we need or even what to pray for.

3. What are the inherent dangers when tradition or the “living voice of the church” becomes a source of a church’s teaching? What examples do you see in various churches today?

When something in addition to the Bible becomes a source of a church’s teaching, the Bible takes second place and a church is open to the introduction of new teachings. One can interpret “tradition” to say whatever you want it to say. “The living voice of the church” allows one to compromise with whatever culture or society is saying. The Bible basically becomes irrelevant. Or it is relegated to a “museum piece,” a nice artifact of history that does not really have much to say to us today.

This is evident in Roman Catholicism as one hears Pope Francis hedge on different biblical teachings. It is clearly evident in both the Anglican/Episcopal church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with those churches’ views on sexual issues. Any number of other examples could be given regarding many churches’ views of creation and the miracles in the Bible.


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

This is the first article in a 14-part series on key doctrinal emphases that Luther brought back to light through his Reformation. Find answers online after Oct. 5.


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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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The Ripple Effect: Manaen

After Jesus’ ascension, believers spread the gospel around the world in widening ripples.

Daniel N. Balge

Antioch in Syria felt the ripple effect of Pentecost. Christians fled the persecution in Jerusalem, came to Antioch, and shared the good news of Jesus. Soon a church was prospering.

The commissioning of workers

The growing congregation sent Paul (Saul) and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles. At that commissioning service, leaders of the Antioch church laid hands of blessing on them. These leaders included a man named Manaen (Greek for the Hebrew Menachem).

It was fitting that Manaen participate. Luke tells us, “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3).

Aspects of Paul and Barnabas’ commissioning are still part of the installation of a teacher, staff minister, or pastor, and the commissioning of a missionary. Prayer, blessing, and the laying on of hands mark the occasion then and now.

An unlikely church leader

Manaen was part of the service. What’s startling is his connection to Herod the tetrarch. The phrase “brought up with” reflects the essential meaning of Luke’s Greek word describing Manaen’s role in Herod’s life. The word implies that Manaen had been from boyhood nurtured and educated alongside the tetrarch, who was known also as Herod Antipas. The word suggests “childhood friend” and even “foster-brother,” someone bonded to Herod by early shared experiences, though by this time Herod was dead or in exile.

Herod the tetrarch (literally, “quarter-ruler”) had governed only a fourth of his father Herod the Great’s kingdom—just Galilee and Perea. In that role he ordered the beheading of John the Baptist to keep a careless promise (Mark 6:14-29). While on a Passover visit to Jerusalem, Manaen’s old friend had briefly held custody of Jesus, a Galilean, on Good Friday. When Jesus refused to perform tricks for him or even speak to him, the tetrarch made fun of Jesus and sent him back to Pontius Pilate (Luke 23:6-12). Herod the tetrarch kept up a family tradition of gross wickedness. Lurid stains of intrigue, incest, murder, and general viciousness splash across the story of several generations of the Herodian family.

If ever there was a man in a position to live up to Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), it was Manaen. Amid the Herods, he likely gained the benefit of a first-class education, found deep insight into how the Roman world worked, and lost all illusions about the evil of the human heart. His Hebrew name hints at a familiarity, perhaps a strong one, with the Old Testament. And he had come to faith in Jesus as his Savior from sin. Then all else in his background combined to serve the gospel and make him a respected leader among the Christians in Antioch.

Amazing, isn’t it, the people God uses in his church? People like Manaen. People like us.

Contributing editor Daniel Balge, a professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. Paul, New Ulm.

This is the fifth article in a 12-part series on lesser-known New Testament witnesses.


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Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Daniel N. Balge
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